Prisoner votes is a hot issue…but it needn’t be.

This month the long standing issue of prisoner votes in the UK has again reared its head. The European court of Human Rights ruled in the 2005 case Hirst v. The United Kingdom (no2) against the UK’s long standing ban on prisoner voting. The Court held that “A blanket denial of voting rights to prisoners cannot satisfy the proportionality requirement” inherent in Article 3 of the First Protocol of the Convention:

“The High Contracting Parties (Signatory Countries) undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”

Although the court appreciated that such rules should be left as much as possible to national policy makers, it agreed unanimously that such a “blanket” ban was unacceptable. The court also mentioned the concept of proportionality, and the failure of the UK legislature to at any point weigh up the proportionality of the ban, however 5 judges of the Court dissented on this, pointing out that it is not for the ECHR to direct national legislatures on how to deliberate law making.

The Court also rejected the UK’s use of comparative law to support its case. It held that the Canadian example could not be considered, as the Canadian decision was rendered on such a narrow margin (5-4 majority), and furthermore, the South African example could not be presented because of the different kinds of obstacles to voting presented in comparison with the UK.

The UK government also stressed that across the Convention Signatory Countries (or High Contracting Parties) there was little or no consensus on how to handle prisoner voting. (13 countries don’t allow it). The Court responded to this, holding that a minority of Signatory States had similar laws to that of the UK, and regardless, the absence of consensus on an issue is not determinative on the Court not to make a decision.

The important finale of the Court is to hold that a “general, automotive and indiscriminate restriction on a vitally important Convention right must be seen as falling outside any acceptable margin of appreciation, however wide that margin might be, and as being incompatible with Article 3 of Protocol no. 1”.

This week, 5 years, 2 Prime Ministers, and 1 General election later, the European Court of Human Rights has warned the UK that unless it acts to insert the judgement in law, the Court will begin to award compensation to prisoners.

Let us not beat around the bush in political attack and defence. While Conservative members of the House come under attack for giving prisoners the vote, they point across the dispatch box towards the Labour members who “Didn’t do anything about it”. As a party, Labour must admit, that despite the endless consultations, proposals, meetings and talking shops about how it could be done, delaying tactics were most definitely employed. However, while the Coalition may be justified in saying Labour didn’t do it for 5 years, they cannot run away (and yes, Nick Clegg did try) from the fact that they have to do it now.

The UK is signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights and so we are bound by the decision of its Court. The problem is most people in the country don’t want to be forced to give convicted criminals suffrage, a right many see as one of the ones a person forgoes if they commit a crime, in the same way as freedom is limited. Furthermore, the politicians obviously don’t want to be forced to lift the ban on prisoner voting, but are being forced to debate, discuss and plan doing it in Parliament.

Parliament, the symbol of our democracy, the stalwart figure of representation of the people in the UK, the place where our MP’s debate our laws, the source of our government, is being forced to enact a law, pertaining to our democracy, within the bounds of our borders, which it doesn’t want to.

I may be wrong, but the situation strikes me as just slightly odd….

It is easily understandable that in signing up to the ECHR, just as in signing up to the EU, the United Kingdom succeeded some of its own sovereignty and gave it over to a collective obligation together with other countries to observe a pre agreed set of rules. However, I fail to understand why the Court, which normally takes a hesitant attitude to meddling in the largely internal affairs of countries,  has found itself obliged to protect the rights of the prisoner from a long standing and generally agreed national law.

What is more, the reasoning of the court seems to be extremely weak. The Convention requires High Contracting parties to hold free and fair elections, and this is the provision which the court has used in overturning the UK’s ban on prisoner voting. It reasons that elections in the UK are not free and fair as long as there is still a blanket ban on a particular section of society. The fact that this section of society is the criminal outcast group seems not to factor into the court’s decision.

However, regardless of my objections it is happening. The perturbing thing is the government could make this change much quieter, with much less aggravation, and with less jubilation from a certain Champagne drinking prisoner, but did not.

But how?

As I have already said above, other countries, in and out of the ECHR, have similar restrictions. In Canada all who are sentenced to two years or over are barred from voting.  In the US voting rights vary with elections and states, but generally convicts are barred. In countries such as Australia, Spain, France, and Greece there are voting restrictions such as a ban for “lifers” and judges in a sentencing court having the choice to remove suffrage with others.

It would be a simple provision to install this last method (similar to that of France). It simply changed the blanket ban to giving judges the right to include revoking the vote in the sentence for those who serve over a set number of years, or including revocation of the vote in the lawful punishment of crimes.

