Monday, 21 February 2011

Stability in the Middle East demands more than cheap oil for the West

The various popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have been a cause of real hope for change in the region.
The protests began in Tunisia and spread like wildfire, with the biggest scalp claimed thus far being that of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak. At time of writing popular revolt has begun in Libya, with things unclear as to what will happen in that country and others beyond, such as Saudi Arabia.
The popular revolts are to be welcomed in countries where the mass of people just struggle to survive while a small number enjoy opulent wealth.
The rheoric of Britain and America has been all about the need for law and order, stability and democracy in that order,. There has been support for the protesters in a real politic sense, namely it would be silly to get the wrong side of people who could be about to take over the government of these countries in a very short space of time. Concerns though have been expressed regarding the overall question of stability in the Middle East.
Stability in this context is an interesting concept, because when decoded what it really means is that the arrangements to get cheap oil out of the region be maintained. Oil is the essential concern of the developed world when it comes to matters in the Middle East. The duplicitous role of Britain and America in calling for democracy in these situation, given their joint histories in supporting and underwriting brutal dictators across the region, should be clear for all to see.
President Mubarak would not have survived as long as he did in Egypt had American aid not been underwriting his tyrannous behaviour. Saddam Hussein was another friend supported by Britain and America with arms and aid in order that he would provide the sort of brutal order required in Iraq to secure oil for the west. America and Britain had heavily supported the Shah in Iran before his fall in 1979, giving way to the islamic fundamentalist regime of the ayatollahs. The likelihood of an Iranian style scenario is now one that clearly worries the developed world countries.
The pattern of powerful developed world countries supporting tyrants who keep their people down and deliver for First World corporations is a well trod path. On those few occasions when an alternative system that promised a more equal distribution of wealth, education and health care for the masses does surface, America in particular has often reacted with great brutality to stamp it out. Cuba, and Nicaragua in the 1980s, provide good examples of this policy in action.
It should though be added that developments over recent years in Venezuela, Boilivia and a number of other Latin American countries in establishing independence and sovereignty over their own raw materials has proved a cause for hope. New models of development delivering for the mass of people in those countries appear to be functioning well.
Countries like Britain and America profit hugely not just from the cheap oil received but from the whole paraphanalia of repression put in place to maintain this status quo. Both countries are major players in the arms industry, selling into conflict situations and making huge profits as a result.
These corrupt and unjust arrangements should cause real concern because our governments are effectively doing these things in order that we can have cheap oil. There are many direct links between the poverty suffered by two thirds of the world and the relative prosperity of those in the other rich third.
The popular uprisings must be supported, with the people allowed to elect their own leaders who will deliver for the people.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Second class treatment for the elderly has to stop

The report of the health service ombudsman showing that elderly people are being mistreated in hospital recently hit the headlines.
One patient who was transferred by ambulance to a care home arrived bruised, soaked in urine, dishevelled and wearing someone else's clothes. In another case, a man's life support system was switched off despite a request from his family to delay doing so for a short time.
Other cases told of a person denied a bath or shower for a number of weeks and another not given water.
While the report is shocking it should not come as any surprise. For a number of years now elderly people have complained about the second class treatment they routinely receive from the NHS.
A growing concern is just how frightened many elderly people are about going into hospital, not due to any illness but for fear of not coming out. The simple failure to feed and water people when in hospital can cause real problems, especially when ill.
There are already increasing reports of what could be called an informal policy of euthanasia operating across the land. This does not involve any direct intervention to kill people off but amounts to simple neglect to intervene and provide the support needed.
My own experiences with elderly parents have taught that whether dealing with health, social services or the care home sector there is need for a strong advocate looking out for the interests of loved ones. There is no doubt that elderly people who are regularly visited in hospital or care home, with a relative or friend looking out for their interests is less likely to be abused. Indeed, given the content of the ombudsman’s report one has to fear for the elderly person alone without support.
So why have things come to this sorry state? One problem put forward by some health professionals is the targets and box ticking mentality that has developed over recent years. The nurses are drawn between providing the care required and the need to reach targets. Maybe our hospitals have changed from centres of care to conveyor belts of process? There is no doubt a pressure to clear beds quickly.
The danger in the present climate is that any criticism of the sort to be found in the Ombudsman’s report will be seized upon by those in government as an excuse to privatise the NHS. However, the politicians really need to look a bit closer to home.
Many of the problems of the NHS and other public services emanate from the politicians. They do not seem to understand the processes of how things work. The constant setting of targets is something taken from the business world, yet successive governments have attempted to apply it across the public services from cutting cancer waiting lists to exam tables in schools.
The populist call is for more nurses and doctors, get rid of the managers and bureaucracy. The reality is that there needs to be logistical support to keep frontline staff in place and functioning.
What all of this indicates is a political class detached from reality in many cases and taking the populist drivel of the tabloid media as a basis for creating policy.
If a politician has come down the now well trodden path of researcher, political advisor, MP and then minister, what experience do they have of running anything?
This inexperience in how things work has caused many of the problems of our public services today.
The reality is that there are no doubt too many managers and bureaucrats in some services. There could be change and reform but dare anyone think the unthinkable that actually some things might have worked better the way they were before all the interference began.
The education and health system of the past may have needed changes but it did not need to be butchered by ideologically driven market obsessed governments.
The report of the health ombudsman should give serious pause for thought. There no doubt needs to be change but prior to action being taken the question needs to be asked as to how we reached this sorry state in the first place.
What has happened to so empty the NHS of the caring, dedicated culture that has been its hallmark since inception? How do we get it back? Perhaps it is time to take rather more notice of those working in our public services, rather than continually devalue them by seeking to measure and cost everything they do. Certainly the ombudsman’s report is a sad reflection on a service that has lost its way.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Time to resist onslaught on worker's rights

