Going postal in Whitehall, council tax rises, voting, royal households and more

19 Feb 24

The Post Office scandal delivers more bad news, free school meals, a royal bid to end homelessness, e-bike guidance and more


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The state of the nation is occupying plenty of minds as the pace picks up in the race towards the general election.

Councils are pushing back on the tax rises – making it a difficult issue for ministers to land in the local election campaigns which will start in about a month’s time.

This week will have a lot of familiar themes going on. Have your score cards ready.

You have mail

The Post Office scandal has brought a weekend delivery that arrived right on time.

The business secretary Kemi Badenoch and former chair of the Post Office, Henry Staunton, are set for a very public show-down over the government’s response to the Horizon scandal.

There are two issues in play: a claim from Staunton that he was briefed by officials to slow the compensation process with postmasters affected by the failed IT system. The second is Staunton’s claim that he learned about his dismissal from Sky News and that there are two versions of why he was dismissed.

The crux evidence are meeting notes made by officials during a phone call between the pair and his letter of appointment. The Westminster lobby will take a keen interest in this one. 

Late delivery at Labour towers

From this week, your attention needs to be focused on the first budget statement after the general election, if it’s a Labour win.

Why? Unnoticed by the political hacks, who were out on the by-election trail last week, the deadline passed for submissions into Labour’s general election manifesto. 

Council tax rises

The weekend media had significant coverage of the demands driving the financial pressures facing local authorities.

Both regional and national media led with stories on SEND provision and care for older people.  

Most local authorities in England are set to raise their council tax by the maximum this April.

The lead Whitehall departments – Health and Education – are going to come under pressure to fund the demands properly. More on this later in the week. 

Smart phone move

The Department for Education is issuing guidance to enable schools to ban the use of mobile phones.

Evidence is growing about the mental health impact on children as well as the volume of incidence of bullying and other forms of abuse. It follows a call by the mother of a murdered teenager for action limiting access to phones by teenagers.

The department says the guidance is broad to support schools. Teaching unions say it’s already standard practice in a lot of schools.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan told the BBC the government wanted to support headteachers in enabling child development: “You go to school, you go to learn, you go to create those friendships, you go to speak to people and socialise and you go to get educated – you don’t go to sit on your mobile phone or to send messages while you could actually talk to somebody.”

By election blues?

The Lib Dems have kicked off the week with their response to the flurry of by-election results that delivered bad news to the government.

The party renewed its call for proportional representation: “The voting system is unfair and power is too centralised.”

The Lib Dems also set out plans for other reforms that will be in its manifesto. They want to “enshrine the Ministerial Code in legislation to hold government ministers to account for corruption and sleaze”.

The party also pledged to “take big money out of politics by capping donations to political parties at £10,000 a year”.

Royal households

The Duchy of Cornwall has announced plans to build 24 houses for homeless people in partnership with the charity St Petrocs. The tenants will be given ‘wraparound’ support as part of the project. There are also plans, personally backed by Price William, to develop social housing. Homelessness charities have welcomed the announcement.

School meals

This week is the first anniversary since Mayor Sadiq Khan announced the extension of Free School Meals to all children in London state primaries. It builds on schemes introduced by individual authorities including LBC Newham. There will be data on the benefits and outcomes and campaigners are already signalling they want this to be a national priority. 

Charging ahead?

The British Safety Council has raised concern over the storing and charging lithium-powered e-bikes and scooters in the workplace.

It’s one part of a big issue; Transport for London has banned them from trains following a fire and waste disposal firms are also dealing regularly with fires.

Most e-bikes are powered by Lithium Ion (Li-on) batteries, larger versions of the kind found in our smartphones, tablets, and some laptops.

The BSC has issued guidance for employers: “Questions arise around how we use, charge, and store e-bikes in the workplace – and the additional hazards and risks that this may bring. Over the last six months batteries have regularly made headlines, with tragic stories of fires and explosions, resulting in injury and loss of life. Many of these were traced back to the charging of Li-on e-scooters and e-bikes.”

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