March 2014 Report

Parliamentary Business

The Budget – Housing

I spoke in the debate on the Budget and raised my concerns about its failure to tackle the day to day needs of most of my constituents.

I focused my comments on housing and the needs of “generation rent”.

I also called for an increase in the tax free threshold given for the rent a room scheme, which allows an untaxed income from renting a room. The limit is currently £4250 a year.

In the last year property prices locally have increased by nearly 20 per cent and the average price for a house in Hackney is now £554,306. A person earning £45,000 – more than twice the average UK salary – could not now afford to buy in Hackney.

There needs to be more support given to allow people to move from social housing, into the private sector. I believe the Government is failing in several ways to do this. The requirement to sell public land to the highest bidder is a real block on social housing development. Steps must be taken to ensure more affordable housing is being built by changing Treasury rules to allow release of public land for this.

The Budget – Childcare

My second major concern is that the Government failed to address the cost and provision of childcare.

The cost of childcare and childminders is prevents many women wherever they live from being able to return to work. Childcare costs 28 per cent more in London and Hackney than in many other parts of the UK and so the problem is even worse here and a real squeeze on a family’s tight budget.

Whilst the announcement of an online scheme for a 20 per cent childcare subsidy scheme was welcome, the headline figure of £2000 per child per year is wildly misleading. In reality, a family would have to be spending £10,000.00 a year on each child to receive this amount. I am also concerned that the firm running the scheme will be ATOS, which has made so many mistakes in its handling of the assessment of disability benefits that up to 40 per cent of appeals against its decisions are successful.

The current Government has cut around £15billion of support to working parents over the course of this Parliament. This headline grabbing initiative offers nothing that is new, will cost a fraction of that £15billion and does not target help where it is needed most. With zero hour contracts on the increase, and few initiatives to increase the supply of truly affordable childcare, we need to be doing more to ensure that people on low incomes can return to work.

The Budget – Welcome changes

There was however some snippets of good news in this year’s Budget. I was pleased to see changes to export loans, which will benefit businesses in Hackney.

An extra £1 million has also been given to the London Air Ambulance, based at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, which will enable a new helicopter to be purchased.

A fairer deal has also been offered to travellers to the Caribbean with reduction to air passenger duty. I have been pushing for this for some time.

Finally a reduction in bingo tax has been announced. I have worked closely with Hackney Mecca Bingo and local bingo patrons to campaign for this.

Bedroom Tax

This month, I spoke against the bedroom tax in at a meeting in Hackney.

I also challenged the Deputy Prime Minister in Parliament.

Following the admission by his own party chairman that the bedroom tax is causing misery to those affected, I hoped Nick Clegg would recognise what a flawed and unfair measure it is. Instead, he reiterated his commitment to it.
In response to the 2014 Budget, I set out the cost of the Bedroom Tax for people in Hackney. The tax costs £767 per year for one ‘spare’ room and £1,370 per year for two ‘spare’ rooms.

Labour has committed that one of its first actions if elected to government in 2015 would be to scrap this tax. I fully support the removal of this tax which continues to take advantage of some of the poorest people in Hackney and around the country.

I am particularly concerned at the impact of the tax on those who want to downsize but who struggle to find smaller accommodation.

Bank lending

I pressed the Secretary of State for Business, Skills and Innovation on the withdrawal of overdrafts for small businesses in Hackney.

When I speak to businesses locally, they tell me that demands from banks to replace overdrafts with less flexible, big loans can cause significant problems.

It is clear that the Government knows that the current system is not working. Late in March the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launched another consultation into small business finance.

This is the third time that the Funding for Lending scheme has been re-evaluated and businesses are still failing to get the funds they need to grow. The Government must get a better handle on this important issue.

Immigration Bill

I had many concerns following the passing of the Immigration Bill in February. I followed up my concerns in the House in March by pursuing promises made to me by the Minister for Immigration during the committee stage of this Bill.

It often takes many months for the Home Office to process applications from people who want to extend their current legal working status in the UK.

This causes problems for applicants with their employers who must ensure that they only employ people who have valid leave to remain in this country or face a heavy fine.

The implementation of the Immigration Bill will also cause applicants problems with landlords who will now have to make similar checks.

I have pressed the minister to ensure this is resolved. It is vital that there is an efficient mechanism in place for people to show that they are awaiting a decision on an application.

When the Home Office has failed to provide such evidence in the past, I have seen my constituents lose jobs. I do not want to see them lose their homes as well.

Personal Independence Payments

The beleaguered Department for Work and Pensions is under fire for its poor implementation of Personal Independence Payments.

These are replacing Disability Living Allowance for new claimants.

The department was called in front of Parliament’s public spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee. I compiled a dossier of evidence from MPs about the severe delays – typically at least eight months for payments to be made.

We also challenged the private sector companies, Capita and ATOS, which run the contracts to make the assessments.

