In Praise of Civil Servants

When I first became a minister at the Home Office in 2010 we newbie ministers were invited by the Institute for Government to an induction. It’s a great idea to give new ministers some external, impartial advice on how to make the most of the job – and the advice I got that day stood me in better stead than any before or since.

Essentially there were two pieces of advice that I took to heart. Giving that advice were Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis – and whilst I know they are nothing alike, it’s the very fact that two such different people politically (from each other and from me!) had useful advice to give which shows there are common challenges ministers of all parties face.

The first piece of advice was to prioritise ruthlessly. We would find ourselves hit by a tsunami of work – a never-ending juggernaut all through our time in office – that was simply the business of government. If we weren’t careful we would do all our work, read all our submissions, make all our speeches, attend all our government meetings, take debates in Parliament and more – and we would exit our ministerships as good little ministers. Yes we would have done our work well but not used the extraordinary opportunity of our positions to deliver something we wanted to deliver during our time in the sun.

The second piece of advice was to trust our civil servants. They would, we were told, strain every muscle to enable us to deliver our mission if we made it clear what we wanted. They were not the satirical stuff of which ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘The Thick of It’ was made (although there have been some recognisable moments during my time in government!). We were told how civil servants are hard-working and noble in their efforts to make their new minister’s missions come true.

So I went back to my office, then at the Home Office as Equalities Minister, and set out my priority: introducing same-sex marriage. It was liberal. It righted a wrong and it would mean a huge amount to those it gave the freedom to choose to marry. I believed it was possible. Thus I decided and set my course.

The civil servants then got to work. Always willing to raise decent questions about how and when, but always willing to stick to the priority and find a way to make the details work. From a standing start they guided me through all the many many hoops, pitfalls and dangers that I had to get through. I had nothing but support, advice, energy and dedication to my mission.

And now it is the law.

And then I went to the Department for International Development (DFID) and did the same thing. I prioritised Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I said to my civil servants I want to campaign in government on FGM (campaigning in government was a bit of a new concept for them at that point). And as I hope you have noticed – it is now in the media on virtually a daily basis. In fact – the media deserve plaudits for their coverage on this too – particularly the Evening Standard.

I have instigated a £35million program to end FGM in a generation, working with the many opponents of FGM in the communities where it happens. The diaspora in our own country who practise FGM and their mother countries where this terrible practise has gone on for 4,000 years are inextricably linked. We won’t stop it here if we don’t end it there.

That is why we are supporting the African-led movement to end Female Genital mutilation and the UN resolution banning it worldwide.

And now my campaign stretches right across Whitehall – into the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education. I’ve had the privilege of working with phenomenal campaigners like Nimko Ali and Efua Dorkenoo, who for years have been so instrumental and inspiring with their work on FGM.

Without such dedicated civil servants understanding what I was trying to do and helping me do it – I could not have been so successful.

And not to forget that there is even more praise due to the DFID civil servants around the world in the most dangerous of locations – providing our programs to end extreme world poverty by delivering on health, education, water and sanitation and much more to the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.

A big thank you to all my civil servants!

You’ve got the power!

Have you ever thought that you could run local services better? Wanted to save a local shop that was facing closure? Or wanted to see a idea to improve your community put into action?

With new community rights, you can do all of this and more.

As a Lib Dem, I believe that local people know what’s best for the area they live in. Previous Governments have centralised too much power, with people in Westminster offices making decisions about places they’ve never been to.

In the Coalition agreement, the Tories agreed with Liberal Democrat plans to give people the power make (or oppose!) changes to their community. This led to the Localism Act 2012.

These community rights granted in the Localism Act have now been in place for the past year, and have been used thousands of times by hundreds of local groups.

For instance, the Localism Act gives local groups the chance to purchase community assets before they’re sold to external developers.

A great example is the Ivy House pub in South London. Local residents found out it was going to be sold for redevelopment, so they got together to raise the funds to buy it. Almost 400 people bought shares in the pub! It has just reopened as a co-operative pub, with music and comedy nights, real ale and food.

