Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The UKs proud record for reducing child poverty is unravelling.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has released its latest projections for poverty levels and they make for cold reading.

Despite predicted growth in median income of 5.1% by 2022 levels of absolute poverty in the UK are likely to remain unchanged, child poverty could rise by 4.1% over the same period.

The South East, Yorkshire and Scotland will, the IFS say, see poverty levels fall, in the North East, North West, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Midlands will see levels rise. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that by 2021 there could be half a million more-people living in poverty.

The predicted rise in poverty levels is linked, the IFS research suggests, to government cuts to working age benefits. Those regions where people where low-income families are less reliant on earnings than benefits will see the largest rise in poverty levels.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is calling on the government to use the autumn budget to end the freeze on income related benefits, uprate the child related elements of Universal Credit and to increase the Local Housing Allowance. They argue the latter two measures would, respectively, lift 100,000 people out of poverty and help 4.5 million people currently struggling to pay their rent.

Speaking to the Independent chief executive Campbell Robb said the projected rise in poverty levels showed that the UKs “proud record of reducing child poverty was at risk of unravelling. “

Opposition politicians have also been critical of government benefits policy, with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, as quoted on the Welfare Weekly website, saying Universal Credit had caused “terrible hardship” to many people.

Green Party joint leader Jonathan Bartley described it as an “ill-conceived, counterproductive assault on Britain’s most vulnerable people”, adding that the government had shown, “a complete disregard” for the pain it had caused.

In a blog post on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website head of analysis for the charity Helen Barnard writes that the main drivers of the rise in child poverty are changes to tax credits and the government’s four year long benefits freeze.

In the article, she calls on the chancellor to use the new industrial strategy he is to unveil in his budget this autumn budget to empower local areas to act to drive growth and for spending on technology and infrastructure to be rebalanced to help struggling regions.

She also calls for the troubled universal credit scheme to be reformed, writing that the budget gives the government an opportunity to prove they are truly on the side of people who are struggling.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond will deliver his autumn budget on Wednesday 22nd November.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Local mental health charity fights to stay in business.

In September, North Staffs Voice for Mental Health was informed by the two Clinical Commissioning Groups covering the Stoke-on-Trent area that its funding would not be continued.

The charity, formerly known as North Staffs Users Group, has been helping local people to access mental health services for twenty- five years. It has offices Dudson Centre and at Harplands Hospital and sends representatives to several NHS committees and has been praised by the CCG for its positive contribution.

North Staffs Voice also has a small full -time staff who attend drop in centres around the city supported by volunteers. The removal of funding puts their jobs and the continued existence of the group at risk.

In a bid to prevent closure the charity has been working on a fundraising strategy, as part of which it has put a bid for funding in to the Aviva Community Fund.

Chair of Trustees Adam Colclough said, ‘the bid was put together by one of our members totally off her own back and this shows what a wonderful and proactive group of volunteers we have.’

He added that ‘it would be a great shame if an organisation with the important role we play in helping people to access services were to cease to exist. Everyone from the Chief Executive on down is working hard to ensure this does not happen.’

The charity is seeking £10,000+ in funding and supporters can vote for its application to the Aviva Community Fund at:

Voting closes on 21st November.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Bus changes could put us on the road to nowhere.

What came first, the bus or the passengers? That is less of a trick question than it might at first seem.

First Potteries have announced another round of cuts to their services, with routes from Longton to Hanley (6) and Newcastle to Ball Green (98) among those affected. The company has blamed a ‘continual downturn' in passenger numbers in the evenings and on Sundays for forcing the change.

Speaking to the Sentinel over the weekend First Managing Director Nigel Eggleton said he ‘understood' the changes would ‘not be well received', but added that it was ‘neither practical or cost effective to run busses with no-one travelling on them'.

Responding to the cuts Councillor Daniel Jellyman, cabinet member for transport, also speaking to the Sentinel said the council was ‘naturally disappointed' and they are contacting other operators to see if they will take on the journeys that are being removed, adding that ‘bus operators are private businesses' and will only run busses ‘if it is good for their business'.

Public transport isn’t sexy; but politicians ignore it at their peril, because when the system fails it can open the door to some truly ugly problems.

If older people feel trapped in their homes because they can’t get into town then their health may decline, putting pressure on our tottering social care services. The lack of a reliable bus service could be a barrier to people finding and staying in work, adding to existing social and economic inequalities.

You don’t need to be Professor Brian Cox to understand the physics of what happens when you give the first in a line of dominoes a push. There is though a certain sort of politician who manages to ignore the obvious.

The sort that twitters brightly about attracting ‘young professionals’ to cities like Stoke-on-Trent to drive its regeneration. They usually do so as they gurn for the cameras at the launch of another plan to a build shopping mall or apartment development.

Their defining characteristic is an ignorance of their quarry and its habits to rival that of Elmer Fudd. The young professionals they hunt so determinedly belong to a generation that values authenticity and originality, the last place they want to live is another clone town.

