National Issues

The large number of letters and emails I have received on this issue highlights the strength of public concern about the public sector pay cap. Indeed, an online petition calling on the Government to end the public sector pay cap has been signed by more than 230,000 people.

I believe a pay rise for all public sector workers, both in our constituency and across the country, is fair and affordable. Public sector workers have been subject to years of falling real wages and I do not believe that this is sustainable.

A report published by the Office of Manpower Economics in July found that real earnings have fallen since 2010 and remained below their 2005 level in 2015. The report states that the decline in earnings from 2010 coincides with the wage freeze imposed on public sector pay settlements by government in 2011-2013 and the average 1% rise in 2014-15.

On 12 September the Government announced a partial lift of the 1% pay cap for police and prison officers. This will come as cold comfort for other public sector workers who the Government has ignored and will face even steeper pay cuts on top of what they have lost since 2010. Furthermore, with inflation now at 2.9%, the reality is that the Government is still going ahead with a pay cut in real terms for police and prison officers. Police and prison services will also have to fund this rise out of existing falling budgets which will inevitably lead to further cuts to front line services.

I supported an Opposition motion in the House of Commons which called on the Government to end the pay cap. The motion was passed without a vote, meaning MPs have been unanimous in saying that the Government should now end the pay cap and give public sector workers a fair pay rise. On 10 October the Health Secretary told the House of Commons the “pay cap has been scrapped”, yet there has been no confirmation of any extra funding.

At the General Election I stood on a manifesto that pledged to end the public sector pay cap and make a return to public sector pay being agreed through collective bargaining and the evidence of independent pay review bodies.

Alongside my Labour colleagues I will continue to press the Government to lift the pay cap so that public sector workers are paid at a level which recognises the skill and dedication which they bring to their jobs.

Helen supports pay rise for public sector workers

The large number of letters and emails I have received on this issue highlights the strength of public concern about the public sector pay cap. Indeed, an online petition calling...

I have been deeply saddened by the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. I would like to express my sincerest sympathies to those who lost loved ones in the fire, and my gratitude at the exemplary work of the emergency services who responded so bravely.

As you say, there has been a clear failing of fire safety regulations and the Government must now act. It is vital that we get to the bottom of how this fire happened, hold those responsible to account, and do what is necessary to make sure it never happens again.

A lot of the factors which led to this tragedy have already become clear. Here is a shocking timeline which shows events leading up to and around the Grenfell disaster:

  • 2013 - Boris Johnson overrules the ruling body of the London Fire Brigade and uses legal action to inflict £29m in cuts. Closing 10 fire stations, cutting firefighters by 552, losing 14 fire engines and cutting minimum staffing levels from 5 to 4. By the time he steps down as Mayor of London he inflicts a further £100m in cuts to £130m total and the loss of 7000 firefighters. Fire prevention measures carried out by the service drop by over 25%.

  • 2013 - All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue produces a report strongly recommending installation of fire suppression systems and sprinklers in 4000 tower blocks throughout Britain.

  • The Grenfell residents’ action group publishes a report warning that their landlord is putting their safety at risk by restricting the access ways to their car park. They are ignored by their landlord.

  • 2013 - 2016 Conservative housing ministers sit on All Party report without action, promising they are "looking at it", including Tory Housing Minister Gavin Barwell.

  • 2016 - Conservatives vote against a Labour motion to make sure all landlords and housing associations ensure residences are fit for human occupation, including provisions for fire safety. The motion is defeated by 312 votes to 219. 72 of the MPs voting against are landlords.

  • The Grenfell residents’ action group publish a report warning people will die in a fire before the landlord takes notice of their poor fire safety provisions. They are ignored by their landlord.

  • 2017 - Ex-housing minister Gavin Barwell becomes Prime Minister Theresa May's chief of staff. He never actions the All Party Parliamentary report recommendations.

Whilst I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that there will be an independent public inquiry into the incident, I fear that, based on the Government’s record and their extremely slow and lacking initial response to the tragedy, sufficient action may not be taken. This is why I have written to Theresa May to press her to ensure robust fire safety standards are applied to all kinds of housing and buildings, and I will continue to scrutinise the developments of this case closely. I have also written to the Housing Associations in this constituency to find out what they are doing to ensure the safety of their tenants.

