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Liam Byrne hands over a plate of buttery shortbread cake, beaming with pride. “You’re going to have to shove some down you, you know. It’s totally delicious.” The home-made Breton gateau is the product of his own fair hand, proof that the Great British Bake-Off has pervaded even the loftier heights of Westminster life.
But as he sits in his top-floor office in Portcullis House, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary looks surprisingly trim for someone who scoffs fattening French fancies. The clutch of sports medals on his coffee table reveals another new-found hobby that offers the explanation: as well as baking, he’s also taken up triathlons. Last week he did the Stratford running-cycling-swimming event, next month he’ll tackle the Birmingham race.
Whether it’s creating calories or burning them off, it seems that even in his ‘downtime’ Liam Byrne just can’t sit still. And aptly enough perhaps for the man who oversees his party’s welfare policy, Byrne is a self-confessed workaholic.
The former Cabinet minister jokes that Ed Balls is not the only chef on his frontbench now. Yet he’s deadly serious about how he and the Shadow Chancellor have to cook up the key policies needed to give Labour the credibility needed to win an outright majority in 2015.
Byrne’s new book on China, Turning To Face The East, is a rough blueprint for how the UK can pull its socks up and trade its way to growth. Part travelogue, part manifesto, it’s about harnessing British innovation with Chinese scale.
Yet how did he find time to write it? “I’ve been visiting China for about five years. Most of it has been done on weekends and holidays, but I write very fast,” he explains. “There are big chunks of it written on a Blackberry.”
“When you are not working 16 hours a day, which is what I used to do as a minister, then you have time. And I’ve always worked seven days a week.” He smiles: “My wife says it keeps me quiet”.
The Birmingham Hodge Hill MP once wrote an infamous ‘Working With Liam Byrne’ memo while at the Cabinet Office, a Maoist missive that also included the lovely line ‘Never put anything to me unless you understand it and can explain it to me in 60 seconds’. So, can he sum up his new book in just a minute?
“Yes, very easily,” he says, with the confidence of a former McKinsey consultant. “How is Britain going to pay its way in the Asian century? The balance of world power is shifting. Britain is in a difficult state right now. Just like after the Second World War, we’ve got to trade our way back. Given the difficulties in Europe and America, we’ve got to get on with turning East. And Britain could do really well in China but right now others are overtaking us. And so what we’ve got to do is think about what does China need to succeed over the next 10-20 years and we’ve got to think about how we can help make the China dream possible. I think we can play a big role and I think it can lift us back onto our feet in Britain.” He beat even his own target: that summary took just 40 seconds.
Byrne also says that it’s time to be crystal clear about Britain’s colonial legacy, especially when young Chinese refer to episodes like the Opium Wars. When asked how exactly UK politicians should respond, he replies: “By being honest about it. And being careful about coming across as preachers who don’t know enough about their own history.”
“For example, we will be far more effective making the case for human rights, democracy and the rule of law in China, which need to improve dramatically, if we come across as a country that has made mistakes in the past but has kind of repented. Sometimes the Chinese have listened to us and said ‘you know, you show too little awareness of your role in what we call our century of humiliation’. They know our history often much better than we do.”
Byrne says that multi-party democracy will “one day” happen in China, though “I don’t know when that day is”. “If you look at what happened in Britain in the 19th century, real political pressure began to build once we became a country that on the whole lived in cities. And that’s what’s going to happen in China over the next 10-20 years. China will become an urban society and history tells us that’s when pressure for political reform becomes unstoppable and China knows that. That’s why the reformers in the system are beginning to put such a big emphasis now on the need for transparency and crucially the need for rule of law.”
He stresses repeatedly that given China’s clout, now is exactly the wrong time to be querying Britain’s membership of the EU. If Labour won power in 2015, would it want to risk staging and losing an In-Out referendum? And wouldn’t it give the Opposition a superb stick with which to beat a new Government? “It would all be very high risk, that’s the point. At a point when our economy is in the tank, can it be a priority now? Surely it can’t be. Putting our membership of a free trade club in jeopardy, that isn’t going to help, it’s going to hurt.”
Byrne’s book also reveals some more detail on his life in Government and it has a fascinating passage about how he and Treasury civil servants picked up in 2009 the real problem of the ‘squeezed middle’.
Led by Simon Gallagher, now one of the economic team in the British embassy in Berlin, a special four-strong team of officials drafted a document that spotted that the rot had set in back in 2005, well before the financial crisis. “The Treasury had a secret name for it. It was called the Future of the English Working Class,” Byrne reveals. For families on median incomes, real disposable income grew at a neglible 0.14%. The Treasury found that from 2001-2008, UK productivity rose 9%, but workers’ share in national earnings fell 73% to 69%.
