English councils battling financial ruin

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, warnings have been clear about the threat to local councils and their ability to provide services.

BBC analysis in 2020 showed nine out of 10 major local authorities in England did not have enough cash to cover their spending plans this year, and coronavirus could lead to them going £1.7bn over budget.

Now, a committee of MPs has criticised the Treasury for its “worryingly laissez faire attitude” to the state of local government finances, warning of a “significant risk” that Town Hall debts could drag down the “whole of government”.

The department says it provided “a significant funding uplift for councils” at last year’s Spending Review, on top of additional funding “to ensure they can continue to deliver essential local services as we tackle the impacts of the pandemic”.

And the government has confirmed local authorities will be able to raise council tax by 5% to help – something Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called “absurd”.

But the reality is stark – coronavirus pressures have hit councils hard and, as the Public Accounts Committee says in its report, they have been taking on “extremely risky levels of debt in recent years” investing in commercial ventures “in an effort to shore up dwindling finances”.

Here is a snapshot of the financial state of local councils from some of the BBC’s local political editors.

It should give you an idea of the kind of dilemmas facing local leaders across the UK, as they battle to balance the books.

Tony Roe – political editor for BBC East Midlands

Every council has spent the past decade working with less money from government grants.

And in the past year, they’ve had to deal with Covid costs too, with Labour-run Nottingham far from alone in saying they haven’t had the full cost reimbursed yet from Whitehall.

Local authorities have been told they can put 5% on council tax bills this year – including 3% for adult social care – but mindful of elections this May, cost cutting comes into play.

For Nottingham, there is also the impact of local investment threatening the books – namely the collapse of its Robin Hood Energy company, projected to have lost the council £38m.

It led to a government review into the council’s finances, which was critical of its involvement in too many of its own commercial companies, and it has left Nottingham with a “very significant” gap in its budget and depleted reserves.

A panel of experts were appointed to help the council improve it’s finances and they were working towards having a recovery plan in place by the end of this month.

So now the Council will be putting up bills by 5%, as well as cutting costs, which means axing 272 jobs, reducing services and charging more for other things they provide.

The cost of providing social care takes a big chunk of any budget – in Nottingham’s case its 40% – so they are looking at ways to “review and redesign” how they provide that too.

Kevin Fitzpatrick – politics reporter for BBC Radio Manchester

Some councils look further afield than property investments.

Manchester Airport was built by the city council and it has owned a large chunk of it ever since.

In the past 20 years the Manchester Airport Group has significantly expanded, buying Stansted and East Midlands airports, and in 2011, creating Airport City, one of the governments low tax Enterprise Zones.

It’s been an incredibly fruitful investment, paying out large dividends to its shareholders – that was until Covid grounded planes and saw passenger numbers dramatically cut.

Manchester City Council holds the largest stake with 35.5%, while the region’s nine other councils share a further 29% between them.

The yearly dividend has increasingly been factored into their financial plans – for example, in 2018 they received more than £110m between them, with nearly £60m going to the City Council – but there won’t be a pay out this time.

Their airport investment has reaped rewards for decades, but the impact of the virus has had on air travel will be felt in council budgets here for years to come.

Pete Simson – political reporter for BBC Bristol

Under normal circumstances – a portfolio of over 1,000 properties worth around half a billion pounds – is a nice little earner for Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES).

However, this pandemic has been a punch in the gut for those councils like the BANES – run by the Liberal Democrats – which rely heavily on income from rent and other activities to balance the books.

A wholesale review of its estate was announced in December, after losing millions in rent payments from its commercial properties.

Meanwhile, it’s other normal banker – income from tourism – has also been decimated over the past 12 months.

Residents can expect a 5% council tax increase from April, which alone isn’t enough to cover an £11.6m shortfall next year.

For that, they’ll need to dip into their reserves, and hope for better days to come.

Andy Holmes – political reporter for BBC Three Counties Radio

Manchester is not the only one with their hopes for funds focused on the skies.

Labour-run Luton Borough Council in Bedfordshire has an Emergency Budget it agreed in July to thank for the fact that its 2021/22 finances aren’t as bad as was perhaps feared.

