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Speaking up for hard-hit local hospitality businesses in Parliament

Hospitality businesses in Erith and Thamesmead have had an enormously difficult year. On Wednesday 24 March, the House of Commons held a debate to consider support for the hospitality industry during this pandemic.

I spoke at the debate, highlighting the enormous difficulties our local businesses have faced. Not only have they been closed for many months, but when they have been allowed to open, they have faced a constantly changing set of rules and regulations. Many have not received the financial support they needed from the Government, and many are fearful for the future.

In my speech I raised the concerns of several local pubs – including the Abbey Arms in Abbey Wood which I visited in December as part of Small Business Saturday. Pubs that have reached out to me like The Duchess of Kent in Erith and The Victoria in Belvedere are centres of our communities and they need assurances from the Government that they will provided with support not just to reopen but thrive.

The wedding and events sector has also been extremely hard hit as nearly all their usual business disappeared. Especially worrying is the fact that many businesses in the events sector have been repeatedly refused grant funding by Bexley council – who cite the Government’s tight criteria.

If it is properly supported, the hospitality industry can and will play a vital role in reviving our economy after this most difficult year. But we need action from the Government right now to ensure this happens.

You can watch my speech below:

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Celebrating local women in Parliament for International Women’s Day

On 8 March we marked International Women’s Day 2021. I used the parliamentary debate on IWD, held on 11 March, to celebrate local women making a difference in our community.

They included Dr Sam Parrett OBE, principal of London and South East Education Group, who has done so much to ensure that young people were supported throughout the pandemic; Sue Stockham, an ovarian cancer survivor, who is using her experience to raise awareness about the signs of ovarian cancer and the importance of getting help quickly during the pandemic; Carmel Britto who is the founding director of LPF Kiddies Club, which offers educational enrichment to young children from African and Caribbean backgrounds; Kate Heaps who is the chief executive of Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice; and Yeukai Taruvinga who is the founder and director of Active Horizons, a charity that works to support Black and ethnic minority young people in Bexley.

I also paid tribute to the countless women who have served on the frontline in our constituency during the pandemic as doctors, nurses, carers, cleaners, and other key workers. I could not name them all, but we must not forget the sacrifices they have made and the burden that has fallen on them.

You can watch my full speech below:

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Abena Oppong-Asare MP meets ovarian cancer survivors ahead of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

On Friday 12 February, I hosted a special virtual event with Target Ovarian Cancer, the UK’s leading ovarian cancer charity, meeting with Erith and Thamesmead survivors of ovarian cancer to help raise awareness about the disease ahead of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in March.

At the event we heard from Sue and Della, two inspirational survivors of ovarian cancer who are both campaigning to raise awareness. Together, they are making sure that more women are being diagnosed early. You can read both their stories here: Sue’s story and Della’s story.

Sue, 62, who is an Erith and Thamesmead resident, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March 2017. I had the pleasure of meeting her last year to hear her story and find out what more can be done to raise awareness. She said:

Very little is known about ovarian cancer even though over 7000 women are diagnosed in the UK each year. I want all women to be aware of the symptoms and don’t delay contacting their GP, especially in during the pandemic, as the sooner ovarian cancer is diagnosed the better the outlook. For Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in March, I would like the women of Erith and Thamesmead to spread the word: make your mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins and friends aware of what to look out for.

Tragically, 11 women die every day from ovarian cancer. If diagnosed at the earliest stage, 9 in 10 women will survive ovarian cancer. But right now, two thirds of women are diagnosed late. More women’s lives could be saved if we are more aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • Persistent bloating
  • Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Urinary symptoms

Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, a change in bowel habits and extreme fatigue. Anyone experiencing these symptoms, which are not normal for them, should see their GP.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing health inequalities, especially for women. People are worried to see their GP and we’ve seen cancer referrals plummet. This is a life-threatening problem that needs action from everyone and I am glad that this event helped to demystify the disease. The sense of care and support for one another, even over zoom, was palpable.

Please call Target Ovarian Cancer on 0207 923 5470 if you have any questions or need support.

