Thursday, 26 February 2015

The badger cull comes here?

This week, Liz Truss, the Conservative Environment Secretary, promised to continue the existing badger cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire and then extend it across England. Thousands more badgers would be shot if the Conservatives won the general election, she said, as the Tories were committed to a 25-year strategy.

I’ve made no secret of my opposition to this cull. In 2011, I went to 10 Downing Street with the Badger Protection League to hand in a large petition against it. I believe that we have responsibilities for animal welfare and obligations to treat animals, wild and domestic, humanely.

I’ve followed the evidence. The last report of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) said that the badger culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset had been both ineffective and inhumane. It was no surprise that the Government stopped all independent oversight and scrutiny of its policy.

As Dominic Dyer, the chief executive of the Badger Trust, said: “The cull policy should stop as it has clearly failed on scientific, humaneness and cost grounds. The transmission rate of TB from badgers to cattle is less than 6 per cent. The key route of infection is cattle-to-cattle transfer.” He noted that the Welsh government strategy, which involves badger vaccination and controls on cattle movements but no culling, had halved new herd infections in the past five years.

On this issue, the Conservatives, supported by the Liberal Democrats in Parliament, have consistently put posturing before good policy, secrecy before transparency, conflict before consensus, and prejudice before science. The badger cull is both discredited and embarrassing.

What is needed is continued work with farmers, wildlife groups and leading scientists to take forward an alternative strategy to eradicate bovine TB.  This would include badger vaccination and enhanced cattle bio-security measures.


Your vote at the general election will actually decide the fate of local badgers. Vote Conservative and the badger cull comes here, quickly followed by a return of fox-hunting with the repeal of the Hunting Act. It’s a clear dividing line.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Getting back on track

Almost 20 years on from the botched privatisation of the railways, it is clear that our rail system isn’t delivering a fair deal for the taxpayer or for passengers.  They’ve been left footing the bill for a system that is 40% more costly than in other European countries.

The costs of building and maintaining the tracks are too high. The costs of leasing trains from monopoly providers, who have enjoyed profits margins of over 30%, are far too expensive. A flawed franchising system has failed to get the best deal from private operators for much of this period. The privatised structure created unnecessary costs which, if tackled, could produce savings of between £450m and £1bn by 2020.

Yet, despite all the additional complexity, there is no strategic body responsible for setting the goals of the railways, planning investment and ensuring good outcomes for passengers. It’s no wonder that more than half of passengers believe they’re not getting value for money from the price of their ticket.

Against the backdrop of tough financial times and a cost of living crisis for many passengers, the rail system needs urgent reform. There are four key changes required to get a better deal for taxpayers and passengers.

First, a new strategic body for the railways which will have a strong passenger voice at its heart.

Secondly, we need to replace the existing franchising system, which is simply not fit for purpose.

Third, learning the lessons of the East Coast Mainline - where we saw the benefits of a not-for-dividend operator running rail lines – we need to change the law to allow a public sector operator to take on and challenge for new lines.

And, fourth, there must be a new legal right for the passenger to the offered the cheapest possible ticket. With all the ticket complexities, it is extraordinary that the rail companies are not obliged to do so, now.


If we do these things by 2020, we can get start to get our railways back on track.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A prosperous economy with thriving families

Families are increasingly struggling to cope with the modern demands of juggling work and children. With more women in work, fathers have become more involved in family life.

If we are to have both a successful and dynamic economy and thriving families, the government needs to support families to manage work and childcare. But, from talking to local families, it is clear that parents are frustrated by a system that hasn’t caught up with the realities of modern life.

The lack of affordable childcare and a place shortage means many families can’t get decent childcare. Childcare costs have risen by 30 per cent since 2010 while available childcare places have plummeted by over 40,000. Faced with these pressures, many parents are asking why new Sure Start Children’s Centres are closing.

