I consider these latest proposals to be profoundly misguided on several levels. They will be an expensive (£1 billion plus) distraction from the continuing task of raising educational standards. They will reduce accountability still further, by making the Secretary of State in Whitehall effectively to be in charge of all of the country’s schools (in what has been described as the “biggest land grab since the dissolution of the monasteries”). And the stated intention to remove parent governors from the system displays a shocking attitude to parents and communities.
The initial academies programme, designed to boost schools in the poorest and most challenged neighbourhoods- was something I supported. Looking around at our local secondary schools, I believe that programme to have been a success, and to have contributed (along with other measures, including the ‘London Challenge’ and additional investment) to a genuine transformation in the quality of education.
There is , of course, always room for improvement, and I strongly supported measures discussed before the last election by my party to strengthen accountability and to ensure that problems that do arise (and problems arise in any system) can be picked up and dealt with effectively and as locally as possible. None of our thinking was based on either all schools becoming academies, nor forcing schools to change their status where they do not wish to convert. While there are some great academies, there are also some excellent community schools. Indeed, the vast majority of non-academy schools affected by these plans will be primary schools, over 80 per cent of which are already rated as good or outstanding. There are also examples of both academy schools and local authority maintained schools that perform poorly- confirming the fact that neither changing the name nor the management structure of a school is necessarily sufficient to transform outcomes. I am concerned that the evidence suggesting that academy status leads to improved standards is mixed. A report by the House of Commons' Education Select Committee during the last Parliament (in January 2015), for example, found that current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall, or for disadvantaged children. Ofsted have also reported recently that the academies programme is not bringing about rapid improvement and, in some cases, has led to decline.
Meanwhile, our schools are currently facing a number of difficulties, including reduced budgets, a shortage of teachers and not enough good school places. London looks likely to face a substantial reduction in funding under the Government’s new schools funding formula. The Government's plans will not solve these serious problems and constitute a costly and unnecessary reorganisation of the school system.
I believe the focus should be on improving standards across all types of schools and I am very concerned that the Government's plans will divert resources, time and effort away from this task.
Please be assured that my colleagues and I will oppose the Government's plans and do all I can to ensure that parents, children and communities are at the heart of decisions on our schools.
Personal Independence Payment ( PIP) Cuts
In the face of the huge public outcry against the budget, the situation with regard to the Government's proposed changes to Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) has now changed. However, there are still many more deep cuts to come, including to other disability benefits.
I believe we must have a social security system which is efficient, fair and compassionate and I appreciate how concerned many people with disabilities and their families have been about the possibility of changes to the eligibility criteria for PIP. I also recognise how vital and valued this support is in helping meet the additional costs that having a disability can bring, such as purchasing equipment, services and support, and in enabling disabled people to live independently.
As you are aware, just two years after PIP was introduced, in December 2015 the Government launched a consultation regarding aids and appliances and the daily living component of PIP, which closed on the 29 January. On 11 March the Government announced it would be changing the PIP assessment criteria, reducing the number of points for the use of an aid or appliance against two out of the seven Daily Living activities assessed - dressing and managing toilet needs. This was confirmed at the Budget where it was set out that the Government would be cutting £1.2 billion in support, meaning that over 600,000 disabled people would lose almost £2000 a year. I was very concerned about a measure contained in the Budget which would further cut support for those most in need when the Budget also contained tax breaks for those who least need them.
It was therefore good that in the week following the Budget the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions had to announce a vital U-turn, confirming that the Government would not be going ahead with the changes to PIP. I also welcome the Work and Pensions Secretary's statement that the Government have 'no further plans to make welfare savings'.
However, I am disappointed that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions did not also use this opportunity to also reverse cuts to Employment and Support Allowance Work (ESA), contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Act, which will see the level of support for new claimants in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) cut by around £30 a week from April 2017. I voted against this Bill in its entirety and I believe that this is an unfair and unjust measure, which will hurt vulnerable people who through no fault of their own are suffering from serious illnesses and consequently are in and out of work intermittently.
The Government's welfare reforms must help not hinder disabled people and I believe that the Government is reneging on its own manifesto commitment to protect social security for disabled people through its cuts to ESA.
I hope that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will now take the opportunity to stand up for a fair and progressive renewal of our welfare state that is there to support people when they need it most.
Investigatory Powers Bill
I appreciate that a number of organisations and campaigns, including the 'Don't Spy on Us' campaign, have continued to express concerns regarding proposed changes to surveillance and data retention laws.
I support in principle the aim of delivering an up-to-date and comprehensive legal framework to enable the Police and security services to have the powers they need in the digital age to prevent and investigate serious crime.
It is clear that huge changes in technology have left our laws governing investigatory powers outdated, and it is important that the relevant authorities have the appropriate up-to-date powers that they need to tackle terrorism, child sexual abuse, serious online crime, and to help locate missing people. The Snowden revelations also highlighted that a clearer legal basis, greater transparency and more tightly drawn definitions of all powers and capabilities are now needed.
Labour did not oppose the Investigatory Powers Bill at its (initial) Second Reading on 15 March 2016. However, there remain a number of important areas of concern with the Bill as it has been introduced and we will be seeking to strengthen the Bill on its passage through the Parliament.
I agree that it is crucial that a new framework for providing these powers to the Police and intelligence and security services which can command public trust by balancing strong powers with strong safeguards to protect privacy and long-held liberties. We need to see stronger privacy requirements in the Bill. The Government must be much clearer about the case for why intrusive powers such as new bulk powers are needed, and for the widening of the definition and potential use of Internet Connection Records (ICRs). There are also concerns around the way the Bill deals with sensitive professions, such as protection of journalistic sources and legal professional privilege, and the Government must look again at this.
This legislation will have major implications for privacy, and how we are governed and policed. It is, therefore, crucial to take time to get it right and why I believe it is important to take a responsible and constructive approach in working with the Government on this issue.