It has not been the best of starts to the New Year.
In common with many of you, I watched the terrible events unfold in Gaza with a mixture of despair and disbelief. We have watched sickening news reports of dead and injured children being carried from destroyed schools. Innocent civilians fill hospitals and morgues. Distraught parents and relatives weep, devastated by the killing of their loved ones.
I know I won’t be the only person in Newham who has watched the crisis deepen and the casualties rise with shock and disgust. I have had numerous letters questioning the veracity of the Israeli Government’s claim that the brutal assault, on one of the most overcrowded places on Earth, is a proportionate response to the Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli towns.
But that is not all. As I write, the crisis is deepening in the Congo, whilst the death toll in Sri Lanka’s civil war continues to rise. The people of Mumbai try to re-build their lives, businesses and confidence. On one of the coldest days of winter so far, many European countries had their gas supply severely reduced, as a result of the dispute between Russia and the Ukraine over gas supply.
At home, we also face difficulties. The economic downturn continues to have its victims and the cold snap has led charities to warn that the elderly and sick will need help with their heating bills. Here at least, it has been possible to make an immediate and positive response.
Cold Weather Payments, which go mainly to pensioners, have been trebled this winter. They have risen from £8.50 to £25-a-week for each spell of cold weather, (7 days), and are paid automatically to those who qualify.
The increased cold weather payments are one part of the Governments’ package to help the most vulnerable this winter. This year's Christmas bonus for pensioners and disabled people, to be paid between January and March, has increased from £10 to £70.
The cold brings other problems. Transport services are under increased strain to keep running in such low temperatures; hospitals deal with more patients suffering flu and similar ailments. Other public services also work in difficult conditions to keep the country moving. It is a time of year when we recognise the true value of our public services.
It seems a strange time for David Cameron to propose spending cuts in the public sector, potentially threatening projects crucial to our area’s economy such as Crossrail, funding for the additional housing we so desperately need and services like Sure Start.
Cameron wants to cut tax on savings. It sounds good in theory - but who would it really help? Pensioners struggling with fuel bills? Low paid families? People who have just lost their jobs? Young people looking for their first employment? His proposals will help the super-rich and wealthy institutions with cash in the bank - but do little to help the rest of us, most of whom don’t have that much spare cash to lock away in savings, at present.
It has been a bad start to the year. We need to find solutions to the difficulties we face, global and local. But in our search for answers, let us not look after a few, but be resolute and look after the many, especially those who need it most.