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Update on London COVID-19 restrictions

London has been placed into Tier two COVID restrictions in response to the rising number of cases.

I met with Government Ministers and Scientific Advisors today, 15th October, and can assure you that the following information is up to date and correct.

Please be advised that these restrictions apply to all constituents in Erith and Thamesmead.

We are now in Tier Two of the Government’s three tiered approach to local lockdown. This means we must all adhere to the following rules:

  • you must not socialise with anybody outside of your household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place
  • You must not socialise in a group of more than 6 outside, including in a garden or other spaces like beaches or parks (other than where specific exemptions apply in law)
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate, in a COVID-secure manner, other than those that remain closed in law
  • Certain businesses are required to ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and must close between 10pm and 5am
  • Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm as long as this is through delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-through
  • Schools, universities and places of worship remain open
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors. These will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with or share a support bubble with, or for youth or disability sport
  • You can continue to travel to venues or amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but should look to reduce the number of journeys you make where possible

Full details about the restrictions are in place if you live in an area where the local COVID alert level is high. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/local-covid-alert-level-high

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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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World Mental Health Day: Students’ mental health should be a government priority

Today is World Mental Health Day and I am pleased that we are able to talk about mental health much more openly than ever before. However, this recognition of the need for mental health support has failed to be translated into funding for mental health services over the past decade.

It is especially important that mental health services are given the recognition and funding they need at this concerning time for people across the UK. I am especially concerned about students, in schools and universities, who have had to continue their education under stressful and unprecedented conditions with very little additional support.

Earlier this week I questioned the Minister for Health and Social Care on why schools have not been given additional mental health provisions upon returning after the COVID-19 lockdown.

In a survey of over 200 students in Erith and Thamesmead, 19% said they felt like their mental health had been negatively impacted as a direct result of COVID-19.

Schools returned in September but social distancing measures remain in place and children over the age of 12 are required to wear masks. These new measures will undoubtedly be a cause of worry for young people and schools should have been prepared with additional mental health provisions to help students deal with the added pressures of COVID-19 restrictions.

I first raised concerns about the impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health in April after the majority of in person mental health services were stopped. Analysis by Young Minds reported that 80% of young people with existing mental health needs found that the pandemic had made their mental health worse.

Health Minister, Nadine Dorries MP, said on Tuesday that the Conservative’s Government mental health support investment “translates to 345,000 children and young people who will be able to access mental health support via NHS funded mental health services”.

We were already facing a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, with around 60% of people referred to mental health services receiving no treatment at all.

One in eight (12.8%) 5 to 19 year olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed in 2017, according to official NHS statistics – that is roughly three children in every classroom. The Government’s own figures fall short of providing support to all children and young people with mental health illnesses, leaving around 700,000 children who need it with no access to support.

The longer the Government ignores the need for more funding and better access to mental health services, the worse the crisis will go. I will be continuing to push the Department of Health and Social Care to act on this until everyone can access the support they need.

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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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My views on the conflict in Yemen

A debate on the situation in Yemen is due to take place today. I am aware that many of my constituents are concerned about the conflict in Yemen and arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Whilst I am unable to attend the debate, I would like to make my views on this issue clear.

First and foremost I want you to know that this is an issue that I have been following closely since I was first elected and therefore share your deep concerns about potential violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. The appeal judgment last year that UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia were unlawful shows the Government wilfully disregarded the evidence behind these concerns.

Following the judgment, the Government said it would not grant any new licences for arms exports that might be used in the conflict in Yemen. However, it then breached this commitment by granting several new licences for equipment that could be used there. In February, the Government published the results of its investigation into these breaches, which found that they were due to shortcomings in licence-issuing processes.

I believe we need root-and-branch reform of our arms export rules. Ministers must never again be able to turn a blind eye to British-made weapons being used to target innocent civilians. We must also implement our export controls to the highest standard, putting an end to exports where they might be used in violation of human rights or international humanitarian law.

The people of Yemen have suffered so much throughout this conflict. We cannot allow their suffering to continue year after year. I believe the Government should end its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct in this conflict and use the powers vested in it at the UN to bring about an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire and play a constructive role in ending this humanitarian crisis.

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Ban the import and sale of fur in the UK

Dozens of constituents have written to me about fur sales in the UK. I strongly believe that we should implement a ban on the import and sale of fur in the UK. This outdated and unnecessary trade should have no place in the UK’s fashion industry.

According to Humane Society International, more than 100 million animals are killed for the global fur trade every year. Animals are treated terribly in the fur trade: farmed animals are kept in small cages for their entire lives and wild animals are caught using cruel leg-hold traps.

I am proud that the UK was the first country to ban fur farming two decades ago. Since then, the EU has also banned the importation of dog, cat and seal fur and this has been retained in UK law after Brexit. However, as many constituents have raised with me, although many retailers now refuse to stock it, fur from other species can still legally be imported and sold in the UK. Consumers may also be misled into buying real fur, believing it to be fake.

I believe we should ban the importation and sale of fur all together and I urge the UK Government to implement such a ban, starting with a public consultation. We should not have a fur trade that relies upon the suffering of animals abroad.

The UK Government says that during the transition period, it is not possible to introduce restrictions relating to the fur trade. It says that once our future relationship with the EU has been established, there will be an opportunity for the Government to consider further steps it could take in relation to fur sales. However, I believe they should offer clarity on their intentions now.

I have asked the following question to seek further clarity about their intentions:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what further restrictions on the fur trade his Department plans to make once the transition period of exiting the European Union is over?”

I will continue to call for a ban on the import and sale of fur to be implemented at the earliest opportunity.

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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.