Faltering Flattening

There are so many aspects of “Levelling Up” which are vulnerable to harsh criticism that it’s surprising that the Conservative Government sticks to this spending project. “Levelling Up” was a project started by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but it has been carried on by successive UK Governments.

The Government’s project is a political project. It’s a slogan. Maybe that should be no surprise.

One explanation for the project’s continuation can be found in Brexit. Whereas the regions of the UK received funds from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) matched by UK Government funds that source of funding was lost upon EU exit.

Redistribution is not new. A drive to improve social and economic conditions is popular, in principle. Creating more opportunities for areas suffering hardship makes sense. That said, this centralised distribution project is flawed in multiple ways.

For a start, any vox pop will show that no one really knows what it means. Some say that “Levelling Up” is when the Government spends in deprived or “left behind” areas.

Even this is doggy territory. There are without doubt areas of deprivation that need assistance. We need to ask, is a beauty contest run by Ministers the best way of lifting those areas out of their disadvantaged condition? Talk of “left behind” areas after decades of the stigmatisation of certain parts of the UK is hardly a positive way of regeneration.

I think the “Levelling Up” agenda has continued in its current form because of the oil tanker effect. That is the propensity of big spending initiatives to roll on regardless because they are difficult to stop. With little time to run to the next General Election (GE) inventing and implementing something new and more effective is just too politically risky.

This second round of funding, worth more than £2 billion, sounds like a lot of money but set in the context of annual UK Government spending of over £1000 billion[1] that doesn’t seem so much. Given that local government spending has been so heavily curtailed in recent years it is reasonable to say that this “Levelling Up” funding is a poor attempt at a replacement.

When central government picks projects to fund on this basis, it’s saying that it knows better than local government. Or is it that it knows how to win votes better than local government?


[1] In 2020/21 the government of the United Kingdom had a total managed expenditure of over 1053.3 billion British, an increase of over a 100 billion pounds when compared with 2018/19. Statista

Poor law making

If you thought the Truss era was an aberration, and that the UK’s Conservative Party had learned a lesson, then please think again. Wheels set in motion by the ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg MP are still spinning.

The Retained European Union Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is trundling its way through the UK Parliament. The Government Bill will next be prepared for its 3rd reading in the House of Commons[1]. The Conservative Government has brought forward this Bill to revoke, reform or revise all the remaining law in the UK that was formerly derived from the UK’s membership of the EU. This turns on its head the normal approach to changing UK legislation. Revocation is automatic unless there’s an intervention by a Minister.

UK civil aviation depends on several thousand pages of legislation derived from EU law[2]. Much of this law was created with considerable contributions from the UK. There’s hardly any if any advocates for automatic revocation of current aviation legislation. Even the thought of this action sends a shiver down the spin of aviation professionals. Generations of them have worked to harmonise rules and regulations to ensure that this most international of industries works efficiently.

Unless amended, the Government’s EU Retained Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill[3] could turn out to be an absolute disaster. Even those who have an irrational wish to eliminate any and every past, present, or future link to Europe must come up with a practical alternative and do this in an incredibly short time. Without a consistent, stable, and effective framework civil aviation in the UK will grind to a halt. Again, even those who have an unsound need to change for change’s sake will be hitting a vital industry hard, as it is only just getting back on its feet after the COVID pandemic and now setting out to meet tough environmental standards.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when this poor Bill reaches the House of Lords. Once again, the country will be relying on the upper house to add some common sense to this draft law.  

POST 1: The 3rd reading debate makes it clear that the Government is unsure which laws are covered by the Bill. If the Ministers responsible for this legislation do not themselves know its extent, how can anyone expect civil servants working on this legislation to know the full extent of change? A most strange state of affairs Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill (Third si – Hansard – UK Parliament

POST 2: Retained EU law lays down rules for the airworthiness and environmental certification of aircraft and related products, parts and appliances, as well as for the certification of design and production organisations in the UK Commission Regulation (EU) No 748/2012 of 3 August 2012 laying down implementing rules for the airworthiness and environmental certification of aircraft and related products, parts and appliances, as well as for the certification of design and production organisations (recast) (Text with EEA relevance) (legislation.gov.uk)


[1] https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3340

[2] https://www.eiag.org.uk/paper/future-retained-eu-law/

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-retained-eu-law-revocation-and-reform-bill-2022

Stonehouse

Let’s put aside the history for a moment. The 3-part TV drama based on the story of John Stonehouse MP has been dam good entertainment[1]. No need to recount every step in the story. It’s the sort of sequence of events that, had it been written as fiction would have been rejected as too bizarre and not printable. Here life really is stranger than fiction.

