A group of churches and charities have called on the UK government to hold an urgent independent review into the benefit sanctions regime.
The group argue that the government has failed to heed the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, who called for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions system earlier this year.
Dame Anne Begg, who chaired the Committee’s investigation, said:
“The implementation of the present sanction regime is controversial with the government claiming it is effective in helping people into work while many others say sanctions are causing real distress to families and are actually acting as a barrier to participation.”
She added: “If sanctions work as a deterrent, why are so many people still facing multiple sanctions?
“As there are so many questions about the effects on people who have been sanctioned, it is time the government implemented the recommendation of my Select Committee in the last Parliament to carry out a full, independent review of the whole sanction regime.
“Many believe that sanctions are being applied to the wrong people for often trivial reasons and are the cause of the increased use of foodbanks. Only an independent review can get to the truth of what is actually happening so that government policy can be based on evidence and not seen as merely punitive.”
In a 100 day period last year, 346,256 people who were on Jobseeker’s Allowance and 35,554 people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) were referred for sanctions. These resulted in 175,177 sanctions for Jobseekers and 11,129 for sick and disabled people claiming ESA.
92,558 were blamed on a bureaucratic error.
The call for a review is supported by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and by charities Church Action on Poverty, Gingerbread and Mind.
The Government has been accused of attempting to profit from injured people and putting a “tax on justice” after a hike in the cost of issuing some civil court claims came into force.
Anyone attempting to claim more than £10,000 through the civil courts will now have to pay five per cent of the value of the claim, subject to a maximum fee capped at £10,000.
Lawyers opposing the change say it amounts to a 600 % increase on the current charging structure and will deny justice to injury victims and hit small to medium sized businesses who may not be able to afford to recover debts they are owed.
However the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says it will not affect 90 per cent of cases and waivers will be available for those who cannot afford to pay.
It is intended that it will raise £120m – cash which will go towards and repairing the crumbling infrastructure of many courts.
The Law Society has already begun legal action in an attempt to force a judicial review over the move which it said would affect debts owed to small businesses as well as personal injury and clinical negligence claims.
Anthony McCarthy, a director of Macks Solicitors, in Middlesbrough, said:
“To issue a £190,000 claim last Friday would have cost £1,315.
“To do it today costs £9,500. That is a massive 622 per cent increase.
“This is an attempt by the Government to profit from injured people and those who are recovering business debts in order to fund the infrastructure of the courts.”
Mr McCarthy said debtors would be far less likely to pay up if they thought their creditor could not afford the court fees.
In a House of Lords debate last week justice minister Lord Foulks said litigation was “very much an optional activity“.
“There is no logic or sense in this. It is a terrible decision that has been criticised by litigators across the board.”
Justice Minister Shailesh Vara said it was only fair that those who could afford to pay should contribute more in fees to ease the burden on hardworking taxpayers.
“Court fees are a small fraction of the overall cost of litigation and Britain’s reputation for having the best justice system in the world remains intact.”
Source – Northern Echo, 10 Mar 2015
The Government has been accused of sidestepping questions about delays into a possible inquiry into the actions of police during the infamous ‘Battle of Orgreave’.
For two years the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been investigating whether officers accused of fitting up striking miners on riot charges, including two from the North East, had a case to answer.
Blaydon MP Dave Anderson, a miner at the time who was at the South Yorkshire coking plant that day in June, 1984, submitted two questions to Home Secretary Theresa May about the matter.
He asked if she would find out when the IPCC would make its decision and what her department knew about the reasons for the delay.
In the Government’s reply, the Home Office said the IPCC had completed its assessment of the events at Orgreave and was taking legal advice before publishing its findings.
In the written reply, signed by Minister Mike Penning, he wrote:
“This has been a very complex exercise which has required the in-depth analysis of a vast amount of documentation from over 30 years ago. As the IPCC is an independent organisation the Government has no control or influence over the date of publication of its findings.”
Mr Anderson commented:
“The government should put “the vast amount of paperwork” in the public domain so that people and Parliament can see if they were misled.
“She sidesteps the second question about exactly what information she has and puts the onus onto an Independent body. Has the IPCC seen all of the paperwork that has not been released and if not why not?”
Orgreave was the scene of some of the bitterest clashes during the year long miners strike of 1984 to 1985.
In all 95 miners were arrested and charged with riot following it, an offence which carries a maximum life sentence.
