Hinkley – is there a point?

Despite the deals, dual fuel and constant noise about changing your supplier, domestic suppliers of energy still appear to make the process opaque and painful.  But if you think that’s pain, how about paying almost three times the market price for electricity, indexed to inflation for 35 years – that’s the Hinkley Point proposition.  A risk free investment guaranteeing bumper returns, all paid for by UK electricity consumers, yip, that’s you and me.

We have brilliant manufacturing and engineering businesses in the UK, Rolls Royce to name but one, but what is the British involvement in Hinkley?  It is German and French technology funded by Chinese and French state owned business.  The British role, oh yes, to grotesquely overpay for the power it produces.

There is a case, a good case, for nuclear as part of our energy plan going forward.  Nuclear can play a key part in our decarbonisation commitments, new nuclear technologies such as AP1000 and the ABW reactors should prove much better value than Hinkley’s European Pressurized Reactor [EPR].  We need to invest, not least in research, to enable British business to be at the centre of the boon that will certainly be there for nuclear providers for decades to come.  We need the engineering, the construction, the manufacturing boost and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a piece of the IP in this area.

Hinkley, however, neither makes any economic nor technological sense. The numbers don’t work, EDF no longer have the dosh and the proposed EPR is proving practically unbuildable.

Let’s be bold, let’s show political courage and cancel this part of the nuclear plan rather than keeping fingers crossed that the French Government will walk.  No Hinkley in no sense means no nuclear, or even necessarily a decline in new nuclear over the coming 20 years, it only needs to mean a change in the timing of those new reactors coming on grid.

For the sake of the UK tax payer, for the sake of the UK electricity consumer, it’s high time we pulled the plug on this parlous power project.

 

Thinking outside the box

Last Tuesday I took part in the debate considering the report of the Lords Communications Committee on Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting. The report was excellent, not least as a result of the superb stewardship of the Committee Chair, Lord Best.

The picture painted by the report was not bright, a world far more reminiscent of Ron Burgundy than 21st Century Britain.  A world in which older women in particular find themselves at a severe disadvantage both on and off screen.

It seems to me a scandal that so many older women in TV still feel that work dries up when they get to a certain age or when they have children; there are some women who have said they have had to get a facelift to maintain their TV career beyond fifty. Recently Anne Robinson asked what chance a female version of Evan Davis would have of securing that prestigious role? Where are the female Dimblebys, John Simpsons, Alastair Stewarts or Adam Boultons? What sort of message does the lack of their female counterparts send out to young women contemplating a career in television journalism? If young women don’t think they can have a fulfilling career in television that talent will go elsewhere.

It’s a scandal that goes all the way to the top. Women, who make up half the viewers of television aren’t represented at board level at our major broadcasters in anything like the numbers they should be; the BBC executive board has two female executive directors, Channel 4 has one and that is it.

The lack of diversity is not just a question of gender, last year, out of the 62 directors at the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Ofcom, only one was non-white and none were disabled.

I welcome the fact that the industry itself has recognised that it has a problem and has committed to doing something about it; we have seen some ambitious plans published by BBC, Sky and C4.

With Lord Hall at the helm of the BBC and David Abrahams at Channel 4, we have reasons to be positive going forward.

However, this is not a new issue. Groups like Women in Film and Television, PACT, trade unions and Directors UK have been talking about this for decades and there has been very little movement. 

 That is why, in the debate, I called for two things:

Firstly, all the main broadcasters must end the practice of unpaid internships. This patronage is both rife and rigging the system in favour of those who are wealthy and connected rather than those who are talented.

This is not limited to the broadcast industry but the broadcast industry, if they addressed this could be a beacon of good practice and lead the way for the rest of our economy

Secondly, I asked broadcasters and producers to follow new guidance just produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission which I launched at the Edinburgh television festival two weeks ago

It is worth paying tribute to my Rt Hon friend Ed Vaizey who enabled this project to get underway, he has demonstrated sustained commitment to driving the diversity agenda since arriving at DCMS.

Entitled “Thinking outside the box”, the guidance was drawn up following extensive consultation with the industry, and provides clarity about the initiatives and practices that are permissible in law.

 It busts common myths about barriers that exist and provides a series of case studies from the sector to encourage broadcasters, independent production companies and industry bodies to make it easier to boost diversity.

Now we’ve produced this guidance, I believe there can be no more excuses for not taking meaningful action to improve the situation.  It is not just about doing the right thing, it is about getting the best creative and competitive edge.

 

If you can’t stand, you can’t sit

Friday saw the 2nd reading of Lord Faulkner of Worcester’s Accessible Sports Grounds Bill.

Across the chamber there was support for what the Bill was seeking to achieve- reasonable access for disabled spectators to sports grounds, not least those of football’s Premier League.  I was delighted to take part in the debate on the Bill.

It is an excellent Bill, a straightforward Bill, a Bill which demonstrates many things, not least Lord Faulkner of Worcester’s long standing support for those who simply want to access sport.

