Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

I've decided, perhaps because I've had very little else to say over the past couple of weeks, to jump on the bandwagon and talk about the apology that shook the world. Well, the apology that gave me a sense of relief at the very least. I am, of course, talking about Nick Clegg's apology for signing the tuition fees pledge.

This video was extremely cathartic for me. Despite my ever growing ability to rattle off the list of manifesto pledges we've delivered like some kind of puppet mouthing a mantra, not to mention defending the decision to break the pledge on occasion, in my heart I still felt betrayed over fees.

It wasn't the fact that we'd raised tuition fees that really got to me. I'm idealistic enough to believe in an education system that's free for all and focussed on bettering the species rather than bettering careers, but realistic enough to know that this isn't going to happen without a massive shift in both public and mainstream political opinion. The problem I had was that when we did this we did so in a way that felt totally reminiscent of the Tories and Labour.

Political common sense should have suggested to me that this was the right way to do things. Don't express regret or distate as the red tops will destroy you. In fact friends of mine have said exactly the same thing when I've bemoaned the seeming friendliness and ease with which we've worked with "our coalition partners". In my heart of hearts though, I've always felt a sense of dissonance, because the human being in me wants to see our politicians remember that they are part of the species.

What Nick Clegg did with his video was show that he hasn't forgotten what it is to be human. We can all understand a reasoned argument most of the time, but sometimes we just want someone to say "I'm sorry" as well, and that's what Nick did. It may have been political spin, but to me it was based on a better understanding of human nature than most other politicians in Parliament have shown in my lifetime. 

It's this that has made me feel immense relief. I can at last go forward knowing that our MPs may be doing things that I don't wholeheartedly endorse or can barely stomach, as well as the great things that I won't bother listing here, but that they are at least retaining some sense of humanity whilst they do it.

In my view, both Labour and the Tories have failed to do this during their spells in government over the past 33 years. It is though something that I believe we must do if we are to come out of the coalition with any vestige of our former strength. Nick Clegg's video gives me hope that this is not only possible but is actually highly likely. I'll say I'm sorry now if that sounds a bit naive.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Public Sector - Cash cow for those who won't get proper jobs?

I received an e-mail this week that talked about pay restraint in the public sector. The terminology was hilarious because, with inflation the way it is and despite increases in tax allowances, public sector workers are having their pay cut. A 0% rise when (as of July) CPI stands at 2.6% and RPI is at 3.2% cannot be described as anything but a public sector pay cut.

The premise for cutting public sector pay is, on the face of it, deficit reduction. We as a nation have to live within our means after all, and freezing pay limits the number of jobs being cut. It has also been suggested that public sector pay is higher than that of the private sector, so freezing pay can address that balance too. Furthermore, it is the private sector that funds the public sector through taxation, so restraint is fair to the private sector (again taken from the email I received). So what'd the problem, you might wonder. The problem is that this argument ignores certain facts.

Firstly, this argument ignores the reasons why pay is higher in the public sector. The public sector, according to the ONS, is made up of a higher proportion of higher skilled (and so higher paid) jobs than the private sector. Public sector workers also tend to be more experienced and older, meaning their pay has risen historically. If you have a degree or are in senior position, however, you can expect to be paid less in the public sector. Public sector pay restraint isn't therefore addressing an imbalance, it is actually creating one. I wonder if it will also effect gender pay balances, as women tend to be paid more in the public sector as a higher proportion fulfil skilled roles.

The second problem is that public sector workers don't simply exist because of the largess of the private sector. The public sector exists to support society. It isn't a cash cow for those who don't want to work in the private sector. Without a public sector we would have to personally fund everything from policing our streets to healing our sick. These kinds of jobs are high stress and high risk in some cases. The people that do them choose to help others. These are the last people you'd want to be worrying about low wages when they should be doing their jobs. If they were in a private sector system they'd probably be paid quite a bit more, but their services wouldn't be anywhere near as universal as they are now. I also wonder is they'd be vilified quite so much in the media by politicians.

