Economy and the truth
Are two things the Government has problems with. The first is going to cause some immediate pain, the second could have longer-term implications for how we are governed.
Inflation is higher than for 30 years and still rising, which suggests we are back in the 1990s. Benefits are being cut and taxes raised, contrary to recent election promises – perhaps it’s the 1980s. Oh, and there’s an energy crisis. 1970s?
What’s worse than a government that gets the country into a mess is one that also makes the wrong decisions to keep us there – and there are examples of poor policy making and incompetence by every administration. What is particular to the Johnson cabal is their pretending to us that they know what they are doing and ‘get the big decisions right’. Try, fail and put the best face on it we are used to. Don’t bother, don’t care and lie about the outcome is new.
Here is a very good blog by the shadow employment minister that I think explains what is happening in the labour market – supposedly one of the government’s successes. The high vacancy rates are a feature of Brexit and Covid not a booming economy – on the contrary productivity is low and wages are going down in real terms.
In Hammersmith unemployment is up 60% on pre-pandemic levels and the growth in employees is caused by the flight from self-employment as so many of the self-employed were abandoned during the pandemic. So much for helping the entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, nearly half a million people have just opted out of employment.
Even sensible short-term fixes, like the windfall tax on excess oil company profits to lower fuel bills that many independent experts favour, are rejected because Johnson and Co are too close to the fossil fuel industry. What chance is there that the Prime Minister has his sights on long-term recovery? He gives the impression of a man who never thinks beyond the instant or beyond his own self-interest.
That is doubly so given the rule breaking, possibly law breaking, at the heart of his government, of which he is both the agent and a participant. Do we seriously think his mind is on stopping war in Ukraine or rebuilding the economy and public services – wrecked by a previous decade of austerity and ideology under Cameron, Clegg and May. No, he is thinking how he can tailor his answers on the Met questionnaire to try and squeeze through a legal loophole and save his own skin.
The only positive I can take from the past few months is that the country seems to have woken from a bad dream. I exempt Hammersmith from falling asleep on the job. Residents here were never taken with Johnson, giving the Tories 23% of the vote in 2019, the lowest share since the seat was created in 1885. But large parts of the country seemed to fall under his spell.
Not any more: he has been found out in the most cruel way, partying while people mourned and went without and suffered through the pandemic. The remaining puzzle is why the Tory Party is sticking with him thus far. They are not sentimental (as sadly we often are) and the longer the walk of shame goes on the more the possible successors share the guilt.
Covid carries on
Let’s be clear what happened last Christmas. Johnson took a huge gamble with all our lives, but particularly the elderly and the vulnerable. He rejected the best clinical evidence of the possible effect of the Omicron strain and removed almost all restrictions on mixing. He did this for two reasons. Firstly, to please the people he relies on for his tenuous hold on power: right-wing newspapers and very right-wing backbench Conservative MPs. Secondly, because the Chancellor would not agree to compensate businesses who would lose trade if, say, social distancing measures had been reimposed.
So, we self-regulated. Individuals and families changed their behaviour both in the run up to and over the holidays. No office lunch if you might take Covid back to your parents over Xmas. Smaller Christmas get togethers. So, was this win-win, saving the exchequer money while allowing people to assess their own risks?
Not really, there were up to 300 deaths some days and 2000 Covid hospital admissions, and a lot of venues were empty as people stayed away. I got Covid on the peak day – 23 December when more than 1 in 10 Londoners were infected – attending one of the functions that hadn’t been cancelled. It wiped out Xmas and New Year and I am only now recovering fully and grateful not to have any longer-term effects.
I don’t think that is untypical. It isn’t just the getting into Covid Johnson mucked up – the absent or dodgy PPE, the late lockdowns – it’s the getting out. Infection rates are still high and vaccination rates low in many places, including here. I asked the local NHS why for example only 38% of 12-15 year-old were vaccinated or only a quarter of some BAME groups had had the booster despite intensive local effort to target ‘hesitant’ groups. They said the main reason was a lack of clear messaging and failure to counter anti-vax propaganda.
Johnson wants to chalk up Covid as a win to save his rotting premiership. But it hasn’t gone away. It is there in the compromised health of millions, the low productivity of the economy and the struggle the NHS has to deal with its treatment backlog.
On this last point, Imperial aim to eliminate the two-year waiting list for elective treatment by the end of March, against a national target of July. They hope to have dealt with the one-year list a year later. Before the pandemic no one waited more than a year here. There were still 143 patients in local hospitals with Covid last week, 16 in critical care. These are the consequences of Johnson’s bid to stay in Downing Street.
Let’s try some good news. Our council tax, already the third lowest in the country, is being frozen locally. And not by cutting services – on the contrary more will be spent on social care – or by raiding the balances. We have a well-run council and they can juggle the need to keep services going with the real pressures on household budgets.
