Julian Brazier: Outdoor residential centres are of huge importance to young people – but they are near closure

26 Oct

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Daily, every organ of the media carries concerns about parts of our economy and wider society which are in desperate straits from Covid. One group which has been largely forgotten, however, are the outdoor residential centres. These provide an opportunity for adventure and outside activity for young people, through schools, scout, guide and other youth groups and summer camps.

As a trustee of the Summer Camps Trust, I have had a briefing from our membership organisations, some of which are household names in the youth adventure sector. The picture is not just bleak, it is dire. The current ruling from the Department for Education is that residential outdoor centres cannot accept overnight bookings. Without some movement on Covid restrictions, the majority of the sector is at risk of closure.

This matters. When so many young people live an indoor life based around social media, when obesity, loneliness and mental illness are increasing, it is surely obvious that giving children and adolescents the opportunity to test themselves in the rugged outdoors and to develop teamwork, leadership and build lasting friendships is important.

In its 2018 report, the CBI commented on: “the central importance of a positive attitude and broader skills such as resilience, communication, problem-solving and aiming high both at work and in life.”

These are all central aspects of what youngsters gain through structured outdoor adventure. Yet in a letter to the Prime Minister, UK Outdoors says:

“Nearly 3000 jobs have already been lost and many outdoor education facilities have permanently closed as over £500m of revenue has been lost… If there is no change before the Spring term, half of outdoor education capacity will be lost permanently alongside over 10,000 jobs.”

Like other industries, such centres have been able to benefit from furlough payments and the sector has tried hard to stay on the front foot, encouraging day visits where practicable, and getting representatives into schools and youth clubs to drum up support for the future.

But this cannot last. Even after making valuable skilled staff redundant, the wage bill for the core has to be paid. Maintenance of buildings, often in exposed locations, cannot stop. This is a sector where margins have always been tight – nobody grows rich in it – so there is little fat to fall back on. The same restrictions are wrecking the cadet movement, preventing them from using either those same residential centres or MoD property.

So why is this happening? The most recent letter from the Department for Education to those raising concerns quotes the following advice for schools on residential educational visits:

“Public Health England has advised that the resumption of residential visits will unnecessarily increase the risk of transmission of the virus due to a number of factors, some of which are listed below:

  • increased social interaction of groups of children and adults outside of their established bubbles;
  • increased contact time with others in an indoor setting;
  • sharing bedroom facilities;
  • sharing of accommodation more broadly and close living arrangements (including sharing facilities such as canteens, showers and toilets); and
  • additional travel across country and the interaction with others that the children and adults accompanying them would not otherwise encounter.”

In practice, such advice has to be treated by schools as an instruction unless they wish to open themselves up to the risk of litigation on several fronts.

It is worth unpicking the factors listed. First of all, school groups, (the largest category) are already in bubbles and – despite some valiant efforts by many schools, it is geographically inescapable that the children mix more widely in their schools. They share “canteens, showers and toilets”. Nevertheless few organisations are as flexible – and have as much experience in managing risk – as outdoor residential centres – and most of their activities are, as the name suggests, outdoor.

The whole operation is far less disruptive to anti-Covid measures than our universities which – alone of European countries – are based on a model in where the vast majority of students study away from home. Six times a year, hundreds of thousands of young people travel across Britain to random locations, breaking up home bubbles to travel between campuses and home.

Even as someone who has called for a smaller, more local, university sector on this site, I recognise that to depart from this model in a Big Bang (with no end in sight) would bring our universities to their knees. Few students would pay £9,000 a year for online courses, and none would pay for university accommodation barred to them.

Are we really saying that hundreds of thousands of young people can move six times a year randomly, and yet that school children, who are less likely to pass on infections, cannot travel together from their schools to get an opportunity which for many is the only affordable way they will experience outdoor adventure?

