columnibus

Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Grenfell Tower: The mighty may fall

Words are loaded with portent. How best to describe the terrible events at Grenfell Tower? The fire that killed at least 79 people  has  been variously described as a tragedy, a disaster, a scandal and a crime.  In the heat of a Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, John McDonnell spoke controversially  of the victims “being murdered by political decisions”.

When the evidence has been examined, we may eventually know how to attribute responsibility  between the contractors, the building inspectors, the housing management company,  the local authority and the government  but  we may never know the extent that sweeping public spending cuts led safety to be compromised in one particular fire.

The social significance of Grenfell Tower is another matter altogether. The fire and its extensive aftermath, in which every cladding tile tested so far has failed a fire safety test,  is likely to be a transformational  event. Anything less would be utterly shameful.

The current problems of a minority government have been compared to the similar situation in the 1970s but the events of Grenfell Tower remind me of the Profumo Scandal in 1961, when a government minister lied to the House of Commons about a fleeting affair that allegedly compromised national security. There was a judicial inquiry; the Prime Minister eventually resigned and within a few years the Conservative government fell. The implications were far wider than the sordid event . The establishment never recovered and gentlemen were never held in the same regard again.

There are equally widespread implications now. Firstly, social housing has been shown to be a public disgrace. Two days after the fire, I visited the housing estate where I had lived and worked 40 years ago and was dismayed to see how the early brave ambitions  of  local authority architects to design and build a futurist town in a coherent style, with open space and  community facilities , had given way to a hotchpotch of  new  private houses  crammed into every possible space.

Council housing after the second world war was intended, in Nye Bevan’s words, to be the place “where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived on the same street” and this aspiration remained, in my recollection, into the eighties, until council housing was removed from local authority control, arms length management was set up and Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right to buy’.  Council housing is now the preserve of the poor and the events at Grenfell Tower has brought the lamentable conditions  into the open.

 

Homeowners, like myself these days, turn a blind eye when the housing crisis is mentioned.  Shelter predicts a million homeless people by 2020 as lack of social housing drives the poorest into private accommodation that they cannot afford due to rising rents and frozen benefits.

Secondly, the economic zeitgeist of the times has been challenged. In order to grow the economy and create prosperity, regulations have been abandoned so that free enterprise may thrive. David Cameron pledged to “kill off the safety culture for good” with “a bonfire of red tape”. Boris Johnson claimed “health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people”. One of the lamentable omissions in the Grenfell Tower saga will surely be the failure of the coalition government to consider the recommendations after the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009 which warned against using inflammable cladding and argued for sprinklers to be installed. It was not a high priority for successive government ministers.

Funding for Health and Safety Executive has been cut by half but elf’n’safety is making the most unlikely of comebacks. At a  seminar last week  on the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation, which the presenter said would send most of the audience to sleep, my spirits rose at the thought that what would have been dismissed as unnecessary red tape only two weeks ago may now be taken seriously.  Devised in Brussels and backed  in Whitehall, the Regulation will place far more stringent conditions on obtaining  personal data  and impose fines of up to E10 million  on those  who flout it. The events at Grenfell Tower may just stop the rampant profiteering of neo liberalism and bring back sensible regulation to create a more civilised society.

Finally, Grenfell Tower is part of a community where some of the poorest in London live alongside the most wealthy including Roman Abramovich, Prince William and  David Beckham and where houses are left empty on purpose.  It is fitting that some of the families from Grenfell Tower will be rehoused in luxury apartments just along the road which come complete with concierge security, underground garage and a swimming pool.

UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. Ever since Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published ‘The Spirit Level’ in 2009, we know that societies with higher rates of inequality come off worse for jobs, health, education and crime and that even the wealthy live better and longer when inequality is tackled.

The Grenfell Tower story may soon slip out of the headlines. The promised  inquiry may take forever. But dramatic events can sometimes change history. Will neo liberalism be cast aside, will a government fall and social attitudes change because a fridge freezer failed in the middle of the night?

Published in Newcastle Journal 27th June 2017

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Signs of hope and despair in a baffling election

Do not come here looking for incisive political analysis. I have been as bemused as everyone else since Big Ben struck ten on election night and the exit poll announced  that the Tories might not get a majority. Here are the moments that have stood out for me, and the first is  from retired school teachers in Canada.

 Christine Archibald was a 30 year old  social worker from British Columbia  who worked with homeless people. She was visiting her fiancé in London when she had the ultimate misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was killed in the terrorist outrage on London Bridge.

Within 24 hours, the Archibald  family issued an extraordinary statement. Their daughter and sister, they said, had room in her heart for everyone and believed strongly that every person was to be valued and respected. She would have had no understanding of the callous cruelty that caused her death.   Please honour her, they asked us, by making your community a better place. Volunteer your time and labour or donate  to a homeless shelter. “Tell them Chrissy sent you.”

A week after the horrifying events at London Bridge, I am still moved to tears  by  the compassion of a grieving family on the other side of the world who told us so clearly how to start putting this terrible world to rights. If we want to do something to stop people becoming marginalised, dehumanised and radicalised, we need to get out there and build stronger communities.

