Sharon receives a response from Sunderland City Council regarding due diligence of planning applications.
Click on image above to download letter.
Sharon receives a response from Sunderland City Council regarding due diligence of planning applications. Click on image above to download letter. Read more
Read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below or by going to the Sunderland Echo website.
Last week, I delivered the most difficult speech I have ever given in the House of Commons during my 13 years as a Member of Parliament.
I spoke about my own experiences after the birth of my daughter, Lucy, who sadly arrived into the world stillborn.
Since my speech, I have received messages of love and kindness from all over the country and my story has even reached the Netherlands and Italy.
I have also received messages from other families who, like me, have experienced the heartbreak of losing a baby and were distressed to find that they were unable to register their birth and death because they were born before the 24-week gestation threshold.
To the law, these babies did not officially exist.
But to the families who have felt the excitement of expecting a baby, have felt the baby moving and have given birth, their baby did exist.
That is why something has to change, so that no stillborn baby before 24 weeks is ever made to not officially exist.
This is something Tim Loughton MP’s Private Members Bill on Civil Partnerships (Etc.) Bill hopes to achieve, and something I have campaigned for with my cross-party colleagues on the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Baby Loss.
Losing a baby is not party political, and together members of the APPG have raised many issues in Parliament since our late night meeting back in 2015, about baby loss and is an exemplar of cross-party working at its best.
With the help of charities, such as the Lullaby Trust and SANDS, families who have lost a baby are now able to have the care and support I, and many others, never had.
Thanks to developments in healthcare, babies born too soon and before 24 weeks now survive in much greater numbers than ever before.
But babies stillborn before 24 weeks deserve recognition of their existence in the law.
20 years on, Lucy’s legacy lives on through my work as an MP. I hope that my speech persuades the Government to make this important change so that families who have experienced this tragedy know that, within the law, their baby officially did exist.
Read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below or by going to the Sunderland Echo website. Last week, I delivered the most difficult speech I have ever given in the House...
Sharon Hodgson, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West and Shadow Minister for Public Health, joins celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver in the calls for a pooled marketing fund to advertise vegetables.
#VegPower is asking for Government, growers and retailers to contribute to a pooled marketing fund to relaunch the image of vegetables and to support a healthier food environment.
Figures show that 95% of teenagers and 80% of adults don’t eat enough vegetables and that consumption is in decline.
Most vegetables are currently unbranded and don’t have big marketing budgets, but vegetable advertising would increase consumption and a healthier lifestyle.
“We know that advertising for junk food drives up demand and consumption, so I am pleased that #VegPower is now looking to do the same for vegetables not only to encourage healthy eating and to drive up demand, but also to support our farmers.
“We are constantly bombarded with junk food advertising so I fully support this campaign which will positively promote vegetables.
“Eating a balanced diet, which includes vegetables, is key to a fit and healthy lifestyle, so it is important that healthy eating is encouraged across all ages.”
Sharon Hodgson, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West and Shadow Minister for Public Health, joins celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver in the calls for a pooled...
Sharon Hodgson, the Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West and Shadow Public Health Minister celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage, calling for the struggles of the past to be celebrated whilst the issues of the present must not to be forgotten.
Being the only Sharon ever elected and the 289th of the 489 women elected to the House, Sharon urges women to use their vote and become more involved in politics as when women are united they can achieve anything.
Sharon Hodgson MP said:
“Today I am celebrating the landmark centenary year of some women being given the right to vote.
I am proud to celebrate the tremendous courage of those brave women who fought so hard for women’s right to vote and the legacy they have left behind.
As we celebrate these women, we should also look forward to the possibilities for the next 100 years and make 2018 a year of great achievement for women and girls everywhere.
Our challenge now must be to build on past achievements and push for full equality and protection for women: financially, in the workplace, in families and homes and in public spaces.”
Sharon Hodgson, the Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West and Shadow Public Health Minister celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage, calling for the struggles of the past to...
In her capacity as Chair of the School Food APPG, Sharon secured a debate on the Department for Education's current consultation around future eligibility for free school meals under Universal Credit. In her speech, Sharon raised concerns with the proposed £7,400 threshold and the Government's estimated 50,000 children who will benefit from changes to eligibility and moved on to provide a solution for the Government, and reasons why this solution should be introduced.
