Tim Clark: The Sewell Report is right to highlight education as the passport to a fairer country

30 Apr

Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for eighteen years, firstly of a Lincolnshire grammar school which he led to “outstanding” and secondly of an academy in Hackney. He now runs his own consultancy, specialising in school improvement.

In March of this year, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Dr Tony Sewell, published its long- awaited report. The report considered four main themes: education and training; employment; crime and policing; health. In terms of education, what should have been welcomed as an encouraging and challenging piece of research, was slated by many, not least by the National Association of Headteachers, which denounced it as “an insult”. It feels that for some, unless the report damned Britain as country of institutionalised racism and “white privilege”, it must be a sham with a hidden agenda. How sad. Instead, what we should be doing, is to use this report as a mechanism for improving opportunities for all young people, regardless of background or ethnicity. Despite the many disparities and inequalities that clearly still exist, the report also highlights the many education success stories of which teachers and schools should be proud.

The report acknowledges that overt racism remains “a real force” in the UK. Quite rightly, therefore, the first of its twenty-four recommendations demands that it is incumbent on everyone to challenge racist discrimination wherever it exists. This aspect of the report is largely ignored by its detractors. They appear particularly incensed by the conclusion that rather than racism, many issues of inequality are the result of a variety of other factors including family circumstances, socio-economic background, geography and the degree of integration. It is simply wrong, not to say unhelpful and even dangerous, to glibly dismiss all issues of inequality as the result of racism.

Crucially, the report identifies education as, “The passport to a brighter future” and to creating a fairer and prosperous country for everyone. This last point is crucial – poverty, underachievement and deprivation apply to groups within the majority white population just as much, and in some cases, even more, than to ethnic minorities. “Strong early years support”, however, “Good schools and evidence based interventions can improve educational outcomes across all groups and partly overcome other factors”. Put more prosaically, “A rising tide really can raise all boats”.

Five educational issues raised by the report.

Leadership, teachers and governors:

It is crucial that we attract and retain the best teachers and school leaders. They must be appointed on merit and ability – any other grounds for appointment disadvantages all pupils. Obviously, we must attract more teachers from ethnic minority groups, not least as good role models are so essential. The statistics, however, are improving: the report states that 86 per cent of teachers are white and 14 per cent from ethnic minorities, not very different from the findings of the 2011 census. The situation is, sadly, much less encouraging when considering governance, where only siex per cent of governors are non-white. It is essential, therefore, that schools do much more to attract governors from the communities which they serve and that, in turn, members of all communities engage with their local schools.

The curriculum:

The report quite rightly dismisses recent attempts to negatively “decolonise” the curriculum, which is both academically suspect and positively damaging in terms of community cohesion. Living in Britain and being British are the two things which unite us all, so it is essential that we all understand the society in which we live. No, that does not mean that we stop teaching about the horrors of the slave trade, the first Passage, the Middle Passage and the wicked practice that was slavery, but that we add to the traditional curriculum the much more positive, “Making of Modern Britain” and show how, “The Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain”.

Equally interestingly, the report calls for much greater emphasis to be placed on traineeships and apprenticeships. For far too long, the 40+ per cent of the population who fail to achieve a good set of GCSE’s appear to have been ignored. Much more meaningful and quality vocational education will enable many more to achieve and, in consequence, to contribute far more to society.

Extending the school day:

The Covid crisis has reminded us all of the importance of school, not just for academic development, but for social development and mental wellbeing. Since the report identifies family circumstances as having far more impact on a young person’s development than his/her ethnicity, it is a logical conclusion that for some of our most deprived children, great benefit can be derived from the extended school day. Such a recommendation raises a host of practical considerations relating to staff workload, contracted hours, the employment of additional staff etc, but if the additional targeted funding highlighted by the report is forthcoming, then an extended day could do much to mitigate the negative factors which lie behind many a child’s underachievement.

Discipline and pupil behaviour:

Every child needs a structured and disciplined environment in which to grow, and especially those youngsters who experience an unhappy and unsettled home life. School must teach pupils right from wrong and this includes sanctioning those who do wrong. The report repeats the phrase from the current Ofsted Inspection Framework that exclusion is a “vital tool” for maintaining a safe and purpose atmosphere in school, but exclusion (suspension or expulsion) is often quoted as proof of institutional racism in schools. Such a claim is absolute nonsense. The reality is that pupils from ethnic minorities are less likely to be excluded, pupils from Chinese and Indian backgrounds being the least likely to face exclusion.

Of course, exclusion remains disproportionately high amongst Black Caribbean children (though not amongst those of Black African heritage). As the 2019 Timpson Review of Exclusions revealed, however, a much wider range of causal factors, other than ethnicity, has an impact on exclusions, including poverty, SEND, family environment and poor mental health.

As in many schools, my own approach to behaviour management was to have clear behaviour expectations which applied to all pupils. We did not, for example permit violence, theft or rudeness to staff. Pupils were excluded if they hit someone, stole something or were rude to a teacher – ethnicity had absolutely nothing to do with it; nor should it. The key question here is not the childish, “how do we reduce exclusions?”, but the much more pertinent (and more difficult), “how do we improve behaviour?”. We must target intervention, not on the grounds of ethnicity but on the grounds of individual need, and this must include significantly improving Alternative Provision for those youngsters who seriously and persistently disrupt the learning of others.

High aspiration:

One of the saddest aspects of the reaction to the report has been the way that many politicians, headteachers and commentators who slammed it so peremptorily, completely ignored the overwhelming evidence of the phenomenal optimism and achievement amongst so many groups in society. Why should they be so upset by the knowledge that in core GCSE subjects, White British children are outperformed by Black African children, and significantly so by Chinese and Indian children? Why do we not shout from the roof tops that, proportionally, more Black African and more Black Caribbean students progress to university than White British students, with the disparity being even more marked when considering students on Free School Meals?

No-one will argue that Britain is perfect, but it has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. What remains true for pupils of all backgrounds, however, is that engagement with education is, “the Passport to a brighter future.”