But although his Treasury wonks picked up the phenomenon of squeezed incomes, it’s still unclear exactly what caused it back in 2005. “Nobody knows. This is the big mystery because it gets a lot worse in the States about the same time and it’s something that hits Western Europe at about the same time. But for those of us on the left this is one of the great unanswered questions.”
“A couple of odd things happen at about the same time. There is huge inward investment. Europe doubles in size. China really begins to pick up its growth rate. Lots of things are happening in the global economy at about this time. Quite why living standards begin to stagnate is hard to know.”
He says one explanation came from Cambridge economist Peter Nolan, namely the huge increase in global company mergers that gathers pace after China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2000. “What they are doing is building their high tech stuff in Western countries and their low tech stuff in cheaper countries. That means an unskilled worker in Britain now competes with someone paid 90% less elsewhere. That means that if you are now an unskilled worker you are more likely than not to be out of a job. Some 52% of unskilled workers are out of work in Britain today. These things have got to be linked. I just think globalisation happened much faster than we expected.”
Byrne presented the findings to Cabinet in 2010 just before the general election but it got buried. “We picked it up too late,” he says. “It was very late in the day, is the truth. A number of us knew that it was too late to do anything about it before the election, but lots of us said ‘we need to show that we get it, we need to be finding ways of speaking to this group of people that’s been hit so hard’.
“And of course we didn’t during the election campaign. We had the Gillian Duffy incident that was a kind of prism through which many of these debates were refracted – and when the results came in our vote amongst C2s had dropped by 20 points, the biggest fall in British political history. And those voters made up one in six of half of the seats we lost. I think this is absolutely one of the things that lost us the election.
“Which is why I was so pleased that Ed Miliband picked up the Squeezed Middle narrative. And since then has comprehensively rebuilt Labour’s trust among this group so now C1s and C2s are now majority Labour voters. And crucially, at the last election, overwhelmingly this group of voters said Labour didn’t know what it was like to be an ordinary working person and Ed Miliband has just turned those ratings around. It’s an incredibly important achievement.”
But isn’t it true that Labour’s soft poll lead shows it is not the only party to have picked up on voter unease and anger on this issue, and that parties like UKIP have made inroads where the Opposition should be?
Byrne replies: “As we move into the final straight towards the next election, people say ‘ok we hear what you say about today, how would you be different after 2015?’ And that’s why last week [the announcements on welfare and the deficit] was so important.”
“We are now shifting into an argument about the future not the present. We started to clear the ground last week, we’ve got a lot more to do over the next couple of years. Some of the fiscal decisions are going to have to come quite late in the day because every time we see George Osborne in the House of Commons, the budget picture gets worse and worse – it’s like a bad movie on fast forward.”
One Conservative attack line for 2015 is already clear as everyone from the PM down declares that the Labour Party is now ‘the Welfare Party’. But Byrne insists: “I’m determined to make sure welfare reform is an election winner not an election loser for Labour at the next election.”
Byrne says that much of Labour’s policy stems from feedback on the ground as he toured the UK since the election. And the idea of a contributory system, with more for those who pay in more, has proved very popular.
“People right now are frustrated as hell because they feel they pay a shed load of tax and national insurance in and they get bugger all back out when they need it. What people say is ‘look, if we stopped paying money to people who didn’t need it, there would be more to help those who did need it’. So I’m afraid what we are going to have to do is to say ‘well look there do have to be some tough edges’.”
Those ‘tough edges’ now include what Byrne calls “Ed Miliband’s triple lock on welfare”: a cap on the amount of time you can spend on the dole, a household benefit cap and an overall cap on social security spending.
Byrne praises fellow Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who wrote recently of the need to admit that some people on the dole were ‘swinging the lead’ and some having children to maximise their benefits. “Simon Danczuk cut right through by giving a very honest and candid account not only of his own upbringing but what he sees in Rochdale. I represent the constituency in Britain, Hodge Hill up there [he points at a map on his wall], with the second highest unemployment in the country. All of our work in the constituency is in one way or another about getting people back to work.
“So what we see clearly is that there are a tiny minority who could be doing more and need to be confronted with some tough choices but there are far more people desperate for work, hungry for work and just shut out and let down by the system.”
Ed Balls got into trouble when he said the welfare cap had to include a curb on pensioner spending. Does that show the pitfalls of trying to prove your economic credibility?
