On the morning of Saturday 4th September, as a Labour and Co-operative MP, I was pleased to deliver the Parliamentary Co-operative Group report to the Wales Co-operative Council Zoom meeting. My report highlighted that, even though Parliament has been on summer recess for the month of August, we have continued to work on increasing protection for retail workers because of the escalating levels of violence, threats, and abuse that they suffer at work; opposing cuts to the aid budget, and the International Aid cuts for the effect it would have on the co-operative sector that does so much to alleviate poverty in developing countries. We opposed privatisation of Channel 4; called for the UK Tory Government to maintain the £20 Universal Credit uplift, and many other causes. I welcomed my old friend Huw Lewis, who has been appointed as the Co-operative Party’s Policy and Membership Officer Wales, to his first Wales Co-operative Council meeting. As former MS for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and former Welsh Government Minister, Huw will be a tremendous asset to the Co-operative Party in Wales. The Wales Council members discussed, amongst other things, our plans for the UK Co-operative Party Conference which will be held online again in October, because of Covid-19 restrictions. It was a very long meeting, but there is always so much to discuss, because the Wales Co-operative Party is always very active throughout every region of the country.
On Saturday afternoon I joined the Welsh Labour Women’s Committee Zoom meeting together with our Neath CLP Women’s Officer Cathy James. There were 25 female representatives from all over Wales on the call who provided updates from their regions. I welcomed back my old friend Michelle Perfect who has returned to be secretary of the committee after an absence of a few years. We all agreed it’s great to have Michelle looking after us again. Baroness Anita Gale, former General Secretary of Welsh Labour, gave an update on the Women’s Charter, and Baroness Debbie Wilcox updated us on the work she has done in succeeding Anita as Shadow Equalities Minister on the Lords Front Bench. It was a pleasure to have Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Nia Griffith speaking about the work she does to continue to represent women’s issues in Wales. And to have Nia, Anita and Debbie support my call to encourage more women to become involved in local government in Wales ahead of the Local Government Elections in May 2022.
This week, the Government have introduced a National Insurance Contributions Bill. The Bill comprises four areas, three of which refer to the provision of NIC relief for employers who meet certain conditions. There would be NIC relief for 36 months under a certain threshold for freeport employers. There would also be relief for employers of veterans of the Armed Forces for a period of 12 months, however the relief would have to be claimed back at a later date. Labour are concerned that this could discourage some employers from making use of the relief. 60% of veterans in the UK are aged 65 and over, that means as many as 960,000 veterans are of working age, with skills and experience that could be invaluable in civilian life. Supporting employers to make use of these skills and to help veterans remain in work and engaged in civilian life is vital. The UK Government must do more.
On Tuesday morning I attended the AGM of the APPG on Gaps in Support, where we re-elected our Co-Chairs and there was unanimous agreement that we should continue to fight for those who have fallen through the gaps in UK Government support during the pandemic and its associated lockdown and restrictions.
Tuesday afternoon, as a member of the Panel of Parliamentary Chairs, I chaired the Second Delegated Legislative Committee on the Draft Occupational Pension Schemes (Administration, Investment, Charges and Governance) (Amendment) Regulations 2021. This instrument amends existing secondary legislation relating to the administration and governance requirements on trustees of occupational defined contributions (DC) pension schemes, in particular to require trustees of certain DC pension schemes to disclose their investment returns and demonstrate they are providing value for their members. It also increases flexibility for DC schemes to take account of performance fees payable to fund managers when calculating the cap on charges that applies to default management arrangements. And it changes the way in which types of pension schemes must comply with the requirements to produce a statement of investment principles. The instrument was debated, not opposed by the opposition parties, and passed without the need to push to a vote.