The final problem is the structure of the public sector. I once read a report that said that, as a percentage, the number of managers in the NHS had gone up faster than the number of doctors and nurses under New Labour. I also know for a fact that 45% of the income at some FE providers is top-sliced to pay for non-teaching staff. When only just over half of your public funds are being used to do the job on the front line, you know there's a problem. The reason for this seems to me to be the endless targets and bureaucracy that Government has been obsessed with over the past 15 years. When I was teaching, between 2008 and 2012, you spent nearly as much time explaining yourself to managers and recording evidence in triplicate for OFSTED, funding bodies and exam boards as you did planning the lessons you were ostensibly there to teach. This represented a massive waste of public funds in my view.

So, is there a point to all this? I guess the point is this. If we have to contract the public sector to cut the deficit then let's not couch it in deceit and misuse of language. Public sector pay is being cut, not restrained. Working in the public sector is going to mean worse pay than working in the private sector as a result. Jobs that involve caring for, nurturing and protecting the public will not pay well in the future. We might be able to keep pay levels a little higher for front line staff in the public sector if we are willing to cut bureaucracy and sack more back room staff like managers. Either way, if you have a degree, you're going to be even better off in the private sector than you are now.

When a senior politician can say that out loud we'll have made some progress as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Sunday Trading Post Olympiad

I found myself pondering the issue of Sunday trading this morning thanks to BBC Breakfast. With that in mind, laid about below are a few of my thoughts and observations on the subject.

The news story I watched made the point that the current extension of opening hours, as an experiment, wasn't complete yet. To  my mind there is a further issue. I haven't observed any reaction from local public transport providers to the extension in opening hours, meaning the number of additional shoppers has probably been restricted. If there is to be an experiment in extending opening hours then it needs to be coupled with changes to public transport to facilitate access to town centres.

One of the guests on the programme suggested that it should be up to the public to decide when they wish to shop. Despite the fact that the individual had a vested interest in saying this, I totally agree. I am not an atheist and have no real axe to grind with religion, but I do not think religion should have explicit say in how this country is governed, or when we can shop. I also question whether it is likely that potential church attendees will be prevented from attending by the chance to visit their local supermarket. No BOGOF deal in the world is so good that it would have people rushing from church, even if they wanted to be there.

The small business owner on the programme suggested we should retain Sunday trading laws as small businesses will suffer due to unfair competition. He was right that small businesses are unfairly treated in our high streets but, for me, he had the solution wrong. It seems to me that high rental prices, overheads and wholesale costs are the issue here. Therefore, it would seem to me, that these are what need to be tackled to help small businesses survive and grow. I've also noticed that many local small businesses are closed on Sundays and so wouldn't be negatively effected in any way by large companies trading.

My suggestion on the subject of Sunday trading is this. Firstly, let's do some proper research into Sunday trading by finding out if the public want it and then, if they do, experimenting throughout one or two district council areas in partnership with local public transport providers. Secondly, if that works, in the sense that companies wish to continue to remain open and footfall is good, then lets go national with it. Thirdly, let's tackle the real issues that are preventing small businesses from competing, rather than simply hoping we can prevent big companies from attempting to muscle in.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Mental Health and Kent's Councils

One of the things I quickly discovered about being a trade union rep for my old employer was the fact that Policy and Procedure are everything. You could terrify a middle manager with the right reference to this policy or that procedure and you could find good people being made to suffer for not dotting an I or crossing a T.

One of the positive things about this was the fact that in the main, if you could get the top brass to put it in writing, policy was a good guide as to how you would be treated and a good defence if you were treated badly. I didn't always agree with the policy, of course, and often got sideswiped by it too. What it gave, though, was an idea of issues that had been thought about and considered by my employer.

My employer had a pretty thorough set of health related policies, for example, which pleased me no end. Although I can't recall if every one was enacted, there was a sickness/absence policy, a policy for addiction/abuse and a policy for work-related stress, along with recognition of specific health issues within equality policies. The aim of these was in the main to be supportive, but with the threat of more firm action if the relevant staff member didn't play ball.

One policy, which affects around 1 in 5 people, was conspicuously absent however. The policy in question was a mental health policy. Whilst mental health was perhaps partially covered by the other health related policies, the lack of a stand alone policy was something I found disturbing given that mental health issues are so prevalent in the UK. Before I left, I did say that I would try to draft one myself, using others for guidance, but I must admit to that still being a work in progress.

