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The real story of Cameron’s economy

No real winners in war

David Cameron chairs No 10 meeting 28 August

This morning I wrote to our MP, Roger Godsiff expressing my concerns with regard to Cameron’s apparent  ‘need for speed’ to enter into military intervention in Syria.

If chemical weapons have been used then those responsible must be must be dealt with in an international court. It is imperative that Western intervention must not be the reactive response that Cameron was suggesting. This ‘we must do something response’ that results in purely reactive action, will ultimately be ill thought out. This lesson should have already been learnt with the Iraq war and the heavy price paid.

Intervention yes, but not military intervention. Action needs to be taken into working towards and ensuring the success of a UN-brokered peace process involving all the local and regional players. This is the only solution and this can only come after the inspectors have been in and reported on all of the facts.

I am sure that many of you share my concerns which I have asked Roger to take forward to the debate tomorrow. I also asked him to vote against any calls for immediate military intervention. For the Syrian people their situation will only get worse as their nightmare continues. There are never any real winners in war.

Without Labour’s support, and the support of many of his backbenchers and Lib Dem’s, Cameron’s plans for military action will have been defeated in the Commons tomorrow.  This means that tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons will no longer be about authorising the use of British military force following the amendment put forward by Labour:

This House expresses its revulsion at the killing of hundreds of civilians in Ghutah, Syria on 21 August 2013; believes that this was a moral outrage; recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons; makes clear that the use of chemical weapons is a grave breach of international law; agrees with the UN Secretary General that the UN weapons inspectors must be able to report to the UN Security Council and that the Security Council must live up to its responsibilities to protect civilians; supports steps to provide humanitarian protection to the people of Syria but will only support military action involving UK forces if and when the following conditions have been met:

  1. The UN weapons inspectors, upon the conclusion of their mission in the Eastern Ghutah, being given the necessary opportunity to make a report to the Security Council on the evidence and their findings, and confirmation by them that chemical weapons have been used in Syria;
  2. The production of compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of these weapons;
  3. The UN Security Council having considered and voted on this matter in the light of the reports of the weapons inspectors and the evidence submitted;
  4. There being a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action to protect the Syrian people on humanitarian grounds;
  5. That such action must have regard to the potential consequences in the region, and must therefore be legal, proportionate, time-limited and have precise and achievable objectives designed to deter the future use of prohibited chemical weapons in Syria; aan
  6. That the Prime Minister reports further to the House on the achievement of these conditions so that the House can vote on UK participation in such action.

This House further notes that such action relates solely to efforts to deter the use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any wider action in Syria.

The full text of the Government’s motion on Syria can be read here

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Your services under threat thanks to the coalition government

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We all take many things for granted and some of those things are often the services provided by our council. So when our bins aren’t emptied because of the bad weather – we notice. When our roads need repairing – we notice.

But there are lots of other services that we pay little attention to, things that just happen. Our streets are cleaned, services are provided for children and young people, we have libraries, community centres, schools and advice services. Pavements are repaired, parks are maintained, trees are pruned…the list is endless.

But all these services are now under threat as a result of the huge cuts to the grant that Birmingham gets from central government.

Media reports quoting Sir Albert Bore with his ‘jaws of doom’ and his prediction that ‘this will be an end to local government as we know it’  did so mockingly. But these words reflected the perilous position we are currently in.

The Labour Administration took over the running of the council just over a year ago following  9 years of disastrous management by the Tory and Lib Dem council leadership. Despite the very good work undertaken by the Labour administration to balance the books against huge funding reductions and the need for efficiency savings, they are still facing an uphill battle. This difficulty compounded further with Birmingham being short changed by £79m from central government. This reduction in funding brings with it huge problems to those with responsibility to oversee services in a city of Birmingham’s size.

Parliament’s Public Affairs Select Committee have recognised this very real and serious situation and have recently undertaken a review of the financial sustainability of local authorities. The results have sent alarm bells ringing.