The other issue which has been raised is that of “mass voting” of prisoners. Rightly, it is a considerable worry of canvassing, campaigning, courting the prisoner vote etc, and of a prison population, because of its confined nature, voting similarly. The salve to this problem is another victory for comparative law. Countries such as Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Israel have no barring of votes for prisoners. In Ireland the Electoral (amendment) Act 2006 gives prisoners the right to a postal vote. Previously, prisoners had always had the right to vote, but not the right to access to a ballot box or postal vote, therefore could only vote if they were on temporary release and in the electoral division they would normally vote in if not imprisoned. The 2006 Act provided that prisoners must register for a postal vote, which will be counted in their home constituency, if they want to vote.

In conclusion, it is clear to see that the case in the Strasbourg Court is far from a stable judgement. The UK’s sovereignty has been so infringed that it seems internal regulations on prisoners and voting has been taken out of Parliament’s hands. However, the options I have stated above are simple and reasonable steps to make, and would be successful in keeping the vote out of the hands of criminals, especially those who have killed, or grievously harmed  another member of society.

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Ed Miliband: Leading Labour into the Future

Ed Miliband writes in his mail shot to party members this week, “The future of our party will depend of the outcome of this leadership election”. He is of course correct. The new leader, to be announced in September, will greatly affect the direction our party takes over the duration of this Coalition governments grasp on power. He or She will determine how we fight the threat of the coalition cuts, how we fight the next election, and what form a new Labour government will take when we win it (Yes, when not if). Every labour member should be acutely aware of these facts, as they will be are a large determining factor in which candidate they vote for or is chosen to lead the Labour Party. I have chosen Ed Miliband.

Ed’s approach, vigour, commitment and policies have struck me since even before the General Election. While his brother David blazed a trail in Cabinet, and then internationally when he became Foreign Secretary, Ed, who came into Parliament an election after David, has slowly mastered his briefs, first at the Cabinet Office, and then as the Secretary of State of Energy and Climate Change.  One of the high points of his career, and indeed why so many first took notice of him, was  his trip to Copenhagen as Britain’s representative in the negotiation of a successor treaty to Kyoto. He displayed zeal, determination, and true statesmanship in his efforts to secure an agreement on climate change action and rising global emissions. He called for major reform of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), voicing his outrage that some countries were nearly allowed to block deals. He criticised China’s well know intransigence specifically.

He has also led Labour initiatives for a greener Britain while in the role, calling for a Green Investment Bank (which the Tories are now abandoning), and adopting a more intervening stance for Labour as the only way to bring meaningful environmental change. I am a passionate environmentalist, so all of this means a great deal to me, the future of our party, future generations and  the future of our country. Any suggestion that Ed is a one trick pony, however, should be rejected.

One of Ed’s leading polices is the campaign for a living wage,  a successor to Labour previous game changer  the minimum wage. This would give hard-working people the level of pay they need to live, and incentivise work over benefits. He also pledges more support for industry and skilled jobs in response to the Tories abolition of capital allowances for Britain’s struggling manufacturing sector.

Ed also rejects the Tory mantra “Private – good, Public – bad”, with his campaign for a renewed and stronger approach to public services, now under attack by the coalition, such as the NHS, Schools, and local government. This support is desperately needed now more than ever, and should be  the heart of Labour’s efforts to oppose the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

Ed wasn’t in Parliament for the vote on the Iraq War, and in fact advocated extending the time for the weapons inspectors to do their job. This ethos is carried through to his approach to foreign policy, making sure our relations abroad are based on our values, not our alliances.  On Crime Ed promises to support things which work, such as CCTV, which I personally have always seen the benefits of, and ending things which don’t, such as ID cards and stop and search, again mirroring my own personal thoughts.

His approach to politics is also refreshing, invigorating and exciting. We were promised “new politics” by the coalition, and after 100 days, they have failed to deliver it. However Ed is honest and straightforward, and opposes the coalition’s plan to gerrymander constituencies. He also promises a new relationship between the party leadership and members, with members having more of a say in policy and championing a greater role for local campaigning. He also supports proposals for a fully elected party Chair.

My support for Ed is not to say that I don’t admire the other candidates and their campaigns. David has done superbly in championing his Movement for Change idea, which train more local champions and builds a future generation of community organisers. Ed Balls has shown the Labour still have teeth, and is passionate and defiant in our defence of children, the poor and the vulnerable, including the public services they rely upon. Andy Burnham also has shown his steely determination, passion, and intellect in his attack on a terrible Conservative NHS White Paper which proposes to begin dismantling much of our beloved Health Service. Finally Diane Abbott has surprised us all with her passion and drive, her unshakable principles and commitment to the people on the ground, one of the reasons why we all support Labour.

But for me – Ed is the man to lead the party into the future. He has the driving force, ability, support and inspiring ideas we need to move forward. He is right when he says that the future of our movement is in the balance. We must move forward by reasserting ourselves as the party of the left and centre. The party which fights for the many, not the few. The party which defends the poor and vulnerable, instead of rewarding the rich. The party which supports our industry and business, while also standing up for the workers. The party of progression, not regression. The party of the future, not the past. The party of social justice and cohesion, not division. The party of equality, fairness and equal opportunity. The party committed to green ideals and environmentalism. The party of the People.