The latest attempt by the Coalition Government to get everyone else to pay for the deficit caused by the bankers seems to be manifesting itself in an attack on the working conditions of ordinary working people.It would seem, the cutting of the jobs, wages and pensions of those working in the public sector, is but the start. Other moves intended to make life easier for capital include changing rules for employment tribunals so that employees have to have been employed for two years not the present one before they have right of recourse. They will also have to come up with a fee. This is intended to dissuade people from going to tribunal, the potential wrong doing of an employer is apparently to be protected because it will make him or her more profitable.Then there is talk of cutting health and safety laws. Whilst the tabloid press regularly drag out the most ludicrous example of health and safety practices that it can find in order to attack the whole concept of safety at work, there are people dying due to employer negligence. An average of 220 people have died each year at work for the past five years. This figure though was down to 152 for 2009/10 no doubt due to a stronger safety culture. The industries with the worst records are construction (42 in 2009/10), services (41) and agriculture (38). Health and Safety laws are there to protect people's lives in many cases, not some fluffy soft option to make employers lives more difficult.The idea of relaxing these rules is negligent in the extreme. Indeed the whole attitude of the Coalition Government to regulation is reckless. This was recently epitomised by Environment minister Chris Huhne declaring that no new regulations will be brought in without an old regulation going out. How ludicrous? Regulation ofcourse is something else that makes life more difficult for capital. Again, regulations come in for a reason, namely because there has been some abuse going on. And if anyone needs an example of what happens when an industry is not regulated properly, look no further than banking. It was so called ‘light touch’ regulation that enabled the banking crisis to happen.Then there is talk of strengthening laws to make taking strike action more difficult, a flashback here to the early Thatcherite days of the 1980s when the law was used as a means to outlaw much industrial action.In Ireland, they have cut the level of the minimum wage to help business become more competitive. Surely it can only be a matter of time before such a move comes to this country.
A major change in favour of employers has been the switching in April of the indexation of increases in benefits, tax credits and public service pensions from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI will always be lower as it does not include elements like morgage interest payments and council tax. This will cost workers dearly while presenting billions in savings for companies. This will be especially true in the area of pensions.
What all of these moves betray is the latest restructuring of the capitalist system in favour of the employer and against the worker. In specific terms it proves that despite the banking crisis the fundamentalist neo-liberal market system continues to dominate.
The banking crisis may have brought the whole system to the brink of collapse in the autumn of 2008 but never mind that is all a long time ago now. The taxpayer has bailed out the banks, the bankers continue drawing huge bonuses whilst everyone else pays for the consequences. Basically the wheels have been put back on the busted neo-liberal market wagon, so that it can trundle on to the next great crisis destroying more lives along the way. Given that governments still seem unaware of just how much debt the banks are still hiding and that many of these debts appear larger than the countries where they reside, the next crisis maybe a lot closer than many realise.
It is time for working people to say enough is enough and demand justice in the workplace. The TUC is organising opposition with the big march in London on 26 March. Other community groups have raised some protest but with this onslaught on the lives of working people continuing unabated by this government needs to be resisted. It is time those who caused the crisis started paying a lot more of the cost for its resolution. If we are all in this together, then surely capital has to take accepting some of the pain, instead of offsetting it against those who create the wealth. The common good demands no less.

Should the Church commit to the Big Society?

