Problem issue? Simply ring the local paper and claim the opposite happened!

The Tory-led coalition are always spinning one yarn or another but this is impressive – even by their standards. The leader of For Darwen, councillor Tony Melia, had the gall to call the Lancashire Telegraph claiming that he had successfully lobbied for road repairs to be brought forward. In reality the opposite was the case. Nice work!

Row over Darwen pothole repairs schedule

THE deputy leader of Blackburn with Darwen Council has come under criticism for claiming to have brought roadworks forward by over a year.

Coun Tony Melia said that because of his constant nagging at Capita, pothole repairs scheduled for the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011 in Inverness Road, Manor Road and Borough Road would be completed by the end of this month.

But town councillor Dave Smith said he had a recent conversation with an officer at Capita and was told that surface dressing of Manor Road had actually been delayed, not brought forward.

Coun Smith said: “You would have thought that the deputy leader of the council would know these details.”

Coun Dave Hollings also confirmed that the work was originally in the 2009 schedule and accused Coun Melia of “spinning”.

Conservative councillor John Slater said he was “flabbergasted” by Coun Melia’s claims.

He said: “Ward councillors work hard to get improvements and to get work done.

“For Tony Melia to claim credit for this is a scandal.

“If a UFO landed in Darwen, the For Darwen Party would try to claim credit for it.”

Audio: Jack Straw soap box session on Radio 4

Following in the footsteps of journalists such as Jeramy Paxman, Paddy O’Connell from Radio 4’s Broadcasting House came to Blackburn town centre yesterday to see one of Jack Straw’s famous “soap box” question and answer sessions:

Tory candidate Michael Law-Riding was spotted shuffling past. Funny he didn’t stick around for long!

Blackburn Rovers 3 – 2 Burnley

Pascal Chimbonda celebrates after scoring the third goal. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images
Pascal Chimbonda celebrates after scoring the third goal. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images

Congratulations to Blackburn Rovers in the East Lancashire derby, cheered on at Ewood Park by many of our members, the majority of our party officers and two Labour MPs.  Commiserations to Burnley supporter Alastair Campbell(!)

Jack Straw’s open air meeting in Blackburn town centre yesterday was the lead featured on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House this morning. We’ll put the audio up later today.

Radio 4 attend latest town centre meeting with Jack Straw

There was a great turnout at Jack Straw’s latest “shoutabout” meeting on King William Street today. Some really interesting questions from shoppers, which was excellent as Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell was there recording a piece for Broadcasting House. You can catch the programme at 9:00am tomorrow morning – or later on BBC iPlayer if you fancy a lie in.

The open air meeting followed on from a really productive campaign planning session, where we fleshed out plenty of new ideas for the coming general and local election campaigns. We’ll be sure to keep you up to date with what we’re doing over the next few months – so watch this space!

Safety: some have gone far too far

Yes, keep the Bunsen burners! Stinks and bangs are good for kids.

“Health ’n’ Safety” was the reason I was offered by House of Commons’ officials when the MP for Romford, Essex, Andrew Rosindell asked me as Leader of the Commons why the flag pole atop the new Parliamentary building “Portcullis House” was never used to fly the Union Jack. This is the building opposite Big Ben. It was built with a flag pole as part of its design.

I assumed that the architects had thought about how someone would in practice be able to raise, and lower, a flag from it. So I refused to give this draft answer, and instead told the Commons that I would inspect the pole and its surroundings myself.

“Health ’n’ Safety” was the answer which came back.

I was strongly advised not to make an inspection. It was too dangerous. Too bad, I replied, I was quite capable of looking after myself. As I was going up, a “Health ’n’ Safety” officer thrust a “Risk Assessment” in my hand.

This had lots of coloured columns in it, and looked pretty. A cursory glance told me that this was more about its writers covering their back than any real-world risks.

It transpired when I finally got into the roof space that access to the flagpole was via two heavy bronze doors which could catch the wind, and might just badly injure the man with the flag. “Isn’t the answer”, I asked “to fix a bolt to secure the door open? I’ll get you one for a quid in B&Q if you can’t get one”. Reluctantly this suggestion was accepted. The bolt was put in. The flag went up.

