Why I support putting the Brexit question back to the people

I just delivered this speech in the Lords (or watch it Brexit speech 10/1/19):

My Lords, I feel like a rarity in this House, in that this is my first speech in the Chamber on Brexit. It is hard to know how much value my six minutes will add, amongst over 130 speeches in the latest of so many debates on this subject. However, this is the biggest political crisis of my lifetime and, like Lord Low, I think it is time to stand up and be counted.

The first thing to say is that I don’t think Brexit should be the most important issue facing us right now. I also think most of the electorate feel the same.

The global economic outlook is poor. Our public services are in a dreadful state after ten years of austerity, with a huge staffing crisis facing both the NHS and our schools. The Government’s welfare reforms are in pieces. Everything the Transport Secretary touches goes wrong. Our prisons are in a dreadful state. We are going through a mental health crisis, especially amongst our young people. I could go on. The threats of climate change only get worse.

I am desperate for the time and money currently diverted to Brexit to be returned to rebuilding this country.

That said, I believe in the importance of the free movement of goods, of services of capital and of labour. Our nation’s history as a great trading nation, as a great financial centre, and as true global heavyweight, depend on those principles. They are also the founding principles of the EU and the reason why I voted to Remain back in the Referendum.

And what a catastrophe that Referendum has turned out to be.

To be fair to the Prime Minister she was dealt a rubbish set of cards by her predecessor. And, unlike most of the men implicated in this disaster, she has not shown the same sloping shoulders and shed her responsibilities. I believe she has shown commendable resilience in keeping at it and trying to deliver the mandate to deliver Brexit.

That said she has made an appalling job of playing the cards she was dealt. It has always been predictable that Brexit needed to mean more than Brexit, and that once it was defined the divisions in her party would make life very difficult for her. Things could have been very different if Mrs May had chosen to engage across party for the last in 30 months. But as it is, only the inexplicable position on Brexit of Jeremy Corbyn that has allowed the Prime Minister to remain in office.

But now her political strategy, of kicking the can down the road for as long as possible, has now run out of road. We now have her Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying Political Declaration. We now know what Brexit means.

I would like to say we now have political certainty but of course we don’t. The only certainty we do have is uncertainty. In my commercial work I see the huge damage this is causing our economy, and this damage is just as we see worrying signs of the next global slowdown just around the corner and few, if any, policy levers available to anyone if that turns into a crash.

This uncertainty is at the heart of the Government’s failure and why I will be supporting the amendment in the vote on Monday. Others have analysed the weaknesses of the Agreement better than I, and I particularly value the insights of Lord Kerr, but I am especially appalled by the Political Declaration.

How can we agree something that is so vague on our future relationship with the EU?

Our economy, our environment, many parts of our society depend on a close future working relationship with the EU and we are offered just 26 pages of good intent in future negotiations.

The other big uncertainty is the current political situation and the likelihood of the Withdrawal Agreement being defeated next week in the Other Place. What happens then

My Lords, I have thought long and hard about this.

In agreeing to Article 50 being triggered, Parliament respected the Referendum result, and both the main parties again respected it with their manifesto positions in the 2017 General Election. The Government formed from the Parliament elected in 2017 has negotiated an agreement with the EU. The EU says this is the only Agreement that can be negotiated.

So far so good. Our problem is that Parliament is unlikely to agree that the Agreement is in the National Interest. That is not out of disrespect for the democratic process, but because representatives are carrying out their duty to “act in the interests of the nation as a whole”. They, and we, are obliged to vote for what we we believe is in the national interest. For reasons debated at length in your Lordships House it is clear to me that the Withdrawal Agreement is not in the national interest.

So, if the Agreement is defeated by Parliament I believe there to be only one possible next step that respects democracy. We must accept that Parliament will have then failed to agree terms with the EU and the questions should be put back to the country as a Peoples’ Vote.

Not to repeat the question or to test the view on no deal. Parliament seems clear that no deal is no one’s interest and I don’t believe it would therefore legislate to allow it on the Ballot. We should instead ask the people whether the Withdrawal Agreement is better than remaining in the European Union on the current terms. Yes or No.

That respects the work the Government and the EU has done in defining what Brexit looks like and it respects the will of the people. If they vote Yes we proceed with Brexit. If no we withdraw Article 50.

I hope we can get there quickly. That we can then remain in the EU and drive change from within, and most of all I hope we can then get on with fixing so much that is broken in Britain following the catastrophic legacy of David Cameron.


Speech today on a new paradigm for schools

See video of the speech

My Lords, let me start by reminding your Lordships of my education interests in the register, particularly as one of the chief officers of TES. I thank my noble friend Lady Morris not only for instigating this debate, but for the passion and clarity with which she opened it.

