Team Starmer’s skills advisory panel couldn’t sell solar powered air conditioning to Arabs in the Sahara Desert, but they might offer them legal advice and natural and mild In Vitro Fertilisation …


Sir Keir Starmer QC will announce to the Confederation of British Industry’s 2021 Conference “the creation of a new skills advisory panel, including former education secretary David Blunkett, to ensure Labour has the right policies on preparing young people for work.”

“Lord Blunkett will be joined on Labour’s skills advisory panel by former senior civil servant Rachel Sandby-Thomas and businessman Praful Nargund, director of an IVF provider, Create.”

Labour will not ‘throw cash at’ UK’s problems, Keir Starmer to tell CBI

Firstly, may I point out that this was Team Starmer briefing the Guardian, a newspaper predisposed to supporting Labour. One, therefore, assumes that Team Starmer chose to highlight the names of Rachel Sandby-Thomas CB and Praful Nargund. More about that pair in a minute.

One of the reasons why I did not like Corbyn (and there were many) was that he was a wuss.

I had imagined that when he went to address a CBI conference that he would come across all hell fire preacher, making two points in particular:

A. All employers, including the Government should invest more in their new recruits and existing staff, committing to ongoing training and developing.

Most of those in work in the United Kingdom today will be in work, tomorrow, because of our ageing, shrinking workforce.

B. You argued, successfully, for tax cuts on the grounds that you could spend the retained profits better on your businesses than the Government was doing on your behalf. What have you done with that money?

Put aside your begging bowls. It is not the job of the taxpayer to train your staff.

The Government will work in partnership with you, assisting companies with the sourcing of training and supporting Small and Medium Sized Enterprises to access it with funding on a matched basis.

Did he do that?

Like hell he did, but, presumably on the advice of one of his teenage scribblers, he did once say to a group of business people that the fall in the value of the pound against the dollar and the euro was an unalloyed Brexit bonus, good for exporters.

Starmer is no more likely than Corbyn was to lay down the law to the CBI. To say Starmer is risk averse is an understatement.

I like David Blunkett, but he is no spring chicken at 74. And he majored in education not skills when he was a Member of Parliament, a Shadow Minister and a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet.

Rachel Sandby-Thomas finished her Civil Service career at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills where she had been Director General for Skills, Deregulation and Local Growth from September 2015 to April 2016. Prior to that, she was Director General, Enterprise and Skills from September 2013, and Director General Business and Skills from May 2012.

However, from 1993 to May 2012, Sandby-Thomas had been a member of the Government Legal Service which she joined from the City, where she had worked as a solicitor with Linklaters which she joined in 1987.

In other words, Sandby-Thomas has no background in skills.

It is both a curse and a blessing of the Senior Civil Service that most of its members are generalists.

Sandby-Thomas (as her retirement from the Civil Service drew near?) moved from a specialism wherein she was an expert of decades of standing, most recently at the top of her profession, to a generalism wherein she would have been reliant on expert advice.

In other words, Labour has appointed someone, who for four years was reliant on advice about skills to sit on a skills advisory panel.

Praful Nargund is the award-winning Chief Executive Officer of CREATE Fertility (the family business), one of the fastest growing IVF companies in the world. His company’s mission is to transform IVF, by making it more natural, safe and affordable.

CREATE Fertility offers treatment through its clinics in the United Kingdom, and in Denmark. The business employs 150 people. Incidentally, only 52,195 businesses out of the 2,765,150 in the UK employ 50 or more staff.

Nargund is the chair of Islington South and Finsbury Constituency Labour Party. He studied Law at Oxford University.

Someone else with no background in skills, but something of a background in the law.

In itself, neither panel member is necessarily unsuited to the task in hand. I sat on appraisal panels for the funding of projects in areas where I was not an expert. I even chaired one or two such panels.

However, I either sat alongside or steered experts in the projects being appraised.

I have a good nose for bullshit, but detecting a faint smell is one thing and tracing it to its source quite another hence the subject experts on the panels.

