The housing crisis in England

The housing charity Shelter England today called on the government to set up a free mortgage advice service to help with the growing numbers of people seeking help as living costs increase, wages stagnate, and repayment becomes that much harder.

But what government? Why, the UK government. Unlike Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, etc – England has no devolved institution that might respond to the current crisis.

On with the story:

Shelter England received eight times as many requests for advice about mortgage problems in 2007 than 2006, it says. The housing charity took more than 80,000 calls from homeowners concerned about falling behind with payments.

It wants mortgage lenders and the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to set up a free dedicated advice line.

The figures were published after the FSA warned a million borrowers could struggle to repay their home loans during 2008.

‘Despair and misery’

The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) has already said it expects the number of repossessions to rise to 45,000 in 2008, up from 30,000 in 2007, although still well below the peak of 75,000 seen in 1991.

With repossessions set to rise throughout this year, we simply haven’t got the resources to help everyone
Adam Sampson, Shelter

Shelter accused some lenders of not doing enough to protect consumers, leaving them at risk of the “despair and misery of losing their home”.

The charity is calling for a new free and confidential service which could offer “early stage” advice over the telephone and online to people facing difficulty.

Lenders would be obliged to pass on details of the helpline to borrowers.

Shelter chief executive Adam Sampson said: “A free and impartial advice service is a much needed first step to stop mortgage arrears and repossessions escalating and help thousands of ordinary people keep a roof over their heads.”

Shelter’s report also makes a number of further recommendations:

  • The FSA must clamp down on irresponsible lenders who “too quickly” repossess properties from homeowners in arrears
  • County court judges should be encouraged to take a “tougher line” against lenders who treat customers unfairly
  • A national mortgage rescue scheme should be established to allow homeowners in difficulty to remain in their home
  • The government should strengthen the current income support for mortgage interest (ISMI) scheme

Welsh fire fighters break with New Labour, back Plaid Cymru

Amazing news from Wales:

Plaid has welcomed an “historic” donation from the fire fighters’ union in Wales to three of its campaigning Assembly Members.

Plaid Cymru AMs Jocelyn Davies, Janet Ryder and Leanne Wood each received cheques from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for their campaigning work.

Leanne at PCS rallyIn a letter from the FBU, executive council member Mike Smith said: “Janet, Jocelyn and Leanne in various ways have, during the past four years of the Assembly, assisted us in our lobbying and campaigning on various fire service issues.”

Plaid’s Leanne Wood AM, Chair of Undeb, the party’s trade union section, said:

” This donation from the FBU is very welcome and marks a historic decision to move away from Labour for such a campaigning trade union. I hope more unions see that Gordon Brown’s Labour government is cutting public services and doesn’t represent the interests of working people.

“Plaid has been a consistent supporter of fire fighters and other public sector workers over the years. We’ve seen them face attack after attack from the Labour government in London and the FBU has been at the forefront of attempts to maintain the fire service here in Wales.

“Plaid has forged close links with many trade unions over the years and we look forward to strengthening those ties to continue our fight for all working people.”

Leanne Wood AM added: “We’ll be taking up the FBU’s kind offer to meet in the New Year to discuss ways in which we can continue to campaign to improve the fire service in Wales.”

A demand for 6% pay increase from England’s further education staff!

The exclamation mark is there to hide the mouthful of a title, by the way.

Yes, it’s still below the real rate of inflation, as we all know (food and energy costs up by double digits on last year), but it’ll make people think.

The six trade unions – ACM, ATL, GMB, UCU, UNISON and UNITE – representing 250,000 further education staff yesterday submitted a pay claim for six per cent or £1,500, whichever is the greater.

The catch-up claim covers Further Education (FE) workers in England including lecturers, learning support staff, cleaners, managers, caterers, librarians, security and lab technicians, and would establish a £7.38 an hour minimum wage.

The joint unions’ statement said: ‘Last year many FE staff faced a double whammy when they were awarded a below inflation pay deal, which some colleges then failed to implement.’

Barry Lovejoy, Joint Trade Union Side Secretary from UCU, said: ‘We want a better deal for FE staff which matches the rise in prices and the contribution members make to our colleges.

‘The recommended award this year was well below inflation and an effective pay cut for staff.
‘This claim seeks to make up the shortfall.’

Christine Lewis, Joint Trade Union Side Secretary and UNISON National Officer, added: ‘College staff are part of a community of public service workers who are entitled to a fair pay deal and they are determined to get one.

‘Further Education is the driver for the government’s skills agenda which is impossible to deliver if you have a low paid, demoralised workforce.’

The employer’s body, the Association of Colleges (AOC), makes a recommendation to individual FE colleges on pay.

