Liberal Democrat Leader seeks Covid-19 safety guarantees amidst a No-Deal exit from the European Union

Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council has written to the local MP over his concerns over the likely impact of a No-Deal Brexit, when combined with the Covid pandemic, on public safety.  

On Friday 12th June, the UK government decided not to seek an extension of the existing transition period before exiting the European Union.  The UK will leave the European Union entirely on 31 December 2020.

Councillor Sykes worries for the most vulnerable in society if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal whilst still reeling from the impact of Covid-19. 

Commenting he said:  “A No-Deal Brexit combined with Covid would represent a double whammy.  Progress made so far on securing a future trade deal between the UK and the rest of Europe has been painfully slow.  Council, medical, key and care workers across our borough are already fully engaged in battling the impact of Covid-19.  The disease is impacting those who are most vulnerable in our society.”

“I have real concerns that if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal then we may also face food and medical shortages in 2021, and these too will hit our poorest and most vulnerable residents,” said Councillor Sykes.

The Oldham Liberal Democrats are asking a local MP to press the Government to publish impact assessments that were first carried out in the autumn of 2019.

Councillor Sykes hopes that these assessments will provide clarity in four key areas:

  1. The impact on food prices and food availability.
  2. The availability of medicine and drug stockpiles.
  3. The ability of essential products, materials, and chemicals to be imported from the EU.
  4. The ability of British businesses to prepare for a potential no deal, and any negative impact on employment.

Councillor Sykes said: “In April alone, the country’s economy shrank by 20.4%.  This has never been seen before.  The full devastation of the pandemic is yet to be revealed: widespread job losses, reduced living standards, and debt are certain.”

“The Prime Minister refuses extend the EU transition period.  We need to know what this will mean for Oldham.  A No-Deal Brexit combined with Covid will mean that yet more Oldham people’s lives will be in the balance.”

Copy of letter to: Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, no reply or acknowledgement to date

10 July 2020

Debbie Abrahams MP, Lord Chambers, 9 Church Lane, Oldham OL1 3AN

Dear Debbie Abrahams,

Re: Covid-19 safety guarantees amidst a No-Deal exit from the European Union

On Friday 12th June, at the second Joint Committee meeting, the Government formally rejected the option to extend the transition period.  The European Union have made it clear that they would still be open to an extension and that the progress made so far on key areas of the Brexit negotiations is insufficient. 

The deadline for requesting an extension is 1st July 2020, after which point the UK faces the possibility of crashing out of the EU if a deal is not secured before the end of the year.

Oldham Borough’s services and its economy are already battling Covid-19.  Our resources are stretched and the most vulnerable in our society have been those most affected by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

In April alone, the country’s economy shrank by 20.4% in April.  This is the largest monthly narrowing on record.  The full devastation of the pandemic is yet to be revealed: widespread job losses, reduced living standards, and debt are certain.

In light of this, and in light of your position, the Oldham Liberal Democrats are calling for you to support our calls for the Government to publish a review of the impact assessments done in Autumn of 2019, to understand full the impact Covid-19 has had, particularly in the following areas:

  • The availability of food products and any subsequent impact on food prices
  • The availability of medicines and the impact coronavirus has had on medicine stockpiles
  • The ability of essential products, materials, and chemicals to be imported from the EU
  • The ability of British businesses to prepare for a potential no deal, and any subsequent impact on employment

The Liberal Democrats would also like to see the government undertake an economic assessment on the impact of a no deal exit from the European Union. The Government refused to initiate such an assessment in Autumn 2019, but this is crucial considering the financial situation the UK is in due to the Covid-19 epidemic.

The Government must demonstrate that they have fully assessed the impact of leaving without a deal, considering the pandemic.  Tackling the pandemic must be their priority, yet the threat of a no-deal exit looms large.  This could deliver another devastating blow to our already weakened economy and public services.

The Prime Minister refuses to rethink his position on accepting an extension to the transition period.  It is therefore high time the facts were laid bare about what this will mean for Oldham, and the rest of the United Kingdom.

I hope you support the contents of this letter and I anticipate your thoughts on the matter.

Yours sincerely – Howard Sykes

Opps – iOPS – Liberal Democrat Leader asks when will new computer system finally be an asset to policing in Greater Manchester?

Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group and Leader of the Opposition on Oldham Council, has written once more to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham with his concerns about the continued shortcomings of the new iOPS (Integrated Operating Policing System). 

Councillor Sykes originally wrote to Mayor Burnham on this issue in October 2019 after a number of police officers contacted him about the failings of the new system, and he also met recently with the Mayor and raised the issue with him in person.

iOPS replaced three existing computer systems in July 2019 after a 16-month delay and at an unknown cost, stated at various times to be between £27 and £60 million. The system has been plagued with technical faults and has so far failed to deliver on its promise to improve the efficiency of the Greater Manchester Police Service by aiding its officers in their duties.

