I hope that you and your family have remained safe and well. I know that many of you have been playing a really important role in supporting Newham residents during this terrible time and I just want to thank you so very much for all that you do. I’ve seen pics and posts on Facebook and Twitter and it makes me so proud to represent this Labour Party in Parliament.
This period has been particularly difficult for many of us because of the uncertainty we see all around us. We know that Covid is rising quite quickly again in our community and others, but at the same time it is thankfully not yet nearly as bad as it was in the Spring. We know that many businesses are going to struggle, with no end in sight to these Tier 2 restrictions in London, and the very likely prospect of a movement into Tier 3 within weeks. I am worried that so many local people have already lost work, and so many more will do so in the coming weeks. None of these anxieties will be helped by the Government’s incompetence over privatised and failing test and trace, divisive attempts to force local lockdowns without proper financial support onto areas in the North, or their appalling plans to force Sadiq into terrible choices in his attempt to save Transport for London.
I wrote a long and detailed letter to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak after his ‘Winter Economy Plan’ was published, and raised many detailed concerns. Essentially the same points about the lack of levers to encourage businesses to keep workers on, to ensure family incomes are protected, and to encourage available work to be shared fairly across the workforce, were also made by my friend the Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, and many other expert commentators.
Last week, the Chancellor u-turned on many aspects of his Plan after just a few weeks, making some, but unfortunately not all, of the changes we had called for. I believe that the level of support that is available is still inadequate, and it is appalling that those excluded from any support earlier this year are still excluded now. However, I expect that fewer livelihoods will be lost under the new version of the Plan than would have been if these U-turns had not been forced. I believe that the priorities should be to focus on preventing harm to children and their life chances, and to the broader physical and mental health of people in our communities as the crisis drags on and further operations and tests are cancelled.
I agree with Keir that a short but full, and fully financially supported, national lockdown would have been far preferable to letting the virus slowly but surely climb back to disastrous levels. As we know, this approach has now been taken for Wales. I believe it is likely that the Government will still have to put a further national lockdown in place, out of fear for our overwhelmed NHS if not out of proper compassion for those who will lose loved ones.
Many of you will know that the Home Office is planning to open a new ‘Reporting Centre’ for immigration enforcement at Warehouse K in the Royal Docks. They have said that it is a simple change of site from Southwark and wouldn’t result in extra harm to Newham residents from the hostile environment. However, through my Parliamentary Questions I have discovered that actually the plans are to create more detention cells in Newham than were in Southwark. As I wrote in the Newham Recorder this week, more hostility from the Home Office is the last thing our communities need during this time of crisis, and I am hopeful that, given the Council is also opposed, we will be able to stop these plans.
Participation in Parliament remains constantly risky because the Government has still not brought back virtual voting or speeches for most debates, despite the increasing rates of infection and numbers of MPs either getting sick or foolishly risking spreading the virus through their actions, as Margaret Ferrier did. The biggest stupidity is the ‘Rees-Mogg Conga’, where MPs who have to vote in person, often several times in succession, are forced into a queue where social distancing is rarely observed and many irresponsible Tory MPs refuse to wear a mask.
Despite these unnecessary barriers, I have fortunately been able to speak more frequently during the Autumn so far. In September I gave evidence about the damage that is being done in our community due to Covid to the Petitions Committee. I was also able to secure a debate of my own, continuing a seven-year long campaign in support of women who are subjected to terrible pain and trauma during hysteroscopy procedures. Last week, I was able to speak briefly in a statement on the impact of Covid-19 on our Black and Asian communities, and then in a general debate on Covid where I spoke about child poverty and how we identify and protect children at risk when so many aren’t being seen in school or by the NHS. The council and schools need funding to enable them to do this really important work, and the Government needs to lead and have a strategy to protect all children in the UK.
In my frontbench job as Shadow Minister for Prisons and Probation, I had my in-person debut in Parliament in the week before last, speaking for Labour on a Bill to change the way drugs are tested for in prisons. You can see two clips of my speech here and here. I have also had another round of meetings with experts and frontline prisons and probation workers to ensure I can identify the best ways to hold the Government to account. This included an excellent roundtable on how women are affected by the criminal justice system, and a good meeting with representatives of the prison officers' union the POA, from across London and the South-East of England on Monday. Meanwhile I have been asking an enormous number of Parliamentary Questions to put pressure on the Government on issues across my brief, which you can see, as always, on TheyWorkForYou.
The numbers of worried constituents contacting me continue at unprecedented levels. Last month the level of casework correspondence was around double what it was in September 2019, and many more of these cases are complex, because we are all dealing with new, unpredictable and worrying circumstances. Policy letters to me have also been far more frequent than normal. These have focused on the Agriculture Bill and food standards, support for hospitality businesses, animal welfare issues, building social housing, and the need for a green and fair recovery from the pandemic.
I am strongly sympathetic to the points constituents are making on all of these issues. However, if you have written to me recently and have not yet received a response, please do be patient. I have a very small office, I must prioritise the personal appeals for help that are most urgent, and the much higher levels of correspondence this year mean that in some cases emails are taking longer to respond to.
I know this is a desperately worrying time for many of us. Anxiety is increasing again with a long Winter ahead after what, for many of us, was the relative calm and comfort of the Summer. It is all the more important, especially with the Government continuing to astonish with its incompetence on a regular basis, that we unite in solidarity in Newham, and join together to support each other, and especially the most vulnerable, however we can.
Food poverty has been in the news of late with the Government’s disgraceful decision not to fund school meals during half term. Our food bank is struggling. Any of you who can, please click this link and donate some money to feed a family during these dreadful times.
Please stay safe and keep well.