Friday, 26 September 2014

Personal Debt Conference

Earlier this week I organised a mini conference in Redruth with local charities and other groups to discuss proposals to tackle the problems caused by personal debt. We had a number of key speakers from successful projects to discuss the scale of the problem and also outline solutions.

There is now good news on the economy with unemployment falling rapidly and we now have the fastest rate of growth in any major industrialised country. But one of the challenges is making sure everyone benefits. It is why the reforms to the benefits system so that work pays are so important and also why we need intensive support to help those who have been out of work for a long time get their confidence back.

We also need to recognise the demoralising affect that personal debt can have on those on the bottom rung and it isn’t just those on benefits. Many people who work hard also have debt problems and shouldn't be overlooked. It can start with a one off bill like a repair to the car, a bill from the Child Support Agency or an unexpected tax demand but it can all end up with court costs and thuggish bailiffs at the door adding huge cost and stress. Some people turn to loan sharks or payday loan companies who seem to offer a quick fix but actually end up compounding the problem. People feel despair and can't see light at the end of the tunnel because the fees and financial demands on them completely outstrip their income.

There is good work being done to help. The Citizens Advice Bureau regularly offers debt advice to those at their wits end. In extreme cases they can help people apply to the court for a Debt Relief Order to remove some of the burden. Earlier this summer I met the local organiser for Christians Against Poverty to discuss their work locally. CAP was founded by someone who had worked in finance but then suffered his own debt problems. Volunteers with experience visit families at home and help them put together a budget.

In 2012 the Government set up the Money Advice Service with the key objective to encourage people to better manage their money and prevent them from getting into unmanageable levels of debt. The MAS offers free and impartial information on money matters and they can be contacted online, by telephone or even face-to-face.

Finally, I think we need to develop a more enlightened approach to credit control when it comes to utility companies and local authorities. Rather than sending reminder letters and then instructing a bailiff to chase the debt, it would be better by far to spend money on debt advisers instead so that we help people get out of the hole they are in rather than hit them when they are down.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

GOOSEBERRY BUSH NURSERY

Last week I attended the formal opening of a new extension at the Gooseberry Bush Nursery at Rosemellin. It has enabled them to expand their provision for two year old toddlers, open a cafe for young parents to meet and support one another, create more room for their breakfast club for children at both the nursery and Rosemellin School as well as provide additional space for the Children's Centre. They also had some new gardens and outdoor adventure play space.

I first met Gill Smith, the founder of the nursery, about three years ago and became persuaded of the overwhelming importance of early years support along the lines provided by Gooseberry Bush and others like it. We know that the first three years of a child's life are the most formative. Unless they learn to communicate, to share, to explore and to socialise with other children then they will often start school behind their peers and struggle to catch up for their rest of their childhood.

We have some amazing primary and secondary schools in the Camborne, Redruth and Hayle areas but there has been a worrying trend. Virtually all head teachers in primary schools tell me that over the last twenty years or so they have seen a persistent rise in the number of children in need of speech and language therapy or other forms of intervention when they start in reception class.

The reasons for this growing problem are no doubt varied, but those like Gill Smith who understand these things point to problems caused by modern technology as being at least one of the contributing factors because it has changed the way some parents engage with their babies. In the past, prams would face back towards the mother so that a toddler had visual contact with their parents and there could be eye contact and plenty of verbal engagement. Now, it is most common for prams to face forwards so there is less such contact and parents are often on their mobile phones. These days, when a baby smiles for the first time, rather than see that engagement reciprocated, he or she is just as likely to see a camera phone put in front of them so parents can capture the moment.

The government has recently extended free childcare for low income families with two year old children in recognition of the fact the younger we offer support, the greater the impact. We also need to do more to help parents before children reach two and consider extending the support for toddlers beyond fifteen hours per week. Things like breakfast clubs also have a role to play by making sure children are eating well and teaching them to sit around a table and socialise and, yes, hold a knife and fork properly

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Scottish Independence

I think it would be an absolute tragedy if Scotland were to leave the UK and break up our country but the referendum which will decide the future of our nation is now looking closer than ever with just a week to go. I have been to Scotland several times in recent months in my role as farming and fisheries minister to make the case that we are stronger together.

