No more roaming free?

No more roaming free?

Those who can remember back more than two years may remember how the telecoms companies just ripped us off when we travelled abroad. Many were the stories of people who returned from their holidays to discover mobile phone bills bigger than the cost of the holiday itself.

Allegedly, this was because the UK telecom had to conclude a commercial agreement with a foreign telecom to use its network and that this costed a lot. This meant that mobile operators charged customers big additional fees for using the service when abroad.

In reality, this was nonsense. Either the telecoms companies owned overseas networks or they bought or exchanged capacity in the overseas markets at next to no additional cost. None of this could justify the exorbitant charges to customers or the super-profits being made from those charges by the operators.

However, in one of those much-maligned EU regulatory interventions, in July 2017, roaming charges in the European Economic Area (EEA = EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) were abolished. In practice, this has meant that UK mobile customers can use their domestic allowance of minutes, text messages and data throughout the EEA without incurring additional charges. EU regulations set limits on the wholesale roaming charges mobile operators can charge each other.

However, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, surcharge-free roaming cannot be guaranteed.

The government has already agreed new regulations – Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 – which will come into force on exit day. They remove the requirement for UK mobile operators to provide surcharge-free roaming in the EEA. However, other consumer protection provisions such as a default financial limit on mobile data usage abroad (set at £45) and requirements for mobile operators to inform customers when 80% and 100% of their data usage has been reached, will continue to apply in UK law.

Of course, mobile operators may choose to continue to offer surcharge free roaming after Brexit despite not being under an EU legal obligation to do so. This would be a commercial decision for each mobile operator.

Similarly, landline and mobile calls and texts from the UK to EU countries have been capped at 19p per minute for calls and 6p per text since May this year.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, UK telecom operators would not be bound by these EU regulations. In fact, the government has again passed regulations that will repeal, on exit day, the legislation that imposes the capped charges.

Therefore, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, all of us who make calls, or travel, to EEA countries will need to be extremely vigilant and keep abreast of what their telecoms operator has decided to do.

You can find out more at:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/mobile-roaming-after-eu-exit, and

https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8034

When the lights go out

Thirty years ago, the supply and distribution of UK electricity was privatised, three years’ after the same had happened to gas services.

Since then, with considerable restructuring and consolidation, the dominant energy companies – the ‘big six’: Centrica plc (British Gas), EDF Energy, E.ON, SSE, Scottish Power and Npower – now all supply gas as well as electricity. Further, they have merged power generation, distribution networks and the supply businesses of the original companies. This has enabled them to play fast and loose with customers as well as with the regulator OFGEM.

These companies were always quick to raise prices when global prices rose and slow to reflect any falls in wholesale prices. Whatever the justifications – hedging, long-term averaging, other factors – the directors and shareholders always seem to have done well. Significantly, this has been because of an understandable reluctance to switch by domestic customers. Conservative ministers and liberal economic commentators have actually blamed these customers – mainly the oldest and poorest without internet access – for their own predicaments of paying much more for energy simply because they didn’t switch. There’s capitalism for you! Perhaps most people just want to be fairly treated rather than exploited.

Between 2000 and 2008 energy prices rose steadily. After 2008, prices continued to rise but fluctuated and the real terms rate of increase has been lower. From the end of 2016, energy prices have been rising. There are many reasons for this, but the 25% fall in the value of the £ since the EU referendum is significant. The suppliers had hedged the £ to reduce the fluctuations in the short-term, but this underlying cause will inevitably mean higher energy costs in the future.

The wholesale costs of energy have been the single biggest element of any energy bill, but they have fallen from more than 50% of the bill a decade ago to just 36% of the bill today.

As the mix of energy sources has changed – the emergence of wind, solar power etc – new suppliers have entered the market and the big six’s market share has declined from 95% of the domestic energy market in 2012 to 73% today. Inevitably, the number of suppliers has fallen from last year’s peak of 73, with several going bust, being under-capitalised for this market and raising serious questions about OFGEM’s appraisals.

