When I first set up this blog some 11 years ago after leaving the Guardian it had a small readership and was both an opportunity to express myself and publish stories that might be missed by my old employers, the mainstream media.
Since that time the blog has expanded beyond my expectations – taking up campaigns such as the women born in the 1950s who were badly treated when the pension age went up from 60 to 66 and more recently the campaign to implement the UN Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women.
This took the blog at one time from being viewed by a few thousand people to over a million. More recently I have started taking up cases of injustice whether it is doctors fighting for patient safety in the NHS, people treated badly by commercial organisations like Marks and Spencer, whistleblowers or the scandalous treatment of staff (ironically) at the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
I also take an interest in holding politicians, civil servants, regulators and ombudsmen (particularly the Parliamentary Ombudsman) to account. Sometimes I do this on a wider basis by writing regularly for Byline Times but other times I use this blog to take up individual cases or expose stories that are buried in Whitehall reports. No injustice is too small not to matter.
Up to now much of this has been a labour of love. I don’t charge to access the blog, I don’t take any advertising. Sometimes what I write here has a spin off which does produce an income. I also do paid freelance work and have a reasonable pension.
However I am finding that I am getting a backlog of stories to investigate which is taking more time. So I have decided to seek some donations for this blog.
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You may remember I wrote a long article on a decision taken by the Government to no longer provide an index linked guaranteed minimum pension to millions of pensioners when they new pension came into force. The blog is here.
This decision never debated in Parliament meant the government has got away with not paying out anything from a £1000 to tens of thousands of pounds over the lifetime of their pension, depending on how long they were contracted out by their employer from the old SERPS scheme. The numbers could be as high as 11 million.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman, Robert Behrens, was asked to investigate and came to the conclusion that there had been maladministration and two people shared £1250 compensation. Unlike the row over the 50s and 60s born women who lost out by not being informed by the government over the rise in their pension age, no record exists, as far as I can find out, of the ministry repealing this provision in the 2014 Pensions Act.
And the man responsible for piloting that legislation, Liberal Democrat minister Sir Steve Webb, while publicly championing millions of women pensioners who have been underpaid by the ministry, is strangely silent about this issue which is he must be responsible.
What has happened since has taken morality and standards in Whitehall to new depths and exposed a level of deviousness and dishonesty among civil servants and cowardice in the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Office that fittingly goes with a government headed by a serial liar.
In September 2019 the Ombudsman gave the ministry three months to sort out this issue. His proposals were quite clear. He asked the ministry to “review and report back on to us on the learning from this investigation, including action being taken to ensure that affected individuals receive appropriate communication from the DWP about their state pensions.
“ln particular, the DWP should ensure that their literature clearly and appropriately references that some individuals, who have large GMPs and reach State Pension Age in the early years of the new State Pension, may be negativity affected by the changes. The DWP should advise individuals to check their circumstances, and should provide instructions for how to do this;”
Sweet nothing happened
So what happened? Sweet nothing. The DWP ignored the deadline and then produced a factsheet which I know from correspondence the Ombudsman clearly felt did not fit the bill. But after one attempt to get this changed the Ombudsman dumped the issue and wimped out of getting the ministry to implement their recommendations.
Their press office told me: “
“We closed this case in November 2020 after working with the Department for Work and Pensions on compliance. At this point we referred the case to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, to oversee DWP’s ongoing work in this area. They will hold the Department to account on the actions it has agreed to take.“
Actually the communication got lost and the committee knew nothing of this to the following April.
The DWP to cover its back claimed when challenged said:
“Working with the Ombudsman, we have now published information on gov.uk about this complex policy area and welcome anyone who wants to know how they have been affected by the policy change to contact us.
“Publishing this factsheet is the final step in the DWP meeting the requirements of the PHSO findings in relation to the way the GMP indexation policy change was communicated.”
It turns out that the Ombudsman agreed to this tardy response.
23 month delay
What finally happened was on August 12 in the middle of the Parliamentary recess, the department 23 months after being asked put out a publication notice amending its guidelines. The link is here.
I can’t imagine a more devious method about informing people and Parliament about this – in the middle of the August holiday. It is designed not to be seen.