In the past there have been problems because a significant number of colleges have chosen not to implement the agreed pay recommendation. Some even failed to offer any annual increase.

The News Line

Also on education, this from The Socialist:

No more school closures!

EDUCATION IS under attack. 30,000 children could lose their rural schools in the first stage of the government’s new closure plans. Campaigners are worried that more than a thousand small schools in England and Wales could in the longer term be threatened with closing.
This is one of the ruinous effects of the ‘market’ on education. In cities and towns as well as villages, every time a school’s number of pupils goes below a certain level, many local councils talk of closure. Whatever happened to Labour’s supposed commitment to smaller class sizes? Why not use the opportunity of declining school rolls to bring down the size of classes?
Socialist Party members Jim Reekie and Jake Moore report on the angry response in Shropshire to these threats.

ON 23 January, Shropshire’s local authority announced plans to close 22 rural primary schools with another 16 earmarked for merger. Many individual school campaigns are already underway against these attacks.

They will demonstrate together outside the council’s offices before the councillors’ cabinet meeting.

The county council claims that all those schools in Shropshire with 92 pupils or more would be deemed ‘viable’.

Local Tory councillor Ann Hartley claimed that other schools would close, based upon falling pupil numbers and that this was the “only option”.

But these are village schools that have been there for years, serve the local community and many are in fact over-subscribed.

These plans will further undermine communities, some of which have already lost local post offices and hospitals.

Days after the county council’s decision, Shropshire Socialist Party was out campaigning and petitioning against these planned attacks. Our petition against this market-style madness struck a chord with Saturday shoppers.

The mood was one of outrage that schools would be closing because of a lack of funding. One worried parent summed it up appropriately: “The three main parties are now all the same. They’re all happy to spend billions on wars, then there’s no money for our services such as education and hospitals.”

A united campaign must now be built across the 22 affected schools and beyond. With the correct strategy in opposition there is potential to take on the government’s local and national plans to cut education further.

We also argued the need for a new workers’ party that would stand for public services and against cuts, closures and privatisation.

These school campaigns, alongside those against cuts and privatisation in other public services, can help play a role in forging a new mass worker’s party in the future.

  • No to these school cuts, closures or mergers.
  • Reduce the size of school classes, not the number of schools.
  • Kick the market out of education.
  • For a united campaign of teachers, parents, pupils, trade unionists and community activists to defeat these plans.
  • For a new mass workers’ party that stands for public services and against privatisation.

Imperial powers split over Afghanistan strategy?

Here’s a great article from the World Socialist Web Site:

British plans to arm Afghan militias reignite tensions with US
By Harvey Thompson
29 January 2008

Comments by a US general on British policy in Afghanistan have once again brought to the fore tensions between the two major occupation powers in the country.

Major-General Robert Cone, the US general in charge of training an Afghan police force, has criticised British-backed plans to arm local militias in the south of the country to aid them in defeating the insurgency. The remarks by the second most senior US soldier in Afghanistan are likely to deepen an ongoing dispute between London and Washington over how to fight the insurgency.

Cone said, “Anything that detracts from a professional, well-trained, well-led police force is not the answer.”

Cone is the second US commander to condemn the initiative.

Last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Britain intended to increase its support for “community defence initiatives, where local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families modelled on traditional Afghan arbakai.” The arbakai system involves arming untrained Afghan men, who agree to come running at the beating of a drum if their village elders feel threatened.

British diplomats and military strategists in the volatile southern province of Helmand had hoped the arbakai initiative might help to shore up Afghanistan’s avowedly corrupt police force, which is unable to defend itself against attacks by mainly Taliban insurgents. At least 10 police officers died this month in a single Taliban attack on a checkpoint in Kandahar.

According to the Independent, Cone is leading a “root-and-branch reform” of the Afghan police force, which has “been ill-equipped, badly paid, poorly trained and dogged by corruption since 2001. The US government has pledged US$7.4 billion (£3.7 billion) to improve Afghan security forces between now and October. But Cone admitted there was no “model of what policing should be” in the country. “When Afghan people understand what well-trained, well-paid police do, they will demand it,” he added. “But right now they are just not familiar.” “

US officials have made it clear that they do not intend to risk armed militia emerging that may fall under the command of warlords disloyal to the US-backed Karzai government.

Major-General Cone, as well as other US officials, have drawn comparisons between Brown’s plan and a disastrous international initiative to build an auxiliary police force that was scrapped last year.

Auxiliary officers were given assault rifles and uniforms after just a few days of basic training, on the understanding that they would police the area from which they came.

Cone said, “The auxiliary police was an attempt to take short-cuts. It is very important to understand why the Afghan National Auxiliary Police Force did not work, as we look at any informal programme that doesn’t promote professional policing.”

