newspaper column

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on a rise in unemployment in Bristol South

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

This month sees the end of the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme, which was put in place at the start of lockdown to avoid mass job losses. It leaves many people in Bristol South facing a very uncertain future.

I, and my Labour colleagues, have been pushing to see the scheme extended for those hardest hit sectors which are still unable to operate properly due to ongoing restrictions. Disappointingly, the Government chose to ignore the calls from us, from business owners, trade unions, think tanks, the cross-party Treasury Select Committee and some of its own MPs; in doing so, it has let down hundreds of thousands of people working in vulnerable industries such as hospitality, leisure, travel and the arts.

Bristol South does not have lots of large employers which can accommodate mass remote working set up. Families across Bristol South rely on paid work with Bristol Airport and in cafes, bars and restaurants as well as the creative sector. It’s home to lots of small businesses, many of which were struggling before the pandemic hit and this has made things a hundred times harder. I’ve heard from local business owners and self-employed people with heartbreaking stories of their family business, in the community for decades employing local people, suddenly facing financial ruin and closure as a result of this pandemic.

The percentage of people claiming unemployment-related benefits in Bristol South has already risen from 3.6% in March to 6.2% this summer, and this is likely to increase further. I’m hearing from lots of people who’ve always worked and have never had to apply for government support before. And it’s hitting women and young people particularly hard. We must act now to avert the biggest jobs crisis of a generation.

The Government announced the launch of a Kickstart scheme to support younger jobseekers in August, but we’re yet to see this in action and there appears to be no job guarantee at the end of it. I welcome the offer of extra paid incentives for businesses taking on new apprentices and would encourage employers in Bristol South to explore this further, but they too will need jobs at the end of their training and, at the moment, there is no guarantee there either.

This piecemeal approach is not enough. We need a national plan for job retention and creation as well as retraining. I will continue lobbying the Government on this and am working on plans for my 2021 jobs and apprenticeships fair to help link local people up with jobs and training opportunities. In the meantime, there is help available locally to support people with job hunting and employability skills, see here for more details.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the transport needs of people in Bristol South

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

The coronavirus pandemic has changed so much for so many people – including the ways we live, work and socialise. One fundamental shift has been the way we travel.

For some, homeworking means no need for a daily commute. Reduced or changing bus and train timetables at the start of lockdown meant that more people were moving to active travel – on foot or by bike. I’ve been cycling from the train station to Parliament and plan to try out an e-bike. Bristol City Council has schemes which let you try out e-bikes and e-vehicles for free – see www.bristol.gov.uk for details.

With social distancing in mind, local transport planners have revisited plans for the city and are asking for your thoughts. Much of this centres around reducing car travel to help the city meet its clean air target, which is hugely important; but we need to also make sure that these do not cut off Bristol South from the rest of the city. I have asked to see an impact assessment before any permanent decisions are made.

Initial changes are already in place with the closure of Bristol Bridge to vehicles and more of the city centre is now pedestrianised. If these changes become permanent, it could mean that people needing to get to the centre or cross the city have to go via the Temple Meads one-way system, adding a significant amount of time (and extra fuel costs) to their trip. Plans are also afoot to close Greville Road/Upton Road and Dean Lane in Southville to through traffic, and remove roadside parking on Bedminster Parade and on North Street near Tesco.

Now, more than ever, we need a reliable and affordable bus network serving the whole of the city. We’re already hearing reports of overcrowding on buses in Bristol South, especially on school routes. People need to be able to get to school or work on time and deserve bus services which will ensure this. We do not currently have this, with many constituents reporting issues with key services. When Metrobus launched in 2018, we were promised a Hengrove to Long Ashton service and are still waiting for this. I helped get the service reinstated to the route-map, after it was removed, but we’re yet to see buses on the road.

I’ve continued to press regional Mayor Tim Bowles on this and have spoken about it in Parliament. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on local transport too. You can reach me via email: karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on Bristol’s response to the Coronavirus crisis

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

It’s been six months since the Coronavirus pandemic arrived here in the UK and changed all our lives. Like you, we have all had to adapt – it’s been particularly difficult for those with families to support. It’s been a bumpy ride and it’s not over yet.

I’ve been in regular touch with Public Health experts here in Bristol and it’s clear that we are going to have to learn to live with this virus. They are working hard to support businesses, schools and workplaces to adjust.

