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DWP brings new hope to payday lenders

In a move that will bring new hope to struggling payday lenders, the DWP have extended the waiting days for employment and support allowance (ESA) and jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) from 3 days to 7 days from today.

The new rules mean that claimants applying for ESA or JSA will not be entitled for any payments during the first 7 days that they would otherwise be eligible for benefits.

Claimants will not be affected if they have made a previous claim for ESA or JSA in the preceding three months, however, as they will be considered to have already served their waiting days. ESA claimants will also not be affected if they have claimed statutory sick pay immediately before claiming ESA.

Terminally ill claimants are exempt from serving waiting days.

The move has brought condemnation from trade unions and charities, but the chancellor, George Osborne, argues that: “Those first seven days should be spent looking for work and not looking to sign on.”

Last month Wonga was forced by the Financial Conduct Authority to write off £220 million in loans interest and charges to people who should never have been given loans in the first place. There have been calls for other payday lenders to suffer similar penalties.

But the decision by the Coalition to extend the waiting period for ESA and JSA to seven days means that there is likely to be an upsurge in applications for short-term loans by people with no other resources to fall back on.

Given that waiting times for a first payment of Universal Credit (UC) are likely to be around 6 weeks – and up to six months for people whose earnings were too high, according to new government proposals – and bearing in mind that UC also includes a housing costs element, the future for payday lenders is beginning to look rosy again.

Source –  Benefits & Work,  27 Oct 2014

http://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/news/2919-dwp-brings-new-hope-to-payday-lenders

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Coalition wages war on disabled with 580% increase in ESA sanctions

The coalition’s war against sick and disabled claimants is becoming ever more intense. The latest statistics show that sanctions against employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants have risen from 1,104 in the month of March 2103 to 7507 in March 2014, an increase of 580%.

The massive increase in sanctions is even more marked when looking just at the first three months of 2014, the most recent dates for which statistics are available:

January 3,750

February 4,698

March 7,507

The figures show that sanctions against the sick and disabled have doubled in the space of just three months.

Sanctions are only applied to claimants in the work-related activity group of ESA and the vast majority are aimed at sick and disabled claimants who have been forced onto the work programme and then failed to carry out a mandatory work-related activity.

In March 2014 7,108 claimants were sanctioned for failure to participate in work-related activity and 395 for failure to attend an interview.

Very often the reason for failure to participate in work-related activity is that the claimant was too unwell to carry out the activity or had not had it clearly explained in the first place. More than 60% of ESA claimants who are sanctioned have a mental health condition or learning difficulty.

There has been no explanation from the DWP for this massive rise in sanctions, but given that sanctions against ESA claimants are an easy way to cut benefits costs when the coalition is already in danger of breaching its self-imposed welfare cap, it’s not hard to understand what is driving the increase.

You can download the latest sanctions statistics from this link.

Source – Benefeits & Work,  13 Aug 2014

http://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/news/2865-coalition-wages-war-on-disabled-with-580-increase-in-esa-sanction

 

Legal aid cuts cause benefits appeals to fail

Nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux (92 per cent) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year, the charity has found, leading to benefits appeals failing because of lack of written submissions and supporting evidence.

Citizens Advice is reporting it is now extremely hard to get legal aid around issues such as housing, relationship breakdown or employment disputes. Where limited provision of legal aid remains people have to meet very stringent criteria. The length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have had there been earlier intervention.

In some cases legal aid is now simply not available, such as to help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefit decisions.

Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy will today share this evidence with the Justice Select Committee inquiry into the impact of changes to civil legal aid. Guy will call for a Government strategy on funding of advice, to ensure that people can access the right level of advice, at the right time, in the right way for them.

Citizens Advice also reveals a 62 per cent increase in people seeking online advice about help with legal costs.

Gillian Guy:

 “Cuts to legal aid have created an advice gap, stranding people with nowhere to turn. At precisely the time when people’s need for specialist advice on issues such as housing and welfare increased, provision for this support has been slashed.

“Modern life presents increasingly complex problems and people need help to understand, adjust to, and in many cases challenge decisions affecting their income, housing and work status.

“In a rapidly changing world, where people’s expectations of services are rising, accessing the right advice at the right time will be critical to help people solve problems and understand what government changes mean for them.”

In the year before changes introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect Citizens Advice Bureaux provided specialist advice in approximately 136,000 cases to help people struggling with legal problems. Changes introduced under LASPO have withdrawn support for approximately 120,000 of these cases.

A CAB in the North West reported:

“Benefits appeals are failing as clients are unable to pay for supportive medical evidence and/or are attending on their own without submissions. There have been problems with referring clients to specialist advice to challenge decisions on benefit entitlement and overpayment issues, including assembling specialist medical evidence to support ESA and DLA/PIP claims and preparing cases for appeal.”

Source – Benefits & Work,  08 July 2014

http://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/news/2839-legal-aid-cuts-cause-benefits-appeals-to-fail

Criminal checks needed to make sure MPs are safe to work with children, Commons told

Every MP should go through a criminal check to ensure they are fit to work with children, the Commons has been told.

