Tuesday, 17 April 2018


Every so often, a story appears in a newspaper about a road which doesn’t appear to be being maintained at all. In fact, it’s far worse than any normal potholed road which is found up and down the country.
[Incidentally, as the government has made big cuts to councils to undertake road maintenance, the backlog of repairs has risen to £9.3bn, with more than 24,000 miles of streets in England in need of urgent maintenance in the next year alone.]
Similarly, most Members of Parliament have received delegations of residents, or users, of one of these un-maintained roads asking for support to get the council/the government/anyone to take responsibility and pay for the road to be fixed.
What we are talking about is an ‘Un-adopted road’, that is a highway that is NOT maintainable at public expense. There are an estimated 40,000 of these roads in England and Wales, totalling more than 4000 miles. In 2009, it was estimated that it would cost more than £3bn to bring them up to standard.
Well, how does that come about? As with all such things, there is a fascinating historical background, which is neatly summarised in a recent publication1 from the House of Commons’ Library.
It includes the fact that in the mid-16th century, the King wasn’t spending enough money to maintain the King’s Highway (sound familiar?) so he gave the responsibility to the parishes (a forerunner to modern councils). Parishes paid for the repairs by requiring residents to work without pay and by levying property taxes. This free labour was limited to a maximum of six days per year by a 1555 law.
The Highways Act 1835 provided that new roads were not to be the subject of the inhabitants' duty to repair highways unless a formal procedure for adoption was followed. This was eventually extended to public paths. This created a class of highway which no one was liable to repair.
As a result of the Highways Act 1959, as regards liability to repair, highways were divided into three main classes:
(1) highways repairable at the public expense;
(2) highways repairable by private individuals or corporate bodies; and
(3) highways which no one is liable to repair.
It also replaced the concept of highways repairable by the inhabitants at large of an area by that of highways maintainable at the public expense.
Then, in 1980, with the passage of a new consolidating Highways Act, the ownership of highways maintainable at the public expense rests with the local unitary or county council or, if a trunk road, with the Department for Transport.
Most roads are thus subject to a public right of way, are publicly owned and publicly maintained. They are "highways maintainable at public expense". Roads that are not maintainable at public expense are referred to as private or ‘Unadopted’ roads. These can still be subject to a public right of way, but the public generally do not contribute to their upkeep.
Responsibility for the cost of maintaining a private road rests with the frontagers (the owners of properties which front onto such roads).
If unadopted roads are brought up to the right standards, they can be adopted and then maintained at public expense. Similarly, if, because of the poor state of an un-adopted road, it becomes dangerous, the council can require frontagers to undertake necessary repairs. If they fail to act, the council can do the repairs itself and recover the costs from the frontagers.
There are two main types of private or un-adopted road: those on new developments such as housing estates and those which, usually by historic accident, have existed for a long time, often since the nineteenth century. Confusingly, mainly between 1920 and 1960, some roads were built in council estates, but were never adopted, and are maintained by the housing revenue accounts of councils (ie by tenant rents) and not by the council as the highways authority.
Some residents of un-adopted roads think it is unfair that they have to pay for the maintenance of their road, when everyone is allowed to use it as a highway. I think it’s a case of swings and roundabouts. The price of houses in un-adopted roads are typically lower than similar houses on maintained roads, reflecting their legal status. Is it reasonable to pay less, but get the same? Probably not.
And, of course, it’s not just the highway and pavement maintenance that can become an issue. While there is a power, there is no duty on a council to provide street lighting. And, even though highways’ criminal offences might be committed on un-adopted roads, all sorts of different legal issues arise when it comes to bad parking, obstruction or trespass.
The biggest problem comes when some home-owners and frontagers want to spend money to get the highway up to an adoptable standard but others don’t. In those circumstances, neighbour disputes can run for years, without any possibility of finding a cheap or happy solution.
So, if you are contemplating purchasing or renting a home in an un-adopted road, you might want to take especial care in considering the potential liabilities or issues that might arise.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

What’s so smart about this?

