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Archive for September, 2016

What will you give up for October?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
MacMillan Cancer Support are running the 'sober October' campaign

MacMillan Cancer Support are running the ‘sober October’ campaign

With September drawing to a close and bringing with it the end of the ‘One You’ public health challenge I wrote about last week, October marks the start of two new important health campaigns, Stoptober and Sober October

Stoptober encourages smokers to kick the habit. The 28-day challenge is now in its fifth year and in that time has had a huge impact, for the better, on the health of Tameside residents. Last year over 1000 people in Tameside signed up to the challenge to quit smoking for good and the proportion of our residents who are smokers is now 21.7%, down from more than 50% in 1975. However 21.7% is still above the national average of 19%, so we still have some way to go to create the healthy Tameside that we aspire to.

Sober October is championed by MacMillan Cancer Support. It challenges people to give up drinking alcohol for the month of October and encourages people to get sponsorship for doing so, to raise money for the charity.

If you want to take part in either of these challenges, there are a range of support services on offer throughout the month so that you won’t be on your own. You can sign up for daily e-mails, facebook messenger alerts and, for Stoptober, there’s even an app you can download for your phone or tablet (there seems to be one for everything nowadays doesn’t there?).

This year is the fifth annual Stoptober initiative

This year is the fifth annual Stoptober initiative

For smokers, local services and pharmacies are also available to provide free, expert face-to-face support and guidance. The research shows that people who quit smoking with the support of a stop smoking service adviser are four times more likely to stop for good. If you’re serious about quitting then I’d definitely encourage you to take up this offer – especially given it’s free.

Now I’ve purposely decided not to go on in this blog about how expensive a habit smoking is, or the diseases that smokers place themselves at risk at every time they take a drag. Those arguments have been well rehearsed elsewhere before and until the world’s last ever cigarette has been stubbed out they will continue to be rehearsed long in to the future. Equally I could’ve talked about all the gruesome illnesses that heavy drinking could lead to, but I’m sure you’ve heard all that before too.

Instead here are some positive reasons to give ‘giving up’ a go. When I was researching for this blog I found a range of health benefits from stopping smoking that I wasn’t aware of. These are listed here, take a look and you may be surprised too. And in the case of Sober October what better reason to sign up than improving your health and raising money for projects like the new MacMillan Cancer Centre based at Tameside Hospital?

If you’d like any more support or advice on quitting smoking or cutting down your alcohol consumption you can call Be Well Tameside on 0161 716 2000. If you’ve heard enough already and decided you’re ready to sign up, good luck!

Calling Time on Excessive Pay

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

3311There were a couple of pieces of news at the end of last week that should give anybody who is concerned about fairness and equality in Britain pause for thought. Firstly, figures from the Office of National Statistics show that cash bonuses from UK employers have reached £44.3 billion, surpassing their pre-crisis peak. At the same time, wage growth has slowed down from 2.5% to 2.3% in the last quarter, which includes the month following the vote on our European Union membership. It’s for these reasons that I welcome the announcement that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee are launching an enquiry into corporate governance in Britain, with a focus on corporate governance and levels of executive pay.

Before I start, let me make one thing perfectly clear, I have no issue with people making good amounts of money if they deserve it. Where it becomes an issue is if that money bears no relation to their performance in the job, or if the money that they earn is wildly more than could ever be justified. Maybe Sir Martin Sorrell has done a good job as Chief Executive at WPP, but can you really say that his work is worth £70 million a year? Does the Chief Executive of BP, Bob Dudley, really merit a 20% pay rise when the company recorded the biggest operating loss in its history under his watch? Extraordinary bonuses and pay should be a reward for extraordinary performance. These days they seem to be handed out for run-of-the-mill management and even, in some cases, for outright failure.

