Local lockdowns may now be part of the “new normal”, with Leicester becoming the first city to shut down. We know parts of Tyne and Wear have previously experienced high numbers of coronavirus cases, therefore it’s crucial we continue follow the guidelines as more businesses and public spaces begin to reopen.
The reopening – and potential short-term closures – of businesses and schools, alongside changes to social distancing and other public health measures, requires accurate, timely communication through local print, TV and radio.
Throughout the crisis, public service broadcasting has played a critical role for central government, public health departments, the NHS, schools and councils to get their messages out to the public. So, it is ludicrous that the BBC has postponed its regional political coverage, and is even considering the option of axing Politics North and Inside Out (North East and Cumbria).
Each Sunday, Politics North features interviews with local MPs, councillors and government ministers, alongside reports about the biggest political issues in the region. As politicians, we don’t always want to face bruising interviews, but it is what we signed up to, and it strengthens our democracy.
Inside Out’s award-winning investigative reporting has exposed vital issues like racism within car parking attendants, illegal waste dumping, numerous fraud operations, and chaotic gun control within the police. The North East must have a forum for issues like these to be discussed and for politicians to be held to account, outside of Westminster.
So, last month I joined Labour colleagues from across the North East in writing to the BBC to express our real disappointment at their short-sighted decision, and to remind them of the importance of the regional press. I also raised my constituents’ concerns in a House of Commons debate that showed cross-party support for regional reporting.
The BBC says local and regional broadcasting is in their DNA, so it makes no sense that, in their allocation of resources, they have chosen to cut an essential lifeline, especially to our older, housebound and shielding community members, in the middle of a pandemic. The campaign to protect regional reporting continues.
Next year marks 200 years since the pioneering printer, Thomas de la Rue, set up his first printing press in England. The company innovated and grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with a number of plants in operation across the country and the largest printer of currency in the world.
De La Rue plc grew to be a global brand, and their workers have been trusted by governments around the world and at home to print their cash and produce identity documents, including passports.
But the company now faces difficult times, following the government’s decision in 2018 to award the contract for producing UK passports to the French-Dutch firm Gemalto. That led to 200 job losses from their Team Valley site in my constituency, with the remaining 80 on the passport production line set to go this month.
To add to the pain, a further 170 jobs were lost in 2019 at the facility, as one of two banknote production lines closed. And last week, De La Rue announced its proposal to cease banknote production in Gateshead, which would see 255 jobs go and just 90 left at the site.
I don’t absolve De La Rue’s senior management at that time of getting the price wrong in their procurement tender – but my concern is for the staff who have worked so hard, and with great pride, to produce a secure, quality, passport for Great Britain. There is a direct line between the loss of that contract and the job losses at the site today.
So, in addition to the BBC debate, I was glad to secure an adjournment debate last week, calling on the government to intervene and protect the highly-skilled, well-paid jobs at De la Rue.
With hundreds of Debenhams staff at the MetroCentre also being made redundant and Intu going into administration, we are starting to see the scale of the challenge in our region. It’s time for Boris Johnson to put some meat on the bones of his “levelling-up” agenda, with decisive action to protect North East jobs.
I’m back in Wesminster, but contrary to the Government’s rhetoric that MPs are finally “back to work” in Westminster, I have been as busy as ever during the lockdown. My team and I have been working through a huge volume of casework, writing letters to government ministers on behalf of local business owners and working with Gateshead Council, our wider public services and community groups, to make sure they have the resources they need.
My diary has also been packed out with visits, some “in person” while socially distancing, and some virtual, to a whole range of community groups, whose efforts have been nothing short of heroic over the last three months. Amid the tragedy and hardship my spirits have been lifted time by the acts of kindness, creativity and hard work of thousands of volunteers.
I was pleased to talk to Hannah Katherine of Chopwell & Rowlands Gill Live at Home Scheme, whose telephone befriending services provide real support and good company to residents who are shielding. Their socially-distanced care service and group activities have kept spirits up and on VE Day they delivered 175 “Hope & Glory” treat boxes and led local residents in a traditional wartime sing-along.