Are you in one of those households which has recently received a communications from your energy supplier to tell you that it has made an appointment to come to your home to fit a new Smart Energy Meter? They even tell you when the appointment is and, if that is not convenient, how you can change the date and time online.
Of course, they don’t tell you that you are not legally obliged to have one of these Smart Energy Meters. Nor do they make it easy to say “Don’t bother coming. I don’t want one.” You are required to ring the energy supplier and then listen to all the reasons why you should have one.
But before I explain why you might want to say “No, thank you. Not at the moment.’, let me explain what has happened.
Energy smart meters are a new kind of meter which can digitally send meter readings to energy suppliers for more accurate energy bills and come with in home displays so consumers can view their energy usage.
The Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government committed to a national Smart Metering Programme which ‘requires energy suppliers to take all reasonable steps to offer – but not necessarily provide – the installation of an energy smart meter to all domestic customers and non-domestic customers by the end of 2020’. Energy suppliers were to be hit financially if they didn’t get the Smart Meters installed.
An all-party Select Committee estimated that the total benefits of smart meters could be £5 billion to consumers from energy saving and micro- generation; but the benefits to the energy suppliers would be £8 billion. And, of course, it is the customers who are actually paying for these meters. They’re free at the point of installation, but the cost will be included in your bills.
Installation costs are some £130-200 per household. When two of the Big Six energy companies announced price rises last month, they specifically stated a big part of the 10% increase is because of the smart meter policy. But, the Government’s own cost-benefit analysis shows that smart meters would, at best, reduce combined gas and electricity bills by £11 in 2020 and £47 in 2030. So, it will take more than a decade for consumers to feel the benefit.
The installation rollout was poorly planned by the Government, has suffered considerable delays and almost certainly won’t be delivered by the 2020 deadline.
The IT project required to make smart metering all work – the Data and Communications Company (DCC) – had its launch pushed back at least four times, eventually going live only at the end of last year, but is still not fully operational. DCC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Capita plc.
Besides all this , there are two significant reasons why you might want to say ‘No’ to the Smart Energy Meter right now.
First, there are worrying reports about these meters giving fluctuating and inaccurate readings.
Secondly, current Smart Meters don't have a common functionality. So, if you change supplier, you will be required to have a new Smart Meter. And who will end up paying for a succession of Smart Meter installations? Yes, you.
It is just another of those ill-thought through bad deals that Cameron and Clegg left behind.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Minimum Wage Update

The introduction of a National Minimum Wage (NMW) was a flagship policy of the Blair government in 1998. It benefitted at least 1.5 million low-paid workers. It has recently been acknowledged as the most important and successful social policy initiative of the last thirty years.
The implementation of a NMW was opposed by the Conservatives, who asserted that it would mean extra costs for businesses and would cause unemployment. The Liberal Democrats argued for regional minimum wages (RMW), which would have meant lower rates in Yorkshire than in London.
More recently, 3500 employers have guaranteed a Living Wage, independently calculated to a level believed to be the minimum amount individuals require to get by. This is about £45pwk (£100+ in London) higher than NMW.
The NMW rates are reviewed each year by the Low Pay Commission, which makes recommendations for change to the government. Enforcement can either be by the individual employee, under the Employ-ment Rights Act 1996 or by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
In 2013, new rules were introduced to "name and shame" employers who were paying less than the minimum wage.
Last year, the taxman (HMRC) found that nearly 100,000 individuals – a record high - were paid below the NMW by more than 2600 employers. This was 69% up on the previous year. The increase is almost entirely attributable to an increase in the number of proactive, ‘targeted’ investigations conducted by HMRC, as opposed to investigations arising from a worker complaint. But, due to a lack of resources, HMRC only investigate a fraction of jobs at risk of underpayment. So, a large number of underpaid jobs are likely to go undetected every year.
Then, recent research by the excellent staff of the House of Commons Library has found that unpaid overtime and travel time between jobs as well as deductions for uniforms pushed the underpaid group to between one and two million people.
Underpaid workers are more likely to be women than men, part-time rather than full-time, and employed in the private rather than the public sector. It affects workers of all ages.
Workers are entitled to the minimum wage whenever they are working, not just during their contracted hours. The most common causes of underpayment are failure to pay workers travelling between jobs, deducting money from pay for uniforms and not paying for overtime. A good, but shocking, example of this was came when an investigation in to Sports Direct revealed that workers were made to wait, unpaid, for a security check at the end of shifts.
The latest NMW rates should be announced soon for implementation from April.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Housing for older people: we need a new national strategy to get this right

