Category Archives: Human rights and civil liberties

Tory trade union bill is spiteful, ideologically-driven & irrelevant

The Tories’ trade union bill, which had its second reading today in the Commons, is a bill of naked discrimination against the trade unions designed to severely cut funding for the Labour Party to try to entrench the Tories in power, as well as to make it virtually impossible to strike in certain industrial sectors.   However it’s worth quoting the two main purposes of the bill which the government itself pretends are its motives.   The first is: “to pursue our ambition to become the most prosperous major economy in the world by 2030”.   That is beyond satire.   The truth is that 7 years after the Great Crash averages wages are still 6% below pre-crash levels, productivity is flat, the FTSE-100 companies are not investing, and household debt is tipping £2 trillions.  The idea that after this bill we’re going to overtake the US and Germany within 15 years after a record like that is daft.

The government’s second reason for this bill is “to ensure hard-working people are not disrupted by little-supported strike action”.   The truth is, the number of days lost to strike action now is on average less than one-tenth of what it was during the 1980s.   Of far greater impact on the economy is the UK’s chronic under-investment in skills – something the unions themselves want to work with the government to fix.   The bill, while obnoxious, is irrelevant to Britain’s real problems.

The tube workers aside, only the teachers and firefighters have caused any real national concern since 2010, and even then they usually did so for just a day at a time.   And frankly, even the RMT’s resistance against plans to keep the Underground running all night isn’t that unreasonable.   Night shifts are unsociable, unhealthy and potentially dangerous where they lead to over-tiredness.   And it’s worth noting that private sector workers were responsible for more stoppages in 2013 than those working in the public sector.

But the central point here is that the government seems to believe that whenever a strike occurs, it’s always the fault of the workers irrespective of what the employer does.   The majority of employers may well be decent or reasonable, but there’s still a distinct minority who are intransigent or behave badly.   The last thing that workers want to do is go on strike, but when they have genuine, reasonable and pressing demands over such essential issues as job losses, safety problems and pay, and those demands are swept aside often with little or no negotiations, they have no alternative but to take industrial action, and then to pillory and penalise them rather than bad management, as the Tories and the Tory press automatically do, is utterly wrong and unfair.

The worst feature of the bill is making it almost impossible to take industrial action even in such conditions.   If for example 1,000 members are entitled to vote, the bill would require 400 members to vote in favour, but if the ballot achieved a 50% turnout, then it would require the sup[port of no less than 80% of those voting members.   That is frankly prohibitive, as it is intended to be.

Iain Duncan Smith demands that same proportion of disabled people work as able-bodied

As part of the government’s plan to extract £12bn from social security benefits, IDS has announced his latest target is “the disability employment gap”.   According to analysis of official ONS figures, this represents the difference between the number of disabled people who are in employment (48%) and the figure for the general population (73%).   The implication is that IDS expects the same proportion of disabled people to work as those who are able-bodied!   Just what does he believe disability means?   There is a long and aggravated Tory history behind this latest announcement, beginning with Thatcher’s attempt to conceal the true unemployment figures by switching applicants en masse to the category of disability and making them subject to incapacity benefit rather than unemployment benefit.

This legerdemain was prompted by unemployment spiking at 3.1 million in 1986.   It led to 1.6 million claimants being badged as incapacitated rather than jobless.   As soon as the unemployment crisis passed, the Tory government changed course and did all it could to cut back the numbers who could be classified as disabled.   The Blair continued the action, but did not get far.   The really big cutbacks only took off with the Cameron government which took on the big French IT firm, Atos, to carry out ‘work capability assessments’ on a systematic and relentless basis to force disabled persons back to work by declaring they were fit to work and therefore if they failed to get work they would be liable to loss of benefit for anything between 4 weeks and 3 years.   This infamous system generated massive complaints, but the government carried on regardless.

The objections were mainly that the examinations by Atos were often perfunctory and the questions asked largely irrelevant, and leaks from DWP staff indicated that the government had set targets for the removal of claimants from the benefit lists.  DWP of course denied this, but that can be taken with a pinch of salt from a department so desperate to conceal the truth as to now being found out using invented stories from fictional claimants, not just once but at least twice, to pretend that benefit sanctions were actually positive and beneficial!   In fact the Information Commissioner has now overruled attempts by DWP to withhold statistics of the number of claimants of incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance who died after being declared fit for work and then had their benefits stopped.   DWP then said it had always intended to publish these figures!   It seems impossible for a government department to stoop any lower than these constant lies, subterfuges and chicaneries, and since they are all politically driven IDS, if he had any integrity, ought to resign.  But of course he won’t.

