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Last week, when Parliament was in recess, I had the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) annual conference. The CPA is a global organisation that brings together Parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth and supports them to promote good governance in Parliamentary systems around the world.

After the Conference, along with a cross-party group of MPs, I went to Cox’s Bazaar to visit the Rohingya refugee camps, which are currently home to over 800,000 people.

My visit helped me to understand the action that I can take as the Shadow Minister for International Development to push the UK government to do all it can to help with the crisis. It also made clear the vast scale of the camps, as the mass exodus from Myanmar following the violence in Rakhine state is one of the largest population movements in living memory.

This is the equivalent of a city the size of Manchester establishing itself overnight with no prior infrastructure, housing, or sanitation. Walking around the camp, which was possible on our visit because the rains had stopped and the mud was dry, what struck me most apart from the obvious destitution was the scale. Wherever we turned the camp was visible far into the distance. Given the speed of the exodus from Myanmar, it had not been possible to properly plan the camp, and with new people arriving all the time the camp was a sea of makeshift shelters stretching as far as the eye could see.

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Upon arrival, we were keen to hear from the Rohingyas themselves about what they thought the camps most urgently needed, and so on arrival at Kutupalong camp we met a group of community leaders, both men and women.

The conversation started off as expected – they described how there was not enough of anything; space, water, education, sanitation, clothes, food, shelter. But perhaps what surprised us most was that despite the very real hardship they were experiencing, what they most wanted was citizenship. This was to be a recurring theme of our visit.

One encounter has particularly stayed with me. In our first meeting at the camp, I spoke with a young man aged 25, who had been born in the camp, as his parents had fled from Myanmar in an earlier displacement in 1992.

 

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He recognised the need for more food and other supplies but said what he most wanted more than anything was citizenship, because then he could make his own way in the world. Unfortunately, this will not be easily achieved at present. The military in Myanmar have a long history of refusing citizenship to the Rohingyas, and Bangladesh is reluctant to give permanent residency to so many people in a very poor area of a low income country. International pressure to solve this particular issue is of the utmost urgency and importance.

Our next stop was at a school, which children attend in shifts due to a lack of places. Like all young children they were excited by visitors and keen to show us what they were learning. The teachers made much of the fact that the school was actually functioning because just a few short weeks ago it had to close to accommodate 600 newly arrived Rohingya pupils in a small area. As with all schools, it was a place of hope, but this glimpse of normality was short lived. On our way out, we noticed that two families were living under a single piece of tarpaulin, and this was a warning of what was to come.

We passed a large queue for food and saw the distribution of new shelter materials and basic household and personal items, including basic clothing packages.

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We also visited a transit camp, recently established by the UNHCR, where new arrivals traumatised and injured by their experiences in Myanmar and long journey are given space to have their medical and personal needs assessed before moving to the camp. This showed the difference that international efforts are making to the lives of the displayed Rohingyas, and the contrast between the care and compassion showed by the staff, and the violence so recently suffered by the Rohingya in Rakhine state was heart-wrenching to consider.

 

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We were moved and distressed by what we had seen, but we were determined to remain focused on what we could do to help the situation. Our discussions with the camp residents, local officials, UNHCR and NGOs left me with four issues to take up in Parliament.

Firstly, the UK and other international aid is essential in ensuring the basic needs of the Rohingya are met and that camp life can improve. In my role as Shadow Minister for International Development, I am determined to protect both an independent Department for International Development, and the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on international aid against Tory threats to cut both.

Secondly, the camps need more space, and it is urgent that Bangladesh determines as soon as possible how this can be achieved.

Thirdly, staff and volunteers from UNHCR and NGOs are doing an amazing job servicing the camp and supporting the Rohingya. They don’t seek recognition for their efforts but their amazing work in difficult times circumstances should be acknowledged.

Fourthly, the underlying problem of the Rohingya is not only the violence and persecution they face in Myanmar, but also their lack of citizenship. Without citizenship, they cannot access the support and services needed to rebuild their lives in Bangladesh, as it is unclear whether the Rohingya will ever be able to return to Myanmar following the violence they have experienced at the hands of the Burmese military.

While my trip to the camp was in many ways a harrowing experience, it was a privilege to meet the amazing staff and volunteers at the camps, and to speak to some of the Rohingya refugees myself. It has re-affirmed my commitment to doing all I can to make sure the UK plays its part in these humanitarian crises.

 

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Roberta visits the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh

Last week, when Parliament was in recess, I had the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) annual conference. The CPA is a global organisation...

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...


