Honeyball’s weekly round-up

Labour Party

The general election campaign is now in full swing and yesterday Labour announced plans to double the number of childcare places provided at Sure Start centres to more than 118,000.

The shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt promised to ‘save’ the Sure Start scheme. This would reverse a decision by the government in 2010 when they were freed from previous requirements to provide childcare, meaning that hundreds of the centres face the threat of closure and have had their funding cut. Indeed, Labour revealed that hundreds of centres were forced to close and others have reduced services as a result of the cuts.

In addition there are 720 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010 and if it continues to fall at the current rate by the end of the next parliament, Labour warns that 38,000 fewer places will be available by the end of the next parliament.

Last week marked the International Day of Zero Tolerance on FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). The theme for day was “Mobilisation and Involvement of Health Personnel to Accelerate Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation”. Essentially this means stressing the importance health care professionals play in fighting this terrible and barbaric crime.

They have a duty to adopt and promote a zero tolerance attitude to FGM. This is of course just one part of the strategy. Urgent, but well thought out action has to be taken to stop the cycle being promoted from generation to generation, something Tanya Barron, chief executive of Plan UK has written about and stated before.

With the dedicated effort of all stakeholders, charities, governments, health care professionals and prosecutors the cycle can be broken. There is some hope, work carried out by charities such as Plan UK, have resulted in 60 communities declaring themselves free of FGM.

An investigation carried out by the BBC’s Panorama which will be broadcast tonight has found that the UK’s biggest bank, HSBC, helped and allowed its richest customers to dodge paying tax by allowing them to set up secret accounts in Switzerland.
HSBC, the UK’s biggest bank, helped rich customers to dodge paying tax by allowing them to set up secret accounts in Switzerland, according to a report last night. Following the investigation some £135m of unpaid tax and penalties have been handed over by those British citizens involved. You can see the film on BBC 1 tonight.  More exclusive details have been revealed on the front page of today’s Guardian.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

A paper by Labour in London this week drew attention to the capital’s childcare crisis. The document revealed that there were 35,000 fewer nursery places since the Conservatives took office, and that childcare costs have increased by 30%. Labour have announced they will increase childcare for 3-4 year-olds from 15 to 25 hours per week, and will increase funding through a levy on banks. This would create an extra 72,000 places in London alone, where the struggle to keep up with costs is beginning to spiral out of control for many parents.

A report last month by the think tank IPPR drew attention to the present childcare crisis. The study showed the inextricable link between maternal employment levels – on which the UK performs worse than many OECD countries – and the poor childcare provisions Britain has to offer. IPPR said childcare of under-fives was essential to bring about better rates of work and pay for women, and that the ideal proportion of a family’s disposable income spent on childcare should be no more than 10%.

With Sure Start nurseries coming under threat from the government during this parliament – not to mention the TUC’s revelation last year that Britain has Europe’s worst maternity provisions – much more needs to be done. The alternative will be another generation of 50-65 year old women stuck in long-term unemployment or forced to deskill to find work.

I’m therefore delighted to see Labour in London spelling out such a clear direction of travel on this issue. The Tories produce a lot of hot air when it comes to getting women in the boardroom or the debating chamber, but to find sustainable solutions to these problems we need to address the systemic factors that drive women out of the workplace during their early thirties.

Also this week, Tory backbencher Robert Halfon made headlines when he referred to some UKIP members as “literally akin to the Nazis”. Halfon, a comparatively moderate Conservative, said Nigel Farage’s party could be split into two tribes: Godfrey Bloom-style buffoons and more “sinister” nationalists in the mould of Gerard Battern. He ironically thanked UKIP for “cleansing” his party of its lunatic fringe.

Halfon’s words draw attention to a sharp conflict within the Conservative Party, between those who want to remain borderline sane, and a larger faction who see the current state of British politics as an opportunity to drag the centre ground ever further to the right. For the latter group the existence of UKIP provides a convenient excuse; a political imperative to propel their party towards bigotry and knee-jerk populism. As I wrote in my round up last week, the end point in this journey is a type of Tea Party fanaticism which blocks all forms of progress.