Byrne is unabashed: “We’ve got to show we can be radical with power and realistic about money. That’s the absolute key. People are looking for both, that’s the truth. The big mindshift is to get into long-term reform.”
One Big Reform being run by Iain Duncan Smith is of course the Universal Credit. Ministers claimed in May 2011 that the IT system for the mammoth project would be complete by autumn 2013. But Byrne has just got back some answers to Parliamentary Questions that suggest the deadline of this year has been abandoned. The PQs state only that “plans continue to be developed to support [its] gradual rollout”.
He also reveals that senior sources from amongst the five firms working on the half-a-billion pound contract to deliver the Universal Credit IT system have confided that work has been called to a halt and hundreds of IT staff stepped down. On 24 May, Universal Credit was given an “amber-red” rating by the Cabinet Office, a category designating a project in danger of failing and that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt”.
Byrne says: “Universal Credit was supposed to be a flagship but it’s becoming a car crash. It appears to be being operated with an abacus and a calculator and a quill in Thameside [where one pilot operates]. Every time we get answers back from a question about Universal Credit, it just recedes over the horizon.
“And we are now beginning the think about how do we put together the rescue plan for Universal Credit. We are talking to our colleagues in local government, we are talking to people in industry, we are gearing up to really get inside the implementation of Universal Credit because it’s a good idea in principle but a dog’s breakfast in practice and we know we are going to have to rescue it.”
Byrne reveals he’s also looking at how to ‘rescue’ another flagship IDS project.
“We are doing work on the Work Programme 2.0 now. We have just sent quite a big document out to Labour local government over the last couple of weeks asking them for their views on how we radically localise DWP, based on a lot of research we have done in Canada and Germany over the last few months. In Canada and Germany and Australia you have got back-to-work programmes which are far more localised and we think that’s a good idea. We want to get inside how do we do that in Britain.”
But IDS believes in localism doesn’t he? “When he made his first speeches in Easterhouse, that’s precisely what he said. He then drew up one of the most Stalinist contracts that we’ve got in central government. People in local government are getting tired of it now. Let’s think about how we put schools, colleges, universities, councils and DWP on one team making a difference on the ground.”
Would that involve private sector too? “Definitely, definitely. We have great relationships with the welfare to work industry, who are also frustrated. A lot of them are thinking of not re-competing for the Work Programme because it has just not worked. The point is we are getting into a lot of those detailed planning discussions now. We are determined to be ready for government.”
Despite his optimism and enthusiasm, some Labour MPs have questioned Byrne’s commitment to the front bench after he last year threw his hat into the ring to be Mayor of Birmingham. The voters rejected the idea of a directly elected Mayor but Byrne is unrepentant. He says that far from annoyed, Ed Miliband encouraged him.
“He was a huge supporter. The personal support that he gave me was hugely important and impressive and I will always be grateful to him for that.”
Byrne also says the episode crystallised his own belief that you have to ‘seize the day’ when opportunity arises. He points out he grabbed the chance to become an MP largely because of his public service ethos.
“I had a great career in business, I was very happily running the dotcom I had set up after I came back from business school. I wanted to come into politics because I was taught by my parents that you had an obligation to make a difference. Both my parents were in public service: my dad was manager of a local council and my mum was a science teacher. They were the biggest influence on me.”
He then adds a poignant note to underline why he believes in grabbing opportunities like the mayoralty. “When my mum died of cancer at the age of 52, as a family we were taught a very harsh and brutal lesson, which is that you don’t know how long you’ve got and if there is something you want to do in life you need to get on and do it.”
One suspects that Byrne’s mother would have been proud of his baking skills and the way it binds his young family. “Baking is a big love,” he says. He was given Annie Bell’s Baking Bible for Christmas and has displayed the zealotry of a convert ever since. Despite his workaholic nature, Opposition means “having more time with my kids, so we bake together on Saturdays or Sundays”.
And there’s one other change that hints at a slightly more relaxed approach to life, thanks to a radical reform of his own personal ‘work programme’. He admits he’s dropped the infamously strict instructions to staff that involved getting him a soup by 1pm and an espresso at 3pm.
BYRNE ON…THE ECONOMY
“I think people know the crash caused the deficit. The deficit didn’t cause the crash. I think we can hold that line because it’s the truth.”
BYRNE ON… TEACHING CHINESE
"Mandarin is not an easy language…It needs to be much earlier. Why wouldn’t you start at primary school?”
BYRNE ON…QUITTING THE EU
"The idea that country of 60m can suddently wander into the mix and go to the front of the queue with special privilieges is fantasy frankly."
