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One likes to be charitable, but when people consistently fail to check their facts, it makes them look like liars. Recently, the Labour Party claimed we had voted against extending free school meals, although they knew we had offered to find money to fund the proposals properly – which they had failed to do.

The latest is a Labour Party press release claiming that Tower Hamlets failed to apply for cycling grants. Out of ignorance or malice, they did not mention that in fact we were not eligible for any of these grants.

The first mentioned, to apply to TfL for a new ‘London Cycling Grid’, was meant for boroughs in central London without Super Highways. We of course have two Super Highways through our borough.

I find it difficult to believe that Labour councillors were not aware of these highways. Perhaps, instead, they were too lazy to look at what the rules were for applying to this fund.

But they make the same mistake with the Mini-Holland programme, which is in fact only intended for boroughs in outer-London. That’s either incredible complacency, or a cavalier disregard for the facts. And what they failed to mention is that we have in fact applied for funding for Quietways, the element of the funding we are eligible for.

We’re committed to improving cycling in our borough, and our initiatives include free cycle training for any adult who lives, works or studies in Tower Hamlets; ensuring that our highways-related contractors are fully engaged in the London-wide Heavy Goods Vehicles safety accreditation scheme; and finally, yes, my high-visibility cycling safety packs – which have proved extremely popular.

This is in addition to the £200,000 I put in last year’s budget to support cycling and the £300,000 we have received from TfL to improve local cycling.

I am proud to be able to provide concrete examples of how I am helping the residents of Tower Hamlets to feel safer on the roads. In stark comparison, the Labour Party candidate John Biggs seems happy to fling insults when he has managed to assert no measurable influence over cycling at the GLA, of which he is a member.

The Labour Party called me out in the same press release for ‘shameless publicity seeking and dangerous inaction’. What is shameful is that the Labour Party think that they can win this election on a campaign of misinformation; with see-through, half-baked policies supplemented with a smear-campaign based on a fraction of a percentage of my budget. It is an insult and a disservice to the people of Tower Hamlets that the Labour Party think voters don’t understand enough to see through their lies.

I am appalled at this government’s relentless assault on the poor and
vulnerable which is redoubled in this budget. It was bad enough to set a punitive cap on how much help a family can get from the government, but to set a total cap on government spending on welfare – irrespective of the number requiring help – is ostentatiously vindictive and callous.

This attacks disabled people, the low paid and all those who are likely to need help – it even includes statutory maternity and paternity pay.

In contrast, the chancellor crowed that he was raising the tax threshold on the highest paid, “because I am also passing the full benefit of today’s personal allowance increase on to higher rate taxpayers”. These are people earning 42,000, 43, 50, 60, all the way up to £100,000 who will be paying less income tax because of this budget.

When it comes to substantial policy announcements the Chancellor again shows a lack of creativity. In housing, his plans to extend the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme will do no more than inflate London’s already over-heated housing market and the creation of a new Garden City in Ebbsfleet will only create an additional 150,000 new homes. Shelter estimated last year that we need to be building an additional 250,000 new homes every year to meet need. Whilst £150m to regenerate housing estates is a drop in the ocean, it is to be welcomed. But only if it will create more truly affordable family homes.

In the real world, outside the blinkered bunker of Conservative thinking, it is clear that the way to improve government revenues is to grow the economy, creating real jobs, improving infrastructure and putting money directly into the hands of people who will spend it. This budget fails on all these counts.

Here in Tower Hamlets, we will be redoubling our efforts to do all we can to mitigate the worst effects of this budget.

UPDATE

We have just heard from the GLA that projects including Blackwall Reach would be eligible for part of the £150m funding for estates regeneration. I look forward to seeing the detail.

The death of Tony Benn

I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of Tony Benn.

In Tower Hamlets we have a family connection to Tony. Both his father and grandfather represented the St George’s Constituency in our borough, and, even though Tony did not directly follow in the family tradition and run here, in his half century in parliament he was a stalwart representative of the working people who make up most of our voters. Less than a year ago, Tony visited Wapping in our borough to unveil a plaque the leveller Thomas Rainsborough.

Tony shared our belief that the best path to social justice, and to socialism, was through parliamentary democracy. Even people who disagreed with him recognized his integrity and his passion. He was one of an increasingly rare breed – a politician with principles. In response, of course, some of the media demonized him. But it is a testament to the good sense of ordinary people that despite the dismissive sneers and constant attacks from his enemies, he was voted the most loved politician in the country. With his death, the poor, the vulnerable, working people, ethnic minorities – have lost a valiant champion. 

I extend my deepest sympathy to his family, and join with millions of others in mourning not just the death of a giant figure in the Labour movement, but also the passing of an era.

It seems strange for me to remind a conservative Mayor of London about the power of the market – but someone has to do it. Today Boris Johnson appealed to developers to sign his Mayoral Concordat and to sell their homes to Londoners first.

I have to remind him that “the market” will immediately doom his proposed solution to the housing crisis. Developers are in business to make money – and they are not going to resist gazumping oligarchs pushing locals aside and waving chequebooks.

Whilst I’m glad that he’s woken up to the dangers of foreign investors inflating the housing market and pricing Londoners out (a danger our Fairness Commission flagged when it launched its report in November) his proposed solution will do nothing to provide more homes for Londoners.

Instead of paper promises, we need the Mayor of London to support boroughs to deliver more affordable homes.

We in Tower Hamlets are already on course to deliver 4,000 affordable homes and our London Plan target is the highest in London. However these homes will not meet local needs unless they are truly affordable.

This week I, and eight other London Boroughs, are bringing a High Court challenge against the Mayor of London, in a bid to protect genuinely affordable rents for local people.

