Atticus reveals MP claims expenses chop-chop

Simon Jupp won’t be too bothered by having his pay rise chopped. He can find other ways to “feather his nest”.

He charged taxpayers for a knife set and chopping board, and even claimed £2.75 for a toilet brush. No doubt to clean the “toilet seats” amongst his Tory councillors.

Gabriel Pogrund www.thetimes.co.uk  [extract]

MPs have finally had their pay rise cancelled in solidarity with millions of people facing pay freezes or life on the dole.

How fitting, then, that one Conservative MP has charged taxpayers for a knife set and a chopping board. Simon Jupp, 35, who represents East Devon, made the claims (worth £3 and £2.75 respectively) as part of a renovation of his new constituency office this year.

Jupp, a former Tory aide and journalist elected last year, made other purchases from Ikea including: two armchairs (£300); two office clocks (£24); a coffee maker (£19) and a teapot (£5); coasters (£9) and six mugs (£7.50); eight cups and saucers (£20); a vacuum flask for water (£5); a toilet brush (£2.75); a solitary jar (£1.75) and four pencil cases (£4).

Were such investments essential during a pandemic, with many MPs working from home? Jupp says they were, as it’s important constituents “have a place to visit to meet with me and my team to access support”. It’s strange, then, that his website reminds constituents: “During the Covid-19 pandemic I am holding regular weekly surgeries by phone.”

‘We don’t have enough nurses to keep all our patients safe,’ says RCN leader

There are not enough nurses to safely care for patients in the UK, according to the body that represents the profession, and many of those who are working are suffering from anxiety and burnout after a gruelling nine months treating Covid patients.

James Tapper www.theguardian.com 

A year after the prime minister pledged during the 2019 election campaign to add 50,000 nurses to the NHS, the Royal College of Nursing has accused Boris Johnson of being “disingenuous” for claiming the government is meeting this 2025 target.

Johnson claimed last week that the government had “14,800 of the 50,000 nurses already” during prime minister’s questions in the Commons.

Yet the latest NHS figures show there were 36,655 vacancies for nursing staff in England in September, with the worst shortages affecting mental health care and acute hospitals. Staff in some intensive care units (ICUs) have quit since the pandemic, with those whom the Observer spoke to choosing to work instead in supermarkets or as dog-walkers.

Dame Donna Kinnair, the RCN’s chief executive and general secretary, said: “The simple, inescapable truth is that we do not have enough nursing staff in the UK to safely care for patients in hospitals, clinics, their own homes or anywhere else.”

She said that even before the pandemic, “heavy demand” was rising faster than the “modest increases” in staff numbers.

Last week the Health Foundation thinktank said there were 5.5% more nurses in English acute hospitals compared with last year, but some of these were nurses who had previously retired or left the profession, and had returned to help during the pandemic.

The thinktank said that even if the government met its target, 50,000 nurses would not be enough to recover from the pandemic.

“With tens of thousands of vacancies in the health and care system right now, any suggestion by politicians that a small increase equals success is disingenuous,” Kinnair said. “We know many returned to support the pandemic, and 35% of our members surveyed this year said they were considering leaving the profession.”

She said the solution was “honesty and investment” from the government.

With Covid-19 surging in Wales, Northern Ireland and London, many senior NHS leaders around the UK are concerned about the strain on medical staff, who have worked in full PPE and stressful conditions for nine months.

Amanda Smith, an ICU nurse in Belfast who is also a RCN steward, has worked in Nightingale wards at several of the city’s hospitals throughout the pandemic. “We’ve lost something like 15 nurses since the first surge,” she said – about a quarter of their team. When the number of Covid patients has risen, the NHS in Northern Ireland has brought in support nurses from other parts of the region but they are not trained in some procedures such as kidney dialysis.

It means nurses are responsible for two ICU patients instead of one, while support nurses are often taking on more responsibility without extra pay.

“If you’ve got an unstable patient, the other ICU nurse could be left with three or four patients to look after on her own,” Smith said. “You’re worried you’ll miss something.” The rise in patients combined with staff shortages meant nurses felt guilty about taking breaks, she said.

“People are getting very stressed at trying to combine their home lives with work. If they have young children who are hearing all the talk of how dangerous Covid is, they worry about their mum going to work.