Luton was one of the first councils to agree to the emergency measure during the pandemic as it faced a financial shortfall of £49m and, at the time, claimed the moved prevented the threat of bankruptcy.

As the major share holder in Luton airport, the council lost millions when the pandemic grounded flights last year.

And the emergency plan meant 365 jobs were put at risk, along with cuts to key services, with an agreement later in the year to charge residents for green waste collection.

However, when it comes to the 2021/22 budget, they now need to find a comparatively small sum of £1.2m of savings.

They are planning on raising Council Tax by the maximum of 4.99% – any more and the council would need to hold a referendum to approve it.

But Luton Council is still lobbying the government to try and get extra funds to cope with the pandemic, arguing the situation with the airport makes it a special case.”

Claire Hamilton – political reporter for BBC Radio Merseyside

The Labour-run Wirral Council is faced with a £40m funding gap.

The cost of the response to the pandemic is being blamed for the shortfall, plus loss of income from business rates and parking charges.

And, even after borrowing around £25m, it’ll still need to save £16m to balance the books.

So, how is the council planning to find the money to help its budget for the next financial year?

Despite welcoming visitors for just under 100 years, Birkenhead’s neo-classical Williamson Art Gallery and Museum could close, as the end of the museums service could save the authority £327,500 per year.

But it is not the only service at risk.

The council’s asking the public for feedback on a long list of options, from axing school crossing patrols, to closing swimming pools and golf courses.

These are emotive issues, which might be seen as a bit of political sabre rattling from a Labour-run council.

But this year, Wirral Council moved to a committee system of governance – so all parties are involved in decision making, and all will need to take responsibility for the cuts to come.

Kathryn Stanczyszyn – political reporter for BBC Radio West Midlands

Things are a little brighter in the heart of the West Midlands.

At the moment it looks like there won’t be any significant cuts by the Labour-run Birmingham City Council this year – at least none that impact directly on public services.

The local authority has also been able to increase its reserves with the latest pot of coronavirus money of over £30m.

But it warns that spend – especially on adult social care – is still very high and likely to eat into that as pressure on services continues to increase.

And it says that’s not just a pandemic consequence, it’s a trend.

The largest council in the UK has been scrutinised in recent years over its finances, but appears to have kept to its revenue and capital budget last year.

Now the biggest change on the cards is a restructure of the senior levels of officers – planned to cost £500,000 extra year in wages – as it seeks to attract expertise.

The timing may raise questions from some, but the interim chief executive described it as a moment to future-proof – saying the council must seize opportunities to “leverage growth” in the coming years.

UK accused of petty behaviour in EU diplomat row

The government has been criticised for downgrading the diplomatic status of the EU’s ambassador in London.

Ex-Foreign Office ministers and diplomats said the decision was petty and could set a bad precedent.

But the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office insisted EU delegation staff would still receive the privileges needed to do their job.

The decision is in contrast to the 142 other countries where EU ambassadors have full diplomatic status.

David Lidington, the former Conservative minister for Europe, warned that “non-recognition could set a bad precedent for regimes that hate EU ambassadors speaking up for human rights defenders”.

He said the Foreign Office should not “pick a fight on this”.

Tobias Ellwood, also a former Foreign Office minister and current chairman of the Commons Defence Committee described the decision as “simply petty”.

“Biden commits to strengthening alliances and we engage in silly spats which will not help strengthen security and trade cooperation – we are better than this,” he said.

And ex-National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts said: “This is a wholly unnecessary move which seems part of a systematic effort to signal that the UK is shunning the EU and all its works. Not in British interests.”

Instead of giving the EU’s ambassador, Joao Vale de Almeida, full diplomatic status, the UK wants to treat the EU delegation as representatives of an international organisation.

This means EU diplomats would not have the full protection of the Vienna Convention which gives them immunity from detention, criminal jurisdiction and taxation.

The EU argues it is not a typical international organisation because it has its own currency, judicial system and the power to make law.

Its chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier expressed the hope that “a clever and objective solution” could be found.

The issue is expected to be discussed by EU foreign ministers next Monday.

