Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The government’s badger-cull policy is ‘still bonkers’

I have written here before about this government’s ridiculous badger-cull policy. ‘Bonkers’ is the politest epithet I can think of.

This week, the latest report of the government’s own Independent Expert Panel was leaked. Let me share just a couple of quotes to give you a flavour of what they had to say.

On humaneness:
It is extremely likely that between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 min, and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain. We are concerned at the potential for suffering that these figures imply.”
The target was for no more than 5% of badger taking five minutes to die.

On effectiveness:
“Controlled shooting in conjunction with cage trapping, over the 6-week period of the pilot culls, failed to remove at least 70% of the pre-cull badger population from either pilot area. It is extremely likely that combined shooting and cage trapping removed less than 48.1% of the badgers in Somerset and less than 39.1% of the badgers in Gloucestershire.”

Not only is the policy completely ineffective, it is costing £1m a year already.

Bluntly, Conservative Secretary of State Owen Paterson has put posturing before good policy, secrecy before transparency, conflict before consensus, and prejudice before science. His policy is now so discredited and embarrassing that there won’t even be any independent scientific oversight of the next culls. It’s a disgrace.

These culls have been bad for farmers, bad for the taxpayer and bad for our wildlife.
What is surprising is that Liberal Democrat MPs are consistently supporting the government’s ridiculous policy.

Do the badgers have to put on bright clothing and turn up at Liberal Democrat HQ to picket Nick Clegg before the Liberal Democrats change their minds?

Monday, 7 April 2014

No excuses

In January[1], I wrote about the need for the government to take urgent action to restore the value of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and to enforce it in practice.

In March[2], the government announced above inflation increases to take effect from October. However, the increase is still not sufficient to regain the value in 2010, since when all other increases have been somewhat below inflation.

The responsibility for enforcement of the NMW rests with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), although it is not believed that the Queen herself has yet been out on a raid. HMRC’s enforcement teams investigate complaints and have responsibility for educating employers and employees about what happens if they fail to pay what they must.

Last year, HMRC’s investigations resulted in over 26,000 people getting a total of £4 million in back pay. However, I believe that much more should be done and that some employers have got away too lightly with cheating employees and competitors.

To coincide with NMW’s 15th anniversary, HMRC has published[3] a list of the worst excuses it has seen over the past year for employers failing to pay the minimum wage.
Try these:

1. An employer said a woman on the premises was not entitled to the minimum wage as she was his wife. When asked what his wife’s name was, the employer said: “Err, her name? What’s your name, love?”

2. One employer told HMRC: “My employees don’t speak English, so they’re not entitled to it.

3. An employee ran out of the premises when HMRC officers arrived to check for minimum wage infringements. The same employee then returned - minus the work pinafore - with the employer claiming they were a customer.

4. Another employer told HMRC: “When the NMW goes up I do increase the amount I pay a little, even if the total pay is still below the NMW. I don’t think it’s right to ignore rises in NMW.

5. Upon inspection, an employer told HMRC: “I know I am paying them too little, but they are happy to work for this amount because they are getting experience.”

6. An employer said his employee was just working for a few days, with a view to buying the business. When HMRC checked food safety records, the employee’s name was found on historic food temperature records.

7. An employer claimed they realised they were not paying employees the minimum wage and had just this week increased their wages - to an hourly rate which was still below the minimum wage.

8. An employer told HMRC: “It wasn’t a conscious decision to say ‘I’m not going to pay this’, but I’ve never really considered doing it because I’ve not had people come to me and say: ‘I’m not getting paid enough’ or: ‘Is this the minimum wage?’”

9. One employer claimed an employee was just a friend, and only in the restaurant as they were in the area. HMRC officers returned another day to find the employee in the kitchen preparing food.

10. A number of employers claimed that accommodation they provided workers made up for their shortfall in wages.

No excuses. I’m clear that employers who fail to pay properly should be forced to pay the back pay and hefty fines.

More information about the different minimum wage rates, which depend upon age and apprentice status, can be found at www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates

If you believe you are not being paid the minimum wage, call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline, in confidence, for advice, in more than 100 languages, on 0800 917 2368. Calls to the Helpline from interns who are working for nothing, or for “expenses only”, are being fast-tracked for investigation.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Our next generation

Although there have been lots of headlines about increasing employment, the number of people in work simply reflects the increase in the working age population.

The unemployment rate is still higher than in 2010. Further, the headline statements mask a significant increase in part-time employment amongst people who want full-time jobs, and in self-employment.

