Friday, 24 December 2010

Letter No 7: Charity, Donations and the Big Society

Letter No 7 is a Christmas card of sorts.  It seemed appropriate to put in a pop-up Citizens Advice Bureau because, for many, Christmas is just a brief diversion from the difficulties that lie ahead (and for some people, not even that) and maddeningly, despite this, the Government is cutting CAB funding.

In case you find it difficult to read the writing, here is what I've written:
"Dear Dave and Nick, 
Christmas is fast approaching and I'm adding the last finishing touches to my (scaled down) preparations.  This is a time for giving and this year, on your behalf I will be making a donation to the CAB - or Citizens Advice Bureau.  It was an easy choice; with all the cuts you have planned I can see how useful my (woefully small) donation will be.  You might like to look at this article which sadly made me realise how grim the New Year, January and beyond, will be for so many people:
I really worry that the Big Society (and the charities) won't be able to fill the void as the public sector shrinks... So my question for you is: might you be cutting too much, too soon and in the wrong areas?
(I know some of your Cabinet think so...)
 Best wishes...etc "
Please take the time to read the article I refer to in the card.  The papers are talking this week about the imminent fall of redundancy notices on the doormats of public sector workers.  If you find it hard to grasp the scale of the cuts, have a look at the Pudsey Economic Comparator on False Economy's website.  You might think charity begins at home, but it's clearly not up to the job of dealing adequately with what lies ahead.  It seems like a pipe dream that the private and voluntary sector will fill the gap left by the shrinking public sector.  Dave's Big Society and charitable organisations will be completely out of their depth once the cuts kick in. Therefore, I'm making a very loud call for all the concerned and troubled Lib Dem Cabinet members we've been hearing about over the last few days, to start standing up for the vulnerable NOW.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Letter No 6: Tax Avoidance and Christmas Shopping

Letter No 6 (below) will have reached Dave, Nick and George the day before the marvelous UKuncut stages it's huge tax dodge protest up and down the UK's high streets. Anyone annoyed about the disruption tomorrow might like to remember that if HM Revenue and Customs recovered the money that the Arcadia group (Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge, BHS, Wallis, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Evans) gains through tax avoidance, the coalition could choose to pay the salaries of 20,000 NHS nurses, or the £9,000 fees of nearly 32,000  students. 

I've recently discovered the tax expert Richard Murphy. His blog is really worth checking out as he writes in a way that's both informative and interesting. He got me thinking when he wrote on December 13th:  "First, just because something is legal does not mean it's ethical. Think apartheid in South Africa or even slavery in 18th century England and move on from there. Second, remember that when you avoid something you go round it. That's what tax avoiders do. They go round the law. How on earth can anyone, anywhere claim that getting round the law is ethical?" 
He is spot on.  So before starting my Christmas shopping, I felt that it was important not only to protest and boycott, but also to let George, Nick and Dave know about it. What choices would the Coalition consider making if we all shopped only with businesses that don't use tax loopholes - and informed George?  

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Letter No 5: The removal of EMA

I doubt Dave has ever had to look down the back of the sofa, or in jacket pockets to find bus fare or dinner money for the kids. Everyone knows that there is a significant number of families struggling daily to make ends meet and now we are starting to see that much of the help they have had will disappear. Yesterday, people across the country protested about the scrapping of EMA, because when it's gone poorer students will face real financial hardship and might decide that FE is another of those things that they can't afford. I also came across two articles yesterday, one by Tamara Kamil, currently a sixth form student, and another by James Millswho benefitted from the allowance in the past. Both cited statistics that show EMA has increased participation and retention in full-time post-16 education. In fact the coalition's argument for it's removal have been discredited, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies saying that costs are 'more than recouped'. Of the 600,000 young people receiving EMA, 90,000 would not be able to study without it. For the rest, EMA makes it more likely that they will complete their course and achieve their goals.

