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Archive for the ‘Welfare’ Category

Sunday
Jun 15,2014

Shaz is 15 years old. This is how she tells her story: “When I was 12, I went on a family holiday to Bangladesh. As soon as I got out there were marriage proposals from my cousins. I started starving myself and was brought back. I couldn’t tell anyone. My brother said I was going to marry my cousin from Bangladesh if I didn’t he would kill me.” Shaz’s brother was only two years older than her, and was born and brought up in this country. Today forced marriage becomes a criminal offence. This is welcome and is the culmination of a long campaign by many organisations – including (declaration of interest) the Freedom Charity, whose Board I chair. Forcing someone to marry against their will is abhorrent, and is also widely regarded as a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards. Indeed, Article 16.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: ‘Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’ Under the previous Labour government, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed, enabling victims to apply for court orders for their protection. It became apparent however, that more was needed; which is why we were happy to support criminalisation being included in the Coalition’s Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill during the last parliamentary session.  Labour Peers successfully strengthened the measure as far as the principle of consent for people with learning difficulties was concerned, recognising that for some a forced marriage may take place without violence or threats. The big task remains education. We need to make sure that those at risk understand they have a choice. We need families and communities to understand that forcing someone into a marriage against their will is not just wrong. It is now illegal. Shaz was lucky. She tells how in January of last year: “I was at school when Aneeta from Freedom visited, we all leant about  forced marriage. I knew then I could get help. Freedom got me out. Now I live with my Foster Mum and Dad.” We are now approaching the long summer school holidays – a time when young girls often disappear on long family holidays and are forced into marriages overseas. It is even more important therefore to get the message across that forced marriage is wrong. That is why I, along with Labour colleagues and many others around the country, are marking the criminalisation of forced marriage by being photographed on Monday holding a Twitter-friendly sign saying #FREEDOM2CHOOSE.

Monday
Jul 29,2013

Two issues today highlight the way this Conservative-led LibDem-supported Coalition Government operates.

Fees of up to £1200 to bring an employment tribunal case are being introduced today.  This is allegedly intended to prevent so-called vexatious claims from being brought.  The reality is that for the first time since employment tribunals were introduced in the 1960s there will be charges imposed to deter those who have been badly treated or exploited by their employers.  The fees discriminate against the weak and the low paid.

Less important, but symptomatic of the way this Government pays lip-service to engagement and consultation are a series of consultation exercises launched in the last few days with closing dates for response at the end of August or in the first week of September.  Good practice would be that consultations should be open for up to three months – five weeks over the peak holiday period is designed to stifle responses.  The consultations cover such matters as pensions fro retained firefighters, the housing transfer manual, and various notices under the Gas and Electricity Acts (and yes, I don’t know what these are about, but they are no doubt complicated and take time to understand their implications).

I am not surprised by the Tories, but I hope the LibDems are ashamed of themselves.

Thursday
Apr 18,2013

A few weeks ago I asked “How often does Boris Johnson speak up for Londoners?”  The answer seemed to be not very much.  I had tabled a question in the House of Lords:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the Mayor of London in the last year on (1) health services in London, (2) housing provision in London, and (3) the impact of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London.[HL5797]“

The response I got was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): The Department of Health has held a number of discussions over the last year with the Greater London Authority, London Councils and the Local Government Association about the London Health Improvement Board. We recognise that there is potential for delivering health improvement services on a city-wide basis in London. The London Health Improvement Board has been meeting since July 2011.

The Localism Act conferred on the Mayor of London responsibility for housing, economic development and Olympic legacy in London, in addition to existing responsibilities over transport, planning and the police. Therefore, the mayor is responsible for housing and regeneration policy in London. The Department for Communities and Local Government has regular conversations with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority regarding housing provision in London. Over the last year these conversations have focused on a broad range of issues, such as funding and delivery of affordable housing, increasing investment in the private rented sector, getting surplus public sector land back into use and dealing with homelessness and rough sleeping.”

The answer was – as I pointed out –  notable in what it does not say.

There is no indication that the Mayor had spoken up on behalf of Londoners about the state of London’s NHS and the piecemeal closure of services that is taking place all over the capital.

And there was no mention whatsoever in the answer (despite its specific inclusion in the question) of any representations made by the Mayor on the impact of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London.

So I concluded:

“Boris Johnson has made plenty of public statements about not being nasty to bankers and the iniquities of high tax rates but apparently has little to say about the cuts in welfare and housing benefits that hundreds of thousands of Londoners will face in the next few weeks.”

