Sunday, 29 December 2013

NHS crisis and its causes

In a few weeks time I hope to be visiting Medway Maritime and the A&E department to look at the hard work being undertaken by staff and management to improve the situation in a struggling situation.

It is true to say that the last 12 months have not been good for our local NHS. We have had the botched implementation of an ideologically driven Conservative programme to privatise key healthcare services; we have had the hospital placed under special measures; we have had maternity and mental health services cut. The merger with Darent Valley was put on ice permanently and with the botched closure of NHS Direct in Chatham it has been a pretty full year of bad news. 

The pressure is compounded locally in my mind by the Tory-led Local Authority changing its funding formula for adults in care focusing solely on those who are in the highest category of need. It is clear that people are slipping through the cracks and ending up in hospital. In addition we have a tired bunch of Tory backbenchers seemingly unable to accept public health demographics are worsening on most key measures; alcoholism, obesity, smoking etc. This is more worrying as Public Health is now a Council responsibility under the government reforms.

Our Tory MPs are simply focused on the wrong priorities. Not a week goes by without another desperate attempt to reach out to deserting Tories to UKIP. Discussions around health tourism are base and ignore the problem. If there was ever an example of a government desperate to outbid on grubby headlines on migration or Europe we have reached that point now. A government that has utterly ceded the centre ground and whose membership is evaporating. Like with foodbanks simply being photographed smiling at a hospital wont wash if the product of failure is the same policies you voted to support. Those working in the NHS are the angriest about the ideology driven by Tories.

The recent A&E admission statistics are a case in point. The Tory government has now had months to prepare for the potential for increased admissions. The warning signs were there in Medway from the leaked correspondence from medics working in Medway Maritime all the way back to Spring. Yet the stats above highlight a worrying theme. 

The Tories claim Medway A&E department has never been up to scratch hence the need for investment now; perhaps in size and capacity it hasn't been but until the Tories took over targets were never missed on admissions by the scale we have seen in the last 12 months. Even this time last year the department was in a far better shape.

The A&E admissions crisis has worsened in just over 12 months.

The botched NHS Direct privatisation; cuts to Adult Social Care budgets coupled with senior leadership focus on re-organisations is in my mind the root cause of the problem.

All of this self-induced by this government; we did not need to pursue aggressive reforms, that had no mandate, at the exact point in time when things were working and when funding and demographic pressures required stability. We did not need to sell off NHS Direct (based in Chatham) to a multitude of private providers. We could have bitten the bullet and not solely given funding to the much smaller number in the higher categories for adult care. Direct Payments policies are flawed when it comes to elderly people with early onset dementia. Perhaps not having a millionaires tax rebate whilst instead offering greater support for the elderly could have been more appropriate.

It is true that under Labour the NHS did have provisions imposed on standards and targets. With the influx of billions of pounds of money the risk was always that it would sink into a blackhole without codified outcomes on operations, cancer diagonsis, heart disease etc. A few of the original PFI agreements were not well considered; but remembering we inherited an NHS in 1997 where over half the hospitals were older than the NHS itself and were utterly unfit for purpose. Most people on polls recognised things did improve. The Labour Manifesto position in 2010 for a National Care Service still has merit. 

Despite all the health twitter accounts in Medway and the glut of Press Officers  the truth is quite clear. The service has got worse since May 2010 and no amount of flinging the odd million or so here and there will make it better. 

If you have botched the fundamental structure, undermined the principle foundations, and have done so during a period of sustained demographic and economic stress the reality is for all to behold. 

The election in 2015 will be fought over our local NHS. If the last 12 months is the record then it is truism that you simply can't trust them with our cherished service.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Food for thought from my visits to schools

One of the issues that has been raised on the doorstep and where I meet parents in Medway is the current state of our Primary Schools in Medway.

Over the last decade KS1 and KS2 results in our area have remained stubborn whilst in many other Local Authority areas with similar demographics we have seen major improvements. 

I have been spending the last six months meeting headteachers across Chatham and Aylesford and whilst I have not met them all there are a number of issues that have consistently been raised that I believe should be reviewed.

It is worth stating at the outset I am not an education specialist and I do not sit on any of the Education Committee's on the Council; in reality my interest areas lie in finance and capital spending but it is important to try and get a holistic grasp of the challenges I will face. Education failiure is one Labour will inherit from the Tories whether you are an MP representing the area or a Labour Council trying to clear up the mess. 

It is for that reason that I have a very good working dialogue with Peter Read - the Independent Education specialist - and have been assidiously reading his position papers on Medway schools.

The first thing to state is that despite the change in Political leadership in Gun Wharf from Cllr Les Wicks to Cllr Mike O'Brien we have actually witnessed a worsening of overall results in Primary School OFSTED reports over the first period that I believe there is validity to assess (see above). This period being from September 2013 onwards highlights that fact still too many schools sit below the national average and 2 have worsened. 

This was reinforced in my mind by the publication of the Key Stage 2 performance league tables that once again has Medway close to the bottom of the league tables. Whilst these are for the previous year the same people in charge now offered unqualified support at the time for the political decisions made then. It is the reason we need a whole new policy agenda not just a new suit with a handerkerchief.

Worryingly still we have a clear narrative coming out of Gun Wharf that needs to be squashed. Namely that the schools becoming Academies need not warrant the same level of attention or scrutiny when compared with those in LEA control because that is what the government has done. I back Academy schools but the move by Tories to relinquish any LEA oversight is utterly flawed.  As a Council all those young people under our review need to be assessed and if needs be we need to be robust on this. 

