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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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Update on the Sikh ethnic tick box – Census 2021

Earlier this year I voiced my support for the inclusion of a Sikh ethnic tick box on the Census 2021 following support shown for the tick box by residents in Erith and Thamesmead.

Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, Chloe Smith MP, has recently confirmed that the ethnic tick box option will not be included in the Census 2021, despite representations from a number of MPs.

The national Census happens once a decade and information on ethnicity is used to help understand and allocate resources to 40,000 different public bodies. In the last Census 2011, more than 83,000 Sikhs rejected the 18 existing ethnic tick boxes and chose instead to tick ‘other’ and write ‘Sikh’.

In my speech to Parliament on May 6th 2020, I said:

“The ethnic group question on the census was introduced in 1991 to help public bodies to assess equal opportunities and develop anti-discrimination policies. The data is used by 40,000 public bodies to address their legal responsibilities under equalities legislation and to make decisions about the allocation of resources and the provision of public services. We can therefore conclude that, if Sikhs do not have an ethnic tick box option, their needs will not be properly monitored and assessed by public bodies. Just because discrimination is not properly monitored does not mean that it does not exist.”

Chloe Smith MP has written to myself and other MPs that made representations on behalf of the Sikh community in favour of the ethnic tick box, regarding the Census 2021.

Ms Smith said:

“The ONS will promote the write-in option in the Census ethnic group question, and the ability to self-identify as Sikh, through their marketing and communications campaigns. This will include promotion via Sikh news organisations and social media, with additional local field support to ensure anyone who wishes to identify as Sikh is confident in doing so.

I can also assure you that the ONS is committed to ensuring the availability of data on those who identify as Sikh, whether through the tick-box in the Census religion question or through the write-in option in the ethnic group question.

The ONS is committed to ensuring this is the most inclusive Census ever, in which everyone is able to identify as they wish. I hope that you will be able to help with their Census 2021 campaigns to ensure the best possible data on Sikh populations.”

It is disappointing that the Government did not take on board the comments made to Parliament making a strong case for the inclusion of the tick box. However, I am pleased that many MPs were able to shine a light on the great work by Preet Gill MP on the APPG for British Sikhs and that this issue has been given a voice a Parliament.

Despite the announcement that the Sikh ethnic tick box will not be included on the Census 2021, I will continue to listen to and support the Sikh community across Erith and Thamesmead.

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Erith and Thamesmead see unprecedented 2% unemployment rise

Unemployment has risen to unprecedented levels across the UK with Erith and Thamesmead seeing a rise in unemployment to 5.6% of the adult workforce, just above the average figure for the whole of London and the wider UK.

Centre for Cities, an independent research organisation, has been recording the rise in unemployment rates across the UK between March and April. Data recording the number of people applying for Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance shows and increase in unemployment of 850,000, taking the UK wide total to 2.1 million.

Between March and April 2020, an increase of 1,605 people applied for Universal Credit or Job Seekers Allowance in Erith and Thamesmead, a rise of 2%. The Royal London Borough of Greenwich has been affected slightly more than the London Borough of Bexley with a 0.2% higher uptake in this time period.

It is expected that the unemployment rates are likely to have risen between April and May but this data is not yet known. There are also disparities in the unemployment increases in different areas of the UK. London has an average unemployment rate of 4.9% compared with 5.6% in Erith and Thamesmead and 8.9% in Blackpool.

The reasons for differing increases in unemployment are not yet known but it is suspected that places that rely heavily on the most impacted industries such as hospitality, and where people are unable to work from home, have seen a greater impact.

In a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to raise concerns about the rise in unemployment locally, I said:

“I am concerned that residents in Erith and Thamesmead will face increased difficulties compared to the wider region of London post-Covid-19 due to decreased local job opportunities and restricted travel routes around London. It is already evident that my constituents have felt more severe impacts compared with the rest of London, as unemployment has risen 0.7% higher than the London average.

Many local businesses have contacted me throughout this crisis detailing their financial hardship and inability to access the SEISS or Job Retention Scheme. As more businesses fall into financial hardship residents in Erith and Thamesmead will be faced with more job losses.

If the working age population in Erith and Thamesmead is going to recover from this crisis there will need to be a specific focus on boosting the local economy, improving transport links and supporting industries that have been hit particularly hard.”

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The Government must protect jobs in the aviation sector – starting with British Airways

British Airways announced they plan to cut up to 12,000 jobs as part of their response to economic losses due to COVID-19. I have joined London MPs in calling on the Director of IAG, Willie Walsh, to reconsider these plans and work with trade unions to develop a long-term strategy.

I’ve been contacted by several employees of BA, resident in Erith and Thamesmead, who are concerned about their future. It is irresponsible of BA to make these announcements at a time of financial hardship for many, without first consulting with staff, unions and local stakeholders. I have personally written to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, to ask that his department to make representations about these concerns to IAG.

Moving forward from the COVID-19 crisis we must look to protect as many jobs as possible and create a plan to help people re-skill and find new employment. The aviation sector has faced huge losses during COVID-19 as almost all flights have been completely grounded over the past two months.

I am pleased that MPs from across the political spectrum have been working hard on this issue and trying to engage the relevant bodies. However, the Prime Minister and Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, who is at the forefront of protecting jobs and businesses, do not appear to be as enraged as MPs representing constituents who will suffer if this goes ahead.