I gave Mr Rosindell the answer he was seeking, rather than have to fob him off with nonsense.

Health and safety is very far from all being nonsense. Many construction sites and factories used to be death traps.

Today, whilst there can still be too many accidents, care over risk to life and limb has made inherently dangerous workplaces much safer. But there is a common-sense balance to be struck.

My concern is that some in the safety business, with lawyers and insurers behind them, have gone far too far – as with the saga of the Commons flagpole, and all kinds of restrictions on children’s activities, including reports of reluctance to allow chemistry experiments with Bunsen burners. This is not about wilfully exposing children to unnecessary danger, but better getting them to understand how to make their own decisions about the risks which we all face anyway. I taught my own children at an early age to scramble up rocks, use axes, and make fires because outdoor activity is great, and because they were then able better to learn about risk.

So it should be with chemistry experiments.

We need more skilled chemists in this country.

We won’t get them unless pupils can themselves experience the wonder of materials changing their state in front of their eyes.

So here’s hoping that the latest intervention by the Royal Society of Chemistry produces a sensible change in schools’ practice.

It’s the people who will decide

I’m in Brighton, in the bubble of a party conference, where the party is in good heart, the weather’s been glorious and the real sun has been shining.

What I tried to show in my speech was what’s happened in Blackburn these last 12 years.

No government’s record is perfect. It is true, for example, that there’s still too much anti-social behaviour. But it’s also true that the police, the council and the courts have more effective measures for dealing with this than ever they did – and that, across Lancashire, crime is down. It just is.

Which leads me on to that other Sun, the newspaper and its announcement in yesterday’s paper that it’s fallen out of love with Labour. We have a free press in this country, thank God, so it’s entirely their decision.

What does however surprise me is how thin are the Sun’s arguments.

I am not talking of their criticism of our support for our troops in Afghanistan. We have worked very hard to ensure that they are properly equipped and supported and I know from family experience what it’s like if a loved one is in harm’s way.

But since troops are fighting and dying to keep us safe, we’ve a duty to respond to criticism, and we do.

But let’s take their other claims. That Labour’s “FAILED” on law and order, schools, health. Not true. Who says? The Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council for a start. It’s now a Conservative, Lib Dem and Darwen First coalition.

Go to the council’s website and find a report called “Self Assessment for September 2008 Corporate Assessment”. It hails a 6.8 per cent decrease in crime since 2000, It talks of having exceeded targets to have at least 55 per cent of pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs grades A*-C. And it sets out an impressive record on health, including a 15 per cent reduction in premature deaths from coronary disease, strokes and related diseases and a 14% reduction in people dying prematurely from cancers.

It’s hardly a record of failure.

Then there’s immigration – where, allegedly, we “opened our borders without any regard to the consequences”. No we didn’t.

We did vote for the eastern European countries to come in the European Union, that’s true. But so, actively, did the Tories (and the Lib Dems). As for “illegal migrants and bogus asylum seekers” the system is now much tougher and better organised than the one we inherited from the Tories,.

The Sun’s most spurious claim is about CCTV cameras. They complain that we have 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras, for 1 per cent of the population, “snooping” on decent people. Wrong.

I’ve never had a single decent person ask me to get CCTV cameras taken down – but scores of requests to have them put up.

Why? Because they are an essential tool in fighting crime, improving law and order.

I’ve been glad to have the Sun’s support in three previous elections and whilst I regret their decision to switch sides, I don’t complain.

That’s their privilege. In any event it’s the British people who decide elections in the secrecy of the ballot.

And what I’ll be doing is showing the difference we have made, ask challenging our critics to where and how they could or would have done better.

Should votes be counted on election night?

I recently appeared recently on BBC TV’s Politics Show interviewed by Annabel Tiffin. The question was whether to perform election counts immediately after the polls close or on the Friday a day after elections. It’s happened a few times locally and people seemed quite relaxed about it.

