Why are top Tories delaying Universal Credit roll-out in their own constituencies?

The following piece appeared in the Huffington Post on December 6th. On Tuesday, Labour MPs secured another parliamentary victory over the government, forcing them to release impact assessments on the roll out of Universal Credit.  It is only weeks since the Opposition defeated the Tories on the general principle, with the Commons unanimously voting for a “pause and fix”. Unfortunately, the government has not honoured that vote as they were forced to do yesterday.  Instead, they came forward with various, mostly welcome but inadequate, concessions under cover of the Budget. My constituents in Barnsley are unlikely to notice much difference – we had the Universal Credit imposed in full in July. But as an analysis has showed, there were some areas which were at least granted a delay while the slightly less punitive version of the Credit is developed. By strange coincidence, those areas include the parliamentary constituencies of the Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke, Prime Minister Theresa May, de facto Deputy PM Damian Green, and former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. The move means that all three Work and Pensions Secretaries who designed and imposed the Universal Credit across much of the country will all see it delayed for their own seats, with concessions such as a lower waiting time implemented beforehand. These changes were quietly slipped out in DWP documents the day after last week’s Budget, with Gauke mumbling a few words about a revised schedule from the Despatch Box, and quietly publishing a document titled “Universal Credit Transition Rollout Schedule” on the DWP website, replacing a previous version. A number of documents have been swiftly deleted from the website since I raised this point in the Commons but comparing the new timetable to the previous rollout schedule, the Maidenhead, Ashford, Hemel Hempstead, Walthamstow and Redbridge Job Centres Plus will all now delay the roll out by three months.  These cover the bulk of the constituencies of Maidenhead, Ashford, South West Hertfordshire and Chingford and Woodford Green. Only South Oxhey, a small, working class and generally Labour-voting area of David Gauke’s constituency will continue to have Universal Credit imposed on time. The other Job Centre Plus in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which serves Labour seats rather than Iain Duncan Smith’s seat, will implement UC earlier.  As MPs we have no say over the timetable. The government implemented the timetable using “commencement orders”, a type of legislation on which Parliament has no say. It is meant to be used simply to bring an Act in to force, rather than make controversial policy decisions. There can be little doubt that this timetable is a political decision – but ministers are able to put it into law at the stroke of a pen.  It is the same pattern I have seen time and again since being elected as an MP in June. We are sent here to agree the law on behalf of our constituents, but instead Tory ministers have grabbed that power to themselves on everything from Brexit to tuition fees.  So we have the situation that even while claiming everything is fine with the Universal Credit, top Tories have quietly delayed it in their own constituencies. So the very people who dreamt up the whole idea and then made such a mess of it are now putting off the consequences in their own seats.  It’s one law for them, another for the rest of us. And it is not a law that they want made by Parliament. Despite – or more accurately because of – their failure to win a majority, they want to set their own rules.  People in Barnsley have had Universal Credit imposed on them by this government in the face of warnings and protests. If the Tories want to pause and fix Universal Credit for themselves, they should do it for all of us.  

Budget does nothing for Barnsley

This week’s budget was an opportunity for the Government to address the huge problems seven years of austerity have forced on people here in Barnsley. Living standards have been dragged down, average earnings have stagnated, productivity growth has been trashed, and our public services have been plunged into crisis. It was vital that the Government provided solutions to these damaging issues. Instead, they offered no more than a ‘nothing has changed’ budget that falls woefully short of helping hard-working people in Barnsley. Our NHS was offered £2.8bn extra money, falling way short of the $4bn minimum the NHS itself says it desperate needs to keep providing effective help and support. Our police budgets, despite witnessing huge cuts that have seen our local force alone lose nearly a quarter of their officers since 2010, didn’t even warrant a mention in the face of rising crime numbers and unprecedented pressures. Nor did the Chancellor see fit to bother properly addressing the public sector pay cap, which has caused real-terms pay cuts for hard-working nurses, police officers, firefighters and many other public sector workers across Barnsley. The Government did set out their priorities, however, by deciding to press ahead with their disastrous roll-out of Universal Credit with only minor changes, leaving financial uncertainty and desperate anxiety for so many struggling people over the festive period. Faced with the problems affecting so many, the Government once again showed just how out of touch they are with hard-working people. Their budget showed us a lot about what the Tories care about, and it’s not good news for people in Barnsley. 