While lockdown measures eased over the summer and some of us managed to experience a semblance of normality – seeing family and friends for the first time since the start of the year – we’re heading into another period of unknowns this winter.

But we’re learning more about this virus all the time and have finally got a good localised track and trace system in place – something I’ve been calling for from the off. If we know where the virus is and how it’s transmitted, we have some hope in controlling it. It was a very different picture 6 months ago.

By the time you read this, most schools have re-opened for all pupils, people will be returning to working in offices – with additional measures in place to account for the ongoing risk – and many closed businesses will have re-opened.

As the Government emergency support drops off – the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme set to end next month (Oct) – I’m concerned that we are going to see more businesses struggling to stay afloat and more people losing their jobs. It’s not going to be easy and will be an incredibly worrying time for many, but it also provides us with an opportunity to look at how we rebuild.

Earlier in the summer, I spoke on a Bristol Festival of Ideas panel exploring the future of the city. We’ve seen some incredible innovation during this crisis – especially from our entrepreneurial voluntary sector here in Bristol South. New partnerships have been formed, new ways of working and organisations have adapted, at speed, to meet the needs of local communities. It is because of this incredible work that this area has not been hit quite so hard as other areas of the country.

We must take all these learnings and listen to local people to forge a path through this crisis and create a better society. A greener society. A fairer society. One which we’ve all had a say in, and all have a stake in.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this – you can reach me via email: karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the role of local colleges in the Coronavirus recovery

(Newspaper column as seen in The South Bristol Voice in September 2020)

The Coronavirus crisis is far from over. We’re already seeing unemployment rise here in Bristol South, with more people having to apply for universal credit, we’re seeing apprenticeship starts drop off and local businesses facing real financial difficulty.

By now (Sept 2020), most young people have been out of school for six months. Exams were missed and schools and colleges had to find new ways to assign grades. We already have shockingly low rates of 18-year-olds from Bristol South going onto university (just 16 per cent, compared with 90 per cent elsewhere in the city). And we have a Government which focuses on Higher Education and treats Further Education as an afterthought – underfunded and undervalued. The current model is inadequate and unsustainable and we need a radical change to support what the Children’s Commissioner recently warned could be a ‘lost generation’ of teenagers.

City of Bristol College is perfectly placed to help young people through this crisis and could play a crucial role in retraining older people who have lost their jobs as the result of the pandemic. I’ve worked closely with the college over the years – understanding the challenges it faces and the support it needs and pressing the Government for this.

I started my annual South Bristol Jobs & Apprenticeships Fair at the South Bristol Skills Academy to help connect local people with employers and opportunities locally. The need for skills training has never been greater. Shortly before lockdown, I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the new Advanced Construction Skills Centre in Hengrove which, when open, will train the next generation of construction workers and skilled tradespeople. We fought for this facility here in Bristol South which creates much-needed opportunities for local people.

While young people have not been the main victims of the virus itself, the younger generation will bear the brunt of this crisis for years to come. The latest Social Mobility Foundation report found that young people in “left behind” neighbourhoods – which include parts of my constituency – are 34% more likely to be unemployed than the UK average. I recently joined an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) which looks at this very issue.

Following my ask to the Minister around Government funding for 16-19 year olds, I was pleased to see them u-turn and invest £96 million into this area – I’m disappointed that it’s rerouted fundings from schools budgets, rather than additional though. And it won’t undo a decade of underfunding in the sector.

It is vital that we have a comprehensive ongoing support package for young people or we’ll all be living with the consequences of this for decades to come.

Are you a young person or the parent of a young person? If so, please do share your experiences with me via email: karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the challenges facing Further Education in Bristol South

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

Regular readers will know that Further Education (FE) and apprenticeships are a key focus of mine. Colleges and apprenticeships pave the way for a decent career, especially for those who do not go onto university – which is over 80% of school leavers in Bristol South.

A decade of underinvestment in post-16 education and years of the Tories messing around with T levels, apprenticeships means that young people are currently facing a huge crisis. We’ve got thousands of teenagers here in Bristol South who’ve missed out on half a year of schooling, apprenticeship starts are in sharp decline and we’re already seeing a significant rise in unemployment – including among existing apprentices.

People in their 20s with some existing work experience will find it easier to recover from the economic impact of this pandemic in a way their teenage counterparts may not. If we do not support young people now, they – and we – could be paying for it for the rest of their – and our – lives. Our FE colleges such as City of Bristol College and Sixth Form College like St Brendan’s – are perfectly-placed to do this.

