We’re hearing more and more horror stories about the effect of Universal Credit on the people who are forced to claim it, now.
The latest accounts seem to have done some good, prompting the Conservatives to delay completion of the flawed benefit’s rollout across the UK while they consider ways of minimising hardship caused to people being transferred onto it.
Joy at the decision has been dampened by the revelation that the options being considered won’t do much good – and the fact that the benefit would still target families with children, women, and minority groups with disproportionate cuts in income.
We have been led to believe that even Conservative backbenchers have been considering rebelling against their own government, in the belief that a show of defiance over a matter that has outraged the public might save them from losing their Parliamentary seats at the next general election, which might not be far away.
Perhaps the decision to delay completing the rollout of UC across the whole of the UK was made to pacify these potential rebels.
Their opportunity to make a stand would have come in an Opposition Day debate on Universal Credit today (October 17). Whether that happens or not, the Labour Party has almost certainly outflanked both them and the government itself, with its plan for a “humble address”, in which the Queen is asked to direct that certain documents be released.
In this case, the documents would be private briefing papers on the impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit on recipients, household income and on claimants’ debts:
It seems that every single Conservative MP has slavishly followed Theresa May through the ‘No’ lobby at the House of Commons, ensuring the success of her desperate bid to keep her own role in the racist victimisation of the so-called Windrush generation secret.
The vote was won by 316 votes to 221 in favour of the motion, which would have ensured that all papers relating to the Windrush scandal between 2010 and 2018 would be released.
But in ordering her MPs to hide the facts, Mrs May has admitted that there are facts about her involvement that she does not want the public to know.
She has admitted that she has not told the truth – or at least, not the whole truth.
That is the message that should be put to voters before they cast their ballots in the local elections tomorrow (May 3):
Does anybody seriously want to support the woman who imposed the most racist policy ever to blight the UK’s citizens – and then tried to deny her role in it?
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Secret smirk: Theresa May thinks she has got away with imposing the racist ‘hostile environment’ policy that deported UK citizens, by letting Amber Rudd take the blame. Shouldn’t she resign too?
She’s between a rock and a hard place.
Tories have been abstaining from voting on Opposition Day debates since the general election last year, so we may conclude from today’s three-line whip to block Labour’s ‘humble address’ that the information being requested is hugely damaging to Mrs May.
Of course, if the Tories continued to abstain – as I stated in a previous article – we would know what that information is.
Either way, the current prime minister’s guilt, her collusion in the targeting of the so-called Windrush Generation and their families, and her determination to continue attacking these people even after being told UK citizens were suffering as a result of her policies, seems clear.
If the Tories succeed in blocking Labour’s motion, do we – the public – accept it?
If not, there’s an obvious answer.
There are local and mayoral elections tomorrow (May 3). If people aren’t satisfied with Mrs May’s behaviour, they can make it clear by voting against Conservative candidates.
A large anti-Conservative vote cannot be seen as anything other than a response to Mrs May and her government. They may try to spin it as something else, but they won’t succeed.
This is an opportunity to rid ourselves of the worst prime minister in living memory. Let’s not throw it away.
Conservative MPs are under a three-line whip to vote against the so-called humble address motion, the same procedure used last year by Labour to force ministers to hand over their Brexit economic impact assessments.
In an opposition day debate later on Wednesday, Labour is to use the motion to ask for all papers, correspondence and advice on between ministers, senior officials and advisers from May 2010 until now.
This would be handed to the Commons home affairs committee and would include information about any detentions or deportations, the setting of deportation targets, and how the policies were seen as affecting people’s lives.
If successful, the tactic could undermine the government’s attempts to insulate May from the crisis over how some citizens of Caribbean origin who arrived in the UK from the 1950s onwards were wrongly targeted amid the “hostile environment” immigration policy, which placed the onus on individuals to actively prove their status.
The nation can breathe easy in the knowledge that the minority Conservative government has said it will respect the results of debates called by the Opposition after all. Right?
Apparently, the only reasons the Tories didn’t bother to vote in the debates on public sector pay and tuition fees are: They agreed with the former, and it was too late to change the latter.
Do we believe that?
Former Tory Chief Whip Mark Harper said in the debate on the subject today (October 10): “In the NHS debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health did not argue against the motion on the Order Paper. What he actually said was that it was bogus, because it did not address some of the fundamental issues.
“The final part of the motion talked about ending the public sector pay cap of 1%, and of course my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who excellently wound up that debate, made the point that for the forthcoming financial year, the Government would allow the pay review bodies more flexibility anyway, so it seemed rather pointless to be engaging in that debate. The debate, of course, is about what constitutes a fair pay rise—what is affordable.
“We all agree that NHS workers—indeed, public sector workers generally—should get a fair pay rise. The point of political debate is to ask what “fair” means. We have to balance affordability for the economy, what public sector workers need to get paid for recruitment, retention and morale purposes, and what those in the private sector, who pay taxes to pay for our public services, are being paid. If we read the motion, I think we find it was completely consistent with the Government’s policy, which I suspect is exactly why the Secretary of State for Health did not feel it was sensible to urge Conservative colleagues to vote against it.
