The ultimate cynicism

Over the last few years, I have regularly drawn attention to statements and claims of Conservative Ministers which were simply factually incorrect or designed to mislead.  

Of course, I have also drawn attention to Ministers who fail to answer simple factual questions to oral or written parliamentary questions. For example, since 2010, there have been many promises about new house-building; not one has been kept, but not a single Conservative Prime Minister (Cameron, May, Johnson) or Housing Minister (there have been eight of them) will actually acknowledge their failure.

It is in this context that I have advised people to do their own checking before accepting ministerial claims as fact. I have often referred people to independent and trusted bodies, like the Institute for Fiscal Studies (on economic and finance issues), or independent fact-checkers, like FullFact which have only been created and developed to address the moral vacuum created by misleading Ministers, uncritical media, and new social media (across the political spectrum) which is, at best, unbalanced, and at worst, mendacious.

But, last night, the cynical knife was twisted further.

During the first TV debate between Boris Johnson (in which he repeated at least one of his porkies – on front-line police numbers, despite knowing it to be untrue) and Jeremy Corbyn, Conservative Party HQ changed the name of one of its Twitter accounts to factcheckuk mimicking reputable organisations, like FullFact. But, instead of dealing with facts, factcheckuk spewed out more misleading information and anti-Labour rhetoric.

Who can disagree with the commentator who said:

“This is straight out of Donald Trump or Putin’s playbook…the Tories are now resorting to deliberately misleading the public.” 

And, then it gets worse…

This morning, instead of accepting a massive error of judgement, which had led Twitter to warn the Conservative Party that it would take “corrective action” to prevent such behaviour, Conservative UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said

“…no one gives a toss” about the cut and thrust of social media.

Meanwhile, Twitter said very firmly that the Conservative Party broke Twitter’s rules by attempting to “mislead people” (their words, not mine) with a fake fact-checking account, and that it would punish the Conservative Party if it ever happened again.

Further, we now learn that factcheckuk was turned on precisely as Boris Johnson told another of his porkies…and not for the first-time…and not for the first-time that the facts have been brought to his attention and his misleading claims corrected by the real fact-checkers.

This soundbite is about front-line police officers.

As a matter of record, Johnson has long form on this issue. When he was Mayor of London, he announced a drive to recruit 5,000 new constables for the Metropolitan Police, leaving the clear impression that these were additional officers. What he didn’t mention was that the Met expected to lose that number of officers through natural wastage. All Mayor Johnson was doing was committing to replace the ones who would leave over the same period. Perhaps he will want this offence to be taken in to account when he is finally held responsible.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson promised to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers to serve on the front-line. This was backed up by a Conservative campaign video in which he said:

“In policing… 20,000 police we’re putting out on the streets of this country.”

It is worth remembering that police numbers fell by more than 20,000 under the Conservatives between 2010 (143,734) and 2019 (123,171). So, even if the new claim were true, the new officers would simply cancel out previous cuts and get us back to 2010 levels. And, as the population grew by 5% over that period, police officers per head would still be lower than 2010.

When challenged over the following days, Conservative Party spokespeople said that the 20,000 new officers would be in addition to officers hired to replace those who left or retired, and the 20,000 “will be additional to officers hired to fill existing vacancies.”

It isn’t true. It’s a big porkie!

When the fact-checkers unpacked the finances – assuming police authorities put up their precepts by 4% each year (part of council tax) and government grant – it revealed that the total sum would pay for 20,000 front-line officers but the total sum wasn’t to go for that purpose. More than one-third of the sum is being siphoned off to pay for other national police services.

Far from 20,000 additional front-line police officers on the streets of this country, the funds will pay for just 13,000 at most.

Johnson has been told the facts time and time again. But he can’t resist a good soundbite, however untrue it might be.

By now, we should all know that you can’t believe a word Boris Johnson says. We simply cannot trust him.

Worse still, it is the ultimate cynicism to deliberately mislead to destroy trust between people and the political process in pursuit of your own personal interest.

Fracking heck! The phoney ban

Just over a week ago, I wrote about the government’s announcement of a moratorium on fracking1 .

The Oil and Gas Authority had reported that it could not guarantee further fracking “would meet the Government’s policy aims of ensuring it is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby”.

Three weeks ago, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced:

“…I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”

In response, I wrote:

“I’m neither cynical nor inappropriately suspicious, but I do have to draw your attention to two aspects of this announcement.

