Wednesday marked one year since the unpopular and unfair Bedroom Tax came into force, and Emma joined with MPs and Unite the Union to protest against the policy, which has caused financial hardship for some of the most vulnerable households in the country while doing nothing to tackle problems around housing supply.
Wednesday was also the birthday of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who introduced the policy and has called it a “great success”.
But in South Shields the majority of people paying the tax do not deserve to do so. The tax is supposed to encourage people with spare bedrooms to move to smaller homes, but in Shields there are eight households affected by the policy for every smaller home available. This means seven out of eight people are penalised through no fault of their own. This situation is reflected in constituencies across the country, and that is why Labour has pledged to scrap the Bedroom Tax if it wins the next general election in 2015.
Altogether the Bedroom Tax affects more than 1,400 households in South Shields, and nationwide the tax affects nearly half a million people. Shockingly, two thirds of these are disabled people. Around half of the people affected now find themselves unable to keep up with rent payments, and councils now report that they are seeing shortfalls in their rental income which prevents them from funding new housebuilding work.
“One year on the Bedroom Tax has proved to be a disaster, just as Labour predicted. Vulnerable people are being punished for under-occupying properties, but the fact is that the vast majority simply have nowhere else to go. It is unfair and ineffective, and I am proud to say that a Labour government will repeal this policy if elected in 2015.”
Last year Emma led a debate on the Bedroom Tax in Parliament, which can be read here. She has also voted to scrap the tax together with Labour MPs, but unfortunately the Coalition defeated Labour on this vote.
This Tuesday Emma joined with Labour Friends of Bangladesh to host an event recognising the British Bangladeshi community at a reception in the Houses of Parliament. The reception was held shortly after Bangladeshi Independence Day, the anniversary of the country becoming a sovereign nation.
The event included speeches from the Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP, Labour Friends of Bangladesh President Rushanara Ali MP and the Bangladeshi High Commissioner in Britain, His Excellency Mohamed Mijarul Quayes.
Labour’s Bangladeshi parliamentary candidates were in attendance, as were councillors from all over the country and a number of Labour MPs. But Emma was particularly pleased to be able to invite a large group of visitors from South Shields.
“I was pleased to be able to welcome members of the Bangladeshi community from across the country to celebrate the ties between our two countries, and the fantastic contribution the Bangladeshi community makes to the UK. I was thrilled that so many of my own constituents were able to make it - the Bangladeshi community has always been very engaged in politics in South Shields and I am grateful to them for their support.
“Labour Friends of Bangladesh do a great job providing a voice for the Bangladeshi community in our party, and it was great to see so many of our brilliant candidates and councillors at the event."
Emma is grateful to Labour Friends of Bangladesh’s Chair Howard Dawber and Secretary Motin Uz-zaman for their help in organising the event. LFB made Emma an honorary patron of the group to thank her for hosting.
Today at Prime Minister’s Questions Emma raised the case of South Shields resident Sue Martin, who has been left without vital support because of delays in assessing her Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claim.
Emma asked the Prime Minister:
“My constituent, Sue Martin, suffers from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) and has been waiting more than nine months for her personal independence claim to be processed. She now has to borrow from her 84-year-old mother just to get by. Why does the Prime Minister think that is acceptable?”
The Prime Minister replied:
“All delays in these sorts of payments are not acceptable: we have to make sure that benefits are paid on time. What we are trying to do with the personal independence payment is to introduce it gradually so that we ensure that the quality of decision making is good.”
But despite the Prime Minister’s reassurances, the backlog of delayed PIP claims is quickly spiralling out of control. Ms Martin is not the only constituent to have experienced severe delays in her claim being processed – other constituents have reported waiting for their claim for more than six months, and following Emma’s question even more people contacted Emma to say they had experienced similar problems.
Last month the Chair of Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee called the delays “completely unacceptable” after a National Audit Office report found that the average wait for an assessment claim was 107 days, over a month longer than expected when the system was set up.
