Tag Archives: John Major

Yes, the NHS has PFI debts – but put the blame where it’s due… on the TORIES

Okay, the image is a little out of date, but the message is clear: The blame for the crisis in the NHS lies squarely with the Conservative governments – of Theresa May, certainly, but also of John Major, David Cameron, and now of Boris Johnson.

The legacy of the harm done to the National Health Service by the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major has been brought into sharp focus by a new think tank report.

The IPPR think tank has published research showing that NHS trusts will have to pay out £55 billion to Private Finance Initiative (PFI) investors by 2050, having already paid £25 billion.

PFI was used extensively by the New Labour government of Tony Blair to bring desperately-needed investment into the NHS after the Tories bled the service dry.

Hospitals were found to be in severe disrepair and treatments badly underfunded when the Blair administration came into office in 1997, and PFI was considered the only option to restore the service to full functionality.

In total, £13 billion was invested in the NHS during the New Labour years. This will cost the service an eye-watering £80 billion by the time the contracts end in 2050.

It might have been possible to pay these off without difficulty, if Labour had stayed in power. But, as we know, that did not happen.

The Conservatives slithered back into office in 2010, supported by their nasty little yellow helpers, the Liberal Democrats, and NHS funding began to fall at once.

The introduction of private, profit-making companies into the publicly-funded health provider meant billions of pounds were siphoned off into the bank accounts of shareholders, rather than being used to treat patients.

And a huge amount of money has been used in litigation after certain private companies took to the courts to contest failures to gain contracts.

So, while the Tories have been able to claim that investment has increased, real-terms funding for the health service has fallen.

It is in this context that we see health trusts have been burdened with an obligation to use around one-sixth of their annual budgets paying off PFI debts.

It would be easy to blame New Labour for the fact that NHS trusts have been falling into debt. It would also be wrong.

New Labour did what it had to, in order to ensure continuity of care – and to keep healthcare up to date.

It was the Conservatives who forced New Labour into PFI by starving the NHS to the bone, and it is the Conservatives who are forcing the NHS into debt – once again by starving it of funds.

This is evidenced by the fact that the Department of Health has raided £4.1 billion from the NHS’s capital funding budget – which should repair the service’s buildings, build new facilities and buy new equipment – simply to pay day-to-day running costs.

Make no mistake – PFI was a bad idea when John Major introduced it to government budgeting strategies, and Tony Blair should never have been put in a position where it was the most acceptable choice to fund the NHS.

But if we’re going to blame anyone for the current situation, blame the Conservatives – because they deserve it.

Source: NHS hospital trusts to pay out further £55bn under PFI scheme | Politics | The Guardian

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Challenge to Parliament suspension rejected. Johnson will have a job to do, though… 

This Writer predicted that Gina Miller’s high court challenge against Boris Johnson’s five-week prorogation of Parliament would fail, and I was right.

I was also right about the challenge in the Scottish courts, which also failed – so I’ve scored two-for-two.

It shouldn’t worry anybody.

Boris Johnson has painted himself into a corner.

Parliament has decided that the UK cannot leave the EU without a satisfactory withdrawal agreement – or at least, it will have done so by the time the suspension comes into force.

As Mr Johnson seems not to want to start a new session afterwards, but to have a general election instead, he has an opportunity to use all this extra time by securing just such an agreement.

That’s if he still wants the UK to leave the EU on October 31, of course. If he doesn’t – and we don’t – then his premiership will be confirmed as the biggest failure of any UK prime minister’s, ever.

(It already is, but this will confirm it.)

Brussels has said it is still waiting for any overture at all from Mr Johnson.

It will be interesting to see if he can be bothered to do anything – or if he has already given up.

Source: Brexit: Challenge to UK Parliament suspension rejected – BBC News

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Major’s intervention on Universal Credit is welcome – but the only time Tories show ‘heart’ is when they’re threatened

Unlike John Major, current PM Theresa May is perfectly happy for Universal Credit to harm the vulnerable [Image: Getty].


It is nice to hear Sir John Major’s criticism of his party’s handling of Universal Credit – but doesn’t it strike you as cynical that he is being heard saying it now?

It is as though the Conservative Party is staging a set-piece – here’s a grandee of the party, a former prime minister no less, calling on the current regime to be less “unforgiving” to the less-fortunate.

And we’re supposed to believe that Theresa May and David Gauke will listen.

The idea, one imagines, is that we’ll only notice they haven’t done anything a few months – and a few more thousand deaths – down the line.

Sir John Major has branded the Tories’ flagship welfare reform “operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”.

More than a dozen Tory MPs have urged ministers to pause the roll-out of the policy amid concerns that claimants could face delays in receiving money.

And Dame Louise Casey, the ex-head of the government’s troubled families team, warned it was like “jumping over a cliff” for people with no spare money.

Government figures show 23 per cent of new claimants do not receive their first full payment within six weeks, which has been linked to rent arrears and other debts for claimants.

A report reveals that among Universal Credit claimants who pay rent, 41 per cent are in arrears, with 82 per cent saying it is for the first time.

The study, carried out for the Department for Work and Pensions and revealed by the Sunday People, also shows large numbers are forced to borrow, with seven per cent turning to doorstep lenders and five per cent taking payday loans.

Almost 30 per cent rely on a loan from family and friends.

Calling for a review, Sir John wrote in the Mail on Sunday that though the overhaul is “theoretically impeccable”, it is “operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving.

“It is time for the Conservative Party to show its heart again, which is all too often concealed by its financial prudence. We are not living in normal times and must challenge innate Conservative caution”.

