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This is an exceptionally difficult time for so many people – whether as a result of illness or the illness of loved ones, caring for others or hit by a business’ loss of earnings.
The sheer scale and size of what everyone is dealing with is beyond anything I have ever known and there will be many changes to keep on top of.
I and my small team are trying to answer as many questions and calls for help as we can, sometimes directly, sometimes by pointing you to other sources of assistance. Along with my MP colleagues, I will carry on pressing the Government to do as much as possible to help people affected by the emergency – being as constructive as we can while asking the questions that have to be answered.
In the meantime, a massive thank you to everyone working in key services – from health and social care to policing and rubbish collection, from food supply, sale and delivery to transport, processing claims for grants and social security, looking after children and much more. We owe you a debt of gratitude. The same goes for the 800 people across Westminster who have signed up to help Westminster Connects, others joining the NHS scheme and the many others supporting neighbours, assisting foodbanks and other community provision informally. You are heroes.
I am keen to hear feedback, both positive and where gaps or other concerns are identified.
This is my 3rd newsletter since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. I will continue to update constituents regularly. Sign-up to get the next edition direct to your inbox
8am to 10pm, 7 days a week – 020 7641 1222 or firstname.lastname@example.org or the website www.westminster.gov.uk
- shopping for food/supplies
- delivering food/supplies to vulnerable residents
- picking up and delivering prescriptions
- having a friendly phone conversation with those at risk of loneliness when in isolation
- walking dogs for those self-isolating
- supporting with critical transport needs
- helping with digital skills coaching
Advice and information including Universal Credit and benefits
Westminster Citizens Advice Bureau
0300 330 1191 or www.westminstercab.org.uk
If you rent your home and are facing an eviction STAY PUT – no legal action can be taken to evict you for at least the next three months. But if you are homeless for other reasons:
Westminster Shelter has stopped providing face-to-face advice, but anyone needing housing advice can contact them either by email at Westminster@shelter.org.uk or 0344 515 2048.
Westminster Council are strongly advising people not to visit the Homelessness office in Bruckner Street if possible. Instead, call 0207 641 1000 or complete the online form at www.westminster.gov.uk/homelessness
Information in other languages
For general coronavirus information in many languages click here.
Which? has created a free dedicated consumer rights hub to keep people updated with useful information and advice.
This includes what people should do about cancelled travel arrangements, postponed events and insurance issues, as well as helping people to spot fake news and scams, how to manage their finances if they find themselves in an uncertain situation, and recommending technology to help them stay in touch with elderly and self-isolated friends and family.
Paying the bills and keeping warm
Check this link for Citizen’s Advice.
Energy suppliers have launched an emergency package of support to ensure that customers are able to keep their gas and electricity supply. If you have residents with pre-payment metres but can’t leave their house, speak to your supplier who can offer things like having a pre-loaded gas or electricity card sent to them in the post or having funds added remotely to your credit. If you are struggling with your bill, ask for help from your supplier. More info here:
Violence in the home
Sadly, the national lockdown is putting people under great pressure and some of this is leading to an increased risk of abuse or violence in the home. No one should have to put up with this.
If you are in immediate danger call the police on 999. If you are in danger and unable to talk on the phone call 999 and then press 55.
The National Domestic Abuse helpline provides support for potential victims and anyone worried about families or friends. The website also has a form which women can use to book a safe time for a call from the team.
0808 2000 247 or www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/
Women’s Aid has provided additional advice specifically designed for the current COVID-19 outbreak, including a live chat service. Link here.
The Men’s Advice Line is a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse and those supporting them. 0808 801 0327.
If you are a member of the LGBT+ community, Galop runs a specialist helpline on 0800 999 5428 or email email@example.com.
Al- Hasaniya has a service for Arabic speakers – 020 8969 2292
It is inevitable that many people will struggle with their mental health during this emergency, including with feelings of anxiety and depression- and sometimes for the first time. There are LOTS of useful helplines and sources of advice available:
Mind: 0300 123 3393
Mental Health Foundation
Samaritans: 116 123
Childline: 0800 1111
Talking to children about coronavirus:
All the main websites for advice and information:
Official Government Advice
Coronavirus (COVID-19): what you need to do – click the link: Government Advice
Guidance and updates from the NHS on the coronavirus outbreak – click the link National Guidance
Mayor of London
Get the latest information and guidance for those living and working in London here: London Guidance
Get coronavirus support as an extremely vulnerable person. Apply here
What’s happening in my office?
My staff and I are at work as usual, working remotely, replying to emails and picking up phone messages. We are not experts, let alone lawyers, so often have to refer people to other sources of help. We are also too small an office to be an emergency service, but we will continue to do our best to help with constituents. We are also now trying to get Parliament working ‘remotely’ so we can ask questions of Ministers. Here are some of the issues I have been raising and dealing with this week.