Furthermore it does not comply with the recommendations which is why I say it is dishonest. There is no reference as you will see to the Ombudsman’s report, and the fact that people could be entitled to compensation. There is no mechanism for people to apply for the compensation and the notice was not even accompanied by a press release.
The losses are considerable for some people – about £27,000 for some women over the lifetime of their pension – but the information does not spell that out properly. Indeed all the DWP had to do was copy and paste as I have – a table from the Government’s Actuary Department ( at the bottom of this blog) which provided an ” oven ready ” guide to the losses.
Pathetic consultation using ignoramuses
A pathetic consultation process was held by the DWP – where they sought out the most ignorant people about pensions to comment- and only found seven out of 40 who agreed.. We only know this because the Commons Works and Pensions Committee published the details – the ministry itself has not published it.
There are probably millions of people who should at least get £500 in compensation but Therese Coffey, the secretary of state, is determined that nobody should know about it. It does not bode well for the 50s and 60s born women over their pensions compensation. She has already said the Labour Party should compensate the women not the taxpayer.
In a few weeks time Britain will be playing a pivotal role by hosting the Cop 26 international climate change conference in Glasgow.
Tight targets are going to be set which if not met will mean even more dramatic weather catastrophes than we are seeing now as the planet warms up.
So is Whitehall up to the job? If one takes the first example of action to save energy the answer is a resounding no.
A damning National Audit Office reveals an extraordinary poor performance by BEIS – the business and energy ministry – in getting 600,000 homes – mainly owned by low income families updated with new home insulation to cut their fuel bills and save energy.
The Treasury had earmarked £1.5 billion. The ministry ended up spending only £314 million. Its 600,000 homes target was missed by over 550,000. The administration costs were astronomical – for a scheme that provided grants of up to £5000 or £10,000 for low income income families – it cost over £1000 per house. Instead of of 600,000 saving up to £600 a year in fuel bills – only 47,500 will benefit.
And it should have provided a much needed job boost providing work for 82,500 people during a time when work was in short supply Instead it created just 5,600 jobs before the scheme was closed down last March.
Worse still both customers and contractors were badly treated. Delays paying contractors and customers getting their vouchers led to over 3000 complaints.
Why Sarah Munby is to blame for this fiasco
Who is to blame for such a mess? The answer must lie with the permanent secretary, Sarah Mundy. She is supposed to be this new business friendly appointment bought into government by the Tories to shake up Whitehall. Her biog on the gov.uk website said: “Sarah joined BEIS in July 2019 as Director General, Business Sectors. Before that, Sarah worked at Mckinsey, where she led their Strategy and Corporate Finance practice in the UK and Ireland.
“She has worked with some of the UK’s largest companies to change their strategic direction, and led much of McKinsey’s work on productivity across the UK economy.”
But she in no way lived up to her billing. To be fair HM Treasury gave the Department an over-ambitious 12-week timescale to design the scheme, consult with stakeholders and procure an administrator.
This came at a time when the Department was supporting vaccine procurement, and undertaking activities related to EU Exit. The Department accepted that delivering the scheme within this timescale posed a high risk, but judged it was justified by the need to support businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A US global company’s cheapskate bid
But it is at the back of the NAO report that her real failings show up. She was obviously entranced by business to use a new state of the art digital voucher system and gave the contract to ICF, a US global consulting and technology company, based in Fairfax, Virginia. The report reveals they put in a cheapskate bid. Their technology was not up to the job as shown by repeated reviews of failures in the digital voucher scheme. This led to the scheme having to managed manually- which is why it cost £1000 per house.
The NAO said: “ICF’s proposed costs for the development of the digital solution were less than half that of the second cheapest bidder, triggering the need for a review under government contracting guidance. The Cabinet Office review concluded there was not enough information within the bids to understand specific costs, and thus whether any adjustment should be made for a low bid.”
But it came back to Sarah Munby. She ignored the Cabinet Office. Having chosen the contractor she was then warned by every single contractor asked to undertake the work that it couldn’t be done in time. But she still went ahead.
Whitehall sceptics ignored
And the same came from inside Whitehall. The Department presented the Scheme’s full business case to its Project and Investment Committee on the 28 September, ahead of the Scheme’s final approval for launch on 30 September last year. The Committee decided not to approve the full business case, raising concerns that the digital systems for the Scheme were not yet fully developed and tested. They were right but still she ignored them and went ahead. Within six months it had to be abandoned and it is largely her fault. As a result hundreds of thousands low income families have lost the chance of cutting their energy bills this winter.
