Since my last report Blaenau Gwent has been placed under enhanced local restrictions as a result of rising Covid case numbers, as have many other parts of Wales and England.
It was very concerning that – at one stage – Blaenau Gwent had the highest proportional case number in Wales.
I believe it is important to have as much information and data at hand as possible in order to understand what happened and how to prevent any further community spread.
The health board attributed the rise in Blaenau Gwent cases to what was described as ‘a breakdown in social distancing’.
We need to understand exactly what this means, and I have asked for a more detailed assessment of where and how the breakouts occurred.
I have also communicated with Blaenau Gwent council’s Chief Executive to ask that Covid data is made available by ward – something I have seen from other local authorities and something I believe would be helpful – and also that rigorous, regular checks are being carried out on local shops and pubs to ensure compliance with, and enforcement of, the new rules.
There must also be strong public health messages issued to encourage people to make the right choices at home and fully observe the measures which are now in place.
I have been hearing growing concerns about groups of youths gathering in the evenings across the borough, something I will be discussing with Gwent Police senior officers this week.
I was also troubled to see that there are outbreaks occurring in care homes across the health board area, with 10 ‘ongoing incidents’ currently in Blaenau Gwent.
This is something I will be monitoring closely and continuing to discuss with the health board.
As disconcerting as this all is, we are already seeing encouraging data that the local lockdown is working. There has been a clear drop in cases in the area according to the latest information made available by Public Health Wales.
This goes to show that by working together, making the right choices and following the measures in place we can slow the spread, get the numbers back down and keep our communities safe.
Keir Starmer gave a brilliant keynote speech at the party’s virtual conference, setting out his vision for Britain, laying out Labour’s core values and providing a sense of hope for the future.
You can watch and read the full speech here https://bit.ly/33DcZzJ and here https://bit.ly/344KH0f
By contrast, when it came to the Tory party conference, Boris Johnson seemed to be delivering a speech written for a different time. Tone deaf and hollow.
The Chancellor’s speech was similarly weak, coming off the back of an emergency winter economic statement which provided little reassurance for Britain’s workers.
There was nothing for people still on furlough (and nothing for those in areas now under local lockdown), nothing new for the self-employed, and nothing to address the flaw in his furlough scheme which does not incentivise employers to keep staff on.
The Job Support Scheme makes it more expensive to keep workers on part-time than to employ some full-time and let others go. Therefore, many of the estimated 2.7m people who were still on the furlough scheme in mid-September are at risk of losing their jobs when the scheme ends.
There are also more than a million workers whose jobs have been simply dismissed as “unviable” by the Government because they work in the arts, in entertainment or in the hospitality sector.
The Government has made the political choice that these jobs aren’t worth saving. It does not have to be this way.
Labour is continuing to call for the Conservative UK Government to do all it can to recover jobs, retrain workers and rebuild businesses.
Targeted support is needed for those industries which are continuing to struggle or are still unable to operate.
Britain is racing towards an unemployment crisis the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades, and the Tory party are steering headlong into it.
Pension Scheme Bill
I mentioned in my last report that I am acting as Vice Chair on the new APPG for Pensions Scams.
With this group being launched and the Pension Scheme Bill moving forward, I am glad to see that some of the burning issues around pensions are finally being taken in hand.
I am very pleased by the Bill’s commitment to strengthening the regulators’ ability to deal with those who target pension holders with bad advice. This is something that I have called for many, many times and something that is long overdue.
I also support the greater clarity provided by a pensions dashboard – which will enable people to see all of their various pensions in one place – but I am concerned that the creation of the dashboards may leave consumers vulnerable to being ripped off through a new market.
We need assurance that the dashboards will be sufficiently regulated so that there are no future problems.
I set out some important questions during a speech this week.
You can read the full transcripts of my contributions and the responses here https://bit.ly/2GF1FdD and here https://bit.ly/3lq6XIR
To ensure that pension holders are protected in future, the Government must work with the Financial Conduct Authority and other agencies to put measures in place to properly regulate any new dashboard market.
Measures must also be put in place to ensure that regulators protect and prioritise consumers first. As I said in my speech the FCA often seems more concerned about what happens in the City of London than what happens in the kitchens of consumers across our country.
It must be much clearer for the consumer what the regulators’ responsibilities are. This is a complicated financial world and all too often people are met with an alphabet soup of different agencies and regulators when they are trying to deal with a problem.
My interest in this issue started with the British Steel pension scandal which affected many across the south Wales valleys – but the problem is not unique to steelworkers or other steel towns. The Government’s pensions freedoms opened the door to rogue advisers and scammers, without providing the necessary support or advice for consumers.
The Government must learn the lessons of the recent past and ensure that pensioners are protected for the future.
As well as pensions, Pension Credit is a topic I have talked about many times.
More than 1,977 households in Blaenau Gwent that are entitled to Pension Credit do not receive the benefit.
The charity Independent Age tells me that the failure to deliver Pension Credit to those entitled to it costs the NHS and care services in Blaenau Gwent £6.9 million every year.
Across Britain, the result of those eligible for Pension Credit not receiving it is an estimated £4bn per year in taxpayer money for the NHS and care services.
It would be significantly less expensive to simply ensure people receive the Pension Credit they are entitled to.
Making sure people who are entitled to Pension Credit receive it is not only the right thing to do for those pensioners, but also the right thing to do for taxpayers.
The Government must stop blaming older people for this problem.
For a decade the take-up rate of this entitlement has remained stagnant at around 60%.
For an entitlement designed to keep older people out of poverty, this is indefensible.
As I have said many times before, the Government has to put a positive and proactive plan into action which addresses this and drastically improves uptake.
Parliamentary questions/spoken contributions
Online abuse 1
Online abuse 2
Local Elections: Registration and Participation 1
Local Elections: Registration and Participation 2
Pensions Scheme Bill 1
Pensions Scheme Bill 2
Written contributions / video / social media links
New APPG on Pension Scams
Labour warning over furlough cliff edge
Keep Wales Tidy litter pick
‘MP calls for legal changes to fight pension fraudsters’
Health Board Update 1
‘Outlaw fire and hire practices’
Call for Government action on Pension Credit
Transparency Task Force
Local restriction announcement
Keir Starmer keynote speech
Blaenau Gwent lockdown FAQs
Police targeting anti-social driving in Blaenau Gwent
Support for Macmillan
Support for ‘We Need our Steel Campaign’
Health Board Update 2
Letter to Government re: holiday travel refunds
Military homes issue
‘Britain We Need Our Steel’
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Covid-19 local lockdown update
South Wales Argus column
Response to Chancellor’s speech
Heath Board Update 3
Pensions Scheme Bill
Covid response from BGCBC
Economic Resilience Fund