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Archive for October, 2012

A Weekend for Volunteering

I was so pleased to be back in Durham on Thursday evening but if I thought for even a second I was going to have a chance to put my feet up I was wrong.

Along with all the usual meetings I have been lucky enough to see some of the fantastic volunteer and community work that is going on in Durham at the moment. What is clear from the last few days is the huge number of Durham residents who happily commit tins of food, money or their precious time to do their bit for the area. I have always known that we live in a very generous area and it is heart warming to see people contribute, often from very restrained budgets in the light of vicious LibDem/Tory Government cuts.

On Friday I begun the day by visiting Tesco in Durham’s Market Place to help present pupils of Newton Hall Infants School with sports equipments raised through the ‘Tesco for Schools & Clubs 2012’ campaign. The children seemed over the moon with their new equipment and, following a summer of sport, I’m sure it will be put to good use. I then visited Meadowfield to open a new hospital which aims to provide state of the art rehabilitative mental health treatment. The facilities there are really good and I was pleased to see this new facility in Durham.Image

On Saturday I joined Sainsbury’s staff at the Arnison Centre store to encourage shoppers to donate spare food items to FareShare’s million meals campaign. Shockingly, 13 million people in the UK live in poverty and many of them are turning to food banks to meet their family’s daily needs. FareShare’s campaign aims to get enough donations for 1 million meals; the food collected in Durham will be is distributed by local charities to local families and individuals in need.

I was delighted to support this campaign and hope that they can surpass the amount they made last year. However, I am extremely worried that whilst we continue to hear about the dire straits many families are in the LibDem/Tory Coalition are announcing yet further cuts to the incomes of struggling families.

We have yet to see the impact of the most recent announcement of £18 billion in cuts to welfare due to come in 2013. Surely with so many people struggling to meet their most basic needs now is not the time to be announcing yet more cuts on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.

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Roberta with Chris Sheegan, Store manager the Headmistress Jennifer Jackson and two children from Newton Hall Infants school

Today, I spent the morning volunteering at St Cuthbert’s Hospice to mark National Hospice Week. Now is a fitting time to say thank you to all the hospice volunteers who do such a demanding job providing palliative care to those in need. The volunteers I met at St Cuthbert’s were clearly very dedicated and hardworking and it was a pleasure to spend the morning with them, I learnt a great deal. 

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The Owen Street development in Manchester

On Wednesday I seized the opportunity of being in Manchester to meet with their planning    and housing team. Manchester City Council is doing some excellent work to ensure that they can keep building homes in Manchester despite the economic downturn. Their approach to planning is a world away from that taken by the LibDem/Tory Government. Where this Government see planning as an obstacle to growth or as yet another scapegoat for their economic failure Manchester City Council, like many good councils across the country, sees planning as a tool to help deliver the things Manchester needs; homes, businesses and green spaces. As Shadow Communities and Local Government Minister I want to see the next Labour Government adopt this approach and will be working with councils like this to ensure our planning policies support councils rather than creating chaos and uncertainty.
I then attended Ed Miliband’s Q&A session in which he took questions from a number of delegates, many of them
enthusiastically waving props like crutches, hard hats and umbrellas to get his attention. Questions ranged from what Ed and his Labour Government will do to encourage more people to participate in politics, particularly working class people, women and ethnic minorities to how he would support our Green Economy. His answers were a mixture of funny and knowledgeable but most of all absolutely honest.

Following this I had a succession of meetings with campaign groups including Christian Aid who updated me on the very important work they have been doing on tackling tax avoidance. A staggering £25 billion is lost to our economy through businesses and individuals failing to pay the correct amount of tax and many times this amount if lost to developing countries. I am very supportive of this campaign and discussed ways in which I can continue to represent them in parliament.

Today is the final day of conference and the day allotted for the debate of Labour’s ‘Sustainable Communities’ policy development. This debate was led by a speech from Hilary Benn the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who heads up our Shadow Ministerial team in Westminster. 

Hilary gave an outstanding speech which highlighted the work the Labour councils up and down the country are doing to deliver for their areas despite the severe cuts imposed by the LibDem/Tory Government. Hilary invited a number of people to speak with him including Elaine Hook, a cleaner working for Birmingham Council. Elaine spoke about how Birmingham’s decision to pay the living wage has improved her quality of life. Elaine, like hundreds of employees of Birmingham council and many thousands of people who work for Labour living wage councils across the country, now finds it easier to pay her bills, buy food and improve her quality of life. This is a clear example of how Labour councils can make a difference in their area and proof that politics does matter. I will certainly be pushing Durham County Council to pay all their employees this living wage.

I am now back in Durham dreading the messages we will hear from the Conservative Conference next weekend.

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Labour Party Conference continued

Following on from my last blog post on Monday afternoon, Labour 2012 conference has continued to be one of the busiest and one of the best I have been to. On Monday evening I took part in an event which looked at the impact of the LibDem/Tory policies on women. After much discussion, and anger at the unfairness of the Government’s policies, we all concluded that this Government’s failed economic plan has been particularly devastating for women. I spoke about the economic impact of the cuts on women. 65% of the public sector workforce is women, so the massive cuts made by the LibDem/Tory government to Councils and other public sector jobs has had an even more serious impact on them.