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Press Releases

Roberta has this week commented on the proliferation of To Let boards across the city centre prior to the start of the fifth Lumiere festival.

 

A voluntary scheme for landlords was introduced in 2009, which limited each landlord to one board per street, however in January 2017 Durham County Council ran a consultation asking residents whether they would prefer to retain the voluntary code, or whether the local authority should apply to the Government to formally tighten the controls on To Let boards.

 

Lumiere is set to run from Thursday 16 November to Sunday 19 November 2017, and is expected to attract over 200,000 visitors to Durham City, with a series of light installations from artists across the world for people to explore.

 

Roberta said:

“While I am pleased that Durham County Council have consulted with residents on tighter regulations to curb the number of To Let boards in Durham, this has been an issue in Durham for some time, and having regularly raised this issue with the Council, and discussed steps that have been taken in comparable cities around the country, I had hoped that action would have been taken on this already.

As Lumiere is upon us and we are ready to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors to Durham City, Durham should be doing everything it can to make the city attractive, and the preponderance of To Let boards throughout the city is not only unattractive, but sends the message that Durham is up for rent.

I will continue to press Durham County Council on the need to introduce stronger controls on To Let boards as soon as possible.”

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Atherton Street

 

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Mitchell Street

 

 

 

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Flass Street

 

Roberta challenges council on To Let boards

Roberta has this week commented on the proliferation of To Let boards across the city centre prior to the start of the fifth Lumiere festival.   A voluntary scheme for...

Roberta has raised concerns about the level of funding provided by the Government for schools in Durham. Local primary and secondary schools have budgets that are already stretched, and analysis of the Government’s proposed National Funding Formula has found that these will be put under further pressure.

 

Figures from the National Education Union show that 33 out of 41 schools and academies in the City of Durham constituency will receive a cut in funding over the period 2015/16 to 2018/19. Schools in Durham will have, on average, £193 less per pupil in their budgets. Under the Conservative led Governments, school spending per pupil was frozen in real terms from 2010/11 to 2015/16, and further frozen in cash terms from 2015/16 onwards – which represents the biggest fall in per pupil spending for 30 years.

 

On 14 September 2017, Roberta asked the Secretary of State for Education to guarantee that no school in Durham would face a real terms cut under the proposals. Despite the response that “there will be a minimum 0.5% cash increase per pupil for all schools in 2018/19, increasing to 1% by 2019/20”, the National Education Union’s figures point out that in realty, with inflation running at nearly 3%, this amounts to an annual cut in funding.

 

Roberta said:

 

“I know that many schools in my constituency are already struggling. Schools are experiencing larger class sizes, a reduction in activities, a decrease in the number of teachers and overall cuts to their budget.

 

It is completely unacceptable that the majority of schools will be facing budget cuts. I am really concerned about the impact that will have on teachers and school staff generally, but I am also really worried about the impact this could have on the education of our young people in Durham because they deserve a great start in life, and the best education possible. 

 

I am going to continue to press the Government and the Secretary of State for Education to reverse these cuts and give the schools in Durham the proper funding they need.”

Roberta concerned about cuts to schools in Durham

Roberta has raised concerns about the level of funding provided by the Government for schools in Durham. Local primary and secondary schools have budgets that are already stretched, and analysis...

Roberta recently opened the hugely successful County Durham School Games held at Maiden Castle, and was delighted to be asked by County Durham Sport’s Executive Manager, Ian Gardiner, to become their first Parliamentary Sports Champion.

 

County Durham Sport are an organisation which aims to increase the number of people taking part in sport across the county, ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access facilities and services that will allow them to participate in physical activity, and promotes education, training and coaching courses to highlight the benefits of physical health and fitness.

 

As Parliamentary Sports Champion, Roberta will work with County Durham Sport in Westminster and the constituency to help extend, promote and improve the sport and physical activity opportunities open to people in County Durham, as well as raising the profile of local programmes to increase engagement and participation from members of the public.

 

Roberta said:

 

"I believe that it is so important that everyone across County Durham has the opportunity to take part in sport and physical activity, and can access high quality facilities and services, so I am delighted to become a Parliamentary Sports Champion for County Durham.

 

County Durham Sport already do amazing work in our communities, especially in increasing opportunities for young people to become involved in sport, and I really look forward to working with them in the future to raise awareness of their work and supporting them in delivering even more projects across the county.”

Roberta becomes County Durham’s first Parliamentary Sports Champion

Roberta recently opened the hugely successful County Durham School Games held at Maiden Castle, and was delighted to be asked by County Durham Sport’s Executive Manager, Ian Gardiner, to become...


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