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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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PA Media

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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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PA Media

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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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Getty Images

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Flack and boyfriend Lewis Burton


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London Bridge survivor: ‘I saw things I will never unsee’

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Media captionBryonn Bain was giving a workshop at Fishmongers’ Hall when the attack began

An American academic has given a graphic account of the moment the London Bridge stabbing attack began, saying it “felt like a warzone”.

Bryonn Bain told the BBC that victim Jack Merritt had been the first person to confront Usman Khan when he launched his knife assault during a prisoner rehabilitation conference on Friday.

“I saw people die, I saw things that I will never be able to unsee,” he said.

Vigils have taken place for Mr Merritt, 25, and second victim Saskia Jones, 23.

Three other people were also injured in the attack before Khan was shot dead by armed officers on London Bridge – two are still in hospital in a stable condition.

Prof Bain said former offenders attending the University of Cambridge-linked conference “stepped up and intervened” to tackle Khan, and people at Fishmongers’ Hall owed their lives to the actions of those who had previously spent time in jail.

He said two men from his performance poetry workshop immediately ran towards shouts from elsewhere in Fishmongers’ Hall in the City of London as the attack began, and as shouts grew louder he also went to assist.

“That’s when I ran down and saw the scene unfolding there,” he said. “I was able to see the attacker.”

He added: “It felt like a warzone… it felt like total chaos.”

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Media captionThe chief executive of Fishmongers Hall, Commodore Toby Williamson describes how his staff fought back

Prof Bain said course co-ordinator Mr Merritt was “the first line of defence”.

“I want to honour him,” Prof Bain said of Mr Merritt. “I want to honour his father’s wishes which have been explicit to not have his life be used for political purposes to ramp up draconian policies, because that’s not what he was about.”

Mr Merritt’s father criticised newspaper coverage of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to review the early release of convicted terrorists.

Writing in the Guardian, David Merritt says his son “would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against”.

The article calls for a justice system that focuses on rehabilitation, rather than revenge, and criticises indeterminate sentences, saying his son worked for “a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key”.

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Met Police

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Jack Merritt was a co-ordinator of the Learning Together programme and Saskia Jones a volunteer

Prof Bain added: “I want to make sure that as much as possible that we uphold the heroes of the day, were formerly incarcerated people, some of the folks who are often easiest to dehumanise.

“They stepped up and many of the folks in that space would not be here today if it weren’t for these guys who did time in prison and literally saved lives.”

In other developments on Monday:

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his response to the attack after Mr Merritt’s father criticised newspaper coverage of Mr Johnson’s pledge to review the early release of convicted terrorists
  • Mr Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attended a vigil at the Guildhall near London Bridge to honour those caught up in the attack
  • London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the best way to defeat the hatred shown in the attack was to focus on the values of hope, unity and love
  • BBC News learned the attacker, Usman Khan, 28, had been under investigation by the security service MI5 since his release from prison last year, but given one of the lowest priorities. He had been convicted of a terrorism offence in 2012
  • As part of his release conditions, Khan was obliged to take part in the government’s desistance and disengagement programme – which aims to rehabilitate those involved in terrorism

Vigils for the victims of the attack were also held in Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University, which Ms Jones had previously attended.

Mr Merritt and Ms Jones both studied for masters degrees at the University of Cambridge’s institute of criminology and had been taking part in an event for its Learning Together programme – which focuses on education within the criminal justice system – when they were killed.

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PA Media

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The family of Jack Merritt take part in a vigil at the Guildhall in Cambridge

Mr Merritt, from Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, was a co-ordinator of the Learning Together programme and Ms Jones, from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, a volunteer

The victims’ families paid tribute to their loved ones at the weekend.

Ms Jones’s family said their daughter had a “great passion” for supporting victims of criminal justice.

In a statement, Mr Merritt’s family described him as a “talented boy” who “died doing what he loved”.