In 2016, the Competition and Markets Authority published the report of its lengthy inquiry into the dysfunctional energy market. It found that

  • about 70% of the domestic customers of the ‘big six’ are still on an expensive ‘default’ standard variable tariffs (SVT)
  • these customers could potentially save over £300 by switching to a cheaper deal
  • customers could have been paying about £1.4 billion a year more than they would in a fully competitive market.

Price rises for some customers are now limited by the tariff caps which the government, despite its instincts, was forced to introduce.  However, to access many of the lower tariffs, customers are required to have a smart meter. But, the current range of smart meters are simply not inter-changeable between suppliers. So, in many cases, if you change supplier, you are also required to have a change of smart meter. “It won’t cost you anything” say the suppliers. I say “Well, who the heck is paying for these second-rate meters? It certainly isn’t the shareholders or directors or even the companies; of course, it’s the customers.” The government’s financial incentive regime and the suppliers’ insistence on smart meters should be halted until they’ve got this sorted out.

In 2017, an independent review – led by Professor Dieter Helm – made a number of suggestions to restructure the energy market and to reduce non-wholesale costs for domestic consumers. Last November, the then Energy Minister promised that a detailed White Paper would follow in 2019. Like most Conservative promises – on adult social care, on housing, on local government finance – we’re still waiting for the realisation.

This month, Ofgem announced that the levels of both the prepayment meter and the default tariff caps would decrease. Ofgem expect these changes to impact around 15 million customers.

August 9th’s electricity blackout demonstrated that the government has been forcing the National Grid to take even bigger risks with our energy supplies. Today, it has been revealed that the National Grid is routinely restricting the use of its own power cables from the Continent because of the risk of further blackouts if they failed. It appears that there is every prospect of the lights going out more often. Are you prepared?

What might you be able to do to get a lower energy bill?

Get some neutral advice from Citizens Advice (CAB) at

www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/energy/energy-supply/get-a-better-energy-deal/switching-energy-supplier/

Find out if you are entitled to help with your energy bills. See Help with energy bills from the House of Commons Library:

https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06163

And, if you don’t have internet access, get a family member of friend who does to help you.

High Court says “No”

Whereas most people, across the political spectrum, have little problem with the principles behind, and the overall objectives for, Universal Credit, there is also almost universal contempt for the way in which the successive Conservative governments have sought to implement it.

There are two basic problems.

The first is that, for a range of historical policy reasons, people – individuals and families – start from very different positions in their transition to universal credit and there are few discretions available to ease the way.

Imagine twenty roads – a mixture of motorways, A and B roads, country lanes and bridle paths with different speed limits and other regulations – being forced to merge into a single highway at one junction. Despite being persistently warned about the inevitable car-crashes, government ministers have ploughed on regardless, claiming that slightly longer slip-roads and new warning signs will solve the problem. They won’t.

The second problem explains why ministers won’t or can’t make the changes necessary to deliver a successful universal credit system. This is that their over-riding obligation of the implementation is not to secure the long-term objectives of universal credit but to secure significant reductions in the welfare bill as quickly as possible.

The government’s flawed implementation strategy – not just about specific proposals but also about a process where ministers have simply closed their ears to those who suggest they’ve got it wrong – has meant that there have been numerous legal challenges, nearly all of which the government has lost.

So, it was almost inevitable that, earlier this year, the High Court said “No” for the umpteenth time. And it wasn’t because it was parodying oldLittle Britain scripts with David Walliams and Matt Lucas playing the judges. It was a classic example of the new system being unable to take account of people’s particular circumstances.

Remember that a huge proportion of people entitled to Universal Credit are low-paid workers, or those whose families include members with significant disabilities. In the real working world, people get paid on the day of the week or day of the month chosen by their employers.

But Universal Credit is assessed and paid monthly.  For claimants who are in work, the amount they receive is based on their earnings with reference to a fixed monthly period – the “assessment period.”