The skills advisory panel “will tour the country with the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, talking to teachers, children (it is usual to refer to them as students) and educational experts.

Blunkett said: “Nothing can be more important than spreading what works, embedding high-quality and inspirational teaching and learning, and adapting a curriculum that provides motivation to young people at every stage, and reassurance to employers that they will have literate, numerate (like Reeves?), creative and responsive employees for the future.”

Labour has already announced that it would place careers advisers in every school, and beef up the teaching of digital skills.”

Labour will not ‘throw cash at’ UK’s problems, Keir Starmer to tell CBI

Starmer, of course, has no idea where he would find those careers advisers.

In retirement, perhaps?

“There are not enough of us of working age, who were born in the UK, to look after the ageing of the UK, who were born in the UK, and do all the other necessary things to keep our society and the economy of the UK functioning.”

Growing our own domestic work force …

There is an episode of The West Wing wherein President Bartlet has a secret plan to address inflation so secret that even he is not aware of its existence.

Starmerites have it seems convinced themselves their hero has a top secret plan to defuse the UK’s demographic time bomb.

Perhaps they would like to share it with their idol?

How does Blunkett propose to guarantee “reassurance to employers”, if he has no idea of what would give them confidence in such a guarantee?

Why is the skills advisory panel planning to tour the country without talking with businesses, in particular, the sort of businesses that are unlikely to be members of the CBI or any other industry or employer body.

And there are a lot of them:

And why will they not be engaging with another key stakeholder in the skills debate, the trades union movement?

Employers and local authorities backed a last-ditch Trades Union Congress drive, earlier in 2021, to rescue a scheme that has helped a generation of workers fulfil their dreams.

“Everything changed in 2016, when McKelvey was offered the chance to do a literacy taster course called Return to Learn, provided by her union, Unison, in conjunction with the union learning fund (ULF), a national government-funded partnership between unions and employers. “I really enjoyed it,” says McKelvey. “The tutor hadn’t gone to university until he was 40. I looked at him and thought, ‘Well, he’s been there, done it’. That inspired me to think I could do the same.” “

UK ministers accused of ‘settling scores’ by axing union adult learning fund

If Starmer genuinely wants to build a partnership with business (with the trades unions, devolved governments and local authorities) then he is going about it in a rather funny way.

“A levelling-up white paper worthy of credibility would have been published last year with clear priorities designed to develop strong local economies in a rebalanced UK economy.

It would describe how this is to be funded with clarity on the roles to be played at each level of government as well as the private sector and civic society. This would all be drawn from intensive engagement with experts as well as the devolved governments, local government, business, universities, trade unions and the third sector.

This was the heavy lifting we did in the Welsh government before publishing our plan for delivering EU replacement funds for Wales nearly 18 months ago. Our vision sets out how a new model could create better jobs, closer to home, with more competitive businesses ready for the transition to a net-zero economy. This rests on our plans to create new, powerful bodies at the regional level, bringing decisions closer to people.

We asked the OECD to help with its design and the entire process was developed closely with all of the above stakeholders. This is not work any government can do in isolation or behind closed doors. As Andy Haldane made clear as chairman of the UK Industrial Strategy Council, “You don’t level up from the top down. Rather you level up from the bottom up”.

It takes compromise, negotiation and openness to come up with a coherent plan for strong local economies that works. To date, the UK government has ducked this work, offering instead half-baked funding pots based on politics rather than need and a flat no to partnership working. The process has become farcical as Welsh local authorities have been told that the Welsh government is forbidden from playing any design or delivery role. Rich sources of knowledge, expertise and networks all shut off on the terms of a playground edict.

None of this can be fixed overnight or in secret. Just as you cannot fatten a pig on market day, you cannot rush a plan that offers meaning to levelling up from Whitehall days ahead of an announcement. The evident bargepole between the new Levelling Up department and the Treasury only serves to weaken the credibility of a plan that was so central to the 2019 offer.”

