Last month in Parliament we had the Queens Speech which sets out the programme of legislation that the Government intends to pursue in the forthcoming parliamentary session. These proposals were then debated, and I spoke in the debate on the issue I get the largest amount of casework on – housing.
Over the last decade we have seen house prices soar, a huge rise in homelessness and rough sleeping and property and living conditions for many deteriorating. And the impact of this on many of my constituents is all too real.
One case I have been dealing with is of a health worker in the NHS who was placed in Temporary Accommodation with their three young children nearly a year ago and with no permanent proper home in sight. Throughout the pandemic they have been working with covid patients and then returning to their single room accommodation having to share a bed with their children.
Another case involves a constituent, who has been on the housing register for 5 years, they live with their four children in a 2-room space in a hostel with shared facilities. In this time, they have had to deal with antisocial behaviour, disrepair and insect infestations, with little or no access to redress when things go wrong.
Meanwhile in the private rented sector, I have been dealing with a case where after 4 years of living in the property my constituent and their 12-year-old and 22 year old with mental health conditions are facing a section 21 eviction because they have raised numerous complaints of disrepair.
Lockdown and home schooling have been hard enough for most of us, but when you live in poor conditions that you cannot call a home, with no space to learn or play, then it becomes unbearable. And it is impossible to quantify the impact this has had on people’s physical and mental health.
This Queens Speech could have been an opportunity to fix many of these problems, instead they have been ignored. The speech did not include a Bill to improve regulation of social housing despite a government White Paper on this last year. There was no commitment to invest in a new generation of genuinely affordable social rented homes for families on low and average incomes and a previous manifesto promise for a ban on Section 21 ‘no notice’ evictions has been watered down to a consultation.
Reform to tackle this crisis in housing is not outside the scope of what an effective government could deliver. But until then countless families will continue to go to sleep at night not knowing whether they will ever have anywhere that they can truly call home.
Under Sadiq Khan, London has made great progress on air pollution. Between 2016 – 2019 there has been a 94% reduction in the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding the legal limit for Nitrogen Dioxide and a 97% reduction in the number of state primary and secondary schools in areas exceeding the legal limit.
This, in part, has been achieved by the rolling out of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, schemes to make walking and cycling safer and easier, funding to clean up London’s taxi fleet and almost £53 million worth of grants to take older, more polluting vehicles off the roads.
However, whilst a lot of progress has been made 99% of Londoners still live in areas exceeding the World Health Organisation recommended guidelines for fine particulate matter, otherwise known as PM2.5.
These are pollutants 30 times smaller than the average human hair that can settle in our airways and get into the bloodstream. Breathing this in is one of the largest risk factors for an early death and in London, this contributes to nearly 4,000 early deaths a year.
One of these deaths was the heart-breaking case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. She lived near the south circular road in Lewisham and was exposed to excessive levels of PM2.5 and Nitrogen Dioxide. Tragically in 2013, Ella died aged just nine. Since then tireless campaigning by her family led to the landmark ruling last December that air pollution made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death.
In the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report published a fortnight ago it was stated: “The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”
In October last year, I called on the Government to urgently introduce these legally binding targets. That was refused. In December, the Opposition voted to amend the Environment Bill to include these targets, but again the Government refused. I raised this again this week in Parliament and still the Government refuses to take this seriously. Without proper targets enacted now, how can we expect to meaningfully reduce this threat?
This is a silent crisis that has gone on for far too long and is currently being left to local government’s already on tight budgets to sort out, but there is only so much they can do. If we are to reduce the on average 40,000 deaths a year across the UK caused by air pollution, then the Government must take control of the issue, introduce these targets and deliver the leadership and support needed to end this public health emergency.
In my role as Shadow Solicitor General I have been doing a lot of work around victims of crime. Sadly, victims are being let down on all fronts and this is most apparent for victims of rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO).
Prosecutions for these crimes are at their lowest recorded level and victims are being left to wait years for cases to get to trial. This is completely unacceptable and countless survivors feel that the system is working against them, not for them. The government announced a rape review to look into this, but this was over two years ago, and we are still waiting for it.
So, in the total absence of any urgency I coordinated a taskforce across the Shadow Justice, Health and Home Office teams to look into this issue and outline what a Labour Government would do to tackle this injustice and support rape survivors. The result is our Survivors Support Plan which we published in March.
Under our plan RASSO cases would be prioritised and fast tracked through the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the courts instead of waiting years to reach a conclusion. It would also allow all victims to be able to have their evidence recorded and be cross examined as soon as possible prior to trial.
This would help to improve the accuracy of testimonies as memories fade, and relieve some of the stress and anxiety caused while awaiting a trial. It would then also allow victims to pursue pre-trial counselling and prevent re-traumatization which currently often occurs when a victim has to relieve the experience when providing evidence years later.
Our plan would also establish better training for professionals around the myths and stereotypes of rape and include a pre and post-trial support package, including health interventions like counselling and leave from work and a full legal advocacy scheme for victims to help them navigate the complicated rules around their rights and process of pursuing justice.
Finally, our plan would appoint a dedicated Minister for RASSO Survivors to investigate and tackle the root causes of delays in the system, and act as a champion for victims. Ministerial oversight in this way would not only help to drive change, but also offer high profile acknowledgement that the Government is prioritising and supporting RASSO victims.
Given the Government’s delay and our clear plan I asked the Attorney General if he would back it. Instead of taking this seriously he deflected accusing me of being ‘emotive’. This is an appalling response when thousands of women are being let down and have no confidence in the system. But we will continue to push on this until victims can once again have confidence in the criminal justice system.
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.