Clive Betts MP [Sheffield South East] today congratulated the secondary schools and colleges in his constituency on their GCSE and A level performance in 2010.

Clive Betts said:
“I am delighted to see the continuing improvement in the achievements of local schools. Children, parents and schools should be proud of their results, which have been achieved through all the hard work they have put in.”

Clive Betts then went on to castigate Michael Gove, the Conservative Secretary of State for Education for his proposals to introduce the English Baccalaureate as the key measure of secondary performance.

Clive Betts said:
“The results are the best ever and reflect the determination of the last Labour government to tackle the appalling education legacy of the last Conservative government.

Everyone needs to understand that the most important reason why Michael Gove announced new education targets yesterday was to divert attention from the massive improvement that has taken place in education achievement over the last decade.

Under the last Conservative government, more than 1300 secondary schools in England failed to achieve the 5 A-C GCSE target. In 2010, it was just 82.

I am fully supportive of setting even more ambitious targets, because I believe the potential is there. With the right attitude, commitment and determination of children, parents and teachers and the continued investment in teaching resources and buildings, we can maintain the momentum of continuous improvement.

All Michael Gove’s bluster will not disguise the fact he is cutting the budgets of the majority of schools next year and the year after and the year after that.”

Clive Betts continued:
“Michael Gove’s proposal to introduce the English Baccalaureate as the key measure of secondary performance is simply ridiculous.

It’s a return to a narrow, elitest model of education, simply designed to boost the perception of private, selective, independent schools at the expense of the majority.

It is simply out-of-touch with the economic, social and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

How ludicrous can you get to propose that a GCSE ‘C’ grade in Latin is to be exalted and defined as education excellence, whereas a GCSE ‘A*’ in IT is written off as an irrelevance and a sign of failure?”

It’s a question of balance

One of my colleagues has always said that the most difficult decision any councillor will face is where to site a bus-stop. Everyone wants one in their street, but no-one wants it outside their home.
Lots of decisions that both local and national politicians have to take are about balancing the interests and rights of different citizens. This is most obvious in planning. One person’s right to build an extension on their home has to be balanced against the neighbour’s entitlement to light and a view. The national economic interest and the north’s expectation of a high-speed rail service has to be balanced against the interests of the residents of the Chilterns, who will get no direct benefit from the rail service but will experience some detriment to their local environment.
What everyone does know is that, whatever decision is reached, you’re bound to get attacked by those who feel their interests have lost out.
Governments often have to legislate to set out clearly the issues that must be taken into account when balancing interests in particular issues. Before I was elected as a member of parliament, I had experience of two particular issues where I believed new legislation was required in order for action to be taken to protect the interests of local people and where the balancing interests had to be defined.
The first was about trees, specifically leylandii. Some people decided to plant leylandii trees on the boundaries of their gardens. This wasn’t a problem until the trees became 30 foot tall and completely blocked out the light to neighbouring homes. Those who planted them said “It’s my property and I can plant what I like and you can’t stop me.” And no-one could, until we introduced new legislation in the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act to provide for action to be taken, where necessary, to balance the interests.
The second concerned empty homes. Sometimes – and, thankfully quite rarely – an owner would effectively abandon a house, but refuse to maintain it or sell the property so that someone else could do so. The result was a house where windows became boarded up, tiles and guttering fell off leading to water ingress to neighbouring properties, and rubbish would pile up in the garden. Neighbours became absolutely despairing and infuriated about councils’ inabilities to act. Sometimes they couldn’t even sell their own property because no-one wanted to buy with a tip next door and no prospect of resolution. This could go on for years.
Therefore, I was a big supporter of new legal powers – called the Enforced Sale Procedure – which enabled councils to act in situations like this. Obviously, it is in everyone’s interest to get the owner to act but, failing that, neighbours should be able to petition the local council to act. Then, the council – after taking all appropriate steps to get the owner to act – could apply for an Enforced Sale.
Last week, some of my constituents went public with their anger about the council’s failure to enforce the sale of a property in Waterthorpe which has now been empty for several years. I supported them. The property is overgrown, boarded up, rubbish is tipped and it’s become the focus for anti-social behaviour.
Then, this week, Eric Pickles – the Conservative Secretary of State – has announced that he is going to remove some of the powers and insist on a delay of two years before a council can even consider acting to deal with the problem. He says he’s doing this to protect the interests of property owners.
I think he’s simply failing to have a proper balance between the rights of property owners and the rights of all the neighbours who have to live with the consequences every day for years on end.

