Rupert Murdoch. Photo: Getty
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The playing fields of Moscow, regional revolts, Murdoch’s satire and the great British bin

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

Tristram Hunt’s threat to deprive fee-charging schools of relief from business rates – which accounts for only a small proportion of the tax breaks available to them – provoked contrived fury from head teachers. In fact, the shadow education secretary’s attempt to persuade the schools to enter “partnerships” with the state sector would do little to reduce inequalities of opportunity and social divisions. Rather, it offers the schools an easy way to legitimise themselves. Their response shows their arrogance and their indifference to the public good.

The elite fee-charging schools haven’t the slightest interest in a fairer education system. Their soaring fees – up nearly twice as fast as inflation over the past decade and reaching an annual £42,000, in one case – put them beyond the reach even of many lawyers and accountants. As the head of King’s College School in Wimbledon, south-west London, confessed recently, these schools now “teach the children of the very wealthiest families in the world”. The high fees pay not for better teaching, but for lavish dormitory, arts and sports facilities. At one time, children at the top public schools, subjected to beatings and compulsory games, at least had to undergo a degree of hardship to earn their lifelong privileges. Now they are as pampered as the customers of a luxury spa.

At the present rate, however, the elite schools’ role in perpetuating the English class system may end at last. Not because of anything Hunt does, but because only the international plutocracy will be able to send their children to the most expensive schools.


Lessons in fraud

In its crazed mission to bring enterprise, competition and market forces to the public services, the coalition government allows students at private colleges – or “alternative providers”, as ministers call them – to receive loans and in some cases grants from public funds. Since 2010, the number of students benefiting from such support is up from under 5,000 to more than 50,000 and the sums disbursed up from £35m to £675m. As repayment of the loans is contingent on income, much of this money is likely never to be recovered.

Now the National Audit Office reports that 20 per cent of students aren’t registered for the exams they’re supposed to be taking; dropout rates in nine colleges are above 20 per cent (the average for the established universities and colleges is 4 per cent); and some “students” aren’t even resident in the UK, a scam that cost £5.4m but could have cost £65m if the Student Loans Company hadn’t acted. The auditors don’t quite say so, but it looks as if some colleges are harbouring large-scale fraud.

The whole thing is reminiscent of Labour’s scheme for individual learning accounts, under which poorly qualified people received modest sums to “buy” training courses from “new providers” rather than from anything so stuffy and undynamic as a local authority college. Many of the “accounts” turned out to be criminal inventions; 6,000 were created for a single address and the names of some holders were Hindi swear words. Out of £290m disbursed, at least £97m was pocketed by fraudsters.

Will politicians never learn?


Local is as local does

Proposals that because Scotland will get more devolved powers, so should the English “regions”, face a big problem: England, in most people’s minds, has no regions. Historic loyalties are to counties, cities or towns. Citizens of Leicester, for instance, do not wish to be ruled from an East Midlands “capital” in Nottingham rather than from London; if anything, they prefer the latter. The leader of Darlington Borough Council has told the Financial Times that Teesside will not tolerate being “subsumed” into a region run from Newcastle. Negotiators trying to form a combined authority for Birmingham and the Black Country can’t even agree on a name.

For more than 40 years, national politicians and Whitehall bureaucrats have tried to create larger and, as they see it, more “rational” units of local government. They put people into places nobody had heard of, such as Kirklees, Halton and Sandwell; created and then abolished a Humberside County Council for people separated by, er, the Humber Estuary; and ended up with a more irrational distribution of powers than they started with. It is time they gave up.


Just your average mogul

To the 21st birthday party of Women in Journalism, held on the 18th floor of the News UK building, the new Rupert Murdoch press headquarters close to London Bridge. My eye is caught by an extraordinarily long inscription emblazoned across the entrance hall. I take it to be the Murdoch mission statement: “Telling the stories that matter, seeding ideas and stirring emotions, capturing moments, meaning and magic . . .” On and on it goes (does Murdoch no longer employ sub-editors?), until it gets to “sticking up for the little guy”, at which point I stand in silence, quietly mourning the death of satire.


Rubbish newspaper

“The great betrayal”, screamed the Daily Mail headline. Had David Cameron, to secure an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, secretly agreed to instal an imam in every state school? Had ministers decided to hand over all public services to the Chinese? Were BBC news bulletins to be dictated by the CIA? None of these. “Families” must wait 12 days on average for their bins to be emptied. Truly, the Mail understands what causes terror among the British as no other paper does.


The Only Way Is Delhi

A footnote to my visit to India. From a car in Delhi, we spotted a shop/café called Essex Patisserie. The cast of the ITV2 series The Only Way Is Essex have two shops in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, and nine in Brentwood. Has their brand spread across the world? More information gratefully received. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation