Observations from the Labour Party Conference 4: how secure is university funding after today?

The Labour Party Conference today coincides with Brighton University’s “Freshers’ Pub Crawl”.  Several thousand scantily-clad and inebriated freshers have converged on Odeon Cinema adjacent to the Brighton Centre.  The armed Police are looking nervous: what if they surge towards the security cordon? An ambulance has had to be called to a delegate overcome by the expanses of bare flesh heat.  Ed Balls sweeps by with his entourage and looks scandalised.

Will he be talking to Lord Peter Mandelson to suggest some candidates for cuts in University funding?

Eighty A-level students “Discover Parliament” and get me instead

The Parliament Education Service runs an annual Discover Parliament Programme aimed at 16-18 year olds studying higher level politics, citizenship and general studies.  This afternoon I met 80 students taking part in the Programme.  They were from three schools in Pinner, Chelmsford and Bristol.

As ever on such occasions, the questioning was lively, sometimes challenging and extremely wide-ranging.  We covered – amongst other things – such topics as:

  • aren’t MPs too old (I’d explained that the average age of members of the House of Lords is 69);
  • why aren’t 16 year olds allowed to vote or to sit in Parliament;
  • what did I think of Gordon Brown;
  • should taxes be put up in the current economic situation;
  • should the age for getting a driving licence change;
  • what were my views about David Cameron, Lord Mandelson and the BNP (interesting grouping);
  • what should be done about knife crime and gangs;
  • was “kettling” of G20 protesters fair (from a teacher);
  • should children be taught more about current affairs;
  • did the LibDems have a better record on MPs’ expenses;
  • is the threat of terrorism rising;
  • should there be limits on immigration;
  • was the war in Iraq right; and
  • did I think Labour would win the next General Election and when would it be?

As I said, a lively hour – and an exhilarating one too.

Effectively, these Discover Parliament programmes can only take place during school term time and when Parliament is not sitting.  In practice that means they are only possible for about four weeks a year from the early part of September.  A by-product of Speaker John Bercow’s proposal to shorten Parliament’s summer recess might well be to end these programmes. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Parliament sitting in September (something I personally would favour), it would be a retrograde step to lose this outreach work with young people.

Henry VIII, David Starkey and the state of history teaching

Prompted by the excellent exhibition, “Henry VIII: Man and Monarch“, at the British Library, which I visited last week, I have been reading David Starkey’s book, “Henry: Virtuous Prince“.  I am not sure whether the book inspired the Channel Four series (which I didn’t watch) or whether this is the book prepared for the TV programme and its viewers.  Certainly, it ends abruptly just after the death of the son Henry had with Catherine of Aragon and the arrival at court of the young Thomas Wolsey in 1511.  We will have to wait until September 2010 for the rest of Henry’s life.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Starkey’s focus on the young Henry – particularly as most of the history I remember being taught concentrated on the later – more tyrannical – Henry and dwelt on his wives and what became of them.

However, I wonder if many of today’s school-children even know that much.

I was reminded how little British history is now taught these days, when – again last week – I watched a group of about thirty ten- and eleven-year-olds being asked where the names came from of Waterloo Station and Trafalgar Square.  The former produced various lavatorial answers, but the latter produced nothing.  The kids knew that the “thing in the middle” was Nelson’s Column, but, when asked who Nelson was, the best they could come up with was Nelson Mandela.

Now I accept that history should not just centre on Britain – and certainly not just on its Kings and Queens – nor should it end in 1815 or 1901.  An understanding of world history and of the social factors that underlie historical events is an essential part of being able to interpret what is going on around us today.

However, an essential part of being British ought to be at least some general awareness of the chronology that led to the modern United Kingdom.  Maybe this makes me sound like a reactionary old f*rt – no doubt many would say that that is what I am – but, as we debate the meaning of citizenship, I can’t help feeling that some knowledge of the historical basics should be a prerequisite both for those applying for citizenship and for those whose citizenship is their birthright.


