Wednesday, 9 May 2018

No immunity

The latest NHS performance data ought to be shocking us all.
In March, fewer patients received treatment in Accident and Emergency (A&E) Departments within the 4 hour target than at any time since records began. Just 76.4% of patients at major A&E departments were treatedwithin 4 hour target. For all A&E units, performance was 84.6%, well below the 95% standard.
Waiting lists for treatment have increased to more than four million. Waiting-times for out-patient and in-patient diagnosis and treatment are increasing day-by-day. We see ambulances backed up outside overcrowded hospitals, operations cancelled, and elderly confused vulnerable patients stranded on trolleys in the corridors of bursting wards.
Waiting-times for GP appointments are increasing and, in many areas, there are problems in recruiting new GPs because the Coalition and Conservative governments actually cut the number of training places.
Now, we’ve had the revelation that 450,000 women did not receive an invitation for breast cancer screenings as they should have done. We all know someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer and the pain and anguish that brings. To learn that you, or your grand-mother or mother or sister has not been invited to screening just adds to the concern and anguish.
Screening rates are at their lowest level for a decade. Ministerial concentration should be on ensuring that the NHS has the staff and resources need to get that back on track, instead of investigating how these historic mistakes were made. We are entitled to know how this has been allowed to go on for so long and why the problem wasn’t identified earlier.
Do you remember when David Cameron told us that our NHS was safe in the Conservative’s hands? It wasn’t true then. And it isn’t true now.
Why do waiting-times and waiting-lists – like crime – always go up under Conservative governments and always come down under Labour governments?
We must not become immune to what Mrs May and her Conservative colleagues are doing.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Dangerous desktops

James Brokenshire is the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG). Near the top of his in-tray will be the health and safety of high-rise buildings in the light of the Grenfell disaster.
The all-party HCLG Committee has been having a robust debate with Ministers and Dame Judith Hackitt, who is leading the government’s review, about future requirements and standards.
Dame Judith has indicated she does not favour a “prescriptive” approach which would simply ban combustible materials, whereas we are clearly recommending a ban on the use of combustible materials on tower blocks.
Meanwhile, the HCLG Ministry is currently running a consultation about using desk-top studies only to assess fire risks.
A ‘desktop study’ is a way of trying to find out whether or not a cladding system would meet particular standards in particular circumstances without actually testing it. It involves using data from previous tests of the materials in different combinations to make assumptions about how it would perform in the proposed use. The alternatives to a desktop study are full scale testing or not using combustible materials.
So, why don’t we think desk-top studies are sufficient? Well, because we already have the evidence which shows that cladding approved through desk-top tests has later failed fire safety tests.
In this instance, I’m clear that desktop studies alone are simply dangerous if any combustible materials are permitted to be used in the cladding of tower blocks. I’m concerned that the overuse of desktop studies would be a contributory factor to a weaker, less stringent regulatory regime and would increase the likelihood of dangerous materials being used on high-rise residential buildings.
This week, I’ve written to Mr Brokenshire to tell him very clearly that we believe there should be a total ban on the use of combustible materials on high-rise buildings1 .
But, if Dame Janet Hackitt recommends a risk-based approach to assessment, it is simply not acceptable for such risks to be assessed only in desk-top studies.