They are also the greenest generation ever, to them an interconnected public transport system isn’t a nice to have optional extra; it’s a necessity.

Sadly, First Bus don’t have the ambition to create one, neither do the other important players, the train companied and the council. You can, perhaps, forgive businesses for ‘lets please the shareholders myopia’, but politicians without a vision are like fish out of water, all they do is flop around helplessly.

There is something rather sad about an Independent group that aspired to put trams on the streets when in opposition washing their hands Pilate style as the bus service dwindles to nothing now they’re in power.

First say they have a long -term strategy for creating a ‘sustainable’ bus network for the area; their passengers may take some convincing. The changes are set to come into force next month.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Labour must learn that winning an election is a marathon not a lap of honour.

These must be ‘epic' times in which to be a Labour activist. The party's conference in Brighton this week is shaping up to be something of a celebration, rather than the cross between a cat fight and a wake everyone was expecting.

In many respects, it has been more like the sort of conference a party had in the Autumn before an election it is odds on to win, not after one it lost, if by less of a margin than expected.

The announcements of bold new policies have poured down from the platform, with shadow Chancellor John McDonnell pledging to help people ‘trapped’ by sky high credit card interest rates. He called on the government to apply a cap like that imposed on payday loan companies, saying that if they don’t so; then the next Labour government will.

Elsewhere there have been pledges to take PFI contracts back in-house, to renationalise the railways and utilities and to pour billions of pounds into the NHS. Residents of Islington who reported hearing a mysterious rumbling below ground can be reassured what they heard was just New Labour reaching optimal velocity in its casket as every one of the red lines it feared to cross was trampled into the dust.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, until recently the ‘dead man walking' of British politics he has been transfigured into the most unlikely Messiah figure since Brian himself. Every time he steps outside it is into a crowd scene of the sort Cecil B DeMille used to direct as the multitudes press forward to touch the garment of their idol.

Quite how this relates to the cross geography teacher persona he exudes in TV interviews or his low wattage speaking style I don’t know and nobody else seems to care.

Yes, these are glorious days for the faithful, it is a brilliant Indian summer and Labour is the sun warming their hopes.

I hate to be the wicked fairy at the christening, but there is a long way to go and a lot of pitfalls to face before, or if, they get across the finish line. Labour need to learn that winning an election is a marathon not a lap of honour.

Despite all the adulation and the gig at Glastonbury the flaws inherent to Corbyn and the movement he aspires to lead are very much still in place. Cheerfully amateurish chaos is an acceptable way to run your back office if you’re an insurgent disrupting the status quo, it’s a ticket to disaster if you aspire to run the country.

New Labour, for all their cynicism and sense of entitlement, were brilliant at being organised. That bought them a lot of credibility when they were seeking to displace Major's Tories, the tabloids like to stereotype the left as agents of chaos, Corbyn's neglect of the need to be organised gives them an open goal to aim at.

For all the applause, they get in Brighton this week, or from the CLP meetings that suddenly need to book a bigger room for the first time in years, those platform promises might yet become a millstone around the party’s collective neck.

Labour won praise for going into this year’s snap election with a manifesto that was both ambitiously left wing and fully coated. Their next effort will no doubt be less adventurous, the proximity to power always encourages caution.

That is sensible, a government in waiting should talk about what it can deliver, not what it would like to do. If it does want to do bold things, like renationalisation or buying back PFI; then they must be totally up front about how much it will cost and that we will all have to pay.

Labour deserve their moment in the sun, after years spent either gripped by the dead hand of Blairism or floundering in the wilderness, they suddenly look like a party with a purpose. Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for giving them a sense of direction and for being a conviction politician in a Parliament where many of his colleagues should just be convicted.

Charisma, particularly the fragile sort he has discovered of late, will only take Labour and its leader so far. Particularly if the Tories cling on for the next five years in the desperate hope that something, anything, will turn up.

Labour and the leader they never thought would take them so close to the prize should enjoy this unexpected lap of honour. Then get on with putting in the hard yards they need to if they want to win.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

‘Broken’ PIP assessment system isn’t working for people living with MS.

North Staffs Green Party today put its support behind a campaign by the Multiple Sclerosis Society calling for an improvement to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments.

A report published by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) this week has shown that PIP is not working for people living with long term medical conditions and disabilities.

Since the introduction of PIP in October 2013 people living with MS have lost some £6million in benefits.

Figures obtained by the MS Society from the Department of Work and Pensions show that between the introduction of PIP in 2013 and October 2016, 2600 people previously on the highest mobility component of the old Disability Living Allowance have had their payments cut; 800 people claiming the highest care component on the old system have also lost out.

The report shows that over half the people who responded to a survey conducted by the DBC felt that DWP assessors didn’t properly understand their condition. Three quarters of respondents said that applying for PIP had caused them levels of anxiety that made their condition worse.

MS Society Director of External Affairs Genevieve Edwards said’ these staggering figures show how PIP is failing people with MS who need the highest level of support’.

