WERA Chair, Dave McEvoy met with our local MP, Chuka Umunna at his Constituency Office for an Interview, on 1st March.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
What have you achieved during your time as an MP?
I gave five specific practical pledges, policy related but what I would do as an MP.
1. I would carry on holding on holding surgeries in the same locations as Keith Hill, and also add another location in Brixton, which I have done.
2. I said I would be the first MP to establish an office within the constituency, and I have done that.
3. I said I would give up my then job as a solicitor, to devote my time to doing my functions as MP. I did the day after I was elected.
4. I would be fully transparent and accountable. All my expenses and allowances are published on my website.
5. I would regularly do people’s question times, which I have done one all over the constituency, with another one currently being arranged.
Those were the five practical things which I committed to do, and I have applied for further money to have more staff, but this enables me to provide a better service to my constituency.
For wider policies, some of the issues I have been more affected by emotionally is the youth violence particularly within the borough, and it is an acute problem for us in Lambeth, as well as other boroughs such as Southwark, Lewisham and Hackney. Almost immediately after my election, it became an even bigger issue than it already was with the death of Zac Olumegbon in June 2010 and the incidents of violence and the tragedies we have seen carries on, and have carried on through to July 2011 with the murder of Nana Darko-Frempong in Tulse Hill, and so the first parliamentary debate which I initiated and held in the House of Commons was on serious youth violence, I have been in very close contact with ministers on this issue and have pressed them for funding, as I don’t think they have provided Lambeth with enough funding to provide adequate youth provision, which is one way to tackle the issue. I have also quite recently become the chairman of the London gangs forum, which basically takes learning and best practice from across all the different boroughs and encourage to learn from each other. This brings together the London boroughs, the home office and other third sector organisations who otherwise are not keyed in and so that is one way I can use to power my office to bring people together and we will be feeding into the governments gun crime consultation which has recently opened, and will submit a report.
A top down solution is not the answer to this problem; it has to be a bottom up with the community working with the different agencies.
Secondly, housing is an issue for many people, in respect to those who are subject to the austerity cuts on benefits, which is making people’s lives hard, but also the ongoing problems we have with lack of investment in social housing stock. I have been working closely with the council, to address not just the provision from Lambeth living but also I have been working with lots of the other registered social landlords and housing associations on individual casework which people have, but also working with them to put pressure on the government to provide money to complete the decent homes updates. I have met with ministers and raised questions in the House of Commons about this, since I was elected.
Thirdly, the other big issue is education. The government have put forward its calibration of the academies programme. I am slightly hesitant about the academies programme, but I am clear it has to be about the local people and local governing bodies to decide. What was very clear to me was that in making the decision whether or not to adopt academy status, the governors just felt they didn’t understand the issues or have access to the information to make an informed decision. I worked with my other Lambeth colleague MP’s, we convened some round tables with school governors and head teachers to discuss and share views on whether or not to adopt academy status and in the course of that we had about 200 governors across Lambeth come along to the events we hosted for them in the house of commons. There are many other things, the other thing is obviously the school places issue. I have met with Cllr Pete Robbins who leads on Children and Young People’s Services and with Tessa Jowell and Kate Hoey. We went to the Department for Education to meet with Michael Gove to press for more money to address the acute problem we have with primary school places.
There are many others, but those are just some of the highlights.
Would you say it’s been a successful two years for you?
I am pleased that where we can we have helped thousands of constituents with individual casework, but what I find frustrating at a national level is not being in government. I am a member of the shadow cabinet, and we have a constitutional agreement to hold the government to account, but we are not the ones in control of the levers, and there are so many decisions they are making which I think are bad for my community.
Back when you were a Parliamentary Candidate, you listed the biggest challenges in the constituency as:
the economy and the ongoing recession; anti-social behaviour, prostitution and burglary; ensuring that the supply of school places meets demand; ensuring that everyone has access to high quality, affordable, decent housing and housing services; funding for the provision of activities for our youth; the regeneration of Streatham High Road and our main thoroughfares; improved public transport links to the area; and, promoting environmentally sustainable living in the area and reducing the litter and pollution on our streets.
How do you feel this has changed since you’ve been our MP?
I think the Safer Neighbourhood Team’s which Labour established government in all of the wards. In the eight wards in my constituency have been doing fantastic sterling work with the Safer Neighbourhood Panels to address some of these issues, and I think ASB is still an ongoing issue, and is one of the reasons why I thought ASBOs were a good thing. If you had a problem family causing misery to the rest of a block or estate, it helped provide further powers to those in authority to address that. I think it’s still an ongoing issue and this is one of the reasons why I oppose the government’s 20% cut in police funding. We agree with the independent inspector of policing who says that a 12% cut is sustainable and will not affect policing, but 20% is way above and beyond. If we learnt anything from the unrest we had in the borough, it is that police numbers matter.
