Outdated and uncomfortable “Pacer” trains are to be axed from rail services in the North and replaced by 120 brand new vehicles, the Government has announced.
The decision to scrap the trains, which have been compared to cattle trucks, was made by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin as he launched the contest inviting rail operators to bid to run the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises.
It brings to an end speculation that the vehicles could stay, or could be replaced by second hand trains from another part of the country.
But it also emerged that Mr McLoughlin faced a battle with civil servants – who argued that the £250 million cost of the new vehicles was poor value for money.
The Transport Secretary was forced to issue a “written directive”, a formal note confirming that he had been advised against requiring new trains but wanted his officials to go ahead anyway.
Mr McLoughlin told his staff that scrapping the Pacers was essential, warning: “I do not think that the continued use of these uncomfortable and low quality vehicles is compatible with our vision for economic growth and prosperity in the North.”
He also said that many Northern lines were unlikely to be electrified, so it was important to ensure new diesel trains were built because there is an industry-wide shortage of diesel vehicles.
It means the decision will now be scrutinised by a Commons spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, but while this could potentially criticise Mr McLoughlin it does not have the power to over-rule him.
Pacers were introduced in the 1980s as a short-term solution to a lack of rolling stock. Their future had been unclear until now, with senior Ministers including the Prime Minister promising they would go, while a series of official Government documents stated they could instead be refurbished and remain in use.
The Northern franchise operates local, commuter and rural services throughout the region, and a number of long distance services linking major cities.
As well as replacing the pacers with new trains, the winner of the franchise will be expected to modernise other vehicles on the route, double the number of services on may routes, provide more off-peak and Sunday services, invest at least £30 million to improve stations and introduce free Wi-Fi on all Northern trains by 2020 at the latest.
Bidders for the franchise are Abellio Northern Ltd, Arriva Rail North Limited and Govia Northern Limited. They have until 26 June to submit their plans.
The TransPeninne Express franchise provides longer distance intercity-type services, connecting the major cities of Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Hull, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as Manchester Airport.
Improvements the government wants the bidders to introduce include introducing extra capacity for passengers through more carriages and more services; providing earlier and later services and more services on Sundays; considering options for new services such as extending Newcastle services to Edinburgh, and introducing free Wi-Fi on all TransPennine Express trains by 2020 at the latest.
The bidders are First Trans Pennine Express Limited, Keolis Go-Ahead Limited and Stagecoach Trans Pennine Express Trains Limited, and they must submit their proposals by 28 May 2015.
Both new franchises are due to start operating in April 2016.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 27 Feb 2015
The way private companies have been running the Work Programme under contractual conditions imposed by Iain Duncan Smith and his Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been called a ‘scandal’ by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Despite ‘promises’ to focus in hard-to-help claimants, less than half of the financial resources companies originally pledged to help claimants with disabilities and mental health problems have been spent.
The companies have been concentrating on finding jobs for people considered easier to help in to employment, and have ‘parked’ people with more complex needs who have been placed in the ‘work related activity group’ of the Work Programme by the DWP.
Margaret Hodge, the PAC’s chairman, said: “Evidence shows differential payments have not stopped contractors from focusing on easier-to-help individuals and parking harder-to-help claimants, often those with a range of disabilities including mental health challenges.
“Data from Work Programme providers shows that they…
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Fewer than half of claims for payment under a controversial government benefit for disabled and sick people are being approved in parts of Teesside.
Figures released today show that, nationally, 51% of Britons applying for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) ended up receiving the money.
But the proportion is as low as 26% – or just over one in four claims – in some parts of the country.
On Teesside, Redcar parliamentary constituency had the lowest approval rate at 47%.
In the two Middlesbrough constituencies, 1,090 claims have now been determined.
The approval rate was 49% in Middlesbrough and 48% in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
In Stockton North the figure was 55% while Stockton South’s was 51%.
PIPs were introduced in April 2013 to replace Disability Living Allowance for 16-64 years olds.