Commenting Councillor Sykes said: “The fact that police officers contacted me with their concerns rather than simply keeping them within the force shows that they have real worries about the system.  There have been documented situations in which it has been impossible to charge suspects on arrival at a police station or to proceed with court cases because the system has failed to deliver.  Most worryingly the response times to 999 emergency calls made by the public, sometimes in life-threatening situations, have quadrupled and domestic violence and child abuse victims have been badly let down.”

A HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report published in March 2020 also found iOPS reduced force performance’ with staff having ‘very little confidence’ in and being ‘frustrated’ by a system that does not always return ‘accurate results’.  Yet in October 2019, it was claimed that: ‘The system has remained stable overall’ and is performing as it should’.  

Seeking answers on behalf of the ‘many frustrated’ police officers who have contacted him, Councillor Sykes ends his letter with a pointed question to Mayor Burnham:  “When will IOPS truly be an asset to aid policing in Greater Manchester, rather than an ongoing liability, and what progress has been made since the report of the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in March?”

The text of the letter below

21 July 2020

Mayor Andy Burnham, Metropolitan Mayor of Greater Manchester, Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Dear Mayor Burnham,

Re: Failures in the IOPS (Integrated Operating Policing System)

Further to our recent meeting when I spoke of my concerns about the continued failings of the IOPS (Integrated Operating Policing System), I am now writing to you to seek reassurance on the effectiveness of the computer system and an update on progress since the damning report of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in March of this year.

I first wrote to you about the inadequacies of the system in October of last year, after I had received complaints from numerous police officers about its effectiveness. The system was meant to replace three previous IT systems and to create a seamless interface to respond to calls from the public and improve force performance by enabling officers to access, process and act on information more efficiently.

In the response received from Deputy Mayor, Baroness Beverley Hughes, on your behalf, Assistant Chief Constable Sykes reported that: ‘the system has remained stable overall’ and “is performing as it should’.

This assessment does not tally with the more recent findings of the Inspectorate in March which reported the introduction led to ‘reduced force performance’ with staff having ‘very little confidence’ in and being ‘frustrated’ by a system that does not always return ‘accurate results’. More worryingly, the Inspectorate also found that vulnerable people were being failed by the system, with ‘serious’ backlogs in dealing with domestic abuse and child protection cases and a significant delay in response times to 999 calls (up to 48 seconds, instead of 12).

Lawyers have also reported that court cases have been unable to proceed because of failures in the system preventing papers being filed with the court and many suspects have been released after arrest because the system has not enabled officers to charge them.

In February, Greater Manchester Police declared a ‘critical incident’ when the entire Police Works system, a system within IOPS, collapsed following a failed upgrade. GMP in its public statement said that ‘contingency plans are in place for the capture of data’, an euphemism to describe the reality that officers had to use old-fashioned pen and paper!

IOPS was delivered 16 months late at a human cost to the taxpayer, yet to be identified; figures quoted in media reports range from £27 million to £60 million.

The Inspectorate found there were technical faults in the system which were ‘worse than anticipated’ and these were clearly still present in March. Mr Mayor, when will IOPS truly be an asset to aid policing in Greater Manchester, rather than an ongoing liability, and what progress has been made since the report of the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in March?

The many frustrated police officers who have been in contact with me about this would like to know.

Yours sincerely – Howard Sykes

Liberal Democrat Leader welcomes reopening of public toilets

Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council is pleased to hear that public toilets in Oldham are opening from 21 July from 10am – 4pm. 

Councillor Sykes wrote recently to the Chief Executive of Oldham Council asking when toilets would reopen as the lifting of lockdown increased the number of people accessing shops and public parks, and a lack of public toilets was both inconvenient and a deterrent preventing many people from going out.  He also asked about the timetable for reopening toilets in the premises of business partners and community venues participating in the Community Toilet Scheme.

This issue was also raised by Councillor Sykes’ colleague, fellow Shaw Councillor Hazel Gloster, at last Wednesday’s meeting of Full Council (15 July).

Councillor Sykes said:  “The simple biological reality is that we all need the loo from time to time.  If people are going out for the day, or even for just a few hours, being without a toilet is a major inconvenience and to save embarrassment some people, especially those who are elderly, or have disabilities, or are accompanied by young children, will simply stay home rather than go out.  We need people to return to going shopping and socialising whilst observing the rules on social distancing.  The reopening of public and community toilets represents a real step forward to getting back to the new normal.”

Planning errors undermine public confidence in Council

After a blunder on the dates for the public to respond to a planning application at the former Fytton Arms pub led to the application having to be deferred in the middle of the meeting, it has emerged that other similar problems have been happening in recent weeks.