One can only agree with the verdict of Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
“The Green Homes Grant scheme was set up to fail, with an undeliverable timetable and overly complex design which took little account of supplier and homeowners’ needs….
““Government cannot hope to achieve its net zero ambitions if it doesn’t learn the lessons from this botched scheme.”
After some highly critical reports into the cover-up of appalling child sexual abuse in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has now produced a new report into other faith organisations in England and Wales – notably Muslim and Orthodox Jewish faith groups, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also covers a wide range of other faiths from the Methodists and Baptists to Buddhism and Sikh religions.
The report contains more horrific tales of abuse by people in charge of these organisations, their denial and cover up of what is happening, their failure to safeguard vulnerable children and the lack of measures to ensure proper inspection of the schools they run.
Worse of all after holding this inquiry the IICSA reveals that they don’t know the extent of the problem in these faith organisations because a number of them don’t want to co-operate with state institutions. Even police forces don’t keep records of how many recorded child sex abuse cases there have been in these faith organisations. And some of them even don’t carry out basic security checks on the people they employ to make sure they do not have criminal records.
Abuse at an Orthodox Jewish community
Examples of the horrific abuse stories include Todros Grynhaus, a prominent member of the Charedi Jewish community in Manchester and a Rabbi’s son. He sexually abused over 20 years two girls and a boy – one girl regularly between the age of seven and 15. Only when one of the girls went to Israel and told a rabbi there did the abuse become known and Grynghaus was offered counselling. Two years later when she was 18 she told prominent Jewish members of the Charedi community and was offered £5000 compensation and told not to go to the police or she would be regarded as a Moiser – what we know as a snitch – by informing on another Jew. When he faced charges Grynghaus fled the country on a forged passport and had to be extradited from Israel. Eventually the case did go to court and Grynghaus in 2015 was sentenced to 13 years in jail. But only after one of the rabbis was compelled by a judge to give evidence.
Abuse at a Muslim Madrassah school
Another example involved years of abuse at a Muslim madrassah school -held in a home- of a girl from the age of the age of eight to 11 by the 16 year old teenage son of the family ending in her rape. When she told of the case at the age of 14 she was abused as ” a tart” and a “slag” by the Muslim community who did not want the boy’s family disgraced. Eventually it did go to court and he went to prison for a year.
Four year old girl sexually abused at a Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible class
Another example involved the sexual abuse of two young girls by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses during Bible classes. One of the girls was as young as four and the abuse continued until she was nine. Peter Stewart was a ministerial servant in Kingdom Hall responsible for the organisation. He was arrested in 1994 when another person accused him of sexual assault. The girl did not tell her mother for six years about the sexual abuse and only decided to tell her after he was released from prison for the first offence. By the time the police got around to arresting him, he had died. The mother pursued a civil claim against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and won the case – despite the organisation fighting the claim.
The report goes into detail about the failure of many faith organisations to protect and train people in safeguarding and take the issue seriously rather than try and cover it up. In the three cases above the organisations tried to cover up what had happened and not take responsibility.
Two immediate recommendations
The report makes two immediate recommendations . They are that all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures;
and that the government should legislate to amend the definition of full-time education to bring any setting that is the pupil’s primary place of education within the scope of a registered school, and provide Ofsted with sufficient powers to examine the quality of child protection when undertaking inspection of suspected unregistered schools.
It estimates that 250,000 children are given supplementary education by faith organisations and none of the schools need to be registered or inspected.
They also have some long term proposals that will appear in a further report. These include whether mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse should be introduced; whether criminal checks should be compulsory for all faith organisations; and whether child protection policies should be compulsory for every faith organisation.
Professor Alexis Jay, Chair of the Inquiry said:
“Religious organisations are defined by their moral purpose of teaching right from wrong and protection of the innocent and the vulnerable. However when we heard about shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions, it became clear many are operating in direct conflict with this mission.
“Blaming the victims, fears of reputational damage and discouraging external reporting are some of the barriers victims and survivors face, as well as clear indicators of religious organisations prioritising their own reputations above all else. For many, these barriers have been too difficult to overcome.”
