Sunday, 20 January 2019


Clive Betts MP [Sheffield South East and Chair of Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee] has sought an urgent meeting with the Retail Director of WILKO Stores following speculation about the closure of the WILKO store in Darnall, Sheffield.
Clive Betts said:
“I have been contacted by a number of Darnall residents about the speculation surrounding the future of the WILKO store in Darnall. This speculation is now featuring in social media.
As a result, I have asked WILKO to squash the rumour.
However, if WILKO is actively considering the possibility of the closure of the Darnall store, I have asked for an urgent meeting with Craig McGregor, WILKO’s new Retail Director, to discuss the issue.”
Clive Betts continued:
I know that the retail sector in the UK is going through turbulent times. This is not just affecting town centres and High Streets, but also district shopping centres like Darnall.
Darnall shopping centre has gone through very difficult times. The premises that WILKO now occupy were formerly a supermarket which anchored the centre.
The Post Office in Darnall was only saved by the active involvement of the Darnall Forum and local residents.
It would be a big blow to Darnall if WILKO were to close.”
Clive Betts continued:
“As the Chair of the All-Party House of Commons’ Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government - which is currently undertaking an Inquiry in to the High Streets and Town Centres in 2030, including detailed consideration of the future of business rates (NNDR) – I am fully aware of the general issues relating to the current and prospective states of the retail sector in the UK.
WILKO is a very important retail player, with turnover exceeding £1.6bn, and about 20,000 employees working in some 400 stores across the UK.
As well as having an important presence on many High Streets, it is also a very significant part of many district shopping centres.”
Clive Betts concluded:
“I am looking for the earliest response from WILKO to discuss both the future of the Darnall store and WILKO’s perspectives on the current and future retail challenges.”

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Getting cross country

There is rarely a day when there isn’t a media story about our railways. This isn’t the case in most other countries in the world.
Whenever Conservative Ministers suggest that they are the party of efficiency and effectiveness, I just need to point to their initial privatisation of the railways and their subsequent disastrous re-arrangements which seemingly produce a bad news story every day.
Given this track record, Mrs May’s shambolic and incompetent approach to the Brexit negotiations was no surprise. Only her Transport Secretary, My Grayling – yes, the one who has left a trail of destruction in every Ministerial office he has held – could award a contract to a ferry company without any ships, award HS2 contracts to Carillion when it was on the verge of collapse, and put legislation about drones on the back-burner resulting in our major airports being closed down.
Since 2010, average rail fares have risen nearly three times faster than wages. The amount by which train companies can raise regulated fares is the responsibility of the Mr Grayling, but he’s choosing not to get involved. So, he average rail commuter is now paying £2,980 for their season ticket, £786 more than in 2010.  
Despite the fare increases, overcrowding on our railways is at one of the highest levels since records began. The top 10 most overcrowded peak train routes are on average 187 per cent in excess of capacity; an increase of over 25 per cent since 2011.
More trains were cancelled or significantly late last year than for 17 years, when a spate of major rail accidents caused chaos.
The fare and ticketing structure is not fit for purpose. It is hugely complex, inflexible and expensive. About 55 million different fares – nearly one each for every UK citizen! - exist in the current system and passengers often over-pay for fares.
It was in that context that, last week, I asked Rail Minister about CrossCountry trains, which run from Aberdeen to Penzance, from Edinburgh to Bournemouth, and Manchester to Stansted Airport. Lines linking Sheffield, Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds and York form an important part of this network.
From the very beginning of this franchise, it was clear that there simply wasn’t enough capacity to carry the passenger commuter demand in South and West Yorkshire in the specified four-car trains. So, every day, for years, many commuters are paying high fares with little likelihood of a seat.
A new franchise is due to start in October this year – or it could be October 2020 – so this is the time to add additional pressure about the specification.
I am delighted to say that, unlike the Midland Mainline, CrossCountry trains do not form part of my regular travel experience. However, before Christmas, I travelled between Leeds and Sheffield and experienced what my constituents regularly experience—as many passengers standing as sitting.
So, I asked the Minister “When we get a new franchise, will the Minister ensure that those four-car trains are extended, so that there is the capacity for people to actually get a seat on them?” He responded “…we are certainly looking to add capacity in the next franchise. We are also looking to add capacity before that franchise comes into force, if we can find it.”
What is worrying is that he couldn’t or wouldn’t guarantee the capacity required now and for the future. What a way to run a railway!

