Many people want to know Roberta's views on important matters affecting Durham and the country. Roberta has explained some of her opinions below which might be helpful. If you’d like more information on any of these areas or on anything else please get in touch.
We need more affordable housing in Durham both in the villages and the City Centre. At the moment it is too hard for lower and moderate-income families to afford a decent family home in Durham, especially in the City Centre area.
This is partly due to the fact that the Government is not doing enough to build affordable and social housing. We need to ensure that developers are pushed to include affordable housing in their developments, particularly in the City Centre. This will help ensure we have more mixed developments which benefit everybody and, I believe, are the way forward to get more affordable housing in Durham City.
I think apprenticeships have an absolutely crucial role to play in allowing people, especially younger people, to gain skills and enter employment. While Labour was in government the number of apprenticeships started each year, rose from 65,000 in 1996/97 to 279,700 in 2010. I am very proud of this record, as I believed it allowed many people to enter their chosen careers through the apprenticeship route.
However, I am now concerned that apprenticeships may become less accessible. The LibDem/Tory Government claim that they want to do more the encourage apprenticeships but they have yet to present feasible ways of achieving this.
It is important that we maintain an asylum system for those genuinely fleeing persecution elsewhere in the world. However, we need a proper system based on criteria and that system needs to be properly enforced.
In 2005 the Labour Government introduced a points system to evaluate immigration based upon what the applicant could offer the UK in terms of skills and other factors. This allowed for controlled migration to the UK where it was in the country’s interests.
Immigration, particularly in some high skill sectors, has many potential benefits and the points system has allowed us benefit from this. Ed Miliband has signalled that he wants to build upon this past success by ensuring that employers do not feel the need to turn to immigration to fill low skilled jobs that could be filled by people such as school leavers.
Good public transport links including buses are vital for our village communities. In some places bus services have been poor for many years. I keep up a dialogue with Go North East and Arriva buses to raise important issues on behalf of my constituents and ensure that bus services in Durham are protected. I have also held public meetings to discuss local bus services.
Recent cuts to Durham County Council’s budget have meant that the Council has had to withdraw funding from some of the bus routes across the City. I press the Council to ensure that essential routes, which are relied upon by certain sections of the public, are maintained.
I fully support the Council’s ‘Link 2’ service, which can be used where there are no public transport links nearby or the person has mobility issues. Community transport schemes can and do play an important part in the delivery of services.
Rather than aim their drastic cuts at the banks and bankers that caused the current financial crisis the LibDem/Tory Government has chosen to target many of its cuts at families, taking two and halt times more from child benefit than from the banks.
The 2010 Budget announced that the amounts of child benefit would be frozen for three years, from April 2011 to April 2014. With inflation and the cost of living rising so steeply, this means that the value of child benefit will have been cut by over 10 per cent by 2014 leaving a family with one child will be around £130 a year worse off than if child benefit had been increased each year in line with inflation. A family with three children will be £285 a year worse off.
The Government then decided that this was not enough and turned its attention to abolishing universal Child Benefit, a move which will cost many families as much as £2000 a year. I have challenged this in Parliament several times and even held a debate on the issue. Sadly, ministers said that the policy, which is particularly damaging for single parent families, was in the Coalition agreement and stipulated by the LibDems and so must be enacted despite the difficult financial circumstances many families are already finding themselves in.
Good quality, affordable childcare is important both for child development and for ensuring that parents are able to go to work confident that their children are getting the best possible care. The last Labour Government’s 10 year strategy for childcare was a really positive step and I wholeheartedly supported it. I believe the Lib-Dem Tory Government is seriously damaging the improvements made under Labour. This Lib-Dem Tory Government has seriously damaged Surestart, with many closures across the country and severely reduced funding for those that remain open.
Older and disabled people can travel free on off-peak buses anywhere in the country, this one of Labour’s achievements whilst in government that I am most proud of. I will do all I can to ensure that the Lib-Dem Tory Government does not take the bus pass off older people. I am campaigning with other MPs for free travel for young people too.
The LibDem/Tory Coalition claimed that they would be the ‘greenest government ever’ and promised legislation that would help tackle climate change and develop our emerging green economy.
