Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Throwing the toys out of the cot

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was a prime mover in getting international agreement about human rights. This resulted in fundamental human rights being agreed by nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Convention – and the European Court - on Human Rights have absolutely nothing to do with UK’s membership of the European Union.

The Human Rights Act was introduced by Labour in 1998 and came into force in 2000. It effectively enshrines the Convention in UK law.

David Cameron first proposed the idea of a British Bill of Rights in 2006.  The last government established a Commission to look into it. It reported in 2012 but didn’t come to any substantive conclusions. Then there was a document outlining Tory proposals in 2014 and the promise of a draft Bill for 2014. No sign of it – another broken promise. 

The Tory party manifesto promised to “scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK”.

The Queen’s Speech promised to introduce “proposals for a British Bill of Rights”, but the plans are quite unclear. David Cameron has been asked repeatedly about the government’s position on the UK withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and he’s refused to rule it out.

If the UK left the Convention, we would be in the sole company of Belorussia – Europe’s last dictatorship – as the only two countries in Europe not to be signatories. No wonder, there’s a lot of opposition in the Conservative Party. 

The Tories’ plans would not make it easier to deport foreign criminals or address any of the other supposed problems.

Mr Cameron is flouncing around like a petulant child rather than accepting that, in a democracy with an independent judiciary, the judges will sometimes tell you that you’ve got it wrong. The proper response is not to throw your toys out of the cot.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Too much hot air?

Air pollution in the UK results in the premature deaths of at least 29,000 people a year. Air pollution hits the most vulnerable and children hardest. The World Health Organisation warns that air pollution is carcinogenic; it’s the primary environmental cause of cancer.

Because of the coalition government’s failure to act, the date at which the UK is expected to achieve compliance with legal air quality limits was revised from 2020 to 2030 last year.

Action on air pollution has collapsed across the country. There has been no improvement in the UK’s air quality over the last year and almost 90% of the country now exceeds legal air pollution limits.  It is a particular concern in South Yorkshire and especially in my constituency where pollution levels in the areas around the M1 experience extremely poor air quality standards.

Bizarrely, last year, the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment wrote to every local authority where air pollution exceeded legal limits to explain that “ultimate legal responsibility for air pollution lay with local authorities and that any fines levied on the Government would be passed on to them.”

Now, I’m fully in favour of ensuring that local councils are taking the appropriate action to cut air pollution. But, suggesting that Sheffield and Rotherham Councils should pay fines because the UK government wouldn’t act to cut air pollution from the M1 was clearly ridiculous.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled against the Secretary of State and stating that: “The new government should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action, which is achieved by an order that new plans must be delivered to the European Commission not later than 31 December 2015.”

The Government has to reverse its quite irresponsible approach to air pollution and to ensure local people have cleaner air in the shortest time possible.

Last year, it was clear that the Department of Transport just wanted to press ahead with the expansion of the M1 through South Yorkshire and to pay little attention to the consequent air pollution problems. That cannot continue.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Investing for the future?

Back in 1997, the incoming Blair government inherited a legacy of school buildings, many of which were simply unfit. School governors, teachers, children and parents would tell of the daily battle to prevent the rain coming in and the ceiling falling down.

As well as implementing a massive re-building, replacement and major modernisation programme, that government also invested in raising standards. At every level, expectations were raised, programmes were delivered, and achievement and outcomes rose considerably.

During the last Coalition government, thoughtful and considered investment was mainly displaced by Michael Gove’s bellicose statements. Although the pupil premium was welcome, the ideologically-driven and grossly inefficient Free Schools’ programme created more school places in areas which already had surpluses and denied investment in areas where there were simply insufficient and children were being forced to travel many miles to go to school.. 

Mr Gove scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme and replaced it with the Priority Schools Building Programme, with lower space, material and resource standards. He promised 537 new schools. Just 25 have been delivered in 5 years.

