Monday, 31 December 2018

A licence to break a promise?

Free TV licences for over 75s were introduced in 2000, when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.
The rationale was that the TV plays an important tool in the battle against loneliness and social isolation. Four in 10 older people say the television is their main source of company. Many are unable to enjoy other social activities. Christmas is a particularly bad time for loneliness; analysis by Age UK found that almost a million pensioners wouldn’t have seen or heard from anyone over the festive period.
The cost of the free licences is expected to reach £745m by 2021/22 and will continue to rise because of the increasing numbers of older people. This is equivalent to about a fifth of the BBC’s budget - the equivalent to what is spent today on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, CBBC and CBeebies. 
As part of the negotiations in 2014/15 over the TV Licence Fee, the BBC Governors foolishly agreed that the BBC would take responsibility for the cost of pensioners’ free licences, despite not having the resources to fund them in the longer-term. Basically, the Conservative government had threatened a lower Licence Fee – and therefore less money for the BBC – if they didn’t agree. This meant that, starting from this year, the BBC has taken responsibility for funding free TV licence fees of those over 75 and it also has the power to scrap or reduce the number or scope of free licences.
Along with my Labour colleagues, I opposed this move at the time, and throughout the passage of the legislation - Digital Economy Act – through Parliament. When Conservative Ministers were challenged about this, they denied that Free TV Licences for over 75s were under threat.
Under further challenge during the 2017 general election campaign, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto promised to “maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament”, that is until 2022.
But now, the BBC has started a consultation on whether to scrap free licences completely, or to raise the age threshold or to means test access to a free licence from 2020. Under each of the changes proposed by the BBC in their consultation, millions of pensioners will lose their free licences.
Nationally, if the free licence is linked to pension credit, i.e. means tested, over 3 million people would lose their free licence. If the eligibility age was raised to 80 over 1.8 million older people would lose their free licences.
In my constituency, about 6500 pensioners – nearly 4000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 67% of them – more than 4300 – would lose eligibility if it were dependent on pension credit. Nearly 40% - more than 2500 – would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
In South Yorkshire, about 100,000 pensioners – some 75000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 78,000 would lose out if eligibility was dependent on pension credit. And more than 40,000 households would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
The prospect of elderly people losing their free TV Licence makes a mockery of Mrs May’s claim that austerity is over. If she has any integrity, she would step in now and keep to the promise she made.

Conservative ideology is costing us all

The Conservatives’ ideological commitment to “public sector bad; private sector good” is costing us all. It is what drives their privatisation and outsourcing instincts.
When it is combined with ‘light touch’ regulation and contract management – with inadequate resources being committed to tender assessment and contract monitoring – we end up with poor value-for-money, service specifications not being delivered, incompetent directors being paid millions before they walk away from the disasters they have left behind, and shareholders extracting millions in dividends whilst the public picks up the cost of their failure to pay appropriate pension contributions.
There is still a long, long way to go to get to the bottom of the Carillion collapse. Amongst others, the Insolvency Service and the Official Receiver are still investigating. The £5.2bn-turnover company collapsed owing banks about £1.3bn. It had just £29m of cash and a £600m pension deficit. About 3,000 people were made redundant, although 14,000 jobs were saved after contracts were shifted to other providers.
When stories circulated that Carillion’s sub-contractors on government tendered projects were not being paid on time, more questions arose. It was then revealed that Carillion was not including 30 day payment clauses in its public sector contracts with subcontractors, which is required by the Public Contract Regulations. If the Government did not detect this behaviour by one of its biggest strategic suppliers, what confidence can any of us have in its overall approach to public procurement?
Over the last year, the share value of another big government contractor, Interserve, has fallen by 90%. It’s in financial crisis, desperately trying to restructure its £650m debts. It has more than £1bn of live public sector contracts with police forces, universities, hospitals, transport executives, local authorities and central government departments.
The Government recently said that they "do not believe that any strategic supplier is in a similar situation to Carillion…” and, throughout the last few months, has continued to award new contracts worth millions, despite the company’s solvency being in serious question.
What cannot be questioned is that its Purple Futures subsidiary has simply failed to perform in its delivery of probation services in five privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), where it is meant to be managing a total of around 40,000 “low and medium” risk offenders for our public protection.
You might think that awarding new public sector contracts to a company in financial crisis and with a track record in failing to deliver what is specified is unacceptable. I agree.
So, what do you think of the latest revelation about this government’s procurement?
As the government thrashes around desperately trying to arrange emergency measures in case we crash out of the EU without a deal, it has arranged a £13.8m contract to run additional ferries across the Channel between Ramsgate and Ostend with a new company called Seaborne Freight, despite it never having run a ferry service nor managed shipping arrangements before.
Is it any surprise that local Conservative Councillor Paul Messenger asked “It has no ships and no trading history, so how can due diligence be done? Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in its entire history…?”
Good questions!

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

No room at the Inn.

At this time of year, millions of people, in churches, schools and homes, will be celebrating the birth of Jesus, in a stable because there was no room at the inn.
Last week, the Britannia Hotel in Hull cancelled and returned the £1092 payment – funded by donations - that had been made by the Raise the Roof Homeless Project to accommodate 28 homeless people over Christmas. No reason was given for the decision until, under pressure from media enquiries, Britannia Hotels said it had cancelled the booking after receiving reports that the group has caused “a serious problem” while staying at the Ibis hotel last year. However, no evidence to support the assertion was produced, and Ibis Hotels also denied that this had been the case.
The good news was that, on hearing this sad story, Doubletree by Hilton Hull stepped in and offered to accommodate the group for two nights, with breakfast and Xmas dinner included, on a complimentary basis. I say ‘Well done, Doubletree. You’ve managed to wrap up the Christmas story and the Parable of the Good Samaritan in one deed.’
I leave you to your own thoughts about Britannia Hotels’ conduct. However, it would be wrong to omit the fact that, having suffered considerable adverse publicity, Britannia subsequently reversed its decision …but by then it was too late.
Could this reputational damage be justified? I simply note that, last month, in a survey by Which? TravelBritannia Hotels was voted the worst UK hotel chain for the sixth consecutive year, with nearly a quarter of guests making official complaints about poor customer service, rooms and food.
Obviously, Raise the Roof had not done their research before making the booking with Britannia. Fortuitously, 28 people now appear to be looking forward to a much better experience than might reasonably have been expected!
Twenty years ago, the incoming Labour government inherited yet another Conservative homelessness crisis.  So, in 1999, Tony Blair launched Coming in from the Cold, a radical plan to tackle homelessness. As well as accommodation, the scheme included money for night squads, hostels and mental health teams. Within two years, homelessness was cut by two-thirds and rough-sleeping by three-quarters.
Rough sleeping remained below 500 people until 2010 when, first, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and, then, subsequent Conservative governments effectively abandoned those becoming homeless. Homelessness and rough-sleeping have dramatically increased throughout the country. The government’s own figures reveal that rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010. Since October last year, an estimated 484 people have died homeless. Last winter one in four severe weather services had to turn rough sleepers away.
As my colleague John Healey (Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, in Rotherham and Barnsley) said this week:
It beggars belief that, in twenty-first century Britain, there are parts of the country in which there is little or no shelter for those sleeping on the streets during extreme cold weather, and that the Government doesn’t even know which areas have this provision.
Don’t ever tell me that voting doesn’t make a difference. For tens of thousands of people, the election outcomes over the last twenty years have determined whether they slept in a dry, warm bed or on the cold, wet streets.
John Healey also announced Labour plans to give every rough sleeper a roof over their head – funded by the previously announced levy on second homes used as holiday homes - and to tackle the root causes of rising homelessness, with an end to the freeze on benefits, new rights for renters and a million low-cost homes.
However, as well as the big policies which are designed to dramatically cut homelessness and rough sleeping, we are all regularly faced with particular decisions about how we respond to individuals who are sleeping or begging on the street. It doesn’t matter whether we are in the High Street, or in our district shopping centre, or going to our local supermarket, we are likely to be confronted by someone sat on the pavement asking for our change. What to do?
In that context, I’m pleased to support the initiative HelpUsHelp – a coalition of residents’ groups, various charities and projects concerned with homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and domestic violence and Sheffield City Council - which is encouraging people to get involved helping people who beg and sleep rough in the city, but also offering advice on how we can best help.
HelpUsHelp advises:
  • Give time or donations to charities that provide support – research shows that giving money directly to people who beg can do more harm than good
  • Have a chat with someone and encourage them to access support services
  • Give food or drink rather than money
  • Buy a Big Issue. Vendors buy the Big Issue North and then sell it on to their customers. Vendors are working, not begging, and need public support
Although this is a Sheffield initiative, I’m sure the principles will be widely supported by agencies throughout South Yorkshire and neighbouring areas.
You can find out more at

