Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway

Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway…” was the message that the government sent to councils, of all political controls and none, when it cancelled the Local Government Finance Settlement announcement last week and deferred it to a date yet to be announced.
Only a few weeks ago, I wrote that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had brought forward his statement on the Budget and Spending Review for 2019/20, there was absolutely no excuse for the government to repeat its trick of delaying the announcement, until the last day that parliament sits before the Christmas recess, to avoid scrutiny and challenge.
There was no excuse for this delay which showed the Government has lost touch with the reality facing councils. The delay just adds further uncertainty and chaos for councillors who are desperately struggling to maintain important, effective services to their local communities.
The debate is no longer party political. Conservative council leaders across the country are shouting about the impact of the government’s cuts on their services. Just how out of touch is Mrs May when she announced ‘the end of austerity’?
You deserve to have the facts, as confirmed by the National Audit Office (NAO), the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and many more reputable commentators:

  • Since 2010, the government has cut grant to councils by 60%. To think about it another way, just consider the impact on your household if, for every £1 you earned in 2010, your employer was now just paying you 40p.
  • By 2020, local authorities will have faced cuts to core funding of nearly £16 billion since 2010, compared to 2000/10. The Conservative-led Local Government Association (LGA) says a further £1.3bn will be cut in 2019/20 under current plans. This amounts to 36% of their budgets. Research by the LGA has found that local government will face an almost £8 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • There has been no fairness about the distribution of the cuts. The poorest local authorities (which tend to be northern and urban) have had their spending cut by £228 per person since 2010, but the richest councils (mainly southern and rural) have had their spending cut by only £44. I leave you to draw your own conclusion about the reason for this but, let’s just say that, there is an absence of political impartiality. Next year, 168 councils will receive no more core central government funding at all.
  • What this government gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Having made great play of its decision to devolve public health services to councils – good news – the government immediately announced that it was cutting the funding for public health by around £531 million (over 14%). It then proceeded to blame councils which had been forced to cut services previously funded by that budget. Talk about blaming the victim!
  • Income support – like for Council Tax – is meant to be part of a national policy to get a minimum income to the lowest earners. But, between 2013 and 2020, the government is cutting nearly half of the original funding – a £1.7 billion cut – meaning that nearly 600,000 low income households no longer receive any council tax support at all and millions more low-earning households have had that benefit cut.
  • Despite an increase in the elderly population and an increasingly care-and-support needing elderly population, there have been big cuts in government financial support for adult social care. There are 500,000 fewer elderly people receiving support now than in 2010, and charges have rocketed. Councils are spending £6 billion less in adult social care, despite making big cuts to other council services to help fund care. Councils are receiving almost 5,000 requests for social care every day. Over the last six months, more than 8,000 people have been affected by care homes or home care providers either pulling out of contracts or closing completely.
  • This government’s shambolic housing policy – as well as cutting home ownership by making it unaffordable to young buyers and forcing big rent increases and lack of security on private tenants – has left local councils currently housing more than 79,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation. More than 120,000 children will spend this Christmas in over-crowded and poor-quality temporary accommodation and hostels, often many miles away from adults’ jobs, children’s schools and family support.
  • Last year, we saw the biggest annual increase in children in care since 2010 and councils are now starting 500 child protection investigations every day. The cuts and increased demand for urgent intervention has resulted in councils spending less on early intervention and cuts in grants to the voluntary sector. Children’s services face a £3 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • In 2017/2018, councils spent more than £816 million over budget on children’s services and adult social care. They did this by making big cuts in other important services. That’s why there have been big cuts in, especially rural, bus services leading to fewer routes, fewer passengers and increased car congestion. Hundreds of libraries have been closed, the number of youth clubs has halved as has the budget for services designed to prevent teenagers falling in to crime, the numbers of potholes have dramatically increased (Sheffield being an exception) and park maintenance has taken a big hit.

Mrs May and her government are not only responsible for the Brexit shambles, they are also responsible for the big cuts in the local services which we all rely on. It’s little wonder that people think the country is going downhill under her leadership.