However, in the interests of fairness, I thought I should seek further clarification in case the omission from the answer was a mistake by civil servants.

After all, this was the Mayor who in October 2010, while he was running for re-election as Mayor, had likened the effects of the housing benefit changes to “Kosovan-style ethnic cleansing“.

I therefore tabled another question in the House of Lords this time more specific that elicited the following response:

Lord Harris of Haringey:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Hanham on 5 March (WA 397-8), what representations they have received from the Mayor of London, separately from the London Assembly, specifically on the subject of the impact of changes to welfare benefits on the people of London.[HL6517]

Lord Freud: We are not aware of any representations received in the past year from the Mayor of London, separately from the London Assembly, on the impact of changes to welfare benefits on the people of London.”

So the Department of Work and Pensions is not aware of ANY representations from the Mayor in the last year.

This demonstrates how little he really cares about what is now happening to many Londoners.

All he was prepared to utter was a single lurid soundbite in one of his rare media interviews. And then nothing.

No attempt to use the formidable statistical and information resources available to him at the Greater London Authority to put the case to his colleagues in Government.  Nothing at all.

Perhaps what it means is that now he has been re-elected he no longer feels the need to represent the interests of Londoners as his focus has moved on to winning over the Conservative MPs he needs for his next objective – to succeed David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party.  And not many of those Tory MPs care about hard-pressed Londoners damaged by the Government’ s policies on benefits.

Wednesday
Mar 27,2013

The focus of that Eddie Mair interview was the question of Boris Johnson’s fitness for further office.  There was no real discussion of how well he has actually done in his current job as Mayor of London.

In the earnest spirit of inquiry I recently tabled a question in the House of Lords:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the Mayor of London in the last year on (1) health services in London, (2) housing provision in London, and (3) the impact of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London.[HL5797]“

The response I got was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): The Department of Health has held a number of discussions over the last year with the Greater London Authority, London Councils and the Local Government Association about the London Health Improvement Board. We recognise that there is potential for delivering health improvement services on a city-wide basis in London. The London Health Improvement Board has been meeting since July 2011.

The Localism Act conferred on the Mayor of London responsibility for housing, economic development and Olympic legacy in London, in addition to existing responsibilities over transport, planning and the police. Therefore, the mayor is responsible for housing and regeneration policy in London. The Department for Communities and Local Government has regular conversations with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority regarding housing provision in London. Over the last year these conversations have focused on a broad range of issues, such as funding and delivery of affordable housing, increasing investment in the private rented sector, getting surplus public sector land back into use and dealing with homelessness and rough sleeping.”

The answer is notable in what it does not say.

There is no indication that the Mayor has spoken up on behalf of Londoners about the state of London’s NHS and the piecemeal closure of services that is taking place all over the capital.  I doubt whether the remit of the London Health Improvement Board covers the configuration of health services in London and I have asked another question to clarify this.

And there was no mention whatsoever in the answer (despite its specific inclusion in the question) of any representations made by the Mayor on the impact of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London.

Boris Johnson has made plenty of public statements about not being nasty to bankers and the iniquities of high tax rates but apparently has little to say about the cuts in welfare and housing benefits that hundreds of thousands of Londoners will face in the next few weeks.

I wanted to seek further clarification from the Government by asking:

“Further to WA 5797, does the absence to a reference to representations from the Mayor of London in respect of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London mean that there were no such representations”

but have been told that that would be against the rules.

Instead, I have asked again what representations the Government has had from the Mayor specifically on the subject of impact of changes to welfare benefits on the people of London.

I await the answer, but I expect I know it already: Boris Johnson is more concerned about the very wealthy and about big bonus bankers than those who have to rely on what is left of our social security system.

 

Tuesday
Oct 2,2012

Ed Miliband’s brilliant bravura performance this afternoon at the Labour Party Conference – seventy minutes without a note (beat that Cameron) – proves that the Labour Party is six months ahead of the schedule necessary to prepare for the next General Election.

Before then, the Labour Party needs to articulate the philosophical themes that will underpin the next Labour Government and crystallise those down to a (small) number of symbolic policy commitments.

The next General Election is in May 2015 – two and a half years away. The equivalent point before Labour’s 1997 General Election landslide was the Labour Party Conference in 1994.  That was the Party Conference when Tony Blair in his Leader’s speech proposed that the content and wording of Clause Four be reviewed and reformulated for new times and New Labour.