Earlier this year – before the Government restrictions were put in place – I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the start of the new Advanced Construction Skills Centre at City of Bristol College’s South Bristol Skills Academy. Weeks later, I worked with the college, Bristol City Council and the DWP to put on another Jobs & Apprenticeships Fair.

At both events, I spoke to young people from Bristol South who were committed to getting a decent job and were on track to do so thanks to their apprenticeships – with support from employers and the college. They face a very uncertain future now.

It’s a similar story for the colleges themselves; I’m in touch with City of Bristol College Principal Andy Forbes who, once again, highlighted a huge problem with under-funding. It follows a report released last month on college finances by Dame Ney which prompted the Labour Party to call for immediate action to address a widespread failure that is allowing our FE sector to drift towards bankruptcy.

Last month (July), I asked the Chancellor to expand the funding to post-16 education and commit to ensuring every 16-19-year-old has a fully funded place at college from September – a pathway to a decent career.

We must ensure colleges have what they need to help young people get the skills, qualifications and experience required to enter the ever-competitive world of work. They also have an important role in retraining adults who’ve lost their jobs due to this pandemic.

Our colleges are perfectly placed to support young people through this crisis, but they need sufficient funding to be able to do this.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the Government’s failings during the Coronavirus crisis

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

It’s been a few months since I last wrote a piece for the Pigeon and I know it’s been a challenging time for the team – like it has for many local businesses and families across the constituency.

And while we are slowly returning to work, school and seeing family and friends, this crisis is far from over and it won’t be a case of being ‘back to normal’. We find ourselves in a time of more uncertainty and change. Some of you will be grieving for loved ones – the shape of your family forever changed and, in the coming months, people will lose their jobs.

The challenges do not stop when the virus is under control, the impact of the Coronavirus response will be felt for many years. I have hope that some things will change for the better, but recognise that other will leave us much worse off. It’s my job as your MP to try and mitigate this as much as possible, holding the government to account and supporting Bristol South through this ongoing challenge.

I’ve been speaking to people across the constituency, including those heading up some of the brilliant community response.

It’s clear that there are big gaps in the support available – particularly for self-employed people – and much confusion over the government guidance. I’ve been writing to relevant government departments about this and raised my concerns in Parliament via video link.

Many constituents have shared with me desperately sad accounts of how their individual families have suffered whilst trying to do the right thing and obey the regulations and were understandably upset by government advisor Dominic Cummings flouting these rules. To continue to employ an individual who has not apologised or demonstrated any remorse for his actions show an absolute failure in the judgement of the Prime Minister.

Perhaps more worryingly, there seems to be a lack of clear strategy from the Government. Throughout the crisis, I’ve been pushing for a localised comprehensive approach to testing and tracing the virus to enable local authorities to manage further outbreaks successfully. I’m glad to see movement on this now, but it should’ve been in place sooner. It’s the only way we can safely ease lockdown. I’ll continue to work with my Labour colleagues to push for the action needed to support you through these difficult times. As always, you can reach me via the email: karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk

 

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on schools closures during the Coronavirus crisis

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

Since schools first closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic back in March, I’ve been contacted by parents, teachers, headteachers and governors about the situation.

The initial Government announcement that schools would re-open to certain year groups from ‘June 1 at the earliest’ offered no clear guidance for schools or reassurances for parents that it would be safe to do so. In lieu of a clear strategy, it left it up to individual school headteachers and governors to decipher ever-changing guidance to try and ensure their schools could safely re-open.

The Labour Party repeatedly called on the Government to set up a taskforce of parents, school leaders and education unions, and health experts to agree upon a series of practical safety measures that must be met before any date for reopening was confirmed. But, like much of the Government’s Coronavirus response, it ignored input from parents and teachers – showing a complete lack of respect for those affected by these decisions.

We needed a clear, informed strategy built on consensus but we got some vague, ill thought-out plan which shows little understanding of how schools actually operate.

One local primary school governor speaking to me ahead of the June opening, asked for “a well prepared plan which takes account of the health and safety of pupils, our staff, and all those who work in, or visit, schools.” They added: “The Government repeatedly says it “is led by the science”. In this instance it must be led by the people who know how schools operate, how children behave and what their needs are.”

