Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Craig's story: A true face of welfare "reform"

During the election I met a young man who I shall call Craig who has learning and physical disabilities. He is very enthusiastic about politics and has kept in touch with me since the election. A few weeks ago we agreed to meet up at dinner time in a local cafe, on the day his ESA was due to be paid into his account.

Just before the allotted time he texted me to say that he would not be able to eat when we met because he had no money. He had been to the bank but there was nothing in his account. A phone call to the DWP had revealed that his ESA has been stopped because they have deemed him capable of work after an assessment. Naturally I said I would pay for him and when we met we talked about his situation.

Craig is currently volunteering part-time at a youth club for children with learning disabilities like him, but has not worked since he left school, he is 22.

Of course he is going to appeal, with the help of his mum who is his carer, but in the meantime he has been obliged to report to the job centre. He has now told me that he has been asked to apply for fifty jobs a day, twenty five by leaving CVs with employers and twenty five online. I cannot believe he has that right, even fifty a week sounds like a lot but that is what he understands (and remember he has learning difficulties).

I very much hope that with the assistance of his Doctor who will provide written evidence of his various conditions, and his Mum, he is able to have his ESA restored. Otherwise I can only see benefit sanctions on the horizon for Craig. How is he supposed to find all of these jobs? And then how he is supposed to apply for them? Will an advisor be made permanently available to him to sit with him in the job centre and help him? He wouldn't be capable of doing it by himself. If he fails to meet these stringent targets - through no fault of his own, all of his benefits will be stopped for three months and ultimately for three years.

Employment opportunities for young men in Thornaby are few and far between at the moment,  and competing with able-bodied people with qualifications will prove nigh on impossible. Even assuming that somehow he could secure work, I cannot see how he could actually perform on a proper and prolonged basis with his disabilities. 

Is Craig really who George Osborne had in his sights when he said

Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?

Surely it is the job of social campaigners - and the Labour Party - to tell the real stories about benefit recipients, about those whom the safety net protects, rather than vote for reform in a populist way because it is what the public evidently want.

I feel passionately that it is their ignorance of the truth that needs to be changed, not our system of support. I am convinced that the average voter imagines benefits to be paid at a much higher rate than they actually are. We need to educate people, not acquiesce with views based on incorrect assumptions.

I have to admit to becoming yet more despondent as the reality for vulnerable people in this country becomes ever more difficult.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Getting back in the blogging saddle

As a Parliamentary Candidate in my home town in Stockton South, it was not really possible to maintain a blog of social commentary. Candidates are representatives of their party and its manifesto; it is not for them to question the direction of policy but to present it to voters for their examination.
Furthermore, with a fully interactive candidate's website where I could talk about local issues, publish photos and encourage people to sign up for campaigns, I didn't need to run two sites simultaneously with the work involved and the potential confusion that could cause. Consequently I took the decision to suspend the blog during the election.

Now that I am once again free to write about subjects that interest me, I am restarting the blog although entries may be fairly sparse to begin with while I get back into the habit.

I look forward to the opportunity to engage with readers once again.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Reflections as a councillor and community champion

2006: Being sworn in as a Liverpool City Councillor
On May 22nd 2014 my two terms as a Councillor came to an end.

This was the date when my successor, Labour's Sue Heron, was elected in Kensington and Fairfield with 68% of the vote.

The eight years I served have been full of highs and lows; great achievements alongside disappointments and heartaches; huge learning curves and tremendous experiences.

My election came as a surprise to most people who had not expected to see a Labour victory in a ward where the three sitting Liberal Democrats had served sixty years between them. It was not a surprise to me or our small Labour team though because we had spent six months knocking on doors and listening to residents about their concerns; I found out precisely which issues people were concerned about in the local area and then I campaigned to make a difference for them. It is fair to say that when I arrived in Liverpool there was not really a history of knocking on doors outside of election times and not much of one during elections really either but it is something I believe strongly in and I was determined to pull together a small team of people who were prepared to give it a go. I remember visiting a house on Laburnum Road where the woman said she had waited over twenty years for Labour to call. At a house on Minto Close a couple said it was the first time they could recall anyone calling. "In this election?" I asked, "No. Ever", they said, adding they had lived there 25 years.

