Thursday, 18 September 2014

CAUSE FOR ALARM

Carbon monoxide poisoning causes approximately 40 deaths and 200 serious injuries a year. About 4000 people require hospital treatment – more than 10 a day, on average.

Carbon monoxide alarms save lives. While the financial cost of an alarm is small - basic models start at £15 - there are huge human costs to not installing one.

In a survey for the Carbon Monoxide – Be Alarmed! campaign, only 39% of respondents said that they have a carbon monoxide alarm. It is likely that the real proportion is much lower. Safety checks carried out by the fire service in over 22,000 homes across Merseyside found that less than one in ten homes had a carbon monoxide alarm.

Of those without a carbon monoxide alarm, 42% said this was because they have a smoke alarm, suggesting that there is a high level of confusion between carbon monoxide and smoke alarms.

Surveys suggest that 88% of homes now have smoke alarms, although the private-rented sector, at 82%, still lags behind owner-occupied, council and housing association homes. But this is still a significant improvement from 62% just a decade ago.

Building regulations require the provision of smoke alarms in all new dwellings but at present, landlords are not legally required to install or maintain smoke alarms in their properties. The regulations also require that a carbon monoxide alarm must be installed in any property when a solid fuel heating system, for example, a wood burning stove, is first installed. There is no requirement for any other property to have a carbon monoxide alarm.

The Government has got the powers to insist that rented homes do have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms but it has failed to act. It said that it will only introduce the necessary statutory instruments to make smoke alarms mandatory if this is supported by a quite separate review of the building regulations. Although that review has been completed, the government has still refused to say if it will act, and, if so, when.


Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarms cost peanuts, save lives and cut the number of serious illness and injuries. The government should just get on with it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Building the future

We need to build 250,000 new homes every year, probably for the next 20 or 30 years, if we are to address the housing crisis properly. The last Labour Government did not build enough homes. The present Government are building even fewer. 
If we are to build sufficient homes, it has to be through all-party agreement, because the construction industry cannot be turned on and off like a tap. And we need to train and keep construction workers to build those homes.
There is no single silver bullet; we need a range of different measures. We need the volume house builders to build more. In 2007, there were more than 5,000 firms building between one and 10 houses a year. Now, there are fewer than 3,000 such firms.
We must encourage and nurture self-building initiatives of the sort that have made a significant contribution in other European countries like Holland.
But we also need to build houses for social rent. There are people who not only cannot afford to buy, but cannot afford market rents. Since 2010, there has been a 60% cut in the funding for social housing. Some, if not all, of it will have to be restored if we are to build sufficient social homes in the future.
The Government’s right to buy policy envisages a one-for-one replacement. But, there’s no point selling a family home and replacing it with a one-bedroom flat. Like-for-like replacement is what is needed. If there is an acute shortage of social housing in some areas the right to buy should be restricted.
We have to ensure that development is on brown-field sites first. Why is the proportion of houses built on brown-field sites declining? But, we must also be honest with people. Even if we build on all the available brown-field sites, we will still have to build on some green-field sites in this country. So, we need to sign up local communities to recognise and accept some green-field, sustainable development. 

Over the past 30 years we have had a collective failure to build sufficient homes in this country. We need some collective agreement across the political parties about how we do build those homes over the next 20 or 30 years.

Never let the facts……..

Whenever you are trying to make a case for a particular policy, it helps to have some facts to support your case.

Of course, there are facts…….. and then…. there are facts. Or, as Mark Twain popularised it ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’.  Today, no-one is quite sure who said it first, nor who originally described witnesses in three classes ‘liars, damned liars and experts’. It is natural that people will try to promote the facts that best fit their story. In politics, as in business and PR, this is called ‘spin’.

I was recently reminded of ‘spin’ , when Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a big speech in support of his welfare reform agenda. On first reading, his list of statistics about employment, income and child poverty were quite impressive. That was until you looked at how time periods had been carefully chosen (and were different for each issue), changes in data methodology had been conveniently ignored, and relevant contextual data just forgotten.

Less surprising was that the bedroom tax, and its disastrous outcomes, was not mentioned. Neither was mention made that his Universal Credit policy is way behind schedule, way over budget and that HM Treasury has been simply unable to approve the business case for the policy ie IDS’s sums simply don’t add up.

Competition about facts, their interpretation and analysis, is at the heart of debate. One child’s kicking a football against a wall can be described either as ‘getting healthy exercise’ and/or ‘making an interminable noise’.

However, this is quite different from simply ‘making facts up’. Far too often, I hear or see assertions of fact about particular issues where it is clear that the said facts have just been invented. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t see an assertion which has no basis in reality. They are commonly found in letters to newspapers or postings on websites, and almost inevitably from someone remaining anonymous.

