Friday, 30 December 2011

Tories are no friends of Liverpool, says council chief

By Andrew Bounds, Financial Times

Liverpool faces “exactly the same situation” as it did under a previous Conservative government in 1981, the Labour leader of the city council said after cabinet papers from the time were revealed, condemning the Tories as “no friend of our city”. “There is a feeling of déjà vu in Liverpool because three decades on we are facing exactly the same situation as we did in the early 1980s - huge cuts in public spending which disproportionately hit big northern cities, while Conservative heartlands in the south get off relatively unscathed,” said Joe Anderson.

“Then, as now, the Tory party ideology was to let the strong survive and the weak wither away,” he said, excluding Lord Heseltine, the self-styled “minister for Merseyside”. However, he said the city was a “much stronger and much more confident place” and better able to handle the cuts. More than £4bn of public and private investment has poured into the city since the millennium, including £929m of European money alone between 2000 and 2008.

Its docks, once the source of its wealth and the trigger for its decline as trade switched from the Commonwealth to the European Union, are expanding again with a £200m investment programme to equip them to take the biggest modern ships. Owner Peel Holdings is seeking to turn the area into a logistics hub. Its economy grew 5.5 per cent on average annually between 1998-2008, the fastest of any city outside London. The £1bn Liverpool One shopping and leisure centre near the waterfront has transformed it into a top five shopping destination. The £5.5bn Liverpool Waters scheme would see a huge business district built on the northern docklands.

However, the city remains vulnerable. Some 36 per cent of its workers are in the public sector, which created much of the jobs growth of the “noughties”, against the national average of 26.9 per cent. Almost a quarter of the population receive benefits. They are expected to lose £148m annually after government welfare cuts, almost 1 per cent of the city’s annual economic output, according to the Centre for Cities think-tank. That is the largest proportion of any British city and equates to a loss of £192 per head, compared with £125 in Bristol. The unemployment rate remains 6.3 per cent, the fourth highest in the country.

In the 1970s, 100,000 people, one-sixth of its population, deserted the city. The population declined further from 510,000 in 1981 to 452,000 in 1991, before stabilising at 440,000 in the last few years. However, Tony Caldeira, a businessman and chairman of the Conservative party in the city, said the 1981 cabinet had been wrong. “You have only got to look around to see Liverpool has been transformed. Back in the 1980s people may have written Liverpool off. That is not the case in 2012.

“We have railway electrification, the new Mersey crossing, a new Royal hospital and possibly Alder Hey too. There is a lot of investment going in.” He said Francis Maude recently visited the city and was considering it for a future party conference. “The party is committed to Liverpool. There is an entrepreneurial spirit here that will pull us through.”

In March the city is hosting the Kauffman foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Congress, the first time it has come to Europe.

Financial Times

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Great Expectations

Blower, the Telegraph

Friday, 16 December 2011

In the spirit of things

Buenaventura Durruti

'Church on Fire' by Allen n Lehman
(acrylic on canvas)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Lib Dems vote with Tories to cut disabled children’s benefits

Three days after David Cameron vetoed plans for a financial transaction tax to protect his friends in the City, the House of Lords last night voted in favour of reducing top-up payments for disabled children on lower and middle rates of disability living allowance (DLA). An amendment to maintain benefit for disabled children at the minimum of current levels was defeated by just two votes. 46 Liberal Democrats voted with the Conservatives.

These cuts, along with subsequent changes to housing benefit, will leave tens of thousands of families with disabled children up to £3,000 a year worse off. A group of charities called Every Disabled Child Matters says the Government has failed to assess  fully the impact of the proposal which, it claims, will plunge thousands of families with disabled children into poverty.

The top-up payments were designed to meet additional costs, such as transport, heating, laundry, nappies and extra clothes that families have because of a child's disability. The Department for Work and Pensions insists the introduction of a new Universal Credit payment will simplify the system and that "there will be no cash losers". Campaigners, and a growing number of MPs and peers, had hoped to trigger a second U-turn after the Government scrapped plans to cut mobility allowances for some elderly people last month.

At present, parents of children with disabilities who receive DLA are entitled to a substantial top up of their Child Tax Credit entitlement.  This addition is currently worth around £2715 (£52.21 per week) for each child in the household who has a disability. Along with this, children with the most severe disabilities (in receipt of the high rate care element of DLA) are entitled to the severe disability element, worth an extra £1095 (£21.06) – meaning they get a total addition worth £73.27 per week.

Under Universal Credit, additions for disabled children will change to align them with the level of support available for disabled adults. This means that severely disabled children will be entitled to an addition worth £74.50 per week – a very slight increase on current rates.  However, for other children with disabilities, the addition will be reduced to £25.95 per week (£1349.40 per year) – less than half the current rate.

New claimants will receive the reduced support at the point of claiming Universal Credit, while existing claimants will receive transitional cash protection while being transferred on to Universal Credit.

Sources: Family Action/The Independent

Result of vote here (go to Division 2 of 3)

Saturday, 10 December 2011

What Europe is saying about Britain

"From the concept of habeas corpus to the BBC, from Elizabethan poetry to John Le Carre, from rock to the invention of the Sixties, from London springtime concerts to Wimbledon, via Liverpool FC. So many things do we hold dear from across the Channel ... But Germany, France and the majority of the other EU member states were right, at daybreak on Friday 9 December, to say No to London." Le Monde, France

Dave Brown, the Independent

"No sooner did David Cameron cross the entrance to the council, on the occasion of the 8 December summit, than the sky over the negotiations darkened. He had one aim: to protect British interests." Le Figaro, France

"What's the point of keeping this country in the EU? The British people should put pressure on their government to quit. Maybe the British would do better without the EU. Europe will definitely do better without the UK." Yvan Duvant, writing to the BBC from Olargues, in France

"The British manoeuvre [means] that London now finds itself outside, on the margins of Europe. The first European Council session in Brussels, which should have solidified and perhaps even resolved the euro crisis produced instead, after 11 hours of tense and at times dramatic talks, a deep division between member states." Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy

"All of continental Europe goes forward, leaving Britain behind - towards a common fiscal policy, rules that will govern finance, work and business. Cameron finds himself alone." Luca Gaballo, RaiNews24, Italy

"There is an obstacle to Europe and it must be overcome. It's not Germany. Right now, the main obstacle is Britain. And this dirty game that the British are playing - wanting to stay with one foot in and one foot out of Europe - risks collapsing the entire system. London must be either in, or out. But they simply cannot sabotage everything." Massimo Riva on Repubblica TV, Italy

"They're splitting Europe. Great Britain has acted in an unconstructive way. 'Unhelpful' as they say in English." Carl B Hamilton, Liberal People's Party MP, Sweden

"If you're not ready to abide by the rules, you'd do better to keep your mouth shut." Elmar Brok, Christian Democrat MEP, Germany

BBC News

Friday, 9 December 2011

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Mobility element of disability allowance for people in care homes is to stay following government u-turn

Campaigners have hailed a Government U-turn over the scrapping of benefit payments for disabled people living in residential care homes. Ministers will confirm today that the mobility element of disability living allowance (DLA) will be spared the welfare reform axe. Up to 80,000 people benefit from the £51-a-week allowance but it was targeted as part of efforts to slash billions from the welfare bill. Critics had warned that removing the payments would have robbed some of the most vulnerable people of their independence. 

