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.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Cuts? What cuts?

A Ipsos Mori survey in July found that nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of local residents said that local authority budget reductions have not made a noticeable difference to services[1]. Conservative ministers think this provides a justification for further cuts in government grant to councils and an insistence that further cuts in expenditure and services should be made.

Consultants PWC found that almost half the people it surveyed were unaware of any reductions in local council services in their area.[2] However, PWC had the insight to say ‘To some extent, this is a testament to the success of local authorities to date in focussing on internal efficiencies while protecting the frontline’.

Of course, it may be the case that the cuts to date have not impacted on half the population. Maybe their family does not include one of
  • ·         the more than 500,000 elderly people who have completely lost their home care support, or
  • ·         the rest of the elderly or someone with disabilities who have had a massive hike in fees for their home care, or
  • ·         the vast majority of young people who have completely lost their youth service, or
  • ·         those who used the more than 600 libraries that have already closed, or
  • ·         the young parents who were supported by one of the nearly 700 Sure Start centres which, despite David Cameron’s promise otherwise, have closed since 2010.
I could go on.  However, it’s important to note that less than half of the cuts announced to date by the government have yet been implemented. Further, last week, the Chancellor said more big cuts would be required from next year.

Now, the totally independent National Audit Office has produced a report[3] which confirms, amongst other things, that
  • ·         between 2010/11 and 2015/16, government grant to local councils has been cut by 37%. The cut is even bigger for councils in South Yorkshire.
  • ·         a 46% cut in planning and economic development over the same period
  • ·         between 2013/14 and 2014/15, there was a 40% cut in spending on adult social care
·        The NAO says, if health and schools spending is to be protected, that inevitably means that transport, highways’ maintenance, culture (libraries, museums, theatres) and consumer protection (eg trading standards) are going to be badly hit in the next couple of years.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Complex failure

No-one can have failed to have been shocked by the revelations about the extent of child sexual abuse over the last few months.

I chair the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee in the House of Commons. Our job is to scrutinise and report on the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), its agencies and local government.

We have a particular interest in reviewing policy – formulation and implementation – taking and analysing the evidence on what works and what doesn’t, and then drawing conclusions and making recommendations for improvement.

It is in that context that we have been taking evidence on the local government aspects of the failure to protect so many children. We have just published our first report[1]. We heard alarming evidence that the organised child sexual exploitation at Rotherham is prevalent across England. Rotherham is not an outlier.

In leadership, governance and accountability terms, what most concerned us was that it was the press which stimulated action in Rotherham, not the Council’s own system of challenge or scrutiny, nor external inspections. Therefore, we were clear that it is essential that councils across the country are busily reviewing whether their own scrutiny, governance, and leadership is fit and ready to identify and combat child sexual exploitation in their communities.

Serious questions also need to be asked of Ofsted. Repeated Ofsted inspections in Rotherham failed to lift the lid on the Council’s shameful inability to tackle child sexual exploitation. As a Committee, we will want to question Ofsted about their inspection regime and ask why their inspections were so ineffective in Rotherham.
As I write, Ofsted has just reported that children’s services remain inadequate in Rotherham[2]. I have little doubt that, over the coming months, Ofsted will find that services in other councils that it had previously rated as good will be found wanting.
And, Ofsted has just published a wider-ranging report[3] which states that child sexual exploitation has not been treated as the priority that events in Rotherham and elsewhere suggested it should have been.

We all have to come to terms with the fact that vulnerable children in every community are at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. 

We all have a role to play in preventing it and taking action to bring to account those who abuse children or fail to keep them safe.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The criminals’ friends

Last week, I wrote about how I simply didn’t understand the logic of those MPs – mainly Conservative MPs and the UKIP MP – who are implacably opposed to the European Arrest Warrant, seemingly just because they hate the EU[1].

It is clear that opting out of the European Arrest Warrant would make it much harder to deport foreign criminals. It would also make it more difficult for us to bring British citizens who have committed crimes abroad back to our country to face justice.

When I wrote that, I hadn’t realised quite how incompetent this government is in dealing with foreign criminals. That was until I’d got round to reading the latest National Audit Office (NAO) report [2].

Fewer foreign criminals have been deported each and every year under Cameron and Clegg than was the case in 2010. Last year, there were 375 fewer deportations, a drop of 7% [3]. And, even more worryingly, fewer deportation orders were being served.
In 2010, there were 143 days between a deportation order and the offender leaving the country, but last year it increased to 187 days. Why?

NAO found that more than a third of failed removals were due to poor processing. They included failures to fill in the forms, to get the necessary papers and even to book the plane tickets that were needed. It is extraordinary that the government is trying to take credit for cutting bureaucracy and public expenditure without drawing attention to the shambles it is creating by doing so.

More foreign criminals have disappeared, too. About 190 absconded last year, and there has been a 6% increase since 2010. Most concerning, 58 highly dangerous foreign criminals that have gone missing over the last 4 years. Yet according to the NAO report, there are only 11 staff working on 700 cases, 10 of whom are very junior.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of our representatives have no interest in arresting UK criminals who have fled abroad and then bringing them to justice, and little interest in efficiently and effectively deporting foreign criminals who have been convicted here.

