July 2014 Report

Parliamentary Business

Data retention bill

The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) was hurriedly introduced to Parliament in mid-July. The timetable for discussion of the bill was appallingly rushed.

The coalition had been aware of the need to do something since April when an EU directive was struck out by the European Court. It would have been more sensible to include the measure in the Queen’s Speech or to launch a consultation months ago.

The DRIP bill does not enhance any government investigatory powers. It allows for the continuation of powers that the police and other agencies have relied on to check on paedophile activity online and to pursue those responsible for the attempted terrorist attack on Glasgow airport in 2007.

The Labour Party secured an agreement from the government that the bill will cease to be enforceable during 2016.

This means that whichever party forms the next government will have to have to bring forward new legislation at an early stage of the next Parliament.

This is why another concession secured by the Labour Party is important – a proper review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (which sets overarching policy on these issues).

This will take place between now and 2016 and should allow for a proper and mature debate on government data retention policy.

I voted in favour of the bill.

Off patent drugs bill

This is a private member’s bill proposed by Jonathan Evans MP.

All drugs prescribed in the UK need to be licensed for a specific purpose. When their patents run out, many drug companies do not renew the licenses which means that good quality, lifesaving drugs can no longer be prescribed.

The bill seeks to make it easier and cheaper for the drugs to continue to be prescribed. I haven’t seen the full text of the bill yet but the idea behind it seems sound.

I have asked Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt for further information as to whether his department backs the bill, or not.

I have also asked him to consider other ways in which the proposals in the bill could be made into law with Department of Health backing

The bill will return to Parliament in early November after receiving a first reading earlier this month.

Refugee camps

As you may recall from a previous report, I visited Rwanda earlier this year with a delegation from the UK Parliament to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. It was a sobering visit.

Since then I have worked with a Conservative MP, Pauline Latham to secure a debate on refugee camps on 22 July.

See my speech here.

Passports

My office continues to experience very high levels of calls from constituents who have been waiting many weeks for their passport applications to be processed. Our efforts have helped a number of people travel overseas as planned.

However, I remain concerned that ministers at the Home Office have been completely unable to grasp the severity of the situation.

In answers to Parliamentary questions and to the Home Affairs Select Committee it is clear they are not being provided with the basic information that I received on a weekly basis when I was passports minister.

I tabled two written questions at the very beginning of July. Only one of them has received any sort of response.

Education Questions

On 21 July, during education questions, I secured a promise from new Education and Skills minister, Nick Boles MP to come and meet some of my young constituents who are keen to secure face-to-face careers advice at a much earlier stage than is currently the norm.

Hackney’s schools continue to improve but we need to make sure that our young people know what they can go on to achieve.

Basketball APPG report

I am a member of the Basketball All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). We recently published a detailed report about the ability of basketball to make a difference to the social challenges facing young people, particularly in inner city areas like Hackney.

Further information and the full report can be found here.

Other matters

Tate & Lyle Sugars Visit

On 11th July, I joined other MPs on a trip of the Tate & Lyle Sugars refinery in Newham. Tate & Lyle sources its sugar cane, much of it Free Trade, from African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. I understand that Tate & Lyle is in fact the second largest payer of fair trade premiums in the world.

In contrast, most other EU sugar refineries use European sourced sugar beet, which is protected by tariffs and subsidised by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Production at the Thames refinery is threatened by the current tariffs system as Tate & Lyle sources its raw cane sugar from outside the EU and has to pay import duties on it – something that refineries using EU sugar beet do not have to. Production in Newham has nearly halved since 2009 as Tate & Lyle struggles to compete with subsidised EU competitors. Local jobs are at threat as a result.

Following the tour, I have contacted ministers at HM Treasury and asked them to lobby Europe to ensure that the sugar beet and sugar cane industries are able to compete on an equal basis.

Child Poverty on the Increase

Under the last government, child poverty levels consistently fell from 1999 onwards. Released at the very beginning of July, a report from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has shown how the coalition’s reforms have halted and will now reverse progress.

Relative child poverty (which is poverty measured against average incomes) is on the increase. Nearly one in five (17 per cent or 2.3million) of all children now live in poverty. With housing costs taken into account, this figure rises by a further 100,000.

Based on current policy, CPAG expects relative child poverty to increase to 3.2 million by 2020. Even worse, absolute child poverty, which is measured against a fixed point looks set to increase to 4 million by 2020. This is not just a problem affecting people on benefits. Two thirds of the children now living in poverty will have at least one working parent.

Warm home discount scheme

Mid July was the qualifying date for the 2014/15 warm home discount scheme. Most people who are eligible for the £140.00 discount will be contacted in writing on or before 24 December.

