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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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Parliamentary business continues despite crisis

I hope you are staying home and keeping safe at this very challenging time. I’m working from home where my job as your MP continues. My team and I continue to support local people with a range of casework, from helping people to access financial support as a result of Covid-19 to assisting those stranded overseas. I’m also still holding the Government to account and demanding answers where their strategy is failing.

Parliament will be meeting virtually for the duration of the lockdown and business will continue as much as it possibly can. I’m taking the concerns you’ve raised with me directly to Ministers. 

This week and next at Parliamentary question time I’ll be asking the Culture Secretary about the support available for self-employed people working in the digital, culture, media and sport industries affected by Covid-19. I’ll also be asking the Justice Secretary about the very serious challenges facing our prisons at this time and what action is being taken.

Next week, my Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee will be questioning Secretary of State Robert Jenrick. I’ll be asking him how he is ensuring local authorities like Greenwich and Bexley get the financial support they need at this time of crisis. Councils have faced massive cuts and the Government must step up to ensure they meet all of the costs associated with delivering social care and other vital local services.

My committee, with my support, will also be launching an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector. I and many of my colleagues have serious concerns about the short and long-term impact on homelessness and those in insecure housing and we want to hear from those affected and organisations supporting them in order to make recommendations to Government. You can submit your views to hclgcom@parliament.uk.

If you have an issue you need my help with or if you have any questions or concerns to put to me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and my team and I will get back to you as soon as we can.

Abena Oppong-Asare

MP for Erith & Thamesmead

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MP calls for evidence for Parliamentary inquiry

Erith & Thamesmead MP Abena Oppong-Asare is calling on local people and organisations to submit evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry into homelessness and Covid-19.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, of which Abena is a member, is set to examine the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the homelessness, rough sleeping and the private rented sector.

In response to Covid-19, the Government launched the Everyone In scheme, whereby local authorities were required to house rough sleepers in hotels or emergency accommodation. They also announced £3.2 million in funding for local authorities to protect those who are homeless.

The Government has also introduced a number of schemes intended to support people in the private rented sector, including halting evictions for 3 months and raising the Local Housing Allowance rate.

However, there are concerns about the short and long-term impact of these strategies, including the quality of accommodation and access to amenities, such as for homeless people in temporary accommodation and the exit strategy when social distancing measures are reduced. There are also concerns about people in the private rented sector who may build up rent arrears over the coming months and still face eviction when the three-month ban expires.

The inquiry will examine how effective the Government support has been in supporting individuals in the private rented sector or who are homeless. It will also look at what long term strategies will need to be put in place to support both groups in the long-term, once current measures expire.

Speaking after the select committee agreed to launch an inquiry, Abena said:

“I called for this inquiry along with many of my colleagues because there are urgent issues which need to be addressed to support rough sleepers and those in insecure accommodation when this crisis ends. It is vital that those in precarious living situations are supported by the Government. We must ensure that people without homes and those sleeping rough are protected during this health crisis.

“However, we must also look at what will happen when the crisis ends. Where will those currently housed in hotels go when the Everyone In scheme expires? What happens in three months time when the eviction ban lapses for people who have no job and now owe three months rent?

“I encourage local people and relevant organisations to get in touch with me to share your views so that I may represent your interests as the inquiry unfolds.”

The Committee invites written evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness, rough sleeping, and the private rented sector, as well as any other connected issues. In particular, the Committee is interesting in finding out: 

  • How effective has the support provided by MHCLG and other Government departments in addressing the impact of COVID-19 on those in the private rented sector, rough sleepers, and the homeless?
  • What problems remain a current and immediate concern for these groups?
  • What might be the immediate post-lockdown impacts for these groups, and what action is needed to help with these?

 

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Covid policy response for self-employed in creative industries

The measures required to contain the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) are unprecedented and demand a national effort. But more support needs to be offered for those who are in the creative industries and therefore self-employed.

The Government announced a set of emergency measures outlining financial support during the coronavirus outbreak. Since I wrote to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, calling on the government to introduce further emergency financial measures the Government has announced the self-employment support scheme.

However, this does not go far enough to guarantee the income of workers who are self-employed in the creative industries and do not qualify for this scheme.

Our creative industries are worth a total of £117bn to the economy, much of this is due to the talent in its workforce. The creative industries have vanished overnight due to the coronavirus pandemic and so this workforce should be treated with the same support as those in secure jobs.

