English students taken for granted?

From the Socialist Students:

New Labour caps new university places at 10,000 for next year
When Gordon Brown took over as prime minister in July 2007 part of his fanfare was that he increased the grants available for students.

Now the government has capped university places to 10,000, due to a budgeting crisis and the cost of borrowing to bail out the banks.

An expansion of grants came into effect with this year’s intake of students. Students from families with incomes of up to £25,000 are supposed to be entitled to the maximum grant of £2,825 a year (in reality bureaucratic, unfair means testing means many students miss out on money they are entitled to). The previous threshold was a family income of £17,500.

This year a third of students (showing what a low wage economy we live in) were entitled to the full grant. A further third of students with family incomes up to £60,000 a year receive a partial grant on a sliding scale, although this is has been cut to £50,020.

It appears New Labour have drastically underestimated the amount of poorer students who need to claim grants.

The money made available for these grants isn’t enough to meet the demand of by rising admissions which were up by 9.7% this year (for the first time this year UCAS figures included nursing students).

The government claims it is short of £100 million and that with a national debt piled up to £685 billion it can’t borrow anymore for public spending.

John Denham the Universities minister has devoted whole sections of his department’s website to lecturing students about managing their finances, perhaps some of his minions should take a look.

The admissions rise clearly reflects the aspirations of young people from poorer backgrounds to have the benefits of higher education. Many of whom will have had their fears about the cost of university and debt eased this year by New Labour’s promises of grants that may now prove to be empty.

Socialist Students has consistently warned that while we supported any increase in grants for students that these limited reforms would not be enough to meet the demand that exists, and that what New Labour promise or give to gain popularity for election purposes they soon try to take away.

If the number of university places is cut, or students find out they can’t get the money they were promised they were entitled to the government can expect huge anger.

Students will be asking what right the government has to take away the money that it promised them or stop them going to a university they want to go to because the government has bailed out rich bankers?

The NUS has stated its opposition to any cuts in grants or university places.

Good, but lets have some action! The NUS should follow the example of the USI (students union in Ireland) and the pensioners in Dublin who met the Irish governments budget cuts with a national demonstration.

Socialist Students says No to cuts in student grants and university places, For an immediate increase in public spending to meet levels of demand, Scrap all university fees and write off all student debt, for the introduction of a living grant for all and for a free, publicly funded good quality education system.

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English football – is the future co-operative?

Andy Burnham, minister for Culture, Media, and Sport in the British government, gave a speech to the Co-operative Party (which is affiliated to Labour) on the question of ownership of English football clubs.

I’ve always thought Burnham to be a New Labour clone, but credit where it’s due, he’s always held these views – though the timing of is dubious (party leadership bid? am I too cynical?). Good to see some debate on English sport, but how about politics – something on an English parliament?

The Politics for People blog reports on Burnham’s appearance at the Co-op Party conference:

Andy questioned whether the big money in football is having a positive effect and called for more fan ownership in football as well as rugby league and other sports.

Football grew out of community and workplace organisations, he reminded us, and that spirit needs to be retained and rebuilt. Of the rich owners now taking over the Premiership, Andy said, “We should not delude ourselves that the reason England is attracting so much interest is solely because of the quality of football. It is also because other countries, such as Germany and Spain, have football clubs which are mutually owned by their supporters, democratic and not for sale. I believe English football is at a crossroads and if it follows the same path in the next 10 years, there is a risk that it will lose touch with its core support.”

Recent protests by fans over the departure of manager Kevin Keegan from Newcastle United have led the club’s billionaire owner to announce he’s selling up.

Mike Ashley, whose empire includes JJB Sports (see here for the poor record on workers’ rights) is apparently going to offer fans the chance to buy out the club. The News of the World quotes a friend of Ashley:

“They say there are 400,000 Newcastle fans in the area. If they all put in £1,000 they can buy the club and run it themselves.

“They can have a website and vote for the manager. They can pick the team and choose the players they buy and sell. They can do it all.”

This is similar to an idea of fans who want to Share Liverpool FC, who have already been given some ministerial backing…

Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, Andy Burnham, endorsed the prospect of fans taking ownership of their clubs at a meeting to launch the next phase of ShareLiverpoolFC’s bid to takeover Liverpool FC.

The meeting took place before the second leg of Liverpool’s Champions League qualifier on Wednesday 27 August, at the Liverpool Lighthouse in Anfield with a high profile list of speakers, and was covered by local, national and international press, radio and TV.

Lifelong Everton fan and MP for Leigh, Mr Burnham put aside his personal allegiance to back a principle that he championed in his former role as Chairman of Supporters Direct.

Mr Burnham said: “I think it would be good for any football club. I think the principle is a good one, that the people who have built up these clubs over the generations and have invested millions of their money should control their future.”