“We have seen some examples of good practice, and it is our hope that with the recommendations from this report, all religious organisations across England and Wales will improve what they do to fulfil their moral responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse.”
A major blueprint for how the United Kingdom can transform its laws to end all forms of discrimination against women and properly implement the UN convention ratified by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 has been published by the CEDAW People’s Tribunal.
The 252 page report written by Jocelynne Scutt, with the backing of a researcher team,, proposes to end the piecemeal implementation of parts of the UN Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination, both in national law and in different parts of the UK.
Its conclusion said: “The proposal now made by the CEDAW People’s Tribunal that the United Kingdom seize the opportunity now presented to it and introduce a Women’s Bill of Rights into the United Kingdom Parliament provides
a real opportunity to do this – create a climate where women’s rights are truly recognised as human rights, and human rights as women’s rights – with the United Kingdom taking the lead.”
it says it is time to replace fine words by politicians on women’s rights with deeds and includes comprehensive proposals backed up by research for almost every conceivable area of British life to improve the rights of women. Indeed in the space of one article it is impossible to encompass every area of this report – you will have to read and study it for yourself.
The shortcomings of the Equality Act
Some of the more dramatic findings reveal shortcomings in the 2010 Equality Act – which is probably the UK’s major contribution to women’s rights – both in sections that have never been implemented and the fact that its provisions don’t apply to Northern Ireland – which the present government insists should remain an integral part of the UK.
To back up that last point the report said:
” No devolved authority to have the power to undercut or reduce the provisions, extent or scope of the Women’s Bill of Rights and to address any potential conflict or proposal by any devolved authority to do so, the UK Act to include a provision prohibiting its terms from being excised from operation in the devolved jurisdictions. This provision to be based in the principle herein stated, namely that all women of the United Kingdom, wherever residing, are entitled to equal rights without being deprived of them by reason of residency in any devolved jurisdiction.”
But it does not rule out as Scotland and Wales introducing their own legislation both to improve any UK Act or if the government doesn’t introduce any legislation for Scotland and Wales to go ahead with their own law as they are proposing to do now.
The report also insisted on widespread training for lawyers and public officials on what CEDAW means.
“That the Women’s Bill of Rights include a provision making it mandatory for members of the judiciary and magistracy at all levels to receive education and training on an initial and regular basis, including remaining up to date with CEDAW jurisprudence, and that this provision extend to all holders of public office, whether by appointment or election, in international, national and local bodies and authorities.”
This is a point I felt during the Court of Appeal hearing on the judicial review of women’s pensions that the judges did not seem to have a clue about CEDAW – and in my view this contributed to their decision to throw out the case.
It also makes it mandatory for every piece of legislation to have a gender impact assessment and for all government departments to have a gender impact assessment for every new policy they introduce. Since women are the majority in this country I would have thought that to be essential.
The report picked up that many women do not understand their rights because it is not presented in simple and clear language and the information is not available ( take the 50swomen case in informing women about the rise in the pension age for example).
The ” whole person ” approach to women’s rights and discrimination
There is also a failure to connect discrimination against women to other serious forms of discrimination. As the report said:
“The discrimination of women based on sex and gender is inextricably linked with other factors that affect women, such as race, ethnicity, religion or belief, health, status, age, class, caste and sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination on the basis of sex or gender may affect women belonging to such groups to a different degree or in different ways to men. States parties must legally recognize such intersecting forms of discrimination and their compounded negative impact on the women concerned and prohibit them.”
Where is particularly bad the report said the government should use “special measures” – specific legislation to address the problem – to end this inequality.
The report looked at major policy issues such as Brexit, climate change, the Covid 19 pandemic and the Windrush scandal and how they affected women.
It quoted evidence on how these separate issues impacted on each other. One passage read:
“The evidence further provided a snapshot view of the rise in hostility in the lead-up to, the confirmation of, and the continuing aftermath of Brexit. The Covid pandemic has exacerbated this, in that because Black and minoritised women (along with their male counterparts) have been in the forefront – both as doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and cleaning staff in hospitals, and suffering from being more susceptible to the virus – this has militated against their interests in the community, too – drawing racist attacks as if they are to blame because of that greater susceptibility”.
