Housing Finance

Today I have tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the government to allow local authorities to keep 100% of right to buy receipts for reinvestment locally.
There has been all-party support for the reform of council housing finance, which was announced by the previous Labour government and has been continued by the Conservative-led coalition.
However, this government is now proposing that councils should not have the ability to retain and re-invest the receipts from the sales of any council homes. Further, it is intending to take total control of what should be local decision-making by replacing the current framework of prudential financial guidelines.
I believe that these proposals run completely counter to the principles of the Localism agenda and to the other measures to reform council housing finance.
I believe there will be wide cross-party support for our proposals which are the most conducive to councils’ abilities to maintain existing housing and provide new homes. We know this has cross-party support in the Local Government Association.

Pickles stays strangely silent voluntary sector funding

Clive Betts MP and Chair, Select Committee on Communities and Local Government said today that Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had remained strangely silent about his intentions since threatening to introduce legislation to proscribe council funding of the voluntary sector.
Clive Betts said today:
“I wrote to Eric Pickles a week ago after he announced that he was prepared to take immediate steps to legislate to stop “disproportionate” cuts being inflicted on charities.

I told him that I believed Members of Parliament, across all parties, would expect a very early announcement of the details of his intentions if there was not to be chaos in budgetary decisions by councils and to avoid further chaos in the budgetary and service decisions by voluntary organisations throughout England.

I also pointed out the contradictions between Ministerial statements that ‘the worst-run councils are targeting the sector for disproportionate cuts’ when, at the same time, he is specifically naming for praise certain councils – like Sheffield City Council – which are making a 19% real terms cut in grant aid to the voluntary sector.

It’s time for him to come clean.”

Betts slams Lib Dem Minister on security of tenure

Clive Betts MP [Sheffield South East] today said that LibDem Communities’ Minister’s proposals to remove security of tenure for existing tenants were disgraceful.
During discussions on the Localism Bill yesterday, Liberal Democrat Communities Minister Andrew Stunell suggested discretion on retaining security of tenure when existing tenants move home ‘should be available to landlords’.
Clive Betts said today
“I am opposed in principle to the Tory-led coalition’s proposals to remove security of tenure from tenants. But, until now, the Housing Minister Grant Shapps has consistently promised that the proposals would not remove security of tenure from existing tenants. Now, it is clear that this promise is going to be broken.
This is a double whammy particularly for elderly tenants. They are already facing cuts in their housing benefit to try to force them to move to a smaller home. But now they are being told that if they move, they will lose their security of tenure which could lead to their new smaller home simply being taken off them.”
Clive Betts continued:
“This is absolutely disgraceful. Across the city, we have elderly tenants who have lived in the same home for 40 years or more. They’ve paid their rent on time. They’ve always maintained their homes and gardens. They’ve brought up their families there. Despite their children having grown up and moved on, they still like to have the room for their children and grand-children to stay.
But, if they are in receipt of housing benefit – as many are because, despite working all their lives, they only have a small private pension – they are being forced financially to move to a smaller home.
But now, this Liberal Democrat Minister is telling them that if they do move, they will lose their security of tenure.”
Clive Betts continued:
“But this policy will also hit those elderly people who do want to move to somewhere smaller. They’re being told “Move if you like, but we’re not going to give you any security so that you can stay in your new home.
As well as being monstrous, this proposal is counter-productive. It will dissuade elderly people from moving to a smaller home which would free up a house for a young family.
It is absolutely clear that the Government is hell-bent on maximising rents for landlords at the expense of stable communities.”

Suffer the children?

Several years ago, I found myself in a debate about the role of the state in bringing up children. What I mean by ‘the state’ is the ‘big British family’, where we decide together what we need to do to ensure that each and every child is given the opportunity to realise her or his potential.

One Conservative MP was insistent in his view that the sole responsibility for bringing up children rested with parents and that the only time ‘the state’ should become involved was where there were allegations of child cruelty. He was prepared to accept the state offering a health visiting service – to identify any early development issues – and a place at school until 16, but nothing more. He called everything else ‘part of the nanny state’ to which he was totally opposed.