Monday, 17 December 2018

The best start…your say

Are you a parent or an expectant parent? What is your experience of using public services such as GPs, midwives, health visitors, antenatal care and children’s centres?
The period of a child's life from in the womb through birth to the early years are vital to her or his physical, mental and emotional health and development. Problems that occur in this period can not only affect a person’s childhood, but the rest of their life: their physical and mental health, their ability to learn, communicate and manage their emotions.
Therefore, it may be surprising, even counter-intuitive, that the bulk of public spending during a child's life comes in their teenage years. There is a strong case for investing public money much earlier. There is certainly a renewed interest in earlier intervention. This is not just to do with maximising potential, but also to address anti-social behaviours and to divert children from crime.
This renewed interest is occurring at the same time that the government has been making huge cuts in the resources for supporting the youngest children (for example, more than 1000 SureStart Centres have closed since 2010 and more will close in the next 12 months) and in diverting young teenagers (for example, resources for crime prevention schemes and youth services designed to keep children out of crime have been cut by more than half since 2010).
All parents need support during pregnancy and their children’s early years from their families and friends, but also from local public services (e.g. midwives, GPs, children centres and health visitors). These services can help to identify problems in a child’s development and provide support for parents and families to help make sure children are given the best start in life. 
Although parents have the primary role, we all have an interest in trying to ensure that children are kept safe and secure and reach their full potential. In turn, when we are in our dotage, we hope that some of them will be helping to keep us safe and secure.
Now, the all-party House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, which is responsible for holding the government to account on its policies and performance, is seeking parents’ views on the challenges of, and about the support they received, during the first years of their child’s life, from conception to the age of 2.
In an earlier report, the Committee concluded:
“In an ideal world, all children should be wanted, nurtured, loved, protected and valued by emotionally available and sensitively responsive parents. Such an environment allows the child to develop in the most optimal way, with emotional wellbeing, capacity to form and maintain relationships, healthy brain and language development leading onto cognitive development, school readiness and lifelong learning.”
According to that report, providing positive childhood experiences during their early years could reduce the following later in life:
  • hard drug use by 59%
  • incarceration by 53% 
  • violence by 51% 
  • unplanned teen pregnancies by 38%
To achieve that would be a tremendous bonus to thousands of young adults as well as a major contribution to our ambitions of having a healthier society in social and economic terms.
Earlier this month, the Committee heard expert evidence from senior doctors, nurses, policy analysts, professional bodies and charities.  Now it wants parents’ views.
The Committee is interested in hearing from parents from all walks of life, but because they are usually under-represented in consultations, the Committee especially wants to encourage contributions from those who:
  • Live in poorly connected or rural areas
  • Are first-time parents
  • Are single parents
  • Do not have English as a first language
Your contribution will be anonymous. Have your say at
Do it this week!

The Right to Privacy and the Digital Revolution

Are you interested in the collection and analysis of ‘big data’? Are you concerned about the impact the collection of data could have on protecting human rights?
Are you affronted and seriously worried about the amount of data that the government (or ‘the state’) has about you? Or, are you more like me, much more concerned by the amount of data that your bank and supermarket have about you, your habits, and your life?
Are you horrified by the experience of reading your online newspaper or magazine, only to find yourself being targeted with adverts relating to other internet searches you have recently completed?
Do you believe like me that, if we are serious about controlling migration and about ensuring that only those entitled to get access to our public services and benefits, it is inevitable that the UK (like nearly every other country) will end up with each of us having some form of ID entitlement card? In fact, most of us have one already; it’s called a passport.
More recently, we have all started to gain an inkling about the extent to which private companies (and especially the big technology companies) are collecting, aggregating, analysing and selling data about us. This has not just been to other advertisers but, as recent investigations – some criminal, some by investigative journalists, some by democratic institutions – have revealed, our data has been sold to political agents, wealthy ideological obsessives and, almost certainly, to foreign governments who don’t have our best interests at heart.
Since the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year, the role of the big tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple in protecting the right to privacy is increasingly coming under scrutiny, with greater pressure for regulation. The increasingly rapid development of Artificial Intelligence presents some of the most challenging ethical and social questions – in both the public and private sector.
Now, the all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights – it has members from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords – has embarked on an inquiry into whether new safeguards to regulate the collection, use, tracking, retention and disclosure of personal data by private companies are needed in the new digital environment to protect human rights.
The key human right at risk is the right to private and family life (Article 8 ECHR), but freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR), freedom of association (Article 11), and non-discrimination (Article 14 ECHR) are also at risk.
The Committee is seeking written evidence on the threats posed to human rights by the collection, use and storage of personal data by private companies and examples of where they have been breached. In particular, it is interested in the following questions:
  • Are some uses of data by private companies so intrusive that states would be failing in their duty to protect human rights if they did not intervene?
    - If so, what uses are too intrusive, and what rights are potentially at issue?
  • Are consumers and individuals aware of how their data is being used, and do they have sufficient real choice to consent to this?
  • What regulation is necessary and proportionate to protect individual rights without interfering unduly with freedom to use and develop new technology?
  • If action is needed, how much can be done at national level, and how much needs international cooperation?
  • To what extent do international human rights standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, have a role to play in preventing private companies from breaching individuals’ rights to privacy?
Written submissions should be no more than 3,000 words, and the deadline for submissions is Thursday 31 January 2019.
There is an online submission form at:

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Learning for the future

I have been a long-time supporter of devolution, which is why I’ve supported the development of the Sheffield City Region (SCR), because the current economy and the future economic challenges for South Yorkshire are quite different from those facing North Yorkshire or the East Yorkshire coast, let alone Yorkshire or England as a whole.
In 2015, the Government began to devolve powers to mayoral combined authorities. While there were and still are differing views about the requirements to have a mayor there was general agreement that devolution should be based on city regions as coherent areas of local economic activity. The powers to be devolved were related to improving the economic performance of those areas such as skills, transport and new business development, which is quite distinct from devolution to Scotland and Wales and to the Regional Assembly proposals of a decade ago.
A recent research report clearly demonstrated that adjacent smaller towns acting in cooperation with bigger successful cities are economically and socially much healthier than towns which sought to go it alone. That is why a devolved city region model is so important to Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. It is also crucially important to the travel-to-work areas In North Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire. I am sure that is why, when the SCR is up and running, there will be a renewed interest in engagement from those areas.
The challenges for SCR are not just about economic regeneration but also about diversifying the economy, securing additional jobs which match the potential highly qualified workforce who come from our universities and want to stay in the area. But, with too few jobs to match the talents of our cities, we need to focus on nurturing and supporting 21st century businesses. And we need more training opportunities to improve the skills and pay levels of the population in general.
We have some excellent examples of what can be achieved when councils, education institutions at the forefront of technological change, skills providers, and businesses and entrepreneurs do get their act together. The development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, with its 600-place apprentice training facility, the opening of plants by Rolls Royce, Boeing and McLaren and the proposal for an innovation corridor stretching from the Olympic Legacy Park to the Doncaster-Sheffield Airport are some of the many positives already happening.
All of that has been achieved despite the government’s failing further education and skills’ development policies.
  • The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recently concluded that “The government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships has prioritised quantity over quality and should be scrapped.”
  • The Chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, says that the sustainability and quality of further education and skills provision have been hit by the cuts to their funding.
  • Further and adult education have suffered severe budget cuts of more than £3 billion in real terms since 2010, that’s over one quarter of funding. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies states that further education has been ‘the biggest loser’ in education spending over the last 25 years.
  • The cuts have had a huge impact on the number of adult learners. In the last ten years, the number of enrolments has declined from 5.1 million to 1.9 million, a drop of 62%.
  • And, now, in the last year, after the apprenticeship levy was introduced, we have seen apprenticeship starts fall by 157,000, a decline of 34%.
The sooner the Sheffield City Region is up and running properly and taking over responsibility for local further education and skills’ development the better it will be for all of South Yorkshire.
In other research published this week, over-65s are much more likely to think that apprenticeships offer the best opportunity for progression, compared to the young people that many of these roles are aimed at. Younger people, in comparison, thought higher education offered a better opportunity.
That means that we all – employers, teachers, parents and grand-parents – have a huge task in persuading our teenagers that a modern, high-quality apprenticeship is worth chasing and securing. Their futures and our economic future depend on it.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway

Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway…” was the message that the government sent to councils, of all political controls and none, when it cancelled the Local Government Finance Settlement announcement last week and deferred it to a date yet to be announced.
Only a few weeks ago, I wrote that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had brought forward his statement on the Budget and Spending Review for 2019/20, there was absolutely no excuse for the government to repeat its trick of delaying the announcement, until the last day that parliament sits before the Christmas recess, to avoid scrutiny and challenge.
There was no excuse for this delay which showed the Government has lost touch with the reality facing councils. The delay just adds further uncertainty and chaos for councillors who are desperately struggling to maintain important, effective services to their local communities.
The debate is no longer party political. Conservative council leaders across the country are shouting about the impact of the government’s cuts on their services. Just how out of touch is Mrs May when she announced ‘the end of austerity’?
You deserve to have the facts, as confirmed by the National Audit Office (NAO), the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and many more reputable commentators:
  • Since 2010, the government has cut grant to councils by 60%. To think about it another way, just consider the impact on your household if, for every £1 you earned in 2010, your employer was now just paying you 40p.
  • By 2020, local authorities will have faced cuts to core funding of nearly £16 billion since 2010, compared to 2000/10. The Conservative-led Local Government Association (LGA) says a further £1.3bn will be cut in 2019/20 under current plans. This amounts to 36% of their budgets. Research by the LGA has found that local government will face an almost £8 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • There has been no fairness about the distribution of the cuts. The poorest local authorities (which tend to be northern and urban) have had their spending cut by £228 per person since 2010, but the richest councils (mainly southern and rural) have had their spending cut by only £44. I leave you to draw your own conclusion about the reason for this but, let’s just say that, there is an absence of political impartiality. Next year, 168 councils will receive no more core central government funding at all.
  • What this government gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Having made great play of its decision to devolve public health services to councils – good news – the government immediately announced that it was cutting the funding for public health by around £531 million (over 14%). It then proceeded to blame councils which had been forced to cut services previously funded by that budget. Talk about blaming the victim!
  • Income support – like for Council Tax – is meant to be part of a national policy to get a minimum income to the lowest earners. But, between 2013 and 2020, the government is cutting nearly half of the original funding – a £1.7 billion cut – meaning that nearly 600,000 low income households no longer receive any council tax support at all and millions more low-earning households have had that benefit cut.
  • Despite an increase in the elderly population and an increasingly care-and-support needing elderly population, there have been big cuts in government financial support for adult social care. There are 500,000 fewer elderly people receiving support now than in 2010, and charges have rocketed. Councils are spending £6 billion less in adult social care, despite making big cuts to other council services to help fund care. Councils are receiving almost 5,000 requests for social care every day. Over the last six months, more than 8,000 people have been affected by care homes or home care providers either pulling out of contracts or closing completely.
  • This government’s shambolic housing policy – as well as cutting home ownership by making it unaffordable to young buyers and forcing big rent increases and lack of security on private tenants – has left local councils currently housing more than 79,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation. More than 120,000 children will spend this Christmas in over-crowded and poor-quality temporary accommodation and hostels, often many miles away from adults’ jobs, children’s schools and family support.
  • Last year, we saw the biggest annual increase in children in care since 2010 and councils are now starting 500 child protection investigations every day. The cuts and increased demand for urgent intervention has resulted in councils spending less on early intervention and cuts in grants to the voluntary sector. Children's services face a £3 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • In 2017/2018, councils spent more than £816 million over budget on children’s services and adult social care. They did this by making big cuts in other important services. That’s why there have been big cuts in, especially rural, bus services leading to fewer routes, fewer passengers and increased car congestion. Hundreds of libraries have been closed, the number of youth clubs has halved as has the budget for services designed to prevent teenagers falling in to crime, the numbers of potholes have dramatically increased (Sheffield being an exception) and park maintenance has taken a big hit.
Mrs May and her government are not only responsible for the Brexit shambles, they are also responsible for the big cuts in the local services which we all rely on. It’s little wonder that people think the country is going downhill under her leadership.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