So come along then:  where does Henry VIII rank amongst our greatest Kings?  Certainly, the events of his reign (like the break with Rome) had a profound influence on the country’s future, but did that make him great?  And how would he rank if you included the Queens in the list?  And Cromwell, as Lord Protector?

I find it difficult to be sympathetic to the British man whose genitals were fried in Crete

Normally, I would be quite squeamish about the idea of someone having his genitals drenched in Sambuca and then having them set on fire and I would be cringing with sympathy for the man concerned.  However, the story of  Stuart Feltham leaves me singularly unmoved.

His version of events is that he was having a quiet night out with a few friends at the end of his holiday in Crete when a women suddenly appeared, poured something over him and set it alight.

Her version of events – and the women in question is being feted as a national heroine in Greece for the defence of her honour – is that he was drunkenly propositioning her, grabbed her breasts and buttocks, and then exposed himself to her.  She threw her drink at him and walked away, only discovering later that he had (stray cigarette?) caught alight.

Obviously, I don’t know what happened, but I know which version sounds more plausible.

I also know that too many British people behave atrociously when they go away on holiday and that many European resorts are trying to restrict the heavy-boozing and boorish behaviour of their UK visitors.  Frying the worst offenders’ genitalia may seem a little harsh, but I suspect it would make them pause for thought ….

Essex County Council have made a series of bids to strengthen the local government role using the new Sustainable Communities Act

Most national Governments – whatever their political complexion – over the last 35 years have been centralist rather than localist.  In May 1975, Anthony Crosland famously declared in a speech at Manchester Town Hall that the party was over for local government.  The restrictions were intensified when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979 and Tony Blair (allegedly scarred by his experience of being rejected by Hackney Labour Party as a prospective council candidate and then by his first-hand experience as a local MP of the delights of Durham County Council) was noticeably suspicious of Labour councils from 1997 onwards.  It is only in the last few years that this trend has begun to be reversed – albeit only at the edges.

For example, the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 enables local authorities to ask central government for additional powers to better achieve the well-being of their local communities and this can include having transferred to them the powers of other public bodies.  This is not legislation that one would have expected first-term Blair or any-term Thatcher to have promoted, but it does begin to recognise that local government does have a pivotal role in the delivery of local provision.  If local democracy is to mean something, it has to be about local people electing local councillors to determine the level of local services and local taxation.

Since the high-tide of Margaret Thatcher’s attack on local government, the Conservatives have been on a long journey regarding localism.  In recent years, their enthusiasm for devolution has no doubt been encouraged by the increasing number of Conservative councillors around the country (they were virtually an endangered species by the mid-1990s).

Essex County Council, which is of course Conservative-led (by no less a person than Lord Hanningfield currently dealing with his own “little local difficulties“), has come up with a series of bids to the Department of Communities and Local Government to use the provisions of the new Act.  (I am sure plenty of other local authorities have done the same, but I have not seen their bids reported.)

Essex have proposals on exempting the County from landfill tax, on adjusting local welfare benefits (to tailor benefit rates to reflect the local labour market and to support relevant local training schemes), on rejigging youth provision(with a view to encouraging volunteering) and on the County Council taking over the non-emergency patient transport.

They are also asking for powers (as the Council puts it) to:

” develop and agree a set of minimum standards for government agencies, non-departmental public bodies and other specified local partners. These would reflect the quality of service required in Essex and should be developed for the: Homes and Communities Agency; Environment Agency; Highways Agency; East of England Development Agency; Arts Council England East; Sport England East; Natural England; English Heritage; Business Link East; East of England Tourism and East of England International.  ….  propose that Essex County Council – as an elected community leader – be given the power to ensure that local standards are met. This might mean requiring specific action of an organisation, replacing local staff, devolving responsibility to local providers or bringing services under the control of the council itself (together with supporting resources).”

They have also asked for the power to run local referendums on key local issues.

