Shop workers, particularly those in supermarkets and other food stores, have been on the frontline during this pandemic, supplying us with the essentials of life and keeping the nation fed.
Unlike many of us, they do not have the option of working from home and play an essential role in society and the economy as key workers. For some vulnerable members of our community their local retail workers may be their only human contact each week, providing a social lifeline in this difficult period of isolation.
My constituency, Blaydon, has one of the highest densities of shop workers in the country, with 24% of all jobs in retail with the Metrocentre and a number of local shopping centres providing much of our employment. While many supermarkets have reported a good year, other stores face real uncertainty over their future, and that of their staff, who may have been furloughed for many months.
Throughout the pandemic, the majority of customers have shown real support for the critical role that shop workers and delivery drivers are doing during this crisis. In some cases though, low stock, restrictions on product availability, face masks and social distancing requirements have provided new flash points for the longstanding problem of abuse against workers.
Violence and abuse should never be tolerated in any workplace, yet retail workers continue to face situations that are not only deeply unpleasant, but at times put their health and lives at risk.
Just like our emergency services, many of us will have read reports of customers coughing or even spitting at shop staff in an attempt to infect them. The Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that such incidents will be treated as assaults and these events should always be reported to the police.
And as a result of panic buying, a number of retailers are continuing to enforce restrictions on the number of certain goods that customers can purchase. When shop staff have been asked to enforce these restrictions at the tills, all too often this has created another flash point for threats, abuse and violence.
Last week, a member of my own staff witnessed such an incident, where a shop worker was spat at for asking someone to wear a mask going into the store. I raised the issue in the House of Commons the following day and called on the Government to bring forward a debate in Parliament on the unacceptable behaviour of a minority towards shop workers.
I am pleased to see that the shop workers union Usdaw is also campaigning for ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation that will tackle abuse against workers dealing with the public. assaulting a shop worker to be made a specific criminal offence, to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job. I support their calls to the Home Secretary to request that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency given the current situation.
But to provide full protection, the government must go much further. Usdaw is demanding that shop workers must be entitled to a real living wage of at least £10 per hour, with a minimum 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it, with contracts based on the normal hours worked and an end to zero hours contracts.
If we truly value our key workers we must make sure they have better rights at work and a proper living wage. Too many people who are in receipt of Universal Credit are already in work.
New research published by Newcastle University this week confirms the link between cutting social security and mental health issues.That’s why I’ve been urging the Chancellor to retain the current £20 uplift to Universal Credit in next month’s Spring Statement. The uplift has made a significant difference to many families. If the government is serious about “levelling up” this is the very least they could do.
Westminster is now in recess, but my diary is as full as ever, with daily visits to local charities, community groups and kids summer activities. I’m also using my time in Blaydon constituency to visit our brilliant independent businesses, new and long-standing, to see how they are getting on in these difficult times.
Last week I joined local councillors Chris Buckley and Alex and Freda Geddes to congratulate the staff at Stargate Chippy, who have fed so many of our older and vulnerable people, working with Ryton Health Hub to provide fish and chips to local residents.
I would also like to recognise Winlaton’s Hilton and Son Butchers, who are just one example of a local business that has continued to operate throughout lockdown, with queues stretching down the street at times. Like so many of our small, family run shops, they offer a free delivery service to shielding and self-isolating residents, in a real show of community spirit.
I’d like to pay tribute to two of our long-standing business owners. Tamara from Buttercups and Daisies in Crawcrook has been running this wonderful florist for 17 years, with over 25 years experience going into this business. Les, who runs a local greengrocers on Dean Terrace, Ryton, has been there 22 years and is still attracting new customers after all this time.
There are far too many independent businesses to mention, but my visits have really affirmed how these entrepreneurs are often the backbone of our local communities. They often go without credit too, working long, hard hours to make their dreams a reality whilst adding life and colour to our towns. Run by local owners, keeping local people in local jobs and driving the local economy, the more we can support them, the stronger our communities will be in the months and years ahead. The current pandemic serves as a reminder of that.
Following my Kids’ Question Time a few months back, I have continued to call for more support for our young people. Coming out of lockdown it is vital that our young people have access to the support they need, with the last six months being immeasurably tough for them. So, last week I joined Kim McGuinness, our Police and Crime Commissioner, and Councillor Gary Haley, at the opening of the new headquarters of NE Youth, who have relocated to Blaydon after 85 years in the West End of Newcastle.
With schools, colleges and workplaces closed, NE Youth continue to ensure that our young people have the opportunities they deserve. This move demonstrates the commitment of NE Youth to all our communities, including the smaller and more rural villages. I look forward to seeing their engagement with young people in Gateshead grow.
