You can read Sharon's latest Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
This year, local elections will take place in a context we’ve never known before.
Last year’s Council elections were delayed by national Government, because of Covid-19, but are due to take place this May.
While many of us will have had our vaccine by then, with Sunderland and the North East making incredible progress vaccinating our communities, there is an important step that we all could take to ensure that we can all vote safely in the local elections – sign up for postal voting.
You can vote early with a postal vote, by sending this off ahead of polling day. Around 40% of the population of Sunderland are already registered for a postal vote.
It’s important you have your say in local democracy, and you can do this easily from your own home. The elections in the USA in November were a fantastic success for early postal voting, with over 100 million voters across the country choosing to vote safely and securely from home.
That’s not to say that voting in person at your nearest polling station won’t be safe. Our excellent council workers will be ensuring that polling stations are kept Covid-secure, and social distancing will be strictly maintained.
But I’m sure most people have been in that position where they’ve forgotten it is election day until the last minute, or are too busy to find time to vote on the day. That doesn’t need to be a concern with a postal vote.
Across the next few months, Sunderland Council Electoral Services will be writing to everyone who is not yet registered for a postal vote, to let you know how you can sign up for one.
You can get ahead of the curve, and sign up to vote by post by checking out this interactive website: https://postalvote.labour.org.uk/
Your local Labour candidates have been working hard throughout the pandemic to support communities across Sunderland. You can find out more about the candidates for Washington and Sunderland West on this link: https://www.waswlabour.org/local-election-candidates-2021/
Get your postal vote, and make sure your vote is counted safely and securely in May and in future elections.
ECHO COLUMN: Sign up for postal voting for the upcoming local elections
You can read Sharon's Sunderland Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
Last week’s schools chaos shows that the Government’s priorities do not lie with families.
Parents finding out at 8pm on a Monday night that their children wouldn't be going to school the next day, after being reassured the opposite, indicates a wider problem; the Government’s incompetence is leaving families behind.
Seeing children out of school is disappointing, but is now necessary. Schools are open to vulnerable children and those with essential worker parents, but this limited safe capacity has quickly been filled leaving schools under serious pressure.
Meanwhile, parents who cannot work from home are being told to remain at work, creating a childcare issue and leaving parents with the difficult decision of working and keeping their job or looking after their family.
On Wednesday, after pressure from Labour, the Chancellor updated the guidance to make these parents aware that they would be eligible for furlough. But this is at the discretion of employers. It also means a 20% pay-cut.
That’s just not good enough. Once again, working parents are left to juggle childcare and work. It isn’t fair on parents, school staff or children.
As we face the deepest recession of any major economy, we must protect family incomes.
Labour is calling on the Government to create an immediate right for parents to request paid flexible furlough.
Child poverty levels were striking pre-pandemic, with 35% of children in the North East living in poverty. This has now worsened, regional inequality has intensified, and Councils have been starved of income.
Despite this, Boris and Rishi want to cut Universal Credit, which will mean millions of families lose £1,000 a year and another 200,000 children put into poverty. They also plan a raise in council tax, landing every family an extra £90 on their bill.
This harsh austerity won’t help our region build back its economy. It won’t help parents and children build back our communities. It certainly won’t level us up.
Not only are the Tories proving their incompetence, but they are proving that families are not their priority.
ECHO COLUMN: The Government is failing families
You can read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
When Penshaw monument comes into view on the A1 or A19, you know you’re almost home.
The announcement of a coronavirus vaccine feels like that too.
There is now a route out of this pandemic and its hold on our daily lives; soon we may once again be able to hug our nearest and dearest.
A light has shone at the end of the tunnel, there is an end in sight.
We are almost home.
This of course could never have happened if it wasn’t for the hard work and dedication of scientists here in the UK. My congratulations and thanks go out to all who have helped us get this far.
But we cannot forget that by leaving us in heightened restrictions since September 18th and failing to support local businesses, the Government has disadvantaged the North East throughout this pandemic.
It is fantastic that Newcastle’s Royal Infirmary will be one of the first hospitals in the country used as a vaccine hub, with the North East yet again leading the way.
However, every part of our region must have the resources and plans in place to deliver the vaccination programme as promised.
The vaccine rollout will not happen overnight, but the Conservatives must not leave the North East at the back of the queue once again.
