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Archive for the ‘Local government’ Category

Wednesday
Nov 21,2012

This morning the Children’s Commissioner published her shocking report “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world.” on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. This authoritative and well-researched document reports that it had identified 2,409 children as having been identified as victims of sexual exploitation by gangs or groups.

And what has been the Government’s response?

To welcome the report and promise action?

Unfortunately not.

Instead, anonymous government spokesmen briefed the media to say that the report was “over-emotional” and “sensationalist”

I raised this in Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon. The Minister’s response was hardly effusive: the report was “useful to have”.

Here is the exchange:

“Lord Harris of Haringey:
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has referred to the Children’s Commissioner’s report which came out today, in particular the dreadful findings about how many children in care have been sexually abused. Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s stance about that report, given that, apparently, people speaking on behalf of the Government to both the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and the Sun said that the report was overemotional and were trying to undermine its conclusions?

Lord Hill of Oareford:
The Government’s stance is that the report from the deputy Children’s Commissioner is helpful for the Government to have. We will reflect on the findings that it makes in terms of its recommendations and its estimates about the extent of the problem. I think I am right in saying that the report recognises that making any precise estimate is by nature very difficult, but the more information we have the better. Even before this report, the Government have been seeking to improve the systems for getting accurate reporting from various local agencies and authorities to make sure that we have as accurate a picture as possible to make sure that we do not underestimate or overestimate the problem. Everyone is very aware of the salience of this issue and the important issues that that report gives rise to.”

Almost as though the Government are frightened of the issue.

Monday
Nov 12,2012

There was a fairly surreal discussion in the House of Lords this afternoon following the Government statement on the resignation of the Director General of the BBC.  This reflects the wider political and media preoccupation with the inner workings of the BBC and not the very serious allegations of child abuse that lay beneath the two questionable editorial decisions by those in charge of the BBC Newsnight programme.

The depths were plumbed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, former Leader of UKIP, who seemed to think that the central issue was that “a large majority” of the members of the BBC Trust are “climate change enthusiasts” and that “the BBC remains blindly Europhile …. as exemplified by its chairman, who has a large EU pension which he could lose if he went against what the European Commission regards as the interests of the European communities.”

It took a Bishop to reinject some sanity into the discussion:

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds:

My Lords, I am very grateful that in the initial Statement the Minister said that we must continue to recognise the needs of those who have been abused. He spoke of the BBC facing a series of crises. Those who were abused face a far more serious series of crises. Will he stress again that the primary concern at this point needs to be the protection of children and young people? Will he also stress the continuing desire of us all to encourage those who have suffered abuse to come forward so we can change the culture of how we deal with such issues?

But that didn’t stop Lord Stoddart of Swindon from trying to bring the debate back to the people selected as BBC Trustees and lobbying for his UKIP mate, Lord Pearson, to be appointed:

Does the noble Lord agree that the selection pool for the BBC Trust is very narrow? Would it not be as well that that pool should be widened so that a perhaps more critical attitude could be taken of the operations of the BBC? Perhaps one of the new candidates could be the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

This goaded me to get to my feet and ask:

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has rightly reminded the House that the people we should be most concerned about in all of this are those who were the victims of abuse. Can the Minister comment on whether the Government feel that the frenzy around the existential crisis of the BBC is not really a distraction from concerns that there was very real abuse in children’s homes in north Wales and elsewhere; that there was an individual who, because of his celebrity, was able to abuse children all over the country; and that we are in danger of being deflected, which of course plays into the hands of those who would rather cover up what happened and the names of those who were ultimately responsible?

By mentioning the dread words “cover up” I am no doubt at risk of being dubbed a conspiracy theorist but the fact remains that the present furore about the internal workings of the BBC does nothing to help those who were abused in North Wales or by Jimmy Saville, nor does it do anything to bring to justice those who were directly involved or complicit in that abuse.  And frankly that is what really matters.

 

Tuesday
Nov 6,2012

Earlier today I intervened in the discussion in the House of Lords on the Home Office statement on the historic allegations of child sex abuse in the North Wales police area.

Despite the Minister’s response, I remain concerned.