It tackled controversial issues such as migration, asylum seekers, women being detained in prison and made strong recommendations on how to deal with these issues. And it dealt with the lack of equal pay for women, and being forced by the partners into credit debts -coining the phrase ” sexually transmitted debt.”
” Sexually transmitted debt”
“This term, coined by lawyer Jenny Lawton and barrister Emma Swart recognises the position of women who, believing
their signature does not ‘count’ and under pressure that is difficult or impossible to counter, sign contracts – including mortgages and guarantees – at the behest of husband or partner, plunging them into debts they did not envisage, from which they do not profit, and which they did not wish to accumulate. Not infrequently, this occurs with the complicity, to a greater or lesser degree and even amounting to collusion, with banks or other financial providers.”
It also looked at faith marriages among the South Asian community which are not recognised by civil law and how they can lead to polygamous marriages, trafficking and women left with nothing in a divorce settlement.
This gives you an idea both of the breadth of issues covered by the tribunal and the need for widespread reform in many areas to give women full rights. And I haven’t touched on violence against women and domestic abuse.
This is truly a major document and a basis for major campaign to change the entire approach to women’s rights. Read it, digest it, and go forward and campaign for change.
UPDATED: WITH FULL ROTHERS RADIO PROGRAMME ON CEDAW
Today a group of women from the CEDAW People’s Tribunal led by its president, former judge Dr Jocelynne Scutt went to Downing Street to petition the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson to introduce a comprehensive women’s rights bill.
This is the latest move in a campaign to persuade the government to implement the UN Convention to End All forms of Discrimination Against Women ratified by Margaret Thatcher as long ago as 1986.
It would pave the way for proper gender sensitive legislation and transform the rights of women still fighting for equal pay, equal treatment and better protection from, domestic violence, rape and abuse.
Above is a video now on You Tube of the event. I came along to report it for this blog
Dr Scutt was accompanied by four of the many legal assistants who helped the campaign. They are Katie Capstick, Pietra Asprou, Clara Guitau and Sara Vincezotti.
The event was organised by the steering committee involving Ann Fenner, Kris Gibson, Michaela Hawkins, Louise Matthews, Davina Lloyd and Joanne Welch.
One intriguing insight. The handing over of the petition was delayed a little as Boris Johnson, who was in residence, had to dash outside from No 10 to No 9 Downing Street. He was in the middle of the virtual G7 summit at the time with Afghanistan on his mind. No doubt once he got to see the petition it would remind him that there were also issues like women’s rights in the UK which are not going to go away either.
The next step shortly will be the publication of the report from the People’s Tribunal. There is also a radio interview with me, Joanna Welch and Davina Lloyd tonight who both organised the tribunal with the amazing help of human rights lawyers from Garden Court Chambers.
Ian Rothwell special programme on Salford City Radio
Special programme on BackTo60 and CEDAW; Interviews with Dr Davina Lloyd, chair of the CEDAW Tribunal Steering Committee; Joanne Welsh and myself talking about how the moves in Scotland and Wales are complementing the work of CEDAW. Press on the button below to hear the entire programme ( one hour)
Enjoy the programme and thanks to Ian Rothwell and Salford City Radio for allowing me to put it on my blog.
Following my story on this blog on August 5 on the outrageous life time shopping ban given to a 85 year old Covid shielding woman by Marks and Spencer I decided it deserved wider publicity.
So I contacted the Sunday Mirror and I am delighted to say today’s paper includes a report of the incident and the ban.
Marks and Spencer did adopt an incredibly arrogant attitude in refusing to comment to me on why they justified the ban by ignoring my request as a journalist to the press office. I noticed when the Mirror rang they had to give a one line statement saying ” They cannot discuss individual cases. Excluding a customer is only done in rare circumstances.”
As I said in my previous blog Patricia Stewart was obviously confused going round their Bexleyheath store and left her shopping there. The manager and his colleague who followed her out of the store and searched her shopping bag then seized on a pair of Brazilian knickers without a receipt and ” presumed” it was stolen. This evidently is enough for M&S to ban her for life shopping with M&S ever again. Her explanation is that she intended to get them exchanged as they were a gift from a friend but she had forgotten to bring the receipt.