First, despite all the relevant information having been available for some time, the announcement was only made when it had already been decided to call a general election.

Secondly, the announcement did not refer to the ‘end of fracking’ – although that was how it was spun to the media by No 10 – it referred to a ‘moratorium on fracking’.  Of course, a moratorium can be lifted just as quickly as it has been imposed.

Given Mr Johnson’s fracking predilection, his assiduous use of fake facts, and his tenuous connection with truth and consistency, we are allowed to be suspicious.”

And, now, what was foretold has come to pass.

Just two days after the ‘moratorium announcement and, this time with no publicity, another document was quietly slipped out. This was government response to a consultation which proposed loosening fracking regulations. Far from a ban on fracking, the government reaffirmed its commitment to a “faster” process for reviewing fracking applications, and that those applications will continue to be “considered on their own merits”.

The document also hints at future changes to the law that would allow frackers to “drill at will”. It says that proposals to give frackers “Permitted Development Rights” – which would allow drilling to take place without planning permission – have “considerable merit” and may be adopted in future, while conceding that they cannot be brought forward immediately due to public opposition.

Permitted Development Rights have previously been described by green and community groups as “drill at will” powers, which would make fracking “as easy as building a conservatory.” This extreme “frack-at-will” policy is imported from Trump’s USA. It gives some clear signals about the Conservatives approach to environmental standards. Add fracking gas to chlorinated chicken.

Boris “We must stop pussy-footing around and get fracking” Johnson obviously doesn’t intend to let the facts or public opinion get in his way.

It clearly signals that a future Conservative government is intent on continuing fracking as soon as the election campaign is finished and out of the way. No wonder environmental and residents’ groups are up in arms again.

In just a few days, a ’ban’ has become a ‘moratorium’ then a ‘temporary pause’ and now it’s revealed that a future Tory government has every intention of giving the green light to new fracking applications.

It’s a phoney ban. Just who do you trust?

Care quality cuts – shaming and disgraceful

I have been banging on about the crisis in the funding of adult social care – the resources to support adults with physical and mental disabilities and frail pensioners – for several years.1 Each impending crisis has been bought off with last-minute temporary funds, instead of having the political courage to agree a long-term funding solution.

Despite the rising numbers of people requiring support, more than half-a-million fewer people are receiving support than a decade ago, and that figure is growing day-by-day. The residential home sector is also in crisis. Some of the biggest private operators have been loaded with debt, had the property legally separated from the operating companies, and are now in financial meltdown as fees don’t keep up with costs. Sometimes it feels that we are only a breath away from a catastrophic meltdown of the sector.

What has been more difficult to assess has been the impact on the quality of services, as well as on the quantity. Talking to adults receiving support services, their families and care staff themselves, I have been left with a clear impression about a decline in the quality of services as well. Various performance indicators had also suggested that.

But there was no definitive comprehensive research to confirm that…that is, until last week, when the Institute for Government and CIPFA published their 2019 Performance Tracker2 . This analyses data from across nine public services, and indicates that health and social care, for adults and children, has noticeably declined in quality as a result of cost-cutting measures.

Note, not marginal decline, but noticeable, measurable decline of the quality of care being received by our families – wives, husbands, partners, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grand-parents. How shaming and disgraceful is that?

And it has all taken place over the last decade of Conservative governments which, despite all the woolly, warm words and the promises of dignity and security, have left vulnerable people lying for hours without care in A&E departments, without sufficient staff in hospitals and homes to provide safe care, and frail older people without the quantity of support they require.

This is what the Performance Tracker revealed:

Although all areas of government spending assessed by the tracker have seen some reduction in quality, adult social care has undoubtedly seen the most setbacks. Public spending on adult social care provision has fallen by 2.1% in real terms over the past decade. While it’s true that the service has been able to achieve efficiencies, it will not be able to maintain this over time. As the population continues to live longer in poor health, the forecast growth in demand poses a significant challenge for public spending.