Toby Williamson, chief executive of Fishmongers’ Hall, praised the bravery of his staff who intervened to stop the attacker, hailing their actions as “extraordinary things done by ordinary people”.

Mr Williamson told how Polish chef Lukasz suffered five wounds to his left-hand side as he fended off the knifeman with a narwhal tusk during “about a minute of one-on-one straight combat” – allowing others time to escape danger.

A group of hall staff, ex-offenders, prison and probation staff are believed to have drawn Khan out on to London Bridge where he was subsequently shot dead by armed police.

‘Minimal risk’

Khan, who admitted preparing terrorist acts in 2012, was released from prison in December 2018 after serving half of his sentence.

The BBC understands Khan was formally under investigation by MI5 as he left jail but placed in the second-to-bottom category of investigations as his initial risk to the public was thought to be minimal.

This was consistent with the grading given to most other people convicted of terrorism offences as they go back into the community under a release licence.

A low level of prioritisation is assigned to offenders such as Khan because their release comes with a strict set of licence conditions.

These conditions theoretically provide suitable monitoring and oversight, such as alerts if they contact other suspects or travel outside an approved area.

Khan, the BBC has learned, was on the highest-level of such community monitoring. The overall package, in theory, relieves pressure on MI5 so the security service can focus on more immediate threats.

Friday was the first time that Khan, who wore a GPS tag, had been permitted to travel to London since he left prison. The BBC has been told that – earlier in the year – Khan was refused permission to travel to Stoke-on-Trent, which is where he grew up, in order to attend a social event.

The prime minister said on Sunday that 74 people jailed for terror offences and released early would have their licence conditions reviewed..

Police said two terror-related arrests following Friday’s incident, in Staffordshire and north London, were not directly connected to the London Bridge attack.

It came after the UK’s terrorism threat level was downgraded on 4 November from “severe” to “substantial”, meaning that attacks were thought to be “likely” rather than “highly likely”.

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Joseph McCann trial: Woman ‘kidnapped outside shop’

Mccann

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Metropolitan Police

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Joseph McCann denies 37 offences against 11 victims

A 71-year-old woman was punched in the face before being sexually assaulted in her car by a serial rapist, a court has heard.

Joseph McCann allegedly kidnapped the woman as she was about to drive out of a supermarket car park on 5 May.

She was then driven to an industrial estate car park where he raped her, the Old Bailey heard.

Mr McCann, 34, from Harrow, north-west London, denies 37 offences against 11 victims.

In a police interview played to a jury on Monday, the 71-year-old woman said she had finished shopping at Morrisons when Mr McCann allegedly approached her car.

“He got into the passenger seat. I shouted, ‘get out, get out’ and that is when he punched me in the face,” she told Greater Manchester Police.

“He said he wanted a lift. He said, ‘I don’t want to hurt you. I have got a knife. I have killed somebody’.”

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Media captionMr McCann was allegedly captured on CCTV at a petrol station

The woman said she initially drove on the M66, but said she was made to switch seats with McCann as he wanted to buy cigarettes.

After they stopped at a service station, the woman said she was driven to an industrial estate, where she said the defendant started drinking from a bottle of wine.

In the interview she said: “We got into this car park and he said, ‘we’ll have sex now whilst we are waiting’.”

The woman claimed she was made to partially undress and forced to perform a sex act on Mr McCann.

He later drove to a cash machine where he used her bank card to withdraw money.

A “little girl” then got into the back seat with Mr McCann, the court heard.

The woman said she was ordered to drive to Manchester, but said that because Mr McCann was “messing about” he was not looking where they were going.

She told police she drove in the wrong direction, and eventually pulled up to a service station to get fuel.

The woman then ran out of the car and the girl in the back seat also ran. She said Mr McCann grabbed the car keys and drove off.

The trial continues.

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Drug dealers sentenced after residents took action

East London 'drug dealers only' parking space

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Penny Creed

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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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Getty Images

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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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