Another very busy week in Westminster. Here is a flavour of some of the events in which I took part.
On Monday morning I attended a zoom call for local MPs and MSs organised by the trade union PCS concerning the anxiety over the reported number of Covid-19 cases in the DVLA from March 2020 to date. The Chief Executive and the Head of HR at the DVLA were called to give evidence to the Parliamentary Transport Select Committee last Tuesday and members of the committee were less than satisfied at some of the answers to the evidential questioning. Since the first Covid-19 cases were reported, Swansea City Council, SBUHB, and PHW have been urging the DVLA to introduce adequate social distancing measures on all its sites, reduce numbers of workers actually working on its sites by increasing those working from home, and to make sure that transport provided by the DVLA is Covid-19 secure. I have been contacted by constituents who live in Neath and work at the DVLA who are so worried about contracting Covid-19, but wish to remain anonymous, because they are afraid of losing their jobs.
On Tuesday I joined the Gaps in Support APPG, of which I’m a vice-chair. We heard from representatives of the creative sector, BECTU, Equity and the Producers Association, whose members have received inadequate, or no support, from the UK Government during this pandemic. Tracy Brabin MP introduced the speakers by stating that had she remained an actor on Coronation Street, she would have been one of those excluded from UK Government support schemes. Members in the creative sector are sole traders, Ltd companies and PAYE/freelancers, service companies and new starters, who do not qualify for UK Government grants. Many working in this sector supplement their income by working in hospitality, but that isn’t possible. So many are in serious debt, are suffering mental health issues and are leaving the sector.
Our APPG has written many letters to the Chancellor about gaps in support, and we have written again this week following the Chancellor’s comments that 3 million is not a number that he recognises. There are 2.93 million people who have had little or no support from the UK Government according to ONS and SEISS statistics, as of January 2021. The Chancellor also said that it is not right to describe these people as excluded. But they are. There are more than 1.4 million people excluded from the SEISS scheme because the majority of their income does not come from being self-employed (the 50/50 group), and more than half of these have a personal income of less than £25,000 and 45% are women who are combining jobs. They cannot be furloughed and cannot claim SEISS. The self-employed and small business sector make up 99.3% of the business population and the Chancellor should support them.
On Wednesday afternoon I joined the APPG for Sport discussing how the sport and physical activity sector can get back on its feet post Covid-19. We listened to the Minister for Sport, Heritage and Tourism, Nigel Huddleston and the Chief Executive of Sport England, Tim Hollingsworth. The speakers focused on the effect on grassroots sport and looked at what the sector needs to survive and thrive in the future. Although sport is devolved to the Welsh Government and governed by Sport Wales, there are many similarities affecting this sector, in England and Wales, and as vice-chair of this APPG, and a former athlete, I am passionate about sport and highlighting the tremendous physical and mental health and well being benefits gained from participation in physical exercise.
It’s National HIV Testing Week, and people are being urged to order a home HIV test. There are an estimated 6,700 people in the UK who are undiagnosed. This is a condition which nowadays can be treated successfully, but if untreated can lead to very serious medical conditions and fatalities. On Thursday I joined the APPG for HIV/AIDS where we received presentations from the Elton John Foundation, who are running projects in London Boroughs to identify new cases of HIV and direct them to HIV care, but also identify historical cases where individuals are aware of their HIV status, but for whatever reason, are not receiving treatment. Social Impact Bonds from private and philanthropic funders are being used to work with public sector providers. There is still unwarranted stigma attached to testing positive for HIV, which may explain why individuals do not seek treatment. By changing HIV testing to an opt-out system in these projects, testing is normalised, and very few individuals refuse, whereas in opt-in schemes, refusals are common. Raising awareness in communities is vital in reassuring individuals that contracting HIV is no ones fault.
On Thursday afternoon, I was honoured to be re-elected as co-chair of the APPG for Pro Bono and Public Legal Education when the APPG was reconstituted after falling into abeyance during the pandemic, because our secretariat LawWorks was involved in changing a face to face Pro Bono model into a remote and online model. We made plans to hold evidence sessions to discuss the impact of Covid-19 regulations on communities. I’m proud that Richard Owen of Swansea Law Clinic, in the Hillary Clinton School of Law, Swansea University, won the LawWorks Cymru 2020 award. The law clinic works with 7 law firms and 3 charities to provide free legal advice to individuals with legal problems, but without the means to pay. Students take part and are mentored by law professionals, and experience law in action, rather than law in books.
On Thursday evening I joined the Zoom public meeting organised by the Coal Authority for residents in Skewen who have been seriously affected by the flooding caused by a blowback from a disused mine shaft. Over 80 residents were evacuated from their homes on 21st January, and many were on the call to ask questions of the Coal Authority. The vast majority of individuals affected by the flooding reside in Aberavon constituency, but there are two properties in my constituency. The meeting was chaired by the local councillor Mike Harvey, who has been doing an excellent job, working non-stop to represent his constituents. Other attendees were the MP and MS for Aberavon; the Leader and Deputy Leader of NPT Council; the Chief Executive and Director of Planning, NPT Council; the Salvation Army, and local agencies. Cllr Harvey thanked everyone who had helped the residents, those who had donated clothes and money to the residents fund, and looked forward to when the affected area is made safe, so that residents can return to their homes.
This week Labour put forth a motion to call on the Government to urgently establish the extent of dangerous cladding and prioritise buildings according to risk; to provide upfront funding to ensure cladding remediation can start immediately; to protect leaseholders and taxpayers from the cost by pursuing those responsible for the cladding crisis; and to update Parliament once a month in the form of a Written Ministerial Statement by the Secretary of State. It is unconscionable that 3 years after the appalling tragedy that hit the residents in Grenfell Tower, there are still so many people living in high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding. Not only are they faced with the costs of remediation, but also with the cost of maintaining Waking Watches until that remediation can be carried out. The Government are dragging their heels and leaseholders are unable to move from their properties with no financial assistance. Sky-high insurance premiums are adding to the anxiety and worries of those living in these buildings. Despite many Conservative MPs speaking up in this debate for their constituents in such a situation, they failed to perform their duty and vote for our proposal, leaving the Government with free rein to continue dodging their responsibilities.
This Thursday we marked World Cancer Day, another important date that has gained a new significance during this pandemic. Coronavirus has thrown much of our lives into disarray, but for those facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment, this is another challenge to overcome and something that has made the cancer journey all the more difficult. The pandemic has also caused some reluctance in seeking advice for potential cancer symptoms – but I would urge that if you have any symptoms that you are worried or unsure about, you should contact your GP. They are still there for you and it is important that if there is anything amiss, that it is caught as soon as possible. For those facing treatment, this must be an incredibly difficult time, especially as many of the restrictions mean family members may not be able to support you physically. However, Macmillan Cancer Support are still there to provide advice, information, and support and can be contacted 7 days a week, 8am-8pm, on 0808 808 00 00.
As always, if you have any questions or issues and want to get in touch about matters that fall under my role as MP, please do not hesitate to drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01639 630152. My staff are working from home to comply with the social distancing measures, but, as always, we remain there should you need to get in contact with us.
I hope you stay well, and remember – observe social distancing, wash your hands regularly and keep Wales safe.