These House of Lords reforms are bad for equality

Samuel Kasumu 2.28pm

The Government seems on the brink of its first serious parliamentary rebellion, and the Conservative MPs lining up to oppose the House of Lords Reform Bill represent a very broad church.

It isn’t merely the regular rebels (though the likes of Nadine Dorries are of course among their number). For a variety of reasons, many Tories have decided these reforms are a favour for their Liberal colleagues too far. And when Jesse Norman (South Hertfordshire) said that House of Lords reform would create less equality and less diversity, it really got me thinking.

At first, I took Mr Norman’s comments as just some rhetoric. But then it dawned on me that rather than create a more inclusive political system, this legislation will do more harm than good.

Take the current numbers of ethnic minorities in the House of Commons compared to the House of Lords. There are only 27 ethnic minorities in the House of Commons. A fully inclusive (i.e. proportional) Commons would have closer to 65 - more than double current figures. And the House of Lords? It comprises 42 peers from ethnic minorities.

Of course, one’s colour does not necessarily mean you are fit to represent a community better than another person, but MPs represent the pinnacle of the UK political system. Parliament is reflective of our political world, and if it cannot become inclusive, what hope do we have for the other circles of influence?

The very Liberal Democrats championing having another elected chamber do not even have one Black Member of Parliament. Surely it would make sense to deal with their current diversity problems before trying to take on the challenge of getting more people elected to the Other Place. We must also recognise that as Conservatives, who only managed to attract 16 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010, it is not in our interests to be accused of erecting more barriers for these groups entering politics.

There are also only 143 women in the current House of Commons, with 181 women in the House of Lords. While none of these figures are inspiring, the House of Lords does seem to be winning the battle when it comes to diversity and inclusion league tables.

Nothing in this Bill demonstrates that progress will be improved or maintained. If the House of Commons is reduced from 650 to 600 MPs as planned, we will have further problems when attempting to attract, more women, ethnic minorities, and those from working class backgrounds. The Lords helps to ensure that this diversity gap goes some way to being plugged but these reforms would take us two steps back. Be more inclusive in the Commons first, and then come back to us with your proposals.

Part 4 of the Reform Bill also proposes the eventual reduction of Lord Spirituals in the House of Lords to just seven members. My own view about the reduction of Lord Spirituals in the House is that it has no overall benefit to the political system. If the House of Lords is a place where the Government is held to account and where we are able to ensure that the most marginalised communities are considered within various policies, then the Church must be kept as a pivotal and influential part of the political system.

There of course will be times when there is a friction between the Church and the state, but such friction should not be looked at adversely. For indeed this allows proper thought and critique during key periods of decision making. We need only look to the events of the Queens Diamond Jubilee to see that the Church continues to play a key role in the nucleus of Great Britain, and any attempts to change this must be seen as an attack on faith.

Nick Clegg continues to attempt to paint a courageous picture of his Liberal Democrats’ attempting to finish off a job that began a century ago. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The current system may not be perfect but it has come a long way since the times of hereditary peers and an unbreakable ruling class. While I am a Tory Reformer who believes in change, and attracting quality candidates into the House of Lords, these proposals are not the solution.

I’d like to see more opportunities for Lords to be chosen by the public, but not through the simple mirroring of a tried, tested, and failed political system in the Commons. For it is this very House of Commons that continues to limit participation to those who can afford it, those who know about it, and those who are selected by a limited few.

Follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelkasumu

Planning reform: a victory for conservationists, but beware the calm before the storm

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Some (moderately) good news! The Government published the final version of its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) yesterday and it is a paramount improvement on earlier drafts.

What is more, the DCLG has managed to squeeze it in to even fewer pages (a mere 49 compared to 52), proving that as far as planning is concerned, size really isn’t everything.

