Radical Roundup: 10 stories that have got buried

Left Foot Forward's roundup of the progressive news you might have missed so far this week.

In no particular order… PS: Got a story tip? Email us: [email protected]

10. The Scottish government is using a private company to scale up contact tracing, it has emerged.

The government has reportedly struck a £1.3m deal with a call centre firm called Ascensos, without putting the contract out to public tender. Ascensos currently runs NHS Scotland’s Covid-19 helpline.

Pascale Robinson, campaigns officer at We Own It said: “Test and trace is one of the most vital components to getting out of this crisis, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that throughout the whole of the English programme, the private sector is resolutely failing to deliver – and it’s making our communities less safe, increasing the likelihood of tightened restrictions and needlessly risking lives.

“So why has the Scottish government decided to follow, enlisting a private company rather than hiring people to work under skilled and qualified contact tracing teams regionally and locally? 20,000 people put themselves forward to boost contact tracing teams. 

“These contracts with private companies should be ended, and skilled local public health teams should be scaled up, unless Scotland wants to have a test and trace scheme as disastrous as England’s,” she added.

9. The leader of Unite, Len McCluskey, has spoken out in support of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, amid an ongoing row with the government over a lack of financial support for the area.

McCluskey said: “Andy Burnham has been doing a fantastic job in speaking up for and defending the people he has been elected to serve.

“Unite members will be forever grateful to him for fighting the corner of the low-waged and those in insecure employment, the vulnerable and the young, all of whom are paying the heaviest price of this dreadful virus. They are sure to be watching the debate in the House of Commons very closely to see who votes to stand with them and who votes to abandon them.

“We are also 100 per cent behind Andy Burnham’s calls for full furlough support to be provided to those who cannot work their usual hours as a result of the government’s Tier 3 shutdown. Why can this government not get it into its head that most people, particularly those on low wages, cannot afford to lose a single pound of their pay? To lose one third of a low wage, as this government insists, is to be forced into certain debt and despair,” he said.

8. The Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee has written to a range of businesses in sectors including fashion, retail and information technology, to assess whether they are exploiting the forced labour of Uyghur in the Xinjiang region of China.

The Committee’s request for information to these named businesses also includes an invitation to give evidence at the BEIS Committee’s public hearing on Thursday 5th November. Government  Minister Paul Scully will also be giving evidence at this session.

Nusrat Ghani MP, Conservative MP for Wealden and lead BEIS Committee member for the ‘Forced labour in UK value chains’ inquiry, said: “We are determined to ask prominent businesses operating in Britain in these sectors what they are doing to ensure their profits are not on the back of forced labour in China. These businesses are trusted by many British consumers and I hope they will repay this faith by coming forward to answer these questions and also take up the opportunity to give evidence to the Business Committee in public.

“There have been a series of accounts of products being sold in the UK which can be traced back to forced labour at camps in China. On the BEIS Committee, we want to get a clearer sense of the extent of this problem, how seriously businesses ask questions of their own supply and value-chains, and to also examine the steps both Government and business could take to ensure that businesses and consumers in the UK do not perpetuate the forced labour of Uyghur.”

7. A ‘starter payment’ should be made to people claiming Universal Credit (UC) for the first time, to ensure that everyone has enough money for basics such as food and heating during the initial ‘five week wait’, the Work and Pensions Committee has said.

The Committee’s report ‘Universal Credit: the wait for a first payment’ finds that the current wait of at least five weeks causes difficulties for some households. While the existing system of Advance payments for those in need can provide help, some people are unable to afford the required repayments.

The Committee warns that this leaves people with a difficult choice: five weeks with no income, or the risk of debt and hardship later. The report concludes that the introduction of a new payment – equivalent to three weeks of the standard allowance – would be a simple way of ensuring that new claimants had the money they needed for basic living essentials. For people moving from existing benefits, the DWP should make the move seamless wherever possible, and pay a starter payment in other cases.

6. The Green Party has sharply criticised the government’s decision to abandon its planned spending review.

The three-year spending plan was supposed to have framed the economic policy agenda of the Johnson government. Climate campaigners say it offered an opportunity to provide much-needed investment in a green transition to zero carbon.

Molly Scott Cato, the party’s finance spokesperson and an economist, said: “This is a failure of vision from a Prime Minister whose promise to ‘build back greener’ has been shown to be hollow. The climate emergency won’t wait…

“This failure to establish a direction of travel for the economy will create greater uncertainty for local authorities as well as business and stall the medium-term investment that is so vital to enable our economy to recover.

“The government that will host the next round of COP talks in little over a year is failing to make the long-term investments that the climate crisis demands. It is a time to show leadership and that means long-term and large-scale investments in the Green New Deal that the country and the planet are crying out for.”

5. ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, has condemned the government’s attempt to ‘punish the capital’ by imposing a raft of unpopular measures in exchange for a bailout of Transport for London.

