Labour’s running out of money; unions are running out of patience

Is John Hutton an alien from another planet? He’s always looked that way to me. But no, he’s not an alien from another planet – though to my knowledge, if he were an alien he could continue to be a Labour MP.

So, is he a labour man? I give you, today’s Morning Star editorial by way of an answer:

Market worship
(Thursday 29 May 2008)

AFTER John Hutton’s swivel-eyed claim on Thursday that employment rights should exist solely to facilitate “competitiveness” and profit, it is hard to find a better response than UCATT leader Alan Ritchie’s comment that the ultra-Blairite minister has “completely lost touch with reality.”

Even as Labour runs to the unions again to prevent the party sliding into bankruptcy, while its support among working-class people sinks into the abyss, market fanatics like Hutton are still trying to pretend that big business works in everyone’s interest, rather than just that of the boss classes.

Mr Ritchie has pointed out that “it is exactly this kind of subservience to business which is causing Labour to haemorrhage grass-roots support” – and subservience is just what it is.

The Huttons of this world have swallowed Thatcherite dogma hook, line and sinker.

They genuinely believe that a return to a Victorian-style non-regulation of business will enable businesses to “create more and more jobs” to the benefit of all.

Has he been paying attention? During the past decade, companies have viewed their “human resources” as the very first thing to face the chop if profits and dividends need boosting. While executive pay has soared, jobs have been outsourced to low-wage countries and British workplaces closed down.

Britain has some of the lowest levels of workers’ rights and workplace regulation in western Europe, but this will never be enough for the vested interests of fat cats, for whom putting a protective guard on a meat-slicer is an intolerable “burden” which prevents them being even richer than they already are.

New Labour has an amazing habit of taking such whingeing at face value, deluded in its belief that bosses are some all-knowing higher order of life. Compared to the likes of John Hutton, maybe they are.

“Mr Hutton seems to have had a moral bypass when it comes to workers’ rights,” is the observation of GMB leader Paul Kenny – and, looking at the rest of the Business Secretary’s miserable speech to the Fabians, it is crystal clear that the obligation to provide workers with a safe and secure environment is not on his moral compass.

“Having a multiplicity of employment rights does not amount to a great deal if you can’t get a job in the first place,” is his sage conclusion, which is rather like observing that the Fire Brigade is of no use to the homeless.

So – unless the bailiffs have marched off with all the office furniture by then – new Labour looks set to take the party into the next election with a firm pledge to make Britain a front-runner in the “race to the bottom” for workers’ pay and conditions. As long as there are jobs of some kind, who cares if they are badly paid, insecure or exploitative?

This mindless exaltation of “the market” must stop, or both the Labour Party and any concept of a fairer Britain are finished. Britain’s bosses may have “welcomed” Thursday’s speech, but they are already scuttling back to their natural Tory allies.

It is up to the remaining decent MPs and activists in the Labour Party and the wider labour movement to reverse this suicidal folly.

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Pressured MPs resist New Labour’s anti-democratic plans

The bye-bye-election has had an effect on Labour MPs it would seem…

Firstly, the planning bill:

A Labour revolt is growing over a bill to take away ministers’ and councils’ planning powers on major projects like airports and nuclear power stations.

Sixty-three of the party’s MPs have signed a Commons motion opposing plans to set up an independent commission to decide on major infrastructure.

Labour MP Clive Betts, who put forward the motion, said those involved would be “unelected” and “unaccountable”.

And from a few days ago, talk of a revolt over road tax hikes:

Backbenchers urged Chancellor Alistair Darling to re-think plans announced in the Budget for big increases in vehicle excise duty on “gas guzzling” cars.

Although vehicles bought before 2001 are exempt, MPs are concerned that the some owners who bought bigger cars in the past not realising the changes were on the way, could be faced with increases of up to £200.

More than 30 Labour backbenchers have now signed a Commons motion urging ministers to re-think the proposals before the new rates come into force.

