Interview: Helen Hayes MP
We asked our local MP a range of questions about the impact of the pandemic locally, the roles of faith groups and how her work has changed. Here are her responses
How did it feel when you became the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood?
It was and still is an incredible privilege to have been elected to represent Dulwich and West Norwood. Thousands of people put their trust in me to stand up for them and to speak on their behalf in Parliament. Not only is that a huge responsibility but it is also very humbling. I think about that responsibility every single day.
How well have you got to know your constituency since you were elected?
I’ve either lived in my constituency as I do now, or just outside the boundary, for more than half my life, so I already knew this part of south London very well before I was elected. But I’ve learned about our area in different ways since serving as the local MP.
One of the things I love the most about my role is having the opportunity to get to know many, many people and community organisations across my constituency who work in extraordinary ways to support others.
What are the main challenges faced by people in this area generally? How much is it possible to help as their MP?
The biggest practical issue facing my constituents is the shortage of genuinely affordable, secure social housing in London. We have far too many families living in housing which is not suitable for their needs, and many others living in poverty because so much of their income has to go on rent each month.
More widely, I am contacted every month by constituents who are struggling to make ends meet because their pay is too low or they have not been able to access support. People also get in touch about a very wide range of other issues.
As a local MP, I am usually not the decision-maker on the issues people approach me about, but I can help by making representations to whichever organisation or individual has the authority to make a difference.
The act of representation can be very powerful in its own right – I do my best to fight my constituents’ corner as hard as possible. I also raise the wider policy issues, like the lack of investment in building new social housing, in the House of Commons whenever I can.
What role do you think faith communities play in the constituency?
Faith communities are an enormously important part of my constituency, both for the comfort, solace and sense of purpose that many people derive from their faith, but also for the role that they play in our wider community.
During the Covid-19 pandemic in particular we have seen faith communities organising emergency food distribution and supporting people who would otherwise be isolated and lonely – it has been really moving and inspiring to see this work.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your constituents? Have you seen a change in the issues brought to you?
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought huge challenges and hardship for many local residents. The number of emails and phone calls from constituents in distress and in need of help and support increased enormously at the start of the pandemic, and hasn’t dropped since.
In the early days I was contacted by people struggling to access essentials like food and medicine. Now we are seeing big challenges for people whose employment or income has been affected.
How can churches and other religious groups help in the recovery from the pandemic?
There will be a need for the kind of support that faith groups have been providing during the pandemic for some time to come. There are many people suffering financial hardship, and many people who have suffered bereavement or other types of trauma. Faith communities can play a vital role in helping people to come to terms with what we have been through during the pandemic, as well as continuing to provide practical support.
Faith communities also have an important role to play in helping to ensure that as many people as possible are vaccinated. There is still some vaccine hesitancy, and many faith communities are helping to ensure that people have the protection of the vaccine by hosting vaccination clinics or providing opportunities for people to discuss any concerns they have and receive answers to their questions.
How has the pandemic affected your working life as an MP?
Like many other organisations, at the start of the pandemic, I had to stop running my regular advice surgeries physically, and we have switched to telephone appointments for people who need to speak with me who are unable to get in touch by email.
The volume of correspondence that I have received every week since the start of the pandemic has been incredibly high and my fantastic team have been working flat out to help me get back to constituentsas quickly as possible.
Parliament also switched to virtual participation, so I have given many speeches over the past 15 months in the virtual House of Commons Chamber from my home.
The national lockdowns have been completely necessary, but I’ve really missed holding surgeries, attending local events across my constituency and all of the contact that I normally have with residents and community groups.
Do you have a view of how we will emerge from the pandemic?
I think we will be living with the consequences of the pandemic for some time to come, in terms of loss and trauma, long-term health impacts from Covid-19 and the impact on our economy.
Covid-19 also revealed some of the stark inequalities in our communities, particularly in terms of housing and racial inequality, and I am determined that we must emerge with a new determination to tackle inequality and injustice.
Are there any issues/projects where you're working with local faith leaders and, if so, how are they going?
I’ve tried to keep in touch with faith leaders in my constituency throughout the pandemic and support their work wherever possible.
More recently, I’ve spoken with some faith leaders about the importance of campaigning to stop the Government’s cuts to international aid. Faith communities have a deeply internationalist perspective and care about issues of global justice. The cuts to aid are a huge step backwards in the fight against global poverty and inequality, climate change and education for women and girls and it is important that we build the widest possible opposition to these cuts.
The work that many faith communities do to provide activities and support for children and young people and to tackle poverty at home is also vitally important, and I try to support this whenever I can.
What do you hope for, when society has settled back to some sort of normality?
I hope that we don’t go back to how things were before, but we really seize the opportunity to rebuild a society which is fairer for everyone, including building more social housing with good space standards and access to outdoor space.
I also hope that we will hang on to the positive relationships we built during the pandemic. For example the street-based WhatsApp groups and mutual aid groups which enabled neighbours to support each other and flexible working arrangements which have enabled lots of people to spend more time with family because they haven’t had to commute. I also hope that we retain the appreciation of our keyworkers - everyone from NHS and social care staff to retail, transport and emergency services workers whose jobs are at the front line and who keep us all going, especially in times of crisis.
How can your constituents best contact your office?
The best way to get in touch with me is by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
. I will restart my constituency advice surgeries as soon as it is safe to do so.