GMB: Union elects Gary Smith as general secretary

GMB’s Scotland secretary Gary Smith has been elected as the trade union’s new general secretary, following a ballot of its members.

Mr Smith won just over half the 61,000 votes cast, defeating rivals Rehana Azam and Giovanna Holt, who got 28% and 22% respectively.

He will succeed Tim Roache, who resigned last year after allegations about his conduct, which he has denied.

GMB is the UK’s third-largest union, with more than 600,000 members.

It represents workers in a wide range of industries, including retail, security, utilities, social care and some NHS staff.

It is also one of the three largest affiliates to the Labour Party and is a significant financial contributor to the party locally and nationally.

Following his election, Mr Smith said it would be “the honour of my life” to lead GMB, and vowed to build a “better, bigger and stronger union”.

“I joined as a 16-year-old gas apprentice and owe this union so much,” he said.

“Throughout my entire adult working life, I’ve tried to repay this huge debt by fighting hard, every day, to improve the working lives of our members.

“As general secretary, I promise to lead with the same strength and energy.”

He also pledged “shed the practices and cultures that have blighted us in recent times,” following a critical report into the union’s culture in September.

The independent review by Karon Monaghan QC called the union “institutionally sexist” and said its policies were not “sufficiently clear or robust”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer congratulated Mr Smith on his victory and praised him as “committed campaigner for the rights of workers”.

“I’m looking forward to working with Gary in his new role to continue the fight to improve the lives of working people in our country,” he added.

Karon Monaghan’s report found that “bullying, misogyny, cronyism and sexual harassment” were “endemic” in the GMB.

And it said that the union’s regional secretaries – who had always been men – held “disproportionate power”.

So on the surface, electing a male regional secretary, rather than either of the female candidates, isn’t a good look.

But straightaway Gary Smith has pledged to implement the recommendations of the Monaghan report in full.

That will keep him busy.

He has also pledged to rebuild the union from the grassroots up, with more emphasis on workplace organisation.

Keir Starmer has welcomed his election – and politically the two men are unlikely to be on a collision course.

Last year, Gary Smith refused to support attempts by Richard Leonard, the party’s previous left-wing leader in Scotland, to stay in office – despite Mr Leonard’s membership of the GMB, and his former career as a union official.

Mr Smith said “our members would not thank us for getting bogged down in an internal Scottish Labour party issue”.

But some believe privately he helped persuade Mr Leonard to go – an outcome welcomed by the Labour leadership at Westminster.

St Davids bishop apologises for never trust a Tory tweet

A Welsh bishop has issued an apology after tweeting: “Never, never, never trust a Tory.”

The Bishop of St Davids, Dr Joanna Penberthy, said she had closed her personal account on the social media platform after a flurry of complaints.

Dr Penberthy made the comment after reposting a message about perceived threats to devolution in Wales.

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies told the Church in Wales: “All told, this is not a good look.”

The bishop posted the comment on Twitter on 25 May, with about 300 comments replying – many angry about her view.

Leading Leave Brexit campaigner and Conservative commentator Darren Grimes responded: “All of the Conservative voters who look to you for spiritual direction deserve so much better.”

Mark Wallace, the chief executive of the Tory news site ConservativeHome, added: “Lucky you don’t have a job that supposedly involves understanding others… oh wait.”

The bishop has been a prolific poster on the social media site, under the name: Joanna Penberthy WeAreRemain #GTTO #FBPE.

The abbreviations stand for Get The Tories Out and Follow Back Pro European.

In a statement, Dr Penberthy said: “On 25 March 2021, I put out a private tweet about Conservative Party supporters which has caused offence and for which I sincerely apologise.

“I acknowledge that while there may be those within the Conservative Party who oppose Welsh devolution, it is not the policy of the Conservative Party to abolish the Senedd and I should have checked all the facts before tweeting.

“I, of course, trust and have trusted many Conservatives and know there are many honourable people in that party.”

