Flashback: Cameron ready for “unpopular” rule

Lest you think David Cameron has become a radical constitutional reformer, what with his talk of fixed-term parliaments – only maybe, he’ll think about it – recall his speech at last year’s Tory conference:

Preparing the party for a hard grind in government, he insisted he had “the grit and determination to impose discipline on government spending, keep our nerve and say ‘No’ – even in the teeth of hostility and protest”.

Mr Cameron’s speech, largely stripped of jokes and partisan attacks on Mr Brown, was designed to reflect the mood of the times. Unlike his “walk-about” speech at last year’s conference, he spoke at a podium with notes.

The connecting strand of Mr Cameron’s vision was the building of a “responsible” society, although at times the speech was disjointed and was clearly the result of a rapid rewriting exercise to take account of the fast-changing financial environment.

[Emphasis added.]

Bill of Rights, anyone?

As part of his Britishness agenda, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has set in motion a process of constitutional reform – or preparing for it, at least. A written bill of rights (and responsibilities, presumably) was one of the options to be considered.

Now that he’s going to be writing a book on his favourite subject (no, not prudence – it’s “Britishness”, again) and trying to revive his premiership with an economic rejaunch, will Brown have time to draw up a list of rights? There won’t be many, since he’s all for internment and the anti-union laws…

Paul Feldman at A World To Win writes:

Parliament’s joint committee on human rights report acknowledges that both major parties are lukewarm about the idea, so the chances of the Bill becoming law are tiny. Secondly, the economic and social rights outlined by the committee would not be enforceable in law – they would be a statement of rights and no more.

[…]

Recent surveys show that more than 75% of those questioned favoured a Bill of Rights, with massive majorities in favour of the right to privacy, to a fair trial, trade union rights, hospital treatment and housing. The market state that has replaced the parliamentary state has no interest in enshrining these principles, let alone making them enforceable.

Under these conditions, the struggle to establish permanent democratic, social and economic rights can only succeed in the context of a new, democratic state that reflects the aspirations of the presently powerless majority. How to achieve this aim is one of the key themes of our Stand Up for Your Rights festival on October 18.

England’s asbestos scandal

Socialist Appeal reports on the latest example of a) the need for an English parliament, and b) New Labour being soft on safety crime.

The judicial House of Lords has recently ruled that pleural plaque (scarring of the lung – a condition caused by breathing in asbestos) is not an industrial illness for which compensation can be claimed. This reverses twenty years of common law practice. What do the Law Lords know about it? Asbestosis related conditions are not exactly an occupational hazard for judicial bigwigs.

Linda Walman, reporting the House of Lords decision (Guardian 17.10.2007), commented, “While industry and society have benefited from the use of asbestos, today’s ruling effectively means that the people who worked with it – mining it, installing it, using it in manufacture and, more recently, removing it – and those who lived in the vicinity of asbestos companies will continue to bear the social and physical costs. It is the workers, ordinary men and their families, who will continue to pay the price for the mining and manufacture of asbestos. Their experience – watching friends suffer, dealing with doctors and lawyers, trying to find a way in which they can support their families – confirms their deep suspicion of the medical and legal establishment.”

At first Gordon Brown promised to rush through a law reversing the decision. Now he’s decided to have a ‘review’. The Scottish Executive responded by tabling a bill to reverse the Lords’ decision. The English review falls a long way short of doing the same

Construction workers will this week target the constituencies of cabinet ministers David Miliband and John Hutton, in a campaign to force the government to rule that the insurance industry has to pay a £1.4bn compensation bill to sufferers of pleural plaque.

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union Ucatt, said: ‘The insurance industry seems intent on dismantling the industrial injury compensation system and it has to be fought.’

It seems the government is the prisoner of big business. How gutless can Gordon get? It appears pleural plaque is an industrial illness in Scotland, but not in England.

Why is an English parliament beyond the Tories’ Ken?

Consider the following:

Unpopular “reforms” such as Foundation Hospitals, student top-up fees, and the new undemocratic Planning Bill – have been imposed on England by the votes of Scottish Labour MPs.

