Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Investigation into Delivery Company Charges Could Benefit Customers and SMEs

Today the Scottish Affairs Committee is holding a one-off session to investigate delivery charges for online purchases.

Areas of Scotland are subject to some of the highest fees and longest delivery times in the UK, and in some cases customers are refused any service at all. The issue is most severe in island communities and the Highlands where charges can be as high as £18.60 per delivery and goods arrive up to 3 days later than other parts of the UK. 

The session will examine how prevalent high delivery charges are in Scotland, which areas are most affected and if additional costs reflect the real economic cost of delivering goods. Finally, it will look at what options exist for reducing or eliminating charges.

Witnesses being called include representatives from:
  • Citizens Advice Scotland
  • Ofcom
  • Amazon
  • Argos
  • eBay
  • DPD
Many customers and small businesses relying on delivery services to get goods to customers across the whole of UK have complained for years about these higher charges, which on the face of it, can be for taking a parcel a few extra miles compared to the next tier down of charges for delivery.

Announcing the session, Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Pete Wishart MP commented "High charges and lengthy delivery times are yet another thing that makes it just that little bit harder for people and businesses outside the major population centres in Scotland. If you are paying £15 more to get something delivered and having to wait three more days to receive it then it makes a real difference to whether your business is competitive or not.

When we announced this session last month we invited the people of Scotland to tell us about their experiences of high delivery charges and the impact it has had on them. I am very pleased with the response we received and this will help inform our questioning."

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Digital Fiction Writing Competition For Books That Want to do More!

Wonderbox Publishing, in conjunction with Bangor University (Wales), is sponsoring the second annual competition to discover the best "popular” digital fiction: digital fiction that appeals to mainstream audiences.

Digital fiction is fiction that is written to be read/played on digital devices. Importantly, digital fictions are different to e-books. Rather than existing as a digital version of a print novel, digital fictions are what are known as “born digital” – that is, they would lose something of their form and/or meaning if they were removed from the digital medium.

For example, they may contain hyperlinks, moving images, mini-games or sound effects. In many digital fictions, the reader has a role in constructing the narrative, either by selecting hyperlinks or by controlling a character’s journey through the storyworld. Digital fictions therefore require that the reader interacts with the narrative throughout the reading experience. Hypertexts, text-adventure games, multimedia stories, interactive video, literary games, and some mobile apps are all examples of types of digital fiction.

See last year's winners here!

There are no restrictions as to types of software you can use to produce digital fiction; everything from HTML, Adobe Flash, Inform7, Twine, YouTube, Twitter, and more have been used to make digital fictions. For the competition, please submit links or files that are openly accessible on any computer (Mac or PC), and that will run in a web browser.

Wonderbox Publishing is a new publishing endeavour that seeks to provide commercial space to digital fiction, and the Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition is therefore designed to expand digital fiction readership to include a broader segment of the public. Therefore while the competition is open to all writers (rookies and veterans) and all types of digital fiction, we are seeking entries of works that are broadly accessible, both in terms of intended audience and device compatibility.

This competition is funded through a Bangor ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, in partnership with Wonderbox Publishing, Literature Wales, and Jisc Wales.

You can download the organiser's Digital Fiction Resources guide here.

The prize categories are:
  • Judges’ Prize - £500
  • People’s Choice - £500
  • Welsh Language Prize* - £500
  • Student Prize - £500
  • Children’s Story - £500*Welsh language entries are eligible for all categories. 
Winners will receive a cash prize and an option to publish with Wonderbox Publishing.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Culture of Empowerment Leads to Outstanding CQC Rating For Domiciliary Care Service

Home Instead Senior Care Northampton, a domiciliary care agency providing personal care to older adults living in their own houses and flats in the community, was commended by the CQC for outstanding care.

The service demonstrated an excellent commitment to providing outstanding care, which put people at the heart of everything. The provider and registered manager led the staff to deliver person-centred care, which had achieved consistently outstanding outcomes for people.

People Were at the Heart of Everything
Staff continuously went the 'extra mile' to ensure that people remained living in the comfort of their own home. They respected people's individuality and empowered people to express their wishes and make choices for themselves. Positive therapeutic relationships had been developed and staff were proud of the support that they had provided to people and the positive outcomes they had observed.

Effective Quality Assurance
There was a very effective system of quality assurance led by the provider and registered manager that ensured people consistently received exceptional care and support. The people receiving care from Home Instead Senior Care Northampton had an enhanced sense of well-being and quality of life because staff worked innovatively to enable people to have meaningful experiences and not to feel isolated and alone. 