BYRNE ON…'THAT NOTE' TO DAVID LAWS
“It was a very foolish thing to do. [But] I felt disappointed that some very old conventions had been cast aside for political advantage.”
“Let’s be blunt. High speed rail is great for Birmingham but the plan to put the marshalling yard in Washwood Heath [in his constituency] is crackers.”
WORDS: DANIEL BOND
Ask most MPs about their first experience of Westminster, and they’ll recount a daunting affair; the majestic buildings, the grandeur, the labyrinthine estate, the sense of pride, or even the shattering weight of expectation. Nick Hurd remembers the biscuits.
But then again, Hurd’s first walk through the corridors of power came earlier than most. He received his political baptism while still at school, after his father Douglas (now Lord) Hurd was appointed political secretary to Ted Heath. Four years later, the elder Hurd was elected MP for Mid Oxfordshire – the third generation of his family to sit in the Commons.
“I was dragged in. I remember sitting on the sofa in my dad’s office, and the Prime Minister walking in being dumbstruck at me sort of rooted there. I was young, 10 or 11, eating biscuits on the sofa and in walks the Prime Minister. He didn’t know what to do,” Hurd the Younger recalls when asked about his earliest memories of Westminster.
“I remember the day dad was elected,” he continues. “I remember elections, being dragged around with my dad, and eating all the biscuits in the branch of the constituency party.”
But, biscuit access aside, growing up the son of an MP can be tough. Growing up the son, grandson and great-grandson of an MP is almost unprecedented.
The Hurd name ranks alongside the Benns and the Spencer-Churchills as one of the most prestigious and enduring in British politics. The eldest Hurd, Sir Percy, was first elected in 1918, with his son Anthony entering Parliament in 1945. Douglas completed the Hurd hat-trick in 1974.
For someone whose name was so entwined with the history of Parliament, surely it was only a matter of time before Nick entered the family business?
“When I was growing up I had no idea what I wanted to be, but I knew what I didn’t want to be – a Conservative MP,” he replies, when quizzed on his childhood ambitions.
The life of political progeny is “not particularly easy”, he continues, with a hint of melancholy.
“You don’t see as much of your mum or dad as you would like. It’s not the ideal environment for bringing up a family.
“I guess in a way that led me into thinking I want something else.”
Of course the Civil Society Minister did become a Conservative MP. So what transformed this one-time refusenik into a fully-signed up member of the Hurd dynasty?
“I turned 40 and the public service ethic kicked in,” he explains. “I’d spent 18 years in business, five years of that building a business in Brazil, had a fantastic time, but actually just felt it was the right time to start working for other people.
“I guess that was always in me. I probably knew it was always going to get me in the end. But I wanted to go into politics having done something else.”
He finally made the leap in 2005, successfully standing in the Tory safe seat of Ruislip-Northwood. While not seen as part of David Cameron’s innermost circle, Hurd quickly came to be regarded as an ally of the Tory leader, and in late 2008 was handed responsibility for one of his most cherished projects – the Big Society.
Like the Prime Minister, Hurd was educated at Eton College before attending Oxford University and joining the exclusive and bibulous Bullingdon Club. Unlike David Cameron, who has previously expressed embarrassment over his membership of the controversial clan, Hurd remains tight-lipped. “It’s not an issue I’m remotely interested in,” he replies when asked about his education.
Accusations of a Downing Street Old Boys’ Network, or ‘chumocracy’, have resurfaced in recent weeks after Cameron brought Jo Johnson and Jesse Norman, two fellow Eton and Oxford alumni, into his Number 10 operation. But Hurd scoffs at the idea of a unique Cameron cabal, pointing out that prime ministers have been promoting allies and like-minded souls for decades.
“Prime ministers, or leaders of parties, have always surrounded themselves with people that they trust. There’s always that instinct. Whether it be Margaret Thatcher’s ‘one of us’, or whatever,” he says.
“I think that’s human nature. I think every prime minister I’ve known has been accused of that. But I’ve seen no evidence in my dealings – I’m in and out of Number 10 a lot – and I’ve seen no evidence of that. I’ve seen no signs of a ‘chumocracy’.”
But does he think persistent speculation about a Cameron ‘public school clique’ is damaging the Conservatives’ reputation? Even Tory MPs seem to be getting concerned, with David Davis using a Daily Telegraph interview last month to urge: “Please, no more Old Etonians.”
“I don’t judge anyone by where they went to school,” Hurd replies. “I know our political opponents try to make something of it. But ultimately you’re judged by what you do.
