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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.

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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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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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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Know your rights at work during Covid-19

On Monday 11th May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced that lockdown measures would be eased. Since then I have been receiving emails from constituents asking for clarification on the updated rules and with concerns regarding returning to work.

It was irresponsible for Boris Johnson to suggest that lockdown measures had been eased without offering specific details about how we should regard public safety. I share constituent concerns that the Government has put the economy before human life and many will be asked to return to work without sufficient safety precautions being taken into account.

For those concerned about their safety, UK employment law offers some protections for employees that are important to note during this crisis. Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides employees with the right to withdraw from, and refuse to return to, a workplace that is unsafe.

This law relies on ‘the opinion’ of the employee and therefore can be used to justify refusing to enter a workplace based on the different scenarios and circumstances facing people throughout the pandemic.

It is important to note that those who can work from home should still do so and those on the shielding list should refrain from going into work. The Prime Minister aimed his easing of lockdown restrictions at those who are unable to work from home, such as construction workers.

Many constituents across Erith and Thamesmead have raised the issue that it is particularly difficult to socially distance on a construction site. Similar issues are now facing employees in schools and retail workers who had previously been furloughed.

Section 44. provides employees with the means to contest the suitability of safety arrangements without fear of recriminations. This means that an employee can refuse to enter an unsafe working environment without fear of being fired or suffering loss of wages.

Whilst I am pleased these employment laws exist to protect people, there will inevitably be some employers who expect employees back at work without conducting the appropriate risk assessments. I would encourage everyone to join a union who will be able to represent for your rights in the workplace.

Should your employment or safety become compromised during this crisis please do not hesitate to contact me for assistance and guidance at abena.oppongasare.mp@parliament.uk.

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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

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MP calls for evidence for Parliamentary inquiry

Erith & Thamesmead MP Abena Oppong-Asare is calling on local people and organisations to submit evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry into homelessness and Covid-19.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, of which Abena is a member, is set to examine the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the homelessness, rough sleeping and the private rented sector.

In response to Covid-19, the Government launched the Everyone In scheme, whereby local authorities were required to house rough sleepers in hotels or emergency accommodation. They also announced £3.2 million in funding for local authorities to protect those who are homeless.

The Government has also introduced a number of schemes intended to support people in the private rented sector, including halting evictions for 3 months and raising the Local Housing Allowance rate.

However, there are concerns about the short and long-term impact of these strategies, including the quality of accommodation and access to amenities, such as for homeless people in temporary accommodation and the exit strategy when social distancing measures are reduced. There are also concerns about people in the private rented sector who may build up rent arrears over the coming months and still face eviction when the three-month ban expires.

The inquiry will examine how effective the Government support has been in supporting individuals in the private rented sector or who are homeless. It will also look at what long term strategies will need to be put in place to support both groups in the long-term, once current measures expire.

Speaking after the select committee agreed to launch an inquiry, Abena said:

“I called for this inquiry along with many of my colleagues because there are urgent issues which need to be addressed to support rough sleepers and those in insecure accommodation when this crisis ends. It is vital that those in precarious living situations are supported by the Government. We must ensure that people without homes and those sleeping rough are protected during this health crisis.

“However, we must also look at what will happen when the crisis ends. Where will those currently housed in hotels go when the Everyone In scheme expires? What happens in three months time when the eviction ban lapses for people who have no job and now owe three months rent?

“I encourage local people and relevant organisations to get in touch with me to share your views so that I may represent your interests as the inquiry unfolds.”

The Committee invites written evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness, rough sleeping, and the private rented sector, as well as any other connected issues. In particular, the Committee is interesting in finding out: 

  • How effective has the support provided by MHCLG and other Government departments in addressing the impact of COVID-19 on those in the private rented sector, rough sleepers, and the homeless?
  • What problems remain a current and immediate concern for these groups?
  • What might be the immediate post-lockdown impacts for these groups, and what action is needed to help with these?

 

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Covid policy response for self-employed in creative industries

The measures required to contain the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) are unprecedented and demand a national effort. But more support needs to be offered for those who are in the creative industries and therefore self-employed.

The Government announced a set of emergency measures outlining financial support during the coronavirus outbreak. Since I wrote to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, calling on the government to introduce further emergency financial measures the Government has announced the self-employment support scheme.

However, this does not go far enough to guarantee the income of workers who are self-employed in the creative industries and do not qualify for this scheme.

Our creative industries are worth a total of £117bn to the economy, much of this is due to the talent in its workforce. The creative industries have vanished overnight due to the coronavirus pandemic and so this workforce should be treated with the same support as those in secure jobs.

The latest Government response to those who do not qualify for the self-employed support scheme due to working within creative industries is: “We recognise that there are challenges for the creative industries in accessing government support. The Fed team is in ongoing conversation with the government to ensure that this support better fits the needs of the creative industries.”

In the meantime, I am doing all I can to make sure those in the creative industries get the support they need from the Government. This issue has been highlighted to the Government and is one myself and my colleagues are working on ways to pressure the Government into acting on urgently.

My colleague has contacted the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, to raise these concerns which you can read here: https://bit.ly/3azWSnK.

Things are changing fast and so I would ask that you keep an eye on the Governments official website for updates on any changes to the financial offer for those in the creative industries. You can find that here: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus