Personal manifesto part 2 – Training, immigration and a proposal

Hi all,

After the brief diversion last week to deal with partisan squabbles, I’d like to return to the positive policies which I’d like to argue for if elected again. This week, I’ll look at immigration and training, issues which are in my view more closely linked than is generally realised. As with my economic discussion last time, I apologise for length – but if we want politics that go beyond sound bites, we need a space for serious discussion.

Why don’t we train the nurses we need?

Let me give a specific example. We have a shortage of British-trained nurses; that’s why the NHS is highly dependent on people born elsewhere. That in itself isn’t a terrible thing – if you’re ill and someone is looking after you well, it would be perverse to demand to see her passport. However, it reflects a training problem in Britain. The number of nurses rained in Britain has fallen steadily, by over 10,000 since 2010. And my understanding is that the Government is reducing the number of training places for nurses further, to save money. Consequently, NHS managers are actively recruiting in Eastern Europe, with a 50% rise in foreign recruitment last year. It is often cheaper to take someone who has already studied nursing abroad than it is to train people already here. The details are here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/nhs/10828893/Number-of-foreign-nurses-up-50pc-in-a-year.html

This is short-sighted, isn’t it? It’s also why anti-immigrant parties are a distraction from the real issue. High immigration of workers doing skilled work is not a cause of economic problems but a symptom of a poor educational system. It’s ridiculous and unfair to blame Romanian or Bulgarian nurses for agreeing to come and fill a gap that we create ourselves. They are helping us out and if we need their help they should be welcomed with open arms. The problem is not that we should be scared of Bulgarian nurses; the problem is our unwillingness as a country to train people who grow up in Britain adequately.

Who is to blame?

Who should we blame for this? Not really the NHS manager – faced with a shortage of skilled staff, what is he supposed to do? The immediate problem is the Department of Health, making false economies in training. More widely, it’s all of us, choosing to elect politicians who focus on short-term benefit. Because there is no doubt that training people ourselves instead of importing them is the more expensive option, and perhaps we could knock half a penny off tax if we relied even more heavily on bringing people in to fill the gaps? But if we do, then we will end up with an under-skilled population, desperately dependent on immigration.

This is not only a nursing issue. Unlike many MPs and indeed Ministers who have spent their entire lives in politics, I’ve worked in industrial management. There is a widespread perception that colleges and universities are not producing graduates with the essential skills in sufficient numbers.

But you can spin that round and see it from the student’s viewpoint too. Going to university these days involves taking on debt up to £20,000, depending on the length of the course. Without being quite sure that this will lead directly to a good job, that’s a scary thing to do. Perhaps it’s better to take a less skilled job and not incur the debt? Yet that, too, leads Britain down the path of a low-skilled, low-wage economy – just the kind of strategic mistake that I discussed in part 1 of my personal manifesto. Is it a sensible ambition to be cheaper low-cost suppliers than China? No.

A better approach

Towards the end of my last time in Parliament, I proposed that the Government should promote university-employer partnerships, with the following elements:

The EMPLOYERS in each sector (public or private) would specify the broad outlines of the training that was needed in that sector and was currently forcing them to recruit abroad

The UNIVERSITY or other further education establishment would develop courses in consultation with the employers to meet the need

The EMPLOYERS would agree to cover a part of the student fees for an agreed number of students following these courses, and would commit to offering a trial 6-month contract after graduation to students passing the course at a required level

The GOVERNMENT would act as facilitators, providing model agreements that had worked well in other areas and sectors and insurance against failure by any of the bodies involved to deliver their obligations.

Of course these arrangements would be optional for both sides, but there are clear advantages.

Who would benefit?

The STUDENTS would benefit from the reduced course fees and have the (non-binding) option of trial employment immediately after graduation. The major concern of students that they will accumulate debt without being able to enter the job market afterwards would be removed, so long as they completed the course satisfactorily, and the level of debt would be reduced.

The EMPLOYERS would have a steady flow of graduates broadly meeting their needs, at modest cost to them compared with the cost and uncertainty of overseas recruitment.

The UNIVERSITIES and other FE establishments would attract additional students and increase their performance in placing students in work after completion.

Why are the possible snags?