  • Demand for publicly-funded adult social care is likely continue to increase faster than the amount of money available to spend on it. To continue providing the same quality of care over the next five years, the government would need to spend 11.3% more than it did in 2018-2019.
  • With only a single year of funding guaranteed, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to plan to meet increasing demands in a sustainable manner for future years, meaning improvements to service quality are likely still a long way off.
  • In general, a consistent level of satisfaction has been reported by those who receive adult social care. Regardless, the perception of adult social care on the part of workers and the public continues to decline. This could in part be due to general dissatisfaction of the workforce. As a result of budget cuts, social care workers have had to do more with less in order to maintain the quality of the care they provide. Vacancy and turnover rates in adult social care jobs are high, and continue to rise.
  • There are substantial gaps in the government’s data pool surrounding social care. We don’t have a national picture for the extent of private funding in social care, waiting times for assessments, or what happens to adults who request but do not receive care.

It concludes:

  • These details paint a bleak picture for the future of adult social care in England. …any government will have to increase spending substantially to meet demand, we would urge parliamentary candidates to consider how their policy decisions can be better informed and evidenced.
  • Without these insights, any government will continue to fall into the crisis-cash-repeat cycle that has characterised politics for years. And it is the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of society that will pay the price.

As I said, shaming and disgraceful. The Tories have a lot to answer for.

1 Affairs of State, 3 October 2019, https://clivebettsmp.wordpress.com/

2 2019 Performance Trackerhttps://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/performance-tracker-2019

Fracking heck!

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’ involves the use of chemicals (some dangerous) with vast amounts of water and sand at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding oil and gas, enabling them to be extracted.

At one time, it appeared that fracking might provide a significant addition to the UK’s energy resources. Supporters said extracting the gas would provide a cheap, cleaner alternative to conventional gas and oil.

Not only an additional source, but a domestic resource, important for both economic and security reasons. It was claimed, quite justifiably, that this would cut the UK’s reliance on gas and oil imports and would create high-skilled and well-paid jobs in parts of Britain which were falling behind economically.

I have to admit that I was initially tempted to support fracking trials as long as they were undertaken with a number of tough conditions to minimise any environmental risks both below ground – preventing earthquakes, water contamination etc – and above ground – preventing air pollution, chemical emissions, unacceptable traffic implications.

Of course, the Conservative government wasn’t prepared to agree this essential set of conditions. It became clear that it was determined to press on regardless of the increasing evidence suggesting that fracking in the UK could not be conducted without unacceptable environmental impacts.  The first earthquakes were recorded in Blackpool eight years ago.

There were a number of Conservative MPs who opposed fracking, not because they were concerned by the environmental issues but because of the level of vocal opposition to fracking proposals in their own constituencies. Boris Johnson wasn’t even in this group. In fact, the complete opposite.

Our current Prime Minister was one of fracking’s biggest supporters both in Parliament and in a whole string of newspaper articles he wrote and speeches he made whilst heavily backing the initiative to press ahead.

“It is glorious news for humanity. It doesn’t need the subsidy of wind power. I don’t know whether it will work in Britain, but we should get fracking right away.”

Boris Johnson, December 2012

www.boris-johnson.com/2012/12/09/ignore-the-doom-merchants-britain-should-get-fracking/

“We must stop pussy-footing around and get fracking. Even if we have hundreds of fracking pads, they are nothing like as ugly as windmills, and they can be dismantled as soon as the gas is extracted.”

Boris Johnson, September 2013

www.thesun.co.uk/archives/politics/1015190/the-sunday-issue-turbines-wont-do-job-lets-go-nuclear/

“Give the British people their mineral rights and get fracking at last.”

Boris Johnson, June 2014

www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/0/time-give-numbies-stake-shale-rich-land/

“If reserves of shale can be exploited in London, we should leave no stone un-turned, or un-fracked, in the cause of keeping the lights on”.

Boris Johnson, July 2014

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/alternative-energy-jc35sb5glbz

In 2016, in progress far too slow to meet Mr Johnson’s demands, the Conservative government announced that it expected that 20 wells would be sunk by 2020. In fact, only three have been started, all in Lancashire.

There has been constant Labour opposition to this initiative which simply failed to require the essential conditions and constraints, let alone take account of increasing public opposition and the bad news coming from the first drillings, with earthquakes and tremors at unacceptable levels.

Operations at fracking firm Cuadrilla’s site in Lancashire were suspended and never restarted. Following investigations, the Oil and Gas Authority – the industry watchdog – said it could not guarantee further fracking “would meet the Government’s policy aims of ensuring it is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby”.

Thus, it was inevitable that the government would have to respond. Last week, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said:

“…I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”

I’m neither cynical nor inappropriately suspicious, but I do have to draw your attention to two aspects of this announcement.

