1) Monitoring Air Quality:
As one of the foremost cotton towns, with a continued legacy amongst our citizens of poor respiratory and cardio-vascular health, we must all recognise the importance of clean air to the well-being of the residents and wildlife of this borough.
Certainly in Shaw and Crompton, ward members, being conscious of the on-going impact of diesel fumes from the many HGVs that pass through our ward, en-route to and from local distribution centres, have campaigned long and hard for the installation of a station to monitor air quality. This campaign was recently rewarded when such a station was installed on Crompton Way.
Councillors may be unaware that the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants estimates that up to 29.000 deaths in the UK per year are attributable to poor air quality and that the World Health Organisation has recently classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans.
I was therefore recently concerned to hear of a suggestion by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the legal obligation be removed from local authorities to monitor air quality.
I am sure that the Leader will want to join me in seeking to maintain our Council’s commitment to carrying out these checks, and to continue to participate in the work of the Greater Manchester Air Quality Network, so can I invite him to join me (and the other group leader on Oldham Council) in sending a joint letter to the Minister expressing our concern over this issue?
2) Use of Discretionary Housing Payments and Local Welfare Provision Monies:
I would like to ask the Leader about the use of money allocated by the Coalition Government to provide relief for the poorest and most deserving residents of this borough affected by welfare reform.
I am referring to two ‘pots’ of money given by the Department of Work and Pensions – the DWP – to this authority – the Discretionary Housing Payments fund and local Welfare Provision Fund.
In the 2013 – 14 financial year, Oldham Council has received £498,000 in order that it “may be awarded, in addition to any welfare benefits, when a local authority considers that a claimant requires further financial assistance towards housing costs”.
It is principally used to meet shortfalls, where an award of housing benefit falls short of the rent owed on the property.
The sum that Oldham Council received this year was significantly larger than that received previously, with the intention that it be used in large part to meet rent shortfalls for those social tenants who were deemed to be under-occupying so they might have time to secure a smaller property or to increase their income (by taking up employment or taking in a lodger) to pay the rent.
As of the start of this week, £327,000 – or approximately two thirds – has been spent.
The Local Welfare Provision replaced a number of grants and social fund loans in April and is intended to “meet the short term emergency and immediate support needs of vulnerable people” and “assist vulnerable people to establish or maintain a home in the community”.
The DWP awarded £1,038,000 to this authority for this purpose.
My understanding is that by mid-December £453,000 – or under half of this money – had been spent.
However, only £213,000 of this went to needy applicants. £80,000 was spent on beefing up our welfare rights service, which we welcome. But worryingly £160,000 was spent on administration. There must surely be something wrong when Oldham Council is spending £4 on administration for every £5 awarded in grant?
We are now in the final quarter of the current financial year.
At this point, we have spent two thirds of one budget and under half of another.
So can the Leader please tell me how he intends to speed up payments in the final quarter to ensure the poorest and most needy residents of this borough get the money they are entitled to as the Government expected when it awarded this Council the money?
And what he intends to do with any underspend – which particularly in the case of the Local Welfare Provision is likely to be significant?
3) Zero Hours Contracts:
The use of zero hours’ contracts by employers has recently attracted significant criticism.
The Get Oldham Working strategy, a key corporate priority for this Council, includes a commitment (to quote from the Council’s own website) “to support ‘Fair Employment’ by promoting a Living Wage and tackling issues like ‘zero hours’ contracts”.
We had the debate about introducing the National Living Wage at last Council, so for tonight I will confine myself to a question relating to ‘zero hours’ contracts.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Dr Vince Cable, MP, has launched a public consultation on a range of proposals to reform the use of ‘zero hours contracts’ in the labour market. The closing date for the submission of comments is 13th March of this year.
The Leader will recall that I asked for a special hearing of the Overview and Scrutiny Board to be convened to respond to a similar consultation last summer by Government on the Work Capability Assessment.
I would like to ask the Leader to convene a similar hearing of O + S to which elected members and other interested parties, such as employers’ bodies and trades unions, are invited to attend, or otherwise contribute, in order that this Council can make a collective submission by the deadline.