Radical Roundup: 10 stories that have got buried – Week 1 February 2021

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

Your weekly dose of under-reported news, in no particular order… PS: Got a story tip? Email us: [email protected]

10. People living in the most deprived areas of England and Wales were significantly more likely to use public transport and make more visits to essential shops during the second lockdown compared to those in the wealthiest areas, the UCL’s Covid-19 Virus Watch study has found.

The UCL Virus Watch study began recruiting in June 2020 and now involves 45,861 people of all ages from 22,488 households across England and Wales. The team of researchers analysed self-reported data from participants provided from June 2020 to January 2021. 

Professor Robert Aldridge, Co-Chief Investigator of the Virus Watch Health Equity Study, said: “Higher levels of Covid-19 disease and infection in poorer areas are connected to the social and economic circumstances that constrain people’s options. 

“People living in the most deprived areas are less likely to be able to work from home and are more reliant on public transport which puts them at greater risk of exposure to Covid-19. This is likely to be driving the higher rates of Covid-19 in the most deprived areas of the country. 

“The threefold difference in public transport use we’ve seen in the second lockdown is particularly stark and likely reflects differences in car ownership. The increased number of visits to essential shops like grocery stores may reflect a diminished ability to buy in bulk or shop online due to less disposable weekly income.”

9. British Gas boss Chris O’Shea blamed ‘dodgy’ legal advice as he told MPs this week that he thought he had to issue fire and rehire notices to staff. 

Giving evidence to the BEIS Select Committee on Tuesday, O’Shea told MP’s he ‘regretted’ the company’s interpretation of the law which led to him issue the notices, which

GMB says is to blame for the ongoing strikes and breakdown in industrial relations and trust at British Gas under his leadership. 

Mr O’Shea told the Committee ‘trust is not where it should be’ in what he said is a company ‘with underlying profitability’ and that he is committed to work with GMB to rebuild this trust. Committee chair Darren Jones MP replied he was ‘not entirely convinced by the argument that you had to issue the fire and rehire so early because of the law…if that was the case every other business would be doing it.’ 

A meeting of the GMB Central Executive Committee will decide the next steps in the dispute. 

Justin Bowden, GMB National Officer, said: “This should now signal a change of course. [O’Shea] told the parliamentary committee that fire and rehire was his big regret and he wants to rebuild trust with GMB members – so why doesn’t he take it off the table so negotiations can resume?  

“Mr O’Shea should do this as further strikes will add to over 170,000 homes in repair backlog and 200,000 service visits axed. British Gas’s claim that it is catching up after 24 hours is bogus.

8. Anti-monarchy group Republic has called on the BBC to release the 1969 documentary “Royal Family”.

The film hasn’t been broadcast since the 1970s. Last week it was posted on YouTube before being removed on copyright grounds.

Republic, which campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy, has said it is ‘outrageous’ that the BBC is ‘helping the royals protect their own image’. 

Speaking for the campaign, Graham Smith called on the BBC to release the documentary, saying:  “This film should be in the public domain so that people can make their own judgements about the royals. There is a clear public interest in its release, and there is clearly something wrong with the BBC taking instructions from the royals.”

“The BBC produced the film yet it is claimed to be covered by Crown copyright. The BBC defends its impartial news reporting yet has allowed the subjects of a documentary to control access to it.”

He added: “It is not the job of the BBC to protect the royals from scrutiny. No-one else would have that kind of power over the BBC.”

“This is a BBC documentary, the decision to broadcast it or make it available online is the BBC’s. To deliberately keep it away from the public is an outrage.”

7. Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, has responded to remarks made by Dido Harding at the Science and Technology Committee, where she confirmed that 20,000 people a day who have Covid aren’t isolating.

Ashworth said in a statement: “[This] confirms our repeated warnings that without decent sick pay and support we won’t break chains of transmission.

“With worrying identification of the South African variant in the community and the E484K mutation in the infectious Kent variant it’s now more urgent than ever that this hole in our defences is fixed.”

6. The TUC has warned that demand for self-isolation payments is significantly outstripping the available funding, as 7 in 10 (70%) applicants end up without financial support.

This funding shortfall is putting pressure on local authorities to either fill the gap themselves, reject applications from low-paid workers who need financial support to self-isolate or, in some cases, close schemes altogether.

The self-isolation payment scheme was introduced by government on 28 September 2020, six months into the pandemic, and offers a one-off £500 payment for those who need to self-isolate because of coronavirus but cannot work from home.

Local authorities use discretionary grants to support applicants who do not meet the strict government-set criteria for the main self-isolation scheme. According to the Resolution Foundation, 7 in 8 workers aren’t eligible for the main scheme, so instead, have to rely on discretionary payments.

