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Government must do more to support people to self-isolate

As part of my role in the Shadow Treasury Team, I have been pushing the Government to provide more support to people who need to self-isolate.

Labour has always said that health and economic measures must go hand-in-hand, but the Government’s failure has meant too many people have to choose between self-isolating and paying the bills.

At this weeks’ Treasury questions, I asked the Chancellor about reports that the Treasury had suppressed information about how the furlough scheme could be used to support self-isolating employees. This shocking revelation show’s how poor the Government’s approach to economic support during the pandemic has been.

I called on the Chancellor to appear before the joint parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the Covid crisis to explain why the Government has not listened to the experts and introduced a robust self-isolation support scheme.

 

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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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Speaking up in Parliament for businesses and individuals struggling during the pandemic

On Wednesday 24 February I rose to the Opposition despatch box to give the closing statement for the Shadow Treasury’s Opposition Day Debate on ‘Supporting Businesses and Individuals Through the Coronavirus Crisis’.

As your local MP and as Labour’s Shadow Exchequer Secretary I am determined to speak truth to power and provide a voice for the despair so many people are feeling.

Although the Chancellor didn’t show up to defend his failings during this crisis, several Labour colleagues gave powerful speeches about how the pandemic has affected businesses and individuals in their constituencies. Their passion, in the face of Tory callousness, is an inspiration. Not everyone can wait for the Chancellor to come to Parliament.

People across our country are facing the very real prospect of their job disappearing, or their businesses failing, and we must continue to push the Government to set out clear measures that will support businesses and families over the coming months.

As it stands, the Government’s support schemes have left gaps that leave millions forgotten, unsupported, and excluded. It’s not good enough.

You can watch my speech 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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Are you Erith and Thamesmead’s Best Small Shop?

I’m calling on Erith and Thamesmead small shopkeepers to enter the Best Small Shops Competition, celebrating the successes of small shops and the central role they play in their local community, particularly in response to COVID-19.

The Best Small Shops Competition is open to any small shop* operating in the UK. The competition is free to enter and all shops who enter will also be promoted to consumers through an online Indie Retail Directory.

Shopkeepers can nominate their businesses until Friday 11th September 2020 via www.bestsmallshops.co.uk. A shortlist will be announced in October with winners announced in November.

The judges will be looking for evidence of a small shops’ entrepreneurial spirit, ways that they have been innovative in their business and what they have done to have a lasting positive impact on their community.

The shortlisted small shops will then be in with the chance to win one of five awards, including the newly launched award for small shops response to COVID-19.

Whilst COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on people’s businesses and livelihoods, there are many ways in which businesses in the constituency have been creative in working safely around the COVID-19 measures. There have also been many small businesses that have contributed to the effort to support our community through the crisis.

As Erith and Thamesmead begins to re-open it is important we recognise and celebrate the achievements of businesses in the constituency and support our local economy.

Submit your entry

The entries for 2020’s Best Small Shop competition are now open. Submit your entry at www.bestsmallshops.co.uk.

Entries close on Friday 11th September 2020.

More entry guidance is available here.

*For the purposes of the competition, a small shop is defined as a non-corporate business selling goods or services to the public for use or consumption rather than for resale, from a business rated premises in the UK.

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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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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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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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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