She added that it ‘doesn’t make sense that people are losing money they once qualified for when they are living with a progressive condition’.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said, ‘this is another example of the government cutting support for vulnerable people for no good reason, the impact of PIP stress on the physical and mental health of claimants even if they are successful can be hugely damaging’.

The MS society are calling on the government to reform what they describe as a ‘broken’ system.

Adam Colclough said, ‘as a party we are fully behind the MS Society in this campaign and will be supporting them locally in any way we can’.

The campaign is set to last for six weeks.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Discussion paper highlights more roads are not the answer to city’s traffic problems.

Building more roads is not the answer to solving Stoke-on-Trent’s traffic problems says North Staffs Green Party Coordinator Jan Zablocki in a newly published discussion paper.

The paper highlights the local and global impact of traffic congestion and the air pollution it causes, citing World Health Organisation figures showing that globally air pollution causes 467,000 premature deaths every year. In the UK, the Institute for Public Policy Research described the air quality in London as ‘both lethal and illegal’, and linking it to 9000 premature deaths.

The report also highlights the rapid growth in the number of cars on Britain’s roads, up by 680,00 from 31.1 million in 2012 to 37.5 million today. This has caused congestion on A roads across the country with average speeds falling to less than 20mph, in Stoke-on-Trent they are as low as 18.5mph.

Locally traffic congestion has led to air quality levels in the city being in excess of UK and EU safe limits with particular hotspots in Meir, Basford, Weston Coyney and Bentilee. Author Jan Zablocki draws parallels between the health implications of traffic pollution and the levels of illness faced by generations living before the 1956 Clean Air Act.

In the second part of the paper he demonstrates how a fully integrated transport system, linking rails, bus and tram networks through a ‘hub’ on Festival Park along with improved facilities for walking and cycling could drive improvements in public health and strengthen the local economy.

Campaigns Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party Adam Colclough described the discussion paper as ‘an impressive analysis of the problems we have now that leads on to highly credible suggestions as to how we can turn things around’.

He added that ‘in the two parliamentary elections we fought this year sorting out the city’s transport system was a major issue. Only the Green Party has shown the imagination to suggest an alternative to building more roads, we have also, as this paper demonstrates, advanced a clear and workable alternative.’
At the 2017 general election the Green Party campaigned on a manifesto proposing to take the railways back into public ownership, improve regional rail networks and to improve the overall quality and accessibility of public transport. The Greens also pledged to invest in low traffic neighbourhoods, improving facilities for walking and cycling and to tackle air pollution.

Jan Zablocki will be taking part in a broadcast on Staffslive Radio presented by Adam Gratton on Wednesday 20th September at 11.30am during which he will be discussing his paper and the Green Party’s transport policy.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Cash ‘leaking’ from the NHS through cost of PFI

A report from the Centre for Health and Public Interest (CHPI) published today highlights the huge cost of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes to the NHS.

PFI is a government backed scheme under which private companies provide money to build new hospitals paid back with interest by the NHS.

The report examined 107 PFI contracts in England and found that the companies involved have generated £831million over the past six years. This money, CHPI say would have been better spent on patient services.

In their report, they call for a cap on PFI costs and for the government to buy out contracts where private companies are making too much profit at the expense of taxpayers.

Speaking to the BBC CHPI chair Colin Leys said the report showed for the first time ‘the huge amount of taxpayer’s money leaking out of the NHS’ through PFI costs.

He added that given the ‘extreme austerity’ faced by NHS services the government needs to act urgently.

Commenting on the CHPI report British Medical Association council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said NHS providers and commissioners were ‘being pushed to breaking point’ by the cost of PFI.

He described the scheme as an ‘extortionate drain on the public purse’, and said that private companies were ‘gaining at the expense of tax-payers and patients’, something he said was ‘scandalous’.

Dr Nagpaul backed the call by CHPI for the government to either renegotiate or buy out PFI contracts.

Speaking to the BBC a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that the NHS was recognised by the independent Commonwealth Fund as being ‘the most efficient healthcare system in the world’, and that PFI costs accounted for just 3% of its annual budget.

Despite the attempts to persuade patients and voters alike differently on the part of the Department of Health this report will have struck a chord with anyone who has used an NHS hospital over the twenty years since PFI was launched.

The buildings may have been transformed from institutional monoliths into the sort of slick architecture that wins prizes, this though, has come at a price.

Private finance has muscled its way into the once sacred turf of the NHS, either in the shape of PFI or retail outlets turning the foyers of hospitals into another place to shop or sip coffee.

There is a real risk this may pave the way for privatization by the back door, if Costa can sell you a coffee while you wait to have your ingrown toenail fixed, why can’t Virgin provide the chiropodist who sorts it out?

That is a question the founders of the NHS would have been shocked to hear asked, because they know that behind it lurks the much more troubling one of how do the people who can’t afford a skinny latte, let alone the cost of falling ill, pay for their healthcare in a system where the hospitals all look like hotels.