Sunday, February 17, 2019

Re-elected at London UNISON Regional Council AGM 2019

I was privileged to be re-elected last week at the London UNISON Regional Council AGM as Finance convenor (Treasurer and Regional Council Officer) for I think the 12th year in a row.

The AGM was probably in my view the most constructive and positive one, I have ever been to in all my years as a UNISON activist. The UNISON Lay President, Gordon McKay (a NHS nurse), gave a typical self deprecating but very passionate keynote speech about the simple cruelty that this Tory Government shows towards the poor and the vulnerable.

Next a great presentation by http://greecesolidarity.org/ about the work they do to support the people of Greece and a plea for support from UNISON branches.

I gave my financial report to the AGM and was pleased that there were proper questions and challenges by delegates.

Deputy Convenor, Conroy Lawrence, who was also re-elected had nearly everyone in tears as he moved his branch's motion on Gun and Knife crime, and told us why this is so important to him as he explained about the senseless gun murder of his own son.  Branch activist, Misty Harmon-Russell also spoke during the debates.

Our Convenor, Yvonne Green, was re-elected unopposed and showed why, by her lovely polite, quietly spoken but firm chairing of the meeting. This is a real skill.

 In the evening I had my Greater London UNISON Housing Association branch executive at the Hyde Housing Association headquarters and was unanimously nominated to be the Community NEC General Seat candidate (with my good comrade from Wales, Denise Thomas and other sensible broad left candidates )

All in all a good day. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019

Labour Local Government Association Conference 2019

Last weekend I went to the Labour LGA conference in Coventry. There were Labour councillors from all over England. On the Friday evening Tom Watson was the speaker at a buffet meal. The next day Jeremy was our keynote speaker (see main picture with Jeremy and Newham Labour directly elected Executive Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, both arriving at the conference following a personal meeting) 

At the start of conference, LGA Group leader, Nick Forbes, welcomed us and reminded everyone that we are are a Labour movement family with the odd wayward teenagers & grumpy uncles (I plead innocence).

There were a number of seminars and fringes including an important one on "New municipalism community wealth building" and another with John Healey MP on housing campaigning. Where following negative comments about the problems caused by Airbnb, in some areas I had to admit to staying in a flat for this weekend via this said website.

I am so pleased that Labour has committed to getting rid of section 21 (no fault legal evictions). We also need to support the Tenants/leaseholders representative movement, since we will never get first class housing services without this. 

Rokhsana also skyped into two Newham Citizen assemblies that were being held in East Ham town hall at the same time. I filmed her on her phone as she addressed the morning and afternoon assemblies. It is amazing what modern technology can achieve. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"Newham’s left wing Mayor challenges Tory austerity in her first budget"

Hat tip "Labour Against Austerity"

By Daniel Blaney

"The Mayor [of Newham] has set out a clear ambition for housing in Newham, with a particular focus on increasing social housing stock in the borough.

This will require significant Council capital investment to complement the £107 million Greater London Authority grant under the Building Council Homes for Londoners programme.” 

That is the introductory paragraph of a paper at the December 2018 meeting of Newham’s Cabinet, approving a business plan for Newham’s “Housing Revenue Account” – the obligation to account separately for Council-owned social housing. Its technical material, and language quoted is a little dry, but perhaps it illustrates best the political change emerging from the replacement of Sir Robin Wales as Mayor in May 2018 with Rokhsana Fiaz. 

The February 2019 budget is new Mayor’s first budget. She and her cabinet colleagues regularly tout this as a ‘transitional’ budget, clearly frustrated it doesn’t in itself demonstrate the sum of the political ambition, but marks a significant change of direction. 

A more radical, transformative 2nd budget is to be prepared over the next twelve months. In reality, the housing aspects of this first budget are already radical and transformational. The fact that the “Housing Revenue Account” business plan is being transformed, is a demonstration of the role of actual council housing in the new Mayor’s priorities, both in terms of investment by building new council housing, and in investment in existing stock, improving the housing of existing tenants in their current homes. 