You can read the full debate here: Free School Meals Eligibility and Universal Credit Westminster Hall Debate 06.02.18
You can read Sharon's opening speech, pasted below:
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future eligibility for free school meals and the pupil premium.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. With the support of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), I called this debate because of our serious concerns about the Department for Education’s consultation, “Eligibility for free school meals and the early years pupil premium under Universal Credit”. Those concerns arose following my oral question on universal credit and free school meals to the new Secretary of State last week, when, unfortunately, he completely missed my point.
The Government are disregarding the concerns of many in this House and outside it that their actions will push more children into poverty. Labour Members know that poverty is not an inevitability, but a symptom of failure to harness political will, think innovatively and take bold steps forward. This whole issue encapsulates that neatly. In my contribution, I will focus on the concerns flagged up by the consultation’s proposals and discuss what should be done to mitigate those concerns and why.
In my letter to the consultation, I said that I am a huge supporter of rolling out hot and healthy universal free school meals for all children—I always have been. That will be no surprise to hon. Members, who know that I have banged on about my support for wider access and the provision of free school meals for more than a decade now, and I will continue to do so until all children receive a hot and healthy meal in the dinner hall.
In the current transition to universal credit, all families claiming the new benefit are entitled to free school meals, which is great, but the Department’s consultation aims to roll forward that reform by rolling back one of its most progressive measures. By removing the universal entitlement to free school meals under universal credit and introducing a £7,400 threshold for eligibility for free school meals, the Government are forcibly creating a cliff edge that will be detrimental to families, especially children. That seems utterly ludicrous
As the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), wrote when the White Paper on universal credit was published in 2010:
“At its heart, Universal Credit is very simple and will ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently…better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn.”
The Opposition do not disagree at all with the principles that he set out, but sadly, the reality has failed to live up to the promise made eight years ago. We all know lots of the reasons behind that, which ultimately led to him resigning, but that is a whole other story.
The proposals set out in the consultation are diametrically opposed to that 2010 vision and what it was meant to achieve, especially around making work pay. To give one example of how the proposal will be detrimental: someone with three children in their family who earns just below the £7,400 threshold is set to lose out on £1,200 in free school meals if they work only a few hours more or get a pay rise. The family’s annual wages would have to increase from £7,400 to almost £11,000 to make up for what they lost by rising above the eligibility cliff edge—a problem that would not occur under the working tax credit system because the legacy benefits system provides an offsetting income boost at the point that free school meals are withdrawn. Under universal credit, however, there is no equivalent mitigation.
Another example, provided to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak and me by the fabulous Dr Sam Royston of the Children’s Society, is that a single parent with no housing costs and one child would be £26 better off per week under the old working tax credit system than under universal credit. The Minister may think £26 per week a meagre amount, but for many outside this place it can determine whether or not they can eat or heat their home. The child of the single parent in Dr Royston’s example is not entitled to free school meals either under working tax credits or under the proposed universal credit rules, so it may seem that they will be no worse off, but the only way they can be so entitled is if the transitional plans are made permanent, so that all children in a family that claims universal credit receive free school meals.
Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
My hon. Friend will be aware—as I am, since I represent a rural area—that one of the problems with free school meals is how many parents will not claim them because of stigma. Does she agree that changing to universal credit will only make that worse.
Yes. One of my reasons for supporting universal free school meals is that the stigma would be removed. It was proved in the excellent school food plan commissioned under the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), that that was one of the benefits of universal free school meals. The poorest kids, who are entitled to them anyway, are the ones who benefit the most.
Laura Smith (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)
As a teenager, I was entitled to free school meals, but because of the stigma I did not take them. I used to refuse to queue up for my token, so I went without, which resulted in my developing a very controlling relationship with food and a lot of problems at home. I totally support my hon. Friend’s proposal, because free school meals for all children will mean that they all get a healthy meal and the stigma will disappear.
I totally agree. The same system should apply for all children who are entitled to universal credit, although wider access is another debate.
Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con)
I completely agree about the stigma; I raised the same point with the Minister the other day in the Chamber. However, does the hon. Lady agree that there is another way? Instead of enfranchising everybody, we could have an auto-enrolment scheme that was linked to the benefits system, rather than a system of people self-declaring as eligible.
I agree about auto-enrolment: parents should not have to apply. However, the point that I am trying to make is that any family eligible for universal credit should automatically get free school meals through auto-enrolment. If the cliff edge is brought in, it would be detrimental to that vision that we probably all share.
Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)
I absolutely agree. Administering the cliff edge will mean huge costs. We should learn from the current system for free school meals for infants.
I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I had better get back to setting out my concerns. What we want to prevent is families avoiding pay rises or working more hours for fear that they will lose out. That is not making work pay, and it is not what the system was intended to do when it was set up. If the Minister and his Department, alongside the Department for Work and Pensions, were truly in favour of making work pay, they would at the very least have made provision to avoid that issue—even keeping the status quo would work. They have known about the problem for seven years; I have banged on about it for years, and so have my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, since before she was an MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and other hon. Members. Sadly, it seems that the Government are keen to power on without even considering the impact of their policies on a child’s life. It would be welcome if the Minister set out how he believes the threshold and its implications are consistent with the Government’s aim to make work pay.
Another concern about the consultation is the figure of 50,000 more children who we keep hearing will benefit from free school meals by 2022. On the surface, it is welcome that the Government have estimated that more children will be receiving free school meals under their plans, but it is deeply concerning that analysis by the Children’s Society has found that more than 1 million children living in poverty would miss out on a free school meal because of the cliff edge. In the consultation document, the Government say that 50,000 children will benefit by the end of the roll-out, when the transitional protections are at their capacity. Herein lies the crux of the problem: the document also states that 10% of children—113,000—will lose out on free school meal entitlement. That is because children will fall off once the transitional protections come to an end, as they move from primary school, where they will have the protection when it comes in, to secondary school, where their entitlement will end.
I would therefore welcome clarity from the Minister about how he will protect children who risk losing their free school meals when they move from one stage of their education to the next. If he cannot give us answers in this debate—that would be a shame, but I am aware that time will be an issue—I would be more than happy to take him up on his offer to meet me if he is still happy to do so. I am very grateful that he made that commitment.
I want to offer the Minister a solution, which I have already touched on. It makes total sense for the current transitional system to be made permanent so that all the children in a family on universal credit receive free school meals. That would not generate any extra bureaucracy, it would be fairer and it would help make work pay. It would be exactly what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green intended when he envisaged and enacted the policy. It would negate any of the concerns that I have mentioned and that other hon. Members may mention. It would push the cliff edge to a much higher earnings threshold and overcome the fear of deductions from earnings, which turn the Government’s proposals against making work pay. We do not want people to refuse pay rises or extra work for fear that they will lose three lots of free school meals.
That is not the only reason to maintain the status quo. Free school meals also have significant benefits for a child’s life. I will never miss an opportunity to sing the praises of the universal principle of free school meals. As several hon. Members have already mentioned, they reduce stigma. In its response to the consultation, School Food Matters quoted the comments of a headteacher about how universal infant free school meals had reduced stigma:
“Despite being in an affluent London borough, 27% of the children at our school are currently entitled to free school meals but nearer 40% have been entitled to free school meals within the past 6 years.”
That is what matters for the pupil premium. The headteacher went on to say:
“This is a clear indicator that many of the families are only just about managing.”
This shows that if the Minister goes ahead with the current proposals, we could see more and more of the “just about managing”—the JAMs, who the Prime Minister referred to in her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street—being left behind. Would that not go against what this Government are all about?
The Minister knows that I have a keen interest in supporting children from low-income families by giving them healthy meals, both in term time and in the holidays. We had the excellent private Member’s Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and I know that the Minister is considering pilots with regard to it, which is very welcome. By implementing my proposal, the Government would ensure that those children have access to a healthy meal that would benefit their education, their health and their wellbeing.
The evidence is out there and I am sure that the Minister has a copy of the school food plan lying around in his office; if he has not, I have a spare one, or I am sure that I get John Vincent or Henry Dimbleby, its writers, to send him one. I advise him strongly to go away and read it, as it is excellent from cover to cover, especially chapter 11, which is about the benefits of free school meals. In said chapter, there are references to the evaluations of the free school meal pilots established by the last Labour Government under Ed Balls, which showed that there was a 23% increase in vegetable consumption, a 16% decline in the consumption of soft drinks—because there were no packed lunches—and an 18% decline in the consumption of crisps. Those pilots also benefited a child’s education, with children in receipt of a free school meal in the pilot areas on average two months ahead of their peers outside the pilot areas and 2% more children reaching their target levels in maths and English at key stage 1, while at key stage 2 the impact was between 3% and 5%. If we want to close the attainment gap, there is nothing better than to start by making sure that the kids are all fed.
