I’m back in Wesminster, but contrary to the Government’s rhetoric that MPs are finally “back to work” in Westminster, I have been as busy as ever during the lockdown. My team and I have been working through a huge volume of casework, writing letters to government ministers on behalf of local business owners and working with Gateshead Council, our wider public services and community groups, to make sure they have the resources they need.
My diary has also been packed out with visits, some “in person” while socially distancing, and some virtual, to a whole range of community groups, whose efforts have been nothing short of heroic over the last three months. Amid the tragedy and hardship my spirits have been lifted time by the acts of kindness, creativity and hard work of thousands of volunteers.
I was pleased to talk to Hannah Katherine of Chopwell & Rowlands Gill Live at Home Scheme, whose telephone befriending services provide real support and good company to residents who are shielding. Their socially-distanced care service and group activities have kept spirits up and on VE Day they delivered 175 “Hope & Glory” treat boxes and led local residents in a traditional wartime sing-along.
I visited Ryton Health Hub too, whose volunteers have cooked over 300 hot for vulnerable people each week during the crisis. During May, the sunniest month on record, they took the opportunity to teach our local children gardening, with free sunflower seeds, environmentally friendly compost and pots for school children for a special home learning project.
Age UK Gateshead have harnessed the support of over 2,000 volunteers to provide a life-line for our older folk. They’re delivering hot meals, picking up shopping, doing DIY, dog-walking and lawn-mowing for those who need a helping hand, plus essential dementia and respite support.
Gateshead Foodbank are busier than ever. They delivered 17 tonnes of food to local people in April alone. This compares to around 7 tonnes in a “normal” month, and in doing so they helped to feed 1,200 people, more than double the number in an average month.
For the last eight weeks their warehouse, run by volunteers, has been open Monday to Friday, with volunteers packing emergency food parcels for Gateshead Council’s local food hubs.
I visited the food bank in person and it was an inspiring trip, which served as a reminder that there are people right now in our communities struggling and in need of our help. If you are able to, please donate to keep Gateshead Foodbank going, to ensure local families have the food and essential items they need
Pickle Palace, based at Greenside Cricket Club, has also delivered over 1,000 food parcels to those in need, and they don’t stop there. This much-loved social enterprise has been rescuing food donated from local supermarkets to feed the community.
While there I met Chopwell-based Digital Voice, who are really rising to the challenge of continuing their purpose of educating and empowering people, even throughout the current pandemic.
Winlaton Centre volunteers are up at the crack of dawn to provide hundreds of food parcels and hot meals to the most vulnerable. The centre currently has no income and they’re running on a shoestring, using their reserves and public donations to fund the work.
Donations from FareShare North East pay for the van and help to fund free meals, food parcels, stopping food from going to waste, filling the holiday hunger gap and other activities.
Chopwell, Winlaton and Birtley shielding hubs continue to provide support across Blaydon constituency. From providing food, to signposting for advice, they’re doing so much to tackle these issues and support people.
At Birtley Hub I met council staff and volunteers, supporting local people with food and advice and was delighted to join the Skills4Work group who have moved their activities online.
There’s plenty of work going on and our community groups will be increasingly vital, as the economic shock will inevitably lead to further job losses and business closures.
So in volunteers week, I’d like to say a huge “Thank you” to all the brilliant volunteers keeping our communities going – you’re brilliant!
Kids say the wisest things. My young constituents, Zoe, Shevanewe, Jack and Alfie, proved this to be true on my recent Zoom call with children across Blaydon constituency.
“When will schools re-open?” “How is the government keeping vulnerable people safe?” “Why are some housing estates better looked after than others?” were just some of their thoughtful questions at my Kids Question Time event. We explored these questions, with plenty of follow-ups coming from our discussions and I am grateful for their ideas for tackling the challenges we all face at the moment.
Visiting schools is something that I’ve really missed during the lockdown, so it was uplifting to spend time talking to them and more importantly, listening to their real concerns about themselves and their families, but also the wider community, as we face “lockdown” together.
Many children will be feeling deeply unsettled right now, seeing less of their parents if they are a key worker and less of their friends. Most won’t be spending as much time outside and, of course, some won’t have access to a garden to play and relax.
And with school closures and limited access to social workers, sports and youth clubs, many of our young people just aren’t being heard by adults and decision-makers, so I have scheduled in further online Q&A sessions, to give our children a platform to share their stories and ideas for coping with these difficult circumstances.