First, despite all the relevant information having been available for some time, the announcement was only made when it had already been decided to call a general election.

Secondly, the announcement did not refer to the ‘end of fracking’ – although that was how it was spun to the media by No 10 – it referred to a ‘moratorium on fracking’.  Of course, a moratorium can be lifted just as quickly as it has been imposed.

Given Mr Johnson’s fracking predilection, his assiduous use of fake facts, and his tenuous connection with truth and consistency, we are allowed to be suspicious.

Fracking heck!

Losing out

There was one piece of really good news this week, although you might have missed it in all the latest Brexit shenanigans.

How could anyone possibly think that it would be reasonable to suggest that, at 24 hours’ notice, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill1 , with 115 pages of dense legalese taking about 8 hours just to read, could be discussed, debated, amended and agreed in just 2 days? If I tell you that, this year, the government allocated 11 days for debate on the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, which ran to just 5 pages, you might realise the scale of the proposed democratic travesty.

This outrage was underlined when Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay demonstrated that he didn’t understand his own Brexit deal. Speaking to the House of Lords EU Committee yesterday, Barclay was asked whether businesses in Northern Ireland would have to complete export declarations when they trade with Great Britain, under the deal.  Barclay answered: “No, because in terms of Northern Ireland to GB, we’ve said it will be frictionless.” However, after his civil servants told him of his monumental error, the hapless Barclay reversed his comment, saying “exit summary declarations will be required in terms of Northern Ireland to GB.”2 Is it any wonder that UK businesses are exasperated by the government’s performance?

Anyway, back to the good news.

Indian and British police co-operated in shutting down two “criminal call centres” in Kolkata (Calcutta) that were being used to defraud thousands of Britons every year. “And about blxxdy time too” I can hear you shout. I agree.

Like every MP, I have been told story after story of people being relentlessly called by these scammers who pose as Microsoft (or BT or Virgin Media or…) IT support staff and tell their intended victims that their computers have been hacked. Fortunately, most people recognise what is planned and just shout loudly down the phone before putting it down. Unfortunately, a few get duped into buying expensive bogus security software or into revealing their bank details. Although a minority, the scam has obviously been very profitable for the crooks.

The City of London police say that the raid and arrests were at the end of a four-year joint operation with the Indian police. Well, I hope that, rather like Brexit, this is the end of the beginning, not the end of the operation to shut down these criminal activities. Given the scale of the scams, it is clear that there is a long way to go.

Last year, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau received 23,500 complaints about this type of fraud. Yet we know from other studies that most cases of these actual and attempted frauds are not reported. I have already asked Ministers about the extent of these frauds which have been reported to Action Fraud but which have not even been reported as crimes. I’m waiting for the answers.

Reported financial losses, last year, from those recorded complaints were more than £9 million. The real total lost by British citizens to this type of scam was almost certainly many, many times more.

1 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/841006/EU__Withdrawal_Agreement__Bill.pdf2https://twitter.com/AlexTaylorNews/status/1186399480226242561

The Noes have it, the Noes have it…

Since 2010, the Conservative governments have become obsessed with tinkering with the scope of and the arrangements for our democracy. Unfortunately, it appears to be the case of David/Theresa/ Boris fiddling whilst citizens have become more and more frustrated with and alienated from democratic engagement through the ballot box.

A group of Conservative MPs have been relentless in their determination to restrict postal votes to only those on their death-beds, justified by pointing to a small number of abuses in the two decades since the choice to vote by post was extended to every elector.

Of course, they forget that a similar small number of abuses happened when postal voting was restricted to the seriously ill. In Sheffield, we had the conviction of a Liberal Democrat councillor candidate who collected the voting papers of individuals who had died between the despatch of the ballot papers and the election, then completed them with votes for himself. The security and audit controls have changed since then.

I think there would be a massive revolt if the government were to try to restrict postal voting. The subsequent question would be ‘why can’t we have internet voting?’

Then we had David Cameron’s attempt to ‘equalise’ the number of voters in each constituency. But, the equalisation was based on registers which enable particular groups to register twice. The biggest groups are students, registering at their family home and university address, and second-home owners, registering at their family home and holiday cottage or business flat. Of course, it was all smothered with a populist 10% cut in the number of MPs.

