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Sunday, 27 June 2010

Coalition plans relocation of long-term unemployed

In plans reminiscent of Norman Tebbit's "on your bike" solution to unemployment, Iain Duncan Smith has outlined proposals to make Britain's workforce "more mobile".

According to today's Sunday Telegraph, Duncan Smith's ideas include "encourag[ing] jobless people living in council houses to move out of unemployment black spots" to new homes in areas of higher unemployment. This follows last week's announcement of a major shake up of housing benefit and the government's pledge to reduce welfare spending.

Labour's Ed Balls has already publicly criticised the proposals. And those criticisms, which I will come to shortly, are in some respects more than justified. However, there is some substance in what Duncan Smith has to say and it is facile to simply disregard his thinking as outdated Tory dogma.

What he is trying to do is to deal with the problem of poverty and alleviate the social consequences of long-term unemployment. He talks about people who are "trapped in estates where there is no work" and of depressed "areas [which are home to] over five-and-a-half million people of working age who simply don’t do a job." His language is undoubtedly unhelpful, but he is trying to get to grips with an undeniable reality and looking for solutions.

He also makes some sensible suggestions, such as making it easier for tenants of council and social housing to relocate. As a council tenant myself, I understand what Duncan Smith means when he says that too often it's "too much of a risk to move [to a new area to work] because if you up sticks and go you will have lost your right to your house...the local council is going to tell you that you don’t have a right to a house there...we have to look at how we get that portability, so that people can be more flexible, can look for work, can take the risk to do it.” As someone with instinctively liberal instincts, I would support this increased "portability" to allow tenants to move more freely across the UK, for employment or other reasons. The social housing system definitely needs to be liberalised.

Where I part company with him is when he talks about providing incentives to "encourage jobless people...in council houses...to move [to] other areas." This is dangerous rhetoric and can't simply be explained away by suggesting it is in some way about empowering individuals. It is a thinly disguised attack on the unemployed. It is shrouded in prejudice and ignorance. Sadly, the only solutions that are forthcoming are not only simplistic but based on patronising and evidence-lacking assumptions about what the problems actually are.

In fairness to Iain Duncan Smith, I suspect that - unlike me - he hasn't actually lived in a council estate, and that his experiences of poverty and its associated social ills are somewhat different to my own and those of my fellow Inverclyde residents. It's easy for him to talk to Sky News about "ghettos of poverty" but it's a little more difficult to propose something that will actually help some of the communities in our area (and others) that need and deserve it.

He quite simply has not thought through the practical difficulties of what he is proposing. Unlike the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have historically understood the meaning of community. We're liberals after all. We appreciate the emotional importance of remaining close to families and communities and recognise that good communities nurture and develop individuals' potential. We realise that, where there is social deprivation and unemployment, solutions lie not in drawing out talented people to work elsewhere but in investing in those individuals and communities and revitalising local industries. We also know that solutions to the wider problems require initiatives to improve the communities themselves, including modernising, improving and expanding social housing stock. All this unfortunately seems to have escaped Iain Duncan Smith's attention.

He also ignores the fact that many unemployed people are not only "trapped" by their housing, but by the benefits system itself. Many of the unemployed people in Port Glasgow and Greenock will hardly feel empowered by a proposal to allow them to move somewhere else to claim their Jobseeker's Allowance. Many long-term unemployed are without either the skills or the experience to simply relocate and take up gainful employment. Rather than "incentivising" relocations that would leave places like Greenock bereft of some of its more ambitious citizens, the government should instead be looking at means of providing unemployed people with opportunities to develop modern skills and the necessary abilities to succeed in rewarding careers. It is simply absurd to think that a man from Greenock who has been unemployed for ten years could simply walk into a job in, say, Chingford.

The government should also recognise that it isn't just council tenants who require support. There are many private tenants and home owners who also have to be supported into work, and wouldn't be eligible for council accommodation elsewhere. In any case, moving house can be very expensive. This is why Duncan Smith's proposals are so glib, and are likely to be interpreted as simply an attack on council tenants.

