I am proud to be an adopted Teessider of several decades and proud of our area and our people, vast numbers of whom live in poverty, yet get on with their lives and try to make things better.
But they’ve been badly let down by 13 years of Tory Government — with local services devastated, health inequalities widened and poverty, particularly amongst children soaring.
That was the context for my question to the prime minister at PMQs on Wednesday: why do 34 per cent of children in my constituency live in poverty?
I could never have expected the off the cuff response from the home secretary, who I heard using a four letter word to describe my constituency. He denied it, had the chairman of the Conservative Party go on the radio and say no such word was even used by anyone, won the backing of the Leader of the House who said she believed him — only for the truth to come out hours later and have a spokesman admit he used an obscenity and apologise for unparliamentary language.
If it wasn’t absurd, it would be laughable when he then claimed he was applying the word to me — not the constituency. Well, that would be all right then — as many have said tongue in cheek.
But just as he lied first off, this latest utterance was also shown to be far from the truth. Millions of people have engaged with this and with a handful of exceptions they know what he said.
Let me go back to the opening question — I wanted to know why, after 13 years of Tory government, so many children were in poverty. That as senior a minister as the home secretary could respond with an expletive shames him, his government and the once proud Conservative Party.
I could have put much more information into my question — that 71 per cent of children in the North East in poverty were part of working families; that on the measure of relative poverty, after housing costs – used by almost every organisation working in this field — child poverty in Stockton North has risen from 26 per cent in 2014/15 to 34 per cent in 2021/22 — an increase of 1,641 babies, children and young people over that period.
Even using the prime minister’s preferred measure of absolute poverty — funnily enough it shows a lower number — it has soared to 21 per cent.
The home secretary made the classic mistake of recent Tory times in assuming his bad news would quickly go away. It hasn’t and it won’t — just one of my tweets reached more than two million people and there are thousands more out there engaging and agreeing he maligned my area.
And it matters — not because we have thin skins, not because we know that despite our problem of poverty we have amazing country parks; a town centre being redeveloped into an urban park; top of the range sports at The Forum in Billingham; and a festival and cultural programme and facilities second to none in the Region including our magnificent Globe Theatre; but because people take notice of things people like the home secretary says.
On Wednesday night a colleague at the local health trust said derogatory remarks impact things like recruitment of staff to the area where health inequalities are amongst the worst in the country. I’ve no doubt other employers will feel the same.
But we in the North East are used to the Tories looking down their noses at us and disregarding our Region where they still seem to think it’s all slag heaps and whippets. And the Region hardly gets a look in when it comes to Government. Not one North East MP has a government department to run and there is just one attending Cabinet.
And then they want us to roll over in gratitude when they dish out, in he case of Billingham, £20 million of so-called levelling up funding. I’m grateful for it — but it comes after 13 years of austerity started by David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat sidekick Nick Clegg and over which time our Stockton Borough Council has lost hundreds of millions in government funding for services.
Even then the Leader of the House insulted us referring to Billington.
That the home secretary would appear to demean our area and do us further damage beggars belief.
Amazing though – the dark cloud has had a silver lining. I’ve been inundated with messages from across the country and even a few from abroad supporting me and calling the home secretary things that are not parliamentary language either.
But more important than that — the people of our Borough responded on their own and on Thursday night our Stockton town centre saw thousands of people — many, many more than usual — turn out to see our Christmas Stockton Sparkles Festival launched. Those extra folk were there because they are proud of their area and made it clear they would take no nonsense — not even from the home secretary.
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