Clive Betts MP [Sheffield South East and Chair of Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee] has sought an urgent meeting with the Retail Director of WILKO Stores following speculation about the closure of the WILKO store in Darnall, Sheffield.
Clive Betts said:
“I have been contacted by a number of Darnall residents about the speculation surrounding the future of the WILKO store in Darnall. This speculation is now featuring in social media.
As a result, I have asked WILKO to squash the rumour.
However, if WILKO is actively considering the possibility of the closure of the Darnall store, I have asked for an urgent meeting with Craig McGregor, WILKO’s new Retail Director, to discuss the issue.”
Clive Betts continued:
I know that the retail sector in the UK is going through turbulent times. This is not just affecting town centres and High Streets, but also district shopping centres like Darnall.
Darnall shopping centre has gone through very difficult times. The premises that WILKO now occupy were formerly a supermarket which anchored the centre.
The Post Office in Darnall was only saved by the active involvement of the Darnall Forum and local residents.
It would be a big blow to Darnall if WILKO were to close.”
Clive Betts continued:
“As the Chair of the All-Party House of Commons’ Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government – which is currently undertaking an Inquiry in to the High Streets and Town Centres in 2030, including detailed consideration of the future of business rates (NNDR) – I am fully aware of the general issues relating to the current and prospective states of the retail sector in the UK.
WILKO is a very important retail player, with turnover exceeding £1.6bn, and about 20,000 employees working in some 400 stores across the UK.
As well as having an important presence on many High Streets, it is also a very significant part of many district shopping centres.”
Clive Betts concluded:
“I am looking for the earliest response from WILKO to discuss both the future of the Darnall store and WILKO’s perspectives on the current and future retail challenges.”

Getting cross country

There is rarely a day when there isn’t a media story about our railways. This isn’t the case in most other countries in the world.
Whenever Conservative Ministers suggest that they are the party of efficiency and effectiveness, I just need to point to their initial privatisation of the railways and their subsequent disastrous re-arrangements which seemingly produce a bad news story every day.
Given this track record, Mrs May’s shambolic and incompetent approach to the Brexit negotiations was no surprise. Only her Transport Secretary, My Grayling – yes, the one who has left a trail of destruction in every Ministerial office he has held – could award a contract to a ferry company without any ships, award HS2 contracts to Carillion when it was on the verge of collapse, and put legislation about drones on the back-burner resulting in our major airports being closed down.
Since 2010, average rail fares have risen nearly three times faster than wages. The amount by which train companies can raise regulated fares is the responsibility of the Mr Grayling, but he’s choosing not to get involved. So, he average rail commuter is now paying £2,980 for their season ticket, £786 more than in 2010.  
Despite the fare increases, overcrowding on our railways is at one of the highest levels since records began. The top 10 most overcrowded peak train routes are on average 187 per cent in excess of capacity; an increase of over 25 per cent since 2011.
More trains were cancelled or significantly late last year than for 17 years, when a spate of major rail accidents caused chaos.
The fare and ticketing structure is not fit for purpose. It is hugely complex, inflexible and expensive. About 55 million different fares – nearly one each for every UK citizen! – exist in the current system and passengers often over-pay for fares.
It was in that context that, last week, I asked Rail Minister about CrossCountry trains, which run from Aberdeen to Penzance, from Edinburgh to Bournemouth, and Manchester to Stansted Airport. Lines linking Sheffield, Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds and York form an important part of this network.
From the very beginning of this franchise, it was clear that there simply wasn’t enough capacity to carry the passenger commuter demand in South and West Yorkshire in the specified four-car trains. So, every day, for years, many commuters are paying high fares with little likelihood of a seat.
A new franchise is due to start in October this year – or it could be October 2020 – so this is the time to add additional pressure about the specification.
I am delighted to say that, unlike the Midland Mainline, CrossCountry trains do not form part of my regular travel experience. However, before Christmas, I travelled between Leeds and Sheffield and experienced what my constituents regularly experience—as many passengers standing as sitting.
So, I asked the Minister “When we get a new franchise, will the Minister ensure that those four-car trains are extended, so that there is the capacity for people to actually get a seat on them?” He responded “…we are certainly looking to add capacity in the next franchise. We are also looking to add capacity before that franchise comes into force, if we can find it.”
What is worrying is that he couldn’t or wouldn’t guarantee the capacity required now and for the future. What a way to run a railway!

