For sale: England’s school playing fields

Alan Johnson is currently the Health Minister trying to bring in a voucher sysem for the English NHS and is opening up “choice” between public and private hospitals – the better to channel money to big business and drain the NHS of resources.

When he was Education Secretary he was selling off school playing fields – despite the promise of New Labour when elected in 1997 that they’d end this Tory practice, along with the policies that were destroying the NHS.

He said of the reversal of some neoliberal policies by the Scottish government: ‘I wouldn’t go down the free prescriptions route, as I wouldn’t in a previous life go down the free higher education route.’

Johnson argued that the policy differences on health between the Labour and Scottish governments were not due to financial pressures, but was ideological. He explained that the Labour government disagreed with the approach of the Nationalists, who have established that the elderly must have free personal care, and that the government had much more important things to spend the taxpayers’ money on.

Like bailing out banks, funding illegal wars of occupation, and paying the mortgages of MPs second homes…

Would such a man be allowed anywhere near England’s health or education system if there was a devoluted English parliament with a fair voting system?

Get a load of the editorial of today’s edition of The News Line:

Labour is selling off school playing fields

SCHOOLS Secretary Ed Balls and his predecessor Alan Johnson have given the go-head to the sell-off of 19 school playing fields over the past year and a further 53 school and community playing fields are under threat.

Margaret Morrissey from the National Confederation of Parent Teachers Associations (NCPTA) told a Sunday newspaper: ‘We know they are selling off playing fields. What happened to the commitment in 1997 that they were going to stop the sales? We are doing children a terrible injustice.’

In the past decade, the Labour government has approved the sale of 187 playing fields, despite a pledge made in 1997 that they would ‘bring the (Tory) government’s policy of forcing schools to sell off playing fields to an end’. Between 1979 and 1997 the Tories sold off 10,000 playing fields.

In addition, there have been 1,331 sales of parts of schools’ sites to developers, driven by rocketing house prices.

There are scores of local campaigns. In south-west London, Barn Elms playing fields are threatened with being sold off to a developer who wants to build a private health club on the site.

In west London, there is opposition to Holland Park School’s plans to sell of some of its sports ground to developers in order to modernise this first purpose-built comprehensive school.

Protest actions have taken place recently in Duston, Northamptonshire, Blackpool and Reading, against plans to scrap playing fields and sell off the land.

Balls has attempted to cover up this scandalous record of the Labour government.

At the weekend, the Department of for Children, Schools and Families admitted the sell-offs. However, it added that Balls had announced that £30m would be spent on ‘the network of 422 specialist sports colleges’ and it claimed that money from land sales had been ‘ploughed back into sports or educational facilities’.

Even if the latter claim were true, using land-sale money to build more classrooms, or buy books, cannot compensate for the loss of children’s sports fields. Spending money on ‘specialist sports colleges’ does nothing to help community comprehensive schools that are losing their playing fields.

This is the same type of subterfuge engaged in by the government concerning its academies programme. Community comprehensive schools are starved of funds, while ‘specialist sports colleges’ and academies, owned and controlled by businesses, get generous hand-outs from the government.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his ministers, the likes of Balls and Health Secretary Johnson, are handing over assets, like playing fields, and millions from taxpayers, to their big business backers.

Under this government, education, the National Health Service (NHS) and local council services are no longer primarily concerned with providing healthcare, the universal right to education, etc., free for everyone.

Instead, they are regarded as channels through which government funds can be channelled to banks and multinational corporations, to boost their profits.

Parents and teachers are angry about the government’s cuts and its privatisation of education, as NCPTA spokeswoman Morrissey and the teachers’ unions have made clear over the past week.

Last Tuesday, the NASUWT teachers’ union conference offered the union’s backing to strike action by members opposed to being forced to work in academies, when these replace existing local authority schools.

Alongside this, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference backed strike action by its members against pay cuts and heavy workloads, with the first walk-out taking place on April 24.

