Call for automatic registration for free school meals in H&F

ffiskeCllr Caroline ffiske is calling on Hammersmith and Fulham Council to introduce automatic registration for free school meals. She has asked for a report to be brought before the Children and Education Policy and Accountability Committee as soon as possible.

The proposal would give the Council the chance to do something practical to ensure fair funding for their schools. It was made in this report by a group of MPs and bishops about hunger.

It says under: Registration for free school meals

“The problems stemming from the under registration of children who are eligible for free school meals are twofold: first, each of these poor children risks going without a decent meal each day; second, their school misses out on up to £1,320 each year in Pupil Premium funding to support their education.

“Fortunately, we have encountered and encouraged a small but growing number of Local Authorities who are using their Housing Benefit records to identify such families whose children are eligible, but not registered to receive free school meals. Once identified, each family is informed by the Local Authority that their child has automatically been signed up to receive free school meals, with no need to fill in any forms unless they wish to opt out of entitlement.

“This innovative work delivers a win-win situation, at no extra cost to Local Authorities, in that children need not suffer hunger and their schools receive vital additional funding towards their education.”

Councils that have already implemented automatic registration for free school meals include Greenwich, Walsall and Hartlepool. But they are a small minority. When I challenged the Council to implement automatic registration for free school meals they took two months to reply and then came up with a weak and non-committal reference to “reviewing” the “link between information we currently hold and how we can use it”.

The Labour MP Frank Field wrote to me to say:

“It’s really encouraging to see the interest you’ve taken in this initiative.

My own local authority, Wirral Council, reported last week that this move has secured an additional £725,000 in Pupil Premium funding. Elsewhere, Calderdale Council automatically signed up 600 children and, in doing so, secured an additional £600,000 in Pupil Premium funding. 

In implementing the policy, the Council essentially is sharing data with itself and, crucially, parents are offered an opt-out. The following steps would seem to represent good practice:

-A trawl of the Housing Benefit and Council Tax support database is completed, and families with children of school age are identified.

-Those eligible for free school meals are cross-referenced with the local management information system to identify families not currently in receipt of free school meals.

-Families who have not already done so are registered for free school meals, and the local authority contacts them to inform them of their entitlement; at the same time, the relevant schools are informed.

-Families are advised at this stage that they can opt-out of the scheme and waive their child’s entitlement. There is no need to make an application as they have already been registered.

-Any new application for Housing Benefit or Council Tax support is checked for potential free school meals eligibility and where there are children of school age in the family, the above process is carried out.”

H&FoodDaphine Aikens, the Chief Executive of Hammersmith & Fulham Foodbank says:

“It sounds like it would be really useful if this policy were adopted in H&F. We always see an increase in numbers during school holidays – as families struggle with the extra meals necessary.  I would very much love to be able to host school holiday lunch clubs, but do not currently have the capacity.”

I hope the Council will get on with it, but it sounds as though there will be dithering. Even these modest changes do require political will to overcome administrative inertia.

 

Labour’s muddled u-turn on borough-wide 20mph speed limit

20mphLabour-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council has abandoned its proposal for a Borough-wide 20 mph speed limit. So that is welcome. However instead they plan a muddled, expensive, environmentally damaging, unenforceable compromise. For example Goldhawk Road would stay at 30 mph but the speed limit would fall to 20 mph for King Street.

Hundreds of residents wrote to offer strong but reasoned objections to the Council’s plan.

Here is just one example:

Dear Mr Cowan and Mr Harcourt

cc: Caroline Ffiske, Joe Carlebach, and Hannah Barlow

I understand that a majority of the respondents to the consultation have made it clear that we oppose your plan for a blanket 20 MPH speed limit.

The proposal is:

1. Regressive—further slowing residents’ ability to move and communicate within London;
2. Wasteful—of expensive roads that exist to serve traffic, and of fuel;
3. Polluting—forcing cars to spend more time in traffic; creating noise and exhaust as cars brake and accelerate over thousands of road humps.
4. Heavy-handed—the consultation questions were biased towards a “yes”;
5. A tax increase—despite your objections, it is an opportunity for the police to further criminalise motorists;
6. Damaging to cars—“traffic calming”, i.e., road humps and bollards, will be installed everywhere in the Borough, on every road.