“The second very important motion on the Order Paper that day was about the higher education regulations relating to tuition fees… The regulations were laid before the House on 15 December 2016 and came into force on 20 February this year, so voting against them would have had no effect whatever.”
Labour MPs said this was not enough.
“Having been given that Opposition day on 13 September, the shadow Secretaries of State for Health and for Education moved and spoke eloquently to their motions, and we then witnessed the bizarre spectacle of the Government making no comment whatsoever,” said Valerie Vaz. “They had tabled no amendment to the motion. There was no voting for and no voting against, so Parliament was left in limbo. What was the status of the motion? It was a proper, substantive motion, defined as a self-contained proposal submitted for the approval of the House and drafted in such a way as to be capable of expressing a decision of the House. And it did, in this case to NHS workers and students about to start university.”
Her colleague Toby Perkins added: “Many people watch debates that come up, on Opposition days and at other times, and they expect a vote, and if there is no vote then they believe that the view of Parliament has been heard and they expect things to change as a result. If the Government’s approach is to allow motions through but then not carry them through in policy terms, then people will rightly think that we are just a talking shop.”
Even arch-Tory Peter Bone agreed: “Does my right hon. Friend not agree that if Parliament decides on something the Government should listen?.. I would like to suggest to the Leader of the House that it becomes a formula that if the House expresses a view, the Government should respond to it. That does not mean that they have to accept everything, but they should come to the Dispatch Box and say what they are doing on the issue.”
Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom claimed that the House of Commons “expressed an opinion” when it agreed to the Opposition day motions.
If that is true, when will we see the legislation to reverse the tuition fee increase?
She went on to say that the government would examine Opposition motions “case by case, and voting is a matter for the House.”
But how can we believe this, without action on the decisions that were made on September 13?
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Twilight for democracy: The Houses of Parliament are now the home of a dictatorship calling itself a Conservative government.
What blatant disregard for democracy.
It seems Conservative members of Parliament have been told not to bother voting in any Opposition Day debates.
This would explain why the House of Commons supported both the Labour Party’s motions yesterday, without having to go to the vote.
On NHS Pay, the House of Commons decided: “This House notes that in 2017-18 NHS pay rises have been capped at one per cent and that this represents another below-inflation pay settlement; further notes that applications for nursing degrees have fallen 23 per cent this year; notes that the number of nurses and midwives joining the Nursing and Midwifery Council register has been in decline since March 2016 and that in 2016-17 45 per cent more UK registrants left the register than joined it; and calls on the Government to end the public sector pay cap in the NHS and give NHS workers a fair pay rise.”
On tuition fees, the Commons decided: “That the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1206) and the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1205), both dated 13 December 2016, copies of which were laid before this House on 15 December 2016, in the last Session of Parliament, be revoked.” It means MPs have decided unanimously (thanks to the Tories’ abstention) that increases in university tuition fees totalling £250 per year should be abandoned.
Jeremy Corbyn celebrated the NHS pay victory:
Today, the Tories knew they'd lose if there was a vote on Labour's motion to end the pay cap. So, their coalition of chaos didn't turn up. https://t.co/YOljx51PxF
If true, this decision shows contempt for democracy and democratic debate. The Tories are saying they will pay no attention at all to Opposition motions, even when a majority of MPs support them – as they would have in the debates yesterday.
That’s why the Tories abstained, you see. It would be hugely harmful to the government for it to be defeated in a democratic vote, even one that is non-binding – because it would show that the Tories don’t care about democracy.
But the decision not to pay attention to Opposition Day debates show they don’t care about democracy anyway.
In a week during which other aspects of a functioning Parliamentary democracy have been thrown away by the Tories – with DUP help – the decision to ignore Opposition Day debates is yet another sign of the drift towards dictatorship:
Government boycott of Parliament Opposition Days. Dictatorial power grab in Great Withdrawal Bill. DUP bung. Democratic norms being dumped!
Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist party is propping up the Tory government – but can do what it likes in non-binding votes [Image: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images].
The DUP is free to vote whichever way it chooses because the minority Conservative government has no intention to do anything about either motion.
The results of Opposition Day debates are not binding on the government. That’s why the Tories abstained on NHS pay, allowing the motion to pass unopposed.
The government will do nothing – apart from demonstrating its disdain for hard-working doctors, nurses and support staff.
At the time of writing, the vote on tuition fees has not taken place – but, again, the DUP is free to do whatever its MPs want because it won’t make a scrap of difference.
The question is, how would the Northern Irish party vote if the Tories had to re-establish their plan for the NHS, and for students?
My guess is they’d tuck their collective tails between their legs and file through the ‘aye’ lobby with the Tories, no matter what they did today.
The Democratic Unionist party is planning to vote with Labour in favour of raising NHS pay and against higher tuition fees during opposition day debates, the Guardian has learned.
