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Are you Erith and Thamesmead’s Best Small Shop?

I’m calling on Erith and Thamesmead small shopkeepers to enter the Best Small Shops Competition, celebrating the successes of small shops and the central role they play in their local community, particularly in response to COVID-19.

The Best Small Shops Competition is open to any small shop* operating in the UK. The competition is free to enter and all shops who enter will also be promoted to consumers through an online Indie Retail Directory.

Shopkeepers can nominate their businesses until Friday 11th September 2020 via www.bestsmallshops.co.uk. A shortlist will be announced in October with winners announced in November.

The judges will be looking for evidence of a small shops’ entrepreneurial spirit, ways that they have been innovative in their business and what they have done to have a lasting positive impact on their community.

The shortlisted small shops will then be in with the chance to win one of five awards, including the newly launched award for small shops response to COVID-19.

Whilst COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on people’s businesses and livelihoods, there are many ways in which businesses in the constituency have been creative in working safely around the COVID-19 measures. There have also been many small businesses that have contributed to the effort to support our community through the crisis.

As Erith and Thamesmead begins to re-open it is important we recognise and celebrate the achievements of businesses in the constituency and support our local economy.

Submit your entry

The entries for 2020’s Best Small Shop competition are now open. Submit your entry at www.bestsmallshops.co.uk.

Entries close on Friday 11th September 2020.

More entry guidance is available here.

*For the purposes of the competition, a small shop is defined as a non-corporate business selling goods or services to the public for use or consumption rather than for resale, from a business rated premises in the UK.

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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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Our carers need us, we must Care for Carers

During the COVID-19 crisis we have seen the value and need for our care staff more acutely than ever before.

I am so incredibly proud and humbled by the dedication and hard work I have seen the NHS staff and care workers in Erith and Thamesmead display throughout this virus. They have been the people that have kept us safe in this pandemic, but for many this has come at a personal cost.

In 2019 nearly 5 million working days were lost due to poor metal health, up to 30% of NHS staff absence is stress related, the British Medical Association have stated that 41% of doctors suffer with depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions relating to their work.

The people looking after us during COVID-19 deserve better than this. This is why I am supporting the Labour Party call for a ‘Care for Carers’ package of mental health support for 3 million NHS carers and staff.

A Care for Carers package would launch a new national hotline, staffed by paid professionals and available 24 hours a day. It would provide follow-up support, treatment and specialised help for people with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unless our staff are protected, they cannot continue their vital work of keeping us all safe.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis the Government failed to protect our Carers physical health with adequate PPE, as we move forward let’s not fail to protect their mental health.

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Events industry needs Government support to survive

Last week I requested to speak in the House of Commons chamber about the urgent need for Government support for the events industry. Unfortunately, I was not called to speak directly about the pressing concerns many constituents have contacted me to raise over the past two months. However, I am aware of your concerns and difficulties and I will be raising these with the Government at every possible occasion. 

A huge amount of people in Erith and Thamesmead have been impacted by the Government’s failure to offer economic assistance to the events industry during COVID-19.

From the very beginning of lockdown I have received daily emails about the events industry, theatres, the hospitality sector and the creative sector. People who have worked in these industries, contributing to the UK’s economy for years, have been completely abandoned by this Government.

Despite efforts made by myself and colleagues to raise these issues with the Government ask that more support be given, I have unfortunately had to respond to constituents informing them that there is no support package available and the Government doesn’t seem to want to support them.

The Government needs to provide a sector specific support package for the cultural sector; theatres, music, festivals, other live performance venues, but also tourism and hospitality sectors which are inextricably linked.

The events sector is worth £42.3 billion to the UK economy, there are over 25,000 businesses and it sustains 570,000 full time jobs.

There is a reason 35% of the UK visitor economy is accounted for by events. That is because the events industry pulls together the best talent in a whole range of areas. Behind every festival is a team of marketers, performers, hospitality staff, transport operators, event organisers and UK music venues.

Almost every UK music festival has been cancelled this summer, music venues across the country have been unable to open for three months and are unsure of when they can begin to open again, hundreds of thousands of hospitality jobs have already been lost and the industry has warned of thousands more.