National charities such Barnado’s and the North East Child Poverty Commission have highlighted significant vulnerabilities for children in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, and are urging MPs to take action to support them in their constituencies.
We must do more to support our at-risk children through the crisis, including those from families with a history of abuse. They may now be isolated from their usual support systems, so it’s our duty to speak up for these children and highlight these issues. So, I’ll be feeding the ideas of our children and young people into the Government, now that Parliament has resumed.
The PPE crisis continues, and despite platitudes from government ministers, the reality is that many of our key workers are still without the basic supplies they need. So I’m delighted by the work of Frontline Friends, a local volunteer group of twenty or so women who are sewing scrubs for NHS and care work staff. The army of volunteers has raised over £1600 so far to pay for materials, and they are now in the process of making around 100 sets of scrubs to go to our local services.
With the Queen on the telly, a national effort to manufacture equipment, talk of our heroes and some of our usual rights and freedoms temporarily withdrawn, there has been much talk of the war-time spirit carrying us through the Coronavirus pandemic. I think we need more than spirit, great though that is : we need a clear strategy and set of actions to protect us in this next phase.
Many great plans were put in place to mark 75 years of freedom tomorrow, on VE Day. I’m disappointed not to be able to spend the day with some of our senior citizens as planned, to hear their stories, but VE Day organisers are still asking the nation to take part.
The recorded speech by then Prime Minister Churchill on 8 May 1945 will be broadcast by the BBC into our homes at 3pm tomorrow and we’re asked to stand at 3pm within the safety of our living rooms, gardens, front doors or balconies and undertake the nation’s toast to the Heroes of World War Two, using the following words, “to those who gave so much, we thank you,”.
VE Day offers a unique opportunity to pay tribute to the many millions that gave so much, at home and abroad, to ensure we can all enjoy the freedom we share today.
I invite you to join me, from your own homes, in paying tribute to those who fell 75 years ago and those who endured and survived. And of course, to pay tribute to the millions of frontline workers defending our lives today. We will remember you.
Yesterday I spoke in the House of Commons on an issue vital to to our region – health inequalities.
Ten years on from the publication of his ground-breaking report, Professor Michael Marmot’s 2020 review of the state of public health in England provides a grim picture of health inequalities both between regions and across the North East.
Marmot’s report, published last week, measures the state of public health against the widely accepted principle that “good health is an indication that a society is thriving and that economic and social and cultural features of a society are working in the best interests of the population.”
The principle is straight forward; if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has also stopped improving; and where a society flourishes, so health tends to flourish.
What follows in Marmot’s report, however, is evidence that health inequalities are growing across the country, and here in the North East we’re seeing the trends heading in the wrong direction. Put simply, after a decade of austerity that has disproportionately hurt the North East, we’re not flourishing, we’re failing.
Johnson’s talk of “levelling-up” the regions by the government sounds attractive, but unless talk becomes action, his words will remain meaningless.
It is quite shocking that on this Government’s watch life expectancy has stalled for first time since the turn of the twentieth century and there is particular concern that it is, in fact, decreasing for the most deprived women.
There are also marked regional differences in life expectancy, with the North East seeing the greatest decline compared to other regions. The gap in life expectancy between the most deprived and least deprived areas in Gateshead increased between 2010 and 2018. For both men and women, the largest decreases in life expectancy were seen in the most deprived 10 percent of communities in the North East and the largest increases in the least deprived 10 percent of London communities.
There has been no sign of a decrease in mortality for people under 50. In fact, mortality rates have increased for people aged 45-49. And “healthy” life expectancy is worsening, so we’re now seeing those in the most deprived communities living more of their shorter life in ill-health. Poor health not only harms individuals, families and communities, it also comes at great expensive to the public purse.
The health of a population isn’t only based on how well the NHS is funded and functions. Health is often determined by the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and access to power, money and resources. The impact of massive funding cuts to school budgets, the closure of over a thousand Sure Start centres, and cuts to Local Authorities that have seen central government funding decline by 77% over a decade, all have a negative effect on public health.
Marmot concludes that in order to reduce the gaps, policy makers must strive to give every child the best start in life and enable all children, young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives. The state must intervene to provide fair employment and good work for all and ensure a healthy standard of living for all. That means prioritising healthy and sustainable homes and communities.
For a decade now, the Tories have shown no real commitment to reducing health inequalities. I agree with Marmot, that the Government must take urgent action to level up health, by addressing the housing, educational, employment, childcare and environmental issues that all factor. That can only be achieved by working with our councils and other public services; providing them with the resources and powers to intervene where necessary.