I have my suspicions

Last month, one of my constituents mentioned that, in the preceding weeks, he’d received a number of e-mails purporting to come from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or the Inland Revenue.
He told me that these e-mails appeared legitimate, complete with HMRC logos and address details – quite unlike the ones from ‘Nigerian bankers’ promising 20% of the millions of dollars trapped in a bank account if only he handed over his own bank account details. Nevertheless, he smelled a rat, not least because every e-mail suggested he was entitled to a tax refund and, as a matter of policy, HMRC never send notifications about refunds or rebates by e-mail.
As a result, he forwarded each e-mail to HMRC’s phishing team at phishing@hmrc.gsi.gov.uk.1 Reassuringly, within 24 hours in each case, he received an e-mail from HMRC confirming that the original communication had been a phishing scam. In this regard, HMRC distinguished itself from the social media moguls to whom reports of suspicious e-mails appear to disappear into a massive cloud only to be used for more data aggregation purposes, only of financial benefit to themselves.
As a result of this discussion, I thought I’d ask some questions about the extent of attempted scams – and some must be successful, otherwise the criminals wouldn’t keep doing it – and what action was taken as a result of those reports. So, I tabled some written questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, some of which were answered by one of his Ministers, Mel Stride.2
First, let me outline what the answers revealed.
In just the first 8 months (April to November) of this financial year, HMRC received reports of 636,789 suspicious e-mails. 28,639 text messages, and 44,435 phone calls asking for personal information or threatening a lawsuit. Given that these numbers just reflect reports to HMRC, we can only speculate about how many scam e-mails, text messages and phone-calls were actually made.
The Minister was also able to tell me that HMRC’s dedicated Customer Protection team targeting scams has:
  • reduced reported HMRC-branded phishing texts by 90% due to innovative work with network operators and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
  • requested removal of over 14,000 websites during financial year 2017/2018.
  • blocked half a billion phishing emails through technical controls since 2016.
  • published guidance on GOV.UK on how to identify scams that has been visited 1.4 million times during financial year 2017/2018.
  • responded to nearly 1 million phishing referrals in the same period.
  • recovered over 130 websites infringing the HMRC brand, including those which host low value services such as call connection sites, saving customers in excess of £2.4M in charges to date.
Well, all that looks impressive and welcome, but given the scale of the continuing criminality, there is clearly much more to do. So, I wanted to know whether the number of HMRC staff being deployed to investigate phishing scams had been cut or increased.
And I was also interested in how successful HMRC has been in bringing the criminals to book. How many individuals had been identified, charged and convicted as a result of HMRC’s investigations?
And that’s when the Minister suddenly decided to go shtum.
Mr Stride wrote:
“However, the information required to answer (these questions) cannot be provided as releasing it may prejudice the prevention or detection of crime. The information could be used by individuals for criminal activity and departmental IT systems could be exposed or left vulnerable to interference or attack.
Doing so could give criminals valuable insight into HMRC’s capabilities and processes in this area and cybersecurity in general, opening up the Department and the wider public to more informed and effective scams and attacks. While publishing the information requested could, on the face of it, reassure the public that HMRC is suitably resourced to handle risks posed by cybercrime, on balance it is not in the public interest.”
Would I ask the Minister to reveal information which would compromise investigations, or prejudice the prevention or detection of crime? Of course, I wouldn’t.
Would answers to my questions ‘give criminals valuable insight…’? Almost certainly not.
If I asked the Home Secretary about the numbers of people nationally – or asked the Police and Crime Commissioner about the numbers of people locally – who had been (a) charged and (b) convicted of the offences of murder, rape, burglary, vehicle theft etc, they would not only be able to tell me, but they would tell me. Why is information about HMRC and cyber-crime any different?
I don’t think it is and I will be asking further questions.
However, I have my suspicions about why the Minister doesn’t want to answer the questions properly and transparently.
My first suspicion is that the number of individual criminals brought to book – identified, charged and convicted – is embarrassingly small in comparison to the scale of the criminal activity.
I don’t under-estimate the size of the challenge given the nature of the offences, how they are committed and the likelihood that many are based abroad. But, it is only possible to address the problem if there is an acknowledgement of the size and nature of the issues.
My second suspicion is that there has been a cut in the number of HMRC staff who are targeting scams of this sort.
In 2016, the National Audit Office reported that there were about 500 staff working with “high net worth” individuals (those with assets over £10m) on their tax affairs. It employed another 500 or so staff to investigate the tax affairs “affluent” taxpayers (those with an income over £150,000 a year, or assets over £1 million). These two groups were estimated to account for around £2bn in lost tax revenue. [Incidentally, according to a 2017 report, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) employed around 4,000 staff to deal with benefit fraud, then also estimated to be about £2 billion.]3
HMRC staff numbers have been consistently falling since then. It has been reported elsewhere that those cuts have included the number of staff working on tax evasion by both individuals and companies. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the government has also cut the number of HMRC staff committed to tackling cyber-crime.
I suspect that Ministerial reluctance to answer these questions is nothing to do with the potential of answers to compromise investigations, but everything to do with avoiding embarrassment and scrutiny about the government’s ideological decisions on cutting the numbers of civil servants, whilst failing to tackle tax evasion and cyber-crime.

