Britain’s Covid heroes must not be made to pay for the coronavirus crisis

This blog comes from an article I wrote for Left Foot Forward, available here:

The coronavirus outbreak has introduced great pain and uncertainty within our communities. The UK looks set to exceed the government’s expectation of 20,000 deaths. Meanwhile, UK GDP is forecast for a hit in the region of 14-24%. The last time our country experienced a downturn of this scale was during the 1920s.

And yet, this extraordinary crisis has facilitated the emergence of a new cast of heroes. Nurses, transport workers, care staff, supermarket assistants, waste collectors, delivery drivers, cleaners, teachers, postal workers, and emergency services staff.

After a decade of budget cuts, the erosion of working rights, and frozen wages: it is these frontline workers who are seeing us through this challenging period. The clap for carers movement, and the coordination of service delivery by local government, have highlighted how essential our public services are.

Hindered from the start

But the outbreak has also exposed weaknesses on our frontline. Despite the heroism, our public services are in poor shape. Even prior to the present crisis, A&E waiting times were breaking records. 21% of patients were not seen within four hours last year. The target is 5%. Nearly 100,000 people spent over four hours waiting in hospital trolleys last December: a 65% increase from December 2018, and the highest on record.

The picture is even bleaker outside the NHS. Local authority spending power is down by 30% since 2010. Central Government support for local councils has fallen by 38%, shifting the burden of service funding onto council tax and business rate payers.

Local authority cuts have also been unevenly distributed. As councils seek to protect social care provision, other services have absorbed a greater proportion of cuts. Environmental health budgets have plummeted by 53% since 2009. Meanwhile, King’s Fund research finds that real terms public health funding has fallen by a quarter over five years.

We have seen, to devastating effect, the link between coronavirus susceptibility and conditions like asthma, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. It should be clearer than ever that upstream public health expenditure is essential to outbreak preparedness.

At the same time as this downwards funding spiral, keyworker employment has become increasingly precarious. Fully 49% of care home staff are on zero-hours contracts. The size of the UK’s gig economy has doubled in the last three years alone. The ONS estimates that insecure, casualised gig jobs now provide the main source of income for one in twenty people.

Let’s return to our list of key workers, who have earned the applause of millions of us every Thursday evening for the last month. And now let’s remember that our Covid heroes have been working in increasingly pressurised conditions for ten years: with crumbling contractual protections, longer hours, and ever-smaller operating budgets.

There must be no return to austerity once this outbreak passes. The government must listen to lessons about the importance of frontline staff. And we must put measures in place to bolster our public services to withstand the next crisis – whether that be a future pandemic, or climate degradation.

Who pays?

Given mounting public debt, where will the money come from? The New Economics Foundation estimates that the Government’s Job Retention Scheme will cost it £200 billion in borrowing. This would represent a larger increase in government borrowing than that seen after the financial crisis.

Such an increase must not precipitate further cutbacks. We must learn from the failures of austerity: the stagnant growth, declining productivity, and dysfunctional services. And we must return, instead, to the Keynesian principles which saw economies across Europe grow their way out of the ashes of WWII.

This means keeping public investment high: unlocking the economy through large-scale infrastructure, transport, and clean energy projects. It would be an opportunity to build the Britain of the future. A Britain of high-quality homes; world-class education; and proper jobs, delivered via a Green New Deal that re-energises manufacturing industry.

Such investment must be funded through raised taxation. Unlike after 2008, the burden of rebuilding Britain must fall upon those with the broadest shoulders. The wealthiest 5% of our society (those with a net worth above £270,000) own 40% of the UK’s total wealth. It is important that we all contribute to the restoration effort. But this contribution must reflect collective means.

This includes adjusting corporation tax, which has fallen by a third since 2010. We have become too used to stories of corporate avoidance and evasion. TaxWatch estimates that Google, Cisco, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple avoided £1.3 billion in UK tax last year alone. The loopholes have to close; corporations that benefit from trade in the UK have to contribute to the conditions that make that trade profitable.

I am reminded of a quote, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, that we should ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. This message rings true now more than ever. The coronavirus has brought personal tragedy and financial hardship to our communities. But it has also brought out the great strengths of our public service ethic.

As we start to look towards reconstruction, it must be with a view to the kind of Britain we all want to live in. I hope the Britain that emerges from this crisis will be a Britain of fairness, goodwill, and aspiration for all.