It’s a knotty problem

As the national and parliamentary debate about Brexit continues, I often take wry amusement from the contributions of some arch-Brexiteers about the way in which we need to return to “our British way of life”.
I heard one such contributor on the radio recently speak with proud anticipation of his ‘traditional British Christmas dinner’, apparently with little understanding of the origin of the varieties of food which appear on that plate.
Of course, turkeys were originally imported from China, potatoes were brought by the Spanish from South America, sprouts were first grown in Ancient Rome and then in Germany and Belgium long before they reached the UK, sage and onion came from Mediterranean countries, carrots variously from what is now called Afghanistan and Turkey, and the raisins and sultanas for our Christmas puddings were from the grapes cultivated in Greece, Turkey and what we used to call Asia Minor, sweetened by sugar from cane grown in the Caribbean and flavoured with spices from the East Indies. So far as I am concerned, our diet and food has been vastly improved by these imports.
Similarly, there are thousands of plants which enhance British gardens and parks which had their origins thousands of miles away. The wonderful British institution, Kew Garden, is now the repository of tens of thousands of seeds from plants and trees from throughout the world.
However, there are a few plant imports which we could do without. In particular, there are three non-native species which have caused serious damage to our environment, the economy and occasionally to our health.
Giant Hogweed and Himalayan Balsam caused havoc with the environment, especially around rivers and streams. They crowded out other plants, changed the habitat and nature of water-courses, and deleteriously impacted on local ecologies, especially the diversity of small mammals, fish and insects.
But it is Japanese Knotweed which has most often been the focus of attention in urban areas, as it thrives in places where the native flora is already impoverished. The rhizomes (roots) have an ability to travel a long way underground before the two metre stems and large triangular leaves surface.
So big a problem did it become that its control was specifically addressed in the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. Under Sec 14 of that Act, it is an offence to plant or cause Japanese Knotweed to grow in the wild. A magistrates’ court can impose a maximum fine of £5000 or a maximum prison sentence of six months, or both. A Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine or a maximum prison sentence of two years, or both.
Although not a statutory nuisance, allowing Japanese Knotweed to spread onto neighbouring land could be considered to be a private nuisance. This means that if you had Japanese Knotweed on your land and you allowed it to spread to neighbouring land, the owners of that land could take civil action against you.  That is why you will find that if you are selling land or trying to insure your home, you will be asked to make a declaration about Knotweed.
Under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, Japanese Knotweed is ‘controlled waste’ and must be safely disposed of at an appropriately licensed landfill site. Contaminated soils must be buried to a depth of at least 5 metres. All waste producers to ensure that a written description of the waste and any specific harmful properties is provided to the site operator.  Other regulations also apply.
So, there are strict legal requirements applying if you have Japanese Knotweed on your land, and it can be very costly both to ignore it and to deal with it.
However, some people have questioned whether the physical and environmental damage caused by Japanese Knotweed is as great as previously claimed and whether its existence is over-regulated.
That is why the all-party Science and Technology Committee has decided to hold a short inquiry, specifically to explore the science behind the effects of Japanese Knotweed on the built environment.
The Committee has invited expert submissions on the following issues by Monday 31 December:
  • What scientific evidence exists on the effects of Japanese Knotweed on the built environment;
  • How the presence of Japanese Knotweed in the UK affects mortgage lending decisions and property valuations;
  • Whether mortgage lending decisions relating to the presence of Japanese Knotweed are currently based on sound scientific evidence of its effects on the built environment; and
  • What guidance for the sector currently exists, the impact of existing legislation, and how else evidence-based responses to the presence of Japanese Knotweed can be encouraged.
You can submit written evidence at
But the Committee is also interested to hear from people about their experiences of dealing with Japanese Knotweed, whether as a homeowner, tenant, prospective purchaser or developer. You can tell the Committee about your personal experiences by completing a dedicated webform at
It’s certainly a knotty problem. You can help decide how it is dealt with in the future.

