Coronavirus & failures in testing
Given the Government’s inept handling of Covid, it seemed inevitable that we are now entering the autumn and winter months facing another surge in infections. Yet six months on from the start of this crisis, there still isn’t a properly functioning test and trace system in place – even though the World Health Organisation warned back in March that this would be key to overcoming coronavirus.
Ministers’ talk of “Operation Moonshot” to deliver 10 million tests a day is meaningless when it can’t resolve the testing capacity it faces now, as I pointed out on the BBC Politics Live programme.
I have been inundated with emails from constituents telling me of their struggles to get a test. Either they couldn’t get one at all, or were referred to places like the Isle of Wight or Fawley – the Health Secretary’s claim in Parliament that the average distance you need to travel is less than six miles just doesn’t ring true. Testing is now being rationed, with priority given to essential workers and high risk areas. But, as I said in Parliament, this could make it much more difficult to detect emerging hotspots in deprioritised areas where cases are on the rise - Brighton has just been placed on yellow alert for rising cases, but is not a priority area. Needless to say, I got no satisfactory response.
Coronavirus and the self-employed
The treatment of so many of the self-employed has been a scar on the Treasury’s handling of the economic fallout from coronavirus. Well over 3 million have been excluded from any form of financial support over the last six months and are desperate, with many facing ruin. This was a political choice by the Government, which has no justification. I have raised their case repeatedly with ministers and the Prime Minister himself, to try to get them to see the injustice of the Government’s decision to exclude so many from the self-employed income support scheme.
I raised the issue at Treasury questions on September 9th, when the minister wouldn’t even agree to a meeting with cross-party MPs to discuss it; the following week I secured a back bench debate in Parliament supported by MPs from both sides of the House, (my closing speech is here), but again all our arguments for fairness and justice fell on deaf ears; then this week, I questioned the Prime Minister directly, in response to his statement about new Covid restrictions, telling him that if the public were being asked to do more in response to the rise in Covid cases, then the Government needed to do more as well. Public consent, I told him, is dependent on not being forced into financial ruin.
Yesterday the Chancellor announced a replacement for the furlough scheme - it’s a welcome start, but nowhere near enough. And yet again, nothing for those self-employed who have fallen through the gaps in the scheme. But the Excluded self-employed will not give up, and nor will I.
My opposition to the Internal Market Bill
It has been astonishing to hear Government ministers defend their reckless plans to break international law, and ignore a treaty this Prime Minister negotiated and signed, with their Internal Market Bill which is being pushed through Parliament. I have consistently voted against the Bill and remain strongly opposed, both over its details and more importantly because of the huge reputational damage to the UK.
I have also tabled amendments to the Bill to try to ensure that any financial assistance given by the Government under the terms of the Bill is consistent with climate and environmental targets in all parts of the UK. You can read my speech here.
As co-chair of the parliamentary group on the Green New Deal, I’ve been working over the summer on RESET, an initiative which has brought together MPs, policy experts and members of the public to shape our country’s future post-Covid. It’s involved evidence sessions, a national opinion poll, on-line surveys, workshops and interviews, and has revealed a huge appetite for fundamental change in how our society works and a fairer, greener Britain. You can read the full report here. It’s clear public opinion is way ahead of the Government in terms of the scale of the response people want. I wrote about the initial findings in The Independent and the report was also covered in the Guardian.
Our fragile planet
Reports from the WWF, the UN and Friends of the Earth this month have all sounded loud warnings about the scale of the damage we are doing to our planet. I was left angry, frustrated and deeply sad after watching David Attenborough’s Extinction: the Facts – and wrote in my Metro column about how we must urgently start living within the Earth’s natural limits.
Whatever the Government claims it is doing about the environment, the truth is that it is missing 17 out of 20 biodiversity targets it signed up to in 2010, as revealed in an RSPB report which talked about “a lost decade for nature”. I raised this at Prime Minister’s Questions, asking for a commitment that the target of 30% of land and sea being reserved for nature by 2030 would be delivered, and that funding would be provided. Needless to say, the Prime Minister’s answer was full of the usual boasts which the RSPB pointed out were not true.
The Climate Assembly’s report
The UK’s Climate Assembly, set up by six parliamentary select committees, produced its report this month. This group of 108 citizens from across the UK, representing all regions, ages, backgrounds and views on climate, came up with a raft of brilliant ideas and showed the public want to see strong climate action from the Government which it just isn’t delivering. I was on Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster programme discussing climate policy, the Assembly’s report and the huge gap between what needs to happen and what the Government is doing. I have also tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament in support of the Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill, which I introduced at the beginning of this month. I’m pleased that, so far, it has the support of nearly 60 MPs.
Protecting and improving access to nature and green space
The Covid restrictions have highlighted how important it is to have access to nature for people’s health and wellbeing, while a Friends of the Earth report this week revealed how unequal access is. So it is completely wrong and short-sighted for this to be ignored in the Government’s much-criticised reforms to the planning system which would make it near-impossible for local councils to have a say over how their community is developed. The deregulation of planning in recent years has already led to poor quality housing, with poor space and light standards, and done little to address the acute shortage of affordable or social housing. The failure to insist on access to green space makes an already bad situation even worse. I have tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to put democracy, affordability, people’s wellbeing and the right to access nature at the centre of any planning reforms.
I also had a meeting with Andy Winter, the CEO of the Brighton Housing Trust to talk about the campaign to put social housing at the heart of a post-Covid recovery.
Social media, teenagers and advertising
I joined a group of leading academics, lawyers and privacy campaigners calling on social media companies like Facebook and Google to stop allowing advertisements targeted at teenagers. These companies have huge amounts of data on their users, and when this is used to sell them products, it both breaches their right to privacy and is exploitative.
This wonderful Grade II-listed building, which has been left to rot in recent years, has been bought by a local firm who have said they will rescue the structure from further decay and restore the auditorium. I hope they will deliver on this commitment, and recognise the community value of the building, givng the community a say in its future. So many people want to see the Hippodrome as a working theatre again, complete with fly tower in place - let’s hope this time it might just happen. My statement was covered in the Argus and the Brighton and Hove News.