What ways do you engage with residents and hear their views?
Today we have been out on one of my walkabouts. I have over 20 estates in my constituency and we have been out this morning with residents, officers and members of the SNT to look at issues, and pick up problems.
We are constantly in contact with people via email and over the telephone, people do find it a bit frustrating that we don’t have the telephone line open all day but the reason we don’t have it open all day is if everyone is on the phone all day, then the casework can’t actually be dealt with.
Thirdly, we have the people’s question times, we have had around 7 of these, and I also try to get out and about in the community to different events, there’s usually a flurry of events around summer and Christmas.
I am a massive user of social media, I have picked up casework through social media, Facebook, twitter and also my website to engage with residents.
Also, my advice surgeries and drop in surgeries.
I have to be in the House of Commons all day, Monday to Wednesday and usually half day Thursday, hence I’m not in the constituency as much as I’d like. I usually work a 7 day week, due to my responsibility, but I also have my national responsibility. I try one weekend in four to have my own time, and see family and friends. The demands on your time are huge.
I have also done coffee mornings, and picked up casework.
What does your role of Shadow Business Secretary entail? And how does help your constituency?
We as an opposition have two constitutional functions. Firstly we are there to hold the government to account as Her Majesty’s loyal opposition and to question what they are doing, and to point out where they are getting things wrong, or right. This is an important part of any government to be an effective opposition for democracy to function. And secondly, we are an alternative government, a shadow government, so come to the election we are the alternative that you put forward to the people to run the country, it’s very important so people have a choice. Simply it’s between a Conservative led government with support from the Liberal Democrats which is pursuing an economic policy which goes too far too fast, and has seen long term unemployment in the constituency double in the last 12 months, and chocking off growth, a labour party which is devoted to enabling people individually and their families to achieving their full potential in a strong and cohesive society and a growing economy where wealth is created and people can prosper and succeed.
I am part of that alternative government, and I lead not only on business but also on international trade, universities, further education and postal services and employee rights too. I lead nationally on behalf of the people to hold the government to account on that respect but also in terms of saying this is a different way of doing it. Like any other UK constituency, we have business who are struggling to succeed and expand in the really difficult economic environment, go onto the A23, the longest piece of continuous high street in Europe which I am proud to say runs through my constituency and see the difficulties being faced. We also have further education institutions like Lambeth College, and many young people who want to go to university but are worried about having to pay £9000 tuition fees, so all the national stuff has a huge impact on the people I represent locally, and one of the great things about being in the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Business Secretary is it further empowers me to raise those issues in a high profile way on behalf of the people I represent.
What are your overall views on the tory/lib dem coalition?
My politics start from the view we are all mutually independent so we all depend on each other. My view of conservative party politics is it’s generally a me, myself and I culture. it is important to give individuals the ability prosper, and strive to achieve their best, but having people needs a strong society to do that, whether that’s through a good education system , or providing good policing so people running businesses are safe in the knowledge they are not going to be burgled and looted or in terms of providing the vulnerable, the poor, the people who can’t help themselves, the elderly, the disabled, the infirm whether it is giving them the help that I think we as human beings have a duty to provide. I don’t think that’s something the conservatives subscribe to, they have always ideologically thought that its very much about the individual and that’s it. I don’t really know what the liberal democrats stand for, and all I do know is they promised a lot, to increase investment in our schools and to protect the NHS and not to impose higher tuition fees to people living in this area, and all I do know is they have been part of this government and have supported the plans to basically privatise the NHS, they relayed on their promise not to introduce higher tuition fees, in fact it was the Lib Dem Business Secretary who imposed that on people in this constituency and they have supported policing cuts, all of these are things they and their councillors promised local people that they wouldn’t support and they have.
There is huge concern over the NHS Reforms, what is your view of the NHS and these proposed reforms? Despite the petition having well over 160,000 signatures, the government still say this may not be debated in parliament, do you think this is right?
I think this is wrong, and there should be a full debate of what they are proposing in parliament, and what they thought to do is shut-down by saying the people who are opposing what they are planning; are not wanting to change and reform the NHS where it’s needed. We are not against change and reform, but it’s got to be done in the right way, and they promised there wouldn’t be a top down reorganisation and that’s precisely what they are imposing on the NHS and they are going to waste £2billion in the process which is money which could be spent on patient care, and improving local services.
I am really proud, that under our labour government we saw in our constituency 6 new or improved health centres being built, and everybody loved them.
