It goes without saying that one of the best days of the year, not only for the residents of Durham, but people up and down the country is the annual Durham Miners Gala. This year was the 131st meeting, and it was an absolute pleasure to attend.

As well as being a great day for all the family, the Miners Gala is a symbolic event with a key message, reminding us of the importance of trade unionism and our mining heritage.

All in all, the gala was well attended, and I was delighted to see so many key figures from the Labour movement there, including the four candidates standing to be the next leader of the Labour Party. It was a great chance for members of the public to speak to the candidates and get to know them, which I believe is so important when choosing a new leader.

However, it is ironic to me that as we celebrate the work of trade unions in securing better rights for workers, the government are pushing ahead with a bill that will dismantle the rights of workers and damage the support network that they currently have in the form of the trade unions.

The Trade Union Bill, which was presented to the Commons on Wednesday, will impose a minimum of 50% turnout and public sector strikes would need the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. This is conveniently coupled with the government’s refusal to allow electronic ballots.

The legislation would also require workers to give 14 days notice of strike action, and allow employers to bring in agency staff in the event of a strike. The Government claim that this bill is aimed at protecting working families from strike action, despite the fact that strikes are at historically low levels. More working days were lost to labour disputes in 1926 than in the 37 years combined between 1974 – 2011, and the number of days lost to strikes has also decreased dramatically since the seventies.

Of course, strikes should always be a last resort, and I certainly don’t enjoy mass scale disruption, however trade unions are a vital part of society in protecting the rights of workers. Let’s not forget, without their existence we would all be working a sixty hour week on very little pay.


This bill is an ideological attack, an attempt from this government to silence their critics. The legislation could also cut the amount of money unions have to mount campaigns – or donate to parties such as Labour – with members actively having to “opt in” to pay the so-called political levy, which is currently automatic unless members opt-out.

This attempt to bankrupt the Labour Party is extremely one sided, as there are no parallel proposals to insert more democratic requirements on company donations to parties. I can assure all those who attended the Miners Gala, and all my constituents, that I will continue to stand up for the rights of workers and to oppose this bill.




It has been a busy couple of weeks for me, as you can imagine. Of course, more than anything I was disappointed with the General Election result, but it is now time that we move forward and focus on positive change for the future.

I am, as always, grateful to have been re-elected as the MP for Durham City, and I relish the opportunity to continue representing and standing up for all my constituents. Alongside my role as an MP, I also continue in the Shadow Communities and Local Government team, where I will be focusing on planning and housing.

With these two factors in mind, last week I wound up the Opposition Debate on Housing. The debate was scheduled by the Labour Party in order to force the government to recognise that there is a growing housing crisis in this country, and that we must bring forward a comprehensive plan to tackle the housing crisis, setting out concrete steps to build more homes, including badly-needed affordable homes, boost home ownership, improve the private rented sector and reduce homelessness and rough sleeping. This government have presided over the lowest levels of home building since the Second World War, and the homes that do exist are too often unsuitable to live in. One of our basic needs is to live somewhere safe and warm, and in 2015 it is appalling that for too many people this is an unattainable goal.

Unfortunately, this government have so far failed to recognise that if no new homes are built, there simply won’t be enough places for people to live. We need 245,000 homes to be built every year in England alone, just to keep up with demand, but only 125,000 new homes were built in England between April 2014 and March 2015. And the areas in which new homes have been built are not necessarily the areas where houses need to be built.

The government’s “Help to Buy” policy is seriously flagging, and the government seem to have failed to understand the importance of infrastructure in shaping our economy and society.

I also took the opportunity this week to take part in the debate on the skills crisis in the UK. The UK is facing the worst skills crisis for a generation, with skills levels failing to support the diversity of the modern economy and secure job opportunities and investment for the future. It is vital that we invest in skills, as it is one of the biggest barriers posed towards the growth of the economy, and nowhere is this more evident than in the North East. In my speech on Wednesday I talked about the report from the local enterprise partnership last year, which set out the challenge very clearly, stating that, for the north-east, it “is not just the number of jobs but the quality of these jobs”

Improving the quality is fundamental to its plan. It says: “the area needs to increase the volume of skills at a higher level to address a changing demographic, in particular higher skills required by employers of younger people and those moving into and between work”. Young people need to know that it is not simply a choice between University and nothing; instead we have to improve training and skills for our school leavers and young people, in order to keep up with our ever changing and diverse economy.

Particularly we need to improve the number of women in skills training, as these levels are particularly poor.

I finished my speech by asking the Minister what he will be doing to sustain investment in the infrastructure supporting education and skills development to ensure that those opportunities are spread into the most deprived areas of our country.

You can watch both my speeches here:



The last two weeks in politics have been some of the most challenging, exhausting, interesting and important that I have experienced as an MP.