The focus should be on investing early to lift the level of health in deprived areas in the North up to the level of good health enjoyed by people living in affluent areas in London and the South. Only then can Johnson truly claim to be “levelling up” the regions.
In January I chaired a breakfast roundtable organised by the Industry and Parliament Trust, bringing together industry representatives, third-sector organisations and parliamentarians to discuss the issue of suicide in the construction industry. The meeting had a profound impact on me.
As Chair of the All-Party Group on suicide and self-harm prevention, I am familiar with the number of lives lost to suicide and the statistics that show that middle-aged men are particularly at risk. However, even I was shocked to hear that two construction workers each day die by suicide and that twice as many die by suicide as those who die falling from heights.
A huge amount of work has been done on reducing the physical risks in the construction industry. I am glad that there are now moves by some employers and charities such as Mates in Mind to put the same focus on tackling mental health issues and preventing suicide in the construction workforce.
I fed those shocking shocking statistics into the Queen’s Speech debate on the area of Health and Social Care. Last year, the number of deaths by suicide in the UK rose significantly—an increase of more than 600 on the previous year. There were 6,507 deaths by suicide in 2018. The statistics show that middle-aged men remain the highest risk group, though rates among young people, too, are rising.
Suicide is a public health issue. It is startling to know, from work done by the University of Manchester in 2018, that two thirds of people who take their own lives are not in touch with mental health services in the year before they die. We need to find a way of reaching out to these people.
We know from work by the Samaritans and others, that low incomes, job insecurity, unemployment, housing problems and benefit sanctions are some of the key factors that lead to the desperation which many people feel.
Most councils have developed suicide prevention plans, but the Government must do more to make sure that those that do not, develop them as a matter of urgency, and that those that do, put them into real action. I have to say that cuts to public health funding by the Government is making life much harder for those local authorities that are translating their plans into actions.
Some £57 million has been made available for suicide prevention, but local NHS services need to make sure that the gaps in services, which too many people can fall through, are filled in. For example, there must be a way for people who are considered “too suicidal” for talking therapies to be able to access secondary mental healthcare swiftly, and more non-clinical services need to be available, too.
We need to keep campaigning for improved mental health provision in our region, but many of us can do more to prioritise our own self-care, to make sure we are looking out for ourselves, our friends and family.
Blue Monday is known to many of us as the day in January which has been identified as one of the toughest days of the year for a lot of people. This year it landed on Monday 20 January. With many of us still strapped for cash after Christmas, the cold weather and dark mornings and evenings can impact on our well-being.
The Samaritans “Brew Monday” campaign is a positive response that encourages people to make time to get together with friends and family, pop the kettle on and have a chat over a cup of tea. It makes the simple point that we need to avoid isolation and keep talking about how we are getting on, seek support when we need It and offer it to others in their time of need.
So, I was pleased to join volunteers once again at Newcastle Central Station, to raise awareness and offer a listening ear to commuters on their way to work. And this week I hosted Parliament’s own “Brew Monday” to highlight the issues with MPs from across the House. I’m glad to say it was very well attended – let’s hope it helps get the message out.
“People before privilege” was the theme of last week’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton.
We announced bold new policies including putting the final say on Brexit back to the people, rolling out a new national living wage that extends to young people aged 16 plus, and a radical green new deal for Britain, so we can lead the way in tackling climate change.
Our annual conference is a bit like a big family get together. We come together once a year to celebrate everything we share in common, we argue passionately for our deeply held beliefs and rows do, at times, break out.
Of all the parties, Labour’s conference has always been the most dramatic, but that drama flows from democratic debate as we thrash out ideas of how we can take our country forward in the years ahead. We are, after all, a “broach church”, with over half a million members from all walks of life.
One of the areas our whole family agrees on is the urgent need for a social care service fit for 2019 and beyond. The Government’s complete failure to publish their white paper on social care, promised over the last three years, demonstrates that they are not up to the job of delivery.
While the Tories are set to cut taxes for the wealthiest in society, Labour announced last week that our next government will create a National Care Service, with record investment in free personal care to support older people to live independently with dignity and security. We will ensure more people can access help with daily tasks such as getting in and out of bed, bathing and washing, and preparing meals in their own homes and residential care.