On Boxing Day 2018, Sunderland fans set the record for attendance of a League One football match, with over 46,000 fans in attendance. Two years on, even if under tier 2 restrictions, only 2,000 fans would be able to go and watch the Black Cats.
Our region’s economy needs fans back in stadiums, hospitality open and local businesses thriving once more.
I know that these measures have taken their toll on us all but with a review of restrictions on the way, we cannot undermine the progress we have made.
I therefore urge everyone to enjoy their festive celebrations in line with the national and regional guidance.
As ever, if you have any concerns, please email [email protected] and I will do my best to help. I wish you and your families a very happy Christmas.
ECHO COLUMN: We must not be left at the back of the queue again
You can read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website.
As the Government places Northern regions under experimental lockdown measures, without the financial backing to help them through, the North-South divide has never been so apparent.
But as people in our region know all too well, Tory neglect of the North predates Covid-19.
Local Authority budgets in our region have been savaged since 2010, exacerbating long-term regional inequalities between the North and South.
Shocking statistics from the End Child Poverty Coalition show that some of the largest increases in child poverty have come from Northern towns and cities, with the North East seeing the largest jump of any region in England.
In my constituency, 35% of children are growing up in poverty, an almost 9% increase since 2014/15.
This is before we even take into consideration the consequences of Covid-19, which has left the North East facing economic turmoil not seen since the days of Thatcher.
Families face significant economic uncertainty, and need reassurance that support will be there to help them care for their children and stop them from slipping into poverty.
However, the Government is threatening to slash the safety net even further, by scrapping the £20 uplift to Universal Credit in April, which will only make it harder to make ends meet and plunge our children into further hardship.
Tackling poverty and addressing its root causes needs to be at the heart of any Covid recovery plan, to ensure this pandemic does not commit a future generation to a life of deprivation.
The Government must urgently reform the social security net, and retain the £20 uplift in Universal Credit (UC) and apply this to other legacy benefits.
In the face of already unacceptable levels of child poverty, our country’s children are now at severe risk of being swept even deeper into deprivation. Reforming UC and maintaining the £20 uplift would put much-needed cash into the pockets of Britain’s poorest families, helping them through this crisis, and would put us back on path to a fairer, more just society in the aftermath of this pandemic.
ECHO COLUMN: Tory neglect continues to widen the North-South divide
You can read Sharon's recent Echo Column below or on the Sunderland Echo website.
Many families in our area have already been hit hard financially by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Yet, as they have done so often during this crisis, the Government recently overlooked the needs of working families in our region. Local lockdown measures were implemented at short notice, which effectively put an end to informal childcare arrangements.
This left parents who rely on support from grandparents, friends and family facing a choice between staying at home to care for their children and potentially losing their job, or finding formal childcare with no notice and no budget to pay for it.
Many constituents wrote to me to share their worries and anxieties. Families who were already often on low pay, particularly women and single parents, were left facing severe hardship. I wrote to Matt Hancock to raise their concerns, and asked the Government to reconsider.
Thankfully, Ministers relented, and have now said that informal childcare arrangements for those aged under 14 can continue, ensuring those who rely on them are not left under even more financial strain as we adjust to new local restrictions.
But whilst this decision has provided some relief to working parents, I know that for many of us the next few weeks will continue to be challenging. Local lockdown will keep friends and families apart, and businesses face renewed financial pressures.
Nobody wants to see any more restrictions on our daily life, but the concerning growth of this virus cannot be ignored.
I would therefore urge everyone to continue to follow local lockdown measures, which remain in place alongside the additional measures announced by Government. Please avoid visiting other people, only socialise with members of your own household, and only take essential journeys.
As ever, if any of my constituents have any concerns about these measures, please do email [email protected] and I will do all I can to help you.
Our region has felt the impact of Covid-19 more severely than many others. We must now do everything we can to slow the rate of infection, and protect the NHS, our most vulnerable, and the health of those around us.
ECHO COLUMN: The next few weeks will continue to be challenging
Child Trust Funds
You can read Sharon's latest Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
The last Labour Government aimed to spread power and opportunity to all, to ensure that the next generation were not held back by their background.
That is why, in 2004, Labour launched the Child Trust Fund (CTF) scheme. This bold policy ensured that every child would have access to savings at the start of their adult life, no matter their background. For every young person born after the 1st September 2002, Labour invested at least £250 in a fund, from which only that young person can draw money.
