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Archives for February 2011

Time for change? The pros and cons of 'Berlin time'

Patrick Burns | 12:31 UK time, Wednesday, 23 February 2011

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Big Ben 

'Spring forward. Fall back'.

It's the little catchphrase I always use to remind myself which way to change the clocks at either end of the winter.

We never catch up with our continental European chums of course. They do it too, so we always have the one hour time difference. Is this one of the reasons why those commercial and industrial 'early birds' in Germany and France so often seem to beat us to the worm?

I remember watching red-eyed Midlands business people marching like a silent army through the darkness from the car parks to the terminals at Birmingham Airport, to drag themselves onto the 6am departures they needed to make it into the likes of Paris, Frankfurt and Brussels in time for the main European working day.

But could this all be about to change? A Private Member's Bill currently being piloted through Parliament by Rebecca Harris, the Conservative MP for Castle Point in Essex aims towards what many would see as the ultimate act of European 'harmonisation'.

She wants us to move to something called 'Single Double Summer Time'. It may sound more like Double Dutch or even a contradiction in terms.

But whatever you call it, the net effect would be to bring us into line with our continental counterparts, year-round; the clocks would be one hour further forward than they are now during the winter, and two hours further forward from GMT during the Summer.

This would also put us six hours ahead of even the easternmost cities in the US including New York and Washington.

In practice, Private Members' Bills usually have little or no chance of making it onto the Statute Book.

But what they can do is encourage governments to adopt the measures themselves and draft their own legislation.

A Government Tourism Strategy is likely to support Daylight Saving. Moving to European time could generate as many as 80,000 new jobs and be worth over £3bn to the economy as a whole.

The big catch, of course, is that in return for longer late afternoons and evenings we would have to contend with darker mornings.

An earlier experiment with 'year round' summer time was ditched after three years in 1971.

So it may come as a surprise to discover that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents are now at the forefront of the campaign for change.

They say they have evidence that moving the clocks permanently forward would result in FEWER accidents.

But then of course, there are the farmers.

Our BBC Stoke Political Reporter Elizabeth Glinka joined Andrew Porteus on his dairy farm at Brewood in Staffordshire where his working day begins at 5am.

Even with the clocks as they are, she discovered that in February it's only just starting to get light by the time milking finishes at 7am. Farmers worry that moving the clocks further forward would mean more than half their work would have to be done in half-light, inseasing the risk of accidents. 

On Sunday Elizabeth will be joining us live on the Politics Show from one of the Midlands' favourite tourist attractions: Drayton Manor Theme Park near Tamworth.

They've been doing bumper business during this half-term week. But they say longer afternoons and evenings would significantly extend their prime season.

She'll be joined there by the Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, Karen Bradley, herself a strong supporter of changing the clocks for keeps, and her party colleague the Tamworth constituency MP Chris Pincher who's not so sure.

There is, however, one great imponderable which seems to be beyond even Westminster's control.

Those dark winter mornings are darker still in Scotland. In some of the most northerly areas it's dark until after 9am. So it's no wonder there is still widespread hostility north of the border to the very idea of starting the day even earlier.

Any attempt to make a permanent switch to European time would almost certainly run into an effective veto from the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

And the idea of 'Berlin time' appears not to be to the liking of the Daily Mail either!

Whatever your point of view I hope you'll synchronise your clocks and watches: it's GMT for the time being, so join us on the stroke of noon for The Politics Show on BBC One this Sunday lunchtime (27 February 2011).

Email us your thoughts politicsshowwestmids@bbc.co.uk or follow us on Twitter.

HS2: a PS from Politics Show viewers

Patrick Burns | 13:27 UK time, Sunday, 20 February 2011

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The phones, emails and Twitter were absolutely red hot. Our programme about High Speed Rail had generated one of the biggest responses we've had on the Politics Show, on both sides of the debate.

As the Government prepares to announce its six-month consultation over the proposed route, we asked you if you thought the question was still genuinely open, or a 'done deal'?

'Gin Boy' via Twitter told us: 'It's a done deal, and rightly so!'

Bill Lloyd of Solihull called us in response to the storm of protests on the proposed route of the line through Warwickshire and Staffordshire to tells us: 'HS2 is for the benefit of the whole Midlands.'

And Mr Blackwood from Birmingham said it must go ahead to ease the pressure on the motorways.

But Lee asked, via Twitter, if it won't just benefit London?

Phil from Stoke-on-Trent told us high-speed rail hasn't improved trade in continental Europe so there's no need for it here.

And Peter King from Lichfield saw HS2 as 'a complete waste of money. We already have a decent rail system.'

