Why I’m backing the CASA

The Community Advice Services Association (CASA) does amazing work in supporting people who are struggling to negotiate the complexities of the benefits system.

I know from the work we have done together to support constituents, that they offer a personal service that helps people take back control of their lives. It was good to see the team today to back their latest fundraising drive.

This is a handful of the issues the CASA has dealt with in the last couple of weeks:

  • A man with severe and widespread brain damage found fit for work after the Independent Assessment Service scored him zero points in his health assessment.
  • A woman who cannot walk after a serious accident at work lost her Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and was told she would have to return her mobility car, despite using it to attend hospital appointments at least three times per week.
  • A man in his 50s found fit to work despite heart attacks, arthritis, a frozen shoulder and an injured right arm.

And, of course, there is the appalling story of Stephen Smith who has a progressive lung disease and was hospitalised at 6 stone. He had repeated failed DWP assessments and appeals turning him down for benefits because he was deemed fit to work.

Mr Smith turned to the CASA who contacted me and it was only after this intervention that the DWP took action.

Even the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions Amber Rudd expressed her ‘indignation’ at his treatment when I raised it with her in Parliament.

The Initiative Factory/CASA was set-up in the aftermath of the Liverpool Dockworkers Dispute to uphold the aims and objectives of the ‘Sacked Liverpool Dockworkers’ in promoting ‘Fairness and Justice’ for all.

From August 2004, a Welfare Rights Caseworker based at the CASA has been available to anyone seeking advice benefits, form-filling, representing people at appeals and tribunals, supporting small businesses with employment law and much more.

However, the CASA is running short of funds to keep this valuable advice service open and will have to start turning people away in the coming months, just as the full impact of the roll out of Universal Credit hits Liverpool. In fact, its valuable advice and tribunal representation service could end on March 1.

Its free legal advice, representation and support for those in the local community who are living with poverty risks being severely reduced in the coming months.

Unfortunately, both I and the CASA know from the casework we deal with every week that there are far too many people in Mr Smith’s situation. They need organisations like the CASA and that is why I am backing its latest fundraising campaign. If you are able to donate, you can do so by clicking here.

Fabulous day at school

I had a fabulous day visiting four schools in the constituency to award certificates and book tokens to the runners up of my Christmas card competition and to answer some great questions from the students too.  

Congratulations to: Adnan, Nicole, Alita and Alina from Smithdown Primary, St Sebastian’s, St Clare’s and St Hugh’s – and, of course, to the overall winner Grace from Bishop Eton Primary School who received her prize and certificate before Christmas. 

Thank you to all the students and schools from across the constituency who took part in the design competition. Each year, I invite primary schools from across Liverpool Wavertree to enter. This year, saw another wonderful response underlining all the great creative talent that is out there. 

The competition is made possible by the kind support of Eureka Greek Restaurant, Romal Capital, Titanic Hotel and Capital&Centric. Thank you to each of them.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Award-winning Radio City host Mick Coyle used his 100th Mental Health Monday show to highlight the human cost of childhood suicide in the most moving way.

The radio station came together with national support group Papyrus during Children’s Mental Health Week to lay out over 200 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of St George’s Hall, commemorating the number of young lives lost to suicide in the last year.

I appeared on the first Mental Health Monday and on the 100th programme I raised the importance of investing in prevention if we are to achieve a city region with zero suicide.

Government plans, announced to tie in with Children’s Mental Health Week, to test different mental health approaches in 300 schools across the country are welcome, but the scale of the mental health crisis facing our young people demands leadership from across every government department.

However, as I uncovered in Parliament this week, despite the government saying the inter-ministerial group for mental health would co-ordinate action it last met 10 months ago and has no plans to meet again.

One-off initiatives that are not sustained over time will not match the scale of ambition required to make a real difference to children’s mental health.

I am a member of Parliament’s Health and Social Care Select Committee. Our joint report with the Education Select Committee found that the government’s approach was ‘failing a generation.’

To make a real, lasting difference we must use Children’s Mental Health Week to renew our commitment to prevent child and adolescent mental ill health in the first place, include all vulnerable groups, take pressure off teachers by putting mental health support in to schools, build the specialist workforce needed and provide the funding to underpin these vital changes.

