West Briton column 30 May 2013

Last week the Editor of this newspaper chose to make some insinuations about me. The freedom of the press is something I have been defending in parliament. The media has an important role in our society including holding people with power and authority, as well as well paid public representatives like me, to account.

Unlike editors of the BBC, editors of newspapers are not bound to be politically fair or scrupulous. Editors of newspapers do express political opinions – attacking or supporting individual politicians and parties. The Editor of this paper asserts that I appeared to try and pull the wool over the eyes of the people I represent by not making it clear in a statement how I voted at the third reading of the Same Sex Marriage Bill. I respect my constituents and don’t insult their intelligence. My press statement was absolutely clear that I did not endorse the bill.

If the Editor wasn’t clear about my actions and motivation why didn’t he ask me? He hasn’t been shy in asking me questions in the past. I haven’t been shy in answering them. The Western Morning News and local Packet newspapers did not express concern about lack of clarity and clearly reported my action.

If he had asked me this is what I would have said. I did not vote for the bill as the majority of my constituents who contacted me didn’t support the bill. I chose to abstain rather than vote against as this best reflected the balance of opinion expressed to me. A significant minority were in favour and many said they didn’t mind either way. A vote against or an abstention has the same effect as a bill needs enough votes in favour for it to proceed.

Last week I wrote to the new Cornwall councillors in my constituency expressing my commitment to work with them for the benefit of local people.

A priority will be meeting the housing needs of my constituents. I am pleased that recent government reforms to social housing that I pushed for are enabling all the rents paid to Cornwall Housing to stay in Cornwall – improving existing homes and building new ones.

However, I remain deeply concerned by the situation in Falmouth and Penryn where the prospect of making high rental returns from converting family homes into Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) for students has led to a fall in the number of properties available to families, and attracted some rogue landlords to the area. This situation is bad for both local families and students looking to rent.

Since my election I have been pressing Cornwall Councillors to address this situation, in part by requiring HMO conversions to be first approved by local Councillors and by creating a register of private landlords meeting quality standards. This has the support of the decent local residential landlords who are just as concerned as I am about rogue landlords. I will be urging the new Councillors to use their powers to take action.

West Briton column 23 May 2013

During my life time I have seen the struggle of people all over the world to overcome oppression and fight for democracy. From Nelson Mandela to Aung San Suu Kyi they recall how our Parliament was a beacon of hope in the darkest days of their struggle to bring democracy to their countries. At the same time I have seen the decline of respect for politicians in our country, reaching what I hope was as an all time low before the last General Election.

Like many of my colleagues who were elected to Parliament for the first time in 2010, I knew that in addition to delivering the manifesto pledges that I made during my campaign to get elected, I needed to work very hard to rebuild trust for politicians and respect for our Parliament. This is a personal responsibility I take very seriously. There have been major reforms to how Parliament works and holds the Government to account and yet the latest biannual survey of public attitudes towards those in public life found that the percentage of people who felt that MPs are ‘dedicated to doing a good job for the public’ has fallen to just 26%.

When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was published last year, the commitment I made to my constituents to restore their trust in British democracy was therefore at the forefront of my mind.

Whilst making clear my personal support for equal marriage for same sex couples, I pledged to vote on the third reading of the Marriage Bill according to the majority view of constituents that contacted me.

In delivering on that pledge I have been keen to enable an informed debate and, thanks in part to widespread publicity from the local media, I have heard from hundreds of local people on this issue. With support from Stonewall and the Coalition4Marriage I have been able to hold a number of public meetings on the proposals, including one at Falmouth University, and am very grateful to Bishop Tim Thornton for joining these meetings. I have listened closely to the wide range of views expressed to me. For those attending the meetings, I hope they enabled greater understanding of the issues raised in this debate.

The clear majority of representations to me from constituents expressed opposition to the Bill. As such, as promised to my constituents, I did not endorse the Marriage Bill at its third reading in recognition of the lack of endorsement of the Bill’s contents from the people of Truro and Falmouth.

This experience has taught me two things- first, that people really want to actively participate in our democracy, and secondly that much more needs to be done to ensure that same sex couples receive the full acceptance in our society that they deserve. I am grateful to all of you who expressed your views to me and will continue to do all I can to create a more engaged, more direct democracy and a fairer, more equal society.

West Briton column 16 May 2013

Who pays for care has vexed politicians for decades.

There has been no shortage of good ideas, based on evidence garnered from the many government reviews and commissions over many years, but there has been a failure in political will resulting in only limited action being taken.

However demographic change, and its impact, is now an issue that is moving rapidly up the political agenda. All parties are now signaling a desire for a long-term, all-party solution to our care crisis. It is clear that now is the time to take action.

During the debates on the Health and Social Care Bill there was little dissent from the view that the integration of health and social care is a good thing. In the Budget debate there was no opposition to NHS money being given to councils to integrate services. Over £26 million has been given to Cornwall Council since 2010 and more committed.

The independent Dilnot Review commissioned by this government was met by a broad coalition of support from a wide range of stakeholders, and was warmly welcomed by all political parties.

Week after week in parliamentary debates, colleagues and I have highlighted failings with today’s provision. The prospects of finding a long-term solution to the funding of long term care is better now than at any time in the past fifty years.

