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DoreenMassey4x3.jpgDoreen Massey on building both resilience and opportunity in the north of England

On Thursday, in a debate led by myself, the House of Lords will reflect on a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (North) on ‘the State of the North’ in relation to equality of opportunity and sustainable development.

As those who know me will be aware, I’m from Lancashire – and therefore, a northerner. But my interest in this report is not just about where I come from but the fact that I care deeply about inequality and division – any sort of division – in society. I am aware that inequality and deprivation exist in parts of England other than the North, including areas of the South East – a relatively affluent and well connected region of our country. And some of my concerns will apply there also.

Much has been made of the ‘northern powerhouse’ in recent years. But this can only be powerful if the northern regions have real power – economic, political and in the public sector. It cannot simply be a façade. I welcome that the IPPR report suggests ways of contributing to this real power. Other reports meanwhile, on social mobility, housing, transport, health and education also contribute useful information and recommendations.

The CBI for example, says that wide geographic differences are at the root of much of the inequality in the UK and that, with regard to production, regional variation is vast. Many regions have fallen behind London and the South East. For example, more than half the adults in Wales, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and Northern Ireland have less than £100 in savings. The average weekly pay of workers in Blackpool (£333) is half that of the London Borough of Southwark (£639). Several - but not all – of the lowest hourly wages are in the North.

A previous IPPR (North) report in 2015 made confident projections of northern potential in relation to the economy, jobs growth attractiveness for foreign investment and educational improvements. This latest one however, suggests that the decision to leave the EU will affect the northern economy in terms of trade, and access to skilled labour and funding. It also notes that while growth may have been faster in the north, the current weakness of the pound could be disguising potential troubles.

The new report make three recommendations. First, that establishing a northern Brexit negotiating committee could enable the North to be heard and to build trade relationships with regions and nations within and beyond the EU. Second, that the government should adopt a place-based approach to industrial strategy with core principles of regional differentiation, coordinated investment and devolution. Third, that Local Enterprise Partnerships should conduct resilience audits that set out post-Brexit problems for their economies. Strategic responses should be developed and government should back this strategy.

It will also be important to address the issue of why so much discontent was expressed in the North during the referendum debates and in the subsequent vote. The places most at risk from leaving the EU but ones that could also benefit from new trade deals opted to leave. Only Manchester, Liverpool, Stockport and Trafford voted to remain. The Director of IPPR (North) has argued that Brexit negotiations should focus on the needs of those areas that most strongly voted to leave. England’s northern regions are more than three times as dependent as London on the EU.

As we prepare to leave the EU, the North has distinct economic assets that provide opportunities and threats. But the patchy development of combined authorities, metro mayors and devolution deals may be getting in the way of coherent responses to Brexit and other challenges. Ministers would do well to both heed the IPPR’s warning signs and consider its recommendations.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 11th January 2017

Northern discomfort

Doreen Massey on building both resilience and opportunity in the north of England

AlanWest.jpgAlan West on halting the decline of British sea power

We live in a highly dangerous world with threats emerging from Russia, the Middle East, North African littoral, Sahel, terrorism in all its guises, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Korea, China and cyber.

The latter is of huge concern and there are no agreed norms of reactions to attack or how to behave – and nations fear for their own vulnerability. Cyber however, does not replace hard military power as some politicians and the Treasury wish. Rather, it involves extra expenditure to protect our systems and allow offensive action.

In the face of these threats, what has the UK government done? It has shown a staggering sense of complacency or self-delusion, when it is quite clear to experts and laymen that defence needs more resources.

The previous Coalition government reduced our military capability by 30% and our forces remain underfunded. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, there is minimal new money. It is, in theory, being produced by efficiencies. These are impacting on the lives of our sailors, soldiers and airmen.

The House of Commons select committee have pointed out the creative accounting in the 2% figure of GDP spent on defence given by the government. Spending on pensions doesn’t win wars. And the 2% is not a target but the very minimum any NATO nation should spend on defence. The UK should be spending more.

We are now suffering a ‘Black Hole’ of greater proportions than that talked of in 2010.

Robust defence forces prevent wars. If a small conflagration in a distant part of the world develops into a real conflict threatening our national survival then the best welfare provision, NHS and education system in the world are as nothing.

