Universal Credit and Sanctions – my comments from Oldham Council Meeting 13 Sept 17

Actually agree with the motion (see below), but the instances of sanctions can be reduced by our raising awareness amongst local claimants as to why sanctions occur and how they can be mitigated, in essence:

Turn up to appointments

Keep evidence of job search activity

Most claimants are sanctioned because of:

Failing to show at an interview with the Job Centre or a Work Programme provider without giving “good reason.”

Failing to demonstrate that they have carried out sufficient job search activity to meet the requirements to actively seek work.

So our front-line staff should emphasise in their dealings with claimants that:

  • They should never ignore letters from the Job Centre.
  • They should always go to appointments on time.
  • And if they cannot, they should let the Job Centre or Work Programme Provider know beforehand why they cannot go or contact them as soon as possible thereafter with their “good reason” for failing to attend.
  • They should keep any evidence relating to why they haven’t got to appointments.
  • Where claimants are struggling with job search or keeping insufficient evidence of job search they should be encouraged to
  • Book support sessions with a Work Coach at the Job Centre
  • Attend a work club or more than one regularly to get the help they need

We should build additional support for vulnerable claimants who are more likely to be sanctioned.

This is why the Liberal Democrats have been working with DWP to introduce additional safeguards for vulnerable claimants.

 These are defined as claimants with “mental health conditions or learning disabilities or any conditions affecting communication and/or cognition”.

Problems experienced negotiating the benefit system can result in them ending up destitute.

Many of these people only find out they have been sanctioned when they have checked their bank balance and found out they don’t have any money.  The number of disability claimants who have had their benefits sanctioned is soaring.

This is why we want to see the safeguarding model for vulnerable claimants in Oldham work and Oldham Council needs to be pressing and co-operating with DWP staff to make it work.

Vulnerable claimants would be encouraged to nominate a health or social worker to act on their behalf as an advocate or contact person with whom Job Centre staff will work before a sanction is considered, proactively identifying customers who may need safeguarding preventing them getting into rent arrears.

Our motion in March called for this initiative to be actively promoted by the Council and for front-line staff in a range of agencies to receive training so that they understand how they can best support these clients.

We also called for a Vulnerability Guide to be created as a ready source of information for these workers and for a liaison group to be established with representatives from all of the relevant agencies to ensure that the initiative works.

These suggestions are NOT solutions or panaceas to Universal Credit – we support the objectives of the motion – but they are practical measures that we can adopt as a Council with our social partners to reduce the incidents of sanctions amongst UC claimants in our Borough.

Labour’s Motion is below:

This Council notes that Universal Credit (UC) is a single monthly payment which replaces six working age benefits (known as legacy benefits).These are Housing Benefit (HB), Income Support (IS), Working Tax Credits (WTC), Child Tax Credit (CTC), Employment and Support Allowance (Income-related) and Job Seekers Allowance (Income-related). It supports residents on low incomes who are both in and out of work.

Oldham has been a pathfinder for Universal Credit since 2013. However, the numbers of residents moving onto Universal Credit from 2013 have been restricted to new claimants and straightforward cases. The roll out of the full service of Universal Credit which commenced in Oldham on 26 April 2017 is a new entirely online-based system and claimants must apply for and manage their claim online. It also brings in a wider range of claimants including more complex cases. It affects claimants when they make a claim for the first time or have a change in circumstances that means their existing claim for one of the legacy benefits has to be cancelled.

Oldham is one of the early boroughs subject to the rollout of Universal Credit full service. The delivery of the new service has been an area of particular concern across the country and was subject in the last parliament to an investigation by the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

As a result, and while the DWP and Job Centre Plus are the agency responsible for managing the change, the Council is committed to pro-active and continued work with key stakeholders and partners to ensure that as much support is provided to residents as possible to help achieve a smooth transition to the new service.

However, this Council has a number of concerns about Universal Credit

  • The wait times between the date of application and date of assessment. There is a built in waiting period of 6 weeks before Universal Credit is awarded and this creates hardship for residents. Any delay in DWP processing times exacerbates this hardship still further.
  • The level of deductions applied to monthly payments to clawback advance payments and sanctions can be high leaving residents with little money to cover basic income needs for their families for the weeks ahead.
  • The high number of Universal Credit claimants that have been subject to sanctions in Oldham
  • That the provision of housing  costs support for short term temporary accommodation for Oldham’s homeless population is not an appropriate fit for Universal Credit and should be returned to and covered by Housing Benefit at the earliest opportunity

This Council resolves to:

Instruct the Chief Executive to write to the following to register these issues and request that solutions are explored which would improve the design and delivery of Universal Credit which would mitigate impacts for low- income, working age residents in the borough;

  1. The Rt. Hon David Gauke MP Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  2. Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, Jim McMahon MP for Oldham West and Royton and Angela Rayner MP for Ashton Under -Lyne, Droylsden and Failsworth
  3. The Local Government Association (LGA)

My two allowed questions at tonight’s (13 Sept) Oldham Council meeting – Payment of Invoices and Free Bulky Waste collections

Oldham Council 12 September 2017 – Leader’s Questions

Question 1 – Invoices

Mr Mayor, my first question relates to how this Council supports small businesses in this Borough.

I am sure the Leader is aware that in April of this year the Leader of her party announced that a Labour Government would ‘declare war on late payment’ to small businesses.

Speaking at an event organised by the Federation of Small Businesses, the Labour leader called it ‘a national scandal’ that big companies were withholding more than £26 billion from suppliers, forcing 50,000 of them out of business every year.

Local Labour MP Debbie Abrahams commented favourably on this.  She has been championing a similar local campaign ‘Be Fair – Pay on Time’.

She reported at the time that over 400 businesses in Oldham East and Saddleworth have said they are struggling to pay staff because of late payments and 66 went bust.

All very commendable – I am sure we all want to see a thriving small business sector in our country and especially in our Borough – and cash flow difficulties caused by late payment kills businesses.

So why is it that Debbie doesn’t seem to have publically taken Oldham Council to task?

For the average length of time this Labour Council takes to pay an invoice was 24 days in 2015 / 2016, when it was only 15 when the Liberal Democrats ran the Council, I was Leader.

Mr Corbyn also said that a Labour government would require any company bidding for a public sector contract to pay its own suppliers within 30 days and would look at introducing fines for persistent late payers.

This Council will have to be careful that the promised legislation doesn’t extend to penalising Councils who follow the same practice – for it is likely that Oldham would have to pay a hefty fine.

For in 2015/16, the number of invoices this Council paid after 30 days was 15,247, when it was only 8,051 under the Liberal Democrats.  And the current system does not even allow us to identify which invoices are delayed because of disputes and which because of inefficiency.

This Administration makes a great play of its deal with Oxygen Finance whereby suppliers can be paid in five days instead of 30 in return for paying an ‘Early Repayment Fee’, but why should businesses pay us money to receive the money that they are owed by us more quickly?

In my day, the Liberal Democrat Administration simply placed more emphasis on paying our suppliers, especially our local suppliers promptly.

So can I ask the Leader tonight what she will now do to ensure that this Council will ‘Be Fair to our small businesses and Pay on Time’?

Question 2 – Free Bulky Bobs Collection

Mr Mayor, for my second question I would like to turn to the issue of bulky waste collections.

I was glad to see that the Council is looking to re-tender for the bulky waste collection service.

I would like to reveal what appears to be a closely kept secret – that under the current contract delivered by Bulky Bobs some residents are still able to access a free bulky waste collection services.

I say closely kept secret – because even I did not know it until recently and I am sure that many members in this Chamber will not know of it either.

For a little known fact is that when charging was first introduced by the new Labour Administration in 2012 there was, in part due to the pressure and concerns the Liberal Democrats had, an acknowledgement that certain low income groups must still be able to access a limited free bulky waste collection service.

This was to ensure that they were not “disproportionately disadvantaged” by the charge for this service, as defined by the 2010 Equalities Act.

So any customers who are – I quote – “Any customers physically disabled, infirm due to old age, or pregnant are entitled to one free collection a year.”

Interestingly this proviso is not mentioned on the Council’s website or in any public papers for the recent Cabinet meeting at which it was agreed to re-tender the contract.

Nor can the information be found on the website of Bulky Bob or on Bulky Bob’s Facebook page.

So if you were one of these eligible “disadvantaged” customers, or a carer for them, you would not know the concession existed nor how to access it.

So, Mr Mayor, my second question to the Leader tonight is.

Can she confirm that this concession exists under the current contract and that it will be maintained under the new contract?

And can she also say how this concession will be publicised to eligible customers in future?

