Challenging events often reveal the very best in people. I would like to pay tribute to all those local heroes who have been clearing roads and digging out stranded cars, visiting older neighbours and delivering groceries to the housebound. Volunteers, good neighbours and public servants in our local councils, NHS and police have kept out communities going this week in the heavy snow. The Beast from the East is no match for the community spirit of the North East.
We’re known around the country as the friendly region of England and the Geordie welcome and sense of humour are unparalleled. But our region is also internationally recognised for our innovation, imagination and creativity. We have a long history of leading technological change. The North East makes claim to such inventions as Joseph Swan’s lightbulb, Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, Walker’s friction matches and in more recent times Sir Jonathan Ive, the visionary behind the iPod, who trained as a designer at Northumbria University. We’re also home to so many award-winning artists, writers and musicians.
So, I’m delighted that this week, as we look ahead to warmer days, more has been revealed about the Great Exhibition of the North. For the first time ever, a great exhibition will bring the world to the North East and it is set to be the biggest event in England this year. The three-month celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit – our inventors, artists and designers – will demonstrate how our region has shaped the world and is building the economy of the future.
Over 80 days Gateshead and Newcastle will become the national showcase for dozens of amazing exhibits, live musical performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and magical experiences – and it will be free. Tourists can follow three walking trails around Tyneside towards The Baltic, Sage Gateshead and the Great North Museum. The BBC have also partnered up, so expect to see plenty of coverage of our beautiful region on the telly. This year will truly be one to remember as people “#GETNorth” for the celebrations.
On to another big beast from the North East – Red Ellen Wilkinson. Last week I was delighted to attend a talk about the pioneering Jarrow MP at the Brewery Tap in Dunston, the home of “Red Ellen” ale. In this centenary year, when we celebrate womens’ suffrage, there is much we can learn from Ellen Wilkinson.
As a Jarrow marcher, trade union organiser and later the Education Minister in the post-war Atlee government, she was instrumental in the fight for jobs, reducing working hours for hard-pressed industrial workers, increasing the school leavers age, introducing school milk and she was scorned by the Nazis for her opposition to their brutality. My good friend from North West Durham, Laura Pidcock MP joined me as we both shared our own experiences as women in Parliament and lessons we can learn from the fierce Labour MP known as “The Fiery Particle”.
We are celebrating another anniversary this year. Our angel has turned twenty. I am so proud that the Angel of the North keeps watch over my constituency. Many of you will have seen the interview with Sid Henderson, the former Gateshead Councillor who led the way, against much criticism, to build the angel in 1998. Sid reminded us of the challenge that Gateshead’s Labour councillors faced in convincing the public that the angel would bring tourism and prosperity and put the region on the world map.
Just along the road in Birtley is another great home of art. I visited the Thought Foundation earlier this month and was deeply impressed by this hidden gem. The arts centre and cafe is based on the values of human kindness and thoughtfulness. Their exhibitions exploring issues around Brexit and the environment are quite spectacular. With so much media attention on the plastic waste contaminating our oceans, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to see their installation highlighting the issue using thousands of disused plastic cups. There’s plenty to see, do and think about in this family friendly space.
I’ve been doing a lot of hospital visiting the last few months as my Mum has had a few health problems. I never cease to be amazed at the dedication of the staff who have supported my mum; the GPs who found the time to visit her at home; the ambulance staff who took her in to hospital; the porters, nurses and other healthcare staff who looked after her on the ward and the occupational therapists who helped her to return home. Thank goodness that we have healthcare that’s free at the point of delivery, when we need it.
The NHS was founded in 1948 by the Nye Bevan, the visionary Health Secretary in the post-war Labour Government. We are hugely proud of our creation, but it has taken a battering recently as it faces chronic underfunding, huge winter pressures and growing waiting lists which this Government has failed to tackle.
Here in the North East we have some excellent hospitals coping under very difficult conditions, though nationally the system is creaking. It’s a sad contradiction that we have such good hospitals and committed staff and yet we face real challenges in addressing the chronic health inequalities in many of our communities.
Yesterday, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth set out Labour’s plan for the NHS as it approaches its 70th birthday, referencing Nye Bevan’s vision that “the service must always be changing, growing and improving”.
