The criminal justice system in the North East is in chaos because of an “ideologically driven” drive to privatise public services and a series of “botched and expensive re-organisations”, a peer has warned.
Lord Beecham, the former leader of Newcastle City Council, hit out at the Government’s changes in a House of Lords debate.
He highlighted the Journal’s report that there had been a massive increase in the number of people representing themselves in family law courts, thanks to cuts in legal aid – leading to lengthy delays.
The proportion of North East parents attempting to make do without a lawyer in court has leapt from 34% to 53% of litigants since the removal of legal aid from family lawyers in April 2013. It means that proceedings are delayed as judges attempt to explain how the law works to parents.
And local law firms warn that parents taking part in child custody cases, and other cases involving the welfare of children, are failing to explain their case properly to courts.
Lord Beecham urged the Ministry of Justice to act. He said: “As many of us warned, the cuts in legal aid are having a serious effect on family and especially child-related proceedings.
“The Journal newspaper reported on Saturday a rise of 61% in people representing themselves, with the predictable result of serious delays.”
He also highlighted the riot in a North East prison which saw 50 inmates take over a wing at HMP Northumberland in March.
One inmate has written to prisoners’ magazine Inside Time to claim the riot was down to frustration at staff shortages which had put a stop to some workshops.
Lord Beecham pointed out that the prison, previously known as HMP Acklington, was run by a private contractor.
He said: “Also in the North East we have had the experience of a prison riot at the newly privatised Acklington Prison where 130 staff left, about a third of the total.
“The prison is now managed by Sodexo, one of those oligopolies assumed by the Government to be capable of running any public service.”
And the Labour peer, who led Newcastle City Council from 1977 to 1994, attacked proposals to split up the probation service.
Regional probation services will be replaced by a national service responsible for “high risk” offenders while private firms will run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) which manage lower risk offenders.
The Northumbria Branch of trade union Napo, which represents probation officers, had written to the Ministry of Justice to raise concerns about “job security, workload, increased management spans, reduced support from human resources and especially the transfer of cases and the split between risk categories,” he said.
“They are worried about the risk to public safety as a result of the split and point to bureaucratic delays in transfers, with existing users being transferred and high risk offenders going to new officers.”
And Lord Beecham warned that outsourcing of child protection services could cause further problems.
He said: “The Government launched a consultation, lasting all of six weeks about plans to permit local authorities to outsource children’s social services to the likes of G4S and Serco.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 10 June 2014
> Another episode from not-to-distant history…
He called Newcastle “the Athens of the North East,” and in the end his life formed its own Greek tragedy.
Thomas Dan Smith could have given his name to a brave new era in local government but instead he lived out his days as a byword for council corruption.
Anyone picking up a copy of the Evening Chronicle on April 26, 1974, will have been able to see for themselves that the downfall of T Dan Smith was complete.
The former leader of Newcastle Council was handed a six-year sentence, of which he served three years, for his role in the Poulson affair. The corruption scandal had seen the architect pay out for lucrative council building contracts, with everyone but the taxpayer taking their cut.
In page after page of court copy, the city found out how the man who changed the face of Newcastle had been pocketing cash and passing on bribes.
Smith had led the council in the mid-60s at a time when Newcastle was going through much-needed dramatic changes. Slums were demolished, and plans for a city in the sky grew up alongside tower block housing projects and a concrete jungle along John Dobson Street. He cleared the way for the new Eldon Square and helped ensure Newcastle had at least one university in its centre.
At the same time Smith was an increasingly important part of the Poulson empire, working to advise the firm while at the same time ordering major contracts, before stepping down from the council in 1964 to act as consultant and PR man. Armed with a list of contacts, Smith worked his way around town hall offices across the country, doing what he did best and making sure major civic contracts went Poulson’s way.
As Smith’s trial and readers of the Chronicle heard, Smith “set out to make a fortune by attempted corruption of local government officials.”
