As lockdown breaks down
The world is a lot more complex than it was just a few weeks ago. As we stumble out of lockdown, blinking into the sunlight, there is not one course to take – stay home to save lives – but a mesh of sometimes contradictory decisions.
Ten years of austerity have left much of the infrastructure of the country, from social care to public health, on the floor. And yet those services are being asked to perform miracles. In many cases they have, but increasingly they are running on empty.
Government is difficult at the best of times. It doesn’t need to be made more so. It doesn’t help to see ministers cutting our main trading ties, decapitating and politicising the civil service and breaking the law to benefit mates and donors.
The big announcement last week of a boost for infrastructure spending turned out to be £5 billion or 0.2% of GDP. Most of it was already announced, some – spreading housing investment over eight years rather than five – was a step back. What might sound a lot is a little when spread this thinly. There is £100 million for roads and bridges across the country. Less than it will take to rebuild Hammersmith Bridge.
On that subject, just before lockdown all interested parties met in the transport minister’s office to discuss the Bridge. There was no agreement, but you could see a way forward with the Mayor, H&F and the Department for Transport all contributing something. Now, thanks to Coronavirus, Transport for London and all local authorities are heavily in debt. In London that amounts to almost £2 billion after government subsidy. Some of that deficit is the result of unrecouped extra spending (eg on social care) but most is a drop in revenue whether from parking or fares. If the government will not fund major projects, they simply won’t happen.
This is true on a much larger scale as a consequence of the lockdown’s effect on the economy. If furlough and support for the self-employed end this autumn, there will be a massive increase in unemployment. But many people and business have been excluded from government schemes already. I have lost count of the mainly small business, limited companies and sole traders I have lobbied the Chancellor to help.
Rescue package for the arts
There is some welcome news today with the Chancellor’s announcement of financial support for the arts.
This is particularly important for H&F because we host a lot of independent businesses especially in the creative sector. We also have excellent theatres, concert halls, exhibition spaces and other live entertainment venues. They have received little help thus far and even established players like the Lyric and Bush Theatres, Bush Hall and Olympia have been ringing alarm bells for months.
I am glad the government has listened on this, but a lot of questions remain. Will all live ‘entertainment’ venues be included? For example, does that include exhibition centres which are still locked down? Will it include the minnows as well as the big fish – community arts projects as well as the National Gallery? How quickly will the money be available, as many venues big and small are on the edge of going dark – some already have?
And most urgently, will there be help for the people who run the creative industries as well as the institutions? A high proportion of those who work in the field have been excluded from government schemes thus far because of the way their businesses are run – eg as limited companies – or because they fall just outside scheme rules. We will be seeking answers to all these questions and more in the Commons tomorrow.
Getting the balance right
Any government would struggle with the competing demands of the economy and saving lives. But the task has been made much more difficult by the mistakes made thus far. This is not hindsight. We could see what was happening in the rest of Europe and Asia and what was and wasn’t working, and the government failed to respond in time. The death toll, especially in care homes, the continuing failure to install an effective testing and tracing regime, the lack of PPE allowed the virus to spread unchecked and meant many thousands died unnecessarily. It also makes the task now much more difficult.
I wish I could see a clear strategy but instead we seem to have a suck it and see, hands off experimental approach to ending lockdown. First there is a fanfare launch with talk of independence day and pints pulled. But when the beaches of Bournemouth and the streets of Soho look like battery farms on the news there is swift retreat – not from the policy but from the responsibility. If there is a spike in infection, it will be the fault of the passengers in the runaway train not the driver who took the brake off.
We don’t know if testing is working because they won’t publish the figures on people tested. We know tracing is not working well as a quarter of contacts are not traced and there is no app months after we were told it was essential and ready to go. I am sick of being told in sub-Trump briefings that we are world-beating and doing better than places with much lower death rates. Why impose quarantine three months into the pandemic against countries with very low infection levels then lift it again almost immediately on the basis of a list of destinations that looks both cosmetic and arbitrary?
BLM and home truths about inequality
Brexit, Coronavirus, Dominic Cummings. I have got used in the last year to finding my inbox frozen because of the volume of mail coming in and replies going out, but the response to Black Lives Matters topped all of these in the number, complexity and passion of the correspondence I have received over the past few weeks.
If the catalyst was the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the range of domestic issues that soon surfaced showed how many-faceted and deep-seated racism remains in the UK. Many places in the British Isles, not just the ports on the west coast, continue to airbrush, and sometimes celebrate, historical figures who fuelled the slave trade. That includes Hammersmith and the memorials and street names commemorating Sir Nicholas Crispe.
Many of the thousand and more emails I received questioned the teaching of history in schools. Too much on Britain’s imperial past, not enough on the way colonisation breached the human rights of other races and cultures around the world and the consequences of that for society today.