The challenging bit started with the Scottish referendum. I have been going to Scotland on and off for a while and like others was becoming increasingly distressed as the referendum approached that the Yes campaign was becoming more visible and voluble in its activities. I dislike the SNP politics of division and profoundly believe that the UK is better staying together, especially in these uncertain times globally. I feel that the North East in particular has much in common with its Scottish neighbours. Scottish culture adds to the great diversity of the UK and is something to be cherished by all of us. I found the whole separatist, we will go it alone, put up the borders ideology of the nationalists deeply disturbing. Whilst I am really pleased (and immensely relieved) that the No campaign I worked so hard for won, I do feel that the politics of separatism and division have not been challenged enough.

One good thing to emerge from the result, however, is that greater devolution for England is now higher on the political agenda. I deeply hope that Labour’s commitment to greater devolution for our regions, through structures that already exist and a constitutional convention, are the ideas that win out in the end, rather than that of an English Parliament which again I think is a retreat into the politics of separateness.

My overriding view on Scotland is that we (and particularly the Labour Party) must do more to work on what we have in common. This means learning from each other, seeking greater prosperity throughout the United Kingdom and talking about how we all jointly influence Britain’s role in the world. We genuinely need to promote solidarity between our nations and challenge those who emphasise what divides rather than unites us. Lastly we need to ensure that in debates in the future those opposing the nationalist cause are not subject to intimidation and where everyone can speak without being shouted down, threatened or silenced. I guess it means giving that silent majority a voice.

Labour Party Conference:

The exhausting and interesting bit came from the Labour Party conference. I spoke at a large number of fringes on the planning system, garden cities, housing for disabled people, planning for the needs of older people, improving the quality of the built environment and much more. Highlights of the conference for me can be summed up in four speeches.

Hilary Benn was simply superb highlighting the need for greater devolution of powers to local authorities and highlighting the dreadful impact of cuts to local authority services in poor communities. He also loudly re-stated to thunderous applause our policy to repeal the bedroom tax.

Second was the speech given by Ed Miliband. He may have left out a sentence or two but it was a great speech to listen to. Full of detailed policy objectives on jobs, housing, the environment, training and apprenticeships, the NHS and public services and Britain’s role in the world too. You can read his speech here: http://press.labour.org.uk/post/98234398144/speech-by-ed-miliband-to-labours-annual-conference.

Third was the 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith, who gave an immensely personal view of the importance of the NHS to people’s lives and how we must do everything we can to save health care free at the point of use for future generations. He was wonderful and made me think that the conference would benefit from having more people like him speak.

Finally was the immensely powerful speech by Andy Burnham on the NHS and social care. He said a great deal about protecting the NHS and integrating health and social care to get the NHS back to a system that cares for people – reiterating Ed Miliband’s pledge to increase staffing numbers in the NHS substantially.

Unlike the view of the conference portrayed on television I did not find delegates subdued. Rather I thought people were thoughtful and engaged – aware of the huge difficulties that would face a future Labour government but keen to discuss what we could do with the opportunities too.

Vote on military action:

And then to the extremely important vote in Parliament today on whether the UK should provide limited military aid to support the Iraqi government.

I took a strong stand against the Iraq war in 2003 and I knew I would find this vote difficult. In the end I agreed to support the action as I think the situation is very different now to that which existed in 2003.

Ed Miliband summarised the key points to be considered very well by setting out 6 tests that should be met for military action to be legitimate;

  • That is has just cause- I hope we would all agree that supporting a democratically elected government against an ISIS threat and seeking to prevent further acts of barbarism from ISIS is a just cause.
  • That it is a last resort- I believe that this condition is met as it is not at all possible to negotiate with ISIS.
  • It should be legal- the vote today comes as a result of the fact that assistance is being sought from the government of Iraq. As such, we would be responding to the request of a democratic state fighting for its own survival, a legitimate justification for intervention as recognised in the UN Charter. It is worth noting that there may in addition be separate humanitarian grounds for supporting the action.
  • It should have a reasonable prospect of success- this is the hardest test, but a number of speakers in the Commons debate made clear the aim of the intervention. It is to reinforce the democratic government of Iraq and prevent the advance of ISIL by using international military air power while the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga conduct a ground campaign against ISIL. This will be difficult, but there is already evidence that the US action is having the effect of holding back ISIL and preventing further killings.
  • It must have regional support- a number of countries in the region and beyond are backing Iraq.
  • It must be proportionate- the motion being debated today (see below) is for limited action only.


I have evaluated the tests that have been set for this action by the UN and others and am convinced that the need to assist the Iraqi forces against ISIS is a compelling one.

Like many people I have been horrified by the appalling activities of ISIS that have been appearing on our television screens and feel that we must do what we can to limit their ability to afflict pain and suffering on others. Their ideology is a perversion of Islam and must be challenged at every level.

So whilst I support military action against ISIS I also think that much more needs to be done nationally and internationally to address the radicalisation of young people and others, and their conversion to the jihadi cause. In the UK and elsewhere this will mean addressing the circumstances that lead to terrorism and the infliction of such violence on others.

