Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Going, going, Gove...

And so the cheers did ring forth from staff rooms across the land as the iron rule of Gove came to an end.

Was this the dead hand of Theresa May, dealing revenge for their spat a few weeks back and demoting Gove to the post of Chief Whip?

Was this a realisation that Gove is the most unpopular Tory minister (amongst a stiff field)?

Or is this not quite what it seems?

If I was George Osborne, looking to fend off a challenge from Prince Boris - or Dave, determined to stop Boris succeeding him as leader - then having a reliable place man in that vitally important job would be a good move, should the Tories lose in 2015. The whips should be close to the members and accurate indicators of the political weather within the wider party. Gove would be ideally placed to assist George into the top job in due course and would then look to step back into a senior post if a revitalised Tory party were able to regain power in 2020. Of course, it would also be an asset if Michael decided to have a pop at the top job himself - something he has denied.

So it may be a demotion, but a real step up in terms of the power behind the thrones.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There is no alternative, Nick.

Calamity Clegg has not had a good week - councillors across the country battered again and his group of European parliamentarians reduced to a single representative. With monotonous regularity, there's also rumbling about the leadership.

Angling to replace Clegg at this point is rather like leading a mutiny on the Titanic after the impact with the iceberg - it isn't going to change the outcome. I'm not sure there's anything a new leader could do to recover the situation for the Liberal Democrats, the brand is just too tarnished to recover. I suspect that they have to take their beating in 2015 and that Clegg needs to complete the mission of destruction.

Meanwhile, Lord Oakeshott - hitherto regarded as the earthly representative of Vince Cable - has run a ham-fisted covert operation to try to dislodge Nick and leave the way clear for his master to assume command. The plan was so incompetently run that Vince has had to declare loyalty to Nick and disown the noble Lord. That presumes that Cable offers any better chance of an improved election result - even the polling only shows a marginal improvement. They are so out of touch that they believe that the man who actually piloted the tripling of tuition fees (now exposed as a major financial risk to future governments) and sold the Royal Mail off at a bargain basement price is a better bet as leader and likely to attract voters. Either that or they realise that the hole is so deep that it doesn't matter any more. Vince is now a thoroughly busted flush - all his off-stage chuntering has amounted to nothing. He's not found a red line he won't cross - he's as thoroughly compromised as Clegg. The fact that he polls slightly better than the current leader is more down to the fact that Cable hasn't had the same level of scrutiny as Clegg, but you can bet that would change within hours.

The leader-in-waiting, the prince across the sea, Tim Farron, would not want to go anywhere near the job at the moment. He's biding his time - his hands are unsullied by government office, so he can start the long process of rebuilding the party.

In short, if you think Cable is the answer, you don't understand the question..



Monday, April 21, 2014

A Big Society, but keep quiet about it....

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist"

You would think that a charity, with a Christian background, working with the poor and reliant upon donations without troubling the state, that would be something that the government would be only too eager to support. 

Sadly, when that charity decides to point out that the increase in demand for their services might possibly be connected to government policy, then the Big Society suddenly looks a lot less attractive. This is not unusual. As I noted in my speech to Birmingham Council over the budget,  the government preaches localism, but only as a way to diluting local democracy to make it easier to subdue. They don't want muscular local communities, but ones that are divided and weakened. 

Similarly, the government likes a compliant and quiescent Big Society - hence the unnecessary Gagging Law that the Lib Dems spinelessly supported, which will have a chilling effect on many charities and will impose extra regulation on a sector that has done nothing to deserve it. 

The problem is that people involved in charities have a nasty habit of wanting to solve the problem behind their very existence and that leads to awkward answers. 

So, when the Trussell Trust, the leading charity behind foodbanks in the UK, has the temerity to point out that their experience is that benefit delays and benefit changes are the biggest causes of referral to their service in the past year and that usage has tripled, the response is swift. 

Graph from the Trussell Trust report

Of course, Dave - with his newly rediscovered Christianity - couldn't be seen to put the boot into a charity that he had recently praised
whether it's provision of food banks, there are some extraordinary organisations run by faith groups and Christians in our country and I want to see the possibilities for that to expand.
So, in the best tradition of Tory governments, he's outsourcing to one of the bootboys at the Department of Work and Pensions, where IDS has a history of disliking the Trust, accu. 
One senior DWP source accused the charity of "misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking", while another official said the rise in food bank use was down to the Trussell Trust "aggressively marketing their services".... DWP officials last week briefed that Mould [chairman of the Trust] was "effectively running a business".
As the government stopped collecting data on foodbanks - largely because they knew that it might prove embarrassing in the future - they had to rely on an OECD report to prove that food poverty is falling. This showed that the number of people reporting that they didn't have enough money to buy food dropped from 9.8% to 8.1%, although that applies to 2012/13, not the same data period reported by the Trussell Trust, but then we know that the DWP has a flexible attitude to data. 