And your reasons are unscientific or unsupported by evidence:

Almost half of the 763 road injuries last year were pedestrians and cyclists:  this ignores the causes of the accidents and fails to compare the number to the volume of traffic. And it says nothing about a trend in the number of accidents.

Injuries are 8x more likely to be fatal at 30 MPH versus 20 MPH:  this is true in any speed comparison; that does not make it reasonable or intelligent to reduce all road limits to cycling speed.  

At slower speeds, drivers have more time to react: indeed they do, but they also have less reason to pay attention. A road has a purpose other than pure safety, and that purpose is movement and transportation. Would the Council also advocate lowering motorway speed limits to 20 MPH?

Making our children and all of us healthier: … by encouraging people to walk. You present no evidence that pavements and crossings would be safer with a lower limit, or that more children would walk if the limit was lower (although more might indeed walk because it will take their parents too long to drive—presenting them with more opportunities to be injured).

Making our neighbourhoods more pleasant:  you say that “calmer” roads will make things nicer. The word “calm” in your language means “traffic jams” in the real world. I doubt that cars queuing with engines running, and the constant thump and scrape of cars hitting road humps, and slowing and accelerating to deal with humps and bollards, and horns blaring from frustrated drivers, will make things more pleasant.

I feel obliged to remind you that roads are for transportation. Their purpose is to allow vehicles to move down them in the most efficient way. That means as many (safe) vehicles per hour per mile of road as possible. You present no evidence of an outbreak of pedestrian deaths caused by cars. It is unclear what problem you are trying to solve, other than the convenience of cars.

London’s main transport problem is decreasing vehicles per hour per mile of road. This is due to the proliferation of traffic lights, bus lanes (which slow buses down by reducing overall road capacity), cycle lanes (which serve only the young and fit), one-way systems, and parking regulations that allow parking in major through-roads. Average road speeds are below 10 MPH and falling. This is the problem that you, our representatives, should be working to solve for us.

Advanced societies do things better, cleaner and faster, not clumsier, dirtier and slower; over time they trade bicycles for cars, not the other way round. They prefer not to waste time and money moving around slowly and primitively. The people you represent have implied as much in the consultation. I ask you to listen to them.

Squatters invade Ravenscourt Park Hospital site

20160226_133452_resizedA worrying an unpleasant week for local residents with an invasion of squatters at the site of the old Ravenscourt Park Hospital. This is the rubbish that has accumulated after just a couple of days. Already there is a stench of sewage. Traffic wardens from the Council have refused to issue parking tickets to dump trucks spilling over from the site into surrounding streets – I have asked for an explanation.

As stated before it is regrettable that development of the site has taken so long. But the responsibility for the squatting is with the squatters. If the squatting was on residential land the police would be able to act immediately as such squatting is now a criminal offence. That is thanks to a change in the law in 2012 thanks to the efforts of Mike Weatherley, who was then the Conservative MP for Hove. In Scotland squatting has been a criminal offence since 1865. The trouble is that as the land is non-residential it is a civil matter, the police can do nothing and eviction is delayed. The owners assure me they will go to court to seek this as soon as possible.

What is needed is for the law to be changed for all squatting to be a criminal offence and for property rights to be upheld.

This is not the first time we have had problems in this borough due to this legal reform stopping short of its logical conclusion.

Here is quote from a piece I wrote for Standpoint magazine three years ago.

“Some try to justify squatting on the grounds that squatters have no alternative. But those who are working could pay rent while those on low pay or unemployed would be eligible for housing benefit. In any case, what basis can there be of taking something from somebody else on the basis that they have it and you want it? Would that principle be applied to stealing food or a car?

“Squatting has long been as much about making a political statement as about a genuine housing need. Thus middle-class youths, who could probably afford to pay for their own housing, often seek the radical chic of an “alternative” lifestyle as their protest against capitalism.

“That the law needs to be tightened is shown by a current case in Hammersmith and Fulham, where I am a councillor. Squatters have taken over a family centre in Shepherd’s Bush. As it is not designated a residential building, the police do not have the power to execute an eviction. It is a civil offence and there has been a long delay while the council obtains a court order. Council taxpayers’ money is diverted from providing services to paying for lawyers. The building is scheduled to be adapted as a specialist school for autistic children. The work is being delayed and disrupted by the squatters, whose presence is also intimidating to local residents.”

