Free school meals and the poverty gap

Recent reports in the national press have indicated that the attainment gap between rich and poor children at school is still growing wider despite the Lib Dems introducing the Pupil Premium (extra cash for schoools for children receiving free school meals) and increasing the coverage of free pre-school hours and free school meals for younger children.

This is a worrying trend that may take some time to reverse. It mirrors that situation in the adult world where the disparity of outlokk between rich and poor families is barely getting any smaller year on year. On reflection I also think that there is a connection between this and the relative take-up of free school meals here in Reading. Only 75% of those entitled to free school meals in Reading actually apply to get them. This brings on a double whammy whereby the school does not get the cash it neds to help children from poorer backgrounds and the parents still have to fork out their own money to provviide lunches for their children.

We need to look at what schools and the local council are doing to ensure that every child who is entitled to free school meals actually receives them. Poorly fed children do not learn as well or as fast as well fed ones.

It is time for a Low Emissions Zone in Reading

Well, what a really environmentally focussed minister we have got in Michael Gove! He has seen so clearly the problems of air pollution in our towns and cities that he wants to ban the manufacture of any petrol or diesel cars. Full marks for this environmentally friendly thoughts that brought this on.

Only one minor problem with this new policy – what about the 40,000 people that die annually from the effects of air pollution between now and 2040. That is some 920,000 UK residents who will die of causes associated with air pollution between now and 2040 when the ban comes in to effect.

How is it possible to understand the problem bur let the odd million people die before doing something about it? Has it anything to do with big car manufacturing companies that might find their profits curtailed if they have to switch to electric cars any time sooner than 2040?

We need Clean Air Zones NOW, in all our town centres where we regularly exceed European limits on poor air quality.
We know what the problem is – Internal combustion engines.
We know what to do to clean up our act – implement Clean Air Zones either charge for polluting cars to enter them or ban them entirely from entering.
Why should we wait any longer before acting to save the thousands of people who suffer from poor air quality now?

We have been proposing a Low Emissions Zone (Clean Air Zone) for Reading town centre for many years already but our Labour Administration is too full of the Mass Rapid Transport scheme for East Reading which will have zero effect on air pollution but allow buses to get to Heathrow 10 minutes quicker (until the rail connection to Heathrow is built).

Our residents are suffering from asthma and other chronic diseases resulting from air pollution so what we need is action now on the Low Emissions Zone. Will Cllr Page (Labour’s lead Councillor for Transport) ever realise that peoples’ lives are at risk and they are more important than even good bus connections.

What is happening in our schools?

The last few days have seen a number of stories appearing in the press about our schools. Not a great surprise as this is the time of year when the teaching unions hold their annual conferences. However, taken together they paint a picture of a system falling apart at the seams.

• £130m wasted on setting up new schools that have already closed

• Large numbers of teachers leaving their posts due to pressures in the classroom and on work/life balance

• Inability to recruit enough new teachers

• Cuts to school budgets meaning some teachers are losing the jobs in schools up and down the country

• Headteachers sending round begging letters to parents to fill in the holes left by underfunding

The Government’s answer to the crisis in our schools is to build more socially divisive grammar schools despite just about every shred of evidence pointing to their failings in social mobility and deleterious effects on other schools in their neighbourhoods.

How pig-headed can an ideologically driven Tory government be?

Does Mrs May really believe that grammar schools are the answer to an education system in crisis? An answer that will benefit the poorer sections of our society?

Road resurfacing programme 2017

Residents and motorists using Mayfair will get an unexpected surprise this summer when the Council finally resurfaces the road. It has been getting worse and worse every year and the current asphalt layer has broken up leaving the bare (and very noisy) concrete blocks. Mayfair has been included in the annual plans for resurfacing roads which will be implemented in the summer.

Along with Mayfair the section of Norcot Road between the Tylers Rest and Blundells Road will also be resurfaced as will Ash Road.

As a Local councillor I have received numerous complaints about these roads and about Mayfair in particular so it will be a big relief when the resurfacing work is caried out.

That still leaves many of our roads in Tilehurst in a disgraceful state of decay, not least of which is School Road, the main road running through the village.

