Thursday 23 September 2010

Why I am supporting The Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill

I will join Labour MPs in supporting the 2nd reading of a Bill to remove some of the most restrictive and damaging burdens facing trade unions today.

The Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill will receive its 2nd reading in Parliament on Friday, 22nd October and will be preceded by a national lobby of Parliament on Wednesday, 13th October.

A number of high profile court cases including Network Rail v RMT Union (April 2010) and British Airways v Unite the Union (Dec 2009) have demonstrated that current legislation places onerous and excessively complicated duties on trade unions in relation to balloting and notice procedures.

British Airways Cabin Crew voted to strike by a margin of 92.5% on a ballot turnout of 80% of 12,000 workers. The court granted BA an injunction on the basis that the ballot included an unknown number of members amongst 811 crew who had since taken redundancy despite the fact that, even if the 811 had all been members and had all voted for stike action and should all have been excluded, the vote would still have been 91.5% in favour of action.

Trade unions are being prevented from inplementing democratic decisions of their members by employers applying and winning court injunctions based on minor technical errors.

The Bill seeks to amend the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation Act) 1992 by extending the protections offered by Section 232B relating to small, accidental errors by introducing 5 main improvements.

1. Small accidental failures in ballots will be disregarded.
2. Small accidental failures in notices will be disregarded.
3. Minor errors in the information about the result of a ballot will be
4. Forensic examination of procedures will end and be replaced with
    the concept of ‘substantial compliance’
5. The burden of proof in injunctions will shift so that evidence will be
    required that ‘substantial complaince’ has not taken place.

We have seen in the last year a succession of disputes where employers have been able to exploit loopholes in the law by using minor technical errors in a trade union ballot to thwart the democratic wishes of trade unionists from taking strike action.

This resort to the courts by some employers is bringing current trade union and labour relations law into disrepute and undermining the good industrial relations which are the norm in this country. This cannot be right and that’s why I will support this Bill and the lobby of Parliament next month.

Click here for details of the national lobby of Parliament.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Housing Benefit cuts will hit the poorest hardest in Makerfield

Official Figures released to me confirm the devastating impact of the coalition government’s changes to Housing Benefit.

Housing benefit (HB) is a means tested benefit. It exists to enable people on low incomes to access decent, affordable housing. HB is paid to tenants who are working, looking for work or unable to work. It is paid to 4.7 million tenants in England & Wales and the average payment is £83 per week. In the private rented sector, HB is paid to tenants in the form of a Local Housing Allowance (LHA). The main impact of the proposed changes will be felt in the private rental sector.

Dept Work & Pensions figures confirm that 48% of households renting in the private sector already face shortfalls averaging £23 per week and the proposed changes from 2011 onwards will place additional pressure on people’s budgets.

Many private tenants will face very significant shortfalls between their Housing benefit and their rent as a result of the budget cuts and they will face financial hardship to make this up from their other income.

The Coalition Government has made much of the people who are receiving payments of over £1,000 per week – but across the whole country there are fewer than 100 people in this category, and the Coalition have cynically used this as a smokescreen to attack the living standards of some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

In Wigan, for example, people living in the cheapest shared room accommodation will see their entitlement cut by £7 per week and by over £360 per year, and households with large families will lose over £800 per year.

Over 4,500 Wigan households will lose out and these figures do not take into account cuts in tax credits which will also hit those on low and modest incomes.

The independent housing charity Shelter fear that 134,000 families across the country will be forced to move because of these savage cuts, and some will be left to live on less than £50 per week.

It is simply outrageous that, as a number of independent studies have shown, the poorest families will lose five times as much as the richest. This shows that the Tory-Lib Dem claims about ‘fairness’ are completely false and that far from being ‘all in it together’ their cuts are hitting the poorest hardest.

Monday 20 September 2010

Tote up for sale!

In a written ministerial statement the Government has announced that it will kickstart the process for selling off the Wigan-based company. The Minister announced that they will be inviting proposals and expect to have completed the process by the New Year in order to secure ‘value for the taxpayer'.