Who pays for care is just one of the questions the Government’s reforms of social care must address. There are issues of quality, regulation, training and pay as well as choice. It is vital to ensure that care and health services work closely together, and that our care laws are simplified to make it easier for people to get the help they need.

We must never forget that informal carers provide more support than any government could afford to pay for. The most recent research from the charity Carers UK estimates that there are more than six million carers in the UK. The care and support they provide to help people remain safely in their own homes is valued at a staggering £119bn per year, which is far more than the annual cost of all aspects of the NHS. Support to enable carers must be central to future provision of services.

The inclusion in the Queen’s Speech last week of a new Care and Support bill in this new session of parliament is a land mark occasion. The proposed bill has already undergone rigorous scrutiny. I have been working with charities including Macmillan and Scope on a series of recommendations on how it can be further improved. As it makes its way through Parliament I will continue to work with the team responsible for bringing in the new legislation to ensure that it improves care for elderly people, their family and carers. Also for working aged adults with disabilities who too often get forgotten about in this debate and who depend on care services to enable them to participate in family, community and work.

West Briton column 9 May 2013

Last week was spent in a wide range of meetings with constituents including talking to people on their doorsteps or on their street. But quite rightly the local news was dominated by the local elections. In most parts of Cornwall the majority of people who had the opportunity of voting for a Cornwall Councillor chose not to use it. This is nothing new. As someone who is passionate about our democracy I am concerned about this. Daily news from around the world reminds us of the enormous sacrifices people are making to bring democracy to their communities.

Grass roots democracy really matters because the issues closest to home matter. I believe local councils are better placed to tackle local challenges and opportunities than Westminster. So I was encouraged by the fact that more people put themselves forward as a candidate for a seat on a town or parish council. More councils were contested and I was delighted to see that 55% of the residents of Devoran and 49% of both Feock and Carnon Downs voted for a local councillor.

From my own experience, I know there are important local issues for people living in these communities. I know many people living here understand that at the heart of national policy is a power shift to local residents, enabling them to shape and protect the places where they live. I am pleased they are taking up the challenge of seizing this opportunity.

The Coalition has devolved a huge amount of decision making power from Westminster to Cornwall Council. With that power shift comes responsibility. I very much hope that both the returning and new Cornwall Councillors will respect the democratic mandate of local councillors on parish and town councils and work responsibly with people and communities to make the best possible decisions especially on planning our future.

During these times of challenge and opportunity the Duchy needs team players with a positive attitude. Local parish and town councillors working with both Cornwall Councillors and MPs to improve the quality of life for all.

Over the next few months the partnership of people led by Truro and Kenwyn Parish Councils who have created the Neighbourhood Plan for the area will again be seeking local views before the final plan is put to a vote of the people living in the area covered by the Plan.

However, before this can happen, Cornwall Council has to agree a Plan for Cornwall. That plan has to demonstrate that it is meeting the housing needs of Cornwall over the next few years. It is essential that local people have decent and genuinely affordable homes. It is vital that as new homes are planned, health and care services as well as schools, green spaces, water treatment, transport and places to work are planned too. All this needs to be done by Cornwall Councillors working much more closely with local councillors and local people. Until this Plan for Cornwall is approved we remain very vulnerable to speculative, unwanted development.

West Briton column 2 May 2013

Investing in generating more of our own energy is vital for our national security. In 2010 the Coalition faced some bleak predictions about future energy prices and supply. Decisive action has been taken to set out a road map to tackle these issues, focusing on using insulation to save energy and money for home owners, and on implementing better regulation to ensure energy companies keep bills as low as possible.

Investment in a wide range of energy generation to avoid dependency on one source, including renewable energy, is an important part of this action plan. I was pleased to welcome the Minister for Energy and Climate Change, Greg Barker, Cornwall last week and introduce him to some of the many innovators and businesses here, not only creating new jobs, but new renewable energies from our abundant natural resources in Cornwall.

Greg visited Fab Test, part of the SW Marine Energy Park that he has championed in government. He saw first hand energy being made from waves off Falmouth and learned about the great research partnership between Exeter University and local companies that is supporting this innovation.

Not all renewable energy is as well supported by the public as wave and tidal. I was pleased the Minister restated government policy that the best place for solar panels are on roof tops or former industrial land, not on green farmland. He was clear that solar farms should not proceed if they impacted on beautiful landscapes, or didn’t have the support of the local community.

The same is true for onshore wind turbines. For some time many Conservative MPs, have been asking for improved guidance from central government to local government on planning for wind turbines. During his visit the Minister confirmed the publication will be soon.

Planning decisions are the responsibility of Cornwall Council but subject to national policy. I was delighted that Cornwall Councillors last week voted with national ports and maritime strategy and to keep Falmouth Wharves and the thriving businesses located there.

At the heart of national policy is a power shift to local residents, enabling them to shape and protect their places where they live. The Coalition has devolved a huge amount of decision making power from Westminster to Cornwall Council. With that power comes responsibility. A responsibility to work with people and communities to make the best possible decisions on planning our future.

So when I go to the polling station today to choose my Parish and Cornwall Councillors, I will be putting my crosses next to the people who understand the powers they, and the communities they aspire to represent, now have. During these times of challenge and opportunity the Duchy needs team players with a positive attitude. I would encourage you to go out and vote today, and to support can-do candidates; those who have the ability and willingness to work with you to ensure that the new local powers improve lives across our community and across Cornwall, today and in the years to come.