May Bedford Independent Column: Government is losing public confidence over return to schools

On 10 May the Prime Minister announced that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be the first to return to school on 1 June.

Teachers’ unions, backed by the British Medical Association, have since expressed concern about the safety of classrooms and believe the Government is trying to shift the responsibility for safety in schools and community health, during a health pandemic, onto individual headteachers without a safe national framework.

Parents in Bedford and Kempston now face the agonising choice between the obvious benefits of their child returning to the school structure and environment versus the unknown risks of compromising the lock-down when the infection rate is still not under control.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still observing the lockdown and a handful of councils across England have instructed schools not to open more widely, for fear of the virus spreading again.

This is a novel virus, so scientists are divided on the risks to children. Some studies show pupils are less likely to become ill if infected and their ability to transfer the virus is low, while others show they are as infectious as adults, even if asymptomatic.

The Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser admitted the Government’s plan could risk spreading coronavirus since there is a “low degree of confidence” that children transmit the virus less than adults.

Speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday, Michael Gove could not guarantee that teachers and pupils would not catch coronavirus. But when I asked the Secretary of Health if he could reassure parents and teachers it was safe for young children, unable to socially distance, to return to school he maintained that parents can be “confident that school is a safe environment for them.”

The Government is losing public confidence just when it’s most needed to persuade anxious parents to send their children to school; it’s been eroded by endless contradictory advice and slippery pledges made to fill front pages for a day, that are exposed as untrue soon afterwards.

When there are differences of opinion between scientists on what counts as safe, only honesty about what is uncertain earns political trust. But too often now, this Government’s bold pledges, including those on testing, PPE and their myth that they had “put a safety ring around care homes”, have been exposed as falsehoods. The horrific death toll tells the real story.

Now we learn that the tracing app, integral to the testing, tracing and isolation strategy and so vital in preventing a second surge, will not be rolled out before children in England return to school.

In a few weeks’ time, the picture may look quite different. We are all coming to terms with moving forward to live with a different level of risk until a vaccine can be found. Bedford Borough have committed to opening schools when it is safe to do so. But the Government must address teachers’ concerns, and put in place the plans to test, trace and isolate before teachers and parents can be confident that sending children back to school won’t trigger a second deadly peak.

Please note I have reinstated surgeries, which will take place virtually until further notice. I will be holding appointments for Zoom meetings from 3-5 on Fridays. 

April Bedford Independent guest column: Government’s response is an epic failure

I want the government to succeed in fighting the biggest crisis in peacetime history, to save lives and protect livelihoods.

As an Opposition MP, it felt important to provide constructive support to the Government, only challenging when we think serious mistakes are being made or something is not happening that needs to happen.

The Sunday Times report last weekend changed things.

The news that Boris Johnson skipped five emergency Cobra meetings on Coronavirus, ignored early calls to order protective gear and was dismissive of scientists’ warnings of the severity the threat posed to the security of the UK, confirmed an extraordinary complacency from a Prime Minister renowned for his disregard for detail.

We now know that the Prime Minister’s long weekend holidays, even during the winter floods, his requests to keep briefings short – otherwise he wouldn’t read them, and his two week holiday with his fiancée at a countryside retreat in Chevening were the backdrop to a sequence of failings in February that has undoubtedly cost thousands of lives.

NHS England had already declared the virus outbreak as a “level 4 critical incident” at the end of January, the first ever of this severity.

Lack of provision for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our health and social care workers is the story that has been simmering since the beginning of the crisis.

I’ve been written to by local doctors, care home providers and dentists, all raising concerns about PPE and testing.

Months on, and the deaths of at least a hundred frontline, health and social care workers later (according to a nursing website Nursing Notes), the cries from the frontline about PPE shortages are now deafening.

But the Government seem no nearer to securing a stable supply line to keep workers who are risking their lives to help us, safe.

And local authorities are bearing the brunt.

Last week, Bedford Borough Council contacted me to express “real concerns about the delivery of PPE”.

Although equipment is filtering through in fits and starts, deliveries have been late, incomplete or incorrect.

Bedford’s Local Resilience Forum and Bedfordshire Police are working flat out to ensure we do not reach a position of rationing, but the reality is that there is a big gap between what the Government is telling us and what is happening on the frontline.

The public policy void in the UK – where there should be a coordinated central direction – is now grossly irresponsible.

March Bedford Independent Column: Public health crisis

We are living through a global emergency. Governments throughout the world are struggling to deal with this public health crisis – the like of which has not been experienced for a century.

