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MaggieJones2014.JPGMaggie Jones on the importance of arts education and the Coalition’s continued failure to get it

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s reputation as a safe pair of hands, in contrast to her predecessor Michael Gove, appears to have come to an abrupt end. In what should have been a welcome speech, promoting the importance of studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), she instead wrote off the value of an arts and humanities education, stating “it couldn’t be further from the truth” that such subjects provided a good grounding for a wide range of jobs. Ironic really, given that 34% of chief executives of FTSE 100 companies have an arts degree.

The Education Secretary’s intervention is instructive because it reinforces the increasing evidence that the Coalition government does not understand the importance of arts and creativity in the curriculum. Traceable to Michael Gove’s disastrous introduction of an Ebacc at GCSE level with no space for arts subjects, it has continued through the current ‘discounting’ system of performance measures.

As a result, some subjects are downgraded at the expense of others, leading to a decline in take up of arts GCSE’s; while at primary school level, participation in the arts is down by a third. The move to assessment purely based on end of course exams, with most practical work deleted, compounds the attack on creativity. Yet later today, when Peers debate the importance of arts education in schools, a wide consensus will be apparent on the intrinsic value of a grounding in the arts, as well as the positive impact it has on our economy, health, wellbeing and civic involvement.

The creative industries are growing three times as fast as the rest of the UK economy, contributing over £70billion and accounting for 2.5 million jobs. But more than that, employers from all sectors are crying out for people able to think creatively, experiment and communicate. It is essential to our future prosperity.

This is why Labour supports calls for a broader education embracing a mixture of arts and science – literally transforming the concept of STEM into STEAM, with the arts taking their rightful place. We reject the binary choice between science and arts, and are committed to a broad and balanced curriculum that encourages young people to be both creative and analytical.

What is more, we are consulting on how best to ensure that every child regularly witnesses the arts in action – whether theatre, dance, museums and galleries – and hears a variety of live music. We would also give them opportunities to express themselves, learning how to perform on stage, play a musical instrument and create their own art. Labour also believes that an outstanding cultural education should be intrinsic to the school ethos, both as part of the formal curriculum and through new extra-curricular activities in our 8am to 6pm wrap around school offer.

Ultimately, when it comes to judging success, we already have a proud record of promoting and supporting the arts, and will do so again when back in government. Sadly, the Coalition will be judged by their tone and actions, and a legacy that demonstrates they never fundamentally understood the importance of the arts to our society.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 27th November 2014

STEAM engines

Maggie Jones on the importance of arts education and the Coalition’s continued failure to get it

Parry_Mitchell.jpgParry Mitchell on the latest battle in the Lords to check the activities of pay day lenders

In a speech that I gave in the Lords two years ago, I summed up the payday lending industry by quoting a line from The Eagles’ classic track ‘Hotel California’: “you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave”. It somehow seemed to sum up the whole nature of the industry that once you have taken out a loan, you were trapped for ever. Compound interest at 5,000% would simply accelerate your loan to stratospheric proportions.

I quote the example of a friend of mine, whose unemployed son had taken a payday loan for £400 and six months later my friend had to settle for £3,000. The companies offering these loans loved the UK – there were no restrictions and they could get away with murder. The most successful was Wonga, who were making profits of close to £100million each year and whose owners were looking to make billions when the company obtained a public listing.

Well it never happened.

Payday lending has been my personal campaign for the past three years. I haven’t been alone, in that I have been backed up by fabulous Labour colleagues in both the Lords and Commons.  And we have achieved some magnificent results, including dragging the government kicking and screaming towards a cost cap.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has now bared its teeth and already restricted pay day loan activities. In five weeks, it will impose a total interest rate cap that will clobber the industry. According to the FCA themselves, many of these lenders will pack up and go homem with only a few surviving.

So it really has been an achievement.  But there are still aspects that we need to address.