What people are asking me about and what more needs to be done?
Lots of residents are contacting me about ‘non-essential’ works creating noise and nuisance and apparently in some cases risking the health of workers. The Government has decided to allow construction to continue and neither I, Sadiq Khan nor Westminster Council have the power to close building sites.
Westminster Council say this:
All sites in Westminster that are subject to Planning Permission will have a condition limiting the working hours from 08:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday, 08:00 to 13:00 Saturdays and not at all on Sundays or bank holidays
The Council’s Building Control Team are no longer servicing face-to-face Building Control Inspections. In place of visual inspections, sites must provide suitable and sufficient digital records (i.e. photos and videos) of the works. Building sites and their staff are subject to the same social distancing requirements as the rest of the population and should be taking these into consideration.
Operators installing or maintaining broadband networks fall within the list of ‘key workers’ published by the Government. The Council is prioritising support for operators seeking access for business continuity reasons (I.e. maintenance of existing networks or hospitals and schools).
I have started to hear from people who are concerned over the potential continued use of Airbnb and other short lets during the Coronavirus epidemic. These enquiries are mainly coming from people who live next to properties used as short-lets who are concerned that people are continuing to use these addresses for holidays and other unessential travel. I thought it would be helpful to share some of the information I have received over the past week or so.
I am aware that in general it can be hard to know exactly who is operating, or visiting, a short let and how often they are being used, since there is no registration scheme in place. This is exactly why I have been lobbying to get the Government to introduce stricter regulation of this sector through my work as the Chair of the APPG on Short Lets. However, it is important to understand that currently the use of AirBnBs is also implicitly restricted by the emergency Coronavirus laws.
Following the first round of measures ordering the closure of pubs and theatres, the Government last week extended this to a further set of businesses and other venues including: hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts and boarding houses.
There is an exclusion to businesses that have opened their doors to NHS workers, who the Government rightly classify as key workers. Last week AirBnB announced an initiative for COVID-19 responders who need housing support: www.airbnb.co.uk/openhomes/covid19relief. This may well explain why some people have seen continued activity at their neighbour’s addresses.
Obviously, if you believe someone who is using an AirBnB – or indeed any of your neighbours – are consistently ignoring the Government guidance and you do not believe they are doing so for essential work or other permitted reasons, you are well within your rights to contact the Police on 111. I do however think it is worth knowing that a number of these short-lets are now being used to house NHS staff.
I am aware that some parts of Westminster have not had much or any post recently and I have been taking this up with Royal Mail. They say:
As cases of coronavirus increase across the country, we are experiencing growing levels of employee absence due to illness and self-isolation. Despite our best endeavours, it is likely that some areas of the country will experience a reduction in service levels due to coronavirus-related absences at the local mail centre or delivery office. We will continue to actively monitor this rapidly evolving crisis. We will keep talking to you.
Protecting our customers
We have taken several steps to protect both our people and customers. For example, our postmen and women will now leave parcels on doorsteps and step back to a safe distance for the customer to collect the item. We are also temporarily not handing over our hand-held devices to customers to capture signatures. Postmen and postwomen will instead log the name of the person accepting the item and can sign on their behalf. We recognise that post is important to the elderly, particularly those away from their friends and families in care homes. Therefore, we have been delivering to a central point (e.g. reception) rather than individual addresses within care homes since last week.
Temporary service changes
In addition to the service changes outlined on 30 March, we are limiting the opening times of our Customer Services Points (CSPs) in our local delivery offices. Because more people are home than would usually be the case, we are able to deliver the vast majority of items on the first attempt. This has resulted in fewer people needing to collect items from CSPs. With effect from Monday 6 April, our largest locations will be open between 07:00 and 11:00am. All other CSPs will be open between 07:00 and 09:00am. All CSPs will be closed on Wednesdays and Sundays. More information can be found at www.royalmail.com/services-near-you.
Food supplies and price hiking
The Government are confident about food and other supply lines being maintained so there is no need for panic buying (although it is worth mentioning that some extra demand on stores reflects the closures of all the cafés and places where people eat out, school meals etc).
Some shop owners have behaved badly in hiking prices for scarce items and we are flagging this with the Council’s Trading Standards officers (though be aware they are very stretched). The Competition and Markets Authority is also warning of action in cases of profiteering.
Here are some useful ways to report examples you come across:
- Westminster Council Trading Standards – via their Report It app on the website
- National Consumer helpline 0808 223 1133
- Competition and Markets Authority 0203 738 600
Help with your business
Businesses struggling to find advice should contact Westminster’s Business Unit on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7641 2070. Officers can arrange a dedicated 15minute telephone consultations during usual business hours Monday to Friday.