“And when you see somebody in a bed who’s 44 years old, you think, ‘that could be any of us’.”

A survey of RCN members earlier this year showed that 35% were considering leaving the profession.

More students are studying nursing at university, up by 20% this year according to the Health Foundation, but the government was still relying on recruiting nurses from overseas.

The Department of Health and Social Care said: “We stand by our commitment to back the NHS and deliver 50,000 more nurses by the end of this parliament. Vacancies are falling and we are on track to meet the target, with 14,800 more nurses working in the NHS and 23% more students starting nursing courses than last year.

“Looking after the wellbeing of dedicated staff is at the heart of the NHS People Plan, with a £15m investment to strengthen staff mental health support this winter. To support recruitment, we’re giving all eligible nursing, midwifery and AHP students at least £5,000 for each year of their studies.”

Decades of quiet deals handed key ports to foreign control

Security concerns raised as ownership of UK’s key strategic assets comes under the spotlight

By Rachel Millard 11 December 2020 www.telegraph.co.uk 

At its height, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company had an empire spanning 100 countries, with ports, ships and property touching ground from the UK to Australia.

But at the turn of the 21st century restive and “short-termist” fund managers began demanding a payout – and the company founded in 1837 to take mail between Falmouth and Gibraltar started being broken up.

In 2002 its P&O Princess Cruises trading arm was sold off to rival Carnival, and then in 2006 its ports owner P&O Ports was traded to the UAE’s Dubai Ports World (DP World).

The £3.3 billion sale marked the end of its 168 years as a British firm, but was also one of the starkest moments in a decades-long drip-feed which has handed swathes of British ports to foreign investors.

As products fail to reach the shelves and millions of Christmas presents hang in the balance, the logistics crisis engulfing British docklands has thrown this foreign ownership into the spotlight after years of quiet deal making.

As a source of reliable income in a world running on global trade, British ports from Felixstowe to Grangemouth have long proven alluring for pension funds, state investment funds and billionaires seeking safety for their cash. The main groups that own the bulk of Britain’s ports are now overwhelmingly foreign owned.

Chaos at Felixstowe and other ports this week as the pandemic and Brexit rocks global supply chains throws a spotlight on their ownership at a time of heightened soul-searching and concern about foreign control of strategic UK assets, and nervousness about post-Brexit trade arrangements.

John Whittaker’s Peel Group, whose portfolio includes a controlling stake in the Port of Liverpool, is a rare example of a British owner in the UK ports sector. But even there, Peel Group is 25pc owned by Saudi conglomerate the Olayan Group, while Whittaker has recently sold a stake in the ports division to the pension fund Australian Super.

Associated British Ports and its 21 sites around the UK – including in Southampton, Immingham, Ipswich and Plymouth – was sold in 2006 to a consortium of funds including Canada’s Borealis Infrastructure and Singapore’s GIC.

Shareholders found a 50pc premium offered in a deal put together by Goldman Sachs, under the code name Project Admiral, too good to ignore.  

Middlesborough-based PD Ports, which owns the large seaport of Teesport as well as the inland port of Keadby and others, can trace its roots back to a mining company in South Wales founded by the Welsh entrepreneur Thomas Powell. But it was sold in 2000 to the Japanese brokerage Nikko Cordial before being handed on again to Brookfield Asset Management, the real estate and infrastructure investor among many attracted to the UK as a source of stable income.

Southampton Port, owned by Associated British Ports which was sold to a consortium including Canada’s Borealis Infrastructure and Singapore’s GIC in 2006

In 2011, Forth Ports, owner of ports including Tilbury and Grangemouth, was sold to Arcus Infrastructure Partners, a European investment fund, and has since been sold onto Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board.

One of the world’s largest port owners Hutchison Ports – a subsidiary of Hong Kong conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings – has been in the UK for decades, buying Felixstowe, Britain’s largest container port, in June 1991 for £90 million, and adding Harwich in 1998. Britain prides itself on an open economy, but foreign control of UK ports has prompted questions given their importance to global trade, security and the country’s seafaring identity – as well as imports on which our reliance is growing.

The relative ease with which DP World took over P&O Ports stood in stark contrast to the reception to its attempt to buy P&O’s American ones. Rebel Republicans with concerns about security forced the UAE to abandon the deal, despite President George Bush wanting it to go through due to the two nations’ friendship.