The London Borough of Newham is recovering from a scandal in its “Repairs and Maintenance Service”, which was exposed by the actions of a whistleblower in the last months of the Robin Wales administration. The service had been re-modelled to be prepared for commercialisation and was expected to behave like a business – and so commissioned to work on the Borough’s highways maintenance, but without a proper system of checks and controls. Millions of pounds were lost. 

This became more widely known through the publication of a report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), commissioned by Rokhsana Fiaz immediately on taking office. The practical reality for residents in Newham’s council housing is the repairs and maintenance service is much more about repairs and much less about maintenance. 

The first budget of the new Mayor effectively doubles asset investment in existing council housing, to £65 million in 2019/20. The detailed capital programme identifies work on lifts, boiler replacements, kitchens, bathrooms, windows, roofs, door entry systems and much more. 

The CIPFA report criticised a poor balance of planned and reactive maintenance, and so the capital programme should now stop leakage of public money through inefficient reactive spend. Meanwhile millions are allocated to find new council homes for Newham’s staggering waiting list. 

£28 million is allocated for acquisitions, including where sensible, Right-to-buy buy-backs. £82 million is allocated to the council building its own new build homes. Much of this funding comes from £107 million Sadiq Khan granted to London Borough of Newham as part of Khan’s Building Council Homes for Londoners programme – the largest allocation to any London Borough. 

The Affordable Homes for Newham Programme was agreed on 5 February 2019 and will “seek approval for new build and acquisition programmes at the earliest opportunity”. The budget sets aside £500,000 to fund 26 full time equivalent professional staff to work on the Affordable Homes for Newham Programme. 

The HRA business plan, the GLA funding and the Affordable Homes for Newham Programme all demonstrate Rokhsana Fiaz is likely to exceed her election pledge to deliver 1000 new homes at council rent levels. 

Meanwhile this ‘transitional’ budget is radically investing in children and young people. £1.2 million extra has been budgeted to guarantee the universality of Newham’s free school meals programme “Eat for Free” for Key Stage 2 pupils; £1.4 million is for additional youth services; £1.3 million for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. 

Separately £3 million is allocated to work on Newham’s accreditation as a London Living Wage employer. The investment prioritised by the new Mayor is all the more remarkable given the general financial situation for Newham, as across local government; continued austerity imposed by central government further decreases government support for poverty stricken areas like Newham; Lyn Brown MP made a brilliant speech to this effect in parliament a few days ago and the challenges for local government are enormous. 

This year savings are coming from, amongst other things, fewer editions of Robin Wales’ vanity Newham Mag, previously published monthly; ending Robin Wales’ “Small Business Programme”; and more effective and active asset management. Council Tax rises by less than inflation, and for those eligible, the Council Tax Reduction Scheme cuts their Council Tax by half. 

Savings of £686,000 to Robin Wales’ “Every Child a Musician” programme have caused controversy, but the programme itself is controversial, regarded as a well-intentioned but inefficient and ineffective programme by various educational and music professionals. 

The Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accounting noted poor budget planning at Newham generally, but specifically cited Every Child for where previous expenditure increases had lacked budgetary oversight, and further overspends took place that were, in CIPFA’s view, unsustainable. CIPFA recommended the programme needed to be “re-evaluated” and the Council has pledged to do so. 

It proposes months of engagement on establishing a new more “ambitious creative and cultural enrichment programme” that will be available to all Newham children and which will serve the diverse cultural interests of Newham children. 

Meanwhile millions of pounds are allocated for additional support and preventive work on homelessness and rough sleeping, on democratically regenerating the Carpenters Estate and more generally demonstrating that Labour in local government is no longer aligned to the era of New Labour and is demonstrating how in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Labour in office can actually deliver for its people. 

* All figures relates to 2019-20 unless otherwise stated.

