So, here we stand at the start of a new year. For me, the run up to Christmas was a time for getting out and meeting constituents making their Christmas preparations and taking the time to thank and celebrate their local communities. It was a privilege – and a huge pleasure – to watch children from St Joseph’s Primary school, Blaydon, present their nativity; to be part of Northumbria Police’s Biggest Coffee morning in Ryton, raising funds for mental health charity Mind; to be part of the Blaydon Angels awards ceremony organised by the Deacon Tracy Hume and to be a part of the community carol service at St Mary’s Church, Whickham. These are marvellous local events, showing how positive the Christmas spirit can be as people join together and show real concern for others.
Sadly, it is also at Christmas time that the differences within our society become stark. While many of us will be enjoying delicious foods, good company and joyous spirits – some will not be so lucky. For them, this time of year makes the struggle a little harder. Our foodbanks are under huge pressure from people who simply don’t have the money for food, or energy, let alone gifts for the children. Foodbanks, churches and many other local organisations make a huge effort at this time of year, distributing gifts and hampers of seasonal food and I thank them for their contribution – but it cannot be right that there can be such huge differences between those who have and who have not. Foodbanks should not be necessary in 2019.
Most notably, this time of year affects the homeless in such a cruel way. Homelessness has rapidly increased across the UK since austerity hit the poorest in our society with the harshest consequences. It is right that after a year of hard work, we all enjoy this time of year – but important that we remember that our country has a long way to go before it works for everyone.
Next week sees the start of a new Parliamentary term and a return to the debate about Brexit. The Prime Minister will at last put her botched Brexit deal to debate and a vote in Parliament. The vote, when it comes, will be four weeks later than it should have been, losing valuable time in which Parliament could have moved forward on this issue. Labour has made clear that we will vote against this deal. We will do so because it is a bad deal for workers and a bad deal for our economy and particularly for our economy here in the North East. Any deal must protect workers’ rights, our economy, jobs and living standards – and bring Britain together. This deal doesn’t do any of that. It is time for Theresa May and her Tories to step aside.
While the country’s attention has been focused on Brexit, many other local and national issues have been ignored. Our local schools face a funding crisis; Children’s services are currently at breaking point; our NHS faces unprecedented pressures; and local authority services, especially social care for the most vulnerable people in our communities, face continuing funding cuts as demand rises. Police and Fire and Rescue services are under sustained pressure. We must make sure that these vital services are not forgotten and I, and Labour MPs across the North East will be pushing to make sure that does not happen – they are too important to our communities.
The United Nations Special rapporteur’s recent report found that austerity had not been driven by economic necessity, but rather by the Tories’ determination to socially re-engineer the UK, which has delivered the “minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people.” The report concludes that poverty has been “a political choice”. You might think this damning report has convinced Government Ministers to reconsider their objectives. It has not. The need for change in our country has never been more apparent.
This year I will be working with my Labour colleagues to represent the interests of those who have been let down and left behind by callous Tory policies. Above all, I will continue to stand up for my constituents right across Blaydon constituency so badly hit by this Tory Government .
In politics words matter a lot. Less than a month ago Theresa May delivered her leaders’ address to Tory party conference, in which she proclaimed, “A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off.” Chancellor Philip Hammond echoed Mrs May earlier this week in his Autumn Statement, saying, “austerity is finally coming to an end”.
In both speeches, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor indicated that cuts in public spending, begun under David Cameron and George Osborne, would soon be over and that those who have suffered the most over the past ten years will finally see relief.
Their words were nothing more than cynical, spin politics and by the end of the Autumn Statement the truth had been revealed, that this was just another budget full of broken promises and more punishing cuts.
It is simply shocking that after eight years of gruelling public sector cuts, stagnant wages, a health and social care crisis, a rising cost of living and the national debt double the size, the Government is still hell bent on defending their indefensible austerity programme. And to add to the misery they are eluding the British people with half-truths, smoke and mirrors.
In response to the Autumn Statement the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) confirmed that under the Government’s plans, austerity is set to continue for years, with further cuts in essential public services like local councils, police, and prisons.
I agree with IFS Director Paul Johnson, when he said, “If I were a prison governor, a local authority chief executive or a head teacher, I would struggle to find much to celebrate. I would be preparing for more difficult years ahead.”
The lowest moment for me was the Chancellor’s crass remark about providing £400m cash for what he called the “little extras”. We all know the huge pressure Head Teachers and their staff are under. With pupils numbers and school on-costs going up its getting harder and harder to provide great education with real terms budget cuts. So it was no surprise to see #LittleExtras trending as teachers took to Twitter to vent their anger at this Government.