The exchange was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey:My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the fact that there is to be a new police inquiry into these matters, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s explanation of the thinking behind this being led by Keith Bristow, who is heading up the new National Crime Agency. I have enormous faith in Keith Bristow himself. However, given that the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the yet-to-be-created National Crime Agency are going through a period of enormous flux and confusion while this happens, and the job of the chief executive of an agency that is being set up is usually pretty highly committed to setting up that agency, how will it be possible for him to lead the sort of inquiry that all noble Lords have said they want—very thorough, potentially extremely lengthy and potentially extremely involved? In practice, where will the resources come from? I am not talking about the money but the individual officers. Who is going to co-ordinate that? How is that going to be practically done when the person you are asking to lead the inquiry is supposed to have a more than full-time job setting up a new government agency?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach:I remind the noble Lord that the Statement made it quite clear that it was the chief constable of North Wales Police, Mark Polin, who actually requested Keith Bristow to head up this investigation, and to do so using the resources that are available to him through SOCA and other assets that are available for serious investigations. Indeed, we will face a new world with the National Crime Agency, but that still has to come before your Lordships’ House and I would not presume on that. This is a recognition that the inquiry itself may well cross police boundaries; it may well be a matter that is quite properly addressed by an agency set up to deal with serious organised crime.

 

Monday
Nov 5,2012

A nice crisp morning at Wembley Stadium saw the launch of the first funding round of the Wembley National Stadium Trust.

The Trust, which I chair, was set up in 1996 and was originally the vehicle which bid for National Lottery money for the new National Stadium to be built on the Wembley site.  In exchange for the £120 million grant that secured the site it was a condition of the grant that once the new Stadium had been open for five years 1% of its turnover should be passed to the Trust for distribution as charitable grants.

The old stadium closed in 2000 and the new Stadium finally opened in 2007, which means that five years has now passed, and the Trust now has the proceeds to make its first grants.  Applications are now open and the aim will be to award around £300,000 to projects supporting sports activities across Brent. Dozens of local groups are likely to benefit.

And to help us at the launch, I was joined by  Rachel Yankey MBE, England’s most capped women’s footballer, and Olympic gold medal winning boxer James DeGale MBE, along with the Stadium’s Managing Director, Roger Maslin.

Full details of the application process are available on the Trust’s website at www.wnst.org.uk and applications must be received by 5pm on 7th December for this round of grants.  Subsequent rounds will benefit projects across London and from time to time major nation-wide grants will be made.

 

Sunday
Oct 21,2012

Lord Blair of Boughton (the artiste previously known as Sir Ian Blair) has made a particularly silly suggestion.  Interviewed on Sky News, he has suggested that people should boycott the elections on 15th November for Police and Crime Commissioners:

“I’ve never said this before but I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this.”

Like most other people, Ian Blair thinks the proposed system of elected Police and Crime Commissioners is flawed. There are no proper checks and balances in the governance arrangements, many of the police force areas make little sense as electoral districts, there is a risk of politicising aspects of operational policing that should not be politicised, and the changes are a waste of money at a time when frontline police budgets are being cut as never before.

However, the legislation rightly or wrongly was passed last year with a its flaws intact (despite the best endeavours of some of us in the House of Lords). The elections ARE going to take place in just over three weeks time (holding the elections in November when it is likely to be cold, wet and dark was an incomprehensible sop to the Liberal Democrats).   And yes, the turnout will probably be low – maybe very low – but a boycott is simply going to mean an even lower turnout and an even greater risk that maverick candidates will be elected.

Police accountability matters.  This may be the wrong system, but on 15th November forty-one Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected in every part of England and Wales with the exception of London (where we have the “benefit” of an elected Mayor in charge of the Metropolitan Police and where the Corporation of London retains its own medieval system of oversight of the City Police).

A boycott will achieve nothing.  I am confident that before too long this new system will have to be changed – probably drastically.  In the meantime,  because police oversight is so important in any democracy, everyone will have to make the best of the flawed arrangements. And that means ENCOURAGING people to vote on 15th November.