It’s a knotty problem

As the national and parliamentary debate about Brexit continues, I often take wry amusement from the contributions of some arch-Brexiteers about the way in which we need to return to “our British way of life”.
I heard one such contributor on the radio recently speak with proud anticipation of his ‘traditional British Christmas dinner’, apparently with little understanding of the origin of the varieties of food which appear on that plate.
Of course, turkeys were originally imported from China, potatoes were brought by the Spanish from South America, sprouts were first grown in Ancient Rome and then in Germany and Belgium long before they reached the UK, sage and onion came from Mediterranean countries, carrots variously from what is now called Afghanistan and Turkey, and the raisins and sultanas for our Christmas puddings were from the grapes cultivated in Greece, Turkey and what we used to call Asia Minor, sweetened by sugar from cane grown in the Caribbean and flavoured with spices from the East Indies. So far as I am concerned, our diet and food has been vastly improved by these imports.
Similarly, there are thousands of plants which enhance British gardens and parks which had their origins thousands of miles away. The wonderful British institution, Kew Garden, is now the repository of tens of thousands of seeds from plants and trees from throughout the world.
However, there are a few plant imports which we could do without. In particular, there are three non-native species which have caused serious damage to our environment, the economy and occasionally to our health.
Giant Hogweed and Himalayan Balsam caused havoc with the environment, especially around rivers and streams. They crowded out other plants, changed the habitat and nature of water-courses, and deleteriously impacted on local ecologies, especially the diversity of small mammals, fish and insects.
But it is Japanese Knotweed which has most often been the focus of attention in urban areas, as it thrives in places where the native flora is already impoverished. The rhizomes (roots) have an ability to travel a long way underground before the two metre stems and large triangular leaves surface.
So big a problem did it become that its control was specifically addressed in the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. Under Sec 14 of that Act, it is an offence to plant or cause Japanese Knotweed to grow in the wild. A magistrates’ court can impose a maximum fine of £5000 or a maximum prison sentence of six months, or both. A Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine or a maximum prison sentence of two years, or both.
Although not a statutory nuisance, allowing Japanese Knotweed to spread onto neighbouring land could be considered to be a private nuisance. This means that if you had Japanese Knotweed on your land and you allowed it to spread to neighbouring land, the owners of that land could take civil action against you.  That is why you will find that if you are selling land or trying to insure your home, you will be asked to make a declaration about Knotweed.
Under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, Japanese Knotweed is ‘controlled waste’ and must be safely disposed of at an appropriately licensed landfill site. Contaminated soils must be buried to a depth of at least 5 metres. All waste producers to ensure that a written description of the waste and any specific harmful properties is provided to the site operator.  Other regulations also apply.
So, there are strict legal requirements applying if you have Japanese Knotweed on your land, and it can be very costly both to ignore it and to deal with it.
However, some people have questioned whether the physical and environmental damage caused by Japanese Knotweed is as great as previously claimed and whether its existence is over-regulated.
That is why the all-party Science and Technology Committee has decided to hold a short inquiry, specifically to explore the science behind the effects of Japanese Knotweed on the built environment.
The Committee has invited expert submissions on the following issues by Monday 31 December:
  • What scientific evidence exists on the effects of Japanese Knotweed on the built environment;
  • How the presence of Japanese Knotweed in the UK affects mortgage lending decisions and property valuations;
  • Whether mortgage lending decisions relating to the presence of Japanese Knotweed are currently based on sound scientific evidence of its effects on the built environment; and
  • What guidance for the sector currently exists, the impact of existing legislation, and how else evidence-based responses to the presence of Japanese Knotweed can be encouraged.
You can submit written evidence at
But the Committee is also interested to hear from people about their experiences of dealing with Japanese Knotweed, whether as a homeowner, tenant, prospective purchaser or developer. You can tell the Committee about your personal experiences by completing a dedicated webform at
It’s certainly a knotty problem. You can help decide how it is dealt with in the future.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Take a deep breath – no yet!

Most people under the age of 50 will have no memory of the choking smogs from which Sheffield – and most other cities – suffered in to the 1960s.
Concerns about Sheffield’s air quality go back over 400 years. It was a combination of industrial pollution, from the city’s heavy industrial production, and domestic pollution from open coal fires, which heated most homes. It was well described in George Orwell’s 1936 visit to the city: "Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World..."
Dramatic improvements were made between 1959 and 1972 when smokeless zones were established across the city, when residents could get grants to replace their coal fires with gas. Mrs Thatcher’s industrial strategy made its own impact in the 1980s as Sheffield’s steel, engineering and coal mining was devastated. It has effectively taken another 40 years to get to the position where parts of the Lower Don Valley can be redeveloped, including for housing.
However, concerns about air quality in parts of Sheffield – especially the city centre and near to the MI – continue. This is mainly due to nearly invisible pollutants from domestic and commercial vehicles, especially particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5); of most concern are nitrogen dioxide and fine dust particulates.
Poor air quality contributes to the early deaths of up to 40,000 people each year. Diseases attributable to air pollution in the UK result in over £20 billion in economic costs each year.
 In 2014, nine English towns and cities, including Sheffield, were named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for breaching safety guidelines for air pollution. The latest WHO report states that at least 37 UK towns and cities are in breach of the WHO air quality standards for PM2.5, whilst a minimum of 10 UK town and cities breach their standards for PM10s. This is significantly higher than the five cities required to deliver Clean Air zones by the end of 2019.
Locally, there are automatic air monitoring stations measuring a variety of pollutants in areas of most concern and 160 locations across the city where just nitrogen dioxide levels are monitored.
Today’s challenge is to make as big a breakthrough on traffic pollution as the city’s leaders made on smog 50 years ago. If all buses and taxis in the city were low emission – and a good start has been made with the introduction of new buses - that would cut nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas by about 20 per cent, two-thirds of the way towards the required 30 per cent reduction.
Many MPs and the Local Government Association, as well as health campaigners, have been pressing the government to act. But the Coalition and Conservative government ministers have been unwilling to get to grips with the challenges. The government has had to be dragged through the courts every step of the way.
In February this year, the government was defeated in court for the third time in three years.  What's more, the judge was highly critical, saying that this was the third unsuccessful attempt by the government to produce a plan to bring down air pollution to legal levels as quickly as possible. He said ‘The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough... and it seems the court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved.’ Effectively, in a decision which the judge described as ‘wholly exceptional’, the court said it was going to oversee the government’s plans.
The government’s air quality strategy, unveiled in May, was hugely disappointing. Again, it simply fails to rise to the challenge.
For many years, I have been specifically pressing the government about the need to take action in respect of pollution from the M1, over which the city council has no power but whose concerns led to one school having to be relocated to protect children’s health. Ministerial response has been to duck and dive.
However, at the very least now, ministers seem to understand that they will have to act in a number of ways to cut the M1 pollution.
Last week, my colleague, Paul Blomfield (MP, Sheffield Central) and I again pressed the case with the Minister in the House of Commons. The response? After encouraging Sheffield City Council to ‘considering introducing a charging clean air zone (in the city centre) – which will undoubtedly be controversial, on the M1 issue, the Minister said:
My Department (DEFRA) and the Department for Transport have a joint air quality unit, and I am in regular contact with Highways England about its progress on improving air quality on the strategic road network. I welcome the work that it is considering to change speed limits and to install the barriers to which the hon. Gentleman referred.”
So, don’t take a deep breath … yet.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Land value – time for reform

