Many readers will have heard about the roll out of Universal Credit, the Government’s new benefits system. It merges six previous benefits and tax credits into one payment that should cover everything claimants – often people in work but on low pay – are entitled to. It sounds simple, and I’m not one to argue against making things plainer if it’s easier. But what is plain and simple is that UC has been nothing short of a disaster so far. Already five years behind schedule – and not due to be completed until 2022 – wildly expensive and plagued by IT failures, its rollout has been anything but smooth. And now, after its implementation in Barnsley in July, we’re starting to see the human impact. People who are applying for vital help, which they’re entitled to, can be left waiting up to six weeks without payment. I know for sure that many people here in Barnsley would struggle to go a month and a half without being paid. It will affect their ability to pay bills, afford the rent, or even buy food. I’ve spoken before about visiting foodbanks in Barnsley, and how appalled I am that they are necessary in this day and age. But there’s a very real chance UC will drive even more people to them, as it already is across the country. Warnings have also been sounded about the increased risk of homelessness and debt, as folk struggle with rent or are forced to take out extortionate pay-day loans to cope. Just this week, I challenged ministers in the House on their handling of the system but nothing they said gave any reassurance to those local people who are suffering. That’s why I’m adding my name to a long list of others in calling for the roll-out to be halted immediately. It’s not good enough, and the Government needs to get the message.
I visited Kendray Hospital at the weekend for a drop-in session organised by the Older People's Forum. It was a great event that brought people together to enjoy lots of organised activities, including a brass band and comedy session. The Older People's Forum does a fantastic job putting on a range of activities which help reduce social isolation.
I attended the switch on of the Diwali Lights in Barnsley town centre on Friday. Diwali is celebrated as the Indian new year and celebrated across the world. The main festival night of Diwali takes place on the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika – usually between October and November. The event was hosted by both the Gujarat association of Barnsley and The Indian Welfare Association of Barnsley. Barnsley is the only town in South Yorkshire to switch on Diwali lights – an achievement the associations are rightly proud of. I was given the ceremonial task of breaking a coconut at the event which may have taken me longer than I anticipated. I’ll make sure I spend the next year practicing!
I was in the Commons Chamber for questions to the Secretary of State for Health. I recently visited Barnsley Hospital, and the staff raised concerns with me about the increasing demand for A&E services. Despite the incredible hard work of the NHS staff, last winter waiting times for those seen within 4 hours fell to around 83% - well below the Government’s 95% target. I wanted to press the Government to ensure our local hospital is equipped with the resources and support they need tackle increasing demand, avoid a winter crisis, and keep people in Barnsley East healthy.
It was great to visit Barclay’s and speak to the team there about what they are doing to help locally. I spoke to them about their work with our community, and how they can help with issues such as money management and skills. We also discussed the innovative ways they use technology, and their apprenticeship programme which could help a young person in our community.
I again took the opportunity to raise the issue of cuts to police staff and resources that have affected us in Barnsley East. But time and time again on doorsteps around our community I’m told of the concerns people have about the effect this has had an anti-social behaviour. Too often people’s lives are being disturbed by often aggressive anti-social behaviour, including that which takes place on off-road bikes and mopeds. So today I brought up these concerns in Parliament, and called once again for our local police officers to be given the proper resources and support to tackle anti-social behaviour in Barnsley East.
Today I challenged the Government in the House of Commons on the recent figures I revealed regarding PIP and ESA appeals. Despite the Minister claiming only 3 percent of appeals are overturned, their own figures show in Barnsley two-thirds of those who are initially rejected PIP and ESA are shown to be eligible on appeal, with this appeal process taking more than 15 weeks on average. This is completely unacceptable, and I questioned the Minister for Work and Pensions on whether the Government thinks it’s acceptable to make people in Barnsley wait nearly four extra months for vital financial assistance they are entitled to. You can watch the video here.
It was a privilege to speak at the event organised by Darfield Labour Party about the Orgreave injustices. The incidents that took place that day in South Yorkshire are still incredibly pertinent to so many people in our community, and it’s important we continue to campaign for those who were affected. You can watch a short clip from my speech here.
Our local police force does an incredible job keeping our community safe, but the conditions they face are challenging their ability to continue doing so. That’s because whilst the damaging public sector pay cap I’ve spoken out against so many times in the past is still in place, an avoidable perfect storm has also emerged that is making our officers’ jobs so much more difficult. For instance, in 2016 South Yorkshire Police received 220,755 emergency 999 calls – a increase of 13,385 calls from 2015. But they’ve received 136,634 emergency calls up to summer alone in 2017, a number we can expect to rise significantly on last years. And it’s not just emergency calls our local officers are having to deal with more of. Last year South Yorkshire Police received 630,646 non-emergency calls for help. This year they’ve already received 510,147 calls. And it’s only September. Hard-work is nothing new to our officers, and they encounter tough challenges every day of their lives. But in the face of this rising workloads there’s fewer and fewer of them left to share the burden. Since 2010, South Yorkshire Police has been forced to cut 583 officers, removing around one-fifth of its operational strength. Those that are left have faced a real-terms pay cut of £6000 in the same period – an appalling reward from the Government for the officers being forced to do the work of many more. And there’s little cause for optimism in recruiting more officers to share this load. Many Police Community Support Officers face the prospect of a pay cut of hundreds of pounds if they join neighbouring forces to move up the ranks as a fully warranted Constable. I brought up this perfect storm in Parliament, and questioned the Home Officer Minister on the problems our police face in keeping us safe in Barnsley. “I am pleased to let the Honourable Lady know that police forces across the country, including Devon and Cornwall constabulary, are recruiting”, was the reply. Well good for Devon and Cornwall. Meanwhile, here in Barnsley there’s more 999 calls than ever before, an unprecedented strain on resources, fewer and fewer officers earning less and less pay, and little optimism for recruitment. The situation is unsustainable, and it’s the wellbeing of Barnsley’s residents that’s at stake.
I met with the National Autistic Society and their Chief Executive Mark Lever at the Labour Party Conference. Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. The National Autistic Society is a leading UK charity for autistic people and their families, providing information, support and pioneering services, and campaign for a better world for autistic people. It was a great opportunity to discuss how to properly support those with autism in Barnsley East.