Food poverty in UK has reached level of ‘public health emergency’, warn experts

The Government may be covering up the extent to which austerity and welfare cuts are adding to the problem

Charlie Cooper

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Hunger in Britain has reached the level of a “public health emergency” and the Government may be covering up the extent to which austerity and welfare cuts are adding to the problem, leading experts have said.

In a letter to the British Medical Journal, a group of doctors and senior academics from the Medical Research Council and two leading universities said that the effect of Government policies on vulnerable people’s ability to afford food needed to be “urgently” monitored.

A surge in the number of people requiring emergency food aid, a decrease in the amount of calories consumed by British families, and a doubling of the number of malnutrition cases seen at English hospitals represent “all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action,” they write.

Continue reading “Food poverty in UK has reached level of ‘public health emergency’, warn experts”

Police buy eBay data to target criminals

New snooping software is helping forces all over the country to unmask gangs selling stolen property on the internet

Sam Masters, Paul Peachey

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Police forces are paying private sector companies tens of thousands of pounds for databases of detailed personal information that exposes the anonymity of sellers conducting criminal auctions on eBay.

The software that processes the information has been used to identify benefit cheats and organised criminal gangs which have hidden behind anonymous user names to sell stolen goods. It has already helped police break up a gang stealing high-end luxury cars and contributed to a major swoop on sellers of stolen mobile phones, one of the fastest growing crimes in London over the past year.

The Metropolitan Police spent £33,645 in May and June on software that can provide names, postcodes and a 90-day history of completed sales that is not publicly available to normal buyers.

The software – known as eCops –has also been used by the Department for Work and Pensions in Scotland to track down people claiming benefits while conducting a trading business on eBay, according to the former detective behind the venture. “Even if every street could be filled with police, they could not look behind the curtains for stolen goods,” according to eCops marketing.

“People who are selling on eBay feel they are anonymous because they’re hiding behind a user identity,” said the founder of eCops, John Needham, who was a detective for 30 years and a former eBay security executive. “When you’re on eBay, you don’t know where people are. But I would know if somebody put something on eBay after they burgled their next-door neighbour.”

Some of the data is handed out for free by eBay to market research companies or other sales websites because it drives traffic to the world’s biggest online marketplace.

The company has its own processes to supply law enforcement with information such as phone numbers, computer IP addresses, and data on sellers’ financial history. In its privacy statement, eBay says it will provide information to law enforcement “in response to a verified request relating to a criminal investigation or alleged illegal activity”. However, eCops provides information far faster and more comprehensively, Mr Needham says.

He was involved in an operation in which five people convicted over a racket stealing high-end cars from isolated railway station car parks, which were then broken up and sold on eBay.

The gang, coordinated by a career criminal based in Maidstone, Kent, used a recovery truck to brazenly collect the cars and took them to a barn where they were broken up and sold as parts. Police estimated the leader of the gang made more than £1.5m from the theft and sale of up to 70 cars.

Detective Sergeant Denis Stonestreet, who led the operation for British Transport Police (BTP), said the mastermind, David Jones, was “using some weird and wonderful names which ultimately came back to him. His personal eBay accounts were shut down, but he reopened business by using his sister’s [accounts].” Jones was jailed, and police recovered £220,000 at a confiscation hearing.

The technology is also being promoted as a low-cost alternative to patrolling as forces across the country face swingeing cuts in their budgets and falling staffing levels. Four police forces – BTP, Scotland Yard, Northamptonshire and Avon and Somerset – currently use the software, said Mr Needham.

Police in London last week arrested 561 people and seized more than 1,000 stolen phones in a series of dawn raids. A surge in mobile phone theft in London has driven up the rate of personal theft by 12 per cent in the year ending June 2013, a rise reflected across the country, according to Scotland Yard.

The Metropolitan Police’s specialist mobile phone unit uses eCops to investigate sales on eBay. Commander Stephen Watson said: “By targeting those people responsible, plus the networks they use to sell on stolen property or trade for drugs, we aim to make our streets a hostile place for them to operate.”


Revealed: The great outsourcing scandal as firms ‘cut corners’ to cream profits off public

Private firms ‘gaming’ £100bn of government services, says think-tank

Oliver Wright

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Private companies providing public services are routinely “gaming the system” to make money for their shareholders at the expense of the taxpayer, a major new study finds today.

