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.
For many of us, Advent is a time of hope, preparation and anticipation in the run up to Christmas. And this Advent has started like no other. Yesterday’s announcement that the United Kingdom is the first country in the world to approve the use of a vaccine is a welcome step in what has been a long and painful journey for many of us. But while the end is in sight we must be prepared to wait a little longer, and to keep public health at the forefront of everything we do.
We must recognise the scale of the challenge that has been overcome. Our world-leading scientists have succeeded in the monumental task of delivering a brand new vaccine for a novel virus in under ten months – a process that would usually take ten years in normal circumstances. So, I would like to pay tribute to our scientists, who alongside our NHS and so many key workers across many sectors, have been the true heroes of the 2020 story. Despite the failings of the Government on coronavirus – and there have been many – it should come as no surprise that Britain is the first to sign off a vaccine.
We have an outstanding reputation in the field of scientific research and development around the world, which is why I am calling on the Government to listen to leading medical research charities, who have come together to propose a way to ensure that vital research for both rare and widespread conditions can continue throughout this period of financial difficulty. They are asking the Government to create a life sciences charity partnership fund over the next three years, starting with £310 million in year one to meet the financial shortfall. I raised this in last week’s Westminster Hall debate on charity-funded medical research and will continue to do so where I can.
Our reputation was, however, diminished, following the announcement by the Chancellor last week that the Government are to cut our international aid budget – a cross-party achievement that showed our commitment to those in most need. As the vaccine is rolled out the Government will be judged on how it ensures that the poorest around the world will benefit from immunisation. This will be a critical test and one I will certainly be holding them to.
Fairness must be at the heart of the next phase of the Government’s coronavirus response. Earlier this week Labour abstained on the vote over the Government’s new restrictions. We support the need for measures but the new tiers continue to punish the North and there was nothing new for businesses across the country crying out for more effective economic support to get them through the winter months.
Too many hard-working people have been left to fend for themselves, especially many self-employed and freelancers who have been excluded from the financial support packages available to other businesses. Hospitality and retail have been let down again and we still don’t have a functioning test and trace system.
While yesterday’s vaccine announcement is welcome it has still come too late to save many jobs. The collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams alone in the last 48 hours, putting at least 25,000 thousand jobs at risk, is a real tragedy for many of my own constituents. For areas like Blaydon, retail is a major sector for employment. I can’t imagine the challenge that some families now face in the run up to Christmas. That’s why Labour is calling for urgent action to protect jobs, pensions and communities.
In the coming weeks we will start to see the roll out of the largest vaccination programme in the history of the NHS. With no time to learn lessons from our neighbours, this is no easy task. Boris Johnson likes to portray himself as a great heir to the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But with backbench rebels rising Mr Johnson’s premiership is showing signs of trouble. If he is looking to secure a legacy, he must finally get serious and take control of this virus so that lives can be saved, our NHS can be protected, and our economy can start to rebuild in 2021.
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.