Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Debate on Free School Meals

I have just been looking at a discussion about our free school meals policy on the East Dulwich Forum website. Some of the contributors attacked the policy as (a) wasteful expenditure at a time when we should be making cuts (b) unnecessary, as they should not be paying for children to be fed and (c) only put forward by Labour to win votes.

OK, so let's look at those three objections.

(a) Southwark Council has spent £180 million on consultants, temps and agency staff over the past 4 years - with spending in this area having risen by £2 million this past year alone. It spends more than any other London borough on communications and publicity - approximately £5 million each year. Each year the council has failed to collect £7 million in council tax. For me, this is wasteful and wasteful expenditure. Call me dangerously left-wing, but I would prefer to use £2.5 million of that money on providing a nutritious and healthy school meal to every primary school child. Yes, we will need to make cuts, and we will, but we also need to tackle some of the really important issues the borough faces - such as childhood obesity, child poverty and inequality. Of course, you are at liberty to say that these issues are nothing to do with you or your money and walk by on the other side of the road. But I think that the vast majority of people in Southwark will want to know that their council is doing all that it can to solve some of these issues. So your conclusion that free school meals is wasteful expenditure = my conclusion that it is an investment to improve life chances.

(b) Any universal benefit will always throw up those who say, why should we be paying for something that others can or should be paying for themselves. Why not target the benefit to those who really need it or use the money in a more focussed fashion? A reasonable point, if all targetted benefits were taken up by those who were entitled. But we know that this does not happen, and that in Southwark 1800 children each year do not take advantage of their entitlement to free school meals. These can sometimes be the children who turn up at lunchtime with their packed lunches full of the cheapest sweets, biscuits and crisps. To my mind a policy which seeks to meet the nutritional needs of those 1800 is well worth pursuing. Let's not visit the sins of the parent upon the child! We might criticise the parent for failing to provide a healthy lunch for their child, but that is no reason to condemn the child to eating that unhealthy lunch.

And if middle-class parents who pay their council tax also benefit from the policy whilst their children are at primary school, then so be it. What is the problem with that? You pay your tax - you get a visible benefit. You pay your tax - you get the NHS. Is that good or bad? What if you don't have children and are unlikely to ever benefit from the policy? Well, I hope that you will recognise that the policy is intended to tackle particular problems which will benefit us all - better educational attainment by improved concentration after lunch; and reduced expenditure on health issues arising from unhealthy eating in early years. The benefits of living in a community where society still matters!

(c) Is the policy put forward by Labour to win votes? Well, it would be a weird political party which advocated policies it hoped would lose it votes! Is it cheap populism? Well, I hope it's a popular policy, but I don't understand why that's a bad thing, particularly if it provides the benefits which we believe it will.

Southwark Labour want to put a clear choice before the voters of Southwark on May 6th, and it looks as if this policy will provide a clear choice for the electorate. It is opposed by all the other political parties!

At the end of the day local politics should be local, but it doesn't always have to be micro - just about my street. It also needs to be strategic for the borough, and with this policy we are tackling some of the bigs issues which in your daily life you may never see or experience, but which exist nonetheless. It's a big idea to tackle some big problems!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Here's What You Could Have Had .....

Last night Southwark set a council tax budget which sees council tax frozen for next year. However, Labour's budget amendment which would have seen a 2% cut in council tax bills and the introduction of free healthy school meals for every primary school child in the borough was voted down by a coalition of Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Green councillors. It was particularly disappointing that Southwark's Green councillor opposed our free school meals policy.

Labour's alternative budget would have seen us introduce measures which would have begun to tackle some of our fundamental problems - childhood obesity and child poverty, as well as rolling back many of the cuts, closures and price hikes which have been introduced by the ruling coalition in the past 4 years.

It was fairly predictable that the Lib Dems would not want to debate the merits of our free school
meals policy, but I was surprised that they voted to end the debate after just 10 minutes. Are they afraid of debating policy? Well it certainly looks like they are!

So if you would have welcomed a few more pounds in your pocket and the introduction of some truly innovative policies to improve life chances in our borough, then you could have had it from Labour's budget amendment last night. But if you still want those outcomes you can have it if a Labour council is elected on May 6th.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Free Healthy School Meals for Primary School pupils

Today I was delighted to launch our local election pledge that a Labour Council will provide every primary school pupil at a Southwark School with a free school meal. This is the text of an article I have written for Progress Online:-

"Southwark Labour's announcement that it will provide free healthy school meals for all primary school children across the borough was the first of a number of positive key pledges which we believe will deliver us control of the Council on May 6th.

It is a policy which an increasing number of Labour Groups and authorities are supporting - for many of us simply because it reflects the very best of progressive Labour politics. It is a policy which cuts across boundaries of class and income, and addresses the critical problems of childhood obesity and ill-health.

Some critics of the policy have said to me that it just benefits middle-class families. But in the present economic climate everyone is feeling the pinch, particularly those who live just above the current free school meals threshold. In Southwark we also believe that it is vitally it important that Labour continues to appeal to middle-class voters – those who helped elect and re-elect a Labour Government at three successive general elections and may currently be disaffected – and who will surely welcome a policy which will potentially save them £7 per week per child at a Southwark primary school.

