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Coronavirus: Families still waiting for free school meal vouchers

Teachers packing food parcels

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In Wembley, north London, Elsley Primary School has resorted to food parcels and vouchers bought from its own budget

The Department for Education says it does not know how many vouchers for free school meals have been delivered to parents over the past month.

A scheme to give poor pupils in England vouchers worth £15 a week until schools reopen has been beset with problems.

Some school staff have had to stay up late into the night to access the online system, while many parents cannot download the vouchers.

Edenred, which runs the scheme, said it was aware of problems.

About 1.3 million children in England are eligible for free school meals.

One school, in Worcestershire, unable to access vouchers for their vulnerable families for the past fortnight, turned to a charity to provide food parcels.

Pinvin Federation advisory head teacher Judith Tinsley said the system “has been a nightmare”.

“It’s complicated, overloaded, we’ve got families who’ve not received a voucher for 10 days, that’s two weeks’ worth of vouchers,” she said.

“They have received the codes but then the system has not allowed them in to redeem their codes.

“And then some of our families that have actually managed to get that far have turned up at the supermarket and not been able to use them against their shopping.”

‘Unnecessarily complicated’

In Wembley, north London, Elsley Primary School has resorted to food parcels and vouchers bought from its own budget.

Head teacher Raphael Moss has even had to use his own personal credit card.

From the outset, he said, the “unnecessarily complicated” system had thrown up “a catalogue of errors, of chaos really, with the system not being able to cope”.

In Bodmin, Cornwall, school catering manager Jo Wotton said she had paid for a family’s shopping after the mother’s voucher code failed at a supermarket till.

“She only had £3 in her purse,” she told BBC News.

“The shopping was £16 – it was obvious she had counted her money really carefully, going round the supermarket.

“She had a small child with her.

“I could see she was getting really flustered.”

The checkout worker told her the supermarket had seen several vouchers fail the same day.

Error code

Heather McNeillis, a mother of four children under 10, three of whom are eligible for free school meals, said she had waited two weeks for her first vouchers.

“The money matters – we’ve been able to eat fresh fruit and vegetables because of it,” she said.

But she has been unable to download her current vouchers, worth £45, as the website keeps crashing.

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Heather McNeillis has four children under 10

“It suggests you log on at 04:00 as that’s a quiet time,” she said.

“I’ve had it on my computer all day, trying several different ways.

“And it’s always a long wait… and an error code.”

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devised their own systems for helping their vulnerable pupils, which are more straightforward and have had fewer reported problems than the English system.

The Department for Education and Edenred said £35m worth of vouchers had been redeemed over the past month.

However, neither were able to say what proportion of that total were orders registered for the 15,500 schools signed up to the system, as opposed to vouchers actually delivered in a useable form to families.

The Department for Education told BBC News: “We do not have this data available at this time.”

They also said they did not know how many eligible children had been registered with the scheme, though they said the total number of schools on the system represented about 70% of those that qualified for the programme.

They did, however, say schools that could not make the Edenred system work would be reimbursed for creating alternative schemes.

“We are providing additional funding to schools to cover unavoidable costs incurred due to the coronavirus outbreak that cannot be met from their existing resources – including free school meal costs which are not covered by the national voucher system.”

In a statement, Edenred said: “The free school meals voucher scheme is helping thousands of families and the vast majority of codes and vouchers are being redeemed successfully.

“We are aware that some schools have faced long wait times when using the site.

“We would like to thank each and every person who has faced issues in the process of ordering codes and e-gift cards for their patience, particularly given the other pressures facing schools at this time.”

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Max Malins: Saracens full-back out for three months after breaking foot against Exeter

Max Malins made his Sarries debut against Scarlets in January 2017

Saracens full-back Max Malins has had surgery to repair a broken foot, ruling him out for three months.

The 23-year-old former England Under-20 international suffered the injury in Sarries’ 14-7 defeat at Premiership leaders Exeter on 29 December.

He will now begin a rehabilitation programme following Monday’s successful operation but is expected to be out of action until April.

Saracens are bottom of the Premiership table on -7 points.

The reigning champions were docked 35 points and fined £5.36m in November for breaching salary cap regulations.

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Civil partnerships: First mixed-sex unions take place

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan

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Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan took their fight for civil partnerships to the Supreme Court

One of the first mixed-sex couples to become civil partners hailed it as a “unique, special and personal moment”.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who won a legal battle for the right to heterosexual civil partnerships, celebrated at Kensington and Chelsea Register Office in west London.

