Today, you will have your say on your next local councillor and the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner. And for readers in North Tyneside, the Elected Mayor is also on the ballot. The real choice on most ballot papers is between a Labour Party committed to a better future – improving local services after a decade of austerity that saw our council budgets decimated and key workers betrayed, and a Conservative Party mired in sleaze, cronyism and incompetence.
The NHS has done a wonderful job on the vaccine rollout and I’m grateful that it wasn’t contracted out to Matt Hancock’s mates. But let’s be in no doubt, on every other issue this has been a terrible year for Conservatives in power.
We mustn’t forget this Government’s failure to lockdown fast enough, the incompetence of Health Ministers to get a proper test and trace system running or comments by the Prime Minister about letting the bodies pile high. Nor should we forget that Britain has suffered the highest death toll in Europe and the deepest recession in 300 years. We’re not out of the woods yet, with uncertainty on the future of the virus and the economy.
It is now clear that Boris Johnson has presided over the greatest abuse of British taxpayers’ money in history, through his wasteful approach to outsourcing public contracts to his chums. It really is infuriating to read about the friend and neighbour of a Tory minister getting £30million of taxpayers’ money, while towns and communities across the country see their local services slashed. And it’s even worse when taxpayers cash is wasted on government contracts that don’t even deliver.
Not content with wasting public money on handing failed health contracts to his cronies, Johnson still hasn’t answered questions over whether he sought to squander tens of thousands of pounds of Conservative donor cash on his flat in Number 10. The “Cash for Curtains” scandal is a national embarrassment. Any other Prime Minister would show remorse, but not Johnson. On his watch, sleaze is back in a big way and just like a fish rots from the head down, this toxic culture started in Downing Street but extends into the country.
Closer to home, Conservative-controlled Northumberland County Council has been rocked by scandal over the last year, with accusations of wrongdoing, racism and failure to act in the best interest interests of the Council leading to the eventual departure of the Tory Leader, following a vote of no confidence. Such was the sleaze that even his own side voted him out!
In contrast, we see a changed Labour Party. We’re putting working people and their communities first, focusing on creating jobs, tackling crime and protecting the NHS. As we emerge from of the pandemic our vision for Britain is simple: we want this to be the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in, whoever you are and wherever you live.
We would invest billions in the economy to create hundreds of thousands new jobs in the industries of the future, including steel and manufacturing. We would also introduce a guarantee for young people to get them into work, training or education and end long-term unemployment. And unlike this government, we won’t just clap our key workers, we’ll pay them properly. Thats why we’re guaranteeing the proper pay rise our NHS heroes were promised.
There’s no reason we can’t have better paid jobs, better schools, thriving high streets, public services that put people first and an NHS that is the envy of the world again: we just have to prioritise them. And those priorities are on the ballot paper today.
A vote for a Labour councillor is a vote for a better future for your community. I urge readers to re-elect our brilliant Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness. Kim is investing in more frontline police, way more than the government has offered. And 60 new detectives to take on the more sinister, organised and violent criminals. Kim’s work to deter young people from falling into crime is making a real difference, but there’s always more to do.
Every day that Labour is in opposition is frustrating and until we get into Government we will not be able to deliver on many of our priorities that will make this a fairer, more prosperous country. But there are moments when we can make a difference for people and now Parliament is in recess for Easter I’ve been reflecting on some of our recent successes.
One of my priorities over the past year has been campaigning around reducing sewage discharges into our rivers. This week the Environment Agency published alarming data showing water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times last year – a 27 per cent increase from the previous year.
Untreated human waste flooded into rivers and seas for a total of 3.1 million hours via storm overflow pipes that are only intended for use in extreme weather to relieve pressure in the sewage system. This pollution of our rivers poses a real threat to wildlife, agriculture and potentially to public health, so it is vital that Britain’s “blue arteries” are much better protected from harmful discharges.
So, I welcomed the news earlier this week that following the campaigning of MPs and third sector organisations like The Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage, new legal duties will be placed on water companies and Government to stick within defined limits.
The Government will be duty-bound to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and will have to report to Parliament each year on progress on implementing the plan. Water companies will also be expected to play their part, by publishing yearly data on storm overflow use.
As always, the devil is in the detail and I will be following this development closely. And as The Rivers Trust have said, it will be good to see more funding for water infrastructure improvements and much-needed public education.
Over the Easter break many of us will be heading out to enjoy the countryside, but it’s vital that we all play our part as individuals and utility companies to protect our shared natural habitat, including the littering which blights so many of our otherwise beautiful landscapes.
Since joining the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Loneliness, I have been working across Parliament and alongside the British Red Cross and Co-op to develop the right long-term solutions and policies to tackle loneliness.
In 2020 we led an independent enquiry, collecting evidence and gathering hundreds of views and expert opinions. The result of this work can now be found in the British Red Cross report, ‘A Connected Recovery’, which you can read on their website.