EU sources have pointed out that diplomacy is based on reciprocity, meaning there could be repercussions for the UK’s ambassador in Brussels.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office insisted that discussions were ongoing about the status of the EU delegation.

A spokesperson said: “The EU, its delegation and staff will receive the privileges and immunities necessary to enable them to carry out their work in the UK effectively.”

TV licence fee decriminalisation decision shelved

The government has decided not to move ahead with plans to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence fee, but said it would “remain under active consideration”.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the criminal sanction was “increasingly unfair and disproportionate”.

However, he also noted an alternative system could result in “significantly higher fines” for licence fee evaders.

The BBC said the current system was “the fairest and most effective”.

Mr Dowden’s comments came as the government published the findings of a public consultation on the issue of decriminalisation.

A public consultation launched by the government in February 2020 asked whether non-payment of the licence fee should continue to be a criminal offence.

It explored whether the current system could be replaced with a civil enforcement scheme.

The consultation, which lasted eight weeks, received 154,737 responses from members of the public, campaign organisations and other stakeholders.

Currently, anyone who watches or records live TV or uses iPlayer without a TV licence is guilty of a criminal offence and could go to prison.

The government has committed to maintaining the current licence fee funding model until 2027 – when the current Charter period ends.

The government said it “remains concerned that a criminal sanction for TV licence evasion is increasingly disproportionate and unfair in a modern public service broadcasting system”.

It said respondents highlighted the “considerable stress and anxiety” the criminal sanction can cause for individuals, particularly vulnerable people.

However, the government also said it recognised there could be damaging consequences for the public if the current system was abandoned.

Mr Dowden acknowledged there was “the potential for significantly higher fines and costs for individuals who evade the licence fee requirement” under a civil regime.

The consultation also “highlighted significant impacts in terms of both the cost and implementation” of a new system, particularly as evasion is currently handled “very efficiently in the Magistrates Court”.

Responding to Thursday’s publication of the government’s findings, a BBC spokesperson said: “The current system remains the fairest and most effective.

“The responses to the government’s consultation shows the majority back the current system. The BBC will fully engage with the government going forward on how we can continue to play an important role for the public.”

The government said it remained determined that any change to the TV licence enforcement scheme “should not be seen as an invitation to evade the TV licence requirement, nor should it privilege the rule-breaking minority over the rule-abiding majority”.

“The issue of decriminalisation will remain under active consideration while more work is undertaken to understand the impact of alternative enforcement schemes,” it added.

If decriminalisation of the TV licence fee were to go through, it would have a considerable impact on BBC funding.

Mr Dowden added the government would take forward the findings of its consultation into the next licence fee settlement, which will set the level of the licence fee for a period of at least five years from 2022.

Negotiations formally begun for the next licence fee settlement recently, Mr Dowden confirmed.

Could indyref2 be held without the UKs consent?

The Court of Session is hearing arguments about whether Holyrood can legislate to hold a new Scottish independence referendum even if the UK government continues to oppose one. What could it mean for indyref2?

The court case seeks to settle the legal question of whether the Scottish Parliament has the power to pass the necessary laws for a new referendum on independence.

The previous vote in 2014 was underpinned by a “section 30 order”, an agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, before legislation was passed by MSPs.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants a similar deal to be struck for a new referendum, but has been rebuffed by successive prime ministers – with Theresa May saying “now is not the time” for a vote and Boris Johnson insisting that 2014 was a “once in a generation” event.

Ms Sturgeon insists this UK government position is unsustainable, and will crumble if the SNP win May’s Holyrood elections – but others in the independence movement want to see more action to force the issue.

Hence a case at the Court of Session which has not been brought by Scottish ministers, but by activists – led by Martin Keatings, who raised huge sums in online crowdfunders to bring a full legal team on board.

The pursuers – represented in court by Aidan O’Neill QC – argue that Holyrood has the competence to legislate for a referendum, if not to directly break up the union.

They say Holyrood gets its legitimacy from the people of Scotland, not from Westminster, and is directly accountable to them rather than to UK ministers.