Following the debate, it didn’t take much investigation to discover that this MP had employed full-time nannies for his young children and then, when they reached five years old, had them whisked off to boarding school until they were eighteen. Further, as he came from an independently wealthy family, he’d had exactly the same experience as a child. To me, this seemed less like taking parental responsibility than contracting it out.

I was reminded of this because the outcomes of a number of the current government’s policies seem to be at total variance with their stated objective of supporting families.

Despite all the statements about ‘supporting families through the tax system’, we now discover that the effect of recent government tax and benefit decisions will result, on average, in a couple with children being £1500 worse off this year – more than double the loss of a couple without children.

And last week, despite the Prime Minister’s personal promise to protect and build on Sure Start, we learned that government funding for Sure Start is going to be cut by an average £50 per child throughout the country next year, with the poorest areas getting a cut of £100 per child. Overall, funding for ‘early intervention’ services will be down by 22% next year.

It’s rather difficult to reconcile the government rhetoric with the reality. Not only will families with children be financially hit the hardest, but they’ll also lose the collective support we give them to give each and every child the best chance in life.

These children are the ones on whom our future economy depends and whose support we need in our old age. So, it’s not just suffer the little children now, but long-term damage to the social and economic health of our country.

Eric Pickles must clarify his intentions on Voluntary Sector funding

Clive Betts MP and Chair, Select Committee on Communities and Local Government has written to Secretary of State Eric Pickles today saying that if the Government is to introduce legislation to proscribe council funding of the voluntary sector, he must announce the detail of his intentions immediately.

Clive Betts said:
“The government’s stated Localism agenda doesn’t seem to have lasted very long. But, if it is to go into reverse on that policy in relation to councils and the voluntary sector, it must do it immediately.

It is totally unreasonable and unfair – both on local councils and to local voluntary organisations – for the Secretary of State to suggest that he is minded to legislate to determine a new financial regime for the relationship between councils and voluntary organisations to have effect in 2011/12, but for him not to announce any details.

Councils are agreeing their budgets now in accordance with a statutory timetable. Voluntary organisations are setting their budgets recognising the grant-aid they have been told they are likely to receive. Both are now in the process of issuing redundancy notices to staff, in accordance with statutory requirements.”

He’s lost. I’m confused.

When he was asked his first question in the House of Commons this week, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, responded I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker, but I have not the remotest idea where I am.” Most of us were not surprised, as his populist announcements having increasingly departed from reality.

The debate was about the impact of the government’s policies on voluntary organisations. David Cameron’s stated policy objective of a Big Society seems at increasing variance with the big cuts in funding for the voluntary sector throughout the country. To many national and local voluntary organisations, it looks far more like a Smaller Society.

Eric Pickles’ Local Government Minister then told MPs “Spending decisions are a matter for local councils, but no council will see its spending power fall by more than 8.8% next year.” He continued “The worst-run councils are targeting the sector for disproportionate cuts.

So, what are we to make of the decision of the Liberal Democrat controlled Sheffield City Council to cut the total grant to Sheffield voluntary organisations by 15% in cash terms (close to 19% in real terms) next year? This is twice as much as the Minister says the City Council’s spending power is being cut. I think most people will think that ‘twice as much’ is ‘disproportionate’.

Further, although the total cut is 15% cash, many local organisations in our area – from the Citizens Advice Bureau to pensioners’ groups to those working to improve the local environment – will not actually know how big a cut they face until July.

Thus, we’re left with Local Government Minister describing the council as ‘worst-run’ whilst the Deputy Prime Minister says he is supporting his Liberal Democrat council colleagues’ budget decisions.

I’m confused. I leave you to make up your own minds.

Safe in their hands?

I’ve lost count of the number of pre-election promises that the Conservative-led government has already broken.

