Sunday, 30 September 2007

Angus Young Re: London Marathon

Thanks for reminding me. Now be a good boy and pay up - the Spinal Injuries Association will put it to good use.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Hello Mr Richmond!

When you first start writing a blog you do wonder if anyone's going to read it. It's one of the reasons why 70% of bloggers give up after a few posts.

So I'm glad to see some people are acutally logging on but I was quite surprised to see that Tom Richmond from the Yorkshire Post was one of them!

You might remember that I responded to his piece about a percieved lack of homegrown Yorkshire MPs. (See my post below.)

Well, someone pointed out his response to me here in his column.

"MY call for political parties to select a greater number of Parliamentary candidates with Yorkshire roots struck a chord with the family of my old foe John Prescott.

It was particularly resonant with the outgoing Hull East MP's son, David, who has made no secret of his desire to follow his father into politics.

But it was the maturity of Prescott junior's response on his blog that was so refreshing.

"Ward meetings can be off-putting as new members tend to feel a bit excluded and baffled by our arcane agendas and party rules. We don't give them a simple introduction about how our party works," he wrote.

"I think we also need to make these meetings more informal and family friendly. They should feel they're part of a social network."

This is the kind of new thinking that Labour requires if it is to curtail the appointment of "social worker" politicians in this region who have no affinity with Yorkshire, and merely jump to the Government's command."

Well Tom, I'm sure you'd be more than welcome down 430 Holderness Road next time you're in town - heck, I'll even take you next door to the Crown afterwards!

Just don't tell Harry!

Friday, 21 September 2007

Minns Means Spin

Another classic Carl Minns performance on Look North last night, this time trying to defend axing universal healthy school meals for primary children.

Daren Hale revealed from official Hull City Council statistics that take up of healthy school meals had actually dropped to 34% in the last two weeks of last term.

Daren rightly pointed out that social stigma and the confusion of filling out the forms to claim free schools meals had led to the dramatic downturn.

Minns repsonse was to say that figures were not audited, they were not accurate and that "The Labour Party has a history of spinning figures - just look at the Iraq War!"

This from a man who went on national TV morning, noon and night with vastly inflated and inaccurate figures for flood damage - £360m, no...£200m, no...£60m - a reckless strategy that led to hard-working families seeing their home insurance premiums double.

But don't worry, the £1m saved from axing the meals is being spent on "better ingredients." Never mind no-ones eating them, at least they'll be organic!

I don't like being negative against politicians - it's a hard job and anybody prepared to get involved in civic service should be encouraged. Hey, I even have a couple of Lib Dem friends. (Just a couple, mind)

But their wreckless actions are directly affecting the health of our kids and the budgets of working-class families. Minns has made a real dog's dinner of school meals and people are starting to wake up to it.

See what you think. Click here to watch last night's interview

Monday, 17 September 2007

Please sir, can I have some more?

What a mess the Lib Dems have made of scrapping universal free school meals for primary school pupils in Hull.
Educationalists from around the world closely observed Labour's pioneering programme. The stigma was taken away from claiming a FSM and take-up shot up to 90%.
And the evidence of improvement was overwhelming.
The University of Hull evaluation of the programme found that not only did take up go through the roof but the kids had healthy meals, were better behaved and performed better in class.
Now today the Hull Daily Mail shows the rank incompetence of Lib Dems meddling.
For a family with three kids who just miss out on qualifying but are still on low pay, that's an extra £70 a month to find from a tight budget.
But what sticks in my gullet is that the Lib Dems factored to save £1m by doing two things:
1 A reduced meal uptake of 46% (cutting those having healthy meals by a half) and
2 Sacking dinner ladies because there'd be less kids to serve.

That's a bit like cutting waiting times at a hospital by closing the hospital!

Roll on May!

Friday, 14 September 2007

Sometimes big isn't beautiful

I've been going through the £220m Building Our Future schools plan with teachers and one message keeps coming through loud and clear - some of the planned schools will have too many pupils.