To your good health?

It is common to measure the progress, prosperity, and general wellbeing of any society by measuring its citizens’ life expectancy. The United Nations, for example, uses life expectancy, education, and income to rank countries’ development through the Human Development Index.

When society is flourishing, life expectancy increases. But life expectancy can also act as the canary in the coal mine: when society is facing pressures, life expectancy stagnates.

This was the alarm bell sounded by the Marmot Review this month. The Marmot Review into public health in England found that, for the first time in over a hundred years, life expectancy has stopped increasing.

Sir Michael Marmot is the Director of University College London’s Institute of Health Equity. Ten years ago, he was commissioned by the Government to review public health in the UK. In February of this year, he published a follow-up report – revealing a shocking picture of stagnating wellbeing and rising health inequality, across the country.

Alongside a general stalling of health indicators, Marmot found that life expectancy was down for men and women in the poorest 10% of earners. Mortality is up for 45-49 year olds, which Marmot believes is related to rising levels of ‘despair’: due to work pressures, financial stress, and poor diet. He concludes that

England has lost a decade… If health has stopped improving, that means society has stopped improving…

Reporting on the Marmot Review, even The Economist offered a sanguine assessment of the state of Britain’s health: ‘Health inequality in England was bad. It has got worse.’

Worryingly, the pressures of poor public health are being felt unequally across the country. Alongside a North/South divide in transport infrastructure and employment opportunities, there is now a divide in health and life chances. The North East has fared especially badly over the last decade: witnessing the largest decrease in wellness since 2010. Meanwhile, the largest increases in public health were seen in London and the South East.

What about in the so-called former ‘red wall’ constituencies, which stretch across the North of England? On average, women living in these areas live 8 fewer healthy years than men living in the constituencies of Conservative Cabinet ministers like Health Secretary Matt Hancock (West Sussex), and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton). For men, it’s 6 years.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that life expectancy in Sheffield is below the national average for both men and women. Women in Sheffield live, on average, 4.5 fewer years than women in Kensington. Men in Sheffield live 3.9 fewer years than men in Kensington.

What has caused this decline in health and wellbeing across the North? Marmot thinks it is a result of austerity policies, that have hit northern towns and cities especially hard since the Conservatives and Lib Dems took up office in 2010.

We’re told that austerity is now over. But Boris Johnson’s money tree government has still not published its public health funding allocations for 2020/2021. Normally, local authorities discover their public health budgets in December. It is very concerning that councils, who have to plan service finances this month before the start of the financial year in April, still don’t know how much money they will have to spend on public health.

It is not just about funding for the NHS, which currently faces a spending fap of around £20 billion.

Improving public health means spending money ‘upstream’: at the source of the problem, rather than in frontline hospitals. Scientists refer to the ‘Social Determinants of Health’. These are deeper issues that lead to health crises. For example, stagnating wages and rising rents, which have prevented families from being able to eat healthily. Or, lower standards of workers’ rights – which have led to stress in the workplace, and pressures at home. Even cuts to bus services have an impact: driving up congestion, and bringing down air quality.

Bad public health is a symptom of wider challenges, many of which are less easily resolved.

Central to these wider challenges are cuts to council budgets. Councils run exercise and leisure services, subsidise transport networks, and help new parents plan healthy diets for their children. Since 2010, local authority budgets have been cut by central Government: from 42% of national income, to 35%. This means worse access to green spaces, and less support for the whole community.

We can see how cuts to local councils have played out in rising levels of child poverty. Child poverty has increased by 22% whilst the Conservatives have been in Government. In fact, the UK has a higher proportion of children living in poverty than Ireland, Poland, and the OECD average. One in three English children now grow up in poverty, which is a result of children’s centres being closed and incomes being squeezed.

Charities describe child poverty as the ‘new normal’ in parts of Britain. Again, this is especially true in the North of England, where 80% of constituencies suffer above-average levels of child poverty.

The solution to this crisis of public health is policy that drives up wages, drives down the cost of living, and invests in community infrastructure. In the UK, wages are down by 2% over the last ten years, relative to the cost of living: thanks to anti-union legislation, and the rise of the gig economy. Salaries in Poland, by contrast, are up by 33%. In France, salaries are up by 10%. The Government needs to ease the pressure on ordinary working people, by addressing the cost of living crisis.