“The fundamental issue facing British politics is the public don’t trust the politicians. The only way you might build trust is by what you get done – what you do and what you achieve. I think my experience of the British public is that that’s much more important than where someone went to school.”
The Charity Minister’s approach to private schools has not been without its detractors, however. His defence of fee-paying schools, and the charitable status they receive, brought him into conflict with the former head of the Charity Commission, Dame Suzi Leather.
As commission boss, Leather was accused of pursuing a ‘class war’ against independent schools after demanding they provide more services to the poorest children or face losing their status – which is thought to bring them tax benefits worth more than £100m a year.
Hurd was instinctively uncomfortable with the campaign, he says, suggesting Leather had sought to politicise the commission.
“I thought they were too prescriptive in terms of the fences that independent schools needed to jump in order to get their approval. In my experience, a lot of independent schools do a lot of very good things that justify public benefit and it’s best to do that in a not too prescriptive way.
“I thought it would be very difficult for the Charity Commission to sustain an approach that was proactive in picking targets – there was always the suspicion that it was politically motivated…which, whether or not it was, was a problem.”
The minister envisages a smoother working relationship with Leather’s replacement, the former journalist and writer William Shawcross. A fellow Old Etonian, Shawcross appears ideologically closer to Hurd on the issue, having used his first appearance before MPs to argue that it was up to the schools themselves to decide on the public benefit they offer.
The Royal biographer was a controversial appointment, with some Labour MPs questioning whether such an “outspoken figure” should be trusted in the sensitive role. He has certainly endured an eventful first few months – just last week Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge questioned whether the commission was even “fit for purpose” after the Cup Trust tax avoidance scandal. But, Hurd argues, the appointment could not have come at a better time.
“The poor guy, he’s come into a baptism of fire. He’s had Cup Trust, and the Plymouth Brethren issue. But sometimes you need these sort of big, external, catalytic events and situations to give you the space to look at things completely afresh, which is what I think he and the new board will do.”
Hurd admits the Cup Trust scandal was a “shocker”, which must act as a wakeup call for regulators. But the minister is quick to deny Hodge’s claim that the revelations are simply the “tip of an iceberg” which could damage the entire charitable sector.
“I think it’s an opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes. The Charity Commission has obviously got to review all its processes and make sure that it is fit for purpose, and is equipped to do the difficult job as well as it can,” he explains.
“I’ve got no evidence that there is an iceberg underneath the water there. What I do see is we’ve got new leadership in the Charity Commission, we have a lot of faith in William, he’s got a new board now.
“What we have said, right from the start, is we expect it to really hunker down on its core regulatory role. I think in the past it’s been distracted by other work, and we want it to hunker down on the core regulatory role, and make sure it gets its relationship with the HMRC right so that we don’t get any more Cup Trusts.”
Hurd is optimistic about the state of Britain’s charities, believing Shawcross and his new board have inherited a third sector in far better shape than anyone could have imagined just three years ago.
The minister admits he had some “private concerns” about the vulnerability of the sector when he entered Government in 2010, fearing the squeeze in public spending and living standards would hit charities hard. But, the impassioned Hurd says, the country has instead experienced a “magnificent human response” to difficult financial times.
“It was clear we were going to go through a period of austerity, not just in terms of public finances, but everyone’s financial circumstances...No one knew how the public was going to respond,” he recalls. “Actually what we’ve seen, according to the official statistics, is that giving is stable. Which is frankly magnificent, under the circumstances. And volunteering, rather than falling, has actually risen, quite sharply.
“There may be lots of reasons working underneath the surface – but I think actually those two things are just a magnificent human response to difficult times. I think lots of people out there are rolling their sleeves up and thinking ‘how can I help? how can I get involved?’”
The minister, who has retained responsibility for David Cameron’s Big Society idea since its infancy, is determined to help communities take advantage of this growing enthusiasm. He appeared alongside the Prime Minister at a social investment event last week, where they unveiled a new £250m fund to help communities take over facilities threatened with closure.
While Hurd denies this was another Big Society relaunch – “I know the press always love to call any Big Society event or speech a relaunch, but it wasn’t” – he says it proves the Government is serious about the project and committed for the long-term.
“The Prime Minister, looking at the G8 opportunity, presumably had a long menu of options to choose from, and he decided that he wanted to put social investment on the agenda. Why? Because we’re the world-leaders in developing this idea that you can mobilise capital behind a simple proposition – that you can invest for the common good, and get your money back.