The Telegraph is tickled pink. The newspaper’s 'Hands Off Our Land' campaign, which I have lauded on these pages before, provided a sustained and important outlet for opposition to the Government’s clumsy proposals last summer. The new NPPF, says the paper’s leader, “strikes a far healthier balance between development and the environment.”

Environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean hails the Telegraph readers who “refused to be fazed” during a seven-month “bloody battle” with a Government that “veered from amazement to anger”.

The Chancellor and Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, immediately announced: “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.” Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, called objectors “semi-hysterical”, the planning minister Greg Clark accused them of “nihilistic selfishness”, and his junior, Bob Neill, blamed “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups”.

In the Times (£), columnist Alice Thompson declares ”the circle has been squared” by the “genial” Greg Clark, the “Clark Kent of politics” who has “achieved the impossible” by reconciling the divergent interests of big property developers and conservationists. She closes by suggesting mischievously that Mr Clark should be considered for the Department of Health, to “see if he can also achieve the impossible there”.

Meanwhile Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and perhaps the single most vocal critic of the initial proposals, unsurprisingly devotes his Guardian column to declaring victory for conservationists over the “cowboy lobbyists”.

What last summer read like a builder’s manifesto has been replaced with proper planning guidance.

The builders’ lobby customarily seizes on housing shortage to argue for freeing the countryside for construction. But there is no shortage of land - only of land builders can most profitably develop, and that is rural land.

But Sir Simon warns that, of course, “the proof will be in the eating”. There are still fears for what even these vastly improved reforms could unleash if local authorities and communities, given only twelve months to get local plans together, cannot stand up to powerful developers. Localism is only a virtue if you have strong locals.

The Daily Mail is a lone dissenter among the leader columns:

…Those who stand to gain most are get-rich-quick developers…[and] the biggest losers will be the lovers of England’s countryside…

No amount of ministerial bluster can disguise the acute threat to the countryside - a heritage as precious as our language - contained in the order that there must be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

I have written elsewhere why there is no such thing as sustainable development. And as Sir Simon Jenkins wrote last summer, “the only sustainable meadow is a meadow”.

But sustainable development will always be a woolly concept. We cannot truly determine sustainability in the present; that task is left to future generations. We make do with best guesses. Therein lies the risk. Yet such an existential risk would have existed whatever the Government had written down in its planning guidance.

As it happens, by making explicit recognition of the coalition’s updated sustainable development strategy, the wording is tighter and less open to abuse.

What other improvements are there in the final draft? I wrote for the Richmond Magazine last month that recognition of the “intrinsic character and beauty” of ordinary landscapes (i.e. the 55 per cent of the countryside not protected by National Parks and the like) would be crucial to any breakthrough.

That recognition has been restored, along with a brownfield-first policy, stronger protection for the Green Belt and playing fields, and the ‘default yes’ to development has been removed.

These are all revisions to be celebrated. Nonetheless, there are many challenges ahead. When he delivered the Budget last week, the Chancellor was very clear that whatever concessions were made in the final NPPF, development would still be easier, not harder. That remains true.

If localism is to have any worth whatsoever, then local communities need to work flat out in the coming months to be ready. The Daily Mail's negativity (or nihilism) goes too far, certainly. But this could well turn out to be the calm before the storm.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

The Big Society has life in it still, but more must be done to avoid a repeat of Shaun Bailey’s My Generation

Samuel Kasumu 6.00am

The 'big society' was supposed to be the key Conservative policy that would tie the rest together. An underpinning philosophy that could rebuild communities, reshape public services and above all demonstrate that Conservatives could do compassion.

But this ‘big idea’ failed to capture the imagination of the public from the start. And the recent news that one of the first Big Society Ambassadors has has to close his charity can only pile further pain on the tarnished ‘big society’ brand.

Shaun Bailey is the talented community leader and former Conservative candidate. He represents a section of British society - black, urban, working class - that the Conservative party has struggled to engage with in the past. Having failed to win the Hammersmith constituency in 2010, Mr Bailey was signed up as one of the Prime Minister’s special advisers. Yet the excellent charity he founded, My Generation, has now closed.

