I recently spoke in a debate on the nationwide ban of the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.
It’s about time we moved on from this archaic practice and realise that our entertainment comes at a price. I’m therefore glad that this ban will be introduced – but it is long overdue.
It is frustrating that we are way behind the times in this country, as many countries across the globe have already implemented similar bans. It is simply unacceptable that the UK is left lagging behind other countries with regards to animal welfare standards. And while this legislation is welcome, it does not go far enough to protect animal rights. We want to see more animals protected under legislation.
This is an issue I know is of great concern to my constituents, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to put these points to the Government.
On 14 May, Liz attended the launch of the Primary Futures Parliamentary Champion programme, a major cross-party initiative that aims to raise the aspirations and broaden the horizons of primary school children.
Primary Futures is an exciting initiative pioneered by the charity Education and Employers and the National Association of Headteachers. The programme helps inspire children by connecting primary schools with local role models through an innovative online service. Volunteers from apprentices to CEOs, architects to zoologists, then give an hour a year to go into schools and chat informally to children about their work.
Children can only dream about what they know. Primary Futures shows pupils exciting futures and helps them understand that by aiming high and working hard, they can realise their dreams. In focussing on young children, the initiative can have a markedly positive effect on attainment. It is also underpinned by technology that gives schools more control over the type of event they believe would be most valuable for their pupils.
Liz commented: “Children’s career aspirations are formed at a young age and influenced overwhelmingly by who they know. All children should have an equal opportunity for a fulfilling career that is not limited by their background. I’m going to be championing Primary Futures in Blaydon as it will help open the eyes of local children to what’s possible and what they could achieve.
“I will be writing to regional business, charity, and public-sector leaders, encouraging them to volunteer and spread the word about Primary Futures in their professional networks, as a growing number of volunteers is essential to boosting these careers events. I will also be registering as a Primary Futures volunteer to share the exciting work of politics with local children.”
Nick Chambers, CEO of Education and Employers, added: “I’m delighted that Liz is supporting Primary Futures and I have no doubt that her involvement will go a long way to raising the aspirations of children in Blaydon.”
This afternoon I sent a cross-party letter to BioMarin, calling on them to make Kuvan more affordable so PKU patients in the UK are able to access it. It is about time BioMarin put patients before profits.
This follows the petition handed in to BioMarin’s London HQ last month, signed by more than 16,000 people, which asked that BioMarin make Kuvan affordable to the NHS. With BBC Newsnight recently covering the problems those with PKU face, we believe this issue is starting to get the attention it deserves.
You can read more about the campaign here:
Parliament returned last week, so we’ve finally had the chance to focus on key domestic issues; issues neglected for too long, as Westminster and Whitehall have focussed their resources almost solely on Brexit in recent months.
The extension to the Brexit deadline (and the Government’s manifest inability to bring forward an alternative plan) has allowed us time to evaluate what our priorities are and where else our energy should be focussed. Of huge importance for people right across Blaydon constituency is that of Social Care funding.
Last week, during an Opposition Day Debate, the realities of social are funding were laid bare. My colleagues on the Labour front bench reminded us that despite the Prime Minister’s promise in 2016 to tackle the burning injustices in our society, and despite her assertions that austerity is over, Government cuts have resulted in social care budgets in England losing £7 billion. Local authorities’ spending power per household is also on course to fall by an average of 23 per cent by 2020, with greater cuts to councils in the North of England, where inequality is on the up.
In Gateshead, families will have lost up to £900 in council spending since 2010. The Council has seen a 52 per cent reduction in Government funding over nine years under the Tories and Liberal Democrats, leaving 2,400 less staff to do the work on the ground.
As ever, it is the most vulnerable who are forced to suffer. The callous Tory cuts to local government mean adult social care is under a greater strain than ever. As a result, vulnerable people –such as the elderly and those with disabilities– are being left to fend for themselves, without the support they deserve.
What adds insult to injury is the fact that the much-needed Green Paper for Adult Social Care has been delayed yet again. The beginning of April marked the fifth time the Health Secretary had missed the deadline for the Green Paper, which is needed to find solutions to the funding crisis. Notwithstanding the delays, it seems that no real progress is being made.
That’s why today’s local council elections are so vitally important. Labour Councillors in Gateshead have worked hard, in very difficult circumstances, to deliver for local people. In the face of more Tory cuts, Labour Councillors are fighting back on the front line in our local communities to ensure people are supported in these rotten times.
