National Politics - Page 2

Will Gove's school revolution make the grade? Plus: Why MPs are powerless over rail fare hike

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 24 2010

I've got a feeling of deja vu listening to and reading about Michael Gove's blueprint for driving up classroom standards. There's lots of talk about tradition - natural Conservative territory - the desire to see more pupils wearing blazers and ties and an emphasis on improving the quality of teaching. (Although I couldn't spot the word "diversity" anywhere which was littered through most of the Labour government's various reforms)

Somewhere in amongst it, there are also references to houses and prefects. It all sounds vaguely redolent of Hogwarts so I was slightly surprised to hear no mention of Quidditch and wizadry skills being introduced to the curriculum.

Of course, one traditional feature of education provision is already undergoing radical reform - namely, the role of councils and what future they will play as Gove stirs up a cauldron of reforms.

The issue was touched on by county councillors at a cross-party committee scrutiny meeting at County Hall today and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that many are struggling to grasp the ramifications of changes which will radically diminish their input.

One of the consequences of drives by this government and its predecessor to give schools more autonomy has been to leave councils with less and less direct involvement in schools (although they continue to provide vital support services.)

This has been a deliberate. The Gove mantra is that schools know best how to educate, not distant overly-bureaucratic councils.

That is why we are seeing a new generation of academies and, in time, free schools - ironically, charged with the job of "innovating" new methods of teaching, although presumably only as long as students are dressed in formal suits.

But what happens when things go wrong at a school? Where are the local checks and balances? Where is the accountability? There was a time when education authorities had the job of intervening and acting to ensure that things improved. Interestingly, their statutory responsibilities in this area are steadily being eroded.

Kent's first academy, The Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, has just been given a notice to improve by Ofsted. But as an academy, it is detached from KCC which will have absolutely no role in tackling the school's shortcomings. (Perversely, as part of Gove's vision to haul up under-performing schools, the Marlowe could in time be "taken over" by the government and forced to become, er, an academy...)

Conservative backbencher Cllr Kit Smith articulated the general frustration felt by many at this impotence with some pointed remarks at today's meeting. "We as KCC have some form of moral responsibility to make sure children get the best education they can. These are our children for the future and if they have a bad experience at school, that reflects on our county. While the government has taken away our statutory responsibility, we still have  a moral would be irresponsible of us as county council not to."

Who would quibble with such sentiments?

Sadly, in the brave new world of academies, free schools, ties and blazers, no-one appears to give much for moral responsibility, let alone local accountability.


Kent Conservative MPs have been quick to condemn the astronomic rises in rail fares for hard-pressed commuters but they, too, are impotent and unable to do anything.

More commuter woe for Kent's rail users>>>

Why? Well, as several have been quick to point out, the fares regime is tied in to complex franchise agreements determined by the previous government and the changes permitted for regulated and non-regulated tickets.

Which means that for the time being, MPs can roundly condemn the increases - but when it comes to representing the interests of passengers or pressurising for some respite, can't actually do terribly much other than sound off about how dreadful it all is.

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Categories: Conservatives | Education | Local Politics | National Politics

KCC begins to weigh up cuts options

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 22 2010

It's the annual meeting of the Kent Conservatives at County Hall today with Conservative county councillors and MPs meeting up for what might normally be a convivial occasion but this year, one that is taking place against the backdrop of the ominous shadow cast by the spending review. So I imagine some of the small talk might have been rather tense and a little less euphoric than it might have been just a few months after the party's general election triumph.

1,500 jobs could go at County Hall>>>

Now that the dust has settled a little, KCC is weighing up exactly what it should do to fill its black hole of £340m. And it seems that axe is poised to fall on rather a sizeable number of jobs - an estimated 1,500 according to leader Paul Carter.  They won't all go in one fell swoop, of course but the impact is going to be fairly significant.

Of course, we can expect to see KCC trying to mitigate the impact by pointing to the fact that it has had a recruitment freeze in place for some time and that while jobs might have to go, it won't necessarily equate to actual people. However, there's a touch of smoke and mirrors around the concept of a freeze on new jobs - KCC estimates a £340m shortfall but hasn't said whether it would be larger or smaller on the strength of not filling posts. I suspect the savings have already been factored in to the £340m figure.

