Tagged: Nick Brown

Ministers launching pre-election strike on trade unions, claim North East MPs

Ministers have been accused of launching a pre-election attack on trade unions by making it harder to collect union dues from Government employees.

North East MPs said the change could hit thousands of workers at the Benton Park View complex in Newcastle, known as Longbenton, where Whitehall departments have offices.

MP Nick Brown challenged ministers to justify the decision in the House of Commons, while Blaydon MP David Anderson claimed the Government wanted to create “another Arthur Scargill” to drum up anti-union feeling.

It follows the announcement that Government departments are to stop paying trade union subscriptions directly from the payroll on behalf of staff, a practice known as “checking off”.

Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, told MPs:

“I believe that this change will enable unions to build a much more direct relationship with their members, without the need for the relationship to be intermediated by the employer.”

But the change could affect 5,500 people working at Longbenton the Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions and outsourced service providers, according to Mr Brown, MP for Newcastle East.

He pointed out that departments routinely helped staff pay a range of fees and subscriptions – but the Government was only targeting unions.

Speaking in the Commons, the MP said:

“Government Departments offer a range of check-off services to their employees, including deductions for membership fees, for private sporting clubs, for private clubs more generally and even for private medical schemes.

“What is it that makes the payments of trade union dues exceptional? Why would any employer want to withdraw this from its own employees?”

 

Mr Anderon said the Government was attacking unions as a political stunt in the run up to the election.

He said:

“The truth is that this is nothing more than another attempt to find the bogeyman whom the Conservatives have tried to find for the last five years.

“They want another Arthur Scargill so that they can try to rattle a can in the next few weeks. That is what this is all about.”

And the move was also condemned by Bishop Auckland Labour MP Helen Goodman, who said ministers wanted to weaken unions in advance of spending cuts.

She said:

“Why has the Minister chosen this moment to crack down on check-off? Has he done so because the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast a one million reduction in the number of public servants, and he wants to weaken the unions before that happens?”

Mr Maude told her:

“We have looked at this in a perfectly sensible, straightforward way. We want trade unions in the civil service – and in this context I am talking only about the civil service – to engage in a sensible, modern fashion, and we want public money to be deployed in the delivery of public services rather than the delivery of trade union officials’ salaries.”

“Many unions have sought to withdraw from check-off arrangements themselves, because they take the view that a modern union in a modern workplace should have a direct relationship with their members, not intermediated by the employer.

“Check-off dates from an era when many people did not have bank accounts and direct debit did not exist. It exists now, and many unions take the view, and indeed the Public and Commercial Services Union has said, that the easiest way to collect their dues is through direct debit.”

Source –  Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 12 Mar 2015

Advertisements

Labour North East manifesto

Securing a fairer funding settlement was top of the agenda when Labour’s North East troops gathered to launch a manifesto for the region.

MPs and Westminster candidates gathered at the party’s campaign headquarters in Stockton to set out their stall ahead of May’s General Election.

A regional minister, greater devolution, a boost for transport, a North East investment bank and rolling out the living wage were also on the list of priorities for Labour campaigners.

It comes as figures show hundreds of millions of pounds have been moved away from the region’s public sector organisations while other affluent, often Tory heartland areas saw an increase.

The North East is also one of the country’s biggest exporters but the region continues to struggle with the highest unemployment rate.

 

Helen Goodman MP for Bishop Auckland and chairman of the group said:

“We want to see our region thrive again and believe our plan covering everything from fair funding and a National Investment Bank to improved rail, road and airport infrastructure and many more decisions taken in the North East, will do that.

“We do not however underestimate the size of the challenge and believe only with national and local politicians, business and industry, colleges and universities and others working together, can we succeed in exploiting the talents of our people and provide them and their families with the future they are entitled to.”

The Tories will maintain the country must stick its “long term economic plan” but Labour North East has set out two priorities as its members of Ed Miliband’s party fight for a win at the ballot box in May.

The news the party will campaign for a Minister for the North East could also see the former postholder Newcastle East MP Nick Brown return to the role after the Coalition scrapped the position.