North East MP Helen Goodman called for MPs to go through the same sorts of checks as teachers or youth workers.

She was speaking as Home Secretary Theresa May announced two inquiries into historic claims of child abuse.

Mrs May said Government would set up an independent inquiry panel of experts in the law and child protection to consider whether public bodies have done enough to protect children from sexual abuse.

She said: “In recent years, we have seen appalling cases of organised and persistent child sex abuse. This includes abuse by celebrities like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, as well as the systematic abuse of vulnerable girls in Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns and cities. Some of these cases have exposed a failure by public bodies to take their duty of care seriously and some have shown that the organisations responsible for protecting children from abuse – including the police, social services and schools – have failed to work together properly.”

She added: “The Government will establish an independent inquiry panel of experts in the law and child protection to consider whether public bodies – and other non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.”

The inquiry would be a non-statutory panel inquiry, similar to the Hillsbrough inquiry which reported back in 2012.

At the same time, Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, will lead a review into information provided to the Home Office about child abuse allegations.

It will look at claims that the Home Office failed to act on allegations of abuse provided to the department by the late Geoffrey Dickens, who was an MP from 1979 to 1995.

Speaking in the Commons, Mrs Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, said MPs often worked with children and should undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks, known as CRB or DBS checks, to ensure they are not a threat.

She said: “In the course of doing constituency case work, every member of this house will come across vulnerable adults and children. Does the Home Secretary agree with me that Members of Parliament and caseworkers should undergo CRB checks?

“We’ve legislated for this for everybody else in similar positions of responsibilty. Isn’t it time that we did so in this House too?”

Mrs May said this was an issue the inquiry could consider.

North West Durham MP Pat Glass asked for assurances that the inquiry would be able to look at files held by the police or security services.

The announcement in the House of Commons came after Prime Minister David Cameron promised to leave “no stone unturned” in seeking the truth about widespread allegations of a paedophile ring with links to the establishment in the 1980s.

A series of allegations have emerged that Rochdale Liberal MP Cyril Smith, who died in 2010, abused vulnerable children.

An inquiry last month reported horrific abuse by television celebrity Jimmy Savile at Leeds General Infirmary and London hospital Broadmoor.

The Government’s inquiry could be converted into a full public inquiry if its chairman feels it is necessary.

Source –  Newcastle Journal,  07 July 2014

Families face billions extra in household bills, Teesside MP warns

Families will be forced to pay out a staggering £250bn to modernise Britain’s creaking water, gas, electricity and rail industries, a Teesside MP has warned.

Most of the massive cost of replacing the country’s ageing infrastructure is being added to household bills.

It means energy bills, which have already shot up, are set to increase by a fifth by 2030, on top of the effects of inflation.

Redcar MP Ian Swales was part of a Commons inquiry which looked at the way improvements to the nation’s utilities and transport networks were funded.

He warned that Government red tape was making it difficult for new businesses such as energy companies to get started – making it easier for the existing energy giants to charge sky high prices.

Speaking as MPs quizzed Government officials, he said: “Based on all the investors to whom I have talked – none of whom are the big six, which is an important point – we want to try to break the pseudo-monopolies.

“If we have people who want to invest, surely we should be making it as easy as possible for them.”

The so-called big six energy firms include E.On, EDF, SSE, Scottish Power, British Gas and Npower.

But Government rules made it almost impossible for new firms to enter the market, he said.

He urged civil servants in the Department of Energy and Climate Change to take action, telling one official: “In my constituency there are four potential power station investments right now, three of which are for fossil fuels.

“If you talk to all those investors, they will tell you that they feel like giving up because the system is almost impossible to deal with.”

The MP is one of the authors of a report which warns the UK is set to spend more than £375bn to replace infrastructure.

This includes replace assets such as rail track or waterworks which are simply too old; replace assets which don’t comply with EU regulation; introducing new facilities which cause less pollution, and catering for a growing population.

Around two-thirds of this will be paid for by private companies – but that really means consumers will pay through higher utility bills and rail fares, MPs said.

They warned: “Energy and water bills have risen considerably faster than incomes in recent years, and high levels of new investment in infrastructure mean that bills and charges are likely to continue to rise significantly.”

The Government should act by ensuring there is real competition, which would encourage companies to keep prices down, and in some cases by simply setting the prices consumers can be charged, MPs said.

Source –  Sunday Sun,  06 July 2014

ESA claimants subject to massive increase in sanctions

Employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants in the work-related activity group (WRAG) are being subjected to a massively increased sanctions regime that deliberately targets the most vulnerable. Sanctions, primarily aimed at claimants on the work programme who have mental health conditions or learning difficulties, have quadrupled in the course of a year, even though referrals to the programme have fallen by 43%.

The number of sanctions rose from 1,102 a month in December 2012 to 4,789 a month in December 2013, the most recent date figures are available for.