But what happens if you are not paid wages monthly or your wages are paid on the last working day of the month? Universal Credit awards can then fluctuate unpredictably. Further, the system means that some people, just because of their pay-day, will receive far less than someone with exactly the same annual income and circumstances.

Ministers suggested that claimants in those circumstances “…could approach their employers and ask them to change the date on which they are paid”! What fantasy world do they live in?

The High Court judges ruled that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had wrongly interpreted the regulations on how earned income should be calculated.  They said that the amount of earned income in respect of an assessment period is based on, but not necessarily the same as, income actually received in that period.  The judges told the DWP that it would have to make adjustments where the actual amounts received didn’t reflect the actual earnings payable in respect of that period.

The judges were so unimpressed with the DWP case that they rejected its application for permission to appeal. Now, more than 6 months after it lost, the DWP is seeking permission to go directly to the Court of Appeal. 

In the meantime, the DWP has said that it is relying on powers in social security law which allow it to continue to apply the law as it stood before the High Court gave its ruling, until the case is finally concluded. 

Why can’t ministers just accept that their position is fundamentally unfair?

Too little, too late, never safe

Too little, too late, never safe

Today’s newspapers report that, for the first time ever, the average waiting-time to see a GP has exceeded 15 days.

It is nine years since David Cameron asserted “The NHS is safe under the Conservatives” – probably the sickest (sic) political joke this century.

That ‘Conservative safety’ has resulted in nearly 2.8 million waiting over 4 hours in A&E last year, more than 540,000 patients waiting over 18 weeks for treatment, NHS waiting lists growing to over 4.3 million, and nearly 27,000 patients waiting over 62 days for cancer treatment. Unsurprisingly, there are 17,000 fewer hospital beds now than there were in 2010.

Prior to 2010, the long-term funding increases in the NHS were 4% per year. Combined analysis by the Health Foundation, the King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust has confirmed that the health budget will only rise by 2.7% in real terms in 2019/20 – less than the government’s promised average 3.4% a year increase.

This has meant that

  • A&E departments are overstretched and overcrowded with people waiting longer and longer to be seen
    • The target for 95% of patients to be seen within 4 hours in A&E has not been met since July 2015.
    • In 2018, 18.5% of people attending hospital A&E spent longer than 4 hours in the department, compared with 3.4% in 2010.
    • 2018-19 was the worst on-record for the proportion of patients seen within four hours (down to 88%).
  • The target for 92% of people on the waiting list to be waiting less than 18 weeks for treatment has not been met since February 2016.
    • The waiting list for elective care has grown by one and a half million since March 2013 to 4.2 million in November 2018.
    • Between April 2018 and April 2019, the waiting list for planned treatment grew by almost 7%.
    • In April 2019, 579,403 patients waited longer than 18 weeks to start treatment, an increase of 15.8% compared to April 2018.
  • The target for 1% of patient to be waiting over 6 weeks for a diagnostic test has not been met since November 2013.
    • 3% of the patients waiting for one of the 15 key diagnostic tests at the end of February 2019 had been waiting six weeks or longer from referral.
  • The NHS has not met the 62-day standard from urgent referral for suspected cancer to treatment since 2013, and in November 2018 only 38% of trusts met this standard.
    • Between July and September 2018, only 78.6% of patients were treated within 62 days of an urgent referral, down from 83.8% between September and December 2014.  

Having spent nine years running down the NHS, imposing the biggest funding squeeze in its history, with swingeing cuts to public health services and social care slashed by £7 billion since 2010, the Conservatives now say they need a 10 Year Plan to clear up their own mess.

Now, headline-grabbing statements by the new Prime Minister are intended to show a big change of direction. “An immediate £2bn extra this year” proclaims Johnson. It all sounds impressive until it is revealed that £1bn (ie half) of that is money being held by NHS Trusts for major repairs and renovations which the government had prevented them spending, and that there is now a £6bn backlog in repairs and maintenance which had been caused by the Conservative’s real term cuts.

There is no excuse for anyone ever again to be taken in by a Conservative promise that they would take care of our NHS.

Concerned? You ought to be.

It doesn’t matter whether you are an arch-Brexiteer, a firm Remainer, still uncertain, or just bored with the whole Brexit thing, I am – and you ought to be – really very concerned about the UK’s future.

Whatever your views of the issues, the harsh reality is that ‘we are now where we are’, and that is certainly a more informed and accurate statement than the fatuous ‘Brexit means Brexit’. This means that we have a Prime Minister and a government which seems determined to pursue a ‘No deal’ option. In truth, there is no such thing as a ‘No deal Brexit’; the current one deal with the EU – which brings with it settled trading arrangements with most countries in the world – will have to be replaced with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new deals, yet to be negotiated, on trade, migration, finance etc.

Let’s forget for a moment that Boris Johnson fronted all those bus-promises on the NHS (and more) which could never, and will never, be kept.

Let’s put to one side his casual relationship with the truth and the facts. His former boss – the Conservative Max Hastings – said that “Johnson would not recognise truth… if confronted by it in an identity parade”, describing him as interested only in “fame and gratification… a scoundrel or a mere rogue”.

Even, when under the severest self- and external- constraints on his behaviour in the last month, he was simply unable to stop himself dissembling. In the Tory leadership hustings, he produced a kipper from under the podium. Waving it in the air, he said that the kipper’s producer – from the Isle of Man – was “utterly furious” with EU regulations. “After decades of sending kippers like this through the post he has had his costs massively increased by Brussels bureaucrats who have insisted that each kipper must be accompanied by this: a plastic ice pillow.” He went on to say that once the UK leaves the European Union, the country would be able to “take back control of our regulatory framework“.

However, it was just another of those stupid and untrue ‘EU straight banana’ stories:

  • the Isle of Man isn’t in the UK nor in the EU
  • there are no EU rules on the transport of smoked products, such as kippers, and
  • food safety regulations in the UK are set by the UK Food Standards Agency.

I have listened to, and talked with, thousands of constituents since the Referendum. Overwhelmingly, those who supported Brexit have told me that the two things that determined their votes were ‘taking back control from the EU’ and ‘cutting migration’.

I have to say that I’ve never understood the ‘taking back control’ argument.  How does coming out of the EU, in which, as a member, we have a major influence and say (and often a veto) and representation in the decision-making process, but replacing it with the rules of the World Trade Organisation, in which we are but a bit-part player with little influence, constitute ‘taking back control’?

As for ‘cutting migration’, has no-one noticed that as soon as Johnson became Prime Minister, he immediately dropped Theresa May’s ‘tens of thousands’ target and the manifesto promise to get annual net migration below 100,000? As many of the countries (like India) with which the new government has promised early trade agreements require an increase in migration as a condition of a deal, Brexit voters look as though they will be disappointed on this issue as well.

It has become absolutely clear that Boris Johnson and his supporters have no alternative plan for a deal with the EU, nor do they have appropriate contingency plans for a no-deal scenario.

A whole succession of the new government ministers have told us that ‘when the EU recognises we are serious about the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal, it will be prepared to make big changes to the withdrawal agreement so that a deal can be reached’. Abject nonsense.

The EU position isn’t being decided by EU bureaucrats; it is being determined by the 28 heads of government who will act in what they see as the best interests of their countries, and they’re not budging. As the Irish Chancellor told the UK Chancellor Sajid Javid yesterday, Ireland has no intention of removing the backstop from the Brexit agreement. They are not being intransigent. They have consistently told us that, if there is a credible alternative, they will consider it, but Johnson hasn’t got one to produce.

Then, last week, Johnson’s No 10 spin-doctors highlighted Donald Trump’s welcome to Boris Johnson and his assertion that an early USA/UK trade deal is entirely possible. As Trump has asserted time and time again, in his trade wars with Canada, Mexico, China and others, that he is determined to ensure that the USA gets what it wants from the negotiations and couldn’t care less about the other parties, we ought to be wary about what the price of a deal may be.