Some people who have written to me suggest the West or even the Iraqi War is responsible for this radicalisation but I think that is too simplistic. The radicalisation was there long before that and ISIS is just the latest in a long list of terrorist organisations using Islam for its ends. Rather we must seek through education and dialogue a means for promoting peace, mutual respect and equal opportunity for our fellow human beings.

In the end we all know as parliamentarians that the solution to the threat of ISIS will be a political one that will need to emanate from inclusive democratic governments in the Middle East and beyond. Work on this as a political objective must never cease. As Ban Ki Moon said at the meeting of the UN Security Council this week, “over the long term, the biggest threat to terrorists is not the power of missiles- it is the politics of inclusion.”

But for the reasons that I have outlined above, in the meantime I think military action that could contain or reduce the capacity for ISIS to carry out barbaric activities against Muslims, Christians and others should be supported.




Last night I spoke out against the Chancellor’s latest budget. During my speech I highlighted how the Government has yet again failed to introduce measures to help people who are struggling to cope with the rising cost of living. I took this opportunity to once again highlight the fact that the Government have brought forward no strategies to invest in the north-east of England.

After nearly four years of this Lib-Dem/Tory Government, hard-working families in the North East are on average £1,600 a year worse off and not feeling any economic recovery at all. We need a recovery for the many, not just a few at the top and I have called for action to deal with the cost-of-living crisis. 

A Labour Government will:

• Freeze energy bills until 2017 and reform the broken energy market.

• Put young people back to work, with a job the young unemployed have to take – paid for by a tax on bank bonuses

• Expand free childcare for working parents to 25 hours a week for 3 and 4 year olds

• Cut taxes for 24 million working people on middle and low incomes with a lower 10p starting rate of income tax

• Cut business rates for small firms and a plan to get 200,000 homes built a year by 2020

• Balance the books in the next Parliament, in a fairer way including reversing the £3 billion tax cut for people earning over £150,000. 


The transcript of my budget speech is below, and the full debate can be found on Hansard here:



There are some things to be welcomed in the Budget, such as the increase in the personal tax allowance, the rise in the tax-free ISA allowance and the Government’s decision to expand the tax on residential properties worth more than £2 million to those worth more than £500,000. Overall, however, the Budget delivers very little for people in my constituency.

The key question for people across Durham and the north-east is whether they are better off than they were when the coalition came to power back in 2010. For the overwhelming majority of my constituents, the answer would be a resounding no. Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:

“This is a Budget for the people who already have, not for the people who need to benefit most from the return to growth. It is a lost opportunity for the 13 million people…who need active intervention to tackle the structural barriers that keep them in poverty.

People on low incomes are unlikely to see the welcome benefits of growth unless there is targeted help with household and housing costs, with child care and with the nature of jobs and training. The expense and inefficiency of high levels of poverty continue to put a drag on growth.”

I agree with her and would emphasise that neither the Chancellor nor any Government Member today has shown any recognition of the need to rebalance growth in our economy. Significantly, there is a real need to reduce regional inequalities.

Many people in my constituency simply earn too little to benefit from the Chancellor’s tax cuts and can only dream of earning the £1,250 a month that can now be saved tax-free in ISAs, let alone being able to save that amount.

People in the north-east and my constituency hoped that the Chancellor would offer help to do something about the fact that they experience the highest unemployment levels in England. Last month, unemployment in my constituency fell by just 17. Although I welcome that fall, the Government must do more to get people back into work. I have found the Government’s rather triumphalist approach to unemployment quite disturbing. Worryingly, in my constituency youth unemployment has risen in the past two months and more than 900,000 young people are out of work across the country. That is not something to celebrate. It is clear that tens of thousands of young people are not experiencing any recovery at all.

The Government should have used last week Budget to introduce Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee to get young people and the long-term unemployed off benefits and back to work. The compulsory jobs guarantee would be funded by a repeat of Labour’s successful tax on bank bonuses and by restricting pensions tax relief for people earning more than £150,000.

We know that working people are already £1,600 worse off under the coalition Government than they were before the general election, but the situation is exacerbated in the north-east by wages that are about £50 a week less than the UK average and almost £200 a week less than wages in London. Beth Farhat, regional secretary of the northern TUC, has criticised the Budget for failing to tackle the living standards crisis that is the fundamental concern of workers across our region and for the Chancellor’s failure to show any real support for the living wage or fair pay. According to the TUC, north-east workers are much worse off in real terms, and that is equivalent to about 23 average weekly shops, a year’s worth of energy bills for the average household or 88 tanks of fuel.

The regional secretary of the northern TUC has also questioned the quality of jobs being created in the region. Many are precarious and based on zero-hours contracts. She has also drawn attention to the fact that eight out of 10 private sector jobs that have been created have been in the south of England. The few jobs that are being created in the north-east are predominantly in low-paid sectors and leave many families on low incomes struggling to cope with the rising cost of living and increasingly reliant on payday loan companies or food banks. That is unacceptable and it is particularly worrying that the Government have brought forward no strategies to invest in the north-east of England.