All the conditions exist to form a public sector alliance of trade unions to fight pay cuts, cuts in services and the privatisation of public services.

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For sale: England’s towns and cities

An extract from Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Real England: The Battle Against The Bland, which comes out next week:

Urban public space is at the heart of city and town life. It is the essence of public freedom: a place to rally, to protest, to sit and contemplate, to smoke or talk or watch the stars. No matter what happens in the shops and cafes, the offices and houses, the existence of public space means there is always somewhere to go to express yourself or simply to escape.

Yet this, too, is under assault. From parks to pedestrian streets, squares to market places, public spaces are being bought up and closed down, often with little consultation or publicity. In towns and cities all over England, what was once public is now private. It is effectively owned by corporations, which set the standards of behaviour. These standards are the standards that are most congenial to their aim – getting you to buy things. So there will be no begging, no being homeless, no wearing hoodies. There will be no busking, and often there will be no sitting either, except in designated areas. You will eat and drink where you are told to. You will not skateboard or cycle or behave “inappropriately”. And as for political demonstrations – don’t even think about it.

Throughout history, urban space has been a source of danger to those in authority, a place where dissidents gather. So, for a cash-strapped local authority, handing over control of public streets can seem like a boon. Private companies provide security guards to police them and keep them tidy. It saves money and time.

Paul also comments on the English Question today in a brilliant article at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free site:

In 2003, government proposals to create Foundation Hospitals were rejected by the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. Only England remained, and Labour MPs were split. A parliamentary amendment removing Foundation Hospitals for England from the proposed Health and Social Care Bill was supported by most English MPs – but Welsh and Scottish MPs, drilled into the lobbies by the government, defeated them. The next year the same thing happened when university “top-up fees” were rejected in Scotland and Wales but imposed on the English by just five votes – the votes of Scottish MPs.

England today is the only British nation without any form of democratic devolution. It is the only nation in Europe without its own parliament or government. It has fewer MPs per head of population than the other British nations, and receives considerably less money per head from the treasury. Opinion polls show that the English are increasingly aware of this injustice – and increasingly unhappy (Alex Salmond enjoys reminding the English of the unfairness of the situation, for obvious reasons). This unhappiness, which is coalescing into resentment and anger, threatens not only the union, but the government’s power base. New Labour is a Scottish creation, and any devolution to England could destroy not only the (Scottish) prime minister but the legitimacy of his government – a government which, if you removed its Scottish and Welsh MPs from the equation, would be a minority administration in England.

In this context, it becomes clear why the government is so keen on “Britishness”: it is trying to hold the English at bay; trying to avoid having to finish the devolution project by ensuring that England, too, controls its own affairs. As a result, we are seeing a mirror-image of the UK’s pre-1997 constitutional injustices. Back then, the Scottish were resentful at being ruled from Westminster by a political party – the Tories – which did not represent their interests and which used their country as a testing ground for unpopular policies, most notoriously the poll tax. The Tories responded either by ignoring them and hoping they would go away or by issuing hysterical warnings about the breakup of the union.

Sounds familiar? Today England has the illegitimate government, and the English are the guinea pigs for its unpopular ideas. It responds by simply denying the legitimacy of their claims (“separatist nationalism must be taken on”, squeaks Michael Wills) or by feebly grasping at a fading British mythology. Some Scottish or Welsh nationalists may be enjoying the schadenfreude of seeing the English get a taste of their own medicine – but they shouldn’t. This is not about setting the English up against the Scots or the Welsh. It is, at root, about democracy and about justice. It is about all of us – Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English – getting Britain off our backs.

Opinion poll indicates West Lothian question is biggest constitutional issue

According to the fifth annual Audit of Political Engagement by pollster Ipsos MORI:

The public […] are most likely to be dissatisfied with Scottish MPs being able to vote on English issues (46% are dissatisfied with this)

Bear in mind that this is a survey “based on 1,073 adults aged 18+ in Great Britain” – I’m guessing that the percentage of people dissatisfied is higher in England and that it isn’t thought satisfactory for MPs with constituencies in Wales or Northern Ireland to be voting on England-only affairs, either.