So, for the realists, today’s statement by Larry Summers, who was Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council, is no surprise. Summers said that Brexiteers “…are delusional if they believe that a “desperate” Britain can strike an advantageous trade deal with the USA”.

He said that Britain had “no leverage” in any trade negotiations and was absolutely scornful about the idea that Trump would, or could, produce a favourable trade deal for Britain. “I’m not sure what Britain wants from the United States that it can plausibly imagine the United States will give,” he said.

“Look at it from America’s point of view: Britain has much less to give than Europe as a whole did, therefore less reason for the United States to make concessions. You make more concessions dealing with a wealthy man than you do dealing with a poor man. Second, Britain has no leverage. Britain is desperate. Britain has nothing else. It needs an agreement very soon. When you have a desperate partner, that’s when you strike the hardest bargain. The last thing you do is quit a job before you look for your new one.”

After saying it was “close to inconceivable” that any agreement could get close to making up for the UK’s loss of trade with the EU, he added “If Britain thinks that the American financial regulators are going to come together to give greater permissions and less regulation of UK firms, I would call that belief close to delusional.

It is this set of circumstances that has led to a 25% devaluation of the £ since the referendum, with every prospect of another 10% devaluation before the end of this year. The only people who will gain from this are the currency speculators. It is no surprise that they have been Boris’s biggest backers.

Concerned about your future, and the future of your children and grandchildren? You ought to be.

Potential and diversion

People of my generation can look back to a time when a complex matrix of formal and informal systems sought to provide appropriate support and interventions to keep teenagers on the straight and narrow.

As well as parents, families and friends, there were many voluntary organisations welcoming and recruiting young people into a wide range of sporting and leisure activities. At that time, most teenagers left school at 16 years and entered work, where older workers, managers and trades unions provided a different sort of development framework. And there were also numerous youth clubs, some full-time, and many part-time based in community and church halls. They provided a safe place for young people to be creative, develop new friendships and learn new skills, all with a trusted adult.

I don’t want to be unrealistically nostalgic nor see that era through rose-tinted glasses. However, looking back, it is clear that it was that big, messy, uncoordinated pattern that helped to successfully deliver young people into the adult world. Of course, it had many failures as youngsters slipped through the net. And, some youngsters – just as today – seemed determined to avoid the net altogether and to pursue a life of anti-social behaviour and crime.

The new Prime Minister has made a big announcement about increasing the number of police officers, but not back up to the number that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats inherited in 2010. But there is absolute silence about the range of other services that seek to divert or deter young people from crime. Prevention seems to be missing from the Boris lexicon.

Youth services were overwhelmingly funded by local authorities. Similarly, many of the voluntary organisations – from uniformed groups like the guides and scouts to sports and leisure groups – were also supported by council grants to underpin the big voluntary contribution.

However, after nine years of austerity, many parts of our country – including Sheffield and other parts of South Yorkshire – now have no recognisable Youth Services at all.  As the government has cut local government funding hard, increased spending on adult and children’s social care has squeezed out spending on libraries, parks and youth services.

Over the last decade, spending has fallen by 70%, 14,500 youth and community workers have lost their jobs and 760 full-time youth centres have closed their doors. It’s in that context that youth crime – including ‘county lines’ drug dealing – has begun to thrive again.

Those who argue that council cuts haven’t hurt anyone are living in cloud-cuckoo land. The truth is that those cuts will have damaged some youngsters for life and some families and communities for decades.

We need to build a nation for our young people where they are safe and secure, treated fairly, supported in the present, and ambitious for their future. We need them to be skilled and equipped to learn and earn, pay attention to their health and wellbeing, be active members of their communities, and happy and confident in their futures.

We need to have a non-formal development and education policy for all young people which focuses on their personal, social and civic development. If necessary, we should have a National Charter for Youth Work underpinned in law.