The regional growth fund is not strategic. It is not directed towards areas of greatest need or the parts of the north-east’s economy that are most likely to grow. We need from the Government an approach that will direct funds to the areas of greatest need. To respond to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), it is not the case that we are not championing our region, because many people in my area are highly skilled and would welcome the opportunity to work, but what they need is support from the Government for them and for industrial growth in the area.


Roberta with delegates at CWP Conference

Last Weekend I was delighted to attend the inaugural conference of Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians (CWP) from the British Islands and Mediterranean Region (BIMR) of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Edinburgh.

The theme of the conference was Enhancing the Participation of Women in PoliticsThe conference provided an opportunity for women parliamentarians from across the region to discuss issues of mutual interest that fall within the remit of the newly established CWP BIMR group.

Speaking at the opening session of the conference, I gave a presentation to delegates about the lack of female representation in parliaments. Currently there are 147 women in the House of Commons, just over one-fifth of all MPs (23%), and a similar proportion of Members of the House of Lords are also women.

During the presentation I explored some of the special measures that other countries have introduced to help address this imbalance. One of the most effective measures that has been used to increase the number of women in parliaments has been the introduction of quotas, whether it be through legislative changes or party reforms.

Labour are the only major UK party to introduce reforms targeted specifically at increasing the number of women candidates and parliamentarians, and we have done this through the introduction of All-Women Shortlists.

Experience shows that All-Women Shortlists are the most effective way of delivering gender equality in our one member First-Past-The-Post electoral system. All-Women Shortlists and they have undoubtedly strengthened our Party and our Parliament.

At present Labour has 86 women MPs, constituting 33.5% of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is more than all the other parties put together (61). Currently, only 4 out of 22 cabinet posts are held by women and the Tories and Lib Dems have now conceded that their parties have a problem with gender balance.

The conference sessions were very productive and gave delegates the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences about the main barriers women face when trying to enter into politics. The parliamentarians identified ways in which we could look to overcome these obstacles and, in my role as a member of the CWP BIMR steering committee, I look forward to working with parliamentarians from across the region to increase the representation of women in parliaments and politics.

This is an essential step forward that we must take as we seek to tackle some of the broader issues facing women and girls throughout the Commonwealth, such as the threat from violence, access to education and equal employment opportunities.

CWP Conference Roberta

On Tuesday (4th March) I was pleased to speak in an important and very well-attended debate on the private rented sector in the House of Commons for the Opposition. The debate centred on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s report on the private rented sector and the Government’s limited response to the issues the report raised.

There are now 4 million households in the private rented sector and nearly a third of all private rented sector households (1.3 million) are families with children. Many of those who spoke agreed that there is an urgent need to improve the regulation of the sector but the Government is failing to reform the private rented sector and its response to the Select Committee’s report is complacent.

I spoke about how a Labour government would take action to protect and support tenants, raise standards, empower and enable local authorities and simply guidance for landlords.

My full speech on the private rented sector is below, and the full debate can be found on Hansard here:



My speech on the private rented sector:

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) on making an excellent maiden speech, and I can see he is going to be a real champion for his area. I, too, remember campaigning for him, and not only in the rain, but in the wind and rain, and it was very much worth it to have him here. I am sure his warm and moving comments about his predecessor are greatly appreciated on both sides of the House.

We have had a very well-informed debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and his Select Committee on producing such an excellent report and on highlighting the key issues relating to the private rented sector. It is a pity that the Government’s response to the Committee’s report did not rise to meet the sensible challenges it set out.

Indeed it is still a mystery to me why one of the first actions of this Government when coming to office was to put an end to the planned regulation of the sector of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). As a result, four years on, all we have is a consultation and we have lost a valuable opportunity to identify and address key issues facing the sector.

Both the Government’s response to the Committee’s report and the subsequent consultation paper on property conditions in the private rented sector show huge complacency. Yes, the Government are consulting in some areas, but they are not addressing the main issues that the Select Committee report highlights, such as affordability, poor standards in some cases, lack of security of tenure, lack of regulation for letting agents, illegal evictions and lack of protection for the tenant.


It is important that they do address these issues, however, because, as lots of Members have said today, increasing numbers of people now rely on the private rented sector for their housing. We think the figure is now about 4 million households, which is the highest ever.

It is now more important than ever to address some of the long-standing and growing issues that are affecting ever more people. In its report, the Select Committee identifies as the first major issue the need for a simpler regulatory framework. There is a case to be made for consolidation of the legislation relating to the private sector, which is currently dispersed and complicated, and such action would make it simpler for tenants and landlords to understand their respective rights and responsibilities.

Clarity will also make things more accessible for both tenants and landlords and may help to reduce some of the problems that arise, and consolidation would also make things easier for local authorities. What is absolutely vital, however, is that councils are able to put existing, and any subsequent, legislation and guidance in place locally in an effective way, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) pointed in his speech to the importance of enabling a localist approach and of getting good local policies in place.