When meeting with headteachers and governors several points ensue.  I summarise those:

i) Medway Governors - Whilst the Council has focused investment in training and development there is still not enough cross-school working and the Council needs to proactively do more to advertise and promote governerships. I believe Medway needs to be more proactive in this regard and schemes that give those that serve the community a Medway Council Tax reduction should be actively considered for those that have offered services over a certain timeframe (perhaps 2/3 years). The Council should proactively speak to local accountancy firms and private sector employers (those with an ability to scrutinise finances imperative) to secure committment. Many private sector firms have Corporate Social Responsibility statements and may be open to engagement. 

ii) Logistical Support - Many of the schools feel the Council has lost the plot when it comes to service provision including hiring + support. Hence why so many have been happy to walk away to become Academies. When problems are identified schools should not have to hit heads against brick walls. If we have a block in the officer population in the Council this needs to be reviewed. This should be done in consultation with governors and headteachers

This also relates to issues around school spending on key projects around infrastructure. At present the Audit Committee has significant concerns around procurement in schools; this needs to be robustly resolved. The Council should offer to headteachers checks and balances on any third-party engagement on any school project over a specific size as matter of recourse on key projects.  

iii) Specialist Headteachers - The Council should consider hiring specialist headteachers on a permanent 12 month contract basis to advise failing schools. These should not solely be used to fill a headteaching gap when one arises but be genuine partners with schools to ensure staff have access to experienced professionals who can advise. They would be on the Council payroll and may have two/three schools at any one point in time and would focus on the issues identified from OFSTED only; not the wider issues of school management required from those in the ground. They would partner not order schools.

Medway MPs have been right to highlight the lack of leadership in some schools but the focus has always been on hiring a new teacher after a failure had been identified which takes months. Once an OFSTED report highlights concern we need excellence to intervene immediately - excellence with experience is the only credible recourse.  

iv) Education O&S - Any school that sees a reduction in OFSTED performance should have a report to Councillors as to why and what will be done in an indivdual report. Headteachers should be invited to address the Committee to discuss efforts and management to improve and be held to account. Too many times Councillors have had to proactively approach school management teams to get a meeting. Schools are of course arms length but when it comes to public money accountability is key. A more broader committee with similar powers to the Health & Wellbeing Board involving more headteachers and professionals should be considered and lobbied for. 

v) Splitting Adult and Children Services - With the increasing scrutiny on Child Safety and the move towards a more complicated process of Direct Payments, with the demographic challenges of an ageing population, it is time we had a focused Director for both these two areas in the Council. Having one over arching Director for two key changing and challenging areas of policy provision is madness. If it wasnt for the fact we had concerning OFSTED's for child safety as well as KS2 it is clear the current model just isnt fit for purpose. 

vi) 11+ Test - Schools are currently focused obessively on this Medway Test. A scheme operated by Durham University has taken the wrote-learning out of testing and allows testing on ability rather than those who can simply 'learn' the test. The less politics on locations for testing the better.

vii) Peer-to-peer assessment at KS1 - Many of those headteachers I have spoken to have expressed concern about the level of pupil attainment that they inherit from other schools. Incidentally, this is also a concern for many headtachers at secondary schools as well who feel they have to play catch up on attainment for new starters. Medway needs a far more rigorous peer-to-peer assessment process through KS1 to ensure problems are identified before they reach KS2. We have assessment processes now; these need to be tighter and more robust. 

viii) Proactive engagement with TeachFirst and specialist teacher training - Council should offer excellent Teachers sponsorship through College and University with a proviso they then work in Medway Schools. Some schools at Secondary level already offer this type of training provision but this could be codified centrally and more actively. Working with excellence organisations in the private sector should be persued far more vigorously. Deputy Headteachers should be offered sponsored career-development for leadership (MBAs, MEds etc); in short we need to retain and develop individual excellent teachers within Medway.

Some of the above points are current practice that need far more rigourous persuit; and I know Labour Councillors have welcomed a focus on some of these issues in recent months. However, as an MP I would be far more active than our current crop of Tory MPs in engaging on the of failing Primary Schools. 

It is clear we are going to inherit a mess on KS2 from the current Conservative Administration, with the evidence at present not leading me to conclude things will radically improve. 

These are not manifesto points merely some of the issues that have been raised during my meetings and my conclusions from them. As an MP I would take these points forward with any incoming Medway Labour administration in Gun Wharf. 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Time to curtail FOBTs

I’ve spoken to many local people who have told me that they are fed up of seeing so many bookmakers operating as mini-casinos offering high-stakes gaming machines on our high street. 

One of the reasons for there being so many betting shops is the prevalence of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). These machines can be highly immersive with players betting up to £300 a minute or £18,000 an hour. Players on these machines may enter the ‘zone’ and spend more money than they intended, causing huge damage. 

The clustering of betting shops can also have a negative impact on high streets with many people expressing concern about anti-social behaviour and the impact on other local businesses. Recent evidence shows that FOBTs machines are concentrating in areas where people are predominantly on low incomes. 

Current legislation limits these machines to four per shop but this just means that betting shops open multiple stores in one area in order to get more FOBTs in to the local neighbourhood. 

With 31 betting shops across the three Medway constituencies this means we could have upto 124 of these types of machines and their prevalence has huge consequences for families, for levels of crime and anti-social behaviour, and for the kind of communities we live in. 

