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UK’s biggest teaching union threatens to strike over pay rise dispute

BREAKING: The union has officially written to the government about inflation-plus pay rises for educators

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The UK’s biggest teaching union has threatened strike action over ‘alarmingly low’ wages as it demands an inflation-beating pay rise for teachers.

The National Education Union has written to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, telling him to show school staff they are valued by providing ‘undifferentiated inflation-plus pay rises for all teachers’.

If they have received no sufficient offer by the autumn term, the union will ballot its members on their ‘willingness to take industrial action’. 

They said: “The current inaction by the government is causing real damage to education and to our members’ livelihoods.

“We will strongly be encouraging them to vote yes. We can no longer stand by while you run education and educators into the ground.”

Teaching union NASUWT has also called for a 12% pay increase for teachers this year, and said it will ballot members in England, Wales and Scotland for industrial action if its demands are not met.

Responding, the education secretary said: “We have proposed the highest pay awards in a generation for new teachers – 16.7% over the next two years – alongside further pay awards for more experienced teachers and leaders.

“Young people have suffered more disruption to their education than any generation that’s gone before, and it’s the vital work of teachers that is helping them get back on track.

“The last thing I – or any parent – want to see is anything that would risk undoing that progress. We will be considering the pay recommendations from the independent pay review body in due course.”

This comes as strikes not seen since the 1970s grind the country to a halt, with thousands of workers across various sectors set to walk out in protest of inadequate pay rises amid soaring inflation.

Members of the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport) union at Network Rail and thirteen train operators are striking this week to protest job cuts and below-inflation pay rises. 

In total, it is estimated that around 40,000 union members will be taking part in the rail strike, making it the largest of its kind in modern history.

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Debt collectors from British Gas break into homes to force-fit prepayment meters

‘It is unacceptable for any supplier to impose forced installations on vulnerable customers struggling to pay their bills’

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Annasmith1986/Wikimedia & Caroline Ford/Wikimedia

British Gas routinely sends debt collectors into the homes of vulnerable people to fit pay-as-you-go meters, an investigation has revealed.

An undercover reporter for The Times joined Avaro Financial Solutions, a debt-collecting company used by the energy firm, where he accompanied agents in below-freezing conditions as they broke into homes with the help of a locksmith.

Among the British Gas customers this practice happened to was a single father of three young children and a mother with a four-week-old baby, amidst the rising costs of energy bills and a cost-of-living crisis.

According to job notes The Times reporter had seen were other vulnerable customers, including a woman in her fifties described as having ‘severe mental health bipolar’, a woman who ‘suffers with mobility problems and is partially sighted’ and a mother whose ‘daughter is disabled and had a hoist, and electric wheelchair’.

After British Gas’ owners Centrica were approached for comment on their practices, the firm announced it had suspended all ‘warrant activity’.

Centrica chief executive officer Chris O’Shea said: “Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and safely.

“The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity. Having recently reviewed our internal processes to support our prepayment customers as well as creating a new £10 million fund to support those prepayment customers who need help the most, I am extremely disappointed that this has occurred.

“As a result, on Wednesday morning, we took a further decision to suspend all our prepayment warrant activity at least until the end of the winter. More broadly, there are clearly significant challenges around affordability and unfortunately, we don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Annasmith1986/Wikimedia

“We need to strike a balance between managing spiralling bad debt and being aware that there are those who refuse to pay and those who cannot pay. We think Government, industry and the regulator need to come together to agree a long-term plan to address this and ultimately create an energy market that is sustainable.”

Grant Shapps, the business and energy secretary, ordered an urgent meeting with British Gas, adding: “I am horrified by the findings of this investigation and would like to thank The Times for shining a light on these abhorrent practices.”

Energy regulator Ofgem has announced it will launch an investigation. A spokesperson said: “These are extremely serious allegations from The Times which we will investigate urgently with British Gas and we won’t hesitate to take firm enforcement action.

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“It is unacceptable for any supplier to impose forced installations on vulnerable customers struggling to pay their bills before all other options have been exhausted and without carrying out thorough checks to ensure it is safe and practicable to do so. We recently announced a major market-wide review investigating the rapid growth in prepayment meter installations and potential breaches of licences driving it.

“We are clear that suppliers must work hard to look after their customers at this time, especially those who are vulnerable, and the energy crisis must not be an excuse for unacceptable behaviour towards any customer – particularly those in vulnerable circumstances.”

Energy companies can apply to magistrates’ courts for warrants to force entry into customers’ homes and fit a prepayment meter if they have fallen behind on bills.

This means that customers can only use their supply to heat their homes and cook if they top-up their meter card at a shop or do so via a top-up app. British Gas then takes £6.50 per week from top-ups as repayments — and hundreds of pounds extra is added to the customer’s bill to cover the debt collectors’ costs.

Arvato Financial Solutions told The Times it acted ‘compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements’.

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Police search abandoned home near where missing Nicola Bulley’s phone was found

Officers have tracked down a man who they believe to be a ‘potentially key witness’.

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Nicola Bulley/Facebook

In a huge search operation to find missing Lancashire mum-of-two Nicola Bulley, police have now scoured an abandoned house close to where she was last seen.