More worrying is when you see the same (un-true and un-factual) assertions being endlessly repeated. The House of Commons’ Library has received so many enquiries from MPs about the contents of some viral e-mails that it has now published some notes which contrast the e-mail claims and the facts.

Leaving aside economic statistics, it is not really surprising that, right now, the statistical divide between fact and fiction is dominated by international aid, immigration, and welfare and benefit entitlement.

So, if you’ve seen those e-mails that claim that the UK has given international aid of £351m to Hamas (actual = £0), £1.4bn to Haiti (actual = £3.3m in 2012) and many, many more….. or that every immigrant to the UK receives £29,000 in benefits in the first year……..you can find out the truth for yourself at


and

Sport for all?

The Tour de France and Commonwealth Games have re-ignited many people’s interest in sport and the positive impact it can have on individual health and community participation – it’s fun!

Increasing participation is not something that can be dictated from central government.  What we need to do is agree on some long term set of objectives and then help everyone, nationally and locally, to play their parts in achieving them.

But, recently, we have gone backwards. For instance, in 2002, just 25 per cent of school children were taking part in two hours PE and sport each week. Because of the initiatives and investment by the then Labour government, this reached 90 per cent by 2010.  Unfortunately, Michael Gove, as Education Secretary, axed these two hours. He also axed School Sports Partnerships. It’s not surprising that activity has slumped.

In July, the Labour Party published a consultation document “More Sport for All” which makes proposals on how everyone, from children through to the elderly, both women and men, can be supported to do more sport and physical activity. 
The policy ideas, include:

                    ensuring the Premier League meet their commitment to give 5% of the revenue                  from the sale of their television rights to help develop grassroots football;
                    a new levy on sports betting to support community sport and help raise awareness              about problem gambling;
                    re-introducing two hours of sport for every primary school child;
                    adopting new targets for increasing female participation in sport and upping the                  women on the boards of our top sporting organisations; and
                    a ten-year National Strategy for Sport.

Obviously the media attention has been on proposals to levy the Premier League and sports betting to invest in grassroots’ sport, but there are many other policy ideas as well. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

You can read and respond to the consultation at


Different Class

In 1997, the in-coming Labour government inherited a legacy of rising class sizes, crumbling schools and poor attainment. Massive investment in new and modernised schools, more teachers and qualified teaching assistants, a phenomenal increase in books and equipment, and a determination to raise both expectations and standards saw a dramatic and continuing improvement in educational outcomes. I’m pleased to pay tribute to the role of my good friend and colleague, David Blunkett, in driving those changes.

In their 2010 manifesto, the Conservative Party promised to create "small schools with smaller class sizes". In the Yorkshire Post, David Cameron told us “the more we can get class sizes down the better”.

But in 2012, David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s government relaxed the rules on infant class sizes. Now, the number of infants taught in large classes of over-30 has spiralled by 200 per cent since 2010 – to over 93,000 children. Astonishingly, there are more than 40,000 children now being taught in classes of more than 36 pupils.

Since 2010, there have been big increases in the numbers of local children being taught in lasses of more than 30 children. I know about the increases in my own area, where Sheffield has seen a 147% increase. Parents and teachers are continually raising the issue with me, because not only have class sizes gone up, but an increasing number of parents are unable to get a place in their local primary school. 

But, Sheffield’s problem is small compared to Barnsley, up 553%; Doncaster, up 355%; Rotherham, up 688%. And both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire have also seen big increases.

At this rate, in 5 years’ time, one in four infants – that’s 450,000 children - will be being taught in large classes of over 30 pupils.

The government has been quite reckless and irresponsible about its investment in new school places. David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Free School programme has diverted funding away from areas of need. 

According to the independent National Audit Office report published in December, two thirds of all of the places created by the programme have been created outside of areas classified as having high or severe primary school need.


It’s a new form of class war!

Monday, 21 July 2014

Out with the old, in with the new

The media has been full of David Cameron’s government re-shuffle.

I cannot be other than pleased that the badgers have got their revenge. Cameron decided to cull Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary. Clearly the badgers moved the goalposts a bit further than he expected!

I don’t think I can remember an Environment minister from any previous government who was as ideologically blinkered as Paterson. After all, it wasn't just his determination to push ahead with the hugely expensive and technically incompetent badger-cull in the face of all the independent scientific advice. He was also the minister who refused any briefings on climate change issues from the government’s own chief scientific officer.

However, more media attention has been given to Michael Gove who was relieved of command of schools – the job he had always wanted – and demoted to the prefects’ study, otherwise known as the Whips’ Office.

