Friday, 31 August 2012

A government determined to destroy further education?

Does this government want to totally destroy the higher education system? Because that is the only logical conclusion that flows from its latest clumsy attempt to enforce its economically illiterate immigration policy. Obsessed with quotas, the decision to remove the licence from the London Metroplitan University regarding overseas students sends out a message across the world not to come to Britain. Students will now look to the US, Canada and other European countries- that are not so backward looking - to further their studies. When this is added to the increase in fees for domestic students coupled with the reduction in financial support to universities, where does that leave the further education system? A once buoyant sector that contributed billions to the exchequer will be turned into a series of at best half empty buildings occupied by a few rich kids

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Time to resist this attempt to turn back the clock

The present rights to a decent health service, an education, an equitable work place and a retirement have become taken for granted. Yet all are relatively recent developments.
Universal healthcare only came about with the formation of the NHS in 1948. Education as developed in the modern epoch stems from the 1944 Education Act, being extended by the Labour Government’s of the 1960s and 70s with the introduction of comprehensive education. Workplace rights again are a mainly post World War II phenonema, won mainly as a result of the power of the trade union movement. Security of employment, equality and safety at work have all developed over the past 50 years. The welfare state providing a support net for those who fell out of work. Finally, there is the right to an old age, first established with the introduction of pensions in 1911.

It is a sobering to look back to the situation a century ago. In 1901, the average life expectancy for women was 49 and 45 for men. Just 5 per cent of the population lived to over 65. The pension was introduced in 1911, with payment not made until an individual reached 70.

By 2008, women on average lived to 82, men to 77. Some 19 per cent of the population was 65 or over. Men retired at 65, women at 60.
So life as it is understood today is a relatively new concept. It has come about through the struggle of working people. Rights to pensions, care, allowances, healthcare, welfare and education have all been fought for and won over the years.

A century ago, the industrial revolution was at full tilt. There had been the population moves from rural to urban settings. Intensive and brutal production processes were at work from the pit to the factories. Britain had an empire that it could freely pillage for raw materials. Workers were seen as commodities, available to feed the machine and then be thrown aside when deemed of no further use.
Unfortunately today, there seems to be a move to return to these times. Those in government at the behest of the ruling elite are dismantling the gains that brought the mass of people, at least for a limited period, a reasonable living.

There is the ongoing privatisation of the NHS, moving away from the fundamental provision of universal support according to need. The next development, unless resisted, will no doubt see the introduction of insurance style schemes, along the American lines, where only rich people can afford to be ill.

Education also is being chipped away, so that only those with the means to pay will prosper. The rich put their children in public schools. The next rung on the wealth ladder move to areas where they can get their children into the best in the state system. The rest are left with what remains. Then for the students able to go onto university there are the crippling debts that come from loans.

Workplace security has long been under attack, with short term, “flexible”contracts becoming the norm. The present government continues to advance the agenda of the bosses, making it easier to sack people and more difficult for individual workers to gain justice via employment tribunals. Health and safety is under attack as a result of a populist tide built up in the right wing tabloid press. This is resulting in cuts being made in the name of removing red tape but in reality in some cases likely to cost lives.

There is the attack on pensions, with claims that they cannot be afforded. The retirement age was recently put up to 67, just three years earlier than when the pension was first established in 1911. Care provision is under attack. Winter fuel allowance, free travel and disability support provision are all under threat in this brave new world.

The value of life is increasingly being set according to how useful an individual is to the voracious capitalist machine. If you cannot work and produce, you are of no use. Once of no use there is no obligation to provide support, simply toss the person aside.

There is though no reason why workers should stand for this attempt to turn back the clock on hard won rights. It was the struggle of workers that led to pensions, healthcare and welfare provision. It is no time now to let those who seek to use deficits and banker created crisis to cut basic support for the elderly and vulnerable to triumph.

This push to return the mass of people to the position they were in a century ago runs contrary to the common good. The attacks on health, education, pensions and workplace rights all amount to attacks on life itself. These attacks are morally indefensible  – the time has come to speak out and organise against the onslaught.