Labour MP Ronnie Campbell, who tabled the motion, warned that the impact of the increases could be similar to scrapping the 10p tax rate, which led to Mr Darling’s £2.7 billion climbdown in an emergency “mini budget” earlier this month.

“It is unfair on people who bought their cars a few years ago not knowing that the Government were going to put this road tax on,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.

“When people get their road tax letter through the door next year and find they have got an extra £200 to pay – well, I don’t have to say any more, do I? The motorist is taking the brunt again.”

Mr Campbell, who is due to meet Mr Darling when MPs return to Westminster after this week’s Whitsun break, also called on Mr Darling to drop the planned 2p increase in fuel duty due in October.

He said that with rising world oil prices pushing up prices at the pumps, another increase would be too much for many families.

Not forgetting, of course, the proposal to increase the pre-charge detention period for those suspected of terrorism-related activities, which New Labour is struggling to introduce. There being no evidence forthcoming for the need to change this aspect of the law, the New Labour clique are using a mixture of fear and phony consensus building to win over Labour rebels:

Labour rebels threatening to defeat Gordon Brown’s counter-terrorism plans were offered a new concession yesterday.
The Home Office confirmed that ministers were ready to modify their move to extend to 42 days the period that police could hold terrorism suspects without charge.

The plan will be put to a Commons vote next month, where a significant Labour revolt and the opposition of the Tories and Lib Dems make a Government defeat a real possibility.

However, following recent failures at the polls, Mr Brown’s authority has been called into question and ministers fear he may not survive a third loss.

Tony McNulty, the minister in charge of counter-terrorism, signalled that the Government could amend its Counter Terrorism Bill to buy off Labour rebels.

Ministers will not compromise on the proposed detention increase from 28 days to 42, but they are prepared to give ground on the parliamentary oversight of long detention cases.

MPs had been promised a chance to vote on such cases, but possibly after the 42 days had expired. Mr McNulty said ministers were open to the possibility of such votes being held before the 42-day limit.

“We have said since the second reading and since the committee stage that if anyone had notions to improve the model then we would certainly listen and remain in consensus mode,” he said on BBC Radio 4.

In a further concession, the Government could slash the period the extra powers would last, the BBC reported. Ministers are understood to be discussing a possible compromise to reduce it from 60 to as little as 30 days.

The scandal of armed forces poverty pay

From the World Socialist Web Site:

Low pay leads to poverty in British Army
By Harvey Thompson
29 May 2008

A report on the state of the British Army released this month revealed considerable resentment amongst ordinary soldiers over low pay, leading many into financial difficulties, under-nourishment and the quitting of the armed forces altogether.

The findings are contained in a briefing team report prepared for the head of the British Army, Chief of the General Staff Richard Dannatt, and are based on months of interviews with thousands of soldiers and their families between July 2007 and January 2008.

Much of the report is concerned with manning levels in the armed forces in light of the increased military engagement, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. But new light is also thrown on the levels of poverty suffered by many frontline soldiers.

In a section entitled Pace of Life, the report says:

“It is viewed that the ‘pace of life’ has been compounded by undermanning, the amount of change being implemented and the lack of support and expertise to deliver that change. COs [Commanding Officers] are concerned at the impact this is having on the moral component.”

The report goes on to say that undermanning is “having a serious impact on the retention in infantry battalions.”

Almost half of all troops are unable to take their entitled annual leave as they are forced to cover gaps.

The brief section on pay then reveals:

“More and more single income soldiers in the UK are now close to the UK Gov’t definition of poverty. Thus many married junior soldiers feel that they are being forced to leave because they cannot afford to raise a family on current pay.”

The study also states:

“A number of soldiers were not eating properly because they had run out of money by the end of the month.”

Army COs now enforce “hungry soldier schemes,” whereby destitute soldiers are loaned money in order to enable them to eat sufficiently.

