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My Winchester lecture: Re-imagining England

On Thursday 9th October I spoke at the University of Winchester on the subject of ‘Re-imagining England’, you can read the text on my blog The Optimistic Patriot

I brought together many of the themes that some of you will now be familiar with: the need to tell our stories about where we came from, the historic English idea of the common good, our changing sense of identity (shifting from more British to more English) and how England must get what England wants in the new devolution settlement.

Above all, my message is that we don’t ‘discover’ our national identity – we create it, drawing on our histories but choosing the parts that are of most value to us today. I imagine:

An England of the common good. Where the quality of government, the status of the rich, the morality of the powerful is judged not by what they take for themselves but how they deliver for the common good.

A well governed England where public policy sits easily with the values of the English people.

A radical England, where we are prepared to struggle together to fight injustice but also to defend individual liberty; where we create new institutions together, making demands on the state but not dependent on it or subject to it.

An England at ease with its diversity, forged together in one nation and confident to face the world.

An England where decisions are taken as close to the people as they can be, where we value our local traditions and identities.

An England governed in the way the English decide we want to be governed, supporting the Union but not carrying it.

That’s what I have imagined, so think what we could imagine together.

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Speaking up for the Hazaras

Here is what I said in Parliament on Monday 1st September about the plight of the Hazaras, both those who have been forced to flee their country and those still living in danger.

Watch the discussion on BBC Democracy Live.

“I beg to move,

That this House has considered the position of Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I am grateful for this debate, and I speak as an MP and as chair of the Hazara all-party parliamentary group. In recent weeks, we have seen ethnic and religious minorities face appalling violence at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Iraq and Syria. This debate is about another community that has suffered at the hands of very similar ideologues for far too long.

I knew little of the Hazara until I met constituents who were part of the Hazara diaspora and who had been forced to flee violence. I believe that might be true of other right hon. and hon. Members who want to speak in this debate. The Hazara are an indigenous people of Afghanistan, predominantly but not exclusively Shi’a Muslims. The community in Quetta in Pakistan’s Balochistan province was established in the late 19th century by Hazaras fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan. It largely prospered, providing education for men and women and showing a deep-seated and industrious work ethic, until it became the target of terrorist attacks from about 1999.

Hazaras comprise between 10% and 20% of the population of Afghanistan. Persecution continued into the Taliban era, with thousands killed in massacres during the civil war and under the Taliban Government. In part, the Hazara are victims of the violence against Shi’a Muslims and other religious minorities that is endemic in Pakistan and has featured strongly in the history of Afghanistan. I do not want to underplay the common features shared with the wider violence against the Shi’a community, but Hazaras have suffered disproportionately, in part because their distinct ethnic identity makes them easily identifiable and targets for prejudice and discrimination.

There is little doubt that sectarian groups have received finance from states and individuals in the Gulf. Today, they might be recognising just what they have created in Iraq and Syria, but we and other western countries have been silent for far too long on their role. Just occasionally, the violence in Quetta makes the international news: in June 2012, when a university bus was bombed, killing four and injuring 72; and in early 2013, when two bombings killed 180 Hazaras. Continuing violence has been well documented in the recent Human Rights Watch report “We are the Walking Dead”, published in June 2014.

The community in Quetta comprises about 500,000 people, yet nearly 1,500 people have been killed since 1999 and more than 3,500 injured. The attacks have targeted breadwinners and forced businesses to close, promoting economic deprivation, while some recent attacks have directly targeted women and children. Perhaps 55,000 people have fled to Australia or Europe—of course, not all survived the journey—and following attacks on transports, students no longer attend university. In Quetta, the community is restricted to two enclaves with a total area of just 4 square miles. The community is isolated, with travel restrictions imposed by the Pakistani Government.

Shockingly, in the past 16 years, not one person has been brought successfully to justice. The al-Qaeda-affiliated organisation Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has openly claimed responsibility for the killings, while leading members have been seen associating with public figures and politicians in Pakistan. A few people have been arrested, but have then been released or able to escape or cases have been dismissed. It is clear that the Pakistan authorities have failed to act with any effectiveness to protect the Hazara community, with attacks taking place close to the presence of security forces…”

Read the full debate here.

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My take on technical degrees

Ed Miliband has recently outlined how technical degrees will benefit young people and help build a skilled economy.

Here is what I said in Parliament on the 9th July about this important idea and how it relates to my own proposals for the future of higher education.

See the full debate here.

