Almost four years on from the dreadful Grenfell disaster the Government has failed to get a grip of the cladding crisis.
Despite repeated promises that leaseholders would not bear the cost of fixing this problem, there are countless families across the country still living in flammable buildings, facing colossal bills for repair work and increased service charges to pay for interim safety measures.
Inaction has gone on too long and on Monday 1st February Labour forced a vote in Parliament calling on the Government to provide upfront funding and to protect leaseholders from the cost by pursuing those responsible for the cladding crisis. I spoke in this debate and raised the moving cases of a number of my constituents affected by this.
A week later the Government committed an extra £3.5 billion to the £1.6bn announced last year for the removal of unsafe cladding. This will help, but it will not cover all buildings needing work and it does nothing to account for the extra costs leaseholders have faced through waking watches, increased insurance premiums and repairs of fire safety defects.
But of even greater concern is that any building below 18m high will not be eligible for this fund. Instead, leaseholders of these buildings will have to take on low-interest loans to remove the cladding as well as face the extra costs due to interim safety measures.
These are innocent residents footing the bill for problems they did not cause. This is completely unjust especially as the Government has repeatedly promised that they would not have to pay for this. There are a number of buildings in my constituency that are below 18m and need remediation work and I raised this point in the Government’s statement last week.
For example, residents of Austen Apartments in Penge are facing an estimated £30,000 per flat to remove the cladding. They also face the prospect of increased service charges for a fire marshal and have received a notice from the building owner that the installation of a new alarm system costing £81,000 will be billed to residents.
My constituents bought their flats in good faith, only to then find out their homes are a potential fire hazard. The Government should be doing everything possible to protect leaseholders from these costs and pursue those responsible for the cladding crisis but instead, they are forcing my constituents to take on debt to make their homes safe.
Going forward along with my Labour colleagues we will be pushing for and supporting amendments to the Fire Safety Bill that will hold the Government to their initial promise and help ensure that leaseholders are protected from unfair fire safety costs.
For the sake of my constituents and the thousands like them across the country, I hope the Government will finally listen and take meaningful action to resolve this injustice.
I do not want to see children out of school but sadly the situation with the virus means schools must be closed to all but the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.
Every pupil therefore not in school must be able to access education and everything possible must be done to safeguard learning during this lockdown. The impact on children’s education and future opportunities is too great to fail on delivering this.
I pay tribute to everyone in the constituency who has made it possible for children to continue learning, teachers and school leaders have done a brilliant job in the face of changing decisions and uncertainty.
Indeed, I am aware that in Lewisham schools have had to work on planning for the fourth different scenario in the past week alone, thanks to the repeated changes the Government has inflicted on them.
I am deeply concerned that children and families across the country are paying the price for the Government’s incompetence and inability to get a grip on the situation. This is in part because the Government has failed to engage with unions, schools and professionals. This can no longer be the case and they must now work with these groups to get this right.
Firstly, everything must be done to close the digital divide and ensure that every child who needs it has access to a device and internet connection so they can learn remotely. Ofqual estimates that up to 1.78 million children do not have access to a device. The Government’s current efforts go some way in addressing this, but it is not enough.
Labour has been calling on the Government to urgently provide these and to work to remove data charges by “zero-rating” educational websites and where possible ensure school digital delivery is exempted from mobile and other data packages, to prevent pricing disadvantaged families out of education.
Secondly, everything should be done to develop a strategy to vaccinate all education staff to keep them safe and get children back in the classroom. This should be a priority and I am pleased our Shadow Education Secretary challenged the Education Secretary on this today asking whether he believes teachers should be prioritised.
Thirdly, the impact of extended school closures on children’s well-being and working families cannot be overstated. Working parents must have the support they need to balance work, childcare, and their children’s education and the Government must immediately set out clear plans for every child to return safely to school as soon as possible and be honest with parents about the timetable for this. The fact the Prime Minister is now suggesting this situation could go on until summer is shocking.
Finally, on exams this year Labour wanted these to go ahead fairly but with a plan B in place if that was not possible. For months there has been no such sign of a plan despite the risk of exams having to be cancelled.
Today the Education Secretary announced that GCSE’s and A levels will be cancelled this year. I believe this was the right thing to do given the amount of education that has and will be lost out on. But we cannot have a repeat of the chaos of last Summer's cancelled exam season and it is imperative that all grades this year must be fair, consistent and support pupils to move on in their education and employment.
Today’s vague statement from the Education Secretary of how exams will be graded is deeply disappointing as Ministers should already have a system ready in place and a plan B as we have been calling for. Furthermore, the Government should cancel the BTEC exams due to go ahead this week to prevent unfair grades.