This Writer would very much like to see a Venn diagram showing how the percentages mentioned above intersect. How many people are in all the categories mentioned?

While the very poor are being forced to depend on loan sharks who charge huge interest rates, Sir John has been encouraging the government to take advantage of the very low rates available to it, to get the UK back on a firmer footing.

Sir John suggested that the Government could take advantage of low borrowing costs to fund investment in the country’s future.

“We must persuade the Treasury that – while the cost of long-term borrowing is low – there is an opportunity to vastly accelerate public development of infrastructure and, in particular, housing.

“Useful initiatives have been announced but we need to go further. if this increases public debt we should – and could – accept that (as I believe the markets will) provided annual revenue expenditure is kept under control.”

(Source: Universal Credit ‘operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving’ as ex-PM John Major latest Tory to slam the new system)

Doesn’t this demonstrate the madness of the Conservative government’s behaviour? The government of the UK won’t borrow, at historically low interest rates, for the good of the nation, but is instead forcing its most vulnerable citizens into debt and despair at the hands of the heartless.

Sir John’s appeal for the Tories to show their own heart only highlights the fact that his party only displays any kind of compassion at all when its members are desperate to cling on to power and think they might lose it.

For the official line on Universal Credit and its contribution to the UN’s decision that the UK is guilty of grave and systematic violations of the human rights of claimants (in particular, people with disabilities), here’s David Gauke running away from Steve Topple of The Canary.

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams has asked when – in the light of the latest developments, the government is going to act.

I think we can all answer that question for her: NEVER.


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The political wit and wisdom of Tom Baker

The great Tom Baker celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday, and the above image appeared on This Writer’s Twitter feed. Good old Tom – incisive as ever!

In a recent interview (Doctor Who Magazine #501, if you want to look it up – and you should because almost the entire magazine is devoted to interviews with him that are hilarious), Tom was asked what he makes of our current crop of politicians. His reply:

They’re mostly w***ers. I don’t think they have any ideas. They’re ruled by events. Like [Bertrand] Russell said, ‘Politics is largely governed by sententious platitudes’ – you know, we’re not allowed to know the reality.

Considering the amount of delusion currently being peddled over Brexit, for example, you can tell he has a point!

He continued:

It’s incredibly frightening. Christ, what will become of us? Never have… well, I can’t say never, because  in the late eighteenth century there was terrible contempt for Parliament… but right now, because we’re all in communication all the time, never have we all felt such utter contempt and mistrust of our governing class.

People say, ‘There’s an MP at the door? Well, kick his bollocks in!’

This may be the origin of the comment used in the image.

We’re living in tumultuous times. I could weep when I read terrible, crushing headlines about the mountain of grief in the world – how many people are crushed by poverty, how many people are uneducated, how many people are not getting proper schooling – but what can I do for them? I don’t have much of a future, in terms of time – so what can I do?

Asked about the EU referendum, Tom took a view that many of us may have wished other senior citizens should have taken:

I’m old, so it’s not my problem. When I’m asked if I’m going to vote Leave or Remain, it doesn’t agitate me either way, because I’m terribly aware that I won’t be here [to live through the consequences]. I’ll be dead. I’m resigned to that. I’m amazed, actually, that they allow old people to vote. It should be for the future generations to decide. I no longer care. Anyway, nobody knows, do they? Whether you vote Remain or Leave, in or out, nobody knows what the consequences will be.

The interviewer, Benjamin Cook, suggested that for many voters, it would be an emotional, rather than a logical response.

Yes, which I suppose is what most people do politically. You’re trying to do an informed thing, but from your heart. When the poor are shouting, ‘Down with the rich!’, I rather go along with that, because I’m very sympathetic to the poor, but you couldn’t have another mob over there, all very well-dressed, shouting, ‘Down with the bloody poor!’ The poor are beyond reproach. You’d have to have a heart of stone to criticise the poor.

One wonders whether Tom has every seen a Conservative MP discussing benefit claimants.

But when I see Mr Cameron… (shudders). He’s got a very pursed little mouth, hasn’t he? He hasn’t got the mouth of a leader, really. Nor has Jeremy Hunt [the Secretary of State for Health] – with that odious f***ing smirk of his. Why would you smirk? Oh, it’s vile.

We shan’t go too deeply into Tom’s speculations on whether Mr Cameron ever dallied with a pig’s head (“It’s an incredible story, isn’t it? Yes, if enough time has elapsed, you shouldn’t question it. Stories do get distorted over time… The imagination is the licence to trespass into areas that you wouldn’t do in real life. Perhaps with a pig”).

Instead, let’s go back to Hallowe’en 1992, and a very brief comment on the European Union as it was at the time, during an event at the Arnolfini arts centre in Bristol. I feel justified in publishing this because I asked the question to which Tom replied:

John Major [then-prime minister] says, ‘Britain will be at the heart of Europe.’

And it echoes out: ‘Heart of Europe, heart of Europe… heart of Europe.’

And then the echo comes back.

‘BOLLOCKS!’

How prescient Tom was! One might almost believe he really is the Time Lord he portrayed on television for seven years.

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It’s time to debunk a few common myths about the Labour Party

myth-busted

The Vox Political Facebook page has become a lively place over the last couple of days – mainly because of the presence of misinformed people purveying hand-me-down myths about Labour Party policies, accompanied by the odd troll who wants to cause mischief by supporting those beliefs, even though they know them to be false.