They'd been inspired to contact us after some live and lively exchanges on today's Politics Show, which was on air between 12 midday and 1 pm on BBC One.

My guests were the Conservative MP for North Warwickshire Daniel Byles who opposes a high-speed line being built through his constituency; and Cllr Sir Albert Bore, the Leader of the Opposition Labour Group on Birmingham City Council, who believes HS2 would give the region the economic boost it so clearly needs.

I put it to Mr Byles he was putting his local considerations ahead of the wider national interest.

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High-speed rail: let battle commence

Patrick Burns | 09:01 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

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HS2 - Network Rail

It's viewed by supporters as a 'transformational project' which will put the Midlands onto the same economic footing as Zone 5 of the London Underground and ultimately cut journey times to Northern England and Scotland almost in half.

But to its opponents, it's a 'vanity project', a monstrous waste of over £30bn and an environmental disaster for which there is no business case.

And whatever you do, don't try telling them they're 'NIMBYs'!

Views have if anything polarised still further since I published my first post on the arguments raging around high-speed rail (HS2) on 9 March last year.

I did my best to summarise the pros and cons but for the growing numbers of campaign groups clustered around the proposed route through Warwickshire and Staffordshire, it's difficult to see any positives at all. They say the proposals are already blighting their homes and in some cases, threatening their livelihoods.

But my later post during the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham (5 October 2010) included my interview with David Cameron in which he reaffirmed his commitment to the project which he sees as one of the key elements in bridging the North-South Divide.

We must now brace ourselves for this debate to intensify still further.

The Government promise the full six-month consultation period over the first phase of the project between London and Birmingham will begin at the end of this month.

And all of a sudden, the politics surrounding HS2 are taking an intriguing turn.

As I reported last year, High Speed Rail has been the subject of an almost unheard-of three-party consensus, at least so far as their respective leadership teams are concerned.

While Labour were still in power, the then Transport Secretary Lord (Andrew) Adonis toured the country extolling its benefits to a wide range of regional audiences.

Two months ago I chaired a conference of local business leaders at which his Conservative successor Philip Hammond MP presented much the same message albeit with modifications to the original route to include a spur to Heathrow Airport.

But now some Conservative MPs with constituencies on the line are threatening to defy their leaders and oppose the project.

But what's really galvanised this argument is the growing speculation that Labour's new front bench team may also be considering breaking with their former position and bringing the Opposition out in..err...Opposition!

Would this open them up to the charge that they were playing a populist card now that they are no longer in office? Putting narrow parochialism ahead of the national interest? The very idea would lead to a battle royal with Labour's own MPs in cities like Birmingham: I gather they're already lobbying furiously behind the scenes to prevent what most of them still see as a golden scenario from being derailed.

One influential Labour MP who is already expressing his fervent hope that the party's front bench will now fight HS2 is the former Paymaster General and Coventry North West MP Geoffrey Robinson.

I have recorded an interview with him at Westminster to be screened on this week's Politics Show. But you can see it here now (below).

Mr Robinson is adamant that the business case does not stack up and that the extra capacity that will be needed on the West Coast line can be delivered for a small fraction of the cost of HS2.

All of which means that supporters of HS2 have no illusion they have a fight on their hands. One of the most determined advocates of High Speed Rail is Jerry Blackett, the Chief Executive of the Birmingham and Solihull Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He will be joining us live on this week's Politics Show when we will be raising  the curtain on a whole week of joined-up programmes and special reports right across our Midlands Today, BBC Local Radio and online output.

I hope you will join us too, from 1200 on BBC One this Sunday lunchtime (20 February 2010). And why not follow us on Twitter.

 

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School Re-building: Sandwell's win over Michael Gove

Patrick Burns | 13:14 UK time, Sunday, 13 February 2011

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As I write, the dust still has yet to settle in the West Midlands Politics Show studio after a series of angry exchanges over the succesful legal challenge to the Education Secretary Michael Gove by six local authorities including Sandwell.

Nine school building projects were scrapped in the borough when Mr Gove announced last July that the Building Schools for the Future (BsF) programme, introduced under Labour, was being curtailed because it was "dysfunctional and bureaucratic".

He said the programme was consuming one-third of his department's total capital budget. And in the entire West Midlands region it had delivered just nine building projects in five years.

But his decision has caused fury and consternation in Sandwell who now say their legal challenge has been vindicated.

On Friday, a High Court judge ruled Mr Gove had abused his powers, and had failed consult properly on a case-by-case basis.

This then was the acrimonious background to this afternoon's sharp exchanges on BBC One's Politics Show in the West Midlands.