Fixed Odds Betting Terminal machines can cause enormous harm and experts estimate that up to 23% of FOBT takings come from people with gambling problems. 

That’s why I’m backing Medway Labour’s plans to give local people and local authorities the power to decide if they want them on their high street or if they want to ban them from our communities all together. 

Medway Labour’s proposals would put betting shops in a separate class so that councils can use planning powers to control how many open. Labour would also give councils the power to change existing licenses to remove or limit the number of FOBTs in betting shops and reduce their harm by increasing the time between plays, requiring pop-ups to break up continuous cycles of gambling. 

The Conservatives across Medway are clearly split. Whilst several Tory Councillors have been working with the Press to highlight the plight of those impacted we also have several Tories (and former Tories) who are in abject denial about the impacts of FOBTs.

If evidence suggests that FOBTs and betting shops are having a detrimental effect on local people then local authorities must have the power to reclaim their high streets for the benefit of everyone.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Medway NHS: Don't trust the Tories

              You cant trust the Tories with our Medway NHS

Friday, 1 November 2013

Working with People

Part of a job of being a credible Member of Parliament is working with diverse array or organisations, public bodies, resident forums, unions, religious institutions and campaign activists to deliver for your residents.

Over the last two years I have been doing exactly that. 

I have spoken up for residents in Snodland against inappropriate parking restrictions and challenged why local Councillors have not been ‘calling in’ planning applications. I have worked on a cross party basis to stop an Asbestos Transfer Station in Lordswood securing signatures to oppose any site. I have campaigned alongside Liberal Democrats on the Oaken Wood proposal in Ditton and have worked with Parish Councillors in the Villages to oppose KCC Tory cuts to bus services in the villages of Burham, Eccles and Wouldham. I have worked with mums and dads to keep Sure Starts open in Chatham and Larkfield and have partnered with the Green Party in London City Hall and Friends Groups to oppose the London Conservative plans to bulldoze over the Isle of Grain. I have highlighted issues around the Living Wage, Zero Hours Contracts and Freedom from Fear working with Trade Unions. I have opposed the Pravda Sheet roll, CCTV car excess, local taxation waste on big projects; campaigns more akin to the Tax Payers Alliance. I have worked with Sainsbury’s to fill food banks and I have campaigned on Prostate Cancer research with charities and lobby groups. I have proposed pay day lender bans and championed proposals like the 'Snow Angels' that will give power for communities to act in poor weather; campaigns clearly in the public interest not the vested interest.

Over the next two months I have two other large doorstep campaigns in track whose seeds have been sown already…

Meeting people who don’t agree with you is also part of the job; I receive regular challenge on twitter from people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum. I engage. I never refuse to meet those who I disagree with; the latest example being the RSPB on Lodge Hill; a meeting which the Medway Conservatives refused incidentally to hold.

How my opponents choose to act is for them to decide. Publishing private email correspondence sent in obvious error is in my mind against the spirit of fairness. It does not match public expectations of appropriate campaign behaviour and highlights an ill-temperateness. 

This Living Wage is not a coalition in the pocket of Union interests – though for Council purposes they are aware of those most impacted by low wages and are better spokespeople for those same people  – but more broadly a coalition with business like Ernst & Young, Aviva, PwC and White & Case.  It is a campaign championed by Boris Johnson (shock) and Labour Students up and down the country.                                                                                                                                                                                           
It will not come as a surprise from today’s Medway Messenger that a coalition of Progressive interests is clearly united in its ambition for a Living Wage for the Medway Towns. The Medway Labour and Liberal Democratic Groups backed the Living Wage in Council and its clear TUSC and the Green Party are now very much on board as well. In many other areas the Conservatives have come on board too. Building a consensus is why I have spoken with the Medway  People's Forum and respect the work that they do not decry the clothes they wear; it is precisely because they are speaking up for vulnerable people and have an awareness of policy challenges that people should be respected. Whether that is protesting outside conference or speaking in Gun Wharf; it is respect to those who have a belief and will fight for it fairly and within the rules.

Incidentally, the Living Wage coalition is made possible and easier to organise exactly because of an arrogant elite in Gun Wharf that once again has not considered a proposal beyond a quick chat of the ‘old boys network’. A coalition made possible by reaching out to people who may not always agree with you on everything but will stand together on a key campaign.

I work with people from a diverse array of backgrounds and I make no apology for that. The day a politician or group refuses to speak or work with people based solely on whether they are from trade union, association, organisation or resident forum, is a day you deserve to lose office.  

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Recording Council Meetings

The government has announced that it will be creating a new law that will allow residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England. 

This follows previous attempts by the Department for Communities and Local Government to force councils to be more transparent, after a string of councils have continued to prevent individuals from recording council meetings on health and safety and legal grounds. 

We have history locally here; within the last month the ruling Conservative Group refused a member of the public to record the proceedings of an Overview & Scrutiny meeting on Thursday 3rd October (See Point 436) on the £4.4m spend of taxpayers money on the Rochester Airport. This type of casual disregard for the public is all to common place.

Public access to meetings is a key part of holding local councils and public bodies to account and it’s wholly wrong for people not being able to record or film in public meetings for spurious legal reasons. 

Whether through Freedom of Information law, filming council meetings or publishing data, transparency is a critical check on those in power and an essential part of defending our liberties.