An analysis of the Government’s controversial £100bn “outsourcing” programmes, such as its scheme to help the unemployed back into work, found private firms “creaming off” easy cases where they could make profits while “parking” problematic ones.

Civil servants also suggested that big outsourcing companies were monopolising services in certain parts of the country – making it harder for smaller companies to compete and potentially pushing up costs to the taxpayer. The Government currently keeps no central record of the contracts it awards which would identify if this is happening.

The report, by the independent think-tank the Institute for Government (IfG), concluded that the Government still did not have the skills to manage private sector contracts effectively. It called on ministers to slow down plans for further outsourcing – including handing over the probation service to outside providers – and carry out a review of all major new contracts.

“Too often the focus of Government is on getting the deal out of the door and not thinking about how it will work in the long term,” said the report’s author Tom Gash. “There is also a reluctance to penalise companies that under-perform, meaning there are no consequences for failure.”

The report, which conducted anonymous interviews with dozens of senior civil servants, found:

* Private care companies sending residents to hospital for minor conditions – developing a mentality of “just ring 999” to transfer costs on to the NHS.

* Private contractors cutting corners in the Government’s welfare-to-work programme by “parking difficult cases” and “creaming” money for getting people into work who would almost certainly have done so without their involvement.

* Significant concerns that plans to outsource the probation service will not be cost-effective and private companies could be paid for work carried out by local authorities and the NHS.

The IfG found that even in areas such as education – which have not been outsourced but where schools have been given much more independence to run their own affairs – gaming also exists. Some academies, which are run outside of local authority control, admitted they encouraged their students to take vocational qualifications which would boost exam performance – even though teachers considered they were not the most valuable option. “Schools that turn themselves around often do it [by] exploiting tactics to improve exam results in the short term which are not about the experience that every child gets in a lesson,” one headteacher told the IfG.

The report comes just days after the Government placed all the contracts held by two of the UK’s largest outsourcing firms, G4S and Serco, under review, after an audit showed they had charged for tagging criminals who were either dead, in prison, or never tagged in the first place. The two firms are the major private players in both the privatisation of the criminal justice system and the Work Programme. Experts say it is difficult to see how any further large-scale outsourcing of police, probation or prison projects can succeed without their involvement.

The IfG warned there were significant concerns over their dominance in the market. “A number of large providers now deliver a wide range of services, commissioned by separate government departments in particular areas of the country,” the report warns. “This allows these providers to undercut competitors making them attractive to commissioners.”

Both Serco and G4S denied they were abusing their market dominance. On the claim that contractors may be monopolising services in some parts of the country, a G4S spokesman said: “That is simply not true. We employ people in every constituency in the country.”

The report found particular concerns with the Work Programme, where private companies are paid by results to get the long-term unemployed back into work. It found companies regularly playing the system to ensure they made money. One expert adviser told them: “If providers cannot make money doing the things you expect them to do, they will make money by doing the things you don’t want them to do.”

One director of a Work Programme contractor added: “These contracts are on the edge of being financially viable. You have to aggressively cream and park.”

Mr Gash, director of research at the IfG, said mistakes can have a “real impact on people’s lives and value for money”. He continued: “We want to see government carry out external reviews of all new outsourcing programmes worth over £100m per year to assure themselves and the public that they will work.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the Government was also encouraging the voluntary sector to get involved in delivering services. “Our reforms already address the need for the Civil Service to improve its commercial capability and how it manages contracts,” he said. “But we must accelerate the pace of change to make more savings for the taxpayer, create better quality, more efficient public services and promote growth.”

Sector by sector: The recommendations


Headteachers of academies admitted they were being forced to “game” the system and focus resources on students on the C/D grade borderline in order to increase the percentage of pupils obtaining five A*-C grades – known as the “floor standard”. Gaming appears to increase where schools are under threat of closure.

The Institute for Government (IfG) also found big disparities between funding for academies based on their geographical location. Consequently, some academies close to old local authority boundaries (which had different funding levels) are competing in the same catchment areas but with very different levels of funding per pupil.

Recommendation: The school funding regime should change to even-out inconsistencies while current reforms to floor standards will make this metric less important.

