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Archive for February, 2012

A great number of you have been writing to me about your concerns over the Lib Dem-Tory Government’s NHS reforms and the fact that Andrew Lansley has refused to publish the NHS Risk Register.

As you are no doubt aware David Cameron is planning the biggest re-orgnisation of the NHS since it began in 1948. It is an unnecessary, unwanted and damaging reorganisation which threatens to end the NHS as we know it.

It is undeniable that Andrew Lansley’s reforms have increased the risk to safe delivery of NHS services. The information in the Risk Register is absolutely crucial to proper Parliamentary consideration of the Bill and it is highly regrettable that Mr Lansley has refused to release it.

For this reason I have signed EDM 2659 which calls for the publication of the Risk Register and why yesterday I took part in the House of Common’s opposition day debate on the Risk Register. You can watch me delivering my speech by follow this link to the BBC Democracy Live website at the 3:02.50 mark or read the Hansard extract:

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6.10 pm
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), want to begin by paying tribute to the staff of the NHS. I regularly go out with the emergency services and they do a truly amazing job on our behalf in what are becoming much more difficult circumstances. I also want to pay tribute to 38 Degrees and other campaigning organisations, including the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, for what they have done to give the public more information about these reforms. I do not think that that absolves the Government of their responsibility to publish the risk register, but it is important to put on record the work that those groups have done.

I also want to pay tribute to Anne Hutton and her husband, Neil, two of my constituents who are leading the campaign against the Health and Social Care Bill in Durham. Their street stalls in Durham marketplace are becoming legendary, and I have joined them on a number of occasions. It is clear from the people who visit the stall that the more people know about the Bill, the less they like it. That is probably why the Government will not publish the register: people do not like the opening up of more of the NHS to the private sector, they are worried about fragmentation not only in commissioning but in delivery, and they want answers from the Government that they are clearly not giving.

The second issue that people raise is that they simply cannot understand why the Government are wasting money on a top-down reorganisation of the health service when we are living in such difficult economic times and the NHS is being starved of the resources it needs to meet need locally.

The third issue is that there is absolutely no mandate for either political party in the coalition to undertake such a reorganisation. Unlike those on the Government Front Bench, I have been out and about, talking to people about the reforms. That has included attending consultation events held by shadow GP consortia. The lack of information on the risk of moving to new commissioning arrangements has been a key feature of these discussions, however, as has been the likely negative impact on health outcomes of the fragmentation of services. People are getting increasingly angry that they are being asked to give an opinion on GP consortia and new commissioning arrangements without having access to information that will help them make an informed decision.

It will not have gone unnoticed by my constituents—many have written to me, just as many have written to other hon. Members—that Ministers on the Government Front Bench have today sought only to rubbish Labour’s excellent record on the NHS, rather than explaining why they will not publish the register. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) is not in his place, because I wanted to take him to task. I think he insulted those of my constituents who have written to me by saying that they were simply jumping on a bandwagon. Many of them have real concerns about the Bill that should be addressed, rather than the people who write to MPs being rubbished.

I am pleased that the parties in government have raised the issue of Labour’s record, which I shall address in the short time remaining. We are proud of our

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record. We employed about 90,000 additional nurses and 40,000 extra doctors, and we built more than 100 additional hospitals. That is a good record. In my area we have a new hospital. In 2006, 94% of people were having their operations done in less than 13 weeks, but that waiting time is going up, with 90% now having them done in 18 weeks. Unfortunately, all that very necessary input into the NHS did not reduce health inequalities enough, but we did hit the target for the north-east of reducing health inequalities by 10%. I am really concerned that by not publishing the register we simply will not know how these reforms will exacerbate health inequalities.”

Aneurin Bevan once said “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it,” well my Labour colleagues and I intend to fight for it. David Cameron has no democratic mandate for this Health Bill. It wasn’t in his manifesto and it wasn’t in Nick Clegg’s either. The public never voted for it and healthcare professionals are fearing it. The fight for the future of the NHS is upon us and I urge concerned people across the country to join our ‘Drop the Bill’ campaign by signing our petition at www.dropthebill.com and getting everyone you know to do the same.