“The flagship of that is Big Society Capital, the world’s first social investment institution. It’s investing, it’s committing money. So this has moved beyond vision and pipe dream and speeches into investments of time and money and partnerships that are actually making a difference. It’s early days, but I can see clear momentum.”
He admits the Big Society has drawn “its fair share of flak” over the years, but says businesses are now champing at the bit to get involved as the project takes shape on the ground. So how big can the Big Society be? Will we see community-owned pubs in every town in Britain?
“We’re seeing more and more community-owned shops, libraries, pubs, whatever it is. But it needs financing, and it needs financing on affordable terms. That’s the gap that Big Society Capital and Big Lottery want to fill.
“The scope of that could be very big, but it’s just one subsector of a much bigger opportunity if we can prove that you can invest, for a measurable social impact, and get a positive financial return. Because if you can do that, we will move a lot of money into the social sector and transform the funding environment.”
Hurd retains his man-on-a-mission enthusiasm for the project, and his commitment is clear. But last month marked four-and-a-half years since he was first handed the charities brief in opposition. So with the Big Society idea firmly off the ground, and rumours of a summer reshuffle on the way, is he itching for a fresh challenge and a change of scenery?
“I’m feeling more enthusiastic about this brief than I did when I started. I’ve done it for a long time, in opposition and now in Government. I’ve always been a very strong supporter of the Big Society vision and would love the chance to see it through,” he says, before adding: “But, when you’ve been exposed to politics as long as I have, you know the vagaries of these things.”
The minister has indeed been exposed to politics longer than most. But with his father and grandfather both making the transition to The Other Place after long stints in the Commons, this is one Westminster dynasty we may be hearing from for some time yet.
WORDS: JESS BOWIE
No-one would have blamed Graham Stuart (C, Beverley and Holderness) if he’d wanted to avoid the topic of sport altogether: the Yorkshire MP is still recovering from a nasty skiing accident in March, which left him with a fractured pelvis, punctured lung and several broken ribs.
But Stuart, chair of the Education Committee, seemed in fine fettle on Tuesday as he questioned junior DfE minister Edward Timpson about school sport and the Olympic legacy.
“Can I ask why school sport seems to be a political football?” Stuart began, apparently unaware that he’d kicked off the hearing with a pun. Why, he asked, was this a policy area which only got funding when there was political pressure? Why did governments – including this one – seem so reluctant to develop long-term strategies?
Timpson told him about the Sport Premium, which had brought together three major Government departments in a joint approach.
“To answer your question about whether this is a political football…” the minister continued.
Would he chuckle at the pleasing aptness of the metaphor?
He would not. Not even when he repeated the phrase a few seconds later, saying how grateful he was that school sports was something within his brief that “wasn’t a political football”. Timpson didn’t so much as smile. School sports, you see, is yet to be kicked into touch.
The minister went on to say that he hoped this was an area where everyone had the same objective: getting children interested in sport at the earliest possible stage in life.
Stuart, however, still worried about short-termism in school policy.
“You don’t treat maths like that,” he snapped. “When you do an initiative on maths you don’t say ‘we’re going to do it for five minutes’, do you? You change the system and then you put policy in place for the long term.”
Timpson pointed out that financial constraints and the forthcoming spending review meant it was hard for him to make any commitments about long term policy. He added, however, that “looking forward” he would be “batting very hard” on behalf of school sports.
Now, surely, was the time for Timpson to lighten the mood and draw attention to his own apposite wordplay. But, as spectators asked themselves where the ever loquacious John Hayes was when you needed him, the minister remained stony faced.
For his part, Stuart soon realised it was time to pass the baton over to his fellow committee members. But before he did so, he attempted to stump Timpson with one final question: “Should I, as a head teacher of a primary school, act on the basis that the £9000 per primary school…will keep coming to my school – I should invest on that assumption – or am I doing it on the basis that I’ve got 18 grand over the next two years and that’s it. Which assumption should I make?”
The disappointment of the hearing’s unacknowledged sporting puns aside, it was hard for those watching Stuart in action not to be impressed with the tenacious energy of a man who, just a couple of months ago, was having to work from a hospital bed.
From: Robert Halfon
Sent: 05 June 2013 10:06
I have always had a passion for the Big Society as I believe it has three major components. First, building social capital, second people power, and third social entrepreneurship.The spirit of the food bank is that it weaves these three strands of the Big Society together into a deep thread that provides support for those in need.
