Category Archives: broken Britain

Broken Britain 22: 2014 tax law – lowest income households lose, bailiffs gain

 

Britain’s lowest-income households were exempt from council tax until 2014, when the law changed, bringing 1.4m households into the council tax net, with some jobseekers and the disabled required to pay bills amounting to 10% of their benefits income, according to the National Audit Office report, Financial sustainability of local authorities 2018, (Money Advice Trust note 67)

The Money Advice Trust charity points out that between 2011/12 and 2017/18, central government funding for local authorities fell by an estimated 49% in real terms – leaving councils increasingly reliant on council tax and business rates to fund local services, according to data obtained through its Freedom of Information requests. Its 2018 report A Decade in Debt gives detailed analysis of many kinds of private debt, with a chapter on council tax arrears.

Council tax collection privatised

With most councils lacking the staff to collect arrears the money themselves, more than 2.3m debts were referred to companies like Dukes bailiffs, a “provider of ethical and efficient enforcement services across the UK”, who sponsored the 2019 Local Authority Civil Enforcement Forum’s conference.

According to the Financial Times, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that almost a fifth of single parents who would formerly have paid no council tax are now in debt. No link was given and a search led to the IFS 2004 report which made seven references to the deot problenms of single parents.

Hansard, the official government record, in answering questions on ‘rogue bailiffs’ refers to a September 2018 YouGov poll which found that more than one in three people contacted by bailiffs in the last two years had been subject to harmful behaviour, such as threatening to break into homes.

Money UK gives information on debt collection

An article on the subject in the Mirror reports that the Commons Treasury Com­­mittee says bailiffs work­ing for nat­­ional and local government are “worst in class” for aggressive tactics.

Those with physical or mental health problems are less likely to engage with their local authority, according to research by the Money and Mental Health Institute last May. which found that people with poor mental health were three times more likely than the general public to be behind with their council tax payments. A visit from a bailiff can exacerbate psychological distress and cause stress, the MMHPI said, particularly when enforcement agents did not act with care.

Barrie Minney chair of the Local Authority Civil Enforcement Forum (LACEF), explained that bailiffs are sometimes wrongly sent out to people who are financially or mentally vulnerable because of a lack of data sharing between council departments.

Many bailiffs are paid on commission based on the repayments they recover; if they don’t collect, they don’t earn

One of the FT’s case studies is summarised here. When Charley Finlay was recovering from the death of her premature baby she missed her first council tax payment of the year and did not open reminder letters from the council. Because she missed her first payment she became liable for her entire annual tax bill of £300.

Enforcement agents are allowed to charge £75 for sending a letter and £235 for a home visit, further inflating people’s debts.

Her debt increased to over £1,000 once the costs of the bailiff’s letters and visits were added to her debt. She said that the bailiff was at her door constantly, shouting through her letterbox, ringing her all the time and telling her that her children would go into care as she would be imprisoned.

Various efforts are being made to improve practice. These include:

  • LACEF is working with debt charities to build models for early intervention and developing software to help flag up people’s potential vulnerabilities to revenue collection departments. “Otherwise, we can spend a lot of time and money chasing people who cannot afford to pay us,” Mr Minney said. “That is really not ideal.”
  • More than half of the councils are examining new methods of dealing with people on benefits who are in arrears, LACEF’s polling indicates.
  • Local government minister Rishi Sunak vowed in April to engage with charities and debt advice bodies to create a “fairer” collection system.
  • The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government highlighted the need to protect people against “aggressive debt enforcement”, announcing that reforms could include taking individual circumstances into account to give people the necessary time to pay off arrears, improving links between councils and the debt advice sector, and supporting fairer debt intervention
  • CIVEA – the principal trade association representing civil enforcement agencies – is hosting a one-day conference in September to present the industry’s take on the Ministry of Justice report following their recent call for evidence. This will include: the treatment of debtors, the complaints processes and whether further regulation is needed.

Comment from Peter Jennett (Private Eye letter, Jul/Aug 2018):

“Those in power not only tolerate but actively create conditions of increasing poverty, lack of access to education and life chances for large numbers of our population, then blame those affected for their own plight”.

 

 

 

 

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Emma: is interrupting parliament really worse than failing to act on climate change?

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In December Extinction Rebellion wrote to BBC Director General Tony Hall detailing an eight-point plan of how it could play a pivotal role in the transformation to face the climate and ecological crisis:

“We issued a plea to BBC bosses to live up to their role as public service broadcasters by fully informing the public of the existential threat faced by the human race unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions” commented Sophie May from Extinction Rebellion.

