Friday, 11 March 2011

Betts slams Pickles over charity funding confusion

The chair of the Commons local government select committee has accused ministers of ‘making it up as they go along’ in their drive to prescribe council funding to the voluntary sector.
Clive Betts wrote to Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles last week calling on him to clarify comments he made recently at a conference. Pickles had declared that Westminster was prepared to legislate immediately to stop councils inflicting ‘disproportionate’ cuts on charities. Pickles has so far failed to respond to Betts’ letter, dated March 4.

But a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government today told Public Finance:  ‘Such changes can potentially be delivered through secondary legislation and statutory guidance – rather than primary legislation. This would be quicker to implement.’ But it is unclear whether the Localism Bill as it currently stands would permit such powers, or whether an additional clause would be required. 

Speaking to PF today, Betts said: ‘I think they are making it up as they go along... This leaves it as cloudy and confused as ever. It’s really unhelpful for local authorities and voluntary bodies trying to draw up their budgets.’

Pickles originally set out the idea during a speech at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual conference on March 1. He said: ‘It is reasonable to expect that councils will not pass on disproportionate cuts to local voluntary and community groups, that they will not inflict bigger reductions to your budgets than they take on themselves... If councils are being high-handed, I'll consider giving our reasonable expectations statutory force.’

Local government minister Greg Clark later threw up confusion about what exactly was meant by ‘unreasonable’ when in a statement to the Commons this week he claimed: ‘The worst-run councils are targeting the [voluntary] sector for cuts’. This was at odds with Sheffield City Council, in Betts’ own constituency, which Pickles had recently praised for prudent budgeting yet was making a 15% cut in cash terms to its total grant for voluntary organisations.
Betts said it was ‘totally unreasonable and unfair’ not to spell out further details at a time when councils and voluntary sector organisations were finalising their budgets.
The Labour MP added: ‘It sits along with telling local authorities how often they should empty their bins. It’s simply not localism, it’s telling them what to do. ‘ 

NCVO deputy chief executive Ben Kernighan said: ‘It will be useful for DCLG to clarify their plans, and we await developments with interest.’

In his letter to Pickles, Betts wrote: ‘If, as you suggest, you intend to legislate on this issue in the Localism Bill with such provisions to have effect in 2011/12, surely it is incumbent on you to announce the detail of such proposals immediately in order that local authorities can take account of them in setting their budgets for next year. I believe members, across all parties, would expect a very early announcement of the details of your intention with regard to the funding of the voluntary sector if there is not to be chaos in budgetary decisions by councils and to avoid further chaos in the budgetary and service decisions by voluntary organisations throughout England.’

Housing Finance

Today I have tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the government to allow local authorities to keep 100% of right to buy receipts for reinvestment locally.

There has been all-party support for the reform of council housing finance, which was announced by the previous Labour government and has been continued by the Conservative-led coalition.

However, this government is now proposing that councils should not have the ability to retain and re-invest the receipts from the sales of any council homes. Further, it is intending to take total control of what should be local decision-making by replacing the current framework of prudential financial guidelines.

I believe that these proposals run completely counter to the principles of the Localism agenda and to the other measures to reform council housing finance.

I believe there will be wide cross-party support for our proposals which are the most conducive to councils' abilities to maintain existing housing and provide new homes. We know this has cross-party support in the Local Government Association.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Pickles stays strangely silent voluntary sector funding

Clive Betts MP and Chair, Select Committee on Communities and Local Government said today that Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had remained strangely silent about his intentions since threatening to introduce legislation to proscribe council funding of the voluntary sector.

Clive Betts said today:

“I wrote to Eric Pickles a week ago after he announced that he was prepared to take immediate steps to legislate to stop "disproportionate" cuts being inflicted on charities.

I told him that I believed Members of Parliament, across all parties, would expect a very early announcement of the details of his intentions if there was not to be chaos in budgetary decisions by councils and to avoid further chaos in the budgetary and service decisions by voluntary organisations throughout England.