The mechanism for achieving this aim simple, that clubs failing to meet the minimum guidelines would not be licenced with a safety certificate and so be unable to stage matches.

Just three of the 20 Premier League stadiums currently reach recommended spaces for wheelchair users. The Football Task Force, of which the Premier League was a part, said in 1998 that these numbers should apply to all grounds and these guidelines were then also outlined in the 2003 Accessible Stadia guide for new stadiums.

During the debate, I set out new cases of potential discrimination at some of our top flight clubs:

  •  Liverpool: During the last match of the season at Anfield, there was a planned pre-match celebration in recognition of Steven Gerrard’s last game for the club. A small group of fans displayed a large banner in front of disabled fans which completely blocked their view of the pitch. When the disabled fans asked a steward to intervene, a fan became extremely abusive and violent. He said: ‘F9ck Off. I will punch your lights out. We will get all you wheelchairs out of this ground for good. I’m going to put you in the ground.’
  • Manchester United: In May, an elderly male, in his 80s with a walking stick and a male in his 20s who had a cast on his foot and was on crutches were refused to Old Trafford due to the walking stick/crutches they had. Manchester United stewards, who claimed they could be used as weapons, were dealing with the incident. The walking sticks/crutches were taken off them and given back at the end of the game, posing a significant health risk should there have been the need for an evacuation. A statement from a police liaison officer from the time questioned a complete lack of ‘common sense’ given it was obvious the individuals required these aids. It said: ‘to say they (the stewards) were unhelpful would be an understatement. The steward’s attitude and their lack of helpfulness were astounding.’

I have no desire to necessarily single out the stewards, although I would be very interested in the diversity and inclusion training they received.

  • Chelsea: Despite its wealth, the club has recently told its disabled supporters that there is no intention to make further improvements until the stadium redevelopment is completed in 2022 as it can’t move existing fans from their preferred seat. In response, a Chelsea disabled fan who was too scared to be named, said: “This is completely unacceptable and the club never seems to have a problem in moving fans to make way for new hospitality and media spaces.”

Poor access and discrimination against disabled fans has tarnished the reputation of football for too long.  Unless action is taken soon to address the glacial speed of progress, major sponsors should think long and hard about whether it remains ethical to continue with  their relationship with football.  Following the debate I have written to all Premier League sponsors and broadcast partners to seek their views on this matter.

The time for the same old feeble excuses has passed, particularly hiding behind the age of stadiums to explain inaction.

It seems clear that, when there is a need to bring in new technology, more camera positions, space for different rights holders, changes are made in a trice. Many stadiums have been virtually rebuilt from the inside out, with significant additions to VIP, hospitality and media areas.

If you can make the Cambridge college that I went to accessible, with buildings that date back to the 15th century, it is entirely possible to solve this problem. It’s time for Premier League clubs to show leadership and stop treating disabled fans like 2nd class citizens.

Football is our national sport.  Sadly, all too often, for many disabled supporters, the beautiful game is an ugly, ugly experience.

The Digital Opportunity: Make or Break Britain

Today, the Digital Skills Select Committee, of which I have been fortunate enough to be a member for the past year, published its report and recommendations.

The everythingness of the digital opportunity is the fundamental point which we must get across:  training or trade, schooling or skills, education, health or employment, digital will change it all, not in minor, round the edges ways, but fundamentally, irreversibly, often mind blowingly.

To face this opportunity we need the hard and soft infrastructure to enable us as individuals and as a nation to thrive and fulfil our potential.

One of the key infrastructure issues is access to broadband. Currently this is not just flawed by a lack of coverage, particularly in rural areas, there is also a real question of capacity not least in our cities where demand continues to outstrip what service providers can offer.  Broadband must be seen as a utility, be taken as seriously as other utilities and regulated in the same way.

Similarly, in our schools we need to continue our relentless focus on numeracy and literacy but alongside this, as important, we need to set digital skills, digital literacy if you will.  We need the next generation to be numerate and literate but we also need them to be creative, innovative and flexible in this digital landscape.

There is, as ever, a problem with inclusion.  Women, disabled people and older people have a real opportunity but one which is not being realized. One shocking figure is that out of the 4,000 young people studying computer science at A level, fewer than 100 are female, this can’t be allowed to continue. This must be addressed and it is not only about equality and fairness, the report finds that universal digital access could be worth up to £63 billion in additional GDP growth.

Alongside this, apprenticeships, training, careers advice [better termed employment advice or employability] must all stress the digital imperative.

The report calls on the Government to play a leading role, drawing up an ambitious ‘Digital Agenda’ to enable Great Britain to be in the best position to rival the world.  This can’t be overstated and should be led by a Cabinet Minister based in the Cabinet Office.

I have written before about youth unemployment and skills and the importance of overall responsibility for a specific agenda cutting across departments. The success of London 2012 showed what we can achieve when we cut across Whitehall departments and invest responsibility in one person to allow them to achieve a clearly defined goal.

