Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Education, Education, Cancellation

The Labour Government has always acted as if announcements change the real world while tawdry things like money and delivery are left to those of us who live in it. We’ve had twelve years of Labour Ministers announcing fixes and pouring scorn on anyone with the temerity to ask where the actual results are. But this last week has shown more urgently than most the appalling gap between Labour’s words and actions, with rhetoric about education and a “Green New Deal” collapsing into Labour’s cancelling funding for 144 colleges in mid-building work and closing schools funding for solar photovoltaic energy.

A Nightmare Week of Labour Education Cuts…

Cast your minds back to last Thursday, when the news abruptly broke that 144 further education college building projects had suddenly seen their funding pulled, costing them a minimum of £170 million. When colleges were asked what extra costs they would incur if their projects were delayed or staged over five years, the lowest estimated total came to a staggering £241 million. So, even if the Labour Government just put back these programmes until after the General Election (translation: they hope someone else will have to deal with it), it’ll waste a quarter of a billion pounds of badly-needed college funds.

Further Education colleges have been underfunded for many years, yet demand for them is bound to skyrocket during a recession. It’s not a difficult sum to do; more people are out of work, so they enrol on college courses to get new skills, both ones they’d always wanted to but had never had the time, and ones that will help them find a new job. And, good for Labour, over the past few years they’d actually committed money for FE college buildings: to repair the ones that are falling down, and expand into new buildings for the ones with many more students.

So whatever possessed them to suddenly pull the funding?

In the tiny minds of Labour ministers, because all they need do is say magic words to the media and tap three times on a despatch box with a white paper for everything to be perfect, withdrawing the magic words means things can ‘unhappen’ just as quickly and easily. In the real world, colleges have already paid for architects, made contracts with builders, and in many cases knocked down buildings that were too old or too small to make way for the planned expansion. Even if they hadn’t yet started the actual building, things take longer and cost very much more than a wave of a ministerial magic wand. Many colleges have already spent so much money, having been told they’d be paid in full, that they face bankruptcy. That’s why saying magic words to promise money, then pulling it away again, may seem to the Labour Government like it put the world to rights for a while, but to real colleges and real students in the real world, it’s far worse than if they’d never announced the mirage money at all.

Labour Government minister Siôn Simon, of course, had an answer. The answer from the Labour Government that’s been in power for a dozen years, with enormous Parliamentary majorities to push their agenda through and the most centralised massive state power in British peacetime history… Was that it was all someone else’s fault. He told the BBC that all the blame lay with the Learning and Skills Council. The Learning and Skills Council said that colleges were to blame, for taking all the various stages of approval – including a promise that ‘final’ approval would come, with the money, on the day that building would start, once architects had been paid for all their designs, builders contracted and old buildings demolished – as if they were some sort of approval after the LSC had encouraged colleges to take up funding, rather than vague airy-fairy possibilities that irresponsible principals had put an unwise punt on.

You’ll probably have noticed that the head of the Learning and Skills Council, Mark Haysom, then resigned on Monday. No doubt he was partly to blame. But did he jump, or was he pushed by panicking Labour Government spin-doctors looking for a bureaucrat to pin everything on? And when was the last time a Labour Minister resigned because they’d made a mess of their job, rather than just being an embarrassment by breaking the law / having their fingers in the till / not being able to keep it in their trousers (which, as usual, is the one Labour cock-up I don’t think is anyone else’s business and which no-one should resign for).

Call me an old cynic, but that still leaves one or two tiny questions:
The answer to every one of those questions is, of course, the Labour Government. It’s no wonder Mr Simon was looking for someone – anyone – else to take the blame. But the fault lies squarely with Labour.

Siôn Simon also claimed that no college would go bust – without committing a single penny to make sure of that. Another magic word to the media, and he thinks the world’s righted itself. How does that square with his statement, presumably out of the other side of his mouth, that:
“It is right to say that the LSC has given in principle approval to 79 colleges which would total nearly £3bn of government money and it is clear that that level of expenditure cannot be funded in the current spending round.”
The Labour Government announced a big building programme; they told the LSC to get on with it; and now they’re cutting all that money. Whose fault is it, again?

By coincidence, on Monday – the same day as Mr Haysom resigned – the Labour Government announced a new white paper giving a ‘boost’ to adult learning. Real money and real buildings bad; magic words to the media and paper buildings good. This alleged boost to adult learning has the advantages of being pushed well into the future (translation: they hope someone else will have to deal with it) and only promising £20 million even then, a tiny fraction of the vast sums they’ve backed out of giving to colleges. Those are advantages for Labour, of course – not for anyone actually wanting to learn anything.

Hilariously, having let colleges down so damningly, this future promised £20 million would go not to the colleges, but to community groups like the Labour Government’s old friends, the churches, so that they can host classes instead. Even I’m not cynical enough to think this was planned so that the Labour Government could continue with their sectarian, ideological ‘faith agenda’ at the expense of colleges – I’m fairly sure they just didn’t have a fucking clue and made a total mess of it – but it does look like Labour’s saying, ‘The college has fallen down, so go to church instead,’ doesn’t it? Mind you, if I were a church making decisions on the basis of money promised by the Labour Government, rather than planning to repair the church hall, I’d keep a careful watch on the roof in case the local Labour MP pops by to nick the lead. And did you notice that, just yesterday, the Labour Government and the Church of England have banded together to create government subsidies for Post Offices and other outlets in churches? Special bungs to religion so they can have moneychangers in the temple… You couldn’t make it up.

