Please focus on your responsibilities

downloadThe challenge of negotiating the UK’s departure from the EU in a manner that leaves both the UK and EU able to continue to do business with one another on good terms is clearly not proving easy for David Davis. However rather than focusing his attention on the work of his team that are currently not doing well, according to this piece in the Independent he has chosen to focus on the MEPs who have voted with other members of the European Parliament on a non binding resolution which states “sufficient progress has not yet been made” and advised the European Commission to delay opening talks on a post-Brexit trade deal. Having removed the party whip from two Conservative MEPs who voted for the resolution he has then turned to the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party to demand that Vince Cable and Jeremy Corbyn suspend their MEPs in the same way. Inevitably this is not going to happen and one wonders if this demand shows how out of touch with the role of a negotiator David Davis is. His focus should be on achieving an outcome with Michel Barnier, not trying to persuade other political parties how best to carry out their internal processes. Withdrawing the whip from a Parliamentarian is something that should be done as a last resort – the end result is a Parliament with Independent representatives and Parties without any representatives in the Parliament.

David Davis is not alone in calling for this to happen, the Crawley Conservative Association website carries a statement regarding Henry Smith, their MP which states Henry Smith MP has challenged Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Party MEPs over their vote last week in the European Parliament to block progress in Britain’s Brexit talks. Last week the European Parliament passed a non-binding motion to hold back talks on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Henry said;

“However people voted in the referendum, most now want us to get on with making Brexit work. That means negotiating the best deal for families and businesses in Crawley. The Conservatives are doing just that, but local Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green MEPs voted to block progress in the negotiations. They need to explain to people in Crawley why they voted against our interests and to delay talks. It looks like they’re more interested in frustrating Brexit than delivering the decision made by voters in Crawley and across the country, and getting the right deal.”

While David Davis needs to focus on sorting out the negotiation with Michel Barnier perhaps Henry Smith could turn his attention to matters that are binding and currently affect his constituents. The need to stop the Universal Credit helpline being a premium rate number is something that our Parliament could resolve very quickly, it has after all been the policy of the Government Henry supports since 2013. They simply need to demand a change of the Department of Work and Pensions which seems to have ignored its Governments policy. A Parliamentary near neighbour of Henry in Bexhill and Battle, Huw Merriman works for the DWP. Perhaps instead of worrying about one vote that is not binding in the European Parliament which other democrats have taken in an accountable manner, Henry could pop into Huws office and get the premium line suspended and a new free phone helpline established as a matter of great urgency.

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Huw, please sort out the UC helpline

imagesThe cost to all of us, everytime someone gets on the phone to raise a concern or request information from a public sector body is huge. This relates to all agencies, irrespective of the name on the door of the organisation. The cost of employing staff to answer the phone and ensuring that wherever possible they can deal with the difficult as well as simple queries depends on a huge investment in training and infrastructure so that the call is recorded in such a way that our personal  information is not compromised but if we are challenged later, that the agency can check its records and find evidence of the call. Of course businesses and charities are sometimes placed in a similar position, but if we ring a plumber or builder and there is no one available to answer the phone, the probability is the person concerned is working, up a ladder or in a location where to respond will not be helpful to the client they are currently employed by. We don’t expect that to be the case for instance if we call 999 or pick up the phone to contact a Government Department, we expect them to have someone on the end of the line in some cases 24 hours a day. A number of years ago Sussex Police changed the recorded message that one hears if you dial 101, so that now the first voice you hear is Giles York, the Chief Constable explaining that if the caller has access to the internet, that using the Sussex Police website to make the enquiry will save the caller time and help the police to respond in an effective manner. However even though this call costs a great deal to be answered, a sum that we have to pay for, there is no suggestion that the caller is expected to pay more than the usual cost of a phone call for this non emergency call. The same is true of emergency calls where there is no delay while Giles explains his rationale for placing internet based systems above those on the phone. Indeed when it comes to emergencies there is no suggestion that the internet is a better place to go. After all the idea that reporting a crime or ensuring that someone in distress is helped as quickly as possible is not something that should be deterred by a minute by minute charge on our phone bill. The same is true if you or I ever pick up our phones to speak to the office of our MP or our Council. Charging a premium rate for phones calls is certainly not new, many companies charge for the time we spend on the phone, and in the case of certain businesses, this is the only form of income they collect. However the Government has other ways of collecting money to pay for such services and as the Coalition Lib Dem Consumer Minister Jo Swinson MP made clear on 13th December 2013, The government believes it is inappropriate for callers to pay high call charges for accessing vital public services and the Cabinet Office will be publishing guidance for departments’ use of number prefixes shortly.”  

