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Christmas Adjournment — [David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee 1:30 pm, 20th December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank you for allowing me the honour of firing off on this debate this afternoon, on the last day before the festive break.

As Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, I should explain to hon. Members why we are here in Westminster Hall, as they will be used to this kind of debate taking place in the main Chamber. Having not had any time from the Government for eight weeks, and not having any assurances that we would get any at all, the Backbench Business Committee decided to hold this debate here to ensure that it took place. We knew that this slot was available about three weeks ago, and it was only last week that we found that we would get time in the main Chamber today, and we already had queues of debates waiting to take up that time.

It may be a Christmas carol to some Members’ ears that I do not intend to use my contribution to discuss the intricacies of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Instead, I hope once again to illuminate the Commons with tales from the frozen wastes of the north, and in particular from my constituency of Gateshead.

Gateshead is a wonderful place, as I am sure Members from all sides of the House would agree. It has actually hosted Conservative party spring conferences, and Conservative party members have enjoyed themselves in Gateshead. They were very welcome, although they have not come back recently.

We have much to be proud of—our angel of the north, our Quayside development, the Baltic, the Sage Gateshead regional music centre and our Gateshead Millennium Bridge that connects us to that village on the north side of the River Tyne, which I believe is called Newcastle. Then there is our town centre redevelopment, which has dramatically increased footfall, our sports stadium, once renowned for hosting major national and international athletics events, our Metrocentre, and our wonderful municipal Victorian park, Saltwell Park. And we have great people, who have genuine generosity of spirit and Geordie warmth. I could go on at length about the great things that Gateshead has to offer, but I feel, sadly, a bit like a scratched record. Having had the honour of chairing the Backbench Business Committee since 2015, I have participated in a number of these debates, and I do not want to repeat much of what I have said before about Gateshead.

Although it is always fantastic to have the opportunity to talk about the many great things happening in Gateshead, I am afraid to say that, for the last eight and a half years, they have happened through the prism of austerity. My local authority has lost well over £100 million per annum in annual revenue since 2010, and that has made life very difficult for many of the poorest people living in my constituency. That is set against the backdrop of a significant year-on-year increase in demand for services, which is partly due to the growth in population. Perhaps more concerning is the significant growth in demand for services to meet the increasing needs in our community. Adult social care demand is well up, and children’s social care demand is increasing exponentially. There is no doubt that policies enacted by this and previous Governments have been driving down living standards and increasing the demand for social care services.

We are all well aware of the health benefits of preventive care, as well as the significant reduction in later costs if those preventive care measures are in place. However, in the north-east—an area with historically lower than average life expectancy—constituents have been pushed to breaking point and beyond by failing welfare reform policies, such as universal credit and personal independence payments. In addition, local authority provision has been pared back to such an extent that often some of those who are most in need still miss out.

It is all well and good for the Prime Minister to decree the end of austerity, but the numbers and the reality do not match the rhetoric. Gateshead, my own local authority, faces a funding gap in the next financial year of a further £29.2 million, rising to £76.7 million by the year 2022-23 and 2023-24. Withdrawing the revenue support grant to local authorities is a policy decision that the Government are entitled to make, but to do that without reforming the council tax system for collecting local revenue is reckless, bordering on criminal. It means that the two sides of the equation do not add up.

To put it in simple terms, when council tax was brought in in the early 1990s, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, because it meant the end of the community charge—the poll tax. Here we are, 28 years later. The council tax system was brought in with bands A to H, with band D as the median, and it was fine for a time. Once the revenue support grant is withdrawn, however, without rectifying the council tax banding system, a local authority such as mine where 65% of all the properties are band A cannot raise enough revenue to meet the needs of the community that it serves.

It is well documented that there is a correlation between cuts to preventive work and increased costs further down the line. The Government continue to give out platitudes and soundbites while constituents of hon. Members all across the House have nowhere else to go. The Government talk about parity of esteem for mental health and physical health, while cutting back on funding to the NHS for public health programmes and cutting local authority budgets—the 12 local authorities in north-east England will lose a combined £190 million from their public health budget, which is there to provide preventive health programmes. The Government talk about helping people into work, while leaving many of my constituents with no more than £190 per month to pay their utility bills and to feed themselves. Many of my constituents are left with £45 a week to live on.