The bishop then apologised for other tweets she had posted “which may have caused upset and offence”.

She added: “While I hold strong political views, I have expressed them on Twitter in a way which was both irresponsible and disrespectful and I deeply regret this.”

In two final posts on Twitter, she stressed her views were personal and confirmed she was closing the account, adding: “I do not make political statements on behalf of the Church in Wales or the Diocese of St Davids.”

The bishop’s diocese of St Davids is home to the UK’s Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, the MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire Stephen Crabb, and also former Tory leader in the Senedd Paul Davies, as well as new Conservative Senedd member Sam Kurtz in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.

Andrew RT Davies added: “The many divisive and intolerant views pushed out from this very public account by the Bishop of St Davids will be troubling to many of her parishioners in west Wales.”

The Church in Wales said the Bishop of St Davids’ “strong political views are well known”, and recognised she had apologised.

“The Church in Wales expects all its clergy to engage robustly in public life,” said an official.

“However, they need to do so in a way which is respectful, responsible and fair, acknowledging the breadth and diversity of political opinion within the church.

“We do not support intemperate claims or poorly-informed commentary and we urge all clergy to recognise that, as public office holders, there should be no expectation that personal views will be regarded as private.”

Your stories: Out-of-hours work emails

Calls for a ban on out-of-hours work emails have generated a lot of debate among our readers.

The right to disconnect has been law for four years in France, where companies are asked to set agreed “specific hours” for “teleworkers”.

Ireland also brought in a code of practice last month, under which employers should add “footers and pop-up messages to remind employees… that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours”.

The Prospect trade union, whose members include managers, civil servants, engineers and scientists, wants the UK government to set out similar protections in its Employment Bill, expected to be published later this year.

Many readers agreed with the proposal, while others felt that it would not be practical, or desirable.

Here is a selection of your views.

Bob Hallewell, who works for a company which advises businesses on electronic communication, says email “is a common problem which is easily solved”.

“We all know how to send lots of copies, but we don’t know how not to send.

“It’s a common problem because people don’t necessarily think about what the whole effect of their message is going to be on the recipient.”

He says people send messages on a Sunday evening to finish their to-do list, but “the person who gets it thinks, “Dear Lord, am I supposed to be answering emails on a Sunday evening as well?”

“The easy way out is for the organisation to agree common standards,” he says, “and one of the most useful standards is “what is the expected response time for emails?”

Rachel Habergham works in the public sector and thinks banning emails outside office hours “would set us back years”.

“People need to be able to email at a time that works for them” if the UK wants an inclusive workforce, she says, “the key is everyone respecting that”.

“Not everyone should feel as though they have to reply. This can be done in many ways including simple messages on e-mail signatures.

“Banning out-of-office emails will just further disadvantage people who are carers, parents or disabled.”

A woman who works for the civil service in London told us the organisation “has pretty clear expectations around number of hours worked, but flexibility to work when you like”.

“I often leave work early then pick up work later in the evening,” she says, adding that she has an email signature which says she does not expect a response outside normal working hours.

“As long as you set an expectation for your team that they don’t need to respond then I think it’s OK.”

She said in her previous private sector jobs, “they do expect you to be super-responsive,” so it’s all about the “culture” of a company.

Richard Andrews is retired, but used to work in banking. He says there are “serious compromises that would be needed”.

He says he worked a 35-hour-week but would often deal with emails after returning home, between 80 and 100 daily.

He thinks this “quite likely contributed to a stroke I suffered five years ago,” which led him to voluntary retirement.

“I estimate I was paid for approximately 75% of the actual hours worked.

“Whilst no one is indispensable there is peer pressure, management and board pressure to get the job done and I’m sad to admit that, at times, it felt at any cost.”

Phil Coldicott, a retired IT manager, says emails were a “fundamental element” of his job.

He says he doesn’t “see any need to suppress email output, as it reflects when people wish to work”.

His team worked flexibly, but he says he preferred early starts while others preferred to work very late.

He says his team didn’t look at emails until they were back at their desks.

