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OPINION: Why the PPE scandal resonates deeply in Cambridgeshire

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While this PPE scandal is erupting again, I’ll tell you a little story and it is absolutely and 100% true.

I started a youth representation panel in 2016 when I was still a police officer.

The purpose of the panel was to improve the relationship between young people and the police in a local area by amplifying young voices and giving the constabulary a consultation board to talk about youth policy and initiatives.

It was very successful. So, it broadened out and gave support to other agencies and service providers and began to represent a wider area of the county.

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By the time the Covid-19 pandemic hit I had left the police – but I still run the Youth Panel because I love it.

We do all kinds of things, and it is genuinely wonderful. We can help so many young people and they can help each other.

In March 2020 we recognised the need for computers for young people so that they could continue to educate through lockdowns. Digital inequality was *MASSIVE*. We mobilised a response.

We had about £8,000 saved for a foreign exchange visit to Florida and that wasn’t going ahead so the young people vote unanimously to put that money instead into computers for young people in hardship. It was completely selfless and heartfelt.

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Anyone who brands teenagers as feral selfish breed who care nothing for their communities are wrong. They couldn’t be more wrong.

This money had taken two years to save, and it was everything that the panel had. Every penny.

The panel gets no statutory funding or support and must fund raise for every single initiative. It is hard work – but wonderful hard work.

We began buying and distributing computers starting with 30 Chromebooks we bought from Amazon.

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Our response scaled up and became more sophisticated as we realised that fundraising and buying computers was not a real solution.

The market was flooded with affluent buyers, there had been a significant dip in production in China. Demand outweighed supply. Prices rocketed. We couldn’t compete with that, and we ran out of money.

So, we started taking computers donated by local business and private individuals and we learned to renovate them.

We upgraded components. We found clever free software alternatives to avoid licensing costs. We became a cottage industry pumping out educational computers.

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We contacted the Department for Education – very proud of what we were achieving and the way forward.

We could help the DfE with our learned experiences, and if they gave us a modest amount of funding, for absolutely no profit and with free labour, we would roll out more.

I underline – we told them NO PROFIT and NO LABOUR COSTS. They wrote back to us and thanked us for our effort in a patronising letter that said they could not help us and that they had this situation under control.

Surprised by this – because our members were in schools and we knew full well that they absolutely did not have this aspect of the crisis under control at all and were entirely preoccupied by other things, we wrote again.

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They wrote back to us. Patted us on the head for doing so well but asked us to understand that they had shit under control and it was all good. Thanks, but no thanks.

Cambridge Guildhall, June 2020, and during the pandemic the Cambridgeshire police south neighbourhood Chief Inspector taking 200 monitors (Covid securely), donated to Cambs Youth Panel online learning project with Cambs Youth Panel and the county council.

Cambridge Guildhall, June 2020, and during the pandemic the Cambridgeshire police south neighbourhood Chief Inspector taking 200 monitors (Covid securely), donated to Cambs Youth Panel online learning project with Cambs Youth Panel and the county council.

Additionally, they stated that it would breach the ministerial code and be unethical to support us (ahem).

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I wrote to my local MP to express my dismay – because the VIP Fast Lane bullshit was already starting to be reported on in the media and PPE contracts were being awarded to very dubious people.

Also, James Dyson was making medical equipment as were Aston Martin.

My MP is none other than the jungle hero himself, the polo neck wearing man who was busy throwing a protective ring around care homes. Not all heroes wear capes.

Matt Hancock himself passed our letter through to the then Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb MP.

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Nick Gibb rushed back – recognising that we were doing an awesome job and made sure that we got a modest amount of funding to allow these empowered young people to keep on making the difference. [needle scratch] No he did not. Not at all.

We got a letter back with a polite thank you that asked us to go away. This letter was not sent to me directly, but to Hancock, and someone that works for Hancock emailed it to me

They wanted to help. They really did. But rules are rules and there was nothing they could do to help a plucky group of young people in a community distributing computers to an entire county.

“This crazy gang of local bikers heard about what we were doing and they drove our computers all of the county for us, delivering them. Mad as a box of frogs and utterly brilliant” – Phil Priestley

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In the 2020/2021 academic year we distributed more computers to the schools of Cambridgeshire than the Department for Education. In fact, the inventor of the Raspberry Pi computer, Eben Upton said this:

In the fullness of time and across all of the lockdowns we distributed more than 1,400 computers, laptops, iPads, desktops across Cambridgeshire & Peterborough to children of all ages based entirely on need alone.

Nobody made a single penny in profit – except perhaps the companies we bought components from.

Not Eben Upton though – he refused to make a single penny from our work and gave us at cost access to anything his company could supply (and he still does).

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17th June 2020:
” The work you guys have been doing is absolutely inspirational: I suspect that at this point you may have managed to deliver more computing devices to families in our area than DfE’s much-heralded laptop program has managed across the whole of the UK.”
– Eben Upton OBE [inventor of the Raspberry Pi]

We were recognised with the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough COVID Community Champions award at Parliament (one Tory MP arrived at the ceremony behaving obnoxiously and smelling strongly of drink).

My son, then 15, was most unimpressed.

This year we received an award from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire in their ‘Make a Difference Awards’ as the Community Group category winner.

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We remain bemused that for all our efforts not a penny was given to support us by central government despite our persistent efforts to gain their support.

We remain convinced that because nobody got a kick back and there was no profit involved, they were not interested.

BTW postscript – Michele Mone, right? Michele f*cking Mone.

The thing is if we did it for free it threatened the premise that other people needed to make a profit? No?

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EDITOR’S FOOTNOTE

The group has been running successfully since June 2016. The group was initially setup to advise the police (Cambridgeshire Constabulary) under the name ‘East Cambs Youth Consultation Panel’.

Since then, they have been approached by several councils, political leaders and others who have chosen to work with them to improve our region.

They look for the issues that need to be addressed and do something about those issues.

That included getting 1,400 computers to children and young people in repeated lockdowns, and the mental health issues associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

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