TAP News - Issue 6. Benefit Sanctions, Conflicts of Interest, Youth Crime and Fuel Poverty - the battle for justice for all continues and becomes ever more needed

23 May 2018

BENEFIT SANCTIONS, CONFLICTS OF INEREST, YOUTH CRIME AND FUEL POVERTY

1.The Work and Pensions Committee of MPs has published TAP's evidence to their benefit sanctions inquiry in which we make the following recommendation.

TAP has also emailed each member of the committee the index to the nine blogs on health equality and snail mailed them all a hard copy of DEBT DEATH & DEADWEIGHT

Frank Field (Chair)Labour  Heidi AllenConservative  Andrew BowieConservative  Jack BreretonConservative  Alex BurghartConservative  Neil CoyleLabour  Emma Dent CoadLabour  Ruth GeorgeLabour  Steve McCabeLabour  Nigel MillsConservative  Chris StephensScottish National Party

"The State ought never to stop the income of a citizen. The consequences for their health and wellbeing of such extreme and draconian punishment are too serious and can be fatal. The current administrative procedures for imposing benefit sanctions in Job Centres ought therefore to be abolished and replaced by procedures similar to the imposition of fines.The Department for Work and Pensions should be enabled to prosecute claimants in open court, where all the facts can be taken into account and justice can be seen to be done when there has been a wilful refusal to seek work."

Magistrates are required to make the fines proportionate to income after taking all the facts, lke health, are taken into account leaving enough income for food and fuel and other necessities.

2. Enough is enough. TAP article in The Mint, a magazine which explores the UK economy ten years after the crash.

The cost of the UK’s inadequate income support is huge. The answer staring in our face is the existence of huge amounts of unearned wealth sitting in land values... Rev Paul Nicolson writes.

The UK has never been generous with its benefits system. In 2008, Tim Harford of the Financial Times reported on research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that showed that member governments spent an average of 0.75% of gross domestic product on unemployment benefits. In 2006, France spent nearly twice this and Germany almost three times as much, while the United States spent a third of the average and the United Kingdom just a quarter. Germany spent more than ten times as much as the UK relative to GDP. With “austerity” it has only got worse. The cost of very inadequate incomes is huge for the taxpayer, employers as is the human cost for families and individuals. 

3. THE CONFLICT OF INTEREST WHEN COUNCILS PAY AUDITORS TO UNDERTAKE THE AUDIT OF THEIR ACCOUNTS

Letter to Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee:

‘I note with great interest your recommendation in Chapter 3 of your Carillion Report, and suggest it is also applicable to Local Authorities. 

"213.We recommend that the Government refers the statutory audit market to the Competition and Markets Authority. The terms of reference of that review should explicitly include consideration of both breaking up the Big Four into more audit firms, and detaching audit arms from those providing other professional services."   

At our meeting about council-tax court costs with Grant Thornton on 5 June 2015, I raised concerns about the conflict of interest in my case, that is, that Haringey Council was paying Grant Thornton to audit its accounts. This is from the minutes of that meeting:

“Paul Nicolson said that, because of Taxpayers Against Poverty’s widespread support, inevitably, somebody would ask about any potential conflict of interest in Grant Thornton undertaking this inquiry. SE explained that Grant Thornton, as independently appointed auditors, works to a Code of Practice within a legislative framework, and that they would be performing a clear statutory role. PN thanked her for this reassurance. SE confirmed that the costs of Grant Thornton undertaking this inquiry would be met by Haringey Borough Council.”

The background to this request is that, as a result of TAP’s intervention, Haringey Council had to reduce its council-tax court costs after they had been audited by Grant Thornton. That meant 20,000 residents a year had been overcharged – but the auditors refused to issue a report in the public interest.’

We have subsequently heard that auditing of local-authority accounts by private-sector accountancy companies will be included in the Labour Party review set up by John McDonnell MP, but have not yet had a reply to the above letter from Frank Field MP.

4. BLOG ABOUT YOUTH CRIME & HELPING END IT. 

The police rightly arrest them for criminal activity. I suggest we need to create a parallel system of rewards for participation in schemes financed by the Mayor's initiative. 

Last weekend in Tottenham we were briefed by representatives of City Hall about applying for grants to fund projects which will support young people in London.(Kahn promises £15mpa to tackle youth crime).

I was involved in such a project in Stevenage in the early 1970's. Young men were returning from borstal after they had been involved in a murder when fighting another gang. There were two key differences making that project easier to run than now. There were no benefit sanctions and the individuals' benefit was worth double its current value. They were allowed to a keep a benefit they could live on if they participated in the project, which was making wooden cut-outs of animal shapes for primary schools. The police must always arrest people for criminal activity but there needs to be a parallel system of rewards for young people when they participate in the Mayors projects and abandon the drug trade; it is all too easy to deliver cocaine at £50 a trip on a bike, several times a week, to middle class and wealthy people.

The presentation from City Hall was well intended, but very bureaucratic, and it lacked a clear sense of direction. The nettle that must be grasped is this: how can young men and women currently running or taking an active part in criminal gangs be brought into a positive relationship with the community? The police rightly arrest them for criminal activity. I suggest we need to create a parallel system of rewards for participation in schemes financed by the Mayor’s initiative. 

That will need co-operation between local projects and Job Centres. Frank Field’s Work and Pensions Committee has a benefit-sanctions inquiry at the moment and perhaps they could make some recommendations – but the sooner the better. This is from the evidence that the aforementioned committee has received. 

“She had been sanctioned for failing to tell the Job Centre that she would not be attending a meeting, even though she was in full-time education at the time and had told them both in person and by phone that she would not be able to attend.”

