Monday, September 30, 2013

Responsible Investment: A long view

(this article was published in Professional Pensions 12 September 2013 on behalf of the AMNT. There is a typo at the beginning in the web link)

"When I first became a member representative on a British Pension Scheme in the middle 1990's many advisors and fund managers saw their role as maximising return and had little or no interest in responsible investment.

Ethical or Green funds were dismissed as fit only for tree hugging, sandal wearing muesli eaters. Engagement was something couples did before they got married and most attempts to discuss the social impact of investments were blocked in hushed, reverend tones with the magical words "Scargill v Cowan".

Followed by the explanation that the law forbids any mention of such evil thoughts on pain of instant surcharge. I do of course exaggerate but only slightly.

Since then there has been on the face of things, a profound change in attitudes towards responsible investment and governance. We found out that the Judge who presided over the infamous Scargill v Cowan case had actually hinted in his judgment that pension funds could have an ethical policy.

The report by international legal firm Freshfields in 2005 said not only was it permissible for funds to have an ethnical policy it was arguable their fiduciary duty to do so and trustees could find themselves sued if they didn’t have one! Nearly all investment houses now have (or claim) a responsible investment team.

There is also increasing recognition that pension funds should be focused on the long term and not simply obsess on short term volatility. The concept of “engagement” with companies by shareholders has become pretty mainstream. Schemes have a duty to try and ensure that the companies they invest in are properly run and well managed.

This is not only a duty but self interest. The 18th Century Father of Economics, Adam Smith, warned investors that they will be ripped off by those they employ if they do not play an active part as “owners”. But has it all really changed from “the bad old days”?

Pension trustees were accused of being asleep on duty during the lead up to the financial crisis of 2007. Lord Myners "Where were the owners when these disastrous decisions were taken...?”

How much influence do the corporate governance teams actually have? Is it only a marketing ploy and mere “window dressing”?

BP had a pretty rotten record for many years on environmental issues. So why didn’t investors change the company culture and prevent the Gulf oil disaster and the resulting shredding of billions of pounds of shareholder value?

Have any fund managers or advisors been sacked due to poor performance on engagement? If not, why not?

If responsible investment issues are so important why don’t pension advisors start each trustee meeting with this as their first agenda item?

Why do most managers reports to trustees make no reference whatsoever to Responsible investment?

I think on balance it has been a case of two steps forward and one step back. There is acceptance of engagement even if it is too often noise not substance. So there is still a job of work for trustees to do.

I think that it is easy to blame trustees and to forget how isolated many pensions trustees feel at their meetings. It takes a lot for lay people to feel confident enough to challenge professional advisors and fund managers. Yet this is a fundamental part of our job as trustees.

While we should not be micro managing those we employ to advise us we should be holding them very firmly to account.

Finally, never forget that Responsible investment is actually all about maximising return. Our mantra must be that such investment in companies with good governance will produce superior returns".

(Great picture of Miners Union leader, Arthur Scargill after a visit to a coal mine. Arthur sacked the union's legal team and unwisely represented himself at court in "Scargill v Cowan" case)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

March and Lobby of Tory Conference to Save the #NHS299

We are now on our way home in the London UNISON chartered train. Picture of current, past and future members of UNISON Housing Association branch with the regional banner.

Somebody on the march said that God must be a trade unionist, since it was so dry and sunny in Manchester today!

Police estimate that 50,000 people took part and that it is "one of the largest protests they have ever policed".

It was a largely good natured family event with many protesters bringing their children with them.

We went right around the Tory conference but didn't see much of the Tories. A few shadowy figures peering out of windows in the Midlands Hotel.

Andy Burnham, Labour's shadow health secretary, said: "David Cameron needs to be forcefully reminded that he has never been given the public's permission to put the NHS up for sale".

There was probably 50 times more people protesting outside the Tory conference centre than inside supporting them.  I suspect that on the future of the NHS that there is nationally a similar ratio of opposition against the Government.   Who have proved once again - that the NHS is not safe in their hands.

On UNISON train to Manchester to lobby Tories to Save Our #NHS299!

We left Euston about 30 minutes ago on a train chartered by London UNISON (with Southeast region I believe). 