Any such programme will need to be diverse, engaging young people by choice. To be successful, it will need to be owned and shared by other stakeholders, like the police and those concerned with children’s social care. It will also require determined and innovative leadership and a significant investment in a skilled workforce.

Brexit or Remain, Deal or No Deal, are completely irrelevant to a decision to invest in young people, helping them to realise their potential and diverting them from a life of crime.

So, Prime Minister Johnson, what are you going to do about it?

Diversionary tactics

All the media attention is on the Conservative Leadership election and, de facto, the selection of the next Prime Minister by some 150,000 Conservative Party members.

Jeremy Hunt is calling on Boris Johnson to stop hiding from public sight, arguing, correctly, that he ought to answer questions about his policies.

Put to one side the questions about his character, although they are ones to which he should respond.  Conspiracy theorists might be tempted to believe that all the brouhaha, about what actually happened last week at his girlfriend’s flat, and which led to the police being called, is being stirred up by his supporters as a diversion from the serious policy challenges he should be facing.

But it’s Boris Johnson’s policies – or lack of them – on which we ought to concentrate.

For example, Boris Johnson asserted, yet again last week, that tariffs would not necessarily have to be paid if the UK left the EU without a deal because the UK could rely on the general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT). Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England – a Canadian with no political axe to grind – had to go public, not for the first time, to confirm that the UK would be hit automatically by tariffs on exports to the EU in a no-deal Brexit, and that Johnson was simply wrong.

The more that Boris Johnson’s assertions are exposed to the white heat of scrutiny, the more that we shall see that his analysis and policies simply do not add up.

But the problem goes much deeper than that.

We know that Theresa May’s government is a front-runner in the ‘worst government in history’ race. We also know that, like David Cameron, Mrs May has used the UK employment figures, claiming ‘record highs’, to suggest that all is well with the UK economy.

Well, stop and think again.

Let me share some facts about our economy and the implications for households. And then just put this information in the context where, whatever the Brexit outcome now, we know that we are in for really rocky times in the next few years.

Household debt has been rising since 2016 and is forecast to reach 150 per cent of disposable income by early 2024. The Office for National Statistics UK household debt is the worst on record and amongst the worst of any Western economy.

For an unprecedented nine consecutive quarters, UK households have spent, on average, more than they’ve earned, pushing them into deficit for the first time since the 1980s. In other words, most households are maintaining their standard of living only by borrowing more. Is it any surprise that more than 8 million people in Britain are classified as experiencing problem debt?

And the problem is going to get worse.

The Conservative government has frozen in-work benefits at a time when food prices are rising and wages have not been keeping up. The Trades Union Congress economists – of which I was one, many years ago – are warning that the growth of consumer credit is a sign of fundamental problems in the economy, such as weak pay growth and low public investment. I agree.

After nine years of austerity, people are, on average, paid less than they were a generation ago. In relation to those on the lowest earnings, six million people are earning less than the living wage.

The continuing increases in household debt tell us that families are struggling to get by on their pay alone and that many are over-optimistic about their future earnings. At the same time, public and private investment growth are well behind the level of similar countries.

We need an economy that is fundamentally more prosperous and where prosperity is shared by all.

Boris Johnson simply doesn’t have policies which address these challenges. It is little wonder that he is ducking and diving to avoid being challenged about his policy agenda.

We should be afraid. Very afraid.

Up the High Street

Last week, in the House of Commons, I was able to speak about the recent report by the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on High streets and town centres in 2030. I thank everyone who contributed to our inquiry, including our witnesses. We took a range of evidence from retailers, councils, landlords, planners and academics.

The decline of the high street is a real concern to the general public. The change—the reduction in the number of people shopping, in some cases the empty shops, and in the worst cases the decay and deterioration across villages, small towns, larger towns, cities and district centres—is almost entirely down to online shopping.

Some 20% of sales are now done online: the highest percentage anywhere in the world. That has happened in the UK over a fairly short period—the past 10 or 15 years—and in many cases the use of shops and the reaction of councils and the Government have not kept pace with that very rapid change. As politicians, we cannot and should not want to halt it, but we must look at what we can do to mitigate its impact and address the situation.