When I proposed this, there was a lot of interest, and many people were disappointed that the initiative stalled when I lost my seat. But there were three objections. First, universities were concerned that the employers would make over-prescriptive demands which didn’t reflect sensible educational approaches – for example, that Microsoft would want all students to learn nothing about non-Microsoft software. To meet this objection, the detailed design is left to the university – the employers can only set the broad outlines of what they want (which will still be much more relevant than a random course in, say, Bulgaria).

Second, universities worried that this employment-focused approach would distract from more abstract subjects for which no obvious employment was in sight – theoretical mathematics, for example (which was my own PhD subject). I think that it’s important that we also provide opportunities to study abstract subjects, but it’s reasonable that we try to provide a link to employment where possible. I have never directly used my own PhD, but the course trained me in analytical thinking which has benefited me throughout my life, and I don’t think that people like me who want that will disappear just because there isn’t a direct job link.

Finally, it’s possible that a company offering a job might go into liquidation before the student graduated. But that’s why the scheme is sector-based, so that a number of employers are involved – and the government could provide some insurance backup for the sector to ensure that the commitment can be delivered.

Of course, the 6-month contracts don’t guarantee permanent employment. There is no longer such a thing as permanent employment! But countless studies show that getting into the job market is the big hurdle for young people, and 6 months is enough to find their feet and either build a good relationship with the employer or have the time to look around for alternatives.

Why hasn’t it been done?

When I described this idea before, several readers mentioned existing schemes that do exist and work quite well – for example, a Scottish university works with the computer games industry to teach students the skills needed for computer game design (which may sound frivolous but is a major industry now and an important export earner, much larger than the film industry). However, there is no national scheme, and Government is essentially passive.

There is nothing especially party political about all this. Both public and private employers would benefit, as would universities and students. But just because it doesn’t fit neatly into one or another ideological approach, no party has adopted it.

When I argue that Parliament needs more MPs with experience of normal working life, I’m not just making a self-interested point. The thing is that people who have never worked in industry or public services don’t necessarily realise what the practical problems are. If you elect me in May, I intend to return to pressing this issue – regardless of which party is in Government.

That’s part 2 of my personal manifesto. Part 3, next time, will deal with health. Thank you for reading this far! Feedback, as always, is very welcome.

Best wishes,

Nick

 

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MP’s quarrels – and a question

I’d have liked to put forward part 2 of my personal manifesto this week, focusing on training and immigration, but since Ms Soubry has complained that I’m silent about issues she raises (“there is silence from the leadership of our local Labour Party and their candidates seeking your vote”), I’ll reply.

First, what’s it about? Ms Soubry has written repeatedly about local borough and town councillors who she doesn’t like. There have been two specific incidents and one non-incident:

a)      A constituent used a rude word on Facebook about the council leader. He responded using another rude word.

b)      Someone interested in trams who lives in London asked councillor Richard Robinson if he could post his comments online under a pseudonym (I’m not clear why he wanted to). He said yes, he could.

c)       There was a rumour that Kimberley Town Council had run down its reserves.

Ms Soubry says she is “shocked” that the council leader hasn’t resigned and she has also demanded the resignation of Cllr Robinson. With two Green Party members, she also seized on the rumour about Kimberley and demanded an investigation. Then she went further. Ordinary councillors are paid a modest sum (less than £4000/year for the basic job) so they have day jobs like everyone else. Ms Soubry approached Richard Robinson’s boss (also an MP, but with no conection to Broxtowe) with a suggestion implying that he should sack him (“A number of my constituents have contacted me … asking why he remains in your employ”). That is in my opinion quite nasty; I don’t allow political rivalries to spill over into private lives and I don’t think MPs should do so.

What about the issues? Yes, I think it’s undesirable for anyone in public life to swear in public as it gives a bad example, and I think that everyone should be advised to post under their own name unless they have some justified fears. But we all slip up occasionally in one way or another. Indeed Ms Soubry has given an interview where she swears repeatedly, using the same word that she supposedly thinks should be a resigning issue for the council leader. Moreover, when the criticism is wrong no apology is forthcoming. Kimberley Town Council asked for an external audit to check the rumour, which found it was nonsense: the council was congratulated on its good management and healthy reserves of a quarter of a million pounds. Ms Soubry has ignored this, and instead turned to embracing the Greens on other issues.