Nickie Aiken: Why I campaigned to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill will give more protection to children

30 Apr

Nickie Aiken is MP for Cities of London and Westminster.

This week, the Government will deliver on another major manifesto commitment as the Domestic Abuse Bill receives Royal Assent. It has the potential to be a significant piece of legislation, laying as it does the foundations we need as a society to dramatically change not only how we think about domestic abuse, but how we respond to it.

The Domestic Abuse Act will do many things, but perhaps none greater than offering significantly improved protection to children and recognising them as victims in their own right. Domestic abuse can have a devastating impact on young people, resulting in emotional, social, psychological and behavioural difficulties that have long-term implications.

The Bill joins a long list of reforms to protect the vulnerable that successive Conservative governments have introduced over the past 30 years – the Children Act 1989; the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which created the offence of harassment; the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which created the offence of stalking; and the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which Theresa May took through the House before becoming a driving force behind this Bill.

I was honoured to sit on the Domestic Abuse Bill committee – my first as a Member of Parliament. As a former children’s services lead at Westminster Council, I and others across the sector were keen to strengthen the Bill’s provisions for children. We knew well the evidence about the long-term impact domestic abuse has on children – nearly 800,000 in England alone – and what the right support can mean to their lives.

Home is meant to be a place of safety, where we are loved and cherished the most. But for some children home becomes a place of fear. They wake up every morning not knowing whether something they do will lead to violence and the type of abuse that most of us could never imagine. This nightmare has only worsened during the coronavirus crisis, which has shone a dark light on domestic abuse. For some families, things have been incredibly hard, trapped at home for most, if not all, of the day, creating the perfect storm that could make domestic abuse more likely.

Every day, children’s services teams up and down the country see the devastating effects that witnessing such abuse can have on a child’s development, educational attainment and long-term mental health. Yet the vast majority of young people across England and Wales do not receive any of the specialist support they need to help them recover from the trauma. Children exposed to domestic abuse need expert help to process and recover from their experiences and develop an understanding of healthy relationships and behaviours.

This is what drove me to push for their inclusion in the statutory definition within the Bill, and I’m grateful that ministers have been prepared to listen and agree amendments that make improvements. Working closely with charities like Action for Children and Women’s Aid, we were all able to change the conversation so the needs of children are not overlooked, and it is significant that the Bill now specifically includes children within households where domestic abuse takes place, recognising them for what they are – victims, and not just witnesses.

By identifying children in the statutory definition, we are helping to put them at the heart of how society deals with domestic abuse. Now their perspectives, their experiences, and their need for support will have to be taken into account by the frontline professionals working with their families.

As big a step as it is, the Act is only the first step. It’s not enough to think about helping children. We need to ensure every child who needs specialist help to overcome domestic abuse is able to receive it but, as Action for Children found, provision of domestic abuse services around the country is currently ‘patchy, piecemeal and precarious’.

At an early stage of its passage through Parliament, the Domestic Abuse Bill only required councils to provide specialist help if a child or young person was already in a domestic abuse refuge, not elsewhere. But, of course, most child victims live in homes, not refuges.

So, I’m pleased the Government has promised to consult on extending this duty to cover all child victims of abuse, wherever they live, as part of its work for the upcoming Victims’ Bill. That’s a testament to the hard work of the minister Victoria Atkins, who has impressed so many colleagues and campaigners with her willingness to listen and her quiet effectiveness.

I’m proud that it is a Conservative government that’s delivered a Domestic Abuse Act. It has the potential to change how society protects and supports our most vulnerable children.

Our job now, in national and local government, is to seize the opportunity and ensure every child who needs help to overcome domestic abuse is able to get it.

Newslinks for Friday 30th April 2021

30 Apr

“Sleaze” 1) Conservatives opinion poll lead increases

“The Conservatives have extended their polling lead over Labour before the local elections despite the furore over Boris Johnson’s flat refurbishment and allegations of sleaze. A YouGov poll for The Times has found an 11-point gap between the Tories and Labour. The Conservatives are on 44 per cent, the same as a week ago, with Labour down one point on 33. Johnson is facing intense scrutiny over the redecoration of his flat above No 11 Downing Street, which is said to have cost as much as £200,000. There are claims that £800 was spent on a roll of wallpaper.” – The Times

  • ‘I love John Lewis’, says Johnson – Daily Telegraph
  • Tories attack Starmer’s John Lewis wallpaper photo op – BBC
  • Will wallpaper-gate really ‘cut through’ – or will Boris continue comfortably unscathed? – Tom Harris, Daily Telegraph
  • Infantile Keir Starmer is on the fast track to political oblivion – Leader, The Sun
  • Believe me, it’s a lot easier to run a country than deny a wife her home makeover – Tom Utley, Daily Mail
  • Brazen, destructive, aggressive: how does Boris Johnson get away with it? – Andy Beckett, The Guardian

>Today:

“Sleaze” 2) Johnson’s mobile number has been available on the internet for years

“Boris Johnson’s personal mobile phone number has been freely available on the internet for the past 15 years, it has been revealed. The number, published in a 2006 press release that was never deleted, appears to be the one the PM still uses. Last week, officials denied Mr Johnson had been advised to change his number. Labour MP Rachel Hopkins said the availability of Mr Johnson’s phone number had implications for security, lobbying and the risk of blackmail. It is understood there were suggestions within government that he should be less willing to pass on his contact details to external organisations. Downing Street declined to comment on Thursday evening after the number’s availability was first reported by the celebrity gossip email newsletter, Popbitch. In 2006, Mr Johnson was MP for Henley and the shadow higher education minister, and the press release invited journalists to contact him for further comment about a related issue.” – BBC