Margaret Hodge MP — Chair of the Committee says:

“Central government is cutting funding to local authorities by more than a quarter over four years but does not properly understand what the overall impact will be on local services…Local authorities are tending to cope with funding reductions. But in the long term there might well be little room for further efficiency gains and services would have to be cut. There needs to be frank and open dialogue between central and local government and the public on just what services councils will be expected to provide in a prolonged period of declining funding.”

But it is likely that Pickles, Cameron and Osborne will take no heed of these warnings…

We need to stand together and demand that Birmingham gets a fair deal from the ConDem government. Together we are stronger and our voice is louder. Please support the Labour Party in Hall Green and in Birmingham and remember who are the real villains in this.

While the Tories obsess over Europe, ordinary people struggle

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Since the county council elections nearly two weeks ago and the supposed inexorable rise of UKIP, the Conservative Party has been occupied with an old enemy: Europe. The Queen’s Speech, much to the dismay of Tory backbenchers, contained nothing concerning a referendum on British membership of the European Union. Worried about the UKIP ‘threat’ to their seats, Tory MPs, including, unbelievably, cabinet ministers, have been falling over themselves to condemn the EU, call for a referendum and let David Cameron know just how strongly they feel about an issue that is, truthfully, way down the list of priorities for the vast majority of voters. Instead of showing leadership of his party, Cameron is performing his own tribute act to John Major and following it. Except whereas John Major tried to face down the ‘b*stards’ in his own party that sought to undermine him over Europe, Cameron acquiesces to their every demand and indulges their every whim.

A strong leader would not only attempt to assert some kind of control over his party, but also remind them that there are rather more important things at stake. The Queen’s Speech did nothing to help ordinary people who are struggling and nothing to improve our economic situation. U-turns on welfare reforms or tax cuts for the richest would have been welcome as people across the country struggle to make ends meet as a result of these damaging policies that have been implemented over the last month, yet they remain in place. There is still no coherent plan from the government for jobs and growth, more vital than ever as the rate of unemployment increased again today for the second month running, and at the current rate the government will not have eliminated the deficit for another 422 years. This is what the Tories should be agitating over – instead they are only concerned with going back to the 90s and fighting among themselves over Europe. Ed Miliband has rightly said that we should concentrate on the big issues facing people rather than argue over a referendum; Labour, once again, is fighting the corner of ordinary people while the Tories show just how out of touch they really are.

There are few places where the effects of the government’s harmful policies are being felt as much as they are in Birmingham. As the Birmingham Mail reported this week, nearly 2,000 Birmingham residents have requested access to emergency housing funds, an increase of 50% on the previous year, as the effects of the dreadful bedroom tax start to be felt across the city. While the City Council is able to provide some help, thanks to the government, there will still be a massive shortfall and many people suffering from the bedroom tax will not get the help they need. The Council has also secured extra Council Tax Support funding, reducing the burden on the unemployed and people on low incomes, yet this only mitigates the misery imposed by the Tory-led government. In difficult times, Labour is doing whatever it can locally to help those in need and try to build a better city and a better country, while the Tories play games with each other over Europe, ignoring the everyday issues that people face.

There is a debate to be had over Europe, and the EU has much to offer us as a city and as a country. When there are so many other important issues at hand, however, this is not the time for the Tories to be indulging in their favourite past-time of Euroscepticism. Ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet. Birmingham residents will see a government that is not standing up  for them, not acting to improve their lives and not taking into account their fears and concerns, but a government that is distracted by UKIP and its own Eurosceptic backbenchers and is incapable of showing leadership. Labour is doing all it can to ensure a fair deal for Birmingham residents; the Tories appear as though they could not care less.

Birmingham needs a Plan B from Osborne

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To great sighs of relief, at least around the Cabinet table, yesterday we learned that we have just about managed to avoid a triple-dip recession, with growth in the last quarter of a whopping 0.3%. Doesn’t sound that impressive, does it? The truth is that yesterday shouldn’t have been a relief at all. A triple-dip recession shouldn’t even have been a possibility. Yet such has been the failure of George Osborne’s economic plan, it almost seems like a great victory.