“In a lecture to the RSA in January, I set out the case for employer co-sponsored degrees, so I am delighted by my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party’s announcement of his backing for new high-level technical degrees that, as he said, would be delivered in partnership with industry, co-funded and co-designed by employers.

In the furore around the £9,000 tuition fees, not so much attention was given to an early decision of the coalition to close down Labour’s work force development programme. After just three years, it had created 20,000 co-sponsored degree programmes a year, with an average employer contribution of nearly £4,000.

The scheme was different from other higher education funding, because instead of having central allocations, employers and universities had to bid for funds. That element of competition created the incentive to design courses that employers really wanted to help pay for, and employer contributions could be varied according to ability to pay and the course on offer. We need something like that, and more of it, today.

At the moment, we have a persistent degree-level skills shortage in parts of the economy, but we also have record numbers of students going to university. However, a third of graduates are not working in graduate jobs five years after they graduate. They are up to their neck in debt, but higher education has not delivered what they expected.

The problem is not that we have too many graduates; it is the mismatch between supply and demand, which arises because employers have too little influence over the process. As the CBI said last July, we need more partnership-based provision, with greater business involvement in colleges and universities, as well as to boost apprenticeships.

But the market in “learn while you earn” models, such as higher apprenticeships and more flexible degree programmes, is underdeveloped.

There are other reasons why we need the change. The welcome expansion of higher education has had a less welcome aspect, in my view. Universities have increasingly concentrated on the most expensive model of higher education—the full-time honours degree studied away from home.

More than ever before, higher education is a one-shop deal for 18 and 19-year olds. Our graduates are the youngest in the OECD. There are two consequences. With an uneven schools system, such as that described by my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden, there is no chance of young people competing equally at 18, so social mobility suffers.

At the same time, there are fewer and fewer routes for the later developer, the student from the weak school and the young person whose family did not value education, and mature and part-time numbers are shrinking.

Technical degrees have been spoken of as an additional route for the 50% of young people who do not go to university. I will be frank and suggest that they would be a better route also for a minority of those currently entering higher education.

In the proposals that I set out earlier this year, I showed how those could be delivered without student debt and with better value for money for the taxpayer. If we recognised that employed students do not need maintenance, and if we made the cash available not as debt cancellation, but as subsidy to the employer, we could create the finance for a good co-sponsored degree. I look forward to my own party’s development of the idea.

Businesses will contribute, as they have done in the past. If they can educate an employee whom they have chosen, on a course that they have helped design, which is delivered full-time, part-time, on site or by distance learning, according to their business needs, at times that suit their business, the cost of contributing to the education of the graduate will be much less than the typical recruitment costs of employing a new graduate, let alone the typical retention costs when the business or the graduate finds out that they have made the wrong choice.

I hope my party retains at least the flexibility and the competitive elements of the work force development programme. Not only did they help to ensure that both employers and universities worked in effective partnership, but they will avoid the need to create cumbersome structures to design and validate new degrees.

The Wolf report was in part a comment on my time as a Minister. What Professor Wolf said, rightly, was that the genuine attempt to create employer-led bodies to design qualifications, which was shared by all sides, had not worked in delivering the qualifications that we needed.

The innovative effort should go into ensuring that SMEs, not just the major employers, have sufficient voice and weight to negotiate with universities.

In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced huge new funding to take the cap off university places.

As things stand, that will all go to three-year degrees studied away from home by young people.

Putting that money, or some of it, into the type of technical degrees now being discussed might be a much better use of the money.”


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Teaching British Values

“Schools should be in the business of ‘nation-building’” says Denham, but Government’s approach to promoting British values is badly thought out and may be counter-productive

Mr Denham told the House of Commons in debate on Wednesday June 25th:

‘A diverse but sometimes divided Britain needs more than a hope that we will all rub along together. Young people do need a shared sense of our history and how we came to be sharing this land; they do need to understand how our past has shaped our values; and, crucially, they need to chance the debate and shape the values they will share in the years to come.

‘Those who dismiss the whole idea of promoting strong national values are wrong: In future, we need a conscious focus on nation building, and schools must play an important role.’

‘Multi-culturalism has not been the failure some say, but in promoting respect for difference it has failed to emphasise what draws us together. The limits of value-neutral multiculturalism are clear. We do need more emphasis on what we share while continuing to value our differences.  The old idea that we are simply citizens under the law, or even just different communities sharing the same space, are not enough. This doesn’t help us forge the common national story, the sense of shared identity alongside the many other national, faith, ethnic, cultural or local identities we hold, that is needed for a cohesive and successful society.