Wednesday
Oct 17,2012

My colleague Lord Philip Hunt reported on the Labour Lords Blog that the new governance arrangements for the new Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) through which most local NHS money will be channelled are odd in the extreme, saying:

“A massive £60bn is to be entrusted to them despite very weak accountability and corporate governance structures supporting what are essentially a federation of GPs. Only two lay members will serve on the Board of each CCG so they will always be outnumbered by GPs who will have little or any accountability to the public. This is even more perverse given that the CCGs may make funding decisions which are advantageous to GPs.

Bizarrely, although the regulations we are debating in the Lords allow for a hospital doctor and a registered nurse to be appointed to the CCG Board, those employed by a local hospital are not. This is apparently because it would be a conflict of interest!”

Last night’s debate in the Lords on the Government regulations setting out how CCGs are to operate showed up the sheer absurdity of the arrangements and the normally-sensible Minister, Earl Howe, tied himself in knots trying to explain why certain categories of person were to be excluded from the Boards of CCGs and why it would NOT be a conflict of interest for GPs on the Boards to so arrange local services so that their practices benefitted.

I rather lost my temper when it was suggested by former Tory Health Minister, Baroness Cumberlege, that local councillors should in all cases be excluded from CCG Boards on the grounds that they would be incapable of making difficult decisions affecting their electorates (what does she think local councillors are having to do at the moment given the budget cuts that the Government has imposed on them?).

However, the debate also highlighted the absurdity of the Government’s proposals which would prevent someone being appointed to be a “lay member” of a CCG Board if they were employed by a local authority anywhere in the country; or – even more bizarrely – prevented someone who is a member (not even a governor) of a local NHS Trust, when in some areas every person who uses the local hospital is automatically enrolled as a member of the Trust!

You can read the full debate here and my rant was as follows:

“In this debate we are perhaps being asked to suspend our disbelief that the governance arrangements for the clinical commissioning groups make sense. We are being asked to suspend our belief on the question of whether pigs may fly. However, the extraordinary statement from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, that somehow locally elected councillors are incapable of making decisions which affect the livelihoods of the populations that elect them is disgraceful.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I object to that. I said that they have a role on health and well-being boards, which is where the strategy is set out, and that is where the NHS, local authorities, Healthwatch and other organisations come together.

Lord Harris of Haringey: I understand that. My point is that the noble Baroness does not seem to understand that today, all over the country, locally elected councillors are making decisions about closures because they are having to balance the reductions in budgets that this Government are forcing on them and on their local communities. They are making those decisions on behalf of the people whom they represent. Why is it being said that somehow they have a conflict of interest which means that they are incapable of making decisions along with colleagues about health matters?

There are issues of principle here and issues of sheer practicality. The issue of principle concerns conflict of interest. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, has talked about conflict of interest. Perhaps we will also hear about that from the noble Earl in a minute. However, the biggest conflict of interest will be the fact that the primary care practitioners are key elements of the boards of CCGs’ governing bodies. They are not being excluded; it is just everyone else who is being excluded. Let us be clear about who is being excluded. It is not simply elected members but any employee not just of the local authority in the CCG’s area but of any local authority in the country. Therefore, any person who, under paragraph (4) of Regulation 12, the CCG feels has knowledge about the area and who does not have the misfortune of being an elected councillor but does have the misfortune of being a part-time employee of a neighbouring local authority is exempt.

When the Minister replies, I should like him to explain to us why every single employee of every single local authority in the country is being excluded from participation in CCGs. While he is about it and we are talking about conflicts of interest, we have already heard the point made by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath that any person who has been public-spirited enough to decide to become-and frankly it is a fairly meaningless undertaking-a member of a local foundation trust or a local NHS trust is also excluded from membership of a CCG. Again, what is the point of that? It is being said that any person who is public-spirited enough already to have had some engagement with the local NHS is not allowed to sit on the board of the CCG.

This is frankly fatuous. You have ended up with a situation in which you have enshrined one set of conflicts of interest and excluded from the membership of the CCG all sorts of other people who could make a valuable and useful contribution. I am afraid that for the first time in our considerations I agree with 99% of what the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, said. The 1% with which I disagreed was that we should allow this instrument to go through and review it again in two years’ time. It is so flawed and riddled with poorly thought-out considerations of what would work at local level, and so dismissive of the best judgment of local people to decide who is best to be part of the board, that frankly we should endorse my noble friend’s Motion. I urge the Minister to withdraw the regulations and bring forward revised, more sensible regulations.”

