Shropshire Hills

Sir Keir Starmer, the millionaire London MP chosen to lead the Labour Party, has called on the British government to ensure that nobody in England is more than 20 minutes away from a Coronavirus testing station. He didn’t say England, obviously, but that’s what he meant

I’m sure it would be fairly easy to put a testing station within 20 minutes of the average Londoner. You can get a long way on the tube in 20 minutes but London is just 607 out of 50,360mi2 of England, 92% of which is undeveloped.

So how would the MP for Holborn & St Pancras’ 20 minute plan work here in Shropshire where about 80% of the county is farmland, forest, open spaces or water?

Shropshire has two main towns next to each other – Telford and Shrewsbury – connected by a motorway and dual carriageway. It takes about 20 minutes to get between the two. It takes 20 minutes to drive from Ironbridge in south Telford to Bratton in north Telford and most of that journey is by dual carriageway and A roads. Getting from the border village of Priest Weston to the nearest town of Church Stretton will take over half an hour. It is the 13th largest county in England by area but 42nd out of 48 for population. It is the 6th most sparsely populated county in England. It would take hundreds, if not thousands, of testing stations to ensure that even people living in our large towns are within 20 minutes of one let alone the people who live in such remote locations that it takes them 10 minutes to get to a road. And if you need to use public transport then for most of the county you’re out of luck.

This kind of statement shows what is wrong with British politics. The leader of the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Lib Dems are all MPs for constituencies in London and London is not England. London isn’t even an English city any more, its culture and values are entirely out of step with the rest of the country. The British Parliament is dominated by London and the south east of England whose MPs think that if something is right for their corner of the country it’s right for the rest of England and more often than not it isn’t.

The centre of political power in England needs to be moved right out of London and the south east and well away from metropolitan areas. England needs a parliament of its own, be it devolved from the British Parliament or independent. This parliament should be somewhere more representative of the majority of the country and I would (obviously) suggest Shropshire.

The first English Parliament involving commoners was held at Acton Burnell near Shrewsbury in 1283. Shropshire is the birthplace of the modern Olympics, the industrial revolution and the skyscraper and has given the world some of its greatest minds such as Charles Darwin, Dr William Penny Brookes, Clive of India, Abraham Darby, A E Houseman, Wilfred Owen and Roger de Montgomery. But most importantly, it would remind politicians that the bustling city life, 24 hour economy, world class public transport system and melting pot of different races, religions and cultures that they experience in London is alien to most of the country.

It would also help them to understand why saying that nobody should be more than 20 minutes from a Coronavirus testing station is little more than wishful thinking outside of the London bubble.

Eastern European Fruit Pickers

With fruit picking season kicking off farmers are going public with their stories of futile attempts to recruit locals to work in their fields and how they are having to look to their usual Eastern European recruiting grounds for workers.

Last week, following the story of a farm flying in a plane load of Romanians, I had a look to see what farm jobs were being advertised in Shropshire. As England’s most rural county with around 60% farmland I figured that if the dearth of unfilled farm vacancies was going to be seen anywhere it would be here. Not one of these jobs was advertised on any of the mainstream job sites.

Yesterday there was a story in the Shropshire Star about a shortage of seasonal farm workers with one farmer saying he would have to “look elsewhere” for people to work on his farm. I asked a farmer on Twitter where the jobs were advertised and he replied with a link to a seasonal farm worker recruitment agency that specialises in recruiting from Romania and Bulgaria, the Pick For Britain website that suggests looking at the DWP Find a Job website and a different farm’s website that is also looking for workers. The DWP Find a Job website has no fruit picking or farm jobs advertised for Shropshire.

This doesn’t make sense if farmers want to recruit locals does it? People who don’t usually do seasonal farm work aren’t going to know about specialist agencies and they’re unlikely to use an agency that specialises in bringing in Eastern Europeans even if they do. If you really wanted to recruit locals to work on your farm you’d advertise it with the Job Centre, on the DWP’s Find a a Job service, with the main job search sites like Indeed or Total Jobs, with farming publications like Farmer’s Weekly or the local newspaper. All of which have zero vacancies for this type of work.