The danger is, of course, that George Osborne will see it as exactly that: a victory. We have lost our AAA credit rating with two agencies in the last few months, something which the Chancellor took as a vindication rather than a warning. This bit of relatively good news will no doubt put an extra spring in his step. The reality of the situation is, though, that the economy is still in a bad place – we’re only just back to the same place we were six months ago. The economy is flatlining, and things show no real sign of significantly improving any time soon. Most sectors of the economy are still performing incredibly badly; it’s only the service sector that has shown any real sign of life. Osborne needs new ideas, and he needs them fast.

The consequences of Osborne’s failure are visible right across the country, but they are abundantly clear in our communities in Birmingham. Unemployment remains high, particularly among young people, and welfare cuts and the shameful bedroom tax are being implemented as the cost of living continues to rise. The Guardian has highlighted this week the damage that is being done to Birmingham by the government’s cuts – all of the pain, for no economic gain. What Birmingham and other cities around the country need is a Plan B, with jobs and growth at its heart, to ease the pressure on the people who are suffering under this government. Labour has been saying all along that the government needs to change course, but with each quarter of no growth, no jobs and no hope, the need for a positive economic alternative becomes clearer.

Labour councillors are working hard to get the best deal for our city, but are constrained by the unfair cuts that the government has foisted upon them. It is not just the growth and jobs that are lacking,  but a fair deal for cities like Birmingham.

Our Hall Green councillors and campaigners have been calling for a better deal for Birmingham – it’s time the government took note. The council is being forced to make tough decisions, while leafy, Tory-dominated suburbs take none of the pain. We’re not all in this together and we’re not one nation. Birmingham residents are one the receiving end of the damage caused by the government’s economic failure and its refusal to give Birmingham a fair deal.

So Birmingham, and the country, need a Plan B. We all see that Plan A has failed, but the Chancellor sticks stubbornly to it. We need two things: firstly, we need jobs and growth, to get our economy moving again and to ease the burden on Birmingham households; secondly, we need the government to give Birmingham a fair deal instead of prioritising their own heartlands. We desperately need something to change. To borrow a phrase from David Cameron, we can’t go on like this.

Why we need to talk about welfare

The true depth of the Tory policies that make the lives of those poorest, more wretched become clearer on a daily basis.

You will have seen my video highlighting the need to campaign for a fair deal for Birmingham, and within it, details touching upon those groups beginning to feel the real bite.

In ‘wake up and smell the roses‘ I reflect on research published by the Financial Times that uncovers the continuing divide between rich and poor, and the way in which the Tory led welfare reforms are impacting harder on the North than on the leafy suburbs in the South. We have seen this unfairness in the cut of £149 per person in Birmingham compared to just £19 in Berkshire.

Cameron’s outright attack on the poorer parts of society is vicious and vindictive, turning neighbour on neighbour and communities on communities. As an answer to the economical crisis it offers no credibility.

The right wing ideology being purported is dangerous and might easily play into the hands of fascist groups preying on the vulnerabilities of both those struggling to survive and those who feel others are getting more than they deserve.

The Telegraph today report that free school meals could soon be scrapped and people paid to look after elderly neighbours as councils take desperate measures to deliver a “tidal wave” of spending cuts. All councils face desperate decisions about the services that people value and rely on with the unfair cuts being imposed by central Government.

Hilary Wainwright writes for CLASS and argues that “we are facing government policies of such inhumanity that if they are allowed to be carried through, we will look back in years to come with deep horror and shame. From the attacks on disability benefits to the bedroom tax, these measures return us to the kind of society where poverty was blamed on the poor and gross inequality was accepted as an economic inevitability.”

The Myths of Welfare has just been released and as Wainwright argues, “it exposes the tall tales used to disguise the ideological dogma of government attempts to replace our welfare state with US-style residual ‘relief’  for the poor”… it is well worth a read and provides hard alternatives to the war on welfare that Cameron dictates.

Birmingham, as a result of Cameron’s welfare reforms are facing a total annual impact of £419m with the total annual impact on each working age adult being £607. Social housing tenants in Birmingham face cuts to housing allowances totalling £10.15m, reductions in tax credits of £92m, in disability benefits of £30m and to incapacity benefit of a whopping £92m.

