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Archives for April 2011

On the move!

Patrick Burns | 13:21 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

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A very big thank you to everyone who has visited my blog over the past few dramatic months in politics. It's been fun hasn't it! (Hasn't it??)

All good things must come to an end and this is my final 'post' in this form. But cheer up. I now have a new-look page on the BBC News site.

You'll find it here - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/correspondents/patrickburns

See you there!
Patrick Burns

Council elections: 'other parties fighting to be heard'

Patrick Burns | 22:47 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

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Ballot paper

"It's the biggest test of public opinion since the General Election."

I keep hearing myself reciting this mantra in innumerable pre-election interviews and 'pieces to camera'; to such an extent that I am beginning to sound like an old-fashioned record with a crack in it.

There's an underlying assumption behind it that the local elections on Thursday 5 May are principally an opportunity to crunch the numbers and assess their significance for the three main parties, still adjusting to life either as a Coalition Government or as the official Opposition to it.

So this is where I kick myself with a reminder that these elections in 31 local councils right across our part of the country will have a very direct impact on the running of local services for millions of us Midlanders.

And it's not just about the two biggest parties either. UKIP, the Greens and the British National Party are fielding over 350 candidates here. All these three parties have demonstrated a highly-developed ability to win seats in a range of elections in recent years.

They have often been the repositories of protest votes of course, though they naturally emphasise their credentials as campaigners with clear, distinctive policies.

Fighting more seats than any of the other 'other' parties, the Greens tell me they are targeting the Black Country, Stafford, Solihull, Warwick and Herefordshire for special attention with more than 200 candidates. I asked Will Duckworth what exactly his party will be standing for on Thursday 5 May:

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UKIP will do well to emulate the level of support they achieved in the last Euro-elections two years ago when they won two of the Midlands six seats in the European Parliament. One of them, Mike Nattrass MEP, gave me this account of his party's policies for this year's council elections:

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The BNP held nine seats on Stoke-on-Trent City Council for three years from 2006. More recently they've been rocked by party splits and angry recriminations. Having lost their footholds in the Black Country, Redditch, Birmingham and Coventry, they may now be struggling to survive as a significant presence in local government. I met up with Michael Coleman, the group leader in Stoke-on-Trent:

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For all the manifest differences between them, the challenge facing all the parties outside the 'Big Three' is substantially the same: to make themselves heard above the sound and fury of the debate raging between Labour and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over the economy in general and council budget cuts in particular.

Much may depend on whether or not Labour will supplant them to become the principal party of protest.

Do join us for this week's Politics Show, 2pm on BBC One, you can email us politicsshowwestmids@bbc.co.uk or follow us on Twitter.

New constituencies, old rivalries

Patrick Burns | 09:34 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

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On this week's Politics Show, BBC WM's Michelle Dawes examined the Government's plans for fewer, and therefore bigger, Parliamentary constituencies.

The Democratic Audit 'think tank' told her the biggest impact would be in places like the Black Country, with fierce local loyalties and rivalries where larger constituencies would inevitably cut across local borough boundaries.

You may remember the Government fought a determined battle with Labour peers earlier this year to preserve the link between the redrawn constituencies and the AV Referendum.

Why did they fight so hard to keep them coupled together?

The referendum to say 'Yes' to AV, might cost the Conservatives up to 20 seats. But reducing the number of MPs by 50 would hit the Tories less hard than rival parties, to the extent that they might improve their position relative to the others by about, you guessed it, 20 seats!

I put it to the Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon, Nadhim Zahawi, that it was no wonder his party was being accused of 'gerrymandering'.

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Tuition fees: what price a university education?

Patrick Burns | 11:29 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

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Graduation ceremony

Spot the connection between these two developments this week.

1.The Government renews its commitment to improving social mobility.

2.Coventry University becomes the latest of our region's universities to announce its tuition fees. Along with Aston, Birmingham and Warwick, it proposes to charge up to the maximum of £9,000. Four down, nine to go.

The Government's critics have certainly wasted no time in making the connection.

They say that along with the scrappping of Education Maintainance Allowance, increasing students' tuition fees undermines the Government's declared intentions on on social mobility: poorer youngsters, they argue, will be more fearful of going into debt, leaving our top universities to become once again the preserve of the better-off and 'elbows out' middle classes.