Back at home I was delighted to see that four of our local heroes were honoured at the FACT (Fighting All Cancers Together) awards dinner on Tuesday evening. England keeper Jordan Pickford, TV’s Colin Briggs, Marian Adamson whose family developed Ramside Hall and Geordie comedian Bobby Pattison were awarded special honours by the charity for their contribution to our region.
FACT, a charity which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is based in my constituency. Joanne Smith, their charismatic Chief Executive, started the organisation when she was recovering from Cancer with two young children and couldn’t find support services. Ten years on and Joanne is running a charity providing all manner of support, from therapies and counselling to fitness classes and wig fitting. They have already delivered 9,000 support sessions across the region this year.
But in addition to the day to day running of the charity, Joanne has a big vision for the future of cancer support in our region. She plans to build a state of the art support centre with people living with all forms of cancer, survivors and their families on the former Dunston Hill Primary School site.
The “Big Build” is an ambitious project, but one that will provide vital support for local people and their friends and families affected by their diagnosis – and it needs a big response from all of us to make it happen.
If you’d like to know more about this exciting project or can support in any way, visit fact-bigbuild.co.uk.
This weekend marks 70 years since the founding of the National Health Service by the post-war Labour government. The consensus, after six years of war, was that health care as a basic right, free at the point of need would ensure that Britain could flourish in the new age of peace. On Saturday morning I will join our local community at Blaydon Primary Care Centre to mark the anniversary. We’ll be presenting a birthday card to the health workers, often over stretched and over worked, who care for us day-in-day-out.
The visionary founder, Health Minister Ernie Bevan, foresaw that the NHS would never been free from threat, when he said that the health service would last “as long as there were folk with the faith to fight for it”. While Government announcements of increased spending on the health service are welcome after 8 years of cuts, in reality they are offering just about enough to stand. What we need is funding to meet our future needs.
Yesterday I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer for increased funding for Public Health to invest in measures which will lead to better health for our communities, and we need to fund social care properly too. The fight for the service often described as a “national religion” is likely to be an on-going battle.
One of my favourite jobs is to visit local businesses and with the Team Valley Trading Estate in my constituency I get to see some of the most innovative businesses in the region. Last week I was invited to open the new oil recycling plant at Henry Colbeck on the Team Valley, a family-run business in our region established over 100 years ago. Henry Colbeck is well known as the main supplier for the fish and chip shops in our region. They are also leading the way in making the industry greener and cleaner, by recycling of used cooking oil for re-use by chippies or as biofuel.
Touring the plant was fascinating and I was amazed at how clean and hygienic the set up was. The company, led by Bill Colbeck, have taken a big risk in financing the new recycling technology, but bold decisions like this will help us to tackle the major environmental challenges we face now and in the future.
Last Thursday was International Phenylketonuria (PKU) day. PKU is a rare genetic disorder affecting around one in 10,000 people in the UK who are unable to metabolise phenylalanine, an amino acid found within protein. If left untreated, it becomes toxic, causing permanent brain damage. I became a founding member and Chair of the All-Party group on PKU, after I was approached because I was approached by the McGoverns, whose son Archie lives with this incredibly difficult condition. Currently, the only treatment available in the UK is a highly restrictive and complex low protein diet. I was delighted to join other MPs in taking part in the Diet for a Day Challenge, in order raise awareness of the condition. Much of the food they can eat is only available on prescription, so enjoying an ordinary diet is not possible.
The challenge was to eat a diet that gives you no more than 10g of protein in one day. We were unable to eat anything on the “Red list” – such as meat, fish, eggs or cheese and only able to eat a very small amount of foods of the “Amber list” – potatoes, beans, cereals and dairy. Most of our diet comprised of foods from the “Green list” – fruits and vegetables. It really highlighted the difficulties that people living on a low protein diet face.
It is just over two years since we lost Jo Cox MP, who told us that we share more in common than that which divides us. The Great Get Together weekend offered us a chance to get together within our local communities to celebrate our diversity. So, I was delighted to host afternoon tea in one of our region’s hidden gems; the Hermitage Garden in Whickham, to draw people together to share stories, laugh and enjoy the heatwave that has brightened our lives in recent weeks. Long may it continue.