My Generation’s mission was all about what the ‘big society’ stands for, and its closure is a sad loss for the communities of Hammersmith - but it may actually be the most important thing Mr Bailey does as a Big Society Ambassador. In having to close his own charity, he has demonstrated to the Government and to leaders of similar organisations that he understands and shares the same challenges faced by most voluntary groups today.

There is no doubt that funding has always been community groups’ biggest challenge. And today we are in the midst of an economic downturn, with funding ever harder to come by: there is less of it, and it is harder to access.

During the Labour party’s time in office we saw large amounts of money distributed through local and national government schemes. Grants were more readily available.

But in recent times, funding for services for the likes of children and young people has dried up because local authorities have no statutory obligation to deliver those services. Other lifelines such as the Future Jobs Fund have gone, meaning that many voluntary sector organisations no longer benefit from extra staff funded by the government.

So the voluntary sector faces many challenges and the long-term survival of many of these organisations cannot be guaranteed. Some might see this situation as tragic but I see it as more of an opportunity to create newer, better solutions. Like a game of chess, with an opponent thinking the game to be over, the ‘big society’ may yet have one more move to play.

The Government must look at new ways of reshaping the voluntary sector. I suggest setting up Big Society Academies to train community leaders and give them the skills to identify funding sources that still exist, as well as other key skills (former Labour and Lib Dem MP Paul Marsden wrote of similar things on these pages last summer).

This training could be delivered by companies on a pro bono basis (or even a form of payment by results). The passion of community leaders must be harnessed and supported by training from experts in various fields.

Some major corporations are already donating their time for free to train larger groups of voluntary sector staff and volunteers - but on a smaller scale. This must increase. There’s no doubting the CSR benefits in doing so.

There is a variety of different activities still funded by national and local government but to be able to receive any money many organisations have to be a bit more entrepreneurial. Something like the National Citizen Service offers funding of more than £1,000 for every young person that is attracted to it. This is a lot of money but currently only very big organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and vInspired seem to be winning the contracts.

So how can smaller voluntary groups participate in the delivery of such schemes? Some do, but not nearly enough to fulfil the aspirations of the ‘big society’.

Smaller voluntary groups will need to team up with bigger organisations if they are struggling to survive on their own. Some will seriously need to consider merging. The Government must play its part in revolutionising the voluntary sector, but without taking it over. Make funding available for community groups with fewer strings attached and less bureaucracy in the application stage.

The Prime Minister must also find a way to get those involved in the voluntary sector into paid employment. It should be said that Mr Bailey’s role as a Big Society Ambassador has been unpaid, and he therefore represented those many community leaders who do the work most people claim to be too busy to do, and sacrificing his own time without being fairly recompensed.

There must also be targeted funding available for communities to create solutions where there are gaps in public services.

The ‘big society’ still has the potential to empower us all to engage more with others in our own communities. But this will only happen when the Government supports the people that were involved in the ‘big society’ before it became the Conservative party’s ‘big idea’. More support is needed, more engagement is essential, and a more collective strategy is crucial if we are to avoid a repeat of Shaun Bailey’s My Generation.

Follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelkasumu

One Nation Conservatism is the best vehicle for reaching out to all parts of society

Samuel Kasumu 7.12am

Following the recent series of articles entitled ‘The Origins of Race Policy’ and the much critiqued piece that I wrote for ConservativeHome, time has come for me to articulate my own personal discourse on the matter of race and political representation. This is the first time I’ve officially disclosed my political views (though recently it has clearly become less of secret), as I have previously held positions where it would have been inappropriate to do so.

These roles varied from my time as vice-president of my students union in 2007; up to being the chief executive of a social enterprise representing thousands of members; and subsequently running the largest ever debate tour of its kind in the UK where I chaired a number of debates and heard thousands of people all over the country.