In 1973, the Stevenage Youth Workshop offered young offenders activity immediately they came out of prison. It was not compulsory, but they were referred by the Probation Service. I arranged for the Job Centre (DSS) to let the Stevenage gang keep their benefits as long as they were attending the Workshop.  

Here and now, in Tottenham, young people ought to be exempted from the benefit sanction by the Job Centre ​when the organisers of a project approved by City Hall inform the Job Centre they are regularly attending the project. 

And not only that – I have said so often that the single adult unemployment benefit at £73.10pw is hopelessly inadequate. Its value in 1973 was double what it is now. The £73.10pw ought to be increased to £100 when young people participate in an approved project. The comventional objection to that will be that they will spend the money on drugs. That won’t do. There are nearly four million people in the UK receiving those benefits (see ONS BEN01). The principle should be make sure everyone has the minimum income needed for good health and then to deal with the alcoholics and drug addicts, who are found at every level of income.  

Unless that connection between the Job Centre and the projects is made, the depth of poverty young people experience thanks to low benefits and sanctions will continue to push them towards assembling to fight for the lucrative drug trade. It is oh-so-easy to deliver a parcel of heroin at, say, £50 a time on a bike several times a week – and a lot more lucrative than what is provided via the Job Centre or a zero-hours contract. 

My sympathies are with the deprived parents of so many young people – they simply do not have the income to provide their children with a decent life. Through no fault of their own, the parents are often struggling with rent and council tax arrears, plus other debts and consequent stress.    

There is another very serious reason why the single adult benefit ought to be increased: it is far too low to provide a healthy diet for women before and during pregnancy, which adds to the risk of low birth weight and permanent developmental brain disorder in womb and their babies. I am on the advisory council of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition. Babies with low birth weight account for between 10 and 12% of those born in Haringey’s Northumberland Park ward.

 

5. FUEL POVERTY ACTION – CLADDING CAMPAIGN

TAP is supporting Fuel Poverty Action and this is their latest update for subscribers, and press release

The government has now offered £400 million to re-clad tower blocks in social housing only. This is hugely welcome, but there are many issues it has not dealt with. Leaseholders, at least in private blocks, are still being asked to fund their own re-cladding or to continue to live in a fire-trap, and we have evidence that many cannot afford their monthly heating bills, let alone find tens of thousands for capital investment in their buildings. 

Social-housing tenants are being left unprotected when cladding on their building has been removed but not yet replaced. This causes severe cold, damp and mould, as well as astronomical heating bills in the winter months. There are also unanswered questions, including whether the new cladding will be just as flammable. 

Theresa May promised that details of the government’s offer would be released by the Secretary of State last week. They have not yet appeared. We are waiting for these details before updating our Open Letter. We will send that to subscribers as soon as it is ready, and hope you will be able to support it. In the meantime, it would be great to hear from you, to discuss how we might move forward with this. 

Press release

It is a breakthrough that, after months of refusing to do so, the government has finally agreed to fund the replacement of flammable cladding on social-housing tower blocks. It is offering £400 million for the cladding, and, we presume, insulation. This should significantly speed up the process

This breakthrough is largely the result of pressure from grassroots organisers, beginning with Grenfell survivors who, in the worst conditions, have still included the fate of other tower-block residents in their concerns.   

However, it is not nearly enough. Having conceded the principle, the government should now commit to fully covering the cost of the disaster that has been revealed by the Grenfell fire.

Inadequate regulation and inspection regimes have led to dangerous buildings across the UK. Residents must be fully protected from fire – and from cold – immediately and until the completion of works.   

Fuel Poverty Action has, since January, been running the campaign Safe Cladding and Insulation Now (SCIN) and has gathered support for 10 demands from a very wide range of grassroots organisations, trade unions, and MPs, with more coming in every day. The Prime Minister’s statement represents significant progress in that direction. However,

1) Private blocks are not covered. Leaseholders in these blocks often have trouble meeting their existing heating bills, and many already go cold each winter. Now they have been asked to fund re-cladding projects, costing tens of thousands each, or to accept continuing to live in fire-trap homes. We are working with them. This crisis was not of their making, and there is no justice in a proposal that penalises some residents.

2) There is no mention, so far, of student residences, schools, or hospitals clad in the same materials, nor of buildings below the arbitrary 18m height limit. Will that be in James Brokenshire’s announcement?

3) Cold, like fire, kills. Every year, thousands die each year when they cannot heat their homes. Residents in many blocks already going through re-cladding know that when cladding is off in the winter, uninsulated flats are places of constant cold, condensation, damp and mould, and astronomical heating bills.

4) BBC research in December last year found that the cost of planned post-Grenfell fire-safety measures for councils and housing associations alone had already reached £600 million – a figure said to be likely to be a considerable underestimate. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government handed back £817 million to the Treasury in unspent cash (originally earmarked for Starter Homes, affordable homes and estate regeneration).

5) The other demands of our campaign remain crucially important, including proper consultation with residents, and immediate safe, good permanent housing in the area of their choice for all Grenfell survivors.

6) Funding alone will not prevent the same thing happening in the future. Tighter regulations need to be combined with accountability, and with the will and the capacity to monitor and inspect. New and refurbished homes should be safe and well insulated in practice, not just in theory.

7) Crucially, the health and safety of residents must not be sacrificed during the process that the government now promises to fund. Works have gone on for months; some are scheduled for completion in nearly two years’ time, with housing way below any legal decent-homes standards, and families constantly ill in the meantime. Some local authorities, more than others, have taken steps to mitigate this nightmare. Will the government now guarantee that every possible measure will be taken to ensure residents’ safety and health during the process of re-cladding? Will they fund such a guarantee? And will they set deadlines for removal – and replacement – of cladding and insulation to ensure there are no further delays? The time for this work to happen is now – while the weather is warm.

 

We await James Brokenshire’s statement this week with great interest.

 

 


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