Ed Miliband wants that too. Ed Miliband is the man who can deliver it. That is why I support Ed Miliband to lead Labour into the future.

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The Great Betrayal

This past week has been an interesting one. The coalition remains intact, and largely quiet, regardless of internal issues over a new hastily thought up Tory social housing policy. Rumblings in the Ministry of Defence on the treasury’s plan to include the nuclear deterrent in the MoD budget for the first time continue. The prolonged absence of the ‘Invisible Man’ we all used to know as the Leader of the Liberal Democrats is even more prolonged. Vince Cables misgivings about a double dip recession have shattered the view that all is well inside the Tory-Liberal alliance. David Cameron has dramatically rejected the suggestion of an end to infant milk provision in schools. The news that Conservative support in Scotland is at an all time low has shocked us all.  The controversial visit to the UK by the President of Pakistan, Mr Zardari, during a crisis of massive proportion for his country has drawn to a close. And it has all been topped off, for me, by the sudden, but no doubt expected, backlash of Lib Dem supporters after their terrible slump in the polls.

I have mentioned how Labour should approach the Liberal Democrat Party in previous posts. In one sentence, dismissively, and with the intention of giving them as much credit as their new status as Tory poodles allow. The facts are clear. The Lib Dems have betrayed their voters and membership in making this deal with the Conservatives. It is easy enough to say that a new government will renege on promises made during the election, every government does.

But we, as voters, are not naive enough to believe everything that happens to tumble from a politicians mouth. We also knew of the probability of a hung parliament, and therefore the choices between a) One party minority government; b) a re-run of the election; c) a confidence and supply agreement; or d) a multi-party coalition government. We know this because we were battered around the head with it by the media during the campaign. However, we were also under the impression that coalition meant compromise, even if the “junior partner” was a great deal weaker seat wise than the “senior partner”.  As a Labour supporter I, along with my fellow campaigners, was faced with the prospect of either a Tory minority government which may have a confidence agreement with the Liberal Democrats, or a Conservative-Liberal coalition, if my own party failed at the election.

The fact that a hung parliament was on the horizon, for me, was a relief at the time. Just a year previously I was resigned to an incoming Tory government. But by the time of the dissolution of Parliament I was convinced a Tory majority would not be a possibility,. Instead I believed the betting was either on a continued Labour government or some kind of Coalition of Lib Dem choosing, as they would hold the balance (as the media constantly ranted on, Clegg would be the King maker). Either way, I was either happy that Labour would retain power, hold power with the Lib Dems, even if they were led by the insufferable Clegg (I’ve never liked him, this isn’t new), or a Tory-Lib Dem coalition where, thankfully, the Lib Dems could reign in, temper, control, slow down and, if need be, stop the Conservative onslaught.

As we all now know, that was a fantasy, and quiet a different scenario to the betrayal of the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg was always pre-disposed to a Tory deal, as was one of his right hand men, David Laws, who many assumed to be a secret Tory. Clegg didn’t get on with Brown, and in the end demanded his head as the price of a pact with Labour. As soon as this news leaked out, I resigned myself to the fact that Labour were out of Government. I was against any deal which would see one of the party leaders replaced, and most of all, the removal of a Prime Minister and installation of a new Labour Leader in his place. After the unnecessary fuss caused by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives about Brown taking over from Blair, to have a Prime Minister resign after less than a year in the post after leading the party through the election would have been a farce.

So, all that remained was for the Lib Dems to make a deal with Cameron. What came out of the cabinet office negotiating room, however, was a remarkable fix which stunned everyone. The Tories I know were overwhelmed with how much of their own policy they had maintained in the coalition agreement. They were smug, but maintained a dignified defence of the parity of the agreement simply because they knew it flabbergasted me. My Lib Dem friends did the same, but were, in reality, more than disappointed with the lack of their own policies in the agreement. My Labour friends, like me, had never had their flabber so gasted at the final coalition document. The Tories had gotten their way on almost everything, apart from the Constitutional and Poltical reform. This was slapped on the table by the Conservatives when they found out Gordon was willing to resign to prevent Cameron getting in to Downing Street. Even that has now become a bastard of the intention of the Lib Dems to over haul the system, and the Tories desires to prevent such action.

The Tories had gotten their way on Education. The pupil premium which the Lib Dems rave about was an intention of the Conservatives anyway. But the “free schools” plan, nothing more than the beginning of the disassembly of  state education as we know it, would provide the main plank of policy in Michael Gove’s new department. The mistakes he made with the BSF announcements were later shown up by the skill and force of Ed Balls, and the Lib Dems were required to sit quietly on the Government benches, all feeling the way Vince Cable looked. Disgusted and ashamed of what they were supporting. Vince Cable was later forced to announce the first private university for thirty years and of course, an ultimately doomed, and ill planned form of graduate tax.