Our system of parental leave also restricts parents’ choices about how to organise work and care. New shared parental leave laws are about to come in, but take up is expected to be minimal because they don’t go far enough to recognise what families need, with no extra help for families to spend time together with a new baby.

The businesses which are going further to help working fathers are receiving no support from government, because it funds two weeks of paternity pay, at just over £138 a week.

I was proud to have supported an independent right to paternity leave. But now, we need to go further to help more people to take it up.

This government doesn’t understand the pressures faced by families today. It has cut support for families with children by twice as much as everyone else. David Cameron believes that the most important thing he can do for families is to encourage them to be married by paying a measly tax break of £3.76 a week, for which less than one in five families with children is eligible.

That’s why I’m backing measures to help families with the cost of childcare by extending free childcare from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents of three and four year olds. At the same time, we need to tackle the shortage of decent childcare places.

I also want to help mums and dads to spend more time together with their young babies. 


This should be done by doubling the amount of paid paternity leave for dads to four weeks, and ensuring that lower income families can take up their entitlement by increasing the level of pay that government funds by more than £100 to at least £260 a week, so that fathers receive the equivalent of a full weeks work at the National Minimum Wage. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Planning framework allows developers to exploit loopholes

We have a housing crisis in the UK.

If we are to address it properly, as well as act on many other fronts, we need to build about 250,000 new homes every year, probably for the next 20 or 30 years.

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 have seen a collapse in the small- and medium-sized builder market and increasing dominance of the big house-builders, focused on their profit-and-loss accounts rather than on needs-driven development across England.

The previous Labour government did not build enough homes. The present government is building even fewer. 

Back in 2010, I questioned Grant Shapps, then Housing Minister, now Conservative Party Chairman, about his housing strategy. He said:

“I am very critical of our predecessors for raising expectations which they then completely dashed and failed to meet. We have already talked about the numbers, the lowest housebuilding in peacetime since 1924. That’s unacceptable. We have to do a lot better.”

I pressed him further, asking:

“So do we take it that success for this government…will be building more homes per year than were being built prior to the recession and that failure will be building less?”

Grant Shapps replied:

“Yes. Building more homes is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.”

Clearly, this government has never got its tracksuit off, let alone got on the pitch with medal ambitions.

However, to build the number of new homes we require, we also need a planning system that commands public support, nationally and locally.

So, in 2011, the all-party communities and local government committee - which I chair -insisted that, within the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), sustainable development required consideration of environmental and social issues as well as economic ones.

We said that the presumption that any planning application should be agreed unless it could be proved that ‘the adverse effects significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’ was just unacceptable, and ran counter to the very notion of sustainable development.

We were convinced that the priority for development must be ‘brownfield first’, with shop and office developments concentrated on existing town and district centres, not on new green-field or out-of-centre sites.

We also agreed that new planning legislation should unambiguously confirm the supremacy of local plans and that local planning decisions had to be consistent with the local plan. We said it was unacceptable that so many councils had yet to develop and adopt a new local plan. If they were serious about localism, this would be their chance to prove it.

Now come forward three years to the report we published in December 2014 on the NPPF. We concluded that, in principle and intention, the reform of the NPPF was correct but not every aspect worked as expected.

Leaving aside the massive shortfall in housing development, we also concluded that developers were taking advantage of loopholes in the framework to launch ‘speculative’ planning applications leading to unwanted developments, especially on the edge of towns and villages, contrary to the wishes of local communities.

This problem is particularly acute when a local plan or five-year supply of housing land is not in place. In these cases, developers take advantage of the absence of the plan or five-year supply to seek planning permission in areas that local communities do not consider suitable for development.

The NPPF is designed to work side-by-side with local plans. Fewer than 60% of local authorities have an adopted local plan. That is simply not good enough. There now must be a statutory requirement for councils to get local plans adopted within the next three years.

As part of our evidence gathering, far too often we heard that developers were claiming sites were unviable in order to obtain planning permission on other, more lucrative sites against the wishes of the council and community. In doing so, they are undermining and delaying the local planning process.