This makes it a frustrating place for Yr Obdt Srvt, who has had to respond to every other comment with a rehash of explanations provided to other people on other comment threads. It’s like trying to have a conversation in which you have to repeat yourself after every couple of sentences because you’re talking to people who keep coming out with the same – disproved – claims.

Clearly it is time to provide these people with a common point of reference, to which they may refer – it won’t shut up the trolls but at least they’ll look stupid if they’ve been given an answer and still carry on.

So! Let’s have a look at some of these claims.

1. “Labour voted to support the Bedroom Tax and it is hypocritical of them to oppose it now.”

Labour never – categorically NEVER – voted for the Bedroom Tax.

The entire Parliamentary Labour Party (barring possibly any who were ill or had some other reasonable excuse not to be present) voted against the Welfare Reform Act (which contains Bedroom Tax legislation) when it was pushed through Parliament in February 2012. Look up Hansard debates, February 21, where MPs’ speeches, and the way they voted, are reported verbatim.

Since then, the party’s campaigning against the Bedroom Tax has been constant.

If you have been making this claim, you stand corrected.

Do not come to this blog or the Vox Political Facebook page repeating that claim again.

In addition, you should now take responsibility for preventing other people from spreading that falsehood. If you spot anyone doing so, you just make sure they know the facts – along with everyone they’ve been misinforming.

2. “Labour has committed itself to following Coalition spending plans and is therefore no different from the Conservatives.”

The Tory spending limits myth is another one that has to be challenged at every turn because a lot of people misunderstand it.

Firstly, just because Labour has committed itself to keeping the same limit on its spending as the Tories, for one year only, does not mean that Labour will spend the money in exactly the same way!

Too many people make this assumption when there is absolutely no basis for it in fact – including some newspapers, it is sad to report. They got it wrong.

Secondly, government spending for the first year is tied down, to a certain extent, by commitments made by the previous administration. Once those are out of the way, it leaves the board clear for the new government to be as bold as it wants.

And, as the New Statesman has pointed out: “It is worth noting that Labour’s room for manoeuvre is greater than it might appear.

“First, the party’s pledge to match the coalition’s spending totals in 2015/16 does not mean that it has to spend each budget in the same way. In education, for instance, it could devote less funding to free schools and more to schools in areas where demand is greatest.

“Second, the commitment to match planned government spending only applies to the first year of the next parliament: the party is free to outspend the coalition after that and to make greater use of tax rises to reduce borrowing.

“Third, while promising to eliminate the current account deficit, Labour (unlike the Tories) has not pledged to eradicate the total deficit, leaving room to borrow to fund capital projects such as housing and transport infrastructure (provided that the rate of spending growth is slower than the growth in GDP it will still be able to meet its promise to reduce the national debt).”

3. “Ed Miliband is a closet Tory because he has said he wants to govern like Margaret Thatcher.”

Some people seem determined to shoehorn this statement into a belief that Miliband was confessing that he is a Conservative.

He was talking about Margaret Thatcher’s style of leadership, not her political beliefs – Thatcher led from the front, telling her cabinet what she wanted done and expecting them to do it. In contrast, for example, Johon Major was a consensus leader who discussed big decisions with the other members of his cabinet in order to find out their opinions before making a decision.

Now, you might have an opinion on which of those styles is the best, but you won’t even be able to start forming a judgement if you’re unable to recognise what it really is!

4. “We cannot trust New Labour, the party of Tony Blair and his brand of neoliberalism.”

New Labour ended in 2010.

Go to a search engine and type in ‘Ed Miliband new labour dead’ or something similar. The relevant articles are dated around September 26. New Labour was a neoliberal mistake.

New Labour made too many errors – it was a silly experiment to take Labour down the same neoliberal cul-de-sac as Thatcherite Tories. This is why the current leadership has turned its back on the whole project.

Yr Obdt Srvt joined Labour to help turn the party back into what it should be. Yes, there are still New Labour hangers-on, but Vox Political does its bit to expose them for what they are on the blog (as you’ll know, if you’re a regular reader).

We’re not all Red Tory propagandists, you know!

5. “Labour has not opposed any of the Coalition cuts to services or social security. Labour has supported them.”

This misconception seems to have grown from the fact that the Coalition has been able to push through all of the changes it wanted, no matter how damaging – and arises from a misunderstanding of the way Parliament works.

While the Coalition has a majority, it doesn’t matter what Labour does in Parliament – the Coalition will always win the vote.

In fact, Labour has opposed every single cut inflicted on the UK by the Coalition, except in one case where the party abstained in order to win concessions.

Labour MPs and activists have campaigned ceaselessly against the cuts that have led to many thousands of deaths, speaking out in the Commons Chamber, in newspapers, at demonstrations, rallies and public events. They have made it perfectly clear that they intend to hold the Coalition to account.

Claims that Labour “sat idle” for the last four years are dangerous nonsense as some people may believe them without checking the facts for themselves.

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My letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons on the Universal Credit lies

130905universalcredit

Yet again UK government ministers, having painted themselves into a corner, have tried to manoeuvre out of trouble by misleading other MPs and the general public.

Readers of this blog – and its writer – were disgusted (although not surprised) to hear Iain Duncan Smith protesting innocence on behalf of his absent employment minister, Esther McVey, in a statement and short debate on Universal Credit in the House of Commons yesterday (July 9).

We have all endured too much of this. It is time honesty – or at least, more of it than is currently evident – returned to the corridors of power.

With this in mind – in hope more than expectation – I have written to John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, to request action. He chairs debates; it seems likely that he should be the one who puts and end to dishonest practices. The letter runs as follows:

It may have been inappropriate for Chris Bryant MP to make an accusation of deliberate deception against a group of ministers during the debate on Universal Credit, but in my opinion he would have been correct if he had done so.