I don't know if my former employer has plans to enact a mental health policy, irrespective of whether I finish writing one for them, but I must admit to a curiosity about the prevalence of such policies. I found a number online to use as crib materials, but didn't find many locally. So, given my curiosity and my ever so slight politics addiction, I decided to turn my gaze on our local councils by e-mailing each one to find out the lay of the land. 

The response I got will probably come as no surprise to most. I sent the e-mail last Wednesday so not everyone has spotted it yet, including the mighty KCC, but every response so far has been a big fat NO. To be specific, Shepway, Dartford, Medway, Gravesham, Tonbridge & Malling, Dover, Swale and Sevenoaks Councils all lack a Mental Health policy. Given the prevalence of shared HR services in Kent, I expect that figure to grow. 

Why does this matter, I suspect comes to mind. There are three major reasons why I think this matters. Firstly, mental health issues affect a huge number of people. They cost businesses and the public sector a huge amount of money and that needs to be managed. Secondly, people with mental health issues are subject to stigma and discrimination. Discrimination and fear are damaging to the well-being of any workforce, and can be catastrophic for individuals. Thirdly, people with mental health issues need support and understanding. Whilst a policy doesn't create or engender this, its presence can be a starting point. 

So, I've discovered that many Kent councils lack a mental health policy. Some, to be fair, had considered mental health within existing policy and others had training in place for staff. It seems to me, however, that if we are to improve the nation's mental health and improve recovery rates from mental ill health, as set out by the "No Health without Mental Health" strategy document, then we must first recognise the key role that employers have to play in doing so. For me, stand-alone mental health policies within large employers are a key starting point for this. Here's hoping local councils, and colleges, agree with me.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Politics and Policing: Incompetent Scaremonger?

I am not an expert on the police, something which will become apparent over the next few lines, but I found a letter in my local paper castigating an independent candidate for the Kent PCC role today quite interesting so I'm going to respond in my own way. 

The letter suggested that the candidate was an incompetent scaremonger to suggest that politicians weren't already involved in the police force by running under the banner of keep politics out of policing. The premise for this argument was that politicians make the law. So I dusted off my memories of studying a politics unit at university and considered the question, where do politicians and the police currently overlap. 

Firstly, I considered separation of powers. Our police force could be seen as controlled by the executive (government) through the Home Office and the numerous homogeneous targets it loves to set. The laws are made by our legislature (parliament) which obviously affects the police and our judiciary (criminal justice system) decides who has broken those laws and decides the consequences within the legal framework. The question is, though, do politicians already control the police?

As I mentioned, the Home Office gets to set targets. These give a strategic millstone to the police that I'm sure they love. The Home Office also, one assumes, sets basic funding which ensures that these targets are in the forefront of the mind, but is this controlling the police? I would say not really as, from my experience in education, targets are there to be lived with, but don't completely alter what you do day to day (unless things go horribly wrong). So, I'd say that the Home Office has some influence, but doesn't rule the roost. 

The law is set by parliament and that is full of politicians. Does that mean the police, who must investigate potential breaches of the law, are controlled by politicians? Again, there is some control here, but does it have a day to day effect? Obviously, if something becomes legal or illegal, it changes what the police have to investigate, but does that give them a strategic steer? I suspect this is the case to a degree, but that this comes mostly via guidelines from the Home Office, who we dealt with above. In fact, I suspect the biggest danger where politicians in parliament are concerned is where they confer discretionary powers on the police or fail to repeal bad laws, as this reduces police accountability to the public at large.

So far I've established, in my own mind at least, that politicians via the Home Office control the police to a degree. But what about the police authorities? I've had a look into them and have been hit by a sense of deja vu. They seem to have exactly the same type of control as the Home Office, but with perhaps even greater strategic control through the ability to appoint senior officers and their accountability role. They also have some politician appointees, who mirror the political make-up of the relevant council, meaning politicians have at least some control through this set-up as well.