You see, Mr Duncan Smith, it's not quite as easy as that for council tenants to go out and get a job. Many people I know would love to be independent of the benefits system, if only they knew how. Inverclyde is hardly an employment hotspot and since the 1980s has seen the decline of the shipyards and IBM, with devastating social consequences. There simply aren't the jobs, and those that there are are often taken by people more than qualified to do them (my friend has an MA in History and works in Greggs on the minimum wage; my wife, who is qualified as a graphic designer has been unemployed since being made redundant last year). The local low-wage economy is itself a disincentive to work as many jobs don't pay better than our benefits system. At least you recognise this, Mr Duncan Smith, but why do you think we should all up-sticks when alternative solutions should be found to regenerate our area? And why do you refuse to see any value in the communities you are so keen to label "ghettos" and "traps"? Some of us know our areas and estates are far from perfect, but there is often real community spirit to be found - we can be very tight-knit here in the West of Scotland and there are some incredible social projects being undertaken here, if you'd only care to look.

One problem Mr Duncan Smith clearly fails to appreciate is one of housing. Places of high employment tend not to have much in the way of surplus social housing stock. If there is a lot of work in one area, surely it will be necessary to build a huge number of new council houses and/or social dwellings to accommodate this influx of eager workers. This would, of course, cost a significant amount of money and would result in huge numbers of empty council dwellings across places like Inverclyde, Glasgow, South Wales, etc. And wouldn't this simply be shifting a problem from one area to another?

Another problem he doesn't get to grips with is job creation. It's as if he can't be bothered with actively looking at ways to stimulate job production, which could benefit places like Inverclyde. Regrettably, Iain Duncan Smith appears to be living in some strange parallel universe, such are his unrealistic perceptions. His Thatcherite strategy is not only unworkable but completely discredited: the migration of unemployed people into areas of high unemployment would be socially irresponsible and would have potentially destructive ramifications.

Ed Balls, keen as ever for an opportunity to criticise his opponents has said that Duncan Smith's solutions would be "profoundly unfair and the wrong way to deal with the unemployment problem...the idea somehow that the only solution to unemployment is to cut benefits and say to people, 'go and do it yourself'. We know that does not work." He adds that the key is to "bringing more investment into unemployment blackspots to create jobs." Quite. However, Mr Balls did not explain why in thirteen years the Labour government did nothing in terms of providing any significant investment to stimulate job creation in deprived areas such as Inverclyde.

There is obviously not much Lib Dem thinking behind Mr Duncan Smith's plans. Of course, I have no knowledge of how much his ideas actually reflect the government position. What I do know is that - while the government has to find effective ways to positively combat the social problems forged by a combination of benefits dependency, poor housing, unemployment, a skills shortage and lack of opportunity - the Lib Dems must distance themselves from this unhelpful and frankly insultingly simplistic remedy.

We have enough good liberal ideas of our own which will build up communities rather than break them up. For example, our own manifesto for the general election committed us to an economic stimulus and job creation package, sustaining growth in the long term by setting up an Infrastructure Bank to finance essential long-term projects. We also pledged to spend £660million to tackle youth unemployment, bring 250,000 empty homes back into use and free councils to build a new generation of council homes. All of these measures would be far more effective than anything being proposed by Iain Duncan Smith today. The Lib Dems in government have to promote realistic, workable and innovative liberal alternatives to both Duncan Smith's shortsighted approach and Labour's historic inactivity.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Cameron & Clegg: flying the (St George's) flag

Why is it that, come the World Cup, politicians are so keen to go to great lengths to demonstrate their support and pride in the national team?

I always find it a bit bizarre that people who profess no love for the beautiful game - and probably understand it as well as I appreciate the finer points of the 1761 Marine Mutiny Act - make a huge show of their patriotism once World Cup fever sets in. In the past few years we've seen the Prime Minister making a statement about a David Beckham injury and a number of Cabinet ministers travelling around in limousines sporting the obligatory St George's flag (I wouldn't mind so much if some of the aforementioned ministers were not Scottish).

