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Windrush Day

I was very pleased to take part in the recent debate on Windrush Day 2021. 

I used the debate to celebrate the Windrush generation and their descendants, but also to raise serious concerns about the operation of the Windrush compensation scheme.

The scheme has been far too slow to pay out and has left many families with even less confidence in the Home Office.

In the debate, I called on the Government to make the scheme fully independent in order to restore trust and confidence.

You can read my full speech here.

 

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Government must do more to support people to self-isolate

As part of my role in the Shadow Treasury Team, I have been pushing the Government to provide more support to people who need to self-isolate.

Labour has always said that health and economic measures must go hand-in-hand, but the Government’s failure has meant too many people have to choose between self-isolating and paying the bills.

At this weeks’ Treasury questions, I asked the Chancellor about reports that the Treasury had suppressed information about how the furlough scheme could be used to support self-isolating employees. This shocking revelation show’s how poor the Government’s approach to economic support during the pandemic has been.

I called on the Chancellor to appear before the joint parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the Covid crisis to explain why the Government has not listened to the experts and introduced a robust self-isolation support scheme.

 

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Raising Cancer Concerns in Parliament

After a local GP raised concerns with me about delays in receiving vital test results, I asked the Health Secretary to look into the problem and resolve it as soon as possible.

I will continue to push the Government to improve on cancer care and diagnosis in our area.

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Roundtable with Minister and local disabled advocacy groups

This week I brought together a group of local disability advocacy and support groups to raise concerns about the operation of the benefits system on people with disabilities with Justin Tomlinson, the Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health.

Earlier this year I met with the Minister to raise concerns about how the pandemic had affected people with disabilities and the failure of the DWP to meet the needs of disabled people.

The Minister agreed to take part in a roundtable with local organisations working on the frontline with disabled people.

I have raised a number of these issues in Parliament during a recent debate on the impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities. In that debate I called for the Government to bring forward a national strategy for disabled people as soon as possible.

Key issues raised at the roundtable included a failure to provide accessible information to disabled people, the problems people with learning difficulties face accessing PIP, the impact of benefit assessments on claimants mental health, and the lack of appropriate training for assessors.

Participants also raised problems with disabled people accessing Universal Credit and the problems some people face due to the increasingly online-only system.

The roundtable discussion will feed into the Green Paper on health and disability which is due to be published shortly.

I urge local organisations and individuals to contribute to the consultation process once it is open.

I am determined that nobody is left behind in Erith and Thamesmead, and this means that disabled people need better treatment from the Government.

I hope the Government will listen to the concerns and bring forward concrete proposals to improve the benefits system for disabled people.

Kara Lee from Bexley Mencap said: “It was fantastic to be involved in such an important conversation to share the experiences and views of people with learning disabilities about the benefit system and how it could be improved.  Thank you for organising the meeting to give small organisations, and more importantly the people they represent, a voice about such an important topic.”

Alan Kerr from Metro GAD said: “I really valued the opportunity to speak directly with the Minister of Disabled People to express our very real concerns about the benefits system and the impact it has on their lives.”

Press coverage of the event: https://london-post.co.uk/abena-oppong-asare-mp-holds-roundtable-with-government-minister-and-local-advocacy-groups-to-discuss-concerns-about-the-treatment-of-disabled-people/

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My response to the Queens’ Speech

The Queen’s Speech is a traditional part of the State Opening of Parliament. It is written by Ministers, but it is delivered by the Queen from the throne of the House of Lords. The Queen’s Speech on Tuesday (11 May 2021) set out the Government’s agenda for the new session of Parliament.

Even before the pandemic, we needed to transform Britain – we had 5.7 million people in low-paid or insecure work and 4.2 million children growing up in poverty, class sizes were at their highest for 20 years, one in seven adults were unable to get the social care that they need, and we had one of the worst levels of regional inequality in Europe. Shockingly, life expectancy had also stalled, for the first time in a century. Coronavirus has only further exposed the consequences of Government decisions over the last ten years.

We therefore needed a Queen’s Speech that rose to the scale of the challenge of rebuilding our economy and society. Unfortunately, I believe the one we got only papers over the cracks.

Instead of a plan for jobs and better work, for example, we see different parts of the country pitted against each other for limited funds, too little investment in infrastructure and no sign of the Employment Bill repeatedly promised by the Government.

The Queen’s Speech should also have included a clear long-term recovery plan for our NHS. But with waiting lists at a record high of 4.7 million, what we heard on Tuesday will come nowhere near the scale of the change needed. In addition, long after the Prime Minister said on the steps of Downing Street that he had a clear plan to fix the crisis in social care, there was still no such plan in the Government’s agenda for this session of Parliament.