Now the Tory-Green tactical alliance isn’t mysterious. Just like Mr Cameron nationally as he tries to avoid the debates, she hopes that they’ll help split the left-of-centre vote. At the last election, they siphoned off 0.8% of the votes and she won by 0.7%. The Green party in turn likes the publicity she gives them. Political parties do this stuff, shrug.

But I have a basic question about all this. The job of Broxtowe’s MP is to represent Broxtowe, isn’t it? Not to get into mud-wrestling with individual councillors. Not just to represent the MP’s party as always right. While all this has been happening, Broxtowe’s central government grant was the worst in the entire country, and Ministers and the Government Inspector have waved through building on Green Belt land by Stapleford and Toton and approved the development of an open-cast mine by Trowell. Is it too much to ask that Ms Soubry could herself concentrate on representing Broxtowe’s interests more effectively?

If I’m elected in May, I’m not going to spend any time whatever having a go at individual Tory councillors: on the contrary, I will, as I always have, try to work with all councillors sensibly. If there’s a Labour government that does something unhelpful to Broxtowe I shall say so and oppose it openly. The job is to represent Broxtowe in Westminster, not to represent any party’s narrow interests in Broxtowe.

That’s enough about that. With the election just over 3 months away, I’d like to get back to discussing positively what I’d like to do as Broxtowe’s representative in the next 5 years. Perhaps Ms Soubry will do the same? Or will she just go on complaining about local councils?

By the way, although the LibDems still haven’t picked any candidate, our high profile as a super-marginal seat has attracted an eccentric-sounding party. The ”Justice for Men and Boys Party”, which markets itself as anti-feminist, is putting up Ray Barry, leader of “Real Fathers for Justice”. I think we may see some additional strange candidates!

Best regards

Nick

 

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Question for Mr Cameron: where’s our utility price cut?

Following my non-political update on Beeston development, this is a political question. WHY is the Government allowing the utility companies to sit on the huge drop in oil prices without cutting domestic energy bills? In the last year, wholesale energy costs have fallen by up to 20% (and they’re continuing to fall), without a single price reduction to households.

Contrast this with the petrol price war that’s building up, and the position is obvious: whereas filling stations are in fierce competition, the domestic energy market is broken, since each supplier is content to pocket cost reductions without bothering to pass them on.

Isn’t there a regulator? Yes, it’s OFGEM. They estimate that the Big Six suppliers have doubled their profit margins in the last year. So why don’t they take action? Because the Government has explicitly decided not to give them the power. On June 18 2014, Labour proposed that “the energy regulator for Great Britain be given powers to force energy suppliers to pass on price cuts to consmuers when wholesale costs fall, if suppliers fail to act”. Conservative and LibDem MPs, including Broxtowe’s MP Anna Soubry, voted to reject it. OFGEM the regulator is specifically forbidden to regulate: they can observe, comment, complain – but not take effective action.

The proposal to give them effective powers is being put forward again by Labour on Wednesday. Will the Government accept it? Will Ms Soubry support it if they don’t? I very much doubt it.

And yet, if wholesale prices rise again, what do we think energy suppliers will do? They’ll put up prices in a flash.

The Government grumbles that the economy is recovering but voters aren’t grateful. But the problem is exactly this kind of asymmetry which prevents recovery from working its way to households. When the interests of big companies are involved, the Government is willing to help. When it’s ordinary households, they are sadly AWOL. And, frankly, an MP who always votes with the Government whether they’re right or wrong is unable to shift policy by an inch.

Best regards,

Nick

 

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Beeston: The New Deal developing

New DealBeeston: The Next 5 Years

I went to the Civic Society’s briefing on Friday on “Update on the Beeston New Deal” and it produced a fountain of information. As attendance was not that huge given the stormy weather, I thought it might be useful to pass it on. There are NO party politics in this update.

