Liz’s column, 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.

Liz’s column, May 2018

They say a week is a long time in politics. In my experience, that it certainly the case, so last month’s column seems an age ago.

Sadly, since I last wrote, we’ve seen De La Rue, based on the Team Valley, make the decision not to pursue an appeal against the awarding of the new, blue passport contract to French- Dutch firm Gemalto.

There are still questions to be answered about how we ended up here; from the Government’s decision to allow an open procurement process for passports which are increasingly such an important part of our national security system to how this contract can be delivered securely and efficiently at such a reduced price. I’m going to be closely monitoring how this pans out and I will keep raising these issues with Ministers.

In the meantime, local De La Rue staff will continue to produce our passports over the next eighteen months and I will keep pushing for De La Rue to bring new work to Team Valley and ensure that we can keep these quality jobs here in the north east.

In the last week we’ve also seen Amber Rudd resign as Home Secretary in the light of the Windrush scandal – a resignation based on her misleading statements to Parliament about the existence of targets in the Home Office. There is cross-party agreement that the “Windrush Generation” – and their families who came to the UK to help us rebuild in the post-war era – are British citizens and deserve to be treated as such.

But the Government’s “hostile environment” policy has created an environment in which many of these people have been threatened with deportation or refused NHS treatment or benefits.

It is only right that all possible steps are taken urgently to right these wrongs. Amber Rudd’s resignation has also exposed Theresa May’s involvement in this whole situation. As Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016 it was on Theresa May’s watch that deportation targets were set and the “hostile environment” created which led to Windrush families being so shamefully treated.

It’s been a long time in Local Government too. Last week I spoke in the debate on Social Care, highlighting how inadequate the funds are to provide care for our most vulnerable people. As a member of the joint Health and Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committees, I have been participating in our enquiry into the long-term funding of social care ahead of the Government Green Paper which is expected later this year. We have taken evidence from care providers, the Care Quality Commission, local authorities and the NHS about the inadequacy of the current funding and what we need to do to put that right.

It was very clear to me that dedicated and high-quality staff are essential to provide care whether that’s in our own homes or in residential care and I really hope that the Government will recognise that in their green paper. Sadly, in the meantime, this Government continues to starve councils of the cash they need to provide decent social care let alone to cope with the growth in demand.

The measure of a good society is how well we treat our older people and others who need social care. At present we are letting too many of them down for lack of cash and no vision or coherent plan for the future.

Today many of you will be going to the polls to vote for the local councillors who will run your local services. Having served as a Labour councillor for six years in Gateshead, I know how hugely rewarding and hugely frustrating the job can be. Rewarding because you can speak up on behalf of your local community and its needs. But frustrating because this Tory Government and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition before it has made cut after cut after cut to local government funding.

I’ve already mentioned social care, but we’ve also seen cuts in funding for road repairs, our local environment, parks, housing, trading standards, environmental health and the rest and you and I can see the impact of those cuts in our communities. I hope you’ll use your vote to make the best that we can of our local communities.

Liz’s column, April 2018

Passports have been on my mind a good deal these last few weeks. A passport is more than just a security document that allows us to travel from one country to the next. It is a symbol of our national identity and a source of pride for many citizens. I’m no little Englander, in fact, I absolutely love France, but still I am appalled at the news that our UK passports are to be produced by a foreign company that is part-owned by the French Government. This is nothing to do with nationalism or protectionism, or whether it’s blue or burgundy – the real issues surrounding the passport debacle are much more serious than the colour of its bindings.

De La Rue, the current producer of UK passports, employs a workforce of over 600 on the Team Valley Trading Estate in my constituency. Two hundred work on passport production and another 400 on currency production. These are high quality jobs and well paid – just the type of jobs we need more of here in the north east. When I visit the plant I’m always struck by the dedication of the highly-skilled workforce and the relentless security measures and clearances required to enter the site.

So, the workers were right to be shocked, when they heard on the news that the UK Government’s preferred bidder was, in fact, a French-owned company. The workforce are dedicated to passport production and they deliver ahead of their targets month on month. They are available to work at the drop of a hat, day or night, to meet demand. In fact, they are so committed that they regularly deliver a profit return to the Home Office through their gain-share agreement. I was pretty shocked too.

The passport contract is – or should be – about more than cost. It’s a vital part of our border security and we need to be sure that we maintain the same level of assurance in the quality of our passport. That’s why I’ve been asking detailed questions of Government ministers about just how viable the new contract will be at a cost that is so much lower than the current cost.

A price rumoured to be £120m lower has to make you wonder just how that kind of saving can be made and the integrity of our passports maintained. That’s why I have been working with Unite the Union, who represent the workforce at De La Rue, and my Labour colleagues to ensure that the issue is not swept under the carpet. I intend to make sure the dust keeps getting raised.

The decision to award the work to an overseas company would be a disaster for our region. We often talk about the de-industrialising of our region and this is another example of a threat to skilled work disappearing from the north east. The Government love to talk about the Northern Powerhouse and have even awarded our region with the Great Exhibition of the North, in which we will celebrate our heritage and future as an innovative region. If the Government is serious about the Northern Powerhouse, they will ensure this decision is reviewed.

I was pleased that on Monday 26 March, the Speaker allowed me to ask an Urgent Question to the Minister in the House of Commons and later that week I asked Theresa May to provide reassurances to the House about the final decision on the bid at Prime Minister’s Questions before Easter. We all know that Prime Minister Theresa May loves a soundbite when it comes to Brexit. But what did she really mean when she announced we would have a “red, white and blue Brexit”? Was she referring to the French Tri-colour or the Union flag?

The Petitions Committee, on which I sit, considers debating any official e-petition that reaches 100,000 signatures. The Government will also provide a response. So, I urge you to sign the e-petition to keep the pressure on the Government to continue to manufacture the new blue passport in the UK, rather than abroad.

The petition can be found at: petitions.parliament.uk/petitions/208170. Let’s continue to campaign to keep our passport production here in Gateshead.

Liz’s column, March 2018

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.

Liz’s Column, February 2018

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.