All the charges were eventually dropped and 39 miners were later awarded £425,000 in compensation amid claims police witnesses gave evidence that had been dictated to them by senior officers as well as perjuring themselves.
It was in 2012 after a TV documentary repeated these allegations in light of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report that the head of South Yorkshire Police referred his own force to the IPCC.
It was South Yorkshire Police which was in control of the crowds at the 1989 FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest where 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death.
It was revealed officers had fabricated evidence – including having statements dictated to them by senior officers – in an attempt to blame the tragedy on the Liverpool fans, the same tactics used against miners at Orgreave five years earlier.
Mr Anderson added:
“(David) Cameron said Sunshine is the best policy. Well come on then, shine a light on this disgraceful chapter in our nation’s history.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 24 Jan 2015
Council chiefs and teaching unions have hit out after new figures revealed that the North East has slashed its local authority budgets more sharply than anywhere in England.
An analysis by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found the amount spent on services in this region is forecast to decrease by 5% this year – more than double the amount in some other areas.
But the Government says it believes that residents are “happier than ever” with their council services – and if authorities want more money they should concentrate on collecting more council tax and make more of the empty properties they own.
> Hang on – the Government says it believes that residents are “happier than ever” with their council services.
Have I slipped into a parallel universe or something ? Or does the governmenmt spokesperson come from one ?
Much of the North East’s fall is due to a 10% reduction in spending on education, and a 9.3% drop in the budget for “environmental” services such as bin collections.
The figures also show the North East has seen a below average increase in the amount spent on children’s social care.
South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm said: “The findings from Cipfa simply confirms what local authority leaders have been saying since 2010 – that local government is being asked to bear the brunt of the Government’s fiscal strategy for reducing the national deficit and that the North East is hit disproportionally harder than other areas in England.”
“Even with careful budgetary control, efficiency savings and finding new innovative ways to deliver our services, this inevitably means services do suffer.
“The Government claim they are devolving powers to local government and that their localism agenda is about giving local communities real choices in how services are funded – but its a sham.
“The real government agenda is a deliberate ploy to shift the blame for cuts in public services from themselves to local councils.”
Vince Allen, principal officer for the northern region at the National Union of Teachers said Cipfa’s findings were “extremely unwelcome” and that “its clear from the figures that education is going to take a considerable knock.”
“The amount available for community spending in the North East, particularly on education is slumping, in real terms, towards a level equivalent to that in 2005 – that’s how big a step backwards we are taking.
“But in the short term other than campaigning against the cuts that the Government are making I don’t know there is anything we can do to change this around.
“We just have to hope that a Government coming to power would not have the same agenda in terms of destroying local democracy and communities by continuing to centralise the money available for spending.”
> Dream on… I think most of us don’t expect an incoming Labour government to be anything but more of the same. All the main parties love austerity – not least because it doesn’t touch them personally.
Across the country the lowest average fall in spending is forecast in the North West, with budgets just 1.8% down.
Rob Whiteman, Cipfa’s chief executive said that to avoid councils experience serious financial trouble in the near future “we must recognise that some councils have been hit harder than others and will need more support.”
“We are now starting to see some councils face real and immediate financial pressures,” he said.
Steven Mason, lead executive director at Northumberland County Council said he hoped the analysis might encourage the Government to provide councils with more money in the future.
“Northumberland welcome the Cipfa analysis which supports the views put forward by a number of Councils including Northumberland and the Association of North East Councils.
“We hope the Department of Communities and Local Government considers the analysis by such a credible independent body with a view to more equitable future financial settlements across England.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 09 Aug 2014
Hartlepool MP Iain Wright has accused the Government of “ignoring” the North East after plans were approved for a new hospital in the Midlands.
The Government has approved plans to build a new £353m acute care hospital near Birmingham using funding from the public and private sectors.
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced approval for the Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick during a visit to meet NHS leaders in the Midlands.
But while that hospital is due to open in 2019, the long-running saga over a planned new hospital at Wynyard shows no signs of coming to an end.
Mr Wright said: “I think this reflects the notion that the North East is not a priority for this Government.
“In many respects they don’t consider us as a pressing part of what they do.
“We were the worst hit on cuts in the whole country, and they are taking far too long to make their mind up on Wynyard.
“All this ongoing uncertainty is not helpful to concerns over the provision of healthcare in our area.”