Tearing up the human rights laws is not the answer. They were designed to protect our way of life. Putting more police on the streets may help redress  austerity has cut too deep  in every  part of our public life ( but can you remember a brave  Home Secretary  taking on overmanning in the police in 2010? ). The real answer is to reach out and welcome strangers even if will take years of effort and may not stop other acts of terrorism in the meantime .

My other stark memory from  the final week of electioneering was during the hustings in my church in  Prudhoe. We were asked whether we wanted another vote on the terms of leaving the European Union.  The audience was not selected for political balance – though bear in mind that Prudhoe had for the first time in living memory elected two Conservative  County Councillors. ( Sorry Conservative and Unionist as they are now known).  I knew most of the people in the room. On a show of hands, they were split down the middle. I realised that Brexit still deeply divides us.

Despite a referendum and now a general election called to seek our views on leaving Europe, nothing is resolved. I doubt that many of us would claim to fully understand the issues or the nuances of negotiation that lie ahead of us.  In less than a year, the reputations of two Prime Ministers have been trashed. There is an overwhelming case for pausing  for a summer holiday, perhaps walking in Wales again, accepting Ruth Davidson’s plea to “ look again”  and considering Yvette Cooper’s suggestion of a cross party negotiating team, before more damage is done.

I was then intrigued by late developments in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You may have switched off the television set before the last election result was declared there on Friday evening. After two recounts, Emma Dent Coad was elected by 20 votes making her the first Labour MP ever elected in  a constituency which boasts  the richest street in the country, just along from Kensington Palace, where the average house price  is around £20m.

Kensington is home to the trans global elite, moving in from the Middle Est Asia and Eastern Europe, and also to international investors who buy fabulous  properties and then leave them empty on purpose. Since the constituency was redrawn in 2010, it also includes the tower blocks  in Ladbroke Grove  and the multi racial communities in Notting Hill.

The economics of neo liberalism may have benefitted the few oligarchs and hedge fund managers  but it has failed the many watchers on. In this cameo of political life in Kensington, the poor edged it by 20 votes , thanks  to the resurgence of a Labour party promising to end austerity through increased taxation on the very wealthy. I admit to a moment of excitement.

Finally, spare a thought for apparatchiks, of whatever political persuasion, who are sacrificed to save their leaders heads. By all accounts, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill rode rough shod over their colleagues but it is despicable that the servants fall on their swords whilst the mistress stays in post, for now at least.

It is as if nothing has changed. The same top team are around the Cabinet table. The same gang head off to Brussels next Monday, shaken but still in charge. How long can this last? The lessons I draw from a tumultuous  time are that we need to get out more, be friendly in Europe  and deal urgently with excesses of  inequality. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly as the Prophet Micah once said.

published in Newcastle Journal 13th June 2017

Crying into my beer about social care for the elderly

Over a pint of beer with a friend in his eighties, I wonder what my own declining years will bring.  The staff at his local know my friend well and pull his favourite beer but he no longer has any memory of having set foot in the pub ever before. He enjoys the outing and says   that he is happy with his lot.

Whenever  I struggle to call a name to mind, I fear I might be on the same slipway myself.  For a man of my age, heart disease and cancer are the most likely causes of my demise. But the longer I dodge the bullet, the more likely that dementia will set in and that is what haunts me most.

I jokingly point to the care home at the top of my street as my final destination but now find it is closing down allegedly because the council does not pay reasonable care costs. If the care home industry collapses through lack of funding, will be there be anywhere for me to rest my ageing bones with any degree of dignity?

So I was pleased to see Theresa May proposing to tackle social care costs, in that early and innocent phase of the election campaign before it was overshadowed by the terrible events in Manchester.  She then enjoyed such a commanding lead in the polls that she could risk losing the support of the mighty elderly voter. In her manifesto, ( or was it the Conservative Party’s?)  the triple lock was broken, the winter fuel allowance means tested  and a plan for funding end of life care  proposed. But the scheme was withdrawn three days later.

I was pleased to see someone take an initiative on a topic that had been consigned to the filing cabinet. The Commission chaired by the economist Andrew Dilnot had recommended in 2011 that those with the means to do so should pay for their social care but that personal  contributions should be capped at an agreed level. Thereafter the state would pay.

David Cameron accepted the findings but delayed  implementation until  2020. Under the current system, anyone  with less than £14,000 receives free care and those with more than £23,000, do not which, Dilnot said recently, creates both inequality and a fair amount of cheating. Us oldies want to know where we stand and to plan if we can.

The Conservative manifesto appeared to be more generous by meeting the cost of care for everyone with assets of £100,000 or less. But it actually pushed more of the cost on to the cared for by including the cost of their home and the cost of care at home as well.

The announcement received support from some unlikely quarters. Polly Toynbee and Will Hutton both welcomed it because it unlocked the vast pent up property fortune  that has fallen into the lap of most  pensioners through the housing boom.  The ’dementia tax’  stopped  the  ‘intergenerational injustice’ of the hard pressed younger generation, who cannot afford to buy a flat,  meeting the costs of the older generation living in their mansions.