 

Manifesto for the North East

The main points of the manifesto are:

* Secure fair funding based on the needs of the region

* A living wage

* Development of sector-based industrial strategies to help industry clusters work better together and build local supply chains

* The creation of an investment bank for the region

* Significant investment in the road network and regulation of bus services

* Improvement to the rail system and modern trains

* Development of our regional ports and airports to encourage better international connectivity and boost investment

* A regional tourism strategy to bring back more visitors

* Our employers, colleges and universities working closer together to develop the skills we need

* A careers and guidance service that informs our young people of the vast choices available to them as they plan their future.

> Like the vast choice of which workfare scam you’ll be sent on ?

* Greater devolution of decision making and funding to combined authorities working with Local Enterprise Partnerships and a regional minister

* Staying within the European Union

Source – Newcastle Journal, 27 Feb 2015

Should MPs be paid more? – Salary set to rise after the general election

Would Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have been caught out in a sting apparently offering their services to a private company for cash if the salary earned by MPs’ was much higher?

> Probably. There’s no accounting for greed.

The suggestion is an unpopular one with the electorate, many of whom have endured years of pay freezes, particularly in the public sector in which the politicians are classified as working.

After the next election, an MP’s salary is set to rise 10% from £66,396 to £74,000 – the level set by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) which said they did an important job and should not be paid a “miserly amount”.

When this was revealed last year it caused a bit of a meltdown inside and outside of Parliament with the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour party leaders for once united.

They argued it would be wrong when public sector pay rises were capped at 1%.

Rifkind, who said the allegations made against him were “unfounded”, has subsequently said he can’t live on his £67,000 a year MP’s salary.

However Blaydon MP, Labour’s Dave Anderson, was unsympathetic. He said:

“If you can’t live on the salary get another job. You know what you sign up for.

“If you can’t live off £67,000 a year you must be from another planet.”

Mr Anderson was equally dismissive of MPs who took on second jobs to boost their income.

“If you want another job, take another job and leave. You shouldn’t have a second job as an MP regardless.

“Me and my colleagues work so many hours I don’t know how anybody who fit another job in.”

His fellow MP Nick Brown who represents Newcastle East said:

“I agree with that. Your duty is to your constituency and the country.

“I’ve been an MP for 31 years and have never had a second job.”

As for the salary of MPs he said he did not want to be “sanctimonious” and criticise anybody who thinks it should be higher. “I think an MP’s salary level should be set independently,” he said.

As for how much a fair salary would be, Mr Brown wouldn’t be drawn on a figure just that it should “cover the cost of being an MP.

> Before exopenses claims, I imagine.

The debate about what an MP’s salary should be has been clouded by a number of scandals over the years to the extent that when a rise is suggested most in Parliament come out in public against it firmly.

 

But in a secret poll of MPs, the responses were different.

Back in 2013, in a survey conducted by Ipsa, MPs suggested they deserved an £86,250 salary.

On average, Tories said their salary should be £96,740, while Lib Dems thought the right amount was £78,361 and Labour £77,322. Other parties put the figure at £75,091.

However later that year, a poll of the public revealed it thought MPs should actually get a pay cut, the average figure being £54,400. In the North East, people thought they should be paid £52,140.

Arguments for the rise included one that being an MP was an important job and salaries should be more in keeping with this, comparing it to money earned by company executives. If pay was better, we would get better MPs.

> Does anyone really believe that ? What we’d really get is richer MPs.

It would also, the argument went, entice more people from less well-off backgrounds to become interested in becoming an MP.

To counter this some have wondered how a salary that is around three times the national average would put off potential less well off candidates.

According to one commentator: “To a working class kid a salary of £65,000 a year is the equivalent of winning the lottery”.

And anyway, MPs are public servants and should be subject to the same rules as anyone else in the public sector. They do an incredibly important job – but so do lots of other people, such as nurses and the police.

Political expert Dr Martin Farr of Newcastle University said:

“The public has unreasonable expectations of politicians because they just don’t like them.

> And I wonder why that should be ?

“There needs to be a competitive salary as in comparison to parliamentarians elsewhere, MPs here aren’t played a lot nor do they get the same level of support.”

“They are frightened to be awarded a competitive salary which was why they tried to make it up in allowances in the first place.

“However in trying to avoid one problem they have created another.”

He said such was the “febrile” nature of the debate, the public generally can’t even accept the need for MPs to travel first class on trains and reclaim it on expenses.

