Bristol South

Opposing the Welfare Reform & Work Bill

The Tories’ Welfare Reform and Work Bill came before the House of Commons on 20 July. This article outlines my position on this Bill, and why and how I opposed it, and the measures that I and other Labour MPs are taking to do so.

Welfare Reform and Work BillFirstly, I am aware some reports have suggested the Bill contained measures to cut tax credits for working families. To clarify, those Conservative measures are not in fact included in this Bill, but will come before Parliament later this year in separate legislation. I will oppose these cuts, just as I voted last week to oppose the Conservative Budget.

Moving to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill itself, Labour tabled what is known as a ‘Reasoned Amendment’ to it. This is a Parliamentary measure which opposes a Bill going to its next stage. It allows you to set out the reasons why you are opposing the entire Bill, even when there are things in it that you support.

This was needed because the Tories had included in the Bill a series of things that Labour supports, such as cuts in council rents, support for troubled families and the big increase in apprenticeships which I expect to provide a boost for south Bristol’s young people. And it contained other measures I definitely do not support, including the removal of child poverty targets and cuts to support for sick and disabled people who are not fit to work, including people with cancer or Parkinson’s disease.

Below I have copied Labour’s amendment in full:

That this House, whilst affirming its belief that there should be controls on and reforms to the overall costs of social security, that reporting obligations on full employment, apprenticeships and troubled families are welcome, and that a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support are necessary changes to the welfare system, declines to give a Second Reading to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill because the Bill will prevent the Government from continuing to pursue an ambition to reduce child poverty in both absolute and relative terms, it effectively repeals the Child Poverty Act 2010 which provides important measures and accountability of government policy in relation to child poverty, and it includes a proposal for the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance which is an unfair approach to people who are sick and disabled.

By tabling and voting for this amendment, Labour MPs, including myself, were opposing this Bill. Unfortunately, whilst Liberal Democrat MPs supported it, the Tories opposed it (as you would expect). Disappointingly the SNP failed to support it, choosing to instead abstain on the vote.

Our amendment was defeated, and so the Bill in its original form was put to the vote. Along with the large majority of Labour MPs, I abstained because Labour’s approach to this Bill is to oppose individual elements that we are against when it returns for its next Parliamentary stage in the autumn. The amendments we have tabled include:

• An amendment to prevent the Government abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty

The Government are also trying to delete child poverty from the remit of the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’ so that it becomes just the ‘Social Mobility Commission’. An amendment will prevent that taking place

• An amendment which will mean that the household benefit cap would not apply to persons who are responsible for a child under two years old, are a carer, or are in temporary accommodation because of domestic violence

• A new clause which will require the Secretary of State to report each year on the impact of the household benefit cap, particularly on child poverty

• An amendment which will require the level of the household benefit cap to be reviewed every year, rather than only once in a Parliament. The review would be based on the new clause above requiring the impact of the benefit cap on child poverty to be assessed each year

• An amendment which will require the Social Security Advisory Committee to review the Discretionary Housing Payments fund each year to ensure that sufficient resources are available. Discretionary Housing Payments are used to support those who are unfairly affected by the benefit cap

• An amendment which will set the target of full employment as 80 per cent of the working age population – in line with the Labour Government’s definition and recent research which shows that this would be an ambitious target. The Bill includes a process for reviewing progress towards ‘full employment’, but does not define what is meant by that.
• An amendment to require the UK Commission on Employment and Skills to assess whether the Government’s target for apprenticeships is being met, so that the Government can be held to account. There is significant concern among businesses and others that the quality of apprenticeships is being watered down in order to increase the numbers

• An amendment which will require the resources which are being dedicated to helping troubled families to be clearly set out

• An amendment which will ensure that interventions to support troubled families are focused on helping people into work

• An amendment to prevent the Bill restricting Universal Credit for three or subsequent children even when the third child is born before 5 April 2017

• A new clause preventing the restrictions to tax credits applying to three or more children where a third child is born as a result of a multiple birth, where a third of subsequent child is fostered or adopted, where a third child or subsequent child is disabled, or where a family with three or more children moves onto tax credits or universal credit in exceptional circumstances – including but not restricted to the death of one member of the family, the departure of one parent or loss of income through unemployment – which would be set out by the Social Security Advisory Committee. It also sets up an appeals process for all cases covered by this clause

• An amendment preventing cuts in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for the WRAG group of around £30 a week. People who are in the WRAG group have been through a rigorous test which has deemed them not fit for work, for example because they have Parkinson’s or are being treated for cancer

• An amendment requiring the Government to produce a plan to offset the impact of lower social rents on housing associations. Labour supports the reduction in social housing rents, which will help low-income families and bring down the housing benefits bill. However, we must protect against impacts on the ability of housing associations to build new affordable homes and maintain their existing properties

• An amendment which subjects the four-year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.