This briefing from HMRC also contains a lot of helpful information:
The Government has set up a dedicated support page where businesses can find the right support, advice and information to help with the impact of coronavirus.
HMRC support during COVID-19
- Coronavirus helpline – offering a better experience
- Self-employment Income Support Scheme
- Job Retention Scheme – Update
- Statutory Sick Pay – Update
- Working Tax Credit Uprating – Update
- VAT deferrals
- COVID-19 Scammers Target Taxpayers
Coronavirus helpline – offering a better experience
Our updated helpline number to support customers impacted by coronavirus is 0800 024 1222 and is open from 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday. We have introduced this number to ensure extra capacity on our network so customers can get through to us more quickly. Calls to the old helpline number will be redirected.
Self-employment Income Support Scheme
This evening, the Chancellor announced a new Self-employment Income Support Scheme to support self-employed people who have been adversely affected by COVID-19.
GOV.UK has further details about who is eligible for the scheme and how it will work.
Self-employed people do not need to get in touch with HMRC as the scheme isn’t yet open for applications. HMRC will contact eligible customers by the beginning of June inviting them to apply.
Unfortunately, we’re aware this might lead to an increase in scam emails, calls and texts. Remember that HMRC will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your bank details, PIN or password. If someone texts, emails or calls claiming to be from HMRC, saying that financial help can be claimed or a tax refund is owed, and asks you to click on a link or to give information such your name, credit card or bank details, please do not respond
The Government has also introduced the following help for the self-employed:
We will continue to share the most up-to-date information directly with you as it becomes available.
Job Retention Scheme – Update
The Government is committed to doing whatever it takes to support businesses and individuals through the Coronavirus pandemic. As you’ll be aware, last week the Chancellor announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The scheme allows businesses to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary for those that would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis.
HMRC has been working hard to develop this scheme, and we have now published further details on GOV.UK. We are aiming to have the scheme open by the end of April 2020. More detailed guidance will be published closer to the time and we will continue to provide updates through this digest and our online channels
Guidance for employers is available on GOV.UK
Guidance for employees is also available on GOV.UK.
Statutory Sick Pay – Update
For businesses with fewer than 250 employees, the cost of providing two weeks of COVID-19 related statutory sick pay per employee will be refunded by the Government in full. This will provide 2 million employers with up to £2 billion to cover the costs of large-scale sick leave. Individuals who are employed by a Personal Service Company are entitled to SSP on the same terms as any other employee.
HMRC will provide further details on how employers can access the rebate as soon as possible.
Customers who are unable to pay VAT due between 20 March and 30 June 2020, now have the option to defer that payment until 31 March 2021. They will not need to apply for deferral as eligibility is automatic. Customers who normally pay by direct debit should cancel their direct debit with their bank if they are unable to pay. Please do this insufficient time.
COVID-19 scammers target taxpayers
HMRC has seen that fraudsters are taking advantage of COVID-19 to offer spurious financial support and tax refunds. They text, email or phone taxpayers offering the bogus refund or aid, or threaten them with arrest if they don’t immediately pay the fictitious tax owed. These scams often target the elderly and vulnerable.
If someone texts, emails or calls claiming to be from HMRC, saying that you are owed a tax refund or can claim financial help, and asks you to click on a link or to give information such as your name, credit card or bank details, it’s a scam.
- Recognise the signs – genuine organisations like banks and HMRC will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your bank details, PIN or password.
- Stay safe – don’t give out private information, reply to text messages, download attachments or click on links in emails you weren’t expecting.
- Take action – forward suspicious emails claiming to be from HMRC to email@example.com and texts to 60599.
- Check GOV.UK for information on how to avoid and report scams and to recognise genuine HMRC contact.
- If you think you have received an HMRC-related phishing or bogus email or text message, you can check it against examples published on GOV.UK.
- Contact your bank immediately if you believe you’ve submitted card details to a scammer and report to Action Fraud if you suffer financial loss.
Working Tax Credit Uprating – Update
Working Tax Credits payments will be increased by £1,045 to £3,040 per year from 6 April 2020 until 5 April 2021.
The amount a claimant or household will benefit from will depend on their circumstances, including their level of household income. But the increase could mean up to an extra £20 each week.
The increased payments will come into effect on the 6 April, but individual payment dates will vary. Only contact HMRC if you have not received an increased payment by 18 May. Find out more about Working Tax Credit payments on the HMRC app or through a Personal Tax Account
Claiming Universal Credit
Nearly a million people have made claims for Universal Credit in the last two weeks- making this the biggest rise in social security claims ever.
Many temporary changes have been made to help people claiming or receiving benefits, details of which are here.