Those experiences, along with my political education through the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and through studying a Master’s in Ethnicity, Migration & Policy, have led me to the following conclusion: government is undoubtedly the most powerful institution in our natural world.

Government is what ensures resources are allocated effectively in order to fulfil good outcomes for humanity. It is also the main mechanism for protecting many of its stakeholders from various evils. Even within the most unconventional and evil of governments in certain nations there remains an element of order that could not exist without having any institution at all.

Government is essential, and politics is therefore the science that underpins it.

The challenge that all countries still face is this: what role should any government playin in ensuring all people are treated equally?

It is something that people across history have fought for and even given their life for. Today in Britain ‘equality’ is a term that has evolved to represent a variety of groups that are marginalised in various ways including ethnic communities, women, those from lower socio economic backgrounds, and people with disabilities. It can also incorporate themes such as sexuality.

Our mission should be to give a voice to those people who are marginalised in society. The hope is to see a balanced representation of people within power structures, particularly within the political classes. I believe that genuine equality can only ever come to pass when people from all backgrounds feel as if they can actively participate within our many power structures, including within government. The only way that this can truly be manifested is through the actualisation of a political system that is truly representative of the population that it presides over.

This is not simply a call for more Members of Parliament from non-traditional backgrounds, but a call for more people involved in politics at every level. There must be more people running for council seats, more members of local associations, more influential policy makers, and more political commentators from diverse backgrounds. Politics may be spotlighted on Parliament; but Parliament is far from being the place where the story starts or ends.

In May 2008, I decided to join the Conservative party. This wasn’t to say that I agreed with everything the party stood for; in fact it was probably quite the opposite. The Conservatives had huge potential to craft a new message about equality, something in many past instances it had failed to do. My personal work belongs within the Conservative party, however I will continue to mentor and support young people regardless of their politics.

I have never directly experienced any form discrimination or prejudice within the Conservative party, though I agree that the party can suffer from a crisis of image.

While I have had the privilege of engaging with some of the most fascinating people at various levels, I recognise that there remains some resistance to change. Some feel that by identifying any form of marginalisation we risk being counterproductive. Others feel that any call for equality would equal some form of attack on meritocracy. My reply to those people would simply be that meritocracy has actually always been a myth in many senses of the term. If you start any race with a head start how could you justify the outcome being fare? And if no one gives you the tools you need to run effectively where is the meritocracy?

My final thought is quite straightforward: no political party should have a monopoly over any type(s) of voter. Not only does this encourage complacency, but it also hinders innovation. It can also mean that when one Party is not in power certain areas of policy remain sidelined.

Solidarity should therefore be along policy lines at best, rather than simply party political allegiances. This continues to be the case for a variety of voters in Britain, and I believe that the message of One Nation Conservatism is the vehicle that can be best used to demonstrate that Conservatives can be a credible option for many people in the future. It is in this centre ground where elections are won.

I am still quite young, and no doubt as I learn more my thoughts will evolve. But for now my hope is that one day, like my hero Martin Luther King Jnr, I will be able to look back and say that I have served my generation, I have ensured progress, and I have fought a good fight.

Samuel is an award social entrepreneur and political commentator. He has previously been highlighted as a Future Leader by Powerful Media, and is the first ever GBA Young Star of Enterprise (CBI/ Real Business Magazine)

Follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelkasumu

A new autumn Bank Holiday should be bread & butter for traditional Conservatives

Michael Economou 7.05am

A campaign has existed for some years to create a new Bank Holiday in mid-Autumn known as 'Community Day'. The idea is designed to encourage charitable participation and according to its promoters, it would have “a special focus on celebrating and promoting voluntary community activity”.

The project is being led by voluntary sector organisations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Community Service Volunteers and Volunteering England, but it also has the backing of a wider range of groups, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The main objection to a new Bank Holiday is that it would damage UK economic productivity - concerns made more significant in light of the announcement by the ONS that the extended Royal Wedding holiday period contributed to slower growth in Q2 of this year.