Mark Kenyon, a Liberal Democrat campaigner in Saddleworth West and Lees, said: “Exactly the same thing happened on a planning application in Springhead at the end of May. Fortunately, one of the residents responded to the error, and let us know. We were able to speak to the planning office, and on that occasion at least, residents were able to get their voice heard.

“This has happened at the same time as we have had problems with the consultation dates on a proposal for 200 houses in Stonebreaks Quarry in Springhead. The dates on that have already had to be changed twice, as the planning department has failed to get notices out in time.”

Councillor Hazel Gloster, the Liberal Democrats planning spokesperson and Shaw councillor, added: “People do make mistakes, but when I heard that the same thing had happened on a completely different application just a few weeks earlier, I was shocked, although sadly not surprised. Oldham is already facing a judicial review over one of its planning applications, at Knowls Lane in Lees. 

“At a time like this, we need to be making sure that we are not making silly mistakes. I said at the time that this was why Oldham gets a bad name. Now it seems it is even worse.”

As shadow cabinet member for housing and homelessness, Councillor Sam Al-Hamdani has written to the interim head of planning and the council’s chief executive, highlighting the errors and demanding a response.

He said: “I have asked the Council to confirm that no other errors of this kind were made – if we have seen two examples of it, I want to know that there have not been any more. I have also asked them what they are doing to ensure that no more of these mistakes happen again in the future.

“At the moment the Conservative Government are putting forward proposals to change the planning system in our country – proposals that I believe are fundamentally damaging, and threaten to build, build, build, on too many of our green spaces.

“At this time, we need to be doing everything that we can to show that our planning process is fair, transparent and efficient. These errors undermine all of that.”

Time to Close the Legal Loophole, says Liberal Democrat Leader

The Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council, Councillor Howard Sykes MBE is “dismayed” at the findings of a recent BBC investigation (9 July) which identified 164 cases of sports coaches engaging in sexual activity with 16- or 17-year olds in their care since 2016.

The Oldham Liberal Democrats proposed a motion to the September 2019 meeting of Oldham Council demanding the Government “close this loophole” in the Sexual Offences Act, making this a criminal offence, as it is with teachers.

Commenting on the investigation, Councillor Sykes said: “It is incredibly sad and disturbing that despite the announcement of then Sports Minister Tracey Crouch that a change in the law had been agreed, three years on this Government has still not amended the Sexual Offences Act to make this a crime.  Whilst our young people continue to be abused by adults in authority whom they trust, the Ministry of Justice continues to backpedal saying only that the necessary change in legislation is under review.”

Members of Parliament from across all parties share the view of the Oldham Liberal Democrats that a change in the law is long overdue.

Councillor Sykes added: “Enough is enough.  It is time for this government to put the welfare of our young people front and centre and immediately put this change in the law on our statute books. Anything less means our young people continue to be put at risk.”

Oldham Council September 11, 2019 – Closing the Loophole

This Council believes that our duty to protect our young people is paramount. Any chance of a slippage in the law that leaves young people unsafe or at threat of exploitation must be rectified.

Council notes that:

  • The NSPCC (the National Society for the Protection of Children against Cruelty) has recently reported that in the last four years police in England have recorded 1,025 crimes of Abuse of Position of Trust of a Sexual Nature
  • The present legislation on Position of Trust makes it a criminal offence for teachers, care workers and youth justice workers to engage in sexual activity with 16/17-year olds in their care, but faith workers, youth workers and sports coaches are currently exempted
  • Councils have received 653 complaints about adults who are not currently covered by the criminal law engaging in sexual activity with children in their care.

This Council believes that the Government should:

  • Extend the Position of Trust law to include all roles where an adult holds a position of power over 16 and 17-year-olds
  • Make it illegal for any adult to have sexual activity with a young person under 18 in their care.

As this accords with the objectives of the NSPCC’s ‘Closing the Loophole’ campaign, Council agrees to give the campaign its support, and resolves to:

  • Ask the Chief Executive to write to the Chief Executive of the NSPCC to register this Council’s support for the campaign
  • Ask the Chief Executive to write to the Minister of Justice and of Sport urging them to introduce the necessary change in legislation
  • Ask the Chief Executive to copy into this correspondence the Mayor of Greater Manchester and our local Members of Parliament seeking their support for the Council’s position and for the NSPCC campaign

Proposed by: Councillor Diane Williamson, Seconded by: Councillor Chris Gloster

ONLINE BBC SPORT ARTICLE

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/53357381

Liberal Democrats call for urgent reinstatement of disabled parking spaces

Oldham Liberal Democrats are calling for the Council to urgently pass the review of disabled parking spaces across the borough. After no funding for the bays for the past year, resulting in a backlog of requests, the bays are now being held up by a review of the policy on who qualifies.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Sam Al-Hamdani said: “We need to be ensuring that the most vulnerable people in our community are properly looked after; and not processing any disabled parking bays for nearly 18 months is reprehensible.

