Monday, 13 July 2015

FOR FOX’ SAKE

I’m proud of the part I played in getting The Hunting Act 2004 on to the statute book.

As well as being one of the Labour government’s best achievements, it is overwhelmingly supported across the country, in both urban and rural areas.  I’m pleased at a big poll last year confirmed  that a big majority of the British public are in favour of continuing to ban fox hunting (80%), deer hunting (86%), hare hunting and coursing (88%), dog fighting (98%) and badger baiting (95%).

It’s interesting to note that fox numbers haven’t increased since the hunting ban. Lamb loss due to fox predation is still evidenced to be less than 1% of all lamb deaths. And, contrary to the regular assertion, culling actually appears to increase fox numbers because it attracts foxes from surrounding areas and increases reproduction rates.

The Hunting Act 2004 is the most successful piece of animal welfare legislation. Recent Government figures reveal that a total of 590 prosecutions were made under the Act, with a success rate of 64%.

David Cameron – a huntsman himself - It appears to be one of the few manifesto promises he is trying to keep. The Conservative manifesto pledged to give ‘Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote government time’

However, David Cameron recognises that he does not have the required numbers for a full repeal. So he’s trying to wreck the Act with some ‘technical’ amendments.These are designed to wreck the Hunting Act 2004 using a back-door device in order to appease his supporters in groups such as the Countryside Alliance.


If, like Oscar Wilde, you think that fox-hunting is a case of ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’, it’s time to ensure that you speak out now…..and do it loudly!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Not safe in his hands

Most people – including those who voted for him – knew that the NHS was never going to be safe in David Cameron and the Conservatives’ hands. Far from creating safety, they have created an NHS crisis. Services are going backwards and patients are paying the price

Starting with a damaging top-down reorganisation (broken promise) which wasted £3bn and harmed patient care, they have made it harder to see a GP and sent demand for A&E soaring.

Whilst promising to protect the NHS, the government has stupidly cut social care under the guise of efficiency savings in local government funding. 300,000 fewer older people are now getting home care help, meaning that too many older people are ending up in hospital. Emergency hospital admissions for elderly people increased by 22% to 2.2m a year between 2005-06 and 2012-13, while spending on social care has plunged by almost a third to £5.46bn.[1] It’s no surprise that delayed discharges at a record high.

This week, Age UK said that more than one million elderly people are not receiving the home social care they need.[2] The charity’s analysis showed that more than half of the 1.1m people who said they struggled to wash had no help, as did more than a third of the 400,000 who had difficulty using a toilet unaided, and 210,000 out of 650,000 who found it hard to leave bed alone.
Yet the government is already cutting a further £1.1bn in social care this year, described as ‘absurd’ by the Association of Directors of Social Services.[3] They predict that this will mean shorter home care visits and even fewer people benefitting from care. 

As I write, the Conservative-led County Councils’ Network is predicting a £1bn gap in the care home market, caused by the last coalition government’s Care Act[4]. The research, by health market consultancy Laing Buisson, said this would mean councils having to pay higher fees for each care place and a scarcity of care homes into which the NHS could discharge elderly hospital patients.[5]

As a result of this analysis, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association’s  Community Wellbeing Board has said that the rollout of the second phase of the Care Act should be postponed and the £590m earmarked to fund the reforms should diverted to help plug the gap in social care funding.

Last week, she told the government that it would be “deeply damaging” to press ahead with the reforms, including a cap on care costs, in the face of a funding gap that is increasing by £700m a year.[6] She said the approach councils had taken to date to manage shrinking budgets – including cross-subsidising social care through cuts to other services – was no longer sustainable.
But it isn’t just health and social care for the elderly which is increasingly getting worse and failing to cope.

Last year over a million people waited over four hours in A&E. Over one in four people now wait a week or more to see or speak to a GP, or don’t get an appointment at all. The waiting list for treatment is at a seven-year high. The vast majority of NHS staff say David Cameron’s reorganisation harmed patient care – is it any surprise that clinical negligence claims are up 80 per cent since 2010?

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government cut nurse training places, which has created staff shortages – forcing hospitals to recruit from overseas or spend vast amounts on expensive agency staff. It simply won’t do for Mr Cameron to blame the NHS for recruiting agency or overseas staff when he took the decisions which have caused the problem.

