We need local scrutiny of public bodies in cases such as the Rotherham child exploitation scandal. Photo: Getty
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How can we reinvigorate local papers to ensure scrutiny of failing public agencies?

In light of the failing public agencies in cases such as Rotherham and Mid-Staffordshire hospital, we need a plan to enhance proper local scrutiny.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham was revealed by a national investigative journalist, the Times’ excellent Andrew Norfolk. The chances of all but the most dedicated local reporter finding the time to wade through reams of documents to unearth municipal malfeasance, amid the demands to churn out copy, are remote. That’s assuming they have the interest and expertise to do so in the first place.

Yet for our democracy to function properly, we need to be able to hold decision-makers to account. And to do that, we need proper scrutiny of what they do in our names. It is clear that the conventional arrangement, where strong local newspapers fulfil this function, is on its last legs.

The past decade has seen the precipitous decline of local and regional media titles and the hollowing-out of careers on local newspapers. And hard commercial imperatives for struggling media groups means they are never going to devote the labour-intensive resources necessary to hold local public agencies to account in the future.

So how can we support a local independent media, preserve public interest journalism and repair the market in local political scrutiny? The answer is to make public bodies pay for the privilege of being held to account. A local scrutiny tax, levied on councils, various arms of the NHS, universities, FE colleges, schools, the police, transport bodies, and perhaps even utility companies, would generate a pot of money to finance public interest journalism in each town and city. The amount paid could simply reflect the size of the organisation.

A new accreditation for public interest journalists would ensure quality control and those working for commercial players, would see their workloads ring-fenced. "PIJs" could bid for money from the local pot, depending on their expertise, the reach of their writing and the amount of time they will guarantee to set aside to report on and investigate public bodies.

This would mean the decisions they take receive proper scrutiny from independent journalists, increasing the likelihood that incompetence, waste and anything darker, will receive proper journalistic inquiry. But the upside for them is that there would be more media coverage of their work, allowing them to showcase their successes, improve engagement and build trust with their local communities.

The BBC shows that we can, and do, subsidise public interest journalism, so this is no great departure in terms of changing the relationship between the scrutineers and the scrutinised. (Indeed, many local newspapers are reliant on the income from the statutory notices that local authorities are obliged to publish). But a local scrutiny tax could also help make dedicated local bloggers commercially viable too.

The point about the scandals in Rotherham, or at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital, is that bodies that serve the public sometimes make a bad job of it. Without a vibrant independent local media bringing these matters to light, how will we know?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Want to beat child poverty? End the freeze on working-age benefits

Freezing working-age benefits at a time of rising prices is both economically and morally unsound. 

We serve in politics to change lives. Yet for too long, many people and parts of Britain have felt ignored. Our response to Brexit must respond to their concerns and match their aspirations. By doing so, we can unite the country and build a fairer Britain.

Our future success as a country depends on making the most of all our talents. So we should begin with a simple goal – that child poverty must not be a feature of our country’s future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that relative child poverty will see the biggest increase in a generation in this Parliament. That is why it is so troubling that poverty has almost disappeared from the political agenda under David Cameron, and now Theresa May.

The last Labour Government’s record reminds us what can be achieved. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives. Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures. So we have a duty to this generation to make progress once again.

In my Barnsley constituency, we have led a campaign bringing together Labour party members, community groups, and the local Labour Council to take action. My constituency party recently published its second child poverty report, which included contributions from across our community on addressing this challenge.

Ideas ranged from new requirements on developments for affordable housing, to expanding childcare, and the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. When more than 200 children in my constituency fall behind in language skills before they even start school, that local effort must be supported at the national level.

In order to build a consensus around renewed action, I will be introducing a private member’s bill in Parliament. It will set a new child poverty target, with requirements to regularly measure progress and report against the impact of policy choices.

I hope to work on a cross-party basis to share expertise and build pressure for action. In response, I hope that the Government will make this a priority in order to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a country that works for everyone.

The Autumn Statement in two months’ time is an opportunity to signal a new approach. Planned changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than one pound in every ten pounds from the pockets of the poorest families. That is divisive and short-sighted, particularly with prices at the tills expected to rise.

Therefore the Chancellor should make a clear commitment to those who have been left behind by ending the freeze on working-age benefits. That would not only be morally right, but also sound economics.

It is estimated that one pound in every five pounds of public spending is associated with poverty. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermine the strong economy we need for the future.

Yet the human cost of child poverty is the greatest of all. When a Sure Start children’s centre is lost, it closes a door on opportunity. That is penny wise but pound foolish and it must end now.

The smarter approach is to recognise that a child’s earliest years are critical to their future life chances. The weight of expert opinion in favour of early intervention is overwhelming. So that must be our priority, because it is a smart investment for the future and it will change lives today.

This is the cause of our times. To end child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future. To stand in the way of a Government that seeks to pass by on the other side. Then to be in position to replace the Tories at the next election.

By doing so, we can answer that demand for change from people across our country. And we can provide security, opportunity, and hope to those who need it most.

That is how we can begin to build a fairer Britain.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.