‘Schools have a crucial role in promoting that national story.

‘But schools and teachers need to be properly supported if they are to enable students to understand the links between our history and today’s ethnic mix in the UK; to find, for example, the common stories between different communities whose forebears fought on the same side in two world wars; to understand how values like tolerance have constantly been reinterpreted and reshaped in every generation.

‘Values mean little without understanding the history that shaped them. Students need to debate and explore values themselves, not just be taught them as facts. Mono-cultural schools must ensure that students have many opportunities to debate, study, work and socialise with students of different backgrounds from other schools.

‘Students need to appreciate that how we handle our differences is as important to British values as the things we will all agree on’

‘This is difficult, challenging and sensitive work’ but Mr Denham also said that ‘current government initiatives fail to provide the leadership, support and resources that schools and teachers will need to play this crucial role’.

‘For four years, the government has actively undermined school work in developing shared values. It stopped Ofsted inspecting school work on community cohesion and downgraded citizenship education. It promoted schools with greater autonomy to set their own curriculum and determine their own intake, and encouraged the idea that schools could be narrowly tied to one part of the community, or one set of parents’

‘British values are crucial, but they are not timeless, unchanging and cannot be taught by dictat. As changing views on sexuality and race make clear, British values are constantly evolving. Most of us have multiple identities – national, and local, cultural, ethnic and faith. Ministers cannot just take the power to decide arbitrarily what today’s British values are or should be.

‘Some of activities in some Birmingham schools, including the harassment of able teachers, the imposition of narrow dress codes, restricted curricula, racist stereotyping and gender segregation, are not acceptable. But this can and should be dealt with directly. All publicly funded schools, of any intake or designation, should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely welcoming to all students of all backgrounds.

‘Instead Ministers have unhelpfully equated conservative theology with anti-British values and with the promotion of extremism. Some Muslims have been alienated, and fears in other sections of society reinforced. It has made a serious and important discussion about meeting the needs of Muslim children in today’s Britain less rather than more likely. Though there are real concerns about extremism and radicalisation, this debate should not just be about Muslims, neither should they be treated as one homogenous community.

‘The challenge is to bring together people from many different communities into a cohesive society and a strong national identity. That most include all our constituents – those who currently feel sharply that their British or English identities are under threat, those who admit to rising levels of prejudice, newer communities yet to find their place in our society, those who are happy with the way things are and those who welcome change.

‘A thin and inconsistent list of values, backed by inadequate guidance and under-resourced is simply not up to the task’.

A full version of the speech can be found here.

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Supporting Hampshire food and drink

On the 10th June I had the opportunity to sample a wonderful variety of food and drink from Hampshire producers at a fare event in the House of Commons.

John Denham at the Hampshire Fare event in Westminster

The reception was organised by Hampshire Fare and my neighbour MP Caroline Nokes, in Romsey and Southampton North.

Gatherings like this are an important way to promote our excellent local businesses to representatives from all over the UK.

The producers and organisations attending Hampshire in Westminster were:

Atkinson Fresh & Smoked Fish, Bishop’s Waltham
Bee Good, Hook
Belinda Clark Gourmet Confectionery, Southampton
Flack Manor Brewery, Romsey
Hampshire Cheeses, near Basingstoke
Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust
Hampshire Jam & Chutney Company, Winchester
Hattingley Valley Wines, near Alresford
Jake’s Artisan Foods, Petersfield
Jude’s Ice Cream, Twyford
Laverstock Park Farm (Hampshire Charcuterie), near Overton
Leckford  Estate, Stockbridge
Little Bee Bakery, near Southampton
Parsonage Farm (Hampshire Charcuterie), near Andover
New Forest Chocolates, New Forest
Oven Door Bakery, Fair Oak
Test Valley Tourism
Upham Brewery, Meon Valley

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Honouring constituents

Last Wednesday I brought three constituents – Lynda Walton from Holyrood Estate Residents and Tenants Association, long time disability rights champion Geoff Wilkinson, and community radio station Awaaz FM manager Ali Beg – to a ‘Real People, Real Stories’ reception with Ed Miliband.

This was an opportunity for me and the Labour leadership to honour the tremendous work that community campaigners like these three do in Southampton.

3 constituents with Ed Miliband

As Ed Miliband said, they are all role models to our local community and to the whole nation.


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