The ministerial statement gives little in the way of answers and raises the prospect of a sale to an overseas buyer which is not in the long term interests of the Tote or the racing industry. I will shortly be joining Lisa Nandy MP in meeting with the minister (John Penrose MP) at which we will stress the importance of the Tote to the Wigan economy and alternative proposals for its future.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Why you should ‘know your pulse’

This week I have supported the campaign to help raise awareness about Atrial Fibrillation (AF), the most common heart rhythm disorder in the UK.

The campaign, spearheaded by the charity, the Atrial Fibrillation Association (AFA), aims to raise awareness of this debilitating condition and reach out to the public, parliamentarians and clinical experts.

At a meeting in Westminster, I was briefed by the AFA about Atrial Fibrillation and had my picture taken with a ‘giant calculator’ which estimates that 948 people here in the Makerfield constituency’s electorate suffer from AF.

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is the most common heart rhythm disturbance encountered by doctors. Department of Health, 2007 figures, suggested AF affected in excess of 600,000 people in the UK. This is now considered to be an under estimate and that a more accurate figure may now be in excess of one million, with 200,000 patients being newly diagnosed each year. It is also thought to be responsible for 18% - 20% of all strokes suffered in the UK.

The risk of developing AF rises sharply with advancing age, roughly doubling with each decade of age, from 0.5% of people aged between 50-59 years visiting their GP, rising to almost 9% for those aged 80 to 89.

Simple pulse checks with GPs are a quick, and low cost way of detecting AF. That is why the AFA are today calling on people who are worried they might be suffering from AF to book a simple check up with their GP. The AFA are also calling for pulse checks to be made a routine procedure within the NHS Health Check programme and at seasonal flu vaccination clinics.

It is astonishing to think that an estimated 948 people in Makerfield have Atrial Fibrillation, and the possibility that many more have it but as yet have not been diagnosed. It is important that this condition is understood by medical professionals and patients so that they can be identified at an early stage and treated accordingly.

This is a little-known condition, yet estimates suggest that AF exerts a considerable economic toll on the NHS. For example, patients with primary or secondary diagnosis of AF accounted for an estimated 5.7 million bed days in 2008, at a cost to the NHS of £1.8 billion.”

I am pictured with Chief Executive Trudie Lobban.

The Atrial Fibrillation Association (AFA): is a UK registered charity which focuses on raising awareness of Atrial Fibrillation (AF) by providing information and support materials for patients and medical professionals involved in detecting, diagnosing and managing Atrial Fibrillation (AF). AFA works closely with medical professionals, Department of Health, Government, NHS Trusts, PCTS, patients, carers, patient support group members and allied groups. Further information can be found here.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

A 'nifty-fifty' on Wigan to win Super League

I recently visited the Ladbrokes shop in Ashton in Makerfield to learn more about the betting and gaming industry, the issues affecting the sector and its employees, and to take part in a charity bet.

Ladbrokes is the world’s largest retail bookmaker, with over 2,000 shops employing 14,000 people in the UK alone and an important online presence. However, the industry maintains it has suffered from increasing tax levels, under-regulated offshore competition and misperceptions held by many who may never have visited a betting shop.

During my visit I was shown the wide variety of betting and gaming activities available, met the staff and customers and asked questions about responsible gambling procedures and the safety of Ladbrokes staff who could be targeted by criminals, due to the large sums of cash held on the premises. At the end of the visit Ladbrokes offered me a free £50 bet which I placed on Wigan to win this year’s Super League Grand Final with odds of 11/8 with the winnings being donated to Age Concern – Wigan.

It was an extremely interesting visit to see how everything actually works. MPs regularly make decisions that impact upon this industry and its many jobs, so it is important that our judgements are well informed and based on factual information. I also wanted to learn about the procedures for dealing with underage or problem gambling, and the safety of staff.

I am grateful to Ladbrokes for offering me the free charity bet and I just hope that the pressure I have placed upon the Warriors doesn’t affect the team’s performance on the pitch as we enter the play-offs!

Monday 6 September 2010

Farepak - Four years on and why are people still waiting for compensation?