But think further and you realise this scheme is an iniquitous lottery. At present one in five of  us will need long term care and  the numbers are rising partly because we are living longer and avoiding other death traps. Those unfortunate to suffer from a degenerative disease  will pay the cost. They will lose their savings and their children will not inherit. Those dying from cancer  will be treated for free and pass on their riches to the next generation. This is a long way from the universal provision of the welfare state.

And of course, apart from the principles of how to pay for social care, there is the mess of low wages for care workers, the dependence on E U migrants to staff the homes and the inability of local authorities to pay a reasonable rate. My beer drinking companion is able to pay his way and receives good care but life in a state funded home in years to come sounds like the modern equivalent of purgatory.

Sir Andrew, rightly ennobled for his work, is unrepentant. There’s plenty of money, he says. “ We may choose not to afford it but the notion that we can’t afford something, given what has happened to our income is striking and quite surprising, and doesn’t strike me as correct.” He and others propose different versions of taxation on all pensioners and their estates that would spread the load.

At least Team Theresa tried to come up with a solution and spin it into a vote winning one.  Now she is in retreat. There is talk of more consultation but expect the social care crisis to continue and to get worse. The Kings Fund says the cash shortfall will be £2bn by 2020.

Pensioners  have seen off  this half hatched solution over a weekend without even rising blood pressure.  Voters will worry whether someone who can change her mind so quickly and spectacularly can handle a long Brexit negotiation.

If I was Theresa May, I would be worried at my falling ratings. If I was Andrew Dilnot, I would despair and I am resigned to whatever the fates may deal me in future days and hope you will take me out for a pint of beer.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 30th May 2017

 

 

 

Dont be afraid to put pacificism at the heart of foreign policy

“I am not a pacifist” Jeremy Corbyn  insisted last week.  A pacifist is seen as the ultimate party pooper – someone misunderstood as cowardly, unpatriotic and beyond reason.

In fact, pacifists are about the bravest  people around putting themselves on the line to campaign for peace. They have been executed, imprisoned, beaten up, arrested and ostracised for their beliefs. Pacifists are however unlikely to win the floating vote.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke eloquently about pacifist practices in an under reported speech at Chatham House last Friday. The media  was obsessed with  manifesto leaks that day and nobody is much interested in foreign policy anyway.

The Leaders speech urged Britain to “walk the hard yards to a better way to live together on this planet”. Labour  would place far more emphasis on diplomacy, non proliferation and multi lateral disarmament and be far less inclined to rush to arms and put troops on foreign shores. He cited the disastrous intervention in Libya as a failure of Conservative foreign policy and  evidence that the war of terror was failing.

He quoted President Eisenhower’s warning of the unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex  and said there would be no more hand holding with Donald Trump. A Labour government would not be afraid to speak its mind.

In an article on the same day, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry evoked the late Robin Cook’s search for an ethical  foreign policy that would stand up for human rights, support emerging democracies and keep climate change at the top of the agenda.

In the leaked manifesto, Labour commits to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, maintain the 2% commitment  on defence spending and renew Trident. All in all, Labour proposes a thoughtful and different kind of foreign policy that also tries to keep the two wings of the Labour party happy.

Meanwhile no word from Boris Johnson on foreign affairs apart from a flat refusal to pay the Brexit bill and  a belief that the Russians would interfere to help Labour because “Putin would rejoice to see British defences weakened, Britain’s foreign policy become less active, to see us detached from the United States.”. He is being kept well up the back of the Team Theresa bus for the time being.

It was brave of Jeremy Corbyn to make a set speech on foreign policy because it exposes him to the suspicion that he is soft on defence and would not press the button to order a nuclear strike. World leaders would have catastrophically failed if this situation arose, he said, and  the results would kill millions and devastate the planet.

Indeed, it is alright with me if Corbyn does come out as a pacifist. He has voted against every use of armed force apart from Cyprus and East Timor.  But he held back to say that he would use military action under international law as a genuine last resort and that the safety and security of the British people was his first priority.

I find Corbyn’s hand wringing endearing and reassuring . I would not want to live under a Prime Minister who was confident about proceeding with nuclear war, intent on sending out the bombers or deploying the troops. By contrast, the Conservatives now say that would use a deterrent first strike.

Having only recently  written off Jeremy Corbyn as party leader and potential prime minister in this column, I find myself warming to him as the election campaign unravels. On the Six o Clock news every night, Jezza can be found sitting on the classroom floor reading to a child  or walking the  factory  floor in a pair of safety glasses appearing to enjoy himself and running the risk of looking silly.

Judged by the news clips, the contrast with Theresa May could not be greater. She stands to attention  in front of a few rows of well dressed Conservative supporters, reiterates her mantra and pours scorn on Jeremy Corbyn.  Her handlers will not cut her any slack.

On her raid into  Labour heartland in the North East,  Mrs May’s  one and only stop  in Northumberland  was at Eschott Airport?  Why not visit Newcastle International Airport and make a statement about airport taxes? I wonder if the empty acres and good road connections around the private airfield at Eschott are about  to be revealed as the new regeneration hub of the region?