There are two schools of thought as to why this happens: a) it's shallow populism and public figures just can't help themselves when there's a chance to demonstrate to their constituents how "patriotic" they are and, b) public figures, like the rest of us, get caught up in the euphoria and the spirit of the World Cup and wear their optimism on their sleeves.

It's been a bit different this time around, admittedly. But our very own Nick Clegg took the effort to issue a statement that read “I’d like to join millions of people across the country in wishing the England team good luck in the World Cup. And I hope to be wishing them good luck again for the final in a month’s time.” Prime Minister David Cameron did likewise in a video message posted on the Number 10 website in which he stated "I keep saying we are all in this together, and that is particularly true when cheering on the England team." While such well-wishing from politicians is understandable, today's PMQs - which witnessed Cameron offering support to England ahead of their crucial game against Slovenia to cheers from MPs - was rendered truly embarrassing as a result of the PM's need to keep beating this particular drum.

Of course, it's not quite got to the level that things have in France. They always do things a little differently over there and no lesser a figure than President Sarkozy has pledged to investigate the French failure at the World Cup. He has decided a government meeting to discuss the matter is in order, and his Sports Minister has already gone public in saying "Those responsible for this disaster must accept the consequences." One can only wonder what might have happened had Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling developed a similarly strong approach towards the economic downturn.

As a Scot I'm not the biggest fan of the English national team, but I'm far from being the type of Scot who finds his identity in loathing all things English. I'm not going to be cheering whoever England's next opponents are. However, I confess to feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the relentless rush MPs are on to identify themselves with the Fabio Capello's team and especially with Cameron's assumption that "all 650 MPs are behind the national team during the World Cup" (Press & Journal). It's another excruciating example of how in the minds of people like him, who seem to thing that "Englishness" and "Britishness" are one and the same, the fact that there are 59 Scottish MPs who probably care little or nothing about England's World Cup campaign is easily overlooked.

I'm probably overreacting, but doesn't this betray a certain attitude towards Scotland? I hope the PM gives a bit more thought to the views of Scottish MPs when it comes to the detail of constitutional questions stemming from the Calman Report.

Of course, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg are more than entitled to support their national team. I would just prefer it if politicians didn't seek so much mileage from close identification with football teams, be they local or national. I am sure my MP is a Morton fan, but he doesn't make a big song and dance about it or talk about the club's success in the House of Commons (admittedly, talking about Morton's success anywhere would be pretty difficult). Footballers are hardly falling over themselves to give their views on politics, so why do politicians feel they have to be talking about football?

I know it's World Cup time, and no-one means any harm. I suppose if MPs want to embarrass themselves and look faintly amusing when their lack of actual knowledge is revealed (as happened famously to one P. Mandelson, who claimed to be a Hartlepool supporter while not knowing the names of any players) then that's up to them. But I personally think it makes politicians look pretty desperate and provides ammunition to those who think MPs are little more than cynically manipulative operators.

I wouldn't suggest that politics and sport are mutually exclusive. I would, however, suggest that there are more constructive ways of our leaders demonstrating their connection with the public than wrapping themselves in national flags.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

How can NHS services be improved as budgets are cut?

The Conservative Party, more than sensitive to the esteem in which the public hold the NHS, pledged to ringfence NHS spending prior to the General Election.

Since the election, the Cameron-led government has stressed that it will maintain existing budgets and "protect frontline services". This populist approach may prove to be a mistake for two reasons: firstly, exempting the NHS from budget cuts means that cuts elsewhere will be felt harder and, secondly, the government is not actually pledging to match Labour's historic spending increases and therefore any "savings" could end up feeling like cuts.

Over the last ten years, the NHS budget has, on average, increased by 7% annually. What the government has pledged to do is not to continue making such increases, but to keep the spending budget at 2009-10 levels for the next three years. Essentially, this means that NHS Trusts will be forced to find innovative ways of doing more with less at a time when an incoming government is promising improved performances within the NHS.