“I had a boss who used to send emails between midnight and 0100 every day. That’s the way he worked.

“You didn’t have to respond to them. Some people work in different ways, and we just have to accommodate.”

“It’s a question of time management,” he tells us, “I can’t see why regulation is necessary to be honest.”

Kent council in child migrant legal threat to Home Secretary

Child migrants arriving at Dover may be turned away by Kent County Council (KCC) within days as its services are overwhelmed, the authority has said.

KCC has taken its first steps in legal action against Home Secretary Priti Patel and wants her to make other councils take “their fair share”.

It comes days after Ms Patel lost a High Court legal fight over the Napier Barracks asylum centre in Folkestone.

The Home Office said it continued to encourage more areas to do their part.

Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network, said local authorities across the country would be willing to take child asylum-seekers into care if the government provided greater funding.

“Councils aren’t going to accept the responsibility without it being funded properly,” she said.

“These young people are incredible,” she said. “With the right foundation they are going to contribute an enormous amount to our communities.”

Conservative council leader Roger Gough said it was “a repeat of the same crisis of nine months ago”, when services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children reached breaking point.

With more young people arriving this year compared to last, he said the pressures were “severe”.

He told the BBC: “We are now in a situation which is not sustainable, and we do not wish to… suspend our legal duties, but that is very close to where we are,” he added.

So far this year, 242 lone child migrants have arrived on Kent shores and been passed to children’s services, but only 52 have been moved to other local authorities under a voluntary transfer scheme, KCC said.

It said the authority is now caring for 403 unaccompanied minors – nearly double the number the government said it was safe to have.

Mr Gough wants the existing voluntary transfer scheme to be compulsory, because “those others who do not participate frankly put a lot of pressure those who do”.

A proposed judicial review claims there has been a “refusal and/or continuing failure by the Home Secretary to exercise her powers to prepare a mandatory scheme”.

Mr Gough said: “We have not seen what is most needed: a robust National Transfer Scheme that prevents port authorities such as Kent coming under unmanageable pressure.”

He said Kent would no longer be able to safely accept new arrivals before the end of the week.

From that point, Border Force will be asked to place youngsters directly into other local authorities around the country from Dover port.

Roger Gale, the Conservative MP for North Thanet, said: “Kent basically is now full. We cannot safely take any more, so the Home Secretary has got to do something about it.”

He said Ms Patel faced two questions. “Why has nothing been done over the last nine months? And what is she going to do about it?” he asked.

KCC has served a formal Letter Before Action to the Home Office.

The council said without any substantive response to its proposals by 17 June, it would issue a claim for judicial review.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “We recognise the longstanding role that Kent County Council has played in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and are extremely grateful for their contribution.

“We continue to encourage more areas to join the National Transfer Scheme and do their part.

“We have already consulted on how to improve the scheme to make it fairer, the outcome of which will be published very shortly.”

While there was a rise in young migrants entering KCC’s care last year, the total number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum across the UK fell by more than 1,300.

From April 2020 to March 2021, 2,044 asylum claims were made by lone children, compared to 3,530 in the previous 12 months. The majority of asylum-seeking children arrive with their families, Home Office figures show.

The number of people reaching the UK in small boats rose in 2020 due to a reduction in flights and ferries during the pandemic, but the “overall organised immigration crime threat reduced”, the National Crime Agency has said.

“According to the Home Office, numbers are down on last year, but the method of arrival has changed and it’s just more visible,” Ms Chapman said.

Labour demands further probe into Boris Johnsons flat revamp

Parliament’s sleaze watchdog should investigate the funding of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat refurbishment, Labour says.

Boris Johnson was last week cleared of misconduct and of breaking the ministerial code by his adviser on ministerial interests.

But Lord Geidt said the prime minister had “acted unwisely”.

Labour says he might have broken the rules governing the conduct of MPs after failing to declare a donation.

Labour is keen to increase the pressure on Mr Johnson over the renovations to his flat as part of its wider charge of cronyism against the government, and has written to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone.