Levelling-up white paper: Wales has less say over less money

Starmer publicly launched a skills advisory panel at the CBI to provide “reassurance to employers that they will have literate, numerate (like Reeves?), creative and responsive employees for the future” after telling the Guardian that very morning that the only key stakeholders with whom the panel would consult were “teachers, children and educational experts”.

Starmer also has an odd way of defining listening in the context of consultation.

If Starmer wants to know how it is done, he need look no further than Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commissioner for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight.

Šefčovič went to Northern Ireland; spoke with all the key stakeholders there, including business people, who would engage with him; listened to what they said and on returning to Brussels, crafted proposals to ease the working of the Northern Ireland Protocol that reflected the discussions he had had with the locals.

Šefčovič has created a lot of goodwill, both for himself and the European Commission amongst folk in Northern Ireland by the manner in which he conducted himself whilst he was there and since then.

As for Rachel Reeves, one gets the impression that she thinks she knows it all.

Her enthusiasm for cutting business rates on the high street is not blunted by the evidence that cutting rates gives commercial landlords leeway to raise the rents of their high street tenants and that falls in footfall are likely to prove impervious to rate cuts.

On a par with Starmer talking enthusiastically about temporary cuts in taxes on profits. Temporary cuts which are not much of a relief to businesses failing to make a profit on which to pay any tax.

Labour’s curious approach to consultation is highlighted by one of Labour’s focus group events, this time in Stoke.

“… the Labour leader has gathered a group of about 30 voters of all political stripes in a warehouse on an industrial estate in Newcastle-under-Lyme, on the outskirts of the city.

There is a mix of young and old from all walks of life, sitting clustered around workbenches in a room usually used for teaching apprentice bricklayers. Only today the lesson is about rebuilding the old “red wall” of former stronghold seats across the north and Midlands, starting with Stoke at its heart.”

“Testing out their ideas for the economy, Reeves and Starmer say they would cut VAT for household energy bills, insulate homes to keep down heating costs, and put a focus on buying more British goods. It’s part of a listening exercise Starmer says will inform policies for the next election. “Your fingerprints could be on something we’ve talked about today,” he tells the audience.

The plans, although fairly vague, draw a positive response. But some worry that the costs of insulating their homes will fall on ordinary people. “I struggle to heat my home and keep the mould out. Council houses aren’t warm enough,” says Tracy. “But taxes are high enough already. It’ll take food off our children.” “

Starmer must offer hope to Stoke and broken Labour heartlands

The Government bullying the public sector into trying to source more British goods and services is a half arsed pitch to, some idea of compensation for, businesses struggling with the loss of custom in the Single Market, courtesy of the Hard Brexit that Starmer and Reeves had Labour endorse at the end of 2020.

It is unclear from the Guardian article if any business folk were amongst the 30 or so participants.

Now, it just so happens, I could persuade most of the group of the value of that plan for home insulation, because I was trained to do it. And I could persuade folk in business of its merits, too, but then I am not from the same career background as Rachel Reeves.

Put simply, insulation material does not grow itself (except on the back of Hardwick sheep bred in England); fabricate itself; sell itself or install itself.

A domestic insulation programme (and why stop with home insulation?) creates jobs and business opportunities as well as saving energy and at the very least slowing down the rate at which an individual’s energy bills might rise.

And, sotto voce lest we spook those timid Red Wallers, it helps with slowing Man Made Global Warming.

The Labour Party is going round in ever decreasing circles with the sort of focus groups organised by Deborah Mattinson (and Claire Ainsley). Sooner or later, the sooner the better, frankly, Labour is going to start to have to have discussions about issues not necessarily to the taste of some voters. The implications of the B word are going to have to be talked through with voters in places like Stoke.

Both main political parties are prone to capture by special interest groups. Labour especially by public sector employees and their representative bodies.