It’s not just "generation rent" that is struggling; the government must do more to support the elderly in finding a comfortable home for later life
From issues of affordability and social housing to the discussion over where best to build more homes, housing policy is never far from the centre of the political debate.
While a great deal of attention is often given to steps to help young people in the housing market, with a growing ageing population there must also be a focus on ensuring that we can support older people to live comfortably in later life.
By making sure we have the right measures in place and the housing on offer is suitable to the hugely varied needs of older people, we can not only go some way to easing pressures in the wider housing sector but also help to address another of the great challenges of our time—how to look after the ageing population and reduce demands on a social care system that is already under pressure.
The Communities and Local Government Select Committee, of which I am Chair, has just published a new report on precisely these issues. Underpinning our recommendations is a call for a national strategy for older people’s housing to bring together and improve policy in an area that has been too disparate and disjointed for too long. A key aspect of this is increasing the supply of new homes for older people.
National and local planning policy should be coordinated to encourage the construction of more of all types of housing for older people. Just as you would expect in any other age group, the needs and preferences of those in later years is very varied so we should make sure this is reflected in the type of accommodation on offer.
Extra care, retirement, sheltered and accessible housing across the social and private sectors is needed. We heard evidence of a shortfall in supply of specialist homes for older people in the face of significant demand. This limits the housing options available to older people and the opportunity to derive the health and wellbeing benefits linked to specialist homes.
An amendment to the National Planning Policy Framework to emphasise the key importance of the provision of housing for older people in both local authority plan making and decision taking would send a strong and much-needed message.
To help with delivery at a local level, councils should also be required to publish a strategy explaining how they intend to meet older residents’ housing needs and identify a target proportion of new housing to be developed for this purpose and identify suitable well-connected sites for it.
Reforms to the planning classification of specialist housing would reduce the level of planning obligations required from developers and act as an incentive to build more of these age-appropriate homes. The Committee heard that the level of planning obligations—which require the negative impact of a development to be mitigated—is increased as a result of the communal areas which are a feature of specialist housing. This is impeding the delivery of homes.
Encouraging planning authorities to facilitate and developers to build more homes would have a large and lasting effect for generations, but the committee is also calling for smaller practical steps that would make a huge difference to older people, especially those who would like to remain in their own homes.
The government should restore funding to the FirstStop Advice Service to run an expanded telephone operation giving a valuable holistic service for older people so they can be properly informed and make the best decisions about where and how they want to live.
This would give advice on everything from heating and care options to adaptations and moving home.
Another measure that would have a real everyday impact would be the expansion of Home Improvement Agencies to ensure there is at least one in each local authority area. Most older people would prefer to stay in their homes, and proper support from handypeople and a “trusted trader” scheme could have a significant role to play in providing small repairs, general maintenance and ensuring that they could stay comfortable, safe and healthy.
We would hope ministers will now take our recommendations seriously as the government brings forward its green paper on social care later in the year. Ensuring the right kind of housing is in place can help reduce the need for home or residential care, relieving pressure on the health service and helping older people stay healthy and live independently in their homes.
This article was first published in Prospect magazine on February 27th 2018.

