Column: COVID-19 and Council funding

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 27th November 2020:Vital local services cannot be run on warm words alone, but, unfortunately, it seems that is what the Government expects of them.Barnsley Council have done a fantastic job in supporting residents through the pandemic, but that comes at an expected cost, to the end of March, of £50M.This includes around £34M to support the most vulnerable, as well as support for the social care market and businesses.The Council also estimates lost income of around £16M from council tax, business rates and fees.To date the Government’s income compensation scheme is only expected to provide £2M to cover this.The shortfall in government support leaves our council at a loss of £15M.Of course, this all follows a decade of austerity, in which Barnsley received the biggest cuts in government support of any council in the country.If the Government do not reverse their position and provide councils with adequate financial support, the inevitable result of this is not only a council with less capacity and resilience in supporting public health at a vital time.It is essential services, which have already been decimated over recent years, being cut even further.From bin collections, street cleaning and libraries to children’s services, social care and homelessness support.Councils touch every corner of our country and are vital for our communities.As I raised in my speech in Parliament this week, during the pandemic we have relied on them to wholly and rapidly reorient themselves in a way that we could have never envisaged.Day in, day out, they are on the frontline.They are leading the fight against the virus, all whilst providing the essential services that we all rely on.For this, they were promised ‘whatever it takes’ by the Government.That they should do whatever was needed, and the Government would ensure that they - and we as local council tax payers - weren’t left out of pocket.But, sadly, the rhetoric hasn’t yet been matched by reality - certainly not for Barnsley. With many independent bodies warning that many of these costs may become permanent, such as additional costs for social care, the financial context becomes even more serious.Our area cannot afford to be left behind by government for another decade.Councils cannot fund vital services with claps on the doorstep - and key workers, who’s pay the government is set to freeze, certainly cannot pay the bills with them either.The Government needs to step up to the plate and be true to its word - because our communities cannot afford anything less.I will continue to fight for our area and raise these issues with the Government.My office remains open to all constituents who need support. My email is stephanie.peacock.mp@parliament.uk.

Column: mental health

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 16th October:Now, more than ever before, it is important that we look after our own mental health and look out for those around us.Because alongside the impact coronavirus has had on our physical health, is the mental health epidemic which has sadly accompanied this pandemic.Research from the Centre for Mental Health has suggested that we could see an extra 500,000 people experiencing mental health conditions as a result of COVID-19, while figures from the Royal College of Psychiatrists show that there has been a 43% increase in urgent and emergency appointments for mental health services.Sadly, the current crisis comes at a time when we have seen ten years of underfunding in mental health services, despite repeated Conservative promises to treat mental and physical health as equally important.I have challenged the Government on this, asking questions in Parliament on issues including mental health waiting lists, the pressure placed on mental health services by COVID-19, and mental health support for veterans.Here in Barnsley, I have supported charities and initiatives such as the Samaritans and the MindSpace initiative, which aims to provide mental health support in local schools.And I will continue to press the Government to give equality to mental and physical health, and proper support for mental health services in our community.Over the last few months, I have been inspired by the way our community has come together to support each other at this difficult time.And alongside mental health services, it is important to remember the real difference we can all make in our day-to-day lives – the smallest action or gesture can make the biggest difference to someone who is struggling.People will discuss their physical health but many are reluctant to talk about mental health. We should all do more to let people know that it is ok to talk about mental health.Last weekend, we marked World Mental Health Day.The theme this year was “Do one thing" to support your own or someone else’s mental health.So, whether it’s checking on your neighbour, making time for yourself, or taking the first steps to seeking support, make time to do one thing to support your mental health and those around you.If you are struggling and feel you need to seek support, please do remember that you can contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or Mind on 0300 123 3393.

