Tragedy as former Labour leader dies

The death has been announced of Jim Mason, a member of Blackburn Labour Party for many years, and a lifelong member of the Cooperative movement and a hugely important influence in the Labour administration that successfully ran Lancashire County Council from 1981 until last year.

In particular, Jim was the driving force behind the establishment of Lancashire Enterprises Ltd which became an example of the way that public authorities could support and enhance socially valuable businesses as opposed to simply allowing market forces to run their course. This was a controversial policy during the years when the Thatcher governments were prepared to blindly follow market forces wherever they led and whatever the consequences but this policy pointed the way forward for some of the Labour governments’ actions from 1997.

Jim died last weekend after a long illness and his funeral will be held at 1.15 pm on January 11 at Silverdale Methodist Church followed by a service at Lancaster Crematorium at 2.45 – Jim’s family would welcome the presence of old friends and comrades.

The electoral triumph of Giggs’ victory

Even though he plays for that lot down the road, only the most petty-minded of football fans would deny Ryan Giggs the honour of being this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

At a time when professional football sometimes suffers from a cynical edge – the theatrical dives of so many strikers, for instance, or the infamous Thierry Henry handball – Giggs is a great example of the true spirit of sport, and a great example to so many youngsters as well.

Giggs is a one club man, making his debut for Man Utd in 1991. It’s not impossible that he’ll still be playing at the top level on the 20th anniversary of that occasion.

Had he been English he would no doubt have played at several World Cups, and would have been in the running for a place in the squad in 2010. Not that he is short of achievements – 11 Premier League titles, European cups, FA Cups, League Cups. He was the footballers’ choice for Young Player of the Year twice. And he is probably the greatest ever player to turn out for Wales.

There were some who said he didn’t deserve to win the BBC award, that compared to the likes of Jensen Button and Jessica Ennis, he hadn’t done enough in a single year to rival their achievements.

Certainly the achievements of Button and Ennis were worthy of high praise (particularly, in my mind, the heptathlon world champion Ennis), but the award to Giggs, in a year when he won his 11th Premier League winner’s medal and continued to perform outstandingly at the top level, was well merited both for this year and all his years at the top.

After all, to have played for a team like United for nigh on 20 years is a quite remarkable achievement.

But his triumph on Sunday was also victory for the sheer love of sport.

Asked for the secret of his success, he said simply “Desire, looking after myself”.

He appears to love the game as much as he did when he was kicking a ball around as a youngster.

And there is something wonderfully exuberant about Giggs’ play which sums up the essence of sport – free-flowing, inventive, energetic and at times breathtakingly brilliant. That in celebration and in private he is often poker-faced almost adds to the allure of seeing him in full flow on the pitch.

Winning the award was also a great achievement in itself. Giggs is the first non-English footballer to pick up the trophy, it having previously been won by Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Bobby Moore (all in the wake, incidentally, of World Cup heroics).

He’s also, let’s face it, a Manchester United player. They have, of course, a big following.

There are also many who are less than charitable about them (me, on some days!).

Yet Giggs won enough support from non-United supporters who recognise his ability and enormous contribution to the game.

In terms of an electoral triumph, that’s pretty impressive!

So are faith schools divisive?

The cry I hear more often than I would like regarding the ‘problem’ of faith schools is: “Close ‘em down. Divisive. Makes segregation worse”.

The critics of our distinctive Anglican and Catholic state schools and our one Muslim faith state school – and, elsewhere in the county, some Jewish and Methodist schools – claim these schools are outdated, as fewer go to church these days, and add the charge they are ‘elitist’.

Church attendances may have fallen, but 70 per cent of the British population in the last census stated they were Christian, and any politician who sought the abolition of faith schools would be consumed by the public uproar which would follow.

There is huge attachment to faith schools because of their faith and because generally across the UK, specifically in East Lancashire, they are good schools.

This is not to decry non-faith schools – both my children went to one.

And, whether faith schools, foundation schools, or community schools are ‘elitist’ depends principally on their catchment area, ethos, and record. Not on their category.

So are faith schools divisive?

In a town like Blackburn, with large Asian communities, and concern about ‘parallel communities’ it’s a reasonable question.