It’s not like this is a new issue either. Some readers of this blog who are a bit older than me may remember the controversy when Dr Richard Beeching received the then-princely sum of £24,000 a year (£14,000 a year more than the then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan) to dismantle Britain’s railway network, the negative consequences of which are still being felt today. In recent decades, the usual suspects in government and the media have hounded anybody who dares voice their concerns about excessive pay as “anti-business” or engaging in “the politics of envy”. This doesn’t change the fact that we are reaching a point where re-evaluating and resetting our attitude to excessive pay is not only desirable, but necessary. Increasingly there are signs that even the business world itself is beginning to tire of massive, unjustifiable salary packets and bonuses. Shareholder revolts against executive pay rises are becoming regular occurances, with bosses at companies as diverse as estate agents Foxtons to betting company Paddy Power Betfair feeling the pressure. If the government committed itself to regulating executive pay in a way that still allowed for some flexibility in terms of attracting the best talent and rewarding the best performances, I believe they would receive more support than you’d expect.

If you’re not convinced by the moral argument, then ask yourself these questions instead. Would you prefer tens of millions being spent to invest in and expand a business, or would you prefer to see it disappear into a CEOs back pocket instead? Is it really healthy for our society and economy that a small amount of people at FTSE 100 companies can take home pay packets that are 123 times higher than what the average worker here in Tameside can expect to earn? Is it re_89367940_thinkstockphotos-470808506ally a good sign that pay for a director has increased by 47% since 2010 while workers received only a 7% increase over the same period? For these reasons and many more, I shall be watching the deliberations of the Business, Investment and Skills enquiry, and our new Prime Minister’s response to it, with great interest. Mrs May has said that she wants everybody to share in the country’s wealth. It won’t be long at all before she’ll need to start matching words with action.

For a healthier Tameside

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Living more healthily and being more active are things that, at some point, almost all of us have endeavoured to do. However, there is often a huge disparity between the numbers of us who have those aspirations and the numbers who go on to realise them. This is one of the cases where peer pressure can be a good thing.

Council Chief Executive and Cllr Robinson on the new Ashton canal cycleway

Council Chief Executive Steven Pleasant and Cllr Robinson on the new Ashton canal cycleway

That’s why earlier this month I threw my support behind Public Health England’s ‘One You’ campaign here at Tameside Council. The campaign encouraged people to make pledges to live more healthily for four weeks in September. These could be as simple as giving up those midweek cans of lager while watching the match, or walking to the newsagent to get your paper on a Sunday rather than driving there. Or you could be more ambitious and have pledged to cycle in to work for those four weeks or dusted off the gym membership card and got back in to the routine of going again.

At each of our sites an employee has been appointed a ‘One You’ champion. This is where the peer pressure comes in. The champion’s job is to encourage other employees to make pledges and organise events to accommodate those pledges. Our HR team held an after work salsa lesson led by a colleague and our democratic services team went on a lunchtime guided history walk along the Peak Forest Canal. There has also been fierce competition, particularly among younger members of staff, over who can run the furthest throughout September.

Of course it’s no good just taking up these challenges for four weeks and then dropping them on the 1st October. The intention is to encourage people to make these changes permanent. Only time will tell but I am confident that many of our staff have seen the benefits of making healthier choices and will continue to lead healthier lives as a result of this long after the challenge has ended.

Dukinfield Town Hall staff went on a guided walk during lunch time

Dukinfield based staff held a guided walk during lunch

Whilst on the subject of health it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity remind readers that winter is approaching. The dark nights are already beginning to draw in and this will become even more obvious when the clocks go back next month. Whilst we had some unseasonably warm weather last weekend the days have been noticeably cooler this week.

With winter comes our annual drive to encourage our residents, particularly those in vulnerable groups, to get their flu jab. For those aged over 65, those who have a long term health condition, those with young children and women who are pregnant, the jab is free. I would encourage readers of this blog who fall in to these groups or who know others who do to book a slot at their GP surgery’s flu clinic.

A healthy person can typically recover from flu within 2 to 7 days. However, with possible consequences of the disease including hospitalisation, permanent disability and, in extreme cases, death, it’s not worth the risk.

Details of Public Health England’s One You campaign can be found here.

Details of flu clinics throughout Tameside are here.

Are grammar schools fit for the 21st century?

Friday, September 16th, 2016
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Mossley Hollins, one of many schools across Tameside to benefit from investment

Despite the referendum having taken place almost three months ago, the Brexit debate continues to rumble on in the press and on our TV screens. However, whilst not having gone away, these last few days it has been knocked off the front pages by something new. I’m talking of course about the debate over the merits of grammar schools and the government’s plans to resurrect these institutions in some form following the ban on the opening of any new ones in 1998.