Excellent Staff Training
Staff knew their responsibilities as defined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA 2005). The provider was aware of how to make referrals to the Court of Protection if people lacked capacity to consent to aspects of their care and support and were being deprived of their liberty. 

Health and Safety
Records showed that people received consistent care in the way they needed to maintain their safety. People's health and well-being was monitored by staff and they were supported to access health professionals in a timely manner when they needed to. People were supported to have sufficient amounts to eat and drink to maintain a balanced diet. People experienced caring relationships with staff and good interaction was evident. Staff understood their responsibilities to safeguard people and knew how to respond if they had any concerns. Care plans contained risk assessments which gave detailed instructions to staff as to how to mitigate risks; these enabled and empowered people to live as independent a life as possible safely. 

Rob Assall-Marsden, CQC’s Head of Inspection for Adult Social Care in the central region, said:  “Our inspection team was really impressed by the level of care and support offered to people using Home Instead Senior Care Northampton."

“The service demonstrated an excellent commitment to providing outstanding care, which put people at the heart of everything. The provider and registered manager led the staff to deliver person-centred care, which had achieved consistently outstanding outcomes for people."

“Staff continuously went the 'extra mile' to ensure that people remained living in the comfort of their own home. They respected people's individuality and empowered people to express their wishes and make choices for themselves. Positive therapeutic relationships had been developed and staff were proud of the support that they had provided to people and the positive outcomes they had observed."

“There was a culture of openness and transparency; the registered manager continually encouraged and supported the staff to provide the best possible person-centred care and experience for people and their families."

“All of this meant people received a high standard of care, which is why it has been rated Outstanding.”

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Treasury Committee Calls on the Government to Look Again at Student Loan Interest Rates

The Parliementary Treasury Committee has published a series of unanimously-agreed recommendations, ahead of the new government review of higher education, and top of the list is a request for the forthcoming review to look seriously at interest rates charged on student loans.

Key Recommendations

Justification for high interest rates on student loans is questionable
The Committee has not heard a persuasive explanation for why student loan interest rates should exceed those prevailing in the market, the Government’s own cost of borrowing, and the rate of inflation.

Above-inflation rate on tuition fee loans whilst students are studying should be reconsidered
The Government has justified high interest rates being applied to loans whilst students are still at university as it prevents the loan from being invested, even though tuition fees loans are paid directly to the university. The Government should reconsider the punitive measures of charging positive real interest rates whilst students are still at university.

Abandon the use of RPI in favour of CPI to calculate interest rates
RPI was de-designated as a National Statistic, and it has been roundly criticised as a flawed measure of inflation. The Government should abandon the use of RPI to calculate student loan interest rates in favour of CPI.

Assess the case for re-introducing maintenance grants
The Government has said that maintenance loans are not intended to cover a student’s living costs in their entirety. Therefore, students who lack access to additional sources of income, such as through parental contributions, can be priced out of a university education. This is at odds with the Government’s aim of removing barriers to access, and the Government should address this by, amongst other things, assessing the case for the re-introduction of maintenance grants.

Explain why the higher than expected level of tuition fees are desirable 
The incentives for students to choose courses that command smaller tuition fees are weak. The Government na├»vely assumed that in advance of the 2012 reform to tuition fees, which increased the cap to £9,000, prevailing tuition fees would be around £7,500. Tuition fees are almost universally at the increased cap of £9,250, so the Government should explain why the higher levels of fees are desirable.

Simplify the system to ensure that student finance is better communicated
Student loan debt is only repaid when earnings surpass a given threshold, and it’s written off after a defined number of years. It shouldn’t be thought of as a typical debt, and terms such as ‘loan’ and ‘debt’ could serve as deterrents for young people considering applying to university. The Government should review how to simplify the system to ensure that student finance is more understandable.

Fundamentally rethink the offer to part-time students as numbers have declined sharply 
Between 2008-09 and 2015-16, the number of part time students fell by 47 per cent. The Government’s review should include a fundamental rethink of its offer to part-time students. It should ensure that part-time study is a credible option as part of lifelong learning and retraining, and that it provides access to higher education for those who are unable to study full-time.

Sharia-compliant student loans should be introduced as soon as possible
Student loans are subject to a positive real interest rate, meaning they are not Sharia-compliant, which could deter some prospective students from participation in higher education for religious reasons. The Government should make use of Islamic Finance expertise both within the Government and externally to ensure than an alternative finance model is introduced as soon as possible.

