Thursday, 29 September 2016

Time to go forward, not backward

When George Osborne announced that he intended to pursue some devolution initiatives – headlined by the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ branding – to support economic regeneration outside London and the south-east, I gave the proposals by broad backing.

I have been a consistent supporter of devolution. The Labour government got its fingers burned in a referendum on regional government. Instead, we saw the government beef up its own regional offices and initiate regional development agencies (RDAs). Then, Conservatives, led by Eric Pickles, in the coalition government were so opposed to regional devolution that, in a fit of pique, they not only scrapped the RDAs but also the government’s own regional infrastructure. Madness.

But, back to today. There are worrying signs that Mrs May’s new government is backtracking over giving areas more control of their own affairs.

Last year, councils in South Yorkshire (involving others in north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) agreed a draft devolution deal with George Osborne. There was always a problem about the government’s then insistence on a city-region mayor. More recently, the government changed its mind to remove the mayoral condition for other deals, but there are concerns that any attempt to reopen discussions will be used as an excuse to scrap the deal and that talks with areas yet to reach an agreement will just stall.

Whilst all this behind-the-scenes discussion and shilly-shallying is taking place, I have a big concern that local people have felt completely excluded from the devolution negotiations and deals. My constituents tell me that most people don’t know what on earth has gone on, what has been agreed, what was asked for, what was rejected. There is a real danger that people will feel totally alienated by both the process and the outcomes.

Now we need:
  • the government to commit to more and deeper devolution – including fiscal powers – not less;
  • the government and councils to increase transparency about and engagement with local people about the devolution discussions and arrangements; and
  • detailed discussion about the way in which there can be proper local scrutiny of the policies and decisions of the exercise of the devolved powers.

We need to be going forward, not backward.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Poor service simply won’t do

Since 2010, the government has increasingly outsourced a range of public services. It is difficult to know whether the poor performance delivered by many of these contractors is due to inadequate specification, non-existent monitoring or ministerial indifference. Sometimes it appears to be all three.
Of course, some of those failings have been front page news. For example:
  • G4S completely bungled the provision of security for the London Olympics; even the company described it as a ‘humiliating shambles’ and the army and the police had to be called in at the last moment.
  • G4S – again – and SERCO were caught ripping off the public purse by charging the Ministry of Justice for electronically tagging people who had left the country, people they hadn’t tagged, and, even in some cases, people who were dead.
I have a clear view that companies which fail to perform or cheat should be prevented from being considered for other contracts, but the current government doesn’t agree.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has increasingly used third-party contractors to provide health and disability assessments. In July 2012, DWP signed three regional contracts to provide Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments: two with ATOS and one with Capita Business Services Limited (CAPITA). A PIP is a benefit for people aged between 16 and 64 who have additional costs because of a long-term illness or disability.
In March this year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found unacceptable local and regional variations in the contractors’ performance. Service was regularly unacceptable. There were particular concerns for claimants with fluctuating and mental health conditions. Too many assessments did not meet the standard required, and the price had increased without any noticeable benefit for claimants or taxpayers.

As well as complaints from individual claimants, there were widespread concerns from third sector organisations about the assessment process. A Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in April revealed serious concerns about the validity of assessment tools, the systems in place, the training of assessors and the lack of ethical practice. Despite pressure, the government simply refused to conduct an urgent investigation into the issues.

If anyone required further proof that something was going badly wrong, the latest Tribunal Statistics show that 63% of PIP decisions were overturned on appeal.

A few weeks ago, the government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) rated the DWP’s PIP programme in the Amber/Red category. This is defined as “Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.” In other words, current PIP performance is shambolic and neither the government or its contractors has any plan to put things right.

This simply will not do, which is why ministers will be asked a lot of questions this week and under pressure to put things right for some very vulnerable people.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Your vote counts

Nearly thirty years ago, Ken Livingstone published a book entitled If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it. Of course, he was as wrong then as he is today. To say the least, It’s unfortunate that so many people have used that argument as a justification for ducking their democratic responsibilities ever since.
If nothing else, voting in, and the outcome of the EU referendum – which is heralding probably the biggest single UK policy decision since the end of the second world war – ought to tell us something quite different. Voting has always made a difference, and the collective outcomes of everyone’s votes do make a real difference to all our lives.