Now, in the interests of transparency, I must begin by saying that I attended a grammar school myself. The school provided an excellent standard of education at the time and gave many of those who attended the tools that they needed to get on in life. However, I was the only child at my primary school to get a place, with the rest attending the local secondary modern where they received a very different type and standard of education. I can recall at the time wondering why I had to catch a bus to get to a school further away whilst my friends all went to one around the corner. For different reasons, I still wonder this now, and wonder even more now the government has announced plans to bring back grammar schools.

My view is quite simple; a grammar school system does not work. How can it be possible to genuinely assess what a child might be capable of in later life by having them take a single exam at age 11? How can it be fair to tell large numbers of 11 year olds that they do not deserve the best possible education on offer and are only worth a lesser standard which will limit their career and employment options for the rest of their life? Surely every child should have the same opportunities to grow and better themselves as much as possible?

Some have chosen to dismiss these views as left wing idealism, but critics of the system come from across the political spectrum. A man you may have heard of once said ‘There is a kind of hopelessness about the demand to bring back grammars, an assumption that this country will only ever be able to offer a decent education to a select few,’ that man was former Prime Minister David Cameron, a man that regular readers will know I do not believe to be any champion of the left!

There is an abundance of evidence that shows that a grammar school system fails huge numbers of children too, particularly bright children from poorer backgrounds. Ahead of writing this blog I made a comparison between Tameside and Kent, a place where grammar schools never went away. In 2015 in Kent, the garden of England and one of the wealthiest counties in the UK, 57.3% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths. Here in Tameside, under the comprehensive system and with our arguably less favourable demographics, we achieved exactly the same proportion. A look at how low the share of children on free school meals attending the remaining grammar schools is sets alarm bells ringing too. The reasons behind this couldn’t have been illustrated better than they were on BBC Breakfast the other morning where every parent interviewed in a grammar school area admitted to paying for tutoring to coach their child for the 11+.

I’m clear that the best way to improve education for our children is to invest in world class facilities and ensure quality teaching for all children. That’s why we invested £250 million in refurbishing or rebuilding our schools and set up the Tameside schools’ self improvement network, the A+ trust. It’s an approach that has delivered the most rapidly improving exam results in the North West in 2015 and further improvements this year. Theresa May says that every child deserves the ‘chance’ of attending a good school, I believe they deserve the guarantee.

All change: Tameside’s new parliamentary constituency boundaries (maybe)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

constituenciesTo the average member of the public Tuesday 13th September 2016 probably isn’t a date of any significance, unless of course it’s your birthday or anniversary. But to England and Wales’ 573 MPs it’s a date that has been marked in the diary since July. That’s because yesterday was the day that the Boundary Commission published their initial proposals for the boundaries of the new parliamentary constituencies on which the 2020 general election will be fought.

Before going in to the detail of what exactly this means for Tameside’s electoral map, it’s worth explaining a little background.

The boundary review was initiated in 2011 by the then coalition government with the ambition of ‘reducing the cost of democracy’ by reducing the number of MPs. A number of figures were banded around ranging from as low as 400 right up to no change from the present 650 and just equalising constituency sizes within that number. For reasons that may never be known to the rest of us, during the coalition negotiations of 2010 a figure of 600 was settled on.

The legislation that set the boundary review process in train was unique in that it is the only piece of boundary review legislation in history that actually specified the number of constituencies that will exist at the end of the process. It also specified a range for the permissible size of electorates for the 600 seats (with some exceptions for islands). This was allegedly to ensure that each constituency was roughly similar in size so that every vote had equal weight – not an unreasonable ambition. So far so good right?

The aim of equalising the size of constituencies is indeed not unreasonable but this strict range, coupled with the arbitrary 600 figure inevitably was going to force the boundary commission to come up with some very strange combinations – and they haven’t disappointed.

Of the three constituencies covering Tameside Ashton-under-Lyne remains in name, though its boundaries are significantly different to the constituency as it is today. Droylsden and Audenshaw are added to a seat that covers more of Oldham that it does of Tameside, and Denton and Hyde are tagged on to two new seats that cover large areas of Stockport. The full details are listed below.