She sneaked in the side door  at Linskill Centre in North Shields  to avoid the public outside with their placards and spoke to another select few including her great fan Laura Kuenssberg. Why not visit the much grander Memorial Hall in Wallsend or Sage Gateshead  to get a feel for the regions past and present triumphs? Why make the journey at all if you are not going to meet those “ordinary working people” you want to vote for you?

The Prime Minister is missing the opportunity to expound her vision for the country and her policies for the new government . Although she called the election over leaving Europe, Brexit is the elephant in the room. She may be heading back to Downing Street after the election but Theresa May is losing the campaign. Her lead dropped eight points last week and there are still three weeks to go.

published in Newcastle Journal Tues 16th May 

 

 

 

Save me from strong and stable leadership

Did Theresa May coin the phrase on a mountain  in  Wales or did it come to mind  as she stepped  out of Downing street a fortnight ago today to spring her surprise election? Beware of anyone who tells you they are strong.

Or were darker forces at play?  Is ‘strong and stable’ a carefully constructed coda worked out to appeal to voters and churned out at every opportunity. It has been calculated that a Conservative politician mentions  this quality every eighteen seconds. Constant repetition  will eventually allow voters to appreciate strengths of the leader and only news junkies like me are sick of it already.

Does it stack up? Has Theresa May shown much S&S so far? Only last week, the government was forced by the courts to publish its long delayed air pollution strategy. Air pollution causes 64 premature deaths  a day. This was an example of a government running scared of the motor industry and of car owners, like me, who mistakenly  thought diesel was better for the environment. That’s cowardly and collusive leadership.

Only a couple of months ago, the courts also ruled against Theresa May’s plans to trigger Article 50 which smacked of  arrogant and authoritarian leadership.  It is no wonder that she is being referred to as Kim Jong May.

Then there was the U turn on national insurance contributions for the self employed and the amazing volte face in calling a general election and ditching the well intentioned fixed term parliament Act. Shame on the Opposition for going along with it.

This deceit has tarnished the image of the vicar’s daughter and National Trust member who is on the side of the ordinary working family. A more devious and calculating character is emerging who wants to banish legitimate opposition and, as the Daily Mail puts it, ‘crush the saboteurs’.

The most serious lack of leadership has been the hapless way in which the government   has handled Brexit. It has lacked a plan and failed to listen to its European partners. It really is fake news for Theresa May to proclaim  that the country is united behind her in wanting to be bumped out of Europe.

But even if, for the sake of argument, I allow the claim of strong leadership,  is this the direction in which I want to be lead? This is a government cutting welfare benefits, building grammar schools, reducing green energy subsidies, scrapping the Human Rights Act, cutting inheritance tax for the rich, renewing Trident, failing to honour commitments to child refugees and bringing back fox hunting. It is not dealing with the housing crisis or the social care crisis.

There is talk of the Tories relaxing the triple lock . We pensioners have been  let off too lightly because our votes matter. There is a hint from the Chancellor that he may not renew the silly ban on tax increases. We middle classes have been wrapped in cotton wool for too long as well. Both good ideas but will the manifestoes tell us where the money will be coming from?  Don’t hold your breath.

The Labour Party has been churning out policies day after day. That is what politics used to be about. They may not capture the imagination but they take sensible steps on housing, education and jobs. Keir Starmer made an honourable attempt to explain Labour’s position on Brexit but could have given more hope to Remainers and allowed space  for a second referendum.

These are extraordinary times and I am actually attracted by the so called ‘coalition of chaos’ if it means that different parties get together to return members who will challenge the draconian view of Brexit that a May government seems bound to pursue. Caroline Lucas should be waved back in.

Theresa May does not give us her vision for the future or even a set of policies for the next government. Her one new idea of capping energy bills was pinched from Ed Miliband. She will not debate in public or meet real voters. But she will provide strong and stable leadership, which, as everyone knows, is her way of telling us that Jeremy Corbyn is not up to the job.

When  Jezza was elected the first time around, I was excited that some of my more cherished political ideals might be fulfilled. This is the man who has been on the right side of every major argument for the past quarter century, from apartheid to nuclear weapons, arms sales, railway ownership, animal rights, cannabis and even the poor old royal family. He is the street protestors hero.

I am disappointed by his inability to manage the Labour Party and sorry that he is lukewarm about Europe.  The Tory jibes are despicable but funnily enough, a “muddle headed mugwump” is not far off the mark. Jeremy Corbyn is an honest, thoughtful, independently minded vegetarian who is likely to mull things over and unlikely to push a button in haste.  He cares about real people, refuses to slag off his opponents and is sartorially relaxed, These are the qualities I look for in a leader.

But more important, he is doing his best to lead a party in the direction I want to go and it is policies rather than personalities that matter.

Published in Newcastle Journal Tues 2nd MayMay wlaking

 

 

St Magnus shows Donald Trump there is another way to sort out disputes between nations

stMagnus-150x150[1]

It is exactly 900 years since Earl Magnus and Earl Haakon met on the island of Egilsay to try and resolve their differences. The two cousins had divided and ruled the islands of Orkney. But their followers had fallen out and rather than fight in battle, the joint Earls of Orkney agreed to meet and seek peace.

