Archive for December, 2011

BBC Any Questions visits the East End

On Saturday, I was listening to the repeat broadcast of the BBC’s Any Questions, this week broadcast from our very own Sir John Cass secondary school in Stepney. The panel was composed of the Conservatives’ Michael Portillo, the former poet Laureate Andrew Motion, the Daily Mail’s Ann Leslie and the Lib Dems’ Evan Harris, and on the agenda were phone-hacking, the economy, and religion – on which some great points were made by a bright and articulate pupil at the school.

But perhaps the most prescient question raised was surrounding the issue of child poverty, and I was pleased to hear that it was asked by James King, a bright young lad who I have known for some time through the local Labour party. He asked ‘over half of all the children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. With this in mind, would the panel like to tell me what they think the government should be doing to tackle child poverty?’

Regrettably, the panelists seemed loath to engage with the issue. I was dismayed but not surprised to hear Michael Portillo dismiss host Jonathan Dimbleby’s observation that the poorest in our society would be far poorer in real terms in the coming years as ‘a narrow, technical point’.

He went on to condemn British poor people for not ‘loving’ education enough, and having ‘no ambition for their children to have a better life than they have’.
To hear these millionaires telling poor people they should think themselves lucky as people were starving in Africa was deeply worrying.

The panelists lined up to attack our ‘culture of welfarism’. No-one reminded the audience that whilst benefit fraud costs the taxpayer £1billion per year, tax evasion costs us £60billion – and the latter crime is far more common among the group of people who got us into this financial mess.

Here in Tower Hamlets, we are taking real action to tackle poverty. We’re increasing by a third our contracts that pay people the living wage, we’re building thousands of affordable family-sized homes and we’re replacing the scrapped EMA grants with a new allowance for our teenagers to stay on at school. If, as Michael Portillo says, education is the ladder out of poverty, he need look no further than our schools, where the number achieving 5 A-Cs including English and Maths, at 60.4%, trumped the national average.

James was right to raise this question. It’s an important one. But I feel this programme was a lost opportunity – there’s a real need to talk about ways to counter poverty, and I do believe that other places could learn something from our programme here in the East End.


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A bid for city status by Tower Hamlets as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations next year has attracted support from across the Atlantic.

More here.

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Pressure continues to grow on Lord Coe and LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) to rethink their acceptance of sponsorship from Dow Chemicals for next year’s Olympic games.

Much of the criticism of Dow focuses on the activities of Union Carbide in Bhopal , a company Dow subsequently acquired, and the toxic gas leak which killed 15,000 people and affected 100,000 more back in 1984, many of whom still suffer with the effects of that poisoning today.

Bhopal was a terrible accident, for which Dow have yet to meet their obligations to the victims. But as Len Alidis of the British-Vietnam Friendship Society points out in a letter to me, what Dow did in Vietnam was even worse, and quite deliberate.

Between 1961 and 1971, Dow was one of two companies to help supply 21 million gallons of Agent Orange to the US military to defoliate the Vietnamese jungles. Agent Orange got its name from the 55-gallon drums it is shipped in and that were marked with an orange stripe. It got its reputation from the havoc and destruction it wreaked among the Vietnamese countryside and population. Entire forests and lakes were poisoned and the food chain contaminated. The Guardian report that half a million people died, and 650,000 people are still suffering as a result of as a result of chemical poisoning due to Agent Orange and similar weapons. Dow refuses to accept responsibility or make any compensation to these tragic victims.

Dow were also responsible for the production of another infamous weapon used in the war, Naplam B. This was a petroleum based jelly which ‘burned at 1,000 degrees F, stuck to human flesh and was designed to burn downwards into the body, flameless, feeding on fat and other tissue’. By 1966, Dow was supplying 4,550 tons of napalm per month to be dropped onto Vietnam.

As the Olympics come ever nearer, we can expect many wonderful images of children participating in the build up to the games. But as the controversy of Dow Chemical sponsorship also builds, perhaps one of those image we should remember is that of Kim Phuc, the little Vietnamese girl running naked, screaming in pain and ‘soaked and burning in an invisible flame of napalm’.

It is simply morally wrong that the London Olympics should accept Dow Chemical’s blood money. Along with the leaders of all of the political parties on Tower Hamlets council, except for the Conservative Party, I have written to protest in the strongest possible fashion to Lord Coe. We demand that Lord Coe and LOCOG show some moral backbone, and suspend the sponsorship deal with Dow Chemicals immediately.

Your support in this campaign is vital too.

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It’s the end of an era. Last Saturday, the final bendy bus inLondontransformed itself into a double-decker, like some municipal Decepticon.

Boris Johnson’s promised programme of debendification was complete. “I’m glad to see the back of them,” yabba-dabba-doo’d the Mayor.

More from the Evening Standard’s Richard Godwin here


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Mayor Lutfur Rahman has blasted Conservative members of the Greater London Assembly for walking out on a meeting set to discuss a cycling death-spot in Bow. Boris Johnson is to face questioning on the issue tomorrow.

More here.

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My letter to Lord Coe

Letter to Lord CoeAs previously discussed, I have worked with the leaders of the political groups here at Tower Hamlets Council to put together a letter to Sebastian Coe, chair of LOCOG, imploring him to reconsider his decision to accept sponsorship from Dow Chemical.

Dow, as you will recall, has a controversial history: it is the successor corporation to Union Carbide, which was responsible for the horrific Bhopal disaster, the effects of which are very much evident to this day as local journalist Ted Jeory has exposed.

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