Reading BC’s Audit & Governance Committee

I brought a motion to Council last Tuesday asking the council to remove Lead Councillors from the Audit & Governance Committee where they, in effect, scrutinise their own actions and policies. The subject was brought up by the council’s own external auditors in a report last year but has never been acted upon. Here is what I said in the council meting.

Aside from a number of recommendations regarding financial controls the Ernst & Young report last year made a point of questioning why the Leader of the Council and her Deputy sit on the Audit & Governance Committee, the key scrutiny committee within this Council. It must seem absurd to outsiders that the Leader and her Deputy sit on the committee that scrutinises much of their decisions and policies. Indeed an outsider would wonder how we allowed this to happen when clearly it goes against most ideas of good governance. We should be grateful to Ernst & Young for pointing this out and calling for a review of the make-up of the Audit & Governance Committee as it currently runs against CIPFA guidance on these matters.

I think that the arguments about having the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council sit on the Audit & Governance Committee also extend to other lead councillors and that all Lead Councillors should stand down from the Audit & Governance Committee.

Whilst Lead Councillors sit on the committee it is difficult to maintain that the committee is truly independent of the Administration as it needs to be in order to carry out its functions in auditing the council’s finances and scrutinising the decision making.

Whilst Ernst & Young have called for a review I believe that is audit-speak for they should stand down from the committee and I do not think a review is necessary to bring us in to conformance with CIPFA guidance.

When I approached the Chair of the Audit & Governance Committee, Cllr Stevens was not unhappy about the presence of Lead Councillors on his committee, hence the motion this evening.

Lead Councillors may still attend meetings of the Audit & Governance Committee if this motion is passed. Indeed, they are in a position to answer many questions on why actions were taken but they should have no role in its decision making if we are to adhere to standards of openness and good governance.

We need to think seriously how this important committee must appear to the good citizens of Reading. Would they not think it odd that Lead Councillors sit, in effect, in judgement of their own actions?

The National Anthem – time for a change?

CrownI was not surprised to see the Daily Mail and other tabloids getting all upset about a politician not singing the National Anthem. Apparently, even members of the Labour Party (Margaret Beckett on the BBC this morning for one) now also think that you cannot be patriotic about the UK without singing along to this relic of our imperial past. It is about time that such people realised that many of us in this country are not monarchists and that others of us have long ago ceased to believe in any sort of god.

As an avowed democrat and atheist, I absolutely reocgnise Jeremy Corbyn’s right not to sing the National Anthem. I take the same stand myself. I would never sing it either. To do so would be about as hypcritical as it is possible to be for a republican like me.

Where other national anthems sing of love for a particular country, ours pleads with god to save our hereditary monarch. It is about time we consigned ‘God Save the Queen’ to history.

The Tory attitude to our housing problem

I was quite shocked at the breathtaking attitudes of Tory Housing Minister Brandon Lewis towards the biggest social issue of the day. In an interview with the Sunday Times he said “I’m not entirely convinced that publishing a strategy actually achieves what we want.” Apparently all the hundreds of thousands of new houses that we so desperately need are going to build themselves or was he thinking that the marvellous free market, which has never managed to build even half the houses we needs over the last decade, will somehow provide the solution.

What we really need is lots more affordable housing

What we really need is lots more affordable housing

He went on to say “if you get too much regulation in the sector, it drives down supply, and in the long run that’s bad for tenants.” I wonder which plane Brandon Lewis lives on as he clearly does not recognise the plight of millions of his fellow countrymen having to live with rent increases that have far outstripped inflation ove rthe last many years, of the hundreds of thousands of people who long to buy their own home but have no chance of doing so anywhere south of Birmingham.

Frankly if this is the man in charge of bulding the 250,000 new homes we need each year to satisfy new demands for housing then we are in a hopeless situation. I dread to think how many Tory MPs, like Brandon Lewis, are hoping that the housing market will continue to malfunction whilst pushing up the income they receive from homes that they themselves rent out privately.

I also wonder just how much money is paid in housing benefit to help those who cnnot afford the sky high rents. After all this is public money being paid over to private landlords which just continues the status quo of too many people having to live beyond their means in overpriced rental accommodation.

Joined-up Thinking between NHS and Thames Valley Police

Congratulations to Thames Valley Police and Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust for putting joined-up thinking into action. Between them they have launched a Street Triage scheme.

