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

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

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

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

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

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

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

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

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

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

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

You can watch the event below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”