Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions visits Newington Community Centre to see how lives are being changed

MP Jonathan Ashworth meets Mike Spackman and the kitchen team at Newington Community Centre

Affordable lunches bringing people together, food banks, an employability scheme and volunteering from former prisoners looking to take their lives in a new direction were all evident at Newington Community Centre when Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth visited today (April 19).

The Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions arrived during the centre’s regular Wednesday lunch club where residents can get two home-cooked courses for a fiver.

Mike and kitchen team

The lunches are created under the guidance of community chef Mike Spackman but as well as bringing Newington residents together, particularly many regulars from nearby Copperfields retirement housing complex, the meals are part of a practical work ready scheme run in partnership with EKC Group, Thanet Job Centres and Thorley Taverns.

Those taking part gain real kitchen skills as well as understanding the importance of time keeping, team work and accountability.

Mike, who first joined the Newington Big Local team and community centre in 2020, said: “The four ladies (in the kitchen) are part of our pilot employability programme in partnership with EKC and ‘into work’ programme with Job Centre Plus. The idea is to help them back into work, or getting ready to work. Our other partner is Thorley Taverns and Michaela and Amy are now working at the Charles Dickens and Beata – from Poland – has been brilliant, baking traditional Polish cakes.”

Alongside those gaining practical skills are residents who simply want to help out.

Sardar Abdul Basid retired from his food delivery job in December and now volunteers at the centre.

He said: “I retired but did not want to just sit at home. I live in Newington so I come here and help out.”

Lizbeth is another volunteer who has returned to help out after initially taking part in the employability course.

She also brings over her dad George from Copperfields so he can enjoy a meal and company.

Lisbeth said: “I was doing a job search for my Universal Credit and the course came up. I applied, got on it and did the course with a few others. When I heard it was coming back (last October) I asked if I could help. We all muddle in, helping each other with the cooking, peeling potatoes and veg.

“I bring Dad and there are quite a few others that come from Copperfields.”

Ade and Steve from St Christopher’s House

Among the volunteers are men from St Christopher’s House in Newington which is supported accommodation for those leaving prison, with many having been clean from alcohol  and drug addiction during their sentence and wanting the opportunity to stay that way.

The house is run by CommunityKent CIC with help from Together Kent and the diocese of Canterbury which owns the former rectory house.

Ade Marsh is one of the residents who has been volunteering at the community centre. He said: “I come in on Mondays and Thursdays to help at the food bank and do the cooking club on Tuesday mornings. I’m in the supported accommodation as I have recently come out of prison and it’s a ‘dry house’ where we can start our lives over and stay clean.”

Fellow resident Steve Collins said: “This place works. I have 40 years of alcoholism and addiction but have now been clean for 18 months.

“Our support worker Kelly Napier does a really good job and helps us with everything including filling in forms for things like PIP. The church funds the project and it is such a good step to a new life. The centre should be funded too, for things like the cookery club with Mike.”

Kelly with Ade, Steve and a fellow resident

Kelly, who has a background with Citizens Advice and previously worked at Catching Lives homelessness project in Canterbury, says people leaving prison with £45 and a travel warrant but nowhere to go are being set up to fail.

She hopes the St Christopher’s project and its links with Newington Big Local will prove to be a solution.

She said: “We are solution focused, we want to look at how to make it work. The thing that comes up repetitively is people have no accommodation.”

The St Christopher’s accommodation opening was delayed due to the pandemic but finally opened its doors last May.

Kelly said: “The aim is to put a full stop at the end of those sentences and not have that stigma attached to (residents) within the community they live in.

“We asked Big Local for volunteering opportunities, and they welcomed us. To date we have given 198 volunteering hours and had great outcomes.

“It is about acceptance and a non-judgemental environment, learning new skills and meeting new people with a positive influence. They love coming here and there has been such a welcoming attitude from everyone at Newington Big Local.”


These are just some of the people Jonathan Ashworth met today and Newington Big Local Community Development Manager Cara Thorpe said she hoped it was a chance for him to see the value of grassroots organisations.

Cara, who is part of Big Local’s team of four at Newington, said: “It is a chance to have a conversation and let him know what goes on at grassroots level. A lot of money goes to bigger organisations and does not always filter down. Bigger projects are important but grassroots also have an impact.”

With Newington ward in the top five per cent in the country for people living below the poverty line, initiatives such as Big Local are stepping in to help people cope with everything from being safe and accessing services during the pandemic to now receiving help as they struggle with the cost of living. On top of this are the community links, friendship and company provided with the numerous events held at the centre.

Polly Billington

Mr Ashworth was invited to Newington by Labour’s South Thanet parliamentary hopeful Polly Billington.

After talking to people at the centre, and enjoying the cottage pie and rhubarb crumble dished up by Mike’s team, he said he thinks Newington Big Local should be the model for communities across the country.

Meeting the Newington community

He said: “(Polly) asked me to visit this project in Newington. She said how inspirational it was what goes on here, the way the lunch club is run, giving something back to the community, the food banks and the way it is distributed.”

He added: “People in Newington are struggling, not just with gas and electric. The price of shopping is up with the biggest increase since 1977. That’s how difficult things are for people at the moment.”