If Camoron’s New Tories are really nicey-nicey, they’d want this anomaly to be resolved: it’s not very democratic is it? It’s rather nasty, in fact…

But no, not quite. Rather than simply support devolution for England (they didn’t support it for Scotland or Wales, either!) they Tories want to save their beloved Union. It’s the only union they support – though I suppose Ken and co are fans of the European Union…

So, instead of an easy-to-understand proposal for an English parliament, we have the confusing report from Ken Clarke – which might not even be adopted by the Tories as party policy, despite Camoron asking Clarke to come up with some ideas on the West Lothian Question. No, really:

For matters relating solely to England, only English MPs should vote, while English and Welsh MPs alone should vote on issues only affecting those two countries, it argues.

MPs from all countries could later vote to pass or reject the bill as a whole, the committee adds.

Mr Herbert seemed to agree in principle, saying: “Just as most of Scotland’s laws are now passed with the consent of the Scottish people, expressed through their elected representatives, so it is right to require English consent for laws affecting only England – or English and Welsh consent for laws affecting only England and Wales.”

The proposals will not necessarily become Conservative policy, although party leader David Cameron himself set up Mr Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce to come up with usable ideas.

Mr Clarke said his plan was a “compromise”, more workable than simply banning MPs from other countries from voting on England-only laws, and that this would help preserve the Union of England and Scotland.

The ideas comes amid concerns that the Scottish devolution settlement has created two classes of MP.

In Scotland, legislation on issues such as health and education are controlled by the country’s own parliament at Holyrood.

But policy for England is decided by the full Westminster parliament, with MPs from all parts of the UK able to vote.

Since some powers were devolved to the Holyrood parliament, there have been calls for just MPs with English constituencies to vote on England-only matters, or even the setting-up of a separate English parliament.

Labour MP backs calls for devolved English parliament

He’s not the first, but I get the feeling Derek Wyatt won’t be the last – especially with the growing anger at the “perverse” method of dividing public finances between the nations in the UK. Also, it’s an easy issue for New Labour MPs with English constituencies to make a stand on.

Demand ‘growing’ for English parliament
Wednesday 18th June 2008 at 12:12 AM

The United Kingdom is in a “constitutional muddle” and demand is growing for an English parliament, a Labour MP has said.

Speaking ahead of a Westminster Hall debate on parliamentary representation in England, Derek Wyatt told ePolitix.com that four lower houses of equal powers should be established in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

A new upper house of representatives should be set up with responsibility for issues such as the environment and foreign policy, the Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP said.

He said: “We’ve devolved to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, but we’ve not devolved the same powers to the one assembly and two parliaments. And by default, we have not given anything to England.

“We tried to do elected regional assemblies and they failed; now we’ve got unelected regional development agencies and we’ve still got some form of regional assembly – unelected. So the largest economic unit in Britain has no democratic representation.”

Wyatt, who is the parliamentary aide to culture minister Margaret Hodge, said that England was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Barnett formula which allocates funding across the United Kingdom.

“English people are tired really of a Barnett formula that spends more money in the [other] three countries and doesn’t give them the same rights and the same responsibilities and the same treatment,” he said.

“I think it’s time we stopped and thought about what we’re doing.”

He added that demand for an English parliament will grow within the next five years to 10 years.

“People are tired of hearing that Scotland’s got better facilities when the Barnett formula gives them more per head for education, for instance, than in Kent where I live,” he said.

And since I was so amazed at this news, I checked Derek Wyatt’s own website:

Labour MP calls for five UK parliaments: “the United Kingdom is a half-built house,” says Derek Wyatt.

In a Westminster Hall debate tomorrow morning (Wednesday June 18) Derek Wyatt MP (Labour, Sittingbourne & Sheppey) will compare the United Kingdom to a half-built house where no one lives the way they want to and everyone argues about the household bills.

Setting out proposals for wide-ranging long-term constitutional and financial reform, he will call for a replacement of the “Barnett formula” which determines public spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: “arrangements set up in the 1970s for reasons no one can now remember with results no one can now understand.”

Mr Wyatt will propose a constitutional convention, representing all the parties and peoples of the United Kingdom, to agree a ten-year plan for major reform of Parliament. At the end of the period the convention would present proposals for five separate Parliamentary chambers, one for each of the nations of the United Kingdom and one for the United Kingdom as a whole. Each nation would choose the issues it wanted to handle in its own chamber – and finance its policies from its own tax revenue. Other issues would remain with the UK chamber and financed from UK-wide taxation. The final package of proposals would be put to all voters in a referendum.