I was talking to Sandwell's Labour Council Leader, Darren Cooper down the line from the Stuart Bathurst High School in Wednesbury; with me in the studio, the Conservative MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, James Morris. He told us the Judge had told Sandwell they had been wrong to think they should receive any more money under BSF.

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Cutting Legal Aid: should we settle this out of court?

Patrick Burns | 13:50 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

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Statue of justice

Lady Justice. There's one thing we all know about her. She's blind. 

But beyond that, 'justice' is one of those easy words we tend to bandy around without ever really troubling ourselves too much over exactly what they mean.

If we want to characterise some gross unfairness, the worst we can say is that it's 'a travesty of justice'. Or if we're looking for a rhetorical question after being on the wrong end of a bad decision, we ask 'where's the justice in that?'

The important point about its blindness is that, as any lawyer will tell you, justice should be dispensed solely on the basis of the facts, regardless of the identities of those involved.

Legal Aid has long been seen as an extension of the same principle: that justice should not discriminate between rich and poor.

Just as the NHS is famously 'free at the point of delivery' to everyone who needs it, access to justice ought not to be denied to anyone on the grounds of cost alone. It is no coincidence that the NHS and Legal Aid were both introduced by the post-war Attlee Government under the banner of what was to become known as the Welfare State.

More than half a century has passed since then of course, and the Coalition Government is now telling us that without a package of radical 'reforms' Legal Aid, like the NHS, would become "unaffordable".

Which translates directly into a package of cuts for the Ministry of Justice of over £2bn by 2015: Kenneth Clarke's department was one of those which took a disproportionately heavy hit in order to protect spending elsewhere, not least (ironically enough) Health spending.

Legal Aid's share of the cost-cutting equates to £350m over that same four-year period.

But ministers insist it's not just about saving money. They say there are currently too many lawyers working on too many cases which are jamming the courts.

In a classic 'giving with one hand while taking away with the other' manoeuvre, the Government proposes more people on low incomes should be eligible for legal aid in principle, but in practice it will be available less often. Anyone with an annual disposable income of less than £8,000 is currently eligible to apply for legal aid.

You would think that raising this threshold would enable more people to apply. But at the same time some of the range of cases currently eligible for Legal Aid would be curtailed. Family, civil, compensation and industrial tribunal cases would disappear from the list. So too would appeals from people who had been refused an HGV licence or whose children had been expelled from school.  

The Coalition sees Mediation as the real long-term answer.

John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, is a strong supporter of the proposal. He says the question that's not being asked often enough is "can this be resolved without going to court?" In other words, by agreement without adding to the workload in the courts. 

Mr Hemming will be joining me live on this Sunday's Politics Show. So too will the Shadow Justice Minister and Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, Rob Flello.

Like Mr Hemming, he's a former Birmingham City Councillor. But unlike him, he thinks the Government's proposals would damage access to justice for the most vulnerable in society. He believes the proposals are especially dangerous because they come just at the time when councils including Birmingham are closing their Citizens' Advice Bureaux because of the public spending cuts. 

This coming Monday marks the end of the official consultation period on these controversial proposals, so Sunday's Politics Show could be your last chance to have your say.    

Email us at politicsshowwestmids@bbc.co.uk and why not follow us on Twitter.

And I hope you too will join us for the Politics Show itself from 12 o'clock on BBC One this Sunday lunchtime (13 February 2011).

Here's a foretaste of our programme, but drawn from the BBC's archives. Back in 1973, the then President of the Law Society, Sir Desmond Heath, explained the important principles behind Legal Aid. 

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Re-scheduling A-levels: a P.S. from the Politics Show

Patrick Burns | 10:06 UK time, Sunday, 6 February 2011

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So is it time to stop putting the cart before the horse and bring A-levels forward, so that students apply to universities and colleges once they have their results, rather than going through the elaborate ritual of 'predicted grades' and 'conditional offers'?

It's an important question because there's a growing body of evidence that students at schools in poorer areas often have their grades under-predicted whereas better-off children more often have their results over-estimated by their teachers.

And given that there is only a five-day window for candidates to adjust their applications once the results have come out, there are real fears that this is having a socially regressive effect on Further and Higher Education.

This, along with the controversy currently raging around the Government's scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, formed the basis of this afternoon's Politics Show debate.

The Conservative MP for Tamworth Christopher Pincher signalled the Government's appetite for change on A-levels.

He also pointed out that it would also simplify the elaborate and costly administration process at the Cheltenham-based University and Colleges Admissions Service. They incidentally are conducting a thorough review of the system.