The Committee is right to highlight the need to raise standards in the sector. Too often unscrupulous letting agents are ripping people off; people and families that are renting are subject to a lack of stability through short-term tenancies and unpredictable rent increases; and too many homes are of a poor standard. Some 33% of all privately rented homes are estimated to be non-decent with one in 10 homes in the sector suffering from damp and mould.

The Committee’s report highlights the considerable concerns of many in the sector and identifies some real problems, but the report also offers potential solutions to these issues, recommending empowering local authorities to tackle problems and penalise landlords who fail to maintain the necessary standards. The report recommends that local authorities should be able to retain the money recouped to fund further work to raise standards.


However, despite the report’s extensive recommendations, the Government have taken a step back and simply published what they describe as a “discussion paper” which they make clear “does not recommend any policy or legal changes” at all to address the issues that have been raised about the sector.

While the Government’s consultation on standards in the sector is welcome, it comes almost four years into the Parliament and as a direct result of pressure from the Select Committee, campaigning organisations and the work of many of my colleagues on this side of the House. It does not make up for up for their failure to tackle this growing problem sooner.

The same applies to the Government’s attitude towards the licensing of landlords. At the moment, local authorities do not even know how many landlords are in their area or how to contact them. We want to help local authorities identify those bad landlords whose housing is not up to scratch and who break the law. That is why we have proposed a national register of landlords, but we have been clear that our aim is to empower and enable local councils to have tools to achieve that locally.

The Select Committee’s report recommends giving local authorities the flexibility to license in their local area and to require landlords to be part of a regulatory scheme. The report proposes lots of different ways of doing that, but the important point is that local authorities need the powers. We want to ensure that if a local authority knows that poor standards are a significant problem in its area, it has the proper powers to deal with them.

Labour-run Newham council became the first council in the country to introduce a borough-wide mandatory licensing scheme for all landlords in June 2012, and it is seeking to prosecute 134 landlords for breaches under the initiative. Despite its success, many local authorities have told us there is too much bureaucracy and red tape in their way if they want to step in and introduce licensing schemes.

Similarly, the Local Government Association believes: “Councils should have greater local discretion on the qualifying criteria and the amount of evidence provided for local licensing schemes”.

Yet the Government appear insistent in continuing their lack of action on this matter, stating in their response to the Select Committee report that there are already tools available to local councils and ignoring the Select Committee’s valuable recommendations. Indeed, they are ignoring a great deal of the evidence from local authorities and others on this issue that was presented in detail to the Committee.

The same is true when it comes to the issue of houses in multiple occupation. As was suggested by the former housing Minister, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), this is a particularly thorny issue. The report considers HMOs in some detail, with paragraph 63 on page 26 considering article 4 directions. I know that the Committee received some evidence that article 4 directions could be used to limit the number of HMOs in a particular area, but I am not sure that article 4s are the right approach or the right tool for this purpose. Many local authorities tell us that they are a clumsy way of trying to control HMOs and that there should be an easier way for councils to regulate HMOs in their area. So we want to make it easier for local authorities to address local problems more simply and directly.

Similarly, we also want to make is easier for local authorities to deal with letting agents. According to estimates, some 4,000 managing and letting agents are entirely unregulated, in that they do not even belong to voluntary bodies that encourage a responsible approach to letting and management practice. It is a peculiarity of current policy that while estate agents, who hold very little money on behalf of their clients, are regulated, letting agents, who hold significant sums on behalf of landlords and tenants, are not. Good letting agents have a worthwhile role in providing professional input and support, but too often tenants and landlords alike are ripped off by unscrupulous letting agents.

We have said we will regulate letting and management agents, and bring an end to rip-off fees. The Government’s moves to require letting agents to be part of an approved redress scheme are welcome, but their action comes only after prominent campaigning by Labour and, in particular, by my colleague in the other place Baroness Hayter. We think that without her efforts the Government would not move on this issue.


Another major issue identified in the Committee’s report is that of tenancies and rents. The report clearly says of the sector: “No longer can it be seen as a tenure mainly for those looking for short-term, flexible forms of housing”. We want to encourage the Government to take stronger action on introducing longer-term tenancies.


My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) raised a number of points related to addressing affordability and supply issues right across the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) drew our attention to the particular issues of affordability and supply in London. The Select Committee did not focus in this report on supply issues, but it did in an earlier report on the financing of housing supply.

In conclusion, the Government need to look seriously at raising the supply of housing in the private rented sector. In doing so, they must ensure that we get not only additional supply but supply that is of good quality and at a reasonable rent. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how he will achieve that.

On Friday (24 Jan) I visited Margate as part of my Planning brief to meet local traders and customers, along with local councillors, in order to discuss the importance of supporting local high streets and regenerating town centres. I have been working with local councils, businesses, organisations and communities to better understand the problems being faced by local communities like Margate and the issues that matter to them.  Image

As part of the visit, I was shown round Margate’s seafront, old town and the Dreamland site with Council Leader Clive Hart and Labour’s prospective Parliamentary candidate for South Thanet Will Scobie. My visit also included a discussion with the Margate Town Team and local council on re-invigorating Margate High Street for the benefit of local people and visitors alike.