When families have more money in their pocket, they will be able to afford better diets – and pay for their kids to access healthy lifestyles. It’s only then that we’ll see life expectancy rise again.

Last week, Labour pushed the Government to do more for public health through an Opposition Day debate. We’ll have to wait and see if Britain’s part-time Prime Minister takes any notice.

The ultimate cynicism

Over the last few years, I have regularly drawn attention to statements and claims of Conservative Ministers which were simply factually incorrect or designed to mislead.  

Of course, I have also drawn attention to Ministers who fail to answer simple factual questions to oral or written parliamentary questions. For example, since 2010, there have been many promises about new house-building; not one has been kept, but not a single Conservative Prime Minister (Cameron, May, Johnson) or Housing Minister (there have been eight of them) will actually acknowledge their failure.

It is in this context that I have advised people to do their own checking before accepting ministerial claims as fact. I have often referred people to independent and trusted bodies, like the Institute for Fiscal Studies (on economic and finance issues), or independent fact-checkers, like FullFact which have only been created and developed to address the moral vacuum created by misleading Ministers, uncritical media, and new social media (across the political spectrum) which is, at best, unbalanced, and at worst, mendacious.

But, last night, the cynical knife was twisted further.

During the first TV debate between Boris Johnson (in which he repeated at least one of his porkies – on front-line police numbers, despite knowing it to be untrue) and Jeremy Corbyn, Conservative Party HQ changed the name of one of its Twitter accounts to factcheckuk mimicking reputable organisations, like FullFact. But, instead of dealing with facts, factcheckuk spewed out more misleading information and anti-Labour rhetoric.

Who can disagree with the commentator who said:

“This is straight out of Donald Trump or Putin’s playbook…the Tories are now resorting to deliberately misleading the public.” 

And, then it gets worse…

This morning, instead of accepting a massive error of judgement, which had led Twitter to warn the Conservative Party that it would take “corrective action” to prevent such behaviour, Conservative UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said

“…no one gives a toss” about the cut and thrust of social media.

Meanwhile, Twitter said very firmly that the Conservative Party broke Twitter’s rules by attempting to “mislead people” (their words, not mine) with a fake fact-checking account, and that it would punish the Conservative Party if it ever happened again.

Further, we now learn that factcheckuk was turned on precisely as Boris Johnson told another of his porkies…and not for the first-time…and not for the first-time that the facts have been brought to his attention and his misleading claims corrected by the real fact-checkers.

This soundbite is about front-line police officers.

As a matter of record, Johnson has long form on this issue. When he was Mayor of London, he announced a drive to recruit 5,000 new constables for the Metropolitan Police, leaving the clear impression that these were additional officers. What he didn’t mention was that the Met expected to lose that number of officers through natural wastage. All Mayor Johnson was doing was committing to replace the ones who would leave over the same period. Perhaps he will want this offence to be taken in to account when he is finally held responsible.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson promised to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers to serve on the front-line. This was backed up by a Conservative campaign video in which he said:

“In policing… 20,000 police we’re putting out on the streets of this country.”

It is worth remembering that police numbers fell by more than 20,000 under the Conservatives between 2010 (143,734) and 2019 (123,171). So, even if the new claim were true, the new officers would simply cancel out previous cuts and get us back to 2010 levels. And, as the population grew by 5% over that period, police officers per head would still be lower than 2010.

When challenged over the following days, Conservative Party spokespeople said that the 20,000 new officers would be in addition to officers hired to replace those who left or retired, and the 20,000 “will be additional to officers hired to fill existing vacancies.”

It isn’t true. It’s a big porkie!

When the fact-checkers unpacked the finances – assuming police authorities put up their precepts by 4% each year (part of council tax) and government grant – it revealed that the total sum would pay for 20,000 front-line officers but the total sum wasn’t to go for that purpose. More than one-third of the sum is being siphoned off to pay for other national police services.

Far from 20,000 additional front-line police officers on the streets of this country, the funds will pay for just 13,000 at most.

Johnson has been told the facts time and time again. But he can’t resist a good soundbite, however untrue it might be.

By now, we should all know that you can’t believe a word Boris Johnson says. We simply cannot trust him.

Worse still, it is the ultimate cynicism to deliberately mislead to destroy trust between people and the political process in pursuit of your own personal interest.

