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

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Where there’s a will……

…………..there’s often an argument!

A person making a will can change it at any time. Nobody else has an entitlement to see this private document, even if he or she thinks they may be named in it.

A will usually names ‘executors’ – the people responsible for identifying all the assets and liabilities, paying any taxes, obtaining a ‘grant of probate’ – basically getting permission from the court  - if required, and then administering the estate in accordance with the deceased’s wishes. In many cases, an application for a ‘grant of probate’ is not needed.[i]

Once a ‘grant of probate’ (or ‘letter of administration’, if the executors are unable or choose not to act) is granted, the will becomes a public document and anyone can apply to have a copy of it.[ii]

However, if no ‘grant of probate’ is made, the will remains a private document. Although the executors are entitled to share the contents with others, including residuary beneficiaries – those entitled to some part of the inheritance after all the obligations have been met, there is no obligation to do so.

There is good, free advice available on these issues.[iii] Taking it could both help your executors and stop a lot of arguments.

And, remember, whenever you hear someone suggest that cutting Inheritance Tax is a priority, such tax is paid on less than 1 in 25 estates.

A friend of mine has solved the problem by telling his children that he doesn’t believe in inherited wealth. However, if they insist, he’ll be more than happy to leave his overdraft to them!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wage ambitions

Last week’s spat over what government minister Lord Freud thinks about minimum pay rates for people with disabilities has rather over-shadowed debate about the National Minimum Wage itself.

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of National Minimum Wage (NMW).  It boosted pay at the bottom without leading to a loss of jobs, and has had wide support from business as a result.

Before it was introduced, some people were paid as little as £1 an hour.  For example, the Low Pay Unit found someone working in a chip shop in Birmingham earning just 80p an hour. It also found a factory worker earning £1.22 an hour and a residential home worker earning £1.66 an hour.

The Conservatives and many Liberal Democrat MPs bitterly opposed the introduction of the minimum wage legislation. Critics of the NMW said before its introduction that it would lead to job losses. However, now, the widely accepted consensus is that those predictions have proved false.

Today the extremes of exploitation have been eliminated but the problem of low pay – people working hard and struggling to make ends meet – has actually grown. Low pay has got worse in the last 4 years and the value of the NMW has been eroded in real terms since 2010.  

Families are on average £1,600 a year worse off since David Cameron and Nick Clegg took office. The UK now has the one of the highest rates of low pay in the developed world, with more than five million workers paid less than the Living Wage in the UK. Low pay also represents a considerable cost to the Exchequer in the form of in-work benefits and foregone tax receipts.

That’s why I believe we need to see a more ambitious target for the NMW.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but that’s why we need to be determined.

There’s no reason why a goal of halving the number of people on low pay in our country by 2025 cannot be achieved if we have the commitment. A clear long term target will give businesses time to plan and adapt their business models to boost productivity to support higher wages.  

Tuesday, 21 October 2014


Regulators were originally established in law to secure the interests of consumers in markets where people depend on essential goods and services – food, money, energy, water, post and communication, transport – to go about their daily lives.

This government’s Better Regulation Agenda changed the overall brief for regulators. It says it is “committed to reducing regulatory burdens and supporting compliant business growth through the development of an open and constructive relationship between regulators and those they regulate” and wants regulation which “supports and enables regulators to design their service and enforcement policies in a manner that best suits the needs of businesses and other regulated entities.”

Perhaps the real agenda can be taken from the fact that it measures progress by calculating savings to business that have resulted from reducing the costs of regulation, rather than whether consumers are being properly protected. It appears that the regulators have taken this new Code to mean that the interests of the companies are to take priority over the interests of customers.

Well, how else are we to interpret their approaches to some of the issues that are really important to protecting consumers?

It has now been revealed that the energy regulator, OFGEM, has given its approval to price comparison sites which actually hide the best energy deals from the customer. And, why would they do this? Because they don’t get paid commission on the best deals. It’s astonishing. How could anyone acting in consumers’ interests ever believe that that is reasonable? Clearly it isn’t.

And, what about the position of those customers who enter into – often very expensive - phone contracts only to discover that, in practice, they simply can’t get decent reception for all or most of the time, even in their own homes, but find that they are locked in to payments for a service they can’t get? You would have thought that any half-decent regulator would say “if you can’t get the service you are paying for, the contract is void”. Does OFCOM do that? No. It allows the phone-providers to have all sorts of get-outs.

We urgently need a new over-arching brief which puts protection for customers, rather than the interests of the companies, right at the heart of the regulatory regimes.

Friday, 17 October 2014


The Times recently carried the headline ‘NHS reforms our worst mistake, Tories admit’. The story goes on to report that ‘Senior Tories have admitted that reorganising the NHS was the biggest mistake they have made in government. David Cameron did not understand the controversial reforms and George Osborne regrets not having prevented what Downing Street officials call a “huge strategic error”.’ One Downing Street insider described the reforms as “unintelligible gobbledegook”.

Thus, this Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government wasted £3 billion and caused chaos with a damaging NHS reorganisation that David Cameron promised wouldn’t happen, and that has led to over 4,000 NHS staff being laid off and then rehired, many on six-figure salaries. And these reforms put private profits before patient care, and have tied hospitals up in competition law.
Well, I always knew that David Cameron couldn’t be trusted with our National Health Service. Since his promise to protect the NHS, it’s getting harder to see a GP, there’s a crisis in Accident & Emergency and waiting lists are going up. And, this week, for the first time in more than 30 years, we see nurses, midwives and other professional health staff taking industrial action.
There is a crisis in A&E. In the last 12 months, almost a million people have waited more than four hours to be seen; more people are having to wait on trolleys before being admitted; and more people are being kept in ambulance queues outside A&E. After years of falling waiting lists, because of the investment made in the first decade of this century, waiting lists for treatment are growing again. They’re now at their highest level for five years.  This is being compounded by cuts to elderly care that end up with more older people in A&E and make it harder for them to get the care they need at home.
David Cameron scrapped Labour’s guarantee of a GP appointment within 48 hours – and now 60 per cent of patients report that they can’t get an appointment to see their GP within two days.  But it’s not just speed which is the problem. The latest GP patient survey shows that the proportion of people who can’t regularly see their preferred GP has risen from 34% in 2012 to 39% in 2014 – an increase of 1.2 million people. When will Cameron understand that it’s not just the speed of access declining under this Government but it’s continuity of care too? And, in many parts of the country, we now see treatments like cataract and knee operations being rationed which is particularly hitting the well-being of older citizens.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have been Cameron’s little helpers in undermining people’s experience of and trust in our NHS. And what is UKIP’s answer to these challenges? To introduce a charge – we don’t know whether it would be £15 or £25 – to be paid by everyone each time they visit their GP or hospital.

Labour rescued the NHS IN 1997 after years of Tory neglect before. We’ll clearly have to do it again from 2015.