I’ve seen this for myself first hand at the Harlow Food Bank, which opened in 2009 and has fed 7,222 people. I have worked there on a number of occasions and seen the good work that they do. This is replicated across the country - three new food banks open every week. Their existence is often essential, for example, in Bridgend a food bank covers four of the 10 most deprived wards in Wales. What has struck me is not just the community capital they provide, but the military style organisation which ensures every box is carefully balanced for nutrition. It’s worth noting that the first food bank set up by the Trussell Trust was in 2001 (in years of plenty). The question we need to ask is why have they increased in number? Is it because of growing food poverty, or because they have identified a problem that has existed for many years, and have stepped in to solve the problem?
From: Stephen Timms
Sent: 06 June 2013 21:58
I share your admiration for the Trussell Trust’s church-led food banks. They were important before the election, but need has exploded since. They fed 350,000 people last year. Three new foodbanks are launched every week.
Volunteers say many of their clients have been denied benefits as the result of a sanction. They often have no idea why they have been sanctioned. The number of benefit sanctions handed out by Jobcentres has rocketed since the election. As benefit cuts bite, demand for food banks will grow still further.
The Prime Minister doesn’t talk much about the Big Society these days. The idea unfortunately got a bad reputation. It seemed to be a smokescreen for making cuts – the Government dumping its responsibilities onto volunteers.
It’s deeply troubling that so many can no longer afford to feed their families. Ministers need to acknowledge that. Current policies are making the problem worse. Food banks will normally only help a given applicant three times. After that their benefit should have been sorted out. But they are finding more and more people need help for longer. Volunteers’ capacity to cope with more and more need can’t be taken for granted.
from: Robert Halfon
Sent: 10 June 2013 12:20
The Big Society is not a smokescreen for cuts. It is supporting localism and building a stronger society. Last week, the Prime Minister announced a £250m fund to help local people buy community assets. And income from statutory bodies remains the second largest source of voluntary sector income, totalling £14.2bn in 2010/11 – similar in real terms to 2007/08.
There are problems with the benefit system, but it is worth looking at the statistics; whilst it is true that in 2012/13, 45% of food banks recipients were referred due to benefit problems, substantial progress is being made: 80-90% of claims are processed within 16 days. Food banks are essential during this time. Unfortunately, part of the reason for the expansion of food banks is that Iain Duncan Smith allowed Job centres to hand out vouchers for them (something I strongly campaigned for), inexplicably Labour had stopped this. There is a wider point here; increases in food banks cannot just be blamed on this Government. It is well known that the price of food has increased, leading to the number of food banks increasing across Europe, including wealthy Germany. Despite this, we use them less than other countries. In Britain, they feed one person in 181 each year, whereas in France, it is one in 88. You are right about the cost of living; it is the number one issue in Harlow, as elsewhere. But the Government is taking action: due to April’s increase in the personal allowance, net household income was boosted by £582 a year.
Very best wishes,
from: Stephen Timms
Sent: 10 June 2013 20:07
Could you and I agree that the current scale of demand for food banks, and its rapid growth, is worrying? Ministers are unwilling to admit it. It’s welcome that jobcentres are making referrals, and wrong that they did not do so in the past. But the Trussell Trust is clear that growing need is the main driver of growing demand. Shouldn’t all of us be concerned about that?
Demand will rise still further. The bedroom tax is hitting. When the benefit cap is fully in place, Government figures state that 7,000 households in London alone will have lost over £100 a week. The Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting higher unemployment. Food banks say an increasing number of their customers are working, but unable to make ends meet.
Rising food bank demand reflects growing hardship. I understand the argument that this is an inevitable consequence of austerity. But I can’t see that anyone sensitive to what is happening – and I know that you are – can claim it isn’t a worry.
I agree that food banks would have been helpful when times were much less hard. But the scale of the current demand, and the pace of its growth, must surely worry all of us.
from: Robert Halfon
Sent: 11 June 2013 11:53
The cost of living has risen four times faster than people’s pay since 2008. Wages barely grew in the five years prior to the economic downturn. However, I do not think it is a bad thing that communities are getting together to help each other through food banks.
The number of food banks increased tenfold under Labour, even when benefits were rising faster than wages. Indeed, the director of the Trussell Trust has said that the growth in awareness and volunteers can explain the increase in food banks.
Of course it is worrying that people are struggling with the cost of living. This is why the Conservative-led Coalition introduced the Energy Bill, why George Osborne froze fuel duty and cut it by 1%. Petrol is now 13p cheaper than it would have been under Labour. The Government has also frozen council tax, increased the basic state pension, and increased the personal allowance.