I visited Ryton Health Hub too, whose volunteers have cooked over 300 hot for vulnerable people each week during the crisis. During May, the sunniest month on record, they took the opportunity to teach our local children gardening, with free sunflower seeds, environmentally friendly compost and pots for school children for a special home learning project.
Age UK Gateshead have harnessed the support of over 2,000 volunteers to provide a life-line for our older folk. They’re delivering hot meals, picking up shopping, doing DIY, dog-walking and lawn-mowing for those who need a helping hand, plus essential dementia and respite support.
Gateshead Foodbank are busier than ever. They delivered 17 tonnes of food to local people in April alone. This compares to around 7 tonnes in a “normal” month, and in doing so they helped to feed 1,200 people, more than double the number in an average month.
For the last eight weeks their warehouse, run by volunteers, has been open Monday to Friday, with volunteers packing emergency food parcels for Gateshead Council’s local food hubs.
I visited the food bank in person and it was an inspiring trip, which served as a reminder that there are people right now in our communities struggling and in need of our help. If you are able to, please donate to keep Gateshead Foodbank going, to ensure local families have the food and essential items they need
Pickle Palace, based at Greenside Cricket Club, has also delivered over 1,000 food parcels to those in need, and they don’t stop there. This much-loved social enterprise has been rescuing food donated from local supermarkets to feed the community.
While there I met Chopwell-based Digital Voice, who are really rising to the challenge of continuing their purpose of educating and empowering people, even throughout the current pandemic.
Winlaton Centre volunteers are up at the crack of dawn to provide hundreds of food parcels and hot meals to the most vulnerable. The centre currently has no income and they’re running on a shoestring, using their reserves and public donations to fund the work.
Donations from FareShare North East pay for the van and help to fund free meals, food parcels, stopping food from going to waste, filling the holiday hunger gap and other activities.
Chopwell, Winlaton and Birtley shielding hubs continue to provide support across Blaydon constituency. From providing food, to signposting for advice, they’re doing so much to tackle these issues and support people.
At Birtley Hub I met council staff and volunteers, supporting local people with food and advice and was delighted to join the Skills4Work group who have moved their activities online.
There’s plenty of work going on and our community groups will be increasingly vital, as the economic shock will inevitably lead to further job losses and business closures.
So in volunteers week, I’d like to say a huge “Thank you” to all the brilliant volunteers keeping our communities going – you’re brilliant!
“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.
I visited Brightsparks Nursery in Crawcrook last weekend, and was delighted to see all the fantastic work staff there are doing to make it an “Outstanding” rated Nursery.
Unfortunately, maintaining this standard is now going to be very difficult. The Government’s new funding regime has created a major shortfall for many nurseries -Brightsparks included- and staff are very worried about making ends meet.
I am therefore going to be doing what I can to put pressure on the Government to reconsider this appalling decision.
Today I asked the Minister for Children, Young People and Families how nurseries are supposed to remain open when facing such a shortfall under the new funding regime.
After staff at the nursery had told me how difficult they were finding it to make ends meet, I was determined press the Minister on this.
I hope the Minister will now take a thorough look at the costings of the new funding.
“Two weeks on from the Autumn Statement we’re still no clearer about some of the big issues that the Chancellor has failed to tackle in our region. Of course, we are all delighted that following hard-headed negotiations from across Tyne and Wear we heard the announcement of funding for a much-needed update to the Metro system, but it was disappointing that the Chancellor didn’t address the other crises our public services face.
Most notably absent was any reference to social care and how we try to square the circle of increasing need for help for our most vulnerable residents, whilst government grants to local authorities are being slashed (and expected to disappear completely by 2021). With an ageing population this poses a great challenge for councils in our region who are trying to find new ways of supporting our older and most vulnerable adults and children to live in their own home.
In Gateshead, we’ve seen a 52 per cent cut in government funding to the Council since 2010 and over half the council’s budget is now spent on the most vulnerable adults and children. Our local authorities are now consulting on their budgets for the next year and I would encourage people to get involved in their local consultation to make their voices heard.
