Category Archives: Blog

Carers Week 2012 – “In Sickness and In Health”


Fiona Phillips, Former GMTV presenter and Carers Week Ambassador

Carers Weeks is an annual awareness campaign which recognises and celebrates the contribution made by the UK’s 6.4 million unpaid carers to the people they care for and their communities.

Carers Week 2012 is being held between June 18-24, the event recognises the contribution made by carers in East Durham and throughout the UK who provide unpaid care for someone who is ill, frail or disabled.

This year, the theme is “in sickness and in health” – recognising the pressures people often face when caring for a loved one, at the detriment of their own health and wellbeing. We know that when carers go unsupported they can often suffer from ill health, poverty and social isolation.

Caring is exceptionally demanding, and it is important carers know they are not alone – even when they are shouldering a greater burden as a result of recent service cuts. It is important to use carers week to reach out to new or “hidden” carers, to those who say “I’m just being a husband, a wife, a dad, a son, a daughter, a friend or a good neighbour

Caring is likely to touch everyone at some point in their lives. It is anticipated that the number of carers in the UK is likely to rise to 9 million by 2037 and every day another 6,000 people take on caring responsibilities.

According to research carried out by the Carers Week campaign group this year, 47% of unpaid carers said they were made ill by money worries and 45% said caring had pushed them into debt. While 625,000 people suffer mental and physical ill health as a direct consequence of the stress and physical demands of caring.

Carers save the UK economy over £119 billion per year; with the decision to care for someone often resulting in poverty. The demands of caring results in one in five carers being forced to give up work, affecting their income and future employment opportunities.

Despite the overwhelming contribution carers make to the economy, the main carer’s benefit is just £55.55 for a minimum of 35 hours. This equates to just £1.58 per hour, far short of the national minimum wage. However, caring is not a nine to five job, and 1.25 million people provide in excess of 50 hours care per week, and for many caring is 24/7.

In the North East over a quarter of a million people are carers. Funding and budget pressures have contributed to the restructuring of care services in East Durham. In the run up to Carers Week 2012 I met with Easington District Carers Support. They support over 1000 registered carers in Easington offering 1 to 1 support with carer support workers. They arrange activities and events to support carers and reduce social isolation, such as the Happy Mondays group which offers valuable respite for registered carers every Monday between 9am and noon. 

They are an important lifeline for local families supporting people caring for loved ones.

Volunteering is part of the Social Fabric of East Durham


Volunteering can deliver social and economic change – but it still requires investment if those benefits are to be realised.

This week was the official volunteers’ week in Britain celebrating the enormous work that unpaid workers do when they volunteer to help a person, special cause or group of people. In our area, East Durham Trust is the flagship voluntary and community sector organisation that helps to maintain the necessary infrastructure to support all types of volunteering in our area.

I therefore used this week to visit the Trust to gain a greater perspective of the work they do. Any community groups in the East Durham area can join the East Durham Trust for free and gain specialist advice on anything from funding, procurement, accommodation and community engagement. Most importantly, the Trust’s overall primary purpose is to promote the regeneration of our rural and urban areas suffering the effects of social and economic decline.

Each year volunteers across the UK donate the equivalent of over £40 billion of their time to their local communities with more than 20 million people working over 100 million hours unpaid. This dedication is to be welcomed, however more importantly these organisations and individuals also need to be supported if they are to continue to thrive.

People typically choose to play a part in community activities if they are truly voluntary, small-scale, friendly and self-fulfilling. Whereas the vision of the ‘Big Society’ is something quite different: supporting civil society in ways that are less voluntary in nature, formalised and complicated by the role of other elements such as private business and public services.

There is also a real danger that volunteers find themselves taking over where public sector staff have been made redundant, raising the issue of ‘job substitution’. Additionally, voluntary groups are collectively losing over £3 billion in Government funding between now and 2016 at a time when they are already struggling to maintain provision. A major concern must be that as this Tory-led Coalition cuts services in the most-deprived areas, it will undermine the work underway in the voluntary sector as their task simply becomes too tough.

Pushing ahead with the vague agenda of the ‘Big Society’, alongside public spending cuts which will shrink the ability of the state to provide key services is certain to undermine the free spirit of civil society and people’s ability to volunteer. However, it should not undermine the will and determination of those people who dedicate a great deal of time and energy to help others. Surveys consistently show that people that volunteer know many more people and consider their communities better places to live. I hope many more people across Peterlee and East Durham, if they consider that they are able, will be inspired to volunteer.

Easington MP Reflects on Jubilee Celebrations: Party Pooper or Cheer Leader

This month represents the beginning of a bonanza of summer events across Britain that will excite and unify millions of people, whilst at the same time many will be forced to look on in dread. Either way the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, England playing in Euro 2012 and the London Olympics will propel the notion of our ‘national pride’ to the top of the media agenda. Whether people feel British, English, European or perhaps have more affinity with their region, home town, local community or even street is a matter of personal identity.

However, our national identity is important, just as is the role we play in our local communities. Both, whether we like it or not, are important features in all our lives. The shootings in Horden on New Year’s Day brought the whole community together in sympathy with those directly affected by the tragedy and all of us feel the effect when one of our neighbours loses their job as over time it depresses our communities emotionally and economically.