Lansley in the Health Department also got his way to implement new Tory policy on the NHS. I have blogged about this so will not go into it in detail here. Again, the Lib Dems had been pushed out of another main policy, and now have to watch as the Conservatives slowly dismantle state health provision in the form of the NHS, and replace it with private companies and a massive cut back on government funding.

Similar ground was given in the Home office with the reform of the Police Force. On the nuclear power issue. (Lets not mention Trident, it’s a touchy subject). On Europe. On immigration. On communities and housing. On benefits and work provision. On a whole host, in fact, a large majority of issues, the Lib Dems gave up and let Tory policy be brought forward. The argument is that they agreed on a lot in the first place, and so this isn’t ceding ground, more agreement on common ground. This is a lie.

On no issue was this betrayal more obvious of course, than on the economy. Nick Clegg  fought the election on the basis that he wanted a similar approach as the one offered by Labour in dealing with the recession, and shoring up the recovery. He warned that the Tory approach to slash and cut the economy would put the recovery at risk, and endanger the country with the threat of a double dip recession. He launched a campaign in Liverpool against a “Secret Tory Plot” to put VAT up to 20%. It was later discovered that Alistair Darling had suggested such a move to Gordon Brown in Cabinet and was quickly slapped down. Gordon knew that putting up VAT would hurt the less well off and go against the grain of Labour ideals. After complaining to the electorate of secret Tory plots and the terrible plans the Conservatives would enact if they got into power, he then made sure that they did get into power, and could enact their policies with the help of his own Party. He later made excuses. The Greek Crisis could apparently happen in the UK. That is a fantasy. Mervyn King had persuaded Clegg that the situation was worse than he thought. This is a statement which has been uncovered for what it is, a lie. There is no getting away from it. He lied to the public about his intentions for the economy if he got into government, and then lied again about why he had lied in the first place.

Voters up and down the country had switched to Lib Dem and Labour tactically in order to keep the Tories out. They were betrayed. People voted for the Lib Dems on the back of their anti Tory campaign. They were Betrayed. The people of Sheffield and the workers of Sheffield Forge masters whom Clegg had pledged to protect. They were betrayed. University Students who had voted Lib Dem because of their pledge of support and an end to tuition fees. They were betrayed. They elderly, the vulnerable, the young, the less well off, all who will now suffer because of this Tory government, propped up and protected by none other than the Liberal Democrats. They. Were. Betrayed.

Now the Lib Dems are attempting to fight back. The plummeting polls have woken them. They now see what their party has done, and what their leaders have done to their party. But instead of lobbying their party to fight back. Instead of asking the MP’s to stand up for themselves, to properly assert the Liberal Democrat voice in government, to stand up and be counted, they have turned viscously on their critics. This party which purports so much to back compromise and coalition is ignoring all comers while Tories whisper in their ear. They cannot see that to say “I support the coalition” and “I will not change my mind” together in the same sentence is contradictory. I have been told by Liberal Democrats of the benefits of bipartisan-ism. The brilliance of not stubbornly sticking to one issue, never allowing yourself to be persuaded, to see the other side. Yet now, in the same breath as preaching compromise, is bitter opposition to another opinion, a different idea, an alternative suggestion.

I have seen the faults of a Labour Government. I have, in the past, been persuaded by friends from other parties of new ideas. I am a progressive. But a large proportion of Liberal Democrat supporters seem to have abandoned that premise. The premise of progression, listening, of looking to the future by which they were marked before the election. Instead, their first foray into government ever has turned them into defensive, party political animals, plainly refusing another view whilst pointing to the past in order to negate the present. This is what I expect from hardened Tories. Maybe I should give up hope that the Lib Dems will ever regain their sense of self, and resign myself to the present truth. The coalition and its supporters are one, and the Liberal Democrats are slowly but surely melting away.

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A vacuous bunch of liars, ne’er-do-wells and silly little boys.

So, Parliament has risen for the first time since the election this week. Labour MP’s go home as the opposition and Tory and Lib Dems return to their constituencies for the summer, leaving the Government side of the house empty. However this does not mean, thankfully, an end to politics for the summer. The Labour Leadership contest is still going on, and more political chatter has been ignited by Cameron’s India trip, where he demonstrated his new “frank” foreign policy, and the BBC documentary ‘Five days that changed Britain’.

Many welcomed Cameron and Hague’s plan, revealed this week, to establish a new special relationship with India. He was to take a huge delegation of Cabinet Ministers and business leaders to India in order to impress, but also to flatter the Indians into thinking Britain cared immensely about our country’s historic, cultural, and of course economic ties, which of course we should do. Many, including Labour supporters, decry the fact that the Labour Government did not show more effort in engaging with India. Once the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, India is now a crown all on its own. Its rising global prominence is not to be ignored. Rapidly developing global powerhouses like India, or in fact Brazil, should no longer be considered as the second rung of the global political economic strata, or pretenders to the throne, but rather countries whose international importance cannot be questioned.

