Thursday, 30 December 2010

One more Quango bites the dust!

Tomorrow is the last day of existence of the QUANGO the National Women's Commission. It was founded in 1969 by Harold Wilson to, "ensure by all possible means that the informed opinion of women is given its due weight in the deliberation of government". All rather patronising stuff from the 1960s mindset.

It mainly represents women's groups and of course the views of it's commissioners. In 2007, Harriet Harmann reshaped it to be a body that would give her the views of women. Unfortunately, the commission appears to be dominated by middle class women from very privileged backgrounds. Of the 15 commissioners, 5 are very involved in politics, including the chair. 4 are prominent members of the Labour party and another stood for the Greens. Others have strong far left backgrounds. Not uncommon in the women's network but certainly not representative of women as a whole.

Records revealed from 1980 showed that then Government found it's role "extraordinarily vague". The person reviewing QUANGOs at the time, Sir Leo Pliatzky,was interested in getting rid of it. But Thatcher felt it would be too controversial and told him to "leave it well alone".

The QUANGO is like many small Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB) that continue despite being well past it's sell by date because it is too much hassle to get rid of it. Last year the WNC had a budget of £661,000. Not a lot in the greater scheme of things compared to government expenditure but there are quite a few similar bodies. I am sure the women's groups will continue to work through groups such as the National Women's register and Women's Aid. It is right that the views of women are represented through the independent voluntary sector which is far more impartial and campaigning. And groups like the Fawcett society will continue to campaign for women's rights. The new Equality Act also opens up new avenues. So half a million saved, only a few billion more to go!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Christmas

Nothing political or very interesting to say so I'll just wish people a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sure Start, uncertain finish

Sure Start centres were built all over England in "deprived" areas. In my own town of Prudhoe there is one in the East End of the town and where I work, in East Durham, there are Sure Starts in most villages and towns. Labour in Government rightly recognised that a child's early development was critical and that helping young mothers have support to get into the job market.

So it set off building a network of over 2,000 centres to provide such support at a massive cost, both in construction and running costs, in wards that on average contain the most people in poverty. It seems like the right thing to do. I work with Sure Start centres in work and in Prudhoe and they are led by dedicated managers and are full of great workers and volunteers. It should work and that was why, despite it being too early for evidence to come in proving the efficacy of the investment, Labour pressed on with more centres.

Now we have over 2,000 centres costing £885m to run nationally (2009/10), so we will be able to see the benefits. A 2006 study said that, despite the centres being in deprived areas, they did not have enough people using it who were disadvantaged. So the government spent £79m on outreach work. Reporting on this in January 2010, the National Audit Office reported that this had not been sufficiently effective and was not "cost effective".

Now the well respected Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University has done a study of 117,000 children starting primary school and reported that, "basic levels of development in reading, vocabulary and maths have remained largely unchanged". The Journal reports that Christine Merrell, who led the research, said: “Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools, so it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement. Our findings reinforce the concern the poorest families in our society are not accessing the full range of educational opportunities and resources designed to help them.”

Labour MPs seem to just want to fall back on anecdotal evidence of their experience that the centres are nice and not admit that merely building centres in deprived areas does not mean that they will be mainly used by middle class savvy parents. I wonder how many years it will be before they can't be grown up and admit that they got things wrong from time to time. During the election, I campaigned a lot on the former Bleach Green estate in Blaydon. It once was a very deprived council estate but is now a very nice private residential estate. The council has put a lovely sure start right by this estate. It is a deprived area but is largely used by parents in the nice estate opposite. It is always the case that even in the most deprived area, there are still sharp elbowed middle class parents.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if the government wouldn't have been better at targeting early year development for poorer families more directly in a way similar to the new Pupil Premium, where the resources are directly attached to the people in question. That means that poorer people in affluent areas get support and that silly geographical ward boundaries do not affect service delivery. In Prudhoe, this was shown by a parent who recounted how the Prudhoe Children's centre proposed to charge her more for childcare because she lived in a neighbouring ward, when people over the street (both in the affluent Castlefields estate in my town)  could get a cheaper rate.