The logistics chaos of the past few weeks affects an industry that is generally in decent health and key to the economy. UK ports handle more than 500 million tons of goods annually, and directly employ over 120,000 people.

Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that in 2015 ports contributed about £1.5 billion in tax revenues and helped support a total 695,200 jobs.

DP World has invested £1.5 billion to develop the hi-tech London Gateway container port, where robots and cranes ceaselessly unstack goods arriving from around the world.

Research published in 2018 by the British Ports Association found that UK ports and terminals had an estimated £1.7 billion of infrastructure investment in the pipeline. Mark Simmonds, BPA policy manager, argued it showed that ports “are investing in new infrastructure to keep goods and people moving as efficiently as possible.”

He added: “The UK ports industry operates in a competitive and commercial environment, independently of Government, so this significant investment is at no cost to the taxpayer.”

Yet the sector is unlikely to avoid further scrutiny, as Brexit and the pandemic forces Government to think more carefully about logistics. The threat of empty supermarket shelves or the elderly unable to get vaccines looms too large.

Amid the latest problems, Logistics UK, a freight industry body, has urged Grant Schapps, the Transport Secretary, to “seize the opportunity to make acute freight congestion less likely in the future”. It called for investment in the road and rail network as well as “better recognition of the important and value of freight in planning and infrastructure decision making.”

The body added: “It is clear that whole sections of the economy are being reshaped at a speed beyond most forecasts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerating existing trends and introducing new disruptions.”

Britain’s ports will, as they have done for centuries, be called upon to do their bit in the national effort to recover from the pandemic. Whoever they are owned by, they will need to be ready. 

Ground rent on new flats abolished by housebuilders

Five of the UK’s biggest housebuilders have scrapped ground rents on new flats, in a victory for future homeowners and campaigners who have long argued that the charges allow leaseholders to be exploited.

edition.independent.co.uk 

Thousands of homeowners have been hit with inflated management fees and ground rents that rose by hundreds or even thousands of pounds a year on new-build flats and houses. Many of those sales were subsidised with public money under the help to buy scheme which has helped to boost developers’ profits.

The practice of developers selling off the freehold of a new property to a third party is now effectively over, a move that campaigners hailed as the end of the “leasehold racket”.

Changes affect new sales only and will not directly impact the roughly five million flats that are already under contract to pay ground rents but will add to pressure on the government to overhaul the leasehold system.

Three of the four developers that are currently being investigated by competition regulators for allegedly mis-selling leasehold properties – Taylor Wimpey, Countryside and Barratt Developments – are granting all new buyers zero ground rents and long leases. The fourth developer, Persimmon, has not made its position clear.

Bellway, which is not under investigation, has introduced 999-year leases with zero ground rent. A management company run by residents will be in charge of the building, giving them control over maintenance and the level of charges they face. Barratt is offering a similar arrangement and senior industry sources predict that other developers will soon follow.

Buyers at a Berkeley development in Greenwich had been told they would be charged ground rent of £450 a year but have since been told this will be reduced to zero. The company is understood to be taking a “development by development” approach to lease terms.

Housebuilders are responding to changes in the help to buy scheme which reopens to new applicants next week.

The subsidy scheme has provided tens of billions of pounds of public money to finance sales of homes, significant numbers of which left owners with charges for maintenance or ground rents that rose to unaffordable levels. Other properties were later found to be substandard or to present a fire risk, leaving owners with large bills while freeholders and developers avoided liability.

After sustained pressure over the leasehold and cladding scandals, the government said in February that from April 2021, leasehold homes cannot be sold under help to buy unless ground rent on them is peppercorn – legal jargon for “no financial value” or zero. Developers are applying the same lease terms to properties sold outside of help to buy.

“Developers have not taken this decision because it’s the ‘right thing to do’,” said Katie Kendrick, founder of the National Leasehold Campaign. “They are being forced to change their poor practices because the applications for the new help to buy scheme opens from the 16 December and Homes England have stipulated that ground rent charged must not exceed a peppercorn.”

“Developers have used help to buy as a pull factor to sell leasehold houses for no other reason than to create a second asset for them to sell and boost their profits. It’s a national scandal.”

Ms Kendrick added: “By agreeing to do away with monetary ground rents on their new flats, developers are giving up a lucrative income stream but it is also quietly dropping the practice of the onward sale of the freehold to a third-party investor. This will end the unethical trade in the freeholds of people’s homes.”

