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.
You can read Sharon's latest Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
Last week, after up to four years of campaigning, thousands of Cystic Fibrosis patients in England received the news that they would now have access to the life-saving drugs they need, Orkambi and Symkevi.
Patients, their families, campaigners and politicians from across the political divide have fought for years for access to these life-saving drugs.
The reason for the fight: because the drugs weren’t deemed cost effective enough for NHS England to be able to buy them from the pharmaceutical company, Vertex.
Negotiations have started and stalled between NHS England and Vertex for much of the four years since Orkambi was appraised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for use.
This has understandably been frustrating for patients, whose health will have deteriorated whilst waiting for access to the drug.
But this shared-frustration amongst patients, their families and charities, such as the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, is what has generated one of the most successful public affairs campaigns that I can recall as a Member of Parliament.
Holding meetings inside Parliament and rallies outside Parliament, usually seen wearing yellow, campaigners have made themselves heard on a huge scale and have seized that opportunity to make sure that MPs and Peers know the problem and how it can be solved.
I was proud to play a part in this process. As the Shadow Minister for Public Health, I have responded to four Parliamentary debates on access to drugs on Cystic Fibrosis and used three oral health questions to put pressure on the Government to take further action and intervene in the negotiations.
I also called on the Government to consider other means of making the lifesaving drugs available to patients, such as Crown Use Licensing or clinical trials.
I am pleased that in the case of drugs for Cystic Fibrosis patients, it hasn’t come to that. But there are still patients with rare diseases, such as Phenylketonuria (PKU) and Spinal Muscular Astrophy, who are still fighting for access to the drugs that they need, and I will continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that they get them.
Behind all the Brexit noise in Westminster are real people with real problems, who MPs fight on behalf of every single day.
It makes me proud to know that Cystic Fibrosis patients will now get the lifesaving drugs that they need and deserve.
It is successes like this that keep me going, knowing that whilst even in Opposition, we can still achieve some good and genuinely help people, is what makes my job all the more worthwhile and spurs me on to achieve even more for people who are suffering under austerity imposed by this heartless Conservative Government.
The Cystic Fibrosis campaign shows us what can be done against all the odds, and I believe that we can all learn something from their determination, persistence and professionalism.
ECHO COLUMN: Knowing that we can still achieve some good is what makes my job all the more worthwhile
You can read Sharon's latest Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
There is no doubt that Brexit has divided some families, our communities and the nation.
The tension has been made all the more worse by the harmful language used by Prime Ministers May and Johnson, whose rhetoric has normalised words such as “betrayal”, “traitor” and “saboteurs”, directed at elected Members of Parliament and the judiciary; crucial pillars upholding our constitution and holding the Government to account on a host of issues, not just Brexit.
Such language has made it into my own inbox, and the inboxes of, mostly female, colleagues.
I am pleased to say that the majority of emails and messages I receive containing harmful language don’t pose a serious threat. Any that do are immediately reported to the police and Parliament’s security team.
However, when trying to work for the best of all of my constituents, whether that is speaking in debates, responding to letters, emails and calls or meeting with ministers, receiving such messages can be daunting, not only for me but for my family, friends and staff too.
No one should feel unsafe in their job, but I know that many MPs do.
The tragic murder of Jo Cox MP and the foiled plot by a neo-Nazi to murder Rosie Cooper MP serve as a reminder that words have serious consequences.
More locally, Billy Charlton - who appeared on the well circulated photograph from the Sunderland count of the EU referendum celebrating the leave result - was found guilty of inciting racial hatred and given a 21-month jail sentence.
It is this kind of behaviour and language that is making our society toxic.
Instead of encouraging debate, hostile language pushes people away from engaging in issues that affect them, leaving only the bullies standing tall.
If we want more women, young, working-class and BME people to engage in politics and current affairs, we must all take a moment to reflect on the consequences of our language.
Is it harmful and intimidating? Is it disenfranchising people from the debate? Could this encourage or influence others to act physically?
We all have a role to play in bridging the divide.
We are all human and our words have consequences.
