Newspaper Columns

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on Early Years education in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the September 2019 edition of The Pigeon)

I’ve been a longtime supporter of Early Years education. Before I became an MP, I was a governor of a nursery school and my own children all benefited from the previous Labour government’s investment into Early Years education, so I appreciate first-hand how valuable it is. 

Nurseries and pre-schools have such an important role to play in communities – helping children get a good start in life and preparing them for school. Early years provision offers an important safety net for those children who may be at risk of falling behind from the off and is crucial for social mobility. Children’s Centres are central to this too. 

Decent and affordable early years education is even more important for families on low incomes. When early years education costs more than you earn, it’s no longer an option open to you. This is clear from the many conversations I’ve had with parents. 

Earlier this year, Matt Caldwell, Acting Headteacher of Illminster Avenue Nursery School, said: “Nurseries are social hubs and beacons in communities that have nothing else left in their locality, as service after service has been gutted by years of austerity…we give thousands of children in Bristol the best possible start in life.”  

To view it as childcare alone is a mistake. Nurseries and pre-schools deliver a vital education function; they teach toddlers the basics – learning through play and socialising with other children.  

The government should be investing sufficiently in this area. 

It has offered working parents up to 30 hours of subsidised childcare a week. But my meetings with early years leaders across South Bristol have revealed a gulf between the increased running costs of accommodating this ‘subsidised’ offer and the amount the government actually contributes to this. 

Earlier this year, I met with the team at Windmill Hill City Farm’s nursery Windmill Hill City Farm’s nursery who explained that the government’s ‘funding’ falls short of what they need to run the nursery – by around £1 per child per hour. As a result, they have had to limit the number of subsidised places they offer to avoid running at a loss. This directly impacts parents who may struggle to secure a nursery place locally for their child/children. 

Once again, the government is pushing the financial burden of delivering services onto the service providers. We’ve seen this in other areas – with schools and healthcare. To claim the credit for supporting families without providing the funding to meet their commitments is not good enough.  

I’ve raised this in parliament in the past and I will continue to do so. I’d be interested to hear about your experiences of current early years education in Bristol South. Does it work for your family? You can contact me via the details below. 

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on Universal Credit

(Newspaper column as seen in the September 2019 edition of the South Bristol Voice)

Since Universal Credit was introduced for all new claimants in Bristol South last summer, I’ve been helping constituents with many problems including delayed payments, inaccurate entitlement calculations and historic debt. I’ve also raised multiple issues with Ministers in Parliament and have been in contact with the Department for Work and Pensions to highlight concerns.   

Many people who attend my Money Entitlement Events are seeking help with Universal Credit and I’ve welcome representatives from the local Jobcentre and Citizens Advice to help work through some of these questions and problems. My next Money Entitlement event takes place between 10am and 12noon on Tue 1 Oct 2019 at Hartcliffe Community Centre. All welcome. 

I read with interest, the latest report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Universal Credit released in the summer. It echoes some of the issues I have identified and calls on the government to take decisive action to address these. A comprehensive and much-needed report with plenty of suggested next steps. 

Most importantly it includes calls to abolish the five-week wait for Universal Credit, as well as more flexibility with assessment periods to cater for self-employed people and those who may receive two payments within one calendar month.  

It also suggests granting children of all Universal Credit claimants free school meals and expanding phone and face-to-face support for those who may struggle with computers. And it advocates writing off historic tax credit over payments, which often occurred due to poor administration by government.   

As with my trailer safety APPG, these cross-party groups are an important part of democracy. Not only do they bring together politicians from different political parties with a shared interest in a specific subject, but they also bring in evidence from industry experts and those directly affected by the topics discussed.  

The report recognises Universal Credit as ‘the most important reform of welfare policy for decades’ directly affecting one in four people. It is hugely relevant for Bristol South and, apart from some piecemeal changes to processing times, we’ve not had a satisfactory government response to-date.  

I hope that the new government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson will take on board the recommendations of this report and I will continue to push for the changes needed.  

If you’re experiencing any problems with Universal Credit, please do get in touch via the contact details below and I’ll see if I can help. 