The party’s MPs will back Labour on a “fair pay rise” for NHS workers and oppose the government’s increase in tuition fees – the first time the DUP will have broken with the Conservatives since their deal after the election.
A DUP source confirmed that the party’s position was to vote on Wednesday for two opposition day motions tabled by Labour. The votes are believed to be non-binding and therefore fall outside the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with Theresa May’s party.
ESA sanctions ranked by disability: Notice that mental illness attracts by far the largest number of sanctions. Yet the UK simply does not support people with mental health problems. Isn’t that the REAL problem?
It is very easy to pre-judge a Parliamentary debate – on any subject – if you know a little about it already. As a carer for a person with mental health issues, This Writer could list off on my fingers the main issues that need to be tackled.
First, I would single out early recognition of the signs that somebody has a mental health problem. So many of the people I know who fell victim to mental issues as adults were already suffering in their childhood and adolescence – but nobody picked up on it. Prevention is better than cure – especially if the only cures available aren’t very reliable.
But we have a Conservative Government that sees everything in money terms but, as the saying goes, knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. In today’s Parliamentary debate we learned that, on this Government’s watch:
There has been an increase in the number of patients who report a poor experience of community mental health care.
More patients have to travel hundreds of miles just to get a bed.
The number of children being treated on adult wards, against the intention of the Mental Health Act 1983, has risen again this year.
The number of people becoming so ill that they had to be detained under the Mental Health Acts leapt by 10% in the past year.
The level of suicides, particularly among men under 45, has been at its highest since 2001.
There has been a psychiatry recruitment crisis, with a 94% increase in vacant and unfilled consultant posts.
The Government claims to be increasing mental health budgets, but patients and professionals tell a different story.
We do not have an accurate picture of spending on mental health in our country since ministers stopped the annual survey of investment in mental health three years ago.
Many of the statistics that were available previously are no longer available.
Last year, funding for mental health trusts was cut by 20% more than that for other hospitals.
In 2011-12, total investment in mental health dropped for the first time in a decade – and in the same year, the Government stopped publishing how much they invest in mental health.
Last year, 67% of Clinical Commissioning Groups who responded to a FoI request spent less than 10% of their budget on mental health, despite the fact that mental health accounts for 23% of the total burden of disease.
This year, the Minister for Community and Social Care promised he would ensure that investment in mental health by clinical commissioning groups increased in this financial year in line with the increase in their overall budgets – but more than one in three CCGs were not meeting the Government’s expectation.
The Conservative Government committed itself to spending £250 million on child and adolescent mental health services this year. There will be a £77 million shortfall on that pledge to spend this year.
The NHS constitution enshrines our rights to access drugs and other treatments, but it does not extend that right to talking therapies. Recently, the Government consulted on adding a right to psychological therapies to the NHS constitution, but they decided not to include it in its latest version.
The number of children with a mental health problem who turn up at Accident and Emergency has doubled in recent years.
One person in prison takes their own life every four days.
Young people who are self-harming may be told that because they are not suicidal they do not meet the threshold for help.
People with an eating disorder may be turned away from specialist services because their body mass index is not low enough.
Too often, mental health problems are ignored, and it is only when they reach crisis point that they receive attention. Recent studies have put the cost of mental ill health to our society at £105 billion a year.
75% of people who have mental health problems in working life first experienced symptoms in childhood or adolescence, yet only about 6% of the mental health budget is spent on child and adolescent mental health services. Mental health education is often omitted from the school curriculum owing to a lack of teacher training.
Poor housing, fuel poverty and neighbourhood factors, such as overcrowding, feeling unsafe and a lack of access to community facilities, can have a harmful impact on mental health.
These, along with abuse, bullying, trauma, deprivation and isolation, are just some of the levers of mental distress in our communities that we must address.
The Government’s deep cuts to local authority budgets over the past five years, the additional £200 million in-year cuts to public health and cuts coming further down the line, will impact on our communities and their services, such as libraries, drop-in centres, leisure centres, befriending services, children’s centres and citizens advice bureaux, which support people early on.
Billions have been slashed from social care budgets and the number of people receiving social care support for mental health has fallen by a quarter since 2009-10, seriously harming mental health trusts’ ability to discharge their patients.
70 million working days are lost every year owing to stress, depression and other mental health conditions.
Mental health problems cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence.
Across the NHS, staff are concerned about their well-being and that of their colleagues. The NHS staff survey shows that the proportion of staff reporting work-related stress has increased from 29% in 2010 to 38% in 2014.
Those are only a few of the issues identified in the debate today (Wednesday, December 9).
Labour is asking the Government to restore transparency to the murky picture of mental health funding. It is asking Ministers to address the fundamental inequality in our NHS constitution. And it is asking the Government to prioritise prevention and implement a fully cross-departmental plan to prevent mental health problems from developing in the first place.
The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, appeared noncommittal in the debate – preferring to discuss what he saw as successes in mental health care. So let’s keep this list in mind and see how well he, and his government, fare in rectifying these issues in the future.
Demonstrating for justice: Campaigners against the Bedroom Tax gathered outside Parliament while MPs debated it inside.
