OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on transport issues in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in The Pigeon in March 2020)

I’ve written about buses before in The Pigeon and it’s something a lot of constituents write to me about – now the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which has the ultimate say over public transport in your area, wants to hear your thoughts on its plans for bus travel in Bristol South and beyond.

It relates to a transport strategy which aims to double bus passenger numbers in the region by 2036.

Bus travel is hugely important for people here in Bristol South. With some of the lowest levels of car ownership in the city, more people in Bristol South rely on a reliable and affordable bus network to get around. The citywide aim to reduce air pollution will never be achieved if we can’t get people out of cars and onto public transport.

Children from Hareclive E-Act Academy in Hartcliffe have been campaigning for free bus travel and this is something I support. Bristol South has huge issues with educational attainment and we need to remove barriers to this, one of which is issues around transport. Some children need to take two buses to get to school or college. We need to do better for these children.

Metro Mayor Tim Bowles says that ‘getting the West of England moving’ has been one of his key objectives since he was elected as mayor three years ago. Indeed, one of the aims of having a regional mayor was to help improve infrastructure such as transport but we’re yet to see this in action.

Last month (Feb), the government pledged an extra £5billion to improve bus and cycling services across England. It is up to Tim Bowles and WECA to secure a chunk of this funding for the region. This might go a small way to redressing the decade of cuts which have seem many routes disappear.

Here in Bristol South we’ve seen a reduced service with some buses no longer running on Sundays. And we are still waiting to see metrobuses running on the Hengrove to Ashton leg of the m4. I convinced WECA to reinstate it on the route map after it disappeared, but it’s not yet translated into actual buses on the road.

If you look at what other regional mayors such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester are doing, you’ll see the foundations being laid to create a more joined up and effective bus network using bus franchising, where a regional authority controls the frequency, fares and routes of buses. This is much like Transport For London, and something I have long called for.

 

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on a fragmented post-16 education system

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice in March 2020)

Around this time of year, UCAS releases figures to show the percentage of 18-year-olds going to university. As we go to print, the constituency figures have yet to be released but Bristol South has been at the bottom end of this table with just 16 per cent of school leavers going to university.

It’s not the only aspect of education where Bristol South fares badly. The latest GCSE figures reveal a shocking divide between GCSE attainment in the city and the country. In Bristol South, 49% of students attending state-funded schools got maths and English GCSEs at grade 4 or above last summer, compared to 72% in Bristol West. The England average is 69.4%.

When you look at the bigger picture for education, from early years through to further and higher education and SEND provision, it’s clear that the problem is systemic. While it is important to tackle issues in each area, the overall picture will not change unless we look at education as a whole.

My focus as an MP has been on post-16 education and apprenticeships as a way of helping people secure quality jobs and careers. Last month (Feb), I attended the ground-breaking ceremony for City of Bristol College’s new Advanced Skills and Construction Centre near the South Bristol Skills Academy, the venue for my annual South Bristol Jobs & Apprenticeships Fair. Both have an important role to play in improving access to quality apprenticeships for people here in Bristol South.

I started the apprenticeships fair four years ago after noticing a real gap in Bristol South for events like this: bringing key partners together – City of Bristol College, Bristol City Council and the DWP – to link people up with the opportunities available locally. I will continue my work in this area, but apprenticeships alone cannot redress the balance.

Years of chronic underfunding has left schools and colleges struggling. There are a range of identifiable issues around transport, how easy and affordable it is for young people to get to school or college, and the (lack of) support available during the transition between school and college.

Ultimately, it’s far too fragmented – responsibility for different areas sitting with different stakeholders -the regional schools commissioner, local council, the government and multi-academy trusts. No one person or authority owns this problem, and as such, it’s not being properly addressed. This has to change.

I will continue to raise the issue in parliament to shine a light on the problem. And my focus will be on bringing together all bodies to address this locally. As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts about education, please contact me via the details below.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on apprenticeships as an alternative to university

(Newspaper column as seen in The Pigeon in February 2020)

Last month (Jan) I met with the new Principal of City of Bristol College, Andy Forbes. I’ve worked very closely with the college over the past few years and will continue to do so as Andy takes charge.

As regular readers of The Pigeon will know, post-16 education is one of the areas I focus on here in Bristol South. It has a crucial role in helping young people go on to secure quality jobs and fruitful careers and the college and apprenticeships have a key role to play in this.