Te opposite has happened. By The 2011 Conservative Party Conference the Chancellor stated that ‘We are not going to save the world by putting our country out of business’; subsequently feed in tariffs for solar energy have been cut, investment in green technology cut and failing to implement an industrial policy which prioritises environmental change. Then, as the final nail in the coffin, David Cameron used the 2012 Cabinet reshuffle to appoint an Environment Secretary who doesn’t believe in climate change.
Clearly, more needs to be done to tackle climate change and preserve our environment for future generations. I wholeheartedly believe that this is not only in our environmental interest but our economic interests too. The North East, in particular, has a track record of innovation in growth in the green sector which must be supported.
More broadly, the last Labour government was the first in the world to put in place legally binding limits on carbon emissions through the Climate Change Bill. And although the economy grew by 25% between 1997 and 2005 greenhouse gas emissions fell by 7%. The Coalition needs to change course and build on this legacy.
We are very lucky here in Durham to live in one of the safest parts of the UK. Durham Constabulary has recently launched the ‘Safe City’ initiative aiming to be the safest City in the UK. In 2012 there was a 2% reduction in crime recorded compared to 2011.
I often work with Durham Constabulary to deal with anti-social behaviour, which has fallen by 16% between 2011 and 2012, and I work with Police and communities on other policing issues. Nationally, the Lib-Dem Tory Government has imposed 20% cuts to the Police which I feel really threatens safety and could see all the hard work carried out by police jeopardised. I will be monitoring this situation to try and ensure that we do not see a rise in anti-social behaviour
Domestic violence impacts a huge number of both men and women in the UK but is too often kept secret. The number of people suffering from domestic violence on the rise it is clear that more needs to be done to protect people.
While I support the Government’s move to broaden the definition of domestic violence to include forms of financially threatening behaviour and to cover teenagers as young as 16 other steps are having a severely detrimental effect. For instance, the LibDem/Tory cuts mean that funding for women’s refuges fell by 30% between 2011 and 2012, and look set to fall further meaning many shelters now have to close or turn vulnerable women and children away.
I continue to work with anti-domestic violence campaign groups in the constituency and women’s groups to challenge cuts to these services and ensure victims have the best possible support. If you would like more information on where you or a friend or relative can get help and support for dealing with domestic violence please visit the County Council’s page which gives details of many of the services available in Durham http://www.durham.gov.uk/Pages/Service.aspx?ServiceId=7370
This is a wonderful institution which is supported by Durham County Council. The museum celebrates Durham’s military past and I urge all residents and visitors to go along. You can find more information on their website here http://county.durham.gov.uk/sites/dli/Pages/WelcomePage.aspx
The economic policies of the LibDem/Tory Government put us into a double-dip recession and have stunted Britain’s recovery. Instead of investing in the economy, to create jobs and growth, the Government’s policies have created very high levels of unemployment.
Prices are rising faster than wages, businesses are going bust and one million young people are now out of work. Despite the crisis in the euro area, Britain is the only major economy other than Italy in a double-dip recession. It’s now clear that the Tory and Lib Dem plan has failed and the country is paying a heavy price.
Labour would tax bankers’ bonuses to allow us the guarantee a job for any young person who has been out of work for more than a year. I would also build thousands of new homes, to help alleviate the housing crisis and boost the construction industry.
I also support Labour’s plan for a temporary VAT cut, which would help struggling families and small businesses. We would give tax breaks to small businesses who take on extra workers, which would help firms who want to expand and create jobs.
Education is the most important aspect of policy because to a large extent it dictates life chances. A good education is vital for all children.
I supported Labour’s investment in education when we were in Government: we increased teachers’ pay by 40% to ensure that the most able graduates are encouraged to go into teaching. Exam results improved as a result, and we encouraged more people to stay in education by introducing EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance) so that young people from every background could afford to study for higher qualifications.