Around 400 UNISON members and their families are on the train (15 members from my branch).  Many others are travelling on coaches or making their own way up.

North West region will be greeting us at Manchester Piccadilly and guiding us to the form up at Liverpool Road. The march is due to start at 12.15 and rally at Whitworth Park.Check details at

I can't believe that I am going to two Party conferences in just over a week but I doubt I will be speaking at this one!

Picture of top UNISON Housing Association Chair Tony Power. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Watch out for Pension Liberation Fraud

Recently I met an unemployed resident at my Council surgery who was in debt and desperate to get extra money. He had been approached by a pension company who had promised him he could access his defined benefit pension. I gave him some suitable and very frank advice (not financial of course).

I can't wait for these thieves and fraudsters to ring me up and offer to liberate my pension.

If you know anyone who has been approached by these disgusting parasites then ask them to look at this YouTube video by the respected TPAS (

Friday, September 27, 2013

#Lab13 Welfare Reform: Coping with Change?

Lunchtime conference fringe on welfare reform, chaired by Helen Simpson from Circle Housing Group. First up was East Ham MP and Shadow Minister for Employment, Stephen Timms speaking about the Labour plan to tackle welfare by job guarantees for the long term unemployed. He sees housing associations as playing a key role in this as a gateway for unemployed tenants into work.

A future Labour Government will get rid of the bedroom tax. Which is a punishment for people over something they can do nothing about. When he goes canvassing in East Ham he meets people in fear of the Bedroom tax. Which will mean more people leaving social housing for the private sector and costing even more in housing benefit than they did in the social sector. There is a complete debacle over the introduction of universal credit. While the principle ok the implementation needs to be rescued.  We need a contributory element to benefits to rebuild trust in social security.

Sian Williams from London East End Toynbee Hall (Clement Attlee and William Beveridge) pointed out that it was not just beneficiaries who will be struggling to cope with the change - so will local authorities, Government and the 3rd sector. The cuts and caps will mean less money and more administration. There are some good points, such as it may result in a better relationship with providers, if beneficiaries are seen as customers. But massive costs to society such as forcing children to move schools. 

Christopher Smith also from Circle, told us that they had 3500 households impacted by bedroom tax and 200 by total benefit cap. Big fear that direct payment of housing benefit will result in greater arrears.  36% of households have a member who is disabled (this in in their general needs properties - not care projects). Some residents will be losing £300-350per week in London (Old Ford and Circle 33 properties). The new benefit universal credit is supposed to be "digital by default" yet 45% of residents report that they have no internet access.

Since April this year to date 24% of households affected had paid a part of their bedroom tax, 25% have paid nothing.  This is quote "a major challenge". Finally, Universal credit may bring about a risk based approach to new tenants. If arrears continues then it will have an impact on their ability to build new homes.

Last speaker was journalist Sunny Hundal who gave a more philosophical prospective about welfare reform. 1. People don't pay attention to detail 2. They don't care about facts and prefer emotional stories 3. Views on welfare are very difficult to shift.

People still think Tories are hard while Labour soft on welfare. They support only what affects them eg pensions, child care but not unemployment benefit. Labour should be more honest and not pretend to be tougher than Tories since people will just not believe them. There is a future for universal services such as Surestart but not handouts.

My question to panel started off as a statement (doesn't everyone?) that Labour should be more honest about welfare and explain that a decent social security safety net for all does cost more money that that all of us need to pay more taxes not just the very rich.

I also asked where was the voice of tenants in this debate? You have the voice here of the Labour Party, the unions, housing associations and the housing great and the good? If tenants had a voice would the Tories had been able to get away with Bedroom tax? (as usual with my questions, I didn't get an answer but time was short as we all had to rush off to hear Ed's speech).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Where next for Pensions Policy? TUC conference 28 Nov 2013

This should be a very good conference for all member nominated pension trustees and representatives. Make sure you ask your scheme to pay for the £50 cost. Should be lively with Con Keating speaking.

