Mark Steel: Thatcher’s funeral is over. Can we go back to normal now, please? – Comment – Voices – The Independent
The Chancellor pledged to “tackle welfare bills” yesterday, as part of a range of measures to save billions of pounds in his autumn statement this week. He is expected to announce a below-inflation rise in key state benefits, including unemployment payments, while also raising revenue by cutting pension tax relief for the wealthy.
But in a letter to The Independent, more than 50 charities, academics and unions urged Mr Osborne not to penalise the poor at a time when food and utility prices are rising.
“It would be a tragedy for millions, and a travesty for the economy, to push the poorest into deeper poverty by this week failing to uprate benefits in line with inflation, or by making other cuts to social security for families and disabled people,” they state.
The Liberal Democrats are understood to have objected to plans for an absolute freeze in benefits, and have already blocked Tory plans to remove housing benefit for the under-25s. However with average earnings rising at a lower rate than inflation the two parties are believed to have agreed that welfare payments should not rise in line with inflation – but instead at a lower level, possibly one per cent.
Although pensioners and the disabled are expected to be spared any freeze, the charities claim that the plans will force vulnerable families to cut down on essentials.
“With basic living costs increasing, we know many families are having to make difficult choices; a freeze on benefits and tax credits will make these choices even harder,” the letter says.
Signatories include Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Anne Marie Carrie, chief executive of Barnardo’s, and Fiona Weir, chief executive of single parents charity Gingerbread.
They write: “This week’s autumn statement could leave thousands of children and families even further away from being able to meet their essential costs of living.
“As organisations and individuals concerned with their wellbeing, we are increasingly worried that the statement may worsen already-alarming projections that child poverty will rise by 800,000 by 2020.”
CPAG also cited a recent warning from the International Monetary Fund that struggling countries which cut social security payouts and housing subsidies risk doing further damage to their economies.
Yesterday Mr Osborne made clear that reducing the welfare bill would be a central element of Wednesday’s autumn statement, which is being touted as a mini-Budget.
“We are going to tackle welfare bills, and … the welfare system which is deeply unfair for working people,” he told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“We’ve already made £18bn of savings from the welfare bill … but we’re determined to reform welfare, not just to cut bills, so that work always pays, that it’s always better off for someone to work that extra hour, to go out and get the job, and fundamentally that is about creating not just a fairer society, but a more competitive society. That is the Conservative approach to fairness, make the rich pay but also make sure you are tackling the welfare system, which is deeply unfair.”
But the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, insisted that it was only Mr Osborne’s economic strategy that meant he needed to find further savings. “The welfare bill is up because inflation is up and long-term unemployment is up,” he said. “The Work Programme is failing, he’s cutting taxes at the top. And then he says ‘I’m going to hit people at the bottom’.”
John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York added: “While the poorest see their incomes slashed, incomes at the top have been rising rapidly – but everyone deserves a decent quality of life.”
Liberal Democrat sources said they believed that they had negotiated a “balanced package” which would be seen as fair.
However they did not deny suggestions that the autumn statement would include some real-terms benefits cuts.
“This is an important moment for the Government,” they said. “But I think if you look at the range of measures in the statement people will see that it is fair.”
However research commissioned by the Trades Union Congress, published today, found that families would lose most, out of the £10bn cut in the welfare budget, with low-income households losing more than £700 each a year. That is compared with the richest 10 per cent of households who would lose an estimated £100 per family. Working single parents would lose more than £300 a year if the cuts go ahead, the report says.
Autumn statement: Osborne’s options
Freezing welfare benefits entirely
A popular measure among Tory backbenchers but opposed by charities and many Liberal Democrats who feel it’s draconian. Chances of inclusion: 2/5
Raising welfare benefits in line with average incomes – not inflation
Average incomes are rising at less than 2 per cent while the rate of inflation is higher. Osborne may argue that to make work pay, benefits should only go up this year by the rate of earnings. 4/5
Reduce the amount of money that people can pay into their pensions without paying tax on it from £50,000 to £30,000 a year
Mr Osborne has already stated that the autumn statement will increase the tax burden on the better off and pension tax relief is an obvious way of doing this. 3/5
Removing housing benefit from the under-25s
This idea was floated by David Cameron in a speech earlier this year – but appears to have been blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Expect it in the Conservative manifesto. 0/5
Introducing a mansion tax on the most expensive properties or introducing a new council tax band
A long-time aspiration of the Liberal Democrats, the proposal appears to have been vetoed by Mr Cameron so will not happen in this parliament. But again expect it in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. 0/5
Freezing fuel duty
Having been postponed once before, fuel duty is due to rise by 3p per litre in January. However Mr Osborne is almost certain to delay the rise again or scrap it entirely. 4/5
Standards in social care are being undermined because the handful of private companies which dominate public sector contracts are now “too big to fail”, a new report warns.
