Many constituents will know the British Gas call centre on Talbot Road. Since the start of the pandemic, most staff have been working at home, and a decision was taken last year that the site will not reopen, with many call centre staff continuing to work at home or at premises in Stockport – I’m pleased if staff have a choice. But at the same time, the company has been making changes to its terms and conditions of employment, and gas engineers in dispute with the company face the threat of being fired, and rehired on less favourable contracts. Along with other Labour MPs, I joined a virtual campaign rally on Monday, organised by the GMB union with some of the engineers, to show our support, and to urge British Gas to rethink.
Tuesday saw me in parliament, standing in for my colleague Tulip Siddiq who had to isolate at home, in a debate about covid and early years settings. Although schools and colleges have closed to most children and young people in the latest lockdown, nurseries remain open. This has caused a lot of anxiety among staff, and MPs of all parties pressed the government minister for answers on their safety and security. I also raised the very serious concerns about funding for early years settings, which is under so much pressure as the number of children attending has fallen drastically during the pandemic, meaning many risk going out of business. We’ll need those providers when the pandemic ends; the government needs to take urgent action now to protect them.
The big news story this week has been the scandal of the free school food packs, with their meagre provisions to feed a hungry child for a week. One mum posted a photo on twitter of the food that had been sent for her child – it didn’t come to much more than a loaf, a few pieces of fruit and a couple of yogurts, some cheese, butter and a tin of beans. My Westminster team took a look at the Tesco website and costed up the parcel – we reckon you could buy the lot for between £6 and £7, yet the companies that are being paid to provide the food parcels are getting around £15 per pack. This is terrible value for taxpayers’ money, and as mums have been saying to me all week, they could make the money go much further if they were just given the cash to go shopping themselves. So that’s exactly what Labour is suggesting the government should do until schools reopen again. Meantime, to our absolute astonishment, the government won’t guarantee that every child who is entitled to a free school meal will receive one in February halfterm. I can’t believe they’re ready to go head to head with Marcus Rashford and an outraged British public yet again on this – I know funding has been made available, so why not just promise that every single child who’s eligible for free school meals will be eligible for halfterm support too?
Finally, I’ve been hearing from a number of constituents this week, anxious about when they’ll receive the covid vaccine. Currently, those aged over 80 are being invited for vaccination, but there seems to be some confusion about whether they can have it done at their local GP practice, or if they have to go to a mass vaccination centre such as the Etihad stadium – though I’m aware of at least one Trafford resident who was offered an appointment at a centre in Birmingham. That’s clearly a ridiculous journey for anyone to undertake for a vaccination, especially at this time of year, and especially if you’re over 80. I understand that if you’re offered an appointment at a mass vaccination centre but would prefer to be vaccinated locally, that’s absolutely fine and you should wait to hear from your GP. But if anyone’s unsure about where or whether they can get the vaccine, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll do my best to help.