Claims by Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, that the UK’s biggest independent trade deal with Korea hit the ” gold standard” are ruthlessly exposed by a House of Lords committee. The full story on Byline Times here reveals that government’s claims we would be better outside the EU for trade are suspect – and ministers don’t want them properly scrutinised by Parliament.
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The billion pound plus failure of the implementation of Universal Credit is rightly condemned by the National Audit Office in a report published today.
Aimed to save money, get everybody back to work, simplify a complex benefit system and to be easily implemented. Instead it is going to cost more, is years behind schedule, discriminates against disabled and poorly educated people, and the government has plans to force the elderly not entitled to a pension to have to use it when it changes entitlement to pension credit ( see my earlier blog here)
But it is also having appalling consequences for food banks, landlords, council and housing association tenants – as the example in Amber Rudd’s constituency ( details down below show).
In the meantime ministers today were patting themselves on the back today how successful it is while senior civil servants behind it were awarded bonuses worth up to £20,000 each for its botched introduction ( see an earlier blog here and an article in the Sunday Mirror).
The statistics are appalling. According to the NAO :
“In 2017, around one quarter (113,000) of new claims were not paid in full on time. Late payments were delayed on average by four weeks, but from January to October 2017, 40% of those affected by late payments waited in total around 11 weeks or more, and 20% waited almost five months. Despite improvements in payment timeliness, in March 2018 21% of new claimants did not receive their full entitlement on time with 13% receiving no payment on time.
The Department does not anticipate payment timeliness to improve significantly in 2018. On this basis, the NAO estimates that between 270,000 and 338,000 new claimants will not be paid in full at the end of their first assessment period throughout 2018. Those with more complex cases are more likely to be paid late.
The Department expected most claimants would have enough money to cope over the initial waiting period after their claim is submitted (previously six weeks, now five). In reality, nearly 60% of new claimants (around 56,000 a month) receive a Universal Credit advance to help them manage before receiving their first payment.But they have to pay it back which means deducting an average £43 a month from their benefit.
But while the statistics are bad, the examples are worse.
Appendix 5 of the report reveals In Amber Rudd’s Hastings constituency for example, according to the NAO Hastings foodbank has increased its opening hours, needs around two tonnes of stock each week to meet demand, and is considering building more storage space, costing £200,000.”
Hastings Citizens Advice pays staff to deliver Universal Support delivered locally. It therefore needs to pay providers regardless of the number of people
that are referred for support. But its income from the Department is not guaranteed so it can’t plan
Hastings Citizens Advice is considering scaling back on what it does in order to cope with increased demand.
Similarly NHS Hastings and Rother Clinical Commissioning Group funds its local advisory services. But this takes time to identify and secure. This hampers the ability of organisations to employ high-quality advocates because of the uncertainty of future funding.
.Hastings and Rother Credit Union no longer accepts Universal Credit claimant because of the complications in dealing with the new benefit and the long time waiting for people to be paid it.
Other areas have also got problems.Landlords are carrying extra debt – Croydon’s rent
collection rate has fallen from 92% to 58%, and its bad debt provision has doubled to £8 million.
Sedgemoor Council in County Durham reported an increasing unwillingness, even with social landlords, to take on low-income tenants or those claiming Universal Credit.
So the government has piled on misery upon misery for the claimants,. voluntary organisations, food banks, landlords, credit unions, local authorities and health services. Meanwhile ministers on excess of £100,000 a year go home to expensive houses, enjoy fine wines, expensive meals out and luxury holidays while boasting how they are helping the poor. Some sick joke. As Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today:
“The Department has pushed ahead with Universal Credit in the face of a number of problems, but has shown a lack of regard in failing to understand the hardship faced by some claimants.
“The benefits that it set out to achieve through Universal Credit, such as increased employment and lower administration costs, are unlikely to be achieved, yet the Department has little realistic alternative but to continue with the programme and hopefully learn from past mistakes.”
