Stratford

Winter fuel payments unpaid

Up to 2600 Stratford on Avon pensioners entitled to Cold Weather Payments ((People can get Cold Weather Payments worth £25 when temperatures are below zero Celsius for seven days when they claim a qualifying benefit, including Pension Credit)) are missing out, according to Lib Dem analysis of government figures. Cold Weather Payments of £25 a week are paid to people on low incomes who received a qualifying benefit, such as Pension Credit. Nationally this goes unclaimed by as many as 1.7 million pensioners. ((Department for Work and Pensions figures for 2007-08 (most recent available) show that between 1.1m and 1.7m pensioners eligible for Pension Credit do not claim it, which also means that they do not receive the Cold Weather Payments.))

There are three crucial issues here, and the government ought to account for all three.

First, since official figures suggest that half of all eligible pensioners are not claiming Pension Credit, and hence winter fuel payments, it follows that there is something seriously wrong with the system for claiming. If 10 percent, or even 20 percent, did not claim, then you might be able to put it down to the ordinary experience with this kind of scheme. It is very hard to persuade 90 percent of people to do anything. Generally, if you hit 80 percent, you will probably accept that the remaining 20 percent are hard to reach in some way, or simply don’t want to take up the payment for some reason. But fifty percent? People I have talked to tell me that the system is very complex, far more so than needed. Is this the reason that only half have claimed? Possibly. But see the next point.

Second, there is a very serious issue that the government has no recent figures, and even the 2007-08 figures are national estimates. In a time when government agencies regularly use ACORN classifications, breaking society down into more than 300 socio-cultural groups, and where the Office for National Statistics is able to provide useful detail down to a few streets or a local area (Output Areas and Super Output Areas), it is astonishing that the government only has the most general figures for such a significant problem. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they have no real understanding of why half the eligible people are not claiming.

Third, in this time of extreme temperatures, lives are at risk as people on already meagre incomes are forced to stump up the extra cash for heating. A lot of people I have talked to in the constituency have experienced winter heating problems — lack of fuel oil, electricity failures in the freezing conditions, and more. People on low pensions in such circumstances have to spend even more money for temporary solutions. It is the government’s moral duty to do all it can to ensure that winter fuel payments are made — even to the point of offering them retrospectively for older people who register now or in the next few weeks.

Tory MP to step down

Stratford on Avon’s Tory MP John Maples today announced he is stepping down. His delay in doing so, which he explains in a letter to the Conservative Home website, means that the Tory selection will now be under their by-election rules, with a centrally imposed shortlist.

John Maples has served the community of Stratford on Avon for thirteen years, and deserves the thanks of opponents and supporters alike. I believe he has chosen the right time to retire. Liberal Democrats have taken seat after seat from the Tories in this constituency over the last two years, culminating in a dramatic by-election win in supposedly safe Tory Alveston in November.

With Warwickshire Tories now deeply unpopular in Stratford following the fire consultation debacle, it is our intention to press on and take this vacated seat at the General Election.

Why I don’t respond to blanket ‘pledge’ campaigns

If you’re visiting this site looking for my email address so that you can send me a two-sentence pledge to sign up to, you’re wasting your time. Like many sitting MPs, it’s my policy not to respond to them.

Why is this?

First, I don’t want to encourage the approach to politics which says that everything is really very simple, and if only MPs would realise that it all boils down to a simple pledge, the world will be a better place.
Second, I know from experience that many — even the majority — of these pledge campaigns are very carefully worded so that no sensible person could disagree with them, and then used to support something which is really very, very different. It’s like the (now banned) adverts which say things like “9 out of 10 mothers said it was the same or better than product x”, when the actual survey showed that one of the 10 mothers they asked liked it, one didn’t like it, and the other eight couldn’t tell the difference either way.

Does this mean I’m not interested in your campaign? No — I am interested. Send me your literature, and I’ll read it. In some cases — Help for Heroes, Jubilee Debt, Anti-slavery international, for example — I will actively back your campaign. But, if I’m not convinced enough to sign up to your mailing list and get your newsletter, then I won’t sign your pledge.

I’ve had some really good stuff sent to me. My old boss from West Midlands Arts, Sally Luton (it’s now Arts Council West Midlands) wrote to me to tell me about all the art in Stratford on Avon. Fair enough. The police have written to me to tell me about what police really need. The Federation of Small Businesses have sent me useful information.

If you want to persuade me, inform me. I won’t necessarily agree with everything you tell me, but you’ll have my ear, and I won’t forget it.

The very worst kind of pledge campaigns are the ones which are essentially a veiled threat: 75% of people believe this, sign up to our pledge and we’ll publish it. If you don’t sign up to our pledge, then we’ll publish that, and 75% of people won’t vote for you. Some of them really are as blunt as that. Others are slightly more sophisticated, and, in so being, even more ridiculous. I had one today, for example, from the Albion Alliance. I had to read it twice to check that it wasn’t from a football team. The Albion Alliance offered me two very stark choices, and demanded that I sign up to one or the other, because they were ‘mutually exclusive’. It’s true they were mutually exclusive, in the same way that fascism and communism were mutually exclusive. But there was lots of territory in between where reasonable people live. What made it worse was that they had the gall to demand a simple ‘yes/no answer’ without what they termed ‘obfuscation’. Interestingly, they didn’t actually include their pledge in the email, so I had to go to their website to check it out. I saw that the few candidates who had bothered to reply were treated very shabbily — failure to sign up to the exact words of their pledge resulted in an accusation of ‘obfuscation’.