Whatever, the combination of those proposals would actually have resulted in big differences in the number of actual (as opposed to registered) constituents in each parliamentary seat in Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

The latest proposed electoral tinkering concerns an intention to require anyone who wants to vote to have to produce photographic ID.

As it happens, most countries in the world do require people to produce evidence of their identity before being issued with a ballot paper. But these are all countries which have a universal ID system. Every individual has an identity card. They are normally required to carry it in their everyday life. They use it to be able to access a whole range of services.

We do not have that in the UK. And, it is the very same people, who opposed that the UK should have an ID entitlement card scheme just 15 years ago, who are proposing these ID requirements now. It is the very same people who demand that only those who are entitled to use the NHS and benefits and social housing should be able to access it, but then oppose the only serious way in which we can make this happen. These things are mutually contradictory. Some might call it hypocritical.

We don’t have robust and reliable ID systems in the UK. Those used by the police, the NHS, schools, local authorities, the benefit system, the inland revenue don’t match up and are incompatible. We are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds each year trying to make each system more reliable. Yet, it is believed that there are more than five million more national insurance numbers in circulation than there are people entitled to have one.

More than three and a half million people in the UK don’t have acceptable photo ID. If the government’s proposal is to limit it to passport or driving licence, then 11 million people don’t have acceptable ID

And, what is the ‘evidence’ being used to support the ‘ID for ballot paper’ proposal? Impersonation! ‘Impersonation’ is when someone goes to the polling station and claims the ballot paper of someone else who is on the electoral register and then votes.

To require this whole new ID arrangement, you would think that there is widespread voting abuse. Is there? Since 2010, 181 people have been turned away from a polling station having been challenged with impersonation. And just two people have been convicted of impersonation.

Meanwhile, the government has been running pilot voter ID schemes in just a few areas. The result in the 2019 trial? 740 people turned up to vote and were turned away because they didn’t have acceptable ID.

So, four times as many people were turned away from voting for not having the correct ID in just a few areas in 2019 as have been turned away for impersonation challenges throughout the UK in the last decade.

That’s why, when this latest nonsense from the government comes before the House of Commons, I hope we will hear the Speaker announcing The Noes have it, the Noes have it.

Our NHS safe in Conservative hands?

Make up your own mind.

This information is taken from NHS Key Statistics published today.

Cancer waiting times are the worst on record.

The waiting time target is that 93% patients should have their first consultant appointment within two weeks of referral. This target was met until recently. This target was met almost every month before 2018 but has not been met in the last six months. August 2019 saw record low performance on this measure.

  • On all eight measures collected, 2019/20 performance is lower than previous year.

Waits for diagnostic tests are at their highest level since 2008.

4% of patients have been waiting over 6 weeks to be tested – the target is <1%.

The number of long waits for admission has increased substantially

In 2018-19 there were 629,000 cases where a patient waited longer than 4 hours for admission, which amounts to around one-tenth of all emergency admissions to hospital and was 1.7% higher than in 2017-18. The number of 12-hour waits for decreased by 7% year on year but was over 13 times higher than five years ago. Between 2012-13 and 2018-19, the average daily number of 4-hour waits has increased from 419 to 1,723.

  • In the first six months of 2019-20, 4-hour waits for admission have risen by 47% on the same period in 2018-19, and 12-hour waits more than doubled year-on-year.

Waiting Times for Consultant-Led Treatment have risen to record levels

The waiting time target is that 92% of those on the waiting list at any given time should have been waiting for less than 18 weeks.

  • The current waiting list as of March 2019 is estimated at 4.56 million – up 5% year-on-year and up 40% compared with five years ago.
  • The proportion waiting less than 18 weeks is at its lowest level in a decade.

Delayed Transfers of Care

A ‘delayed transfer of care’ occurs when a patient is in the wrong care setting for their current level of need – e.g. when a patient is ready to depart from hospital, but problems relating to their transfer mean that they are still occupying a bed.

  • Delayed discharges have fallen by 21% in the last three years, but remain 22% higher than six years ago
  • Delays due to waits for home care have more than doubled over the past five years

Cancelled Operations

  • Around 1% of elective operations are cancelled on the day. The percentage of cancellations not treated within 28 days has doubled in recent years
  • In the first five months of 2019-20, urgent cancellations were up 12% on the same period last year, the number of cancellations for the second time (or more) was up 20%.