Hartlepool councillors granted fresh planning permission for the Wynyard project back in February after an initial application lodged back in 2009 lapsed following a series of setbacks.
That move put the ball back in the court of the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust to find the funding to allow work to start.
If it ever gets the go-ahead, the development will include a 568-bed hospital with an extra 66 day beds, 26 wards and 14 operating theatres.
The trust is waiting for news of a £100m contribution from the Government towards the £272m scheme
The planned Wynyard hospital would replace the University Hospitals of Hartlepool and North Tees, in Stockton.
The scheme which has received the green light in the Midlands has striking similarities to the Wynyard plan, with the new facility replacing some existing services at other sites operated by the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, including the accident and emergency departments at City and Sandwell hospitals.
Referring to the project, Mr Osborne said: “This ambitious package will ensure that patients across the West Midlands continue to benefit from access to world-class acute treatment and cutting-edge facilities.
“It is because of the difficult decisions we have taken as a government that we have been able to protect healthcare spending, and announce new facilities like the Midland Metropolitan Hospital.”
North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust’s director of finance Lynne Hodgson said: “The trust’s independent regulator Monitor has completed its affordability assessment of the new hospital.
“Work is ongoing with Department of Health to finalise its analysis of the scheme.
“The Department of Health assessment considers affordability, value for money and the strategic fit for health care services in the Teesside area.
“It is hoped that this assessment will be concluded imminently after which the trust should receive a final decision.”
Source – Hartlepool Mail, 17 July 2014
The High Court has ruled emergency laws underpinning a government back-to-work scheme are “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ruling stems from a case brought by Cait Reilly in 2012, who said being forced to work for free at a Poundland store breached her human rights.
The government brought in new rules in 2013 allowing unpaid work schemes to continue pending further legal appeals.
Ministers said they were “disappointed” by the ruling and would appeal.
But lawyers for Miss Reilly claimed the government owed about £130m to people who had fallen foul of the retrospective legislation and ministers should admit they made a mistake.
The 24-year old graduate challenged the legality of an unpaid work placement she undertook in 2011, part of the government’s “mandatory work activity” programme.
She said that she was told that if she did not agree to take part in the scheme, which she said involved stacking shelves, she would lose her Jobseeker’s Allowance.
The government was forced to pass emergency legislation amending the scheme last year after Court of Appeal ruled that the regulations underpinning it did not comply with existing laws giving the Department for Work and Pensions the power to introduce the programme
The legislation was designed to reinforce the rules to make it clear that claimants must do all they can to find work in order to claim benefits and to ensure the government did not have to repay money to claimants who had not complied with the conditions of their benefit claim.
But Mrs Justice Lang, sitting at the High Court in London, ruled on Friday that the retrospective legislation interfered with the “right to a fair trial” under Article Six of the Convention on Human Rights.
The Department for Work and Pensions said it was “disappointed” by the ruling – which it said applied to a minority of claimants – and would launch an appeal.
“We disagree with the judgment on the legislation and are disappointed,” a spokeswoman said.
“It was discussed, voted on and passed by Parliament. While this applies to only a minority of past cases and does not affect the day to day business of our Jobcentres, we think this is an important point and will appeal.”
She said the legislation remained “in force” and the government would not be compensating anyone who had been docked benefits pending the outcome of its appeal.
But Paul Heron, a solicitor for Public Interest Lawyers, said it was a “massively significant” ruling and the DWP’s decision to appeal against it would be a further blow to the “upwards of 3,000 cases sitting in the tribunal system waiting for this judgement“.
He claimed people were owed anything from four weeks benefit, about £250, to several thousand pounds and were having to mostly represent themselves at tribunals.
He told BBC News it was “about time the DWP just held their hands up, admit they made an error, and pay people the money they were entitled to at the time. That is what a responsible government would do.”
The back-to-work schemes have been condemned by critics as “slave labour” because they involve work without pay but are seen by supporters as a good way of getting the unemployed back into the world of work.
The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the regulations last year although the judges also rejected claims that the schemes were “exploitative” and amounted to “forced labour“.
Ministers said that the most recent legal judgement had upheld this view.
“We’re pleased the Court recognised that if claimants do not play by the rules and meet their conditions to do all they can to look for work and get a job, we can stop their benefits,” the spokeswoman added.
Poundland, one of several employers which took part in the scheme, withdrew from it in 2012.