The original “New Deal” meeting was the one that I organised last year, to discuss how to build a thriving community once the tram project is completed. It emerged that there was a great deal of interest in making Beeston in general and the “Phase 2″ site in particular (this is the old fire station, the old bus station and the area currently used by NET) into a cultural hub with attractions such as a cinema, a restaurant and a roof garden, with state-of-the-art environmental technology acting as a showcase for businesses in the area. A subsequent Civic Society meeting explored further and attracted an offer from Professor Poliakoff (our celebrated recently-knighted Beeston chemist) to involve the university. Now read on!

This meeting was briefed by John Delaney (estates management) and Phillip Horsfield (legal department) of the Borough Council. They set out the following expected timetable. Please note that all the dates are estimates and every line should start with “Expected” (and that they reflect my hasty notes so an error may sneak in somewhere):

JANUARY

Conclusion of discussions with Wilkos, which seem likely to lead to agreement, followed by redevelopment work on the site, which will be between Costa and the gym.

MARCH

Reopening of Wilkos

Start of tram test running

APRIL

Phase 2 site cleared and taken over by Broxtowe. Until further notice this will operate as a major town centre car park.

Discussions continuing with developers for the site, based on the ideas from the earlier New Deal and Civic Society meetings. A number of developers are already keenly interested, partly because the proximity of the tram and the park-and-ride at the end of the route offers the chance of a major development without its own extensive parking.

JUNE

Exhibition of the concepts developed by students at the University Department of the Built Environment, where they have included Beeston development as a major project in this year’s course.

AUGUST

Probable start of full tram operation

Secure cycle hub (20 places) established with electronic key access next to Beeston station

SEPTEMBER

Local businesses decide whether to re-elect BID team to represent them during 2015-20

Improved Beeston station steps, the redesign offering safer descent and leaving open the possibility of lifts in the future

60-space car park on Rylands side of station

OTHER 2015 DEVELOPMENTS

Uplighting for Beeston Parish Church to make it an attractive central feature has been agreed by the Council: details will be discussed with the church shortly.

Some assistance has been given to improve shop fronts, the top item in the Civic Society and Broxtowe Council surveys.

The idea of “living walls” (walls decorated with art or enhanced with vegetation) to improve the blank walls in parts of the centre is being studied

2015/16

Consultation, negotiation and decision on Phase 2 development, with the “culture centre” and cinema high up on the potential list

Possible upgrades to the Square podium/bandstand are being examined, but cost is a contraint

2017/18

Development of Phase 2 to completion

2019

Rail electrification project complete

Other issues:

Shopmobility: conceivably might take over Oban House by agreement with the Volunteer Centre; otherwise, potentially part of Phase 2 development

Fletcher Road/Lower Road: the area where Neville Sadler Court was based is intended for emergency vehicles and similar. Through vehicle traffic is not allowed (and will have a £60 find), though through cycle traffic is allowed.

Special events also scored well in the residents’ poll, and the Council will continue to try to be creative and promote these wherever possible

 

I hope this summary of the proceedings is helpful. Both speakers stressed that as officers they were not decision-makers but facilitators, and the key decisions on Phase 2 in particular would only be taken after extensive consultation.

The atmosphere was very positive, despite the financial constraints, and I think it’s fair to say that despite all the difficulties of the last year there was a good deal of optimism at the meeting. Over the next few years, the town has a real prospect of success, if we all work together to make a positive difference.

 

 

 

 

 

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Personal manifesto, part I: Is Britain viable?

Personal manifesto, part I: Is Britain viable?

After my recent columns criticising other parties, I’d now like to turn to the sort of issues that I’d like as an MP to help address.

What can you expect from your MP?

You can expect three things of an MP:

(1)    They should use their intelligence and experience to contribute to achieving good policies and point out the risks of bad policies

(2)    They should take up issues for you, responding swiftly when you ask something, and do their best to represent the constituency

(3)    They should seek to maximise their influence, either through a Ministerial role or a more independent Select Committee.

Re (3): If I’m elected in May, I shan’t be trying to get a Ministerial role; I’ll be hoping to get back onto one of the key Select Committees that provide independent scrutiny of whichever Government is in power. Because I’ve been lucky enough to have a varied background outside politics (18 years in industrial management and two successful small businesses, a mathematics PhD and six languages), I hope to contribute insights that others may not be able to.

Re (2): I think I did a fairly good job at being responsive before and would want to do that again. You can normally expect a personal response within 48 hours.