But what chance an English parliament? It’s is the only solution to the problem.

As Tony Benn said many years ago:

“England is also entitled to its own cultural and political identity. The cultural identity of the English has been submerged by a history of dominating the United Kingdom and the world, such that the common people of England have been persuaded that in return for status as subjects of a King or Queen-Emperor, they somehow shared the glory of that Empire. In fact England, like Scotland and Wales is the colony that never secured its own liberation from that monarchical power.”

The bigger issues for constitutional reformers include the electoral system, a bill of rights, a written constitution, abolition of the monarchy – anything but devolution in England, in fact. Which is odd, because an English parliament would be more likely than the British parliament to act on electoral reform, a bill of rights, a written constitution, abolition of the monarchy – because the establishment of an English parliament would speed-up the death of Britain, leaving England alone.

No longer part of a multinational state, but a state on its own, the governance of England would have to be formally reconsidered. Here, progressive social forces could act to ensure that the radical tradition of the English working class is continued – Empire over, a new England could be built, a land of peace and social justice where the people are the sovereign power.

Cost of living soars, English council tax up 4% – signs that the Third Way is over

As the Beeb reports:

Council tax bills in England are going up by an average of 4% in the coming financial year. […]

The Local Government Association chairman, Sir Simon Milton, said councils would struggle to keep within their budgets.

Budget squeeze

“Councils have been under a real financial squeeze during the annual struggle to keep bills down,” he said.

“The stark reality is that low council tax rises have come at a cost and many councils have had to make tough decisions on spending,” he added.

Most dwellings in England, nearly two-thirds, are in bands A to C for council tax.

But the tax is based on the number of band D dwellings in each area, and the charge for band D homes is used as a benchmark to calculate the charge for the other bands.

This year band D dwellings will see an average 4% rise in their bills, going up from £1,321 to £1,374 a year.

Nine years ago, in 1999-00, the average band D charge in England was just £798.

Now, consider this:

The number of mortgages approved for new house purchases has shrunk by almost a third since last February, according to new figures from the British Banker’s Association.

Fewer than 44,000 new home loans were approved last month, as the credit crunch and the slowing housing market took their toll.

At the same time, people are repaying more than they are borrowing on credit cards. Spending was £7.3bn in Feb, and Repayments were £7.7bn. The difference is 0.4bn – double what it was last month. A sign, perhaps, that the credit card spending boom is slowing down.

But as spending slows, the cost of living is rising – putting even more financial pressure on some already stretched households.

The average family is earning more – but paying more – as figures show the cost of living has risen over the past year.

The findings show that households are typically seven pounds a week worse off because they’re paying more for food, transport and fuel.

Feeling the pinch
Analysis for the Asda supermarket by the Centre for Economics and Business Research looked at the cost of individual items. It found:

* Food and drinks have risen 5.6 per cent. Milk, cheese and eggs are up 17.6 per cent.
* The cost of petrol rose 20.4 per cent and water supplies rose 6.2 per cent.
* The government has announced the lowest council tax rises in a decade today – but at 4 per cent, they’re still higher than inflation.
*Despite rising costs of essential items, the headline inflation figure has been kept down by falls in less essential items – clothing fell 4.6 per cent and telecommunications fell 3.9 per cent.

All of this reminds me of an article that appeared in the Star a few weeks ago:

The third way falls apart
(Friday 14 March 2008)
ANDREW FISHER
Left Economics Advisory Panel co-ordinator ANDREW FISHER draws a few conclusions from this year’s budget.

NEW Labour is entering the rockiest economic period of its years in office. Brown has constructed his political persona around economic stability and prudence, but, after 11 years in power of sustained economic growth and relatively high employment levels, the British economy is now looking decidedly unstable.The theoretical underpinning of new Labour was the “third way” that professed to unite sound economic management with social justice, with acolytes insisting that there was no contradiction.

