This is the first newsletter I have written with the UK outside the European Union. December 31st was a very sad day for many of us when the transition period ended, the UK officially became a “third country” and we lost the freedom to live, work, study and settle down in Europe. I felt a huge sense of regret and sadness, but I know it isn’t the end. We will pick up the struggle for a future based on closer ties with countries which share our values. We are still European.
The Brexit debate in Parliament
Parliament was recalled for a day on December 30th to agree Boris Johnson’s dreadful deal. It was a travesty that MPs were given only a few hours to debate an agreement of more than 1,200 pages, which had been finalised at the eleventh hour. I voted No, for reasons I set out in a comment piece in the Independent. And I will continue to press for closer relations with our European neighbours, and oppose any attempt by this Government to lower or dilute the environmental protections or workers’ rights that we have enjoyed as EU members.
New Year – new lockdown
Rapidly rising coronavirus cases, and a botched handling of rules on social mixing over Christmas, made it inevitable that England would need to be placed in another lockdown to try to control the virus – particularly as the new variant is so much more contagious. But it beggars belief that it still took the Prime Minister nearly two weeks to act on scientific advice that the new variant demanded much tougher action if the NHS was to be protected. As it is, our hospitals are under huge pressure with staff exhausted after months of dealing with this awful virus.
Unfortunately, Boris Johnson’s leadership is proving as poor this year as it was last. The communications and planning on schools has been especially bad – confused and contradictory. It took less than 36 hours for his declaration that schools were safe to be followed by an announcement that they would all close. I am very glad that the Green party leadership on Brighton and Hove City Council had decided beforehand that schools needed to move to online learning. It is now essential that ministers step up and provide the laptops and internet access via dongles they promised to children who currently can’t learn at home. Allowing them to attend school is one answer – but it risks schools becoming overwhelmed in areas where many children don’t have internet access in their homes.
I welcome the vital support offered by the Chancellor to business as a result of the new lockdown, but the one-off grants of £9,000 are completely insufficient to keep many of these businesses alive. They need ongoing support and assurances about the future.
Lockdown restrictions and support for the self-employed
It is also unforgiveable that the Chancellor is still ignoring the 3 million self-employed and small limited company directors who have had nothing since last spring. I have now written to him outlining a Directors Income Support Scheme (DISS), drawn up by a coalition of ForgottenLtd, a former senior policy adviser to the Office of Tax Simplification, the ACCA and the Federation of Small Businesses, which would give vital support to the directors of small limited companies who have fallen through the gaps of existing support schemes because of a quirk in the tax system. The letter is on my website.
Lockdown debate in Parliament
Parliament was recalled again for one day for an announcement on the new lockdown measures. I raised with the Prime Minister the test, trace, isolate and support system which is still failing to deliver what was promised, even after £22 billion of public money was handed over to private companies and consultants to make it work. It is failing on so many levels, including on the lack of support given to those who are required to self-isolate. We will only stop or slow down transmission of the virus if people self-isolate, but those in low-paid insecure jobs are much less likely to be able to afford to do so when they expected to survive just on statutory sick pay. Many more – nearly 2 million – don’t earn enough to be eligible for SSP, which is why I have called for the criteria to be widened as well as the amounts increased. The £500 self-isolation payments also need to be more widely available.
The only positive news about coronavirus is the rollout of both the BioNTech/Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. I am in close touch with the public health team in Brighton and Hove, monitoring the rollout of the vaccine in our city, to ensure that those most in need do not miss out.
Clap for carers
The wonderfully unifying clap for carers on Thursday evenings is being restarted. But frontline workers, in the NHS, care homes and essential services, deserve more than applause. They should have pay rises and be prioritised for vaccinations. That’s why I’m supporting the #ThunderclapForCarers, started by chef and campaigner Jack Monroe, who has suggested using this moment to push for Government to ensure essential workers earn a decent wage. I hope many of you will join in and sign the petition to give NHS workers a 15 percent pay rise.
Support for homeless during coronavirus
The Government’s support for people sleeping rough has been short-lived. While it found shelter for homeless people last spring with the Everyone In scheme, now – in the depths of a cold winter – it is refusing to do so. Brighton and Hove City Council is extending the scheme to the end of March, but it should not be up to hard-pressed and financially-stretched councils to make sure people are not sleeping rough on the streets during a pandemic. The Everyone In scheme must be continued.
Thanks to some brilliant campaigning by MoreThanAScore, teachers, parents and others, this year’s SATS exams have been cancelled. This is a campaign I’ve worked on for some time, so I’m glad the Government has finally listened. Now we just need to make the cancellation permanent so this pointless testing regime is abandoned for good.
Future Generations Bill
I am very pleased to be sponsoring the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill in Parliament, alongside John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, who has introduced the Bill in the House of Lords. The Bill aims to build in long-term thinking and planning into policy-making, and give future generations a voice in decisions being made today. I’m delighted that it has support from MPs and peers from both sides of the Commons and Lords, and I hope many of them will have a chance to meet young supporters of the Bill at a drop-in session later this month. I wrote about the Bill, and why it’s so important, in my column in Metro.
Scenes in Washington
Like many of you, I was shocked by the scenes in Washington when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building, vandalising it and showing their defiance of US democracy. Whatever he says, this is Trump’s legacy. But it is also a reminder that democracy can never be taken for granted. It is up to all of us to protect it and stand up for the values we believe in.
RIP Sue Addis
Finally, many of you will have had some contact with the wonderful Sue Addis, who owned Donatello and Pinocchio restaurants in the city, and will share my sadness over her death. She was such a special presence in the city, her passion for this place and its people was infectious, and her kindness legendary. Almost every good cause in the city had some contact with Sue, who was an amazing charity fundraiser, and a towering force for good. She will be hugely missed.