The NLC is calling on the government to help “a generation of leaseholders trapped in homes they cannot sell”.

Sebastian O’Kelly, of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, said all developers must now publicly commit to 999-year leases, zero ground rents and giving residents power over their homes by giving freeholds to residents’ management companies.

This would guard against excessive fees charged by freeholders that have caused financial problems for many leaseholders.

Service charges are only meant to cover the cost of services provided but many leaseholders have been charged more. Some freeholders have also made money from kickbacks on buildings insurance, a cost that is borne by leaseholders through higher premiums.

“With ground rents gone there is no legitimate income stream from owning the freehold of a building,” said Mr O’Kelly.

“Developers can’t now sell them off to sharks who jack up the costs. The reputational damage would be too great. The leasehold racket hasn’t got a future.”

Around five million flats in the UK are leasehold and most residents must pay ground rents. Mr O’Kelly said the change in approach sends a message that ground rents are charged for “no service whatsoever” and should lead to a significant reduction in the amounts leaseholders must pay to extend their lease or buy the freehold of their building.

These costs frequently amount to tens of thousands of pounds, figures which Mr O’Kelly said are now harder to justify.

“A major flaw has been exposed in the system. We now need ground rents to be banned altogether,“ he added.

A spokesperson for Taylor Wimpey said: “We intend to participate in the new help to buy scheme which launches next April, and we can confirm that all new sites with leasehold plots that have commenced being sold on or after 1 December 2020 will have a peppercorn ground rent, not just those being sold under the new help to buy scheme.”

South West infrastructure spending is welcomed

The government commitment to spending on infrastructure and levelling up across the South West has been welcomed by Peninsula Transport at its Board meeting last Friday.

[However, Owl notes the “however” hovering above a long list of hoped for projects]

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

A series of transport, regeneration, housing and flood prevention schemes across the South West feature in the National Infrastructure Strategy.

Clear commitments to the South West and Peninsula include:

  • A new railway station at Edginswell in Torquay, thanks to £7.8million funding confirmed in the Spending Review.
  • “Restoring rail links to Okehampton in Devon”, via a £500million fund to restore transport services lost in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.
  • Development funding to progress seven other rail schemes in the South West, including opening the station in Cullompton.
  • £59million for Plymouth, including £12million to improve walking and cycling, via the Transforming Cities Fund.
  • Work and plans are progressing on several other schemes not mentioned by name, including the upgrade of the rail line at Dawlish.
  • Nine South West towns will receive up to £25million each via the Towns Fund to support major regeneration plans, including Torquay.
  • Seven South West projects have been awarded a total of £526million via the Housing Infrastructure Fund to unlock thousands of new homes, including £55.1million for South West Exeter.

“The projects in this strategy, including £27billion of public funding next year, will create wealth and thousands of jobs to repair some of the scars from the pandemic,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who drew attention to the dualling of the A303 in his foreword.

The strategy reaffirms that “the government will invest in the South West to help rebalance the UK economy”.

Chairman of the Peninsula Transport Shadow Sub National Transport Body, Cllr Geoff Brown, said: “We warmly welcome the government’s commitment through the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS). Investment is critical to the South West economy whether it is on rail, roads, ports, airports, broadband upgrades or charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

“We are also greatly encouraged by the commitment of the government to Sub National Transport Bodies (STBs) and the £425,000 of funding agreed with Department for Transport for our strategic transport work this year. However as always we await the detail on some of the wider spending announcements just to see how much benefit they will provide for the Peninsula.”

Highlights which may support the Peninsula from the government’s spending review include:

  • A package of Covid-19 support to keep critical transport links available, including an agreement that the Treasury will absorb risks associated with rail passenger revenue.
  • £4billion Levelling Up Fund, including up to £600m in 2021/22, with the additional funding spread over the remaining years to 2023/24 with details on bidding due in the New Year.
  • £27.5billion for England’s Strategic Roads.
  • £1.7billion for potholes and local road upgrades including £310m for the major road network and large local major schemes programmes.
  • £420million bus funding (£120m for zero emission buses and £300m for recovery & transformation).
  • £257million cycling and walking funding.
  • Continuation of the Plug-in Car, Van, Taxi and Motorcycle Grants until 2022-23.
  • £20million in 2021-22 to enable a UK network of technology demonstrations in alternative marine fuels and green shipbuilding.
  • £21million for the decarbonisation of aviation.