On the face of it, it could well be that faith schools, with a preference at entry for children of that faith, would engender a sense of separateness, and exclusivity, and make matters worse.

Recent evidence, however, points in exactly the opposite direction. It enforces a view that if you respect and celebrate someone else’s faith, they are much more likely not just to respect and celebrate yours, but become inquisitive too about it.

The evidence is from a Church of England report with research by Professor David Jesson of York University, comparing how faith and non-faith secondary schools performed in OFSTED inspections on the promotion of what is called ‘positive contribution to the community’ in their reports. He found that faith schools received average grades 11 per cent higher than non-faith schools.

As the chief education officer for the Church of England, Rev Janina Ainsworth said: “For church schools, community cohesion is more than ticking a box for the government.

“It is about acting out the values articulated in the school’s mission statement in ways that serve and strengthen our human relationship.”

OFSTED scores for Blackburn and Darwen secondary schools – faith and non-faith – are similar, with Pleckgate (non-faith) and St Wilfrid’s (Anglican) rated ‘outstanding’ and all but one of the remainder ‘good’. This latter group included the Muslim Tauheedul Islam Girls High School.

Its inspection was three years ago, just after it was set up. My guess is that the next full inspection will put it in the ‘outstanding’ category, not least because it’s a humanities specialist with citizenship as a core subject, and it’s working hard with non-Muslim schools to improve understanding across the faiths Parents should have a choice between faith and non-faith schools, of course.

But criticism of faith schools as divisive is plain wrong, and the opposite of the truth.

Waste not, want not – but please keep it secret!

The Tory led Council has again been shown up for incompetence and wasting money after pumping nearly £100,0000 of taxpayers money into a hare-brained Lottery bid they knew they were ‘highly unlikely’ to get.

Last month the Lancashire Telegraph revealed the council had run up a bill of £93,121 to put plans together for a £20million transformation of Blackburn Museum they knew was highly unlikely ever to happen.

Tory Executive Member Michael Law-Riding, who approved the spending, has aspirations to be the next Member of Parliament for Blackburn which bodes well for the Town if he should ever get elected.

However I can reveal that this is only a proportion of what the Coalition of Tories, Liberal Democrats and Darwen Independents have wasted since coming into office in 2007. Recent analysis by the Labour Group has also found the council has spent at least £750,000 on other meaningless feasibility studies and have also bought three million pounds worth of unnecessary buildings that are lying vacant and unused.

This is yet another example of the coalition wasting money left right and centre, and again worryingly they have tried to keep these facts secret from the residents and voters of Blackburn and Darwen. However with the help of my Labour colleagues and the pages of the Lancashire Telegraph the shocking true facts have come out and they have yet again been caught out wasting Council Taxpayers money.

My ‘Payback jackets’ plan has worn well

High-visibility orange jackets for offenders to wear when doing unpaid work as part of their punishment were introduced a year ago this Tuesday.

The jackets do not have the old prison arrows on them or “I’m a criminal” but they do say, front and back, “Community Payback”. That’s to tell the public why they are there – making recompenses, paying back, to the community against which they’ve offended.

Doing this was my decision. When I first announced this in the autumn of last year, there was a chorus of protest from some quarters (though none from East Lancashire). Requiring offenders to wear these jackets would be ‘recreating chain gangs’, ‘humiliating to offenders’ and, what’s more, I was warned, offenders would be subject to attack by passers-by.

A year later, and not a peep from the critics. The scheme has worked. I’ve spoken to many offenders whilst wearing the jackets. Some say they don’t like them; some have no view; but a surprisingly large number have volunteered to me that it’s part of the punishment, and that only they were to blame for committing their crimes in the first place. And I’ve not been made aware of a single attack on the offenders wearing the jackets.

As for ‘humiliation’, it’s the humiliation of the victim we should think about. They have no choice over their humiliation. Those who have committed the crimes did have a choice – and if through wearing the orange jacket they feel a greater sense of shame, and that strengthens their resolve not to offend again, that is a good thing.

Most importantly of all, the public now have a much better idea of what a “community punishment” from the courts means in practice. And in many areas local people can vote on which schemes they want offenders to work – doing things like cleaning graffiti, redecorations of community centres, tending gardens of the elderly and disabled.

