I hope you’re well and finding some time to enjoy the better weather we’ve been having.
Since my last update (and now that I’m fully vaccinated) I have started spending some time back in the Westminster office and have finally been able to get out and about in the constituency. I’ve missed my local visits and meetings so much over the last year, so it’s been brilliant to see people face-to-face again.
I’d also like to send huge congratulations to Lewisham Council on being officially recognised as a Council of Sanctuary. Councillor Kevin Bonavia has led the work on this and it is fantastic to see our borough being celebrated as one which welcomes and support refugees, asylum-seekers & migrants.
As I mentioned above, I have cautiously started to return to Westminster, although my staff and I are still working from home most of the time. I can’t lie, I was nervous about going back, but now I have had a chance to speak in the chamber it feels a bit more normal again.
Parliament has been in recess for some of the last month and much of the rest of the time has been taken up by the various debates on the Queen’s Speech (more on that below). Although more of us are now back on the estate, numbers in the chamber are still very restricted so we have to apply to speak in debates and ask questions. I have been pretty unlucky in the ballots lately, but will keep trying as always! I have kept up a steady stream of written questions as well, which you can access here.
As expected, the Queen’s Speech failed to deliver on a number of fronts. I don’t have time to go into everything in great detail here, but I thought I would highlight some of the key things that were lacking.
It’s been 18 months since the Prime Minister promised a plan on social care. The pandemic has brutally exposed the fundamental flaws in the system on which so many families depend, yet the Queen’s Speech contained just nine words on the subject: “Proposals for social care reform will be brought forward.”
The Government’s plans to introduce voter ID will lock millions of people out of democracy, in particular the elderly, disabled people, those on a low income and Black, Asian and ethnic minority voters. The Tories are reversing decades of democratic progress and urgently need to rethink this pointless policy.
In addition to this, the policy is set to cost millions of pounds at every election. This is the wrong priority when our country is recovering from a pandemic. Voting is safe and secure in Britain. Ministers should be promoting confidence in our elections instead of spreading baseless scare stories which threaten our democracy.
The Tories have promised a Victims’ Bill in almost every Queen’s Speech since 2016, yet five years on it still has yet to appear in Parliament. Labour has its Victims’ Bill published, brought to Parliament, and ready to go. Instead of publishing a ‘draft’, the government should work with Labour to implement its Victims Bill immediately to enshrine the rights of victims and those who suffer persistent anti-social behaviour.
The Government promised a ban on conversion therapy three years ago but, in yet another example of words but no action, it has failed to provide any specific legislation. Instead of yet another consultation we need to see concrete action to ban these despicable practices.
It’s also concerning to see the Government double down on the divisive, offensive and shoddy report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Instead of focusing on this report, it should be implementing the 253 recommendations on race equality enclosed in the Timpson, McGregor Smith, Williams, Angolini and Lammy Reviews, as well as the recent report from the Joint Commission on Human Rights on Black People’s Human Rights. The next Labour government is committed to introducing a Race Equality Act.
There was also no sign of the National Disability Strategy in the Queen’s Speech, despite the hugely unequal impact of the pandemic on disabled people, who have accounted for 6 in 10 deaths from the virus. The strategy was meant to be published this spring.
Building Safety Bill
Reform to the building safety framework is badly needed and long overdue. The Building Safety Bill will tighten regulation on high-risk buildings, in line with the Hackitt Review after the Grenfell Fire. However, a lot of the measures in the bill reinstate regulation that was removed by previous Tory governments.
It also makes the situation for those living in dangerous flats even worse. The Bill as it stands contains a clause which would allow building owners to pass the entire cost of fixing a building – which can run into tens of millions – on to leaseholders with hardly any notice.
Renters’ Reform Bill
The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised to ban Section 21 ‘no notice’ evictions. However, this commitment has been watered down from a Renter’s Reform Bill to the publication of a consultation and a White Paper.
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the broken rental market and there’s a looming evictions crisis; Labour has been calling on the Government to strengthen protection for renters, and end section 21 since the start of the pandemic. This key manifesto commitment has now been kicked into the long grass.
Renters’ Rights Awareness Week
On that note, some of you may be interested to find out more about Renters’ Rights Awareness Week, which is taking place 14th-20th June. Generation Rent will be holding a whole series of sessions on knowing your rights as a private renter. To find out more and sign up, visit www.generationrent.org/Events.
Shadow Minister for Disabled People
As always, my shadow ministerial brief has been keeping me busy. We have continued with our series of regional roadshows and have received some very valuable feedback from participants. We are in the process of starting to share the write ups on my website.