Mr Cameron has made much of his promise to protect the funding per pupil over the next parliament. Of course, this is a cash protection promise and it doesn’t include the pupil premium or other school funds; there’s no allowance for inflation, nor is there any allowance for the additional national insurance and pension contributions that will have to be made following other government decisions. 

Taken together, this means an average minimum 10% real cut in school budgets by 2020.
As the Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee concluded:

"You are seeing schools facing up to prospects of deficits unless they don't take significant action to reduce headcount… We will potentially be looking at redundancies in order to cope with the funding pressures."

However, the prospects for Sheffield school budgets are worse. The government has committed to introducing a new national funding formula. Mr Cameron has already promised a redistribution towards rural and southern areas. This inevitably means that the poorest areas nationally will be hit hardest.

Monday, 8 June 2015


David Cameron went into the 2010 General Election promising a larger Army for Britain. Since then, over 12,000 personnel in the Regular Army have been made redundant.

In 2010 he presided over a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that was not strategic at all. Instead of focusing on ensuring we had a strong, high-tech forces equipped to address the threats of the 21st century, it began by asking what could be cut. The failure of that SDSR left us with significant gaps in our military capability and gaps in the Government’s figures and we saw military operations that relied on capabilities that Conservative Ministers told us they had planned to scrap.

We were promised a big increase in highly trained reserve forces. But, between 1 October 2013 and 1 October 2014, the number of trained Army Reserves increased by just 20 – a far cry from David Cameron’s pledge to double the number of Army Reserves to 30,000 by 2018.

All the while, procurement projects continue to be hampered by severe delays and their cost continues to soar, with the taxpayer seemingly picking up the bill for contractors’ failures.

With all of this and then significant reductions in personal allowances and pensions, it is little wonder that morale amongst members of the Armed Forces is declining. A quarter of serving personnel now say they have either handed in their notice or that they want to leave the forces as soon as possible.

Another financially-driven SDSR will result in an even greater strategic vacuum and widening gaps in our military capabilities, and a further erosion of Britain’s role in the world. It is not surprising that our allies are questioning our resolve as well as our capability.

It is clear that the new Conservative government should conduct a strategic review with an open and inclusive national debate on the security and defence challenges facing the country. The review must strategically-driven but financially affordable, focusing on the skills we need as well as the obstacles that impede our Armed Forces from effectively responding to the threats we now face.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Chips with everything!

By April 2016 every dog owner in England will be legally required to have their dog microchipped.

From that date, every puppy born will need to be microchipped by the breeder by the time they are 8 weeks old (other than in exceptional circumstances).

It will also be a requirement for every dog owner to ensure their dog’s microchip details are kept up to date on a government compliant database.

The Kennel Club and other animal welfare organisations have long supported compulsory microchipping in order to aid the reunification of lost dogs with their owners. There have been too many examples of much loved family pets being put down before the owner can be found.

The vast majority of people, including responsible dog-owners, will welcome these new requirements. I rather suspect that they will not be welcomed by irresponsible dog-owners and backyard breeders.

The compulsory microchipping legislation hopes to tackle:

·         The 100,000 dogs that are either stray, lost or stolen each year

·         The huge kennelling costs - Local authorities and welfare charities spending around £57 million          per year on kennelling costs

·         The 50% of strays that cannot be returned because their owners cannot be identified

·         The 6,000 dogs that are put down each year because the owner cannot be found

For these reasons microchipping is already popular amongst the majority of dog owners as it is a safe, quick, painless and cheap procedure.

However, if, for whatever reason, you haven’t had your pet microchipped, this is a timely reminder to do it. And, if you’ve moved home or changed your contact details, have you also remembered to update the database so that you will comply with the law? Do it now.

Whilst we are on the subject of animals and the law, there were a number of things missing from the Queen’s Speech.

David Cameron again promised new laws to ban wild animals in circuses. A Bill was prepared in the last session but never introduced to parliament. I’ll be pursuing him about this.

The Conservative manifesto also committed to giving Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote. No sign of it. Good.

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