Debt Advice and Pensions

Every week I speak with constituents seeking advice on a wide range of everyday issues that are effecting them and their families. Many are concerned about the issue of debt, and are seeking quality, free, independent debt advice. Some want guidance on pension options. Some are worried about pensions cold calling to their families and are worried about financial scams. Others think we should have a breathing space to stop debt getting out of control.

All these legitimate issues were addressed this week in the House of Commons, as the Government’s new bill, the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, had its second reading.

With the success of auto-enrolment in work place pensions, resulting in nine million new savers, this government has helped create a whole new generation of savers, including many young people who are now saving for the first time.

As well as making it easier for people to save for their future, we want to provide high quality, impartial debt advice. Last year, the Government’s Money Advice Service supported almost 500,000 people across the country with debt advice sessions. But we can and will do more. We already provide pensions guidance for people across the UK through Pension Wise and The Pensions Advisory Service but, on an agreed cross-party basis, it has been agreed that merging these three organisations into one new Single Financial Guidance Body is the right way forward for better free services and greater coverage. This development has been welcomed by the Citizens Advice Service. I know from my close working with our local CAB that advice about debt remains the most sought after type of advice they provide to local people.

We know that free, high quality, independent advice is often most effective when it is delivered at important moments in someone’s life – such as when someone leaves school, gets their first job, has a baby or retires. But we need fundamentally to change the way people think about their finances, so that people more regularly seek help and guidance throughout their life. That is why we are pioneering the mid-life MOT, which would introduce a financial stock-take for older workers. This would enable people to make informed choices around savings, retirement and their pension together. And if they do get into debt problems a breathing space allows them to address the problems before they get out of control.

And, finally, we are also banning pensions cold calling, which has become a concern for many. There are tweaks and amendments that will be needed to sort the Bill into its final form but this is a Government that has identified problems and is working on the solutions.

The Government wants to open up free, impartial, debt advice and pensions guidance to more people. The new Single Financial Guidance Body will do just that, helping people to manage their finances better throughout their life.

First published in the West Briton 25/01/18

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NHS Update – Going Forward

Thank you to the many people who have responded to the NHS England consultation on a new model for radiotherapy services in England. Radiotherapy is a core part of modern cancer treatment. It can cure cancers, can assist in alleviating symptoms and is second only to surgery in its effectiveness. The development of the proposed service specification sits alongside NHS England’s £130 million investment in radiotherapy equipment which was announced last year.

The consultation ends on 24 January. You can email: england.npoc-cancer@nhs.net or write to:   Radiotherapy Consultation, NHS England, Floor 3B, Skipton House, 80 London Road, London, SE1 6LH.

Sadly, some time ago my mum died of cancer. I know how important access to high quality cancer services are to families living in the Duchy. I remember the strain on my mum and dad, having to travel to Plymouth for some of her radiotherapy treatment. My father starts radiotherapy at Treliske soon so like every local family I want to see local cancer services move forward not backwards.

Like many families we helped raise the funds to build the Sunrise Rise Centre at Treliske. While NHS England’s proposals won’t affect the majority of cancer patients, they might affect approximately 300 patients with rarer forms of cancer as well as the professional development of our local oncologists and radiographers. So please if you haven’t already done so, consider responding to the NHS England consultation.

Last week along with my colleagues, at one of our regular meetings, I met with leaders of our local NHS services to discuss progress improving health and care outcomes for local people. I was pleased to learn that the recent transfer of the 111 non-emergency phone service, out of hours GP service and ambulance service to the control of our local GPs has gone well. I am also really pleased that GP appointments were available over the holiday period. It is good to see our local NHS clinicians lead and commission more of our local NHS and care services.

As you are aware our local health and care system is in “special measures” and is receiving extra support from NHS England to improve outcomes for local people. New senior managers are being funded in both Cornwall Council and the NHS to enable more effective joint working. The long awaited joined up commissioning of adult social care should start later this year.

Regular readers of this column will know of my work since being elected in 2010 to bring more mental health services into Cornwall. So, I was pleased to learn that the ground should be broken on the new Adolescent Residential Mental Health Unit at Bodmin in April. I worked very closely with our local NHS leaders to secure the majority of the funding for this new service. I am also pleased that funding has been secured to extend the number of beds for adults at Longreach. This will prevent local people having to leave the county to receive residential mental health services.

