Thursday, 25 October 2018

Brexit and the Agricultural Sector


This week I have spent much of my time on debate and discussion about the Agriculture Bill. Two weeks ago it passed its "Second Reading" stage in parliament and this week we started the "Committee Stage" of the Bill where a small group of MPs drawn from all parties to debate the Bill clause by clause. 
Farming policy has been contracted out to the EU for almost half a century and the new Agriculture Bill represents the first substantive piece of UK legislation on agriculture since 1947. Working on the design of the future framework for farm support, and the new schemes that would flow from it has been a very refreshing and liberating exercise for government and parliament. All too often in the past, any good idea or suggestion for improvement was simply ruled "against EU rules" and nothing could be done. If parliament abdicates responsibility for agriculture policy to an external organisation like the EU, then MPs have no motivation to engage in discussion about how to make things better since they have no power to change anything anyway. That is what has sadly happened to farming and fishing over the last forty years. 
Now, as we prepare to leave the EU and take back control, parliament will regain its voice and farmers, food producers and environmental campaigners have an opportunity to get their point across and argue for improvements and influence the policy that will affect them. MPs from all parties are suddenly showing an interest in farming and the countryside because for the first time in half a century they have the power to shape future policy and make a difference. 
The premise behind the Bill that I have put together with colleagues in Defra, is that we should move away from the system of arbitrary area subsidy payment that the EU has imposed on us to instead reward farmers generously for the things they do for the environment and other public goods. The current subsidy system has become a bureaucratic quagmire for farmers and is difficult to administer for government. There are far too many ludicrous rules and mapping requirements so that we measure every gateway, bush or hedge in the land. The EU penalty regime around it is unfair and unjust. The area based subsidy system also means that the vast majority of the money goes to the largest and wealthiest landowners in the country while smaller farmers get the crumbs from the table, so as a system of income support it is upside down. 
Instead, we want a system that rewards farmers to farm their land in a way that is good for the health of their soils, good for the quality of the water courses flowing through their land, good for farmland birds and pollinators and good for enhanced animal welfare outcomes. We also want to reward farmers based on the value of what they deliver, not, as with some EU schemes, simply compensate them for the money they have lost by acting to try to help the environment. 
We recognise that there is a problem of profitability in farming. However, rather than keeping on putting a sticking plaster over that with clunky subsidy payments, the Bill aims to tackle the causes of poor profitability. There are new powers to award grants or loans to farmers to assist them in investing in their farms to reduce costs and improve their profitability; here are powers to support research and development and improved plant breeding; there are new powers to improve transparency in the supply chain so that farmers don't get ripped off by middle men and processors; and there are powers to create mandatory requirements around contracts so that farmers are not stung by hidden charges or penalties or locked into contracts with no clarity or guarantee about the price they will get for what they produce. 
Farming is also a risky business so there are times of crisis where a government must be able to intervene too stabilise the market so the Bill creates such crisis intervention powers. Finally, if we want to move to a very different and more coherent system of farm support, we have to do so in an orderly and gradual way to give farmers time to adjust. We have therefore set out a seven year transition period from 2021 to 2028 during which the old legacy subsidy will be gradually phased out and replaced with the new policy. This will be a period of change where we will simplify and improve the old scheme, introduce measure to help support farmers who want to retire and also make available grants and support for new entrants so that we help the next generation onto the land. 
There will be weeks of argument ahead, but, despite the uncertainty as we enter the closing stages of our negotiation with the EU, our ability to govern ourselves in areas like farming gets stronger by the week.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Carers

We all know someone who is a carer for a loved one. Whether that someone is caring for their parents in old age or whether it is parents caring for a disabled child or, indeed, a child or young person who helps care for one of their parents in cases where they are struck by serious illness. 
There are an estimated 6.5 million in people in the UK providing unpaid care for a loved one, and in Cornwall it is estimated that this figure could be as high as 64,000 unpaid carers. The care they provide is estimated by some groups to be worth the equivalent of £132 billion per year if it needed to be replaced by formal, paid care. 
Moreover, between 2001 and 2015 while the UK’s population increased by 6%, in the same period there was a 16% rise in the number of people providing unpaid care which shows that as our society ages, more people find themselves in caring roles.
Caring for a loved one in need is the most natural calling of all, but I think it is important to ensure that there is support in place to help carers take care of their own wellbeing too. It can become an isolating and all-consuming role. Sometimes a little bit of support such as respite or a small amount of occasional help from a personal assistant or assistance from a friend can make all the difference. 
A few weeks ago, I met some trustees from the Helford River Children's Sailing Trust to discuss a new project they are working on. The idea is to provide holiday accommodation for families who have a disabled child. It's a point often overlooked that having a disabled sibling can also affect opportunities open to other children in the family unit because it limits the activities a family can consider when choosing a holiday. If that can be tackled with specially designed, inclusive facilities offered here in Cornwall, it's a great step forward. 
Last week I met Promas, a local community run company that provides free courses for unpaid carers in Cornwall. The key focus of their work is on helping train carers to be able to deal with the health conditions they are managing and also, crucially, to teach carers how to have regard for their own wellbeing and make time and space for themselves. If a carer cracks under the strain, then no one benefits. The courses are a great way of offering support to carers who can often feel isolated. 
Promas offers a variety of courses covering things like dementia, mental ill health and managing stress and they do a great job of making people feel welcome, important and understanding the difficulties which people experience. 
Another charity I have visited on several occasions is Shared Lives which is an independent charity that provides a range of services for people with additional needs but in a home environment. The central feature of the model is that adults with some special needs join a family and become lodgers in a carers home, rather than being placed in a more formal care setting. It can be a really powerful approach with a homely ethos. 
They have just begun a recruitment drive for more carers to help vulnerable people in Cornwall. The charity has been running for over 15 years and now with an influx of new people needing care they’re calling for more support. If you can help or even if you just want to find out more then do contact Shared Lives South West and they will be happy to provide you with further information. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Improving accessibility for everyone