The constitution and indeed “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” are clearly reserved matters, as listed in the Scotland Act.

But the pursuers argue that the bare fact of holding a referendum about the union would not automatically lead to constitutional change, regardless of the result.

They point to Brexit as an example of how “complex and lengthy negotiations” would follow a Yes vote, arguing that “a referendum – nor indeed the outcome of a referendum – is not the act of secession”.

And they say this is a prime moment to answer the question of Holyrood’s powers, given indyref2 seems set to be a key issue in May’s election.

Mr O’Neill said the SNP government has repeatedly pledged to bring forward a referendum bill and indeed hold a vote in the coming years – and that “any informed voter needs to know whether that claim can be carried out, or whether it is just bluff and bluster”.

Given Boris Johnson and his ministers have repeatedly insisted that 2014 was a “once in a generation” vote, it is no surprise that they are opposed to letting MSPs legislate for one at the time of their choosing.

Lawyers for the UK government raised a number of procedural complaints about the case, saying the proceedings are academic, premature and irrelevant. If any of these were upheld, it would essentially see the case thrown out without the question being answered either way.

However they have also offered a straightforward riposte to the core argument – that the constitution is clearly a reserved matter, and that a vote on a constitutional matter should require an agreement with Westminster.

Scottish ministers are obviously in favour of indyref2, but have kept their cards rather closer to their chest when it comes to this case.

The government was initially represented in the case, and opposed it on procedural grounds – arguing it was hypothetical and premature – without making any submission about Holyrood’s competence.

They then formally withdrew in August 2020, but somewhat confusingly the Lord Advocate – a Scottish minister – is still represented in court as a defender.

The chief worry for the Scottish ministers here is a political one – should the case go against Mr Keatings, would it set a precedent in law that they must win agreement from Westminster for indyref2?

Ms Sturgeon has essentially been keeping court action in her back pocket as a contingency plan, should another electoral mandate fail to move Mr Johnson.

Her government views this case as a complicating factor – if they wanted to go to court, they would far rather have a straight legal battle between themselves and the UK government on grounds of their choosing.

Should the court rule one way or the other on Holyrood’s competence, it could have far-reaching implications in terms of legal precedent. But would it change the facts on the ground in the referendum row?

First, let’s imagine a world where the pursuers are successful, and the court rules that MSPs can call a referendum without a section 30 order.

That might undermine Boris Johnson’s position somewhat, but there would still be nothing to stop him arguing against a referendum for one political reason or another – or indeed of the unionist side boycotting any poll which is set up in the absence of an explicit agreement.

And this would still be a major consideration for Ms Sturgeon. It is not for purely legal reasons that she wants a “gold standard” agreement in the vein of 2014.

She wants any new vote to be unimpeachable in its legitimacy, to have international recognition – particularly from the EU, which she would like to see Scotland rejoin some day. The first minister does not just want a referendum, she wants it to deliver independence.

Such a ruling would pile further pressure on Ms Sturgeon to push ahead with a vote – but ultimately she would still want both sides to accept the terms, and to fight things out in a campaign rather than a courtroom.

That will equally remain the SNP leader’s position should the ruling go against Mr Keatings. She might be effectively bound into it, but her preferred approach would still be a political one rather than a legal one.

And such a result might not even rule out further court action, beyond the matter of appeals by the pursuers. One of the Scottish government’s arguments against the Keatings case is that it is premature, because they have not even published their draft bill yet.

The court rebuffed an attempt by the pursuers to have the government hand over their legislation, so it will not be picked over line by line.

So once it has been drawn up, Scottish ministers could potentially still launch a far more focused legal battle over its competence – by simply passing it, and forcing UK law officers to challenge it at the Supreme Court.

The draft legislation is due for publication in the run-up to the Holyrood election, so the issue of indyref2 is set to come to the boil in the coming months regardless.

This court case may be the opening salvo in year of constitutional collisions – which could decide the future of the union.

Malware found on laptops given out by government

Some of the laptops given out in England to support vulnerable children home-schooling during lockdown contain malware, BBC News has learned.

Teachers shared details on an online forum about suspicious files found on devices sent to a Bradford school.