I'm not entirely convinced by the government's belief that the private sector will take up some of the slack and absorb some of these job losses when they come. People who work in local government often have a particular skills set that doesn't always sit comfortably with openings with private companies. And don't forget, all parts of the public sector in Kent will be shedding jobs - not just KCC.


Kent's very own renegade veteran MP Sir John Stanley was on fine form at last night's KCC rail summit, delivering a withering attack on Southeastern rail chiefs over their failure to restore services from west Kent to the City and doing an impeccable hatchet job on the plans to increase rail fares by three per cent.

After Charles Horton, Southeastern's MD, had delivered his own predictably up-beat assessment of the rail operator's performance, up jumped Sir John with a no-holds barred attack, accusing the company of "zero listening" - not sure what that means but he said it with such passion that we all knew what he was driving at - and accusing it of messing up people's lives by forcing them  to drive to all corners of the county to get on trains to get to London.

MPs fight fare hike>>>

The wily Sir John has, rather like Ann Widdecombe, the willingness to say what he thinks without particularly worrying about whether it will get him into trouble which makes him all the more entertaining - and he's at a point in his long career when he's probably beyond the point where he is expecting some preferment. A fine example that some of Kent's newly-elected backbenchers ought perhaps to follow but I suspect probably won't.

Having said that, both Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) and the independently-minded Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) have at least signed an EDM criticising the planned increase in rail fares. I wonder if any other Kent MPs will join them?

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Categories: Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

Pleading business

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Wednesday, October 20 2010

Business is not normally supportive of a Chancellor’s statement. Especially when Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling were doing the job.

But now George Osborne is in the hot seat, they have changed their tune.

While much of the public will worry about benefit cuts, while public sector workers will fear that their job will be among the 500,000 on death row for the next four years, business was pretty upbeat.

All the usual suspects like the CBI, FSB and EEF were surprisingly supportive of the overall spending cuts strategy.

I guess that in their own business, they know how important it is to be prudent. In the early years of Gordon Brown‘s tenure as Chancellor in 11 Downing Street, there was a lot of talk of prudence. He seemed to speak the language of business.

But a boom seemed to give him licence to spend, and prudence was left abandoned at the church door as the global financial crisis coincided with a spending binge.

That combination of events, however you explain them, led to the present £109bn deficit, the largest, so the present Chancellor says, in Europe. The UK was on the brink of bankruptcy, he claimed.

But the £80-plus billion pound cuts will not make a lot of difference to the overall level of spending which continues to rise over the next few years to around £700bn.

As Mr Osborne said, the debt “supertanker” takes a long while to turn around. And interest payments, currently running at a staggering £120m a day, will continue to be onerous.

But at least with the CSR, the UK has signalled it is doing something about a problem that every household faces from time to time. As Mr Micawber said to David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds and sixpence, result misery.”

And we have had plenty of misery. There is lots more to come. But at least George Osborne leavened bad news with good, although the nasties could still be in the small print.

He pleased business, protected key infrastructure projects like Crossrail, bashed the banks a little, boosted apprenticeships, protected education and health, and not been too hard on the elderly.

That he has robbed middle England to bear much of the pain will be hard to take. Whether they sympathise with Mr Micawber’s dictum will determine whether Mr Osborne remains in Number 11 after the next general election.

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Categories: Business | National Politics

Fancy running a council service? Give KCC a call....

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, October 18 2010

The age of austerity is pushing councils in all sorts of directions and into proposals they might never have previously countenanced. We've seen one promote the concept of a no frills authority - Barnet's so-called "easycouncil" and others saying they will no longer be directly providing any services - the so-called "virtual council" route.

Kent County Council has given us a glimpse of where it is heading with its launch of "Bold Steps for Kent" document, weighing in at 48-pages and setting out how it envisages services being delivered over the next four years. There's actually a lot of interesting stuff in it and it would have been quite neat to set out 39 such steps but the County Hall PR wizards missed a trick there. (I have to admit that it was a challenge to get my head round all the detail)

Would you run KCC services?>>

Clearly, KCC does not expect to be the same kind of council in 2015 as it is today. There's talk of management buyouts, new trading companies, Big Society start-up grants and an open question: what is it we actually need to provide ourselves and might someone else do it better? This is the commissioning part of the model, breaking up the monolithic one we arguably have now. On the other side of the coin, there is a call for Kent to get more powers along the same lines as big "city regions" - such as transport and housing - and possible collaboration over the NHS. So, some ideological contradictions and political paradoxes but it brings to mind a phrase I've heard at County Hall quite often - "the mixed economy.'