I believe it is a similar story on skills and education, crime and policing and housing: I do not believe the rhetoric on these issues is being matched by funding, legislation or action. The Government has also failed to take this opportunity to help the thousands of people trapped in unsafe buildings, and hundreds of thousands of leaseholders are caught up in homes they cannot sell or afford.

On democracy, meanwhile, instead of rebuilding trust, the Government is introducing a Bill that will make it harder for people to vote, undermine civil liberties and disproportionately impact ethnic minorities.

Now is the time for a transformative agenda to rebuild Britain’s foundations after a decade of neglect and a year of national sacrifice. Unfortunately, I believe this Queen’s Speech has missed the opportunity to do this.

Summary of announcements in the Queens Speech

Levelling Up

 

  • Levelling up White Paper due later this year setting out next steps of Levelling Up – and expected to include new policy interventions.
  • There is also a commitment to continue with previously announced measures (Levelling Up fund, Shared Prosperity Fund, Towns Fund, Freeports).

 

 

Health and Social Care 

  • Measures to reform the operation of the social care system in England will be brought forward, however there was no confirmation about the introduction of a specific bill or legislation regarding how the sector is funded. Reports suggest that discussions are currently ongoing within Government about the potential cost of changes, which could run into the billions. 
  • Proposals for social care were instead announced alongside the broader changes under the Health and Care Bill aimed at shifting care away from hospitals and towards peoples’ homes and increasing integration through the delivery of an Integrated Care System in every part of the country. Other measures within the Health and Care Bill include:
    • Provisions to improve oversight over how social care is commissioned and delivered and will provide some direction on integrating health and social care by “putting Integrated Care Systems on a statutory footing across the UK”.
    • Tackling obesity with the introduction of measures including: 
      • The restriction of the promotions on high fat, salt and sugar food and 25 drinks in retailers from April 2022. The Health and Care Bill will also include measures to ban junk food adverts pre-9pm watershed on TV and for a total ban online.  
      • Introduction of secondary legislation to require large out-of-home sector businesses with 250 or more employees to calorie label the food they sell.  
      • Further support to GPs, so that anyone with obesity can get support from their GP and referrals to weight management services. 
  • Measures will also be brought forward to tackle the impact of the pandemic on mental health and wellbeing with reforms to the Mental Health Act to give greater control over their treatment and ensuring dignity and respect. 
  • The Government will continue with its COVID-19 vaccination programme, planning for a booster campaign in the autumn and will provide a further £29 billion to the NHS next year in COVID-19 funding.

 

Local government, Democracy and Elections

  • The repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and introduction of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will allow the Prime Minister to call an early election as opposed to current arrangements where elections are on a five-year fixed term basis (unless two-thirds of MPs vote for a motion proposing an early general election).
  • The Electoral Integrity Bill will introduce the requirement for voters to prove their identity when they vote at general elections.
    • Campaigners and rights groups have warned that this would amount to voter suppression and would particularly impact on the electorate in deprived communities where the costs of driving licenses and passports may be more prohibitive.
  • The Judicial Review Bill will set out the Government’s plans to change how its decisions can be challenged in the courts.  This Bill will be subject to consultation.
  • The Procurement Bill aims to ensure public procurement is quicker, simpler and more transparent, while enshrining in law the principle of value for money.
  • Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill – changes across all main public service pension schemes in response to the Court of appeal judgement in the McCloud and Sargeant cases (which challenged protection of final salary pensions of those closest to retirement). Therefore implements changes already planned for.

 

Education and Skills

 

  • A Skills and Post-16 Education Bill (due for publication on 18 May) will introduce a number of reform to the adult further education system:
    • Lifetime skills guarantee that will allow anyone without equivalent A-level qualifications to be retrained.
    • Every adult to have access to a flexible loan for education and training (levels 4-6) at university or college, useable at any point in their lives. Adults will be able to access the equivalent of four years of student loans. They can be used flexibly for full-time or part-time education, technical qualifications or individual course modules.
    • Employers will have a statutory role in planning publicly-funded training programmes with education providers, through a “Skills Accelerator” programme.
    • The Secretary of State for Education will be given enhanced powers to ‘intervene’ in colleges that do not meet local need and guidance improvement.
  • Implements some aspects originally set out in the Skills for Jobs White paper published in Jan 2021.
  • Lifetime skills guarantee originally announced by the PM in Sep 2020 under ‘COVID-recovery’ plans.
  • Loan system has been a longstanding barrier since first introduced to uptake of adult further education (specifically disadvantaged groups) – not clear if this new ‘flexible’ loan will actually boost confidence for learners to take out the loan – will depend on the loan conditions.
  • Whilst no new measures were announced today regarding school education and Early Years, the Government have re-affirmed their commitment to roll out Family Hubs which will be driven by an investment of £14 million. Additional measures also include the recently-announced Early Years Healthy Development Review, which encourages all local authorities to publish a Start for Life offer which sets out support that parents can expect to receive in the 1,001 ‘critical days’.