"With automatic enrolment finally underway, and plans in place for a single-tier state pension designed to provide a solid platform for private pensions saving, what will be the next phase of pensions reform in the UK? The government’s ‘defined ambition’ agenda outlines one possible vision for pensions policy, including options for introducing risk-sharing into defined contribution provision. But what does the future hold for defined benefit pensions? Is the DB funding model sustainable? Is the role of pension funds as institutional investors more important than ever?

This conference will explore these issues and help trustees navigate the regulatory, investment and stewardship issues that they face.

As you have attended the TUC Member Trustee conference in the past you know that this event is also a valuable networking opportunity to meet fellow trustees, trade unionists and pensions and investment experts to share information and experience.

Speakers include:

·       Steve Webb MP Minister of State for Pensions
·       Gregg McClymont MP Shadow Pensions Minister
·       Frances O'Grady TUC General Secretary
·       Con Keating Brighton Rock Group
·       Sarah Smart SmartCats Consulting
·       Andrew Vaughan Association of Consulting Actuaries


Defined Ambition – white knight or red herring?
De-risking – questions for trustees
Stewardship – taking action
Defined contribution – the governance gap – morning only
Local Government Pension Scheme – investment governance afternoon only

Date: Tuesday 26 November 2013          Venue: Congress House, London WC1B 3LS
To register for the conference go to:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#Lab13 Fire fighters strike over pensions

Outside the conference hall at lunchtime there were striking fire fighters handing out leaflets explaining why they are going on strike this afternoon over pensions. The fire service is planning to raise retirement ages and contributions. It is of course completely ludicrous to expect such emergency workers to work until they are 60. Picture of UNISON Stockport Branch chair Mark Rayner showing support and sharing a joke at the picket line at King Street station. I am now sitting next to his wife Angela during Ed Miliband's Q&A.   

#Lab13 Denis Healey and Stand Up for Labour

By Monday evening I needed a break from conference fringes and bought a ticket to see the "Stand Up for Labour". On the publicity for the show I had noticed that it had a "Denis Healey" billed to appear. I assumed that this was someone impersonating the former Labour Chancellor and deputy leader.

I never expected for a moment to see that it was actually the Denis Healey who was the first act. He read out limericks to the audience.

He was looking a little frail but appeared to be enjoying himself while performing. It was his 96th birthday recently so as he went off the stage all the audience sang "happy birthday to you".

The whole show was great fun and I would recommend Stand Up for Labour.  The show finished off with Andy Burham MP, who told a modified version of the classic joke about a man going into a pub with a parrot on his shoulder. I won't reveal the details in case he wants to use it again.

#Lab13 Pensions and Capital Stewardship

This is the speech I made on Monday afternoon

Conference, now for something a little different. For most of us the world of pensions and investments is baffling and obscure. We pay our money in – we hope it’s there when we need it in our retirement.

But the financial crisis showed that not knowing, and just hoping for the best, isn’t good enough.

We have to know more, and we have to be able to trust the people who are looking after our money to be sure that we have a secure future.

That’s a bit of a leap of faith for most of us! Which is why I’m so pleased that I’m part of an organisation that is doing the detailed work on my behalf.

It’s called a trade union – and everyone should be part of one!

My union, UNISON, has been looking closely at what happens to our pensions.  It's complicated stuff.  But put simply, the largest 10 pension funds in the world are the savings of Public Service workers. If the UK's local government pension scheme's assets were put together, it would rank as the 4th largest pension fund in the world, at around £150 billion.

But what control over it do we have? In the past, not a lot!

UNISON has been arguing that workers must be represented – and we’re winning the argument. Half the seats on the Local Government Pension Scheme fund boards in England and Wales are now reserved for scheme members. But they need support. So UNISON has been developing a comprehensive Capital Stewardship programme - the first of it’s kind for a trade union in the UK. To make sure that representatives can carry out their vital role properly.

And we’ve been doing detailed research. It shows that by structuring the funds properly, by getting efficiencies of scale and cutting the multiple fees charged, the returns for members can be massively improved, and crucial conflicts of interest removed.

For too long, our hard-earned funds have been managed in the interests of those who run the system – not the workers who created the value in the first place. That in turn leads to runaway executive pay; lack of diversity on executive boards; the squeeze on workers pay and pensions.