The Turning Point health and social care provider welcomed the change.  Director of learning disability services Adam Penwarden said: "We are reassured by the fact the government has listened to those who need support the most and has decided not to remove the mobility component of the disability living allowance. This benefit is integral to the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our society, allowing them to access and be part of their local community. The removal of this vital resource would have rendered many of them housebound, robbing them of the chance they would otherwise have to lead fulfilled and independent lives."

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said yesterday: "We have always been clear that we will not make any changes that stop disabled people in care homes from getting out and about. Our officials have spent the last few months gathering information and evidence, including visiting disabled people in care homes to find out from them and their families about their mobility needs. The Low Review also looked at some of the same issues and so we have been reflecting on the outcome of this work before we announce the final decision tomorrow."

Press Association

See here for full list of government u-turns since coming to power.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Labour, solidarity and the pensions strike

Letter to the Guardian:

"Labour MSPs in Scotland and Labour assembly members in Wales will refuse to cross picket lines on 30 November in solidarity with millions of public sector workers. As Labour MPs and councillors we will not cross picket lines at Westminster or town halls. Instead we will be joining picket lines to do what Labour politicians should do: be on the side of labour.

The government's attack on public sector pensions is totally unjustified and unsupported by any economic or actuarial case. It is a crude attack on public sector workers who are already suffering a pay freeze while many face the threat of losing their jobs. This is part of a wider attack by this government on public services and the welfare state, which Labour must resist.

We stand in full solidarity with workers on 30 November – and encourage our fellow Labour politicians to do so too."

John McDonnell MP, LRC Chair
Linda Riordan MP, Halifax
Ronnie Campbell MP, Blyth Valley
Jeremy Corbyn MP, Islington North
Paul Flynn MP, Newport West
Martin Caton MP, Gower
Cllr Charlynne Pullen, Islington
Cllr Kevin Hind, Bury St Edmunds
Cllr Andrea Oates, Broxtowe
Cllr Geoff Lumley, Isle of Wight
Cllr Andy Walker, Redbridge
Cllr Kieran Thorpe, Welwyn Hatfield
Cllr Claire Traynor, Maghull
Cllr Mike Jones, Maghull
Cllr Kingsley Abrams, Lambeth
Cllr Dave Young, Calderdale
Cllr Clive Grunshaw, Wyre/Lancashire
Cllr Mike Rowley, Oxford
Cllr Van Coulter, Oxford
Cllr Matthew Brown, Preston
Cllr Jenny Smith, Bristol
Cllr John McGhee, East Ayrshire
Cllr Jay Kramer, Hastings
Cllr Patrick Vernon, Hackney
Cllr John Tanner, Oxford
Cllr Tom Neilson, North West Leicestershire
Cllr Mick O'Sullivan, Islington
Cllr Sam Tarry, Barking & Dagenham
Cllr Tony Belton, Wandsworth
Cllr Lynne Allen, Hillingdon
Cllr Greg Marshall, Broxtowe
Cllr Barry Buitekant, Hackney

Please note that the image does not form part of the letter

Monday, 28 November 2011

Film director Ken Russell dies aged 84

"Never wear jeans. They signify a lapse of taste. 
I've never been in fashion. I'm ahead of my time, not in step with it."

1927 - 2011

Friday, 18 November 2011

Branson takes Northern Rock private

By Sharlene Goff, Elizabeth Rigby and Patrick Jenkins of the Financial Times

Sir Richard Branson is taking nationalised bank Northern Rock back into private hands four years after its collapse triggered widespread panic across financial markets. Virgin Money, backed by a consortium including US financier Wilbur Ross, has agreed to buy the bank for £900m ($1.42bn), including debt. The government has taken a loss of up to £500m on the “good” part of Northern Rock – which it propped up with £1.4bn of equity in 2010. Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, questioned whether it was the best time to sell banking assets given that markets were “in turmoil”.

Analysts said the price – which includes £747m in cash, £150m of debt and a further £130m depending on future business performance – was reasonable considering the dire state of the economy. The total return from Northern Rock will also reflect the contribution from its £45bn old loan portfolio, which has made about £600m of profit. George Osborne, chancellor, said the deal offered “value for money”, adding: “It was clear to us that this was the best deal for the British taxpayer. We were getting more money back than any other deal on the table.”

The sale marks the end for one of the most notorious names in British high street banking. Northern Rock will be rebranded as Virgin when the deal completes on January 1. People close to the deal said Mr Ross was the biggest investor, putting up £260m of cash, compared with £50m apiece from Virgin Group and Stanhope Investments, the Abu Dhabi fund. Virgin will have a stake of about 46 per cent in the newly enlarged Virgin Money, with Mr Ross holding 44 per cent and Stanhope close to 10 per cent.

Sir Richard’s ambitions for Virgin are muted despite his desire to challenge the UK’s biggest banks. It does not plan to open more branches than the 75 acquired and will not launch current accounts until 2013. Mr Ross plans to sell out in a few years when Virgin will look to float part of the bank for 1.5 times book value, compared with the 0.8-0.9 ratio paid by Virgin. Lord Myners, the former Labour city minister, said given the “respectable” price paid, he was “not sure the backers on the Virgin deal will enjoy a particularly good return”.

Virgin Money was advised by Greenhill and Virgin Group by Quayle Munro. The government was advised by Deutsche Bank.

Financial Times & Steve Bell, the Guardian

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Benetton pulls advert with Pope kissing imam

The Benetton clothing company has withdrawn an advert showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing a top Egyptian imam on the lips after the Vatican denounced it as an "unacceptable" provocation. Benetton had said its "Unhate" campaign launched Wednesday is aimed at fostering tolerance and "global love."

The campaign's fake photos show six purported political nemeses in lip-locked embraces, including Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez, and Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. The photo of the Pope had been on the company's website all day but was pulled about an hour after the Vatican's protest. A Benetton spokesman confirmed to The Associated Press that the Pope advert is no longer part of the campaign.

Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the advert was "an offence against the sentiments of the faithful and a clear example of how advertising can violate elementary rules of respect for people in order to attract attention through provocation."

On the company's website, executive deputy chairman Alessandro Benetton is quoted as saying that global love is an ambitious but realistic goal. "At this moment in history, so full of major upheavals and equally large hopes, we have decided, through this campaign, to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and invite the citizens of every country to reflect on how hatred arises particularly from fear of 'the other’ and of what is unfamiliar to us," he said.

Associated Press

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Work Programme company wanted volunteers to train clients

A4e, a prime contractor for welfare-to-work training, asked a volunteer centre to provide it with volunteers to help with CV workshops for the unemployed, writes Chloë Stothart for Third Sector Online.

A4e, one of the prime providers of the Department for Work and Pensions’ Work Programme, asked Volunteer Centre Oxfordshire in an email if it could provide volunteers to help with CV workshops for unemployed people on the programme. A4e did not specify in the message how long the work would last but did require the volunteers to get Criminal Records Bureau checks.

