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Events industry needs Government support to survive

Last week I requested to speak in the House of Commons chamber about the urgent need for Government support for the events industry. Unfortunately, I was not called to speak directly about the pressing concerns many constituents have contacted me to raise over the past two months. However, I am aware of your concerns and difficulties and I will be raising these with the Government at every possible occasion. 

A huge amount of people in Erith and Thamesmead have been impacted by the Government’s failure to offer economic assistance to the events industry during COVID-19.

From the very beginning of lockdown I have received daily emails about the events industry, theatres, the hospitality sector and the creative sector. People who have worked in these industries, contributing to the UK’s economy for years, have been completely abandoned by this Government.

Despite efforts made by myself and colleagues to raise these issues with the Government ask that more support be given, I have unfortunately had to respond to constituents informing them that there is no support package available and the Government doesn’t seem to want to support them.

The Government needs to provide a sector specific support package for the cultural sector; theatres, music, festivals, other live performance venues, but also tourism and hospitality sectors which are inextricably linked.

The events sector is worth £42.3 billion to the UK economy, there are over 25,000 businesses and it sustains 570,000 full time jobs.

There is a reason 35% of the UK visitor economy is accounted for by events. That is because the events industry pulls together the best talent in a whole range of areas. Behind every festival is a team of marketers, performers, hospitality staff, transport operators, event organisers and UK music venues.

Almost every UK music festival has been cancelled this summer, music venues across the country have been unable to open for three months and are unsure of when they can begin to open again, hundreds of thousands of hospitality jobs have already been lost and the industry has warned of thousands more.

What steps is the government taking to support venues which will be unable to open for the foreseeable future, such as music venues and theatres, and therefore unable to subsidise the furlough scheme from August?

If the Government doesn’t act to save businesses and jobs before they are lost we are going to see a huge hole in the economy where our world renowned events industry used to thrive. The Government must act urgently to support people in these industries to avoid a loss of jobs, talent and culture across the UK.

We need a Back to Work Budget for Erith and Thamesmead

It is clear the Government was too slow to recognise the scale of the health crisis from coronavirus and we are already paying the economic price.

I am increasingly worried that the slow and muddled health response is now being followed by a slow and muddled response to saving jobs. The window is closing to protect existing jobs and encourage firms to invest in creating new ones.

There were 2,780 people in Erith and Thamesmead claiming for Universal Credit and other benefits last month, a rise of 132% since the outbreak of coronavirus. Although this is an imperfect measure of unemployment, it hints at the scale of the looming jobs crisis in our community.

Reports the government has pushed back its next full budget to the Autumn worry me, as we’re already behind other countries like Germany, which announced a full economic package weeks ago.

We need an urgent package of economic measures with a clear focus: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.

Supporting this, we need a strategic withdrawal of support schemes tailored to the needs of specific sectors and areas.

Nearly 1 in 4 people of working age in Erith and Thamesmead are relying on the Job Retention Scheme (16.7%) or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (7.22%).

Labour called for and welcomed these schemes, but we are concerned about their abrupt withdrawal which risks pushing millions of people into unemployment. The Chancellor plans to withdraw support for all sectors and areas of the economy at once and has not linked his plan to other public health measures, such as easing social distancing guidelines where it is safe to do so.

This one-size-fits all approach won’t work for sectors like hospitality. Pubs, restaurants and cafes will be operating well below capacity when they eventually reopen, and their fortunes are closely linked to the decisions that are taken on social distancing. It makes no sense to withdraw support for the 2,315 hospitality workers in Erith and Thamesmead at the same time as sectors that are operating as normal and will need less support.

Similarly, firms relying on tourism face losing the majority of trade from the summer high season. Snatching away all support in October, just as the high season ends, could be ruinous for the tourism sector and the roughly 1,640 jobs it creates in Erith and Thamesmead.

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Parents and students give their views on schools re-opening in Erith and Thamesmead

Following the announcement that Primary Schools would be expected to re-open to some students on June 1st, I reached out to parents and students to ask for their views.

Greenwich and Bexley NEU had previously expressed their concerns that “it is not safe to begin a wider reopening of schools on June 1st”. I also met teachers from schools across Greenwich and Bexley to discuss concerns about lack of additional resources in the case of illness, lack of space to implement social distancing and a lack of clarity about safety guidelines.

The debate around schools re-opening attempts to weigh up the concerns around the safety of students gathering in close proximity with the overall effects on young people’s education. As we near the three month mark of schools being closed, there are concerns that the already large attainment gap between students from different backgrounds is widening.

I am aware that there are lots of safety concerns regarding schools re-opening but I feel those affected by the decision are best placed to offer advice on how to proceed. I’ve been able to talk to unions and teachers and thought it was equally as important to hear from parents and guardians and local school students about their thoughts.