I also notice they won’t tell the Mirror how they enforce the ban. From a trial run by her relatives where she ordered stuff directly on line and visited three other M&S stores away from Bexleyheath, it looks like to me as meaningless outside Bexleyheath. There is an interesting thread here on the Legal Beagles website -which describes someone else being banned at M&S in Harrow, north London. The ban covered ” unusual behaviour”.
You can see from it the person got really worried. M&S seem to take a rather overbearing attitude to some of their customers. Either they should prosecute if it is shoplifting or offer to help if someone is confused
The headline in this story is a paraphrase of an extraordinary letter to be sent out to 15,000 people randomly chosen by the Department for Work and Pensions. Some 180 pensioners are being contacted this month.
The ministry has mounted an exercise to check fraud and error in payments for the state pension alongside universal credit, attendance allowance, PIPs, carer’s allowance, pension credit, housing benefit, and the employment and support allowance. It is run by the Performance Measurement Team. The ministry are asking people on other benefits to send them original documents showing their savings, pay slips, rent books and tenancy agreements.
It comes as the ministry faces a potentially damning report from a National Audit Office inquiry into the underpayment of state pensions to tens of thousands of women under the old state pension system replaced in 2016.
The NAO want to know how these mistakes occurred , what is being done to put them right and what lessons have been learnt. The NAO made it clear yesterday it had nothing to do with this exercise mounted by the DWP.
This also comes on top of a finding of “maladministration” by the Parliamentary Ombudsman over the ministry’s failure to inform 3.8 million 50swomen adequately about the rise in the pension age from 60 to 66.
The letter reproduced above is pretty insensitive to say the least – since it will be going to elderly people aged anywhere from 66 to their 80s and 90s.
Onus put on pensioners not the DWP
As you can see it puts the onus on pensioners to answer questions correctly-with the threat of prosecution or fines if they don’t.
” You have a personal responsibility to make sure all the information you give during the call is correct and complete.
If it isn’t and we pay you too much money you may have to pay the money back. You also risk being prosecuted or having to pay a financial penalty.”
But it gets worse. Under the heading What will happen if I do not hear from you it says:
“If you fail to be available for this review and do not contact me, your entitlement to State Pension may be in doubt and your payments may be stopped. ( Bold type my emphasis).
This is “coercive and threatening language”- Rosie Brocklehurst
Rosie Brocklehurst from St Leonards, is one who got the letter and contacted me.
She saId: “There could be 15000 terrified pensioners receiving this letter all of whom are being threatened with having their state pension. stopped if they do not “make themselves available.” This is abusive coercive and threatening language in my lexicon.”
She is 71. She said: “The letter they send out is couched in language that is designed to frighten and certainly frightened me. I am not well and have had a chronic condition for 18 months. I have no other income but state pension and pension is not means tested. I am married and claim nothing else but my pension..”
Two points First you have to claim your pension but the calculations are done by the DWP. So if the figure is wrong it is not your responsibility, it is theirs and there is a history of the ministry getting things wrong.
The second is you are entitled to your pension. There is no way the DWP or anybody else can take it away from you. Whoever drafted that letter should have changed it for pensioners. I suspect that it may be illegal for the government to stop pension payments which they have already calculated. Certainly if the grounds are not agreeing to be interviewed.
I have contacted the DWP press office but they took over two days to reply. This is their reply;
“We urge people not to worry. We would only suspend payments in very specific circumstances such as where a pensioner has died and we are continuing payments.
“These reviews, introduced in 1997, take a sample of claims from across several benefits to help us identify cases where the department has paid the wrong amount.”
“The wording of our letters is kept under constant review.”
However what does it not say is that the state pension was exempt from all reviews since 1997. A decision to include it was taken in February this year. No explanation was given why the ministry suddenly decided to include it.
Council by election results are not always a guide to a party’s performance in a general election because local issues can determine how people vote. But they are a guide to how the most politically active think since the people who vote are likely to be those most interested their local community. They are also a guide to how each political party can get their vote out and are real results – not an opinion poll.
Whatever way you put it this summer- with a couple of exceptions- has been a disaster for Sir Keir’s Starmer’s new model Labour Party. As well as the high profile Parliamentary loss of Hartlepool to the Tories, only just holding on to Batley and Spen and the collapse of the Labour vote to the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham it is the local council by-election results that have been particularly bad.