The email, sent by Howard Goldby on behalf of Hannah Aubrey at A4e Oxford, said: "What we are hoping for is some volunteers to help the trainer on the workshops, as some of our customers need more one-to-one support to complete their CVs. The ideal volunteer would possess very good IT skills, a lot of patience, and be able to work alongside the trainer so that the customer will have a completed CV."

The centre did not refer any volunteers to A4e. Lindsay Watts, manager of the Volunteer Centre Oxfordshire, said Work Programme providers referring clients to volunteer centres without paying the centres "gives people the wrong impression of volunteering. It is taking advantage of people who do not know any different. They might not even know it is a profit-making company."

Nigel Lemmon, welfare director at A4e, said in a statement: "It is not A4e’s policy to expect volunteer agencies to work for free under the Work Programme and we take this accusation very seriously. It is not in our interest, or the interest of those we help, to do so. Working fairly with third sector partners is important to us and critical to the successful delivery of the Work Programme for us all. We are investigating these allegations thoroughly. We only work with volunteer agencies where they are happy to work with us to support our customers back into work – improving the lives of those individuals and benefiting their communities."

Monday, 14 November 2011

Pebble-pinching penguins

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Berlusconi resigns

Silvio Berlusconi has tendered his resignation as Italian prime minister. President Giorgio Napolitano accepted his offer and is likely to appoint technocrat Mario Monti his successor. Berlusconi lost his majority amid an acute debt crisis that threatens the eurozone. He promised to go once MPs had approved new austerity measures. He is Italy's longest-serving post-World War II prime minister - having dominated political life for 17 years. His premiership has recently been marred by many scandals.

Berlusconi's journey to the presidential palace was an undignified one. He was booed along the way, with demonstrators calling him a "buffoon". The outgoing prime minister said he felt "embittered" after hearing the insults.

After losing his parliamentary majority on Tuesday, Berlusconi promised to resign after austerity measures, demanded by the EU and designed to restore markets' confidence in the country's economy, were passed by both houses of parliament. Members of the lower house voted 380-26 with two abstentions on Saturday, a day after the Senate approved the measures that have now been signed into law.

Berlusconi has been prime minister three times since he first took office in 1994. He has described himself as Italy's best head of government since the country was created nearly 150 years ago. However, he is currently involved in several trials for fraud, corruption and having sex with an under-age girl, and has attracted media attention for so-called "bunga-bunga" parties which young women were allegedly paid to attend.

After accepting Mr Berlusconi's resignation, Mr Napolitano is expected to formally ask Mr Monti or another candidate to form a government of technocrats.

Paris Olympics 1924

A fascinating image for the games considering what was to take place in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Frankfurt Group is turning back the democratic clock

The European Union has always had problems with democracy, a messy process that can interfere with the grand designs of people at the top who know best. When Ireland voted no to the Nice Treaty, it was told to come up with the right result in a second ballot. The European Central Bank wields immense power, but nobody knows how the unelected members of its governing council vote because no minutes of meetings are published. That said, the latest phase of Europe's sovereign debt crisis has exposed the quite flagrant contempt for voters, the people who are going to bear the full weight of the austerity programmes being cooked up by the political elites.

Here's how things work. The real decisions in Europe are now taken by the Frankfurt Group, an unelected cabal made of up eight people: Lagarde; Merkel; Sarkozy; Mario Draghi, the new president of the ECB; José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission; Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurogroup; Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council; and Olli Rehn, Europe's economic and monetary affairs commissioner.

This group, which is accountable to no one, calls the shots in Europe. The cabal decides whether Greece should be allowed to hold a referendum and if and when Athens should get the next tranche of its bailout cash. What matters to this group is what the financial markets think not what voters might want. To the extent that governments had any power, it has been removed and placed in the hands of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. It is as if the democratic clock has been turned back to the days when France was ruled by the Bourbons.

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that electorates have resorted to general strikes and street protests to have their say. Governments come and go but the policies remain the same, creating a glaring democratic deficit. This would be deeply troubling even if it could be shown that the Frankfurt Group's economic remedies were working, which they are not. Instead, the insistence on ever more austerity is pushing Europe's weaker countries into an economic death spiral while their voters are being bypassed. That is a dangerous mixture.

Larry Elliot, the Guardian

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The 1% are the very best destroyers of wealth the world has ever seen

Our common treasury in the last thirty years has been captured by industrial psychopaths - that's why we're nearly bankrupt, writes George Monbiot

If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. The claims that the ultra-rich 1% make for themselves – that they are possessed of unique intelligence or creativity or drive – are examples of the self-attribution fallacy. This means crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren't responsible. Many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.

The findings of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves. He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. "The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill." Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers throughout Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out, they blanked him. "The illusion of skill … is deeply ingrained in their culture."

So much for the financial sector and its super-educated analysts. As for other kinds of business, you tell me. Is your boss possessed of judgment, vision and management skills superior to those of anyone else in the firm, or did he or she get there through bluff, bullshit and bullying?

In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses. They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated. On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses's scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients. In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders.

The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for. Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people. Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects in many corporations.

In their book Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare point out that as the old corporate bureaucracies have been replaced by flexible, ever-changing structures, and as team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers, psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. Reading their work, it seems to me that if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you're likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you're likely to go to business school.

This is not to suggest that all executives are psychopaths. It is to suggest that the economy has been rewarding the wrong skills. As the bosses have shaken off the trade unions and captured both regulators and tax authorities, the distinction between the productive and rentier upper classes has broken down. Chief executives now behave like dukes, extracting from their financial estates sums out of all proportion to the work they do or the value they generate, sums that sometimes exhaust the businesses they parasitise. They are no more deserving of the share of wealth they've captured than oil sheikhs.

The rest of us are invited, by governments and by fawning interviews in the press, to subscribe to their myth of election: the belief that they are possessed of superhuman talents. The very rich are often described as wealth creators. But they have preyed on the earth's natural wealth and their workers' labour and creativity, impoverishing both people and planet. Now they have almost bankrupted us. The wealth creators of neoliberal mythology are some of the most effective wealth destroyers the world has ever seen.

What has happened over the past 30 years is the capture of the world's common treasury by a handful of people, assisted by neoliberal policies which were first imposed on rich nations by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I am now going to bombard you with figures. I'm sorry about that, but these numbers need to be tattooed on our minds. Between 1947 and 1979, productivity in the US rose by 119%, while the income of the bottom fifth of the population rose by 122%. But from 1979 to 2009, productivity rose by 80%, while the income of the bottom fifth fell by 4%. In roughly the same period, the income of the top 1% rose by 270%.

In the UK, the money earned by the poorest tenth fell by 12% between 1999 and 2009, while the money made by the richest 10th rose by 37%. The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, climbed in this country from 26 in 1979 to 40 in 2009.

In his book The Haves and the Have Nots, Branko Milanovic tries to discover who was the richest person who has ever lived. Beginning with the loaded Roman triumvir Marcus Crassus, he measures wealth according to the quantity of his compatriots' labour a rich man could buy. It appears that the richest man to have lived in the past 2,000 years is alive today. Carlos Slim could buy the labour of 440,000 average Mexicans. This makes him 14 times as rich as Crassus, nine times as rich as Carnegie and four times as rich as Rockefeller.

