Friday, 6 December 2013

Private rented housing

The private rented sector is growing. Between 1999 and 2011/12, the number of households renting privately increased from around two million to 3.8 million.

More people now rent privately than live in social housing. Yet the market is still relatively immature and too often fails to offer what renters require.

For example, the predominance of the standard six-month tenancy agreement is becoming increasingly unsuitable for many in the sector, including a growing number of families who require a stable home to develop community links and from which their children can attend school.

In July, following a six-month inquiry during which we received evidence from nearly 200 individuals and organisations, my committee published its wide-ranging report on the private rented sector. The report contained a number of recommendations to the Government on how to improve private renting.
Government responses to our reports can sometimes be disheartening. I was therefore pleased to see the Government embrace so much of what we said on private renting, not least in its proposal for a tenants' charter, which although perhaps not going as far as I would like, is a step in the right direction.

The Government's decision to conduct a review into the rules around carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms is also welcome. Moreover, I am pleased that it intends to examine whether rent repayment orders could be used to claw back rent or housing benefit payments from landlords renting properties found to have serious health and safety risks.

We could not see why a minority of landlords who had little concern for the safety and wellbeing of their tenants should be subsidised by the taxpayer.

The Government still, however, rejected a number of our calls for action. In particular, it missed a key opportunity to give local authorities the powers and freedoms they need to raise standards in their areas.

Councils are already working hard to improve life for those living in the private rented sector. We were impressed, for example, when we visited Leeds in May, by the steps the city council was taking to raise standards in the sector.  There were a number of strands to its approach. These included a voluntary landlord accreditation scheme, which has not only helped to educate members of the scheme about their responsibilities but drive out some bad landlords as tenants moved to the better landlords.
Leeds had also introduced selective licensing in the Cross Green area of the city, leading to a number of prosecutions, reduced anti-social behaviour, and an improved local environment. And it had begun to target neighbourhoods on a street-by-street basis, inspecting properties and providing help, advice and support.

Leeds had achieved these commendable improvements under the current law, but much more could be done if they, and other councils, had greater flexibility.

One of the criticisms of voluntary accreditation is that the worst landlords do not join the schemes, and therefore do not have to meet the standards required. Why not then give councils the power to make accreditation compulsory?

We also heard from Leeds about the bureaucracy around selective licensing: developing the business case and getting it approved had cost the council around £100,000. Other councils told us that they could not introduce such a scheme because their areas did not meet the criteria of low demand or high anti-social behaviour.

Under a localist approach, councils should be given much more discretion over how and when selective licensing can be introduced.

Discretion in the use of powers should be matched with greater freedom in the use of resources. Many hard-pressed councils are struggling to meet the costs of their enforcement work. In its response, the Government accepted that landlords sometimes avoided prosecution because the costs of the council taking them to court were too high.

It was concerned, however, that "over-zealous" councils would issue fines as a way of generating revenue. This belies a lack of trust in councils and contradicts the Government's claims to be localist.
Councils should have greater ability to generate their own resources and should be trusted in doing so. One option would be for them to be given the ability to impose penalty charges for certain breaches without automatic recourse to court action.

There is much to be welcomed in the Government's response to our report.  However, more action is needed if we are to raise standards across the private rented sector and it is to become a viable alternative to owner occupation. A more localist approach, with greater freedoms for councils, is a good place to start.

This article was first published on the Local Government Association Website on 05/12/13

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Credit where credit’s due

The government has announced that it intends to legislate to cap the cost of credit.

This is a massive u-turn by George Osborne who has persistently refused to act as pay-day loan companies have charged interest rates of 4000% and more to the most desperate lenders.

Credit for this change is substantially due to MPs of all parties who have been campaigning to stop the obscene charges and interest rates being charged on these loans. In particular, I want to credit my Sheffield Central colleague, Paul Blomfield MP, who gathered large parliamentary support for his High Cost Credit Bill only to see it blocked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in July.

That Bill also gathered big support from outside Parliament, from organisations like Citizens Advice Bureaux, Which and the Women’s Institute. But, instead of being downhearted when the Bill was blocked, the campaign continued with A Charter to Stop the Payday Loan Rip-off, which got even bigger support. Perhaps it was the scale of that lobby which eventually forced change, against George Osborne’s ideological belief that ‘the market should decide’.

Obviously, we will now have to wait to see the detail of what the government is actually proposing. We should expect that the proposals will address all the issues set out in the Charter. We need regulation, and then enforcement, of payday lenders to:

  • stop them giving loans to people who can’t realistically afford to pay them back
  • stop them repeatedly rolling over loans and creating spiralling debt
  • stop hidden or excessive charges
  • stop them raiding borrowers’ bank accounts without their knowledge and leaving them in hardship
  • stop irresponsible advertising and instead provide clear and transparent information
  • require lenders to promote free and independent debt advice, and ensure they co-operate with other services to help people get out of debt.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Not a sure start………

The day before the last general election, when asked for a guarantee that Surestart centres would continue to receive funding, David Cameron said he backed Surestart and that it was a disgrace for anyone to suggest that he would be cutting childcare support.
'Sure Start will stay, and we’ll improve it. We will keep flexible working, and extend it' he said.

Unfortunately, since 2010, parents have faced a childcare crunch with costs up by 30%, while hundreds of Sure Start centres have already closed and many more are likely to close over the next year. Even in the Prime Minister’s own Oxfordshire backyard, 37 Sure Start centres have been earmarked for closure.

It’s important to understand the scale of the childcare crunch of the last 3 years:
  • the cost of nursery places has risen by 30% - five times faster than pay
  • the average bill for a part time nursery place of 25 hours a week has gone up to £107.
  • parents working part time on average wages now have to work from Monday until Thursday before they have paid off their weekly childcare costs. 
  • there are 576 fewer Sure Start centres – with three being lost on average every week.
  • there are 35,000 fewer childcare places
  • the Government’s offer of childcare for some 2-year-olds is failing with 1 in 3 councils not having enough places

All this has taken place during a period when the number of under-4 children in England has risen by 125,000. 

But it isn’t just the parents of pre-school children who are being squeezed. Before 2010, 99% of schools provided access to breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. But more than a third of councils have reported that this is being scaled back in their areas.

These cuts in services and big hikes in charges have come as people have desperately searched for jobs – often part-time – which necessarily require access to affordable childcare.

That’s why I’m backing Ed Miliband’s plan to:

  • extend free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four year-olds, funded by increasing the banking levy
  • introduce a legal guarantee of access to wraparound care 8am to 6pm at primary schools

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Just making it up?

I’m having a little problem with David Cameron at the moment.

In October, on a BBC's Sunday Politics programme, Mr Cameron said that the additional cuts that local councils will have to make as a result of George Osborne’s latest spending review announcement were ‘relatively modest…. just 2.3%

Nobody knows where that figure has come from. It’s wildly different from the estimates of the independent experts, who suggest that the additional cut is nearer to 10%. The Treasury and Department of Communities and Local Government both refuse to comment.

So, nearly a month ago, I wrote to Mr Cameron to ask him to explain his statement. No 10 responded quickly saying that Mr Cameron was asking a Treasury Minister to respond. Needless to say, there has been no response, so I’ve had to write to Mr Cameron again asking him to explain.

Is it unreasonable for me to think that the reason for the failure to respond is that the 2.3% figure is an invention? I don’t think so. Mr Cameron has ‘form’ for telling porkies – it’s the parliamentary equivalent of a long criminal record!