Payments are worth between £21 and £134 a week and go to sick and disabled people with a long-term health condition.
Eligibility is determined by medics employed by private companies, usually at a face-to-face assessment lasting up to two hours.
Department for Work and Pension figures showed the approval rate for new claims was 26% in the parliamentary constituency – the lowest in the country.
That compares with an approval rate of 68% in Scotland’s Western Isles and Stoke-on-Trent South.
Nationally, around 100,000 people have either withdrawn their claim or had it refused.
Reassessments of the existing 1.7m claimants of DLA began in October but was effectively paused after a backlog of 780,000 cases built up.
In June this year the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee said the new system had been ‘rushed’ through, creating a ‘fiasco’ in which ‘many’ people faced six-month delays, and terminally ill people were waiting one month on average for their payment.
Payments had been due to begin in the north of England from April 2013 but only 360 assessments had been done by the time the programme was launched nationally two months later.
The Department for Work and Pensions expects 600,000 fewer people will receive PIP by May 2018, compared with its projections for DLA. It expects this will lead to annual savings to benefit spending of £3bn from 2018/19.
The latest figures, up to the end of July 2014, show 80,100 PIPs were awarded nationally under ‘normal’ rules, out of 177,000 new claims considered closed by the department. Some 22,100 PIPs have been awarded under special fast-track rules for people with a terminal illness, out of 23,100 closed claims.
In all, 490,400 new claims have been lodged under the new system.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 17 Sept 2014
This article was written by Jane Dudman and Rowena Mason, for The Guardian on Friday 14th March 2014
Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions is facing “meltdown” over three of its biggest projects, Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Commons public spending watchdog, has said.
Ahead of a damning report on government contracts with private firms, Hodge singled out the DWP as a department particularly struggling with the delivery of welfare changes, which involve managing a relationship with private IT contractors, back-to-work providers and benefit assessors.
The public accounts committee report turns up the pressure on ministers to allow all government contracts to be subject to freedom of information (FOI) laws and examined by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Given that half of all spending on public services now ends up in the hands of private providers, departments must stop hiding behind “commercial confidentiality” when people want to know more about how these contracts work, it said.
The committee said two examples of contracts that the public deserved to know more about were the scandal of G4S and Serco charging for the electronic tagging of offenders who were in prison or dead, and the “complete hash” that G4S made of supplying security guards for the Olympics.
Following a stretch of negative publicity, the major outsourcing companies – G4S, Serco, Atos and Capita – are now willing to be subject to FOI laws when it comes to public sector contracts, but the government is still resisting, it said.
“Time and again when we see failures … it’s a failure of government to manage contracts,” Hodge said, adding that departments “simply have to up their game and get a grip”.
The committee said the DWP is particularly bad when it comes to private firms’ involvement in public services, including Universal Credit, its new IT system that will deliver an overhaul of benefits, the Work Programme, its back-to-work scheme, and the personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for disability living allowance.
“All their programmes are on the verge of meltdown,” she said at a briefing to launch the report.
On Monday, a leaked internal review from the DWP said the government’s ambitious welfare strategy is at risk because of the speed and depth of the cuts imposed on the department, while a recent NAO report said the new PIP payment will cost almost three and a half times more to administer than the existing scheme.
Hodge said it was deeply ironic that if the DWP had been more open about the Universal Credit scheme – which she said was a “good policy” – there would have been a far better chance of the programme being implemented. Instead, she said, it was being “appallingly handled”.
> the Universal Credit scheme – which she said was a “good policy” – Is this a hint that a future Labour government intend to keep right on with UC regardless ?
A spokesman for DWP said the department has a “track record of delivery”. “We’ve already successfully launched the benefit cap, Universal Credit and the new personal independence payment. The industry tells us that the work programme has got almost 500,000 of the hardest to help into jobs. We are bringing in our reforms safely and responsibly,” he said.
