Wednesday, 29 February 2012
The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) will be making the headlines at the Brighton Fringe this year with a series of events on a range of topics during May 2012.
And what a way to start the series. Over three weeks, around 675 events will take place during the Fringe but only one of these will bring together Tony Benn, John McDonnell MP and Owen Jones for an afternoon of discussion and questions and answers with the audience.
Tony Benn is a former Cabinet Minister and the longest-ever serving Labour MP. After 50 years in Parliament, he stepped down in 2001 to "spend more time on politics". As well as writing and publishing his diaries, Tony is currently President of the Stop the War Coalition.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington in north-west London and Chair of the LRC. Amongst other posts, John is also Parliamentary Convenor of the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group of ten left-wing trades unions, representing over half a million workers.
Owen Jones is the author of “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class”. He regularly writes for The Guardian, The Independent and The New Statesman and recently appeared on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’. In September 2011, Owen was voted the most influential left-wing thinker of the year by readers of the Left Foot Forward blog.
This is an unprecedented opportunity to hear from three of Britain’s most prominent socialists on today’s key issues, with only limited tickets available.
2 – 4.30pm Saturday 12 May 2012
Brighthelm Church & Community Centre
North Road Brighton BN1 1YD
£10 waged £5 concessions
(Details of the other two events will follow shortly)
Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Monday, 27 February 2012
Friday, 24 February 2012
Prize tit, Maurice Glasman, has pulled back from plans to write a lucrative column for Rupert Murdoch's new Sunday Sun newspaper after talking to Ed Miliband. Miliband's very public stand against Murdoch and his media empire early on in the phone-hacking scandal has been one of his stronger suits in defending his record as Labour leader during months of sniping. Last summer Miliband called for Murdoch's News International, which also owns the Times, Sunday Times and a stake in BSkyB, to be broken up because the owner had "too much power over British public life".
This week, the new paper's executives have been ringing Labour MPs, including Miliband's office, asking for messages of support ahead of its launch this weekend, but MPs were urged by the party leadership not to be seen endorsing an attempt by Murdoch to re-impose his control of the Sunday newspaper mass market. Some Labour members have also been campaigning publicly for supporters to not co-operate with the new newspaper - announced this week as a replacement for the News of the World, which Murdoch closed last year when the extent of the phone hacking began to emerge.
On Thursday, the party issued a statement saying: "We will work and engage with all media organisations. But the Labour party does not endorse any newspaper and we don't endorse the Sunday Sun." Glasman, believed to be in talks with NI about being paid around £1,000 a week for his opinions, strained already soured relations with the party when he wrote an article for New Statesman magazine in January saying Labour appeared to have "no strategy, no narrative and little energy".
News on Wednesday of Glasman's involvement with the new paper was ridiculed by former Labour deputy leader John Prescott, who joked: "I'd be surprised if Maurice Glasman is a columnist for the Sun on Sunday. He's far too rightwing." Labour MP Tom Watson was more direct, tweeting that Glasman "should hang his head in shame". With what now looks like great prescience, Labour blogger Dan Hodges responded on Twitter: "Maurice Glasman has the black spot of Watson upon him. He will be dead by the dawn."
Glasman's decision to withdraw from his column did not emerge until the evening, but the Sunday Sun's nearly-scoop barely lasted a 24-hour news cycle.
The Guardian (with amendments)
A £30,000-a-year contract to rent a dozen fig trees for an MPs' office block must be ended as soon as possible, Commons speaker John Bercow has said. He said he had been horrified to find out the cost of the Portcullis House greenery and that the taxpayer was being "fleeced". The deal has been in place for 12 years and covers care and maintenance of the trees, which shade dining areas in the building's glass-topped atrium.
In an interview with The House magazine, he said: "I was horrified by it. Inevitably and understandably it will cause people out there to think these people are living in another universe. "I think the contract should absolutely be revisited. If we are going to have trees, they absolutely shouldn't be trees that cause us to fleece the taxpayer in this way, and that must change at the earliest opportunity. If there is a contract and it's going to cost us more to get out of it immediately than not, then it may well have to wait. But should the present arrangement continue beyond September? Absolutely not."
Thursday, 23 February 2012
The agonisingly tortuous progress of the government's health and social care bill has made the coalition's NHS reform agenda one of its most controversial. Here's a quick overview of the proposed changes - and the bitter, protracted battle over the government's ideas.
What's all the fuss about?
Something, so the cliché goes, has got to be done. Whoever was in government in this parliament would have to shake up the NHS' structures to a certain extent, to help the health service cope with dramatically changing demands on its services. We're all getting older. So less hospital treatment, for example, is critical as the ageing population demands more care in the home.
On top of this comes financial pressure. The coalition protected NHS spending in real terms in its comprehensive spending review, but is forcing through £20 billion of efficiency measures by 2015 to redistribute the savings more effectively. Not a straightforward context, then, for the decisions made by the 2010-15 government.