They are also going to pay about £8 million to guarantee Hammersmith Bridge is stabilised. Fed up with waiting for Grant Shapps to stop treating the Bridge as a political football, the council leader has authorised the works, which mean walking, cycling and river traffic will not be threatened again – and at a price a fraction of that we were told it would cost. They hope to recoup some of the money from the government, but are not holding their breath. But the prospect of finding the £150 million it would take to repair the bridge for motor traffic is as far away as ever. Only central government has access to that kind of money and realistically it won’t be found while this lot are in power, even though major highway schemes are regularly funded in the Tory counties.
From electric vehicle charging to air quality monitoring, to disinvestment in fossil fuels, H&F has been declared the greenest borough in London and one of the best in Britain by the independent Climate Emergency UK.
They are also leading the way in flood relief following the devastating floods last July. Climate change and removing planning laws to allow overdevelopment are increasing the risk of flooding, but the immediate solutions lie with Thames Water.
I spoke at a public meeting this month called by the council to challenge Thames’ lamentable record on sewer flooding. I pointed out that the same properties, in central Hammersmith and around the Askew Road in particular, that flooded in 2007, flooded again last year despite assurances that remedial measures were in place. Now families are struggling to get insurance and simply don’t believe what they are told.
Thames – notorious for profiteering and putting shareholders before customers – say they are under new management and will work to resolve both the individual and neighbourhood risks. I’ve heard that before and will work alongside the council to remove the risk of another disaster.
Saving the best to last, you may have got a letter recently about the new H&F law enforcement team (LET) – 72 officers who will work alongside the police, patrolling the borough, dealing with crime, anti-social behaviour and offering reassurance.
While the Met are still recovering from the cuts of the past ten years, the LET will be a welcome sight on our streets. I think our local police right up to borough commander level do a very good job. Just think of the extra stresses of the pandemic and the challenges they face from violent crime to fraud.
Sadly, the leadership at New Scotland Yard has not succeeded lately. I had always found Cressida Dick easy to deal with on a personal level and was not one of those calling for her head. What changed my mind was the way she responded to the murder of Sarah Everard and of the four young men killed by Stephen Port. She seemed in denial about institutional failings in the Met, which have been reinforced by the findings of Operation Hotton. We should respect her 40-year service and pioneering role, but it was time for her to go.
Building (out of) control
Last month we debated the latest version of the Building Safety Bill in the Commons. This is supposed to be the Government’s considered response to the horror of Grenfell Tower. The trouble is the problems that Grenfell uncovered are hugely complex and hugely expensive and few governments would be up to the task. It affects not only major remedial works to existing buildings ,who pays for these and when and how they are done, but how we change the planning and regulation systems to prevent more Grenfells being built.
Just this week – at last – some progress has been made on who will pick up the tab for fire safety works. But many questions remain unanswered. How will they make the developers and freeholders pay and, if they default, who picks up the bill then? Leaseholders in London will still be liable for up to £15,000 for non-cladding fire safety work. Why?
This week there was a serious fire on the third floor of a block of flats in Larden Road. I went down to visit the next day with a fire safety expert and was truly impressed by the resilience of the residents after a terrifying experience. No one was hurt and the fire was contained in one flat. That conforms with the ‘stay put’ policy that has been applied to blocks of flats since the 1960s. The problem is, after Grenfell, even if this works (because fire doors and compartmenting stop the fire spreading until the fire service have put it out) no one wants to stay put any more.
I am concentrating on three issues – there are many more. While developers may be legitimate targets to pick up the bill, councils and housing associations (and through their rents, their tenants) are also paying at the expense of repairs, housing management and new build. The housing crisis will only get worse.
Secondly, we need to do more to control electrical fires, the majority of all fires now and increasingly a problem with more second-hand white goods being sold online. Thirdly, we need to change building and planning regs. Developers are looking to build taller and taller buildings, often with a single staircase, no sprinklers or evacuation plans. Recent examples in east London and White City have been withdrawn after pressure, but there are currently applications in for three more blocks above 50 storeys on a small site in North Acton.
This is not good town planning or meeting the needs of the next generation. It is anything-goes profiteering and it is destroying not only London’s skyline but its safety and community.
I am back on the Opposition frontbench at an interesting time, as Shadow Solicitor General, working for an old friend, Emily Thornberry, in her second stint as Shadow Attorney General. Together we are the shadow law officers and deal with such issues as crime (Crown Prosecution Service and Serious Fraud Office) but also the rule of law and the conduct of, among others, politicians. So in the last few weeks I have been questioning the activities of the PM, the government’s attempt to undermine the independence of the courts and the Human Rights Act, the failure to act on fraud (the fastest growing crime), the policing mistakes that let Stephen Port murder four young men. Not to mention championing the cause of humanist marriage – it is a broad brief.
One theme keeps re-emerging, increasingly topical given Russian aggression internationally: the use of London financial and property markets to launder and hide dirty money from Russia and other corrupt and kleptocratic regimes. I’ve raised this four times in the Commons in the past month, not just the financial scandals and the failure to deal with them, but the Tory Party’s reliance on donations from Russian-linked sources – £2million since Johnson became PM – and the persecution through the courts of journalists and authors who seek to expose the perpetrators.