Parliament resumed on 1 September and I was right back into it – raising questions, speaking in debates and doing my best to hold this Tory Government to account.
But I must begin by saying how much I sympathise with all my constituents who faced a summer of turmoil, chaos and disappointment as a result of the complete and total incompetence of the Boris Johnson and his cronies.
Holidays ruined by sudden changes in the quarantine rules, hopes of young school students ruined by the exam results fiasco, livelihoods threatened by the premature ending of the furlough scheme. And now – just as the cases of Covid 19 begin to soar – the test and tracing system that the Tories told us was “world beating” is teetering on the edge of collapse. If you live in London, how about a test in Inverness!
But at least we got cheap meals in August – a meal deal, but not a real deal!
We can have an impact for good though. We may be faced with a Tory majority in Parliament, but we have hounded them and forced U-turns on several issues. But it will be campaigning on the streets, in our communities and alongside the unions in the workplaces, that we can have an even greater impact. And I am pleased to report that the campaign by Unite the Union – that I have actively supported – against the bully boy fire and rehire tactics of Willie Walsh at British Airways has enjoyed some success in stopping the bosses’ attacks. Though more remains to be done.
If we campaign, we can make a difference. If we campaign united, we can make a big difference. If we campaign united and reach out to our supporters to involve them in their thousands, we can win.
The Big Issues:
Local Restrictions across Merseyside
From Tuesday 22 September new restrictions on our activities come into force for Merseyside as a result of the increasing number of cases being reported in our region. The key measures that have been put in place are:
- No one to socialise with people outside of their own household or support bubble in private homes or gardens
- Table service only for food and drink at hospitality venues
- Pubs, cinemas etc., to close between 10pm and 5am
- Avoid attendance at amateur and semi professional sporting events as spectators
- Only use public transport for essential journeys
These are in addition to other restrictions (e.g. social distancing) that are already in place.
I have already received several complaints regarding these measures. But, without making any excuses for this incompetent government I have responded by urging people to follow the guidelines. The reasons for this are explained in this letter to constituents:
“Thank you for contacting me about this important matter. Throughout the current health emergency, the Labour Party has been supportive of all measures that have been aimed at combating the spread of Covid 19, supporting the NHS and saving lives.
Unfortunately, the Conservative Government has mismanaged many aspects of this crisis and the Labour Party is critical of such mismanagement. We are especially critical of the fact that the Government introduced one rule for some and another rule for the rest of us when they excused Dominic Cummings’ clear breach of lockdown measures at the height of the pandemic. We are deeply concerned that this has undermined public trust and confidence in the safety measures that are vital in keeping people well.
Despite this, as your elected MP I accept the scientific advice that has led to a range of restrictions such as social distancing and wearing face coverings being put in place. Where necessary – and as a result of the spike in cases on the Wirral it is necessary in Birkenhead – these restrictions have been extended.
While I fully accept that such restrictions are inconvenient and can be frustrating for some individuals, they are aimed at keeping as many people as safe as possible. Therefore I would call on you and all my constituents to bear with what is a highly unusual situation, observe the restrictions that have been put in place, be kind and considerate to others and help stem the spread of the disease.
The evidence that such measures can be effective in limiting the spread is based on research and evidence by the World Health Organisation and where it has been most rigorously followed, such as in New Zealand and South Korea, it has been effective in reducing the spread of Covid 19.”
Notwithstanding my support for Wirral Borough Council’s efforts to contain the virus, as outlined above, I want to make my position on the Government’s overall strategy very clear – it has been appalling.
From his refusal to attend Cobra meetings back in January, through his delay in implementing a shutdown right up to his current bumbling performances in Parliament Boris Johnson has proved himself to be unfit to run a whelk stall let alone a country.
I have mentioned his failures in previous bulletins so will not go over old ground, but during the summer we had three examples of a degree of incompetence that it must have taken years of being a spoilt brat to perfect.