Across the UK there are approximately 11 million people with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability. The most commonly-reported impairments are those that affect mobility, lifting or carrying. Understandably the prevalence of disability rises with age. Around 6% of children are disabled, compared to 16% of working age adults and 45% of adults over the State Pension Age. 
Recently I was contacted by a local constituent who was blind and was experiencing difficulty with a particular crossing at Pool because there was not a pelican crossing on a difficult four way junction. I met the constituent and agreed to take part in a sensory walk organised by Guide Dogs for the Blind. This is where a blindfold is placed on you and you try and manoeuvre around busy roads and junctions without your sight but with the help of a local volunteer. It certainly helped to understand how seemingly small obstacles to most of us can be a real barrier to those suffering an impairment like blindness. 
In the past we haven’t always designed our streets and towns to be inclusive and accessible, but in the last few decades this has begun to change. The provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act in the late eighties have been a catalyst for improvement. The Council have worked hard to improve the safety of our roads and pavements especially around crossings with the use of tactile paving. Moreover, in our towns and especially with new developments we have seen accessibility improved. This is particularly the case in places like Heartlands where extra work has been carried out to make the buildings accessible and pavements friendlier for all who use them.
Before the summer recess, the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt MP, became the first minister to use sign language in the Commons. This was to mark the start of a global disability conference that was taking place in London to discuss the global effort to advance disability inclusion not just for those in the UK but also for some countries’ most vulnerable people. 
However, as always, there is still more to do. Further work is being undertaken to help improve the access that vulnerable people have to Changing Places toilets. Over a ¼ million people with more severe disabilities need access to changing places toilets to enable them to get out and about and enjoy the day-to-day activities many of us take for granted. The Changing Places Campaign which launched in 2006 has done fantastic work raising awareness of this issue in recent years and I know that the Government has worked with Changing Places and other charities, to improve the provision of accessible toilets.
In 2007 when the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government became involved, there were only around 140 Changing Places toilets in the UK. By 2017 this number had risen to just over 1000 and guidance on Changing Places was introduced into the Building Regulations in England in 2013. 
In the last ten years we have made progress in improving accessibility for those with disabilities to improve their lives but there is still a long way to go to make society more inclusive.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Party Conference

This week is the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham which marks the end of the conference season. Much like last year, the issue that is looming large is how best to implement our decision to leave the European Union. 
It remains a divisive issue. We are entering a critical phase of the negotiations and they look set to go close to the wire. My view is that we must implement the decision that was taken to leave the EU and take back control but that we should also leave in an orderly way to avoid unnecessary turbulence. That is why, despite the frustrations that many feel, I think Theresa May is right to persevere with these negotiations. We don't yet know whether the apparent stubbornness of the EU is a negotiating tactic or and the only way to find out is to stick to the discussion but prepare for all eventualities. 
However, there have been other issues discussed at the conference that received less attention. In my time as an MP and particularly as a Minister at DEFRA, I have worked to try to improve environmental and animal welfare standards. Michael Gove, in his speech at Conference on Monday reiterated this commitment by vowing to tackle the scourge of plastic in our oceans. At DEFRA we’ve made great strides in tackling the causes of plastic waste that are clogging up the world’s oceans by eliminating micro beads, introducing a new charge on plastic bags and plastic coffee cups as well as a commitment to call for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. There’s clearly much more to do but we’ve taken some big steps forward. 
Opportunity for the next generation was another important theme this year. In education we have also seen improvements in recent years. There has been a substantial growth in the proportion of good and outstanding schools over the past 8 years with the proportion of outstanding schools increasing from 18% in August 2010 to 21% by March 2018. The proportion of good schools also increased, from 50% to 65%. Our Academies and Free Schools programme has also been a success with 42 out of the 158 free schools inspected to the end of 2014/15 as outstanding. Not only are these improvements testament to the hard work of teachers throughout the education system, they are also illustrative of the fact that more children have access to a good or outstanding school offering a better standard of education than they did 8 years ago. 
One of the biggest successes of the last eight years has been the astonishing turnaround in the job market. Britain is working again. Eight years after Labour left office, the unemployment rate is the lowest since the early 1970s and levels of employment are at an all-time high. In Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, unemployment is now significantly below the national average with the total number of unemployed claimants for June 2018 totalling 840. 
With the conference season over, parliament returns next week and the first task on my desk is the introduction of the first major Agriculture Bill since 1947 as we redesign policy on food, farming and the environment.