However, we now have a massive network of sure starts so we need to make sure they work better at actually equalising the start that the poorest children make as they enter education. Studies show that progress made early makes a massive difference. I would propose that funding for these centres is structured so that the centres with the most quantity of people from poor families (regardless of which area they live in) will get a higher level of support.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Yes to Fairer votes in the North East

The launch of the Yes! Campaign HQ in the North East

I was really pleased to be at the opening of the Yes to fairer votes headquarters in the North East. The office is in Rotterdam House on Newcastle's Quayside and the dedicated North East Yes team have got a great set up. We went onto the Millennium bridge and then back into the office to ring some members of the North East public. Rather randomly, I got a sheet that included David Faulkner, the Lib Dem leader of Newcastle. Unsurprisingly he is backing the campaign.

The really good thing about this campaign is that this is not a Lib Dem campaign. At the launch were Lib Dem, Green and Labour party supporters but most notably lots of people who are new to politics and are not party political. There was a lot of young people from all kinds of backgrounds. I was involved (only a little!) in the disastrous regional assembly referendum, which was lost by a margin of 4-1. The yes campaign has realised that this referendum campaign has to be led by a much broader cross section of society than just politicians. Already it is resulting in a much more high energy campaign.

If you want to get involved and get a fairer voting system that will reduce "safe" seats and make MPs represent more than 50% of the electorate, then get involved. As someone who lives in a constituency (Hexham) that has been Tory since 1924 but where the MP has been elected in recent times on a vote share of 38% and hasn't had the get the majority of voters support for 18 years, I can see the benefits! Visit  to get involved

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Prudhoe bridge campaign starts here

I was pleased to see a presentation of the proposed Local Transport Plan at the West Area Committee of Northumberland. I am optimistic that we are going to get a new river crossing into the plan. Under previous administrations, the need for a new river crossing was never recognised.

Anyone who lives in Prudhoe knows the impact that a proper link with the A69, like Hexham and Haltwhistle have, would help the town and residents a lot. The current bridge and road links to the A69 are grossly inadequate.

Getting the bridge on the list doesn't mean it will happen. Far from it. But at least it will recognise the importance of this link for the people of Prudhoe. It's a start and as we say up here "shy bairns get nowt!"

What is the point of the NUS?

Whilst at university, I dabbled in Student Politics. I was elected as a Newcastle University delegate to the annual NUS conference in Blackpool on a massive vote of (I think) 12 votes out of a potential electorate of almost 20,000. I was then driven in a minibus and put up in a three star hotel and wined and dined for four days. As a student this was the height of luxury. At the time the newly elected Labour government was introducing top up fees and the leadership under then president Andrew Pakes was very quiet on the issue. I soon learnt that virtually all the executive were aspiring Labour politicians and not willing to put students needs before their careers (Zoe O'Conell writes excellently about this) .

The current anti tuition fees campaign has been noticeable for how removed it has been from the NUS, which has considerable resources. Many of the most radical students (surely the only way to be as a student?) feel that education should be free. This of course is not the NUS position. The NUS, meanwhile, has spent most of its time beating Lib Dems over the head about their pledges to not raise fees. I am not happy about the coalitions deal on tuition fees but I recognise that Vince Cable and others have won compromises to make it as progressive as it can be.

The NUS meanwhile was emailling the government (see here)arguing that it should not raise the cap on tuition fees but instead raise interest rates on loans, which would hit all, and reduce grants for poorer students. Instead their solution would have actually been more regressive than the current package. Potentially Lib Dem ministers could have honoured their pledge to not raise fees but would have definitely failed in the second part, which was to increase fairness. As a Lib Dem helping people from poorer backgrounds go to uni is probably the most important thing. This package, which isn't ideal, achieves this more than Labours Graduate Tax or even the NUS proposals.