HOPS recruitment agency specialises in recruiting Romanian and Bulgarian workers
HOPS recruitment agency specialises in recruiting Romanian and Bulgarian workers

So what’s going on?

Farmers have relied on cheap immigrant labour for a long time. They bring workers over from Eastern Europe who live on the farm in serviced accommodation often with meals provided. Weekly accommodation charges are capped by law at £52.85 including cleaning, meals and laundry and only the actual room rent is taxable, the services aren’t. Much of the accommodation charge is tax-free income for the farm. The initial capital outlay from building or purchasing the accommodation in the first place can be used to offset against their tax bill whilst the maintenance and off-season losses can be used to offset against tax bills forever and a day. Transport costs can be deducted from wages including admin fees. It’s a big money-spinner for farms employing immigrant seasonal workers and means they’re effectively paying below minimum wage for back breaking work. No pensions to pay, no sick pay, no holiday pay and they can be dismissed with no rights.

Employing a local worker means no (largely tax-free) rental income and the farm has to pay minimum wage with few opportunities to make deductions from wages for services rendered or expenses incurred. Where’s the incentive to employ locals when there are so many incentives not to?

The industry has a vested interest in “proving” that they can’t fill vacancies with local workers this year. A pilot scheme is being run that allows a restricted number of immigrant workers to come to the UK to work on farms for up to 6 months. The effectiveness of the pilot will determine how much cheap labour they are allowed to import in future years. To get the number as high as possible they have to show that the 10,000 seasonal workers they’re allowed to bring in this year (already increased from the original 2,500) isn’t enough. Industry lobbyists are already pushing for the number to be increased to 70,000 and the season has barely started.

So, to ensure the pilot fails the vacancies are advertised on obscure websites and kept away from the mainstream job sites that most people would turn to, to look for work. The farms will argue that they advertised all their vacancies but not enough locals applied for them and there’s nothing more they could have done and with only anecdotal evidence to the contrary the British government will almost certainly increase the numbers for future years.

Despite having record low unemployment there were still over a million unemployed in the UK before the Coronavirus lockdown and the economic damage it’s already starting to wreak on the country. There is no shortage of available workers and the number of people who have applied for seasonal farm jobs despite the best efforts of the farms in question to dissuade them from doing so exposes the lie that people already living here aren’t willing to do the work.

The only way to stop corrupt farmers from cheating the system is to only count jobs advertised on the DWP’s Find a Job service or with the JobCentre when calculating the number of jobs advertised and not filled to set quotas. Immigration policy must not be based on dishonesty.

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Asda soap empty shelf

Panic buying because of the Coronavirus has become such a problem that supermarkets have had to introduce rationing. Shelves are being stripped bare of paracetamol. soap, hand sanitiser, bleach, household cleaners, toilet rolls, bottled water, pasta, rice and tinned food.

What these muppets have neglected to consider is what everyone who hasn’t panic bought 2 years’ worth of bleach and soap is going to do to stop themselves spreading the virus to those who have.

Herd Immunity

You see, we’re all relying on everyone else to do their bit to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. People are panic buying soap and bleach and tissues because the experts are telling us to wash our hands regularly, clean hard surfaces regularly and to sneeze into a tissue and throw it away (the fact they have to tell people this in the first place is a bit worrying). This stops the virus being spread around the population because everyone is doing their bit to kill it off. It’s called herd immunity and it’s why we vaccinate against preventable diseases.

If people can’t wash their hands regularly because they can’t buy soap, can’t clean hard surfaces regularly because they can’t buy bleach and can’t sneeze into a tissue because some people think they need half a deciduous forest in their bathroom it’s going to spread even faster and no amount of hand washing, bleaching and blowing your nose is going to stop you getting it.

Catch it. Bin it. Kill it.

Only about 1% of people with Coronavirus symptoms who have been tested in England actually had the virus. It’s infectious but you are still less likely to get it even if you come in contact with someone who has it than you are to be infected. This panic buying is not just unnecessary, it’s actually increasing your risk of catching the virus. So do yourself and the rest of the population a favour and stop the idiocy.