“I’m amazed Labour have chosen to spend their allotted day in Parliament arguing for more unfunded spending on housing benefit.” That’s what Matt Hancock, Conservative MP for West Sussex, had to say about the Opposition Day debate on the Bedroom Tax in the House of Commons on November 12.
Hancock is, it seems, author of a book entitled Masters of Nothing, which sums up his understanding of the situation rather well. He clearly has not mastered the fact that the State Under-Occupation Charge will not save money. He has not mastered the fact that emptying dwellings of their current owners will not make them available to new familes as these people are afraid they will themselves be tipped onto the street when their circumstances change – instead the premises will be left empty, at huge cost to social landlords; and he has not mastered the fact that anyone evicted because of the tax will become a burden on local authorities, who have a duty to rehouse them in bed and breakfast accommodation, even though the money provided to them for this purpose by the government is ludicrously inadequate to the task.
Hancock is not alone in having misconceptions about the Bedroom Tax. Most, if not all, of the Conservatives who spoke during the debate uttered howlers – and the purpose of this article is to name them and explain why they should be ashamed of their words.
Please take the opportunity, Dear Reader, to look for your own MP in the catalogue of calamity that follows, then use it to attack them in their own consituency. Let’s make them realise that actions have consequences.
If you don’t have a Tory MP, feel free to use what follows in order to make sure you never have to put up with one.
We begin with Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) who asked of Rachel Reeves: “What does she say to the almost 400,000 families who are living in overcrowded situations when they look over their shoulders at the almost one million spare bedrooms in Britain?”
The Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary responded without hesitation: “I say that instead of presiding over the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s, this Government should get on and build some houses.”
The Minister of State, Steve Webb, came back to this point later, saying: “Who was doing the house building for 13 years?” Well, we all know who hasn’t been doing it for the last three.
Mr Ellwood said the Tax was brought in because the cost of housing benefit was rising alarmingly: “After 13 years of Labour the cost of housing benefit doubled to £21 billion. That is unacceptable. The cost to taxpayers was £900 per household. The system was getting out of control.” His failure is that he refused to accept the explanation offered by Labour’s Katy Clark – that this was due to the rising cost of rent in the private sector (private rents have indeed been rising massively and the government refuses to take action because this would interfere with the market. Bizarrely, the Conservative-led Coalition seems to believe it is acceptable to pay huge gobs of housing benefit to private landlords – who make unreasonable demands – and then blame social renting tenants for it). He also, by inference, rejected the evidence that the Bedroom Tax will not save any money.
Mr Ellwood also referred to the deficit run by the Labour government of 1997-2010. He said: “Labour lived beyond its means. In 2002-03, it spent £26 billion beyond its means. Four years later that rose to £33 billion. In its final year of office, the deficit rose to £156 billion. That always accumulates.”
This is disingenuous. As he must know, not only did Labour run a lower deficit than the Conservative governments of both Thatcher and Major (average 41 per cent of gross domestic product) from 1997 to 2007, it also made a surplus in the 2000-2001 financial year – something that the previous Conservative governments never did. This means Labour actually paid off some of the debts that had been accumulating. With that pedigree, even the 43 per cent deficit of 2008 looks respectable. The higher deficits of 2009 and 2010 were entirely caused by the bankster-instigated financial crisis, when the actions taken by Labour were entirely supported by the Conservative Party.
He went on to condemn Labour for voting against £83 billion of welfare savings; if the reasoning for them was as shaky as that for the Bedroom Tax (and it was; see previous VP articles) then Labour was quite right to do so!
It should be noted that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, was not present at the debate. RTU (as we like to call him) was woofing it up in Paris, rather than accounting for his misbehaviour to the taxpayer.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) echoed a comment by Mr Webb, but did it in such an inept way that we’ll look at her words rather than his. Following Labour’s Stephen Twigg, she referred to the too-low allocation of Discretionary Housing Payment to families having to cope with the Bedroom Tax: “Perhaps he would like to speak to his Labour-run Liverpool council and ask why, when it received £892,000 in discretionary housing payments last year, it actually sent back £337,000.”
Mr Twigg put her straight: “Does she accept that the figures that she has given are from before the bedroom tax was introduced? This year, Liverpool city council will certainly spend the entire discretionary housing pot.”
His words echoed fellow Labour MP Lucy Powell, who had previously berated Mr Webb: “The Minister incorrectly gave figures for last year—the bedroom tax was introduced only in April. I was talking about money that will come back this year. I can guarantee that the Minister will not be getting any money back from Manchester this year — the year of the bedroom tax.”
Referring to the 400,000 disabled people affected by the Bedroom Tax, Mrs Reeves said 100,000 disabled people live in properties specially adapted for their disability, but the average grant issued by local authorities for adaptations to homes [when they are forced to move out by the Bedroom Tax] stands at £6,000. The total cost of doing the adaptations all over again could run into tens of millions of pounds.
At this moment, Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire), said while seated: “They’re exempt.”