“I have residents in my ward who applied in March 2019, and are still on the waiting list. They will continue to be so until this review is finished. A budget has been allocated, but it cannot be spent until the new policy is approved.”

A £15,000 pot has been put aside to get on top of the backlog of requests for disabled parking bays.

As the coronavirus pandemic appears to be easing – although a cautious approach is required – it highlights the plight of residents with mobility issues, who may struggle to get out of the house at the best of times. Residents who are shielding are still only allowed out of the house on a very limited basis. 

Councillor Al-Hamdani continued: “As the lockdown is eased, it is easy to forget how restricted shielding residents have been and still are. Ensuring that they have easier access to a car is the very least that we should be doing. The council aims to ensure that our most vulnerable residents are our highest priority – getting this sorted is paramount.”

Liberal Democrat welcome for Chancellor’s cheap eats announcements

The Leader of the Opposition and of the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council, Councillor Howard Sykes MBE has welcomed the reduction in VAT on food purchased in pubs, cafes and restaurants from 20% to 5% for a six-month period starting last week.

This was one of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcements on the 8 July.

Councillor Sykes is especially pleased because the Oldham Liberal Democrat Group proposed just such a VAT reduction in a motion almost six years ago to Oldham Council.

Councillor Sykes:  “In September 2014, the Liberal Democrats brought a motion before Oldham Council calling for a VAT cut to 5% from 20%.  This was in support of Tax Parity Day, an annual event hosted by pub chains, such as Wetherspoons, where food is reduced in price for one day to demonstrate the value of a VAT reduction to customers. Unfortunately, the Labour and Conservative Groups both voted against the motion and so it was lost.”

Chancellor Sunak has also announced that in August customers will save up to £10 per head if they eat out on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Councillor Sykes added:  I am delighted that six years on, a Chancellor has finally recognised that VAT needs to be reduced at a time when people are struggling with reduced incomes, many because of shorter working hours or unemployment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.  I hope that pubs, restaurants and cafes will pass on the VAT reduction to customers and that many establishments will register for the reduced-price meal deal so that families can again begin to enjoy the experience of eating out together.”

However, Councillor Sykes would like to see the VAT reduction become permanent.  He concluded:  “The VAT treatment on food in catering establishments is manifestly unfair. Our pubs are still struggling after the Covid Lockdown and the economic impact of the disease is likely to be with us for years so it would be both fair and sensible to continue with the VAT reduction indefinitely, with the condition that pubs, cafes and restaurants pass on the benefits to customers.  This will boost trade and help safeguard pubs as social hubs in our communities and safeguard vital jobs in our hospitality industries.”

Oldham Council 10th Sept. 2014 – Tax Parity for Pubs and Restaurants

This Council notes:

  • That supermarkets pay no VAT on food whereas pubs, cafes and restaurants are obliged to pay the full 20%
  • This means that the costs avoided by supermarkets can be used to reduce the price of alcoholic products
  • This has led to a rise in domestic alcohol consumption, as well as placing further financial pressures on the licensed trade
  • That in France a reduction in VAT to 5% is estimated to have led to the creation of 225,000 jobs in the catering and licensed trades in the first year alone.

This Council welcomes:

  • The actions of family brewers and restaurant and pub chains in challenging this inequality by hosting the second annual Tax Parity Day on 24th September 2014. They are reducing prices for customers to demonstrate the benefits of reducing VAT to 5% in pubs and restaurants.
  • That Tax Parity Day forms part of an EU campaign to reduce VAT for pubs, cafes and restaurants.

This Council therefore resolves to

  • Support the call by the VAT Club, led by Jacques Borel, for a reduction on the VAT chargeable upon food sales in pubs and restaurants from 20% to 5%
  • Request that the Chief Executive write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the three local MPs outlining and seeking support for this Council’s position on Tax Parity.

Proposed by Cllr Diane Williamson, Seconded by Cllr John McCann

Free Television Licences for Over 75s? Not anymore…

The Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council is furious with the Government.  Councillor Howard Sykes has previously written to the Secretary of State of The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on this issue, seeking a continuation of free television (TV) licences for the over-75s. 

Now the Conservative Government is going ahead with charging those over-75s and more than three million households will be required to start paying the £157.50 licence fee from the start of August.

For many who live alone, the television is their sole companion. Not just a source of entertainment, the television allows people to stay informed on current Government advice in an ever-changing situation.

Councillor Sykes comments: “Millions of pensioners have spent lockdown at home with TV. It has provided an invaluable source of information and solace during the crisis.”

He added:  “The government have put lots of pressure on the BBC, financial pressure.  The BBC is impartial, but it seems the government is seeking to influence them increasingly more.  This decision should have been made by the BBC not by a bullying government short on cash.”