Last week, all his speeches were wiped from the Conservative Party’s website – presumably to stop people contrasting the promises he’s made with what he’s delivered.

For example, he’s told us:
  • We’re paying down Britain’s debts.” – when debt will have risen 60% under his stewardship
  • We will have a bigger army for a safer Britain” – when he’s cutting 7000 soldiers
  • It’s just plain wrong to say that this government is cutting benefits for disabled children by over £1,300 a year” – when the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed it is
  • We will stop top-down reorganisations of the NHS” – and then undertook the biggest top-down reorganisation costing £3bn.

It was also revealed last week that pensioners in England face paying more than £150,000 for their residential care before they hit the so-called 'cap' on care costs. This is more than double the £72,000 which Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg have previously claimed as the maximum. In fact, it’s even worse at £159,000 in Yorkshire and Humberside and more than £190,000 in the East Midlands.

Analysis shows that more than nine out of ten elderly people in the region will have died before they reach the 'cap'. Older people and their families deserve better than to be conned in such an underhanded way. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

On probation

The work of the Probation Service gets little publicity when it is done successfully, but is thrust into the spotlight when something goes wrong.

However, re-offending rates are too high and more needs to be done to improve rehabilitation and break the cycle of re-offending. All the research demonstrates that success is built on partnership working between agencies - public, private and voluntary - and on the strength of the relationships between dedicated probation staff and individual offenders.

So, what are we to make of the government forcing through a wholesale privatisation of probation at breakneck speed, trying to avoid proper scrutiny and ignoring its own risk assessment which highlights major concerns with its proposals? Be alert that the government wants private companies to take over the supervision of nearly 9 out of 10 offenders released from prison or undertaking community sentences, including those convicted of domestic violence, burglary, robbery, violence against the person and sexual offences.

First, do we trust the Minister? He is Chris Grayling, who set up and forced through the massively failing Work Programme on the same payment-by-results basis. He has a track record of ignoring inconvenient facts, but being driven by ideology. Or, as he put it “Sometimes we just have to believe something is right and do it”.

Secondly, pilot schemes of these proposals were cancelled by Mr Grayling in his first week in the job. As the Economist magazine put it: “If the Work Programme fails, the cost is higher unemployment; if rehabilitation of offenders fails, the cost is worse: more crime: which is why those now-disregarded pilots were set up in the first place”

Thirdly, the list of private companies who are gearing to hoover up these contracts is dominated by the usual suspects, including G4S and Serco.

You will remember that G4S massively failed at the London Olympics, with security services having to be rescued by the police and armed forces. Further, it has already been found to have billed the government for tracking offenders who were dead, abroad or in prison, and is now the subject of a criminal fraud investigation. And, as I write, in the high court, Mr Justice Mostyn has referred a number of G4S employees for prosecution for forgery and contempt of court in a "truly shocking" case of what he called disgraceful behaviour. Similarly, the Serious Fraud Office has opened a criminal investigation into Serco's electronic monitoring contracts after it was found to have overcharged by millions of pounds for work it could not have done. Astonishingly, Mr Grayling has refused to rule G4S and Serco out of this process.

Under these proposals, it is inevitable that both national and local charities which play a significant role in crime prevention and resettlement of offenders will be totally squeezed out of the service in exactly the same way that they have been in the Work Programme.

Fourthly, because private companies delivering public services are exempt from the Freedom of Information legislation, they can’t be held to account for any failings in the same way that the current probation service can.

Fifthly, it is clear that the government is also trying to hide as much information as it can. For example, it simply refused to say how many offenders these proposals would affect. However, my Labour colleagues submitted Freedom of Information requests to all Probation Trusts in England and discovered that more than 200,000 offenders are covered, including more than 7500 in South Yorkshire, 3500 in Derbyshire and nearly 10,000 in Nottinghamshire.

Sixthly, by its own admission, the government has absolutely no idea how much this will cost. And, despite Ministers claiming this is a “payment only on delivery” system, we now learn that companies will still receive at least 90% of their fee whether they deliver or not.

Seventh, given the way the contracts have been designed, it is inevitable that – just like the Work Programme – companies will focus on the easiest cases and simply park the more complex and difficult offenders, increasing the risk to the public.

Eighth, the proposals create a suffocating bureaucracy between service providers for those offenders – some 25% of the total - whose risk level significantly fluctuates during the period of their supervision. It’s not only bureaucratic and costly, it provides a platform for buck-passing.

My view is that no government should be taking such a reckless approach to public safety. Handing over supervision for serious and violent offenders to the same companies that time and again let down the taxpayer is a recipe for disaster.
People need to be confident that those offenders under supervision in our local communities are not part of some giant ideological experiment.

We should all be worried that the Government have not brought their plans before Parliament to enable proper scrutiny. Instead, it has chosen to rush ahead at breakneck speed and impose its completely untried and untested privatisation on every community.

I strongly support carefully planned and monitored innovative work in our Probation Services – this privatisation isn’t. I am happy to support an approach that allowed faster sharing of best practice as well as even more collaboration with other providers -   this privatisation isn’t.

Rushing headlong into change, with no evidence to support it, is simply irresponsible.

Monday, 4 November 2013


In 2010 the Government announced its intention to pilot Community Budgets as a method of integrating public services. It wasted time and effort by trying to re-invent a similar programme it had inherited.

Basically, Community Budgeting recognises that, if you are going to provide the best services, there must be freedom to redesign services locally. This follows through the policy of best value – focused on continual improvement to provide services that are efficient, effective, equitable and responsive. However, to achieve that, all the players have to be committed, flexible and willing to give up power and resources to get the best outcomes. 

This doesn’t happen easily. There are cultural barriers to overcome at all levels of government and their agencies - as well as service users and voluntary organisations –and new systems to put in place. The challenge of doing this in the current economic and financial climate conditions cannot be underestimated.

The all-party Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has been reviewing the government’s pilots. These were four 'Whole Place' Community Budgets and ten 'Neighbourhood' Community Budget areas. We also looked at the progress of the Troubled Families Programme, the priorities of which—turning around "troubled families" by integrating public services and tailoring them to families—came out of the Community Budget programme.

We found that the pilots are already demonstrating the clear potential to facilitate cheaper, more integrated and more effective public services. However, achieving that potential requires strong local leadership and a commitment from central government to facilitate local flexibility. It also requires a framework for agreements on sharing the benefits of investment.

Getting the biggest benefits will also require risk-taking – including the risk of failing occasionally. There isn’t a successful company in the world which, even after doing all the essential research and analysis, doesn’t occasionally get a product wrong and have to withdraw it and go back to the drawing-board. Public services are no different, but politicians, the public and the media have to be a bit more grown-up about this. There aren’t any successful organisations which rely on a blame culture.

You can read more about the Committee’s findings at:

Monday, 28 October 2013

Trusted with our NHS?