Labour’s five top reasons for dropping the Bill are:

1) The Bill will break up the NHS and create an unfair postcode lottery. With no national standards, there will be widespread variation in the treatments available on the NHS. In some areas people may have to go private to get services available elsewhere.

2) The Bill risks rises in waiting times and a two-tier NHS. It scraps the cap on hospitals treating private patients at the same time as watering down guarantees on NHS waiting time. This means local hospitals will be free to treat more private patients and make the NHS patients wait longer.

3) The Bill turns the NHS into a full-blown commercial market, putting competition before patient care. It allows private companies to cherry-pick quick profits, potentially forcing local hospitals to go bust. Hospitals could even be fined for working together.

4) The Bill undermines the bond of trust between doctors and patients. It creates conflicts of interest where financial incentives could interfere with medical decisions. GPs could even get bonuses for rationing your care.

5) The Bill is wasting money and creating bureaucracy. It is unforgiveable to spend £2 billion on a reckless re-organisation when the NHS needs every penny it can get for patient care. Nearly £1 billion is being wasted on pay-offs for managers, only for many of them to be re-employed as consultants.

The ‘Drop the Bill’ campaign, at www.dropthebill.com, aims to show the full scale of opposition to the Government’s plans. It will unite patients, NHS professionals and the public in a final rallying cry to expose Andrew Lansley.

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Over the past month I have received countless numbers of letters and emails regarding the Welfare Reform Bill and the amendments made to it by the Bishops in the House of Lords.

Labour firmly believes in making work pay, but the reforms to the benefits and tax credits system this Bill puts forward are too harsh and heavy handed. The reforms do nothing to produce more jobs and have been put forward under the guise of making the system ‘simpler’. Although I agree that we need reform to ensure that the welfare system is not abused, this Bill puts some of the most vulnerable people in our society at risk. Millions of genuinely needy people require the vital support provided by the welfare state.

As you may know, Labour Peers and Bishops proposed amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords. Both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have recently overturned these amendments in the House of Commons. This was despite tough political pressure from me, my Labour colleagues and the public at large. The Bill has now been handed back to the Lords and is currently under discussion there again.

The Coalition’s decision to overturn the amendments hits the disabled, those in need of social housing and the already squeezed middle.

Firstly, it shows the Government’s disregard for the disabled. Amendments 15, 19, and 23 would have guaranteed Earning Support Allowance (ESA) for young people with severe disabilities and maintained Universal Credit for some parents of disabled children. The Coalition voted against these amendments. This decision will strip young disabled people of an independent income and take away £1400 a year from the parents of 100,000 disabled children.

Although Labour put forward an amendment to try and keep it, the Coalition voted to remove the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance for those who live in residential care. This was also overturned by the Coalition. I have been contacted on this issue by many disabled constituents and their families who have told me that this will hugely affect their ability to get out of their care homes and visit friends and family.

The Bill also proposes a one year limit on the length of time someone can receive contributory ESA. Labour put forward an amendment to increase this to two years and make an exemption for those receiving cancer treatments. The Coalition’s decision to over ride these amendments means that cancer sufferers will have support taken away after a year. They may be continuing to receive treatment at this point.

Secondly, the legislation demonises and penalises people who live in the social rented sector. The Bill cuts housing benefit to working-age tenants who ‘under-occupy’ social housing without offering alternative accommodation. These are tenants who live in accommodation with one or more spare rooms. There are many instances where this could occur, for example if a young adult moves out to University etc. In the Lords we proposed an amendment ensuring that alternative accommodation had to be offered and refused first before further financial action was taken. If the Government does not ensure that people living in under-occupancy houses have somewhere to go before they take financial action there changes will not solve under-occupancy, they will just hit the poor. The Local Authority in Durham has written to me to say that thousands of families will be affected by the under-occupancy provisions. They simply do not have enough alternative suitable housing; it will take years to re-house people. This will be exacerbated by the Government’s inaction in creating affordable homes or tackling unaffordable private sector rents.