We know that the Employment Minister, Esther McVey, told Parliament on June 30 that the Department for Work and Pensions’ business case for Universal Credit had been approved by the Treasury; we know that Sir Bob Kerslake said on Monday that the business case has not been signed off; and yesterday we heard from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the Treasury has only been signing off on annual budgets.

There is a significant difference between a business case and an annual budget. It would stretch credulity too far to ask the British people to accept that the Employment Minister, the Secretary of State, the head of the Civil Service or anybody in the Treasury cannot tell the difference.

Therefore we must conclude that at least one member of the government has lied to Parliament and to the public. Since the Employment Minister’s statement referred to a comment by the Secretary of State on December 5, in which I am reliably informed that he did not say the business case had been signed off, it seems likely that she is the culprit.

It is also possible, however, that she was misinformed by the Secretary of State himself. Logically, if the Employment Minister did not check Mr Duncan Smith’s speech in Hansard, then she must have asked him what he said. In that case, the Secretary of State has knowingly misled the Employment Minister, Parliament and the public.

You will be aware that it is possible for MPs to commit Contempt of Parliament, if “any act or omission … obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions… or … has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results”. An attempt to mislead the House regarding the status of a flagship policy such as Universal Credit must certainly qualify as such an offence.

Perhaps you are aware of the case of Nicholas Scott, a minister of state for social security in the John Major government of 1992-7, who ‘talked out’ a private members’ bill aiming to outlaw discrimination on grounds of disability. Asked if he had deliberately filibustered, he denied it – but was found to have misled Parliament.

The then-Prime Minister had previously given his word that any minister who knowingly misled his or her fellow MPs should be sacked. It is to his shame that he did not honour this promise.

MPs accused of contempt of Parliament may also be suspended or expelled.

I regret to say that this is the point at which my knowledge runs out – I do not know whether a member of the electorate may request the investigation and possible dismissal of a Member accused of misleading Parliament, or whether the request must come from another Member. Perhaps you could assist me in this respect.

At the very least, it would seem that if Mr Bryant or another Member raised an official complaint on grounds that one or more of the team at the Department for Work and Pensions has misled Parliament, an investigation would be in order. Perhaps – again – you could assist me with information on how this may be facilitated.

This seems an appropriate moment to explore Parliamentary procedures on contempt/misleading or lying to MPs, as Hansard is littered with incidents of such behaviour – not only by ministers of state but by Cabinet ministers including the Work and Pensions secretary, the Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office) (Mr Shapps), and indeed the Prime Minister himself.

I cannot speak for everybody but I do know that many members of the electorate are utterly sick of this behaviour and want it ended.

No Member was ever elected to Parliament in order to lie to us and an example should be made of those who do.

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Blame David Cameron for the catalogue of Conservative lies

Don’t expect Conservative ministers to do the honourable thing when they are found to have misled Parliament – it turns out they have ‘previous’ (or is it ‘form’?) in this regard.

Take a look at the YouTube clip above. It is from an April, 1994 episode of Have I Got News For You and refers to Nicholas Scott, then a minister of state for social security, who ‘talked out’ a private members’ bill aiming to outlaw discrimination on grounds of disability.

On behalf of the Conservative government of the day, he made it his business to ensure that it would remain possible to discriminate against disabled people.

Asked if this was true, he denied it and – as the very young-looking Ian Hislop states in the clip – “he was lying, of course.”

Angus Deayton (remember him?) fleshes out the story: “John Major previously gave his word that any minister who knowingly misled his fellow MPs should be sacked… It sounds like John Major has knowingly misled his fellow MPs as well. Perhaps he should go sack himself.”

Of course Major stood by his minister – Scott was only doing what Major had told him!

In fact, Parliamentary convention has long held that anybody committing ‘contempt of Parliament’ by deliberately misleading fellow MPs may be suspended or expelled, as highlighted previously by this blog.

The clip makes it clear that Conservatives have been ignoring such rules for decades – and that the person to blame is usually the one at the top – John Major, back in the 1990s.

131001cameronspeech

 

David Cameron, now.

This makes sense. Look at Iain Duncan Smith, who has loudly and continually fibbed his face off about his so-called “welfare reforms”, in spite of the mountain of evidence showing that tens of thousands of people have died because of them.

That is as discriminatory as a law can be.

Commenters on this blog, in their multitudes, have asked why Iain Duncan Smith has remained in his post after setting in motion the sequence of disasters that have hit the Department for Work and Pensions on his watch. Looking at the Scott/Major affair, we can deduce that the man we call RTU has not been ‘Returned To Unit’ (in this case, the backbenches) because he has been doing exactly what David Cameron wanted – victimising the disabled in the worst possible way.

What does this say about Cameron, whose own late son was disabled? Cameron claimed all the disability benefits he possibly could, before he became Prime Minister and ordered RTU to cancel them or change their eligibility criteria so that almost nobody could legitimately claim them.

Recent stories show that RTU is still victimising the disabled while his reaction to criticism is becoming increasingly unbalanced.

Meanwhile, Cameron has to answer for multiple offences of his own. Most recently he lied about waiting times in the English part of the National Health Service, but this article also highlights his false claim – in a party political broadcast – that the Coalition was “paying down Britain’s debts”, and the false claim that spending on the NHS had risen in real terms since the Coalition took office.

What conclusion can we draw from this? It’s obvious, really.