The themes which underpinned Labour’s 1997 election manifesto (“The future not the past”; “The many not the few” etc) were not fully articulated until the new Clause Four was approved in the Spring of 1995 – two years before the Election.  And the policy commitments (The Pledge Card”) were not finalised until July 1996 – ten months before the Election.

And today Ed Miliband set out the philosophical basis on which “One Nation Labour” will appeal to the electorate in 2015.  The themes he set out today will resonate, not only with the Labour Party in the hall in Manchester and amongst Labour supporters across the country, but they will strike a chord amongst the rest of the public who can see how Cameron’s Government is out-of-touch and leading the country further and further into an economic quagmire, whilst dividing a nation and a people who will only flourish when united.

Friday
Jun 29,2012

I have just finished reading the book by my Lords’ colleague, David Lipsey, “In the Corridors of Power“.  It is a great read: lucid and clear as you would expect from someone with his journalistic pedigree and full of crisp insightful comments on the policy issues of the last forty years with which he has engaged.

His account of working for a trade union in the 1970s and then being one of the first SpAds (long before the term was coined) is hugely enjoyable, as are his portraits of Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan and the other figures that he has worked with.

The book is also a must read for those who want to understand the realities of being a member of the House of Lords and the limits to what you can achieve.  It is also a concise primer on House of Lords reform, changing the voting system, the finance of social care and many other topics from the funding of the BBC to the politics of greyhound racing.

Buy it and enjoy!

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Saturday
Jun 16,2012

Much as I enjoyed all the “tainted Prime Minister” stuff in Ed Miliband’s speech this morning to the Labour Party National Policy Forum,  I was struck by the enthusiasm with which he spoke about local government and the contribution being made by Labour councillors:

“Labour Birmingham.  Labour, in whom the people of Birmingham placed their trust in May.  A Labour council changing the way we do politics with a manifesto built on 12 months of conversations with the people of this city.  A Labour council improving our society with 5,000 new homes a year.  And a Labour council changing our economy by paying at least £7.20 to every city council worker.  A decent living wage.

And let us recognise the work of every Labour council making a difference in tough times.  Liverpool’s new Mayor Joe Anderson and h is council that is building 2,500 homes.  Manchester keeping open its Sure Start Centres.  And Newham, standing up for tenants against unscrupulous landlords.

Labour councils whose examples will inspire our next manifesto.  And let us applaud them for their work.”

Here at last is a recognition that Labour local government can be in the vanguard of delivering effective public services that meet the needs of their communities, that Labour local government is not something to be apologised for but is Labour’s future, and that the platform for winning future General Elections will be found at local level.

Wednesday
Mar 7,2012

Yesterday there were five votes in the House of Lords on the competition sections of the Health and Social Care Bill.  The amendments were all defeated by the Government and, despite all the LibDem huffing and puffing over the last few weeks, not a single LibDem Peer voted for any of them.

The first amendment which would have placed a duty on the Secretary of State in respect of standards of adult social care was defeated by 261 votes to 203 – with 66 LibDems voting with the Tories against the amendment.

The second amendment which would have protected the NHS from the worst effects of competition (and was originally moved by a LibDem peer) was defeated by 275 votes to 188 with 66 LibDems voting with the Tories.

The third amendment which would have retained Monitor’s role as the independent regulator of NHS Trusts was defeated by 255 votes to 183 with 65 LibDems voting with the Tories.

The fourth amendment which would have tried to limit “anti-collaborative” behaviour in the NHS was defeated by 221 votes to 171 with 58 LibDems voting with the Tories.

The fifth amendment which would have enabled NHS commissioners to determine the most effective way of delivering NHS services without necessarily putting them out to the market was defeated by 203 votes to 157 with 52 LibDems voting with the Tories.

In none of the divisions did a single LibDem vote with Labour to protect the NHS.

Tuesday
Mar 6,2012

Dave Hill’s London Blog in The Guardian can usually be relied on for serious comment and analysis of London issues. And last week he posted two important posts on the issue of serious gang-related violence in London.