There's a reason why "doing God" is a dangerous subject for a politician, ably illustrated by the increasing pressure from senior churchmen - including the letter to the Daily Mirror from 27 Church of England bishops and church leaders from the Quakers, Methodists and United 
Reformed Church. This challenged the government
"we must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using foodbanks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.... There is an acute moral imperative to act. Hundreds of thousands of people are doing so already, as they set up and support foodbanks across the UK. But this is a national crisis, and one we must rise to"


The leader of England's Roman Catholics, Cardinal Vince Nicholls has also waded in 
"The safety net to guarantee people would not be left in hunger or destitution has been torn apart. And the administration of social assistance has become more punitive"
He was joined this Sunday by the senior CofE cleric, Archbishop Justin Welby
"In this country, even as the economy improves, there is weeping in broken families, in people ashamed to seek help from food banks, or frightened by debt"
This weekend, the government opened another front, using the paramilitary wing of the Conservative Party, the Daily Mail. They sent a reporter undercover to Nottingham, where he wasted the time of a CAB volunteer and lied so that he got the usual three days of groceries - which the Daily Malevolent helpfully priced up for you at £38.35. The Mail went further and headlined the piece "no questions asked" despite detailing the questions that their "journalist" had been asked. At least the food was returned to the foodbank, but that was also legal protection against charges of obtaining goods by deception. Whether there was sufficient public interest in using subterfuge to get the story is a different matter, but that's a matter for the Press Complaints Commission. And it made a change for the reporter, whose previous journalistic high point was approaching someone in 2012 for rarely seen photographs of a young Jessica Ennis - perhaps to satisfy the demands of the 'sidebar of shame."

The paper was shocked that the food banks DARED to hand out food to people who had not provided photographic ID and forensic details of their spending. They fumed that people might turn up more than the prescribed three times a year for help or that some might tour the food banks to collect as much as possible. 

Nobody would support anyone taking food that they didn't need, but the groups that run food banks are there to help and you can't blame the volunteers for stretching the rules when presented with difficult cases. I suspect that they would rather feed a few undeserving cases than turn away some of those genuinely in need. Half of those presenting at Trussell Trust foodbanks are referred by statutory agencies anyway, so have an element of prescreening and for many, going to a foodbank is the last resort when they need food. 

If this was supposed to dull the support of the public, it failed spectacularly, as £15,000 poured in to support the Trust's Easter Appeal, much of it triggered by the Daily Mail coverage. 

Strangely, the article does not find space for examining the reasons why almost a million people turned to foodbanks last year. Even more sadly, despite manufacturing enough moral outrage to fuel Tonbridge Wells for a weekend, the Mail fails to find enough outrage at the fact that food banks have to exist at all. 

That's worth journalistic time and expertise, but it might throw up answers that discomfort the Daily Mail's core readership. Or the Conservative government. 

But no doubt, the government and their allies in the press will continue to play the man, not the ball. And many charities will shut up about what they know for fear of falling foul of this vindictive, unpleasant and unjust government. 



Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Another one bites the dust - The David Cameron Confidence Indicator

"David Cameron has full confidence in...."

Survivors (so far)
Jeremy Hunt
Full confidence declared 28 June 2010
Full confidence declared again 24 April 2012
Reshuffled from Secretary of State at DCMS to Secretary of State for Health 4 Sept 2012
(Considered a promotion, so confidence still holds)

Theresa May
Full confidence declared 7 November 2011
Full confidence declared again 20 April 2012
Still in office as Home Secretary at time of going to press.

Francis Maude
Full confidence declared 2 April 2012
Still in office as Cabinet Office minister at time of going to press

Confidence - and job - lost.

Maria Miller
Full confidence declared 13 December 2012
Full confidence declared again 2 April 2014
Still in office as Secretary of State for Culture at time of going to press

Stephen Green
Full confidence declared 23 July 2012
"Retired from government" 10 December 2013.

Andrew Mitchell
Full confidence declared 12:16 24 September 2012
Resigned as Chief Whip 19 October 2012

Caroline Spelman
Full confidence declared 28 June 2008
Replaced as Conservative Chairman 19 January 2009
Finally sacked as Secretary of State for Environment 4 Sept 2012

Andy Coulson
Full confidence declared 11.25am 21 January 2011
Resigned as Comms Director 11:37am 21 January 2011

HRH Prince Andrew

Full confidence declared 8 March 2011.
"Stepped down" as trade envoy 22 July 2011

Chris Huhne
Full confidence declared 16 May 2011
Full confidence declared again 2.14pm 20 January 2012
Resigned 10:50am 3 Feb 2012.

Liam Fox
Full confidence declared 8 October 2011
Resigned as Defence Secretary 14 October 2011

Baroness Warsi
Full confidence declared 27 May 2012
Reshuffled 4 Sept 2012 to 'Senior' Minister of State at Foreign Office
(Demotion, so confidence lost)

Andrew Lansley
Full 'support' declared 15:13 7 February 2012
Full confidence declared again 14 May 2012
Reshuffled as Secretary of State for Health to Leader of the House of Commons 4 Sept 2012
(I consider this a demotion, although still Cabinet level, so consider confidence lost)

With Maria Miller's enforced departure, as the keys to the red box were prised from her hands - note that Cameron repeatedly refused to answer when asked if she had been asked to quit, we now have an 77% chance of departure once the PM has given you his full backing. Miller took 482 days to go after the first confidence assurance, but just seven days after the second assertion. We now have an average of 193 days if we count from the first guarantee of confidence and 111 from the second vote of confidence.

The record is likely to remain with Andy Coulson, who took just 12 minutes to lose the PM's confidence. Jeremy Hunt holds the record for the longest survival after confidence was first declared, which took less than two months of being in office. Andrew Mitchell also holds the record as the Cameron's only government Chief Whip not to have lost a parliamentary vote. His successor has not only lost a vote, but lost an MP.

The truth here is that no minister should have to have the PM's confidence in them stated publicly. The very fact that it is an issue indicates that the minister is on a slippery slope....

