A Hartlepool cabbie and charity stalwart who is standing for MP has had thousands of hits onstanding for MP he has created as part of his campaign.
Well-known Hartlepool taxi driver Stephen Picton, who has raised more than £50,000 for good causes, will challenge Labour’s Iain Wright as an independent candidate when the town goes to the polls in May.
And the 43-year-old has set his campaign rolling with a number of videos – one of which has received 6,000 hits.
Back in March 2011, Stephen recorded his own version of Thom Pace’s hit Maybe, which is the theme tune from the Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, to raise awareness of bowel cancer.
It proved a huge success, racking up more than 9,000 YouTube views.
“I’ve been doing videos on Facebook for a few years and I do a lot of charity work, that’s how people got to know me.
“I just turned it around and used it as a format to let people know how I was feeling while I’m running for MP.
“One of them has had 6,000 views.
“I’ve had no negative comments at all, people have actually been saying that they feel the same as me.”
The dad-of-four from the Oxford Road area of Hartlepool, said:
“I use videos and social media to help me along my way in the campaign.
“It’s a big part of everyday life now.”
He also raised £50,000 before his 40th birthday by organising dozens of quirky fundraisers.
Stephen, also known as Taffy the taxi driver, is campaigning on improving services for Hartlepool including the reinstatement of the town’s hospital.
More than a third of Hartlepool workers do not earn enough to live on, according to new research.
Figures from the TUC show 34.7 per cent of people in the town are paid less than the living wage – defined as the minimum hourly rate needed for workers to provide for themselves and their family.
And Hartlepool is the worst place in the region for the number of women earning less than the living wage, with 46.7 per cent of female workers taking home less than the minimum £7.85 an hour.
TUC analysis shows nationally one in five jobs nationwide pays under the living wage – leaving more than five million people on less than subsistence pay.
In the North East, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency tops the list of living wage blackspots, followed by Hartlepool, Berwick, Newcastle North and North West Durham.
Hartlepool MP Iain Wright said:
“In-work poverty is getting worse and it is proof the economy might well work for millionaires at the top, but does nothing to help people on low pay.”
Mr Wright raised the issue of pay inequality in a Commons debate last week in his role as Shadow Minister for Industry, and referred to Hartlepool.
“Almost a quarter of North East workers and nearly half of all part-time staff are not being paid a living wage,” he told MPs.
“It is striking that the people most likely to be in poverty in Britain in the 21st Century are those in work. No-one can honestly suggest that the economy is working well or as productively as it could be when that is the case.
“This country will not achieve our vision of a highly-skilled, well-paid and innovative work force, ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are enjoyed by all in work, if we continue down the present path.
“The taxpayer is having to subsidise, through tax credits and other parts of the welfare state, the failure of many firms to pay a decent wage.”
Hartlepool Citizens’ Advice Bureau manager Joe Michna said the centre was dealing with the consequences of low wages.
“These figures come as no surprise,” he said.
“Certainly a large number of our clients, particularly those struggling with their daily needs, would be below what is defined as the living wage.
“We get a lot of people who are on the minimum wage and others who are just above it.”
Northern TUC Regional Secretary Beth Farhat said:
“These figures show that huge numbers of working people in the North East are struggling to bring home a wage they can live off.
“Extending the living wage is a vital step towards tackling the growing problem of in-work poverty in parts of the North East – and Britain as a whole.
“Working families have experienced the biggest squeeze on their living standards since Victorian times, and these living wage figures show that women are disproportionately affected.
“Pay has been squeezed at all levels below the boardroom, and the government’s mantra about ‘making work pay’ is completely out of touch with reality.
“The number of living wage employers is growing rapidly and unions are playing their part in encouraging more employers to sign up and pay it.
“But we need to see a far wider commitment to pay the living wage from government, employers and modern wages councils – to drive up productivity and set higher minimum rates in industries where employers can afford to pay their staff more.”
Thousands of people across the North were already waiting to downsize before the bedroom tax came into force.
Almost 40,000 households across the North of England were on the waiting list for one-bedroom social homes just as the so-called Bedroom Tax came into force – half the total number of households on the list.
