Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Silent Killer

A report published this week by the Gas Safety Trust reveals a dramatic rise in the number of deaths resulting from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in the UK since 2010.

The Gas Safety Trust, the prime source for data relating to gas safety in the UK, published the Carbon Monoxide Hotspot Report 2011, which contains the reported figures of gas-related CO incidents gained from media report gathering throughout the UK.

In the 12-month period between 1st July 2010 and 30th June 2011 there were 50-recorded incidents involving CO poisoning. Of the 105 people involved in these incidents, there were 25 fatalities and 80 injuries without fatal consequences, over three times as many fatalities as were reported in 2010.

I attended the launch of the report in the House of Commons this week to show support for the report’s recommendations to improve CO safety awareness and to reduce the number of fatalities.

The report shows the potential and real dangers from CO poisoning. Particularly at risk are people living in private rented accommodation, which is obviously a huge concern.

It’s essential that domestic gas users, get their gas appliances serviced regularly, get an audible CO alarm and for those with chimneys, ensure they get them swept regularly.

These things are not optional extras; they don’t have to cost a fortune, but the price of not doing them can be very high.

The Gas Safety Trust is calling for UK householders to be more aware of the dangers of CO, known as the ‘silent killer’ because you cannot smell, taste, hear or see its presence, particularly as the time for turning on central heating approaches.

October through to March is the high-risk period, during which 72% of CO related incidents occur. The number of incidents peaked in December 2010 when the UK experienced widespread snow and the coldest December for 100 years.

Despite the dramatic rise in recorded incidents, the Gas Safety Trust warns the real figures could actually be much higher.

Nigel Dumbrell, Head of Charitable Operations at the Gas Safety Trust is concerned that: ‘While deaths and serious injuries from CO exposure are relatively straightforward to record, the data does not reveal the extent of what might be termed ‘near misses’. The records do not capture information about the number of people who are unwittingly exposed to low levels of CO poisoning; levels that may cause long-term ill health, but go undetected.’

The Gas Safety Trust says further awareness activity is also needed to increase the proportion of households with a CO alarm, given the role of alarms in saving people from serious injury and death. Of all the CO incidents recorded, no incident involving an alarm resulted in a fatality or serious injury.

Planning Change

The new Conservative-led government said it was going to scrap top-down planning and give power back to local communities. In truth, it is proposing to scrap one national planning framework and replace it with another.

The proposals have provoked huge controversy. The CBI, Chambers of Commerce and the Housebuilders’ Federation have weighed in behind the proposals, as they believe they would give priority to economic development over other considerations. The National Trust, the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England, and some national newspapers have come out strongly against the proposals, as they believe they would result in a huge development shift to green-field sites.

Changes to planning law introduced by the last Labour government ensured that priority was given to redeveloping brown-field sites – that is those sites on which there had previously been development. The result was dramatic as, by 2009, 70% of new housing development was taking place on brown-field sites, compared to less than 30% a decade earlier.

Locally, this meant that some areas close to Eckington and Mosborough, like Bridle Stiles, became protected from new housing development. It also meant that new house-building was taking place in Darnall and Attercliffe, where local people – and shops and businesses – wanted to re-build sustainable communities.

From talking to people throughout my constituency over many years, I know that they’ve strongly supported that re-balancing of development. Older communities have got renewal and given support to sustaining community facilities, like schools, shops and local traders. Meanwhile, local countryside has been saved from development. I sense that local people are very concerned that the government’s current proposals appear to risk changing that balance.

Leave aside the thousands of words, a key test for me will be whether the new planning framework continues to protect areas like Bridle Stiles from development and encourages the renewal of areas like Attercliffe and Darnall. We shall see.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

Over the past few weeks, there seem to have been a lot of government announcements, where the headline doesn’t match the reality.

Last week, Iain Duncan Smith announced that he had secured another £300m to support changes to his proposals for Universal Benefit which he said would be good news for working families. Sounds great, doesn’t it? However, closer examination of the detail showed that working families who claim the childcare element of working tax credit will lose £884 a year if they claim for one child and £1560 a year for two children. If that is good news, I hate to think what the bad news looks like.