Land value – time for reform
In September, I wrote1 about the investigation by and the report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, which I chair, in to Land Values.2 3
I am pleased to say that a wide range of organisations and individuals, across the political and professional spectrum, have also now reflected on the issues and concluded that there has to be significant change in the way in which land is valued and the way in which any uplift in value arising from a change in its planning status is distributed and used. In particular, we want to see a reduction in the cost of land for housing, which could make a significant contribution towards making housing more affordable.
Last weekend, co-ordinated by Onward4 , we5 published an Open Letter which was published in the Sunday Telegraph. It read:
Sharing land value with communities
The root of England’s housing crisis lies in how we buy and sell land. When agricultural land is granted planning permission for housing to be built, the land typically becomes at least 100 times more valuable.
We, the undersigned, believe that more of this huge uplift in value should be captured to provide benefits to the community. If there was more confidence that more of the gains from development would certainly be invested in better places and better landscaping; in attractive green spaces; and in affordable housing and public services like new doctors’ surgeries and schools, then there would be less opposition to new development and much better infrastructure.
The Government should think radically about reforming the way we capture planning gain for the community.
  • First, they should monitor the implementation of their welcome changes to Section 106 to ensure that councils deliver and that developers do not continue to wriggle out of their commitments.
  • Next, they could give local government a stronger role in buying and assembling land for housing, allowing them to plan new developments more effectively, share the benefits for the community and approve developments in places local people accept.
  • Most importantly, they should reform the 1961 Land Compensation Act to clarify that local authorities should be able to compulsorily purchase land at fair market value that does not include prospective planning permission, rather than speculative “hope” value.
Too often in Britain new housing is not good enough and comes without the infrastructure and public services required to support it. Other countries do a better job of making attractive new places to live, by making sure that development profits the community as a whole. Unless we learn from them, Britain’s housing crisis will remain.
Yesterday, it was revealed that there had been another disastrous fall in the number of homes built for social rent last year. Just 6,463 social rent homes were built in England in 2017-18, compared to around 30,000 10 years ago.
Up and down the country, in urban and rural areas, the government’s housing policies have proved disastrous for millions of individuals and families. There is a near unanimous recognition that, for many years to come, we need to build many tens of thousands of new affordable homes to rent and to buy.
In respect of land values, we need to be as bold as the architects of the post-war 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. It is a reform whose time has come.
1 Let’s value our land, 13 September 2018,
2 You can find all the evidence and reports at
3 Land Value Capture
4 Onward
5 A wide range of signatories including Labour MPs Clive Betts, Hilary Benn, Matt Western and Karen Buck; Conservative MPs Tom Tugenhadt, Nick Boles, Scott Mann and Ben Bradley; the directly-elected Labour Mayors of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and Conservative Mayors of Tees Valley and Peterborough; Conservative Chairs of the County Councils Network and the Local Government Association Housing Board and many others. Organisations supporting included Shelter, Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Christopher Grayling – the exception that proves the rule.

Generally, I don’t believe in personalising differences of opinion. I prefer to stick to dealing with the government’s policies and, where appropriate, being critical of them rather than the minister who is promoting them.
But, I have to tell you that I am prepared to make an exception in the case of the government’s Transport Minister, Christopher Grayling. It is quite difficult to find another example of a government minister who is such a serial offender and yet remains in denial about his performance and his actions, although Esther McVey (the recently-resigned Minister for making the poor poorer through the flawed Universal Credit scheme and for defending the family-destroying fixed-odds betting terminals) has given him a close run at times.
It is against the rules of Parliamentary debate to accuse an MP of dissembling. So, in a reversal of the intention of parliamentary privilege (to protect MPs who say things in the House of Commons which might lead them to legal action if said outside the House), let me say here that it is difficult to find any defence to the assertion that Mr Grayling is a serial dissembler.
In fact, I’m almost certain that the original version of the old joke must have been “How can you tell when Chris Grayling is not telling the truth? When his lips move.”
In 2010, when he was Shadow Home Secretary, Grayling issues press releases on crime throughout the UK which the independent Chair of the UK Statistics Authority described as "likely to mislead the public" and "likely to damage public trust in official statistics". Later that year, he spoke in favour of homophobic discrimination at a Tory think-tank meeting, until his statements were published, when he was forced into a public apology.
After the general election, he became a minister at Work and Pensions, where he implemented job centre closures and actively promoted benefit cuts.
In 2012, he became the Justice Minister. He was responsible for banning books being sent in to prisons and implemented a programme to cut the number of prison officers by 20% and increase prison privatisation. The result? The all-party Justice Select Committee accused him of being complacent about a 38% increase in prison deaths and concluded that efficiency savings and staffing shortages had made "a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety" in prisons.
The independent Chief Inspector of Prisons criticised Grayling for "robustly" interfering with the contents of reports and for using financial controls to influence what was inspected, thereby threatening the independence of the Inspector's role.
Leading barrister David Pannick QC described Grayling's performance as "notable only for his attempts to restrict judicial reviews and human rights, his failure to protect the judiciary against criticism from his colleagues and the reduction of legal aid to a bare minimum." Instead of being ashamed by his performance, Grayling appeared proud of it.
Not satisfied with making a mess of prisons, Grayling then set about a disastrous privatisation reform of probation services. The National Audit Office and the all-party Public Accounts Committee subsequently published devastating critiques of the financial and practical outcomes. Just 8 out of 24 performance targets were met and it cost an additional £350 million. In July this year, the new Justice Secretary announced that Grayling’s disastrous regime was being brought to an end two years early, and that many millions were to be spent on trying to restore decent probation services.
Grayling became Transport Secretary in 2016.
The decline in bus services has actually increased under his watch. The bus network is now smaller than it was in 1990, patronage is at a 10 year low and usage by young people has fallen by 40% since 2010 as funding has been halved.  Everyone is predicting further route cuts during thi8s and next year.
On the railways, he is planning another 3.2% increase in rail fares in January, taking this to a fare increase of 36% since 2010. Meanwhile, rail punctuality has reduced further from 91.5% in 2010 to 87.5% last year, and all the signs are that this will worsen further.
Last year, Grayling mislead the public and MPs in to believing that the long-promised electrification of the MidlandMainLine, TransPennine and GreatWestern routes were going ahead, before suddenly announcing the cancellation of that investment. Far from ending the great disparity between spending in London and the South-East, Grayling has increased the gap. Last week, an IPPR analysis showed that public spending on transport in Yorkshire and Humber fell by £18 per person last year while it increased by £90 per person in London.
Earlier this year, I went public with my claim that Grayling’s Department of Transport officers had instructed that journey times of peak-time MML trains between Sheffield and London were to get longer in order to accommodate London commuter trains. The Department put out a statement that my claim was wrong, Of course, when the timetables came out, peak-time journey times had increased. Since then, Mr Grayling has consistently refused to answer a simple question: when will Sheffield to London journey times get shorter that they were 10, 20 and 30 years’ ago?
Last week, at Transport Questions in the House of Commons, I asked My Grayling:
“On the last timetable changes Midland Main Line (run by) Stagecoach were forced to lengthen the journey times of the peak time train from Sheffield to London to accommodate more commuter trains on Thameslink. Is it true now that the Department for Transport has told Stagecoach they can’t come and revisit that in the next timetable changes because of the shambles last time and the nervousness that’s created in the department?”
He answered:
“We would dispute that we have done anything to disadvantage Sheffield to help GTR. We are doing a massive upgrade programme on the Midland Main Line at the moment … we will do everything we can do to make sure, if we can, the timetable remains as intact as possible as those changes happen.”
In other words, he is still in denial about the longer journey times set out in today’s timetable. But, he is also confirming that – despite the impression he tried to give earlier this year about any timetable changes being temporary – the situation is not going to improve, because he is frightened of another timetable shambles of the sort he oversaw earlier this year.
I am not alone in my view that this incompetent minister should resign. It’s a view echoed by public and MP alike throughout the country. Even the Yorkshire Post, not reknowned for its criticism of Conservative ministers, has oft repeated this year that “Grayling must Go.”