A scheme known as Pay as You Dine (PAYD) requires soldiers not on active duty to pay for their meals. COs have reported being inundated with angry complaints from soldiers due to the quality of the food and the large amount of paperwork involved. Such schemes are a break from the past when the army provided, as a bare minimum, a staple of three square meals a day, free of charge to all serving soldiers.

According to the Independent newspaper, “Now hard-up soldiers have to fill out a form which entitles them to a voucher. The cost is deducted from their future wages, adding to the problems of soldiers on low pay.”

The report contains warnings from senior officers that “there is a duty of care issue” involved. Also the “core meal” on offer “is often not the healthy option.”

Despite the obvious alarm among senior ranks, General Dannatt has made clear that he intends to persist with the current food schemes. He said recently, “I am determined that PAYD must be made to work to both the financial and physical well-being of those who are fed.”

Along with millions of workers, rising costs have made buying a home impossible for many serving soldiers. “The ability to purchase a property was a major area of concern across all ranks. Discussion included an increase in… Buy to Let legislation and the cost of moving from one private home to another private home near their new appointment.”

Also cited as growing concerns amongst soldiers and their families were children’s school fees and the lack of medical support for families, especially dentists.

Previous studies show that, due to their hours of service, UK soldiers are actually paid well below the national minimum wage. Most serving soldiers earn only £16,000 a year, with a “new entrant rate of pay” of just £13,012.

According to the Armed Forces Pay Review Board, a 2007-08 pay increase of 2.6 percent has to be measured against an estimated net increase in charges of 3.9 percent.

The report also touched on the increasing resentment felt amongst the ranks towards the governments’ cap on the amount of compensation received by the families of wounded soldiers, as well as the growing incidents of “accidental deaths.”

Dannatt said, “I am concerned at the comments from the chain of command, some elements of which clearly believe that they will lose influence over their soldiers and that this will impact on unit cohesion.”

Douglas Young of the British Armed Forces Federation was one of a number of military figures who utilised the report to demand an increase in funding for the Army, in line with the demands of fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

He told the Independent, “People are leaving the armed forces for financial reasons. There’s no question about it.”

Patrick Mercer, a Conservative MP and former army colonel said, “I’ve been talking to some very senior officers recently, all of whom privately have said to me that the Army is running on empty; the money has run out. The manpower situation is in crisis, and the so-called Military Covenant is abused at every turn. The thing that really worries them is that the MoD [Military of Defence] seems to be in denial about it.”

Colonel Bob Stewart, a former commander of British forces in Bosnia, said that the British Army was “woefully imbalanced, badly equipped, particularly for training, and quite honestly I’m afraid to say it is losing its edge as a top-rate army in the world because it cannot maintain it.”

Major Gen Patrick Cordingley, who led the “Desert Rats” into Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991, said, “I would be very concerned about the strain on the armed forces remaining at this level of deployment in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It cannot be sustained for longer than perhaps another two years.”

Colonel Clive Fairweather, former deputy commander of the elite SAS, commented, “I really do think the Army is heading for the rocks and I don’t say this lightly.”

There has been a concerted campaign, sanctioned by the government, orchestrated by the military, and aided by the press and the monarchy to “rehabilitate” the British Army which is now associated with the brutal video and photographic images of detainee abuse in Iraq.

The government is, for example, proposing a new law making it a criminal offence to “discriminate” against anyone wearing a military uniform in public. The hostility toward soldiers from members of the public, which the law is supposedly directed against, was largely concocted by the media and the government by amplifying a few isolated cases.

It is one of 40 proposals contained in a report, “National Recognition of Our Armed Forces,” ordered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and drawn up by Quentin Davies, the former Tory MP who switched to Labour last year. Davies has called for a “new era of greater openness and public involvement of the [armed] services.”

A new Armed Forces and veteran day is under consideration as a public holiday, as well as more media-friendly parades for regiments returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, secondary schools are being strongly urged to set up cadet forces. At present only 260 grammar and independently maintained schools have them.