I and my Labour colleagues will do what we can to make these amendments succeed. But we must, of course, face the fact that because of the general election result there is a majority of Tory MPs in the Commons. The Parliamentary maths are in the Tories’ favour.

I have explained this at length not just because it is important that people understand my position but also because the type of reporting ‘shorthand’ that is usually understandably favoured by most of the media tends to leave out what are, by necessity, detailed arrangements centring around Parliamentary procedure.

Karin Smyth MP

Call to City Council to save Hawkspring

Karin Smyth MPLabour MP Karin Smyth has submitted a statement to Bristol City Council, ahead of its Full Council meeting on Tuesday 21 July, calling on the elected Mayor to step in and prevent the closure of Hartcliffe-based Hawkspring drug and alcohol service.

The statement in full is below.

Karin Smyth added: “If Hawkspring closes it highlights a failure of the commissioning model as being totally inflexible. There appears to be no sense of responsibility or support for those organisations which fall outside of the model. I want to see the council’s Health & Wellbeing Board, which is co-chaired by the elected mayor, taking a lead on this to fulfil its leadership role and support people who need this service”

Closure of Hawkspring

I was extremely concerned and disappointed to learn last week that Hartcliffe-based Hawkspring drug and alcohol service plans to close at the end of August due to lack of funding.

Hawkspring, which was created following the merger of two local charities, Hawks and Kwads, brought together a combined experience of over 30 years’ delivery of vital support. Hawkspring’s community based approach has proved to be highly effective, enabling the charity to help 900 people since its creation and reaching those who may not have otherwise accessed support. Hawkspring epitomises the resilience, dedication and commitment to their own community of the people of south Bristol.

Bristol City Council has been aware of the closure threat for many months. I know my predecessor, Dawn Primarolo MP, worked very hard to support Hawkspring and made numerous representations to the Council on behalf of the charity. Before and since my election in May I have also offered my support to Hawkspring as they are clearly filling a gap in current provision.

My question to the Council and other health commissioners is where and how thosepeople who need the services currently provided by Hawkspring will access the support they require. There will be an inevitable increase in demand on social services, GP services and A & E.

The purpose of the Health and Wellbeing Board is to co-ordinate the commissioning and services across the NHS, social care and voluntary sector for the benefit and wellbeing of local people. Its responsibilities include being a driver for change and a local leader across social care and public health services. With an increase in demand from drug and alcohol users and their families, never has the need for leadership been more important.

If Hawkspring closes next month the impact on local communities will be devastating. Today I call upon the Mayor, at this late hour, to step in and prevent the closure of this invaluable organisation.

Karin Smyth MP

Parliament’s new Education Centre

The Houses of Parliament has this week opened a new dedicated Education Centre. It is a purpose-built learning facility that is now running Parliament-themed workshops, bringing Parliamentary events to life.

If your school is in the Bristol South constituency and you would like to arrange a visit, then please get in touch.

You can find out more about the Education Centre by watching this short video:

Devolution Bill amendment: post of Bristol’s elected mayor

Westminster Hall NHS debateCommenting on an amendment to the Cities and Devolution Bill, which could see Bristol voters given the right to remove the post of the city’s elected mayor, Karin Smyth MP said:

“This isn’t about whether you support the current mayor or would prefer a different person in that office, it’s about whether citizens of Bristol should be allowed a voice about the post itself.

“It’s about democracy, and the right of Bristol people to decide how they are governed seems to be a fundamental aspect of democracy.

“People living in other cities and towns up and down the country already have these rights and powers, so this change would give Bristol parity with the rest of England.”

Closure of Hawkspring drug & alcohol service

Commenting on news of the planned closure of the Hartcliffe-based Hawkspring drug and alcohol service, Karin Smyth said: “Hawkspring was created following the merger of two Bristol charities, Hawks and Kwads, which together had 30 years’ experience delivering support to people affected by drugs and alcohol.

“First and foremost, this news is a devastating blow for the local communities that Hawskpring worked so hard to support. The work undertaken by this charity was invaluable, and the tragedy is that the need for its services has not gone away, and is not going to disappear any time soon.

