I know that the last few weeks have been a real struggle for many. Encouraging news about vaccinations has been difficult to celebrate when we have also been seeing the highest numbers of daily deaths since the start of the pandemic. However, at the time of writing, more than one million Londoners have received their first dose (including me, as a member of priority group four), which is a big positive.
Although I already try to share highlights from my work on this site, I thought it would be useful to post a monthly update to keep my constituents informed. As we are approaching the first anniversary of the crisis, I’ve also taken time to reflect on what has been an incredibly busy and challenging year for me and my team.
What a year it’s been in Parliament. At the start of 2020 I never could have imagined I would spend most of the year at home, fighting to be able to participate fully in proceedings. Thankfully MPs can now join almost all sessions virtually (no thanks to Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was more than a little resistant).
It has been incredibly tough at times, but I am proud of what the team and I have achieved in very difficult circumstances. In 2020 I tabled 267 written questions and made 62 spoken contributions. Not bad given that I have hardly left my flat this year!
The vast majority of our work has been related in one way or another to our twin foes of COVID-19 and Brexit. Here are a few select highlights from the last couple of months.
Brexit and Trade
Little more than a month after the end of the transition period we are already seeing the Government breaking post-Brexit promises left, right and centre. We’ve seen the lifting of the ban on bee-killing neonitcotinoids and plans to rip up workers’ rights. The Environment Bill has also been delayed yet again, causing a lot of concern about the UK’s progress in this area.
When the Trade Bill returned to the Commons last month, the Tories voted against amendments to protect our NHS, uphold food standards, protect our environment and maintain workers’ rights. Labour pushed hard to have more parliamentary scrutiny written into the bill and supported the Genocide Amendment, which would have blocked trade deals with countries that commit genocide. Despite some Tory MPs rebelling, the latter fell by 308 votes to 319. I think that tells us all we need to know about the moral compass of your average Tory.
Jamaica Deportation Flight
You may recall that a Home Office charter flight was scheduled to deport around 50 people to Jamaica at the beginning December. One of my constituents – who has lived in the UK since he was 11 and has no family in Jamaica – was due to be on the flight. I called for an urgent debate and raised my constituent’s case with ministers on November 30th. Fortunately my constituent was taken off the flight, but 13 others were not so lucky.
Opposition Day Debates on Universal Credit and Remote Education
On January 18th we had two important Opposition Day Debates in the Commons, one on the planned £20-per-week cut to Universal Credit (UC) and the other on free school meals and digital access. Although Tory MPs were keen to suggest on social media that my Labour colleagues and I use these debates purely to “weaponise emotive issues”, this was an important opportunity for us to outline the damage the Government is doing.
Our motions called on the Government to reverse its decision to scrap the £20 uplift to Universal Credit (something we in the shadow DWP team have been pushing for a long time) and guarantee that all eligible children receive the full value of free school meals during this academic year, including holidays. We won both votes after the Tories were told to abstain, and I am hopeful that the rumours of a Government u-turn on Universal Credit prove to be correct.
Opposition Day Debate on Employment Rights
At the Opposition Day Debate on January 25th I spoke about the importance of trade unions in helping to ensure a happy and motivated workforce. You can watch my speech in full below or read the transcript here.
Last month I also joined Labour colleagues in backing GMB’s fight to protect pay and conditions for British Gas workers in the face of Centrica’s fire and re-hire threats. We co-signed this letter urging Centrica to negotiate with the union.
Shadow Minister for Disabled People
I’ve been in post for almost a year now and feel that I have started to make some real progress. Among other things I have been calling for: better, more accessible communications from the Government; clearer guidance and financial and employment support for those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable; and the uprating of legacy benefits in line with Universal Credit.
I summed up the many ways in which disabled people continue to be left behind in this speech, which was part of the January 6th debate on the new COVID-19 restrictions.
The last twelve months have been a steep learning curve and I have also learnt a lot about the accessibility of my own work. I am currently working with a training provider to create a course for MPs and their staff, which will help to ensure that our work is accessible to everyone.
Being guided by disabled people’s experiences is essential, which is why I will also be holding a series of regional roadshows over the coming weeks. In the short term, these roadshows will help develop a comprehensive response to the Government’s forthcoming national strategy and disability benefits green paper. Longer-term, the virtual roadshows kickstart a four-year engagement programme, ensuring disabled people are at the heart of the Labour Party’s policy development. See this page for more information and details of how to register.
Youth Violence Commission
2020 was a big year for the commission, with the launch of our final report in the summer. The pandemic has exacerbated the pressures many young people are facing and we must not allow the impact of COVID-19 to take us back to square one.