You can read the official transcript of Emma's question and the Prime Minister's response by clicking here.
Speaking after Prime Minister’s Questions, Emma said:
“The Prime Minister’s answer ignored the real problem, which is that the organisations delivering PIP are utterly failing to process claims on time. The fact that many parts of the country aren’t even covered by PIP yet makes this failure even worse, and suggests that we can expect even longer delays in the future. That will mean more hardship for vulnerable people like Ms Martin.”
Councils in the UK’s poorest areas are facing bigger cuts than their richer counterparts, Emma warned in the House of Commons today.
Speaking at Communities and Local Government Questions, Emma asked Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis MP to explain why areas with the greatest need faced spending cuts ten times greater than areas with relatively little poverty.
“Despite having higher levels of deprivation local authorities like my own are seeing deeper cuts than well-off areas. By 2016 spending per household in the North East will have fallen by £296, compared with the national average of £233. Does the Minister recognise that this will make existing inequalities between the regions worse?”
Mr Lewis claimed that total spending in South Tyneside is still higher than in other areas, but his own department’s Local Government Finance Settlement South Tyneside’s spending power will have been cut by 24% between 2010 and 2016. You can read the official record of Emma’s question and the Minister’s reply by clicking here.
Altogether the ten most deprived local authorities in the country face spending power cuts of over a quarter, while in the ten least deprived areas the figure is just 2.5%. The Prime Minister’s own authority of West Oxfordshire will actually see its spending power increase during this period, despite being one of the least deprived council areas in Britain.
Speaking after Communities and Local Government Questions, Emma said:
“The Minister is not fooling anyone. Local government has had to find £20bn worth of savings between 2010 and 2016 because of the Coalition’s budget cuts, and by the Government’s own definition of spending power it is clear that most of the burden is falling on poorer areas.
“During a cost of living crisis vulnerable people such as the elderly, carers and looked after children and their families need to be able to access local support, but the Government is cutting these services exactly where they are needed most.”
Labour will end the bias against poor areas by reviewing the funding formula used by the Government to make sure funding is spread more fairly.
Emma has joined with Sarah Champion MP and the children’s charity Barnardo’s to demand that more is done by government and other agencies to combat child sexual exploitation.
Emma sat on a panel of parliamentarians that heard evidence as part of an inquiry into child sexual exploitation, led by Labour MP Sarah Champion. The cross-party panel of MPs and Peers heard from young victims as well as representatives from the police, legal profession, local authorities and the voluntary sector.
A snapshot survey of Barnardo’s specialist services for those affected by sexual exploitation revealed that in September last year the charity worked with over 50 per cent more young people in the North East compared to the same period in 2012.
The inquiry tested the effectiveness of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and a report published today by Barnardo’s and Sarah Champion MP has made a wide range of legislative and policy recommendations, including:
- Strengthening Child Abduction Warning Notices to make it a criminal offence to breach the conditions of the notice
- Amending the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to remove the need for a second contact in the offence of ‘meeting a child following sexual grooming’
- More powers to be given to Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards
- Removal of the term ‘child prostitution’ from legislation
- Changes to the way children learn about sexual exploitation in schools with a focus on prevention
- Specialist training to be given to all judges and lawyers involved in cases of child sexual exploitation
- Information about the myths and stereotypes about child sexual exploitation to be provided to jurors on relevant cases
“I was pleased to be able to support this inquiry in its important work. Thanks to the help of experts and the bravery of young people who spoke about their experiences we have come up with practical steps that Government can take to strengthen child sexual exploitation legislation.”
Emma has supported amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill tabled by Sarah Champion MP. These would change the laws against ‘grooming’ children so that a perpetrator only needs to make contact with a child once rather than repeatedly, making it easier to prosecute offenders. A second amendment would correct an imbalance in the law that currently defines abduction differently for children in the care system.