Back in 2010, David Cameron told us how he could be trusted with the NHS. All the evidence now tells us that he was wrong. The NHS is going backwards:
  • Accident and Emergency is already in crisis with almost 1 million patients waiting longer than 4 hours in A&E over the last 12 months.
  • There are over 5,000 fewer nurses since 2010
  • £3 billion has been wasted on a reorganisation nobody wanted and nobody voted for.
The government has completely lost its way on public health
  • David Cameron promised to get tough on smoking but, instead, just caved in to big tobacco and vested interests.
  • 41 organisations have quit the Government’s public health responsibility deal, including Cancer Research UK and the Faculty of Public Health
 The government is now planning a massive switch of health resources from north to south, from urban to rural and from the poorest to the wealthiest communities. This month, University of Liverpool researchers said the proposals would penalise
  • areas where people die earliest
  • places with the worst quality of life
  • areas hit hardest by council cuts 
Prof. Paul Johnstone, Public Health England’s regional director in the North, confirms that the biggest causes of early death under the age of 75 in England are cancer, heart disease and stroke, lung and liver disease, with figures showing most areas of the North are worst hit by premature deaths. Eleven out of 15 council areas in Yorkshire have among the worst rates of premature death from lung disease in the country and nine out of 15 have among the worst records on early deaths from heart disease and cancer. Five out of the 15 have the among the worst records on early deaths from liver disease

Yet the Yorkshire Post confirms that every part of the NHS in Yorkshire would lose out under the changes, costing the region £416m in total and the North £722m overall. Sheffield alone would lose health funding of nearly £50m every year to healthier and wealthier communities in the south.

And Cameron and Clegg continue to break their promises on transparency by:
  • still refusing to publish the NHS Risk Register
  • resorting to unprecedented measures to cover up the warnings they were given about their reckless re-organisation.
  • refusing to extend Freedom of Information legislation to cover private providers delivering NHS services, against the recommendations of the regulator, Monitor.

Do I trust them with the NHS? No.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Where do we go from here?

Picture the public meeting. It’s been a rumbustious, packed, session with strong views being forcibly expressed throughout. The meeting’s chair is desperately trying to end the acrimony, find some common cause and bring the meeting to a close.

The advice I would give the chair at this point is “Whatever else you may be thinking, do NOT say ‘Now, where do we go from here?’” I can guarantee that the audience will tell you where to go…. and the route, destination and the method of transport are all likely to be unpleasant!

It seems that British Gas and its highly-paid PR agency have not learned this basic lesson.

Ed Miliband put cost-of-living and, particularly, energy prices centre-stage in the political debate last month. Cameron and Clegg have been all over the place in trying to position their responses, at the same time as they are having a big internal row over renewable and nuclear energy. And John Major has now waded in to the fray, saying energy price hikes and record energy company profits should get the response of a windfall tax.

But what did BG do?

First, it unveiled a 10.4% rise in electricity prices and an 8.4% increase in the gas tariff from 23 November. The announcement itself was rather like lighting the blue touch-paper of a massive unstable firework. Consumers and politicians alike didn’t just stand and watch. They all exploded in response, especially as Centrica (BG’s owner) had pledged earlier this year to use windfall profits from last winter to keep prices down.

Then, instead of taking stock, BG took to Twitter and turned the dreadful announcement into a complete PR disaster as well. It invited comments from customers. Inevitably, nearly 16,000 customers told BG precisely where it could go.
BG’s stupidity and insensitivity was compounded by its inability, or unwillingness, to answer customers’ questions about the price hikes.

And, what was Liberal Democrat Energy Minister Ed Davey’s response to this?  ‘Customers should shop around’, he said. Seemingly, he had forgotten that he’d made the very same suggestion a week earlier when SSE hiked its prices. Customers had followed his advice and switched to… you’ve guessed it……British Gas. 

I’m just waiting for him to ask ‘where should I go from here?

Monday, 14 October 2013

Not listening on anti-social behaviour

Back in June this year I wrote:

“Vandalism, dangerous dogs and nuisance neighbours make families’ lives a misery. People want to know that if they are a victim of crime - or if they are being regularly harassed by yobs on their street - then the police will have the power and capability to restore peace as quickly and efficiently as possible. That’s why I strongly supported the measures – new laws, new penalties, additional resources – that Tony Blair’s government committed to the fight against crime and anti-social behaviour and, as a result, it fell considerably.

But, as I’ve argued before, I’m worried the clock is now being turned back. I make no apology for returning to the issue because it is so important. On top of big cuts to neighbourhood police, the Cameron/Clegg coalition wants to weaken police powers to fight anti-social behaviour. I’m clear that they need to rethink these policies, as we need stronger action against crime instead of their weak approach.”

Since then, colleagues and I have consistently told Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers that they are making it harder to fight antisocial behaviour and, unbelievably, wasting money in the process. We are not alone. 8 out of 10 people told the Office of National Statistics that antisocial behaviour had got worse in the last year.

Weakening antisocial behaviour powers is going to lead to lost police officer time
And the government is creating red tape to make it harder for the police and local councils to get CCTV will cost between £14m and £29m. – not my figures, but the government’s own assessment. The low estimate is equivalent to taking 400 police officers on the beat to deal with the new bureaucracy.

The Government’s proposed Community Trigger is weak, ineffective and doesn’t do what it says on the tin. In the pilot areas, the Trigger has been successfully activated just 13 times from a reported 44,011 antisocial behaviour incidents.

And the government is being far too weak on dangerous dogs. Scotland has already introduced Dog Control Notices which can enforce:
  • Muzzling the dog whenever it is in a place to which the public have access;
  • Keeping the dog on a lead whenever it is in a place to which the public have access;
  • If the dog is male, neutering it; and
  • The owner and their dog being required to attend and complete a training course in the control of dogs.

Why is the government not listening, when it could save money and provide far better protections for local people and communities?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Water, water

From a particularly mild and warm autumn, it appears that colder and wetter weather is now on the way. It’s timely, therefore, to reflect on water.

First, the water we do want. We should continue to celebrate the fact that we have permanent access – apart from the occasional hiccup -to fresh, clean, wholesome water, a situation not enjoyed by most of the world’s population.  But, are we now paying more than we should be?

Rising water bills are making their own contribution to David Cameron’s growing cost-of-living crisis. Water prices have risen faster than in any other major economy. The average cost of water bills rose by 3.8% in April 2013 to £388. According to OFWAT, more than 2.26 million UK households now spend more than 5% of their disposable income on water.

Yet, the water companies appear to be making exceptional profits whilst ducking their tax obligations. In September, Yorkshire Water revealed that it had made £186m profit last year, but not paid a penny in corporation tax. Severn Trent paid out dividends of almost £160m last year, as well as paying its chief executive more than £1m. David Cameron’s coalition government seems to have no interest in tackling rising water bills, so it will be left to some of us to try to keep this issue in the spotlight.

Then, there’s the water we don’t want. The 2012 Climate Change Risk Assessment said that flooding is the greatest environmental threat to the UK. For many of us in South Yorkshire and North East Derbyshire, the devastating 2007 floods remain in focus. And 8000 homes were flooded last year. Yet, in the comprehensive spending review, the government cut the flood capital budget by 27%, whilst the government itself estimates that the number of people at significant risk of flooding will double to at least 2m by 2020.  So the government is now planning to invest £138m less in 2015 than the minimum investment its own experts have said is required. That’s not clever.

And now we learn that, after the near collapse of the flood insurance negotiations, the government hasn’t done a deal, but has reached a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the insurance industry. Some homes and businesses have been totally excluded from the arrangements, and the government itself says that it is more than likely that the scheme will run out of money in the first 20 years, so expect higher premiums.

Get the sandbags ready.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Not picture perfect

Last week, the Conservative Party unveiled a photograph of its MPs, which was promoted as the first ever picture of the Conservative parliamentary party in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

However, the photo was not all that it seemed. It didn’t take long before it was revealed that several of the MPs apparently smiling along with the Prime Minister were not actually there when the photograph was taken. Clearly photo-shopping is not just for fashion magazines.