Monday, 19 November 2018

No Bo Jo!

Today’s papers reveal that Boris Johnson has joined the so-called Pizza Gang (all thin crust and not much on top) of five in Mrs May’s Cabinet who are busy trying to undermine her Brexit deal.
Now, let me be clear. I don’t have much time for Mrs May’s deal either, but I wouldn’t have started negotiations in the same way or from the same position as she did. I’m reminded of the story of the driver who stopped to ask a pedestrian for directions to his destination only to be met by the response “Well, if I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”
But, I’m also clear that anyone who thinks that Bo Jo is the answer – to anything, let alone on our way to leave the EU and build a new future beyond – seriously needs their head examining.
Consider the following…
First, Boris Johnson’s brother Jo was a government minister until 10 days ago when he resigned because the UK is "barrelling towards an incoherent Brexit". In numerous media interviews, he described the promises of the Brexiteers (led by his brother Bo Jo) - £50m extra a day for the NHS, a quick exit from the EU and signing new trade deals – as a completely ‘false prospectus’. In non-Etonian language, he meant ‘complete bullsxxt’ and ‘a tissue of lies’.
Second, having had more than two years to have prepared and published his own proposals for Brexit, Bo Jo has now outlined his own proposals – a ‘Super Canada’ style trade deal, a scrapping of the Irish back-stop, and a refusal to pay the divorce bill. This is all well and fine, but a work of fiction, as the leaders of all the major EU countries have already said that they would never agree to such a proposal. It’s a non-runner. It’s dead in the water. If only, instead of spouting populist nonsense, Bo Jo spent his time watching Strictly Come Dancing, he’d realise that it takes two to tango.
Thirdly, we now know what actually happens when Bo Jo actually does have some power.
As Mayor of London, and against clear advice, Bo Jo bought three unusable water-cannon for the Metropolitan Police from Germany, without checking whether they could be used on London’s streets. It didn’t require magic to turn these into three white elephants. These vehicles have cost £323,000 to buy and modify. They have never seen a day’s service. Last week, they were sold for just £11,025 to Reclamations Ollerton, a scrap metal yard in Newark, Nottinghamshire.
Of course, this complete failure of judgement and waste of money pales in to insignificance compared to the London Garden Bridge which Bo Jo championed. Five years later, and with nearly £50 million of public money spent, it has come to nothing. As The Independent commented “In its spectacular unravelling, the bridge now offers us a masterclass in how not to achieve a goal.”
I wouldn’t let Bo Jo be the fifth choice of clown at a children’s party. I fail to understand why anyone might think he has anything to contribute to getting us out of the Brexit shambles we are now in.
So, No Bo Jo.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Lives are at stake

During the Summer, a number of leading gambling industry executives said that gambling advertising had ‘gone too far’ and that even they were concerned about the exposure to children and young people. Executives, including from William Hill and Paddy Power Betfair, said that a ‘change’ or ‘curb’ was needed and that this needed to be led by Government.
Peter Jackson, Chief Executive of Paddy Power Betfair said he believed it would be hard for gambling companies to act unilaterally: “Even if progressive operators agree to restrict ads, unless there’s legislation passed, less responsible operators will step in and continue advertising.”
So far, we are still waiting for the government to take action to restrict the nature and extent of gambling advertising on our screens and online. The UK is not alone. Many countries, including recently Australia and Belgium, are tightening up considerably on gambling advertising.
But, easily the biggest public concern relates to Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) where significant (up to £100) stakes can be made frequently, providing the opportunity to lose thousands of pounds in just a short period.
After much pressure, stories of families losing their homes and jobs, and political discussion, the government indicated that it was prepared to act to cut the maximum fixed stake from £100 to £2. Everybody had been working on the assumption that this would be implemented by April 2019 at the latest.
However, the Chancellor said in his budget speech that the cut in FOBT stakes would not come into effect until October 2019. Undoubtedly, he had been heavily lobbied by gambling industry representatives as FOBTs provide such huge profits. But his position is particularly untenable as he is raising the gaming duty to 21% to pay for the delayed cut in FOBT stakes.
MPs across parties have been outraged by this decision. The government’s Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch – who I have always found to be principled and fair, has resigned, stating that pushing back the date for implementing the cut was “unjustifiable”.
I agree, which is why I will be working with MPs across all parties to try to get the cut to a maximum stake of £2 implemented by April 2019 at the latest. The government is gambling with people’s lives.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Nothing is more important