It made all the difference and helped me to win the seat with a tiny majority. All year round campaigning ever since has ensured that Labour went on to win and hold the other two councillor positions and it is now one of the wards with the highest percentage of voter contact in the city. 

The issues that most people were concerned about back in 2006 were

1. The lack of a fee free cash machine. People who have easy access to banks and free cash machines in their more affluent neighbourhoods cannot imagine how difficult it is to have to pay upwards of £1.85 for the privilege of drawing out your own money, especially if you only want £10. It is a massive tax on the poor. It was to take me 5 years to achieve in the ward and even when I was chairing my final Finance and Resources Select Committee in April this year the council was still working on plans to secure fee free machines for parts of West Derby constituency.

Free cashpoint machine arrives February 2011

2. There wasn't enough for young people to do and there was a worrying rise in anti-social behaviour. I quickly became involved with Central Youth Club and discovered they were only able to find funds to open on limited days each week. Over the next eight years, working with Wendy and then Liam we were able to make sizeable donations from our locally devolved budget to keep the youth club open 7 days a week and also provide outreach workers who could go out on to the streets where young people gathered and talk to them about what they wanted to do with their leisure time. We also funded choirs, parties at Halloween, made donations to Edge Hill Youth Club in the next ward and set up and helped fund the Youth Forum which brought together everyone providing activities for young people in Kensington and Fairfield so they could plan their programmes without clashing with each other.

Presenting certificates at an awards night at Central Youth Club

3. There were lots of calls for more and better shops back in 2006. The south side of Kensington was mostly boarded up and derelict, the old skating rink was a cleared site surrounded by hoardings, and the choice available was essentially hot food takeaways, betting shops and off licences. I can't personally claim credit for the demolition, the tidying up of shop fronts or the building of new shops along Prescot Road but certainly it was facilitated by the Labour Government through New Deal for Communities and HMRI. I was very proud that at one of my final council meetings of 2014 I was at last able to speak in favour of a policy to restrict the further opening of any more takeways and off licences. It is easy to forget how bad things were before but here are a few of the "before" photographs.

Boarded up shops and pub fronting Pythian Park  2006
Rear of shops and pub on Kensington awaiting demolition 2007


And these are some of the new shops on Prescot Road now.

Kensington Neighbourhood Centre

Eight years is a long time and there were a rich wealth of experiences that I could share, but most of them feature here on this blog so you don't need to look too far.

Something that really made a difference was being able to secure victory for Wendy Simon and Liam Robinson in 2007 and 2008 so that we had a full Labour team taking the ward forward, sharing ideas, expertise, tasks and responsibilities. We have worked brilliantly well together and I owe them a great deal - as do the people of Liverpool.

I was fortunate to have been elected in a variety of council positions; chairing our Neighbourhood Committee, shadow Executive Member, Assistant Executive Member, Chair of Newsham Park Forum, Chair of Finance and Resources Select Committee and city lead for Equality and Diversity. I also took scrutiny forward outside of the Council, by working with the Guild of Students where I shared an award from CfPS, at Venture Housing Association as its Vice Chair and as an active member of St Hilda's CE Girls High School. In all of those positions I learned much about how to deliver for the people of the city.

It wasn't all easy going though. I think I would describe my time in Local Government as a story of two halves. Before 2010 resources were plentiful but we had a Liberal Democrat led council and although I managed to get into a good position chairing the Neighbourhood Committee and also had a big chunk of locally devolved budget to spend on environmental improvements and other good projects, many of the changes I wanted to see for residents were stubborn in arriving. I could not persuade the leader of the council to fine dog foulers or fly tippers, selective licensing of private landlords was turned down time and again for our area and Fairfield Community Centre was regularly under threat of closure.