Then, Eric Pickles announced that he would provide funds to councils so that council tax wouldn’t need to increase next year. Let’s just forget for a moment that this intervention runs totally contrary to his Localism policy, it sounds good doesn’t it? Unfortunately, when councils looked at the detail, they discovered that the additional funds were for one year only and, therefore, that would mean an automatic 5% increase in 2013 in addition to any other inflation. Not so good, eh?

And then, George Osborne welcomed the Bank of England’s announcement that it was going to pump another £75bn into the UK economy through quantitative easing – this is basically lending money to the banks so that they can lend it to businesses. This was clear recognition that the government’s policy of cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast is just not working, as the latest economic growth – or, rather, non-growth – figures show.

George Osborne’s welcome to this was a little surprising to those who remember his earlier statements where he had described quantitative easing as ‘the last resort of desperate governments’ and ‘carelessly irresponsible’ and ‘quantitative easing is an admission of failure and carries considerable risk”.

Smoke and mirrors?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Rewarding the wrong behaviour

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that children thrive best and achieve most when they are brought up in a stable relationship. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that the primary responsibility for nurturing and bringing up children rests with the parents. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that the role of the state isn’t to support parents in fulfilling those responsibilities.

I believe that the last Labour government’s policies were entirely in line with those statements. In fact, I can’t think of any policy which that government pursued which ran counter to those views.

The introduction of the minimum wage and working families’ tax credits – and real-terms increases in child benefit - were primarily aimed at supporting families and produced dramatic improvements in the incomes of many families, helping them to be self-sustaining. Sure Start was all about helping parents to do the best for their children.

So, as the current government is making significant cuts in all that support for families – and especially working families – we need to look a little sceptically when Ministers say that they are going to support children by “giving married couples a tax break”. David Cameron says that “in this Parliament the government will recognise marriage in the tax system.”

On the face of it, that doesn’t sound unreasonable. But, just examine what it actually means in practice.

Over the years, I have spent considerable time in my surgeries trying to assist (usually) women who have found themselves in dire financial straits after the breakdown of their marriages. Too often, the departed (usually) husband has not been paying any or sufficient maintenance – either awarded by the court or through the Child Support Agency. Too frequently, the individual has described how the errant partner has divorced and re-married and appears to be enjoying a financially secure new life, whilst leaving the first wife and children in penury.

So, David Cameron now intends to reward the errant husband for being married, whilst penalizing the innocent wife and children of the first marriage just because they’re now a single family, but not of their choosing.

That doesn’t sound very moral to me.

Monday, 10 October 2011

On yer bike!

Older readers will remember back to 1981, when Conservative Minister Norman Tebbit told the unemployed to get on their bikes and look for work. This was in the middle of a five year period when Sheffield lost 50,000 jobs – mainly in steel and engineering.

Recently, in an echo of Tebbit’s comment, Conservative Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith said that the unemployed should “get on a bus” to look for work.

Again, older readers will recall with nostalgia, Sheffield’s cheap bus fares’ policy of the same era. Margaret Thatcher put an end to that when she deregulated and privatised bus services. Unsurprisingly, bus fares rose dramatically, bus frequencies declined, passenger numbers fell by 30% and we ended up with congested roads.

Now, as a result of the Government’s spending cuts, we should expect another round of big fare rises and cuts in services. Firstly, there is to be a front-loaded 28% cut to local transport funding. This is used to fund ‘non-profitable’ bus services – especially evening, weekend and rural routes. Then, next January, the threat to local bus services will become even more serious thanks to the 20% cut in the bus operators’ fuel subsidy (BSOG).

So, as bus fares rise and frequency declines, and as unemployment increases as the Government fails to have a growth strategy to go with its deficit reduction strategy, shall we hear a repeat of ‘on yer bike’?

Of course, pensioners will need to get their bikes out as well. David Cameron will be able to say that he kept his election promise to retain pensioners’ bus passes. But a pass isn’t much use if there isn’t a bus to travel on.

And now the Government has announced that it is withdrawing the subsidy which provides pensioners’ concessionary fares on coach services.

Happy pedaling!