Parliament returned last week, so we’ve finally had the chance to focus on key domestic issues; issues neglected for too long, as Westminster and Whitehall have focussed their resources almost solely on Brexit in recent months.
The extension to the Brexit deadline (and the Government’s manifest inability to bring forward an alternative plan) has allowed us time to evaluate what our priorities are and where else our energy should be focussed. Of huge importance for people right across Blaydon constituency is that of Social Care funding.
Last week, during an Opposition Day Debate, the realities of social are funding were laid bare. My colleagues on the Labour front bench reminded us that despite the Prime Minister’s promise in 2016 to tackle the burning injustices in our society, and despite her assertions that austerity is over, Government cuts have resulted in social care budgets in England losing £7 billion. Local authorities’ spending power per household is also on course to fall by an average of 23 per cent by 2020, with greater cuts to councils in the North of England, where inequality is on the up.
In Gateshead, families will have lost up to £900 in council spending since 2010. The Council has seen a 52 per cent reduction in Government funding over nine years under the Tories and Liberal Democrats, leaving 2,400 less staff to do the work on the ground.
As ever, it is the most vulnerable who are forced to suffer. The callous Tory cuts to local government mean adult social care is under a greater strain than ever. As a result, vulnerable people –such as the elderly and those with disabilities– are being left to fend for themselves, without the support they deserve.
What adds insult to injury is the fact that the much-needed Green Paper for Adult Social Care has been delayed yet again. The beginning of April marked the fifth time the Health Secretary had missed the deadline for the Green Paper, which is needed to find solutions to the funding crisis. Notwithstanding the delays, it seems that no real progress is being made.
That’s why today’s local council elections are so vitally important. Labour Councillors in Gateshead have worked hard, in very difficult circumstances, to deliver for local people. In the face of more Tory cuts, Labour Councillors are fighting back on the front line in our local communities to ensure people are supported in these rotten times.
In addition to Council funding cuts, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue service has also seen a reduction of 147 firefighters and over 1,000 police jobs have been lost in the Northumbria, all due to austerity.
Compounded by welfare reforms that have stolen money out of the pockets of some of our most vulnerable people, child poverty is now increasing as mortality rates, which grew in recent decades have started to decline.
Last week we also had the chance to debate school funding, which has been kept firmly in the public eye by Gateshead’s campaigning head teachers.
71 out of 76 schools in Gateshead are facing real-terms reductions in funding. At the same time pupil numbers are rising – with the Government’s own statistics show that England’s schools have 137,000 more pupils in the system. With increasing numbers of pupils and decreasing funding in real terms, schools have had to make cuts in staffing as well as in all budget areas, as they look for greater efficiencies.
Headteachers in my constituency tell me that, as funding has become tighter, schools have had to cut back on essential resources – including many support staff who work with vulnerable pupils.
In recent weeks I have heard from a number of headteachers who have had to announce redundancies and stop teaching enjoyable subjects, like music. In one school alone vulnerable pupils losing their classroom support for 23 sessions per week. That is the real impact of real-terms budget reductions for local schools. If austerity was over, as the Government claim, this would not be happening.
But austerity is far from over. It is a political choice, and with the Tories in office, but struggling to retain power, the funding crisis for public service will only become more severe. That’s why today’s vote matters so much.
While Westminster is gridlocked, life goes on in our local communities, where concerns over public services, crime, climate change, housing, health and business are growing. Sick to the back teeth of the B word, they feel increasingly alienated from our politics.
So, on Monday evening I was glad to raise the concerns of residents about Blaydon Landfill in the House of Commons. My constituency, Blaydon, has had more than its fair share of landfill sites, with two quarries currently situated on either side of the main road from the town of Blaydon itself, blighting the lives of local residents. Concerns over the operation of these sites are widely and deeply felt.
In 2016 there was a major incident at Path Head Quarry, when a heavy, sulphurous smell hung over large parts of Ryton for months, causing intense concern about the impact on health and seriously affecting residents’ ability to enjoy a normal life.
Thankfully, that site is now closed and being restored, but it has left an enduring concern about the effect that this type of waste management has on communities like Stargate and Crookhill, which are within just a few hundred yards of the site and had to endure odours and other problems throughout its life.