The minister spoke passionately about how clubs belonged to their communities, and that the prospect of the Premiership becoming simply a financial league table of the world’s richest billionaires would render football a pointless and ultimately soulless exercise.

The minister gave encouragement to the audience, saying that over 140 Supporters Trusts had been set up since Supporters Direct was launched in 2000, and that 14 clubs, including Notts County, the oldest club in the league, were now run by their fans. “If we all believe, then this is achievable” he concluded.

Now it’s worth noting the money involved – a thousand quid being offered to each Newcastle fan for a share, five thousand for each Liverpool fan. This makes participation exclusive to those who are able to invest that kind of money at a time when money’s tight with rising food, fuel, and mortgages/rents.

So we could be looking at a kind of footie fan capitalism – but with the idealism perhaps trumping the profit motive.

But if anything comes of it, I am sure it will be an inspiration to working people that big clubs can be controlled by their supporters. And if big clubs, why not the biggest monopolies?

David Lindsay has a better idea for the Magpies:

With Newcastle United on the market, the owner of its sponsor, Northern Rock, should step in any buy it. In other words, nationalise it. And by no means only Newcastle United.

The nationalisation, leading to mutualisation and municipalisation as above, of these important focal points of local patriotism is incomparably preferable to their purchase by sovereign wealth funds, which are in fact foreign states. And it would set a very high-profile example, both of the new patterns of ownership and control in the post-capitalist world, and of the accompanying new regime of pay restraint at the very top.

A quick word on the Co-operative Party’s role – it is a sister party to Labour and also an affiliate to the bigger party. Recent motions to the Cooperative conference signal a shift away from New Labour.

I’ve no idea which of these motions passed and which didn’t, but here they are:

The attack on the Government’s foreign policy is led the Co-operative Group’s North London Party. A motion tabled by the party demands the removal of nuclear weapons from Britain; withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan; no war against Iran; an early solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and an enhanced role for the United Nations as the world’s peace-keepers.

The motion says US and British aggression has destabilised Iraq and claims that both countries are part of the problem and therefore cannot be part of the solution. On Afghanistan, the motion calls on conference to demand that UK troops be confined to barracks and withdrawn as quickly as possible.

In a separate motion on energy, Midlands Society Leicestershire Party urges conference to encourage more investment in renewable energy sources as opposed to the nuclear option, while an amendment tabled by the Co-op Group’s North West & North Wales Party urges the Co-operative Parliamentary Group to oppose the building of nuclear power stations.

A pithy 12-word motion from the Co-op Group Bristol Party calls for an end to the monarchy in its current form by asking conference to endorse the view that the next head of state should be elected (as opposed to the current hereditary principle which automatically hands the role to a member of the royal family).

An amendment to one of the motions on education tabled by Hertfordshire & Home Counties Co-op Party asks conference to press for the removal of the requirement for a daily act of worship in state schools and says the Government should consider phasing out faith schools.

Midlands Society Leicestershire Party has called on the Party’s NEC to conduct an inquiry into the NHS Foundation Trusts to establish how effectively co-operative values and principles are applied while a composite motion on the Northern Rock saga supported by four Party branches calls for the troubled Bank to be converted into an Industrial Provident Society once the organisation’s current position has stabilised.

England needs a health minister

Oh god. Ben Bradshaw again, knocking the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy of booting profiteers out of their health service, something far more popular than flogging bits of the NHS off…

Note that the BBC wrongly reports that he’s the English Health Minister. Mr Bradshaw is English, but he’s a minister in the British government – there is no devolved administration in England, unlike Wales. (Sadly, the absence of an English parliament is not pointed out) Note also that Labour shares power with Plaid Cymru in Wales – Bradshaw is attacking the policies of his own party!

Cardiff-London tensions re-ignite

An English health minister who criticised health policies in Wales has returned to the attack.

Ben Bradshaw told a conference the English NHS provided a better service despite spending less per patient than the health service in Wales.

Mr Bradshaw attacked Welsh policies of free prescriptions and free hospital parking again and said ruling out using the private sector was “dogmatic”.

The Welsh Assembly Government said it was “putting the patients first”.

Earlier this year, Mr Bradshaw sparked a row between the assembly and UK governments by saying the money spent on free parking would be better spent on improving patient care.

His keynote speech to a CBI conference on health in London on Thursday threatens to re-open tensions between Cardiff and Westminster.

He told delegates the benefits of the English approach would become clearer in time.

He said he was “fed up” with being told that England suffered from health apartheid “because millionaires in Wales get their prescriptions free or Scotland plans to allow anyone who wants to park in busy hospital car parks for free.”

Mr Bradshaw said: “What about the fact that in England you can get your operation much more quickly, you don’t have to wait for more than four hours in A and E any more and it is easy to see a GP when you want?

“These things matter more to the public. We are already delivering them in England and we have been doing so while spending less per head on health than in Scotland and Wales.”