He was a rising star of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the early 1970s. He took a very unexpected turn in life’s series of multiple choices. Any explanation he gave seemed comic and a little bit sad. It’s clear why he had to be brought to justice. That said, Stonehouse is far from the first, or last parliamentarian to tell whopping great big lies and somehow expect to be believed.

Watching this story unfold in an era before instant communications, a camera on every mobile phone and streets covered with CCTVs makes me think this must be almost impossible for younger people to get. I may be wrong, but now the scenario would be even more hopeless than it was in 1974. Although, the twist now might be that various media can be convincingly faked.

The actor Matthew Macfadyen does a wonderful portrayal of foolhardiness and haplessness. He’s captured a blank expression that accompanied Stonehouse telling tales riddled with preposterous nonsense. True or not, this is dam good entertainment.

The spouses of parliamentarians have a lot to put-up with in normal times, let alone crazy excursions into fantasies and a partner’s moral bankruptcy. It leaves me wondering why they do it.

I know there’s a strong compulsion to keep-up appearances, or at least there was in the 1970s. There’re many popular British comedies based on the abhorrence of embarrassment and inclination to do almost anything to keep-up appearances[2]. It’s a 20th Century cultural theme.

The fantasy of starting a new life is a strong one too. That’s probably been sustained down the decades much more than aspirations based on social class. The mirror we put up to ourselves called Television regularly screens such programmes as: a place in the sun[3].

The true story of John Stonehouse MP is a complex one. Reading about the times it’s difficult to have much sympathy for him or the choices he makes. Those choices do appear extremely self-centred. Even with a generous interpretation.


[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt13005652/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeping_Up_Appearances

[3] https://www.channel4.com/programmes/a-place-in-the-sun

More Maths?

More maths? Like so many headlines. It depends what’s intended. This call is not new by any means. It has been repeatedly recognised by Governments, that STEM subjects are of vital importance to the future. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Between the ages of 16 and 18, a lot of young people drop maths or anything that looks like maths. Understanding that fact is far more important than any dictate from a Prime Minister.

Let’s list some reasons why forcing this is not so easy as a headline might suggest.

Teaching: Mandating more maths without backing it up with the teachers able, enthusiastic, and trained in the subject will likely generate a negative impact.

Bandwidth: for the average student there’s a finite amount of work they will eagerly take on during a pivotal time of their lives. Developing their talents, whatever they are, is surely a priority.

Relevance: a key part of providing more practical maths teaching is convincing students of its immense usefulness in later life. Understanding how maths is used is as important as learning it.

Technology: Digitisation advances rapidly. Maths teaching must take on-board. For example, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening more than knowing every nut and bolt of an algorithm.

All the above are challenges that can be met given adequate resources and a plan. What we get from the PM’s speech is muddle. Numeracy and maths are not the same. I’ve known people who can do remarkable mental calculations on the spot but who would run for the hills if faced with a quadratic equation or a bell curve.

Yes, statistics do underpin a number of activities in everyday life. However, even when you understand their workings the capacity to make bad choices is more in the judgment than in the calculation.

STEM education is a package. It’s part of everything we do in a complex society. There aren’t many occupations that are not touched by the need to know something about the underlying working of our devices, means and methods.

In the past those supporting the humanities may have spoken-up objecting to an overemphasis on STEM subjects. Now, what artist, writer, musician, historian, or geographer does not use technology in their everyday lives? I’d say more maths but done right. Make it practical.

POST: Prime Minister sets ambition of maths to 18 in speech – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Crisis in Health

It’s difficult to think of a more inappropriate person to be Secretary of State for Health and Social Care[1]. He has all the bedside manner of Dracula. Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak re-installed him in that vital Government post. So far, he’s achieved nothing but distress and mismanagement[2].