Work programme

Designed to pay private companies by results to get people back into work, the IfG found that contractors were “skimming off” the easy cases of people who were likely to get a job anyway while “parking” and giving little support to those people with long-term problems.

Providers were also cutting costs by using “group sessions” and telephone calls rather than face-to-face contact. Providers claim the low fees paid by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) discourage them from focusing on more challenging groups.

Recommendation: The Government should set minimum performance levels, and punish poor performers by imposing penalties or terminating contracts entirely.

Care for the elderly

Most care services for the elderly are provided by the private sector and regulated by the Government through the Care Quality Commission.

But it is very hard for families accurately to assess the  care and standards of large numbers of independent  nursing homes.

In 2010 the CQC abolished its star-rating system which ranked care providers according to the quality of their services.

Instead it encouraged the development of consumer generated “Trip-Advisor  style” rating – entirely  unsuitable for the elderly  or infirm.

Recommendation: Bring back government star ratings and introduce a tighter regulatory framework.

Probation service

The Ministry of Justice has announced plans to open up 70 per cent of the probation service to outside providers. But the IfG warns that re-offending outcomes – by which providers will be paid – are very difficult to measure and in most circumstances cannot be controlled by one provider alone.

Some senior officials told the IfG that they feared private companies would be less well placed to integrate with other services (like mental health agencies and the police).

Recommendation: The MoJ should not outsource probation contracts all at once – but roll them out and assess each one over time. The department should also demand high levels of transparency and publish data not just on their key performance indicators (including reoffending rates) but also on the contracts they have let to specialist providers of services like drug treatment or mentoring support.

Let all European migrants claim benefits, insists Brussels

European immigrants should be able to claim handouts and pensions without first having to pass a test proving that they have settled in Britain, the European Union has said.

Let all European migrants claim benefits, insists Brussels

László Andor, left, has now accused Mr Duncan Smith, right, of spreading ‘simply untrue’ claims Photo: GETTY/REX
Rowena Mason

By , Political Correspondent

10:00PM BST 11 Oct 2012

The demand is the latest response in a continuing row after Iain Duncan Smith said that such a system would mean immigrants could get benefits on the first day of entering Britain.

The Work and Pensions Secretary said last month that it would cost taxpayers £155 million a year if the UK was forced to get rid of the “habitual resident test”.

The test makes sure that foreigners have genuinely lived and paid taxes in the country before they can claim welfare payments.

His department has been holding talks with the European Commission for months in an effort to find a solution, but sources said on Thursday that Brussels was preparing to sue Britain by the end of this year unless the test is scrapped.

László Andor, the European commissioner for social affairs, has now accused Mr Duncan Smith of spreading “simply untrue” claims that foreigners could get benefit payments immediately under the European system. Mr Andor said that Britain was the only member state requiring foreigners to pass a test to prove that they legally resided and paid taxes in the particular country.

Brussels argues that Britain’s rules go beyond stopping unfair claims and have the effect of preventing foreigners who have legitimately worked in the country from receiving benefits when they need them.

Sources said that the EU did not believe it had gained much ground in getting Britain to change its mind during the talks.

“An acceptable solution would be that the UK applies the same criteria as the 26 other member states,” the source said.

“We’ve not made a lot of progress. Nobody is suggesting that the UK should pay out benefits to anyone who just turns up. But they should be paying social security to people who’ve paid taxes.”

Under the British test, an applicant for benefits must have been in the country for an “appreciable time” and must also have an “intention to settle”.

Britain is fighting several cases against foreigners who are trying to claim higher benefits, including a Latvian woman who is seeking to get her pension of £50 a month topped up to the British pension credit level of £133 a week.

Chris Grayling, the former employment minister, called a meeting of European ministers to form a coalition against the EU’s demands in July.

His move has failed to get much support among other states but Britain is determined to stand its ground to

prevent a potentially huge extra cost threatening to undermine efforts to cut billions from the welfare budget.

Last month, Mr Duncan Smith indicated in a speech to MPs that he would not back down.

“The European Commission wants to end the habitual residence test,” he told the House of Commons.

“As a result, we would have to pay benefits to EU migrants as and when they arrive and they would not have to prove that they have been here, are working and have a residence.