She went on to say “It really is unfair that consumers are being stung in this way” In the light of this it is hard to understand why as has been widely reported in the last week, the government has failed to respond to its own policy and is using a premium rate number for people calling the Universal Credit helpline. As a result of this some providers are charging their customers as much as 55p a minute to deal with a matter that only impacts the poorest people in our society. Placing this burden on people who by their very definition are facing enormous economic hardship is an appalling decision to make and those responsible for this decision should be held to account. As someone on twitter pointed out, the decision to charge for the Universal Credit help line but not for the benefit fraud helpline indicates just how warped the thinking of this Government is.

Whilst all residents in Sussex are able to raise such concerns with their local MP, perhaps the fact that Huw Merriman who is MP for Bexhill and Battle is also a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Department of Work and Pensions means that he would be a useful person for local residents to contact if they feel that such a policy needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is the DWP that is responsible for this helpline and they are best placed to get it changed it to a non premium number.

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A misguided comment from Sarah Wollaston

downloadLate yesterday the Guardian published this article on a significant disagreement between the Childrens Commissioner, Anne Longfield and Simon Stevens, the CEO of NHS England. The article which has the headline ‘Children’s tsar savages NHS over paucity of mental healthcare’ reflects the tone of this letter sent by Anne to Simon very well, but the letter is well worth a read simply because of its sharpness as well as the details included that are not covered by the article due to its limited length. At the end of the article there is a quote from Sarah Wollaston ‘Sarah Wollaston, chair of the health select committee, said the row would be discussed when the committee met on Tuesday. “It’s very important that there is a constructive relationship between the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and NHS England,” she said.’ I disagree with Sarah on this comment, even though I have often been very supportive of her views. Of course in an ideal or even a realistic world one would wish to see all senior civil servants and Governmental advisers resolving their points of view together and then presenting their consistent views in a harmonic way. However when things go wrong, as they clearly have over mental health provision, if the NHS is unwilling to accept its failures, then public disagreement between people like Anne and the work of the NHS is vital or else we will end up sweeping such failures under the carpet. Let us hope that on Tuesday the Health Select Committee agrees to bring both Anne and Simon together and in an open and transparent manner, debate the truth and issues behind the letter and previous appearence in Parliament. Of course there is a real possibility that Simon Stevens has previously told lies in front of the Health Select Committee and if this is the case he needs to be held to account for his dishonesty and defensiveness.

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Our Ministers need some basic education

DJhvXu3V4AI_vdNOn Thursday in Parliament, there was a brief debate on the important subject of domestic violence. It was begun by Kelvin Hopkins who is the Labour MP for Luton North and the person speaking on behalf of the Government was Sarah Newton who is the Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth and also the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Home Office. Kelvin asked the question:

“According to the crime survey for England and Wales, an estimated 2 million adults aged 16 to 59, mostly women, say that they were victims of domestic abuse in the past year. Do not the Government accept that the massive cuts in police resources that they have inflicted will inevitably mean that there will be fewer arrests and fewer prosecutions for domestic violence, leaving more women in danger?”

Sarah Newtons response seems to be based on an inadequate defence of cuts and support of her political comrade rather than any real attempt to reassure Kelvin and those of us who read the transcript of their debates that things are going well. Bear in mind the chart above shows that inflation (both the retail prices index and consumer prices index) have been above the bank of England 2% target for around a year and are now closer to 3% or 4% respectively.

“I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question, but I simply do not accept that at all. Interestingly, funding for Bedfordshire police has risen by 1.8% this year—that is £1.8 million. I hope that he will join me in congratulating his local police and crime commissioner on her personal leadership in tackling domestic violence in Bedfordshire and, in particular, on Project Emerald, which is delivering record numbers of prosecutions and protecting more women than ever before from domestic abuse.”