A closer parallel group are boarding schools. As a Conservative, the politics of envy is the last thing I wish to promote, but can it be right that the children of better-off families continue to enjoy all the benefits of private residential education but those of less well-off parents are denied an opportunity to go away even once to see what the great outdoors has to offer? In practice boarding schools are using sensible mitigation measures just as residential centres are doing on their (sadly rare) day parties.

Allowing school groups back to residential centres will save many of them, but I feel bound to make the wider case. Cadet, Scout and Guide groups give huge opportunities to youngsters and the best social mixing of all is the traditional summer camps model, bringing children together from across the country and a range of backgrounds.

If we are going to continue to allow universities and boarding schools to continue, it is time we allowed the same for the struggling residential outdoor sector. Access to natural spaces for the most disadvantaged, those from low socioeconomic and some minority ethnic groups, has reduced dramatically since lockdown and these groups often only gain access through school and youth trips. The mental health of a generation has been affected. We need to see these centres reopen up if this is not to worsen.

Two MPs have raised this issue, my good friend, James Gray – with his expertise in Polar adventure – and the Liberal Democrat, Tim Farron, whose Cumbria constituency is a national centre for outdoor adventure. It is good news that the Government has committed to reviewing the guidance in November. Let us hope for a change of heart.

Fight crimes not Grimes

11 Oct

The Metropolitan Police are doubtless pursuing Darren Grimes as the publisher of the David Starkey interview as well as the interviewer.  That doesn’t make the decision any less sinister.

Such non-Conservatives as Tim Farron and Nick Cohen suggest that the Met’s decision to interview Grimes under caution is wrong.  Our readers are likely to agree.  So we won’t waste words attempting to talk them into a view they hold already.

Instead, we ask for the Met to be held to account for its push to curb free speech.  Did Cressida Dick approve the decision?

If she did, she needs to explain why it doesn’t represent a vendetta by the force against an innocent man who won in court against the established might of the Electoral Commission.  If she didn’t, and the officers have never heard of Grimes (or the Commission either), she should make it clear why they are pursuing him.

It will be claimed that this decision is an operational rather than a strategic matter, but there comes a point when the first blurs into the second.

Is it now Met policy to muzzle free speech, and intimidate journalists in this way.  There are three potential sources of accountability: the Mayor of London, the Home Secretary, and the Home Affairs Select Committee.  Sadiq Khan will do nothing.

Priti Patel has tweeted for freedom of speech, but has fallen into the trap of seeing this incident as an operational matter only.

She should haul in Dick for an interview without coffee, and get the bottom of who in the Met made this decision, and why.  We gather that Tim Loughton, a member of the Select Committee, intends to raise the case when it meets this week.  Good for him.

Meanwhile, Karl Turner, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Legal Aid, tweeted: “Freedom of speech Darren doesn’t afford people the freedom to make racist remarks or generally offend”.

But its inherent to free speech that it will sometimes offend, and it’s important to note that at least one member of Keir Starmer’s front bench either doesn’t get the point, don’t understand it, or don’t care.  The tweet has since been deleted.

The last word on the Met’s decision belongs to Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who tweeted the following yesterday:

-“Hello? Police? I think there’s a burglar in my house…”

-“Sorry, we’re a little busy right now.” -“

…and the burglar just muttered something that sounded a bit like “All lives matter.””

-“We’re on our way.”


Iain Dale: Farron’s strange friends here and Hammond’s bloody ones abroad

17 Jul

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

Tim Farron has hit the headlines again this week – if you count a story in The Independent nowadays as ‘hitting the headlines’.

It reported that he has accepted a £75,000 donation from an Evangelical group called Faith in Public. To be accurate, they “made a donation at the start of this year to provide him with a policy adviser two days a week, at an estimated maximum value of £9,100″.

“They donated the services of two policy advisers the previous two years at a total value of £50,319, as well as the services of a public relations company to the value of £15,000.”