Wavertree ward coffee afternoon

Thank you to everyone who came to my latest coffee afternoon at The Cricketers social club in Liverpool Wavertree ward, including our three ward councillors Clare McIntrye, Angela Coleman and Dave Cummings, and our two local police and community support officers.

Once again, there were serious concerns about the impact Brexit is likely to have not just on the ward, but on big local employers like Jaguar Land Rover. People were frustrated that the Tory government was failing to get the issue sorted out and I shared the case for the final say over any deal to be put back to the people.

I pointed out that in 2016, a study by the University of East Anglia found that 64 per cent of the people in Liverpool Wavertree voted to remain in the EU. The most recent analysis shows that 72.5 per cent of constituents in Liverpool Wavertree now support remaining in the European Union, with 74 per cent of people wanting a People’s Vote.

Residents in Wavertree want to see investment in our dilapidated rail services and there were calls Northern Rail to be stripped of its franchise after months of delays and cancellations that were impacting on people’s ability to get to work.

People were understandably worried about cuts to police and youth services and rising levels of knife and gun crime and anti-social behaviour. The police and I encouraged people to report every single incident by dialling 101 or online by clicking here. Every report helps the police build up intelligence and knowledge of where best to deploy resources.

Serious concerns continue to be raised about the changes to the benefits system, including the introduction of Universal Credit. Liverpool City Council is working hard to support people, including making hardship payments. If you are concerned, you can contact specialists by clicking here.

I am working with our councillors to support them in representing constituents’ views on planning issues across the constituency and nationally, I am continuing to press the government to give local areas more flexible planning powers.

I hold regular surgeries if you want to speak to me about community issues in your area or have other issues you want to raise. Please book an appointment by telephoning 0151 228 1628 or emailing luciana.berger.mp@parliament.uk.

Helping to build sound minds

I was pleased to join young people and Action for Children in Parliament to hear more about the importance of building better mental and emotional wellbeing.  

The meeting took place on the eve of this week’s Children’s Mental Health Week – and it is clear that we have a long way to go before children and young people across the country have access to all the support they need. 

Latest figures show that around one in seven 11-16 year olds experienced a mental problem in 2017, rising to roughly one in six 17-19 year olds. Emotional issues, including anxiety and depression, were the most common type of mental health problem experienced by 5-19 year olds in 2017. 

The charity’s Build Sound Minds campaign aims to improve children and teenagers’ mental health by providing families with accessible information, tools and tips. 

Acting early can help stop problems in their tracks and it’s vital we do everything we can, not only to help young people with existing mental health issues, but to prevent these problems coming about in the first place. 

I encourage young people of all ages across Liverpool, Wavertree to look out for their own wellbeing and to seek support early if they’re struggling. 

Just like our physical health, our emotional wellbeing needs care and attention. And the first step in doing this is to create a positive conversation about mental health. 

Let’s start a conversation about mental health

Conversations about mental health can change lives. I’m pleased to have the chance later today on Time to Talk day to get into conversation with staff at communications firm Vodafone at the launch a new Mental Health First Aid initiative.

Wherever you meet people today – in the gym, over tea and cake, on the phone, or on social media – consider a conversation about mental health.

Mental ill health affects one in four of us at any given time – and that means that mental health is something for all of us to talk about.

Unfortunately, some people are still afraid to talk about it. Time to Talk day encourages everyone to start a conversation.

Time to Change, the campaign behind today’s initiative, provides lots of useful tips about how to start a conversation, whether it is with a group of friends, one-to-one, or in the family. You can check out its top tips by clicking here.

This year, Time to Talk day is all about bringing together the right ingredients to start a conversation about mental health. Whether that’s a cup of coffee, biscuits and close friends or a room full of people challenging mental health stigma.

When the ingredients are right the conversation will flow.

Important backing for new long-term rail plan

The government should respond positively and urgently to Transport for the North’s new strategic investment programme that sets out an achievable long-term plan to bring the region’s dire rail infrastructure up to scratch.

The £70 billion plan to transform the North’s transport infrastructure over the next 30 years is backed by Liverpool City Region and would link our city to HS2 via a new twin-track line between Liverpool and Manchester and then on to other Northern cities.

The investment is based on an economic return that would see £15 billion in economic growth, 24,000 new jobs, 11,000 new homes and 3.6 million more visitors a year to the region.

