NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Sunday 14th February 2016
I don’t want to bore you with the finer administrative details of how local government services are funded (partly from central government, partly from council tax & business rates), but this week Conservative Ministers took the funding for our council services to shocking new heights of partisan ‘pork-barrel’ politicking.
With George Osborne giving the Secretary of State for Local Government a smaller overall allocation, he in turn tried to devise a new formula for distributing that shrunken pot to the hundreds of councils across the country. Losing the grant will be tough for local authorities that are already stretched including ours in Nottingham; the new settlement means further cuts to council funding – according to the Local Government Association, core funding will fall by 24 per cent in real terms by 2020. This is on top of cuts in excess of 40 per cent that have already been imposed. In the forthcoming financial year Nottingham City Council needs to make savings of £20 million, on top of the £152 million cut since 2010.
The Minister’s decision means that over the next four years, councils will lose completely the central government grant, and will instead have to rely on keeping business rates, and raising 2% additional council tax to fund social care. Not unsurprisingly, even Conservative MPs have been getting a hard time about this – so a few of them threaten to revolt.
And that’s when the most brazen ‘solution’ was found; the Secretary of State came up with a device to buy-off these internal Tory Party detractors with a “transitional relief grant” of £300 million over the next two years, of which 83% will go to Tory local authorities. That means £5.3 million to the five wealthiest councils, and £0 for the five most deprived. So while wealthier Surrey receives £24.1m, Nottingham City Council gets nothing at all. That’s right; a ‘transitional grant’ to ease the pain in vocal Conservative districts. So astonishingly and blatantly biased. So while I know these issues of grant allocation can seem dull on the surface, when you look at why they matter – the elderly services they fund, the parks and housing and environmental services they should support – I feel it’s important people should know that the money is dished out now on a party political basis that is unfair and unworthy of government departments that should not behave in this way.
- On Friday, Nottingham City Homes held an event for tenants to explore changes to housing legislation brought about by the Housing & Planning Bill and the Welfare Reform & Work Bill (pictured). Changes such as an end to longer term tenancies and the forced sale of higher-value council homes could have a massive impact on council house tenants in the city. I was pleased to see Nottingham City Homes host this consultation and lots of the tenants I spoke to found it worthwhile that the city council landlords were taking the changes seriously and involving people in helping plan for the future and find ways to make local concerns known to decision-makers.
- I was delighted to speak to politics students at the University of Nottingham as part of the Centre for British Politics Guest Speaker Series on Friday. The session reflected on last year’s General Election, asking the questions ‘why Labour lost?’ and ‘can Labour win again?’ As you might imagine, we had a lively discussion and I’m grateful to the team at the Politics Department and students for making the event so worthwhile.
- This week I visited St Augustine’s Catholic Primary School and met with Headteacher Caroline Caille to catch up on the excellent progress the school is making and some of the local issues to pursue. The school has 370 pupils from a great diversity of backgrounds and a strong ethos which stands them in good stead. Constraints on land around the school site make it challenging to travel to sports fields and it would be ideal of the former Elms field nearby could be brought back into use.
- On Friday, I met with the Elmswood Surgery Patient Group in Sherwood (pictured below) to discuss concerns about local healthcare provision. We discussed a range of issues including the future of NHS services, the commissioning process for local health and staff recruitment. It’s important to hear about the impact that NHS policy changes are having locally, and I will remain in close contact with healthcare providers across the city to follow up on some of the points raised.
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- The clash between the Government and junior doctors this week saw more industrial action and Jeremy Hunt imposing a contract that had been subject to years of drawn out discussion. This whole dispute could have been handled so differently. A negotiated settlement was possible in Scotland and Wales and ought to have been possible in England too. Everyone, including the BMA, agrees with the need to reform the current contract. But imposing a new contract which doesn’t enjoy the confidence of junior doctors is a sign of failure and should have been avoided.