Now I don’t agree with all of these, but what I find exciting is that the Sustainable Communities Act is doing what it set out to do: stimulating local councils to think innovatively about how they can best increase local well-being and ensure that local people get the sort of services they want.

Another achievement of this Labour Government.

Re-energising the British technology sector

This morning I took part in a breakfast discussion on the Lords Terrace (over orange juice and croissants, but fortunately under cover as it was pouring with rain) with Lord Young of Graffham and Lord Razzall about what can be done to re-energise the British technology sector.  The occasion was the launch of the Micro Focus Technology Manifesto, “Making BrITain Great Again“.  It was well-attended and the Q&A session at the end was lively and could clearly have continued for much longer.

The central theme was that Britain has the potential to generate a much larger proportion of its GDP from the technology innovation-driven sector and the manifesto is designed to kick-start a debate about what can usefully be done to create an environment in which the sector can thrive, expand and create new and sustainable jobs in the UK.  The manifesto has five strands:

  • increasing the supply of world-class technology talent in the UK
  • harnessing the expertise and goodwill of successful leaders around the world to mentor leaders of UK-based emerging technology businesses
  • changing substantially the tax incentives available to companies and individuals who want to invest in growing technology businesses in the UK
  • implementing fiscal incentives for UK-based companies seeking to take forward world-leading R&D
  • encouraging overseas technology companies to invest in a UK hub

I hope that the manifesto does kick-start a debate on these issues and that all the main Parties will commit to following the direction of travel indicated.  Indeed, I would hope that the core principle would be readily endorsed.  Future UK prosperity can only be sustained if the country is able to offer something significant to the world economy and that something in my view has to be that Britain is able to exploit innovation effectively and can deliver substantial value-added in technology and intellectual property.  The UK will never compete by trying to cut wage costs to Third World levels, we no longer have a heavy manufacturing base and there is a limit to how much national income that can be generated from tourism and heritage.  The only route to sustainability has to be through becoming a leading force in innovation and technology.

I remain concerned that too many young people do not see careers in technology as exciting, that too many further and higher education courses are irrelevant to the technology sector’s needs, and that for those who do emerge from further and higher education there are too few entry-level job/training opportunities.  Moreover, as a country we do not do enough to foster entrepreneurialism, nor to support investment in innovative start-ups and to support the growth of such enterprises as they develop.  The Micro Focus manifesto contains a number of suggestions as to how these issues may be addressed.  I am sure it is not definitive, but the future of the UK economy requires that this debate starts now and is taken seriously.

How much cant can we all take over Michael Jackson

Am I alone in wondering why politicians feel the need to comment on such matters as Michael Jackson’s death?  Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have got in on the act.  At least, David Cameron seems to have acknowledged that there were some issues about Michael Jackson …

However, under most circumstances, politicians would be extremely reluctant to associate themselves with an individual who, while acquitted of charges of child molestation, avoided earlier charges following a $20 million settlement with the family of a young boy – let alone those accused of animal cruelty.

Peter Mandelson’s “reach” stretches right across Government

When I arrived in Parliament today, a friend pressed into my hand an organisational diagram showing the Ministerial appointments in the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (it’s DaBiz!).  My noble friend, Lord Peter Mandelson, who is now First Secretary of State (ie Deputy Prime Minister in all but name), Lord President of the Council, and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, rules over a Department with ELEVEN Ministers – an unprecedented number – the size of many nineteenth century Cabinets. 

Of the eleven, a majority (six) are unelected and members of the House of Lords (and that excludes Sir (soon to be Lord??) Alan Sugar who is “an advisor” not a Minister (so why does he need a peerage?). 

More significantly, five of the Ministers are also holding posts in other Government Departments: Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Ministry of Defence; Department of Children, Schools and Families; Department of Communities and Local Government; and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. 

This gives the First Secretary of State what has been described to me as a “tentacular” reach into most of the rest of the Government. 

And, of course, as Lord President he presides over meetings of the Privy Council. 