The LibDem/Tory Government has recently announced plans to take the curriculum back to a two tier system more closely related to ‘O-levels’. This is a huge mistake. The Government wrongly believes that qualifications are only ‘meaningful’ if achieved in a narrow elite of subjects and if a set number of children fail. Needless to say, I will be opposing these plans and will instead push for an education system which recognises the broad range of skills children and young people need for their futures. Both vocational and academic training are hugely valuable and students should be free to pick either route without worrying that this choice may restrict opportunities in the future.
Labour has a five point plan for economic development, focusing on jobs and growth which I fully support.
The North East has the highest unemployment in the country, hovering around the 10% mark, this is unacceptable. The vast majority of people want to work and more needs to be done to ensure that these people have the support, training and most importantly vacancies to go into.
The problem is particularly acute with youth unemployment. With over a million 16-24 year olds nationally not in education, employment and training we risk a generation being left permanently disadvantaged in their working lives.
I fully support a tax on bankers’ bonuses to help create 100,000 jobs for young people and a ‘real jobs guarantee’ for young people who have been unemployed for over a year. I also want to see more done to support apprenticeships and vocational training courses. In Durham, I frequently work with employers who are facing difficulties to try and save the jobs of their staff or at least ensure they have assistance in finding alternative employment.
Along with prioritising policies to tackle climate change we must also work to improve the quality of our environment more generally.
Local councils have been given the powers to better tackle litter, graffiti, abandoned cars, fly-tipping, and other environmental concerns. Our beaches, rivers and drinking water are now at the best quality since the industrial revolution and I always encourage the use of brownfield rather than greenfield land for development.
I want to see green spaces preserved wherever possible. I have been active in campaigning to ‘save the forests’ when the Government threatened to sell off the public forests in February 2011. Similarly, I have also campaigned for a new wood in Durham City to mark the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012.
As the Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, I have a very strong interest in school meals and particularly in free school meals. Durham County Council undertook a universal free school meals pilot, established by the Labour Government, for two years, with all primary school aged children being entitled to a free school meal regardless of their family income. A report was published following this pilot which demonstrated a variety of benefits for the pupils due to free school meals. I think that the government should recognise these conclusions, which include improved attainment and better social skills, and ensure that all children can benefit from a school meal.
With such high numbers of young people in the North East not in education, employment or training the choices that people make for their period of further education is more important than ever and are vital in transferring those skills learnt at school to the workplace. We have an outstanding FE college, New College, in Durham, more information about the courses they offer can be found on their website http://www.newcollegedurham.ac.uk/Pages/default.aspx.
The rising school leaving age will mean young people are able to choose whether to stay in full-time education, undertake work-based learning such as an Apprenticeship, or part-time education or training if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering for more than 20 hours per week. It is therefore, vital that all of these options are properly funded and equally valued.
The Government wants to introduce fees of up to £4,000 a year for further education courses at level 3 and this could also affect some apprenticeship courses. This is something I absolutely oppose as I worry that it may put many people off studying.
I want to see Durham attract more business investment and more houses, particularly affordable homes, being built. However, I am very much opposed to development where it is inappropriate and especially where local residents are against it. Green space makes living environments much more attractive and I want to see that preserved wherever possible.
Durham has a wonderful cultural heritage and a modern, vibrant cultural life.
From the 1000 year old cathedral to the Miners’ Gala there is a lot to get involved in and celebrate for people living in and around Durham. A large part of celebrating our heritage is encouraging tourists to come and share it. Tourism is important for Durham and we should do what we can to encourage visitors to come to our wonderful city. Of course, tourism needs to be sensitive to our historic city, especially around the World Heritage Site, as do other decisions such as planning and environmental issues. I often meet with Heritage campaign groups such as English Heritage to ensure that we are doing all we can locally to perverse our outstanding heritage.
I have campaigned along with other people from Durham for a number of years for the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North, and this campaign was a success. The Lindisfarne Gospels will be back in Durham from 1 July 2013 until 30 September 2013. It will be fantastic to have them back in Durham. You can find out information here.
I engage with various cultural projects in the city. We have some great cultural facilities such as the Gala Theatre and the Luminere Festival which has taken place the last couple of years. If you’re involved in cultural events in Durham, or if you have ideas for new cultural events then please let me know.