  • Hancock must reveal WhatsApp messages about PPE deals – The Times

“Sleaze” 3) Hodge calls for standards commissioner Kathryn Stone to intervene

“Boris Johnson on Thursday said he would be willing to comply with the formal Electoral Commission investigation into whether any rules were broken in the financing of his Downing Street flat renovation, as Labour called for a parliamentary probe into his conduct…His comments came as Margaret Hodge, a senior Labour backbencher, urged parliament’s commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, to investigate whether Johnson breached the MP’s code of conduct over alleged donations linked to the flat renovation. In a letter, sent on Thursday afternoon, Hodge called for Stone to probe funding of the refurbishment and explore whether Johnson declared any possible donations in the correct manner.” – Financial Times

  • Labour asks parliamentary commissioner for standards to investigate any potential breach of MPs’ code of conduct – The Guardian
  • Third inquiry into flat redecoration – The Times

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: Whatever you think of Johnson’s flat, the Electoral Commission’s record on investigations is shockingly bad

“Sleaze” 4) Nelson: Why Cummings “is dangerous for No10”

“Cummings is dangerous for No10, not just because of his store of emails and quotes, including remarks Johnson made to him in private, which he’s now willing to disclose. Some in No10 talk about him as an isolated loner but he has allies, versed in his art of war, some of whom talk about a “grid” of activity in what seems like a semi-formal campaign aimed at the removal of the Prime Minister. They don’t need to make alliances with anyone else: once a “Dom bomb” is detonated, a flank is opened through which others can leap in.” – Fraser Nelson, Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 1) PM advised that social distancing at large events can be scrapped

“Social distancing for large events can be scrapped from June 21, Boris Johnson will be told next week after initial results from a pilot scheme found no spike in Covid cases among attendees. An interim report into the reopening trials will advise the Prime Minister that crowds can return safely and without distancing provided that measures such as staggering entries and good ventilation are in place. Government scientists have been monitoring the impact of letting fans back into an FA Cup semi-final, Carabao Cup final and World Snooker Championship. Conclusions from the early data are contained in the report and a covering note to be given to ministers next week, details of which The Telegraph has learned.” – Daily Telegraph

  • People in their 30s set to get Covid vaccine in mid-May – The i
  • Experts call for inquiry to be launched – The Guardian
  • Only 757 symptomatic cases a day in England and infection chance as low as one in 150,000 if jabbed twice – Daily Mail

Coronavirus 2) Hopes boosted for summer holidays in Europe

“Hopes of a summer holiday in Europe were boosted yesterday with the possibility of non-essential travel to destinations such as Portugal and Malta as soon as mid-May. It is likely that limited overseas trips will be permitted in just over two weeks’ time, with experts saying that an initial “green list” is likely to include up to 24 countries. Meanwhile, France announced that Britons will be able to travel there from the start of June provided they have proof of being vaccinated.” – The Times

8,771 more police officers have been hired

“Boris Johnson is nearly halfway to reaching his goal of putting 20,000 more police on the streets – as he announced 8,771 more cops have been hired. As he tries to get on the front foot ahead of next week’s local elections, he thanked hard-working police and vowed the new recruits would make Britain’s streets safer to “crack down” on crime. Every force across England and Wales has met or exceed their recruitment targets, they confirmed last night. Ministers have vowed to recruit at least 6,000 a year to meet their target within three years. 139,000 people have applied to join the police since the start of the fresh recruitment drive under the PM. Ministers said there were now more than 10,000 ethnic minority cops in Britain’s forces – the highest number on record.” – The Sun

>Yesterday: Priti Patel on Comment: Delivering on the people’s priorities. Almost 9000 new police officers already – well above our target.

Tax on developers to raise £2 billion for cladding

“Housebuilders will pay higher taxes on profits over £25 million as the government tries to claw back money to pay for the removal of dangerous cladding from tower blocks. The tax on developers, which will come into force next year, will be time-limited and is expected to raise £2 billion over a decade. Survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people in west London in 2017 criticised ministers yesterday after the government succeeded in pushing through its Fire Safety Bill despite a rebellion from more than 30 Tory MPs. Grenfell United, a campaign group, said it was “indefensible” that the government was not doing more to protect leaseholders. “It’s a grave injustice that many innocent leaseholders will be financially ruined over fire safety issues that were not of their own making, while the government is letting those responsible continue to get off scot-free,” it said.” – The Times

Poots declares bid for support for DUP leadership…

“Stormont minister Edwin Poots has publicly put his name forward to be the next leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The party has begun the process of appointing a new leader after Arlene Foster’s resignation. She will step down as DUP leader on 28 May and as first minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June. Mr Poots is one of three DUP politicians tipped as a potential party leader. He has been a member of the DUP for all of his political career and is Northern Ireland’s agriculture and environment minister.” – BBC

  • If DUP gets this wrong, it could be death knell for the Union – Leo McKinstry, Daily Mail

Forsyth: Without EU compromise over trade, unionism will become more hardline

“Another solution is to take a liberal interpretation of the rules and conduct checks only on goods and produce that might realistically end up in the Irish Republic. This would not only reduce the number of checks but address one of the unionists’ key concerns: that the protocol is a Trojan horse establishing economic unity as a precursor to political unity between the north and the republic. This might work if Dublin gives its blessing: the EU wouldn’t entertain the idea unless the Irish supported it.” – James Forsyth, The Times

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: Why Foster’s exit most likely signals an even harder line against the Protocol from the DUP

Sturgeon backs away from 2021 independence referendum

“Nicola Sturgeon has backed away from her threat to hold a new independence referendum this year as a new poll showed support for leaving the UK had fallen to its lowest level in 18 months. The First Minister launched a blueprint on Thursday setting out key actions her government will take in the first 100 days of the new Holyrood term, if she wins re-election. It includes no mention of seeking negotiations about a new vote on leaving the UK. Senior SNP figures have repeatedly claimed that a new referendum could be held as early as this year if the party wins next week’s election. Ms Sturgeon had previously refused to rule out a snap vote in late 2021.” – Daily Telegraph

  • How will the SNP fare in Scotland’s May elections? – Financial Times
  • NatWest would move HQ to England if Scotland becomes independent – Daily Mail
  • Wake up to the toxic illusion that is the narrow-minded, backward-looking and self-serving Nationalists – Liam Fox, Daily Express