The vast majority of sanctions are imposed for failing to participate in work-related activity whilst on the work programme, which thousands of ESA claimants are forced to join every month in spite of overwhelming evidence that it does not improve their chances of getting a job.

The massive rise in sanctions, however, cannot be explained by a sudden huge surge in the number of claimants in the WRAG.

In fact, the number of claimants in the WRAG increased by just 21% between November 2012 to November 2013, from 460,160 to 558,960.

Indeed, between August and November 2013 the number of claimants in the WRAG actually fell slightly, from 562,620 to 558,960. Yet the number of claimants sanctioned in this period shot up by a staggering 75% from 2,193 to 3,837.

Nor can the rise in sanctions be explained by a corresponding increase in the numbers of ESA claimants being forced onto the work programme.

In fact, the rate at which ESA claimants get pushed onto the work programme has fallen dramatically over the same period. 8,290 claimant were put onto the work programme in December 2012. This fell to just 4,700 in December 2013, a drop of 43%.

Yet sanctions increased fourfold.

And the main targets of those sanctions are claimants with mental health conditions or learning difficulties. Back in April we pointed out that the proportion of this group receiving a sanction had risen from 35% of sanctioned claimants in 2009 to a massive 58% by June 2013.

That figure has now increased again to 62% in December 2013, even though claimants with these conditions make up just 50% of the work-related activity group.

Also back in April the DWP told us:

“It’s only right that people should do everything they can to move off benefits and into work if they are able. Sanctions are only used as a last resort and we have robust procedures in place to protect vulnerable people, with a number of safeguards built into the system.

Yet many people will wonder, if sanctions are only being used as a last resort, what possible explanation there can be for the sudden massive increase in the number being handed out?

And if safeguards are built into the system, why are claimants with mental health conditions increasingly over-represented on the roster of sanctioned individuals?

The DWP also told us in April:

“Everyone has the right to appeal a sanction decision if they disagree with it.”

Which is entirely true. But a Citizens Advice Scotland report on sanctions released yesterday reveals that “many people who are hit by a sanction are not told the reason for it, or how to appeal against it”.

The DWP have good reason to keep people in the dark about their appeal rights. According to the ‘Fulfilling potential? ESA and the fate of the work-related activity group’ report released last month by Mind, tribunals now uphold almost nine out of ten ESA and JSA sanctions appeals.

Such a huge proportion of overturned decisions is ample proof of the savagery of the sanctions regime. But for many people, especially vulnerable claimants suddenly struggling to survive on drastically reduced benefits and no longer able to get legal aid for help with tribunals, coping with the complex new appeal system is an impossibility.

According to the Mind report, written by Catherine Hale, – herself an ESA claimant:

“ . . . findings suggest that the regime of conditionality and sanctions has left participants in the WRAG fearful , demoralised and further away from achieving their work-related goals or participating in society than when they started.”

The report also found that in 87% of cases of claimants failing to participate in a mandatory work-related activity, the reason was related to their health condition, including 19% who had missed an activity because of a medical appointment.

Such cynical targeting of vulnerable claimants is clearly counter-productive in terms of moving them off benefits and into work.

But there is one very likely explanation for the increasing use of sanctions.

Leaked documents obtained by the BBC last month revealed that the DWP expect the cost of ESA to rise by almost £13bn by 2018/19. The documents warn that the increase is “one of the largest fiscal risks currently facing the government” and could cause it to breach its self-imposed benefits cap.

One of the documents also warns that, in terms of cutting costs, there is “not much low-hanging fruit left“.

ESA claimants with mental health conditions are, however, one remaining low-hanging fruit that IDS and his increasingly vicious and shambolic department are determined to pluck as heavily and as quickly as they possibly can.

Source –   Benefits & Work,  01 July 2014

http://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/news/2829-esa-claimants-subject-to-massive-increase-in-sanctions

Racism and bigotry scare people from standing for Parliament, MPs warn

Women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities may be put off taking part in Britain’s political system because of abuse or threats of physical attacks, a North East MP has warned.

Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington &  Sunderland West and the Shadow Equalities Minister, said attempts to make councils and Parliament more representative were being undermined by fears that candidates would face discrimination.

And she said that every party had to act to stamp out intimidation and prejudice in politics.

She was speaking as the Commons debated the findings of an inquiry which found candidates standing for election need protection from racist, Islamaphobic and anti-semitic attempts to smear them.

The findings were published by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct.

Jeremy Beecham, who led Newcastle City Council  for 17 years and is now a Labour peer, revealed that he had faced anti-semitic campaigning from political opponents when he first stood as a councillor in the city in 1967.

The inquiry also highlighted the case of Parmjit Dhanda, a former Labour MP, whose children found a severed pig’s head outside his house after his election defeat in 2010.

Gay rights group Stonewall highlighted a number of incidents of homophobic behaviour by candidates from many parties including an example from 2007 in which a Labour party council candidate with parliamentary ambitions, Miranda Grell, labelled her opponent a paedophile.

