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.

Friday, 25 March 2016

It’s quite outrageous

I recently described the government’s housing policies as having moved from disastrous to catastrophic. It has the wrong strategy, the wrong policies and dreadful outcomes.

The government is busily stuffing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into the hands of a relatively small number of house-buyers – thus maintaining artificially high land and house values – whilst the proportion of families from this and the next generation who can actually afford to become house-owners shrinks every day. Disparities in wealth between the nation’s children and grand-children are to be determined by who can and who cannot afford to get on the house-ownership ladder.

At the same time, homelessness is increasing daily; more households are living in temporary accommodation; new social housing is coming to a halt; private rents are continuing to rise faster than inflation, and the government is prioritising big taxpayer subsidies to the relatively small number of already well-housed social-rented tenants to persuade them to be the next generation of right-to-buy lottery winners. It is madness.

Meanwhile, the government is now proposing to open the back door to corruption in the planning system by allowing developers to choose their own planners to advise local planning committees. It says this is because the planning system is holding back new housing development. This is nonsense.
Just consider for a moment why housing developers are making record profits and their share prices are going through the roof when development activity is at such a low level. The reality is that they are restricting the supply of new houses to keep prices artificially high.

The latest figures show that nearly half a million homes in England have planning permission but have yet to be built. The length of time it takes for developers to complete a house has jumped from 24 to 32 months. Some developments received planning permission more than 10 years ago, but are not complete.

In 2012/13, the total of unimplemented planning permissions was 381,390. In 2013/14 it was 443,265. In 2014/15 it had leapt even further to 475,647 homes in England which have been given planning permission and are yet to be built. The number is increasing daily.

it is clear that the big developers are building at a rate to maximise their profits rather than addressing the country’s housing needs.

Of course, their shareholders will be delighted.

But, it’s not in the nation’s interest, it is not in the people’s interest.

It is simply ludicrous that the government is subsidising and supporting this with its policies.


It is really quite outrageous.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Cops down, crime up?

Last year, I was one of those who campaigned to get George Osborne to change his mind about the scale of his proposed additional cuts in police budgets. He had intended to announce another 20% cut over the course of this parliament, which would undoubtedly have led to further big cuts in police numbers, on top of the 18,357 police officers (including more than 12,000 on the frontline) who have gone since David Cameron became Prime Minister.

With great fanfare, in the Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced that there would real-terms protection for police budgets over the next 4 years. Of course, when the dust died down, it was clear it wasn’t true. Osborne assumed that in every area there would be a 2% increase in the precept (part of your council tax). But, even then, that would only produce the same cash nationally, meaning a projected real-terms cut of up to 10% by the end of this parliament. Further, the real-terms cuts would be most pronounced in the poorest areas and regions of England.

In South Yorkshire, since 2010, the number of police officers has already fallen from 2953 to 2494 now. By 2020, that is projected to fall further to 2379. Incidentally, I’m very pleased that our excellent South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Alan Billings, has committed to maintaining the number of PCSOs, who local communities often see as being in the frontline on dealing with anti-social behaviour.

But, what might these additional cuts in police numbers mean for our community safety?
First, crime is not falling – for the first time this century. Crime is changing. Whilst burglary and car-crimes continue to fall, internet crime is increasing rapidly. At its crudest, when six million cyber and online crimes are included in the official crime statistics, crime will near double.

Second, demands on the police are increasing, especially because of an aging and increasingly vulnerable population. Other agencies are struggling because of their own cuts, leaving the police as the last resort.

Third, I welcome the significant improvements that have been made in efficiency in back-office functions. However, those continuing improvements will not fill the budget gap.


The time has come to cut crime, not cut cops. But, as George Osborne prepares to tell us that he is missing all the latest financial and fiscal targets he set for himself only last year, I rather suspect that we shall see fewer cops and more crime.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Not adding up

The Conservative Education Minister told the all-party Education Select Committee that there was no problem with teacher recruitment, despite the fact that half of all schools had unfilled positions at the start of this academic year. In the same week we learnt that some pupils are now having to travel to other schools for their maths and English lessons due to teacher vacancies at their own.

Last year, in our area, many schools failed to receive a single suitable application for particular teaching vacancies. It isn’t just state schools, academies or even free schools that are having recruitment problems. Last week, private school heads were bemoaning the shortage.

School spending on supply teachers rose 42 per cent last year. Academies and Free Schools spent nearly £180 million more on supply teachers than the previous year. The head of Ofsted has said teacher shortages are a serious problem; yet Ministers continue to say that everyone concerned about teacher shortages is “making it up” or “scaremongering”. Schools, children and parents know this is nonsense.

Against advice, Ministers changed the way in which teachers are trained. The number of new teachers trained and retained dropped, thus creating the shortage in supply. Rather than address the problem, Ministers artificially changed the statistical process to make comparisons with previous years more difficult to draw.

Almost 50,000 teachers quit last year, the highest figures since records began. This year more teachers quit than actually entered the profession, at a time when pupil numbers are rising. Applications to teach are falling in every region and are down in key subjects such as English, maths and ICT.

Standards are being threatened as schools are forced to turn to unqualified staff, temporary supply teachers, non-specialists, and larger class sizes to cope with the chronic shortages in the profession. Meanwhile, the Government botches teacher recruitment, misses its own targets year on year, and stores up further trouble for our schools.

The reasons for these problems lie at the Secretary of State’s door. It’s time she explained what she is going to do about it?

Friday, 18 March 2016

Fares please

George Osborne has pursued a strategy of cutting public expenditure but forcing increases in fees, charges and taxes to mitigate the service impact.

Early in his reign, he pushed VAT up to 20%. This year, he has told councils to additionally increase council tax by 2% specifically to pay for adult social care and he’s told police commissioners to increase their precept by 2% to partially stem the cuts in police numbers.

With other services, Osborne has cut resources, reduced service provision but forced increases in charges every year. Bus services are a good example of this. Budgets for bus services have been cut in this region by 31%, and bus fares have risen by 27% since David Cameron came to power in 2010, whilst general inflation (RPI) has increased by 19%.

Margaret Thatcher effectively privatised bus services in 1985. Most bus routes run on a commercial basis, with the bus operator setting the fares and timetable. Since 1985, local bus passenger journeys (outside London) have fallen by nearly 40%; which partly explains the significant increase in congestion. Nowadays, one-third of all local passenger journeys are concessionary (elderly, disabled and youth).

Where no operator is willing to run a ‘commercial service’, the transport authority can fund services. Since 2010, more than 2,400 of these routes have been totally or partially lost as budgets have been cut. Local authority supported bus mileage (outside London) fell by 75 million miles between 2010 and 2015. On these routes, bus fares account for about 59% of the income (78% if concessionary income is included) with the rest being subsidy.

As budgets have been cut, young people have been hit badly in some areas. Seven authorities have already removed all fare concessions for young people and a number of other authorities have announced that they will have to remove them in the light of Osborne’s announcement in the December local government settlement that funding will be cut by a further 25% in real terms over the next 5 years.

Locally, in the Sheffield City Region, the first moves in moving to a different model of regulation were not managed well by either the transport authority or the bus companies. Hopefully lessons will have been learned.

Meanwhile, the largest bus operators continue to report significant profit margins: for example, last year, Stagecoach reported a 13.5% operating profit margin on its regional bus routes. This has been achieved by what the Competition Commission called ‘geographic market segregation’ and where ‘head-to-head competition is uncommon’; in other words, the bus companies act as oligopolies which have carved the market up between themselves.

The key challenge locally will be to see whether, through local innovation, the continuing decline in bus usage can be reversed.

Annual Bus Statistics

Public Transport Fares