It is not this tactic of engagement that I deplore, but the “frank” approach which Cameron now seems, in a moment of panic and cover-up, to have labelled his foreign policy strategy. First visiting Turkey, Cameron made the first of his mistakes in sucking up to his host and insult their enemies with snooty nosed dismissal. It is as yet unknown whether Cameron intended to go to Turkey and employ the ‘cushion method’ of international relations, or if it just happened. No one, and certainly not I, would disagree with the sentiment of Gaza being a prison camp, and Israel’s lack of scruples when it comes to the blockade. However there are ways of saying things, and standing in Turkey and insulting Israel is never one of the best.

On to India, and Cameron goes on to accuse Pakistan of “looking both ways” in relation to the prevention of terrorism and relations with India, and accusation quickly rebuked in a rare move for Pakistan. All this came after claiming in the US that the UK was very much the junior partner in the much cherished “special relationship”. (Much as it had been in 1940. And there was me thinking Eton was regarded as a high class institution…who teaches History?)

While our beloved leader was on his tour of the world, we were treated here to the leader of the Liberal Democrats (yes, remember them) Nick Clegg, making the king of gaffes in Parliament. Firstly he contradicted the Foreign Secretary William Hague about the pull out date from Afghanistan and was quickly corrected. Then after Jack Straw re-stated that he would answer for his damaging decisions in this coalition at the ballot box, Clegg, clearly lacking a response, came back with the assertion that Jack Straw would have to answer for his involvement in the “illegal Iraq war”.

Oh the box of worms that has now been opened. It was soon affirmed by the speaker that contrary to the Government’s statement that Clegg’s comments were his own, in fact comments made at the dispatch box were and would be taken to be, that of the government. Oops Clegg.

The series of mistakes made by one Mr Gove is well publicised. Now I am informed that he is seeking a new departmental assistant…another one might be able to get it right. I can’t see a rush for that job though, can you? Across the Cabinet table sits Vince Cable, until now he has largely escaped public criticism. Until now. His new proposal of a graduate tax was a surprise. Not only does it go back on Lib Dem (yes that bunch again) proposals on student finance before the election; it wasn’t even Conservative policy, but completely new. It doesn’t matter though; already it looks as abandoned as the principles the Liberals left behind when they chose coalition with Cameron.

Furthermore, yes there’s more, Dr Fox the Secretary of State for Defence has been put on the naughty step and today publicly rebuked by Chancellor Osborne over his pleadings for Trident not be included in the defence budget, but paid for separately. “No”, came the response.

And then there’s the rest. Andrew Lansley is proposing to restructure the NHS at a cost of up to £5-6 Billion, for no apparent reason. Theresa May following in the same vein, proposes a restructure of the police force and the creation of elected Commissioners, again a plan which will take money away from the front line to pay for pointless changes with no proof of rising standards. Jeremy Hunt at the Department for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport is under pressure for making heavy hints at reduction of the BBC licence fee, and taking away the Olympic contingency fund. Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Minister helped Cameron launch the ‘Big Society’ campaign, or as I like to call it ‘Cover for Cuts’ campaign. And Ken Clarke has lost the key to his red box at the cricket.

It seems to me that the way forward for Labour is clear. Attacking the Lib Dems should no longer be a priority. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun, but after watching the BBC’s ‘Five days that changed Britain’ documentary I was struck by two things. One, is this the fastest an event has been made into history by being made into a documentary, and two, why didn’t I see it before! The truth is this coalition is so natural for Clegg that I don’t understand what took me so long to realise. I’ve never like Nick Clegg, from when he became on MP, then became leader of the Liberal Democrats. You see, have a guilty secret. In my days as a young, carefree teenager, I regarded myself as a Liberal Democrat. I know. The shock, the horror, the shaaaame! Don’t get me wrong, my ideology was the same, I believed then what I believe now. But then, you see, had this misguided belief that the Liberal Democrats were a centre left party. My mistake I know, it has now come to my attention that they are nothing more than rag-tag bunch of assorted discontents that never had the courage to admit they were either a conservative, or a socialist. In Nick Clegg’s case he has proven himself to be a liar, a cheat, and a conservative.

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‘The Big Society’, another name for ‘the great abandonment’

David Cameron launched, or re-launched, his Big Society policy today. It pledges, as the name suggests, a new involvement of communities, culture of volunteerism, an age of utopian living, in which we all help, support and care for each other instead of relying on the state. A wonderful thought, but at its base, a lie. The Big Society is little more than a nice name for the impending great abandonment.