As the Member of Parliament for Easington I pack my bag each week and travel to Westminster to speak up for our communities but also to vote on issues of national and even international importance. Over the last two years I have seen how this government has talked-up the ‘national interest’, the ‘British economy’ and the ‘Big Society’. Whilst the policies it pursues have done little to create such national unity. Proposals for regional pay in the public sector, imposing the biggest cuts on the most deprived areas and tearing up workers’ rights in favour of a free-for-all for unscrupulous bosses is all part of the wrong divisive agenda.

Here in Peterlee, Caterpillar, on the North West Industrial Estate, has won a prestigious Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development award for human resources performance. Rather than following the government rhetoric, pitting management against workers, the workforce was restructured to support the business, forge closer relationships with management and promote the best use of workers’ skills. Such local examples of excellence should inform national political ideas.

Whether it is at the national or local level we are all stronger by working together. Whilst our Government seeks to protect a privileged elite and seeks to divide society along as many lines as possible, Ed Miliband is reaffirming Labour’s agenda on the key issues of fairness and equality.  The last Labour Government took important steps on social mobility, but this Government is taking the country backwards. Instead it is cutting support for Sure Start children’s centres, it has scrapped the Educational Maintenance Allowances that had supported over 70% of pupils at East Durham College, and has increased tuition fees to £9,000 per year putting many young people from disadvantaged areas like ours off the whole idea of going into higher education.

Britain, the North East and our local communities need a new political settlement that has fairness at its heart. I am no party pooper but it will certainly take more than a Jubilee party and a summer of sporting events, however much people may enjoy them.

Citizens Advice: On your side in tough times


Citizens Advice has been offering free, independent, and confidential advice on a range of issues covering welfare, consumer and debt problems for over seventy years.

Their service has never been in greater demand as the Coalition Government’s cuts begin to squeeze families across the North East.

Knowing your rights can help you navigate an increasingly complex benefit system following the Government’s unprecedented changes to welfare – cutting £18 billion from the benefit bill with a further £10 billion worth of cuts in the pipe line.

The North East continues to bear the brunt of the Coalition Government’s cuts with approximately 60,000 people being moved off incapacity benefit of which 35,000 are being forced out of the benefit system altogether, following tougher medical examinations conducted by the discredited ATOS Healthcare. This will take away £170 million out of the North East economy at a time of rising unemployment here in East Durham.

In recent weeks and months we have lost over a thousand jobs just within the Easington Constituency with factory closures at Cumbrian Seafoods, Seaham, JD Sports and Dewhirsts, Peterlee. The North East region is also suffering with the closure of Kerry Foods, Durham, and BAE’s announcement of 600 job losses affecting Washington, and Newcastle.  These losses are in addition to the 32,668 public sector jobs forecast to be lost in the North East by 2017. Government austerity is taking the demand out of the economy which is hitting private and public sector jobs here in Easington.

Government austerity has undermined jobs and growth in our region, and there is disquiet over their welfare changes. Research by Citizens Advice has raised concerns about inaccurate medical assessments by ATOS that are creating huge difficulties and undermining the welfare system. They found that nearly 40 per cent of incapacity benefits appeals are overturned in favour of the claimant, of these 60 per cent were originally awarded no points following an ATOS medical assessment.

A Daily Mirror investigation has found that 32 people die each week after being found “fit to work” by an ATOS healthcare medical assessment. However, as the Government continues to force through unprecedented changes in welfare, there are no signs of improvement in the quality of medical assessments.

Katie Lane, head of Citizen Advice welfare policy said:

“We have always supported the idea that people who could work and want to work should be helped to do that. But we are seeing a lot of seriously ill and disabled people being found fit for work.

“We have serious concerns about whether the test used to decide if people are fit for work is the right test.”

Despite their failings ATOS Healthcare continue to enjoy bumper profits at taxpayer expense. Every inaccurate assessment leads to costly appeals and tribunals, as well as incalculable damage to the claimant. The Government have no mechanism to recoup this cost from ATOS’s £100 million a year public contract or any desire to do so as they continue to force people off welfare.

Citizens Advice has not been spared from Government axes. In the face of increasing demand Government funding has been cut by 23 per cent, to a total of just £137million across their 400 offices in England and Wales.

Cynics may suggest that the Government are cutting support to Citizens Advice so people cannot effectively challenge new processes and medical assessments. For the Government it is one way to reduce the benefit bill, as flawed decisions will go unchallenged, but will leave vulnerable people without the support they need.

While Citizens Advice offices are closing across the country, Seaham will be welcoming a new centre to be based on Shakespeare Street. The new office will be open three days a week offering free information and advice.

Even in these difficult times Citizens Advice continues to innovate and have recently launched a whole host of new and updated advice, information and helpful features for consumers on its website,,  including top tips, interactive letters to help consumers to make a complaint and details of what to do next to solve your consumer problem.

The new online advice is part of Citizens Advice consumer service, launched on 2 April 2012, which also provides over the phone advice. Anyone looking for phone advice on a consumer issue can call 08454 04 05 06. The phone service is available from 9.00am to 5.00pm on weekdays.

You can find all of the new consumer content on Advice guide at