Monday, 30 April 2018

There are times to be intolerant

Each year, we pay hundreds of millions of pounds in taxes to try to ensure that we get a swift and professional response to our emergencies.
If it’s a road accident or a heart attack, we want that ambulance or para-medic to arrive as quickly as possible, to take control, to save lives or give treatment to ensure we have the best chance of survival or return to full health.
If our home or place of work is on fire, or dangerous chemicals are spilt, we want that fire-engine to get to us before we’ve even ended our 999 call, to get the fire put out or to smother or neutralise the chemicals so that we are not endangered by toxic fumes.
When someone is breaking in to our home, or a fight breaks out in the street, or another vehicle smashes in to our car and then drives off at speed, or a child or grandchild goes missing, we want the police to get to us soonest to catch the perpetrators, end the violence or find and return the child safely.
Those police officers, fire fighters and para-medics are acting on our behalf. We want and need them to respond so much better than we could manage to save lives and property and to give security.
That’s why we should be absolutely intolerant of, and take tough action against, those who assault emergency workers in the course of their duties.
There are flaws in the way in which statistics about these assaults are collected, so the numbers must be treated with some caution.
However, it is believed that there were more than 23,000 assaults on police officers last year. That is 450 a week; the equivalent of an officer being assaulted every 22 minutes. The Police Federation says the true figure is closer to 6,000 assaults every day, with most not being reported and prosecuted. And, there were more than 70,000 recorded assaults on NHS staff and more than 500 attacks on firefighters in England in 2016. Worryingly, the numbers are increasing.
That’s why I’m backing a Private Member’s Bill currently being promoted in Parliament by my colleague Labour MP Chris Bryant. This would create a new offence of ‘assaulting an emergency worker.’ This proposed new law has support from the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, the Fire Bridges Union, the Police Federation, Alcohol Concern, the British Transport Police and the GMB union.
I’m also supporting amendments that are being tabled to the Bill as it goes through the Parliamentary process. One amendment would ensure that sexual assault against an emergency worker becomes an aggravated offence – of particular importance as, locally, we have had reports in the last few days of a known offender sexually attacking police officers who had gone to arrest him. Another amendment will clarify that the disgraceful (and potentially health-threatening) act of spitting at an emergency worker is a common assault.
If we claim to be a civilised society, we need to be absolutely clear that we simply won’t tolerate assaults on those who we have asked to put themselves in danger to save lives.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Populism never saved lives

I’ve been reflecting on the latest road accident casualty statistics in Britain and the world1 .
In 2016 there were 181,384 accident casualties recorded on Britain’s roads; 1,792 of these were fatal.
In 2016 46% of those fatal road accident victims were car occupants; 25% were pedestrians; 25% motorcyclists; and 6% were cyclists.
Comparing those groups in terms of distance travelled, you are about twenty-five times more likely to be killed or to be a casualty if you are a motor-cyclist rather than a motorist. And cyclists are about fifteen times more likely to be killed and twenty times more likely to be a casualty than a car driver. It is little wonder that road accident campaigning today focuses on those dangers.
After 1945, fatalities increased year-on-year throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, to a peace-time peak of 7,985 (more than 21 road deaths per day) in 1966.
Then, in Great Britain, the overall number of fatalities and road casualties has been in long term decline since the mid-1960s, and especially since the mid-1990s. This is despite the fact that the number of vehicles on British roads has consistently increased over that period. So, a near 80% cut in road deaths compared to 50 years ago.
To think about this in a different way, if we had the same fatality rate today as in 1966, each and every week of the year, a police officer would be knocking on the door of an additional Sheffield household to bring them the dreadful news that a son/daughter/mother/father/sister/brother had been killed on the roads.
How has this decline come about?
There are a number of significant reasons, but it isn’t a coincidence that the drink-driving laws were introduced in 1966.
Nor is any coincidence that enforcement of the speed limits has been a significant contributor to the reduction.
And, certainly, legislation requiring improvements in the minimum safety standards of cars, and the enforcement of maintenance standards through MoT tests, and the requirements to wear seatbelts and carry children in car-seats have all made substantial contributions.
And, do you remember the populist campaigns against each and every one of these new laws? “It’s an Englishman’s right to be able to drink and drive…drive as fast as I like…decide when his car needs maintaining. The state shouldn’t be interfering in our rights.”
Of course, those same populists are now campaigning against the ban on using your phone whilst driving, despite the damning evidence.
What is happening in the rest of the world?
According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. Injuries from road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 29 years of age. Low- and middle-income countries had higher road traffic fatality rates per 100,000 population (24.1 and 18.4, respectively) compared to high-income countries (9.2).
Over 3 400 people die on the world's roads every day and tens of millions of people are injured or disabled every year. Children, pedestrians, cyclists and older people are among the most vulnerable of road users.
The numbers killed in road accidents is just lower than the number of deaths from tuberculosis. On current trends road traffic accidents are to become the seventh leading cause of death by 2030. The 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development has set a target to halve the global number of deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2020.
It is clear that many countries will have to go through exactly the same legislative and enforcement changes - relating to reducing traffic speed, drink-driving and increasing the use of motorcycle helmets, seat-belts and child restraints – that we have been through in Britain if they are to cut the casualty and fatality rates significantly.
But, just like in Britain, there are populist campaigns against restrictions on speed, drink-driving and safety standards.
So, throughout the world, we need our elected representatives to make tough decisions on our behalf, not based on the views of those shouting loudest, if we are to make significant improvements.
Populism never saved lives.