He will say: “I believe that all the peoples of the United Kingdom should have the same power to shape the laws and services which shape their lives, but they should also have the same responsibility for paying for them. We cannot carry on as we are. The present constitutional and financial relationships cannot endure. They are arbitrary and opaque and they allow everyone in the United Kingdom to believe that the system is unfair to them. The resulting mutual resentments could well lead to the break-up of our country in confusion and acrimony.”

Brown is on probation

From Tribune:

‘On probation’ PM given two months to turn things round
June 6, 2008 12:00 am
by Chris McLaughlin

GORDON BROWN remains “on probation” as leader of the Labour Party with two months to turn the Government around before facing the prospect of a leadership challenge.

Amid deep and wide-ranging discontent welling up as the trade union conference season gets into full swing, one proposal being canvassed is a joint ticket of Health Secretary Alan Johnson for leader and backbench Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas for deputy. Neither is encouraging the plan and both are on record insisting that the party’s problems are not a matter of personalities. Mr Cruddas is also understood to have rejected overtures from former Home Secretary Charles Clarke for a new intra-party coalition to replace Mr Brown in order to avoid a catastrophic defeat at the next general election.

Although the mood among MPs calmed at Westminster after the recess and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, Mr Brown is faced with a series of heated rebellions from union conferences where members are calling for disaffiliation from the Labour Party unless a radical change of direction in Government policy begins to take shape soon.

Train drivers’ union ASLEF rejected calls for disaffiliation at its conference in Nottingham this week, the first major union gathering since the disastrous May Day massacre and by-election. The GMB and Communication Workers’ Union both debate calls next week for the financial link to be broken with Labour and Unison faces similar calls at its conference a week later.

Delegates at ASLEF’s conference set the tone of the growing discontent with Government policy. Andy Hudd from Oxford called for affiliation money “to support organisations and individuals who share ASLEF’s aspirations” – and this, he made clear, did not include “new” Labour. Although speaker after speaker condemned the drift from “the party of labour to the party of privilege’, it was felt it would be the wrong time to abandon the affiliation with “the party we invented”.

Guest speaker Alan Simpson said Gordon Brown has “until the end of the year to avoid the fall from the pier”. But other senior union officials and MPs believe that Mr Brown has until the end of July to stage a recovery before a challenge should be set in motion for Labour’s annual conference.

Leaders of the major unions are not pressing for a leadership challenge. However, the mood of dissatisfaction was summed up in a statement last week by the GMB’s Paul Kenny who warned Mr Brown that workers are “concerned and dismayed” at the current direction of the Government. Mr Kenny said many of his members did not understand why Mr Brown was not being more proactive in tackling problems such as the rising price of energy, accusing him of constantly reacting to events after they have happened rather than driving his own agenda.

He does not believe it is the time for Britain’s third largest union to “head off into the political wilderness” and believes the GMB will hold back from disaffiliation next week. But officials concede that it will require “deft footwork” to hold back the tide of feeling against the Government.

“I am not advocating disaffiliation, but I acknowledge there is widespread concerned and dismay about the direction, policies and lack of action by the Government. A lot of my members say the Government is reactive rather than proactive. They don’t understand why something hasn’t been done about the obscene City bonuses which have helped fuel the housing slump. The Government doesn’t appear to be addressing the basic issues.”

The GMB, like other unions, is angry over a proposal put forward by Justice Secretary Jack Straw in talks about party funding that the entirety of union political funds should go directly to Labour headquarters. Last year the GMB gave £1.4 million to Labour, £926,000 centrally and the rest to local parties or campaigns such as opposing the BNP or against the closures of Remploy factories, which is specifically against Government policy.

Mr Kenny said: “The Government is going down the wrong road and taking the wrong direction on this. There is no way we are going to concede the right to allocate cash to Gordon Brown and the party headquarters when not all our members support everything that the Government is doing.”

Unions are backing calls for fairer trade union rights, equal pay legislation, protection for workers in companies taken over by private equity firms and other measures ahead of the National Policy Forum meeting and talks with Downing Street next month.

Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, told a meeting of the Amicus section activists in Brighton that it was time “new” Labour was consigned to the history books and called for policies to deal with inequality, housing shortages and the health service.

He said Unite would use its influence as Labour’s biggest financial supporter rather than issuing “hysterical and destabilising” threats of disaffiliation, warning that “even one term of a Tory government could prove impossible for the trade union movement to recover from.”

Don’t let GP services go the way of hospital cleaners!

Two stories on health, both significant, the latter having implications across England (and reinforcing my view that this country desperately needs a parliament and a fair electoral system so that the privatisation of the NHS can be better resisted).

Whilst cleaners working for private contractors are usually conscientious and hard-working individuals, they are not part of a team within the hospital and this means there’s a lack of accountability. So from the people on the ground, we have a reality check – cleanliness is a medical concern in hospitals, and should not a source of profit for big business:

Nurses have called for hospital cleaning to be brought back in-house to tackle hospital infections.

The Royal College of Nursing conference overwhelmingly voted for a motion proposing an end to contracting out cleaning to private firms.

Cleaning contracts have been outsourced since the 1980s and about 40% of hospitals now use the private sector.

Nurses at the Bournemouth conference said it had led to a drop in standards and a rise in infections.

The government has made cleaning one of its highest priorities to tackle infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

It recently oversaw a deep cleaning programme of all hospitals in England and its infection strategy published in January said good quality cleaning was essential.

MRSA rates have been falling since early 2006 with the NHS on course to halve the number of infections this year based on a 2004 baseline.

But nurses still maintained infections was a pressing issue that was not being helped by the contracting out of cleaning, something which has been particularly popular in England.

No public sector ethos

May McCreaddie, a nurse from Glasgow, said: “There has been an increase in hospital infections and decline in cleanliness. It is quite simple.”

She said private cleaning firms did not have the public sector ethos of in-house teams and there was higher staff turnover which contributed to poorer performance.

“We know what works we have been there before, we have had them. They are called ward domestics, they are an integral part of the team.”

Sheila Dunbar, a nurse from Liverpool, added: “The increase in hospital infections is a big issue. NHS trusts in north west England have started to come back in-house to have cleaner wards.”

But Derek Blackshaw, from Salisbury, said as well as bringing cleaning back in-house, it was important nurses on the wards were given responsibility for overseeing cleaning.

“It is not enough to bring it back in-house if you still need to deal with a chain of authority.”

The delegates also heard from a number of nurses who described how in-house cleaners were much more part of the NHS family.

Dominic Walsh, a nurse from London who works on an intensive care ward, said he was proud to work on a ward where the cleaners employed by the hospital.

“I can say to Monica and Arnie ‘you are coming to our Christmas party aren’t you? You’re an essential part of our team’.”

George Monbiot writes in the Guardian today of the threat of GP services – and the entire NHS in England – being privatised:

Everything is getting bigger and further away. Hospitals, post offices, schools and prisons are being “rationalised” and “consolidated”. The government says this process improves efficiency. Instead, it outsources inefficiency: we must travel further to use public services. This is bad for the environment, bad for community life, and bad for universal provision. But we haven’t seen anything yet. We are about to be confronted with the biggest shutdown of all: the government has started the process of closing England’s network of doctors’ surgeries.

If you know nothing of this, don’t blame yourself. The announcement was buried in an interim report published last October by a junior health minister. The report was 52 pages long, and the policy was explained in a single paragraph on pages 25 and 26. Rather than being brought before parliament, it was released four days before MPs returned from their recess. Since then there has been no further public announcement. But in December, the Department of Health sent a letter to all the strategic health authorities in England, demanding that the policy be implemented immediately. The greatest transformation in the history of the NHS is taking place without public debate, public consent or formal consultation.

The government’s policy is to consolidate doctors’ surgeries into a series of giant health centres, or polyclinics. Thousands of small practices will be closed and patients will be processed in buildings containing up to 50 GPs. The new clinics will also house some services at present provided by hospitals, which allows the government to claim that it is bringing healthcare “closer to home”. The net effect will be a massive reduction in convenience.

