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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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Government refuses Labour’s calls to publish documents relating to the exams fiasco

On Wednesday 9 September, the Labour Party had the chance to bring forward a motion on the issues surrounding students’ results. As a Party we called on the Government to publish all documents relating to the August exams fiasco so that we are able to scrutinise what led up to these events and ensure they are never repeated.

Unfortunately, despite the Chair of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) agreeing to publish all communications with the Department for Education, the Government refused to allow the documents to be published.

I have consistently raised concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s education, but the Government ignored warnings from MPs, teachers and young people themselves.

Following the exams fiasco, I have met with students who have been affected, to listen to their experiences and offer my full support.

One young person who had their predicted results lowered by two full grades and both university offers rescinded said:

“I am writing this email to you to express my anger, disappointment and frustration at my future being snatched away from me.”

Despite being aware of issues with the algorithm prior to results day it took four days for the Department for Education to U-turn and award students with their Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs).

But, far from fixing the fiasco with their U-turn the Government’s move to CAGs left many more students feeling cheated. As predicted, students’ CAGs demonstrated unconscious bias in the education system against working class, disabled and BAME young people.

One student whose guardian contacted me in disbelief was predicted AAB for their UCAS application, achieved A*BB in their mock exams yet his CAG was set at CCC.

Their guardian wrote to me:

“this is completely heart-breaking. The upset, stress and anxiety is damaging his health and he cannot relax now for a minute.”

Whilst Government Ministers were feeding different information to the public through the media, concerned about protecting their own jobs, young people have been suffering from high stress and mental health issues following the exams fiasco.

Another group of students re-sitting their A-Level exams contacted me after being denied the allocation of any results at all.

One student said:

“This year I have committed myself entirely to achieving the grades I need to meet my university offers to become a lawyer. My school has refused to give me grades, which will result in me missing out on my university offers. My years’ worth of hard work will go to waste.”

The Government must not underestimate the damage done to students in Erith and Thamesmead and across the country. Students are rightfully outraged, the following quote from one of my constituents sums up the countries feelings towards this fiasco:

“We are the cohort of students who have been left behind and failed by the government that promised us a fair process.”

The list of problems left unresolved goes on and on.

BTEC students and those who sat private exams such as International Baccalaureate (IB) students are still awaiting clarification on how their awarded grades have been decided. One IB student awarded low grades, despite high predictions, told me that:

“the IB is getting away with robbing me of my future, one that I have spent at least two years working towards, and they are facing no repercussions for their mistakes.”

It is clear that the problems created for thousands of students on Results Day are far from being resolved. The Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister are directly responsible for the exams fiasco and must take responsibility.

Students do not want excuses or more empty promises they want action.

Parents and teachers want answers about how this was allowed to happen and assurances that young people’s years of hard work has not gone to waste.

And, as the MP for Erith and Thamesmead, I want the Government to take responsibility and ensure full transparency of the decisions that led to this disaster.

You can watch the full debate here.

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“Too little, too late” – my response to Government u-turn on exam results

The Conservative Government finally announced yesterday that students would now be awarded their Centre Assessed Grades (CAG) in response to the backlash over the Ofqual algorithm which saw some students’ results downgraded by more than two levels.

The Government’s u-turn on this is too little, too late, especially for those students who have already been rejected by universities. It is also clear the Conservative Government has not learned their lesson and is simply responding to backlash, as BTEC students are left out of the u-turn and remain in limbo.

I’ve been contacted by several students who have been absolutely devastated by this fiasco and have struggled to find support or answers about appealing these decisions.

The algorithm clearly discriminated against students from disadvantaged areas leaving many students feeling undermined. Moving to CAG’s will benefit thousands of people but working class, BAME, disabled and special educational needs students are still likely to be negatively impacted.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission warned in April that using predicted grades could deepen the existing inequalities in education. Unconscious bias is evident in schools and even when using teachers’ predicted grades lots of students will be forced to accept grades that aren’t truly representative of their abilities.

Problems with the Ofqual algorithm were made instantly clear as almost 40% of students had their predicted grades downgraded on A-level results day, resulting in thousands of students missing out on university places. I wrote to Education Minister Gavin Williamson MP to highlight how students had been impacted in Erith and Thamesmead.

One student contacted me for help after receiving a U in their results despite achieving a B in a previous mock exam. Another student who was predicted ABC results was awarded ADE on results day last week, meaning their university offer was automatically withdrawn.

Issues with CAG’s have also been raised and have played a part in the lowering of student grades according to many students and parents who have contacted me.

One parent explained how their daughter was told by teachers they were on track to achieve three B’s in their exams and secured university offers based on this but their CAG’s were then changed to BBC when shared with Ofqual.

Another student was predicted AAB for their UCAS application despite achieving an A*AB in mock exam papers. The student’s family member contacted me to raise concerns about the Government u-turn, they said:

“And now a u turn is being leaked – ‘we can have the useless CAG results’ – not his actual measured, tested and proven grade capability.

Not forgetting the CAG and class rank nonsense was designed to fit a fatally flawed algorithm and is equally not fit for purpose!

Students are individuals, tested and measured by a national exam process. Not ranked against peers at the whim of favouritism and ingrained biases of teachers.”

In the letter to the Education Minister, I’ve called on the Department for Education to reach out to universities and ask that failings in the grading system be taken into account when finalising university offers.

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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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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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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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Monthly Newsletter – May 2020

Newsletter header

Throughout May I’ve been active in Parliament and the constituency helping represent issues that matter to you. I’ve received hundreds of emails campaigning for better Covid-19 support measures, support for businesses, issues around schools re-opening, safety measures at work and much more.

I am looking forward to getting back into the constituency but during lockdown I’ve still been keeping up to date with local issues virtually. I have met with teachers and unions to dicuss how we can safely re-open schools and it is clear parents and staff are worried about the current measures in place. If you’d like to make your voice heard on this issue you can complete the survey here. I will be calling for better support for vulnerable children and standing alongside teachers calling for risk assessments and clearer guidance. I also had the chance to meet with some great local voluntary groups including, Our Heritage UK and Greenwich Association of Disabled People.

We’ve had some major local successes this month! Thamesmead Now started their new weekly TV broadcast on Youtube which you can check out here. My office have also had some major successes in helping people return to the UK  from abroad. We have now helped everyone stranded in Australia, Bahamas, Canary Islands, Cyprus, France, India, New Zealand, Sierra Leone and Tunisia return home.

Despite Parliament operating virtually throughout May, I’ve had the chance to raise a variety of issues effecting people in Erith and Thamesmead. I represented Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh Temple by calling for a Sikh ethnic tick box on the Census 2021. I received over 40 requests from constituents to speak on the Agriculture Bill. In this speech I asked the Government to protect British farmers, animal welfare and the environment. I also spoke on the Fire Safety Bill and asked the Government to protect all victims of Domestic Abuse including those with NRPF in the Domestic Abuse Bill debate.

Belvedere Incinerator

Sadiq Khan calls for judicial review into second Belvedere incinerator
Several constituents raised concerns regarding the construction of a second incinerator in Belvedere. This would be harmful to the environment and public health which is why I joined residents in calling for a review of this project. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has asked for a judicial review to take place.

 

Abena speaking in Parliament

I raised concerns about rising care fees following Covid-19
After speaking with Inclusion London and Greenwich Association of Disabled People I raised concerns with Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about fears that care home fees are likely to rise. This would have a huge impact on many constituents and I will continue to hold the Government to account over any rise in fees.

 

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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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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.