If you and a number of your fellow residents want to make changes, you can. To do this you will need to organise, plan, and have a local vote to ensure your ideas are supported by the rest of the community. For the most part this will go through the Local Authority, but once approved by the public you will be in charge.

This means that you can take over local services through the Right to Challenge, build new houses with the Right to Build, or if a park is being sold you can protect it using the Right to Bid.

Additionally, the Neighbourhood Planning scheme allows residents to decide what facilities should be built, and the Right to Reclaim Land means that unused Council property can be put to better use.

You also have the right to create Community Shares for their community project, and if there is not already one in place you can set up a Town or Parish Council.

A full leaflet and guide can be found here.

This is a great opportunity to make positive changes to your local community, so go get involved! If you want to let me know what you’re doing or would like some advice – contact me

Lynne Featherstone discusses Post Office future

Lynne Featherstone MP recently met with Post Office officials to discuss the Post Office modernisation programme. The Senior Stakeholder Manager and a local Branch Manager met the MP at her office in Hornsey and Wood Green.

In 2010, the Coalition Government announced a £1.34 billion investment in Post Office modernisation over the next four years. A more recent announcement confirmed that existing Post Offices now have until early 2015 to opt in to the modernisation programme. Modernised branches will be refitted with modern features, have longer opening hours and offer a greater range of services to their customers.

The Liberal Democrat MP took the opportunity to discuss whether offices in Hornsey and Wood Green would be modernising. The MP also represented the view of many of her constituents – who would like to see at least one Post Office reopened in the constituency.

Following the meeting, Lynne Featherstone MP said:

“The previous Labour Government pursued a reckless and shameful policy of Post Office closures, in which five post offices in Hornsey and Wood Green were lost.

“I’m proud to say that putting an end to this was one of the first things the Liberal Democrats did in Government. There will now be no more involuntary closures.

“It was good to hear about modernisation in the constituency, but I still want to see some of our lost Post Offices reopened. The Post Office representatives gave little away about this – but rest assured that if there’s a chance to campaign to get a new Post Office in the constituency – then I will take it!”

Government encourages councils to freeze tax

Lib Dems call for a council tax freezeLynne Featherstone MP today welcomed a Government announcement, which encourages local councils to freeze Council Tax next year. Local authorities who freeze their Council tax will be given an extra £450million in Government funding.

Last year, Haringey Council’s financial reports revealed that Labour was considering a tax rise of 2.5%, despite being offered funding from Government to halt a rise. Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone and the Haringey Liberal Democrats called on Labour-run Haringey to freeze Council Tax, and were successful in preventing a rise.

This is the third year in a row that the Coalition Government has enabled councils to freeze their Council Tax by offering them enough money to cover the cost.

Lynne Featherstone MP commented:

“All Liberal Democrat-run councils decided to freeze or reduce council tax this year, helping families keep bills low in difficult times. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives can say the same.

“Following the Government announcement, I am taking the opportunity to renew my call for a Council Tax freeze in Haringey.”

Twelve hundred two-year olds to get free early years education in Haringey – Lynne Featherstone MP

Twelve hundred two-year-old Haringey children will receive free early years’ education from next year.

This is in addition to three and four-year-old children in Haringey who are already eligible to receive 15 hours of free early years’ education per week.

Phase one will take effect from September 2013 with the second phase starting in September 2014.

The new support for children from the least well off families comes as part of a shake-up of early years’ education announced by Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.

The changes will provide greater flexibility for parents – the hours in which parents can bring in their children for their free place will be extended by two hours. Currently, parents are restricted by having to drop their children off no earlier than 8am and picking them up no later than 6pm. This will be extended to 7am – 7pm.  It will also give parents the option to spread their free nursery place over two days rather than three, making the system work better for working parents.

Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Hornsey and Wood Green, commented:

“This is great news for a large number of local families. Early years’ education gives a real boost to young children and really prepares them for school.

“Giving a fair chance to all children is a top priority for Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government. Every child deserves an equal chance to fulfil their own potential.”