At every stage of this pandemic young people have been an afterthought and now we are back to where we were nine months ago with schools closed and exams cancelled. The Government must finally get a grip and act now to ensure that all pupils can learn remotely, that vulnerable children are identified and supported to attend school, that there is a strategy to reopen schools safely and deliver vaccines to teachers, that families are supported and that the exams replacement system is fair.
Today I will be voting for the Government’s Brexit deal and I want to set out my reasons for this to my constituents.
This thin, final hour deal was not the deal that I wanted. It was not the deal we were promised. It was not the deal that my constituents, the vast majority of whom voted to remain, had hoped for. I do not believe that it is a good deal.
My constituents will know that during the last Parliament I consistently called for a second referendum and voted to remain in both the single market and the customs union. I wasn’t afraid to do what I felt was right for my constituents and for the country, even when it went against the Party whip.
But the debate has moved on from that, things that seemed possible in 2018 and 2019 were no longer a reality after the General Election.
So today the choice is stark. This deal. A bad deal. And a bad outcome.
Or no deal. A disastrous outcome for the country and for my constituents.
Given the choice this country currently faces I cannot in good conscience sit on my hands and abstain on the biggest vote I have faced since my election in 2017 - and in effect say I don’t mind either way if we leave with a deal or not. I also do not think that it would be credible for Labour, as a Government in waiting, to sit on the sidelines on an issue of such fundamental importance.
Nor can I vote against a deal when the alternative, no deal, is a complete disaster.
The responsibility for this bad deal lies squarely with the Conservatives. But this is the deal Labour will inherit if elected in 2024 and it will be our responsibility to build on it and to make it succeed in the future.
That’s why today, with great sorrow that we left the European Union last January, I will vote for this Government’s deal.
With the news of a vaccine, 2021 is increasingly looking like a year where we can begin to return to some sense of normality. However, one area of society at severe risk of not returning are the small businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic.
These include the independent shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels, hairdressers, suppliers and many others that make up our high streets and are the beating heart of communities across the country. They’ve adapted brilliantly in tough circumstances, but many are facing a serious cash crisis after eight months of difficult trading conditions.
At the beginning of December, we marked Small Business Saturday and I was very pleased to visit a number of amazing independent businesses in Sydenham and Penge. I am really proud of the work they have done to become covid secure and also help contribute to the community response such as by donating to the free school meals campaign.
But according to the latest ONS Business Impact of Covid Survey an estimated 390,000 small businesses across the country are worried they won’t survive the next three months and that over a million only have cash reserves to last them for under 1 month to 3 months.
Further, Government economic support, when it has been available, has far too often played catch-up to the public health restrictions, leaving many businesses in the lurch. Indeed, since March, 20,000 shops have closed with 200,000 people losing their jobs in retail and hospitality alone.
Most businesses have also received far less support during the last national lockdown than they did during the first with many seeing up to 70% less. These shrinking grants simply won’t cover the running costs of the hardest-hit firms.
Meanwhile businesses shut in all but name like suppliers to the worst-affected sectors, and those in the wedding and events industries, have been left out in the cold or faced entirely inadequate support.
Unfortunately, instead of offering the help that is needed, the Government is refusing to properly support small businesses. Unless Ministers change course we’ll see many more hardworking independents go bust and high streets crumbling before winter is through.
Labour have been calling on the Government to set out a proper plan to support these businesses through the crisis with a support package that reflects the level of business need and severity of restrictions in different areas.
This is needed if we are to save our high streets and the jobs people rely on to support their families. Further, if we want 2021 to really be a recovery year, we need to create the best environment for an economic recovery. Vibrant high streets populated with independent businesses like in Sydenham and Penge is the answer, but they need the support to weather the necessary public health restrictions now.
The creative industries are one of our country’s greatest success stories but the workforce is being let down by this Government. See my speech below calling for tailored support to keep these unique and world leading jobs alive.
Proud to raise my constituents’ powerful stories today about having a new baby in lockdown. It is clear the Government must provide additional support during pregnancy and to parents of young children and I hope that they were listening.
Our schools have done an incredible job to respond to the pandemic. Initially when the country went into lockdown, they remained open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children and since the reopening of society staff have gone above and beyond to ensure schools are safe to return to.
The task has been huge, but our teachers and school staff have stepped up to the mark. Sadly however, they have been let down by the absolute failure of the Government to get a robust testing system in place.
I have had countless reports from parents and teachers who have been unable to access tests. In some cases, they are not able to get one within five days of symptoms developing and in others they cannot access one at all. Some have even reported it taking over a week to get the results.
These delays are forcing many pupils and teachers away from the classroom, and risk further crucial periods of education being lost. I wrote to the Health Secretary about this and to the Education Secretary with regards to the unique circumstances of special schools both in September but have yet to of received a response.