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on Climate Change

(Newspaper column as seen in the August 2019 edition of The Pigeon)

I’ve been contacted by a lot of people in recent months who are concerned about climate change. It’s something which deeply concerns me too. 

I was pleased that the Labour Party’s Shadow DEFRA Secretary, Sue Hayman, declared a climate emergency in March which we then passed on the floor of the House of Commons in May. It comes after Bristol City Council declared a Climate Emergency and coincides with Extinction Rebellion protests in Bristol and across the UK.  

The Labour movement has a long tradition of environmental protection, from the establishment of the national parks after the Second World War, through to the pioneering Climate Change Act. Strong environmental policy is a matter of justice, and ensuring that communities can breathe clean air, drink clean water, afford a good diet and enjoy our countryside is vital. 

Last month (July), I spoke about air quality in Bristol on the Sunday Politics Show. It not only contributes to the climate emergency but it is one of the biggest public health threats of our time – contributing to 300 deaths a year in Bristol. 

The way forward demands firm action and I was pleased to learn more about Bristol City Council’s plans in improving air quality in Bristol. They’re currently consulting on two proposals to help reduce pollution in the city. 1) A Clean Air Zone with daily charges for polluting commercial vehicles such as taxis, vans, lorries and buses in central Bristol, which includes Bedminster and Southville. 2) A ban on all diesel vehicles from entering the inner city centre. Under both plans, diesel cars would be banned from the road outside Bristol Royal Infirmary.  

There are other elements – improvements to bus provision, a scrappage scheme for diesel cars and the recently announced plans to close roads outside some of the city’s schools to the stream of traffic they host at school opening and closing times. You’ve got until August 12 to have your say, so please do. 

We cannot talk about the ongoing battle to tackle poor air quality in Bristol – particularly outside schools – without mentioning Bath and North East Somerset Council’s ill-conceived plans to build a new polluting road past Bridge Farm Primary School. I, like many of my constituents living in Whitchurch, are opposed to this. We must not allow 20,000 cars a day to spurt out toxic fumes into the air where children learn and play. 

The government is failing to make headway in reducing carbon emissions from vehicles – and this is partly due to its appetite for building roads. I will continue to press for the Government to recognise this and act to bring about a zero-carbon future. 

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on housing development in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the August 2019 edition of the South Bristol Voice)

Bristol’s need for more housing will see development across the constituency in the coming years and I welcome that. However, we must make sure that developers are building the right homes, of the right tenure, in the right place to support sustainable communities. It is vital that residents are involved in these decisions.  

The Bedminster Framework, as reported in the South Bristol Voice earlier this year, outlined some of the proposals for the area around East Street. I read these plans with interest and am disappointed to see that a large proportion of the new homes planned for Malago Road, should planning permission be granted, will be student flats.  

If a housing development is made up of student flats rather than much-needed homes for local residents, it presents a series of problems. The transient nature of student communities means there can be little integration with the existing community. Students arrive in the autumn and leave early summer the following year – being away for weeks at Christmas and Easter too. With both universities in the north of the city, rarely would students venture further into South Bristol. Chances are, they’ll use their Bedminster home as a base from which to cross the bridge and head north.  

While some shops and cafes on East Street may benefit from the student pound, I fear that may be the extent of what Bristol South gets out of this. By building student housing, developers get out of the obligation to include ‘affordable’ housing in their plans. It’s affordable housing that we really need in Bristol South. And we mustn’t forget that students don’t have to pay council tax, which means less income for the council to deliver more services (bins, roads and parks etc).  

What we need to focus on is building communities. Bristol City Council’s Urban Living Supplementary Planning Document outlines this and provides valuable guidance – what we need to ensure is that developers are taking this into account. What Bristol South really needs is truly affordable homes for families of all shapes and sizes, shops, play space, green areas and, of course, the infrastructure needed to support these communities – schools, nurseries, GP surgeries and public transport.  

Development at Bedminster Green will require improvements to transport links. Windmill Hill already has transport challenges – with commuters using residential streets to bypass the congested main trunk roads. With more housing planned, we need more sustainable transport solutions.  