Until recently, we were mesmerised by the bosses' self-attribution. Their acolytes, in academia, the media, thinktanks and government, created an extensive infrastructure of junk economics and flattery to justify their seizure of other people's wealth. So immersed in this nonsense did we become that we seldom challenged its veracity.

This is now changing. On Sunday evening I witnessed a remarkable thing: a debate on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral between Stuart Fraser, chairman of the Corporation of the City of London, another official from the corporation, the turbulent priest Father William Taylor, John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network and the people of Occupy London. It had something of the flavour of the Putney debates of 1647. For the first time in decades – and all credit to the corporation officials for turning up – financial power was obliged to answer directly to the people.

It felt like history being made. The undeserving rich are now in the frame, and the rest of us want our money back.

George Monbiot is the author of the bestselling books 'The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order' and 'Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain'

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Cameron 'delighted as union leaders walk into strike trap'

Strikes by millions of public sector workers over reform of their pensions will bolster support for the Government's austerity drive, senior cabinet sources have claimed.

No 10 is said to be "delighted" at the prospect of walkouts on 30th November despite a more generous offer being made to union leaders last week. Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers privately believe their argument will be strengthened by public anger at disruption by state workers who will still have more generous retirement funds than most in the private sector.

"Militancy could be good for the coalition in the longer term," said a very senior Lib Dem minister. "It will be troublesome immediately, but the public is not with the unions. In the current economic circumstances, it will be difficult for the unions to gain public support for their case. We are confident that we can win the argument, and strikes will only damage the unions." A Conservative minister added: "It is clear No 10 is delighted that the unions have fallen into their trap."

Last week the Government unveiled a new offer as the "best we are going to get" in terms of money, which included future schemes being based on a pension to the value of 1/60th of average salary accruing for each year worked rather than 1/65th. No one less than ten years off retirement will see changes to the date they can draw their pension or the amount they receive. If a deal can be struck, no further changes would be made for twenty-five years.

The unions immediately said the offer was not good enough to call off strikes that will hit public services including schools, courts, hospitals and councils. Ministers are gambling that the public will not side with strikers. The talks have been led from the Government side by Francis Maude, the Tory Cabinet Office minister, and Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury. "We want agreement and to be able to finalise details of the plans by the end of the year," said a source close to the talks. "The ball is now in the unions' court."

The Government insists that it is a "basic mathematical issue" that civil service pensions need reform. No 10 has vowed to do "whatever we can to ameliorate the consequences of the strike", and believes the walkouts could drive a wedge between the unions and the public. "If you are a public sector worker you will still end up in a situation where you have a defined pension at the end of it that's clear and generous," a Downing Street insider said. "If you are in the private sector, the vast majority don't know what their pension is."

Unison, which represents one million people, from school dinner ladies and bin collectors to social workers and NHS staff, defended the results of its ballot in favour of striking after just 29 per cent of those eligible took part. Ballot papers have now been sent to 200,000 members of the NASUWT teaching union. They are expected to be joined by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Union of Teachers, and for the first time in the dispute the National Association of Head Teachers is balloting members.

The Department for Education, which assumes the 30th November strike will be "bigger" than the one in June, is sending a two-page information bulletin to every school in England in an attempt to persuade teachers not to strike. Similar information is being distributed by the Department of Health and the Treasury.

Last month, Mr Maude told The Independent on Sunday: "At a time when the economy is not growing as strongly as everyone hoped, I think for the trade unions to be casually engaging in strike action that inflicted economic damage would imperil any goodwill that exists towards the trade union movement."

Independent on Sunday

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Families 'left stranded in appalling conditions' due to government cuts to regeneration projects

People have been "left stranded in appalling conditions" as a result of government cuts to regeneration projects, a group of MPs has said. The Communities and Local Government Committee said efforts to improve deprived parts of the North and Midlands had been stopped mid-stream. It said the government had "no adequate strategy" for regeneration in England and must help those left "trapped".

75 Grant Shapps: Don’t blame me, blame Labour

The cross-party committee focused on the decision to wind up the controversial Pathfinder housing renewal scheme last year. The scheme was designed to revive run-down areas in the North West, the Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire by tearing down old terraces and building new homes. But critics called it "an exercise in social cleansing" and said it had resulted in perfectly good houses being demolished - and often not replaced - when they could have been renovated. The committee said the decision to end funding for Pathfinder had left a "profound impact" on people's lives.

Labour chairman Clive Betts said: "We saw and heard for ourselves what happens when the government stops investing in regeneration. "In Rochdale, we found row upon row of boarded-up houses, the direct result of the withdrawal [of funding]. We met a family trapped in a half-abandoned street after the promise of a new home was not fulfilled. We heard similar stories from other Pathfinder areas. People have been left stranded in appalling conditions: many are owner-occupiers, often vulnerable people with no other options. The government must act to help these people and to eradicate the blight that has been left in so many neighbourhoods."

The committee said the government's regeneration strategy, published in January, provides "little confidence" that ministers have a clear plan of action. "It lacks strategic direction and is unclear about the nature of the problem it is trying to solve," the MPs said. "It focuses overwhelmingly upon the achievement of economic growth, giving little emphasis to the specific issues faced by deprived communities and areas of market failure." The MPs warned that government plans were "unlikely to bring in sufficient resources" - including from private sector sources - to improve the situation, and leaving deprived areas without help risked storing up social, economic and environmental problems for the future.

In response, Grant Shapps said it had been "tough picking up the pieces" from Labour's attempts at regeneration which relied on "bulldozing buildings... whilst desperately hoping someone might come along to reorder the rubble.

"We'll shortly be announcing additional funding to help those people living in the worst-affected streets, and we'll continue to untie the hands of councils and residents so they can make the key decisions over how they would like to improve their own neighbourhoods," he said. "But we know that true regeneration can only be achieved by creating the conditions for communities and businesses to thrive in. That's why local enterprise partnerships have already replaced the failed regional development agencies, and low-tax, low-regulation enterprise zones are being planted across the country to give businesses the incentives they need to grow their local economy and create thousands of new jobs."

BBC News

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

MPs call for tougher sentences for hate crimes

MPs are calling for tougher sentences for hate crimes committed against disabled people amid concern that they are on the increase.  An all-party group is pressing for such offences to be put on the same footing as acts of violence motivated by race, religion or sexual orientation, which would mean stiffer penalties.  The courts would have to take account of the motive when fixing the sentence.  For example, a life sentence for the murder of a disabled person would attract a longer minimum jail term.

Kate Green, the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, has tabled amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill being debated in the Commons this week, which would ensure tougher penalties.  Her backers include Paul Maynard, a Tory MP and Simon Wright, a Liberal Democrat.

Ms Green said the aim was to "put the Government on the spot" to ensure that the issue of crimes against the disabled are taken more seriously.  She said a new approach was needed on a much wider front than sentencing.  "There is a growing problem of public hostility towards the disabled," she said.  "Public agencies sometimes appear to challenge the victims rather than the perpetrators."

The move follows the tragedy of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her daughter in 2007 after being subjected to ten years of harassment and anti-social behaviour.  The family complained at least thirty-three times to Leicestershire Police.  Although an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that the police missed several opportunities to act, four officers were cleared of misconduct.

