It’s been a few weeks since my last newsletter, partly caused by the setback of my having Covid – for which I was mercifully not hospitalised, but which was still something of a dreadful experience and which I recommend everyone to avoid! On the positive side, I’ve recently – and gratefully – had my first shot of the vaccine (painless, efficiently done) and I’ll be talking a bit more about that below in light of the concern that Westminster is trailing the rest of the country for vaccination levels.
In some ways it’s hard to believe that we are in fact marking the anniversary of going into lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic took hold – for me the year has been so frantic that it has flashed past. But it’s been an incredibly tough time for so many people, with Britain experiencing one of the world’s highest death rates, deepest economic crashes and some of the toughest (though too often delayed) lockdowns. Quite rightly we need an inquiry to look into the handling of the crisis and how and why decisions were made as they were. Covid-19 may have presented an enormous challenge to any Government but that doesn’t mean Ministers are off the hook for some of the choices they made.
Meanwhile it’s also been an intensely busy month with lots of business in Parliament and issues being raised with me, from women’s safety to our freedoms and right to protest, the Police Bill and more. You can see what I have been saying about these below.
My small staff team and I continue to do our best to reply to individual enquiries and problems as best we can, so please keep writing and bear with us if we can’t always reply as quickly as we would like.
Vaccination levels need a booster
The NHS is probably the best institution in the world to get the population vaccinated, and once again we are seeing what a well integrated and organised health system can do, thanks also to the hard work and dedication of the staff. The vaccine may not solve all our problems but it gives us hope that life can return to some normality and that our most vulnerable are well protected.
However, we also know that to be effective we need good population coverage. Too many people unvaccinated means more potential for variants to take hold and spread, and that’s not good news for anyone. So it is worrying that Westminster is trailing the rest of the country when it comes to vaccination rates. Some of this is probably down to a dispute about accurate population counts in the inner city, some because many people who are normally living in central London haven’t been here this year, some is down to the same difficulties in reaching people and talking through genuine concerns about the vaccine that we are seeing in other inner city areas. Volunteers and NHS staff are doing a great job, but I also fear we are paying the price for having run down support for local community and civic organisations in recent years.
I’m continuing to urge everyone who can to get vaccinated, for their own good and for all our benefit. And I’ve been working with the local NHS and council to identify and overcome some of the barriers to getting the vaccination rate up.
I spoke about this in Parliament in a debate last week and you can read more about this here.
It’s not too late to get the first jab!
While 2.5 million Londoners have already been vaccinated against coronavirus, NHS England have asked me to help reassure everyone who is currently eligible but yet to receive the vaccine that it’s not too late to get the first jab. Although at first we were asked to wait to be called, for people in certain groups, you are now being encouraged to call and book your first jab if you haven’t had it.
If you’re aged over 70, a carer or have an underlying health condition, call 119 or go online to book your COVID vaccination appointment at nhs.uk/covid-vaccination
They have also released a ‘Call for Arms’ letter in the Evening Standard, jointly signed by the Mayor of London, London Councils and PHE London, to encourage eligible Londoners to book their vaccine which you can view here. If you know someone in any of those affected groups, please help pass this message on.
The message from health professionals is clear, The COVID vaccines are safe, effective and will save lives. If you have any particular concerns about getting the COVID vaccine, you are encouraged to speak to your GP.
Women’s safety – time to be heard
Some events trigger a public reaction that has been a long time building but which then suddenly tips into a demand for change. The killing of George Floyd was one, leading to an outpouring of rage and grief under the umbrella heading of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Sarah Everard’s death was another, as women’s voices demanded to be heard on the issue of harassment, domestic abuse and safety.
The policing of what was originally planned as a ‘Reclaim these streets’ vigil for Sarah introduced yet another dimension- partly because of the reaction to the policing of that event itself, and partly because it was then caught up in a new row about government plans to restrict protest, set out in the Police Bill which was introduced to Parliament just a day afterward. None of this was helped by the fact that the Police Bill included new penalties in respect of statues but not a single reference to women!