Take a deep breath – no yet!

Most people under the age of 50 will have no memory of the choking smogs from which Sheffield – and most other cities – suffered in to the 1960s.
Concerns about Sheffield’s air quality go back over 400 years. It was a combination of industrial pollution, from the city’s heavy industrial production, and domestic pollution from open coal fires, which heated most homes. It was well described in George Orwell’s 1936 visit to the city: “Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World…”
Dramatic improvements were made between 1959 and 1972 when smokeless zones were established across the city, when residents could get grants to replace their coal fires with gas. Mrs Thatcher’s industrial strategy made its own impact in the 1980s as Sheffield’s steel, engineering and coal mining was devastated. It has effectively taken another 40 years to get to the position where parts of the Lower Don Valley can be redeveloped, including for housing.
However, concerns about air quality in parts of Sheffield – especially the city centre and near to the MI – continue. This is mainly due to nearly invisible pollutants from domestic and commercial vehicles, especially particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5); of most concern are nitrogen dioxide and fine dust particulates.
Poor air quality contributes to the early deaths of up to 40,000 people each year. Diseases attributable to air pollution in the UK result in over £20 billion in economic costs each year.
 In 2014, nine English towns and cities, including Sheffield, were named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for breaching safety guidelines for air pollution. The latest WHO report states that at least 37 UK towns and cities are in breach of the WHO air quality standards for PM2.5, whilst a minimum of 10 UK town and cities breach their standards for PM10s. This is significantly higher than the five cities required to deliver Clean Air zones by the end of 2019.
Locally, there are automatic air monitoring stations measuring a variety of pollutants in areas of most concern and 160 locations across the city where just nitrogen dioxide levels are monitored.
Today’s challenge is to make as big a breakthrough on traffic pollution as the city’s leaders made on smog 50 years ago. If all buses and taxis in the city were low emission – and a good start has been made with the introduction of new buses – that would cut nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas by about 20 per cent, two-thirds of the way towards the required 30 per cent reduction.
Many MPs and the Local Government Association, as well as health campaigners, have been pressing the government to act. But the Coalition and Conservative government ministers have been unwilling to get to grips with the challenges. The government has had to be dragged through the courts every step of the way.
In February this year, the government was defeated in court for the third time in three years.  What’s more, the judge was highly critical, saying that this was the third unsuccessful attempt by the government to produce a plan to bring down air pollution to legal levels as quickly as possible. He said ‘The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough… and it seems the court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved.’ Effectively, in a decision which the judge described as ‘wholly exceptional’, the court said it was going to oversee the government’s plans.
The government’s air quality strategy, unveiled in May, was hugely disappointing. Again, it simply fails to rise to the challenge.
For many years, I have been specifically pressing the government about the need to take action in respect of pollution from the M1, over which the city council has no power but whose concerns led to one school having to be relocated to protect children’s health. Ministerial response has been to duck and dive.
However, at the very least now, ministers seem to understand that they will have to act in a number of ways to cut the M1 pollution.
Last week, my colleague, Paul Blomfield (MP, Sheffield Central) and I again pressed the case with the Minister in the House of Commons. The response? After encouraging Sheffield City Council to ‘considering introducing a charging clean air zone (in the city centre) – which will undoubtedly be controversial, on the M1 issue, the Minister said:

My Department (DEFRA) and the Department for Transport have a joint air quality unit, and I am in regular contact with Highways England about its progress on improving air quality on the strategic road network. I welcome the work that it is considering to change speed limits and to install the barriers to which the hon. Gentleman referred.”

So, don’t take a deep breath … yet.