Last Friday, Lord Geidt – who was appointed by the PM in April as his ministerial standards adviser – said Tory donor Lord Brownlow had paid an invoice to cover some of the costs for the works, which were overseen by Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie.

He accepted that Mr Johnson had not been aware how the bill had been paid but rebuked him for “unwisely” allowing the refurbishment to proceed “without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”.

At the time, Labour said it was “staggering” that Mr Johnson could “rack up” a bill “yet have no knowledge of how it was eventually paid”.

Now, the party says Mr Johnson still has more questions to answer in his capacity as an MP, which falls under the remit of Ms Stone.

In the letter to the commissioner, Labour’s Deputy leader, Angela Rayner, noted Ms Stone had previously reprimanded Mr Johnson in 2019 for failing to register a share of a property within the required time frame, and warned any further breaches may warrant “more serious sanction”.

But Ms Rayner said “far from learning the lessons of his previous transgressions, the prime minister has continued with his attitude of treating basic standards of integrity, openness and transparency with contempt, and behaving as though there is one rule for him and another for everyone else,”.

She says the fact that Mr Johnson told Lord Geidt he became aware of the donations for the works on the flat in February this year but did not settle the invoices personally until 8 March suggests he is in breach of parliamentary rules that all MPs must follow.

The Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament states that all MPs must register financial interests, donations and gifts, and Mr Johnson, as prime minister, is not exempt from that.

Ms Rayner added: “I therefore write to request that you instigate a further investigation into the prime minister’s failure to register this donation, using your powers as commissioner.”

She also accused Mr Johnson of breaching the general principles on conduct in public life, including “selflessness”, “integrity” and “leadership”.

Ms Stone is already investigating whether Mr Johnson properly declared a £15,000 holiday on the Caribbean island of Mustique with his wife Carrie.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “Lord Geidt’s independent report shows the prime minister acted in accordance with the ministerial code at all times and sets out the background to the intended establishment of a Downing Street trust.

“The report shows how, at all times, the prime minister followed the advice of officials and he has made a declaration in his list of ministerial interests, as advised by Lord Geidt.

“The House of Commons rules and Electoral Commission guidance are clear that support relating to ministerial activity should be declared through ministerial declarations and this has been done.”

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has the power to refer a case to the Committee on Standards if she deems it is serious enough and the committee can, in principle, recommend suspension.

The sanction for less serious cases can require the MP to acknowledge and apologise for any breach.

Mr Johnson faces two other inquiries in to the flat refurbishment.

The Electoral Commission is conducting its own investigation in to whether the Conservative Party broke the rules on declaring donations over the Downing Street flat and has the power to issue a fine of up to £20,000.

Meanwhile, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the UK’s top civil servant, is also looking into the refurbishment, including whether donations were properly declared.

Elections watchdog admits errors in reporting Tory donations

The UK’s election watchdog has admitted it previously incorrectly registered donations to the Conservative Party.

The Electoral Commission had reported that the party accepted £10,000 in November 2019 from a company dissolved three years prior.

But the watchdog has now said this was an “administrative error,” adding the party had in fact reported a donation from a different firm.

It added it regretted “any confusion,” and the record would be corrected.

Additionally, the commission said the Conservatives had advised them the party had “inaccurately reported” donations from another company.

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “We welcome this decision from the Electoral Commission and we will continue to work with them.”

Earlier this week Labour called for the watchdog to investigate whether the donations had breached electoral transparency laws.

Under current legislation, parties may only accept donations from a UK-registered company if it “carries on business in the United Kingdom”.

In its regular reporting of political donations, the commission said the Tories had accepted £10,000 from Stridewell Estates in November 2019.

Government records indicate that the firm had been dissolved three years earlier, in November 2016.

The commission said the party had in fact reported a donation from another firm, called Kirklee Property Company 2 Limited, and it had incorrectly confused the two because they shared the same address.

Official records show that company was set up in 2006 and is still active.