One teacher emailed us from Mr Pincher's Tamworth constituency to tell us that it was the teachers unions' who had stood in the way of reform, which could mean a switch to a four-term school year and the loss of the extended summer holidays. 

Earlier, I had talked to the former Education Secretary Estelle (now Baroness) Morris who was the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley from 1992-2005. She told me she's frequently visited and revisited the question of re-scheduling the A-levels, but it invariably produced more questions than answers.

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Re-scheduling A-levels: an overdue reform or an old chestnut?

Patrick Burns | 13:23 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

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Office

Clearing Day at Ucas in Cheltenham: could scenes like this become a thing of the past?

It's a very long time since I took my A-levels. In my day they came two years after your O-levels. GCSEs and AS-levels weren't so much as a twinkle in the examiner's eye.

But even in those distant days, it appeared to those of us students like a convoluted charade. What a completely dotty idea it seemed to be, to expect us to apply for university and college places on the basis of our 'predicted grades'.

In what other area of life would anyone seek any kind of position by saying they did not possess the required qualifications? But they would have them soon enough. Promise!

It added yet another layer of complication and uncertainty to an already wasteful and time-consuming process: with 5 universitiy choices per candidate, for year after year since then, the admissions system has been handling millions of applications of which 80% never materialise.

If you had told us then that we would still be debating the pros and cons of changing the system in the second decade of the 21st Century, we would have thought you were having us on.

And yet whevener the call for reform has gone out, with the predictable regularity of a political 'first cuckoo', it has invariably  fallen on officially deaf ears. Only this week, a senior educationalist told one of my colleagues it was 'an old chestnut'.

A more measured view comes from the Cheltenham-based University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

Its Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook told us: "Running an admissions system based on known qualification outcomes could significantly reduce admissions administration and improve institutional efficiency. However, we think it would be difficult to achieve based on the current admissions process and we will be investigating the options as part of our comprehensive admissions process review which is at early planning stages now and due to complete later this year."

Her comments  explain why we have seen so little movement on this over the years. And yet her promise of  a "comprehensive admissions process review" gives me the distinct impression of a change in the educational weather.

It's looking increasingly likely that the Government's Education White Paper, to be published in the next few months, will make the case for reform. The Universities Minister David Willetts told 'The Times' recently that the process could be 're-engineered'.

He said: "Instead of speculative applications based on possible A-level grades everyone (would be) dealing with how a pupil performs."

But perhaps the most significant new element in this debate is the growing body of evidence that the existing system is socially 'regressive': that it places pupils from poorer backgrounds at a disadvangage because typically their grades are more lilkely to be under-predicted. While middle class children whose schools are in more upwardly-mobile areas are apprently more likely to have their grades over-predicted by their teachers.

If, in the event, the poorer students exceed expectations, they have relatively little opportunity to revisit their applications. As George Turnbull of the Coventry-based qualifications regulator Ofqual put it: "There is a 5-day window of opportunity to seek a place on more competitive courses through the process known as 'adjustment'. But the current pressure on places leaves little room for manoeuvre."

All of which begs the question: if it's such an obvious idea, why weren't  Post Qualification Admissions (PQAs) introduced years ago?

That's one of the questions I'll be putting to the former Education Secretary and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, Estelle (now Baroness) Morris in an interview to be screened on this coming Sunday's Politics Show.

She tells me that when an idea which seems such obvious good sense is never implemented you have to ask why not. Maybe there's a reason why not.

She confirms that during her time in office as Secretary of State and (before that) in a succession of less lofty ministerial roles in Education, the Government  examined and re-examined the whole question. And to this day she remains 'cautious'.

For a start, A-levels would almost certainly have to be brought forward. As a former teacher, Baroness Morris is concerned the A-level syllabus is already squeezed, in effect, into 5 terms from beginning to end. Changing the process could also leave less time for any mistakes to be sorted out. 

We'll also be canvassing the views of the young people who have most at stake in all this: pupils at Worcester's Sixth Form College who are currently going through the mill, as well as students at the University of Warwick who've survived the system to gain places at our region's highest-ranking seat of learning.

In the hope of shedding more light on the Government's latest thinking on this challending question, for universities, schools, parents, teachers and (not least) students alike, I'll be joined live in the studio by the Conservative MP for Tamworth, Christopher Pincher.

We'd like to know what you make of all this. Email us at politicsshowwstmids@bbc.co.uk and why not follow us on Twitter.

And I hope you too will join us for the Politics Show itself from 12 o'clock on BBC One this Sunday lunchtime (6 February 2011).

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