Accusations of chaos and incompetence continue to dog the Government as they stumble from failure to failure in dealing with the Coronavirus.
Keir Starmer was clear on day one of his leadership of the Labour Party back in April that he would support the Government where they are getting it right, but challenge them and hold them to account where they get it wrong.
At a time of pandemic, thats the very least the British public would expect from Her Majesty’s Opposition; to work constructively and present alternative approaches, in the national interest.
When Keir Starmer called for a circuit breaker three weeks ago, he was proposing a short and effective intervention to drastically cut the number of contacts between households as the “R-rate” rose. With the first week aligned with the school half term, Labour’s proposals, backed up by many in the scientific community, would maximise effectiveness while minimising disruption to children’s education.
So, it was bitterly disappointing to see the Prime Minister’s response to our suggestion, and our offer of cross-party working, as opportunism. Fast-forward to last weekend, another televised address from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister performing another of his well-practiced u-turns, following a leak believed to be from within his own Cabinet to the press.
But the decision to block a circuit-breaker was shared by the man next door living in Number 11. Along with Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak’s stubborn refusal to address problems of his own making until the last possible minute is risking lives, costing jobs and causing chaos.
Only days earlier, the Government said workers under regional restrictions would only receive two thirds of their pre-crisis income because 80% was impossible – the country could not afford to subsidise Northern workers forced to stay at home. But, as soon as restrictions were introduced in London and the South East of England, everything changed!
Over a million people have lost their jobs since the crisis began, and many more are expected, yet the Government still hasn’t acted to fix Britain’s broken safety net to help them. The Chancellor, held in high esteem by many people for his interventions early on in the crisis, is now well and truly stuck in a cycle of denial, dither and delay.
There were huge holes in the Government’s support packages in the first lockdown, especially for many self-employed people. But there is still no new support for those excluded from support since this crisis started.
The safety net is at risk of becoming thread-bare. Yesterday I learned from the mental health charity Mind, that anyone who does not attend or participate in a telephone assessment for Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit will risk having their benefits reduced or cut off altogether. This would affect thousands of disabled people including many with mental health problems.
When telephone assessments were first introduced in March, the DWP put in a safeguard so that no disabled people would see their benefits stopped if they missed a telephone assessment or were unable to take part due to Coronavirus. But we now know this safeguard for some of our most vulnerable has been rescinded by the Government.
The burden will now be on disabled people to prove they have a good reason for missing an appointment. If the DWP does not accept their proof, they risk seeing their benefits stopped.
Research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has found that over half of people with mental health problems find engaging over the phone difficult or impossible. The same proportion say they need support from others in order to engage with benefits agencies over the phone. This change brings with it the real risk that people with mental health problems will see their benefits cut-off during a winter lockdown.
Here in the North East we were asked to make big sacrifices to get the virus under control under Teir-2, and we saw some early signs of progress. But as we move into a new national lockdown the Government must play their part to protect jobs and guarantee that no-one will be at risk of losing their benefits this winter.
Over 16 million people – around one in four – are now living under local restrictions, but infection rates are still going up and there is widespread confusion about the rules amongst the population, most of whom want to do the right thing to protect themselves and others around them.
Viewers of Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday were left gobsmacked, following Boris Johnson’s ludicrous assertion that everyone in this country understands the new Covid-19 rules and restrictions, put in place in recent days. He couldn’t be further from the truth.
Only the day before, the PM himself was forced to apologise for providing the wrong information on new North East measures put in place this week. And a few hours before that, the Government Minister put up for the morning news round admitted that she too wasn’t across the detail, and even stated that despite her Ministerial position, she didn’t represent the people of the North East.
As an MP, my inbox has been packed with queries from constituents and employers who are rightly baffled by the knee-jerk announcements of rule changes from Government Ministers. Johnson’s own Conservative council leaders are outraged, complaining that the rules are too complicated. The Government’s lack of clear messaging has hampered efforts from the start, but it is becoming an increasingly serious issue as the cases once again mount up.
But it isn’t just the messaging that is problematic, it’s the way this Government implements its decisions that adds to the chaos. So, it was disappointing that the Government yet again failed to provide advanced warning of the new restrictions to local leaders, causing frustration to many local people and businesses, and leaving tens of thousands of workers in our region uncertain about their jobs.
The House of Commons Speaker has also been uncharacteristically critical of the Government, who are increasingly introducing new restrictive laws with little notice and minimal time for MPs to debate them in the Chamber. I fear the Speaker’s claim that the Government is in contempt of Parliament will fall on deaf ears with the Johnson/Cummings Downing Street rabble, who seem to hold everyone else in contempt.