Ms Grell was convicted in 2007 by magistrates in Waltham Forest of two counts of making false statements about another candidate.

Mrs Hodgson told MPS: “None of us goes into politics without the fear of attack, and none of us is immune from attack on some level; but we should always expect any attacks on us to be based on choices or decisions that we have made, the things we have said, the way we have voted, or what we have done.”

But she warned: “I am sure that for many candidates the threat of their skin colour, background or faith – not to mention their children’s or relatives’- being turned into smears or innuendo or leading to harassment or abuse such as we have heard about today is a real consideration. I worry that the fear I have described will mean that many excellent candidates never seek their local party’s nomination or get the chance to be elected.”

The number of MPs in the House of Commons from ethnic minority backgrounds has increased. After the 2010 General Election there were 27 minority ethnic MPs, 12 more than in the previous Parliament.

It means 4.2% of MPs are from an an ethnic minority compared to 17.9% of the UK population as a whole.

The 2010 census of local councillors in England, carried out by the Local Government Association, showed that 4% came from an ethnic minority background, compared to 20% of the English population as a whole.

Equalities Minister Helen Grant said: “The inquiry on electoral conduct was thorough and detailed and made recommendations to a number of bodies, including the Electoral Commission, the police and political parties. Building its findings into current work and guidance and working with the right organisations is the best way to ensure that political life becomes a battle of ideas, not of race hate and discrimination.”

Source –  Newcastle Journal,

North East England: Britain’s Detroit?

Until seven years ago, there was a secret room at Darlington station. Just off one of the platforms, between the standard-class waiting room and a cleaners’ storeroom, and set back behind three successive doors, it was small and plain: a desk, a grimy extractor fan and two windows made opaque to passing travellers by reflective material.

Tony Blair used this room when he was prime minister. His constituency, Sedgefield in County Durham, was a short drive away. When he needed to get to London, 260 miles south, he and his entourage would often catch the fast Darlington train, which can take less than two and a half hours.

More usefully still, many other key New Labour figures took the same line, among them Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn and David Miliband. Altogether, the north-east of England, which contains about a 25th of the UK population, was represented by “a third of Blair’s first cabinet“, noted the veteran anatomist of British power networks, Anthony Sampson, in 2004. (Sampson was himself born in County Durham.) Rarely before had our remotest and often poorest region been such a hub of political influence.

> Of course it could be argued that their only real interest in the region was that it provided safe Labour seats – Mandelson got elected in Hartlepool ! Atriumph of blind devotion over common sense if ever there was one.

When Blair arrived early or his train arrived late, it was felt by Whitehall that the increasingly controversial premier could not just stand on a platform, waiting. Hence the secret room. Now, it is just the station manager’s office. The building around it has gone back to being a market town station with flaking paint and a fragile roof, where isolated passenger footsteps echo in the long middle-of-the-day lull and trains for Scotland and the south of England rattle through without stopping. No current cabinet minister has a north-east seat – only two of its MPs are Tories. Labour’s power base is now in London, Yorkshire and the north-west.

Since the Blair era, the area has slipped in other ways. Between 2007 and 2012, unemployment rose faster than in any other UK region, to more than 10%, the highest in the country. Throughout 2013, as joblessness receded in most of the UK, in the north-east it carried on rising. This year, it has begun to fall a little but remains the worst in the nation.

> And how much of that fall can be attributed to sanctions ? Quite a chunk, I’d guess.

Since 2007, the area’s contribution to national economic growth, measured as gross value added, has shrunk from an already weak 3% in the Blair years to barely 2%. The Northern Rock building society, with roots in the region going back a century and a half, has suffered a humiliating meltdown. The north-east has been, and will probably continue to be, especially harshly treated by the coalition’s spending cuts.

According to the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities, a typical council in the region will lose £665 in government funding per inhabitant between 2010 and 2018, the biggest national fall. Meanwhile, public sector employment in the region – the highest in England at more than one job in five – has been falling since 2009, a year before the coalition took office.

At Newcastle United, one of the north-east’s disproportionate number of fiercely followed, rarely successful football clubs, the recent sponsorship of the team shirt tells a similarly dispiriting story: Northern Rock from 2003-2011; Virgin Money, Northern Rock’s current, Edinburgh-based owners, from 2012- 2013; this season, the payday loan company Wonga.

Between 2011 and 2012, child poverty rates in Middlesbrough and Newcastle Central rose to 40% and 38% respectively.

For as long as anyone alive will remember, this has been a ‘problem region’: a special case, a sick man,” wrote the Newcastle-born novelist Richard T Kelly in a 2011 essay, What’s Left For The North-East?

In recent years, some rightwingers have begun to throw up their hands. “It is at least as hard to buck geography as it is to buck the market,” said the influential Tory thinktank Policy Exchange in 2008. “It is time to stop pretending that there is a bright future for Sunderland.”