Northern Powerhouse Rail and its connections with HS2 will offer faster passenger journeys and crucially provide the capacity needed for the doubling of passenger numbers over the coming decades.

It would free up capacity on the existing network for freight, helping the Port of Liverpool make the most of its prime position on the country’s West Coast.

Transport for the North brings together Network Rail, the Department for Transport and local authorities from across the North but the government now needs to put its money where its mouth is so that the plans can be put in to action. I will continue to promote this plan.

Ending poverty pay

Shopworkers across the country are this week pressing the case to end poverty pay.

The Time For Better Pay campaign is calling on the government to strengthen workers’ rights to tackle in-work poverty. Too many people working in retail are paid too little, with too few guaranteed hours and too much uncertainty about their regular income.

That level of uncertainty makes it really difficult to budget, plan and build a future.

The government has re-labelled the National Minimum Wage as the National Living Wage, but the name change doesn’t disguise the fact that it is not the Real Living Wage that I want to see introduced to help end poverty pay.

The Time For Better Pay campaign is urging the government to implement four measures:

  • A minimum wage of £10 for all workers;
  • A minimum contract of 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it;
  • A contract based on an individual’s normal hours of work;
  • A ban on zero hours contracts.

Shopworkers’ union Usdaw’s has launched a petition to back the campaign as part of its Membership Week. You can show your support and back the campaign by clicking here.

Cervical cancer can be prevented

Cervical Cancer Prevention Week provides an annual opportunity to spread the message that the disease can be prevented.

Cervical screening uptake in England is at a 21-year low with more than a quarter of women not attending. This means more women are being given a diagnosis that could have been prevented.

In fact, cervical screening coverage is just 67.1 per cent in Liverpool, which means that almost one in three eligible women do not attend a screening appointment although they receive a letter inviting them for the test.

Cervical screening (smear tests) can prevent cervical cancer from developing. They aren’t always easy for everyone, but they can and do prevent cervical cancer.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust provides lots of useful information and tips, helpful videos and encouragement to anyone who is a little bit nervous or wants to find out more.

Over 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK, yet it is one of the only cancers that can be prevented and one day become a disease of the past.

Smear tests are the best protection against the disease, followed by the HPV vaccine which is offered in secondary schools.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has published new research which has found young women who delay or don’t go for cervical screening feel scared (71 per cent), vulnerable (75 per cent) and embarrassed (81 per cent) at the thought of going. A worrying two thirds (67 per cent) say they would not feel in control at the prospect of a test.

Cervical screening prevents up to 75 per cent of cervical cancers developing, so it is worrying to hear that so many women are not attending this test when invited, particularly due to embarrassment.

Women aged 25-49 are invited every three years and women aged 50-64 are invited every five years. Women can feel comfortable talking to their nurse and asking questions. It’s not making a fuss and there are many ways to make the test easier.

If you think you have missed a test or want to find out more, you can ring the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust on 0808 802 8000.


Government’s attack on Liverpool further documented

I pressed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire to boost local funding after new figures showed Liverpool has been hardest hit by Tory cuts to council budgets.

The Centre for Cities Outlook 2019 report showed a shocking cut equivalent to £816 per head since 2009-10, compared to a Britain-wide average of £287 per head. By way of comparison, Oxford has had a £115 increase in council spending per head in the same period.

In fact, all five of the hardest hit cities are in the North of England. Northern cities have seen an average of 20 per cent cuts compared to an average of 9 per cent for the South West, East and South East, excluding London.

The response on the Tory benches was to grimace and gurn when I explained the impact of government cuts on rising poverty across the North. The Secretary of State simply refused to engage with the question at all.

Liverpool’s Labour council has worked hard to focus spending on the neediest, including vulnerable children, the homeless and social care for adults. That means that cuts have been felt elsewhere – spending on public conveniences such as toilets in the city has fallen by 98 per cent over the past decade, spending on bringing tourism to the city down 67 per cent and arts development and support by 57 per cent.

We can all see the difference on our streets and in our communities as cuts to council spending accompany police spending cuts and public health spending cuts too.

The government is due to carry out a major spending review later this year – and I called on the Secretary of State to take the opportunity to take the pressure off our city and support its people to rebuild.

As the Centre for Cities Outlook 2019 explained: ‘Fair funding must mean more funding for Liverpool.’