This week, Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) have been advised to make significant "savings". Nationally, these "savings" amount to approximately £30billion over the coming three years. While these budgetary restictions are not aimed at frontline services, there are concerns that frontline services will be indirectly affected as Trusts struggle to continue providing the same levels of quality service while making "efficiency savings". Unions have already expressed their worry that job cuts could be an inevitable consequence of the need to make savings while patient groups are concerned that in key areas, such as dementia care and mental health, the necessary investment in service improvements may be sidelined.

Of course, this does not apply to Scotland as health is a devolved issue but it is undeniably true that difficult decisions have to be made also by the Scottish government in relation to the health budget. So the key question is this: how can services not only be maintained but improved while budgets are being slashed?

One consequence may be that NHS Trusts may be keen to increase their use of the private and independent sector. This is not something I generally support, but if we are being realistic this is an option many Trusts will be forced to consider.

However, when Trusts are facing restrictions and opportunities for further developing services and facilities are limited, some use of the independent sector may not only be necessary but more cost-effective. For example, if an NHS Trust is temporarily unable to develop a new cancer unit, or build a new theatre, it makes sense - at least in the short term - to utilise the experience and facilities of independent providers to provide key services in line with the Trust's vision.

My chief concern is that the NHS is run in the public interest and for the public benefit. I would be be worried if the current financial situation led to NHS Trusts compromising best practice for cheapest practice. The independent sector should not, in my view, be used to simply outcource services to help reduce costs. Neither should it be allowed to cherry-pick the most lucrative services, such as certain types of elective surgery. However, there is undeniably a case for working in co-operation with the independent sector to provide an increased range of services and to increase the quality of clinical care.

NHS Trusts should also be looking to reduce costs by moving towards clinically better methods of working. The Kerr Report, which applied only to Scotland but whose principles are applicable throughout the UK, advocated a move towards preventative rather than reactive treatment. As the report makes clear, early diagnosis not only has clear clinical and human benefits, but signficantly reduces costs as fewer people require hospital admissions.

Similarly, Trusts and health authorities must develop new ways of relieving pressure on Accident & Emergency services, as well as in-patient medical facilities. This requires the development of a forward looking vision incorporating improved community services, health promotion strategy and more effective after-care arrangements for patients discharged from hospital. I strongly believe that such joined-up thinking would make a significant contribution to reducing costs - and in the latter case would reduce unnecessary re-admissions.

The NHS is still overly concerned with providing reactive treatment rather than promoting preventative care. This has to change. Health improvements can actually reduce costs and, even with budgetary restrictions, the NHS can continue to improve the services it provides. It is not merely a question of finances, but one of vision and whether the government has the courage to move towards a new needs-focused, pioneering NHS which is willing to shift away from the old models of reactive treatment centred around hospitals towards a more progressive model of health care.

This will not appease those who judge the quality of NHS service by bed numbers and David Cameron is deeply aware of the need to avoid a repeat of the Hewitt years when public opinion moved firmly against the government's policies on health. However, a better NHS requires positive health reform and therefore it is disheartening that a government that has, via its deliberate appeal to populism, halted further NHS reorganisation. The government should have the bravery not just to "ringfence" and "protect" but to innovate and put forward a fresh vision for delivering healthcare.

I have no doubt that new thinking would result in a more efficient NHS which is also cost-effective. On the other hand, maintaining the status quo while cutting budgets would be disastrous for the long-term future not only of the NHS, but the country's health.

Andrew Page is a former UNISON representative

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Simon Hughes elected Deputy Leader

So, the biggest surprise is that there wasn't a surprise. Simon Hughes secured 38 votes with Tim Farron receiving 18.

I personally would have preferred Tim Farron but there is little question that Simon Hughes will provide not only experience and vision but will ensure the party retains its dinstinctive voice while in coalition. Simon is highly popular among grassroots activists and, at a time when some Lib Dems are finding it difficult to identify with the direction in which the coalition government is going, his wisdom and fiercely liberal philosophy will ensure the parliamentary party retains its strong ideological identity.

He might just be what the party needs at the moment. With a difficult budget on the horizon, I am sure he will prove a unifying factor when hard decisions are likely to be made.