Column: NHS treatment backlog

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 2nd October:Ahead of the winter months, it’s vital that our NHS is given the resources and support it needs to survive a 2nd spike in COVID-19 infections and additional pressures brought on by colder weather.Over the last few months, we’ve seen spiralling waitlists, the longest since records began, and heard stories from friends and neighbours about cancelled or postponed medical treatments and doctor’s appointments.Already we have health inequalities in this country. Life expectancy in Barnsley is five years lower than in Kensington and Chelsea. I’m worried this gap will increase if no action is taken.Last week in Parliament, I asked the Government to outline its cancer recovery plan, to deal with the backlog in cancer screening tests and get cancer treatments and services up and running again following the lockdown.I’ve been contacted by concerned constituents who have symptoms for serious illnesses but who’ve been unable to get a diagnosis. Back in March, bowel, breast, and cervical screen programmes were put on hold. Many have only recently started up again.It is vital that the Government gets a hold of this crisis now. We cannot keep delaying treatments and operations.NHS trusts need to be given support to get back on their feet and up to capacity.Community care networks and technological solutions must be promoted, and help must be given by this Government to make sure that doctors, nurses, and frontline workers have the tools they need to keep our community healthy.The simple fact remains, however, that without a fully functioning test and trace system we cannot get our NHS back on track.I challenged the Prime Minister on his Government’s mismanagement of COVID-19 testing. His reply was shocking. He refused to accept responsibility for the failure of the testing system. I shared with him the example of a mum from our community who had been denied an accessible test for her son. She was asked to travel over 300 miles away to Inverness for a test.Patients should get the care they need the first time around.From a COVID-19 test to a cancer screening appointment, the quicker someone is seen the more likely they are to recover. This, ultimately, protects our community and helps everyone stay healthy.Doctors, nurses, and staff are working day and night in Barnsley hospital and across our community to keep people well. We must do right by them and follow up to date COVID-19 guidance, to stop the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable people.I don’t believe Barnsley people should pay for the hidden costs of this pandemic. One in 50 NHS patients have now been waiting a year or more for planned surgery treatments due to COVID-19 delays. It’s people from places like ours who can’t afford private healthcare whose health will suffer if the backlog isn’t dealt with and our NHS isn’t given the support it needs.The Government need to wake up to the oncoming crisis and act now.

Column: COVID-19 testing

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 18th September:Over recent weeks, we have seen a concerning rise in COVID-19 cases both here in Barnsley and across the country.It’s a reminder that this pandemic is far from over.It’s a reminder of the importance of continuing to follow the expert scientific guidance: washing hands regularly, maintaining social distancing, and wearing a mask on public transport, in shops, and in busy public places.And it’s a reminder, sadly, of the problems we have experienced with the test, track and trace system in recent weeks.The World Health Organisation has consistently said that we must ‘test, test, test’ in order to find cases of the virus and break chains of transmission, while around the world, the countries that have had the most success in tackling this virus are those who have undertaken extensive contact tracing.But here in the UK, we have all seen the stories of people struggling to get tests.I’ve seen the impact of this recently too, with a local mum contacting me to highlight that she has struggled to get a test for her son here in Barnsley, with the Government system instead offering tests in Bolton, Oldham, Inverness or Edgbaston.With her son already missing six months of schooling during lockdown, he is now stuck in limbo, unable to get tested and unable to return to the classroom.Sadly, stories like this are becoming the norm.Meanwhile, when people can get a test, and test positive, they are confronted with a privatised track and trace system which struggles to trace people in sufficient numbers.Throughout this crisis, the Labour Party will work constructively with the Government where possible – we recognise that a national crisis demands a national effort.And we have seen how localised testing can be rapidly deployed when there is a spike in infections, as happened in Wombwell last month.But we are now approaching autumn and winter, when the scientific consensus is that transmission of the virus will be easier, and there are clearly issues with capacity in the testing system which must be addressed.I have previously written to Matt Hancock to highlight the importance of localised testing and proper support for test and trace, and this week in Parliament, I raised these issues directly with the Health Secretary again.I highlighted the difficulties local residents have faced with access to testing here in Barnsley, and pushed him to sort out these problems urgently.Ahead of this difficult winter period, I will continue to do what I can, in Parliament and locally, to support our community and keep local residents safe.