Liberal Democrat call for Action to End National Scandal of Homelessness

Crompton Liberal Democrat Councillor Diane Williamson will be proposing a motion to the next full meeting of Oldham Council (13 September) calling for Oldham Council to take action to help end rough sleeping and homelessness.

Official figures show that over 4,000 people in England are sleeping rough on any one night and that over a quarter of a million people are in some form of homelessness. The figures for sleeping rough have increased by fifty percent in the last two years alone.

Councillor Williamson said: “It is a national disgrace that in a modern industrial economy and Britain is one of the world’s leading economies, rough sleeping and homelessness can exist in the twenty first century.”

Official figures also show that Greater Manchester is a city region with the fourth highest levels of homelessness.

“At full Council, I will be hoping for cross-party support to commit Oldham to do its bit to make rough sleeping and homelessness a thing of the past. We would like a report on the current situation in our borough and what is being doing, and can be done, to improve it.”

Councillor Williamson added: “The Oldham Liberal Democrats also endorse the campaign launched recently by the new Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham to tackle this issue head on as an urgent priority for all ten local authorities and partner organisations in our city region.”

Unfortunately a recent report for the homelessness charity Crisis has identified that rough sleeping and homelessness may rise by three quarters over the next decade.

In response, Councillor Williamson said: “This is why it is important that we also tackle this issue at a national level. Changes to housing benefit entitlement and delays in payments, wages not rising sufficiently to meet spiralling private sector rents, and the lack of affordable housing for rent has exacerbated this situation, and much of the blame must be placed at the feet of Conservative ministers who are so unconcerned because they are so out-of-touch with the day-to-day reality of those affected. We support the End Rough Sleeping Campaign, and call on our fellow Councillors and local Members of Parliament to also endorse this.”

The Council motion reads:

This Council notes:

The national scandal of homelessness, with official figures showing over 4,000 people sleeping rough on any one night, in England last year and over 250,000 people in some form of homelessness.

That figures for sleeping rough have increased by nearly 50% in the last two years.

That Greater Manchester has a particular homelessness problem, with Manchester having the fourth highest rates of rough sleeping in the country.

The charities, Crisis, Centrepoint, Homeless Link, Shelter and St Mungo’s have launched the End Rough Sleeping Campaign to call upon politicians of all parties to make a commitment to end rough sleeping and homelessness.

Working with our social housing and voluntary sector partners, Council reaffirms its commitment to ending rough sleeping and homelessness.

Council resolves to:

Adopt as policy the aspirations outlined in the End Rough Sleeping Campaign that in this borough:

  • no one is sleeping rough
  • no one is living in shelters, hostels or other emergency accommodation without a plan to move into suitable and settled housing within an agreed appropriate timescale
  • no one is homeless as a result of leaving the care system, prison or other state institution
  • everyone at immediate risk of homelessness gets the help they need to prevents it happening.

Ask the Chief Executive to write to the charities involved with the End Rough Sleeping Campaign to give the campaign this Council’s support and to ask the campaign to register the Council as a supporter.

Ask the Chief Executive to write to our three Members of Parliament, urging them to support action at a Government level, including:

  • Adequately funding local government and local health services enable them to properly undertake their duties to tackle homelessness and causes of homelessness
  • Ensuring that the benefits system is contributing to stopping homelessness, not causing it
  • Addressing issues in housing provision, including providing for longer and more stable private rental period
  • Support measures to tackle homelessness at a Greater Manchester level, including:
  • Supporting the Homelessness Action Network created by the Greater Manchester Mayor
  • Working together as ten boroughs, and using our devolved powers to collectively bring an end to homelessness as an urgent priority.
  • Ensuring that a revised Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, and the Oldham Local Plan, has appropriate and affordable housing as a core priority
  • Ensure that Oldham Council, and our social housing and voluntary sector partners, are doing everything we can to contribute to ending homelessness by asking the Leader to bring a report to Council outlining how our local services are working to end homelessness in the Borough.

Oldham Liberal Democrats say ‘Don’t Kill off Manchester Heart Services’

Saddleworth North Liberal Democrat Councillor Garth Harkness is proposing a motion at the next full meeting of Oldham Council condemning proposals to relocate specialist NHS medical services for Oldham patients with serious heart conditions to Yorkshire and the North East of England, and calling for them to remain local.

Cllr Harkness will propose the motion because he is seriously concerned that the move will adversely impact on the quality of care that heart patients receive in this region. He also has his own personal concerns.