Monday, 23 April 2018

TIME TO ACT

The all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has been conducting an inquiry into the state of the private rented housing sector which now houses nearly 20% of all households. 1 .
Renting privately is becoming an increasingly long-term, even life-time, prospect for many individuals and families. Most private tenants are satisfied with the quality of their homes. However, at the lower end of the market, 800,000 homes that have at least one Category One hazard, such as excess cold, mould or faulty wiring.
Nearly half of tenants fear retaliation – for example, eviction, rent increases or harassment - if they made a complaint to their landlord. 200,000 tenants report having been abused or harassed by a landlord.
That simply cannot be right. Tenants need additional protections from retaliatory action by the worst landlords, so that they can pursue complaints about the repair and maintenance of their homes. Further, it is time for a review and consolidation of private rented sector legislation. Similarly, we need straightforward quality standards to bring more clarity for tenants, landlords and local authorities.
Although in a minority, there are some dreadful landlords. I have personally visited some houses and flats providing the most awful living conditions for families with young children. Locally, we have recently seen court action against some of our local villains. Yet, six out of 10 councils did not prosecute a single landlord in 2016.
Some landlords appear to think that fines are just a business cost, easily offset against the massive rent income they are receiving for over-crowded and badly managed and maintained properties.
Councils do not have sufficient resources to undertake their enforcement duties, as the costs of investigations and prosecutions can rarely be recovered through the courts. They should be funded to do this work. For the worst persistent offenders, councils should have the power to confiscate properties from the landlords.
Some areas have selective licensing schemes, but the processes are too slow, lacks transparency, is overly bureaucratic and unduly expensive. These decisions should be made locally, not nationally by a government minister.
It’s now time for the government to act It has just a few weeks to make up its mind.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

What would you do?

Imagine that you are running a business.
Some of your suppliers charged you for goods and you paid, but they didn’t deliver them. Some of your customers ordered and took goods from you, but they didn’t pay. Some well-paid professional agents – accountants, lawyers, bankers – are being paid millions of pounds advising these suppliers and customers on the best ways of ensuring you got the money you are owed.
As a result, your business is struggling to remain solvent, your income drops way below what it should be, and you experience your own form of austerity, which hits you and your family hard.
Now, would you:
  • just forget about the money you are owed, and/or
  • reduce the number of staff in your business who are meant to be chasing outstanding payments from suppliers and customers, and/or
  • Tell your wealthiest customers - who are enjoying a wonderful life of luxury houses, cars and cruises… because they haven’t paid you what they owe – that you will send the bailiffs round, but you’ll pay all the legal, bailiffs’ and other costs involved in securing recovery of your money?
My guess is that you wouldn’t do any of those things.
Like me, you would pursue what you are owed, because your business and your family’s solvency depends on it. You would increase the resources committed to recovering your dues. And you would tell those who are having a laugh at your expense that you will also ensure that they pay the bills for recovering your money.
So, you have to ask yourself, why is this Conservative government
  • doing all those things when it faced with multi-national companies manipulating their accounting practices to ensure they don’t pay tax on their trading in the UK, but switch the profits to low-tax havens where they do no trading?, and
  • actually cutting the number of staff whose job it is to recover unpaid tax from crooks and scammers?, and
  • pursuing hugely expensive legal action against wealthy individuals, companies and professional advisers to recover tax unpaid and avoided in completely artificial economic constructs (not for any legitimate or logical business reason) simply designed to secure tax avoidance and evasion?
Is it simply because they prefer that ordinary hard-working people should face the burden of austerity rather than ensuring that the already fabulously wealthy should pay their dues?
I know what I would do, and I think I know what you would do.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Un-adopted

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

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

What’s so smart about this?

