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On Tuesday this week, I held a Westminster Hall debate on the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, following my visit to the refugee camps earlier this month as part of a cross-party delegation organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and the UNHCR

The debate was heavily oversubscribed, with many colleagues making powerful speeches calling on the government to do all it can to help the plight of the Rohingya people. 

I focussed on the situation in the camps, and on the humanitarian response by the Department for International Development, UK aid agencies and the international community. I wanted to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the amazing work done by British NGOs on the ground during this crisis, and I reiterated that the UK needs to do all it can to provide assistance to allow life in the camps to improve for the hundreds of thousands of residents, who at present are struggling to have even basic needs met.

As my visit brought home to me, both the scale of the camps, and the scale of need is vast. In the debate, I raised how the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has estimated that nearly 300,000 people need food security assistance, more than 400,000 people need health care and of the 453,000 Rohingya children requiring education in the camps, only around 40,000 are receiving any form of education. For as long as the Rohingyas are living in the camps, the UK and international community must ensure that international aid is providing for the everyday needs of the Rohingya, so that camp life can improve and that education at all levels is available.

In the longer-term, it is imperative that the issue of statelessness of the Rohingyas is addressed, as it was clear from my visit to the camps that resolving the issue of citizenship is essential to the future of the Rohingya.

I also raised the issue of the recent deal signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and urged the UK government to use its leverage to ensure that any refugee returns are safe, informed and voluntary. 

 

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Roberta speaks in Westminster Hall debate on the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh

On Tuesday this week, I held a Westminster Hall debate on the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, following my visit to the refugee camps earlier this month as part...


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...

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.

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,... Read more

Under the Conservative government, wages in the North East fell in real terms last year, compared to a rise of 1.1% from 2002 to 2010

Britain needs a pay rise. But under the Tories, workers in the North East have suffered a pay cut as both average real wages and productivity have stagnated. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that across the country, real wages are lower than they were in 2007. Under the Conservative government, wages in the North East fell in real terms last year, compared to a rise of 1.1% from 2002 to 2010.

To boost productivity requires investment in skills, infrastructure, R&D, access to finance by firms and a range of other factors. But there is evidence raising wages helps raise productivity too.

This is because it acts as a spur to firms to invest in new technology and training, boosting productivity and maintaining profitability. It also helps to reduce turnover of workers, motivate staff and foster loyalty to the firm, again helping raise productivity.

While wages increased consistently under the last Labour government, they have stagnated under the Tories and the evidence shows no sign of recovery. Here in the North East, under a Labour government, wages grew by 1.1% per cent, in real terms, between 2002 and 2010. But since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, wages fell in real terms by 0.1% per cent.

Labour would act to boost the wages of workers, including the introduction of a £10 Real Living Wage by 2020 for all workers aged over 18.

Under a Conservative government, people living in Durham have experienced stagnating wages and a cost of living crisis, leading many people, who are in work, to resort to taking out high-interest loans and using foodbanks. This is unacceptable in a rich country. Under the last Labour government, wages went up year-on-year.

I believe that the government should introduce a real Living Wage of £10 per hour, and halt the public sector pay freeze. A Labour government would increase the minimum wage, ensure that the new Living Wage applied to everyone over 18, and introduce measures to boost productivity. 

To boost productivity and help the economy, we must boost workers’ wages.

Roberta calls on the government to give Britain a pay rise

Under the Conservative government, wages in the North East fell in real terms last year, compared to a rise of 1.1% from 2002 to 2010 Britain needs a pay rise....

Last week I attended a parliamentary event held by Cancer Research UK in Westminster to find out how we can keep cancer at the top of the new Parliament’s agenda.

Over the course of this Parliament, two million people will be diagnosed with cancer across the UK, so Cancer Research UK needs political support in order to continue to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

At the event, I met some of Cancer Research UK’s dedicated volunteer Campaign Ambassadors, and found out more about cancer survival rates in Durham, and received a report about treatment and survival rates in the constituency. I was pleased to note that urgent GP referral rates are higher for Durham than the national average, and that the percentage of patients receiving radiotherapy with 31 days of first treatment is also higher than the average in England.

However, there was some more concerning news regarding early diagnosis of cancers at stage 1 and stage 2, as rates in Durham are lower than the national average, and I will be raising this issue with the relevant organisations during my work in the constituency.

I have previously supported Cancer Research UK’s campaign to restrict junk food advertising on television, and in my role as the MP for City of Durham, I will continue to press the government to fund cancer treatments and to invest in new research so that survival rates improve, as cancer survival in the UK is still lagging behind other countries and too many cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully.