It compares with just 22% of households on the waiting list who were hoping for a social home with more than four bedrooms.
The controversial tax, which has reduced housing benefit available to families deemed to have extra bedrooms, was brought in by the coalition in April 2013.
Opponents warned at the time that people had ‘spare’ bedrooms only because of a lack of available smaller properties following years of councils selling off their social housing stock.
Now, figures reveal a chronic shortage of smaller homes in the North of England leaving thousands of households unable to move out of larger homes.
Meanwhile, they continue to be hit with cuts to their housing benefits despite major opposition to the policy.
Labour MPs across the North have reacted with fury at the figures, which they say highlight their concerns that thousands have been unfairly hit with the “pernicious” and “ideological” bedroom tax thanks to government failure to build enough homes.
Among them, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery slammed the bedroom tax which he claimed was making the most vulnerable pay for the shortage of housing across the region.
“It’s a complete and utter bottleneck where families can not move because the homes are not available. They are then subject to this pernicious tax while they are struggling to make ends meet at this moment in time anyway.
“The government knew the consequences of this. They did understand and they still pushed ahead with this. The election can not come quick enough for these people.”
And Blaydon MP Dave Anderson said the figures dispel a myth about people who are being hit by the bedroom tax.
He said: “This blows the myth out of the water and Labour will be rid of it. It was a pretence and a myth right down the lines about people having too many bedrooms.
“There simply aren’t enough one-bedroom properties for people to move into. It’s nonsense. These are people, human beings in houses they have been living in 40 years. We’re talking about them as if they’re subhumans. It’s a disgrace.”
And Hartlepool MP Iain Wright, who was housing and planning minister from 2007 to 2009, said that housing supply had failed to keep up with a changing society that was seeing an aging population with more people moving to one-bedroom properties as partners passed away and children left home.
But he denied that Labour had been part of the problem or that they too had failed to ensure enough homes were built.
He said: “I would strongly disagree with that. We knew in full terms about the changing society. That’s why we needed to build more homes because we understand people are living longer and more people are living in one-person households.
“This government will have been aware of that too, and yet they still impose this grossly unfair tax. They know they don’t have the properties, they knew all along the difficulties this would” cause.”
And he added: “Where are the priorities with this government? It is not with people in the North who are suffering with housing problems. It’s about indifference – they don’t care about communities in Hartlepool.”
But a government spokesperson said the government was committed to building new homes across England and claimed ending the spare room subsidy had been a “necessary” move.
She added: “Nearly 217,000 affordable homes have been delivered in England since April 2010. Our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes between 2011 and 2015, with £19.5 billion of public and private funding.
“We have also given the North East of England £13.8m since 2013 to support vulnerable people affected by welfare reforms and there has been a 12% fall in the number of people in the North East affected by the policy, as tenants take action.
“Ending the spare room subsidy was absolutely necessary to get the soaring housing benefit bill under control, return fairness to the system and make better use of social housing stock.
“Every day the policy saves taxpayers over £1m.”
The North MPs were joined in their criticism by Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, and Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland. All five reiterated Labour’s pledge to abolish the bedroom tax if they win this year’s election.
The party became one step closer to delivering the promise in September 2014, when Labour and the Liberal Democrats came together to voted in favour of a bill brought in by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George.
If passed, it will mean the bedroom tax will not apply unless a tenant has been offered a different property and has refused to move.
> Hmmm…call me a cynic, but might that not just be circumvented by offering absolute shitholes that no-one wants to live in, then penalizing people for not wanting to live in them.
But prime minister David Cameron has shown no sign of revoking the policy, while a government spokesperson said it was saving the taxpayer £1m every day.
> Part 93 of the ongoingLabour MPs Suddenly Discover Sanctions series….
THE cases of a Hartlepool benefits claimant whose money was cut because she missed an appointment due to roadworks and another who did not turn up for an appointment which had been cancelled have been raised in Parliament.
MP Iain Wright was speaking in a Commons debate on the effects of the DWP’s benefits clampdown on claimants across the North East, prompted by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah.