Gibb to join BBC board

“Sir Robbie Gibb, a former Downing Street communications director, is joining the BBC board as the board member for England. He will start on 7 May. Prior to working in No 10 for the Conservative Party between 2017 and 2019, Gibb had a successful 25-year career at the BBC, culminating in his role as head of Westminster. Before that, he was deputy editor of Newsnight and editor of The Daily Politics and This Week.” – BBC

  • Jon Snow to step down from Channel 4 News after 32 years – The Guardian

Biden “more divisive than Trump”

“Believe it or not the seemingly mild-mannered Joe Biden is more divisive after 100 days in office than Donald Trump was. According to Gallup 94 per cent of Democrats approve of Mr Biden’s performance, and only 11 per cent of Republicans do. For Mr Trump the Gallup figures at the same stage were 87 per cent approval among Republicans, and 12 per cent among Democrats. It shows both presidents woefully failed to appeal to Americans who didn’t vote for them. But Mr Biden has actually been doing a slightly worse job of it. As Mr Biden delivered his first address to Congress on Wednesday night the division appeared even more marked in the chamber than it is in the country.” – Daily Telegraph

  • The President’s no unifier – Leader, Daily Telegraph
  • He’s walking a tightrope between big spending and the stretch of the public purse – Kate Andrews, Daily Telegraph
  • His solutions are stuck in the 20th century – Gerard Baker, The Times
  • Hey, Big Spender – Leader, The Times
  • Biden rally in Georgia disrupted by protesters – BBC

News in brief

  • Is Nicola Sturgeon in for a scare in her own seat? – Susan Dalgety, The Spectator
  • Departure of Simon Stevens marks the end of an era – Paul Waugh, Huffington Post
  • A renewed Iran deal is on the way – and it threatens all of our security – Ron Sandee, CapX
  • Popularity slump for Starmer – Independent
  • Like every narcissist before him, Sadiq Khan views politics as his stage – Douglas Murray, Unherd

The first North Koreans to stand as Conservative candidates help vindicate our democracy

30 Apr

Perhaps the most astonishing Conservative candidate in next week’s elections spent Wednesday afternoon campaigning in Moorside Ward in the town of Bury, eight miles north of Manchester.

Jihyun Park escaped twice from totalitarian tyranny in North Korea, and after many horrific adventures escaped from China too. Her harrowing experiences of life under communism have given her an ardent love of freedom, and a delight in even the most humdrum aspects of a democratic contest.

We met in Walmersley Road, the busy thoroughfare running north from the centre of Bury, and turned at once into a quiet side street of terraced, two-storey houses.

The first voter Park encountered was a vigorous old lady who was scraping the paint off her front windowsill so it can be repainted. Neither she nor anyone else mentioned the fierce exchanges between Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer which had taken place a couple of hours earlier at PMQs, and which were leading the news.

The old lady instead launched into a furious account of the appalling amounts of rubbish which get dumped in the road behind her house:

“I’m sick of reporting them to the council. It’s disgusting. It’s an absolute disgrace. The rubbish is piled up like a tip. I watched some of them throw 19 black bags out of the window.

“I’ve lived here since 1981. It weren’t half as dirty then as it is now.”

She voted Conservative at the general election of 2019, when James Daly won Bury North (which includes the whole of the town of Bury) for the Conservatives from Labour by 106 votes, making it the most marginal seat in the country.

Bury Council is still Labour-controlled, as is Moorside Ward. If Park and her fellow Tory candidate, Sohail Raja, are elected to represent Moorside, the old lady, who seems disposed to support them, will judge them according to whether or not they get the council to deal with the rubbish.

Some of the backstreets in this area of Moorside undoubtedly present vistas of derelict fridges, overflowing bins, soggy piles of rubbish, black plastic bags spewing their contents.

As Paul Goodman reported on ConHome yesterday, local issues, rather than accusations of sleaze levelled at the Prime Minister, are what matter to voters in the local elections. On the streets of Bury, Westminster felt like a distant irrelevance.

Park was there to listen to what voters had to say, and if they were out to put a short leaflet through the letter box. Some, on opening the door a crack and seeing who it was, said only three words: “No thank you.”

Each time she received this message, Park gave a smile of pleasure: she said it demonstrated that in this election, people have a choice: they can say “No” as well as “Yes”.

In North Korean elections, “No” was not an option, and she recalled that everyone had to demonstrate their respect for the regime, and their keenness to vote “Yes”: “On election days we started at four a.m., many people at three a.m.”

The authorities could see how you voted, and by 11 a.m. the regime had already garnered 98 per cent support.

Bury has a mixed population, and at some houses her fellow candidate Raja, who was born in Pakistani Kashmir, held animated conversations in Punjabi. He came to Bury almost 40 years ago, runs a taxi firm and seems to know half the town.

At one house, a smiling young man said in what sounded like rather good English that he could not speak English, and would rather converse in Arabic.

This was a language neither of the Conservative candidates could offer, but they established that he was from Libya, and had not yet registered to vote, so they advised him how to set about getting registered.

Park was born in 1968. The only picture in her parents’ house was of Kim Il-sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948-1994: “We always said thank you, thank you to him. We never said thank you to our parents.”

Her mother had been born in South Korea, which meant the whole family was regarded by the regime as hostile. Jihyan became a maths teacher:

“There was ideology in every subject. The first ten minutes of each lesson would be devoted to Kim Il-sung’s latest speech. In maths, there would be problems such as, ‘There were ten American soldiers. We killed eight. How many were left?'”

In the 1990s, North Korea suffered from famine:

“Three million people died of starvation. You saw dead bodies in the street. My father’s brother died of starvation in front of me. That was heartbreaking.”

Park gave up her job, for which she received neither salary nor food, to look after her father, who was also ill.

Her younger brother was in trouble because he could no longer pay loyalty money to the government, and was accused of desertion from the army.

One night at midnight there was a knock on the door: “Two commanders had come to search for my brother, and had found him. Everything was bloody. They continued beating him until dawn. We didn’t say anything.”