“I believe that is fundamentally wrong, as do the Government.

“The habitual residence test is vital to protect our benefits system and to stop such benefit tourism.

“I also do not believe that the EU has any rights in that area, and we are working with other countries that feel much the same.

“I want to put it on the record that the costs of the proposal could be enormous. If we did not have the British residency test, it is estimated that right now the cost would be something in the order of £155 million, although that could change.”

On Thursday night, a spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “The EU has no right to interfere in this way and we will continue fighting it.”

Rogue strain of MMR vaccine ’caused deafness’

A rogue strain of the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella has been found to have caused deafness in at least two children, it has been claimed.

A rogue strain of the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella has been found to have caused deafness in at least two children, it has been claimed.

Photo: PA

7:00AM BST 05 Sep 2012

Katie Stephen, who lost the use of her left ear days after being inoculated as a child, is reportedly the first known victim to prove her case to the Vaccine Damage Payments Unit.

But the 21-year-old has been refused the £120,000 payout for vaccine injury because it is only given to people with 60% disablement.

The measure used by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to decide payouts defines single-sided deafness as 20% disablement.

It comes after a second victim, who lost hearing in both ears, received compensation in a previous case, the paper said.

Miss Stephen’s mother Wendy said: “She wasn’t born this way. This was done to her by the Department of Health. They distributed pamphlets arguing that this was the right thing to do for your child and not just that but the right thing to do for herd immunity in the UK against these three illnesses.”

Paul Breckell, chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss, said: “We are disappointed that the formula used by the Vaccine Damage Payments Unit does not fully recognise the impact for Katie in completely losing the hearing in her left ear.”

Miss Stephen, from Stonehaven, in Aberdeenshire, was 15 months old when she was given the inoculation in 1991.

A health visitor recorded hearing problems at 18 months old, although previous tests had been normal, and in 1996 she was diagnosed with deafness.

According to The Times newspaper, her medical records show that she was deafened by an MMR jab using the rogue Urabe strain of mumps, which was given to 5.4 million British children between 1988 and 1992.

In total, 10 cases of deafness after the jab were formally recorded at the time, the paper said.

An academic study found that the cause of deafness in six of those cases was unknown but MMR was a possibility, it added. Four of the suspect cases had single-sided deafness.

Asked why the industrial injuries measure was being used on vaccine-damaged children, a SWP spokeswoman said: “This is not in regulations – it was considered at the inception of the scheme that disablement should be assessed as a percentage similar to the system as applied in the War Pensions and Industrial Injuries Schemes.”

She added: “The payments were set at the same level as the Industrial Injuries Benefit and does provide financial support to those eligible.

“Those who are eligible for this help may also be eligible for other support from the benefits system.”

The Department of Health (DoH) stressed the importance of the MMR vaccine and said it had saved many lives.

Director of Immunisation Professor David Salisbury said: “It is important that parents get their child vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella – all of which are highly infectious.

“Uptake rates for the MMR vaccine are at their highest level for 10 years and it is the best way to protect children against all three infections.”

Panel rules MMR jab made girl deaf – but not enough for payout

By Mail On Sunday Reporter

PUBLISHED:17:09 EST, 18  August 2012| UPDATED:17:09 EST, 18 August 2012

A woman has won her fight to prove she was  left deaf by the MMR jab – only the second time it has been linked to  disability.

But a medical assessment panel ruled Katie  Stephen, 21, will not receive compensation because she is not considered  disabled enough.

Katie was given the measles, mumps and  rubella jab in 1991 when she was 15 months old.

But she developed a fever and irreparable  damage to the nerve between her brain and ear, and is deaf on her left side.

Officials at the Vaccine Damage Payment Unit  accepted the vaccine was the likely cause of her hearing problems.

But the body, run by the Department for Work  and Pensions, ruled out compensation as she was only ‘20 per cent disabled’.

Katie, of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire,  said: ‘If my disability can be cast aside so easily, why have I suffered so many  difficulties in my life as a consequence? This has put me in a  negative  place.’

An alleged link with the condition has since  been discredited.

The family is now involved in a new group  action being brought by Blacks Solicitors, pursuing their ex-lawyers for  professional negligence.

A spokesman for the DWP would not comment on  the case.

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