A study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that the case was only the "tip of the iceberg" because harassment of the disabled was "a serious problem."  It found that many disabled people were afraid to report such abuse, fearing the consequences or that they would not be believed.

The Independent

Challenging the idols of high finance

By Rowan Williams

In an article for the Financial Times, the Archbishop of Canterbury has thrown his weight behind the St Paul’s Cathedral anti-capitalist protesters, calling for a new tax on banks.

“It has sometimes been said in recent years that the Church of England is still used by British society as a sort of stage on which to conduct by proxy the arguments that society itself doesn't know how to handle. It certainly helps to explain the obsessional interest in what the Church has to say about issues of sex and gender. It may help to explain just what has been going on around St Paul's Cathedral in the last couple of weeks.

The protest at St Paul's was seen by an unexpectedly large number of people as the expression of a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment that shows no sign at all of diminishing. There is still a powerful sense around – fair or not – of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers; of messages not getting through; of impatience with a return to 'business as usual' – represented by still soaring bonuses and little visible change in banking practices.

So it was not surprising that initial reactions to what was happening at St Paul's and to the welcome offered by the Cathedral were quite sympathetic. Here were people – protesters and clergy too, it seemed – saying on our behalf that 'something must be done'. A marker had been put down, though, comfortingly, not in a way that made any very specific demands.

The cataract of unintended consequences that followed has been dramatic. The Cathedral found itself trapped between what must have looked like equally unpleasant alternative courses of action. Two outstandingly gifted clergy have resigned. The Chapter has now decided against legal action. Everyone has been able to be wise after the event and to pour scorn on the Cathedral in particular and the Church of England in general for failing to know how to square the circle of public interest and public protest.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Statement from St Paul’s Cathedral on suspending legal action against Occupy London

St Paul's Cathedral says it is suspending its current legal action against the anti-capitalist protest camp outside the church. Here is the full statement:

“The Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral has unanimously agreed to suspend its current legal action against the protest camp outside the church, following meetings with Dr Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, late last night and early this morning.

The resignation of the Dean, the Rt Rev Graeme Knowles, has given the opportunity to reassess the situation, involving fresh input from the bishop. Members of Chapter this morning have met with representatives from the protest camp to demonstrate that St Paul's intends to engage directly and constructively with both the protesters and the moral and ethical issues they wish to address, without the threat of forcible eviction hanging over both the camp and the church.

It is being widely reported that the Corporation of London plans to ask protesters to leave imminently. The Chapter of course recognises the Corporation's right to take such action on Corporation land.

The bishop has invited investment banker Ken Costa formerly chair of UBS Europe and chairman of Lazard International, to spearhead an initiative reconnecting the financial with the ethical. Mr Costa will be supported by a number of City, Church and public figures, including Giles Fraser, who although no longer a member of Chapter, will help ensure that the diverse voices of the protest are involved in this.

The Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, said: "The alarm bells are ringing all over the world. St Paul's has now heard that call. Today's decision means that the doors are most emphatically open to engage with matters concerning not only those encamped around the cathedral but millions of others in this country and around the globe. I am delighted that Ken Costa has agreed to spearhead this new initiative which has the opportunity to make a profound difference."

The Rt Rev Michael Colclough, Canon Pastor of St Paul's Cathedral and a member of Chapter, added: "This has been an enormously difficult time for the Cathedral but the Chapter is unanimous in its desire to engage constructively with the protest and the serious issues that have been raised, without the threat of legal action hanging over us. Legal concerns have been at the forefront in recent weeks but now is the time for the moral, the spiritual and the theological to come to the fore."


Imagine – Grayson Perry: The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman

The new season of BBC1's Imagine begins with Grayson Perry – The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman. Over a two-year period, Imagine has had exclusive access to the creation of Perry's latest exhibition at the British Museum. This unique portrait of the artist at work sees editor and presenter Alan Yentob delve into Grayson Perry's childhood, join him on a motorbike pilgrimage to Germany and follow him as he explores the artefacts in the British Museum's collection which will inspire his own exhibition.

Throughout this period, Perry has been given free rein to choose items from the British Museum's extensive collection of more than eight million objects to feature in his exhibition alongside his own creations; from his trademark ceramics to sculptures, tapestries and even a working motorbike. The resulting exhibition, The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman, is his most ambitious show yet.

10.35-11.35pm  tonight on BBC1

Monday, 31 October 2011

Employment boost as new power stations announced for Yorkshire

Yorkshire has been promised an employment boost after the Government backed plans for new power stations in Ferrybridge and Doncaster. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has approved a 108mw multi-fuel incinerator in Ferrybridge near Pontefract and a 1,500mw gas plant at Thorpe Marsh, north of Doncaster.

Energy Minister Charles Hendry

The Government said building the plants will create more than 1,000 jobs, power almost two million homes and result in over £1.2bn of investment. “The energy industry can be a real driver of growth across the country,” said Energy Minister Charles Hendry. “These new plants in Yorkshire are a fantastic example of new power stations bringing new jobs.”

However, consent for the Ferrybridge plant was met with dismay by local campaigners, over fears about emissions “We’re not naive – we know we can’t carry on with landfill,” said John Clarkson, a member of Aire (against Air, Industrial, River and Environmental pollution). “We just want it done in a safe manner and we don’t consider this to be safe.”

The £250m Ferrybridge incinerator is planned by utility group SSE. It will burn biomass and waste. SSE director Rhys Stanwix said it will create about 400 jobs. “This multi-fuel CHP (combined heat and power) plant will be an innovative addition to our generating portfolio and will make an important contribution to ensuring secure energy supplies,” he said.

The Thorpe Marsh gas plant will cost Acorn Power Developments £984m. DECC said up to 800 jobs are expected to be created during its construction. The former Thorpe Marsh coal-fired power station was decommissioned in 1994 and the site sold to Able UK. Acorn Power could not be reached for comment.

DECC recently gave the green light to two biomass-fuelled power stations planned by Drax in the region – a 299mw power station in Selby and another 299mw biomass-fuelled plant for South Killingholme near Immingham.

Yorkshire Post

Banksy occupies St Paul's

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Senior Lib Dem and unions condemn proposal to scrap unfair dismissal

A senior Liberal Democrat has described a proposal to scrap unfair dismissal and allow managers the right to sack unproductive staff without explanation as "madness". In a report seen by the Daily Telegraph and commissioned by Downing Street, the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft suggests British workers should be banned from claiming unfair dismissal so companies can sack them and find more capable replacements, saying this would boost economic growth.

The document has generated a furious response from trade unions. Downing Street declined to comment on the contents of the report other than to say it was not "a final document". But Norman Lamb, the chief parliamentary and political adviser and parliamentary private secretary to the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said taking away protection from unfair dismissal would damage the economy because it would increase workers' fears that they could be arbitrarily sacked.

"I think it would be madness to throw away all employment protection in the way that's proposed, and it could be very damaging to consumer confidence," Lamb said. "What we are talking about here is every single employee in the land being in a position where their employer could arbitrarily terminate their employment – and the impact that could have on consumer confidence, fear of losing your job, would potentially be very damaging. I just think it's also not right to throw away that sort of scheme of protection."

