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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:

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Abena Oppong-Asare MP meets ovarian cancer survivors ahead of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

On Friday 12 February, I hosted a special virtual event with Target Ovarian Cancer, the UK’s leading ovarian cancer charity, meeting with Erith and Thamesmead survivors of ovarian cancer to help raise awareness about the disease ahead of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in March.

At the event we heard from Sue and Della, two inspirational survivors of ovarian cancer who are both campaigning to raise awareness. Together, they are making sure that more women are being diagnosed early. You can read both their stories here: Sue’s story and Della’s story.

Sue, 62, who is an Erith and Thamesmead resident, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March 2017. I had the pleasure of meeting her last year to hear her story and find out what more can be done to raise awareness. She said:

Very little is known about ovarian cancer even though over 7000 women are diagnosed in the UK each year. I want all women to be aware of the symptoms and don’t delay contacting their GP, especially in during the pandemic, as the sooner ovarian cancer is diagnosed the better the outlook. For Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in March, I would like the women of Erith and Thamesmead to spread the word: make your mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins and friends aware of what to look out for.

Tragically, 11 women die every day from ovarian cancer. If diagnosed at the earliest stage, 9 in 10 women will survive ovarian cancer. But right now, two thirds of women are diagnosed late. More women’s lives could be saved if we are more aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • Persistent bloating
  • Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Urinary symptoms

Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, a change in bowel habits and extreme fatigue. Anyone experiencing these symptoms, which are not normal for them, should see their GP.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing health inequalities, especially for women. People are worried to see their GP and we’ve seen cancer referrals plummet. This is a life-threatening problem that needs action from everyone and I am glad that this event helped to demystify the disease. The sense of care and support for one another, even over zoom, was palpable.

Please call Target Ovarian Cancer on 0207 923 5470 if you have any questions or need support.

You can watch the event below:

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Updated COVID-19 Measures for gyms and places of worship in Erith and Thamesmead

On Wednesday I joined my colleagues in voting to support an England wide lockdown. Valuable time has been lost when Labour’s call for an earlier circuit breaker would ultimately have benefitted the public health and the economy.

Whilst I am in support of new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed this winter, there are many questions that the Government must answer.

Once again, these new measures were announced via different news sources causing anxiety and confusion for people across England. When the Prime Minister finally addressed the country on Saturday his announcement was lacking basic necessary information about support available for businesses and individuals.

If the public’s health is to be protected then the Government must address the ongoing mental health crisis which has been exacerbated throughout 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Constituents have rightfully raised their concerns about the closure of places of worships, gyms and sports clubs.

For so many people, attending collective worship is an act that serves multiple purposes. It can be a respite from everyday life, a chance to engage with a like-minded community and an opportunity for spiritual connection. I know that around Erith and Thamesmead, faith leaders have been working incredibly hard to ensure that their places of worship are safe places to meet and worship.

Similarly, I know gyms and sports clubs have spent months putting safety measures in place to ensure people can remain active in a safe way. Gyms and sports clubs provide a vital service for people to engage in activity that is beneficial for the physical and mental wellbeing.

The decision to close these places should not be taken lightly and yet the Government had no communication with faith leaders and gym owners prior to announcing the England wide lockdown.

The lockdown measures came into force at midnight on Wednesday 4th November and remain in effect until at least Wednesday 2nd December. Where the Government did not communicate with these clubs and organisations before, they must now urgently begin discussions about an exit strategy.

Labour is calling for the Government to hold weekly meetings with the Places of Worship Taskforce to ensure faith leaders are consulted with and provided with support ahead of important festivals.

I will be urging for a much stronger level of communication between the Government and the public as well as a boost in access to mental health services to protect people whilst they are cut off from access to wider services and outlets.

 

Latest guidance for places of worship:

  • Places of worship (including non-religious buildings used for religious services) are to close from 5th November.
  • They may remain open only for individual/private prayer, funerals, for the broadcasting of services, and for the purpose of providing voluntary services such as foodbanks.
  • Funerals may continue with up to 30 guests.
  • Weddings are not permitted (except under the most extreme circumstances).

Latest guidance for gyms and sports clubs:

Leisure and sports facilities such as leisure centres and gyms, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, golf courses, fitness and dance studios, climbing walls, archery, driving, and shooting ranges are all included in the list of businesses and venues which must close.

 

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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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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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Get Ready For September – Thanks for taking part

The Get Ready For September summer programme has come to an end after a successful month of online events and discussions.

Earlier this year, I reached out to students, parents and teachers to ask your views on the impact COVID-19 was having on education. I received hundreds of responses in which the majority of students said they felt their education had been negatively affected. Over half of you also said you felt unprepared for upcoming exams and almost 20% said they felt their mental health had suffered.

I followed this up with a letter to the Education Minister Gavin Williamson MP, outlining concerns and suggestions. Unfortunately, it became clear the Government was not taking the impacts on young people’s education seriously. Whilst some students continued to struggle to access educational materials the Government oversaw the devastating A-Level results day scandal.

Where the Conservative Government has failed to step up, I’m pleased that the community of Erith and Thamesmead were willing to offer their support. Throughout August I partnered with dozens of local service providers to offer a series of online educational events to students and families in Erith and Thamesmead.

FlavRcise, a family friendly dance fitness class, offered free online lessons every Saturday throughout August to help get young people get active in their own homes. Paola Scandurra, from ScandurraConsulting delivered an excellent course on self-care and boosting your mental wellbeing. Funk Butcher, Tamara Hunter and Active Horizons joined us for an interesting discussion about Black Lives Matter and what it means for students.

Martha Mingay, a student and University teacher, stepped up to offer much needed support on results day with advice about applying through Clearing and what to expect at University. With future prospects in mind Cllr Anthony Okereke and Sochima Ikpa offered a group careers advice session and extra one to one support opportunities.

The programme, aimed at engaging students and families in educational events and discussions, was also targeted at students who have faced barriers in accessing education. Greenwich Council joined the programme to offer 1000 free printed worksheets to students facing barriers with technology.

The Get Ready For September summer programme truly echoed the community spirit we have seen rise during the past few months. As the Member of Parliament for Erith and Thamesmead I am pleased to have been able to harness the amazing talent and compassion in the constituency to provide students with access to spaces for learning and discussion.

Thank you to all students, parents, teachers and service providers who made this programme possible, enjoyable and informative. Best of luck to all students on your return to school!