Monday, 26 February 2018

I wouldn't bet on it

Some of our high streets – in large village, as well as towns and cities – now seem to be over-run with betting shops.
This is big business. The difference between the amount betting companies take from punters and the amount they pay out was a record £13.8 billion last year, up 65% from £8.36 billion in 2008/09. No-one would be surprised if a government focused on the potential tax take from gambling rather than the damage being done to individuals and families.
The Gambling Commission says that more than 2 million people are either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction. The number of gambling addicts in the UK has increased by 30% to 430,000 since 2012.
A recent report found that the total cost to the taxpayer of problem gambling, including through mental health services, police intervention and homelessness, is probably more than £1 billion a year. Yet the voluntary levy for education, research and treatment raised just £8.6m.
But, it isn’t the odd flutter on the dogs, horses, football or even elections which explains the proliferation of betting shops and that is causing most concern to observers.
The biggest problem is the fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – the infernal machines sometimes described as‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ – that can so quickly consume the wage packet before the household bills are paid and food put on the table.
The government has been conducting a consultation which, amongst other things, is considering a reduction in the maximum stake which can be made on each bet.
A new study, using the betting companies’ own data, has found that more than 30% of sessions with a £20 stake resulted in losses greater than £100, and 6% gave losses greater than £500. With a £50 stake, more than 9 in 10 sessions ended with a loss of more than £100 and in nearly 8 out of 10 sessions the losses were greater than £500. However, sessions with a maximum stake of £2 delivered no losses of more than £100.
The betting companies have been lobbying hard to prevent a proposal to cut the maximum stake to £2, arguing that the tax loss to the government would be dramatic and that government shouldn’t interfere in individual’s freedoms to gamble if they want to.
Now a think tank report says that the possible loss of tax revenue, from cutting the maximum stake to £2, would be far lower than the industry has previously claimed. And, when we consider the cost to individuals, families and communities, and the cost to the taxpayer caused by problem gambling and gambling addiction, the civil liberties’ argument simply doesn’t stack up.
The government should now impose a £2 maximum stake on FOBTs and it should require a proper compulsory levy on the betting companies to fund education, research and treatment for problem gambling.
But, will this government do the right thing? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018


Just two weeks ago, I wrote about the government’s degrading and unfair treatment of applicants for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs)[1].
PIPs are a replacement for Disability Living Allowance for people aged 16-64 with long-term chronic health problems or disabilities. A full roll-out of PIP was originally planned for October 2013; it has now been revised to by mid-2019.
I described how the PIP assessment process was simply not fit for purpose and how the courts had confirmed that the government had acted unlawfully in its introduction and implementation.
You may have thought that I was commenting for party political advantage or over-egging the pudding. If that was the case, today’s report on PIPs by the all-party House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee might make you think again.
The Committee’s Chair, Frank Field, says that
“…a pervasive lack of trust is undermining its entire operation. In turn, this is translating into untenable human costs to claimants and financial costs to the public purse. No one should have any doubt the process needs urgent change.”
Whilst the vast majority of claimants want the assessment interviews recorded, as a safeguard for the claimant and the government, the Department for Work and Pensions is stubbornly resisting and refusing.
The PIP Assessments are carried out by contractors Capita and Atos. The Committee says Ministers should consider taking these assessments in-house as
“the existing contractors have consistently failed to meet basic performance standards but other companies are hardly scrambling over each other to take over”.
The committee said that this assessment work was outsourced in the name of efficiency and consistency. However, none of the providers had ever hit their quality performance targets, yet a core theme from the research had been that
“…claimants do not believe assessors can be trusted to record what took place during the assessment accurately [which] has implications far beyond the minority of claimants who directly experience poor decision making”.
What an indictment!
This isn’t about party politics. It is about treating the most vulnerable of the UK’s citizens fairly and with humanity. Isn’t that what British values are about?
[1] Unfair and Wrong 31/01/2018

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Why do people fall for this?