Land value – time for reform

Land value – time for reform
In September, I wrote1 about the investigation by and the report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, which I chair, in to Land Values.2 3
I am pleased to say that a wide range of organisations and individuals, across the political and professional spectrum, have also now reflected on the issues and concluded that there has to be significant change in the way in which land is valued and the way in which any uplift in value arising from a change in its planning status is distributed and used. In particular, we want to see a reduction in the cost of land for housing, which could make a significant contribution towards making housing more affordable.
Last weekend, co-ordinated by Onward4 , we5 published an Open Letter which was published in the Sunday Telegraph. It read:
Sharing land value with communities
The root of England’s housing crisis lies in how we buy and sell land. When agricultural land is granted planning permission for housing to be built, the land typically becomes at least 100 times more valuable.
We, the undersigned, believe that more of this huge uplift in value should be captured to provide benefits to the community. If there was more confidence that more of the gains from development would certainly be invested in better places and better landscaping; in attractive green spaces; and in affordable housing and public services like new doctors’ surgeries and schools, then there would be less opposition to new development and much better infrastructure.
The Government should think radically about reforming the way we capture planning gain for the community.

  • First, they should monitor the implementation of their welcome changes to Section 106 to ensure that councils deliver and that developers do not continue to wriggle out of their commitments.
  • Next, they could give local government a stronger role in buying and assembling land for housing, allowing them to plan new developments more effectively, share the benefits for the community and approve developments in places local people accept.
  • Most importantly, they should reform the 1961 Land Compensation Act to clarify that local authorities should be able to compulsorily purchase land at fair market value that does not include prospective planning permission, rather than speculative “hope” value.

Too often in Britain new housing is not good enough and comes without the infrastructure and public services required to support it. Other countries do a better job of making attractive new places to live, by making sure that development profits the community as a whole. Unless we learn from them, Britain’s housing crisis will remain.
Yesterday, it was revealed that there had been another disastrous fall in the number of homes built for social rent last year. Just 6,463 social rent homes were built in England in 2017-18, compared to around 30,000 10 years ago.
Up and down the country, in urban and rural areas, the government’s housing policies have proved disastrous for millions of individuals and families. There is a near unanimous recognition that, for many years to come, we need to build many tens of thousands of new affordable homes to rent and to buy.
In respect of land values, we need to be as bold as the architects of the post-war 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. It is a reform whose time has come.
1 Let’s value our land, 13 September 2018,
2 You can find all the evidence and reports at
3 Land Value Capture
4 Onward
5 A wide range of signatories including Labour MPs Clive Betts, Hilary Benn, Matt Western and Karen Buck; Conservative MPs Tom Tugenhadt, Nick Boles, Scott Mann and Ben Bradley; the directly-elected Labour Mayors of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and Conservative Mayors of Tees Valley and Peterborough; Conservative Chairs of the County Councils Network and the Local Government Association Housing Board and many others. Organisations supporting included Shelter, Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Christopher Grayling – the exception that proves the rule.

