John Harris

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Archive for May, 2012

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The caravan tax has been cut, but it’s no thanks to the sniggering media | John Harris

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

The caravan industry is vital to jobs in East Yorkshire and Humberside, but London’s media have paid scant attention

What, then, of George Osborne’s pantomime U-turn on some of the most unpopular elements of March’s budget? Within minutes of its announcement, the story had been largely reduced to that of the “pasty tax”, which allowed those delivering it to make arch reference to sausage rolls, the all-pervading modern whiff of hot pastry, and the arcane complexities of what’s now VAT-able, and what’s not. “Food such as sausage rolls or pasties sold on shelves – that is, cooling down, rather than being kept hot in a special cabinet – will not be liable,” said the BBC; according to the Independent, “hot chickens wrapped in heat-retaining packaging sold in supermarket rotisseries” will still be clobbered.

While a Thick Of It-esque Treasury minister called David Fauke tried to gloss over a self-evident shambles, all was metropolitan mirth. Last night’s newspaper review on Sky News was as good an example as any: one panellist – oh, all right then, the Times’s David Aaronovitch – said the story, and the amount of revenue involved, was “comical”. And, as with just about every other media outlet, Sky relegated the accompanying story of the so-called “caravan tax” to a mere afterthought. They were not alone, and in doing so, they risked overlooking two pretty big points: first, that even if what they sell is somehow hilarious, the British pastry trade accounts for thousands of jobs and millions of pounds (Greggs alone employs 2,500 people, and recently reported pre-tax profits of £53.1m, though the VAT hike saw £30m wiped off its share value); and second, that it was the caravan part of the story that was arguably the more significant.

I know all this because the next instalment of our Anywhere But Westminster series was going to be all about the UK caravan industry, and the great stupidity raining down on it. But anyway: 95% of British caravans are made in East Yorkshire and Humberside, in an industry that employs about 6,000 people – the three biggest firms involved are ABI, Willerby Caravans and Swift.

The surrounding supply chain involves close to 20,000 jobs. We are talking here about one of the most economically blighted parts of the country, and a section of manufacturing industry that has done well to stay in such health, particularly given a huge hiccup in demand in 2008-9, which caused 1,500 lay-offs. Bearing in mind the cash-strapped consumers who form their core market, industry insiders said that imposing VAT on static caravans would have led to a likely fall in demand of about 30%, and the loss of around 1,000 jobs in the industry, with sizable knock-on effects elsewhere. According to a report commissioned by the National Caravan Council and British Holiday and Home Parks Association, the change would have led to about 4,300 jobs being shed around the UK.

The first stirrings of all this were starting to be felt this month. On 22 May, Willerby Holiday Homes announced that it was serving notice of a possible 350 redundancies, while its competitors were still working through the likely consequence of the government’s decision, and campaigning against it. “I don’t think whoever has made this decision has understood the human cost of it,” said Mel Copper, the CEO of ABI caravans. “The £30m they claim will be generated by the extra VAT will be neutralised by the cost of job losses and people being unemployed, facing uncertain futures. Hull and the surrounding area is where most of the key manufacturers and suppliers are, so it will be particularly badly hit.”

By way of context, I’ll quote from a recent contribution to the Guardian’s Northerner blog, written by the city’s three MPs: “Most recent official figures showed unemployment up across Hull by around 14% in a year. 32.5 applicants chase each job in Hull East. 12.9% of active 16- to 64-year-olds are out of work in Hull North. Two out of Hull’s three constituencies are in the national top 20 for the highest number of jobseekers chasing each vacancy.”

What was the government thinking? Making its case on the basis of a supposed “anomaly” was thin stuff indeed: a static caravan is a very different thing from the kind you tow around, and in any case, given the parlous state of the region’s economy, the change was completely indefensible. Such, though, is the great gap that separates London’s more elevated postcodes, and the less fortunate parts of the country, for whom the static caravan is a pretty incisive byword – as evidenced by the scores of caravan sites that dot East Yorkshire and Humberside, where the VAT change would have fallen like a hammer. That the imposition of VAT is to be replaced by a new tax of about 5% is proof of what happens when an industry marshals its forces and makes its case. But how long before the government’s idiocy strikes again, and the clueless London media once again look the other way?