For many years, boroughs have been able to ensure new affordable housing is provided at rents local people can afford. Typically, in inner London that is 30-40 per cent of market levels.

However, the Mayor is seeking to impose ‘affordable’ rents in new housing of up to 80 per cent of the market rate, refusing to allow boroughs to negotiate lower rents that local people can afford.

Unless he revokes policies like these, his concordat will just paper over the cracks in our housing policy and condemn generations of Londoners to expensive and overcrowded accommodation whose market rents will be determined by cash-flush speculators from home and abroad.

RIP Bob Crow

I was saddened to hear of the sudden death of Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union. 

He took charge of a shrinking Union representing workers in industries battered by privatisation and anti-union campaigns which he leaves as one of the unions still growing, in numbers and strength. He defied mainstream consensus and relied on grassroots organisation to build the Union. Under him the Union fought for public services as well its own members. Interestingly while his Union, one of the founders of the Labour Party, fell out with the national organisation under New Labour, it now sponsors more MPs than ever before.

Tough in his principles, he kept the support of his members despite media assaults. I mourn along with them. His legacy will be a hard one to follow.

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You may be aware of the recent debate over free school meals provision in Tower Hamlets. Under my mayoralty, Tower Hamlets has led the way as one of the first boroughs to introduce universal free school meals for infants. The government has since adopted this as a national policy, funding meals for all infants across the country.

So now I’m proud to announce that we will be extending this provision to all primary school children, from Reception to Year 6.

This is fantastic news: all data shows that universal free school meals provision results in a dramatic improvement not only in pupils’ health but in educational attainment.

The Opposition have falsely claimed on social media sites that rather than introducing universal free school meals, this administration has blocked the policy. This could not be further from the truth.

The Labour Party’s budget was clearly cobbled together on the back of an envelope, and they seem to have mistakenly funded meals for the financial year rather than the academic year! They put aside £1.3m, but the council’s expert officials have calculated that the real cost will be £2.3m! To risk our kids going hungry from April for an election stunt is beyond contempt. That is why we have turned down their half-baked plan – and for maximum transparency, I’ve reproduced the civil servants’ detailed analysis of it below.

However, I pledge to you that we will bring forward a properly costed alternative at the next meeting of Council that will see all our kids in primary schools receive free meals from this year onwards.

OFFICERS’ COMMENTS ON ALTERNATIVE BUDGET PROPOSAL

BY THE LABOUR PARTY

The following sets our comments by officers
on a proposal offered up in the budget amendment.  Members of the Council should take this advice into
consideration when considering and debating the amendment in question.

Proposal

To provide Universal free school meals for all primary age pupils from September 2014 – £1.3m

Corporate Director’s Comments

Schools currently pay for pupils who are eligible for statutory free school meals through their devolved budgets.  Currently, the Public Health Grant meets the cost of a lunchtime meal for pupils in Reception to Year 1 who are not otherwise eligible.

From September 2014, the Department for Education will pay for a meal at lunchtime for all pupils in Reception – Year 2 for those pupils not otherwise eligible.  This will be funded through a specific grant.

In order to pay for meals for those in Years 3 – 6 who are not otherwise eligible, this is estimated to cost £2.321m in a full academic year.  This is based on 6,784 pupils currently in Years 3-6, not eligible for statutory free school meals at £2.30 per meal for 78.3% (ie current) take-up.

Pupil numbers will fluctuate, as will take-up.  Younger year-groups are larger than older ones, so a steady rise can be expected over time.  If take-up was at 90%, the costs would rise by £0.347min a full year.

The additional costs of the meals is not the only consideration, however.  It is extremely difficult to determine the burden on schools if all pupils were to have a free meal however the expectation is that additional supervision will be required in the dining hall and timetables will need to be reviewed to ensure all pupils have sufficient time to eat which may require staggered lunch breaks.

There would be less of a burden on schools if they were not collecting cash and the use of appropriate software – in conjunction with the kitchen may ease the administration.  Schools may need to purchase additional dining furniture.

From a catering service’s point of view additional staffing would be required along with additional light and heavy equipment and in some instances (dependent on a site by site review) additional space.  Some sites may require additional electrical and gas supply installations.

It is likely that a project officer would be required to carry a full feasibility of each site if this project was to move forward.

Any additional comments of the Chief Financial Officer

The direct costs of this initiative are estimated to be £2.321m in a full year.  So, for 2014/15 financial year (ie from September 2014 to March 2015), the estimated cost would be around £1.354m (ie 7/12ths of the full-year cost).  If the initiative ran for the full academic year, this would require a further £0.967m in 2015/16 financial year.  The actual costs will be dependent on actual pupil numbers and the level of take-up.

Cabinet on 5th February 2014 considered a proposal to allocate £1.3m over two financial years for a Women into Employment initiative which would use the Public Health Grant released by the introduction of the national FSM scheme for R-Y2 pupils. If this were not to proceed, it would cover the first £1.3m of the cost of this alternative proposal, leaving £0.967m to find if it runs for a full academic Year.

There are likely to be costs on schools associated with what might be a stepped change in the number of pupils accessing a meal at lunchtime, but these will vary from school to school and no estimates are readily available.

There may need to be some capital investment if school facilities are insufficient to meet the requirements and the DfE has allocated £0.748m school meals capital grants for Tower Hamlets (including £0.157m for VA schools) for 2014/15, which might be used to deliver this.

Since I introduced free school meals for the reception and first year primary school children, they have been very popular. In a borough that has serious issues with child poverty, poor nutrition can hinder academic achievement, so adequate meals make a significant difference educationally, which is why I ensured that they were fully funded.

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