The Brexit drama in Westminster is suffocating debate on so many vital issues to the people of this region.
This week teachers and pupils return for another academic year in our underfunded schools, in the knowledge that not only does the Government intend to provide a paltry increase school funding well below what is required, but most schools in our region will see little difference to their budgets. Such is the cynicism of this failing government, that 93 per cent of constituencies set to receive additional funds for schools are tory-held seats.
The scandal of the delay of HS2 which came to light earlier this week has barely touched public consciousness. The crisis in care provision for older people continues, councils decimated by austerity struggle on and three million EU nationals living in the UK are left waiting to hear about their future.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor Sajid Javid has bankrolled the Government’s preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit with an extra £2 billion, taking the total spend to £8.3 billion, for something that most of us hope will never happen. A no-deal Brexit would threaten our region’s manufacturing sector; everyone from the Trades Union Congress to the North East Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Consortium are firmly against leaving without a deal. It is simply not an option and at the time of writing my party, along with other opposition parties, are doing everything to prevent Johnson from leading us over a no-deal cliff edge.
Who knows what the next few days will hold, but regardless of what happens in Westminster and whether there is a general election, I will be meeting with 1950s-born women from across Blaydon constituency for two important public meetings.
Often referred to as WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality), many 1950s-born women are facing hardship and poverty because of the Government’s acceleration in increasing their state pension age without giving adequate notice, and in some cases no notice at all.
These brave women are fighting against the unfair treatment of women born on or after 6 April 1950, through an increase to their state pension age. The changes were drawn up with little or no personal notice, with a faster than promised implementation and without enough time for women born in the 1950s to make alternative plans.
Thousands of women will not receive their state pension on the date they planned for, and will have to work longer than expected or could face financial hardship in retirement.
The increase in the state pension age for women was introduced too fast and with too little notice to make the necessary life changes. All women born after April 1950 are affected, but women born between April 1950 and December 1959 have not had enough time to make alternative plans.
Government advisors were clear that changes like this should only happen with at least 10-15 years’ notice but in practice, notification letters were only sent out to affected women 14 years after the 1995 Pensions Act in 2009.
Many received this information with just one year’s notice of the change. Very many others received only 3, 4 or 5 years’ notice and many women report receiving no letter at all.
My neighbouring MP, Guy Opperman, the former pensions minister, attracted much criticism when he called on the 3.9 million women affected to consider taking up an apprenticeship, as an alternative to retirement.
Most of us recognise that the equalisation of the state pension age between men and women is fair, but the unfairness comes with the way the changes are being implemented.
It is clear that women have been treated badly compared to men in relation to the formal notice. Many women were given as little as one or two years’ notice of up to a 6 year increase to their state pension age while men received 6 years’ notice of a one year rise in their state pension age.
So, next weekend, alongside representatives of the WASPI campaign and UNISON who represent over a million women workers, I’ll be hosting sessions in Birtley and Blaydon to plot the next steps of the campaign for justice. More details are available on my website.