Source – BBC News, 04 July 2014
Rail campaigners have called on the Government to give Northern train services a once in a decade chance of investment.
Transport groups have said it is time services such as Northern Rail benefited from the same approach which has handed cash to rail in London and the south east in recent decades.
The Campaign for Better Transport has warned that a Government consultation on the future of Northern Rail and Trans Pennine Express looks set to do little to improve east-west links to and from the North East.
They say the plans as they stand give “only a vague indications of when the outdated 30-year old train diesel Pacer train will finally be replaced,” raising the possibility rail operators will not be forced to make much needed improvements.
In its consultation document on the new franchise the Government makes clear that it will accept limited rolling stick improvements if the cost would mean money diverted from other services.
The Department for Transport document says: “We firmly believe the rolling stock on Northern services needs to be improved so that passengers recognise a step change. But the more expensive the trains (and brand-new trains are likely to be the most expensive option of all), the harder it will be to justify current service levels where demand is low, and to afford to improve services where demand is increasing.”
The Department for Transport also makes clear that new operators would be allowed to cut back on off peak services, including reducing the number of trains calling at less popular stations.
There is some good news for Northumberland, with the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line looking set for a return thanks to Northumberland County Council cash.
But while Ashington-Blyth and Tyne is mentioned, schemes like the Leamside reopening though the south of the region are not and potential operators wouldn’t need to consider them in their bids.
Also causing concern is a clear expectation that the northern services will not attract significant investment.
Campaigners say that the consultation is missing an sign that a new operator will be forced to invest in trains, track and stations. “This is a counterpoint to the investment-heavy approach to growing the railways used in the South East,” the campaign group said.
Stephen Joseph, chief executive at the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The North East’s railways are at a junction. The Government is talking about trade-offs with the winners potentially getting newer trains and better stations while the losers could end up with higher fares and reduced services. Getting real investment into rail is essential to the region’s economy and we’ll be working with others to campaign for railways in the north to get the kind of support other parts of the country have seen.”
The Government consultation runs until August 18.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 23 June 2014
Whitehall officials have been accused of trying to delay £760m of North East investment in a bid to find ‘election ready only’ spending projects.
Businesses and council leaders have jointly submitted a plan for growth as the region looks for a share of the Government’s £10bn local growth fund.
But after months spent compiling a wish list of jobs projects, including new railway lines and regeneration sites, ministers have now tried to force local enterprise partnerships to pick just a few priority schemes.
Cities minister Greg Clark has been told he risks setting back long term economic growth, with the leader of Newcastle Council Nick Forbes among those suggesting the move looks like an attempt to find an election boost.
If the Government insists on only funding schemes which are almost ready to go it would hand itself a list of ‘shovel ready’ projects that prioritise ministerial photo opportunities, city leaders have said.
Mr Forbes was among those who challenged the Government over its cash policy at a meeting with Mr Clark.
He said: “I raised the concerns when I met with Greg Clark last week. The Government haven’t just set a virtually impossible timetable for bids to the Local Growth Fund, they’ve changed the goalposts several times.
“Asking us, at the last minute, to prioritise schemes that are ‘shovel ready’ implies they are more concerned with projects that can be announced in the run-up to the election rather than those in the longer term interest of the region.”
The North East local enterprise partnership has refused to go along with the Government request, saying that it is wrong of the Government to ask businesses to spend months putting together a list of projects only to then change the criteria and ask for a new list with no clear indication as to how projects will be judged.
The region’s strategic economic plan will for now remain unchanged. Under the partnership’s preferred option, the Government would put £70m into a North East pot and let the region get on with building roads and clearing space for new firms. It would add to other cash for a North East Development and Investment Fund, handing the region £245m over five years to major developments.
If successful, the partnership says the overall plan could pave the way for an 11% increase in employment by 2024, suggesting some 10,000 jobs a year could be created.
Some £23m of local transport improvements are requested, including addressing traffic issues on the A185 and A19, work on the Lindisfarne Roundabout in South Tyneside and a Central Station Metro refurbishment.
Another £25m is asked for to pay for projects such as improvements to the A1 Scotswood Bridgehead, more work on the A19 near the Silverlink junction in North Tyneside and new funds to clear the way for roadworks behind Newcastle’s Central Station.
From 2016 onwards another £125m of funding is requested to help pay for the likes of a reopened Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway, a new relief road for Durham City Centre, a link road for Newcastle Airport and Gateshead Town Centre regeneration.