‘Widely welcomed’

Responding to the criticism, an assembly government spokesman said: “Devolved government means that each administration is free to pursue its own priorities.

“Mr Bradshaw is entitled to his views.

“Free prescriptions and parking reforms have been widely welcomed by patients in Wales.

“We are putting the patient first and removing barriers to accessing healthcare.

“We see prescription and car parking charges as a tax on the sick.

“Investment in improving access to healthcare will improve the health and well-being of the people of Wales.”

At the Plaid conference this weekend, Adam Price called on Welsh Labour to break free from Westminster. Certainly, at the moment it’s path is leading away from New Labour. If only English Labour would do the same…

The lost cause of English Labour?

I’ve been thinking about the issues to be discusses at next saturday’s Convention of the Left meeting on the break-up of the UK

UK PM Gordon Brown is of course Mr Britishness, so it is odd when the policies of his cabinet are refered to as those of the English Labour party.

In Wales, Labour is sharing power with Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party. In Scotland, Labour went into opposition after losing the Scottish parliamentary elections to the SNP.

There’s a good chance that at the next election, Labour will lose in England. Loses in Scotland and Wales have come at the hands of a nationalists able to articulate a progressive alternative and come up with policies which people can feel the benefit of – policies which go against the neoliberal agenda (but crucially, do not break with it).

Demands from the party’s base for a windfall tax on the energy companies to help the poorest cope with rising prices have been ignored by the leadership – making a revival in England that much harder.

Brown is leader of the UK Labour party – the absence of a specifically English leadership means he’s also Labour’s leader in England (which is an oddity, since his constituency is in Scotland where many areas of public policy are controlled by the devolved government).

Both the PM and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling (MP for Edinburgh South West in Scotland) have been defending their policy of wage cuts in the public sector to delegates at the TUC conference this week.

The Scottish Labour leadership are likely to continue supporting public sector strikes against this policy – re-opening a rift between Labour’s centres of power. Scottish Labour are in opposition, and the SNP government is doing its best to live up to the Tartan Tories jibe, as The Scotsman reports:

They agreed the financial settlement with local government and they could find the money to increase the offer to workers if they had the political will.

But if the dispute escalates, there is likely to be a change in the Scottish Government’s position. Ministers will stop being so neutral and instead they will put more and more blame on the UK government.

Holyrood’s position will then become that the problem is not low wages but high prices and if the UK government did something about high prices, there would be less pressure from unions to raise salaries.

If the dispute drags on, then Scottish ministers will use this argument more and, in doing so, try to distance themselves from the pay row even more.

In 1978-9, the government was blamed for the strikes. Alex Salmond is determined if an administration has to take responsibility, it won’t be his.

The question is, will it work? If the dispute escalates, then government – any government – will be blamed, however much Mr Salmond will try to deflect this. Therefore, it is in his interests to sort this out as soon as possible.

Labour, though, is in a difficult position. In London, the government is trying to keep down wage inflation and will not provide any more money for public-sector wages.

In Scotland, the party is going through a leadership campaign where two of the candidates have been backed by unions involved in the strike action.

What this means is that, when Labour in Scotland does get its new leader this weekend, the party here will almost certainly be in favour of strike action while the party in England is not.

Brown is de facto leader of English Labour. He’s unelected. Harriet Harman, de facto Deputy leader, was elected by the party’s members and affiliates.

She’s been speaking to the TUC about class – a prelude to a campaign for the top job, perhaps – but she’s got nothing better than a report she’s commissioned.

Brown’s supposed rethinking of New Labour was quickly rubbished by his office – this was in an article he probably didn’t write and certainly isn’t worth reading.

England’s poor childcare

No, not a story reviving the spectre of the single mother, the stereotypical young mum blamed for everything by the tabloid press and the Tories in days gone by… it’s an article on the costs and inequities of childcare services.

From the Morning Star, a quality tabloid:

Poorer families denied decent child care
(Wednesday 27 August 2008)
by LOUISE NOUSRATPOUR

TRADE unions demanded a major expansion of childcare provision on Wednesday after school inspectors raised concerns that families in poorer areas of England lacked access to quality care facilities.

The quality of childcare differs dramatically between areas, with provision worse in places with the most poverty and social deprivation, according to a three-year study by school regulator Ofsted.

In the 30 most deprived local authorities, nearly half of childcare facilities were described as “not good enough,” compared with 40 per cent nationally.

In Hackney, east London, just 29 per cent of childminders were judged to be good or better, compared to the leafy suburb of Wokingham in Berkshire where the proportion is 81 per cent.

“Children and families living in areas already experiencing relative deprivation therefore face further inequity because they have less access to high-quality childcare provision,” the report warned.

Despite improvements over the past three years, four out of 10 childminders and daycare groups still rank as “satisfactory” or “inadequate,” categories that inspectors said signal the need to improve.

