Queensland’s Art Gallery is well known for its collection of Aboriginal art. But when we visited it on a day stop in Brisbane what attracted us was a special free exhibition of contemporary Papua New Guinea artists called Kin, reflecting the close relationships among the country’s painters.
It celebrated the work of Mathias Kauage and more recent painters and was a riot of vibrant colours and political messages touching on issues like refugees now right at the heart of debate in Britain. It included a remarkable painting of Captain Cook looking down on residents of Papua New Guinea – see above.
The paintings don’t shy away from tackling political issues particularly on the red hot issue in the UK and Australia on asylum seekers and refugees. A particular striking picture praises Jacinda Arden accepting and helping refugees.
One wonders how the painters would portray Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak -both brown British politicians deporting largely brown and black asylum seekers from the shores of the UK. Perhaps the UK’s leading art gallery Tate Britain should commission them to paint a series to counteract the baleful influence of Right wing Aussie politician Tony Abbott on stirring up hate and resentment in this country.
Two other striking paintings by the group stand out. One is a painting of the Left v Right Australian general election where the combatants are portrayed as Aboriginal chiefs.
Another is of refugees kept in a holding camp in Papua New Guinea similar to the UK plan for one in France.
Two other striking exhibits in-the exhibition including a remarkable sculpture representing people literally getting under other peoples skins and an amazing collage by an Iranian born artist now living in America using decorative images used by Pakistani lorry drivers to beautify their vehicles .
Jocelynne Scutt, president of the Convention for Ending all Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Tribunal, yesterday delivered her report on the plight of 50s born women to Rishi Sunak, the new Prime Minister, at Downing Street.
The report, to be officially published at the end of this month, is the latest move to press for full restitution for the women who had to wait 6 years to get their pension. It is timely reminder to the government which is about implement big tax rises and spending cuts that this issue will not go away for the 3.6 million people who lost out.
Jocelynne Scutt, President of the CEDAW Tribunal; Janet Chapman, Ian Byrne’s Parliamentary Assistant, and Ian Byrne, Labour MP for Liverpool, West Derby, who tabled a Parliamentary motion call for full restitution, pictured outside Parliament
Jocelynne Scutt gave a speech outlining the main issues and Ian Byrne wholeheartedly backing the campaign. See it on a video here.
Ian Byrne’s Parliamentary motion now has 75 signatures from MPs. The latest MPs to sign include more Labour MPs such as Qureshi Yasmin, Bolton, South East; Karl Turner, Kingston-upon-Hull, East: Dan Jarvis, Barnsley Central; and Khalid Mahmood, Birmingham, Perry Barr and Clive Betts, Sheffield South East.
Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse and MP for Bath is the first member of the party to sign.
The issue is very popular in Northern Ireland with all MPs in the Democratic Unionist Party signing plus a member from Social Democrat Labour Party and the Alliance. Eight MPs from Scottish National Party have signed and two from Alba Party. There are also a number of ex Labour MPs now Independents have signed, the latest being Dr Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central and South Acton.
It is noticeable that not a single Conservative MP has signed the new motion though many signed the motion in the last Parliament calling for full restitution.
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On the day Chancellor Rishi Sunak cuts the support to companies using the furlough scheme to 60 per cent of the wages paid to the 1.9 million people still on furlough, some very disturbing figures are beginning to emerge on the make up of the numbers left.
Both the think tank Resolution Foundation and Rest Less report that it is the older generation rather than the young that are not getting called back to work.
While headlines have concentrated on the serious issue of the mental health of the young who cannot find work, official figures reveal a growing problem for the old.
HMRC data shows that younger workers have been leaving furlough most quickly, with the share of under 18 staff furloughed falling from 13 per cent in May to 7 per cent in June, and from 10 to 6 per cent for those aged 18-24. One-in-ten workers aged 65 and over were on furlough – the highest share of any age group. The Foundation has warned of older workers being ‘parked’ on furlough as younger workers return to work as hospitality reopens.
London remains the furlough capital of Britain, with nine of the ten local authorities with the highest furlough rates in the capital, including Newham and Hounslow where around one-in-eight workers are still on the Job Retention Scheme.