The response: “The hon. Lady said from a sedentary position that disabled people are exempt, but she would not say it when she was on her feet because she knows it is not true.” In Vox Political‘s home constituency, at least one disabled person has already been evicted because of the Bedroom Tax.
Philip Davies (also known as ‘Stupid of Shipley’) weighed in with a shocking error, in an attempt to attack his local housing association and its director, a Labour MP: “Does the Minister agree that the spare room subsidy is one reason why we do not have the right mix of housing? Social housing providers could build houses as big as they wanted, knowing that the Government would cover the full bill irrespectively. In that respect, does he deplore the social housing provider in my area, of which a Labour MP is a director? It complains on the one hand that it has too many three-bedroom houses—”
That’s as far as he got, and just as well. Let’s go through this one more time: The ‘spare room subsidy’ is a fiction. It never existed and therefore could never have been abolished by the Conservative-led Coalition government. Being entirely make-believe, it could never have affected the decisions of social housing providers. This is just one of the many reasons why Mr Davies is rightly considered to be one of the biggest twits in the Tory Party (among hefty competition). Another might be his claim that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage.
David TC Davies (Monmouth) complained: “Opposition Members… do not want to talk about the fact that they introduced a measure like this for the private sector.”
He was among many Tories who complained about this apparent double-standard. Labour members reminded them that the Bedroom Tax is retrospective (affecting people currently in social housing) while the private-sector measure was for new tenants only. One may also ask why, if these Conservatives were so disturbed by the apparent discrepancy, they were not calling for this earlier measure to be scrapped as well.
George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) said: “We need to pose ourselves a question: what is dealing with the spare room subsidy about? Is it about reducing the housing benefit bill? Yes, of course it is. The Government propose a £500 million saving, which is important.”
It is important, because Conservatives seemed confused throughout the debate about whether they were trying to sort out overcrowding by putting people into appropriate accommodation, or trying to save money. The two are mutually exclusive. The only way to make money on the policy is for people to remain locked in housing that, thanks to the Bedroom Tax, is now too expensive for them – but this cannot last because they will soon be evicted for non-payment of rent. Moving people around, so that nobody is under-occupying, will result in a higher housing benefit bill because more people will be claiming – the original tenants in their new properties (which, if they are run by private landlords, will be more expensive) and the new tenants who will be occupying to the limit of a property’s capability and therefore may claim the full amount of housing benefit. Either way, Mr Hollingberry’s claim of a £500 million saving is pie-in-the-sky.
Margot James (Stourbridge) made a proper fool of herself. She said: “The Opposition… want to position the end of the subsidy and the creation of a level playing field between all recipients of social housing support as a modern day poll tax.” This is the least of her mistakes as some Labour members may have suggested such a thing; in fact it is Eric Pickles’ Council Tax Reduction Scheme that is the modern-day Poll Tax, because every household must now towards it.
Margot James went on to deny that the Bedroom Tax is a tax, saying: “A tax is a government levy on somebody’s income, whereas we are clearly talking about reducing a subsidy.” This is wrong on two counts. Firstly, there has been no subsidy to reduce – unless she was referring to housing benefit in its entirety. The spare room subsidy is, as already mentioned, as mythical as the “unicorns and fairies” to which Anne Main referred when she tried to dismiss the existence of the under-occupation charge as a tax on bedrooms. Both ladies are wrong, because a tax may also be defined as a government levy on property owned or used by a citizen (such as, say, a bedroom). So – not quite as mythical as unicorns and fairies. One has to wonder why Mrs Main mentioned these, as she has clearly been away with the fairies herself.
Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) breezed in from another committee to provide the benefit of his own ignorance. He asked: “Is it fair that someone on a low income who is in privately rented accommodation should pay taxes in order to subsidise someone else’s spare room? Is it fair to raise taxation from low-paid workers to subsidise other people’s accommodation?”
The answer, of course, is yes. It is fair. In fact, it is a principle of our system of taxation. Everybody pays into the national treasury, in order to allow the state to provide services – such as housing – for those in need. This may be a detail that current Tories have missed, considering the government’s vigorous attempts to write the highest earners out of taxation altogether. If he wanted to help low-waged people in private rented housing, the answer to that is also simple: cap their rents.
And doesn’t he know that the very low-paid have been lifted out of taxation by his own government, as the Coalition has been raising the threshold for payment of income tax every year, aiming to reach a target of £10,000 income per annum by 2015.
At the end of the day, the motion to scrap the Bedroom Tax was lost by 26 votes. Some have already said that Labour could have won it if all members had been present, but that was never really on the cards; the government has the numbers, even if some Liberal Democrats (like VP‘s own MP, Roger Williams) abstained.
So what are we to make of it all? Simply this: The Conservatives do not have a credible narrative to describe what the Bedroom Tax is about. It doesn’t save money; it won’t put people into appropriate accommodation; and it certainly won’t cut homelessness!
Work out what it’s really about, and you will understand why they are so desperate to keep it.
Life imitating art: I made this poster months ago, and it is pleasant that its words were echoed by Andy Burnham in the NHS debate.
