The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 19th January. Once the excitement of the festive season is over, and before we’re welcomed with the colour and warmth of spring, the long nights of winter often feel cold, wet, and never-ending. But whilst this period can be difficult, we’re at least in our homes, with the heating on and a roof over our heads. Too many others simply aren’t afforded that luxury, and make do with unsuitable and overcrowded temporary accommodation, or even face these conditions out on the streets, in doorways, or on park benches. Because homelessness is still widespread, rising in number, and has been for some time. For instance, the number of households in temporary accommodation or shelter and classified as homeless has grown 65 per cent since 2010. And the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has grown by over 130 per cent in the same period. Meanwhile, since 2010 homelessness among people with mental and physical health problems – some of the most vulnerable in our society – has increased by around 75 per cent. This pattern is replicated locally, too. Across the Yorkshire and Humber region the number of people sleeping rough rose by just under 50 per cent. A lack of affordable housing, local authorities under huge financial strain and unable to provide services, wage stagnation, rising rents and a squeeze on welfare has left people unable to pay rents, are all partly responsible for the current situation. But whilst the causes are varied, what is clear is that after an unprecedented decline in homelessness under the last Labour government, the huge rise in homelessness since 2010 is a national shame. We need to immediately set about tackling these root causes of rough sleeping and homelessness, reserve additional homes for people with a history of sleeping rough and financially safeguard homeless hostels and supported housing. Nobody should be forced into unsuitable and cramped accommodation or out on to the streets, especially in these difficult winter months.
Last week I visited the foodbank at Cudworth Library last week I was told of the disastrous impact the roll-out of universal credit has had in forcing people to seek help – a message I’ve heard from other foodbanks in our community. I want to pay tribute to the amazing work the volunteers there do helping people in their time of need. But it’s time this Government explained why they think it’s acceptable to make struggling people here in Barnsley East choose between heating and eating. Watch me challenge them on this in Parliament here.
I’m honoured to have been asked to serve on the Labour frontbench as an Opposition Whip. The role entails helping with the organisation of legislation and is a great chance to work even closer to forefront of Parliamentary business for the Labour Opposition. And at a time when the Government has no majority and the Commons is more powerful than ever, this is a chance to make a real impact on the decisions that affect this community and hold this Tory Government to account on their damaging policies they continue to impose on people in Barnsley East.
The Government recently announced plans to alter how housing costs for shelters and refuges that protect vulnerable women and children are paid. The proposals aim to shift the funding from Housing Benefit to the responsibility of financially-strained local authorities. Women’s Aid have suggested this move could result in around 39% or refuge services closing down, with a further 13% reducing their services. Quite simply, this puts at risk the lives of thousands of vulnerable women and children who are the victims of domestic violence and the Government’s proposals should be rethought. You can read more about the plans and respond to the Government's consultation here.
This week I visited the Cudworth Library foodbank. It’s a scandal that in 2018, people are unable to put food on the table for themselves and their families – and foodbank use in Barnsley and across the UK is only increasing. But I’m always overwhelmed to see the kindness and generosity offered at foodbanks like Cudworth Library, as people donate their time and food for others in the community who are in need.
I welcome the Education Select Committee’s recommendations presented to Parliament this week that call for a foster care and child care system review to ensure children are receiving the support the require. The recommendations push for a consideration of whether self-employment is the correct status for foster carers, and a review of taxation rules and minimum allowances. More needs to be done for foster carers to help them deliver care, and this is a welcome step forward for the professional recognition of foster care.
On January 12th I had a great meeting with the Industrial Communities Alliance in Barnsley. The Alliance is a national organisation based in Barnsley that brings together the Coalfield Communities Campaign and Steel Action to campaign on behalf of local authorities in former industrial communities like our own. We had the chance to discuss the role of the group in representing industrial communities and how they can continue to assist in the economic, social and environmental regeneration of areas like Barnsley.
I spoke in Parliament yesterday on the issue of bank branch closures. in 1998 there were more than 11,000 bank branches in the UK. But due to rapid rates of closure – including over 1,000 in the last two years – there are now just over 6,000 local bank branches in the UK. Though banking practices have changes with people moving to online systems, many businesses and often elderly individuals still depend on the face-to-face services only local branches can provide. Closures, such as that of Natwest in Hoyland, risk financially excluding and isolating communities and people. It’s so important decisions on local bank branches are taken with the interests of local communities in mind.
On Wednesday 10th, I brought up the Government's woeful treatment of our NHS and local hospital in the House of Commons. I Despite the incredible work of staff at Barnsley Hospital, bed occupancy reached 100% on December 31st, far above the safety target of 85%. This is simply not good enough from a Government overseeing a preventable winter crisis in our NHS. You can watch my comments here.
On 10th January I was in the Chamber supporting the important #AgentofChange Bill to protect music venues and support our cultural heritage.