Rest Less, a digital community and advocate for the over 50s, analysed Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) Statistics issued by the government on 29 July and found that the total number of furloughed jobs fell from 2.4 million to 1.9 million between May and June* – a fall of 590,000.
Proportion of over 50s furloughed is rising
Whilst the number of furloughed roles fell across all age groups, the proportion of over 50s on furlough has been steadily increasing this year, rising from 27% in January to 34% in June. In contrast, the proportion of under 30s on furlough fell from 29% to 21% in the same time period.
Both sets of figures show that those over 50 are going to find it harder to get a job and build up enough years to claim a full state pension between the age of 50 and 666 or 67 when they can claim the state pension. Being out of work also means that they won’t qualify for a second work based pension either – possibly forcing them to have to claim pension credit if they can.
Charlie McCurdy, Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:
“The number of furloughed employees has fallen below two million for the first time as the economy continues to reopen. But that is higher than many expected, and a cause for concern as the scheme is wound down.”
Fresh wave of redundancies
Stuart Lewis, Founder of Rest Less, commented: “The country is reopening, and the total number of people on furlough is falling quickly – by three million since the beginning of the year. However, the recovery is clearly not working for everyone, with more than 630,000 people aged over 50 still on furlough and waiting to find out if they have a job to go back to. This is in addition to the 568,000 over 50s claiming job seeking or out of work benefits.
‘When the furlough scheme draws to a close next month, we’re expecting it to be accompanied by a fresh wave of redundancies and another spike in unemployment levels – delivering another blow to workers in their 50s and 60s.
‘Faced with significant age discrimination in the recruitment process, and no Government equivalent to the Kickstart scheme for older workers – the implications of redundancy for workers in their late 50s or early 60s can be significant.
‘Once made redundant, workers over the age of 50 are two and a half times as likely to be in long term unemployment than their younger counterparts. Rather than being able to top up their pensions in those crucial years before retirement, many will find themselves having to dip into what pension savings they do have – leading to a significant drop in long term retirement income for decades to come.”
Yet the government seems obsessed with continuing to raise the pension age when it is becoming clear that the old generation are facing the greatest difficulty in getting jobs. A new generation will be living in poverty with failing health and that poverty will not end when they eventually get their pension.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman has already – as I wrote in an earlier blog – faced a critical report from MPs on the way it handles some of its work.
And Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has also turned down any prospect of new legislation to modernise the service by combining its work with the local government and social care ombudsman.
Not content with that, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has now postponed a three year funding programme which would have allowed it to introduce changes to improve matters.
Instead The Treasury has decided to give it just one year’s worth of funding and instructed it to concentrate on handling complaints arising out of Covid 19 pushing aside other grievances..
Details of this latest bad news has not been put out in any press release by the Ombudsman but has been hidden away in the correspondence section of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committtee.
A letter from Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, to William Wragg, the Tory chair of the committee, reveals the not very bright future for people wanting to take the NHS to the Ombudsman or for the 1950s born women hoping for compensation for maladministration over the six year rise in the date they could claim their pension.
In the letter Mr Behrens says “We will postpone the launch of PHSO’s new three-year strategy until we can secure the three-year funding settlement necessary to deliver it. Instead, we will use 2021-22 as a bridging year to lay the foundations for the new strategy and focus on addressing the significant operational challenges facing PHSO’s service.”
Severely affected by Covid – 19
He goes on to describe what next financial year will be like:
“PHSO’s service has been severely affected by the ongoing COVID-19 situation in a number of ways, from the impact of school closures on the availability of staff, to pressures on the NHS that mean services are taking longer to respond to PHSO’s requests for information. “As a result, PHSO is closing substantially fewer cases than usual and, in turn, this means a growing number of complainants are waiting for their case to be allocated to a caseworker. “Although we have started to recruit some more caseworkers, it takes a minimum of six months to train new staff and even with additional caseworkers, it is clear that complainants will face increasingly long wait times unless we take further action.”
Delaying revealing the size of the complaints waiting list
I asked the Ombudsman to give me details of how many cases they were and how long they were taking. I also asked about the size of the waiting list. Simple questions enough if they are on top of the job. Instead they have decided to turn it into a Freedom of Information request which will give them a month or two to reply. I will report back when I have the figures.
