Lay off our lunchboxes

This week the Government’s official school food advisors and fast food restaurateurs John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby stated that the current school dinner system in this country is “economically bust”.    I agree that adequate resource is not being invested in school food.    I agreed with that when Jamie Oliver drew our attention to this issue with such passion several years ago.  In their private sector wisdom, however, the Leon duo don’t see this as something that government should fix.   Instead, they have suggested that the solution lies in banning packed lunches and forcing parents to buy school meals for their children instead.     

Sounds like a lunch tax to me but putting aside my views on the business model, I have a fundamental problem with this fruitcake idea.    I have never seen anything in my 14 years as a mum to make me believe that “the system” can feed my children better than I can.    In most school canteens – even those that pride themselves on being healthy because they have removed vending machines and the daily chips option – mountains of white carbs, processed proteins and over-cooked vegetables are still passed off as a balanced menu.      Salad bars (a new addition to some schools) are stuffed with mayonnaise drooled pasta, tuna mayonnaise and mayonnaise laden coleslaw.       The few good bits simply get swamped by the crap (not unlike the government’s education policy actually but that’s a different blog altogether… )   

Some schools do already “police” their students’ packed lunches.   Sounds reasonable in theory but, in practice, why would a teacher with no specialist training in child nutrition have a better understanding than me of what is healthy and what is not?   In one school that I know of a heated debate ensued when a young teacher chastised a child for having cake in their lunchbox.  The child’s parents argued that her organic, gluten- free, high-fibre ,  fruit muffins (I exaggerate only slightly, I know several “extreme baking “mums) were far healthier than many foodstuffs which were permitted in the school,  like yoghurts filled with sugar,  sweeteners and artificial flavourings.       I can’t remember who won that particular argument but when it comes to what goes in my children’s packed lunches these are the sort of judgements I want to make myself.   I don’t expect, or want, teachers to make them for me. 

Then of course there’s the newest elephant in the room – or should I say ruddy great horse.    To be fair to Vincent and Dimbleby, they could not have foreseen that in the same week they put forward an idea that all parents should be forced to buy school lunches, meat products up and down the country would be being withdrawn from supermarket shelves faster than you can say “I fancy a nut roast”.    It does rather taint their message though.    Dodgy meat isn’t only in our supermarkets,  it has also been found in the burgers and Bolognese sauces that are served to children in our schools.        Why on Mary Berry’s good earth would I want to pay for my children to eat that kind of product?  

There are some things that I trust the State to do – even under this coalition –but feeding my children is not – and will never be – one of them.  

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Urban foxes – we need action now, not more words.

Last week a one-month-old baby was dragged by a fox from his cot in South London and his finger was bitten off. Following this incident, Boris Johnson has called for more action to be taken to tackle the growing problem of urban foxes. But we’ve heard this concerned bluster before haven’t we? Back in May last year Boris’ Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse declared war on urban foxes. Despite the fighting talk, however, nothing appears to have been done.

When I ran in the mayoral campaign last year residents told me time and time again that they were concerned about the number of foxes in their local area. Most people were concerned about fox faeces in their garden and the potential health problems it carried, not to mention the appalling pong. Other people – especially those with young children – were worried about the possibility of fox attacks. Although direct attacks are rare many of the people I spoke to believed that the foxes in their neighbourhood were becoming increasingly bold. With the animals appearing to lose their fear of humans the concerned residents felt that it was only a matter of time before more serious incidents would occur.

In light of these recurring concerns, I said publicly before the election in May that we should address the London fox issue properly, once and for all. My stance attracted the anger of fox lovers who supposed that I was calling for an immediate and widespread cull of foxes in London. But I also received many more messages of support from people who had simply had enough of feeling unsafe or unsanitary in their own back yard. For the record, I did not, and still have not, called for a cull but neither would I rule it out.

We have many complex policy problems that need fixing today. The issue of urban foxes is not one of them. Tricky maybe. Difficult undoubtedly. Complex, certainly not. There are a number of measures that could be introduced to address this issue and decisions about which of these ought to be adopted should be evidence-based not emotion-driven. (We can all agree that foxes are cute to look at but that doesn’t get us any further forward.) I suggest the following plan of action as a starter for ten:

– The Mayor should initiate and oversee a London-wide audit of foxes that gathers information from every borough on the number of foxes as well as fox-related incidents. Without this basic data it will remain difficult for councils to know whether they actually have a growing problem or not and to make informed choices about what action to take. It’s not enough for Boris to call on borough leaders to do more – foxes are not officially classified as pests so local mechanisms for dealing with them simply do not exist at present.