Actually, it struck me that photo-shopping accurately sums up David Cameron’s whole approach to promoting his policies. Unlike Nick Clegg, who is perfectly happy to promise something he has no intention of keeping – like student fees, Cameron presents enough verifiable information to make you believe he’s presenting an accurate picture, whilst hoping to get away with ignoring key facts and issues which fatally undermine his case. Let’s take a few examples from the last week.

David Cameron has consistently told us how the steps he has taken will secure a range of Conservative parliamentary candidates for the next general election which is more representative. Now we learn that, of the 48 aspiring MPs chosen to fight the election to date, only 14 – less than one in three – are female and just one is from an ethnic minority background.

Then he said that Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze was ludicrous and unaffordable before, a few days’ later, revealing that George Osborne is going to announce parallel proposals in the Autumn Statement – presumably these will be unaffordable too?

Once, David Cameron was telling us all about his intention to ‘hug a hoodie’, when actually we can now see that his real intention was to make them homeless. According to the latest statistics, 16 to 24-year-olds have lost services worth 28 per cent of their income since 2010 and the announcements made at Conservative Conference will push that far higher.

And then there’s Help to Buy, which Cameron presents as helping those on lower incomes to get on the property ladder. Leaving aside the almost universal criticism, across the political and economic spectrum, that fuelling inflation in an already over-valued market is dangerous, we now learn more about the details. Those purchasing the lowest valued homes and having the least available deposit will pay significantly more than those getting help to buy a home worth £600,000. Clearly, it’s that latter group, who would need an annual income approaching £150,000, who Mr Cameron believes is most worthy of support and subsidy.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Bunk up or bunk off?

Cameron and Clegg’s bedroom tax is a classic example of a policy which, superficially, looks logical but, in practice, is pernicious.

Many councils and housing associations had schemes which encouraged and sensitively enabled people to move to smaller accommodation when they were ready to do so. But now the carrots have been thrown away and been replaced by a tax stick.

If the alleged justification for the bedroom tax is principled – ‘we shouldn’t be subsidising a spare room’ – you only have to ask why the policy doesn’t apply to pensioners to see that that line doesn’t stack up.

The government has been desperate to present an image of those being hit by the tax as single idlers rattling around in large houses. The truth is very different. 416,000 of the 660,000 households being hit have a resident with a disability, including more than 75,000 in Yorkshire and Humberside and the East Midlands.

The other argument for the bedroom tax is that it will free up accommodation for other families. Except that in most areas there simply isn’t smaller accommodation that can be offered. And now we’re healing squeals from Conservative MPs saying that rural areas should be exempt from the bedroom tax because there is little alternative accommodation – but that’s no less true in urban areas.

Where there is some accommodation, it is mostly in the private sector with higher rents than the property being vacated, which defeats the government’s objective of saving money. In fact, there is now a real risk that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. The National Audit Office says that the government has got its sums wrong.

The real cost of the bedroom tax is overwhelmingly going to be paid by households containing households with disabilities. On average, they will lose £720 a year. Most of the small minority who can move will have to shell out a small fortune in removal and re-settlement costs. But there’s a lot more pain than just the cost. The Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation has described the policy as “an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families.”

The best way of tackling the growing housing crisis is to build more affordable homes to buy and to let, not by penalising those households who have the least choice.


While the summer can often be a quiet time for the news cycle, it would appear that Eric Pickles has been trying to break the monotony with a range of tips for councils

First, he told us about the support for local high streets, and announced ‘dedicated teams of experts’ to assist local leaders. Now, on that very same day, the CLG Committee took evidence from Mary Portas, the government-appointed high street renewal guru, backed with £1.2m for Portas Pilots. Strangely, we learn that, despite her requests, Ms Portas has never met Mr Pickles and she knew absolutely nothing about the new training and mentoring proposals. How curious?

Then, he moved on to parking. Mr Pickles’ has an ambition for ‘shoppers to have a 15 minute grace period to park on double yellow lines without penalty’. The proposal has been condemned by a wide range of organizations, but this wasn’t mentioned. He referred rather disparagingly to the income that councils receive from parking charges and fines. Yet, that same day, the Federation of Small Businesses published its research on this issue, which confirmed that such income has actually fallen in real terms over the last 5 years.

As he directed public anger towards parking policies and traffic wardens, one might have thought that Mr Pickles would be desperate to draw our attention to the one council, Aberystwyth, that axed its traffic wardens to save money and to placate the drivers who railed against them. Of course, within 6 months - after parking chaos, road rage and fisticuffs, congestion and regular gridlocks – everyone was demanding their return. Perhaps that explains the silence?

Mr Pickles then turned his attention to the fire service…. or rather, firefighters’ pensions. Not unimportant, of course. However, there was complete silence about the scale of the cuts being made in fire service cover throughout the country. How curious?

Next, Mr Pickles told us about his planned tax changes for granny annexes. Gosh, it’s great news, he told us, for all those households – nearly all in the top council tax bands and containing quite a few mansions – who will receive an average near £500 cut in council tax. However, he was completely silent about the higher council tax bills being imposed on millions of the poorest families by cutting funding for council tax benefit. Why, I wondered?

Then he turned his attention to those naughty councils that had increased their cash reserves. Mind you, he didn’t mention that reserves had fallen in a quarter of councils, nor that the vast majority of the increased total related to already ear-marked schemes. Never mind, perhaps he missed the comments of CIPFA and other professional bodies which didn’t share his perspective.

Of course, his support for coastal towns is welcome; that extra 5% in the £29m fund could make all the difference. But, for some reason there was no mention of the huge additional challenges facing many of those coastal towns – especially in Essex and Kent – which have suddenly found themselves having to cope with an influx of households being forced out of central London by benefit changes.

Then, why not raise a glass to celebrate that 100 pubs have been listed as assets of community value? Let’s just forget that, over the past 2 years, the number of pub closures has risen from 12 to 18 a week, and more than 200 pubs have been turned into shops.

We should all welcome the increase in new home starts. But, there’s no reference to his decision to cut the budget for investment in affordable housing by 60%, nor that housing completions are at their peacetime lowest level since the 1920s.

More worryingly, Mr Pickles is lauding the Help to Buy scheme. Why is it that just about every serious research body, right across the political spectrum, is unanimous in saying not just that this scheme is wrong, but that it’s positively dangerous? The very last thing we should be doing is fueling inflation in a still over-priced market and, thus, actually disabling even more families from becoming owner-occupiers.

Of course, I’m pleased that Mr Pickles is helping a few councils with homelessness. But, why no acknowledgement that homelessness is on an upward trend as a direct result of the policies he’s implemented?

Unsurprisingly, last year’s obsession with refuse collection made a re-appearance. But, I searched in vain for the sentence “I’ve wasted a quarter of a billion pounds of public money trying to persuade councils to move back to weekly rubbish collections, but only one did so.”

Who said the summer can be a dull time for news?

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Say one thing, do another

Up and down the country, we are beginning to see the real implications of the massive cuts that the government has made in local government funding. This month’s announcements about the closures of libraries, swimming pools, SureStart centres are just the start. The biggest funding cuts are still to come and, over the summer, Eric Pickles quietly announced a further £1bn cut in council funding.

Service cuts and increased charges for services are taking place in councils of all political controls and none. To those who suggest that ‘there wouldn’t be these problems if politics was taken out of local government’, I simply note that the councils closest to financial meltdown are controlled by Independents.