It was not for nothing that a fortnight after Corbyn launched his first leadership campaign, pledging to scrap universal university tuition fees that Team Corbyn rushed out the idea of a National Education Service.

Four years later, we were not much the wiser as to what the NES would mean in reality, except for it being National (in England), about Education and a Service.

Angela Rayner was never given the freedom to flesh out the idea.

Schrödinger’s NES kept the producer interests mostly happy with the basic concept(s).

Labour should engage the brigade with leather patches on the elbows of their jackets, some of its core vote, but it should also do so a lot, lot more with employers.

There are 2,915,000 jobs in education in the United Kingdom and 2,480,140 enterprises, employing nine or fewer staff in the UK.

General Elections in the UK tend to turn on around 200,000 votes.

Starmer needs to live a little, reaching out to business folk repulsed by Johnson’s display of dissembling, bluffing, mindless optimism and economy with the actualité at the CBI Conference. The people who especially recall his two word business policy.

Who knows, Starmer might enjoy taking a risk or two.

Labour should be arguing for education and training providers (in all three sectors of our economy, yes, Keir, there are three) to work more closely with each other and with employers than they often do now .

Fairness not favours combined with free and frank exchanges of views is what Starmer should be pledging under a future Labour Government not more of the same.

If Starmer continues on his current path then his partnership with business will start with a gunshot wedding on the Friday after polling day at the next General Election.

Odds on, that happy event will not take place, because Labour under Starmer will not win the next General Election without stepping well outside of its current, constrained comfort zone.

It is probably worthwhile remembering that Reeves with her PPE (that clearly did not cover basic mathematics) from Oxford only worked in the private sector for four years after six years in the Government Economic Service before becoming an MP in 2010.

Starmer graduated in Law from, yes, you guessed it, Oxford University, and went on to practise law in the private sector at the Middle Temple, but much of his work was with voluntary organisations, like Liberty and public bodies, like the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Foreign Office. He was appointed Head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Director of Public Prosecutions on 1st November 2008.

Starmer became an MP in 2015.

Perhaps Sir Keir Starmer QC knows Rachel Sandby-Thomas CB from his time as a lawyer?

Sandby-Thomas, incidentally, provides a degree of educational diversity by having graduated from Cambridge University with a Double First in Law in 1985.

Clearly Praful Nargund is one of us.

David Blunkett certainly is and a safe pair of hands to boot.

Together, they look like the members of the sort of advisory panel that Sir Humphrey might recommend to a Minister.

And that is not the sort of recommendation you should necessarily be acting upon, Sir Keir.

Labour supporters might also want to reflect upon why no one serious is sitting on Labour’s advisory panel on skills, someone as expert as Gerard Coyne, who just happens to be a Labour Party member and respected former Labour Councillor on Birmingham City Council.

Coyne, twice a serious leadership contender for Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, called in 2017 for more investment in skills for young people to help address shortages that could emerge from Brexit.

It is not like Starmer is unaware of Coyne’s existence.

Gerard Coyne is widely respected by people on both sides of the negotiating table and the aisle, partly because he does his homework. He sat on the board of Advantage West Midlands, the West Midlands Regional Development Agency set up by Labour in Government, and, all too briefly, he was a member of the East Birmingham and North Solihull Regeneration Zone’s Board, an area regeneration vehicle for AWM.

AWM and EBNSRZ both had the skills agenda high on their list of priorities.

Gerard Coyne in late June this year:

“All of this makes the government’s decision to abruptly end the Union Learning Fund not just wrong but vindictive and illogical, an out and out contradiction of their own ambitions and the urgent skills needs of the UK.

This Fund had been in place for over twenty years, and supported workers with the skills they needed for employment – often reaching some of the most disadvantaged families and parts of the UK.”

By cutting the ULF, the government is undermining its own skills agenda

“For more than 20 years the Union Learning Fund has supported working people to access skills and training at work, through their unions.  Last year more than 200,000 learners got new skills through union learning. The government funding taught people to read, write and use computers: last year 62,000 got basic English, maths and IT skills through union learning. And thousands got their first ever qualification.”

“Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of North of Tyne said the Union Learn project would be an essential part of the fight to eradicate poverty and inequality. 

He said: “North of Tyne are stepping in with a £430,000 investment to make Union Learn even better. 

“Workplace learning plays a vital role in helping people get the confidence and skills needed to develop their careers and job opportunities. 

“It puts more money in workers’ pockets and is good for employers and our local economy. Every £1 invested in Union Learn creates an economic benefit of £12.80.  

“Trade unions play a unique role in supporting workplace learning. Their network of 40,000 volunteer union learn reps reaches workers who are stuck in low paid work due to lack of qualifications or skills. 

“They help the hardest to reach people access learning and training and excel at supporting less confident learners. 

“That’s why I was outraged by the government decision to axe Union Learn Funding and I committed to doing something about it.”

North of Tyne commits to Union Learn Project

I served the EBNSRZ board on secondment from the Jobcentre Plus District Manager’s Office for Birmingham and Solihull in the capacity of Employment Development Manager, working closely with the Skills Development Manager and as deputy to the Deputy Chief Executive of the Zone. We were a very small team.

And a good friend of mine was one of that 40,000 mentioned by Mayor Driscoll.

May be no one serious, no one credible in the eyes of business and labour on the subject of learning and skills believes the Labour Party is going to win the next General Election under Starmer and Reeves?

Why would they want to waste their spare time working up recommendations for Labour that are highly unlikely to be enacted?


14 thoughts on “Team Starmer’s skills advisory panel couldn’t sell solar powered air conditioning to Arabs in the Sahara Desert, but they might offer them legal advice and natural and mild In Vitro Fertilisation …

  1. Tim & Valerie Putnam

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. Having been in education and training at different levels and in different contexts over many years, including the Lifelong Learning initiative that Labour encouraged and then betrayed so shamefully, it is clear the the current Labour team seem way off beam. I had a Zoom call with Kate Green who’s answer to the viability of exam-based v coursework assessment was to sat that she talked to parents who liked exams! A group of LI members, education experts in all sectors and at all levels, produced a paper for the NPF which was ignored or at least not acknowledged. What is the problem with engaging with those who have the experience and knowledge? I absolutely agree that Claire Ainsley’s advice was misdirected and Mattinson hasn’t yet shown to me that she grasps the seriousness of the problems has with training, skills and lifelong learning.
    It’s a strange thing ‘experience’. It is so embedded in the sensorium, the intellect, the practicalities of everyday life that informs the ways in which a problem is approached and understanding of the long durée, or at least middling durée of turning around the appalling effects brought about by the des killing of the UK population.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a school governor and, latterly, chair of governors, I had a few conversations wherein I was told that mathematics was not being taught in the right way in schools by someone whose last experience of the formal teaching of arithmetic in school was when they were at school, thirty years before our conversation was taking place.

      Many folk do think that, because they went through at least mandatory state education then they are entitled to be considered to have an informed opinion on teaching and learning.

      I was taught to the JMB O Level Mathematics curriculum in which a significant emphasis was placed on quadratic equations so much so, in fact, that our O Level Economics teacher felt it necessary to set aside a number of precious lessons to devote to the study of statistics.

      He had reviewed the JMB syllabus and said it offered no basis on which to grasp the uses and abuses of statistics in economics.

      I have never used quadratic equations since I scraped a C in my O Level examination in 1983.

      Statistics, on the other hand are something which I routinely use and interpret.

      The History Department, who would have given the Gove of today the vapours for their approach to teaching history, also devoted time to the study of statistics.

      I gather there is a story that Gove removed statistics from the National Curriculum to replace it with the study of Roman numerals?

      Given the events of the last two years, I think a firm grasp of statistics would not have harmed the well being of the population or the level of informed debate in the media and elsewhere.

      But what would I, someone not suffering from Govitis, know?


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