He warned that the "law of unintended consequences" could mean staff who criticise or challenge their employers could be dismissed as a result, pointing out that existing laws already enable employers to get rid of staff where there is clear evidence of underperformance. "The existing law gives employers far more rights than many actually recognise, and it's easing the way to use those existing rights much more easily that I think is the right way forward," he added.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Cancer patients face further financial woes as welfare reforms loom

A leading cancer charity says 70% of cancer patients face financial worries as a direct result of their disease. Macmillan Cancer Support says there are increased costs and lost income to contend with - and that could get worse under government plans to reduce patient support in the Welfare Reform Bill.

In August, YouGov polled 1,495 cancer patients for Macmillan and found:
  • 66% had increases costs, including travel to hospital and/or an increase in household expenses
  • 43% of all cancer patients are anxious due directly to their financial situation
  • 17% of those financially affected cut back on everyday essentials such as food
  • 5% skip meals to save money
  • 7% are scared of losing their home
  • 29% of those financially affected have spent all or some of their savings
  • 9% have borrowed money to cover the extra costs of cancer

Macmillan says changes to benefits under the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will make 7,000 cancer patients up to £94 a week worse off. Other proposals mean cancer patients who need immediate financial help after a diagnosis will have to wait six months instead of three for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) which are replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Macmillan worked out these figures from estimates of the number of cancer patients in the Work-Related Activity Group of ESA, or those who are currently claiming Incapacity Benefit but who will be placed in the Work-Related Activity Group following the reassessment of all Incapacity Benefit claimants.

Macmillan policy analyst Tom Cottam said many people with cancer are very concerned about the changes to benefits: "A significant number, over two fifths, felt really quite anxious [about] their financial situation and how the reforms are going to affect them. People with cancer are already feeling the pinch as a result of increased costs, such as travelling to hospital, paying parking charges when you get there, extra fuel that's required because they spend so much time at home; also having to leave work quite often to undergo treatment."

It isn't just cancer patients who are concerned at the changes to the benefits changes. At the weekend, thousands of disabled people joined anti-cuts rallies across the country. The Disability Benefits Consortium and the UK Disabled People’s Council say disabled people are already twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people and families with a disabled child are estimated to be £50 a week worse-off than those without. 

In an emailed statement, a DWP spokesperson says: "Recovering cancer patients who are assessed as still needing unconditional Government support will be placed in the support group of ESA and will see no change to their benefit entitlement after 12 months. Nor will there be any change for those on income-related ESA.

"The Government is committed to protecting those who need help the most and has asked Professor [Malcolm] Harrington [appointed by the government to carry out an independent review of the work capability assessment] and Macmillan to look at whether we can improve the support we give to cancer patients. We have already made changes to Employment and Support Allowance so that people in-between courses of certain types of chemotherapy, as well as those receiving it, automatically receive unconditional support."

Tom Cottam from Macmillan tells us: "For those people who might be in the last few months of life with a terminal illness, or people who are so severely affect by their condition that they require unconditional support, it's correct that their benefit won't be affected, but there's a significant number of people who might be able to do some work in the future, and might be able to do some small things to help them prepare for work. They are going to lose some of their support after 12 months. If their partner earns as little as £150 a week they won't be eligible for any further benefit after 12 months. It's those people who are making that journey back to work who might need longer than 12 months who are going to be affected by this change."

Macmillan has been campaigning on benefit reforms and how they affect cancer patients since the changes were first announced. "On some areas, we've had quite a constructive dialogue with government," Tom Cottam says, "but on this issue around the time limiting of the ESA they're being quite robust. Their defence is that savings have to be made, and while we understand our national finances are in a precarious position, we think that taking some really crucial support away from vulnerable cancer patients who've paid into the system and are doing all they can to get back to work, is just not the right area to be cutting."

Macmillan is hoping these areas can be addressed when the House of Lords looks at the Welfare Bill and peers, "will stand up for cancer patients and will amend the bill to make changes to ensure sure cancer patients and disabled people more widely are not penalised for not getting back to work quickly enough."

If cancer patients have financial concerns, Tom Cottam says Macmillan's support line (0808 808 0000) can help: "We can give access to benefits advisers who can look at an individual's finances, try and understand what they may be eligible for, and try and work with cancer patients to deal with debt and things like that."


Thursday, 20 October 2011

'Healthcare will be like a budget airline' says Gerada

The NHS shake-up risks wrecking GPs' relationship with their patients by turning them into rationers of care who deny the sick the treatment they need, warns the chair of the Royal College of GPs. Family doctors could be "compromised" by having to decide between providing sick patients with the best possible treatment or meeting financial targets, according to Dr Clare Gerada. Giving GPs control of health budgets, the cornerstone of health secretary Andrew Lansley's restructuring of the NHS in England, could diminish the trust between patients and family doctors, she will tell the college's annual conference.

Steve Bell, the Guardian

"We must not risk long-term benefits being sacrificed in favour of short-term savings," Gerada will tell the audience of 1,500 GPs in Liverpool. "How soon will it be, for example, before we stop referring for cochlear implant? An expensive intervention but one that in the long term saves enormous amounts of public money. But not a saving from our budget. How long will it be before we find ourselves injecting a patient's knee joint - at Injections-R-us PLC - instead of referring to an orthopaedic surgeon for a knee replacement?"

In a detailed critique of Lansley's health and social care bill, she will warn that: "As doctors we risk being compromised. We'll have to choose between the best interests of our patients and those of the commissioning group's purse. And, to make matters worse, we'll also be rewarded for staying in budget - and not spending the money on restoring the child's hearing. Now that's what I call a perverse incentive." 

Her warning reflects widespread concern among doctors that exercising their financial responsibilities will lead some patients to believe they have been refused treatment on grounds of cost. Lansley's reforms also threaten to create a two-tier health service where the well-off can beat queues by paying for fast treatment as private patients in NHS hospitals, because of the proposed easing of the amount which foundation trust hospitals can earn from that source.

"I worry we're heading towards a situation where healthcare will be like a budget airline. There will be two queues: one queue for those who can afford to pay, and another for those who can't. Seats will be limited to those who muscle in first, and the rest will be left stranded on the tarmac."

The British Medical Association, which represents hospital doctors as well as GPs, said it shared Gerada's concerns. "In general, we would agree with Clare Gerada's comments about the impact of the health and social care bill. The BMA has concerns about the conflicts of interest inherent in the bill as well as the effects of the market on healthcare, and her comments fit with the views of most doctors," said a spokeswoman for the BMA, which wants the bill withdrawn or substantially amended.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The NHS is not for sale and this government is committed to a real terms increase in funding for it. We want to give GPs the power and control to make the right decisions on behalf of their patients. Talk of budget airlines is nonsense pure and simple. In the new NHS, everyone will fly first class. Quality will improve as both patients and frontline staff are able to make choices.

"We have already amended the health and social care bill to make sure that clinical commissioning groups are accountable and transparent to patients and the public, and so that each one will have a governing body that meets in public. As both the chief executive and medical director of the NHS at national level have made clear, there should be no blanket bans on treatment for reasons of cost."