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This week Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss chairs a highly publicised emergency Cabinet committee to save large swathes of the nation from a flooding disaster. I hope she does a better job than supervising payments to England’s farmers.
Last week her department and one of its agencies were involved in one of the most callous and dishonest pieces of news management this year.
It has left tens of thousands of farmers without any money for Christmas and they will be lucky if they are paid by the end of January.
The reason is her department and the Rural Payments Agency have been involved in a monumental mess over the introduction of a new computer system to pay farmers their annual cash from the European Union.
This money is not small beer. This time last year some £1.3 BILLION was paid out to over 96,000 farmers in England and it helps keep our food at reasonable prices in the shops.
Last week the National Audit Office revealed that the computer system set up to pay the money didn’t work properly, cost 40 per cent ( at £215m to the taxpayer) more than planned and , as a result,farmers had to revert to using paper applications.
The report even for National Audit Office terms was scathing. it revealed a total mess across Whitehall with quarrelling officials from the Cabinet Office to the Government Digital Service making a pig’s ear of the whole business.
I wrote about it in Tribune. Here is one damning paragraph in the report:
” The Programme has been set back by numerous changes in leadership. There were four senior responsible owners within the space of a year, each bringing their own style and priorities. Repeated changes were disruptive to the Programme and caused uncertainty and confusion for its staff. The Department failed to prevent… deep rifts in working relationships and inappropriate behaviour at the senior leadership level. ”
Now this body- the Government Digital Service – has just been given an extra £200m by George Osborne, the Chancellor, so it can digitalise driving licences and passports. If their handling of farmers money is anything to go by, you will find you won’t be able to get a driving licence or passport by the next General Election.
You might wonder why you have not heard about this mess. A copy of the damning NAO report was sent to every national newspaper but their reporters deemed it too boring to publish. The situation was condemned by Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, but it fell on deaf Parliamentary lobby ears.
But worse than this the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs deliberately misled the public and the media about this state of affairs.
Last year when the first farmers received their cash under the old system, Elizabeth Truss couldn’t wait to boast, in a run up to the election, how successful the government had been in getting the money to farmers. You can read about it here.
This year this completely misleading statement was put out and Elizabeth Truss was nowhere to be seen. It boasted of 33,000 farmers receiving the cash. Last year it was 96,000. In other words it had fallen by 65 per cent – an appalling state of affairs.
To my mind the whole saga shows we are governed by a Metropolitan elite – with no press interest in the plight of anyone outside London and complete disdain for rural issues. That is why obviously Elizabeth Truss thought she could get away with no one knowing anything about this mess. And she has succeeded.
There is a great opportunity for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to take this issue up – it chimes with the parties’ interests in backing grass roots politics away from Westminster.
There is also a sting in the tale – do you know the European Union can fine the UK for not paying the money promptly. A similar problem some years ago meant the department was fined over £600m. So due to ministers’ incompetence some of your taxes – will go to pay millions of pounds of EU fines. You couldn’t make this up.
Almost a year after Margaret had her devastating stroke on the Isles of Scilly we took courage in both hands and took our first holiday.
We returned to a particular tranquil spot in the Majorcan resort of Puerto Pollensa on the North West coast.And to a particular hotel , the Hotel Illa D’Or, on the outskirts of the town overlooking the bay.
Now the centre of Puerto Pollensa – though at my age thankfully no Magaluf- is bustling and busy with a yacht harbour. Where we were is much quieter but the brilliant thing is you can walk ( or cycle ) all the way from the centre to the hotel on a traffic free promenade with outstanding sea and mountain views.