This month, the first generation to benefit from CTFs turn 18, and can access this fund for the first time. Over the next 9 years, 50,000 young people across the country each month will come of age and be able to access their fund.
In Washington and Sunderland West, 8,700 young people have a CTF and will see the difference a Labour Government can make to their lives.
The contrast with the Tories’ mishandling of young people’s futures couldn’t be clearer. Students have faced a summer of chaos following the Government’s A-Level results fiasco, which follows a series of failures for young people, be it on school funding, university fees, or public health.
In fact, it was the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government which scrapped the innovative CTF scheme in 2011.
Given the time that has passed since the CTF scheme was launched and now with the significant impact of the pandemic, I am worried that many 18-year olds and their parents may be unaware, or have forgotten, that an account exists for them. I don’t want any young person to miss out on money that is rightfully theirs.
To find out more about this scheme, or to find your fund, visit https://www.gov.uk/child-trust-funds/
If you know anyone who is about to turn 18, make sure that they’re aware that they have money that is theirs to manage.
Every trust fund, and every choice it enables, is a reminder of the difference a Labour government can make. Today’s young adults will be the beneficiaries of Labour’s determination to make lives better and society fairer.
ECHO COLUMN: Child Trust Fund scheme is a reminder of the difference a Labour government can make
You can read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below
There is almost no part of the economy that has not been badly affected by the impact of Coronavirus and the necessary measures taken to limit its spread.
It seems like every day brings further announcements of job losses. Behind every new tranche of numbers are individuals and families who now face a worrying and uncertain future.
Alongside manufacturing more widely, one area which is being particularly damaged is the aerospace industry. The near total suspension in air travel and continued low passenger numbers are having a significant knock on effect on companies such as Rolls-Royce.
As the MP for a constituency home to a Rolls-Royce site, I am acutely aware of the scale of the problems facing the company and its workers.
That’s why I convened an urgent meeting last week for MPs with sites in their constituencies and Unite representatives to discuss what is needed from the Government to prevent further job losses and safeguard the high level of skills in the workforce.
Whilst some aspects of Government financial assistance measures have been a lifeline, there have also been significant shortfalls.
As Unite have pointed out, steps taken by our Government pale in comparison to those taken by France and Germany. The seemingly indifferent attitude taken by this Conservative Government was summed up in the absence of any mention of the aviation or aerospace sectors in the Chancellor’s recent summer statement.
It is becoming increasingly clear that further, sector specific, support will be needed in the coming weeks and months.
As the Labour Party has made clear, we need a targeted strategy that acknowledges that workers in struggling sectors cannot and should not be treated the same way as workers in sectors that are already back to full capacity.
Growing up in the North East during the Thatcher Governments, I know how much long-term damage can be done to our communities when industries are abandoned.
If Boris Johnson wants to make good on his ‘levelling up’ rhetoric, he needs to step in and provide a comprehensive strategy to stop continued and widespread job losses in aerospace and manufacturing.
ECHO COLUMN: Urgent Support for Manufacturing & Aerospace
You can read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
I never expected to have something in common with a 22-year-old Manchester United and England professional football player, yet here we are.
Like Marcus Rashford, I grew up on Free School Meals (FSM) and similarly I have been using my experiences growing up to make a change for the children growing up today.
I still remember the stigma of being separated from my friends to queue in a separate line with other children on FSMs.
That is why, since I became an MP in 2005, I have campaigned for Universal Free School Meals (UFSMs) and set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food in 2010 to campaign for UFSMs, breakfast clubs, high quality school food standards and food provision over the summer holidays to tackle ‘holiday hunger’.
This is something that has been brought into public consciousness recently by the intervention of Marcus Rashford, but as he has acknowledged: this isn’t a new Coronavirus-related problem.
We have known for years that, on the approximately 170 days a year when the school gates are shut, some children will not receive regular, healthy or substantial meals. This has a negative impact on their development and learning.
With the effects of the pandemic expected to stay with us all for many months or even years to come, it was callous for the Government to expect that all families on low incomes would be able to provide substantial and healthy food during the holidays. Many of these families will be on furlough, not knowing if their job will still exist when the scheme comes to an end or will have had their finances significantly squeezed because of lockdown.
I welcome the Government’s U-turn, that will see all 1.3 million children eligible for FSMs able to continue accessing food provision for free during the summer holidays. But the Prime Minister’s admission that he wasn’t aware of the campaign until the day of the U-turn is testament to his Government’s tone-deafness to children growing up in poverty.