Aren’t they the criminals’ friends?

[1]  Tuesday, 11 November 2014

[2] Managing and removing foreign national offenders

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Bring criminals to justice

There are around 3,600 organised crime groups active in the EU, involved in drugs, human trafficking, online child exploitation and theft. Cross-border crime is a reality and we need 21st century tools to deal with it.

We read far too often of criminals who have escaped the UK to live in the warmer parts of southern Europe, where they live the life of Riley, whilst waving two fingers at their victims at home.

Last year, 14 British citizens were brought back to Britain under a European Arrest Warrant. This Warrant allows criminals from any EU country to be arrested abroad. Some recent high profile examples have been
-Fugitive teacher Jeremy Forrest, who fled to France with a schoolgirl, was extradited back to England

- The UK was able to quickly extradite from Italy a fugitive bomber, Hussain Osman, who had attempted to carry out a terror attack in London.

- Jason McKay was extradited from Poland within two weeks for murdering his partner. Under the old extradition arrangements, it would have taken several years to get him back to face justice for a murdered woman

I find it amazing that anyone wants to make it easier for foreign criminals to come to the UK to evade justice and also create a huge amount of extra bureaucracy and cost in trying to catch criminals who escape across Europe.

Last year, more than 1,000 foreign criminals were deported under the European Arrest Warrant. These were issued most often for drug trafficking, murder, fraud, child sex offences and rape. We need to cooperate with partners in Europe to ensure people who have committed these serious crimes do not get away with it.

Opting out of the European Arrest Warrant would make it much harder to deport foreign criminals and would also make it more difficult for us to bring British citizens who have committed crimes abroad back to our country to face justice.

I have to say that I simply don’t understand the logic of those MPs – a minority of Conservative MPs and the UKIP MP – who are implacably opposed to the European Arrest Warrant, seemingly just because they hate the EU.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

It isn’t fair, is it?

Week in, week out, I meet and talk to a large number of my constituents. 

Although their economic circumstances may be different – many are struggling, others are doing well – overwhelmingly they tell me that, as we make our way through the national and global economic recession, they do want to see some fairness in paying for the problems and in addressing the recovery.

Back in 2010, George Osborne told us “We are all in this together. I am not going to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.” It’s a message which he and David Cameron and Nick Clegg have kept repeating.

It’s certainly a message which the vast majority of my constituents wanted to hear and for it to be acted on. Unfortunately, right now, they tell me that they do not believe that they’re getting a fair deal from this government.  It’s important to examine why.

Since 2010 there have been 24 tax rises; this does not include the cuts to tax credits which have hit millions of working families.  The result is that households will be about £1000 a year worse off by May 2015 than they were in May 2010. In addition, as wages have not kept pace with inflation, on average, they will be another £600 a year poorer.

However, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have chosen to cut the 50p top rate of tax to 45p. Just 1 in 100 households will be significantly better off because they are enjoying a £3bn tax cut. It has meant that someone earning £1 million has received a tax cut of over £42,000 a year and millionaires as a whole got an average annual tax cut of £100,000.

What my constituents are telling me is that ‘When the deficit is still high, when tough times are now set to last well into the next decade, when for ordinary families their real incomes are falling and taxes have risen, it surely cannot be right to have chosen to give the richest people in the country a huge tax cut.’

I agree.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Stop the Rip-off

The housing crisis continues to grow.

As I write, Shelter publishes its latest report confirming that more than 90,000 children in the UK without a permanent home, living in some form of temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, 9 million people now rent privately including over 1.3 million families with children.  Nearly half of private rented households are over the age of 35. 

It is undoubtedly the case that, whenever any market is unstable, some people will seek to exploit the situation for their own benefit. I have written before about those letting agents who are double-charging, purporting to act for both the landlord and the tenant and providing a complete lack of transparency of their fees.[i]

It is now clear that some estate agents are pulling off a similar trick, charging both buyers and sellers for a sale of the same property. This practice creates a conflict of interest, as it is not clear who the agent is represent. With some agents charging buyers 2.5% of the sale price of a property that fee can run into thousands of pounds.

The average home is now eight times the average wage, and it takes over 20 years for the average family to save for a deposit. In the last year, 1 million homes were bought in the UK.  House prices rose by nearly 12% over the last year.

It’s in this context that many estate agents have introduced a new form of contract, called ‘sale by informal tender’ involving sealed bids to make offers on properties.  Estate agents are then charging the successful bidder an ‘introductory’ fee, but also charging a fee sellers to market their property in this way.

The practice is rapidly spreading from London to the rest of the UK. It’s a rip-off and it needs to be stopped quickly. We have a chance to do this in the Consumer Rights’ Bill, currently in the House of Lords.

Despite people clearly being fed-up with those who want rip-off Britain, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers have so far rejected attempts to change the law. It’s time to try again