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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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Why I couldn’t support the Coronavirus Act

I have been contacted by dozens of constituents about the Coronavirus Act that was debated in Parliament yesterday. I fully understand and echo your concerns about many areas of this Bill, such as the suspension of the Care Act and Children and Families Act and, the extra powers afforded to police.

During the previous six months I have worked closely with local organisations and constituents to fully understand the impacts of COVID-19 on different communities and protected characteristics. In my report ‘Leaving Nobody Behind in Erith and Thamesmead’, published in August, I detailed the appalling impacts of the suspension of the Care Act for disabled people.

My report also details the impacts of fines and extended police powers under the Coronavirus Act which have disproportionately affected Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people.

The public have been overwhelmingly supportive of restrictions brought in to tackle the virus but a lack of clarity and constantly changing rules has seen cases rise again across the UK. Moving forward we need effective communication from the Government about how the public can continue to act in the best interests of everyone’s safety, not an extension of a Bill which removes people’s rights.

I am pleased that Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, has announced that he will consult Parliament and hold votes where possible regarding future measures relating to COVID-19. I am also pleased that Matt Hancock MP confirmed that easements in the Mental Health Act have not been used and will not be used in the future.

However, the Government have failed to provide a level of confidence needed to be entrusted which such extensive powers. MPs were denied the opportunity to vote on amendments which would have removed dangerous Schedules from this Act such as Schedule 21. We were also constrained to a 90 minute debate meaning I was unable to represent the views of the many constituents who have contacted me in Parliament.

Whilst I wholly agree that legislation is needed to introduce restrictions in response to rising coronavirus cases, this legislation mandates for far greater powers than is necessary. Not only has this legislation created a situation where people’s rights are removed without debate, it has also removed their access to justice where these powers are misused.

I met with Inclusion London earlier this week who raised serious issues over the consequences of the inclusion of Schedule 12 and Schedule 15 of the Coronavirus Act.

Over the previous six months, eight local authorities in England officially declared easements under the Coronavirus Act. No assessment has been made of the effects of these easements on disabled people and, the Local Authorities failed to provide any evidence that the high threshold for turning on the easement in their area had been reached.

Inclusion London have collected further evidence which shows that Local Authorities have suspended care services without officially declaring easements.

One man who has PTSD and agoraphobia had an operation in February but was offered no care “because of the virus”. His cleaner stopped coming and he was forced to sleep on the settee and to urinate in a bottle.

The Government was warned time and time again that the introduction of this Act would see the rights of disabled people removed. Yet still no measures put in place to assess the impacts of the suspension of the Care Act on disabled people and ensure that those impacted had access to legal routes of complaint.

A lack of clarity around legal requirements and access to justice is a running theme in complaints about this Bill. Earlier this week I met with the Law Society who recently carried out a report into the impact of emergency COVID-19 measures on access to justice for vulnerable people.

People have been threatened with or issued fines for failing to follow regulations which are unclear and which Members of this Conservative Government have failed to follow themselves.

These fines have been disproportionately targeted at Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, the same group that have failed to be protected from the virus by this Government.

I agree that some measures in this Act are necessary to ensure public safety going forward but many are dangerous and wholly unnecessary. It is for this reason I could not support the Coronavirus Act in full and abstained on the vote.

I have followed up my concerns with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and asked that he guarantees that easements of the Care Act and Children’s and Families Act will not be turned on again in the future.

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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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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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Policy response – AG bill

Many of you have been getting in touch with me about the Agriculture Bill and the crucial importance of maintaining our high animal welfare and food standards in future trade deals.

I very much share your deep concern that if we do not have provisions in place to prevent future trade deals allowing in imports produced to lower standards than our own, this will severely threaten our British farmers and our high animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards.

Like the British public, Labour will not tolerate Trump’s chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-injected beef on our supermarket shelves, with all of the animal welfare implications surrounding these products.

While the Prime Minister has said that our standards won’t be lowered in future trade deals, you are entirely right that these are nothing but warm words until we have legislative guarantees binding the Government to this promise – particularly when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already made it clear that in any future US trade deal they will expect the UK to accept such lower standard products.

This is an area I am highly concerned with and I previously scrutinised this bill in my role on the Agriculture Bill Committee. I was also PPS to Luke Pollard MP assisting his team in important work in ensuring that the Agriculture Bill legislates for the continuation of the UK’s good food and animal welfare standards.

A Labour colleague tabled an amendment to the Bill in Committee stage to include a legal requirement that food imported to this country must not be produced to lower standards than our own, but this has been rejected by the Government.

My Labour colleagues and I will continue to press the Government at every available opportunity to safeguard our animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards and legislate against lower standard imports. I will certainly be supporting amendments in the Agriculture Bill’s Report stage seeking to do precisely this.

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Covid-19 emergency legislation response

In March 2020 the Government introduced emergency Covid-19 legislation in response to the ongoing public health crisis.

I hold major concerns regarding the sweeping powers that this bill introduced. However, in line with guidance and following discussion with colleagues, I and other colleagues in the opposition did not attend the debate. It is important to point out that we did have many meetings and discussions relating to this bill and our concerns were relayed to our front bench MPs and shadow ministers. We agreed that this was the safest and most organised way to scrutinise this legislation.