“Yet they often do work of a confidential nature at this time so these arrangements are needed,” he said.

Dr Farr said that while it appears Straw and Rifkind might have broken no rules, they were foolish to do what they did.

However he added what did need to be sorted out was the so-called ‘Whitehall revolving door’ situation where former Ministers get jobs in the private sector

“It’s a toxic issue and in some ways MPs are in a lose-lose situation,” he said.

> For that sort of money, you’d get a lot of volunteers willing to risk that kind of lose-lose situation…

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 25 Feb 2015

Will the Green surge win votes in the North East?

We haven’t yet ordered our coffee and already Shirley Ford, a school administrator and lead campaigner for the North East Green Party, is racing through her lines.

“As of this morning, we had 22 candidates selected with another five possibles,” she says, as we find seats at a quiet South Shields seaside cafe.

“But things are changing so rapidly now. If you had asked me before Christmas, I would have told you something entirely different. We are a small party, we don’t have much money so it is all about candidates’ enthusiasm.”

She seems nervous, but it is an extraordinary time for the Greens. The so-called surge is in full swing.

Calls for Natalie Bennett to be included in the TV leaders’ debates intensified until the dam broke and broadcasters changed their stance in what has been celebrated as a watershed moment for the party. Now, after 20 years on the sidelines, the region’s handful of Green councillors find themselves in the spotlight and, sometimes, the firing line.

“Yes, but that is exactly what we wanted – to be taken seriously,” said Shirley.

And, it seems, times are changing. The party in the region has tripled its number of parliamentary candidates since 2010 and, Shirley, who is sporting a fern green jumper and matching coat, does not by any means predict a win, but she is brimming with optimism.

“Five years ago, we ran just seven candidates and that tells you where local parties’ strength was at,” she says, with a wry smile.

We stood someone in South Shields, Gateshead, the three Newcastle seats, Tynemouth and Wansbeck. This time round we are looking at standing candidates in all but two seats. We might struggle to stand in Sunderland but things are changing every day.

“We didn’t think that Blyth Valley would have a candidate but suddenly we have had some key people joining there that have made it possible for members to select.”

The media glare, she says, is winning the party support but the Greens’ operation on the ground is gathering strength.

“I think that national and local media does make a difference as to what people think something is happening,” she said. “We don’t have very much money. It is up for members of each local party to raise the money for their deposit and for any research or materials.

“We have to be creative. We don’t have the resources to go and knock on everyone’s door or to carry out a poll of the constituency, but we are doing what we can.”

 

Shirley, who will stand in South Shields, was an organiser for the local Stop The War Coalition and has lobbied government as part of the Women in Black campaign against injustice, war and militarism.

“I joined the Green Party 11 years ago but I grew up in a family interested in politics,” she said. “I campaigned against apartheid when I was a student and I was always interested in human rights.”

She says people are finding the party via the Greens petitioning on specific issues, such their campaign against the Newcastle/Gateshead One Core Strategy, which could allow for homes to be built on greenbelt.

Greens are renowned for their passion for the environment and so have been smart in joining with organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage to organisation clean-ups.

But what does it all add up to? Where does she think the Green Party will do well in the North East?

Newcastle East is one to watch – we have been focussing campaign work in the Heaton area and we are very active in Jesmond,” she said.

“We campaigned during local elections on local issues, including on transport and housing. We have been in that area for two or three years building that campaign level up.

“We have been championing more affordable housing and we have seen a good response in the Newcastle North area. I think in Northumberland, in Hexham and Berwick, we will do well. The two parties wanted to link up on energy campaigning issues, such as the Druridge Bay opencast coal mining campaign.

“There has been a lot of – what’s the word – a lot of synergy. They have been linking up on local issues that they are passionate about and I think that comes across.

“We want people to get the message across we want renewable energy projects that are small scale that are not going to be having such a huge impact.”

While it isn’t likely the Greens can unseat the former Labour Minister Nick Brown in Newcastle East, it shows which demographic supports the Greens – students.

In Durham, the party had been quite dormant but in the county council local elections we stood 15 candidates and we came second in the City of Durham division of Neville’s Cross,” she said.

“A good number of student residents live there. We also did well in other wards in the city where there is a high proportion of students.

“We have maintained the momentum that that gave us.”