Roberta Blackman-Woods pledges to help beat cancer sooner

Last week I attended a parliamentary event held by Cancer Research UK in Westminster to find out how we can keep cancer at the top of the new Parliament’s agenda....

I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted a role as Shadow Minister for International Development. I will be working with Kate Osamor to lead on Labour’s strategy on international development, and to hold the Department for International Development (DFID) to account in terms of how Britain’s foreign aid budget is being spent.

 

Labour is committed to the principle of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on special development assistance, and of ensuring that foreign aid is spent effectively and accountably on programmes which assist towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although the Tories have also committed to this, there are signs that many of their MPs and Ministers do not fully support the 0.7 per cent target, and Labour will be fighting against any threats to maintaining this level of spending.

 

We believe in developing a targeted development agenda based on the principles of redistribution, social justice, women’s rights and poverty reduction. During the last Parliament, we led on scrutinising the work of the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), the private equity company owned by DFID, which is now a major vehicle for the delivery of Britain’s foreign aid targets. Whilst Labour is supportive of some aspects of the work done by the CDC, we have been concerned by reports from campaigning organisations such as Oxfam and Global Justice Now, which highlight examples of the CDC being used to channel funding towards businesses in middle-income countries, rather than focusing explicitly on poverty reduction.

 

In this Parliament, I look forward to working closely with the rest of the Shadow Front Bench, the international development select committee, as well as charities and NGOs, to develop Labour’s international development strategy and to hold the government to account on their actions. I will bring to the role my long experience of working alongside Parliamentarians from across the world within the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and my work with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In addition, I have a long history of campaigning for women’s rights both at home and internationally, and this will be another priority for me in the new role.

Roberta appointed as Shadow Minister for International Development

I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted a role as Shadow Minister for International Development. I will be working with Kate Osamor to lead on Labour’s strategy...

On Thursday night, I wholeheartedly voted for the amendment submitted by the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn which opposed the Queen’s Speech put forward by Theresa May and her Conservative government, as it did not include any measures to:

  • End austerity and the cuts to public services
  • Reverse falling living standards and inequalities in our society
  • Implement an energy price cap
  • Commit to a proper infrastructure investment strategy for the whole country
  • Recognise that “no deal” is the very worst outcome for the UK in Brexit negotiations
  • Ensure that the outcome of any deal to leave the EU prioritises jobs and the economy and delivers the exact same benefits that the UK has now as a member of the Single Market and Customs Union
  • Maintain the existing rights of EU nationals living in the UK, and UK nationals living in Europe
  • Ensuring that the richest individuals and biggest corporations pay their fair share in tax
  • Scrap tuition fees at universities, restore the Education Maintenance Allowance and nurses’ bursaries
  • Increase the minimum wage to a real living wage of £10 per hour by 2020
  • End the public sector pay cap

The Tories’ Queen’s Speech is a threadbare document that contains nothing to help the people of Durham or the country. Theresa May has dropped nearly all the commitments she made in her election manifesto, and continues to show what a weak position she is in, and how little confidence her Government has in itself.

Labour would instead bring forward a Queen’s Speech that would actually address the big issues facing the country rather than shying away from taking any decisions. I want to invest in the public services that everyone in Durham uses, rather than cutting them to breaking point, ensure we pay our doctors, nurses, firefighters and policemen the wages they deserve, and build homes that people can afford to live in.

That is why I voted for the Labour amendment and against the Queen’s Speech, and I will continue to stand up for the City of Durham against the Conservative Government’s unjust cuts and continued austerity.

Also, having signed Stella Creasy’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech which highlighted the inequality of access to healthcare services for women in Northern Ireland, I am delighted that the Government has been forced to change its stance today. Previously, women from Northern Ireland – where it is still illegal for women to have an abortion – travelling to Great Britain for an abortion were charged £900. Justine Greening, the Minister for Women and Equalities, has said that the Government will now fund this instead.

Voting against the Queen's Speech

On Thursday night, I wholeheartedly voted for the amendment submitted by the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn which opposed the Queen’s Speech put forward by Theresa May and...

Thank you to everyone who voted for me.

It is an absolute privilege to be elected to serve as the Member of Parliament for the City of Durham constituency once again. 

The office will resume normal service on Tuesday 13th June.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who voted for me. It is an absolute privilege to be elected to serve as the Member of Parliament for the City of Durham constituency once...

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