And last year the Tory peer Lord Howell suggested the region had “large uninhabited and desolate areas… where there’s plenty of room for fracking“. Weeks later, the Economist described Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as part of “Britain’s rust belt“; “Despite dollops of public money and years of heroic effort… [these] former industrial heartlands are quietly decaying.

The magazine concluded with an unlikely but ominous comparison: “The Cotswolds were the industrial engines of their day. One reason they are now so pretty is that, centuries ago, huge numbers of people fled them.”

From Darlington, an old and scuzzy two-carriage train chugs east along a branch line towards Middlesbrough. Along the way, it stops at Thornaby-on-Tees, an ex-industrial town beside the river Tees. From the 1840s until the 1980s, the Head Wrightson ironworks here made everything from parts for bridges to parts for nuclear power stations; then foreign competition closed it.

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher visited the site and took a much-photographed walk across a yellowing wasteland of weeds and factory remnants, wearing an inappropriate smart suit but looking unusually pensive. Shortly afterwards, her government, seeking to soften its reputation as the hammer of the north, created the Teesside Development Corporation, and the wasteland was turned into the Teesdale Business Park, a US-style landscape of corporate lawns, car parks and low office blocks.

The blocks are still there, neat and anonymous except for the corporate logos: Barclaycard, the NHS, the privatised services firm Serco. The car parks are full of mid-range vehicles. For three decades, the north-east has been a centre for modestly paid clerical work, such as call centres and the “back office” administrative processes of companies based elsewhere. But at the Teesdale Business Park, “To Let” is the most common logo; some are so old, they have rotted and snapped off.

As with Thornaby, Middlesbrough is a flat riverside town that once grew fast because of iron foundries: from only 25 inhabitants in 1801 to 165,000 in the 1960s. The Victorian centre was built to a grid pattern, like a US boom town, with docks just to the north for exporting iron and coal.

But in 1980 the docks closed, the population began to fall, and a void opened between the town and the river. It is still there, starting a few yards from the town centre; a great windswept triangle of rubble and rust, boarded-up houses, Dickensian wall fragments and roads to nowhere. Derelict waterfront warehouses stand in the distance. A middle-aged security man in a peeling wood cabin guards them. “There’s lots of steel cable in those sheds,” he says. “And lots of people try to steal it.” When asked how long it has been so run-down, he shrugs and says without emotion: “As long as I can remember.

The town’s population is around 138,000. To a visitor, the long, straight streets of the town centre seem eerily empty of pedestrians. At the sizable railway station, the weekday rush hour sometimes barely exists: at 8.30 on a Friday morning, I counted fewer than a dozen other people on the platforms. The station cafe had not bothered to open.

If things carry on as they are now,” says Alex Niven, a leftwing writer from Northumberland, “in five years the situation will get somewhere like Detroit.” Several other authorities in the north-east that I interviewed invoked the long-imploding American city, unprompted.

He left the area 10 years ago, aged 18, and now lives in London. “Almost all my friends from school live in London now. When you go back to the north-east, the landscape’s kind of crumbling. There is this sort of sadness. It feels like a people who’ve been weakened, who’ve just been cut loose.”

Geography does not help. “The north-east is at the far corner of the country, but it is separated by more than just miles,” writes Harry Pearson, born near Middlesbrough, in his 1994 book The Far Corner.

There is the wilderness of the Pennines to the west, the emptiness of the North York Moors to the south, and to the north, the Scottish border… Sometimes the north-east [seems] more like an island than a region.”

It is an island that the HS2 rail project is not currently intended to reach. Meanwhile, the prospect of Scottish independence and the near-certainty of more Scottish devolution threatens to marginalise the region further. “Scotland can already do more to attract inward investment than we can,” says Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central. “More power for Scotland, in that sense, would not be a benefit for us.”

Pinned to a board in her constituency office is a list of Newcastle food banks. Outside, contrastingly, the grand city centre streets are much busier than in Middlesbrough, full of prosperously dressed people and big branches of the same upmarket chainstores as in richer places.

“Newcastle is the economic capital of the north-east,” she says, “but the centre, especially, is not representative of the region.” A few minutes’ walk farther out, cheap cafes offer soup of the day for a pound, and other scruffy businesses have long ceased to offer anything. “Every time I see a building boarded up,” Onwurah says, “it strikes fear into my heart.”

Onwurah grew up on a Newcastle council estate in the 60s and 70s. It was then a smoky, clattering centre for shipbuilding and other heavy industry, but these were in terminal decline. In 1984, she left to study electrical engineering, then worked away from Newcastle for a quarter of a century, until she was elected as MP in 2010. In the interim, the city reshaped its economy around tourism and nightlife, as an internationally hyped “party city“; around sport, with the 90s resurgence of Newcastle United; and around culture, with the opening in Gateshead of the Baltic art gallery in 2002 and the Sage music centre in 2004.

It was a very heady time,” says Niven, who supports Newcastle United and as a teenager often travelled into the city from rural Northumberland. “The north-east has a brash, confident side. There’s also often a sense of slumbering potential, that one day a messiah or a revival will come.”

