Miliband v. Cameron on taking hard decisions: bring it on

July 27th, 2014

After Ed Miliband’s brave speech yesterday denouncing how photo-ops and obsession with image had usurped the infinitely more important issue of policy, ideology and what a politician actually stands for and if elected will actually intend to achieve in office, there were bound to be further complaints from this unprecedentedly hostile media, most of it taking its line direct from Tory Central Office.   The latest is that the real gripe against Miliband is that ‘he can’t take hard decisions’.   Really?   Actually Ed Miliband has taken tougher decisions than any previous Leader of the Opposition, Thatcher and Blair included, let alone Cameron.   Can you remember any of the latter three taking a really tough decision when they each in their time led the opposition but had no direct executive authority?   No, nor can I.   But Miliband has done exactly that, not once, but three times.

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Next DWP scam coming: lose your job, wait 5 weeks before any benefit paid

July 26th, 2014

It is being kept under close wraps by this Tory government that under Universal Credit people who lose their jobs will be made to wait 5 weeks before they get any benefit payment.    Very few people realise this – a poll found this latest ‘welfare reform’ deeply unpopular, with almost 4 to 1 opposed.   That may explain why the government is trying to keep their plans secret before the election, since only 1 in 8 says they’ve heard anything about it.   But the impact will be really devastating on families.   Anyone losing their job will get no help to cover rent, mortgage, food or fuel bills.   the 5-week wait will apply to anyone making a new claim, however long they have held their job or however much national insurance they have paid in during their working life. (more…)

How long can the NHS go on like this?

July 25th, 2014

The number of NHS trusts referred to the Department of Health because of financial irregularities has increased almost 4-fold in 2013-4 compared to the previous year.   The Audit Commission has just reported that 19 trusts, about 1 in 5,were flagged as financially failing.   Similarly 24 clincial commissioning groups, about 1 in 9, were also referred to the Secretary of State mainly because of ‘issues with their financial position’.   The same trend of deepening financial problems was reported by auditors over a quarter of trusts in the previous financial year, but by 2013-14 this group had risen to a third.   The trusts are caught in a vice between having to make unprecedented cuts of £20bn within the current 5-year parliamentary period, whilst having at the same time to meet enormous extra financial pressures from rising demand for healthcare services, the health needs of an ageing population, the above-inflation pressures from the ever-rising costs of the most advanced new technology, and the ever-stronger focus on the quality of care.

Research by the King’s Fund shows that this year 1 in 4 finance directors at NHS trusts expect ot overspend their budget.   The list includes some of the trusts that have been outsourced to corporate partners, notably the private Circle Health Care which for the last 2 years has operated Hinchingbroke Health Care in Cambridge.   Other well-known trusts include University Hospital of North Staffordshire, Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals, and Ipswich Hospital.   This is a totally unsustainable situation.   The NHS is heading ineluctably towards collapse.   One can only speculate what is the objective of this most ideologically-driven Conservative government.   Do they intend to drive the NHS into such a financial collapse that large parts of it can swallowed up by private sector corporates for a song?   Is this slow but relentless drift to collapse politically feasible when A&E departments are becoming more and more overloaded, waiting periods are growing inexorably, GPs are becoming seriously overstretched, and public sector pay for nurses, porters and ancillary staff is being ruthlessly held down year after year?

Then there is underpinning all this the really big issue that healthcare costs always have, and continue to, exceed the rate of inflation by a significant margin each year for both demographic and technological reasons.   The Health Department’s own accounts reveal that health spending rose last year by 2.6% above inflation, which is actually a much faster rate than the two previous years.   And the Health Foudantion charity has pointed out that staff costs have increased significantly as hospitals responded to the Francis report on the Mid Staffordshire debacle by recruiting more doctors, nurses and other front-line staff.   They conclude that it’s difficult to see how the NHS can end 2014-5 without another significant increase in the pay bill.

This process of collapse is heading for an explosion before long.