In the meantime the letter says: “This means we will prioritise the quality and productivity of PHSO’s core complaints-handling service. We will also use 2021-22 to carry out preliminary work to support the new three-year strategy, such as improvements to some of PHSO’s core systems and processes, and highlighting opportunities for Parliament to make essential improvements to PHSO’s legal framework, such as removing the MP filter.” The latter point is that all complaints have to go through MPs at the moment.
The whole situation is not good at all. But I am not surprised that the government is not keen on funding or modernising the service. A more efficient service will bring to light injustices – which means a bad press for government services – and ministers don’t like bad publicity. Far better to deprive the Ombudsman of cash and keep the announcement hidden in the correspondence column of a committee.
In November I wrote a blog castigating Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, for his introduction of “rip off ” rates for safe savers – many of them pensioners – who have National Savings accounts.
As I said at the time; ” Effectively Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is making sure that millions of savers and those who have a flutter on the Premium Bonds subsidise the government’s multi billion pay outs by losing money every year they invest.”
Now thanks to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee – which took up the issue of the low rates -and also poor customer service, record levels of complaints and long waits hanging on their phone lines – his whole dastardly plot has been exposed.
Mel Stride, Conservative chair of the committee, decided to write to Ian Ackerley, Chief Executive of National Savings and Investments, demanding an explanation.
Today the committee has published his reply with a tough comment from Mr Stride about what happened.
” damage may have been done to NS&I’s reputation”
He said: “An exodus of savers from NS&I when it cut interest rates in November was foreseeable and so it is disappointing that the average time to answer a customer’s call was 19 minutes that month.
“I would like to thank Mr Ackerley for his frank response, but the damage that may have been done to NS&I’s reputation over the last few months is worrying.
“NS&I has a big role to play in helping the Government fund the costs of the coronavirus recovery scheme and it will need to work hard to win back customers.”
But what is really interesting is Mr Ackerley’s explanation of how these changes in interest rates came about.
Ministers took decision not to cut interest rates
After Rishi Sunak became chancellor and pandemic took hold he decided to deliberately to attract savers to get the government out of a spending hole.
As National Savings says:
“In March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, HM Treasury asked NS&I to provide proposals for how NS&I could quickly provide additional funding beyond the £6 billion target to support the Government’s increased borrowing requirement. …A proposal was made to Ministers to reverse the decision to implement interest rate reductions to NS&I’s variable rate products that were announced in February (before the Covid-19 pandemic had taken hold) and which were due to come into effect on 1 May 2020. “
“Ministers made the decision to proceed with this plan and on 1 May, only interest rate reductions on NS&I’s fixed term products came into effect. Variable rate product interest rates were left unchanged.”
By September it had been too successful. ” There was unexpectedly more cash in the savings market and much of this money came to NS&I – £38.3 billion in net inflows from March to September 2020 – this was a greater level of Net Financing than in the previous three years combined.”
Plan to drive savers away
So a decision was then made deliberately to drive savers away by introducing rock bottom rates because he no longer needed it.
National Savings said: “Based on previous patterns, we expected that a proportion of customers would withdraw their money. However, as many were newer customers who had come to NS&I when we were offering ‘best buy’ rates, the scale of the outflows and the timing of customers cashing in their holdings happened earlier than expected. “A combination of factors has impacted our customer service operations which has been stressful for some customers and staff. We did not intend for this to happen but we do not believe that the situation could have been predicted.”
What happened was a rise in complaints, people waiting nearly 20 minutes on the phone to contact them and general disatisfaction with the service.
What is not said though is that the government will not want people to continue saving when the pandemic is over. They will need to spend to revive the economy. What better way to empty savings accounts than to make them so unattractive that people lose money keeping cash there.
So the real story is that this government is deliberately manipulating punters to suit its own interests -putting money away when they can’t spend it during the pandemic – and forcing them to spend it when the pandemic is over. They must take the average saver to be a fool.
While the headlines concentrate on soaring youth unemployment the biggest rise in jobless totals are among the over 50s.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics analysed by the group, Rest Less, a jobs and community site for the over 50s. reveal unemployment has soared among this group by a staggering 33% year on year – the biggest percentage increase of all age groups and significantly more than the national average increase of 24%.The figures below tell the story.