Commenting on the Report, Rt Hon. Nicky Morgan MP, Chair of the Treasury Committee, said "The use of high interest rates on student loans is questionable. The Government has justified it on progressive grounds, but the Committee remains unconvinced as high-flying graduates may pay less than graduates on more modest earnings."

"No other persuasive explanation has been provided for why student loan interest rates should exceed those prevailing in the market, the Government’s own cost of borrowing, and the rate of inflation."

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

GP Practice Placed in Special Measures By CQC After Standards Slip

Staplehurst Health Centre in Tonbridge, Kent, had been placed into special measures following a significant decline in standards, witnessed during an inspection in November 2017.

Staplehurst Health Centre is rated as Inadequate for being safe and well led, Requires Improvement for being effective and responsive to people’s needs and Good for caring.

Key Areas of Concern

  • The practice did not always have clear systems in place to identify and manage risk
  • When incidents did happen, the practice was not always able to demonstrate that their analysis identified all risks or that their subsequent action and learning was effective. 
  • The practice did not always maintain appropriate standards of cleanliness and hygiene. 
  • Most patients’ needs were fully assessed. This included their clinical needs and their mental and physical wellbeing. However, the care plans for patients with dementia were not complete or personalised.
  • Patients told inspectors that they were not always able to access care and treatment from the practice within an acceptable timescale for their needs. This aligned with views in the national GP patient survey. 
  • The practice had a range of governance documents to support the delivery of the strategy and good quality care. However, inspectors found that governance arrangements were not always effectively implemented. 
  • The systems and processes for learning and continuous improvement were not always used effectively to identify risks and areas for improvement. Where these had been identified subsequent action was not always timely or effective
Ruth Rankine, Deputy Chief Inspector of General Practice for the South of England, said: “While I find it encouraging that Staplehurst Health Centre has worked hard to ensure improvements have taken place, I am disappointed that at this inspection further significant concerns have been identified by our inspectors."

“As a result of these concerns the practice will benefit from being placed into special measures, so the service can receive the support it needs to improve."

“We will continue to monitor progress and we will inspect again within six months to check whether sufficient improvements have been made. I am hopeful that the practice will do what is required for the sake of their patients but if we find that the service remains inadequate, we will consider taking further enforcement action even if that leads to cancelling its registration.”

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Benefits of Legislation and Red Tape Outweigh Drawbacks For Most SMEs

AXA Insurance interviewed 800 small businesses about the impact of regulation on their ability to trade. Incredibly over 90% of those interviewed felt that regulation was neither costly or created a burden for their businesses.

The majority of those asked also felt the benefits of regulation outweighed any drawbacks. 

Only 40% of sole traders and micro businesses were able to recognise common pieces of legislation that affected them directly, but SMEs with 5 or more employees were more clued up, with 94% of businesses aware of key pieces of legislation.

The small businesses polled said the pieces of legislation most relevant to them are:
  • Health and Safety at Work Act (23%);
  • Data Protection Act (21%);
  • Product Safety Regulations (9%);
  • Employment laws (9%);
  • Consumer Rights Act (9%).
Being "too small" or believing that "these regulations apply to big businesses" are common assumptions. Gareth Howell from AXA said: "I'd conclude that businesses are not crying out for cuts in red tape in the UK, they just require clearer information on what does and doesn't apply to them, and better support on day-to-day implementation."

The study also uncovered some worrying concerns about equality and discrimination laws. While most small business employers said they are committed to equal employment opportunities, a sizeable minority (14%) said they would not hire a woman or someone from an ethnic minority for fear of tribunals or accusations about workplace discrimination. This rose to 18% among male business owners.

AXA's Gareth Howell said: "If this figure is representative of the overall population, it means that almost 700,000 business owners feel discouraged from hiring equally. It's based on misconceptions: tribunals brought against employers on grounds of workplace discrimination are rare, but they get a lot of attention. There is a need to redress the balance through positive stories about workplace diversity and factual guidance for small employers."

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Social Care Work Force Simply Not Large Enough to Meet Growing Care Needs

The National Audit Office (NAO) has criticised the Department of Health and Social Care for not doing enough to support a sustainable social care workforce.  The number of people working in care is not meeting the country’s growing care demands, unmet care needs are increasing and the problem is only going to get worse.