On Monday April 1st, XR launched a campaign to discover whether BBC staff feel their organisation is telling the truth about the dangers from accelerating global climate breakdown. An Extinction Rebellion team visited BBC Broadcasting House in London to conduct a BBC Staff Survey – putting a series of searching questions to BBC staff on their lunch and coffee breaks.

In the evening, during the debate on the second stage of the Brexit alternatives, Extinction Rebellion activists stood semi-naked in the House of Commons public gallery to call attention to the ‘elephant in the room’ – climate and ecological crisis.”

In what may be an incomplete recording – though James politely said that he hoped the BBC would report climate changes issues more prominently the BBC Radio 5 Live interviewer, Emma Barnett (right), firmly focussed only on the protestors’ actions and not the crisis which prompted them.

James Dean from Extinction Rebellion explained that a dramatic gesture was needed because the government had ‘stuffed itself up with Brexit’ and was not dealing with more important issues which need emergency action now.

He briefly and calmly outlined ‘the awful and dangerous’ future awaiting us all unless every possible action to avert climate change is taken – referring to the increasing incidence of floods, wildfires and storms,

2018: wildfires in Australia and the United States

Emma was not distracted: she charged the protestors with a huge breach of security and risk to MPs – saying that it would be more difficult for people to visit parliament in future.

James replied that this sort of action was nothing new and cited the suffragettes, who finally achieved their ends and whose drastic actions are now admired.

Emma failed to respond to the references to climate change and once again said their action was a serious breach of security: “How can you defend that when we are being told to be careful, not to go out alone etc”.

James ended by saying that they had used a minimum disruption to make their point :

“We know that what is to come will be far worse than putting off a few hours of politicians’ discussions.”

 

 

 

 

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Broken Britain 21: our divided society

Aditya Chakrabortty focusses on the ‘vast disconnect between elite authority and lived experience, central to what’s broken in Britain today’ – the ‘gap’ which widened as independent working class self-help initiatives were replaced by the ‘hand of the state’ (Mount) creating ’a new feudalism’ and from two searing analyses of our divided society (Jones).

He asks:

  • “Why is a stalemate among 650 MPs a matter for such concern, yet the slow, grinding extinction of mining communities and light-industrial suburbsis passed over in silence?
  • “Why does May’s wretched career cover the first 16 pages of a Sunday paper while a Torbay woman told by her council that she can “manage being homeless”, and even sleeping rough, is granted a few inches downpage in a few of the worthies?”
  • Is “the death sentence handed to stretches of the country and the vindictive spending cuts imposed by the former chancellor George Osborne, a large part of why Britain voted for Brexit in the first place?”

He continues:

“We have economic policymakers who can’t grasp how the economy has changed, elected politicians who share hardly anything in common with their own voters . . . Over a decade from the banking crash, the failings of our economic policymaking need little elaboration. the basic language of economic policy makes less and less sense.

“Growth no longer brings prosperity; you can work your socks off and still not earn a living. Yet still councils and governments across the UK will spend billions on rail lines, and use taxpayers’ money to bribe passing billionaire investors, all in the name of growth and jobs.”

A University College London study published last year shows that  the parliamentary Labour party became more “careerist” under Tony Blair – and also grew increasingly fond of slashing welfare. Social security was not something that ‘professionalised MPs’ or their circle had ever had to rely on, so ‘why not attack scroungers and win a few swing voters?’

The trend continues: Channel 4 News found that over half of the MPs elected in 2017 had come from backgrounds in politics, law, or business and finance and more came from finance alone than from social work, the military, engineering and farming put together.

This narrowing has a direct influence on our law-making and political class and Chakrabortty comments: “We now have economic policymakers who can’t grasp how the economy has changed, elected politicians who share hardly anything in common with their own voters”.

He concludes that this is what a real democratic crisis looks like: failed policies forced down the throats of a public. Institution after institution failing to legislate, reflect or report on the very people who pay for them to exist. And until it is acknowledged, Britain will be stuck, seething with resentment, in a political quagmire.

 

 

 

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‘Profoundly’ Broken Britain 20: one of the Britain’s poorest areas offers millions to the UK’s richest billionaire

Sarah O’Connor (opposite) writes that by treating people’s jobs as bargaining chips, and their hometowns as dots on a corporate map, companies are instilling a sense of insecurity in people that is eroding their support for capitalism and globalisation: “It will come back to bite them in the end”.