Fracking heck! The phoney ban

Just over a week ago, I wrote about the government’s announcement of a moratorium on fracking1 .

The Oil and Gas Authority had reported that it could not guarantee further fracking “would meet the Government’s policy aims of ensuring it is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby”.

Three weeks ago, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced:

“…I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”

In response, I wrote:

“I’m neither cynical nor inappropriately suspicious, but I do have to draw your attention to two aspects of this announcement.

First, despite all the relevant information having been available for some time, the announcement was only made when it had already been decided to call a general election.

Secondly, the announcement did not refer to the ‘end of fracking’ – although that was how it was spun to the media by No 10 – it referred to a ‘moratorium on fracking’.  Of course, a moratorium can be lifted just as quickly as it has been imposed.

Given Mr Johnson’s fracking predilection, his assiduous use of fake facts, and his tenuous connection with truth and consistency, we are allowed to be suspicious.”

And, now, what was foretold has come to pass.

Just two days after the ‘moratorium announcement and, this time with no publicity, another document was quietly slipped out. This was government response to a consultation which proposed loosening fracking regulations. Far from a ban on fracking, the government reaffirmed its commitment to a “faster” process for reviewing fracking applications, and that those applications will continue to be “considered on their own merits”.

The document also hints at future changes to the law that would allow frackers to “drill at will”. It says that proposals to give frackers “Permitted Development Rights” – which would allow drilling to take place without planning permission – have “considerable merit” and may be adopted in future, while conceding that they cannot be brought forward immediately due to public opposition.

Permitted Development Rights have previously been described by green and community groups as “drill at will” powers, which would make fracking “as easy as building a conservatory.” This extreme “frack-at-will” policy is imported from Trump’s USA. It gives some clear signals about the Conservatives approach to environmental standards. Add fracking gas to chlorinated chicken.

Boris “We must stop pussy-footing around and get fracking” Johnson obviously doesn’t intend to let the facts or public opinion get in his way.

It clearly signals that a future Conservative government is intent on continuing fracking as soon as the election campaign is finished and out of the way. No wonder environmental and residents’ groups are up in arms again.

In just a few days, a ’ban’ has become a ‘moratorium’ then a ‘temporary pause’ and now it’s revealed that a future Tory government has every intention of giving the green light to new fracking applications.

It’s a phoney ban. Just who do you trust?

Care quality cuts – shaming and disgraceful

I have been banging on about the crisis in the funding of adult social care – the resources to support adults with physical and mental disabilities and frail pensioners – for several years.1 Each impending crisis has been bought off with last-minute temporary funds, instead of having the political courage to agree a long-term funding solution.

Despite the rising numbers of people requiring support, more than half-a-million fewer people are receiving support than a decade ago, and that figure is growing day-by-day. The residential home sector is also in crisis. Some of the biggest private operators have been loaded with debt, had the property legally separated from the operating companies, and are now in financial meltdown as fees don’t keep up with costs. Sometimes it feels that we are only a breath away from a catastrophic meltdown of the sector.

What has been more difficult to assess has been the impact on the quality of services, as well as on the quantity. Talking to adults receiving support services, their families and care staff themselves, I have been left with a clear impression about a decline in the quality of services as well. Various performance indicators had also suggested that.

But there was no definitive comprehensive research to confirm that…that is, until last week, when the Institute for Government and CIPFA published their 2019 Performance Tracker2 . This analyses data from across nine public services, and indicates that health and social care, for adults and children, has noticeably declined in quality as a result of cost-cutting measures.

Note, not marginal decline, but noticeable, measurable decline of the quality of care being received by our families – wives, husbands, partners, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grand-parents. How shaming and disgraceful is that?

And it has all taken place over the last decade of Conservative governments which, despite all the woolly, warm words and the promises of dignity and security, have left vulnerable people lying for hours without care in A&E departments, without sufficient staff in hospitals and homes to provide safe care, and frail older people without the quantity of support they require.

This is what the Performance Tracker revealed:

Although all areas of government spending assessed by the tracker have seen some reduction in quality, adult social care has undoubtedly seen the most setbacks. Public spending on adult social care provision has fallen by 2.1% in real terms over the past decade. While it’s true that the service has been able to achieve efficiencies, it will not be able to maintain this over time. As the population continues to live longer in poor health, the forecast growth in demand poses a significant challenge for public spending.