In the news this evening there was talk of the rising price of food and clothing, and in January we can all look forward to an increase in VAT, all of this adding to the strain on family budgets and possibly deterring children from pursuing Further Education. In the light of this, surely it make more sense then for Dave to keep the allowance? And what exactly did he say about EMA before the election?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Letter No 4: Tuition Fees: The Reason People are Marching

Letter No 4 should have reached Dave and Nick this morning.  After a bruising time for all on Thursday, I would think many of us wish to send our best wishes to all who were hurt in Parliament Square and hope in particular that Alfie Meadows makes a speedy and complete recovery.  It's saddening that once more the violent actions of the few distract from well behaved protest of the peaceful majority.  These letters in the Guardian bear witness to how unfairly they seem to be continually lumped together.  So for anyone who has forgotten, the reason people are marching and will continue to protest is because the damage the Government is proposing to do to the education system.  An 80% cut in teaching grants and the massive hike in fees that will be implemented to pay for it will make Further Education unwelcoming and unaffordable for poorer and middle income families.  This would be unnecessary if the Government dealt properly with regulation of the banks and tax avoidance.

Many people have pointed out repeatedly that the coalition changes to Further Education will be implemented without mandate. The changes are deeply unpopular because people suspect that they are based not on economics, but on Conservative ideology. The real reason that the Coalition has been unable to sell it's Further Education changes to the public is simple; we know sophistry when we see it and are not fooled.  What the Government should be doing is consulting properly on the changes - where's the Green Paper, Dave?

One final comment....I'd like to say thank you to the 21 Lib Dem rebels who were as good as their word in voting against the hike in tuition fees and those Conservatives who voted against because they too understood how debt averse students will be discouraged.   In particular, I was impressed by Greg Mulholland's heartfelt contribution to the Commons debate before the vote.  There is someone who can look his constituents in the eye, Nick.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Letter No 3: Tuition Fees

As the vote on tuition fees looms, Gershwin's "Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off" seems an apt song for those amongst us disagreeing with the coalition’s plans for Higher Education. Though I've addressed Letter No 4 to Nick, really he and Dave should have more of a rethink. Interesting in the news today firstly that David Gauke will be announcing plans to crack down on corporation tax avoidance and that there will be a £150m scholarship fund – but are they going far enough? Senior Lib Dem backbenchers don’t seem to think so. The question posed in the current letter is just one of many which suggest that rushing through this vote now is a terrible idea. Remember, Dave has already said cuts won't be reversed once implemented:(2 August, at an event in Birmingham) "Should we cut things now and go back later and try and restore them later? I think we should be trying to avoid that approach".   Better to measure (at least) twice and cut once, I say.

I came across an interesting report by the Higher Education Funding Council For England, published this November. It shows the findings of a survey whose aim is to "develop a nationally representative picture of attitudes to public investments in HE and its perceived benefits to the UK economy."  The survey, carried out by Ipsos Mori, showed strong support for public investment in Higher Education. It seems that 80% of respondents said that "public investment in HE should either increase or stay the same". Not students, 80% of the public.  The survey included a cross section of adults aged 15 years and over, across GB and ran between 31 July and 6th August 2010.  I wonder if Dave has read this report? If he read it this week he would find that: "90% of those surveyed thought it was important for the Government to invest in HE, of which 59% thought it was very important" and "consistently around 70% of the respondents acknowledged HE's benefits to skills, business development, the arts, and the UK as an internationally competitive economy.”

What’s more, concerns of students and many academics were also expressed last month in this article in The TelegraphThey asked how a “supply and demand” model for arts and humanities might function in practice and, why is there such haste pushing for the increase in fees when as the Higher Education Policy Unit points out, the proposals for HE funding will “increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next”? How does that fit with the story that these cuts are necessary to decrease the national deficit?
It’s starting to appear that rather than rushing this vote through on Thursday, much more time is needed to think through the issues that have been raised by so many people. I agree with the academics when they suggest “a Public Commission of Enquiry, which should include wide consultation with politicians, academics, students, business leaders and others to examine the function and funding of higher education from the first principles”. Excellent idea.  