- The Examinations: You wait all year for exam results to come along and then three arrive all at once – A-level, O-level and BTEC. But they are all wrong. They are all decided by an algorithm that discriminates against poorer working-class schools. The grades submitted by the teachers who know the students from having been with them for the past two years are dismissed as unsound but the algorithm that recognises the difference in status between Eton and Ridgeway in Birkenhead is hailed as the one true grade giver. I was delighted to follow up the campaign to force the U-turn on free school dinners with one to force a U-turn on this issue. But the question is, why did Gavin Williamson take this position in the first place and why is he still in office after the torment and trouble he caused for many of the nation’s young people?
- Quarantine: None of us have had a brilliant summer. But do you know what, at the very least you could have expected there to be a clear line regarding going on holiday. The best solution would be to have testing at airports so those travelling know they are not carrying the disease with them and those returning know if they have contracted it abroad or not. Surely with the “world beating” test and trace system that was announced last spring by Hancock and Johnson, this should have been easy to put in place. But no, instead we had the Government imposing or withdrawing quarantine rules for people coming back from holiday based on what felt like them having a game of Top Trumps with each other. And the announcements were usually designed to catch unsuspecting tourists while they were abroad to cause them as much inconvenience as possible. Two weeks holiday and two weeks quarantine became the “new normal”. Once again why was a clear line on all holidays abroad not introduced and stuck to so that people would at least know where they stood?
- Testing, testing, testing: All testing has been centralised. It is run by the government. Or rather it is run by that world-renowned health and medical centre of excellence, Deloitte. That is Deloitte, the Audit, Tax and Accountancy Consultancy giant. As Tony Soprano once asked when in hospital – are you doing a biopsy of my wallet? Essentially Johnson has been handing out contracts to friends, supporters and anyone else that Lord Dominic of Barnard believes can get the job done regardless of whether or not they have a clue about what they are supposed to be doing. The result? The “world beating” testing and tracing system we were promised is in a state of total chaos. There are not enough tests. There are not enough laboratories. There are not enough testing centres. Tests take an age to come back. And all local influence – let alone involvement – in testing is barred. The result is predictable – having eased lockdown to help their big business friends the virus is staging a big comeback. And the testing system that could have prevented the need for further restrictions cannot cope. Bris Johnson has taken us right back to square one.
The government’s mismanagement of the crisis defies belief. This crisis has been dealt with far better by countries that have taken the pandemic seriously and followed World Health Organisation guidelines. Boris Johnson on the other hand scoffed at those guidelines, refused to take action until too late – or rather until after his rich buddies had flocked to the Cheltenham Races and potentially became super spreaders – and Britain has paid the price with one of the highest death rates per head of the population.
Care workers deserve more … and so do NHS staff
Over the course of the summer I continued to campaign for a decent wage rise for care workers. Clapping them wasn’t paying the rent. They needed more money. As a starting point I supported Wirral Borough Council’s offer to subsidise all care providers so they could pay staff the real living wage.
I have now written to every care provider in Birkenhead asking them to take up this offer, pay the real living wage and recognise the enormous contribution that these skilled and dedicated workers make to society. This is a follow up to my request that they do this in a letter from the Council itself.
A number of care providers have risen to this challenge and upped the pay of their workers. I want to pay tribute to these providers. They are doing the decent thing and I thank them for it.
However, a significant number either ignored my letter altogether or responded by explaining that the economic model they follow meant that they were unable to pay the real living wage. My response to this is simple – if your economic model cannot pay a living wage of a meagre £9.30 per hour then it isn’t working. It is the wrong model. Change it and pay up – no ifs and no buts.
I fully realise that some of these providers will continue to ignore my polite but robust attempts to get them to deliver fairness and justice to their workforce. This is why, in addition to the letters I have sent out I am also actively working with the Council and the trade union, Unison to step up the campaign for the real living wage, as a minimum, for all care workers.