Our schools are struggling, particularly our secondary schools. Four statistics tell the story. We have heard the Institute for Fiscal Studies statistic about an 8% real-terms cut over the last eight years. At TES we have done the calculations as a result of the surge in pupil numbers coming through secondary, and predict that in 2024, this country will be 47,000 secondary school teachers short of what it needs to maintain current pupil-teacher ratios. This week, NHS Digital published statistics which tell us that one in five of 17 to 19 year-old girls in this country self-harm or attempt suicide. An Opinium survey for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth found that 56% of teachers believe that our school system is no longer fit for purpose. I happen to agree. 

What is going on? I commend to your Lordships the BBC2 series “School”, which you can catch up with on iPlayer. It is slightly depressing but insightful. In it we see a head teacher, James Pope, struggling to improve standards at Marlwood secondary school, a rural comprehensive in south Gloucestershire that has been put into special measures by Ofsted, while simultaneously being expected to cut nearly £1 million from his annual budget.

Austerity is biting. Funding reductions mean that schools, as the OECD tells us, are employing younger, cheaper teachers, who are often less resilient. More are now leaving the profession than are joining it; I see from today’s statistical first release that initial teacher training recruitment targets at secondary level were missed again for the sixth consecutive year. What then happens is that reduced local authority support, especially for special educational needs, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, talked about, creates more problems. Those problems often start with an increase in low-level disruption in the classroom, which grows. Teacher stress then grows and, with that, illness; the Education Support Partnership reports that one-third of teachers in this country have mental health problems. That increases the numbers off sick and the need for more expensive short-term supply teachers and, as a result, behaviour gets worse and learning falls. Teachers start to leave as their workload increases because they are left to do the planning and paperwork that supply teachers do not have to do, and as they struggle, the behaviour management problems grow. 

As teachers leave, the school tries to recruit in the normal way to fill the vacancies, using the usual vacancy service, but finds that the candidates looking for jobs are not there. The school then re-advertises if there is time, or it may have to go to an expensive headhunter. In 2016, PwC reported that the cost of recruiting teachers is rising as recruitment agencies capitalise on the perceived shortage of candidates. Their market share has risen to 25%, at a cost of 65% of school recruitment budgets. If the headhunter fails, the school may ultimately have to get a long-term supply teacher at great cost, and often poor quality. This creates further pressure on budgets, with the promise of free recruitment services delivering a bitter reality, because the candidates are not looking. As a result, the school suffers declining teacher quality, results suffer, the high-stakes accountability system kicks in, followed by parental choice and a collapse in budgets, and the end of the head teacher’s career. This is the spiral of decline, and school and local authority funding cuts are often at the heart of that story. 

We currently see a burning platform of rising pupil rolls coming out of primary into secondary—there will be 500,000 extra secondary school pupils by 2025. There will be fewer secondary teachers; if we are to fill all the maths teacher vacancies with people studying maths at university, we would need to persuade 40% of all maths undergraduates to become teachers, which is impossible. We have a narrowing curriculum, with less subject choice. The 20% cut in sixth-form funding, which my noble friend Lady Morris talked about, is cutting the number of subjects available at sixth form, but I am increasingly worried about this fetishisation of the academic over the applied, because we are training young people to be outperformed by machines. 

If we train young people just to recall knowledge in tests—machines do that better; they are really good at it—computers will take their jobs. We have to remember what it is like for a young person growing up in this country. They are over-tested; they are looking forward to a debt of £50,000 if they choose to go to university, just at a time when employers such as AXA—an insurance company I was talking to someone about today—have done away with graduate recruitment. AXA prefers to source people earlier and train and develop them to meet its individual needs. It is not alone: Apple, Google, Cosco, Starbucks—all these companies, according to Glassdoor, are phasing out graduate-only recruitment because they want more diversity in their workforce. 

The payback on going to university, in exchange for that debt, is starting to diminish. Young people are worried about robots taking the jobs they hope to get if they are successful at university. Their qualifications are starting to be dismissed by employers. No wonder we are facing a mental health crisis among our young people. What most parents want from schools is for their children to achieve according to the cultural norm, to be happy—parents do not want a battle to get them out from under the duvet every morning—and to be able to make a meaningful contribution at the end of the educational journey. That vision for parents is being rapidly eroded by a school system that is not fit for purpose. We have a funding crisis but, as my noble friend Lady Morris said, there is also a lack of hope about that on the horizon. But this is an opportunity for us to build consensus for change in our school system, and for a new paradigm for education. We could even call it a national education service.

