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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.

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Our carers need us, we must Care for Carers

During the COVID-19 crisis we have seen the value and need for our care staff more acutely than ever before.

I am so incredibly proud and humbled by the dedication and hard work I have seen the NHS staff and care workers in Erith and Thamesmead display throughout this virus. They have been the people that have kept us safe in this pandemic, but for many this has come at a personal cost.

In 2019 nearly 5 million working days were lost due to poor metal health, up to 30% of NHS staff absence is stress related, the British Medical Association have stated that 41% of doctors suffer with depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions relating to their work.

The people looking after us during COVID-19 deserve better than this. This is why I am supporting the Labour Party call for a ‘Care for Carers’ package of mental health support for 3 million NHS carers and staff.

A Care for Carers package would launch a new national hotline, staffed by paid professionals and available 24 hours a day. It would provide follow-up support, treatment and specialised help for people with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unless our staff are protected, they cannot continue their vital work of keeping us all safe.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis the Government failed to protect our Carers physical health with adequate PPE, as we move forward let’s not fail to protect their mental health.

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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.

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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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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.

 

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Parents asked for their views on schools re-opening in Erith and Thamesmead

Parents, teachers and unions in Erith and Thamesmead have raised concerns about plans to re-open schools to students in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, starting next week.

I’m eager to hear your views as parents and carers of school ages children which is why I have launched a survey to understand constituents’ feelings around the issue.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced plans to begin the phased re-opening of schools starting on June 1st but a poll by a leading teachers union found just 5% of teachers feel it is safe to return to school. Independent polling for ITV and the Observer also found that around 50% of parents feel it is unsafe for children to return to school in England.

In a meeting with teachers from five schools across Erith and Thamesmead this week, I discussed the concerns raised by staff and parents.

Teachers raised concerns about particularly vulnerable children, the risk to disabled students and the higher risk posed to staff and students from a Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. Some schools also raised concerns about the lack of space available to implement social distancing measures and the lack of additional teaching resources in the case of staff illness.

Whilst I have major concerns about the impact of school closures on vulnerable children and the existing attainment gap, I also have major concerns about the risk posed to medically vulnerable staff, students and parents.

I believe that those directly affected by this decision are best placed to determine whether the risks posed are too serious to begin opening schools, which is why I have been meeting with teachers and unions.

I am eager to hear the opinions of parents and guardians across Greenwich and Bexley regarding re-opening schools. The survey, open to all residents with school aged children in Erith and Thamesmead, is a chance for people to make their feelings heard.

No parent or guardian should have to fear sending their child to school, it is important that we all work together to create a safe learning environment for children.

Parents and carers of students in Erith and Thamesmead can take part in the re-opening Schools Survey here: https://tinyurl.com/yba6mrnt

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Parliamentary business continues despite crisis

I hope you are staying home and keeping safe at this very challenging time. I’m working from home where my job as your MP continues. My team and I continue to support local people with a range of casework, from helping people to access financial support as a result of Covid-19 to assisting those stranded overseas. I’m also still holding the Government to account and demanding answers where their strategy is failing.

Parliament will be meeting virtually for the duration of the lockdown and business will continue as much as it possibly can. I’m taking the concerns you’ve raised with me directly to Ministers. 

This week and next at Parliamentary question time I’ll be asking the Culture Secretary about the support available for self-employed people working in the digital, culture, media and sport industries affected by Covid-19. I’ll also be asking the Justice Secretary about the very serious challenges facing our prisons at this time and what action is being taken.

Next week, my Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee will be questioning Secretary of State Robert Jenrick. I’ll be asking him how he is ensuring local authorities like Greenwich and Bexley get the financial support they need at this time of crisis. Councils have faced massive cuts and the Government must step up to ensure they meet all of the costs associated with delivering social care and other vital local services.

My committee, with my support, will also be launching an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector. I and many of my colleagues have serious concerns about the short and long-term impact on homelessness and those in insecure housing and we want to hear from those affected and organisations supporting them in order to make recommendations to Government. You can submit your views to hclgcom@parliament.uk.

If you have an issue you need my help with or if you have any questions or concerns to put to me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and my team and I will get back to you as soon as we can.

Abena Oppong-Asare

MP for Erith & Thamesmead