Seasoned company-watcher, Ms O’Connor, who focusses on global labour market issues, was the Business and Finance Journalist of the Year in the 2014 British Press Awards for work including a series on the pay crunch faced by the latest generation of British graduates and an investigation into Amazon and its work practices in a small English town.

In her recent FT article, she reports that one of the poorest areas in England has just offered to build a factory for Jim Ratcliffe, the Brexit-supporting chief executive of INEOS, the richest man in the UK, whose chemicals company made about €2bn in profit last year, according to its annual report.

She wrote: “The Tees Valley Combined Authority in the north east of England ‘threw the kitchen sink at Ineos’, in the words of its mayor, to persuade the company to locate a new car plant on the site of a local former steelworks – building “uncompromising off-roaders”.

TVCA also offered to clean the site, give the land ‘for free’, to build the factory, a £20m cash grant, a £100m capital allowance to offset against their corporation tax every year, massively reduced electricity rates, cash to train local workers, and a generous tax credit for research investment.

Like many readers she finds it hard to watch one of the poorest places in the country offer millions to the UK’s richest billionaire (who is, she adds, reportedly moving to the tax haven of Monaco). She feels that something is profoundly broken.  She plays devil’s advocate:

“It is understandable that places like the Tees Valley Combined Authority are doing everything possible to secure local jobs. All five of its local authorities are poorer than average and one of them — Middlesbrough — is ranked the most deprived in England”. Her second comment:

“You could argue it is rational for companies to play cities and countries off against each other to extract financial sweeteners: their first duty is to their shareholders after all (in Ineos’s case, the biggest shareholder is Sir Jim himself.)”

Sir Jim is reported to be playing the field elsewhere, undecided whether to build a new chemicals plant in the Tees valley, Bridgend in South Wales, Hull in the north of England or Antwerp in Belgium. Ineos has said that financial help from the UK government might “tilt the scales in favour of Hull”.

But Sarah O’Connor ends by warning companies to resist this temptation: “It might be in the interests of shareholders in the narrow sense, but it is time to widen the lens. By treating people’s jobs as bargaining chips, and their hometowns as dots on a corporate map, companies are instilling a sense of insecurity in people that is eroding their support for capitalism and globalisation. It will come back to bite them in the end”.

 

 

 

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Conservative commentator: ‘Cosying up to big donors’ is not a ‘good look’: many a true word spoken in jest

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In the Times today, Tim Montgomerie,  co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice and creator of the Conservative Home website warns: “Tories must beware cosying up to big donors . . . the dependence of the party on chief executive chequebooks is bad politics and makes it vulnerable to populist entryism”

He cites the persistence of Jeremy Corbyn’s support despite the media onslaught, commenting that voters who are desperate for a new economic settlement seem (bewilderingly) willing to forgive or at least overlook (alleged) weaknesses that would have been electorally fatal until recently.

He points out the surge in revenue from Labour’s half a million or so members, which means that the party is getting almost as much money from individuals as it receives from the unions and continues: “The Tories enjoy no such diverse spread of funding”.

While “Corbyn’s coffers” were filled with £16 million of funds from individual supporters, the 124,000 Tory members contributed less than £1 million to their party’s treasury. Over £7 million came from ‘high-net-worth donors’ and big gifts came from dining clubs, at which rich individuals are able to sit down with Mrs May and other cabinet ministers. Montgomerie continues:

“Chasing high rollers has at times led the party to become entangled with former associates of Vladimir Putin. That is not a good look”.

Mrs May’s successor and the nation’s prime minister will be chosen by party members but Montgomerie sees the danger of ‘entryism’. Arron Banks, the businessman who financed Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign has launched a drive to recruit 50,000 Ukip-inclined supporters to join the Tories.

The support for capitalism is not what it was and deservedly so

Montgomerie advocates building a broad and diverse membership which understands that things are different from the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher reaped great political rewards from being close to the nation’s wealth-creators:

  • The banks have paid an estimated £71 billion in fines, legal fees and compensation since the 2008 crash.
  • Inflated house prices owe much to the power of a few major builders to restrict the supply of new homes.
  • The service of some privatised railway companies is poor.
  • The pay awards enjoyed by many leading chief executives are unjustifiable.