Andy and I talked about a number of issues, including the need for a wider range of options, such as A Levels, for students in South Bristol and the importance of further education in terms of social mobility. We talked about the work shortly due to start on the Advanced Construction Skills Centre in Hengrove and what it will mean for people in Bristol South. More on that in a future column.

This month, will see the fourth installment of the South Bristol Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair which I run with the City of Bristol College and Bristol City Council. I started the event after it became clear that people living south of the river were having to travel north for these type of events.

We have lots of challenges around education here in Bristol South. As I write this column, we’re awaiting the latest UCAS figures on how many 18-year-olds from Bristol South went onto university last year (2019). In previous years, this constituency has been bottom of the table in terms of how many school leavers go onto university. As well as looking at why this is and helping more young people access higher education, we also need to explore alternatives.

Quality apprenticeships have a significant role to play in this. They are a great way to earn while you learn – combining paid work experience with vital classroom-based learning – and can lead to degree level qualifications. I’ve spoken to many apprentices over the years at my apprenticeship fairs, each speaking very highly of the scheme they’re on and the path it’s led them down. Always great to hear.

The 2020 South Bristol Jobs & Apprenticeship Fair, which takes place at the South Bristol Skills Academy in Hengrove from 11am-3pm on Thursday 27 February, brings together some of the area’s biggest employers, training providers and other organisations which support people into work and apprenticeships. It’s free to attend and there’s no need to book so please do come along and find out more. All welcome – students, parents, grandparents and older people looking to re-enter the workplace or re-train. I hope to see you there!

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the Labour leadership election 2020

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice in February 2020)

We’ve had some time to reflect on the General Election result and work is underway in the Labour Party to select a new leader and address some of the issues which saw us losing the trust of many voters elsewhere in the country.

I’m thankful that you returned me as your MP and that Bristol South continues to want and vote for a Labour government. I’ve spent the last month or so evaluating the work I do for Bristol South and where I focus my efforts and, following conversations on the doorstep during the election campaign, what else is needed here. You can read more about this on my website, social media channels and in future columns.

You may have seen from my social media that I’m backing Keir Starmer for Leader of the Labour Party. Lots of you have asked me about this so I thought it would be useful to elaborate some more.

Both Keir and I were first elected as MPs in 2015 and I’ve worked closely with him since – first as his Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Shadow Brexit Team and more recently as Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. He’s joined me here in Bristol South several times, helping me with election campaigns.

I’ve seen first-hand what a good leader of teams he is. And how well-regarded on the doorstep he is by people here in Bristol South.

I think that both Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler would make excellent Deputy Leaders but with Angela already across the line in terms of nominations, I decided to nominate Dawn.

The ballot opens later this month (Feb 2020) in which Labour Party members will vote for their preferred candidates. While I’d like to see Keir take the reins, I’m optimistic that whoever wins will rise to the challenge and take the fight to Boris Johnson and the Tories.

We have a great opportunity to form a strong, united opposition to help prevent the relentless cuts to public services continuing to hit Bristol South. I will continue to be your voice in Parliament and work with people and organisations here in Bristol to address this.

Please do join me at the annual South Bristol Jobs & Apprenticeships Fair I run with City of Bristol College and Bristol City Council. It takes place from 11am-3pm on Thursday 27 February 2020 at the South Bristol Skills Academy in Hengrove and brings together employers and training providers with school leavers and jobseekers. It’s free to attend – just pop along on the day! Hope to see you there.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP focus on education in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in The Pigeon in January 2020)

I hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year. Thank you for re-electing me as your MP. I’m looking forward to continuing the work I’ve been doing around local education – particularly post-16 education and apprenticeships, healthcare and transport.

The general election campaign offered a good opportunity to talk to people across Bristol South. I spoke to a lot of people at the school gates in Totterdown, Windmill Hill, Southville, Bedminster and Ashton Gate; parents and grandparents concerned about the underfunding in our primary schools among other concerns around parking and Brexit.

These conversations with local families have re-confirmed my focus on education as one of the key issues here in Bristol South.

£15 million has been taken out of South Bristol schools since 2015. Once again, Bristol South is among the constituencies hit the hardest –with funding cuts of over £500 per pupil per year in recent years. I do not think it’s a coincidence that this constituency also sends such a low percentage – around 16 per cent – of school leavers on to university. Post-16 education has a crucial role to play in addressing this, yet it has seen the biggest cuts and is in dire need of investment.