Finally, the Government has shown it is unconcerned with struggling parents. The Coalition has introduced further up-front charges for using the Child Support Agency. Although Labour’s put forward an amendment to exempt for parents with care from being forced to pay, this was defeated. In the Common’s debate on the Bill earlier this month I questioned Maria Miller MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, on the worrying possibility that the Government may be able to hike up the fee in the future.

My Labour colleagues and I will push to ensure that these amendments made to Bill are held in place. Furthermore, Labour will always fight for a welfare state that protects the millions of people who need this support. We will work hard to ensure that reform of the system does not mean we have to reform our principles.

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A Grand for your Green

This Tory-led Government’s planning changes are dangerous and out of touch. But their response has been panic and dismissal of genuine concerns. Now, three months from their introduction, people are beginning to realise just how bizarre some of their plans really are.

The moment I learned they wanted to charge villages a £1000 to register their village green was the moment I realised the plans were losing a sense of reality.

A grand to register their village green. Crazy politics and crazy policy.

They say their planning system is going to give local communities a real say in what happens to the places we live in. That would be sensible but it simply isn’t the reality of the proposals.

The original village green register was a sensible idea. Under the current system a green is any land which a significant number of inhabitants of any area have used for lawful sports and pastimes for the past 20 years. We introducted it in 2006 to allow communities to protect some recreational space. There are now around 3650 registered greens in England and Wales.

In some cases communities have made applications to register land once a development was proposed or underway holding things up or stopping them altogether. So a reform that would better protect real greens while not stopping legitimate development is reasonable. There must be a localist way to balance the needs of local people and the aims of developers without conflict. But charging for communities to register land is not the way to achieve this.

The Government plans to charge communities up to £1000 to register a piece of land as a village green and protect it from unwanted development. Alongside these charges the community would have to jump through extra bureaucratic hoops – including a mysteriously titled “Character Test” – to successfully get their land some protection.

But, when village churches are struggling to deal with metal theft and rural pubs are calling time up and down the country, it simply doesn’t make sense to charge communities to protect land that is of huge social and recreational importance. It is not localist and will help create a planning system that involves fewer people, not more.

Even the assumptions on which the proposals are based are deeply flawed. The Government seems to think that communities only value green space when it is threatened by development. This is not true. In reality they don’t register land just to stop development but more often than not because they attach real value to the space.

All this from the party who used to cheer warm beer and the thwack of willow on leather.

A grand for a green. Nice line, you might say, but not relevant to the cities and towns that are desperate for more homes. Wrong, I’m afraid. The proposals suggest that the only land the communities ought to protect is the traditional village green. In reality, ‘village greens’ can come in any form and open spaces in towns and cities are often just as valued by the people that use them than those who live in traditional villages. We all need a communal space to sit, enjoy the sun, (or build a snowman!) and share with our friends and neighbours.

Planning is a positive tool which can be used to improve places and the lives of people who live in them. Unfortunately, this Government thinks planning is merely an obstacle to be overcome. They need to change their approach if they are ever to achieve real localism in the planning system.

The right development in the right place is vital to creating a good place to live and building the homes we need. It is precisely because we have a growing housing crisis that we need a decent planning system. This need is much more likely to be met by developers if they know that a project is not going to be held up by an application for Town or Village Green status. They will be further encouraged if they know that they have the support of local residents.

This is why instead of introducing new barriers and fees to make it harder for communities to protect land the Government should be encouraging communities to register land as town and village greens whilst drawing up Neighbourhood Plans. These Neighbourhood Plans will also identify areas in which development would be encouraged to take place.

In order to do this local communities should be given guidance to help identify what land may count as ‘local green space’ and encouraged to register this land for protection whilst they are drawing up Local and Neighbourhood Plans.

This would mean that residents and developers know exactly what land is available for development and what land is not. This would have to be supported by planning guidance which makes explicit the relationship between Neighbourhood, Local and National Plans.

Real localism involves giving neighbourhoods more control over their local area, not making them pay to have a say in what is done to the land they use. So I say to the planning minister get your grand off my green. Your system doesn’t work to protect open space or build more homes.