Other figures shows that those furloughed over 50 who will later lose their jobs will be 80 per cent women. See this research here. And for the group I have championed through BackTo60 – the women born in the 1950s – who are now waiting up to six years to get their pension – the prospect of getting a job even if they wanted one will be worse.
But this is not just a tale about statistics. It is about human beings whose lives are being made more of a misery during this nasty Covid- 19 period.
One of those is Amanda Speedie, a resourceful and articulate 61 year old, who lives in Cornwall over the border from Plymouth. She was one of the women who did not find out until 2011 that she couldn’t retire at 60. She has since been dismayed by the failure of the judges decision on the BackTo60 court case. She had also tried using a local WASPI template to see if she could claim from the Ombudsman but that got nowhere.
She told me: ” When the decision was made it passed me by I was too busy bringing up a family, didn’t read newspapers ands rarely looked at TV news. If they had written to me I would at least have known”.
She is now divorced but well qualified-having worked in a variety of roles from estate agency to medical secretary to customer service and admin roles. She worked at one stage as a shift supervisor of the River Tamar toll plaza.
No full time job since 2012
She hasn’t had a full time job since 2012. She survives on two small private pensions – worth £40 a week – and by taking on some gardening work for which she earns £45 a week. She occasionally takes on sewing repair and alterations which might bring her in an extra £10 or £20 a week. She doesn’t qualify for any of the government payments.
Her real passion is to become a writer .Amanda studied for a BA in English with Media Studies and graduated with the MA in Professional Writing in 2007.
She has however some very strong views about what women in their 60s should do and that does not include work.
” Many women are single, they can’t get jobs and even if they can haven’t the energy to do full time work ( I did a full time job for five weeks and came home exhausted every night and had to give it up) They suffer health issues and lose their energy after the menopause. Older people also face discrimination from employers who are not keen to employ them.”
She has written twice to Rushi Sunak, the Chancellor, suggesting that he introduced an allowance equal to the pension for women in their 60s. She has had no reply.
” Women could then do things they might want to do like volunteering or looking after their grandchildren or take a part time job if they wanted.”
What is alarming is that generation born in 1960s are hitting the same problems. Rest Less had another case of a women in her 50s.
Claire Cassell is 54 from Willenhall near Birmingham. She lives with her husband. For nearly three years, Claire was working as a receptionist for a legal firm.
She was furloughed at the beginning of lockdown and didn’t hear anything from her employer until May when she was notified that they were hoping to get back to work soon.
By July she hadn’t heard anything more and texted her boss to find out if they were going back to work. He simply replied ‘No’.
At the end of August, she received an email telling her her role was at risk of redundancy. She was made redundant on 1 September. She is entitled to Job Seeker’s Allowance until March but as her husband works, she cannot claim Universal Credit. Since then, Claire has applied for 200 jobs and has had two disastrous Zoom interviews. She says she has a lot to give an employer and has 12 years of work still in front of her.
What this suggests is life is going to get much harder for the middle aged – who might have to face a decade or more of impoverished lives – before they get their pension. The government’s solution is to raise the age before you can get a state pension to 67 and then 68, and some pressure groups like Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Policy Studies would like it to be 75 asap – knowing he as an ex minister and his wife will retire on a huge state pension provided by Parliament and Whitehall.
Tax revenue down £70 billion while tens of billions spent saving jobs and the economy
Just before the first phase of Covid 19 peaked HM Revenue and Customs had a very good year. Tax revenues had peaked at £636.7 billion from more national insurance contributions, a record target of 95.3 per cent of tax due had been paid and £36.9 billion had been recovered from tax fraud and evasion. Then Covid hit.
Now as the Chancellor prepares his latest spending statement the latest annual report and accounts of HMRC and a National Audit Office report qualifying the accounts a very different picture is emerging. To give you an idea the Revenue lost £70 billion in tax revenue in five months.
The Covid-19 pandemic turned HMRC upside down and at least three planned targets will be missed this year. Just like the Department for Work and Pensions thousands of staff were moved to help handle the pandemic. But the pandemic also means a big loss of revenue , the cancellation of plans to combat firms who avoid tax by using the black market and an expected increase in money lost through fraud and error on working tax credit.|
On working tax credit it says: “As we no longer accept new claims to tax credits (with limited minor exceptions), our work to restrict error and fraud now focuses on existing awards.. ..The continuing need to divert compliance staff to support other departmental pressures means we expect not to meet the 5% maximum target for 2019 to 2020.”