You can watch the event below:

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8,710 jobs at risk in Erith and Thamesmead unless Chancellor delivers “smart” furlough scheme

Rishi Sunak’s “Plan for Jobs” has been a disaster.  Seven months after its launch, we’ve got record redundancies, soaring unemployment and the worst economic crisis of any major economy.

Analysis by the Labour Party shows that as of late January 6845 people are claiming out of work benefits and 8,710 people are still on furlough in Erith and Thamesmead.

The Chancellor’s initially triggered a one-size-fits-all wind down of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in his Plan for Jobs last July. After several last-minute changes over the autumn and winter, the scheme is now set to expire at the end of April.

As well as being your local MP, I’m also Labour’s Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. With 4.6 million people still on furlough nationally, I’m calling for the Chancellor not to repeat the mistakes of last year. The scheme must not be wound down while public health restrictions are in place and demand is still suffering.

Sunak must immediately announce an extension to the furlough scheme. Local businesses and workers need that certainty. We are also calling for urgent reform to make furlough smarter, with new training to help furloughed workers improve their skills and tough conditions on employers to stop abuse.

Labour is also demanding immediate action to recover jobs by overhauling the failing Kickstart scheme and to help create new jobs in the technologies of the future by reforming the shambolic Green Homes Grant.

Our figures show that 5800 people in Erith and Thamesmead had made claims under the Coronavirus Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) by the end of July. It is appalling that the Chancellor has left the millions of self-employed people relying on the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) scheme in the dark about future support.

Labour is calling on the Chancellor to set the fourth grant of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) at 80% of pre-crisis profits – and to do it now, not at the Budget.

Labour has also called for the scheme to be opened to the 200,000 people who only have a 2019/20 tax return, and for the Chancellor to urgently fix the holes its support schemes that have left millions of others excluded from support.

People can’t afford to wait for the Chancellor to get his act together. They need emergency action today, not more dither and delay until the Budget.

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Small Business Saturday Constituency Tour

Usually Small Business Saturday would be a day of celebration of the our great high streets and community businesses. This year has been tremendously difficult for businesses and my whistle stop tour of the constituency highlighted just how difficult this year has been.

Small Business Saturday occurs every year on the first Saturday in December. This year on Saturday 5 December shops, restaurants, bars and gyms were able to open for the first Saturday after the second UK wide lockdown during November. I visited 6 local businesses as part of Small Business Saturday to show my support and also hear first hand what help is needed from the Government.

The first stop on my tour was to see Charlie and Kim who run ‘CrossFit Against the Fire’. New Government restrictions have allowed gyms to remain open but for much of the year this important part of people’s daily physical and mental health routine has been cut off. Charlie told me that it was her gym members who have kept the business afloat this year. Over 50% of CrossFit Against the Fire members, were able to continue to pay their membership fees even when the gym was forced to close. This generosity, compassion and commitment by members of our community, is something that the Government should mirror nationally to ensure that gyms like CrossFit Against the Fire can survive.

Crossfit Against the Fire Visit on Small Business Saturday

From the gym, I went to meet another couple working together, Claire and Laurence, the owners of the Theatre Street Dance Company at The Link. Claire is a Chorographer and Laurence is a composer. Working in the arts has enabled them both to tour the world and for the last 20 years, they have been broadening the horizons of Erith and Thamesmead’s young people by supporting them into careers in the arts. Thanks to the Theatre Street Performing Arts, you’ve seen our young people on TV in shows such as Tracy Beaker and on stage, in the West End.

Theatre Street Dance Company Visit Small Business Saturday

Next up I visited Phoenix Tours – a local, multi-generational family run business owned by the lovely Patel family. They have been transporting our children to school, taking community groups for day trips to the beach and providing touring holidays to the Highlands and Europe on their luxury coaches, for over a decade.

Phoenix Tours are a creative and resilient business, but they need support. They need the Government to step in and ask the finance companies and insurance companies to go-easy. They need Local Government to be efficient and proactive with business rates relief. They need a responsive testing system that allows employees to feel safe and secure – because people want to work, but inefficient test and tracing is preventing them from doing so. Following this visit I spoke in a Parliamentary debate to urge the Government to unveil a plan to support coach companies.