Previously, the law only allowed same-sex couples to be civil partners.

About 84,000 mixed-sex couples could form civil partnerships next year, the government says.

Introduced for same-sex couples in 2005, civil partnerships offer almost identical rights as marriage, including property, inheritance and tax entitlements.

After Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan won their legal bid at the Supreme Court in 2018 for the right to have a civil partnership instead of a marriage, the rules were changed to make them available to everyone.

Speaking on the steps of the register office, Ms Steinfeld said their “personal wish” to form a civil partnership came from a “desire to formalise our relationship in a more modern way, with a focus on equality, and mutual respect”.

She said: “So today is a unique, special and personal moment for us, a moment that we’ve been able to affirm our love and commitment to one another in the company of our beautiful children, Eden and Ariel, and close friends.”

Ms Steinfeld said it creates “new, modern possibilities” for thousands of people to express their love and commitment and ends “the unrivalled position of marriage”.

She called for “deeper discussions” on giving legal recognition to other kinds of caring relationships, including those between friends, siblings and co-parents.

Mr Keidan said they succeeded in their legal battle “against all odds” but added that their mental health has suffered under the strain.

Five years after being refused permission to give notice of a heterosexual civil partnership, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan will finally become civil partners today.

Their conscientious objection to marriage and what they saw as its patriarchal associations led to a lengthy legal battle culminating in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling last year that the law was discriminatory and breached their right to a family and private life.

The government changed the law, opening such a union to the majority of the UK’s 3.3 million co-habiting heterosexual couples.

Many believe they are already protected by so-called “common law marriages”, but these do not exist.

As a result, they do not enjoy the same property, inheritance and tax entitlements as married couples and civil partners.

The government estimates as many as 84,000 mixed sex couples could become civil partners this year, giving them greater rights and protections within their relationships, without having to get married.

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Julie Thorpe and Keith Lomax are among thousands of opposite sex couples that are set to enter into a civil partnership

Another couple, Julie Thorpe, 61, and Keith Lomax, 70, said they were looking forward to being among the first mixed-sex people to officially enter a civil partnership – but it would not change their relationship “one jot”.

The couple from near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, have been living together for most of their 37-year relationship and have three children.

They will have a civil partnership ceremony at a register office in Halifax.

Ms Thorpe said: “It won’t change our relationship one jot. It will not make any difference to how we behave towards each other when we get up the next day.

“We have had a very successful relationship for 37 years and a bit of paper is not going to make any difference to that whatsoever. It does give us some legal protection within that relationship.”

Mr Lomax, a human rights lawyer, added: “It is a mutual celebration of all of those and also of the people who actually brought the case to court and changed the law in the first place, because that was a very brave and bold thing to do at considerable financial risk.”

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Croydon stabbing: Man, 60, found injured in street dies

Woodcroft Road

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The victim was found suffering from stab wounds outside a property in Woodcroft Road

A 60-year-old man has been stabbed to death in a residential street in south London.

Police and ambulance crews were called to reports of a stabbing in Woodcroft Road, Thornton Heath, Croydon, at 21:30 GMT on Monday.

The victim was found outside a property with knife injuries and was pronounced dead at 21:49, the Met Police said.

A 50-year-old man was arrested at the scene on suspicion of murder and taken into custody.

The suspect became unwell while in custody and was transferred to hospital where he is in a stable condition, police said.

Det Ch Insp Simon Harding said: “The victim was found injured in a residential street. While it is not a heavy footfall location, there may have been members of the public travelling through Woodcroft Road who saw something.

“I urge those people to come forward and speak to my officers without delay.

“No matter how insignificant you think it may be please do make the call.

“We are building the sequence of events leading up to and immediately following this attack which has led to a man’s death, your call could complete the picture.”

Inquiries into the circumstances continue.

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Love Island host Caroline Flack to stand down

Caroline Flack

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Caroline Flack is due to appear at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court on 23 December

Love Island host Caroline Flack has stood down from the show after being charged with assault by beating.

“I feel the best thing I can do is stand down for series six,” she said, describing ITV2’s Love Island as “the best show on telly”.

Police were called to the 40-year-old’s home in Islington, London, last week, where she lives with her partner, tennis player Lewis Burton.

She was bailed and will appear before magistrates on Monday.

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“There have been a significant number of media reports and allegations into my personal life,” she said in her Instagram story on Tuesday.