*Join the TUC march for a future that works on 20 October 2012

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Is Olympic move the best option for the Hammers?

It is no secret that the owners of West Ham United, David Gold and David Sullivan, want the club to move into the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, east London.
The deal looked done and dusted 18 months ago but was then abandoned amid threatened court cases from other clubs. At the moment the stadium does not have a new tenant to take over once the Paralympics are completed next month.
West Ham still look the most likely new tenants, though neighbouring Orient have also expressed an interest, along with two other bidders.
Yet there remains substantial opposition from Irons supporters, many of whom want to stay at the Boleyn Ground where the club has been for the best part of the last century.
The ground is modern, with three new stands built since 1993. The capacity is just over 35,000, which the club has managed to fill most weeks over recent seasons, whether in the Premier League or Championship.
The old ground also carries all the great tradition of the club with it. Two of the stands are named after legendary players Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking. There is a lounge in the Bobby Moore stand, named after the club’s two most outstanding mangers Ron Greenwood and John Lyall. Then there is the hallowed turf that has been graced by the likes of the World Cup winners Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, as well as Paolo di Canio, Alan Devonshire, Alvin Martin and Rio Ferdinand.
The two camps, for and against the move, represent two distinct visions for the future of the club.
A move to the Olympic stadium will require more than a team that spends most of its time at the wrong end of the table.
The Olympic stadium once scaled down will take a capacity of 50,000 to 60,000. In order to fill that arena West Ham will require a team on a level with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. That is, a top four, Champions League team.
As recent history has proved, money is required to create such a team — big money. Co-owner Sullivan admitted as much prior to West Ham’s Championship play-off victory against Blackpool in May.
He indicated that the present owners could be prepared to sell the club one day if someone with sufficiently deep pockets came along who could take it to the next level. A move to rent the Olympic Stadium would, of course, benefit Sullivan and Gold with the sale of the Boleyn Ground no doubt clearing the club’s present debts and providing the owners with a nice little dividend on top.
Remaining at the Boleyn would mean West Ham probably continuing along its present path.
The ground is filled to capacity for most home games. The present owners have brought a stability to the club. Manager Sam Allardyce seems in accord with the club’s board and has made all the right moves since coming in at the start of last season. And, after all, he got West Ham back into the Premier League.
Allardyce has been as keen as the owners to move to the Olympic Stadium. Yet the ex-Bolton manager, unpopular with some fans due to his favoured style of play, could become a casualty were there a change of ownership.
New owners like to bring in their own man — as Sullivan and Gold proved when they came in and appointed Avram Grant.
Much of this is speculation, but the decision must be coming soon as to whether West Ham do make the switch — one which could mark a whole new era for West Ham and their fans.
The club could become a winner, just like Team GB at the Olympics, but it could also lose its soul.
For better or worse, all Hammers fans can do now is watch this space.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Sport for all?

Sporting activities have certainly captured the popular imagination this summer. Top of the list no doubt has been the Olympics. Anticipated for many years the Games finally arrived, a real festival of sport that swept the nation along with it.

The security worries proved fruitless, as people from across the world came together. Even the vice like grip of the corporate world seemed to be pushed into the background from the start by Danny Boyle’s excellent “peoples” opening ceremony.

The Olympics did have the effect of bringing everyone together. The opening ceremony ensured that the whole nation and its history was represented, not just the military or entrepreneurs. The theme of peace played a prominent role and received a really positive response from those present in the stadium. This was not something that those watching on the BBC’s transmission would necessarily have picked up.

Then there were the games themselves. The real feeling of camradery that surrounded the participants, the winning of medals and falling of world records. No doubt the enthusiasm of the crowds lifted the performance of many athletes from across the world.

Sport has the ability to lift people out of the humdrum of daily life. Earlier this year I attended the play off final for a place in the Premier league between West Ham and Blackpool at Wembley. There was the usual media obsession with materialism, hyping the value of this one game to the winners but the enduring memory was of people coming together. The atmosphere was incredible.

