The botched roll out of Universal Credit is set to continue under the Conservatives, it has been announced today.
Universal Credit is replacing six existing benefits including Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credits and Housing Benefit, with one single monthly payment.
Described as a “welfare revolution” by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Universal Credit will be made available to new single claimants in Richmond, Kirkwall, Lerwick and Stornoway, from today (11 May 2015).
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, all Jobcentres in the country will be offering Universal Credit to some groups of claimants by spring 2016.
Iain Duncan Smith MP, said:
“Universal Credit is bringing welfare into the 21st Century by restoring fairness to the system and making work pay in a modern labour market.
“We’ve already seen remarkable successes with Universal Credit claimants moving into work faster and staying in work longer.
“As part of our long-term economic plan, today sees the next stage of this welfare revolution with the continual roll out of Universal Credit.”
The new benefit is currently available in one-in-three Jobcentres (260). The government initially targeted the roll out of Universal Credit at the ‘easiest to help’ claimants, such as single people without children. For example, only 96 Jobcentres are currently offering Universal Credit to couples, families and lone parents.
DWP figures show that more than 64,000 people have made a claim. However, this is far short of the one million originally promised by Mr Duncan Smith to be in receipt of Universal Credit by April 2014.
Universal Credit has been dogged with delays and IT problems. DWP officials have already been forced to write off millions of pounds in failed IT software.
HM Treasury officials admitted last year that a potential £633 million could be written off by the time Universal Credit is completely rolled-out across the country and to all groups of claimants.
Children’s charity Gingerbread warned in October 2013 that working single parents will be worse off under Universal Credit. Researchers found that there will be little financial incentive for single parents to increase their hours beyond ‘mini-jobs’.
The charity also found that non-working single parents’ income will be on average lower under universal credit than it is now.
Commenting on the findings, Gingerbread chief executive Fiona Weir said at the time:
“Government claims that universal credit will make work pay, but in fact working single parents will be the biggest losers under the new system.
“The simple fact is that universal credit won’t deliver on its promise to make work pay. Single parents on low wages will be under considerable pressure to extend their hours under universal credit, but our research shows that financially, extra hours often won’t stack up.”
However, the DWP claims that Universal Credit will leave three million families better off and provide a £7 billion boost to the economy.
The department also claims that Fraud and Error will be reduced under Universal Credit, with officials having access to real-time HMRC earnings data.
Universal Credit will enable benefit payments to be calculated more accurately, says the DWP, ‘including topping up claimants earnings when they are on a low income’.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 11 May 2015
The Government has been accused of cruelty and running a ‘postcode lottery for benefits‘ after it emerged a rural district had by far the highest proportion nationally of Jobseekers Allowance claimants being sanctioned.
A report by homelessness charity Crisis said 15.4 per cent of jobseekers in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire, had been sanctioned, making claimants there three times more likely to have their benefits stopped than in its southern Yorkshire Dales neighbour Craven.
It found just 6.2 per cent of claimants in Richmondshire’s northern neighbour Durham had been sanctioned, while 10.9 per cent of claimants in Hambleton had had their benefits stopped, giving that area the tenth highest rate of sanctions in the country.
Crisis said evidence was mounting of “a punitive and deeply flawed regime”.
In 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) introduced sanctions of between one week and three years if a claimant fails to comply with jobseeking requirements, such as attending interviews or undertaking work-related activity.
Senior pastor Ben Dowding, of the Store House foodbank, in Richmond, said he was surprised the area had topped the national sanctions table and that staff at the town’s Jobcentre – the only Jobcentre in the district – had often demonstrated compassion rather than being strict on claimants.
> Although presumably not so compassionate that they don’t keep sending his foodbank customers.
“Statistics only tell one side of the story, but having worked with the Jobcentre staff, they have always proved to be very caring individuals.”
Councillor John Blackie, leader of Richmondshire District Council, said he believed the area’s high sanction rate reflected jobseekers’ problems reaching the Jobcentre or work, adding that it took claimants in Hawes five hours of travelling and waiting to sign on in Richmond and return home.
A DWP spokesman said Jobcentre staff took claimants’ personal circumstances into account and said there could be a number of factors that had led to Richmondshire having the highest proportion of sanctions.