I was reminded of this recently, when the House of Commons’ Library published three one-page factsheets on education issues:
  • Schools and class sizes
  • Teachers, and
  • Participation in education
Each of the factsheets contained basic data and illustrative graphs on the specific topic. So, for example, the factsheet on teachers carries information on the numbers of teachers, pupil/teacher rations, and entrants and leavers and vacancies over the last thirty years.

When you look at the data in graphic form, it is really easy to see how voting has changed things.
Under Conservative and Coalition governments, pupil/teacher ratios have consistently risen, new entrants to teaching (reflecting the numbers in teacher training) fall and the number of leavers increases, as do the teacher vacancies. Whereas under Labour governments, increased resources for education saw class sizes falling, and increases in the numbers of teachers being trained saw vacancies falling.

When you look at the data on class sizes, exactly the same patterns repeat. So, for example, the proportion of primary school pupils in large classes peaked at nearly 35% in 1998. It subsequently declined sharply to 18% in 2002 and continued to gradually decline until 2011. Since then it has increased again and that will continue as school funding per pupil is set to fall by between 5.5% and 8% over the course of this parliament.

You can find the reports at Why don’t you look at the facts for yourself? You can then assure yourself – and others – that your vote counts.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Broken Covenant

In 2000, Tony Blair introduced the Military Covenant to refer to the mutual obligations between the nation and its armed forces. It was an informal understanding, rather than a legally enforceable deal, but it was explicit in stating that service personnel, who forgo some of their own rights, should always expect the nation and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals, and to sustain and reward them and their families.

The covenant formed the basis for a range of initiatives to enhance the lives of current and former service personnel and their families. So, for example, each of the councils in our area committed themselves to particular types of assistance, like priority access to certain housing services.

However, the progress made in the first decade of this century has been undermined by the attitude and performance of the coalition government and its Conservative successor.

Service personnel are feeling more overstretched and undervalued than ever. Morale is being badly undermined and there are serious risks to recruitment and retention. In this years Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey, just 46% of personnel described themselves as ‘satisfied with service life in general’, down from 60% in 2010.

The single biggest issue of concern to service personnel is the quality of service housing. Just as in the outside world, rents have increased significantly at the same time as repair and maintenance standards have deteriorated.

A recent National Audit Office (NAO) report found that satisfaction levels about the standard of service accommodation are at their lowest for many years. Last year the Army Families Federation recorded more than 4,000 complaints in relation to housing issues – a record high and an increase of 45% on the previous year. Complaints specifically about repairs and maintenance rose by 58% between 2014 and 2015.

This comes after the government imposed a three-year “pause” on a major programme of upgrade work for service families’ accommodation between 2013 and 2016. This decision was strongly criticised by the cross-party Commons Defence Committee, which described the decision as a ‘false economy’ which ‘sent the wrong signal to armed forces personnel about the importance the government attached to the Armed Forces Covenant’.

Management of the MoD’s £626 million contract with CarillionAmey has been heavily criticised by the Public Accounts Committee. Those companies have now admitted that their performance has been completely unacceptable. They had little choice; their performance was disgraceful.

It’s difficult to conclude other than that this government and its predecessor – and despite all the warm ministerial words – have been careless and neglectful of their commitments to our service personnel. It is currently a broken covenant, and that is not acceptable.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Still on the wrong track

The fragmentation of our rail network has left us with an efficiency gap of between 30% and 40% compared to the best performing European networks. This means that money which should be used to address the cost of travel and fund much needed investment is needlessly wasted through the franchising process.

Following the collapse of the National Express East Coast franchise, when it reneged on its obligations in 2009, the last Labour government took the important step of bringing East Coast back into public operation.

The publicly-run East Coast train service proved itself to be one of the most efficient operators, returning over £1bn to the taxpayer in premium payments as well as investing every penny of profit back into the service. In addition: fares were kept fares down in real terms in 2014 when no privately run franchise took the same step; there was record passenger satisfaction and engagement with the workforce was an unparalleled success.

The recent experience of East Coast run by the UK state made it abundantly clear that a good and reliable services can be run by the UK state with profits going to our Treasury as opposed to the state railways of other European countries.

But this government is ideologically obsessed with privatisation. Ministers have mothballed Directly Operated Railways – East Coast’s parent company – and outsourced its functions to consultancy firms, which will undermine the Government’s ability to step in if a franchise does fail.

The Government’s handling of the electrification programme has been nothing short of shambolic. The ‘pausing’ and then ‘unpausing’ of the Transpennine and Midland Main Line electrification paints a picture of disarray.