I shouldn’t joke. The seriousness of the situation in the National Health Service (NHS) isn’t a joking matter. Winter is testing the service to breaking point. Both the statistics and the experience of patients are not acceptable by any reasonable measure.

What’s intolerable is the general Ministerial response. Hard-line rhetoric about not budging on negotiations is callous. Dismissing every call for support by rattling-off lists of figures about Government spending is no help at all. Trying to redirect attention away from the things that need fixing. The shabby politics of avoidance is not what’s needed.

As a personal note, I find the situation indicative of broader failures too. My one term as a Surrey Country Councillor, between 1993 and 1997 is more history than anything else. The problem is that it’s not. I remember papers coming to full council meetings with a title that is pertinent and recognisable today. The subject being “bed blocking[3]”.

That’s 30-years ago, our institutions struggled with making the transition between hospital care and social care. It was clear that there was going to be a growing problem. The demographics pointed to a rising aging population. There was no ambiguity about the facts.

Ministers have come and gone. Quite rapidly over the last year. Each with the responsibility for NHS service delivery, performance, and social care policy. Some like incoherent gad flies, some who span like windmills in a storm, some like patrician overseers but none with the managerial skills needed to address the challenge that stares them in the face.

Most local authorities are dealing with cuts to their budgets, financial constraints and the cost of living demands we all confront. In some cases, they are tittering on the brink of bankruptcy[4]. Many local authorities have been forced to reduce their funding of social care at a time of rising demand. 

It’s mad that, after all this time, we have still not come up with an integrated health service. Pitching the NHS and local authorities against each other for funding is absolutely ludicrous. It’s costing lives.

Today, we must recover from a crisis. Tomorrow, real change must be implemented to prevent a future crisis. It isn’t as if we don’t know what to do!  


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/people/stephen-barclay

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nhs-strikes-barclay-cooper-libdems-b2244466.html

[3] https://fullfact.org/health/bed-blocking-what-it-and-it-paralysing-nhs/

[4] https://www.kentonline.co.uk/kent/news/what-it-means-for-kent-residents-if-kcc-goes-bust-277075/

Where’s the common sense?

It’s two whole years since the end of the UK’s Brexit transitional period. That’s since the day when the UK fully withdrew from the European Union (EU). Have we seen any, I mean any, Brexit benefits from the day of the Brexit referendum? The sad truth is – No. We are worse-off. Investments haven’t happened, political turmoil persists and bureaucratic barriers have grown.

Certainly, it’s right to say that British politicians have been busy. They have found lots of targets to blame for this continuing underperformance. You name it; Remainers, young people, environmentalists, protesters, strikers, human rights, overseas aid, COVID, flu, global economic downturn, energy prices, war in Europe, Biden’s administration, China, France, Germany, hot weather, cold weather, the list goes on and on and on. The Brexiter’s blame list is an exceptionally long one. Add to this the fact that Boris Johnson comes in for caustic blame. Often strongest from the people who trumpeted his ascendancy to power in 2019.

Although we should not dwell too much on the past, it’s as well to not let what has happened in this last year be swept under the carpet. Remember 2022, after 44 days, Conservative Liz Truss resigned as British Prime Minister (PM). She was the first choice of the members of the political party most entrenched in Brexit thinking. This extraordinary farce made the country look it was run by like a bunch of incompetent fools, of ill-disciplined fanatics, of preposterous comics.

The blatant dishonesty behind Brexit can not be denied. A recent example was the Government statement on having not attained a promised boost from new trade agreements. A ridiculous political line about not signing deals until they are right for the country is a brazen smoke screen to cover-up a significant lack of achievement[1].

We need some serious common sense injected into our politics. The UK is not going away. The EU is not going away. Both share an immense common interest. Both are faced with similar challenges and threats. Both share the same values.

Brexit has added to costs, adding to inflation, labour shortage and under performance. Most people[2] now accept this analysis and want to see serious change[3]. The more both Conservatives and the Labour Party cling on to the mythology of Brexit, the more damage will be done. Keir Starmer has confirmed that the Labour Party will not seek for Britain to re‑join the EU. What a reckless folly from a would be PM.