As well as campaigning on this through the summer months I attended demonstrations in support of a 15% pay rise for nurses and other hospital staff. The Tories are falling over themselves to praise the “first rate” NHS. Well to make it truly first rate its funding needs to be massively increased and its workforce needs a pay rise just to catch up with the cost of living. The posters on my office window say it loud and proud, “Your MP supports a pay rise for NHS Heroes”.
The Fight for jobs
My other major activity over the summer has been to support trade union campaigns to stop the tsunami of job losses that risks drowning our whole economy.
There are three pillars to my campaigning on this:
- I am fully supporting the joint union campaign to defend jobs in aviation alongside the Unite the Union campaign to defend manufacturing jobs. Along with several my fellow socialist MPs I have attended demonstrations and rallies at Parliament and elsewhere to get the message across that there can be no going back to a world of mass unemployment after the pandemic.
- Inside Parliament I have been working alongside colleagues to call the government to account – not only with regard to the aviation industry which has seen BA bosses, for example, move away from their fire and rehire position – but also to demand the extension of the furlough scheme. It needs to be maintained and targeted at the sectors that are suffering. If you are going to restrict the pubs, then you need to support the hospitality industry through the maintenance of furlough and through financial support. Otherwise it won’t have been a job retention scheme but a pathway to redundancy.
- Thirdly I have been working hard to create jobs. My campaign to force the government to bring shipbuilding back to our shipyards has had some success. And locally I am working closely with the Council and other stakeholders such as the Wirral Chamber of Commerce and Community, to bring much needed investment to Birkenhead. Plans are taking shape to dramatically regenerate our town and Council initiatives emphasising community wealth creation. Though at an early stage I am optimistic that this work will result in a significant boost to employment in our town, especially through the establishment of real apprenticeships for our young people.
I will continue to push forward on these three fronts, and I hope that the local party supports my efforts to build a better Birkenhead.
Community Spirit can beat racism
This summer I have had the pleasure of working with Brian Elkerton and his team to support the transformation of Prenton Rugby Club into a vibrant community hub, with its own dedicated nature trail, a community garden and a centre for local well being and social activities. I have attended the Co-Op’s Portland Academy on Laird Street to meet with young people who are going to be vital in leading our town out of crisis and towards prosperity. And I particularly welcomed Melanie Sanders’ opening of “All About You North West” – a beauty parlour with a difference, geared towards brightening the lives of the vulnerable in our town with a range of innovative activities Across the community.
Together with the spirit of mutual aid that was so evident during the lockdown – when neighbours and friends worked hard for the good of each – these initiatives over the summer have shown me the value of solidarity across our whole community. This continued in the work I was able to do with our BAME community activists at the Deen Centre, Wirral Change and the Wirral Multicultural Centre who dedicated their spare time to working with the Council to develop an effective response to the rise in Covid 19 across the town.
Compare this with the small-minded bigotry of the wretched Nigel Farage who came to our region to spread poison and hate. His appearance in Hoylake was designed to target asylum seekers who have fled wars and chaos in their own countries in order to seek safety in ours.
His visit was directly responsible for the appearance on our streets of the racists of “Wirral For Britain” in early September. Their message is that all the problems we face are a result of immigration. The “illegal immigrants” are stealing our jobs so let’s whip up racism and turn people against each other because of the colour of their skin or their nation of birth.
This is a lie and its only purpose is to divide people against each other. And while we remain divided Boris Johnson is laughing all the way up his racist sleeves. That is why the Manifesto I was elected on is one I aim to remain true to. Against the scapegoating of migrants and refugees it stated:
“Refugees are victims of wars, environmental catastrophes, famine or persecution. This government has failed its international legal obligations to refugees and to allow people to exercise their rights to seek asylum.
A Labour government will uphold those rights and meet those obligations. We will work with others to resume rescue missions in the Mediterranean, co-operate with the French authorities to put an end to the horrific camps, and establish safe and legal routes for asylum seekers. Once here, refugees will have the right to work, access to public services and will be treated humanely by government at all levels.”
Community solidarity is our answer to racism.
Mick Whitley MP.