  • Demand for publicly-funded adult social care is likely continue to increase faster than the amount of money available to spend on it. To continue providing the same quality of care over the next five years, the government would need to spend 11.3% more than it did in 2018-2019.
  • With only a single year of funding guaranteed, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to plan to meet increasing demands in a sustainable manner for future years, meaning improvements to service quality are likely still a long way off.
  • In general, a consistent level of satisfaction has been reported by those who receive adult social care. Regardless, the perception of adult social care on the part of workers and the public continues to decline. This could in part be due to general dissatisfaction of the workforce. As a result of budget cuts, social care workers have had to do more with less in order to maintain the quality of the care they provide. Vacancy and turnover rates in adult social care jobs are high, and continue to rise.
  • There are substantial gaps in the government’s data pool surrounding social care. We don’t have a national picture for the extent of private funding in social care, waiting times for assessments, or what happens to adults who request but do not receive care.

It concludes:

  • These details paint a bleak picture for the future of adult social care in England. …any government will have to increase spending substantially to meet demand, we would urge parliamentary candidates to consider how their policy decisions can be better informed and evidenced.
  • Without these insights, any government will continue to fall into the crisis-cash-repeat cycle that has characterised politics for years. And it is the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of society that will pay the price.

As I said, shaming and disgraceful. The Tories have a lot to answer for.

1 Affairs of State, 3 October 2019,

2 2019 Performance Tracker

Fracking heck!

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’ involves the use of chemicals (some dangerous) with vast amounts of water and sand at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding oil and gas, enabling them to be extracted.

At one time, it appeared that fracking might provide a significant addition to the UK’s energy resources. Supporters said extracting the gas would provide a cheap, cleaner alternative to conventional gas and oil.

Not only an additional source, but a domestic resource, important for both economic and security reasons. It was claimed, quite justifiably, that this would cut the UK’s reliance on gas and oil imports and would create high-skilled and well-paid jobs in parts of Britain which were falling behind economically.

I have to admit that I was initially tempted to support fracking trials as long as they were undertaken with a number of tough conditions to minimise any environmental risks both below ground – preventing earthquakes, water contamination etc – and above ground – preventing air pollution, chemical emissions, unacceptable traffic implications.

Of course, the Conservative government wasn’t prepared to agree this essential set of conditions. It became clear that it was determined to press on regardless of the increasing evidence suggesting that fracking in the UK could not be conducted without unacceptable environmental impacts.  The first earthquakes were recorded in Blackpool eight years ago.

There were a number of Conservative MPs who opposed fracking, not because they were concerned by the environmental issues but because of the level of vocal opposition to fracking proposals in their own constituencies. Boris Johnson wasn’t even in this group. In fact, the complete opposite.

Our current Prime Minister was one of fracking’s biggest supporters both in Parliament and in a whole string of newspaper articles he wrote and speeches he made whilst heavily backing the initiative to press ahead.

“It is glorious news for humanity. It doesn’t need the subsidy of wind power. I don’t know whether it will work in Britain, but we should get fracking right away.”

Boris Johnson, December 2012

“We must stop pussy-footing around and get fracking. Even if we have hundreds of fracking pads, they are nothing like as ugly as windmills, and they can be dismantled as soon as the gas is extracted.”

Boris Johnson, September 2013

“Give the British people their mineral rights and get fracking at last.”

Boris Johnson, June 2014

“If reserves of shale can be exploited in London, we should leave no stone un-turned, or un-fracked, in the cause of keeping the lights on”.

Boris Johnson, July 2014

In 2016, in progress far too slow to meet Mr Johnson’s demands, the Conservative government announced that it expected that 20 wells would be sunk by 2020. In fact, only three have been started, all in Lancashire.

There has been constant Labour opposition to this initiative which simply failed to require the essential conditions and constraints, let alone take account of increasing public opposition and the bad news coming from the first drillings, with earthquakes and tremors at unacceptable levels.

Operations at fracking firm Cuadrilla’s site in Lancashire were suspended and never restarted. Following investigations, the Oil and Gas Authority – the industry watchdog – said it could not guarantee further fracking “would meet the Government’s policy aims of ensuring it is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby”.

Thus, it was inevitable that the government would have to respond. Last week, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said:

“…I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”

I’m neither cynical nor inappropriately suspicious, but I do have to draw your attention to two aspects of this announcement.