In some ways, sport has become the new religion for many in the modern world. The strong emotions and coming together seen at the Olympics certainly have parallels with some religious occasions. There is also though a slight discomfort at these occasions. The fanaticism seen in such crowds, that in the case of the Games no doubt flowed from nationalism. This was helped by the relentless nationalistic approach of the BBC coverage, which dwelt almost entirely on the home athletes and the medals table.

It is this nationalistic fervour that causes the discomfort. The motivation for the fans enthusiasm at the Games was sporting success – nothing wrong there. But go back to the rise of Adolf Hitler, who had the power to bring similar fanaticism amongst millions of people, and a far uglier scenario develops.

Hitler managed to plug into the underlying economic hardships of most of the people in his audience to engender a nationalistic fervour that was turned against minorities in Germany and later nations across the world. He also ofcourse tried to use the Olympics for his nationalistic purpose.

In the case of the Olympics and sport generally this summer, the focus has been the opposite. It has been all about escapism, getting away from the hardships of daily life.

Attending the Games, watching the European Football Championships or Wimbledon has been an escape from the growing hardships. Job losses, the fate of the Euro and the banks have all been quietly shephered aside for a few weeks.

In this context of sport as escapism, it is interesting to note the total hand over of the TV schedules by the BBC to the subject. At times it has been almost macabre, as beaming news readers told of the latest team GB medals before moving onto the “other news” which related to things like the death of hundreds of people in Syria. A real case of bread and circuses, an exercise in total escapism for the population at large.

Sport is a good thing, no doubt about it but it is not the only thing. There are millions of people in this country who cannot stand sport. Many kids at school don’t like participating in sport. It is not everybody’s thing and this must be respected. The TV coverage of the Olympics for example went totally over the top, taking no account of those with interests other than sport.

But for those who like sport, it would be great to see the legacy of this summer being a reversal of policies that have seen thousands of school sports fields sold off. More swimming pools need to be built across the country. Above all the cost of access to these facilities must be reduced to the minimum or ideally nothing.

The real legacy must be participation, not winning at all costs. Few can win but many can take part –this is the true message of the Olympics. If things move forward in this participatory way then a real legacy of community can be built, without pandering to some of the more dangerous nationalistic tendencies that have been seen at times over recent weeks.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

I'm a patient, get me out of here

“Your mother might have had a minor stroke,” said the nurse , in response to my inquiry. This was a week into Mum having first entered the hospital. A few days later, almost in passing, we were told: “oh no it wasn’t a stroke.”
This was one of a number of episodes to unfold over a two month period earlier this year. My mother fell over and hit her head. She had fallen over the week before, resulting in her going to hospital but they kept her in overnight, diagnosed a urine infection and discharged her the next day.

This time she was kept in, though only after protest. Our neighbour Val went up to the hospital with her and she told how a doctor wanted to push her out that night. It was only Val’s protestations that she was the neighbour not the carer that led to this plan being abandoned.

Things would change over the ensuing weeks, as it became a struggle to try and get Mum out of the hospital. She spent a week in the Clinical Decisions Unit before being moved to the day ward. Finally, she went onto a ward for rehabilitation – it was here that I was first told about the possible stroke. Mum was to remain in this ward for the next three weeks before discharge to an intermediate rehabilitation centre (IRC) for two and a half weeks.

Visiting the ward over those three weeks, a variety of hospital life was on display. There was a dementia patients, constantly on the move and looking for the bus to go home. Another patient had a number of angry encounters with a relative, who she believed wanted to put her in a home.

At one point, there was an insight into the two ends of the spectrum. On the one hand there was my Mum, desperate to get out of the hospital and go home. She was picking up colds and feeling a lot worse than when she entered. At one time she was sure she had been given hallucinatory drugs.

In the bed next door was an elderly lady who had been in the hospital for a good while but did not want to leave. She had no family or support network and was really worried about what awaited on the outside.

Information as to the situation with my mother was not freely available and generally had to be drawn like teeth from the staff. It was only when I presented an ultimatum to the effect that Mum was either going to the IRC or coming home – where she would have to be provided with care support – that anything seemed to happen.