Since this is against the background of a pretty incompetent Tory government facing allegations of corruption and mucking up people’s summer holiday arrangements by constantly changing the rules and causing confusion about what, if any, rules to follow to keep safe from Covid 19, it is no mean achievement for Labour to lose more electoral support.
The by-election results also show that underneath the serenity of a successful and well organised NHS vaccination programme the political scene is pretty volatile. Council seats that should have naturally stayed under the same party’s control are falling to other parties with enormous changes in vote share. The trouble is that in England and Scotland Labour is not the beneficiary. The exception is Wales. In the one Welsh by-election in the Rhondda, Labour did do well with the Tory share falling significantly.
The pattern that is emerging for Labour- from both the Midlands and the North- is that the Tories are consolidating the gains they made in 2019 and wooing the working class vote in once safe Labour areas. If this continues Labour under Starmer might lose more Parliamentary seats in a snap election in 2023 than Corbyn lost in 2019 and the Conservative Home dream list of scores of fresh Tory gains in Yorkshire , the North East, and the East and West Midlands become reality. In Yorkshire alone this means 11 seats could go.
Tories consolidating 2019 election gains
Examples of consolidation include Tory by-election wins from Labour in Grimsby, Bassetlaw and Sandwell and North East Lincolnshire. In Sandwell the Tory share of the vote was up 20 pc, the Labour share down 13.7 per cent. In Bassetlaw, the East Retford South seat saw the Labour share down 47 per cent and the Tory share up 25 per cent with the intervention of an Independent.
Even more concerning for Labour should be by-election results in Leicester, Harlow and Basildon. In Leicester Tories gained their first seat on the council with an 18 per cent rise in vote share while Labour slumped nearly 16 per cent. With the full council up for election next year, the Tories are hoping for large scale gains and possibly one of the city’s Parliamentary seats soon.
In Harlow and Basildon Tories took council seats in Labour areas like Pitsea in Basildon and Mark Hall in Harlow. The Labour vote share was down 16 pc in Basildon and Tories up nearly 15pc. In Basildon the Tory share was up 24 per cent enough to take the seat from Labour who kept a 41 per cent vote share. These new towns used to have Labour councils and Labour MPs like Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. In Hemel there are now no Labour councillors.
Greens having remarkable results
The Tories are on the defensive in rural England and the South and West of England. But the main beneficiaries are the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Greens had a remarkable result in Somerset going from nowhere to 64.9 per cent vote share when the Liberal Democrats did not contest the seat. They held on to a seat in Staines just outside London, and gained seats in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and Mid Sussex from the Tories. In Aldeburgh they just pipped the Tories with a 26 per cent rise in vote share and in Balcombe, Mid Sussex they won a little more convincingly with a 13 per cent rise.
Lib Dems winning “safe” Tory council seats
The Liberal Democrats also did well winning seats from the Tories in Knaresborough, King’s Lynn, all with big swings in their vote share ( 28pc in King’s Lynn and 20 per cent in Knaresborough). In some seats the Labour vote switched to the Lib Dems, in other cases it remained steady but the Lib Dems leapfrogged Labour. The Lib Dems also took a seat from the Tories in Cobham in Dominic Raab’s Esher constituency with a 18.4 per cent rise in vote share. Labour did benefit on East Devon council when the voters switched to Labour when the Lib Dems did not stand winning a seat at Honiton.
In Scotland Labour lost a council seat to the SNP on West Lothian council, Vote share was down by nine per cent.
What does this all mean? Difficult to gauge from a clutch of by-election results, but it does suggest the electorate is particularly volatile and not necessarily enamoured with the Tories in rural areas. But it shows Labour has a long way to go.
The worst scenario would be if the Labour Party continued to haemorrhage votes to the Tories in the provincial cities and to the Greens and Liberal Democrats elsewhere. In the end the internal disputes could lead to the Socialist members permanently switching to the Greens and the moderate members switching to the Liberal Democrats. It would mean the end of Labour as a mainstream party. It hasn’t come to that yet, but could be unless Labour comes forward with a much more aggressive and thought provoking agenda.