Denis Campbell, the Guardian

Friday, 14 October 2011

Neil Kinnock: the speech of a lifetime

As a young shadow cabinet member in 1983, Neil Kinnock outlined his vision of what an electoral landslide victory for Margaret Thatcher would mean for the country. It is now rightly recognised as one of the greatest speeches since World War II. It is now as relevant as it was then. It is now that we must act.


"If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as Prime Minister, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain - when healing and relief depend on payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance - when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty - when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a Government that won't pay, in an economy that can't pay.

I warn you that you will be cold - when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work - when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet - when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort - with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound - when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less - when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins, she will be more a Leader than a Prime Minister. That power produces arrogance and when it is toughened by Tebbitry and flattered and fawned upon by spineless sycophants, the boot-licking tabloid Knights of Fleet Street and placement in the Quangos, the arrogance corrupts absolutely.

If Margaret Thatcher wins -

I warn you not to be ordinary.
I warn you not to be young.
I warn you not to fall ill.
I warn you not to get old."

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Gay marriage? “We may as well legalise marriage with animals,” says Tory

A senior Tory councillor was facing suspension today for saying the party "may as well legalise marriage with animals" after David Cameron backed gay weddings. Party chiefs were set to discipline James Malliff after he posted the comment on Twitter. Labour condemned the "sick" remark and demanded Mr Cameron sack him immediately.
Mr Malliff, who is cabinet member for the big society and localism on Tory-controlled Wycombe district council, has deleted the tweet but not before screen grabs were taken and shown to the Evening Standard. In a post directed at former Conservative MP Paul Goodman, who had asked whether legalising gay marriage could lead to multiple sharia marriages being made lawful, Mr Malliff wrote: "There is no doubt the PM is wrong on this issue. We may as well legalise marriage with animals, crude I concede but no apology."

Labour MP Clive Betts said: "This sick comment shows once again that the Tories are out of touch and out of date. It's clear that the Tories haven't changed. If James Malliff doesn't resign immediately as a cabinet member and a councillor, David Cameron must sack him." A Conservative party spokesman said action was being taken against Mr Malliff, adding: "This language is completely unacceptable."

Another tweet on his feed reads: "Great keynote address by David Cameron, not sure about legalising gay marriage though, what happened to sanctity of marriage #odd". Cllr Malliff apologised and said he had not intended to cause offence. "I respect the rights of people to hold different views to my own. It was not an anti-gay statement, more a comment about where we draw the line." He said he had apologised locally and felt that had "put it to bed".

Evening Standard

UPDATE 13/10/11 at 10.20am:
Mr Malliff has now been suspended. Gay rights group Stonewall said:  “We warmly welcome the decision of the Conservative Party to suspend Councillor Malliff. It’s extraordinary in 2011 that he is prepared to insult so many of his council taxpayers in this way.”

Threat of boycott as Atos Healthcare named Paralympics sponsor

A company accused of smearing thousands of ­disabled Britons by declaring them fit for work is sponsoring next year’s London Paralympics. On behalf of the government, French firm Atos ­Healthcare assessed 1.3million people on incapacity benefit and came to the conclusion that 150,000 of them were capable of working. However, on appeal, the decisions have been overturned one by one and a Commons select committee said Atos Healthcare's “unacceptable” ­blunders had cost the taxpayer £30million a year.

Disabled campaigners are now threatening a boycott of the Paralympic Games insisting that the company is running a flawed process to assess disabled people's rights to benefits and is therefore an inappropriate sponsor of the games. This is denied by Atos Healthcare who said it was not just proud of the work carried out by their staff to "conduct objective assessments" but also "proud of its role as the Worldwide IT Partner for the Paralympic Games".

The last straw for campaigners was the appointment last month of former Atos chief executive - Bernard Bourigeaud - to the board of the International Paralympic Committee. The IPC said M Bourigeaud "left Atos in September 2007 and is a long-time supporter of the Paralympic movement offering some expert advice and guidance. His knowledge and experience will be of great benefit to us going forward."

Campaigner John McArdle called Atos Healthcare’s involvement an “insult”. He added: “Because of them, many disabled people will have to wait months to get their benefits back. Their ­sponsorship is unacceptable.”

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

MPs often 'too drunk to stand' in Commons

Dr Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, alleged that a “shocking” number of MPs have “no idea” what they are voting for in the Commons as they just follow the orders of their leaders. Dr Wollaston, 49, who won her seat at last year’s election, said the party should recruit candidates from a wider range of backgrounds to raise standards in Parliament.

“Who would go to see a surgeon who had just drunk a bottle of wine at lunchtime?” she said at a fringe meeting hosted by the Policy Exchange think tank. “But we fully accept that MPs are perfectly capable of performing as MPs despite some of them drinking really quite heavily.”

Dr Wollaston called for such behaviour to be “challenged”. She said: “It’s really shocking that so many MPs have no idea what they are voting for when they walk through the doors of the lobbies. I think we need to change the culture in Westminster.”

Daily Telegraph

Did you know that the Conservatives are now ‘the party of the poor’?

The Conservatives are now "the party of the poor," Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said. He told a meeting at the Tories' annual conference that his party, rather than Labour, had the best policies to tackle inequality. The previous government had spent "vast sums" but made the gap between rich and poor worse, he said.

10Even his wife laughed

However, Mr Duncan Smith conceded the coalition's changes would take a "little while" to bear results. Addressing a meeting arranged by the Centre for Social Justice think-tank, which he himself established, the minister said: "We are the party focused on the poor, so it follows that you might legitimately say that we are the party of the poor."

Even though Labour had tried to lift people out of poverty, "some of the people in the people in the deepest poverty went backwards" under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, he added. "Labour spent vast sums of money and left income inequality in the worst state since I have been born," said Mr Duncan Smith, who was Conservative leader from 2001 to 2003.

The coalition was "dealing with causes of social breakdown", whereas predecessors had pursued a "containment policy". This meant they had spent "a lot of money to keep people inactive and depressed about their lives".

Putting this right would be "like turning a super tanker around" and it was going to be a "little while" before the results of his policies became obvious. But he said the welfare-to-work programme and a plan for a Universal Benefit payments, due to start coming into effect in 2013, would succeed in getting more people into employment. "Things the last government talked about we have managed to do," he claimed.

Mr Duncan Smith also spoke of the difficulties of working within a coalition government, arguing: "We won't compromise on much by the end of it. The reality is it is all about timing." He took a swipe at "sneery" newspaper columnists who criticised the government's plan to favour marriage in the tax system and who claimed that people would not walk up the aisle for a few extra pounds a month.

"People who have money make stupid arguments like that," he said, adding that the focus of his department's efforts was on "couple formation" rather than marriage. If they were to stay together for an extended period of time that would be a great leap forward," he said of couples on the breadline.

BBC News

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Tories face union anger over unfair dismissal

Workers with less than two years' service will be prevented from taking their employers to a tribunal for unfair dismissal under government plans to boost the economy. The proposals, to be unveiled by Chancellor George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference, will see the qualification period increased from one year to two from next April.

It is likely to open a new faultline between the coalition and trade unions. But Mr Osborne told the Sun: "We talk a lot about trade union rights - but what about the right of the unemployed person to be given a shot at a job and a career? What about the rights of people currently sitting at home with nothing to do, desperate to get work, but the business can't afford to employ them because they fear they are going to be taken to the tribunal?"