Having been a University Professor before becoming a Member of Parliament, I have seen the excellent role that higher education can play in helping people achieve their goals. As co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary University Group I am involved with Higher Education issues nationally. Recent months have seen heated debates over tuition fees, student funding and post graduate education.
In my role as Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government I am Labour’s front bench spokesperson for the High Street.
Our High Streets and Town Centres have undergone huge change over the past decade or so. The rise of internet shopping and out of town retail parks is forcing town centres to change. In many places this has led to many empty shops, the disappearance of well-known names and dilapidation. This needs to be reversed. Our high streets our central to our communities and I want to help ensure that they are as vibrant and successful as possible. Most importantly, this will mean countering the disastrous economic policies of the Lib-Dem Tory Coalition. This, more than anything else, has put huge amounts of pressure on the High Street in recent months. I want to see the VAT hike temporarily reversed. This would put £420 back into the average family’s pocket.
In Durham City we have seen a significant amount of investment into the town centre since I became a Member of Parliament in 2005 including the development of the Watergate complex and the redesign of the Market Place.
However, it has not all been good news. In recent months we have seen the closures of some important businesses. Many thousands of people are employed in the retail sector in Durham and more needs to be done to support the economy and help the businesses they work for to stay afloat. I will continue to push the Government to produce a long term strategy for jobs and growth in the North East.
I am the Vice-Chair of the of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch. This involves working with Parliamentarians from the other Commonwealth countries to share best practice on how to deal with issues such as poverty, inequality and disaster relief. I find this role challenging but immensely rewarding and feel hugely privileged to work on promoting democracy with politicians and specialists from across the globe.
I know that many people in Durham volunteer for groups concerned with international development. If you are concerned with an international affairs issue please get in touch with me. I often meet campaign groups to discuss what can be done in Parliament to tackle issues such as HIV/AIDs, tax avoidance and poverty.
The Leamside Line is a disused railway line which runs through parts of Durham. The line was ‘mothballed’ in 1991 by British Rail. I support its re-opening although I appreciate that this may be difficult in the current financial climate.
The re-opening of the line is now included in the County Durham Plan, which is currently being consulted upon and is set to come into force in 2013. The line would provide greater accessibility within the catchment area and would provide a viable alternative to the A1(M) for both people and freight. It would also help relieve congestion on the East Coast Mainline.
Licensing is a major issue in Durham particularly due to the number of residents living close to the city centre. I have an active engagement in key licensing decisions across the city and work to ensure that the impact on residents is minimised whilst also balancing our need for a healthy night-time economy.
I am a strong supporter of the continued policy to have free access to national museums. We also have some excellent museums in and around Durham which are important in remembering our heritage and attracting tourists to the area. I hope to be able to continue to support these museums and the dedicated people that work for them.
I am committed to protecting and improving our NHS. It is vitally important that all people, regardless of income, have access to good quality healthcare that is free at the point of use.
The LibDem/Tory Coalition is attacking the NHS. Cuts, redundancies and the threat of large scale privatisation worry a huge number who not only depend upon the NHS but recognise the values it upholds. 4,000 nurses have been cut since the coalition came to power and £35 billion has been wasted on a top-down reorganisation that no one voted for.
The Health and Social Care Act (March 2012) abolished the existing cap on the amount of non-NHS income a hospital can take in. The cap had been set at 2% in 2003 but was raised by this act to 49% clearly opening the door to privatisation. This will not be to the benefit of patients or NHS staff that will be under pressure to make profits when they want their priority to be patient care.
The NHS was founded by the Labour Government after World War II in a time of rationing and when the national debt stood at 2.5 times its current size. This proves that it can and should be protected in the current financial climate. I will do all I can to prevent the Lib Dem/Tory Coalition dismantling our NHS and am committed to reversing the changes under a Labour government.
I am extremely proud to work as a North East MP, and to be part of a really dedicated team of MPs representing the region in Parliament.
The double-dip recession has hit this region particularly hard. The level of joblessness and youth unemployment in the region is routinely higher than anywhere else in the UK and the North-South divide seems to be widening under the Coalition’s economic mismanagement.