So, the Green Party is relying on the region’s student vote?

“That is part of the strategy, to engage students and to encourage students to stand. Some of our parliamentary candidates are students. Middlesbrough and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland are students, while others are Young Greens.”

The Greens are also popular among socialists after announcing the party would scrap Trident, renationalise railways and offer everyone a single payment ‘citizens income’, though the party has yet to set out exactly how that will be paid for.

> Well, just scrapping Trident alone would save around £1.5 BILLION a year, not to mention the plans to spend over £100 billion on a replacement for  Trident.

But, Peter Pinkney, the President of the RMT Union, is standing for the party in Redcar as a result, proclaiming that “the Greens are now the party of the left.”

Shirley said the move was welcome news:

“Peter has been a member for quite a long time now and he spoke at the Green Party conference 18 months ago on the whole railway issue. The national part is very excited about it.

“It is really exciting.”

It comes as the Greens announce membership nationally has grown by 120% this year. Now, their leader will share a platform with David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

“It gives people a sense of a change and there might well be a place for a smaller party,” said Shirley.

“This lets people hear our policies and gives people a chance to make their own mind up.

“Last time, we imported the American presidential debate but that isn’t how our system works. You vote for your local candidate on policies and the debates last time didn’t reflect that.”

 

And it is on local issues that the Greens stand to make the most ground in this election.

The Coal Authority has granted licences for companies to explore parts of the North coast to see if underground coal gasification is possible.

The Green Party is mobilising its forces and it is when talking about this that Shirley is most animated.

“We are going to campaign on this off-the-coast, underground coal gasification because this issue has been bubbling along,” she said.

“We are keeping an eye out to see if there are any actual planning applications for anything onshore for both the drilling rigs and the processing plants.

“The argument that is always made is that we have got to have jobs – jobs jobs jobs – but they don’t think about the jobs that will be put at risk, such as tourism jobs and fishing jobs.”

Shirley is keen for the party not to be seen as an extension of eco-charities but as a party with a social agenda.

“We have petitions on particular issues in lots of places,” she said.

“Here in South Tyneside we have a schools campaign to bring back glass bottles and in Jarrow we have a petition to save the walk-in centre.

“We are trying to find solutions to the things that really matter to people.”

Winning in a region where Labour is so strong will be tough. On this issue, Shirley found herself agreeing with the leader of Ukip, Nigel Farage, who branded the North East a “one-party state” ruled by Labour.

Shirley says because of this dominance by the big parties, the Greens’ long game will be to campaign on voting reform.

It is sad,” she said “It is partly our electoral system. All of the focus is on those marginal seats and if you are in a safe seat then you are very much taken for granted.

“That is one of the things we want to change.”

She added: “In 2010, a lot of people in the North East told us that they support Green but that they were going to vote Labour because of fear that the Tories could get in.

“Well, the Tories did get in anyway.

Source –  Newcastle Journal,  11 Feb 2015

More than 30,000 potential voters in Newcastle and Gateshead have not registered

Tens of thousands of potential voters in the North East have dropped off the electoral register in what has been described as a “crisis of democratic engagement” in the UK.

In a series of worrying figures, one blackspot has been revealed as Newcastle where 18,000 have dropped off the register.

Worst affected is the Ouseburn ward in Newcastle East, home to many students, where there has been a 55% drop off of registered voters totalling 9,982, in the last year alone.

At the 2010 general election, Labour MP Nick Brown won Newcastle East with a 4,453 majority.

Other areas highlighted include Gateshead with a 12,962 drop off, Sunderland with 5,776 and Derwentside in Durham with 3,280.

They are among approximately 7.5 million people nationwide who are missing from national registers.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “This is not just a scandal, it is a disaster for our democracy.”

 

With the May 2015 general election fast approaching, efforts are being stepped up to get as many enrolled as possible before the April 20 deadline.

Independent campaign group Bite The Ballot highlighted the situation by designating last Thursday as National Voter Registration Day in a bid to get 250,000 to register.

> Last Thursday, eh ?  Did you know that ?  No, nor me.

I wonder how many of those missing voters it actually reached ?

Meanwhile the Electoral Commission has arranged for a reminder to appear on the Facebook page of every UK user of the social network.