They took her brother away, but the train he was on stopped because there was no electricity, and he managed to run and hide.

Her father, who was by now extremely ill, told them both to leave North Korea, so in the middle of one February night they crossed a frozen river into China. When they were half way across, Korean soldiers shouted at them and fired.

On reaching China, they fell into the hands of human traffickers, who sold her to a Chinese man and sent her brother back to North Korea: “I still don’t know it he’s dead or alive.”

Her purchaser did not accept her into his family, but used her for sex and to labour in the fields. She became pregnant, was told to abort the child, instead gave birth to her son alone in her room after 12 hours of labour:

“Nobody looked after me. Finally an old lady who lived in the street came to me and helped me.

“Finally I have my son. I’m holding him, I’m very happy, but I’m missing all my family.”

She worked with her son in her sight, but when he was five her nightmare came true: a paid informer betrayed her to the Chinese authorities, who threw her into prison and then sent her back to North Korea, where she was beaten, tortured and put in a labour camp.

In the camp, she was confined with 40 other women in a small room with no toilet except a bucket, no windows, no possibility of washing, body lice, head lice, no period pads: “It was unspeakable. It was a 21st-century holocaust.”

She had no shoes, and after six months a wound on her foot became swollen and yellow, flies laid their eggs in it, her skin turned black and her hair, which was dark, turned yellow.

Park showed me the scar from the wound, running all the way down the upper side of her foot.

The guards at the camp told her, “You can’t die here,” and threw her out so she could die somewhere else.

“I was lucky,” she said, for many people did die in the camp. Once outside, she recovered enough to find a human trafficker who would take her back across the Chinese border.

She was reunited with her son, who had not been cared for:

“He looked like a street child. The family hated me and hated him. I thought maybe when I meet my son again that is a happy moment. But that is not happy. It’s really sad.”

She resolved to try to leave China, so went with her son to Beijing, hoping to get to the South Korean embassy, a very dangerous plan.

In Beijing, she met nine other North Korean refugees and they decided instead to try to leave through Mongolia. They had to get through a two-metre fence, in which they cut a hole. The Chinese police chased them. She was walking with her son.

A North Korean man called Kwang came back to help her, and carried her son. They ran into the desert and escaped. She fell in love with the man who had helped her: “The first person I loved.”

For three days they wandered in the Gobi desert, but could find nothing to eat or drink. Her son lay down to die. To get water, they took him back across the border into China, where they made their way back to Beijing.

Here the three of them lived for two years, Kwang making pots which she sold in the market. In 2007, they met a Korean pastor who told them the United Nations could get them out of China.

In 2008 they arrived in Liverpool as asylum seekers, were quickly given the right to remain in the UK for five years, and were sent to Bury, where they at first stayed in a hostel, receiving each day an English breakfast, but no lunch or dinner, after which they were given a council house.

The latter stages of this interview were conducted as we drank tea in a tent which Kwang has erected in the back garden of the council house.

The front garden is given over to the growing of Korean vegetables, just now starting to grow into proper plants in beautifully tended beds.

Beside the house, Kwang has erected a flagpole, from which flies the Union Jack, while a pole jutting from the building carries St George’s flag.

Ji, as she is generally known, has become a human rights campaigner, determined “as a survivor and a witness” to tell people what is happening in North Korea.

In 2016 she joined the Conservative Party, because it believes in “the ideals of justice, freedom and the family”:

“Many people asked me, ‘Why are you joining the Conservative Party? They discriminate against refugees.’

“I told them, ‘That is not true. Think who you are, why you left your country, and why you came to the UK.

“‘This is a democratic country – this country gave you freedom.

“‘When we came here, many people didn’t know who we were, and thought we were Chinese.

“‘Then we learned English and said we were Korean.

“‘We became friends. Nobody discriminated against us. People know that’s our background and they always welcomed us, opened their hearts to us.'”

Some people, on deciding to stand for election, wonder how to make their personal history more interesting. Park’s history is too interesting, too full of pain, though she is now “very happy with life”.

Her oldest son is studying in London, and she has had two more children with Kwang.

She one of the first two North Koreans to contest an election in the UK: the other is Timothy Cho, who is contesting the ward of Denton South in Tameside.

Park declined to estimate her chances of success, but the mere fact that she is standing is surely a vindication of conservatism.

Bury will forever be remembered as the birthplace of Sir Robert Peel, who in the 1830s created the modern Conservative Party, and in 1846 almost destroyed it by abolishing the Corn Laws.

A handsome statue of Peel stands in the Market Place, bearing on its plinth his famous words uttered by him at the end of his last ministerial speech in the Commons:

“It may be, I shall leave a name remembered with expressions of good will in the abode of those, whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice.”

Other monuments in the middle of town commemorate the heroism of the XXth Lancashire Fusiliers, and “the name and fame of John Kay of Bury”,

“whose invention in the year 1733 of the fly shuttle quadrupled human power in weaving & placed England in the front rank as the best market in the world for textile manufactures. He was born in Bury in 1704, and died in exile and poverty in France, where he lies in an unknown grave.”

Park’s father lies too in an unknown grave, but she herself has become an adornment of our democracy.

Iain Dale: The Electorial Commission’s inquiry could put Johnson in a big pickle. But he’s escaped from other pickles…

30 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

“The net is closing in around Boris,” was the Whatsapp message from a Liberal Democrat friend of mine, following the announcement of the Electoral Commission (EC) inquiry into the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment travails.

My first reaction was to think, “wishful thinking, mate”, but as Steven Swinford, The Times political editor, has pointed out, the remit of the EC is very broad indeed and it can issue an investigation notice requiring “any person” to provide information including emails, Whatsapp messages, text messages and documents. Eek.

Tom Newton Dunn reckons that given the EC investigation will centre on possible undeclared donations in the Tory party, this could put Amanda Milling and Ben Elliot, the co-chairmen, “in their crosshairs.” He says if wrongdoing is found their positions are “untenable.”