There are no easy solutions.  My thoughts are with the loved ones of those who have sadly died, with those who have contracted the virus and with the keyworkers and all the frontline workers including the incredible staff at Bedford Hospital who are working around the clock to keep us safe.

For most of us, the illness will be mild but for others, particularly for those over 70 with underlying health conditions, it can be fatal.  All of us who do not fall into an ‘at risk’ group have a duty to act in the public interest, to keep those who are vulnerable safe and strictly follow the social distancing guidelines if we develop symptoms.

Many of you are writing to me with me concerns about how your business is struggling, or how you will cope if you are off work sick.

People are already losing their jobs and businesses and wondering how they will keep a roof over their head. Renters are worrying about the threat of eviction due to loss of income.

No-one should be forced to choose between health and hardship – between working a zero-hours job with symptoms, or self-isolating without access to sick pay, potentially struggling to make ends meet.

A quarter of the vital staff we need to support us in this crisis, such as cleaners and care sector workers, are working on zero hours, low-paid contracts.

The further announcements laid out by the Chancellor yesterday include a statutory sick pay relief package for Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), a 12-month business rates holiday for all retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in England, small business grant funding of £10,000 for all business in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief and a grant funding of £25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with property with a rateable value between £15,000 and £51,000.

However, the package isn’t good enough to meet the scale of the crisis and lacks the certainty required amidst growing public anxiety. It goes nowhere near far enough in protecting workers, renters and those who have already lost their jobs.

The Government must give confidence now to the two million people who work in low income jobs or are on zero hours contracts, including a quarter of social care staff and almost half of home care workers.

They must commit to extending statutory sick pay to all workers, paying at least the level of the Real Living Wage, so that people are not pushed into poverty by doing the right thing.

The Government must also: raise the level of ‘new style’ Employment Support Allowance (ESA) payments; suspend all sanctions, rather than providing an approach based on the ‘discretion’ of work coaches;  introduce rent payment deferment options and ban any evictions of tenants affected by the outbreak; remove the requirement to attend an appointment at a Jobcentre Plus for Universal Credit, suspending sanctions and reducing the wait time for first payment down from five weeks; and support local authorities working with food banks in the purchase and distribution of food stocks.

We will get through this if we look after ourselves and each other. I am so proud of Bedford’s community response.

So many of you have volunteered to support vulnerable people and families through the crisis.

Bedford Borough Council has created a new community hub so do get in touch if  you can offer or ask for help.  Community Voluntary Service (CVS) Bedfordshire.

You can read the article here on Bedford Independent’s website

January Bedford Independent Column

It’s great to be back in Parliament to get on with raising the concerns of the people of Bedford and Kempston.

It’s not going to be easy. When the Government has such a large majority, it is difficult for Opposition MPs to change legislation, but I believe now more than ever, we need a strong Labour Party to hold the Government to account in what is going to be a vital time for the future of the UK.

My priorities for Bedford for the next five years will be fighting for funding for Bedford Hospital and improving health and social care provision; supporting Bedfordshire Police to make our town a safer place; and fighting to improve Bedford’s rail services.

I have secured a meeting with the Rail Minister this week to discuss Bedford’s dreadful rail service.

The Thameslink service remains unreliable, services north have been downgraded, and intercity trains to the south no longer stop at Bedford.

The franchise system has failed customers, who are fed up with paying more for reduced, undependable services.

I will be meeting Chief Constable Garry Forsyth to discuss how I can ensure Bedfordshire Police get the resources they need to protect people and fight crime.

Bedfordshire was hit hard by Tory austerity, despite facing soaring levels of organised and serious violent crime. The Government finally gave in to pressure on police numbers – but the Prime Minister is only pledging to replace the police officers that his Government cut.

I will work hard to ensure the Government delivers on that promise.

Knife crime levels and organised crime incidence in Bedfordshire are some of the highest in the country and funding Beds as a rural force isn’t working when the reality is that Bedfordshire faces similar issues to large metropolitan areas.

Our police force needs sustainable not piecemeal funding, so it can focus on preventing crime, not just reacting to it when another family has tragically lost a child to violent crime.

I will also continue to campaign for funding for Bedford Hospital, starting with a meeting with the Health Secretary, and continue the fight for the re-introduction of in-patient mental health beds to Bedford.

In Parliament, I will focus on getting the best Brexit we can which protects workers’ rights, food standards, citizens’ rights and environmental protections.

I will do all I can to pressurise the Government on improving and accelerating their very weak plans to tackle the global warming crisis.

There’s a long-road ahead and a lot of work to be done: supporting our schools, businesses and charities big and small; working hard to promote our wonderful town and doing all I can to protect our struggling high street.