I challenged one of the Tory candidates (now MP for Devizes) on Sunday Politics Live in the run up to the election on this. He parroted the line about the government’s commitment to education and ongoing investment into the country’s schools, but as with most of their rebuttals, the figures just don’t add up.

I’ve met with headteachers and staff at most of Bristol South’s schools and while there are some shared issues – such as staff recruitment and retention – it’s clear that the challenges are varied. Some schools struggle with absence and anti-social behaviour, other schools with rising class sizes rise (from 30 up to 35) and most schools have been hit by the backlog in EHCP assessments for children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).

I’ve spoken to parents who’ve been asked to contribute financially to their child’s school to plug funding gaps and to those parents unable to access the SEND support they need for their child.

I think that people here in Bristol South recognise, as demonstrated by the election result here, that myself and the Labour Party are the best hope of addressing the dire situation in our local schools. While I’m disappointed that we’re not in government and able to implement the changes needed, I will continue to work with local schools, parents and the local authority to try and secure improvements. And I will not stop raising this in parliament until the government takes the action so desperately needed.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the 2019 General Election

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice January 2020)

Firstly, I’d like to thank you for re-electing me as your Member of Parliament. Since I first became MP for Bristol South in 2015, I’ve tried to work hard to address the issues that matter to you.

I am, of course, disappointed that the Tories remain in government. But the election campaign provided a good opportunity to talk directly with people and confirmed the focus I have here in Bristol South – on education and job opportunities, health services and transport.

None of these challenges are going away. And neither is climate change.

Parliament declared a climate emergency last year (2019), which followed Bristol’s climate emergency declaration in 2018.

Climate change is not a standalone issue, but runs through all areas of life. The Labour Party recognises this and outlined a range of measures in the manifesto designed not only to tackle climate change, but to transform the way we live – covering housing, jobs and education as well as the environment.

While we’re not in government to deliver these, we can and should take some of these elements forward locally.

My focus on apprenticeships continues this year with another Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair at City of Bristol College’s South Bristol Skills Academy in Hengrove on 27 February 2020. We’re particularly interested in exploring apprenticeships in greener industries such as renewable energy and hope to have some local employers who offer opportunities in this area. Work starts soon on the new Advanced Construction Skills Centre in Hengrove and there’s an opportunity to weave an environmental focus into this new training hub.

Local schoolchildren have been campaigning for free bus travel for young people. Children in London have this thanks to a Labour move, Bristol children currently do not. The Tory Metro Mayor Tim Bowles has powers which can pave the way for this and while Manchester’s Labour Metro Mayor Andy Burnham has set the ball rolling to use these powers, our Metro Mayor has not.

I will continue to push for this – along with the promised Hengrove to Long Ashton leg of the Metrobus, which disappeared off the route map until I pressed for it to be reinstated. We now need to see the buses on the road.

Public transport has a key role to play in reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality, and I’m pleased to see Bristol City Council moving forward with plans to improve air quality in the city.

I know that some of you are concerned around the implementation of this and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts – you can reach me via karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on anti-social behaviour in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the Pigeon November 2019)

More and more people are contacting me about ongoing anti-social behaviour in Bristol South. It was one of the main themes I picked up on in my summer policing survey and was something which came up repeatedly during the time I spent shadowing the police last year.

What do we mean by anti-social behaviour? Anti-social behaviour refers to unacceptable activities which make our communities feel less safe and leave individuals feeling distressed – things such as intimidation, vandalism, street drinking and drug abuse, graffiti, fly-tipping. Where a lot of anti-social behaviour used to be relatively low-level, the cases I’m seeing now tend to be more extreme.

My office regularly deals with complaints about anti-social behaviour from across the constituency. We speak to the police and local authorities to try and resolve things for constituents, but it’s rarely straightforward.

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 gave the police, local authority and housing associations new powers to deal with persistent anti-social behaviour, including acceptable behaviour contracts based on mediation and, if needed, civil injunctions. These measures are designed to stop problems getting worse.

The mechanisms are available, but the resource is not. Government cuts have hit both policing and local authorities hard. By missing the opportunity to intervene early on, it can lead to months and months of misery for residents and, at the end of an expensive and lengthy battle, prison for the perpetrators.

The police are expected to pick up the strain of cuts to services such as children’s centres, youth provision, NHS services – particularly mental health – and other support agencies around domestic violence and addiction. Yet they are subject to similar crippling budget cuts.

You responded to my summer survey highlighting anti-social behaviour as one of your main concerns. You want to see more police officers on the streets and better investment in community and youth services and education and in drug and alcohol rehabilitation services to tackle this.

