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I have been calling on the Government to halt its proposed roll-out of Universal Credit, and have met with representatives from groups in Durham who deal with claimants to discuss their worries about the proposed system. I also signed the cross-party letter urging the government to re-think the proposed roll-out in light of the issues raised by MPs of all parties. My recent meetings in the constituency with representatives from the Jobcentre, NEPACS (North East Prisoner Family Support) and from the Citizens Advice Bureau on this matter only reinforced my worries about the issues with Universal Credit, which have not been adequately addressed by the government.

Despite the announcement at Conservative Party Conference that this roll-out is still going ahead, my Labour colleagues and I are still calling on the government to pause the roll-out until a better system of support can be put in place.

The organisations that I met with raised the following specific issues with me:

Firstly, there is an ongoing problem with severe delays to payments of Universal Credit, with research showing that one in four new claimants have experienced waits of more than 42 days for new claims to be processed, causing great financial hardship and in some cases destitution for families. This is a particular issue for households living in the Private Rented Sector, and research also showed that nearly half of families who transitioned onto Universal Credit then fell behind with their rents, risking eviction and homelessness.

Secondly, there are fears about those in receipt of working tax credit, and child tax credit, being forced to seek more hours of work, even when this does not fit in with patterns of childcare, or arrangements that they already have in place with their employers to work a certain number of hours. In many cases, the extra cost of childcare caused by working longer hours is greater than any additional salary earnt from extra work, leading to less money in real terms for households.

Thirdly, there is the issue of the poor administration of Universal Credit, which impacts particularly on vulnerable claimants and those who find it difficult to navigate the benefits system. The need for suitable bank accounts, when some claimants are unable to open them, makes it harder for some people to claim the benefits they are entitled to. Secondly, the requirement that tenants produce signed tenancy agreements and bills to qualify for the housing benefit portion of the payments will produce difficulties for many in the private rented sector.

It is also unacceptable that the hotlines to receive advice about Universal Credit operate at a cost of 55p per minute, particularly as research by the Citizens Advice Bureau demonstrated that the average call length is 39 minutes. This means that claimants will have to spend around £20 to receive guidance with their applications for Universal Credit, representing a high proportion of their already limited budgets.

There is also the issue of deductions being taken from Universal Credit for overpayments of benefits, which has pushed claimants into further debt. It is concerning that the amount which can be deducted from Universal Credit claims is much higher than for with the previous legacy benefits, which has led to more claimants being pushed into debt.

Lastly, I am also concerned about changes to payments which mean that, under Universal Credit, all household benefits are combined into one payment to an individual. This means that under the new system, payments which previously had normally gone to the mother, such as child benefit and child tax credit, now go to the individual that the couple has jointly decided receives the payments. This has obvious implications for women’s financial independence, particularly in the context of women with abusive or controlling partners, or who have alcohol or drug problems.

When I met with NEPACS, they also raised the issue of financial support for ex-offenders, as the delays to initial payments of Universal Credit mean that in many incidences people are leaving prison without any financial support at all for the first six weeks. This prevents ex-prisoners from building a new life, and they less likely to stop offending without adequate support as they reintegrate into mainstream society.

I will continue to listen to individuals and groups in the constituency who have raised their concerns with me about the impact of Universal Credit, and will continue putting pressure on the government to re-think the planned roll-out in light of these issues.

I have written to the Minister of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke MP, to raise these concerns and to urge the government to put better systems in place to address these issues before Universal Credit is rolled out, and will keep my constituents updated with the government’s response. 

Roberta calls on the government to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit

I have been calling on the Government to halt its proposed roll-out of Universal Credit, and have met with representatives from groups in Durham who deal with claimants to discuss...

On Wednesday 6 September I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate to mark the International Day of Democracy worldwide, where I took the opportunity to call on the government to properly support local and parish councils in order to support local democracy better, and to commit to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 16 in its international development work. 

I also paid tribute to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), who do fantastic work across the world to support and strengthen democracy in many different societies. 

As we reflect on the state of democracy worldwide, it is clear that there are many worrying trends both at home and abroad. This is why it is important for Parliamentarians to reaffirm the value of our system of representative democracy, particularly in the face of its critics at home and abroad.

You can listen to my contribution to the debate here:

http://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/e2e54721-72f5-4399-af2d-c79cbb1af174?in=15:07:00&out=15:25:00

 

The Hansard transcript is here:

https://goo.gl/eAoj9R

Roberta speaks in Parliament for International Day of Democracy

On Wednesday 6 September I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate to mark the International Day of Democracy worldwide, where I took the opportunity to call on the government to...