If Tory Councillors in our area wont move on an issue of common sense we need laws to protect the public interest.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Council Car Fleet needs review

A responsible opposition also serves to highlight where we would save money and protect the public pound.  

A cost cutting measure that I believe should and could be looked at quickly concerns the current and extensive Tory Council car fleet (see below).

I believe Medway could significantly reduce the cost of staff transport that may result in a substantial saving for taxpayers.

Medway has a significant number and combination of lease vehicles provided to staff and employee-owned vehicles. This combination not only means that the Council is adding significantly to local congestion and requiring additional parking (and it has several staff car parks that are in city centre areas) it is also blighted by the fact that the Council has no real understanding of what state all these vehicles are in as far as I can understand.

Identifying the problem is one thing, but dealing with the issue is an entirely different matter and that is where you can learn from best practice.

By using local transport and having access to the cars when they actually need them, rather than frittering money away on an expensive fleet (including maintenance, fuel and car parking space) the council has reported considerable savings.

I have since tried to chase officers of our Council on the cost of the car fleet and have been met by static and complaints it would take too long to compile the information. A worrying fact given one would assume the maintenance and cost of transport with vehicles is usually expensed on separate accounts in many organisations.

This is not to say that all vehicles would be managed in this way; but a certain number could be through use of companies like ZipCar. I appreciate this may take some time given legacy arrangements but over the medium-long term having fewer assets that depreciate in value would be helpful to the public purse.

I will be raising this at audit committee soon. 

Tory Council Tax Rise on cards

Despite the warm words in today’s paper from the Medway Tories on efficiency and effectiveness there is still far too much waste and casual disregard for the public pound. 

It has all but been confirmed that the Medway Conservative Party will increase Council Tax on hardworking residents next Spring.

The record of a 33% increase in Council Tax over a decade is highly likely to continue. The one consolation is that the Labour legacy of the lowest Council Tax in Kent will remain.

When it comes to managing the finances this Council has a lamentable track record and MPs that simply aren't willing or able to hold them to account. 

Remember the Local Budget this year that simply didn’t add up; the botched Chatham bus station; the multi-million pound Stoke ‘Bridge-to-nowhere’; the Strood Civic Centre car park; the ‘dodgy’ Medway Tunnel and the countless other overspends over the last 10 years. Remember also this is the same Tory Council that has refused to cut down the Pravda sheet paper roll, or look at the CCTV cars despite Eric Pickles wide-fingered lamentations. The same Tories that promised not to scrap weekly bin collections in 2007 are now claiming, audaciously, to have re-introduced weekly collections on every tweet from the Council e-media team in 2013. 

This is a two-faced and rotten Conservative Council that is happier fiddling with press releases on the Bedroom Tax then serving the most vulnerable residents. The record on education is woeful; our local NHS is under special measures; a Council that talks about diversity but whose administration oppose Equal Marriage proposals. The same Medway Tories that last week scoffed and cheered at the profit some members made out of under-valued Royal Mail shares; but shed not one whimper of sympathy for the lowest paid for a Living Wage.

The wrong values that are corrosive and a Council that doesn’t listen and costs us all in the pocket.

Liberal Democrat bloggers and members have a simple choice; you can bend over backwards to support Tory MPs if you so choose but it is the residents they and you purport to serve that are being so callously let down. Liberal Democrat voters have already made the move long ago. 

These are Tories that don't listen to residents; Sure Start users in Chatham;  elderly residents on Nelson Terrace in Luton; the residents concerned about the airfield in Rochester South and Horsted and the thousands stuck in Chatham traffic jams every weekday and weekend. The list goes on and on, week after week; Chatham high-street small business traders and teaching assistants just in the last six months.

From over-zealous and mis-budgeted parking charges, ‘Medway Matter’ Pravda sheets, CCTV 'Vulture' cars, Mayoral fine-fingered food frippery and now Council Tax rises. This is just the recent news items.

All Council’s borrow but it is what they spend it on that marks the difference; the Tories would rather spend £4.4m of public cash to fund a very publicly decried tarmac runway on the Rochester airfield to help fyling elites.

If you are going to attack Labour to borrow relatively small and costed sums; don’t have copious multi-million pound projects botched or mired in controversy hovering over like a foul smog-like legacy.  Don’t have a local development framework bogged down so far in bureaucratic bungling it serves as a running joke.

Labour would rather help small business and Sure Starts not airfield flyers. Labour would rather spend money on low paid cleaning staff and teaching assistants for struggling schools, and not wine and ginger beer for Mayoral Tea-party Tories. Labour would rather improve our residential roads then see the introduction of a Medway tunnel tax that will soon have to take its toll from Medway residential road budgets when the RBT grant runs dry.

The left does believe that the state can do positive and empowering things; but it also believes that institutional Conservatism and outdated local government structures need to be reformed. 

The last Labour Council abolished several layers of Local Government in Medway that created the Unitary Authority; the legacy was low Council Tax for all. A similar and brave position needs to be taken on reforming and recasting how the Council works with the public pound after 2015; when the legacy from this incompetent shambles is a black-hole.

A Council Tax rise is now on the cards for 2013/14; but make no mistake this Council; its political leadership; and its institutionally conservative structures are not spending your money wisely, and are certainly not listening to you about how to spend it. 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Fly-tipping challenge

One of the five big complaints I get raised as ward Councillor in an inner urban ward is that of fly tipping in alleys, near roads and outside private properties.