The hypocrisy of the Tories as the workers’ party: making it impossible to strike

Strike action, fox hunting, the BBC, Europe, migrant benefits – never underestimate the Tory capacity to identify things that aren’t problems and then attack them.   The number of days lost to strike action is on average less than a tenth of what it was during the 1980s.   It’s not even as though strikes are constant – and certainly workers themselves are reluctant to strike because they themselves suffer the most – or have an enormous impact on productivity nowadays.   Of far greater impact is the UK’s under-investment in skills, which is something that unions want to work with the government to fix.   But the government’s latest proposals will upset the balance between employers and workers, tilting it much too far in employers’ favour and many of the proposals will make it far harder to resolve disputes fairly.   Yet good employers know that the best way to resolve problems at work is to sit down with workers and talk it through, trying to find a compromise, rather than using statutory power to ride roughshod over workers’ rights to impose authority by default.

Notoriously the bill introduces a 50% turnout ballot threshold in a strike ballot, but it also requires in the case of public services 40% support from all those eligible to vote which is a benchmark required nowhere else in any section of British society – certainly not in the election of the MPs who will be voting for it.   In addition workers will have to give an employer 14 days notice of strike action, and this is more than enough for employers to legally hire another workforce to break the strike, even though these workers may be inexperienced and not properly trained, but expected to cover important roles dealing with the public at short notice.   This blatant one-sided approach is guaranteed to poison the relationship between workers and their managers.

The proposal on opting into the political fund is also wholly one-sided.   It is clearly designed to throttle Labour funding and to make the Labour party bankrupt by cutting off the main source of funds that they have relied on since the 1930s.   It is clearly also aimed at undermining political campaigning by unions on behalf of their members and communities.   It sticks out like a sore thumb however that there are no proposals to force companies to ballot shareholders or place a cap on donations from wealthy people when funding the Tory party.

The Tory proposals may also criminalise peaceful picketing such as when a seventh person joins a picket line.   Is this really how we want to use police time – arresting the seventh nurse on the picket line outside the hospital where they work?   If the Tories were really concerned about improving workplace democracy, they’d commit to on-line balloting, an easy and secure way of letting workers have their say.   But they’re not, and it exposes what an utter sham it is for the Tories to claim to be anything remotely like a workers’ party.

Anti-austerity should be clincher of Labour leadership contest

Austerity is the wrong policy on every count.   Over-spending was not the cause of the financial crash,  so austerity is not the right policy for dealing with what did cause it which was the bankers’ arrogance and irresponsibility triggering the global recession.    When the massive bank bail-outs led to huge budget deficits, austerity was the wrong policy to cut the deficits because prolonged contraction of the economy makes deficit reduction far harder to achieve than systematic growth and expansion.   And all that still leaves aside the cruel torture of impoverishment and hopelessness which endless austerity imposes on the innocent victims of the crash whilst letting the guilty perpetrators go free.

In the Labour decade before the crash the average budget deficit was 1.4% of GDP, half the average under Thatcher and Major.  Moreover Labour inherited a national debt from the Tories in 1997 which stood at fractionally under 40%, but reduced it to 36% by 2007.   So there was no Labour over-spend, though there certainly was substantial Tory over-spend.   In neither case however was austerity justified as a counter-measure when the true cause was external and the real motive for its imposition was, and still is, Osborne’s desire to shrink the State rather than primarily to cut the deficit.

The bail-outs did produce a peak budget deficit of £157bn in 2009-10.   The stimulus of Alastair Darling’s last two expansionary budgets cut this by £40bn by the end of 2011, but the Osborne austerity budgets then kicked in which slowed deficit reduction by two-thirds. That’s because continuous contraction of the economy flattens growth which then enforces a slowdown in deficit reduction, which is exactly what happened in 2012-3 and which now seems likely to recur if Osborne imposes his £12bn further cuts in benefits plus another £29bn cuts in public expenditure.

Most wicked of all is the Tory indifference to the merciless battering inflicted on the squeezed middle and the helpless 20% at the bottom of society.   Over 150,000 elderly and disabled persons no longer receive help with washing and dressing because Councils are now so cash-strapped that they can only afford help to those with the most extreme needs or none at all.   Councils now, because they cannot fund alternative accommodation, regularly every day at 700 different locations break the legal requirement that children should not be forced to stay in bed-and-breakfasts or shared hostels for more than 6 weeks at a time.   And to sidestep the opprobrium arising from austerity increasing child poverty, the Tories have cynically changed the definition of poverty to avoid any measure based on lack of money and instead to focus on ‘life chances’.

Cameron-Osborne’s vendetta against the young could prove their downfall

Osborne really has got it in for young people – unless of course they are poised to inherit their grandparents’ £1 million home or will benefit from a higher inheritance tax threshold.   It will be young people who cop it from changes to universal credit that will deduct benefits faster as they earn more.   That will cost 3 million families an average of £1,000 a year according to the IFS.   Altogether some 13 million families, over half the population, will lose an average of £5 a week as a result of extending the freeze in working-age benefits, tax credits and local housing allowance, until 2020.