Conservative ideology about the size of the state is well known. Thatcher rolled back the state in the 80’s in an attempt to reduce the responsibility government had towards its citizens. Now, under the auspices of deficit reduction, Cameron is aiming to go even further. In just a couple of months a new education policy of ‘free schools’ has taken the place of Labour’s policy to rebuild and renew secondary education. The Building Schools for the Future programme aimed to do what it said on the tin, rebuild shattered, derelict schools which were falling down around pupils struggling to learn. This scheme was halted with the onset of the coalition government. The new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced that the scheme would be scrapped. Let’s be clear, the scheme was the biggest ever school buildings investment programme announced by a government, and promised to make every one of the 3500 secondary schools in the country fit for teachers to teach in, and pupils to learn in. It aimed to rid England of the crumbling schools which were the signature of the last Conservative government. That is what the Secretary of State was stopping (once he could get the list right). Instead, he would spend that money, as well as money from the free school meals budget, on the introduction of the new free schools and academies policy. At best, it is a shameless introduction of the private sector into the state education system, and at worst, the dismantling of state education as we know it.

Next for the shopping block, the NHS. Andrew Lansley has announced “The biggest shakeup of the NHS since its inception”. I don’t know if it was just me, but this statement filled me with terror, maybe the same terror the Prime Minister feels at the prospect of sending his children into the state schooling system, poor kiddie Cameroons, having to learn like normal people. I have posted an earlier blog (below) on the NHS white paper introduced by the new Secretary of State for Health. In the same short evaluation has above about schools, I can sum up the changes in a sentence. At best, shocking introductions of the private sector into the public health sector, at worst, the break up and privatisation of the NHS.

In Liverpool Cameron has announced how he sees the future of the public sector. The Big Society, as I have long warned friends, should not be batted away or ignored as a gimmick. This is serious. As a Labour member and supporter, I am all for the idea of greater community action, more involvement of local people in local services. Much as state retrenchment is the ideology of those on the right, so greater social cohesion and sense of community is of my own social democratic views. But beware, this is not BSF, and it is not what it says on the tin.

The Big Society is little more than a relabeling of Thatcher’s “Rolling back the frontiers of the state”. It is, at its core, and abandonment of local services, people, charities. A friend of mine, also a Labour supporter, has worked tirelessly as a volunteer for years in her local community. She welcomes any attempt by government for more funding and responsibility locally. But she laments this new policy. It is, unfortunately, asking local services to fill the hole left by conservative retrenchment with less funding. All under the guise of furthering the brilliant volunteers, dedicated local service providers and sense of community already alive around us, this government is hiding its true ambition, small state, reduced responsibility, centralised government.

As per, we have seen uncomfortable Liberal Democrat faces, yet they remain next to gleeful conservatives grins. It, once again, falls to the Labour party in opposition, to defend the most vulnerable, protect the poor, and guard the defenceless. Clegg has proved himself to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing any suspected him to be, the Conservative’s take the role of the woodcutter wielding the axe, while the vulnerable Little Red Riding hood, the public, remains blissfully unaware if just how damaging this new alliance will prove to be.


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Ryanair – Once you’ve had cack, you’ll never go back!

Micheal O'Leary, Ryanair chief

Yes, we know how you feel about the customers Michael!

The volcanic ash cloud brought European airspace to a halt this year, much to the annoyance of air passengers and airlines. But through my parents personal experience of Ryanair, I have been propelled into writing this blog in an attempt to help others have have come up against the brick wall of O’Leary’s defiance not to refund customers who were delayed.

Under Regulation (EC) 261/2004, airlines are bound to provide re-imbursement to passengers who have been delayed or had their flight cancelled. There have been a number of different scenarios opened up by the ash cloud. Some passengers have been cared for by their airlines and tour operators; others have met with a stubborn wall of uncooperative resilience, as airlines refuse to pay for accommodation, food, and transport expenses.

The regulations provide that airlines have a duty of care to look after stranded passengers, even if cancellations are due to exceptional circumstances out of their control. This “exceptional circumstances” excuse was the one used on my parents by Ryanair. At the airport, ready to board their flight home, they were informed by the check-in desk that, due to the volcanic ash, the flight had been cancelled. As rules dictate, they were given a sheet of instructions telling them what to do in an even such as this. It told them to find alternate accommodation, keep all receipts for food, accommodation and travel for the duration of the delay, in my parent’s case two days, on when they got home to claim to be reimbursed by Ryanair.

My parents followed these instructions. They returned to the hotel they had been staying in. They kept the receipt for the extra time, the taxi fares between airport and hotel, and, because the alternate flight they had been given was to Birmingham, money to travel from there to Liverpool where their car had been parked. In total, their expenses amount to £250 (alright £248.80, I’m rounding up). They attempted to claim for it, and were sent a letter telling them their claim was being “auctioned”.

