Sandy Verma: Labour has let Leicester down

8 Jul

Baroness Verma is a businesswoman. She is a former Energy & Climate Change Minister and a former International Development Minister.

The blame behind Leicester’s return to lockdown continues to be thrashed out. Matt Hancock announced last Monday that my city would be pushed backwards whilst the rest of the country enjoys newfound freedoms that the loosening of the lockdown brought over the weekend. Leicester City Council which is supposed to be led by Peter Soulsby continues to deny that the re-lockdown is their fault, despite local knowledge being ignored.

Even though Leicester is one of the most diverse cities in the country, Leicester City Council still refuses to assist with any English classes for non-native speakers; then in the height of a public health crisis they decide to send a leaflet out to every household in the city on Coronavirus and how to stay safe in Leicester – only in English. This left thousands of residents without a clue about the new measures.

An undercover investigation from the Sunday Times has also shined a light on the total exploitation of workers in Leicester, many have foreign backgrounds, and many do not speak English. The workers are paid £3.50 per hour or less in some cases, told to work even though they feel unwell, and work in conditions where appropriate safety measures are impossible to impose.

This is not the first time that factories in Leicester have been exposed in this way. The Financial Times, Radio 4’s Today programme, and Channel 4 have all previously revealed the malpractice of these factories. With Leicester’s local paper, the Leicester Mercury, regularly covering the extended scandal.

A Labour document that has been brought to my attention shows that the Council have been aware of the problems at some of the factories in the city since 2017. Whichever way the Labour Party locally want to spin this, those factories, those poorly paid workers, have been under their noses for a long time.

We, as a local party, contacted the MPs and councillors in the city back in April, shedding light on how some of the workers in the factories were being treated during the lockdown. We wrote:

“We have had a number of people contacting us in fear that factory owners are flouting the law by appearing closed but with employees still working behind shuttered premises.”

‘This is not only dangerous to the workers in the factories but also the families and wider communities at large.’

And continued:

“We want assurances from you as the elected representative that you are ensuring that these occurrences are reported to the police and trading standards and action taken immediately.”

Despite our best efforts all those we contacted declined to pursue or help those who were vulnerable and at high risk of catching COVID. The Mayor who had our letter forwarded also declined to help. Meaning that those who were most defenceless were let down by those elected to preserve their safety

For context, although my city is ethnically very diverse, the political makeup is anything but. The Council Chamber is made up of 51 Labour councillors out of a possible 53 and a directly elected Labour Mayor; there are three Labour Members of Parliament in the city; and a Labour Police and Crime Commissioner.

The Council must answer why calls of concern from alarmed local Conservatives were ignored by the Labour Mayor and his councillors. It appears that they, alongside other agencies, have been caught short on dealing with matters that are the most important within the city.

In a leaked Labour briefing document, the Labour councillors are now being told to blame the Tory government at all costs; they will not take accountability for their actions. These issues are not new; the Labour Party has held power in Leicester for decades; these communities have been kept poor and excluded. The Council in Leicester must start to support community integration, and share knowledge of rights and access to services, which up to now has been a total failure from the Labour Party. The constant carping and blaming the Conservative Party for their mismanagement and their inability to attract investment has been demonstrated time and time again, however, given that up to now they have had no opposition they cannot be allowed to get away with it any longer.

The local Members of Parliament have also been blatantly silent on the ground for months. Jonathan Ashworth and Liz Kendall constantly would rather further their careers than look after their electorate. Whereas Keith Vaz’s replacement, Claudia Webbe, is more interested in her Council constituents in Islington. What a mess my city is in…

Labour put forward a local councillor to defend its lack of action on this scandal on the local radio on Monday morning. Cllr Malik, who is currently under investigation for anti-Semitism, appeared on BBC Radio Leicester. He said:

“It is unfair (the city is in the spotlight over this) because Leicester is known all over the world for its positive diversity and community cohesion.”

When questioned why nothing had changed despite the extensive media coverage into the sweatshops he continued:

“We cannot say nothing has happened, obviously we are aware of all these practices.”

The pandemic has highlighted so many failings that fall at the door of elected Labour members in Leicester. I am calling for a full industry-wide investigation into these allegations and I believe that the investigation should include whether elected officials knew about the practices and chose not to act.

The people of Leicester are quickly losing confidence in the Mayor who himself broke lockdown rules. His hypocritical followers may try and keep him in place for a little longer but it will be a disgrace to Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership if he doesn’t ensure the back of Soulsby very soon. His credibility will diminish if he doesn’t root out the anti-Semitic hate-mongers that blight the harmony of a city like Leicester. His conviction will be questioned if he doesn’t call for a full investigation into the fashion industry and the politicians behind the factory scandal.