The malware, which they said appeared to be contacting Russian servers, is believed to have been found on laptops given to a handful of schools.

The Department for Education said it was aware and urgently investigating.

A DfE official told BBC New said: “We are aware of an issue with a small number of devices.

“And we are investigating as an urgent priority to resolve the matter as soon as possible.

“DfE IT teams are in touch with those who have reported this issue.

“We believe this is not widespread.”

According to the forum, the Windows laptops contained Gamarue.I, a worm identified by Microsoft in 2012.

The government has so far sent schools more than 800,000 laptops, as it tries to distribute more than a million devices to disadvantaged pupils who may not have access at home.

“Upon unboxing and preparing them, it was discovered that a number of the laptops were infected with a self-propagating network worm,” one teacher wrote.

Covid: Labour attacks Sunak over strategy to help economy

Labour’s shadow chancellor has launched a fresh attack on government support for the economy during the Covid pandemic.

In a speech, Anneliese Dodds accused her Tory counterpart Rishi Sunak of wanting to lift restrictions and withdraw help “as soon as possible”.

Initially offering the “bare minimum” has led to plans being repeatedly revised, she argued.

The Treasury said “decisive action” had been taken to protect jobs and firms.

Mr Sunak is due to set out the “next phase of the plan to tackle the virus and protect jobs” at the Budget in early March.

But Ms Dodds accused him of “disappearing altogether” in recent weeks, and offering “precious little clarity” on what support firms can expect.

It comes as ministers face increasing pressure from MPs and anti-poverty charities to extend a £20 weekly top-up to universal credit benefits introduced during the pandemic.

Earlier this week, six Conservative MPs joined opposition parties in calling on the government to prolong the increase beyond its scheduled end-date of 31 March.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday that a decision on whether the top-up would continue was unlikely before the Budget.

But it is understood ministers have already held talks on whether it should be extended, tweaked, or replaced with a one-off payment.

The government has already confirmed another extension of the the furlough wage support scheme, which had been set to wind down at the end of March, until the end of April.

In an online speech to the London School of Economics, Ms Dodds criticised the chancellor for having “called this crisis wrong time and again”.

She added that “repeated tinkering” with economic support, including the furlough scheme, had “hammered confidence” and left employers unable to plan.

“The chancellor’s desperation to reopen the economy as quickly as possible, and extricate the Treasury from its various support schemes, has been swept away by successive waves of the pandemic,” she added.

She also called for clearer communication of who can qualify for government payments intended to help those on low incomes self-isolate.

In response, a Treasury spokesperson said the chancellor had protected “millions of jobs and businesses across the UK,” with £280bn provided since the start of the pandemic.

They added that the furlough scheme, along with a similar scheme for the self-employed, had helped “some of the lowest-paid workers,” whilst the welfare system had been “strengthened with billions of support”.

A further £20m would be made available for the self-isolation payment scheme later this month, they added, with more funding to me made available “in due course”.

Michelle ONeill: Joe Biden will be a good friend to us

The new American president “will be a good friend to us”, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill has said.

Speaking to Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking, she said Joe Biden often emphasised his links to Ireland and shared Sinn Féin’s view of Brexit.

She described Brexit as “dire” and restated her ambition for a poll on Irish unity within the decade.

In recent weeks, food supplies to Northern Ireland have been disrupted.

Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said this was a result of new Brexit rules, but UK International Trade Secretary Liz Truss argued that the coronavirus was also responsible for some of the shortages.

Talking to Nick Robinson for Radio 4’s Political Thinking, Ms O’Neill said the election of Mr Biden marked the beginning of “a new kind of relationship with the United States”.

She said Mr Biden had described himself as Irish, adding “you can see all of his public contributions involve some element of presenting his Irishness and I think he’ll be a good friend to us in the time ahead”.

Mr Biden’s great, great, great grandfather – Edward Blewitt – left Ballina for America during the Irish famine 170 years ago.

Ms O’Neill said that in the context of the pandemic and Brexit “we very much look to the United States and our friends and allies there”.

She added that she hoped to meet the new US president if he stops in Ireland en route to the G7 summit in Cornwall in June.