Leader Paul Carter told me he's an unashamed free marketeer and that he believes in a smaller state, so has no issue with outsourcing services if others can do the job better and at less cost. At the same time, he makes the point that private companies often under-estimate just how efficient the public sector can be. "Our job is to open up the market and allow others in. It is going to force people to think differently," he says.

It will be interesting to see how the concept of management buyouts takes off. Those who have spent long careers in local government do tend to like the (relatively) secure environment - notwithstanding the considerble uncertainty there is over jobs. Will there be a huge appetite to plunge into the uncertain world of social enterprises or private companies? The idea of Big Society start up grants strikes me as sensible but I still harbour doubts about the concept. Say a group of volunteers takes over running a village library but after a year or so, some leave; others move or some find they can no longer commit to the project? Who will step in - assuming that it has proved successful?

And what safeguards will there be to ensure proper democratic scrutiny and accountability of these different commercial companies?

Either way, a major upheaval is underway at County Hall even if I'm struggling to come up with a convenient shorthand name for the new model it is espousing.  


More Star Trek references creeping into County Hall. After proposing an "Enterprise Directorate" comes the new four-year plan "Bold Steps for Kent." Proceed at Warp Factor Ten, Captain.

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Categories: Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

The austerity era begins at County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, October 11 2010

Every time I venture to County Hall, I half expect to come across county councillors dressed not in suits and ties but hairshirts. These are grim times for councils and KCC, as one of the biggest, is bracing itself for considerable upheaval as it confronts a budget black hole of £340m.

The "big ticket" item at today's cabinet meeting - as it was described by leader Paul Carter - was the plan to slim down the number of directorates that deliver 300 services to 1.6m people, which will mean far fewer senior managers. County Hall's re-organisation will see eight directorates cut to five and far fewer bosses, which many will argue is no bad thing.

KCC cuts directorates to five>>>

It's not yet clear how many management posts are to be deleted and we're unlikely to know the fine detail until December. Some of the names of the new directorates may confuse residents. If you've got a problem with the state of your road or pavement, you'll be dealt with by the Enterprise Directorate, for example. (I half wondered whether this had something to do with group managing director Katherine Kerswell being a fan of Star Trek).

There'll also be a Customer and Communities Directorate, which is described as the "directorate of the front line" and appears to be focusing on extending the Gateway programme, which has seen the development of various centres delivering different services.

One of the most fascinating elements of a late report tabled to the meeting was a section detailing the responses of an informal consultation on the shake up - or "the first bold step".  Responses were clearly mixed and although there were many that were positive, a number were revealing about the perception of KCC's management culture.

The various summaries included references to corporate management team in-fighting; the fact that some felt KCC was "controlling" and another comment expressed discomfort over the Orwellian dimension to the authority's determination to "communicate as one voice."

While most staff accepted KCC was "hungry for improvement" clearly not all agreed it was always happening. "We are sometimes dazzled by our own brilliance" said one respondent, while another said "we don't deliver but strategise well." Ouch.

KCC perhaps wouldn't have chosen precisely this time to embark on a major re-organisation but its hand is being forced by circumstances.


What goes around comes around. At least it does in local government.

A few years ago, councils were told that they should integrate childrens' social services departments into their education departments, leading to the creation of childrens' services department. The move followed various government inquiries into child abuse scandals, notably Lord Laming's review into the Victoria Climbie scandal. Now KCC - and it is not the first - is moving the job of protecting young children to a new directorate that once again will look after all social services.   


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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

Kent Conservative MPs sound off to Pickles over Kent-Essex alliance

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, October 5 2010

It seems plans to create an alliance between Kent and Essex to drive forward investment and boost jobs have not gone down well with Kent's Conservative backbenchers.

MPs voice doubts over "Kessex" bid>>>

The alliance has been proposed by KCC and Essex county council as the preferred option for the body - known as a Local Enterprise Partnership - that should replace the soon-to-be-scrapped Regional Development Agencies.