Not bad for a former Lambeth Councillor. 

There is nothing that a few years as a member of a London Borough Council does not equip you to do …..

People are talking of nothing else but constitutional reform …..

There seems to be a media response to the current anger about Parliamentary expenses that says that what is needed is wholesale constitutional reform.  I tend to agree that many of the constitutional reforms suggested might be quite a good idea, but I am not sure that they are the response  that the public are looking for.  Tom Harris has it right when he suggests (with considerable humour) that this may be something of a diversion away from the real issue that has grabbed the attention of the public.

I suspect that the public will not be satisfied until there is a substantial change in personnel in all of the established political parties with those who are felt to have abused the spirit of the expenses system being exiled from Parliament.

However, having said that, if there is a mood for there to be constitutional reform as well, then that is no bad thing.  So here is my personal list of seven reforms to add to the pot:

  • fixed term Parliaments with general elections every five years;
  • retaining single member constituencies in the Commons but with elections on the alternative vote system;
  • a power to recall individual MPs if more than a certain proportion of the electorate (probably at least a third of the number who cast their vote in the previous election) formally request a fresh election;
  • powerful subject-based Select Committees that not only hold inquiries but scrutinise and amend Bills before they are passed into legislation and go through departmental budgets;
  • directly-elected regional governors with powers over transport, economic development, major planning issues, further education and skills training, health provision, policing resources etc;
  • a shift of taxation-raising powers with far more being raised by local and regional government than is currently the case (with proportionately less being raised centrally); and
  • a power of general competence for local government.

I deliberately haven’t mentioned the House of Lords – partly because I can hardly be described as disinterested, but also because I think there has to be some prior debate about what the Second Chamber is for.

Anyway, there is more than enough in what I have written for people to disagree with ….

Half a page coverage in The Observer is pretty good coverage for any Lords debate

I had recently come to the view that my comments on this blog were receiving more attention than anything I might say in the chamber of the House of the Lords.

So I suppose I should be flattered that the debate I initiated in the Lords on young people and social networking sites should have got a full half-page of coverage in today’s Observer.

Catherine Bennett certainly seems to have got the measure of the effects of being in the Lords on some of my colleagues (I hope not me, but you never know ….) when she writes:

“Given what we now know about the human brain, it is clear that prolonged exposure to an unnatural environment like the House of Lords must have a damaging effect. If the ageing brain is artificially denied stimulation over a long period, it might lead to a condition almost indistinguishable from idiocy.  The effects on communication have been documented for years. Now some leading neuro-scientists are suggesting that flashing lights and bells be fitted to go off regularly in the chamber, in order to induce in members something resembling an average attention span.”

She then weighs in to attack the comments of Baroness Susan Greenfield for her contribution to the debate analysing the impact of social networking and online phenomena like Twitter from her standpoint as a neuro-scientist.  It is a fine polemic and yes the comments from Susan Greenfield were rather tangential to the purpose of my debate which was intended to explore whether more safeguards were needed to protect the interests of children and young people online.

However, the comments (and the whole debate can be read here) were of interest and do deserve some serious discussion.  Twitter and Twittering seems a largely pointless exercise to many and as Catherine Bennett puts it:

“Twitter emphasises its desirability by being unfathomable to anyone a bit inflexible or busy who is neither a self-promoter nor an exhibitionist.”

Now I don’t feel that Susan Greenfield’s speech detracted from the rest of the debate – it is part of the way that the House of Lords operates that colleagues bring their various experiences and expertise to bear on the topics under discussion.  And it certainly didn’t “hijack” the debate as Catherine Bennett suggests.

Catherine Bennett was kind enough to say that “The Lords are right to want to protect vulnerable users from exploitation and from the inadvertent creation of an indelible archive of social networking follies.”  So, if that is so, and she wants to avoid the debate being hijacked, perhaps she might have devoted more than just three lines of her article to the rest of the  debate and what she rightly regarded as its main substance.

Or perhaps I’m missing something ….