Of course if the Bedfordshire police funding this year had risen by 3% or even more, then there would be some justification for suggesting that there was no cut to resources this year. However the funding for Bedfordshire Police was the focus of a report by HMIC which was published just over 4 years ago in July 2013. The report states in its opening page “Bedfordshire Police faces a difficult challenge. It has lower than average funding and a complex crime challenge compared to most forces of its size. As a small force it also has limited opportunities for economies of scale…. HMIC has concerns about the force’s ability to maintain its services to the public when faced with further budget reductions in 2015/16” The document goes on to explain how the force is proposing to make savings of 16% of its budget between 2011 and 2015 which is a process begun before Police and Crime Commissioners were elected. The sum involved was £19.4m. Whilst Home Office Ministers may not be up to speed with all of the reports by HMIC, they should at least understand the difference between a real time cut in resources and what a real time increase means. Bedfordshire Police is certainly doing well despite its challenges when it comes to funding based on this report, but this is a matter of coping with cuts. As for the value of the Police and Crime Commissioner, the Bedfordshire PCC Kathryn Holloway may well have worked hard with her Chief Constable to ensure that Domestic Violence is a focus of his work. There is nothing to suggest it is a priority for Kathryn on the home page of her website and as Sarah Newton will know, it is Police Officers who carry out operational Policing, and PCCs who provide Governance. The commendation should surely go to Jon Boutcher as well as the Conservative PCC! Had the Bedfordshire PCC still been a Labour Politician, one wonders if Sarah would have been so complimentary?




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Less a board, more of a splinter

Liam FoxThe idea that a nation which lacks a written constitution has a  a constitutional convention that full membership of a board of trade is only open to people who hold the title of privy counsellor is not on the face of it a major issue. However the current list of nearly 250 Privy Counsellors is made up almost exclusively of politicians, members of the Royal Family, and the three most senior Bishops. The concept of a Board of Trade is that it focuses on business needs and how to improve the economic well being of society at a time when thanks to the incompetence of the current Government and our foolish decision to leave the most powerful trading bloc in the world, we need as much help as we can get. The truth is that many business people are far less focused on titles and what their role is called, and far more on getting the job done with a maximum of impact and minimum of fuss. However those business people who run companies that have boards that are genuinely a place where the tough decisions get taken, know the difference between an Executive Director and Non-Executive Director, along with a Board Advisor. Most also have had the experience of working with Chair people who can dominate proceedings and Chief Executives who can be hard to hold to account. To ask these people to join a Board, but not be full members, to see that the board itself is made up of one person, who is the only person out of 250 people willing to be part of the board. To known that the other 240 or so non members are mostly incapable of understanding the nature of business and the chairman, board member and Government Minister, despite his own business experience is deeply incompetent, must make the call to come and advise ‘the board’ seem like a complete waste of time. The splinter of trade is a waste of time and our money. If the Government want to take advice from people in Business there are many ways of doing so. Of course the Government needs to go where businesses gather rather than ask the businesses to come to where the Government operates, but as the only member of the board is one man with access to Government transport, this hardly seems to be a big issue. On the other hand if the Government wants to be taken seriously it must change its constitutional conventions, before it becomes the laughing stock of the nation and the rest of the world, assuming of course that this not already the case.

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Why a second EU referendum is vital

Nigel-FarageI confess to being someone who voted to remain, and would do the same again today if a referendum was being held (being a Thursday it is more likely today than tomorrow). However despite this my view that a second referendum on the EU is vital because unless there is a clear and significant majority in favour of our departure, the words of this man speaking to the Daily Mirror on 16th May 2016 will continue to haunt future Governments for decades until the apply to rejoin the EU. “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the Remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.”

As this article in the Guardian points out at least two Cabinet members who voted to remain in 2016 are now stating clearly they would vote to Leave. It is clear that our Government has a long way to go if they are to make our departure a successful one. Some of us believe that doing so will be almost impossible. Yesterday morning as I traveled to work I listened to Radio 4 with two business men speaking very clearly about their views. Karan Bilimoria who is the founder of Cobra Beer spoke about his experience of manufacturing the beer in the UK, in Belgium and in India. He fully understands what it is like to Import and Export products to and from the EU and from the rest of the world. On the other side of the debate, Christopher Nieper spoke about how he believed that Brexit would be a great opportunity for entrepreneurs. How the weak pound meant that exporters were in a good position moving forward. I found all that Karan Bilimoria had to say resonating with my understanding, and all that Christopher Nieper had to say sounded like a deeply held set of political views that bore no relevance to a company like the one I work in.