Key Findings

  • Staff feel undervalued and there are limited opportunities for career progression, particularly compared with similar roles in health.
  • In 2016-17, around half of care workers were paid £7.50 per hour or below (the National Living Wage was £7.20 in 2016-17), equivalent to £14,625 annually. This, along with tough working conditions and a poor image, prevents workers from joining and remaining in the sector.
  • The turnover rate of care staff has been increasing and in 2016-17 reached 27.8%. The vacancy rate in 2016-17 for jobs across social care was 6.6%, which was well above the national average of 2.5%-2.7%.
  • Demographic trends suggest that demand for care will continue to increase and people’s cares needs will continue to become more complex. To meet these challenges, the Department estimates that the workforce will need to grow by 2.6% every year until 2035.
  • Care providers, already under financial pressures, are struggling to recruit and retain workers and are incurring additional costs as a result. 
  • Local authorities spent 5.3% less on care in 2016-17 compared with 2010-11, and spending is expected to reduce further over the next two years due to continued government funding cuts and increased financial pressures on local authorities. Uncertainty over funding is limiting local authorities’ ability to plan future spending on care.
  • Around 65% of independent providers’ income comes from local authority-arranged care. The vast majority of local authorities are paying fees to homecare providers that are below the recommended minimum price for care, putting providers in financial difficulties. Furthermore, local authorities are not paying the full cost for care home placements. If this continues, there is a risk providers will not continue to invest in areas where there are high proportions of people receiving local authority funded care.
  • There is no national strategy to address this workforce challenge and key commitments made by the Department for Health and Social Care and the government to help make the sector more attractive, through enhanced training and career development, have not been followed through.
The NAO did not find any evidence that the Department of Health and Social Care is overseeing workforce planning by local authorities and local health and care partnerships. Without a national strategy to align to, few local areas have detailed plans for sustaining the care workforce.

The NAO has recommended that the Department of Health and Social Care produces a robust national workforce strategy with the support of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and that it encourages local and regional bodies to align their own plans to it. The Department also needs to invest more to enable commissioners to set appropriate fees for providers, so they can pay staff adequately and afford to offer career development and training opportunities.

The government intends to publish a green paper on reforming care for older people by summer 2018 and all those working in this sector wait to see if the issues outlined above are properly tackled.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Business Banking Just a Little Easier for SMEs

Many of the Competition and Markets Authority’s much hyped banking reforms came into practice at the end of last week, promising to make personal and business banking easier.

What is new?

  • Transaction history: Both personal and business customers will now be given up to five years of their transaction history when they close their account. This means they no longer need to be worried that they might not be able to get hold of old information when they need it, a concern that can stop people from looking for a better deal or switching banks.
  • Loan price and eligibility tools: Small and medium sized businesses will now find it easier to take out a business loan thanks to a new loan price and eligibility tool launched by four banks: RBS Group, Lloyds Banking Group, HSBC Group and Barclays. This will help SMEs to understand the costs of taking out a loan and find the best deal for them. And they can shortly be accessed by other business, which could help drive innovation amongst comparison sites.
  • Business current accounts: The CMA is insisting business current account opening procedures are standardised, so all banks will now ask for the same information from applicants. – making the process of opening an account and switching provider much easier.

There is more to come:

  • Open Banking: Open Banking will continue to evolve, with enhancements being introduced through this year and next.
  • Information on banks’ services: From August, customers and businesses will be able to access, for the first time, comparable information on the quality of banks’ services.
  • Nesta Open Up Challenge: In the Autumn, the second stage of the Nesta Open Up Challenge is due to complete. This is a competition being run by Nesta to provide opportunities for developers of innovative products or services that promote competition in the markets for business current accounts, credit, and financial automation and intelligence tools. The final prizes are expected to be announced in November this year.
Responding to the announcement of these new measures Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chairman Mike Cherry said: "Small firms have much more in common with consumers than big corporations. That’s why we need to move to an environment where small businesses are able to compare and switch banking services with the same ease that consumers enjoy. Today’s CMA reforms take us one step closer to making that a reality.

“Coupled with the Open Banking legislation that’s now in place, the loan eligibility tools for small businesses launched today will make finding the right finance product that much easier. Equally, allowing improved access to transaction histories promises to streamline the process of vetting a firm’s creditworthiness. Only one in ten small businesses currently applies for external finance – that has to change.

“Simplifying the process of changing business current accounts will remove one of the biggest barriers to switching and securing a better deal. Small business owners want to focus on running their firms. They don’t want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary on paperwork."