When our report was debated, MPs of all parties and from all areas confirmed that the government’s planning strategy was simply allowing the developers to decide where new homes were built and that this is quite unacceptable.

We believe that requiring all sites with planning permission to be counted towards an authority’s five-year supply will help put a stop to this behaviour and give communities greater protection.

Such changes will help develop plans with wide public support.

Then, we’ll need new policies to build more homes.

This article was first published in the Local Government Chronicle on 6th February 2015 at


Thursday, 29 January 2015

Back to the 30s?

In recent months, the government has constantly proclaimed the good news about increasing employment and falling unemployment. If those figures tell the whole story, it would undoubtedly be good news.

However, as I am out and about in my constituency, people keep telling me that it isn’t really like that. They tell me that their experience is of a labour market increasingly characterised by low-pay, insecure work, zero-hours contracts and stagnating wages.

If they are correct, that has massive long-term consequences for the economy, for communities and for families. For instance, even if you are regularly working 40 hours a week, who is going to offer you a mortgage if you have a zero-hours contract? Or, if your work is made up of lots of small contracts, which exclude your employer from national insurance payments, what does that mean for any pension entitlement?

Other statistics suggest that my constituents are right and we need to be worried:

·         Many people can’t get the working hours they want or need. More than 1.3 million people work part-time because they can’t get a full-time job – up 200,000 since 2010.

·         There are now 1.4 million zero-hours contracts in operation, despite the fact that in practice most of these people work regular and predictable hours.

·         In total, there are 3.5 million people in work who say they want extra hours – with an average 12 extra hours wanted a week.

·         There are now 4.9 million workers earning less than the living wage – up 1.5 million since 2009. This is about 1 in 5 people in work.

·         1 in 4 workers on the National Minimum Wage has been in a minimum wage job for five years or more.

·         Real wages for all employees have fallen by more than £1,600 a year since 2010.

·         Because of the increase in low-paid work and stagnating wages, the tax credits budget has increased by £900 million more than planned in the last year alone.


After a decade when we had seen poverty falling, it is now clearly on the increase, with the working poor being particularly hard hit. Is this government intent on taking us back to the 1930s?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Whose side are they on?

Last October, I castigated the energy regulator OFGEM for giving approval to price comparison websites which actually hide the best energy deals from the customer.[1]

Despite purporting to give you independent advice on the best deal for you, these websites won’t show you these unless they get paid commission for doing so.

It’s astonishing. It’s a rip-off. How could anyone given the statutory responsibility for acting in consumers’ interests ever believe that that such a practice is reasonable? Only, it appears, if they are pandering to a Conservative-led government and a Liberal Democrat Energy Minister, who are determined to sit on their hands.

Well, blow me down. Ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris has also now woken up to this appalling state of affairs. In his column in The Times[2], he writes:

“Every now and again an event occurs that serves as a parable for where our politics and politicians are going wrong. Because I am a Conservative I’m especially sensitive to stories that show up my own party’s weaknesses.

Here’s one. The story, though infuriating, is in itself minor. But it is indicative. Such things could spell the death of a 21st-century Conservative party.

The question to which Tories are in mortal danger of giving the wrong answer is simple. Whose side are they on? Dishonest and greedy businesses? Or their customers?”

Having satisfied himself that these practices are continuing – although he can’t decide whether it is downright lying or simply disingenuous – he continues

“When I heard about this last year I thought Tory ministers would react not only with anger but an immediate determination to do something about it. I thought so for three reasons.

First — and simply — because it was disgraceful.

Secondly — and for more self-interested reasons — because the Tories have been under pressure from Labour over energy prices……

The third reason for embracing this campaign is important to me. Public understanding of the theory of capitalism is dangerously weak…….

I wish I could report ministers are trying but I cannot………

But if my party is to be what it ought to be — a party for all the people — it must develop and display an instinct for popular economic and commercial justice. Is the instinct even there? This episode makes you wonder.”