To recap, Hull's 14 secondary schools will be cut to 12, with East Hull going from 4 to 3 schools, with Andrew Marvell, Malet Lambert expanding to 1500 pupils and a Archbishop Thurston, which currently has 873 pupils, being replaced by a 1,500 11-19 secondary and sixth form.

I always felt Bransholme High was too big when I was there in the 80s (Winifred Holtby, now has 1,552 pupils and even that's being cut to 1,300 under the new plan.)

Don't take my word for it. A report by the Institute of Education, "Secondary school size: a systematic review" found that achievement increases as school size increases up to approximately 1,200 (for 11-16 schools.) Above 1,200, and achievement decreases as size increases. The bigger they become, the worse the results.

It can be more pronounced in schools in challenging areas like East Hull. Studies have found that children can start to disengage from school as young as nine, so secondary teachers face an uphill struggle, especially when half the kids are on free school meals. So it's vital these children get as much support as they can and that theyr'e not allowed to slip through the net.

Last week's report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation proved children who grow up in poverty and disadvantage are less likely to do well at school - pupils with free school meals are half as likely to get 5 good GCSEs than the rest of the kids in the class.

The challenge is to engage with them and to make education interesting and relevant, so they don't feel, as the report says, "powerless as learners." After school activities help as it helps them to engage with learning in a less formal environment.

But more importantly they needed targeted help and support - from teachers and parents. They're less likely to get that in 1500+ schools. Steve Brady, Mary Glew and the Labour Group know this and that's why they're suggesting East Hull should have two smaller schools of 800.

But it's not too late for you to have your say. You'll find the Building Our Future consultation site here so leave your comments.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Hull, Hell and Happiness

You know what? I LOVE Fridays. I know it's a clich̩ and small talk for people now seems entirely to involve either trading questions about the weekend just gone or the one coming up. But indulge me for a moment РI'm stepping back and, to use another tired clich̩, I'm smelling the roses.

The weather outlook is good, England face Israel in a Euro qualifier, Jay Jay has joined the Tigers and Rovers celebrate staying up by taking on Wigan (£5 if you walk up on the day.)

There is another reason, however, for my cheery demeanour. As part of my job, I'm compelled to read the newspapers and keep a very close eye on what's going on in the media. Sometimes it's easy to forget what you're taking on when you read The Daily Mail, then the Telegraph and then on to the Express. Between them they paint a very glib picture of the country we live in.

Today however, I've just read about the release of the Economist Pocket World in Figures book. It is a series of lists on societal habits and norms within countries all over the world. It has reminded me that – things aren't nearly as bad as the media and some alarmist politicians will have us believe.

For example, the UK is top among the most popular destinations for tourists from all over the world. We have the fifth biggest economy and Britons can expect to live longer than almost anyone else. The number of people getting divorced has fallen, male suicide rates have gone down and the murder rate per 100,000 people (the clearest method of comparison) is comparatively low for a wealthy nation.

And it doesn't stop there - the UK has the second highest number of Nobel Prize winners on the planet and the third-largest haul of Olympic medals.

So how is it that opposition politicians and newspapers can whip up a level of hysteria that leads many people to believe there's something terrible happening to the country when they see violence on the news or kids hanging out on street corners? Simple – it's their job. Violence sells newspapers and discontent is oxygen to politicians out of power.

Yes, of course, there are terrible stories out there and they need to be dealt with. The good news is that they are being dealt with - but that doesn't help an opposition politician who has been forced to go back to his "core values". Is it right that in order to attempt to curry favour from the British public, the opposition talk about 'Anarchy in the UK' and run this great country down?

Is it right that they do it in the face of contrary fact? Overall, crime has fallen since 1997. The number of people claiming asylum in the UK has drastically fallen in the same period and we're at the lowest divorce rate for over 20 years. For the party who believe their core issues to be law and order, immigration and the family –why can't they be happy?

Seems the Tories just like singing the blues.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Home grown

Now I've never been a big fan of the Yorkshire Post and Tom Richmond can certainly claim to be 'outspoken' - which isn't a bad thing, especially when it sparks a debate.