The MP blames 13 years of “failure from the government” and said his aim for the visit was to listen to people who run and use the project.

Talking to Sardar and Lisbeth

Praising the meal as first class, he added: “If I was Secretary of State for work and pensions I would want to take this Newington project as the kind of thing to have everywhere. It gives people hope and hot meals, helps people get their food and gives them work readiness experience to move into jobs.”

Polly added: “Even when people can afford food, this brings them together, working, cooking and eating together. There are people that apart from the meal on Wednesdays, eat alone the rest of the time. This connection with other people is vital.

“This is a very supportive environment. It does not just help people in crisis.

“The Big Local approach with Cara and Mike (and team) is really important. They understand talent and energy and all those things every community has. They can see it in the people of Newington and give people the ability to make the most of those skills and talents.”

Last year a grant of up to £500,000 was agreed to create a training kitchen at Newington Community Centre.

The kitchen and space for people seeking job and training opportunities was one of the successful bids in the £19.8million Ramsgate Levelling Up Fund  awarded by government in 2021.

Unemployment in Thanet is significantly higher (5.1 per cent) than in the rest of Great Britain (3.6 per cent).

Amongst the aims of the Newington kitchen is the training of at least 30 young people per year, 30 employees receiving on the job training, work experience, apprentice training and an outcome of two new food businesses being formed each year.

The Wednesday lunch club runs every week, doors open at noon. Cost £5 for lunch and pudding.

Newington Community Centre is in Princess Margaret Avenue, Ramsgate.


  1. Jon Ashworth turned out to be a pretty awful Labour MP and shadow health secretary. Alarm bells first rang when he blocked the NHS Reinstatement Bill in 2018. NHS campaigners had been working on it for months, they had secured the support of a lot of Green, Labour and SNP MPs. At this point the Tories had no majority in parliament, and there was a chance of the bill being voted through which would have been a hammer blow to the privateers. Eleanor Smith MP was due to put the bill to parliament when Ashworth pulled the plug at the last minute. He cited technical reasons, said it needed to be delayed. But it never returned to parliament. Then there’s the fact that he still defends PFI as a way of funding public services. When John McDonnell announced in 2019 that Labour would end PFI and bring contracts in-house, Ashworth went against him on the Today programme, saying that it would ‘take time’ and that many PFI deals under New Labour had in fact been quite good (in his opinion). It happens that Ashworth was a top adviser to Gordon Brown when a great deal of PFIs were being brokered with the private sector. Finally, there’s the fact that Jon Ashworth had a recorded conversation with a Tory MP in which he made awful claims about the Labour Party and it’s leader, which happened to surface just two days before the 2019 general election providing much ammunition for the Conservatives. Ashworth claimed he didn’t know he was being recorded. When the labour leaks document briefly became public in 2020, it revealed that Jon Ashworth’s wife, Emilie Oldknow, had been part of a senior group of execs in the party that regarded the leader with extreme hostility and their whatsapp chats showed that they did not in fact want the party to win the election. This shocking new information led many to wonder if Ashworth had felt the same way.

    • Let’s keep the tories in power then.

      We all know in 2019 Labour was in disarray. Keep going back to it and feeding the narrative that party was at all electable is ridiculous at this point. A lot was wrong from a lot of people still with big roles there. We all know this.

      However they are way better than keeping the tories no?

      Perfection or nothing from some on the left.

      Right now I’d take lurching slightly back to centre but call me crazy.

  2. 2019 was a dreadful year in a dreadful decade, and 4 years on we are still pedalling resolutely backwards.
    Ashworth is not exactly Mr Dynamite, but at least he is not as barking as some in momentum or in the Corbyn circle of doom.
    Truth was in 2019, it was a choice between a personable (at least to some) confidence trickster and chancer, and a sad old campaigner who had gone so far down the left’s anti-semitic rabbit hole, that there was never a chance that he could emerge as a credible candidate. The electorate was caught between Scylla and Charybdis and they choose Scylla Johnson.
    Starmer, is not charismatic, or out spoken. He is a technocrat and will operate straightforward technocratic policies, nothing moon shot or world beating.
    I hope whoever is elected will make something work, because at the moment, nothing works.
    Corbyn can’t do that because he campaigns rather than administers. We need rational, calm, administration; with the country being on friendly, very friendly terms, with its neighbours. A dictatorship of the proletariat won’t cut it Carly J.

  3. Some people care about honesty and integrity in politics. Those that get irritable when verifiable facts are pointed out give themselves away somewhat. So many complain loudly about the state of politics and the quality of candidates – but still don’t see the importance of checking MPs’ voting records or being aware of their prior actions and their viewpoints. If you believe politicians should be held accountable except when it’s the ones on your side – that’s called hypocrisy.

  4. Jonathan Ashworth came to Thanet to visit a community centre and see what changes can be made nationally when Labour forms the next government. Condemning him for something he did or didn’t do five years ago isn’t going to help anybody in Thanet – or indeed anywhere else. We must look to the future and make life fairer and happier for everybody. The past is gone.
    Getting rid of Craig Mackinlay and his fellow Tories should be the goal, not stewing over political infighting…

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