 

Sunday
Sep 23,2012

I got through four Opposition Leaders in my time as Leader of Haringey Council.  One subsequently stood unsuccessfully for the London Assembly, another became an Alderman of the City of London Corporation, and the third lapsed into obscurity as a junior LibDem minister in the Coalition government.

The fourth was Andrew Mitchell.After he stood down from Haringey Council, he went on to have a glittering career as a barrister, becoming a QC and head of his own Chambers. I understand he is now the leading legal expert on asset confiscation and forfeiture.  He was an effective and challenging (from my point of view) Leader of the Opposition and could usually be relied on to highlight substantive policy issues and (painfully) any – and it did happen sometimes – weaknesses there might be in the argument I was putting forward.

He was also unfailingly courteous and polite.

From which you will gather he is not the same Andrew Mitchell as the new Government Chief Whip and star of PlebGate

However, it might have been easy to get confused.

And so – a little bird tells me – twenty years ago, Andrew “Pleb” Mitchell summoned Andrew “Haringey” Mitchell to see him in the House of Commons to tell him that the Conservative Party was too small for there to be two Andrew Mitchell’s in it.

The solution was straightforward said Andrew “Pleb” Mitchell, you (ie Andrew “Haringey” Mitchell) must change your name to avoid this confusion.

So Pleb’s arrogance was there even then.  It is not something he has acquired with high office – he was always like that.

Tuesday
Jul 10,2012

The Government is pushing through changes to voter registration in this country.  This will mean that each elector will have to fill in a separate registration form – a change from the current arrangements where only one form per household is required.  This is allegedly designed to reduce electoral fraud.

Interestingly, these same arguments are used by Republicans to justify changes in voter ID rules in key states in the United States

And here is the Pennsylvania Republican House Leader boasting to his State Republican Party that the real purpose was to ensure that Romney wins Pennsylvania this November:

With research suggesting that the numbers on the electoral register will plummet under the proposed new arrangements in this country, can we expect a gung-ho David Cameron boasting to a future Conservative Party Conference that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (interestingly introduced in the House of Commons by Nick Clegg) will deliver a future Tory election victory?

Tuesday
Jun 19,2012

Last month I reported on the Tory embarrassment that their flagship policy of elected Police and Crime Commissioners was starting to unravel for them.

Earlier today the Labour Party unveiled its list of selected candidates to fight the 41 elections in November.  The list is impressive and includes a number of former senior Ministers, along with the current Chair of the Association of Police Authorities and one of his predecessors.  A third of those selected are women and even in those areas where a Labour victory is frankly unlikely the Party has selected some serious and highly experienced individuals.

It remains to be seen whether the Tory list when it eventually emerges will be anything like as impressive.  For completeness, it is worth pointing out that the Liberal Democrats are likely only to contest a tiny handful of the available places.

Saturday
Jun 16,2012

Much as I enjoyed all the “tainted Prime Minister” stuff in Ed Miliband’s speech this morning to the Labour Party National Policy Forum,  I was struck by the enthusiasm with which he spoke about local government and the contribution being made by Labour councillors:

“Labour Birmingham.  Labour, in whom the people of Birmingham placed their trust in May.  A Labour council changing the way we do politics with a manifesto built on 12 months of conversations with the people of this city.  A Labour council improving our society with 5,000 new homes a year.  And a Labour council changing our economy by paying at least £7.20 to every city council worker.  A decent living wage.

And let us recognise the work of every Labour council making a difference in tough times.  Liverpool’s new Mayor Joe Anderson and h is council that is building 2,500 homes.  Manchester keeping open its Sure Start Centres.  And Newham, standing up for tenants against unscrupulous landlords.

Labour councils whose examples will inspire our next manifesto.  And let us applaud them for their work.”

Here at last is a recognition that Labour local government can be in the vanguard of delivering effective public services that meet the needs of their communities, that Labour local government is not something to be apologised for but is Labour’s future, and that the platform for winning future General Elections will be found at local level.