It is a scourge that local Councillors are regularly told is getting worse across the country; yet actually that may not quite be the truth.

A study has found that Southampton remains the place worst affected by fly tipping in the South East but Medway has shown the largest increase in incidents since 2010/11, contrary in fact, to the trends seen elsewhere. 

I have compiled the data from the ever exciting DEFRA stats on Local Authority fly tipping (2012/13) vs the same stats in 2010/11

  • First - Southampton - 8,708 incidents (10/11) to 7,819 incidents (12/13) - FALL 
  • Second - Milton Keynes 5,321 incidents to 3,531 incidents (12/13) - FALL 
  • Third - Medway 3,130 incidents to 4,576 (12/13) - RISE 
  • Fourth - Basingstoke & Deane 2,879 incidents to 2,198 (12/13) - FALL 
  • Fifth - Hastings 2,873 (10/11) incidents to 3,464 (12/13) - RISE 
  • Sixth - Brighton and Hove 2,227 (10/11) incidents to 2,076 (12/13) - FALL 
  • Seventh - Reading 2,179 (10/11) incidents to 2,139 (12/13) - STATIC 
  • Eighth - Swale 1,918 (10/11) incidents to 1,925 (12/13) - STATIC 
  • Ninth - Test Valley 1,881 (10/11) incidents to 785 (12/13) - FALL 
  • Tenth - Dartford 1,777 (10/11) incidents to 1,304 (12/13) - FALL 

It seems very odd that Medway has seen a marked increase in flytipping reporting whilst other areas have seen a notable fall.  

I will be challenging this in more detail

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Zero Hour Shame

We need real action to end exploitive zero-hours contracts and rising insecurity in the workplace Families in Medway, Aylesford and across the country are facing the greatest cost of living crisis in a generation. 

Prices are increasing, wages are falling and for many hard-working people there is rising insecurity in the workplace. One of the worst examples of this is the exploitive use of zero-hours contracts. I’ve spoken to many people in Medway and Aylesford who are employed on zero-hours contracts and they’ve told me of the struggle they and their families face on a daily basis. 

According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts - with a big increase since the Tory-led government took office - and they are now used in one in five workplaces. 

The Tory-led government has failed to act on zero-hours contracts. It emerged that a ‘review’ of the issue initiated by Business Secretary Vince Cable earlier this year consisted of three officials spending part of their time “speaking informally” with stakeholders. 

Zero-hours contracts mean insecurity and stress for too many families in Medway and Aylesford. We can’t let this continue, which is why I have campaigned and exposed the extent of contracts used by Medway Council. Assuming 11% of the Medway workforce is on zero-hour contracts this means many thousands could be in insecure work arrangements.

The Tory-led government has failed to act. According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts - with a spike since the Tory-led government took office - and they are now used in one in five workplaces.

A Labour Government would ban employers from insisting zero-hours workers be available even when there is no guarantee of any work, stop zero-hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business and end the misuse of zero-hours contracts where employees are in practice working regular hours over a sustained period. 

Both employers and employees need flexibility but this shouldn’t mean people in Medway and Aylesford lacking job security and having to be flexible about whether or not they can afford the weekly shop. We’ve got to put a stop to it and that is what Labour is determined to do. 

Hard-working people should feel confident and secure at work; ending the exploitive use of zero-hours contracts is an integral part of achieving this.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Parking Fines

As a backbench Councillor, and resident, I have written in detail about the Council CCTV cars and my case that our Conservative administration is being over zealous when it comes to raising money from parking fines.

Several months ago I read with concern a report that highlighted that Kent and Medway were the second highest issuer of PCNs in the country. From this I placed a members item into Medway Council to review the source of fines and for this to be reported.

The above figures highlight the level of operation under which are Conservative Council operate and a number of things stand out:

i) Overall PCN issuance in real terms
ii) The revenue from the CCTV cars has decreased over a five year operation 
iii) The revenue from fines at bus stations has increased over a five year operation 

I have since requested further information on this:

i) Overal PCN issuance in real terms

The number of total PCNs issued by Medway Council has increased dramatically over the last five years. From approximate 47,500 issued in 2008/2009 to some 61,500 in 2012/13. That is an increase of 30% on figures from 2008/2009. 

ii) CCTV Cars

The Conservative administration has been spinning to the media that there is significant demand for the vehicles and that they primarily operate outside schools. Yet when challenged on this the number of requests was below 500 and the majority were institutional requests and not those made by residents. When probed further on the number of tickets issued outside schools officers could not supply details; despite the fact the administration used this as justification for the cars in the first place.

The cars operate 7 days a week for 52 weeks a year or 365 days. Schools operate for 35 weeks a year for 5 days a week and closing and opening times last for two hours a day.  You can see immediately how the Tory spin falls apart; it was most interesting given media briefing that officers could not provide month P&L statistics. I will wait and see...

Officers have been tasked with coming back with a monthly revenue breakdown and the proper stats on those fined near schools. If evidence does not exist than it is very odd the administration portfolio holders are briefing it to the media blindly; but then Tory portfolio holders barely questioning lines is not uncommon.

The profitability of the car is also falling. Given the costs of the car over its period of operation were some £620,000 this can be broken down into annual costs of either £124,000 per annum (5 years) or £103,000 per annum (6 years) based on averaging out costs from Council Press statements. The car made a profit of £134,000 last year not taking into account costs; at best this car is now close to break even. 