I would beg to differ. I have been critical of Milling’s performance as party chairman in the past, but in this case I think her hands are clean. I am given to understand that she has very little to do with donors. That’s all down to Elliot. And the situation is very clear. If the Conservative Party paid the bill of £58,000 initially, and that sum wasn’t declared, then not only is Elliot in deep doo-doo, so is the Prime Minister.

But it’s not just the EC inquiry which could prove problematic, at the very least, for the Prime Minister; it’s also Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, and Lord Geidt, the new independent advisor on the Ministerial Code, who will also determine Johnson’s fate. If the EC finds against the Conservative Party and the PM and find that rules of declaration have been broken, and if it is found the Ministerial Code has also been broken, he will be in a very big pickle indeed.

Any other minister would be expected to resign. But the Prime Minister has escaped from other pickles in his adult life, and who would bet that he won’t come through this too. The question Conservative MPs are going to have to ask themselves is this. Should he?

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I am a client, in a very small way, of the company formerly known as Standard Life Aberdeen. This week it announced that henceforth it would be known as Abrdn. You couldn’t make it up. What is it supposed to mean? Aberdeen? In which case, spell it out in full. It could also be pronounced as ‘A burden’.

How on earth did this get through all the different management levels to be approved by the company’s board. If it had come to me I’d have laughed it out of court. It makes we wonder if they can be so crass and incompetent in renaming their company, how incompetent are they in investing my money.

I’m not yet on the verge of withdrawing my custom from Abrdn, but I am this week withdrawing my custom from the bank I’ve been with for more than 40 years. Every communication I have now with Lloyds Bank is a trial. I almost feel physically sick before I ring them because I know I’m going to be passed from pillar to about seven different posts, and that’s before I fail their impossible security questions.

I’ve had enough. So I have opened an account with a smaller bank where I can actually talk to a real person who does their best to help. Yes, you still have to fill in a lot of forms to get the different accounts up and running, but I’m convinced it will be worth it in the end.

I did it with my energy supplier and it’s been a dream dealing with Octopus Energy rather than EDF. And that was a lot simpler than I feared it might be. We should constantly remind ourselves that we the customer are always the kings. Or queens. We don’t have to put up with shoddy service. The power lies in our hands.

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Quite what the DUP thinks it is going to achieve in toppling Arlene Foster is anyone’s guess. If she is forced out, and it looks like she will be, she will inevitably be replaced by a much more hardline politician. It might be that whoever this is takes a much more hardline stance with Sinn Fein, and it might be that Sinn Fein says it can’t work with the new leader. Then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down again.

I’m not predicting this will happen, but it must be a fear. Michelle O’Neill and Foster may not be bosom buddies, or be able to replicate the matiness of the so-called Chuckle Brothers, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, but they have formed a business like and effective partnership over the past year. What a shame it would be to throw all that away.

Rehman Chisti: Levelling up isn’t just about geography. It must be focused on education, skills and opportunity for all.

30 Apr

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

In July 2019, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street promising to “level up across Britain”. In short, his mission was to boost economic performance across the UK, with a particular focus on “left behind” areas, often outside of London and the South East.

As an MP in the South East, it is often assumed that I represent an affluent area that requires no extra help from government. However, this simply isn’t the case. Medway, the unitary authority for my constituency of Gillingham and Rainham, is in the top 22 per cent of the most deprived areas for education in England and in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas with regards to crime.

Within Gillingham and Rainham itself there are stark differences. In Rainham Central, 6.1 per cent of children were recorded as living in poverty in 2018-19. Just a couple of miles away in Gillingham North, this figure is 39.3 per cent.

If the Government truly wants to level up the entire United Kingdom, it must not just focus on the areas traditionally seen as “left behind”. Good quality education for all must be the core component of our levelling up agenda, within an aspirational Conservative approach.

The phrase levelling up means different things to different people. To me, it represents opportunity. I came to this country at the age of six without being able to speak a word of English. I attended a failing secondary high school and a grammar school, and as I came from a modest background, I had to balance my A-Level studies with a part-time job, like many students do across the country.

I was the first in my family to go to university, where I read Law and subsequently qualified as a barrister at age 24, prior to being elected as a Conservative MP at 31.

In our great country, you should be able to be whatever you want through hard work, perseverance, and determination. We in politics must ensure the UK is a land of opportunity for all, where children have access to the finest possible education and can have the best opportunities in life.

As a product of grammar schools, I know the transformational impact these can have on students. From the age of 16 to 18, I attended Rainham Mark Grammar School and the Chatham Grammar School for Girls mixed sixth form. To those from modest backgrounds, a grammar school offers another opportunity to realise their full academic potential. This is true for children who already have good grades, but also for those who have not distinguished themselves academically.

In fact, Department for Education data shows that grammar schools improve educational results among all pupils, especially those who previously struggled and had low attainment. An astounding 93 per cent of pupils in grammar schools achieve a good “pass” in English and Maths at GCSE, more than double the average for state secondaries.

Not surprisingly, grammar schools are extremely popular, with two-thirds of schools at or over capacity as of 2019 – more than four times the average of state funded secondaries.

Levelling up starts with education, and I believe that a key part of this agenda must be to allow the creation of new grammar schools and expansion of existing ones across the country.

Making university accessible and fair for everyone will also play a vital role in levelling up the country. As the first in my family to go to university, I know just how important it is that everyone has the opportunity to do so. The previous Labour government’s target of 50 per cent of the population to go to university was misguided.

However, we must ensure that everyone who wants to go to university is able to do so regardless of financial means. At the same time, the abilities of all young people must be realised, whether that’s through university, or vocational qualifications and high-level apprenticeships in fields like hydrogen energy, as offered in my constituency. The increase in tuition fees last decade has not deterred people from applying to university. However, pupils from wealthier backgrounds are still more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds.

While the average debt of those who graduated in 2019 was £40,000, most students are not expected to pay back their full student loan. Therefore, any reforms to higher education funding must be targeted and help those most in need. Simply lowering tuition fees or reducing interest rates across the board would in fact help the highest earning graduates the most.

