NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – 5th March 2016
For those of us fortunate enough to live in decent housing, technical changes in the housing benefit rules may go unnoticed. But for those who are homeless relying on hostels, for young people with mental health needs or elderly people in sheltered accommodation, the Government’s changes to housing benefit in the coming months will determine where they live over the coming months.
I visited some local sheltered housing schemes in the city this week, including Ashiana Housing on Sneinton Road with have twenty flats for elderly residents from predominantly Asian heritage, managed by Nottingham Community Housing Association. The residents – some of whom have lived in their homes for over 22 years (pictured below accompanied by our local councillors) – face uncertainty because the extra costs of staffing and caretaking will not be covered if the ‘cap’ on housing benefit is instituted. I mentioned this change in my MP Update email back in January, since when Ministers have delayed the ‘axe’ by a further year to April 2017 while they ‘review’ the impact on supported and sheltered specialist accommodation.
I hope that the Government recognise the false economy of potentially closing down some of these schemes and making them uneconomic. Many residents would simply end up in hospital long term, costly the NHS far more than the current arrangements. There are more vulnerable people needing this support in our community than many realise – so for me this is a priority I want to see addressed by the Chancellor in the March Budget, I hope they change their minds and if so it would be a u-turn I would be happy to welcome.
- This week I continued my focus on education by visiting two more of the constituency’s primary schools – Forest Fields Primary & Nursery School and Haydn Primary School. At Forest Fields, I was shown around the school by Headteacher Sue Hoyland, and had lunch with some enthusiastic members of their School Council. There have been some extensive refurbishments to the building in recent years and with over 600 pupils this is a really important local school making great strides forward. At Haydn Primary I also had the chance to discuss recent curriculum and testing changes with headteacher Sarah Fielding – who also undertakes the role of Director of Education at the city council. Haydn is a popular local school well known to residents in Sherwood and I am hoping that over the coming weeks I can take some of the lessons I learn and convey my conclusions on education policy to Ministers at the Department for Education.
- According to new figures Nottingham City Council will have lost £474.91 per household in what the government call ‘spending power’ (ie, grants plus council tax and rates etc) by 2020 – just short of a 20% cut since 2011-12. After these years of shrinking resources, I am deeply concerned that Nottingham City Council will be forced to implement even further cutbacks over the next few years while other councils in more affluent southern counties are given extra assistance. I realise that times are tough but fairness is essential in the distribution of limited money and I am joining with the leadership of the city council pressing for a fairer funding settlement based on need and not just based on political preferences.
- More than £3 million is being spent improving the energy efficiency of homes in Sneinton as part of an EU project designed to create ‘smart cities’. More than 400 Nottingham City Homes properties and private houses in the Windmill Lane area will benefit from the scheme, and will be fitted with LED lighting, insulation and an extended district heating system. The project is still in its early stages, but I will be visiting Windmill Lane next month to see the transformation in action.
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- The only major legislation that was discussed on the floor of the House of Commons this week was the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. On Wednesday amendments to the Bill from the Lords were again considered. While the Government conceded last week on child poverty measures, they still refuse to accept that their cuts to Employment & Support Allowance work-related activity group – and Universal Credit – risk being punitive. I voted to support the amendments tabled by the House of Lords that would have meant that the cuts would not take effect until the Government has undertaken a more thorough analysis of the impact on disabled people, but the Government voted against these amendments and the Bill has now returned to the Lords for further consideration.
- On Monday, Yvette Cooper, chair of Labour’s Refugee Taskforce, asked an Urgent Question on child refugees in Calais. The Government was asked to make a statement as French authorities started to move people out of the southern part of the Calais refugee camp and, in theory, into ‘container shelters’ and reception centres elsewhere. This comes amid reports from charities that there is not enough alternative accommodation for 2,300 people, including over 400 children and teenagers with nowhere to go and no one to look after them. Unaccompanied children are not allowed into the new container shelters, and I have serious concerns that these children are at risk of disappearing into the hands of traffickers, criminal gangs or prostitution. Europol have estimated that over 10,000 migrant children may have already disappeared since arriving in Europe. There is a reality gap between what the Government is saying and what is happening on the ground. There is inadequate process on the ground to ensure these children are kept safe, no meaningful advice for them and it is clear that the family reunification rules are not working. The situation is now urgent and I would urge the Government to look at this issue again and consider what practical support can be given in the immediate term to these desperate children, who until now have not had the support they need.