Last week, I met a very severely disabled lady called Anna, who I first met four or five years ago. She is confined to a wheelchair and has had the mobility element in her benefits payments reduced. At the same time, she faces significantly increased charges for her daily care packages, because she requires round-the-clock care. She now does not have enough money to get out of the house more than once a week. It is sad, in the 21st century, that one of the most vulnerable people living in Gateshead—an intelligent woman, confined to a wheelchair—is not able to get out of the house more than once a week because of the constraints on her finances. The care packages that she pays for are sometimes nothing more than 15-minute flying visits.

The Government talk about solving the homelessness crisis, but they sit by while the right-to-buy programme continues to take the best stock out of our social housing. They talk about protecting private landlords and their tenants, but they model housing payments in universal credit on local authority allowance rates, not on the realities of real-world rental payments. They talk about opportunity for all, while fragmenting the education system so badly that a private academy trust operating in my local authority is closing a school of which I was chair of governors, having so badly mismanaged it over the past five years—and having seen the pupil population fall from 700 to 200—that they can no longer afford to keep it open. Schools face a recruitment and retention crisis, and a funding crisis, while increasingly being expected to rectify the social ills inflicted on their children by austerity.

I am interested in this sort of stuff, because I am a member of the Select Committee on Education and I am still chair of governors of a primary school in the centre of Gateshead, where 34 different languages are spoken by the pupil population. It is a poor community. That poor community, and those children, have seen a whole combination of things inflicted on them over the last eight and a half years—not just by the Department for Education but by a whole range of Government Departments—that have had a quite catastrophic effect on their lives.

We have had cuts over the years. First and foremost, one of the early ones was to something that affected children before they were born. We used to give health and maternity grants in this country to ensure that mothers conducted their lives in a healthy way during pregnancy, but they were cut. Hundreds of Sure Start centres have either closed or had their services curtailed. The previous Government were going to roll out a pilot project called ContactPoint to track children and ensure that no child fell through the cracks in the system. It came about because of cases such as that of Victoria Climbié, but it was abolished by Michael Gove.

The play strategy, which was developed to ensure that we had fit playing environments in our communities, was abolished. A programme called “Play Builder”, which was designed to renew local authority municipal play equipment, was gone. The “Creative Partnerships” scheme, which was about cultural enrichment in our secondary schools, was abolished. School sport partnerships had two thirds of their funding taken away. Aimhigher, a programme aimed at getting youngsters from the most deprived communities into university, was also abolished. Then education maintenance allowances went. The careers information, advice and guidance service went. Our youth and community services have been decimated. Add to that the cuts in local authority and welfare benefits.

All of this put together has had a devastating impact on some of the poorest children in our communities. The Government talk about making the welfare benefit system simple while cutting local authority funding, which has traditionally been the backbone of support for voluntary sector organisations. These sorts of services are invaluable when it comes to assisting people in difficulty. It is all talk, and from my perspective, as someone who represents Gateshead, I am afraid it always has been.

I said at the outset that I would not talk about Brexit, but how can I not? Some 57% of my constituency voted to leave, but that came after six years of Government austerity. Many of the social problems that have been identified brought about a situation whereby I would say to people on their doorsteps, “Look, we’ve got to remain in the European Union, or things will get much worse.” Some of my constituents would say, “Worse? What, worse than this?” and they meant it. We face poverty, homelessness, low pay and employment.

Before Government Members talk about their jobs miracle, let me say that the number of unemployed people in my constituency is 1,020 higher than it was in the same month last year, and the figure for youth unemployment is now more than 650. Those things were all caused by the Government’s policies, with little or no regard for massive regional variations or the widening north-south divide. Unfortunately, however we exit the EU, those problems will remain. It is shameful, frankly, for a so-called modern and prosperous country that the United Nations had to send a rapporteur to look at the effects of welfare reform on places such as mine in the north-east of England. It is equally shameful that Members from the governing party saw fit to grab food bank selfies earlier this month. I support the food bank in Gateshead, but I wish it did not have to exist. Given that it does exist and is needed, I will support it, but I work for the day when we do not need it any more.

Although people across the country who volunteer in food banks should be commended, it is a disgrace that millions of our constituents have to rely on donations for food. Although I wish every Member of the House and all staff a very happy, peaceful and restful Christmas, it is a time for reflection more than a time for celebration. I sincerely hope that Members across the House will spend some time over this festive period reflecting on how their choices in the voting Lobbies are directly affecting people in our communities, who are unable to enjoy this time of year as much as we would want them to. I wish everyone all the very best.