On collecting tax it says:” Due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the end of year HMRC debt balance for March 2020 is £2.5 billion higher than forecast, coming in at £22.4 billion, significantly over the forecast of £19.9 billion… It is anticipated that the economic impact of COVID-19 will continue into financial year 2020 to 2021 as customers find it increasingly difficult to fulfil their tax obligations.”
black market tax avoidance
And on tackling black market tax avoidance – called conditionality in tax office jargon – it says:” Budget 2018 said that the government would consider legislating to introduce conditionality at Finance Bill 2019-20. However Budget 2020, which was delayed from autumn 2019, announced that the legislation would be included in Finance Bill 2020-21. Internal milestones were adjusted to work towards that revised timetable.”
You have to turn to the report by the NAO to find out the real impact of Covid-19 on the tax offices. For a start offices were deserted. 80 per cent of the 50,000 staff worked from home and as a result the public faced long delays in getting through to HMRC because only 7000 had secure phones to handle queries.
People kept waiting on the phone
From March 2020 there was an increase in the time HMRC took to answer telephone calls, peaking at 14:59 minutes in May and improving to 9:15 minutes in June 2020.
Like DWP large numbers were switched to working on Covid-19 work.
“At the peak, in May 2020, of 58,592 full-time equivalent staff, 9,097 (16%) were reallocated to COVID-19-related roles. Of the two largest groups of staff, 25.2% of staff in the customer services group were allocated to COVID-19-related work in April 2020 and 17.3% of staff from customer compliance group were allocated to COVID-19 in May 2020.”
Numbers have since fallen but will probably have gone up again with the second wave. The key schemes were the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Self Employed scheme and “Eat to Help Out”. The Job Retention Scheme is thought to have been targeted by organised crime and billions of pounds may have been defrauded. See my article in Byline Times.
As a result “yield from its tax compliance activities is likely to reduce in 2020-21. For comparison purposes, HMRC achieved a compliance yield of some £7.5 billion in the period April to June 2020, 51% less than the yield of £15.4 billion achieved in the same period in 2019-20.”
The detail over tax losses is daunting. Some £70 billion between April and August this year -£38 billion alone from VAT. Some £13.5 billion from tax and national insurance; Another £10 billion from Corporation tax and over £4 billion from fuel duties as people stopped travelling.
Receipts recovered at the end of the first lockdown in July and August, particularly VAT by £10 billion.
However a tables in both report also reveal how much HMRC is paying out and how much they don’t how much it will cost. The furlough scheme was £39bn up to September; Eat Out to Help Out cost them £522m for August, Payments to the self employed cost £13bn but they don’t yet know the real cost of a host of projects. Some £1.5m was set aside for putting up basic working tax credit by £1045 for the tax year but figures for the claims are not available. Another £200m was put aside for repaying employers contributions to statutory sick pay but we don’t know how much was spent.
At least eight other measures spending figures are not available – these include the concessions on stamp duty for homer buyers, deferring tax payments for the self employed, VAT reductions on food and accommodation, exempting personal protective clothing from VAT, and cutting import duties on essential medical equipment.
We do know that as of June £28 billion of VAT was deferred.
Finally the Department’s bad record of recovering payments on working tax credits led its annual accounts to be qualified by the auditor general.
Some £1.11 billion was overpaid or almost 5 per cent of all payments and it will get worse this year. But because staff disruption over Covid 19 we won’t know this year’s figure until next June. Covid-19 could currently slow the transfer of people from working tax credit beyond the current delayed deadline of 2024.
Only 10 people switched to universal credit
Just TEN people instead of an expected 2000 transferred to Universal Credit last year under a new pilot project. The project has now been halted. Covid 19 did encourage a number of people to voluntarily transfer after the rates were temporarily raised.
Meanwhile the huge expense of preparing for Brexit – temporarily stalled by Covid 19 for part of the year – is now estimated to have cost £516m in the last tax year and there are now 6,100 staff working on it. Altogether since the referendum it has cost not far short of £800m because they have to prepare for so many scenarios.