On Tuesday morning, I spoke at a Public Policy Exchange event on Safeguarding Against Extremism in Higher Education, along with speakers from the Department for Education, University College London Union, academics from the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University, as well as legal experts.

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In particular, I spoke about the need for the higher education sector to strike a balance between responding to extremism whilst protecting academic freedoms. These freedoms to express, debate and challenge radical and often controversial ideas are a vital part of our free society, and are what allows UK higher education institutions to be among the most highly regarded in the world. Tackling extremism is of course a serious challenge, but the statutory policy response to this must be focused on violence and other illegal activity taking place on campus, in coordination with local authorities, the police, and communities.

This is a very important issue in Higher Education at the moment, and as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Universities Group, I will continue to work with my colleagues and the higher education sector in Parliament.

 

You can read the full text of my speech on 5 September below.

Balancing the requirements of an open and democratic society while simultaneously safeguarding its diversity and values from those attempting to exploit this openness is an unbelievably difficult task. I believe that UK higher education plays an integral role in enabling this by providing our young people with the tools to critical thinking and a safe environment to freely engage with a variety of opinions. Importantly, the academic freedoms ingrained in this system allow for new and radical, if at times controversial and unpopular, ideas to be expressed, debated, and critiqued freely in an open setting. These freedoms are vital in our efforts to challenge insular echo chambers and to forge mutual understanding between differing points of view regarding all aspects of our society.

Freedom of speech in our higher education system is strongly protected by law, and it is the duty of our universities to guarantee this freedom for their members, students, employees, and visiting speakers. The legal framework on free academic expression is engraved in three important pieces of legislation. First, the 1986 Education Act forbids universities from denying the use of any premises purely on the grounds of any beliefs, views, policies, or objectives that an individual or a body may have. Second, the 1988 Education Reform Act grants individual members of the academia the freedom to question received wisdom and to put forward new and controversial proposals and opinions without the risk of losing their jobs or roles in their institutions. And third, the 2004 Higher Education Act gives academic institutions the freedom to determine the contents of the particular courses they offer. These freedoms guarantee the place of UK higher education institutions at the heart of our democratic society as independent centres of research and knowledge.

But we must keep in mind that the right to free speech is certainly not absolute. The exercise of free speech is always bound by law, and universities are under legal obligation to ensure that public order matters, such as the prevention of discrimination and religious and racial hatred, are adhered to in all campus events. In addition, criminal law constitutes an equally important boundary to the lawful exercise of free speech, as it is illegal for universities and student unions to provide a platform, for example, to anyone encouraging terrorism or inviting support for proscribed terrorist organisations.

Within these boundaries, I strongly believe that universities have an essential role to play within an open and tolerant society in providing a platform for open discussion and debate where even the most difficult of issues can be addressed in a civilised and academic manner.

This also the view taken by many within the academia – in 2015 over 500 academics from universities across the UK signed an open letter criticising the Government’s decision to impose a statutory duty on their institutions to actively prevent people from being drawn into extremism as ‘unenforceable’. Concerns have been raised in particular about the new requirement for universities to monitor non-violent extremism that in itself is not illegal. This has significantly obscured the previously established line between academic freedoms and the boundaries set to free speech by criminal and civil law.

The foundations of this new duty are written in the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which requires universities, among other institutions, to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. With regard to higher education, the aim is to provide support for students at risk of radicalisation and to introduce policies to prevent extremist speakers from radicalising students. Importantly, however, this duty is intended to be fulfilled according to the legal framework set in the already mentioned laws on academic freedom.

The 2015 act also solidified the role of universities in the Government’s Prevent strategy, which is a part of the broader UK counter-terrorism policy originally established in 2003 and aims to provide support for people at risk of joining extremist groups. Alongside being vigilant and aware of potential radicalisation, universities must now also refer any suspicions about individuals at risk to a local Prevent authority.

Yet, although universities now have this statutory responsibility to tackle radicalisation on campuses and have issued guidance on how to combat extremism in line with the universities’ pre-existing duty of care, finding the balance between responding to extremism and maintaining academic freedoms is not that clear cut in practice. I would like to focus next on the potential issues that arise from this new duty.

First of all, we need to be clear and acknowledge that there is no single route to extremism or any certain visible signs of radicalisation. The Government’s ‘Raising Awareness of Prevent’ workshops, for instance, were criticised for reducing these supposed signs of potential radicalisation into mere visible signs of Islam, despite the fact that a quarter of all the cases the Prevent programme deals with have to do with far-right extremism. We should not expect university staff to be able to recognise any initial marks of possible extremism, if even national security officials have not yet been able to determine definite signs of brewing radicalisation. And our response to extremism certainly should not be Islamophobia.