He adds that the Tory mission today should be the protection of the “little guy” from any concentration of power, whether in commerce, media or the state

He comments “There are some signs that the government gets this”; the apprenticeship levy for example, which is attempting to address “the decades-long failure of British industry to invest in the skills of their workforces”.

Montgomerie concludes that British politics is not corrupt but distorted

By accepting funding and spending so much time with donors from the City and with property developers, the Tories are in danger of being held back from building an agenda that is less southern and more focused on consumer empowerment than producer privilege.

He and his ilk are incapable of understanding the persistence of Jeremy Corbyn’s support despite the media onslaught. Those voters who are ‘desperate for a new economic settlement’ also recognise the character of the man, whose policies are based on justice, not perceived electoral advantage.

The last word is given to Andrew Scattergood (FBU) who sees more clearly than Montomerie: “Jeremy Corbyn has, since first elected as leader, established himself as by far Labour’s best leader, perhaps since Keir Hardie, representing the aims and values of the vast majority of the party membership”.

 

 

 

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Broken Britain 18: captured by corporate interests?

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George Monbiot recently pointed out that the Commons report on the Carillion fiasco is one of the most damning assessments of corporate behaviour parliament has ever published. It trounces the company’s executives and board and laments the weakness of the regulators.

But, as Prem Sikka said in his April article, it scarcely touches the structural causes that make gluttony a perennial feature of corporate life.

Both agree that the problem begins with an issue the report does not once mention: the extreme nature of limited liability. Sikka points out that this system, under which executives are only financially accountable for the value of their investment, has also benefited frauds and led to the self-enrichment of executives at the expense of workers, consumers, creditors, pensioners and citizens.

Monbiot adds that the current model of limited liability allowed the directors and executives of Carillion to rack up a pension deficit of £2.6 billion, leaving the 27,000 members of its schemes to be rescued by the state fund (which is financed by a levy on your pension – if you have one). The owners of the company were permitted to walk away from the £2 billion owed to its suppliers and subcontractors. (Left: the former Carillion chief executive Keith Cochrane in Westminster after appearing before the Commons work and pensions select committee)

Monbiot continues: “There is no way that fossil fuel companies could pay for the climate breakdown they cause. There is no way that car companies could meet the health costs of air pollution. Their business models rely on dumping their costs on other people. Were they not protected by the extreme form of limited liability that prevails today, they would be obliged to switch to clean technologies”.

So what is to be done?

Prem Sikka (right) proposes that the bearers of unlimited risks and liabilities should be given rights to control the day-to-day governance and direction of companies.

He advocates including employees and citizen/consumers on company boards – because both ultimately have to bear the financial, health, social and psychological costs associated with environmental damage, pollution, poor products, industrial accidents, loss of jobs, pensions and savings. Through seats on company boards, they could secure a fairer distribution of income, challenge discrimination, curb asset-stripping and influence investment, training and innovation.

Across the 28 European Union countries (plus Norway), most have a statutory requirement for employee representation on company boards – unlike the UK, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Malta and Romania.

George Monbiot proposes a radical reassessment of limited liability.

He points out that a recent paper by the US law professor Michael Simkovic proposes that companies should pay a fee for this indemnity, calibrated to the level of risk they impose on society. He adds, significantly, that as numerous leaks show, companies tend to be far more aware of the risks they inflict than either governments or the rest of society. Various estimates put the cost that businesses dump on society at somewhere between 4% and 20% of GDP

His own ‘tentative’ and ingenious proposal is that any manager earning more than a certain amount – say £200,000 – would have half their total remuneration placed in an escrow account, which is controlled not by the company but by an external agency. The deferred half of their income would not become payable until the agency judged that the company had met the targets it set on pension provision, workers’ pay, the treatment of suppliers and contractors and wider social and environmental performance. This judgement should draw on mandatory social and environmental reporting, assessed by independent auditors.

If they miss their targets, the executives would lose part or all of the deferred sum. In other words, they would pay for any disasters they impose on others. To ensure it isn’t captured by corporate interests, the agency would be funded by the income it confiscates.

Monbiot then says “I know that, at best, they address only part of the problem” and asks, “Are these the right solutions?

  • support them,
  • oppose them
  • or suggest better ideas.

He ends: “Should corporations in their current form exist at all? Is capitalism compatible with life on earth?”

 

 

 

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Broken Britain 17: Government agencies regularly fail to pay farmers for work done

Natural England – sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – is responsible for ensuring that England’s natural environment, including its land, freshwater and marine environments, geology and soils, are protected and improved.