He explained: “Like many people in this region, I have a heart condition. I rely upon regular health checks from NHS staff based at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, I am reassured that my current health can be managed within the region and at the moment, I would not have to travel outside the region to access specialist services. Sadly this is not the case for many others and the situation could get worse.”

“Regrettably, despite the work being done to promote healthy life choices, heart disease remains one of the biggest killers of adults in this borough and in this region. Many thousands of local people rely on the local NHS for their specialist treatment.”

“Despite this, as a result of a recent review where NHS England find it acceptable to consider relocating specialist services to Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield, and to expect local patients, many of whom are seriously ill, and their carers to travel there for treatment. This will mean that they will incur additional costs and the stress and time involved in travel; not great for patients who are not in good health and for households who are often likely to be reliant on welfare benefits. This is now already happening because surgeons have left Manchester and they can’t replace them.”

“Most worrying the review says that in the event of an emergency attendance at a local hospital, patients will be ‘stabilised and managed’ by doctors until fit for transfer to a specialist centre. I am sure that heart patients who take a turn for the worse will have higher expectations of treatment than merely being ‘stabilised and managed’ until they can be shipped out of their local area for real treatment. What if these emergency patients do not survive the journey?”

“This is a National Health Service and heart patients should expect to receive the same level of high quality of care wherever we may live, whether this be in Oldham or Otley, Oxford or Ottery St Mary.”

“The Oldham Liberal Democrats are saying ‘Don’t Kill Off’ our heart services and demanding that specialist services stay in Greater Manchester. We want this Council to back that demand and to enlist the support of our local Members of Parliament and the new Greater Manchester Mayor in support of our campaign.

The motion reads:

Council notes that:

  • Heart disease remains one of the biggest killers of adults in this borough and that it debilitates many more.
  • The Oldham Locality Plan for Health & Social Care Transformation reports that “Our adult population is less physically active, smokes more, and carries more excess weight than the England average and we have higher than average alcohol-related admissions to hospital. These unhealthy behaviours mean we have significantly higher numbers of people with recorded diabetes, and deaths from smoking-related diseases, cardiovascular disease and cancer are significantly higher than the England average.”
  • There has recently been a review of congenital heart disease treatment services in this region.

Council is concerned that, under the current proposals resulting from this review:

  • Some patients will be obliged to access services, and surgery outside the North West, at specialist centres in Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield.
  • In the event of an emergency attendance at a local hospital, patients will be “stabilised and managed by doctors until fit for transfer to a specialist centre”.
  • The capacity of the Manchester Royal Infirmary to carry out specialist procedures has over past months been reduced as key medical staff have left the hospital as they had no guarantee their services would be required following the review.
  • The proposed merger of the South and Central Trafford NHS Trusts has created further uncertainty of employment for specialist staff in our region as the two hospitals providing heart services – Manchester Royal Infirmary and Wythenshawe – will be brought under one trust.

Council believes that:

  • It is unreasonable to expect patients with such conditions, and their carers and families, to make significant journeys to centres outside of Greater Manchester for the more specialist procedures or surgery.
  • It is unacceptable that in a National Health Service patients in the North West are subject to a ‘postcode lottery’ as to where they are sent for treatment and cannot access their own specialist centre in their own region.

Council therefore resolves to ask the Chief Executive to make representations on this matter to:

  • The Secretary of State for Health
  • The Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which manages the Manchester Heart Centre
  • The Greater Manchester Mayor

Requesting they maintain specialist provision in our region.  And also to the three local Members of Parliament seeking their support for the Council’s position.

Let’s Talk – Crompton and Shaw- Exploring the best in growing older – 16 September 10.00am – 3.30pm, St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Trent Road, High Crompton, OL2 7QU

Come join a group of holistic therapists for an enjoyable exploration of active ageing.

We are sharing experiences of Emotional Freedom Technique; mindful practices; laughter therapy; and exploring the concept of a ‘Book of Life’.

This community initiative was started by Dr Susie Miles who wanted to create choices in her approaching older age.

Anyone aged 50 and over, who wants to get together in a relaxed setting with others to talk about the challenges and opportunities of the ageing process, is invited to join in.

There will be something for everyone and lunch will be provided.

If you are open to different ways of thinking and learning new techniques, drop in for all or part of the day – and enjoy yourself.

Further information is available from Paul Oakley: Tel: 07554 868664

Free entrance.