The Conservatives have cut 10,000 firefighter jobs and closed dozens of fire stations. As a result, response times have got slower and lives have been put at risk. Last month I visited Bishop Auckland Community Fire Station and was told by worried fire officers about the falling crew numbers on fire engines, which has dropped from 5 to 3 on some call-outs. This level simply cannot drop anymore because of further Conservative cuts, which put our firefighters at risk as well as the general public. In this election I stood on a platform of halting cuts to the Fire Service and a Labour promise to recruit 3,000 new firefighters.

This is an issue I take extremely seriously and I can assure local residents that I will continue to scrutinise the Government’s actions closely.

 

Helen responds to local concerns following Grenfell Tower tragedy

I have been deeply saddened by the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. I would like to express my sincerest sympathies to those who lost loved ones in the fire,...

I fully supported the Leveson Inquiry and agree that, following the appalling revelations of phone hacking, it is extremely important that we establish a mechanism for independent self-regulation, which delivers proper redress for victims of press intrusion. At the 2015 general election I stood on a manifesto that committed to fully implement Leveson’s recommendations.

The first part of Leveson’s report was published in 2012. It recommended a system of independent self-regulation, guaranteed by law.  A Royal Charter was then agreed in October 2013 by all parties and approved by Parliament, to formally establish the new independent press watchdog that Leveson recommended. However, several newspapers rejected the Royal Charter and set up their own regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which launched in September 2014. IPSO has stated it has no intention of seeking recognition under the Royal Charter and recently announced its own pilot arbitration scheme.

The government announced a new consultation on implementing section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act (CCA) 2013 which, as you know, deals with the award of costs and would enact the changes recommended by Leveson and on Leveson II. As you will see I challenged the Minister on her failure to implement it now. You can see that on Hansard.

I believe the Government must get on with commencing section 40 of the CCA 2013. I also believe the Government should facilitate Part 2 of the Leveson inquiry – which remains outstanding – and is intended to look at the conduct within News International and other newspapers, and examine how the police investigated allegations of illegality.

I am concerned the Government has failed to implement the effective form of independent press regulation that Leveson recommended and which the Government signed up to as part of the cross-party agreement during the last Parliament. I believe the Government must keep its promise to the victims of phone hacking. Anything else would be another betrayal of the victims of press abuses and their families.

I will continue to press the Government to deliver on its clear promises by fully implementing the cross-party agreement on Leveson’s recommendations.

Helen challenges Minister on her failure to implement section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act (CCA) 2013

I fully supported the Leveson Inquiry and agree that, following the appalling revelations of phone hacking, it is extremely important that we establish a mechanism for independent self-regulation, which delivers...

Constituents have contacted me recently about the Istanbul Convention. I am very concerned that violence against women and girls (VAWG) remains a hugely significant problem across the UK, with up to 3 million women experiencing violence each year.

The Istanbul Convention is a historic international treaty that requires states to take comprehensive action, set out minimum standards and create legally binding measures to tackle and prevent violence against women and girls. Crucially, the Convention gives all survivors of domestic abuse the right to access the specialist support services which they need to live in safety and rebuild their lives.

On average, two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or former partner, but the Government is overseeing the closure of many domestic violence shelters for women, removing the last line of hope and safety for victims of violence and abuse. Since 2010, 17% of specialist refuges in England have closed down. On one typical day, Women’s Aid said that 155 women and 103 children were turned away from refuges because there was not enough space. I do not believe that women should continue to bear the brunt of Government cuts at the expense of their safety and well-being. That is why I believe the Government should honour its commitment and ratify the Istanbul Convention.

In March 2016, the Government published its Ending Violence against Women and Girls Strategy for 2016-2020. While I welcome the steps outlined in the strategy, I want to see the commitments made to vulnerable women and girls followed through, so that they do not just remain as warm words. Ratifying the Istanbul Convention would demonstrate a clear commitment to this goal.

I believe we need to do more to address VAWG at home as well as abroad. At the general election I stood on a manifesto which included commitments to introduce a Violence against Women and Girls Bill, appoint a commissioner to set minimum standards in tackling domestic and sexual violence and to provide more stable funding for women’s refuges and Rape Crisis Centres.

The Government must take urgent action to tackle domestic abuse and violence against women and girls. I can assure you that I will continue to pressure the Government to set a date to ratify the Istanbul Convention without further delay.

Helen presses the Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention without delay

Constituents have contacted me recently about the Istanbul Convention. I am very concerned that violence against women and girls (VAWG) remains a hugely significant problem across the UK, with up...

