About time too: the government backs down over Universal Credit helpline charges

The Prime Minister last week (18/10/17) confirmed today that all charges to the Universal Credit helpline will be ended and that the helpline will be a Freephone number.  About time, too.  The decision to charge the poorest of the poor up to 55p per minute shows what an ugly mind set exists in the Department of Work and Pensions and amongst those Ministers responsible, including those who defended this nasty, mean spirited charge as recently as last week.

Yet the government presses on regardless with the roll out of Universal Credit in spite of all the evidence that exists to show hardship being caused, and the rising level of arrears.

It won’t be long before the government will have to climb down, but the longer they persist and defend this policy, the more humiliating the climb down will be, and Mrs May’s government, as with Mrs Thatcher and the Poll Tax, might leave the climb down too late.

I have posted a Vlog on the politics of Universal Credit (posted before the decision to introduce a Freephone was announced).

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The Whitehawk Inn: My statement about the possible closure

It is with great sadness that we at BHT have had to give notice to the clients of the Whitehawk Inn, Brighton and Hove City Council, partner organisations and other supporters that this much-loved and valuable service may have to close at the end of March 2018.

The economic climate within which we operate is not getting any easier, and the charitable funding towards core costs that previously supported services such as the Whitehawk Inn is now almost impossible to secure.

Since the Whitehawk Inn has been part of BHT, we have explored possible funding opportunities, but with limited success.

A final decision is yet to be made. It is a decision that is not being taken lightly and is one that is the cause of distress to our Board members, senior staff and, not least, our staff team and clients at the Whitehawk Inn.

There will be an impact on the East Brighton community, and many people who tend not to access other services will be particularly affected. With the arrival of universal credit, the loss of our services, often run in partnership with others, will mean that some people will end up without the support, advice and guidance they might need.

We are, of course, open to suggestions as to how a viable future can be secured for the service, to operate either within or external to BHT, and how the closure could be avoided. Please feel free to email me with any ideas or comments you may have.

The Argus ran a very sympathetic item today (20th October 2017) quoting several people who said what the Whitehawk Inn means to them and to the wider community in East Brighton. You can find that article here.

The government shows disdain for the wishes of Parliament on Universal Credit

The National Landlords Association has surveyed its members on their attitude to housing tenants who are on Universal Credit.  80% said they were reluctant to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit or Universal Credit.

Since the government isn’t funding anywhere like enough homes to rent, and since more well-off families are able to take advantage of schemes like Help to Buy, can someone please tell me where will people on Universal Credit live if landlords in the private rented sector won’t house them?

I am writing every day about the unfolding catastrophe that is Universal Credit.  People are left in debt, selling off their possessions to keep the lights on, relying on foodbanks, getting into rent arrears, and becoming homeless.

Today in the House of Commons a vote calling on the government to pause the roll out of Universal  Credit was passed by 299 votes to nil.  The government ordered its Members of Parliament to abstain.

House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow MP

The Speaker, John Bercow, advised ministers to take account of the “clearly expressed” wishes of the House of Commons, and to “show respect for the institution” by indicating what they intend to do.  Don’t hold your breath, Mr Bercow.

The UK parliament is supposed to be the “Mother of all Parliaments” yet the government shows disdain for the institution by ordering its side to abstain and will, in all likelihood, ignore the vote.

This isn’t a democracy.  This smacks of a dictatorship.  My Conservative friends should be hanging their heads in shame at the disrespect to the wishes Parliament and the misery and suffering that Universal Credit is causing.

Theresa May’s Housing Summit looks likely to be more of the same old same old ….

Yesterday (17 October 2017) Theresa May held a housing summit at No 10 Downing Street. Those in attendance included the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Local Government Association, the National Housing Federation, the Housebuilders Federation and larger housing associations.

They said that the Prime Minister was in “listening mode”.

While Mrs May said she could not guarantee that all suggestions would be £80, she’s reported to say that there is a collective will government to do more to increase housebuilding.

David Montague, the chief executive of one of the largest housing association groups, L&Q, said: “It was an honest discussion about what needs to be done: what the barriers were, how we can work together to overcome those barriers, the importance of flexibility, the importance of partnership, the importance of investment in skills, the importance of delivering land.”

And here is the crucial bit, with my emphasis.  He said: “We’re speaking a common language now and that hasn’t always been the way. This is a Tory government. They want to give voters what they say voters want, which is to own their own home, and the conversation starts and ends with homeownership, but there is a complete understanding that not everybody can afford their own home so we’ve got to invest across all tenures if we’re going to build more homes.”

I despair.  Mrs May recently announced a £10 billion boost for the Help to Buy scheme – public subsidy for private ownership.  The modest £2 billion for social and ‘affordable’ housing will see just 5,000 homes built per annum.  We need homes for rent at social rent levels. And what we get is more of the same old same old. This won’t help to achieve “a country that works for everyone”.

Tackling the housing crisis, and the need to build homes that people can afford to rent, feels further away today than ever.

More confusion in housing policy at the heart of government

There is a complete contradiction in the government rent policy for housing associations.

The background is that George Osborne, when Chancellor, tore up a previous agreement that allowed rent increases bed on the retail price index +0.5%, replacing it with a 1% year on year reduction until 2020. The only real winner was not tenants but the Treasury.

The government subsequently announced that rents in social housing will capped at Local Housing Allowance (LHA) levels. The original design of LHA was to reflect the market, being set at the 30th centile for private sector rents charged in a locality. However, the freeze means that there is no longer any correlation between actual rents and what people can claim in housing benefit.

Most recently, the government announced the rent settlement for the five years from April 2020. Once again will be allowed to rise by RPI +1%. This news has understandably been welcomed by landlords.

However, the government has left the LHA freeze in place. This means that tenants will have to make up the difference between LHA and the increasing rents where rents are higher than LHA.

Fortunately this will not apply in my own organisation, BHT, as we are committed to charging core rents within LHA levels.

The government must lift the LHA freeze and increase it so that it accurately reflects changes in the market.

This is yet another example of confused government policy which causes hardship amongst the poorest of the poor, or it will do unless the government thinks through its housing policies and acts now.

One of David Cameron’s legacies is increasing rates of alcohol-related deaths

(This item first appeared in the Brighton Argus on 7th October 2017)

Research from the Foundation for Liver Research has found that there has been a 17% increase in liver-related hospital admissions since 2010/11. Alcohol-related liver disease now accounts for 60% of all liver disease and 84% of liver-related deaths.

Over the next five years, according to the Foundation, there will be 63,000 deaths and 4.2 million hospital admissions, costing £17 billion, unless current tends are reversed.

The Foundation has called for the tougher regulation of alcohol marketing and advertising, and for off-licence hours to be restricted to 10am to 10pm

David Cameron

Introducing a minimum unit cost of 50p would save 3,393 lives a year and reduce the cost of alcohol-related problems by £9.7 billion.

David Cameron, when Prime Minister, initially said he would support a minimum unit cost for alcohol, only to do a U-turn when lobbied by the alcohol industry. Back in 2013 I wrote:

David Cameron was in favour of a minimum unit price but appears to have been persuaded by others to go silent on the matter. I am sure that, when presented with the case for a minimum unit price by someone like Dr Sarah Wollaston (a Conservative MP and former GP), he will see the moral, economic and health case, and act accordingly. Politicians often worry about their legacy. David Cameron has the opportunity to have a legacy that includes saving thousands of lives.

Cameron tragically wasn’t persuaded by Dr Wollaston.  His U-turn and his failure to act when he had the chance and power to do so, has created a legacy. Iraq is Blair’s legacy; increasing alcohol-related deaths is one of Cameron’s.