Cllr Brown added: “We also are really pleased to see that the Department for Transport is now seeking views on The Future of Transport: Rural Strategy. It is so important for our rural communities that their transport needs are considered and we will be making strong representation on this. We also welcome the news on £60m funding for the North Devon Link Road.”

Reacting to the news, Torbay MP Kevin Foster said: “The £21.9million Torquay Town Deal and the £7.8million of New Stations Funding for Edginswell will help create the infrastructure and opportunities our bay needs to build back better from the impact of Covid-19 on our economy and community.

“This, combined with investment in our region’s infrastructure such as strengthening the sea wall at Dawlish and approving work to finally solve the problems on the A303 at Stonehenge, are signs of this government’s commitment to our region after decades when the South West did not get its fair share of infrastructure spending.”

This article has been produced for the Annual Business Guide Top 150, sponsored by PKF Francis Clark.

The guide profiles the biggest firms in Devon and Cornwall and takes a comprehensive look at the sectors that dominate the regional economy.

We examine how they have been affected this year and chart the COVID-19 bounceback.

See the full list, published on October 22, at BusinessLive and in print in the Western Morning News, or sign up to the WMN newsletter, here.

You can also view it here.

David Thomas, Conservative group leader on Torbay Council, said: “The Conservative group of councillors in Torbay are delighted to have received funding for the Torquay Town Deal (£21.9million) and Edginswell rail station (£7.8million).

“Although entirely different schemes, they clearly complement each other and are a real game-changer for the town.

“This government investment comes on the back of £120million of private money coming into the bay, where we are seeing five new hotels being built.

“This is a positive indication of levelling up working for Torbay when we have previously missed out.”

Central Devon MP Mel Stride said he was “absolutely thrilled” to see the restoration of the Okehampton to Exeter rail service included in the strategy.

He said: “The service will be a huge boost to the local economy in and around Okehampton and will also have a positive impact on Crediton as more people travelling between Okehampton and Exeter stop off to shop.

“It will provide a valuable service for local residents, especially those without a car, and will also be good for the environment by taking cars off the road.

“I will be making urgent enquiries to see what final steps need to be taken for services to begin in 2021.”

Politicians, People and Covid-19: A Fantastic World-Leading Satire

We have had the “Secret Diaries of Sasha Swire” (Aged 57 and eleven twelfths). Now another local author publishes a satire on Politicians, People and Covid-19.

Satire can entertain, expose and ridicule incompetence.  In his latest book, Devon author Philip Algar offers an imaginative and satirical account of politicians, their behaviour and policies and public reaction in the early days of the corona crisis.  He does not underestimate the tragic impact of corona nor does he belittle the disease, unlike some international leaders.  Instead he takes some real incidents, exaggerating their potential impact and invents almost plausible stories.

For example, he reveals how President Trump decided to blame the World Health Organisation and explains why there was a shortage of dogs in the UK.  Why were Irish mountain climbers victimised and how might Sir Humphrey Appleby have reacted to the use of government slogans?  Why were some Mexicans disappointed when they learnt what was disallowed under the heading of essential items?

Why did some rare bats become even more rare and why did a lake and beach change colour?  Why did thieves want government financial support?  Why was it so difficult to visit the local pub?  How did cyclists imperil road safety and cause pollution?  How did a radio broadcast give a totally wrong impression and why did children fear an invasion from space?  What happened to subtitles when a government minister was speaking to the nation?  How did some press conferences go seriously wrong?

All this, and much more, is revealed in this topical book which is available from the Curious Otter Bookshop, Ottery St. Mary and Amazon. The author can also supply copies at £7.49, including postage and packing to the UK.  (philipalgar@btinternet.com) 

HMRC enforcers: ‘I’ve had to borrow from friends just to survive . . . I’m so stressed I can’t eat’

While millions of high earners benefit from financial aid during the pandemic, HM Revenue & Customs and local councils have pursued families on low incomes for relatively small amounts in tax. In more than 1,000 cases since April people have been visited at business premises by HMRC enforcement staff.