– Drawing on evidence from experts as well as fox initiatives that have been tried elsewhere a menu of options should be drawn up for leaders and local residents to consider and select. The options should be exhaustive and set out the pros and cons of a range of approaches from things like public awareness campaigns (don’t feed your fox!) and better management of food waste to relocation and, yes, culling.

– The Health and Environment Committee of the London Assembly should be tasked with monitoring progress in each borough to ensure that the number of fox incidents falls year on year and that the public’s concerns continue to be addressed at a local level.

A lot of wiff has been waffed about urban foxes. I, for one, don’t want to wait until another serious incident occurs before we hear even more.

Parliament – we can do better than this.

House of Commons

House of Commons

Stories that increase the public’s contempt for politicians continue to hit the headlines.   Over the past week we’ve had revelations about MPs renting their homes to each other or travelling first class at taxpayers’ expense.   The Chief Whip finally resigned following his foul-mouthed outburst at a police officer a month earlier.   It’s hard to see how much lower respect for our public leaders can fall but there’s certainly no reprieve in the decline at the moment.

As someone who ran as an independent candidate in the mayoral election with a central, anti party-politics platform, it would be easy for me to relish in this sorry state of affairs.  It would be easy for me to bash the political establishment, deride the worst offenders (those who continue to behave as if the rules don’t apply to them) and generally bemoan the lack of decency and common sense, of aptitude and humility in the UK Parliament today.       In truth, however, what I really want is for the establishment to get its act together and improve.   And I want that transformation to start right now.

For whilst I don’t believe that party politicians will make the best mayors or police and crime commissioners, neither do I want our party-political system to fall into ever deeper disrepute.  At local and national level, for the sake of good policy-making and strong public leadership, we need the best and the brightest from all walks of life to stand for election.    On current trends, old Etonians and die-hard socialists alike will turn away from a profession that is less trusted than bankers or tabloid journalists.     We risk spinning into in a cycle of falling standards and ever-decreasing levels of public respect and engagement.  In a country where voting levels are already quite low (the Mayor of London election in May saw turnout of less than 40%) democracy itself will be undermined if each new generation sees less reason to cast their vote, believing as many people already do, that most politicians can’t affect positive change because they are out of touch, dishonest or a combination of the two.

Improving perceptions of politics and politicians will take time but the sooner we start to make progress towards this, the better.   There are many things about the way Parliament currently operates, for example, that are unattractive and which feed the general perception of a members club that is out-dated and insular.   Reforming these seems to me to be as good a place as any to start the wider transformation.   With that in mind, here are four things I would do to make Parliament and its members better, less alien, and more relevant for the public they are, after all, there to serve:

  1. Make the Speaker of the House a public appointment   – remove risk/perception of partiality and position the Speaker clearly on the side of public interest.
  2. Save the pomp for ceremonial occasions  –  parliament is steeped in history and tradition and the annual State Opening should be enjoyed and protected.   When it comes to the day-to-day business of Parliament, however, gowns and bling should be packed away.     To make debates easier to follow, MPs should be referred to simply by their full name and constituency.  (Given how dishonourable many members are currently perceived to be, dropping the honourable and right honourable titles is overdue in any event).
  3. Let the public ask questions during the weekly Prime Ministers Questions – PMQs can sometimes provide helpful debate but, more often than not,  it is little more than a verbal boxing match where the Prime Minister and opposition leader hurl pre-scripted jibes at each other across the floor.    I believe the time (or at least some of it) could be better spent by allowing members of the public to ask unfiltered questions from the gallery.    What could be more democratic than citizens quizzing their elected leaders in the heart of Parliament?
  4. Require all members of Parliament to publish their details on an MP comparison website.  This should be an easy to access site listing the expenses claimed by each MP along with details of the committees they sit on, the votes they have cast, the hours they have spent in debates and declared outside interests.

These changes would start the transformation.  There are other things – not least the antiquated voting practices – that must also be overhauled.  I’ll keep my thoughts on those for a future blog but I am interested to hear what other people think – what would be the one thing you would do to make Parliament better and help halt the decline in political esteem that we are currently experiencing?

46 days to go – young people are an asset to this City

Today is Mother’s Day and as a mother myself I want to say one thing,  “Children and young people in London are a huge asset to this City.”