Then a place was found at the IRC to try to get her back on her feet. It is important to remember that once in hospital there is a right to six weeks of rehabilitation care. We were told Mum could go to the IRC for up to six weeks or she could go home and receive care support there. Alternatively, there could be a mixture of the two types of support care.

The couple of weeks at the IRC proved fruitful. The staff were excellent, providing the support required. The only problem that arose was due to a lack of communication. The care company that provide support to Mum in the home had been talking to the IRC about Mum coming home. As I forcibly pointed out they should not be talking to the care company but to us. The care company had a commercial interest in getting Mum home, though ofcourse they would dress it up in the language of compassion. It was none of their business to be speaking to the IRC at all.

Anyway, the moral of this story is the need to always have someone in your corner looking out for your interests. The plight of the lady with no one in the rehabilitation ward of the hospital cannot be uncommon across the country. Who was there to stand up for her? The right to six weeks of rehab care is another thing that needs to be born in mind.

The whole experience though really brought home to me why so many elderly people are frightened to go into hospital - in case they don’t come out. The whole experience certainly changed my mother’s view of the local hospital. Previously a big fan, now she seeks to avoid returning to the place at all costs.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Time to apply Isaac Newton's third law more widely

Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton was dealing with the world of physics but the law has application to almost every element of our daily lives.

The law came to mind recently when Apostleship of the Sea chaplain Sister Marian Davey told how seafarers working on ships bringing food into the UK and Ireland are being forced to live in such appalling conditions simply so that people here can have cheap goods.

They are working in a totally unregulated market where the ship owners get away with paying as little as possible and provide poor working conditions. It is these “savings” that allow the big companies to sell their goods so cheaply in the UK and other European countries.

Sister Davey predicted that prices would leap up in the supermarkets if goods were being brought in by a British or European fleet operating under European labour law. “Our ignorance of the role these people play in our lives amounts to acting as though they don’t exist,” said Sister Davey.

The Newton law has resonance in the area of finance as well. Whilst, the banking industry has been rightly castigated over recent times for its corrupt activity, the benefits from the industry have been mentioned less often. For many years the tax returns from the banking sector helped provide the funding for the NHS, education and welfare state. No one should forget that. Yet, only recently have some of the nefarious activities of these organisations come to light. It has only been as eyes have been opened to the banks directly ripping people off in this country that the anger has mounted. Whilst they were exploiting the poor of the developing world via unjust debt deals, many just turned a blind eye but it was another case of an action having a consequence.

It was the injustice of the way that world markets operate that led to the birth of the fair trade movement. Fair trade seeks to ensure that those producing the goods are not ripped off. They produce the food, the middle man or woman is cut out, so that a just return is received.

The fair trade movement has grown incredibly over recent years showing what a difference consumer power can make. It also shows the real goodwill of people, once an injustice is exposed.

Ethical investment is something else that has grown over recent years, with people investing in what are considered ethically viable areas. This can vary from putting money into funds that do not invest in areas like the arms trade and tobacco or companies that produce carbon neutral energy sources.

The substance of the Newton Law has helped inform the thinking that has led to the Live Simply movement namely living simply in order that others may simply live. This has particular resonance in the area of combating climate change. As knowledge has grown so more and more people have become aware that human beings cannot go on living in such a reckless way, destroying the planet. The human being may very well be the most advanced form of life but it is also the most destructive. There is the power for great good or huge destruction in the human being.

Ideas like stewardship of the earth link to living responsibly, with respect for all of God’s creatures. This belief grows stronger but the economic system still encourages greed and selfishness.

There is a growing realisation that the whole world cannot live like Europe and North America. The world does not have the resources to sustain such a lifestyle, indeed it is thought such development would require five planets like earth.

There is an increasing awareness of Newton’s law and the need to have greater respect for every form of human life that shares this planet with us. The destructive capacity of human kind though remains. It would truly take some revolutionary change for humanity to really start living within its sustainable means. It would require that those living lavish lifestyles of the type referred to by Sister Davey agreeing to have less, whilst the billion plus living on less than a dollar a day in the world saw their lifestyles improve. All this would have to happen in a context that countered climate change. Living simply would have to become the rite for all.