Under Labour, welfare spending increased by 60%. Even in the boom years, unemployment rose to 2.5m. Universal Credit will benefit 3.1m households, who will be better off by an average of £168 a month. We should be cutting taxes for low earners, not taxing people who are struggling.
We need to help people whose incomes are squeezed. Food banks are one of the most remarkable voluntary organisations in our country, and it is too easy to blame the Government for their existence. The truth is more complex. They should be supported and not turned into a party political football, and that is why I am proud to keep working with the Harlow food bank.
Very best wishes,
from: Stephen Timms
Sent: 12 June 2013 08:13
Government policies are increasing poverty at an alarming rate. Rocketing food bank demand is a stark early warning. Other, more troubling, evidence will emerge. The food banks show that policy changes are needed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Conservative ministers used to deny there was poverty in Britain. Tony Blair’s Government recognised the reality. To begin with, the current Government seemed to have learned the lesson. Now we are back to the old denials. Unlike you, ministers do not visit food banks.
Too many people now can’t afford food for themselves and their families. When the current economic policy was launched, the Prime Minister promised “steady growth and falling unemployment”. In fact, there has been hardly any growth, and unemployment has risen. Your telling statistic about the cost of living rising faster than wages should prompt action – for example, encouraging employers to adopt the Living Wage.
But calling on Government to learn the lessons from them should not detract from our admiration for the food banks. It is a remarkable movement. Who would have guessed a few years ago that the churches would, in 2012, be feeding over a third of a million families? We can – at least – agree on gratitude for their contribution.
WORDS: LAURA KUENSSBERG
If you have a sore tooth it’s wise to go to the dentist. If you have a hole in your shoe, you go to the cobbler. Need to buy a house? I’m afraid you have to talk to an estate agent. If you need help with something, logic follows you ask for that help from someone who has knowledge related to that problem. Ideally they’d have dealt with the problem before, and have a good track record. And again, logic dictates that you would often have to pay for that professional service, even if through gritted teeth.
So while the shaky footage of politicians offering their specialist professional services is toe-curling to see, should we really be surprised that people or organisations in search of a service are willing to pay for what some occupants of SW1 appear willing to sell?
Parliament is a complicated and arcane institution. It is opaque to the outsider, intimidating to many and frankly often operates in language the rest of the world doesn’t understand. This doesn’t just feed into the much-discussed problem of the remoteness of politics, it means that anyone who has an understanding of that world, that language, has something to trade. People, charities, companies want to know what’s happening in the House. So knowing your Wetherill Amendment from your Statutory Instrument has a value.
And when it comes to trying to influence procedures, and even how laws are made, clearly the desire is even more intense.
That’s the case whether it is called advice, consultancy, public affairs, or the most emotive term, lobbying. If you run a company, or indeed a charity, or represent a particular interest group, if you think you legitimately have a way of getting your point across, and perhaps influencing the decisions legislators take, why wouldn’t you use it? And surely this extends beyond taking ‘advice’ or asking politicians to represent your case.
It is not just former PMs amassing vast fortunes, trading on their experience and contact books. But the move of former Spads or senior civil servants into business and then sometimes back to Westminster or Whitehall; the move from No. 10 into influential charities or NGOs. Are those people hired because of their rare talents? Probably in part. But they’re also given those jobs because of their special knowledge and experience.
The trouble comes when those who actually sit in Parliament are the ones offering that knowledge to the highest bidder. While those involved in recent unedifying stings have denied any wrongdoing, if rules have been broken it’s only right that appropriate punishments are meted out. Investigations in time will make a judgement on these cases. But again Westminster engages in furious discussion about how to stamp out similar embarrassments in future. A register of genuine lobbyists may be useful but couldn’t monitor everything that happens. Ministers have already admitted it might not have made any difference in the current cases in focus. It certainly could not capture the quiet word in the ear between minister and company CEO, or charity boss and select committee chair.
Parliament could further tighten the rules about what’s appropriate. The definition of paid advocacy could be spelt out again and again in words of one syllable if that might help. But unless you rule out entirely the possibility of MPs and peers taking on paid work other than turning up at Westminster, it is pretty hard to see how any future set of regulations could completely squeeze out the chance of anything that might appear dodgy. Or, of course, MPs and peers could use, at all times, that tried and tested gauge: if they wouldn’t like what they’re up to be online or on the front page of their local paper, it might be better if they thought again.
But while there is no defence of lobbying that clearly breaks the rules, it is surely naive to ignore a fundamental truth: businesses, charities or individuals with fat cheque books will always be willing to pay for knowledge of the inside track. However rules are tweaked, while that demand exists there will always be those willing to supply.