I invited all of the Headteachers in my constituency to a virtual meeting to discuss this problem and hear out their concerns. For example, schools have initially been given just 10 tests to cover their pupils and staff. This is nowhere near enough and as we enter the ‘cold season’ it is clear schools need far better testing in place otherwise they may risk having to close.
Schools are also facing huge additional cleaning costs and costs associated with additional staff and supply teachers to cover and support bubbles. Schools budgets have already been cut to the bone over the last decade and without additional funding support now many will be pushed into financial uncertainty.
Finally, schools need clarity on whether exams will be going ahead or not. It strikes me that given what pupils have been through over the last six months, some facing very challenging home conditions, the focus for the time being should be getting children back to some sense of normality.
I have written urgently to Education Secretary outlining this complex situation and calling for answers. Without this, schools are being left in the dark having to make difficult decisions with no idea of what future support will be in place.
For the work staff have already put in and for the sake of our children’s education we owe our schools clarity on these issues and the knowledge that they will be supported to the best of our country’s ability. I will keep pushing on the Government until they deliver this.
Advice if you haven’t got the results you expected
If you haven’t received your predicted grades or the grades you expected, your school or college can appeal on your behalf. There is more information on how to do this here.
Students who haven’t received the grades needed for their University offer are advised to contact the University admissions team directly. Universities have committed to be flexible and most are considering a wide variety of factors in addition to the grade awarded.
Ofqual have advised that more information on appealing will be issued on Monday and we will update this document with further information when this is received.
The Government have published a Student Guide to results which can be accessed here.
Universities UK have issued advice and guidance for students which can be found here.
We are facing an economic & climate crisis which a return to business as usual will not solve. The Government must use this moment to deliver an ambitious green recovery plan that tackles climate change and rebuilds a resilient economy that benefits everyone. See my letter to the Prime Minister on this below.
Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th by a Minneapolis police officer, I have not surprisingly received a very high number of emails from constituents to express their grief, anger and desire for real and sustained change. The widespread circulation of the video depicting George’s murder has rightly caused outrage across the world and has shone a light on the systemic racism evident throughout the US. It is starkly apparent, as shown by the protests across the world, that his murder was not an isolated incident. Instead, it is indicative of appalling racism and brutality against the black community.
I am shocked that in the US, the largely peaceful protests have been met with resistance and brutality, including the widespread tear-gassing of protestors, reporters and children who were posing no threat and exercising their right to peaceful protest. Tragically, I understand that David McAtee was shot dead by police while protesting in Louisville. I condemn this action and the excessive force used across the US. President Trump’s threat to use military force to suppress the protests is unacceptable and goes against fundamental rights.
It is unacceptable too that the US appears to be misusing exported goods from the UK in order to suppress the protests. Following reports that the UK recently issued licences for the export of riot-control equipment to the US, the Labour Party has urged the Government to immediately suspend all licences of riot-related items. I welcome this and am a signatory to a cross-party letter calling on the Government to take immediate action. You can see the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade’s letter calling on the Government to immediately address this here.
However, it is clear that the ongoing injustice is not solely an ‘American problem’. There are very real issues of systemic racism and race inequality which must be addressed across the UK. At a national level, the recent Public Health England review into Covid-19 mortality rates confirms that BAME communities are disproportionately affected by coronavirus, with black men almost four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white men. We know too that racial inequalities are prevalent across the criminal justice system, with black people in 2019 more than three times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. These are gross injustices and must be addressed urgently by the Government at a national level.
Locally, I am aware that several worrying videos have been circulated on social media showing apparent excessive force being used by police against Lewisham residents. Many constituents have rightly raised concerns about these videos with me, and I have met with the Mayor of Lewisham and with Lewisham Police to discuss this urgently. Myself and other elected representatives in Lewisham have made clear that we take this extremely seriously and you can read the detail on this in our joint statement here.
As my constituency covers two London Boroughs, I regularly meet with the Borough Commander in Bromley and I will also be raising these issues directly with him.
I encourage anyone who may have concerns over the way they have been treated by the Police to raise it directly with me and make a complaint to the IOPC, which can be done here.
Yesterday, in memory of George Floyd and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Lewisham Council joined with Councils across the country to light the town hall purple in support for the ongoing protests. I fully supported this expression of solidarity and have written to Bromley Council to request that they do the same.
The outpouring of support and solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement is evident across the constituency, and I thank all those who have taken the time to write to me to express their views. We must work together to ensure that the tragic injustices of the past few weeks, and the widespread public outrage they have caused, catalyses into the real and sustained change which we so urgently need. I stand shoulder to shoulder with the BAME community and will call out racism and inequality wherever I see it – internationally, nationally and locally.