Three particular groups of those without jobs ought to concern us all.
  • First, there are 393,000 over-50s who are unemployed, of whom 277,000 (70.5%) have been out of work for longer than a year.
  • Second, the Work Programme is failing disabled people miserably, getting only around 5% into work.
  • Third, the rate of unemployment among under-25s still almost 20%. Youth unemployment, at over 912,000 is unacceptably high. 60% of the way through the programme of Youth Contract wage subsidies, which began in April 2012, only about 7% of those supposed to be helped have been.

The most recent Work Programme data indicated that only 1 in 5 of people who have been on the Work Programme for two years have secured a sustained job. The number of people returning to JCP after being on the programme exceeds those gaining a job, and the gap between these two measures is growing as referrals are on a downward trend.

The proportion of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) New Customers attaining a Job Outcome payment within a year has remained at around 1 in 20 for each monthly intake. And now we learn that nearly 60% of jobs on Government website may have been placed by bogus firms.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg may believe that keeping 20% of our young people is a price worth paying. I don’t. Those of us who saw what damage high youth unemployment in the 1980s and early 1990s did to young people, families and local communities don’t want to go there again.

We need a strategy which gets more people into good training and sustainable jobs, by investing for the future. It would include a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee for young people.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Progress on the private rented sector

Progress on some issues often appears slow, even when there is agreement

The all-party communities and local government select committee, which I chair, has conducted a lengthy investigation into private rented housing, resulting in a report and a government response to our recommendations. And at last, we have had a debate about the next steps.

The private rented housing sector is of increasing importance with 18% of households now living in privately rented homes. This growth did not happen suddenly, following the banking crisis of 2008; it had been taking place before that over a period of time.
The private rented sector is now home to a wider range of households, particularly families with children who need more security.

Our investigation took us to Germany, where we found that a far greater proportion of households rent. Standards are good and tenants have tenancies for life, which they can pass on to family members.

We have made many recommendations and many of the committee’s ideas can be found in the government’s Review of Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector. Having initially dismissed our recommendations for mandatory carbon monoxide and smoke alarms in private rented homes and for five-yearly checks of the electrical installations, the government is now consulting on them.

However, there are two specific recommendations that the government has rejected. The first is: greater flexibility of local authority powers to raise standards and to deal with rogue landlords. The second: the regulation of letting agents.

The government has yet to respond positively to our call for simpler regulation, as we currently have a bewildering array of legislation and regulation. This doesn’t help landlords, tenants or regulators. Given its drive to tackle red tape and bureaucracy, such a refusal is surprising. However, following our call for easy-to-read fact sheets and model tenancy agreements, the government has produced a draft tenant’s charter and is promising a model tenancy agreement.

We asked for a review of the housing health and safety rating system. Although valued by many professionals, most landlords – let alone tenants – find it difficult to understand. The government seems unprepared to take on a wholesale review, but it is trying to produce guidance for tenants and to update the methodology.

Some of the worst housing standards are in the private rented sector. That does not mean every such property is bad. We should not give all private landlords a bad name.
But as well as some of the worst properties, the private rented sector has some of the most vulnerable occupiers, and that juxtaposition should really worry us.

Some landlords simply want to sit and do nothing, while others blatantly break the law and think they can get away with it. We must bear down on the really bad landlords without putting extra burdens on the good ones.

We did not favour a national landlord licensing scheme because we have tended to be localist and to believe that authorities should be allowed to choose for themselves and local people. However, selective licensing does tend to be cumbersome, time consuming and bureaucratic. The criteria are currently very restricted. We proposed relaxed criteria, greater flexibility for councils, and the ability to have a local accreditation scheme which was mandatory for all landlords.

Unfortunately, the government has said no to mandatory accreditation schemes and no to a review of the flexibility of selective licensing. Its latest proposals suggest tightening the criteria for selective licensing, rather than increasing flexibility. Two steps forward, one back.

I have also pressed the government to take appropriate action to ensure that, when councils successfully prosecute bad landlords, they should be entitled to get back their full reasonable costs. Why should the worst landlords be subsidised by ordinary hard-working families?

The long-term solution is of course to increase the supply of housing, including new purpose-built accommodation for private renting. If we could convert benefits payments to bricks and mortar instantaneously we might well have found the holy grail. We shall need to return to this.

It’s a case of ‘some progress made; but a lot more to do’.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 21 March 2014


Friday, 21 March 2014


Mesothelioma is a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It is a long-tail disease – which means people exposed to asbestos decades ago are only now discovering the consequences of their employers’ ignorance or negligence.

With people moving in and out of jobs in the industry, and widespread misplacement of insurance and employment records, many sufferers (approximately one in every eight) are unable to trace their employer or insurer to lodge a complaint.