In the 90s and noughties, optimism was most concrete along the river Tyne, which separates Gateshead and Newcastle. Decaying canyons of quayside buildings filled with flash new bars, expensive flats, high-end office space and public art. It was easy to visit Newcastle – which I often did then – and think it was becoming a swaggering, economically self-sufficient provincial city, such as those you find in less centralised countries: another Marseille or Hamburg.

The quaysides are slightly less uplifting now. On the Newcastle side, several bars have shut down. Bridge Court, an enormous, empty office block, has a plaque that reads, “The foundation stone was laid by Mr Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, on 22 September 1994“; another sign says, “Demolition. Keep Out“.

Niven sees the north-east’s revival under the Blair government as “largely superficial. In the long term, it didn’t lead to better jobs and infrastructure. You can’t base the revival of a region on nightlife and football.

Onwurah, whose grandfather worked in the shipyards and whose mother grew up on the quayside, is less scathing: “Labour did a lot in the north-east, to stop the concentration of economic power elsewhere getting much worse, but we didn’t overcome the underlying issue. We haven’t got the previous sources of economic growth. And we haven’t got enough skills and entrepreneurs.” A successful region, she says, has a “critical mass” economically. “If you don’t have critical mass, to attract people and investment, you go into decline. We’re on the edge of that.” She holds up her hands and makes a flat, wobbling gesture: “We’re teetering.

In Middlesbrough, the riverside wasteland has been earmarked for regeneration – as a new area called Middlehaven – for almost 30 years. Recessions, anxious developers and the town’s wider economic struggles have confined most construction to the area’s fringe. Yet there is one exception: an incongruous silvery curve of a building in the centre of the emptiness. Middlesbrough College opened in 2008; it houses engineering workshops, training kitchens, hair and beauty salons, and other vocational course facilities for 16- to 18-year-olds. In 2011, it was rated “good with outstanding features” by Ofsted. Walking down the college’s bright and warm internal street, seconds after being out in the dereliction, and seeing students at work in the glass-walled rooms or rushing back and forth, it seems absurd to think that Middlesbrough does not have a long-term future. But in the window of the in-house Jobs Shop, only half a dozen positions are offered. One is at a local seaside care home for the elderly: the successful applicant will earn £107.20 for a 40-hour week.

Further education is one of the north-east’s few growth industries. “Without it, I dread to think what some of the cities would be doing,” says Andy Pike, director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies. “A lot of people want to come and study in the north-east” – academic standards are high, living costs low and the nightlife boisterous. But, Pike adds, “We have a problem with graduate retention: not as many stay as could do. It’s a thin labour market. The people who stay typically will not end up in graduate jobs. And then local non-graduates will be bumped out of the labour market altogether.”

> But the influx of students also puts a strain on rented accommodation. Certainly in Sunderland (which seems to be ignored in this article) its noticable that streets near to the university appear to becoming student-only ghettos – private landlords presumably looking to maximise profits by packing them in.

In the north-east, the increasingly de-skilled, low-paid labour market of Britain under the coalition is at its meanest. Full-time wages are the lowest of any UK region.

In 2007, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, or Mima, cheekily echoing New York’s Moma gallery, opened on a redeveloped square in the town centre. It looks the part: slick, glassy exterior; high-ceilinged interior; dozens of attentive young staff in Mima T-shirts. It offers an ambitious programme of community events and exhibitions – currently, Art And Optimism In 1950s Britain. Yet a gallery cannot make a town centre vibrant by itself. On Thursday evenings, it opens late, but on the Thursday I visited I saw four other visitors in half an hour.

Since the 1930s, governments have tested regeneration projects in the region. Edward Twiddy is one of the latest reformers to be despatched from London. Since 2012, he has been head of the North-East Local Enterprise Partnership (Nelep), a typically optimistic coalition creation, which aims to get business and local councils – almost all Labour – to work together for the area’s economic benefit.

Twiddy previously worked at the Treasury and for the Foreign Office in Iraq. He is slight and cerebral-looking, and speaks mostly in fluent Whitehall jargon. “The region’s still going through some fairly big structural changes,” he tells me. “The north-east was over-specialised – in coal, for example. Nowadays, people need to be able to approach life differently. You’ve got to be able to travel, to be competitive… Economic activity will move [away] if you cannot convince the market that yours is the right place to work.” But even Twiddy is off: he is set to leave Nelep for Atom, a new digital bank to be based “in the north-east“.

I ask how many staff Nelep has. Twiddy pauses: “The core is four. Then there are people doing discrete pieces of work for us, people loaned to us, people I’ve scrabbled around for, got a few pennies for… There are about 11 or 12 of us in all.” Nelep replaced One North-East, a regional development agency created by the Blair government that had 400 staff.