Brexit halts…everything!

I cannot think of another time in my life when a single issue has so debilitated policy-making, prevented essential decision-taking and comprehensively sucked the oxygen from public and private discourse as Brexit has occasioned.
Nationally, regionally and locally, large and small businesses have been deferring investment decisions for months now as the uncertainty continues. They are also finding that European customers of their products are now holding off from committing to future purchases or they are securing alternative suppliers in mainland Europe to ensure continuity. All of this is going to have a significant impact for economic regeneration and for businesses and jobs for years to come.
The delays and inability to act are shown even more starkly in the public sector. The draft long-term plan for the NHS has now just surfaced many months late but that is the exception to the rule, as domestic policy development and legislation on the big issues across the spectrum has effectively disappeared. Even within the NHS plan funding for Public Health is simply pushed back to the spending review, while further cuts are announced for 2019/20.
Public consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill was finished last May. There’s no sign of Green or White Papers, let alone legislation. The long-promised devolution framework proposals – yes, the proposals former HCLG Secretary of State Sajid Javid was talking about fifteen months ago – are nowhere to be seen.
Having ditched the earlier agreed reforms on funding adult social care, a green paper on the issue was confirmed as urgent in the March 2017 budget. Originally promised for Autumn 2017, that was then pushed November, which came and went as publication was pushed back to early 2018, then Summer, and then Autumn. In October 2018, the Chancellor said it would be ‘published shortly’. In December, we were told that “it would be published at the first opportunity in 2019”. That has already come and gone.
During this period, many well-regarded and serious bodies – including from the House of Commons all-party Joint HCLG and HSC Committees – have published their own comprehensive proposals.
Meanwhile, there have been a series of late and inadequate supplementary financial allocations to health and local authorities and tens of thousands of people have totally lost or suffered significant cuts in their social care support, and home and residential care providers are in financial turmoil.
As the structural issues about adult social care have become acute, another emergency has ridden up fast on the rails – children’s services. Since 2010, the number of Section 47 investigations – relating to the most serious concerns about child safety – have more than doubled. There are now more than 75,000 children in local authority care, a doubling in the last decade, nearly three-quarters with foster parents.
Meanwhile, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently confirmed, funding for children’s services has fallen from c£850m then to c£700m this year with nearly every council significantly over-expending. In the budget, the Chancellor announced an extra £84m funding for children’s services in 20 councils over the next 5 years. That’s a gnat’s bite in comparison to the £3bn shortfall estimated by 2025.
It is against this background that the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has launched a new inquiry into the funding and provision of local authorities’ children’s services.
There is silence around the future of local government finance. What is going to be happening to National Non-Domestic Rates – especially in the context of the precarious state of the High Street and the central importance of business rate retention – and the New Homes Bonus and Council Tax? And then of course, there are all those ‘fair-funding’ promises – which with no additional funding may simply transfer more of the pain to poorer, urban, northern areas. “Late Spring” says the Minister about proposals for the redistribution of local government finance. “Which year?” we call.
When the Chancellor brought forward his budget statement last October, I said that there could then be absolutely no excuse for a late or delayed local government finance settlement announcement, as had happened in previous years. I thought that the proposed date of 11 December was later than justified.
To have that statement date cancelled to facilitate a Brexit vote was unacceptable. To not have the statement re-instated when the Brexit vote was cancelled simply showed the extent to which Brexit is driving, or generally stopping every agenda.
One of my fundamental concerns with the PM’s deal is that it will simply lock the government machine into more Brexit exclusivity until the end of 2020, or whenever the backstop finally comes to an end. The many major issues affecting public services being ignored now cannot be put on the Brexit backburner indefinitely.