It follows the Commission’s discovery – through polling by YouGov – that four in 10 people, and more than half (53%) of 18 to 24-year-olds, remain unaware that they can register to vote online.

Almost one million people have dropped off the electoral register since the implementation of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) last summer, mostly students, first time voters and those living in private rented accommodation and those from newer immigrant communities.

As a result of IER, rather than one person in a household registering everyone or a university signing up all its students in halls, each individual is now responsible for registering themselves. In addition, they have to supply a National Insurance number.

 

A Commons committee used the focus to renew its demands that government consider radical reforms to boost engagement and election turnout, including online voting, weekend elections, polling-day registration and a “none of the above” option.

> A “none of the above” option would be good. I’d go further and link the number of none of the above votes nationally to MP’s pay. The more there are, the less the MPs get.

At the 2010 general election, 16 million eligible voters – 34.9% of the electorate did not take part – more than voted for any one party.

Graham Allen MP, chairman of the Commons political and constitutional reform committee, said:

“This is not an acceptable state of affairs for a modern democracy.

“If we do not take urgent action to make elections more accessible to the public and convince them that it is worth voting we will be facing a crisis of democratic engagement.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said:

“Over one million 16-24-year-olds have registered since the new system was introduced, and everyone else is being contacted directly and encouraged to use the new convenient online registration system. We’re also providing over £14 million of funding to support the costs of activities at a local and national level to maximise the number of people on the register.”

How to register

If you are 16 or over you can register through the Government website, www.gov.uk/register-to-vote .

You’ll need your National Insurance number, and the registration process takes around five minutes. It can also be done by post.

The process is also explained on the Bite the Ballot website on www.bitetheballot.co.uk/nvrd/

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 07 Feb 2015

Emergency NHS cash diverted south with most areas of North-East receiving just 0.24% of £2bn fund

Emergency cash for the troubled NHS has been diverted away from the region to areas mainly in the South, a new analysis shows.

Health chiefs in the North-East and North Yorkshire have been handed tiny increases in their budgets from the £2bn fund – most receiving just 0.24 per cent more.

In stark contrast, other areas – mainly in London and the South-East – have been given funding boosts of more than 3.5 per cent, for the 2015-16 financial year.

NHS England argues the extra cash is going to areas which are currently underfunded and which have “the greatest health needs, where the population is growing rapidly”.

But the decision has been fiercely criticised by Nick Brown, Labour MP for Newcastle East, who campaigned against a previous attempt to shift health cash from North to South.

Mr Brown said:

“This is highly political. Extra money is being found for Tory-voting parts of the country at the expense of the rest of us. The allocation formulas have been twisted to bring this outcome about.

“Those who die too young are the losers. The big winners are the geographic areas where people enjoy a long-lived, healthy and comfortable retirement.”

Tom Blenkinsop, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, said:

“This is yet another clear sign that this Government is consciously and deliberately redistributing funds from our area to Tory political priorities in the south of the country.”

The Northern Echo:

The issue of CCG funding has also drawn criticism from local Conservative MPs, including Vale of York’s Julian Sturdy who told ministers of a “postcode lottery” in a debate last week, saying: “Why does Vale of York CCG, in particular, receive such a poor allocation?

 The analysis, by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), found the biggest increases had gone to clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in areas with Conservative and, to a lesser extent, Liberal Democrat MPs.

There are 53 CCGs receiving rises of between three and four per cent – covering areas where no fewer than 85 per cent of MPs are from the two Coalition parties.

Furthermore, some – unnamed – CCGs have been forced to revise their plans from April because they are now receiving less money than expected, the HSJ said.

The allocations – slipped out by NHS England late on the Friday before Christmas – divide up the £1.1bn of the £2bn which has been given to CCGs, which ‘buy’ treatments.

Announcing the £2bn injection in November, amid growing talk of an NHS “crisis”, George Osborne said it would “support the day-to-day work of our incredible nurses and doctors”.

But 11 of the 14 CCGs in this region will receive just 0.24 per cent extra, worth just £400,000 to Darlington, for example – and none will get more than 1.99 per cent.

Ten CCGs are gaining 3.7 per cent or more, including in Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead, Bedfordshire, Bromley, in Kent, and in Slough.

The list is topped by East Staffordshire, which gets a 4.28 per cent increase – an extra £5.8m, for 2015-16.