And of course, how ironic it is that our savings have been used to buy the treasury bonds used to bail out the banking sector. We should be the owners but our ownership was in the hands of the very organisations responsible for the economic crisis!

So we have a great opportunity – to use the wealth that is already in our hands to help reshape society.
To safeguard the hard-earned pensions of working people – but to do even more than that – to reshape the very way our economy operates.

Conference, the Tories always say there isn’t the money – what a whopper! The money’s there, it’s ours – let’s use it for our benefit – not theirs!"

(hat tip picture Linda Hobson)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

#Lab13 Leaders Speech

A quick post on my first impressions of Ed Miliband MP speech to conference.

I thought this speech was very good and well delivered. I think it was over one hour long with numerous interruptions from genuine standing ovations. How on earth can he memorise it all? I can't even remember a 3 minutes speech!

It projected him as a potential Prime Minster and national leader “who will not only stand up for the weak but also stand up to powerful”.

He is making a obvious play towards the self employed and those on low wages by stressing how disillusioned many people are who work hard but still find it impossible to make ends meet. "They used to say 'a rising tide lifts all boats'. Now the rising tide just seems to lift yachts." Not much detail.

He rightly hammered home that you can only trust Labour with the NHS and that the Party will have to rescue it again from the Tories mishandling when we return to power.

He made an excellent point about the Tories received £25 million from Hedge funds and surprise, surprise Hedge funds receive a £145 million tax break.  He might have said "trade unions are the cleanest money in British politics" - but he didn't.

Not really sure why he kept using the term "we are Britain" rather than we are "British"?  

A welcome commitment to build 200k new homes a year and "use the land or lose the land" threat to builders and speculators who are sitting on large land banks. Not sure how he will do this? Nationalisation? Compulsory purchase? Tax?

Beforehand we were wondering what new policies he would announce during the speech. We agreed that they would be headline grabbing but not cost very much to a future government. The votes for 16 and 17 year olds and the welcome freeze on energy prices met those tests.

The Scottish Nationalists will not like the example he used of a Liverpool hospital caring for a patient from Glasgow as a reason why we are "better together" but I think it is a fair point and I’m glad that we are finally making the case for devolution and the United Kingdom.

Overall, I thought he is looking more like a credible Prime Minister than Cameron and now the election is getting nearer he can come out with policies that will make the difference between Labour and the Conservative clearer and give people positive reasons to vote for us.

#Lab13 - Responsible Capitalism and Workplace democracy. Giving workers a real voice

This interesting lunctime fringe had been sponsored by the Fabians, TUC and PIRC. Chaired by Seema Malhotra MP.

TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady started off by saying some of her members think that "responsible capitalism" is an Oxymoron! But her main point was why is corporate governance in the UK so peculiar and out of step with the rest of Europe?  Where employee representation on company boards is common place.

We need to rebalance Labour and Capital. Frances quoted a terribly condescending and even insulting comment (which she described as "patronising twaddle") from the CBI about why in the UK British employees aren't good enough to being represented on boards.  Workers keep being told that they are the organisations "greatest assets". Yet the arguments being made against employee representation remind her of those made in 19th century against getting rid of the property qualification in order to vote.

Chuka Umunna MP believes that it is all about balance. Do we want a mixed or a laissez faire economy? Leading businesses started talking about this debate before we did in Parliament. Things have got to change. Need to promote the long term. Value investment in people and skill up. Look at the damage done to BP reputation and profitability after the oil disaster. It is in companies self interest to have good governance models. 

Tom Powdrill from PIRC thought that the governance mascot was Lord Myners. Why did shareholders not stop the banks from destroying themselves? Excessive executive pay levels are being driven to the levels found in financial markets. Since oversight is not by shareholders but by fund managers and hedge funds who naturally will think such levels are appropriate. Need a dose of reality. Tackle the problem up stream before a decision is made.  UK Companies already invest in Europe where employee representatives are widely accepted -so why don't they support similar models over here?

Nita Clare from the IPA (see previous post here) was Tony Blair's advisor on trade unions and before that a national officer for unison for 17 years. Good businesses know the value of stakeholders. The CBI quote is now quite old fashioned.  She stressed the importance of the supply chain to business. If there is a fire in a Bangladeshi factory it is no use saying "nothing to do with us".