This scheme, by which the public choose, is now being extended to young offenders as part of a new Youth Rehabilitation order, which has been available to youth courts from this week. It is a further stage in the strengthening of the youth justice service.

These reforms have overall been successful. Like many others including, ASBOs, they began in Blackburn. In the mid-1990s I’d received complaints from youth court magistrates and police alike, as well as victims, about the ‘revolving door’ of the courts by which same young offenders came round and around again and again without much effective punishment and reform in between. I then watched the youth court in operation, and saw for myself why magistrates and police were so frustrated.

Some offenders will always be beyond the pale – the ones who however cocky and selfish in their youth, end up with long jail sentences in their 20s and 30s.

But overall we are turning offenders away from crime. The statistics tell the story – between 2000 and 2007 serious re-offending by juveniles fell by nearly 20 per cent. But it’s the reduction in crime and its effect as a result on our communities which really matters.

There’s work to do before the election…

If words could adequately describe the feelings and power of music, I guess we could dispense with music and stick to words.

This rather odd thought came into my mind on Tuesday evening as I enjoyed a rare treat.

I work most Tuesday evenings, but as it was the day before the State Opening of Parliament by The Queen, I could safely go with my family to hear Murray Perahia, one of the world’s most acclaimed pianists.

But music does reach parts of our soul, creating emotions quite beyond words. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is – and I still enjoy going to the occasional gig and reliving my youth – we all need music.

But there’s little about my day job which can be put to music.

Politics and government decision- making is all about words.

So yesterday, the programme for the new session of Parliament was set out, in words (though with plenty of music beforehand), as Her Majesty delivered her speech from the Throne in the House of Lords – “The Queen’s Speech”.

Sessions of Parliament normally last about 12 months.

This one can only last at best six months as there will, by law, be a General Election by June, or maybe earlier.

But I’ve seen such short pre-election sessions where a General Election has been a certainty three times before, and contrary to some of the comment, a lot of business does go through before Parliament is dissolved for the election.

Work has already begun on some bills – those which are ‘carried over’ from the previous session, including one of mine, on constitutional reform.

And we will get cracking on the new items pretty quickly, with a flurry of legislation introduced in the days and weeks ahead.

There has been a debate about how much difference the Queen’s Speech will actually make to the big decision voters make when they go to the polls sometime in the next six months.

The argument runs that it may be a big deal in the “Westminster village”, it doesn’t really affect the country as a whole.

But I think it makes a significant difference.

Sure, not everyone will have tuned in to watch the speech yesterday, but its effects will become quickly apparent as the debates get going in the months ahead. And I’m confident we’ll make a lot of progress.

The issues range from a new national care service to give free personal care to those who need it the most, in their own homes, to measures to deal with the management of flooding and some interesting measures in schools, such as school report cards for parents to keep up with the performance of their child’s school.

For all the impressive finery of the State Opening, and few can deny that it is an impressive ceremony, the issues at the heart of the speech come down to the brass tacks of daily life.

Tory councillor: disabled abuse free transport scheme

We all remember the statement from Tory Councillor Allan Cottam blaming pensioners for abusing the concessionary fare scheme. He claimed some were using their free passes every day, and as a result he had a £ 400k shortfall in his budget. We all knew this was a nonsense and the Labour Government had given Blackburn more than enough money to cover the scheme. In fact they had £ 400 k extra, which they duly gave away to their Tory friends in the Ribble Valley, Blackpool and Preston leaving many of our residents without buses as the Bus Company faced £1million cut from Councils.

At the November Executive Board meeting I asked Councillor Cottam, why since the introduction of a £1 fare each way on Community Transport, and the new 48 hour booking system, had the usage gone down 20%.

He was quite proud in announcing that since disabled users, and those who found it difficult to use the bus service had to pay this fare, they now found that they could use the regular bus service, (if they are lucky enough to have one). Wouldn’t it be great if a serious illness could just disappear if you had to pay £1?

I probed a little further and he quite openly stated that users, disabled and elderly, had been abusing this service and now there was less need than six months ago. He was joined by another Tory Councillor, John Slater, who admitted that the booking system was a shambles, there was not enough staff to cope with the system and having to give 48 hours notice meant in his words not mine “these old dears are booking the travel then not using it” though he did, with puckered pride in his chest, tell me he was going to introduce a” three strikes and you are out” system to stop people booking travel then not using it.