The UN was also unsettled by Brown’s arbakai plan as it threatened to undermine the work it had done previously in disarming proscribed militias. The plan has reportedly not found favour amongst most NATO countries, either.

Last year, General Dan McNeill, the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the plan would probably fuel the insurgency. He did add, diplomatically, that it may work only in small parts of the countryside that did not include Helmand, where most of Britain’s 7,700 troops are stationed. He had said, “My information, from studying Afghan history, is that arbakai works only in Paktia, Khost and the southern portion of Paktika, and it’s not likely to work beyond those geographic locations.”

When McNeill replaced British General David Richards as head of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in July of last year, one of his first moves was to deliver a fierce condemnation of a failed British-sponsored plan whereby the security of the Helmand town of Musa Qala was entrusted to local tribal elders.

Recent weeks have also seen a flaring of tensions between the US and its NATO allies over Washington’s constant refrain that the other most prominent nations of the alliance are not shouldering their military responsibility in Afghanistan.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said other NATO countries did not know how to fight insurgencies. On January16, Gates told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m worried we’re deploying [military advisers] that are not properly trained and I’m worried we have some military forces that don’t know how to do counterinsurgency operations.”

He added, “Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency; they were trained for the Fulda gap.” The Fulda gap is the region in Germany where NATO Cold War strategists considered a Soviet land invasion of Western Europe was most likely.

In the Netherlands, the defence ministry summoned the US ambassador to explain Gates’ comments.

British defence officials told the press that Gates promptly telephoned the UK defence secretary, Des Browne, saying his comments were not directed at the 7,000-plus UK forces deployed in Helmand province along with Dutch, Canadian, American, Czech and Estonian troops.

British sources said pointedly that Gates was directing his criticism at NATO as a whole, not at any particular country.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, “The totality of the piece leaves the impression that the [defence] secretary is disturbed with the performance of individual countries in Afghanistan. He is not.”

Official denials, however, cannot mask the deep divisions between the occupation forces. As the Guardian put it, “Gates’s remarks reflect increasing tension and frustration within NATO about how to cope with the Taliban insurgency. Ironically, given the concerns expressed by Gates, British military commanders have accused the US of heavy-handed tactics, including aerial bombing—a tactic which frequently leads to civilian casualties—and have suggested that is the result of America’s lack of experience in counterinsurgency warfare. In turn, US commanders in Afghanistan have recently criticised British plans to support local militia and civil defence forces in the south of the country.”

As a recent Washington Post piece made clear, even the latest announcement to send a further 3,200 US troops to Afghanistan, far from easing international rifts, merely led to a series of mutual accusations among the occupation nations:

“The US plan to send an additional 3,200 Marines to troubled southern Afghanistan this spring reflects the Pentagon’s belief that if it can’t bully its recalcitrant NATO allies into sending more troops to the Afghan front, perhaps it can shame them into doing so, U.S. officials said. But the immediate reaction to the proposed deployment from NATO partners fighting alongside US forces was that it was about time the United States stepped up its own effort.”

NATO, the Post wrote, “is a bundle of frayed nerves and tension over nearly every aspect of the conflict, including troop levels and missions, reconstruction, anti-narcotics efforts, and even counterinsurgency strategy.” Senior US and NATO officials, speaking under condition of anonymity, revealed the stresses caused by rising casualty figures, domestic pressures and the sense that the war is not improving.

Washington’s NATO allies are aggrieved that they have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting and are taking the heaviest losses. Half the foreign troops in Afghanistan are American, but Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are engaged in regular combat in the volatile south.

“We have one-tenth of the troops and we do more fighting than you do,” a Canadian official said of his country’s 2,500 troops in Kandahar province. “So do the Dutch.” The Canadian death rate, proportional to the overall size of its force, is higher than that of US troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, a Canadian government analysis concluded last year.

British operations are centred in Helmand, the main opium-producing area and where NATO troops are engaged in intense fighting. US troops are based in the eastern region, which has been much quieter. A US official told the Post that if the eastern region was quieter, it was because superior US tactics had made it so.

Underlying all of the various disagreements is the fact that, seven years into the occupation of the country, US and NATO forces have been unable to subdue the Afghan insurgency.

Security in much of Afghanistan has deteriorated in the past two years. And although the worst of the violence has been largely concentrated in the south and east of the country, where the majority of NATO/US troops are deployed, instability is also significantly spreading to other areas. An estimated 140 suicide attacks took place throughout 2007, the deadliest 12 months of the occupation.