This is Patricia Stewart an 85 year old woman. She spent the first five months of the lockdown shielding from Covid 19 as she is a vulnerable person. Last autumn during the period when the first lockdown was lifted she ventured out to shop for the first time. As a M&S customer for over 60 years she went to her favourite branch in Bexleyheath shopping mall. What happened next is hardly believable but raises a lot of civil liberties issues.
Patricia Stewart was nervous about going round a public store for the first time. She went to the customer services desk and exchanged a babywear item for a bra. She then went round the food hall but being worried about Covid starting putting packaged food items into plastic bags. This attracted the attention of a security guard who told her not to do this.
According to details released by M&S following a subject access request by her relatives he ” deemed it as shoplifting “. She was then followed by a male manager and female colleagues. Now feeling thoroughly uncomfortable she approached the till four times and then changed her mind and decided to leave the trolley full of shopping and go out of the store.
M&S Brazilian knickers- a smoking gun?
She was followed into the shopping mall by the manager and a female colleague and while she was sitting on a bench waiting for a taxi they challenged her in public and demanded her name and address She refused to give it to them so they proceeded to search her shopping bag. They found none of the food shopping but did discover a pair of M&S Brazilian knickers without a receipt. They claimed they had been watching her on CCTV and saw her change a label adding that a customer had also complained about her.
They then proceeded to serve her with a ” trespass order” – a device used by many stores to keep out suspect shoplifters without going to court – not only from the Bexleyheath store but from any store in the country and on purchasing anything from M&S on line for the rest of their life.
The ban has been challenged by her two daughters who asked to see the CCTV and for evidence of the other customer’s complaint. When challenged M&S couldn’t provide the CCTV to prove their allegation because according to them ” it wasn’t recording properly”. Nor could they produce the customer who complained.
But M&S stuck to their story and have now ended any correspondence with them -pointing out they are not regulated by anybody and therefore nothing else can be done.
I decided to investigate this and approached M&S Corporate Press for comment. Six weeks after failing to reply to me I escalated my inquiry to Steve Rowe, chief executive of M&S, who has ignored my email. Therefore I can’t put their response.
There are two issues here which are connected. First of all the particular case and the use of trespass orders and secondly how they can be enforced. The retailer is allowed to use them because their store is private property. A search on the internet reveals they could be quite common – for example someone complained in Bristol about being banned by M&S. And nobody knows how they can be enforced – one theory which sounds too fanciful to me – is that M&S are secretly using facial recognition cameras in their stores. The other is that the M&S Sparks card – both offers you treats but is used as a surveillance card to monitor customers. Since M&S would not respond to my questions all this is speculation.
The Sparks card was used by M&S in this case as proof of her not purchasing the knickers – they revealed in an email that they have records of many of her purchases going back two years but insisted they had no personal file on her. But according to her the knickers were purchased by a friend as a gift – so they wouldn’t be on her purchase list.
Failing to get a reply from M&S the relatives and I decided that we could test out the ban. First she decided to order a bra on line without using a Sparks card – and guess what she received a cheery note from the company telling them it was on its way and it was delivered last month. (see above)
She has since then shopped in three other M&S stores without any problem but has not returned to Bexleyheath.
This raises the question whether these ” trespass orders” can really be enforced or just used to intimidate people believing they can be banned. I would certainly have thought they would have to have an elaborate system to enforce them nationwide – that might be challenged by GDPR.
The other matter is a civil liberties issue – from what I have got from the subject access request – M&S would have had a flimsy case if they went to court. So why should they be judge and jury in deciding people’s individual liberties?
According to their memos M&S believe their staff behaved with ” integrity” in banning her. Tufail Ahmed, the manager of the Bexleyheath store, who must be locally responsible for this, has a Linked In page in which he says:
“M&S Manager of the Year 2018/2019. With nearly 20 years of retail experience working for leading retailers in various roles, I know that change is a very normal place in retail. I am now part of the change at M&S, leading and inspiring people to be the very best.
” My long term aim is to be an influential member of a business’ senior leadership team, that is what I am currently working towards.”
I suspect relatives of Patricia Stewart might beg to disagree.
As for Steve Rowe, who has built his entire career with M&S, his silence on the matter is deafening. He looks about the age to have elderly relatives, I wonder if he would like them to be treated like Patricia Stewart.