In short, if these proposals remain unchanged, Tameside will go from being represented by 3 MPs to being represented by 4. Whilst having more MPs banging the drum for Tameside in Westminster may be a positive, 3 of the four MPs who ultimately take these seats will have responsibilities for other local authority areas too whose demands could be equal to or greater than our own, potentially cancelling out the benefits.

In addition to criticisms about the boundaries of the new seats themselves, the process that has brought us this far, I believe, is deeply flawed. I’ve written already about the 2 million new people who registered to vote in the EU referendum, of which 4,466 were here in Tameside. As mentioned earlier, the government has set strict limits on the number of electors an MP can represent but has instructed the boundary commission to draw up proposals based on the electoral roll as it was in December 2015, before the upsurge in registrations. This means that the boundary commission proposals are likely to already be outside the government’s parameters before they’ve been implemented.

And that’s not all. This has been drawn up under the guise of ‘reducing the cost of democracy’; reducing the number of MPs is allegedly going to save the taxpayer £12 million but the government’s stuffing of the unelected Lords is going to cost £45 million!

There is no question that the UK is overdue a boundary review, the unequal size of constituencies is unjustifiable. But any process that is undertaken must use the most up to date information and respect local ties and community identities

I will be making strong representations myself to the boundary commission and making the case for two seats wholly contained within Tameside – this is doable with the limits. I’d encourage all those with an interest in seeing Tameside get the best possible deal on parliamentary representation to do so also. Click

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Doing Our Bit For Local Businesses

Friday, September 9th, 2016

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One of the 2016 Pledges which I am most passionate about is our commitment to local small and medium sized businesses (SMEs). In Tameside, as in most other parts of the country, our economy is dependent on the hard work and success of shopkeepers, manufacturers and designers, often working out of a small premises with a handful of employees. Their efforts often go unnoticed or unheralded, but they really shouldn’t be. 60% of all private sector employees in the UK are employed by small and medium businesses, and together they contribute over £1.8 trillion to our economy, or 47% of all private sector turnover in the UK.

I’ve always been vocal about the vital contribution that our SMEs make to Tameside, and now we’re going to put our money where our mouths are as well. Under our “Tameside Works First” pledge, we have resolved to buy services and goods from local providers as much as possible. For the council, it promotes local businesses and ensures that work is done by people who know and care about the local area. For businesses, it provides them with income and publicity that will allow them to thrive, expand and challenge for further work in the future. It’s the absolute definition of a win-win scenario.

We also recognise that, in many cases, simply advertising that the work is available doesn’t go far enough. How many Tameside businesses that are perfectly capable of delivering great results miss out because they either aren’t familiar with our procurement process or lack the confidence to take the plunge? That’s why we recently invited applications from local SMEs to join one of our regular “Meet the Buyer” events at Ashton Market Hall. Far from filling out mountains of local government paperwork, all interested businesses needed to do was complete a short form and then meet with us to discuss their capabilities and our requirements. Following these discussions shortlists and invitations to tender will then be sent out for packages of work for Phase 2 of the Vision Tameside Project. These range in value from £10,000 right up to £850,000.

Our Meet the Buyer events have a long and successful history, and we intend to hold many more of them in the future, so don’t worry if you missed out on this one. Moving forward, our goal should be to become an organisation for which contracting out to SMEs should be the norm when the size and nature of the work is suitable. This will involve more than changing the processes, it will involve changing a culture that often sees big companies as the “safe” option to get things done. As with many other cases, local government is leading the way in making that happen. If you want world-class delivery and business development, our work shows that it always pays to look closer to home.

A Battle Won, But Much More To Do.

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

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Last month I wrote in this blog about how Sports Direct was finally beginning to get found out over their draconian and exploitative work practices. To briefly recap, their litany of mistreatment included the use of insecure zero-hours contracts as the norm, a wholesale disregard for minimum wage legislation, shortcomings in basic health and safety and a disciplinary system that actively punished any attempts by employees to speak out about their working conditions. For these reasons, and many others, Sports Direct has earned a deserved reputation as the poster child for how some companies are seeking to turn the clock back centuries on worker’s rights in Britain.