It is for this reason I have called on the cars to be scrapped; they are a massive reputation liability and they do immense damage to the PR of the Council. If they are not operating outside schools as is claimed they serve little purpose with the damage to the Council as a clear result. 

iii) Bus Lane Fines

Almost converse to the fall in fines from the CCTV car has come the rise in fines from bus lanes

The massive increase has ostensibly come from the Chatham 'Dynamic' bus facility that was botched from inception to completion by the Conservatives and that cost the taxpayers millions of pounds to build; and whose costs have never truly been totally pinned down.

Residents will remember the CCTV cars operated outside of the bus station until the media uncovered this.

The Council has made recent attempts to change the lay-out at the bus station but it is clear from these figures that huge sums of cash have been raised from this source. 

I will continue to work on this but from these figures it is clear huge sums of cash have been raised as a result of the Chatham Bus Station either directly or indirectly from CCTV car fines, or indeed now fixed fines. 

Given this bus station has been an unmitigated disaster its legacy isnt just the over budget capital spend but also its sting on residents.

Snow Angel Scheme

Part of being an elected Councillor is to lobby and push the administration on ideas that could help residents.

Whilst a lot of residents rightly focus on the disagreements between the administration and opposition there is more often agreement about how we can challenge problems; it is a pity that these topics are never really covered in detail but then arguments tend to lead to more paper sales.

One such initiative is that of Snow Angels and Wardens that I am pushing strongly at present. 

A scheme that has been trailed and rolled-out across a number of local authority areas; from Telford & Wrekin, Portsmouth, Lambeth and York to name but a few. From Labour to Conservatives the idea is a good one and deserves to be considered.

The initiative is extremely simple in that the Council or its contractor would supply a number of volunteers with snow spades, high-viz vests and grit to clear pathways in their local community during periods of snowfall or ice.

The cost of the initiative is not significant and can be fully matched by existing revenue budgets for snow contingencies. In many areas with larger rural communities the cost has been supported by contractors out of existing budgets.

The initiative I believe would be very popular in communities with established engagement and in rural areas. Many Parish Councils in other areas of the country have led on this programme.

The government guidance on resident led clearance of snow is clear despite the myths on health & safety.  The government guidance  ('the Snow Code') to local authorities makes clear residents can clear stretches of path and encourages them to do so. Across rural areas many residents and Councillors have taken it upon themselves to do so anyway during periods of extreme weather.

I have submitted this initiative to the Regeneration Overview & Scrutiny Committee as a work programme item for the next meeting and have written to senior decision makers to look at this idea before the onset of winter.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

OFSTED Letter highlights real change needed

Medway Focused Inspection Letter v8 FINAL Embargoed 050913 by Tristan Osborne

What with the state of the NHS locally, where a botched Tory privatisation has left real and lasting damage to local services, it could be easy to forget that it isn’t just health where residents are being let down.

Medway schools have been mis-managed by the Conservative Party for more than a decade. A period that has seen a marked deterioration in outcomes for many pupils across our towns; many of which could have been ameliorated if it were not for all the changes in officers, personnel and dithering Council portfolio holders.

From being bottom of Key Stage 2; a botched 11+ Medway test fiasco;  shambolic and forced re-organisation of schools; to expensive errors over photocopier contracts. We have had schools closed on the basis of statistics when less than three years later another is needed. We have had teams cut in the Council at the exact time improvements needed to be embedded. The list goes on and on.

Medway as a conurbation produces proportionately fewer number of University graduates that puts us at a competitive disadvantage when trying to attract inward investment. Getting education right is therefore an economic priority for future years and one we cant get wrong.

The OFSTED report is damning but it seems lessons are not being learnt. Instead of accepting the recommendations within the report we had a press statement from the Council that barely acknowledged any of the negatives; rather than an acceptance we had an aggressive rebuttal.  The Tory record of buck passing on education continues.

Labour invested in education locally; from the new Mid Kent College campus in Gillingham to capital spends to modernise our Academies, some of which are doing well. There is a legacy in many schools of new infrastructure that makes it a real pity that the Tory-led Local Education Authority has dropped the ball.

Tory Councillors’ distancing themselves by stating schools ‘stand alone’ is just the latest out-of-turn comment which leaves parents with no confidence that the Tory Council has a grip.

Whilst Academies are independent of direct LEA control the fact is the Council are responsible for the 70,000 or so pupils that attend all Medway schools. They also have a responsibility – like other LEA’s across the country – of setting political leadership, direction and offering help. Schools do not and should never ‘stand alone.‘  An inappropriate phrase whose sentiment is very much understood by thousands of parents across Medway.

The Council should acknowledge the OFSTED report. When it comes to a child’s education a decade of poor performance is not acceptable; and that record will be on the ballot paper in 2015.

Live in Snodland?

Snodland Labour Leaflet Autumn 2013 by Tristan Osborne

One weekend and 6,000 leaflets delivered to residents of Snodland!

Good team effort from a team of 15 over the weekend.

Strength to change Britain

Ever since he became the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband has been talking about how we need to harness the talents of everyone – and how those in power should be governing for the whole country, not just a few at the top.

That’s what he means when he says that he wants ours to be a One Nation Labour Party – one which is rooted in the lives of men and women in all of our communities and which, in government, will create an economy that works for working people.

Last week at the TUC and over the next week, Ed will set out how we’re going to do that. 

At the TUC  he took aim at the government, who are busy congratulating themselves and saying that they’ve turned the economy around when ordinary families know things are getting harder not easier.

