No Bo Jo!

Today’s papers reveal that Boris Johnson has joined the so-called Pizza Gang (all thin crust and not much on top) of five in Mrs May’s Cabinet who are busy trying to undermine her Brexit deal.
Now, let me be clear. I don’t have much time for Mrs May’s deal either, but I wouldn’t have started negotiations in the same way or from the same position as she did. I’m reminded of the story of the driver who stopped to ask a pedestrian for directions to his destination only to be met by the response “Well, if I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”
But, I’m also clear that anyone who thinks that Bo Jo is the answer – to anything, let alone on our way to leave the EU and build a new future beyond – seriously needs their head examining.
Consider the following…
First, Boris Johnson’s brother Jo was a government minister until 10 days ago when he resigned because the UK is “barrelling towards an incoherent Brexit“. In numerous media interviews, he described the promises of the Brexiteers (led by his brother Bo Jo) – £50m extra a day for the NHS, a quick exit from the EU and signing new trade deals – as a completely ‘false prospectus’. In non-Etonian language, he meant ‘complete bullsxxt’ and ‘a tissue of lies’.
Second, having had more than two years to have prepared and published his own proposals for Brexit, Bo Jo has now outlined his own proposals – a ‘Super Canada’ style trade deal, a scrapping of the Irish back-stop, and a refusal to pay the divorce bill. This is all well and fine, but a work of fiction, as the leaders of all the major EU countries have already said that they would never agree to such a proposal. It’s a non-runner. It’s dead in the water. If only, instead of spouting populist nonsense, Bo Jo spent his time watching Strictly Come Dancing, he’d realise that it takes two to tango.
Thirdly, we now know what actually happens when Bo Jo actually does have some power.
As Mayor of London, and against clear advice, Bo Jo bought three unusable water-cannon for the Metropolitan Police from Germany, without checking whether they could be used on London’s streets. It didn’t require magic to turn these into three white elephants. These vehicles have cost £323,000 to buy and modify. They have never seen a day’s service. Last week, they were sold for just £11,025 to Reclamations Ollerton, a scrap metal yard in Newark, Nottinghamshire.
Of course, this complete failure of judgement and waste of money pales in to insignificance compared to the London Garden Bridge which Bo Jo championed. Five years later, and with nearly £50 million of public money spent, it has come to nothing. As The Independent commented “In its spectacular unravelling, the bridge now offers us a masterclass in how not to achieve a goal.”
I wouldn’t let Bo Jo be the fifth choice of clown at a children’s party. I fail to understand why anyone might think he has anything to contribute to getting us out of the Brexit shambles we are now in.
So, No Bo Jo.

Lives are at stake

During the Summer, a number of leading gambling industry executives said that gambling advertising had ‘gone too far’ and that even they were concerned about the exposure to children and young people. Executives, including from William Hill and Paddy Power Betfair, said that a ‘change’ or ‘curb’ was needed and that this needed to be led by Government.
Peter Jackson, Chief Executive of Paddy Power Betfair said he believed it would be hard for gambling companies to act unilaterally: “Even if progressive operators agree to restrict ads, unless there’s legislation passed, less responsible operators will step in and continue advertising.”
So far, we are still waiting for the government to take action to restrict the nature and extent of gambling advertising on our screens and online. The UK is not alone. Many countries, including recently Australia and Belgium, are tightening up considerably on gambling advertising.
But, easily the biggest public concern relates to Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) where significant (up to £100) stakes can be made frequently, providing the opportunity to lose thousands of pounds in just a short period.
After much pressure, stories of families losing their homes and jobs, and political discussion, the government indicated that it was prepared to act to cut the maximum fixed stake from £100 to £2. Everybody had been working on the assumption that this would be implemented by April 2019 at the latest.
However, the Chancellor said in his budget speech that the cut in FOBT stakes would not come into effect until October 2019. Undoubtedly, he had been heavily lobbied by gambling industry representatives as FOBTs provide such huge profits. But his position is particularly untenable as he is raising the gaming duty to 21% to pay for the delayed cut in FOBT stakes.
MPs across parties have been outraged by this decision. The government’s Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch – who I have always found to be principled and fair, has resigned, stating that pushing back the date for implementing the cut was “unjustifiable”.
I agree, which is why I will be working with MPs across all parties to try to get the cut to a maximum stake of £2 implemented by April 2019 at the latest. The government is gambling with people’s lives.

Nothing is more important

Nothing can be more important than trying to ensure the security, health and safety of our children, which will also give them a platform to realise their true potential.
For all sorts of reasons, there are times when parents are unable or incapable of providing the nurture their children deserve. It can be from birth to adulthood. Domestic violence and mental health problems predominate. And, of course, making a judgement about whether it is reasonable or required of the state to intervene goes right to the heart of the debate about human rights – of children and of parents – and about our collective expectations of child-care in a modern civilised society.
What is inevitably the case is that, if parents object to intervention or if the representatives of the state (social workers, doctors, health visitors) don’t intervene appropriately or timely, there will be significant adverse media coverage and the search for those to blame. Sometimes the criticism is entirely justified. At other times, a public balanced analysis and critique is impossible because of the need to respect confidentiality.
Inquiries in to the tragic deaths of Victoria Climbie, Baby P and others resulted in some significant changes in practice and procedures relating to young children. It is not surprising that, if professionals are criticised for not intervening, the response has been to become risk averse, to intervene quicker and firmer, and for more children to be admitted to the care system.
The shocking sexual exploitation of young, already vulnerable, teenagers in many towns and cities – with criminal cases to come over many years – has challenged attitudes towards and responses to how we need to protect young people who often don’t have their own best interests in mind. The rising incidence of knife crimes seems largely determined by the exploitation of vulnerable teenagers by drug dealers.
What is clear is that the vast majority of teenagers who become involved in sexual, physical and financial exploitation have been identified as at risk many years’ earlier, which suggests that we need to have earlier and firmer intervention.
However, it is clear that the government’s cuts are actually having the biggest impact on prevention initiatives. SureStart centres continue to close. Expenditure on youth services and crime prevention work with teenagers has been cut by more than 50% since 2010. This suggests we are building up even bigger problems for the long-term.
Since 2010, the number of Section 47 investigations – relating to the most serious concerns – have more than doubled. The numbers of children taken into local authority care has risen by a quarter in the last decade.
There are now more than 75,000 children in local authority care – nearly three-quarters with foster parents – with the 10-15 years old being the largest group. The number of adoptions peaked in 2015 and it is suggested that the now higher success rate of IVF has led to a reduction in potential adoptive parents.
Meanwhile, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently confirmed, funding for children’s services has fallen from c£850m then to c£700m this year with nearly every council significantly over-expending. This, together with the over-spending on adult social care, is why other council services, like libraries, have been and will continue to be hit so badly.
In the budget, the Chancellor announced and extra £84m funding for children’s services in 20 councils over the next 5 years. That is rather a gnat’s bite in comparison to the £3bn shortfall estimated by 2025.
Although, in response to the increase in demand, the number of social work posts has increased, the vacancy rate is running at about 17% and there are thousands of temporary and agency staff. This is clearly not efficient or effective, but an understandable response to funding uncertainty.
It is against this background that the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has launched a new inquiry into the funding and provision of local authorities’ children’s services.
Our inquiry will investigate what impact public spending has had on the provision of care services, and the approaches local authorities have taken in addressing funding constraints.
It will consider how financial support for children’s services can be made more sustainable in the short and long term and examine the potential for innovative approaches to the design and delivery of services.
Of course, we are expecting that the majority of submissions of evidence will be from a wide range of statutory and voluntary organisations and from academia and think-tanks.
But, I also hope that individuals – children who have been in care, foster parents and other professionals including social and youth workers and police officers – who have ideas and innovative approaches to the design and delivery of children’s services which could support financial sustainability, will also submit evidence.
To find out more or send a written submission, go to
https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/inquiry12/