Visit to Phoenix Tours Coach Company Small Business Saturday

I then went to the wonderful Abbey Wood Christmas Market where I enjoyed browsing the great variety of local vendors. I also met with the organisers of the market Chris and Catherine, who recently won a local business award for services to the community. I stopped to talk to Dean from Tree Wise Men who was selling Christmas Tree’s outside the Abbey Arms who told me about his plans to build his business for next year.

Tree Wise Men Small Business Saturday visit

I then went in to the Abbey Arms to discuss their challenges during COVID-19. Pubs are at the heart of our communities and are places where we connect but many are struggling after being closed for months.

It was great fun to be able to visit so many amazing businesses as part of Small Business Saturday and get into the festive spirit. However, it is really concerning to hear first-hand how much businesses are struggling. Business owners have been severely impacted by gaps in Government support, rising business costs during the pandemic, a lack of communication from the Chancellor and the inability to trade for many months of the year.

My biggest concern is that after Christmas we will see lots more members of staff laid off and huge numbers of local businesses forced to close. People in Erith and Thamesmead benefit from great local traders who are the heart and soul of our community. This pandemic must not mean the end of the local high street and I will be ensuring that the Chancellor realises just how bleak the future looks for local businesses if more support is not offered.

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Local health and care heroes nominated in NHS Parliamentary Awards

The NHS Parliamentary Awards, sponsored by Fuji Film, were set up for the NHS’ 70th  Birthday to recognise the massive contribution made by the individuals who work in and alongside the NHS.

This year, more so than ever before, the NHS Parliamentary Awards highlight how health and social care staff continue to put others ahead of themselves to protect our community.

I was among over 260 MPs in England who put forward outstanding nominees who have innovated, impressed and made a real difference to how local health and care services provide care for patients.

I’m pleased to have nominated Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice team for the Excellence in Healthcare award. The hospice team went above and beyond during COVID-19 to keep loved ones together and make sure vulnerable individuals were supported. I have to commend not just the team but the many volunteers who stepped up during this period in their work with Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice.

I am also pleased to have nominated Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust for the Wellbeing at Work award and Kate Hudson, Lead Dementia Nurse Specialist for the Care and Compassion Award. As individuals and as a team employees at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, these amazing key workers went above and beyond to offer online support services and staff wellbeing support during COVID-19.

Everyone in Erith and Thamesmead is rightly proud of our local NHS and care services, The Coronavirus pandemic has shown the determination and bravery of thousands of NHS, care and key workers across Erith and Thamesmead and so I’m delighted to be taking part in the NHS Parliamentary Awards as a way of thanking and recognising the people who work in or support those services.

Nominees put forward by MPs across England will initially be judged by senior local and regional NHS experts to find regional champions in each category, which will be announced later in November and will be featured in The House Magazine.

These regional champions will then be judged by a national panel made up of senior clinicians, union leaders, former winners and patient representatives, with the overall winners announced at a special awards ceremony held in Parliament on Wednesday 7 July – the week of the NHS’ birthday.

 

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Updated COVID-19 Measures for gyms and places of worship in Erith and Thamesmead

On Wednesday I joined my colleagues in voting to support an England wide lockdown. Valuable time has been lost when Labour’s call for an earlier circuit breaker would ultimately have benefitted the public health and the economy.

Whilst I am in support of new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed this winter, there are many questions that the Government must answer.

Once again, these new measures were announced via different news sources causing anxiety and confusion for people across England. When the Prime Minister finally addressed the country on Saturday his announcement was lacking basic necessary information about support available for businesses and individuals.

If the public’s health is to be protected then the Government must address the ongoing mental health crisis which has been exacerbated throughout 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Constituents have rightfully raised their concerns about the closure of places of worships, gyms and sports clubs.

For so many people, attending collective worship is an act that serves multiple purposes. It can be a respite from everyday life, a chance to engage with a like-minded community and an opportunity for spiritual connection. I know that around Erith and Thamesmead, faith leaders have been working incredibly hard to ensure that their places of worship are safe places to meet and worship.

