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Universal Credit was the Government’s flagship welfare policy, merging the benefits system into a single monthly payment for all claimants. There are sensible elements including supporting people into work and simplifying the benefits system.  However the roll out of Universal Credit has faced problems and worryingly it's planned to be rolled out here early next year.  Welfare charities, Citizens Advice, the Government’s own advisors, Select Committees and MP's - including some Conservatives - have all expressed concern.

 

The evidence is clear.  New claimants have to wait up to 6 weeks for any money - in many roll out areas many people are waiting much longer without any income.  That's pushed families into debt - half of families moving to Universal Credit are in rent arrears for the first time ever. Landlords are turning away claimants and evictions and children in temporary accommodation have increased. In roll out areas the Trussell Trust reports referrals to food banks have doubled.  Even with repayable advances debt will rise.  And even those fortunate to move into work face the loss of 63p for every pound earned, higher than top rate tax payers, meaning the working poor are being hit as well as claimants.  No wonder Louise Casey the former Social Welfare Tsar compares it to "jumping off a cliff".  The Government should pause the roll out at least until the Select Committee reports. Meanwhile in some communities the loan sharks are already circling.

Pause Universal Credit now

Universal Credit was the Government’s flagship welfare policy, merging the benefits system into a single monthly payment for all claimants. There are sensible elements including supporting people into work and...

When I met St Thomas More students last week one young man said he was pleased that Parliament had voted to revoke the increase in tuition fees made earlier this year. Indeed, Parliament voted unanimously to do that, as we'd voted earlier to lift the NHS pay cap. Both motions were put forward in Opposition debates - which the Government then announced it would ignore and will also ignore any other future votes.

 

That was Wednesday. The day before that, the Government  pushed through changes, with DUP backing, which gives them a majority on parliamentary committees even though they lost their majority in Parliament at the General Election. The day before that, as I had warned in my previous column, the Government also decided that any powers returning from the EU would transfer to Government Ministers - so called Henry V111 powers - rather than to Parliament.

 

Government Ministers I spoke to shrugged off this power grab saying it was necessary - but necessary for who? I pointed out the dangers of going down this route. History tells us that Governments that take powers to themselves don't readily hand them back. I don't agree with those who see Parliament as an Old Boys Club. Parliament should be at the heart of our democracy. But when my constituents ask me to vote on an Opposition or backbench motion, they should be aware that the Government appears determined not to listen.

Parliament is the heart of our democracy

When I met St Thomas More students last week one young man said he was pleased that Parliament had voted to revoke the increase in tuition fees made earlier this...

Parliament returned this week after the summer recess.  In previous sessions the run up to summer has been busy and the September sitting light. This time it's the opposite with a Finance Bill and the long awaited Brexit Bill. Brexit stories have continued to dominate the summer media even to the point that the Brexit timetable could determine Theresa May's tenure in No 10.

 

The passage of the Brexit Bill promises to be lengthy and ill tempered. The Government's lack of a majority, even with DUP votes, means they will be looking nervously over their shoulder at their own backbenchers. The Brexit Bill will be followed by specific measures on things like agriculture and fishing. When the Shadow Fisheries Minister Holly Lynch and I spoke to fishermen in North Shields last week it was clear it's not only about control of our waters but also accessing markets to sell fish, with Europe being our biggest buyer.  But for most areas of Brexit the government is seeking sweeping blanket powers, known as Henry VIII powers, asking MP's to trust them. Yet we now know there was no post referendum plan and Article 50 triggered a negotiating period which seems too short. I understand the argument about taking back control but instead of giving power back to Parliament or the voters the Brexit Bill would increase power to Ministers in an already over powerful Executive. That wasn't what most people voted for.

Brexit top of the agenda

Parliament returned this week after the summer recess.  In previous sessions the run up to summer has been busy and the September sitting light. This time it's the opposite with...

It will be interesting to see how well the domestic tourism industry has done this summer. The weather has been variable but with the post-Brexit Pound at virtual parity with the Euro, foreign destinations are less affordable.  The reality is however, many families find it hard to manage week by week let alone afford a holiday.  With pressure on household income the spotlight has fallen on wages particularly in the public sector.

