Voice of the Opposition: January

Once a month we will be offering the Leaders of both Medway Council and the official opposition the opportunity to talk unedited about.. well, Medway politics.

Welcome to 2019!

Sadly, one of the things that comes with the New Year alongside taking down the Christmas decorations, is the annual increase in train fares.  This morning I joined Labour Councillors, Candidates and Activists to raise concerns at stations across Medway.  We see for the first time some season tickets in Medway now costing over £6,000 to London. Of course, some Medway residents may get monthly or quarterly tickets which actually mean they are paying even more per journey.

Since 2010 we have seen average train fares up 36% and across the country the most expensive season tickets have risen by more than 45% since the Tories came to power.

This means the cost of the average train ticket has now increased more than three times faster than wages and Brits pay some of the highest rail fares in Europe.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.  The next Labour government will stand up for the many and radically reform our railways to deliver a better deal for commuters here in Medway and across the country. Labour will bring our railways into public ownership and reform transport networks to deliver better services and value for money.  A Labour government will cap train fares and end the Tories inflation-busting fare rises. Labour would reinvest the profits currently being made by private operators to improve the quality of rail services.

Put simply – Labour would put passengers before profit.

It’s not just trains, but also buses where passengers would get a better deal under a Labour Government.  We have seen the Tories implement further restrictions which in simple terms stops councils like Medway running bus services despite some of the most reliable services in the country being council run.  At the moment here in Medway we have an effective monopoly with a state owned bus company – the point is it is the Germany state as Arriva is an arm of the German state owned Deutsche Bahn.  The Labour Group put forward a motion to say the power for councils to create and run bus services should be retained but regrettably the Tories on Medway council voted against it.  A Labour run council would prioritise public transport in Medway, as we know from conversations on doorsteps the importance of the issue to residents here.

We are now less than 100 days away from 29th March 2019 – the date that the UK is due to leave the European Union.  What’s clear at this stage is nothing is clear.

We have a deal which has been put forward by Theresa May which despite her best efforts seem to be almost universally disliked by remainers and leavers alike. 

The Labour position has been clear following the very strongly supported motion at our 2018 conference: 

Does the negotiated deal meet our six tests?

1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?

3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

If the deal doesn’t deliver on the six tests the Parliamentary Labour Party will vote against the deal. 

If that happens, Labour will then seek a general election through a vote of no confidence in government.

If that is unsuccessful then all options remain open which includes a further public vote.

What is concerning locally is that Medway Council is simply unprepared for Brexit despite repeated calls for activity to be done.  If you look at the 39 technical papers central government has prepared, it’s clear some of those such as Space, will not have an immediate impact on Medway.  Issues like agriculture, university education, transport and tourism will all have an impact and Medway Council not doing work in the same way KCC, Maidstone and Dover councils have done is a derogation of duty.  The Labour Group will continue to push for Medway to be as prepared as possible whatever happens on 29th March and beyond.

Quite rightly there has been a lot of noise about the problems with Universal Credit.  This welfare reform, which has rolled out in Medway in the second half of 2018, is the bringing together of six old benefits.  The problems with the rollout have been well documented, with some areas seeing 90% of individuals going into rent arrears.  It needs fixing and urgently. 

As a councillor, you will often be approached with case work of this nature but one thing we have seen a huge increase of is residents seeking support for PIP appeals.  PIP (Personal Independence Payment) is  a replacement for Disability Living Allowance.  It has had a lot of negative comments due to the previous private company which had responsibility for the medical assessment ATOS (as some people said they didn’t give A-Tos!)  They have been replaced by another similar private company but this has seen a huge number of individuals having their applications refused.  As local councillors we are happy to act as advocates for our residents when needing to challenge flawed decision making.  Last year saw more than 7 in 10 appeals being upheld, showing the PIP system is broken. 

I recall representing a resident in 2018 who was in work and needed PIP to allow them to continue to be able to get to work.  At the appeal, before any of us had uttered a word the appeal panel stated they were upholding the appeal, they then asked two questions and concluded that they were upgrading the resident’s claim to the highest rate. The question must be asked how on earth did this application get turned down in the first place?

Before Christmas the Department for Work and Pensions quietly admitted to having wrongly stripped thousands of people with disabilities of their benefits. PIP and Universal Credit have not generated the promised savings to the taxpayer, but have created a hostile environment for sick and disabled people in the UK. With many residents waiting over a year for their appeals and 70% of these appeals upheld, the government and the DWP need to urgently reassess their decision making process, and examine who is truly benefitting from the new system.  

Vince Maple is the leader of Medway Labour, the official opposition party on Medway Council, and councillor for Chatham Central.

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