It was great to see the regeneration work that has taken place in the town in the last decade and to look at how other towns throughout the country can learn from Margate’s successes. I was really encouraged by the forward thinking of the local council and Town Team and their exciting future plans to further improve the town.

Both the importance of improving the town centre for the local community as well as the key role regeneration plays in attracting tourism and visitors to the town cannot be emphasised enough. This is why Labour has set up a High Streets Advisory Group, which I am proud to be part of, to look specifically at issues affecting local high streets and town centres such as Margate, including business rates and empty shops.

A number of things struck me while visiting Margate that I will feed into our next High Streets Advisory Group meeting.

Firstly, it is important to understand how long the process of regeneration takes. There is a definite need to develop a more long term, strategic approach to High Street regeneration. It is vital to bear in mind that it isn’t just individual buildings and new developments that we need to get right- we need to plan for the whole street and wider neighbourhood.

Crucially, if the ideas of the community are on board then I think we are much more likely to get consent for the developments, which has been missing from a lot of the discussions. The role of local authorities in all of this needs further consideration.

Secondly, lots of issues were raised about the level of business rates especially in areas like Margate that need to regenerate after years of struggle and now have an acute need to support and grow local independent shops. Several innovative solutions, including pop up markets and shop-shares, have helped new and smaller local businesses in Margate and we can learn from this, but more support is needed.

Thirdly, there is clearly a problem of absent or uncooperative landlords and councils and local authorities need more powers to deal with empty and rundown buildings. This would empower communities to shape their own local high streets and town centres.

Fourthly, planning delays were identified as a major issue by many of the local people I spoke to during my visit.

I really enjoyed my visit to Margate and I want to thank all those who helped make it so interesting and those who contributed to the discussions, particularly local council leader Clive Hart and PPC Will Scobie.


On Monday (20th Jan) I took the opportunity to speak in an important and very well-attended debate on pay day loan companies in the House of Commons. Many of those who spoke agreed that there is an urgent need to improve the regulation of this industry. I spoke about the devastating impact pay day loans can have on the lives of many people in my constituency, and particularly those who are vulnerable and already struggling with their finances.

My full speech on pay day loan companies is at the end of this post and the full Commons debate can be read here:


Also on Monday (20th Jan), I joined my colleagues in the Shadow Communities and Local Government team on the frontbench and questioned Nick Boles, the Planning Minister on why the Government is taking away powers from local councils and communities and making it harder for local people to shape their high streets.

Localism was a key Conservative pledge during the 2010 election, but the NPPF and the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, along with reams of secondary legislation and vicious local authority cuts, have completely torn apart the Government’s promise to instil localism in the planning system and it appears that this is only likely to get worse in the coming months.


My speech on pay day loan sharks:

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee for their excellent report on payday lending and for doing so much to raise the profile of the issue, including by stimulating debate. There is a strong degree of cross-party consensus on what needs to be done. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for doing so much to bring the problems of payday loans to our attention.

Most MPs will know from their constituency casework, and from the growing number of payday loan companies on our high streets, that payday loans are becoming more of a problem for our constituents. I hope to be able to run through my four main concerns, the first of which is the exorbitant interest rates charged by those companies, which should not be tolerated in our society. Pay-back rates of 5,800% are not unheard of, and APRs of 2,600% are not at all unusual. That creates huge problems for people paying back the loans. Despite this, more and more people have to turn to payday loan companies just to make ends meet. That indicates that there is a huge cost of living problem in our society, and that many jobs simply do not pay people enough money to live on.

In 2010, just 1% of people getting advice from citizens advice bureaux had debt from at least one payday loan. That rose to 4% in 2012 and 10% this year. Evidence from Citizens Advice also reveals irresponsible lending, and says that it is intrinsic to the industry. New 12-month figures from the national charity’s payday loan tracker reveal that 61% of loans still come without proper checks to assess whether borrowers can afford to repay. It also found not only that three out of four borrowers found it difficult to repay their loan, but that in 84% of cases lenders were breaking their promises to freeze interest and charges for those who were struggling.

National Debtline says that calls for help with payday loan issues soared from 776 in 2008 to more than 20,000 in 2012. A ComRes survey found that 98% of MPs and 93% of the public believe there is a problem with payday lending, and that 66% of MPs and 65% of the public support a cap on the total cost of credit. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Government were forced to take action earlier this year, but I am not sure that requiring the FCA regulator to clamp down on excessive interest rates is really good enough, especially when it will be some months before any such scheme can be implemented. Labour put forward an amendment to the Financial Services Bill, which would have given the new FCA clear powers to tackle the overall cost and duration of high-cost loans, especially where it could demonstrate consumer detriment. It is a real pity that the Government did not accept the amendment.