What steps is the government taking to support venues which will be unable to open for the foreseeable future, such as music venues and theatres, and therefore unable to subsidise the furlough scheme from August?

If the Government doesn’t act to save businesses and jobs before they are lost we are going to see a huge hole in the economy where our world renowned events industry used to thrive. The Government must act urgently to support people in these industries to avoid a loss of jobs, talent and culture across the UK.

We need a Back to Work Budget for Erith and Thamesmead

It is clear the Government was too slow to recognise the scale of the health crisis from coronavirus and we are already paying the economic price.

I am increasingly worried that the slow and muddled health response is now being followed by a slow and muddled response to saving jobs. The window is closing to protect existing jobs and encourage firms to invest in creating new ones.

There were 2,780 people in Erith and Thamesmead claiming for Universal Credit and other benefits last month, a rise of 132% since the outbreak of coronavirus. Although this is an imperfect measure of unemployment, it hints at the scale of the looming jobs crisis in our community.

Reports the government has pushed back its next full budget to the Autumn worry me, as we’re already behind other countries like Germany, which announced a full economic package weeks ago.

We need an urgent package of economic measures with a clear focus: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.

Supporting this, we need a strategic withdrawal of support schemes tailored to the needs of specific sectors and areas.

Nearly 1 in 4 people of working age in Erith and Thamesmead are relying on the Job Retention Scheme (16.7%) or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (7.22%).

Labour called for and welcomed these schemes, but we are concerned about their abrupt withdrawal which risks pushing millions of people into unemployment. The Chancellor plans to withdraw support for all sectors and areas of the economy at once and has not linked his plan to other public health measures, such as easing social distancing guidelines where it is safe to do so.

This one-size-fits all approach won’t work for sectors like hospitality. Pubs, restaurants and cafes will be operating well below capacity when they eventually reopen, and their fortunes are closely linked to the decisions that are taken on social distancing. It makes no sense to withdraw support for the 2,315 hospitality workers in Erith and Thamesmead at the same time as sectors that are operating as normal and will need less support.

Similarly, firms relying on tourism face losing the majority of trade from the summer high season. Snatching away all support in October, just as the high season ends, could be ruinous for the tourism sector and the roughly 1,640 jobs it creates in Erith and Thamesmead.

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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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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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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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Know your rights at work during Covid-19

On Monday 11th May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced that lockdown measures would be eased. Since then I have been receiving emails from constituents asking for clarification on the updated rules and with concerns regarding returning to work.

It was irresponsible for Boris Johnson to suggest that lockdown measures had been eased without offering specific details about how we should regard public safety. I share constituent concerns that the Government has put the economy before human life and many will be asked to return to work without sufficient safety precautions being taken into account.

For those concerned about their safety, UK employment law offers some protections for employees that are important to note during this crisis. Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides employees with the right to withdraw from, and refuse to return to, a workplace that is unsafe.

This law relies on ‘the opinion’ of the employee and therefore can be used to justify refusing to enter a workplace based on the different scenarios and circumstances facing people throughout the pandemic.

It is important to note that those who can work from home should still do so and those on the shielding list should refrain from going into work. The Prime Minister aimed his easing of lockdown restrictions at those who are unable to work from home, such as construction workers.

Many constituents across Erith and Thamesmead have raised the issue that it is particularly difficult to socially distance on a construction site. Similar issues are now facing employees in schools and retail workers who had previously been furloughed.

Section 44. provides employees with the means to contest the suitability of safety arrangements without fear of recriminations. This means that an employee can refuse to enter an unsafe working environment without fear of being fired or suffering loss of wages.

Whilst I am pleased these employment laws exist to protect people, there will inevitably be some employers who expect employees back at work without conducting the appropriate risk assessments. I would encourage everyone to join a union who will be able to represent for your rights in the workplace.

Should your employment or safety become compromised during this crisis please do not hesitate to contact me for assistance and guidance at abena.oppongasare.mp@parliament.uk.