While Britain has greater inequality than at any time in three generations, new Labour has so far successfully avoided economic issues making it onto the political agenda at election time.

Instead, Gordon Brown has pointed to the beneficial social effects on this economic success – record employment, reduced child poverty and a minimum wage.

However, these modest achievements have occurred in the economic good times. But the looming question over Darling’s first budget was, will further social gains be sacrificed as the economy tightens?

There were already some indications that the Brown government would act much like that of Callaghan, cutting public-sector pay, tightening government expenditure, privatising public functions and cutting taxes for corporations and the rich.

If it follows this path, it will be with similar consequences economically, industrially and, ultimately, politically.

This budget was therefore new Labour’s moment of truth. Would it kowtow to the demands of the CBI or would it choose social justice and strengthen its social gains?

On child poverty, the government has admitted defeat. In 1999, Blair committed Labour to halving child poverty by 2010, taking 1.7 million children out of poverty. To date, it has missed its targets and only removed 600,000 children from poverty.

The measures announced in the budget will only remove a further 250,000 by 2010. Therefore, we will leave over 2.5 million children in poverty in 2010, which will be nearer 3.5 million once housing costs are included.

The economic times have also hit the government’s other flagship policies on social justice. The minimum wage will increase by just 21p to £5.73. At 3.8 per cent, that’s below the current inflation rate of 4.1 per cent, meaning a real-terms cut for the poorest, who will be doubly hit by the removal of the 10 per cent starting rate for tax from April.

The budget gave pensioners a welcome one-off extra £50 on the winter fuel allowance. But this has already been absorbed by the average gas and electricity increase of 11.8 per cent, increasing the average bill by £108 over the year.

The inherent contradictions of the “third way” are only being exposed now that the economy is weakening. At this budget, new Labour had to choose – would it regulate utility companies to slow inflation? Would it raise the minimum wage above inflation to stimulate spending, avoid the burgeoning personal debt crisis and reduce child poverty? Would it tax non-doms, corporates or the mega-rich to tackle pensioner poverty? The answer to all three was: “No.”

As the economy falters, it is clear that the government’s solution is to become more reactionary. Ministers are bringing forward ever more brutal ideas for reducing public expenditure by attacking the most vulnerable. Services are being listed for privatisation and outsourcing in areas never before considered. Public-sector wages are being cut and conditions of employment eroded.

Working with Labour MPs, trade unionists and economists, we formed the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) to challenge the economic hegemony of our age. LEAP is about promoting the economics of co-operation over competition, of democracy over markets and of the many over the few.

In an age when all the major parties are ideologically committed to neoliberal economic dogma – privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation – that need is more necessary than ever.

LEAP is co-hosting an economics conference “Beyond the Market Economy – socialist solutions for the economic crisis” on May 24 at Birkbeck College. This conference brings together economists, trade unionists, students and campaigners to debate the crisis and, importantly, to develop contemporary socialist policies and campaigns in key areas, with workshops on securing housing for all, ending corporate power – 21st century models of social ownership, drowning in debt – transforming the financial system and defending pay, pensions and jobs in a global market economy. To register send a cheque for £10 (£5 unwaged), payable to “Another World is Possible,” to LRC, PO Box 2378, London, E5 9QU. The March 2008 LEAP Red Papers can be downloaded for free from www.l-r-c.org.uk/#LEAP

No restraint for the rich!

From the Cardigan, news that the credit crunch hasn’t hit the bosses…

Bob Diamond, the US banker who runs Barclays’ investment banking arm, has cemented his position as one of the highest paid bosses in a FTSE 100 company after receiving almost £36m last year.

The figure comprises £21m in cash, bonuses and shares in addition to £14.8m from a three-year performance plan.