Votes needed for Tesco Bags for Life grant to the Walled Garden in Ravenscourt Park

IMG_0391The volunteer group the Friends of the Walled Garden in Ravenscourt Park is to be awarded a Tesco Bags for Life Grant to enable them to undertake a project to do at least some – and maybe even all – the clearing and replanting of three very over-grown and weed-bound herbaceous flower beds.

They have been chosen to receive one of three grants of differing amounts but which one will depend on people visiting  Tesco stores in Hammersmith, Shepherds Bush and Fulham during the period 27 February to 9 March.   Customers on each visit will be given a token to allocate to one of the three projects of their choice.

If the Walled Garden project gets the most tokens they will be able to get the work done on all three flower beds, if they get the fewest tokens they will only receive sufficient funding to do two of the beds.

herbaceous bed1-summer 2015So get visiting your local Tesco from next Saturday and visit often! It will not be known until then what other schemes the Walled Garden project will be competing against.

These grants come from the 5p charge for carrier bags which was introduced last year.  Tesco are going to award six such grants each year in each of their 427 regions for environmental projects by voluntary groups which have a public benefit.

herbaceous2-bindweedThe Friends of the Walled Garden was formed in 2002 when the whole historic garden was very run-down as it required more work done in it than the Council staff had time to do.   Since then most of the much visited garden has been transformed and returned to being a tranquil oasis in the middle of Hammersmith.  A grant was obtained in 2009 to fill in a disused pond and create an attractive planted ‘central feature’ which was added to in 2013 with the installation of an armillary sundial, funded by a WREF, landfill tax grant.

The award of a Tesco Bags for Life grant will enable the Friends to nearly complete, or even to complete, the restoration of the garden.

Each month on the first Saturday morning volunteers gather in the garden to weed, prune and plant depending on the time of year.   All potential new volunteers are welcome of all ages and whether they have gardened before or not.

Labour’s dubious claim that tenants oppose a cut in rent

lisahomThere was a startling claim recently from the Labour councillor Cllr Lisa Homan, the Cabinet Member for Housing, that tenants “agreed” with having their rent increased above inflation – and implying dismay at the Conservative  Government insistence on their being a modest rent cut to ease the cost of living pressure for council tenants.

Cllr Homan claims:

“Tenants agreed to a rent increase linked to a measure of inflation known as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) 3 +1% with an additional £1 rent increase for tenants who pay less than target rent and for tenants’ service charges to be increased in line with CPI only.”

Really? Just when did the majority of the 12,260 council tenants in our borough express this view.

Housing Director Kathleen Corbett replied:

“At the Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations’ Forum meeting on 23rd October 2014, tenants and residents were consulted on the options for rent policy from April 2015.”

Now it is true that any council tenant could have attended that meeting. However from the minutes I see that only 11 residents turned up. I know that Marie Thomas and Mathias Kulubya are leaseholders not tenants. Some of the remaining nine may be as well. Good for them turning up and participating but I don’t think they themselves would claim that any views they might have expressed proved that a majority of tenants oppose a rent cut.

Cllr Homan is completely out of touch.

Mayor’s budget supports London’s growth while cutting council tax bills

borisThe Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s annual budget was today approved by the London Assembly, fulfilling his manifesto commitment to reduce the Mayoral share of Londoners’ council tax bills by ten per cent during his second term in office. Today’s decision means a typical Band D council taxpayer has saved around £500 over his eight years as Mayor.

The 2016-2017 budget will see the Mayor’s share of council tax fall by 6.4 per cent  – a reduction of £19 to £276 for Band D taxpayers. The budget also includes plans to protect police officer numbers and key transport improvements while supporting the construction of a record number of new homes and creating thousands of new jobs.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said: “This budget delivers the growth and investment London needs to meet its surging population, supporting the delivery of new homes, vital transport infrastructure and protecting frontline policing. At the same time, we are relentlessly bearing down on unnecessary costs in order to once again put more money back in the pockets of Londoners by trimming council tax, leading to a ten per cent cut over my second term of office.”