The Church seems to be taking an increasing interest in engagement with the Big Society (BS) agenda. On 1 February a conference hosted by Caritas Social Action Network in Liverpool explored various elements of the Church's work in the area of its social teaching. There will be a further conference on 6 April. While CSAN it would seem is the chosen tool for delivering up Church agencies and activists for the BS agenda, the question remains as to whether this is a good direction to be taking?The BS is an idea that came from the Conservative Party manifesto. It is in theory about devolving power and responsibility to the lowest levels in society, like families, groups, networks, neighbourhoods and locally based communities. The work is to be done by community organisers, neighbourhood groups, volunteers, mutuals, co-operatives, charities, social enterprises and small businesses.The type of projects envisaged could be running a forest, a library, transport services or shaping a housing project. Five parts of the UK have been designated so far for community projects- Liverpool, Eden Valley, Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead and the London Borough of Sutton. (Liverpool recently withdrew.) The whole concept though will roll out right across the country over the coming years. The funding for the BS is to come, partly, from money gained from redundant bank accounts. The localism legislation that enables things like parish councils to be established, allegedly taking power from the larger state bodies, also dovetails into the BS agenda.In theory, much of the BS rhetoric sounds like good news, a real back to grass roots action, building community. The concept though would have more validity for many if it was not being set against the background of the government’s cuts agenda. In this context it looks like an effort to get people to do something for nothing. Jobs that were previously paid, now being done for nothing by those volunteering out of charity or coercion in the case of those forced to volunteer as a condition for receiving benefits.Another concern is that while the cuts agenda has been justified on the back of the deficit, in reality it appears to be being used as a reason to decimate the state and public sector. Public sector workers jobs are being lost, pay frozen, terms and conditions made worse and pensions cut. The government theory is that the private sector will come in to take over much of what is being done by the public sector. The concern is that the BS could well be just providing cover for cuts.The Catholic Church interest in the BS seemed to take off after the Pope’s visit. Much of the language of the BS seems to chime in with Catholic Social Teaching, with references to concepts like subsidiarity, the common good and dignity in work. The BS also seems to offer the Church a chance to occupy a clear position in the public space. There have been concerns over recent years with the growth of fundamentalist secularism, some of which was reflected in certain policies and attitudes of the last Labour Government that the position of faith in the public square was under threat. It seems a clear aim of Archbishop Nichols in particular to stake out this space for Catholicism. Given as some have pointed out that much of what the BS professes to be about is already being done by the Church in many shapes and forms, it seems a good opportunity to advance on a number of fronts.There is though also another concern which is that some in the hierarchy yearn for a return to the days of old when the state was smaller and the Church held much more power over the people. Developments of the modern world, most notably that of the state as a force to intervene, usually for good in the case of the eradication of disease and poverty, have not always been appreciated by the Church. This anti-statism surfaced again under the last government as a growing state seemed to be increasingly encroaching on the Church’s domain, particularly in the area of education. Given these attitudes the new government’s small state/BS agenda found a resonance with the Church. The danger for the Church is that it effectively gets co-opted by a right wing government. In its desire to join the BS, it forgets those being put out of work by the cuts agenda and fails to consult with trade unions. If the Church colludes in the BS simply picking up the pieces from these destructive policies, it could be seen as providing charity but denying justice. In the words of Pope John XXIII charity must not become justice deferred. On a more positive note, Church charities and organisations are already doing much of the work of the BS; this could be an opportunity to do more. It could offer an opportunity to be outspoken on matters of injustice. The BS could be taken over as a model for justice. The BS could work, given the right circumstances. The New Economics Foundation has prepared some excellent material as to how this might be possible. Among the suggestions is that social justice needs to be made the main goal, meaning a fair and equitable distribution of social environmental and economic resources between people, places and generations.There needs to be recognition that the state has a significant role to play, even if it is as "a smaller more strategic state" planning for a long term sustainable future.In order for people to be able to give up their time to do volunteer work there needs to be a shorter paid working week. "Because the ‘Big Society’ implies a big demand for unpaid time, and because some people have so much more control over their time than others, we propose a slow but steady move towards a much shorter paid working week, with an ultimate goal of reaching 21 hours as the standard," say the NEF.
The BS must also be sustainable, reducing the carbon footprint." Cutting carbon emissions and reducing society’s ecological footprint must be integral to the ‘Big Society’, shaping the way homes, institutions and neighbourhoods are designed and managed, as well as how people and organisations use energy, travel, shop, eat and manage water and waste... It must give priority to preventing illness and other kinds of risk, so that fewer people have problems that need fixing. It must help to loosen our attachment to carbon intensive consumption and give greater value to relationships, pastimes, and places that absorb less money and carbon." The New Economics Foundation analysis certainly offers some food for thought as to how the BS agenda could be adapted to serve the common good. The concern must be that the BS is really all about picking up the pieces of devastating changes being socially engineered on society under the aegis of the cuts agenda. It would be more credible if the BS was being introduced at time of economic plenty. The lack of funding for the whole process is it’s really achilles heel.There could be some mileage for the Church in this agenda but it needs to be very wary . It should also be talking to and articulating the concerns of the likes of the public sector workers about to lose their jobs and the welfare claimants about to be forced to do "voluntary" work. The Church must not lose its voice on the need for justice, indeed some would argue it could do with finding a much stronger voice on behalf of the poor. The BS agenda cannot be dismissed out of hand; it does potentially offer opportunities to do good. The Church though needs to be aware of these problems and be ready to sup with a very long spoon when dealing with what is a very right wing government set on implementing the next stage of the Thatcherite neo-liberal revolution.
* This article is based on a paper Paul Donovan presented at the National Council for Lay Associations meeting on 6 February