But the neighbouring Blaydon Quarry continues to cause misery for residents who are affected by the smell, disruption to their lives and what can be best described as environmental vandalism.
In early 2015, during a period of high winds a huge mass of litter escaped from the site and was sprayed around the area, landing in fields, hedges and trees. Our usually green and pleasant area was now festooned with rubbish. It was disgusting, difficult to clear and today you can still see the tatter of plastic bags in trees and bushes. It caused a huge outcry, with residents protesting, rightly angry at the operator’s failure to secure the litter on site.
This was environmental vandalism of the highest order, but, astonishingly, after consideration by the Environment Agency legal team, we were told that it was not possible to prosecute this breach even though the scale of the devastation was clear to local residents.
And two months ago, as on so many previous occasions, many residents contacted me about a bad smell in the air – calling it an odour is far too polite. In fact, they didn’t need to contact me, as I could most definitely smell it myself when I was at home. The smell was persistent and very unpleasant.
I raised the issue with the Environment Agency team and Gateshead Council, who were responsive as always. Enforcement action was taken and the site was stopped from receiving waste for a period of up to two weeks while the operators fixed the problem of the smells from uncovered waste. The required action was taken by the operators and this particular episode was concluded, but the tip re-opened and problems are likely to resurface.
It has become clear that the Environment Agency just doesn’t have sharp enough teeth to be able to deal with irresponsible operators. So, on Monday night I asked the Government Minister to strengthen the law covering landfill and waste sites to ensure that where there are recurring problems communities don’t have to continue to endure the problems arising from landfill sites. We need much stronger powers for the Environment Agency to act to really protect our environment and to deal with landfill operators that fail to meet their duties as good neighbours.
I also called on the Government to take practical steps to strengthen environmental legislation, to reduce the use of landfill. It’s time to move on from this approach and Councils like Gateshead are leading the way through their Waste Partnership with other local authorities, by converting waste into energy that can be sold to fund public services.
In the meantime, I will continue to work with my constituents, Gateshead Council and the Environment Agency to see that Blaydon Quarry is closed safely and restored as a public space, bringing an end to the misery which my constituents have had to endure.
On Monday I led a debate on behalf of Mr Andrew Ramanandi, the Head Teacher of St Joseph’s Primary School in Blaydon and over 104,000 teachers, support staff, heads, parents and governors from around the country who signed a petition calling for fair funding for schools. Their imaginative campaign, supported by every Headteacher in Gateshead, captured the attention of the public and forced a debate in Parliament.
Their campaign started with a letter. A letter co-signed by Head Teachers of Primary, Secondary and SEND schools in Gateshead, who became increasingly alarmed by the impact that a real-terms reduction in school funding is having on the children and young people in their care. The letter was sent to parents before Christmas informing them that schools may no longer be able to provide the same level of service asked them for their support in raising their concerns with Government.
School leaders acknowledge that more money has been allocated to education this year. But statistics from the School Cuts campaign show that 91 per cent of schools across England are still experiencing real terms cuts in funding per-pupil since 2015. The paltry increase in overall funding does not deal with rising costs and increasing pupil numbers; over 137,000 more pupils in schools England, according to the Government – that add pressure to school budgets. The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies says schools have suffered an 8 per cent real-terms reduction in funding per pupil.
So, with increasing numbers of pupils and costs, schools have had to make cuts, resulting in 5400 fewer teachers, 2800 fewer teaching assistants, 1400 fewer support staff and 1200 fewer auxiliary staff across England.
In Gateshead, schools have also suffered real terms cuts since 2015 with an average £45,000 shortfall in primary school budgets and £185,000 in secondary schools.
Head Teachers tell me that as funding has become tighter, schools have had to cut back on essential resources: teaching and non-teaching staff, support staff who work with vulnerable pupils, small group work and interventions with children who aren’t thriving, teaching resources, subject choices, classroom and extra-curricular activities, repairs for buildings, including asbestos management and renewal of equipment.
Last Friday, I visited Portobello Primary School in Birtley where the Headteacher and Governors of this great school talked to me about their concerns. In the last year they have lost four members of staff to redundancy – all experienced teachers and Teaching Assistants and a dedicated school counsellor.