There has been a death of deference and trust at work. 60% of employees surveyed said they don't trust managers. Management style is critical. If you have a culture of fear in any organisation, private or public, then it will fail. The Social partnership approach in Germany will be difficult to adopt in UK

My question to the panel was similar to the one I made before was how is it that I am an employee representation on a £900 million pension scheme and I sit on a joint committee on health and safety that looks after the safety of thousands of workers but I cannot sit on the management board or remuneration committee of my organisation?

Monday, September 23, 2013

#Lab13 Unions Together Reception

Straight after close of conference yesterday I went to a packed "Unions Together" reception.

The Chair of the Parliamentary Trade Union Group, Ian Lavery MP spoke first and called for us not to be divided but to unite and remember who the real enemy is - the Tories.

This was followed by a trade union speaker from Columbia who thanked the Labour Party and the trade unions for their support and solidarity against their oppression.

After his speech, GMB General Secretary, Paul Kenny made a brilliant intervention by reminding people chatting at the back of the room that if everyone here (400 people?) were trade unionists in Columbia, over the course of 10 years -  two thirds of you would be dead.

Ed Miliband (above) in his well received speech, stressing the repeal of bedroom tax, action on blacklisting and zero hour contracts.  He spoke about meeting a Labour Party member who was 107 years old and had took part in the famous Cable Street protest against the fascits in 1936. He also echoed the words of Ian by stressing that the real enemy is this Tory Government and that we must win the battle against them not for the interests of the Party but for the British people.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

#Lab13 One Nation trade unionism: can employees win more by working in partnership with employers?

My first fringe of conference was very topical. I missed the start due to the short but lively conference debate on the Ray Colins report about the link with the trade unions.

It was organised by the IPA, the union Community and Progress (who got a fair bit of stick during the previous debate).

Speakers were Toby Perkins MP, shadow small business minister; Roy Rickhuss national officer, Community; Nita Clarke chief executive, IPA; Maurice Glasman peer and Blue Labour founder Chair: Sarah Veale head of equality and employment rights, TUC

I came in as Nita began to speak. She had worked for unison for many years and later advised Tony Blair on unions. She thought there was no future for unions in the private sector unless they believe in partnership. Some unions seem to prefer to ballot for strike action at the beginning of negotiations not as a "last resort". While 3 years ago a number of employers had said to her that they wished they had unions in their workplaces since they would give employees a voice. They no longer say this. She also thought that "Learning reps" was the most important service that unions can offer. What people want is help to get on in work.  Unions should not retreat into "tigmoo". Its not about structures but about culture and attitude.

Next speaker was Maurice. He believes that it is only labour not capital investment that generates real value. Educating union leaders and building organising in unions is key.  Unions have a problem. In a recent survey 60% of people identified themselves as pro workers but anti trade union. All firms that employ over 100 workers should have employee representation. Unions in Germany have to get their people elected to sit on boards and this keeps unions honest. Regional banks with unions part of the governance are also needed. Personal debt is the biggest issue facing union members.

I asked a question but firstly pointed out that it was considered okay for me to be a staffside representative helping to run a pension fund worth over £900 million yet in the UK staff reps have no right to be on a company board.

I explained that I was late attending this meeting and might have missed something but while I accept that unions should be always looking at themselves and be ready to change you have to remember that some employers are very anti trade union and don't believe anyone has a right to interfere in the running of their business as they see fit.   Also, you won't get employees identifying with companies in the same way they do in Germany because management in Germany don't tend to pay themselves the obscene amounts of money that they do over here. Without pay restraint by UK  management you won't get partnership.

#Lab13 - Ed's Conference Art

I can't resist posting this picture.  I haven't a clue what point (if any) they were making but they made people smile.

Labour Party Conference 2013 #Lab13

I'm inside the Brighton Centre for the Labour Party Conference which started today at 11am. This year I am part of the UNISON delegation as the representive of Greater London Regional Labour Link. Last night there was various Labour and Union regional receptions.  I saw Labour Leader, Ed Miliband give 4 slightly different versions of the same speech.