Other members of the panel (which included Val Hudson, an active campaigner and fellow Durham resident) also raised excellent points about the negative impact Lib Dem/Tory policies are having on life opportunities for young women in particular.

On Tuesday morning I took part in a roundtable session entitled ‘The Weight of the Nation: tackling obesity over the life course’. I focused on how we can educate children to encourage healthy eating habits to be formed from a young age. My Mum was a school cook so I a long standing interest in the important role that school food can play in educating young people about the importance of a balanced diet and nourishing children so that they learn effectively at school. This is why I was so pleased that Durham was a Universal Free School Meal pilot, the pilot was a huge success and the Government needs to look seriously at rolling this out across the country. Instead they have stopped it, once again leaving young children to bear the cost of their economic failure.

Immediately after the roundtable session I rushed to Manchester Town Hall to join Gordon Marsden, Shadow Regional Growth Minister, and a number of council leaders and councillors for an event about apprenticeships and local government. With over one million young people unemployed across the UK, and the Government failing to tackle the issue the responsibility has fallen to Labour councils. The councils represented at the meeting are doing some outstanding work with employers in their areas to create opportunities for young people, but there is still some way to go. We need to encourage all councils to do whatever they can to ensure that all young people in their areas have opportunities for learning and employment. This will be struggle given the huge cuts imposed on local government by the Coalition, but it can be done.

On Tuesday afternoon we all packed into the conference centre to hear Ed Miliband’s keynote speech. I thought that this was a triumph – as I have always known he has the qualities to be our next Prime Minister. The atmosphere in the hall was incredible and the audience clearly agreed that with his message about tackling banks and other companies that rip off ordinary people is exactly the kind of actions we need. Ed set out a vision for a One Nation Britain. One in which the NHS would be protected and the damaging privatisation reversed, banks and companies playing their part in our society and those with the broadest shoulder carrying the heaviest burden. 

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As we welcome October, it’s Conference season again. Last week the Lib Dem’s took their turn, telling us they were sorry and not much else, and this week the Labour Conference is taking place in Manchester. Following Ed Ball’s speech today we look set to see some very exciting policy initiatives, particularly on housing, and a proper alternative to the Lib Dem-Tory Government’s failed economic plan.

Yesterday I arrived in the city in pouring rain (not much different from Durham), but everyone was in high spirits, excited about all the events taking place over the next few days. My conference diary is extremely packed, from speaking in events and meeting different organisations and journalists to attending the Conference stalls,  listening to other speakers and catching up with delegates from Durham and across the North East. Luckily, we all have far too much to be doing for of the climate to be concerning us.

After some catching up with colleagues I spoke at a DODS Politics Home fringe event, entitled ‘Funding our universities, is business the answer?’ Other speakers included Shabana Mahmood, the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, and Vice-Chancellors from several universities. The event was fantastic – a very informed academic audience and an excellent panel enabled a proper discussion of the future of our universities. I spoke about the investment which was put into building business university links under the previous Labour government, and I emphasised the need to build on these links and this investment particularly given the upheaval the higher education sector has seen under the Coalition.

The Lib Dem-Tory Government has continued with some investment for business university links, but the abolition of regional frameworks has made it much more difficult for universities and businesses to work strategically together. This is a real waste, as making it easier for universities and businesses to work together would not only improve higher education but would also benefit the local economy by creating jobs and encouraging investment. Much more needs to be done to rebuild an infrastructure which enabled such partnerships, especially as they could promote such growth in local areas.

At the Dods event, I also raised the issue of private university providers, calling for proper scrutiny of any provider to protect students and allow for sufficient monitoring of standards in higher education. At the moment, privately run-for-profit institutions are relatively new there is no framework to allow for regulation of the sector. It is also important that this is put in place to ensure that publicly and privately funded providers can be properly compared. The panel agreed that more job based experience, including industry placements, for those studying degrees were a way forward (by helping to promote links with industry), but there was a fear that if this was not done carefully degrees could be targeted for a specific job or employer, leaving the graduate vulnerable to changes in the employment market.

Following this event I participated in a Campaign to Protect Rural England discussion on the future of planning and housing provision in the UK and then on to an event organised by Northumbrian Water.

Early this morning, after a quick live interview on BBC Radio Tees where I spoke about my expectations for this year’s conference, I joined the RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute) as keynote speaker at their policy roundtable.

I set out Labour’s policy direction and our growing concern with the current confusion and mismanagement dominating the government’s planning policy. This concern was shared across the room ranging from bafflement at the government’s claim the building conservatories was the secret to tackling the double-dip recession to anger about the change to section 106 agreements and the ensuing delay to building the new homes we so desperately need while developers work out how this might affect them.There were also a number of detailed questions about development incentives.

Now off for some meetings before attending a debate on how best we can work to make the north east an even better place to work and live.

I will keep you updated throughout conference. Watch out later for an update on how LibDem- Tory policies are affecting women.

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