There is real truth in the famous words of Albert Einstein, that “the only source of knowledge is experience”. I learned this recently as I took part in a local blindfold walk to better understand the daily trials vision impaired people are expected to overcome, getting out and about in their local community.
The challenge, organised by the charity Guide Dogs, took place in a typical residential area of Dunston in my constituency. Supported by a mobility instructor I took to the streets wearing a blindfold. It was a genuinely daunting experience, as time and again I was forced out on to busy roads by vehicles parked on the pavement. Obstructive parking coupled with overhanging hedges and wheelie bins (it was bin collection day), made it impossible to keep to the pavement.
Leaving the safety of the pavement, very often onto busy roads with noisy, fast-moving traffic creates a danger in itself, especially for those with sight loss, but also parents with prams, wheelchair users and many others.
Sixty three per cent of drivers in the North East admit they park on the pavement, however, nearly five out of 10 drivers who said they park on a pavement haven’t thought about the possible problems it causes to blind or partially sighted people. I don’t intend to present myself as a model citizen in this respect. I too have parked on the pavement many times, without thought for pedestrians. But this experience has really challenged my own behaviour.
I was pleased to be joined by two of my constituents who are guide dog owners Margaret Ambrasas and Laurel Holleran, who shared with me their difficulties when making what should be simple everyday journeys along the road in their local area. I will be calling on the Government to give Councils more powers to tackle problem parking, particularly on our narrow streets which were not designed for the amount of cars today.
The charity is campaigning for a change in the law – that pavement parking should be the exception, not the norm for motorists. It is time that Local Authorities are given real powers to properly tackle this problem. We need a clear law where drivers cannot park on the pavement unless in a specifically designated area, in line with London.
Back in Westminster I attended a presentation by Northumbrian Water which has, In a first for the water industry, committed to eradicating water poverty across its supply areas by 2030. They are working with Newcastle based charity NEA on the scheme to get the message out as widely as possible through a new Water Poverty Unit.
Water poverty refers to people who spend more than 3% of their income in their water bill, after housing costs. Industry regulator Ofwat estimates that as few as 10% of customers who are struggling with their bill currently receive help from their water company via a social tariff. They have launched a new social tariff for customers who are genuinely struggling to pay their water and wastewater bills, which now allows it to offer 50% discounts for those who need it most.
I think this is a really innovative and practical idea from Northumbrian Water and I hope that it becomes well known and very well used and I’m sure NEA will be effective in spreading the word. We are now a year on since the snap General election which saw the Conservatives, under Prime Minister Theresa May, lose their majority in Parliament. Her “strong and stable” strategy was a miserable failure and we now see the true nature of this Government – weak and wobbly.
It’s been a real privilege to represent Blaydon constituency in that year and I look forward to speaking up for my constituents in Westminster and here in the north east. I want to see change for the better and we need a Labour Government to do that.
From Brexit to the funding crisis in the NHS and schools, to the Windrush Scandal, housing shortages and the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, we have a decrepit, weak Government, unable to provide leadership at a deeply challenging time for our country. Who knows where we will be a year from now.
They say a week is a long time in politics. In my experience, that it certainly the case, so last month’s column seems an age ago.
Sadly, since I last wrote, we’ve seen De La Rue, based on the Team Valley, make the decision not to pursue an appeal against the awarding of the new, blue passport contract to French- Dutch firm Gemalto.
There are still questions to be answered about how we ended up here; from the Government’s decision to allow an open procurement process for passports which are increasingly such an important part of our national security system to how this contract can be delivered securely and efficiently at such a reduced price. I’m going to be closely monitoring how this pans out and I will keep raising these issues with Ministers.
In the meantime, local De La Rue staff will continue to produce our passports over the next eighteen months and I will keep pushing for De La Rue to bring new work to Team Valley and ensure that we can keep these quality jobs here in the north east.
In the last week we’ve also seen Amber Rudd resign as Home Secretary in the light of the Windrush scandal – a resignation based on her misleading statements to Parliament about the existence of targets in the Home Office. There is cross-party agreement that the “Windrush Generation” – and their families who came to the UK to help us rebuild in the post-war era – are British citizens and deserve to be treated as such.
But the Government’s “hostile environment” policy has created an environment in which many of these people have been threatened with deportation or refused NHS treatment or benefits.
It is only right that all possible steps are taken urgently to right these wrongs. Amber Rudd’s resignation has also exposed Theresa May’s involvement in this whole situation. As Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016 it was on Theresa May’s watch that deportation targets were set and the “hostile environment” created which led to Windrush families being so shamefully treated.