Similarly, I know gyms and sports clubs have spent months putting safety measures in place to ensure people can remain active in a safe way. Gyms and sports clubs provide a vital service for people to engage in activity that is beneficial for the physical and mental wellbeing.

The decision to close these places should not be taken lightly and yet the Government had no communication with faith leaders and gym owners prior to announcing the England wide lockdown.

The lockdown measures came into force at midnight on Wednesday 4th November and remain in effect until at least Wednesday 2nd December. Where the Government did not communicate with these clubs and organisations before, they must now urgently begin discussions about an exit strategy.

Labour is calling for the Government to hold weekly meetings with the Places of Worship Taskforce to ensure faith leaders are consulted with and provided with support ahead of important festivals.

I will be urging for a much stronger level of communication between the Government and the public as well as a boost in access to mental health services to protect people whilst they are cut off from access to wider services and outlets.

 

Latest guidance for places of worship:

  • Places of worship (including non-religious buildings used for religious services) are to close from 5th November.
  • They may remain open only for individual/private prayer, funerals, for the broadcasting of services, and for the purpose of providing voluntary services such as foodbanks.
  • Funerals may continue with up to 30 guests.
  • Weddings are not permitted (except under the most extreme circumstances).

Latest guidance for gyms and sports clubs:

Leisure and sports facilities such as leisure centres and gyms, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, golf courses, fitness and dance studios, climbing walls, archery, driving, and shooting ranges are all included in the list of businesses and venues which must close.

 

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Update on London COVID-19 restrictions

London has been placed into Tier two COVID restrictions in response to the rising number of cases.

I met with Government Ministers and Scientific Advisors today, 15th October, and can assure you that the following information is up to date and correct.

Please be advised that these restrictions apply to all constituents in Erith and Thamesmead.

We are now in Tier Two of the Government’s three tiered approach to local lockdown. This means we must all adhere to the following rules:

  • you must not socialise with anybody outside of your household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place
  • You must not socialise in a group of more than 6 outside, including in a garden or other spaces like beaches or parks (other than where specific exemptions apply in law)
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate, in a COVID-secure manner, other than those that remain closed in law
  • Certain businesses are required to ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and must close between 10pm and 5am
  • Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm as long as this is through delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-through
  • Schools, universities and places of worship remain open
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors. These will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with or share a support bubble with, or for youth or disability sport
  • You can continue to travel to venues or amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but should look to reduce the number of journeys you make where possible

Full details about the restrictions are in place if you live in an area where the local COVID alert level is high. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/local-covid-alert-level-high

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London Challenge Poverty Week – we must act now

This week is London Challenge Poverty Week and it is, unfortunately, clear to see that London, alongside the rest of England, is moving backwards in tackling poverty.

In Erith and Thamesmead 41% of children are growing up in poverty which has a devastating long-term impact on children’s mental, physical and education well-being. This cannot be acceptable, and it cannot be ignored.

In 2019, Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found that millions of people in the UK are struggling to access their basic human rights, highlighting how so many have been forced into extreme poverty. The report found that women, disabled people and children are disproportionately impacted by poverty.

The impacts of long ignored poverty have been felt even harder during COVID-19 and it is clear that the most vulnerable in society are being hit the hardest. I released a report in August detailing the impacts of COVID-19 on protected characteristics in Erith and Thamesmead after receiving hundreds of emails from people seeking help.

One constituent emailed me due to facing the risk of eviction, they said:

“I am writing this email seeking for support regarding housing because myself and my son are being threatened with homelessness.

I have been going through some housing issues with my landlord’s son since last year who requested that I vacate the property… I was then issued with a Section 21 notice after the end of my tenancy.

My current rent is lower than the normal rent value and getting another accommodation that is affordable has been challenging because I am on low income.”

The average private rent in Erith and Thamesmead consumes 75% of an average single woman’s earnings. The affordable housing crisis and lack of support for renters throughout the pandemic is just one way in that vulnerable people are being pushed further into poverty.