Ducking responsibility

Six weeks ago, I revealed that Conservative-controlled Peterborough Council had been dumping homeless individuals and families in hotels around South Yorkshire.
I had been alerted to the issue by a senior officer from South Yorkshire Police, seriously concerned by the frequency of calls to the police to deal with distressed ‘residents’ and staff at local hotels.
Most homelessness is arising from then ending of insecure tenancies, where the private landlord wants to increase the rent. I predicted this outcome when the Conservatives effectively ended secure private tenancies.
When families, with young children, become homeless, it is particularly distressing. Just think about the impact on the children’s education, the loss of continuity in primary health services, the sudden loss of local support from family and friends, and the inability to get to work. This is all exacerbated if you are being temporarily rehoused many, many miles away. It’s of particular concern and simply outrageous when individuals have challenging mental health issues.
I was heavily involved in helping to get the Homelessness Reduction Act 2018 through parliament. It came in to force on the 3rd April this year. The Code of Guidance provides clear guidance to councils on the actions to be taken, including giving priority to providing rehousing locally and in liaising with other councils where an out-or-area might have to be made.
I’m clear that Peterborough Council has been flouting its legal obligations. That’s why I wrote to the Housing Minister drawing his attention to what was happening and to ask what action he intended to take with Peterborough Council.
In response, I received a letter from Heather Wheeler, Minister for Housing and Homelessness, telling me what I already knew about the law and about the Code of Guidance.
What I did not get from the Minister was any condemnation of Peterborough’s many breaches of the Code of Guidance, nor any information about the action she is intending to take.
What is the point of the Minister having a specialist Homelessness Advice and Support Team unless they do follow up complaints about authorities breaching codes of guidance, warn them about future behaviour and work with them to make sure it does not happen again?

Local people, and the local police force and councils, are entitled to a proper response from the Minister about the action being taken.
That’s why I have written to her again asking for answers. The minister shouldn’t be allowed to duck responsibility because it is politically convenient for her to do so.

Nanny state or prudent prevention?

Nanny state” is a term used by people who are generally politically to the right or are of libertarian tendencies. It is often used to pour scorn on policies where the government could be seen to be over-riding or interfering in individual choice or discretion. In the United States, they use the term “big government”.
Of course, there are lots of different perspectives about whether the “nanny state” in general or in respect of particular issues is a good or a bad thing. As my former parliamentary colleague, Margaret Hodge, once said “some may call it the nanny state, but I call it a force for good”.
Lee Kuan Yew, the architect and former prime minister of the modern Singapore said that he was proud to have fostered a nanny state, arguing that if the state hadn’t intervened in “how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use” then Singapore would never have made the economic and social progress it has achieved.
The first use of “nanny state” is generally attributed to the late Iain Macleod, a Conservative MP, in a magazine article in which he opposed the UK government’s proposals to introduce a 70mph speed limit. Although there will be considerable debate about whether particular speed limits are correct – in general or in particular situations – very few people would no w suggest that there should be no speed limits at all.