David Cameron was not straight with people at the election on the NHS. He promised to protect the NHS but refused to set out where a single penny of the extra money it needs would come from. He was not open about the scale of the deficits that hospitals face this year – which could require staff cuts, bed reductions and even service closures.

Last year, NHS Trusts in England reported a total deficit of £822m in 2014-15, compared with £115m the previous year.[7] This year, More than 80% of NHS acute trusts are reporting that they will be running at a deficit this year – estimated to be more than £2bn in total.[8]

Mr Cameron told us that cancer services were improving, but then tried to sneak out a document admitting the two-month waiting-time target won’t be met for another year

He has also committed to £22bn “efficiency savings” but refused to spell out whether this will involve staff cuts or service closures. Yet Norman Lamb, who was the Health Minister until May this year, says that the plan for £22bn efficiency savings outlined in the NHS Five Year Forward View are ‘virtually impossible’ to achieve. He said the document’s financial assumptions were “completely heroic”.[9] Followers of Yes Minister will recall that “completely heroic” actually means “wildly optimistic; well beyond any realistic expectation of delivery.”

In Sheffield, we are very fortunate – I say fortunate, but actually it’s due to the tremendous hard work and professionalism of NHS staff at all levels – to have high-performing acute hospital trusts. Although this month the Care Quality Commission gave a wake-up call about some services to the Health and Social Care Trust, it also found other of its services to be outstanding.

However, Mr Cameron is determined to press ahead with his plans to make a massive shift in NHS resources from the poorest areas with the lowest life expectancy and highest morbidity to the wealthiest areas with the highest life expectancy and the lowest morbidity. It’s simplest to understand this as shifting £40m a year from Sheffield to Surrey’s health services.

Further, I anticipate that the proposed changes in primary health care funding will bring major problems for some GP practices in Sheffield. Stories about particular GP practices – for example, Devonshire Green[10] and Beighton[11], in which I was heavily involved - have already appeared in the local media, but these only reflect the opening skirmishes.

I predict that in the next few weeks we will publicly learn that some GP practices will announce that they are no longer going to be financially viable or capable of delivering the quality of service they think is essential for the resources available.  This will herald a damaging shake-up of primary care services in the city with areas with some of the biggest health challenges taking the biggest hit.
The NHS is simply not safe in Mr Cameron’s hands.




[6] http://www.lgcplus.com/news/health/social-care/lga-calls-for-care-act-postponement/5087576.article?blocktitle=Latest-Local-Government-News&contentID=2249

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Throwing the toys out of the cot

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was a prime mover in getting international agreement about human rights. This resulted in fundamental human rights being agreed by nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Convention – and the European Court - on Human Rights have absolutely nothing to do with UK’s membership of the European Union.

The Human Rights Act was introduced by Labour in 1998 and came into force in 2000. It effectively enshrines the Convention in UK law.

David Cameron first proposed the idea of a British Bill of Rights in 2006.  The last government established a Commission to look into it. It reported in 2012 but didn’t come to any substantive conclusions. Then there was a document outlining Tory proposals in 2014 and the promise of a draft Bill for 2014. No sign of it – another broken promise. 

The Tory party manifesto promised to “scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK”.

The Queen’s Speech promised to introduce “proposals for a British Bill of Rights”, but the plans are quite unclear. David Cameron has been asked repeatedly about the government’s position on the UK withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and he’s refused to rule it out.

If the UK left the Convention, we would be in the sole company of Belorussia – Europe’s last dictatorship – as the only two countries in Europe not to be signatories. No wonder, there’s a lot of opposition in the Conservative Party. 

The Tories’ plans would not make it easier to deport foreign criminals or address any of the other supposed problems.


Mr Cameron is flouncing around like a petulant child rather than accepting that, in a democracy with an independent judiciary, the judges will sometimes tell you that you’ve got it wrong. The proper response is not to throw your toys out of the cot.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Too much hot air?

Air pollution in the UK results in the premature deaths of at least 29,000 people a year. Air pollution hits the most vulnerable and children hardest. The World Health Organisation warns that air pollution is carcinogenic; it’s the primary environmental cause of cancer.

Because of the coalition government’s failure to act, the date at which the UK is expected to achieve compliance with legal air quality limits was revised from 2020 to 2030 last year.