It was a debate the Labour Party could not win at the vote; the Coalition has the weight of numbers and is always going to vote down a motion that criticises its decisions and record – in this instance, it called for “much-needed honesty” in the public debate on the NHS, and “in particular, NHS spending”.
But it was also a debate that had to take place, and Andy Burnham, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, was right to put the arguments before the public. Anyone listening to the arguments with an open, if inquiring, mind could see that Labour has won this argument.
The Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons yesterday was called by Mr Burnham after Andrew Dilnot, head of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to caution the government that its claims of increased spending on the health service, year on year, during every year of the current Parliament, were inaccurate. He stated that the figures show a real-terms cut in expenditure between the 2009-10 tax year when Labour was in power, and 2011-12.
In fairness, the next sentence of the letter went on to say that, “given the small size of the changes and the uncertainties associated with them, it might also be fair to say that real-terms expenditure has changed little over this period”. Even so, that is not an agreement that funding had increased; it is an assertion that the best the government could say is that funding has been at a standstill.
Mr Burnham pointed out two drains on NHS funding that have taken £3.5 billion out of the system – savings of £1.9 billion that went back to the Treasury instead of being ploughed back into NHS services as promised, and £1.6 billion spent on Andrew Lansley’s vanity-prompted, ideologically-based top-down reorganisation that brought private companies into the NHS with disastrous results.
(I think my own opinions may have intruded into the narrative of the last paragraph, but since these conclusion will be obvious to anyone who reads what follows, I feel justified in drawing attention to them here)
I hope we all know what the promises were. The 2010 Conservative Manifesto stated: “We will increase health spending in real terms every year”; the Coalition Agreement said “We will guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of this Parliament”. And week after week, ministers from the Prime Minister downwards have claimed that is exactly what they have delivered. Until recently, the Conservative Party website prominently stated: “We have increased the NHS budget in real terms in each of the last two years”. And on October 23, from the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to the House of Commons: “Real-terms spending on the NHS has increased across the country.”
But there’s a mismatch here, said Mr Burnham. People have heard that spending is increasing, but what they have seen is an ever-increasing list of cuts to funding and services. Along with other Labour MPs, he delivered a devastating list of these cuts in support of his claims. These included:
750 jobs cut at Salford Royal Hospital, with a total of 3,100 job losses across hospitals in that area, and two walk-in centres closed.
Cuts to the mental health budget.
A broken pre-election promise not to close accident and emergency at Queen Mary’s, Sidcup; it closed after the general election.
A plan to close accident and emergency at Lewisham Hospital.
Cuts to cancer networks.
£1 billion spent on managerial redundancies when patients are seeing treatment restricted and nurses laid off in their thousands.
7,134 nursing posts have been lost since the Coalition came in, 943 in the last month alone.
Training places are being cut by 4.6 per cent this year, after a 9.4 per cent cut in 2011-12.
125 separate treatments have been restricted or stopped altogether since 2010.
More than 50,000 patients have been denied treatments, kept off waiting lists, and there have been big falls in operations for cataracts, varicose veins, and carpal tunnel syndrome. “We have heard claims about reducing waiting lists but that is because people can’t get on the waiting list in the first place,” said Mr Burnham.
West Midlands Ambulance Service advised on Tuesday that there are about half a dozen hospitals in the West Midlands whose A&E staffing situation is so critical that it is having a knock-on effect to turnaround time of ambulances.
In Bolton, South Tees, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, large numbers of staff have been given 90-day redundancy notices.
The consequences were clear, according to the shadow Health Secretary:
74 per cent of NHS leaders described the current financial position as the worst they had ever experienced or very serious, he said. “The reason the government’s cuts feel much deeper is because they are contending with the added effects of a reorganisation that nobody wanted and that they pleaded with the former Secretary of State to stop. Cuts and reorganisation – it’s a toxic mix. As trusts start to panic about the future, increasingly drastic cuts are being offered up that could have serious consequences for patient care.”
Leading on from this, he said the Care Quality Commission found that 16 per cent of hospitals in England did not have adequate staffing levels. “I am surprised a warning of this seriousness hasn’t received more attention,” Mr Burnham said.
“The Prime Minister has cut the NHS – fact,” said Mr Burnham. “But just as he airbrushed his poster, he has tried to airbrush the statistics and has been found out.
“What I find most troubling about all of this, and most revealing about the style of this government and the way it works, is that even when they are warned by an official watchdog, they just carry on as if nothing has happened. When they admitted cutting the NHS in 2011-12 by amending their website, what was the excuse that they offered to Sir Andrew? ‘Labour left plans for a cut.’ Simply untrue.
“According to Treasury statistics, Labour left plans for a 0.7 per cent real-terms increase in the NHS in 2011-12. From then on, we had a spending settlement giving real-terms protection to the NHS budget. It was this government that slowed spending in 2010-11, which allowed the resulting £1.9 billion underspend to be swiped back by the Treasury, contrary to the promise that all savings would be reinvested, and it was this government that still has published plans, issued by HM Treasury, for a further 0.3 per cent cut to the NHS in 2013 and 2014-15 – contrary to the new statement that they have just put up on their website.”