Mr Wright said he accepted the need to tackle fraud, but the system had to take account of people who had genuine reasons for falling foul of the rules.
“Most people would accept the principle that if people flagrantly and persistently fail to adhere to mutually accepted requirements, they should face consequences,” he said.
“However, I have noticed a large increase in the number of sanctions imposed, often for a first or light transgression, and often with no regard to the context.”
Cases of people who had seen their benefits suspended unreasonably included:
– A man who realised he had missed an appointment, contacted the Jobcentre immediately and went in the next day, only to be informed by post that his benefits were being cut for a month;
– A woman sanctioned because she was late after her bus got delayed by roadworks in the centre of Hartlepool;
– A woman who was told her appointment for a work capability assessment had been cancelled who was then sanctioned for failing to attend;
– And a woman who was sanctioned for a month because she missed an appointment to attend her grandfather’s funeral.
“In all those cases, and in others, I have been able to get the sanctions overturned; but that itself raises some issues,” said Mr Wright.
“Is it an efficient use of taxpayer resources to apply a sanction, only for staff time to be employed in overturning it? How robust, efficient and effective is the process if that continues to be the case?”
The culture in JobCentres needed to change, he said:
“Front-line staff do not have any flexibility to determine whether a benefit claimant has failed to comply with a requirement. They have to see things in black and white and they cannot provide personalised support.
“The system is geared not to help individuals, but merely to process them.
“Claimants can suffer appallingly as a result of their treatment.”
The system was also failing to help workers whose traditional skills were not suited to the modern jobs market.
“The JobCentre is simply not interested in helping them secure a new job,” said Mr Wright.
“Through its indifference and latent hostility, it is consigning my constituents to the scrap heap long before their time.”
He highlighted the case of a former factory worker who had been told to apply for benefits on-line despite not owning a computer and never having used one.
“There are many people like my constituent in Hartlepool and the North East. The digital divide is creating social exclusion that is affecting the most vulnerable people,” said Mr Wright.
“My constituents deserve better, as do many others in the North East and elsewhere.
“They are treated shabbily and with contempt.”
Work minister Esther McVey defended the Government’s record and told the debate the sanction rate for Jobseeker’s Allowance was between five and six per cent a month and less than one per cent for Employment and Support Allowance.
> Presumably depending on what targets for sanctions Jobcentre managers have set their staff….
“In the past year, the number of people sanctioned actually decreased,” she said.
A political leader is heading for Hartlepool after claiming the town is “the best place” to gain a regional breakthrough.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage said last year that he considered Hartlepool to be “interesting” as he earmarked areas where his party could gain seats.
As the build-up to May’s General Election hots up, Mr Farage has now confirmed he will be spending two days in the town next month with a gala dinner followed by UKIP’s North East conference.
Eric Wilson, chairman of the UKIP regional branch, said:
“Obviously we are delighted that Nigel Farage has chosen Hartlepool to host the regional conference and to do a keynote speech.
“This will be a boost to Phillip Broughton’s election campaign, and will be the chance to show how much support we have built up in Hartlepool in recent years.
“We have done well here, and it is a target seat for UKIP.”
Speaking on his last visit to the region, Mr Farage told the media in Gateshead:
“We will not win where Labour has a massive majority, but we can find marginals or other seats where we can make a difference. Hartlepool is very, very interesting. Watch Hartlepool. It is an interesting seat for us in 2015.
“We have a base there, it is our longest established branch in the North-East.
“The North-East is our fastest growing membership area, and if I had to pick I’d say Hartlepool was an area where we can make a substantial impact.
“We will have to look hard after the elections at what our targets will be in 2015, but Hartlepool is very interesting to us.”
Back in 2010, UKIP took just seven per cent of the vote in Hartlepool and Iain Wright retained his seat.
But with Phillip Broughton put forward as the parliamentary candidate for May, the party are hopeful he can turn up the heat on Labour.
And Mr Farage will be hoping he can sweet-talk some of the electorate in Hartlepool early next month.
He will be at a dinner, which is being held at the Grand Hotel, on Friday, February 6.