“While matters were not as have been reported, I am committed to working with the authorities and I can’t comment further on these matters until the legal process is over.”

The star, who was due to present the forthcoming winter edition of the popular ITV2 show – which is expected to start on 12 January – added: “However, Love Island has been my world for the last five years, it’s the best show on telly.

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PA

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Love Island won a TV Bafta award last year

“In order not to detract attention from the upcoming series I feel the best thing I can do is stand down for series six. I want to wish the incredible team working on the show a fantastic series in Cape Town.”

Flack began presenting Love Island in summer 2015, having fronted the 12th series of The X Factor alongside Olly Murs, and winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2014.

An ITV spokesperson said: “ITV has a long-standing relationship with Caroline and we understand and accept her decision.

“We will remain in contact with her over the coming months about future series of Love Island.”

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She won Strictly Come Dancing in 2014

On Monday, Burton wrote on Instagram that his girlfriend had been subject to a “witch hunt” since being charged, describing her as “the most lovely girl”.

“I’m tired of the lies and abuse aimed at my girlfriend. This is not a witch hunt, this is someone’s life,” he wrote.

The TV star mentioned him personally online, writing: “My boyfriend Lewis… I love you.”

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Flack and boyfriend Lewis Burton


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London Bridge attack victim Saskia Jones ‘was perfect soul’

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Media captionSaskia Jones wanted “to help the world”

A woman who was stabbed to death in the London Bridge attack was a “fearless warrior” determined to do good, friends have said.

Saskia Jones, 23, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was killed by convicted terrorist Usman Khan, 28, as she attended a prisoner rehabilitation event .

Her friend Sebastian Lefeuvre described the Cambridge University graduate’s death as senseless.

“She was just the most perfect soul and she’s gone,” he said.

Ms Jones and Jack Merritt, 25, who was also killed at the Cambridge University organised conference, are being remembered at a vigil and service in London.

Mr Lefeuvre, who had been friends with Ms Jones since they were teenagers, said he met her at a gym, adding she was as “relentless” with her workouts as she was in other areas of life.

“She had the drive and determination to become something,” he said.

“At 23 years old she had accomplished things that people hadn’t done in their lifetime.”

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Sebastian Lefeuvre said Ms Jones saw the best in people

Ms Jones studied criminology at Anglia Ruskin University before doing a masters at Cambridge University, where she carried out voluntary work with inmates at HMP Grendon.

She was applying to become a police officer.

Colleen Moore, a criminology lecturer at Anglia Ruskin who became her friend, described her as a “lovely woman” who was “fearless and a warrior”.

“She stood out above everyone – partly because she wanted to, she wasn’t afraid to say anything,” she said.

“There was no fooling her. She was really funny, she had a wicked sense of humour, she was cheeky and she was mischievous.”

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Colleen Moore said Ms Jones was passionate about criminology

Mr Lefeuvre said the death of his friend “doesn’t make sense”.

“I just feel really, really sad. Usman Khan got a second chance and Saskia didn’t and that’s it,” he said.

“She hadn’t even entered the real world yet. She was a young women ready to just get out there – and she’s dead.”

Jake Partridge, another friend from Stratford, said Ms Jones was quiet until you “got to know her”.

“She was loud then, she was vibrant,” he said.

“She’d have a joke with you and would put you in your place when you were wrong.”

He said he was “heartbroken”, adding: “It’s not fair, this world has changed.”

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Bloxham School

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Bloxham School, which released this picture of Ms Jones as a pupil, said she would be remembered for her generosity and kindness

Bloxham School near Banbury, where Ms Jones had attended, said it was “deeply shocked and saddened” by her death.

“Saskia was a much loved member of our community and will be remembered fondly for her generosity, kindness of spirit and commitment to serving others,” it said.

Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon held a minute’s silence and has opened a book of condolence.

Rev Patrick Taylor said some of Ms Jones’ friends had visited the church as well as strangers who felt that “something that often feels a long, long way away.. suddenly has an affect on a local community”.

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Flowers were left near the scene of the attack

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Uber loses licence to operate in London

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Media captionJamie Heywood, who manages Uber’s UK operation, says the firm will appeal

Uber will not be granted a new licence to operate in London after repeated safety failures, Transport for London (TfL) has said.

The regulator said the taxi app was not “fit and proper” as a licence holder, despite having made a number of positive changes to its operations.