ECHO COLUMN: Our words have consequences
You can read Sharon's latest Echo column below or on the Sunderland Echo website
I know many constituents will be as horrified as I am by the way the unelected Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has been riding roughshod over our democracy.
The events of Tuesday evening, when Boris Johnson expelled 21 members of his own Party, were entirely unprecedented – and many will have been appalled by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s entitled and disrespectful behaviour in the chamber.
Since being elected as leader of the Conservative Party by less than one hundred thousand Conservative Party members, Johnson has been trying to force through a reckless No Deal Brexit, against the wishes of Parliament and the country.
One of the ways in which he has attempted to do so, is by suspending (proroguing) Parliament early next week.
In 2017 I was honoured to be re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West.
My job is to represent everyone in our constituency in Parliament, scrutinize and amend legislation and hold the Government to account.
At a time of such huge political significance and considering the limited time available before the 31st October Brexit deadline, it is outrageous that MPs are being denied the maximum time possible to represent our constituents.
By proroguing Parliament, Johnson has acted in a profoundly undemocratic way.
Leaving the EU without a deal would be a terrible outcome for our country, and particularly for the manufacturing industry in our region.
Companies such as Nissan, who provide around 40,000 jobs in and around my constituency, rely on the ‘just in time’ process in order to operate smoothly. The continued success of this process could be immediately at risk under a No Deal scenario.
Don’t just take my word for it, recent leaked documents from the Government reportedly warn of potential 48-hour delays at Dover.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA), said that they were not surprised by the fact that a document of this nature existed, and added that there is still no sign of a new customs process with only weeks to go until the UK is expected to leave the EU.
It seems clear to me, that those best placed to provide information on these issues are the industry experts themselves, not Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Michael Gove.
According to leaked documents, border delays could also lead to shortages of food and of certain medicines.
It is almost inconceivable that this is something a Government would consider imposing on people in circumstances outside of a major national crisis or war.
I did not come into politics to put the livelihoods or the health of my constituents at risk, and I am not prepared to do so now.
That’s why I have supported measures in Parliament to prevent a No Deal Brexit, including Hilary Benn’s Bill which will hopefully become law by the end of this week.
ECHO COLUMN: Fighting to Prevent a No Deal Brexit
You can read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below or by going to the Sunderland Echo website.
Yesterday, I had an adjournment debate in the House of Commons which I secured on behalf of one of my constituents.
In 2017, it was estimated that one in eight children, aged between five and nineteen, had a mental disorder in England. That is around 1.25 million children and young people suffering.
My constituent is just one of those people, and their experience is no different to thousands of other children and young people up and down the country.
Mental health services, which many of the most vulnerable in our society rely upon, is in crisis because of historic underfunding by the Conservative Government. This has led both adults and children struggling to access the treatment and support they need.
According to research from the Children’s Society, over 110,000 children were unable to access mental health support from a Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAHMS), despite being referred for support.
My constituent has faced similar problems: lost referrals, cases being closed, and lack of NHS mental health counsellors means that my constituent had to wait months to be seen and has not had another appointment for seven months.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. Yet, if an A&E stopped treating patients there would be uproar. When the same happens for mental health services, there is silence.
After years of inaction, the Prime Minister said that she wanted to make mental health a priority. But these warm words mean nothing for children and young people, like my constituent, who are currently suffering with their own mental health and unable to get access to treatment and support they need and deserve.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, mental health trusts have less money to spend on patient care in real terms than they did in 2012.
Funding cuts mean that mental health services are buckling under the strain.
This is having an impact on recruitment and retention; something that affected my constituent’s treatment.
Research by the Labour Party found in January that the total number of mental health nurses has fallen each month this year. The Government is on track to miss its mental health workforce target by 15,000 staff.
As mental health awareness increases so too should the funding and support services provided to those suffering.
That is why a Labour Government will prevent any further raiding of mental health budgets by ring-fencing NHS mental health budgets; increase the proportion of mental health budgets spent on support for children and young people and ensure every secondary school in England is able to offer a school-based counselling service to its pupils.
Young people, like my constituent, have their whole future ahead of them. When they need support, they must have access to it and not be turned away at the door. Parity of esteem needs to be a reality not just warm words.