The justification for breaking promises – that the state of the public finances is worse than they expected – simply doesn’t wash. The budget deficit for 2009/2010 was several billion less than forecast and the same is true for 2010/2011.

One important issue that has been given little media attention is David Cameron’s pre-election promise to “protect NHS funding”. We now know that this is another promise that he is going to break.

The first indication was when the government double-counted £1billion for caring for elderly people. First it was announced as ‘extra money for councils to spend on elderly care’ and then it was announced as part of the NHS budget, as part of Cameron’s desperate attempt to make his figures add up.

Now, the government’s own Office of Budget Responsibility has revealed with the latest inflation forecast, there will be an even bigger real terms cut in NHS funds next year. As the NHS struggles with making £20 billion efficiency savings, it is also being forced to spend £3bn on a new top-down re-organisation …. another broken promise.

As local health authorities and hospitals start to struggle with this, we are already beginning to see the real outcomes. It was little surprise that the new government was determined to do away with NHS targets as waiting times for both in-patient and out-patient treatment start to rise for the first time in a decade.

Now we learn that more than 50,000 NHS jobs will be cut over the next 5 years and that the majority of these will be doctors, nurses and other clinical staff. It appears that in the early stages, mental health services are going to be particularly badly hit. In Sheffield, -parents of children with mental health problems have already been told that waiting-times for appointments are rising rapidly.

It was little surprise that people’s confidence in the NHS has risen dramatically over the last 10 years to the highest level ever, given the massive investment in extra clinical staff, new buildings and equipment, with huge drops in waiting times for initial appointment and treatment.

We should all expect those services now to deteriorate and confidence levels start to fall towards those inherited in 1997. Are you confident that the NHS is safe in this government’s hands? I’m not.

The criminals must be laughing

Between 1997 and 2010, crime fell by more than 40%. It doesn’t matter whether you look at reported crime statistics – the numbers of crimes reported to the police by the public – or the British Crime Survey, where more than 40,000 people are interviewed in detail each year about their personal experience of crime during the last year. This survey picks up crimes which people don’t report to the police.

I have little doubt that this massive reduction resulted from a combination of a significant increase in police numbers (after cuts in numbers during the last Conservative government), the introduction of Police Community Support Officers, increased public confidence in the police to tackle crime, new laws to tackle anti-social behaviour, and the development of Community Safety Partnerships – where all the agencies and local people get together with a determination to both prevent crime and catch perpetrators.

Bizarrely, the Policing Minister in the Conservative-led government, Nick Herbert, doesn’t believe in any of this. When he recently announced that the budget for policing was going to be cut by 20% over the next 4 years, he made the astonishing claim that “there is no such link” between police officer numbers and the amount of crime.

We are now beginning to see the impact of those cuts. In our region alone, police authorities have already announced a cut of 775 police officers and 1570 support staff next year, with more to come. The same Minister has just announced a cut of 50% in the budget to support Community Safety Partnerships next year, with a further 30% cut to come in 2012.

We should always be looking for services to become more efficient, effective and responsive, but it is simply ludicrous to suggest that any efficiency improvement can make up for the scale of these cuts. Similarly, it is nonsense to suggest that ‘cutting the back-office’ won’t have any effect on the front-line. The back-office includes scenes of crime staff, intelligence co-ordinators and analysts, people who support the victims of crime. And, now we discover that the recently promoted local crime maps will actually take police off the streets, because local police officers will now have to do the data-inputting that was previously undertaken by the back-office staff.

Two weeks ago, the Liberal Democrat Leader of Sheffield City Council proudly announced that the LibDem Conference to be held in Sheffield in March would bring £2.5 million to the local economy. He did this at the same time as he smuggled out his decision to make big cuts the number of PCSOs in the city. But now we learn that the cost of policing that Conference will be more than £2m, which means making an additional £2m in cuts in frontline policing in our area.

Local villains must be laughing all the way to the bank. I don’t think that local families and communities will find this is any laughing matter.

