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Fury as Morecambe’s MP questions TV reports highlighting poverty in his constituency, blocks critics online

Author: 
John Freeman

Morecambe and Lunesdale MP David Morris is coming under increasing fire for his treatment of his own constituents affected by poverty - and mass blocking concerned voters who contacted him on social media, after two TV news reports highlighted the issue in Morecambe, which he refused to debate online.

Constituents across the area are enraged that rather than investigate directly, in a statement Mr Morris indicated he had referred to social services the families who had been brave enough to go on the record about their problems making ends meet, despite careful budgeting.

On Monday, Granada Reports highlighted that almost one in three children in the North West is estimated to be living in poverty. The award-winning news programme also noted the disturbing statistic that two thirds of children in poverty are growing up in households where at least one parent has a job, and that number is rising.

Granada Reports political correspondent Daniel Hewitt and producer Mat Heywood have been investigating why this is happening for the past couple of months — spending time with working families (including one in Morecambe) who are struggling to cope and getting them to share their stories.

You can watch part one of their special series looking at the rise of in-work poverty here

In the second report, re-broadcast in part on the national ITV News and online here, Granada revealed how teachers in parts of the North West say they are seeing more and more examples of children going to school hungry and in uniforms that haven't been washed.

The Granada Reports investigation into child poverty also reported that GPs at Ash Tree Surgery in Carnforth are spotting a rise in cases of diseases like Rickets, which affects bone development and is usually caused by poor diet.

In the second of the two special reports, Daniel Hewitt went to two schools in Morecambe where staff are struggling to find solutions to the problems of poverty: 

Despite numerous attempts to get the Minister for Children Robert Goodwill to go on the programme and address issues raised, or even outline what the government is doing to help the working families struggling to make ends meet, he told the programme he was “too busy”. In response, viewers took to social media, asking the Minister via his department Twitter account to respond to the request, some including the Twitter address of Morecambe and Lunesdale MP David Morris in their messages.

Both reports began to be widely circulated on social media, as many sought to seek action or help the people who had featured in the report, who have all refused any charity and urged those wanting to help those facing poverty by donating to their local food bank.

Four local organisations — Sustainability Morecambe, The Creative Exchange, Stanleys Youth and Community Centre and Morecambe Fringe — have also organised an open Community Meeting on Monday 18th December to discuss the issues seen in the ITV Granada Reports on Child Poverty.

“We have lots of fantastic local organisations already working extremely hard to help out,” they say, “and we want to get people who are wanting to help together with them to create a long lasting and positive change.”

The meeting has support from Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, West End Primary School, The Park Hotel Food Club, West End Impact, More Music, Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission, Morecambe Carnival and Morecambe and Lunesdale Constituency Labour Party. Other Organisations hoping to attend include Stanley Road Baptist Church, Morecambe Churches Forum and the Non Perfect Parents Club. Local councillors are, unfortunately unable to attend, as the meeting clashes with a Council Meeting at the same time.

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Mr Morris statement on Granada Reports
Mr Morris statement on Granada Reports

MP refutes programme claims, then blocks critics on Facebook as Page "not for debate"

Mr Morris’ ideas of help, however, appeared to take a punitive rather than supportive route, based on his initial online statement on the TV reports (also posted on his official web site), and he chose to refute the comments made by school staff and local GPs.

He cross posted his statement on his Facebook page, but rapidly deleted any negative comments and blocked anyone making them from being able to repeat them, declaring in emails later that his Page is for information “not for debate”.

“Constituents have contacted me rightly concerned about the claims being made about children in Morecambe and Lunesdale on Granada reports last night,” his statement on the Granada Reports news items reads.

“These claims always seem to emanate from the same Primary Schools and Ash Trees Surgery in Carnforth. I have referred these claims in the report to Social Services and the claims regarding rickets to the Department of Health. It is vital that the extent of these claims is established by officials and that Social Services are fully aware of all of the families affected by the claims made in this documentary as it is their job to protect all children.”

His statement provoked fury from some, but comments were removed from Facebook and posters blocked.

“I would of expected a first response of ‘How can I help?’ Not I don’t believe you and I will report you to social services,” commented Lancaster resident Debbie Harrison on the Facebook group Lancaster Past and Present. (Moderators normally operating a “No Politics” rule on the group, but temporarily suspended the request as fury grew in response to the MP’s comments, unable to keep up with the volume of criticism).

“Shouldn't all the agencies mention be already sorting out this situation or are their heads in the same clouds as David Morris,” Debbie continued.

“So not only are families struggling financially your also now going to break them by getting social services involved - We all know they won’t help!” commented an enraged Fiona Scullsrd from Dawlish, after the reports went viral. “They will just place kids in care!”

“These claims are not those being experienced by myself or the Job Centre in the area,” Morris continued, “and I would urge anyone affected to book an appointment with the staff at Morecambe Job Centre to assess if they are receiving all of the benefits they are entitled to and are receiving all of the money and debt management help that is available through the Citizens Advice Bureau.”

Based on his comments, it would appear Mr Morris had, possibly, not yet watched either Granada report in full, both items clearly illustrating how the affected families struggling with debt were doing their best to budget and keep track of their finances.

Despite his denials of poverty problems for Morecambe families, he later announced he had had a “productive meeting” at Morecambe Bay Foodbank on Friday, speaking to Manager Annette Smith and Chair of Trustees Joanna Young along with Helen Greatorex Chief Officer at the CAB.

