Liz writes May 2020

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.

Advice from Age UK on helping older people

Age UK has issued some excellent advice on how we can safely help older people in our family or neighbourhood. Here are five tips from Age UK for making their lives easier during this difficult time.

1. Keep in touch

Phone your older relatives and friends and ask if they need anything and let them know if they do, you can help out. And while you’re on the phone, why don’t you have a chat?

You could set up a rota with other family and friends to make sure someone is regularly giving them a ring to see if they’re OK.

This might also be a useful time to introduce older relatives and friends to technology that might prove helpful during this period, such as Skype or FaceTime. We’ve also written a guide to video calling.

2. Lend a hand

If you’re feeling well, why not offer to pick up shopping for an older neighbour or relative who might not be able to or is too worried to go to the shops? If you are helping someone who is self-isolating make sure you leave the shopping on their front doorstep, knock on their door and step back while you ensure they safely receive it. Make sure you stand 2 metres away from them at all times.

You could help an older person who lives further away from you and isn’t familiar with technology by doing an online shop for them. It’s worth checking before you offer to do so, though, as some services have suspended deliveries due to overwhelming demand.

3. Show you care

Why not make homemade cards (which is a great project to do with the kids), send a postcard, even post small gifts to keep people’s spirits up or just write a good old-fashioned letter to an older friend or relative?

Why not get creative with it? Share any pictures or videos of what you’re up to by tagging our Instagram or Twitter accounts, or emailing: stories@ageuk.org.uk.

4. Share these numbers

It can be helpful to know who you can call, especially if someone’s feeling isolated.

For practical information and advice, call Age UK Advice: 0800 169 65 65

For a cheerful chat, day or night, call Silver Line: 0800 470 80 90

Please note: as this is a very busy time, if you’ve contacted Age UK’s telephone befriending service, it may take a bit longer for us to match you up with a befriender.

5. Donate now

Demand for our vital services has increased rapidly. We need to raise £10 million to help keep our information and advice and friendship services running and deliver community support via local Age UKs.

You can make a donation to Age UK here

Liz writes April 2020

“The NHS belongs to the people.” The bold opening line of the National Health Service constitution reminds us of the power of the state and citizens working hand in hand for mutual benefit. And there has been no greater example of that principle in action, as over recent weeks.
Like so many, I was deeply moved last Thursday when, at 8pm, I stood on my doorstep and joined millions of others in applause to express thanks to the heroes working in the National Health Service.
From our porters to our admin staff, nurses and healthcare assistants, clergy, paramedics, surgeons, doctors and managers, all are pitching in and playing a heroic role, risking their own lives each day, in order to care for and heal others.
And the deaths of three dedicated doctors, Dr Amged El-Hawrani, an ear, nose and throat consultant, Dr Habib Zaidi, a GP, and Dr Adil El Tayar, an organ transplant specialist, serve as a stark reminder that the risk to the workforce is real.
Gestures like the national round of applause are important; they recognise selfless hard work and help keep spirits up. But on their own they are not enough. Day after day we have listened to Government ministers telling us they are “ramping up testing” and that much needed Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is “on its way”.
The Government must now deliver on those overdue promises, so that our NHS can function at its most effective and staff can attend their shifts and return to their loved ones unharmed.
For the elderly, the poor and workers on zero-hour contracts, this crisis presents entirely new challenges and new disparities, the likes of which we are not adequately prepared for.
We must, however, remain positive and acknowledge the collective show of strength, and the resilience of our workers and volunteer force. Only last week we saw grassroots organisations popping up everywhere to aid the NHS, and over 750,000 people signing up to the NHS Volunteer Responder app.
This army goes far beyond the health service, with so many of our wider public sector workers; care workers, refuse collectors, social workers, emergency service workers, teachers, school staff and so many others, all playing their part to keep our communities ticking and providing meals and support to the families that need them. And let’s not forget the essential role our armed forces and shop workers continue to play.
Ministers should work much more closely with councils, charities and care homes to ensure resources are made available, so no one is forced to suffer unnecessarily because of this crisis.
The charitable and voluntary sector has taken a huge hit in this crisis, with community fundraising efforts being hindered and presenting a challenge that third sector simply hasn’t faced before.
St. Oswald’s Hospice have, this week, launched a campaign to raise £1.25 million to keep their essential services going, and they’re not alone. FACT (Fighting All Cancers Together), based in my constituency, continues to drop food parcels to their services users, some of whom have had their cancer treatments paused during the crisis.
Charities like St Oswald’s and FACT rely heavily on fundraising events and income through their high street stores. We need their services more than ever, but these charities need the Government to provide urgent funding to help the sector and workers on the frontline.
There are some great initiatives going on within my constituency and the wider Gateshead borough. Age UK Gateshead, for example, are combining their resources with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Edbert’s House and mutual aid groups to protect the most vulnerable, elderly people who have been asked to stay at home for 12 weeks.
Isolation and loneliness can really affect our older people and last week they made and received over 2,400 local phone calls to check in with our older people and make sure they have the supplies they need.

So, thank you to every one of the local heroes who are making a real difference to peoples lives. Please know you are not alone in this fight and we salute your selfless work.

Liz writes March 2020

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.

Liz writes February 2020

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.

Liz writes October 2019

“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.