Round up of the month
There are few quiet months in politics these days, and March has been no exception.
I was one of a number of Labour MPs who joined the demonstration against anti-Semitism which took place in Parliament Square last Monday.
Anti-Semitism is racism, pure and simple, and has no part in my party, our politics or our society more generally. Anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise in recent years and there can be no equivocation in condemning them for what they are. It is deeply distressing to me that we have reached a position where so many Jewish people clearly feel unwelcome, uncomfortable or worse, in Labour, and where those speaking out on the issue risk being abused for it. That there is a problem to be dealt with can be in no doubt. I pledge my total commitment to ending this intolerable situation and it is right that we are now held to account for turning words into action. I am already an officer of the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Jews and am signed up to the All Party Parliamentary Group against anti-Semitism, but I welcome further suggestions. We have a strong record of tolerance in this local community and I will do all I can to ensure that this is upheld.
In Parliament, I’ve been busy with the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We have just published a report on Free Speech in Universities, which you can read here.
We are also in the middle of an inquiry into ‘Attitudes to enforcement’. The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of respect for human rights. Those rights are supported by political parties, and such rights have long been an integral part of common law, as well as being enshrined in statute by the Human Rights Act 1998.
However, as much as rights may be recognised and protected within the legal framework, there can be barriers to achieving a culture which understands and respects human rights and practical barriers to those who wish to enforce their legal rights. You can find out more about this here.
I’ve also been involved into a number of Parliamentary Ministerial statements and debates, including in respect of the visit of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, where I raised concerned about the death sentences against peaceful protesters; the impact of Brexit on the NHS, and Grenfell and Fire Safety. I’m happy to respond in more detail on these or other issues should you wish to follow them up.
I was in touch with our main local Mosques and with Westminster Police prior to the threatened ‘Punish a Muslim Day’ on April 3rd, after letters were sent to some of my Muslim colleagues in Parliament and to some individuals in different parts of the country. Thankfully, the day seemed to have passed without incident and I am not aware of anyone local having received one of the poisonous letters. Please do be sure to report any incidents of hate crime, as it is essential that the police and government have an accurate picture.
In the rest of this newsletter you will find information about more of the (mostly local) work I have been doing recently.
What a waste of public money as Paddington ‘Free School’ closes after just six years
The closure of the Minerva primary school in Paddington, which was set up under the government’s Free School programme - was announced this month, less than six years after it opened. The school was set up in one of the most expensive areas of the country, despite never being justified in terms of the demand for places. Even Westminster Council made clear that the school was not needed, saying now that “Data was provided at the time to the DfE that evidenced no demand for a new school”
Parents were expressing their dissatisfaction from the start, as the school has already had two temporary sites in its short life, with no outdoor space, never opened on the planned permanent site and has been operating only half full. Our sympathy is first and foremost for the parents and children who have faced all this disruption. However, the extraordinary waste of money involved in this example of a ‘schools free-for-all’ proves once again how essential it is that increasingly scarce public resources are planned and directed properly.
The West End Extra covered the story here.
…whilst our other schools face a cash squeeze
Meanwhile, many of our other schools - primary and secondary - are achieving great things whilst struggling with budgets as funding fails to keep pace with cost pressures. I recently met with the Westminster Secondary Heads group to discuss the local impact, but we already know schools and colleges are struggling to make ends meet. The Government’s real-terms cuts to education funding have seen £2.8 billion cut from school budgets since 2015. This is resulting in significant damage to the education our schools and colleges are able to provide.
Worse still is on the horizon with 17,942 schools (equal to nine out of ten) hit by a real terms cut in funding per pupil from 2015-19.
Class size increases
Research by the School Cuts coalition published on 8th March 2018 shows that class sizes are rising in the majority of secondary schools in England.
In Westminster North, secondary schools have an average of 1.4 more students in every class.
Larger class sizes mean less individual attention for children and young people.
Falling staff numbers
Further research published in February – drawn solely from Government figures – shows that staff numbers in England’s secondary schools have fallen by 15,000 between 2014/15 and 2016/17 despite their being 4,500 more pupils to teach. This equates to an average loss of 5.5 staff members in each school since 2015; in practical terms this means 2.4 fewer classroom teachers, 1.6 fewer teaching assistants and 1.5 fewer support staff.
Calls to stop the selling off of much needed homes
I have been objecting for some time to the sale at auction of much needed housing association flats in Westminster so I was pleased to be able to contribute to this article in last weekend’s Observer.
Access to justice
As the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Legal Aid group, access to justice is very dear to my heart. This month my main Parliamentary Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has been carrying out an inquiry into the barriers which may prevent people excerising their rights- including issues like legal aid, and we will be publishing a report soon. You can find out more about it here.