Yet there is a more economically independent side to the region. A few miles east of the centre of Newcastle, a side road leads steeply downhill to a half-hidden stretch of the Tyne. In the early 1980s, the quays here were a rotting ladder of derelict docks and slipways. Then two local property developers, Freddy and Bruce Shepherd, began to buy the land, clean it up, reuse the old cranes and rent out the quaysides: first to companies involved in North Sea oil, then to others involved in undersea cable-laying and offshore wind power.

Shepherd Offshore now stretches along the Tyne for miles. In its riverside boardroom, with giant reels of cable as tall as tugboats looming outside the windows, Twiddy makes the introductions over coffee served in Versace mugs. The Shepherds are heavyset men with fierce handshakes and slightly loose tongues. “We are the raggy end of the couch up here in the north-east,” Bruce says. Freddy interjects: “We get nothing easy. Not off the government. Without us, there would be nothing here but two abandoned shipyards.”Up and down the river, we’re close knit,” Bruce says. “There are more than 2,500 jobs. We’re a manufacturing base. We train people. But we’re forgotten down here.”

How many jobs were there in the days of the shipyards? “Six and a half thousand,” Freddy says. “I was an apprentice in the shipyard here. You’re never going to get back to those numbers.”

Bruce offers a tour of the quay in his spotless Range Rover. As we drive, he points out other cars parked nose to tail at the roadside: “There’s never enough parking. The number of people working here keeps growing.” We leave the road and enter a muddy construction site, scheduled to house a new national research centre for offshore and undersea technology, a collaboration between the Shepherds, Newcastle city council and Newcastle University. Bruce ploughs through puddles, his property developer’s patter in full flow, then stops his spattered Range Rover at a fence that faces the famous old Swan Hunter shipyard. It is still a wasteland, but new developments are encroaching from all directions.

Another sign of entropy reversed would be to attract more southerners; not just to study but to work. Twiddy is one. Tony Trapp is another. Raised in London, he has been one of the area’s handful of legendary entrepreneurs since the 70s. Then, he helped invent an undersea plough for laying seabed pipes and cables by driving a specially adapted tractor up and down a beach in Northumberland. Several companies and clever products later, he now runs Osbit Power, which makes self-stabilising gangways to connect offshore wind turbines to maintenance vessels.

The enterprise is based in a previously derelict hotel in sweeping Northumberland countryside. Behind its unkempt walls, purposeful-looking young employees cluster at desks or in front of whiteboards, while Trapp, a creased man of 68 with a murmuring voice but an intoxicating can-do aura, briefs them and holds court. “I’ve always based my businesses on clever graduates,” he says later. “I’ve taken on hundreds, some from Newcastle University, from Northumbria University. For offshore engineering, the north-east is the best place in Europe.

But in other ways he sees the local economy as still underpowered. “Persuading clever people from the south to come here is quite hard. It’s not just the image they have of the north-east – it does have the worst statistics, in health, in booze… If you look at many CEOs of big companies here, they don’t live up here. They live in Surrey, London. It’s insulting, in a way.” For a second, he looks his age. “I don’t have the solution to the north-east.”

It is not Twiddy’s job to voice such doubts. Instead, he takes me to the coast, not far from where Trapp tested his undersea plough. It is a brilliant blue day, and the often luminous north-east light is at its most seductive. We drive into the small town of Blyth, where there has been a port since the 12th century, which suggests the region has more staying power than the doom-mongers claim. We approach a cluster of shiny, towering blue-grey sheds, where the National Renewable Energy Centre tests blades for offshore wind farms. In December, the government increased its subsidy for this source of electricity, a rare gift from Whitehall to the north-east in the age of austerity. Twiddy sounds like a small boy for a moment: “The crane for lifting the blades is just amazing!

We walk to one of the windowless sheds. Inside, spot-lit, suspended above an expanse of polished concrete floor, a single pale grey blade, with weights and cables attached to it, flexes slowly up and down, vast and stately as the tail of a whale. The only sound is the hum of the air-conditioning. In a space the size of a small cathedral, but clean and tidy as a science lab, only two employees are visible: distant, purposeful figures in dust coats.

Working here looks much better than working in a chilly shipyard, a call centre or a nightclub, or for most of the region’s previous economic saviours. But Mill says the centre has a staff of 69. The north-east will need an awful lot more workplaces like it this if it is going to stop teetering.

Source – The Guardian  10 May 2014

Health bosses spend £1million on private care for just seven Sunderland patients

Health bosses have spent more than £1million paying for Sunderland patients to be treated at non-NHS hospitals.

 Figures show that £1,003,390.51 was used to help just seven mental health patients receive treatment at private units, clinics or hospitals outside of the Wearside area.

Health leaders have defended the spend, claiming “bespoke” packages are occasionally needed to provide the best treatment to individuals.

But mental health charity bosses argue the paying for services reveals only further evidence the area is struggling to cope when it comes to providing care.

Dorothy Gardiner, project manager for Sunderland Mind, said: “Continued cuts to funding for mental health services are taking a significant toll on the quality and availability of services in our area.

“We are facing a large number of cutbacks in mental health provision here.