The Trussell Trust anticipate giving out six parcels every minute between October and December this year. However, poverty if not a new phenomenon in London caused by COVID-19, it is an issue that has been massively increasing over the past decade.

Food bank use has doubled across London over the past five years and 72% of families living in poverty are in work.

Despite these startling figures, the Government has refused to accept that urgent action needs to be taken to tackle the growing poverty rates and issues surrounding them.

In June I called for a pay rise for public sector healthcare workers, arguing that poverty contributes to worsening mental health in the workforce; but this was denied by the Government.

In September the Conservative Government was forced into a U-turn on providing children with free school meals over the summer holiday amidst growing child poverty concerns.

Last year London spent over £733m on temporary accommodation for the 57,000 homeless households, including 80,000 children, while over 125,000 homes were either empty or unavailable for rental/purchase across the capital.

It is clear that the Government are ignoring their responsibility to protect people in the UK by allowing millions of vulnerable families to fall into poverty, homelessness and hunger and now more than ever the Government must step up to protect people.

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Pre-budget statement offers little hope for people in Erith and Thamesmead

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, detailed his plans to protect jobs and boost the economy today but despite big spending pledges the announcement offers little support for people in Erith and Thamesmead.

Concerned business owners and employees in the creative and beauty industries were expecting to hear details about when they can expect to see business get back to normal today, but the Chancellor’s package managed to completely ignore these important issues. Instead of offering flexible support packages to businesses still closed or operating a reduced service, the Chancellor has offered bonus’ to those that manage to survive the crisis.

Rishi Sunak MP clearly hasn’t had to read the hundreds of emails a day that myself and many other MPs are receiving from business owners on the brink of collapse and constituents struggling to feed their families.

One constituent has been in contact with me with concerns about their beauty business, they said:

“My profession, my reputation and my business is at stake. The action of reopening my beauty business is not from a profit perspective, it’s survival.”

Knowing that if they survive and manage to retain staff for a further 6 months they can claim £1000 from the Government, will offer little solace to many small business owners across Erith and Thamesmead at this point.

Plans announced for the hospitality and tourism sector today, one of the few industries that were acknowledged, reveal a Government that does not understand the extent of the health and economic crisis we are in. The Chancellor’s 50% off meal deal does little to support a hospitality industry that were looking forward to a robust new deal.

The Government’s failed contact tracing app and confusing messaging throughout the crisis has done little to calm public fear regarding the spread of the virus, with a second wave still a looming possibility. The hospitality and tourism industry is unable to re-open at the capacity levels needed to sustain struggling businesses without a thorough test and trace system – none of the Chancellor’s measures address this.

Millions of job losses are predicted for the coming months and whilst plans to create new jobs are welcomed, many will still find themselves on Universal Credit for the first time. Over 12,000 jobs have been furloughed in Erith and Thamesmead and unemployment rose by an unprecedented 2% between March and April.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been promised a £1 billion investment to support schemes and services which help people back into work. Again, this will offer little comfort to the thousands of people applying for Universal Credit for the first time who will be expected to survive on a reduced household income. The return of benefit sanctions, whilst vulnerable people remain exposed to the virus and businesses remain closed, demonstrates the lack of understanding and compassion offered by the Government to those struggling financially from the crisis.

If people in Erith and Thamesmead are to feel the benefits of government investment and feel supported through the upcoming period of economic instability, support needs to be targeted locally, with a net-zero target in mind and with long lasting benefits. The Labour Party are calling for four tests to be met in regards to economic support:

  1. Projects must involve local firms, upskill the local workforce and lead to material improvement in the quality and availability of local employment
  2. The Chancellor must rebuild economic resilience right across the entire country and protect those institutions, like local authorities, that can help deliver that resilience
  3. Every single project must be consistent with the drive to net-zero so we can build the green jobs of the future
  4. Any benefits of investment now must be cancelled out by poor decisions later. The Conservatives promised at the last election there would be no rises in income tax, national insurance or VAT. We need the economy to bounce back from the crisis, so there’s money in the coffers to protect public finances.

The people of Erith and Thamesmead deserve a better economic deal for jobs from the Government, to survive the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.