 

Private tenants caught in a rent trap – and sinking

July 24th, 2014

There are so many repositories of destitution and hopelessness in Britain today that adding another does not evoke the horror it should.   There the million or more persons who have been ‘sanctioned’ – deprived of all their benefit income by DWP for 4 weeks for some trivial (or invented) infringement of the benefit rules, then for 3 months for a second breach, and 3 years (!) for a third, without in many cases being told why.   Then there is a large proportion of the 1.6 million moderately or severely disabled persons on Incapacity Benefit who are being told after a cursory interview that they are fit for work even there is no work available in the local area that they could possibly do, even if they had the right skills, and even when their mental or physical handicaps ruled them out in competition in the local labour market – yet their benefit is still cut drastically.    There are the million or more frail elderly, often with Alzheimer’s, who are now deprived of essential care they need because of the £2.7bn reduction in the social care budget.   And there the helpless and vulnerable mentally ill who are desperately in need of greater support to survive, but who are bullied,intimidated and tricked by DWP into giving up the benefits they’re entitled to.   But there is still another group who are fast growing in number and caught up in a rent trap from which they cannot escape. (more…)

Why does Labour stick to Tory austerity cuts when latest ONS figures show it’s impossible to achieve them?

July 23rd, 2014

Osborne’s boast that he would shrink the welfare state to its small scale in 1948 has been definitively scuppered by a report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).    These official figures reveal that there are at least 6 major areas of public expenditure which are currently escalating rapidly and make it impossible to reconcile with his proposed 35% cuts in all non-protected Departments and a further £25bn cuts in benefits in the next Parliament.    This is reinforced by the latest news that the deficit (public sector net borrowing), the reduction of which is the ostensibly central objective of Osborne’s economic strategic, actually increased last year by £13bn despite a year of economic growth, whilst in the first quarter alone of the new fiscal year ONS figures now reveal a big increase in Tory government borrowing to £36bn, a worrying 7.3% increase over the same quarter in 2013.   This major reversal, if it continues as it shows every sign of doing so, leaves Osborne’s counter-productive deficit-reduction plan in tatters. (more…)

The mentally ill are neglected in the NHS, but actively tormented by the DWP

July 22nd, 2014

As happens in all authoritarian organisations, the truth is so dreadful that it begins to seep out through leaks, secret briefings, off-the-record briefings that turn out to be recorded, and by other risky but well-intentioned means.   It has long happened in the case of disabled resisters determined to fight back against grotesque misjudgements by Atos over work capability assessments.   It is now just beginning to happen in the case of the mentally ill who are often even less able to protect their rights.   What is now being exposed is even worse than people’s wildest suspicions, exacerbated by the revelation that such bullying and aggressive treatment is deliberate DWP policy. (more…)

Genocidal onslaught on Gaza will only stop if Palestinians & allies can make political & military cost to Israel too high

July 21st, 2014

At least 425 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli blitzkrieg on Gaza, including 80 in the last day alone, and nearly 80% of the dead are civilians, 20% of them children.   This is the result of launching the world’s fourth military power against 1.8 million Palestinians already blockaded in the largest open-air prison on Earth.   What is really sickening about this is the attitude of Obama (and Cameron) in blaming the victims for resisting aggression whilst backing Israel with impunity whatever the scale of their utterly unjustified civilian killings.   US and UK leaders point the finger at Hamas’  firing rockets into Israel as the trigger for the Israeli attack, without which all this appalling bloodshed would never have happened.  That is a concoction of fantasy. (more…)

Why are all 3 political parties fixated on stagnation, falling wages, mounting debts, rising inequality & national decline?

July 20th, 2014

It is often said that when all three political parties are locked together on the same idea, it is bound to be wrong.  Given the Tory-LibDem coalition determination to continue austerity unabated throughout the next Parliament, it is sad to see Ed Miliband telling the NPF forum over this weekend that “we won’t have the money……Britain still has a deficit to deal with and a debt to pay down”.   Of course the deficit has to be paid down, but the assumption that it has to be paid down by cutting public expenditure and benefits isn’t just harsh and cruel for its main victims, those on the lowest incomes, it is actually counter-productive.   The reason for this is that the public debt is what remains after the totals of net lending or net borrowing by corporations, households and foreigners have all been added up.   The latest evidence from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that, following the austerity route over the last 5 years, public sector debt (the deficit), so far from reducing, is now likely to start rising. (more…)

Tory plan to make strikes all but impossible betrays their ambition for a bosses-helots class State

July 19th, 2014

The core issue in industrial relations is the balance of power between employers and workers.   The Tories insist that in the 1970s it shifted too far in the interests of labour, and the Left will insist that in the last 3 decades it has shifted too far – far too far – in the interests of capital.   Cameron now wants to take it even further in the interests of capital.   Last week’s strike by nearly a million public sector workers last week, protesting at low pay and a continuing real terms wage freeze, has been seized on by the Tories to push forward an obviously long-prepared plan to virtually eliminate strikes altogether.   The new restrictions proposed – a 50% turnout threshold of all those entitled to vote, the code of practice on picketing to be legally binding, a requirement on unions to vote on each aspect of a dispute, and a 3-month time limit on the duration of a strike mandate – are designed to grant almost unlimited power to corporate interests.