At this stage I begin to wonder if the whole keep politics out of policing line really is a bit pointless. We've got the government via the Home Office, Parliament via the law and county councils via the police authorities all sticking their noses into the police and they're all run by politicians. The thing is, though, they are all run by politicians but none of those politicians have absolute control and none of them represent only one political viewpoint. Also, in the case of the police authorities, there are non-political appointees to act as a foil. What we face in the PCC role is a single political individual having massive strategic influence on our police forces.  

So, perhaps keep politics out of policing is about limiting the control that one person's political ideology has over the strategic and day to day running of our police forces. It is true that politics affects the police and that politicians have an element of control, but the PCC role will give that level of control to a single party politician who will have only one guiding force, the party line. The fact that they are elected for a limited period isn't enough to stop that being a scary thought. That's the reason why, for me, keep politics out of policing is the most competent and comforting campaign slogan I've heard, even though I'm plainly not an expert on policing.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Barclays Personal Reserve vs

Until recently I had a Barclays Personal Reserve of £150 on my current account. I kept on straying into it, costing me a lot of money, so I decided to ditch it a month or so ago as bouncing payments was cheaper. I also tried claiming some of the fees back, to no avail.

This got to me to wondering whether or not I would have been better served borrowing from a short term loans company like have a terrifying representative APR of £4214, which on the face of it makes steering clear a no-brainer. Undeterred, however, I sat down and did some calculations, as only a Maths/Stats fanatic would do.

First I looked at what I'd pay if I borrowed £150 for 1 year at's representative APR of 4214%. This came to the enormous sum of  £6,321 in interest. This was, of course unrealistic, as I wouldn't be paying the hugely compounded rate but would in fact be paying the true annual rate of interest of 360%. Over a year that would cost me £540 in interest, ignoring fees. A hefty sum for such a small amount of money.

Then I decided to look at the Barclays Personal Reserve. This helpful facility gives you an extra £150 on your overdraft, so long as you are happy to pay £22 for every 5 working days that you access it. Firstly, I worked out how many periods of 5 working days there would be in a 52 week year. This total, 50.4, was then multiplied by £22. This gave me a whopping total cost for the year of £1,108, more than double the cost of's true interest rate. Considering I had always assumed/hoped that Barclays was a responsible lender, this figure kind of shocked me.

Still in shock, I decided to drill down to monthly costs using the fun sliders on the website, as I felt this would be more accurate. The sliders told me that, over a 30 day period, borrowing £150 from would cost me £51 in interest and fees. By comparison, and based upon my calculation that there are an average of 21 working days in a month, using my reserve would have cost me at least £88. This meant that Barclays would have cost me an extra £37 per month compared with Having gone over the figures in brief, therefore, I was forced to conclude that I would have been better off borrowing with than with the bank I have been loyal to for 14 years.

Of course, there is a major caveat to the figures for Barclays. I estimate, on average, that most people would pay no more than 3 reserve usage fees in a month if their bills weren't all coming out on pay day, which brings the extra cost down to a much less damning £15 per month. It is also likely that there would be fluctuations in usage across months. Given, however, that you pay a flat fee of £22 for using even £1 of the reserve for 1 day, compared with £7.42 for borrowing £1 from for 30 days, I think this is a fair reflection on the relative merits of the 2 products.

In conclusion, therefore, I have to say that is probably a better bet for dealing with short-term money issues than the Barclays Personal Reserve. Of course, given that borrowed money has to be paid back with fees and interest, neither option presents a great prospect if you are struggling to make ends meet. I'd therefore recommend overcoming any pride or embarrassment you may feel over being short £150 and either speak to friends and family or speak to the companies you pay your bills too. Something I must admit I should have done more quickly upon occasion.


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Triggering and Covering

I'm sat here pondering past events, as I have a bad habit of doing, and a conversation with one of my former superiors comes to mind.

I was told by my new manager at the time to wear long sleeves at all times whilst at work due to some scarring on my arms, which I was also told not to talk about. I had never been expected to do this in the past and, at the time, I was feeling particularly low, so I reacted badly and requested a meeting with a senior member of staff.