However, the government has been determinedly political in making the funding cuts. Millions of pounds are being switched from north to south, from urban to rural, and from the poorest to the wealthiest areas. But even that isn’t stopping service cuts in southern Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils, which rather gives the lie to suggestions that the cuts arise from political incompetence or perversity.

This switch is also being forced through in other spending areas. Last year, the government tried to make the same sort of funding changes in the NHS. Leading doctors managed to block the proposals, saying that the proposed changes were completely unjustified on health grounds. That hasn’t stopped the government trying again this year. It intends to cut nearly £50m a year from the NHS in Sheffield and give it to Surrey – a proposal supported by Nick Clegg, somewhat undermining his thin claim to be standing up for the city.

However, I will support Nick Clegg’s proposal to provide free school meals to 5 and 6 year olds. What observers might find strange is that when councils like Hull and Southwark provided free school meals, local Liberal Democrats described it as “disgraceful profligacy” and, when they took control of those councils, stopped the provision altogether. Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes twittered that the policy was “wasting extraordinary amounts”. At least we know that ‘Say one thing, do another’ is safe in Mr Clegg’s hands.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Their Red tape, your wages and rights?

It is being suggested that Whitehall departments will be legally obliged to scrap red tape and that ministers would be required to scrap twice as many existing rules for any new rule they wished to introduce.

Of course, there have been more announcements about ‘crusades against red tape’ than Frank Sinatra had final tours. And, it is absolutely correct that, where rules or regulations are unnecessary or counter-productive, we should do away with them. For that, we need to be ever vigilant.

Last November, the Government claimed that an initial “one in, one out” rule for new Whitehall regulation introduced in January 2011 had reduced the costs on businesses by almost £1 billion. It wasn’t true. David Cameron followed that by claiming that red tape should be attacked with the same vigour as “beating Hitler”. He hasn’t.

Enshrining it in law will test the Government’s rhetoric on reducing the regulatory burden to the limit. As one insider put it “The key question is what is regarded as a regulation. The Treasury likes to pretend that changes to the tax code are not red tape although they provoke the most complaints.” 
Similarly, some of those who continually demand cuts in laws and regulations – are regularly calling for new laws and regulations to tackle new sorts of crimes. Just think of the last few weeks with the demands for action on internet harassment and trolling.

But the real difficulty is that the vast majority of rules and regulations were introduced to provide protection – for individuals, but also for businesses. When some business organisations (like the Institute of Directors) and some politicians (like UKIP) talk about ‘doing away with red tape to save billions’, what they actually mean is doing away with the minimum wage, minimum protections on sickness and holiday pay, health and safety laws etc.

Their red tape is your wage and rights.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Dial Cameron and Clegg for Chaos

The 1997 Blair government inherited a National Health Service that was on its knees – with patients waiting literally years for operations in crumbling hospitals which had been built before the NHS was founded in 1948. Over the following decade, that government rebuilt and reformed the NHS, with more nurses, more doctors, more operations, shorter waiting times and over 100 new hospitals. I didn’t agree with every reform, but it was no wonder that public satisfaction with the NHS was at a record high by 2010.

Unfortunately, this government’s record on the NHS is shameful. David Cameron promised “I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS”. He assured nurses there would be no top-down reorganisations. He went round hospitals promising patients he would save Accident and Emergency Departments from closure. And what has happened? The deficit went up last year while over 4,000 nurses were cut. £3 billion was wasted on a top-down reorganisation. And the very A&E units David Cameron promised to save are closing down.

The recent Keogh review contained challenging but accurate picture of care standards and failings at 14 NHS trusts. We must, however, remember that the problems identified in these hospitals are not typical of the NHS or of the care given by NHS staff. We should seek to learn from this report and not use it to tarnish the many doctors, nurses and NHS staff who look after us in our NHS. The vast majority of doctors and nurses working in the NHS perform to a very high standard day in, day out, but everyone in the country will be worried that some hospitals are letting people down. Sir Bruce Keogh’s excellent and important report found that the most serious problems arose where there were “inadequate numbers of nursing staff”.

We should all be horrified by the massive exercise of vandalism that has destroyed NHS Direct. This is a mess entirely of the government’s own making. We had a single, trusted national service and they decided to break it up into 46 cut-price contracts, where essentially computers have replaced nurses. And the contractors have now decided that they can’t even provide a reduced service for the price they promised.

So what have we now got? “The computer says ‘No’. Go to A&E.” Is it any surprise that we’ve ended up with record numbers going to A&E and the return of patients spending hours on trolleys in corridors?

Muddying the water

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of people who are employed on zero-hours’ contracts. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some employers are seeking to exploit the current economic uncertainty.

Recently, I’ve met constituents who, following a period of unemployment, have found jobs working regular hours but are employed on zero-hours contracts. Some have been told they have to work exclusively for one employer, but with no guarantee that they will get enough work to pay the bills.  Others have had to commit to making themselves available for work at times when they are uncertain that they can make appropriate child-care arrangements at such short-notice. For them, zero-hours contracts mean daily stress and insecurity.

After a decade when we implemented legislation on the minimum wage, agency workers, holiday and parental leave entitlements to protect employees and fair competition, it now appears that we are in a period where some employers are pursuing a race to see who can exploit workers the most. This can’t continue.

Understanding and tackling the issue hasn’t been helped by the determined attempts by some employers and parts of the media to muddy the water. We do need to distinguish between what and what is not acceptable. Of course, we need flexibility. But flexibility should never be used to try to justify exploitation.

There are some long-standing arrangements where zero-hours’ contracts are appropriate and acceptable – for example, supply arrangements for teachers and doctors or occasional stewarding at events.

But what should be banned is employers insisting that zero-hours workers must be available even when there is no guarantee of any work. We should stop zero-hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business. And we should end the misuse of zero-hours contracts where employees are, in practice, working regular hours over a sustained period.

Such employment practices are bad for employees, bad for good employers and fair competition, and bad for the economy if increasing numbers of people are uncertain about their ability to invest for the future. It’s time to act now.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Charitable relief

Many local and national charities breathed a sigh of relief last week when Local Government and Communities Secretary of State Eric Pickles lost his legal fight to scrap the collection of union subscriptions through salaries. Actually, this court case didn’t involve charities at all, the outcome was important for them because of that other important law – the law of unintended consequences. Let me explain.

About thirty years ago, various charities approached both public and private employers to see whether they would implement a scheme which allowed an employee to make a donation to a charity of their choice by direct deduction from their wages. This proposal was modelled on the already existing scheme which enabled employees to pay their trade union dues by direct deduction (check off), which had been implemented by the vast majority of private and public employers. As a result, millions of pounds each year have been donated to national and local charities.

Fast forward to this year. Eric Pickles, as part of his strategy to undermine trade unions but presented under the guise of ‘saving money’, first told councils that they must end check-off and then announced that he would end check-off for civil servants in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Logically, if check-off for trade union dues – which relate to both individual and collective agreements between employees, their representatives and employers, often under-pinned by law – could not be allowed, how could a scheme for charitable donations – with no relationship to the employer’s functions at all – possibly be justified?

Bluntly, if check-off schemes were stopped, it seems inevitable that the charitable donations’ schemes would quickly follow. The result would be a dramatic loss of income for many charities, which would then face a massive task of approaching each of the individual employees to get them to set up individual direct debits as an alternative.