“I have therefore written to the Mayor and Bristol’s Director of Public Health as those responsible for public health in the city, asking where and how individuals and families are now expected to go to receive the community-based drug and alcohol support they need.

“I fear that when the dust has settled on this sad announcement, we will reflect that this charity’s closure is further evidence of the failure of the government’s public health commissioning model to meet genuine community need.”

Voting against the barbarity of hunting

Karin Smyth Pigeon July 2015
Click to enlarge Karin Smyth’s July article in The Pigeon magazine

Bristol South MP Karin Smyth has reaffirmed her support for the ban on hunting with dogs.

Ahead of a Commons vote on Wednesday (15 July) the Labour MP confirmed she will firmly oppose any measures that are brought forward to weaken or repeal the Hunting Act.

Below you can read an article Karin Smyth wrote for the July edition of south Bristol magazine The Pigeon, which includes more of her thoughts about hunting.

At a time when many people are anxious about their finances, housing and employment, much of the contact I’ve received as a newly-elected MP has understandably come from constituents worried about their own personal situation. I’m working hard to help people right across south Bristol who need help.

Interestingly, wildlife and animal welfare issues have also figured prominently in my postbag and email inbox. That might raise an eyebrow, but residents’ concerns on these matters don’t surprise me at all. The way we treat animals is a reflection of the way we treat humans.

I’m proud that Labour governments of recent years put these issues high on the political agenda. The landmark Animal Welfare Act, for example, set new standards for the treatment of animals, introducing new duties of care for owners, and providing tough new sanctions for those who break the law.

In recent weeks many people have made contact having read about the prospect of the new Conservative government reversing legislation, introduced by Labour, that outlaws hunting with dogs. There’s been fierce opposition to any repeal of this ban. I welcomed the Hunting Act’s introduction and still support it. There is no place for the barbarity of hunting in a civilised society, so I will firmly oppose any measures that are brought forward to repeal it.

There have also been widespread concerns about the threat to bees, a vital part of our food chain, from neonicotinoid pesticides. Over two years ago the European Food Safety Authority reported three of these pesticides pose an unacceptable danger, recommending they shouldn’t be used on crops that attract bees. The coalition government refused to support a European ban, but thankfully Ministers were eventually forced into action by the EU Commission in December 2013.

Now there is renewed pressure from the National Farmers Union to allow these pesticides again, even though the government’s own Chief Scientific Adviser acknowledged they are highly toxic to many species of insects. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I believe Ministers should listen and heed the advice from people who are experts – their own specialist scientific advisors – and reject calls to allow mass use of these pesticides.

With my Bristol and London offices now established, and a programme of face-to-face constituency surgeries in operation, I’d urge you to get in touch if you feel I can help, whether with a confidential personal or family issue, or with a wider concern such as those outlined above. You can email karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk or write to Karin Smyth MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.

Prime Minister fails to give Bristol South Universal Credit timetable

PMQ 8 July 2015Prime Minister David Cameron tried to sidestep a challenge from Labour MP Karin Smyth to set out a timetable for the rollout of the government’s Universal Credit to her constituents.

Moments before the Budget statement was delivered by the Chancellor, containing new measures aimed at reforming welfare, the Bristol South MP used Prime Minister’s Questions to challenge the government’s competence over Universal Credit.

Watch: Scroll to bottom of page

She said: “My constituents in Bristol South are still waiting for Universal Credit to be rolled out to them. In fact they are still waiting for a timetable of planned rollout. We are about to hear about the latest stage of the government’s welfare reforms. When will he finish the last one?”

The Prime Minister failed to answer, but said: “I make absolutely no apology for taking Universal Credit at a deliberate pace. It’s quite right to do this at a deliberate pace, but I can promise her that Universal Credit will be coming to Bristol South soon.”

Universal Credit (UC) was designed to replace other benefits and simplify the benefits system, with a single monthly payment into a bank or building society account, by rolling together:

• Working Tax Credit

• Child Tax Credit

• Jobseeker’s Allowance

• Housing Benefit

• Income Support

• Employment & Support Allowance

Originally announced in 2010, its introduction has been plagued by delays.

“It is right to question the competence of the government following its much-delayed delivery on the Universal Credit pledge it made five years ago,” said Karin Smyth.

“The fanfare that heralded Universal Credit had barely faded before the government started getting into a muddle and a mess over its introduction. People living in south Bristol really deserve to have a timetable put on this because it will affect the lives and finances of many of them. The Prime Minister has not only failed to deliver, he failed to deliver an answer.”