We could cut testing. It is estimated that in this country we spend around £2 billion per year on testing in our schools. Let us just say we halve that: £1 billion could go a long way in helping with some of these problems. We should trust teachers more to shape a curriculum that engages young people and uses testing for formative rather than summative purposes as assessment for learning. More applied learning could be inserted on top of a foundation of knowledge and core skills in the curriculum. A more diverse 14 to 19 curriculum could be created, perhaps by abolishing GCSEs at 16 and ending the national curriculum at 14 to free up the years from 14 to 19 for a much more engaging curriculum experience. We should welcome back teachers in creative and applied subjects, so that they can properly develop the whole child; we should reconnect teachers with their vocation, so that they stay in and, at the same time, equip learners to find their vocation in time. 

All this should be underpinned by proper resources, focused on learning and child development, not on testing and accountability. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I look forward also to hearing from the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, and I salute her for having made sure that he Minister is not quite so lonely on his Bench.


Recharging Rural

red bicycle

Photo by Rezky Rahmatullah on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago I was sat in the Home Room in the House of Lords having a conversation over dinner about the “digital village”.  

It is a classic wood-panelled room with a long wooden table set for dinner with white table linen, House of Lords crockery and plenty of wine glasses. There were around twenty of us there, including our hosts from The Prince’s Countryside Fund, Lord Don Curry, DEFRA minister Lord John Gardiner, Helen Milner from the Good Things Foundation and representatives from BT and Facebook amongst others.

Such evenings are either a perk of the job or an occupational hazard – depending on how the conversation goes!

There was a slight misunderstanding around the table.  The minister wanted to talk about rural broadband, and the important issue of getting bandwidth to the last settlement.  However most of us wanted a wider discussion about the potential of digital to empower rural communities.

The discussion was informed by a great report that the Fund has commissioned from Professor Sarah Skerratt.  The title “Recharging Rural” echoes the recommendations of making rural communities more sustainable.  The problems are familiar: an aging population with fewer and fewer village amenities.  The conclusions can be summarised around better digital connectivity, better transport infrastructure and more diversity of employment.  

Since then I have been reflecting on what more policy makers could do in using digital to redefine what is possible in peripheral areas.

Anything that is done has to tackle inclusion.  There are still areas and residents with very poor connectivity, and still 11 million people in the UK without the skills and confidence to be active online.  I have also written elsewhere about problems around the readability of the web.  The efforts from government to reduce this exclusion need to continue apace.

Scarcely populated areas struggle to sustain services because, by definition, they can not offer the economies of scale that urban areas can.  But we can now aggregate dispersed populations to create viable rural services using digital.

The rise of Babylon to supplement NHS GP services has been controversial.  Whilst there is every reason to be suspicious of this private sector entrant into NHS primary care, and accompanying worries about personal data security, the core service is certainly interesting.  The notion that NHS GPs in rural areas could offer a similar service is compelling.

Their service has an app interface that allows the patient to talk to an artificial intelligent bot about symptoms which then triages the individual and can connect over video to a human GP 24:7.  The GP can then prescribe, and presumably get a prescription delivered.  If the choice is that, or phoning a triage nurse and either being directed into a hospital some distance away or being given a GP appointment the next day, which would we choose?

Similarly I am no fan of the corporate practices of Uber, but I also recognise a great service.  Could their platform technology be re-purposed to better organise volunteer hospital transport, or Uber Pool technology to create new forms of rural transport?

I now have oversight of Tes Institute, a digital teacher training business.  We have been able to train teachers in a way that was previously inconceivable in far flung places like St Helena and the Isles of Scilly, because we blend a social learning experience online with peripatetic tutors.  

There is no doubt that public service delivery can be transformed with digital innovation to the great advantage of rural areas.  This can significantly help the existing rural population.  But can it make communities more sustainable by shifting their demography?

That is a harder problem to crack.  It is not as simple as installing high bandwidth connections and selling great quality of life and good schools to aspirant entrepreneurs.  Whilst this could go a long way it needs more to trigger a behavioural shift.

I have been interested for some time in shifting thinking away from a sense that urbanisation is inevitable in a post-industrial economy.  The pressures on our great cities are now almost overwhelming as house prices, air pollution and congestion make them harder to sustain.  So why not follow Dave Coplin’s vision from this 2013 RSA talk around flexible working?

If government mandated two or three day a week season tickets on our trains, knowledge workers could come to cities for some of the time and get the benefit of clustering and creative exchange.  But if rural market towns also had flexible working facilities like WeWork (the largest real estate tenant in London, New York and Washington DC), then those people can then work and start businesses in rural communities.  They then support local retail and daytime economy, and get the quality of life of the school drop off and pick up.

