Shop workers, particularly those in supermarkets and other food stores, have been on the frontline during this pandemic, supplying us with the essentials of life and keeping the nation fed.
Unlike many of us, they do not have the option of working from home and play an essential role in society and the economy as key workers. For some vulnerable members of our community their local retail workers may be their only human contact each week, providing a social lifeline in this difficult period of isolation.
My constituency, Blaydon, has one of the highest densities of shop workers in the country, with 24% of all jobs in retail with the Metrocentre and a number of local shopping centres providing much of our employment. While many supermarkets have reported a good year, other stores face real uncertainty over their future, and that of their staff, who may have been furloughed for many months.
Throughout the pandemic, the majority of customers have shown real support for the critical role that shop workers and delivery drivers are doing during this crisis. In some cases though, low stock, restrictions on product availability, face masks and social distancing requirements have provided new flash points for the longstanding problem of abuse against workers.
Violence and abuse should never be tolerated in any workplace, yet retail workers continue to face situations that are not only deeply unpleasant, but at times put their health and lives at risk.
Just like our emergency services, many of us will have read reports of customers coughing or even spitting at shop staff in an attempt to infect them. The Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that such incidents will be treated as assaults and these events should always be reported to the police.
And as a result of panic buying, a number of retailers are continuing to enforce restrictions on the number of certain goods that customers can purchase. When shop staff have been asked to enforce these restrictions at the tills, all too often this has created another flash point for threats, abuse and violence.
Last week, a member of my own staff witnessed such an incident, where a shop worker was spat at for asking someone to wear a mask going into the store. I raised the issue in the House of Commons the following day and called on the Government to bring forward a debate in Parliament on the unacceptable behaviour of a minority towards shop workers.
I am pleased to see that the shop workers union Usdaw is also campaigning for ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation that will tackle abuse against workers dealing with the public. assaulting a shop worker to be made a specific criminal offence, to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job. I support their calls to the Home Secretary to request that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency given the current situation.
But to provide full protection, the government must go much further. Usdaw is demanding that shop workers must be entitled to a real living wage of at least £10 per hour, with a minimum 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it, with contracts based on the normal hours worked and an end to zero hours contracts.
If we truly value our key workers we must make sure they have better rights at work and a proper living wage. Too many people who are in receipt of Universal Credit are already in work.
New research published by Newcastle University this week confirms the link between cutting social security and mental health issues.That’s why I’ve been urging the Chancellor to retain the current £20 uplift to Universal Credit in next month’s Spring Statement. The uplift has made a significant difference to many families. If the government is serious about “levelling up” this is the very least they could do.
Yesterday, MPs voted through new coronavirus restrictions that effectively put our country into a third national lockdown. The new measures are a last resort; none of us want to restrict your freedoms, but with public health at the front of centre of our decision making, this really is the only option.
Health experts now believe one in fifty people in the UK has the virus, and it is spreading exponentially across the UK. Hospital admissions are rising day by day and our NHS is under intense strain.
Here on Tyneside, we have been living under strict measures for some time now, and I know how difficult another lockdown will be for families across our region after everything they have already sacrificed. Despite this government’s many failures on covid-19, Labour supports the new restrictions as a national effort to protect the health service and save lives.
But our support for the government’s measures is in no way intended to let them off the hook on their broader mishandling of the crisis. There are serious questions for the government to answer on why they didn’t impose restrictions sooner, given that the scientific advice informing this lockdown was first presented to ministers over a fortnight ago.
As Her Majesty’s Opposition, Labour will continue to support the government where it gets it right and provide constructive criticism where it is failing. So, we’ll be pressing the government on a range of issues over the coming days.
Health ministers must explain why Serco’s testing system still isn’t working. And on vaccinations, we need a clear plan. We believe the NHS can deliver two million vaccines a week, but the government must clarify whether enough doses will be available and how they plan to remove the red tape that is making it difficult for retired health professionals to volunteer.
The chancellor must come to the house to explain why, once again, millions of working people have not been given the support they need, especially those three million self-employed who have been left without support for almost a year now. This is nothing short of a scandal.
Our lowest paid key workers need clarity on whether the government still plans to cut £20 a week from Universal Credit from April and whether they will implement the planned public sector pay freeze, which will affect the same nurses that have kept our country and our NHS going over the last 10 months.