Therefore, the Labour Party including myself put across many issues and concerns in relation to this legislation. To summarise for you, we made the following points with regards to this legislation:

  • The legislation should be reviewed after six months, with a fresh vote in parliament after this six-month period. The restrictions should be temporary and should not represent a long-term restriction of our civil liberties. This has been passed into law, meaning that the legislation will now be reviewed on this basis.
  • Jobs and incomes must be protected. This should include a European-level sick pay for all workers and an end to the five-week waiting period for Universal Credit. I also wrote to the Secretary of State regarding issues that relate to the self-employed, as they did not currently have the same level of protection as employed workers.
  • I would like to see more support for private renters, including potential rent suspension and a ban on evictions for six months rather than three months. Again, I wrote to the Secretary of State on the issue of private renters.
  • I have real concerns regarding the mental health elements of this bill and the impact that this bill has on the pre-existing Care Act. Naturally, these concerns were raised with the Labour front bench and brought forward for debate in the House of Commons.
  • We have recommended that changes to care of the disabled and elderly should undergo a review by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and undergo a review.

Despite very real concerns I do understand the need for urgent government intervention to arrest the spread of this virus, whilst also mitigating the impact on our economy. I would echo the words of Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Johnathan Ashworth, when he said it was with a ‘heavy heart’ that we would support this legislation overall, although with the caveats mentioned above.

I will continue to scrutinise this legislation in the future alongside my Labour colleagues to ensure the issues I have raised can be addressed.

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MP tackles Covid-19 casework

Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead, Abena Oppong-Asare, updates local people on her work to address their concerns about Covid-19.

 

March saw the takeover of our lives, news and parliamentary business with Covid-19. This led to lockdown by the government and myself and my office are working from our respective homes. My team and I have been working hard to support constituents of Erith and Thamesmead at this difficult time.

Getting people home

This was a big issue this month. I have had numerous queries from constituents stranded overseas, from cruise ships in the Caribbean to holidays in New Zealand, India, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and elderly people in Cyprus. Many of them I have been successful in assisting, and they have either returned home or are en-route. I have had to use many different methods, from simple conversations with travel agents to smooth the cogs, to asking questions in the Chamber and writing to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Supporting the self-employed

Whilst the budget saw many welcome financial measures (from a government that once insisted on harsh austerity!), it soon became apparent this was not nearly enough. The Chancellor and PM rolled out further support for the employed, which will be a great help for many. However, we have so many self-employed people in our constituency who will not be supported. Therefore, I have written to the Chancellor on this issue, to implore him to take further action with regards to the self-employed.

Religious rights

In the government’s emergency Covid-19 legislation there was a potential issue regarding religious burial rights: that these could be removed and enforced cremations placed in place. However, my colleague Naz Shah MP wrote an amendment to the legislation to allow religious burials to take place; I was one of the first signatures to this. Luckily, the government took note and actually tabled their own amendment, which allowed the opposition to focus on other important matters rather than forcing this to go to a vote.

Panic buying and stock piling

I have written to the Business Secretary calling for concrete measures to limit panic buying & stockpiling. Trade unions, major supermarkets, and the Food and Drink Federation must be central to any decision to improve conditions for emergency workers and keep the shelves stocked. Naturally, this is also an area of focus for the Shadow Defra team, and I am fully engaged on this issue. You can watch this space for further action on this in the coming days and weeks.

Scrutinising the Covid-19 Bill

The opposition made the sensible decision not to have all MPs attending these parliamentary sessions. Instead we passed our concerns onto the front bench, who put those to the government on our behalf. My particular concerns relate to the mental health powers, as well as the way that the care bill has been repealed and the impacts this may have on some of our most vulnerable residents.

If you have any questions or concerns during this difficult time, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and my team and I will do what we can to support you.

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MP seeks improvements to Environment Bill

Abena Oppong-Asare, MP for Erith and Thamesmead, has been working to improve the Government’s Environment Bill.

A small number of MPs have been scrutinising and proposing amendments to the Government’s Environment Bill as part of its passage through Parliament.

Bill Committees consist of a small number of MPs who provide line by line scrutiny of legislation and propose changes to it. Abena Oppong-Asare as serving as a member of the Bill Committee for the Environment Bill, which sets the UK’s environment policy for years to come.

Abena has used her role to question Ministers and experts and support proposals to strengthen the Bill in order to take tougher action to tackle climate change and clean our air.

You can watch the Bill Committee hearings here, here and here.

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MP joins Parliamentary protest over cladding scandal

Abena Oppong-Asare, MP for Erith and Thamesmead, joined Mayor Sadiq Khan and other MPs and campaigners at a protest outside Parliament this week in protest at Government inaction over cladding.

The protest was organised by residents living in high rise accommodation who continue to suffer from the lack of Government support and action since the fire at Grenfell Tower.

More than two years since the Grenfell tragedy, hundreds of residential buildings continue to face significant fire safety deficiencies. Leaseholders in privately owned buildings are liable for funding the work to replace the cladding, meaning many face substantial bills they cannot afford.

Speaking after the protest, Abena said “Residents living in affected buildings are left in limbo while the Government fails to act. This ongoing crisis is ruining lives. Ministers need to take action in the coming Budget, with a package of financial and mental health support offered to all those affected.”