Thursday, March 13, 2014

EU turn if you want to

I've been undecided over the idea of a vote on membership of the EU for a while. Part of me wants to shoot the Tory fox and to put the issue to bed. I remain convinced that if the argument is placed before the people, then they would vote to stay in. And any pro-EU campaign would be spectacularly well-funded and supported. Not just by the political parties, but by businesses - those exporters who see their markets disappearing behind trade walls and would seek to transfer jobs back inside the EU. Think of the shock at Scottish business saying that they would relocate south of any newly independent border - imagine that multiplied by a factor of ten or twenty. 

Does anyone seriously believe that BMW, Nissan, Honda or JLR wouldn't shift production into the EU at the drop of a hat, if we voted to leave? And that's just the major motor manufacturers - we export cars on a massive scale, despite rumours of the death of the car industry.  

Current Tory policy Is for a referendum in 2017 after a renegotiation of the UK's membership of the EU to get a better deal. What that deal might be isn't ever discussed. I think that any substantial change in our position is very unlikely - we already sit outside Schengen and the Euro, both basic articles of faith for new entrants to the community of nations. What I suspect any future Tory government might be able to produce will be more spin than substance - a document that signifies nothing, despite the sound and fury that it will doubtless bring. What I think they want is an agreement that rolls back the social elements of Europe - stripping back our employment rights and protections - and then forces the pro-European parties into voting for it, as the alternative would be worse. Remember, the direction of travel for this government has been relentlessly towards the bottom - to a low wage economy with employees too scared for their jobs to challenge any erosion of their rights. 

But along the way, we have two to three years of uncertainty. If you are a business, do you invest in a country that might possibly leave an economically beneficial union - even if the government holds out the carrot of a vastly easier employment regime? Is that a risk Nissan would take with a new model, for example? That's the decider for me. Right now, the last thing we need is to destabilise whatever growth we have, but that's a very real risk of this government policy - another one that is strong on politics, but weak on sense. 

If you look at the polling, Europe isn't the biggest issue amongst voters. They are fussed about the economy, the cost of living, health, crime and poverty rate much higher. True, immigration is a hot button issue and that connects to membership of the EU, but the voters are much more bothered about how their daily lives are affected. 

Politically, given that Ed Miliband is leading heavily on the cost of living crisis, ending speculation about a Labour referendum offer (except in the unlikely event of a further transfer of sovereignty), he is clearly focused on the issues that matter. The bigger point is that he is also calling it right for business - the CBI are in support - and calling it right for jobs. Labour isn't the party putting jobs at risk for political reasons, because no matter how much the Tories wrap themselves up in the banner of democracy, this is about their fear of internal division and the threat of UKIP. 

William Hague said on the World at One, when challenged about the economic risks, pointed out that inward investment was booming. 

That might just be because business doesn't think that the referendum will happen. 

Maybe they don't think the Tories will be in power after 2015.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dust settling over Kingstanding

Well, we have a new councillor for Kingstanding and after eight years of asking, the voters gave Gary Sambrook a run at it for the next two years, as he serves out the remainder of Cath Grundy's term in office.

I thought we'd get home, but not by much - I thought a majority of under 100 was likely, but in the end, Gary won it by 138 votes. As I said at the outset and as I say about all by-elections - they are peculiar, singular beasts and the result in any one by-election is not necessarily indicative of a wider trend. This was no exception.

Even though Labour was the incumbent party, we were putting up a new name against Gary Sambrook, who has been the permanent Tory candidate for years. It is virtually impossible for a new candidate to match that level of name recognition in a few short weeks. The Tory campaign clearly recognised this and focussed very heavily on Brand Sambrook rather than potential toxicity of their own party - much of their material barely mentioned the Conservative Party. There was even a small, full-colour, glossy folded leaflet that mimicked a parish newsletter in style and which dealt only with Gary. In many ways, he had all the advantages of incumbency without the negative risks. Similarly, Rob Pocock eventually won in Sutton Coldfield, against all the odds, by being a candidate with terrific name recognition. Perhaps the key test of whether this might be a sea change in Kingstanding will be the May result, when the Tories will put up a candidate with less of a ward profile than Cllr Sambrook. There will be something similar in Sutton Vesey, but at least there has been a bigger window to establish a new candidate. I suspect the Tories will struggle in Kingstanding.

Secondly, rather than trying to defend their role in government and the massive cuts that are being enforced upon Birmingham and on local authorities generally, the Tories decided to go negative early on and attacked Lorraine Owen for the heinous crime of not living in Kingstanding. They failed to mention that Gary had himself tried to win selection in a safe Sutton Coldfield seat, where the local members didn't find him to their taste and preferred Ken Wood - touted by some as the next leader of the Tory group, owing to doubts in Sutton Coldfield over the suitability of Alden Jnr for the top job. Of course, if Lorraine was ruled unfit to be a councillor in Kingstanding, you struggle to understand why the Tories have put up with their current group leader for so long, as he doesn't even live in Birmingham. Incidentally, Lorraine is terrifically hard working and she will make an excellent councillor.

This wasn't quite the massive defeat in Labour's heartland as it has been portrayed. Yes, Labour have held this for a number of years - and still have two serving councillors - but if you look at the Labour majorities, they are rattling around marginal territory. We won in 2008 by just 80 votes, by 580 in the general election year of 2010, 174 in 2011 and 405 in 2012. Add in voting on a freezing cold February day and the lower turnouts expected in by-elections - down to 19% from the 23% in 2012 and it looks shaky.