As Christians it is something that we should all be endeavouring to do in our individual lives and as part of communities. Living ethically and sustainably with true concern for the consequences of our actions makes up a real Christian way of life. The Church as made up by its people must act in this joined up and holistic way. It is not good enough to simply nod toward ethical sustainable behaviour with an occasional act in support of charity. Christianity demands more, namely that we all live just lives with true concern for the equal and opposite consequences of our every action.

Friday, 3 August 2012

What will the Olympic legacy be?

The Olympics have dominated the news over recent months, though the big question now is what will the legacy be?

The recent bunglings of the private contractors G4S have no doubt given many in the unions and labour movement hope that it might mark the turning of the tide on the government's idealogical push to privatise the public sector. As soldiers and police move in to pick up the security slack - is this the end of the private good, public bad mantra - we can only hope. What though beyond this?

Legacy is something that has never been far from the surface ever since London won the bid back in 2005. At that time then London Mayor Ken Livingstone admitted a motivation for him was using the games as a way to get investment into east London. The bid team admitted that of past games they had looked to Barcelona as their model.

The Barcelona games of 1992 had regeneration at the forefront, with plans for four clusters of sports complexes around the town, with a 30 mile new road joining them together. The village housing 15,000 athletes was built in the derelict docklands to the east of the City.

The legacy has endured, providing development, housing and a better transport system. There are obvious parallels with the present Olympic site in Stratford, east London.

The Sydney games of 2000 have also provided a lasting legacy, with the main stadium downsized and handed over for private operation. The sports facilities are in use and additional housing provision resulted.

The past two Olympics though offer less hope, with the Athens site derelict. No effort has been made at redevelopment since 2004, with the various stadia rapidly morphing into the most modern form of Greek ruin.

Beijing seems to have morphed into a monument, a mark of China’s emergence as a world economic superpower but little beyond that.

So what will happen in London? The organisers certainly have lofty ambitions. At the heart of the bid was the desire to get 2 million people to take up sport and physical activity, something that notably no recent Olympics has managed to achieve.

The government’s legacy plan includes transforming the heart of east London, making the Olympic park a model for sustainable living and inspiring young people to volunteer.

These are all fine aspirations but what is really likely to be the outcome.. There are the stadia, with the plans for development after the games. Local Premiership football team West Ham United look set to become one tenant.

The Olympic Park will become the Queen Elizabeth Olympics Park after the games. This will provide sporting facilities for locals and elite athletes, as well as thousands of homes for sale and rent – half are to be affordable.

The sustainable legacy of the games in environmental terms seems assured with buildings constructed for low energy usage.

Other elements of the sustainable legacy though are less encouraging. Meredith Alexander resigned as a commissioner for a sustainable London 2012 due to the involvement of a number of multinational companies with dubious human rights records, most notably Dow Chemicals.

She specifically objected to the involvement of Dow Chemicals with its links to the Bhopal chemical works, where thousands died in 1984. Though Union Carbide were the owners at the time of the accident, Ms Alexander claims there are ongoing effects up to the present day.

Dow Chemicals together with BP and Rio Tinto are among the sponsors of the games.

Other companies with involvement in the games include McDonalds and Coca Cola. This has helped to create the image of the games as a corporate fest.

This impression has gained momentum before the Olympics with the seeming impossibility for many people to obtain tickets. Now the empty seats. This has gone down particularly badly in the east London area that suffered most disruption and had to pick up many of the bills resulting from the games.

There is a perception in the East London area that the whole thing has come in as something separate, not bedded in the community at all. And once the games are over it will depart in similar style.

So the jury is out on what the legacy of the London games will be. There is much hope and promise that the legacy will deliver on the rhetoric. The development in east London, the enduring sporting facilities and greater participation in sport. The danger though is that once the Olympic caravan moves on that the pressure on those charged with delivering the legacy will ease. There is also the danger that those privateers will surface again.