- As our population ages, so our NHS will face new challenges. A number of you wrote to me about dementia care, in light of a recent report by the Alzheimer’s Society, in which Chief Executive Jeremy Hughes concluded by saying that “it’s easier to find out about your local hospital finances than the quality of care you’ll receive if you have dementia”. By 2025 there will be a million people living with dementia in the UK, but the care currently provided is not adequate. Three major concerns have been raised: a shortage of information gathered, dementia sufferers being discharged at night, and patients kept at hospital despite the end of treatment. In Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, the number of over 65s and people with dementia who fall while in hospital is not a statistic they collect or report, and last year 117 people with dementia were discharged between 11pm and 6am, well above the national average. That’s why this week I attended a drop-in session in Parliament to show my firm support for the Alzheimer’s Society ‘Fix Dementia Care’ campaign. These problems need to be addressed, which is difficult in the face of a £4.3 billion social care funding gap and a funding crisis in local authorities.
- On Monday the House of Commons considered the rate of the new state pension and the Government’s triple lock on the basic state pension. The rate of the new state pension, which is to be introduced in April 2016, has been set at £155.65 per week. I support the principle of a single tier pension, however, I am concerned that younger generations will be worse off. Recent House of Commons library analysis, shows that for the generation that are currently in their 20s, men are likely to be more than £19,000 worse off and women more than £20,500 worse off. There is also a communication deficiency – in particular those nearing retirement age are not being made adequately aware of the impact of the changes.
- On Monday the International Development Secretary made a statement on the UK’s response to the Syria crisis following the Supporting Syria and the Region conference on 4th February. The Supporting Syria conference was co-hosted by the UK alongside Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations, and brought together more than 60 countries and organisations. At the conference the Government announced an extra investment of £1.2 billion in international aid for Syria and the region over the next four years, bringing the total pledge in UK aid to tackle this crisis to more than £2.3 billion. More than $11 billion was raised at the conference – the largest amount ever committed in response to a humanitarian crisis in a single day. The money will help fund education, jobs and humanitarian protection in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. I commend the Government on co-hosting this important conference and for doubling the UK’s commitment, but it is important that other countries match our commitment and ensure that the money pledged at the conference is confirmed. We cannot allow a whole generation of Syrian children to be lost, and I agree that the emphasis being given to education and jobs is entirely correct. I continue to take a close interest in the prospects for a settlement in Syria and the need to eradicate the threat from Daesh. Moreover, thousands of Syrians and other refugees, including an increasing proportion of women and children, are living in appalling conditions in Europe, frightened, terrorised and at the mercy of people traffickers. The Government should be doing more to fulfil our moral responsibility and do more not just for Syrian refugees in the region but for the very many Syrian refugees here in western Europe.
- A number of constituents affected by the maladministration of Equitable Life pensions will know of the long running saga relating to compensation. The issue was debated again in the Commons this week, where I raised the option of the cost to taxpayers where the poorest Equitable pensioners will require social security assistance, and whether instead those resources could be used upfront in an amended compensation package to save money all round. Ministers say the issue stays under review so we shall see what emerges following this debate.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
This week is #heartunions week, a TUC week of action to celebrate the valuable and important work unions do supporting people in the workplace. It is happening at a time when trade unions are in quite vulnerable position; membership continue to decline and the Government seems quite determined to further cripple the movement, with changes in the Trade Union Bill, designed to limit the scope for industrial action and moving to an opt-in system for political funding, which is largely designed to deprive Labour as the opposition party to the Government of £8m a year.
I would be interested your views about trade unions and the current state of collective bargaining and the way unions work as organisation. Why do you think union membership is waning? Do you think the movement could be revitalised? And have you had any good or bad experiences with unions recently that changed your view? The growth of private sector employment, part-time work, self-employment and the ‘sharing economy’ all mean that the workplace in the 21st century will be very different. Should the unions change their approach here? Let me know what you think.