Monday, 11 December 2017

Universal Credit promises a bleak Christmas for millions of people in our disunited kingdom.

The Christmas season is with us again and tinsel is being hung from trees as the internet glows with thousands of individual clicks, each one a present bring bought, setting the virtual tills ringing like sleigh bells.

Behind the saccharine vision presented in the television adverts of major retailers there is another Britain and its inhabitants aren’t likely to have a happy holiday thanks to the government’s determination to introduce Universal Credit at all costs.

‘The Austerity Generation', a report written for the Child Poverty Action Group by Josephine Tucker and based on analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research has labelled Universal Credit as being ‘poverty producing'.

Despite improvements announced in the budget the charity says Universal Credit will push a million more children into poverty by 2020, 900,000 of whom will fall into extreme poverty.

Working families on low incomes will, the report says, lose £420 a year through the introduction of Universal Credit. Families where a member is disabled will be out of pocket by £300 under Universal Credit, if the disability is severe this could rise to £530.

The CPAG report concludes that a decade of cuts to social security has hit families hard, particularly those that were already at risk of falling into poverty.

Criticism has also been levelled at DWP for its decision to close the helpline for claimants over the Christmas period. In a letter to the prime minister Frank Field, chair of the commons work and pensions committee wrote that the thought of claimants potentially being made destitute as a result was ‘deeply troubling.’

In response, the department of work and pensions said that it was usual for government offices to close over Christmas and that payments would be brought forward. Given the so far problematic roll out of Universal Credit their optimism is unlikely to be shared by claimants.

Problems accessing Universal Credit may be a factor behind the rise in the number of people using food banks. In December 2016, the Trussell Trust who run food banks across the country provided 146,798 three- day food parcels with 61,093 of those going to hungry children. This year demand is expected to be even higher.

Interim chief executive Mark Ward said this Christmas ‘will not be a time of celebration' for many struggling families.

Research conducted by the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust shows that female and BME claimants will also lose out significantly under Universal Credit. The report suggests that 2.2million female claimants who are in work could lose an average of £1400 a year, those who are out of work stand to lose a average of £600 a year; female BME claimants stand to lose the most with their income falling by £1500.

Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack said the report ‘lays bare the cruelty of the system', and that it punishes ‘women simply for being women'. She went on to describe Universal Credit as ‘nothing more than an attack on Britain’s most vulnerable people’.

The Green Party advocates the introduction of a universal basic income as a more effective way of tackling poverty. Ms Womack said the party was calling on the government to scrap Universal Credit and ‘invest in a universal basic income trial instead, which would make more of a difference to families living in poverty’.

The government may have gone into the huge social experiment that is Universal Credit with noble intentions to end poverty and make work play. Deep flaws in the plan itself and a shambolic roll out have robbed the scheme of any trace of legitimacy.

Trialling a universal basic income may be too radical a step for a government lacking direction. It is though looking ever more like an idea that merits at least serious investigation as the number of people forced into poverty by a dysfunctional economy continues to grow.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Leadership? You must be MAD.

What the world needs now is more mad leaders, a worrying proposition in the age of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Thankfully in this instance it stands for ‘make a difference'.

On a chilly Thursday evening Professor Rune Todnem explained in a public lecture held as part of Staffordshire University’s popular ‘Profs in the Pav' series how everything we think we know about leadership is wrong.

Todnem is an academic from the funkier end of the spectrum, a balding Norwegian with a hipster beard and a taste for waistcoats and red Doc Martens. Throughout the forty-five-minute lecture he works the room with the easy charm of an alternative comedian.

This trendiness shouldn’t distract from his academic credentials, he holds professorial posts at Staffordshire and Stavanger universities and is the co-editor of a respected journal. More to the point he has something genuinely important to say.

What we think about leadership is, Todnem argues, limited by stereotypes and an attachment to the idea that it is an activity practiced by a special elite cadre. The ‘great man’ is still on his throne even though his legitimacy has been in question for decades while the rest of us grumble away in the language of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

We need, he says, a more modern and humane conception of what leadership means, one that encourages us to moan less and ask more questions instead. To emphasise the ‘ship’ in leadership, seeing it as an enterprise involving collaboration.

This requires ‘decoupling’ leadership from power, since the latter is all too often politicised or misused. Ending our obsession with targets would be a good idea too, music to the ears of anyone who has been involved with business, or worse yet politics and knows just how many things get done just because they’re what we always do.

Leadership on both an individual and organisational level needs to be more linked to purpose, this has to go beyond just making a profit and add real value to the community. What counts, Todnem argues is how much of a difference our actions make, this releases energy and creativity that gets lasting results.

For all his quirky image and a delivery style peppered with self- deprecating humour Rune Tundem has a serious point to make. Leadership is in crisis in almost every field, the people, usually men, who get to the top lack conviction in every area apart from their own entitlement.

Change is certainly needed; quite how likely it is to come any time soon isn’t at all clear. Leaders of the old school are remarkably tenacious when it comes to clinging on to power.

Those of us lower down on the hierarchical totem pole are often complicit in helping them to do so. Complaining about the people who lead us is easier than taking on the collective responsibility necessitated by this new style of leadership.

Keep a tight hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse, is an old saying that neatly encapsulates our modern curse. We all feel that something should be done, we just don’t want to take the risks involved in doing it.

Rune Todnem is an important thinker and he has suggested a better and more rewarding way of leading ourselves to a better future.

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.