The return to work last Wednesday by Theresa May was signalled by her visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth and comments regarding the silencing of Big Ben as work on the Elizabeth tower begins. Sadly for our nation whilst both are deeply symbolic, they also demonstrate how poorly governed we are. The decision to purchase two such aircraft carriers and then be prevented from fully equipping either due to costs is deeply troubling, particularly as people in military circles believe that the ships will act as targets for future attacks. Mrs May however was undaunted, stating “as Britain forges a new, positive, confident role on the world stage in the years ahead we are determined to remain a fully engaged global power, working closely with our friends and allies…whether the task be high intensity war-fighting, targeted action to fight terrorism, or humanitarian relief to save lives overseas, these ships will transform the UK’s ability to project power around the world.” There is no doubt that Aircraft Carriers are impressive. When I was growing up I was inspired by Ark Royal which was re-launched in 1969 after a three year refit. It created an ambition which lasted several years that I would join the Navy and inspired an early attempt at a reality TV programme. I have no idea if one let alone two partially equipped aircraft carriers will be of any real benefit to a high intensity war-fighting, which I certainly hope will never occur. However I am confident that such ships offer a very poor fit for fighting terrorism or offering humanitarian relief. Indeed the irony for the leader of a Government that has closed our borders to refugees, including unaccompanied children to proudly claim two enormous new ships covered with weapons will enable our nation to be seen as a humanitarian provider is hard to stomach.
The interview with the Prime Minister on a brand new ship with the latest modern technology which three years ago was estimated to cost us over £6Bn seemed an odd place to speak about the temporary silencing of a 159 year old bell. However it appears that Mrs May like some others at the Palace of Westminster has only just discovered that their high profile timepiece would need to fall silent while workers set about a £22M refit and repair of the bell tower. This is despite the fact that in 2015 Parliament debated and signed off on the repair work. The understandable reason for silencing the bell is that those working in the tower will need to be protected from the noise and possibly also the vibrations while they are in the building and apparently it takes around half a days work to bring the mechanism back into operation. For this reason the plan is to do so only occasionally. In many senses this is merely a foretaste of a much bigger issue, the repairs needed throughout the Palace of Westminster which have been estimated as costing about the same amount as one Aircraft Carrier. No one enjoys having their place of work closed down or disturbed for as long as these repairs will take. However the need to deal with issues such as raw sewage seeping into the building, problems with woodworm, rats and no doubt other infestations, along with the removal of large amounts of asbestos and replacing dangerous wiring is now long overdue. In any other workplace, the management of the building would make the decisions about such matters, taking into account the impact on the workers but treating the wellbeing of the building and the cost and needs of the maintenance workers as a key part of their role. They would have course need to inform the workers who would have to accept such matters, hopefully with a degree of grace, knowing they would return to an improved workplace. However when the workers are MPs and include a Prime Minister and her Cabinet, the idea that they will quietly accept such news is as likely as someone demanding that Jacob Rees Mogg changes one of his childrens nappies. Mrs May is reported to have said: “Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years. I hope that the Speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.” In reality I believe we need to consider if Parliament with its Government versus Opposition seating arrangement is helpful for a modern nation in any case. However if Westminster cannot cope with a bell falling silent, there is no prospect of any real change.
On 24th June 2016 the Government in several stages of chaos began the process albeit chaotically of preparing for Brexit. Over the 14 months on many occasions the Government has consistently denied a willingness to explain where it intends to take the nation which did little more than fire a starting pistol on a journey that was presented to it as a series of lies, deceits and exaggerations. The standard line adopted by the Government was that disclosing the planned objective to the nation to whom they are accountable would lead to showing their poker cards to the other players. That it was better to keep all 65M of us in ignorance, than allow the other 27 nations to understand what ‘we’ wanted from the relationship with the EU after our departure. Finally today in the Times Newspaper David Davis has written conceding defeat and performed a partial U turn. Writing with a particular focus on the need to find a settlement that would ensure that the Irish peace process is kept safe he writes “There is real value in discussing a few issues upfront. Doing so should allow us to give businesses and citizens the certainty they need.”
I believe David should be applauded for this common sense response, albeit over a year after he began the process of planning for our departure and after he has refused to be open on many occasions. The real question is how will these discussions take place and will they be real discussions that allow ordinary people to express their opinions, or will they be announcements made by a few politicians who then scurry back into secure rooms with blacked out windows and sound proofed walls?
Mr Davis has also admitted that we won’t leave without making a payment or two “We also need to look past our separation when examining the question of a financial settlement. There are financial obligations on both sides that will not be made void by our exit from the EU. We are working to determine what these are — and interrogating the basis for the EU’s position, line by line, as taxpayers would expect us to do.”