There is a real concern that this obsession with a single path of radicalisation can make Muslim students in particular feel more marginalised and as a result erode the trust between Muslim and non-Muslim university staff and students, and that if we let this alienation to continue it might even unintentionally reinforce the extremist message that these minorities are somehow fundamentally incompatible with our open communities.

One of the most famous cases of false suspicion of terrorism that received international coverage and debate on the issues around the narrow line between responding to extremism and defending academic freedoms happened in 2008, when University of Nottingham student Rizwaan Sabir was detained by the police for seven days as a suspected terrorist after downloading an Al-Qaeda training manual from a US government website for his master’s dissertation research. After receiving £20,000 in damages for settling the case, Dr Sabir has since become a lecturer in criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, specialising in students at the risk of extremism and the challenges faced by those who research political violence.

Similarly, in 2015 Mohammed Umar Farooq, a postgraduate student of counterterrorism at the University of Staffordshire, was questioned and wrongly accused of potential links to terrorism by the university’s complaints official for reading academic textbooks on the topic of terrorism. He was later apologised by the university after three months of investigation.

These instances also illustrate the second point I would like to highlight regarding the issues present on how we expect universities to respond to the threat of extremism. The Government’s use of broad terms such as ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ without sufficient precision in the legislation and implementation guidance has made it difficult for universities to know with enough certainty whether or not they sufficiently fulfil their statutory prevent duty. And precisely because this duty is so broad and relative unspecified, university personnel face the risk of misjudging cases only because of the fear of being found to be in breach of this new duty.

Extremism, for example, is defined in the Prevent strategy as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, which raises a question whether active teaching and reading of the works of ancient Greek philosophers who strongly criticised democracy as a poor form of government would constitute an offense under this definition.

On a more serious note, however, this lack of clarity does raise possible concerns whether environmental, anti-austerity, and other politically dissenting campaigns could be affected by the poorly specified notion of radicalism. After all, a great number of radical ideas and movements have throughout history been associated with universities and students engaged with intellectual experimentation, and curbing the free flow of ideas in the name of security or offence could have serious consequences.

This is exactly why we need to be vary of the potential conflicts between our responses to radicalisation and defence of academic freedoms. Self-censorship and unnecessarily curbing the right to free speech solely based on possible disruption caused by unpopular or controversial topics are not helpful.

Examples of this self-censorship are numerous. In 2014 Christ Church College at the Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion after complaints that both of the speakers were men, while in 2015 University of Southampton cancelled a conference on the State of Israel following an online petition. Last year, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was refused platform at a debate by the Canterbury Christ Church University’s student union after the Observer published an open letter that Mr Tatchell had signed defending Germaine Greer’s right to free speech. These are not instances of extremism that we should curb our academic freedoms for.

Simply put, we cannot protect our society from those extremists who want to restrain our democratic freedoms by restraining our democratic freedoms. But we must learn from our mistakes to find the right balance between responding to extremism and protecting the openness and diversity of our higher education.

We must first acknowledge the important positive work that universities have done so far with their duty to respond to extremism while being mindful of the requirements of academic freedom. Universities UK has, for example, provided excellent guidance for universities to draft effective and clearly communicated procedures on how to deal with external speaker requests and help on how to regularly review these measures. Their Safe Campus Communities website allows universities to share real-life case studies on how to respond to extremism on campus, which helps with the coordination of strategies.

Moreover, I think that universities can be best utilised in our broader response to extremism as the leaders of research into terrorism and radicalisation. It is academic research after all that is used to identify the signs and causes of extremism, and all the evidence point towards socio-economic rather than ideological factors as the underlying conditions that give legitimacy to violent extremism.

It is the primary responsibility of universities to deepen our understanding of this interplay between the factors, and academic freedom to conduct this research is an integral resource in our efforts to understand and respond to violent extremism.

Importantly, we must have more faith in the ability of students and young people themselves to debate and criticise violent extremism. We should trust them with the challenging of extremist narratives on campuses and support them in this task, as it is the aim of higher education to raise independent critical thinkers who cherish the openness, tolerance, and diversity of our society.

We must also encourage universities to continue the building of relationships with student groups and local community leaders, the supporting of inter-faith activities, their work with local Prevent groups, and the implementation of IT policies to screen out illegal web browsing. Staff and students have also an important role in ensuring that campus debates are balanced and that events including speakers with extreme views also contain speakers who challenge these views.

We must understand that preventing extreme, unpopular, controversial, or radical views to be expressed publicly does not make them go away. It is therefore important that we focus our efforts on openly challenging the non-violent extremist viewpoints with the tools provided by free academic research and forums.