Then there’s unemployment.   The largest increase between 2008-13 was among 18-24 year olds, with 210,000 more out of work.   The latest figures show nearly half a million 16-24 year olds jobless, an unemployment rate of 13.7%, more than double the national average of 5.5%.   Even if they can find a job, Osborne’s over-hyped ‘national living wage’ won’t apply to those below 25 years of age.    The rate for 18-20 year olds will be a miserly £5.30 an hour, whilst for 16-17 year olds it will be slave rates of £3.87 an hour and and even £3.30 an hour for apprentices.

University fees are ending up putting poorer students into permanent debt.    When fees tripled to £9,000 a year, the maintenance loan was means-tested to target students from poorer families.   More than half a million students in England received the £3,387 maintenance grant last year, costing £1.6bn.   Now this grant is being turned by Osborne’s latest budget into another loan, of up to £8,200 a year.   So student debt will now rise to £51,000 after 3 years.   Unsurprisingly a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently found that the largest increases in poverty in the last decade has been among younger adults of working age.

As for housing, anyone aged 18-21 will no longer be automatically able to claim housing benefit under the new rules.   The exclusion of young renters from any State support comes as young earners are increasingly locked out of home ownership as a result of soaring prices.   The average age of a first-time buyer has rocketed from 29 to 38 over the last decade.   Nor is further education a way out.   Further education colleges face some of the biggest cuts in the comprehensive spending review due in the autumn.   Indeed the further education sector, which provides the bulk of the UK’s post-secondary training, faces possible collapse and the loss of the invaluable source of technicians and mechanics.

What have young people done to deserve these successive kicks in the teeth?   In today’s volatile political climate this Tory campaign against the young will surely boomerang against its perpetrators.

 

Tory welfare reform is pure political mischief, but at least 124 of us voted against it

It is extraordinary that the Labour party could have got itself into such a muddle over welfare reform (which is Tory-speak for crippling welfare cutbacks) when Osborne’s sole motive for this bill, which had its second reading today, is to create divisions within Labour and label it as the party of shirkers.   The bill is awful.   Despite some useful provisions on apprenticeships, it ignores the plight of children in low income working households, removes the concept of child poverty from the statute book, increases the number of children living in poverty, worsens work incentives for people with below average incomes, and cuts the incomes of sick and disabled people.   The attempt of the interim leadership to square all this with Labour’s need to get on-side with public opinion, repeatedly corrupted by Osborne and the Tory tabloids ranting against the poor and jobless, predictably got the worst of both worlds – a split party and an unconvincing compromise presented to the electorate.
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So Tory ministers lying to Parliament is now OK?

The revelation that British air crews have been engaged in bombing operations against ISIS in Syria for the last 10 months, in strict defiance of a Parliamentary vote two years ago prohibiting this, should be a matter where ministerial heads roll.   The excuse given by the Prime Minister’s office that they were embedded with US forces and not operating under a British chain of command is risible.   The vote in 2013 was explicit that there was not to be any British military involvement in the Syrian conflict.   For Fallon as defence secretary then secretly to allow 20 British personnel, including 3 pilots, to take part in U.S.-led bombing missions against ISIS targets in Syria is direct defiance of a Parliamentary red line irrespective of whether British air crew were operating under U.S. or British command structures.   This a very serious abuse of Parliament.   If Parliamentary sovereignty is to mean anything, Fallon should stand down or be forced to resign.
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Tories talk of freedom, but authoritarianism is their hallmark

This last week something little-noticed happened which could have very worrying consequences for the future.   All local authorities, NHS trusts, schools, universities, further education colleges, and prisons had a new statutory duty imposed on themto prevent extremist radicalisation taking place within their ambit.   These new duties will be vastly intrusive.   Local authorities will have to make checks on the use of its public buildings, its internet filters, and on any unregulated settings such as school clubs and groups and tuition centres.   In case there is any backsliding, government inspectors will check to make sure all necessary actions are taken.   And most sinister of all, the target for all this isn’t just extremist behaviour (whatever exactly that means), but ‘non-violent extremism’.
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Truth about EU callousness, intransigence & anti-democratic instincts exposed

?The IMF’s late intervention proposing €60bn plus debt relief for Greece is welcome, though it would have been far more effective if it had been offered 5 months ago when serious negotiations began rather than as a last-minute reprieve to salvage a burgeoning crisis.   It does chime quite closely with what Tsipras himself was proposing only a day before, namely debt relief plus a new 2-year €29bn payment from the Eurozone’s permanent bailout fund.   But what the IMF in particular has done is begin to peel away at some of the underlying dynamics of this elongated debacle.   One aspect is the nature of the austerity measures demanded by the troika which has micro-managed not just the extent of the cutbacks, but specifying in the minutest details how they should be administered.   There are two ways to deal with a debt: either cut expenditure or increase taxes.   Syriza’s instinct was to put up taxes on the very rich, especially their past evasion of taxes has been a major cause of Greece’s indebtedness.   But the troika, driven by a rigid neoliberal ideology, refused to allow this and insisted that the pensions of the poorest should be cut back further.
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