Tickets for the event, which includes a four-course meal and entertainment, are £25 though people can shell out £99 if they want to sit with the UKIP leader.
The following day, the Borough Hall on the Headland will host a conference which will see various speakers and exhibitions between 10am-5pm.
Day passes for that event are £20.
Mr Farage added:
“It’s a Labour heartland, but you know what, we’re having a go.
“Let’s be honest. We are at a later stage in our development in the North-East, compared to, say, the East of England.
“That’s because we didn’t quite get over the line in 2009, 15.4 per cent in those elections. Let’s see where we are after these elections.”
The UKIP party’s North East webpage says more details will be released nearer to the time.
Councillors are calling on the Government to bring in a new Robin Hood tax to reverse swingeing cuts.
A group of six Hartlepool councillors put forward a motion for the authority to support a movement calling for greater taxes on the financial sector.
Supporters say the tax will generate £20bn which could be used to fight poverty and help ordinary families.
The motion to support the tax was put forward by independent and Putting Hartlepool First councillors Jonathan Brash, Pamela Hargreaves, Paul Thompson, Kelly Atkinson, Geoff Lilley, John Lauderdale and David Riddle. It was unanimously supported by councillors at a recent full meeting of the council.
It comes just after the council learned that its funding from central government will be £8.3million less for 2015/16 than the previous year.
Hartlepool has seen £30 million less funding since 2010/11 – putting huge pressure on services.
The motion read:
“This council notes the suffering forced upon local residents as a result of this coalition government’s cuts programme and asserts that there is an alternative to its ideologically-driven attack on public services – namely the levy of a financial transaction tax on the speculative activities that have accelerated the recent enrichment of the few to the detriment of the many.
“The council therefore calls upon Government to enact the financial transaction (Robin Hood) tax and use the revenues from this measure to reverse ongoing shrinkage in central grants to our council and public services as a whole.”
The council will now write to Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and Hartlepool MP Iain Wright, pledging their support for the tax.
It would see a 0.05 per cent tax on transactions like stocks, bonds, and foreign currency.
Council leader, Christopher Akers-Belcher, who is also chairman of the finance and policy committee, said: “I do feel it has merit.”
An MP says he fears his constituents are being used as “guinea pigs” for the roll out of the Government’s Universal Credit – described as the biggest change to the welfare state in a lifetime.
Universal Credit combines six out-of-work benefits into one single payment paid monthly, instead of fortnightly payments.
It has already been introduced in North-West England and will be “rapidly” rolled out to selected job centres in the region from February next year, including those in Hartlepool, Northallerton, Newcastle and York.
Hartlepool MP Iain Wright said:
“I am worried that many of my constituents will be guinea pigs for this fast roll out.
“Ministers have showed shocking incompetence so far with this project which has been subject to significant delays and cost overruns.
“I will monitor the situation to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money, while ensuring people in Hartlepool claiming benefits and tax credits don’t face delays.”
The Government says the new system will be simpler and is part of a long-term economic plan to cap welfare and “make work pay”.
But there are concerns it won’t be suitable for everybody – particularly the most vulnerable claimants.
A member of staff at one jobcentre plus in the region said:
“The theory is that as it is paid like a wage, it prepares people for work.
“But the reality is that some people are a long way from being capable of working.
“People with serious addictions being given a month’s money in one go is just setting them up to fail.”
> A statement which, though probably with some truth in it, automatically sets up the idea that all benefit recipients are addicts.
Universal Credit is paid direct into bank accounts and is gradually reduced in line with any earnings a claimant receives.
According to the Department of Work and Pensions households on Universal Credit spend double the amount of time on finding work than they do on Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said:
“We’ve already seen remarkable success, with Universal Credit claimants moving into work faster and staying in work longer. As part of our long-term economic plan, people will have the financial security of knowing that if they work more they will earn more.”
“By Spring next year Universal Credit will be in a third of the country’s Jobcentres as part of the wholesale transformation of the welfare state – providing the country with an economic benefit of £7 billion each year when rolled out.”
The roll out is expected to be completed by spring 2016.