 

Unison's excellent Pay Up Now campaign is highlighting the effect of the public sector pay cap.  A public sector worker on median wage in 2010 was first subject to a two year pay freeze then a 1% pay cap ever since which has meant wages have dropped by £3.875.  That's the equivalent of an average family’s annual food bill.  Keep the cap in place through the next Parliament and pay will drop a further £2,202.  What that means for police officers, nurses, teachers and prison officers is that between 2010 and 2015 wages have fallen by over 10%.

 

Pay restraint in the aftermath of the banking crash was necessary, continuing the squeeze is not.  With private sector pay rises three times higher and top boss pay up by almost 32% there's a question of fairness.  But there is now also a serious problem with recruitment and retention across the public sector.  So it's time give public sector workers a break - we'd all benefit from that.

Give the public sector a break

It will be interesting to see how well the domestic tourism industry has done this summer. The weather has been variable but with the post-Brexit Pound at virtual parity with...

We are lucky to have some excellent local beaches and be close to an historic river. During the summer months if the sun is shining we can expect our beaches to be busy.  Beautiful and exciting as our coastal waters are, the reality is, they can also be dangerous. 

 

Across the UK there are around 400 accidental deaths each year in and around water, around half of them linked to alcohol.  And between 40 and 50 children drown each year in the UK.  I want more even people to visit our beaches – earlier this year I helped launch Beach Access North East working to make it easier for disabled people to use our beaches.  But I also want people to use our coast safely.

 

There’s no shortage of online advice - from Clive the Coastguard, the Maritime and Coastguards Agency’s Sea Smart Campaign and the RNLI’s Respect the Water Campaign to name but three sources.

 

Later this week I’ll be visiting Swim Safe on Longsands and when Parliament returns I’m due to meet the Royal Life Saving Society to learn more about some of the risks.  I will also be looking carefully at post-Brexit plans to make sure strong environmental protections remain to keep our beaches clean.

 

Let me also say thank you to those who are there when incidents happen, the RNLI with local Tynemouth and Cullercoats crews and the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade who do a fantastic job.

Respect the Water

We are lucky to have some excellent local beaches and be close to an historic river. During the summer months if the sun is shining we can expect our beaches...

House of Commons Standing Orders rarely make for lively reading but bear with me.  SO24 calls for an emergency debate on a specific and urgent matter allowing the Speaker to change the future business.  If the Speaker’s decision is challenged by MP’s, provided 40 stand up in their place the debate goes ahead – a bit of parliamentary pantomime the Commons does so well.  Twice last week the Speaker granted emergency debates, both on the Government’s failure to live up to its undertakings.

My colleague Diana Johnson MP has long campaigned for a public inquiry into how thousands of people were given contaminated blood products in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.  The Government has ducked and dived on the issue to the frustration of parliament and patients alike.  Given that the Government has starved the Commons of meaningful business to avoid losing any votes the Speaker clearly decided that time could be found for this specific and urgent matter.

The Government then went into a spin unsure of where the debate would lead.  Diana and I agreed that we would call a vote making sure the Government was aware.  The Government sensibly decided the game was up and agreed to a public inquiry.  We now need to make sure it properly addresses the issue including the central role of the Department of Health.  And when Parliament returns the Government needs a proper programme or risk losing further control of business. 

Inquiry into Contaminated Blood

House of Commons Standing Orders rarely make for lively reading but bear with me.  SO24 calls for an emergency debate on a specific and urgent matter allowing the Speaker to...

Last week was The Climate Change Coalition’s Week of Action.  I joined supporters at the start of their guided tour of Cullercoats where friends and allies could discuss their concerns about climate change.  The Coalition includes agencies like CAFOD, the official aid agency of the Catholic Church.  They work to prevent climate change pushing people deeper into poverty and to promote the transition to sustainable energy.  The Coalition’s aim is to reaffirm Britain's role as a global climate leader and specifically to ensure all government departments work together to produce an ambitious emissions reduction programme that will meet the Climate Change Act targets.  They believe that the advent of a new government is the opportunity to refresh the UK's commitment to tackling climate change.  In case this seems a highbrow complex science matter about far off places of which we know little, think again.  It's also about unlocking the potential of local and community produced energy.  It's about making our homes more energy efficient keeping us warmer and healthier.  And it's about cutting vehicle emissions which keeps our streets cleaner and healthier.  The challenge is great not least because the President of the world's leading power doesn't believe in Climate Change while at the same time the UK is seeking to exit the organisation which has helped guarantee higher environmental standards.  But the longest walk begins with the first small step so good luck to local Climate Change Coalition supporters.