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Academies’ refusal to admit pupils with special needs prompts legal battles

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Case of 11-year-old with cerebral palsy and A* maths GCSE fuels wider concerns over education reforms and accountability

Two of the government’s flagship academy schools are facing legal challenges for refusing to admit children with statements of special needs.

In one case involving Mossbourne academy in Hackney, east London, which has been celebrated for its academic record, the school refused to admit an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, arguing it would compromise other children’s education and it already has a higher than average number of pupils with special needs. The London Oratory, a Catholic school in Fulham which became an academy last year, is also facing a special needs legal challenge.

The cases suggest academies may not have the same legal obligations to children with special needs as maintained schools. While parents of children with special needs have the right to appeal against a decision at any other school, lawyers are concerned that academies can turn them away with no recourse. The legal cases could have widespread implications as more than half of secondaries in England are now academies.

There are up to 30 cases of children with special needs who have been refused an academy place, according to Ipsea, the special needs advice service. Eight involve Mossbourne which was one of the first academies and has won praise from both Labour and the Tories for its pupils’ achievement. After last year’s A-level results, seven pupils from the school won places at Cambridge.

The Learning Trust, which manages education in Hackney, refused to name Mossbourne in the boy’s statement, the document setting out a child’s needs and the help they should receive, including the name of the school they will attend. Such statements are given to children with the most severe special needs and 2.7% of schoolchildren in England have them.

While he is academically gifted – he already has GCSE Maths A* – his condition can make him unsteady on his feet. It also affects his ability at practical tasks such as using a ruler.

The boy’s mother, Sarah Creighton, said: “We said, ‘In what way can you possibly say [he] is going to interfere with the other children’s education?’ He’s top of the year in all his subjects, he’s got GCSE Maths A* already, he’s won the pan-Hackney debating challenge two years running, he’s a prefect and a reading mentor at his school. Obviously, I’m his mother, and I’m very, very proud of him. But I think I’m justifiably very proud of him.”

The family’s lawyers say Mossbourne has refused to accept that the Sspecial educational needs tribunal – a court which hears school place appeals by parents of children with such needs – should hear the case. They say the school claimed it was not governed by legislation for state schools but only by its funding agreement with the education secretary.

The Learning Trust applied successfully to have the case struck out but the family has lodged an appeal to a higher court.

Elaine Maxwell, a partner at Maxwell Gillott solicitors, for the family, said: “The academy may have good grounds for refusing to take a particular child in an individual case, … but that should be an argument they make before a tribunal – they shouldn’t have it struck out before they get there.

“When you get a school saying it’s full, that’s not an end to it. The child or his parents should be able to say: does our disadvantage outweigh the disadvantage to other children? There’s a balancing act that has to be struck.”

She added: “How are academies accountable? This has been inherent in academies from the beginning. If academies aren’t bound by SEN provisions and the tribunal system, then the parents of a child with a statement have fewer rights than anyone else.”

Mossbourne told the family their son’s admission “would be incompatible with the efficient education of other pupils at the academy”. A local authority can legally decline to name a school in a statement if the child’s presence would have a negative impact on the education of existing pupils. This could mean, for example, reducing the level of pastoral care available to other children.

The academy said nearly 1,600 children applied for 200 places in its September 2012 intake. Of those, 53 have statements. Of the 53, 28 named Mossbourne as their first preference. Nationally, 21% of schoolchildren have some form of special needs but at Mossbourne the proportion in each year is 26%-28%.

The boy’s family argue that his statement comes with funds that would help the school to provide for him.

Creighton said: “Part of me feels that this seems so blatantly wrong: that a school can say, ‘These regulations set up to protect disabled people don’t apply to us, so we don’t have to live by them.’ That seems so wrong, that anyone would be able to do that.”

A spokesman for the Learning Trust said: “As a matter of policy we do not comment on cases of this nature. Depending on the terms of the funding agreement between an academy and the secretary of state, the academy may not have to admit a child even if the school is named in the child’s statement.”

The London Oratory case concerns an 11-year-old boy from Croydon. The school declined to be named in his statement, arguing too that it would compromise the “efficient education of other children.”