So all those people who have been promising us an exit that will not cost us anything need to have a word with David and either apologise or ask him to re-write his article.
And on the matter of which agency determines the outcome of any disputes that arise after our departure “Our position has always been clear: in leaving the EU, we will bring about an end to the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. However, it is vital that there are clear mechanisms to manage any disputes between the UK and the EU over the interpretation of the agreements we strike, including on trade and citizens’ rights. While we believe this will likely require a new and unique solution, our paper will examine a number of precedents. There is a common theme with all these examples — none of them involves the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice outside the EU. So, we’re not being dogmatic in our approach but building on existing precedents to find a solution. Ultimately, the key question here is how we fairly consider and solve disputes for both sides.”
Its hard to imagine how much it will cost to establish a mediator that will be rarely needed one hopes, but which do more or less what the ECJ does. The truth is that the EU will not be willing to pay for the creation of such a body and may even charge us for their involvement in it. If this is not be dogmatic and naive, it is hard to imagine what dogma really looks like.
The news this week emerging from a 14 page document published by David Davis under the title “Future Customs Arrangements” is that there are two options under consideration for our departure from the EU and the transition period and despite all of the rhetoric that has emerged from people promoting our departure from the EU, that the red tape will be extended, not diminished. Back in March Iain Duncan Smith said “Let us leave and then the Conservative Party at the next election needs to say, ‘we can reduce the cost on business and on individuals by reducing regulations which will improve our competitiveness, our productivity and therefore ultimately our economy.'” His colleague and French resident Lord Lawson said the Conservatives must then swiftly seize the chance to “transform the British economy” by cutting “massive” numbers of EU regulations. According to this report back in May 2016 a survey by PwC suggested around 80% of the CEO’s of UK businesses were concerned about too much regulation and the IOD had stated that 60% of their members wanted the removal of unnecessary red tape from the EU. Both of these elements were being harnessed to argue for our departure from the EU. The truth is that promising to remove something which has been labelled as toxic and a damaging entity is hard to disagree with. One of the pieces of red tape which our own Government has created is called the Prompt Payment Code which calls on businesses to sign up to an agreement to pay all suppliers within a maximum of 60 days and an ideal period of 30 days or less. At present 2000 companies are signed up to this, as is the Government. For any company that supplies members of the PPC, this is not seen as a damaging policy, even though by definition it is a form of red tape. By the same token any company that has signed to it may find it restricting. Sadly the Government has not taken the princople and applied it to other areas of Government such as paying back the Big Lottery the money borrowed in 2007 to help pay for the Olympics, even though it promised to do so by 2012. Equally any Health and Safety regulations that saves lives or reduces accidents will be seen as a good thing to adopt, yet for people such as newspaper headline writers they are often treated as a toxic thing to deal with. Inevitably some H&S rules can appear unnecessarily rigid, which may be that the rules need adjusting or that the person forming the opinion does not fully understand the reason the rule exists. Any future trading with other nations will involve red tape. People who want the red tape removed may fall into the headline writers trap of exaggerating to sell a few more copies or gain a few more votes, or perhaps they simply live in a world that is detached from the reality which everyone else experiences. Red tape is here to stay, it is often a very good thing to work with although we should always treat it with a degree of caution, but the people who promise its reduction might well be subjecting us to some form of confidence trick.
Hi there Zac, we have never met and I suspect we never will, that said I have in the posted both positive and critical blogs about your behaviour and political judgements. You are part of the UK establishment being part of Parliament and in that respect should be accountable for your actions to those who voted for you and to the UK electorate more widely. I considered posting the tweet so that readers to this blog would be able to see what you have done in retweeting your Brothers tweet. However doing so would simply extend its influence. Whatever the links of people across the political spectrum including groups such as Momentum and the nature of people who go on to commit atrocities, making such accusations, particularly when you are an MP is completely reprehensible. Stop being an ass and take down the retweet from your twitter account and instead do something positive today.