Almost 4 years since the Farepak Christmas savings club collapsed, the 120,000 families affected are yet to receive a penny in compensation.

Farepak was a Christmas savings club allowing customers to choose Christmas hampers and vouchers, months in advance. They then made regular payments towards the goods over the year. It had around 120,000 customers and agents collected clients' funds.

Financial statements obtained from Companies House show profits of £1.283m for the year ending April 28, 2005 however Farepak ceased trading on 13th October 2006. Any payments made on or after 11th October were returned to customers.

Administrators were called in after Farepak's bank, HBOS, decided not to extend an overdraft facility to its owner, European Home Retail.

An estimated £37 million was lost by Farepak customers. The average Farepak customer was left £400 out of pocket, with some losing more than £2,000.

A 700 page report from The Companies Investigation Branch into the Farepak collapse has never been published. This is because counsel is still considering further legal action.

Initially, those who had lost money were to be reimbursed by liquidators at a rate of 5p in the pound. In April this year liquidators managed to secure a further £4 million from the directors of the company through legal action, meaning that this payment has increased to 15p in the pound. They failed to get the full £37 million back though.

It is not known which members of the Farepak board are contributing to the payout after agreeing the settlement, but none of the directors have admitted liability.

I appeared on ITV’s flagship ‘Daybreak’ morning programme hosted by Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley. Investigative reporter John Stapleton visited Wigan to learn more about the Farepak collapse as part of his research for today’s broadcast.

I saw at first hand the devastating effect of the Farepak collapse in my role as Chief Executive of St Helens CAB and I have vowed to continue the campaign for compensation started by my predecessor Sir Ian McCartney.

Four years on it is a scandal that not a penny of compensation has been received by farepak customers. These were pensioners and families on low incomes who were robbed of their Christmas after saving all year.

Farepak was marketed as a savings club and its customers regarded themselves as savers and not creditors at the bottom of the pile waiting and waiting for compensation. I do not want to prejudice any potential legal action that may be taken but I see no reason why parts of the government report cannot be placed in the public domain.

I welcome the formation of the Christmas Prepayment Association (industry self regulator eg Park is a member) but I am advocating people consider Credit Unions as a safe and secure alternative, backed by regulation protecting savings in the same way as banks and building societies.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Wigan Flashes

On Tuesday I visited Wigan Flashes at the invitation of The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester & North Merseyside.

The Flashes (or lakes) are a legacy of the town's industrial past and were formed as a result of mining subsidence.

The Trust manages Wigan Flashes statutory Local Nature Reserve (LNR) on behalf of Wigan Council. This covers 260 hectares of wetland and woodland. It is part of a larger network of important wetland habitats forming a ‘Living Landscape’ running for approx 9Km along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

These include Hey Brook, Abram Flashes, Pennington Flash Country Park and Hope Carr Nature Reserve. The Trust has recently acquired Abram Flashes, as an additional wetland reserve.

Wigan Flashes habitats include large areas of open water, reedbed, fen, rough grassland, wet woodland and scrub. Over 200 species of bird, 15 species of dragonfly and 6 species of orchid have been recorded.

The elusive Bittern is regularly recorded in the winter months and work to improve and manage the reedbeds is aimed at attracting this nationally rare bird to stay and breed.

The Makerfield area also supports healthy populations of Water Vole, having suffered catastrophic declines elsewhere in the UK.

I was delighted to hear of the committment of the Trust to engage with schools, colleges and youth groups and the impressive 600 strong regular volunteer army who help the Trust’s staff in maintaining wetland areas.

Trust Chief Executive Anne Selby arranged the tour of the Flashes with Mark Weston – Asst Chief Executive and Mark Champion who has worked tirelessly over the past decade as Conservation Manager of the Wigan Flashes.

We are blessed to have such a fantastic resource protecting the natural environment. The Flashes offer a network of important wildlife habitats and provide recreational activities for the community. In our busy lives we can sometimes overlook what is on our own doorstep, so I would encourage local people to visit this oasis within the borough.

For more information about the work of the Trust please click here.