I continue to raise issues around youth violence in Parliament and recently asked about the disbanding of the Serious Violence Task Force (which I only found out about in response to a written parliamentary question) and the impact of school closures. I hope to table an adjournment debate on the impact of COVID-19 soon.
In the Constituency
2020 saw a doubling of my office caseload in comparison with the previous year. I have always received a lot of casework enquiries compared to other MPs, so this has massively increased the pressure on my caseworkers. They have stepped up brilliantly and continue to do a fantastic job. We opened almost 3400 new cases last year, as well as dealing with a huge number of ongoing issues.
The number of policy enquires I am receiving has also gone through the roof. In 2020 my Westminster team replied to the best part of 5000 constituent enquiries on a huge range of issues. This figure does not even include the hundreds of template campaign emails I receive – I publish my responses to those on this page.
When the pandemic hit we quickly moved my advice surgeries online. This has worked really well and I continue to hold them fortnightly. If you know anyone who needs assistance, please do encourage them to get in touch or book an appointment.
One of the most frustrating things about the last year is the impact it has had on my ability to visit local organisations and meet with people in person. Although virtual meetings make things easier in some ways, I can’t wait to get out and about again.
Schools continue to be at the top of the agenda. As you may recall, when the latest closures were announced Lewisham was inexplicably excluded from the initial list. I quickly joined with other London MPs in urging this decision to be reviewed. You can read my full statement on this here.
As a party we are now calling for teachers to be vaccinated so that schools can fully reopen as soon as possible. While we of course back the decision to close them, the impact on pupils’ education and wellbeing has already been considerable.
Council Budget Cuts
As we look to the next financial year, Lewisham Council is having to make some incredibly tough decisions as part of its three-year deadline to cut its budget by £40 million. Lewisham continues to pay the price for a decade of austerity and underfunding from central government. I know many of you are concerned about this and I’m sure there will be much to discuss in the coming weeks.
LGBT History Month
As you may know, February is LGBT+ History Month and February 7th marked the 21st anniversary of the Blair government’s first attempt to repeal Thatcher’s heinous Section 28, the 1988 law that stopped councils “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Labour eventually got it through Parliament two years later, which was a hugely important milestone on the road to equality. We also equalised the age of consent, introduced the Gender Recognition and Equality Acts and created civil partnerships (the precursor to equal marriage).
Lewisham Council is hosting a number of exhibitions and online events to celebrate our LGBT+ community. Find out more here.
Goldsmiths Rent Strike
Over the past few months I have been contacted by many students concerned about their experience this academic year. Students have been abandoned by the Government throughout this pandemic, encouraged into halls and sold a false reality of what would greet them there. University housing providers must engage with them to find a fair solution to concerns about rent and more funding must be made available from the Government. It is clear that students are not currently receiving the full experience they deserve and that the current system of tuition fees and burden of debt for this generation is unacceptable.
I met with Goldsmiths Rent Strike students last month to discuss their demands and have written to Goldsmiths directly on behalf of others. I will be meeting with the Goldsmiths Warden, Frances Corner, later this week to discuss these concerns and what Goldsmiths are doing to support their students during this challenging time. If any students feel I can be assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Stop and Search
On November 27th I held a surgery dedicated to stop and search and policing. I know that many residents in Lewisham Deptford have strong feelings around policing and the impact it has on their lives and this was an opportunity to raise specific cases, as well as wider concerns.
I am planning to hold a further surgery dedicated to policing in the next few months and Janet Daby MP and Ellie Reeves MP have also expressed an interest in doing the same.
I have recently reached out to those who contacted my office with casework relating to the Windrush Scandal. This was a shameful attack on Commonwealth citizens and I am keen to know how many of those affected have been offered or received compensation from the Government. Please do get in touch if you have any updates.
Fire safety in high rise buildings continues to be of great concern to many of my constituents. I was very pleased that Lewisham Council took appropriate action to safeguard its tenants following updated advice from the Government after the Grenfell tragedy, but many private developments remain in limbo.
Keir and colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet called for a debate on the cladding scandal at the root of this situation on February 1st. We called for the establishment of a national cladding taskforce and I was pleased to get the opportunity to speak in the debate. You can watch my contribution below or read my speech in Hansard.
Shadow Minister for Policing and the Fire Service Sarah Jones recently announced details of Labour’s amendments to the Fire Safety Bill, which seek to protect leaseholders from unfair fire safety costs, regardless of when their lease was signed. This covers fire safety problems which came about as a result of refurbishments, as was the case with the Grenfell Tower.
I am also hosting a second virtual meeting for constituents and local housing providers to discuss how things are progressing locally. If you would like to attend, you can register online here.