Patients waiting over 6 weeks for a diagnostic test

The percentage waiting over 6 weeks fell substantially between 2006 and 2008…

  • but has grown since 2013 and has been consistently outside the 1% target

You can read more at

https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7281

Seeing the wood and the trees

The national media has been giving significant coverage to the antics of Extinction Rebellion in their protests. I share many of their objectives in raising the climate change issues but am less than impressed by some of their tactics which are losing them public sympathy.

Over the last five years, the local media has devoted many broadcast hours and column inches to a couple of hundred highways’ trees on a few roads in south-west Sheffield. When these activists turned up on streets in my constituency, they were sent packing by local residents.

Overwhelmingly, local people tell me that they like trees, they want more of them, they want appropriate trees, they want them to be pruned so that they do not restrict all the light to their homes and, when tree roots damage the pavements so they become impassable or dangerous for wheelchairs and prams and pedestrians, they want action taken to sort it out. I agree.

Given the nature of some contributions to the local tree debate, you wouldn’t know that Sheffield had added more trees generally, and more highways trees specifically, in each and every year sine the second world war. And the same is true for Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham.

But, even if more trees were added in South Yorkshire at the same rate as has happened over the last 70 years, this may be insufficient to meet the current climate change challenges. Of course, nationally and internationally, there needs to be a wide range of actions if we are to reverse the heating of the planet. Some of the media might assist by halting the hot air being emitted from some prominent climate change deniers who, contrary to all the evidence, continue to behave like 21st century flat-earthers.

So, it should be no surprise that I am one of 120 northern MPs and council leaders – from all parties – to support the growth of the Northern Forest.  Last week, we wrote to the Prime Minister asking for his support and commitment to the project.

Currently, only 7.6% of the North of England is covered by woodland, considerably lower than the 10% national average.

The plan is to get 50 million trees planted over the next 25 years in the North of England by the Woodland Trust and their partners; more than 600,000 already in the ground. The forest will span 120 miles, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east, and from Lancaster in the north to Sheffield in the south.

This would establish 24k hectares of new woodland, which would absorb up to 7.5m tonnes of carbon each year. As well as reducing flooding, it will increase bio-diversity and develop new habitats. It will also create new jobs and enable new economic opportunities.

Let’s hope we can see the new woods and enjoy the new trees.

Off the buses

I have written and spoken many times about the disastrous legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation – she called it ‘deregulation’ – of our bus services.

The result has been passengers and routes cut by a third and increased congestion on our roads, with big additional costs for business – and, therefore, in the prices we all pay in the shops.  It has also meant a reduction in the abilities of family and friends to care for relatives and in the ability of young people to travel to enjoy their recreation for education, sport and leisure. Undoubtedly, it has made a contribution to attendances at Sheffield’s excellent sporting facilities, as recently reported.

Buses account for some 60% of all public transport journeys in England, more than the trains and underground combined, with nearly 5bn passenger trips. But because of the Conservative government’s cuts, more than 3000 bus routes have been cut altogether or reduced in the last 5 years.

I’m very pleased that Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis has asked me to lead an inquiry as to how to improve bus services in South Yorkshire. I welcome all contributions.

Boris Johnson recently said:

“A good bus service can make all the difference to your job,, to your life, to your ability to get to the doctor, to the liveability of your town or your village, and to your ability to stay there and have a family there and start a business there.”

Unsurprisingly, I agree with every word of that. Perhaps his experience of London buses, where a franchise system operates, unlike the rest of England, made a difference to his thinking.

Mind you, Matt Chorley of The Times reminded us this week that Mr Johnson bus interests go wider than just that. As Matt wrote:

“Boris Johnson won’t stop going on about them, declaring in several interviews this week and in his conference speech, that he is “a bit of a bus nut”.

He certainly has history with buses: ordering expensive, impractical Routemasters for London, writing questionable claims about £350 million down the side of a luxury coach and throwing his old mate Dave under a bus when it suited him.

Then there is his weird hobby of making model buses, as he revealed during the leadership contest and wheeled out again this week: “I like to make and paint inexact models of buses with happy passengers inside.” Why all this interest in buses all of a sudden?”


So, last week, in the House of Commons, I asked the Government Minister of the Day (Dominic Raab):

“On 27 July in Manchester, the Prime Minister said he wanted to bring northern cities’ bus services up to the same level as London’s.