I sympathise profoundly with anyone who has been affected by breast cancer and I appreciate that organisations such as Breast Cancer Now work extremely hard to help support people living with breast cancer, and their families, to raise awareness of the connected issues.

I know Breast Cancer Now has raised concerns that there is confusion between health bodies over who should pay for bisphosphonates, and have called for clear guidance. In response to questions in Parliament the Government has stated that Clinical Commissioning Groups are responsible for commissioning these drugs based upon clinical judgement. I know the Government has recently received a number of representations, including Parliamentary Questions, and I will follow this continued scrutiny with interest.

As you may be aware, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is the non-departmental body which provides national guidance and advice to improve health and social care. NICE guidelines currently recommend that treatment with bisphosphonates should be provided to patients according to set criteria, however it is currently updating its guidance for early and locally advanced breast cancer while taking into account the latest available evidence. NICE expect to consult on the draft guidance between January and March 2018, with publication expected in July 2018. I will follow the consultation and the outcome of the draft guidance closely.

At the last General Election I stood on a manifesto that included commitments to improve early cancer diagnosis, to speed up waiting times for cancer test results and to create a new Cancer Treatments Fund so that patients would have access to the latest drugs, surgery and radiotherapy.

I believe that although huge progress has been made on improving cancer services in the past decade, we still lag behind other countries, and there is worrying evidence that the progress we have been making on cancer care has stalled, or potentially even gone backwards. No breast cancer patient should end up lost in our vast health system, unable to find the treatment to which they are entitled.

Helen calls for access to Bisphosphonates for breast cancer patients

I sympathise profoundly with anyone who has been affected by breast cancer and I appreciate that organisations such as Breast Cancer Now work extremely hard to help support people living...

When Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation sought complete ownership of BSkyB five years ago the House of Commons united behind a motion calling for the bid to be withdrawn in the public interest. The concerns were not only about the serious wrongdoing being uncovered in the phone hacking scandal but about the concentration of media power and ownership in fewer hands.

As soon as possible after Sky announced it had received an approach from 21st Century Fox, the Labour Party asked an Urgent Question in the House of Commons, forcing the Government to make a statement. The Government was rightly pressed to refer the bid to Ofcom. The Government must be prepared to stand up to powerful interests and ensure that this proposed deal is properly and independently scrutinised.

The Government has stated that any transaction will be looked at on its merits, on a case-by-case basis. I understand the frustration caused by the lack of a decision to date. The Government promised on 12 December to keep the House of Commons updated and I hope it will express its view to Parliament before Christmas.

Moreover, the Government should not cancel the vital second part of the Leveson Inquiry, which would look at questions around unlawful or improper conduct within the Murdoch empire, at exactly the moment when Rupert Murdoch is attempting once again to strengthen his hold over the UK media.

I will continue to follow the proposed takeover closely. 

Sky takeover highlights the necessity for the second part of the Leveson Inquiry

When Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation sought complete ownership of BSkyB five years ago the House of Commons united behind a motion calling for the bid to be withdrawn in the...

Several constituents have signed the 38 degrees petition highlighting concern about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs)  and I do agree with the signatories that these machines can ruin lives. Action is long overdue on this.

In towns and cities across Britain, traditional bookies are being turned into mini-casinos and I share your concern about the impact that high-speed gaming machines - on which people can bet up to £100 every 20 seconds – are having on our high streets and town centres.

Evidence suggests that Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are highly addictive and that their high-speed nature makes them particularly addictive to problem gamblers. I was very disappointed that, in July 2015, the Government rejected proposals from over 90 local councils to reduce the maximum stake on FOBTs from £100 to £2.

I am aware that the Fixed Odds Betting Terminals APPG has also called for the maximum stake to be cut from £100 to £2, on a precautionary basis until sufficient evidence is presented that the high stakes on these machines do not cause harm. I want to see the maximum stake reduced from £100 to £2 and I believe the Government should act on this.

I welcome the current review of Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales. This shows that the Government has finally woken up to the fact that it has not done enough to curtail the proliferation of FOBTs.

The review is looking at the maximum stakes and prizes for gaming machines and also at whether the right measures are in place to protect the young and vulnerable from gambling advertising. The call for evidence closed on 4 December and I will follow the outcome closely and any proposals that the Government brings forward.

I believe that we need real action to tackle the scourge of FOBTs and to protect users of these highly addictive gambling machines.

Helen shares her constituents' concerns over Fixed Odds Betting Terminals

Several constituents have signed the 38 degrees petition highlighting concern about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs)  and I do agree with the signatories that these machines can ruin lives. Action...