The Mayor’s 2016/2017 budget covers the entire Greater London Authority Group – including Transport for London, the London Legacy Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Police service and the London Fire Brigade. It includes:

  • The continued delivery of around £418m of funding that is being used to support economic regeneration in the capital.
  • The protection of police officer numbers at around 32,000 including a reinvigoration of neighbourhood policing by getting 2,600 extra officers into local neighbourhoods. It also includes investment in the latest digital technologies such as body worn cameras.
  • Investment in upgrading the Tube network including £250m on making more stations step free, the delivery of a northern Line extension to Nine Elms and Battersea and continued support for the delivery of Crossrail, which will increase London’s rail capacity by ten per cent.
  • A £4bn investment on London’s roads. £913m is due to be spent on cycling improvements, including Cycle Superhighways, Quietways and mini-Hollands, £200m has been earmarked for bus priority schemes and 800 New Routemaster buses will be delivered by 2016.
  • Continuing the increase in the supply of affordable homes and identifying better ways of doing so with a target of delivering 100,000 affordable homes over the Mayor’s eight years in office.
  • Ensuring the London Fire Brigade can continue to meet their response time targets.
  • A commitment to continue funding from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime for Survivors UK work with the victims of male rape.
  • The permanent re-opening of the former Olympic Stadium in the summer of 2016 and support for the hosting of major sports events across all of the 2102 legacy venues including the, European Aquatics Championships. Plus the continued development of Olympicopolis, a world class new cultural, scientific and educational centre for London at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
  • Support for the new Mayoral Development Corporation for Old Oak and Park Royal, a once in a lifetime regeneration opportunity for that part of west London which will deliver thousands of new jobs and homes.
  • A continued focus on the creation of apprenticeships for young Londoners, particularly in the construction sector where demand is increasing.
  • The Mayor of London’s 2016-17 Council Tax requirement is £774m – this being the total sum forecast to be collected from Londoners to fund GLA services. This will see the total GLA precept reduced from £295 to £276 a year (Band D household) for residents of the 32 boroughs – a reduction of £19 or 6.4%. The Band D precept for taxpayers within the Corporation of London area – which has its own police force – is provisionally set at £73.89.
  • The Mayor’s council tax precept comprises £567m to support the Metropolitan Police service, £138m for the London Fire Brigade and £69m for other services such as transport, the Olympic precept and the GLA itself.
  • The Mayor’s budget consists of allocations for – the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (Metropolitan Police), Transport for London, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (London Fire Brigade), the London Legacy Development Company (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park), the new Old Oak Common and Park Royal Development Corporation, the core Greater London Authority and the London Assembly.
  • The total budget for the GLA Group for 2016-17 is £16.3 billion. This comprises a revenue budget of £11.5 billion and a draft capital spending plan of £4.8 billion.

Gove: The EU is rooted in the past – it’s time to break free

voteleaveToday the Justice Secretary Michael Gove released the following statement:

“For weeks now I have been wrestling with the most difficult decision of my political life. But taking difficult decisions is what politicians are paid to do. No-one is forced to stand for Parliament, no-one is compelled to become a minister. If you take on those roles, which are great privileges, you also take on big responsibilities.

I was encouraged to stand for Parliament by David Cameron and he has given me the opportunity to serve in what I believe is a great, reforming Government. I think he is an outstanding Prime Minister. There is, as far as I can see, only one significant issue on which we have differed.

And that is the future of the UK in the European Union.

It pains me to have to disagree with the Prime Minister on any issue. My instinct is to support him through good times and bad.

But I cannot duck the choice which the Prime Minister has given every one of us. In a few months time we will all have the opportunity to decide whether Britain should stay in the European Union or leave. I believe our country would be freer, fairer and better off outside the EU. And if, at this moment of decision, I didn’t say what I believe I would not be true to my convictions or my country.

I don’t want to take anything away from the Prime Minister’s dedicated efforts to get a better deal for Britain. He has negotiated with courage and tenacity. But I think Britain would be stronger outside the EU.

My starting point is simple. I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. If power is to be used wisely, if we are to avoid corruption and complacency in high office, then the public must have the right to change laws and Governments at election time.

But our membership of the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives. Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out. We can take out our anger on elected representatives in Westminster but whoever is in Government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT, cannot support a steel plant through troubled times, cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country. I believe that needs to change. And I believe that both the lessons of our past and the shape of the future make the case for change compelling.