Bus services are really important to my constituents. The problem is that, currently, Government funding for bus services is £75 a head in London but £5 a head in Sheffield.

Although the Chancellor has announced a further £200 million for bus services, it would take half that money to bring Sheffield’s funding level alone up to London’s.

Are the Government really going to fund the better bus services the Prime Minister promised for northern cities such as Sheffield, or have we again had a grand announcement from the Prime Minister that, on detailed examination, simply is not worth the paper it is written on?”

It is only fair to give his answer:

“I say to the hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, that we are absolutely committed to boosting bus services in his constituency and indeed infrastructure right across the country. That includes transport, that includes broadband, and that means making sure that we have a more balanced economy that can boost jobs, reduce deprivation and ensure we can fund the precious public services we need. On the specific point he raised, I will ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to write to him personally.”

I’m still waiting for the Secretary of State to answer. I’m realistic enough to believe that there is a gulf between what Mr Johnson says and what he does.

Money isn’t the only thing that will improve bus services in South Yorkshire, but it is the No 1 issue on the list.

Under-occupied

Like you, I’m very familiar with the frustrated outburst “Well, somebody ought to do something about it.”

I hear it all the time about fly-tipping, phoning whilst driving, speeding in 20 mph zones, unkempt front gardens, dropping litter, misuse of blue badges…and, most of the time, I share those frustrations.

In nearly every one of those cases, there are laws – criminal and civil – which govern what is unacceptable or criminal. However, what they all share is the problem of collecting the evidence necessary to persuade the courts that individuals are guilty or that the authorities should take action.

As a councillor or MP, it is even more frustrating when you have to explain to justifiably annoyed residents that everyone wants to act, but that the law doesn’t allow it. And, it’s head-bangingly annoying when there used to be the power to act, but that those powers have been taken away.

And, so it is that I come to write about empty homes.

Nearly every elected representative will have received a delegation from local residents – usually led by the people who live in the neighbouring properties – demanding action about the house which remains empty, falls into disrepair, enjoys gardens resembling refuse-strewn jungles, and which attracts thieves wanting to remove anything of value. However, as you listen, you know that the powers to act have been seriously constrained and, even if there were some powers that could be used, you know that the process is likely to be long and expensive. You know that you could spend that money in so many better ways.

So, based on personal experience of tackling these issues, I was delighted to support the provisions in the 2004 Housing Act to enable councils to take over the management of certain residential premises that had been empty for at least six months by applying for an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO). This power came into effect in July 2006.

At the time, I was surprised by the opposition from some Conservative MPs to these new provisions. I had under-estimated their visceral opposition to any initiative which interfered with the total and absolute right of the landowner to do what s/he likes with their property. Their characterisation of the new law as ‘giving untrammelled powers to separate landowners from their property’ was a travesty of the truth and  completely misleading.

Typically, some of the tabloid media weighed in with stories that councils would be seizing properties for seven years and that owners had no right of appeal against this expropriation. Of course, it wasn’t true. Government departments persistently had to refute these fake facts.

In reality, what the new law, and its guidance, did was to provide councils with the last resort powers of EDMOs to enable them to persuade owners to engage in serious discussion about the best way of bringing the home back into use. Over the next 4 years, councils used the threat of using the new powers as the vehicle for bringing hundreds of homes back in to use, new occupiers got a home and their neighbours were delighted that the nuisance had come to an end. Everybody, apart from a few disgruntled landlords, were happy with the outcomes.

However, entirely on ideological grounds, the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, announced in January 2011 that he intended to change the regulations in order to “protect civil liberties.”

Thus it was that the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat government introduced new regulations providing that EDMOs can only be sought where a property has been empty for two years (as opposed to six months), and requiring an authority to give the owner at least three months’ notice of the intention to apply for an order.

Of course, the result of their joint action with the Conservatives has been that, without the EDMO last resort powers, the number of empty homes – causing nuisance to neighbours and leaving another family unnecessarily homeless – has risen again. The latest official statistics report that there has been another near 5% increase since last year in the number of homes in England that have been empty for more than 6 months. That’s nearly 220,000 homes. It’s unnecessary and unacceptable.

Is it any wonder that I come over all apoplectic whenever I hear a Liberal Democrat representative or candidate complaining about an empty property? Do these people have no shame?

Let me assure you that I will continue to argue for a return to the powers in the 2004 Housing Act. It will be good for communities and good for those seeking a home.