First, despite all the relevant information having been available for some time, the announcement was only made when it had already been decided to call a general election.

Secondly, the announcement did not refer to the ‘end of fracking’ – although that was how it was spun to the media by No 10 – it referred to a ‘moratorium on fracking’.  Of course, a moratorium can be lifted just as quickly as it has been imposed.

Given Mr Johnson’s fracking predilection, his assiduous use of fake facts, and his tenuous connection with truth and consistency, we are allowed to be suspicious.

Fracking heck!

Losing out

There was one piece of really good news this week, although you might have missed it in all the latest Brexit shenanigans.

How could anyone possibly think that it would be reasonable to suggest that, at 24 hours’ notice, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill1 , with 115 pages of dense legalese taking about 8 hours just to read, could be discussed, debated, amended and agreed in just 2 days? If I tell you that, this year, the government allocated 11 days for debate on the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, which ran to just 5 pages, you might realise the scale of the proposed democratic travesty.

This outrage was underlined when Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay demonstrated that he didn’t understand his own Brexit deal. Speaking to the House of Lords EU Committee yesterday, Barclay was asked whether businesses in Northern Ireland would have to complete export declarations when they trade with Great Britain, under the deal.  Barclay answered: “No, because in terms of Northern Ireland to GB, we’ve said it will be frictionless.” However, after his civil servants told him of his monumental error, the hapless Barclay reversed his comment, saying “exit summary declarations will be required in terms of Northern Ireland to GB.”2 Is it any wonder that UK businesses are exasperated by the government’s performance?

Anyway, back to the good news.

Indian and British police co-operated in shutting down two “criminal call centres” in Kolkata (Calcutta) that were being used to defraud thousands of Britons every year. “And about blxxdy time too” I can hear you shout. I agree.

Like every MP, I have been told story after story of people being relentlessly called by these scammers who pose as Microsoft (or BT or Virgin Media or…) IT support staff and tell their intended victims that their computers have been hacked. Fortunately, most people recognise what is planned and just shout loudly down the phone before putting it down. Unfortunately, a few get duped into buying expensive bogus security software or into revealing their bank details. Although a minority, the scam has obviously been very profitable for the crooks.

The City of London police say that the raid and arrests were at the end of a four-year joint operation with the Indian police. Well, I hope that, rather like Brexit, this is the end of the beginning, not the end of the operation to shut down these criminal activities. Given the scale of the scams, it is clear that there is a long way to go.

Last year, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau received 23,500 complaints about this type of fraud. Yet we know from other studies that most cases of these actual and attempted frauds are not reported. I have already asked Ministers about the extent of these frauds which have been reported to Action Fraud but which have not even been reported as crimes. I’m waiting for the answers.

Reported financial losses, last year, from those recorded complaints were more than £9 million. The real total lost by British citizens to this type of scam was almost certainly many, many times more.


The Noes have it, the Noes have it…

Since 2010, the Conservative governments have become obsessed with tinkering with the scope of and the arrangements for our democracy. Unfortunately, it appears to be the case of David/Theresa/ Boris fiddling whilst citizens have become more and more frustrated with and alienated from democratic engagement through the ballot box.

A group of Conservative MPs have been relentless in their determination to restrict postal votes to only those on their death-beds, justified by pointing to a small number of abuses in the two decades since the choice to vote by post was extended to every elector.

Of course, they forget that a similar small number of abuses happened when postal voting was restricted to the seriously ill. In Sheffield, we had the conviction of a Liberal Democrat councillor candidate who collected the voting papers of individuals who had died between the despatch of the ballot papers and the election, then completed them with votes for himself. The security and audit controls have changed since then.

I think there would be a massive revolt if the government were to try to restrict postal voting. The subsequent question would be ‘why can’t we have internet voting?’

Then we had David Cameron’s attempt to ‘equalise’ the number of voters in each constituency. But, the equalisation was based on registers which enable particular groups to register twice. The biggest groups are students, registering at their family home and university address, and second-home owners, registering at their family home and holiday cottage or business flat. Of course, it was all smothered with a populist 10% cut in the number of MPs.

Whatever, the combination of those proposals would actually have resulted in big differences in the number of actual (as opposed to registered) constituents in each parliamentary seat in Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

The latest proposed electoral tinkering concerns an intention to require anyone who wants to vote to have to produce photographic ID.