No Allowance

In 1999, my good friend David Blunkett then Secretary of State for Education -launched a scheme in some areas of the country to see if providing a weekly allowance to some 16-18 year olds would increase the number of children who stayed on in full-time education. From an initial fifteen, the scheme was expanded to another forty-one areas in 2000.

Parents, young people and teachers in the pilot areas were all really positive about these new Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs). Not only did more young people stay on in education, but the research showed strong evidence that the ‘something for something’ approach was having a positive effect in encouraging extra effort by students. This was because the allowance was only paid weekly and it depended on good attendance and hard work.

As a result of this success, EMAs were introduced nationally. This year, EMAs are paid at the rate of £30 per week if the household income is less than £20, 817 per annum (£20 if less than £25,521 and £10 if less than £30,810). More than 5800 young people in Sheffield currently receive EMA.

The impact has been significant. Not only have we seen more young people staying on in education, but we’ve also seen significant improvements in academic success. It has meant that children from households with below average incomes have been more ambitious about realising their educational potential.

It has also contributed to the significant increase in the number of young people, from households with no experience of post-16 education, going on to further education. In my constituency, there has been a near 60% increase in young people going on to university in the last 10 years. In David Blunkett’s constituency, the increase has been a massive 160% increase.

When the coalition government education secretary, Michael Gove, was interviewed before the general election, he flatly denied that the EMA was for the chop, saying: “Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won’t.”

But, on January 1st, he announced that the scheme had closed to new applicants. Those young people who currently receive an EMA will continue to receive it until the end of the academic year. But then it stops… dead. Those in the first year of their A levels will not get it in the second year.

It gives me no joy to point out that, like student tuition fees, this is just another broken promise. The real losers are ordinary young people and ordinary households throughout our area. In the long-term, our economy will also be damaged.

For those with the biggest challenges in life, EMA has been proven to boost attainment and help them succeed. The loss of EMA coupled with £9000 a year tuition fees means that students from ordinary families will be left thinking that post-16 education isn’t for them, and that thousands of our young people may fail to reach their full potential.

Isn’t there something quite daft about a policy which discourages young people from staying on in education and gaining more skills at the same time as unemployment is set to rise?

Humpty Dumpty

It has often been said that only three people understood local government finance – one was dead, another mad and the third had joined a silent monastic order. That is why Ministerial statements always have to be taken with a pinch of salt until all the information is on the table and a detailed analysis can be undertaken.

How necessary that was last week when Eric Pickles announced the financial settlement for councils for the next two years. What we’ve now discovered is that his statement needed to be taken with the complete contents of a grit-lorry.

Earlier this year, the Coalition Government announced that it intended to cut council expenditure by 28% over the next 4 years and that the first-year cut would be the biggest.

So, when Eric Pickles announced that the average cut for each council for 2011/12 was just 4.4%, we knew that couldn’t be true. Now, we know the statement was a complete travesty. Detailed analysis shows that next year’s national cut is 12.1%.

Sheffield fares even worse. It gets a grant cut next year of 14.5%, followed by a further 6.5% in 2012/13 – a 20% cut over the next 2 years. Doncaster does even worse.

And, it isn’t just all of South Yorkshire’s councils that are facing massive cuts. South Yorkshire Police gets a 7.5% cut next year and a further 8.7% the following year. And South Yorkshire Fire Service gets a near 10% cut next year.

Eric Pickles then compounded his misrepresentation by insulting our intelligence.