Fortunately, the PCS trade union took Mr Pickles to the High Court. The judges said the move was a breach of contract and has ordered DCLG to reverse the decision and pay all legal costs. During the proceedings, it was revealed the ‘check off’ system costs DCLG just £300 a year to administer. So the £90,000 legal bill, which will now have to be picked up by the taxpayer on behalf of Mr Pickles, could have paid for the scheme for the next 300 years.

Friday, 6 September 2013

In the wrong lobby

David Cameron’s judgment has been suspect on a number of issues and you would of presumed that he – and his partner-in-arms, Nick Clegg – would have paused for thought before they pressed ahead with another measure which will make things worse and not better.

This time, it’s a Bill about lobbying. Nearly everyone, including the vast majority of the public, believes that we need to take action to regulate lobbying and make it transparent. Back in 2010, David Cameron described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen.” In the three years since, whilst his Ministers and the Conservative Party have become mired in a series of lobbying scandals, there was silence.

Then, from nowhere, Cameron and Clegg have managed to produce a Bill that is so bad that it has achieved the unique feat of uniting transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry against it. Only they could produce a Bill which wouldn’t stop lobbyist Lynton Crosby – whose company has been paid a fortune by the tobacco companies to lobby on their behalf - from advising them about tobacco policy, but could stop an organization like Cancer UK from campaigning about it.

Local charities and organisations could have their voices gagged. So, student bodies might be prevented from campaigning about the Liberal Democrat broken promise on tuition fees; parent groups could be restricted from campaigning about the local costs of childcare; or community groups could be hindered in their campaigns about a local library or Surestart centre.

Charities, community groups and other organisations play a huge part in our national and local democracy. It doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree with what they say – that’s all part of a healthy democracy.

This Bill is an attempt to gag charities and other campaigners. The National Association of Voluntary Organisations is coordinating opposition from a wide range of national charities. Local charities and community groups might want to add their voice before it is too late.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The last post?

The Royal Mail and the Post Office aren’t just part of our heritage, they’re a crucial
part of the lives of  families and businesses. This is especially true in rural areas, where the local post office acts as a focal point for communities.

43% of older people in rural areas use their local Post Office to access cash. Thousands of small rural businesses rely on postal services for ensuring customers get their goods and services on time, efficiently, reliably and at a reasonable price. Crucially, by law, the Royal Mail has to deliver mail to people six days a week, regardless of where they live. This is not the case in many countries.

Given that background, one has to ask why Messrs Cameron and Clegg are so determined to press ahead with the dangerous privatisation of Royal Mail, a proposal which they have failed to justify and which clearly doesn’t provide good value for the taxpayer.

Having refused last year, it is only after considerable pressure that the Government has now caved in and worked out the arrangements for a 10 year Inter-Business Agreement (IBA) between the Royal Mail and the Post Office. This is a vital link for the sustainability of our Post Office network.

However, there is no guarantee that a privatised Royal Mail will continue to support and use the Post Office network. In fact, it is more likely that it would want to break the historic link between the two.

Rural postal services will be under threat if Royal Mail is privatised because these
are the most costly to operate. To put it simply, profits on delivering urban post are subsidising rural post deliveries. Already in the UK, private parcel delivery firms, who operate in the interests of shareholders and not the public service, routinely charge a
significant premium for delivering to remote and rural areas. In some cases, they just refuse to deliver goods to these locations altogether.

Collections are also at risk. Did you know that more than 6500 post office collections had been scrapped in the last year? And new rules, implemented from June, inevitably mean that there will be fewer post boxes in future.

For some rural communities, the last post? Quite likely.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Badger cull is simply bonkers

Despite being cloaked in secrecy, the government’s badger cull have began this week.

There is a long-standing problem with bovine TB in the UK. But, there is a huge amount of contradictory evidence about whether badgers give TB to cattle or cattle give it to badgers. 

There is also no scientific evidence that culling badgers actually deals with the problem of TB in cattle; indeed a past trial shows it could actually make it worse. That was why the last Labour Government decided not to cull badgers, but to look for vaccination as a long term solution, as there is considerable scientific evidence that that policy would work

I’ve made no secret of my opposition to this cull. In March 2011, I went to 10 Downing Street with the Badger Protection League to hand in a large petition against the cull. It appears that my view is shared by the vast majority of local people.

There is a healthy badger population in my constituency. Although many local residents have never seen them, a number of local groups and individuals have been quietly ensuring that their habitat is protected. These groups are very concerned about the cull proposals and the potential impact on local wildlife.”

The government's own analysis says that it will cost more than it saves, put a huge strain on police given the expected protests, and will actually spread bovine TB in the short term as badgers are disrupted by the shooting. That’s why Cameron and Clegg’s determination to press ahead is simply bonkers.

Of course, having softened people up with a badger cull, the government will then be able to move on to its real agenda – its commitment to lifting the ban on fox-hunting.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Time to drive out ‘cowboy’ letting agents

I chair the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee in the House of Commons. We’ve been researching and reviewing what has been happening in the private rented housing sector and we’ve now published our report and recommendations for action.

The first thing we all agreed was that action must be taken to tackle sharp practice and abuse by letting agents.

Amazingly letting agents are subject to less control than estate agents. This lack of regulation is giving rise to sharp practice and abuse by some letting agents. We were told that the letting sector was the property industry’s ‘Wild West’. ’Cowboy’ agents who rip off landlords and tenants have to be stopped. They need to play by new rules or get out of the sector.

We say that regulation for letting agents must, at the very least, be brought up to the level of that for estate agents. This would give the Office of Fair Trading the power to ban agents who act improperly. It would also put in place new rules to ensure the safe treatment of landlords’ and tenants’ money.

Secondly, we demanded that action be taken to crack down on hidden and unreasonable fees and charges imposed by letting agents.

Agents should be required to tell tenants about fees before they start the letting process.
We confirmed that unreasonable fees and opaque charges are not confined to a few rogue agents. Many well-known high street agents are just as guilty. We say that agents must make tenants aware from the outset of the fees they intend to charge. This means that all property listings–on websites, in print or in agents’ windows–must be accompanied by a full breakdown of fees.

Thirdly, we confirmed that while the private rented sector has grown significantly in the past decade, it does not yet offer many renters what they are looking for.

In particular, the security desired by many families is not available within the private rented sector. We heard from one father whose 10 year old daughter had already had to move home seven times in her life. Letting agents should not be chasing renewal fees. Instead they should be working to ensure the length of tenancies meets the needs of both tenants and landlords.

With the sector providing homes to an increasing number of families, barriers to longer tenancies have to be removed. However, in return for offering longer tenancies, landlords should be able to evict tenants much more quickly when they fail to pay their rent. In addition, mortgage lenders should remove conditions that limit tenancies to one year.

Fourthly, we want to see renting as an attractive alternative to owner occupation.
The market has to better meet the needs of renters. Tenants and landlords need to be much better informed about their rights and responsibilities. Bad landlords should be driven out of the sector.

The legislation governing the private rented sector has evolved over many years and often in response to specific problems at a particular point in time. Far from providing clarity, the result is a bewildering regulatory framework. It should be simplified and all parties made aware of their rights and responsibilities. Tenants and landlords are often unaware of their rights and responsibilities.

So, we called for the legislation covering the private rented sector to be consolidated and made easier to understand. After this, there should be a publicity campaign to promote awareness of tenants’ and landlords’ rights and responsibilities. As part of this review, the Government should work with groups representing tenants, landlords and agents to bring forward a standard, plain language tenancy agreement on which all agreements should be based. Included within this standard agreement should be an easy-to-read fact sheet, setting out the key rights and responsibilities of the landlord and the tenant.