The conference day started for me at 8.30 this morning with a 90 minute delegation meeting going through issues and conference business.

I'll try and post on as many conference speeches and fringes as possible. Firstly, some personal thoughts on the role of the affiliated trade unions in the Labour Party.  This has of course been very much in the news lately. While there is the theory, "no publicity is bad publicity". I doubt this applies to the recent rows which I am sure have contributed to the recent decline in support for Labour nationally.  Voters don't like in fighting and what they perceive to be divided political parties.

I would rather we were talking about issues and problems that actually matter to people in the run up to the General election such as pay and jobs.  No one has ever mentioned to me on the doorstep that they won't support Labour because of the influence of the trade unions - and they have at times told me in great detail about a wide number of other reasons!

While there is still (just) time to carry out a consultation on the union link before the General Election it has to be real and meaningful.

As I have to keep reminding employers, consultation is not about rubber stamping a proposal. Consultation should be a 2 way street with nothing decided until the consultation is complete. Ed when campaigning for the Party leadership promised us that it would be "different" from recent leaders if he  was elected. He would listen to the Party.

I hold him to these views. Now, I don't expect the leader of what must be an effective political machine dedicated to battle and defeat the most successful electioneering party in Western Europe (tories) not to have a view on how to shape this machine.  I do expect Ed to listen and take into account what we say. Even Party members who are not that well disposed to the unions are asking what is the point of putting at risk affiliation when we will need every penny we can get to try and over come the vast tory war chest.

I heard this morning that there is less than 600 days to defeat David Cameron. Everything we do between now and the next General Election must be judged by one simple test. Does it make it more or less likely to defeat the Tories?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Newham Labour PragRad "Pick of the Policies"

I arrived too late last night at Stratford Picture House for the "Pick of the Policies" competition due to
Tower Hamlets Pension committee.

But it had obviously been a great success. Lots of people still around who spoke about a lively and informative evening of political debate.

The Pragmatic Radical model was "Have you got a policy idea that you think Labour should adopt? If so come and pitch it, in just 90 seconds, at the Newham Top of the Policies event".

Newham MPs Lyn Brown and Steve Timms chaired and were time keepers. There were 16 pitches and the winner was West Ham, John Saunders, who spoke in favour of fixed terms for Council Executive Mayors!

Second was Aleen Alarice on "info Sharing" and joint third place was Alan Griffiths on "Housing"; Gavin Pearson on "profit from planning" and Newham UNISON NEC and West Ham CLP Kim Silver for the ending of Zero hour contracts.

Afterwards a group of us finished off the evening at the Pizza Express downstairs (see picture).

Who says politics can't be fun?

Many thanks for Julianne and Farah for organising this event. Hat tip Ayesha, Gordon and Seyi for pictures.

Too poor to retire? Work until you drop under the Tories

Great video from TUC Touchstone showing Senior policy officer Richard Excell  explaining the state we are in - "September’s employment figures showed the number of people in employment rising. However, I’ve recorded this video to show that this increase is entirely due to rising numbers of people over retirement age in employment, many of whom cannot afford to retire. At the same time, average wages are falling in real terms, and living standards are falling".

AMNT open meeting Thursday 26 Sept - Fees, Charges (& what we can do about them)

The next open meeting of the AMNT is next Thursday 26 September 2013. All member nominated pension trustees and representatives are invited to join the AMNT and attend. Click on this Eventbrite link.

"Getting the best value for money is the theme of your next AMNT members' meeting. Fees, charges (and what we can do about them), responsible investing and trustee training will all be on the agenda. The open meeting takes place at the Pensions Insurance Corporation 14 Cornhill, London EC3V 3ND on Thursday 26th September.

As you know, all trustees should complete the Pensions Regulator's Trustee Toolkit, and even those who have done so may know that the Regulator regularly updates the training. On the morning of 26 September you are invited to join in our Trustee Toolkit Training session, and this time we will be going through the Regulator's e-learning modules on Pension Liberation Fraud, and "DB scheme, solvent employer: wind-up or buy-out". We are allowing lots of time to talk around these issues during the session.