Two months later, and a letter from Ryanair telling them that they were not due compensation from them, and to contact their holiday insurer later, my parents are still out of pocket, with no prospect of being reimbursed.

Today, I sent another letter, informing Ryanair of their obligations under Regulation (EC) 261/2004. If you are in the same situation, I advise you to do the same. Included these details in your letter, plus the receipts you have to prove your claim. Let’s see if we can get O’Leary and his reprehensible company to stop avoiding it’s obligations, and pay for the travel, accommodation and food which it’s delayed passengers were forced into paying for themselves.

If you also know of a similar situation, please contact me with details. They may be able to ignore us individually, but together we will be an unavoidable reminder of the terrible way in which they have dealt with this issue.

_______________________________________________________________________________

The EU rules that state that I should have been assisted by yourselves are in Regulation (EC) 261/2004. In this Article 5 states that in the case of cancellation or delay of more than one day I am entitled to be reimbursed or re-routed under Article 8 and also offered assistance, including accommodation, meals and transport under Article 9.

Article 9 states:

1. Where reference is made to this Article, passengers shall be offered free of charge:

(a) meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to the waiting time;
(b) hotel accommodation in cases
— where a stay of one or more nights becomes necessary,
or — where a stay additional to that intended by the passenger becomes necessary;
(c) transport between the airport and place of accommodation (hotel or other).

2. In addition, passengers shall be offered free of charge two telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails.

3. In applying this Article, the operating air carrier shall pay particular attention to the needs of persons with reduced mobility and any persons accompanying them, as well as to the needs of unaccompanied children.

Under Article 5 part 3, airlines are able to avoid paying compensation in accordance with Article 7 in the case of ‘extraordinary circumstances’, but this extraordinary circumstances clause does not apply to the entitlement to assistance under Article 9.

__________________________________________________________________________

(See here for more help)

(EU Regulation here)

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No spoon full of sugar will help this medicine go down!

Prescriptive measures

We are still only a few weeks into the coalition, and yet so much has been done. Some may laud the coalition for their swift action; however we should also be afraid of the terrible speed at which the government is bringing forward their policies.

This week the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, introduced the government White Paper on the health service. Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS is a near 60 page long document setting out the changes the coalition wants to make to the NHS, as well as some unbearably sloppy language which tries to convince the reader how much the government cares etc.. I skipped this part, no one needs to be told how much the Tories care about the NHS, we know exactly how they feel. Moreover, when I read the important parts of the White Paper, it becomes clear to all that the same old Tory thinking on the NHS is still alive and kicking.

Let me start in my analysis of the White Paper where the White Paper starts with the NHS, by praising it. It is one of the most loved institutions this country has. A Health Service which cares for all, is paid for through general taxation, and is free at the point of use. It provides the people of Britain, and indeed visitors to the UK with the same service, a service that we would struggle to find elsewhere in the world, and one that we are lost without. There has been plenty of criticism of the NHS recently, mainly from conservatives in the US, (and here, thank you Daniel Hannan), following US Health Care Reform promised by President Obama. Because of this, and also because of the global financial crisis and the need to reduce the deficit, we have also seen an extraordinary defense of our National Health Service, and rightly so.

I have used it, as have many others, and so can appreciate it in ways that those who have not, cannot. Many in this country view the health insurance system prevalent in the US, and other countries, with horror. Fortunately, they think quietly, we have our NHS. But, and I hate to be alarmist, that maybe on shaky ground. The White Paper purports to merely cut waste and bureaucracy from the system. But look slightly closer, and it becomes more and more concerning. Privatisation springs to mind immediately, and it worries me.

The document promises that the government will make the NHS accountable to patients, get rid of bureaucracy, and increase spending in real terms year on year. It can’t only be me who doesn’t believe this at first glance from this government. Patients will also be in charge of decisions about their care, via a new pledge No decision about me, without me. Lovely little rhyme there, that should make us all feel better. It simply takes ‘the customer is always right’ to a new level. As a customer I will admit freely now, I am not always right, especially when it comes to making medical decisions, and the best way I should be treated. I doubt that this will actually happen. Doctors will make the decision, but now we have a lovely new rhyming policy to make us all feel more involved, which is nice, isn’t it?

The government also promised to abolish targets. Let me be clear. This is a mistake. Getting rid of the A&E four hour waiting time is madness, and will take us back to the days when patients waited on trolleys for hours, and days to be see a doctor or be treated. Instead, the government will assess the NHS by looking at improvement of survival rates from cancer and strokes etc. (sound like reaching for targets to you?). It may also be worth reminding the government, that while, yes, England has one of the lowest five-year survival rates in Europe, according to the office of national statistics, survival has actually improved in the last decade from the decade before. (see here)

“Customers” will also be able to rate their surgery, or the hospital department they have been in, depending on how satisfied they are with their service, with more choice about who cares for them, which doctors, and where. Are we supposed to accept that all this will save money? HealthWatch will be established, a new agency (yes, they did say they were going to cut them), it will take on the work the Care Quality Commission currently does in regulating and inspecting hospitals. CQC will remain in place (so now there is two NDPB’s where before there was one) it will simply be less useful. Keep an eye out; there are plenty of examples for these foolishly hypocritical moves.