Business Insider, which first reported the story, has previously quoted a spokesman for Stridewell suggesting it could be a mistake.

The watchdog added that it was still working with the party to establish the details of donations from another company, Unionist Buildings Limited.

The commission has reported that the Tories accepted £6,000 from the firm in June 2017. Records show the firm was dissolved six months earlier, in January.

The commission said the Conservatives had admitted incorrectly reporting donations from that firm – but gave no further details.

It said it remained in contact with the party “so that we can publish the correct information and provide transparency to voters”.

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said: “This confirmation that the Conservatives inaccurately recorded a donation amounting to thousands of pounds raises more questions than it answers. We urgently need to know where that money came from.”

Meanwhile, the commission has also admitted it incorrectly registered details of another donation to the Conservatives in late 2019.

It had previously said the party got £3,250 in December 2019 from a company called Landcap Development Eversley Ltd, which was disbanded 12 months prior.

But it said the party had in fact reported a donation from a still-active company, Landcap Limited. It again said it had confused the two businesses because they shared an address.

It is understood the watchdog discovered that error after the registered donation was brought to its attention.

Conservatives fined £10,000 for sending unwanted emails

The Conservatives have been fined £10,000 by the data watchdog for sending marketing emails to 51 people who did not want to receive them.

The messages were sent in the name of Boris Johnson in the eight days after he became prime minister in July 2019.

The party was also criticised by the Information Commissioner for a mailshot in December 2019 after concerns had been raised.

The Conservatives said they accepted the fine and had improved processes.

It is against the law to send direct marketing emails, unless the recipient has given their consent.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it would continue to take action against “nuisance marketing emails”.

Between 24 July and 31 July 2019, the Conservatives sent out more than a million marketing emails.

The ICO said some of the emails were “validly sent” but the party did not have the necessary consent from 51 of the recipients.

The watchdog said the problem resulted from the Conservatives’ failure to transfer records of who had unsubscribed from its marketing emails when the party switched its email provider.

Later that year, during the 2019 December general election, the Conservatives also sent out nearly 23 million emails – something the ICO says resulted in a further 95 complaints.

The watchdog expressed concern that the party had conducted the “industrial-scale marketing email exercise” while the ICO’s investigation was still ongoing.

Stephen Eckersley – director of investigations at the ICO – said: “It’s really concerning that such large scale processing occurred during the ICO’s ongoing investigation and before the Conservative Party had taken all the steps necessary to ensure that its processing, and database of people who would receive emails, was fully compliant with the data protection and electronic marketing regulations.

“Getting messages to potential voters is important in a healthy democracy but political parties must follow the law when doing so.

“The Conservative Party ought to have known this, but failed to comply with the law.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office also said its investigation had taken a long time because “the party repeatedly failed to provide responses within time periods set, even when those periods were extended”.

“The commissioner does not consider that this was satisfactory compliance with reasonable requests from the statutory regulator,” it said.

A Conservative Party spokesman said it accepted the fine and had since “reviewed and improved our processes and are fully compliant with all prevailing data protection and electronic marketing legislation”.

Brexit minister accuses EU of legal purism over NI Protocol

The UK’s Brexit minister has accused the EU of “legal purism” ahead of a meeting to discuss the NI Protocol.

Lord Frost made the comment in an article for the Financial Times.

In response, Ireland’s foreign minister said: “Lord Frost continues to lay blame for difficulty with Protocol at EU inflexibility. This is simply not the case.”

Lord Frost is due to meet European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic in London on Wednesday.

The men are due to assess what progress has been made in technical talks aimed at simplifying the operation of the protocol.

Those talks are covering around 30 issues ranging from VAT on used cars, to pet travel and the movement of food products from GB to NI.

UK officials believe that viable solutions are in sight for perhaps two issues, with partial solutions possible in maybe half a dozen other areas.

But the two sides are still far apart on the majority of issues, particularly the possibility of an agri-food agreement.