The persecution of Christians and, indeed, any religious group is entirely unacceptable and I agree that all people should be able to practice and profess their religious faith free from persecution. However, the 2016 World Watch List reminded us that in certain parts of the world religious freedom is still ruthlessly oppressed.

I was shocked to learn from the most recent report produced by Open Doors that the persecution of Christians increased over the previous year, with over 7,000 Christians believed to have been killed for directly faith-related reasons. I believe human rights should be at the heart of our foreign policy. However, an important report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year highlighted concerns about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) prioritisation of human rights.

The Government must use Britain's influence to stand up for the rights and freedoms that all human beings are entitled to, including religious freedom. Religious organisations play an important and crucial role in highlighting terrible violations of these rights around the world.

You can read the Open Doors report, 2016 Freedom of Religion and the Persecution of Christians.

Helen supports Open Door Campaign against Persecution of Christians abroad

The persecution of Christians and, indeed, any religious group is entirely unacceptable and I agree that all people should be able to practice and profess their religious faith free from...

I believe it is vital that everyone is able to use buses and other forms of public transport and therefore Audio-Visual (AV) announcements are very important for those with visual or hearing impairments

I have therefore consistently supported calls for all buses to have AV communication systems to advise passengers of the next stop, any delays and any diversions from the published timetable and I know that several bus operators who have installed AV systems have found them to be good value for money, while disabled bus users have made it clear these systems help make their journeys easier.

The Government recently confirmed that it would amend the Bus Services Bill, so that operators will be required to provide accessible information, using both audible and visible media, on board local bus services across Great Britain. I welcome this considerable concession, which follows pressure from the Opposition in the House of Lords.

The Government initially favoured a voluntary approach but now proposes, in the Bus Services Bill, to amend the Equality Act 2010 to provide the regulation-making powers required to develop an accessible information requirement. The Government has said that it will bring forward regulations as soon as it is able to do so. I believe that the Government should now clarify when it expects bus operators to comply with the new regulations.

I am pleased that the Equality Act 2010 will be amended to deliver the AV programme that organisations such as Guide Dogs have been seeking. I believe this could make a vital difference to the lives of almost two million people with sight loss, as well as many elderly people who rely on public transport for their independence.

I can assure you that I will support this when the Bus Services Bill is debated in the House of Commons in the New Year. I will also make the case, more widely, for local communities to have the power to make bus operators provide the services that local people need.

Helen backs Talking Buses

I believe it is vital that everyone is able to use buses and other forms of public transport and therefore Audio-Visual (AV) announcements are very important for those with visual...

An issue which encouraged many constituents to email me over the Christmas period was the Make the Air Fair campaign.

Access to high-quality mobile phone services is essential. As well as helping people to interact it is also key for the economy and public services. I would like to see mobile connectivity improve and I agree that the mobile market should be fair and competitive.

Customer choice and reliable coverage should be available everywhere in the UK. Indeed, the National Infrastructure Commission has said there are "too many digital deserts" across the country, and ranked Britain 54th in the world for 4G coverage.

During the last Parliament, the Coalition Government failed to improve mobile connectivity and while I welcome some measures within the current Government’s Digital Economy Bill, I am concerned that it will not do enough.  

As you know, Ofcom is currently consulting on the release of the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands of the mobile spectrum. These proposals are well known to me, and I have spoken in Parliament about the potential issues auctioning these frequencies may cause for people who use hearing aids and devices. You can watch my speech here or read it on Hansard. I am aware that several organisations, including ‘Make the Air Fair’ are calling for a cap of 30% spectrum ownership for any one network operator. 

This band of spectrum is one of our most significant public assets. How it is auctioned and regulated are issues of critical importance to the economy.

I am concerned that the Government has failed to foster a competitive communications market. More competition means better service, more investment and lower prices; and Ofcom should be supported to make sure that happens.

Licensing conditions for the spectrum auction must be ambitious and tough. These auctions should benefit everyone through better coverage and contribute to our digital economy, rather than simply raising revenue or providing benefit to the mobile network operators.

I will follow the outcome of Ofcom’s consultation closely and can assure you that I will continue to press the Government to improve communications infrastructure and mobile network coverage in all areas of the UK.

Make the Air Fair campaign

An issue which encouraged many constituents to email me over the Christmas period was the Make the Air Fair campaign. Access to high-quality mobile phone services is essential. As well...

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