The row has echoes of the controversy in both 2012 and 2013, when NHS England first attempted a big shift in spending from poorer areas to those with more pensioners.

It was forced to back down after protests that the “fair shares formula” would slash up to £170m of funding from CCGs in the North-East and North Yorkshire

This time, every area is receiving a rise of at least 1.7 per cent from April, but half the extra £1.1bn will go to just 54 of the 211 CCGs.

Announcing its decision, NHS England said:

“Every CCG will get real terms budget increase.

“More of the extra funding for local health services is being used to more rapidly increase NHS budgets for those parts of the country with the greatest health needs, where the population is growing rapidly, and where services are under greatest pressure.”

NHS England is independent of the Department of Health, which means its spending decisions are no longer announced to parliament, nor scrutinised by MPs.

Source –  Northern Echo, 13 Jan 2015

Jobcentre staff under pressure to strip claimants of benefits for no good reason, North East MPs claim

Ministers have refused to apologise after MPs from across the North East highlighted the “cruel and inhumane” treatment of benefit claimants in the region.

Officials such as Jobcentre staff had been encouraged to strip claimants of benefits for no good reason, MPs said.

In a Commons debate led by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, MPs highlighted a series of wrong decisions and abuse of benefit claimants.

They included:

* Veterans injured in Afghanistan or Iraq stripped of benefits after they were told they were fit to work

* A Newcastle man stripped of benefits because he was accused of failing to seek work in the days after his father died

* A man in Bishop Auckland constituency who was a collecting a sick daughter from school and was accused of inventing a “fictional child”

 

South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck said her constituents had been “humiliated” by job centre staff.

She said:

“Constituents of mine have been refused a private room to discuss intimate personal or medial issues … the general attitude of staff is confrontational and sometimes just downright rude.”

Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery said Jobcentre staff provided a valuable service and took their role seriously – but they were under pressure to “sanction” as many people as possible, suspending their benefits on the grounds that they had broken rules or failed to prove they were seeking work.

The debate, attended by Labour MPs from across the North East, followed long-running complaints that benefit claimants are being sanctioned for no good reason.

> Very long-running complaints… its a shame it takes a looming General Election to get Labour’s collective arse into gear, and also leads the cynical to wonder whether the situation will just revert after the election (whoever wins).

But Work Minister Esther McVey infuriated MPs by refusing to discuss whether the criteria for imposing sanctions were fair, despite repeated requests for her to address this topic.

She denied her department deliberately inflames talk of “scroungers”, saying: “I have never put forward a story like that and I never would.”

Ms Onwurah recalled that she was largely bought up by her mother in a single-parent family in Newcastle which depended on benefits.

She said: “I am so glad she did not have to face the sort of vilification and abuse that benefit claimants face now.

She added: “I want to know what this government is doing to prevent the demonisation of those who are now claiming benefits.”

> That’s easy – nothing. Why would they, it’s their policies that encouraged it in the first place.

What we want to know now is what Labour would do, should they win the next election.

Newcastle East MP Nick Brown said one constituent had been told to go to an office in Felling, Gateshead. He walked to the office – because he had no money to pay for public transport – where he was given a telephone number to call.

People with disabilities, but who were judged to be fit to work, were being trained for jobs it was very unlikely they would be able to do, he said.

> There must be more unemployed forklift drivers in the North East than anywhere.  Qualifications that are basically useless because the majority of jobs requiring a forklift licence also specify a period of experience in a real situation, not a poxy do-it-or-get-sanctioned course.

And, in Sunderland at least, they send qualified and experienced forklift drivers on these courses too… Southwick Jobcentre advisers in particular were notorious for that.

southwick jc letter

 

Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central, said Jobcentre staff were under pressure to sanction claimants.

She said:

They work hard and are put under enormous pressure. Staffing levels have diminished dramatically since 2010.

“We hear anecdotally about the pressures of informal targets on sanctions – we all know they are in place – from people who are too frightened to say something, so they tell us off the record.”

> Ah… definitely an election looming. Julie Elliott is my MP, but failed to respond to a complaint against Jobcentre staff that I made a couple of years ago.  That’s not the way to win votes, Jules – electorates are for the full term of the parliament, not just a general election.