In his newspaper article, Lord Frost said the UK had “underestimated the effect of the protocol on goods movements to NI, with some suppliers in GB simply not sending their products because of the time-consuming paperwork required.”

A UK government impact assessment published shortly after the protocol was agreed in 2019 did say that businesses could expect additional cost and complexity when moving goods from GB to NI.

Lord Frost said in the past week the UK had sent a “detailed proposal” for a veterinary agreement, based on equivalence, and for an authorised trader scheme to reduce paperwork and checks.

But he said “we have had very little back” from the EU.

He added: “The EU needs a new playbook for dealing with neighbours, one that involves pragmatic solutions between friends, not the imposition of one side’s rules on the other and legal purism.”

In response Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted: “Lord Frost continues to lay blame for difficulty with Protocol at EU inflexibility. This is simply not the case.

“Maros Sefcovic & EU have consistently proposed new solutions.

“Is this about media messaging in UK or really solving problems together?”

In response to that NI First Minister Arlene Foster, the former leader of the DUP, tweeted that Mr Coveney was “just parroting EU commission briefings” which suggested he was “not so interested” in attempts to find solutions.

Working from home: Call to ban out-of-hours emails from bosses

“Work has got more stressful over the last year,” says Claire Mullaly.

“There’s a pressure to check emails, jump on video calls and to be on hand at all hours of the day, and it’s become harder to draw a line between work and home life.”

Claire, an IT consultant from Northern Ireland, argues the situation facing her and millions of others working from home during the pandemic “isn’t sustainable”.

And, with many of its members warning that their mental health is being compromised, the trade union Prospect is calling for the government to give employees a legally binding “right to disconnect”.

This would ban bosses from “routinely emailing or calling” outside set working hours.

Any emails sent at these times could also be automatically deleted to deter off-duty staff from continually checking their inbox.

“While digital technology has kept us safe during the pandemic, for millions of people, working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office, making it harder to fully switch off,” says Prospect’s deputy general secretary, Andrew Pakes.

The Office for National Statistics has found that 35.9% of the UK’s employed population did at least some of their work from home last year.

This group – while saving time on commuting – did an average of six hours’ unpaid overtime each week, it adds.

The right to disconnect has been law for four years in France, where companies are asked to set agreed “specific hours” for “teleworkers”.

Ireland also brought in a code of practice last month, under which employers should add “footers and pop-up messages to remind employees… that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours”.

Prospect, whose members include managers, civil servants, engineers and scientists, wants the UK government to set out similar protections in its Employment Bill, expected to be published later this year.

“Burning people out isn’t good for workers or employers,” says Claire. “We’ve got to give people time to switch off and recharge.”

Bank worker Omar says no-one he knows believes they can be as productive working from home as they can in the office, where they have access to big screens, technology and interacting with colleagues.

And at home, he found, work takes over your life.

“You’re on your laptop before breakfast,” he says. “When you’re in the office there’s the journey in, buying a coffee, chatting to a colleague and sitting down at your desk at 8.30 or 9am.”

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But companies and lawyers have raised doubts over whether the right to disconnect is feasible at a time when many employees are themselves asking for flexible working.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says it would be “very challenging” to make Prospect’s proposal work.

“The big question is how do we create good ways of working that are good for people’s wellbeing and how you improve people’s work-life balance,” he adds.

The official advice across the UK currently is for people to work at home wherever possible.

To preserve wellbeing, the Mental Health Foundation recommends that bosses stay in daily contact with employees.

However, it says they must “respect the boundaries people have between work and home life”.

“We recognise this has been an exceptionally difficult year, and that the pandemic has had an impact on mental health,” a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson says.

“We are wholeheartedly committed to improving and upholding workers’ rights and this is why we will fulfil a [Conservative Party] manifesto commitment to consult on making flexible work the default.”

The government’s Flexible Working Taskforce is investigating how “hybrid” work – split between home and the office/formal workplace – will operate after the pandemic.

This includes looking at the right to disconnect.