Chris Barnett, lawyer for the family concerned and head of the education and disability law department at Levenes solicitors, said: “If it hadn’t been an academy, the authority would have named it [in the statement]. Croydon’s position seems to be that it doesn’t accept the arguments the school has put forward, but they still won’t name it. It seems to me that the LA [local authority] doesn’t quite know how to deal with it because it’s an academy.”

A tribunal hearing in the London Oratory case is due next month.

John Harris
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Children with special needs deserve better than a rush to reform | John Harris

Monday, May 21st, 2012

The government’s frantic approach to special education threatens vital provision for thousands of children like mine

The government bounces from crisis to imbroglio and back again – but at Michael Gove’s Department for Education, the revolution rolls on. A green paper on special educational needs was published last year – and after the inclusion of the plans in the Queen’s speech, last week saw an explosion of news coverage. As many as 450,000 children, said ministers, could soon be taken out of the category of special needs altogether. The resulting stories paid no mind to the idea that we are talking about a sliding scale, and the infinite complexities of child development – as far too many people saw it, you either have special needs or you don’t, and too many people are playing the system. “Schools on a scam and an excuse for lazy teaching” was one of the more sensitive headlines on Mail Online.

None of which is to suggest that the way things are done isn’t in need of change, or that some in government don’t have a keen understanding of the mess special needs provision is in. Everybody seems to know someone who has been through the special needs grinder (if you have experience yourself, please get in touch at the email address below). It is a deeply malfunctioning system, in which the obligation in law to make decisions solely based on a child’s needs eternally bumps up against limited council budgets, but no one is allowed to say so. As a result, good people serve messed-up imperatives – and, more importantly, thousands of families are denied most of the help they need. As so often happens, the machine often can only be satisfactorily played by the sharp-elbowed, so class is a constant subtext.

I speak from experience. One of my children is autistic. He was diagnosed just after his third birthday. In our innocence, my partner and I had some vague sense that the public sector would provide, not least because the most common theme in any introductory text about autism is the need for early intervention. But no: it quickly became clear that NHS speech therapy was effectively nonexistent, no one mentioned my son’s obvious problems with motor skills, and too often we were effectively told to go away, depend on threadbare arrangements and wait till he was eligible for school. Looking back, I’m not sure how we did it, but we read up on a research-proven technique called applied behaviour analysis (ABA), found an independent consultant, and set up a three-days-a-week home programme. My son’s use of language hugely improved. He learned many of the other crucial skills that were either lacking, or absent: the ability to point, and imitate; the habit of commenting on his surroundings; how to divert his energy away from tantrums into productive activity.

The next step was to approach our local authority with a view to what’s called a statutory assessment, so my son’s needs could be officially analysed, and we could make the case for public funding of the programme, enshrined in a legally enforceable statement of special educational needs. We knew what was required: in cases like ours, to stand any chance of meaningful success, you need a truckload of informational wherewithal, the will to fight, and the money to hire a good lawyer – which, at a stroke, scythes out millions of parents, who are left with only piecemeal help, and hotchpotch provision.

To start with, despite my son’s diagnosis, the local authority did what a lot of local authorities do, and refused to assess him, on the most specious of grounds. We then appealed via the official tribunal system, and endured grim months of compiling reports and writing a lengthy case statement. And then, one morning, mere weeks before our hearing, my mobile phone rang, and I spoke to someone from the local authority I had never dealt with before. Rather than obstinacy, we were suddenly met with a guarded kind of openness. We were granted assessment, and then a statement – and after long months of grinding negotiation, my son’s programme was introduced into his brilliantly co-operative state primary school just as he started there in September 2011. The arrangements seem to be working well: last week, while getting changed for school, he turned round to me, beamed, and told me for the first time about all the classmates he would be seeing that day.

Inside two years, the government’s new system will be in place, which will change arrangements that lie at the heart of lives like ours. Statements, which can hold councils to detailed commitments to particular children, are to be replaced by single plans covering education, health and social care between birth and the age of 25 – but there are clear signs that they will not be as dependable as what they will replace. There are plans to introduce personal budgets, but no real sense of what benefits they will bring to families who already juggle huge responsibilities, or whatgenuine innovations – if any – they will involve(therapies such as ABA appear to be off-limits). Late last week I spent two days on the phone, talking to people involved in special needs charities and pressure groups. It’s fair to say that no one had any real clue about what might be coming.