On the same day as the massive cuts to colleges, last Thursday, the Labour Government announced an extra £50 poll tax on students from outside the EU. Yet another bit of populist immigrant-bashing, and for what purpose? It’s not going to raise a massive amount of money; it’s not going to raise it fairly; and, for overseas students who already pay vastly higher fees than even UK students do, announcements that the Labour Government wants to dip into their wallets at will may just put more of them off studying here – and lose our universities their lucrative custom.

Oh, and talking of UK students, it was last week, too, that Labour and their Welsh Assembly manifesto-breaking-mini-mes Plaid Cymru announced that, just like the Labour Government at Westminster and completely against every election promise Plaid have ever made, they’re scrapping the Welsh tuition fee grant, slashing student funding by around 40%. Labour broke manifesto promises to bring in tuition fees in the first place; now tuition fees will run rampant in Wales because telling-election-lie-itis has spread from them to Plaid Cymru in government in a particularly virulent form.

And the nightmare continues. Although the BBC still haven’t put up anything about it on their website, if you go to iPlayer and listen to this morning’s Today Programme at about ten to seven for the full details – or any of their news headlines for the short version – you’ll find that, despite touting a “Green New Deal,” one of the Labour Government’s biggest green technology initiatives has abruptly been closed.

Again, not all of the Labour Government’s ideas are bad. It’s just their delivery that’s an absolute disaster. Offering money to schools for green technology was a thoroughly good thing, both for encouraging green businesses and for getting the message over to kids and their local communities. It was such a good idea that I remember it being in quite a few Liberal Democrat manifestos before Labour picked it up, but at least they did pick it up. But today… All of a sudden, the money’s run out for installing solar photovoltaic energy panels on schools, and the Labour Government’s refusing any more. There’s even some more in their tiny green technology kitty, but it was aimed for other, less popular technologies that no-one’s put in bids for… So the Labour Government’s refusing even to release that for more PV panels that are actually successful, and instead wants to claw back even a measly £8 million.

I despair. And if you have kids, want to go to college, or just want Britain’s future to look brighter through better education and a wider range of skills improving people’s lives and the country’s economy, and through green technology leading through example, you’ll probably despair of the Labour Government too.

…But Labour Still Shower Cash on Snooping

Now, no doubt a Labour minister confronted with all of this would scoff. A Liberal Democrat going on about education and the environment – they always do! But in a recession, there are tough choices to be made. Well, that’s true. Education and the environment have headed the Liberal Democrat agenda for two decades, whether or not they’ve been flavour of the month for other parties, and tough choices do indeed need to be made; even with the Labour Government nearly doubling public spending over the last ten years, there’s still not enough money to pay for everything, particularly when they’re putting the country in hock with the largest British borrowing in history to try and spend their way out of recession, some of it spent wisely, some of it wasted.

But how do you go about making those tough choices on what to spend and what to cut? And why have the Liberal Democrats been banging on about education and the environment for so many years? Well, the answers to both are related. Education and the environment are investments for the future – and surely investments for the future are exactly what you shouldn’t cut back on in a recession.

When people have lost their jobs, it makes sense to invest in new skills; when the old economy’s crumbling, it makes sense to invest in something more sustainable, rather than grit your teeth and just pump money into things as they were in the hope that everything will return to ‘normal’. I don’t want things back just the way they were. I want them better. And if you pair education and the environment as priorities, that’s surely at the heart of that “Green New Deal” that the Labour Government waves its magic words at, but won’t deliver – new skills for new jobs in new technologies that will not just help us out of recession, but cut down on pollution and resource use, slowing climate change and tackling all the ill-health caused by runaway pollutants.

The Labour Government has a different priority. Where do they still shower our money like there’s no tomorrow?


Massive databases. Bossing people about. ID cards. Bits of paper; IT projects gone out of control; magic words they pretend will make people safer, or healthier, or whatever else their buzzword of the day is.

Today’s specialities: spending billions of pounds monitoring who you talk to on Facebook. I mean, really. And for schools… Yet another set of regulations about school meals, bossing even the dinner ladies about, when all the evidence is that schools are now producing plenty of good, healthy meals, but if the Labour Government compels them to meet every possible health target at once all they’ll do is drive kids out of the school gates and into the chippies. But Labour Government targets will have been ticked, and another wave of the magic wand satisfied. Better hope none of those healthy choices directives are vegetarian, eh? And, guess what? Yes – another massive computer database that every school dinner has to be entered into to make sure the Labour Government knows exactly what’s in every kid’s stomach in the land. Except all the ones who get fed up of being force-fed and go down the chippie, obviously.

Wouldn’t you rather money went on more teachers and college buildings rather than an army of Labour Government snoopers and more giant databases?

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