First published in the West Briton 18/01/18

HMOs

Houses in Multiple Occupation often provide cheaper accommodation for people whose housing options are limited. Some of the occupiers of HMOs are the most vulnerable people in our society so regulation of this type of housing is essential. Mandatory licensing of HMOs came into force in 2006 and applies to those properties of three storeys or more.

In the decade since mandatory licensing was introduced the number of HMO’s has expanded significantly with flats and single and two storey houses, originally designed for families, let as HMOs. While many are managed to good standards by reputable landlords, unfortunately this is not always the case. The increased demand for HMOs has been exploited by opportunist rogue landlords, who feel the business risks for poorly managing their accommodation are outweighed by the financial rewards.

Typical poor practices include: overcrowding, failure to meet the required health and safety standards, housing of illegal migrants and intimidation of tenants when legitimate complaints are made. Tenants are sometimes exploited and local communities blighted through, for example, rubbish not being properly stored, excessive noise or anti-social behaviour.

Although only a minority of landlords, the impacts of their practices are disproportionate, putting safety and welfare of tenants at risk and adversely affecting local communities. They cause much reputational harm and it is often pot luck whether a vulnerable tenant ends up renting from a rogue or a good landlord. We want to remove that uncertainty by creating a level playing field between landlords, so the rogues cease to be able to operate substandard accommodation for maximum profit.

Following my campaigning and a public consultation, the Government has decided that properties used as HMOs in England which house 5 people or more in two or more separate households should be licensed by local authorities. This will help ensure they are not overcrowded and do not pose risks to the health or safety of occupiers.

Mandatory conditions in licences will regulate the size and use of rooms as sleeping accommodation in licensed HMOs. They will also require the licence holder to comply with Cornwall Councils rules for the provision of facilities for the proper disposal and storage of refuse. Private providers of purpose built student housing will require a license and will have to pay the full price to the Council.

The new measures complement those in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 which tackle rogue landlords. They will also operate within the new enforcement regime introduced last year that is enabling Cornwall Council to take action against rogue landlords, initially funded by a grant I helped secure.

It’s a shame that Cornwall Council has chosen not to voluntarily license/register more private rented property. But this mandatory licensing of HMOs is a significant step in the right direction to improve standards. Also, as a result of these changes it should be easier for Cornwall Council to calculate the loss of Council tax from student accommodation and seek compensation through business rate retention, an important source of Council funding.

First published in the West Briton 11/01/18

Challenges for the New Year

Thank you to Western Power and our emergency services who worked hard throughout the challenging stormy Christmas period into the New Year.

There seems little doubt 2018 will be a challenging year. We live in uncertain times. I believe that we must remain positively engaged with other countries in trying to shape a peaceful and sustainable future. In difficult times it is all too tempting to withdraw from the world and look inwards and backwards. Our great strength as a nation has always been our ability to look confidently outwards and to the future.

2018 will be the year that we seek to reset our relationship with the European Union. I remain positive that we can achieve a mutually beneficial and deep partnership involving a wide range of activities related to our mutual security and future prosperity. It will not be easy and will take a great deal of hard work, resolve and determination, but I believe it is possible.

2018 is the year that the Commonwealth countries come together for an important meeting in the UK. This is a great opportunity to deepen our relationships outside Europe, working as a collective force for positive change on the most pressing issues of our time, from tackling poverty and climate change, to preventing terrorism and serious and organised crime, especially human trafficking and modern day slavery, while also improving our stewardship of our natural environment.

I don’t doubt the determination of the many ‘can do’ people I know in all walks of life who have a positive vision of Britain in a new partnership with friends around the world. 2018 will demand much of many of us and I am looking forward to the challenge.

What could make the task of tackling these enormous challenges more difficult is how we respond to the reporting of them. A free media and engaged, well informed, citizens are essential for our democracy. Yet at a time when it has never been easier to communicate, getting to the truth seems harder than ever.