A licence to break a promise?

Free TV licences for over 75s were introduced in 2000, when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.
The rationale was that the TV plays an important tool in the battle against loneliness and social isolation. Four in 10 older people say the television is their main source of company. Many are unable to enjoy other social activities. Christmas is a particularly bad time for loneliness; analysis by Age UK found that almost a million pensioners wouldn’t have seen or heard from anyone over the festive period.
The cost of the free licences is expected to reach £745m by 2021/22 and will continue to rise because of the increasing numbers of older people. This is equivalent to about a fifth of the BBC’s budget – the equivalent to what is spent today on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, CBBC and CBeebies. 
As part of the negotiations in 2014/15 over the TV Licence Fee, the BBC Governors foolishly agreed that the BBC would take responsibility for the cost of pensioners’ free licences, despite not having the resources to fund them in the longer-term. Basically, the Conservative government had threatened a lower Licence Fee – and therefore less money for the BBC – if they didn’t agree. This meant that, starting from this year, the BBC has taken responsibility for funding free TV licence fees of those over 75 and it also has the power to scrap or reduce the number or scope of free licences.
Along with my Labour colleagues, I opposed this move at the time, and throughout the passage of the legislation – Digital Economy Act – through Parliament. When Conservative Ministers were challenged about this, they denied that Free TV Licences for over 75s were under threat.
Under further challenge during the 2017 general election campaign, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto promised to “maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament”, that is until 2022.
But now, the BBC has started a consultation on whether to scrap free licences completely, or to raise the age threshold or to means test access to a free licence from 2020. Under each of the changes proposed by the BBC in their consultation, millions of pensioners will lose their free licences.
Nationally, if the free licence is linked to pension credit, i.e. means tested, over 3 million people would lose their free licence. If the eligibility age was raised to 80 over 1.8 million older people would lose their free licences.
In my constituency, about 6500 pensioners – nearly 4000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 67% of them – more than 4300 – would lose eligibility if it were dependent on pension credit. Nearly 40% – more than 2500 – would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
In South Yorkshire, about 100,000 pensioners – some 75000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 78,000 would lose out if eligibility was dependent on pension credit. And more than 40,000 households would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
The prospect of elderly people losing their free TV Licence makes a mockery of Mrs May’s claim that austerity is over. If she has any integrity, she would step in now and keep to the promise she made.

Conservative ideology is costing us all

The Conservatives’ ideological commitment to “public sector bad; private sector good” is costing us all. It is what drives their privatisation and outsourcing instincts.
When it is combined with ‘light touch’ regulation and contract management – with inadequate resources being committed to tender assessment and contract monitoring – we end up with poor value-for-money, service specifications not being delivered, incompetent directors being paid millions before they walk away from the disasters they have left behind, and shareholders extracting millions in dividends whilst the public picks up the cost of their failure to pay appropriate pension contributions.
There is still a long, long way to go to get to the bottom of the Carillion collapse. Amongst others, the Insolvency Service and the Official Receiver are still investigating. The £5.2bn-turnover company collapsed owing banks about £1.3bn. It had just £29m of cash and a £600m pension deficit. About 3,000 people were made redundant, although 14,000 jobs were saved after contracts were shifted to other providers.
When stories circulated that Carillion’s sub-contractors on government tendered projects were not being paid on time, more questions arose. It was then revealed that Carillion was not including 30 day payment clauses in its public sector contracts with subcontractors, which is required by the Public Contract Regulations. If the Government did not detect this behaviour by one of its biggest strategic suppliers, what confidence can any of us have in its overall approach to public procurement?
Over the last year, the share value of another big government contractor, Interserve, has fallen by 90%. It’s in financial crisis, desperately trying to restructure its £650m debts. It has more than £1bn of live public sector contracts with police forces, universities, hospitals, transport executives, local authorities and central government departments.
The Government recently said that they “do not believe that any strategic supplier is in a similar situation to Carillion…” and, throughout the last few months, has continued to award new contracts worth millions, despite the company’s solvency being in serious question.
What cannot be questioned is that its Purple Futures subsidiary has simply failed to perform in its delivery of probation services in five privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), where it is meant to be managing a total of around 40,000 “low and medium” risk offenders for our public protection.
You might think that awarding new public sector contracts to a company in financial crisis and with a track record in failing to deliver what is specified is unacceptable. I agree.
So, what do you think of the latest revelation about this government’s procurement?
As the government thrashes around desperately trying to arrange emergency measures in case we crash out of the EU without a deal, it has arranged a £13.8m contract to run additional ferries across the Channel between Ramsgate and Ostend with a new company called Seaborne Freight, despite it never having run a ferry service nor managed shipping arrangements before.
Is it any surprise that local Conservative Councillor Paul Messenger asked “It has no ships and no trading history, so how can due diligence be done? Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in its entire history…?”
Good questions!