Column: recovery from COVID-19

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 4th September:The last few months have been incredibly challenging for our community.The COVID-19 pandemic has not only caused a devastating loss of life, it has been damaging economically, with the Bank of England forecasting the worst recession for 100 years.Too many businesses have struggled, and as the Government prematurely winds down the furlough scheme, too many jobs are already being lost.This week, the Government launched an ad campaign to urge people to return to the workplace.But this has not been accompanied by any clear plan to tackle the economic crisis we face.Last weekend, we saw reports of disagreements between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor over the best approach to take.Worryingly, the reports claimed that one response the Government is considering to this crisis is to slash spending, ushering in another decade of cuts.Here in Barnsley, we have faced the worst cuts in the country over the last ten years.Our NHS has faced the most severe funding squeeze in its history, our Council has lost 40% of its funding, and local people have seen too many of the vital services that they rely on stripped back or closed.Our community does not need more damaging cuts to funding, closing services and driving people into poverty.Instead, the Government should adopt the approach the Labour Party is pushing, put the focus on protecting and creating jobs, and safeguard the livelihoods of working people in our area.Over the last few months, I have been pushing the Government to do more to support our local economy.I have asked questions in Parliament on accessible funding for small and medium sized businesses, support for workers to self-isolate, the impact on hard-hit sectors like the beauty industry, and the need for a tailored package of funding for our region.I have also written to the Government about support for the self-employed, financial support for Barnsley Council, the Bounce Back Loan and Business Interruption Loan schemes, and support for our local sports clubs.During this pandemic, our community and our country have come together for the greatest collective effort in a generation.But sadly, this has not been matched by the Government.They have been too slow to act at every stage of this crisis, and they must learn from those mistakes, act now, and provide the support we need to protect the jobs of working people here in Barnsley.As we rebuild after COVID-19, it is vital that local residents here in Barnsley have the opportunity to shape our post-pandemic recovery.That’s why I’ll be launching a survey next week so that local residents can share their views with me directly, and I’ll continue to support local people in any way I can as we try to rebuild our economy and way of life over the coming months.

Column: COVID-19 and foodbanks

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 10th July:Coronavirus has not hit every family and community the same.On Monday I spoke to volunteers at Barnsley Foodbank in Wombwell. They informed me that demand for emergency food parcels has trebled in recent months as hard-pressed families have struggled to put food on the table. At the same time donations to foodbanks fell to an all-time low as people stockpiled essentials and shopped less.Nationally, the number of households in need of emergency supplies of essentials has doubled compared to this time last year. Families with one or even two furloughed parents have had to make do on wages that are 20% less than normal. At the same time, those who have been unable to access financial support have had to survive on Universal Credit payments of £94 a week.Working families have been pushed into poverty.Covid-19 feeds off inequality and makes it worse.Before the Government’s U-turn on the provision of free school meals to children in need during the summer holidays, 1.3million children were at risk of going hungry. But, as a country we made the Government listen and take action. Marcus Rashford added his voice to the cause and over 250,000 people signed an online petition. We made it clear that vulnerable people deserve help to get through this unprecedented public health crisis.As lockdown restrictions end and we enter a new ‘normal’ way of living it is important that the Government pays attention to what coronavirus has revealed about social inequality in this country. We need a social security net to catch those, through no fault of their own, who live on the edge of poverty. Urgent investment in local services, transport, infrastructure and our economy will protect our community and make it more resilient.I will continue to fight for those who have missed out on Covid-19 financial support as well as push for more resources for our local Barnsley Council, which has continued to provide vital services to those in need throughout the pandemic.In the meantime, if you have any spare or unwanted food and essentials, in particular pasta, tinned goods, nappies and toiletries please consider donating to Barnsley Foodbank. If you would like to get in touch with them, their telephone number is 07741414810.My constituency office remains open to help all those who need assistance. Please call  01226 743 483 or email stephanie.peacock.mp@parliament.uk.

Column: Armed Forces Day

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 26th June:Tomorrow we will commemorate the service of men and women in our country’s armed forces. Many of the events scheduled for this year’s Armed Forces Day have sadly had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I know that members of our community are showing their support of serving troops, service families, veterans and cadets in new and innovative ways.Our area has a proud history of celebrating armed service men and women. In previous years we have come together to remember the fallen and recognise the dedication of those still in service. It has always been an honour to attend the Barnsley flag raising ceremony and speak to veterans, members of our community who are still serving  and representatives from organisations like the Royal British Legion.This week, I watched the virtual salute online and took a moment to think about the contribution of armed forces personnel to our country, including helping with efforts to tackle Covid-19. The armed forces have been active throughout this outbreak, from supporting shielding hubs to constructing and running mobile testing units.I’ve always been a proud support of our armed forces. As an MP I’ve undertaken two Armed Forces Parliamentary Schemes, one with the Army and one with the Royal Air Force. These courses have been year-long, offering the opportunity to learn more about the armed forces alongside service personnel. I’ve witnessed first-hand the professionalism and commitment of servicemen and women as I have spent time with frontline personal, visited bases and observed forces on deployment.The armed forces play a vital role in the UK’s defence. Their personnel deserve better pay, decent housing and an end to privatisation and the outsourcing of military contracts. Last year it was reported that a private’s starting salary was £1159 lower in real terms pay than it was in 2010. The public sector pay cap simply isn’t fair on hardworking servicemen and women who risk their lives for our country. I will keep fighting to make sure all branches of the armed forces get the resources they need to continue carrying out their essential functions.To those who are currently making our community proud I would like to take this opportunity to say ‘thank you’ and reiterate my commitment that I will do my best to ensure they have the support they need to carry out their crucial roles.