Fifthly, we could not avoid expressing our concern about the physical standard of much private rented property.

It is clearly unacceptable that taxpayers’ money is being used to pay housing benefit to landlords for substandard properties. We’ve called for local authorities to be given the ability to recoup housing benefit payments when a landlord is convicted of letting property below legal standards. Similarly, tenants should be able to reclaim rent paid from their own resources if their landlord is convicted.

We also think local councils must be given more freedom and flexibility to raise standards. Centrally-imposed bureaucracy and constraints on licensing schemes and enforcement should be reduced, but councils must have the power to require landlords to be part of a recognised accreditation scheme and have the flexibility to develop approaches to licensing, accreditation, and enforcement that meet the needs of their areas. There should then be heavy penalties for noncompliance.

We’ve also called on the Government to
  • end the vicious circle where, in some areas, over-inflated levels of housing benefit drive up rents, in turn increasing the housing benefit bill still further,
  • to tackle evasion of capital gains and income tax by some private landlords, and
  • come up with proposals to increase the supply of housing across all tenures of housing.

You can read our full report on The Private Rented Sector at

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Was it something I said?

Last week, I wrote about how I was backing a Which campaign - Calling Time on Nuisance Calls and Texts. (Time to call time

Of course, the only problem about speaking out like this is that lots of people contact you to say that they are also infuriated by nuisance calls and texts and that they want me to do something about it immediately. As we don’t live in a dictatorship with me in control, that isn’t possible.

Even if the current government could be persuaded to act, it would still take time to change the law and implement new regulations. And, it’s worth remembering that the current government is instinctively against what it describes as ‘red tape’. It thinks that ‘the market knows best’. So, for example, if you don’t want nuisance calls, don’t answer the phone.

Fortunately, there is now a sufficient number of MPs, across the political spectrum, who are persuaded that – whatever their personal views – their constituents are being driven mad by nuisance calls and texts and they expect their elected representatives to do something about it.
So, I’m delighted that The Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons is planning to hold an inquiry into Nuisance Telephone Calls and Text Messages.
The Committee recognises that OFCOM and the Information Commissioner's Office both have regulatory and enforcement responsibilities. Further, the Telephone Preference Service allows individuals to have their telephone number removed from relevant marketing lists. But, we all know it isn’t working.
The Committee has now invited written evidence from those who wish to contribute to the inquiry. This means YOU! Tell them what you think.

Make your short written submission in Word format, put "Nuisance Calls" in the subject line and send it to by Thursday 15 August 2013.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Banking on more failure

George Osborne is ducking the radical banking reform we need and which the cross-party Banking Standards Commission has demanded over the course of five reports.

The Government is simply failing to stand up to the banks on key issues including the safety of major institutions, boosting choice for consumers, increasing financial inclusion, the high risk-high bonus culture and on stimulating economic growth.

It’s clear that George Osborne and Nick Clegg have been so busy promoting myths about the global financial crisis and the reasons for the UK’s current economic situation that they’ve begun to believe them. That may not only explain their failed economic strategy, but also go some way to explain why they’re missing the point on banking reform.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the global crisis did not have its root in UK government expenditure, but was sparked when Lehman Brothers collapsed in New York in September 2008 and hit most major economies in the West. The problem lay, not in public expenditure but, in irresponsible private borrowing and lending fuelled by incompetent and irresponsible bankers. The scale of the UK’s current borrowing is because we nationalised private debt to prevent the banks collapsing.

That’s why we cannot allow a repetition of the risks to the taxpayer in the future, which is why banks must be reformed in the UK and globally.

Banks have consistently fought change. In January 2011 the then Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond said: “There was a period of remorse and apology for banks - I think that period needs to be over.” Really?

Since then we have had scandals including:
  • The mis-selling of payment protection insurance (PPI), for which banks have already put £14 billion aside to cover the cost of compensation
  • Attempts to rig the LIBOR benchmark, for which US and UK regulators have so far fined banks a total of £1.7 billion.
  • The mis-selling of interest rate swaps. The FSA has estimated that more than 40,000 swaps have been sold to small and medium businesses since 2001. The largest banks have already put aside just over £1.1bn to cover the mis-selling costs

Unless the government gets to grips with financial services reform, based on the all-party Parliamentary Commission recommendations, the only thing we should bank on is more failure.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Time to call time

I don’t know anyone who isn’t getting increasingly infuriated by the number of nuisance phone calls to their home phones. And now the problem has been extended with unwanted calls and texts to mobile phones.

The latest research by Which shows that nearly one in ten people received 50 unwanted calls or more in the last month, mainly from Payment Protection Insurance and accident claim companies. Even when people take action by signing up to the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), they still received on average ten unsolicited calls in the last month.

It is suggested that people are often targeted with nuisance calls and texts because at some point they ‘ticked the box’ giving consent to companies not only to contact them but also to pass on their personal data to third parties. I don’t believe a word of it. It is clear that many call centre companies take absolutely no regard for the laws on privacy and will just pursue anyone for whom they have a telephone number.

And, this isn’t confined to overseas call centres, as is demonstrated by the recent hefty fine for a Welsh call centre, currently featured in a series of TV programmes. Unfortunately, far too often, these callers hide behind ‘withheld’ or phony (sic) international numbers that make it difficult for people to report in the expectation of action being taken.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the telephone network operators aren’t really bothered by all this as, after all, they are making a lot of money out of both criminal and unlawful calls and spam. The network operators have all sorts of technical ways in which this can be reduced eg spam filtering technology, and only transmitting multiple calls from registered phones.

This is why I’m backing a Which campaign - Calling Time on Nuisance Calls and Texts campaign. Find out more, and add your support at

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

I agree with Nick

Back in 1997, the incoming Labour government inherited an awful legacy from the  Thatcher and Major Conservative governments. Our infrastructure was collapsing. School and hospital buildings were falling apart, and roads and railways were crumbling. It required a huge commitment of public investment to begin to put things right.

Since the arrival of the current Coalition government in 2010, it has cut capital infrastructure investment by £5.6bn. It’s little wonder that construction industry orders and output have reduced dramatically and that there are 84.000 fewer construction workers in jobs than 3 years ago.

Both the CBI and the TUC have been consistent in arguing for capital investment. As the CBI said “our creaking infrastructure still lags behind other countries and we cannot afford further delays in getting spades in the ground.”

Anyone listening to Cameron and Osborne might have thought they’d listened and got the message as, last week, they launched ‘the most comprehensive, ambitious and long-lasting capital investment plans’.

The truth is disturbingly different.
  • In May 2011, having slashed the existing school building programme, the government promised 261 schools will be rebuilt. Today, construction has started on just one (1);
  • Last September, the government announced a plan to get £20bn of pension fund investment in infrastructure. Today, just £1bn has been committed;
  • Last year, the government promised that ‘tens of thousands of households’ would have signed up to the Green Deal. Today, just four (4) households have signed;
  • In 2015, we will actually be spending £10 billion less on infrastructure than we spent in 2010, and it is to be cut in each successive year
  • Investment in the government funded construction pipeline is set to fall by almost a quarter (23 per cent) over the four years from 2011-12 to 2014-15

Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has admitted that “the gap between intention, announcement and delivery is quite significant”. Do you know what? I agree with Nick. But what seems to be escaping his notice is that it is Nick who is making the announcements and failing in the delivery. 