On education, we face an unprecedented crisis. Last Sunday, despite growing evidence from the unions, our schools were deemed to be safe by Boris Johnson. By Monday afternoon he decided to shut them to most children, with no timescale for full re-opening, in another failure of his government to act swiftly.
Most children are now at home seven days a week, and for the most vulnerable this will have a detrimental impact on their learning and in some cases their well-being and safety, too.
Yesterday I asked the prime minister to keep his promises on levelling up. That means accelerating plans to provide laptops to the 1.8 million children without one, and a new national plan for education, to close attainment gaps exacerbated by the coronavirus.
My inbox is full of messages from constituents on issues like statutory sick pay and support for those self-isolating, nurseries, the ban on evictions that is due to expire in the cold of winter, provision for homeless people and local authority funding. On these and many more issues, I’ll continue to raise the questions and press for solutions.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Thanks to our brilliant scientists, there is hope of a way out of this nightmare with the vaccine. Every aspect of our national life must now revolve around an ambitious vaccination programme, to re-open society and the economy, and get children back in school as early as possible.
Until then, I urge you to stay at home to protect our NHS, so we can get Britain vaccinated in 2021.
For many of us, Advent is a time of hope, preparation and anticipation in the run up to Christmas. And this Advent has started like no other. Yesterday’s announcement that the United Kingdom is the first country in the world to approve the use of a vaccine is a welcome step in what has been a long and painful journey for many of us. But while the end is in sight we must be prepared to wait a little longer, and to keep public health at the forefront of everything we do.
We must recognise the scale of the challenge that has been overcome. Our world-leading scientists have succeeded in the monumental task of delivering a brand new vaccine for a novel virus in under ten months – a process that would usually take ten years in normal circumstances. So, I would like to pay tribute to our scientists, who alongside our NHS and so many key workers across many sectors, have been the true heroes of the 2020 story. Despite the failings of the Government on coronavirus – and there have been many – it should come as no surprise that Britain is the first to sign off a vaccine.
We have an outstanding reputation in the field of scientific research and development around the world, which is why I am calling on the Government to listen to leading medical research charities, who have come together to propose a way to ensure that vital research for both rare and widespread conditions can continue throughout this period of financial difficulty. They are asking the Government to create a life sciences charity partnership fund over the next three years, starting with £310 million in year one to meet the financial shortfall. I raised this in last week’s Westminster Hall debate on charity-funded medical research and will continue to do so where I can.
Our reputation was, however, diminished, following the announcement by the Chancellor last week that the Government are to cut our international aid budget – a cross-party achievement that showed our commitment to those in most need. As the vaccine is rolled out the Government will be judged on how it ensures that the poorest around the world will benefit from immunisation. This will be a critical test and one I will certainly be holding them to.
Fairness must be at the heart of the next phase of the Government’s coronavirus response. Earlier this week Labour abstained on the vote over the Government’s new restrictions. We support the need for measures but the new tiers continue to punish the North and there was nothing new for businesses across the country crying out for more effective economic support to get them through the winter months.
Too many hard-working people have been left to fend for themselves, especially many self-employed and freelancers who have been excluded from the financial support packages available to other businesses. Hospitality and retail have been let down again and we still don’t have a functioning test and trace system.
While yesterday’s vaccine announcement is welcome it has still come too late to save many jobs. The collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams alone in the last 48 hours, putting at least 25,000 thousand jobs at risk, is a real tragedy for many of my own constituents. For areas like Blaydon, retail is a major sector for employment. I can’t imagine the challenge that some families now face in the run up to Christmas. That’s why Labour is calling for urgent action to protect jobs, pensions and communities.
In the coming weeks we will start to see the roll out of the largest vaccination programme in the history of the NHS. With no time to learn lessons from our neighbours, this is no easy task. Boris Johnson likes to portray himself as a great heir to the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But with backbench rebels rising Mr Johnson’s premiership is showing signs of trouble. If he is looking to secure a legacy, he must finally get serious and take control of this virus so that lives can be saved, our NHS can be protected, and our economy can start to rebuild in 2021.
Accusations of chaos and incompetence continue to dog the Government as they stumble from failure to failure in dealing with the Coronavirus.
Keir Starmer was clear on day one of his leadership of the Labour Party back in April that he would support the Government where they are getting it right, but challenge them and hold them to account where they get it wrong.
At a time of pandemic, thats the very least the British public would expect from Her Majesty’s Opposition; to work constructively and present alternative approaches, in the national interest.