He recruited what readers were told was a “fifth column of corrupt councillors to work for John Poulson.”
Those payments included cash payouts to Andy Cunningham, the former Durham County Council chairman who was jailed alongside Smith for his part in accepting corrupt payments.
There were further payments to councillors elsewhere across England, but Smith seemed to think he was just part of the system.
The former leader told Leeds Crown Court, where he pleaded guilty, that: “I was corrupt because I condoned things on many occasions. I think I would accept that I was the corrupter, although I was as much corrupted as I corrupted others.”
Poulson received some £800,000 for the firm’s works in the North East, including fees for designing a new police station in Sunderland for Durham Police Authority.
But Smith lined his own pocket as well, with his PR firm typically taking around 1% of the major fees paid to Poulson from the likes of Smith’s own Newcastle.
At the time of his trial it was alleged Smith had taken some £156,000 from Poulson, though his bank accounts showed him to be broke by the time he came to court. Where the money went was never explained, though some point to European trips and the potential for secretive offshore accounts as a starting point.
The corruption would never have come to light if Poulson had not gone bankrupt, meaning his meticulously maintained accounts were open to investigators who had had their suspicions for years.
Smith spent three years behind bars, and eventually ended up living in a Cruddas Park high rise, the type of which would never have come to Newcastle if not for him.
The Smith legacy is everywhere to see in Newcastle, a former council leader says, and the city would be wrong to forget the positives Smith brought to tyneside.
Labour peer Lord Beecham said Smith was “enormously influential,” even if there were allegations around the man from long before his eventual trial.
“When he was brought down, you knew it was a huge story, because of who he was. Some people still had admiration for him, based on what he had done, but for a while it tarnished the entire city.
“He was seen as a dynamic visionary leader at one point. But he was a classic Greek tragedy, he put pride before a fall.”
> He was a crook. He got caught out and paid the price.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 09 June 2014
Women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities may be put off taking part in Britain’s political system because of abuse or threats of physical attacks, a North East MP has warned.
Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington & Sunderland West and the Shadow Equalities Minister, said attempts to make councils and Parliament more representative were being undermined by fears that candidates would face discrimination.
And she said that every party had to act to stamp out intimidation and prejudice in politics.
She was speaking as the Commons debated the findings of an inquiry which found candidates standing for election need protection from racist, Islamaphobic and anti-semitic attempts to smear them.
The findings were published by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct.
Jeremy Beecham, who led Newcastle City Council for 17 years and is now a Labour peer, revealed that he had faced anti-semitic campaigning from political opponents when he first stood as a councillor in the city in 1967.
The inquiry also highlighted the case of Parmjit Dhanda, a former Labour MP, whose children found a severed pig’s head outside his house after his election defeat in 2010.
Gay rights group Stonewall highlighted a number of incidents of homophobic behaviour by candidates from many parties including an example from 2007 in which a Labour party council candidate with parliamentary ambitions, Miranda Grell, labelled her opponent a paedophile.
Ms Grell was convicted in 2007 by magistrates in Waltham Forest of two counts of making false statements about another candidate.
Mrs Hodgson told MPS: “None of us goes into politics without the fear of attack, and none of us is immune from attack on some level; but we should always expect any attacks on us to be based on choices or decisions that we have made, the things we have said, the way we have voted, or what we have done.”
But she warned: “I am sure that for many candidates the threat of their skin colour, background or faith – not to mention their children’s or relatives’- being turned into smears or innuendo or leading to harassment or abuse such as we have heard about today is a real consideration. I worry that the fear I have described will mean that many excellent candidates never seek their local party’s nomination or get the chance to be elected.”
The number of MPs in the House of Commons from ethnic minority backgrounds has increased. After the 2010 General Election there were 27 minority ethnic MPs, 12 more than in the previous Parliament.
It means 4.2% of MPs are from an an ethnic minority compared to 17.9% of the UK population as a whole.