But most of all I’m here to serve you and raise your concerns locally and in Parliament. Please contact my office if my team or I can offer support.

Read the article here at Bedford Independent.

October Bedford Independent Column – The Queen’s speech was ‘a party-political broadcast for a Conservative Government in panic mode’

This week the Queen was summoned to Parliament to read out Boris Johnson’s Government’s agenda.

But this was a highly unusual Queen’s speech, because the Prime Minister, now 45 MP’s short of a majority, is unlikely to get his wish-list through Parliament.

A Queen’s speech should set out the legislative process for the year ahead, but the Prime Minister can’t even say what will happen next week. And the General Election he is calling for will end the new Parliament barely before its begun.

This was little more than a party-political broadcast for a Conservative Government in panic mode, and who better to deliver it than our 93-year-old, politically neutral monarch? I’m sure she was less than thrilled.

With just days to the third Brexit deadline, the Prime Minister wasted precious time on pointless pageantry. It was another ploy to distract us from the chaos and confusion of his weak and dishonest administration.

Closer examination of the Government’s agenda gives little comfort. With no less than eight bills dedicated to law and order, the message rang out loud and clear.

Boris wants the electorate to think he will be tough on crime. But longer sentences for prisoners won’t solve the problem. There was no strategy for rehabilitation, no recognition that it is years of cuts to our public services that have caused our prison population to balloon.

Nothing for youth services or public health and no realistic settlement for local government on the horizon. A few warm words about improving mental health provision but nothing concrete and we have been waiting years for the in patient mental health beds to be reinstated.

And while it is welcome news that Bedfordshire police is getting 54 additional officers, 440 are needed, so we’re very short of where we need to be. Bedfordshire has lost 8% of its police officers over 10 years of austerity, while violent crime levels have soared.

The Prime Minister talks about more funding for the NHS, but we now know only a handful of hospitals will benefit. Bedford has been offered nothing as a result of the merger and severe staff shortages are crippling our NHS.

Since 2010 there are more workers in poverty, more children in poverty, more pensioners in poverty. There are more families without a home of their own and more people sleeping rough on our streets. Wages are still lower than a decade ago, a million work in the insecure gig economy and foodbanks have become the norm.

Even the things that were promised in the speech are dependent upon the delivery of a form of Brexit that doesn’t cripple the nation – and right now Boris can’t tell us how much poorer we’ll be under his plans.

He’s also recklessly bluffing that he’ll take us out of the EU without a deal.  I think the public should get a chance to have a final say on whether his ‘dodgy deal or no deal’ approach works for them, and I’ll be voting to make that happen.

Read the article at Bedford Independent. 

August Bedford Independent Column – Local Healthcare

August Bedford Independent Column – Local Healthcare

Stalled discussions over the merger between Bedford Hospital and the Luton & Dunstable were revived at the start of August by a promise of investment.

It’s not hard to see why Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make such an announcement at this point  – the threat of a vote of no confidence when MP’s return after the summer break looms, and giving money to hospitals might seem like a way to secure support from MPs.

But this is not a new pledge.

The money for this merger was bid for and promised a long time ago – it’s just that the treasury wouldn’t release it.

For Bedford Hospital, the announcement ends years of uncertainty, and will be good for staff morale and retention.

I am pleased that services will be retained at Bedford after what has been a long and hard-fought campaign, and I will hold NHS bosses to their promises to keep A&E, Maternity and Paediatrics at Bedford.

But these merger plans don’t offer much in the way of enhanced facilities for Bedford, with most of the capital earmarked for upgrades to the Luton site.

I now want to see real investment in our healthcare facilities locally; for a return of inpatient mental health beds, for better access to primary care and better facilities for our GPs, and for enough money to keep essential services like our hydrotherapy pool running.

It’s not just acute NHS services that will need extra cash if we are to tackle the burgeoninghealthcare crisis either.

If more money isn’t provided for social care, hospitals will continue to pick up the slack. Bedford Borough Council are particularly good at ensuring seamless transfers of care, but the system is undoubtedly struggling.

The workforce shortages we see throughout the health and social care system will significantly worsen if strict post-Brexit immigration rules force lower income workers to leave the UK.

If Boris Johnson is serious about our nation’s health, he’ll provide some genuinely new money for the whole system.

He’ll scrap his dangerous no-deal Brexit plans that further threaten the stability of our health and social care workforce and would likely disrupt medical supply lines.

And he’ll reverse short-sighted Public Health cuts so that people can be helped to live healthier lives. Prevention is not only better than cure, it’s cheaper. But perhaps he doesn’t think he’ll be PM for long enough to see the benefits.