Instead, the Government should look to reintroduce maintenance grants of up to £5,000 per year for those from low income backgrounds, with the amount awarded based on the family income of the student, so the lower the family income of the student, the more they would receive.

Having spoken with local university leaders, including Professor Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Greenwich (which has a campus in Medway), the reintroduction of maintenance grants would provide vital financial security to low income students. It would allow them to focus further on their studies, rather than the part-time jobs that they currently must take to support themselves financially. This is especially important now considering the disruption to their learning that students have faced during Covid-19.

If we look at the Turing Scheme, for example, disadvantaged students can receive up to £490 per month in grants to support their costs when they study abroad. Over twelve months, this would amount to £5,880 in grants. If disadvantaged students can receive grants to help with costs studying abroad, it is only right that they are able to receive them when they study here in the UK.

If we use £5,000 as an average figure of the grant, this reform would reduce debt on those students after a three-year degree by around £15,000. Rewarding hard work is exactly what we as Conservatives should stand for.

Improving and widening access to foreign languages will help the UK level up, while at the same time promoting the Global Britain agenda. I believe that everyone in this country should learn at least one foreign language as a child. This principle was recognised by the Government in 2011 with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a mandatory component of which is a foreign language.

At the moment, we are unfortunately still far from reaching that ambition: only 32 per cent of young people in the UK say they can read and write in more than one language, compared with 91 per cent in Germany and 80 per cent across the EU.

And, the situation is not improving; the number of pupils taking a language diminishes year-on-year. As a 2015 report from Cambridge University makes clear, this is no small issue: a lack of language skills not only threatens UK companies’ competitiveness abroad, but limits the UK’s soft power on the international stage.

With the introduction of T-Levels, now would be a brilliant time to integrate language learning into vocational and technical qualifications, ensuring more of our young people, regardless of their academic pathway and achievement, learn at least one other language.

In an increasingly digital economy, levelling up education also means giving all our young people technical skills that will allow them to participate and thrive in a digital world. Over the last year, we saw just how reliant we are on technology, which enabled many people to work from home during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is critical that students are equipped with appropriate IT and coding skills, with a focus on new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The Government has already taken major steps towards this, with the introduction of computing as a subject at all levels of schooling up to Key Stage 3, teaching children essential skills in computer science and coding.

However, much remains to be done as the number of pupils taking computing or ICT at GCSE level has been declining over the past five years, while a worrying gender gap has opened up, with only 21.4 per cent of GCSE computing entries are from women and girls. The problem is an urgent one: research by McKinsey & Company shows that by 2030, two thirds of the UK workforce (21 million people) could be lacking in basic digital skills, severely damaging UK business competitiveness.

We must look to expand the number of pupils that learn essential IT skills and coding, taking inspiration from successful international examples, from Estonia to Arkansas. As Asa Hutchinson, the Governor of Arkansas, put it: “Whether you’re looking at manufacturing and the use of robotics or the knowledge industries, they need computer programmers… If we can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.”

Alongside improving IT skills, equipping students with stronger critical thinking skills is key to allowing them to adapt to the challenging world we live in. Having seen the dangers that disinformation and misinformation can pose when intentionally spread by individuals, organisations or hostile states, as happened with the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 or with misleading claims about the Covid-19 vaccination, it is vital that young people are equipped to spot false information online.

Finland, for example, has integrated information literacy and critical thinking across its national curriculum. The result has been that Finland is ranked first out of 35 European countries in its ability to resist fake news (the UK is currently ranked 10th).

At the moment, our schools already teach British values to help prevent radicalisation and extremism. However, countering the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation is one of the next big challenges that we as a country face to protect against social disorder which could also undermine our democratic institutions. It is vital that we teach these skills early in schools so that young people can help stop the spread of false information.

If we are to truly level up across the country, education must be at the centre of the Government’s strategy and areas like the South East and Medway must be taken into account. Prior to 2010, all three Medway constituencies were represented by Labour MPs. Since then, we have secured sizeable majorities. If the Conservatives are to continue representing areas such as this, the Government cannot forget them. We must not level down the South East in pursuit of levelling up other areas of the country.

With the Queen’s Speech next month and as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, now is the time for a bold agenda from Government which levels up the entire country and equips young people with the necessary tools to face the modern challenges in the world. Improving education is a vital part of this, whether through reforming student finance, expanding grammar schools, improving foreign language teaching, or a greater emphasis on critical thinking and IT skills in schools to help counter disinformation and misinformation.

Emily Barley: For voters in Rotherham, the “take back control” message means control of their own lives

30 Apr

Emily Barley is the Deputy Chairman Political of Rotherham Conservative Federation and was the Conservative Party candidate for Wentworth and Dearne at the 2019 General Election.

On Thursday next week, voters go to the polls across England in a series of local elections. Though important everywhere, the Conservative Party will undoubtedly have its eye on the areas that make up the crumbling red wall, watching carefully to see if the new Conservative voters who switched in 2019 have stuck with us.

Rotherham, where I am one of three Conservative candidates in Hoober Ward, is one such place. After decades of Labour rule, and the area becoming world-famous for all the wrong reasons, Conservatives are seriously challenging this time. Our team of candidates is strong, local to their wards, and, since restrictions were lifted to allow canvassing, has been out and about knocking on doors and talking to residents.

Thousands of conversations in the last few weeks have shown that the Conservative vote is holding up well since the General Election, where we won one constituency, Rother Valley, and slashed the Labour majorities in the other two that make up the borough. Even more positively, we have been finding brand new switchers – people whose loyalty to Labour was seriously tested during the Corbyn years and then broken completely by the election of out-of-touch Starmer as the Leader.

They tell us that the party they supported for decades is lost to them and that while the Conservative Party has not yet won their loyalty, they feel closer to us than anyone else and will be voting Conservative in May.

So far, so good.

But I fear we have a developing problem: what I’m hearing on the doorstep about what people want from their Government does not appear to match what the Government believes they want.