Only 3 per cent of England’s daycare nurseries were judged to be outstanding.

The most serious problems identified by the report, which covered 90,000 inspections, included staff shortages, lack of proper training and nurseries with no first-aid kits.

A spokeswoman for public-sector union UNISON said: “Once again, children from deprived areas are losing out.

“UNISON is campaigning for major expansion of childcare provision. We need quality care, delivered by properly trained and fairly paid childcare workers.”

Fellow union GMB equality and inclusion officer Kamaljeet Jandu branded the figures “frightening,” adding: “This should be a wake-up call to government to improve standards and provide training for people working with children in this sector. ”

Childcare charity Daycare Trust official Maxine Hill said: “Even one childminder providing poor care is one too many.

“Disadvantaged children have much to gain from receiving high-quality childcare and every effort should be made to improve quality.”

The Daycare Trust warned that childcare costs for pre-school children in England continued to rise above the rate of inflation, with most parents complaining about lack of affordable childcare in their area.

NICE to see you

I quote in full the editorial in the Morning Star the other day. (Sadly, a point that is missed is the fact NICE only rations drugs in the English NHS, which unlike other health services in the UK, is not controlled by a directly-elected devolved institution.)

Forced to face truth
(Sunday 17 August 2008)

NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, has been on the back foot for some time.

Everybody, from drug companies indignant that their product hasn’t been approved for purchase and supply by the NHS, to patients angry that their quality of life is being hampered by NICE rejection of drugs or its judgement that they do not supply value for money to the NHS, has launched denunciations of the organisation and, in some cases, court actions to alter its decisions.

Without pontificating on the quality of those various decisions, which cover treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease, there are still many issues raised by the debate and a variety of conclusions which do not reflect directly on NICE, but rather on its function in our society.

It cannot be purely coincidence, for example, that the spotlight is turning on the institute’s function in determining value for money at precisely the time that privatisation – code-named choice by new Labour – is biting hard and siphoning millions of pounds a year out of the NHS budget.

While granting that, with an increasingly elderly population, the calls on the service will be growing and there must be some limits on expenditure, it is also blatantly obvious that privatisation and its super-profits is doing its share to restrict the options open to prescribing physicians.

And the fragmentation of the NHS into a myriad different budget-holders with different policy-making bodies and objectives can’t be helping, either.

Naturally, patients, their families and friends will have different priorities as to which treatments should be approved and that is certainly never going to change, but there is a great deal that can be done to make things better and the managers and leading lights in the institute are being inexorably pushed into highlighting the actual difficulties which militate against this.

These managers are, in the face of the continuing attacks on the organisation’s judgements, starting to hit back at their critics, and their choice of targets is revealing.

NICE chairman professor Sir Michael Rawlins opened the attack on pharmaceutical companies which, he says, are driving up the price of vital new medicines in order to boost profits and protect executive bonuses

He says that the companies are out to sustain double-digit growth, not least because their senior management’s earnings are related to the share price.

And NICE chief executive Andrew Dillon joins the fray, isolating the postcode lottery which has been generated by the absurdly structured trust system which runs the NHS in the 21st century.

Both these gentlemen are pillars of the Establishment and are not exactly the sort of people you would look to for a radical analysis of the ills of capitalism.

But they are both highlighting precisely those ills.

A profit-motivated, privately owned and unaccountable drugs industry is driving up drugs prices on behalf of managers and sharehoders and doing vast damage to patients in the process.

And a market-oriented cost-cutting NHS structure is resulting in gross inequalities of treatment.

Messrs Rawlins and Dillon are making the clear argument for the nationalisation of the big pharmaceutical companies and a full restructure of the NHS.

Although they may shy away from articulating that conclusion, their arguments back up the case that has been made time and again by health professionals and socialists for many years.

Tory think-tank calls for internal mass migration

The Forgery Exchange has embarrassed Tory leader David Cameron with its call for people in Northern England to migrate to the South East en masse.

While it’s true that investment in “regeneration” usually results in gentrification and the decline in manufacturing hasn’t been halted or reversed, the suggestion that there should be internal mass migration shows how much worse than New Labour the Tories would be if they form the next government.

Doubtless, the capitalist class would be delighted to see workers from the North of England being encouraged (which usually means coerced) to travel in search of employment. This would add to the pressure on infrastructure but crucially it would increase competition in the labour market, driving down pay and conditions.

It is possible to revive those parts of England which have suffered because of the policy of “managed decline”, but this would be resisted by the ruling class who prefer to see public money used to boost profits or bail out failing banks.

A strategy of endogenous development could be pursued, but as we’ve seen with New Labour’s failure to announce a New Green Deal and willingness to bail out the banks, and the report by the Policy Exchange and Cameron’s call for the poor to help themselves, the political elite will continue to ignore the millions and bow to the millionaires.