No room at the Inn.

At this time of year, millions of people, in churches, schools and homes, will be celebrating the birth of Jesus, in a stable because there was no room at the inn.
Last week, the Britannia Hotel in Hull cancelled and returned the £1092 payment – funded by donations – that had been made by the Raise the Roof Homeless Project to accommodate 28 homeless people over Christmas. No reason was given for the decision until, under pressure from media enquiries, Britannia Hotels said it had cancelled the booking after receiving reports that the group has caused “a serious problem” while staying at the Ibis hotel last year. However, no evidence to support the assertion was produced, and Ibis Hotels also denied that this had been the case.
The good news was that, on hearing this sad story, Doubletree by Hilton Hull stepped in and offered to accommodate the group for two nights, with breakfast and Xmas dinner included, on a complimentary basis. I say ‘Well done, Doubletree. You’ve managed to wrap up the Christmas story and the Parable of the Good Samaritan in one deed.’
I leave you to your own thoughts about Britannia Hotels’ conduct. However, it would be wrong to omit the fact that, having suffered considerable adverse publicity, Britannia subsequently reversed its decision …but by then it was too late.
Could this reputational damage be justified? I simply note that, last month, in a survey by Which? TravelBritannia Hotels was voted the worst UK hotel chain for the sixth consecutive year, with nearly a quarter of guests making official complaints about poor customer service, rooms and food.
Obviously, Raise the Roof had not done their research before making the booking with Britannia. Fortuitously, 28 people now appear to be looking forward to a much better experience than might reasonably have been expected!
Twenty years ago, the incoming Labour government inherited yet another Conservative homelessness crisis.  So, in 1999, Tony Blair launched Coming in from the Cold, a radical plan to tackle homelessness. As well as accommodation, the scheme included money for night squads, hostels and mental health teams. Within two years, homelessness was cut by two-thirds and rough-sleeping by three-quarters.
Rough sleeping remained below 500 people until 2010 when, first, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and, then, subsequent Conservative governments effectively abandoned those becoming homeless. Homelessness and rough-sleeping have dramatically increased throughout the country. The government’s own figures reveal that rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010. Since October last year, an estimated 484 people have died homeless. Last winter one in four severe weather services had to turn rough sleepers away.
As my colleague John Healey (Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, in Rotherham and Barnsley) said this week:
It beggars belief that, in twenty-first century Britain, there are parts of the country in which there is little or no shelter for those sleeping on the streets during extreme cold weather, and that the Government doesn’t even know which areas have this provision.
Don’t ever tell me that voting doesn’t make a difference. For tens of thousands of people, the election outcomes over the last twenty years have determined whether they slept in a dry, warm bed or on the cold, wet streets.
John Healey also announced Labour plans to give every rough sleeper a roof over their head – funded by the previously announced levy on second homes used as holiday homes – and to tackle the root causes of rising homelessness, with an end to the freeze on benefits, new rights for renters and a million low-cost homes.
However, as well as the big policies which are designed to dramatically cut homelessness and rough sleeping, we are all regularly faced with particular decisions about how we respond to individuals who are sleeping or begging on the street. It doesn’t matter whether we are in the High Street, or in our district shopping centre, or going to our local supermarket, we are likely to be confronted by someone sat on the pavement asking for our change. What to do?
In that context, I’m pleased to support the initiative HelpUsHelp – a coalition of residents’ groups, various charities and projects concerned with homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and domestic violence and Sheffield City Council – which is encouraging people to get involved helping people who beg and sleep rough in the city, but also offering advice on how we can best help.
HelpUsHelp advises:
  • Give time or donations to charities that provide support – research shows that giving money directly to people who beg can do more harm than good
  • Have a chat with someone and encourage them to access support services
  • Give food or drink rather than money
  • Buy a Big Issue. Vendors buy the Big Issue North and then sell it on to their customers. Vendors are working, not begging, and need public support
Although this is a Sheffield initiative, I’m sure the principles will be widely supported by agencies throughout South Yorkshire and neighbouring areas.
You can find out more at www.helpushelp.uk