Nothing can be more important than trying to ensure the security, health and safety of our children, which will also give them a platform to realise their true potential.
For all sorts of reasons, there are times when parents are unable or incapable of providing the nurture their children deserve. It can be from birth to adulthood. Domestic violence and mental health problems predominate. And, of course, making a judgement about whether it is reasonable or required of the state to intervene goes right to the heart of the debate about human rights – of children and of parents – and about our collective expectations of child-care in a modern civilised society.
What is inevitably the case is that, if parents object to intervention or if the representatives of the state (social workers, doctors, health visitors) don’t intervene appropriately or timely, there will be significant adverse media coverage and the search for those to blame. Sometimes the criticism is entirely justified. At other times, a public balanced analysis and critique is impossible because of the need to respect confidentiality.
Inquiries in to the tragic deaths of Victoria Climbie, Baby P and others resulted in some significant changes in practice and procedures relating to young children. It is not surprising that, if professionals are criticised for not intervening, the response has been to become risk averse, to intervene quicker and firmer, and for more children to be admitted to the care system.
The shocking sexual exploitation of young, already vulnerable, teenagers in many towns and cities – with criminal cases to come over many years – has challenged attitudes towards and responses to how we need to protect young people who often don’t have their own best interests in mind. The rising incidence of knife crimes seems largely determined by the exploitation of vulnerable teenagers by drug dealers.
What is clear is that the vast majority of teenagers who become involved in sexual, physical and financial exploitation have been identified as at risk many years’ earlier, which suggests that we need to have earlier and firmer intervention.
However, it is clear that the government’s cuts are actually having the biggest impact on prevention initiatives. SureStart centres continue to close. Expenditure on youth services and crime prevention work with teenagers has been cut by more than 50% since 2010. This suggests we are building up even bigger problems for the long-term.
Since 2010, the number of Section 47 investigations – relating to the most serious concerns – have more than doubled. The numbers of children taken into local authority care has risen by a quarter in the last decade.
There are now more than 75,000 children in local authority care – nearly three-quarters with foster parents - with the 10-15 years old being the largest group. The number of adoptions peaked in 2015 and it is suggested that the now higher success rate of IVF has led to a reduction in potential adoptive parents.
Meanwhile, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently confirmed, funding for children’s services has fallen from c£850m then to c£700m this year with nearly every council significantly over-expending. This, together with the over-spending on adult social care, is why other council services, like libraries, have been and will continue to be hit so badly.
In the budget, the Chancellor announced and extra £84m funding for children’s services in 20 councils over the next 5 years. That is rather a gnat’s bite in comparison to the £3bn shortfall estimated by 2025.
Although, in response to the increase in demand, the number of social work posts has increased, the vacancy rate is running at about 17% and there are thousands of temporary and agency staff. This is clearly not efficient or effective, but an understandable response to funding uncertainty.
It is against this background that the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has launched a new inquiry into the funding and provision of local authorities’ children’s services.
Our inquiry will investigate what impact public spending has had on the provision of care services, and the approaches local authorities have taken in addressing funding constraints.
It will consider how financial support for children’s services can be made more sustainable in the short and long term and examine the potential for innovative approaches to the design and delivery of services.
Of course, we are expecting that the majority of submissions of evidence will be from a wide range of statutory and voluntary organisations and from academia and think-tanks.
But, I also hope that individuals – children who have been in care, foster parents and other professionals including social and youth workers and police officers – who have ideas and innovative approaches to the design and delivery of children’s services which could support financial sustainability, will also submit evidence.
To find out more or send a written submission, go to

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Ducking responsibility

Six weeks ago, I revealed that Conservative-controlled Peterborough Council had been dumping homeless individuals and families in hotels around South Yorkshire.
I had been alerted to the issue by a senior officer from South Yorkshire Police, seriously concerned by the frequency of calls to the police to deal with distressed ‘residents’ and staff at local hotels.
Most homelessness is arising from then ending of insecure tenancies, where the private landlord wants to increase the rent. I predicted this outcome when the Conservatives effectively ended secure private tenancies.
When families, with young children, become homeless, it is particularly distressing. Just think about the impact on the children’s education, the loss of continuity in primary health services, the sudden loss of local support from family and friends, and the inability to get to work. This is all exacerbated if you are being temporarily rehoused many, many miles away. It’s of particular concern and simply outrageous when individuals have challenging mental health issues.
I was heavily involved in helping to get the Homelessness Reduction Act 2018 through parliament. It came in to force on the 3rd April this year. The Code of Guidance provides clear guidance to councils on the actions to be taken, including giving priority to providing rehousing locally and in liaising with other councils where an out-or-area might have to be made.
I’m clear that Peterborough Council has been flouting its legal obligations. That’s why I wrote to the Housing Minister drawing his attention to what was happening and to ask what action he intended to take with Peterborough Council.
In response, I received a letter from Heather Wheeler, Minister for Housing and Homelessness, telling me what I already knew about the law and about the Code of Guidance.
What I did not get from the Minister was any condemnation of Peterborough’s many breaches of the Code of Guidance, nor any information about the action she is intending to take.
What is the point of the Minister having a specialist Homelessness Advice and Support Team unless they do follow up complaints about authorities breaching codes of guidance, warn them about future behaviour and work with them to make sure it does not happen again?

Local people, and the local police force and councils, are entitled to a proper response from the Minister about the action being taken.
That’s why I have written to her again asking for answers. The minister shouldn’t be allowed to duck responsibility because it is politically convenient for her to do so.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Nanny state or prudent prevention?

Nanny state” is a term used by people who are generally politically to the right or are of libertarian tendencies. It is often used to pour scorn on policies where the government could be seen to be over-riding or interfering in individual choice or discretion. In the United States, they use the term “big government”.
Of course, there are lots of different perspectives about whether the “nanny state” in general or in respect of particular issues is a good or a bad thing. As my former parliamentary colleague, Margaret Hodge, once said "some may call it the nanny state, but I call it a force for good".
Lee Kuan Yew, the architect and former prime minister of the modern Singapore said that he was proud to have fostered a nanny state, arguing that if the state hadn’t intervened in “how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use” then Singapore would never have made the economic and social progress it has achieved.
The first use of “nanny state” is generally attributed to the late Iain Macleod, a Conservative MP, in a magazine article in which he opposed the UK government’s proposals to introduce a 70mph speed limit. Although there will be considerable debate about whether particular speed limits are correct – in general or in particular situations – very few people would no w suggest that there should be no speed limits at all.
In all spheres of life, there are ongoing debates about the interface between individual and collective rights:
  • Your right to build an extension on your home conflicts with my right to light in my home
  • Your freedom to throw your rubbish on the floor conflicts with my right to avoid paying the cost of picking it up
  • Your right to produce food in unhygienic ways and premises conflicts with my right to expect to eat food that won’t leave me in hospital
  • Your rights to smoke in restaurants conflicts with my right to eat without a significant increased risk of cancer
And it is absolutely right that there should be wide-ranging debate and discussion and the production of evidence before any decision is taken which might infringe on individual rights.
I am astonished when I hear the rantings of Brexiteers who assert, to populist acclaim, that Brexit means the UK tearing up the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Of course, the ECHR is nothing to do with the EU. With Winston Churchill being one of its principal supporters, the ECHR was drawn up after WW2 to promote freedom and protect rights across Europe.
Government ministers – of all parties – have occasionally become impassioned when they have lost a case in the European Court of Human Rights. But, that is only to be expected when judges are being asked to rule on issues where individual and collective rights come in to conflict. What we do know is that the views of both judges and the public on the same issue may change over time. Would many people nowadays support the re-introduction of smoking in pubs and restaurants? I rather doubt it.
It is only right that there should be the fullest debate when there are proposals which, obviously in the community interest but also in the interest of many individuals, significantly impact on individual rights and discretion.
I remember, during the 1970s and since, the robust public debate about fluoridation of water. Notwithstanding the fact that the level of fluoridation proposed in our local water supplies was lower than naturally occurred in many parts of the UK, it did not stop emotive and populist arguments against the proposals alleging that this was ‘mass medication’ of Hitleresque tendencies.
There has also been a long-running debate about organ donation. Should we switch from a position where, post-mortem, organs can only be donated for transplant with the explicit consent of the individual or their relatives to one where there is a presumption of donation, unless the individual has specifically vetoed it.
Then, two weeks ago, a government Health Minister announced that “we are going to issue a public consultation, as of now, on adding folic acid to flour”. It was clearly timed to feature in Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Awareness Week. But, why should this ‘mass medication’ happen; after all, if folic acid is added to flour automatically, it’s going to be very hard to prevent it being part of your diet.
In 1991, the Medical Research Council published a report recommending that white flour in the UK was fortified with folic acid as this had been shown in other countries to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) in foetuses. This advice was backed up again by expert committees in 2006 and 2017. Although such fortification already happens in over 80 countries worldwide - including the United States, Canada and Australia – surprisingly, no countries in the EU do it.
It’s also worth remembering that in the UK, we already have rules for the fortification of flour with calcium, iron and vitamin B1.
Until now, successive UK governments have had a policy of voluntary folic acid supplementation, for women of child bearing age. So, what has made this government change its mind?
  • First, voluntary supplementation appears to be missing out those who need it most, such as young mothers in the poorest communities.
  • Secondly, the proportion of women who reported taking folic acid supplements prior to pregnancy has declined from 35% in 1991-2001 to 31% in 2011-12.
  • Thirdly, the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey states that 91% of women of childbearing age have a red blood cell folate level below the level estimated to lower the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs).
I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that any harm will come from folic acid supplements at the levels proposed. And, on that basis, I’m minded to support the proposal.
There is to be a formal public consultation about this. No doubt, you will tell me what you think.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Austerity ended?