That government's proposals were unveiled for the first time in August 2010. They were, to put it mildly, something of a surprise. The Conservative general election manifesto had promised no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. How surprised we all were, therefore, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, with Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley at the helm, proposed exactly that.
Rather than let know-it-all managers make decisions about which resources should go where, ministers proposed handing the power to commission services to consortia of GPs. Some GPs liked the idea of this extra work. Others were appalled. What mattered, the government insisted, was the end result: the creation of a market dynamic within the NHS, reformed and shorn of its primary care trusts. At the heart of the coalition's proposals were moves to make competition the driver of more effective health services.
This wasn't the first time the NHS got itself worked up over the benefits and perils posed by competition. Kenneth Clarke's drive in the early 90s to introduce internal markets to the health service prompted massive anger from health organisations. It's no surprise that these are the same ones now fighting Lansley's changes. As the head of the BMA, Dr Hamish Meldrum, explained in May 2011, what's happening today is "almost part of the same argument, the same battle if you like, the same disagreement on how best to organise and make the NHS run more efficiently".
The coalition did not expect the levels of resistance which they have encountered. Their thinking was that these moves towards choice and competition were actually extensions to the piecemeal changes pushed through by the New Labour government. Yes, the coalition wanted to accelerate this shift towards the private sector - but the reforms were not coming completely out of the blue.
That did not stop them attracting huge opposition. For many, the proposal to give healthcare regulator Monitor responsibility for promoting competition at the expense of all else proved a step too far. It summed up the government's thinking, excited by the possibilities offered by innovative new providers and greater choice. Many feared that such untrammelled market factors would only lead to some losing out - and overall standards of patient care suffering.
The unprecedented 'listening pause' - and how it didn't work
It had never really been done before. But, taking advantage of the extra-long first parliamentary session, on April 6th 2011 the coalition announced a 'listening exercise' in which it would reconsider key parts of the bill. Two months later, on June 14th, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Lansley put on a brave face as they presided over massive concessions. Monitor's competition duty was scrapped. Instead choice and competition would rely on pre-existing competition panels, rather than being embedded in its day-to-day operations. The pace of the changes was also slowed - no more scrapping of PCTs by 2013 - and the role of the proposed national NHS board was expanded.
These were big adjustments - a humiliating experience for Lansley and Cameron. Less so for Nick Clegg, who was able to paint the changes as being the direct result of Lib Dem influence in the coalition. This was a painful episode for the government, but it genuinely hoped to have ended the debate. As the summer of 2011 slowly progressed, it looked like the NHS reform furore had finally subsided.
How wrong the optimists were. The listening pause was a hugely punishing hors d'oeuvre for the main event. Lib Dems, led by veteran Shirley Williams, made clear at the party's autumn conference they would not budge an inch on a vast swathe of remaining objections - including the legislation's rather vague approach to who is actually responsible for the NHS. Throughout the autumn the health and social care bill dragged its way through the Lords. The reforms remained a huge headache for the government.
An unfinished war of attrition?
As 2012 began the situation looked bad. But it was about to get worse as, in mid-January, campaigners sarcastically marked the first anniversary of the legislation's arrival in parliament. Groups like the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Midwives, which had previously been happy to work with the government to improve the bill, decided it was better if ministers now scrapped it completely.
The first weeks of the year were seeing a new crisis for Lansley and co. So, in another sizeable set of concessions, they tabled 137 amendments to the health and social care bill in early February. Demands to clarify the ultimate responsibility of the secretary of state for the NHS were met. So too were measures involving greater patient involvement, better arrangements for education and training, extra measures to tackle health inequalities and strengthened integration between NHS services.
Was this enough? Not really. Ed Miliband began returning to the issue again and again in prime minister's questions, effectively using the controversy to lift his struggling leadership. There was a real sense that these reforms might falter, after all.
But the stakes remained high. Following the listening pause, the Lib Dems were more closely tied into these reforms than they had been before. Such was their significance that a failure to push them through would be a hammer blow to the government. Perhaps this explains why ministers are now refusing to back down, in the teeth of huge opposition. The long, attritional fight shows no signs of ending soon. The government's resolve may be teetering, but it has not yet collapsed. Will ministers be able to hold on until the bitter end?
Alex Stevenson, politics.co.uk
Around 1.6 million council workers are to have their pay frozen for a third year in a row, local authority employers announced today. The "unprecedented" move affects workers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and was blamed on rising costs and shrinking funding for council services. Employers said increasing pay would mean more job losses and further cuts to services, but unions said the announcement was a "disgrace".
Local authority leaders were warned they faced the threat of industrial action if they did not agree to take the pay issue to arbitration. Sarah Messenger, head of workforce at the Local Government Association, said: "This has been a very difficult decision to make but it is the right one for council taxpayers and the workforce as a whole. A combination of rising costs and shrinking local government funding means councils were left with little choice. Increasing pay would mean more job losses and cuts to the services people need.