The FT reports on Wednesday that Ministers have threatened to take direct control of Transport for London, “unless mayor Sadiq Khan accepts a package of measures including higher council tax, a much larger congestion charge zone and higher tube and bus fares in return for rescue funding.”

Mick Whelan, ASLEF’s general secretary, said: ““That is not just wrong, and ideologically-driven, but stupid. London is the only major city in Western Europe without a government grant for day-to-day transport operations.

“Passengers and fares have fallen by 90% during this pandemic but that is not the fault of Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, nor is it the fault of staff.”

Finn Brennan, ASLEF’s organiser on London Underground, added: “When, like other essential workers, TfL staff left their homes and families to keep the capital moving they were called heroes. Now the government wants to attack their working conditions and the pensions they have earned.

“Boris Johnson who, during his time as London Mayor, was responsible for gross waste and mismanagement at TfL, should understand that staff will not accept this. If he seeks confrontation, then he will find it.”

4. The Government has been roundly mocked for trying to rebrand No Deal with the EU as an ‘Australia-style deal’.

Labour MP and Chair of the Brexit Select Committee Hilary Benn told Times Radio that the idea of an Australian-style deal was nonsense.

“There isn’t such a thing as an Australian-style deal because it’s just trading on World Trade Organisation terms. You might as well call it a Somalia-style deal or an Afghanistan- style deal. It’s nonsense.

“The question really is this, we are already in the biggest economic crisis in our lifetime, because of Covid, why on earth would we want to end up on the 31st of December, with the prospect of charging tariffs to each other from the first of January next year?

“If you are a lamb or a beef farmer you are looking at the prospects of that with despair and horror….We sell just under 2000 cars a day to the European Union. Why would you want to add 10% of the cost of that? Because that would be the tariff for cars.”

He called for the Government to get back to the negotiating table after No 10 suggested talks were off: “Both sides should stop it and get back to the day job which is negotiating the deal because time is rapidly running out…I find it impossible to believe that the government’s policy is now deliberately to head towards no agreement at the end of the year. So, could they please get back to work?”

3. Scottish independence campaigners have mocked the UK Government, after a leaked memo suggested the Tories could offer referendum on new Holyrood powers to avoid independence, and by ‘co-opting’ the EU into opposing it.

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “The idea the Tories could successfully ‘co-opt’ the EU into anything is laughable given they have approached Brexit negotiations in the spirit of a toddler having a tantrum. Even more ridiculous than that is the notion that there could be a referendum on more devolved powers from a government which is currently actively ripping up the existing devolution settlement.

“I don’t see any chance that voters in Scotland would be hoodwinked by Trojan horse solutions from a Government that has broken promises on devolution, dragged Scotland out of Europe and is in the process on giving itself a veto over Scotland’s democracy.

“What this leaked plan does show is that the Conservative party is in an absolute panic about what now seems inevitable, that Scotland will choose instead to join the international community, take our seat at the European table, and play a leading role in creating a fairer and greener future.”

2. The Liberal Democrats have secured a commitment from Health Minister Lord Bethell to publish the agreement between the Government and police chiefs over the decision to share test and trace data.

The government initially refused to publish the Memorandum of Understanding, but relented under questioning.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven said: “An effective test, trace and isolate system to keep people safe will only work if the public have faith in it and this means the Government must be open and honest about how it uses people’s data.

“It is absolutely crucial that the Government publishes its Memorandum of Understanding with police chiefs on sharing of Test and Trace data in full, otherwise they risk further undermining public trust in the system and discouraging people from getting tested.

“I’m glad to have secured this commitment from the Minister, but he must now make sure the document is published for public scrutiny as soon as possible. The Liberal Democrats are clear that transparency over the use of personal data is essential to build public confidence in Test and Trace.”

1. The SNP has urged the UK Government to grant the right to work to asylum seekers waiting for a decision on their asylum application.

It comes after 181,399 petition signatures were given to the Home Office demanding they lift the ban on working for those in the asylum system.

Currently people seeking asylum in the UK are only able to apply for the right to work after they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year – and those then granted such permission are rarely able to work in practice because their employment is restricted to the UK government’s Shortage Occupation List.

Those seeking refugee status are living on just £5.39 a day whilst they wait months or years for decision on their asylum claim. The SNP’s Shadow Immigration Minister has said the UK government is “leaving people destitute, as well as wasting the talents of thousands of people who could be contributing to society and the wider UK economy through choice.”

In a Lift the Ban Coalition report released earlier this year, figures revealed that 71% of people in the UK agree that people seeking asylum should be allowed to work.

The SNP has consistently called for the ban to be lifted and SNP MP Carol Monaghan has brought forward a bill that, if passed, will do that. The Asylum Seekers (Permission to Work) Bill is due to have its Second Reading in February 2021.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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