Let me put him out of his misery. His Conservative Party will always act, in the very words of Adam Smith which Parris quotes,  “… in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”.  It is their instinct.

Monday, 19 January 2015

It’s a rip-off

Have you ever tried to buy tickets for a sporting event or a pop concert only to find that all the tickets have been sold out in a few minutes? 

Have you then discovered that they’ve suddenly re-appeared for sale at an extortionate mark-up on a different website?

Ticket touts – with their links to organised crime - now use ‘botnet’ technology - computer programmes which work by inundating ticket providers with thousands of electronic requests at the same time, to buy tickets en masse. They also hide behind the anonymity of resale sites to avoid accountability for selling on tickets which have a proviso that they are not for re-sale.

For example:

·         all 20,000 tickets for Monty Python’s reunion performance sold out in 45 seconds, only to reappear on the secondary market at more than 15 times their face value;
·         concerts by the Stone Roses at Heaton Park were being advertised on secondary ticketing websites for more than £1,000 after tickets had sold out, having had an original value of £55.
·         In September 2015, the Rugby World Cup is the third biggest sporting event (based on global TV reach) this year with 20 nations playing a total of 48 games. Tickets for the Final as sold by the Rugby Football Union officially range from £150- £715, but are already being offered on secondary sites for over £1,100.
As well as sport and music fans wanting not to be ripped-off by these touts, there is massive support for change across all political parties and from the major sports bodies, cultural institutes and music industry representatives.

So, what do you think this coalition government thinks about this?

Sajid Javed, now the Conservative Secretary of State for Culture has said:

"Ticket resellers act like classic entrepreneurs, because they fill a gap in the market that they have identified. They provide a service that can help people who did not obtain a supply of tickets in the original sale to purchase them for sporting and cultural events. As long as those tickets have been acquired genuinely and lawfully, it is an honest transaction, and there should be no Government restriction on someone's ability to sell them."

He went on to dismiss a longstanding anti touting campaigner:
The interests …. are probably those of the chattering middle classes and champagne socialists, who have no interest in helping the common working man earn a decent living by acting as a middleman in the sale of a proper service.”

The government says it has “……no plans to introduce new regulations on the secondary ticket market".


I think the Culture Secretary and the government are completely out-of-touch with ordinary fans and families. That’s why I am supporting the calls of an all-party parliamentary group to change the law. 


The changes propose that websites which re-sell tickets must provide information about the identity of the seller, all relevant information about the ticket, including the face value, restrictions on the ticket, location of the seat where relevant, the booking identification or reference number and whether the ticket is being sold in contravention of terms and conditions agreed by the original purchaser. Websites would also have to immediately remove tickets from sale when the event organisers informed them that the relevant information was inaccurate or incomplete.

I’m happy to help put fans first by kicking the touts in to touch. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A National Evil

“They do some of the most vital jobs in our country. They go unsupervised into the homes of the most frail, make sure they take the right drugs, help them with washing and the toilet, prepare their meals and often provide the only human warmth and companionship an elderly person will have all day. For all that, many are paid only £6 or £7 an hour, with no guaranteed work, zero-hours contracts even when they do not want them, and zero respect from some employers. They are home care workers. The way many are treated is an utter and shameful disgrace.”[1]

Those were the opening words of my colleague Andrew Smith when he opened a debate last November about the plight of many home care workers. He went on to quote Winston Churchill speaking more than 100 years ago:

“It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions…where you have what we call sweated trades, you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad and the bad by the worst; the worker, whose whole livelihood depends upon the industry, is undersold by the worker who only takes up the trade as a second string…where these conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration.”[2]

We haven’t got a minimum wage for many carers yet, let alone the living wage to which Churchill referred. Without urgent action, it will be progressive degeneration
.
An investigation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) of home care companies between 2011 and 2013 found that half were guilty of non-compliance with the national minimum wage. 