POST: referendum – latest news, breaking stories and comment – The Independent


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63808657

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/987347/brexit-opinion-poll/

[3] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/explore/issue/European_Union

Strikes

Impossible to listen to the burbling of UK Minister Stephen Barclay. After a while the listener sinks into an overwhelming feeling of despondency. His words are strung together as if he was on a brain teasing quiz show run by Victoria Coren Mitchell. Barclay exudes a fear of making sense.

For one, please, please, please will he not keep saying the same thing about rigidly adhering to the results of a pay review body. Results which are widely known to be out-of-date. Afterall, if Ministers have any purpose at all, it goes way beyond rubber stamping the work of others.

Given his previous party-political roles it’s astonishing to see him in a serious government job like Health Secretary. A job where playing party-politics can cost lives. I think we all know that the crisis of the moment is not just about pay. However, to pretend that staffing levels and pay are not so important is beyond the understanding of most normal people.

This suited grey-haired man in his early 50s would be better employed on the London stage. I can see him as Marley’s ghost in a Westminster adaptation of A Christmas Carol[1]. Recounting the day when he had the opportunity to fix the problems of Health and Social Care but looked the other way and played for time.

The many strikes that are hitting Britain are avoidable. British politicians are failing to engage with the problem. What’s disheartening about this situation is that everyone knows there will be a settlement at some time. Recognising that fact, it’s about time the groups involved got together and talked long and hard. That is talking with no subject taken off the table.

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has a leadership role. It’s time for him, not to excuse the government at every media opportunity, but to engage, roll up his sleeves and meet the unions. Playing party-politics and courting right-wing public opinion was fine as he did in his Brexit job but now Barclay has a real job with real responsibility. It’s winter. This is tragic.

He needs to step up or ship out.

POST: Making a bad situation worse International nurses considering leaving UK if pay does not improve | Nursing Times


[1] https://youtu.be/ReprQS03ZM4

Omnishambles

Ten years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Word of the Year was a word that is as usable as ever. It wasn’t brought to the fore by social media. At that time, social media hadn’t bitten such a big chunk out of our attention time. We even had enough time to sit in front of the box on an evening. That said, the box hasn’t faded into the background entirely. The massive screens displayed in electrical stores remain a standard part of a typical living room.

“The Thick of It[1]” ran for four series and captured the insanity of Government spin-doctoring and fanatical incompetence. Unapologetically self-indulgent Ministers and their aides scuttled around reacting to every small vibration coming from the media. This was masterful fiction but it’s closeness to reality is the story of 2022.

In 2012, the media political arena adopted “Omnishambles” as shorthand for chaotic behaviour on a large scale. Although it started life as a way of describing the Labour Party’s muddles and confusions before 2010, it has a universal applicability. Westminster can be a whirlpool of volte-faces, embarrassments and unfathomable twists and turns. 2022 ends with none of this diminished.

So, what have we to look forward to in 2023? This winter of discontent[2] is mostly likely to escalate. The impact of inflation and energy bills are like an erupting volcano. A few minor earthquakes, then an explosive plum and finally the top gets blown off the mountain.

Brexit and the pandemic have left people feeling exhausted. So, to see their standard of living diminish as this Conservative Government shamelessly wobbles on regardless, then this becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The Prime Minister may try to mine what popularity there is in the public mind, but this is not the time when a new Margaret Thatcher[3] will step forward. This is where simple analogies with the past quickly unravel. In this case the Conservatives own the problems. There’s no denying their responsibility for the last 12-years.

To restore the hope, that things can improve, a new formula is needed. People are not looking for perfection but a convincing vison, some basic honesty, and robust resolve. 


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Thick_of_It_episodes

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06yc8k4

[3] https://www.businessinsider.com/thatcher-and-the-winter-of-discontent-2013-4?r=US&IR=T

Voters

It’s one of those things I do, most years. For the greatest part, I can predict what I’ll be doing in March-and April. It started back in the 1980s. At the time we lived in Cheltenham[1] town. Putting leaflets through doors. Knocking on doors. “Hello, I’m calling on behalf of …….” was usually the introductory line. With prepared words not only did I remind the town’s residents that there was a local election in May but let them know the name of the best candidate.