After 2010 with a Labour majority on Liverpool Council again, we had the power to effect change but very quickly lacked the resources with which to make a difference. It was a very dark day when the Area Based Grant was abolished with a stroke of the pen; it had funded Family Intervention Projects, Community Cohesion work, free fruit for kids at school, Domestic Violence Projects, community skips galore, advice centres and youth projects and much more; suddenly it was all gone. Our local budget had to start stretching to meet things we had never had to fund before. Then once the austerity cuts to the revenue budget started to come along things went from bad to worse and we lost a lot of good quality local projects in the area.

However, we made the best with what we had and with a huge amount of goodwill on all sides.

I think my proudest legacy surely must be the level of partnership working we have achieved.

There is the Kensington and Fairfield Problem Solving Group which brings together all the partners, agencies and organisations providing a service in the ward along with residents and church groups. Working together we have tackled some very serious issues facing local people, steadfastly tackling obstacles, pooling together slender resources and ruthlessly targeting crime and anti-social behaviour, environmental blight, youth unemployment, the establishment of a food bank, Respect weeks, supporting community cohesion with European Neighbour's Day and establishing "Love my Street" initiatives in particularly run down roads. And of course there is the Newsham Park Forum which I wrote about after my final meeting, the Youth Forum and all the Tenants and Residents Groups we have supported over the years.

It has been a wonderful experience, enriching, empowering, deeply satisfying and very fulfilling. I have seen some big projects through to fruition - like the restoration of the wonderful Victorian Jewish Cemetery on Deane Road but also I have helped individuals with their own cases. There is nothing better than achieving a result for someone who has been struggling alone for a long time and have come to see their councillor in final desperation.

If the opportunity to stand for Parliament in my home town had not arisen last year, I would have been standing for council again last week, keen to take on another four year term and carry on tackling priorities and issues, for the ward and for the city. However, the chance to go to Parliament hopefully as part of a Labour government voting to abolish the bedroom tax, to increase the minimum wage substantially and to introduce a jobs guarantee for young people is something I feel I need to do. My focus now is on winning back Stockton South for Labour but I go knowing that if I am successful, I will be voting to bring about change for Liverpool too.

I want to thank everyone who I have worked with over those eight years, those who were there at the beginning but have since moved on to other jobs (or sadly died), those who were there at the end having newly arrived and those who stayed the course with me. I have been given friendship, love and support in abundance.

The ward of Kensington and Fairfield is a wonderful part of a wonderful city with fantastic residents; it might not be affluent and people might be struggling but they are rich in spirit. Serving them has been an honour.

Some of the fab residents and comrades who came to wish me goodbye a few weeks ago at my leaving party

Thursday, May 01, 2014

'My ticket' - all day bus pass for £2 per day for young people

Email from Liam Robinson, chair of Merseytravel and Labour councillor for Kensington and Fairfield

Please spread the word about a new £2 all-day bus ticket, ‘My Ticket’, which Merseytravel are launching on 1 May. The ticket is available to buy on the majority of buses operating within the Merseyside area for those aged 15 and under and could help reduce travel costs for young people by more than 50 per cent.

In January, we held an event entitled “Fare Deal for Young People”, along with Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the Commons Transport Select Committee, when we pledged to work together with operators to bring down the cost of travel and help remove a potential barrier to education, work and leisure opportunities.  After further work with bus operators, the ‘My Ticket’ is the result of this commitment and is the first step forward in getting a fair deal for our young people.  According to the Campaign for Better Transport in 2013, young people listed the cost of transport as their number one concern.

We hope that ‘My Ticket’ will make a difference to many young people.  A young person at one of our customer forums told us he uses three buses to get to and from school, costing over £6 per day because his mum doesn’t have the money at the beginning of the week to buy a weekly ticket. The £2 ticket will reduce his travel costs and will mean he can meet up with his friends or go to the local youth club in the evening as well.
We would be grateful if you could help us to promote this ticket through your networks. It will no doubt be of interest to those who work with young people, but I’m sure will be of  interest to anybody with children and grandchildren within Merseyside. 