Automatic qualification comes by receipt of the guaranteed credit element of pension credit. Many supply companies offer discretionary schemes to help other people. For further information visit.

DWP benefit sanctions

Many constituents have contacted me over the past couple of years after having their claim for Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) sanctioned.

This is where a member of staff at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) or one of its contractors decide that somebody has not done enough to look for work and stops their benefit payments for several weeks or months.

One of my big concerns is that the letters telling people that they have been sanctioned do not tell them why. It is often the case that nobody at the DWP knows why the sanction has been applied either.

The department has now commissioned Matthew Oakley, who works for consumers group, Which? to investigate. Mr Oakley recommended that all claimants must be given detailed information about why their claim has been referred or sanctioned as well as being provided with details of their appeal rights.

He also insisted that the government make available online and in hard copy full details of how the sanctioning system works. In addition, he demanded that people who have trouble understanding letters must be identified and spoken to in detail whenever a sanction is considered.

DWP ministers have accepted all of Mr Oakley’s recommendations. I will await further developments with interest.

Over one million referrals for possible sanctions were made last year causing misery whilst benefits were temporarily suspended. Of those cases, nearly 29 per cent were then sanctioned only for 40 per cent of those decisions to be overturned on appeal.

In other words 115,000 of the poorest households in the UK in the last year have had money removed from them and then reinstated by the DWP.

If someone is flagrantly refusing to look for work they should not receive benefits, but most people I see I are keen to work and face these unexplained sanctions. I would like ministers to have a similar review of the quality of decision making.

Council Tax

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has published a report on the effect of the changes made to council tax last year.

Previously, people in receipt of benefits or on low incomes had their council tax paid from central government funds.

Starting in March last year, the coalition government stopped this and instead decided to pay those funds directly to local councils minus 10 per cent.

Individual councils are now forced to collect the remaining 10 per cent from the very poorest members of society.

The report shows that over 90,000 of the poorest Londoners have been charged costs of around £10million after falling into arrears.

Labour is looking at ways in which council tax can be reformed and this was part of the work of its Local Government Innovation Taskforce, which Hackney’s Mayor Jules Pipe has been part of. For further information see here.

Holiday childcare

The Family and Childcare Trust’s annual survey has shown that holiday childcare costs have increased by more than the rate of inflation in the past year.

Since the beginning of the current Parliament, holiday childcare costs have increased by 16 per cent – four times faster than wages.

In London, parents using such schemes will be paying an extra £134 per child, per year on average. Details of the childcare schemes in Hackney this year here.

Ofcom advice – mobile phones abroad

I have had a couple of cases recently where constituents have been faced with very large bills from their mobile network operator after a trip abroad. These were cases where people had, unknowingly, been downloading large amounts of data via 3G.

I am looking at the individual cases but was pleased to see that Ofcom has recently issued some guidance on this matter. New EU rules should help to reduce costs but do read Ofcom’s guide before going abroad.

London cycling design standards

Last month, I mentioned the first proposed update to London’s cycling design standards for nearly a decade. I have just been advised that the deadline for responses has been extended to Monday 11 August.

Further details on how to influence decisions on cycle lanes and other provision can be found here.

Hackney Issues

Forest Garden, Bishopsgate

Situated on the Tower Hamlets/Hackney border is the Bishopsgate Goods Yard development.

Part of the planning permission granted to the developers dictates that they create a half mile long community garden running along the top of some railway arches.

The East London Garden Society is unhappy with the current proposals from the developer and has organised a petition to try and get amendments made to the design.

Full details of their concerns can be found here. The petition is available to sign here.

Olympic Park

Boris Johnson has announced further details of his plans for an “Olympicopolis” at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Stratford. His plans include new expansion sites for the Victoria and Albert Museum and Sadler’s Well dance.

He will launch an international design competition for the scheme. Whilst these plans are welcome and will help to boost economic activity in East London, I am concerned that there is a lack of focus on developing a lasting Olympic legacy for local people in terms of housing and sports development.

Hackney health profile

Earlier this month, Public Health England published health profiles for all areas of England. The report covering Hackney shows the challenges that the area faces.

Disappointingly nearly 35 per cent (18,700) of Hackney’s children are growing up in poverty. Male life expectancy is significantly lower than the UK average. The full report can be found here.

Hackney has a health and wellbeing board which brings together local expertise and works to improve local health outcomes. Further information can be found here.

New Era Estate

I continue to press the case for residents of the New Era estate who are concerned about their future following the recent purchase of their estate by a consortium.

I am hopeful that a longer term arrangement can be reached on rent levels for residents and hope that vulnerable residents can be protected.