I want to take this opportunity to raise three issues that are of particular importance to my constituents. First, however, we have a Budget that still predicts lower economic growth over the coming years and puts us near or at the bottom of the international growth leagues—and that is without the impact of Brexit. From a hard Brexit to a soft Brexit the economy will be hit, impacting on the UK’s ability to grow its economy. Even the Government’s own impact assessments show that under whatever deal the Prime Minister negotiates we will be worse off, especially in the north-east of England where almost two thirds of our trade is with the EU. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, business investment is down since the referendum.
The Brexiteers’ chief economist, Sir Patrick Minford has said that the car industry will need to be run down, impacting on the thousands of jobs in the north-east and around the country that are reliant on that industry, because, in his words, “these things happen”. In my view, the loss of thousands of jobs is not a price worth paying for Brexit. That is why, when we find out what the final deal is, it should be put to the people in a people’s vote, so they have the final say on this once-in-a-lifetime decision.
One local issue pertinent to my constituents and the Budget is the provision of GP services. The lack of GPs is a national concern that is now impacting on our local communities. Skerne Medical Group, which is currently consulting on the future of its provision in Sedgefield, Fishburn and Trimdon, is at the forefront of the crisis. It is putting in place a four-year review of its future services. Skerne Medical Group’s surgeries in Sedgefield, Fishburn, and Trimdon Colliery are part of that review. The Trimdon Village surgery is not and faces closure. I believe that it should be a part of the review, but I understand the challenges faced by the Skerne Medical Group. For all the increases in the NHS budget, we found out today that public health services and the education and training of nurses and doctors will be cut by £1 billion next year.
Professor Anita Charlesworth, director of economics and research at the Health Foundation, has said that although more money has been made available for the NHS
“there is a big risk that it won’t feel like that in hospitals and GP surgeries over the coming years”.
In 2015, the Government promised to recruit 5,000 additional GPs over five years up to 2020. Now that deadline has been changed to “as soon as possible”. In fact, it is worse than that. In 2015, there were 34,500 GPs, but the latest figures for June 2018 show that there are now 33,163—more than 1,400 fewer GPs than when the target was set. A medical school has been opened at Sunderland University. It is envisaged that 50 students will enrol next year, with an increase to 100 by 2020. That is good news, but how many will stay in the region once they have been trained? The crisis in GP provision in my constituency and elsewhere is now, and the Government need to address the problem now.
Universal credit continues to be a problem. The Children’s Society indicates that even after the additional funding announced in the Budget, the reduction in work allowances under universal credit, introduced in April 2016, will cost families about £2,460 a year. I am still concerned about the design of universal credit. It is causing many practical and frustrating problems for many of my constituents. For example, one constituent, a woman working 25 hours per week as a cleaner, is a single parent to a young child in primary school, so she needs to be around for childcare. She had a change in circumstances, so was moved on to universal credit. There was a delay in her first payment as her claim was not processed correctly, so she had to resort to visiting a food bank. She received an advance payment, but now her claim settlement leaves her with too little to live on after paying her rent. She is much worse off after moving from tax credits to universal credit. People will say that austerity has come to an end, but the examples of GP surgeries and what we face with Brexit and universal credit proves that it has not.
Finally, on town centres, Newton Aycliffe in my constituency is home to a small shopping centre. The owners have spent several million pounds on improving the environment and have won awards in doing so, but there are still empty shops, like in a lot of town centres around the country. A £675 million future high streets fund therefore seems like a good idea, but we need details of how that money will be spent. Are hard-pressed local councils expected to pick up the tab? If so, renewing our town centres will end up only competing with the other demands on shrinking local authority budgets. Not only has austerity not ended, but neither has the smoke and mirrors used in the Budget.