The Sinn Féin vice president also suggested the new American administration would have an impact on the British government’s approach to the Good Friday Agreement.

“They [the British government] have demonstrated disregard and disrespect to [it] in recent years, particularly in the case of Brexit, so I think they’ll be sitting with their ears pricked up and listening very carefully to what’s being said in the United States,” she said.

“We always said that Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement weren’t compatible and there was nothing good to come from Brexit… all we can see now is chaos and the implications of Brexit, which are dire.”

Last year, Mr Biden was critical of the UK government’s Brexit-related legislation and warned that the peace deal “cannot become a casualty of Brexit”.

Ms O’Neill also confirmed her hope to hold a border poll on Irish unity within the next 10 years.

“We set out our stall for a decade of opportunity and so this is a time to plan.

“There is a constitutional imperative for the Irish government to plan for unity and to encourage as many people to come into the conversation.”

Under UK law, a border poll – or referendum on Northern Ireland leaving the UK – should be held if “it appears likely” a majority would support uniting with Ireland.

Brexit: Movement Assistance Scheme costs £330,000 in 20 days

A government scheme to help businesses with the cost of moving food and plant products to Northern Ireland from GB has cost £330,000 in its first 20 days.

The Movement Assistance Scheme (MAS) covers the costs of certifications required for those products.

They are needed because Northern Ireland is still in the EU single market for goods.

A senior official told MPs that 84 businesses have signed up to use the MAS.

James Quinault, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that number was roughly what was expected.

He told the MPs that 2,134 food health certificates and 219 plant health certificates had been issued under the scheme up to Tuesday of this week.

“Because organisations invoice us monthly we haven’t incurred any actual costs yet, but based on these numbers we think the cost so far has been £330,000,” he said.

The number of certificates being issued under the scheme could increase dramatically in April when a grace period for supermarkets ends.

Currently supermarkets and other retailers are operating under a reduced certification regime.

Retailers say the grace period will need to be extended or replaced with a permanent easement or the system could become unworkable.

On Wednesday, the Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister said that food supply problems into Northern Ireland from Great Britain were “clearly a Brexit issue”.

Simon Coveney said the shortages were “part of the reality” of the UK leaving the EU.

“Let’s not pretend Brexit doesn’t force that kind of change,” he said, speaking on ITV’s Peston programme.

His comments were in response to NI Secretary Brandon Lewis, who said images of empty supermarket shelves had “nothing to do with the protocol”.

Rather, Mr Lewis argued the disruption caused by coronavirus before Christmas was responsible for the shortages of some food products.

The Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and the EU requires health certifications on animal-based food products entering NI from the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile , the chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs said a solution has been found to an issue that could have seen Northern Ireland steel importers facing a 25% tariff.

Jim Harra said: “I believe we have solutions in place for steel of whatever origin: UK, EU or non-EU.

“Importers can access a quota and therefore not have to pay the EU safeguard charge.”

Mr Harra said official details would be issued soon and they have been in contact with individual importers.

Covid-19: Pastor urges black communities to take up vaccine

More must be done to encourage African Caribbean communities to sign up for Covid vaccines, a pastor has said.

Emmanuel Adeseko, 32, of the New Covenant Ministries, has taken part in a round-table event involving church leaders in Birmingham.

They want to encourage people in their communities to be vaccinated.

The meeting came after comments last week said uptake of the vaccine in some of the city’s most vulnerable communities was as low as 50%.

Birmingham’s director of public health Justin Varney said there was evidence that suggested in some areas, half of those being invited for vaccines were turning them down.

Such concerns prompted the leader of Birmingham City Council and the city’s MPs, both Labour and Conservative, to write to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to appeal for the urgent release of more detailed vaccination data.

They said the information would be a vital “warning”, allowing them to work to resolve issues on the ground.

Mr Adeseko, whose 65-year-old father Nathaniel died from coronavirus in April, said there was real fear in sections of the community and if the lower uptake was correct he would not be surprised as people were “afraid”.

“Some of it is caused by the mis-information on social media, there is so much of it.