I’m writing this as credentials. Yes, I know a thing or two about the nitty gritty of local elections in the UK. My experience has been accumulated over nearly 40-years. Lots of cold early spring evenings and weekend delivery rounds to get a message out in a short space of time.

One of the biggest changes, in terms of practical organisation, has been a change that has affected all parts of life. In 1985, everything was paper based. If I said: “Shuttleworths[2]” to a 21st century campaigner there’s a good chance they will not have a clue what I’m talking about. These were paper pads used to record names and addresses of supporters.

Local campaigning has undergone a digital transformation. However, in the British electoral system paper is still at the heart of everything that is done. The ballot paper is sacrosanct. Voters put a cross in a box set against a name and a logo. It remains inclusive in that there are few people who cannot manage that basic act.

In all my time campaigning, I can remember no voter fraud or corrupt activities. Yes, over enthusiastic, or idiotic behaviours pop-up now and then, as they do in all walks of life. It’s always an important function but also amusing to check spoilt ballot papers at an election count. A small number of voters can be creative in the insults and images they draw on ballot papers.

So, listening to last night’s Parliamentary debate on new Voter ID Regulations was distressing. The Conservative Government plan is to spend £180 million on solving a problem that doesn’t exist. This law is being pushed forward aggressively at a time when local Councils are cutting services due to lack of funding. The Local Government Association (LGA)[3] is saying that there’s not enough time to make the demanded changes before next May.

Ministers are ignoring such advice. Additionally, these regulations seem nonsensical. They impose new requirements on the operation of polling stations but do nothing in respect of postal voting. The natural suspicion for the forceful timescale is that this act is to suppress votes at a time when Conservative candidates are expected to loose in great numbers next May.

A further reason to be sceptical that Voter ID can prevent instances of electoral fraud is that convictions for voting offences have overwhelmingly related to postal votes, not personation at polling stations. Measure that create a barrier to voting in person will lower local election turnout. That’s a voter turnout that is as low as 29% of registered voters in my Borough.

This is a sad day for British democracy.


[1] https://www.visitcheltenham.com/

[2] https://www.libdemvoice.org/how-did-shuttleworths-get-their-name-40299.html

[3] https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/lga-statement-parliamentary-vote-plans-introduce-voter-id

Reform

The UK’s recent political calamities make it look like we have a long-run soap opera rather than an example of effective governance. There are examples of good governance. Look at the role played by select committees in holding decision makers to account. That’s a rare example. One reason for the last six years of turmoil is that stultifying lack of innovation and blockheaded belief in MPs superiority. Gradually, Parliament has become disconnected from everyday life. It mimics a theatre of the absurd in its form and manners. 

Parliament will be relevant to people if it’s seen to work for people. Today, any claim that it works raises laughter and sullen looks.

So, I welcome Labour’s former Prime Minister proposing a rewiring of the UK Parliament. The House of Lords (HoLs) in its current form is “indefensible”. Naturally, the tabloid media uses the word “abolish” for its dramatic impact. Better to say that there’s a transformation to be undertaken to bring our democracy into the 21st century.

This is not as new as detractors might suggest. Here I sit not far from a rotten Borough[1] that returned two Members of Parliament at a time when cities like Manchester returned none. Gatton’s disfranchisement was agreed on 20 Feb. 1832. Yes, that’s 192 years ago but in terms of the evolution of the British constitution that isn’t that long ago.

The arguments against the current HoL should not be based on an attack against all its members. There are many who take their role extremely seriously and perform the scrutiny of Government bills with care and diligence. However, out of the large number of members many do little.

It’s the legitimacy and structure of the institution that are highly questionable in the 2020s. The form of the HoLs does not represent the country. It’s manner of working is stuck in pre-history. It’s a sign of reward for a tiny minority.

Both Canada and Australia have a Parliamentary system. Their second chambers are based on a more rational, democratic and effective structure. They provide regional representation as well as scrutiny.  A Senate of the UK makes sense to me.

It’s well overdue that the “Mother of Parliaments” stepped into the world we all inhabit.


[1] https://historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/constituencies/gatton