I said at the start of the campaign that it would come down to turnout on the day and so it came to pass - just 71% of the 2012 Labour vote turned out, compared to 98% of the Tory vote. This is pretty much a straight Tory/Labour fight, as the LibDems polled their lowest vote in the city in 2012, collecting a whopping 80 votes (excluding Shard End, where they didn't even run a candidate). UKIP ran a candidate, who took 266 votes - a creditable 8% for a first run out - hardly indicative of a likely win in May. Incidentally, the National Front vote also held up. 33 out of their 34 voters from May 2012 managed to find their way to the polls, doubtless keeping to the far right all the way.

So, for my money, this is an unfortunate blip rather than the start of a turning tide of Labour support. The picture will be clearer after May, but I don't think the Kingstanding result is a reason to panic.

[EDIT: Corrected error in para 1. Gary has not stood eight times before. Been at it since 2006 or so, mind you. I have a theory that voters get bored seeing your name and realise the only way to get rid of it is to actually elect you. Worked for me, anyway.]

And so the media caravan moves on....

I was at last night's end of series debate in Digbeth for Channel Four's 'Benefits Street.' Sadly, as usual, it was the London media rolling into the provinces to share their wisdom and scatter some star shine around. We had columnists from the national press and the millionaire founder and owner of Pimlico Plumbers, who operate in London. They see an economic recovery around them - property prices bubbling up alarmingly, the financial sector awash with bonuses and new jobs being created (74% of the newly created jobs are in London and the South East). Today, they've all returned to their comfortably cushioned lifestyles in London, shaking their heads at the state of people, until they are able to turn up in the next northern city to treat people like exhibits.

Aside from the "cast" of the programme and a handful of questions from the audience, there were no voices from the city. There were no local business leaders, academics or politicians from any side to talk about the problems that Birmingham faces.

The truth is that those who were the focus of the series are not representative of James Turner Street, still less those on benefits or of Birmingham. The focus of the debate was on unemployment, yet out of work benefits account for just 3% of the DWP spend. If it had been realistic, half of the series would have been devoted to pensioners. We would have seen those struggling in low paid, zero hours contracts or dropping in and out of work and reliant on benefits to fill the gap between their poverty pay and something close to what it costs to live. We might have seen some of those sanctioned by quota-driven advisors in the JobCentres - got to get the "off flows" to use the jargon - for some of the most Kafkaesque reasons. If you turn down an interview to sign on, you get sanctioned, but if you choose the interview and fail to sign on in time (within minutes), then you also get punished.

Yes, there is fraud and abuse of the system - that will always happen. It needs to be tackled, but it amounts to under 1% of the budget, although the DWP assign over 3000 people to investigate it, compared to the 300 assigned by HMRC to investigate the higher costs of tax evasion.

I thought it was interesting that the two rightwing columnists chose to focus on the people in the series - Allison Pearson (who vanished during the first commercial break) gave a clinical opinion on one participant's mental health, suggesting that she wasn't really ill, despite - one assumes - the professional view of a genuine, qualified doctor somewhere along the line. I suppose we were at least saved from having to suffer the opinions of Katy Hopkins, who was off being objectionable about immigrants instead - Owen Jones told me that he wouldn't have been on with her.

On the other hand, the left wingers - Owen Jones and Mehdi Hasan - dealt more with the facts and figures that truly underpin the debate - the fact that employers rely on it to subsidise their wage bill and that billions poured into Housing Benefit is simply being passed on to wealthy buy to let landlords. The private rented sector is now a bigger housing provider in Birmingham than the City Council. If you want to tackle the cost of benefits, then building social housing with managed rental costs is a key solution - it creates jobs and literally puts a roof over families' heads. The private sector has not been able to provide the numbers needed at any point since before WW2 and shows no signs of doing so now - why should it, when scarcity boosts prices?

Chris Bryant made some useful points, but wasn't allowed the freedom to speak given to the Tory Minister for the Disabled, Mike Penning (a man so across his brief that he thinks Disabled Living Allowance is an out of work benefit - it isn't). Chris did make a very key point - alcohol and drug abuse is a societal problem that reaches from our poorest streets to the very wealthiest. Mike is one of those traditional, working-class Thatcherite Tories with a background in the ranks of the army and in the fire service, although he then spent time doing PR for IDS.

Richard Bacon challenged Mehdi Hasan over the numbers using food banks. Mehdi reckoned it was half a million, Richard Bacon was certain it was 300,000 and his figures were indeed right - but they applied for the total in the previous year. Mehdi Hasan was more up to date. Half a million of your neighbours and fellow citizens used emergency food assistance from a Trussell Trust food bank between April and December 2013 alone. Over half of those referred are in need because of benefit delays, cuts and sanctions and many others are the working poor - hardworking families. It should be a source of shame that the sixth richest country on the planet has people so abandoned that they have to ask for food that doesn't need cooking because they can't afford the electricity.

In the meantime, Channel Four will take the nice little boost in advertising income, fold up their caravan and steal away into the night, patting themselves on the back at all the chatter to find another community worthy of exploitation. Some of those featured in the series will probably pop up on reality TV shows for a couple of years and the news for others was positive with jobs on the horizon.

You can't help but feel that Channel Four owes that street something more.