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

Friday, 2 March 2018

Minimum Wage Update

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

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

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

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

Monday, 26 February 2018

I wouldn't bet on it

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

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

STILL UNFAIR, STILL WRONG

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

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Why do people fall for this?

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

Monday, 5 February 2018

TAXI LICENSING UPDATE

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

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Unfair and wrong

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

Monday, 29 January 2018

Grief and debt

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

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ducking and diving and a lack of transparency

Asking difficult questions is one of the key tasks of members of parliament. By difficult, I don’t mean that the answers are necessarily complicated, but that the simple and accurate responses are likely to prove embarrassing to the government.
So, it is no surprise that some Government Ministers turned the whole business of not answering questions in to an art form. They would commit thousands of hours of civil servant time in to providing non-answers, misleading responses or the most dubious legal justifications for making ‘no comment’.
Former Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, was an expert at all this.
He committed £250 million of tax-payers’ money in to an inept promise to ensure that every household would have “a weekly all-purpose refuse collection”; he called it a “basic human right”. In fact, in each and every year in which he was the Minister, the number of households getting a weekly collection dropped by hundreds of thousands, with the biggest falls being in Conservative and Liberal Democrat controlled councils. But, however often and in different ways he was asked the question, he found numerous ways of refusing to provide the numbers.
Eric was just the same when it came to not answering questions about the government’s new-build housing commitments. It was clear that none of the promises were being kept but, instead of providing the answers, they’d sack or move the Housing Minister. It was no surprise that Mrs May has sacked another one in her latest reshuffle when it became clear that the last promise had proved to be little more than a newspaper headline.
Before Christmas, Theresa May spoke about the need for transparency in government and wrote to her Ministers:
“Online transparency is crucial to delivering value for money, to cutting waste and inefficiency, and to ensuring every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent in the best possible way…
The sunlight of transparency also acts in itself as an important check and balance, and helps ensure the highest standards of public life among senior government representatives.”
So, you might be surprised to learn that, in response to a Freedom of Information request to publish the guidance given to government departments on how to prepare registers of Ministerial gifts, hospitality, travel and meetings – all mentioned in the Mrs May’s letter on transparency – No 10 says ‘No’.
It said:
“…we consider that this information is exempt from disclosure under section 35(1)(a) (formulation and development of government policy).  While we recognise there is a public interest in understanding how this transparency information is prepared, we consider that this is outweighed by the public interest in not providing information that may be soon out of date and therefore potentially misleading and  inaccurate. On balance it is therefore not in the public interest to release this material."
It is difficult to believe that the supposed legal justification for the refusal will stand up in court, but it will take a lot of hard work and probably more than 12 months to show that. The argument that “the information may become out of date or may be misleading” is not a relevant public interest factor for refusing disclosure.
Therefore, I have now tabled a Written Parliamentary Question to Theresa May’s Cabinet Officer Minister asking him to publish the guidance. He is due to answer it on January 29th.
On that day, we’ll find out whether Mrs May is committed to the transparency she asserted just a month ago,  or whether it was simply more hot air from this government.

Monday, 15 January 2018

You couldn’t make it up

Just imagine a fictional drama which featured the leader of a right-wing, anti-European, populist political party deserting his (third) wife and children in Austria, then entering a new relationship with a model, half his age, who specialised in sending racist messages to her friends about the prospects for the royal family which, when made public, resulted in the leader ditching the model in a desperate bid to keep his position.
Just imagine a drama which suggested that the same party’s elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly had decided to prevent the latest representative – only elected this month – from being a member of its group because they don’t like the staff she has appointed.
Just imagine a drama which suggested that the former leader of that same party had claimed that his principles had “cost him a knighthood”, just two weeks before the European Parliament – following an investigation – announced it was reclaiming £35,000 from him because of his mis-spending.
Now, just imagine If the BBC had broadcast these dramas as radio plays.
Undoubtedly, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph would be publishing editorials condemning the state broadcaster for its disgraceful abuse of its position, followed by demands for the BBC to be broken up and privatised.
They would be supported by the alt-right commentators on social media and President Trump would be busily retweeting the demands.
Hundreds of members of the party would be writing angry letters to The Star and Yorkshire Post and be ringing Toby Foster on Radio Sheffield to demand retribution.
Of course, no broadcaster would treat you seriously if you wrote plays with content like this.
Why should they? You couldn’t make it up.
Except, of course, that I didn’t have to make this up. It was what made the news this morning and…… no…… it wasn’t fake news.
It should provide a cautionary tale to recall next time you are asked to cast your vote.
As Churchill once commented “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried”.
We can all make mistakes and we should learn from them.
So, next time, make sure you look well behind the populist rhetoric before you put your X on the ballot paper.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Too little, too late