To accompany this free and open challenge of extreme ideologies, the focus of the statutory response strategies for universities should be on monitoring the signs of violence and other illegal activity on campuses, as well as on coordinating these responses with local authorities, from the police and teachers to community leaders. This way our universities can play their part in managing the risks associated with extremism with minimal damage to the ever-so valuable academic freedoms.

Roberta speaks on Extremism in Higher Education

On Tuesday morning, I spoke at a Public Policy Exchange event on Safeguarding Against Extremism in Higher Education, along with speakers from the Department for Education, University College London Union,...


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Press Releases

Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, has recently welcomed the news that nearly £17 million of National Lottery money has been invested in heritage projects across Durham since 1994, and has encouraged constituents to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for grants to explore the legacy of the First World War.

 In this time, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded more than 157 grants to heritage projects in the area to fund projects such as restoring local parks and buildings, researching local history, protecting wildlife and exploring local archaeology. 

The Heritage Lottery Fund is now looking to support projects in Durham that explore the impact of the First World War on our communties beyond 1918, and are offering grants between £3,000 and £10,000. 

 

Roberta said: 

"Durham has an incredibly rich history, and I am delighted that the National Lottery have been supporting so many different activities that allow local residents to discover and explore that heritage for themselves. Like so much of the UK, Durham and the surrounding villages were changed forever by the First World War, and it so important that the impact of the war, and the sacrifices of so many should never be forgotten. 

I would strongly encourage anyone has an idea for a project relating to the First World War to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant. Details of how to apply can be found at www.hlf.org.uk/looking-funding/our-grant-programmes/first-world-war-then-and-now.”

Roberta welcomes National Lottery investment in Durham

Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, has recently welcomed the news that nearly £17 million of National Lottery money has been invested in heritage projects across Durham since...

A report recently released by the Care Quality Commission shows that across the UK, one in three nursing homes are failing, and one in four care homes breached basic safety requirements, with vulnerable people increasingly having to fend for themselves. 

Since 2010, the Government has reduced local authority care budgets by £4.6 billion, with Durham County Council seeing a 42% reducing in its funding alone. This will leave a funding gap in social care of £2.1 billion by 2020. 

I have campaigned on the need for proper funding for social care in Durham for many years, and will be holding a roundtable discussion in November with a number of different stakeholders, including Durham County Council and the County Durham and Darlington NHS Trust. This meeting will focus on the challenges the NHS and local authority are facing in providing care in the future, and how to ensure that people are receiving the care they need. I have also raised a number of issues directly with the Care Quality Commission, including the low standard of care that is currently deemed acceptable. 

 

Social Care in Durham and across the whole country is in crisis, and it is decisions made by the Government that have brought us to this point. 

Since 2010, not only have local authorities’ care budgets been cut by an incredible £4.6 billion, but 400,000 fewer people are now receiving publicly funded social care. In Durham, despite the hard work of the council, the 42% reduction the Social Care budget vulnerable people in our communities are not getting the care and support they need.

 Furthermore, as I have already raised the fact that the baseline standards of care are too low with the Care Quality Commission, it is very concerning to see so many care and nursing homes failing.

 

I will continue to work with care providers and the local authority to help support their efforts in providing much needed care, and will press the Government on the urgent need for proper funding for social care in Durham.

Roberta highlights Social Care Crisis

A report recently released by the Care Quality Commission shows that across the UK, one in three nursing homes are failing, and one in four care homes breached basic safety...

 

 

Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, has today raised her concerns that many children across Durham will go hungry over the summer holidays as family budgets are stretched alongside children not having access to the meals that are provided for them at school. 

Over 71,500 children in the North East will not receive the free school meal they are eligible for during term time. Of these, 13,656 of these children live in County Durham, so the issue of holiday hunger affects a large number of children in the area. 

Roberta has campaigned on the issue of holiday hunger for many years, and has talked with a number of councils across the region to find out how they work to combat this issue, such as funding events for children that include a meal as well as fun activities, and to share best practice throughout the North East. 

As wages continue to fall in real terms due to rising inflation, and families are finding it harder to get by, Roberta will continue to press this issue with the Government, Durham County Council and local schools. 

Roberta said: 

"I think it is totally unacceptable that so many children are at risk of going hungry over the summer holidays in our communities, and I have campaigned on this serious issue for many years now. 

Child poverty is at a seven year high, and wages are falling, meaning that families are worse off. Every child deserves to be well fed every day, and I will be pressing the local authorities and the Government to ensure a fully funded scheme in put in place in the future to ensure that no child goes hungry over the summer holidays.”

 

Roberta attending a holiday hunger event organised by Gateshead Council

Roberta attending a holiday hunger event organised by Gateshead Council

Roberta highlights issue of holiday hunger in Durham

    Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, has today raised her concerns that many children across Durham will go hungry over the summer holidays as family budgets...


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