17th November 2020.
In my last column I wrote about the importance of Covid testing so that people can see their loved ones in care homes and hospitals. The government has finally announced its pilot scheme, but so far, only 20 care homes are included across the whole country (one is in my division in Falmouth – well done for being pioneers, King Charles Court). I question how the government can find tests for all students before they go home for Christmas, but not for care home visitors or public-facing keyworkers like school staff. Will students also be tested before they return to campus after fanning out across the country for a month? Otherwise they will simply bring the virus back with them and we will have a repeat of the start of this term when there were hundreds of cases in universities.
We have also had good news about prospective vaccines. Hopefully, distribution of these will be managed more effectively than the test and trace system has been and will reach the vulnerable and the keyworkers first.
It would seem only fair that vital keyworkers are paid a living wage, but it is still the case that many aren’t. 75% of care workers across the country get less than the foundation living wage of £9.50 per hour. So do the teaching assistants, cleaners and catering staff who are keeping our schools and hospitals going through this pandemic. In Cornwall, the Council committed to all directly employed workers and staff of contractors receiving at least foundation living wage. The new Cornwall ‘Proud to Care’ recruitment campaign runs on that basis. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to people who work in academy schools or contractors for other public bodies. 78% of our schools in Cornwall are academies and so most of our Cornish teaching assistants slip through the net. These people are doing jobs that we now know are the most vital in society and they simply don’t get paid a wage they can live on. It’s also no surprise that these jobs are predominantly carried out by women. Low pay sticks like glue to jobs done by women.
In May, Cornwall Council will reduce in size by a third. The Council does not presently resemble the people it is elected to serve and so is unlikely to reflect all their concerns. It is somewhat ‘male, pale and stale’! Only 24% of councillors are woman. In fact, there are more councillors over the age of 70 than there are women of any age.
The pandemic has changed working practices so that many meetings can be conducted online, although they are during working hours. Cornwall Councillors currently get a basic allowance of about £14,500/year (town and parish councillors don’t get an allowance). Working hours are not set, but on a 40 hour week that works out at just under £7 per hour and it is difficult to find part time work that fits in. If the allowance were set at the Cornish average wage of £18,000, would it open the role up to more working age people with mortgages and caring responsibilities and no other independent source of income? Maybe the reduction in the number of councillors gives an opportunity to consider this, without increasing costs? However we do it, we do need some way of making sure that a reduced Cornwall Council reflects the breadth of experience and concerns of all the people of Cornwall.