Monday, 24 June 2013

Time for OFMAUDE?

Every so often, the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude suddenly appears in the limelight, makes a statement, and then disappears until it’s his turn again.

It reminds me of one of those low budget horror movies, where ‘the body’ awakes, lifts the lid, rises from the coffin, sucks the lifeblood out of the gullible public, and then returns to the box until the next time.

Mr Maude’s appearances inevitably feature his latest slippery statement on the government’s performance in delivering on its promised ‘bonfire of the quangos’.

You may suggest that I’m being unkind in the use of the word ‘slippery’. But, each time Mr Maude speaks, he redefines the issues, claims success, and disappears before he can properly be held to account. The National Audit Office critically says that there is no system in place to measure any savings or the service impact of these quango changes.

For instance, when Mr Maude claimed he’d abolished 106 quangos, a detailed analysis showed it was just 45. When he claims that he’s abolished quangos, he’s often done nothing of the sort.

My favourite example concerns the announcement that the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances (ACHS) – a quango - had been “abolished” in the morning, only to discover that a Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee (HSAC) – somehow re-defined as not a quango, but to do exactly the same job - had been established in the afternoon! Classic Yes Minister.

And then Mr Maude conveniently forgets all the new quangos that his government is busily creating. The completely unnecessary and costly top-down NHS reorganization is creating hundreds of new quangos. The NHS Commissioning Board alone will have over 3,000 staff and an annual budget of £80 billion.

The Education Secretary keeps announcing new quangos, although he calls them academies or free schools. Last month’s Queen’s Speech produced another 6 new quangos, including OFNUKE – a new nuclear energy regulator – and OFSHOP – a new supermarket regulator.

Perhaps the Government should create an OFMAUDE – a regulator who would prevent Mr Maude making any statement about quangos unless the contents had been independently verified?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Tough on crime – not this lot

Vandalism, dangerous dogs and nuisance neighbours make families’ lives a misery. People want to know that if they are a victim of crime - or if they are being regularly harassed by yobs on their street - then the police will have the power and capability to restore peace as quickly and efficiently as possible. That’s why I strongly supported the measures – new laws, new penalties, additional resources – that Tony Blair’s government committed to the fight against crime and anti-social behaviour and, as a result, it fell considerably.
But, as I’ve argued before, I’m worried the clock is now being turned back. I make no apology for returning to the issue because it is so important. On top of big cuts to neighbourhood police, the Cameron/Clegg coalition wants to weaken police powers to fight anti-social behaviour. I’m clear that they need to rethink these policies, as we need stronger action against crime instead of their weak approach.
Home Secretary Theresa May plans to water down Asbos so that someone who keeps ignoring police warnings, court orders and injunctions to stop terrorising the local estate will no longer be guilty of a crime. Instead, she plans to introduce the Community Trigger – and, no, it isn’t one attached to a shotgun! - which gives people the right to demand that police deal with anti-social behaviour, meaning forces would have to investigate any incident reported by at least five people or any three complaints by the same person. The reality is that victims who complain three times will only have the right to a review, and this is just the minimum requirement with the authorities able to wait much longer before taking further action if they choose to.
What this will mean in practice has been discovered in the Government’s own pilot schemes in Manchester, Brighton and Richmond. These show that of 44,011 antisocial behaviour incidents, the Community Trigger was only successfully activated 13 times.
The Government’s plans are also weak on support for victims of repeated harassment. There are too many loopholes to let offenders off if police resources are tight. And, all this is to happen when the Government is cutting thousands of frontline police officers.

This all goes to show that this Government simply doesn’t understand the strains and pressures some of our communities are facing. Even more worrying is that it doesn’t appear to be listening to the concerns those communities, and their elected representatives, are expressing.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Welfare reform – heading towards the rocks?

Not infrequently, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, recalls being made redundant and facing life on the dole. Of course, most people being sent down the road are not so fortunate as to be able to rely on the wealthy in-laws.

Less frequently mentioned nowadays was his second enforced redundancy after just two years as Leader of the Conservative Party.Why do I mention this now? I will take IDS at his own words and, therefore, not underestimate the determination of a quiet man. However, word on the street is that IDS’s welfare reform programme is heading towards the rocks. If that results, he will be facing his own interview on the Work Programme in the near future.

The Treasury has been consistently sceptical about IDS’s welfare reform programme. Forget the objectives; forget the specific policies. It’s the practical delivery of the programme within the financial parameters that’s the key problem. However, it’s also important to look at the unintended (or were they?) financial and social consequences.

Let’s just consider a few elements:
  • DWP has already been forced to ditch three of the four proposed Universal Credit pathfinders because the IT systems – even for this limited application – are nowhere near ready.
  • Insiders are now confirming that there is no chance of 1 million people receiving universal credit by April 2014, as IDS promised in November 2011.
  • Applications for discretionary housing payments (DHP) in April, as a consequence of the bedroom tax, leapt from 5,700 last year to more than 25,000 this year and many more will claim when they find out about them. The budget for DHPs will shortly be exhausted, or so constrained that arrears will take a further leap.
  • As the DHP budget runs out, there will be thousands of bad news stories about the impact on adults with disabilities and on children who are no longer able to stay with one parent, after relationship breakdown.
  • The costs of collecting the bedroom tax, including managing arrears, could well take up most of the extra income.
  • A  housing association at the heart of the first direct payment pathfinder  experienced a 29 per cent rise in people contacting its financial support team in the last year, and a 19% rise in the total amount of debt referred.
  • Rent arrears in these pathfinders are already increasing dramatically. The reality is that ‘direct by default’ is already being carefully ditched.
  • The welfare reform agenda will increase costs in a whole range of other service areas, say 95% of senior council officers. None of these costs were included in the DWP impact assessment.
  • It is clear that DWP simply didn’t understand or take account of the frequency of changes in personal circumstances which affect housing and some other benefits which they are trying to incorporate into the universal credit system

Of course, if the government had really been serious about subsidising under-occupation, they would not have excluded pensioners from the scope of the bedroom tax. Not that I am advocating an expansion of the bedroom tax, rather the opposite.

Perhaps the biggest unintended consequence of IDS’s plans is that, because of the necessary extra provision for increases in arrears, increasing costs of collection and advice, and possibly increased borrowing costs social housing providers are cutting their investment plans for this year by an estimated £1bn plus, mainly impacting on the construction industry and building materials’ providers. So, at the very time that the government is rushing around trying to find good-value infrastructure investment projects that can be on site quickly, it scuppers over £1bn that fits the bill.

It has not been a good few weeks for IDS. He
  • called for people to voluntarily return winter fuel payments. Just 200 did so.
  • lost a major court battle to keep the locations of thousands of workfare placements secret. The judge said the DWP had “a paucity of compelling evidence” to back its claims. Sounds familiar!
  • was defeated when the Court of Appeal ruled that workers had been unlawfully made to do unpaid work
  • has again been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority over the deliberate misuse of statistics.

In November 2003, Iain Duncan Smith released his novel The Devil’s Tune. The critics panned it. "Really, it's terrible ... terrible, terrible, terrible" was one of the more generous.  The book never made it into paperback.

Now, with welfare reform being “terrible, terrible….”, perhaps IDS is determined to mark his place in history with the greatest crash on the rocks of all time. The dreadful prospect is that millions of the poorest families will be the ones most affected.

This article was originally published on the Local Government Chronicle website on the 4th of June 2013.