My Column on Apprenticeships

The following appeared in my column for the Barnsley Chronicle on November 24th.  After chatting to young people and students around our community, it’s clear far too many of them have concerns about their futures.  Whether it’s getting a secure and well-paying job, achieving vital qualifications, being able to get on the housing ladder, or affording further and higher education, time and time again I’m reminded of the obstacles they face. That’s why it’s so important to ensure young people in Barnsley have the skills and qualifications they desperately need to help them get on in life.  It’s a topic that we’ve spoken about a lot recently, but often the discussion is dominated by higher education. There’s no doubt that university is the right move for many young people, but it’s not for everyone. In a changing and innovating economy, employer-led training can often provide the best route for a young person. Apprenticeships can provide valuable on-the-job learning, vital qualifications, and frequently provide the first step into permanent employment.  It’s a route so many across the country have taken, with over 500,000 people beginning an apprenticeship in the last year alone.  But it’s still not enough, and apprenticeships should also be about quality, not just quantity. In fact, only 1 in 10 employers across the country provides apprenticeships, and the majority of these are taken by older people, rather than used to provide school leavers and young people with a start. And of the apprenticeships taken up by young people, only a quarter them receive formal training. Simply put, we need higher quality apprenticeships that provide better experiences and qualifications, given to young people to get the best start in life, regardless of their background. As politicians, we’re often accused of just talking the talk. But I’ll be providing an apprenticeship for one local young person, giving them the chance to join me in my busy office, earning the living wage and getting crucial employment experience. For more information, you can contact my constituency office. It’s important to ensure that as much as possible is done to help our young people in Barnsley get a good start and the chance to really get on in life.  

Devolution Deal once in a Generation

The question of devolution is a big one, and it’s absolutely right the community poll will let the public decide what form our deal should take; it’s great to see Barnsley Council put their trust in local people. For too long Barnsley and Yorkshire have been neglected and ignored by this Government, whilst other cities and regions prosper. And now we’re faced with a number of challenges that may have profound implications for our town’s future. So most importantly, it’s crucial we negotiate a devolution deal that provides key investment in infrastructure and skills so that we’re no longer left behind. But for my part, I think it’s time we tackled these challenges head-on, and we’re bold and ambitious about what we can achieve as a community. It shouldn’t be enough that we’re happy to just no longer be left behind. Let’s instead strive to lead from the front like Yorkshire always should. We should be seeking the biggest deal that gives us the most clout, and the opportunity to compete nationally and internationally. And it’s as part of a strong One Yorkshire arrangement that allows us to demand a devolution deal that would deliver the level of benefits our county and people need. This is a deal we’ll have to live with for generations, and we’ll only get one chance to decide. So why not make the most of it and aim for the biggest and best deal we can get, and that’s One Yorkshire. 

My Column on Remembrance Day

The following appeared in my column for the Barnsley Chronicle on November 10th:  Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the unveiling of a memorial in Barnsley to the soldiers who died at the Battle of the Somme, a hundred years ago. The commemorative art was adorned with many of the faces of those from Barnsley who were lost in the infamous WW1 battle. The ‘Barnsley Pals’, as they were known, were two companies of soldiers who answered Lord Kitchener’s famous call to arms, and enlisted together to fight for their country and community in the Great War. But the losses they eventually experienced were horrific, including around 300 men killed on July 1st 1916 alone – the very first day of the Battle of the Somme. The impact this had on their families and the community back home in Barnsley was devastating, but unfortunately not dissimilar to that witnessed in cities, towns and villages across the country. Seeing the faces of many of those Barnsley Pals who had died at the Somme was an incredibly pertinent and sobering reminder of the sacrifices they made to maintain the freedoms we enjoy today. So, as Remembrance Day approaches it’s still so important we remember all of them; from those who fought and died on those poppy-covered fields in Flanders, to the other conflicts through the ensuing decades. It often feels like we live in a fast-paced and ever-changing world, and one that seems to be increasing characterised with deep political division. But Remembrance Sunday reminds us there are sometimes more important things. Regardless of political persuasion, we can all take a moment to remember and commemorate those who have given their lives for our country. It is our shared history, and one which has affected our community and so many people in it. So on Sunday, when the country falls silent and still and the Last Post sounds, that’s what I’ll be thinking of; those faces of the Barnsley Pals, and many others like them who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. We will remember them.  

My Thoughts on the Gender Pay Gap

Today is ‘equal pay day’, the day women stop earning relative to men because of the gender pay gap. Thanks to the pay gap, women across the country earn on average 14.1 percent less than men; that’s 84p to every £1. This gap means that from today, the average woman is working for free until the end of 2017. This isn’t just caused by direct differences in pay for the same roles, as this was thankfully outlawed by the Equal Pay Act 47 years ago. Instead, there are a number of contributing factors. A divided labour market, for instance, means women make up 80 percent of care and leisure workers but only 8 percent of those working in better paid skilled trades. Women also make up 61 percent of people in the UK earning less than the real living wage – an issue I highlighted just this week in calling for Barnsley’s business to pay their employees a proper income that covers the basic cost of living. Women further play a significantly greater role in caring positions and responsibilities for children and sick or elderly relatives – roles which often remain unpaid or low waged. On the other hand, men dominate senior positions and best paid roles; all but 6 of the Chief Executive positions in the FTSE100 companies are all held by men, for example. It affects people here in my constituency of Barnsley East. According to the Fawcett Society women in our community earn on average 6.9 percent less than men. This isn’t good enough. Across the UK, this gap had been closing. But for three years now it’s stayed the same. In fact, if the average pay gap for full time workers continues to close at the rate it has over the last five years, women’s pay won’t reach parity with men’s until 2117. That’s another 100 years before men and women earn the same. This isn’t a case of calling for men to be paid less, but instead ensuring women here have the same opportunities to get skilled jobs, promotions, and good wages.    We can start by introducing mandatory equal pay auditing for large employers, and give the Equality and Human Rights Commission the funding it needs to really implement change. It might not happen immediately, but it’s 2017 and women deserve the same pay as men. We can’t wait until 2117. 