But perhaps most alarming for NATO/US forces in Afghanistan is the increase in instability in the heavily garrisoned capital itself. In December, the Taliban carried out two suicide bombings in Kabul, killing 13 people in one attack. Later that month, a rocket attack near the Kabul governor’s residence killed 5 people.

But the most audacious attack occurred on January 14 when Kabul’s Serena Hotel—a heavily protected luxury hotel and showcase of post-invasion Afghanistan—was attacked by gunfire and bomb devices. Seven people were killed, while guests, including the Norwegian foreign minister, were bundled into the hotel cellar during the attack.

The Serena Hotel is used by a number of foreign embassies and businesses and is frequented by wealthy businessmen, diplomats and dignitaries, as well as journalists and NGOs. The hotel is heavily barricaded and constantly guarded against security threats.

The Serena Hotel’s web site gives the following candid description of its Kabul outlet: “An oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city, the hotel offers such unheard of luxuries (by local standards) as: 177 rooms, all with stylish soft furnishings, marble bathrooms, satellite TV and Internet connections on demand. Guest amenities include a business centre, health club, swimming pool and a beauty salon.”

The presidential suite is currently priced at US$1,350 per night. Average income for an employed Afghan worker is presently US$1 a day.

Although post-war UK foreign policy has tightly dovetailed that of the US, especially since the Suez crisis, there are significant individual differences that the two powers represent in their geopolitical interests. In Afghanistan, the two imperialist powers have come to realise they need each other; the US military needs additional troops, and the British can assume more leverage by acting as the second biggest deployment.

Britain’s colonial past in central Asia, however, is an historical catalogue of brutal, yet ultimately failed attempts to quell insurgent populations. Even though these lessons of history are lost on the main political and military leaders of the day, they resonate in some unlikely places.

The former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, who served in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, has been negotiating terms for a new role in Afghanistan this month coordinating the international effort and its links with the Karzai government. In summing up the US/NATO mission in Afghanistan, he said, “We have lost and success is unlikely.”

The Surveillance State

From the Torygraph, by way of OurKingdom:

Councils, police and intelligence services are tapping and intercepting the phone calls, emails and letters of hundreds of thousands of people every year, an official report said.

Those being bugged include people suspected of illegal fly-tipping as councils use little known powers to carry out increasingly sophisticated surveillance to catch offenders.

The report, by Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, has fuelled fears that Britain is becoming a state where private communications are routinely monitored.

It also found that more than 1,000 of the bugging operations were flawed. In some cases, the phones of innocent people were tapped simply because of administrative errors.

David Winnick, a Labour member of the Commons home affairs committee, said greater legal protection was needed to prevent abuse of surveillance powers. Britain already has more CCTV cameras per person than any other country in the world.

He said: “Most of these operations are needed and done for good reasons, but the numbers do raise concerns about the safeguards we have put in place to protect people from constant intrusion.”

Referring to George Orwell’s vision of a surveillance state, Mr Winnick added: “To walk blindfolded into 1984 is not anything that anybody in their right mind would want.”

Michael Parker of NO2ID, which campaigns against ID cards, said the figures showed the state’s desire to gather more information about people. “We are living in a surveillance state.”

The report shows that in the last nine months of 2006, there were 253,557 applications to intercept private communications under surveillance laws. It is understood that most were approved.

In that period 122 local authorities sought to obtain people’s private communications in more than 1,600 cases.

Councils are among more than 600 public bodies with the power to monitor people’s private communications.

Senior council officers are given the power to authorise surveillance in order to catch fly-tippers, benefit fraudsters and rogue traders. However, intelligence agencies must seek the permission of ministers while police need approval from chief constables.

Eric Pickles, the Conservative local government spokesman, said the use of surveillance powers against suspected fly-tippers was “completely over the top.”

Sir Paul, a senior judge with access to secret intelligence material, also reported 1,088 incidents where public bodies broke the rules on surveillance operations.

His report covers interception activities over a total of 264 days, during which time new applications for interception were made at a rate of 960 each day.

This did not include warrants personally issued by the Foreign Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary – thought to be several thousand – which are kept secret.

Each application under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act can cover several means of communication used by one named person, or all communications to and from a named building.

The Local Government Association defended the use of the powers against people “ruining the countryside or trying to take the taxpayer for a ride”.

Eric Metcalfe, a barrister who advises Justice, a civil rights group, called the findings “disturbing”. He added: “Putting the Home Secretary in charge of authorising interceptions is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: “It beggars belief that in a nine-month period, based on these figures, the entire City of Westminster could have had their phones tapped – yet Britain remains one of the few Western countries that won’t allow this evidence to be used in court … to prosecute criminals and terrorists.”

But Sir Paul confirmed that MI5 and other intelligence agencies remain opposed to any change in the law.