Having gone through four ‘waves’ of security including showing my passport to get into the ICC and watching a guest in front of me being forced to drink half the contents of his ‘Buxton Spring’ water (because it might have contained some ‘chemicals’ so I was told later…!!!), the first thing that struck me was that it was unbelievably corporate. There were few that were not in ‘suits’ and as I said to one of my colleagues accompanying me, if we wanted to be taken seriously we must buy some ‘big pin stripes’ (pin stripe suits that is). As the event went on, this became even more apparent – most of the guests were from trade and industry backgrounds something that was apparent in much of the reporting that followed the event, many describing it as being one where the Cabinet met with business leaders.
At the final security check-in (that’s now five times), I was handed a card. On the card I was told that I had to tick one of the boxes. These boxes – health, education, crime, the economy or employment & skills – were followed by a space to add your name, table number and question. Outside of these five boxes, it was obvious that you had no chance of getting your question heard. Where was equalities in all of this, where was the space to ask about living in Birmingham, where were the questions (and the people) about ‘normal’ things…???
We I went to my table, I found out I was with Hazel Blears (amazingly small but someone I warmed to immediately). The rest of my table was made up of representatives from the manufacturing industry – all wearing suits. As such, the discussion was skewed towards growing and supporting businesses including inspiring young people and providing them with the skills to be ‘work ready’ (their term not mine).
This enabled me to get an angle and I suggested that if we are to inspire and provide skills, then we need to get a level playing field established for all. Yet in a time of economic downturn, funding equalities projects and our commitment to equalities, may be one of the first ‘luxuries’ to be slashed. How can we ensure that the work to address inequalities and discrimination wouldn’t be ‘lost’ along the way?
Hazel Blears responded by saying that it was necessary for equalities policies and programmes to be seen as valuable to all, not just minority or excluded minorities. She gave an example of the value that the REACH programme was making in trying to address the educational attainment of young black males but also highlighted the problems currently being faced by young white males. She added that Government couldn’t do everything themselves and so needed the support of parents, families, communities and organisations to make equalities work and to bring about the change needed to level the playing field.
As an insight to the level of engagement with equalities issues and how important these were to the people round the table, the representative from the Chamber of Commerce stated that whilst this was fine, we had to focus on ‘work readiness’ because many of the businesses they represented were employing people that didn’t have the necessary skills required. The reason why this was a problem for him and those he represented was because they could not ‘get rid of them’ (his words not mine) once they found out that they didn’t have the right skills and/ or knowledge.
Surely, this is a rallying cry for more protection and a need for businesses to improve the recruitment process rather than reduce the legislative protection rightly afforded to employees? Since this comment I’ve been nouyed by the rhetoric and stance taken by the TUC at their conference. Thankfully, it seems that some are still focusing on the protection of the employee rather than the maximising of the profit.
At the end, Hazel Blears acknowledged our contribution and said that she would respond to all the issues that were raised whether on the card or in person round the table. If and when I get this, I’ll publish it here on the web.
Ever the opportunist, I took the opportunity to give everyone around the table a copy of Speak Out magazine including the minister herself.
The event then opened up and selected questions were put to various ministers around the room.
Jacqui Smith said that addressing the ‘guns and gangs’ issue in Birmingham was going well and that positive development were well underway. Gordon Brown spoke of wanting a local, regional and national campaign – involving footballers – that sends out the message that carrying knives is wrong.
Ed Balls said that academies were often in the most deprived parts of the country and that they were making serious in-roads into increasing the attainment levels of those who were previously expected to fail. He said that the Government were breaking the cycle of poverty and low education.
Alan Johnson said that the role of carers was vital but were also placing new and quite unprecedented demands on the benefits system not least because people were living longer. James Purnell said that the Government were considering the costs and financial Implications of providing care for the elderly along the lines of childcare whilst stating that this sounded extremely expensive.
Hilary Benn compared the technological advances that were occurring in Britain today as being similar to the advances being made during the Industrial revolution. He said this would add towards improving the environment and halting climate change.
John Denham said that £1 billion was being invested into the creation of better skills for adult learners and this too would improve on climate change (???).
David Miliband stated the foreign policy would increasingly focus on the battle for resources and the issues of climate change.
Liam Byrne said that the West Midlands had a strong heritage of development and innovation. But more importantly had been the unity between industry and culture. Through this partnership, the regeneration and rejuvenation of the West Midlands was gathering steam citing the development of Stratford upon Avon. He also cited the shortly to be announced the establishment of Channel 4’s new digital media studios in the city. He concluded that in Birmingham and the West Midlands, “we have more in common than what sets us apart”.
Alistair Darling said that the US purchasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was a sign of good governance: of government standing behind the economy to stabilise it. This is what the British Government was also doing with the economy. He was also confident that the UK would get through the current economic downturn and come out of it even stronger.
Gordon Brown opened and closed the event but in all honesty, I lost a little interest – it wasn’t that engaging and if you want to read his speech, then click here.
On the whole, slightly disappointing in the way that Government sees consultation and in the way that it was skewed towards trade and industry, but an interesting insight into British politics and the personalities that make up the Cabinet.
Would I do it again if invited…???
Of course…EVERYONE given the opportunity to speak or engage with politicians and politics at whatever level should take the opportunity. You never know, you may actually make a difference.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.