They both have completely missed the point. If you suffer from arthritis or some other disability that restricts your mobility, 48 hours can be a long time and conditions can worsen quite quickly. Let’s face it those suffering a serious illness have good days and bad days, some worse than others with no warning.

With the promise of “three strikes and you are out” residents who desperately need this form of travel are scared to book in case two days later they are unable to get out of their homes, they don’t feel very well, or the weather is too bad for them.

I suppose if I was a cynic I would say that this will lead to a drastic reduction in use and allow the Council to say there is no need of this service which will allow them to cut it completely saving a significant amount of money. Just as they have done with Community Centres, Arts in the Parks, and possibly King Georges Hall and Libraries in the near future,

Michael Law Riding, another Tory who has aspirations of taking on “Our Jack”, has cut the events budget from £ 250k down to £50k,getting ris of the wonderful Arts in the Parks, and at the same time cut the funding for books in the Library by 25% in two years, and is definitely going to close some leisure facilities in Blackburn.

The next battle cry from the Tories will be, very few people use the Library, why waste money on having it.

Watch this space, because low cost airlines could learn from these guys.

A Tory keeps his promise (it could be a tabloid headline)

It is very rarely I agree with Colin Rigby, but on the article below from the Lancashire Telegraph I did. It was extremely worrying that the Council had failed to spend over £ 20 million. All this money left at the end of a financial year meant that there had been severe cuts in spending, on day to day issues like repairing roads, providing benefit advice services, providing care for our elderly, money to local communities, bus services and general street cleansing.

Blackburn with Darwen council’s unspent millions

COUNCIL bosses have admitted they are concerned about “vast” amounts of taxpayers’ money left unspent at the end of the year.

Ahead of the end of the financial year this month, it has been revealed that Blackburn with Darwen council has spent £28.8million on major projects like roads and buildings – just 55 per cent of the cash it set aside a year ago.

Tory resources chief Coun Colin Rigby said: “I share some of Kate’s concerns regarding our inability to spend money during the financial year.

“Fifty-five per cent is a worry to me and we are trying to work on it to ensure we don’t have these vast amount of money at the end of the next year.”

Well for once Councillor Rigby has kept his promise he has done a Viv Richards ,spend spend, spend. For those much younger than me, she was a lady who won a lot of money on the pools, did not know how to handle it, wasted it all and ended up penniless. The Council is now in the same boat, facing huge cuts in service to compensate for the foolish spending over the last few months,

Money wasted, not on day to day services, but on buying buildings for crazy money, Bentley’s, a building that was bought on the back of a lottery bid that even Councillor Rigby admitted had a very slim chance of succeeding, wasting £ 50K on the bid and over £ 500k on the building. An undertakers, again well over £ 500K, a printing business, £400K, and another undisclosed sum, (sorry I cannot say the amount , but it is higher than the two I have just mentioned) or I will be reported to standards for criticising the Council for wasting even more money).
All this at a time when properties are at their lowest value for years and we all need to tighten our belts and spend wisely.

Councillor Rigby, Executive Member for Resources, has kept his promise not to under spend by this amount next year. There is still six months to go, and there is no chance of an under spend, he and his Coalition Colleagues have wasted millions of pounds. We all now have to face the consequences of this waste, cuts in streets cleansing, maintaining our older people’s homes, resurfacing our pot filled roads, bus services and grants to community groups.

Perhaps they are setting out the same principles as the Tory Leader of Barnet Council. The “ budget airline” Council has advocated the “ no frills” public services, where families get less but pay more and only the wealthy few can afford the level of services they want..

Cut services in the areas with the highest need, and develop new ones for the wealthiest residents.

Blackburn Rovers and Burnley: we’re all united by football

‘You must be Burnley in disguise,’ the fans around me in the Blackburn end suddenly started chanting during one of the few slack periods in Sunday’s game.

Almost without thinking, I was about to join in. Then everyone realised it wasn’t any team in disguise, it wasn’t Burnley in disguise, it was the real thing.

The first top flight contest between these two East Lancashire teams since 1963.