People in our area know the truth. Living standards have now been falling for longer than at any time since 1870. There are a million young people looking for work. Long-term unemployment is higher than at any time in a generation. And there are 1.4 million people stuck in part-time jobs.

In the face of this cost of living crisis what is David Cameron’s priority? Standing up for the wealthiest few by cutting taxes for millionaires while asking everyone else to pay more. The Prime Minister is out of touch, and is failing to turn things around for hard working families in Medway and Aylesford.

Ed has said that if Labour were in power, we would make fundamentally different choices. We would offer a compulsory jobs guarantee to young people, getting them a job with proper training on at least the minimum wage – funded by a tax on bankers’ bonuses. We’d increase the number of apprenticeships, set up a British Investment Bank to get money to small businesses, and build more homes.

And, as Ed has said, we would act to stop the abuse of workers who are being exploited on zero-hour contracts. Some people are on call all day, without any guarantee of going to work. Or, after years on a regular contract, they’re now trapped on zero-hour contracts with no idea of what their wages will be next week. I really welcome Ed’s announcement that the next Labour Government will put a stop to the exploitation of these contracts.

Of course, the headlines out of Ed’s speech are also about his proposed reforms of our relationship with the trade unions. People may wonder why this matters to them.

It matters because we are changing the Labour Party so that we can change the country – and carry out all those reforms that will really make a difference to people’s lives.

The Conservatives don’t represent the whole country as Vince Cable said yesterday. Under David Cameron, they hold working people, as members of trade unions, in contempt – effectively writing off whole sections of our society. Being One Nation is about governing for the whole country – and that’s why Ed is arguing for a new kind of Labour Party. One with a new relationship with individual trade union members.

Currently, we have 3 million working men and women formally affiliated to Labour. But the vast majority of them play no role. They are affiliated in name only. They don’t really have a voice – and we aren’t hearing what they have to tell us. We want to make every member a real part of the Labour Party – and we want people to make a positive choice to join us and to make their voice and their stories heard.

We could become a Labour Party not of 200,000 people, but of 500,000 – or many more. A party that’s rooted in every community. A real movement.

This is of course a challenge, and there are strong views. Like all challenges, it’s a risk.

But it’s a bigger risk not to change. We’ve seen that Ed Miliband is determined that this change will happen. I really support what he’s doing – and want to play my part in getting more working people involved in the Labour Party here in our area. 

If you want to see our country change so that everybody is getting a fair chance, and that our government works for all of us – not just a few at the top – I hope you’ll join me.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Voice from Lordswood

This weekend I spent most of Saturday and Sunday afternoon in Lordswood meeting residents to garner more signatures for the anti-Asbestos petition. 

Whilst on the doorstep I inquired as to whether the individual supported the stance by Ed Miliband and Labour on the amendment submitted to Westminster last week. The overwhelming response from the doorstep was positive towards the Labour position. 

Despite the rhetoric and heat coming from the right wing press there is very little appetite to be engaging in another conflict in the Middle East. The Murdoch press last weekend was woefully out of tune with the reality on the ground; sadly it seems Cameroon loyalists too who seem gung-ho in going straight into a conflict. 

The PM was right last week the issue was that of judgement; and it is also clear that it was Obama’s judgement less than 48 hours later to prolong the timetable. To most reasonable people it is quite clear that Ed’s amendment has been proved right in the fullness of time; to delay and consider the evidence rather than a headlong rush to war. I truly believe Ed Miliband has set the tenor for the debate in the US and possibly France; the UK position put significant pressure on Obama to change his position.

The Labour amendment was also clear; Labour was, is, and in future not opposed to enforcing International law but only with an evidence base and mandate. The government has still refused to publish; in full; the attorney general’s guidance for war. Cameron failed to secure a majority last week largely because of Conservative Party incompetence. 

The fact is that Ed Miliband set out a very reasonable plan for listening to the UN and making a considered approach to act, within the realms of International law, and on a timetable governed by the British people. In the last couple of days the US has rightly presented its evidence on culpability. Whilst welcome and comprehensive this also needs to be considered with the UN report. Only after all the pieces of evidence are assessed can lawmakers have a fair chance to assess the position. 

The immaturity about another debate on this shown by the Tories – namely George Osborne - once again highlights weakness. Whilst it is true the government lost the debate was on the basis of the evidence at the time of the debate; coupled with the absence of a number of lawmakers who were ‘discussing Uganda’ or indisposed. This was a judgement issue and it was judged by many that Cameron was rushing into conflict; not – and this is crucial - that it may be necessary to enforce International law should the evidence be present. 

I am disappointed that the majority of Medway based MPs; Mark Reckless MP and Rehman Chisthi MP supported the government motion given it was flimsy. They represents 5/6ths of Medway residents and it is for them to judge how they voted. Those Tory MPs that rebelled acted in a principled and considered way.

Whilst there does have to be a separation between domestic politics and our international obligations the two do not act in isolation. I absolutely agree that this debate was set on the backdrop of the Iraq conflict; it is true today there is a natural suspicion of the state around going into war; and also from a more educated public living in a far more inter-connected world a requirement for more information to make informed judgements. Cameron though did not build a credible case for action. Taking away his rhetorical ability to persuade the actual case presented on Thursday was poorly prepared and looked even weaker in the hindsight of Obama’s position to prolong the debate. Cameron suggested we needed immediate action and that delay would be irresponsible; how moronic that looks now that Obama has presented the exact opposite position.  