Would you say you are a keen labour supporter as an MP for Labour?
Absolutely. I joined the labour party because just look at all the things we have done and supported historically, whether it was the establishment of the NHS, our internationalist vision, thoroughly opposing the apartheid regime in south Africa, and the votes for working people and women. We have always been the ones who have been on the front foot when it comes to equal, fair, democratic Britain. The strength of our vision is the thing that has held back the conservatives from winning the majority.
How do you feel about the unpaid work experience scheme the government have in place?
I don’t mind work experience I think it’s a good thing for people to get work experience as I think it helps to improve their ability and enables people to get access to skills, the problem of course with the governments work experience programme is that if you went onto a programme and withdrew, for example if it wasn’t very good and you didn’t get the experience you expected, they would withdraw benefits, which I thought was wrong. Secondly, there is a discipline issue with the government paying commercial organisations to take on people for work experience and then using those people to do work which employees would otherwise do, I think that was worrying, but they appear to have listened to some of the concerns of the businesses who they engaged to do the work experience who said, like I have that stopping peoples benefit if they left the programme was not something they can support, but not opposed to the principal of work experience.
Yesterday you gave a speech at the CBI about reforming the UK economy, can you tell us about this in brief?
One of the things we need to do is we have got two problems, firstly the economy hasn’t quite been delivering for businesses, people and families for some time, that is one of the reasons we have one of the biggest squeeze on living standards in a generation, despite increases in productivity, efficiency in which our businesses are operated haven’t been translated into higher wages for people, so wages nationally stayed the same, despite inflation and rising costs. Secondly, we are also facing much more competitive pressures coming internationally from other market economies like Brazil, China and Russia, that presents opportunities as a new market to sell our products into, but also more competition for things we already sell. My speech was about how we can work in partnership with business to make sure we are well setup as a country to exploit these new opportunities so they deliver better outcomes for British people. One of the things I actually said during the speech and I talked about Lambeth in the speech, if we want to sell into these new economies we have to improve our language skills, and traditionally we have focussed on French and German in our schools, latterly there has been a bit more focus on Spanish, but I think we need to be looking at what are the language skills which we need as a nation to exploit these new economies. We have one of the largest Portuguese speaking populations in Lambeth, which provides us with a unique link and ability to connect up with Brazil to exploit that big economy and we are just not using it. We need to do much more to make use of that not just for the Diaspora community, but also to create jobs for the community as well.
Do you think the recession is as a result of the coalition?
Yes. We aren’t quite in a recession yet, we’ve had one quarter of negative growth if we get another, and technically we will be in a recession. I hope we don’t get another quarter of negative growth. The simple fact is, our economy has stagnated and flat lined for most of the last 12months, long before the euro zone crisis started to impact on our economy, but the worrying thing is, that is still yet to feed through. That was because of what the government did. When I became an MP, and labour left government, unemployment was falling and growth was rising and business was beginning to flourish again, but because of what they did, confidence fell, and therefore demand fell for goods, so we are in the situation we are. There is just over 2.6million people out of work and in the constituency alone we have just over 4300 people claiming Job Seekers Allowance. That is the situation we find ourselves in, and that’s why we have been arguing they should change course, and adopt our plan for growth which includes creating 100,000 jobs for young people, along the lines of the future jobs fund scheme, which was helping so many people in Lambeth.
We don’t often see you down here, what are you doing for this part of the constituency?
All of the things I have been doing with policing, gang prevention, housing and casework are all throughout the constituency. I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’m not seen around, as I try to get to all parts of the constituency, for example Weir Estate is one of 20 estates in the constituency, so getting around everywhere is a challenge considering the best time I can do that is a Friday or Saturday. We deal with lots of casework from Thornton residents. We have supported the setting up of the Weir Community Garden. I do surgeries within the ward, but these must be organised by appointment.
I held a coffee morning in The Weir Link, and met residents and picked up casework, and attended the Weir Community Day, and recently done a walkabout on the Weir Estate.
We were very sad to hear of the boundary changes, and if these come into force our part of the constituency will form part of the new Clapham common constituency which will be a highly conservative area. Do you think it is right to make these changes, and to split Streatham constituency up so much?
No. I don’t agree with it, and I think the Lib Dems have a lot of explaining to do. I was quite bemused to see they had been putting out leaflets asking residents to rise up and oppose the proposals that their government is putting through, and they support. It’s quite extraordinary. Clapham Common Constituency is forecast to be a marginal.
Chuka would like to thank WERA and everyone involved for the very valuable work you do. Serving the estate and making it the very vibrant community that it is.