The 2010 census of local councillors in England, carried out by the Local Government Association, showed that 4% came from an ethnic minority background, compared to 20% of the English population as a whole.
Equalities Minister Helen Grant said: “The inquiry on electoral conduct was thorough and detailed and made recommendations to a number of bodies, including the Electoral Commission, the police and political parties. Building its findings into current work and guidance and working with the right organisations is the best way to ensure that political life becomes a battle of ideas, not of race hate and discrimination.”
Source – Newcastle Journal,
Tourism projects vital to Northumberland will be denied a chance to bid for Government cash.
Hopes of building on Northumberland’s tourist hotspot status were dashed when planners were told the latest Government advice was that new projects would not bring in enough jobs and so will not get any cash from a £2bn local growth fund.
Officials in Northumberland were told the news when they asked for £2m from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, the business-led group backed by Government tasked with co-ordinating job creation efforts. Cash would have gone towards The Sill project, a visitor centre which would have created more than 100 jobs.
The partnership told Northumberland the blame lay with the Government, saying cities minister Greg Clark made the blunt assessment of the likelihood of funding bids being successful when he met business and council leaders last week.
But last night the Cabinet office said it was “absolutely wrong” to rule out tourism projects, and insisted the North East could try for cash if it could prove that the tourism project would create jobs.
Tourism in Northumberland alone is said to support some 16,000 jobs, but, Northumberland County Councilhas been told, strict funding rules for the new cash pot will rule out supporting visitor centres, galleries or hotels. The snub has raised fears at County Hall that money handed to the region through the Local Growth Fund will almost entirely benefit urban Tyneside and Sunderland.
“To say that ‘tourism isn’t an economic priority’ downplays the significant role this sector plays in the wider Northumberland economy but especially in Tynedale. Last year it accounted for over £700m in the county economy and underpinned over 13,000 jobs. The Conservative-led coalition doesn’t understand our needs.”
The Sill project, based near Haydon Bridge, is for a discovery centre and office space bringing in an expected 100,000 visitors, with 15,000 expected to stay overnight.
The partnership’s tourism advice also raises question marks over further tourism cash for other Northumberland projects, including a share of the £7m needed to further develop Kielder Forestwith a tree top walkway adventure centre and wildlife support.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “It is absolutely untrue to say that tourism projects are less likely be successful in bids for local growth deals.
“Any bid must be able to show good evidence of benefits for the local economy in terms of jobs and growth, and bids from the tourism industry will be considered on their individual merits alongside every other sector. It is for the North East Local Enterprise Partnership to decide what priority they give to the individual bids in the region, according to the evidence provided.”
A spokesman for the partnership said they were still finalising plans, adding that: “We have been advised that tourism and cultural projects are less likely to achieve these ambitious measures.
“This does not mean the end for the Sill or other projects which could not be prioritised at this time and we will be working with partners to identify alternative funding sources wherever possible.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 25 March 2014
And on a similar theme…
The Trust set up to safeguard Hadrian’s Wall is to be closed down as a result of funding cuts.
Staff at the Hadrian’s Wall Trust face an uncertain future after English Heritage decided it had no option but to pull the plug on support.
The body had being tasked with managing the World heritage Site, but control will now have to be shared among various councils along the route.
English Heritage, Natural England and the eight local authorities who part fund the Hadrian’s Wall Trust are working with NorthumberlandNational Park Authority and the Chairman of the World Heritage Site Management Plan Committee, to put new arrangements in place to safeguard one of the country’s most famous landmarks.
Henry Owen-John, English Heritage planning and conservation director for the North West, said the funders were left with little choice.
He said: “The Trust as a charity is working in a pretty tough financial climate, as are the people who contribute funds to it, such as English Heritage.
“The Trust has been very successful in raising money for specific projects, but the difficulty is finding funding to cover its core costs, the day to day costs, and it is this which has led us to our decision.