Booking is essential for catering purposes either by phoning Paul or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/letstalkaboutageing

Liberal Democrats welcome for Green Burials in Shaw and Crompton

The Leader of the Opposition, the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council and Shaw Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, has welcomed the recent adoption by Oldham Council of a proposal to provide land for green burials and celebration woodlands at Crompton Cemetery and High Crompton Park.

Commenting, Councillor Sykes said: “This is something that I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Crompton and Shaw have sought for many years.  Making land available for green burials and celebration woodlands means that those who seek a non-traditional, or non-religious funeral may be interred within the Borough, and allows their relatives to visit a local burial site or remembrance site that will remain beautiful for all time.”

The green burial scheme provides for interments at unspoiled locations that are not obviously burial sites, and where coffins or shrouds made from natural, sustainable materials are used.  There are no permanent memorials or gravestones in contrast to a conventional, regimented cemetery.

Celebration woodlands allow relatives to make donations for the planting and maintenance of trees in remembrance of a loved one.  Although no plaques or tributes are placed by individual trees, the living woodland is itself a collective, shared memorial to all of those who are remembered, and specific reference to individuals is made in a memorial book or tablet on the edge of the site.

There will also be a continued option for relatives to fund a specific tree linked to their loved one through the Life for a Life scheme.  Here cremated remains can be interred.

Councillor Sykes added: “These proposals enable a full range of options for local residents in Shaw and Crompton for traditional burials and cremations to less traditional but increasingly popular non-traditional.  The full range is now available for Shaw and Crompton citizens locally in our Borough that are personal, dignified and respectful, whilst creating sites of great natural beauty for everyone to enjoy.”

Full report: Celebration treesGreen Burials

Lib Dems urge Crack Down on Unregistered and Tax-dodging Landlords

Recent revelations about the property market in Newham, London have led the Leader of the Opposition and Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council, Cllr Howard Sykes MBE, to request an urgent review by the Council of all private landlords in the Borough in both the residential and holiday let markets.

In the review by Newham Council almost half of the private landlords in their borough were not paying tax on rental income to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (the HMRC).

Reviews of the Land Registry also revealed that significant numbers of people with buy to let mortgages were not registering as landlords with the council and so were not having their properties checked for safety requirements.

In addition, the owners of many properties registered on AirBnB were not getting the required planning permission for using the whole of their premises for year-round short term letting.

Commenting Cllr Sykes said: “The situation in Oldham may be different than that of Newham, but we need an urgent review to find out.”

“The Liberal Democrats backed the introduction of an Accredited Landlord Scheme in Oldham to weed out bad landlords and to encourage good practice so we are anxious that this is not undermined by unscrupulous landlords in this borough evading the tax and council tax that is lawfully payable or avoiding safety checks.”

“By working with HMRC, Oldham Council can ensure that safety requirements are met and that the local and national taxes that are due are properly paid. This will surely help encourage our good landlords to do better and hurt those unscrupulous landlords who evade tax and cut corners, compromising the safety of tenants”.

Today, Councillor Sykes has written to Councillor Barbara Brownridge, who as the Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Cooperatives has responsibility for private-sector rented housing, outlining his concerns and asking for an urgent review.

Lib Dem Leader condemns Rail Fare Rip Off

The Leader of the Opposition and Liberal Democrat Group Leader on Oldham Council, Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, has condemned proposals to increase regulated rail fares by a further 3.6% from January 2018.

Councillor Sykes represents Oldham Council on the Transport for Greater Manchester committee.

The 3.6% fare increase is based on the Retail Prices Index inflation figure for July 2017 and is the maximum permitted, as well as the highest-increase for five years.

Councillor Sykes said: “This unwelcome news comes on top of recent announcements that Metrolink fares are likely to be hiked up significantly. At a time when workers are really feel the pinch, these fare increases may make travel for Oldham residents seeking work in other parts of Greater Manchester and beyond, unaffordable, and will discourage social mobility.”

Echoing the call of transport groups for the RPI measure to be scrapped, Councillor Sykes said: “Many workers have not had a pay increase for several years and a 3.6% rise is simply not affordable when utility and household bills are also being increased. This arbitrary measure should be scrapped and further price increases should be based upon real increases in wages and an improved performance by the railways.”

Councillor Sykes is also concerned about the impact this increase may have on our environment: “Price hikes discourage rail use and encourage passengers to get back in their cars increasing air pollution and traffic congestion – this is not good for us or for our planet.”