The luxury hotel itself is still owned by the same family since it opened 85 years ago in 1929 and one of its first guests was the Catalan surrealist artist Joan Miro who spent his honeymoon here. I am not surprised. The hotel itself is now much bigger than in 1929 but it has not lost its personal touch while providing all the facilities you might need from swimming pools to tennis courts and a superb terrace overlooking the sea. The food supervised by an Argentinian chef is superb and creative without being flashy or indigestible and the choice at the breakfast buffet is stunning – from Serrano ham to a cooked grill and fresh fruit to pastries and even chocolate gateaux.
But this time what we really appreciated was the courtesy and facilities the hotel provided for the disabled. We had an adapted room with a walk in shower and its own terrace accessible by a ramp. it was near the lift and the entrance to the restaurant and the front terrace were level – easily negotiable by a stroller or a wheelchair – and we soon dispensed with the use of a wheelchair. The hotel could not have provided better facilities.
Margaret was able to use a stroller and walk in part unaided along the front – gradually increasing the distance until we achieved our objective of getting to the centre and having lunch! The ground shaded in part by pine trees can be a bit uneven but as the physios would say it was good rehab.
It was also our first experience of using an assisted flight – and I have to say the outsourced company at Birmingham Airport and the staff at Palma Airport were superb is getting us to and from the plane.
But if you want a week away in four star luxury, sun and some the taste of some rather superior Catalan Rioja stocked by the hotel I would recommend it, disabled or not.
Revealed : The Pizza in Pizzagate
While a Home Office van tours the London borough of Brent telling illegal immigrants to go home or face arrest the food suppliers to our most ” ethical “supermarkets are going out of their way to encourage low paid immigration to Britain to pick the strawberries, raspberries and blackberries now on sale in Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.
The most prominent is run by Marion and Joe Regan. She is one of the leading lights in the fruit growers world and she supplies strawberries to Wimbledon, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.
Look at the website more closely and you will find it is in English, Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Russian The reason is Hugh Lowe Farms are desperate to recruit labour and are targeting workers from these countries to come to Britain. The Bulgarians and Romanians – though not allowed to come here until next year – can come through a government seasonal workers scheme run, yes, by the Home Office – the very ministry behind the offensive vans.
Why Russian you may ask. Well, believe or not, fruit growers are worried ( Nigel Farage of UKIP please note) that when the Romanians and Bulgarians get the freedom of the whole EU, they won’t want to come here. Why? Because the UK under the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition – is now being regarded as such a low wage economy and so expensive to live in – that they would rather work on farms in other EU countries.
So the fruit growers want to RELAX immigration control further and get the Home Office to approve a seasonal workers scheme for Ukrainians from next year to pick their fruit. The reason Ukrainians are even poorer than Romanians – and can’t get access to the EU.
One might have a smidgeon of sympathy for the growers need to attract workers if it were not they are also the leading lights in abolishing from the end of September the Agriculture Wages Board – which guarantees slightly higher wages than the minimum wage and the supermarkets, while officially neutral, are aiding and abetting them.
This allows lower wages from British workers recruited for the next season – a group as you can see, the fruit growers have great difficulty in recruiting already or they wouldn’t be chasing people abroad.
Waitrose can be directly implicated in the move behind lower pay – since one of their leading women executives, Heather Jenkins sat on the Farming Better Regulation Task Force – the very body that recommended its abolition. Waitrose say her role was independent, but I presume they gave her time off to do it.
Lord Currie, chair of Leckford Farms, ( more in a separate blog about him later) a major supplier to Waitrose and having opened the company’s first farm shop, is hysterical about abolishing the board.
So when you next shop in Waitrose or Marks and Spencer just remember the fruit on sale there from Britain is most likely picked by foreign workers whose suppliers are keen to get rid of a board that provides a minimum standard for workers in an already low paid industry.
Of course Waitrose and M & S deny to me that want to cut wages, so does Marion Regan of Hugh Lowe Farms in Kent- promising to put them up. But Marion Regan’s company was so lax in checking its own website – that until this week it was advertising for foreign workers on its foreign language sites at last year’s rate of pay – a full 11p an hour lower than the legal rate.