That’s why this week’s victory is particularly significant. Following pressure from trade unions, politicians, the media and investors Sports Direct have agreed to offer their retail staff guaranteed hours, and pledged to review working conditions and practices at its warehouses. Shareholder groups are also putting their own pressure onto Sports Direct by voting against the re-election of the company’s chairman at their AGM today. This is absolutely something to be celebrated, but at the same time we need to acknowledge that it is not the end. Most of the company’s warehouse staff, who are employed by agencies and not by Sports Direct itself, will remain on zero-hours contracts. Action from one company also does nothing to improve the lot of workers who suffer exploitation and poor working conditions in other companies and agencies. This is a struggle that will go on a while yet.

There is also a bigger picture here as well. Like it or not, the 20th century model of a lifetime career in a 9-5 job is probably never coming back. 1 in 7 people in Britain are now self-employed, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development tell us that since 1995, “non-standard” (temporary, part-time and self-employed) work has accounted for almost all of the UK’s net jobs growth. That doesn’t even begin to touch on more recent developments like the rise of new digital platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo (two companies who are also receiving deserved condemnation of their employment practices) and the increase in automation of all sectors of the economy. The modern workplace is more fragmented and precarious than it has ever been, and governments and trade unions have not yet caught up to the reality of it. If we don’t fill in the gaps with regulation, with oversight and with support then all we will achieve is giving unscrupulous companies more opportunities to exploit their workers and evade their obligations.

This might sound like a daunting task, but I know it can be done. It’s fashionable these days to be cynical about the possibility of fighting the inequalities in our society and economy, but if we don’t make an effort to shape the future then companies like Sports Direct and Deliveroo will be more than happy to do it for us. If this week has shown us anything it is that, no matter how bad things might look, a better and fairer Britain is absolutely possible if enough people work together to achieve it. Let’s face the challenge and make it happen.

End Maternity Discrimination in the Workplace

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

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It’s often easy to forget just how far we’ve come as a country when it comes to tackling racism, prejudice and discrimination. Part of the reason for this change is because of the legislation that successive governments enacted to protect people against discrimination on the streets, in the workplace and in the eyes of the law. However, as big a reason for the change is that people became sensitive to and challenged cultures of racism and prejudice in their everyday lives. I’m just about old enough to remember National Front marches and signs reading “No blacks or Irish need apply”, and I’m confident that if anybody attempted to bring back those dark days they would be firmly rejected by the British people.

That being said, we should also acknowledge that while may we have come a long way there is still further progress to be made. It’s for that reason that the recent report by the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee on a rise in discrimination against expectant and new mothers should serve as a wake-up call to all of us. The report states that ¾ of women experience a negative or discriminatory effect of their pregnancy at work, and the number of women who have left a job due to concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy-based discrimination has doubled in the last decade to over 54,000 annually.

These findings would be shocking enough. However, as with most employment cases like this, the effects are being most keenly felt by those in casual, agency or zero-hour contract jobs, often with little pay and even less job security. For people in those kind of jobs, and they are statistically more likely to be women, this kind of discrimination can have severe and tragic consequences. They are more likely to suffer difficult pregnancies and birth, and they are more likely to struggle to provide their new children with the basic necessities after they’re born. The introduction of fees to take workplace discrimination cases to a tribunal has also drastically restricted their access to justice and redress, a disgraceful state of affairs that our local MP, Angela Rayner, has done excellent work in highlighting. We are a modern and developed country, and women form 47% of our workforce (and rising). We should reject discrimination against pregnant women with as much force as we would reject any other kind of discrimination.

That certainly needs to involve challenging and changing people’s attitudes to pregnant women in the workplace, but it also needs to involve the government taking firm and decisive action not just to enforce already existing legislation, but to introduce new legislation as well. The Women and Equalities Commission recommended strengthening protections around women being made redundant while pregnant, reducing the fee required to take a pregnancy discrimination case to tribunal and extending maternity rights to employees on casual, zero-hours and agency contracts. Those seem like sensible and reasonable recommendations to me, and I would encourage the government to accept them and make them happen with all due haste.

Every person has the right to be protected from discrimination in their workplace. No woman should be forced to make a choice between their family and their job. It might not be a sign in a window saying “No women need apply”, but it is every bit as insidious and damaging to our economy and society. We have no time to waste in casting it into the rubbish heap of history.

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