The government’s own statistics show that violent crime has more than doubled in the last five years. It is now at the highest level since comparable records began.
In 2010 Theresa May argued that "nobody should accept a situation where at least 26,000 people fall victim to crime every day." The latest statistics record 10,597,000 incidents of crime in the year-ending September 2017 – or 29,033 a day. She has failed in her crime reduction policy, just as she has failed in nearly every one of her economic, social and environmental policies.
At least she can claim consistency with her Conservative predecessors. Readers may want to reflect on why it is that all post-war Conservative governments have delivered increased crime and reduced numbers of police officers, whilst all Labour governments have increased the number of police officers and cut crime.
Whilst unsolved crimes have topped 2.1 million, the vacancy rate for detectives now stands at more than 5000. Overall police numbers have fallen by another 5% in the last 4 years.
Last year, there were 1,349,154 violent offences compared to 709,000 recorded in 2009.
Of these, nearly 40,000 involved a knife or sharp instrument, more than 20% up on the previous year to the highest on record. The number of homicides, where a knife or sharp instrument was used, also increased by 26% over the previous year.
There was also an 11% increase in offences involving firearms and recorded corrosive substance attacks nearly tripled.
The Home Office’s own reports confirm that the data shows a “shift to youth” involvement in serious violence with an increase in vulnerable groups including homeless, children in care and school-excluded children as “particularly susceptible to drug market recruitment”.
In South Yorkshire, hardly a day goes by without the local media reporting another stabbing, the use of a firearm, or the activity of criminal gangs who are trying to recruit young teenagers in to gang activity, mainly centred around the supply of drugs.
So, what has been the Conservative government’s response to the dramatic increase in violent crime? It announced a Serious Violence Strategy, an Early Intervention and Prevention Fund of £40 million, within which there is an Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation Fund of £300,000.
Let’s put this in context.
Since 2010, central government funding for youth offending teams has more than halved from £145m in 2010/11 to £72m in 2017/18. Similarly, central government cuts to councils has meant that their spending on crime prevention has also more than halved, from £361m to £172m, and there has been a £387m cut in youth services.
Does no-one in this Conservative government and on the Conservative back-benches think there is no correlation between the massive cuts in expenditure in crime prevention and detection activity and big increases in serious, violent crime? What planet are they on?
The government has also introduced an Offensive Weapons Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment. It includes new offences relating to possessing and selling corrosive substances, selling and distributing and possessing knives and other blades and offensive weapons (like knuckledusters) and bans certain firearms and components.
What is astonishing is that the Bill ignores much of the key evidence contained in a leaked internal Home Office report on the drivers of serious violence. This included compelling evidence that much of the increase in violence had been caused by the government’s own cuts in early intervention initiatives targeted at particularly vulnerable young people.
All the evidence suggests that interventions aimed at supporting the surging number of young people in care, homeless or excluded from school; alongside prevention aimed at educating and supporting parents, carers and teachers would reduce violence among this youth cohort.
Further, the government has simply ignored its own evidence that cuts in police resources are hampering police efforts to tackle the surge in violent crime. The increase in unsolved serious crimes means that there has been a diminishment of the deterrent effect. This is having a serious deleterious effect on public safety and on people’s perception of their own safety.
I hope it will be possible for some important changes to be made to the Bill as it goes through Parliament.
Whenever we are considering policy changes to address problems and challenges, or to exploit new opportunities arising from things like new technology, we ought to look around the world to see if others have had similar problems or opportunities, how they have addressed them, and what lessons can be learned. Too often, energy and resources are committed to reinventing the wheel. This comment applies as much to authorities and agencies in South Yorkshire, as much as it does to the UK government.
In this instance, the Home Office has admitted that, in preparing its new Serious Violence Strategy, it had neglected to learn from others tackling the same issues.
Did it have to travel to the far ends of the world to find successful strategies? No. It just needed to consider the policies and the impact of the internationally renowned Violence Reduction Unit in … Scotland.
In 2005, Scotland had been assessed as the most violent country in the developed world.
Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland. Yet, between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight. The decline was biggest in Glasgow, which once had one of the highest murder rates in western Europe.
Between 2006 and 2011, 15 children and teenagers were killed with knives in Scotland’s largest city; between 2011 and 2017, none were. Last year, when 35 teenagers were killed by knives in Britain, there was not a single teenage death in Scotland from a knife wound.
Just as important, the Scottish statistics show that there was a decline of more than 70% in the incidence of handling weapons.
This didn’t happen by chance. It didn’t happen because Glasgow teenagers were stuffing deep-fried Mars Bars down their throats instead of stuffing lock-knives in their pockets. It happened because, after considerable research, Scotland adopted a public health approach to knife crime, in which the police work with those in the health, education and social work sectors to address the problem. And, the results so far have been dramatic.
So, I want to see government Ministers and Departments and, locally, South Yorkshire Police and local authorities and all other relevant agencies and voluntary organisations to learn from Scotland - and from any other strategies with successful outcomes - as they develop local responses to the tragic stupidity which is killing local youngsters and leaving local communities insecure and feeling unsafe.