At Work and Pensions questions on May 17th I asked Minister Will Quince whether the Government plans to uplift legacy benefits in line with Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit.
His response was to ask me to stop asking questions. Perhaps I will consider doing so if his Government fixes this injustice and stops discriminating against disabled people. This Tory Government really is out of touch.
You can watch our exchange below.
Throughout the pandemic MPs have been invited to weekly briefings with Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister. I have to admit he has been generous with his time and always tries to answer our questions, but as more and more ex-shielders are being forced to return to the workplace I continue to raise concerns about support for immunocompromised people. I raised this again with him in the chamber on May 25th. It was my first time back – thankfully I don’t think I looked too nervous!
Violence in Palestine and Israel
The situation in Palestine and Israel has also been the subject of much debate in Parliament over the last few weeks.
I have received hundreds of emails related to the forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and recent escalation of violence in the area. As I said on my website, I support the call for Israel to halt evictions and demolition in East Jerusalem in line with its obligations under international law and believe that the UK should be taking an active role in restoring peace and moving towards a two-state solution that enables both Israelis and Palestinians to live full lives side by side.
I am meeting with constituents this week as part of a lobby day for Palestine and have also put in to speak for the debate on introducing sanctions against Israel which is due to take place next week, although it has not yet confirmed if I have been selected.
In the Constituency
The number of new casework enquiries I received in May was around 20% down on last year, but it’s still sitting at about a 25% increase on 2019. Interestingly the number of new housing cases the team opened last month is around a quarter up on this time last year, which does not surprise me given the number of issues people have been having with mould in their properties. We are also seeing a lot of complex cases at the moment from constituents in need of substantial assistance. As ever, I am hugely grateful to my caseworkers and the fantastic support they give people day in, day out.
On the policy side, I am receiving more correspondence than ever and the team replied to almost 500 policy enquiries last month alone (nearly 40% up on last year and a threefold increase on May 2019). The number of campaign emails sent via charities and other organisations has also exploded over the last year. When I was first elected we tried to respond to as many of these as possible, but it quickly reached the stage where we could not guarantee that everyone would receive an individual reply. Between May 2020 and May 2021, I received well in excess of 14,000 policy-related emails. I continue to post responses to email campaigns on my website as often as I can.
The office remains closed to the public for the time being and we are still doing advice surgeries online and by phone. However, we are making plans for a return to some face-to-face meetings in the relatively near future and will update my website accordingly.
Creative Industries Roundtable
Following on from a successful Creative Industries Roundtable my office organised in March, I am hosting a further event on Friday 18th June from 2.00-3:30pm.
This will be a chance for creatives in the constituency to share any challenges they are facing as we see the industry start to re-open as restrictions have eased and what they feel should be prioritised in our post-Covid recovery.
We will also be joined by a representative from Lewisham Council’s Borough of Culture team at the beginning of the meeting, who will be able to give an introduction to what is planned for next year and how local creatives can get involved. We will also have some time for questions about the Borough of Culture.
This event will be hosted via Zoom and you can register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZEtde2urj0rEtFfNNg_Wr647WnkSsAPkueR.
Vaccine Centre Visit
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Waldron Centre to see the fantastic work they’re doing vaccinating Lewisham residents. They told me that they have given an amazing 50,000 jabs and counting so far.
As people go back to work they’re looking for more volunteers, so please do get involved if you can.
As I mentioned above, it’s brilliant to be able to get out and about in the constituency again. A couple of other recent highlights were a visit to Creekside Discovery Centre for their ‘Discover the Wild in Your Neighbourhood’ launch event and the opportunity to drop in on a Deptford Lionesses football coaching session. I’ve also been able to meet with a few school groups – I think this is possibly the thing I have missed the most!
Royal Mail Meeting
Following a great deal of complaints from constituents, I met with representatives from Royal Mail for an update on local services. Many people in Lewisham Deptford have reported infrequent postal deliveries since the Covid-19 outbreak and in some cases hospital appointment letters have arrived too late.
Senior Public Affairs Manager Michael Hogg admitted there were operational issues at the peak of the lockdown when sickness and staff absence due to Covid19 was unavoidable and that medical letters were prioritised where possible. He apologised for the service breakdown, explaining it is not always easy to identify letters from NHS services if they are not clearly marked.
I am assured the 300 temporary workers taken on in January have brought services back up to speed. Michael advised Royal Mail has hubs in place to mobilise agency workers into workplaces with spikes in illness/absences. Royal Mail has also taken out some of the manual work in the delivery offices and is providing lateral flow tests in work.
I will keep a close eye on this situation but do contact my office if you have not seen an improvement recently.