Source – Newcastle Journal 12 May 2014
A damning list of North rail failures has been put to the Government.
MPs have accused the Department for Transport of overseeing years of neglect and of “blundering” its way into years more of service failures on crowded and outdated Northern trains.
Ministers were told it was disgraceful that they were planning to take 170 modern trains from across the entire North of England and send them south, serving constituencies such as the prime minister’s.
Shadow deputy leader of the House Angela Smith said the loss of stock on the North’s First Transpennine Express service came as result of officials pushing back its franchise renewal while they “rushed” into the sale of mainline services.
And the Government was forced to admit it will try and phase out the unloved Pacer trains, used by Northern rail on the Hexham to Newcastle line, as soon as possible in the next franchise. Speaking in parliamentary debate, the MP said: “It is becoming obvious where the Government’s priority lies when it comes to rail lines, and the priority is not with passengers in the north of England.
“As their ill-fated, illogical and shambolic franchising policy goes off the rails, it is the north of England that suffers.
“We are witnessing a situation in which the huge blunder that was west coast franchising has led to a comedy of errors, with the consequences landing squarely in the lap of the north of England and its railway services.”
She added: “We in the North believe we need efficient, well-run railways with modern trains providing the capacity a growing network needs. We need those trains so our economy can compete with the South – we all know how big that challenge is – if we are to close the North-South gap. On the Northern franchise, however, the average age of the fleet is 2, which compares with a national average of 18 years.
> I think they meant an average age of 20+, not 2. If only it was 2.
“Many routes are still served by the Pacer railbuses, which make up about a quarter of the fleet. I will not name my source, but I was approached several years ago by someone who asked whether the Pacer trains might have a future in the new country of Kosovo, but the trains may still be required on those Northern Rail services if the Government do not get their finger out.”
Ms Smith was backed by Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, who said: “We need to highlight the point about the differentiation in investment in different parts of the country.
“At a presentation last week to the all-party group on rail in the North, Network Rail outlined its plans for investment, including in the Northern hub.
“However, the only reference to the North East of England were signs on the map saying, York, and, To Scotland. The North East of England was not an afterthought – it was not even a thought.”
Junior transport minister Stephen Hammond said discussions were ongoing to try and let the North keep the modern trains until May 2015.
The minister added: “Pacer trains that were introduced in the mid-1980s and have rightly received their fair share of attention.
“With the introduction of new rolling stock into the region, higher quality rolling stock will be released for use across the network.
“We expect to ask bidders for the Northern franchise to put forward proposals for the removal of Pacers from the area.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 14 March 2014
A North-East MP has said the remains of Richard III would struggle to pass the Government’s too-strict ‘fit for work’ criteria.
Thousands of benefit claimants are dying within six weeks of being wrongly assessed as being fit to work because of the Government’s “scandalous” welfare reforms, the Commons heard today.
Gateshead Labour MP Ian Mearns compared the coalition to “oppressive regimes in Central and Latin America”, blaming ministers for misdiagnosing at least 10,600 sick and disabled people as being fit for work.
Speaking during a backbench business debate on welfare reform, he said: “Put bluntly, this Government, the Department for Work and Pensions and their agencies are telling us repeatedly that people who are dying are fit for work.
“Between January 2011 and November 2011 some 10,600 Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claims ended and the date of death was recorded within six weeks of the claim end.
“This Government has repeatedly refused to release updated 2013 (figures) for deaths within six weeks of an end of an ESA claim.”
Mr Mearns added: “Four people a day are dying within six weeks of being declared fit for work under the Work Capability Assessments.
“It is scandalous – scandalous and an indictment of this place.”
He suggested that the remains of Richard III would also struggle to pass the Government’s strict criteria.
He told the House: “Some might consider this bad taste, but I’m told there was a story doing the rounds, that when the bones of Richard III were discovered in Leicester, Atos carried out an assessment and judged him fit for work.
“It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
“It’s a sad truth faced by 12,000-plus families who, every year, have to face their own personal tragedy of this nature.
“In my youth, I never would have imagined that in 2014 it would be the United Kingdom that would be the subject of an Amnesty campaign.
“Yet at its AGM in 2013, Amnesty UK passed a resolution recognising the human rights of sick and disabled people in the United Kingdom had been dreadfully compromised.”
Source – Shields Gazette, 27 Feb 2014