And Tom has done just that today in his essay bemoaning the lack of home-grown politicians. I think it's well worth a read but what it doesn't answer is WHY we're not encouraging more local people to go into politics.

The two questions we need to ask of ourselves are how do we attract potential political candidates into the party and how can we enthuse young people - the community leaders of tomorrow - that getting involved in politics is a noble and worthwhile cause.

Recruiting new members is great but a membership has to be sustainable. As I've experienced, ward meetings can be off-putting as new members tend to feel a bit excluded and baffled by our arcane agendas and party rules. We don't give them a simple introduction about how our party works, who does what and the opportunities available to them.

I think we also need to make these meetings more informal and family friendly. They should feel they're part of a social network and kept informed through email or a Facebook grouping as well as by letter for the elderly.

My ward councillor in Greenwich, Mary Mills, is in her 60s (hope you don't mind me saying that Mary) but she sends out an email twice a month to people who want to be kept up to date about what's happening in the ward - from on-going planning applications to what's coming up at the local theatre. She has an email list of hundreds, the vast majority non-party members just wanting to be kept abrest of what's happening. She had by far the highest number of votes of any of the ten candidates in her ward at the last council election.

As for encouraging young people, we need to let them take more decisions in our schools and in our communities. School Councils have been a great way of introducing them into citizenship - dealing with bullying, school meals and other concerns.

Positive peer leadership develops and the responsibility for maintaining good behaviour is shifted away from teachers and towards members of the classroom and school community. Pupils become able to resolve conflicts amongst their peers. Disruptive behaviour, vandalism, truancy and exclusions all reduce in schools with these councils.

I could go on, but please read Tom's article.

Tom Richmond: A lack of home-grown talent - Yorkshire Post, September 1 2007

"IF just one word defines Yorkshireness, the adjective "outspoken" would suffice.

People born within God's own county have a much-cherished reputation for speaking their minds. The cussedness of Sir Bernard Ingham and Geoffrey Boycott typifies this.

Yet who speaks for Yorkshire in the House of Commons – the great democratic forum for this country's supposed opinion-formers?

Certainly not the five MPs from this region who sit in Gordon Brown's new-look Cabinet. All were born outside the county.

Certainly not Caroline Flint, the new Yorkshire Minister appointed by Mr Brown to defend Yorkshire's interests in Parliament. She is from Twickenham, a fact unreported on her personal website.

And certainly not those MPs elected two years ago to represent Yorkshire and Humberside. Only 23, less than half the total number of 56, were actually born in this region, never mind the constituency that they represent.

It's a far cry from the era, not so many years ago, when Labour officials whistled down a mine shaft for a prospective MP to emerge, almost certainly a trade union official, the coal dust ingrained in his skin, or when the Tories turned to the local business community to fill any vacancy.

Now it's more likely that a prospective candidate will be a public-sector official, or young professional with little life experience, who has served the briefest of apprenticeship in some distant corner of the country.

Their insight into Yorkshire and, more particularly, the character of local people, will have been cribbed from the internet.

Yet it is debatable, when one looks at the effectiveness of this new political breed, whether intellectual prowess is an adequate substitute for local knowledge.

This southern bias was, perhaps, best exemplified by the Government's tardy response to the recent Yorkshire floods – the final bill for which could be £2bn. Even though Gordon Brown's first days in 10 Downing Street were dominated by the failed suicide bombings, this was no excuse for the new Prime Minister to take 10 days before acknowledging the scale of the disaster. However, this does not justify the pedestrian response of the five-strong Yorkshire contingent in his Cabinet – or that of John Healey, the Wentworth MP and Floods Minister.

Homes and businesses in each of their constituencies were left under several feet of storm water and sewage.

Would the response have been any swifter if the Ministers concerned represented marginal seats where they were not guaranteed a job for life – or if they had a greater empathy with Yorkshire?

One insider insists they were simply overwhelmed by the breadth and haste of the Whitehall changes that were unveiled by Gordon Brown.