Needless to say, I will not be replying to the Albion Campaign. However, if you are from the Albion Campaign and are reading this, my message to you would be: if you want an honest answer, then ask an honest question, and if you want a sensible answer, then ask a sensible question.

Finally, though, if you as a private citizen — or as an honest representative of a pressure group — want to email me with ordinary questions, I will certainly reply personally. Just don’t ask me to sign up to a particular form of words which you’ve already drafted. I will give you my own words, and then you can be certain that I really do mean what I say.

After the fire…

Warwickshire County Council did not know what had hit it when thousands of people took to the streets up and down the county to protest proposed cuts to the fire service. The level of public anger was vastly greater than expected. Bosses understood that closing down fire stations would not be popular. But what inflamed residents most was the apparent dishonesty of the consultation document, which worked so hard to talk up the benefits that it neglected to mention the proposals would reduce the number of fire-fighters and close fire-stations.

Within four months of the consultation document being released, county councillors in the ruling Conservative party had done an about face and put the proposals on indefinite hold. Three days later, Conservative party leader David Cameron was despatched to Leamington Spa to suggest that the proposals should wait until after the public enquiry into the deaths of firefighters at the Atherstone-on-Stour tragedy. Whatever his intention, this fuelled speculation, in the Stratford Herald as well as in other places, that the decision to suspend (not scrap) the fire cuts was made in order to defend an increasingly shaky electoral position in Warwickshire, and that councillors were responding not to the will of the people, but to the dictat from Conservative Central Office.

One of the officers involved with putting the proposals forward told me that consultation documents were supposed to put one side of the story, and that this was standard practice up and down the country. When I suggested that this was not, or should not be, the case, he asked me how else the changes could be pushed through. It had clearly not occurred to him that, if it was impossible to persuade an informed public who had been given all the facts, perhaps they should not be pushed through at all.

I don’t think there was ever a time when anyone in Warwickshire would have been taken in by the consultation document which was put before us. But I do believe the extreme spin which was put on it reflected the fear of the people putting it forward, and that fear was fuelled by three things.

First, it was fuelled by the knowledge that, just a few months before, the man who was to front it had been promising that there would be no fire cuts. Whether this made a difference to his electoral prospects or not it’s hard to say, but, clearly, Warwickshire Conservatives believed that no word of fire cuts could or should be breathed before the County elections, which saw them take Warwickshire from no overall control into Conservative administration. Councillors were clearly afraid that they would be accused (which they in the event were) of concealing swingeing cuts, and they tried to hide this by presenting the cuts not as cuts at all, but as an increase.

Second, it was fuelled by the knowledge that Warwickshire would shortly be sharply criticised in a national review.
This information was not made available to the public until the day after the consultation finished, but the Comprehensive Area Assessment known as OnePlace reported: “The Fire and Rescue Authority know they have to improve their fire prevention service. They also know that they have to change the way they work to improve the service as a whole. This is a difficult task and part of the challenge will be to explain the plans to residents so they understand the reasons for the need to modernise the way the service is provided.” In the fuller text, the assessment added: “They have been slow to make the changes needed to provide a more efficient, modern fire service that balances emergency response with good prevention and protection work and gives taxpayers good value for money. The pace of change is picking up.”

The extreme haste with which the proposals were developed and put to public consultation between the end of the council elections and the announcement of this assessment reflects the real fear that people would be even less open to change if they knew what was driving it. In fact, almost certainly the opposite would have been true — if the authorities had admitted early on that they were in serious trouble and needed help, they would have gained a more sympathetic hearing. I doubt it would have changed the outcome, but it would definitely have changed the tone.

Third, it was fuelled by the fear that, after all, the proposals did not stack up. Councillors and officers initially refused to release the full document setting out the risk assessment for the changes, and only did so when Liberal Democrats Hazel Wright and Peter Moorse on Stratford District Council put in a Freedom of Information request. This was the first official, public document that admitted that fire stations would close and that the total number of fire-fighters would be reduced by 51 (the consultation document gave the impression that they would be increased by 25). When a subsequent Freedom of Information request asked for the costings, the answer was that costings had not been calculated.

All these fears that the public would mistrust the reasons behind the proposals — in the bizarre world of half-baked decisions and incomplete logic — led those putting the document forward to produce not something which was so transparently transparent that people would be forced to say “we disagree with your proposals, but we admire the honesty and clarity with which you put them”, but which in every sense failed to fulfil its obligations to the public trust.

After all the revelations of MP expenses during the summer, for people to be given something in the guise of a consultation which was little more than a trick, was more than anyone was willing to stand.

I have yet to meet one person from the Warwickshire public who supported or trusted the proposals. I doubt that I ever will. In a year when public trust in politicians has fallen to its lowest in recorded history, the Warwickshire Fire Consultation did us the gravest disservice.

It is customary, when a major public consultation, on which an organisation is betting its future, fails, for someone to offer their resignation. As yet, no-one has. I think it is probably too much to hope that, in the next few months, in order to restore damaged public trust, someone will.

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