The Farmers Guardian reported that in 2016 Natural England’s payment record was rated even worse than that of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) as it also failed to deliver the required Countryside Stewardship payments for work already done.

Its performance did not improve in 2016; farmers were kept waiting for their first Countryside Stewardship payment. Though Natural England had pledged to make advance payments to 2016 mid-tier and higher-tier scheme holders between November 2016 and January 2017, with final payments due between January and June 2017, the NFU said exasperated members were calling the union demanding to know why their payments had not arrived. Farmers Weekly understood that ongoing delays in processing payments were because of problems with IT systems and processes at Defra.

A spokeswoman for Natural England declined to comment on the number of 2016 scheme payments already made.

FW added that farmers are yet to receive the first tranche of their 2017 payments for work done. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee was scathing in its criticism of the RPA’s failure to distribute basic farm subsidies whilst requiring prompt applications from farmers (below left).

The extent of the Rural Payments Agency’s failure to pay farmers in England on time and in full is now clear. The RPA paid only 38% of farmers under the Basic Payment Scheme on 1 December 2015—first day of the payment window—compared with over 90% in previous years.

By the end of January this had risen to 76%, but at the end of March 2016 there were still 14,300 farmers (16%) who had not received any payment.

Government agencies should honour their own injunction: don’t leave it too late.

Over 10,000 farmers who had received a payment had not been paid in full. Two thirds of the additional payments made to these farmers were in excess of €1,000 and were first paid in September 2016, over 9 months after the first payment should have been received.

Farmers Weekly reported in February this year that the RPA boss was ‘blasted’ over farm payment delays and mapping.

At a NFU council meeting on 30th January at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, farmers took RPA’s chief executive Paul Caldwell to task over BPS payment delays. More than one in 10 farmers are still waiting, according to an NFU survey (see “Survey uncovers extent of delays” right) – although the RPA’s own statistics suggests that figure is nearer to one in five. NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “When you look at current payment performance and the levels of outstanding issues from previous years you could describe the RPA as ‘just about managing’.

In March 2017, having received what Miles King described as a ‘verbal beating’ (Countryside Stewardship in front of the EFRA committee) Guy Thompson, Chief Operating Officer, left Natural England and now works for Wessex Water.

Natural England announced in the autumn that it would increase first tranche payments, traditionally paid in the autumn, from 50% to 75%, with the remaining 25% following later, reflecting payment reductions or penalties.

Missing payments have reduced cashflow, leading some to take out bank loans

According to farm leaders, many claimants are still waiting for that first payment, with some now being forced to take out bank loans because of their resulting cashflow difficulties. Max Sealy, NFU county delegate for Wiltshire and a consultant with the Farm Consultancy Group, said some farms were waiting for substantial sums of money for work which they had already completed.

“What we need is clarity on the situation and better communication,” he said. But a Natural England spokesperson declined to clarify how many payments were still outstanding and when farmers could expect to see them.

Farmers who have signed up to Countryside Stewardship, or still have an old Higher-Level or Entry-Level Stewardship agreement, have yet to receive the first tranche of their 2017 payments. Farmers Weekly reports that farmers want to know when they can expect to receive their agri-environment scheme payments, with ongoing delays leading to budgeting problems and growing resentment about the way the schemes are being managed.

The Farmers Guardian then reported that Defra is to transfer delivery of the Countryside (agri-environment) Stewardship scheme from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) – more confusion?

NFU Deputy President Guy Smith (right) said:

“The Countryside Stewardship scheme has been plagued by poor delivery from its launch in 2015 and the NFU has been raising these concerns from day one. It seems almost every day we have complaints from members about the muddled application process, wrong maps, moving goalposts, late start dates and delayed payments. All this has undermined farmer confidence in the schemes leading to very poor uptake. Plans to improve delivery have to be welcomed but until we see improved delivery we will withhold judgement.

“I know many farmers will not be reassured that delivery is moving from NE to the RPA, which is notorious among farmers as the organisation which comprehensively screwed up the payment of the as then new Basic Payment Scheme back in 2014. A highly complex new IT system was commissioned to enable farm payments to be moved online. 7 years later the system is still not working properly.

Conservationist Miles King went further, calling for the abolition of the Rural Payments Agency before the introduction of the government’s England Agriculture Policy which is expected to be published this spring: “We need a publicly-funded independent champion for nature (as Natural England was intended to be when it was set up) and a new body which will deliver the public goods for public money”.

 

 

 

 

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