People can vote at their polling station 8am – 9pm for locals or 7am – 10pm in general elections or by post. Party workers often spend 3–4 weeks or more before canvassing or identifying votes for them. Election day can begin for them around 5am and go on till 4am the next day…there’s a load of adrenaline spent.

I’m pretty relaxed about when the count takes place. Our MP, Jack Straw, is opposed to any delay. It might suit more rural constituencies better. Take Ribble Valley with around 250 square miles in area. Just getting some ballot boxes to the Count might take an hour plus.

The end of the world is not nigh…

Imagine I own a house worth £100,000. Currently my mortgage is around £45,000.

Imagine I also own a small business which is fundamentally sound, but which is experiencing cash flow problems.

I need some cash to invest in some new machinery.

So, I ask the bank manager for an additional £45,000 secured on my home.

I can meet the repayments, and over the medium term I’ll be able to repay some of the capital too.

The bank manager agrees – he knows that if his bank doesn’t get their regular payments and they have to foreclose and sell the house, they’ll get their money back. The mortgage may have doubled – from £45,000 to £90,000, but it’s still only 90 per cent of the available security.

I use this example to try to make the telephone numbers of budget deficits and national debt just a little more understandable.

Here’s what’s happening.

The UK is borrowing a lot more this year, for similar reasons to the example I quoted above.

Tax revenue such as that received from stamp duty on house sales is down. More money is being paid out because of the increase in the number of jobless. And we continue to invest in the future.

With private house-building in the doldrums it’s essential that we keep up public sector construction projects – on roads, schools, heath centres, etc.

So the “budget deficit” – the difference between what we spend, and what we receive in tax, is rising. It was around 2.5 per cent of our nation’s income [Gross Domestic Product or GDP] in 2007/08.

It’s more than doubled to around six per cent in 2008/09 and is forecast to peak in the current financial year at just over 12 per cent of GDP – around the same share as the United States.

Does that mean, however, that having as it were doubled our national mortgage the UK will be out of line with other major economies, or worse we’ll be facing a ‘debt crisis’? ‘No’ to both. Here’s why.

We went into the world financial crisis with a national debt – the total size of our national mortgage – lower than others.

According to the IMF, general government gross debt in the UK stood at approximately 44 per cent of GDP in 2007. France and Germany were both on 64 per cent, the United States on 63 per cent, Italy on 103 per cent, and Japan on a whopping 188 per cent.

And independent forecasts predict that we’ll stay in line with other major economies in five years’ time.

So we are not out of line with other major nations, but in step with them – or better. We also know from our history what happens if nations act too quickly to cut their deficits – millions more get thrown out of work, and it takes much longer to recover. This is precisely what happened to East Lancashire in the 1930s. It took a decade and a world war to get anywhere near to full employment.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that a nation’s economy works in the same way as a family budget. But the comparison I offer is valid, and illustrates that – without underestimating the difficulties we all face – the end of the world is not nigh.

Liberals and Tories baffle with science or blind with bull****

The founding principle of local government is that citizens have the right to influence the decisions that affect their lives and their communities. Citizens need to be confident that when decisions are made about things that affect them, it is informed by their concerns and not just about those running the service. Services can and should be designed around the needs of individuals not around the convenience of institutions. Resources should be directed to areas of concern that has a detrimental affect on Blackburn becoming a thriving place for all who live, work and visit the Borough.

For many months now at both Executive Board and full Council meetings when challenged on decisions made the Councillors in charge of services at the Town Hall can never answer questions posed. They claim that these decisions have been made by a LSP, LPSB, PLLACE, ELCHEX or a whole list of other bodies. They claim it is partnership working, encouraged by a Labour Government.

Partnership working is something we as a Labour Group welcome. We believe there is a whole host of organisations that can help a Council deliver the priorities set by local residents. We believe that public money and public bodies, whether Police, Health or Colleges should all contribute to the well being of residents. What we do not believe in is a whole host of quangos that is not driven by local needs but driven by highly paid Officers who can baffle the Coalition with Science, we believe in transparency and accountability.

