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


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.

Friday, 9 January 2015

87p for many, but a Lamborghini for someone?

From April, working people will be able to cash in their pension savings for a lump sum when they retire.  The Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister Steve Webb says he wants to extend this to existing pensioners.

His plan would allow pensioners, if they wanted, to sell the annuities they had been required to buy under the old rules to the highest bidder. This would allow them a lump sum to spend on what they liked.  Mr Webb will probably be best remembered for saying that pensioners should be free to spend their pension savings on a Lamborghini if they wished. Most pensioners could only dream about this, but Mr Webb’s comment tells us who his policy us targeted at.

Although not being opposed in principle, I think scrapping the requirement to take out an annuity altogether is a potentially reckless and irresponsible move, leaving pensioners vulnerable to the financial sharks and end up with people running out of money.

However, a cynic might well believe that the promotion of this debate is simply a smokescreen to divert attention from a more serious pension issue.

In December the government announced the uprating of pensions and social security benefits for 2015-16. It said

‘……….the basic state pension for 2015-16 will increase by the value of the third element of the triple lock, 2.5%. Even at a time when earnings growth remains constrained, we will not repeat the mistakes of the past, such as the 75p rise in 2000.

From April 2015, the new basic state pension for a single person will be £115.95 a week, which is up by £2.85 a week, and we estimate that the basic state pension will be around 18% of average earnings—its highest comparative level for more than two decades. Thanks to the coalition commitment to the triple lock, a person on the full basic state pension will receive around £560 a year more in 2015-16 than if it had been uprated only by earnings during this Parliament. That commitment means that since coming to office, the coalition has increased the basic state pension by around £950 a year.’

But the government were then forced to admit that up to 1.6 million pensioners across the UK will see their state pension rise by just 87p, rather than £2.85 which ministers claimed.

The pensioners caught out are those who claim the Savings Credit element of pension credit, which is being cut. In Yorkshire and Humberside, more than 52,000 pensioners will be affected, including about 6000 in Sheffield.

Rather than being fair to a group of pensioners who have saved all their life to enjoy a little extra security in retirement, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have chosen to penalise these savers for their thriftiness.

I rather suspect that not one had a Lamborghini on their shopping list.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Bedroom Tax

David Cameron is to the Bedroom Tax (known officially as the Social Sector Size Criterion) what Margaret Thatcher was to the Poll Tax (known officially as the Community Charge).

The unfair Bedroom Tax hits about 500,000 households in total, including more than 46,000 families in Yorkshire and Humberside and nearly 6000 in Sheffield. Two thirds of the households affected include a person with a disability. The tax also hits 60,000 carers.

The Bedroom Tax works by restricting housing benefit to allow for one bedroom for each person or couple living as part of the household. The cut is a fixed percentage of the Housing Benefit eligible rent. This is 14% for one extra bedroom and 25% for two or more extra bedrooms.

Let us be clear. This tax has nothing to do with ‘persuading people to move to a smaller property to enable a bigger family to move in”.  Many social housing providers already had good, sensitive transfer schemes which have been under-mined by this Tax. The government actually assumed that the vast majority of affected households would be unable to move to a smaller home, which is why it was predicted to cost less.

As predicted, for the vast majority of those affected, there is nowhere smaller to which to move. Thus, the tax hits vulnerable people through no fault of their own. The average family is trapped and losing over £700 a year.

The government’s own independent evaluation[1] of the policy recently reported that just 4.5 per cent of affected tenants were able to move to smaller accommodation within the social sector. Ludicrously, most of those who were able to find smaller accommodation in the private sector had to pay higher rents, which is why the housing benefit bill has increased.

The Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation has described the policy as “an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families.”[2] The cut in housing benefit has been so significant – the difference between keeping the head above water and drowning – that 60 per cent of affected tenants were in arrears after just 6 months. Chasing these arrears is costing a fortune; and, now, social landlords are being blamed because arrears have increased.  There is widespread concern that those who are paying are making cuts to other household essentials or incurring other debts in order to pay the rent.

But, David Cameron could not have done this on his own. Without Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats there would be no Bedroom Tax. Each time they’ve had a chance to make a difference, they’ve chosen to keep the Bedroom Tax in place.[3] No excuses, Mr Clegg.

[3] The Liberal Democrats voted for the legislation that created the Bedroom Tax, and even voted against amendments tabled by Labour that would have exempted people with disabilities whose homes had been specially adapted for them, or who could not find alternative accommodation where support services and suitable employment was locally available.

On 13 November 2013 Labour forced a vote in the House of Commons on a motion to abolish the Bedroom Tax. This was opposed by the Liberal Democrat front bench although Andrew George and Tim Farron rebelled to vote with Labour.

On 12 February 2014, MP Ian Lavery had a Ten Minute Rule Bill to abolish the bedroom tax and reform housing benefit. Ian Lavery said that those “who voted in favour of introducing this dreaded bedroom tax may have underestimated the human suffering that it would cause”. The Lib Dems had the chance to support this and vote with Labour, but they failed to do so.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Giving up?

Charities and voluntary organisations in every area do a great job supporting local communities. Yet I know, from talking to both volunteers and charity staff, that things are getting harder, not easier, under this government.

At the last general election, David Cameron put the voluntary sector at the heart of his offer to the British public in his flagship policy, the ‘Big Society’. But, when was the last time you heard any government minister talk about it? In truth, here we are four years later and the ‘Big Society’ is dead.

Austerity has hit the sector with many charities closing across the country unable to cope with the increase in demand for their services with falling donations and reduced budgets.  A poll revealed that a quarter have already been forced to cut frontline services and that one in six feared that they might have to close altogether because of public spending cuts and reduced donations.