The latest Government response to those who do not qualify for the self-employed support scheme due to working within creative industries is: “We recognise that there are challenges for the creative industries in accessing government support. The Fed team is in ongoing conversation with the government to ensure that this support better fits the needs of the creative industries.”

In the meantime, I am doing all I can to make sure those in the creative industries get the support they need from the Government. This issue has been highlighted to the Government and is one myself and my colleagues are working on ways to pressure the Government into acting on urgently.

My colleague has contacted the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, to raise these concerns which you can read here: https://bit.ly/3azWSnK.

Things are changing fast and so I would ask that you keep an eye on the Governments official website for updates on any changes to the financial offer for those in the creative industries. You can find that here: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus

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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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Erith and Thamesmead MP Abena Oppong-Asare ‘shocked’ at treatment of Universal Credit claimants during Coronavirus crisis

Universal Credit claimants are being denied deferrals on loan repayments to the DWP forcing them into financial difficulties during Covid-19.

In response to criticism of the five week wait claimants face for their first Universal Credit payment the DWP offers loans to help claimants during the wait, these are repaid monthly through deductions in the payment. Abena Oppong-Asare MP has criticised the DWP for continuing these deductions from payments whilst others are being offered three month loan freezes and mortgage holidays due to Covid-19.

One resident who emailed Ms Oppong-Asare for help said:

“Like many other people on Universal Credit I accepted a loan offered to me at the outset of my claim because of the several weeks delay that occurs processing claims. However, loans are subject to immediate repayment and deductions of £110.59 per month have been taken.”

The Government has recently extended the loan repayment period from 12 months to 18 months offering a slight decrease in monthly deductions. Claimants can also request a three month deferral of loan repayments to the DWP due to hardship reasons just one time.

The resident that contacted Ms Oppong-Asare said: “I requested a 3 month deferral last year because I had fallen into rent arrears as a result of the delay processing my Universal Credit claim. At that time no one would have been aware of a future worldwide Coronavirus pandemic.”

The DWP is unable to respond to specific requests for hardship reasons such as a second loan repayment deferral due to restrictions in Government policy.

Ms Oppong-Asare said:

“I am truly shocked at the treatment of my constituent during this unprecedented time. The DWP are deducting £176.68 every month from this person’s payment due to loan deductions and bedroom tax. The country is under huge pressure and the Government should be doing all it can to relieve the financial strain people will face at this time.
Families will be facing higher utility bill payments, higher grocery bills and less work opportunities during the UK lockdown through no fault of their own. The least the Government can do is freeze loan repayments and bedroom tax to ease the burden on those already facing financial difficulties.”

In October 2019, there were 2.6 million universal credit claimants, just over a third of whom were in work. Since March 16th when the Government advised that people should work from home and practice social distancing where possible, the DWP have received over 950,000 applications for Universal Credit.

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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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Local MP joins influential Select Committee

Abena Oppong-Asare, MP for Erith and Thamesmead, has joined Parliament’s influential Housing and Local Government Select Committee.

Housing was made a priority by Abena in her maiden speech in Parliament following conversations with constituents during the election campaign and after which made clear this was a big concern for local people. Huge cuts to local councils over the last decade has significantly impacted on their ability to deliver vital local services to people in Bexley and Greenwich and across the country and challenging these cuts is also a key issue for Abena.

Abena’s new role on the select committee means she’ll have a direct line to question and challenge Ministers and senior figures in housing and local government and work with colleagues from across all parties to hold Government to account and propose improvements to policies on issues such as homelessness, council funding, housing safety, affordable housing and protections for renters and leaseholders.

Abena said “I will use this role to put the concerns of local people directly to decision makers and fight to improve housing and invest in local government in Greenwich and Bexley and across the country.”

You’ll be able to keep up to date with Abena’s work on the select committee and in Parliament here.

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Minister challenged to name handover date for Southeastern

Erith and Thamesmead MP Abena Oppong-Asare challenged Transport Ministers to name a handover date for Southeastern services to TfL.

Abena put the question to Ministers at Transport Question time in Parliament following delays which have angered local passengers eager to see the service improved.

Abena said “We all know that there are huge transport issues in our constituency, not least regarding the Southeastern Rail service. I asked the Minister for Transport when we could expect a date for the transfer of Southeastern services to TfL. Unfortunately no date was set. I will continue to fight for this simple improvement to take place, as well as fighting for our constituency on other issues, such as the over-run of Crossrail.”