I stand with Labour against the UK Government’s plans to diminish our democracy through their Voter ID plans. Photo ID is not free and millions, including the elderly, low income, and ethnic minority voters, cannot afford the privilege of photo ID. Three and a half million people – that’s 7.5% of our electorate – do not have access to any form of photo ID. Voter ID is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when there are far greater priorities – the NHS, children in poverty, low-income workers. The cost of the Conservatives’ unnecessary plan to force voters to carry photo ID will be 20 times more than it is spending on fraud – the most prevalent type of crime and something that fills my constituency email far more than concerns over voter fraud. There were just 139 allegations of voter fraud in 2020, which led to just one conviction and one caution for impersonation. In the same year, there were 4.5 million offences of fraud, according to official figures. This UK Government is not interested in tackling the crime that affects our communities; it is instead focusing on disenfranchising those less likely to vote Tory.
On Wednesday I was pleased to be able to lead a debate on co-operative purchases of companies by employee groups at risk of redundancy. The effects of the pandemic have been devastating for so many people, and we need to discuss some co-operative ways of supporting the economic recovery in a way that builds a UK economy that is more inclusive and more equal than before. The symptoms of inequality that have plagued our country for too long were there for all to see a long time before the first pandemic lockdown was implemented in March 2020. In one of the world’s richest nations, too many families have been struggling to put food on the table, and the pandemic has highlighted this. I commend all the wonderful people who have worked, and who continue to work, relentlessly and tirelessly during all the severe challenges of the pandemic, in order to make sure that our communities function. However, those wonderful workers take home some of the lowest wages. This must change.
We can learn much from Italy and the so-called Marcora law, named after the former Italian industry Minister Giovanni Marcora, who established the worker buy-out system more than 30 years ago, to divert the money spent on unemployment to retain jobs and continue economic activity. The Marcora law gives workers the right and, most importantly, the financial support to buy out all or parts of an at-risk business and establish it as an employee-owned co-operative. Workers are given the opportunity to rescue profitable parts of businesses or the whole of profitable businesses. The legislation in Italy does that by giving those workers at risk of redundancy their unemployment benefits as a lump sum in advance to use as capital for the buy-out, as well as access to the necessary support and advice to make it successful. The results speak for themselves. Hundreds of businesses previously at risk of closure have been preserved as worker co-operatives, with an economic return of more than six times the capital invested by the funding mechanisms. In Italy, between 2007 and 2013, €84 million was made available for worker buy-outs, generating €473 million and saving more than 13,000 jobs. We need to give serious consideration to implementing a similar type of scheme here in the UK.
Wednesday lunchtime I was in the House of Commons chamber for the first PMQs, following cessation of the hybrid system. The chamber was full to hear from the PM Boris Johnson and the Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer, but whereas the vast majority of opposition MPs wore face masks, all the Government Front Bench and most Tory MPs did not. Opposition MPs are also adhering to Mr Speaker’s advice to wear face masks whilst they are on the Estate, whilst Tory MPs are not. It’s ironic that, by wearing face masks in Westminster, opposition MPs are protecting the health of members of the UK Tory Government.
On Wednesday afternoon I chaired a number of Westminster Hall debates which lasted from 2.30 to 5.30pm. The first debate was led by Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and was about ending rough sleeping. This very important issue has been debated in Parliament many times before, and it’s very disappointing that even though members across the House agree rough sleeping must end, the UK Tory Government has not prioritised the matter, and merely says that it is absolutely committed to ending it, without making progress. For many years, MPs have been calling on the UK Tory Government to scrap the Vagrancy Act, but so far this has not found a place in its legislative programme.
The next debate was about the UK Tory Government’s refusal to provide financial support to the British Council. The debate was led by Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat MP North East Fife. The British Council is one of the UK’s international organisations for cultural and education opportunities and cultural relationships. It’s an arm’s length body of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and promotes English language education, arts and culture across the globe. The British Council’s own figures show that in 2019-20, it reached 983 million people. The integrated review “Global Britain in a Competitive Age” published earlier this year, stated that Britain would become one of the most influential countries in the world, explicitly highlighting the important work of the British Council in over 100 countries. But during the pandemic, it’s revenues were curtailed and as of July 2021, were only back to 50% of pre-pandemic level. It is predicted that normal levels will not be reached until 2023. The Government provided an assistance grant of £26 million, this was counter balanced by a cut in ODA Grant funding of £80 million. And the 0.7% ODA cut was taken before the review was published. A series of loans have been agreed on commercial terms requiring business plans, but on condition that cost saving measures be carried out. Consequently, closures have taken place from Belgium to US and from Australia to Sudan, including the Five Eyes countries. The British Council has already agreed to a reduction in spending of over £185 million over the next five years, with 20% staffing cuts. Ms Chamberlain asked the Minister Nigel Adams to explain how his UK Tory Government can praise the work of the British Council and all the benefits it brings to the UK, whilst undermining it by withdrawing financial support.