Sadly, the LibDem/Tory Coalition fails to recognise the importance of regions. In fact, they have gone so far as to abolish much of the regional infrastructure such as the Regional Development Agency. This agency, which did a great job of promoting the region, is to be replaced by a series of LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships) which will compete with one another to attract business to different areas of the North East.
It remains to be seen what these LEPs will achieve but I am concerned that they, by being forced to complete with one another, will lack the strategic approach necessary to ensure that the North East is able to fulfil its potential as a major growth area.
More broadly, in parliament I will continue to demand a tax on bankers’ bonuses to help fund the creation of new jobs for young people, support more affordable housing and measures to get the region’s economy moving again. As well as tackling damaging reforms which will have a much greater impact in the North East such as the Welfare Reform Act.
There are too many cars in our city centre causing congestion. The Park & Ride scheme and the congestion charge on the peninsular have brought about some improvement. I support the Park & Ride scheme and the bus lanes which make the service possible. There are always improvements to be made and I am happy to press the County Council for them.
As the Lib-Dem Tory Coalition force pension changes through parliament an increasing number of people in Durham have been in touch with me concerned about their future livelihoods.
Through the Pensions Act the Government originally proposed raising the Women’s State Pension Age so rapidly that some women currently in their 50s would have to work for an extra two years longer. Under pressure from Labour this drastic rise was cut, but not as much as we hoped. In the 2012 they also introduced the ‘granny tax’, another unexpected blow to the finances of retired people.
Under the next Labour Government, we would ensure that all pension negotiations are fair, transparent and worked out in co-operation with Unions and employer representatives. 4.9 million people in total are affected by the Government’s plans immediately, and many millions more in the future will have to live with these changes.
Starting from October 2012, the Government have introduced a new scheme which makes work place pensions compulsory for those who work in large companies and earn over £8,000. This is something I support- with an aging population we need to ensure that everybody has a decent pension for when they retire so this seems a good step. Both employers and employees will have to contribute, and there will also be a 1% tax rebate. For more information visit www.direct.gov.uk and search for ‘workplace pensions’.
Durham is a unique and historic city and as such planning can be a hugely important issue in the constituency. It is extremely important that new developments are appropriate to their surroundings. This does not mean that developments cannot be innovative and imaginative but instead that they should add to and enhance the special character that Durham has.
I have extensive experience of planning legislation having previously served on planning and housing committees in both Oxford and Newcastle City Council. In October 2011 I was appointed Communities and Local Government Minister. Planning is one of my main responsibilities within this role. Within the constituency I am closely involved with particularly sensitive planning applications in Durham and I am keen to ensure that the planning process is as inclusive, transparent and democratic as possible.
I have been heavily involved in many campaigns to protect our Post Offices and the services they provide. Not only do they provide services such as DVLA renewals, pension collection and travel money exchange, but they also act as hubs for their communities. In Government, Labour provided £1.7 billion from 2007 to 2011 to expand the number of services the Post Office can provide. When the Lib Dem/Tory Government first came into power in 2010 they threatened to privatise some of the Post Office services, but Labour campaigned against this in Parliament.
In addition to lobbying central government to maintain support for our Post Offices across the country, I have also campaigned locally to protect Post Offices which were threatened with closure. This is especially important in rural communities, where these Post Offices are really the heart of the community and relied upon so heavily.
There are three prisons in my constituency and the prison officers and other staff who work in them do a very important and difficult job.
I am strongly opposed to the privatisation of our prisons. I believe the current management are doing an excellent job and there is absolutely no reason to believe that a private sector provider would be able to perform better.
I often meet with the management of both prisons and the prisons inspectorate to discuss issues facing the prisons and have worked closely with Prison Officers Union to improve conditions for prison officers.
Within the Shadow Communities and Local Government front bench team I also have responsibility for local government procurement. This covers everything from buying stationary to paying a contractor to build a road. £52 billion a year is spent of Local Government procurement in this country. Clearly this huge amount of money needs to be spent carefully. I also think that this spending power could be used to support local businesses and people.
