Ed Balls and Arsene Wenger come to Treehouse

Arsene Wenger, Lynne Featherstone and Ed Balls at TreehouseIt may have been raining – but the sun was shining in every one’s heart – for the opening of the splendid new building for Treehouse. Treehouse is the wonderful charity that set up an exemplar school for autistic children in Muswell Hill.

It is the most wonderful, spectacular building – with the most wonderful and spectacular people involved in its teachings, its running and its work right across the country to advance the cause and understanding of autism. Brilliantly – this super-school only takes children who are state funded – so that all autistic children can come here. Getting local authorities to fund individual children, however, is still the main battle. But once they are here – these children and their parents join a family whose support and care is unparallelled.

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Education, came to do the honours – and gave a really great speech. He seemed to have a real understanding of the needs of children with autism – and their parents. We heard too, from Arsene Wenger, (yes – Arsenal Arsene) who last year made Treehouse Arsenal’s Charity of the Year and donated huge amounts to it. Trevor Pears of the Pears Foundation also spoke – and it was interesting to hear him thank Treehouse. It must be rewarding to be a key donor to something as wonderful as Treehouse – which was the point he made. And then, very , we heard poignantly from Claire Coombe-Tennant, a parent and a Trustee whose youngest son (of four sons) is at Treehouse. That was the clincher speech – to recognise the anguish, agony and exhaustion of the parents of an autistic child – and what Treehouse means in terms of relief, reassurance, rescue, hope and love to those families.

And yes – I had a word too. I simply spoke about the way Treehouse has become part of the Muswell Hill community – reaching out with the children going to three local schools each week to mix with other children and once a week the children from Muswell Hill Primary School come in and play with the children at Treehouse. The benefit to both sets of children is wonderful – and says we are all members of society and the more we know and understand and include each other the better our world.

We had all brought gifts to put in a time capsule – and two of the Treehouse children, Kaiser and Bilal, came onto the stage with their gifts too.

All in all – a terrific celebration of what can be done with passion and commitment. Congratulations to all at Treehouse.

Local MP stands up for autism at TreeHouse

To mark the second-ever World Autism Awareness Day, Lynne Featherstone MP on Thursday proudly ‘stood up for autism’ in a visit to the local autism education charity TreeHouse in Muswell Hill.

The charity on Thursday covered the outside walls of their new National Centre, which includes a school for 68 children and young people with autism, with the outlines of students, teachers and the Liberal Democrat MP drawn on large sheets in an effort to increase local awareness of autism.

Lynne also got a virtual tour of TreeHouse’s new information and social networking website talkaboutautism.org.uk. The site includes expert information and advice about autism as well as a moderated online community where parents of children with autism can share experiences.

Lynne Featherstone commented:

“Every child with autism deserves to get the kind of support, care and attention that children who go to the TreeHouse School get.

“But sadly, less than one in ten children on the spectrum get that kind of specialised help, and with the number of children diagnosed increasing year on year, raising awareness of the condition is more important today than ever before. It is for this reason I recently supported the Autism Private Member’s Bill to force more action from the Government on this issue.

“And that’s why I am so proud to have a fantastic place like TreeHouse just around the corner, and that’s why today I am especially proud to be standing up for autism!”

Ian Wylie, TreeHouse Chief Executive, adds:

“One in a hundred school-aged children have autism in the UK and yet the services and support available to them and their families are often woefully inadequate.

“As the national charity for autism education, TreeHouse believes that the right education is key to transforming the lives of children with autism and the lives of their families. We are delighted to have the continued support of Lynne Featherstone MP.”


Met a contingent from Haringey here to lobby MPs about the Private Members’ Bill on Friday 27th on autism. Have had loads of emails and letters as well asking me to be at the debate. So have cancelled everything to attend.

Just a word on process re Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) – they are always on a Friday when MPs have gone back to their constituencies to work there. Most MPs, for example, do surgery on Fridays (as do I). But these Bills need 100 MPs to pass on to next stage and so almost never get that kind of attendance. Just occasionally there will be a Bill whose intent is so compelling that MPs will stay. It may seem strange to those outside of Parliament who may very well be asking – what is the point of winning the ballot and getting a Bill if it has virtually zero chance of 100 MPs being there to vote for it (let alone the Government attending to defeat it)?

Well – it’s just another bit of Westminster lunacy really. I think PMBs should be in normal time and not on Fridays – after all all MPs are elected to raise issues in Parliament and democracy would be better served if more Private Bills had more backing.

But we are where we are. I am very glad that this important issue is to be debated. The people who lobbied me raised a number of issues but the one that really (in my view and theirs) needs attention is what do you do with your autistic child in terms of planning for their future. There is no provision locally or nationally when they finish at school and parents need and deserve a transition planning service – and then the facilities for autistic young adults to spend their days.