Let me say that again, only this time more loudly, “KIDS AND YOUNG PEOPLE IN LONDON ARE A HUGE ASSEST TO THIS CITY.”

In just the past week alone, if you had been interviewed by the articulate Jacob at Reprezent Radio, filmed by the delightful Dennis and his professional crew from EndztoEndz media, taken part in a Lives not Knives workshop with the feisty Eliza or attended the amazing launch of this year’s Spirit of London’s Awards then you’d be shouting about young people too.

Young people in London are disproportionately hit by many of today’s challenges – removal of the EMA and rising student fees, high unemployment and unaffordable transport and housing.    They know that the economic outlook is miserable and that recovery will be slow and painful.   Life is much, much more uncertain for them than it was when I was in my late teens.    Yet, despite all of these things, there are remarkable young people doing positive things right across the Capital,   starting businesses, running youth groups, helping themselves and others to build strong and productive futures.    I have had the pleasure of meeting many of them on the campaign so far and I can personally vouch for the fact that they are enterprising, resourceful, energetic, and fun.

Public leaders should be highlighting all of these things, correcting the myths.   But too often they don’t.  Too often our politicians and Ministers, journalists and commentators put young people down, associate them with crime and problems and unhelpfully feed a negative stereotype that I just don’t believe to be true.    One journalist (who I respect for many other reasons so shall remain nameless here) used a very negative image to illustrate an article he was writing on youth in London last week.  Let me stress, the article wasn’t about gangs or knife crime it was a general article about youth but the picture he chose showed three hooded black boys leaning against a graffitied wall with one of them pretending to shoot the other two.   I’m sure there was no harm meant – harm was done nevertheless.

If any of you do need an image of London’s youth, may I suggest you check out this video first http://www.youtube.com/user/spiritoflondonaward   Let’s start painting a picture for our children and young people that will inspire hope and increase confidence.

Just two other points before I close this blog.

First, a HUGE thank you to each and every one of the 330 people who have signed my nomination forms.     We’ve done it!    Once this campaign is over I will write more about the inefficient, nonsensical, out of date bureaucracy that is the candidate nomination process.  For now, I am just grateful to everyone across London who has helped me to comply – I hope that I will do you all proud as the weeks go on.

Finally, it’s been a rather unfortunate week on Planet BorKen with both teams unveiling identical election slogans.  No doubt several comms heads will roll.    I had to chuckle at this faux pas – millions of pounds and hundreds of staff between them and they still can’t produce a single, distinguishing idea.  Says it all really.

 

53 days to go – an independent voice

Many journalists and commentators have bemoaned the fact that this year’s mayoral election looked as if it was going to be a two-horse race, a ground hog day, an uninspiring re-run of 2008.

Well, on 30 March, Londoners will be told who they can vote for as their next Mayor and I will be one of the names.   I want to disrupt the status quo and help provide the fresh voice and ideas that so many people have been calling for.

Fantastic……now here’s the rub.

As a new –  and independent  – candidate I don’t have previous election results or represent a national party.   According to the big broadcasters, that means I don’t qualify for coverage.    Hm.   Can anyone else hear a Catch 22 screaming in this scenario?     I won’t bore you all with the number of letters that my team and I have sent about this, or the number of brick walls that we have banged our heads against over the past few weeks.      You just need to know that it’s a lot.  Far too many.  We’ve wasted far too much of our time getting nowhere with institutions that are slow to adapt and reluctant to embrace anything out of the ordinary.

Anyway, in the interest of not wasting any more time, I’ll move on.  For the time being at least, I will leave the broadcasters where they appear happiest to be; reporting on “Planet BorKen” where the Punch and Judy, party-political show continues to play on a predictable and repetitive loop.

Back in the real world, my team and I are finalising my manifesto.   It’s no mean feat to summarise ideas and condense proposals into a document that people will actually want to read.  And I don’t say that flippantly at all – having worked in government for 15 years I know how many weighty tomes are produced that nobody ever looks at!   So, I will continue to select and tweak until I am happy with the end result but I am confident already that it will contain some surprises.

The Mayor of London has limited powers in specific areas but their ability to influence debate and facilitate change goes way beyond these.  London is a fantastic City but the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.  Social mobility is grinding to a halt.  More, much more, can and should be done to address this.   For that reason, and despite the criticism I will no doubt receive from people who believe the Mayor should manage TfL and not do much else, my manifesto will also cover vital issues like improving education across London and protecting  public services.     There are many improvements that can be made in these areas which would transform people’s lives, unlock talent and create opportunities across the Capital.    The Mayor should be leading a charge – at the very least forcing a political discussion – on these sorts of issues.