These plans will apparently save £20 Billion in ‘efficiencies’ by 2014. They will also reduce management costs by the staggering figure of 45%. Even they can’t believe that, surely. They will ‘radically’ (yes, a conservative white paper uses the word ‘radically’) reduce the Department of Health’s own functions, and abolish Quango’s, such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and theMedicine and Healthcare Regulatory Association (MHRA). I’ve been told they are making worrying noises about NICE ( The national institute for health and clinical excellence, which is mentioned numerous times in the document). Vaccination and screening services have also been yanked away from the Health Service, to be incorporated into a new Public Health Service which will be legislated for soon.

In the biggest change to the current system, Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities are to be abolished. Before, the Department of Health would fund PCT’s directly, while SHA’s had the job of managing and monitoring healthcare and PCT’s within their area. Primary care included GP Practices, Walk-in centres, dentists and ophthalmic services. While Secondary care encompasses Ambulance trusts, Emergency care, NHS, Mental health and Care trusts. Not any more. To satisfy Liberal Democrats who wanted elections to PCT’s to make them more democratic, some powers are to be transferred to local authorities, a paltry gesture designed to save face more than anything. Other powers will go to a new Director or Public Health, working within the remit of the Public Health Service mentioned above, who will manage NHS budgets. A new commission will be appointed (yes, another one, we haven’t got enough) to assess long term care funding. It will report within a year, possibly suggesting an end to state funding and the start of a voluntary insurance scheme.

I won’t need to remind anyone that PCT’s and SHA’s were set up after full consultation. But what will replace the PCT’s and 28 SHA’s when they are abolished? Well, we all know about the new GP consortia, a new plan which has come from little or no consultation. It’s a brilliant idea (can you sense my sarcasm?). It gives healthcare professionals, who struggle to run a practice on their own especially where I live, management and financial responsibilities. As if they haven’t got enough to do? Here’s how it will work. Follow closely, or I’ll lose you in the maze. New GP consortia, bands of GP practices, will now commission a great deal NHS services for patients. They will not, however, commission the services GP’s themselves provide, rather tell hospitals what to do. They will not commission dental, pharmacy or ophthalmic services. This will be done instead by a new NHS Commissioning Board (yes, new, again, replacing a perfectly good old). In news last night (13th July) two soon to be ex-heads of SHA’s have been poached by the Health Secretary. The Head of the North East SHA, Iain Dalton, and his counterpart at the West Midlands SHA, Dame Barbara Hakin, will be given cushy new jobs at the heart of the department’s policy, retaining their £200,000 per year salary. (See here) So much for new politics and getting rid of top heavy, large salaried management…

In other funding news, the document says that the government will increase NHS funding in real terms year on year. But, contrastingly, also says, and I quote, “In the next five years the NHS will only be able to increase quality of care by implementing best practice and increasing productivity”. I could almost add ‘because you won’t be getting any help from us’ to that, and shockingly, I wouldn’t be joking. The NHS will have to make massive efficiencies to deal with the huge cuts it will suffer.

The new system means that Parliament will have to approve money to the Department of Health, which will in turn then give it to the Commissioning Board, Monitor and the Care Quality Commission. The Commissioning Board will then give money to GP consortia, who will acquire services from providers, and local authorities, which will fund HealthWatch. Accountability will go in the opposite direction. But this new complicated system means that Andrew Lansley has rid himself of any blame if anything goes wrong, and if something does go wrong, it has happened so far from Parliament that regulating it is near impossible! The job not made any easier by the assertion that “All health and social care regulation will be reviewed and reduced”. And what happens if the consortia don’t work and funding is made a mess of? Nothing. The government will wash its hands and walk away. It has refused to bail out any failed group; instead, Monitor will be given that responsibility.

To cap it all, hospitals have been asked to make up 25% of their own funding by taking on increased private work to mirror that of the Royal Marsden in Kensington. What the Tories have failed to realise is that Kensington, London is not Walton or Fazakerley, in Liverpool, or even Hull, and cities like this cannot be expected to meet this expectation. (See here)

In conclusion, these health changes are not simply a cost cutting exercise. They are not even aimed at improving the health care the NHS can provide, but simply a new way of deconstructing the normal cohesion of the NHS, breaking it down into small blocks, giving the private sector more influence and opportunity, at the cost of reducing the role of the public sector massively. As this article in the Guardian says, the most critical risk of this White Paper is that the NHS won’t survive the shock of what many see an appalling, ideological, dogmatic ambush on the NHS.

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