This must be such a worry for parents as no-one at Haringey Council really listens or takes this on board. We have a special school for autistic children in Haringey called the Treehouse Trust which is doing fantastic work and wants to become (in fact it is already) a centre for excellence and learning and training in the field. I wonder if they could be persuaded to pursue the ‘what happens after’ path – as not knowing and not being able to get any sort of real transition and facilities is untenable. Seems the Government and Haringey Council just think it is OK for these young people to have no proper future, housing or care.

So – be very interested to hear the Government response to the debate and if I get a chance – will intervene on these specific provision points.

Treehouse Trust

Two hours with Treehouse – our wonderful autistic facility here in Hornsey & Wood Green. Them having won the ‘People’s Million’ to landscape their grounds to go with a new building, I went to see the plans (fantastic).

Also met with two parents and various staff to discuss how to keep the spotlight on this agenda and ask the questions that need asking of Government. Treehouse’s new building is on target to be finished end of May – that will be some celebration!

Treehouse winning funding

Just got notification that our own, our very own Treehouse Trust in Muswell Hill has won their TV contest with funding for landscaping at their Muswell Hill site. This comes from the People’s Millions programme, a partnership between the Big Lottery Fund and ITV in which viewers vote for the community project they want to receive funding. The Treehouse Trust was chosen by the public to receive funding.

As the email said: ‘Their Treehouse Landscape for Learning Project will transform the land around the National Centre for Autism Education into a wildlife area providing a habitat for birds, insects and wildlife. The group will plant trees and shrubs which, when matured, will provide a woodland walk to the boundaries of the site. The project will provide a safe, creative, sensory environment for the children at Treehouse. The group will work with local schools, other autism providers and community groups to extend opportunities and access to the facility. The 1,700 beneficiaries, mainly those with autism, will benefit from a range of new learning opportunities both practical and creative, whilst contributing to the sustainment of the eco-system. The one year grant of £80,000 will pay for landscaping work, trees and shrubbery, spoil movement and plant irrigation’.


Topping out the new TreeHouse Trust building

Have the real pleasure of ‘topping out’ at TreeHouse on Friday. TreeHouse is a centre of excellence for children with autism and is our pride and joy in the heart of Muswell Hill. To walk around and see the love and care that these children get makes you weep wishing that all autistic children could come here.

When TreeHouse first set up shop, they were housed in a mega portacabin – portacabin on the outside but inside a two story building. Despite early concerns from residents (and me) about building on open land – they won us all over – thank goodness.

Today’s ceremony was for their new building. ‘Topping out’ is the traditional ceremony of the building profession when you get to the top floor. I had to hold trowel with concrete for the photos.

Lord (Tim) Clement Jones chairs the Trust and all the people who work there, the Trustees, the parents, the friends of the Trust and all work with an energy and commitment I have never seen to that degree in any organisation.

So – we climbed up, and up, and up – and with the sun shining and standing on the roof we topped out! The building should be finished next summer. Can’t wait to see it. What a lovely start to my day.

Last stop of day was as Guest Speaker at Ashford Liberal Democrats’ Annual Dinner. It took three and three quarter hours to get there – nightmare. However, as always, once there it was a lovely evening – and they have a great prospective candidate in Chris Took.

Then it was up at 6am to go to Ditchley Park near Oxford for the one day of three I can manage in a new relationship building forum – Chinese / Anglo. It’s a great challenge and a good way forward as China is one of the great powers of the world and there are some challenges for both of us to begin to really understand each others needs and ways of doing business.

The idea is that we will meet at least once a year in this way to build strong ties between our two countries and that way – hopefully – we will be able to work together. It wasn’t an occasion for having a go or hectoring over issues where we think each other could bear improvement – that will come with time. Instead the first steps were team building and relationship building.

The new Chinese Ambassador to Britain gave the after dinner speech in the evening. Madame Ambassador is quite something. Not only delightful and charming – but the way she said things made me think that there really will be a way forward. China is engaging now in the world – and is even helping in Darfur (not enough yet – but definitely engaged). As Madame Ambassador said – we have to help China understand what being a responsible world power means as they don’t have the experience and understanding. And she wants us to help China to gain that knowledge. So – she sold me!

Treehouse Trust's birthday

With Lord Clement-Jones at the Treehouse Trust birthdayYesterday I went to a big reception in the Lords for the 10th birthday of TreeHouse. TreeHouse (Trust) is the most fabulous of organisations. Basically – ten years ago two mothers of autistic children got together to say that their kids were not getting the right care and attention – and set up TreeHouse. Lord Tim Clement Jones (Lib Dem colleague in the Lords) leads from the front on this – and together with very committed group of people has taken this idea through to creating the best ever school for autistic children that there is. But it’s not just about the children lucky enough to go to TreeHouse – it is a Charitable Trust which works on improving the case for all autistic children and research etc.

