Interview with Stephen Parkinson, Conservative Candidate for Newcastle North

Q. What inspired you to become a candidate at the next general election?

I was born in North Shields, and my family have lived on Tyneside for generations. So this is where my roots are, and I want to give something back.

I’m not from a typical Conservative background – my grandma grew up in Netherton Colliery and members of my family have been active in the Labour Party. But, although the North East has had a reputation for being Labour’s ‘heartland’ in the past, people here feel really let down after 13 years of Labour government.

You might have thought, with 28 out of 30 MPs in the North East coming from the governing party (including the last Prime Minster and plenty of Cabinet Ministers) that Labour would have delivered for our region. But it’s people here who’ve been hit hardest by Gordon Brown’s failures. Unemployment here is still rising even though it’s started to fall elsewhere, and there are 12 jobseekers for every new vacancy in Newcastle North. We can’t go on like this. I’m fighting for the change Newcastle needs.

Q. The homeless charity Crisis highlighted the growing problem of mental ill-health amongst the single homeless. What would you do if elected to tackle this challenge?

Crisis does great work – and I’m very proud that one of the people who helped to found it in 1967 was the progressive Conservative Minister, Iain MacLeod. So it was very fitting so see David Cameron and Grant Shapps, our Shadow Housing Minister, visiting Crisis in 2008 to launch the Conservative Homelessness Foundation. Since then, the foundation has been working with the Conservative Party – with the advice of other great charities, including the Tyneside Cyrenians – to develop policies to end rough sleeping and address the wider issues of homelessness.

One of those issues, as Crisis has highlighted, is the fact that homeless people have a particularly high instance of mental health issues. One of the things we want to do is to let stand-alone healthcare providers, including those involved with mental health, to register their services with the NHS. This will provide a greater range of services for those most in need and allow great organisations to work within the established framework of our NHS.

You can find out more about the work Grant Shapps MP has been doing on homelessness, and read his policy reports, at www.shapps.com/reports.

Q. Organisations such as Church Action on Poverty and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have highlighted the increase in social inequalities under New Labour. If elected what priority would you give to raising this?

A high priority. It’s a scandal that social mobility has gone backwards under Labour. The rich have got richer while the poor have got poorer – and under Gordon Brown’s tax system, it’s the poorest fifth of households who pay the highest proportion of their income in tax.

A Conservative Government will support aspiration so that people from every background have the chance to get on in life – not just the privileged few. We need to make our schools better so that everyone has a good start in life – not just the people whose parents can afford to opt out of the system. As a comprehensive school boy who got into Cambridge, that’s really important to me.

In a Conservative Britain, if you put in the effort to bring in a wage, you will be better off. If you save money your whole life, you’ll be rewarded. Our approach is clear: we will reward those who take responsibility, and care for those who can’t.

Q. If you become a Member of Parliament what priority will you give to mental health issues locally and nationally?

Mental health issues need to be given more attention anyway – but they’re all the more pressing at a time when the country is in recession, and when we’ve got thousands of service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Independent research into the link between mental health and economic decline suggests that the scale of the recession – the longest and deepest since the Second World War – and the recent rise in unemployment could increase mental health problems by more than a quarter. That’s equivalent to 1.5 million more people suffering some kind of mental health problem.

And the Government is not doing enough to take care of members of our Armed Forces who come back from active service and who rely on the NHS for mental health care. Research published in the British Medical Journal has found that the longer personnel are deployed, the more likely they are to be at risk of developing psychological disorders and experiencing problems at home. Yet the Defence Select Committee in Parliament has found that the identification and treatment of vulnerable veterans ‘relies as much on good intentions and good luck as on robust tracking’. Both of these problems require the attention of our Members of Parliament.

Q. A lot of vocal criticism has been expressed organisations such as Mind about the Government’s welfare reform proposals as failing to understand the nature of mental health problems and the support need. What is your opinion on these proposals?

It is our moral obligation to end the culture of long-term welfare dependency in Britain. In a responsible society, individuals who are capable of working have a responsibility to work – and the government has a responsibility to help all those who can work find a job.

We’ve announced a big, bold plan to get Britain working. Instead of Labour’s numerous and bureaucratic employment programmes, we will create a single employment programme for everyone on out-of-work benefits, using the expertise of the private and voluntary sectors to help people back into work. We want to stop millions of people being written off to a lifetime on benefits, so we will reassess everyone on Incapacity Benefits. Everyone assessed as being able to prepare for work will be given specialist support to help them find a job – and those who really cannot work will continue to receive support.

At the moment, Mental Health Foundation Trusts are barred from receiving any private income. This stops them from working with independent welfare-to-work providers and employers, and means that many unemployed people and at-risk workers are missing out on the help they need. We’re calling on the Government to lift this barrier so that back-to-work providers can purchase mental health services from the NHS to deal with common client problems which prevent a return to work – and so that employers can access better occupational health services.

We are also calling on the Government to make sure unemployed people have better access to cognitive behavioural therapy, as that’s proven to double the rate at which they are able to re-enter work. The Government has been working to provide more cognitive therapists, but is concentrating the programme intensively on only just 20 out of 152 Primary Care Trusts. We want them to redistribute the funding and therapists fairly across the country, and to focus the help on unemployed people as a priority, to make sure that better links are forged with Jobcentres and back-to-work programmes.

Q. What is you view on the Labour government’s move to a marketised, atomised model for social care services?

I was particularly concerned just before Christmas when the Government’s Social Care Green Paper included plans (hidden in the small print) to scrap the Attendance Allowance and Disability Living Allowance – a move which would have hit well over 11,000 pensioners in Newcastle.

Under pressure from the Conservatives, the Government agreed that anyone under 65 currently receiving Disability Living Allowance would not have it cut – but it hasn’t confirmed that equivalent benefits (which so often pay for much more than just narrow social care) will be available in the future.

A Conservative Government will preserve the Disability Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance. We will give patients with chronic illnesses or long-term conditions access to a single budget that combines their health and social care funding which they can tailor to their own needs.

We will also take action to end the scandal of elderly people being forced to sell their family home to pay for care. We will give everyone the option of paying a one-off insurance premium on retirement, thereby protecting their homes from being sold to fund residential care costs. At the moment, around 45,000 elderly people every year are forced to sell their home to pay for residential care fees.

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