Mrs Lewell-Buck accused the Government of encouraging the public “to think of claimants as spongers or skivers, so that working people struggling to get by will blame the unemployed man or woman next door”.

Source –  Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 07 Jan 2015

The Chancellor spoke more about Mars than he did about the North East

George Osborne insisted his plans to boost the North were “at the heart” of his Autumn Statement, as he announced plans for a science centre in Newcastle, a centre for advanced manufacturing in Sedgfield and a “Great Exhibition” to celebrate the great art, culture and design of the North.

But his key statement on the nation’s finances also confirmed that local councils face years of further deep cuts.

And the Chancellor’s big surprise, changes to Stamp Duty leading to lower bills for many buyers, will have limited impact on the North East because low property prices in the region mean many home buyers don’t pay the duty anyway.

The Autumn Statement also confirmed that outdated Pacer trains still in use on some routes in the North East will be replaced.

Mr Osborne told the Commons that his goal was to create “a more balanced national economy” and that meant creating a northern powerhouse “as a complement to the strength of our capital city, where we bring together our great cities of the North.”

He announced £20m for a Ageing Science centre in Newcastle, to “back the brilliant work on ageing being conducted at Newcastle University”.

There was also £28m for a world-class research and development centre, to be called the National Formulation Centre, that will specialise in the development of products such as medicines and chemicals, based in Sedgefield.

And documents published by the Treasury also revealed plans for a Great Exhibition in the north.

But local authorities face at least five more years of further dramatic cuts in spending, the Autumn Statement confirmed. Funding from the Treasury for local services is to be cut by more than a fifth by 2019-20.

The figures are included in forecasts published by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the official Treasury watchdog, as part of the statement. It predicted that the main grant provided to local councils will fall from £60.3bn in 2014-15 to £50.5bn in 2019-20.

Mr Osborne insisted: “I do not hide from the House that in the coming years there are going to have to be very substantial savings in public spending.”

This would mean cuts of £13.6bn in 2015-16, as previously announced, and “two further years where decisions on this scale will be required”.

He added: “We’re going to have to go on controlling spending after those years if we want to have a surplus and keep it.”

Another key announcement was a change to stamp duty, previously charged on homes costing more than £125,000.

Buyers eligible for the tax paid one per cent or more of the purchase price. In future, stamp duty will only be paid on the portion of the price which is above the threshold, leading to significant reductions for some properties.

However, an analysis of house prices shows that average prices in the North East are below the £125,000 threshold anyway, which means many buyers will not be affected as they pay no stamp duty.

Average house prices are £120,545 in Newcastle, £124,338 in North Tyneside, £123,766 in Northumberland, £99,837 in South Tyneside and £85,438 in Sunderland.

Nonetheless, buyers of more expensive homes will make savings as long as the property is worth less than £937,000.

Responding to questions from Conservative MP Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham, and Labour Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, the Chancellor also said there would be help for airports in the North if they were hit by a potential cut in air passenger duty in Scotland, following the announcement that aviation duty will be devolved to the Scottish government.

Responding to the statement, Newcastle East MP Nick Brown pointed out that the Chancellor had announced Britain was awarded the lead role in the next international effort to explore the planet of Mars, adding:

“The Chancellor spoke more about Mars than he did about the North East of England. His Northern Powerhouse is located over 100 miles to the South of Tyne and Wear.

“His statement contained no commitment to any type of workable regional policy in the context of further Scottish Devolution. This is grotesquely one-sided. Even his stamp duty changes were focussed on London and the South East.”

But Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith, who represents Berwick, said:

“The Autumn Statement sticks to our strategy to deal with the deficit, enabling us to release funds for key Liberal Democrat priorities that bring fairness and a stronger economy.”

Source –  Newcastle Journal,  03 Dec 2014

North East MPs declare opera and flower festival tickets paid for by tobacco company

Labour MPs had a night at the opera and tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show paid for by a tobacco company.

Senior party figure and opera fan Nick Brown MP, went to a show courtesy of Japan International Tobacco which make Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

Stephen Hepburn, MP for Jarrow, accepted tickets worth £700 from the same company for the internationally famous flower festival in May.

Both declared accepting donations of tickets as part of the MPs register of financial interests.