Today, during the final session of Report on the Consumer Rights Bill, Peers will debate the advertising of payday loans before the watershed. I will argue that in the average UK family household, the TV is on for at least four hours a day, so any advertisement for payday loans is likely to be seen by children. The statistics bear out the case – one third of all 13-17 year olds think that payday lending adverts are fun and tempting. They know the jingles and laugh at the puppets. Over half of them could name at least three of the companies involved. And three quarters of all parents believe such adverts should not be shown before 9pm.

The payday lending companies are very skillful, spending millions on marketing and advertising. They understand ‘pester power’, getting children to urge their parents to take out a loan whenever they want a new pair of trainers or similar.

Ministers will claim that sufficient powers exist for the FCA or the Advertising Standards Authority to restrict advertising where appropriate, but the fact is they haven’t. They may well offer us a sop, but we must refuse it. This industry has to be taken to task.

Two years ago, almost every bus in London was festooned with pre-Christmas advertising from Wonga using the strap line ‘Straight Talking Money’. As we now know, there was never much about it that was straight. Parliament has the power to ban these advertisements before the watershed, and I hope colleagues across the Lords join Labour and others today in our attempts to do so.

Lord Parry Mitchell is backbench Labour Peer and a long-standing campaigner on pay-day lending issues. He tweets @lordparry

Published 26th November 2014

Watershed moment

Parry Mitchell on the latest battle in the Lords to check the activities of pay day lenders

Jan_Royall_Generation_Citizen4x3.jpgJan Royall calls for a strategic flood defence plan, adaptable to the needs of local communities

These days, flood warnings are a regular feature of UK weather forecasts, and unfortunately something we can expect more of in future. Despite the government’s own assessment that climate change would significantly increase our flood risk, funding for protection has been slashed by nearly £100million – a real terms reduction of 17%. This means that hundreds of flood defence schemes are currently on hold, with three-quarters not being maintained as they should be and half only receiving ‘minimal’ support. Indeed, it leaves some places, for example Great Yarmouth, which has the highest numbers of homes at real risk of flooding, fending for themselves.

Last winter, as record levels of rain fell across the UK, we saw the consequences of these decisions: 7,700 homes and 3,200 businesses affected, 49,000 hectares of agricultural land flooded, and travel routes severely disrupted.

Some of the worst affected areas were in the South West, particularly in Somerset. When Parliament broke for summer recess, the Government had paid out just £403,000 to local farmers and only £2,320 to fishermen from the original £10million pledged. So much for Mr Cameron’s assertion, ‘money is no object’.

In fact, the Somerset Levels flood action plan continues to be surrounded by uncertainty. The 20 year strategy requires a government investment of £100million, yet only a third of that amount has been promised. Given the Environment Agency’s estimate that every pound invested in flood defences saves £8 in flood damage, this is deeply troubling. In Worcester for example, its budget has been cut by 33%. Many, including local expert Mary Dhonau, “don’t know how on earth Worcestershire will cope with this reduction.” This is what happens when you have a blinkered approach.

The nature of flooding in our country means that we need to both protect the 5.2million homes at risk and have a long-term strategic plan. That is what the last Labour government put in place, and it is exactly what the Coalition has scrapped. So those areas that are currently not susceptible to severe flooding are being left exposed.

Take Stevenage for example – a town not normally prone to flooding. Hertfordshire County Council has reduced gully and highway maintenance and, this September, following heavy rains, three areas of the town were badly affected with residents forced out of their homes. And some of them are yet to go back. Thanks to a government approach gone wrong, short-sightedness has led to nothing more than pain.

We know however, that when you invest, it works. A few years back, there were terrible floods in Gloucester and the electricity station was in danger. Despite this, investment from the last Labour government ensured that the station and surrounding houses have been safe ever since. Moreover, the next Labour government will reprioritise long-term preventative spending and establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify long term infrastructure needs, including flood defences.

If you invest, if you engage, if you support – not only can you save money in the long-term, you can also ensure that people can live safe in the knowledge that their homes and families are protected.

Baroness Jan Royal of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall

Published 26th November 2014

Inconvenient truths

Jan Royall calls for a strategic flood defence plan, adaptable to the needs of local communities

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