The £21m includes his £250,000 base salary, £6.5m cash bonus, a £11.3m share award held in a trust for three years and £3m of shares which will be received in three years provided performance criteria are achieved. The sum is down slightly from the £22m in 2006.

But his total is boosted by the £14.8m “retained incentive opportunity” – half in cash, half in shares – put in place three years ago when he joined the Barclays board. He received the sum because profits at the investment banking division Barclays Capital exceeded targets – despite the US sub-prime mortgage crisis.

It was nice this Easter to hear various clerics bashing the obscene wealth of the ruling class, but not so nice to be reminded of it…

Whatever happened to wage restraint – or does that only apply to teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police officers?

The article continues:

Diamond is one of the highest profile bankers in the City and last year topped the Guardian’s annual boardroom pay survey. He came out ahead of Bart Becht, £22m boss of Cillit Bang maker Reckitt Benckiser, and Giles Thorley, of Punch Taverns, who earned £11m in 2006.

Diamond achieved the bonus even though Barclays took a £1.6bn hit from the sub-prime crisis in the US and despite ongoing financial woes which have seen billions wiped off share values worldwide. The bank’s profits in 2007 were £7bn, the same as 2006, and its share price has suffered.

And the central banker, King Merv (as he isn’t known) has been talking about how he – sorry, we – will come to the rescue of the markets, intervening on the side of big business…

“The heart of the problem is not in the real economy; it is in the financial sector itself,” King said in testimony before a House of Commons committee. “It stems from an ‘overhang’ on banks’ balance sheets of assets in which markets have closed. These assets cannot now be sold or used to secure funding in the market — they are difficult to finance.

“That has created uncertainty about the strength of banks’ financial positions,” King said.

King said the bank would continue to provide liquidity to money markets. Emergency loans, however, can only provide temporary help, he said, which is why the bank expanded the range of eligible collateral to include mortgage-backed securities in its three-month lending operations in December, January and March.

So what he’s saying is that, as the banks hoard cash and tighten lending to working people, the Bank of England is going to reward them for their mendacity?

Just spiffing.

The governmment’s emergency nationalisation of Northern Rock was on the basis of legislation allowing other banks to be bailed out – for that’s what it is, Northern Rock’s employees are threatened with compulsory redundancies so they’re not benefiting – it could be that more banks like the Rock, and Bear Stearns in the US, are rescued just as the credit crisis hits working people.

In America, home repossessions are at the highest level since the Great Depression. The government there will intervene in the economy – but not to stop working people being turfed out of their homes. And when repossessions rise on this side of the pond, the government here will be intervening – to rescue those doing the repossessing, not to help familes facing eviction.

The lesson to be learned for working people is that political power must be taken first from New Labour and then from the bankers and big businessmen. For if they are left to deal with the ongoing economic crisis, we will pay dearly – with our homes and our jobs…

The truth’s out about “reforms” in the English NHS

This article is from the Welsh Communist Party blog – remember, we’ve not got devolution in England, unlike Wales.

THE TRUTH’S FINALLY OUT
Wednesday 26. March
JULIAN TUDOR HART explains why new evidence casts doubt on government claims on the impact of its ‘reforms’ on NHS England.

WHEN Edwina Hart took office as Wales Assembly government minister for health, she quickly made clear her intention to renationalise NHS Wales, close the door to all further privatisation and eliminate the purchaser-provider split as soon as she could get past her civil servants.

Important though this is, it probably scarcely registered with the Welsh general public until she announced the impending end of all charges for hospital car parking – an immensely popular step that was widely welcomed.

As new Labour at Westminster is still driving ahead with its privatisation programme, with plans for giant polyclinics all over London the latest plank, an explosion of some sort was bound to come sooner or later. Free parking for patients and visitors has now lit the fuse.