Supporting Living Wage Week

I’ve pledged my support for the Living Wage Campaign. Living Wage Week, taking place this week, shows backing for a real living wage that, contrary to the Government’s current national living wage, is actually based on what employees need to live on by taking into account the cost of living. In Barnsley alone, 26.4 per cent of workers currently earn less than this real living wage, meaning 19,000 people are earning less than they need to get by. In the wider Yorkshire and Humber region, around 546,000 employees are receiving less than the real living wage. Every employee deserves to paid a good wage for a hard day’s work, but many people here in Barnsley are missing out. People are working full-time jobs and their fingers to the bone, only to receive an income that doesn’t even cover the basic cost of living. A real living wage is essential to make sure people across Barnsley are properly rewarded for their hard work, and I support the Living Wage Week campaign. I’m calling on employers in our community to offer their employees a real wage that properly reflects how much people truly need to get by.

My Article on Care Worker Pay for LabourList

The following appeared in an article I wrote for LabourList on November 10th: Carers working sleep-in shifts must be paid the minimum wage after another victory in the courts for Unison. The union successfully used employment tribunals to change government guidance on the application of minimum wage legislation. As we should have expected, the Tory government’s response has been disgraceful. Instead of ensuring that care staff receive the back-pay they are owed, government has cynically passed the buck to providers and kicked the can down the road for at least another 15 months. This reveals the true nature of the Tories – claiming to be the party of hard working people but leaving low-paid care workers in prolonged uncertainty. My father is a care worker. I’ve always been amazed at the amount of energy he puts into what is a difficult job, the warmth he brings to it and the incredible effect he has on people every day. He deserves to be paid a fair wage for his work. Sleep-in shifts – so-called because people who can’t be left alone through the night hire carers to stay in case they are needed – can be some of the toughest, often caring for individuals with complex needs. Highly vulnerable people are often provided for through local authorities, who contract providers that offer specialist care services. Austerity has squeezed local authority budgets – meaning in many places payment for carers has remained static since 2010 despite higher pension contributions, higher regulatory fees and the minimum wage changes resulting from the Unison victory. The Tory government simply isn’t passing adequate resources onto local authorities. The government’s own guidance previously mistakenly instructed providers that paying overnight carers less than the minimum wage was okay. Now, this lack of funding is essentially the Tories not respecting the decision in favour of low-paid carers. Even the chancellor’s own local authority has been found not to be paying the higher rate to meet the minimum wage for sleep-ins to at least one of their contracted providers. Now, we are left with a situation involving care providers, many of them charities, who say that despite wanting to pay staff more they simply cannot afford to foot the bill for six years of unexpected back-pay, carers who deserve their fair compensation, vulnerable people and a dithering government. This is the same Tory government which has for the last two years failed to admit their mistakes, failed to correct the system they created, failed to properly fund the social care sector and failed to ensure this back-pay to hard-working carers. The care sector has estimated costs of £400m to pay back staff. Instead of raiding charity coffers to pay for essential services, the government needs to take responsibility for this plight they have created and fund the £400m. When will we have justice for some of the hardest-working among us?

Police Funding Cuts Hit our Officers too

On November 7th I spoke in a debate on funding for community policing.I brought up the issue of increased workload on our officers due to strained resources, and the affect this has on our local force.It’s important to remember that cuts to police funding don’t just affect our communities, but place additional strain on the officers themselves.    

Standing Up for Our Pubs and Breweries

On October 31st, I spoke up on behalf of local pubs and breweries in Parliament. In Barnsley East alone, they contribute over £12m to the local economy, and account for over 500 jobs. But they have faced greater financial strain, not least due to the Government’s decision to raise beer duty in their Spring Budget, increasing the price people pay for a pint. I raised the issue of compulsory purchase orders, the existing planning systems, and the need to ensure that local communities have a stronger voice. It’s essential the Government listens to the concerns of pubs and breweries on this issue, and makes sure they can continue to be vital social and economic hubs of our communities.