The best start…your say

Are you a parent or an expectant parent? What is your experience of using public services such as GPs, midwives, health visitors, antenatal care and children’s centres?
The period of a child’s life from in the womb through birth to the early years are vital to her or his physical, mental and emotional health and development. Problems that occur in this period can not only affect a person’s childhood, but the rest of their life: their physical and mental health, their ability to learn, communicate and manage their emotions.
Therefore, it may be surprising, even counter-intuitive, that the bulk of public spending during a child’s life comes in their teenage years. There is a strong case for investing public money much earlier. There is certainly a renewed interest in earlier intervention. This is not just to do with maximising potential, but also to address anti-social behaviours and to divert children from crime.
This renewed interest is occurring at the same time that the government has been making huge cuts in the resources for supporting the youngest children (for example, more than 1000 SureStart Centres have closed since 2010 and more will close in the next 12 months) and in diverting young teenagers (for example, resources for crime prevention schemes and youth services designed to keep children out of crime have been cut by more than half since 2010).
All parents need support during pregnancy and their children’s early years from their families and friends, but also from local public services (e.g. midwives, GPs, children centres and health visitors). These services can help to identify problems in a child’s development and provide support for parents and families to help make sure children are given the best start in life. 
Although parents have the primary role, we all have an interest in trying to ensure that children are kept safe and secure and reach their full potential. In turn, when we are in our dotage, we hope that some of them will be helping to keep us safe and secure.
Now, the all-party House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, which is responsible for holding the government to account on its policies and performance, is seeking parents’ views on the challenges of, and about the support they received, during the first years of their child’s life, from conception to the age of 2.
In an earlier report, the Committee concluded:
“In an ideal world, all children should be wanted, nurtured, loved, protected and valued by emotionally available and sensitively responsive parents. Such an environment allows the child to develop in the most optimal way, with emotional wellbeing, capacity to form and maintain relationships, healthy brain and language development leading onto cognitive development, school readiness and lifelong learning.”
According to that report, providing positive childhood experiences during their early years could reduce the following later in life:
  • hard drug use by 59%
  • incarceration by 53% 
  • violence by 51% 
  • unplanned teen pregnancies by 38%
To achieve that would be a tremendous bonus to thousands of young adults as well as a major contribution to our ambitions of having a healthier society in social and economic terms.
Earlier this month, the Committee heard expert evidence from senior doctors, nurses, policy analysts, professional bodies and charities.  Now it wants parents’ views.
The Committee is interested in hearing from parents from all walks of life, but because they are usually under-represented in consultations, the Committee especially wants to encourage contributions from those who:
  • Live in poorly connected or rural areas
  • Are first-time parents
  • Are single parents
  • Do not have English as a first language
Your contribution will be anonymous. Have your say at
Do it this week!