In March I was pleased to be able help a number of constituents resolve specific issues they had raised in letters and at my surgeries. A few of these cases are listed below:
1. A constituent was experiencing problems in his dealings with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) dating back to 2010. He was unhappy because HMRC refused his claim to have underpaid tax for 2010-11 to 2012-13 given up. Following my intervention, HMRC carried out a full review of what had happened. They agreed to give up the £3,180 tax they were asking him to pay. They also made a payment to apologise for the way they handled the matter; £75 by way of an apology for poor customer service; a further £50 to acknowledge the worry they caused my constituent; and an additional payment of £20 to cover his costs. My constituent was “over the moon” and his daughter wrote: “I would like to thank you for sorting out my father’s dilemma. All of your help and support was greatly appreciated and a weight off all our minds. Thank you for your kindness.”
2. An elderly constituent had problems with re-wiring at his home and several unresolved issues regarding his kitchen and relocation of his cooker. He felt that the proposed work as part of the Decent Homes upgrades was unnecessary and he could not cope with the resultant stress. He wanted the kitchen to remain as it is. I arranged for the work to be put on hold indefinitely and for a periodic electrical test to be carried out at his home. He was very grateful that the test was completed on a date and time convenient for him and that he could move on with the quiet enjoyment of his home.
3. A constituent complained about the quality of service and the manner in which he was spoken to during a telephone call to Jobcentre Plus’ call centre. I arranged for the call to be listened to by senior management. It was agreed that the agent had been rude and acknowledged that the agent should have dealt with the matter in a more professional manner. An apology to my constituent was arranged, and a reconsideration on my constituent’s disallowance for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) was revised in his favour, and arrears of benefit were paid to him.
4. A constituent contacted me regarding her son, who suffers from severe multiple sclerosis (MS). Her son was looking for accommodation, and had been offered a bungalow by the Council. However, this bungalow was in Jarrow and it was difficult for my constituent to visit her son there. I arranged for a his case to be reviewed and a bungalow was identified nearer to her. He is now happily resettled. His mother wrote: “I would like to take this time to give you a massive thank you for taking the time to write on my son’s behalf. We are so happy that he has been offered the bungalow and they are going to adapt it to his needs. He will be beside his family. Thank you so much.”
If you have an issue you think I may be able to provide help with, you can either write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit one of my fortnightly surgeries. My next surgery is on Friday 4th April, and future dates can be found on my calendar page. To arrange an appointment, please contact my office on 0191 427 1240.
At Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions on Thursday Emma asked Secretary of State Owen Paterson to explain why the Government had not taken action to promote WaterSure, a scheme which allows some of the most vulnerable low income households to have their water bills capped.
WaterSure is available to people with three or more children living at home or who have specific medical conditions that require them to use extra water, and who claim certain income-related benefits. Households who qualify for WaterSure will have their bills capped at the average for their area. For constituents who believe they may be eligible for WaterSure, the water regulator Ofwat publishes full advice on its website.
At the moment just one third of households who qualify are taking advantage of the scheme. Labour tabled amendments to the Water Bill which would have required companies to display information about WaterSure prominently on their bills.
Emma asked the Secretary of State:
“The WaterSure scheme helps vulnerable households to pay their water bills, so will the Minister explain why he did not support Labour’s amendments to the Water Bill, which would have made information about WaterSure prominent on customers’ bills?”
The Secretary of State said that this should be left for companies to decide, and that “there is already a huge amount of information on bills, and there is a limit to the amount of information that can be given on one particular document.”
But as Emma pointed out, the low take-up rate of WaterSure suggests that many people are not aware of the scheme, meaning many vulnerable people are missing out on vital support. You can read Emma’s question on the official record by clicking here.
The cost of water has risen significantly in recent years - over 2 million UK households now spend more than 5% of their income on water. During parliamentary debates on the Water Bill, Emma spoke in favour of Labour’s plans for a National Affordability Scheme to bring costs down for the poorest customers. Unfortunately this call was rejected by the Coalition.
Emma is supporting a national day to raise awareness of the plight of those struggling to afford the cost of heating their homes.
