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.