In many ways, the easy part was Brexit. 67.9 per cent of people living in the Rotherham area voted to leave the EU, giving a clear instruction to Westminster. But though Brexit has been delivered, the story has not yet concluded, and that’s because the ‘take back control’ message meant more to people here than simply getting out of the EU.

For them, the vote to leave the EU was an expression of confidence in the UK’s ability to succeed in the world as an independent nation, and it was a vote for a different kind of government, more in touch and with smarter policy decisions to fit Britain. Most importantly, the way they feel about Britain’s right and ability to be independent is also how they feel about themselves.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that folks up here simply don’t like being told what to do, how to think, and how to enjoy their lives.

One area where the government is totally disconnected from what their new voters want is the nanny state. I live and campaign in a part of the world where people value their right, as adults, to choose for themselves on junk food, smoking, and drinking.

And so I’m worried that we’re set to repeat the mistakes of the Labour Party: who thought voters in these areas were simple to understand, easy to win over, and not smart enough to decide for themselves.

Covid-19 has changed a lot of things, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the way people in Rotherham have accepted the at-times authoritarian intrusion in their lives means that they are now more open to being told what to do, but that is not the case. As reasonable, level-headed Yorkshire-men and -women, they understand what a crisis is, and they have made an exception that will shortly run out.

As the crisis fades, there is an opportunity to move forward in a different way, showing that Conservatives understand and respect people’s desire to take back control. A shift in focus is needed – far far away from telling people what to do and lecturing them on the consequences of their actions in the way Boris and his government have grown all too comfortable with. Instead, we should be giving people information, showing them alternatives and their benefits, making it easier to make healthier choices, and leaving the decisions to them.

This means dropping any suggestion of bullying tactics like junk food taxes or minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and it means building on the helpful encouraging tone of the NHS Better Health programme.

There’s an opportunity too, to move away from the EU’s outdated approach to e-cigarettes, reforming volumes and strengths, and looking at how best to embrace new technologies.

Breaking from the EU on this would be yet another benefit of Brexit, and would go down particularly well in Rotherham, where smoking rates are higher than the national average and people are heartily fed up with being told off about their habit.

As things stand right now, the Conservative Party’s relationship with new Conservative voters is more precarious than it seems. The polls look good as we enjoy the protection of people’s goodwill, but if we repeat the disrespect of the Labour Party by telling them how they should live their lives and failing to recognise the full implications of their wish to take back control, we run the risk of pushing them away. A new approach to public health, rooted in treating people as the adults they are, is required.

Whatever you think of Johnson’s flat, the Electoral Commission’s record on investigations is shockingly bad

29 Apr

The Downing Street story about Boris Johnson’s flat, and the leaks coming out of Number 10, continue to dominate the headlines, with the latest news being that the Electoral Commission (EC) will investigate the Prime Minister’s renovations. The EC has said it has “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

Across the media/ Twittersphere, you could practically hear the gasps as this was announced. The investigation alone seems to be taken as evidence of serious wrongdoing on Johnson’s part, with the EC presented as the great arbiter of political conduct. But are people’s memories really so short? Whatever one’s view of Johnson and his flat, it was extraordinary to see the EC elevated to such high status.

After all, it wasn’t long ago that the EC was convinced another political offence had taken place – only to be proven completely wrong. Following the Brexit referendum (in which the most militant Remainers wanted someone or something to blame for the result), the EC obsessively pursued Darren Grimes, whom it accused of breaching spending rules as part of a pro-Leave organisation, and tried to fine £20,000. 

Grimes appealed the commission’s decision and the High Court found in his favour, warning that even if an offence had been committed, it would not have warranted the maximum fine. It was ridiculous that the case even got to court, and the EC put Grimes through hell. But still it could only say it was “disappointed” by the verdict.

In another dire moment for the EC, it pursued Arron Banks, whom commissioners suspected was not the true source of £8 million loans to pro-Leave organisations. Wrong again. The National Crime Agency found no evidence of criminal offences after a “complex” investigation, and EC found itself agreeing a settlement with Banks. Even in spite of the verdict, the EC said it considered itself “right to refer this matter to the NCA for further investigation”. 

These two cases merely fuelled speculation of the EC having an institutional bias against Brexiteers, not least because it doesn’t seem to have pursued Remain cases with the same intensity. The Sunday Telegraph rather hit upon something in 2018 when it found out that almost half of the EC board had “made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned”, with three examples of this taking place while commissioners were in their “impartial” positions.

Sir John Holmes, for instance, Chairman from January 2017 to December last year, complained months before he was nominated for the role about a “panoply of Eurosceptic nonsense about the EU”, and his colleague Lord Horam, a commissioner, said in July 2017 that there was a “logical case” for a second referendum.

There is even evidence that EC board members think the whole election system is problematic. In 2020, Bob Posner, Chief Executive of the EC, suggested that the system was “fraying at the edges” and “worrying the public and voters”. This is despite the Commission’s own findings last year that 71 per cent of UK adults are confident that elections are well run in the UK (up from 69 per cent in 2019) and 92 per cent are confident that they know how to go about casting their vote (up from 89 per cent in 2019).

These incidents are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this organisation, and its strange history (to put it politely). From its habit of “reinvestigating” cases, to running investigations without interviewing the people it has accused of misconduct, to turning a blind eye to a scandal in Tower Hamlets, it has hardly inspired confidence. During the course of this article, I even discovered that one of the commissioners was “formerly the Chief Executive of the mail industry regulator, Postal Services Commission, between 2004 and 2008” (a period of time in which the Post Office was doing so well…).

With all of this, it really is no wonder that the Conservatives have talked about abolishing or revamping the commission, which Opposition parties have said “undermines democracy”. Interestingly the Commission is going through something of transition with Rob Vincent, the interim Chairman, who is to be replaced next week by John Pullinger, who until 2019 was the UK’s National Statistician and Chief Executive of the UK’s Statistics Authority, so it remains to be seen how it changes under him. His handover brief is pretty enormous.

Either way, whatever one thinks of the Johnson case, this latest investigation should be watched closely.