Benefits Street has generated much heat, but little light.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Aidan Burley is stupid and offensive - and that's official

When he was caught attending a Nazi-themed stag party in 2011, Aidan 'multi-cultural crap' Burley said that 
"What was happening was wrong and I should have completely dissociated myself from it. I had a choice and I made the wrong choice not to leave. I apologise for this error of judgement."
Now we find out that not making excuses and leaving wasn't the only wrong choice. 

Burley didn't just turn up and find himself in the presence of his mate dressed in an SS uniform. He bought the thing, as revealed in the Tory party's own internal report
"as best man, Mr Burley purchased the costume alongside the flights and other costs associated with the trip on behalf of the other attendees"

Monday, January 20, 2014

And they're off....

We have the runners and riders confirmed for the Kingstanding By-Election Stakes and all the usual suspects are there amongst the five players. Indeed, much of it is a rerun of May 2012.

Terry Williams, who contested the seat in 2012 for the National Front - retro-fascism still stumbling on - is standing again, but this time with no party name attached. Not sure he'll improve on his 34 votes in 2012, but he's unlikely to trouble the counters much.

Also making a return visit as a sucker for punishment is Graham Lippiatt for the Liberal Democrats, who assembled a magnificent 80 votes, a precipitous fall from the 800 votes that the party garnered in Kingstanding in the 2010 elections.

Apart from the paper candidates, there are the two big names. The vacancy arose as a result of the resignation for family reasons of the sitting Labour councillor, Cath Grundy, who held the seat with 2014 votes in 2012 and we've put up Lorraine Owen, who has fought some tough and effective campaigns in Stechford and Yardley North. Against her is the young pretender himself, Gary Sambrook, who seems to have been standing as the Tory candidate in Kingstanding forever, despite his youth. Last time out, he fell 405 short of Cath as the Tory vote slipped back on 2011, when Labour's majority dropped to 174. No wonder he had try at securing the nomination for the rock-solid safe Tory seat of Sutton New Hall, losing out to Ken Wood, formerly of Longbridge. Ken, by the way, is being touted as a potential leader after the May elections, once Baron Whitby folds up his tent and decides to take his oratory to the House of Lords on a full time basis.

And then there is the fifth candidate, UKIP's Roger Tempest, who could prove to be a fly in the ointment for Gary's hopes of winning, as a modicum of effort could hoover up more than a few protest votes and drain away some of those  Tory supporters.

Labour should hold this, but by-elections are always peculiar beasts. It will come down to hard work on the ground over the weeks ahead and getting the vote out on the 13 February - but then, don't they all?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Those who can, teach. Those who can't, become Secretary of State for Education

Fear of electoral annihilation can concentrate the mind wonderfully, which explains why Nick Clegg has decided that he was opposed all along to a government policy pushed through by a series of LibDem Schools' Ministers - that of free schools and academies being able to hire unqualified teachers. We'll put aside the curious concept of collective responsibility not applying to a chunk of the government. We'll ignore that the LibDems are only too eager to claim responsibility for the nice things that the government does - raising the tax threshold is a LibDem policy in a way that raising VAT isn't, for example.

The big claim has always been that the independent sector hires unqualified teachers and they do a good job, so allowing the state sector to do the same thing will have the same result. We won't talk about the free school that recently parted company with a head teacher who herself had yet to complete a PGCE and whose only apparent qualification was a stint at the DfE, alongside the Tory peer and minister who set up the charity that runs the school.

Of course, the reality is that while the independent sector does employ unqualified teachers, they are very much the exception. Research by the Independent Schools Council shows that 90% of teachers in those schools have a teaching qualification and 59% have a PGCE. The ISC also reports that most teachers coming into the private sector come from the state side - either as newly qualified teachers or as experienced teachers in state schools and thus qualified. Essentially, the independent sector has no great propensity for unqualified teachers.

I have no problem with the various in-school training schemes that have been run over the years, that put unqualified teachers into the classroom and also allows them time to learn the skills of teaching, resulting in the confirmation of qualification. You wouldn't want an unqualified doctor who just thought they had the aptitude for the job, would you?

Just because you can get to be Secretary of State for Education on the back of being a journalist, doesn't mean that teaching is a job that doesn't have specific skills. Those skills can be learnt on the job with support, but at the end of it, wouldn't you want to know that the teacher with your children was adjudged to have at least the basic skills required?

Perhaps the real qualitative difference between state schools and the independent sector is the cost. In  Birmingham, we spend about £4200 per pupil as base funding - plus Pupil Premium for those in the free school meals group. Average fees in the independent sector for day schooling are of the order of £12,000 a year and that leads to average pupil teacher ratios of just over 9:1.

De-professionalising is not the answer, but the argument over that may hide the real agenda. If, as expected, any future Tory government would allow businesses to profit from education, then expect to see more schools employing more unqualified teachers. Not because they are the equal of those in independent schools, but because they are cheaper and the saving will mean profit.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Out of touch Hemming

At yesterday's full council meeting, the Liberal Democrats and Tories both wrung their hands as they attacked the implementation of the Bedroom Tax, yet when the vote came - they all wimped out. None of them had the courage of their convictions to support Labour's demand for the immediate scrapping of this vile and unjust tax.

And then today, up pops John Hemming, ever in pursuit of a soundbite to appease his Tory voters. 

Hit by the bedroom tax? John's got the answer. Again.

"There is also the option of taking in a lodger, even if it’s a family member. People in the private sector get a lodger if they are a bit short of cash. Well, right now the country is a bit short of cash. It’s an option."