He said the Coalition parties’ arrogance “seems to give them a feeling that they can claim black is white and expect everyone to believe it“. (Would it be in poor taste to hope that, in this case, Douglas Adams is proven correct and they all have terminal experiences the next time they venture onto a zebra crossing?)
“The lethal mix of cuts and reorganisation is destabilising our hospitals,” said Mr Burnham. “They are the first to feel the full effects of the free-market ideology that they have unleashed on the NHS. No longer a ‘One NHS’ approach, where spending is managed across the system, but now a broken-down, market-based NHS. The message to Britain’s hospitals, from this government, is this: ‘You’re on your own. No bailouts. Sink or swim. Oh, but if it helps, you can devote half your beds to treating private patients.’
“So we see increasing signs of panic as they struggle to survive in this harsh new world. And we see half-baked plans coming forward to reconfigure services, with an effort to short-circuit public consultation. Will the Secretary of State today remove the immediate threat to Lewisham A&E by stating clearly that it is a straightforward breach of the rules of the administration process to solve the problems in one trust by the backdoor reconfiguration of another? In Greater Manchester, will he ensure that the future of all A&E provision is considered in the round, in a citywide review, rather than allowing the A&E at Trafford to be picked off in advance? And in St Helens and Mosley, will he reverse the previous SoS’s comments when he told the CCGs they had no obligation to honour financial commitments to the hospital, entered into by the previous PCTs?
“It’s chaos out there, and [the Health Secretary] urgently needs – in fact, they all need to get a grip, not just the Secretary of State; all of them.
“Cuts and reorganisation are resulting in a crude drive to privatise services, prioritising cost over clinical quality. Across England, deals have been signed to open up 396 community services to open tender under ‘any qualified provider’. But these deals are not subject to proper public scrutiny as the deals are held back under commercial confidentiality. In Greater Manchester, plans are advanced to hand over patient transport services to Arriva, despite the fact that an in-house bid scored higher on quality, and despite the fact that the CQC recently found serious shortcomings with the same provider in Leicestershire. Nobody has asked the patients who rely on this service whether they want this change.
“‘Any qualified provider’ is turning into the NHS version of compulsory competitive tendering, a race to the bottom and a rush to go for the cheapest bid, regardless of the effect on patients and services. What clearer symbol could their be of a privatised, cut-price, Coalition NHS than the decision in Greater Manchester to award patient transport to a bus company.”
In the NHS constitution, patients and staff “have the right to be involved, directly or through representatives, in the planning of healthcare services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way those services are provided, and in decisions to be made affecting the operation of those services”. So Mr Burnham asked: “Why doesn’t he just press the pause button now, and ask people if they want their ambulance services run by a bus company? ‘The NHS belongs to the people,’ says the first line of the NHS constitution – not when this government has finished with it, it won’t!
“People will remember the personal promises this Prime Minister made on the NHS to win office. Promises it now seems had more to do with his desire to de-toxify the Tory brand than with any genuine regard for the NHS.
“No top-down reorganisation of the NHS – broken.
“A moratorium on hospital changes – broken.
“And real-terms increases in every year of this Parliament – broken.
“They can now see the chaos that the breaking of these promises is visiting on the NHS: Nurse numbers – cut.
“Health visitors – cut.
“Mental health – cut.
“Cancer networks – cut.
“Cataract operations – cut.
“The man who cut the NHS, not the deficit.”
How did the Coalition combat these assertions? First with an attempt to divert the debate onto the NHS in Wales, overseen by a Labour Assembly Government, where spending has been cut. This was a matter that has exercised David Cameron very much during recent Prime Minister’s Questions, and it was welcome to see Mr Burnham set the record straight as thoroughly as he did yesterday.
He said the Coalition has given to the Welsh Assembly Government a real-terms funding cut of £2.1 billion – and this is the truth of it. I remember discussing the matter with Assembly members last year and it seems that even funding, which had been set aside to cushion the expected blow of cuts from Westminster, had been clawed back by the UK Treasury, with no regard for the consequences to Welsh NHS patients.
“They have done their best to protect health spending in that context,” Mr Burnham said. “Since 2010 there has been no reduction in frontline staff, particularly nurses, unlike [the UK] government. The Welsh Assembly are doing the best they can with the awful hand of cards which [this] government dealt them.”
Next, Mr Burnham was asked if he regretted “removing and reducing health spending to old people and rural areas, which happened under his watch”. It appears that this was a fabrication, dreamed up by the questioner, as Mr Burnham said it bore no relation to reality: “There was no reduction in health spending on my watch. I left plans for an increase. He illustrates my point.”
We heard that the chief economist of the King’s Fund, John Appleby, said that before the general election, the former chancellor had left plans for 2011-12, 2012-13 that would see a cut in real terms.
“I did the deal,” said Mr Burnham, “just months before the general election, protecting the NHS in real terms.