Nick Brown, who represents the Newcastle East constituency, said he had taken up JTI’s offer of hospitality on July 24 to find out more about the work of the Glyndebourne Opera.

Mr Brown voted in favour of the smoking ban in pubs and nightclubs in 2006.

Mr Brown, said:

“The event was hosted by Glyndbourne Opera and sponsored by JTI. The invitation was to see behind the scenes of the Opera Company, to learn something of their work and in the evening attend Glyndbourne’s new production of La Traviata.”

“The event took place during the Parliamentary recess. For the avoidance of doubt I declared this in the Register of Members Financial Interests.”

Tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show were also handed to Stephen Hepburn from the same company, which he accepted despite smoking rates in South Tyneside continuing to soar.

Earlier this year it was reported that a quarter of women in South Tyneside are still smoking at the time they give birth – more than twice the national average and the highest proportion of any local authority in the country.

Like Mr Brown, Mr Hepburn also voted in favour of the smoking ban back in 2006.

Jeremy Blackburn, Head of Communications for JTI UK, said:

Like many other businesses we host at events throughout the year to update stakeholders on developments at JTI, as well as exchange views and opinions informally with our guests on issues affecting our Company.

“We are strongly of the opinion that engagement results in better and more informed regulation and is therefore in the best interests of all relevant parties.

“We are able to share our views and opinions with independently minded MPs who are interested by the issues that impact on our business and MPs will judge for themselves the merits of our views.”

The Sunday Sun contacted Stephen Hepburn several times but he declined to comment.

Source –  Sunday Sun,  16 Nov 2014

Lib Dems slammed for ‘hyprocisy’ after they come out against the bedroom tax

Liberal Democrats have been accused of “unbelievable hypocrisy” after they announced they want effectively to axe the bedroom tax.

The change of heart follows a vote at last year’s Liberal Democrat party conference when delegates backed a motion proposed by North East activist Julie Pörksen which condemned the policy for “discriminating against the most vulnerable in society”.

Mrs Pörksen, who is set to be the party’s candidate in Berwick, Northumberland, next year, welcomed the Lib Dem announcement, saying: “The whole premise behind the policy was flawed.”

But as recently as February, the party’s MPs failed to back calls led by a North East Labour MP to axe the bedroom tax.

Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery proposed legislation to end the policy, but just five Liberal Democrat out of 56 voted for it.

The recent u-turn came after a paper produced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – but published on the same day David Cameron conducted a high-profile Government reshuffle – highlighted the hardship caused by the policy.

Mr Lavery said: “I’m completely lost for words. Is it any wonder that the public question the honesty and integrity of politicians and the political parties?

“This is obscene electioneering from a party whose credibility has vanished. The Liberal Democrats supported the bedroom tax with equal passion as the Tories – it’s a matter of public record.

“They failed to support my 10 minute rule bill, which highlighted all the problems they now wish to raise.”

And Newcastle East’s Labour MP Nick Brown said: “It’s completely hypocritical. If they hadn’t supported the Tory government in the first place then this misery wouldn’t have been inflicted on public sector tenants.”

Known officially as the removal of the spare room subsidy, the ‘bedroom tax’ involves cutting housing benefit by 14% for many tenants in council or housing association properties if they are considered to have a spare bedroom, or by 25% if they have two or more spare bedrooms.

Officially, the goal was to encourage them to move into smaller properties.

But the DWP paper reveals that only 4.5% of households affected in the North East have managed to find a smaller council or housing association property to move into.

Others had simply been forced to pay the extra rent. The paper said: “57% of claimants reported cutting back on what they deemed household essentials and 35% on non-essentials in order to pay their shortfall.

“A quarter of claimants (26%) said they had borrowed money, mostly from family and friends (21% of all claimants); 3% had borrowed on a credit card and 3% taken payday loans.”

Despite this, only four out of ten households affected had managed to keep up with their rent – while the rest went into arrears.

The new Liberal Democrat policy is to cut benefits only for people who are actually offered a smaller home and refuse to move, which means the cut is simply axed for the overwhelming majority of people currently affected.

But despite being part of the Coalition government, it remains to be seen whether Liberal Democrats will succeed in actually changing Government policy.

Mrs Pörksen said: “Liberal Democrat ministers now need to persuade the Tories to agree with them and bring some humanity back into the welfare state.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 20 July 2014