These were bloodcurdling times when rulers went by the names of Thornflinn the Skullsplitter and Eirik Bloodaxe. In this company, Magnus was something of an exception. According to Icelandic legend, as a young man he had refused to fight under King Magnus Barelegs against the Welsh ‘for he had no quarrel with anyone there’ and sang psalms while the battle raged.

In the Orkneyinga Saga, Manus is described as a man of extraordinary distinction, tall with a fine intelligent look about him. He punished the rich and supported the poor. He lived according to God’s commands, was faithful in marriage and whenever the urge of temptation came upon him, he would plunge into cold water and pray to God for aid. He could also put his enemies to death and torch their houses when necessary so lets not get carried away.

On the way to the fateful meeting with Haakon, Magnus was drenched by a freak wave in the stern of his ship which was deemed a bad omen. His men urged him to turn back.  It had been agreed that each cousin would bring two boats of supporters but when Magnus arrived he found that Haakon had turned up mob handed with eight boat loads.

Vastly outnumbered, and perhaps too trusting, Magnus offered his cousin a series of concessions. He would go on pilgrimage to Rome and never return. He would be confined to house arrest. He would have his eyes gouged out and spend the rest of his life in a deep dungeon.

None of these compromises satisfied the chieftains who wanted a single ruler and Magnus was executed by on Easter Day 1017.  Magnus allegedly prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors and asked to be killed by a single axe strike on his forehead as befitted his noble standing.  In an astonishing act of forgiveness, Magnus’s mother, Thora, later forgave Haakon in return for giving her son a proper burial. A cult developed, Magnus’s grave become a pilgrimage site  and a series of healing miracles were attributed to his spirit.

William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, warned against such heresies but was struck blind and only restored to sight after praying himself at Magnus’s grave. He quickly canonised Magnus, which may have been a simpler process in those days.

Twenty years later, Magnus’s nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson, promised to build a cathedral in Kirkwall in memory of St Magnus in return for ruling the islands.  In 1919 a wooden box was discovered during restoration in the cathedral. It contained a skull with a fractured forehead. In this same cathedral, St Magnus’s story was retold this past Sunday to mark   the 900th anniversary of his martyrdom and on Monday a pilgrimage walk on the route around the islands to his final resting place was inaugurated.

On this now peaceful island, whose history as a centre of civilisation goes back centuries before Magnus, I have spent the weekend anxiously listening to news of war mongering between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. I have felt more apprehensive over these last few days  than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis. Warships gathered, a Korean missile probably sabotaged by a cyber attack and all options were said to be on the table.

The President is failing on many fronts. He has been unable to get his way in Congress to repeal Obamacare. He has been unable to deny Muslims entry to the United States thanks to judicial challenges. He may well be impeached for his collusion with Russian sponsored election rigging. His advisors are squabbling, his press spokesman is embarrassing and his ratings are falling.

But this only makes Donald Trump a more frightening figure on the world stage. He tries to restore his reputation as a man of action by launching missiles and dropping bombs without any semblance of forethought or strategy.  At the back of my mind is Steve Bannon’s belief that  the United States long term interests are best served by  launching a war in the South China seas within the next five years.

It is wrong to single out Donald Trump. There are a few Skullsplitters and Bloodaxes around today including Bashar al-Assad.  Forget the obscene extravagance of the Mar-a-Lago holiday camp where Trump served President  Xi  chocolate cake and told him about bombing Syria. I would put them all in simple stone huts on a small remote island and with strictly two boatloads of aides and generals each. Let them eat gruel.

There is another way.  It requires courage and integrity to talk to each other. You can be betrayed as Magnus found out to his cost.  Ron Ferguson, former leader of Iona Community who preached the Easter Day sermon in St Magnus’s Cathedral, wrote in his foreword to Magnus’s life, “if human beings are to live together on this fragile earth, worship, reverence, love and willingness to sacrifice for others must be seen as necessities rather than as idealistic impossibilities.”

published in Newcastle Journal on Tues 18th April

 

 

 

 

 