Outsourcing was supposed to drive up standards and cut costs, but the dominance of multinationals such as Serco and G4S risks harming vulnerable people, it claims.
Britain faces “another banking crisis” in the care sector unless charities and social enterprises are given a greater slice of the market, according to the report’s authors.
Peter Holbrook, the chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, who commissioned the investigation, told The Independent: “Britain’s most vulnerable people are suffering as competition and the delivery of efficient care is replaced by short-sighted bidding wars and low-quality service.”
The outsourced market for public services has an annual turnover of £82bn, which is predicted to rise to £140bn by 2014. The report identifies the emergence of a “shadow state”, with a small number of companies taking “large and complex stakes in public service markets, and a great deal of control over how they work”.
G4S, which made headlines this summer for failing to provide sufficient security at the Olympics, has contracts with 10 government departments and agencies and 14 police forces.
Serco has dozens of private contracts, running everything from prisons to hospital facilities to council waste collection. “Its failure would cause extreme turbulence in public services. No business should be too big to be allowed to fail,” the report warns.
About £1bn is spent every year looking after children and young people in residential care, with Sovereign and 3i the major private players. But the report found that it is “hard to pinpoint who owns what; their waters seem to be in perpetual motion, as they buy from one another and take one another over, and offload assets.”
Other private operators whose substantial public contracts are highlighted in the report include Atos, which has the contract to perform disability assessments, and Capita, which was recently named as the preferred bidder for a £1.7bn, 20-year contract to run educational services in Staffordshire.
“If we are going to go down this route of further marketisation, then it is imperative that these markets are open, transparent and well-functioning,” Mr Holbrook said. “There is a very small number of companies dominating these markets, and they surround themselves by complex legal structures so that it is hard to understand the level of profit they are taking from some of these contracts”.
The report, which is the result of interviews with policy-makers and front-line workers, accuses profit-seeking companies of bidding for public-sector contracts on short-term price alone, with devastating long-term effects, including a “race to the bottom” on pay.
One unnamed home-care worker for a “sizeable private provider” is quoted as saying: “Most of the carers don’t have English as a first language. It’s always the minimum wage.”
Charities and social enterprises can no longer compete, the report claims.
A G4S spokesman said yesterday: “There is absolutely no way we are comprising on service, for the very reason that every government contract we provide has to meet strict criteria and if we fail we incur financial penalties, which is not something echoed in the public sector.”
Serco could not be reached for comment.
Public sector market: Outsourcing giants
G4S Had its contract for Wold prison revoked last month after a shambolic performance in providing security at the London Olympics, pictured. The Government remains its biggest client, with 14 police forces within the firm’s remit.
SERCO Major shareholders include HBOS and Lloyds. Government contracts include maintaining the Docklands Light Railway, missile defence systems and military bases, and security services for the young offenders institutions.
ATOS The French multinational turned over €8m (£6.5m) last year. It made headlines after losing a memory stick with the passwords and names of a government computer system were found in a pub car park. Clients include the UK Border Agency.
CAPITA Contracts span administration of public-sector pensions and public grant programmes. Recently named preferred bidder for a 20-year contract to run educational services in Staffordshire. Specialises in “Business process Outsourcing”.
The Tories are emasculating the Equality and Human Rights Commission
Baroness Onora O’Neill, 71, has replaced Trevor Phillips as chair. Phillips was not as effective or dynamic as he needed to be, but he did understand how discrimination damaged individuals and society. O’Neill is a thoughtful philosopher, a former head of a Cambridge college, an establishment figure with no record in equality or human rights work. Oh, except for a paper on the “dark side of human rights” which suggests some victims get off on feelings of victimisation. The Hillsborough relatives and Doreen Lawrence have been accused of just that. Imagine what the Commission would be under Shami Chakrabarti, Geoffrey Robinson QC or the indomitable Helena Kennedy? They wouldn’t just play safe and would never be appointed.
The UN has just warned that the UK may lose its “A” status on human-rights protection and so be unable join in top-table discussions on those universal rights and country violations. On equality our UN figures are just as miserable. Latvia is getting better on gender parity and we are getting markedly worse. On race there is serious criticism of Government inaction.
The Tory right has always hated anti-discrimination remedies and talk of human rights. According to them, the members of this capitalist, individualistic nation should put up with hard luck and unfairness and not bother busy, busy businesses with profligate complaints. By comparison, the US, an even more fanatically individualistic, capitalist nation has had equality laws and anti-discrimination institutions since the 1960s for ethical and economic reasons. Not even George Bush and followers could persuade public opinion that such “interfering” legal protection was ruining the country.
