I have spent the last year or so calling out the cronyism and profiteering at the heart of the Conservative Government’s pandemic response. By now we have all heard about the billions wasted on dodgy contracts and paydays for pals of the party.
Just this month, I raised another such example with a question to the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. I asked about the recent National Audit Office report which concluded that a lucrative contract handed to Greensill Capital had provided absolutely no benefit to the NHS.
As usual, I received a total non-answer.
And yet, even amongst all of this, last week the Tories managed to sink to even lower depths when the Prime Minister whipped his MPs to support ripping up the Parliamentary Standards procedure to save one of their own from a lobbying scandal.
Shamefully, the Prime Minister is yet to come to Parliament and explain himself.
At the heart of this is yet another example of a lucrative contract being handed out without competition or tender.
The Government must commit to a full investigation into the £600m contract that was given to Randox – the company that Owen Paterson was lobbying for – and, when he comes out of hiding, the Prime Minister must confirm that Paterson will not be given a peerage.
Changes are needed to ensure the integrity of our Parliament.
Labour is calling for a ban on MPs from holding paid consultancies or directorships.
Labour would also introduce an independent anti-corruption and anti-cronyism commission.
My fellow Labour coalfield MPs and I had called on the Chancellor to use his budget to finally put things right for ex-mineworkers and their families.
There wasn’t single mention of them in his speech.
What we did hear about was tax cuts for banks, for frequent flyers, and on champagne.
Bizarrely, we also heard repeated boasts about how various investments being announced were “the best in a decade” – the Chancellor hoping perhaps that no-one would remember that it’s his party that’s been in charge for the last 11 years.
The Chancellor has landed working people with the highest sustained tax burden since the 1950s and at a time when many are already set to feel the pinch due to increased inflation, an increase in national insurance, the Universal Credit cut and rising energy prices.
Labour proposed a cut to VAT on gas and electric bills for six months to help people get through the winter. The Chancellor ignored it.
This Government has wasted so much money over the last 18 months and the Chancellor is not asking firms like Amazon to foot the bill, but rather ordinary working people.
Investigation into handling of steel pension scandal
I have put in a lot of work over the last few years to fight for justice for steelworkers who were ripped off by rogue advisers during the British Steel Pension Scheme scandal.
Recently I have been asking for the National Audit Office (NAO) to investigate the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) handling of this case, which I believe to have been ineffective and much too slow.
I am really pleased that the NAO has now agreed to take up the investigation I have been pushing for.
The regulators have still not gripped this scandal. We are now four years into this and those responsible are still evading criminal penalties.
Just 1200 of the nearly 8000 steelworkers affected have been encouraged to put in complaints and seek compensation – something we know is likely to be successful given that 85%-90% of the complaints received are being upheld with more than £20 million having been paid out to date.
With the NAO getting involved and looking for what lessons can be learned, I want to see the FCA and other regulators upping their game and supporting steelworkers better.
This was one of the biggest financial rip-offs of working people in south Wales and other steel-making areas. Justice is needed.
Women’s Pension Underpayment
Another issue I have been looking into is the catalogue of errors at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that led to around 130,000 married women being underpaid more than £1bn in state pension.
Although I was glad to hear an apology from a department representative in a recent Public Accounts Committee hearing, I was concerned to hear that the intention is to fix things for those affected by the end of 2023.
As I said in the hearing, this must be dealt with sooner than that.
The National Audit Office report into this fiasco is damning. An outdated IT system and “repeated human errors over many years” has led to many older women being denied the money they are owed, and the department does not have the luxury of time to put it right.
The DWP has to get a move on and also make big changes to ensure this can’t happen again.
I was very troubled to discover that places like Blaenau Gwent are being left behind in the roll-out of gigabit broadband.
The UK Government has set itself a target of hitting 85% gigabit coverage by 2025 and has been focusing almost entirely on cities and urban areas.
At a recent Public Accounts Committee hearing, many of my colleagues who represent urban areas could boast of having up to 80% of their areas covered by gigabit broadband. In Blaenau Gwent we have just 3% coverage.
Gigabit broadband is so important to not just keep our communities connected with the most up-to-date technology but also in enabling us to attract the type of businesses that rely on the fastest broadband – such as Thales in Ebbw Vale.
I was completely unimpressed with the answers I received when I challenged representatives from the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport about this.
I have asked them to go away and work with Ofcom in Wales and the Welsh Government to come up with a much better strategy for getting our valleys up to speed.
My colleague Carolyn Harris MP has been doing fantastic work in Parliament to drastically improve menopause support and services.
I was able to give a short speech in support of her ‘menopause revolution’ where I talked about issues around the menopause and employment and the urgent need for better workplace wellbeing for women.
It’s fantastic that as result of Carolyn’s tireless work there will now not only be changes made to HRT prescription charges in England but also a new menopause taskforce set-up to tackle other reforms and employer training.
Net Zero Strategy and Heat and Buildings Strategy
Free Trade Agreement: India
Topical Questions – Llanhilleth Miners Inst funding
Menopause (Support and Services) Bill
Supply Chain Issues
Written contributions / video / social media links
NAO investigation into handling of BSPS crisis
BBC coverage of NAO investigation
Miners pension campaign update
Campaign to end Fire and Rehire
Letter to PM re: HGV shortage
Illegal off-road biking roundtable
Question re: Llanhilleth Miners Inst
Public Accounts Committee – Pension underpayment
Menopause Bill 29/10/21
Treasury Questions 2/10/21 – Cronyism
Tory sleaze 3/11/21
Elections Bill & Chartism 4/11/21
Llanhilleth Miners Inst update 4/11/21
Public Accounts Committee 4/11/21 – Gigabit coverage in Blaenau Gwent
British Legion poppy campaign 8/11/21