Paul Morgan-Bentley, Head of Investigations www.thetimes.co.uk 

Thousands of others have been sent letters and text messages from private debt collection agencies used by HMRC, including care home workers, those who have been unwell with Covid-19 and the vulnerable.

‘I got the letter, went upstairs and cried’

Tax officials have been shamed into dropping a case against a young mother after her MP accused them of chasing her for £2,000 in error and causing her distress during the pandemic.

Patricia Gibson, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, wrote to HM Revenue & Customs in September asking officials to “cease the action being taken” against a constituent, whom she described as “a young mother on low income”.

The woman, who is 27 and has two children aged seven and one, claimed tax credits for five years to top up her £9,000-a-year earnings as a part-time hairdresser. In July 2018, she phoned HMRC to stop the benefits because her circumstances had changed and she was moving to England with her husband, who was in the army.

A call handler told her that the only way she could do this before the end of the financial year was to submit exaggerated earnings of £30,000 while she was on the telephone. She went along with the suggestion and her tax credits stopped. However, this year she received a repayment demand, wrongly claiming she owed £2,078 in tax credit overpayments.

In her letter Ms Gibson wrote that the constituent was then reassured during another call with HMRC that the matter would be resolved. Despite this, she was contacted at home by debt collectors in August. The young mother, who asked not to be named, told The Times that 1st Locate, a debt collection agency working with the Revenue, wrote to her at home, texted her and tried to phone her.

“I was devastated,” she said. “The day I got the letter I went straight upstairs, put my baby to sleep and then cried on my bed.”

1st Locate said it could not comment on individual cases. It said that it was regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, subject to extensive due diligence and trained to identify and help vulnerable customers and assess affordability.

‘I’ve been shielding, and now I’ve been threatened that someone could turn up at my home’

A freelance office manager who was unable to work while undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer during the pandemic has told of her emotional trauma after HMRC gave her financial details to debt collectors.

The woman, in her fifties, had spoken to HMRC and it agreed that she could defer a tax bill. Six months later, however, she received a letter from debt collectors stating that she should urgently pay more than £5,000.

“I am so distressed by how HMRC have acted,” the woman, who asked not to be named, told The Times. “I have been shielding and so spent months without seeing friends and family, and now I’ve been threatened that someone could turn up at my home.”

After calling the firm, it agreed to close her case and return it to HMRC, which told her it passed it on in error.

HMRC said it could not comment on the specific cases without the taxpayers’ permission.

“I’m terrified. HMRC staff lack human empathy”

HMRC staff added interest to Kirsty Howe’s company tax bill after she called them for help while struggling to cope financially during the pandemic.

Ms Howe, 52, who runs a small company that manages diaries for camera crews, was unable to make any money for months this year after television production stopped. She has until the end of the year to pay a £9,400 corporation tax bill for the 2019-20 financial year but phoned HMRC before the deadline to ask to start a payment plan.

With her son George, 21, moving back home with her in Brighton and only about £500 per month from the furlough scheme, she feared she would be unable to save enough to pay the whole tax bill in time. She has had a mortgage holiday but has to start paying £750 a month again this month.

Ms Howe assumed HMRC staff would take kindly to her being conscientious and trying to set up a payment plan. Instead, they tried to persuade her to wait to see whether she could pay it in full. A call handler agreed she could pay £5,000 immediately and cover the remaining £4,400 throughout next year if she also paid interest at 2.6 per cent. The rate is applied to late payments and will start being added to Ms Howe’s company account in 2021.

“I’m so upset and angry,” she said. “Why am I being charged extra? I was acting responsibly and doing the right thing in asking to set up a payment plan. I am terrified by HMRC. They won’t budge. It is like they lack human empathy.”

Ms Howe’s small business, the Firm Booking Company, is now making about 40 per cent of its usual income. “There has been so much help for so many big corporations,” she said. “It does not make sense that a small business owner like me is penalised.”

HMRC said applying interest in Ms Howe’s case was “standard practice for any debt” and that it “followed correct protocol and process in the case and agreed a manageable payment plan”.

Care home worker told belongings could be sold

Richard Hull, 59, has told of the “immense struggle” to cope financially after he and his wife were unwell with Covid-19 before being threatened with repossessions by HMRC. The self-employed carpenter, from East Grinstead, West Sussex, owes £9,733 in tax but is unable to raise the funds because almost all of his customers have delayed or cancelled works.