In all spheres of life, there are ongoing debates about the interface between individual and collective rights:

  • Your right to build an extension on your home conflicts with my right to light in my home
  • Your freedom to throw your rubbish on the floor conflicts with my right to avoid paying the cost of picking it up
  • Your right to produce food in unhygienic ways and premises conflicts with my right to expect to eat food that won’t leave me in hospital
  • Your rights to smoke in restaurants conflicts with my right to eat without a significant increased risk of cancer

And it is absolutely right that there should be wide-ranging debate and discussion and the production of evidence before any decision is taken which might infringe on individual rights.
I am astonished when I hear the rantings of Brexiteers who assert, to populist acclaim, that Brexit means the UK tearing up the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Of course, the ECHR is nothing to do with the EU. With Winston Churchill being one of its principal supporters, the ECHR was drawn up after WW2 to promote freedom and protect rights across Europe.
Government ministers – of all parties – have occasionally become impassioned when they have lost a case in the European Court of Human Rights. But, that is only to be expected when judges are being asked to rule on issues where individual and collective rights come in to conflict. What we do know is that the views of both judges and the public on the same issue may change over time. Would many people nowadays support the re-introduction of smoking in pubs and restaurants? I rather doubt it.
It is only right that there should be the fullest debate when there are proposals which, obviously in the community interest but also in the interest of many individuals, significantly impact on individual rights and discretion.
I remember, during the 1970s and since, the robust public debate about fluoridation of water. Notwithstanding the fact that the level of fluoridation proposed in our local water supplies was lower than naturally occurred in many parts of the UK, it did not stop emotive and populist arguments against the proposals alleging that this was ‘mass medication’ of Hitleresque tendencies.
There has also been a long-running debate about organ donation. Should we switch from a position where, post-mortem, organs can only be donated for transplant with the explicit consent of the individual or their relatives to one where there is a presumption of donation, unless the individual has specifically vetoed it.
Then, two weeks ago, a government Health Minister announced that “we are going to issue a public consultation, as of now, on adding folic acid to flour”. It was clearly timed to feature in Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Awareness Week. But, why should this ‘mass medication’ happen; after all, if folic acid is added to flour automatically, it’s going to be very hard to prevent it being part of your diet.
In 1991, the Medical Research Council published a report recommending that white flour in the UK was fortified with folic acid as this had been shown in other countries to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) in foetuses. This advice was backed up again by expert committees in 2006 and 2017. Although such fortification already happens in over 80 countries worldwide – including the United States, Canada and Australia – surprisingly, no countries in the EU do it.
It’s also worth remembering that in the UK, we already have rules for the fortification of flour with calcium, iron and vitamin B1.
Until now, successive UK governments have had a policy of voluntary folic acid supplementation, for women of child bearing age. So, what has made this government change its mind?

  • First, voluntary supplementation appears to be missing out those who need it most, such as young mothers in the poorest communities.
  • Secondly, the proportion of women who reported taking folic acid supplements prior to pregnancy has declined from 35% in 1991-2001 to 31% in 2011-12.
  • Thirdly, the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey states that 91% of women of childbearing age have a red blood cell folate level below the level estimated to lower the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs).

I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that any harm will come from folic acid supplements at the levels proposed. And, on that basis, I’m minded to support the proposal.
There is to be a formal public consultation about this. No doubt, you will tell me what you think.

Austerity ended?

The government’s own statistics show that violent crime has more than doubled in the last five years. It is now at the highest level since comparable records began.
In 2010 Theresa May argued that “nobody should accept a situation where at least 26,000 people fall victim to crime every day.” The latest statistics record 10,597,000 incidents of crime in the year-ending September 2017 – or 29,033 a day. She has failed in her crime reduction policy, just as she has failed in nearly every one of her economic, social and environmental policies.
At least she can claim consistency with her Conservative predecessors. Readers may want to reflect on why it is that all post-war Conservative governments have delivered increased crime and reduced numbers of police officers, whilst all Labour governments have increased the number of police officers and cut crime.
Whilst unsolved crimes have topped 2.1 million, the vacancy rate for detectives now stands at more than 5000. Overall police numbers have fallen by another 5% in the last 4 years.
Last year, there were 1,349,154 violent offences compared to 709,000 recorded in 2009.
Of these, nearly 40,000 involved a knife or sharp instrument, more than 20% up on the previous year to the highest on record. The number of homicides, where a knife or sharp instrument was used, also increased by 26% over the previous year.
There was also an 11% increase in offences involving firearms and recorded corrosive substance attacks nearly tripled.
The Home Office’s own reports confirm that the data shows a “shift to youth” involvement in serious violence with an increase in vulnerable groups including homeless, children in care and school-excluded children as “particularly susceptible to drug market recruitment”.
In South Yorkshire, hardly a day goes by without the local media reporting another stabbing, the use of a firearm, or the activity of criminal gangs who are trying to recruit young teenagers in to gang activity, mainly centred around the supply of drugs.
So, what has been the Conservative government’s response to the dramatic increase in violent crime? It announced a Serious Violence Strategy, an Early Intervention and Prevention Fund of £40 million, within which there is an Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation Fund of £300,000.
Wonderful!
Let’s put this in context.
Since 2010, central government funding for youth offending teams has more than halved from £145m in 2010/11 to £72m in 2017/18. Similarly, central government cuts to councils has meant that their spending on crime prevention has also more than halved, from £361m to £172m, and there has been a £387m cut in youth services.
Does no-one in this Conservative government and on the Conservative back-benches think there is no correlation between the massive cuts in expenditure in crime prevention and detection activity and big increases in serious, violent crime? What planet are they on?
The government has also introduced an Offensive Weapons Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment. It includes new offences relating to possessing and selling corrosive substances, selling and distributing and possessing knives and other blades and offensive weapons (like knuckledusters) and bans certain firearms and components.
What is astonishing is that the Bill ignores much of the key evidence contained in a leaked internal Home Office report on the drivers of serious violence. This included compelling evidence that much of the increase in violence had been caused by the government’s own cuts in early intervention initiatives targeted at particularly vulnerable young people.
All the evidence suggests that interventions aimed at supporting the surging number of young people in care, homeless or excluded from school; alongside prevention aimed at educating and supporting parents, carers and teachers would reduce violence among this youth cohort.
Further, the government has simply ignored its own evidence that cuts in police resources are hampering police efforts to tackle the surge in violent crime. The increase in unsolved serious crimes means that there has been a diminishment of the deterrent effect. This is having a serious deleterious effect on public safety and on people’s perception of their own safety.
I hope it will be possible for some important changes to be made to the Bill as it goes through Parliament.
Whenever we are considering policy changes to address problems and challenges, or to exploit new opportunities arising from things like new technology, we ought to look around the world to see if others have had similar problems or opportunities, how they have addressed them, and what lessons can be learned. Too often, energy and resources are committed to reinventing the wheel. This comment applies as much to authorities and agencies in South Yorkshire, as much as it does to the UK government.
In this instance, the Home Office has admitted that, in preparing its new Serious Violence Strategy, it had neglected to learn from others tackling the same issues.
Did it have to travel to the far ends of the world to find successful strategies? No. It just needed to consider the policies and the impact of the internationally renowned Violence Reduction Unit in … Scotland.
In 2005, Scotland had been assessed as the most violent country in the developed world.
Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland. Yet, between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight. The decline was biggest in Glasgow, which once had one of the highest murder rates in western Europe.
Between 2006 and 2011, 15 children and teenagers were killed with knives in Scotland’s largest city; between 2011 and 2017, none were. Last year, when 35 teenagers were killed by knives in Britain, there was not a single teenage death in Scotland from a knife wound.
Just as important, the Scottish statistics show that there was a decline of more than 70% in the incidence of handling weapons.
This didn’t happen by chance. It didn’t happen because Glasgow teenagers were stuffing deep-fried Mars Bars down their throats instead of stuffing lock-knives in their pockets. It happened because, after considerable research, Scotland adopted a public health approach to knife crime, in which the police work with those in the health, education and social work sectors to address the problem. And, the results so far have been dramatic.
So, I want to see government Ministers and Departments and, locally, South Yorkshire Police and local authorities and all other relevant agencies and voluntary organisations to learn from Scotland – and from any other strategies with successful outcomes – as they develop local responses to the tragic stupidity which is killing local youngsters and leaving local communities insecure and feeling unsafe.