First, he told us that councils could manage these cuts by sharing chief executives and buying a different brand of paper clip. Just ask yourself this – if you got a 20% cut in wages, could your household budget deal with this just by cutting the children’s pocket money and buying a different brand of baked beans? Of course, you couldn’t. The suggestion was ridiculous.

Secondly, he told us that the settlement was ‘fair and progressive’, when it is exactly the opposite. There is a huge transfer of government grant from North to South – betraying Nick Clegg’s pledge that he would not let spending cuts unfairly impact on the north – from poor to wealthy areas, and from urban to rural areas. Sheffield is hit with a 20% cut and Dorset gets an increase.

Thirdly, Pickles suggested that councils should make ‘filling potholes a priority’ – well, we all know about that debate in Sheffield – when he has cut the capital funding allocations for highway maintenance by 19%, some £164m a year.

Eric Pickles has obviously learned from his alter ego Humpty Dumpty – ‘words mean what I want them to mean’. This settlement is unfair and regressive. It is very bad news for our local communities and services.


Sheffield has the highest proportion of students who choose to live in their university city after graduation in the UK.
When asked why they made that decision, they say it’s because Sheffield people are so friendly and then say it’s because Sheffield has all the benefits of a big city, but with easily accessible glorious countryside. It used to be described as ‘Sheffield in its golden frame’.
Of course, in South East Sheffield we have easy access to the big city, but the countryside is on our doorsteps. We are also fortunate in having a large number of groups and volunteers who are committed to maintaining and enhancing the local environment and supporting and protecting local wildlife.
However, not satisfied with launching attacks on students, council services, ordinary working families receiving housing or other benefits, and many more, the coalition government has now decided to wage war on badgers.
There is a long-standing problem with bovine TB in the UK. But, there is a huge amount of contradictory evidence about whether badgers give TB to cattle or cattle give it to badgers.  There is also no scientific evidence that culling badgers actually deals with the problem of TB in cattle; indeed a past trial shows it could actually make it worse. That was why the last Labour Government decided not to cull badgers, but to look for vaccination as a long term solution, as there is considerable scientific evidence that that policy would work
But now the coalition government is proposing that any landowner can apply for a licence to cull badgers. Leading scientists and ecologists have described the proposals as fundamentally scientifically flawed.
Why is this important locally? Well, we have a good badger population spread around the area. Although many – perhaps most – local residents have never seen them, a number of local groups and individuals have been quietly ensuring that their habitat is protected. They are very concerned about these proposals and the potential impact on local wildlife.
I agree with them. I have already made my protest to the government and will continue to do so, as I believe the proposals are just wrong-headed and irresponsible. I hope that no landowner in the area will apply for a licence but, if you hear differently, please let me know.
I suppose the only relief is that, given the new government’s commitment to try to lift the ban on fox-hunting, it hasn’t decided to re-introduce legalised badger-baiting. Or have I spoken too soon?

Betts on Forgemasters

Clive Betts MP [Sheffield South East] said today

“The All-Party Business Select Committee has delivered a devastating rebuttal of the reasons given by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable for cancelling the Forgemasters’ loan.

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable said the former Labour government had pushed through the loan for electoral reasons.

The Select Committee said the loan application had followed all the normal procedures and had been signed off by the Permanent Secretary and the Treasury.

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable said the former Labour government has pushed through the loan when there was no money to finance it.

The Select Committee said that former Ministers signed off the loan in the full knowledge that it could be funded.

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable said cuts had to be made in the Business budget and, therefore, the Forgemasters’ loan was unaffordable.

The Select Committee said that Ministers had a choice about where the axe would fall, that they had given the go-ahead to other projects where there was no contractual commitment to do so, that no substantial comparative cost-benefit analysis was undertaken on those non-contractually committed projects and that the Sheffield Forgemasters loan was cancelled simply because it was identified as an easy cost saving.

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable said the loan was inappropriate because Forgemasters was unwilling to dilute equity.