We have been over this ground before, but let's be clear. Firstly, not all social tenants can take in lodgers (although those on Birmingham City Council secure tenancies generally can). Secondly, this isn't necessarily about having a truly spare room to rent out - many of those "spare rooms" being "subsidised" are being used as bedrooms or for other purposes right now. Perhaps it is used for an occasional carer, for medical equipment or because their partner can't sleep in the same room or bed as them. Perhaps it is kept there for a child away with the military or just in case their job falls through and they have to return to the family home. Perhaps they have children from another relationship that they would like to have to stay once in a while. There are many reasons why the badly phrased "under-occupancy penalty" assumes that a bedroom is spare when it isn't. 
There's 1200 people in Yardley district alone affected by this appalling tax. 
Comfortingly, as of yesterday morning, we had 40 one bedroom houses and 5 bedsits ready to let across the entire city. It wasn't even as good as the Birmingham Mail headline yesterday.
Unfortunately, not everybody has the same opportunity that John Hemming had when he faced a minor cash crisis in 2005. When John was a bit short of cash after his 2005 election, he "reorganised his finances as his income was going down" and remortgaged a flat in London that he already owned outright (he'd paid the mortgage off just prior to the election). That cash was used to pay down the mortgage on another property in Birmingham and John then claimed £30,000 in mortgage payment expenses from the taxpayer up to 2009. 
He also made sure that he claimed the maximum £400 food allowance every month - even when the House wasn't sitting, £4800 a year between 2006 and 2008. 
John's already blamed people for not taking action when they had eighteen months' notice of the bedroom tax. 
He's shown sympathy for the 600,000 public sector workers who have lost their jobs.
It's obviously very sad when people lose their jobs, but they need to understand why it's in everyone's interest" 

Monday, October 07, 2013

Gagging Bill Update

I had a tremendous volume of comments from constituents on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is currently going through parliament and reaches the report stage this week. On Saturday, I had a meeting with John Hemming MP, who has so far supported the Bill. 



The campaign group 38 Degrees has been organising a number of public meetings with MPs to express this broad concern. Unlike his LibDem colleague Julian Huppert, who has agreed to attend a public meeting in Cambridge, Hemming declined to attend a meeting planned for later this month and instead organised his own meeting last Saturday. Conveniently, he didn't confirm the location or time until lunchtime on Friday and also then decided to close attendance to those who had already expressed an interest. A contact made me aware of the meeting and I went along - I'm a constituent myself and as an elected representative, I have to raise the views of my constituents. 

UPDATED - John hasn't refused to attend a future meeting. 

When I arrived, a member of John's staff recognised me, asked me to take a seat and we started with two other constituents present, although three more turned up during the assigned hour. As John had originally limited attendance to 17, my presence did not deprive anyone of a seat and the other attendees were happy for me to stay. We had what I thought was a reasonable and good-humoured discussion of the issues around the bill, largely focussing on section two, which deals with the impact on charities. John has agreed to take back a request to increase the registration level back to £10,000, but he's not looking at increasing spending limits and/or asking that the range of activities be reduced or more clearly drawn. Sadly, he was very dismissive of the value of the legal opinions obtained on the bill - from a specialist solicitor and a QC, although John's own performance in the legal system is rather chequered

That hasn't stopped John spending a surprising amount of time calling me a gatecrasher and accusing me of preventing others from talking to their MP. I've Storifyed the twitter exchange. Really, this is a classic case of the standard LibDem technique of playing the man not the ball. All the more peculiar in that he has written that it is a "basic freedom of speech is to be able to speak to your MP about a subject" and he was happy to use parliamentary privilege to bust a super-injunction. Indeed, he even managed to get some publicity shortly after he was first elected about defending freedom of speech. All the more peculiar that he would be so happy to support this repressive measure.  

Why are the LibDems so eager to support the bill? The photograph illustrates why. They are running scared of students seeking vengeance and the trade unions. As Unlock Democracy's Alexandra Runwick put it
"It is explicitly partisan and is now being rushed through Parliament with very little scrutiny. Huge uncertainty is being created both for the voluntary sector and for the Electoral Commission. As its stands the proposals will have a chilling effect on campaigning
The Bill requires the registration of consultant lobbyists, but not in-house lobbyists - it exempts 80% of the lobbying business and ignores 90% of what lobbying firms do on a regular basis. Ministers and senior civil servants currently release records of meetings with lobbyists from particular firms, but we don't know who the consultants work for. The bill should at least put this right, but along the way it also introduces controls over other third parties and increases regulation of trade unions. The genius is that it won't stop those with power gaining privileged access, it won't stop Lynton Crosby being in a position with the capacity to influence government policy, but it is likely to prevent charities and campaigning groups from carrying out their role. This government, true to form, has failed to stand up to power. 

Labour's shadow leader of the Commons, Angela Eagle, has said that 
"we are clear that this is no way near enough. Labour remains concerned about a wide range of the Bill's proposals which would have a chilling effect on the quality of the national debate. The Government is using this legislation to try to insulate themselves against legitimate criticism in the run up to an election"
It regulates a tiny part of lobbying activity, but could gag charities, trade unions, residents' groups and even bloggers by imposing spending limits on campaigning in the year PRIOR to a regulated election. A regulated election would certainly be a general election, but could include elections to the devolved assemblies, the European Parliament or even local authorities, if parliament so decrees. Even considering general elections, although the date for the 2015 election is set, there is still a possibility that the government could collapse - this means that it is impossible to know exactly when that year actually begins. All charity expenditure would have to be considered as to whether it might be considered to fall within the law.

