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Small Business Saturday Constituency Tour

Usually Small Business Saturday would be a day of celebration of the our great high streets and community businesses. This year has been tremendously difficult for businesses and my whistle stop tour of the constituency highlighted just how difficult this year has been.

Small Business Saturday occurs every year on the first Saturday in December. This year on Saturday 5 December shops, restaurants, bars and gyms were able to open for the first Saturday after the second UK wide lockdown during November. I visited 6 local businesses as part of Small Business Saturday to show my support and also hear first hand what help is needed from the Government.

The first stop on my tour was to see Charlie and Kim who run ‘CrossFit Against the Fire’. New Government restrictions have allowed gyms to remain open but for much of the year this important part of people’s daily physical and mental health routine has been cut off. Charlie told me that it was her gym members who have kept the business afloat this year. Over 50% of CrossFit Against the Fire members, were able to continue to pay their membership fees even when the gym was forced to close. This generosity, compassion and commitment by members of our community, is something that the Government should mirror nationally to ensure that gyms like CrossFit Against the Fire can survive.

Crossfit Against the Fire Visit on Small Business Saturday

From the gym, I went to meet another couple working together, Claire and Laurence, the owners of the Theatre Street Dance Company at The Link. Claire is a Chorographer and Laurence is a composer. Working in the arts has enabled them both to tour the world and for the last 20 years, they have been broadening the horizons of Erith and Thamesmead’s young people by supporting them into careers in the arts. Thanks to the Theatre Street Performing Arts, you’ve seen our young people on TV in shows such as Tracy Beaker and on stage, in the West End.

Theatre Street Dance Company Visit Small Business Saturday

Next up I visited Phoenix Tours – a local, multi-generational family run business owned by the lovely Patel family. They have been transporting our children to school, taking community groups for day trips to the beach and providing touring holidays to the Highlands and Europe on their luxury coaches, for over a decade.

Phoenix Tours are a creative and resilient business, but they need support. They need the Government to step in and ask the finance companies and insurance companies to go-easy. They need Local Government to be efficient and proactive with business rates relief. They need a responsive testing system that allows employees to feel safe and secure – because people want to work, but inefficient test and tracing is preventing them from doing so. Following this visit I spoke in a Parliamentary debate to urge the Government to unveil a plan to support coach companies.

Visit to Phoenix Tours Coach Company Small Business Saturday

I then went to the wonderful Abbey Wood Christmas Market where I enjoyed browsing the great variety of local vendors. I also met with the organisers of the market Chris and Catherine, who recently won a local business award for services to the community. I stopped to talk to Dean from Tree Wise Men who was selling Christmas Tree’s outside the Abbey Arms who told me about his plans to build his business for next year.

Tree Wise Men Small Business Saturday visit

I then went in to the Abbey Arms to discuss their challenges during COVID-19. Pubs are at the heart of our communities and are places where we connect but many are struggling after being closed for months.

It was great fun to be able to visit so many amazing businesses as part of Small Business Saturday and get into the festive spirit. However, it is really concerning to hear first-hand how much businesses are struggling. Business owners have been severely impacted by gaps in Government support, rising business costs during the pandemic, a lack of communication from the Chancellor and the inability to trade for many months of the year.

My biggest concern is that after Christmas we will see lots more members of staff laid off and huge numbers of local businesses forced to close. People in Erith and Thamesmead benefit from great local traders who are the heart and soul of our community. This pandemic must not mean the end of the local high street and I will be ensuring that the Chancellor realises just how bleak the future looks for local businesses if more support is not offered.

Newcomer MP of the Year Award

On 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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Local health and care heroes nominated in NHS Parliamentary Awards

The NHS Parliamentary Awards, sponsored by Fuji Film, were set up for the NHS’ 70th  Birthday to recognise the massive contribution made by the individuals who work in and alongside the NHS.

This year, more so than ever before, the NHS Parliamentary Awards highlight how health and social care staff continue to put others ahead of themselves to protect our community.

I was among over 260 MPs in England who put forward outstanding nominees who have innovated, impressed and made a real difference to how local health and care services provide care for patients.

I’m pleased to have nominated Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice team for the Excellence in Healthcare award. The hospice team went above and beyond during COVID-19 to keep loved ones together and make sure vulnerable individuals were supported. I have to commend not just the team but the many volunteers who stepped up during this period in their work with Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice.

I am also pleased to have nominated Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust for the Wellbeing at Work award and Kate Hudson, Lead Dementia Nurse Specialist for the Care and Compassion Award. As individuals and as a team employees at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, these amazing key workers went above and beyond to offer online support services and staff wellbeing support during COVID-19.

Everyone in Erith and Thamesmead is rightly proud of our local NHS and care services, The Coronavirus pandemic has shown the determination and bravery of thousands of NHS, care and key workers across Erith and Thamesmead and so I’m delighted to be taking part in the NHS Parliamentary Awards as a way of thanking and recognising the people who work in or support those services.

Nominees put forward by MPs across England will initially be judged by senior local and regional NHS experts to find regional champions in each category, which will be announced later in November and will be featured in The House Magazine.

These regional champions will then be judged by a national panel made up of senior clinicians, union leaders, former winners and patient representatives, with the overall winners announced at a special awards ceremony held in Parliament on Wednesday 7 July – the week of the NHS’ birthday.

 

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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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World Mental Health Day: Students’ mental health should be a government priority

Today is World Mental Health Day and I am pleased that we are able to talk about mental health much more openly than ever before. However, this recognition of the need for mental health support has failed to be translated into funding for mental health services over the past decade.

It is especially important that mental health services are given the recognition and funding they need at this concerning time for people across the UK. I am especially concerned about students, in schools and universities, who have had to continue their education under stressful and unprecedented conditions with very little additional support.

Earlier this week I questioned the Minister for Health and Social Care on why schools have not been given additional mental health provisions upon returning after the COVID-19 lockdown.

In a survey of over 200 students in Erith and Thamesmead, 19% said they felt like their mental health had been negatively impacted as a direct result of COVID-19.

Schools returned in September but social distancing measures remain in place and children over the age of 12 are required to wear masks. These new measures will undoubtedly be a cause of worry for young people and schools should have been prepared with additional mental health provisions to help students deal with the added pressures of COVID-19 restrictions.

I first raised concerns about the impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health in April after the majority of in person mental health services were stopped. Analysis by Young Minds reported that 80% of young people with existing mental health needs found that the pandemic had made their mental health worse.

Health Minister, Nadine Dorries MP, said on Tuesday that the Conservative’s Government mental health support investment “translates to 345,000 children and young people who will be able to access mental health support via NHS funded mental health services”.

We were already facing a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, with around 60% of people referred to mental health services receiving no treatment at all.

One in eight (12.8%) 5 to 19 year olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed in 2017, according to official NHS statistics – that is roughly three children in every classroom. The Government’s own figures fall short of providing support to all children and young people with mental health illnesses, leaving around 700,000 children who need it with no access to support.

The longer the Government ignores the need for more funding and better access to mental health services, the worse the crisis will go. I will be continuing to push the Department of Health and Social Care to act on this until everyone can access the support they need.

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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.