Charities are run by inspirational people who need our support more than ever

The highlight of my week was an all too brief visit to the open day at Children North East held at their WEYES project on the West Road in Newcastle. I was shown around by a bright young volunteer and then spoke to a series of staff about their work.
First, Lesley Henderson, running NewPIP, one of seven pilot schemes offering intensive counselling to young mums and dads in the belief that help in the first years of a child’s life prevents trouble later. This was seriously well thought out work and it seemed a no brainer to me.
Then on to the Whoops scheme which makes sure that young children are safe at home and the Youth Link peer mentors scheme which trains 18 year olds to support young teenagers. I shuddered to think how I can have coped with that role in my youth.
Next, Poverty Proofing the School Day which offers a week long audit for schools to make sure that children from disadvantaged homes get the most out of their education. The scheme was developed by CNE and is being delivered around the country. Finally the sexual health clinic, a fully equipped room with a confidential service fed by outreach sessions in schools and colleges.
More young volunteers offered me tea and cake, told me about the young people’s drop in sessions at WEYES and signed me up for a fund raising event in a pizzeria on Saturday. I nodded in passing to the besuited Chief Executive, Jeremy Cripps, and reminisced with one of the management team about a past Chief Executive and personal friend, Joy Higginson, sadly no longer with us, who would have so proud of what has been achieved.
No wonder Children North East was North East Charity of the Year in 2016. Here was a series of innovative schemes, some just practical and others policy making, presented articulately and passionately. They take this 126 year old charity that originally took poor children for a day out to the seaside, slap bang into the present day.
Children North East restored my faith after picking my way through a series of reports casting doubt on the future of charities. On Sunday of all days, but still failing to grab the headlines, the House Of Lord select committee report chipped away at government policy on regulation and commissioning and almost convinced me of value of a thoughtful second chamber.
The public has lost trust in charities and My Lords call for better governance. They recommend improved selection, rotation and training of trustees and make a sensible idea that companies give staff time off to sit on charity boards. They uphold the cherished principle that trustees should not be paid for their time.
As a veteran and increasingly intolerant trustee, I have endured more than my fair share of frustration, crisis and scandals but I do not think that the governance of charities is any better or worse than public authorities or medium sized business. It is just that the public expects us to be holier than thou. Everything palls in comparison with Tescos’s £129m fine for false accounting which passed by almost without comment last week.
A punchy report from Lloyds Bank Foundation warns that charities must change to keep up with the times. They are a service industry and digitalisation is the order of the day. Face to face meetings for advice, information and support will be out dated and too expensive in a few years time. I hope that the soothsayers are wrong as nothing beats looking people in the eye with a little human kindness.
An IPPR North survey by the redoubtable Tony Chapman points out that charities perforce spend too much time on fundraising and grant applications to the detriment of strategy and operations. Get that right first, Chapman argues, and the funding will follow. As a trustee of a grant making trust, I am depressed to see so many medium sized charities desperately seeking money just to get through the next twelve months and having little hope of a long term future.
A friend who volunteers for a bereavement counselling service tells me that since the local authority withdrew its grant to save money, it has been forced to make the administrator redundant and expect new volunteers to pay for their own training. This cannot continue.
There has been an unwritten deal for as long as I can remember that selfless volunteering, madcap fundraising and philanthropic grants are under written by public funding. It is the small frontline charities like bereavement services, the Lloyds Bank report warns, that are most at risk in these hard times.
My cousins in the United States spend every Friday at an extravagant charity fundraiser and I really hope we don’t go that way here. They are the most inefficient ways of raising money and favour the cuddly causes with well connected friends.
I am continually amazed by the creativity, perseverance and self sacrifice of people running charities. They often would not fit into more bureaucratic organisations. They come up with the best new ideas and get to places that others cannot reach. If charities become the easy pickings of austerity, we will lose something precious in our civic life and all be the poorer.

Published in Newcastle Journal 4th April 2017

There’s nothing wrong with the poor that money cant put right: the case for universal basic income.

Nixon

Richard Nixon came within an ace of eradicating poverty.  If fate had dealt Nixon a kinder hand, he would have established the principle that everyone is entitled to what we now call a universal or unconditional basic income . History would have deemed him a hero not a villain.

In a series of pilots throughout the United States, everyone was given a basic income whether or not they were in work. The results showed that beneficiaries worked as hard as before and had more time for child rearing and family life. Educational attainment increased and health improved. The leading economists of the day said the scheme was affordable and would eventually pay for itself through reductions in the public purse. There was widespread public support for a universal income scheme to be rolled out.

And so in 1969, Nixon introduced his Family Assistance Plan for a modest basic income describing it as “the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” The nation which had just put a man on the moon was all set to establish the principle that money was a basic right.

The Bill passed the lower house with a large majority but got bogged down in the Senate. It was “the most expansive welfare legislation ever handled” according to one Republican senator. Nixon reintroduced the Bill in a revised format  the following year but it never got on to the statute books and was finally shelved in 1978.

A similar scheme was tried in the 1970s  in a small town in Canada where 1000 families, about 30% of the population, received a cheque each month to raise them above the poverty line. The Mincome project was  abandoned when a conservative administration came to  power four years later.

The evidence from  Mincome was stored away in cardboard boxes and only analysed recently. It also showed that total hours worked were much the same, birth rates dropped and school results improved.  Hospital admissions dropped, domestic violence decreased and mental health improved.

The  conclusion  from these studies is that there is nothing wrong with the poor that putting money in their pockets will not cure. We know too that  living a hand to mouth existence for any length of time puts people under pressure, restricts their options  and leads  them to make poor decisions.

Had the United States, the world’s worthiest nation, gone down this route, there’s little doubt that other countries would have followed suit, according to Rutger Bregman, whose new book ‘Utopia for Realists’  retells the stories of the North American experiments and makes a passionate case for universal basic income and other radical ideas too.

The other stark conclusion is that universal income  is political dynamite. It is difficult to shake off the dogma, Bregman argues, that if you want money, you have to work for it. It is much more comforting to hang on to the belief that the poor are feckless, lazy and workshy  despite all the evidence.