Imagine a campaign to save a local hospital that would naturally seek the support of local representatives or candidates. Publishing a photograph of the candidate standing beside a banner supporting the hospital would be bound to bring their activities into the regulated sphere, if it were to fall within the regulated period (and you can't know when that period will actually be). 

John Hemming thinks that charities will be unaffected by this. 



True, but that misses the point completely. At no point has anyone said that charities should be involved in party politics. They are involved in campaigns to further their charitable interests - think of Shelter, the RSPCA or the NSPCC. Along with many others, they have a considerable voice in policy discussions and rightly so. 

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations sought counsel's opinion from Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers.
An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political (in the sense of advocating a particular party or change in the law). However, as the Charity Commission guidance CC9 explains, provided it guards its independence from political parties, a charity can undertake political campaigning or political activity in the context of supporting delivery of its charitable purposes. This can include campaigns for changes to law or policy where such change would support the charity's purposes. Although such campaigning cannot be the continuing and sole activity of the charity, it can be the only or main activity for a period of time, provided it always remains in pursuit of the charitable purposes.
The opinion also raises several cases where the barrister considers that routine campaigning activity could fall into the regulated sector and pointed out that the range of activities regulated is so broad, that charities could even end up having to include the cost of time given by volunteers in their returns, as well as more routine communications with their supporters. 

The way the bill is written, it creates vast areas of uncertainty and risk and if there is one thing that trustees and managers of charities don't like, it is risk. It is far more likely that these groups will withdraw from public engagement than risk being caught out. Remember that they can't know for sure when the regulated period will begin, so will have to assume that any potentially relevant campaigning spend is appropriately monitored. I spoke only this afternoon to somebody who works with small campaigning group and this was precisely the concern that they raised - the trustees and management would withdraw from anything connected to public policy if it brought them into this regulated environment. 

Ed Miliband asked the government to think again and Labour MPs voted against the Bill when it last came before the House. Sadly, the only two MPs in Birmingham who supported the bill and opposed Labour's amendments were Tory Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield and Tory Liberal Democrat John Hemming in Yardley. 


There is an unprecedented alliance of opposition to this bill. The Taxpayers Alliance called it "a serious threat to independent politics that will stifle free and open democratic debate." Greenpeace have described it as "the most pernicious assault on campaign groups in living memory." The British Medical Association raise concerns over freedom of expression and say that it would be "very regressive if organisations were unable to speak out about poor care in the run-up to an election." Grassroots bloggers at LabourList, ConservativeHome and LibDem Voice have criticised it and there's even been an unholy alliance of Guido Fawkes and Owen Jones in opposition. Nothing this government has done has raised this level of anger from across the entire range of the political spectrum. Even the Electoral Commission have raised concerns - they weren't consulted on their role and are worried about whether they can even enforce the law, as well as the legal challenges that they consider inevitable when action is taken. 

Given the level of concern, Andrew Lansley has agreed to amend the bill and those proposals were published on Thursday. They haven't met with universal support, however. 

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations were quick off the mark.
"The government is clearly keen to show it is listening to civil society, but these amendments don't prevent the Bill curbing freedom of speech around elections. The Bill greatly increases bureaucracy for civil society groups in the year before an election, by halving the spending thresholds above which organisations have to register with the Electoral Commission. It also drastically restricts civil society's spending on public campaigns in election years. The public wants legislation that makes politics and corporate lobbying more transparent. Instead this Bill makes almost no change to lobbying rules while punishing civil society for a loss of trust in politics that is not its fault."
The Chief Executive of the NCVO added
“the proposed amendments put forward by the government will mean that much campaigning activity by charities and other voluntary groups will still be covered by this excessively bureaucratic and burdensome regime. The amendments leave a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity. In short, many organisations including small community groups, will be required to consult the Electoral Commission before undertaking campaigning activity in an election period in order to ensure they are not falling foul of the new regulations.”
We have an unholy alliance, now we have the complete opposite, as thirteen religious groups let rip, including the Salvation Army, the Methodists, Islamic Relief, CAFOD, Reform Rabbis, the Church of Scotland, the Muslim Council of Britain, Christian Aid and the Quakers. 
"Following legal advice and a statement from the Electoral Commission, we remain concerned that despite the Government’s proposed amendments we still do not have the necessary legal certainty that Part II of this Bill could not be applied to a wide range of legitimate campaigns, despite such activities being intended to be party politically neutral. We are concerned that this Bill does not adequately safeguard the activities of religious organisations and that there is a very real risk that non-biased political activity will be captured by the resultant Act."
38 Degrees have an initial legal opinion from a solicitor, Ros Baston, who has specialised in election law. She notes that
"the changes do not assist the clarity of the proposed regulation, results in new uncertainties and do not address concerns of grassroots or charitable organisations without formal paid subscribers that communication with their own supporters will be covered."
Speaking to the Independent, she added
"It appears that the Government has been taken aback by the level of opposition and has spent the past few weeks on a headless chicken run. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in amendments that mystify more than they enlighten."
Even the lobbyists aren't happy. 
Iain Anderson, the director of the Cicero lobbying group and chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, said: "The amendments have not changed the scope of the Bill's impact on the lobbying industry. It shows that they [ministers] are not listening. There has been no change to the definition of those who lobby, and who they lobby. Rational arguments and Parliament's wider concerns are being ignored."

