The big issues

AS you may imagine, I receive a huge amount of correspondence from constituents on all sorts of topics.

People from the town come to my surgeries to discuss a range of problems that are not only policy-based but are often quite personal in their nature.

It’s interesting to note the various topics, and the major themes, that people have contacted me about over the years.

When I first became MP, the single biggest issue people contacted me about was crime and anti-social behaviour.

Thankfully, I don’t receive as much correspondence about this now, which I believe means that people feel more reassured. The need for housing then became the biggest issue that people contacted me about, although again this has recently gone relatively quiet.

There have been a couple of single issues about which many, many people have contacted me over the past 12 months or so.

The growing economic difficulties that the town, and the entire country, are facing are obviously and distressingly seen in the correspondence I receive, with many people having problems finding a job, or not receiving benefits if they have been made unemployed.

I have received a huge number of emails from women who are angry at the Government’s plans to increase the state pension age for women faster than originally planned.

The other big issue was the Government’s plans to sell off the national forests, which prompted a reaction from constituents the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

Throughout all the various ebbs and flows of single issue correspondence, a single and possibly surprising theme has been constant. I recall writing about this before, but the theme I receive most letters, postcards and emails from constituents about is that of trade justice and international development.

The reason for this is down to the enormous energy, ambition and determination of the Hartlepool for Global Peace and Justice Group. The group’s chairwoman, Chris Eddowes, is a formidable lady with a soft centre who it is impossible to say no to.

Chris is in the Hartlepool Mail more often than I am (and is a better columnist for the Mail than I am) and together with other volunteers and like-minded individuals such as her husband Richard, Sheila Deacon, Martin Green, Susan Atkinson and Bill White have ensured that many issues are brought to my attention.

The group aims to promote the need for justice for the world’s poor and campaign for help for developing countries and to mitigate the effect of climate change. As usual, Hartlepool punches above its weight, and the group is considered as the leading and most prominent organisation in the North East for the Jubilee Debt Campaign and Make Poverty History North East.

It was the Hartlepool for Global Peace and Justice Group who lobbied and made sure that Hartlepool became a Fairtrade town.

The group has just celebrated its 10th anniversary and I was delighted to cut the cake (Fairtrade ingredients!) on Saturday. I have to say that the cake was delicious. I wish the group all the very best wishes and look forward to receiving the cards and emails about such issues as tax secrecy, international development and climate change in the future.

There will be many people in the town who believe that charity begins at home, and that at a time of austerity and cuts it is wrong for the Government, when it is slashing public spending in every other part of its budget, to maintain the international aid spending.

It is madness, I have heard, for us to send money to, say, India, when it is one of the fastest growing economies on earth and is now developing its own space programme. Why do we send aid to African nations when it is only gobbled up in corruption, spent on dictators’ Mercedes and doesn’t get through to the people who need it most?

I think there’s a lot of truth in all of those arguments. I don’t think there’s much point in simply sending aid. The old adage that you shouldn’t give a man a fish a day, but give him a fishing rod and he can catch his own fish is very true.

By allowing and helping these countries to stand on their own feet in a fair and just way means that hopefully, in a generation, such international development might not be necessary. I also think that will help our economy, because these countries, when they are not thinking on a day-to-day basis about basic human necessities such as food, clean water and shelter, will be able to import British goods and services. Both our economies benefit from decent and fair trade.

But there is also a wider and more fundamental point here. I’m always struck by the fact that, when there is a natural disaster like an earthquake or flooding, it is British people – not the British Government, but individual citizens – who are the biggest donors.

This doesn’t mean that Britain is a soft touch, but it does say a lot about the warmth and humanitarian spirit of the British people, who care about their neighbour, whether that neighbour is in Kilmarnock Road, in Owton Manor, or Mombasa, in Kenya.

The Hartlepool for Global Peace and Justice Group embodies that spirit. Happy 10th birthday.