The hon. Lady says “there is nothing better”, but potentially there is: breakfast. All the studies show that disadvantaged children perform a lot better once they have had a breakfast, and in fact children in middle-class families and higher-earning families, where the parents are busy and going off to work, often suffer as well, because they are not getting that important breakfast, which is, after all, the most important meal of the day.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes—for the last time.
On the benefits of universal free school meals, I will just add that when they were piloted, the most marked academic improvements were among children from less affluent backgrounds. That is a very important point to make.
I think the Minister is a common-sense kind of guy; I have found that in my dealings with him in all-party groups that we have worked in together over the years. So I am sure that, on hearing the figures that I have cited, he will agree that the reason for all of this work is that children are more attentive and ready to learn, because they have a healthy meal in their tummies that is fuelling their learning.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am just about to finish.
The proposals in the consultation would jeopardise all of that, because those children would have to go back to bringing in packed lunches and only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional requirements that our fabulous school food does now. It has been improved beyond recognition.
I will give way to the hon. Lady very quickly.
I know that the hon. Lady is just coming to the end of her remarks, but I just wanted to pick her up on one thing. She is making compelling arguments for the benefits of free school meals and breakfasts. I think that many of us would support her in wanting to make sure that children are well fed at school. However, she has not touched on the costs of doing those things, the trade-offs, and the choices that might have to be made to ensure that a generous supply of free school meals is available.
The hon. Lady might not be aware, because I do not think that she was a Member at the time, but after the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath commissioned the school food plan, he agreed with all 17 of its recommendations. He put money to 16 of them straight away and the 17th one was for universal free school meals; he accepted the arguments for that recommendation and said he would provide money for it when it could be found. Money was found for universal infant free school meals, under the coalition agreement with Nick Clegg, and those meals were introduced.
The point has already been made; it has been proved. The money can be found, because universal free school meals more than pay for themselves, and the benefits that we get from them outweigh the initial costs, including the amount saved on administration because they are universal. There are a whole host of arguments around this issue, but in a sense I am detracting from what this debate is about, so I will conclude.
I hope that the Minister has been listening intently; in fact, I am sure he has, because he has looking at me and I have seen he is. I hope he will do the same with other speakers. The new system was presented as a way to eradicate poverty, but instead the introduction of the measure that we have been discussing could cement poverty in our society, and at worst there could even be a rise in poverty among “working poor” families. If that happens, we would go through all these changes for naught, and children would be just as badly off in the future—maybe even worse off—and that would be at the behest of the Government. I am sure that is not what they want, so I hope that the Minister will look at this issue seriously and perhaps think again, for the sake of the children out there who we are all here to support.
In her capacity as Chair of the School Food APPG, Sharon secured a debate on the Department for Education's current consultation around future eligibility for free school meals under Universal... Read more
Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Jan-Feb 2018 number 101
Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Jan-Feb 2018 number 101 Click on the picture above to read Sharon Hodgson MP's report - News from Westminster - Jan-Feb 2018 number 101 Read more
During the 2nd Reading of Tim Loughton MP's Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Private Members Bill, Sharon made a personal speech specific to a section of the Bill which would called for a review into providing birth and death certificates for stillborn babies before the 24 week gestation threshold. In her speech, Sharon spoke about her experiences 20 years ago of giving birth to her stillborn daughter, Lucy, and not receiving a birth or death certificate for her.
You can read the full debate in Hansard by following this link: Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Private Members Bill 02.02.18
You can read Sharon's speech pasted below:
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), whom I am proud to call my friend. The work we have done together on the all-party group on baby loss is an exemplar of cross-party working at its best.
I welcome this Bill, presented by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and support all four parts of it wholeheartedly. However, this morning I will speak about just two, one which I will discuss briefly and another which is of great personal significance to me. First, I welcome the measures in this Bill that would legislate to equalise civil partnerships and open them up to heterosexual couples. As we all have, I have had many constituents contact me about that in recent weeks, and I am happy to support the measures the hon. Gentleman proposes.