Labour’s plan recognises that the very nature of ill-health is fundamentally changing and so our approach to the NHS must change too. For too long we’ve viewed the health service as a sickness service focused on relieving the suffering of infectious disease. Instead we need to focus our attention on supporting people to live with chronic conditions such as diabetes or arthritis that, for many, have become a permanent feature of life. And of course the long term aim must be to prevent people developing these conditions where we can.
A Labour Government would fund innovation to help improve services that support people to take more responsibility for living a healthy lifestyle and taking more control over their own health conditions.
Obesity is twice as common amongst children living in the most deprived areas, as compared to children in wealthy areas. Since 2010 the life expectancy of our population has started to widen again, after years of closing the gap between the poorest areas and the average in England.
Gateshead’s Director of Public Health, Alice Wiseman has recently published her Annual Report, which this year focuses on tackling inequalities in the health of local residents. She reported that, currently, healthy life expectancy in Gateshead is only 57 for men and 59 for women. Compared with the national average for England, that’s 6 years less of healthy life for men, 5 for women. Part of the solution is reversing the cuts to Public Health and the Labour Party is committed to doing just that.
At the last general election we pledged an additional £45 billion across a Parliament for health and social care, in recognition of the underfunding and staffing crisis facing the NHS and social care sector. Health cuts never heal and over the past seven years the tories have shown us that they can’t be trusted with our health service.In the meantime, I’ll be doing everything in my power to get a better deal on health for my constituents.
Later today the House of Commons will debate the abolition of car parking charges in hospitals – you may have read about this in yesterday’s paper – and I’ve had many constituents get in touch about this. It’s always struck me that finding a parking space and then finding the right money and a parking machine to pay for it can only add to the stress of people attending hospital appointments or visiting family and friends there, especially when some of the charges are hefty.
I’ll be supporting this bill but that won’t take away from the problems of finding a parking space: what we need is reliable public transport so that we don’t need to take the car in future.
Column – January 2018
So here we are in another New Year – 2018 already. I hope you had a good break over Christmas and the New Year. On Monday I’ll be returning to Westminster, but this week is a good chance for me to catch up on local issues and get a feel for what’s important to my constituents here locally as well as nationally, and to have a look forward to the coming year.
Labour has a positive message for the coming year. Jeremy’s new year message set out again our vision of a Britain offering opportunities for all, one where a Labour Government would implement the policies which so many people here in the north east welcomed in our election manifesto and which work for the many, not the few. Key to that message will be our concern for the NHS. Coming in the week that NHS chiefs announced that most pre-planned operations will be put on hold until the end of January, I think all of us would welcome the increased investment which Labour has promised for the NHS and Labour’s commitment to keeping the NHS public.
We have some excellent NHS services here in the north east and I know that, as we look forward to celebrating the 70th birthday of the NHS this year, my constituents are determined that our hospitals and other NHS services are delivered for the public good and not for private profit. We’ll be making sure that the Tories aren’t allowed to slip through massive changes to the NHS while Brexit dominates the agenda.
Tuesday of this week saw Shadow Rail Minister Rachel Maskell in Newcastle highlighting the Government’s shockingly poor rail policies for the north, services which sell our region short but which would unbelievably let Virgin East Coast off the hook of paying the payments they promised for running the franchise under the cloak of a reorganisation of rail services. All this at the same time we see passengers paying the price through a 3.4% hike in rail fares. We have experience up here of how a rail service can run successfully and make a profit under public ownership – which is exactly what East Coast mainline did! No wonder there’s a lot of support from my constituents for our policy of having directly run, modern and efficient train services.
So back in Westminster we’ll be challenging this shambolic Tory Government on their plans for the NHS, transport, funding for local government, and fire and rescue services; we know these and other issues are what make a difference to folk here in the North East.
Last month I had the chance to meet representatives of organ donor groups and NHS Blood and Transport to hear about how many more lives could be saved if more of us became organ donors. I was shocked to hear how many people are waiting for organ donation, many of them dying needlessly for lack of donors. Just before the Christmas break and following all-party support, the Government launched a consultation exercise on increasing the number of donors and asking whether we should look at an “opt out” donation system as they have in Wales.
Whatever your views on donation, please take part in the consultation and most of all, have the discussion about your own wishes with your family and friends. My friend Jon was fortunate to find a donor and have a successful heart transplant at our own Freeman Heart and Lung transplant unit and it has made an incredible difference to his life.
You can find the consultation online at https://engage.dh.gov.uk/organdonation.