Faith in Public supports gay conversion therapy, which is expected to be banned in new legislation shortly. The former Liberal Democrat leader says he does not support such an abhorrent practice, but still feels able to take a wedge from an organisation that does.

I’m surprised this donation hasn’t received more widespread coverage, because you can bet your bottom dollar that, had the MP in question been a Conservative one, there would be merry hell to pay.

Farron is coming under pressure within his party to return the money, but in practice that’s quite difficult, when no actual cash has changed hands and the payments were ‘in kind’.

Much of this money would presumably have gone towards paying researchers to help with the writing of Farron’s memoir, published last year by a Christian publisher.

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Another politician raking in the cash is the Philip Hammond, who was reported by the Spectator this week to have taken on a lucrative consultancy role advising the Saudi government.

Purely coincidentally, he also intervened in the row over Huawei and China, warning that we should not let human rights abuses get in the way of economic transactions.

Tell that to the Saudi citizens who enjoy few of the freedoms that Hammond takes for granted. Tell that to those who have their hands cut off or are beheaded. Tell that to the 50 per cent of the Saudi population with two X chromosomes who are treated as unequal to those with a Y.

Perhaps he’ll go the whole hog and take a consultancy with Beijing as well. Nothing would surprise me.

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The big question of the week, apart from how Chris Grayling contrived to lose an election rigged in his favour, is what on earth Michael Gove was thinking of when he went on The Andrew Marr Show last weekend to declare that he was against the mandatory wearing of facemasks in shops?

Two days later, it was announced that this will now indeed be Government policy. Since Gove is in charge of Coronavirus coordination across governmentn you’d have thought that he might have been aware that this was in the offing.

So either he was hung out to dry by Number Ten, or he wanted to burnish his libertarian credentials. The result was that yet again the Government deservedly stood accused of sending out mixed messages. Another needless shambles.

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A few months ago I decided to leave my bank, Lloyds, after 40 years with them.

The big four banks have become monolithic and totally impersonal. You can never speak to the same person twice, and just getting through their security systems is a task in itself. When you dread picking up the phone to ring your bank, you know that is the time to look at the alternatives.

So I have started the process of opening accounts elsewhere, but if I’m honest, the number of forms you have to fill in is quite daunting, and I’ve put it all in the pending tray.

That changed this week when my card declined in a telephone transaction as I tried to buy some stock of my new book from HarperCollins. I rang the Lloyds credit card hotline, and they said it was a routine check, and that if I tried again in a couple of minutes it would work.

I did, and it didn’t. I phoned them back, and they admitted the person I had originally spoken to had cleared the transaction, but had then cancelled the card! So I’d get a new card in three to five days.

Wow. And no, nothing could be done about it and I’d just have to wait – even though they admitted it was their error.

This was all the incentive I needed to fill in those forms with my intended new bank. If ever I had doubted my decision to leave, this experience removed them.

Goodbye Lloyds. Hello, new dawn. However much these big companies take us for granted, we as the consumer hold the power in our hands.

The only way they will change is if we show them we are not prepared to stand for it any longer. I did the same a few years ago with my energy supplier and switched from EDF to Octopus, and I’ve never looked back. They are a delight to deal with.

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Over the next couple of weeks, I am spending three hours in the company of the two contenders for the LibDem leadership, Sir Ed Davey and Layla Moran.

Last night, I did an hour long interview with Ed, and on Tuesday evening it’s Layla’s turn.

Then on August 2, I’ll be hosting a head to head debate on my LBC Sunday morning show. It’s called Public Service Broadcasting (I think). It’s, you know, the kind of thing the BBC used to do.

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Talking of the BBC, it was announced this week that another 150 jobs are to go in the News & Current Affairs department.

While Politics Live on BBC2 has been given a reprieve (see last week’s column), it’s losing one episode a week, and it seems we’ve seen the last of Andrew Neil on the BBC, with his eponymous interview show being cancelled.

Shameful. On what planet would they go out of their way to push out their best interviewer?