We concluded that the days when the high street was 100% retail have gone. here now needs to be a strategy in each area, backed by the local community, initiated by local councils and supported by local traders, to create a different approach to the activities on the high street. We concluded that if high streets and centres are to survive and thrive by 2030, they must become

“activity-based community gathering places, with a reduced retail element and a wider range of uses, including green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social care, and housing, with the community at its heart.”

Councils have a really important role to play in developing that approach, working with local communities and businesses. Business improvement districts can play an important part. It means that local plans

“must be forward looking, anticipating what will happen in five years’ time.”

We are pleased that the Government has now accepted that all local plans should be reviewed every five years, and that town and city centre strategies should be looking at least 10 years ahead. But that cannot happen given the 50% cuts in planning budgets resulting from government cuts.

The Government’s £675 million future high streets fund is helpful, but not enough. It cannot be a talking shop. Real, hard advice and learning from others must be at the heart of it.

In order to make things happen quicker, there has to be change in procedures for compulsory purchase powers. We were also clear that the government’s new permitted development rights should not be allowed to get in the way of a local plan that tries to change the fundamental land use of part of a centre.

It is unfortunate that government ministers have got their heads in the sand when it comes to the issue of business rates. Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover on business rates while high street chains spend between 1.5% and 6.5% of their turnover on business rates; in other words, some high street businesses are paying 10 times as much as their online competitors. That simply is not fair.

We said that the government look at a number of options: an online sales tax, an extension to VAT, a green tax on deliveries, or anything to reflect changing shopping habits. But they came back and said no; they did not want to do anything at all. I say “Get real. It cannot continue like it is.”

But retail landlords also have to get real. We asked the government to look again at upward-only rent reviews, and they said, “No, we’re not going to interfere in contracts between landlord and tenant.” That cannot be. Putting the decision off only makes things harder.

There are big High Street challenges for councils, central Government, retailers and landlords. We concluded

“Unless…urgent action is taken, we fear that further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether.”

It’s time for that urgent action.

Kick them in the ballot box

Following announcements this week, there is to be a new £3 a week tax for 1.7 million over-75s

Strangely, that’s not how the government described the decision to end free TV Licences for the over-75s. But that’s what it is equivalent to.

More than 4000 over-75s in my constituency – and more than 20,000 in Sheffield as a whole – will lose their free TV Licence.

And it’s yet another broken promise from this incompetent, shambolic Conservative government.

The Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2017 General Election stated

“We will maintain all…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”

There was no ambiguity. There are no ifs and no buts.

In one foul swoop, the Conservatives – including each and every one of those standing in the election to be the new Leader of the Conservative Party – have broken their promise to 3.7 million pensioners.

If those candidates can break one simple unequivocal promise with such a total lack of concern, why should electors put their trust in any of the other promises those candidates are now making…about Brexit, education spending, our NHS, or housing?

We all remember Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg’s broken promise on student tuition fees. This is on a par. What these two broken promises have in common is that they were made in full knowledge that they were going to be broken.

Is it any wonder ordinary people have become sceptical about what their elected representatives say? I’m ashamed of them. I may have many weaknesses, but I have never made a promise to my constituents that I didn’t intend to keep.

In abject dishonesty, the government has tried to blame the BBC for this broken promise. This was because the government had forced the BBC to take responsibility for Free-TVs in the negotiations about the BBC budget and the Licence Fee.

This week, in the House of Commons, I challenged the Conservative Minister, Jeremy Wright, about this broken promise.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)

More than 4,000 of my constituents will lose their free TV licences. Will the Secretary of State explain to them ​simply and clearly how he expected to keep the promise made to them in the 2017 manifesto about their free TV licences? What mechanism did he intend to use?