That leaves (1), so I’m planning to put forward a series of pieces on what I’d like to take up as your representative. They will be relatively long, but I won’t apologise for that – they have to be, to get beyond the sound bites and half-baked ideas that typify our political world. Not everything I say represents a Labour view and there’s no guarantee that it will all be implemented – we are electing 1 MP out of 650. But you’re entitled to know what I’ll be saying on your behalf if you choose to elect me. I’d like to ask for your feedback in advance, so I can revise it and add your ideas: you may well have more expertise than me in one of the areas I’ll be discussing!

Is Britain currently viable?

First, I’d like to look at the basic issue of making Britain competitive – or, indeed, viable at all. Have we as a country really got to grips with the impact of globalisation? Before the lowering of trade barriers, we had quite distinct economies in the West and elsewhere, with incomes in the West a gigantic stride ahead of everywhere else. After opening up, it became evident to companies that low-skilled mass production could be done more cheaply elsewhere and that’s been followed by jobs requiring more education or training. Any implicit assumption that countries like China and India were basically only capable of mass assembly is long gone.

Now, we should recognise that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself and it really isn’t reversible – hiding behind trade barriers like North Korea is a formula for long-term catastrophe. The global effect is that global productivity has risen by leaps and bounds, and many developing countries have done remarkably well. As a whole, the globe is much better off.

But globalisation is acting to reduce differences between nations at the cost of increasing internal inequality. In Britain, the gap between people with multinational activity (and often multinational tax benefits) and everyone else is widening. We see this in China too, where the gilded rich lead lives far removed from that of the factory worker and peasant.

Here in Britain, our cost of living has been kept down by cheaper manufactured imports (when did you last see a laptop made in Britain?). However, the flip side of that is that since we are not making enough money in exports to cover the cost of those imports, we are paying for our standard of living by selling our assets. Our balance of payments deficit is enormous and getting worse: it’s now averaging £59 billion/year, or roughly £1000/year for every adult in Britain. Moreover, our productivity record is really bad, the worst in the West by a large margin: output per hour worked in Britain is 29% lower than in the US and 24% lower than in Germany and France.

There are three possible consequences of this. Either

(1) British-based firms will move up the value scale to replace the losses of low-value production or

(2) immigration at low wages will help firms stay in Britain and still compete (I am going to discuss immigration in a separate piece) or

(3) real wages will decline until we reach global equilibrium (in other words, until it’s as cheap to produce in Britain than in China or Thailand, which is a LONG way down).

(1) hasn’t happened to a sufficient degree, so we’re seeing (2) and risk seeing (3) unless policies change. Britain needs a strategy to move upmarket or we are actually just seeing the start of a cost of living crisis that will dominate our lives for a generation or more, which will produce unrest on a scale that we can’t yet imagine. Government deficits are also a consequence, which is why the Government hasn’t succeeded in stopping the rise in debt – if production is increasingly overseas or wages in Britain are squeezed, then tax revenue goes down.

What can we do about it?

My personal view – and I stress that I’m not speaking for anyone but myself – is that we need to give absolute priority to restructuring our economy – it’s more important than any of our other themes (lower taxes, more housing, better health care), most of which depend in the long term on the restructuring. There is infinite scope for debate about how to do it, but important elements that I’ll focus on include:

(1)    making it more profitable to invest in Britain

(2)    improving infrastructure so investment pays off better than elsewhere

(3)    making education more effective in developing high-end productive skills.

I’m going to write separately about these areas, but the first question for any policy should be “Will this affect our long-term economic viability?” This in turn needs to be linked to fairness – people will tolerate the effects of restructuring if they can see that they are being looked after as well.

So part of my personal manifesto is going to be a medium-term perspective that is focused on making Britain viable but fair. That means, specifically, that I don’t favour significant tax cuts for individuals unless they’re funded from other sources. I’m sorry, but we need to be honest with each other. At the moment, we can’t afford them, and I’d recommend looking with suspicion at anyone who says we can.

I hope you’ve found this interesting and perhaps useful? In subsequent pieces, I’ll be looking beyond this overall theme at the individual issues.

Best wishes

Nick

 

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