So far David Cameron has made a host of concessions, essentially allowing the ultras within his party to dictate policy. One can only hope, for the sake both of British national interests and of democracy per se, that senior Conservative figures start to look beyond the ‘path of least resistance’ solutions they currently seem so keen on.

Experts pan the Coalition’s Plans to cut Sure Start

Labour Party

As rapporteur in the European Parliament Culture and Education Committee on early years learning across Europe, I am totally against the Coalition’s plan to cut the Sure Start programme.

My worst fears were confirmed last week when I was privileged to chair the morning session of an important conference in Brussels on early years education and care (ECEC). Organised by Working for Inclusion, the conference was supported by Children in Scotland and the Scottish Government and attended by a number of prominent children’s organisations including Eurochild and the Comenius Foundation for Child Development.

Among the impressive list of contributors were Bronwen Cohen , Head of Children in Scotland, John Bennett and Peter Moss. John Bennett works for the OECD as a senior consultant to the Early Childhood Policy Review and Peter Moss is Professor of Early Childhood Provision at the Institute of Education, University of London. He was the Coordinator of the European Commission Childcare Network from 1986-96, and also edited Children in Europe from 2002-09. We were also pleased to have two representatives present from the European Commission, Margarida Gameiro from DG Education and Culture, and Marie-Anne Paraskevas from DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. Stig Lund, from the European Trade Union Committee for Education, also said a few words.

All the speakers highlighted the vital contribution that high quality ECEC services can make to the public good. Families with children under five are at a higher risk of poverty than any other group. While ECEC services are not a ‘cure all’ solution to the problem of unequal and unjust societies, the contribution they can make to helping kids get the best start in life can’t be overlooked.

They stressed, however, that services should be universal, rather than targeted. This is why the Coalition’s planned cuts to Sure Start are so worrying. If, under their new scheme, Sure Start centres only target the poorest families, then it will lead to stigmatisation, which in turn will reduce take up. The Coalition must start listening to experts, rather than simply cutting education funding with impunity.

Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker

Labour Party

As the Tories get into ever greater trouble over Lord Ashcroft and his Belize dollar, it seems timely to review Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s excellent book  Unjust Rewards.  This short, punchy polemic represents something of a rarity these days – an unashamedly progressive critique of poverty and wealth in present day Britain, and specifically the growing gap between the income of those at the top and those lower down.

Unjust Rewards is hard hitting, using real life case studies and well researched statistics.  Toynbee and Walker have no doubt where to place the blame for our greedy society, personified by out of touch bankers who let the recession happen because they have no contact whatsoever with people outside their narrow social circle.  It lies firmly with Margaret Thatcher.

The other eternally damaging Thatcher legacy is the idea that if you are rich enough and can therefore  get away with it you don’t have to pay tax.  Coupled with this is the equally, if not more damaging belief, that government is incompetent and our tax goes to waste.  We who can afford it do not pay tax and we will convince everyone we possibly can that we don’t need the tax as public provision is useless.  Neither a correct nor an endearing political philosophy.

By contrasting the bubbles in which both the rich and the poor live, Toynbee show just how divided Britain in the early 21st century.  And as ever it’s the poor who pay. 

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this.  Early years intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children can have truly amazing effects, as studies about the effect of Sure Start have shown.  By the time adults face difficulties such as unemployment, practical help can make an enormous difference in getting people back to work.  Government, by no means the inefficient big brother the right would have us believe, can and does have positive effects.

The point of all of this is that revenues go up when people work and medical costs go down as those in work are generally healthier.  Reducing the gap between rich and poor also reduces the corrosive bitterness between the haves and the have nots.

The book’s final chapter is a “manifesto” for action, including the end of “non dom” status so that everyone living in this country pays UK taxes.  If the Ashcroft affair has done anything, it’s surely put this on the map.  No representation without taxation perhaps.