Today (28th March) is Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, run by charity National Energy Action and supported by SSE. Around 4.4 million households in the UK are estimated to be living in fuel poverty, unable to heat their homes to the level needed to stay warm and comfortable.
‘’Fuel poverty is a serious problem, affecting over 4,000 households in my constituency alone, but there are a number of things people can do to make their energy bills more affordable. This includes making your home more energy efficient and checking to see if you are eligible for any discounts on your electricity bills or financial assistance with heating or insulation improvements.
"I would urge anyone worried about meeting their energy costs to contact the independent Home Heat Helpline on 0800 33 66 99.’’
Maria Wardrobe, Director of External Affairs at NEA said:
“Our charity knows all too well the horrifying reality of the current ‘heat or eat’ debate and we welcome the support of Emma to help tackle this problem in South Shields. It is vital that anyone working with vulnerable and low-income householders is able to identify and assist those who may be in fuel poverty, and we have launched a new version of our popular Fuel Poverty Action Guide to support them through this process and ensure that help reaches those most in need.’’
For further information on Fuel Poverty Awareness Day and to order copies of the Fuel Poverty Action Guide visit www.nea.org.uk. For energy efficiency advice and information contact the Home Heat Helpline on 0800 33 66 99.
A few constituents have contacted me to ask which way I voted on the proposals to cap overall welfare spending. I know that some constituents have concerns about this issue, so I want to take this opportunity to clarify exactly what the cap means.
It is not a cap on the amount of support any individual or household can receive – this policy was introduced by the Tories in 2012 and Labour opposed it. Nor will the cap involve any additional welfare cuts. Instead, the cap places a limit on the total amount that the Government can spend on social security.
I feel very strongly that no individual or family should be denied state support if they need it, and this would not happen under the cap. I voted for the cap to make sure that our welfare system remains affordable so we can continue to provide a safety net for those who need it in an age where there is less money to go around.
Where Labour differs from the Coalition is that we recognise that the best way to keep welfare spending low is not to make drastic cuts of the kind we have seen under David Cameron, but to deal with the root causes of welfare spending – things like low pay and rising housing costs that increase demand for state support. Labour has committed to scrapping the Bedroom Tax, tackling unemployment through our Jobs Guarantee and properly enforcing minimum wage laws. These measures will make people on low incomes better off and so bring down the benefits bill, making our social security system fairer for claimants and taxpayers.
I hope this is helpful, and explains why I voted for the cap.
Emma responded to last week’s Budget during the final day of the budget debate on Tuesday. She criticised the Chancellor for not including measures to address the pain the cost of living crisis has inflicted on the country’s poorest households.
Emma pointed out that people in South Shields had been some of the worst affected by the Coalition’s economic policies, and that now that growth had returned the Chancellor should have used the Budget to help reverse the worrying trend that has seen their wages fail to keep up with prices for 44 out of the 45 months David Cameron has been in Downing Street. Instead he chose to focus on helping middle and upper earners through changes to pensions and savings.
Emma told the House:
“Now that we are finally seeing a return to growth, this Budget should have been an opportunity to help the people who have suffered hugely during the recession. Instead the Chancellor all but ignored them. He said this was a Budget for savers, but that will mean nothing to those whose incomes are so squeezed that they have nothing left at the end of the month to put aside. What little savings some people have are being spent right now to cover the gap between their income and their living costs.”
Emma also criticised the “patronising gimmicks” included in the Budget to cut duty on beer and bingo, saying that stable, well-paid jobs were the priority for her constituents:
"People in my constituency do not have beer and bingo at the forefront of their concerns. They care about the dignity that decent, well-paid work gives them. They care about providing for their families. They care about being able to pay their bills and to afford to eat. To put it simply, bingo and beer are far from the minds of those queuing at food banks."
You can read Emma's speech in full by clicking here.
Labour MPs voted against the Government’s Budget resolutions on Tuesday, but they were forced through by the Coalition.