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Thursday, 14 January 2016

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Lawyers fees and legal aid cuts block access to justice, warn top judges
In a stark message, the Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice, said bringing legal action – or, alternatively, defending oneself against litigation – has become “unaffordable” for most people. It has led to ever-growing numbers of people representing themselves in court because they cannot afford a lawyer, which leads to delays and further inefficiency in the system, he said. In his annual report, Lord Thomas referred to a study published earlier this week by Lord Justice Briggs, a Court of Appeal judge, which concluded that some of the blame could be “laid at the door of the legal professions.” Lord Justice Briggs said: “The single, most pervasive and intractable weakness of our civil courts is that they simply do not provide reasonable access to justice for any but the most wealthy individuals, for that tiny minority still in receipt of Legal Aid, for those able to obtain no win no fee agreements with their lawyers, for the few who obtain free advice and representation, and for substantial business entities. “To any rational observer who values access to civil justice, this is a truly shocking state of affairs." Last June Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, said lawyers who have "done very well" financially could be compelled to give up their time for free to shore up the less well-funded areas of law. Mr Gove said: "When it comes to investing in access to justice then it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more rather than taking more in tax from someone on the minimum wage... If we are going to have effective access to justice then we need to ensure that those who have done well out of our justice system contribute more.” TELEGRAPH

Tory bill could cost UK nearly 200,000 council houses, warns Labour
A proposal to force councils to sell their highest value homes, as well as the impact of increased discounts for council tenants granted the “right to buy”, will result in the loss of one in every eight council properties, according to the shadow housing minister John Healey. He said the homes could be snapped up by overseas investors and buy-to-let landlords rather than people in housing need. “Rather than running down the number of much needed affordable homes, ministers should be investing more homes to rent and buy,” said Healey, who was housing minister in Gordon Brown’s government. The government has pitched its housing reforms as a major boost for the construction of homes to buy rather than rent, arguing that is what the majority of the population wants. Its initiatives include 13,000 directly commissioned new homes and a £1.2bn grant to help private housebuilders clean up brownfield land and build 60,000 new homes for sale, half for buyers under 40. On Monday, David Cameron announced a £140m redevelopment programme for Britain’s sink estates, which he described as “concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers”. The scheme will include demolition of some estates and he said tenants and homeowners will be given binding guarantees that their right to a home is protected. The policy is partly based on analysis by Savills, the property consultancy, which found that more and better homes can be created if 1960s-style estates are demolished and replaced by new housing with conventional layouts. But Labour believes that the government’s parallel demand, that town halls sell off their most valuable council homes to fund the extension of the right-to-buy scheme to tenants of housing association properties, will combine with the existing decline in council housing numbers to see around 40,000 council homes disappear annually. There were 1.8m council homes in 2009 but that will drop to 1.4m by 2020 according to estimates by Labour with the House of Commons library. GUARDIAN

£1.6 billion: DWP fit-to-work assessments cost more money than they save
The study by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the Department for Work and Pensions is handing over £1.6bn over the next three years to private contractors who carry out the controversial health and disability assessments. But at the same time, the Government’s own financial watchdog has warned that savings in benefits payments are likely to be less than a billion pounds by 2020 as a result of the new tests. The NAO report also found: The cost of carrying out each employment and support allowance (ESA) test had risen from £115 to £190 after the controversial outsourcing firm Atos pulled out of its contract to run the tests last year; Benefit claimants are still waiting for more than six months before they are assessed during which time they are not entitled to full payments; None of the companies carrying out the tests met the Government’s own quality assessment threshold – with reports including spelling mistakes and unintelligible acronyms. The report found evidence that ministers set completely unrealistic targets for the number of ESA assessments that could be carried out each year. As a result, there is a backlog of at least 280,000 new claims while ministers have been forced to suspend plans to carry out periodic reassessments of those already claiming the benefit. The report also found significant problems with the American outsourcing company Maximus which took over the contract to carry out ESA assessments from Atos. Only half of all the doctors and nurses hired to carry out the assessments completed their training against a target of 95 per cent, while average staff costs rose from £26,000 in 2014 to £44,000 last year. Over the summer the company was carrying out just 37,000 face-to-face assessments a month compared with a target of 57,000. It had carried out 10,000 fewer paper assessments than it had promised the Government. INDEPENDENT