My second concern is the methods used to trap people in cycles of debt. I have a constituent who, when desperate and applying for a loan, was told that she had to give her mobile phone number. Thereafter, she was sent texts that offered her more loans and offered to give her more money to pay outstanding loans. She was contacted at the end of the month, when she was particularly short of money, and urged to take out more loans.

When she came to my surgery she was literally at her wits’ end and did not know what to do. That case is not unique and we really should not continue to allow companies to behave in this way. If this sort of bullying was taking place anywhere else, it would be tackled. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West mentioned how advertising is increasingly being targeted at children. Again, that is a disgrace and something that should be brought to an end immediately. Research shows that of those sampled who had taken out a payday loan, 60% regret the decision and 48% believe that their loan has made their financial situation worse. Only a tiny number think it has had a positive impact on their finances.

My third concern relates to the proliferation of these companies on our high streets. Action the Government have taken to deregulate use classes and permitted development rights means that it is much easier for payday loan companies to set up on our high streets without having to gain planning permission. This is a step in completely the wrong direction. We are urging the Government to take action on this immediately by returning powers to local councils and local communities, so that they are able to reduce the numbers of payday loan companies on their high streets. We know, from a number of different surveys undertaken with communities, that local people want those powers and they want their councils to be able to reduce the number of payday loan companies in their area.

My fourth point concerns the way in which payday loan companies target disadvantaged areas and prey on poor people. Research recently carried out by Professor Sarah Banks at Durham university described payday loan companies as preying on the poor. She said that many people have multiple loans with payday and doorstep lenders at annual interest rates of up to 4,000% even though their incomes are very small, and that the companies did not even look at the other debts people had or whether they could afford to repay them. They lent to people, even though some of them had only very small amount savings or no savings at all. She gave lots of examples of the unscrupulous way in which loans were being targeted, particularly at those with very low incomes.

As several hon. Members have said, we need to find ways out of this situation, and one of them is to support and promote credit unions better. I am pleased that our new Bishop of Durham has signed up to the Durham County credit union. It is important we see this as a way of fighting poverty, particularly in areas like the north-east that still have very high rates of unemployment and where people are losing lots of money through welfare reforms and increasingly being driven to loan sharks just to make ends meet. We must ensure that people see credit unions as a viable way forward and give them the support they need to join them.

On Wednesday (8th January), I spoke in two debates in Parliament, both on important planning issues. In the House of Commons Chamber, I spoke about the importance of giving local communities the tools to shape their local areas.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) can be found in Casinos and Bookmakers. A number of different games to be played on them but they are most commonly associated with Virtual Roulette. The current maximum stake on B2 machines is £100 (In multiples of £10), meaning that £100 can be bet every 20 seconds.

Many local communities and local authorities have raised concerns that betting shops are clustering in areas with high levels of deprivation.

To deal with these issues, local authorities should be empowered to take action in response to local concerns about betting shops and FOBTs. In addition, action should be taken to minimise potential harm from FOBTs, strong consumer protection measures should be in place and data collection should be standardised to inform future decision making.

Our policy announcements are designed to deal with these issues and empower local authorities to respond to local concerns about the spread of betting shops and FOBTs.

My full speech on fixed odds betting terminals is at the end of this post and the full debate can be read here:


Earlier in the day I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate and once again raised my concerns about the Government’s planning policies. These concerns were echoed by Members from all sides of the House who spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.

During the debate I called upon the Planning Minister, Nick Boles MP, to explain why the Government has gone back on their promise to instil localism in the planning system.

A future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers in shaping their high streets. Our approach is a strongly localist one, and we want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development.

My full Westminster Hall speech can be found here:



Roberta’s full speech on fixed odds betting terminals:

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): We have had an extremely lively debate this afternoon on an issue that many Members across the Chamber clearly feel strongly about. Unfortunately, what we heard from the Minister was breathtaking complacency and the usual “blame Labour” mantra, but it will not wash. It is this Government who are failing to take action on the issue and who have facilitated a proliferation of FOBTs and betting shops on our high streets. Despite the Minister’s speech, a number of Government Members seemed to agree with us that additional powers should be given to local government. It will be interesting to see whether they rediscover their commitment to localism and vote with us in the Lobby.

A number of Members have made excellent speeches this afternoon. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) spoke of the inadequacy of local government powers to control betting shops, and pointed out that action under those powers can be overturned on appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who has done a great deal of work on this topic, helpfully drew attention to the inadequacy of the Government’s research strategy. My hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Mark Hendrick), for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for North West Durham (Pat Glass), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for York Central (Hugh Bayley) noted the prevalence of gambling outlets in low-income areas, the problems of debt that that causes, and the negative impact of too many betting shops on the high street. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham also noted the rise in criminality that is associated with betting shops in some areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) injected a much-needed degree of sense into the debate by returning us to the central issue of localism. My hon. Friends the Members for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke of the importance of getting regulation right, not least because of the large number of people who work in the industry.