In addition to Council funding cuts, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue service has also seen a reduction of 147 firefighters and over 1,000 police jobs have been lost in the Northumbria, all due to austerity.
Compounded by welfare reforms that have stolen money out of the pockets of some of our most vulnerable people, child poverty is now increasing as mortality rates, which grew in recent decades have started to decline.
Last week we also had the chance to debate school funding, which has been kept firmly in the public eye by Gateshead’s campaigning head teachers.
71 out of 76 schools in Gateshead are facing real-terms reductions in funding. At the same time pupil numbers are rising – with the Government’s own statistics show that England’s schools have 137,000 more pupils in the system. With increasing numbers of pupils and decreasing funding in real terms, schools have had to make cuts in staffing as well as in all budget areas, as they look for greater efficiencies.
Headteachers in my constituency tell me that, as funding has become tighter, schools have had to cut back on essential resources – including many support staff who work with vulnerable pupils.
In recent weeks I have heard from a number of headteachers who have had to announce redundancies and stop teaching enjoyable subjects, like music. In one school alone vulnerable pupils losing their classroom support for 23 sessions per week. That is the real impact of real-terms budget reductions for local schools. If austerity was over, as the Government claim, this would not be happening.
But austerity is far from over. It is a political choice, and with the Tories in office, but struggling to retain power, the funding crisis for public service will only become more severe. That’s why today’s vote matters so much.
While Westminster is gridlocked, life goes on in our local communities, where concerns over public services, crime, climate change, housing, health and business are growing. Sick to the back teeth of the B word, they feel increasingly alienated from our politics.
So, on Monday evening I was glad to raise the concerns of residents about Blaydon Landfill in the House of Commons. My constituency, Blaydon, has had more than its fair share of landfill sites, with two quarries currently situated on either side of the main road from the town of Blaydon itself, blighting the lives of local residents. Concerns over the operation of these sites are widely and deeply felt.
In 2016 there was a major incident at Path Head Quarry, when a heavy, sulphurous smell hung over large parts of Ryton for months, causing intense concern about the impact on health and seriously affecting residents’ ability to enjoy a normal life.
Thankfully, that site is now closed and being restored, but it has left an enduring concern about the effect that this type of waste management has on communities like Stargate and Crookhill, which are within just a few hundred yards of the site and had to endure odours and other problems throughout its life.
But the neighbouring Blaydon Quarry continues to cause misery for residents who are affected by the smell, disruption to their lives and what can be best described as environmental vandalism.
In early 2015, during a period of high winds a huge mass of litter escaped from the site and was sprayed around the area, landing in fields, hedges and trees. Our usually green and pleasant area was now festooned with rubbish. It was disgusting, difficult to clear and today you can still see the tatter of plastic bags in trees and bushes. It caused a huge outcry, with residents protesting, rightly angry at the operator’s failure to secure the litter on site.
This was environmental vandalism of the highest order, but, astonishingly, after consideration by the Environment Agency legal team, we were told that it was not possible to prosecute this breach even though the scale of the devastation was clear to local residents.
And two months ago, as on so many previous occasions, many residents contacted me about a bad smell in the air – calling it an odour is far too polite. In fact, they didn’t need to contact me, as I could most definitely smell it myself when I was at home. The smell was persistent and very unpleasant.
I raised the issue with the Environment Agency team and Gateshead Council, who were responsive as always. Enforcement action was taken and the site was stopped from receiving waste for a period of up to two weeks while the operators fixed the problem of the smells from uncovered waste. The required action was taken by the operators and this particular episode was concluded, but the tip re-opened and problems are likely to resurface.
It has become clear that the Environment Agency just doesn’t have sharp enough teeth to be able to deal with irresponsible operators. So, on Monday night I asked the Government Minister to strengthen the law covering landfill and waste sites to ensure that where there are recurring problems communities don’t have to continue to endure the problems arising from landfill sites. We need much stronger powers for the Environment Agency to act to really protect our environment and to deal with landfill operators that fail to meet their duties as good neighbours.
I also called on the Government to take practical steps to strengthen environmental legislation, to reduce the use of landfill. It’s time to move on from this approach and Councils like Gateshead are leading the way through their Waste Partnership with other local authorities, by converting waste into energy that can be sold to fund public services.
In the meantime, I will continue to work with my constituents, Gateshead Council and the Environment Agency to see that Blaydon Quarry is closed safely and restored as a public space, bringing an end to the misery which my constituents have had to endure.
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.