Reducing economic support at the same time as introducing new restrictions adds to the toxic cocktail. The furlough scheme has ended, and businesses are trying their best to do the right thing. But Chancellor Rishi Sunak has made a political choice, deciding that jobs in sectors such as hospitality and events aren’t worth saving. In this region alone we’re talking about up to 80,000 further job losses before Christmas. Without further interventions from him, the fallout this winter could be catastrophic.
In our region, councils and Labour MPs are working together to ask for the right resources and enough funding to protect the economy and support local businesses that will be impacted by the restrictions. This will allow us to respond to the pandemic, whilst also protecting people’s livelihoods.
Our councils were right to demand increased protective measures. Coronavirus cases in my own borough of Gateshead continue to rise, and over the last two weeks we have seen an increase in the numbers of hospital admissions, with a rise too in the average age of those testing positive. Doing nothing simply isn’t an option. Our councils were also right to ask for the test and trace system to be under local control. The privatised model is clearly dysfunctional.
Local track and trace data shows that 80 per cent of Covid cases are due to households mixing in a range of settings, so we need to act now through restrictions to reduce the spread. The more we can reduce contact with people outside our households or support bubbles, the sooner we will bring the virus under control.
The one ray of sunshine in all of this was our recent victory on informal childcare. I raised the issue in the House, along with other Labour colleagues. Following pressure from MPs, parents and employers, I’m pleased the Government finally U-turned on its decision to stop grandparents, family members and friends providing childcare for workers. This served as just another example of a Government increasingly out of touch with its people.
Local lockdowns may now be part of the “new normal”, with Leicester becoming the first city to shut down. We know parts of Tyne and Wear have previously experienced high numbers of coronavirus cases, therefore it’s crucial we continue follow the guidelines as more businesses and public spaces begin to reopen.
The reopening – and potential short-term closures – of businesses and schools, alongside changes to social distancing and other public health measures, requires accurate, timely communication through local print, TV and radio.
Throughout the crisis, public service broadcasting has played a critical role for central government, public health departments, the NHS, schools and councils to get their messages out to the public. So, it is ludicrous that the BBC has postponed its regional political coverage, and is even considering the option of axing Politics North and Inside Out (North East and Cumbria).
Each Sunday, Politics North features interviews with local MPs, councillors and government ministers, alongside reports about the biggest political issues in the region. As politicians, we don’t always want to face bruising interviews, but it is what we signed up to, and it strengthens our democracy.
Inside Out’s award-winning investigative reporting has exposed vital issues like racism within car parking attendants, illegal waste dumping, numerous fraud operations, and chaotic gun control within the police. The North East must have a forum for issues like these to be discussed and for politicians to be held to account, outside of Westminster.
So, last month I joined Labour colleagues from across the North East in writing to the BBC to express our real disappointment at their short-sighted decision, and to remind them of the importance of the regional press. I also raised my constituents’ concerns in a House of Commons debate that showed cross-party support for regional reporting.
The BBC says local and regional broadcasting is in their DNA, so it makes no sense that, in their allocation of resources, they have chosen to cut an essential lifeline, especially to our older, housebound and shielding community members, in the middle of a pandemic. The campaign to protect regional reporting continues.
Next year marks 200 years since the pioneering printer, Thomas de la Rue, set up his first printing press in England. The company innovated and grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with a number of plants in operation across the country and the largest printer of currency in the world.
De La Rue plc grew to be a global brand, and their workers have been trusted by governments around the world and at home to print their cash and produce identity documents, including passports.
But the company now faces difficult times, following the government’s decision in 2018 to award the contract for producing UK passports to the French-Dutch firm Gemalto. That led to 200 job losses from their Team Valley site in my constituency, with the remaining 80 on the passport production line set to go this month.
To add to the pain, a further 170 jobs were lost in 2019 at the facility, as one of two banknote production lines closed. And last week, De La Rue announced its proposal to cease banknote production in Gateshead, which would see 255 jobs go and just 90 left at the site.
I don’t absolve De La Rue’s senior management at that time of getting the price wrong in their procurement tender – but my concern is for the staff who have worked so hard, and with great pride, to produce a secure, quality, passport for Great Britain. There is a direct line between the loss of that contract and the job losses at the site today.
So, in addition to the BBC debate, I was glad to secure an adjournment debate last week, calling on the government to intervene and protect the highly-skilled, well-paid jobs at De la Rue.
With hundreds of Debenhams staff at the MetroCentre also being made redundant and Intu going into administration, we are starting to see the scale of the challenge in our region. It’s time for Boris Johnson to put some meat on the bones of his “levelling-up” agenda, with decisive action to protect North East jobs.
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.