We are now calling on the Government to adopt 15 recommendations from the report to reconnect our communities – from investing in public spaces and transport, to closing the digital divide. All of these things are crucially important in order to have a joined-up approach to tackling loneliness properly and our work continues.
Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness has warned violent crime could increase in the North East after the Tories cut a dedicated knife crime fund by 40%.
Home Office Surge funds are handed to police forces to pay for enforcement activity in hotspot areas – for increased patrols, preventing street-based violence and weapons sweeps. But I’m concerned that fighting crime in Northumbria will be harder following Government funding cuts.
The Home Office claims to back local police forces to deal with violent crime. But the Surge funding figure announced for Northumbria – £906,500 – was, in fact, a 40% reduction in the previous year’s vital knife-crime cash. The previous £1.524m Surge funding was used for targeted knife crime crackdowns, with several operations targeting street gangs and known offenders.
Northumbria Police have worked hard to get violent crime and knife crime down – but with lockdown ending and pubs and clubs set to re-open shortly, I’m very concerned the funding cut from the Conservatives could have dangerous consequences. As restrictions are eased, the Government may have serious questions to answer over public safety.
Shop workers, particularly those in supermarkets and other food stores, have been on the frontline during this pandemic, supplying us with the essentials of life and keeping the nation fed.
Unlike many of us, they do not have the option of working from home and play an essential role in society and the economy as key workers. For some vulnerable members of our community their local retail workers may be their only human contact each week, providing a social lifeline in this difficult period of isolation.
My constituency, Blaydon, has one of the highest densities of shop workers in the country, with 24% of all jobs in retail with the Metrocentre and a number of local shopping centres providing much of our employment. While many supermarkets have reported a good year, other stores face real uncertainty over their future, and that of their staff, who may have been furloughed for many months.
Throughout the pandemic, the majority of customers have shown real support for the critical role that shop workers and delivery drivers are doing during this crisis. In some cases though, low stock, restrictions on product availability, face masks and social distancing requirements have provided new flash points for the longstanding problem of abuse against workers.
Violence and abuse should never be tolerated in any workplace, yet retail workers continue to face situations that are not only deeply unpleasant, but at times put their health and lives at risk.
Just like our emergency services, many of us will have read reports of customers coughing or even spitting at shop staff in an attempt to infect them. The Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that such incidents will be treated as assaults and these events should always be reported to the police.
And as a result of panic buying, a number of retailers are continuing to enforce restrictions on the number of certain goods that customers can purchase. When shop staff have been asked to enforce these restrictions at the tills, all too often this has created another flash point for threats, abuse and violence.
Last week, a member of my own staff witnessed such an incident, where a shop worker was spat at for asking someone to wear a mask going into the store. I raised the issue in the House of Commons the following day and called on the Government to bring forward a debate in Parliament on the unacceptable behaviour of a minority towards shop workers.
I am pleased to see that the shop workers union Usdaw is also campaigning for ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation that will tackle abuse against workers dealing with the public. assaulting a shop worker to be made a specific criminal offence, to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job. I support their calls to the Home Secretary to request that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency given the current situation.
But to provide full protection, the government must go much further. Usdaw is demanding that shop workers must be entitled to a real living wage of at least £10 per hour, with a minimum 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it, with contracts based on the normal hours worked and an end to zero hours contracts.
If we truly value our key workers we must make sure they have better rights at work and a proper living wage. Too many people who are in receipt of Universal Credit are already in work.
New research published by Newcastle University this week confirms the link between cutting social security and mental health issues.That’s why I’ve been urging the Chancellor to retain the current £20 uplift to Universal Credit in next month’s Spring Statement. The uplift has made a significant difference to many families. If the government is serious about “levelling up” this is the very least they could do.
Yesterday, MPs voted through new coronavirus restrictions that effectively put our country into a third national lockdown. The new measures are a last resort; none of us want to restrict your freedoms, but with public health at the front of centre of our decision making, this really is the only option.
Health experts now believe one in fifty people in the UK has the virus, and it is spreading exponentially across the UK. Hospital admissions are rising day by day and our NHS is under intense strain.
Here on Tyneside, we have been living under strict measures for some time now, and I know how difficult another lockdown will be for families across our region after everything they have already sacrificed. Despite this government’s many failures on covid-19, Labour supports the new restrictions as a national effort to protect the health service and save lives.
But our support for the government’s measures is in no way intended to let them off the hook on their broader mishandling of the crisis. There are serious questions for the government to answer on why they didn’t impose restrictions sooner, given that the scientific advice informing this lockdown was first presented to ministers over a fortnight ago.
As Her Majesty’s Opposition, Labour will continue to support the government where it gets it right and provide constructive criticism where it is failing. So, we’ll be pressing the government on a range of issues over the coming days.