Whilst the national media is obsessed with the reporting of the Brexit machinations, this week’s little reported government announcements about local government and police finance will have a comparable impact on our area, our services and our quality of life.
Let’s just focus on the police and the threats to our community safety.
The Conservatives long ago ditched their (quite undeserved) reputation as the party of law and order. It’s now clear that this government has given up on any pretense of acting to ‘protect the public’.
This will be the eighth consecutive year of police cuts. Police officer numbers nationally have fallen to the lowest level in three decades at the same time as some types of crime are increasing dramatically.
In South Yorkshire, the government announced another £3m real-terms cut in grant between this year and next and told the Police and Crime Commissioner to fill the gap with an inflation-busting precept increase on our council tax.
The budge cuts have meant that since 2010, South Yorkshire Police has lost  480 police officers (a 16% cut) and 117 PCSOs (a 36% cut).
It’s little surprise that the crime figures released last month showed the highest annual rise in police recorded crime since comparable records began in 2002.
In South Yorkshire, violent crime rose by 62%, robberies rose by 46% and total recorded crime (excluding fraud) rose by 34%. 
Our police are at breaking point and the Tory prescription is yet more reckless funding cuts.
This is madness. It’s little wonder that local people are concerned about the increasing risk to their community safety. It’s more police and less cuts we need, not the other way round.
Yet, the government’s strategy is very simple.
  • Ensure big cuts in national funding of local police with the savings being used to fund tax cuts for the already wealthy
  • Take credit for cutting the national tax burden
  • Tell police and crime commissioners to push up precepts and council taxes to fill the budget gaps
  • Blame police commissioners for local tax hikes, falling police numbers and rising crime.
Why do people fall for this?

Monday, 5 February 2018


For a long time now, I have been campaigning for big changes in the licensing arrangements for taxis and private hire vehicles and their drivers.
This was in the opposition of many Conservative MPs who, as part of their ideological obsession with cutting regulation (buses, banking, health and safety, workers’ rights and more), had been pressing the government to reduce what they called ‘the regulatory burden’. In fact, the Conservative/LibDem Coalition government had already removed some of the licensing powers of local councils and were proposing further cuts in powers as well as resources.
Then, of course, new technological initiatives (like UBER) demonstrated that the law relating to taxi licensing – much of it from the 19th century when the taxis were horse-drawn hackney cabs – was completely inadequate to address the challenges of the 21st century. The deregulatory pressure was increasing.
However, the importance of this issue really reached the public consciousness in the shocking revelations about the roles of some – of course, a minority – taxi and private hire drivers in child sexual abuse in Rotherham and, subsequently revealed, in other parts of the country. Suddenly, thank goodness, the government started back-tracking and some, previously voluble, MPs went silent.
There have been some changes in the licensing law, but nowhere near enough.
I have previously pointed to the existence of private hire vehicles and drivers, with licences being issued in Lancashire and Lincolnshire (and elsewhere), operating in Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Why? Because some drivers have found that the existing law is being operated in a relaxed way in those areas. Bluntly, they’re getting a licence there when they would be turned down for a licence in Rotherham or Sheffield. That simply isn’t acceptable.
I have been backing a campaign with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to update the law. A recent report  by the  Trust revealed that taxi and private hire vehicle licences are being granted to drivers with criminal convictions that include violent offences. Passenger safety is being compromised because there are no national minimum standards to enforce sufficient safety checks for taxi and private hire vehicle licensing.
Of course the majority of drivers do not pose a personal safety risk to passengers, but they, and we, are being let down by a minority who are slipping through the net. Although taxi and private hire drivers hold a position of trust, transporting passengers who are often alone and in a locked vehicle, the highest level of criminal checks is not required in law, only recommended in guidelines. Passengers are at risk.
Research into safety checks for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers highlighted:
  • only 46 out of 316 local authorities are able to provide detailed information about drivers’ criminal histories on request;
  • a significant number of licensed taxi and private hire vehicle drivers highlighted in the research have criminal records including convictions for actual bodily harm, common assault, speeding and drink driving;
  • current taxi and private hire vehicle drivers have successfully applied for or renewed their licence despite having committed crimes in the last 6 years. Their convictions included battery, assault occasioning actual bodily harm as well as speeding;
  • at least 865 drivers in just 38 licensing authorities have successfully applied for or renewed their licence despite their criminal convictions; and
  • some licensed taxi and private hire vehicle drivers have multiple convictions. One currently licensed driver has over 36 separate convictions dating from 1973 to 2017, with offences including actual bodily harm, taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent and threatening behaviour.
So, as well as backing the Trust’s campaign, I have also been supporting a Private Members Bill in Parliament, promoted by my colleague Daniel Zeichner to close some of the loopholes. The Bill isn’t perfect and it can’t be comprehensive but we can’t wait any longer for the government to act.
We need a strong national licensing framework, with committed local implementation. All our health and safety depends on it.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Unfair and wrong

