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.
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?
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.