Health ministers must explain why Serco’s testing system still isn’t working. And on vaccinations, we need a clear plan. We believe the NHS can deliver two million vaccines a week, but the government must clarify whether enough doses will be available and how they plan to remove the red tape that is making it difficult for retired health professionals to volunteer.
The chancellor must come to the house to explain why, once again, millions of working people have not been given the support they need, especially those three million self-employed who have been left without support for almost a year now. This is nothing short of a scandal.
Our lowest paid key workers need clarity on whether the government still plans to cut £20 a week from Universal Credit from April and whether they will implement the planned public sector pay freeze, which will affect the same nurses that have kept our country and our NHS going over the last 10 months.
On education, we face an unprecedented crisis. Last Sunday, despite growing evidence from the unions, our schools were deemed to be safe by Boris Johnson. By Monday afternoon he decided to shut them to most children, with no timescale for full re-opening, in another failure of his government to act swiftly.
Most children are now at home seven days a week, and for the most vulnerable this will have a detrimental impact on their learning and in some cases their well-being and safety, too.
Yesterday I asked the prime minister to keep his promises on levelling up. That means accelerating plans to provide laptops to the 1.8 million children without one, and a new national plan for education, to close attainment gaps exacerbated by the coronavirus.
My inbox is full of messages from constituents on issues like statutory sick pay and support for those self-isolating, nurseries, the ban on evictions that is due to expire in the cold of winter, provision for homeless people and local authority funding. On these and many more issues, I’ll continue to raise the questions and press for solutions.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Thanks to our brilliant scientists, there is hope of a way out of this nightmare with the vaccine. Every aspect of our national life must now revolve around an ambitious vaccination programme, to re-open society and the economy, and get children back in school as early as possible.
Until then, I urge you to stay at home to protect our NHS, so we can get Britain vaccinated in 2021.
For many of us, Advent is a time of hope, preparation and anticipation in the run up to Christmas. And this Advent has started like no other. Yesterday’s announcement that the United Kingdom is the first country in the world to approve the use of a vaccine is a welcome step in what has been a long and painful journey for many of us. But while the end is in sight we must be prepared to wait a little longer, and to keep public health at the forefront of everything we do.
We must recognise the scale of the challenge that has been overcome. Our world-leading scientists have succeeded in the monumental task of delivering a brand new vaccine for a novel virus in under ten months – a process that would usually take ten years in normal circumstances. So, I would like to pay tribute to our scientists, who alongside our NHS and so many key workers across many sectors, have been the true heroes of the 2020 story. Despite the failings of the Government on coronavirus – and there have been many – it should come as no surprise that Britain is the first to sign off a vaccine.
We have an outstanding reputation in the field of scientific research and development around the world, which is why I am calling on the Government to listen to leading medical research charities, who have come together to propose a way to ensure that vital research for both rare and widespread conditions can continue throughout this period of financial difficulty. They are asking the Government to create a life sciences charity partnership fund over the next three years, starting with £310 million in year one to meet the financial shortfall. I raised this in last week’s Westminster Hall debate on charity-funded medical research and will continue to do so where I can.
Our reputation was, however, diminished, following the announcement by the Chancellor last week that the Government are to cut our international aid budget – a cross-party achievement that showed our commitment to those in most need. As the vaccine is rolled out the Government will be judged on how it ensures that the poorest around the world will benefit from immunisation. This will be a critical test and one I will certainly be holding them to.
Fairness must be at the heart of the next phase of the Government’s coronavirus response. Earlier this week Labour abstained on the vote over the Government’s new restrictions. We support the need for measures but the new tiers continue to punish the North and there was nothing new for businesses across the country crying out for more effective economic support to get them through the winter months.
Too many hard-working people have been left to fend for themselves, especially many self-employed and freelancers who have been excluded from the financial support packages available to other businesses. Hospitality and retail have been let down again and we still don’t have a functioning test and trace system.
While yesterday’s vaccine announcement is welcome it has still come too late to save many jobs. The collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams alone in the last 48 hours, putting at least 25,000 thousand jobs at risk, is a real tragedy for many of my own constituents. For areas like Blaydon, retail is a major sector for employment. I can’t imagine the challenge that some families now face in the run up to Christmas. That’s why Labour is calling for urgent action to protect jobs, pensions and communities.
In the coming weeks we will start to see the roll out of the largest vaccination programme in the history of the NHS. With no time to learn lessons from our neighbours, this is no easy task. Boris Johnson likes to portray himself as a great heir to the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But with backbench rebels rising Mr Johnson’s premiership is showing signs of trouble. If he is looking to secure a legacy, he must finally get serious and take control of this virus so that lives can be saved, our NHS can be protected, and our economy can start to rebuild in 2021.