He explained to me that there had been a complaint by a colleague that it was inappropriate of me to flaunt my bare arms (I may be sensationalising the wording a bit there). He suggested that I was in contact with vulnerable teens who might be affected by the sight of them and that I might also be at risk of bullying. He was at pains to point out that my well-being was his top priority.

At the time, I was hurt and offended but followed the instruction until such time as I could get it rescinded due to redeployment and hot weather (yes, there has been hot weather at times this year). I even contacted Mind to discuss it. I didn't really feel my well-being was being served at all, borne out by the fact that the renewed focus on this area of my life acted as a partial trigger for a massive backslide.

Anyway, with the benefit of hindsight, I find myself wondering what the best decision would have been. Seeing certain things, like scars, can be triggering for vulnerable people. That is reflected in the media guidance on suicide. But can denying, or refusing to talk about, things be just as damaging? I'll leave that question to ponder. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Death Knell for Post-16 Education in Folkestone?

Today the Folkestone Herald has announced that UCF is to lose many of its students after the Governors of CCUC decided a "change of direction" was in order. CCUC has attempted to placate fears by telling us that a number of K College courses will be moving to the UCF site in a joint venture. I can't, however, help but note that a week ago the Herald highlighted that over 140 jobs are to go as part of a major shake-up at K College.

K College's predecessor in Folkestone, South Kent College, had it rough before the merger with West Kent a couple of years back. They suffered regular changes of Principal, falling student numbers, hammerings by OFSTED and a black hole in their finances. They weren't helped by moves which made an even playing field in terms of funding; theirs having been traditionally higher per student due to historical course weighting and having multiple sites.

With this chequered history, the massive cuts in staff they are planning and the fact that lecturer's pay at the College is higher than at other local colleges, such as Canterbury College, it is difficult to see how they can continue to make a multiple campus model work without some kind of collaboration. This should therefore be a potentially positive move for K College in terms of keeping a provision in the town of Folkestone.

There is, however, a large elephant in the room. If K College is contracting in terms of staffing and yet moving courses to the UCF campus, what happens to their main campus in the town? Is this move in fact the first part of a plan to close their main campus and even perhaps sell the site? If so, will this be the death knell for significant levels of post-16 education in Folkestone? These, I think, are the questions Shepway District Council and Kent County Council should be asking when considering supporting or even facilitating the transferring of FE courses to UCF.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Time to Change

I've been thinking about writing this for a while and my heart is pounding a little as I type, so bear with me.

I am a self-harmer. I have been since about the age of 14. I have suffered various periods of depression and anxiety in my life, which has in no way been a tale of personal tragedy or suffering, and self-harm in one form or another has become my default coping strategy.

My self-harm has resulted in hospital trips, visibly disturbing scars, stigma from the odd manager at work and has caused huge anguish for those that care for and love me. It has made me nervous about meeting and really opening up to new people and about having or working towards my ambitions.

The really sad thing is that this doesn't have to be the case. Nearly everyone that knows about my behaviour, whilst not perhaps completely understanding it, has been an enormous source of support. Those that have reacted negatively have been very much the minority, hurtful though they have been.

I, like many others, have been trapped by the stigma that pervades mental health. People don't talk about mental health because they fear a reaction that is as rare as it is foolish. In my view, only four people have ever reacted negatively to my self-harming, and only two intentionally.

Since July 6th this year, I have been making an effort to move on from self-harm. I have stopped the anti-depressents, I have improved my personal circumstances and I have begun to get tattoos to cover my worst scars. I feel now is the time for me to say "I am a self-harmer and I'm going to recover".

Time to Change is encouraging mental ill health sufferers to speak about their experiences. Self-harm is not seen as a mental health issue, as such, but does often result from mental health issues. I want to help their campaign to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental ill health. This is where I start.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Cameron Strikes Again!

Today David Cameron has again sought to blame the poor and unemployed for the problems of this nation. He claims there’s a culture of entitlement amongst those who claim Housing Benefit, especially the under 25s it seems.