He's also very good with the media and is a skilled communicator. Again, these are assets which will prove crucial in taking the party's ideas and distinctive ethos to an electorate which may be critical of the achievements of the coalition.

Simon said: "I will fight every day for the principles which underpin our party: fairness, freedom, openness, equality, stewardship of our environment and standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves." This is typical Hughes rhetoric, and he's preaching to the converted. But liberals love it, and we know he means it. The challenge facing him is taking his vision to the country and ensuring that the freedom and fairness we believe in is reflected in the party's actions and campaigning.

As for Tim Farron, it's hard to believe there wasn't a minsterial position for him after the way he managed the DEFRA portfolio during the previous parliament. Och well, I'm sure his time will come...

AV referendum: Cameron will play no part in NO campaign

On Monday I met with Robert Maclennan, the ex-SDP leader and former MP for Caithness & Sutherland. We discussed some of the challenges and opportunities facing the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, in addition to exploring the possibilities for constitutional and electoral reform.

Of course, Lord Maclennan is more than well-versed in constitutional matters. In fact he's something of an expert in these things. What struck me though was the freshness and innovation of some of his ideas, parlicularly in regards parliamentary reform. What I found particularly surprising was that, in relation to the proposed AV referendum, he was optimistic that not only did this represent a real opportunity to put electoral reform back on the political agenda but also believed that it was more than winnable.

As anyone who knows me will appreciate, I'm not a big fan of AV. Like most Lib Dems, I'd prefer a genuinely proportional system such as STV. But there is little doubt that AV is a step in the right direction and is distictly preferable to the current system, which is hardly fit-for-purpose.

I also would have preferred almost any arrangement other than power-sharing with the Tories, although I accepted Nick Clegg's reasons for entering into a Cameron-led coalition. At the time, I strongly felt that Nick Clegg's acceptance of a referendum on AV (which, after all, was exactly what Labour had promised) was a lost opportunity. I thought the Lib Dem team should have held out for something better and made PR the sticking point in the negotiations, especially when it was revealed that Cameron would reserve the right to campaign against it. As far as I could see, Clegg had simply agreed to a referendum that the Conservatives would be determined we would lose, with the consequence of killing off the debate for the time being.

But in The Sunday Times, David Cameron revealed he would in fact not be involving himself in campaigning on the issue. Why not? Political editor Jonathan Oliver observed that, in spite of their natural reluctance to consider electoral reform, Tory ministers felt that AV would not necessarily work against their party "as long as the introduction of the alternative vote goes hand in hand with reform of constituency boundaries to equalise their size."

In spite of the inevitable opposition from Tory backbenchers, it is interesting to consider the possibility that senior Conservatives would rather keep the coalition united than defeat the AV referendum. AV does, after all, maintain the constituency link and would in all probability not make too much difference to Tory prospects. Oliver clearly is of the view that the matter is far more important to the Lib Dems' leaders than the Conservatives', and that the likely result of the AV vote being lost would be Lib Dem withdrawal from the coalition.

To me, that seems unlikely. Tuition fees increases are far more likely to derail the coalition than the democratic outcome of a referendum, however unpopular that outcome may be to party activists. But I also suspect there is doubt in the minds of many Tories who feel a YES majority in the referendum is possible. As Oliver speculates, "Cameron’s apparently relaxed approach to the referendum date and his decision to stand back from the fray will be seen by some Tories as a sign that he privately believes the battle to save first-past-the-post is lost."

I am sure this is where Bob Maclennan's optimism stems from. I don't think it's a case of needing to preserve the coalition, but a pragmatic stance from the Tory leadership. Why energetically campaign against a measure of electoral reform that will do one's party little damage and potentially alienate allies, especially when opinion polls suggest there exists a majority in favour of such change?

I'm also sure that Cameron remembers the lessons the Scottish Tories learned in the 1990s and, this time around, would not want to risk taking the wrong side against the prevailing wind of public opinion. If he campaigns strongly against AV and emerges on the losing side, what signals will that send out and what would be the cost to his personal credibility?