“At the election I was arguing for real-terms protection. I said it would be irresponsible, yes, to give real-terms increases over and above real-terms protection because the only way [to] pay for that would be taking it off councils, hollowing out the social care budget.”
One Tory who seemed particularly keen to assert his superiority said she was “very disappointed” to hear Mr Burnham “talking down the NHS”. She claimed that, before the election, the NHS knew it was facing an “unprecedented efficiency challenge”. And she said that, under Labour, productivity in the NHS fell continuously. Would the shadow health secretary acknowledge the achievements of the NHS in achieving a productivity gain?
This member got what she deserved – a three-word dismissal: “Productivity hadn’t fallen.” It’s a classic Tory ploy, criticising the opposition’s previous record to take the heat off their own current policies. But it doesn’t work when it’s based on a falsehood.
All of these were interjections from backbenchers. We could expect more high-quality responses from the Health Secretary himself, couldn’t we?
Judge for yourself.
“This government is spending more on the NHS than Labour would have, and because that money has moved from the back office to the front line, the NHS is performing better now than it ever did under Labour,” said Jeremy Hunt, the well-known misprint, providing no proof to support his claims.
“In 2011-12, spending went up by £2.5 billion in cash terms, 0.1 per cent in real terms, on 2010-11. And this year, 2012-13, it will go up again, as it will in every year of the Parliament.” But this did not address Andrew Dilnot’s assertion – that spending had dropped from 2009-10 levels. He was being selective with his statistics, and one can only conclude that he was trying to avoid dealing with an inconvenient fact. This was the point at which I knew Labour had won the argument.
“He [Andy Burnham] can hardly come to us, criticising our plans for NHS spending, if his own plans would have led to not higher, but lower NHS spending.” Note that it had already been stated that this was not what Mr Burnham had been doing. He made it clear that he would have protected levels of spending.
Mr Hunt joined the attack on the Welsh Government by stating that Labour has announced plans to cut the NHS budget by eight per cent in real terms, “despite an overall settlement protected by Barnett” (the Barnett settlement is a funding plan for devolved governments. Note that Mr Hunt did not say what the settlement was, and we are therefore deprived of the ability to determine whether this settlement is fair). Mr Hunt went on to ask of his Labour counterpart, “Will he condemn the choice that Labour made in Wales? If he doesn’t want to condemn that, let me tell him what the BMA says is happening in Wales. They talk of a ‘slash and burn’ situation. They talk about ‘panic on the wards’. Would he want that to be repeated in England?” He seemed not to have noticed Mr Burnham stating this is exactly what is already happening.
On a personal note, I use hospitals in Wales – a lot. My girlfriend is disabled and I myself have had occasion to seek hospital treatment. It has always been timely, professional, conducted in a calm, warm, welcoming atmosphere. I have seen no signs of panic on the wards, and if any aspect of the service is being slashed and burned, I haven’t experienced it myself. I have absolutely no complaints about the health service in Wales; if I were to level criticism anywhere, it would be across the border in England.
The final shot in the Wales mini-debate came from a Labour member, who wondered if the cut in Welsh health funding “has got anything to do with the cuts in capital spending from the Westminster government?”
This member added: “And has he any comment to make on National Audit Office figures that show spending on health in Wales is higher than that in England? Or does that not fit with his fictitious version of events?”
Fictitious. That’s exactly right. Now contrast Mr Hunt’s approach to questions from the opposition with the style already displayed by Mr Burnham – who, as evidenced above, tackled his critics head-on, answering them directly with the required facts.
The question was: Will he confirm just how many nurses have been cut under this government’s watch? The answer? “The nurse to bed ratio has gone up. The average bed is getting an extra two hours of nursing care, per week, than under Labour.”
That’s not an answer, and the Labour backbenchers knew it. Smelling blood in the water, another asked: “Why won’t he answer the question put to him – how many nurses have lost their job on his watch? Don’t tell me about nurse-to-bed ratio – answer the question.”
Fat chance! The response, again avoiding a direct answer, was: “The number of clinical staff in the NHS has gone up and not down. I don’t want to micro-manage every hospital in the country and tell them how many doctors and how many nurses.”
Mr Hunt returned to the Coalition line on NHS spending: “”We are increasing spending by £12.5 billion; he [Andy Burnham] thinks that is irresponsible.”
He was, of course, shot down – by two separate comments. One female Labour member stated: “My understanding of that english is that things had not changed much, in any circumstances, but the Secretary of State has said, consistently, he and the government were pledged to an increase. There is nothing in that letter [by Andrew Dilnot] to suggest that any increase has occurred.
And I believe it was Dame Joan Ruddock who said: “I find it impossible to find a record of this extra spending. It seems the reality is cuts and reductions to services.”
No point in listening beyond that. Coalition demolished.
Note: I apologise for the lack of information on who said what, other than the Health Secretary and his Shadow. I’m afraid I was too busy taking down what people were saying to catch their names, as they flashed up on my computer screen. It is not my intention to cause offence.
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