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The End Child Poverty Coalition recently released the shocking statistic that 4 million British children are now growing up in relative poverty, and more than two-thirds of these live in a household where at least one parent is in work.

These statistics mean that child poverty is at its highest level since 2010, with the figure of 4 million representing around 30% of UK children. A child is said to live in poverty if they are in a family living on less than 60% of median household income. After housing costs, this is around £248 per week. 

This level of poverty has a huge impact on both the daily lives, and the wider life chances, of many millions of children, and Labour has been clear that this is absolutely unacceptable in modern Britain.

Of course, child poverty figures necessarily represent an average, with the End Child Poverty Coalition reporting that there are some areas, particularly in large cities, where over half of the children are growing up in poverty. In my own constituency of City of Durham, four wards contain over 30% of children living in poverty, after housing costs are taken into account. Belmont ward has 765 children living in poverty – above the national average, at 32.7%, Coxhoe has 757 and Deerness has 809, at 30.2%. Elvet and Gilesgate has 36.5% of its children living in poverty.

These figures are an indictment of government policy since 2010, and make a mockery of the Prime Minister’s claim that her government is tackling inequality.

Issues like these can seem abstract, but I see in my regular surgeries in Durham how low pay, the increased cost of living, and issues with benefits payments have pushed families, most of whom are in work, to the point of destitution.

It is shocking that in this day and age there are families where parents are having to decide between heating or food, or where working people have to visit food banks to make ends meet. Not only does Durham now have several food banks, it also has a clothing bank for people who cannot even afford second hand clothes and school uniforms for their families.

Aside from the issues of low pay and increased costs of living, the government is making this situation worse for those on low incomes through its policies on in-work benefits. Although Universal Credit was supposed to simplify the benefits system so that people would always be better off in work, in practice the many issues with its implementation mean that working people on low pay will in many cases be worse off once Universal Credit is rolled out.

Labour have called on the government to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit until its problems have been fixed, and have been working in Parliament to tackle the related issue of child malnutrition and holiday hunger in families on low income.

The issue of holiday hunger has been on my radar from some time, after having spoken with many families whose children are on Free School Meals who struggle to provide meals for their children throughout the school holidays. I have visited holiday hunger clubs in Durham to better understand the service they provide, and have put pressure on Durham County Council to widen their provision during school holidays.

I have also met with representatives of various groups in my constituency to discuss setting up a pilot scheme to provide meals for children on Free School Meals throughout the holidays.

In Parliament, I helped set up the APPG for School Food, and remain a Vice-Chair. This APPG is a cross-Parliamentary group which works to provide a parliamentary forum for the discussion of all matters relating to food education in schools and other settings and to push the issue of food in schools up the political agenda.

I have long supported the provision of Free School Meals for all children whose families receive universal credit, and I was proud of Labour’s manifesto commitment to provide hot school lunches for all primary school pupils at the last General Election. Not only does this tackle the scourge of hunger, numerous studies have shown that children who eat a hot, healthy meal at lunchtime have improved educational outcomes.

On 19th January, I voted in support of Labour’s School Holidays (Meals and Activities Bill), which would ensure that children who are in receipt of Free School Meals during term time would also receive meals throughout the school holidays. This Bill passed, and I understand the government is currently trialling pilots based on the Bill, which should work towards alleviating holiday hunger across the country. This is a welcome first step that will materially benefit some of the poorest families in the country.

I have also called on the government to halt its plans to end the current entitlement to free school meals for all children from families who receive Universal Credit. These measures should stay in place, as under the proposed new system, children from families who receive Universal Credit will stop receiving free school meals once their parents hit an income threshold of £7,400 per year. This income threshold represents a cliff-edge that will be detrimental to families and ultimately worsen child nutrition across the country, and will mean that 1 million extra schoolchildren in poverty who could benefit from free school meals now won’t.

It also goes against one of the founding principles of universal credit: to always make work pay.

Along with my Labour colleagues, I believe the current transitional system, whereby all children from families that are on Universal Credit, receive free school meals, should remain in place, and I was pleased that a Westminster Hall debate was granted last week to discuss the issue. Keeping the transitional measures in place will reduce bureaucracy, ensure that all children who need it receive a hot, healthy meal each day, and make sure that work always pays.

Since 2010, child poverty has risen again to its current, unacceptable levels, but I am proud of Labour’s record in government on child poverty. Between 1997 – 2010, child poverty fell by a quarter and we implemented a host of policies designed to tackle child poverty. From increases in existing benefits to new child-targeted assistance, investments in early years’ intervention to programmes to help lone parents into work, a wide range of actions increased incomes and provided tailored services to help families living in poverty.

In my role as Labour MP for the City of Durham, I am doing all I can to push the government to tackle the blight of child poverty, but only a Labour government will take the measures necessary to bring these shocking figures down.

We can start by urging the government to keep the transitional measures in place for Universal Credit, and not introduce an income threshold for eligibility for free school meals which would mean that low-income families will lose out. Labour will continue to push for children on free school meals to have access to food and activities throughout the school holidays, and we will support all efforts in Parliament to ensure that all children have access to nutritious food, both at school and at home. There is no justification for anything less in modern Britain.

Roberta calls on government to tackle child poverty and provide free school meals

The End Child Poverty Coalition recently released the shocking statistic that 4 million British children are now growing up in relative poverty, and more than two-thirds of these live in...

Following the announcement that Marks and Spencer will close the Durham City store in April 2018, I have written to the company to ask them to consider alternative locations within the city for a Simply Food store and cafe.


It is vital that Durham remains a vibrant and attractive for residents and visitors, and the loss of M&S will be a blow to the city centre.

I will share their response to my request in due course.