- On Monday there was an Opposition Day debate on the steel industry. Recent job losses in the steel industry across the country point to an industry in crisis – over 5,000 jobs have been lost over the last twelve months, with Tata Steel announcing the loss of 1,050 jobs this year alone. China has a surplus of steel which has pushed down the price in world markets. The Government has previously stated that it will support China being granted Market Economy Status (MES) which, without safeguards in place, could diminish the capacity of the EU’s anti-dumping measures to protect jobs in the steel industry. Although the Government has made some belated progress on the industry’s key ‘asks’, their response to the steel crisis has been ineffective to date. There are worrying signs that the entire industry in the UK is hanging by a thread.
- Thanks to all of you last week who replied to me regarding Britain’s place in the European Union. I am convinced that leaving is a huge risk at a time of such economic insecurity, which will seriously affect our trade, at least in the short-term, and probably for much longer. At Treasury Questions on Tuesday, I posed the Chancellor a question to this effect, arguing that there could be a ‘double whammy’ impact on firms upon Brexit: depreciation of the pound, which could bring higher interest rates, and higher tariffs for exporters. You can see the question in full here. I also met with the Chinese Ambassador on Wednesday to discuss a number of issues including the impact of the UK leaving the EU. And on Monday at Defence Questions I raised the issue of the impact on the UK’s longer term security if we were not part of EU alliances able to coordinate sanctions and other responses to threats that might be posed in the future.
- On Tuesday there was an Urgent Question in the House of Commons about the cessation of hostilities in Syria which came into force on 27th February. The conflict is now almost in its sixth year. It has cost more than 250,000 lives, half of Syria’s population has been displaced, and over 13.5 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. The longer this ceasefire holds, the more humanitarian aid can reach those areas blighted by the conflict, and the more peace talks are boosted. My frontbench colleague Jo Cox pressed the Government for an explanation on what steps have been taken to establish the geographical demarcation of the ceasefire, which is crucial to allow access to address the humanitarian situation. In the context of alleged breaches of the ceasefire by Assad and Russia, she also questioned the Government on what special provisions are in place to investigate chemical weapons attacks, what powers the International Syria Support Group have to make rulings on breaches of the ceasefire and any discussions that have taken place with our allies in the EU to put pressure on Russia to abide by the ceasefire.
- On Wednesday the Opposition asked the Government to make a statement on their review of the state pension age, which a number of constituents have emailed me about. This week the Government announced that John Cridland is to lead an independent review of the future of the state pension age, under section 27(5) of the Pensions Act 2014. The Government has stated that this review will not cover the existing state pension age timetable up to April 2028. The review is due to report by May 2017. The Government must be clear with the electorate what their long-term plans are for pensioners, so that people can plan appropriately. Given the mishandling of the acceleration of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, which has already caused huge financial worries for 2.6 million women across the country, I believe that the Government should also consider this review as an opportunity to look again at what more can be done to help those women born in the 1950s who are set to lose out.
- On Wednesday the Government was asked an Urgent Question to make a statement on the developing humanitarian crisis in Greece. Approximately 10,000 people are reported to be at the border between Greece and Macedonia, and the UNHCR reports that around 24,000 people are stranded across Greece. The UK is providing nearly £55 million to the Mediterranean migration crisis response, and a new refugee children fund for Europe has been established. The Government confirmed that a team was being sent to Greece to assess the situation. I fear that Greece is at risk of being overwhelmed because of the absence of a strategic and humanitarian approach to this issue from all EU nations, including the UK.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Want to know what the Chancellor will announce in his Budget on March 16th? When you realise that this is a sensitive time for George Osborne in his race to take over as Prime Minister, you can probably make some reasonable guesses at what he’ll do – or more likely what he’ll avoid doing.
It’s all because his arch competitor – Boris Johnson – is championing the ‘leave the EU’ cause (and appealing effectively to the 100,000 Tory Party members who are also predominantly against Britain’s membership of the EU) and George Osborne will not want to do anything to offend those Tory activists.
Seen through that political prism, it’s not hard to understand why Osborne has dropped the idea of a single ‘flat rate’ pensions’ tax relief reform this weekend. While this could boost savings for lower and middle earners, it would cut tax relief for the most well-off. Likely to happen in the Budget? Not when those small number of Tory activists in the Home Counties are going to frown on it! It is rarely a good thing for a political party to put these internal priorities ahead of the interests of the wider public.
I’d be interested to know what you think is likely to come up in the Budget – will Osborne cut the top rate of income tax to please these activists? Will he kick tough decisions into the long grass? Will it be the poorer areas of the country whose services are cut at the expense of protecting the shire counties? Obviously this is speculation – but I’d be interested in any predictions you might have!