I also paid a visit to the Mount Community Association in Eighton Banks with Mayor Michael Hood, Mayoress Janice Scott and Councillor Sheila Gallagher. For two years the team there have been making exciting plans, clearing the space, digging up muck and raising funds to transform the site into a beautiful community centre, which serves as both an indoor and outdoor venue. It’s surrounded by green space and nods to our heritage, and it couldn’t be a more inspiring place for young people.
I was pleased to attend a number of children’s activities too, armed with an array of fresh fruit from Les’ greengrocersfor the kids. Our community groups and schools, supported by Gateshead Council, are offering a brilliant #BrightentheDay programme, which builds on many years of work across Gateshead to provide much needed food and activities during the summer holidays.
The family activities range from bike rides and nature walks, to healthy cooking ideas and much more. For more information on the activities available for you and your family, visit the council’s website at http://www.gateshead.gov.uk.
We all know volunteers, groups, organisations and businesses who have worked solidly to keep our communities going during the pandemic. It is important that the contributions of local people are recognised, so with this in mind I have launched the Blaydon Angels Awards.
I would like to hear about those unsung heroes, those who just get on with it without making a fuss, but who make a real difference. If you think someone living, working or volunteering within my Parliamentary Constituency of Blaydon should receive an award for their contribution, you can make a nomination on my website http://www.liztwist.co.uk or by telephone on 0191 4142844.
The pandemic has doubtless dealt a hammer blow to our towns and villages, but as Anne Brontë once said, ‘the ties that bind us to life are tougher than you imagine’. I, for one, am proud to say these ties are stronger than ever in Blaydon constituency.
Last week our Great Summer Get Together in Ryton was a fantastic moment, as our community came together to celebrate that we share more in common than that which divides us.
The annual event is inspired by the life of the young Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered three years ago. Jo’s maiden speech was themed around “more in common”, which saturated every part of her short but inspirational life.
I was delighted to be joined by two other inspirational women at the event; Angela Rayner, our Shadow Education Secretary, and Kim McGuinness, who is standing at the by-election for Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC).
Kim hopes to replace Dame Vera Baird, who has been appointed the Victims’ Commissioner. She leaves a lasting legacy from the past seven years, especially in improving Northumbria Police’s work with victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Since becoming PCC Vera Baird has devoted her time and energy to making sure that we have the best police force possible, despite the savage cuts to police budgets over the last decade which have seen 21,000 posts cut nationally.
Alongside Vera and other northern MPs I have been arguing the case with the government that the cuts have gone too far. Northumbria police alone have already suffered disproportionate budget cuts of over £140 million and lost over 1,000 officers and hundreds of support staff. The pressure on our Police is simply unsustainable.
So the challenge is great, but I am confident that while Vera is going to be a very hard act to follow, as a party we have the best possible candidate to lead us forward in Kim McGuinness.
Serving Newcastle City Council as a councillor since 2015, she knows the real issues on the ground. Her credentials as someone prepared to work hard for the community she represents, saw her elevated to a cabinet role a year after being elected to the authority. She now oversees culture, sport and public health on the council and is well furnished to be the region’s next PCC.
I have been particularly impressed by Kim’s determination to become what she terms the ‘people’s commissioner’; someone who is embedded in the communities she would represent and the voice of the people to the police.
Kim has pledged to ensure our force’s limited resources are put to the best possible use to cut crime and disorder on the ground in our communities and online. And focusing not just on crime, but on the causes of crime – situations of inequality and injustice- is the right agenda for the future.
Kim’s plans to work with local people to understand what they want from their local police force are vital, and I know how strongly my own constituents feel about protecting frontline community policing.
Our joint visit to the Co-op in Ryton to discuss retail crime confirms that local businesses also want to see a continuing presence on our streets, to deter would-be criminals.
We’re fortunate to have so many dedicated community cops locally, but they are overstretched and often unable to do the essential work of preventing crime that they signed up to do.
Looking north of the border there are good examples of how Scotland is cutting crime and disorder across the country by working closely with agencies like health, education and social workers to uncover what drives people into criminal activities in the first place, as well as acknowledging and appreciating the fall-out among people who become victims of crime.
Kims background in public health places her well to develop more of a preventative approach here, focused on tackling the inequalities that lead to crime. The approach that has delivered big reductions in cities like Glasgow and London, as well as Chicago in the United States can work here too.
On Thursday 18 July you have the chance to elect someone determined to really make a difference in ensuring all our communities are safer places to live and work. We need a strong champion for the Northumbria area and I hope you join me in voting for Kim.