Uber initially lost its licence in 2017 but was granted two extensions, the most recent of which expires on Monday.

The firm will appeal and can continue to operate during that process.

London is one of Uber’s top five markets globally and it has about 45,000 drivers in the city. Overall, there are 126,000 licensed private hire and black cabs in the capital.

If its appeal is unsuccessful, some think Uber drivers would move over to rival ride-sharing firms such as Bolt and Kapten.”There would be competition that would fill that void quite quickly,” Fiona Cincotta, a market analyst at City Index told the BBC.

Why won’t Uber get a new licence?

TfL said it had identified a “pattern of failures” in London that placed passenger safety at risk.

These included a change to Uber’s systems which allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts.

It meant there were at least 14,000 fraudulent trips in London in late 2018 and early 2019, TfL said.

The regulator also found dismissed or suspended drivers had been able to create Uber accounts and carry passengers. In one example, a driver was able to continue working for Uber, despite the fact his private hire licence had been revoked after he was cautioned for distributing indecent images of children.

Helen Chapman, director of licensing at TfL, said: “While we recognise Uber has made improvements, it is unacceptable that Uber has allowed passengers to get into minicabs with drivers who are potentially unlicensed and uninsured.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “I know this decision may be unpopular with Uber users, but their safety is the paramount concern. Regulations are there to keep Londoners safe.”

‘I feel safe using Uber’

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Donna Stevens says her experiences of using Uber in London have “always been positive”.

In her job as a carer she often works late, so regularly uses the service. “The drivers are friendly, courteous and professional. I can’t afford to get a metered taxi.”

She says that if Uber were to go, she would probably have to go back to using public transport late at night, which does not make her feel safe.

However, another reader, Kay, says she would not be sad to see Uber go.

“I complained a couple of months ago about a driver who made me feel so uncomfortable I abandoned the ride and walked home in the dark at 11 o’clock at night instead of staying in his cab.”

She says Uber gave her a £5 credit but did not apologise. “How is it OK to employ drivers that make women feel unsafe?” she says.

Is this the end of Uber in London?

Uber lovers in London, fear not! The company’s cars will not suddenly disappear from the capital’s streets.

Uber is going to appeal against this decision so a magistrate will have to decide whether Uber is fit to hold a licence in London, or not.

A decision from a magistrates court could take weeks or months and unless the court decides otherwise, Uber will retain its licence during this period too.

When TfL decided not to renew Uber’s licence in 2017, the company addressed some of the issues raised by TfL back then and then a magistrate later granted Uber a new licence.

On the face of it TfL is standing tough against perceived failings by Uber. But in effect it is letting the courts decide, at a later date, whether Uber should have a licence, or not.

What does Uber say?

Uber said the decision was “extraordinary and wrong”. It said it had audited every driver in London over the past two months and strengthened its processes.

Boss Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted: “We understand we’re held to a high bar, as we should be. But this TfL decision is just wrong. Over the last 2 years we have fundamentally changed how we operate in London.”

According to Uber, 24% of its sales come from just five cities, including London. The others are Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and São Paulo in Brazil.

In a public filing, it said: “Any inability to operate in London, as well as the publicity concerning any such termination or non-renewal, would adversely affect our business, revenue, and operating results.

“We cannot predict whether the TfL decision, or future regulatory decisions or legislation in other jurisdictions, may embolden or encourage other authorities to take similar actions even where we are operating according to the terms of an existing licence or permit.”

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Getty Images

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In May, hundreds of Uber drivers in London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow staged a protest against the firm over pay and conditions

What do others say?

Business lobby group the CBI said customers valued Uber, and encouraged both sides to find a resolution.

But the Unite union – which believes Uber has unfairly taken business from black cab drivers – welcomed the news.

“Uber’s DNA is about driving down standards and creating a race to the bottom which is not in the best interests of professional drivers or customers,” said Jim Kelly, chair of Unite’s London and Eastern cab section.

Where else has banned Uber?

Uber has faced pressure from regulators around the world over the way it treats its drivers, competition concerns, and fears about passenger safety.

The US firm pulled out of Denmark in 2017 because of new taxi laws that required drivers to have fare meters and seat sensors.

Bulgaria and Hungary both stripped Uber’s right to operate following pressure from local taxi unions.

And in May, the ride-hailing firm pulled its UberXL service in Turkey without saying why.

What happened in London in 2017?

