During this general election, as the Labour Party Chair and joint campaign coordinator, I have had the unique opportunity to travel across the UK speaking to people in a hugely diverse range of communities about a hugely diverse range of issues and concerns. However, throughout the weeks of seeing the devastating impact of austerity in every community in our country, no visit hit home as much as a recent visit to Rotherham.
I was accompanied by my Shadow Cabinet colleague Jon Ashworth as I planned to launch Labour’s policy announcement on the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme. While in the area we heard about the work that had been done locally by pioneering respiratory clinic BreathingSpace, which is based in the heart of this ex-mining community.
The main function of this clinic was to provide the local population with pulmonary assessments, basic lung function testing, smoking cessation services, on site occupational and physiotherapy, and advice on diet and exercise. Clinics like this across the country could make a significant difference to the lives of ex-miners and those who have endured the physical scars of heavy industry, only to be abandoned by Government in their hour of need.
In my own constituency of Wansbeck, located in the Northumberland coalfield, I see the impact that industrial disease has had on generations of workers who at one time I was proud to represent as a union official. Now my office team work every day to apply for welfare benefits such as attendance allowance and industrial injuries disablement benefit, which many local residents are not even aware they are entitled to.
Respiratory conditions are especially prevalent with the grimly named “black lung” being infamous in the local workforce. This devastating condition, known medically as pneumoconiosis (or CWP) has torn numerous lives apart and caused misery, suffering and pain for many local families.
The list of pulmonary conditions is extensive and coal-mining communities have become synonymous with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), emphysema and mesothelioma; each disease damaging the respiratory system in its own way. Most families connected with the mining Industry here in Northumberland are well aware of the damage done to their loved ones.
All of this personal experience made the trip to Rotherham even more poignant, but what really made the journey worthwhile was the offer of something more than regret and anger: hope.
On the same day as our excellent proposals for the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme were announced, the party made clear its plans to set up new respiratory MOT clinics, similar to the one in Rotherham. These new clinics will be placed in the Midlands, North East and North West of England to expand health services to those living in or near the former coalfields.
Labour will also expand the availability of NHS lung health check mobile support units to miners and ex-miners. The mobile units are placed in key community-based locations, many of which are currently in the North of England. Those currently eligible for screenings — smokers and former smokers aged between 55 and 80 — already receive invitations for lung health checks from their GP. The Labour Party will also expand those eligible to retired miners, inviting them for an on-the-spot MOT for their lungs and a chest scan to detect issues earlier.
The former coalfield areas have some of the worst levels of health and the highest cases of long-term illness in the UK. More than 11 percent of people living in the coalfields report long-term health problems, limiting the day to day activities of more than 400,000 people. One in twelve of the entire population of the coalfields claim Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment. By improving health outcomes in the coalfields, and detecting any underlying issues earlier, Labour will be improving the wellbeing of people living in these areas.
This commitment, which has been welcomed by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), will make a huge difference in showing the care, dignity and respect that our ex-industrial areas deserve and have for so long been denied. With these key healthcare developments, the announcements around the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme and the delivery of long overdue justice through inquiries into Orgreave and policing during the Miners’ Strike, I am proud to Chair a Labour Party that is committed to the communities that powered our nation for so long.