 

 

Housing and infrastructure

 

  • Planning Bill (expected in autumn 2021) will introduce changes to the planning system previously set out and consulted on in the planning white paper.
    • Exact details of what will be included from the white paper not fully known until full publication or more details emerge.
    • Proposals in the white paper were expected to mean significant changes to Local Plans
    • Councils will be required to use a zoning system to assign ‘growth’, ‘protection’ or ‘renewal’ zones in local plans. Automatic outline approval issued for development in ‘growth areas’.
    • A new “Single Infrastructure Levy” would replace the existing developer contributions system of Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy.
    • Housing numbers would be determined nationally, with locally determined five year supply requirement scrapped.
    • Reforms are designed to help government achieve their own national housebuilding targets.
  • Building Safety Bill  – a new system for regulating the safety of high-rise buildings, and inspecting construction sites – Building Safety Regulator to be established alongside updates to existing building safety regulations.
  • Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill – will restrict the charging of ground rents on new long residential leases – some exemptions such as for community-led housing.
  • Not contained in a Bill, but Government will later this year publish a White Paper, and legislation on reforms to improve standards and conditions in the private rented sector.
  • National Insurance Contributions Bill – will allow tax breaks for employers based in the eight freeports to be set up later this year (including in the LCR).
  • High Speed Rail (Crewe-Manchester) Bill – introduces the new powers to build and operate the stage of the HS2 high-speed rail line that will link with the LCR.

 

 

Crime and Community Safety

  • New powers for the police over protests, and new sentences for serious crimes were announced as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
    • The Bill also places a duty on local authorities and its partners to work together to prevent and reduce serious violence, and the introduction of Serious Violence Reduction Orders.
  • A draft Victims Bill will create new rights for the victims of crime, including new standards on support offered to sexual and domestic victims.
  • Addressing violence against women and girls and supporting victims through the publication of a new Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy.
    • This follows the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 which will see the introduction of a new duty on Local Authorities to assess the need for accommodation-based domestic abuse support in their area for all victims (and their children) and prohibited charges for the provision of domestic abuse legal aid letters by health professionals in general practice.
    • A Domestic Abuse Strategy will also be published focusing on prevention, accompanied by £25million of investment to work with perpetrators.
  • Measures will also be brought forward to establish a fairer immigration system that “strengthens the United Kingdom’s borders and deters criminals who facilitate dangerous and illegal journeys” although there was no reference to the implementation of an actual bill at this stage.
  • The Online Safety Bill will contain new requirements and place a duty of care on companies and social networks to improve the safety of their users online and tackle harmful and illegal content and clearly define what content is not acceptable.
  • The Judicial Review Bill will set out the Government’s plans to change how its decisions can be challenged in the courts. This Bill will be subject to consultation.

 

Environment

 

  • Continued Government commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
  • The Environment Bill has been carried over from the previous Parliament following many delays – indicates a continued commitment from Government to eventually enact.
  • Will set legally binding targets – which may be cascaded down to LAs.
  • A new, independent body will hold all public authorities to account on environmental law. A long-term environmental improvement plan will be produced and the independent Office for Environmental Protection will be set up.

Recycling reform measures will include introducing a consistent approach to recycling across LAs – consultation on Consistency in Household and Business Recycling in England currently live.

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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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Celebrating local women in Parliament for International Women’s Day

On 8 March we marked International Women’s Day 2021. I used the parliamentary debate on IWD, held on 11 March, to celebrate local women making a difference in our community.

They included Dr Sam Parrett OBE, principal of London and South East Education Group, who has done so much to ensure that young people were supported throughout the pandemic; Sue Stockham, an ovarian cancer survivor, who is using her experience to raise awareness about the signs of ovarian cancer and the importance of getting help quickly during the pandemic; Carmel Britto who is the founding director of LPF Kiddies Club, which offers educational enrichment to young children from African and Caribbean backgrounds; Kate Heaps who is the chief executive of Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice; and Yeukai Taruvinga who is the founder and director of Active Horizons, a charity that works to support Black and ethnic minority young people in Bexley.

I also paid tribute to the countless women who have served on the frontline in our constituency during the pandemic as doctors, nurses, carers, cleaners, and other key workers. I could not name them all, but we must not forget the sacrifices they have made and the burden that has fallen on them.

You can watch my full 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:

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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.