But the idea is not being supported by Kent MPs, who have sent a letter to communities secretary Eric Pickles saying it is not in the interests of Kent's businesses and they would prefer a LEP covering Kent and Medway - which was actually favoured by KCC.

The letter states: “As Kent Members of Parliament we believe any reform relating to its overall strategy and infrastructure should be in the interest of Kent and Medway’s economic stability and prosperity. We are therefore very concerned the proposal to create a super-LEP across Kent and Greater Essex is contrary to that belief. We feel the proposed LEP is not representative of the various micro-economies that exist throughout Kent, each with their own distinct characteristics and requirements that we feel will not receive the tailored attention they require.”

It goes on: “We believe the intention of creating a super-LEP to save central government money in the short term will in fact harm the people and businesses of Kent in the long term.”

This is a little embarrassing for KCC's Conservative administration, which initially had supported the idea of a LEP for Kent and Medway but appears to have gone in the direction of a Kent-Essex bid after Eric Pickles - an Essex MP - advanced the idea of teaming up with its counterpart over the Thames.

It's also a shot across Mr Pickles' ample bows. I gather MPs were unhappy that he hadn't involved them in the earlier discussions about the idea. There are also concerns that in getting rid of one regional body, the government is simply substituting another where the common interests are not that obvious.

Unsurpisingly, Medway council - which has advanced the Kent-Medway option - has scarcely contained its delight at the MPs' backing for its plan. Over to Mr Pickles...


Not all Kent MPs have headed to Birmingham for the party conference. Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson and Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch have stayed in their constituencies.

Gordon tells me he feels his time will be better used tackling constituency issues.  "My constituents recognise that my first priority is to them and I put them first."  He's got four visits  to schools lined up for the week.


I reckon George Osborne has got himself in unnecessary difficulty over child benefit. The excuse that it will be impossible to administer a system to distinguish between a couple who stand to lose £1,752 if the father earns more than £43,875 while a couple between them earning £87,778 will lose nothing is particularly weak. Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch has already expressed reservations, saying that while she agrees with the principle, she has "enormous sympathy" with those that consider the proposals as set out are anomolous and potentially unfair. 

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Categories: KCC | Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

More on how your money is spent - including a £4.50 taxi ride

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 1 2010

We've reported more on how County Hall has spent public money through its corporate credit cards today, along with some other interesting details about how the taxpayer has picked up the tab for a £4.50 taxi ride made by former chief executive Peter Gilroy.

The County Hall Spending Files>>>

There are some who think we have been wrong to present our disclosures in the way we have; some who think we are being too critical and sensationalising the subject and some who think (wrongly) that there is some other reason for our coverage - which has been based purely on our judgement that it is very much in the public interest and a subject our readers will find interesting to read about - whatever their views.

Others believe that if a public body is embracing transparency, then it cannot pick and choose which transactions it would prefer to be transparent about. One point worth making here is that many of the transactions that we have detailed fall below the £500 threshold set by the government at which all councils will be required to put into the public domain data on all invoices above that sum.

So, had the information not been gathered by a concerned resident and passed to us, a considerable amount of it would never have seen the light of day. KCC has rightly come round to the view that being open is a virtue and one that ultimately will be good for it and the residents it is there to serve.

As its own report unveiling its plans for a new transparency regime says, it is important that residents are able to make judgements about not just the costs they, as taxpayers, are bearing but that they can also make judgments about the value of what is being done with their money.


Interestingly, the new Labour group leader on the Local Government Association has hit out at the government's transparency plans, asserting that they are a waste of time and councils have better things to do. You can read about it here Some of the comments are illuminating.


I've blogged a couple of times about how Ed Miliband might play with the voters of Kent - especially the 80,000+ that deserted the party between 2005 and 2010. I've suggested he might become the Iain Duncan Smith of the party. But I was talking to a colleague who suggested a better comparison might be with William Hague, who had an ill-fated attempt to lead the party out of the wilderness after its nightmare of a defeat in 1997.  Just steer clear of the baseball cap, Ed. 


How Ed's election will go down in the business community

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Thursday, September 30 2010

The election of the “wrong” brother to lead the Labour Party is unlikely to be good news for business.