In Falmouth The National Maritime Museum’s new exhibition, Titanic Stories, will remind us that fake news is not new. It examines some of the stories arising out of the Titanic’s sinking, re-appraising some of the myths that quickly sprang up and still persist around this tragic event. Exploring the passengers of Titanic’s lifeboat number 13 will help us to examine myths such as ‘women and children first’. Looking at who was actually in that lifeboat boat we will see a more complicated picture.

I am planning to visit the exhibition and challenge my assumptions. I would encourage you all to look for factually accurate and balanced reporting of the news in the turbulent year that lies ahead. The BBC, especially the World Service and Radio 4, have good analysis and fact checking.

Another important source is the Parliamentary website. If you are interested in what is going on, I encourage you to visit the site and sign up for regular updates.

First published in the West Briton 04/01/18

Reducing Poverty

Happy New Year! While we all expect it to be chilly outside at this time of the year I don’t expect anyone to be living in a cold home. Thousands of people across Cornwall will be lifted out of fuel poverty and live in warmer homes following an £8m funding investment over the next year.

Around 36,000 homes in Cornwall are in fuel poverty, with Cornwall in the top 10 of fuel poor areas in England. I am delighted to have helped secure this new funding to tackle a long standing problem in Cornwall. Having been a part of the Winter Wellness partnership for some time, I have seen first-hand how effective this partnership of public sector organisations, businesses, charities and community groups is in delivering positive change for people living on low incomes in Cornwall. Living in a warm home is a matter of social justice and this new programme and investment will help more local people.

The Winter Wellbeing Partnership, including 30 partners, from our local NHS to Cornwall CAB, the Fire Service and Cornwall Council has secured over £3.5m from National Grid’s Warm Homes Fund to work with thousands of people to stay warmer for less and be lifted out of fuel poverty.

The new fund – ‘Warm and Well Cornwall’ – targets residents who are in poor health or at risk of ill health, or with underlying health issues, or caring for a vulnerable person or worried about their home being cold or damp.

Warm and Well Cornwall will help 220 private homes, including owners, landlords or tenants and up to 800 social housing homes with first time central heating, such as renewable heating, mains gas, oil, or LPG, with many more to follow in future years.

Social housing partners Ocean, Coastline, Cornwall Housing, Guinness and DCH are investing around £2.5m to improve heating for their tenants with renewable heating and gas central heating.

Funding has also been secured from SSE Energy Solutions, Cornwall Council’s Energy Efficiency partner. SSE has ring-fenced Energy Company Obligation (ECO) eligible measures targeted at fuel poor and vulnerable households in Cornwall and is a key partner to delivering Warm and Well Cornwall. By January 2019 the programme is expected to have helped more than 1,000 homes out of fuel poverty, keeping people warm and well.

Private landlords with tenants can also apply for funding to upgrade their properties. From April 2018, private landlords cannot re-let existing rented properties rated EPC F or G, unless they have registered a valid exemption and from 2020 landlords won’t be able to let any (non-exempt) properties if they are rated F or G.

The WinterWellness Freephone 0800 9541956 is the place to get more information about the wide range of help and support available. It is run by the great Cornish charity called Community Energy Plus. There is cash available for emergency heating payments made available from the Cornwall Community Foundation surviving winter appeal.

Of course tackling fuel poverty is not just about bringing down the cost of heating a home and improving energy efficiency, it’s also about increasing household incomes. So Winter Wellness can provide access to impartial and expert information and advice over the phone or face to face with saving money as well as checking eligibility for cash benefits and discounts. Referrals can also be made to organisations that can help people increase their incomes and employment opportunities.

Helping people out of poverty and putting more money into the pockets of my constituents is a top priority for me in 2018.  I will be continuing to support local employers to protect and grow their enterprises so that more people have the opportunity of a good job. Increasing access to in work skills and training is really important to enable people to increase their wages too.

In 2018 I will build on the progress of the recent Budget that increased the personal allowance, so more people keep more of the money they earn before they start paying taxes. I will also make the case for further increases in the Living Wage. I am pleased that thanks to the hard work and dedication of local employers, the number of people of all ages in work is much higher than 2010. Throughout 2018, I want to see the number of well paid good jobs grow here and people keep more of the money they earn.

First published in the Falmouth Wave January 2018