What a game. I aged ten years before, and during the game until the final whistle was blown, and we’d won!

The great Bill Shankly famously remarked that “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

Of course, Shankly was not being literal, but there was and is an essential truth in what he said.

In East Lancashire, whether Rovers’ or Clarets’ supporters (or neither) we were all able to witness Shankly’s essential truth.

It’s this; that what happens on the field can reverberate across whole communities, like a stone dropped into a pool.

East Lancashire, from one end to the other, has just a quarter of a million people within it.

That’s less than one two-hundredths of the population of England and Wales.

Yet we have one tenth of the Premier League teams – two out of twenty. It’s a great asset for our area.

The Blackburn-Burnley derby excited interest across the country, and has helped add, in a good way, to the definition and profile which East Lancashire enjoys nationally.

Above all, however, I think that the derby has helped to strengthen the already strong-sense of community of towns along the East Lancashire valley.

I’m sure Burnley was buzzing, though I thought it wise not to check out the atmosphere in person.

Blackburn was certainly buzzing. Everyone was talking about the game and I mean everyone.

If they were Blackburnian, the imperative of a win for Rovers was the first topic of conversation – and often the only one.

I attended a rather belated Eid dinner on Saturday. Half those present were Asian; half white.

If the conversations had been recorded, but without the name of the speakers, you’d have heard, virtually everyone talking about the game, regardless of ethnic background.

Rovers’ fortunes are part of what gives everyone in town part of their sense of place, their identity.

And, contrary to the utter nonsense we hear from the BNP, it’s possible to have layers of loyalties – we all do.

Back to the game itself. There was a dismal period (more than one) in Rovers’ recent history when if we’d gone a goal down we’d had it.

Five minutes into Sunday’s game I feared that’s where we were, again.

Like it or not, Robbie Blake’s goal was a corker – and so was the set-up, with our midfield falling apart and our defence deceived.

A millisecond after the goal there was that awful silence as hope collapsed into fear!

Every credit then to Sam Allardyce for the way he has the team fighting back whenever we’re down. What relief with Dunny’s equaliser, what joy with Di Santo’s second, and ecstasy with Chimbonda’s, the third.

Of course, success never comes easy at Ewood Park.

But like every Rovers supporter I’ve been walking on air ever since Sunday – and recalling, we really did beat Burnley.

The moment we flinch from confronting BNP lies is the moment they have won

Jack Straw has caused a little controversy and certainly a great deal of attention for his decision to appear on tonight’s Question Time, which will also feature Nick Griffin.

I for one support Jack’s decision wholeheartedly. The British National Party need to be challenged. From the same ideological cesspit as the Nazis and the National Front, the BNP are no different from any other far-right organisation and have spent the last few years peddling fear and racial hatred and encouraging ideas that peoples are different and unequal.

These parties have always had a clear tactic – exploit an unhappiness or wrong in society and then find a racial scapegoat. In the 1920s and 30s Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s depression and poverty. Today the BNP have found a new scapegoat – the Muslim community. They prey on deprived areas where unemployment is high, and say “it’s their fault – they are taking your jobs and money”. Yet the evidence does not back this up. The moment we flinch from confronting the lies told by the BNP is the moment they have won.

Blackburn Labour Party have never been frightened of standing up to far-right thugs. As a councillor I represent Mill Hill ward, where the BNP secured their first – and hopefully last – victory on Blackburn with Darwen Council. Did we run away? No. We argued back on the doorstep, in the pubs and in the public meetings. And now we’ve forced them out.

Jack Straw himself has always been at the forefront when it comes to standing up to Nazis and tackling the lies they have told. He is the only Member of Parliament who holds regular open air meetings in the town centre, where any member of the public can question him on any issue – no matter how unpleasant or controversial. And Jack has been there in the communities where the BNP have tried to cause division.

Nationally the BNP are getting too much of a free run to say what they want and behave like some kind of oppressed group. The people of Mill Hill soon worked out that the BNP had no answers to today’s social and economic problems. With persistent challenge to them nationally we will get that message across and make sure that they are never elected to the European Parliament (or any other body for that matter) again.

I back Jack Straw for his decision to go on Question Time tonight. It’s time for Labour to take the fight to Griffin and the BNP!