I’m not holding my breath for a fairer local government settlement from the Tories to solve the problem. The big issue of social care needs much more attention and a clear plan to deal with an impending crisis. Unfortunately, the Government is running scared of the issue after floating their hugely unpopular “dementia tax” plans at the last General Election.
Of course, it’s not just councils that have been hit either: Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, Northumbria Police and many others are also facing huge cuts in government funding. Most of all, we as residents are feeling the impact.
There was nothing in the budget for Education, either, other than for Maths teaching. Maths teaching is of course hugely important, but many of our schools are struggling to balance their budget to provide the best education possible for our young people. Despite changes to the schools funding formula over the summer, 91% of schools are still facing a real-terms reduction in their budgets, as per-pupil funding has been reduced whilst pupil numbers are on the up. In short, the sums just don’t add up.
And then there’s public sector pay. The Chancellor tells us again and again that the public sector pay cap imposed by the Tories has gone, but staff right across the public sector are still seeing their pay fall in real terms whilst workload increases. It is not good enough to simply lift the cap. Phillip Hammond must now put his money where his mouth is by funding the NHS and all other public services properly. We can’t expect nurses or police officers to pay for their own pay rise by cutting their terms and conditions.
My office is as busy as ever, with many of my constituents waiting for their Universal Credit applications to be approved and finding themselves facing financial problems. Many must now wait until after Christmas for their first payment. The Chancellor’s announcement of changes to Universal Credit – a five week wait instead of six; two weeks’ roll on of Housing Benefit, an advance of up to a month’s Universal Credit – will do nothing to help people in Blaydon to cope with Christmas, let alone their day to day living expenses.
That’s why I am hugely grateful to the folk at Gateshead Foodbank, who have distribution points in Blaydon and now in Birtley, for the work they do in trying to fill the gap, to make sure people can cope over Christmas and have some festive cheer as the rest of us will. I keep repeating it, but it remains true: I thank them for their work but it shouldn’t be necessary in this day and age.
This budget has failed to tackle the real issues that people face right across the North East region. It is a “Nothing Has Changed” budget.”
You can watch and read Liz’s contribution to the Budget debate below. Liz said:
“I declare an interest as an elected member of Gateshead Council.
I want to speak about what is not in this Budget, because those things are important to my constituents in Blaydon, many of whom are struggling to cope with daily life and supporting their family. First, I want to mention the absence of any reference to social care. We all know that the demand for social care is growing, and we know from experience that it is essential that people have access to high-quality social care when they need it, but the Government continue to cut the local authority budgets that go towards providing that support.
In my council of Gateshead, we spend more than half our budget on the most vulnerable adults and children. Our funding has been cut by 52% since 2010, and the number of people who use and need our services is rising. I checked the Tory manifesto earlier and found this on long-term care:
“Where others have failed to lead, we will act.”
But there is no action on social care in this Budget.
There is nothing in this Budget for education, other than for maths teaching. Maths teaching is, of course, hugely important, but many of our schools are struggling to balance their budget so that they can provide the best education possible for our young people, and, despite changes to the schools funding formula over the summer, 91% of schools still face a real-terms reduction in their budgets as per pupil funding has reduced. We may have a commitment to maths funding, but increasing pupil numbers and increasing demands versus decreasing funding means that the sums do not add up for schools.
On housing, we had a raft of measures that the Chancellor says will increase house building, but the announcements fall far short of a proper plan to help to fix the housing crisis. We need all councils to build again to create the houses we need.
I heard the Chancellor repeat this morning that the public sector pay cap has gone. But NHS workers, who were specially mentioned by the Chancellor, will receive an increase only on condition that they increase productivity by renegotiating their terms and conditions under “Agenda for Change”. This does not just affect the NHS; for staff right across the public sector, work has increased and pay has fallen in real terms. The Government need not only to lift the cap that they imposed, but to fund the NHS, local government, fire and rescue services, the police, education, the delivery of universal credit and many other areas, to give those staff the rise that they need, without further reducing services.”