It’s been a busy week in Parliament with two key bills voted on in the Commons, and a rapidly-changing Coronavirus situation.
New rules on Coronavirus
At the beginning of the week, the Prime Minister updated MPs about Coronavirus measures and the new three-tier approach. For all his claims about being “guided by the science”, it is now clear that he is, in fact, ignoring it. The Government’s scientific advisers (SAGE) recommended a very different course of action and don’t believe his measures are working, nor do they think the new ones will have the necessary impact.
Number 10 has also treated regional mayors and MPs with contempt, leaving them out of lockdown briefings and making financial support, including for local test and trace operations, conditional on regions doing as they’re told. The collapse in trust and growing discordancy across the UK is very worrying, and the Prime Minister is entirely to blame.
Questioning the PM about test & trace
There are so many failings in how he has handled this pandemic, but the barely-functional test and trace operation is one of the worst. I questioned the Prime Minister in the Commons about this, challenging the decision to outsource it to the private sector – despite its misleading ‘NHS Test & Trace’ name – and asking why it wasn’t put in the hands of local public health teams, as the Green Party has argued for many months. You can see our exchange here.
I also made the point to the Prime Minister that his claim about the Government putting their arms around the self-employed was meaningless when over 3 million of them had been left with no support since this crisis began.
The 10pm curfew
The curfew for pubs and restaurants, forcing them to close at 10pm, is a good example of the Government’s arbitrary approach, imposing restrictions with no scientific evidence that they will stop the spread of Covid. The minutes of the SAGE meeting made clear that any impact would be only marginal, yet the curfew is having a huge impact on the viability of local businesses. It was the only Covid measure which was put to a vote in the House of Commons, and I voted against it.
Legal action on PPE
The Department of Health has awarded contracts worth more than £14 billion to private companies during the Covid crisis. We know where most of the money has gone, and it’s sometimes been to companies which have no track record in supplying medical equipment and which have then failed to deliver supplies, or supplies which are fit for purpose. But £3 billion is unaccounted for, as the DHSC has failed to publish the details of these contracts.
I am taking legal action, together with two other MPs and the Good Law Project, to try to force the Government to disclose where this money has gone. This is not just an issue of appropriate use of public money, it is also a question of transparency and accountability to Parliament. My persistent questioning of ministers about Covid-related contracts has failed to produce answers – one letter I wrote in early August is still unanswered. This Government is treating Parliament with contempt and launching this legal action appears to be the only way we will get any answers.
This is one of the key bills currently going through Parliament, and will shape our farming for a generation. The House of Lords voted cross-party on a series of amendments to protect UK farming and food standards in any future trade deals, to limit the use of pesticides near people’s homes and schools, and to require ministers to consider the need for farming and land use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I spoke in support of all these critical amendments (my speech is here) - they were all rejected. So much for the Conservatives’ manifesto promise to not compromise on environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards – commitments like this are meaningless if they are not written into law, and the Government is shirking every opportunity to do this.
Again in the Fisheries Bill, an amendment to ban super trawlers from marine protected areas was voted down by Conservative MPs. When its own data show that there’s no improvement on about half of UK biodiversity targets, with the condition and abundance of important habitats and species in decline, it is shameful that the Government is not taking the necessary action to give nature the protection it needs.
The rather sinisterly-named Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill aims to put legal limits on what organisations like MI5 and the police can do while gathering intelligence. But the authorisations it contains would give those agencies power to permit their agents and informants to commit criminal offences, including murder and torture. It is a shocking licence for the abuse of human rights, and I voted against it. You can read more about my concerns about the Bill on my website.
Supporting the arts and culture
On a more positive note, I was delighted to see many arts organisations and venues in Brighton and Hove benefit from the Culture Recovery Fund, set up to help the arts sector through the Covid crisis. Seventeen venues and organisations in my constituency received awards in the first round, including Brighton Dome, Brighton Pride, Komedia and Latest Music Bar. Another seven were successful in the second round, including Otherplace Productions, Rocket Artists and Brighton People’s Theatre. I know that this money will be a lifeline for them, but also that other organisations have got nothing.
Arts venues also depend on musicians, artists, technicians and other freelancers and self-employed who have been excluded from any financial support. If our music and arts sector is to survive this crisis, they need support too so they are still here to pick up the pieces and return to work when venues are able to re-open.
Arts, culture and the environment
One of the highlights of this (very strange) year for me has been curating an exhibition at the brilliant Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, which has just won a Museum of the Year award. I took part in a Facebook Live event on Thursday, chaired by David Dimbleby, where we discussed the role of arts and the environment and the role places like Towner can play. For my exhibition there, called BRINK, I had the pick of the Towner’s collection and put together paintings and drawings which I hope reflected my feelings about our fragile planet and what we are doing to it.
Access to green space and nature
I am campaigning for people to have the right to access green space and nature close to their homes, an issue which has come to the fore during the Covid crisis. I spoke at a webinar organised by the Town and Country Planning Association about how we can make the distribution of green space fairer, what it might mean at a local level, and why it’s vital that this right should be part of any reform of the planning process. My Early Day Motion in support of this is drawing cross-party support in the Commons.
I also took part in an inspirational debate with documentary film-maker Jack Harries, head of Natural England Tony Juniper, and fashion blogger Aditi Mayer on how to build a movement. From Black Lives Matter to Clap for our Carers, it’s been striking how the ideas of solidarity, community and mutual support have been hallmarks of this year. It was organised by Selfridge’s Project Earth and How To Academy and we discussed how we can come together to harness the power of collective action and responsibility.