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.
It’s astonishing how much power one person has to make change. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage rebel, has become the symbol of leadership in 2019 through her efforts to drag climate change firmly back on the international agenda.
Despite Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the rise of nationalism and its own brand of fake news and climate change denial and all-consuming issues like Brexit, Greta has begun the fightback on behalf of humanity.
This is the great issue of our time and while she doesn’t claim to offer all of the answers, Greta has forced us to ask some very searching questions.
Last year’s Special Report on Global Warming describes the enormous harm that a 2°C average rise in global temperatures is likely to cause. The expert panel representing countries around the world confirmed that limiting global warming to 1.5°C may still be possible with ambitious action from governments, councils, wider civil society and the private sector.
Locally, I’m pleased that our councils have followed Greta’s lead, recognising that change will have to start from the bottom and work its way up. The climate change conversation is now taking place locally and is rightly focussed on the “emergency” and the urgent need for radical action.
I’m pleased that Gateshead’s Labour-led Council has formally declared a climate change emergency and is now taking proactive steps to make change locally, knowing that we can no longer wait for national governments to act.
So I applaud Gateshead for their ambitious plans to make their services carbon neutral and achieve 100 per cent clean energy across the Council’s full range of functions by 2030.
And by shifting to a zero carbon approach by 2030 they are now working with other relevant agencies and local business to making the borough carbon neutral within the same timescale.
Councils will only be able to make the real change required by working with others; so it’s vital that we include young people, local residents, the private and voluntary sector in the process, ensuring that they have a voice in shaping their future.
Only then will the UK Government and others around the world be pressured by their citizens into providing the powers, resources and green new deal for skilled work, homes and public transport that will improve our lives.
In Westminster, the starting gun for the Tory leadership contest has been fired. While the 11 candidates to become the next PM jockey for first place, the issues that matter most to people continue to be ignored.
Alongside Brexit, this contest has pushed everything else off the parliamentary agenda, so other important decisions aren’t being made.
The political deadlock means that people living with rare medical conditions such as Phenylketonuria (PKU), Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell & Thalassaemia and others are being let down; they are not able to access the proper treatments for their conditions in the UK, despite these treatments being widely available throughout Europe.
The 4,400 people living with PKU understandably feel that the government is failing them. The drug they need – Kuvan – has been available throughout Europe and around the world since 2008, but is still prescribed on the NHS, due to the failure of politicians and the “big pharma” industry to find a solution.
BioMarin, the major pharmaceutical company who developed Kuvan currently charge £70,000 per year, per person and offer no discount to the NHS for its use, even though they have generated substantial revenues from the sale of the drug around the world.
As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on PKU, I have been campaigning for Kuvan to be made available in the UK. Our APPG was launched following pressure from my constituent Barbara McGovern, whose son Archie has PKU.
Her personal story and grassroots campaigning have inspired our cross-party group of MPs to call on BioMarin to make their treatment more affordable.
Barbara, like Greta, is leading the way and by following her lead I am hopeful that we can secure the change needed to improve access to treatments on the NHS.
These strong women have recognised their power to make change. What can you do to change the world around you?