MPs are outraged. Even Theresa May has spoken out. The pressing issue of our time is being dissected in column inches and on the airwaves. What are we to do? How will we survive the coming four years without the sound of Big Ben? Surely, it’s the end of civilisation as we know it.
Luckily, Jeremy Corbyn has the answer. And he destroyed the most ridiculous ‘political’ story of the summer in just seven words:
It’s not a national disaster or catastrophe.
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But while May called for the Speaker to “urgently” look into the matter, there are many “national disasters” that are far more deserving of all our attention.
At the beginning of August, there were disturbances at HMP The Mount and HMP Erlestoke. Conditions for both staff and prisoners are deteriorating across the prison system. An open letter from Andrea Albutt, President of the Prison Governors Association, detailed some of the reasons [pdf]:
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- A rise in the prison population that was not expected.
- Prisoners being moved around the country, often to areas away from their families.
- Not recruiting enough staff.
- New staff being poorly trained with a recruitment process that selects “unsuitable” people.
And on 17 August, the Howard League for Penal Reform released a damning response to an inspection at Aylesbury prison. The prison, for men aged 18 to 21, recorded 370 incidents of self-injury and 391 assaults (including 76 assaults on staff) in the last year.
Chief Executive Frances Crook stated:
Hundreds of damaged young men, many of them teenagers, are being denied any chance of redemption because of the failures of the state. Violence is rife. Self-injury is common. Some are too afraid to even leave their cell.
And Crook was very clear about why this isn’t being treated as a “national disaster”:
This is a report so shocking that, in normal circumstances, the constituency MP would be making a fuss about it in the House of Commons. On this occasion, the constituency MP is also the Secretary of State for Justice and therefore uniquely positioned to do something about it. It is time for action.
Privatisation is screwing over 73,000 people
Meanwhile, the government’s privatisation obsession is causing problems for 73,000 adult learners and apprentices. Learndirect was fully privatised by the Conservative government in 2011. And it has just received the worst Ofsted rating possible for the training opportunities it offers.
In particular, an investigation [paywall] by The Financial Times and FE Week found that:
- Ofsted found that one-third of apprentices in programmes arranged by Learndirect had not received off-the-job training as required.
- The regulator discovered, in a random sample of apprentices, no evidence of learning plans or monitoring of progress.
- Ofsted claimed its inspection had been obstructed by Learndirect and alleged it had “a strategy . . . to limit our evidence base”.
- A Manchester court was told last month that 70% of Learndirect’s apprenticeship services were below the success threshold required by the government.
- In the four years following Learndirect’s privatisation, payments to managers and financiers accounted for 84% of the cash generated by the business.
- In 2012, its parent company spent more than £500,000 sponsoring a Formula One team backed by Learndirect’s private equity owners.
This should be particularly embarrassing for a government that is heavily invested in promoting apprenticeships as an alternative route for young people into the workplace. But there have been no calls from the PM for this to be “urgently” investigated.
The London arms fair
In just a few weeks, London will host one of the biggest arms fairs in the world. Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) is due to take place at the ExCeL Centre from 12 to 15 September. In 2015, arms dealers from 61 countries queued up to view the wares of 1,500 exhibitors. 14 of the countries invited, including Algeria and Bahrain, had authoritarian regimes. Four, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have been listed by the UK as having human rights issues. And a further 11 countries on the list, such as Ukraine and Iraq, are currently at war.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan wants to see it banned from the capital. But he says he is powerless to stop it. Meanwhile, there is an eerie silence from the government over DSEi. Although this is perhaps not surprising. Because the event is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Trade. And figures show that the UK has made ten times more out of arms sales to Saudi Arabia than it has given in aid to Yemen.
The willingness and complicity of the UK government to encourage profit-making through arming human rights abusers around the world is a “national disaster”. And it is one that “urgently” needs addressing – millions of lives literally could depend in it.
Let’s all calm down
As Corbyn stated over Big Ben:
If we have to miss Big Ben in reality for a while so that work can be done, that’s something we have to go through.
But prisons in crisis, learners screwed over by a privatisation scandal, and our government hosting one of the biggest arms fairs in the world are not things we need to go through.
A clock not ringing for a few years is a convenient smokescreen for the real issues facing this country. Corbyn totally destroyed the fact we are even talking about it. And May should feel ashamed that the one issue she’s chosen to speak out “urgently” about is a big clock.
– Support Stop the Arms Fair and help to stop DSEi 2017.
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