This does not mean however that with a change of facts the debate cant change. This perhaps sounds idealistic but a free non-whipped vote could easily be timetabled again once the UN has reported in detail. We now know Obama does not have to act for a month. 

Ed Miliband has always made it clear he disagreed with how the Iraq conflict was handled and promised a different approach to dealing with International issues. That was a large part of why I, and many thousands of progressive Labour members, voted for him in 2010. The lessons needed to be learnt. 

The country can not afford both in treasure and lives a cavalier and reckless approach to leadership that could have rushed us into a conflict, but nor can it afford to a second-bit player on the global stage. A Prime Minister still smarting from a personal defeat that it so impacts his judgement to act in light of changed facts is an even weaker Prime Minister in the eyes of our allies. How Cameron and the Tory party respond in defeat is a test of them; will the government accept it was hasty last week in pushing for a recall? Will it re-assess itself the evidence base? 

People are rightly asking me what I would have done. If I were MP I too would have listened to constituents and would have voted against a rush to war. I am however never closed minded to future evidence. but to act without all the facts is something I could never ever support. Cameron was pre-judging the outcome of the UN inspectors last week; his rush to a compromise on Wednesday night still sanctioned in my mind indirect military action, party I suspect, because he was working to a US timetable. Crucially, all of this before the UN Inspectors were allowed to report back.

I am however disposed to oppose conflict given the public mood unless there is overwhelming evidence Assad is guilty.  I do have real anxieties that the replacement for Assad could be an extremist Islamist government. The Free Syrian Opposition needs to do a lot more here in giving the public some assurance it has a post-Assad plan; they clearly do not.

Taking our country into conflict is the most important undertaking of any Prime Minister; Cameron’s inability to lead and govern last week and now by refusing to open up a debate in light of new evidence highlights to me why we need a change of leadership in this country. Ed Miliband last week acted as a Prime Minister and the International community responded after the vote in Westminster. 

Labour could lead the debate again in my mind by tabling a free vote on the evidence base presented in future weeks should circumstances change. MPs could then look at the evidence and either re-affirm a previous position with more confidence or make a different judgement based on new evidence.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Leadership on Syria

Despite the poor press over the summer holiday about Ed Miliband lacking leadership it is clear that the events of the last 48 hours have proven otherwise.

A true test of character is how you deal with a crisis and this one is perhaps the most testing so far. In part because of the significance of intervention but also because of the international ramifications of the decisions made. It is also in stark contrast with some previous leaders who have held – in my mind wrongly – strongly interventionist policies on Foreign Affairs and who got burnt. The lesson it seems eerily reminiscent in some senses this week.  

Ed has a strong sense of purpose despite his detractor’s and it isn’t one which he feels necessary to trumpet in an overt manner. It was noticed by many yesterday that many tweets from Cameron concerning National Security and on procedure were not just coming from the Number10 twitter feed but also his party political account; it was clear Cameron was building momentum. I noted that we learnt of important materials via this medium, before as I understand, MPs of all sides had even been briefed. I felt it was clear that Cameron wanted a firm motion to give permission for an immediate strike. He was bouncing Parliament, his own Party and more importantly the British public into an outcome. It failed.

Contrast with Ed Miliband who remained calm and collected on consulting with colleagues on the best course. Considered he indicated a clear position to little fanfare late yesterday afternoon and the impact was immediate. Labour may indeed support further action on the despised and disgraced Assad regime but not before the full publication of the UN Report from inspectors gives a firm account of whether or not a chemical attack did actually occur. If further proof can be provided about the security and validity of information, coupled with international support this may indeed require military intervention. Labour has not ruled out intervention; just not rushed intervention. I couldn’t care a jot whether this nuanced position plays well in the polls or not; it is the right thing to do.

Despite the right now clamoring on Miliband for embarrassing Obama and looking weak. this is no more a left v right argument than in previous conflicts. This is about evidence-based decision making on the most important aspect of politics; whether we send our troops in harms way. The Labour position on no blank cheque for conflict contrasts with in my mind the perception that Cameron may have committed Britain to action whilst on the beach in Cornwall, only to find himself impeded by the real politic that he has since misjudged. A judgement the public will be watching closely given many feel he has over-reached once again.

It is also of abject concern that the Conservative-led government has refused – thus far – to publish the written legal basis for action from the Attorney General Dominic Grieve. This must be made public.

Rushing headlong into a conflict prior to UN consideration and before MPs can rightly make there own decision would be and is wrongheaded and foolish. The fact Cameron thought he could do it has been halted by Labour but also in part by Conservative backbenchers yesterday. The power of Parliament has rightly corrected an executive elite.  

I find myself in agreement with a number of rebel Tory MPs, who though small in number, are speaking up; and in particular Sarah Wollaston MP who in my mind over the last six months has become the model centrist new Labour MP on so many issues in regards to public health. Many have rightly spoken to residents and I believe asked the right questions. The lessons from Iraq are clear that no party leadership can assume support for war.  

That being said; rushing into saying I would not support a conflict in response to people prior to evidence being published is also wrong. 

It is why if I were MP I would indicate that my position remains in line with the leadership of the Labour Party led by Ed Miliband - in that whilst reserving a natural negative judgement on conflict I would require more evidence and time. Not an easy position to take but the right one; its why I voted for him in 2010 because he stands up for the right people.