Often big contracts go to large multi-national companies that do not employ local people or contribute to the local economy. I think council tax payers want to see more value for their money by encouraging councils to spend more money on small and medium sized enterprises and with socially minded companies. In my role I will be developing policies which can help local authorities do this as well as holding the Government to account for the decisions they make about how this huge amount of money is spent.
We are very lucky that the mainline service run by East Coast is good quality and extremely well served. It now takes less than three hours to travel to London, and as well as being great for leisure travellers, links like these really help to connect businesses across the UK. However, I will be monitoring the investment in all rail services across the country very closely, as I believe that we need to invest in infrastructure such as the railways in order to build our economy for the future.
Rail fares are a big issue, both in Durham and across the country. In addition to increasing fares by 3% above inflation for both January 2013 and 2014, the Government has given back the right for private train companies to increase some ticket prices on top of this. I strongly oppose these decisions, and believe that affordable rail travel is very important. Labour is looking at ways to protect consumers, such as create a single definition of ‘peak and off-peak’, a right to the cheapest ticket, and the right to a single price for each ticket. I will be backing measures such as these.
It is really important that we recycle more to help protect our environment for future generations. I am really happy with the progress that has been made in Durham – we are now recycling much more than we were when I was first elected in 2005. However, there is still much more to be done. I will continue to work with environmental groups to support ways of making recycling more efficient, decreasing the amount that we send to landfill and looking for other sustainable solution to waste management.
Our riverbanks in Durham are beautiful and vital to our tourism industry. There are plans to preserve, protect and enhance the riverbanks and to revive the gardens which once straddled the river through the City. This is being taken forward by Durham City Council in partnership with the County Council, the University, the Cathedral and others. The Riverbanks Management Group is charged with looking after the riverbanks and this is formed of similar groups. In Spring 2012 Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mary Creagh, visited the Durham Riverbank to see the excellent work that is being done to preserve and maintain this important asset.
I am really pleased to see more your people and women becoming involved in science, and some of the recent scientific progress which has been made by researchers in the UK is incredible. On our doorstep, Durham University’s science departments are among the best in the world and contribute a significant amount to research and development in the region. I do all I can to encourage young people to develop an interest in science. This is really important in maintaining our global economic position and ensuring that our young people have the skills to do well in the job market.
Students are part of Durham’s city centre community and they make Durham what it is. Their contribution to Durham life is positive and I enjoy taking part in the many university-based events I am asked to do with them.
In 2008, I set up a Balanced and Sustainable Communities Group in Durham. This group brings together key stakeholders from the city including residents, members of the University and Officers from Durham City Council. The Group looks at ways of getting a good mixture of student and family housing. Students wish to live in balanced communities rather than areas only populated by fellow students and I have been looking at ways of allowing this to happen more easily.
Nationally, I lobby for better regulation of Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs), to maintain mixed communities. I also push for better monitoring of the student rental markets, and campaign on issues such as the controlling of ‘to let boards’ in student populated areas of the City.
Tourism is important for Durham and we should do what we can to encourage visitors to come to our wonderful city. Of course, tourism needs to be sensitive to our historic city, especially around the World Heritage Site.
Durham University is an extremely successful and important educational institution. The University is a key employer in the city and will remain a significant part of our future. I have close links with the University and meet regularly with the senior staff including the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor.
As the vice chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) I work closely with the United Nations and the Intra Parliamentary Union. In this role I am closely involved with co-ordinating the work these groups do with regards to mentoring women, and encouraging more women to become involved with politics in their own country.
I am also involved in work to strengthen democracy in developing countries through the sharing of best practice. This is really important, particularly for new politicians and new democracies.
Volunteers play a really important part in many community facilities and activities and I champion their work, however, I am concerned for the future of these schemes with the charity sector being hit hard by closures and Lib-Dem Tory cuts.
Charitable organisations do a lot in Durham, and I am always really proud to visit projects and see the impact they have on the local community. You read about different projects and campaigns by local and national charities on my website, under the news section.
I have visited local libraries, community centres, clubs for the elderly in Durham and they really make a difference to people. I hope that people continue to volunteer at these vital services and continue the amazing work they do, but it is also important that charities have enough money to pay essential staff and are not forced to rely on volunteers that have many other obligations in their life.