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Mary Portas’ review of our high streets and town centres, published just before Christmas, has served to once again focus attention on the plight of many British high streets and town centres and the damage being done to them by this Tory-led Government’s failed economic policies.

There is no doubt in my mind that whilst many of our high streets have been struggling for a number of years, the action this government is taking is making things much worse.

The downturn has hit our high streets hard and whilst thousands of jobs have already been lost from the retail sector many more are at risk. Every week more and more of our retailers are going out of business, in fact just two weeks ago Peacocks and Past Times were added to the list that already includes famous names like Woolworths, Habitat, Blacks and TJ Hughes.

We must be clear about how serious the situation is. Shop vacancy rates stand at 14.3 per cent, a three-fold rise since 2008. That’s nearly one in six shops empty and blighting high streets.

I say all of this not to talk down our high streets, because many are managing to weather the economic storm, but to demonstrate the extent of the problem. Labour is very clear about the action that needs to be taken – in government we had a strong “town centre first” policy (which means people have to look to reuse sites in town centres before approval can be granted for out of town office developments) and even then there was widespread recognition that more needed to be done to revitalise the high streets.

This presents a huge challenge to this government.

It is clear that this government’s economic policies are failing. Not just forcing up unemployment and halting growth, they are also putting further pressure on town centre retailers already facing significant competition from their out of town rivals. The government must act now before long term damage is done to many of the town centres and high streets which we consider to be the hearts of our communities. 

Labour’s four point plan to save our high streets, which we launched last July, has been backed up by Mary Portas’s recommendations.

The government should reverse the unfair VAT hike which they implemented despite four fifths of retailers saying this would weaken sales. That would provide immediate help for our high streets and an average £450 boost for a couple with children.

We should have a fair playing field on the High Street by putting a competition test into the planning system. Like Mary Portas, we also believe that landlords should be encouraged to be involved in communities in the long term, not just extractors of value.

The Empty Shops Initiative that we piloted in government should be repeated. Innovative uses of empty shops and new incentives to discourage units being left vacant for long periods has the potential to help deliver a vibrant mix of shops and facilities in town centres.

The potential of such schemes has been excellently demonstrated by the Labour controlled council in Camden. In Camden the Business Improvement District (BID), Camden Town Unlimited has been working in association with partners such as the local council to implement a very successful ‘Pop Up Shops’ programme which saw an empty warehouse transformed into premises for 40 start-up creative businesses. The success of this scheme has been recognised by the Association of Town Centre Managers (ATCM) which gave an award to Camden for ‘Improving the Business Mix’.

Finally, our plan would introduce a retail diversity planning clause into the law, putting communities in charge of the future of their local high streets. Local people and local retailers would have a say on any retail plans for their area, giving them the power to put the heart back into the high street. This is clearly echoed in the Portas Review which recommends that ‘Localism must truly mean local people having a voice and influence’. 

In her report Mary Portas has identified both why communities should be involved and how to do that.

Getting the right mix of shops and community facilities relies on residents and councillors getting involved in the process to decide what town centres should look like. But past experience shows that people normally want a diverse range of shops, leisure facilities and facilities like community centres.

To do this, Mary Portas says developers should make a contribution to involving local communities in the planning process. Too often residents and local organisations feel that, because they do not have access to the same resources as developers, they cannot be as involved in the planning system.

Many Labour Councils are already doing this and have been working with Planning Aid England, an orgnisation which start receiving central government funding under Labour in 2003, to ensure that communities have a say in local planning. But community engagement needs to be the norm across the country both for the sake of communities and for developers who provide for us the shopping centres and town centre spaces that we all rely on every weekend.

So Labour councillors can make a big difference by leading campaigns to make sure that residents are involved in their local Neighbourhood Plans. But, as Portas says, to make the most of any new opportunities for communities to develop Neighbourhood Plans, the funding and process must be transparent and well advertised.

Mary Portas has set the bar for the government. Labour has set out a plan for our high streets. Labour councils are already making a big difference. It is this out of touch Government that needs to do much, much better.

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