NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Saturday 30th January 2016
Over 3000 tenants in sheltered ‘supported’ housing in Nottingham, including some of the most vulnerable in our community (including victims of domestic violence and those with mental illness) face uncertainty about where they live because of new changes to housing benefit announced by the Government.
Plans to cap the amount of rent that housing benefit will cover for new or renewed tenancies will be phased in from this April and implemented in full in 2018. Crucially, the current ‘supported accommodation’ exemption within housing benefit will no longer apply – which means that sheltered housing schemes and hostels with wardens and staff support won’t have the resources to continue running in the same way.
You may recall from my MP Update email before Christmas that I met with Andrew Redfern the chief executive at Framework Housing here in Nottingham, who has warned that it could “mean the end of supported housing. All our schemes would close, and I think others would as well”. Quite frankly this would be a disaster for some of those most in need locally, as I said during the House of Commons debate on the topic called on Wednesday this week.
I pointed out to the Minister during the debate that instead they should crack down on the billions lost in fraud and error in the way housing benefit is administered, rather than make savings on the backs of some of the most vulnerable in society.
I’m not sure if the Government will think again – despite this debate – because there has to be a different way forward. It is incredibly frustrating when these changes are forced through, but with the Government’s majority as it stands I doubt they will change course.
- Following up on my visit to Djanogly Academy earlier this month, I raised the question of teacher recruitment in the Commons with Schools Minister Nick Gibb on Monday, and specifically urged him to look at the challenge facing schools who want to recruit the best teachers from across the UK but can only effectively do so through the expensive advertising monopoly of the Times Educational Supplement. I suggested that the Department for Education should think about developing their own in-house pooled vacancies site, help save schools tens of thousands of pounds on advert fees, and channel that money into frontline teaching instead.
- We already know that levels of heart disease are higher in Nottingham city than other parts of the country, which is why I met with the cholesterol charity Heart UK this week to discuss their campaign for a renewed focus on cardiovascular disease as a top priority. In particular, there are some important preventative steps that health bodies could promote more effectively, such as testing cholesterol levels at GP practices and flagging up risk factors at earlier stages. I’ll be taking these issues up with the local health commissioning organisations over the coming months.
- There is a jobs fair taking place this coming Wednesday 3rd February at the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham. This free event takes place from 10am-2pm, and a number of local and national employers will be present, including Army Reserves, Central College Nottingham and Mears Care. You can find further information on the Jobs Fair website here.
- Nottingham City Council has been awarded more than £6 million to help reduce carbon emissions in the city. The city is one of four in the country to receive a share of the pot of money provided by the Department of Transport. The funding will help Nottingham to become a leader in low-carbon transport, and to achieve the Council’s vision to become the UK’s greenest transport city.
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- Wednesday 27th January was Holocaust Memorial Day, the date that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, and on Thursday 21st January there was a debate in the House of Commons to recognise this and to remember the millions of people who died during the Holocaust and the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. The Holocaust Memorial Trust, schools, community organisations and others have organised a wide range of events across the country to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and it is important that MPs had the opportunity to consider and debate the legacy and continuing relevance of the Holocaust. ‘Don’t stand by’ was the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 and it is important that we continue to remember and learn the lessons, to help challenge discrimination, racism and violence today and for future generations.
- This week the Government were asked an Urgent Question regarding the settlement reached between HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and Google. It is important in our tax system that everybody is treated equally and fairly, whether large multibillion-pound corporations or small businesses. However, there are serious questions to be asked about private ‘deals’ which give the feeling that true business profits are not being taxed in the same way as others. The Government should now publish details of the deal and how it was reached and give assurances that the agreement does not create a precedent for future deals with large technology corporations. There is a bigger issue here about international tax reform to prevent global organisation shifting their profits between jurisdictions to minimise their tax liabilities. Ultimately companies like Google are taking advantage of our lack of international good governance here and that’s where we should be focusing our attention now, in my view.
- On Monday the Government responded to an Urgent Question in the House of Commons asking for a statement on child refugees in Europe. The thought of any child alone in a foreign country facing dangerous conditions – without food, warmth or protection – is genuinely terrifying. But in what is now the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, this is sadly the reality for thousands of Syrian children and those fleeing other conflicts. Indeed, there are 26,000 unaccompanied children in Europe today. These children are highly vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution and other forms of abuse, and urgently need assistance. I am pleased that the Government have listened since this issue was raised in the House of Commons on Monday but, as we know, the Government’s current policy is to take refugees from camps in the region, rather than those who have already crossed the sea. As this crisis develops, that distinction is becoming harder to maintain. Both are desperate and both need our help, and the Government should consider children who are here in Europe, as well as those who are in the camps in the region.
- On Tuesday the House of Commons debated the Charities Bill. Here in Nottingham and across the country people give up their time every week to volunteer, fundraise, donate and support in many other ways our wonderful charitable and voluntary sector. But charities have come under pressure from shrinking funding from central and local government, and ever-growing demand for the services and support they provide. So, it is right that we ensure that charities have the legal and regulatory framework they need to enable them to fulfil their objectives, and to maintain their integrity and the strong public support they enjoy. That is what the Charities Bill seeks to do, and why I have supported it. However, it is vital that we get the framework right and throughout the passage of the Bill, and Labour have raised a number of concerns. The Bill will enable the Charity Commission to issue warnings to any charity or charity trustee when they consider there has been a breach of trust or duty or other misconduct or mismanagement. I voted for an amendment which would have taken more care that where a warning is given to a charity it will not always be published to a wider audience, in order to to prevent the potentially devastating repercussions on a charity’s reputation or ability to raise money that could result from a relatively minor warning. The Government defeated the amendment, and I will watch the use of those warnings with care as the powers are implemented. I also voted for an amendment that would have enshrined in law the charity sector’s power to campaign, that was previously restricted by the Coalition Government’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act. The right of charities to campaign and influence the political process is a vital part of a healthy democracy and integral to the concept of civil society. I was disappointed that the Government opposed this amendment and it was defeated.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you run a small business or have other income supplementing your employment earnings? If you currently fill in an annual tax return – or do so for your business activities – then there is a massive change coming from HMRC which I’d be interested to get your reaction about (and don’t forget that this year’s tax returns need to be filed by tomorrow!).
Ministers are consulting on making individuals and businesses submit quarterly returns on business income and expenditure instead of the single annual tax return. While the Government say that this shift to ‘digital’ information will simplify things, I’m not so sure. In fact, some individuals and businesses may end up incurring fresh accountancy charges every time they submit these ‘updates’ to HMRC, rather than simply at the annual return once each year. And what if your business activities change from quarter to quarter, or cash doesn’t flow evenly throughout the financial year?
I spoke in Parliament this week in response to a petition signed by over 110,000 people voicing their concerns about the Chancellor’s plans. My full remarks are at the link here, but I pressed the Minister to say whether payments will be expected quarterly too, and whether this is essentially moving to a ‘PAYE for SMEs’ arrangement.