Now I come to the main topic I wish to talk about this morning. I remember, when the hon. Gentleman sent an email around notifying us all of his intentions with this Bill, being really hopeful when I saw the provision to register stillbirths who are born under 24 weeks’ gestation. I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind my quoting his email, in which he said:
“Currently a child born to a mother who goes through the whole process of labour but is stillborn after 23 weeks for example, is treated no differently to a miscarriage…Both are traumatic and we need to do more to support families affected in this way but the failure by the state to acknowledge that a child born this way ever existed effectively surely just adds insult to injury.”
When I received that email and read that paragraph, initially it floored me, because it was me he was describing. That was exactly my experience with Lucy, my third child, and I am sure I used similar words to describe how it all felt in my intervention in the baby loss debate in 2016.
Lucy was born at 23 and a half weeks, and sadly she was stillborn. I mentioned Lucy for the first time in Parliament during the powerful baby loss debate during Baby Loss Awareness Week in 2016. That was 11 years after I had been elected. I said at the time how much I admired—and I still do—my fellow officers of the all-party group on baby loss, who led the debate that day. The year before, the hon. Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) had spoken in detail about their loss in a groundbreaking Adjournment debate, which I watched from the safety of my office because I was too scared to be in the Chamber because I knew how emotional I would get listening in the Chamber. The fact that they were on their feet talking about it just astounded me, because I had never felt brave enough or strong enough to do what they did. I still find it very difficult, even now, all these years later, to talk about it.
Thank you very much. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was trying to calm me down, but he has probably made me worse! As Members can all see, I feel very strongly about this issue, so I felt that, even though I knew I would end up in floods of tears, I had to come along and take part in this debate and express how strongly I want to support this legislative change, and why.
If Lucy had been born alive at 23 and a half weeks, she would have been incubated immediately and rushed in the waiting ambulance, with flashing blue lights, to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, where they have the regional centre of excellence for special care baby units for very premature babies. She would have had the very best world-class care. She would have had a birth certificate and she would have been celebrating her 20th birthday this year. But sadly she was stillborn, so there were no flashing blue lights, no incubator and no birthday parties, ever. And as I found out to my horror, there was no birth or death certificate. As I held her in my arms and had to come to terms with what had just happened, I also had to come to terms with the fact that, officially, she did not exist, and that I would not be getting any certificate of her arrival or death. She was three to four days short of the required 24-week legal age.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)
It is very clear that Lucy does exist. Lucy does exist in my hon. Friend’s memories. It is very important for so many constituents that the all-party group on baby loss and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) are raising this issue today. My hon. Friend is very brave to be able to talk through her personal experience. As ever with the many issues that we cover in debates these days, it is important for people outside the House to understand that MPs share these experiences, as we share mental health issues and other forms of loss in our families. I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech. The all-party group is doing a fantastic job of campaigning. I hope we can hear a little more from my hon. Friend because the issues she is covering are really valuable.
Thank you so much. I appreciate all the support that everyone is giving me to help me to get through this moment.
As I was saying, Lucy was three to four days short of the 24-week legal age required to be considered eligible for a death certificate. I was horrified and further traumatised when I then saw it entered in my records as a miscarriage. Because she was pre-24 weeks, she did not even get the dignity of being classed as a stillbirth, although that is what I always say she was, if and when I do talk about this tragedy—which is not very often, as Members can tell.
We went on to have a lovely blessing, given by the amazing hospital chaplain in the private room to which I was moved after she was born. We named her Lucy during the blessing and spent a number of hours with her before she was taken to the chapel of rest. Twenty years ago, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead did not have any cold cots—I sincerely hope it does now; I will try to find out—so we could not spend the night with her, even though I was kept in overnight, heavily sedated.
We had a very small family funeral service. My children were two and three and a half at the time, so they were not even there, just our parents. The service was organised by the chaplain and the Co-Op, which funded and organised everything. That was such a touching thing to do, although I know that is not always the case—my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) campaigns on that very topic, and I support her in that. Lucy was buried in a tiny white coffin in the same grave as my nana and granddad.
I tell the House all that to highlight that to the chaplain, to the Co-Op funeral service and to us, her family, she existed. She was a baby who sadly was born dead. Her heart was beating throughout my labour, up until just minutes before she was born. She just could not make the final push into this world. Because of that, and because of a matter of a few days, she does not officially exist in any records, other than in our memories and our family records. Even the entry on the deeds for the grave is my name, as if I, or in this case a bit of me, was buried there. Her name is not on the deed for the burial plot because although buried there, she did not exist. I hope that Members can appreciate and understand how hard this was to deal with and to understand at the time, when I was dealing with what was, and still is, the worst thing I have ever had to experience in all my life.