After lunch we will be discussing responsible investing and some of the corporate factors that may have a negative impact on investment returns to our schemes which we as trustees should be looking at.

We will also be reporting back on the Department for Work and Pensions' consultation on governance in defined benefit schemes and their proposals on improving trusteeship in the DC world.

Our recent newsletter asked whether you might be interested in taking the PMI exams - the Award in Pensions Trusteeship – and several members responded.

On the day we hope to be able to go through some of the previous exam questions to give you a flavour of what it involves.

But many of our trustee members place the highest value on being able to meet up with fellow trustees and talk about common issues and problems, and there'll be plenty of time on the day to chat informally. As always, those who don't need to rush off can stay for a drink and have another opportunity to network".

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Update on One Housing Group Dispute: Referrel to ACAS

Some positive news today about the ongoing union dispute over wage cuts and compensation in One Housing Group. 

After a strongly worded request by the majority union UNISON to management, the 15,000 homes landlord and care provider,  One Housing Group has agreed to talks at ACAS "to try and resolve our current union disputes’ and also attempt ‘to improve our overall trade union relations" (Inside Housing) .

To be fair, Unite members who have been on strike for 11 days in recent months on this issue have asked in the past for the dispute to go to ACAS.

I understand that a meeting will take place soon and I hope that a settlement acceptable to all parties can be hammered out. 

See previous posts on dispute and picket line here and here.

(my picture from a past unrelated meeting looking out from the ACAS London office) 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Changing British attitudes

Interesting - While the changing attitude to NHS is no surprise given increase in waiting times and lack of resources the more positive view on role of state benefits is encouraging. Britain is also on the whole becoming a more tolerant and equal society. Hat tip:

Monday, September 16, 2013

"Benefit cuts put frontline housing staff in danger"

A good article in Guardian Housing network page.  Except Councils and Housing Associations shouldn't just wring their hands about the obvious and foreseeable increased risks to their staff .

They should be actively consulting with staff and trade unions on revised risk assessments and violence at work procedures.

Health and Safety enforcement agencies (the HSE for Councils and Councils for Housing Associations) should also be making sure that staff safety is being taken seriously.

Housing managers do not realise that they face imprisonment and unlimited fines for serious breaches of health and safely laws (and that they could even lose their homes since the employer and insurance providers cannot pay such fines).

"Housing providers have become de facto enforcers of many benefit cuts and are finding themselves at greater at risk of harm.
The recent shooting of a housing association employee and bailiff during an eviction should be of real concern to housing providers, and a reminder that our frontline workers often have to deal with the consequences of policies created in Westminster.

Reform of our welfare system was long overdue, but the pursuit of savage cuts is having a profound impact. Housing associations are well-placed to understand and explain the real effects of welfare reform in action. This is an important part of our role; acting as advocates for our customers, many of whom are not able to speak out for themselves, is one of the ways in which we can influence policy and support social justice.

Benefit cuts are putting many people in severe debt and, as that debt is often owed to their landlord, an increase in evictions is inevitable.

Housing providers are not the authors of these policies, nor their advocates, but have become the de facto enforcers of the new regime, and it's our colleagues who are having to bear the consequences of people's anger.

'Why are you doing this to me?'

At Curo housing association, our money management adviser has had several meetings recently with tenants in tears who, faced with benefit cuts and caps, don't know how they will pay their rent or clear their existing rent arrears. A question often asked is: "Why are you doing this to me?"
The adviser told me: "In my experience, the tenant will pay the creditor who shouts the loudest, leaving shortfalls elsewhere to cover the rest of essential household expenditure."

As housing associations do not chase debts as aggressively as payday lenders, banks or mobile phone companies, rent arrears can build up as tenants fail to prioritise rent payment when faced with threatening notices from others.

We will do all we can for customers who turn to us for help, but we also have to deal with the realities of running a business and have a responsibility to safeguard the financial viability of our organisations, for the sake of all our customers and for those who will need affordable homes in the future. Evictions are an inevitable consequence of the welfare reforms, and it is our staff who come face to face with the backlash.

We're dealing with rising numbers of people wishing to move, increased arrears and greater demand for debt advice. On an individual level, where the real story is, we're seeing greater levels of anxiety and stress as people, many of them vulnerable, try to cope with serious hardship.

