On Friday 26th January, I visited the RSPB Old Moor nature reserve in Wombwell to have a tour of the site and see the activities the reserve offers for the local area. During my visit I enjoyed pond dipping with children from Goldthorpe Primary, highlighting the important work the reserve carries out with local schools, and also enjoyed bird watching. I was pleased to hear about the important work the reserve is undertaking to protect our natural environment and wildlife, and I look forward to working closely with the reserve in future.
Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s an important opportunity for us all to reflect on the tragic events of the Holocaust. I recently signed the Holocaust Educational Trust’s book of commitment, in which I vowed to continue honouring those lost in this event. And last night I spoke at a Memorial Day event at Horizon Community College, where I was joined by brave Holocaust survivor Iby Knill. I spoke of this year’s theme: the power of words; how incredible survivors like Iby’s have done so much to educate us on the appalling events that took place, and how ours must ensure these lessons of history have been learned, and shall never be repeated. You can read my full words from my speech below: "It’s a pleasure to be here and be able to take part in this incredibly important holocaust memorial event. I thank those who have organised the memorial, and continue to help us all commemorate this day. I was to start by addressing this year’s theme; the power of words. Particularly relevant, perhaps now as much as ever it’s important to draw attention to the impact words can have. Words can provoke and incite, or prevent and placate. They can be used for better and for worse, to cause pain and cure it. And the Holocaust that we commemorate today serves as a constant reminder of the devastating occurrences that can begin simply through the power of words. Because it wasn’t through the immediate incitement of violent anti-Semitism that this event began. Friends didn’t turn on friends, or neighbour on neighbour overnight, inhabited by hatred. It began with implicit and subtle propaganda; through passing references in newspapers and on radios. Children were warned; taught to fear and distrust their classmates by teachers and textbooks. Stereotypes were developed in caricature, as Jews were labelled and categorised. Words were the platform that provided the base for worse to grow. For the perpetrators of the most appalling acts of violence and anti-Semitism in the holocaust who managed to spread hatred through a society and justify their sickening acts against their friends, colleagues, and neighbours: Their words were power. But much as they were used by Nazis and perpetrators of genocide across the world, words also provided an outlet for their victims that experienced these events. Solace was found in the written word; letters and poems about loves ones provoked memories of different times. Diaries kept provided a reason and motive, simply to keep going. For those trapped in the darkest moments, words could provide them with even the smallest spark of courage and hope. For them: Their words were power. And after the holocaust, too, survivors showed the effect the word can have. Brave survivors of the event such as our incredible guest here tonight have relived their own experiences for the betterment of future generations. From courtrooms to classrooms, their words have been vital. Their difficult memories have been passed to us, used as proof of atrocities committed and a warning of what should never again become. These incredible stories and cautions from extraordinary people show that again, Their words are power. And it is from these lessons that we here must vow to learn. Because despite them, we can see the same patterns of history attempting to repeat themselves. Immigrants are demonised, refugees dehumanised, the plight and discrimination of historically marginalised groups denied, and the experiences of Jews met with appalling attempts to de-legitimise. A fractured and divided society has leant itself to a malicious intolerance in too many cases, whilst the advent of the internet has accelerated many direct forms of vitriolic bigotry. That’s why it’s incumbent on us, as the current and future generations to never forget that what may for now be words, can soon become more. I’ll finish by remembering the powerful words of Anne Frank, who wrote: “I want to go on living, even after my death.” As the holocaust slowly moves from living memory to recent history, we must use our own words where others no longer can, and ensure legacies like hers live on. We must tackle subtle propaganda, reject bigotry in all its forms, and stand against the features of our society that insidiously seek to repeat the errors of the past. We must never forget history, but learn its lessons, and take this on ourselves, because now: Our words are power. Thank you."
On Friday afternoon I visited the Kirk Balk Academy as part of the Big Class Challenge to talk to a group of pupils from different classes about politics, the job I do in Parliament and how I represent our area. The Big Class Challenge is a programme run by the Teach First charity, aiming to bring volunteers from different sectors into schools to teach pupils. The students grilled me with interesting questions on topics such as trade after Brexit, getting more involved in politics, and issues in the local area. It was great to be back in the classroom as part of the Challenge and as a Teach First ambassador it was a pleasure to support this initiative.
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.