Is this really necessary? Cleaning products, toilet rolls, bleach, paracetamol, bottled water, pasta, rice … cleaned out at my local Asda and I’ve seen on social media that other supermarkets are in a similar state. Do people not wipe their noses or clean their houses usually?

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Dear Telford, get a grip.

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Peter Bone MP

Peter Bone MP has introduced a Bill into the British Parliament for the creation of a new bank holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to celebrate the British union.

He didn’t explicitly mention that the bank holiday wouldn’t apply to Scotland of course but it’s a devolved matter and there is absolutely zero chance of the Scottish government legislating for the same bank holiday in Scotland.

The British government have refused to recognise St George’s Day despite sustained, widespread support for a holiday in England but for some inexplicable reason think that a bank holiday to celebrate the British union in just three of the four member states of the UK is a good idea. The irony will be lost on them, I’m sure.

Personally, I would rather go to work than have a day off to celebrate the British union. Brexit, yes. Britain? No.

Police with ballot boxes

The British government have announced plans to introduce compulsory voter ID in an effort to tackle fraud. It’s a start but it’s barely scratching the surface.

Voter fraud at polling stations is unbelievably easy to perpetrate and the fact that nothing has been done to tackle it until now is frankly astonishing. You can literally walk into any polling station anywhere in the country with the name and address of a registered voter and vote on their behalf without their knowledge.

Requiring ID to vote in person will deter casual fraud but it won’t stop even a vaguely competent fraudster. Utility bills or other types of ID can be easily forged to give legitimacy to fraudulent entries on the electoral register. ID cards can be purchased online that simply require copies of documents that can easily be forged and the endorsement of someone off the usual list of people who can countersign passport photos – doctors, teachers, councillors, etc. Just the kind of people who will actively campaign for the party that benefits from most vote fraud.

Fraud at polling stations is a problem but it’s certainly not the only problem or even the biggest problem. Postal vote fraud and multiple voting is where most of the fraud occurs.

There are several common types of postal vote fraud. Stealing ballot papers was something that was bragged about in the most recent election, especially in student accommodation at universities where students had already broken up for Christmas. Some people even bragged of paying for blank postal votes at universities.

One of the long-running and very common frauds with postal votes is “community leaders” either collecting blank ballot papers or forcing voters to vote a certain way and taking the completed ballot paper from them. A variation on this is campaigners and candidates visiting care homes to do the same.

Multiple voting is common amongst students where they can quite legitimately register to vote both at their family home and their university. This is to allow them to choose one or the other depending on where they are at the time and which constituency they feel an affinity with. They are only allowed to vote in one constituency or the other but it is common for students to vote by post in their home constituency and in person at their university address.

The only way to prevent postal vote fraud is to limit who is able to request a postal vote in the first place. Postal voting on demand needs to be repealed and become the exception again.

Voters in care homes, sheltered accommodation and student digs who are especially vulnerable to intimidation, coercion and theft of their ballots should not be able to vote by post. Election officials from the local authority should visit such buildings with sealed ballot boxes and officiate over votes being cast to ensure it is being done freely and by the correct person.

Finally, the system of local authorities each maintaining their own electoral register needs to be replaced with a single, national electoral register. This would go some way to preventing voters registering in more than one constituency when they are not entitled to. And, in fact, nobody should be entitled to vote in more than one constituency. Students should be required to pick a home and be restricted to voting at that home.

The above changes – removing the right to postal voting on demand, establishing mini polling stations for groups of at-risk voters, creating a single electoral register covering the whole country and only allowing one entry on the register per person – combined with a requirement to show ID at polling stations should wipe out the majority of voter fraud. Sophisticated fraudsters will always find ways round the system but for most people it will prove to be too much hassle and too big a risk for too little reward.

Whatever is done needs to be done soon and it needs to be comprehensive. Just fiddling with bits of a very broken and corrupt system to be seen to be doing something isn’t good enough. Boris needs to be bold if he is going to tackle voter fraud.