Almost 600 people took the chance to express their views in the online surveys, with a majority raising concerns about schools re-opening. Of the 305 parent/guardian survey responders, 65% said they did “not think it was safe for children to be back at school” or needed more “reassurance about safety”. Of 250 local school student responders to the survey, 50% said they were “concerned about schools opening” and only 21% said that “schools should be opening”.

The survey also asked about experiences of home schooling – 78% of parents said they had a relatively positive experience of home schooling and 65.3% of students said they were looking forward to returning to school.

I’m pleased that so many people took part in the survey and I will now be able to accurately reflect the general feeling about schools re-opening in Parliament. The survey has shed light on some issues, such as concerns about future exams, effects on mental health and a decline in the amount of time young people have spent studying.

I am pleased to see that the majority have had a positive experience with home schooling but I also know there are some who have found this experience very difficult and it will be extremely important that the Government supports teachers and families in easing students back into education.

I have since called on the Government to consider additional support for mental health needs and ensuring that a thorough assessment into the needs of vulnerable children and the attainment gap is given consideration.

It remains unclear when schools will re-open after new concerns have been raised that Secondary schools may not be ready to re-open by September.

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We need free school meals to ensure ‘holiday without hunger’

I’ve called on the Government to fund free school meals this summer to ensure a ‘holiday with hunger’.

Today, on 15th June 2020, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education demanding he reverses his decision to withdraw funding for free school meals over the summer holidays as part of Labour’s ‘Holiday without Hunger’ campaign.

In Erith and Thamesmead 3,759 children are at risk of going hungry this summer as the government withdraws support for the provision of free school meals. The added pressure of the coronavirus crisis is plunging families into deeper poverty. Social distancing rules have also raised questions on whether holiday lunch schemes may run, leaving many families rightly concerned about how they will afford food during the summer holidays.

Children must not go hungry this summer, as the Covid-19 crisis hits family incomes and charities and food banks struggle to provide the same level of holiday support. The government has to continue funding free school meals throughout the summer holidays. It is callous that they are refusing to do so.

Labour’s ‘Holiday without Hunger’ campaign launched on Sunday 14th June. For more information click here: http://labour.org.uk/holidayswithouthunger/

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Abena Oppong-Asare MP elected to NATO Parliamentary Assembly

Following an internal vote within the Parliamentary Labour Party, I have been elected to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly as one of four Labour Party Member’s of Parliament to sit on the Assembly.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly was established in 1955 and gives Members of Parliament from across the Atlantic Alliance the opportunity to discuss and influence global security decisions. The Assembly is separate from NATO but provides a forum for greater transparency of NATO policies.

Since 1955, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has been active in influencing matters of international importance such as, promoting gender equality in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, election observation and strengthening the transatlantic relationship.

I’m looking forward to being a strong voice in the UK’s response to global security challenges. Building partnerships with our NATO allies is a vital dimension of democratic governance and I am pleased that I will be able to play a role in ensuring the UK has strong global relationships and that our voice is present at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

This is a great opportunity to engage with parliamentarians from all over the world to examine really important policy relating to global security. I’m delighted to be able to work with female parliamentarians from across the globe to make sure that female voices are present in decisions about peace processes endorsed by the alliance.

I also hope that through my role I can inspire young people across Erith and Thamesmead to pursue their passions and realise the importance of a diverse range of voices in national and international politics.

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Carers Week 2020: making carers visible

An extra 4.5 million people across the UK have taken on unpaid caring responsibilities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This is on top of the 9.1 million unpaid carers who were already caring before the outbreak, bringing the total to 13.6 million.

Unpaid carers are consistently undervalued by the Government and unrepresented in health and social care policy changes. Carers save the economy £132 billion per year, an average of £19,336 per carer, with 1.3 million providing over 50 hours of care per week. According to Carers UK, 600 people give up work everyday to care for an older or disabled relative.

I am sure these figures will shock many people as they are publicised during this week but the realities of being an unpaid carer are lived everyday by millions of people. Being an unpaid carer can be socially isolating and cause physical and mental health problems.

  • 72% of carers responding to Carers UK’s State of Caring 2018 Survey said they had suffered mental ill health as a result of caring
  • 61% said they had suffered physical ill health as a result of caring
  • 8 in 10 people caring for loved ones say they have felt lonely or socially isolated

As well as the health and social challenges faced by unpaid carers, millions are also facing daily financial hardship. Carer’s Allowance is the main carer’s benefit and is £67.25 for a minimum of 35 hours, this equates to just £1.92 an hour.

No one should have to face the choice between caring for a loved one or receiving a fair living wage for their work, yet hundreds face this choice every day.