“Today's announcement represents an unprecedented third consecutive year of pay freeze and we recognise the frustration which will be felt by the workforce. While the financial outlook for councils is bleak, we are keen to begin discussions with the unions on a package of reform of pay and conditions that may enable us to avoid a fourth year of pay freeze in 2013."
Brian Strutton, national officer of the GMB, said the union would consult its members over industrial action if employers refused to go to arbitration. He said: "The politicians who lead local councils are a disgrace to the workforces they employ for offering no pay rise for the third consecutive year while feathering their own nests. Council leaders' pay has shot up and councillors vote themselves higher allowances while the carers, dinner ladies, dustmen, social workers, school support staff and all the other council workers serving their communities will have seen their pay fall in real terms by over 15%.
“The Chancellor promised the country in the 2010 budget that low-paid public sector workers would be afforded some protection against the cuts so will he rein in the Conservative-controlled council leaders who have made a mockery of that promise? Council workers are the lowest paid in the public sector but are the only ones not to be offered even the minimum £250 the Government guaranteed.
“This three-year pay freeze is not an austerity measure, it is a deliberate political choice by local government politicians who want to win votes by keeping their workforces' pay at poverty levels to fund council tax freezes." Mr Strutton said today's announcement came as a "shock", adding: "I don't know any other workforce in the economy that has had to bear this and 150,000 job losses and cuts to terms and conditions."
Unison's head of local government, Heather Wakefield, said: "Many local government workers are in work, but in poverty. It is a disgrace that pay will be frozen for the third year running, forcing even more into the poverty trap. Many of them will be women working in vital jobs in our local communities, like caring for the elderly, or for young children, or helping the vulnerable.
"Not even the lowest paid in local government will get the £250 increase the Chancellor promised them. They didn't get it last year either. Families can no longer cope. This cannot go on - councils do have other choices such as increasing council tax, or using their considerable reserves. The employers must think again, and at the very least come through with the £250 minimum increase for the lowest paid."
Unite national officer Peter Allenson said: "Local government workers are under sustained attack. "Staff have endured a decade of below inflation pay increases and freezes. Now attacks on pensions, conditions and massive job cuts have heaped misery upon misery. It is time that local government employers face the fact that they have a crisis on their hands. Failure to act will push even more workers into poverty and damage local government services.
"Staff need a substantial pay increase this year. Unite will be meeting its activists across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and fully supports its members in any action they are prepared to take for pay justice."
Labour MP Eric Joyce was arrested last night after allegations of an assault in a House of Commons bar.
Stuart Andrew, Tory MP for Pudsey, was reportedly head-butted and punched in the Strangers Bar, a Commons bar reserved for MPs and their guests. Joyce then started punching other Conservative members seated at the back of the bar. Drinks were also allegedly thrown over some bar patrons.
Joyce has been suspended from the Labour Party until the completion of a police investigation, however he remains MP for Falkirk.
The NHS is performing so well that it does not need to undergo the radical transformation planned by the coalition, according to a new study published by the British Medical Journal.
While the health service in England has some weaknesses, it should be left to continue making improvements that began when Labour was in power, and not face another massive upheaval, an analysis by health researchers led by Professor David Ingleby of Utrecht University in the Netherlands concluded.
Their findings "do not support complacency about the current performance of the health system in the UK", the authors stress. "They do, however, cast serious doubt on any claim that there is widespread popular support for radical reform.
"Improvements are needed, but continuation and expansion of the measures already set in motion – more of the same – seems to be a better formula than totally rebuilding a system that, by international standards, already works remarkably well."
The researchers based their findings on two recent Commonwealth Fund reports comparing the NHS's performance across the UK, and patients' perceptions of it, with that of the health systems of 13 other countries.
"The main messages are that the NHS outperforms other high income countries on many measures, despite spending less than most of them; it enjoys the highest levels of public confidence and satisfaction of all the countries studied; [and] the effects of increased investment and policy improvements over the past decade are clearly visible," said Ingleby.
But while healthcare is more accessible, better organised, safer and more patient-centred in the NHS than elsewhere, ongoing concern about some of the clinical outcomes it achieves in patients is a worry, they say. "Three measures warrant particular concern: deaths amenable to healthcare; survival rates for breast cancer; and survival after acute myocardial infarction," they add.
The Department of Health said the NHS could not be allowed to stand still. "This analysis highlights concerns around clinical outcomes, and the fact the current system has to improve. Separately, another report from Age UK and the National Osteoporosis Society today said our reforms could improve patient care," said a spokesman.
"The independent NHS Future Forum confirmed that every health system in the developed world faces the same challenges, but that they won't be met by the NHS doing more of the same. That is why our plans will hand power to GPs, put patients at the heart of the NHS, and reduce needless bureaucracy."