“Sending patients out of the area can also be expensive for carers and families. We would always want to provide care for people where they live.

The £1million covers the 2013/14 period and was used to support the seven patients, which has since been reduced to six.

A spokesperson for Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group, who purchased the out-of-area services, said: “When providing care for mental health patients, people are reviewed individually and the most appropriate care/treatment package is put in place, according to their individual assessed needs.

“For each patient, we identify care and treatment needs and often look at bespoke packages in order to deliver this within our area.

“It is only as a last resort that we purchase care out of the Sunderland area.

“We then review the individual’s treatment regularly with the aim of returning the patient to the Sunderland area as soon as possible.”

The figures come amid concerns that mental health hospital services in the region are becoming increasingly squeezed.

Last month, mental health bosses revealed the number of beds for patients could be cut at Sunderland’s Cherry Knowle Hospital – with nursing jobs also set to go.

Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust have said that two psychiatric intensive care units are set to be merged.

Cherry Knowle’s Dene ward and the Greentrees Ward at St Nicholas Hospital in Newcastle both have 14 beds, but a merger of the two is planned to create a single 14-bed facility at the new Hopewood Park in Ryhope, which is due to open this summer.

Also, as part of changes to the current inpatient care system, more services could be delivered in the community, meaning that about 90 beds across the trust’s Sunderland, South Tyneside and Gateshead sites could be axed.

Earlier this week, concerns were raised that a lack of mental health beds is forcing patients to seek treatment in other NHS facilities up to hundreds of miles away.

The number of patients, nationally, travelling to seek emergency treatment has more than doubled in two years – from 1,301 people in 2011-12 to 3,024 in 2013-14.

Source – Sunderland Echo  10 May 2014

Police want to force Newcastle clubbers to scan ID before getting into late bars

Police in Newcastle are set to introduce identity scans at city clubs and late-night bars as they target criminal gangs.

Commissioner Vera Baird said she wants to see a “club scan” system introduced, in which anyone stepping in to a nightclub has to provide a copy of their passport or driving licence, with police able to trawl through the list if any crime is reported.

Mrs Baird says the club scan system is vital if the city wants to tackle the groups of professional criminals who travel to Newcastle to target clubbers.

It is thought crime gangs regularly head to city clubs with the aim of stealing bags and mobile phones, often getting them out of the region within hours.

The police commissioner has not picked a start date yet, and admits that as it stands she does not have the cash to launch a big roll-out.

Mrs Baird is instead hoping to launch a smaller trial scheme as part of her ongoing crackdown on the city’s troublesome nightlife.

She told her police and crime panel: “It is the view of Northumbria Police that this type of system provides significant opportunities in crime and disorder reduction and it will act as a deterrent to gangs that currently travel the country, including Newcastle, to steal personal items in licensed premises.”

 “Newcastle has a vibrant night-time economy with thousands of people visiting every weekend and our aim is for people to be able to have fun, but do it safely.

“In November 2013 Newcastle City Council became the first local authority in the country to introduce the Late Night Levy.

“Since then I have worked with officers from Northumbria Police and liaised with Newcastle City Council officers to identify ways to use receipts from the levy to further improve safety within the city centre.

“One of the ideas we are considering is a system of electronic door entry and we are working with businesses in the city centre to decide which premises will benefit most from this type of equipment.

“The electronic door entry scanners enable premises to check identification such as driving licences, passports and proof of age cards of people wishing to enter the club. “

“This is a useful tool to prevent under-age drinking and discourage anyone from coming into the club to commit crimes.”

> While at the same time encouraging them to move to places not covered by this idea. It doesn’t solve problems, merely moves them around. Although I’m sure the electronic door entry scanner industry will be very happy.

Damian Conway, of Newcastle Pubwatch, said the news would likely be welcomed by clubbers and pub bosses.

He said: “We did something similar a little while ago with fingerprints in Blu Bambu, and across the country venues still use fingerprint technology.

> Any bar that wanted me to be fingerprinted before I could enter would be a bar I’d refuse to enter anyway.

“It was very successful then. But it is targeted towards a minority of professionals who try to steal from people while they are trying to enjoy a good night out.

“What you have to remember about Newcastle is that it is a very, very safe city centre. There are on average 17 crimes a day here, day and night, from bike thefts to the small number of violent crimes, so it is clearly not an unsafe city.

“We could give it a go and get rid of that tiny minority who cause the problems. In many premises it actually speeded up entry, and I think in that respect it will be an excellent idea.”

The club scan is just the latest move from a commissioner who has made tackling the city’s drink-fuelled crime a priority.

Already Mrs Baird has forced through changes to how bouncers are trained to deal with vulnerable young women, following an horrific double-rape in Newcastle.

Alongside that, she has told cheap hotels they must be more aware of who men are bringing back into their rooms late at night.

> I’m sure they’re already very aware. They just pretend they aren’t.

The new nighttime levy was also pushed through with a promise to use the funds on making the city safer at night.

Source – Newcastle Evening chronicle   28 April 2014