The cost of electrifying the Great Western Mainline has ballooned to over £2.5 billion since the project was announced. Under woeful Conservative leadership the programme has been beset by delays and rising costs due to appalling mis-management.

Despite this, media reports this last weekend confirmed that Ministers are actively considering the privatisation of Network Rail. In light of the disaster that was Railtrack, more privatisation and more fragmentation are the last things that passengers need.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The poverty cover-up

If we are to aspire to be a civilised nation, it should be a national mission to ensure every child has a decent start in life. That means we have to tackle child poverty in every sense, not limited to financial poverty, but also including the poverty of opportunity and aspiration.

Huge progress was made by the government in the first decade of the century. Educational achievement rose significantly; there was a dramatic increase in the number of children from the poorest families going on to post-16 and university education More than a million children were lifted out of financial poverty. To progress this agenda further, the Labour government passed the Child Poverty Act 2010 which set out four statutory targets on child poverty.

Unfortunately, the current government is now undoing all that good work through significant cuts in resources to lower-income working families and to people with disabilities. Just as bad, the Conservatives to cover up the real impact of their actions; they are removing the 2010 Act statutory targets through the Welfare (sic) Bill currently going through parliament. Amazingly – or, perhaps, we shouldn’t be amazed! – the Conservatives are proposing that reporting against annual targets should be replaced by reports on “life chances”, but without any information or facts about financial poverty.

In a debate about the issue, the Conservative Employment Minister, Priti Patel, said “Income is a significant part of this issue……… but there are many other causes as well.” Of course, that is absolutely correct. But, if income is so significant, why is the government determined to stop measuring it? There is only one conclusion that can be reached; the government does not want the public to see the effects of its policies on the income of households with children. Isn’t that shameful?

Of course, this attempted cover-up fits very neatly with the government’s overall strategy of cutting the collection of statistics and reliable information in a whole host of policy areas. It prefers un-evidenced assertion to solid facts. And, even facts exist, it is clear that the Conservatives are pursuing attempts to limit the Freedom of Information Act.

The poverty cover-up is well underway.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Strategic political failure

As each week passes, more examples of the government’s failure to develop a coherent industrial strategy become evident.

The challenges for UK steel and engineering are not new. Red flags have been waving for years. You might consider that the government would have thought through the implications of some of its key spending decisions for these core industries. But no.

Let’s take defence as an example. Protecting its citizens has to be a high priority for any government. Maintaining a strong defence industrial base within the UK is also a matter of sovereignty.
But, instead of taking a strategic approach to defence procurement, the Coalition and Conservative governments have moved to “off the shelf” procurement. This means that more of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) business has been sent overseas, leading to the loss of jobs and crucial expertise from within the UK.

In 2012, the government adopted a new procurement policy which requires decisions on equipment spending to be geared towards maximising “value-for-money”. However, unlike other countries, the government insisted that the MoD, in its own words, “does not consider wider employment, industrial and economic factors in its value-for-money assessments”. Can you think of another European country which does this? Of course not.
As a result, the government
  • scrapped the Harrier fleet and cancelled the replacement of the Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft, which resulted in the loss of 1,300 British jobs. The government later decided to spend £2 billion on new P-8 Poseidon aircraft, to replace the Nimrod fleet, but al purchased from, and manufactured by, Boeing in the USA;
  • cut back on domestic shipbuilding – causing the loss of almost 2,000 jobs – while investing almost £500 million pounds in new ships now being manufactured in South Korea; and
  • allowed 60% of the steel required for the Royal Navy’s new Offshore Patrol Vessels, currently under construction, to be sourced from Sweden;
There are many other examples.

When a government is so ideologically committed to the market – however badly flawed and inadequate – we should not be surprised at the poor outcomes for our industrial production base and for skilled jobs.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Hands Off

The BBC is one of the UK’s most successful and loved institutions. The public have said time and time again that they value the BBC’s independence, and that they want it to carry on making the programmes we all enjoy.

When I travel abroad, I am repeatedly told by people how much they value the BBC World Service, especially for its independent reporting of news and current affairs throughout the world. Many people rely on the BBC to provide the only reliable independent perspective on events in their own country.

In the UK, 56% of the public believe the BBC is the broadcasting outlet most likely to produce balanced and unbiased news reporting. This compares to 14% for ITN News, 13% for Sky News and 13% for Channel 4 News. Of course, that doesn’t stop the relentless, ideologically-driven opposition and criticism in some parts of the media.