The government has announced 20 “pathfinder” projects, to pilot some of their plans. Freedom of information requests made by one education activist in late March eventually highlighted the fact that,as against the official claim that the authorities involved “are testing” their plans, at least a third had not yet decided which families should be included; one council insider I spoke to last week said the government had issues of “credibility” in “moving so fast”; even such apparently up-to-speed authorities as Gateshead and East Sussex will not have their schemes in place until September. But a draft bill will be published in the summer, the government says its interim evaluation of the pilots is set to be published “in the autumn”, and the plans proper are meant to be in place “for 2014″. There are reportedly rumblings on Facebook from families who wonder why they’re bothering taking part, and an increasingly familiar coalition odour hangs over the whole enterprise. Is all this a sign of ineptitude, or cynicism? Or both?

Meanwhile, massive fundamental issues remain, and it looks as if the government’s plans will barely touch them. Autism is my specialism, and I well know that our health and education systems exist in a state of collective denial about the necessity of concerted early intervention. A survey this year by the National Autistic Society found that 34% of its respondents had had to wait three years or more for a diagnosis after first raising concerns: precious time, often completely wasted. Without powerful forces that will pro-actively hold public institutions to their obligations – something singularly lacking from what’s now proposed – legal argy-bargy is set to remain the most reliable means of getting children what they need, and is often just as time-consuming. In any case, for thousands of people it’s simply not an option. At a huge cost, we later pick up a bill for a mountain of missed opportunities, which is why even people mindful of the need to control public spending should favour early intervention, and a means of making sure it happens. The arguments are obvious: in the absence of essential life skills, too many autistic life-paths unnecessarily end with round-the-clock institutional care, mental health problems – even prison.

What, we should also wonder, of those 450,000 cases now said to be in the government’s cross-hairs, and the fact that even if a “need” is nuanced and perhaps temporary, it may still be very real? Reforming zeal and raging stories in the press are no substitute for careful analysis and even more careful action. Looking at the current proposals, and mounting concerns about them, I’m rather reminded of cliched advice always thrown at parents with worries about a child: if you suspect something isn’t right, then it is no good assuming that everything will somehow turn out OK – you must act, and fast.

This article will be opened to comments on Monday morning

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The Stalinism of Tory small-staters | John Harris

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Increasingly heavy-handed Ofsted inspections offer a window on the government’s anachronistic love affair with centralism

Truancy crackdown to include children aged four” was the Guardian’s headline, flagging up a story about Michael Gove’s national crusade against truancy and tardiness, and the clunking fist of central diktat. Education may not actually be compulsory until five, but his department is to insist that schools compile attendance figures for reception class – even nurseries, it seems, may have to follow suit – and ready them for publication and perusal by Ofsted. Such is one upshot of a report published in April, written by the government’s “expert adviser on behaviour”, Charlie Taylor – the same report, incidentally, that cleverly recommended stabilising the homes of habitual truants by docking their parents’ child benefit.

Meanwhile, that part of my local grapevine that includes several other parents and a few teachers suggests that the tyranny of Ofsted is now turning toxic. Its threats are like an unshakable headache; communiques sent out to parents suggest that everything has to be just so, lest the inspector calls. Moreover, suspicions that inspections are skewed to serve government policy go back to New Labour’s initial academies drive, but now seem to have attained critical mass: as the leader of the NAS/UWT put it early this year, perhaps we are moving at speed towards “Ofsted … being seen by teachers not as an inspection system, but as an arm of government.” And a clunkingly powerful arm at that: its new boss, Michael Wilshaw, seems keen to be portrayed as a kind of sadistic commissar, driving through his and Gove’s notion of excellence and academic rigour while apparently glorying in all the fall-out.

“If anyone says to you that ’staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right,” he said, weeks after taking up the job. The weekend’s headlines, then, must have made him ecstatic: under the Gove-Wilshaw regime, reported the Observer, a third of teachers don’t feel respected as professionals, and half have recently considered leaving the profession altogether.