This is welcome news as previously Mr Morris is on record as dismissing the need for food banks. Indeed, in 2015 he accused the manager of Morecambe Foodbank of “spreading mistruths”. This followed a Parliamentary debate where he denied he had been invited to visit the foodbank, but the manager told lthe Lancaster Guardian he had been invited four times.

“The meeting was to discuss partnership working and how we can work together to help the most vulnerable,” he said.

In his apparent crusade to quash any criticism of his actions on his social media, Morris has of course blocked many of the constituents he has previously criticised himself. They include Siobhan Collingwood, Head Teacher at Morecambe Bay Primary School, who featured in the second Granada report and who was one of many who have joined a rapidly growing group of irate “blocked” voters.

Earlier this year, Mr Morris accused Siobhan Collingwood of having a political agenda, telling the Daily Mail she had gone on a “political crusade” in the run-up to the general election. The Daily Mail article was published just days after Mrs Collingwood’s school won the “Creative School of the Year” and Morris claims were roundly condemned and derided, as the Lancaster Guardian reported in June.

“I guess I’m blocked too!,” she posted online. “Anyway the response from the community today, and I suspect beyond, has reduced my staff and I to tears on several occasions.Thank you everybody the children of Morecambe Bay School and West End school are very grateful for your kindness and generosity.”

By Wednesday, Morris and his team had blocked so many people who had tried to comment on the reports, and deleted so many Facebook comments on his Page that the social media hashtag #BlockedbyDavidMorris began trending on Twitter and membership of a Facebook protest group of disgruntled, blocked constituents had swelled considerably.

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#BlockedbyDavidMorris - trending on Twitter
#BlockedbyDavidMorris - trending on Twitter

“No Debate”

Responding to criticism of the way his Facebook page is moderated, Mr Morris has told constituents “and any comments I deem inappropriate are removed.

“My page is for information not for debate,” he has stated in letters. “If a constituent would like to discuss something with me they can share their views by email.”

(Which is of course the only way you can “debate” with Mr Morris, loath as he is, as often reported, to attend hustings at election times and risk face to face encounters with people who disagree with him.)

“I am extremely concerned about the claims being made on the report and the relevant authorities who have the power to help these people have been alerted and will be investigating as a matter of urgency,” he says. “My job is as a legislator and to ensure that Official Government Authorities are carrying out their duty by helping my Constituents.”

In Our View: No-one should be personally abused online, but any MP's critics should surely be heard

While we can understand that any public figure would be well within their rights to block abusive comment and commentators and delete abusive and libellous remarks from their social media channels, denying genuine concerned constituents from posting their views seems extreme — and may yet backfire on Mr Morris and other MPs using similar tactics.

In August, a judge in a US court ruled that a local politician violated a citizen’s right to free speech by blocking the user from her Facebook page.

The Rights Info web site recently noted this may sound trivial, but the decision may have significant implications, not just for a recent lawsuit brought against the US President Donald Trump, but also in relation to the way politicians around the world use their social media accounts and engage with citizens online.

“The UK has incorporated the Human Rights Convention into law,” the site notes. “Article 10 of the Convention protects our freedom of expression, which covers the freedom to hold opinions and to receive information and ideas without interference by public authorities.

“In November 2016 the Human Rights Court ruled in the case of Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary that Article 10 includes a right to information from public authorities. This means that we have the right to access information from the government where it can be said to be ‘instrumental for the individual’s exercise of his or right to freedom of expression’.”

Web Links

• Details of the Community Meeting at the Alhambra on Monday 18th December are here on Facebook or here on Eventbrite for non-Facebook users.The Alhambra and Carleton suite have very kindly offered not only their venue but storage for anyone who would like to bring along Christmas Gifts and Food on the night. It will be shared out appropriately across all the relevant organisations.

• If you want to respond to calls to support the work of local food banks by the families featured in the Granada reports, you can just drop off food directly but they have limited opening sessions. They are open on Fridays - you can check here. There are donation baskets in the big supermarkets that go to the Morecambe food bank.

• Granada Reports is asking viewers who have watched the two reports to tweet Minister for Children Robert Goodwill’s department, asking him why he won’t respond to interview requests about them (@educationgovuk) - and put the government’s case. Perhaps @DavidMorrisml should be included in any messages

• The Granada Reports can be viewed online here and here

• If you are a constiuent and you would like an appointment to meet David Morris to discuss an individual case please call David's constiuency office on 01524 841225 or contact David by email david.morris.mp@parliament.uk. His official web site is at www.davidmorris.org.uk

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Comments

Not mentioned in this article but as Momentum key contact for Morecambe, I am very concerned at Mr Morris's accusation that local Momentum "trolls" are being investigated by the police. As far as I am aware, this is entirely and utterly false and I would very much like to see the evidence for this statement. Momentum have not directed, asked or even shared this story asking members to contact Mr Morris and I know full well that the vast majority of those responding on Morris's Facebook page are not Momentum members. I am unable to address this directly as, guess what? I'm blocked and Mr Morris refuses to reply to email correspondence. For an elected representative to be so unaccountable is utterly unacceptable and I hope that ordinary constituents will continue to hold him to account, if not directly then via social media and other outlets.