You can find out more information at http: www.merseytravel.gov.uk/Tickets/Pages/My-Ticket.aspx
If you would like additional materials, Posters or leaflets, or you require any additional information to promote the ticket, please contact our Young Person Engagement Team on 0151 330 1185

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Feel the love - Newsham Park May 10th 2014

Email from Christina Ashworth for your interest

Remit for Photography group
The purpose of the day is to provide us with an opportunity to celebrate our community’s past, to reflect on and discuss its present and then to plan how we might work best together to secure its future.
Your brief is to help us do that by creating a portrait of Newsham Park and its surrounding community in the present day which helps to inspire and inform those discussions. 
Remit for planting party  
The purpose of the day is to provide us with an opportunity to celebrate our community’s past, to reflect on and discuss its present and then to plan how we might work best together to secure its future.
Your brief is to help us do that by designing a new bed for the rose garden in the park.  The bed needs to be designed in a way which pays its respects to the design and history of the park but takes into account the current pressures and future possibilities.  Therefore the design has to also offer seasonal interest, be easy to maintain and contribute to the environment by being bee and butterfly friendly.   The finished design will be on display on the 10th of May to help inspire a future vision of the park and engage others in helping to realise it. 
Remit for the cooking party
To make and or contribute to a ‘food revolution’ afternoon tea for the community to be held at 3pm on the 10th of May.  This needs to celebrate the past and the memories and contribution of people who have cooked before us as well as reflect the understanding we have today about the costs and consequences of too much sugar and fat in our diet so that we can work towards a healthier and happier future.

People needed
Help needed
8.30 am
Litter pick in Park
Litter pickers and bags provided by LCC

Planting in the park
Promote opportunity – small red heart planted in the Rose Garden to commemorate WW2 - sow country lane mixture in pre prepared areas

Teddy Bear’s Picnic
Promote opportunity – Families with small kids – bring your child if you find a bear in the woods its yours to keep

Activity on West Derby Road – Flash Litter Mob
Recruit activists
Activity in the Adult Education Centre
1 pm
Consultation on the planting plan for the park
Volunteers stewards 

flip charts etc
3 pm
Tea Dance

Suggestions for the play list
This is being facilitated by Jigsaw dance so that everyone can get involved – even those too frail to stand - need help to promote the event to these groups and support them to attend

Suggestions for the play list

Afternoon Tea
Need more help either to bake on the day or provide a plate of food for the day – all food must be home cooked.

Old Swan photography club

Consultation about planning plans and the floral tribute to the Giant Girl
Project Group with support from Karen B
5 – 7pm
The Debate  - consultation and discussion about how to better address antisocial behaviour – including littering, dog mess, and vandalism – in the park.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

My final Newsham Park Forum meeting

Last night I chaired my final Newsham Park Forum; the next one won't be until June when I will no longer be a councillor.

People were very kind and generous with their parting words and I was delighted with a lovely card. There were lots of hugs and wishes of good fortune on all sides.

It got me thinking about what we have actually achieved over the last 8 years

I started by reflecting back to April 2006 before my first election when I planted roses with the Friends of Newsham Park This was my first real exposure to the park and it was quite a sorry place really, unloved, dirty, broken and crime ridden.

Later that year, after my election, I became chair of the council's Parks and Lakes Scrutiny Panel and we took a tour of Newsham Park with residents, police, gardeners, fishermen and others as part of our work We created a long wish list of work and improvements we all wanted to see. We had learned that our HLF bid was unsuccessful so we worked hard to find alternative ways to fund them.

And now here we are, 8 years on, with the most incredible list of achievements.