Because of this, I will continue to campaign until no child goes without food in the UK.
ECHO COLUMN: Government is tone-deaf to children growing up in poverty
You can read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo Column below, or on the Sunderland Echo website.
This week, some lockdown restrictions have been lifted. You can now spend time outdoors, in a group of up to six people from different households whilst maintaining social distancing; you can visit car showrooms and some children have returned to school.
I know that these changes will come with a mixture of both anxiety and relief. We all want to see our friends and family again and return to some sense of normality; but if we are to do that, we must do so safely.
Now is not the time for complacency, or for a drive to Barnard Castle to test your eyesight.
I know that the warm weather can be tempting and the fact that the Prime Minister’s own advisor was seen to be breaking lockdown rules makes it seem like the Government’s guidelines are advisory, rather than compulsory.
But if we do want to hug our friends and family again, if we want to attend large gatherings again and if we want to continue to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, then we must continue to follow the Government’s guidelines strictly.
That means staying home as much as possible. Where you do go out, for business or leisure, you must stay 2 metres away from people who are not from your household, where possible.
By doing this, we will continue to protect ourselves and others.
I would like to thank everyone who has made unbelievable sacrifices to follow the Government’s lockdown guidance. My thoughts are with those who have missed out on key life milestones, missed out on spending time with friends and family, and tragically missed out on saying goodbye to loved ones.
Whilst it feels like we are beginning to gain back some freedom, please remember that the Coronavirus pandemic is not over yet.
We still all have a part to play in protecting ourselves, our loved ones and our NHS.
With that in mind, I continue to put pressure on the Government to safely lift lockdown restrictions, in a way that follows the science and the reality on the ground.
For example, the North East has the highest rate of Coronavirus infections in England, so to lift lockdown restrictions based on Coronavirus rates in the South West (which now has the lowest rate of infections) would be irresponsible.
I continue to make representations to the Government on these very important issues. My team and I are busy helping constituents navigate the guidance and the various furlough and support schemes that have been introduced and are helping constituents fight for their rights to access what they are entitled to.
If any of my constituents have any questions or concerns about the lockdown restrictions or anything else, then please do email [email protected] and I will do all that I can to help you.
ECHO COLUMN: Now is not the time for complacency ... or for a drive to Barnard Castle to test your eyesight.
Royal British Legion
You can read Sharon's latest Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website.
Tomorrow (Friday 8th May), the nation will mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
Like all events planned since March this year, tomorrow’s Victory in Europe: VE Day commemoration will be different to how it was initially planned; but the country will still come together to pay tribute to the Second World War generation and remember the sacrifices made by British, Commonwealth and Allied Forces.
Whilst the country is facing some of the most challenging times since the Second World War, we are united in awe at the spirit of Captain Tom Moore who has raised over £32 million for NHS Charities Together, after setting a target of £1,000.
But Captain Moore isn’t the only veteran who is raising money and continuing to serve his community.
Former service personnel across the country are joining charities and volunteers to provide: food packages to those in need, someone to talk to so that people don’t get lonely during the lockdown and a helping hand to anyone who needs it. Veterans in Crisis Sunderland are the perfect example of communities coming together, even during lockdown.
We are also seeing 20,000 serving personnel play their part in the fight against Coronavirus. Helping with the ambulance service, delivering personal protective equipment, setting up mobile testing sites and flying Brits home from their nightmare holiday situations are just a few examples of how our armed forces continue to adapt to serve us.
As the new Shadow Veterans’ Minister, I am proud of our armed service personnel, past and present, and believe that we should all share that pride, not just on a few days of the year, but every day.
Our armed forces do so much for us, and like all public services including the NHS, we need to do more than just thank them. We need to make sure that they are protected, and they have the support they need.
That is why one of my first tasks as Shadow Veterans’ Minister was to call on the Government to re-open the Veterans UK helpline, which provides valuable support to veterans but has closed due to Coronavirus. Other businesses and charities have been able to re-direct their helplines to a working from home setting, so there is no reason why the Government can’t do the same to support our veterans.
Tomorrow, like many across the country, I will be joining in with the VE Day commemoration and remembrance of those who served in World War II and will be giving thanks to our veterans and serving personnel, who continue to serve us and make us proud.