Column: our economic recovery from COVID-19

The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 12th June:Over the last twenty years the decline in heavy industry and manufacturing has hit areas like ours, which were built around glassworks, steelworkers and coalpits, hard. The most recent economic crisis, brought on by the Covid-19 outbreak, has had a devastating impact on our local businesses and industries.But, recent research has shown that its areas like Barnsley, where manufacturing remains a key industry, that could lead our country’s economic recovery. The challenge facing our national economy is huge but high-growth industries, like manufacturing, could be the solution. The UK’s manufacturing industry has been neglected in recent years in favour of a service-based economy.More investment in British manufacturing will help re-balance our national economy, redistributing economic power from the South to regions like ours, as well as helping domestic manufacturers compete globally.Manufacturing accounts for less than 10% of the UK economy, but with financial assistance from the Government this could be boosted to 15%. We already produce world-class goods, including industry-leading British steel, they just need help reaching global markets.Since being elected I have been vocal in my calls for the Government to invest in our local businesses and economy. They urgently need financial assistance so that they can survive to help our economy bounce-back from this crisis.Over the last ten years our area has suffered from chronic underfunding. Indeed, Barnsley Council has had some of the worst funding cuts in the country, having to reduce its spending by 40%. This has had an impact on the local services we rely on, from adult social care to maintenance of roads and local bus services.If areas like ours are to play a central part in the UK’s economic recovery from Covid-19 we need investment in local infrastructure, affordable and modern transport services and education. With more funding local schools and colleges, including our excellent Barnsley College, can help close the regional skills gap. A more skilled workforce increases productivity and helps local businesses adapt to changing global markets and technologies.The Conservatives promised at the last election that they would ‘level up’ investment across the country. We already have ambitious local businesses and a hardworking workforce. We just need support from this Government so our manufacturing industry can grow.Last month I spoke in the Virtual Parliament, pressing the Government to outline its plans to help Barnsley recover from the economic impact of Coronavirus. I will continue to push for investment in local businesses and services. With more investment unemployment and inequality will fall. This Government needs to wake up and realise the potential of areas like ours.

Barnsley Youth Choir Message of Hope

The wonderful Barnsley Youth Choir have recorded a Message of Hope to everyone feeling isolated or anxious during these difficult times.Click this link to watch.

Column: my thoughts on reopening schools

I have been contacted by dozens of concerned parents, carers, teachers and school staff in the last week, all worried following the Government’s announcement on the 24th of May that schools could re-open on June 1st.  I would like to first thank the teachers who have been working tirelessly to provide online support to their pupils as well as in-person lessons to the children of key workers during the COVID-19 outbreak. School staff have been working around the clock to help their students during this difficult time. Last week I wrote to headteachers to find out their views. I heard so many accounts of staff working longer hours and missing holidays to ensure pupils are taken care of and that their educational attainment doesn’t suffer as a consequence of this crisis.   I firmly believe that the decision to widen the opening of schools is one that must be made in collaboration with school staff, teachers’ unions, parents and carers. My office has been in close contact with local schools during this time, helping them with any issues they have faced as a result of these new and challenging circumstances. I have also spoken to representatives of the National Education Union who have outlined what social distancing measures and safety conditions must be in place for schools to be able to re-open, these include testing, social distancing and fewer cases of COVID-19 in our community.   From the outset of the outbreak I have been deeply worried about the impact of school closures on the wellbeing and educational attainment of disadvantaged children. As a former teacher I know the importance of in-person support and regular check-ins. What has become very clear over the course of this outbreak is the impact of nearly a decade of underfunding on our school’s capacity to deliver online teaching and support to pupils. A recent report found that private school pupils are twice as likely to receive online lessons than those at state schools. State schools simply do not have the funds to create online learning platforms and provide their pupils with an electronic device to access them. I recently had a meeting with the Minister for Children and Families to advocate for these children and push for more resources for schools so that they can better support them.  When schools re-open their gates it will not be a return to how things were before. For schools to re-admit pupils social distancing measures and safety conditions must be met. We also need to make sure that disadvantaged and vulnerable children do not miss out as we adjust to new ways of working and educating. These have been very difficult times for our community and I am proud of how we have risen to this unprecedented challenge. It is important that that the concerns of worried parents, carers, teachers unions and school staff are taken into account. We all want schools to return as soon as possible but only when it is safe to do so.