Generally, I don’t believe in personalising differences of opinion. I prefer to stick to dealing with the government’s policies and, where appropriate, being critical of them rather than the minister who is promoting them.
But, I have to tell you that I am prepared to make an exception in the case of the government’s Transport Minister, Christopher Grayling. It is quite difficult to find another example of a government minister who is such a serial offender and yet remains in denial about his performance and his actions, although Esther McVey (the recently-resigned Minister for making the poor poorer through the flawed Universal Credit scheme and for defending the family-destroying fixed-odds betting terminals) has given him a close run at times.
It is against the rules of Parliamentary debate to accuse an MP of dissembling. So, in a reversal of the intention of parliamentary privilege (to protect MPs who say things in the House of Commons which might lead them to legal action if said outside the House), let me say here that it is difficult to find any defence to the assertion that Mr Grayling is a serial dissembler.
In fact, I’m almost certain that the original version of the old joke must have been “How can you tell when Chris Grayling is not telling the truth? When his lips move.”
In 2010, when he was Shadow Home Secretary, Grayling issues press releases on crime throughout the UK which the independent Chair of the UK Statistics Authority described as “likely to mislead the public” and “likely to damage public trust in official statistics”. Later that year, he spoke in favour of homophobic discrimination at a Tory think-tank meeting, until his statements were published, when he was forced into a public apology.
After the general election, he became a minister at Work and Pensions, where he implemented job centre closures and actively promoted benefit cuts.
In 2012, he became the Justice Minister. He was responsible for banning books being sent in to prisons and implemented a programme to cut the number of prison officers by 20% and increase prison privatisation. The result? The all-party Justice Select Committee accused him of being complacent about a 38% increase in prison deaths and concluded that efficiency savings and staffing shortages had made “a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety” in prisons.
The independent Chief Inspector of Prisons criticised Grayling for “robustly” interfering with the contents of reports and for using financial controls to influence what was inspected, thereby threatening the independence of the Inspector’s role.
Leading barrister David Pannick QC described Grayling’s performance as “notable only for his attempts to restrict judicial reviews and human rights, his failure to protect the judiciary against criticism from his colleagues and the reduction of legal aid to a bare minimum.” Instead of being ashamed by his performance, Grayling appeared proud of it.
Not satisfied with making a mess of prisons, Grayling then set about a disastrous privatisation reform of probation services. The National Audit Office and the all-party Public Accounts Committee subsequently published devastating critiques of the financial and practical outcomes. Just 8 out of 24 performance targets were met and it cost an additional £350 million. In July this year, the new Justice Secretary announced that Grayling’s disastrous regime was being brought to an end two years early, and that many millions were to be spent on trying to restore decent probation services.
Grayling became Transport Secretary in 2016.
The decline in bus services has actually increased under his watch. The bus network is now smaller than it was in 1990, patronage is at a 10 year low and usage by young people has fallen by 40% since 2010 as funding has been halved.  Everyone is predicting further route cuts during thi8s and next year.
On the railways, he is planning another 3.2% increase in rail fares in January, taking this to a fare increase of 36% since 2010. Meanwhile, rail punctuality has reduced further from 91.5% in 2010 to 87.5% last year, and all the signs are that this will worsen further.
Last year, Grayling mislead the public and MPs in to believing that the long-promised electrification of the MidlandMainLine, TransPennine and GreatWestern routes were going ahead, before suddenly announcing the cancellation of that investment. Far from ending the great disparity between spending in London and the South-East, Grayling has increased the gap. Last week, an IPPR analysis showed that public spending on transport in Yorkshire and Humber fell by £18 per person last year while it increased by £90 per person in London.
Earlier this year, I went public with my claim that Grayling’s Department of Transport officers had instructed that journey times of peak-time MML trains between Sheffield and London were to get longer in order to accommodate London commuter trains. The Department put out a statement that my claim was wrong, Of course, when the timetables came out, peak-time journey times had increased. Since then, Mr Grayling has consistently refused to answer a simple question: when will Sheffield to London journey times get shorter that they were 10, 20 and 30 years’ ago?
Last week, at Transport Questions in the House of Commons, I asked My Grayling:
“On the last timetable changes Midland Main Line (run by) Stagecoach were forced to lengthen the journey times of the peak time train from Sheffield to London to accommodate more commuter trains on Thameslink. Is it true now that the Department for Transport has told Stagecoach they can’t come and revisit that in the next timetable changes because of the shambles last time and the nervousness that’s created in the department?”
He answered:
“We would dispute that we have done anything to disadvantage Sheffield to help GTR. We are doing a massive upgrade programme on the Midland Main Line at the moment … we will do everything we can do to make sure, if we can, the timetable remains as intact as possible as those changes happen.”
In other words, he is still in denial about the longer journey times set out in today’s timetable. But, he is also confirming that – despite the impression he tried to give earlier this year about any timetable changes being temporary – the situation is not going to improve, because he is frightened of another timetable shambles of the sort he oversaw earlier this year.
I am not alone in my view that this incompetent minister should resign. It’s a view echoed by public and MP alike throughout the country. Even the Yorkshire Post, not reknowned for its criticism of Conservative ministers, has oft repeated this year that “Grayling must Go.”

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

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.