He said: “Sanctions are only used as a last resort for the tiny minority who refuse to take up the support which is on offer.”
> As ever, the only people not asked for their opinion appear to be the unemployed, especially those who have been sanctioned. However, the original story received this comment:
When claimants apply for jobs it goes on a jobsite how many . My daughter applied for 17 one day but only 2 registered she took a picture of the jobs she had applied.
The next signing on Richmond said you only applied for 2 jobs – she said no look at this picture proving I applied for 17. So the system was not working correct but guess what sanctioned.
The staff at Richmond must be on good bonuses.
Source – Northern Echo, 11 Mar 2015
The Conservatives appeared to write off their chances in a swathe of North-East constituencies, in a leak on the party’s own website.
Eight seats in the region are described as “non target” for the May general election, suggesting little effort will be put into trying to win them.
Unsurprisingly, the eight include some ultra-safe Labour seats where the Tories are miles behind, including North Durham (12,076 votes), North West Durham (9,773) and Sedgefield (8,696).
In others, the Conservatives were in third place in 2010, so face an even bigger mountain to climb in May, in City of Durham (14,350 votes behind) and Redcar (13,165).
However, the list also includes Darlington, where Labour’s Jenny Chapman finished just 3,388 votes ahead of her Conservative opponent five years ago.
Furthermore, Darlington was a Tory seat until it was lost by Michael Fallon – now the Defence Secretary – at the 1992 general election.
Ms Chapman said: “I am surprised. They need to change their attitude, because this is the kind of high-handed assumption that drives voters away from politics.”
But Peter Cuthbertson, the Conservative candidate in Darlington, said: “I think there’s every chance of victory – I’m picking up enthusiasm for change in Darlington.
“I have seen this list, but I have not had any communication with my party about it, so I don’t know whether it is true.”
Asked what help he was receiving from Conservatives headquarters, Mr Cuthbertson said: “It’s down to local people to muscle their own resources. I’ve got no expectation that they will campaign for me.”
Stockton North is also on the list, although Labour’s majority is only 6,676, as is York Central (6,451), where sitting Labour MP Hugh Bayley is standing down.
Other constituencies are described as “non target” because they have big Tory majorities, including Richmond (23,336) and Thirsk and Malton (11,281).
The blunder occurred when a staff member at Conservative HQ uploaded the photographs of hundreds of Tory candidates, of which 112 were categorised as “non target”.
The mistake was later corrected, but not before the list was recorded by a freelance journalist, who published the information.
Source – Northern Echo, 12 Feb 2015
Barnard Castle is set to open its second foodbank after growing concerns that people in the area are falling on hard times.
Volunteers at the Influence Church, in Galgate, are preparing to open the service, which will be part of their StoreHouse project.
It is expected to be up and running next month and has already had donations following the Harvest Festival.
StoreHouse coordinator, Paige Rutherford, said the foodbank would be an addition to the ‘discreet’ one ran through St Mary’s Methodist Church and would be working in partnership with it.
It also follows the success of the church’s existing Richmond project which, in the two years it has been open, has helped about 400 different families and provided more than 32,000 meals.
“We do know there’s a need in the area because we have had people in Barnard Castle actually come to our Richmond base looking for some help,” said Mrs Rutherford.
“There are quite a few people that come to us who aren’t homeless or broke, they are just in a tough situation.”
Mrs Rutherford explained how people would be able to self refer themselves to the foodbank if they have not already been put forward by an organisation, and clients can expect to receive parcels, containing mostly tinned and non-perishable items, for up to eight weeks.
Clients would have to provide proof that they are in need by their second visit and after eight weeks would be assessed again, as that is usually the point that they would be asked to take a six-month break from the project.
Mrs Rutherford is currently being helped by the foodbank’s first volunteer and Influence Church intern, Lesley Allison, who is expected to be joined by at least three others once the service opens.
Mrs Allison, of Staindrop, said:
“I’m looking forward to getting started. I’m a bit apprehensive and nervous but excited because it will be a great help for people.
To find out more visit www.influencechurch.co.uk/storehouse, email email@example.com or call 01748-823161.
