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.
“People before privilege” was the theme of last week’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton.
We announced bold new policies including putting the final say on Brexit back to the people, rolling out a new national living wage that extends to young people aged 16 plus, and a radical green new deal for Britain, so we can lead the way in tackling climate change.
Our annual conference is a bit like a big family get together. We come together once a year to celebrate everything we share in common, we argue passionately for our deeply held beliefs and rows do, at times, break out.
Of all the parties, Labour’s conference has always been the most dramatic, but that drama flows from democratic debate as we thrash out ideas of how we can take our country forward in the years ahead. We are, after all, a “broach church”, with over half a million members from all walks of life.
One of the areas our whole family agrees on is the urgent need for a social care service fit for 2019 and beyond. The Government’s complete failure to publish their white paper on social care, promised over the last three years, demonstrates that they are not up to the job of delivery.
While the Tories are set to cut taxes for the wealthiest in society, Labour announced last week that our next government will create a National Care Service, with record investment in free personal care to support older people to live independently with dignity and security. We will ensure more people can access help with daily tasks such as getting in and out of bed, bathing and washing, and preparing meals in their own homes and residential care.
With nearly £8 billion taken from council budgets for social care since 2010, we now have one million people not getting the care they need. 87 people die each day waiting for care and more than five million unpaid carers are looking after family and friends.
So, we’ll address the funding gap in social care and support local authorities to directly provide, rather than outsource adult social care. That means more accountability and a better use of public money, rather than the private sector model that has failed to provide decent care for many of our vulnerable people in favour of profits for shareholders.
Currently, only people with low levels of savings receive publicly-funded personal care. People with dementia face the highest costs for care. Labour’s plans will more than double the number of people receiving state-funded care and reduce the number of people facing catastrophic costs for their care.
Free personal care will ensure people with dementia receive the same care as those with other conditions, reduce the burden on unpaid carers and benefit the NHS by reducing delayed transfers of care from hospital and admissions to care homes and hospitals.
As part of the National Care Service, We will raise standards of care by ending the use of zero-hour contracts, ensuring that carers are paid a real living wage, including for travel time; end 15-minute care visits; and improve access to training and development for care staff.
We will put an end to the culture of overworked, underpaid care workers who are only allowed ten minute visits to those they care for. The current system simply isn’t fit for purpose, and is sucking money out of the system and into offshore tax havens. It simply can’t go on.
Nothing is more important than dignity in retirement for those who have built our country and given younger generations the world we live in today. Tackling the crisis in social care is a priority for Labour.
Our plans for social care will address the immediate crisis in care, double the number of people receiving publicly-funded care, and stop people with dementia being treated unfairly by the care system. Our National Care Service will be universally available for all who need it.
Earlier today, Liz spoke in the Women Against State Pension Inequality debate in the House of Commons. Grahame Morris MP for Easington secured the very important debate and you can watch and read Liz’s contribution below.
“First, may I declare an interest as one of those 1950s-born women who are directly affected by changes to the state pension age? Unlike many—some are sitting in the Public Gallery—I am fortunate to be able to raise the issue in the Chamber. The fact is that many of these 1950s-born women have been hit not just once but twice by changes to the state pension age.
Those of us born in the 1950s were first hit by the equalisation of the state pension age to that of men, with transitional arrangements in place according to date of birth up to 2020. Sadly, the then Government did not see fit to tell the women affected about the change, so many remained unaware and looked forward to receiving their state pension at 60. As they approached 60, they were devastated to find the financial ground shifting beneath their feet. In 2011, the coalition Government sped up the changes, so the state pension age for women reached 65 by 2018, and would rise with an increase in the state pension age for men and women to 66 by April 2020. Many women were left completely unable to make up that financial gap, and that would have been the case even if they had been aware of the earlier changes, which many of them were not. It is ironic that measures that were designed to increase state pension equality should have such a discriminatory effect on women in particular. They have indeed had a discriminatory effect, as many 1950s-born women face real hardship.
Out of the thousands of women in my constituency, I wish to refer to two whose cases particularly struck me. Barbara, whose door I knocked on during the election campaign, had worked all her life; indeed, she was working until just before I knocked on her door. She had worked for British Home Stores, but following the collapse of that company, she found herself without a state pension and, in a classic double whammy, without a company pension at that stage. Then there was the woman who approached me, quite unsolicited, in Blaydon shopping centre who said, “We need to do something.” She said that she had retired early to look after her mum, thinking that she would get her state pension at 60, only to find, after her mum’s death, that she could not get her pension. She had to rely on benefits and family support, and that was after working most of her life.
These cases are not unique, so the issue will not go away. Many women still contact me to say that they have joined the WASPI campaign and registered cases for maladministration with the Department for Work and Pensions, leading to even more of a backlog with the independent complaints examiner who is considering this issue.
Where do we go from here? The Government must address the issue as a matter of urgency. I have no doubt that we will hear about the measures that the Government have put in place to help people into work or apprenticeships. That is absolutely fabulous for any woman who wants to work and is able to do so, but there are many women whose circumstances mean that they are not able to do so. They were not expecting these changes and they find themselves unable to work, having looked after parents or family. Frankly, in a competitive market, it is just not that easy for 1950s-born women to find work.”
Intervention from Mr Pat McFadden MP:
“Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever measures the Government might have taken, those measures have not worked and nor have they dealt with the problem? The continuing sense of injustice is still there, which is why we are having this debate.”
“Yes, I most certainly do agree. I am asking the Government to meet the WASPI campaigners, explore solutions, look at transitional state pension arrangements, and make resolving this issue a priority for the 3.8 million women affected. This is a campaign powered by women with determination and courage, and I commend all who are determined that this cause will be addressed.”
Today is Postal Workers Day!
Liz said “It gives us the opportunity to thank our local posties for the magnificent job they do. We will continue to fight on their behalf for decent pay & conditions and Labour will bring the Royal Mail back into public ownership.”