Monday, February 11, 2019

"Invest £6.3m so that primary school children continue to eat for free"

"We are proposing to ensure primary school children continue to eat for free in the borough by investing £6.3million. Full Council will make a decision on our 2019/20 budget proposals at a meeting on Monday 18 February.

Hat tip Newham Council

Thursday, February 07, 2019

"Men's mental health at work: how unions can help men to open up"


Great post on TUC website. I did not realise that today was "time to talk day". 

"It’s a bit of a cliché - the strong and silent man, the stiff upper lip. But sometimes clichés are clichés because they contain a truth. The truth here is that men often don’t talk about their mental health, or indeed their feelings at all.
I was first diagnosed with clinical depression in my mid-teens. I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder a few years later. I was 18 when I first attempted suicide. I’m now 53 and my second (and hopefully last) attempt was four years ago. In the intervening years I’ve experienced good mental health and bad mental health. I’ve had periods when I’ve been really on top of my life, and times when I could barely function.
But one thing that defined most of those years was my inability to talk to another human being (who wasn’t my GP) about my mental health.
And I’m not alone in this.
Currently, the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 and 45 in the UK is suicide. There is a national crisis of mental health, yet men are far less likely than women to seek help for their mental health issues. Only 53% of men who have depression have spoken to a friend about their illness, as opposed to 75% of women.
For as long as I can remember, people have told me to ‘man up’ when I’ve seemed low. Once you reach a certain age, the perfectly natural act of crying to release emotions becomes a problem for boys. If you cry, you’re seen as weak, effeminate or odd. So you just stuff it all back down inside, wear a mask and act like ‘one of the lads’. Both my suicide attempts happened not because I didn’t want to live anymore, but because I was so full of unexpressed emotions, I felt like I was going to explode.
Men also face self-image problems which I believe are being exacerbated by social media. The constant pressure to have the perfect body is no longer just something women experience. NHS figures show that over the last decade male hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen by 70%.
This is not to detract from women’s experiences of mental ill health; women are far more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men, and cuts to mental health services have disproportionately affected women. However, I believe there is still an urgent discussion to be had in the trade union movement about men’s mental health.
The question is, what needs to be done?  
Firstly, there is an urgent need to de-stigmatise talking about mental health for men. The Campaign against Living Miserably (CALM) and Heads Together have done good work in this area, but I would argue that trade unions could add to this substantially by creating discussions in the workplaces we represent.
Unions can play a role in helping employers set up networks of Mental Health Champions or First Aiders. Crucially though, we can also negotiate strong and effective mental health policies that help men (and women) talk about their issues without fear of judgement.
We must also continue to campaign for a fully funded NHS and mental health services that provide the support, treatment and space to talk that is so desperately needed to tackle the mental health crisis in this country.
‘I became the change’
Four years ago, I took the decision to be open about my mental health issues.
I was terrified. Unsure if I was making the right choice. But I knew that carrying on as before would eventually kill me. So I started talking to friends, family and my employer. I wanted them to see that it’s ok for men to talk openly about how they feel. To paraphase Gandhi, I became the change I wanted to see.
This decision was the starting point of my recovery. I now have a support network that gets me through the days when I feel that I can’t cope as well, and I have an employer that genuinely helps and supports me. What I want most of all, is for everyone to feel able to be more open about their mental health.
Get talking
Today is Time to Talk Day, so it’s as good a day as any to start doing something.
Every trade union activist, rep, officer, even  members should use this day to ask :what is my union doing to help men and women talk about and get support on mental health? And what can I do to help?
Many unions are running courses and events that help reps understand the impact poor mental health can have on people’s lives, including what workplace initiatives can be developed to bring about healthier and safer workplaces.  
But small things matter – such as making the time to really talk to your workmates. And above all, not using the old clichés such as ‘Man Up’.
Mark Everden – Regional Organiser (Education) Unison South West.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

A Day in life: UNISON NEC, Pension meeting on Housing investment, & Chartered Institute of Housing Dinner

A full on Labour Movement Day. A long UNISON NEC meeting (and the rest); then met up with LGPS pension fund officers and fund advisers on possible investments in Housing (see why housing is an investment opportunity as well as social need) & infrastructure followed by Presidential dinner of the Chartered Institute of Housing. Fantastic and inspirational speech by President, Jim Strang, on Housing need and domestic violence. 

Monday, February 04, 2019

Sunday Stroll to Wanstead


Off message but picture collage from a local winters walk yesterday from Forest Gate to Wanstead and back. It was cold but lots of sunshine and blue skies. We stopped off to feed the birds at Jubilee Pond with defrosted green peas (bread makes their stomachs swell apparently but no-one has told the birds this since they were far more interested in bread than our peas).

We then walked through Bush Wood and along Overton Drive, then cut through to George Green. We checked out the Farmers Market in Wanstead and bought some Cromer Crab and a Joint for Sunday dinner. After a bite to eat at Filika Restaurant (great set lunch for £8.95) we walked back home via Wanstead Park.

Lovely little walk just under 5 miles. For the whole day I had 127 Google Fit movement minutes and 90 heart points. 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Let Your Voice be Heard: West Ham & Stratford Citizen Assembly Saturday 9 March 1.30-3.30pm




Citizens' Assemblies

In the third and final round of the 2018/19 Citizens’ Assemblies residents will have an opportunity to comment and refine their Local Community Plan that has been developed through the assembly process and by the working group members, local councillors, council officers and partners. Residents will also have an opportunity to vote on projects that will be incorporated into the Local Community Plans.

You can register at www.newham.gov.uk/CitizensAssemblies and you can also register for special requirements to enable you to attend. For more information contact CitizensAssemblies@newham.gov.uk

Join us at
Stratford & West Ham Citizens Assembly
Saturday 09 March, 1.30-3.30pm
Lunch 1-1.30pm
Stratford Old Town Hall 29 The Broadway, E15 4BQ



Saturday, February 02, 2019

Democratising pensions


Excellent article by my Scottish UNISON NEC Colleague, Stephen Smellie in yesterday's Morning Star. While the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) is slightly different in Scotland than England and Wales (stronger trade union rights for example), I would support pretty much all his points for south of the border. 

Our pay, our pensions

Many pension funds end up invested in shares of fracking companies or those supporting the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and other unethical practices. But union reps are leading the way in questioning where pension funds are invested. STEPHEN SMELLIE reports

WOULD you give your boss 20 per cent of your wages every pay day to look after for you?

Would you be happy for them to use that money to speculate on the stock exchange, putting your money into arming dodgy regimes, harming the health of children and destroying virgin forests in the Amazon?

Sounds like some dodgy racket but that is what many workers who are in occupational pension schemes do every pay day.

In the Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme, which I am a member of, between 5 and 8 per cent of our wages goes into our pension fund.

The council employers put in between 13 and 20 per cent of the value of our wages.

Both the employee and employer contributions are deferred wages that otherwise should be in our wage each month.

The money goes to the pension fund which is managed by a pension fund manager overseen by a committee of councillors and shadowed by a pension board made up of employers’ representatives and trade union nominees.

The pension fund manager, in the vast majority of cases, commissions external investment managers to invest my deferred wages with the intent of making a profit so that when I retire I will have a healthy pension.

These external investors take a commission on every bundle of millions they are asked to “look after” and a further commission on every transaction they undertake with my pension pot and rarely actually reveal how much all this management of my deferred wages is costing the pension fund, that is, costing me, who hasn’t had a decent pay rise in many years, and my cash-strapped council employer. Now that does sound like a dodgy racket.

I have no say over where the investments go. Currently they go to buy shares in companies that are investing in fracking and the destruction of indigenous people’s homes in the Amazon to allow access to climate destroying coal reserves; making money out of companies supporting the illegal occupation of Palestinian land; tobacco companies that market their product to children in the developing world.