One final thing: did you know that holding a vote on a Thursday, when many Scottish Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs will have left for their constituencies, would make it easier for the government to win without the Liberal Democrats?  No, me neither until reading this article in The Guardian .

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

My parents write to Dave and Nick about tuition fees and EMA

Some good news today for believers in democracy: it looks like Dave might change his mind over the bonkers coalition plan to cut funding for schools sports partnerships:  "David Cameron has ordered a rethink on plans to cut funding for school sports in England after concern at a local level."  Only last week Dave described the £162 million programme as a "complete failure" and yet today he said "clearly there are strong feelings about this" and "there is some recognition that this is being raised at a local level".  A No 10 source said "We are listening to peoples concerns".

If he can change his mind over this, let's help him find his way on education. Let's continue to help Dave and Nick "look carefully" and encourage them by keeping the pressure up. Protest works, in the street, on paper and in the media.

In that spirit, here’s a letter my parents wrote to Dave and Nick a few days ago on tuition fees:

Monday, 29 November 2010

My 15 year old daughter writes to Nick Clegg about tuition fees

When I showed my daughter "Letter No 2: Tuition Fees", she decided to send Nick one herself.  I'm not sure that Lydia's letter needs much more introduction than this, as she has eloquently made her point.  I do hope he is able to reply very soon...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

A reply from The Rt. Hon. Charles Kennedy, M.P.

Mid November I contacted a few Lib Dem MPs, expressing my concerns and asking them to honour their pre election pledge.  I want to share this reply I received from Charles Kennedy.
I was really heartened to get this reply - maybe more will keep their word?  Yesterday I attended the student protest in Brighton (and also marched in London on 10th November).  Obviously the majority of protesters were students and lecturers, but there were also a considerable number of angry, concerned parents - even some grandparents and people who had no children themselves but felt the changes to HE are wrong in principle and bad for everyone.  Each time people explained why they were there, the same issues came up; fairness, accessibility for poorer students, being debt averse, the promise made by all 57 Lib Dem MPs and their focussed pursuit of student votes during the election campaign.  Many like me are still incredulous that Nick Clegg had decided before the election that he would break his promise, yet continued to campaign on the strength of fairness and transparency.  What was it he said again? "There should be no more broken promises..."
So, on the strength of feeling at yesterday's protests (continuing I see with overnight sit-ins in at least three universities), I shall send a few more MPs a nudge today - anyone else up for a bit of letter writing?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Letter No 2: Tuition Fees

This second letter came about because my daughter began talking about how concerned and angry she felt about the increase in tuition fees.  My heart sank; my working class parents had spent all my childhood instilling in me and my three siblings the importance of gaining a good education (including college or university) and now their middle class granddaughter felt it might be beyond her reach, because she couldn't afford it.  If she's feeling so anxious, what must the poorest 25% of students be feeling?
   Thirty years ago I was an ordinary kid living on a council estate who got to go to art college and it changed my life in so many valuable ways.  Like many of the poorer students today I was worried about incurring debt and I know that if I hadn't had financial support, I wouldn't have considered pursuing the career I now have, because "people like me don't become artists".  Without that grant I could never have gained my degree, nor would I have spent a large part of my working life passing on what I've learnt.  I know from personal experience that worry of such debt will now discourage many poorer able kids from even thinking about university (let's talk about EMA another time).  The hike in fees feels regressive.  A great deal of the work I do involves encouraging young people to think beyond the definitions imposed by (lack of) income, opportunity or self-belief.  Society is richer for their potential being fulfilled.  Poorer students are as clever and able as rich ones; it seems immoral to me that the opportunity to invest in their skills and ambitions might now be wasted simply because the Coalition knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Letter No 1: Fairness

I have watched with increasing concern the changes proposed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. I am aware that there are an awful lot of people who share my anxiety, yet unlike me they don't believe their voice matters.  I think it does.  Time and time again, people have said: What's the point?  Nobody will listen if I make a fuss.  Not true.  Protest works.   We all just need to do our bit.   Here's the beginning of mine.