More than 400,000 patients have now waited longer than 18 weeks for their operations compared to less than 250,880 in 2010.
10% of arrivals at A&E are still waiting to be seen 4 hours later. More than 50,000 patients each month are now waiting more than 4 hours in A&E from the time a decision has been taken to admit them to hospital until the admission takes place.
Patients arriving at A&E by ambulance are meant to be handed over to staff within 15 minutes. Between 20th November to 31st December, more than 75,000 patients waited for over 30 minutes in the back of ambulances so far this winter. 17,000 patients waited over 60 minutes.
In the week running up to Christmas, over one third of children’s care units were 100% full, with not a single spare bed.
This week, the new Conservative Health Minister told us that we shouldn’t be concerned that, at times, there are no beds to which patients can be admitted, as there are always chairs, so they don’t have to lie on the floor! Can you believe it?
At the same time we learned that hospitals have already been advised to defer non-urgent operations until the end of January to ease pressures. This is an unprecedented move. It is likely that 55,000 operations will be cancelled, with knock-on effects throughout the rest of the year at least.
When interviewed by Andrew Marr on TV, the Prime Minister told us that this was all part of a carefully planned arrangement to deal with winter pressures and that “the NHS is better prepared for winter than ever before.”
Given that we haven’t had a flu epidemic (although numbers have increased in the last week), that novo-virus isn’t running riot, and that ‘winter weather accident admissions’ are lower than normal, this is a staggering decision. Even Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a practicing GP and Chair of the Health Select Committee, warned that Theresa May must “get a better grip”.
All last year, the government was warned consistently about the looming crisis, but it wasn’t until 22nd November that the Chancellor announced some extra funds to meet winter pressures.
Too little, too late.

Monday, 8 January 2018

DEVOLUTION NOW!

Right now, all four local authorities in South Yorkshire should be planning for the May 2018 election of the first Directly-elected Mayor for the Sheffield City Region.  The election of that mayor will provide the opportunity for an additional £30million of Government money to come to the area to improve economic development, transport links and skills training.   All of these have been welcomed by all the local councils and by business leaders and the wider community.  
I’m very strongly of the view that there would be immense advantages for areas within north Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to be part of those arrangements as well. Their economic prospects are fundamentally related to South Yorkshire. But, it is for them to decide.
Any devolution proposal is a compromise between competing perspectives and priorities. But disagreements should be healthy and constructive. In South Yorkshire, we are in real danger of making ‘the best’ the enemy of ‘the much better’ to the disadvantage of us all.
The Secretary of State suggests we go ahead with the devolution deal which has already been agreed for the four South Yorkshire districts. That appears eminently sensible. 
Everyone needs to recognise that there is no other deal on the table, nor is there a realistic possibility of any such deal being agreed in the immediate future.  The Minister says that, if at some stage in the future there is another deal offered for all or part of Yorkshire and some districts want to join that arrangement, they would be able to do so.   If they don’t, the existing arrangements would respect that  and carry on funding it.
This seems a win/win situation for everyone.   South Yorkshire gets a directly-elected mayor, and immediate additional money and powers.   If, in the long term, a different proposal is offered, districts can choose to opt for that without encumbrance. 
From a personal point of view, I do not believe an elected mayor for the whole of Yorkshire is feasible and will not work.  
But that is a debate for another day. Right now, we need to press ahead with the agreed deal for the benefit of the whole of South Yorkshire.