The Select Committee said that Forgemasters’ board members were willing to dilute equity and that this formed part of the loan agreement.”

Clive Betts continued:
“The All-Party Select Committee has demolished every reason that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable gave for cancelling the Forgemasters’ loan. They should apologise to Forgemasters and to the people of Sheffield.

It is now incumbent upon them to urgently consider a further application from Forgemasters. That would be in the interests of the UK and Sheffield economies.”

Betts says Local Government Financial Settlement is Bad News for Sheffield

Following the Government’s announcement of the Local Government Financial Settlement, Clive Betts MP  and Chair, Communities and Local Government Select Committee said:

“This is bad news for Sheffield. The government published misleading financial information yesterday, when it suggested that the cuts were only some 4% nationally and that Sheffield would be getting an 8% cut in grant.

When assumptions about council tax receipts and the additional money for social care are taken into account, Sheffield has been given a grant cut of 14.54% in 2011/12 and a further 6.44% cut in 2012/13.

This is a settlement which has switched government grant from the North to the South, from poorer communities to wealthy communities, and from urban areas to rural areas.

As Sheffield City Council’s Liberal Democrat Leader has said he would only campaign against the cuts if SCC lost more than 15%, I can only assume he thinks that a 14.54% cut is a good deal for Sheffield. I think the vast majority of people will disagree.

This will undoubtedly have a considerable negative impact on services and jobs in both the public and private sectors in Sheffield.”

Clive Betts continued:

“Even Tony Travers – independent local government finance expert at the London School of Economics, and an adviser to the all-Party Communities and Local Government Select Committee – has been moved to describe the settlement as

‘A Conservative heartlands settlement which it would be difficult to describe as a progressive redistribution of resources.’

The government is planning to move £29bn on 2011 and £27bn in 2012 from urban to rural areas.”

What Big Society?

This week’s best joke came from a colleague, who rang the Liberal Democrat headquarters and asked for a copy of their manifesto. “We’ve sold out” came the reply. “Yes,” he responded “I know you’ve sold out, but can I have a copy of the manifesto?”

David Cameron has been making much of his promise to make a Big Society, and it all sounds very good. He’s been raising expectations of what voluntary organisations and volunteers – now called ‘the third sector’ should deliver in contributing to a better society.

However, all that appears to be being fatally undermined by the massive cuts, both by central and local government, being made to voluntary organisations which will damage the capacity of those organisations to deliver their part. In addition, the VAT increase will cost voluntary organisations about £150m a year.

Where David Cameron and I also part company is that he has a Downton Abbey view of society, where people have to rely on charity handouts as a substitute for good quality local public services.

For me, the Big Society is one where we are all enabled to make out contributions to make our country and our local communities a better society. Public services and voluntary contributions should be working together – the latter is not a substitute for the former. Co-operatives, friendly societies, trades unions and voluntary organisations have all thrived best when they have been seen as complimentary to the state, not as alternatives.

Between 1997 and 2010, central government support to the voluntary sector more than doubled to £12 billion. Now, as part of its deficit reduction programme, that support is being cut dramatically. Most local authorities have yet to determine where their big cuts are going to be made but, last week, two local authorities – one Conservative-controlled and the other with a Liberal Democrat majority – announced that they would be cutting grants to local voluntary organisations by 40%. This doesn’t bode well for a Big Society, let alone a better society.

So, here are some tests for the coalition government’s Big Society policy over the next 4 years. Will inequality increase or decrease? Will the number of poor households rise or fall? Will the number of charities rise or fall? Will the standard of our public services get better or worse?

UK Parliament FC V Show Racism the Red Card Select XI

I was very pleased to get the opportunity today, to take part in a special football match organised by the charity, Show Racism the Red Card. The event was held at Millwall FC and saw a team of ex-professional footballers take on the UK Parliament Football Club. Despite losing the game 4-1 I thorughly enjoyed it and it was great to be able to show my support for such a worthwhile campaign.