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Speaking up for hard-hit local hospitality businesses in Parliament

Hospitality businesses in Erith and Thamesmead have had an enormously difficult year. On Wednesday 24 March, the House of Commons held a debate to consider support for the hospitality industry during this pandemic.

I spoke at the debate, highlighting the enormous difficulties our local businesses have faced. Not only have they been closed for many months, but when they have been allowed to open, they have faced a constantly changing set of rules and regulations. Many have not received the financial support they needed from the Government, and many are fearful for the future.

In my speech I raised the concerns of several local pubs – including the Abbey Arms in Abbey Wood which I visited in December as part of Small Business Saturday. Pubs that have reached out to me like The Duchess of Kent in Erith and The Victoria in Belvedere are centres of our communities and they need assurances from the Government that they will provided with support not just to reopen but thrive.

The wedding and events sector has also been extremely hard hit as nearly all their usual business disappeared. Especially worrying is the fact that many businesses in the events sector have been repeatedly refused grant funding by Bexley council – who cite the Government’s tight criteria.

If it is properly supported, the hospitality industry can and will play a vital role in reviving our economy after this most difficult year. But we need action from the Government right now to ensure this happens.

You can watch my speech below:

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Parliament to Debate e-Petition on Press Freedoms and Safety of Protestors in India

There will be a Westminster Hall debate at 4:30pm on Monday 8 March centring around protests in India against new farming laws after a petition gathered over 100,000 signatures.

I applied to speak at the debate. There were many MPs who wished to take part in this debate and so, unfortunately, I was not selected to speak.

I have been horrified by the images of water cannon, tear gas and brute force being used against peaceful protestors. For the sake of democracy, the farmers protesting in India must be allowed to exercise their right to peacefully protest.

For those who don’t know, concerns have been raised about the impact of three new laws in India on farmers. Taken together, the laws loosen rules around sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce – these rules have protected India’s farmers from the free market for decades.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the laws will “benefit small farmers the most”, however their introduction has been met with ardent protests – especially in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana state. Farmers have been camped on Delhi’s outskirts since 26 November 2020 to protest the laws. Tens of thousands of police and paramilitary troops have been deployed to halt the march of protestors.

India’s Supreme Court has stayed the implementation of the laws “until further notice” and appointed a committee to broker a deal between the farmers and the government. Farmers have not accepted the committee, saying that all its panel members are pro-government.

Over British 100 MPs and peers have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister on this issue, calling on him to “convey to the Indian Prime Minister the heart-felt anxieties of our constituents, our hopes for a speedy resolution to the current deadlock and also for the democratic human rights of citizens to peacefully protest”.

On 12 January 2021 I personally wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to “publicly state [his] commitment to upholding human rights around the world”.

The Indian authorities must commit to upholding the right to peaceful protest and I believe this is a point that the UK Government should be engaging far more actively and effectively with the Indian Government on.

The Westminster Hall Debate can be viewed here.

 

 

 

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Speaking up in Parliament for businesses and individuals struggling during the pandemic

On Wednesday 24 February I rose to the Opposition despatch box to give the closing statement for the Shadow Treasury’s Opposition Day Debate on ‘Supporting Businesses and Individuals Through the Coronavirus Crisis’.

As your local MP and as Labour’s Shadow Exchequer Secretary I am determined to speak truth to power and provide a voice for the despair so many people are feeling.

Although the Chancellor didn’t show up to defend his failings during this crisis, several Labour colleagues gave powerful speeches about how the pandemic has affected businesses and individuals in their constituencies. Their passion, in the face of Tory callousness, is an inspiration. Not everyone can wait for the Chancellor to come to Parliament.

People across our country are facing the very real prospect of their job disappearing, or their businesses failing, and we must continue to push the Government to set out clear measures that will support businesses and families over the coming months.

As it stands, the Government’s support schemes have left gaps that leave millions forgotten, unsupported, and excluded. It’s not good enough.

You can watch my speech below:

Newcomer MP of the Year Award

Image announcing Abena as Newcomer MP of the YearOn Wednesday 2nd December I was awarded the Newcomer MP of the Year Award by the Patchwork Foundation. 

MP of the Year Awards seek to celebrate and recognise those MPs that uphold the ethos and values of the Patchwork Foundation; to champion underrepresented, minority or disadvantaged communities in the UK.

The awards are adjudicated on by an independent panel who choose a winner from the public nominees, taking into consideration the work and accolades of the selected MPs. They are traditionally presented at Speakers House in the Palace of Westminster however this year I took part in the virtual presentation.

Patchwork Foundation awarded me the Newcomer MP of the Year award for “successfully campaigning this year on discriminatory attitudes in the media and society.”

Image from award ceremony

This year has been an extraordinary time to enter Parliament but I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to represent Erith and Thamesmead during these unprecedented times. The hardship people have faced during COVID-19 has been evident and the work to represent my constituents who are being left behind will continue far into the future.

However, I have not represented my constituents alone – I have done so alongside my fantastic team, community organisations, faith groups, teachers, NHS and care workers and many passionate and caring individuals. There are many obstacles we must tackle as a community and as a country and I am confident that over the next few years I will be able to work alongside my fantastic colleagues and constituents to create positive changes.

Imran Sanaullah, CEO, Patchwork Foundation said “I am grateful to all of our winners for taking the time to be a part of tonight’s ceremony. Now more than ever these awards are an important reminder that our democracy relies on diversity of thought and ensuring Parliament and civil society evolves to be more inclusive. We’re proud of the work we do at the Patchwork Foundation to educate young people in how their democracy works and we look forward to help continue to provide the tools and skills.”

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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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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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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?