This year, the National Audit Office reported that up to 220,000 home care workers in England are illegally paid below the minimum wage. Using the dodges of zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, more than half of home care companies pay workers only for the exact time they spend in clients’ homes, with no pay for travel time and no travel allowance.

In the same debate, my colleague Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) spoke about the fairly horrendous stories he had heard from care workers in Sheffield, particularly about zero-hours contracts and the non-payment of travel time, which is actually illegal.

What we all wanted from the Minister was a commitment that HMRC will proactively go out, uproot and stop these illegal practices. The Minister said that, as the result of an earlier initiative, when 50% of employers investigated had been found to have been breaking the law, a substantial sum of money had been collected from employers who had broken the law and returned to their employees who had been underpaid.  He said that he had requested that work should start again. 

But despite the Minister’s statement, it appears that no action has been taken either by the Department for Business (BIS) or by HMRC to make more investigations into failure to pay the minimum wage in the care sector.

This simply isn’t good enough.

We’ve now written to the Minister requesting an urgent meeting to press the case that there needs to be co-ordinated action by BIS, HMRC, the Department of Health and of Communities and Local Government to ensure that all care providers comply with the law and that care workers are legally paid.

Those employers who are not complying – and they know who they are – need to be brought to book, required to pay up, get heavily fined and be named and shamed. They are not just cheating their employees; they are also cheating other employers who do play fair.

If you are - or you know - a carer who is being cheated out of their minimum wage, then call the Pay and Rights’ Helpline[3] on 0800 917 2368. The service is free and confidential.

However, I know that many individual workers will be scared about calling the Helpline. That’s why I’m pressing the case for HMRC to act directly on information from trade unions, and advice and law centres.



[1] Carers
[2] Official Report, 28 April 1909; Vol. 4, c. 388


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

LATEST: MORE MISLEADING PENSION INFORMATION

The Times reports today on more misleading government presentation on pensions:

“The government admitted that only 45 per cent of the 3.5 million workers who reach retirement between 2016 and 2020 would be entitled to the full amount of £150 p week.

The figures were exposed by a freedom of information request from Hargreaves Lansdown, a pensions company. It comes despite ministers saying previously that the new system would provide pensioners with “clarity” about their retirement income.

The figures also revealed that a third of retiring workers will be paid no more than £133.56 a week, rather than the full £150 a week.

Some workers will not receive the full amount as they “contracted out” to build up a private pension pot, while others have not built up enough national insurances contributions.”

We now know that there was a vast amount of pension mis-selling after the then Conservative government introduced ‘contracted out’ pension arrangements. It appears that many people on low incomes, who were ‘persuaded’ to contract out, will not have had the best deal.

Pensions’ policy is incredibly complex. However, everyone realises that, with life expectancy having significantly increased, there will need to be changes in pension contributions and retirement ages.

Many decisions will not be easy, because it is likely that the next generation will not do as well as the current one.

Therefore, it is incumbent on any government to be absolutely transparent about the implications of any proposed pension changes. 

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, time and time again, this government has been less than transparent and has presented a misleading picture of their proposals.

We deserve better.

See below:




Monday, 12 January 2015

Time for reflection then considered action

Having spent the last 4 months digging numerous holes for themselves, the football community just needs to stop and listen for a moment, reflect carefully and then develop a constructive way forward.
Just when you thought that a little light might have been switched on - as Ched Evans, encouraged by the Professional Footballers’ Association, offered the first hint of an apology - they both managed to switch it off again as Evans stupidly described Oldham’s rejection decision as being the result of ‘mob rule’ and Gordon Taylor then made unfortunate comparisons with Hillsborough, for which he has sensibly now apologised.
David Conn’s article in the Guardian on Friday 9th was a welcome breath of fresh air in a debate which has been characterised by an awful lot of hot air.
It has also been characterised by large sections of the football establishment displaying sheer bewilderment with having to contemplate that there might be a different view from their own.  They seem outraged that a small group who had a different perspective turned out to have broad support. Why are they so out of touch with the feelings of most fans, let alone most people?
One might argue that it is all the money and the desire for success at all costs that has turned  heads, although it is clear that the football insiders, who have been the most attuned to public opinion, have been the sponsors who have threatened to withdraw their support.
Of course, there have been individual players, managers and directors who have been trying to bring a little realism, often behind the scenes. Others – like former professional footballer Rick Holden who played 189 games for Oldham – have been prepared to go public with their reservations and concerns. His measured words on the World at One about the need for contrition and remorse , and about how it was difficult to properly deal with these issues while an appeal was pending, made admirable commonsense.
It’s time to take stock.
For Ched Evans, he must now realise that the prospect of him being re-signed by a professional club in the UK in the near future is unlikely. The conditions of his sentence mean that professional football overseas is also off the agenda. His limited apology was a start, but 4 months late.
For league club boards, you would think they have all now learned the lessons from Sheffield Utd and Oldham. It will be a long time before both sets of directors and their advisers will be able to regain their reputations.
But, perhaps, it is the failure of the key stakeholders to grab hold of the issues that is the most concerning.
The Football Association has done, and is doing, some excellent work with its anti-homophobia and race equality agenda and programmes, but has shown little willingness to pick up this baton in a committed fashion. Greg Dyke now says  
“……….there is no basis for us to intervene directly in this particular case. That said, it is important that we continue to look at the issue of behaviour and attitudes within football, and recognise the unique privileges and responsibilities that come with being a participating member of the national game.
"I would encourage the game to consider and discuss this matter and the prospect for future guidelines or codes of conduct. The FA will certainly be considering it in line with our own ongoing review of what constitutes public or private communications and behaviour."
The Football League has been generally conspicuous by its absence. When it has spoken, it has lacked urgency and scope. In November, it said that
 “The Board of The Football League considered the implications for football's reputation of club's employing players following their release from prison. The Board has asked its Independent Directors to consider the matter further before reporting back to the Board at a future meeting and then our clubs at an appropriate point.”
The Premier League has kept its head down, presumably on the grounds that no-one felt that Evans would become a Premier League player, unless Harry Rednapp’s or Steve Bruce’s unhelpful interventions this week suggest otherwise?
The PFA, which is usually in the driving seat for progressive change, has represented itself as a simple trade union, rather than a professional body with the wider interests of its membership at stake. Encouraging this particular union member to understand the need to relate to the widespread public concern appears to have come rather late in the day.
 As for the Minister for Sport, Patrick Collins in his Daily Mail column got it spot on when he wrote “She might have been expected to lead this particular debate. And yet she had nothing to say.” One can imagine some previous sports ministers would have taken the initiative when they saw the vacuum.
This simply is not good enough. Heads need to be taken out of the sand, and quickly.
So, having castigated everyone, am I just being too optimistic by proposing a way forward and thinking that others might listen? There are after all many in the FA , PFA and other key bodies who have got track records of taking on and resolving such issues.
The FA should take the lead and pull together a Commission involving all the stakeholders, which is charged with delivering clear recommendations and programmes for:
·         the advice and support for young players about the changes that will happen in their lives, what lots of money & adulation will do, if they become professional footballers
·         the standards of behaviour and conduct that are expected of professional players
·         the necessary preparation for players who don’t make the grade or get injured
·         understanding relationships with colleagues, fans, management, the media, and a real understanding of the equalities agenda
·         guidance to be followed by all clubs in the management of offenders and the particular responses and sanctions that are expected for particular types of offence.

Meanwhile, Ched Evans should reconcile himself to not playing professional football this season. He must learn from others about demonstrating regret and remorse and, almost certainly, get himself some new advisers who will not hold back in telling him how far he has to travel if he hopes to resurrect his career. If he learns and acts quickly, there may still be a chance.