The reason I think this is a watershed in relations between minority communities and the established order in the UK is not so much the re-examination of our history, important though that is, but the light that has been shone on inequality in every aspect of our lives, including the right to life itself.
Partly this has happened because of coronavirus. Firstly, there was the report that the government fileted, censored and sidelined into those most affected by the virus. It showed BAME groups are two, three, sometimes four times more likely to die from the virus than white people. Part of the explanation for this lies in overcrowded housing, poverty and exposure to risk at work. This was the issue I raised with the Prime Minister in my recent and rare opportunity to question him at PMQs.
Secondly, it became clear that not just medics and other health and social care workers but those working in transport, retail, security and local government were at enhanced risk. The common factor for all these jobs was that disproportionately they are done by BAME staff. The tragic case of Belly Mujinga brought this home.
Thirdly, there is the policing of BAME groups. Twenty years on from the Macpherson Report into Stephen Lawrence’s murder there has not been sufficient change in the way the police recruit from and relate to BAME communities – and the two are clearly linked. In the age of the camera phone we too often see examples of racial profiling and double standards by officers. The police for the most part do not carry guns here and so even the worst episodes rarely end fatally but there have still been many deaths in custody that mirror what happened to George Floyd.
I do believe the police service and the Met in particular want to police even-handedly. I hope this will now be accelerated but it is no good just blaming the police or individual officers. Politicians have to give the lead.
In the same way that Dominic Cummings trip to Durham and Stanley Johnson’s breaking of the rules to get to Greece show a contempt for the millions who have followed the rules at great personal cost, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s insulting language about those they clearly think inferior or just ‘other’ set the worst example.
A contrast has been drawn between the policing of drunken pub goers – mainly white – and (to use the police terminology) those attending unlicensed music events – mainly black. We have had some experience of the latter locally in the past few weeks, one in particular on White City Estate last weekend that led to violence and injury to eleven officers.
Two things need to be said about this which you won’t read in the tabloids. Firstly, the police do try to negotiate either an early end to such events or at least to turn the music down. They also go in quickly when they can and seize sound equipment. This has meant, especially where the event Xhappens on open space, it is possible to resolve it without confrontation. There are many ‘raves’ every summer that we never hear about because they don’t come to blows.
Secondly, raves are essentially commercial events. They are not invited in but parasite on poor communities. The police had no option but to go in and break up the rave at White City. That was the view of the residents I spoke to there the day after. My best wishes to the officers injured, my thanks to the council staff who had cleared up a disgusting mess by the following afternoon and my shared anger with the residents of White City who had the peace of their neighbourhood disrupted and the reputation of their great community sullied.
But do double standards operate? Yes, they do. The drunks pouring out of pubs or fighting on the beach in Dorset felt they had permission to be there. If we want the law to be respected it must be applied fairly, irrespective of who you are, your ethnicity or who you know.
Round up of local anti-viral action
Even before lockdown started to break down there was plenty of activity locally making sure those in need had access to food, medicine and other essentials.
I saw the true face of White City last Thursday when we launched Cultural Flavours, a venture by the Lido Foundation that organises in the Somali community, Nubian Life, the long-standing service for Afro-Caribbean elders, and the Urban Partnership Group. It will deliver food in the north of the borough to those in need in these communities.
There have been both cultural and language difficulties reaching out to some groups in the crisis so I am delighted by the videos Imperial Healthcare has made to reassure and encourage BAME groups to use local health services.
This is in addition to the well-established distribution networks for all people struggling in the current crisis. The H&F Foodbank, UPG, Refugees Welcome have accessed both food suppliers and funds to ensure they can feed the thousands now reliant on their deliveries. But more is always needed – foodbank use has gone up almost 500% since lockdown started.
So, I want to give a special plug to the Foodbank Doorsteppers who collect much of the food the foodbank distributes – 20 tonnes so far, up to a third of total donations. They need more volunteers to set up more rounds. Apply here: www.foodbankdoorsteppers.com
Do help them if you can, and if it is easier to donate cash you can do this directly.
While many of our community centres and advice services remain physically closed their staff are working harder than ever, but with little ability to fundraise. Can I put in a plea for Grove Neighbourhood centre, in the heart of Hammersmith, which is a lifeline for many elderly and vulnerable people? If you can spare a donation to support their work details are on their website.
If you know anyone who is in need and not getting help contact H&FCAN, the council run coordinating body. And if you are an individual or organisation that can afford to make a donation to the aid network in the borough do so through United in H&F.
Sadly, too many businesses locally need help themselves, and I am pleased to see LBHF has put together a good package of help and advice.