With nearly £8 billion taken from council budgets for social care since 2010, we now have one million people not getting the care they need. 87 people die each day waiting for care and more than five million unpaid carers are looking after family and friends.
So, we’ll address the funding gap in social care and support local authorities to directly provide, rather than outsource adult social care. That means more accountability and a better use of public money, rather than the private sector model that has failed to provide decent care for many of our vulnerable people in favour of profits for shareholders.
Currently, only people with low levels of savings receive publicly-funded personal care. People with dementia face the highest costs for care. Labour’s plans will more than double the number of people receiving state-funded care and reduce the number of people facing catastrophic costs for their care.
Free personal care will ensure people with dementia receive the same care as those with other conditions, reduce the burden on unpaid carers and benefit the NHS by reducing delayed transfers of care from hospital and admissions to care homes and hospitals.
As part of the National Care Service, We will raise standards of care by ending the use of zero-hour contracts, ensuring that carers are paid a real living wage, including for travel time; end 15-minute care visits; and improve access to training and development for care staff.
We will put an end to the culture of overworked, underpaid care workers who are only allowed ten minute visits to those they care for. The current system simply isn’t fit for purpose, and is sucking money out of the system and into offshore tax havens. It simply can’t go on.
Nothing is more important than dignity in retirement for those who have built our country and given younger generations the world we live in today. Tackling the crisis in social care is a priority for Labour.
Our plans for social care will address the immediate crisis in care, double the number of people receiving publicly-funded care, and stop people with dementia being treated unfairly by the care system. Our National Care Service will be universally available for all who need it.
Last week our Great Summer Get Together in Ryton was a fantastic moment, as our community came together to celebrate that we share more in common than that which divides us.
The annual event is inspired by the life of the young Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered three years ago. Jo’s maiden speech was themed around “more in common”, which saturated every part of her short but inspirational life.
I was delighted to be joined by two other inspirational women at the event; Angela Rayner, our Shadow Education Secretary, and Kim McGuinness, who is standing at the by-election for Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC).
Kim hopes to replace Dame Vera Baird, who has been appointed the Victims’ Commissioner. She leaves a lasting legacy from the past seven years, especially in improving Northumbria Police’s work with victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Since becoming PCC Vera Baird has devoted her time and energy to making sure that we have the best police force possible, despite the savage cuts to police budgets over the last decade which have seen 21,000 posts cut nationally.
Alongside Vera and other northern MPs I have been arguing the case with the government that the cuts have gone too far. Northumbria police alone have already suffered disproportionate budget cuts of over £140 million and lost over 1,000 officers and hundreds of support staff. The pressure on our Police is simply unsustainable.
So the challenge is great, but I am confident that while Vera is going to be a very hard act to follow, as a party we have the best possible candidate to lead us forward in Kim McGuinness.
Serving Newcastle City Council as a councillor since 2015, she knows the real issues on the ground. Her credentials as someone prepared to work hard for the community she represents, saw her elevated to a cabinet role a year after being elected to the authority. She now oversees culture, sport and public health on the council and is well furnished to be the region’s next PCC.
I have been particularly impressed by Kim’s determination to become what she terms the ‘people’s commissioner’; someone who is embedded in the communities she would represent and the voice of the people to the police.
Kim has pledged to ensure our force’s limited resources are put to the best possible use to cut crime and disorder on the ground in our communities and online. And focusing not just on crime, but on the causes of crime – situations of inequality and injustice- is the right agenda for the future.
Kim’s plans to work with local people to understand what they want from their local police force are vital, and I know how strongly my own constituents feel about protecting frontline community policing.
Our joint visit to the Co-op in Ryton to discuss retail crime confirms that local businesses also want to see a continuing presence on our streets, to deter would-be criminals.
We’re fortunate to have so many dedicated community cops locally, but they are overstretched and often unable to do the essential work of preventing crime that they signed up to do.
Looking north of the border there are good examples of how Scotland is cutting crime and disorder across the country by working closely with agencies like health, education and social workers to uncover what drives people into criminal activities in the first place, as well as acknowledging and appreciating the fall-out among people who become victims of crime.
Kims background in public health places her well to develop more of a preventative approach here, focused on tackling the inequalities that lead to crime. The approach that has delivered big reductions in cities like Glasgow and London, as well as Chicago in the United States can work here too.
On Thursday 18 July you have the chance to elect someone determined to really make a difference in ensuring all our communities are safer places to live and work. We need a strong champion for the Northumbria area and I hope you join me in voting for Kim.