We've seen already how the issue of student finance has the potential to inflame the most violent protests on the streets around Westminster since the Poll Tax Riots over 20 years ago. It's also one of the main reasons generally given for Nick Clegg's plummetting popularity ratings. 

Amid all the sound and fury generated by this debate it's becoming more and more difficult to disentangle the cat's cradle of claim and counter-claim.

Supporters of the Government's policy on student finance point out that the controversial 'up front' fees introduced under Labour will disappear.

Not all courses will involve the full £9,000 (Coventry propose it for just a handful). Universities are introducing their own individual 'relief' and ''support' packages to assist poorer students and to defend their own credentials on social mobility.

And then there is the widespread perception, possibly because the fee introduced under Labour was £3,000, that this is what a university course costs. Our universities tell us the real figure is well over twice that.

Finally, supporters point out that graduates will not start repaying their loans until they are earning at least £21,000 a year and if their incomes slip below £21k, their repayments are suspended again. In any event the slate will be wiped clean after 30 years and the Government assure us the poorest 20% of students will actually be better off than they were under Labour's funding regime.

All of which has a hollow ring for thousands of young graduates and under graduates facing the tightest jobs market in living memory; and with one-in-five 16 to 24 year olds here looking for work, our region faces some of the biggest challenges anywhere in the UK.

Who can blame them for being sceptical about the well-worn argument that a university education is the best investment any young person can make?

Equally, is it fair for the already hard-pressed taxpayer to be asked to dig still deeper? Shouldn't any extra burden be borne by those who benefit  directly from our universities?

The newer ones, usually former polytechnics like Coventry, Staffordshire and Wolverhampton, face an agonising dilemma. If they are to fulfil their mission of equipping some of our least resilient areas to compete in global markets, how can they set fee levels which risk putting-off the very youngsters they most need to atrract?

On the other hand, with their income from the Higher Education Funding Council set to be cut by up to 75% by 2015, how can they remain competitive with other 'knowledge-based economies' worldwide?

Chillingly, one former university vice chancellor told me recently that "the top North American universities are running rings around ours, even Oxbridge" and the same, apparently, could soon be true in China where a new generation of top class higher education institutions are fast emerging as a global academic force.

These are the arguments which we'll be exploring in this week's Politics Show. Our reporter Holly Lewis talks to sixth formers at Codsall Community High School near Wolverhampton. How are the potential students of the future facing-up to these most difficult of questions? 

And I'll be joined in the studio by three politicians and a vice chancellor. The Labour MP for West Bromwich West, Adrian Bailey, chairs the Commons Business Select Committee, who have been hearing evidence this week on the whole question of university funding; the Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon Nadhim Zahawi also sits on that same committee; and for the Liberal Democrats, Susan Juned is a member of Stratford District Council and of her party's Federal Executive. Also with me will be Professor Julia King, the Vice Chancellor of Aston University.

And I hope you'll be with us too, from 1215 this Sunday 10 April 2011 on BBC One.

In the meantime, here are two more connected developments:

1.You can email  your views to politicsshowwestmids@bbc.co.uk and follow us on Twitter using the hashtag #polshowmids for your views

2.Here is the full version of my colleague James O'Hara's interview with the recently-installed Vice Chancellor of Staffordshire University, Professor Michael Gunn.

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Sex Equality in the Boardroom

Patrick Burns | 17:43 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

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This week's Politics Show revealed that of 31 seats on the boards of the Midlands' three FTSE 100 listed companies only four are occupied by women.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable has set an ambitious target that by 2015 at least 25% of all company directors should be women.

It's fair to say our region has a long way to go. So is his objective attainable or is it no more than a pious hope?

That was one of the questions I posed to our line-up of three leading women in politics; Margot James, the Conservative MP for Stourbridge, who had a highly successful career in business before she entered Parliament last year; the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston Gisela Stuart was herself the beneficiary of her party's all-women shortlists when she was one of the 'Blair Babes' who took Westminster by storm in 1997; and from Shropshire Council Heather Kidd is a member of her party's business policy team.

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