John Cridland, director-general of the CBI, a business lobby group, said the report notes that the the private sector “plays an increasingly important role in running public services”.
“The public has a right to know how its money is being spent and the industry has pledged to meet a higher bar on transparency,” he said. “Businesses running public services agree that open-book contracting should become the norm. The National Audit Office should also be able to audit government contracts as long as this is done in a systematic way with the triggers for inspection, like missed performance targets, agreed from the outset.
“Rather than relying on individual Freedom of Information requests, we think FOI should be built into contracts when they are agreed.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 14 March 2014
Government cuts to welfare benefits, rising living costs and stagnating wages are to blame for a ‘huge increase in the numbers of people with council tax arrears’, a leading charity has warned.
According to figures released today (13 March 2014) by the charity Stepchange, 45,561 people approached the charity for help and advice after falling into arrears with council tax payments in the last year, up 77 percent on the previous years total of 25,000. The average council tax debt was £102, the charity claims.
Stepchange says that the figures ‘highlights how the squeeze on household budgets is leaving more people struggling to pay essential living costs’.
StepChange Debt Charity chief executive Mike O’Connor said:
“More and more people are struggling to pay essential household costs. Stagnating incomes, changing work patterns, rising living costs and changes in welfare benefits are a toxic combination. Government, business and charities need to ensure that safety nets and protections are in place to ensure that short-term financial problems do not escalate into problem debt which can blight the lives of individuals, families and whole communities.”
The figures come almost a year after the coalition government scrapped council tax benefit as part of widespread welfare reforms and replaced it with a locally administered Council Tax Reduction support scheme.
Under the new system, many more low-income families – including some in receipt of state benefits – are now expected to contribute toward their council tax bill, the exact amount of which is decided by their local council authority.
Margaret Hodge MP (Labour), Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), has recently described the change to council tax support as “fundamentally perverse”, after it was revealed that 71 percent of councils were requiring households to make at least a small council tax contribution, regardless of whether they can afford to pay or not.
The PAC also found that some households, now expected to contribute toward council tax as a result of government welfare cuts, were losing as much as 93 pence out of every £1 earned, when combined with a cut in housing benefit and increased income tax and national insurance contributions.
Margaret Hodge said:
“This just goes to show, for some, work simply doesn’t pay under the new scheme. For them, work incentives have actually weakened rather than strengthened – the opposite of what the Government intended.
“Some of those 225,000 people stand to lose 97p for every extra £1 earned – a fundamentally perverse result.”
Stepchange surveyed 845 helpline clients and found that 50 percent had council tax arrears at some point over the past year, while 19 percent claimed that they had been threatened with bailiff action by their local council.
The Charity has also warned that changes to bailiff fees, due to be introduced in April 2014, could see an additional £310 added to a households accumulated council tax arrears every single time a bailiff pays a visit to a person’s home.
Stepchange has urged councils to do more to help people who fall into arrears on their council tax and ‘ensure that vulnerable people do not see their debts inflated through the unnecessary use of bailiffs’
Source – Welfare News Service, 13 March 2014
“The new personal independence payment, which will replace the disability living allowance, will cost almost three and a half times more to administer and take double the amount of time to process”.
Says it all really, doesn’t it ? I can’t help thinking that when they talked about benefit “reform”, they really meant “deform”.
Reposted from Guardian Society
Sick and disabled people trying to claim a new benefit introduced by Iain Duncan Smith are facing “distress and financial difficulties” because of mismanagement by civil servants and the outsourcing firms Atos andCapita, a spending watchdog has found.
The National Audit Office discovered that the new personal independence payment, which will replace the disability living allowance, will cost almost three and a half times more to administer and take double the amount of time to process.
It has released a report into the new benefit as the government’s £500m contract with Atos comes under increasing scrutiny. Disability minister Mike Penning described the contract with the benefits testing firm Atos as a “mess”. Atos says that it wants to pull out of the contract early…
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