I also pointed out the contradictions between Ministerial statements that ‘the worst-run councils are targeting the sector for disproportionate cuts’ when, at the same time, he is specifically naming for praise certain councils – like Sheffield City Council – which are making a 19% real terms cut in grant aid to the voluntary sector.

It’s time for him to come clean.”

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Betts slams Lib Dem Minister on security of tenure

Clive Betts MP [Sheffield South East] today said that LibDem Communities’ Minister’s proposals to remove security of tenure for existing tenants were disgraceful.

During discussions on the Localism Bill yesterday, Liberal Democrat Communities Minister Andrew Stunell suggested discretion on retaining security of tenure when existing tenants move home ‘should be available to landlords’.

Clive Betts said today
“I am opposed in principle to the Tory-led coalition’s proposals to remove security of tenure from tenants. But, until now, the Housing Minister Grant Shapps has consistently promised that the proposals would not remove security of tenure from existing tenants. Now, it is clear that this promise is going to be broken.

This is a double whammy particularly for elderly tenants. They are already facing cuts in their housing benefit to try to force them to move to a smaller home. But now they are being told that if they move, they will lose their security of tenure which could lead to their new smaller home simply being taken off them.”

Clive Betts continued:
“This is absolutely disgraceful. Across the city, we have elderly tenants who have lived in the same home for 40 years or more. They’ve paid their rent on time. They’ve always maintained their homes and gardens. They’ve brought up their families there. Despite their children having grown up and moved on, they still like to have the room for their children and grand-children to stay.

But, if they are in receipt of housing benefit – as many are because, despite working all their lives, they only have a small private pension – they are being forced financially to move to a smaller home.

But now, this Liberal Democrat Minister is telling them that if they do move, they will lose their security of tenure.”

Clive Betts continued:
“But this policy will also hit those elderly people who do want to move to somewhere smaller. They’re being told “Move if you like, but we’re not going to give you any security so that you can stay in your new home.

As well as being monstrous, this proposal is counter-productive. It will dissuade elderly people from moving to a smaller home which would free up a house for a young family.

It is absolutely clear that the Government is hell-bent on maximising rents for landlords at the expense of stable communities.”

Monday, 7 March 2011

Suffer the children?

Several years ago, I found myself in a debate about the role of the state in bringing up children. What I mean by ‘the state’ is the ‘big British family’, where we decide together what we need to do to ensure that each and every child is given the opportunity to realise her or his potential.

One Conservative MP was insistent in his view that the sole responsibility for bringing up children rested with parents and that the only time ‘the state’ should become involved was where there were allegations of child cruelty. He was prepared to accept the state offering a health visiting service – to identify any early development issues – and a place at school until 16, but nothing more. He called everything else ‘part of the nanny state’ to which he was totally opposed.

Following the debate, it didn’t take much investigation to discover that this MP had employed full-time nannies for his young children and then, when they reached five years old, had them whisked off to boarding school until they were eighteen. Further, as he came from an independently wealthy family, he’d had exactly the same experience as a child. To me, this seemed less like taking parental responsibility than contracting it out.

I was reminded of this because the outcomes of a number of the current government’s policies seem to be at total variance with their stated objective of supporting families.

Despite all the statements about ‘supporting families through the tax system’, we now discover that the effect of recent government tax and benefit decisions will result, on average, in a couple with children being £1500 worse off this year - more than double the loss of a couple without children.

And last week, despite the Prime Minister’s personal promise to protect and build on Sure Start, we learned that government funding for Sure Start is going to be cut by an average £50 per child throughout the country next year, with the poorest areas getting a cut of £100 per child. Overall, funding for ‘early intervention’ services will be down by 22% next year.

It’s rather difficult to reconcile the government rhetoric with the reality. Not only will families with children be financially hit the hardest, but they’ll also lose the collective support we give them to give each and every child the best chance in life.

These children are the ones on whom our future economy depends and whose support we need in our old age. So, it’s not just suffer the little children now, but long-term damage to the social and economic health of our country.