Mr Gove’s ideological supporters have been outspoken on his behalf, suggesting he was the Minister who had had the greatest impact, short- and long-term, in delivering the Conservative agenda. Of course, they totally ignore the fact that Gove secured and presided over a dangerous lack of local oversight in our school system; it’s what the investigations into the Trojan Horse allegations in some Birmingham schools described as ‘benign neglect’ from the Department for Education, with the local council having been stripped of powers to investigate and intervene. Gove also introduced and allowed unqualified teachers into the classroom on a permanent basis.

But the most serious criticism must be that, at a time when some areas are desperate for school places, and some children are having to travel many miles to get a school place, Michael Gove chose to give priority to establishing new Free Schools in areas with a surplus of places. That is unforgiveable.

He wasn’t sacked because he had fallen out with teachers. He was sacked because he was out of touch with the vast majority of parents and school governors about what needed to be done to secure continuous improvement in education.

We can only hope that Paterson and Gove’s successors have learned some lessons.


Monday, 7 July 2014

Panicking for the wrong reasons

I make no apology for returning to this Government’s appalling housing record. Its housing policies fly in the face of logic and sensibility. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers are in complete denial about the impact on individuals, families and communities.

Like all MPs, I meet the victims day-in, day-out. It is not possible to go to a residents’ meeting or a local bring-and-buy or fayre or even to go shopping without someone wanting to talk about housing problems.

New house building has fallen to its lowest levels in peacetime since the 1920s.

The very first new coalition government housing decision in 2010 was to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%. Unsurprisingly, the number of affordable homes built in the last year was just two-thirds the number built in 2009/10.

The number of homes built for social rent has fallen by 75% since 2009/10 to 7,759 the lowest in twenty years and since records began.

Last week, the House of Commons Library revealed that since 2010, a housing gap (the gap between housing supply and demand) of more than 500,000 homes – nearly 46,000 in Yorkshire and Humberside - has arisen due to the Government’s failure to build the homes the country needs.

After a decade of falling numbers, homelessness has risen by a third since 2010 and rough sleeping is up by nearly a third. The number of families with children living in bed and breakfasts is at a 10 year high and the number in B&Bs illegally (more than six weeks) has risen by 800%. .

Meanwhile the government is fuelling house price inflation and the Bank of England is being forced to intervene to cap mortgage lending policies. Owner occupation is becoming simply unaffordable for many low to middle income families.

This week, a leaked government document revealed that the number of new homes to be built this year will be even lower than last. Ministers are now panicking because the actual figures will be published before the next general election.

Are they now acting urgently because they are concerned about the thousands of families who are in B&B, or living with relatives or friends, or in over-crowded bed-sitters? No. I don’t think so. They’re only concerned about avoiding a bad news story next year.

For thousands of families, the housing prospects are bleak.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Everything’s all right then? Well, No.

Just 12 months ago, I wrote*

“…..word on the street is that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform programme is heading towards the rocks. If that results, he will be facing his own interview on the Work Programme in the near future.”

Clearly, I got something wrong. Iain Duncan Smith is still the responsible Secretary of State. 

In fact, the government simply denied the evidence that was accumulating. Pilot programmes – meant to test proposals and identify unanticipated problems - were simply ditched in order to keep to timetable.  Those of us asking challenging questions were just dismissed.

So, presumably, everything is all right with the government’s welfare reform agenda?

Make up your own mind:
  • the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is descending into chaos, with key programmes behind schedule and over-budget.
  • after spending £612 million, including £131 million written off or written down, the introduction of Universal Credit is now years behind schedule, with no clear plan for how, when, or whether full implementation will be achievable or represent value for money.
  • the Work Capability Assessment process is in “virtual collapse”.
  • the introduction of Personal Independence Payment has been described as “nothing short of a fiasco”. 
  • the Work Programme and Youth Contract have failed to meet their targets
  • the unfair Bedroom Tax risks costing more than it saves,
  • other related DWP programmes are performing poorly or in disarray
  • the Minister of State for Disabled People admits that more than 700,000 people are still waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, and
  • the Office for Budget Responsibility has found that projected spending on Employment and Support Allowance has risen by £812m, instead of falling.
So, everything’s all right then? Well, no.


Monday, 30 June 2014

Behind the rhetoric

This government has presided over the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s. The government’s Help to Buy scheme is fueling house-price inflation, with Ministers claiming this isn’t a problem because house prices (other than in London) haven’t yet returned to 2008 prices. Do they not understand that 2008 prices were unsustainable and had been fueled by easy credit and corrupted sub-prime lending?