Jeremy Wright

As I have said, the Government’s view as to what we expected of the BBC was clear. It was expressed clearly a number of times, including by me and indeed by the Prime Minister. However, the statutory fact of the matter is that this is a decision for the BBC to take. We made our view very clear, and other hon. Members made their views clear too, but it remains the BBC’s decision to take. I regret that it took the decision it did, and we must now speak to it about what more can be done.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2019-06-11/debates/C43F0B6F-CC9C-437F-879F-FED5FF929A1B/FreeTVLicencesOver-75S

So, just as bad as actually breaking the promise is the Ministerial confirmation that it was a promise that the Conservative Government was actually incapable of keeping.

But, instead of pleading guilty, all I got was mealy-mouthed words saying he regretted the decision that had been taken.

Of course, the BBC should never have been forced to take this responsibility and the BBC should never have agreed to become responsible.

But both knew where it would end up. As the former Minister (Conservative MP Ed Vaizey) said:

“The Government should either take back the policy or support the BBC changes.

They should not use weasel words to undermine the changes that the BBC has made.”

I couldn’t have put it better.

I hope 3.7 million over-75s take their revenge in the way they know best.

Kick them in the ballot box.

Long way to go

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower continues. Another flat-block fire this last weekend is just the latest reminder that the review of building safety is urgent and important.

The all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has been looking at improvements that can be made to regulations and rules on buildings and building safety to make other people safer in their homes and other buildings they are in in the future. We have had ‘robust’ discussions with Dame Judith Hackitt – leading the government’s review – and government ministers. We have had a very detailed exchange of correspondence with both and we’re still waiting for some answers.

Although the government has taken some action, overall the response has been inadequate or un-finalised.

It is a story about cladding, the requirement for unsafe ACM cladding to be removed, and it is a story of other materials that may be just as dangerous as ACM cladding. It is a story not merely of high-rise residential buildings, but of other high-risk buildings such as hospitals and old people’s homes. It is a story not just about new building, but also about existing buildings.

A year after the Grenfell disaster, the Government came forward with £400 million to remove the cladding off high-rise social housing. But there remains a real problem about private flats and the refusal of freeholders to accept responsibility.

The issue gets complicated because, in some cases, developers are no longer responsible for the buildings. It really is a situation that would never get resolved. Ministers have failed to face up to the reality.

Last July, we recommended that an immediate fund be established, initially at a very low rate of interest, at least to provide the wherewithal to get this work done, and we could argue about who would pay for it afterwards. We are still very much in that position.

The government has now announced a £200 million fund for private sector properties, but there are a lot of questions about it. First, who applies for the fund? Who ensures the work is carried out? Is there a timeline by which all this work has to be carried out? What happens if no one applies and the building is still there with this cladding on it? What happens to the local authority if it goes in and does the work in default: does it get the money back? What happens where a developer has already, rightly, paid for the work themselves: can that developer claim the money back from the fund, or does it apply only to work that currently has not been carried out? In the end, who is responsible for the work being signed off as satisfactory?

There are a lot of questions that need addressing and we are still waiting for ministers to answer them.

But, at the heart of the matter is making sure that materials are right and are properly tested. In the end, it is not even about the building regulations in relation to fire; it is about the building industry as a whole and how it operates.

This is about making sure not merely that the materials are right, but that the materials specified are actually used, that the buildings are properly signed off and that they are properly maintained and managed. This is a whole-system issue.

Currently, there are a whole series of conflicts in the process. Materials’ producers going around different testing organisations until they found the one that actually approved their material.  Fire authorities testing their own work and recommendations, which is wrong. This is also about the whole testing regime for products. Building inspectors being appointed by developers and then signing off the work of the people that have appointed them. This cannot be right.

The more we uncover, the more we realise that the whole construction industry is not fit for purpose. We need a fundamental review of how it operates, considering not just specifications, but including the management of projects and ensuring that people have homes and other buildings that are safe to live in.

Families at Grenfell lost their lives. Many who survived are still trying to re-build their lives. And thousands of leaseholders are stuck in homes which no-one is prepared to buy until the issues are resolved or are facing costs of tens of thousands of pounds in remedial works.