We all want children to return to school as soon as it is safe to do so. There are so many reasons for this – from stopping children falling behind in their education, to allowing parents to return to work and to identify safeguarding issues and ensure full support is available to those families who need it.

Schools are there for education but are also fundamental to wider society – enabling parents to work and supporting local families. They are essential in tackling child poverty and act as a safety net for many children, ensuring they have access to food and emotional support – as well as learning opportunities.

We know that missing six months of school will hit some children harder than others and we have to look at how we will support those families. We need a package of academic and pastoral support from the Government. But it must also understand that addressing the academic shortfall alone will not be enough without tackling the root causes of child poverty and inequality.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on plans for Ashton Gate

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

Many of you will have seen the planning decision relating to the plans for an arena in Filton. It follows the decision to withdraw plans for an arena next to Temple Meads, a development which would’ve provided jobs, apprenticeships and world class entertainment for people here in Bristol South. I first raised concerns over two years ago about relocating the arena to the northern part of the city and remain convinced that the best location for any such development is in the centre of Bristol.

While my constituents are unlikely to feel the real benefit of an arena miles away on the northern fringe of the city, I’ve been very pleased to learn more about the plans to expand Ashton Gate and create a Sport and Convention Centre alongside its 27,000 capacity stadium.

Some of you may have been to one of the big concerts last summer – Take That, Spice Girls, Rod Stewart or Muse – others may be planning to attend this year (I’m hoping to make it along to see The Killers). Lots of you will have been to Bristol City football matches there and others may have been to events such as the Labour Leadership Hustings or awards ceremonies. It has a strong track record of managing large scale events and of getting people to and from the stadium from across the city and the region.

What’s more, most local people walk, cycle and use trains or buses to get to Ashton Gate. As you would likely have done to an arena next to Temple Meads, but are unlikely to do to an arena 8-10 miles away in Filton.

Substantial amounts of public money have been earmarked for transport improvements in the Filton area – with plans for a new train station, Metrobus routes and bridges. We need to see similar investment here in Bristol South.

Ashton Gate would certainly benefit from more transport infrastructure – such as electrification of the existing track which runs from Temple Meads through Bedminster and Parson Street, a new station for Ashton Gate as part of the re-opening of the Portishead line, a Metrobus stop outside the stadium and a new pedestrian bridge over the main road. Their development plans do focus on sustainability – encouraging people out of cars and onto forms of active travel, very important considering the climate emergency we are in.

I’m meeting with Chairman Martin Griffiths again soon to learn more and see how I can support Ashton Gate with the exciting plans – which will lead job creation and more sports and entertainment opportunities.

I’d love to know what you think about it. You can reach me via email: karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk

 

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the changeover of community health providers during a global pandemic

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

We are currently in the midst of a huge public health crisis with Coronavirus now present in Bristol. It coincides with the changeover of provider in adult community health services across the Bristol area. Bristol Community Health, which has run the service here for many years, now hands it over to Sirona care and health – which has been awarded a £1bn contract to run these services locally for the next 10 years.

Community health services include things like community nurses, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, services that help recovery after a fall or a stroke, and services for people with dementia or learning disabilities. With some of the worst health outcomes in the city, people across Bristol South really do rely on this support.

Demand for healthcare services across the area is expected to be particularly high in the coming months and I know that the local teams are working hard to ensure this change of provider does not impact the NHS’s ability to cope with Coronavirus. As a former NHS emergency planner, I pay tribute to former colleagues for their work tackling this pandemic. I’m pleased that the government is following their expert advice.

Most people with suspected coronavirus won’t go to hospital or even their GP, but will be supported in the community by services provided by local government and voluntary sector. This is where adult community health services are particularly important.

I raised my concerns about this process and changing providers when Bristol North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group (BNSSG CCG) put this out to tender early last year. Working for the NHS, I have seen first-hand how changing providers can impact care. It’s a high-risk strategy; delivering quality community health services relies on a huge amount of local knowledge and relationships built up over years between staff and patients. I’m keen to ensure that people in Bristol South have access to the healthcare they need – now more than ever.

I recently met with representatives from the CCG who have assured me that the changeover of adult community health services will result in an improved service; in more consistent care for patients and carers and improved access to care, as well as better joined-up working between partner organisations. This has an important role to play in helping tackle Coronavirus. I look forward to seeing this in action and will be following developments closely.

Please do get in touch to share your experience of local adult community health services as I would like to hear more from you. Thank you.

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.