The failure to tackle the housing shortage means the cost of housing is rising out of reach of low-to-middle-income earners. There has been a significant increase in private renting, with buy-to-let purchasers outbidding potential owners, particularly at the lower end of the market. And private rents have increased well above inflation.

Meanwhile, the government has been cutting housing benefit and introduced the bedroom tax, creating an impression that the total housing benefit bill has been falling. Nothing could be further from the rhetoric.

There has been a huge increase in the number of people who are in work but who need to claim housing benefit to help pay their rent. It’s a direct result of the government’s failure to make work pay, tackle the cost-of-living crisis and build the new homes we need.

Now it has been revealed that, in England, there has been a 60% increase in the number of working people needing to claim housing benefit to pay their rent since 2010. 400,000 more working people are claiming housing benefit costing the taxpayer an estimated extra £4.8bn in housing benefit over the course of this Parliament.

This isn’t just a problem in some areas. Every single council in the UK has seen an increase in the number of people in work claiming housing benefit. In fact, Sheffield has seen a 93% increase and Rotherham a 92% increase, since 2010.

The number of households in South Yorkshire reliant on housing benefit to help pay their housing bill has now increased to more than 120,000. This rather undermines the headline claims of economic recovery and increasing employment.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Waving and drowning

Whilst government ministers trumpet improvements in the UK economy, they are undoubtedly out-of-touch with the difficult reality for most households.

The headline employment figure may be up, but that is because of big increases in part-time and self-employment and zero hours contracts. The rate of inflation may have reduced but, for the last 4 years, most people’s earnings have been well below inflation, leaving them worse off. There has been a 60% increase in the number of working households getting housing benefit to help pay the rent.

Low income working households have been the hardest hit by a combination of wage freezes, big increases in energy and rent costs – whilst the energy companies and some landlords have made exceptional profits, and cuts in benefits.

Now, the Governor of the Bank of England is signalling early increases in interest rates. Undoubtedly, many households have been cushioned from the global economic crisis by, historically, very low interest rates. Increasing rates will undoubtedly feed in to mortgage interest rates and, it is estimated, that this will cause real problems for more than to million home-owners who are just managing to keep their heads above water at the moment.

In this situation, you would think that Cameron and Clegg would want to stop those falling in to, or in danger of falling in to, debt from being exploited. However, this is clearly not the case. Parliament is currently debating a Consumer Rights Bill and opportunities are being missed.

Everyone knows that log-book loans make pay-day lending look prudent. Logbook loans are a form of high cost credit, secured against the value of a motor vehicle. They are underpinned by ‘bill of sale’ agreements, a type of contract that goes back to the Victorian era and has no modern day consumer protections.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) thinks that around 40,000 consumers took out logbook loans in 2013, typically borrowing £1,000 a time- although some lenders offer sums of up to £50,000. In 2010, the market was estimated to be in the region of £38m-40m, when the Office of Fair Trading reported more than 1,000 consumer complaints. These related to the lack of protections available to people if they fall into arrears, unfair collection practices, the complex and confusing nature of the language used in the agreements and the excessively high cost of the loans.

The Financial Conduct Authority says
‘…….logbook lenders have borrowers over a barrel’.

The Chief Executive of the Citizens Advice Bureaux says
‘The logbook industry is still in the dark ages and has been getting away with lawless practices. It is absolutely absurd that a firm should be able to take away someone’s possessions without any due legal process. High interest rates and lack of affordability checks as well as threatening practices and phantom charges mean logbook loans are a toxic mix of the worst parts of payday loans and unruly bailiffs.”

Yet the government not only refuses to abolish logbook loans, it is also voting against these Bill of Sale agreements having the same protections that apply to other contracts.

Then, some people in financial difficulty turn to companies which claim to be able to help them manage their debts. In fact, a staggering 5% of British adults - 2.5 million people - are currently on a debt management plan. But, in many cases, this can make things worse not better. 

Fee-charging debt management plans often prolong customers’ debts or increase them.  Some ‘cowboy’ firms are keeping up to 90% of money consumers give them to repay their debts as fees for their services rather than using it to help pay off creditors.

For a debt of £30,000, a client of a typical debt management company would pay almost £6,000 extra in fees, over and above repayments to creditors. This would extend the plan by approximately 18 months compared with a Stepchange organized debt management plan, which is free.

Ministers have admitted that there was evidence that the fees, which debt management companies were charging, were abusive but allow this to continue. The government is opposing measures which would allow the courts to scrutinise the fairness of these contracts.

Ministers are also opposing an increased levy on payday lenders to pay for the provision of independent and free debt advice and affordable alternatives like Credit Unions.

Ministers fail to recognise that many people are waving because they fear they are drowning. They need a lifebelt rather than to be left to the whims of the pirates.