Margaret Thatcher’s view of  poverty  as a ”personality defect”  still permeates our benefits system today. Anyone receiving Job Seekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance  will be assessed for their capability for work and expected  to take part in job training schemes. They will be financially penalised if they do not take part in good spirit.  An army of civil servants are unnecessarily employed at great expense to cajole claimants into work whether or not the jobs exist.

When the self employed  were threatened with increased national insurance payments after the Budget,  they were overnight dubbed as “strivers”  as opposed to the “shirkers” or “scroungers” who claim benefits. It demonstrates how desperate we are to keep the poor in their place. To reinforce the point, universal credit and tax credits will be cut next month by £12bn to make living on benefits even more uncomfortable.

Rutger Bregman goes on to argue that the days of relatively full employment  are numbered as artificial intelligence takes over. The ethos of going to work will be undermined. Economists say that the factory of the future will only employ a man and a dog. The man will feed the dog and the dog will stop the man fiddling with the machinery.

Only the highly educated, the residents of Silicon Valley and the out of power politicians will have jobs. “If we want this century to be the one in which we all get richer” Bregman argues” we’ll need to free ourselves of the dogma that all work is meaningful.” The gulf between the rich and poor will dramatically increase and a far more radical way of redistributing money will be needed.

Utopia is an aspiration rather than a blueprint in Bregmans’ inspiring book.  When we reach the land of plenty, according to Oscar Wilde, we should gaze at the farthest horizon and rehoist our sails.

Bregman may fall short on practicalities but he puts forwards the big ideas that scare off mainstream politicians. A further experiment in universal income is underway in Finland. There are plans to try it in Glasgow too.  Matthew Taylor may commend it in his forthcoming  review of work. Is it an idea whose time has come round again?  Richard Nixon must have regretted losing his place in history. Lets not lose our place too.

published in Newcastle Journal 21st March 2017

 

 

 

 

Dont let the nasty party define the new normal

After the turmoil of the last few months, life is getting back to normal. At Sotheby’s, a landscape by Gustav Klimt has sold for £48m, well above the expected price. The art world  breathed a sigh of relief. The cheque books are coming out again.  It is reassuring too that revenues at luxury shoe maker Jimmy Shoo are up 15% and that Frank Knight sees no end of ultra high net worthers moving to London as their city of choice.

As news of the Trump tweets and the Brexit Bill dies down, there is even space for a story about Mike Ashley once more. He has bought up the failing lingerie business Agent Provocateur to take his business empire upmarket. It puts a whole new meaning on changing the away strip.

Theresa May’s government will rise or fall on her herculean task of taking the country out of the European Union but in other news her government emerges more right wing, punitive and inhumane than ever. In normal times, and with a better opposition, there would be an outcry. Here are some examples.

Irene Clennell has been deported. The 52 year old mother and grandmother from Chester le Street, who cared for her chronically sick husband of 27 years, failed to meet the Home Office requirement of continuous residency because she had returned to Singapore to care for ailing parents. There was no compassion from Amber Rudd who has barred the Dubs kids too.

Irene described in a newspaper interview how she was taken without warning to a detention centre and then put on a plane back to Singapore. “They treated me like a terrorist” she said.

A French national, Bruno Pollet, married to a UK resident with a young son, has also been denied residency because his work as a climate change scientist took him to South Africa for three years, breaking 25 years continuous residency in the United Kingdom. He and his family have decided to move to Scandinavia.  Applications from E U Nationals for U K residency have doubled since the Brexit vote but one quarter have been rejected. The government turns a deaf ear to suggestions that E U nationals should be allowed to stay whatever.

In both cases, the Home Office is applying the letter of the law rather than using discretion or applying common sense. Campaigners say this hard line stance is happening all the time as  the government is so determined to reduce net immigration and feels  empowered by the patriotic antipathy for anyone from abroad.

George Freeman has made a gaffe and been  forced to apologise. He will keep his job as one of Theresa May’s closest advisors as she gathers her Home Office trusties around her.  In a Donald moment, he criticised a “bizarre decision” by a tribunal that ruled that people with mental health issues should be entitled to receive Personal Independent Payment. The payment should be restricted, Freeman said, to “really disabled people”.

PIP is to be further restricted anyway by new rules coming in this month. The process of applying for benefit remains as long drawn out and demeaning as possible with the apparent aim of ruling claimants out. Public donations to West Northumberland Food Bank spiked after a special screening of I, Daniel Blake, it was reported at the AGM last week, showing the public disgust at the way decent people are treated. Welfare benefits are frozen until 2020 which CPAG estimates will reduce the annual income of a family with three children by £2500 a year. No Klimts in these households then.

Claire Philipson will lose her job. Sunderland Council has cut the grant to Wearside Women In Need, which Claire has unflinchingly lead for about 30 years. Sunderland Council has said it is rethinking its provision for victims of domestic violence but in the meantime it  becomes the only city in the country without a womens refuge. The Council has also cut services to homeless people and youth services in order to save £74m before 2020. Jimmy Shoo is unlikely to open up here.