The United Kingdom is one of the most successful political and economic unions in history. We have so much rich diversity on our islands but a shared purpose which is what makes Britain great. Here in Cornwall, many of us would probably describe ourselves as Cornish before English but first and foremost, we regard ourselves as British.

It is not the first time Scotland has taken us all to the brink. In 1979, there was a referendum that was close. In 1997, Tony Blair thought that by having a new parliament in Scotland with new powers, there could be a new settlement that would put the debate to rest. However, as it turns out, Alex Salmond and the SNP used the new settlement as a means to an end and to foster new grievances and try to drive a wedge through society and divide our community of nations. But once the separatists won 70 percent of seats in the last Scottish election, there was little choice but to settle the argument through yet another referendum.

There is now one week to go to win that argument that we are better together. For those who want to divorce Scotland from the rest of the UK, there are so many questions they have not answered. What currency will they have? One thing we have learned from the euro fiasco is that you cannot have a single currency without a single government and a single tax system. Scotland does well financially by being part of the UK and it would have to slash public spending if it had to pay its own way. Finally, Scottish industry benefits from being part of the UK with a comprehensive network of international embassies to support exporters. For instance, Scotch whisky is one of the country's greatest export success stories but it is heavily dependent on all the help is receives in hundreds of countries across the world from British embassies and consular staff.

If we can get a no vote and keep the country together, it will be important to review the way the union works. It is not just about so called "devo-max" where new powers are given to the Scottish parliament. It would be an opportunity to think about governance of the whole United Kingdom so that we can get the balance right between having a national parliament that has the power to act decisively where required but with other powers and responsibilities moved locally. But if Scotland votes for outright divorce, it would be an incredibly sad moment in our island history.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Lanyon Farm

The recent planning approval on appeal for a massive 70 acre solar farm at Gwinear near Hayle has once again highlighted the need to strengthen the position of local communities against inappropriate development.

I am a realist and understand that there are no easy answers or magic bullets when it comes to our future energy supply. In reality, we are probably going to require a mixture of different sources. Onshore wind is the most mature of all renewable energy technologies and is certainly far cheaper than offshore wind, but developments must be done with local communities, not to them. When it comes to solar panels, I have always supported their use on the roofs of buildings. Last year I visited a project in Pool where a whole estate have installed solar panels on their roofs and the residents are benefiting from free energy and some income from their investment.

However, I think we are now seeing far too many field scale solar farms being built. Not only are they often a serious blight on the countryside but they also take important agricultural land out of production. In the next few decades food security is going to become an increasingly important issue with a growing world population and demand for food growing. That is why we should protect the best agricultural land. The parish of Gwinear has some of the best land in Cornwall and the farm where the giant solar farm development is planned is rated as grade 3a - which means it is some of the best arable land in the county.

In the context of Cornwall, a third concern with field scale solar farms is that they undermine the potential for other more promising renewable sources of energy like wave power. Wave Hub at Hayle is really taking shape with many developers now showing interest. However, one of the main reasons they are choosing Cornwall over Scotland is that we currently have surplus capacity on our electricity grid which means they do not have to wait and hope for hugely expensive new investment in the grid infrastructure to come along. However, every time a solar farm is built, we not only sacrifice land but we remove surplus capacity from the grid.

Last year the government set out new guidance which sought to increase the weighting given to the loss of agricultural land and also to strengthen the consideration given to heritage assets. To be fair to Cornwall Council, they have abided by the new practice guidance and have used it as a basis to refuse permission in a number of cases. However, some developers have sought to get around the new rules by advancing sham arguments that suggest they might still be able to farm the land. Any farmer knows that such suggestions are pie in the sky. Crops need sunlight to grow and if fields are smothered in solar panels, there is no light left for crop production.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.