That same level of commitment, pride and passion needs to be sustained if we are to draw up that ‘Digital Agenda’, drive the opportunity and enter an age of innovation, an age of creativity, of production, of leadership, a brilliant bright future for Britain.

Employer engagement essential to ending youth unemployment

One of the policy areas I am particularly interested in is youth unemployment. Today, as part of the Westminster Education Forum, I chaired a panel discussion on course development in higher education. One of the key questions was about engaging employers in the design and delivery of courses. Getting employers involved at this stage will ensure graduates leave with the necessary skills required for employment.

Currently, although youth unemployment figures are down to an almost all time low of 14.9%, the not so great news is that young people are disproportionately unemployed, trapped in the bottom half of the skills hourglass and less likely than previous generations to acquire new skills once they’ve got into work. Young people need careers, not just ‘any job’ but sustainable employment.

What can be done? There is significant consensus among organisations and charities on some key elements and particularly on the importance of employer engagement. We need a joined up, local approach. Education must be joined to the workplace. Local employers should work with schools to give experience and information about the local labour market. We also need greater ‘employer ownership of skills’. This means employers and industries need to agree and communicate which skills and qualifications they value and need. In a digital age this is particularly important for ‘future proofing’ not just our young people but the economy as well.

Clearly, thinking about different ways of engaging employers is important and in the Lords I asked if the government would insert a condition into all public procurement requiring bidding businesses to offer high-quality apprenticeships. This would serve to ensure more companies offer the kind of decent in work training opportunities our young people need. Greater collaboration between business and government should also aim to create more middle-ranged jobs, so there can be genuine progression up a career ladder and less of a trap in the low skilled ‘any job’ bulge at the bottom.

Another area that needs to be ‘joined up’ is overall responsibility for the problem across departments. The Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills all have accountability for some of the services which can transform a young person’s transition from school to work, but they all work to different objectives, and the young people most likely to end up in the unemployment statistics fall through the cracks. The success of London 2012 shows what we can achieve when we cut across Whitehall departments and invest responsibility in one person to allow them to achieve a clearly defined goal. The growing consensus, that we can completely eradicate youth unemployment, points toward the opportunity to create an even greater legacy – if it can be grasped.

Terrible idea halted just in time!

Earlier this month South West Trains told passenger groups it was suspending the audio announcements of train information at Waterloo Station for a two-week trial. This was a particularly strange decision given that just two years ago they had spent almost £3million on a new 90-decibel system, comprising 1,000 speakers, which it said would deliver “better and clearer” information.

Suspending audio announcements would have had a devastating impact on blind and visually impaired train users, not to mention thousands of others who benefit from this service. It would have forced people to seek out assistance from information points and made it much harder to be independent. It was a terrible idea, the RNIB campaigned against it and Caroline Pidgeon from the London Assembly described it as “one of the most absurd decisions by a train company I have ever come across”.

The positive news, however, is that South West Trains listened to the outcry and changed their minds. I am pleased to report that audio announcements will remain at Waterloo. If this is an optimistic tale of people power then it is also a reminder that we should never assume that anything, no matter how sensible and seemingly beyond question is necessarily forever. It is down to us, as communities and individuals to ensure that better is the benchmark and never let anything simply slip away.

At a time when much is written about voter apathy and community disengagement it’s good to be reminded that people do care and actions can change things.

What do Select Committees do?

As a relatively new member of the House of Lords I was delighted to be appointed to the Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills. Unlike select committees in the House of Commons, which are generally responsible for overseeing the work of government departments and agencies, those of the Lords look at general issues. They can be permanent, or, like this one on Digital Skills, ad hoc. We will report by March next year.

This select committee has been formed to look at the UKs digital landscape and particularly competitiveness and skills. It is a timely and important investigation. The UK is at the forefront of digital skills in Europe but the digital landscape changes so quickly it is essential to look constantly at how well equipped we are to keep up with developments. In particular how will jobs be effected and how fit for purpose is the current education and skills training system?

Technology is likely to dramatically reshape labour markets in the long run and to cause significant changes to the types of skills that workers will need. There is debate as to how drastic these changes will be but some studies suggest that jobs vulnerable to computerisation range from 45-60% of the current labour force. Whilst government priority is obviously boosting employment, it would be short sighted indeed not to consider how to adapt to a jobs environment that requires different skills.

The Committee meets weekly to hear from expert witnesses and consider various evidence. So far we have heard from Microsoft, Google, academics and industry experts. Most meetings are public and available to watch live via Parliament TV.

In July we published a call for evidence. This is an appeal for a public response to the questions we are considering, particularly: skills training, support for the digital sector, industry and infrastructure. What are the challenges? What should the government be doing? Please see the full text of the call for evidence here.

It is a significant amount of work and an important task. We will absorb and process a vast amount of information, cross examine witnesses, draw out the key elements and make concrete recommendations. I sincerely hope that our work will improve the nation’s connectivity, competitiveness and enable us together to be increasingly tech fit for the future.