As it happens, most countries in the world do require people to produce evidence of their identity before being issued with a ballot paper. But these are all countries which have a universal ID system. Every individual has an identity card. They are normally required to carry it in their everyday life. They use it to be able to access a whole range of services.

We do not have that in the UK. And, it is the very same people, who opposed that the UK should have an ID entitlement card scheme just 15 years ago, who are proposing these ID requirements now. It is the very same people who demand that only those who are entitled to use the NHS and benefits and social housing should be able to access it, but then oppose the only serious way in which we can make this happen. These things are mutually contradictory. Some might call it hypocritical.

We don’t have robust and reliable ID systems in the UK. Those used by the police, the NHS, schools, local authorities, the benefit system, the inland revenue don’t match up and are incompatible. We are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds each year trying to make each system more reliable. Yet, it is believed that there are more than five million more national insurance numbers in circulation than there are people entitled to have one.

More than three and a half million people in the UK don’t have acceptable photo ID. If the government’s proposal is to limit it to passport or driving licence, then 11 million people don’t have acceptable ID

And, what is the ‘evidence’ being used to support the ‘ID for ballot paper’ proposal? Impersonation! ‘Impersonation’ is when someone goes to the polling station and claims the ballot paper of someone else who is on the electoral register and then votes.

To require this whole new ID arrangement, you would think that there is widespread voting abuse. Is there? Since 2010, 181 people have been turned away from a polling station having been challenged with impersonation. And just two people have been convicted of impersonation.

Meanwhile, the government has been running pilot voter ID schemes in just a few areas. The result in the 2019 trial? 740 people turned up to vote and were turned away because they didn’t have acceptable ID.

So, four times as many people were turned away from voting for not having the correct ID in just a few areas in 2019 as have been turned away for impersonation challenges throughout the UK in the last decade.

That’s why, when this latest nonsense from the government comes before the House of Commons, I hope we will hear the Speaker announcing The Noes have it, the Noes have it.

Our NHS safe in Conservative hands?

Make up your own mind.

This information is taken from NHS Key Statistics published today.

Cancer waiting times are the worst on record.

The waiting time target is that 93% patients should have their first consultant appointment within two weeks of referral. This target was met until recently. This target was met almost every month before 2018 but has not been met in the last six months. August 2019 saw record low performance on this measure.

  • On all eight measures collected, 2019/20 performance is lower than previous year.

Waits for diagnostic tests are at their highest level since 2008.

4% of patients have been waiting over 6 weeks to be tested – the target is <1%.

The number of long waits for admission has increased substantially

In 2018-19 there were 629,000 cases where a patient waited longer than 4 hours for admission, which amounts to around one-tenth of all emergency admissions to hospital and was 1.7% higher than in 2017-18. The number of 12-hour waits for decreased by 7% year on year but was over 13 times higher than five years ago. Between 2012-13 and 2018-19, the average daily number of 4-hour waits has increased from 419 to 1,723.

  • In the first six months of 2019-20, 4-hour waits for admission have risen by 47% on the same period in 2018-19, and 12-hour waits more than doubled year-on-year.

Waiting Times for Consultant-Led Treatment have risen to record levels

The waiting time target is that 92% of those on the waiting list at any given time should have been waiting for less than 18 weeks.

  • The current waiting list as of March 2019 is estimated at 4.56 million – up 5% year-on-year and up 40% compared with five years ago.
  • The proportion waiting less than 18 weeks is at its lowest level in a decade.

Delayed Transfers of Care

A ‘delayed transfer of care’ occurs when a patient is in the wrong care setting for their current level of need – e.g. when a patient is ready to depart from hospital, but problems relating to their transfer mean that they are still occupying a bed.

  • Delayed discharges have fallen by 21% in the last three years, but remain 22% higher than six years ago
  • Delays due to waits for home care have more than doubled over the past five years

Cancelled Operations

  • Around 1% of elective operations are cancelled on the day. The percentage of cancellations not treated within 28 days has doubled in recent years
  • In the first five months of 2019-20, urgent cancellations were up 12% on the same period last year, the number of cancellations for the second time (or more) was up 20%.

Patients waiting over 6 weeks for a diagnostic test

The percentage waiting over 6 weeks fell substantially between 2006 and 2008…

  • but has grown since 2013 and has been consistently outside the 1% target

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