The current report into the actual conditions faced by soldiers in the British Army goes some way to unmasking this grotesque propaganda campaign, whereby princes and aristocrats born into privilege and plenty parade at the head of an ill-fed, poverty-waged army prosecuting wars of imperialist aggression.

Rail against pay cuts!

From Socialist Appeal:

RMT ballot 17,000 Network Rail workers
By Rick Grogan
Thursday, 29 May 2008

The RMT is balloting more than 17,000 workers in a dispute with Network Rail. The Union has been negotiating for months for the harmonisation of terms and conditions for maintenance staff.

The talks have broken down because Network Rail have failed to come up with a serious offer to address the needs of 12,000 infrastructure workers, many of whom were transferred to Network Rail from the private sector. The RMT demands for infrastructure workers are for:

1) Working week: a 35 hour week with no loss of pay, moving toward a 34 hour week with where possible a maximum 4 day rostered week over a 13 week cycle.

2) Annual leave: 28 days annual leave on entry plus bank holidays. 30 days after ten years service plus bank holidays. No compulsory working on Christmas, Boxing and New Year’s Days and agreed enhancements for working those days.

3) 39 weeks full sick pay.

4) Pay issues: one grading system, one set of job descriptions, highest basic rates of pay with allowances, recognition that allowances can be reduced to increase basic pay and 100% pensionable pay.

The company have been trying to use the negotiations to drive down conditions instead of answering the Union’s requests.

It became inevitable that a ballot would have to take place and the workers threw out the companies’ offer by more than one hundred to one against.

The balloting of the 5,000 signal grades and other operational staff follows the rejection of a pay and conditions offer that would in real terms mean cuts in living standards.

The offer of 4.8 percent this year and RPI plus 0.5 per for next year cent was rejected as it would not protect staff against rising costs of fuel and other commodities that are rising rapidly above inflation levels.

This offer was rejected by a margin of two to one.

The company then insultingly offered another tenth of one percent on condition that we did not go to ballot.

With no sign of serious negotiations from the company, a strike that could close down the entire network rail seems inevitable.

This would be one of the biggest actions that the country has seen since the late 1980s. The Union must get the message out to the general public and bring them on board. The media are going to go into overdrive to run down the union’s leadership and portray railworkers as lazy and overpaid. We must do all that we can to counter these lies and put the truth out on a consistent basis.

The left should rally around this dispute and, putting aside their differences, give as much support as possible.

Mark Steel on greedy MPs

Another classic column from Mark:

Our MPs are out of touch and over-compensated
Wednesday, 28 May 2008

I doubt whether many people had Margaret Beckett down as one of the more imaginative politicians, but we were wrong. Because lots of MPs stuck in expense claims for unnecessary taxis or new kitchen units, but Margaret put some art into her claim and demanded £1,900 for plants and a pergola, which apparently is a frame for the plants to thrive on. And this was for her second home of course. Because obviously everyone has a pergola and a grand’s worth of plants in their first home.

Gardening isn’t really my thing, so every time I read this story I find myself shrieking “Nineteen hundred quid for sodding plants – what was she buying – triffids?” Or maybe she’s got one like the thing in Little Shop of Horrors and every time she heads off for Prime Minister’s Questions it grabs her by the ankle and yells: “Feed me Margaret, feeed me.”

In a nod towards sanity, she was only granted one thousand three hundred, but how can she begin to justify this? When she submitted her claim, was there a covering letter that said: “When I was Foreign Secretary I entertained the President of Syria on our patio, and he was just about to sign a non-aggression treaty when he said ‘I look forward to peace between our nations – hang on, your wisteria has prematurely withered due to an absence of adequate framing that would allow the foliage to flourish in the resulting spacious environment.

