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.