Read the article here at Bedford Independent

April Bedford Independent Guest Column – Cuts Correlate with Crime

My latest guest column for Bedford Independent focuses on the correlation between cuts to police and public services and the rise in violent crime.

This month, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made another speech about rising violent crime among young people.

In what some interpreted as a leadership bid, Javid said, had he not had the good influence of his parents and teachers he could have had a life of crime himself and worried about his teenage children out on the streets.

“If I don’t feel safe or don’t think the streets are safe enough for my own children,” he said, “then something has gone terribly wrong”.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The country has seen a massive increase in youth knife crime. In Bedfordshire, knife crime has gone up 86% since 2014 and we have one of the worst knife crime rates outside of London.

In the last month alone, we have seen the trials of two horrific murders in Bedford. Five men were jailed for a total of 102 years for the death of Przemyslaw Golimowski.

And a 20-year-old and three 15-year olds, who filmed their brutal attack of 16- year old Cemeren Yilmaz, were found guilty of murder – a case of children killing children in gang related violence.

Until the Conservative Government acknowledge that cuts to police and other public services correlates to the rise in violent crime, they are not going to tackle the problem.

The Government have offered a one-off fund, but this is a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to what is needed.

10 years of austerity has hit our nation hard and the damage of such social violence cannot be underestimated.

As well as giving the police the funding they need to do their jobs effectively we have to start taking a public health approach to youth violent crime and find out why kids are joining gangs, carrying knives and hurting each other.

There are plenty of teachers, youth workers, scholars and parents who know what needs to be done but the Government won’t listen.

A damning report by the United Nations poverty envoy in November found that the UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity.”

Labour have called for more police officers and a real, concentrated effort to tackle the root causes of knife crime.

This involves supporting vulnerable young people who are at risk of falling into crime and developing comprehensive prevention and support strategies.

These changes would tackle not only knife crime, but other related crimes too.

Mr Javid talks of his escape from a possible world of crime, but his Government are reducing opportunities and life chances for young people.

There were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2016-17. Is it that surprising that children are being seduced into a world of crime when their families can’t even feed them?

A much larger, co-ordinated effort is needed to prevent violent crimes and give our young people the chances that they deserve. The current approach has failed and is costing lives.”

March Bedford Independent Guest Column – Christchurch & Social Media Reform

My monthly guest column for Bedford Independent focuses on the appalling terrorist attack in New Zealand and the need for decisive action by social media companies.

On Friday we woke to the terrible news that 50 innocent lives had been taken in New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack on two mosques.

This abhorrent act, carried out by a right-wing extremist, has shocked the world, and we all mourn with the people of Christchurch.

One of the most distressing aspects of the attack was that the terrorist live-streamed his appalling acts on social media. Footage was available many hours later and can still be found in less obvious areas of the internet.

Some of our national newspapers even carried the footage on their websites and one national paper uploaded the attacker’s full 74-page manifesto, deleting the document only after being accused of spreading terrorist material.

There must be a serious review of how these films were shared and why more effective action wasn’t taken to remove them and the associated material.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded quickly and decisively, pledging to cover the cost of funerals offering financial assistance for those affected – and most importantly promising changes to her country’s gun laws.

Her compassionate leadership has been praised globally. But this was an act of terror designed to send fear across the globe by use of digital media, and now the legislative response needs to reflect that.

The devastating attack on innocent men, women and children in their place of worship crystallises the case for social media regulation.

Social media platforms have become part of the terrorists’ tools, but they continue to deny their responsibilities as a publisher of the material.

Although Facebook claims that it removed 1.5 million videos of the attack globally, of which over 1.2 million were blocked at upload, but questions remain about why an account displaying white supremacist material was not already banned.

The social media oligarchs have the tech to control output on their platforms but have so far resisted doing so.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg refused Parliament’s request to be questioned by MPs over data abuse in their inquiry into ‘Disinformation and Fake News’ which issued its final report in February.

The report was highly critical of media platforms; their illegal harvesting and use of our data and the threat to democracy in the UK and elsewhere.

Defenders of the media platforms and of extreme views always cite free speech as the reason why any regulation would be wrong, but free speech always comes with responsibility and does not trump the rule of law.

The right to freedom of speech certainly does not extend to the right to carry out or promote mass murders on the grounds of racial or religious hatred.

I am pleased that the Home Secretary agrees with Labour policy that new laws are urgently required to force the oligarchs of Silicon Valley to face up to their responsibilities, but meaningful action must be taken before more innocent lives are lost.