Your Conservative-led Coalition government has been lying to you. It is lying to you now. It will lie to you in the future.

This is not in the national interest. How can it be in the national interest for the government to pass laws that harm the disabled – and to pass laws that could harm the sick by delaying medical aid – and then lie to you to keep you quiet?

It is ideologically-motivated cruelty. Nothing more.

It will continue as long as your vote supports it.

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The ‘Big Benefits Row’ row

'To see ourselves as others see us': It is hard to stand on a platform when you can't even stand - but the social media are giving disabled people a stronger voice and a chance to take the spotlight, rather than the sidelines.

‘To see ourselves as others see us’: It is hard to stand on a platform when you can’t even stand – but the social media are giving disabled people a stronger voice and a chance to take the spotlight, rather than the sidelines.

I can’t directly reblog this but I think you should all read Sue Marsh’s article on her experience with Channel 5’s recent entry into the world of benefit porn.

Originally set to be a member of the panel on The Big Benefits Row (was that really what it was called?), Sue was ‘bumped’ at short notice and ended up being just an invited member of the audience, having to endure the rented opinions of people like the motormouth Alan Sugar had the good sense not to hire and the former Tory minister who was unlucky with eggs when they turned out not to be responsible for food poisoning and lucky with them when hers weren’t fertilised by then-PM John Major.

The most interesting parts of the piece are those relating to the attitude of the government to the benefits debate, as revealed by various TV producers: “They were shocked that invariably the DWP refused to take part unless the stories were edited their way. Iain Duncan-Smith has written repeatedly and furiously to the BBC about their lack of balance in reporting welfare issues. Anyone who follows the debate with even a flutter of fleeting interest will know just how ironic that is. If ever there has been an issue so poorly reported, with so much ignorance and so many lies, the current ‘welfare’ debate must be it.”

For myself, as someone who has to look after a disabled person every day, the way the production company treated Sue was simply unacceptable – and symptomatic of our society’s poor understanding of the misery suffered by people with chronic conditions.

Not only was she bumped from the panel at a moment’s notice, but she and other people with disabilities were treated poorly by studio managers (who’s “them”, for goodness sake?).

The article relates how she had been in London for an appointment and was physically drained afterwards, but had made the effort to stay active and alert for the recording – feeding on adrenaline. To be passed over in that circumstance – and have to watch while opportunities to state the problems faced by the disabled were themselves passed over by programme makers and panellists – was a metaphorical kick in the teeth.

Leaving the studio, Sue tweeted that she’d been given the bum’s rush by the show’s producers, and it is a credit to her online friends that she was trending very highly on Twitter soon afterwards.

But it is always as she states: “Yet again my friends, we shall have to make our own news… show producers of shows like the Big Benefits Row that we do have a voice, we do matter.”

So please visit Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, read the article and share it – along with your own opinion, if you take a strong enough view.

The social media give disabled people a voice that can’t be silenced or sidelined.

You can help ram that point home.

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Divisions in Coalition as MPs demand independent inquiry on poverty

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Calls for a ‘commission of inquiry’ into the impact of the government’s changes to social security entitlements on poverty have won overwhelming support from Parliament.

The motion by Labour’s Michael Meacher was passed with a massive majority of 123 votes; only two people – David Nuttall and Jacob Rees-Mogg – voted against it.

The debate enjoyed cross-party support, having been secured by Mr Meacher with Sir Peter Bottomley (Conservative) and John Hemming (Liberal Democrat).

Introducing the motion, Mr Meacher said: “It is clear that something terrible is happening across the face of Britain. We are seeing the return of absolute poverty, which has not existed in this country since the Victorian age more than a century ago. Absolute poverty is when people do not have the money to pay for even their most basic needs.”

He said the evidence was all around:

  • There are at least 345 food banks and, according to the Trussell Trust, emergency food aid was given to 350,000 households for at least three days in the last year.
  • The Red Cross is setting up centres to help the destitute, just as it does in developing countries.
  • Even in prosperous areas like London, more than a quarter of the population is living in poverty.
  • According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for the first time, the number of people in working families who are living in poverty, at 6.7 million, is greater than the number of people in workless and retired families who are living in poverty, at 6.3 million.
  • Child poverty will rise from 2.5 million to 3.2 million during this Parliament, around 24 per cent of children in the UK. By 2020, if the rise is not stopped, it will increase to four million – around 30 per cent of children in the UK.
  • The use of sanctions depriving people of all their benefits for several weeks at a time, had increased by 126 per cent since 2010 and 120 disabled people who had been receiving jobseeker’s allowance had been given a three-year fixed duration sanction in the previous year.
  • There are now more than 2,000 families who have been placed in emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation after losing their homes.
  • The per cent rise in the overall homelessness figures last year included nearly 9,000 families with children, which is the equivalent of one family losing their home every 15 minutes.
  • A third of families spent less than £20 a week on food and that the average spend on food per person per day was precisely £2.10. That is a third less than those families were able to afford three months before that.
  • The proportion of households that had to make debt repayments of more than £40 a week had doubled and the average level of debt was £2,250.
  • A third of families had council tax debt.
  • 2.7 million people had lost out through the Government’s changes to council tax benefit – many of them disabled people, veterans and some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
  • Households were having to spend 16 per cent more on gas and electricity.
  • There are 2.5 million people who have been unemployed for the best part of two years, and there were 562,000 vacancies when the debate took place (Monday), so four out of five of those who are unemployed simply cannot get a job whatever they do.
  • Cuts to local authorities mean many home care visits are limited to 15 minutes.
  • The 10 per cent of local authorities that are the most deprived in the country face cuts six times higher than those faced by the 10 per cent that are the most affluent.
  • 60 per cent of benefit cuts fall on those who are in work.