Neither I nor my colleagues object to a betting shop or two on the high street, and I appreciate that the industry has a code to encourage responsible gambling, but, as a number of Members have said, that does not go far enough. It is vital for the Government to take action to recognise the wishes and needs of local communities. As many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, there are more than 33,000 FOBTs making £1.5 billion each year for the big bookmakers—that constitutes about half their annual profits—and traditional bookies throughout the country are being turned into mini-casinos where people can gamble up to £300 a minute. Liverpool alone contains 559 terminals, which took £607 million last year. Newham in east London contains 87 betting shops with 348 terminals, and figures released recently by the Greater London Authority showed a 13% increase in the number of betting shops in London’s town centres between January 2010 and December 2012. We have heard how some players have become addicted to FOBTs, and how the machines, and the proliferation of betting shops that promote them, are causing debt and misery, as well as acting as a magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour.

We always made clear that FOBTs were on probation, and it was said during the Second Reading of the Gambling Act 2005 that we would keep them under review. In 2009, when we were in government, we said that would conduct a review because we were concerned about these machines. The current Government, however, have decided to do nothing: five years on, there has been no review. Government Members claim that local authorities have the powers that they need to regulate betting shops, but we have heard time and again from councillors of all parties that that is simply not the case. The next Labour Government will change planning and licensing laws to give councils the right to control the number of betting shops in their areas. If betting shops are not a problem, as the industry is keen to emphasise, they have nothing to fear from such a change.

There is considerable cross-party agreement on this issue. As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out during Prime Minister’s Question Time today, the Mayor of London and the Conservative head of the Local Government Association have said that local authorities do not have the power to limit the number of FOBTs. Indeed, the Prime Minister acknowledged during Question Time that there was a problem in the gaming and betting industry, and stated that we need to “sort it out.” If he recognises the problem, why is he not supporting our motion this evening?

As for the Liberal Democrats, during their annual conference in September they agreed to a motion that would give councils the power to limit the number of betting shops in their area, agreeing specifically to put betting shops in a new separate use class, although they had previously voted against such a motion in the House of Commons. That, of course, is typical Liberal Democrat behaviour. The wording of their motion was very similar to the wording of our motion today. I urge Government Members to recognise that, and to support our motion in order to implement their own policy commitments.

The country is experiencing a cost of living crisis. The average person has become £1,600 worse off since the current Government came to power. People are facing extreme difficulties in affording child care, rail fares and heating their homes. While the Members on the Government Benches are handing tax cuts out to millionaires, millions of people are struggling, and it is at a time such as this that the most vulnerable in our society need protecting. That is exactly what my colleagues and I are proposing in this motion. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) highlighted when he launched Labour’s policy last month, in the poorest areas these betting shops are spreading like an epidemic along high streets with the pawn shops and payday lenders that are becoming symbols of Britain’s cost of living crisis. Our local high streets must meet the needs of local communities, not simply the wishes of betting companies and other similar groups.

We know that the most urgent case needs to be made for changing again the system of use class orders. Use classes play a central role in the planning system by defining the potential uses of buildings. They not only protect certain uses, but also streamline the system by allowing for some changes without the need to apply for planning permission. However, over the course of last year the Government have decided to do away with the protections offered by the use class system and in doing so have stripped communities of a say in the shape of their high streets. In May 2013 the Government introduced changes to use class orders to allow retail use to change to financial institutions without planning permission for a period of two years, allowing the possibility of more betting shops on our high streets and they also now have the audacity to say they may make this change permanent. We are arguing that the Government should do what they say they want to do and give powers to local communities to have a say over what is happening in their high streets, so that if a problem is identified with an over-proliferation of gambling and betting shops local communities are able to pull the plug on these gaming machines, which are unwanted in many of our areas.

CPA Conference 25 Nov

I was honoured be invited to speak on such an important topic at this one day conference, part of the International Parliamentary Conference on the Post-2015 Agenda. Looking back over a decade of the MDGs we see some impressive changes, but we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality.

Every goal in the MDGs relates to women in some way, so progress in several areas has had a positive impact. Big advances under MDG 2 have led to increases in girls’ enrolment in primary education. Changes as small as introducing street lighting in a community in Lesotho have made all the difference in enabling girls to travel home safely from secondary school.

However there is still a gender gap in school completion rates, with far fewer girls than boys finishing their education. We know that 99% of maternal deaths are caused by poor education and poverty, which makes tackling these issues together even more important.

As we look beyond 2015 the commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment remains a key international priority, but the MDGs will not be replaced with a similar set of tasks. Instead we will take a new approach, focusing on building partnerships to tackle wider issues.

It was great to hear parliamentarians from around the world speaking so powerfully on these issues and as the Right Honourable Baroness Armstrong of Hilltop emphasized in her speech, this is not just about increasing women’s access to power, but increasing their influence in politics, society and beyond.

As we commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, it is important to remember that gender equality and women’s empowerment are not abstract targets. These are human rights to which every woman and girl is entitled.

I would like to extend my warmest thanks to the delegates from Voluntary Services Overseas, The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, and the parliamentarians from around the world for making this such an engaging event.