” ‘I consider this a gross insult to my people. I pronounce a curse upon you, your nation and your disreputable horticulture. Rest assured I want this matter resolved within 24 hours or you may consider our nations at war, madam.’ ”

And we only know about this because a few MPs were ordered to reveal their expenses details, so who knows what the others have claimed for? There’s probably a junior minister who’s claimed for a snooker table in his second dolphinarium. I bet one’s claimed for a milking shed, one for a canal, one for a pyramid and one for a ghost train, who will then defend himself by saying: “The sum of £50,000 is due to the global increase in the price of skeletons as a result of the worldwide plastic fibia shortage.”

Barbara Follett, who is a millionaire, claimed £1,600 in one year for window cleaning. Maybe she’ll explain this by pointing out her windows were cleaned by Damien Hirst, who polished them with squid ink, but one of the panes will shortly be exhibited in the Tate Modern providing an exciting boost to the nation’s heritage.

But here is the best part. The “difficulties” raised by this complex and sensitive issue have been investigated by the politicians themselves, and one of the measures they’ve decided on is that all MPs should receive an automatic annual allowance of £23,000 for their second home. So no doubt some of them will now yell: “That’s not fair, now the others get a bonus but we were swiping that much already.”

And this is presented as a compromise. So maybe we should tackle other social problems in the same way. The complex issue of mugging can be dealt with by getting an all-purpose committee of muggers to investigate the problem, and they can come up with a compromise in which all old people have to empty their purses and hand over the contents to strangers in the street.

This way, the nation’s muggers will be spared complex archaic procedures such as pretending to be from the gas board while rifling through a poor old dear’s sideboard.

Why is the issue of MPs’ expenses usually portrayed as complex? Most institutions manage an expenses system without too much trouble. But somehow an MP claims thousands for wages paid to a son who did nothing, or for a forest full of shrubs and a John Lewis proscenium walkway on which to exhibit the things and this is “complex”.

And then they claim this is an inevitable result of their meagre pay, which is a fraction of what they’d earn “in the private sector”, as if they’ve done us a huge philanthropic favour when they could all so easily be on the board of Unilever.

But if they’d not become politicians, they could be working in Costa coffee. Margaret Beckett might just as well say: “I consider my wages rather modest, when you consider if I hadn’t entered politics I’d have been earning £100,000 a week playing central midfield for Barcelona.”

But worst of all is that they’re so out of touch with normal life, they can’t see why so many are aghast at this practice. If Margaret Beckett is approached by a family in her constituency with five living in one room and their heating’s been cut off, presumably she’ll say: “I know – it’s like when they only gave me one-thousand three hundred quid for my second home’s plants – aren’t these bureaucracies dreadful?”

Trucking hell: hauliers demand help from govt

The News Line reports on yesterday’s protests:

Hauliers angry over fuel bills

All along the A40, road hauliers and truckers, parked up their big machines and made their way to Marble Arch to warn Gordon Brown that unless fuel costs came down, there would be no parking up next time.

With banners strewn across their vehicles reading ‘Truck Off Gordon Brown’ and ‘Cut Fuel Cost Now,’ drivers and small owners listened to ‘Trans-Action’ speakers demanding ‘change’, before moving off to Downing Street to give Brown a letter.

Angry that a police ban had barred them from parking in London along Hyde Park as they had in the fuel protest of 2000, lorry driver Andy Lewis said: ‘If they want to get stroppy we will bring all these big wheels into London. This is their last and final chance.’

The hauliers want Brown to give a fuel subsidy, like the buses, and trains which all use untaxed red diesel. They say a 1p increase in fuel duty costs each driver £10,000 a year. At 8miles per gallon, it costs 61p per mile for fuel alone.

Peter Carol, haulier and Trans-Action chairman said: ‘We are heading to 10 Downing Street to hand in a letter asking the Prime Minister to have the strength to listen and save another British industry.

‘Hauliers are the 5th largest employers of people in our country. We are not the giant mega-carriers like Eddie Stobbard, but small family firms working hard.

