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.