But this is fundamentally a policy which will help poorer families, by removing the stigma and social barriers which continue to be attached to recipients of free school meals and by offering a healthy and nutritious midday meal to those 1,800 pupils who are already entitled to free school meals but do not take advantage of that entitlement. With a recent study by Leeds University showing that only 1% of packed lunches taken to school contain the nutritional content that a child needs, the rationale for ensuring that children eat a healthy meal at school could not be stronger.

Southwark’s Lib Dem/Tory administration has overseen the borough’s childhood obesity figures rise to shocking levels, so that we now have the worst rates in England. With council tax collection rates the worst in London; our recycling rate the 6th worst in the country; an adult social care service whose performance has plummeted to one of the eight worst in the country and no plan for how to finish Decent Homes works, it’s little wonder that Southwark’s political executive is even regarded as “dysfunctional” by senior council officers.

But however compelling your critical narrative of any administration may be, there still has to be a positive reason for a voter to support you. The Tories failure nationally to offer that positive alternative has left them looking fairly insubstantial - a triumph of spin over substance.

So Southwark Labour's support for a Free School Meals policy reflects that desire to offer our residents a positive alternative to the rudderless Lib Dems; a policy to enthuse our activists and supporters; a real reason to vote Labour."

You can read more at Progress Online

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

80 Days to Save Maydew House

My colleague Val Shawcross has said that there are just 80 days left to save Maydew House, a tower block of 144 local authority flats in Rotherhithe which the LibDem/Tory Administration had decided to empty and sell off for private housing. On the 21st of January a public meeting was held at which residents were told that the Council intended to move them out of their homes from April onwards. The decision was due to be ratified by the Executive at their meeting last week - just 19days after the "public consultation" meeting!

Unsurprisingly residents and Southwark's Labour Group didn't think this was an entirely appropriate way to act, and in the face of a growing campaign the LibDems have now backed down, deciding to kick any formal decision on the future of Maydew House into the post-local election "long grass" of June. Local elections are due to take place in Southwark on May 6th!

Several lessons can be learned from this experience. Firstly, the LibDems are clearly happy to sell off our council housing stock to private developers. Theirs are not 'secret plans' - they are plans which they are implementing when they can get away with it.

Secondly, the level of consultation they consider appropriate is pathetic. To expect residents who have lived in a block for 20 or 30 years to get out of their homes in just over 2 months is inhuman and irresponsible.

Thirdly, no council housing in Southwark is safe from the LibDems. Their words are pledges to retain council housing; their actions are to get rid of it. So what estate, or block or house which is currently owned by the Council will not be sold off to private developers if the LibDems continue in power in Southwark after May 6th? The truth is that we cannot believe any pledge that they may make, and that nothing is safe.

So it is not just the case that we have 80 days to save Maydew House - we have 80 days to save our entire stock of social housing in Southwark.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Southwark's "Small is Beautiful" Scheme in Chaos

Southwark has been operating the "Small is Beautiful" scheme which is designed to provide financial incentives to tenants of council properties who have more rooms and bedrooms than they need. Most typically this situation arises when families move away from home leaving older parents behind. These tenants will then move to smaller properties, freeing up their old properties for families living in over-crowded conditions.

Tenants moving from the larger properties receive a financial incentive of £750 for every bedroom that they give up, plus £750 to help pay for moving costs.

This week I found out that all payments under the scheme have been halted until at least April. This means that many older tenants I have spoken to simply cannot afford to move, and the problems further down the housing ladder continue.

This is a truly ludicrous situation. Overcrowding is one of the major problems facing many families in Southwark, so to bring a halt to this sensible scheme at this time makes absolutely no sense. If the scheme required more funding, it should have been found. With Southwark's council tax collection rate under the LibDems and Tories being the third worst in the country (with £7 million of council tax going uncollected each year), and money being lavished on £150 million new offices in Tooley Street, it is scandalous that basic services are suffering at this time.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Southwark Council Officer Accused of Spreading Scare Stories

The Labour and Liberal Democrat Groups on the Council are each supported by a Political Assistant. Last week, the LibDems Assistant, Dan Falchikov, was identified by the Daily Mirror's Kevin Maguire as the man who had been sitting opposite him on a train journey boasting that he has planted a story in the Evening Standard about 'secret Labour plans' to close Kingston's A & E Department. The story was clearly false.

Two things for Southwark residents to mull over. Firstly, it is clear that any claim about "secret Labour plans for Southwark" (which will undoubtedly turn up) should be treated with the greatest degree of caution as it is likely that self-confessed exaggerater Mr Falchikov will have had a hand in their creation, and secondly, what is the 'manifesto' that he was claiming to have to write in front of Kevin Maguire? Surely he is not writing the LibDems manifesto for the forthcoming local elections? That cannot be a job for a paid council employee?

You can read more here and here