It’s been a long time in Local Government too. Last week I spoke in the debate on Social Care, highlighting how inadequate the funds are to provide care for our most vulnerable people. As a member of the joint Health and Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committees, I have been participating in our enquiry into the long-term funding of social care ahead of the Government Green Paper which is expected later this year. We have taken evidence from care providers, the Care Quality Commission, local authorities and the NHS about the inadequacy of the current funding and what we need to do to put that right.
It was very clear to me that dedicated and high-quality staff are essential to provide care whether that’s in our own homes or in residential care and I really hope that the Government will recognise that in their green paper. Sadly, in the meantime, this Government continues to starve councils of the cash they need to provide decent social care let alone to cope with the growth in demand.
The measure of a good society is how well we treat our older people and others who need social care. At present we are letting too many of them down for lack of cash and no vision or coherent plan for the future.
Today many of you will be going to the polls to vote for the local councillors who will run your local services. Having served as a Labour councillor for six years in Gateshead, I know how hugely rewarding and hugely frustrating the job can be. Rewarding because you can speak up on behalf of your local community and its needs. But frustrating because this Tory Government and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition before it has made cut after cut after cut to local government funding.
I’ve already mentioned social care, but we’ve also seen cuts in funding for road repairs, our local environment, parks, housing, trading standards, environmental health and the rest and you and I can see the impact of those cuts in our communities. I hope you’ll use your vote to make the best that we can of our local communities.
Passports have been on my mind a good deal these last few weeks. A passport is more than just a security document that allows us to travel from one country to the next. It is a symbol of our national identity and a source of pride for many citizens. I’m no little Englander, in fact, I absolutely love France, but still I am appalled at the news that our UK passports are to be produced by a foreign company that is part-owned by the French Government. This is nothing to do with nationalism or protectionism, or whether it’s blue or burgundy – the real issues surrounding the passport debacle are much more serious than the colour of its bindings.
De La Rue, the current producer of UK passports, employs a workforce of over 600 on the Team Valley Trading Estate in my constituency. Two hundred work on passport production and another 400 on currency production. These are high quality jobs and well paid – just the type of jobs we need more of here in the north east. When I visit the plant I’m always struck by the dedication of the highly-skilled workforce and the relentless security measures and clearances required to enter the site.
So, the workers were right to be shocked, when they heard on the news that the UK Government’s preferred bidder was, in fact, a French-owned company. The workforce are dedicated to passport production and they deliver ahead of their targets month on month. They are available to work at the drop of a hat, day or night, to meet demand. In fact, they are so committed that they regularly deliver a profit return to the Home Office through their gain-share agreement. I was pretty shocked too.
The passport contract is – or should be – about more than cost. It’s a vital part of our border security and we need to be sure that we maintain the same level of assurance in the quality of our passport. That’s why I’ve been asking detailed questions of Government ministers about just how viable the new contract will be at a cost that is so much lower than the current cost.
A price rumoured to be £120m lower has to make you wonder just how that kind of saving can be made and the integrity of our passports maintained. That’s why I have been working with Unite the Union, who represent the workforce at De La Rue, and my Labour colleagues to ensure that the issue is not swept under the carpet. I intend to make sure the dust keeps getting raised.
The decision to award the work to an overseas company would be a disaster for our region. We often talk about the de-industrialising of our region and this is another example of a threat to skilled work disappearing from the north east. The Government love to talk about the Northern Powerhouse and have even awarded our region with the Great Exhibition of the North, in which we will celebrate our heritage and future as an innovative region. If the Government is serious about the Northern Powerhouse, they will ensure this decision is reviewed.
I was pleased that on Monday 26 March, the Speaker allowed me to ask an Urgent Question to the Minister in the House of Commons and later that week I asked Theresa May to provide reassurances to the House about the final decision on the bid at Prime Minister’s Questions before Easter. We all know that Prime Minister Theresa May loves a soundbite when it comes to Brexit. But what did she really mean when she announced we would have a “red, white and blue Brexit”? Was she referring to the French Tri-colour or the Union flag?
The Petitions Committee, on which I sit, considers debating any official e-petition that reaches 100,000 signatures. The Government will also provide a response. So, I urge you to sign the e-petition to keep the pressure on the Government to continue to manufacture the new blue passport in the UK, rather than abroad.
The petition can be found at: petitions.parliament.uk/petitions/208170. Let’s continue to campaign to keep our passport production here in Gateshead.