The essence of this approach is that any strikes by any workers at any time can be construed as inappropriate and wrong.   What is most notable about Cameron’s attitude is its total indifference to the causes of strikes.   The hidden assumption is that it’s all the fault of the strikers – as though protesting against a near-10% fall in public sector wages over the last 5 years when over the same period the richest 1,000 persons in the UK have doubled thir wealth to half a trillion pounds, is somehow unreasonable and should be punished.   If employers, taking the cue from government, have driven their employees into a state of despair and near-destitution within a profoundly unjust economy, can workers be blamed for strking when there is no other effective option open to them? (more…)

DWP’s own figures show bedroom tax is not working

July 18th, 2014

As Jo Moore infamously emailed at the time of the 9/11 catastrophe in the US, “now is a good time to release bad news”.   The Tory government has clearly taken this to heart.   Having built up an enormous fanfare to the elevation of women in the reshuffle which captivated the headlines, the Tories then used this cover to distract from two very unpleasant news items they dealt with on that same day, last Tuesday (15 July).    One was ramming through the Data Retention & Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill on mass surveillance on one day in the House of Commons, and the other was releasing the figures for the impact of the bedroom tax in the first 6 months of its operation.   Both were certainly activities of government which they were desperately keen to hide, and for good reason. (more…)

Labour’s approach to central austerity question is still badly flawed

July 17th, 2014

The biggest issue at the coming general election will be how the deficit is to be handled over the next 5 years.   The Tory proposal is to continue with the cuts till 2018-9 by which time they claim the structural deficit will have been eliminated.   Their real and stated objective is to have continued with the cuts sufficiently long, indeed in some ways to have been intensifying them because so much of the cuts programme is back-end loaded, so that the welfare state is reduced to its level in 1948, in other words to eliminate all the social advances of the last 70 years.   The Labour proposal, unless amended at the National Policy Forum tomorrow, is to continue the cuts till 2019-20 to show we have equal prowess with the Tories in cutting public expenditure and “taking tough decisions”, but with the gloss that this also involves big reforms to markets and the public sector.   What’s to choose between them?   What is missing, glaringly missing, is the alternative to austerity which the whole nation, let alone the Labour party, is crying out for. (more…)

My speech on the “emergency” Data Protection (aka Indiscriminate Mass Surveillance) Bill

July 15th, 2014

The following is the text of my speech on the Data Protection and Investigatory Powers Bill:

I feel uneasy about the Bill on several grounds. As I am sure that we all do, I clearly accept that there is a need for a new law in order to establish a proper legal foundation to balance the right to privacy with the requirement to ensure security, but it should not be done in this way. The Official Secrets Act 1911 was rammed through this House in just one day in an atmosphere of fear and we have had to live with the undesirable consequences of a national security concept with blanket coverage ever since. Has the House really not learned that telescoping proper parliamentary scrutiny is nearly always dangerous and can lead to unexpected outcomes as we helplessly watch the law of unintended consequences kick in?

The Government’s first argument for emergency legislation does not stand up. As many have said, the European Court of Justice ruling was on 8 April. The Government wasted more than three months without taking any action before suddenly, seven days before the recess, alleging that it is critical that the Bill be passed by the House in one day. That is either panic or a deliberate attempt to blackmail the House into undiscriminating compliance.

The Government’s second argument, namely that foreign-based phone and internet companies were about to stop handing over the contents of individual communications in response to a UK warrant, does not stack up either. It has been reported that communications service providers have said that they did not know of any companies that had warned the UK Government that they would start deleting data in the light of legal uncertainty. Indeed, the Home Office, according to the Financial Times, instructed companies to disregard the ECJ ruling and to carry on harvesting data while it put together a new legal framework. The Government’s alleged anxiety that they might lose access to stored data overnight is wilfully overdrawn.

The Prime Minister’s assurances are neither convincing nor effective. He stated, as echoed several times by the Home Secretary today, that the legislation will merely maintain the status quo. That is not true. It will impose for the first time a duty on foreign-based internet companies with subsidiaries in the UK to co-operate with surveillance requests by UK agencies. We were also assured by the Home Secretary last Thursday that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000

“ensures that access to communications data can take place only where it is necessary and proportionate for a specific investigation.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 457.]