This innovation means that a qualified mental healthcare nurse will be on hand to assis the police five nights a week Thursdays through to Mondays (so covering the busy weekend period) so that mentally ill patients can be seen and assessed by a qualified practioner rather than simply being locked away in a cell before anyone asks any questions, followed by a long, long wait to see someone qualified in mental healthcare.

On its first week of operation, covering Reading , Wokingham and West Berks, some 20 incidents were attended by a mental health nurse, saving the police many hours of time that needs to be spent on their main job of protecting the public, and, importantly, getting the right help to mentally ill patients as quicklly as possible.

It has been a long time coming but well done to all involved in this scheme.

Scandal of Tory Government social rent proposals

From a recent LGA Lib Dem Group Press Release

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Tory Government proposals to reduce rents paid by tenants in social housing in England by 1 per cent a year will cost councils £2.6 billion by 2019/20, new analysis reveals.

The measure, as part of the Welfare and Work Bill, would see the rent reduction come into force from 2016 and last for four years. The cost to councils will rise from £234 million in year one, to £508 million in year two, £795 million in year three, and over £1 billion by 2019/20. By that point the annual funding gap will represent 60 per cent of local government’s total housing maintenance budget. Over the four years the total £2.6 billion will be equivalent to the cost of building almost 19,000 new homes.

Cllr Keith House, LGA Lib Dem Housing Spokesperson, said: “Liberal Democrats support moves to keep rents low but this move would hold back councils from helping government build more homes, boost growth and employment and reduce the welfare bill.

“Because around 70 per cent of council tenants receive Housing Benefit, any rent decrease will not impact them directly. Instead it will be reflected in the Department of Work and Pensions’ budget, while local councils will have to cope with the additional financial burden.”
Lib Dems are calling for the flexibility and powers for local councils to manage their own housing stock to meet the needs of local communities and employers over the long-term, as was intended by government in the 2012 housing reforms.

Keith House added:
“Many councils have already agreed long-term housing investment plans based on the future rent levels announced in March’s Budget. It is right that rents are kept as low as possible, but our analysis shows reducing rents in this way over the next four years will cost councils £2.6 billion by the end of the decade and lead to a further funding gap of £1 billion per year from 2020/21 onwards.

“There are millions of people on social housing waiting lists and councils want to get on with the job of building the new homes that people in their areas desperately need, which is the best way to reduce the Housing Benefit bill and boost growth. And Housing Associations will also be hit hard, estimating they would build 14,000 fewer affordable homes.

“It is therefore vital that these costs are considered by the Government as part of the wider debate of council funding to avoid the capacity of councils and housing associations to invest in this much-needed housing being put at risk. For instance councils should be able to keep all the receipts from the sales of their own housing stock.”

The Local Government Association has called on government to let councils take a lead role in housebuilding by lifting housing borrowing limits to allow councils to invest in new housing, giving councils the freedom to set Right to Buy discounts, and to retain 100 per cent of all council home sale receipts locally.

The Crisis in Calais – What Crisis?

EU figures show that in 2014 Europe received 626,00 asylum applications including:
Germany 203,000
Sweden 81,000
Italy 65,000
France 64,000
Hungary 43,000
United Kingdom 32,000
Austria 28,000
Netherlands 25,000
Belgium 23,000

These figures include refugees from Ukraine and the Balkans as well as Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.

In absolute numbers, a total of almost 104,000 persons were granted refugee status in the EU-28 in 2014 (first instance and final decisions), nearly 60,000 subsidiary protection status, and just over 20,000 authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons. So around 25-30% of applicants were allowed to stay legally in the EU.

It is worth noting that the total population of the EU is 500,000,000.

UN figures indicate that around 100,000 migrants made it to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea in the first half of 2015.

The press are having a field day and pumping up the rhetoric about swarms of migrants crossing the channel but has anyone bothered to look at the actual numbers involved and how many asylum seekers actually find refuge in the UK?

Given the level of asylum requests over the whole of Europe (and yes the numbers will have increased in the current year) we need to ask the question why do we make such a big deal over 3,000 – 5,000 refugees in Calais? Should we not ask why we are only taking in half the number of refugees that France or Italy take in? Are we that worried by a few thousand more? Are we, as a nation, so broke or xenophobic that we cannot extend a hand of welcome to a few thousand more refugees? Are we losing our humanity?