The first highlighted the post-code rivalries between gangs in North-West London:

“Page 81 of my London A-Z shows the streets, parks and stations at the intersections of north Westminster, north Kensington and Brent. But it offers no clues to the alternative cartography that shapes the lives of many people living there – an unofficial map of an urban landscape scarred by violence and divided by fear. …

Territories have been defined and the borders between them guarded and sometimes breached. Incursions resulting in chasings, beatings and robberies are frequent. …

Some who live in the area concerned, including some who are young, are barely touched by this wired, short-fused youthful world. They and it are largely invisible to each other: people move freely and routinely to and from work, local schools, community facilities and places of worship just like anywhere else. Yet an awareness of that other side of neighbourhood life has filtered down even to primary school children. And on the streets young people in particular, even if they have little or no direct connection with it, are acutely conscious of it: at worst, cowed, menaced and controlled. …

 In this increasingly less subterranean world the streets are an excitingly dangerous playground – a place that’s more available, more plausible and more rewarding than the alternatives of education, conformity and long-term, steadier rewards. Yet though that playground may be larger than those at primary school, it is both limited and limiting too. The horizons of those playing crazy, deadly games there don’t extend geographically, intellectually or emotionally even as far as A-Z pages 80 or 82.”
The second cited a report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, “Young People, Knives and Guns”, which concluded that:
“focusing on weapons themselves can be a distraction from addressing the underlying causes of violence and that the most effective interventions engaged instead with “the big questions of disadvantage and social exclusion” along with addressing individual, family and neighbourhood problems. It also found that in the United States locally-based strategies where a variety of agencies work closely together to combine different prevention and suppression approaches have been more effective than “enforcement-led interventions by agencies operating in isolation.””
Later in the same post, Hill describes the experience of youth and community workers he had met:
“There was a strong consensus that every neighbourhood affected and individual involved is different, and that responses should be tailored accordingly. A unified view was also expressed that police officers with listening ears who know a neighbourhood well are an asset, but that vanloads of territorial support group members sent in from elsewhere to conduct stop-and-search blitzes can cause more problems than they solve. Far better that police energy was put into co-ordinating activities across borough lines and building trust with the communities they serve.

There was a general frustration that funding for anti-youth crime and violence projects is too often short-term and under threat, making the sustained action required far more difficult to implement. Outreach work, personal development and gang mediation schemes were all thought to have beneficial effects, so why couldn’t they be backed with more consistency and on a larger scale?”

Certainly my perception for what it is worth is that gang-related violence seems to have got significantly worse in London in the last couple of years or so.  This is not intended to be a political point because I am not sure that there is a simplistic cause and effect between political decisions or for that matter policing decisions and changes in the levels of violence or gang-related activity.
I am also told that at least one magistrates court in London checks through the lists of cases coming up so as to ensure that cases involving rival gangs are scheduled on different days to stop fights breaking out on court premises.
However, what is clear is that a number of things that are happening will clearly be making the situation worse – what the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies call “the big questions of disadvantage and social exclusion”.
Thus, a worsening economic situation with fewer opportunities for young people will create an increasing sense of hopelessness and futility fostering a breeding ground for both extremism and for gangs.  In this context, scrapping the Educational Maintenance Allowance seems a particular folly and which is why Ken Livingstone’s pledge to restore it in London makes sense.
Similarly, cutting local authority budgets will both increase local joblessness but is also likely to mean that specialist youth and community provision will be lost – again hardly helpful in this context.
Tackling the environment in which gangs flourish is the key.  Too often in too many parts of London for too many young people being part of a gang is the only way of having any security – both physical and emotional.  These are not easy issues to tackle, but it is obvious that some policies will make things worse.
Friday
Feb 24,2012

Normally any late change to the order of business in the House of Lords is agreed through the “usual channels“.  This is to make sure that the relevant spokespeople are available.

I understand that the Government are trying to schedule a vote on the Welfare Reform Bill for late on the evening of Wednesday 29th February.  This is part of the “ping pong” procedure and will be when the House of Lords considers the reversal by the House of Commons of the Lords’ amendment on the so-called “bedroom tax“.

Normally Consideration of Commons Amendments is given priority in the order of business and is usually taken immediately after Question Time, when the House is at its fullest.  This, of course, is the second time that the Bill has been returned to the Lords by the Commons, which means that, if the Lords rejects the latest Commons amendment, the two Houses are moving firmly into constitutional crisis territory.  All the more surprising therefore that the Government are trying to take this vote late on Wednesday.

However, is it surprising?

Or is it yet another cynical manoeuvre by the Conservatives and LibDems to make major changes in the benefits system without proper debate and adequate scrutiny?