At the end of the day the NUS leadership has no credibility. After my trip to the NUS conference all those years ago, I was so disgusted by the excess and venality of the NUS I joined a doomed campaign to disaffiliate the Newcastle Students Union from NUS. I think students may need to consider whether there is much point to an NUS that promotes an even worse deal than the governments.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Sudan Genocide: we need to act

A drawing by a Darfuri child, showing their village being burnt and villagers being shot as they flee.
copyright - waging peace

I was in London on Monday to attend a meeting of the Lib Dem European Group, which works with other European Liberal Parties. I had the chance to go to a Liberal International British Group ( lecture from Rebecca Tinsley, the inspirational chair of Waging Peace, ( a small NGO that works to collect testimony an help people suffering persecution in Africa. A lot of its work is in Darfur and in Southern Sudan.

I don't know a lot about the situation here but the testimony is harrowing and also inspiring. The Sudanese government is killing hundreds of thousands of black African people in Darfur and is desperately trying to impede the impending referendum in South Sudan on that region seceding from Sudan. Millions have been killed in the civil war in South Sudan

 The government of Sudan is a nasty Islamic regime, which wants its citizens to obey Sharia Law, even though many of them are not Muslims. Until recently, slavery was acceptable and there is considerable evidence of systematic use of rape and terror against its citizens. The shameful thing is that it is possible that the UK and the US are backsliding on our commitments. George W , ironically did a lot to advance the peace process here. The Obama regime appears to have “decoupled” the South Sudan issue from the genocide in Darfur. That runs the risk of forgetting about human right violations in Darfur in return for allowing the people of South Sudan their democratic rights.

What does the average person know of all this? Well its a long way away and we tend to dismiss Africa as hopeless. But Becky passionately advanced, we are all people and we cannot let governments kill their people without reproach. In Britain, Becky was concerned that the current mantra of putting trade relations first could marginalise human rights issues. I hope not and she has fired me up to find out more about this crisis and see what I can do. I have decided to ask for some donations to charities in Sudan instead of my normal Christmas presents because charity doesn't start at home, it starts with those most in need. Our problems in the UK suddenly seem much smaller.

Monday, 6 December 2010

FA from FIFA: Lets reclaim the beautiful game

I love football and the votes for England in the race to host the 2018 World Cup (just 1 apart from our own) was depressing. To be fair the USA and Australia must be even more perplexed as to how they lost out for 2022 to Qatar, a tiny country with a totally unsuitable climate for the tournament and no profile as a footballing nation.

The chance of a World Cup in England is probably not likely in my lifetime, so lets move to help the game we invented. Not by lecturing FIFA on how it is corrupt and dodgy, in the typically high handed aloof way we love in this country, but by cutting out the cancer in our game.

We have a professional league that is beyond all in its ability to generate money. But lower league clubs have no money and cannot foster talent. Our clubs have ignored FA rules to prohibit profit from owning clubs (that is why FC originally doesn't stand for Football Corporation) and colluded in turning football into a game that only profits a very small clique of mainly foreign footballers and a very small clique of foreign owners.

The book by David Conn, the excellent sports journalist who knows a lot about the murkier sides of UK football, The Beautiful Game, is a great primer for anyone doubting the need for reform.

Call me naive but here are some ideas for reforming the game:

-Bring back safe standing, as seen in Germany, so we can let fans into grounds at prices the working man can afford

-Rule that clubs going into administration have to start at the bottom again, stopping irresponsible spending. The only exception should be when clubs are taken over by supporters trusts, putting power in supporters hands

-The Football League should insist on small suppliers being priority debtors not footballers and other clubs. Maybe then clubs would think twice before selling a player to a financially suspect club.

-Impose a salary cap like in Rugby League and enforce strict points deductions for infringement

-Put in a levy, similar to what existed in racing, on transfer fees that goes to the grass roots game. The Football Foundation, which is funded by the FA and the Premier League, is a voluntary version of this but too often has to play the tune of its paymasters, whose player transfer budgets dwarf its investment in the grass roots talent in this country.