All of this points to the opportunity of digital in making rural Britain more diverse and therefore sustainable.  It needs vision and a magpie mentality to steal the best of digital enterprise and bring it to serve the public interest.

lords, Politics, Uncategorized

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime – the Lords Delivers!

I must confess.

Today I voted in one of the most bizarre elections in the world. And I voted for someone who was eligible to be a candidate because he is the great grandson of Herbert Asquith, the former British Prime Minister. I was also one of an exclusive electorate, as members of the House of Lords were the only people eligible to vote.

But the Lords are not elected, I hear you cry! That is mostly true but not when it comes to the ones that are there by birth. Yes, this was the by-election for a vacancy for a hereditary peer (see my earlier blog), and on this occasion the whole House was eligible to vote (with convention saying it ought to be a Liberal).

I voted because I thought I should, but clearly this is the Lords at its most ridiculous.

redbenchesBy contrast I also picked up a copy of the Lords internal newsletter the Red Benches. This included a story telling me that they were testing a new system of recording votes using iPads. This is so that they can record them more efficiently and publish the results more quickly.

This is a very good thing for accountability.

All Lords divisions are published and are easily searchable. The public can then see how we all voted, very soon after we did.  We have nothing to hide.

The Lords have been doing this for some time. It begs the question as to why the Commons don’t do the same…


Hereditary Peers’ By-election – Not a Silly Season Story!

On Friday, when I got home to Weymouth and opened the post, I found a House of Lords Notice. I ignored my usual irritation at the waste of money sending post rather than email, and extracted the green notice from its plastic wrapper. With great amusement I read the headline:

Hereditary Peers’ By-election

To many this may be confusing. Many would only know the Lords as an undemocratic house of Parliament made up of political life appointees, like me. Others may also think the Blair government got rid of the hereditary peers fifteen years ago. So what is this by-election, and how come those who are there by birth are also elected?

The green notice opens by saying:

“The death of Lord Methuen on 9 July 2014 has created a vacancy among the expected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords. Under Standing Order 10, this vacancy is to be filled by means of a by-election.”

This all goes back to the deal that was done under Lords reform back in 1999. The Labour government wanted to get rid of all the hereditary peers, but needed to persuade them to vote for their own abolition. The compromise was that 92 were allowed to remain, as long as the rest lost their seats.

Now you might think that was an elegant solution; that the Grim Reaper would then slowly reduce that number down over time until all the Hereditary Peers literally died out. But you would be wrong.

The compromise also included the deal whereby if one of the 92 passed away then their place would be filled by a by-election, hence this procedure to give someone the right to make law in this country.

So who can vote and who can stand?

“All Members of the House … are entitled to vote in this by-election.”

So that is clear, the voters are the Lords themselves and polling day is on 21st October 2014.

On who can stand, there is some boring detail but in this case:

“Those eligible to stand are all those hereditary peers whose names are listed in the register of hereditary peers wishing to stand for election as members of the House of Lords.”

So the hereditary peers were not abolished at all. The larger pool of hundreds lost their right to sit and vote but they, and their successors, are on stand by to get elected when there is a vacancy.

Which is why, in this eccentric country we know and love, the only people elected into our second house of Parliament are those that are there by birth!

PS There are also elections to Labour’s NEC. For those that are interested, I have voted for Luke Akehurst, Johanna Baxter, Crispin Flintoff, Florence Nosegbe, Ellie Reeves and Peter Wheeler


Before I get started here are some past ramblings

Last month I went to the wonderful Caribbean US city of New Orleans. What's not to like about the mix of cultures, food, drink, music, history and architecture. But just outside the French quarter I went to meet John, a friend of a friend.

I wrote about this inspirational man and his amazing story on Medium.

On the same platform a few weeks earlier I also wrote a review of the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

I am taking a break from frontline politics. I have written on a few political blogs but here is a recent few from the Labour Lords site.

For a while I have been working with another inspirational woman, Lucy Herd, who founded Jack's Rainbow after her son died in their garden pond. Our campaign for bereavement leave for parents got us as far as trying to amend the Children and Families Bill as explained here. We didn't win but ACAS will shortly issue new guidance to employers on the subject – which is progress.

I am a founder of Labour Coast and Country. The kind of issues we campaign on include how to get rural and coastal areas benefitting from the knowledge economy. The other blog the great Ian Parker published on the Labour Lords blog is my crowd sourced speech in the Lords for the anniversary of the World Wide Web.

More to come right here. Must walk the dogs.