Climate Coalition Week of Action

Last week was The Climate Change Coalition’s Week of Action.  I joined supporters at the start of their guided tour of Cullercoats where friends and allies could discuss their concerns...

In my 20 years in Parliament I cannot remember a more uncertain time.  The parliamentary arithmetic required that the Conservatives sought a deal with the DUP to stay in office.  Pursuing the DUP risks unsettling the peace process which demands British government impartiality.  The deal was underpinned with £1 billion to aid development in Northern Ireland.  If that’s the case then regions like ours also deserve a share.  Why is it right that austerity has ended for the people of Newcastle County Down but not for the people of Newcastle Tyne and Wear? 

Although the Queens Speech eventually went ahead it was a shadow of the one expected.  The decision not to have a Queens Speech next year and a two year session looks like a desire to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.  And all this with a Prime Minister whose flawed judgement in calling an unnecessary election has put a question mark against her own position. 

The context could hardly be worse.  The formal Brexit process began with the Government having few cards to play and a long game in prospect. So the fishermen I met in Westminster this week to discuss fishing after the Common Fisheries Policy are right to be nervous that the Government’s position is already in retreat.  As the tempo of visits and summer events grows in my constituency people are talking about politics and the need for leadership.  It’s going to be long summer.

Uncertain times ahead

In my 20 years in Parliament I cannot remember a more uncertain time.  The parliamentary arithmetic required that the Conservatives sought a deal with the DUP to stay in office. ...

My last constituency event before the Commons returns after recess was presenting awards to the winners of the 10K Road Race.  Thousands of runners took part in what must be one of the most picturesque races. How many road races pass a castle, a priory, a working fish quay, great beaches and finish at a lighthouse? The coast has been particularly busy in the last few weeks, signs of growing evidence that regeneration is taking shape.

 

About time some would say.  Until twenty years ago in true British fashion, the economic decline in seaside towns, as holiday makers chose warmer destinations, was basically ignored.

 

The incoming Government had to be persuaded that investment was needed, hence Labour’s Sea Change programme, followed, to this Government's credit, by the Coastal Communities Fund.  Government action alone was never likely to be enough which is why regeneration has been a partnership between the local authority, local communities and businesses.

 

It has also had to be regeneration for everyone, visitors and residents alike, including residents of other parts of the borough.  It's a job not yet complete – for example, a few weeks ago I lobbied Minister on behalf of Friends of Tynemouth Outdoor Pool to ensure funding was still there to bid for. But I genuinely believe there is a growing confidence judging by the number of local people and groups, getting involved and the quality of much of the investment.

 

Regeneration on track

My last constituency event before the Commons returns after recess was presenting awards to the winners of the 10K Road Race.  Thousands of runners took part in what must be...

Last weekend I joined dozens of volunteers on a clean up of Longsands organised by Surfers Against Sewage. We've got some great award winning beaches. In the last few years our beaches have won blue flag awards, Trip Advisor has given Longsands an "Award for Excellence" and last year Rough Guides said Tynemouth was the best seaside town in Britain. But however clean the beaches and bathing waters are there was still work to be done particularly to highlight the problem of plastics in our seas and along our shores.

 

Inevitably the conversation shifted to Brexit and what it means for our coastal communities and the environment in general. Earlier that week in Westminster the Prime Minister had triggered Article 50 to start the process of negotiating our exit from the EU. The improvement of bathing water and higher environmental standards have coincided with our membership of the EU. They are crucial to the ongoing coastal regeneration which is improving the coast for residents and visitors alike.

 

The Government says the Great Repeal Bill will incorporate EU regulation into our domestic law and then allow the UK to decide which bits to keep. We have laid down six tests for any Brexit deal including maintaining environmental standards and where possible improving them. The hundreds of people using Longsands last weekend, the dozens of volunteers and the businesses and community groups who have bought into regeneration demand nothing less.

 

Environmental standards must be maintained

Last weekend I joined dozens of volunteers on a clean up of Longsands organised by Surfers Against Sewage. We've got some great award winning beaches. In the last few years...

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