Liz writes March 2019

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.

Liz writes February 2019

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!

The year ahead in British politics

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 .

A response to the 2018 Budget

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.

Liz writes July 2018

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.

Liz’s column, June 2018

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.