Stopping war, and defending our nation and people if it happens, is more important than any other government spending priorities. That is certainly the Labour view. If Ministers get defence wrong the nation will never forgive them, and the costs in blood and treasure are enormous.

The government has a choice of spending what is required to ensure the safety and security of our nation, our dependencies and people, whether or not the economic outlook is bleak. At present, they are getting the choice wrong and I fear for the security of our nation.

The United States military power, and to a lesser extent – at least until recently – our own, has ensured no world war for over 70 years. Our allies however, expects us and other countries to step up to the plate and share the defence burden. It is right we should do so and it is no use the UK government pretending otherwise.

There is not enough money in the defence budget to ensure our security in this dangerous world. Notwithstanding Secretary of State Michael Fallon calling this “the year of the Navy”, we have too few ships to do what our great nation expects of it. We have effectively only eleven escorts fully capable of operations – a national disgrace. Delays meanwhile, in ordering the new T26 frigates have led to the ordering of extra highly overpriced Offshore Patrol Vessels to fill the Clyde shipyard with work, due to an agreement that it will be subsidized whether or not ships are produced.

Where I would congratulate the government is on its commitment to the deterrent Successor Programme (also Labour policy) but the capital cost of this should be met from central contingency funds and not the defence vote. And the really good news lies with the new carriers (ordered by the previous Labour government), and both welcomed and eagerly awaited by the US. The government must now purchase enough aircraft for these, and help better ensure our security for the next 50 years and beyond.

Lord Alan West of Spithead is a former Security Minister and a Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 11th January 2017

Defence matters

Alan West on halting the decline of British sea power

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on the need for ministers to engage better with peers on university sector reform

Monday’s opening day of Lords Committee on the Higher Research and Education Bill provided what may turn out to be the first of many government defeats on this ill-considered and poorly-focussed piece of draft legislation.

Today’s second session will focus on perhaps less contentious issues – with 40 of the 100 or so amendments carrying the name of our Bill spokesperson, Wilf Stevenson. Most of these relate to the establishment of the proposed new regulator for the sector, to be called the Office for Students (OfS). As it stands, this body is to be given a duty to encourage competition and value for money in higher education, while promoting equality of opportunity in access to, and participation.

While ministers claim their aim is to use a more competitive system to improve quality standards and outcomes for both students and taxpayers, the evidence from the United States shows the opposite is more likely. Closure of colleges, with students left out of pocket and with no qualifications, suggest the path is a risky one on which to embark.

Perhaps most controversially, the OfS would take over have responsibility for granting degree awarding powers and university status from the Privy Council.

There are also amendments relating to the Director for Fair Access and Participation, designed to strengthen the powers of that office and give it extra responsibilities beyond what is in the Bill. For example, overseeing the performance of OfS functions in these areas and reporting directly to its board members. We wants to ensure the Director rather than the OfS decides on the approval or rejection of participation plans, and allow the postholder to appeal direct to the Secretary of State to overrule OfS decisions on widening participation.

In a move that may answer the question ‘Who regulates the regulator?’, a further group of amendments seek to clarify and firm up the general duties of the OfS. These include the need to work with student representatives, and co-ordination with the regulatory authorities on further education and skills – a sector which the Bill pays little attention towards.

One major issue to be covered today is the Bill’s apparent conflation of quality and standards, which are of course not the same thing. At a later stage of Committee, an attempt will be made to establish a body with responsibility for both that is separate from the OfS. Our focus now however, is on ensuring government guidance does not relate to the standards applied to a particular course or definitions of when qualifications are merited.

Today may turn out to be one of the less lively days on this Bill, but it will put the Minister on the spot over the role of the OfS – something that assumes the government has a clear vision on this. As it stands, the jury is out on whether it wants a simple regulator or an all-encompassing monolith that will not command the confidence or support of the majority of institutions.

On Monday, Viscount Younger of Leckie spurned an opportunity to take away for consideration the definition of a university and the guarantee of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Having paid the price with a government defeat, perhaps we will see some demonstration today that the Minister understands that to make progress, he must make concessions.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 11th January 2017

Higher ground

Mike Watson on the need for ministers to engage better with peers on university sector reform

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