Poplar and Limehouse MP Apsana Begum urges safety and solidarity in the face of coronavirus

Apsana Begum, MP for Poplar and Limehouse. Picture: Mike Brooke

Apsana Begum, MP for Poplar and Limehouse. Picture: Mike Brooke - Credit: Mike Brooke

This was not the introduction to parliamentary life that MP Apsana Begum expected.

The 29-year-old — elected to represent Poplar and Limehouse in December 2019 — scarcely had time to settle in her new role before the coronavirus outbreak began.

Not to be deterred by the unprecedented challenge ahead, Ms Begum has been hard at work for her constituents.

As the politician explains to the East London Advertiser, her work is now broadly divided into casework and campaigning.

Casework, as with all MPs, is being done remotely: “My staff have moved to working from home and although we are experiencing a high volume of enquiries, we are doing our best to respond to everyone — prioritising those stranded overseas and the most vulnerable.”

To cope with volume, Ms Begum has set up a contact list where constituents can go for further information.

Lobbying the government is where Ms Begum has really come into her own.

The Shadwell native is consistently engaged with those leading the Covid-19 charge, both locally and nationally.

A key issue in Tower Hamlets involves price hikes for profit, something which Ms Begum opposed by way of tabling an Early Day Motion to the House of Commons.

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In the motion urging governmental action, she said: “The continued behaviour of those seeking to capitalise on the current situation by charging unjustifiably high prices for essential goods is immoral and unjust.”

Ms Begum followed up by reiterating the call in a letter to Alok Sharma, secretary of state of the department for business, energy and industrial strategy.

The MP has also been active in the discussion surrounding burials and cremations, supporting the ultimately successful amendment tabled by Labour colleague Naz Shah MP.

Ms Begum’s backing of the change — which ensures no forced cremations for those of certain faith groups — reflects the religious diversity of the area in which she serves.

In expressing her concerns, she said: “Whilst the purpose of these measures is to deal with a potential surge in deaths and lack of grave space capacity arising from the current crisis, the government should not neglect their responsibilities in protecting the right to manifest one’s religion.”

Ms Begum has also been vocal on an issue which is particularly prevalent in Tower Hamlets – overcrowded housing.

In a speech made after school closures were confirmed, she asked for government guidance on how best to implement social distancing in increasingly crowded homes.

She has also pushed chancellor Rishi Sunak on whether the government plan to commit funding to address the mental health issues which may arise as a result of extended periods of self-isolation.

Recent successes include overturning the government’s stance on providing free school meal (FSM) vouchers over the Easter holidays.

Ms Begum is part of the education select committee which held a virtual meeting with the department for education on March 25.

In that meeting the department was challenged on its response to Covid-19, including the continued provision of FSM vouchers.

The scheme was only intended to be operational in term-time, but pressure from the committee and beyond forced the government to change policy to provide vouchers during the holidays.

Ultimately, Ms Begum is campaigning on the issues which affect two defining aspects of her constituency: diversity and deprivation.

She says: “Unfortunately, the necessary scale of intervention and funding is still yet to be delivered, so I’m continuing to hold the government to account.”

Ms Begum encourages whistleblowing on illegal practices, such as being forced to work without adequate social distancing or protective equipment.

She adds: “This has got to stop. The government must act. The police must enforce. And workers must be kept safe.”

Ms Begum concludes by calling upon the people of Poplar and Limehouse to show their customary spirit, saying it’s vital to ensure “our society is defined by solidarity and compassion”.