We are not all in this together and never forget it.

Why campaign for a Fair Deal for Brum?

Birmingham has been short changed by £79m and we believe this is unfair. Why should Birmingham be hit harder than other places? Parts of leafy Berkshire have seen cuts of only £19 per person in comparison to cuts of £149 per person in Birmingham. This is not fair and in this video, campaign organiser for Hall Green BLP explains why. Please share widely.

Welfare changes founded on Tory rhetoric

The government is about to implement the biggest overhaul of the benefits system since the creation of the welfare state. These reforms have been heavily criticised by 17 charities and non-profit organisations in a report to Birmingham City Council which says that the reforms make child poverty targets “unachievable” and the Chief Executive of Birmingham CAB has warned of “social meltdown”.

Iain Duncan Smith purports that the main purpose of these welfare changes is to provide a greater incentive for people on benefits to work and that these changes will make the welfare system fairer, but fairer for who?

The government’s Universal Credit (UC) will be a new single payment for people who are looking for work or on a low income and will, the government say, help claimants and their families to become more independent.

The government plans to launch UC in April, starting with a number of pilots in parts of the north-east England and then it will be introduced nationally for new claimants from October 2013. Existing claimants will be transferred to the new system in stages until 2017. It will replace the current system of tax credits and benefits for working age people with a new single payment which is paid monthly rather than the current system of weekly or fortnightly payments.

The main differences between Universal Credit and the current welfare system are:

  • UC will be available to people who are in work and on a low income, as well as to those who are out of work
  • most people will apply online and manage their claim through an online account
  • claimants will receive just one monthly payment, paid into a bank account in the same way as a monthly salary
  • support with housing costs will go direct to the claimant as part of their monthly payment.
  • There will be a benefit cap in line with the average weekly wage

There will be a maximum cap on benefits that a household can receive based on the average earnings of a working family (this includes other benefits such as Child Benefit). The benefit cap is designed to make it impossible for anyone to receive more on benefits than the average weekly wage after tax and national insurance.

  • For couples and lone parent households the cap will be £500 a week
  • For single adults the cap will be £350 a week

The benefit cap will be brought in nationwide in April 2013 and reductions will be made to housing benefit payments until universal credit takes over in October 2013.

The benefit cap will most certainly hit larger families and those who live in comparatively wealthy areas the hardest, and Mumsnet suggest that this “may result in ghettoisation of poorer working people and some people being forced to leave their homes.”

Other concerns include fears that UC will result in harsh assessments of people with disabilities and those who are currently unable to work because of illness as well as there being unrealistic expectations for lone parents with young children to go out to work.

Estimates from Disability Rights UK have suggested that 67,000 households will be affected in 2013-14 and 75,000 in 2014-15, with 54% of these being households in Greater London.

Other concerns raised refer to how Council tax credit will be administered by local authorities. The Instititute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has predicted there will be problems with this because local authorities have been given less funding to administer the credit, which may lead to crude fixes and arbitrary means-testing. The IFS predicts poor families will end up paying 19% of their council tax.

Claimants will have to sign a claimant commitment form to get UC (apart from some groups of people who are excluded such as those with caring responsibilities). If you’re out of work this form sets out what you must to do look for work, such as preparing a CV or registering with a recruitment agency. If you don’t stick to the agreement, your benefit may be reduced or withdrawn.

Mumsnet argue that this commitment will tie in to the workfare schemes, where people will have their benefits cut if they are unwilling to work unpaid for six months. This is called the community action programme or ‘support for the very long-term unemployed’, but critics say it could be an easy way for companies to get free labour and take advantage of people who have been unable to find work (not to mention the fact that it would essentially remove paid jobs from the labour market by converting them into ‘free placements’).

Claimants with limited capability for work-related activity (as defined by a work capability assessment); Claimants who receive the carer element; Those who are responsible for a severely disabled person for at least 35 hours a week or a lone parent with a child aged under one are exempted from this commitment but there are concerns.