However, Community Day would not be a one-off event. It would be a national day to celebrate proactive citizenship and it could lead to an increase in voluntary charitable activity across the UK. The social goods would outweigh the economic impact.

Indeed, a report by the TUC suggests:

If Community Day were to increase the value of volunteering and community activity by just 5 per cent, this would offset the cost to the economy of a new holiday.

The same report points out that previous efforts to encourage volunteering (such as Make A Difference Day) have created a large number of committed volunteers who continue to be involved several months later.

Moreover, even with the addition of Community Day, the UK would still have two fewer public holidays than the US and the EU average.

It is easy to see why the Conservative party should welcome a new Bank Holiday. The idea complements the Giving Green Paper, which contained provisions to enable people to make charitable donations at ATMs and the ‘Round up the Pound’ scheme.

A day to celebrate the community could also play an important role in the Government’s decentralisation and ‘big society’ agenda.

Nevertheless, the Conservative party has mixed views about Bank Holidays. There were murmurings that the ‘Quality of Life’ policy review group headed by Lord Gummer had flirted with the idea of creating a number of new holidays but these did not make the final report.

Today, as the Labour party attempts to brand David Cameron as a right-wing ideologue, it would be worth reviving interest in a new Bank Holiday and remind the Left that the Conservative party is - and always will be - Britain’s most valuable champion of the voluntary sector and community values.

We need ‘Street Leaders’ to be role models for youngsters in troubled communities

Paul Marsden 11.15am

In part two of the special policy series, Paul Marsden says we need to provide activities for those youngsters failed by the education system.

Children need to grow up in a loving environment, enjoying life and having fun but it is just as important that they understand the boundaries and rules of acceptable behaviour. Children need role models. If none can be found at home, they will find them outside, amongst their peers.

There is little point in building shiny new youth clubs or providing brand new computer suites if there are not enough enthusiastic, talented, youth leaders to coach, mentor and guide young people.

Likewise, the bricks and mortar of a youth centre or similar facility are useless without activities to fill them.

Useful activities should provide youngsters with new skills to support them in life. Activities should also help to improve the local community. Rather than buying a pool table, useful community projects could involve getting young people to community website with videos on people and events in the community. They will learn IT skills and appreciate the value of their local community. The younger that children start activities like this, the better the prospect of them adopting a positive outlook, attitude and civic pride in later life.

Throw down the gauntlet and choose a project on young people’s doorsetps, such as a boarded up shop and encourage them to paint a mural on the shuttering. Offer them recognition by filming their accomplishment for local TV news. Have another group of youngsters use the film equipment and do it themselves so that they can learn film-making skills - producing, editing, uploading to YouTube and reviewing each other’s work.

Leadership is absolutely vital to fostering such an environment and a feeling of belonging in positive ‘circles’. Replace gangs with these circles.

Encourage competitive team sports in these circles too - something that has fallen by the wayside in our schools - such as football, cricket, baseball and basketball.

Instil these circles of youngsters with values such as fairness, respect, tolerance and responsibility. Replace aggressive gang competition with healthy sporting competition.

This is not an easy task but we have to find a way of substituting present after-school activities of street gangs and unproductive behaviour with better options. And I repeat, leadership is vital. The key is to find local leaders who understand their areas, have gained respect from people in those areas, and who have the potential to discover solutions to the area’s problems.

These ‘street leaders’ can be people from all walks of life. They would be an integral part of Renovation Zones, an idea introduced on these pages yesterday.

Street leaders are not gang leaders. They are fundamentally honest people who respect society’s rules. However, no one, irrespective of past mistakes, should be discouraged from becoming a street leader in a Renovation Zone as long as they fulfil those requirements and are the right person for the role.

Street leaders would be offered a small but useful budget for local projects and outcomes would be measured in simple terms such as fewer crimes - especially youth crime.