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MP writes to Marks and Spencer

Following the announcement that Marks and Spencer will close the Durham City store in April 2018, I have written to the company to ask them to consider alternative locations within...

As Virgin East Coast, which runs rail services on the East Coast Mainline, gets closer to collapse, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport why the public company East Coast was blocked by his department from bidding for the franchise.

When East Coast previously ran the rail services on this line, it operated an efficient and cost effective service, and so I pressed the Secretary of State to change the rules to allow public companies to bid for rail franchises in the future.

You can see me challenge the Secretary of State here:

Roberta challenges the Secretary of State for Transport on the East Coast Mainline franchise

MP challenges Minister on East Coast Mainline services

As Virgin East Coast, which runs rail services on the East Coast Mainline, gets closer to collapse, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport why the public company East...

As we celebrate 100 years of women's suffrage, it is fitting that 2018 will see the return of the Women's Gala in Wharton Park on Saturday 30 June. In Parliament, I took the opportunity to ask the Home Secretary to join me in paying tribute to the women who are organising this wonderful event. 

You can watch me speaking in Westminster here:

Roberta celebrates Durham Women's Gala in Parliament

 

Roberta celebrates Durham Women's Gala

As we celebrate 100 years of women's suffrage, it is fitting that 2018 will see the return of the Women's Gala in Wharton Park on Saturday 30 June. In Parliament,...

An independent British trade policy must put the interests of developing countries at its heart

Last week I spoke in Parliament during the Second Reading of the Trade Bill, to speak up for sustainable development and call on the government to put fair trade at the heart of an independent British trade policy.

The bill seeks to replicate in UK law the existing trade arrangements with countries outside the EU. As with the EU Withdrawal Bill, I have deep concerns about the power that this bill would hand to Ministers to change and implement legislation without Parliamentary scrutiny, when Labour has been clear that all aspects of Britain’s trade negotiations should be subject to impact assessments and debated openly in Parliament.

This bill also contains implications for international development policy, which it seems the government has not fully considered.

Under current EU rules, the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), including aid recipients like Uganda and Bangladesh, have access to the EU ‘Everything but Arms’ scheme, whereby there are zero tariffs or quotas on any of their exports to the single market (excluding arms).

This scheme is estimated to be worth £12.5 billion to 49 of the world’s poorest countries, and also gives EU consumers access to cheaper goods, mainly foodstuffs. There are a range of other trade preference schemes for developing countries, and in some cases, such as Botswana, countries have ‘graduated’ from the LDC category as their economies have grown through trade.

Trade policy can seem abstract, but on a recent trip to Bangladesh, I visited a Fairtrade co-operative which exports around the world, including to the UK. The workers there enjoyed good working conditions and decent rates of pay, and I left feeling optimistic about how international trade, done fairly and equitably, can reduce poverty.

The Fairtrade foundation has itself expressed concerns about the impact of Brexit on Fairtrade, as the Fairtrade market is worth £1.6 billion to the UK, and relies on a seamless trading relationship between all of the countries of the EU.

The government has been very clear that trade is the best route out of poverty for small countries. If it is serious about this – if this is not just an attack on the concept of foreign aid – then Labour is clear that the government needs to put development and poverty reduction at the heart of an independent British trade policy. From small farmers in Africa exporting Fairtrade bananas, to the Bangladeshi co-operative workers I visited, millions of peoples’ livelihoods are at risk if the UK does not put development at the heart of its new trade policy.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has recommend that the UK should, at the least, apply the principle of ‘do no harm’ to any new trade deals, so that existing trade preference schemes for developing countries are rolled over, and that Britain’s trade and development policies are aligned.

In addition, other international development charities such as Global Justice Now have recommended that Britain takes this opportunity to improve on some aspects of existing EU schemes, which have in some cases been criticised for extracting damaging concessions from countries that can ill afford them. Britain can become a standard-bearer for fair international trade, and not allow the Tories to fashion a free trade policy which uses our leverage to further exploit some of the world’s poorest countries.

The Government has stated that it is the responsibility of all government departments to work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 goals set by the United Nations related to economic development, peace, human rights and the environment that all countries, developed and developing, have signed up to achieving.

It would therefore be absurd for the Department for International Trade to be working at cross-purposes with the Department for International Development, which it will be if it does not put the SDGs at the heart of Britain’s new trade policy with developing countries.

I have received a large amount of correspondence on the Trade Bill from my constituents. This demonstrates the strength of feeling that exists on the issue, and the commitment that exists to the principles of fair trade amongst the British public.

Whilst MPs have rightly focused on the potential outcomes of a ‘no deal’ with the EU for Britain and our constituencies, we should also not forget that ‘no deal’ between Britain and developing countries could represent a catastrophe for some of the world’s poorest people.

Roberta speaks up in Parliament for sustainable development and fair trade during the Trade Bill

An independent British trade policy must put the interests of developing countries at its heart Last week I spoke in Parliament during the Second Reading of the Trade Bill, to...

Like many people, Roberta has been concerned by the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the newly created Office for Students.
Both his lack of experience in academia, and his past comments about women, sexuality and working-class people, suggest that he not the right person to fill this public position.
 
As Labour co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, Roberta has written to Jo Johnson, the Minister responsible for Universities, to ask that he make public the criteria by which he and his department deemed Toby Young to be a suitable candidate for the role, and which aspects of the job description he met.
 
Roberta further asked that he put in the public domain all the information related to the appointment process for all the board members, to clarify the criteria and processes used.
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Roberta writes to Universities Minister over Office for Students appointments

Like many people, Roberta has been concerned by the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the newly created Office for Students. Both his lack of experience in academia,...

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...

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