This government, like its’ predecessor coalition government, has pursued a determined course in cutting financial support and benefits to those on the lowest incomes and those with disabilities.
It’s bad enough that Mrs May is hitting hardest those who can least afford it. It’s even worse when the government tries to achieves its objectively by acting unlawfully, makes and announces decisions in ways designed to avoid scrutiny and then plays fast and loose when the courts say the government is wrong.
The latest example of the government’s degrading and unfair treatment concerns Personal Independence Payments (PIPs). It’s a replacement for Disability Living Allowance for people aged 16-64 with long-term chronic health problems or disabilities. A full roll-out of PIP was originally planned for October 2013; it has now been revised to by mid-2019.
In February 2017 the government changed the PIPs law through the back-door – it couldn’t be voted on by Parliament – to change the PIP regulations to strip entitlements from what it said was over 160,000 disabled people – a £3.7bn cut. The Government even failed to consult its own Advisory Committee about the changes. Labour MPs spoke out strongly against the changes.
The government then spent £181,000 trying to defend the indefensible in court. On 21 December 2017 the High Court ruled that the Government’s changes to PIP were both unlawful – because of the failure to consult and “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions. Despite questions, the government remained silent about its response.
Then, a month later, late on Friday 19 January, to avoid scrutiny, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced that the Government would not challenge the ruling. He said “(we)
accept the High Court’s judgment; we do not agree with some of the detail.” Subsequently, he admitted that up to 220,000 people could be affected, 30% higher than we’d been told.
It is clear that the PIP assessment process is simply not fit for purpose. It’s time for the government to listen to those with serious health and disability issues, their families and the doctors, charities and experts who are calling for urgent reform to the plans.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Grief and debt

Every year, about 5000 children die in the UK.
Some are stillborn and some die shortly after birth from complications. Some are born with, or develop, life-limiting illnesses. Some die from tragic accidents.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that some 10,000 parents each year have to face the unimaginable grief of losing a child.
Nobody expects to bury their own child. No-one plans or sets money aside for this. Therefore, when having to cope with the worst possible experience they will ever have to face, bereaved parents have the added worry of finding funds for a funeral they never wanted nor expected.
Some 14 months ago, Carolyn Harris, the MP for Swansea West, spoke eloquently in Parliament about the loss of her young son Martin. It was from this that the idea of a Children’s Bereavement Fund, to help parents in those tragic circumstances, was first conceived.
I am embarrassed, but pleased, that the Welsh Government listened and acted. It realised that, for a modest amount of money, it could make a real difference to bereaved families in their hour of need. It established a Children’s Funeral Fund meaning that, across Wales, with the support of funeral directors and many local authorities and others, parents could bury their children without the added worry about how they could afford it.
Many times, over the last year, MPs from all parties have pressed the government to show compassion  and to work with others to follow the Welsh model. There have been many discussions with Ministers and hopes have been raised.
Unfortunately, the government has failed to act and two budgets have passed without any positive announcement about the relatively small sum of money required to bring this scheme into being.
Today, I – together with MPs from all parties – have written to the Prime Minister to ask her, once again, to take the initiative to help bereaved parents across the country. We want to ensure that parents, already struggling to cope with the cruellest fate life has dealt them, do not have to face the added burden of indebtedness.
If you support us, please write to the Prime Minister and tell her so.