‘The fuel price is a total catastrophe and if Brown does nothing the only winners will be people from abroad and if that happens even the government loses out.

‘Fuel is our lifeline, our reality. Trans-Action is not here for headlines, but to make a difference. See it right, see it clearly and see it through,’ he said to cheers.

Anthony Lillywhite said: ‘Brown is persecuting everybody, like with the war on Iraq, spending money where he doesn’t need to instead of spending it in this country.’

Brendan Haywood, haulier said: ‘Mr. Brown is loving it because he’s getting all the VAT. He needs the money because, if this government was a business he would be bankrupt.

‘Brown is hitting the working man who put Labour in.’

Alan Hingley, Managing Director of Transport Ltd said: ‘If we took every truck off the road for a week there would be no food or anything else to buy in the shops.

‘The country couldn’t even run for a day let alone a week.

‘If we dumped Brown, Cameron wouldn’t be any better. Things are going to change dramatically and it won’t be long doing.’

Housing benefit cuts: vulnerable people could face homelessness

The Citizens Advice Bureau warns:

If the cuts go ahead, it will only be possible to backdate housing benefit claims by three months instead of the current one year ‘with good cause’. Similar proposals were ditched in 2000 following widespread protests and a highly critical report from Parliament’s own Social Security Advisory Committee.

The charity says the proposed cuts are completely at odds with government efforts to prevent homelessness and the cost-cutting measure will actually be a much greater strain on the public purse, since most of those receiving housing benefit are council or housing association tenants and these bodies are likely to see their bad debt rise and council tax take reduce as a result of the change. The costs of homelessness will also vastly exceed the value of any savings made from cutting benefit backdating.

Citizens Advice warns that being able to backdate housing benefit up to 12 months is vital to prevent eviction and homelessness by enabling tenants to pay off rent arrears which are often caused in the first place by problems with a housing benefit claim. Because claimants must show ‘good cause’ for not having made their claim earlier, backdating is targeted only on the most vulnerable claimants who most need personal support to help them cope, for example those with serious mental health problems.

Being able to backdate benefit for up to a year is also a valuable tool in increasing housing benefit take up, which official estimates put at only 50% for people in work who are eligible. It ensures that people get money they were always entitled to, but whose vulnerability prevented them making a claim earlier.

Recent CAB cases include:

A CAB in the south west reported a client who has been pursuing backdated housing benefit for a two month period when he failed to complete his housing benefit application because he was sectioned and hospitalised. The CAB has been helping the client with his claim but he has repeatedly lost contact and had to start again. As a result the whole process has taken well over three months. When the client is well he is fully capable of managing his own affairs. However more severe periods seem to occur without warning and he often loses contact with family at these times.

A CAB client in her sixties living in Surrey was struggling to cope since her husband had died suddenly over a year earlier. This led to mental health problems which resulted in her failing to complete HB review forms or to claim pension credit despite efforts by her local authority landlord to help. She was therefore living on approximately £47 per week retirement pension and was eventually evicted from her home for rent arrears. At this point she was referred to the CAB by the local authority. The bureau adviser realised that she was entitled to a considerable amount of backdated housing benefit, and persuaded the landlord to agree to let her return to the property if the arrears were cleared before they re-let it. The bureau helped her successfully claim seven months backdated housing benefit, council tax benefit and pension credit, which completely cleared her rent arrears and court costs. She was then granted a new tenancy with a clear rent record.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive David Harker said:

“These cuts are a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is a harsh and heartless policy which will make some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society pay the price with their homes. Backdating is a key tool in delivering the government’s agenda to prevent homelessness and as such is highly cost effective. Any saving to the housing benefit budget is likely to be far outweighed by the much greater costs of homelessness.

“The government listened and accepted that these cuts were wrong after first proposing them back in 2000. They withdrew them then and it is still not too late to listen and withdraw them again. We would urge them to see sense now and recognise that backdating is an absolutely vital tool in preventing homelessness.”