I was also pleased to join the Law Society to back their campaign for ‘early help’ – access to legal advice at the earliest point for people with problems, which can so often prevent more complex (and expensive) problems arising down the line.
LOCAL NEWS ROUND-UP
It’s been another busy month for community events!
Paddington Waterways and Maida Vale Society
I was delighted to be able to get to the AGM of the Paddington Waterways and Maida Vale Society, whose officers do great work contributing to planning considerations in the area, support the local police and much more. Discussions and questions covered planning and development, affordable housing and the problem of short-lets. I continue to urge local residents to join their amenity societies and help them help your community!
Paddington Law Centre
Paddington Law Centre staff and volunteers do outstanding work advising and representing local people with employment, housing, welfare and other legal issues on an absolutely shoestring.
Last year the tiny team dealt with 2985 clients, including 1105 housing cases and 1414 benefit issues, such as helping people challenge the removal of disability payments. A staggeringly high level of cases are won at appeal, showing just how flawed the system is, but that proportion falls when disabled people don’t get good help and advice, so the service the Law Centre offers is critical.
As (almost) always, I joined them for their Annual General Meeting, to say thank you for all they do.
Tollgate - residents having a tough time during the estate re-building
I continue to hear from the residents of Tollgate House about concerns they have surrounding the ongoing development. Several residents have expressed their concern over the future of those who have been displaced by the development as well as current tenants in housing need. Westminster Council have clarified that priority will first be given to those residents who were displaced and then tenants in housing need before the social housing in the new development is opened to Westminster’s general register.
I have also heard from residents who objected to being charged for the cleaning of the communal areas of Tollgate House whilst it is effectively a building site. These photos taken of the lift and the terrace, showing the dirt and dust that residents are living with, were sent to CityWest Homes in a request to drop the cleaning charges. I was very pleased to learn that the Council and City West Homes have now agreed to do this and that residents will no longer be paying for a redundant service.
If you have any other concerns about the development at Tollgate House, please get in touch and let me know.
Meeting the Wheelchair Service User Group
I caught up with the support group for wheelchair users recently, to discuss some of their concerns with the quality of the service, including delays in getting repairs and replacements. I’m taking up specific cases, but would be very pleased to hear from anyone else who has an issue causing them concern.
Councillor Begum and I went along to a meeting of the Dibdin resident’s Association in Maida Vale, where there were lots of concerns raised about parking and noise nuisance. Polly Robertson does a fabulous job keeping the association together and getting the community hall back into use. She’s a real community champion.
This is going to be a running feature, I suspect, as it is being raised more and more widely in Westminster and beyond. I met with the Short Lets Association recently to hear their ideas, as the industry representatives. Whilst I welcome the fact that they are clearly seeking to hear and respond to, some of the concerns, it is worrying that the other main providers of short lets are not even signed up to Airbnb’s pledge to police the 90-day legal limit for such bookings. The sector is growing so fast that we have very little time to get to grips with effectively managing it, and the industry does need to take more responsibility than it has so far to make sure we tackle nuisance and avoid the loss of desperately needed homes to informal hotels.
Queen’s Park Community Day
Queen’s Park Community Council will shortly be up for the first elections since it was set up in 2014. Whilst an ‘urban parish council’ obviously does not have the powers or the money to transform a local area - especially in the face of wider cuts to public spending - the Council and individual Councillors have done some great work, including the Summer and Winter festivals, the fireworks display, looking after Queen’s Park Gardens and more, whilst the Queen’s Park Hub has recently opened and there are lots of new sports activities and classes. I went along to the ‘Community Day’ to encourage people to take part, and it was great to see lots of people there.
If you are interested in the sports and activities running from the Queen’s Park hub, check this website.
Jamie in my office is running the London Marathon for The Avenues Youth Club
James is a member of my team and he is running the London Marathon in 3 weeks for The Avenues Youth Project, who support young people in Westminster by offering help with schoolwork, sports, music, and access to their many other fantastic facilities. This is a charity I have supported for years because of the excellent help they offer children and young adults in the area.
In the context of the recent Central Government cuts to Local Authority budgets, funding for all youth services was axed by Westminster Council. The Avenues Youth Project in Queens Park has been trying to continue providing support to young people in the area and because of these cuts, it will need more help to fund this. We now also know from statistics on child poverty rates for 2017 across the UK, that these were 6th highest here in Westminster (top 2%) making The Avenues' work even more important than ever.
James has been training all through this dreadful ‘Spring’ weather and he is running for a great cause so please follow the link below and donate whatever you can!
Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP
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