I was very concerned at the lack of preparation by both Government and these companies. Capita has a better system which is delivering a reasonable service but some of the most vulnerable are suffering from the incompetence of the system.

To see the National Audit Office’s follow
here

Other matters

Co-op

As a Labour and Co-op MP and long standing co-operator I have been dismayed by the unravelling of the Co-op group.

The Co-op is owned by its members. It is not a plc and any new management needs to understand its roots and work with members to resolve matters. The revelations about multi million pound pay packages and retention bonuses suggest that the management is out of touch with the members.

Change is needed at the Co-op but it must be done with members not to them. I have been heartened by the number of ordinary members and customers who share my concerns that the former chief executive had been given a pay package worth £3.6m.

The chief executive of John Lewis, another employee owned business, is paid less than £1m and yet we have recently seen secret pay packages for Coop executives topping £3m including unearned retention payments

See my recent articles for the Guardian here and Progress here

Digitial Democracy Commission

The Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission has been examining how to make law making more accessible to people.

The Commission is meeting monthly and will also be visiting areas of the UK to hear peoples’ views. I will be visiting South Korea to learn more about how e-democracy works there. So far I see many examples of Parliaments and governments ahead of the UK. Although we have not yet drawn final conclusions I am a strong advocate for open and accessible data from Parliament to allow businesses to create greater access. The website They Work For You is one example of how data can drive innovation and access but so much more could be achieved.

I have also spoken about the importance of allowing people easier access to Parliament as part of a programme by Demos, D-CENT which seeks to find examples of intermediate democratic platforms linking people to government.

The Children Society’s report

The Children’s Society’s new report ‘Behind Cold Doors’ calls on the Government to make the Warm Home Discount available to all families with children living in poverty. Currently, only pensioners in receipt of Pension Credit are guaranteed it – although some energy suppliers have extended availability to some vulnerable households.

Over half the children in poverty live in families not receiving the discount. That equates to 410,000 children in London alone.

To work out if you are eligible for the discount, please visit here

Meningitis B vaccinations

I have welcomed the Government’s decision to give all babies the Meningitis B vaccine.

The UK has one of the highest Meningitis B incidence rates in the world, affecting an average of 1,870 people each year over the last 10 years, most of whom are babies and children. Meningitis B accounts for 50 per cent of the total cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK.

I was among 135 MPs to support the Beat it Now! campaign led by Meningitis Now, the UK’s largest meningitis charity.

The People’s Millions

People’s Millions is a partnership between the Big Lottery Fund and ITV, which offers £50,000 of Lottery funding to 76 local community projects.
The competition allows local community projects to showcase their work on ITV regional news. The public then decide which projects will be given the funding.

If you are interested, visit; here or call 08454 102030. Deadline is 16 May 2014.

Hackney Issues

National Apprenticeship Week

This month I visited Hackney Jobcentre Plus to mark the beginning of National Apprenticeship Week.

A report published by the Association of Accounting Technicians shows how businesses can benefit by taking on apprentices.

It shows how, on average, a local company which hires an apprentice, could benefit by £2,621. New apprentices gave local businesses a boost of £1.8 million last year.

To learn more visit here

Woman’s event in Hackney

On Thursday 27 March I hosted my annual Hackney women’s event, where a group of talented and enthusiastic women from the creative industries shared their passion about their careers with young women from Hackney sixth forms.

This event, which was generously sponsored by the Hackney Empire and Tesco on Morning Lane, helped young women develop their networking skills and inspire them to pursue their future ambitions and career goals.

Hackney has a fantastic mix of experienced and talented young people. The professional women were excited about sharing their experiences with the students who gained a glimpse of what they could go on to achieve.

The event was a great success; professional women attending included the Empire’s Creative Director Susie McKenna, TV actor Sharon D Clark, sculptor Sophie Dickens, radio producer Xanthe Fuller, Moody, Farrell founder Eloise Moody and many more.

It was great to see so many professional women from the creative industries support and encourage young women

Royal Mail contracts

Royal Mail has recently been awarded a two year contract to collect and deliver mail for 14 councils across London, including Hackney Council. The hope is to make the postal service more efficient at delivering between councils and to their residents.

Lee Valley VeloPark

This month, Lee Valley Velopark was opened to the public. The park provides for the four cycling disciplines from London 2012; track cycling, BMX, road cycling and mountain biking.

Riders of all abilities can use the four circuits on offer, which include the velodrome from the London games. Public sessions began on March 31.

It is pleasing to see the continuation of the sporting Olympic Legacy. As more of the park becomes available for public use, I hope that more people will take advantage of our local, world class facilities.

Branch Out Training Programme

Otesha, an environmental and social justice charity, is running its Branch Out training programme to help young people qualify for a career in horticulture.

The 11 week course, aimed at 16 to 25 year olds, will run three times this year, beginning on 22 April, 1 July and 9 September 2014.

The course offer qualifications in environmental literacy, healthy-eating and cooking and also employability sessions, with a focus on green jobs.

To find out more information, visit here