A single person who’s unemployed isn’t better off than someone on minimum wage. Over 35s in Shepway are given around £80pcm less than can be earned on the minimum wage, even when you take into account free prescriptions. Those under 35, because of changes to Housing Benefit, are given a further £150pcm less. Taking housing benefit from under 25s will mean they have about £345pcm to live on, including paying rent and Council Tax.

This is not about a culture of entitlement. David Cameron is relying on two things. Firstly, the poor and unemployed won’t vote. They choose not to as they feel that every Party is lying to them. Secondly, people want someone to blame for their suffering. David Cameron has no intention of making his rich cronies accept their share of the blame so he is using this as a distraction to divide and conquer the public.

The only real solution to this financial crisis is growth and an end to Tax Avoidance and Evasion. The best way to do this, instead of throwing money at the banks, is to give people the means to improve their finances and to spend, by offering cheap loans direct to the public to help them get out of debt permanently.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Gary Says To Damian Collins MP - No 2 FE Fees!

Dear Mr Collins,

As I am sure you are aware, huge numbers of people will need to re-train in order for the economy to grow and help us escape from the current economic crisis. Students aged 24 and over who are currently completing A-Level or equivalent qualifications receive 50% of their course funding from the government. From 2013/14, there will be no public subsidy and students will be expected to pay 100% of their course fees via a student loan.

Over 375,000 students would have been affected by this policy if it had been introduced for this year's students. Across the South East region 31,200 learners would have been affected in further education colleges alone. At our local college, K College, 1,730 students studying at level 3 and above would have been affected. Of these 74% are women. At the college for which I work, Canterbury College, 580 students studying at level 3 and above would have been affected. Of these 56% are women. This strikes me as both sexist and ill advised given the current need to improve the skills of the workforce. I believe it will massively reduce the number of adults who are willing and able to access Further Education at a time when this number needs to vastly increase.

Publicly funded Further Education offers huge benefits to this country. Those who complete Further Education qualifications generate £70 billion more for the economy over their working lives than those without qualifications generate. Also, it is worth noting, for every £1 that is invested in an apprenticeship in this country a return of £40 is generated. This represents huge value for money and a massive boost for the economy.

I would therefore ask you to consider doing one of three things. I would ask that you attend Business Questions to ask the Leader of the House for a debate on Further Education Loans, apply for a Westminster Hall/Adjournment debate on the issue or write to the Minister calling on him to scrap this scheme or at the very least delay its introduction.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

Gary Fuller
Canterbury College UCU Branch Equality Rep

Monday, 19 March 2012

Building Business in Shepway

It was reported by BBC News this morning that Shepway had the third highest business failure rate in the country between 2010 and 2012.

Shepway District Council's business website states that it is stimulating growth by:

1. Building Better Relationships with Business - through our Shepway Business Forum and a programme of 1-2-1 visits.
2. Investing in Apprenticeships - the council is offering support through a brokerage service and grants of £1,500 per apprentice. For more information contact
3. Providing Local Business Advice and Support - especially to start-up businesses.
4. Improving Broadband Provision in areas of employment.
5. Encouraging greater provision of modern incubator space in the district to help stimulate business creation. 

These all sound like positive moves, but personally I think Shepway needs to go a stage further.

Harlow Council, which came top of the list in today's report, has its own Enterprise Hub which has 1,953sqm (21,027ft) (net) of easy-in, easy-out, lettable workspace in a prominent location. The hub offers tenants access to sound, impartial business advice and business support services as part of their tenancy agreement. It is located near to a local rail station and offers free parking. 

Sandwell offers the award winning, which is a local business directory with a difference. It links employers, potential employees, tradespeople and suppliers as well as helping companies to win larger contracts through networking events.

Fareham Council has bought the freehold on various business properties which it lets out to start up businesses on flexible short-term leases. This is alongside its own enterprise centre, similar to that of Harlow, which the Council owns the freehold to but which is run by Enterprise First (

Now the chances are that some of this is already happening and has merely not reached my radar. Kent Channel Chamber of Commerce, for example, offers excellent networking opportunities for local businesses.

Shepway District Council, however, should take note. If we are to truly utilise the excellent potential we have in the area, we need to look around at what's working and take decisive action to encourage businesses to set up in and move to Shepway.