The ability to choose who governs us, and the freedom to change laws we do not like, were secured for us in the past by radicals and liberals who took power from unaccountable elites and placed it in the hands of the people. As a result of their efforts we developed, and exported to nations like the US, India, Canada and Australia a system of democratic self-government which has brought prosperity and peace to millions.

Our democracy stood the test of time. We showed the world what a free people could achieve if they were allowed to govern themselves.

In Britain we established trial by jury in the modern world, we set up the first free parliament, we ensured no-one could be arbitrarily detained at the behest of the Government, we forced our rulers to recognise they ruled by consent not by right, we led the world in abolishing slavery, we established free education for all, national insurance, the National Health Service and a national broadcaster respected across the world.

By way of contrast, the European Union, despite the undoubted idealism of its founders and the good intentions of so many leaders, has proved a failure on so many fronts. The euro has created economic misery for Europe’s poorest people. European Union regulation has entrenched mass unemployment. EU immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders.

Far from providing security in an uncertain world, the EU’s policies have become a source of instability and insecurity. Razor wire once more criss-crosses the continent, historic tensions between nations such as Greece and Germany have resurfaced in ugly ways and the EU is proving incapable of dealing with the current crises in Libya and Syria. The former head of Interpol says the EU’s internal borders policy is “like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe” and Scandinavian nations which once prided themselves on their openness are now turning in on themselves.  All of these factors, combined with popular anger at the lack of political accountability, has encouraged extremism, to the extent that far-right parties are stronger across the continent than at any time since the 1930s.

The EU is an institution rooted in the past and is proving incapable of reforming to meet the big technological, demographic and economic challenges of our time. It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and like other institutions which seemed modern then, from tower blocks to telexes, it is now hopelessly out of date. The EU tries to standardise and regulate rather than encourage diversity and innovation. It is an analogue union in a digital age.

The EU is built to keep power and control with the elites rather than the people. Even though we are outside the euro we are still subject to an unelected EU commission which is generating new laws every day and an unaccountable European Court in Luxembourg which is extending its reach every week, increasingly using the Charter of Fundamental Rights which in many ways gives the EU more power and reach than ever before. This growing EU bureaucracy holds us back in every area. EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).

Individually these rules may be comical. Collectively, and there are tens of thousands of them, they are inimical to creativity, growth and progress. Rules like the EU clinical trials directive have slowed down the creation of new drugs to cure terrible diseases and ECJ judgements on data protection issues hobble the growth of internet companies. As a minister I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk, none of which were requested by the UK Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer or fairer.

It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country. I have long had concerns about our membership of the EU but the experience of Government has only deepened my conviction that we need change. Every single day, every single minister is told: ‘Yes Minister, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules’. I know it. My colleagues in government know it. And the British people ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter.

But by leaving the EU we can take control. Indeed we can show the rest of Europe the way to flourish. Instead of grumbling and complaining about the things we can’t change and growing resentful and bitter, we can shape an optimistic, forward-looking and genuinely internationalist alternative to the path the EU is going down. We can show leadership. Like the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back, we can become an exemplar of what an inclusive, open and innovative democracy can achieve.

We can take back the billions we give to the EU, the money which is squandered on grand parliamentary buildings and bureaucratic follies, and invest it in science and technology, schools and apprenticeships. We can get rid of the regulations which big business uses to crush competition and instead support new start-up businesses and creative talent. We can forge trade deals and partnerships with nations across the globe, helping developing countries to grow and benefiting from faster and better access to new markets.

We are the world’s fifth largest economy, with the best armed forces of any nation, more Nobel Prizes than any European country and more world-leading universities than any European country. Our economy is more dynamic than the Eurozone, we have the most attractive capital city on the globe, the greatest “soft power” and global influence of any state and a leadership role in NATO and the UN. Are we really too small, too weak and too powerless to make a success of self-rule? On the contrary, the reason the EU’s bureaucrats oppose us leaving is they fear that our success outside will only underline the scale of their failure.

This chance may never come again in our lifetimes, which is why I will be true to my principles and take the opportunity this referendum provides to leave an EU mired in the past and embrace a better future.”