Huw Merriman MP secured an urgent question on June 3rd 2020, “to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on covid-19 and the economic impact on aviation”. Unfortunately, the Chancellor did not attend this debate to listen to concerns.

Wes Streeting MP, Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, raised concerns that more job losses were to come if we did not act, he said:

“This is a sector that contributes £22 billion a year to our economy, with 230,000 jobs across the industry and the manufacturing supply chain dependent on it. It needs to change to meet the challenge of climate change. So why did one industry leader tell the Transport Committee just a fortnight ago that the Government were ‘asleep at the wheel’?”

I will be continuing to make representations on behalf of my constituents and attempt to engage IAG and the Chancellor in this issue. In the meantime, if you have been personally affected by job losses in the aviation industry, please do get in touch at abena.oppongasare.mp@parliament.uk

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Government and employers must act in response to the death of Belly Mujinga

I have received a huge amount of emails requesting a thorough investigation into the deeply saddening death of Belly Mujinga.

Belly Mujinga worked on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, ensuring that transport could remain operational for key workers throughout the crisis. News of Ms Mujinga’s death has raised some very serious and concerning questions regarding workplace safety and the UK justice system.

Firstly, Ms Mujinga was not provided with PPE by her employer Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). This is despite being a key worker throughout the peak of the COVID-19 crisis and her employer being aware of existing health conditions.

I have been calling for WHO standard PPE for all key workers since the beginning of this crisis. Following Ms Mujinga’s death I joined London MPs in re-establishing calls for PPE for all transport workers in a letter directly to the Prime Minister.

The letter, which you can read in full here, asks the Prime Minister:

“To ensure that transport operators have the requisite funds, and your Government’s support, to procure appropriate personal protective equipment to all public front facing staff.”

I have also written to Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to ask for reassurance that all staff will now be provided with this protective equipment.

Secondly, this incident raises serious issues with the justice system in England. Ms Mujinga’s case was closed with no consequences, British Transport Police said:

“there is no evidence to substantiate any criminal offences having taken place, and the tragic death of Belly Mujinga was not a consequence of this incident”.

Whilst investigations have concluded that the incident involving a man spitting at Ms Mujinga and a co-worker did not lead to her death, it is highly concerning that no further actions will be taken in regards to the assault on Ms Mujinga and the breaking of lockdown guidelines, which in itself puts key workers at risk. On June 2nd 2020, a man who spat at a police officer in Glasgow was jailed for a total of 12 months.

I have written to the British Transport Police to request more information regarding their investigations. The public must be assured that police are taking this crisis seriously and are holding those who threaten public health to account. Closing this investigation without a detailed public explanation sends a message that it is acceptable to act irresponsibly with complete disregard for the lives of those who have put themselves in harms way throughout this crisis.

Finally, the death of Ms Mujinga highlights the human impact of the racial inequalities highlighted throughout this crisis.

In London, more than a quarter of transport workers operating tubes and buses, which remained open during the lockdown and, 67% of the adult social care workforce are from BAME backgrounds.

It has been highlighted, since close to the beginning of this crisis, that BAME residents in the UK are up to twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Providing PPE is a necessary part of protecting BAME lives throughout this crisis and must be addressed as such.

Belly Mujinga leaves behind a husband and an 11 year old daughter. At least 33 transport workers have died in London throughout this crisis so far, each leaving behind friends and family.

I have also joined London MPs in calling on the Government to extend the Coronavirus life assurance lump sum scheme for the bereaved families of NHS workers to be extended to cover all transport workers who die from COVID-19.

 

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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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MP for Erith and Thamesmead appointed to new role in the Shadow Treasury Team

Abena Oppong-Asare, MP for Erith and Thamesmead has been appointed to the role of Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s newly appointed Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Ms Oppong-Asare will be supporting the Shadow Treasury Team in their work to hold the Government to account over new financial measures introduced in light of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Ms Oppong-Asare said:

“I am delighted to have been asked to work with the Shadow Treasury Team at such an important time for our country. Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of the current workings of our economy and the need for more scrutiny to be placed on our taxation system and public spending.
We will be continuing to hold the Government to account over failings in how they have responded to Covid-19. We have already raised issues such as the financial black hole charity organisations are facing and problems with the Furlough scheme, which has since been extended.
This appointment will mean I can work with colleagues to ensure my constituents needs are represented and taken into account by the Government in regards to spending and economic growth.
I am looking forward to working with my engaged and talented colleagues to ensure we support the Government in their successes and hold them to account in their oversights.”

The Shadow Treasury Team will also be working on new measures to help the UK economy recover after the crisis, with Ms Dodds already calling for the introduction of a new taxation system to create a “fairer situation for the future.”

On April 4 2020, Keir Starmer MP was elected Leader of the Labour Party and has now finalised appointment of the new Shadow Cabinet who will sit on Labour’s Front Benches when Parliament is reconvened.

In a statement, Starmer said:

“We are living through a national emergency. Under my leadership, the Labour Party will always act in the country’s interest to save lives and protect livelihoods. That will be the number one priority of my Shadow Cabinet.
We will be a responsible opposition that supports the government where we believe they are right and challenge them when we believe mistakes are being made.”