Put all this in its political context, and one overlooked aspect of the coalition’s mixed-up mindset becomes clear: the party – no, parties – who habitually rail against the centralised, lever-pulling state, gleefully making it even more so. If you’re being generous, Gove’s cosiness with Ofsted and drive to create thousands of academies and free schools represent something paradoxical: policy dressed up in the rhetoric of decentralisation and empowerment that actually threatens the complete reverse. Viewed cynically, it’s all a simple con trick: a vast power grab whose most basic elements are obvious. If a school succumbs to increasingly irresistible pressure and transfers to academy status, it effectively places its fate in the hands of Whitehall; the same applies to free schools, and a supposed grassroots “movement” overseen by 100 civil servants in London. Both crystallise a threat crisply summed up by Peter Wilby: “the creation of a fully centralised school system in which the secretary of state for education has the powers of an elected dictator.”

Aneurin Bevan – a great man, but an exemplar of a grindingly centralist age – wanted the sound of a dropped bedpan in Treorchy to reverberate around Whitehall; Gove, it seems, wants to know whether the whiteboards are all working in Telford. It’s hubristic, verging on mad – and out of kilter not just with Conservative and Liberal thinking, but also with the way we increasingly live: a vision of state power that might have just about worked in the wake of the second world war, but that will founder against modern expectations of initiative, influence and professional esteem.

Plenty of other headlines attest to the same problem. Today, the Royal College of Nursing is claiming that the NHS is close to breaking point, and 60,000 frontline jobs are under threat – while Andrew Lansley pursues his madcap revolution, conceived in London seminar rooms, drafted in Whitehall, and then rendered Soviet-esque in its incoherence by all that wrangling at Westminster. Back in the realm of education policy, Nick Clegg will today relaunch the government’s pupil premium – and, like a good liberal, propose that if an Ofsted inspection judges a school’s poorer students to be failing, “the whole school will be judged as failing”. As with New Labour, the essential idea is a mixture of an unquenchable zeal for “reform”, threats from the centre, endless inspections and massed box-ticking: Stalinism crossed with management consultancy, which makes last week’s Clegg-Cameron relaunch in an Essex tractor factory beautifully apt.

The underlying story goes back decades, if not centuries, and includes one of New Labour’s most overlooked manoeuvres – retaining an essentially Old Labour model of government, and using it in the cause of “modernisation” (outsourcing and “diversity of provision”, incidentally, are mere canards – if G4S or Serco are nominally in charge, it doesn’t alter the essentially monolithic relationship between state and citizen – indeed, the tyranny therein of target culture and “output specified contracts” actually makes it worse). The coalition, it seems, has enthusiastically copied over the self-same ideas. Think of the basic point like this: do Gove and Lansley look like liberators, come to give power away, or deluded apparatchiks, kidding themselves that diktat can be effective in an era when our lives grow ever more diverse and complicated?

And so to one faint glimmer of hope. When recently reminded of David Cameron’s suggestion that school students ought to stand up when their teachers enter the classroom, Gove’s shadow Stephen Twigg said this: “I don’t think we politicians should be poking our noses into those sorts of issues. They are best decided by the school, in the school.” Quite so, but herein lies a problem: as 21st-century centralism tumbles into disrepair, it falls to a party long seduced by the centralied state – from Bevan to Gordon Brown – to come up with something different. The fact that it’s at least vaguely aware of the problem might be a start, but I really wouldn’t hold your breath.

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Local elections 2012: Thatcherism with a posh accent is a toxic proposition | John Harris

Friday, May 4th, 2012

The Tories aren’t in existential crisis, but discontent among voters is focused on the leadership cabal and the issue of class

Cast your eyes over these results, and feel the Tory pain. Harlow, Great Yarmouth, Reading, Plymouth, Thurrock – all southern bywords for the kind of places that decide British elections, and all lost to Labour. Ukip polling an average of 13% wherever it stood. Those half-baked plans for directly elected mayors met with a mixture of hostility and complete indifference.

The low chatter of Conservative angst that has been simmering since the budget has now suddenly risen in volume and urgency. So far, listening to such voices rather suggests that the critique of the Tories’ woes needs a bit more work, but one thing is beyond doubt: almighty rows have broken out within the Conservative family.