Tragic stupidity

The government’s own statistics show that violent crime has more than doubled in the last five years. It is now at the highest level since comparable records began.
In 2010 Theresa May argued that “nobody should accept a situation where at least 26,000 people fall victim to crime every day.” The latest statistics record 10,597,000 incidents of crime in the year-ending September 2017 – or 29,033 a day. She has failed in her crime reduction policy, just as she has failed in nearly every one of her economic, social and environmental policies.
At least she can claim consistency with her Conservative predecessors. Readers may want to reflect on why it is that all post-war Conservative governments have delivered increased crime and reduced numbers of police officers, whilst all Labour governments have increased the number of police officers and cut crime.
Whilst unsolved crimes have topped 2.1 million, the vacancy rate for detectives now stands at more than 5000. Overall police numbers have fallen by another 5% in the last 4 years.
Last year, there were 1,349,154 violent offences compared to 709,000 recorded in 2009.
Of these, nearly 40,000 involved a knife or sharp instrument, more than 20% up on the previous year to the highest on record. The number of homicides, where a knife or sharp instrument was used, also increased by 26% over the previous year.
There was also an 11% increase in offences involving firearms and recorded corrosive substance attacks nearly tripled.
The Home Office’s own reports confirm that the data shows a “shift to youth” involvement in serious violence with an increase in vulnerable groups including homeless, children in care and school-excluded children as “particularly susceptible to drug market recruitment”.
In South Yorkshire, hardly a day goes by without the local media reporting another stabbing, the use of a firearm, or the activity of criminal gangs who are trying to recruit young teenagers in to gang activity, mainly centred around the supply of drugs.
So, what has been the Conservative government’s response to the dramatic increase in violent crime? It announced a Serious Violence Strategy, an Early Intervention and Prevention Fund of £40 million, within which there is an Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation Fund of £300,000.
Wonderful!
Let’s put this in context.
Since 2010, central government funding for youth offending teams has more than halved from £145m in 2010/11 to £72m in 2017/18. Similarly, central government cuts to councils has meant that their spending on crime prevention has also more than halved, from £361m to £172m, and there has been a £387m cut in youth services.
Does no-one in this Conservative government and on the Conservative back-benches think there is no correlation between the massive cuts in expenditure in crime prevention and detection activity and big increases in serious, violent crime? What planet are they on?
The government has also introduced an Offensive Weapons Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment. It includes new offences relating to possessing and selling corrosive substances, selling and distributing and possessing knives and other blades and offensive weapons (like knuckledusters) and bans certain firearms and components.
What is astonishing is that the Bill ignores much of the key evidence contained in a leaked internal Home Office report on the drivers of serious violence. This included compelling evidence that much of the increase in violence had been caused by the government’s own cuts in early intervention initiatives targeted at particularly vulnerable young people.
All the evidence suggests that interventions aimed at supporting the surging number of young people in care, homeless or excluded from school; alongside prevention aimed at educating and supporting parents, carers and teachers would reduce violence among this youth cohort.
Further, the government has simply ignored its own evidence that cuts in police resources are hampering police efforts to tackle the surge in violent crime. The increase in unsolved serious crimes means that there has been a diminishment of the deterrent effect. This is having a serious deleterious effect on public safety and on people’s perception of their own safety.
I hope it will be possible for some important changes to be made to the Bill as it goes through Parliament.
Whenever we are considering policy changes to address problems and challenges, or to exploit new opportunities arising from things like new technology, we ought to look around the world to see if others have had similar problems or opportunities, how they have addressed them, and what lessons can be learned. Too often, energy and resources are committed to reinventing the wheel. This comment applies as much to authorities and agencies in South Yorkshire, as much as it does to the UK government.
In this instance, the Home Office has admitted that, in preparing its new Serious Violence Strategy, it had neglected to learn from others tackling the same issues.
Did it have to travel to the far ends of the world to find successful strategies? No. It just needed to consider the policies and the impact of the internationally renowned Violence Reduction Unit in … Scotland.
In 2005, Scotland had been assessed as the most violent country in the developed world.
Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland. Yet, between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight. The decline was biggest in Glasgow, which once had one of the highest murder rates in western Europe.
Between 2006 and 2011, 15 children and teenagers were killed with knives in Scotland’s largest city; between 2011 and 2017, none were. Last year, when 35 teenagers were killed by knives in Britain, there was not a single teenage death in Scotland from a knife wound.
Just as important, the Scottish statistics show that there was a decline of more than 70% in the incidence of handling weapons.
This didn’t happen by chance. It didn’t happen because Glasgow teenagers were stuffing deep-fried Mars Bars down their throats instead of stuffing lock-knives in their pockets. It happened because, after considerable research, Scotland adopted a public health approach to knife crime, in which the police work with those in the health, education and social work sectors to address the problem. And, the results so far have been dramatic.
So, I want to see government Ministers and Departments and, locally, South Yorkshire Police and local authorities and all other relevant agencies and voluntary organisations to learn from Scotland – and from any other strategies with successful outcomes – as they develop local responses to the tragic stupidity which is killing local youngsters and leaving local communities insecure and feeling unsafe.

The economy, stupid.