Karin Smyth’s comments on Budget 2015

Karin Smyth MP Health Questions June 2015Commenting on the Budget of 8 July 2015, Karin Smyth MP said:

“We are used to waiting for hours or even days for the true nature of Budget measures to emerge from scrutiny of the details. But first impressions are important: and this appears to be a Budget that will offer a few crumbs, but little long-term hope, to lower and middle income families in south Bristol.

“Having worked to manage people’s advance expectations of this Budget, the government is very keen to portray it as one that will ‘slow the pace’ of welfare cuts, as if to imply this is a kinder Budget than people feared. The truth is that many measures it contains will be painful to working families.

Productivity & wages

“Productivity has stagnated since 2007, unprecedented in the post-war period. Economic growth depends on productivity improving and yet despite over-optimistic forecasts, it remained stubbornly low under the Tory-led coalition government.

“Increased productivity is the key to getting the deficit down, and to raising wages and living standards which in turn will help bring down welfare bills.

“Businesses of all shapes and sizes across Bristol and the West country need support to boost their productivity. The cut in corporation tax should help businesses invest and create more jobs, but time will tell whether it leads to the sustainable jobs and higher wages that we need.

“It is right that, having viciously opposed the minimum wage when it was introduced by Labour in 1999, the Tory government has now embraced the principle, although rather than implementing a genuine Living Wage the Chancellor appears to be trying to redefine the Living Wage.

Apprenticeships levy

“South Bristol needs more high-skills apprenticeships and, whilst we await the detail, moves to introduce a levy on large businesses to help fund apprenticeships are welcome.

Inheritance Tax and Income Tax

“Raising the personal income tax allowance by £400 from next year gives crumbs to those on lower incomes whilst Inheritance Tax cuts heap feasts elsewhere. It got loud cheers from Tory MPs on the green benches, but cutting inheritance tax should not be a priority at this time.

Welfare

“As I pointed out to the Prime Minister moments before the Budget announcement, Bristol South residents are still waiting for the long-delayed rollout of the government’s last grand welfare reform plan, Universal Credit, so its future plans must be viewed with caution.

“By limiting some benefits to two children, the Chancellor wants to make children live in poverty as a punishment for being born into large families.

“The welfare announcements made need greater scrutiny, but it appears the Tory Chancellor is placing the heaviest burden on low-paid working people.

University maintenance grants

“Whilst there is evidence to show the introduction of tuition fees has not deterred young people from applying for university, I am deeply concerned about the plan to remove maintenance grants for students from lower income families.

“Of all 650 constituencies Bristol South sends the second lowest number of its young people to university. Whilst the reasons for this are complex, I fear this measure will snuff out the ambitions of many youngsters who aspire to go to university to work hard to earn a degree.

Devolution

“The Chancellor talked about ‘putting power into the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, but however hard you listened there was again not a word or nod in the direction of Bristol and the West Country. We need a Western Powerhouse.

Sunday trading

“Allowing shops to open for a few more hours on a Sunday looks like a headline-seeking distraction technique. It won’t tackle the productivity puzzle. It is answering a question the Budget wasn’t asked and didn’t need to address.”

Bristol Pride 2015

bnN5uMmy_400x400Commenting on Bristol Pride 2015, Karin Smyth MP said:

“I well remember marching against Section 28, introduced by the Conservative government in the late 1980s.

“It’s a heartening reflection of changing times that the approach that law represented has been well and truly ditched, with our city now hosting one of the largest Pride events in the UK. Hats off to all those involved in organising it.”

Pledge to champion autism awareness

Labour MP Karin Smyth has pledged to promote more autism awareness across her Bristol South constituency.

She heard testimonies at a Westminster event from people living with autism, a lifelong condition which affects some 3,000 people in Bristol South, and many more across the whole of the city.

“Negative public attitudes and misconceptions about autism can really harm families and individuals, limiting their opportunities,” she said. “I want to take every opportunity possible to actively promote more local awareness of the condition, and to improve access to public spaces, employment and services.”

“It’s also important that we help empower those who work with and support people who have autism.”

Earlier this year, a Bristol South resident, Jacky Wyatt, who teaches at Hillcrest Primary School, Totterdown, was honoured by the National Autistic Society with the prestigious national Award for Achievement by an Individual Education Professional.

President of the National Autistic Society, Jane Asher (pictured with Karin Smyth) added: “Awareness of the word autism has increased dramatically since I first became involved many years ago, but understanding of this complex condition is still desperately low.

“Parliamentarians have the power to make a real change in the lives of those with autism by helping us to spread understanding among their local communities.”