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Farage of lies

Recently, we've seen UKIP cross-dressing as Liberal Democrats - if only in their enthusiasm for populist policies. One of their big campaigns is against HS2. As Nigel Farage put it in a tweet during Question Time last night - supporting a lacklustre performance by Patrick O'Flynn:







Seems clear enough. But then we look back at prehistory. Or the 2010 General Election manifesto, to be precise. In that, they promised to
Invest in three new 200mph plus high-speed rail lines including a new line between London and Newcastle with a spur to Manchester, a London-Bristol-Exeter line and a linking route via Birmingham
Their supporting documents went further.  (emphasis added)
11.2. UKIP enthusiastically supports the high speed rail concept, with trains travelling up to 220 mph, such as the new Beijing-Shanghai service which will cut journey times from 12 hours to 5 hours 27 and successful London-Paris/Brussels Eurostar trains that have cut journey times to under 2 hours, making rail highly competitive with short haul air travel. By 2003 Eurostar had already secured 65% of the London-Paris market and 55% of the London-Brussels market, whilst the French TGV system is impressive. The high-speed line between Madrid and Barcelona took 46% of the market the year after opening, and China is now investing in 8,000 miles of high speed rail lines. 
11.3 As the boss of Arup, Mark Bostock argues, “upgrading the existing track, eliminating bottlenecks and improving reliability is not a better option. Consider the west coast mainline upgrade. Its eventual cost of almost £9bn dwarfs its benefits.” The Department for Transport agrees, stating in a 2007 report: “The disadvantages of undertaking major new construction work alongside a working railway outweigh the advantages.” This argument was central to Arup's successful lobbying of government in the early 1990s, resulting in the selection of our route for the Channel tunnel rail link. Building a new railway is actually cheaper and less disruptive than fiddling with the existing network – though it requires an un-British, strategic view of national spatial and economic planning. France exemplifies the potential success. Despite labour market inflexibility, hourly productivity in France stands at $54, compared to $45 in the UK, which is recognised as largely due to its excellent infrastructure… The British Chambers of Commerce and CBI unanimously back the idea of a national high-speed network". 
11.4 UKIP will support 3 new 200 mph plus high-speed rail lines
Now, while you may argue that this is not specific support for the current HS2 route, the fact is that they rule out construction alongside an existing line, so a new corridor is going to be required. The principles of high speed rail demand a route that is as flat and as straight as possible to achieve and maintain the top speeds, so the final route is unlikely to be tremendously different from what is currently proposed. In any case, the UKIP policy would shift the argument to different constituencies. I'm sure the Thames Valley would welcome a high-speed line slicing through the landscape as warmly as it has been welcomed in leafy Buckinghamshire. 

And if you fancy another laugh, have a look at their cycling policy. While they enthusiastically deregulate on cars, including upping speed limits, the chief focus on bikes is to impose a "CycleDisc" and minimum third party insurance for cyclists. I kid you not. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

There's a storm a comin'

In advance of their conference in a week or so's time, Tory MPs held an away day with their very own prince of darkness, Lynton Crosby, who explained the attack lines on immigration (although probably not with regard to rabid Australians). This is an interesting line from the FT:
one MP said he had wanted a bit more venom directed at the Lib Dems after their attacks of the “nasty” Tories at their conference this week. Crosby and Shapps were more interested in targeting Ed Miliband, arguing that bis polling is weak and Tories need to capitalise on that vulnerability. [sic]
Essentially, the Tories are going to unload on Ed over the next eighteen months. As Martin Kettle put it earlier this week
prepare for the most sustained character assassination attempt in British politics since the days of Neil Kinnock

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Free school meals for all not a liberal aim for very long

On 20 May this year, Labour's Iain Wright asked David Laws if the government would consider allowing the children of all those in receipt of Universal Credit to claim free school meals.

Laws shut the door rapidly. 
"We estimate that extending free school meal entitlement to all families in receipt of universal credit would result in more than half of children being entitled to free school meals in England, at a cost of up to an extra £1 billion per year. In the current economic climate this is not affordable."
Now that is a number somewhat larger than is proposed under this scheme, but bear in mind that the Tories will be announcing a pointless tax break for married couples which will take the combined costs of these two measures to around the £1.2 billion mark. Which is apparently now affordable. 

In a letter to 38 Degrees in August this year, he wrote (my emphasis)
"We estimate the current cost of free school meals to schools and local authorities at £460 million per year, and the department's budget remains very tight. Any increase in eligibility would inevitably mean a reduction in the budget to spend on other areas."
Campaign poster from 2009, Diane Johnson MP
And then there's Hull Liberal Democrats, who scrapped the Labour council's universal free school meal policy.

Or we can turn to the rotating political weathervane that is Simon Hughes, who attacked Southwark Council for spending £15m on giving out free school meals.

I'm sure Simon will be back on message soon.

While I'm delighted at this policy shift from the Lib Dems, there are a couple of problems. Firstly - how is this to be funded and for how long? On past form, exactly as David Laws wrote, money is shifted between budgets, so a bit of extra cash here means a cut somewhere else. We won't get that answer until the autumn statement - even though the Tories will be spending a bit more cash when they announce their marriage giveaway.

The second question is how this will be delivered, as so many schools have scrapped their kitchen facilities. Tim Farron has been on the media stump and has suggested that packed lunches may be enough - but will that meet the aim?

I don't think we've heard the last of this policy and it may well stuck in the lunch queue for a while yet.