They will need to receive some coaching themselves and be provided with encouragement and motivation. Mentors of street leaders might include retired police officers, armed forces personnel, youth workers, business people and teachers.

There must not be a ‘formula solution’. Local ideas should be tried and tested. What works in one street might not work in another. Street leaders’ views should be respected and if ideas don’t work there must be encouragement, not blame.

Troubled communities need honest leaders as role models. The young people of those troubled communities need them more than anyone.

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NEW POLICY SPECIAL: How to repair the Two Nations of Britain

Paul Marsden 6.00am

Nearly three thousand people have been arrested since the summer riots. Hundreds have been processed through the criminal justice system. Many have gone to prison for a long time.

Still we are left with a distraught and angry majority, fed up with the bad news coming from the same areas of our towns and cities.

The minority who perpetrated the trouble remain angry with the world and transfixed by instant fame, celebrities and a ‘bling’ culture. They demand respect without earning it. They refuse to tolerate others and live in fear of each other, the police and anyone in a position of authority. That fear is turned into aggression. An aggressive mindset manifests itself in groups - or gangs - of ‘honour’ with their own uniforms, music and language. If they cannot beat the system they beat each other, they rob from local shops and they mug the elderly. Every day there are over 180 acts of anti-social behaviour in the UK.

There is a small, isolated section of British society that despises traditional British society. Two societies. Two nations.

The response of politicians to the riots has been considered and firm but it has been reactive. We must be proactive. The riots present Britain with a real opportunity to turn failed systems upside down. We cannot persist with the status quo.

Britain must bridge the divide between the so-called “underclass” and the rest of society. We need to listen and understand those angry voices. Violence, threats and law-breaking are not ways to break a conflict. Dialogue is the only way to affect meaningful change.

In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli, a future Conservative Prime Minister, wrote his seminal novel Sybil, or the Two Nations. It is a story about the worsening poverty in Britain’s industrial towns and cities and the gulf between rich and poor. Its male lead, Charles Egremont, gave his name to these pages. In Sybil, Egremont undergoes a Damascene conversion from louche layabout aristocrat to passionate investigator of that widening divide between people like him, and people like the Chartists.

We now face a more subtle divide in this country. The divide is no longer between rich and poor but rather between people who generally respect others in society and those who generally rebel against society. The growing tension spilled over into violence and looting this summer and it could do so again. We need practical solutions, now.

Over the coming days, I will describe a range of solutions and policies that could be put in train right away, broadly around four themes.

'Renovation Zones' to improve skills, restore faith in communities and get people working again. Reward responsibility and loyalty.

Accelerate the removal of entrenched obstacles in our education system. Reinstate and augment the traditional factors that work, and remove the ones that don’t. Replace them with greater flexibility, particularly micro-learning.

Regenerate communities through real leadership. Replace the gang structures with street leaders who are outside the political system but inside communities.

Carry out meaningful and lasting prison and justice reform, centred around a rehabilitation revolution.

Together, they form a programme of renovation - a programme to repair the Two Nations of Britain.

Visit Egremont tomorrow for the first instalment on ‘Renovation Zones’.

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Paul Marsden was a Member of Parliament for eight years between 1997 and 2005. He was elected as Labour MP for Shrewsbury & Atcham on a crest of Blairite hope and promise but went on to oppose Labour’s foreign policy after 9/11 when he rebelled against the war in Afghanistan. In December 2001, he crossed the floor to join the Liberal Democrats. In 2002, he was appointed a shadow health minister responsible for mental and prison health, and highlighted the dramatic increase in suicide rates among prison populations. In 2005, he was disillusioned with the Liberal Democrats and became the first MP since Winston Churchill to re-cross the floor of the House of Commons, prior to retiring from Parliament at that year’s General Election.

Following stints as chief executive of a trade association and an educational charity, Paul Marsden is an international business consultant working in the UK and Brussels.