When the lockdown started the Chancellor and Prime Minister came out with the “whatever it takes” line. Three weeks on the Chancellor shifted to the new line of “we can’t help everyone”. My view is that we can and we should help everyone and do what it takes and that brings me on to the work we have been doing.
The Big Issues:
PPE – reports came in from Arrowe Park Hospital and other places that shortages of PPE were putting staff and the public at risk. I recognised this as a key issue early on and wrote to the Chief Executive of the hospital to ask for an update on this issue. As a result, we held a telephone conference call at which the Hospital management assured me that: PPE is now being regularly delivered by the military; that all PPE is being used by staff in line with the Public Health Guidelines. I also spoke to Trade Union Representatives and stressed the importance of them monitoring the health and safety of staff and any problems that arose.
Care Homes and the Care Sector – the government finally recognised the importance of the Care sector but a little late in the day. The announcement on testing for care home staff came not only as a result of press reports but because me and other Labour MPs started pushing hard on this issue for over two weeks. Early in April I wrote to all of Birkenhead’s 65 care homes asking them about the issues they faced, their supplies of PPE, the safety measures they had in place and so on. Responses have started coming in and I have held discussions with Care Home managers on how protection for this crucial but seriously undervalued sector could be ramped up. I also collaborated with other Labour MPs to address a letter to the government demanding more support for the sector and to publicise the issue widely on social media. That was on 14 April. The next day we got some movement from the government. Pressure pays off.
On a related Care Home issue, I was particularly pleased with the Wirral Council decision to dedicate money it has received in government aid to raising care workers’ pay to an hourly rate of £9.30 in line with recommendations from the Living Wage Foundation. If there was ever a time when a section of key workers deserved reward and recognition for the ser5vices they are carrying out it is now. Care workers have been undervalued for too long and the announcement by the Labour leader of the Council, Pat Hackett, of this wage rise.
Furlough pay – it soon became clear that as a result of having the cut off date for eligibility for the scheme on 28 February had caught thousands of people out who had just changed jobs. In one week, I sent three requests to the Chancellor to revise the cut off date to closer to the lockdown to prevent people falling through the safety net. I am assuming other MPs did the same because just as I had finished my last letter to Sunak about this issue, he announced the change of date. I can’t claim all the credit for this, but I think that by bombarding the Tories with reports of the problems their decision had caused Labour has applied the sort of pressure needed to force changes where changes are needed.
Safe working – for those who are still having to go to a place of work the need for safety is paramount. Stories came in about employers breaching public health guidelines on safe working. Profit was being put before people. I have provided staff with advice; I have written to employers who remain open and I have contacted the trade unions all to promote safe working and to give people the confidence to stand up for their rights. In truth the experience has highlighted the weakness of union organisation in many workplaces. But the crisis has thereby created an opportunity and I have been encouraging people to join unions, organise collectively, know their rights and stand together. Our movement can grow and strengthen itself by supporting workers through this crisis.
Homelessness – I have worked well with the Council on this and as you all know it is a topic close to my heart. I am extremely please to report that as of now there are only three people on the streets in Birkenhead and that is because they themselves have refused requests for accommodation. As a result of a Council initiative 30 people have been housed in student accommodation while others have been taken in my charities such as the YMCA and Whitechapel. Hats off to Wirral Council on this one. In total 104 homeless people in town have been given a roof over their head since the lockdown started.
Helping those stranded abroad – my team has been in constant touch with the Foreign Office and has applied consistent pressure to get every constituent stuck overseas back home. While there are still two people stranded, we have helped many others return from Peru, the Philippines, Tenerife, Russia and beyond. The old motto, no one gets left behind, has been my watchword in pushing the Foreign Office and the Department of Transport to act. This included a campaigning letter to Grant Shapps to facilitate chartered flights for those stranded.
Tunnel tolls and car parking – I liaised with both the Metro Mayor and the leader of Wirral Council on these issues because I recognised we needed to help key workers get to work and not have to suffer detriment when many others were staying at home. I applaud the decision by both the City Region and Wirral Council to suspend tunnel fees and parking charges for the duration of the crisis. This really does help those workers who are helping all of us.
Working with the council – I continue to work closely with Wirral Council, in particular with the Labour Leader of the Council Cllr Pat Hackett, I have also taken part in conference calls with the other Wirral MP’s and senior Council Officers, where I have fed in issues that have been raised with myself and my team by constituents and local businesses.
Along with the other Wirral MPs, I have written to the Government to highlight the woeful supplies of food and PPE the Council is receiving from the Government despite what ministers say:
It’s commendable that our Labour run Council has tackled this head on and has purchased its own supply of food and PPE for distribution to local people and carers.
Politics carries on – the party has a new leader and deputy leader and I urge all my supporters to unite behind them so that we can strengthen ourselves by calling this Tory government to account now and in the future. We need to prepare for the fight of our lives after this crisis passes so that the Conservative government is not allowed to make the rest of us pay for it with another round of austerity. Sadly, not everyone in our ranks accepts the need for such unity as demonstrated by the leaked report detail the lengths that some party officials went to in 2017 to undermine our chances of winning. Such actions cannot be forgotten. There must be no covering up of this matter and it must not be about where the leaks came from. It must be about the substantive issue of paid officials of the Party working against it during an election campaign that we came so close wo winning. I support a transparent and independent inquiry into this matter which is why I signed the Socialist Campaign Group Statement on this matter and published it on my Facebook page that can be found here:
Mick Whitley MP