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

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.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Broken homes’ promises

In 2010, Housing Minister Grant Shapps told me 
Building more homes [than Labour] is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.” 

In 2011, Cameron told the CBI 
We will restart the housing market and get Britain building again."

Yet David Cameron and Nick Clegg have presided over the lowest level of housebuilding in peacetime Britain since the 1920s. Their first housing decision was to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%.

Millions of working people can no longer afford to buy the modest homes they want and they are unable to attain an affordable or social home. As a result, eleven million people now rent privately and are paying ever rising rents but have no stability, experience poor standards and face rip-off letting agent fees.

Last year, the lowest number of homes for social rent were built since John Major’s government. And, the number of affordable homes built was 26% lower than in 2009/10. The Government’s “affordable rent” model is anything but affordable to families on low-incomes. As rents have spiralled up, the housing benefit bill is now £1.6bn higher when they took office.

It’s no surprise that home ownership is at a 30 year low. Owner-occupation has fallen from 67.4 per cent to 63.3 per cent in 4 years. There are 205,000 fewer homeowners since 2010.

The number of people buying a home with a mortgage has declined and at 6.9 million households is now lower than the number of households living mortgage-free (7.4 million households) for the first time in over 30 years.

David Cameron claimed that his NewBuy scheme would help 100,000 on to the property ladder, but it has helped less than 6000. A record number of young people in their 20s and 30s now live at home with their parents. Only a third of 25- to 34-year-olds now own their own home, whilst nearly half are renting from a private landlord.

Whilst ever they and their friends are comfortably-housed, Cameron and Clegg will remain complacent about the housing crisis that is consuming ordinary working families.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A voice for the victims of crime

For too long victims of crime have lacked confidence in our criminal justice system. That has to change.
There have been too many examples of innocent people being let down by the justice system. There has to be a better way to ensure victims’ rights are properly protected.
All victims of crime need proper support appropriate to their circumstance, whether it’s somebody who has had their wallet stolen in the street or a victim of domestic violence who lacks the confidence to report the assault.
The current government simply isn’t interested in standing up for victims of crime. It left the position of Victims’ Commissioner vacant for over a year. It has repeatedly dismissed calls for improved rights for victims and witnesses.  The contrast between that and the attitude of Dr Alan Billings, Labour’s Police and Crime Commissioner, who has given half of the Commissioner’s allowance to support victims in South Yorkshire, is telling.
Labour’s Victims’ Taskforce, established in December 2013 to look at the detail of what this law should include, has now published its findings. The taskforce included Doreen Lawrence, who led the campaign for justice for her son Stephen.
Their report outlines the rights that could be in such a victim’s law, including a right to have your crime recorded, the right to appeal a decision if the authorities decide not to charge someone and the right to know basic information about your case.
The report also recommends new arrangements for controlling the way vulnerable victims and witnesses are treated in court, and a new mandatory duty on those working with children so that non-reporting of child abuse becomes a criminal offence
The current Victim’s Code of Conduct is an improvement on its predecessor, but toothless. A beefed-up Code and a Victims’ Commissioner, given powers of enforcement, would make a big difference.
I know that local people want a government that stands up for victims of crime. We all need the next government to deliver a justice system fit for innocent victims and witnesses.
You can read the Victims’ Taskforce Report at

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?