Mr Meacher said the biggest cause of absolute poverty was the huge rise in sanctioning, often for trivial reasons such as turning up five minutes late for a job interview or the Work Programme:

  • A dyslexic person lost his Jobseekers Allowance because his condition meant that in one fortnightly period he applied for nine jobs, not 10. He was trying to pay his way and already had work, but it provided only an extremely low income.
  • The jobcentre didn’t record that a claimant had informed them that he was in hospital when he was due to attend an appointment and he was sanctioned.
  • A claimant went to a job interview instead of signing on at the jobcentre because the appointments clashed – and was sanctioned.
  • A claimant had to look after their mother who was severely disabled and very ill – and was sanctioned.
  • A Job Centre sent the letter informing a claimant of an interview to their previous address, despite having been told about the move. The claimant was sanctioned.
  • A claimant was refused a job because she was in a women’s refuge, fleeing domestic violence and in the process of relocating, but I was still sanctioned.

Mr Meacher also quoted what he called a classic: “I didn’t do enough to find work in between finding work and starting the job.”

The latest DWP figures suggest that more than one million people have been sanctioned in the past 15 months and deprived of all benefit and all income. “Given that the penalties are out of all proportion to the triviality of many of the infringements, and given that, as I have said, four out of five people cannot get a job whatever they do, the use of sanctioning on this scale, with the result of utter destitution, is — one struggles for words — brutalising and profoundly unjust,” said Mr Meacher.

Other reasons for the rise in absolute poverty included:

  • Delays in benefit payments.
  • The fact that it is impossible for many poor and vulnerable people to comply with new rules – for example a jobseeker who asked to downsize to a smaller flat who was told he must pay two weeks’ full rent upfront before getting housing benefit. He does not have the funds to do so and is stuck in a situation where his benefits will not cover his outgoings due to the Bedroom Tax.
  • The Bedroom Tax, which applies to around 667,000 households, and two-thirds of those affected are disabled. More than 90 per cent of those affected do not have smaller social housing to move into.
  • The Benefit Cap, imposed on a further 33,000 households.
  • Mistakes by the authorities; up to 40,000 working-age tenants in social housing may have been improperly subjected to the Bedroom Tax because of DWP error (although Iain Duncan Smith claims a maximum of 5,000).

Mr Meacher said: “The Chancellor’s policy of keeping 2.5 million people unemployed makes it impossible for them to find work, even if there were employers who would be willing to take them, and the 40 per cent success rate of appeals shows how unfair the whole process is.”

Responding to a comment from David TC Davies (Conservative) that those who are not looking for work must realise there will be consequences, particularly when a million people have been able to come to the UK from eastern Europe and find work, Mr Meacher said, “Those who come to this country are more likely to be employed and take out less in benefits than many of the indigenous population.”

He asked: “Is all this brutality towards the poor really necessary? Is there any justification in intensifying the misery, as the Chancellor clearly intends, by winding up the social fund and, particularly, by imposing another £25 billion of cuts in the next Parliament, half of that from working-age benefits?

“After £80 billion of public spending cuts, with about £23 billion of cuts in this Parliament so far, the deficit has been reduced only at a glacial pace, from £118 billion in 2011 to £115 billion in 2012 and £111 billion in 2013. Frankly, the Chancellor is like one of those first world war generals who urged his men forward, over the top, in order to recover 300 yards of bombed-out ground, but lost 20,000 men in the process. How can it be justified to carry on imposing abject and unnecessary destitution on such a huge scale when the benefits in terms of deficit reduction are so small as to be almost derisory?”

Suggested alternatives to the punitive austerity programme of cuts came thick and fast during the debate. Challenged to explain what Labour’s Front Bench meant by saying they would be tougher on welfare than the Tories, Mr Meacher said: “As the shadow Chancellor has made clear on many occasions, is that we need public investment. We need to get jobs and growth. That is the alternative way: public investment in jobs, industry, infrastructure and exports to grow the real economy, not the financial froth, because that would cut the deficit far faster than the Chancellor’s beloved austerity.”

He asked: “How about the ultra-rich — Britain’s 1,000 richest citizens — contributing just a bit? Their current remuneration — I am talking about a fraction of the top 1 per cent — is £86,000 a week, which is 185 times the average wage. They received a windfall of more than £2,000 a week from the five per cent cut in the higher rate of income tax, and their wealth was recently estimated by The Sunday Times at nearly half a trillion pounds. Let us remember that we are talking about 1,000 people. Their asset gains since the 2009 crash have been calculated by the same source at about £190 billion.

“These persons, loaded with the riches of Midas, might perhaps be prevailed upon to contribute a minute fraction of their wealth in an acute national emergency, when one-sixth of the workforce earns less than the living wage and when one million people who cannot get a job are being deprived of all income by sanctioning and thereby being left utterly destitute.

“Charging the ultra-rich’s asset gains since 2009 to capital gains tax would raise more than the £25 billion that the Chancellor purports to need. I submit that it would introduce some semblance of democracy and social justice in this country if the Chancellor paid attention to this debate and thought deeply about what he is doing to our country and its people.”

Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley, Lab) suggested that the Government might save a lot more if its members “showed the same energy and enthusiasm for getting those who evade their taxes and run to tax havens as they do for going after the poor, the sick and people on the dole”.