Again, however, that is misleading. Charles Farr, the lead Home Office official in this area, argued in his legal witness statement last week that general intercepts are permitted under RIPA because they are “external”, by which he meant that because communications travel via foreign server, largely based in the US, they can be intercepted indiscriminately even when there are no grounds to suspect any wrongdoing.

Lastly, the Prime Minister offered a number of specific measures to assuage the deeply held concerns about the Bill, but they do not really inspire confidence. He proposes a privacy and civil liberties board, which is of course welcome in principle but, considering that the Intelligence and Security Committee was not told about and did not find out about the indiscriminate tapping of overseas communications under the Tempora system, it is difficult to have trust in oversight boards having the resources, capability and access to scrutinise and deal with what is really happening within the security services’ manipulation of fast-changing communications technology.

The review of RIPA is long overdue and very welcome, but it is not a good omen that the circumvention of the RIPA rules to allow the indiscriminate mass surveillance that exists today is to be allowed to continue for another two and a half years without any attempt in the Bill to circumscribe those powers. The restriction of the number of bodies that can directly contact phone companies and demand access to data is, of course, right, but the current number is about 600, I think, and we are not told by how much it will be restricted. I welcome the sunset clause, but the end of 2016 is far too late. It should be for the end of 2014. For all these reasons, I cannot support the Bill as it stands.

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Last quarter’s 0.8% fall in UK construction output is early sign that Osborne’s ‘recovery’ has lost momentum

July 14th, 2014

The latest economic figures revealing a shock fall in construction output of more than 1% between April and May this year are alarming, but might be brushed off as an isolated quirk if all the other evidence pointed the other way.   But it doesn’t.   The construction slowdown is matched by an unexpected slump in factory output as well as a worrying widening of an already bloated trade deficit.   The latter reflects the dampening effect on UK exports as the pound has steadily strengthened over the last year, reaching the highest level (£1=$1.7) for 5 years.   UK export prospects are further deflated by the way the eurozone is mired in seemingly endless austerity because the major debtor countries – Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy – cannot while locked inside the single currency achieve the growth necessary to cut their deficits when their debts are still rising.   All this makes it unlikely now that the UK will have matched in the second quarter of this year, let alone exceeded as was confidently predicted, the 0.8% growth secured in the first quarter.   That suggests that Osborne’s much-trumpeted recovery may already be beginning to fade. (more…)

If both Bank of England & IMF now calling for greater equality, why isn’t Labour making more of it?

July 13th, 2014

It is remarkable that Mark Carney in his ‘Inclusive Capitalism’ speech of 27 May remarked that all the research shows that “relative equality is good for growth”.   It is not an original idea since Christine Lagarde, as well as the Pope, have both made similar comments.   So if even the Right from both the BoE and the IMF acknowledge that gross inequality has gone far too far and that the market system determining the allocation of pay is now wholly out of control, why doesn’t the Labour party run with it and make it one of the key half dozen themes at the National Policy Forum next Friday?   For the evidence of the toxic and damaging effects of the ultra-inequality we have today is overwhelming.

Contrary to New Labour’s attitude of “being intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich” on the grounds that it didn’t harm anyone else, all the evidence now indicates it does do exactly that.   There are now over 200 studies on income inequality and health.   Life expectancy, infant death rates, low birth weight, obesity, abd poor mental health have been repeatedly been shown to be worse in more unequal societies.   The UK, for example, has the 4th lowest life expectancy out of the 23 most developed countries.   The 3 countries with even lower life expectancy – Portugal, the US and Singapore – have even greater income inequality. (more…)

Mass surveillance is not the only thing where Govt wants minimum scrutiny: same with nuclear

July 12th, 2014

Recent FoI requests have revealed increasingly close US-UK collaboration over the design of nuclear warheads.   A document which has come to light prepared for a US senator visiting the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment talks of enhanced collaboration on “nuclear explosive package design and certification” as well as on “maintenance of existing stockpiles” and the “possible development of safer, more secure warheads”.   The document shows that at about this time, if it hasn’t already taken place, a pact will be signed drawn up by senior officials from the US-UK which increases cooperation on warhead design and the exchange of material crucial for the manufacture and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.   But it will not be debated or voted on in Parliament.   Indeed the government’s wish is that this forging of increasing strategic links with the US over nuclear warheads should happen as unobtrusively as possible, preferably with no reference being made to it at all. (more…)