A pavilion and changing rooms for new football pitches
A kiosk selling refreshments - and acting as a key information point for the park with the excellent Rob on duty
Youth play equipment
Exercise equipment
Tree planting
Cricket wicket and a great local cricket club
Ping-pong table
Boating lake renewed
Return of the Liverpool Model Boating Club
Platforms in the lakes for the ducks and water birds
Wildflower planting in Denham Gardens
Picnic tables
Signage welcoming people to the park
Renewal of entrance gate posts
The birthday wood

There will be other improvements and enhancements I have forgotten...

And people are using the park for their leisure so much more often now too. Newsham Park Arts Festival, Shakespeare in the Park, Spring Fling, Sports Festival, Bonfire night firework events...

And it hasn't finished there; we took lots of progress reports last night including plans for a skateboard and BMX facility, a new Multi Use Games Area (MUGA), a new fountain and aerators in the lake nearly ready to be installed, the bicycle health project hopefully ready by Whitsun half term and upcoming events in the park being prepared (including one which will truly put the Park on the map!!).

I want to pay tribute to so many people for their help and support; the Forum epitomises the best of partnership working; Paul, Derek, Nigel and Tom from the council who have driven through and delivered on residents aspirations; the Friends of Newsham Park through its various incarnations; Pamela and Mark Boardman for spearheading so many of the residents groups; JB for never ceasing to push for change; Richard Milligan for his wonderful work on Wildlife Photography and the group determined to save our water birds; the Model Boat Club who have returned from Walton Hall Park to their original home and who celebrate their 50th anniversary this year; Glendale the gardeners; Academy of St Francis of Assisi for their enduring enthusiasm and hard work; Norah Burns and other residents for continuing to demand the best from their representatives; all the councillors who have represented the park for putting in funds from locally held budgets and recognising the value of the park; Christina and Althea and their volunteers who have picked litter, planted bulbs, painted railings and shown the true nature of people power; Steve and the group determined to see the Orphanage brought back into use; all the sportsmen and women who now play or train in the park; Citysafe for patrolling; Rob in the kiosk for acting as our unofficial Parky;

I am sure I have missed people from the list but that only goes to show just how many are involved.

There is always talk of legacy at the end of a political time in office and I like to think this granddaughter of a Corporation Gardener has helped to steer and guide some real improvements in a park I am sure he would have admired.

Good luck to whoever takes this work forward and don't ever let the lack of funding stop you from aiming as high as possible.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Liverpool City Council introduces freephone numbers for benefits queries

Supporting local people in poverty, Liverpool City Council has introduced a new freephone system to at least save people having to pay big phone bills just to get advice.

Introduced from Monday 3 February, this will cover enquiries for issues including housing benefit, council tax support, free school meals and benefits maximisation advice.

The numbers and the services are:

0800 028 3686      Council tax, community charge, business rates, corporate debt, overpayment of housing benefit, Business Improvement District

0800 028 3697      Benefits, free school meals and Benefits Maximisation Service

0800 121 8805      Benefits Fraud Hotline

0800 456 1523      Liverpool Citizen Support Scheme

0800 028 3707      Fairer Charging and Direct Payments for adult social care

The council’s letters, bills and website are being updated with the new information on.                                                                                                                               

People telephoning the Freephone numbers from mobile networks will get an automated message informing them they may be charged for the call and be given the option to dial a landline number if they prefer.  All the existing numbers will remain in use for three months.

Jobs Fair in Liverpool Town Hall

The Plus Dane Group are hosting a Jobs, homes and enterprise Fair on Thursday 27th February from 10am-4pm in Liverpool Town Hall.

The Living Local- Working Local event will give hundreds of people the opportunity to meet with businesses offering vacancies and apprenticeships, as well as get advice and support from agencies on securing employment, welfare reform and managing debt.

Attendees will also be able to view a number of Plus Dane’s vacant properties available in the city to rent or buy and get advice on setting up new businesses.

This event is open to all on Merseyside.