Against this, David TC Davies offered insults and distortions of the facts, quoting the Daily Mail as though it provided an accurate account of current events: “Members of the shadow Cabinet might need a boxing referee to sort out their disputes at the moment, as we read today in the Daily Mail.”

He said: “We took office with a deficit of £160 billion and a debt that was rising rapidly to £1 trillion. That was after years of overspending in good times, as well as in bad, by Labour, a cheap money supply and lax banking regulation under the former Government.” Labour’s spending, up until the financial crisis, was always less than that of the previous Conservative administration; Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both ran a lower deficit than John Major and Margaret Thatcher, and at one point actually achieved a surplus, which is something that the Conservatives had not managed in the previous 18 years. While Mr Davies here complained about the “lax banking regulation”, Conservatives supported it at the time and in fact demanded more DE-regulation, which would have made the financial crisis worse when it happened.

“We had disastrous economic decisions, such as that to sell gold at a fraction of its real rate,” said Mr Davies. Yes – the UK lost around £9 billion. But compare that with the disastrous economic decision by George Osborne to impose more than £80 billion worth of cuts to achieve a £7 billion cut in the national deficit. The UK has lost £73 billion there, over a three-year period.

And Mr Davies said: “Worst of all and most seriously, we had a welfare system that allowed people to get into a trap of welfare dependency, leaving them on the dole for many years, but at the same time filling the consequent gap in employment by allowing mass and uncontrolled immigration into this country, which completely undercut British workers.” The first assertion is simply untrue; the second is a legacy of previous Conservative administrations that agreed to the free movement of EU member citizens, meaning that, when the eastern European countries joined in 2004, citizens migrated to the UK in the hope of a better life. Labour has admitted it should have negotiated for a delay in free movement until the economies of those countries had improved, making such migration less likely, but the situation was created before Labour took office.

Challenged on the Coalition’s record, Mr Davies fell back on the Tories’ current trick question, which is to counter any criticism by asking: “Is he suggesting that we are not doing enough to pay down the national debt? Is he suggesting that we should cut further and faster? If so, and if we had the support of other Opposition Members, that is exactly what the Government could do and, indeed, possibly should do. I look forward to seeing that support for getting the deficit down.” This disingenuous nonsense was batted away by Labour’s Hugh Bayley, who said “investing in the economy, creating jobs and thereby getting people off welfare and into work” was the way forward.

Mr Davies’ Conservative colleague Jeremy Lefroy took a different view, agreeing that increasing numbers of people are finding it impossible to make ends meet, and that job creation and apprenticeships were a better way out of poverty than changing the social security system alone. He agreed that sanctions were applied to his constituents “in a rather arbitrary manner”. He spoke against George Osborne’s suggested plan to remove housing benefits from people aged under 25, saying this “would have a drastic impact on young people who need to live away from home and who have no support from their families”. He spoke in favour of councils increasing their housing stock. And he admitted that disabled people faced severe problems when unfairly transferred from ESA to JSA: “A lady in my constituency says, ‘I am simply not fit for work, but by signing on for JSA I have to say that I am available and fit for work.’ She does not want to tell a lie.”

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool Walton, Labour) spoke powerfully about the effect of being on benefits: “Lots of people in my city are on benefits for the very first time. Far from being in clover — it beggars belief what we read in the right-wing press — they are struggling to make ends meet, and the problem that thousands of Liverpudlians are facing is new to them. For many, the idea that they might miss a rent payment is totally alien. They have not done that in the past 20 years, but since May 2010, their individual household incomes have been on such a downward trajectory that they now find themselves in rent arrears, seeking advice on debt management and unable to afford the daily cost of travel, food and energy. Figures suggest that 40 per cent of the adult population in Liverpool are struggling with serious debt problems.”

And he said poverty had health implications, too: “David Taylor-Robinson of the University of Liverpool and his fellow academics have highlighted the doubling of malnutrition-related hospital admissions nationally since 2008.”

John Hemming (Birmingham Yardley, LD) raised concerns about “the interrelationship between the welfare cap and victims of domestic violence, and whether there are situations that need more attention. I believe that people can get discretionary housing payment to leave a violent home, but it is important that we ensure that there is a route out of domestic violence for women. I am worried about that issue, just as I am about some wrongful sanctioning that I have seen. That does not help at all, because it undermines the whole process.” He also called for “a substantial increase in the minimum wage, because as the economy is improving the Government should look at that, rather than maintain things as they are”.

The vote gave huge endorsement to the call for an independent inquiry into poverty under the Coalition.

But with an election just 15 months away, how long will we have to wait for it to report?

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This benefits bully harasses the powerless but runs away from criticism

131101IDS1

Several months ago this blog accused Iain Duncan Smith of being a liar and a coward because, not only had he fabricated statistics on the number of people leaving benefits because of his new benefit cap, but he had also weaseled his way out of an appearance before the Commons Work and Pensions Committee to account for this behaviour.

The very next day, we had to apologise (to readers) and publish a correction saying that the man we call ‘Returned To Unit’ would be attending a follow-up meeting in September, at which the 100,000-signature petition calling him to account for the benefit cap lies, organised by Jayne Linney and Debbie Sayers, would also be presented to MPs.

Apparently the meeting was being timed to coincide with publication of the DWP’s annual report for 2012-13.

Now it is November, and we have still had no meeting with RTU. Nor have we seen the annual report, which is now almost eight months late. Meanwhile the calamities at the DWP have been mounting up.

The latest appears in a Guardian report published yesterday, about the ongoing disaster that is Universal Credit. You may remember, Dear Reader, that the Department for Work and Pensions has admitted it had to write off £34 million that had been spent on the scheme; it subsequently emerged that the total amount to be written off might actually be as high as £161 million.