You can also find the church on Facebook and twitter @influencechurch
Source – Northern Echo, 25 Oct 2014
The region’s MP’s reacted angrily to David Cameron’s plans for a constitutional revolution after Scotland rejected independence – accusing him of a political fix.
Labour MPs warned the plan – “English votes for English laws” – would strengthen the influence of the Conservative heartlands over Westminster, while doing nothing for the North-East.
> Well ? Did anyone seriously expect anything different ?
And they demanded the overhaul instead focus on devolving power down from Westminster, in parallel with firm promises already made to Scotland on tax and spending.
The stance – echoed by Labour leader Ed Miliband – puts the region on a collision course with both Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg, who plan to rush through a solution to the so-called ‘West Lothian’ question.
Under the fast-track timetable, firm plans will be unveiled in January – from a committee headed by Richmond MP William Hague – delighting Tories who fear the rising UKIP threat.
In reality, change looks impossible before the May general election, but the “English votes for English laws” proposal is, nevertheless, a political nightmare for Labour.
Mr Cameron suggested Scottish MPs would lose voting rights over tax issues, potentially leaving a Miliband administration – with 41 Scots MPs currently – unable to pass a Budget.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) attacked a “crude attempt to cobble this together on the back of an envelope”- calling on the prime minister to put devolution first –
“In our region, we will find that our position gets relatively worse. It might be a good solution for people in Hertfordshire, but I don’t think it’s a good solution for people in Durham.”
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) –
“Cameron completely missed the point. He should not be using this as an opportunity to increase the Tory stranglehold over England.”
Kevan Jones (North Durham) –
“Cameron is pandering to his right wing and UKIP – this is not going to help the North-East at all.
Jenny Chapman (Darlington) –
“He should be talking to people in the North-East about what they want and what extra powers they want, rather than making a back-of-a-fag-packet declaration.”
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) –
“I’m astounded by the naivety of the prime minister in thinking that all he needs to do is change the way Westminster votes.”
Grahame Morris (Easington) –
“A Tory-dominated English Parliament, which continues to concentrate power and resources in the affluent South, will worsen existing regional inequities and frustrate the legitimate desire for greater autonomy for the North East.”
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) –
“In any settlement, there has to be something for the regions and I think that has to be more powers over economic development.”
But Liberal Democrat Ian Swales (Redcar) – while agreeing devolution must go “further and faster” – said it would be “absurd” not to restrict Scottish voting rights at Westminster.
He said: “We may end up with some form of English parliament, but should first make it work by MPs only being able to vote on issues that affect the country they represent.”
The MPs agreed any notion of a regional assembly was “off the agenda” – arguing instead for new, combined authorities to be strengthened with economic powers.
Some constitutional experts warned of chaos ahead, arguing Westminster could end up with “two Governments” – one for defence and foreign affairs, the other for the likes of education and health.
And the respected Institute for Government think-tank also argued the “debate on English devolution” must be part of the post-referendum settlement.
A Government source rejected suggestions that Mr Cameron was fast-tracking the ‘English votes’ issue, while devolution was left in the slow lane.
He said: “We believe we have done a lot devolving powers within England, through the likes of City Deals – and they have been welcomed by business and political leaders in the North.”
Source – Northern Echo, 20 Sept 2014
A damning report today reveals the “totally unacceptable” inequalities driving a widening health divide between the North East and the South.
Experts are warning the current approach to tackling the gap is failing, and the situation is only likely to get worse.
According to the report, a baby girl born in Coxhoe, County Durham, can expect to live for 15 fewer years in good health than a baby girl born in Richmond, London.
Public health experts have now highlighted how devolved powers from central government to the North East could play a vital role in helping close this gulf.
Due North: the report of the Inquiry on Health Equity for the North, is the outcome of an independent inquiry, commissioned by Public Health England.
Professor Clare Bambra from Durham University’s Department of Geography and an Inquiry panel member, said:
“The differences in people’s health in the north compared to other parts of the UK are totally unacceptable. Without a radical change to the current approach to health inequality, we are likely to see things getting worse.”
In the North East, 18% of residents are classed as living in poverty, compared to 12% in the South East. During the past 20 years the region has consistently had lower employment rates than the South for both men and women. These factors, among others, have had a subsequent knock-on effect on general health.