Although there are, in fact, some measures in the Police Bill which are worthy of support, I was willing to vote against it, both because of what the Bill failed to include to improve safety, and because the restrictions on protest are heavy handed and not consistent with our essential freedoms. I’ll be supporting amendments on all these issues when the Bill comes back to Parliament in the summer (for despite having been rushed into Parliament at first, the government has chosen not to take the next stages until May!)
I have written for both the Wood and Vale & West End Extra about women’s safety.
I have spoken many times on another area of great concern – that of serious youth violence, and tragically we have seen more dreadful events locally. Sven Badzak, a 22 year old from Harrow Road, was killed in Willesden Lane in February, and not long after a 19 year old, Ahmed Beker, was murdered in Little Venice. Like Boris Johnson himself, I am deeply concerned about the possibility of more violence as we emerge out of lockdown and face all the challenges that brings – from high youth unemployment to an epidemic of mental health problems. I’m delighted that Sadiq Khan is funding 1000 extra police – we lost 21,000 police from our streets due to funding cuts in the last decade- and we need investment in rebuilding Safer Neighbourhood policing above all. However, policing alone won’t solve this- prevention is the key, and that means youth services, early support and mental health services, much of which have had their funding taken away in recent years too. This is short sighted and counter-productive and its time for a change.
Parliament’s Human Rights committee on peaceful protest – a right that has to be defended
As a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, I am proud of the work we have done in holding the government to account, scrutinising government proposals and making recommendations.
In March, we published a report which set out how there could be greater clarity on the muddled rules about protest (and obviously this means peaceful protest) whilst Coronavirus restrictions apply. You can read that here.
Keep the uplift to Universal Credit
Over the late winter, my colleagues and I were putting the government under pressure to keep the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit, and to extend it to the (mostly) disabled and long-term sick people receiving ‘legacy’ benefits – meaning they have not yet moved over onto Universal Credit. With the economy having suffered so much from the effects of Covid, every day brings more examples of how people have been suffering – losing work, losing their income and struggling to keep afloat. Having first planned to cut the £20 uplift in April, Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended it for six months in the budget, but this means another cliff edge in the early autumn, so we will have to keep fighting.
Latest figures for our own area show that the number of people needing to claim Universal Credit and other help rose to 6,665, which means our claimant rate is, unusually, higher than the national average. 1,035 young people needed to claim support, up by 790 over the year.
Growing financial hardship also risks increasing homelessness and although there has been a block on evictions for the past year, there are real worries about what will happen when that comes to an end. For many local families, homelessness also means being shifted to the other side of London or beyond, regardless of their connections, children’s schools, work or caring responsibilities. I set out what this means for people in a speech to Parliament in March.
Pension age? Don’t miss out on the Warm Home Discount
Lots of people in later life are entitled to- but don’t claim-Pension Credit, and they could be missing out on a share of £88.2m of the Warm Home Discount every year. I support Independent Age’s call for the government to implement a Pension Credit uptake plan. If you want to check whether you are entitled to Pension Credit, you can do so here.
Pubs can be a vital part of a community – read about the battle to rebuild the Carlton Tavern after its illegal demolition
We’ve lost dozens of pubs in and around North Westminster in recent years, and while not every one was viable or deserved to be saved, as drinking habits change, many did. Business rates, rent hikes and the appeal for developers of making big money from converting buildings into flats have contributed to a wave of closures. Yet none of these stories was as dramatic as that of the Carlton Tavern in Carlton Vale- which was demolished wholly illegally even as the planning process was under way. That the pub has been rebuilt, six years later, is a credit to the campaigners who gathered signatures, demonstrated outside in mid winder and got the story a national profile, stiffening the sinews of the council to take the fight all the way. This is the story.
Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP