Camden Council steps up attacks on the working class

The leadership of Camden Council in north London is in the forefront of reforming local councils along lines set down by Labour central government. It began by restructuring the council into a ‘cabinet-style’ affair, after a consultation in which local residents were asked which of three similar options they preferred. The majority favoured retaining the previous system. This was ignored and Tony Blair made council leader Jane Roberts a Dame. Since then Camden Council has been first in the queue to implement every piece of repression or privatisation that the government brings in.

In FRFI 176 we reported on the Labour government’s sell-off of council housing to the private sector, either to Housing Associations (‘stock transfer’), Private Finance Initiative consortia or through the so-called Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) option.

We also reported the rejection of these three options by Camden Council tenants, 77% of whom voted against the proposed ALMO. After defying a £500,000 campaign by Camden Council to convince tenants of the merits of ALMO, local people are now demanding what is rightfully theirs: the £283 million of investment promised by the government if they had voted for the ALMO. Tenants, who have suffered the decline of the condition of their homes for over 20 years, have petitioned the housing minister Keith Hill, demanding that the money be made available for the Camden Council Housing Department to invest directly in their homes.

It is no surprise that on his first visit to Camden after the No vote, Mr Hill spoke only to council officials and ruled out meeting with tenants, referring to anti-ALMO activists as ‘communists’. Hill simply refuses to accept the ballot result, citing the low turnout. When a radio interviewer asked if he would take the same approach if Labour was elected on a low turnout at the next election, he had no answer!

The problem is not confined to Camden. In Birmingham the government was prepared to make £650 million available to the council to write off debt if they agreed to Stock Transfer, but now that the tenants have rejected the sell-off, not a penny extra is being made available.

Camden tenants have also initiated an investigation by the district auditor into whether the £500,000 spent by the council on the most expensive ALMO campaign in Britain was a misuse of public funds. In 2003 councils in Britain spent £65 million, out of tenants’ rent, on glossy PR campaigns to promote council house sales. Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded that selling off council housing costs the taxpayer at least £1,300 per home more than if improvements are carried out by the council.

Anti-social behaviour

Large sections of Camden are now covered by blanket anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs). Any group of more than two people can be asked by police to disperse, and no-one under the age of 16 can be on the streets after 9pm. The first high-profile days of the Camden Town ASBO were marked by a massive police presence, including a mobile CCTV camera van, helicopters and marine support units on the canal. 64 individuals, mainly drug users, were served with exclusion orders. Meanwhile, in the back streets, young teenagers on bikes, who had previously behaved well, taunted the police and rode off laughing. In Somers Town, the other ASBO area, policing has so far been low-key but it is clear that the spectre of ‘gang violence’ will be used to prohibit young Asians from gathering in the streets during the summer holidays.

The measures in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act constitute a generalised attack on freedom of movement and are racist and anti-working class in their application. The parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Act in 2003 was at a loss to understand why it was necessary to introduce such a draconian law. It asked the government to ‘explain why existing powers (...such as those under the Public Order Act 1986, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997) were not sufficient’. The use of these blanket ASBOs stigmatises and criminalises entire sections of society by labelling them as a problem. It punishes parents living in cramped flats without gardens by making them keep their children inside for no reason. It does nothing to solve genuine problems of crime.

Blair announces, Camden pounces
Under the Education Act of 1996 ‘parents have a duty to ensure that their children attend school regularly and on time. Failure to do so may result in court action, a fine of £2,500 and/or a three-month custodial sentence’. Eight years on, with the Education Act reinforced by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, Tony Blair has announced zero tolerance and a target of 100% punctuality and attendance for all school students. Some Camden schools have seized on this encouragement from the Prime Minister to bully parents.

School newsletters carry warnings that from September 2004 Penalty Notices (in English only) will be issued to parents/ carers for poor attendance, frequent lateness and holidays in term time without school permission. The penalty will be £50 if paid within the first 28 days, rising to £100 after 42 days. This could result in a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record. How does this help families, burdened by multiple problems, whose children are finding school difficult? Clearly some Camden heads would rather show support for Blair than for their pupils.

Banned food found in Camden schools
As if this were not enough, Camden pupils are also being fed over-priced and possibly dangerous school meals.

School dinner supplier Scolarest won a five-year deal last year to provide services to Camden schools. Scolarest recently lost contracts to supply schools in Wandsworth and Richmond after it was exposed as serving mutton described as lamb and was forced to change the name of dishes 2,500 schools nationwide. The school meals service costs a scandalous and badly spent 44p per meal. Serious health risks emerged after mothers raided their school’s kitchen in May and discovered banned Thai chicken in freezers. The European Union banned imports of Thai chicken in January following an outbreak of Asian bird flu and Camden told Scolarest to stop serving remaining stocks in February. The mothers have been reprimanded by council officers but say they will take over the kitchen if the quality of food does not improve immediately. Meanwhile the council will review the Scolarest contract at the end of the year.

Susan Davidson, Nicki Jameson, Barnaby Mitchell

FRFI 180 August / September 2004


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