Finally, I couldn’t end this week’s blog without mentioning the fantastic Women of the World festival at the South Bank which has been running all week and which I attended on Thursday’s International Women’s Day.    Great speakers, serious issues and a real buzz in the hall.  One quote from Kathy Lette stuck in my mind – “women together are like a good Wonderbra, uplifting, supportive and make you bigger than you really are.”    A  host of famous women called for gender equality and an end to practices that stifle women’s rights and opinions.   Bianca Jagger spoke with passion on the need for more women in public life.

I couldn’t agree more.

60 days to go – we need to talk about Heathrow

On Friday, Iain Dale invited me on to his radio show where I was very pleased to be part of London’s Biggest Conversation.   During the interview, a caller asked me about airport capacity and I said I supported a third runway at Heathrow.    In today’s Telegraph, a group of 70 British business leaders call on David Cameron to re-open the debate about Heathrow’s third runway.   I am clearly not alone in my conviction.

The debates on Heathrow have been lengthy and heated.     I have huge sympathy with local concerns on this issue and I know how controversial any decision on airport expansion will be.   Party politicians have shied away from the solution because votes are at stake.      But this is exactly where an independent candidate like me must support what is right for London, not what is opportune for a political party.

If we don’t invest in Heathrow soon it will fall behind other international airports.  Businesses and visitors will choose other locations in Europe for their trips and connections.  The medium to long term consequences for west London’s economy will be serious.    Of course we must make best use of existing capacity in all our airports across the UK.  Frankly, it’s a disgrace that this is not already the case.  But we also need more capacity in our main hub and we need it fast to ensure that London remains the best connected, global destination of choice.

Boris’ fantasy island option – assuming it is even viable – could not be built for decades and it would also sound the death toll for Heathrow and the all of the prosperity and activity that it generates in west London.    The Olympic Games has brought massive investment to east London.  That’s fantastic.    But west London deserves investment too and a third runway at Heathrow would provide just that.

The criticism of a new and independent candidate is often that they say only the things voters want to hear, make popular promises and ride any bandwagon coming their way.   Well, here’s me putting my neck on the line and backing a policy that I know will divide opinion.      I’ll leave the false promises and short term vote-grabbing to the other candidates.  It’s what they do best.

65 days to go and a very humbling visit.

Last week was so busy on the campaign that I didn’t have time to write a single blog.  I’m surprised by how much that has troubled me.    I have to admit that I may have developed a bit of a blogging habit, one which allows me to let off steam, set out my stall and highlight the errors of others, all from the comfort and safety of my own front room.   It’s all rather satisfying and therapeutic but I do want to put my new addiction to best use.

So today I could write about the successful campaign launch that I had last Tuesday.  It was kindly hosted by Ernst and Young, there was a great turn-out and I had lots of positive feedback and media coverage.  I could summarise the raft of policy ideas that I announced, and the campaign video that I premiered, at the event.  There again, I could focus instead on the Channel4 and UpRise debate that I took part in on Wednesday where I won the youth vote and held my own against the other candidates.   Or, I could mention my first mayoral TV appearance on Sunday Politics where I explained why an independent Mayor would be best for London.

Yes, I could use this blog to talk about any, or all, of those things.   But today I had a meeting in Hither Green which put everything else into perspective.  Today I met Barry Mizen, the father of Jimmy who, the day after his 16th birthday, was murdered in an unprovoked attack in a bakery near his home on May 10 2008.  It would be so easy, so understandable, for Barry and his family to focus on punishment and retribution.    Instead, in our meeting, Barry used his gentle voice to explain Jimmy’s legacy – it’s not one of anger, vengeance or fear, but one of hope and peace.  He and his family are using the Foundation that they have created in Jimmy’s memory to ask fundamental questions about prevention – how can society stop a child born today from becoming a violent adult?

It’s easy for me to suggest (as I do) that a Mayor should focus as much on prevention of crime as on punishment of crime.  But when you hear that same message from a parent whose own child has been murdered it really resonates.  As I sat opposite Barry today I felt humble and inadequate.    The work that he and his family are doing to create positive relationships in their communities is truly inspirational.  Their ability to look beyond an immediate desire for retribution to the reasons that cause someone to be violent in the first place is remarkable.    If you aren’t aware of the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, I would encourage you to have a look at http://www.jimmmizen.org

It’s definitely worth blogging about.