Action on air pollution has collapsed across the country. There has been no improvement in the UK’s air quality over the last year and almost 90% of the country now exceeds legal air pollution limits.  It is a particular concern in South Yorkshire and especially in my constituency where pollution levels in the areas around the M1 experience extremely poor air quality standards.

Bizarrely, last year, the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment wrote to every local authority where air pollution exceeded legal limits to explain that “ultimate legal responsibility for air pollution lay with local authorities and that any fines levied on the Government would be passed on to them.”

Now, I’m fully in favour of ensuring that local councils are taking the appropriate action to cut air pollution. But, suggesting that Sheffield and Rotherham Councils should pay fines because the UK government wouldn’t act to cut air pollution from the M1 was clearly ridiculous.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled against the Secretary of State and stating that: “The new government should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action, which is achieved by an order that new plans must be delivered to the European Commission not later than 31 December 2015.”

The Government has to reverse its quite irresponsible approach to air pollution and to ensure local people have cleaner air in the shortest time possible.


Last year, it was clear that the Department of Transport just wanted to press ahead with the expansion of the M1 through South Yorkshire and to pay little attention to the consequent air pollution problems. That cannot continue.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Investing for the future?

Back in 1997, the incoming Blair government inherited a legacy of school buildings, many of which were simply unfit. School governors, teachers, children and parents would tell of the daily battle to prevent the rain coming in and the ceiling falling down.

As well as implementing a massive re-building, replacement and major modernisation programme, that government also invested in raising standards. At every level, expectations were raised, programmes were delivered, and achievement and outcomes rose considerably.

During the last Coalition government, thoughtful and considered investment was mainly displaced by Michael Gove’s bellicose statements. Although the pupil premium was welcome, the ideologically-driven and grossly inefficient Free Schools’ programme created more school places in areas which already had surpluses and denied investment in areas where there were simply insufficient and children were being forced to travel many miles to go to school.. 

Mr Gove scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme and replaced it with the Priority Schools Building Programme, with lower space, material and resource standards. He promised 537 new schools. Just 25 have been delivered in 5 years.

Mr Cameron has made much of his promise to protect the funding per pupil over the next parliament. Of course, this is a cash protection promise and it doesn’t include the pupil premium or other school funds; there’s no allowance for inflation, nor is there any allowance for the additional national insurance and pension contributions that will have to be made following other government decisions. 

Taken together, this means an average minimum 10% real cut in school budgets by 2020.
As the Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee concluded:

"You are seeing schools facing up to prospects of deficits unless they don't take significant action to reduce headcount… We will potentially be looking at redundancies in order to cope with the funding pressures."


However, the prospects for Sheffield school budgets are worse. The government has committed to introducing a new national funding formula. Mr Cameron has already promised a redistribution towards rural and southern areas. This inevitably means that the poorest areas nationally will be hit hardest.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Indefensible

David Cameron went into the 2010 General Election promising a larger Army for Britain. Since then, over 12,000 personnel in the Regular Army have been made redundant.

In 2010 he presided over a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that was not strategic at all. Instead of focusing on ensuring we had a strong, high-tech forces equipped to address the threats of the 21st century, it began by asking what could be cut. The failure of that SDSR left us with significant gaps in our military capability and gaps in the Government’s figures and we saw military operations that relied on capabilities that Conservative Ministers told us they had planned to scrap.

We were promised a big increase in highly trained reserve forces. But, between 1 October 2013 and 1 October 2014, the number of trained Army Reserves increased by just 20 – a far cry from David Cameron’s pledge to double the number of Army Reserves to 30,000 by 2018.

All the while, procurement projects continue to be hampered by severe delays and their cost continues to soar, with the taxpayer seemingly picking up the bill for contractors’ failures.

With all of this and then significant reductions in personal allowances and pensions, it is little wonder that morale amongst members of the Armed Forces is declining. A quarter of serving personnel now say they have either handed in their notice or that they want to leave the forces as soon as possible.

Another financially-driven SDSR will result in an even greater strategic vacuum and widening gaps in our military capabilities, and a further erosion of Britain’s role in the world. It is not surprising that our allies are questioning our resolve as well as our capability.

It is clear that the new Conservative government should conduct a strategic review with an open and inclusive national debate on the security and defence challenges facing the country. The review must strategically-driven but financially affordable, focusing on the skills we need as well as the obstacles that impede our Armed Forces from effectively responding to the threats we now face.