At the same time, we’ve seen an unprecedented attack on charities and voluntary organisations.  Ministers have attacked Oxfam for being ‘overtly political’ and made threats to food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, for speaking out. Then, they introduced the Lobbying Act and changes to judicial review to try to gag charities standing up for the people they represent.

The ‘Big Society’ has been rocked by stories of cronyism, wasting public money and breaking funding guidelines. Several investigations, including by the independent National Audit Office, into the Big Society Network, David Cameron’s pet charity, have revealed the dodgy dealings in the Prime Minister’s office which forced the Cabinet Office to fund failing projects that were run by Conservative Party donors.

Charities play a vital role, not only in providing vital services which support local people and communities, but also in offering opportunities for people to volunteer, learn new skills or gain confidence, feel supported and valued.

David Cameron came to office hailing the Big Society. But we’ve now learnt his vision was a sham. We urgently need a new partnership with the voluntary sector which will see it flourish. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

A record of broken promises

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have failed every test and broken every promise they’ve made on the economy.

They promised we’d be all in this together but then they gave millionaires a huge tax cut. They promised people would be better off. But most people in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire are not feeling the recovery. On average, working people are now £1,600 a year worse off than in 2010.

It’s this cost-of-living crisis why the Chancellor had to admit that his key promise – to balance the nation’s books by next year – now lies in tatters.

Because wages aren’t rising and too many are stuck in low-paid jobs, the tax revenues we need to get the deficit down aren’t coming in.
They don’t understand the fundamental link between the living standards of everyday working people and Britain’s ability to deal with the deficit. George Osborne has now borrowed a staggering £219 billion more than he said he would. Worse, the economy is set to slow down next year after forecasts for wages have been revised down again. Yet he still tries to claim that the economy is fixed and his plan is working. How out of touch can you get?

The alternative strategy is to raise the minimum wage, expand free childcare for working parents, scrap the bedroom tax and cut business rates for small firms, and reverse the £3 billion a year tax cut this government has given to the top one per cent of earners. That would balance the books in a fairer way.

Changing stamp duty to help people on middle and low incomes is welcome, but most of all we also need to get more homes built.

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne promised to eliminate the deficit by 2015. But with less money coming in because of their wrong economic decisions, they’ve broken their promise, failed their own economic test. Its hardworking people who are paying the price. It’s time for an economic recovery for the many, not just a few.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Keep it simple

The latest statistics on waste management and re-cycling have just been published, so most of the media have been carrying stories about local performance. Are we re-cycling more or sending less to landfill than we did last year? How does our community compare to others?

In truth, we’ve done a lot, but there’s a lot more to do. We can see that plastic litter and waste plagues local neighbourhoods, as well as some of our finest countryside, and is particularly damaging to our marine ecosystems.

The amount of litter on British beaches last year was at its highest level in twenty years. Despite all the messages to dispose of waste safely and securely, the number of plastic bags littering the coastline has actually increased by more than 20% since 1996.

Lightweight plastic bags are the worst of all. They tend to shred and get entangled in recycling and re-processing equipment, contaminating and reducing the value of recyclable materials, like paper and cardboard. Reducing the use of plastic bags has to be part of a coherent waste management strategy with a focus on preventing plastic from entering the waste stream in the first place.

Last month, the European Commission adopted a proposal that requires Member States to reduce their use of lightweight plastic carrier bags. It’s up to each country to choose the measures they find most appropriate, including charges, national reduction targets or a ban under certain conditions.

However, this government’s plastic bags policy is an unscientific mess.  It seems determined to ignore the initiatives that have worked elsewhere.  In Wales, the introduction of a charge for all single-use bags in 2010 has had a dramatic impact. Within three years, there had already been a near 80% cut in the number of plastic bags being used.

For some reason, this government is trying to use the future promise of innovation to justify a rushed and flawed policy proposal to allow an exemption for biodegradable bags if a charging scheme is introduced. It makes no sense.

As soon as possible, we should introduce a simple universal plastic bag charge that will dramatically cut plastic waste and litter. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

An end to warm words?

We’ve had our first winter nights where the temperature has dropped below freezing.

About 13 million pensioners are receiving their letters advising that their Winter Fuel Payment (WFP) of £200 (£300 for a household with someone aged 80 or over) will be paid shortly.

I’m delighted that David Cameron resisted the pressure from his own back-benchers to do away with the WFP, although disappointed that he decided to give tax breaks to millionaires rather than updating the WFP with inflation. Energy bills have actually increased significantly more than inflation. Partly in recognition of that, for the winters 2008/2009 to 2010/2011, additional payments worth £50 (or £100 for the 80+ households) were made alongside the standard WFP. Cameron and Clegg cancelled these after 2010/2011.

Of course, paying additional sums towards fuel bills was only one part of the last government’s energy affordability strategy. The plan was to secure sustainably warm homes. It had to combine investing in more energy efficient homes and more efficient fuel technologies as well as supporting bills for those least able to afford them.

Poor energy efficiency is the single biggest reason why so many households are in fuel poverty. A household in the least energy efficient home is currently paying, on average, £965 a year more and is five times more likely to be in fuel poverty than a household with average levels of energy efficiency.

The Warm Front programme saw more than 2 million homes get significantly improved insulation and energy efficiency. In addition, the Decent Homes Programme not only improved insulation standards, but also saw more than a million homes get new energy efficient heating systems. For me, ‘Warmth up; bills down’ was a winning formula.

However, Messrs Cameron and Clegg have managed to replace a warm homes’ programme with a warm words’ policy. They replaced highly successful programmes with ‘The Green Deal’, which has managed to benefit just 2581 households in the last 2 years?  

So, it’s a case of fuel bills up, households in fuel poverty up and action to improve energy efficiency, dramatically down.

You can have your say about this.