My involvement – well mainly that when TreeHouse were looking to build the proper bespoke buildings they came to my constituency and Muswell Hill. At first local residents were a little concerned about this proposed school on a green site – but it wasn’t green, green – it was land actually covenanted to educational purposes. And the staff are phenomenal – and if you could visit and see the work, the care and the love that these children receive – you would take TreeHouse to your heart the way we all have done. Treehouse has gone out into the community of Muswell Hill and earned its affection. In fact, the birthday cake was from the local bakers and now – we are all as proud of punch to have something this excellent on our patch.

At the event at the Lords, several of the children came and played some music and sang songs. If you don’t know an autistic child – then you will have no concept of just what a momentous achievement those seemingly simple songs were. I take my hat off to everyone involved – a truly moving occasion and such a worthy cause.

Then a quick meeting with the Missing Cypriots lobby opposite Parliament – where I meet up with Susie Constantinides from my local patch where she mother hens the Cypriot Centre. I meet a group of mainly women bearing photographs of young men strung around their necks. These are the missing Cypriots – their husbands, sons and brothers – who disappeared so many years ago and who have never been seen since. Altogether 1,619 Greek Cypriots – including civilians, women, children and old people – have not been seen since August 1974 and their fate remains unknown.

Hornsey YMCA

Pouring with rain and freezing cold – the 10K run in the Hornsey YMCA’s annual Fun Run and Children’s’ Race day was still great – but not like a summer day when families spend the day having fun and picnicking.

I start the race and then give out prizes a couple of hours later when the runners have run. The money raised this year (and this was the biggest year of entry ever) is going to TreeHouse Trust – a local charity that provides top-notch education for children with autism in Muswell Hill. They have integrated well into the local community – and some of their children were taking part in the races today. Fab!

It was so wet and miserable, however, that despite the British stoicism that saw all the runners run regardless, not all the winners hung around for their prizes. The overall winners were there – and well done to everyone who took part. The Hornsey YMCA does fantastic work in the local community and deserves much more thanks and recognition than it gets. Today they had their new community bus at Priory Park. This bus will go out to reach those youngsters who normal channels don’t reach to give them information on pathways to work and sexual health advice and so on.

Later in the day I go to St Mary’s where the Lib Dems are having their thank you party to all those who helped us in the recent local elections. The room is packed – and the really great thing is that there are dozens of people I don’t know. In the old days I knew everyone. But we have grown so hugely over recent years – this is the result. So I spend the next few hours talking to the people I don’t know – all of whom really helped us to the fantastic result we achieved. Taking eleven seats directly off of Labour and topping the poll across the borough was no mean feat – and if there are a couple of by-elections now…

Cannot help but mention in passing the farcical state that the Home Office appears to now be in. It’s like a Carry On film – where one gaff follows another. However, hate to say I told you so – but on every possible occasion since I was elected I have pointed out that the Home Office is the most incompetent and inefficient organisation I have encountered. I have a stream of people through my surgery every week whose lives are held in suspended animation because the Home Office loses their documents, takes years to answer, makes mistakes, and so on. Just glad its awfulness is now being so publicly exposed. This must herald substantive change as people’s lives are completely screwed by such a dreadful department.

Police funding

Leading on the Police Funding Report today in the House. This is the funding for Police Authorities for their forces. It doesn’t include special payments for things like counter-terrorism or the security forces or other special payments – but is the main chunk of money that gives us police on our streets – or not!

The Association of Police Authorities (APA) and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) are extremely concerned that the funding is inadequate – leaving a gap of £250 million which will either result in cuts or in increased council tax. Since 2001 the portion of police funding paid by us through our Council Tax precept has gone from 12% to 21%. So when you hear Labour Government boasting about the increase of police on our streets and the Safer Neighbourhood Scheme – which we all want – remember it is us who have paid to have them there through local taxes.

Latter, after I had made my speech, the Minister Paul Goggins, in his wind up of the debate, said that he disagreed with the Honourable Lady for Hornsey & Wood Green (me!). And that this funding allocation would benefit the poor and everyone would have local policing. However, what I had actually said, was that any rise in Council Tax would hit the poorest and most financially vulnerable because it is an unfair tax and older people have no means to increase their income to meet increases in Council Tax – and with the scandal of womens’ pensions……….etc. So naughty Mr Goggins.

Naughty Mr Goggins too – I see in the local paper that he visited my constituency without letting me know (which is the convention) to visit the TreeHouse School for autistic children. This is a fantastic outfit which came recently to my constituency and does the most incredible work – so I forgive him!

Co-terminus with the debate – I was meant to be hosting an event on the terrace for the Met Police Authority (ironically), but they just had to manage without me. I did get in there for about 10 minutes – just as Sir Ian Blair was finishing his speech – so I don’t know what he said. I just thanked everyone for coming and suggested they continued to enjoy themselves – and then rushed back to the chamber.