He told The Times that he was struggling to cover bills at home, where he lives with his wife, Teresa, 47, who works part-time as a cleaner in a care home, and their 11-year-old son. He has had a pay-as-you-go gas meter installed for the winter to prevent heating bills rising too high. In recent weeks their landline has been cut off and his car has been repossessed. He has been rejected for help from the self-employment income support scheme because of a previous late tax return.

He was contacted by HMRC about his tax debt before his case was passed on to private debt collectors. After failing to settle the bill, he received another letter in October from HMRC’s internal staff, which said that his debt had been increased to £10,327 and threatened repossessions. It stated: “Continuing to not pay what you owe is a serious matter. Previously, we treated this as something you didn’t mean to do. However, if you still don’t pay, we’ll now treat you like you’ve deliberately chosen not to.”

It stated that the law allowed HMRC to take action to collect the money owed, adding: “We can take things you own and sell them and we charge you fees for doing this. If you don’t act now it could cost you more money. Alternatively, in certain circumstances we can take money directly from your bank or building society accounts.”

It directed him to a government web page explaining that officials can visit him at home, make a list of his possessions and take them immediately, while charging hundreds of pounds in fees.

Mr Hull and his wife had the coronavirus in April. He said that he tried to respond to previous letters from Advantis Credit, a debt company used by HMRC, but was unable to get hold of its staff on the phone.

“It has been an immense struggle,” Mr Hull said. “I have had to borrow money from friends and ask for advances from customers, so when I eventually do the work I’ll only be paid half. This is just so we can survive.

“The letters have become increasingly threatening — saying they will come and take our possessions and sell them. I am so stressed that I’m hardly eating and my hair has been falling out.

“I know someone on £80,000 a year with £50,000 in savings who has been furloughed. How is it fair that we are being chased for a tax debt that it’s impossible for us to pay at the moment?”

Advantis Credit said that it was regulated and “we take our commitment to delivering fair treatment of customers extremely seriously”, including performing affordability assessments, helping vulnerable customers and providing support during the pandemic. A spokeswoman said that it was unable to comment on individual accounts.

HMRC said the letter “was a mistake and does not reflect our current approach to debt collection”. A spokesman said: “We apologise for any distress caused to Mr Hull and have put in measures to stop this happening again. We will make contact with Mr Hull to discuss and agree a way forward.”

Suicidal man was threatened with a home visit

A vulnerable man who tried to commit suicide last month is among those who have been threatened with bailiff visits because of owed council tax.

The man, whom The Times has chosen not to name, was on benefits for the first time and living alone when he received a letter in August from Bristow & Sutor, a company hired by his local authority to collect unpaid council tax. It stated he owed £1,186 — a figure he contested — and that he could pay the full amount in a week or in instalments for three months. It said that local authorities needed the money “to ensure vital services can be delivered, whilst also helping those in need”.

“It was threatening to say they were going to come round to my home and give me aggravation,” he said. “I’ve been living alone because my partner had to move in with her mother because of coronavirus. I was scared.

“The idea of them coming to my home gave me a lot of anxiety. It has been the most stressful time in my life and it has affected my mental health.”

The man, who is in his 50s, handed in his notice at a restaurant at the beginning of this year after being offered a job elsewhere. The job offer was withdrawn because of the pandemic and he had to sign up for universal credit.

The letter that he received in August related to council tax that he did not pay when he moved from his previous home to the flat in which he now lives. He acknowledged that he owed a few months of payments but the council said he owed money in three consecutive financial years and the full amount was signed off by a magistrates’ court.

He told the company he was happy to pay what he owed but was warned that contesting the charge would be a lengthy process. He agreed to a six-month payment plan without knowing how he was going to afford it. “I wasn’t able to work for months,” he said. “My doctor put me on antidepressants.”

He attempted to take his own life in November and after staying overnight in hospital is being supported by a debt charity and doctors. He has recently got a new job and is continuing to pay back his council debt. There is no suggestion that the actions of Bristow & Sutor caused him to try to take his own life.

Bristow & Sutor said it had been given no indication that he was vulnerable and did not attend his home. Its letter stated that it could offer “more flexible payment terms” due to the pandemic. It said it was “sorry to hear about this person’s circumstances” and that it was going “above and beyond to achieve a high standard of ethics and professionalism”, including training staff to identify and help vulnerable customers.