A USEFUL TIP – if you are unable to complete your claim in one go because the system is overloaded, and worry that you may lose out because of this TAKE A SCREEN GRAB or print the screen in an email as evidence for back-dating.
In the meantime, we will continue to press for further improvements to the social security system.
What more do we want to see happen?
I and my MP colleagues are continuing to press the Government on a very wide range of issues, from health – including the roll-out of tests and the supply of personal protective equipment, especially in the NHS, for care workers and others in key services – to school meals, childcare, business support and more.
Rather than include details of all these things here, if you would like more information on any particular area please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
However, given the amount of interest in help for the self-employed, I thought it would be helpful to set out some of our key concerns here:
More help for the self-employed
Following an understandable amount of anxiety about the initial employment support scheme in so far as it applied to the self-employed, I was obviously very pleased to see further measures introduced last week which aimed to address some of these issues and assist a wider range of people. The key features of this Scheme are:
- The self-employed will be eligible for a cash grant worth 80% of a self-employed person’s average monthly trading profit over the last three years;
- This will be capped at £2,500 per month and will last for at least 3 months;
- The Government has said this covers 95% of people who receive the majority of their income from self-employment;
- The Scheme will be open to those:
- With a tradable profit of less than £50,000 in 2018-19 or an average trading profit of less than £50,000 over the last three years; With more than half of their income over these periods from self-employment;
- It will not be eligible to those “who pay themselves a salary and dividends through their own company” (though they can use the Job Retention Scheme if they are operating PAYE schemes)
However, I am still hearing from people who set up days before the cut-off, recently changed the name they are trading under, whose incomes it is very difficult to translate into a monthly average and a range of other highly specific circumstances in which little support is offered. Too many people are simply falling through holes in the net.
Rishi Sunak himself acknowledged that the self-employed are an incredibly diverse population and that his plan would help ‘95% of people who earn most of their income via self-employment.’ I remain concerned about the ‘5%’ whom these measures do not assist and I am committed to bringing deficiencies with this scheme to the attention of the Government. Here in London, in particular, we have an exceptionally diverse group of people in this category, including many who work in the creative sector.
Breaking news about workers made redundant or who left work after February 28th
It has just been announced that for people made redundant or leaving work after Feb 28th due to the impact of coronavirus- your previous employer can rehire you and put you on the furlough scheme, which means the government will pay 80% of your wages. This is up to the individual employer, as is whether they top up the wages to the full amount, but it is an option not there previously.
Some of the issues we are pressing include:
We are concerned that June is too long to wait the self-employed – people need financial support now, in the coming days, and cannot wait months;
The self-employed may not be eligible for Universal Credit if their partner is in work or if they have some savings that remove them from eligibility;
If the self-employed are unable to get financial support sooner, they may well feel pressured to work, risking their own health and the health of others;
There are further uncertainties and questions left open by this Scheme:
- What support is available to the approximately 250,000 people (5% of the self-employed) who will not benefit from this Scheme?
- How many self-employed people pay themselves a salary and dividends through their own company, but do not have a PAYE scheme, and so will be covered by neither this Scheme nor the Job Retention Scheme?
- The delay is presumably partly because of capacity limits at HMRC – but what extra staffing and resourcing is being made available to HMRC to carry out these tasks?
- Would a significant increase in staffing at HMRC enable the grants to be made sooner?
- Why did it take New Zealand, admittedly a smaller economy, only days to set up a grant scheme when this is estimated to take around three months?
- Why did the Government set the cap at £50,000 of profits?
- The Scheme makes some allowances for people who have recently become self-employed, but how many people will miss out because they have become self-employed in recent months?
- Are non-UK nationals who are self-employed covered by this Scheme?
Whilst my colleagues and I are working on proposals to close those gaps, I am afraid that at this moment, the immediate advice I can offer to people set to receive no income from work over the coming months who are not covered by either business or self-employed schemes is to claim Universal Credit.
However, I am raising scores of these unique cases with the Government and will continue to push for the current measures to be extended. Things are moving fast, and I am sure they will continue to do so, but I assure I am acutely aware of how frightening this is for people suddenly faced with a huge fall in income.
Ways to volunteer and to donate
If you would like to volunteer locally, you can register through the Westminster Council website
Unfortunately, it is always true that some others will take advantage and use people’s vulnerability to commit fraud, so please do be aware of the risk and, if you are helping out, check the guidelines for safeguarding – the One Westminster website is very useful.
North Paddington Foodbank
NHS Volunteer Army
Volunteers needed to help vulnerable people stay safe and well at home. Sign up here
Donate to our local NHS
Donate to the Imperial Health Charity to help our local hospitals fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Donate Here
Wishing you all the very best through this difficult time.
Karen Buck MP