Tom Richmond: Has David Cameron been attending Tony Blair school of gimmicks?

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DAVID CAMERON’S headline promise to dock money from the child benefit paid to the parents of persistent truants smacks of the initiative-itis which became such a tiresome part of Tony Blair’s political DNA.

Just like the former premier’s plan to frogmarch young yobs to the nearest cashpoint, Mr Cameron’s proposal smacks of a cheap headline.

Powers already exist – the courts have the power to jail the parents of serial absentees. If the threat of this ultimate sanction, the loss of liberty, will not work as a deterrent, what will?

Mr Cameron appears exercised by the fact that 40 per cent of parents who are given a civil penalty, rather than a jail sentence, for the absenteeism of their offspring choose not to pay the £120 fine – and that local authorities are reluctant to prosecute the families concerned.

Why? This is the question that the Department for Education and Skills should be answering in the first instance rather than the current Secretary of State, the underwhelming Nicky Morgan, talking up her desire to lead the Conservatives (she is the only person who is doing so).

It could also be argued that the docking of child benefit – assuming that the Department of Work and Pensions IT system is up to the task – will actually lead to greater hardship at the homes of the country’s 800,000 persistent truants and that they will be even less likely to attend school in the future.

Yet, on watching the award-winning Educating Yorkshire television series and the more recent Channel Four spin-off Educating Cardiff, it strikes me that schools actually need more support so they can intervene at a far earlier stage when a troublesome child’s attendance begins to slip.

There is a clear link between attendance and attainment, but it is not fair on the more studious pupils when their teachers are spending so much time chasing up the less studious and actually reminding parents of their obligations.

What policies would the schools like to see introduced so tackle truancy? Do teachers struggle to intervene at early stage because they’re too busy completing pointless paperwork? Do dedicated “hit squads” need to be appointed who can go to the homes of absent pupils and drag them to class if necessary?

I appreciate a promise on David Cameron’s part to consult, and work with, the teaching profession might not be a headline to inspire the party conference faithful, but I suggest that it might yield far better results – and lessen the likelihood of today’s truants becoming tomorrow’s welfare claimants – than a gimmick lifted straight from Tony Blair’s handbook.

Look where that left Britain – truancy at record levels and Mr Blair at the bottom of the class, in dunce’s corner.

TORY MP Kwasi Kwarteng has written a fascinating account of the tumultuous six months in 1981 which made Margaret Thatcher’s reputation. He cites a controversial Budget in which taxes were raised and spending cut, and then the Prime Minister’s refusal to yield to IRA hunger strikers who claimed to be political prisoners.

This period in political history, which also saw Britain blighted by inner-city riots, coincided with Labour’s lurch to the left, and the formation of the SDP, before the then PM asserted her authority by purging her Cabinet of the so-called Wets – the Tory “old guard” who were reluctant to embrace hard-line economic remedies.

Why does this matter now 25 years after Mrs Thatcher’s political downfall? In light of veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader the Lib Dems might have erred in selecting a leader in Tim Farron whose policy agenda is rooted on the political left.

Not only will this make it harder for the Lib Dems to win back Labour members, but there’s now a void in the political centre ground which Chancellor George Osborne is trying to fill ahead of his own tilt for the Tory leadership.

It’s why he spoke of the “common ground that exists between Conservative and Labour supporters, before evoking the spirit of Aneurin Bevan, a founding father of the NHS, with his proclamation that today’s Conservative is a party of “the builders”. Given that this was the precise phrase used by Mr Bevan in 1945, is it any wonder that many now regard the calculating Chancellor as the foremost political strategist of his generation because he recognises, more than most, that elections are won by the party which is most trustworthy on the economy and which can build the biggest coalition?

Weeks into their respective roles, it is easy to see why the new leaders of Labour and Lib Dems have already met their match – Margaret Thatcher would definitely be proud of Mr Osborne.

THERE is a case for stopping the Edinburgh tram inquiry in its tracks before it even starts. Why? Six million documents will be examined as part of an investigation into why this relatively straight-forward 8.7 mile transport scheme doubled in cost to £776m following six years of disruption.

It could have been worse – a preliminary hearing was told that the inquiry could call upon 500 million pieces of paperwork. No wonder this scheme spiralled out of control. Like the plan to electrify the TransPennine railway which is now back on track, there was clearly no proper planning from the outset.

This is the one lesson that Mr Osborne must learn if his infrastructure revolution is to work.

EXHAUSTED from his Ashes-winning heroics, I see Joe Root used his break to write an autobiography, due out shortly. Why? The young Tyke from Dore, Sheffield, is only 24 and will have plenty of time for such commercial ventures once he has made his name as one of his sport’s great batsmen.

Stick to the cricket Joey boy – and then you will have a real story to tell.