The Guardian article appears to confirm this, adding £120 million to the £34 already written off if the DWP follows one of two possible plans to take the nightmarish scheme forward.

This would restart Universal Credit from scratch, creating a system based on the Internet – and reducing the need for Job Centre staff – and tends to confirm the suggestion that staff are seen as a liability in the government’s plan to cut back on benefit payments; despite being told to bully, harass and intimidate everyone who darkens their doors, they have an annoying inclination to help people claim the benefits due to them.

The other plan would attempt to salvage the existing system, and is understood to be favoured by the Secretary-in-a-State. The drawback is that it could lead to an even greater waste of taxpayers’ money (not that this has ever been a consideration for Mr… Smith in the past. He’ll waste millions like water while depriving people of the pennies they need to survive).

Universal Credit aims to merge six major benefits and tax credits into one, restricting eligibility for the new benefit in order to cut down on payouts. It relies on the government creating a computer programme that can synchronise systems run by HM Revenue and Customs, the DWP itself, and employers. So far, this has proved impossible and a planned rollout in April was restricted to just one Job Centre, where staff handled only the simplest claims and worked them out on paper. Later revelations showed that the system as currently devised has no way of weeding out fraudulent claims.

A leaked risk assessment says the web-based scheme is “unproven… at this scale”, and that it would not be possible to roll out the new system “within the preferred timescale”. Smith has continually maintained that it will be delivered on time and on budget but, as concerns continue to be raised by senior civil servants that systems are not working as expected and there are too many design flaws, it seems likely this is a career-ending claim.

Is this why he hasn’t deigned to account for himself before the Work and Pensions Committee?

Earlier this week, the government lost its appeal against a court ruling that its regulations for Workfare and other mandatory work activity schemes were illegal. Public Interest Lawyers, who handled the case against the government, has taken the view that anyone who fell foul of the regulations may now take action to get their money back. But the matter is complicated by the fact that the government unwisely passed a retrospective law to legalise the rules, in a bid to stop the 228,000 benefit claimants it had sanctioned after they refused to work for their benefits from demanding the money that ministers had – in effect – stolen from them. Iain Duncan Smith is the man behind this mess.

Is this why he hasn’t deigned to account for himself before the committee?

We have yet to learn why this man felt justified in claiming 8,000 – and then 12,000 – people had left benefits because of the £26,000 cap he introduced in April (he claimed it is equal to average family income but in fact it is £5,000 and change short of that amount as he failed to consider benefits that such families could draw). Information from polling company Ipsos Mori showed that the real number of people who had dropped their claims after hearing of the scheme was more likely to be 450 – just nine per cent of the figure he originally quoted.

Is this why he hasn’t put a meeting with the committee in his diary?

Perhaps we should not be surprised, though – it seems that RTU has never had a decent grip on the way his department works. For example, he allowed George Osborne to cancel Disability Living Allowance for one-fifth of claimants in 2010, claiming that the benefit had been “spiralling” out of control because it had 3.1 million claimants – triple the number since it was introduced in 1992. Smith said the rise was “inexplicable” but in fact the explanation is simplicity itself, as The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee pointed out just two days ago:

“DLA is only paid to those of working age, but when they retire they keep it, so as more people since 1992 move into retirement, numbers rise fast. There has been no change in numbers with physical conditions, despite a larger population; back injuries have declined with the decline of heavy industry. There has been a real growth in numbers with learning disabilities: more premature babies survive but with disabilities, while those with Down’s syndrome no longer die young. More people with mental illness claim DLA now, following changes in case law: there has been no increase in mental illness, with 7% of the population seriously ill enough to be receiving treatment, yet only 1% claim DLA. Psychosis is the commonest DLA diagnosis, hardly a trivial condition. This pattern of disability mirrors the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with nothing exceptional here.”

In other words, from the moment he took over this hugely important government department, with its huge – and controversial – budget, Iain Duncan Smith had about as much understanding of its workings as a child.

It seems Sir John Major was exactly right when he expressed fears about the DWP Secretary’s ability last week, claiming his genius “has not been proven”.

Is this why we’ve seen neither hide nor … head of the Secretary of State?

Finally, Dear Reader, you will be aware that Vox Political submitted a Freedom of Information request to the DWP, asking for up-to-date statistics on the number of Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died during a claim or while appealing against a decision about a claim – and that the request was dismissed on the indefensible grounds that it was “vexatious”. This was not good enough so the matter went to the Information Commissioner’s office and, according to an email received this week, will soon be brought to a conclusion.

Is this why Iain Duncan Smith is hiding?

Perhaps it’s time to drag him out of his bolt-hole and force some answers out of him.

Jayne (Linney), in her blog, has called on people who use Twitter to start tweeting demands for Smith to come forward, using the hashtags #whereisIDS and #DWPLateReview. This is good, and those of you who do so are welcome to use any of the information in this article as ammunition in such a campaign.

There is nothing to stop anyone writing to the press – local or national – to ask what is going on and why benefit claimants are being left in suspense about the future of their claims. People have to work out how they will pay their bills, and the continued uncertainty caused by Mr… Smith’s catalogue of calamities is causing problems up and down the country.

A short message to your MP might help stir the Secretary of State out of his slumber, also.

In fact, let’s use all the tools at our disposal to expose this man for what he is – just as this blog stated in July and in May: A liar and a coward who has committed contempt of Parliament and should be expelled – not just from public office, but from public life altogether.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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