There may be something in the idea being put about by those on the right of the party that Tory loyalists have been dismayed by the leadership’s embrace of bits of metropolitan liberalism, but there again, do more hard-bitten Conservatives really have that much to complain about?

The idea of any leftward pull from the Lib Dems usually turns out to be a canard. The cuts highlight the fact that Thatcherism is in rude health. The welfare state is under assault. The NHS is being subjected to the outsourcing and fragmentation of Tory dreams, and our schools are falling victim to much the same, with the added bonus of a supposed return to old-fashioned discipline and academic rigour. Moreover, large swaths of the public remain in full accord with the supposed need for crushing austerity, are happy to watch benefit claimants being thrown the wolves, and are hardly sold on the idea of Labour coming back to power – with or without Ed Miliband’s still cloudy vision of “responsible capitalism”. So what is going on?

Three factors speak for themselves: the dreadful state of the economy, the rising cost of living, and the widespread impression of simple incompetence. But that third explanation blurs over into something even more troubling to the Tory soul: the shortcomings of the coterie who currently lead the party, and the torturous issue of class.

Could it be that if the Tories are going to stick to the ideology they pursued in the 1980s, their party is best fronted by the kind of people on whom it depends for votes, rather than those who give the party money?

Thirty years ago, when its project was piloted by politicians who had a keen sense of how millions of Britons thought and lived, the party was on to a inspired kind of politics that won it four elections. But Thatcherism with a posh accent is a potentially toxic proposition, revealing Conservatism not as the empowering, aspirational force that once seized so many imaginations but a tangle of cynical ideas that shores up the same old elites.

In London, Boris Johnson has smoothed over the issue of his background thanks to three things: his veneer of nonconformity, his shape-shifting politics, and his distance from the Osborne-Cameron cabal.

But since the budget, and the stupid decision to cut the 50p rate of tax, class-based Tory anxiety has defined plenty of the noise emanating from Conservatives. Nadine Dorries is easily dismissed as an irrelevant troublemaker, but her two attacks on the party’s “posh boys” have palpably jangled nerves.

Rachel Sylvester, a dependably insightful Times columnist, recently wrote of the inner circle’s “toe-curlingly patronising” attitude to such ministers as Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, both of whom embody a Conservatism reflective of working-class aspiration, rather than the expectation of power and privilege being handed from one moneyed generation to the next.

Tim Mongomerie, whose critique of where his party is going wrong grows more compelling by the week, expresses deep concern that the party leadership is in danger of neglecting the aspirational “grafters” whose votes are essential to any Tory victory in three years’ time. Meanwhile, when Labour mocks the frontbench’s backgrounds, the voices that would once accused them of stone-age class warfare are conspicuously silent. Class, after all, is back, and it was the Tories who put it there. Which self-respecting opposition wouldn’t hammer it?

What should really exercise Tory minds is that whatever their problems, they do not add up to any kind of existential crisis. Conservatism – or, at least, support for it – remains something deeply rooted in the fabric of English life. It expresses a huge dislike of organised labour, a belief in private property as the foundation of civilisation, and a defining suspicion of the state. For the most part it is hostile to change – but at least once, it has risen to a moment that demanded it.

It will never go away – but as Conservatives endlessly concluded between the mid-1960s and the early 21st century, its best public faces are people with an instinctive understanding of ordinary lives, and the openings within them for Conservative ideas.

Hand the party to bluebloods rather than battlers, and the same basic plotline may well play out again and again – something manifested not just in this current turbulence, but their howling failure to win the last general election, and the fact that David Cameron and George Osborne have yet to communicate any sense of their vision for the country.

In its absence, the prime minister is reduced to either hammily claiming that he understands the nitty-gritty of ordinary lives or getting very angry, as if his troubles are an offence to the natural order of things. Was Norman Tebbit like that? More to the point, was Margaret Thatcher?

Five decades ago, grouse-moors Conservatism seemed to breathe its last with the doomed Alec Douglas-Home, chosen for the leadership via the old method whereby a charmed circle would disappear into a country house, and then pick its man. “We can’t go wrong with a shooting gent,” one of them said.

But they did, and at this rate, they will again.

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