But would this excuse have been rendered redundant had Yorkshire been represented by backbenchers – sufficiently independent of mind – whose views were respected, and who could have alerted the powers-that-be to the unfolding disaster? My guess, again, is yes.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, at the height of Margaret Thatcher's popularity, there were a significant number of MPs born outside the county boundary.

The significant difference between now and then was that many were educated in this region – or became regarded as "honorary Yorkshiremen", because of the rigour of their Parliamentary interventions.

Sir Keith Joseph, Lady Thatcher's policy inspiration, was born in London. His fellow Leeds MP Merlyn Rees, Labour's former Home Secretary, hailed from South Wales. Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer, came from Kent.

Healey's family only moved to Keighley when he was five-years-old. "It was like emigrating to another country, to leave a gimcrack suburb in outer London for the grimy millstone grit of the industrial North," he wrote in his memoirs.

Yet, to this day, Labour's former deputy leader, now Lord Healey of Riddlesden – he takes his title from the small village in the West Riding where he grew up and celebrated his 90th birthday this week – is regarded as "a son of Keighley".

This was a generation of politicians who grew up in an era when the importance of local communities truly mattered – and they remembered it throughout their public service.

Rees is, perhaps, better remembered in parts of Leeds for his long association with Hunslet Rugby League Club; Healey became a great champion of the Yorkshire countryside.

When they spoke in Parliament, their opponents listened. And, more importantly, these were not lone voices. The roll-call of the 1983 Yorkshire intake at Westminster read like a veritable "who's who" of British politics with names such as Leon Brittan, Roy Mason, Derek Fatchett, Marcus Fox and Geoffrey Lofthouse.

There was also a younger generation of MPs who were never backward in coming forward – people like John Prescott, Austin Mitchell and Barry Sheerman.

These, and many others, were all voices that came to be respected, even though their views may not have been universally shared.

Indeed, both David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) and Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) told me independently that they respected each other's forthrightness as opposed to their political views.

But they went further. Peacock attributes her local roots as being instrumental in her retaining her most marginal of constituencies from 1983 until the Tory rout of 1997 that saw Tony Blair come to power. She had a majority of 1,407 votes in 1992.

And, while Hinchliffe admits that he was fortunate to represent the city where he was actually born, he believes that constituency parties have a duty to select prospective Parliamentarians from this region at the very least.

I agree. It speaks volumes about the decline of the political process when neither of the main parties can find 50 or so willing and able candidates who were raised in Yorkshire.

Indeed, one only has to look at the seat that he vacated in 2005 to see, at first hand, the Yorkshire void that is now so evident at Westminster.

The current incumbent is Coventry-born Mary Creagh who was Labour leader on Islington Council in London which she still considers to be her home.

One of her more recent Commons interventions was a question about the capital's refurbished South Bank Centre – with a reference to how she had participated in the reopening celebrations with her young child.

Yet her Tory opponent at the next election will not be an aspiring local politician, but a financial analyst looking to relocate to West Yorkshire from the capital.

How can either candidate credibly claim to speak for the people of Wakefield – a proud community near where the aforementioned Geoffrey Boycott grew up – when their roots, and instincts, lie 200 miles down the M1?

They can only overcome this barrier if they possess the eloquence, and political know-how, to overcome this shortcoming, a declining skill.

Worryingly, however, this is just one example. Countless Parliamentary seats at the next election will be contested by rival candidates whose links to Yorkshire are negligible at best.

The county, to them, will be a place where

they have a weekend base if they are elected. They will not have grown up in the region and come to learn of the area's history, heritage and characteristics.

As a consequence, they will not be speaking for Yorkshire when they stand up in the House of Commons to make their maiden speech. While some bland platitudes will, no doubt, be spoken, they will be speaking for themselves – and not necessarily their constituents.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions. George Mudie, the Leeds East MP, remains a proud Scot. But at least he cut his political teeth on Leeds City Council. And while Yorkshire-born William Hague and David Davis are two of the Conservative Party's big-hitters, their own interests – business or political or both – always appear to come first.

Nevertheless, the time has come for the main parties to place "localism" at the heart of their selection process."