Therefore, I welcomed some new regulations this week that provide for the Secretary of State to establish a long-overdue scheme for mesothelioma victims and their families - who, for decades, have been denied access to the compensation they deserve.  This new law originates from a consultation launched by the last government in February 2010. It follows a long history of Labour interventions to secure justice for mesothelioma sufferers.

In 1969, the Employers Liability Act, required employers to insure against liability for injury or disease to their employees arising out of their employment. The Pneumoconiosis Act in 1979 provided lump sum compensation payments to people suffering from certain dust-related diseases or, if they have died, their dependents, where a claim for damages is not possible because the employer is no longer in business. In 2008, the Mesothelioma Payments Scheme provided lump sum payments for people suffering from diffuse mesothelioma, who are unable to claim compensation from other sources - such as women who washed their husbands’ contaminated clothes, or the self-employed.

This new law provides a legislative framework to make payments to people with the disease who are unable to trace their employer or their Employer’s Liability insurer.
The Scheme will be industry-funded by a levy on currently active insurers in the UK Employers’ Liability market. Insurers have said that provided this levy does not exceed 3% of Gross Written Premiums, they will prevent this additional cost from being passed onto business.

The Scheme is intended as a fund of last resort. Claimants who are unable to trace their employer or their employer’s insurer can apply to the fund. I’m especially pleased that, after all-party pressure, successful applicants will receive 80% of the average compensation of claimants of the same age who have pursued successful civil compensation claims.

I hope that claims can now be progressed and settled quickly.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Women born between 1952 and 1953

Last year, I wrote about the pension issues facing women born between 6 April 1952 and 6 July 1953.[1] Then, foolishly feeling intrepid, and thinking I’d played a small part in getting some improvements, I wrote again to claim a small victory.[2]

I should have known better. No sooner had my blog hit the site than a number of women affected by the changes were busily contacting me to demand that I justify my claim. They posed the sort of questions that would have had Albert Einstein scratching his head and Stephen Hawking turbo-charging his wheelchair.

I had to admit I was flummoxed. I am pretty certain that the changes made last May were for the better – and a small victory flag was justified – but there was no easy consensus as to whether the changes were sufficient to justify the claim that women born between 6 April 1952 and 6 July 1953 were not being disadvantaged.

That’s because it all depends on how you approach the situation, what assumptions are being made – for example, about life expectancy - and who you are being compared with. In fact, the Government thinks that such women are better off under the existing arrangements and also that they will mostly be better off under the new pension arrangements. I’m reminded of the driver who stopped her car to ask for directions and was answered with “Well, if I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here.

Well, we are here. In the last debate, the Minister rebuffed suggestions that the Government report to Parliament on what the actual impact of the changes meant, rather than simply relying on an analysis of what the impact is likely to be.[3]  I expect that in about 50 years’ time, someone will write their PhD thesis on the actual impact of the changes and will still be unable to reach a single conclusion.

So, for now, all I can offer is a comprehensive analysis produced by those very clever people in the House of Commons’ Library.[4]  You can make up your own mind.

Happy reading.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Red box responsibility

After last weekend’s Liberal Democrat Spring Conference, there has been a spate of articles about "Lib Dem ministers want the red box but not the blame". Now some might argue that these allegations are only being made by their political opponents. But this is clearly not the case.

Actually, the most significant attack on Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat Ministerial colleagues in the Conservative-led government coalition came from Liberal Democrat MPs – including the Party’s President - and party members in the North of England who spoke out about the fundamental unfairness of the government’s policies. In particular, they were angry about the massive scale of the shift in resources from poorer, urban areas in the north to wealthier, rural areas in the south.

I’ve been accused of banging on about this issue for the last three years. So, all I can do is welcome this new support. In fact, after being so quiet and acquiescent to date, the northern Liberal Democrats were positively shouting about the unfairness of it all. They even went so far as to publish a report “Grim Up North” to support their case.

Actually, when I say northern Liberal Democrats, I’m not being entirely accurate. There was unanimity from northern Liberal Democrats, except for those from South Yorkshire and Chesterfield who remained completely silent. Surely this couldn’t be because they’ve chosen sycophantic loyalty to Nick Clegg and his red box over standing up for their local communities?

Council funding is only one example of the unfairness. Of the 50 councils that have faced the smallest cut in their budget, 46 are in the south. More remarkably, every one of the 10 least-cut councils is in Surrey. This is particularly astonishing as there are only 10 councils in Surrey.

And the difference isn’t small. Whereas Sheffield’s government funding is being cut by more than £230 p head between 2010 and 2016, Surrey councils are being cut by less than £2 p head. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

Private rented housing

Making progress on some issues often appears to take a long time, even when there is agreement. I have written previously about the All-Party Select Committee’s lengthy investigation and report on private rented housing and the government’s response to our recommendations.