Ms Bulley, 45, disappeared after she left her home in Inskip to walk her dogs on Friday morning January 27th. She was walking her pet Springer Spaniel, Willow, along the river towpath off Garstang Road, in St Michael’s on Wyre and was last sighted at 9.15am by a member of the public.

Her mobile phone was found on a bench connected to a conference call and her dog was left roaming loose close to the same bench by the River Wyre. Rescuers have searched an abandoned home located on the opposite side of the river and the site where she left Willow and her phone.

It comes after police confirmed today they have tracked down a man who they believe to be a ‘potentially key witness’, describing him as around 70-years-old, white, six feet tall and well-built.

He is said to have ‘spoken to a woman in the area’ before walking in the direction of Rowanwater. Lancashire officers are now speaking to him to see what information he can provide.

Lancashire Constabulary

Police said previously there was no evidence of any criminal activity or that Nicola had been attacked. It is understood Nicola had dropped her two young children off at St Michael’s-on-Wyre Church of England Primary School, and leaving her car parked nearby, went on the walk with her dog.

Kev Camplin, of Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue, led a team of 25 trained volunteers on the day Nicola – known as Nikki – went missing. Speaking to the Mirror, he said: “The abandoned house is right opposite the bench on the other side of the river, over a 10ft garden wall. It’s quite posh.

“We didn’t go into the house. As a volunteer search and rescue team, we don’t actually go into buildings. We might go into a barn or something. We leave that to the police. While the team was searching the grounds, the owner was there for some reason, and we asked him to go in and he had a quick look around and she wasn’t there.”

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The team used equipment including a pickup truck and trailer in-tow, carrying floatation devices. One of their Land Rovers, which stores medical kits, broke down during the search.

All the volunteers carry mountain rescue radios and are coordinated by an operator inside a control van with mapping systems. Kev said the team was contacted at around midday on Friday and he was at the search site within an hour, before they left at about 8pm.

“We probably searched a mile north upstream and then we probably searched three miles downstream. We covered quite a bit,” he said.

Kev said his team only gets called out to ‘high risk’ cases that are not considered dangerous; for example, suspected criminals on the run. “We only go to despondents, and suicidal cases and people with dementia – and people who are generally lost,” he added.

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“Nicola lives in Inskip, about three miles from where she went walking. She drops her kids off at St Michaels and then apparently she walks eastwards to where the woods and the river are, something she does daily with her dog. So it’s not an unknown area for her, and it is a popular area for walkers and dog walkers alike. It’s actually quite a beautiful spot”, Kev said.

“Leaving the phone on the bench and then disappearing, it is quite odd. We don’t normally get that. Sometimes we go to a search, classed as a lowland search. You do get a car… where somebody has left their car. That’s the initial planning point.

“But her car was at the school and her phone was the initial planning point. Later we find out she was on a team’s work call. We didn’t know that on Friday. I knew the phone was there, but not on a work call.”

Police dive teams, fire service drones, search dogs, helicopters and mountain rescue volunteers have all been deployed to the area to carry out extensive searches. Officers say they are also supporting Nicola’s family and remain in close contact with them.

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Late night trams set to run so bar workers and revellers can get home safe

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David Dixon/Geograph & Tom Blackwell/Flickr

A campaign for trams to run until late at night on the Altrincham line has been unanimously approved by Trafford Council, following the example of neighbouring Greater Manchester borough, Salford. 

The move, put forward by Timperley ward Liberal Democrat councillor Will Frass, has been welcomed across all parties on the Labour-controlled authority. Trafford Council has requested that trams run beyond 11.55pm on the Altrincham to Bury line to carry both hospitality workers and revellers home.

The motion said: “Trafford residents, either working in the hospitality sector or enjoying the night-time economy, face a curfew for the tram, expensive taxis, or a risky walk home in the dark. Tackling both violence and against women and girls and gender-based violence more widely are priorities for Greater Manchester Police across the region.”

David Dixon/Geograph

Addressing the meeting, Councillor Frass said: “If levelling-up ever meant anything beyond a political slogan, then concrete steps like late-night transport must become a reality.

“It’s the norm in big cities around the world like Stockholm, Berlin and London which all have late-night transport. There is absolutely no reason why Greater Manchester should be any different.”

His colleague Councillor Meena Minnis added that she had only ever taken the last tram home to her Timperley home when out with a friend or her husband, saying: “I’ve always believed that the most highly-developed economies in the world are not the ones where everyone owns a car.

“I’ve never done it alone. Many people have had a fair few drinks and there are groups of men on there. It’s not worth the risk of staying out for longer so I would therefore leave for home earlier.”

Phil Champion/Geograph

It highlighted what metro mayor Andy Burnham announced as his ambition to make the city’s tram network the ‘11th district’ in the conurbation for policing. The motion continued: “This means that a late-night tram service across Greater Manchester is increasingly becoming the best transport option to ensure thousands of people across the region can get home safely.”

Council leader Tom Ross said he would be writing to Mr Burnham in support of the campaign and asked other members of the council to ‘feed in’ their views which would be sent off ‘in collaboration’ with other parties on the council.

Trafford Council also ask Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) to run a three month trial of the night tram to monitor its success. If a trial is granted, the council would aim to work in close partnership with British Transport Police to ensure that resourcing is in place to keep a late night service safe for all users, with an emphasis to preventing gender based violence.

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