One change in the budget, which almost went unnoticed was the cut in Winter Fuel payments.
Last year I predicted that Winter Fuel payments would be cut but my opponents said this was not true. Elderly residents I have spoken to tell me they rely on the Winter Fuel payment especially with the harsh winters of the last two years. This really is a cut too far.
The greenbelt is a proud achievement of the Labour government after the Second World War and must be protected. The protection of the greenbelt and urban greenspaces has become a vital issue in Melling, Aintree, Formby, Hightown, Ince Blundell, Maghull and in Lydiate because of changes to planning rules brought in by the government. The rules have been relaxed to allow developers greater freedom to build. Sefton Council is now considering plans for as many as 1,000 new homes on sites around Melling alone. We have a massive housing shortage in Sefton but building on the greenbelt is not the way to start addressing the shortage. The council should use empty homes and former industrial land before even considering building on either greenbelt or urban greenspaces like our play areas and parks.
In my view residents should be asked for their ideas before any plans are even drawn up. Serious questions need to be answered about any plans to build on our green spaces. These include, are the roads able to cope, are there enough shops, schools, doctors and play areas? And what about the cuts in bus services like the 351? All of these things need to be taken into account. Communities like Melling could see their populations swell under the plans. I am really worried that developers could be allowed to build what they want without listening to those of use who live here already. The scale of the cuts by the government make it unlikely we will see the development of new services for large housing estates and residents will rightly worry that new estates will be built which create problems for the future.
The cuts to the Fire Service, the threat to the coastguard and the loss of 800 front line police and 600 community support officers are all worrying on their own. The cuts have been rushed through and it concerns me that the government has not said what it expects the impact will be on public safety of cuts to our emergency services. It seems to me that the cuts in these services will mean that safety is put at risk. How can it be otherwise. The police, fire service, coastguard and ambulance service all have their own standards which show why they have current staffing levels. The fire service has procedures which show why Crosby Fire Station needs a second fire engine and the coastguard has a procedure which shows why it needs the coastguard station at Hall Road. I am asking for a debate to look at the effects of the cuts on public safety. I think the public have a right to know what the effect of the cuts will be when it comes to their safety.
Over the next three years, 1.5 million people claiming incapacity benefit will undergo a work capability assessment (WCA) to determine whether they are eligible for a replacement benefit, employment support allowance (ESA).
The new test is much tougher than the previous one and in pilots 30% fewer people have been found unfit for work and 70% fewer people have been found eligible for the full-rate, unconditional support benefit; in both cases claimants have been shifted to a lower benefit. The reform is expected to save the government £1bn over five years.
Sounds good in principle as it appears to target benefits cheats. Stopping benefits cheats is a very real issue for many people and quite rightly so as benefits cheats make life harder for those people with disabilities who need help. It also makes life harder for those can’t find work but need support to get back into work, something that is going to be much worse as government cuts start to bite. It is also the case that taxpayers should not have to pay the bill for those who refuse to look for work or who claim they are disabled when they are not.
But we also need to protect the many disabled people who need their benefits and to make sure that they are not denied proper support because of mistakes in the attempts to stop benefits cheats. There is disturbing evidence from a number of charities that the changes are hitting people who are genuinely disabled or unable to work. The worry is that the changes will target people with disabilities as well as benefits cheats. As with so much else, the concern remains that the changes to benefits may be too fast. If the charities are right, the government should reconsider how the new rules are being applied so that benefits cheats are stopped without hurting many vulnerable people who need support.