This week has exposed the shocking extent of Conservative sleaze. It’s been all over the headlines in the past few days. But the truth is this scandal has been building for months.
Stories abound of conflicts of interest and cronyism inside the Conservative government. Health secretary Matt Hancock’s local publican awarded a contract to supply PPE. The vacuum cleaner manufacturer, James Dyson, texting Boris Johnson offering to manufacture ventilators if his company received tax breaks. Ex-Prime Minister David Cameron lobbying for his new employer Lex Greensill to get fast-track access to Treasury loan schemes. Bill Crothers, the government’s Commercial Head, working as an adviser to Greensill while still employed by the civil service. And endless questions about whether the Prime Minister received a loan or donation to refurbish his Downing Street flat – and if so, from whom.
The Electoral Commission is investigating, and Keir Starmer demanded answers from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions this week. The Conservatives are trying to say none of this is important and the taxpayer hasn’t lost out. But the lack of transparency, the fact that those who have the Prime Minister’s or Chancellor’s or Health Secretary’s mobile number can ask for favours that others can’t, and the obligation that ministers will be under to those who provide them with loans and donations, are completely at odds with ethical government, with fairness, and with getting value for money for the public purse.
Boris Johnson can shout all he likes in Prime Minister’s Questions, but as Keir Starmer reminded him, he hasn’t heard the last of this
Meanwhile, it’s been a busy week for me and the Labour education team. Our regular question time with ministers came round on Monday, and I was keen to challenge Gavin Williamson about the stealth cut to the pupil premium which schools receive to support the most disadvantaged pupils. Trafford schools will lose out on over £675,000 as a result of this cut. The secretary of state’s response was to accuse me of ‘moaning’. I don’t think Headteachers are moaning when they tell me the cuts means they can’t afford a teaching assistant, or speech and language therapy, or to pay for small group work.On Wednesday, I was invited to speak at the Confederation of School Trusts’ conference, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to discuss Labour’s priorities for tackling poverty and helping parents meet the costs of school. It really adds up, what with uniforms, transport, trips, sports and music equipment, lunches and snacks. I’m delighted therefore that my colleague Mike Amesbury MP succeeded in getting his School Uniforms law onto the statute book this week. This will ensure schools keep uniform costs down to help struggling families
On Thursday, I addressed FE Week’s conference on apprenticeships, another subject I really care about. Unemployment has shot up as a result of the pandemic, especially among young people – 80% of job losses in the past year are among those aged under 35. But despite new research showing a majority of parents would rather their children got a good vocational qualification than go to university, the number of apprenticeship starts has fallen massively in the last few years. We all know the long term scarring effects of youth unemployment, and we all know that skills and vocational training will be vital to rebuilding our economy after the pandemic. So reform of the apprenticeship system is urgently needed, and in my speech I set out some of the areas that need to be addressed: making sure the levy that employers pay to fund new places actually does what it’s meant to (last year, over £330 million went unspent and simply disappeared into the Treasury’s bank account), ensuring Andy Burnham and other metro mayors can use skills budgets to support local economic strategies, and prioritising funding for apprenticeships for young people.
The parliament week usually finishes on a Thursday so we can go home to our constituencies for Friday and the weekend. This Thursday, not just the week, but the current session came to an end too. As usual at the end of the session, new laws were rushed through in the final few days – including the Domestic Abuse Act, which disappointingly omitted proposals for a register of stalkers, as Labour had proposed; the Fire Safety Act, brought in to address the terrible failures that led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but which badly lets down leaseholders left to foot the bill for cladding replacement; and, of course, Mike’s School Uniforms Act.
Parliament will next meet on 11 May, when the Queen’s speech will set out the laws and measures the government plans to introduce in the new session. In the meantime, elections for Trafford Council and to re-elect Andy Burnham as mayor of Greater Manchester take place on 6 May, and I’ll be out and about campaigning over the coming days. Please don’t forget to send back your postal vote if you have one (call the Trafford elections office on 0800 023 4206 if you haven’t received it), or vote in person at your local polling station next Thursday 6 May. And take a mask!