Mislead and kept in the dark

UK unemployment has risen to 7.9%, with youth unemployment now at a record high since 1992 – more than one in five 16 to 24-year-olds are out of work. In our area of south-east Sheffield, the number of people getting Job Seekers Allowance has leapt by a massive 43% in the last year.

The economy has stalled, the government doesn’t have a growth strategy and the big cuts in public expenditure, which will result in further job cuts in the public and private sectors, are yet to kick in. Nearly every family in our area is affected some way. And it’s going to get worse.

Every job loss brings with it the risk of getting into debt or loss of home. There hasn’t been another time in the last 20 years when ordinary families will need access to good debt advice – independent, high quality, free and not from the sharks who want to make money out of misery.

Last week, the government did a sudden u-turn on the massive cuts in support for debt advice work it had announced just a month ago, but only agreed support for another year. You might have thought that local councils would also see good debt advice as a high priority at the moment. Despite the massive challenges they are facing, most councils have done. But, not in Sheffield.

Last week, I visited Mosborough Citizens’ Advice Bureau. As well as other advice, a large number of local trained volunteers supported by a small number of paid staff provide debt advice to individuals and families in our area. Yet, in the face of increasing demand, Sheffield City Council is proposing to cut the CAB’s grant, guarantee funding only for 1 month, and require cuts to home visiting services to people with disabilities and sessions at a local health centre and with tenants’ associations.

This will inevitably result in big cuts in advice, and specifically, debt advice services at the very time when they are needed most. Far from a Big Society, it will also result in a Smaller Society, as there would also be big cuts in the number of volunteers who can be trained and supported.

It is now also clear that the council’s support for a whole range of services is only being guaranteed for 1, 3 or 6 months into the next financial year. Whilst other councils are being clear about the scale of the cuts – services and jobs – for next year, Sheffield City Council is keeping us all in the dark.

It is planning a budget with big cuts in expenditure, but will only take the big decisions about what they will actually be after May. The leader of the council’s recent statements about the number of job losses that will result from the council’s budget are simply disingenuous. Either, he doesn’t actually know – because he’s ensuring that the big decisions on actual cuts won’t be taken until after the local elections – or he does know, and he’s keeping the rest of us in the dark.

Whichever, it isn’t transparent and we’re all being mislead.

Not a Price Worth Paying

This weekend, I spent a long time on the doorstep just talking to people about what was happening in the lives of their family.
The biggest single issue was employment. Nearly every household had someone who was worried about their job security, or had someone who was out of work already, or had a young person about to leave education – at 16, 18 or 21 after higher education – who was really worried that they wouldn’t be able to get a job.
Quite often, older family members took me back to the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher, faced with unemployment rocketing up beyond 3 million people, ended the obligation to work if you could. That government said ‘unemployment was a price worth paying’. The result was high unemployment that lingered for years.
Last month, the Office of National Statistics reported that the number of 16-24 year olds out of work is now at its highest point since April 1992.  Youth unemployment has increased by 70,000 in the last 6 months.  
At the moment, the dramatic rise in unemployment is overwhelmingly affecting the poorest areas – in Sheffield, the increase in unemployment in David Blunkett’s constituency was twenty times the increase in Nick Clegg’s constituency and there are more than ten unemployed people looking for work for every vacancy. So much for sharing the pain fairly. 
Yet, whilst unemployment soars and growth is sluggish the government is hitting young people with a triple whammy: jobs cuts, the removal of education maintenance allowances and a tripling of tuition fees. Without work and study, what are they supposed to do?
A report, written by Barnsley Council Leader Steve Houghton, led to the establishment of the Future Jobs Fund which would have created up to 200,000 full time paid jobs for young people up and down the country.  But, the government has now scrapped this programme.
All this will have a significant impact on the life chances of our young people and store up considerable problems for the future. The Government’s ‘Big Society’ programme offers no hope either, as 75% of youth charities are cutting projects.
These policies need to change quickly if we are to stop this becoming first a youth unemployment crisis and then, inevitably, a longer-term crisis for many communities.