Unpaid carers contribute massively to the economy and to the lives of the people they care for but they need much more than our gratitude. They need a fair allowance to be able to support themselves and family members whilst still caring for loved ones. They need support from the Government, including a National Care Service so that everyone can access high level care for free.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for carers both employed in the care sector and those taking on unpaid care responsibilities. If we continue undervaluing care work and failing to provide support systems for people as they get older, we risk pushing more people out of secure employment and into unpaid caring roles.

This National Carers Week 2020, I am pledging my support for unpaid carers – across Erith and Thamesmead and beyond.

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Update on the Sikh ethnic tick box – Census 2021

Earlier this year I voiced my support for the inclusion of a Sikh ethnic tick box on the Census 2021 following support shown for the tick box by residents in Erith and Thamesmead.

Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, Chloe Smith MP, has recently confirmed that the ethnic tick box option will not be included in the Census 2021, despite representations from a number of MPs.

The national Census happens once a decade and information on ethnicity is used to help understand and allocate resources to 40,000 different public bodies. In the last Census 2011, more than 83,000 Sikhs rejected the 18 existing ethnic tick boxes and chose instead to tick ‘other’ and write ‘Sikh’.

In my speech to Parliament on May 6th 2020, I said:

“The ethnic group question on the census was introduced in 1991 to help public bodies to assess equal opportunities and develop anti-discrimination policies. The data is used by 40,000 public bodies to address their legal responsibilities under equalities legislation and to make decisions about the allocation of resources and the provision of public services. We can therefore conclude that, if Sikhs do not have an ethnic tick box option, their needs will not be properly monitored and assessed by public bodies. Just because discrimination is not properly monitored does not mean that it does not exist.”

Chloe Smith MP has written to myself and other MPs that made representations on behalf of the Sikh community in favour of the ethnic tick box, regarding the Census 2021.

Ms Smith said:

“The ONS will promote the write-in option in the Census ethnic group question, and the ability to self-identify as Sikh, through their marketing and communications campaigns. This will include promotion via Sikh news organisations and social media, with additional local field support to ensure anyone who wishes to identify as Sikh is confident in doing so.

I can also assure you that the ONS is committed to ensuring the availability of data on those who identify as Sikh, whether through the tick-box in the Census religion question or through the write-in option in the ethnic group question.

The ONS is committed to ensuring this is the most inclusive Census ever, in which everyone is able to identify as they wish. I hope that you will be able to help with their Census 2021 campaigns to ensure the best possible data on Sikh populations.”

It is disappointing that the Government did not take on board the comments made to Parliament making a strong case for the inclusion of the tick box. However, I am pleased that many MPs were able to shine a light on the great work by Preet Gill MP on the APPG for British Sikhs and that this issue has been given a voice a Parliament.

Despite the announcement that the Sikh ethnic tick box will not be included on the Census 2021, I will continue to listen to and support the Sikh community across Erith and Thamesmead.

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Erith and Thamesmead see unprecedented 2% unemployment rise

Unemployment has risen to unprecedented levels across the UK with Erith and Thamesmead seeing a rise in unemployment to 5.6% of the adult workforce, just above the average figure for the whole of London and the wider UK.

Centre for Cities, an independent research organisation, has been recording the rise in unemployment rates across the UK between March and April. Data recording the number of people applying for Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance shows and increase in unemployment of 850,000, taking the UK wide total to 2.1 million.

Between March and April 2020, an increase of 1,605 people applied for Universal Credit or Job Seekers Allowance in Erith and Thamesmead, a rise of 2%. The Royal London Borough of Greenwich has been affected slightly more than the London Borough of Bexley with a 0.2% higher uptake in this time period.

It is expected that the unemployment rates are likely to have risen between April and May but this data is not yet known. There are also disparities in the unemployment increases in different areas of the UK. London has an average unemployment rate of 4.9% compared with 5.6% in Erith and Thamesmead and 8.9% in Blackpool.

The reasons for differing increases in unemployment are not yet known but it is suspected that places that rely heavily on the most impacted industries such as hospitality, and where people are unable to work from home, have seen a greater impact.

In a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to raise concerns about the rise in unemployment locally, I said:

“I am concerned that residents in Erith and Thamesmead will face increased difficulties compared to the wider region of London post-Covid-19 due to decreased local job opportunities and restricted travel routes around London. It is already evident that my constituents have felt more severe impacts compared with the rest of London, as unemployment has risen 0.7% higher than the London average.

Many local businesses have contacted me throughout this crisis detailing their financial hardship and inability to access the SEISS or Job Retention Scheme. As more businesses fall into financial hardship residents in Erith and Thamesmead will be faced with more job losses.