The warning of a big funding shortfall comes as the TUC releases new analysis based on freedom of information data collected from 175 councils across England.

The responses show that the amount of initial money provided by central government would not have been enough to meet the demand for around 50% of English councils – let alone nationwide.

The union body estimates that in early January there was a £28 million shortfall for the discretionary scheme – a gap that remains today despite recent additional funding.

5. Michael Gove has admitted that post-Brexit trade problems are not just “teething problems” but “significant issues” that could risk livelihoods.

Commenting, the SNP’s newly appointed International Trade spokesperson, Drew Hendry MP, said: “After a month of the Tory government insisting that the huge issues exporters and hauliers have faced at the border are just ‘teething problems’, it seems that finally a UK minister has taken his head out of the sand and is waking up to the reality that their bad Brexit deal is having a real and devastating impact on real people and businesses.

He added: “We can only hope the rest of the Cabinet will follow and action is taken to protect people’s livelihoods and businesses. The UK government must immediately suspend fines, introduce a grace period for exporters and hauliers and make good on the Prime Minister’s promise to deliver compensation for businesses affected by the trade difficulties.

“It is wrong that Scotland’s industries, workers and ultimately, consumers are paying the price for a Tory Brexit it didn’t vote for, as well as the hubris, lies and broken promises that just keep coming from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the rest of the UK Cabinet.”

4. The government has been defeated for a second time in the House of Lords on a key amendment to its Trade Bill.

This Tuesday, the House of Lords voted for an amendment to the Bill which would give parliament powers to scrutinise future trade agreements.

The government’s defeat comes after MPs voted down a similar amendment in the House of Commons in January, with the Lords having sought to ensure parliamentary scrutiny was a requirement for trade agreements when it last debated the Bill in December.

Campaigners claim that without the Trade Bill being amended in this way, the government could sign trade deals behind closed doors without MPs or the public being able to see the details of them. They also allege that this could mean elements of the NHS could be included in trade agreements without parliament being given a say. 

We Own It – the campaign for public ownership of public services – has been campaigning for 18 months to protect the NHS from trade deals and ensure that trade deals aren’t signed in secret.

Speaking on the House of Lords’ vote, We Own It campaigner Johnbosco Nwogbo said: “Without this amendment being written into the Bill, we could see our NHS carved up and sold off behind closed doors without parliament or the public knowing about it, and being powerless to stop it. It’s now time for MPs to do the right thing and back this amendment too, so that parliament can ensure that our NHS is not on the table in a trade deal with the USA or any other country.”

The Trade Bill will now return to the House of Commons, where MPs will vote to accept or reject the amendments made by the House of Lords.

3. Green London mayoral candidate Sian Berry has pledged to back a ‘Green London Living Wage’ of £14 an hour for workers and apprentices of all ages if elected as the Mayor of London.

Greens say the pandemic has exposed how few savings people have to rely on during hard times. The old method of calculating the London Living Wage used to have a ‘rainy day’ buffer, but it was removed from the calculations in 2016.

Currently the Government’s Living Wage is set at £8.72 while the Living Wage Foundation calculates that a London Living Wage ought to be set at £10.85. In 2022-23, these hourly rates are projected to be set at £9.02 and £11.10 respectively. 

The so-called Green London Living Wage would give Londoners an extra £2.90 an hour in 2022 at a rate of £14.00. Berry has pledged to pay all GLA employees at this rate at minimum, and work across London to bring as many employers into accreditation as Living Wage employers, including those offering apprenticeships.

2. A new Prisons Inspectorate report, which draws on survey responses given by children in secure training centres and young offender institutions, reveals how they felt unsafe, were exposed to violence and self-injury, and were spending long periods locked inside their cells even before the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “When a child is in trouble with the law, we should do all we can to keep them safe, guide them away from crime and help them to thrive. Here, in their own words, children are telling us that prisons do the opposite.

“These survey responses, from before the pandemic, are the latest in a long line of requests for help from the tens of thousands of boys and girls who have been brutalised, abused, and denied basic amenities such as education and exercise in prisons over the last 40 years of failure. Even the simplest human decency, to be free from adult violence, is denied these children.”

1. Labour to Win, a pro-Starmer group within Labour, is calling for a change of culture in the party.

In a statement being signed by party members, the group said: “Labour’s culture is too inward-looking, too factionalised and divided, too acrimonious and too negative. As our Deputy leader Angela Rayner said to the Fabian Society conference, ‘At the Labour party, we’re attacking each other. We’ll do the damage for ourselves.’ If we want to win the next General Election, we need to stop damaging each other. Our behaviour should reflect our values as democratic socialists and social democrats.”

The group has set out a series of principles and recommendations for reducing factionalism in the party.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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