Thursday, 4 June 2015

Chips with everything!

By April 2016 every dog owner in England will be legally required to have their dog microchipped.

From that date, every puppy born will need to be microchipped by the breeder by the time they are 8 weeks old (other than in exceptional circumstances).

It will also be a requirement for every dog owner to ensure their dog’s microchip details are kept up to date on a government compliant database.

The Kennel Club and other animal welfare organisations have long supported compulsory microchipping in order to aid the reunification of lost dogs with their owners. There have been too many examples of much loved family pets being put down before the owner can be found.

The vast majority of people, including responsible dog-owners, will welcome these new requirements. I rather suspect that they will not be welcomed by irresponsible dog-owners and backyard breeders.

The compulsory microchipping legislation hopes to tackle:

·         The 100,000 dogs that are either stray, lost or stolen each year

·         The huge kennelling costs - Local authorities and welfare charities spending around £57 million          per year on kennelling costs

·         The 50% of strays that cannot be returned because their owners cannot be identified

·         The 6,000 dogs that are put down each year because the owner cannot be found

For these reasons microchipping is already popular amongst the majority of dog owners as it is a safe, quick, painless and cheap procedure.

However, if, for whatever reason, you haven’t had your pet microchipped, this is a timely reminder to do it. And, if you’ve moved home or changed your contact details, have you also remembered to update the database so that you will comply with the law? Do it now.

Whilst we are on the subject of animals and the law, there were a number of things missing from the Queen’s Speech.

David Cameron again promised new laws to ban wild animals in circuses. A Bill was prepared in the last session but never introduced to parliament. I’ll be pursuing him about this.

The Conservative manifesto also committed to giving Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote. No sign of it. Good.


Friday, 24 April 2015

Osborne's Budget points to a darker future

While the media focused on the relatively marginal changes in tax on petrol, alcohol, tobacco and incomes, and on VAT and national insurance options in March's budget, George Osborne was busily trying to deflect any proper consideration of the scale or detail of the additional massive spending cuts for the next three years. 

As the Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed, this will mean “a much sharper squeeze on real spending in 2016-17 and 2017-18 than anything seen over the past five years” and “a sharp acceleration in the pace of implied real cuts to day-to-day spending on public services”.

There are big unexplained differences in the control totals in the Red Book and in the Budget announcements. Because of other commitments already made, Osborne’s spending cuts inevitably have to fall on defence, NHS, policing and local government.

Conservative MPs were already in full cry against any further defence cuts and the King’s Fund says NHS services – including A&E, waiting times and waiting lists for routine operations and for cancer – are deteriorating in a way not seen since the early 1990s. So, which spending lines do you think will bear the brunt?

Local government has already taken the largest cuts in spending. Local government services were 19% of total spending in 2010; today they are just 16% of a smaller cake. And, of course, those cuts haven’t been evenly distributed so that, for example, Mole Valley DC has had a £9 per head increase in spending power while Middlesbrough Council has lost £289 per head, and Tandridge DC has gained £11 while Tameside MBC has lost £185.

Just to rub salt in to the wounds, over the past six months, Eric Pickles and his ministers have distributed mini-largesse to marginal or threatened Conservative parliamentary seats. Taken together, Eric’s pork-barrel politics makes Ronald Reagan’s performance look distinctly amateurish.

In November 2014, the National Audit Office produced a report, Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014, which raised a number of concerns both about the financial sustainability of local authorities and the Department for Communities & Local Government’s understanding of these challenges.

The NAO said the government had reduced its funding to local authorities by an estimated 28% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15 and that further planned cuts would bring the total reduction to 37% by 2015-16, excluding the better care fund and public health grant.

Although there have been no financial failures in local authorities so far, local auditors say councils are showing signs of financial pressure and that they are increasingly concerned about local authorities’ capacity to make further savings, with 52% of single tier and county councils not being well-placed to deliver their medium-term financial plans. The NAO concluded the DCLG had a limited understanding of authorities’ financial sustainability and the impacts of funding cuts on services.

In February 2015, the communities and local government committee questioned the then permanent secretary and his deputy about the findings. I have to say that we were no more impressed by Sir Bob Kerslake’s swansong attempted justification of the scale of local government cuts than we were by his disappointment at the NAO’s conclusions.