In fact, when I think about it, the BBC Licence Fee is probably the best value purchase I make, year in year out. Just think what you get for your £3 a week – all BBC TV and radio stations, a superb website, and international access – compared to other purchases (a pint of beer, two newspapers, a Big Mac).

As a matter of principle, I was totally against the decision that the free licence for over 75s should be met by the BBC which will cost about £725m from 2020. But I am in favour of the proposal that those who claim that they only watch catch-up TV should also pay.

Of course, the BBC isn’t without its faults. What organisation is? That’s why, as well as having independence in its governance and management from the government of the day, the BBC also needs to be subject to effective scrutiny.

However, that’s not what the Conservative government is up to in its review of the BBC Charter. The
Culture Secretary is hostile to the BBC. As well as seeking to undermine the BBC financially, determined that the government should decide what programmes the BBC should and should not produce, it is clear that he wants the BBC to be subject to undue political influence. He must be stopped.

Hands off the people’s BBC, I say.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Hot air, high price

At the end of 2012, I spoke out loudly against the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government’s policies on energy.

Energy prices were soaring; fuel poverty and unpaid bills were rising fast; David Cameron promised to put every customer on the lowest tariff – a promise which unravelled within 24 hours.
David Cameron and the Conservatives were determined to ditch the highly successful Warm Front programme which had secured insulation improvement in more than 2 million homes over the previous 10 years, and despite the fact that nearly 30,000 qualifying applications had been turned down that year.

So Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats agreed this, but only if their own Green Deal scheme – an intended pay-as-you-save scheme over 25 years – was implemented. Nick Clegg said: “We'll ensure customers are never charged more for the home improvements than we expect them to make back in cheaper bills.”

I said at the time that the scheme just didn’t stack up. Typical schemes would cost £10,000 and, with an interest rate of 7.5%, required an annual repayment of £886. Families would have to be cutting two-thirds of their energy consumption to show any saving at all. It was a ludicrous proposition. The numbers simply didn’t add up.

But, despite the scathing criticism from me and others, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats pressed ahead. They were so proud of their scheme, that Liberal Democrat candidates featured it in their election literature in local elections throughout the UK.
Well, this week, we have learned the cost of their arrogant incompetence. The National Audit Office (NAO) reported on the Liberal Democrats’ Green Deal scheme.

The NAO concluded that the scheme had cost £240 million, no energy had been saved and that energy bills had actually gone up as a result of the scheme. Clearly more a bum deal than a green deal!

And the cost of this Liberal Democrat arrogance and incompetence? Every Green Deal loan plan has cost the taxpayer – that’s you and me – more than £17,000.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Wrong direction

The government – and especially Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – has been making much of its devolution policies. Locally, outline agreement has been reached on the development of arrangements for the Sheffield City Region involving parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire as well as South Yorkshire. However, there is still a strong feeling that there is more hot air than substance.

The Chancellor promised to “Rebalance our national economy, ensuring that the economic future of the north is as bright, if not brighter, than other parts of the UK, is the ambition we should set ourselves.

Suspicions about the government’s real commitment to devolution and decentralisation are enhanced when you examine what is happening to the civil service. Under the Labour governments, there had been a determined effort to move civil servants and government agencies out of London to appropriate locations around the UK. There was a clear business case for each departmental move with post-move audits demonstrating the financial savings.

However, this Conservative government has put the whole devolution and decentralisation agenda into reverse. It has already reduced the number of office locations from 800 to 200. In particular, HMRC and BIS have closed local offices and concentrated in London and some regional centres. Ministers have now admitted that they took absolutely no account of the impact on local economies of this policy.

The proportion of civil servants in London has actually risen by c17% under the current government. Even more striking is that the proportion of senior civil servants in London has risen by c65%.
Last month the Government confirmed the axing of the Sheffield office of the Business, Innovation and Skills Department – which has established itself as a centre of policymaking expertise with 300 staff leading on delivering billions in research to universities in particular.

Figures revealed by my Sheffield Heeley MP colleague Louise Haigh show that, at the two Department’s responsible for delivering the Northern Powerhouse agenda (DCLG and BIS), the vast majority of top officials work in London (97.9%, and 93% respectively). Closing the Sheffield BIS Office will take the proportion of policy-making BIS civil servants in London to near 99%.

What makes the whole decision-making stink is that the BIS Ministers and Permanent Secretary responsible have been unable to produce a single report setting out the business case for the decision.