The policy was launched by Ara Darzi, a colorectal surgeon who has been raised to the peerage and made an undersecretary of state for health. He wrote his interim report in three months, during which he claims to have spoken to thousands of people. But it contains no record of who they are, how they were selected, or what their answers were: he reveals only that “their views have helped shape this interim report”. His final report will not be published until June, but the Department of Health has instructed England’s primary care trusts to advertise for bidders for the new polyclinics by May 2008: the first notices have already been posted in the Health Service Journal.

During a parliamentary debate launched by the Conservatives last week, health secretary Alan Johnson claimed three times that this policy is not being imposed on PCTs. “There is no national policy for replacing traditional GP surgeries with health centres or, indeed, polyclinics”; “we are not specifying polyclinics as any part of the exercise”; “[the Tories say] we are imposing a system of polyclinics throughout the country. We are not.” Three times, in other words, he misled the House. The letter sent by the Department of Health in December ordered that “each PCT will be expected to complete procurements during 2008/09”. In a parliamentary answer in February, health minister Ben Bradshaw confirmed that “every PCT in the country will be procuring a new … health centre during 2008-09”. A press release published by the Labour party on April 15 confirmed that the new centres would be built “in every town and city”. I hope MPs demand that Alan Johnson apologise to parliament.

Lord Darzi insists that polyclinics will offer “a more personalised service”. This is nonsense: in the enormous new centres we are less likely to be able to see the same GP, and more likely to get lost in the system. A recent paper in the British Medical Journal reveals that “patients in small practices rate their care more highly in terms of both access and continuity”, and that small practices “achieved slightly higher levels of clinical quality than larger practices”. The centres will be built not where they are most convenient for patients but – as Darzi revealed to the Commons health committee – where the NHS happens to own land. If you live in a village or a distant suburb and depend on public transport, as many elderly and sick people do, visiting the doctor could take all day. Ara Darzi is the new Dr Beeching, shutting down the branchlines of our primary health service.

So why is this happening? In seeking to surreptitiously privatise healthcare, the government has a problem. Primary care is already in private hands – GPs run their own practices. But they are the wrong hands: the corporations demanding guaranteed streams of income from the taxpayer can’t play in this field. Polyclinics are perfectly designed to let them in, while preventing doctors from competing.

It’s not just that GPs can’t raise the capital; because the contracts are much bigger than ordinary practices’ and involve many different services, the tendering process is expensive and fiendishly complex. The big service companies can produce the same bid for any number of clinics: they need spend their money only once. The Department of Health says that PCTs should use a type of contract called Alternative Provider Medical Services, which is designed to allow corporations to bid. This is not a public-private partnership: it is the outright privatisation of primary healthcare.

Do I need to explain the implications? The American health system, which the British government seems determined to emulate, is both more expensive and less efficient; those who can’t afford to pay are either excluded or treated like battery pigs. The independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs) – private clinics which carry out routine NHS operations – have been a costly disaster since being introduced in England in 2003. Private companies receive their money regardless of whether they carry out the work they are contracted to do. The government refuses to release comparative figures, but the little evidence we have suggests that their costs are much higher than the public sector’s.

The risks have been transferred back to the taxpayer, and the standards of treatment are sometimes appalling. In 2006 Angus Wallace, professor of orthopaedic and accident surgery at Nottingham University, told the Guardian: “We expect failures of hip replacements at approximately 1% a year and knees at about 1.5% a year. But we have got some of the ISTCs that are looking at 20% failure rates.” Because they put profits first, companies that run these centres have generated a stack of litigation claims and a huge NHS bill for repairing the damage they have caused. Far from reversing its policy in the light of this evidence, the government is setting up a competition panel to ensure that the health service never discriminates in favour of the public sector when awarding contracts.

Did any of us ask for this? Are there crowds on the streets demanding the privatisation of the NHS? Even the Tories have come out against it: David Cameron’s speech last week placed them to the left of Labour. Why, after the 60-odd quarters of consecutive growth that Gordon Brown keeps boasting about, can he not maintain a public service founded in the midst of poverty and rationing? What mysterious hold on policy do the corporations possess, that they can persuade this government to wreck Labour’s finest achievement and damage its chances of re-election?