We’re expecting to see more planning applications submitted later this year and I’ll be sharing details of the key ones on my social media channels. As with all planning applications, you’re entitled to have your say and I’d encourage you to do so via the council’s website or in writing to City Hall. 

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on volunteering in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the July 2019 edition of The Pigeon)

We recently (June) celebrated Volunteers’ Week so I wanted to take this opportunity to recognise all the brilliant work that volunteers do in Bristol South.

I’m fortunate enough, in my role as MP, to meet with lots of volunteers who develop, run and work with organisations helping people across the constituency.

Bristol City Council’s Quality of Life Index 2018-19 found that, on average 68% of Bristolians volunteer or help out in their community at least three times a year. You don’t have to look far in Bristol South to find a volunteer. From Scout and Guide leaders to volunteers helping maintain the local parks and green-fingered folk creating berry mazes to British Legion poppy sellers. Volunteers are the lifeblood of community centres and help out at my Money Entitlement Events too.

A lot of these charities and community groups are developed and delivered by women who have been directly affected by the area they’re now making a difference in. Take the women who volunteer with Mothers for Mothers, supporting new mums through postnatal depression following their own challenging journeys.

As well as helping others, volunteering has been shown to improve volunteers’ wellbeing too. It’s a great way to meet new people or learn new skills and can lead on to employment.

Without volunteers, a lot of these organisations and projects would not exist and it’s important that we recognise those efforts. But we must strike the right balance. We should not be relying on the voluntary sector to deliver key services which should be provided by national and local government.

Charities and community projects cannot run on the goodwill of volunteers alone. It’s not sustainable when volunteers have other commitments – the need for paid work and caring duties. When I speak with those working in the voluntary sector, it’s clear that they – like local government, health providers and schools – have been hit by funding cuts and more competition for the money available as new initiatives emerge. It means that, as well as relying on support from volunteers to deliver services, they also rely on support from the community to donate money to cover running costs.

That said, I was very pleased to see Hartcliffe Health and Environment Action Group (HHEAG) secure funding to be able to carry on the good work it has been doing locally for over 25 years. They offer healthy eating advice and workshops, help people with stress reduction and run drop in coffee mornings among a whole host of other things.

I’d like to say a big thank everyone who volunteers to make Bristol South a better place. If you’re thinking of volunteering, the Vocsur website is a great starting point:

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the Brexit impasse

(Newspaper column as seen in the July 2019 edition of the South Bristol Voice)

People regularly stop me to say what an interesting time it is to be in politics. As a Labour activist for over 30 years, I agree; but sometimes I wish it was a little less ‘interesting’!

The years of uncertainty since the referendum have been made much worse by the resignation of Theresa May and the next few months will undoubtedly be difficult. It is making people very anxious. The country is divided and people are worried about the future. We must find a way through this impasse.

The conversations I had with people ahead of May’s European election revealed a significant desire from many to remain in the European Union. But I’ve also been contacted by people in Bristol South who want Brexit delivered immediately – deal or no deal.

I’ve heard a lot of inaccurate figures shared. People have told me that 80+ per cent of Bristol South voted leave and I’m misrepresenting my constituency by not delivering Brexit; others have told me that over 70 per cent of Bristol South wants to remain and I should be representing those views and voting to revoke Article 50. Neither of these figures are correct. Like the country, Bristol South was divided in how it voted in the 2016 referendum – 53% voted to stay and 47% voted to leave the European Union. People continue to be divided on the best route forward.

Like many of you, this increasingly polarised nature of politics at the moment concerns me, in particular the threat from the far right. Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party believe that the answer is simple: we leave the EU with no deal. Some of the smaller parties believe it’s also simple: we revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU. It is not simple. The last few years have damaged the UK’s reputation both politically and as a destination for investment. We need the debate to be much more honest.

Back in 2017, the Labour Party said it could not accept a ‘no deal’ Brexit as an option as part of our commitment to protect jobs, rights and living standards and our position remains the same today. The government has presented a deal which does not protect this, which is why I voted against it

As it stands, there is no ‘good’ Brexit for people in Bristol South.

I believe that, in order to get through this and heal the division, any deal needs a confirmatory vote; and that any confirmatory vote must have the option to remain in the European Union.