I won’t pretend Parliament is working well at present. Bits of it are. I am busy on the Justice Select Committee challenging the appalling prison conditions under lockdown especially for children, and the government attempt to solve the trial backlog by suspending trial by jury for many offences. I have also been on the committee for the Fire Safety Bill trying to strengthen the first post-Grenfell legislation.
But much of what we do depends on more than 50 MPs being allowed in the Commons chamber and on a degree of spontaneity – interventions to challenge the government or the ability to take part in questions and debates at short notice and juggle commitments.
It was allegedly to remedy these deficiencies that we were ordered to stop voting and participating virtually, unless there was a medical reason for doing so. The reverse has happened. We now have to be on the premises but have less chance of taking part in business because only those allowed into the chamber can do so and we spend hours queuing to vote. This is a transparent (and unsafe) attempt to undermine Parliament’s role.
The council wants to hear from you
Local democracy is flourishing, however. H&F has long-since gone into full consultation mode through a series of resident-led commissions, on parks, the arts, cycling, and policing to name a few. Full details of these and the deadlines for submissions are here: https://www.lbhf.gov.uk/councillors-and-democracy/resident-led-commissions
NHS is a sprightly 72
At the weekend we celebrated the 72nd birthday of the NHS outside Charing Cross Hospital, and got an outstanding response from patients and passers-by alike. Our health service has performed brilliantly throughout the crisis, as has the council in its management of social care. Now they are faced with maintaining that record (there were worrying signs of a slight increase in cases locally last week) and dealing with the backlog of non-Covid19 conditions and elective treatments. But at least Charing Cross is still there!
Hammersmith Post Office closing
A nasty surprise package from the Post Office last week when they told us the main post office in Hammersmith would be closing on 8 August. The immediate reason is that WH Smith’s where it is based is shutting down permanently as King’s Mall is redeveloped.
The development is a positive move – a result of the whole centre being bought by IKEA’s parent company who intend to open the first town centre IKEA store in the UK and construct a new retail offer around it. They and the Post Office has already assured us that they want a new office to open in the centre.
But both the council and I only found out about the closure now, five months after the decision was taken and although there is someone interested in running a new office, exactly where and what the new host store will be is undecided, partly because of the uncertainty created by the redevelopment.
It is all a far cry from the imposing Crown Post Office that I recall on the island site before the Broadway centre was built in the 1980s. Step by step the Post Office has declined as an institution, losing its staff and franchises to Smiths and closing many Crown and sub offices across the country.
Nevertheless, I welcome the commitment by all parties to get the Hammersmith office re-opened asap. In the meantime, the nearest branches are further down King Street or in Shepherds Bush Road.
The Time is Now
This time last year thousands of climate activists snaked their way from Parliament across the Thames and back to Lambeth Palace. I was able to go and talk to a group of about 50 from H&F. The virus prevented a repeat of the gathering this year so instead we met by Zoom and discussed everything from recycling and cycling to Heathrow, emissions targets and the abolition of the overseas development department – a terribly backward step that will see resources switched from humanitarian and environmental projects to security and promoting UK trade.
The borough is changing shape
Internally that is. A review of ward boundaries has shaken up the way H&F will be represented at council level from the next election in 2022. The final decision was published last month. You can read it HERE and find out how your neighbourhood will be represented.
I think it looks quite sensible, which is more than can be said for the botched attempts to fix the parliamentary boundaries thus far. Ten years ago David Cameron set out to load the dice against the other parties and strengthen the hand of government against parliament by a plan to cut the number of MPs (it was overwhelmingly Labour and smaller party seats that would have gone).
Now with a big majority and lots of Tory MPs worried about their seats disappearing this scheme has been abandoned, so we will have a third review that will take another three years by which time the current boundaries will be about 25 years old. Lest you thought they were going soft there are a variety of other Trump-style voter suppression ruses planned.
A close and loving Shepherds Bush family lost their son in a brutal killing last month that police say was a case of mistaken identity. Twenty-year old Alex Kareem was walking home from the shops in Askew Road when he was shot from a moving vehicle that was later found burnt out in Acton. Alex was at the start of his life, looking forward to going to university this year and must have thought himself safe and protected. The grief of his mother and siblings will be made worse by the senselessness and inexplicable nature of the crime. Police have offered a reward for information leading to arrests.
Tom, who sadly died a few weeks ago, was a legend of the voluntary sector in H&F. As a benefits rights adviser for Action on Disability he won over 750 tribunals for local people and ensured over £25 million wrongly withheld by the DWP was paid out. He was also a lovely man, combining professional skill with compassion and good humour. We held a virtual wake last week which allowed his family, friends and colleagues from around Ireland and the UK to share memories of Tom going back many years. This does not preclude an actual wake when times permit! Rest in peace Tom.