The new Director of Childrens Services for Norfolk County Council is Sara Tough as this news report explains. Sara is due to move to this role from her current post as Director of Childrens Services in Dorset in October, when she will be the 6th Director at Norfolk in 4 years. To be fair the last two Directors were interim posts, one of whom only served two months and the other, someone i have met and know to be a first rate officer will have served for 9 months when Sara takes over. The Ofsted reports on Norfolk that took place in 2013 and then in October 2015 both rated the services inadequate so it will be interesting to find out how they are rated this Autumn or early next year as Sara takes over the running of the organisation. It is clearly disturbing that such a rating has been repeated and the morale of staff must have been impacted by these reports and the churn of senior leaders. The Chief Executive of the Council is reported to have said:
“Our ambition is to move up in the Ofsted rating from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’ at the next inspection, which is expected later this year or early next year. We are committed to providing quality services for Norfolk’s children and their families. At the last monitoring visit, Ofsted noted that we are making sustained progress, there is good morale in the service and we are developing plans to address the issues identified by inspectors. Last month, Norfolk County Council announced it is launching a project with children’s charity Barnardo’s which will help it run its looked-after children services.”
It is noteworthy that prior to the plans for this project with Barnardo’s that the Council and Barnardo’s applied together for funding of £7M from the Government who turned them down. One of the ways of improving services is to help provide some initial funding and it is disappointing that the Council and the charity were refused this funding from the Government.
However the problems faced by Norfolk residents due to the weaknesses in their Council organisation are not unique. Another report that emerged in the same week as the first has listed 4 Councils for which the Government has decided to step in and recruit external commissioners to assist in the delivery of childrens services. The four Councils are the London Borough of Barnet along with Reading and Worcestershire and finally Kirklees. The report points out that the Kirklees situation appears from a few words in the article to be in a similar position to Norfolk with the new Director having only taken up her post in November. When she was appointed she was asked to produce a report by March regarding the best way forward and in June Leeds City Council had begun to provide assistance for the Council.
These five local authorities are part of 57 unitary authorities, 34 upper tier authorities and 32 London Boroughs. That amounts to 123 local councils that are responsible for childrens services. For 4% of these to be in such a parlous state as these two reports suggest should be ringing alarm bells across Parliament and the Government needs to explain why so many Councils are facing these challenges.
On Sunday night I was involved in a twitter debate organised by a group whose own twitter account is @PrisonStorm . The debate took place over a 2 hour period and covered a number of issues including the misuse of a sentence known as an Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) which then miraculously featured heavily on Monday morning’s Today programme on Radio 4. I have no idea what acted as the catalyst for the two events and if they were connected, but there was certainly a strong common thread. The IPP which is an indeterminate sentence was introduced in 2003 by David Blunkett who was not, to my knowledge involved in the Prison Storm debate but did get interviewed on the Radio yesterday morning. He conceded that there were far too many people locked up with IPP sentences that did not deserve such a sentence and that Judges had misunderstood who such a sentence was intended for. The case study used by Radio 4 was of a man who had been imprisoned for a violent offence and was imprisoned initially for about a year and towards the end of the sentence he set fire to the mattress in his cell. He was subsequently re-sentenced to an IPP based on a minimum tariff of 11 months and over 10 years later he is still in prison because he has been unable to satisfy the parole board of his safety to be released. However this is due in part to the lack of mental health assessments for him which in turn is due to a lack of funding within the prison service so quite a catalogue of errors.
The reality is that David Blunkett was still a Government Minister when this young man was first sentenced using an IPP, and although he was no longer the Home Secretary with responsibility for prisons, his brainchild, the IPP was already being miss-used by the judiciary if his assessment is correct. Whether that is due to the lack of clarity regarding its purpose, or their failure to get things right is immaterial to the man hoping for release in September after suffering over a decade of self harm. However either way the Minister who conceived this plan, a man who is now in the House of Lords and willing to be interviewed on the Radio, must surely carry some responsibility for the way his law has been used. No doubt there are other ‘innovative’ laws that have been dreamed up by creative people like David Blunkett which have gone badly wrong for the people affected. We do need creative law making, but this must be something that is reviewed and monitored closely not just by those who succeed the innovator in the Ministry concerned, but also the architect must be held accountable over a period of time. If the ex-Minister was the designer of a building (or a system of building design) that collapsed or that started to go wrong, they would not be able to walk away and make such objective statements as David Blunkett did yesterday, in essence blaming the judiciary for not understanding the reason he created the IPP, but not in any way accepting he was partly to blame. The fact is with IPP’s that they are no longer available having been ended by the coalition. However there is still an enormous backlog of around about 3300 cases that have not yet had their sentence ended or commuted to a fixed term sentence. The need to see this happen is clearly primarily the responsibility of the current Government and the parole board, which in turn is funded by the Government, but David Blunkett should be demonstrating his own accountability by being someone who is making regular challenges to ensure that this happens sooner rather than later. When things go wrong asserting blame is much easier to do than clearing up the mess. All those who enter public life need to be willing to help clear up the mess they create, or else what does accountability really mean?