I want the police and local authority to have the resources they need to use what powers available to them and use these rigorously; nipping anti-social behaviour in the bud before it gets completely out of control. I’ve spoken about this in parliament – urging the government to look at how we’re tackling anti-social behaviour – and I will continue to speak up about this.

If you’re living with the impact of anti-social behaviour, I’d urge you to report it to the police online or by calling 101. You can also contact me by emailing karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk – I’d be very interested to hear about your experience of anti-social behaviour in your area.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on post-16 opportunities for young people in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice November 2019)

Every year, I work closely with City of Bristol College to put on a Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair in Bristol South. And every year, I chat to young people keen to pursue a career in construction. When there is significant house-building in Bristol South, it makes sense to link these two elements.

We need skilled construction workers to build these houses. We need decent job and training opportunities for local people. Now, the two have come together with plans for a new Advanced Construction Skills Centre at the South Bristol Skills Academy in Hengrove.

Following the Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair in February, I spent time looking at the artist’s impressions on display at the City of Bristol College. It’s something I’ve long supported. Seeing a similar centre at Weston College earlier this year brought home to me just how valuable the Construction Skills Centre will be to people in Bristol South.

After meeting with the minister and regional authority in support of the college’s bid for an Advanced Construction Skills Centre, I was delighted to learn that the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership is investing £6 million to help make this happen. Planning permission has now been granted and work is due to start in the New Year. The centre itself will be in the heart of some of the city’s house building programme in Hengrove. An impressive 3,500m2 building, it will house state-of-the-art training facilities.

Due to open in September 2021, the centre will offer training during the first three years to 850 students enrolled on a range of courses, from apprenticeships (including Higher Apprenticeships) to university courses and vocational training for employees.

Closer links between City of Bristol College and the University of the West of England opens up opportunities for students to gain degree-level qualifications in Bristol South. This is particularly important as Bristol South remains at the bottom of the table when it comes to percentage of 18-year-olds going onto university – with just 16% of school leavers making that move into higher education.

The centre will provide a range of vocational courses for young people as well as career development for people already in the construction sector who might be looking for more senior roles. It is this breadth of provision which allows each person to find the pathway which best suits them.

 

Support for employers and jobseekers

Karin Smyth MP at her South Bristol Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair in 2018

As a result of the coronavirus crisis, many people in Bristol South are facing an uncertain future when it comes to employment and their businesses. There is help available and I’ve compiled this list of local support…

For jobseekers

Financial support

You may be able to get Universal Credit if you’re on a low income, out of work or you cannot work. See here for details.

Other support

ACAS offers a free employee advice service for support around employment rights, see here.

Finding work

A regularly updated searchable vacancy list is available here.

See also Bristol City Council’s Ways2Work jobs search here.

The Voscur website has a jobs board with paid (and unpaid) opportunities in the voluntary sector, see here.

The latest NHS job vacancies are available here.

It’s also worth checking on employers’ websites directly. Key Bristol employers include Computershare, Asda and Bristol Airport.

Skills, training and support

Apprenticeships allow you to earn while you learn. Most combine employment with one day a week in college. Check the national database of apprenticeships for a suitable vacancy, see here.

City of Bristol College – which includes South Bristol Skills Academy in Hengrove – has a range of courses and apprenticeships to help you with your career, see here.

The Women’s Work Lab supports unemployed women in receipt of benefits with part-time courses and work placements designed to lead to paid employment. To register your interest, see here.

FutureBright offers free career coaching, training and support to help those whose jobs have been impacted by the pandemic (job loss and redundancy, reduced hours and those self-employed or furloughed and now claiming Universal Credit). More info here.

South Bristol Youth supports young people (14-19) with maths, communication and securing apprenticeships and places on higher education courses. More info here.

For businesses

Bristol City Council website has more information on making your business COVID-19 secure, it includes and overview of the latest Government guidance and what to do if you get a local outbreak among your team. See here.

BusinessWest, a not-for-profit organisation supporting businesses across the region, has a range of support on offer, including advice, guidance, partnering and mentoring opportunities, see here.

The Federation of Small Businesses website has lots of resources including advice around making your business COVID-19 secure, templates and wording you can use and how to carry out risk assessments. More info here.

Financial support

Government Job Support Scheme (JSS): Replacing furlough, the JSS allows employees to work a minimum of one third of their hours covered by the employer – the government will match this, topping it up to cover another third of their hours – giving them two thirds of their pay. The scheme starts in November and runs for six months, until the end of April 2021. Employers do not need to have used the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough) to use this scheme. More info here.