When Keir Starmer called for a circuit breaker three weeks ago, he was proposing a short and effective intervention to drastically cut the number of contacts between households as the “R-rate” rose. With the first week aligned with the school half term, Labour’s proposals, backed up by many in the scientific community, would maximise effectiveness while minimising disruption to children’s education.
So, it was bitterly disappointing to see the Prime Minister’s response to our suggestion, and our offer of cross-party working, as opportunism. Fast-forward to last weekend, another televised address from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister performing another of his well-practiced u-turns, following a leak believed to be from within his own Cabinet to the press.
But the decision to block a circuit-breaker was shared by the man next door living in Number 11. Along with Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak’s stubborn refusal to address problems of his own making until the last possible minute is risking lives, costing jobs and causing chaos.
Only days earlier, the Government said workers under regional restrictions would only receive two thirds of their pre-crisis income because 80% was impossible – the country could not afford to subsidise Northern workers forced to stay at home. But, as soon as restrictions were introduced in London and the South East of England, everything changed!
Over a million people have lost their jobs since the crisis began, and many more are expected, yet the Government still hasn’t acted to fix Britain’s broken safety net to help them. The Chancellor, held in high esteem by many people for his interventions early on in the crisis, is now well and truly stuck in a cycle of denial, dither and delay.
There were huge holes in the Government’s support packages in the first lockdown, especially for many self-employed people. But there is still no new support for those excluded from support since this crisis started.
The safety net is at risk of becoming thread-bare. Yesterday I learned from the mental health charity Mind, that anyone who does not attend or participate in a telephone assessment for Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit will risk having their benefits reduced or cut off altogether. This would affect thousands of disabled people including many with mental health problems.
When telephone assessments were first introduced in March, the DWP put in a safeguard so that no disabled people would see their benefits stopped if they missed a telephone assessment or were unable to take part due to Coronavirus. But we now know this safeguard for some of our most vulnerable has been rescinded by the Government.
The burden will now be on disabled people to prove they have a good reason for missing an appointment. If the DWP does not accept their proof, they risk seeing their benefits stopped.
Research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has found that over half of people with mental health problems find engaging over the phone difficult or impossible. The same proportion say they need support from others in order to engage with benefits agencies over the phone. This change brings with it the real risk that people with mental health problems will see their benefits cut-off during a winter lockdown.
Here in the North East we were asked to make big sacrifices to get the virus under control under Teir-2, and we saw some early signs of progress. But as we move into a new national lockdown the Government must play their part to protect jobs and guarantee that no-one will be at risk of losing their benefits this winter.
Over 16 million people – around one in four – are now living under local restrictions, but infection rates are still going up and there is widespread confusion about the rules amongst the population, most of whom want to do the right thing to protect themselves and others around them.
Viewers of Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday were left gobsmacked, following Boris Johnson’s ludicrous assertion that everyone in this country understands the new Covid-19 rules and restrictions, put in place in recent days. He couldn’t be further from the truth.
Only the day before, the PM himself was forced to apologise for providing the wrong information on new North East measures put in place this week. And a few hours before that, the Government Minister put up for the morning news round admitted that she too wasn’t across the detail, and even stated that despite her Ministerial position, she didn’t represent the people of the North East.
As an MP, my inbox has been packed with queries from constituents and employers who are rightly baffled by the knee-jerk announcements of rule changes from Government Ministers. Johnson’s own Conservative council leaders are outraged, complaining that the rules are too complicated. The Government’s lack of clear messaging has hampered efforts from the start, but it is becoming an increasingly serious issue as the cases once again mount up.
But it isn’t just the messaging that is problematic, it’s the way this Government implements its decisions that adds to the chaos. So, it was disappointing that the Government yet again failed to provide advanced warning of the new restrictions to local leaders, causing frustration to many local people and businesses, and leaving tens of thousands of workers in our region uncertain about their jobs.
The House of Commons Speaker has also been uncharacteristically critical of the Government, who are increasingly introducing new restrictive laws with little notice and minimal time for MPs to debate them in the Chamber. I fear the Speaker’s claim that the Government is in contempt of Parliament will fall on deaf ears with the Johnson/Cummings Downing Street rabble, who seem to hold everyone else in contempt.
Reducing economic support at the same time as introducing new restrictions adds to the toxic cocktail. The furlough scheme has ended, and businesses are trying their best to do the right thing. But Chancellor Rishi Sunak has made a political choice, deciding that jobs in sectors such as hospitality and events aren’t worth saving. In this region alone we’re talking about up to 80,000 further job losses before Christmas. Without further interventions from him, the fallout this winter could be catastrophic.