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Brexit halts…everything!

I cannot think of another time in my life when a single issue has so debilitated policy-making, prevented essential decision-taking and comprehensively sucked the oxygen from public and private discourse as Brexit has occasioned.
Nationally, regionally and locally, large and small businesses have been deferring investment decisions for months now as the uncertainty continues. They are also finding that European customers of their products are now holding off from committing to future purchases or they are securing alternative suppliers in mainland Europe to ensure continuity. All of this is going to have a significant impact for economic regeneration and for businesses and jobs for years to come.
The delays and inability to act are shown even more starkly in the public sector. The draft long-term plan for the NHS has now just surfaced many months late but that is the exception to the rule, as domestic policy development and legislation on the big issues across the spectrum has effectively disappeared. Even within the NHS plan funding for Public Health is simply pushed back to the spending review, while further cuts are announced for 2019/20.
Public consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill was finished last May. There’s no sign of Green or White Papers, let alone legislation. The long-promised devolution framework proposals – yes, the proposals former HCLG Secretary of State Sajid Javid was talking about fifteen months ago - are nowhere to be seen.
Having ditched the earlier agreed reforms on funding adult social care, a green paper on the issue was confirmed as urgent in the March 2017 budget. Originally promised for Autumn 2017, that was then pushed November, which came and went as publication was pushed back to early 2018, then Summer, and then Autumn. In October 2018, the Chancellor said it would be ‘published shortly’. In December, we were told that “it would be published at the first opportunity in 2019”. That has already come and gone.
During this period, many well-regarded and serious bodies – including from the House of Commons all-party Joint HCLG and HSC Committees - have published their own comprehensive proposals.
Meanwhile, there have been a series of late and inadequate supplementary financial allocations to health and local authorities and tens of thousands of people have totally lost or suffered significant cuts in their social care support, and home and residential care providers are in financial turmoil.
As the structural issues about adult social care have become acute, another emergency has ridden up fast on the rails – children’s services. Since 2010, the number of Section 47 investigations – relating to the most serious concerns about child safety – have more than doubled. There are now more than 75,000 children in local authority care, a doubling in the last decade, nearly three-quarters with foster 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. In the budget, the Chancellor announced an extra £84m funding for children’s services in 20 councils over the next 5 years. That’s a gnat’s bite in comparison to the £3bn shortfall estimated by 2025.
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.
There is silence around the future of local government finance. What is going to be happening to National Non-Domestic Rates – especially in the context of the precarious state of the High Street and the central importance of business rate retention – and the New Homes Bonus and Council Tax? And then of course, there are all those ‘fair-funding’ promises – which with no additional funding may simply transfer more of the pain to poorer, urban, northern areas. “Late Spring” says the Minister about proposals for the redistribution of local government finance. “Which year?” we call.
When the Chancellor brought forward his budget statement last October, I said that there could then be absolutely no excuse for a late or delayed local government finance settlement announcement, as had happened in previous years. I thought that the proposed date of 11 December was later than justified.
To have that statement date cancelled to facilitate a Brexit vote was unacceptable. To not have the statement re-instated when the Brexit vote was cancelled simply showed the extent to which Brexit is driving, or generally stopping every agenda.
One of my fundamental concerns with the PM’s deal is that it will simply lock the government machine into more Brexit exclusivity until the end of 2020, or whenever the backstop finally comes to an end. The many major issues affecting public services being ignored now cannot be put on the Brexit backburner indefinitely.