The private rented housing sector is of increasing importance. According to the latest figures, 18% of households now live in the private rented sector. That growth did not suddenly happen following the banking crisis of 2008; it had been taking place before that over a period of time. Indeed, it has been the only growing housing sector since 2002, when owner-occupation started to fall as a percentage of households.

It is now home to a wider range of households, particularly families with children who want more security. When people with children change their home that often means changing schools, and that creates substantial disruption to family life. We went to Germany, where a far greater proportion of households rent than in the UK, to find that people literally have tenancies for life, and can pass it on so that their family members can succeed to it.

We saw good private rented standards that we ought to seek to emulate here. We made many recommendations for the government to act on. Having initially dismissed our recommendations for mandatory carbon monoxide and smoke alarms in private rented homes and for five-yearly checks of the electrical installations, the Government is now consulting on them.

However, there are two specific recommendations which the government has rejected so far. The first is the flexibility of local authority powers to raise standards and to deal with rogue landlords, and the second is the regulation of letting agents.

And the government has yet to respond positively to our call for simpler regulation, as we currently have a bewildering array of legislation and regulation. Given its claim that it wants to tackle red tape, such refusal is surprising. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Progressive conditions and Employment and Support Allowance

Along with a number of other MPs from across the political spectrum, I have been lobbying the Minister for Disabled People about the need to reform the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for people with debilitating progressive conditions. Our lobbying has been supported by the Parkinson’s Disease Society and three other charities representing people who have severe progressive conditions.

We recognise that a key aim of ESA is to enable those who are able to work to find suitable employment. The government’s stated intention for reviews is to ensure that individuals receive the right level of support, taking into account developments such as changes in treatment and people’s ability to adapt to their condition.

However, evidence suggests that the current approach is failing to recognise the needs of people with progressive conditions, particularly those who have a clinical diagnosis that their condition is extremely debilitating and set to worsen over time.

Recent research conducted by the charities found that 45 percent of people with these progressive conditions who put in a new claim for ESA between 2008 and 2011 were unable to work at the time of the assessment but were deemed able to eventually return to work and many were given a prognosis “recommend return to work in x months” - a length of time based on a “recovery period”. This directly contradicts the definition of a progressive condition, which can only get worse over time.

In addition, no evidence was found that Atos healthcare professionals or decision makers sought to clinically justify the improvement or prognosis periods of “recovery”, for example through discussion with claimants. Indeed the research found instances of compelling medical evidence being disregarded.
This is just the latest example of the unsatisfactory performance of ATOS. It is little wonder that the National Audit Office and the Select Committee has been less than impressed with ATOS. Now we learn that ATOS wants to get out of its contract early, suggesting that the reason for this is the level of abuse it has received.

There is no excuse for threats against staff – that is unacceptable. But there is every reason for criticising ATOS’s performance. It is more likely that it wants to break its contract because it realises that there is no chance of it being renewed and that it can only make a profit by not doing the job properly. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Have we reached the tipping point?

I’ve never been able to work out why the Conservatives proclaimed themselves as ‘the party of law and order’ as, under their watch, crime has always increased and they’ve consistently cut police numbers.

From 1997, crime fell by more than 40%. Both the crime statistics and the British Crime Survey – which each year asks thousands of people of their experience of crime, whether reported or not – agreed. It might have had something to do with the significant investment in additional police and PCSO numbers for neighbourhood policing.

Since 2010, the government has cut police numbers by more than 15,000. Despite claiming that frontline policing would be protected, more than 10,000 bobbies have been taken off the streets. South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire have 748 fewer police officers, a more than 10% cut. Yet, because of the government’s massive transfer of resources from the poorer north to the wealthier south-east, Surrey has 56 more police officers.

Despite the constant assertions by Home Secretary Theresa May that crime is falling, the government’s own watchdog has said that their statistics can no longer be relied upon. Notwithstanding that, the latest crime figures already show disturbing signs that a generation of progress in some areas is being reversed.

We now see worrying increases in muggings and shoplifting across the country, whilst violence against the person has increased in 16 police forces and violence without injury has increased in 19 force areas in England and Wales. In addition, the statistics do not record areas of growing crime, eg shoplifting, now at a 9 year high according to the British Retail Consortium.

And crime is changing. Fraud has increased by 34%, but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg because much online crime goes unreported. Yet no serious action has been taken by this Government to tackle online fraud and scams.

The Stevens Inquiry has now warned that we are in danger of returning to a discredited model of reactive policing. Association of Chief Police Officers’ President, Sir Hugh Orde, has warned we may now be at the tipping point. I fear they are both correct.