The Royal Navy's next generation of support tankers is to be built in South Korea. Defence equipment minister Peter Luff said Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering has been chosen as the Government's preferred bidder to build the four 37,000-tonne vessels costing £452 million.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that although a number of British companies took part in the competition, none submitted a final bid for the build contract. UK firms will however benefit from associated contracts - including the provision of key systems and equipment - worth £150 million. The winning design for the ships is by the British company BMT Defence Services.
"The Government remains committed to building complex warships in UK shipyards," Mr Luff said. The MoD's chief of defence materiel, Bernard Gray, said the competition for the contract had "sought to engage shipbuilders from across the globe. I believe the winning bidder's solution will offer the UK the best value for money."
The four Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (Mars) tankers will maintain the Navy's ability to refuel warships at sea and will provide support for amphibious, land and air forces. At more than 200 metres in length, each ship is as long as 14 double-decker buses and can pump enough fuel to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools in an hour.
Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "This is more bad news for British industry. First we lose out to France over fast jets and now we lose out to South Korea over Royal Navy tankers."
Friday, 10 February 2012
Sources who worked at the News of the World have confirmed an allegation, made at the Leveson inquiry by maverick blogger Paul Staines, that the paper paid him £20,000 to buy up a photograph of a special adviser to the foreign secretary, William Hague, which they subsequently never published. [Hmmm,who was in the background? - al]
Staines's claim is potentially explosive because the now-disgraced former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, was acting at the time as the Cameron government's press adviser, and is likely to have been involved in what proved to be a successful battle to save Hague's job.
The photograph was bought at the height of a controversy about Hague sharing a hotel room during campaigns with a 25-year-old special adviser. Hague was forced to issue a detailed statement denying he had had a gay relationship, and the recently appointed adviser, Chris Myers, resigned.
Staines, who runs a gossip site under the name Guido Fawkes, told Lord Justice Leveson in sworn testimony: "We also had pictures of the special adviser in a gay bar … We took the photos to the News of the World. They bought them for £20,000 and never published them. I don't know very much but I know you don't pay £20,000 for photos not to publish. The News of the World was in regular contact with Downing Street, and perhaps to curry favour or for whatever reasons, they chose to buy up those pictures and take them off the market."
News International, the owners of the defunct tabloid, declined to comment on the allegations, saying they were not prepared to disclose details of payments made. However, two former executives at the paper confirmed the deal, on condition of anonymity. They said the purchase was negotiated via the paper's political staff and authorised by the editor, Colin Myler.
One source claimed Myler bought the picture in order to "keep it off the market for a week" because he was planning to expose allegations of spot-fixing at Pakistan cricket matches and wanted it to dominate the headlines that week. But, according to Staines's testimony, he sold the photograph the week after the cricket story, which ran on Sunday 29 August 2010, along with printouts of on-line chat from a website.
The following week, after a statement by Hague describing his happy marriage and denying any gay relationships, every Sunday paper bar one carried news stories about the issue, with speculation about the foreign secretary's future.
The sole exception was the News of the World.
[Funny that – al]
The Guardian [et al]
Thursday, 9 February 2012
Labour has accused the government of giving London mayor Boris Johnson a £90m "bung" to help get him re-elected. The Metropolitan Police is to get the money partly to cover the cost of dealing with the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee this summer. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper told the House of Commons other forces were facing cuts of up to 20%. Police minister Nick Herbert said it was a coalition government and that both parties would field candidates.
Ms Cooper made the comments during a debate on plans which she said would see the loss of 16,000 police officers across England and Wales. She said: "Force after force is seeing big cuts next year except in London. So three months before the mayoral election, and three weeks after the polls show Boris Johnson falling behind, the government suddenly decides to reopen the budget for London... suddenly decides to come up with a pre-election £90m bung. The London Mayor has spent years cutting the Met, cutting the number of officers in London and suddenly the Conservative Party have panicked and are trying to bail him out."
During the debate, Mr Herbert said numbers were not the only factor in improving front line policing. He then asked Ms Cooper: "Can you tell me clearly whether or not you support the increase in funding for the Metropolitan Police this year, yes or no?" In reply, Ms Cooper said Labour did support extra funding for Scotland Yard, but also for all the other forces in England and Wales.
She continued: "You have to wonder, what do the chief constables in other parts of the country have to do in order to get a break? Put on a blond wig, jump on a bike, and become a struggling Tory candidate in order to get the money they need? The truth is, the home secretary should be concerned about public safety rather than just the safety of Boris Johnson."
Mr Herbert had earlier told MPs the changes to the police grant were necessary and good reforms as savings of £2bn a year were needed. The government won the vote on the 2012/13 Police Grant by 298 votes to 228, a majority of 70.