The Right to Privacy and the Digital Revolution

Are you interested in the collection and analysis of ‘big data’? Are you concerned about the impact the collection of data could have on protecting human rights?
Are you affronted and seriously worried about the amount of data that the government (or ‘the state’) has about you? Or, are you more like me, much more concerned by the amount of data that your bank and supermarket have about you, your habits, and your life?
Are you horrified by the experience of reading your online newspaper or magazine, only to find yourself being targeted with adverts relating to other internet searches you have recently completed?
Do you believe like me that, if we are serious about controlling migration and about ensuring that only those entitled to get access to our public services and benefits, it is inevitable that the UK (like nearly every other country) will end up with each of us having some form of ID entitlement card? In fact, most of us have one already; it’s called a passport.
More recently, we have all started to gain an inkling about the extent to which private companies (and especially the big technology companies) are collecting, aggregating, analysing and selling data about us. This has not just been to other advertisers but, as recent investigations – some criminal, some by investigative journalists, some by democratic institutions – have revealed, our data has been sold to political agents, wealthy ideological obsessives and, almost certainly, to foreign governments who don’t have our best interests at heart.
Since the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year, the role of the big tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple in protecting the right to privacy is increasingly coming under scrutiny, with greater pressure for regulation. The increasingly rapid development of Artificial Intelligence presents some of the most challenging ethical and social questions – in both the public and private sector.
Now, the all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights – it has members from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords – has embarked on an inquiry into whether new safeguards to regulate the collection, use, tracking, retention and disclosure of personal data by private companies are needed in the new digital environment to protect human rights.
The key human right at risk is the right to private and family life (Article 8 ECHR), but freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR), freedom of association (Article 11), and non-discrimination (Article 14 ECHR) are also at risk.
The Committee is seeking written evidence on the threats posed to human rights by the collection, use and storage of personal data by private companies and examples of where they have been breached. In particular, it is interested in the following questions:
  • Are some uses of data by private companies so intrusive that states would be failing in their duty to protect human rights if they did not intervene?
    – If so, what uses are too intrusive, and what rights are potentially at issue?
  • Are consumers and individuals aware of how their data is being used, and do they have sufficient real choice to consent to this?
  • What regulation is necessary and proportionate to protect individual rights without interfering unduly with freedom to use and develop new technology?
  • If action is needed, how much can be done at national level, and how much needs international cooperation?
  • To what extent do international human rights standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, have a role to play in preventing private companies from breaching individuals’ rights to privacy?
Written submissions should be no more than 3,000 words, and the deadline for submissions is Thursday 31 January 2019.
There is an online submission form at:

Learning for the future

I have been a long-time supporter of devolution, which is why I’ve supported the development of the Sheffield City Region (SCR), because the current economy and the future economic challenges for South Yorkshire are quite different from those facing North Yorkshire or the East Yorkshire coast, let alone Yorkshire or England as a whole.
In 2015, the Government began to devolve powers to mayoral combined authorities. While there were and still are differing views about the requirements to have a mayor there was general agreement that devolution should be based on city regions as coherent areas of local economic activity. The powers to be devolved were related to improving the economic performance of those areas such as skills, transport and new business development, which is quite distinct from devolution to Scotland and Wales and to the Regional Assembly proposals of a decade ago.
A recent research report clearly demonstrated that adjacent smaller towns acting in cooperation with bigger successful cities are economically and socially much healthier than towns which sought to go it alone. That is why a devolved city region model is so important to Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. It is also crucially important to the travel-to-work areas In North Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire. I am sure that is why, when the SCR is up and running, there will be a renewed interest in engagement from those areas.
The challenges for SCR are not just about economic regeneration but also about diversifying the economy, securing additional jobs which match the potential highly qualified workforce who come from our universities and want to stay in the area. But, with too few jobs to match the talents of our cities, we need to focus on nurturing and supporting 21st century businesses. And we need more training opportunities to improve the skills and pay levels of the population in general.
We have some excellent examples of what can be achieved when councils, education institutions at the forefront of technological change, skills providers, and businesses and entrepreneurs do get their act together. The development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, with its 600-place apprentice training facility, the opening of plants by Rolls Royce, Boeing and McLaren and the proposal for an innovation corridor stretching from the Olympic Legacy Park to the Doncaster-Sheffield Airport are some of the many positives already happening.
All of that has been achieved despite the government’s failing further education and skills’ development policies.

  • The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recently concluded that “The government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships has prioritised quantity over quality and should be scrapped.”
  • The Chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, says that the sustainability and quality of further education and skills provision have been hit by the cuts to their funding.
  • Further and adult education have suffered severe budget cuts of more than £3 billion in real terms since 2010, that’s over one quarter of funding. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies states that further education has been ‘the biggest loser’ in education spending over the last 25 years.
  • The cuts have had a huge impact on the number of adult learners. In the last ten years, the number of enrolments has declined from 5.1 million to 1.9 million, a drop of 62%.
  • And, now, in the last year, after the apprenticeship levy was introduced, we have seen apprenticeship starts fall by 157,000, a decline of 34%.

The sooner the Sheffield City Region is up and running properly and taking over responsibility for local further education and skills’ development the better it will be for all of South Yorkshire.
In other research published this week, over-65s are much more likely to think that apprenticeships offer the best opportunity for progression, compared to the young people that many of these roles are aimed at. Younger people, in comparison, thought higher education offered a better opportunity.
That means that we all – employers, teachers, parents and grand-parents – have a huge task in persuading our teenagers that a modern, high-quality apprenticeship is worth chasing and securing. Their futures and our economic future depend on it.