Our London-centric, lopsided economy is damaging the recovery and trapping people in poverty

Everyone knows in these areas that work is the best route out of poverty, but making that a reality without addressing regional issues is a recipe for social disease


I’ve long held that when George Osborne decided that the most important thing was to hang the world’s economic problems round Labour’s necks in 2010, it was almost inevitable that his doom-mongering would depress the economy. And so it has proved.

This week’s polling still shows people are deeply pessimistic about their own and the economy’s future, and unemployment rose this month by 70,000. The IMF has waded in too, suggesting quite rightly that Britain needs a Plan B, as relentless austerity has put industry in the deep freeze. And everyone knows that growth and investment will come only with a political thaw.

But there’s another part of the equation that Osborne misses. The UK economy is geographically off kilter as well. In London and the South-east, house prices and rents continue to soar, which makes it impossible for people in areas of high unemployment to consider moving to where there are jobs.

In areas where heavy industries once predominated, the lack of bankable modern skills and the lack of educational ambition have conspired with inaccessible geography and poor health to keep thousands of people so far from the labour market that “economically inactive” doesn’t really match the depressing reality. Everyone knows in these areas that work is the best route out of poverty, but making that a reality without addressing the lopsided Londoncentric aspect of the economy is just a recipe for national social disease.

Government incompetence hasn’t helped. Just one example proves the point. Several large financial institutions are thinking of relocating from London to South Wales, but one senior executive told me this week that what really puts him off is that Cardiff to London mainline trains have no Wi-Fi, so staff complain that they can’t get work done as they travel. Sadly, the Government’s inept handling of the West Coast rail franchise means that the Department for Transport has decided to extend existing rail franchises to 2016, including the Swansea to London First Great Western one that has no provision for Wi-Fi.

Playing politics with the Blair baby

Several MPs had whooping cough last year, so with Swansea recording 808 cases of measles and a mass vaccination campaign under way, we are all conscious of the need to protect against illnesses we thought dead and gone. As many as a million children may be at risk of measles. Many blame the scientist who falsely linked the MMR vaccine to autism. They have a point. Risk is one of the most difficult concepts to assess and his now discredited research undermined public health, dismantled herd protection and put those children who cannot have the vaccine at even greater risk. The papers that stoked the story didn’t help, either. But I feel angriest with a former Tory MP, Julie Kirkbride, who asked Tony Blair in 2001 “whether the Prime Minister practises what he preaches” and demanded that he “let us know whether little Leo has had his MMR jab”. Blair, below with Leo in 2001, could not answer without accepting that his baby child was a legitimate player in the political process – as Kirkbride knew perfectly well. She was playing politics with the PM’s child, and rammed the message home later in the day saying, “I can only assume that he has something to hide, which is to say that little Leo has not had his jab.” Despicable stuff, really, and note the pretence of compassion in the words “little Leo”. I hope she’s now ashamed.

PM is unwilling to face the music

The Government has been up to its jiggery-pokery again. The Commons could easily have accommodated the Thatcher tribute session this Monday, but the Government was determined not to shunt business forward even by a day, as it wants to prorogue Parliament next Thursday, or the following Monday at the latest. Why? Well, if we continue sitting, we will have Treasury Questions and PMQs on the Tuesday and Wednesday. As things stand, we will have an extra 13 days off from Thursday plus a two-week Whitsun recess starting on a Tuesday, so the Prime Minister will face PMQs only four times in 12 weeks. Even more extraordinarily, the Chancellor will not face his first Treasury Questions until 18 or 25 June, fully three months after the Budget. It is beginning to feel as if the primary purpose of Parliament is not to scrutinise the Government, but to staff it. And the only opportunity to scrutinise ministers in real time comes from the Speaker allowing urgent questions. A weaker Speaker and we’d be stuffed.

When Parliament is just the day job

Anomalies abound in Parliament, but consider these. Tony Hall is the excellent new DG of the supposedly independent BBC, but I can reveal that quite preposterously he will be retaining his seat in the Lords, he will attend and he may even speak in debates. And The Daily Telegraph has campaigned against conflicts of interest in Parliament, yet Lord Black not only pursues the interests of his employer, the Telegraph Media Group, in the Lords, but he even provides a free pass to the group’s public affairs manager, Edward Taylor. Harrumph.

A lack of respect for George

Overheard this week: a colleague regaling everyone with a George Galloway story. Apparently George invited an acquaintance to his wedding last year (his fourth). He was not free, for which he got an ear-bashing from George who thought it was his duty to attend. “I tell you what, George,” came the cruelly quick-witted and slightly exasperated reply, “I’ll come next time.”

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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