In 1992, in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock, Arkansas, presidential campaign HQ, strategist James Carville hung a sign that read
  • Change vs more of the same
  • The economy, stupid
  • Don’t forget health care
Shoot forward to today.
We’re certainly in for change and not more of the same.
However, Bill Clinton had a clear idea about the change he wanted to bring about in the USA, whereas Theresa May appears not to have the faintest idea where her Brexit will take the UK. We appear to be on an anarchic roller-coaster of uncertainty, which inevitably means that many companies are now delaying investment with the consequent impact on long-term sustainability, jobs and the national economy.
And, what about the economy, stupid?
Well, let’s put to one side the UK economy and focus on the English local government economy.
Earlier this year, the National Audit Office confirmed that government funding for council services in England had fallen by 49% since 2010. This week’s Cambridge University report, using IFS-compiled data, confirmed that the impact had been that the average council’s spending in England had been cut by 24% since 2010.
This compared to a 12% cut in Wales and 11.5% in Scotland. It appears that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have been able to mitigate the harshest cuts. Don’t be surprised if there is a renewed call to revisit the Barnett Formula. “Mrs Crankie’s free social care for Scotland being funded by Mrs May cutting all social care for many in England” might provide the basis for a populist campaign.
Further, the report confirms that the deepest cuts have been forced on the most deprived areas. Thirty councils have had cuts exceeding 30% (seven exceeding 40%), with only one (LB Westminster, whose net car-parking income alone exceeds the government grant of most authorities) not in the areas with the highest levels of poverty and the least ability to secure income through charges and regeneration.
Meanwhile eight authorities, all relatively wealthy, have had cuts of less than 10%. When the leaders of some of those authorities have been loudly complaining about the financial challenges facing their authorities, it does make you wonder how they would have coped with the scale of the cuts in Salford or South Tyneside. Unsurprisingly, Eric Pickles described this distribution as ‘fair’!
The government has already announced another £1.3bn of cuts in local government revenue resources. So, what are we to make of Mrs May’s loud Party Conference claim that ‘austerity has ended’, whilst whispering ‘from the next spending review’? As this is the third time she has announced it – and we have absolutely no idea what any Brexit deal or no-deal might mean – the answer is ‘probably not much’.
And how does this all square with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss’s claim at the same Conference that
“We are not making cuts to local authorities. What we have done is given them more revenue raising power.”
When challenged about the veracity of this absurd claim, the Treasury said:
“The 2018/19 Local Government Finance Settlement confirmed the third of a four-year settlement for local councils over the Spending Review 2015 period. This settlement ensures a 2.1 per cent increase in cash terms in local government Core Spending Power between 2015/16 and 2019/20 – £44.7 billion in 2015/16 and £45.6 billion in 2019/20.”
As all the reputable fact-checkers have confirmed, a 2.1% increase in cash terms over that period is inevitably a significant real-terms cut.
All this is taking place in a context where the government is committed to phase out central grants, leaving council services to be funded through local business rates, council taxes and fees and charges which will inevitably increase inequality, especially between London and the south-east and the rest of England. Meanwhile, the government’s claimed devolution mitigation model seems to be hitting the buffers. The implications of further service cuts and a stuttering economy are serious for many communities.
One supreme irony about the impact of the global economic collapse and the UK government’s austerity measures is that, whilst the government and private companies have been able to benefit from low interest rates, local government has effectively been estopped from doing the same in respect of its long-term high interest debt, particularly from the 1980s and 1990s. To deter councils from, at its simplest, swapping high-interest debt for low-interest alternatives, the government forced the PWLB to impose financial penalties which made such swaps uneconomic.
It is now estimated that councils are being forced to pay – even after the payment of penalties – close to an additional £1bn in debt interest this year alone. If the government wanted to ease the financial challenges for councils, the Chancellor could do something about this in his forthcoming budget.
Without action, we can continue to expect to see more Sure Start Centres and libraries closing, road and park maintenance declining, and a falling capacity in trading standards and food inspections.
And don’t forget health-care…
The latest NHS statistics – with rising waiting-lists and waiting-times for investigations and treatment, falling numbers of GPs and increased vacancies – confirm that the NHS is not safe in this government’s hands.
How many more times is it possible to announce that our mental health services are unacceptable and that urgent action is being taken to address this?
Councils will soon be financially unable to over-spend on their budgets to support children’s services.
And the £240m for adult social care is just another hasty sticking plaster when we need short-term certainty as well as a long-term, widely-supported solution.

JUST don’t EAT!