My own business knowledge is based on a company that imports almost exclusively, and the imports represents well over 50% of the materials and goods we sell. We occasionally export items, but they represent a fraction of 1% of our turnover. We import from both the US and the EU and also from places such as China and Israel. Our business is paying a high price for Brexit and whilst we endeavour to pass those increases on to our customers, that is not an easy task. There are very few UK companies capable of supplying the sort of goods we use. That may change over the next couple of decades but due to the complexity of the products this will not happen any quicker than that. most of the equipment we supply is badged with brand names that our clients insist on using and so it is not just our own engineers that need to be persuaded.

The truth is that if we depart the EU, as unfortunate as that will be in my opinion, there will in due course be a growing call for us to rejoin. The only way for this Government and indeed future Governments to resist this call in a meaningful way is if they can point to an unequivocal and uncontentious result. For this reason alone I believe that once we have a clear set of options for our future relationship with the EU, I believe that the Government needs to argue passionately for the way forward and use the same level of funds to articulate the case as they did over remaining during the run up to the referendum and then we need to gain a 2/3 majority of voters in favour of our departure. Anything less and the words of Farage will haunt each Government in turn.


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When does the DfE get inspected?

greeningThe impact of an Ofsted inspection is huge on the education provider concerned, irrespective of what level of education the provider offers. The same is true of the inspections carried out by a body known as ISI who carry out inspections of private schools on behalf of the DfE whose inspections are monitored by Ofsted for consistency across the world of education. The agencies concerned usually know when they are likely to be inspected again and are usually given a 24 or 48 hour warning of an inspection as a matter of courtesy, but this is nowhere near long enough to make major changes to the plans for the period and only gives time for a modest tidying up of work spaces. Because of this, the inspections often reveal elements of organisation that are both good and bad which tend to get overlooked by the daily routine within such bodies. Bearing in mind Ofsted and the ISI carry out their inspections on behalf of the DfE it is not unreasonable to ask when and how the DfE is inspected and who gets to read the inspection reports. After all the majority of an Ofsted or ISI inspection is made public!

Although this news is over a month old, I came across this report via twitter a couple of days ago. It explains how the DfE operates using one specific example. Anyone who is interested in discovering if this is out of the ordinary, could read my blog from the beginning of September which explains how the department gave apprenticeship providers 6 weeks to tender for funding to deliver courses, only to decide on the last working day of the process to change the criteria for the application. Todays blog is about a similar last minute decision which appears to have originated in the same department. After enabling Schools and qualification bodies to prepare for the year ahead in terms of vocational qualifications, the department announced its decision that certain of these course would not count in the league tables used to determine if a School or College is performing well, and may be withdrawn during the time the course would take to run. The decision by the DfE, to withdraw accreditation from certain courses offered by the AQA exam board led to a statement on its website which said nine of its technical awards had not been approved because the government “advised us of some further changes that are needed to our draft specifications”. These qualifications were: child learning and development, fashion and textiles, food and catering, health and social care, IT, material technology, sport, Stem and visual communication. While schools can still teach the draft specifications if they want to, the draft qualifications will not count towards league tables in 2019.

“Continuing to teach these draft qualifications at this stage means accepting the risk that the qualification may not be offered in 2019 and that the content or assessment may change,” AQA said. The board said it was “absolutely committed” to ensuring the new qualifications were “wholly fit for purpose” and that it was working towards including them in the 2020 performance tables.

It seems clear that the DfE and its processes need to be inspected by experienced inspectors who can resolve where the cause of such last minute decisions orginate from. They could be due to a lack of resources in the department, or they could be due to poor practices within the DfE or they could be due to political mismanagement. Any of these or indeed perhaps other causes need to be addressed by the current Minister, responsible for the Department, Justine Greening. She needs to be held to account for her failure to address such failings.





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