Retaliating recently, Junior Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said: “If that’s what Scotland and Wales want to do, that’s one of the joys of devolution. We’re spending the money on improving patient care. In Wales, you have to wait much longer for your operation, you have to wait much longer in A&E. You’re not going to enjoy the extended GP opening hours that patients in England are soon going to be enjoying.

“Those are the priorities that we think the English patients are more interested in, rather than subsidising anyone who wants to park in a hospital car park for free.”

Bradshaw’s confident assertion of NHS England’s superiority to NHS Wales is only the most recent of many on the same lines. So far, these claims have remained pretty much unchallenged by the medical or Civil Service establishment.

Now, under the heading England’s waiting times no better than Wales, the Health Service Journal has produced expert evidence from Paul Robinson, head of market intelligence at the NHS informatics supplier CHKS, that, despite England’s much larger investment in waiting-time reduction, average waits have fallen at a similar pace to those in Wales.

Robinson goes on to say: “This raises a big question about what is needed to reduce waiting. Wales has not made a large-scale investment. Did England need to spend so much and to develop a plurality of providers in order to achieve its waiting-time gains?”

A recent report from the independent charity Civitas on waiting times in England suggested that, although the longest waits have shortened, the median wait has not changed significantly.

In other words, the main impact of the waiting times initiative has been to tighten up the distribution of waits so there is a much shorter “tail.”

Robinson analysed waiting times across the last five years for four procedures and compared England with Wales. The four procedures were cataracts, the procedure given the shortest targets first in England, knee replacement – orthopaedic surgery has had large volumes contracted out to independent-sector treatment centres in England – hernias, which are a high-volume routine procedure, and excision of the rectum, a routine but usually urgent procedure.

Waits for cataracts and knee ops fell in both countries, while those for hernias and excision of rectum were relatively flat.

Robinson also looked at those who waited longest, the last 10 per cent, but, again, it was clear that waits in both countries were decreasing at very similar rates.

Wales has not made a large-scale investment, but it has focused on systemic tools such as demand and capacity planning.

The Health Service Journal seems to think that NHS England and new Labour may well have something to learn from NHS Wales and real Labour – and not before time.

Dr Julian Tudor Hart works in retirement as a research fellow at Swansea Medical School and is an active member of Wales Labour Party. In the 1960s, he was a Communist candidate for Parliament and a well-known GP in the mining village of Glyncorrwg.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star (27.3.08)

Teachers take stand against war, Tories fail to force inquiry on Iraq

Opportunism from the Tories – who backed the war in Iraq – a call for an immediate inquiry into the events in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. There’s local elections in a few weeks, dontchaknow?

MPs rejected an attempt to force an independent probe, despite support from the Lib Dems and 12 Labour rebels.

The government’s parliamentary majority of 67 was more than halved as it won by 299 to 271 votes.

A government amendment, recognising an time will come when an inquiry is “appropriate” but not during “important operations” in Iraq, was passed.

It was carried by 299 votes to 259 – a government majority of 40.

The good news is that in future parliament will have a greater say on going to war in future – better news would be a public vote on going to war… Given the news that 14 MPs expenses won’t be publicly disclosed as promised, you can see why I’m not jumping for joy at Jack Straw’s pitiful announcement.

As for Iraq, are the British really sitting back while a second surge is launched, this time in Basra in the south of the country, can we believe reports they are confined to their bases? One news broadcast let slip they’ve carried out air attacks against resistance groups – which is in effect helping the Iraqi puppet army.

More good news from the National Union of Teachers conference:

Conference voted overwhelmingly to support a motion opposing military recruitment in schools and to support teachers, students and parents who choose not to take part in events organised by the military.

The motion also called for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and for protests if there is any attack on Iran.

The NUT executive moved an amendment, which was passed, strengthening the motion by calling for a convention to be called including teachers, educationalists and Stop the War activists.

Alas, news reports on the conference’s call for religious teaching in state schools to be broadened to meet the needs of other faiths has focused only on Islam. Is another of the regular Islamophobic feeding frenzies about to begin?