We are concerned for those who are really struggling to make ends meet, but also concerned for our own frontline staff who put themselves at risk of harm through their association with policies they had no part in forming.

Victor da Cunha is chief executive of Curo housing association".

SERTUC Safety Rep Seminar: 31 October 2013

If a "Healthy Workplace"is your thing then keep the date clear for this Safety seminar.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Unaffordable London

Yesterday I went door knocking/street surgery in my West Ham ward with local Party members.

It was a pretty successful and I think many residents were pleased that we were coming to speak to them and ask them their views.

I had some ear bashing about litter, dog mess and waste bins left in the street. But on the whole, it was pretty positive and solid Labour.

When we had finished we came across a local estate agent who was showing a couple a property for sale. We asked how much this property was. It was a 3 bedroom end terrace in need of improvement but it was for sale for £265,000!  If was modernised it would be worth £310,000.

What a huge amount of money. Who can afford this? When I got home I had a look at the various property websites.

If you could put down a 10% deposit you would still have to pay £1,391 mortgage repayment (interest and capital) each month to repay £265,000. This is also at historically low (and long term unsustainable) interest rates.

If you are on the medium London wage of £653 per week (£33,956 per year and obviously many Londoners are not paid this much) according to the Halifax you could only get a mortgage of £142,428. No where even near £265,000.

If you had a partner and were both on the London Living Wage (£8.55 per hour or £17,780 per year on a 40 hour week of ) both of you could only raise £152,908 for a mortgage.

The average rent for E15 is £343 per week which is £1 more than a London Living wage pay packet (£342 per week for 40 hours).

Newham has been traditionally one of the cheapest boroughs to rent or buy in Greater London.  But if you are on low wages or have no big deposit who on earth can afford to buy or rent anywhere in London?

#TUC13 Congress fringe: Building Safety & Employment Rights in the Bangladesh Textile Industry.

This was the last Congress fringe I attended which took place on Tuesday lunchtime. Chair was Gail Cartmail from Unite (middle) who reminded us that our role is not just to remember those who have suffered in the recent Bangladeshi disasters such as the Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1200 people but to prevent future ones.

First speaker was Bangladeshi garment workers’ union President, Amirul Haque Amin who addressed Congress on Sunday evening.   He explained that international support and solidarity went two ways - it was not just about the North providing financial support for the South.  It is about how to stop international companies exploiting all workers - in Bangladesh and the UK. Workers in Textile factories, retail, transport and consumers. All are being exploited. We need to work together to challenge such exploitation.

Amirual called for the British companies who have refused so far to sign the international "Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh" to do so. The so called "Alliance" by Walmart and Gap is completely inadequate since it is voluntary and not binding.

Workers protected by the Accord have right to refuse dangerous work and keep their salary. Also they will themselves play a key role in safety training and inspections.

Phil Jennings from the UNI global union spoke next. His union had played a key role in creating the Accord. He thought it was a "beginning to the end to the race to the bottom". Beforehand there had been a failure of reporting as well as collusion between safety investigators and factory owners.

The issue of adequate compensation for the relatives of the dead and the injured is still outstanding.

Then Debbie Coulter (on right) , Head of Programmes for the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) pointed out that Bangladesh is the 2nd biggest clothing exporter in the World but allows widespread labour rights violations. Union activists have been tortured and even murdered. This had led to disasters such as Rana Plaza and the earlier Tazreen factory fire. Workers have little power and as shown at Tazreen fire doors were locked and fire alarms ignored by managers.  

Without workers rights disasters will happen again. The only solution is freedom of association and bargaining rights for unions to protect them. 

Final speaker was Fiona Wilson from UK retail union USDAW. She named the UK companies refusing to sign the Accord :-

River Island, Matalan, Bench, Bank Fashion, Peacocks, Jane Norman, Republic and Mexx.

She also criticised the UK government for inviting the top 20 retailer to a conference in July on this issue but excluded the TUC. Need to promote the Accord and draw up similar agreements in other Countries. At least now we have a model.

(take action to get the 8 UK retailers to sign the Accord at the TUC Going to Work website)