“These are difficult times that we all have to operate under. The Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site is unusual in that we do not normally cover the management sites, it is really just this and Stonehenge where this happens, and we have to bring that situation here to an end, and try to get the management self sustaining.
“The people who will take over after the closure of the trust are committed to the future management and coordination of the sites.
“Northumberland County Council will take a lead role in coordinating this now.”
Mr Owen-John said promotional work this year will continue.
“It will take approximately six months to bring the affairs of the trust to a satisfactory conclusion, and the spring and autumn promotional work will continue as planned this year.
“We want to continue marketing Hadrian’s Wall as a whole rather than each council just marketing its bit of the wall.”
English Heritage has had a hard time when it comes to securing Government cash. In 2010 it had some 30% of its budget axed.
In 2013 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport came back for more cuts, asking for 10% from the heritage group’s 2015/16 budget.
Last month The Journal revealed concerns among North East councils that plans to reform English Heritage could see it cherry pick the best sites for its new management arm at the cost of less glamorous sites.
The changes have prompted fears from former Newcastle council leader Lord Beecham and former regional minister Nick Brown that the moves were akin to privatising the service.
In response, Sir Laurie Magnus told The Journal he wanted to “make clear that English Heritage considers its sites in the North East to be among the most important, interesting and beautiful in England. The advantage of the proposed change is that we will be able to invest more in them not less.”
In Northumberland it is hoped the staff currently working for the trust will, where possible, be found work with the councils and other bodies helping look after the wall in future, with decisions being made over the next six months.
Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland County Council: “Hadrian’s Wall is a core part of the county’s tourism industry. We are working alongside our partners with businesses, communities and all other stakeholders along the route to support them and keep them informed of developments. Our priority is safeguarding the Wall into the future.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 25 March 2014
Parts of the North East’s cultural heritage could be put at risk as the Government seeks to end its responsibility for historic sites.
Ministers are part-way through plans to reform English Heritage and create a charitable arm responsible for the National Heritage Collection.
The Government hopes that an £80m cash injection will mean the quango no longer needs taxpayer support.
But concerns have now emerged that the moves will see properties put at risk as the reformed English Heritage struggles to pay for all its assets.
In the North East, English Heritage is responsible for key tourism attractions such as BelsayHall, Lindisfarne Priory, Warkworth Castle and Dunstanburgh Castle.
As well as those flagship sites there are many others which, while contributing to the overall worth of region’s heritage, do not individually draw in large numbers of visitors.
Culture ministers have been warned of the potential downside of their reforms in a joint response by the region’s 12 local authorities.
The Association of North East Councils has said it wants to ensure the changes do not create a situation in which only the sites which generate the most revenue are protected, instead of the entire collection.
And former regional minister Nick Brown has added to the warnings. He said: “The Government’s proposal has two obvious flaws. The loss of expertise will be damaging in the long run because the advice from a well informed independent authority will no longer be there.
“Secondly, our country’s heritage should not be reduced to a historically themed version of Disneyland. It should be preserved, treasured and valued for present and future generations.”
Urging caution of the unknown costs involved, the Association said: “This is an ambitious plan, with yet another organisation competing for the same sources of commercial and philanthropic funding as similar organisations.”
The councils said: “In the North East there is concern over the protection of historic buildings that may not necessarily generate large amounts of income and instead rely on a subsidy, yet are nonetheless key to the collection and bring in wider economic and social benefits to the local community in terms of tourism.”
The Association added: “Similarly, it is of concern that some sites may require such a level of investment to make them more popular and revenue generating, that the charity may seek to divest itself of responsibility for them. We would not wish to see detriment to any part of the collection solely on the grounds of financial viability and fully expect the new charity to demonstrate that it is the sector lead in conserving the Heritage Collection.”
Already across the North East there are nearly 300 properties on English Heritages At Risk register, properties which for decades have struggled to attract sufficient funding.
Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland County Council said: “There’s a worrying lack of detail in this consultation which compounds the feeling that this is just another attempt by the coalition to scale back the state, this time in the area of heritage.
“Northumberland has a rich and varied tapestry which tell the story of this county over the ages and it is a worry that the Government simply wants to open up English Heritage to the market. The Government needs to make the case for their proposed changes and I’m afraid I’m not convinced.”
Former Newcastle Council leader Lord Beecham, a one-time regional member of English Heritage, said there were concerns that the changes were akin to “privatising out heritage.”
A DCMS spokesman: “The Government’s plans to create a new charity, to be called English Heritage, to manage the National Heritage Collection will not involve disposing of or downgrading any buildings or sites. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“The £80m investment will be used to enhance and improve the Collection, helping to secure its future for generations to come.”
> Of course it’s now generally forgotten that in it’s early days our unelected coalition government made a determined attempt to sell off the nation’s woodland into private hands.
Source – Newcastle Journal 18 Feb 2014
Months of pressuring the Government to think again on council spending cuts worth more than £210m a year have seen ministers hand out just £143,000 extra for the North East.
Across the region councils have being setting out where the axe will fall, with the next three years likely to see the cuts total rising to more than £800m.
But after months of high level delegations taking part in desperate Whitehall lobbying missions, the coalition Government has increased the budget available to the region’s councils and fire brigade by an average of just £20,000 each.
The total amount for the region’s seven councils and Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service increased from £1,081,128 to £1,081,271, a rise of just 0.013%.
The final spending handout for 2014/15 will mean there is no way for councils to drop plans to axe Sure Start centres, make hundreds of redundancies or force up parking charges.
And plans to close down three fire stations will certainly go ahead after the Government announced the final funding settlement for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue will see an increase of just £4,000, despite pleas for extra cash.
The North East has been lobbying against the perceived “unfairness” of the cuts since the coalition began axing budgets in 2010. Those efforts stepped up a gear in the last few months after yet more spending reductions for local government were announced in the autumn.
Included in the lobbying effort was work by the Association of North East Councils, which met with local government minister Brandon Lewis to put the case for a fairer funding settlement.
The extra £143,000 handed over as a result is considerably less than the money handed over each year by the region’s seven local authorities to the Association of North East Councils, with Northumberland alone having handed over more than £98,000 this financial year.
Last night former Newcastle Council leader Lord Beecham said it was clear the coalition was not interested in fairly funding local government in the North.
The peer said: “The Government has completely failed to redress the grossly unfair distribution of grant which hits Newcastle and other less-well off areas and benefits the more affluent.
“The extra we receive in the final settlement amounts to less than 25p per household per year and means that there is no protection from the tidal wave of cuts to services which the Government has launched.”
And Northumberland’s Labour council leader Grant Davey said: “It’s disappointing that, yet again, the coalition have failed to listen to Northumberland and have shaved a minute £18,000 from cuts to services worth £32.5m this year.
“Many would say such a derisory figure is an insult to the residents of the county but it shows how little David Cameron and Nick Clegg think of the North East.
“It’s time our coalition MPs started to stand up for their county rather than sit quiet as Cameron and Clegg ravish the services their constituents rely on.”
Northumberland County Council is the only one in the region to put up council tax next year, rising by 1.99%, the maximum allowed without putting the increase to a local referendum.
The Government has pointed to a grant to freeze council tax in most other areas as one way in which many households will benefit from its funding settlement.
Announcing the final settlement, Mr Lewis said: “This settlement marks the second year of local business rates retention and we have again tried to be fair to all parts of the country whether north, south, rural or urban.
“Given the local flexibilities and freedoms that we have put in place, local councils should now work to support local enterprise, building more homes and backing local jobs, so that they can then invest the rewards of growth in local services and in lower taxes.”
Source – Newcastle Journal 17 Feb 2014