The new way of assessing fitness to work for people with disabilities has shown a ‘tick-box’ approach that doesn’t consider individual needs and may disregard ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as autism and mental health problems.

It is also feared there will be targets for private companies who carry out work capability assessments, which will reward them for declaring more people fit to work. This was the subject of a Channel 4 Dispatches programme: Britain on the Sick.

Claimants will have to meet degrees of conditionality in order to receive UC and claimants for the basic part of universal credit will be divided into different groups:

  1. No work-related requirements – because they may already earn enough or they may not be able to work at all.
  2. Work-focused interviews only – designed to keep people in touch with the labour market. This group would include a lone parent of a child between the ages of one and five.
  3. Work preparation group – claimants need to prepare to move to work or better paid work and may include people with a limited capability for work.
  4. All work–related requirements group – need to be looking for and available to do any type of work, usually full time. There will be concessions for parents of children aged 5–13 (where work hours would be limited to school hours), although it appears there may be concessions regarding work hours for parents who care for children aged 13–16, too.

There will be a three-month period where claimants will be able to look for work in a specific area and at a level of pay they have previously had, after which they must be willing to accept anything.

These requirements may be designed to help people into work, but the tough sanctions (fixed period sanctions of 91 days for the first failure; 128 days for the second failure, if it occurs within 52 weeks of the first; and three years for third and subsequent failures, if they occur within 52 weeks of the previous failure) mean that people will be forced into low-paid jobs.

Further sanctions will be applied if:

  • There is a failure to undertake mandatory work activity without good reason
  • There is a failure to apply for a particular vacancy without good reason
  • There is a failure to take up an offer of paid work without good reason
  • Paid work ceases by reason of misconduct, or voluntarily without good reason
  • Pay is lost by reason of misconduct, or voluntarily without good reason

If a claimant starts work, some of their earnings will be disregarded before there are any deductions to their UC payment. Once these disregarded earnings have been taken into account, UC will be withdrawn at a rate of 65p for each £1 of net earnings. So, after the disregard, claimants will be £35 better off for every £100 they earn. Not a great target for aspiration.

The government plan for UC is that it will be managed online with the notion of paying benefits monthly to reflect the world of work. The reality of this being that those receiving even a low income will likely have more monthly income left at the end of the month that those relying solely on benefits, further proliferating the dependency of ‘pay-day’ loans.

The Chartered Institute of Housing states that 400,000 of the country’s poorest families – among them those in poverty and on the minimum wage – will have less income in 2015 than they did in 2010, despite ministerial assurances that no one would lose out under its plans. The CIH calculations show that “the government’s aim for households to be better off in work than out of work under universal credit is not the case for all families.” They report that households that earn £247 or less a week will see a fall in real income in 2015, and lone parents with up to three children will always be worse off if UC remains in its current form.

There has been widespread concern about managing UC online with major concerns about the IT capabilities of the new system which is supposed to work alongside PAYE tax details, and employers are supposed to feed payment details into the system to make the benefits system ‘dynamic’. Reports suggest the system is not ready and there have been large delays in processing information. The system relies on real-time information being provided to track claimants’ earnings. All employers are supposed to submit wage information, but it may prove difficult for smaller companies to do so.

Other concerns focus on the assumption that all claimants can manage accounts online, with the Citizens Advice stating that “The new universal credit system risks causing difficulties to the 8.5 million people who have never used the internet and a further 14.5 million who have virtually no ICT skills,”.

Further concerns are stated in full elsewhere regarding the implications of UC being paid monthly and being paid to one member of a household, and the gap that may exist when the current system is phased out and the new one starts.

George Osborne is fond of saying, “where is the fairness…for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?” And the Cameron has often talked of the benefits bill “sky-rocketing” while “generations languish on the dole and dependency”.

The assumption then that everyone is online and able to update their ‘account’ simply based on this Tory contemptuous rhetoric of the ‘benefit scrounger’, living an ‘idle’ and indulgent lifestyle spent watching Jeremy Kyle on their 50” plasmas and updating their FB pages.

The reality of course is far different – The benefit scrounger is the bogeyman of British politics, stalking the corridors of Westminster.

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