While most investments are in less dubious areas of capitalist speculation, including a relatively small amount in infrastructure, renewable energy and social housing, it is still true that millions are in highly unethical investments and that I, as a pension fund member, have no say in this.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of trade unions, led by my own union Unison, and allies in civic society campaigning around ethical investments, this is beginning to change.

Pension fund managers, some very unwillingly, are being forced to address these issues.

The advent, in the past few years, of trade union members on pension fund boards has allowed for challenges to be made to the previous arrangements where pension managers were given almost free rein to do what they wanted as the council committees nodded through annual reports that were opaque.

After years of campaigning the trade unions have secured agreements that pension funds will only engage external managers who agree to sign and adhere to a transparency code which requires them to give a full account of all the costs that they are charging to the pension funds.

This will allow pension funds to compare the costs they are being charged with what other funds are charged.

Remarkably, and predictably, this has led reductions in the fees being charged to pension funds.

The trade union reps are leading in questioning where pension funds are invested. Unison, supported by a number of environmental campaign groups, launched a campaign last year for disinvestment from fossil fuels.

Millions are invested in companies that continue to trade on the exploitation of more and more fossil fuels when government policy across the world is moving away from the high-carbon economies and accepting that fossil resources should mostly be left in the ground.

Investments in fossil fuels is not only encouraging more damage to our climate but also risks our pension funds being left with “stranded assets” as the value of these companies declines as the world moves to a low-carbon economy.

In Scotland, Unison is launching a campaign to argue that the 11 local government pension funds, run by 11 different managers and supervised by 11 different committees and boards, should be merged into one Scottish fund.

This would create a significant fund that would be able to make huge savings in the cost of the external investment management.

Instead of 11 funds employing the same companies and all being charged separately there would be one contract negotiated and subject to the most transparent accountability.

A Scottish fund would have the advantage of larger sums to invest, making it a major player, able to get better investment returns and have greater influence over ethical investments.

There would be greater potential to invest in infrastructure projects that can provide benefits to the community as well as good returns for the pension fund members.

Importantly it would also mean that greater use of in-house investment managers rather than relying on the external Maserati-driving investment managers who profit at our expense.

In-house teams in Lothians and elsewhere have proved successful and cheaper and all of Scotland should be able to benefit from this.

Research shows that hundreds of millions of improved returns and savings in costs could be achieved if the 11 Scottish funds were merged.

That is hundreds of millions of pounds that could both improve the pensions of local government workers and reduce the costs to the employers, and ultimately the council tax payers, of pension contributions. Savings that could then be used for better pay rises and protecting local services.

Unison will be targeting Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay who is considering options for the pension funds. One fund makes sense and we hope to persuade him that one fund is the best option.

Trade unions have in the past only got active around pensions when proposals to increase members’ contributions or cut benefits have been proposed. That is changing.

Pensions are our deferred wages and we are entitled to have a say in how they are managed for our future.

Unison and our sister unions are leading a movement for decent, sustainable and ethical pensions. These are our pensions. Why shouldn’t we have greater control over them?

Stephen Smellie is deputy convener of Unison Scotland.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Newham becomes first London borough to fly progress rainbow flag to mark LGBT History Month

Hat tip Newham Council Facebook pictures and website

"Newham Council raised new Progress Rainbow flags at its Town Halls in East Ham and Stratford today (Fri 1 Feb) to celebrate February as LGBT History Month.
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As part of the month there is a series of events and activities that recognises the contribution made by members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. There will also be emphasis on the need to continue to raise awareness of the prejudice many still face.
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The new Progress Rainbow flags incorporate the well-known rainbow design but additionally now represent trans, black, and ethnic minority communities.
See the full programme on our website: https://www.newham.gov.uk/…/Services/LGBT-History-Month.aspx"