My New Year’s message

A happy new year to everyone in Oldham and Saddleworth! The New Year is traditionally a time for reflections and resolutions. Looking back over 2015, there are a number of issues I am proud to have championed and made some progress in. There are others, though, where I know I’m in for the long haul.

Probably the biggest, long-term challenge for all of us is tackling inequalities. Inequalities are not inevitable. For example, income inequalities in the UK actually declined between 1930 and 1979 [1]. The reason inequalities are so pernicious is the effects they have on society as a whole. There is overwhelming evidence of the effects inequalities have on how well we do at school, what types of jobs we get, and how long we will live. Even happiness and trust in a society is enhanced in more equal societies [2]. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said last year that ‘widening income inequalities is the most defining challenge of our time’, is getting worse and slows economic growth [3].

Inequalities tend to be the result of regressive economic policies, where people on the lowest incomes are hit by both the total amount of tax they pay and on low levels of public spending. When wealth and power are concentrated in a tiny elite, there tends to be less investment in education, health and infrastructure such as new housing, which particularly benefits people on low incomes and enhances productivity. For example, public spending as a percentage of GDP, fell in health from 6.6% in 2009/10 to 6.1% in 2015/16 and in education from 3.8% to 3.1%[4] [5]. And according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Government’s Autumn Statement [6] will see the poorest hit yet again [7].

But although inequalities are largely determined by Government and national policy, they can be ameliorated locally. This is why in 2013 I set up the Oldham Fairness Commission [8]. This looked into inequalities across Oldham, focusing on education, employment and income and in March 2015 we published our final report.[9] On 29th January 2016 there will be a conference in Mahdlo to look at how we can put the recommendations from this report into action. For example, what will public, private and voluntary organisations be doing to address the employment gap for different groups (the ethnic minority employment gap in Oldham is the third widest in the country and the current disability employment gap stands at 34%, above the national level)? Similarly, what is being planned to develop Oldham as a Living Wage Borough (1 in 3 jobs in Oldham pays less than the living wage)? And how can we support children and young people of all backgrounds and abilities to achieve their full potential? Oldham Council and other agencies have already expressed their commitment to a fairer Oldham, and this Conference will explain what and how they will do this. Anyone can attend so do contact my office for more information. We want you to be involved in determining how we can make Oldham fairer.

Making Oldham, and the country, a fairer place to live and work are long-term objectives made much more difficult when you’re not in Government. But I will continue to hold this Government to account, for example on behalf of small businesses subject to ‘late payments’ by large companies through my Be Fair – Pay on Time campaign [10]. Did you know that currently small businesses are owed £26.8bn in late payments? This campaign – which started when a Saddleworth haulier came to me and told me he was about to go bust because a major retailer was taking more than 3 months to pay him – won some concessions from the Government last year, when it included some of the recommendations from my late payments inquiry into last year’s Small Business Act. 

It was a step forward but there is much more to do, for example on ‘cash retentions’ – money large constructions companies keep from their subcontractors until a contract is satisfactorily completed; in reality it means the smaller construction companies lose on average £30,000 through this process. I am currently working with the Specialist Engineers Contractors group and others to see how amendments on this could be incorporated into this year’s Enterprise Bill. Late payments is just an abuse of power by the larger companies; it needs to be seen as unacceptable as tax evasion.

My national campaign against the Government’s social security sanctions policy reached a critical milestone in 2015. Two constituents, one a claimant and the other a Job Centre adviser, contacted me separately. The claimant told me he had been sanctioned for not attending an interview and his benefits had been stopped for a month – in spite of him having evidence that he had been to the interview! It all fell into place when the Job Centre adviser said how advisers were given targets for sanctions and that claimants were being ‘set up to fail’[11].

In 2015 I managed to get the all-party Work and Pensions Select Committee to agree to an Inquiry on sanctions [12]. The results from the Inquiry were shocking: in addition to concerns of the inappropriate use of sanctions, there was evidence that not only was this distorting unemployment figures, but that people were becoming ill and in some cases dying after being sanctioned. The Committee made over 20 recommendations, including holding an independent inquiry into sanctions, setting up an independent body following the deaths of claimants and tracking what happens to people who leave JSA after being sanctioned. The Government finally responded to the Committee’s report at the end of October but refused to accept these recommendations.

As part of my new role as Shadow Minister for Disabled People, over the next year and beyond, I will be working with my Shadow team colleagues to engage people across the country in our review of social security policy, including sanctions. For me, that starts with valuing our social security system, not denigrating it. Like the NHS, it is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us of our dignity and the basics of life, and giving us a hand up, not a hand out, should any one of us become ill or disabled or fall on hard times. It makes me so angry when I read a sensational headline in certain papers which use inaccurate statistics [13] to try and demonise people receiving social security as work-shy fraudsters [14]. Yes, there will always be a tiny minority who try and play the system. But to tar all claimants with the same brush is also wrong and must stop.

Another area I will be continuing to campaign on is dementia. Many of you will know that this is a very personal campaign for me as my Mum died from Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia. Developing a Dementia Friendly Oldham has been a key priority of mine and I have been so grateful for the support of so many of you in this quest. What I thought was a rather ambitious target of getting 500 people to sign up as Dementia Friends by 2015, ended up being over 2000!

As the only MP trained as a Dementia Friends Champion, I have also campaigned for a Dementia Friendly Parliament and held Dementia Friends awareness sessions for MPs, peers and their staff. And in 2015 I was delighted to be elected as Chair of the All Party Group on Dementia. I held my first Inquiry looking at Dementia and co-morbidities, for example, diabetes in November and will report on this in March.

Finally, I want to thank my wonderful team for all that they do to support me in my work, and the care they show constituents who come to see me about a wide range of issues; over the last 6 months case work enquiries have increased by over 30%. There is so much more coming up in 2016 and I will keep you posted throughout the year!


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