I have my suspicions

Last month, one of my constituents mentioned that, in the preceding weeks, he’d received a number of e-mails purporting to come from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or the Inland Revenue.
He told me that these e-mails appeared legitimate, complete with HMRC logos and address details – quite unlike the ones from ‘Nigerian bankers’ promising 20% of the millions of dollars trapped in a bank account if only he handed over his own bank account details. Nevertheless, he smelled a rat, not least because every e-mail suggested he was entitled to a tax refund and, as a matter of policy, HMRC never send notifications about refunds or rebates by e-mail.
As a result, he forwarded each e-mail to HMRC’s phishing team at Reassuringly, within 24 hours in each case, he received an e-mail from HMRC confirming that the original communication had been a phishing scam. In this regard, HMRC distinguished itself from the social media moguls to whom reports of suspicious e-mails appear to disappear into a massive cloud only to be used for more data aggregation purposes, only of financial benefit to themselves.
As a result of this discussion, I thought I’d ask some questions about the extent of attempted scams – and some must be successful, otherwise the criminals wouldn’t keep doing it – and what action was taken as a result of those reports. So, I tabled some written questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, some of which were answered by one of his Ministers, Mel Stride.2
First, let me outline what the answers revealed.
In just the first 8 months (April to November) of this financial year, HMRC received reports of 636,789 suspicious e-mails. 28,639 text messages, and 44,435 phone calls asking for personal information or threatening a lawsuit. Given that these numbers just reflect reports to HMRC, we can only speculate about how many scam e-mails, text messages and phone-calls were actually made.
The Minister was also able to tell me that HMRC’s dedicated Customer Protection team targeting scams has:
  • reduced reported HMRC-branded phishing texts by 90% due to innovative work with network operators and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
  • requested removal of over 14,000 websites during financial year 2017/2018.
  • blocked half a billion phishing emails through technical controls since 2016.
  • published guidance on GOV.UK on how to identify scams that has been visited 1.4 million times during financial year 2017/2018.
  • responded to nearly 1 million phishing referrals in the same period.
  • recovered over 130 websites infringing the HMRC brand, including those which host low value services such as call connection sites, saving customers in excess of £2.4M in charges to date.
Well, all that looks impressive and welcome, but given the scale of the continuing criminality, there is clearly much more to do. So, I wanted to know whether the number of HMRC staff being deployed to investigate phishing scams had been cut or increased.
And I was also interested in how successful HMRC has been in bringing the criminals to book. How many individuals had been identified, charged and convicted as a result of HMRC’s investigations?
And that’s when the Minister suddenly decided to go shtum.
Mr Stride wrote:
“However, the information required to answer (these questions) cannot be provided as releasing it may prejudice the prevention or detection of crime. The information could be used by individuals for criminal activity and departmental IT systems could be exposed or left vulnerable to interference or attack.
Doing so could give criminals valuable insight into HMRC’s capabilities and processes in this area and cybersecurity in general, opening up the Department and the wider public to more informed and effective scams and attacks. While publishing the information requested could, on the face of it, reassure the public that HMRC is suitably resourced to handle risks posed by cybercrime, on balance it is not in the public interest.”
Would I ask the Minister to reveal information which would compromise investigations, or prejudice the prevention or detection of crime? Of course, I wouldn’t.
Would answers to my questions ‘give criminals valuable insight…’? Almost certainly not.
If I asked the Home Secretary about the numbers of people nationally – or asked the Police and Crime Commissioner about the numbers of people locally - who had been (a) charged and (b) convicted of the offences of murder, rape, burglary, vehicle theft etc, they would not only be able to tell me, but they would tell me. Why is information about HMRC and cyber-crime any different?
I don’t think it is and I will be asking further questions.
However, I have my suspicions about why the Minister doesn’t want to answer the questions properly and transparently.
My first suspicion is that the number of individual criminals brought to book – identified, charged and convicted – is embarrassingly small in comparison to the scale of the criminal activity.
I don’t under-estimate the size of the challenge given the nature of the offences, how they are committed and the likelihood that many are based abroad. But, it is only possible to address the problem if there is an acknowledgement of the size and nature of the issues.
My second suspicion is that there has been a cut in the number of HMRC staff who are targeting scams of this sort.
In 2016, the National Audit Office reported that there were about 500 staff working with “high net worth” individuals (those with assets over £10m) on their tax affairs. It employed another 500 or so staff to investigate the tax affairs “affluent” taxpayers (those with an income over £150,000 a year, or assets over £1 million). These two groups were estimated to account for around £2bn in lost tax revenue. [Incidentally, according to a 2017 report, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) employed around 4,000 staff to deal with benefit fraud, then also estimated to be about £2 billion.]3
HMRC staff numbers have been consistently falling since then. It has been reported elsewhere that those cuts have included the number of staff working on tax evasion by both individuals and companies. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the government has also cut the number of HMRC staff committed to tackling cyber-crime.
I suspect that Ministerial reluctance to answer these questions is nothing to do with the potential of answers to compromise investigations, but everything to do with avoiding embarrassment and scrutiny about the government’s ideological decisions on cutting the numbers of civil servants, whilst failing to tackle tax evasion and cyber-crime.