Other authorities are in a similar desperate position. In Newcastle, numbers of people receiving home care have been reduced by 4000  in order to save £39m from their social care budget as part of overall savings of £221 m. There are calls for an extra inheritance tax earmarked for social care, which I would welcome, but this kind of serious problem with no quick fixes is one that that governments always avoid.

Whitehall departments are now drawing up scenarios for a further wave of austerity. It is a fair bet that local authorities will again bear the brunt as they have done for the last nine years. These are cowardly and wholesale cuts that deflect the blame on to mostly Labour authorities and leave them with the responsibility for dealing with the pain and suffering they cause. They are probably unnecessary in the greater scheme of things and look like an ideological attack on local government and local services.

In all these examples of buried news, the government is using the smokescreen of Brexit and the wave of selfish populism to become again the nasty party. We are in danger of regarding this as normal. The new normal is not very nice.

Published in Newcastle Journal on Tues 7th March

Sotheby's auction house staff pose for photographers with Austrian artist Gustav Klimt's "Bauerngarten (Blumengarten)"

Why has the National Trust run out of steam at the Birthplace?

Image result for george stephenson birthplace

 

I have never understood why we do not make more fuss of George Stephenson. And now, to add insult to injury, National Trust has shut down his Birthplace on the waggon way at Wylam.

His statute in Neville Street is lost amongst the roadworks and, for some absurd reason known only to the sculptor, portrays him in classical fancy dress. The engineering works in Forth Street is neglected and his house in Killingworth is closed to the public. The so called Stephenson Quarter takes his name in vain. If you want to find out about George Stephenson, head for Chesterfield, where he ended his days and where he receives due honour.

As so often, I blame Margaret Thatcher. She is reputed to have never travelled on a train the entire time she was Prime Minister. Railways were deeply unpopular. In those far off days, we were bequeathed the National Glass Centre and the International Life Centre. It would have taken a brave man to propose the World Railway Centre but no one could have argued with the claim. Railways were born in the North East and George Stephenson was their Father. His 4 ft 81/2 inch gauge was adopted throughout the known universe.

George Stephenson ranks in the top one hundred Great Britons of all time. His face appeared on a five pound note even though he did not build the Skerne bridge pictured alongside him. Every schoolboy knows his name.

Stephenson’s story was embellished after his death by that great prophet of Victorian virtue, Samuel Smiles. Amazingly, his best selling biography of George was the standard work for over 100 years.  As a self made man, Stephenson was the  perfect example of Smiles gospel of self help and that is why the Birthplace is of such interest. Although the bulding  looks impressive to anyone walking, running or cycling past the door, the Stephensons and their six children only rented one room from the mine owner in Wylam who employed George’s father. We know very little about these days though this did not stop Smiles making up a story or two.

The Birthplace shows how mining families lived in the late eighteenth century. Visitors are amazed that the family all slept in one four poster bed, which has a truckle underneath for the younger children, and drew their water from the river. Worldly wise school children  express surprise that the family grew to such a size.

George never went to school and only learned to read and write at night school in his late teens. “ You can make your fortune even if you skip school” I tell then children to their parents disapproval on my occasional days as a volunteer guide.

As Adrian Jarvis points out in his reassessment of Stephenson’ career, he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Coal could not be transported by canal from the rich seams of  the Northumberland and Durham coalfield. When most of the available horses were requisitioned for the Napoleonic wars, the mine owners needed to innovate and trusted the dependable young Stephenson. He built on other peoples work and was neither an outstanding surveyor or engineer, despite what Smiles might say.

George Stephenson grasped the potential for railways to carry people and had the vision of a joined up national rail network. After his success with the Stockton and Darlington and the Liverpool and Manchester railways, Stephenson became the ‘must have’ person to establish the credential of any new railway line.

He shrewdly bought mines and quarries near the new lines that accrued in value and ended his life as a wealthy man in a small stately home on top of  extensive mineral rights. He was lucky to escape being brought down along with the fraudulent railway entrepreneur George Hudson. In fact, he was the kind of calculating businessman sailing close to the wind that Margaret Thatcher might have admired.

So why has National Trust closed the Birthplace for this coming year without warning or consultation?  It is supposed to be a pause to evaluate how to make the best use of the property by engaging some university students to come up with bright ideas.

The Cottage is at the end of a long chain of command where the new smart tills have yet to be installed. It is poorly marketed and out of touch with the local community.  The café provides the best bacon rolls for miles around to anyone passing by and the staff sell more raffle tickets than any other property of comparable size.

The answer is to invest in the Birthplace and build on the growing interest of the Great North Exhibition in 2018 when Stephenson’s famous Rocket is rumoured to be returning to the North East.

The National Trust is a wealthy organisation. It should look after the little gems like the Birthplace, Cherryburn and Washington Old Hall and not just put resources into corporate development and blockbuster attractions. In a fine turn of phrase, National Trust says it will not “engineer” all its properties in the same way  but “ leave room for the application of common sense and discretion.”   Think again National Trust because we want, perhaps late in the day, to praise our famous sons.

Published in Newcastle Journal 21st February 2017