Ofwat blamed for high water bills by overestimating water companies' costs
A report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the water regulator Ofwat regularly overestimated companies' financing and tax costs when setting price caps. The PAC said this meant the companies had made windfall gains of at least £1.2bn between them. Household water bills averaged just under £400 per year last year. Ofwat came into being to oversee the 18 privately owned companies that supply separate areas with water and sewerage services after the service was privatised in 1989. They currently operate as local monopolies but the government has announced plans to free the market for limited competition between suppliers by the end of this parliament in 2020. PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said: "Ofwat was set up to protect the interests of customers, most of whom have no choice over who supplies their water yet must pay bills typically running to hundreds of pounds.” BBC NEWS

'Sell everything!' Dire warning from Royal Bank of Scotland as fears mount that markets are set for new crash and oil could plunge to $10 a barrel
The bank told investors stock markets could fall 20 per cent this year as it urged them to sell with a stark warning, saying: 'In a crowded hall, exit doors are small. Risks are high.” The horrifying warnings follow a torrid start to the year on financial markets, with billions of pounds wiped off stocks in the UK and elsewhere. London's top stock index saw £85billion wiped off its value after tumbling 5.3 per cent last week, during what is being dubbed the worst start to a New Year ever on world markets. A string of banks including Barclays, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Societe Generale have slashed their 2016 oil forecasts this week, while Standard Chartered cautioned that the price could plummet to $10 a barrel. The slump in oil prices has coincided with turmoil on global financial markets as the slowdown in China and higher interest rates in the US knock fragile confidence. RBS warned that it could be a punishing setback for savers with pensions and other investments tied up in shares. A 20 per cent fall in stock markets would wipe more than £300billion off the value of Britain’s biggest companies. In its note to clients, RBS warned that ‘this all looks similar to 2008’ when the collapse of US banking giant Lehman Brothers triggered the global financial crisis. The RBS analyst advised investors to switch their money out of risky assets such as shares and into the safety of government bonds. DAILY MAIL

London help-to-buy scheme to launch in February
Help to buy London is an extension of the equity loan scheme that has been available to buyers around the country since April 2013, which doubles the amount of money being offered from 20% of a property’s purchase price to 40%. While mortgage rates are still at record lows and lenders are increasingly willing to offer loans to first-time buyers, high house prices in the capital have locked many out of the market. To meet affordability checks and qualify for mortgages, borrowers have had to raise increasingly large deposits. Data from Halifax published on Monday showed the average first-time buyer in London spent £367,990 in 2015, while the average deposit was £91,409. To spend the same amount with a 40% loan the same buyer would need a deposit of just£18,399. The extension, which was announced in the chancellor’s autumn statement, will be available to buyers of new properties in Greater London costing up to £600,000. As under the existing scheme, borrowers will need to be able to raise a deposit of at least 5%, and to qualify for a normal mortgage. They will also have to show that they can afford interest payments on the government loan when the five-year interest-free period ends. Funding for the scheme comes from the £8.6bn budget set aside to extend the help to buy equity loan scheme from April 2016, when it was originally due to end, to March 2021. By the end of September 3,548 households had used an equity loan to buy properties in the capital, and the government said more than 10,000 more could benefit from the new scheme. Developers have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the help-to-buy scheme, reporting big demand for homes through it. The scheme has its critics. Campbell Robb, the chief executive of housing charity Shelter, said: “What we need to tackle the housing crisis in London isn’t more gimmicky schemes that are only available to higher earners, but investment in genuinely affordable homes.” He added: “To solve the housing crisis for the long term, both central government and the mayor need to prioritise building homes that people on low or average incomes can actually afford to rent or buy... Without this, millions of Londoners on ordinary incomes will continue to be stuck in unstable, expensive private renting.” Housing expert Henry Pryor said it would stoke demand and house prices in London. “First introduced as a measure to encourage house builders to take off the tarpaulins off their moth-balled sites and get building again after the 2007-8 crash the initiative has worked well with more homes being built but the byproduct is toxic - higher prices that require even more help to buy,” he said. “Results from the quoted developers illustrates who is really being helped and a London version of the scheme is wrong both from a moral and practical perspective. There are no work-shy builders in the capital, in fact we need more sites to satisfy demand.” GUARDIAN

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