These budget reductions have made it harder to deliver key interventions with pupils and made it difficult to provide the personal and emotional support for vulnerable pupils. The school has lost decades worth of experience and curriculum knowledge and they are finding it harder to take children on educational visits and purchase up-to-date teaching resources and equipment.
Staff are taking on extra duties and the local community are fund raising. I applaud the commitment of the staff of Portobello, who are doing everything they can for the children in their care. Most Headteachers in my constituency would tell a similar story.
Steve Haigh, Head of Whickham School, told me that he too faces impossible choices, balancing job losses and cutting the support for vulnerable young people. He told me; “Hard won gains are at risk, effort and sacrifice over the last decade may be thrown away if schools are not adequately funded. I stand proud with my community for our successes and I feel every cut I have to make, well concealed, painfully made, shamefully felt.”
Dozens of MPs from across all parties spoke in the debate, sharing their own local stories with one common theme – there just isn’t enough money going into schools. But despite our best efforts, the Government’s response was shameful, failing to acknowledge what Heads are telling us. I was especially angry for the Heads and support staff who travelled down to listen to the debate. Their concerns were discounted and evidence rejected.
Our school staff simply want to go about their jobs; delivering high standards of education, preparing our children and young people for life and ensuring that they have the best possible start. We can’t afford not to fund our schools properly. The campaign continues.
This week is Children’s Mental Health Week and as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide and Self-Harm, meetings and campaigns around mental health play a large part in my Parliamentary diary.
I recently met with Action for Children at the launch of “Build Sound Minds” – a new campaign to help parents to create a positive space to talk about mental health and well-being with their children.
Giving parents the tools for holding conversations about mental health can make a big difference, so that talking over issues of loneliness, low self-esteem, stress and anxiety become a normal part of every day life.
A self-assessment tool produced by Action for Children showed that a third of 15 to 18-year-olds were found to have worries about their mental health. I know that our local services here are struggling to cope with increasing demand, as young people face more pressures at school and at home.
Action for Children are also pioneering early help interventions for teenagers coping with depression. Their “Blues” Programme is the first of its kind, which aims to reduce the early signs of low mood and negative thoughts in adolescents.
Their evidence shows the impact that this early intervention can have, and I am pleased to hear of similar intervention work in Whickham School, in my constituency, who have embedded mental health workers to support pupils who need to talk.
A fortnight ago I also hosted an event with Samaritans and other MPs to reach out to anyone who might be lonely over a cup of tea. We turned ‘Blue Monday’ – often described in the media as ‘the most difficult day of the year’ – on its head by renaming it ‘Brew Monday’.
Brew Monday is about asking people to do something simple and practical to help others: take time for a cuppa and a chat with anyone who may be going through a tough time. I’m delighted to support Samaritans in this initiative.
I am always pleased to support our many different charities and health services who provide vital support to people dealing with mental health issues. The government says it is working towards parity between mental health and physical health and its about time they put their money where their mouth is.
With one in four of my constituents working in the retail sector, my constituency, Blaydon, is reliant on our high street, the MetroCentre and the Team Valley retail park.
These are difficult times for retail and before Christmas we received notice that Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct intended to pull their House of Fraser store out of the MetroCentre, causing real uncertainty for employees.
As a member of the Communities, Housing and Local Government Select Committee I was able to ask Mike Ashley about the decision, when he attended a session to give evidence of the challenges in retail. I am pleased to report that House of Fraser and the other Sports Direct-owned stores in the MetroCentre are now set to stay.
Micropubs are popping up in many of our local centres. Last week I was pleased to visit the lively One Eyed Stag in Whickham. Across my constituency we have a number of other new micropubs including Awa The Road in Swalwell, The Red House in Chopwell, Wig’s Place in High Spen and The Lane Head in Ryton. Its great to see many of these smaller venues selling locally brewed real ales.
Speaking of pubs, a year ago I joined local residents to start a campaign to save our local pub, Ye Olde Cross, in Ryton. The pub, in the heart of Ryton old village has a long tradition of being at the heart of local events such as the Carols and the “Ryton Hirings” fair.
A year on more than 300 of us have clubbed together to purchase community shares in the pub and we are now raising money to refurbish, re-open and re-establish it.
So, to everyone who is taking part in the Save Our Ye Olde Cross campaign, lets raise a glass and say cheers!
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.