That Ed Miliband owes his position so much to the trade unions will be a running sore. If activists threaten a winter of discontent, he may try to restrain them but they will always be able to retort “we put you there - keep quiet.”

Employers may find a revival in union militancy insufficiently curbed by a new leadership that is likely to be more pro-union than New Labour.

I read a lot about the end of New Labour and getting back to core support under a “new generation.” But surely it was Tony Blair’s creation of New Labour and its shift to the centre ground of British politics that ensured those election victories. It engaged Middle England and that engagement is vital to Labour if it wants to get back into power.

I’m sure that most Middle England voters in Kent would have preferred David Miliband, and it is strange that Labour rejects a man with so much experience at senior level in favour of someone with so little. I suppose it’s a bit like businesses that turn their back on an experienced employee in favour of an outsider with shiny-new appeal. But that lustre often fades as the organisation has second thoughts about their choice.

It is curious to think that had David been more ruthless about deposing Gordon Brown, he may well have been PM today, rather than playing second fiddle to his kid brother and quitting frontline politics.

I interviewed him at the Thames Gateway forum a few years ago and even then he seemed a leader-in-waiting, with an accessible personality, lots of intelligence and popular support.

Ed may surprise us, but he has a lot of obstacles to surmount if he is to win the wholehearted support of business  and a majority of Kent voters.

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Categories: Business | National Politics

Will Ed be Labour's IDS?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, September 30 2010

Among the jibes being levelled at the new Labour leader is the one that characterises him as Labour's version of Ian Duncan Smith, the so-called quiet man who threatened to turn up the volume and was then dumped by his party.

The analogy is not quite fair but behind it lies the feeling in some quarters that Ed will be a decent party leader for a while but will struggle to convince the country at large that he is Prime Ministerial material.

It's too early to say but behind all the optimistic noises and talk of a new team to lead the party, there are already noises off that if Ed fails to make that vital "re-connection" with the voters who deserted them in droves at the election, he could end up being a stand-in.

Having said that, I get the feeling that Labour thinks it might fare reasonably well in next year's local council elections and that it will push hard to make gains primarily at the expense of the Lib Dems.

National polls at the time of similar elections held in 2007 put the Lib Dems at 21 per cent. Currently, the party is polling 12 per cent and I imagine it'll stay around that figure for a while.

Mind you, Labour will be starting from an incredibly low base in terms of their representatives on local councils in Kent so it would be a major shock if they were not to make some progress - particularly given the cuts and job losses in local government coming down the track for which the blame will be firmly placed at the coalition's door.


Some of you may have spotted my fleeting appearance on BBC News on Tuesday, speculating on how Ed Miliband might fare in key marginal seats in places like the Medway Towns. My brief 20 seconds of fame led to some jokes and gentle ribbing at my expense from some of my friends and colleagues. It's probably a good job that they didn't get a chance to see the out-takes.

Categories: Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

Will Ed do it for Labour in Kent?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, September 27 2010

What does Ed Miliband need to do to restore his party's fortunes sufficiently for Labour to be in with a chance of recapturing the seats it relinquished to the Conservatives in May?

I've been trying to ask some former Kent Labour MPs this question. One I contacted this morning said rather cryptically that he wasn't making any public comment on party politics.

But Paul Clark, the former Gillingham MP and Labour MEP Peter Skinner who I have spoken to both identified immigration as ther party's achilles heel - both at the election and now. Their analysis is that the government was not direct enough about telling voters what it was doing to tackle the issue and introduced measures - such as the points system - too late.

Read my latest story on Ed Miliband

Both also said that the recession had made the subject even more combustible - unlike 2005, when it was still there but because there was no economic downturn and people were not losing their jobs.

They also complained that the government had somehow managed to think  that it had got its message out when all the experiences they were having while canvassing and talking to voters on the doorstep was that no-one thought enough was being done. A classic communications breakdown and a surprising one given the party's supposed reputation for being able to spin.


I must admit to predicting the wrong result while watching the live coverage of the event on the BBC on Saturday. David Miliband positively radiated optimism while Ed looked like he'd swallowed a wasp and washed it down with neat lemon juice.

Still, I was in good company thinking that Dave had got it. So did the BBC's Nick Robinson, who also called it for the elder brother.




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Categories: Local Politics | National Politics

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