That would be a good start. People might argue that this is an illiberal impositions on the cowboy capitalist world of football but any GCSE economics student knows that markets need regulation. UK football has very little and before we start lecturing Herr Blatter and co perhaps we should put our own house in order.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Now lets have a balanced recovery

Yesterday, I posted about the cautious cause for optimism that the UK economy may be recovering and can stand the projected public sector cutbacks.

However, there is a big “but”. The picture is far from uniform across the country and more needs to be done to help depressed communities, that never saw the fruits of the boom, to develop an indigenous enterprise culture, rather than the only approach that has worked to date, bribing multinationals to inwardly invest.

Inward investment works in the short term but in the North East we have seen many firms come in and then go out as quickly as you can say “Slovenian subsidy”. The Siemens plant in North Tyneside was a classic example. Nissan is a glorious exception but none the less, it constantly keeps the pressure on the UK government for subsidies with threats to move production overseas.

I am not sure that any UK government has cracked how to boost very low levels of business start ups that hasn't just involved heavy subsidy to set up small firms that are not likely to grow to the size likely to produce that much work and probably would have set up anyway.

But somehow we have got to get there, or the North South divide will continue to get worse and our most talented children will move south every generation/ I am not sure throwing money at the problem is the answer but the local authorities need to be given the power to create dynamic areas. Maybe the Regional Growth Fund will help, and certainly the NI exemption in deprived regions is a help, but is it enough?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Europe and the UK economies - room for cautious optimism

If you believe everything the right wing papers and the Labour party say, you will believe that Europe is an economic disaster zone that is going to descend into chaos and that the UK has gone from a visionary economy into a basket case that must get even further into debt just to stop a complete meltdown. Strangely this total change in the UK economy apparently happened in early May 2010.

But strangely, the economic figures keep coming in which contradict this.

In Europe, yes the economies of the delightfully named “PIGS” - Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain look in trouble. But the first three are very marginal in terms of the Euro zone and only account for 5% of the EUs economy. One would have to ask if the Euro is such a bad idea, why Estonia is joining in January.

In the mainstream of the European economy its powerhouse, Germany, has posted quarterly growth figures of 9.5% and 3.9%. Poland is on 5.3% and other countries are posting strong recoveries to get them back to the level where they started at the beginning of the problems.

Even Britain, which suffered such setbacks over the past few years, has posted growth well above predicted levels. Seen in this light, Lib Dem support for spending cutbacks earlier than we thought prudent earlier in the year seems like a sensible change in approach. Fingers crossed but it looks like the Euro zone will be OK and the UK will grow enough to stand cutting public sector spend back to the levels of 4 years ago.

Friday, 3 December 2010

True Grit

I just wanted to pay tribute to the people of my town, Prudhoe, and the dedicated workers at the coal face who have worked for over a week tirelessly to keep it on its feet despite well over a foot of snow and temperatures that hit minus 15 centigrade on Friday morning.

This “snow event”, as I once saw it described in a council report, has been severe and when you live in a town built on a very steep slope, has the potential to cause chaos. At times the major roads were a bit dicey but the farmers employed by Northumberland County Council have done a great job gritting and ploughing the estates. One told me that the diesel in his tractor froze on Friday morning but he patiently warmed it up and got on with it. I am going to find out his name because he has done a superb job on estates in my ward.

The roads are only just passable in places and pavements are still not treated outside of town but residents have also played their part, looking after vulnerable neighbours and digging their streets out.

The only areas in which I think improvement is still needed is in Grit Bins and helping vulnerable residents. The County Council had a problem last year in that it didn't know where all the grit bins were. A lot of work went into logging their location but, for some reason, the bins haven't been numbered to help the residents let the council know where they are when they need refilling.

Also I feel we should help establish a vulnerable people register so volunteers can ensure our elderly and vulnerable people are OK in this kind of weather. I have seen a very successful project in North Yorkshire, where it happens a bit more.