The council said that the case was passed to Bristow & Sutor before the pandemic and it had not known the man was vulnerable. The debt has now been sent back to the council and arrangements for him to repay will only be made once he has recovered. A spokeswoman said that enforcement action was taken only as a last resort.

The debt collection agencies said that they were regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and trained to identify and help vulnerable customers and assess affordability. They said they have offered additional support during the pandemic including changes to repayment terms and are subject to extensive due diligence overseen by HMRC.

After being contacted by this newspaper, HMRC apologised for about 800 letters it had sent during the pandemic accusing people of deliberately not repaying debts. HMRC said that repossession “is only mentioned in a letter after we have already made several attempts to contact a customer” and that less than 1 per cent of field force collector cases lead to goods being removed.

HMRC said that it stopped debt collection activities in March but contacted a million people with tax debts built up before the pandemic when restrictions were lifted in some areas, allowing them to agree to more than 500,000 payment plans covering £4 billion in debts. It said that visits to work premises “have not been to list or collect assets, but to discuss the customer’s ability to pay during the pandemic and offer support”.

A spokesman said that contact initially focused on working with people to help them to find an affordable way forward and “more strongly worded communications only go out as a last resort where customers have not responded to our initial communications”.

He said: “The last thing we want to do is cause anyone more worry at this difficult time but it remains vital the tax system continues to function to pay for vital public services, like the NHS.”

For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116 123 or visit a local branch. See www.samaritans.org

This article was updated on 10 December 2020.

MPs’ pay rise scrapped after backlash over proposed £3,000 wage hike

Plans to give MPs a pay rise of more than £3,000 have been scrapped, the parliamentary pay watchdog has said.

Finally, the Government has been shamed into reaching this obvious conclusion following: “The Public Sector saved Britain. So why are MPs who broke us getting a rise?”

Owl discusses local MPs’ reaction below.

Lizzy Buchan www.mirror.co.uk

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) said hiking MP pay next year would be “inconsistent” with the financial hardship faced by many workers during the pandemic.

The watchdog said in October that MPs could be entitled to a 4.1% rise in April, taking their salaries to £85,291 – despite wage freezes for millions of public sector workers.

But the comments provoked a major backlash, with even Boris Johnson’s spokesman saying the Prime Minister was against the hike.

Confirming the u-turn, Ipsa interim chair Richard Lloyd wrote to MPs: “The unprecedented impact of the Covid pandemic has had an unexpected, but different, effect on public and private sector earnings.

“It is clear that applying the forthcoming official statistic for public-sector earnings growth would result in a salary increase for MPs that would be inconsistent with the wider economic data and would not reflect the reality that many constituents are facing this year.

“The Ipsa board has therefore decided that the salary for Members of Parliament will remain unchanged for the financial year 2021/22.”

The watchdog had been planning to raise MPs’ salaries in 2021 in line with this autumn’s public sector wages.

If previous trends had continued, that could have triggered a 4.1% rise of to £85,291 – in the depths of the pandemic.

Yet millions of public sector workers including teachers and police now face a freeze in April – after the cut-off date for MPs’ pay.

That would have meant they were suffering a real-terms pay cut at the same time as MPs enjoyed an above-inflation hike

IPSA had stressed no final decision had been taken.

The body’s four board members reflected on the PM’s comments and wider context before they made one.

Local MP reaction

We know that Ben Bradshaw MP intended to donate his rise to charity. Did we ever hear from  Neil Parish MP and “jumping Jupp Flash”?

If they were happy to trouser the cash, they will be disappointed.

City MP ‘would donate pay rise to charity’

www.radioexe.co.uk

It comes after the independent body, set up after the expenses scandal, recommended that MPs pay should increase by 11 per cent to 74 thousand pounds.

The news has provoked fury from unions in the public sector – who’ve seen their own pay frozen along with job cuts and other austerity measures.

Ben Bradshaw told Radio Exe it would be a disaster to return to the ‘bad old days’ of MPs setting their own pay and conditions.. which was what allowed the expenses scandal to happen.

If the rise is imposed he’ll simply use it to help fund good causes, and he says he’ll also seek to ensure that his expenses remain the lowest of any MP in Devon.