Read any restaurant review in your local or national newspaper and it will tell you about the presentation and the quality of the meal, the culinary skill that has gone in to it, the decoration and comfort of the restaurant, and the customer service.
What you will rarely find is any reference to the hygiene standards and the likelihood that any meal consumed there will leave you with a debilitating illness. Of course, it is entirely likely that the reviewers have, very sensibly, already decided that they wouldn’t go to any restaurant that didn’t have a high hygiene rating. That’s certainly what I would do.
Food safety officers from local councils inspect restaurants and take-aways to check that food is safe to eat. At each inspection, they will be checking how hygienically the food is handled, the physical condition of the premises, and the processes used ensure good hygiene is maintained. That’s the basis on which an assessment is made and a rating is given.
Ratings go from 0 (urgent improvement is required) to 5 (hygiene standards are very good). Every business selling food should be displaying a sticker telling you the rating although, extraordinarily, this is still voluntary! You can also find out the latest ratings for any food premises in the UK at www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk/ where you can also find an App for your phone.
What has shocked me this week is the revelation that a company that describes itself as ‘a top 100 FTSE listed company’, ‘a world leader in online and mobile food ordering’, and ‘on a mission to create the world’s greatest food community’ has so little regard for your health.
The company’s platform includes and promotes more than half of the restaurants and take-aways in the country with a ‘0’ rating. But it doesn’t tell you that these restaurants have been independently rated as requiring ‘urgent improvement’ to their hygiene standards if they are to remain in business.
However, you will find ratings for each premise which run from 0* to 6*, with the vast majority rated 4-6*…including those restaurants independently rated ‘0’ for hygiene and food safety. Yet, as industry experts have confirmed, it would be quick, easy and not expensive for the platform to display these independent ratings. I leave you to speculate about the reasons why the company has chosen not to do so.
There are lots of excellent restaurants and take-aways whose owners and staff take food hygiene very seriously and who should not be undermined by those who show such a callous or unprofessional disregard for our health. Choose them for your next meal.
Meanwhile, until this ‘world leader’ takes our health seriously, my advice is JUST don’t EAT!

Universal discredit

Universal discredit
Yesterday, in the House of Commons, I asked the Minister for Work and Pensions a very simple question:
When universal credit is rolled out in Sheffield next month, will he guarantee that none of my constituents will be worse off?1
The Minister could have given a very simple answer – and one that thousands of Sheffield families wanted to hear. He could have just said ‘Yes.’
Instead, there was more ducking and diving than you’d see from the waterfowl at Rother Valley Park. His answer:
“it depends on people’s individual circumstances. This new benefit system is ultimately about making sure that we help people into work.”
So, let me just interpret this for you. He meant:
“No, of course I won’t give you a guarantee because many of your constituents will be worse off. That’s the incentive to get them to get a job, however insecure and low-paid.”
Let me be clear. Who would not support a simpler welfare benefits’ system than we have now? Who would not support a system which was designed to ensure that families in work are not worse off than similar families in receipt of benefits?
Although that is what is said about Universal Credit (UC)’s objectives, that is clearly not what is being delivered and thousands of families will be significantly worse off following a migration to universal credit from the current arrangements. Far from Theresa May’s ‘austerity is over’promise, we will see ‘additional austerity’ for many families and many communities.
UC was designed to lift people out of poverty but instead is leaving people in debt, rent arrears or forced to turn to food banks to survive. The Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own research shows that 40% of claimants were still experiencing financial difficulties 9 months in to their claim.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has said2 this week that ending austerity would cost a minimum of £19bn compared to current spending plans up to 2022-23 and even that would leave still mean £7bn in social security cuts.
That is why Secretary of State Esther McVey has had to admit that many families could lose as a result of transferring to claim UC. Half of lone parents and two thirds of working-age couples with children would lose the equivalent of £2,400 a year.
None of the current criticism is new. This is very similar to the findings – rubbished by Ministers at the time – of the independent Resolution Foundation3 in November last year which found that 3.2 million families are expected to be worse off under UC, with an average loss of £48 a week, and that lone parents who lose out will be £57 a week on average worse off.
In June this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) said4 that UC is failing to achieve its aims and there is currently no evidence that it ever will.
A wide range of organisations, including Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group and over 80 disability organisations have warned the government that its plans risk thousands of people losing support either temporarily or falling out of the system altogether.
There has been a massive rise in rent arrears – to social and private landlords – by tenants transferred to UC. Foodbank referrals have leapt more than 50% where UC has been rolled out.
This week, Ms McVey confirmed that the implementation timetable for universal credit has been put back again. It is now 6 years behind the original timetable. Two former Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and John Major, have issued serious warnings about the impact of the roll out from next year.
The government has three choices:
  • Continue on its current course and introduce a new wave of enhanced austerity to many thousands of families and communities, or
  • Re-instate the £4bn planned cuts in UC resources to 2020 to prevent significant hardship, or
  • Scrap UC pending a significant redesign which will deliver the original ambitions, but require an appropriate budget.
The Chancellor has until his budget statement on 29th October to decide.