The Human Rights Act and the Commission materialised after years of painstaking work by the Liberal Democrat lawyer Lord Anthony Lester and other civil rights and democracy experts. I remember endless seminars, fiery arguments and public meetings to work out a good model to defend all UK citizens from prejudice and injustice. That principle was what got me onside. The Commission would fight not only for black Britons and women, but white men too, old, young and gay people, anyone who had been treated unfairly. Though discrimination never stops, those rights are now firmly in our heads and hearts. Theresa May gave them as her reasons for not extraditing Gary McKinnon, Asperger’s sufferer and Pentagon hacker, to the USA recently; we are collectively profoundly upset when the human rights of children are violated as they were by Savile and others and shocked to see the abuse of vulnerable old people in some care homes, their right to human dignity violated.
I had an illuminating exchange at a party this week. A property developer wanted to know how to get the EHRC to take up his daughter’s case. Expected to get top grades, she applied to an Oxford college and was rejected. The disappointed teenager has, since, tried to kill herself: “It’s not fair, they didn’t give her a chance. They just judged her on class.” I replied I completely sympathised, and I do. And I hope he too now has some empathy with the qualified black man who never gets an interview, the old worker sacked because of his age. From being against such “PC nonsense” as he put it, the father had started to see why we need laws to safeguard us all.
David Cameron once seemed far removed from his anti-equality troglodytes. He worked tirelessly in the last election to persuade voters that under his leadership the Tories had undergone not a cosmetic makeover, but irreversible surgery. It was no longer the “ nasty party” (in Theresa May’s words), but nice, caring, sharing, modern, meritocratic, inclusive and diverse. He knew that without new blood the Conservatives were stuffed. Their most loyal white, middle-class supporters were ageing and most young Tory whippersnappers were almost as badly out of touch with modern Britain. Excluded and self-excluding voters had to be attracted to boost numbers and change the party’s image. I do think Cameron, in that moment, passionately believed and truly meant what he said – in that he is Tony Blair’s doppelgänger.
Now the PM backs off from all that idealism, dumps progressive policies and state institutions to enforce best practice, casually abandons his pre-election persona and swerves sharply right. Disabling the equalities and human rights agenda and sacrificing the Commission are offered as proof to the old guard that he is still one of them. And, as ever, Liberal Democrat leaders, warm in their ministerial cars and self-importance, do nothing to stop him or defend an institution they so wanted, so believed in.
Thousands wrongly sectioned under mental health act following ‘technical error’
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Parliament that thousands of Britain’s most vulnerable patients have been locked up on the say so of doctors who, despite having the requisite medical knowledge, were not legally allowed to make such a decision.
The error will require immediate retrospective legislation to avoid a deluge of legal complaints whilst a review has been ordered to find out what went wrong.
The Department of Health insists that no patients have been wrongly sectioned in clinical terms and that the doctors behind the decisions had the correct professional qualifications.
Under the Mental Health Act those who are sectioned for their own or society’s safety are done so with the authorisation of a doctor who has to be approved by the Secretary of State. In recent years the Health Secretary has delegated responsibility for approving doctors to the 10 Strategic Health Authorities that cover England.
However four authorities – North East, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and East Midlands – delegated a further step top mental health trusts and then failed to sign off on the decisions they made, meaning they were effectively illegal.
In a statement to the Commons Mr Hunt said: “We believe that all the proper clinical processes were gone through when these patients were detained. They were detained by medically qualified doctors. We believe that no one is in hospital who shouldn’t be and no patients have suffered because of this.
He added: “But for the avoidance of any remaining doubt, and in the interests of the safety of patients themselves, as well as the potential concerns of their families and the staff who care for them, we are introducing emergency legislation to clarify the position.”
Andy Burnham, his opposite in the Labour party, said MPs would work with the Health Secretary in bringing in the emergency legislation but he warned: “There will be concerns about precedent – this the first time that the House has been presented with emergency legislation in this area which affects people’s rights. The public will want to know that it is being used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort, not as a convenient means of correcting administrative failures.”
Mental health charities reacted cautiously to the announcement saying that although the mistake was regrettable, they were assured by promises from the government that no-one had been sectioned falsely in clinical terms.
“Being involuntarily detained via the Mental Health Act is one of the most serious things that can happen to someone in terms of their mental health,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind. “For this reason it is essential that the system works as it should, with safeguards in place to protect the rights of the person being detained. It is therefore regrettable that this mistake has been made and that it went unnoticed for so long.”
Paul Jenkins, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness added: “All of us need to know that if we were ever ill enough to be sectioned, we would be treated according to the proper processes. At this stage, we have no reason to think that anyone has been detained who should not have been, even though the correct procedures have not been followed. We believe that the Department of Health and Strategic Health Authorities are taking swift action and we will continue to monitor the situation.”
Marjorie Wallace chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, added: “It is a matter of some concern that the procedures for something as sensitive as being sectioned have not been followed in so many cases. At the moment we have the Health Secretary’s assurance that no-one has been detained unnecessarily, and must hope that these errors are correctly swiftly so that confidence in the system can be preserved. This is particularly important when an individual is placed in the care and authority of the state.”
* Picture posed by model