There must be a way to square the circle in cases such as this, with the whole 24-weeks viability argument. Babies born too soon and before 24 weeks now survive in much greater numbers than ever before. To my great delight, I have met some of them at events in Parliament and it is amazing—each one is a miracle. Surely there is a way to recognise the 22-week or 23-week babies who did not quite make it to their first breath. That is why I welcome wholeheartedly what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is trying to do with this Bill. I hope that the Government will look favourably on it.
During the 2nd Reading of Tim Loughton MP's Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Private Members Bill, Sharon made a personal speech specific to a section of the Bill... Read more
Sharon receives a response from Jo Johnson MP, the Minister of State at the department for Transport about the Tyne and Wear Metro.
Click on the image above to read the letter.
Sharon receives a response from the Minister at the Department for Transport about the Tyne and Wear Metro
Sharon receives a response from Jo Johnson MP, the Minister of State at the department for Transport about the Tyne and Wear Metro. Click on the image above to read... Read more
Following many constituents contacting Sharon about their PIP assessments, Sharon spoke in a debate on this matter and raised a few of the recent cases brought to her attention but also how the Government must rethink their heartless policy.
You can read the full debate here: Personal Independence Payments Westminster Hall 31.01.18
You can read Sharon's contribution pasted below:
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) for securing this important debate and for her passionate speech.
Our welfare state was founded by a Labour Government, based on the principles of protecting the most vulnerable in our society and providing a safety net for everyone, rich or poor, should they ever need it. Yet under this Government we have seen our welfare state eroded into a completely dehumanising and cruel experience. Yesterday, the Minister refuted my claims that the welfare system we see today is cruel; if it is not cruel, then what is it? These people have been put through the wringer and squeezed remorselessly—and all for nothing, as we now know.
I am like other hon. Members: rarely does a day go by when distressed constituents are not reaching out to me about their PIP assessments. The dread and anxiety that comes with an impending PIP assessment are overwhelming. That is not surprising, given the life-or-death situations constituents find themselves in. A survey by the Disability Benefits Consortium found that one third of those who have had their funding cut in the middle of a benefits shake-up said they were struggling to pay for food, rent and bills.
That is what happened to my constituent Deborah. Since failing her PIP assessment six weeks ago, she has been living on biscuits. Despite the cold weather in the north-east—it has been freezing—she has been unable to put her heating on. Sadly, Deborah, who suffers with severe mental and physical health problems, has been through this once before, so she knows the physical and psychological effects it can have on claimants and their families. Deborah does not want to go through that again, nor should she.
Another of my constituents, Kelly, applied for PIP on behalf of her 17-year-old daughter, who has anti-myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein disease: a rare neurological illness. Kelly’s daughter has limited movement in her spine and 50% lung function, due to a severe spinal scoliosis, and now has titanium rods running the length of her spine. Kelly was told that her daughter did not qualify. Susan, who has severe osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, is in constant pain and can barely walk. She was told she did not qualify. On behalf of my constituents, I ask the Minister exactly how disabled and affected by their disabilities people have to be to qualify for PIP.
The system in place now is not what our predecessors imagined when they founded the welfare state. They expected kindness and compassion for those who need support during difficult times. Yesterday, the Department for Work and Pensions tried to play the compassionate Conservative card and announced that everyone receiving PIP will have their claim reviewed. What does that bittersweet announcement mean for the constituents I have mentioned today and the many others across the country who have already had their payments stopped? Will the Minister provide some clarity on whether and when the Department will consider those claims again?
Given the suffering that my constituents are already going through as a result of PIP, they simply cannot wait any longer. I ask the Minister, please, to confirm today how long this complex exercise is expected to take. I hope, given what we have already heard and will no doubt continue to hear for the rest of the debate, that the Minister will finally put an end to the pain and suffering that so many have had to endure as a result of the Government’s heartless policies—that has to be said—and give people a chance to live with dignity.
Following many constituents contacting Sharon about their PIP assessments, Sharon spoke in a debate on this matter and raised a few of the recent cases brought to her attention but...
Response from Environment Agency regarding due diligence. Click on image above to download letter. Read more