“But it’s not just one thing, there are religious beliefs at play in some cases and some people have had negative experiences with healthcare in the past.”

He said education and role models from within communities would be key to addressing these issues.

Former Wolverhampton MP Eleanor Smith, who had a 40-year nursing career before entering politics, also took part part in the round-table discussion.

She said as a Christian, she would like to see strong interventions from church leaders: “When people are being misinformed on such a grand scale, churches need to step up. I am a Christian myself and I think they need to be clear.

“In my view they need to tell people it’s OK to be vaccinated or it’s a bit of a cop out.”

She also praised efforts in other faith communities, adding: “Many imams seem to be doing a good job in trying to get these messages out, we need to see the same.”

But like Mr Adeseko, Ms Smith said official efforts to dispel myths and reassure people needed to be stepped-up.

“Historically black people have not always been listened to, or treated equally in terms of medical care, so there is a lack of trust sometimes.

“We need to deal with it and we need role models within the community,” she said.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, said he had been meeting with the region’s faith leaders regularly.

“I will be discussing with them how best to work with the NHS and Public Health England to alleviate people’s concerns and get them vaccinated and protected against this dreadful virus,” Mr Street said.

“Anti-vaxxers spreading the misinformation that dissuades people from getting vaccinated have blood on their hands and should be truly ashamed of their actions.”

The government has said more regional data on vaccinations will be made available in due course.

The discussion was organised by Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner and attended by shadow equalities minister Marsha De Cordova.

Labour is calling for a national plan to support vaccination in black, Asian and ethnic minority communities.

Covid-19: Religious beliefs causing real fear over vaccine

More must be done to encourage African Caribbean communities to sign up for Covid vaccines, a pastor has said.

Emmanuel Adeseko, 32, of the New Covenant Ministries, is taking part in a round-table event on Thursday involving church leaders in Birmingham.

They want to encourage people in their communities to be vaccinated.

The meeting comes after reports last week said uptake of the vaccine in some of the city’s most vulnerable communities was as low as 50%.

The report by Birmingham’s director of public health Justin Varney suggests in some areas, half of those being invited for vaccines are turning them down.

Such concerns prompted the leader of Birmingham City Council and the city’s MPs, both Labour and Conservative, to write to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to appeal for the urgent release of more detailed vaccination data.

They said the information would be a vital “warning”, allowing them to work to resolve issues on the ground.

Mr Adeseko, whose 65-year-old father Nathaniel died from coronavirus in April, said there was real fear in sections of the community and if the lower uptake was correct he would not be surprised as people were “afraid”.

“Some of it is caused by the mis-information on social media, there is so much of it.

“But it’s not just one thing, there are religious beliefs at play in some cases and some people have had negative experiences with healthcare in the past.”

He said education and role models from within communities would be key to addressing these issues.

Former Wolverhampton MP Eleanor Smith, who had a 40-year nursing career before entering politics, is also taking part in the round-table discussion.

She said as a Christian, she would like to see strong interventions from Church leaders: “When people are being misinformed on such a grand scale, churches need to step up. I am a Christian myself and I think they need to be clear.

“In my view they need to tell people it’s OK to be vaccinated or it’s a bit of a cop out.”

She also praised efforts in other faith communities, adding: “Many imams seem to be doing a good job in trying to get these messages out, we need to see the same.”

But like Mr Adeseko, Ms Smith said official efforts to dispel myths and reassure people needed to be stepped-up.

“Historically black people have not always been listened to, or treated equally in terms of medical care, so there is a lack of trust sometimes.

“We need to deal with it and we need role models within the community,” she said.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, said he had been meeting with the region’s faith leaders regularly.

“I will be discussing with them how best to work with the NHS and Public Health England to alleviate people’s concerns and get them vaccinated and protected against this dreadful virus,” Mr Street said.

“Anti-vaxxers spreading the misinformation that dissuades people from getting vaccinated have blood on their hands and should be truly ashamed of their actions.”

The government has said more regional data on vaccinations will be made available in due course.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who is expected to be at the meeting, is calling for a national plan to support vaccination in black, Asian and ethnic minority communities.