The last debate was led by Elliot Colburn Conservative MP Carsholton and Wellington, about reducing plastic waste, which continues to grow in the UK, and an estimated 5 million tonnes are used every year, nearly half in packaging. It harms our environment if not recycled and lasts centuries in landfill or if discarded as litter, pollutes our oceans, rivers, soils and the creatures within. If the use of plastic continues, emissions of greenhouse gases by the global plastic sector will account for 15% of the entire annual carbon global budget by 2050. The Chamber Engagement Team conducted a survey which asked for suggestions for recycling, replacement, and reduction of plastic, and produced over 500 public responses. The UK Government Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow MP, stated that the UK Government has set a target of reducing landfill waste by 10% by 2035, zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042, tough bans on micro beads and micro plastics, 10p plastic bag charge, restricting the use of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds and will go further after consultation on banning single use plastic plates, cutlery, and polystyrene drink containers. And concluded by saying that the U.K. Government is moving at great speed in the right direction.
On Wednesday night I voted for the Official Opposition amendment to the UK Government’s Heath and Social Care Levy, which we lost by 335-243 votes, and against the main motion, which the UK Government won by 319-248. Some Tories who spoke against the Levy voted with us, but as usual, many caved in and supported the Government’s motion.
Friday morning the regional MSs and MPs received a confidential briefing from SBUHB about the pandemic, its effect on health and social care services, and the progress of the vaccination programme.
Friday afternoon I attended the opening of the latest phase of the Neath Abbey Ironworks restoration project by the Friends of Neath Abbey, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Cadw. The Abbey was founded in 1130 and by the late 13th century was one of Wales’ wealthiest monasteries. It is unique in that it has been a religious house, reformation mansion and an early industrial revolution copper works, which existed many years before Swansea’s. Nearly all of the entire layout of the Abbey can be seen today. Neath Abbey Ironworks changed our lives forever and has three scheduled monuments, with two of the best and biggest surviving 18th century blast furnaces. It pioneered construction, steam engines, locomotives, town gas plants, marine engines, iron steam and sailing ships. It helped to make Wales the first industrial nation by drawing people away from working on the land, and its plans are registered on the UNESCO Memory of the World programme. At the Ironworks the Friends have erected accessible interpretive panels to explain the history and function of its structures and buildings with QR codes, and two notice boards for community engagement, specifically involving children. Dwr-y-Felin Comprehensive school staff and 658 pupils studied the heritage and the children produced 105 pictures, which are on display. The Friends selected three pupils to receive awards in recognition of their artwork, and I was honoured to present one of the awards. Jeremy Miles MS for Neath and I unveiled a plaque in memory of my dear friend Debbie Harvey who was responsible for rejuvenating the Friends of Neath Abbey, and driving the restoration. Debbie was a lovely person who never had a bad word to say about anyone, and I miss her more every day.
I voted with Labour last week against the UK Government’s planned cut to Universal Credit. It is shameful that the very workers who got us through this crisis are in the firing line for a £1000 cut to their income every year. This £20 is what enables some families to put food on the table at the end of the week and there is near-universal opposition to these plans. Labour, the public, MPs from across the House of Commons, dozens of charities and campaign groups and now, the six Tory predecessors of the Work and Pensions Secretary of State all agree that this money must remain in place. Newspapers have continually reported throughout the pandemic how the wealth of the richest people has increased during the pandemic and yet this UK Government is cruelly and lazily choosing the easy option to cut funding from the poorest, many of whom are key workers who have ensured the running of shops, public transport, and hospitals throughout this crisis. It is utterly unconscionable.
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