The experience that Robert Halfon MP has recently publicised of elderly residents from his Essex constituency ringing his office for news updates because their local paper is no longer available in printed format clearly makes an argument for people to support papers such as The Argus in which this blog is being published today. However beyond the issue of how valuable the Argus and many other Sussex papers that are published mostly on a weekly routine are, is a more important message that emerges in between the lines. I read about Halfon’s comments from a news piece on the BBC website which explains that according to the Government a quarter of all regional and local newspapers (about 320) have closed in the past ten years, so the government has commissioned an independent review into finding a sustainable future for journalism, chaired by Frances Cairncross who has worked for the Times, Guardian and Observer. Whatever the outcome of the review, the fact that the Government has committed so much time to developing online mechanisms for communicating with people who clearly don’t have access to the internet should be another focus. There are many public services that can now only operate in a cost effective manner online, yet we need to avoid public services being lost to communities that do not have access to such resources. Clearly one possible way forward is for the Government to work alongside commercial publications which might help lessen the closing down of papers, but there is a limit to what can be achieved in this manner, particularly in settings like Harlow where it seems local newspapers have already ended their print form.
It is of course fascinating for those of us who observe the messages from Governments that back in December 2012 one of Roberts next door neighbours in constituency terms, Eric Pickles sent out a Christmas message to local authorities with a ‘gift’ that was called “fifty ways to save – examples of sensible savings in local government”. The 35th way was entitled “Reduce the number of publications and media monitoring” which Eric used to glorify the cost savings made in his department and then three ideas later he suggested “Scrap the Town Hall Pravda: Local authority newspapers undermine an independent local Press. For example Essex County Council cancelled their newspaper in favour of an online publication; the Council spent £526,000 on producing Essex works in 2009-10 but this fell to £55,000 in 2011-12 after the publication stopped being printed. Councillors can still issue their own local ward newsletters using political party funds to help keep in touch with local residents. Perhaps Halfon and indeed all Tory MPs and Councillors could take on board the issues he has made public and begin to question if online communication and printed party political newsletters are sufficient ways of the public sector maintaining contact with residents, particularly in settings where the news media is restricted to online communication.
Although I suspect Halfon will not criticise or question the wisdom of his Tory colleague who now spends his time in the House of Lords, rather than in the Commons, he is clearly someone who is willing on occasions to stand up against the approach taken by their party. Around the same time as he was letting the BBC know about his busy phone lines he was also declaring to them that the way in which early years education is provided to families who are on low incomes and lacking in working opportunities or skills is clearly a mistake. This relates to the decision by David Cameron and George Osborne to extend the 15 hours of free early years education provided to all families to double that time providing that the families concerned earn less than £100,000 per parent or carer and work more than 16 hours a week. As Robert Halfon admitted, the most vulnerable families may well work fewer hours because they are struggling to gain the skills or jobs in the first place and in any case the children concerned are potentially the ones who have most to lose as the children from low income families are 4 months behind those on higher incomes at the start of primary education and 9 months behind when they are transferred to secondary education. This extends even further when they reach the end of their educational opportunities. Sadly he failed to point out that along with the lack of access granted to needy families, that the funding approach for the additional 15 hours means that early years providers are facing major challenges and indeed the sector is currently in meltdown for this very reason. Perhaps along with Robert Halfon some of our Sussex MPs and Councillors could raise this with their party policy makers!