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May 2nd, 2012

Meeting the London mayoral candidates: Guest blog by Rachel Laurence

By Becca McCarthy

38 Degrees teamed up with Save the Children and a group of other children’s charities at a hustings event for London’s candidates for mayor. Rachel Laurence, one of the organisers of the event, describes how the evening went here:

Just before the London mayoral elections found me observing the first afternoon sun in weeks, streaming through the windows onto children’s toys and play equipment pushed up against the walls of a light, airy nursery space in central London, to clear the floor. On it, rows of plastic chairs, hastily transforming the space into an auditorium, ranged out in front of me. Over by the door, children’s adjustable play tables were raised as high as they would go to form a makeshift registration desk. The room was filling, and the air had started to buzz.

And in this sunlit spot, away from the big committee rooms, conference rooms, the corridors of Whitehall and City Hall – yet tucked right behind Channel 4 HQ, a stone’s throw from the gothic towers of parliament, at the heart of London’s political nerve centre – I listened to ordinary, passionate, local mums, and colleagues working with families on London’s squeezed economic frontline, confront a group of mayoral and assembly candidates.

This event – a ‘Family Friendly London’ hustings – had been organised by a coalition of organisations with whom 4in10 based at Save the Children works (including Trust for London and Child Poverty Action Group) to get to the nub of how the next mayor will actually support families – particularly the families of the 650 000 children living in poverty in London.

As the evening began, Brian Paddick, Lib Dem mayoral candidate, Jenny Jones, Green Party mayoral candidate, and Todd Foreman, Labour Assembly candidate, at another in their exhausting tour of pre-election hustings, responded to the first question – from Women Like Us, on family friendly employment – with the usual healthy mix of policy responses, good natured banter to each other, and calls for votes. As things drew on, though, and parents, along with both voluntary sector and council based professionals, shared their experiences and worries, the discussion began to draw away from party politics, and started really revolving round the grist of things.

We heard from one mum who had to give up work as her wages froze at just over £5 an hour for 16 hours a week, while her childcare costs climbed to over £300 per week – what, she asked, did the candidates propose to do to support the many parents – largely mums – like her, desperate to get back into work but unable to make it pay? Someone else chipped in: her three year old son suffering chronic health problems due to the damp which permeated her flat so relentlessly that water spilt on the floor in cold weather cannot be dried off the carpet, and starts instead growing mould. How to grapple with the huge housing issue in London?

By the end of the evening, we were suddenly in an open policy forum – the candidates eagerly discussing and debating the pros and cons on different policy approaches to fix some of these issues. A brokerage scheme to match parents with childcare places. A fund created from a voluntary contribution attached to each night paid for in a London hotel, to be invested in youth provision. Introducing a kite mark for family friendly employers. Introducing breakfast clubs in schools. Childcare grants for low income families. Reintroducing Education Maintenance Allowance. Preventing pay-day loan companies from advertising through City Hall, and limiting their ability to operate on high streets. Establishing a higher, London-specific housing benefit cap to reflect the real cost of living in London. Building new housing on brownfield sites on community land trusts, ensuring the houses stay affordable for the long term. Insulating more homes to bring heating costs down. As the candidates began to share and discuss these and other solutions from each of their parties – agreeing, in fact, on many of them –  they also engaged in a real back and forth with the audience, as the discussion flowed increasingly freely, with those at the sharp end of it, about what it’s really going to take to begin to tackle child poverty in London.

And as the formal part of the evening came to a close, everyone – parents and their children, politicians, council officers, third sector workers – simply stuck around. Continued discussions, shared stories and experiences sustained the buzz of noise as the sun evening drew in.

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