If the working age population in Erith and Thamesmead is going to recover from this crisis there will need to be a specific focus on boosting the local economy, improving transport links and supporting industries that have been hit particularly hard.”

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The Government must protect jobs in the aviation sector – starting with British Airways

British Airways announced they plan to cut up to 12,000 jobs as part of their response to economic losses due to COVID-19. I have joined London MPs in calling on the Director of IAG, Willie Walsh, to reconsider these plans and work with trade unions to develop a long-term strategy.

I’ve been contacted by several employees of BA, resident in Erith and Thamesmead, who are concerned about their future. It is irresponsible of BA to make these announcements at a time of financial hardship for many, without first consulting with staff, unions and local stakeholders. I have personally written to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, to ask that his department to make representations about these concerns to IAG.

Moving forward from the COVID-19 crisis we must look to protect as many jobs as possible and create a plan to help people re-skill and find new employment. The aviation sector has faced huge losses during COVID-19 as almost all flights have been completely grounded over the past two months.

I am pleased that MPs from across the political spectrum have been working hard on this issue and trying to engage the relevant bodies. However, the Prime Minister and Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, who is at the forefront of protecting jobs and businesses, do not appear to be as enraged as MPs representing constituents who will suffer if this goes ahead.

Huw Merriman MP secured an urgent question on June 3rd 2020, “to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on covid-19 and the economic impact on aviation”. Unfortunately, the Chancellor did not attend this debate to listen to concerns.

Wes Streeting MP, Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, raised concerns that more job losses were to come if we did not act, he said:

“This is a sector that contributes £22 billion a year to our economy, with 230,000 jobs across the industry and the manufacturing supply chain dependent on it. It needs to change to meet the challenge of climate change. So why did one industry leader tell the Transport Committee just a fortnight ago that the Government were ‘asleep at the wheel’?”

I will be continuing to make representations on behalf of my constituents and attempt to engage IAG and the Chancellor in this issue. In the meantime, if you have been personally affected by job losses in the aviation industry, please do get in touch at abena.oppongasare.mp@parliament.uk

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Government and employers must act in response to the death of Belly Mujinga

I have received a huge amount of emails requesting a thorough investigation into the deeply saddening death of Belly Mujinga.

Belly Mujinga worked on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, ensuring that transport could remain operational for key workers throughout the crisis. News of Ms Mujinga’s death has raised some very serious and concerning questions regarding workplace safety and the UK justice system.

Firstly, Ms Mujinga was not provided with PPE by her employer Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). This is despite being a key worker throughout the peak of the COVID-19 crisis and her employer being aware of existing health conditions.

I have been calling for WHO standard PPE for all key workers since the beginning of this crisis. Following Ms Mujinga’s death I joined London MPs in re-establishing calls for PPE for all transport workers in a letter directly to the Prime Minister.

The letter, which you can read in full here, asks the Prime Minister:

“To ensure that transport operators have the requisite funds, and your Government’s support, to procure appropriate personal protective equipment to all public front facing staff.”

I have also written to Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to ask for reassurance that all staff will now be provided with this protective equipment.

Secondly, this incident raises serious issues with the justice system in England. Ms Mujinga’s case was closed with no consequences, British Transport Police said:

“there is no evidence to substantiate any criminal offences having taken place, and the tragic death of Belly Mujinga was not a consequence of this incident”.

Whilst investigations have concluded that the incident involving a man spitting at Ms Mujinga and a co-worker did not lead to her death, it is highly concerning that no further actions will be taken in regards to the assault on Ms Mujinga and the breaking of lockdown guidelines, which in itself puts key workers at risk. On June 2nd 2020, a man who spat at a police officer in Glasgow was jailed for a total of 12 months.

I have written to the British Transport Police to request more information regarding their investigations. The public must be assured that police are taking this crisis seriously and are holding those who threaten public health to account. Closing this investigation without a detailed public explanation sends a message that it is acceptable to act irresponsibly with complete disregard for the lives of those who have put themselves in harms way throughout this crisis.

Finally, the death of Ms Mujinga highlights the human impact of the racial inequalities highlighted throughout this crisis.

In London, more than a quarter of transport workers operating tubes and buses, which remained open during the lockdown and, 67% of the adult social care workforce are from BAME backgrounds.

It has been highlighted, since close to the beginning of this crisis, that BAME residents in the UK are up to twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Providing PPE is a necessary part of protecting BAME lives throughout this crisis and must be addressed as such.

Belly Mujinga leaves behind a husband and an 11 year old daughter. At least 33 transport workers have died in London throughout this crisis so far, each leaving behind friends and family.

I have also joined London MPs in calling on the Government to extend the Coronavirus life assurance lump sum scheme for the bereaved families of NHS workers to be extended to cover all transport workers who die from COVID-19.