Job Retention Bonus: The Government is offering employers a one-off bonus of £1,000 per employee for those previously furloughed but remaining continuously employed by the same organisation through to 31 January 2021. Payments will be made in February 2021. More info here.

If you are registered for Self-Assessment tax returns, your July 2020 Payment on Account may be deferred to 31 January 2021. See here for details.

Business loans – extended to 30 Nov 2020: Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS): For SMEs to access loans of up to £5m, 80% government-backed with the Government paying interest and fees for the first 12 months. Apply here.

Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS): For SMEs to access loans of between £2,000 and 25 per cent of their turnover, to a maximum of £50,000. The loan is 100% government-backed with no interest or fees for the first 12 months, with an interest rate of 2.5% thereafter. More info here: LINK Businesses which have taken out a Bounce Back Loan can extend the loans to pay them back over a 10-year period as part of a new Pay As You Grow scheme, which should reduce payments by almost half. Apply here.

Sick Pay for Employees: Businesses with fewer than 250 employees may be entitled to claim back up to 2 weeks’ sick pay for employees taking time off due to coronavirus. More info here.

Business Rates Holiday: Retail, leisure and hospitality businesses with occupied premises and nurseries can take advantage of a business rates holiday covering the period April 2020 – March 2021, amounting to a 100 per cent discount for the year. More info here.

VAT relief: A temporary VAT cut from 20 per cent to 5 per cent for businesses will remain in place for certain sectors until March 2021, this includes hospitality and tourism. Businesses who took advantage of the VAT deferment from March to June 2020 can contribute smaller payments over a longer period, spreading interest-free payments out over 18 months to March 2022.

Retraining employees

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) has launched a Workforce for the Future programme to help businesses respond to the impact of COVID-19 on employees. It includes a free service to help SMEs with fewer than 250 employees across the region to upskill and retrain employees and support them in bringing in apprentices and make use of work placements. More info here.

Kickstart Bristol: The new Government scheme to create high quality six-month work placements for young people (aged 16-24) who are on Universal Credit or at risk of long-term unemployment. The Government funding will cover 100 per cent of the relevant National Minimum Wage for 25 hours a week, including National Insurance contributions and employer minimum automatic enrolment contributions. There is also a further £1,500 available per job to help cover set up costs. Employers with recruiting for new roles (not existing roles) are currently being sought particularly in South Bristol. See here for more details.

Other support

WECA has launched a Thrive at Work programme to support SME businesses and employees with mental health. It includes free mental health e-learning and other resources created in partnership with mental health charity Mind. More info here.

If you live or run a business in Bristol South, I’d be very interested to hear how you’ve been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. You can reach me via email at karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk or by calling: 0117 953 3575.

Karin Smyth MP responds to announcement of We Are Bristol History Commission

Bristol has ongoing issues with inequality which need addressing. Much of the recent focus is on the impact of the transatlantic slave trade, the power that wealthy white men held in the 17th and 18th centuries and continue to hold.

We are living with the impact of historic slavery. You see it, not only in the statues, monuments and places named after slave traders, but in the ongoing influence held by the Merchant Venturers – a society with roots in the transatlantic slave trade and one that continues to be dominated by wealthy white men.

Slavery has been part of Bristol for centuries – with three slaves documented in Bedminster in the Domesday Book in the 11th century. A thousand years later it is still present, with recent investigations and legal action relating to modern day slavery in this part of the city.

I welcome the creation of the We Are Bristol History Commission. It is the start of a very important discussion for the city which can, and should, help shape the future of Bristol.

Any change must take place in consultation with the community – it’s not something one person or group can impose. I’m pleased that the commission recognises this, stating that it will ‘work with citizens and community groups to develop these themes and ensure that everyone in the city can share their views and build a fuller picture of how the city has grown and developed over the years.’

It is right that, while the history of slavery is a focus of this work, it also includes ‘the full scope of events that have impacted the city’ – from the struggles of workers for pay and working conditions, the Chartists and suffragettes campaigning for emancipation and housing, migration and modern gentrification – issues which continue to affect Bristol South to this day.

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees acknowledged, as part of the announcement of the commission, that ‘everyone experiences the results of our past differently’, so it is vital we listen to a broad range of voices as we work out the next steps for the city. I agree and hope that you will share your thoughts as part of this process.

More details here.