In more recent years, massive efforts and tens of millions of pounds have been spent across the North East on schemes aimed at improving wellbeing. Newcastle and Sunderland are just some of areas that have implemented ways of reducing inequality by campaigning for the payment of a Living Wage.
But the report sets out a number of recommendations including the use of devolved powers to ensure decisions about health issues in the North East are made in the North East. It states:
“Devolution is central for addressing health inequalities with the rest of England. Devolution means regions in the North retaining more power and resources to collectively develop solutions that build on the assets and resilience of the North.”
Ms Bambra said:
“Central government takes a ‘one size fits all’ approach to health spending. Devolution would allow us to address the problems we have here. In recent years we have lost our regional agencies in the North East so there is less focus on us.”
The report also recommended “collecting better data on children in the early years” so they can be tracked over time, monitoring inequalities in development.
In Sunderland over the last two years, figures showed 10% of reception-age children are obese, with local variations of 13 to 17% in some areas. By Year 6, the figure is 21% average, with some areas spiking at 26 to 34%.
Just days ago, plans to build a McDonald’s near a Newcastle school were rejected by councillors. Hundreds of people objected over fears the restaurant would promote unhealthy eating to children from nearby Kenton School.
Ms Bambra said:
“Lots of children’s life chances are determined before they are even born. We need to improve peoples’ access to affordable, healthy food.”
Bridget Phillipson, MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, said:
“This report highlights the need for Government to take action on poverty and the underlying causes of health inequalities.
“Many people in our region also still suffer ill health as a result of our industrial past. Ministers should prioritise those parts of our country with greatest need, not shift resources into more affluent areas.”
However, Coun Lee Martin, leader of Wearside’s Conservatives, said:
“If Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had done exactly what the coalition are doing on jobs, welfare reform, and education then the gap would have closed in the last 20 years. If anything we need to go further in tackling poverty and poverty of aspiration. Some of the North East’s councils adopting the Living Wage would be a start. I’m all for more powers being devolved but let’s have them devolved to people the public can elect directly rather than faceless council leaders.”
Prof Eugene Milne, director of Public Health at Newcastle City Council, said efforts were underway on Tyneside to address some of the most prolific health concerns. He added:
“We know that we have an extensive public health programme which aims to improve the general health of the local population – as a result we have made progress in key areas over recent years.
“However, this report correctly points to a continuing divide across the country, and between the rich and the poor in our society. We welcome that debate.
“Even with the rate of progress that we have, we know that it would take many decades to close the gap between the north and the south. Larger scale action is needed if the problem is to be addressed.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 15 Sept 2014
Depending on who they were, Ministers in David Cameron’s Government were either celebrating promotions or mourning the end of their political career after being invited in to Downing Street to hear their fate in today’s re-shuffle.
With a ruling Coalition that has only four North East MPs – all on them on the backbenches – any re-shuffle is not likely to have an obvious immediate impact on the region.
Yet Mr Cameron’s various moves on the chessboard, widely seen as part of his strategy to try and win the next election, will have been followed by many in the region.
It is a fair bet that many a champagne cork will have been popping in school staffrooms at the re-shuffle’s largest casualty, the Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Being unpopular with teachers is almost a job requirement for Education Secretary, but Mr Gove seems to gone above and beyond that brief, not least with teachers in part of the North East after he attacked schools in County Durham with the slightly odd comment that “when you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism.”
The re-shuffle effectively saw Mr Gove sacked from his Education job. Instead he will become Chief Whip, responsible for imposing discipline on Conservative MPs, and will represent the Government on television, according to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman – which led to him being dubbed “Minister for TV” at Westminster.
Although Mr Gove is popular with sections of his party, and hailed as a hero by supporters of his school reforms, his departure from the education brief is likely to please some North East teachers and heads.
The new Education Secretary is Nicky Morgan, who became in MP in 2010 and was previously a Treasury Minister. After making it into the Commons in 2010 at the second attempt, the former corporate lawyer was quickly earmarked by Mr Cameron as a potential star and was made a ministerial aide within months, a whip in 2012 and a junior Treasury minister last October.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 15 July 2015