In our region, councils and Labour MPs are working together to ask for the right resources and enough funding to protect the economy and support local businesses that will be impacted by the restrictions. This will allow us to respond to the pandemic, whilst also protecting people’s livelihoods.
Our councils were right to demand increased protective measures. Coronavirus cases in my own borough of Gateshead continue to rise, and over the last two weeks we have seen an increase in the numbers of hospital admissions, with a rise too in the average age of those testing positive. Doing nothing simply isn’t an option. Our councils were also right to ask for the test and trace system to be under local control. The privatised model is clearly dysfunctional.
Local track and trace data shows that 80 per cent of Covid cases are due to households mixing in a range of settings, so we need to act now through restrictions to reduce the spread. The more we can reduce contact with people outside our households or support bubbles, the sooner we will bring the virus under control.
The one ray of sunshine in all of this was our recent victory on informal childcare. I raised the issue in the House, along with other Labour colleagues. Following pressure from MPs, parents and employers, I’m pleased the Government finally U-turned on its decision to stop grandparents, family members and friends providing childcare for workers. This served as just another example of a Government increasingly out of touch with its people.
Local lockdowns may now be part of the “new normal”, with Leicester becoming the first city to shut down. We know parts of Tyne and Wear have previously experienced high numbers of coronavirus cases, therefore it’s crucial we continue follow the guidelines as more businesses and public spaces begin to reopen.
The reopening – and potential short-term closures – of businesses and schools, alongside changes to social distancing and other public health measures, requires accurate, timely communication through local print, TV and radio.
Throughout the crisis, public service broadcasting has played a critical role for central government, public health departments, the NHS, schools and councils to get their messages out to the public. So, it is ludicrous that the BBC has postponed its regional political coverage, and is even considering the option of axing Politics North and Inside Out (North East and Cumbria).
Each Sunday, Politics North features interviews with local MPs, councillors and government ministers, alongside reports about the biggest political issues in the region. As politicians, we don’t always want to face bruising interviews, but it is what we signed up to, and it strengthens our democracy.
Inside Out’s award-winning investigative reporting has exposed vital issues like racism within car parking attendants, illegal waste dumping, numerous fraud operations, and chaotic gun control within the police. The North East must have a forum for issues like these to be discussed and for politicians to be held to account, outside of Westminster.
So, last month I joined Labour colleagues from across the North East in writing to the BBC to express our real disappointment at their short-sighted decision, and to remind them of the importance of the regional press. I also raised my constituents’ concerns in a House of Commons debate that showed cross-party support for regional reporting.
The BBC says local and regional broadcasting is in their DNA, so it makes no sense that, in their allocation of resources, they have chosen to cut an essential lifeline, especially to our older, housebound and shielding community members, in the middle of a pandemic. The campaign to protect regional reporting continues.
Next year marks 200 years since the pioneering printer, Thomas de la Rue, set up his first printing press in England. The company innovated and grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with a number of plants in operation across the country and the largest printer of currency in the world.
De La Rue plc grew to be a global brand, and their workers have been trusted by governments around the world and at home to print their cash and produce identity documents, including passports.
But the company now faces difficult times, following the government’s decision in 2018 to award the contract for producing UK passports to the French-Dutch firm Gemalto. That led to 200 job losses from their Team Valley site in my constituency, with the remaining 80 on the passport production line set to go this month.
To add to the pain, a further 170 jobs were lost in 2019 at the facility, as one of two banknote production lines closed. And last week, De La Rue announced its proposal to cease banknote production in Gateshead, which would see 255 jobs go and just 90 left at the site.
I don’t absolve De La Rue’s senior management at that time of getting the price wrong in their procurement tender – but my concern is for the staff who have worked so hard, and with great pride, to produce a secure, quality, passport for Great Britain. There is a direct line between the loss of that contract and the job losses at the site today.
So, in addition to the BBC debate, I was glad to secure an adjournment debate last week, calling on the government to intervene and protect the highly-skilled, well-paid jobs at De la Rue.
With hundreds of Debenhams staff at the MetroCentre also being made redundant and Intu going into administration, we are starting to see the scale of the challenge in our region. It’s time for Boris Johnson to put some meat on the bones of his “levelling-up” agenda, with decisive action to protect North East jobs.