TfL first declined to renew Uber’s licence in September 2017, again over safety concerns. Back then it cited Uber’s approach to carrying out background checks on drivers and reporting serious criminal offences.

Uber’s use of secret software, called “Greyball”, which could be used to block regulators from monitoring the app, was another factor, although Uber said it had never been used in the UK.

However, TfL granted Uber a 15-month licence extension – later extended by two months – conditional on it making improvements to its business.

TfL can offer licences of up to five years, but it has been more stringent of late.

In July, Indian ride-hailing company Ola got a 15-month agreement for its entry into the London market, while ViaVan got a three-year licence renewal.


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Drug dealers sentenced after residents took action

East London 'drug dealers only' parking space

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Residents had commissioned artists to create “drug dealers only” parking spaces to highlight the crime problem in the area

Drug dealers who were exposed when disgruntled residents put up fake street signs have been jailed.

The east London residents commissioned artists to create “drug dealers only” parking spaces and “crack pickup” points last September, sparking a police investigation.

A total of 23 men have now been prosecuted over the drugs trade.

Three were sentenced at Snaresbrook Crown Court on Monday and four on Friday.

Judge Gerard Pounder told the court on Friday: “All this came to light because of residents in Tower Hamlets and Hackney.

“They were finding life very difficult. They had a number of people coming into their area who were taking drugs, leaving needles, threatening other people including those taking their children to school.”

‘Dealing near children’

Jonathan Shepherd, from the CPS, said on Monday: “Dealing drugs such as heroin can have devastating consequences for vulnerable people and communities.

“These defendants showed little consideration for those around them – often openly dealing drugs in the day in front of young children and encouraging aggressive drug users to loiter in the area.

“The different phone lines represented a co-ordinated effort between various drugs operations to work together to deal dangerous drugs, in effect blighting the local community to such an extent that they felt they had to take action.”

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Another fake sign read: “Needle free zone”

The Weavers Community Action Group, which was created to tackle the problem of drug dealing in the area, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The immediate response we saw from the police and council following our effective street art campaign was very impressive.”

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Crown Prosecution Service

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Kevin Tighe (left), Kenneth Gratton and Craig Furlong (right) were sentenced on Monday

Monday saw the sentencing of Dilraj Miah, 29, from Spitalfields, who was jailed for three years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs; as well as Kevin Tighe, 49, from Bethnal Green, and Kenneth Gratton, 56, from Bow, who were both sentenced to two years in prison suspended for two years, for conspiracy to supply Class A drugs; and Craig Furlong, 31, from Bethnal Green, who had his sentencing deferred for six months after pleading guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.

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Crown Prosecution Service

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Rukon Ahmed (left) was sentenced on Friday and Dilraj Miah on Monday

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Crown Prosecution Service

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Julian Haynes (left), Luke Gratton and Brendan Vickers (right) were sentenced on Friday

On Friday, Julian Haynes, 33, and Luke Gratton, 30, both from Bethnal Green, were jailed for four years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.

Brendan Vickers, 26, also from Bethnal Green, and Rukon Ahmed, 29, from Forest Gate, were both sentenced to three years in prison, having both admitted conspiracy to supply Class A drugs and two counts of possessing a controlled Class A drug with intent.

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General election 2019: Greens supporting Labour in Chingford

Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith

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Iain Duncan Smith has been MP for the area since 1992, when the constituency was known as Chingford

The Green Party has stood down its candidate to help Labour try to unseat former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Duncan Smith has been MP for Chingford and Woodford Green since 1997, and has a majority of 2,348.

The Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru formed an electoral pact earlier this month. Supporting Labour in Chingford does not form part of that pact, the Greens said.

The Conservatives have been contacted for comment.

In a statement the local Green Party said the decision for John Tyne not to contest the election was made with the “ultimate hope of favouring the campaign of the Labour candidate” Faiza Shaheen.

A Green Party spokesperson it “was a decision taken by the local party”.

However, they added: “If Labour were serious in their concern for the environment they should reconsider their isolationist position on arrangements.”

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Faiza Shaheen will contest the constituency for Labour

Ms Shaheen, head of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, said she was “so grateful” for the decision.

She said: “I will continue to fight hard for climate policy and democratic reform.”

The Liberal Democrats have selected Dr Geoffrey Seeff as their prospective parliamentary candidate for the constituency.

Mr Duncan Smith has been MP for the area since 1992, representing Chingford until 1997 when the boundaries were re-drawn to include Woodford Green.

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