In CLG Select Committee, I asked the relevant minister, Penny Mordaunt, to give a guarantee that the government’s review of business rates would not result in any cuts in local councils’ funding. Unsurprisingly, none came.

I then challenged Eric Pickles about whether the government, if re-elected, intended to carry on with year-on-year cuts to councils and whether, in that situation, it would be possible for all councils to remain financially viable and continue to deliver their statutory services. Answer came there none.

In our unanimous all-party view, financial sustainability is likely to be one of the most important issues facing local government over the next five years. Perhaps everyone will know that it’s really serious when the online bookmakers start taking bets on which council will go under first!
Clive Betts, Labour candidate for Sheffield South East. He was chair of the Commons communities and local government committee in the last parliament

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 23 April 2015
http://www.lgcplus.com/news/finance/comment-and-analysis/osbornes-budget-points-to-a-darker-future/5084232.article?blocktitle=Latest-Opinion&contentID=5828

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Wasting time

Litter is a blight on many of our communities. People are rightly disgusted when they see discarded litter and rubbish strewn across our streets. 

Litter levels have remained largely static over the last 12 years, with councils spending hundreds of millions of pounds of our money fighting a losing battle.

England has a litter problem when compared to most of Europe, North America and Japan. While Government and industry must play their part, it is individuals who litter and fly-tip their unwanted goods, and it is their behaviour which needs to change.

The all-party Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has just published its report following our inquiry into litter and fly-tipping in England.

We found that tax-payers - us - pay an annual bill of as much as £850 million in clean-up costs. 

Chewing gum and cigarettes were found to be the most littered items, while fast-food litter increased by 20% in the last year. We were clear that change is needed and that individuals, Government, and tobacco, chewing gum, and fast food industries must now act to tackle the nation’s litter problem.

Litter louts need to be hit harder in the pocket, with fines increased.

The tobacco industry should provide free at the point of sale, portable ashtrays for the disposal of cigarette-related litter.  All public buildings should fit ashtrays in areas where staff congregate to smoke.

Fast-food litter is increasing and dropped over a wide area. The government should introduce an obligation requiring all shops, restaurants and retail food outlets to keep the perimeters of their premises free from litter.

Chewing gum and the resultant staining are a difficult and costly to remove. We think the chewing-gum industry has one last chance to reduce chewing gum litter by making a greater contribution to the cost of clearing gum and staining.

There should be Fixed Penalty Notices for fly-tipping for household items and there should be an industry requirement to take away unwanted household appliances and furniture when replacements are delivered.

Councils can play their part by leading litter campaigns, clean-up days and by investing in smart bins.


Thursday, 12 March 2015

Kicking Off

I love football.

Despite still being captain of the parliamentary football team, which turns out for occasional charity matches, my knees tell me that my playing days are nearly ended.

I haven’t refereed a match for some time, but I admire those who turn out for minimal reward and occasional abuse in the local leagues. I still mentally score the performance of referees, whether it be in junior matches or the premier league.

I have had a lifetime of following Sheffield Wednesday, home and away. It hasn’t always been fun! I have a seat on the Kop, located close to where I used to stand for many years, long before there was any roof above.

I try to watch amateur football. Last Sunday morning, taking a break from visiting constituents, I watched an under-13s local league match – an exciting 4-4 draw. I have enormous respect for the commitment shown by the coaches and volunteer administrators, without whose contributions none of this would happen.

I am the chair of the all-party football group in the House of Commons, enabling me to engage with key personnel in both the amateur and professional game. It also provides the opportunity to speak out on football-related issues which go to the heart of our society; a recent example would be about Ched Evans, rape and respect.

It’s in that context that I reflect on the recently announced new TV rights deal for the Premier League, worth £5.1bn over three seasons. These massive financial deals have seen substantial year-on-year increases in payment to the clubs – how else could they afford those mind-blowing wages?

Following the publication of the football taskforce report in 1999, the Premier League committed to giving 5% of TV rights to benefit the grassroots’ game. But the Premier League is failing to keep its promise.

5% of the new deal would mean £85m a year from 2016-17. Government support for councils for sport and leisure has been cut by £20bn (43%) since 2010.


That 5% could transform the prospects for local amateur football on which, after all, the professional game depends.