A total of 236,000 employment tribunal claims were made last year, with an average award of £8,900 for successful claimants, and the average cost of defending a claim at £4,000, according to Treasury officials. It is claimed the change in law will benefit business by around £6 million a year in reduced legal fees and payouts, while employees are expected to lose around £1 million in unfair dismissal awards. Under the proposals, employees will still retain "day one" rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Deficit reduction is an essential step for economic growth - but it must be accompanied by a plan for jobs too." Claiming that it is businesses, not governments, which create jobs, he added: "And the role for government is not to single out good and bad industries, it's to make it easy as possible for all industries, all business, to grow, invest, take people on. And whether it's cutting corporation tax, investing in superfast broadband or getting to grips with employment regulations, that's exactly what we're doing."

Meanwhile, the possibility of tax cuts before the next general election depends on "how things develop" between now and 2015, Mr Osborne said. Ahead of this weekend's conference, the Chancellor offered a highly cautious verdict on the prospect of tax bills coming down. He indicated that his primary focus was for now on promoting private sector growth and that he would only want to introduce tax cuts that would be permanent - "not just for Christmas".

It has been thought that, having reduced the deficit by the end of the Parliament, Mr Osborne would want to offer some kind of pre-election sweeteners. But, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he was non-committal about the likelihood of tax cuts amid continued economic turmoil around the world. "We'll see how things develop in the rest of this parliament," he said. "I'm a conservative who believes in lower taxes. They lead to a more enterprising economy. But I'm not somebody who believes you can fund lower taxes by borrowing more money because that is a deceit and the public are smart enough to see straight through it."

Insisting his first priority was on dealing with the deficit, he said he did not want to offer tax cuts that had to be reversed very quickly. "I don't want to be a Chancellor who cuts taxes one year and has to put them up the next," he said. "A country with an almost double-digit deficit cannot add to its deficit in the middle of a sovereign debt storm to cut tax, presumably on a temporary basis, because you would have to then put it back up again to deal with the deficit. Tax cuts should be for life not just for Christmas." [wanker - Ed]

He also indicated that scrapping the 50p top rate of tax, which would intensify Liberal Democrat calls for the introduction of a "mansion tax" was not an immediate priority. "This is not an issue for this autumn," Mr Osborne said. "We have plenty of economic issues to discuss - we've got the situation in the eurozone, the situation in the world economy. We are doing everything we can to get the British economy moving. That is where my energy is spent."

Independent/Press Association

Friday, 30 September 2011

This US-style gerrymandering is a terrible mistake

By John Lloyd for the Financial Times

The word “gerrymander” derives from an electoral redistricting scheme devised by Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812 for his own party’s advantage. He came up with one area which was so convoluted it looked like a salamander. Even now in the US, corruption in drawing political boundaries is, in most states, simply part of the game. So there are such charming but disgraceful confections as the 34th state senate district of New York (“the dangling lobster tail”) and the 17th congressional district of Illinois (“the rabbit on a skateboard”).

Britain got rid of rotten boroughs such as Dunwich, which had fallen into the North Sea, in 1832. After that the process of altering constituency boundaries to keep up with population changes, though inevitably contentious, became largely fair and sensible. At least until now.

The other day I saw a map of the constituency in which I am supposed to vote at the next election. It is called Ludlow and Leominster. It looks to me like a moose’s head. It will stretch from Ewyas Harold, in south-west Herefordshire, to Rowley in Shropshire, a journey – according to Google Earth - of 65.5 miles, taking an hour and 47 minutes. But I drive these country lanes more often than Google Earth and I reckon that’s optimistic. The new MP will presumably be based in Ludlow, which is an hour’s drive from my house when roads are quiet. By public transport – allow for an overnight stay. These places have totally different councils and totally different issues.

This is one extreme consequence of the latest changes but there are other examples across the country: county boundaries have been routinely forgotten so that Cornwall, a discrete political entity for 1100 years, will share an MP with Devon. Middlesbrough, which has had its own MPs throughout modern history, will now be split between three different constituencies, and Stockton-on-Tees, which is not a large place, between four.

This is not the fault of the Boundary Commissioners who have made these proposals. They are operating under absurd criteria cooked up by David Cameron in opposition. He thought it would be popular to demand fewer MPs (600 not 650), claiming it would save money. He also sought political advantage by insisting constituencies should have equal electorates. Under the rules he has pushed through, only a five per cent tolerance will be allowed on the quota for each seat (now 76,641 electors per MP) with very minor exceptions for highlands and islands. This is much too deterministic to allow sane boundaries.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Richard Desmond’s Health Lottery: ‘profiteering on the back of the British public’s goodwill’

Charity leaders have criticised a new lottery, being launched next week by Richard Desmond, for giving less to good causes than the National Lottery. The ‘Health Lottery’ will compete directly with the National Lottery. Mr Desmond plans to promote it across his (self-regulatory system exempt) publications including the right-leaning Daily Express, the EDL-supporting Daily Star and gossip photo-magazine OK! [class act! – Ed]. The draw will be shown at prime-time on ITV1 and Desmond’s own Channel 5 on Saturday nights; the maximum prize will be £100,000.

54                          Richard Desmond: re-defining ‘look after yourself’

The Health Lottery will give 20.34p of each £1 ticket to good causes, just 0.34p above the legal minimum it is required to give as a “society lottery” and it will not be required to pay lottery duty. The National Lottery, which is not a society lottery, gives 28p per £1, plus another 12p in lottery duty. Camelot, which runs the National Lottery under licence, is permitted a maximum profit of 0.5p per £1 gambled. The Health Lottery, in which Mr Desmond is the sole investor, declined to say what level of profit it expected.

If the Health Lottery meets its target of selling at least £250 million of tickets in the first year, it will give £20 million less to good causes than if the same sum had been spent on National Lottery tickets. Under the Gambling Act 2005, a society lottery can sell a maximum of £10 million of tickets a year. The Health Lottery has registered 51 society lotteries, giving it potential sales of £510 million.

While lotteries cannot be run for commercial gain, the Health Lottery can profit by acting as an “external lottery manager” for the society lotteries. Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, described the Health Lottery as “a pretty disgraceful development”, adding: “The Government needs to look at lottery regulations to ensure it’s made transparent to people who play that this new lottery is giving a lot less per £1 to good causes.”

Nick Wilkie, the chief executive of London Youth, a network of 400 youth organisations, said: “It seems to me that if one runs a lottery and gives away less to good causes than the National Lottery, then one is profiteering on the back of the British public’s goodwill.” Martin Hall, the chief executive of the Health Lottery, said that he hoped to expand it into “a billion-pound business”.

Mr Desmond has signed up more than 40,000 retailers to sell tickets for his Health Lottery; that’s 12,000 more than the number of shops selling tickets for the National Lottery. The maximum prize is £100,000, which is guaranteed for all five correct numbers. Three correct numbers wins £50 and four £500. In its instructions to retailers, the Health Lottery says:

“When telling customers about the Health Lottery, remember the main features ... proceeds go to support local health-related good causes.”

Have a good day.