The attitude of the Tories and Liberals in Blackburn is that these highly paid officers must know what they are talking about; after all they are getting a lot of money to do it. Where Michael Lee and his Coalition members fall down is in their ability to justify the decisions taken in their name. They cannot answer even the simplest of questions as to why a particular decision was made.

In turn they try and blind us with bull****.

I recently attended a LSP Board meeting. This board has been going for many years and I fully respect the commitment of the members of it. They have always had the best interest of residents at heart, they complimented the work of the Council and brought a business perspective to the decision making process. What they did not do, was make the decisions, but looked at how they could help in improving the quality of life and prospects of residents.

Now it is seems that the Council has given this board, and many others, the responsibility for millions of pounds worth of public money, but with no accountability, no transparency nor open to any challenge. At the latest LSP meeting I discovered that performance in the Borough is failing in some of our of key areas. The board was presented with a number of measures that were reported wrongly, baselines were reduced which made the achievements look better.

The worrying point was that no one apart from myself noticed, everyone was very complimentary about the direction of travel, what they did not realise was that based on the information they were presented with was that they were blindly going backwards

Just some of the concerns I raised were the targets of:

  1. Reducing the NEET group, three years on and huge resources for this area we see very little change.
  2. A target was set for the number of BME employees; this has gone backwards with a target set of 12% and an achievement of only 9%.
  3. Employees with disabilities again has gone backwards from 2.5 % to 2 %
  4. Children in our care achieving level 4 maths a baseline of 60% with an achievement rate of only 50% with a target for next year of 58%, no mention on the report that we have failed this target.
  5. Improve the performance of white working class boys achieving 5 + GCSE’s baseline last year was 35%. But this year reported as 17% with a target of 24%, achievement two years ago was 38%.
  6. Pakistani boys achieving 5 GCSE’s with a baseline of 28% but two years ago we achieved 39%, so why are we now setting a target of 34%.

Despite raising the same questions at two separate meetings, not one of the Executive Members of the Council could answer any of the questions I posed.

Partnership boards are based on trust for the mutual benefit of all, it is important that they are presented with accurate information to assist them in their support to Council.

It appears the current rulers in Blackburn do not want the responsibility for which they receive their allowances, but are happy to sit back, tale their allowances and continue to allow those who do take the decisions to be either be blinded with science or baffled with bull****.

Does Michael Law-Riding know anything about Blackburn?

Griffin Park School: not a Grade II listed Victorian mansion!

You’ve got to laugh sometimes when you’re at the Council meeting. The answers that members of the ruling coalition give to those tabled by Labour members vary from complete avoidance to the utterly bizarre. More than once I’ve been on the end of Exec members trying to dodge questions – usually Salim Lorgat, Executive Member for Housing; however, last week’s meeting beats them all.

Under the report for Culture, Leisure and Sport like my fellow ward Councillors in Mill Hill, Malcolm Doherty and Jim Smith, I was keen to comment on the success of last years’ Mill Hill Festival and how many people believe that Arts in the Park should be brought back. This was supported by many other Councillors.
Following on from this question I asked about the future of Griffin Lodge, a Grade II listed building situated in the middle of Griffin Park which the Council owns and which has been vacant and semi-derelict for the past four years. The listed building’s use has been under review and it is the subject of repeated and worsening vandalism.

In spite of the fact that this large Victorian mansion used to be occupied by the County Museum Service restoration department, when asked the question about its future Cllr Law-Riding – who is standing to be Blackburn’s next MP – confused the listed building with Griffin Park School.
Bizarrely – and to the chuckles of everyone in the Council chamber – he stated that he thought ‘it is an issue for the Executive Member for Childrens Services’. Later in the evening Cllr Thayne (Childrens Services) took some pleasure in batting the issue back, having been advised by his officer that it is nothing to do with his portfolio.

It’s nice to know that Cllr Law-Riding has a grip of his department!