Friday, 31 January 2014

Water privatisation expose

 Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead John Cryer exposes the vagaries of water privatisation - 

"The Water Bill was largely technical but it brought home a number of facts about the water industry which are worth setting out in detail. The wretched track record of the energy industry’s Big Six often features in the media whereas water gets little attention. This is slightly odd as the water industry’s record is abominable.
Since privatisation, £40 billion has been paid in dividends by the water industry while executives have awarded themselves vast pay rises, some of them receiving more than £1 million a year.
Investment has fallen since 2007 and leaks have only been slightly reduced. Bills have risen consistently by more than inflation for years and some by far ahead of inflation. These companies are supplying water from the same reservoirs through the same pipes as was the case under public ownership. And the industry was never owned by the government; it was owned and run by local water boards, thus the Thatcher government had to take the industry off these local bodies before flogging it off."

Well said, John.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Change needed at West Ham

The hope of Orient supporters and dread of West Ham fans must be that the two clubs meet in the Championship next season.

This dream of Orient chairman Barry Hearn seems to become an ever more probable prophecy with each passing week, as the O’s continue to extend their lead at the top of Division One, whilst the Hammers stack up defeat after defeat in the Premiership.

The West Ham board apparently remain confident that when all the club’s injured players return that should be enough to ensure Premiership survival but will it? And what if the unthinkable does happen, West Ham get relegated just two seasons before taking up residency in the Olympic stadium. The thought must keep West Ham’s owners David Gold and David Sullivan awake at night.

There can be few who would doubt that West Ham have underachieved this season. It has been a struggle from the kick off back in August, with the brief respite offered by a League cup run ending with the humiliating 9-0 aggregate defeat to Manchester City over two legs.

Many expected West Ham to kick on after their impressive return to the top flight last season, that culminated in a 10th placed finish. But that was not to be the case.

The problem all season has been a failure to score goals. This has been put at the door in the main of the long-term injury to Andy Carroll, the club’s £15 million signing in the summer.
It is here that the questions have to start being asked about the judgement of West Ham manager Sam Allardyce. Carroll has been injury prone all of his career, so to go into a season without cover for such an individual was a gamble that clearly hasn’t paid off.
The club were reported to have been in the running last summer to sign Newcastle loanee Loic Remy and Swansea’s Wilfred Bony but the deals did not happen. Had either of these players been signed then West Ham maybe at the other end of the Premiership table by now.
The question fans will want answered is whether the decision to not sign such an individual was down to the manager or did the board fail to come up with the money required.

One action that does seem to be down to the manager and really does question his judgement is the failure to keep on veteran striker Carlton Cole. A proven, if sometimes unreliable goal scorer, Cole was let go last summer. He was then re-signed in November, scoring four goals since coming back.

So there have clearly been miscalculations made by Allardyce’s management team.

The manager has insisted that the defence was solid, the problem remained at the other end. He mentions the ten clean sheets kept. This is true but West Ham languish at the bottom of the table all the same.

Allardyce seemed to be counting the days to the transfer window opening, promising new faces yet just one deal (the loan of defender Roger Johnson from Wolves) has materialised. The failure of West Ham to attract signings tends to suggest that maybe players do not want to come to the club anymore.

This may have something to do with the style of play. The route 1 football for which Allardyce is renowned has never been popular with the West Ham faithful. The chant "We’re West Ham and we play on the ground" seemingly always rings out when things start going wrong. But these fans do have a point. In a recent game against Newcastle, the Geordies outstanding player was the skillful Yohan Cabaye. He scored twice and tormented West Ham all afternoon. But had Cabaye been playing for West Ham, would he have ever seen the ball, as it was relentlessly launched straight down the middle from the back bypassing the midfield.
West Ham are so predictable, knocking the ball square until someone at the back launches it forward. Alternatively it is worked down the wings, for crosses to the centre. Repeatedly this season teams have come to Upton Park and simply outplayed West Ham with fast, ground based football. These clubs from Everton to Newcastle via Arsenal have skilled fast players, who break quickly and move the ball across the ground. Allardyce’s attritional football is no match for such teams.

So there has to be a question, even with everybody fit as to whether this attritional football that Allardyce has made his trademark over the year’s works anymore. It is certainly not popular with the West Ham fans and when things start going wrong they are not slow to voice their opinions.

Allardyce has made other mistakes, such as fielding so many youngsters in the FA Cup drubbing at Nottingham Forest. This almost seemed like a rebuke not just to the competition but to those who have criticised the manager for his failure to bring through good youngsters from the West Ham academy. Indeed one of these, Jordan Spence, who has put in some promising right back performances, was left out on loan while the club struggled through without any recognised right backs to play in the first team.

So yes, Allardyce has not had much luck this season but there have been some huge errors made at the club contributing to their present plight.
No doubt Gold and Sullivan have surveyed the situation, pondering whether the time is right to ditch the manager but they have stuck by their man thus far.
Whether that proves the right decision only time will tell. What is for sure is that there needs to be radical change at West Ham. They are moving into a top stadium, comparable to the likes of Manchester City’s Etihad, Arsenal’s Emirates and Old Trafford, yet the team continues to struggle at the bottom of the table. If West Ham are to make a success of the move to the new stadium, they need a football team to match. A team that can compete with the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, not one that looks set to be fighting it out with Orient in the Championship next year.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Charlotte Monro case proves nothing has been learned from Mid Staffs

The comments of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt following the revelations over patient abuse at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Health Trust sounded good.
"We will foster a climate of openness, where staff are supported to do the right thing and where we put people first at all times," he declared.
The sad thing is that as hospital trusts are squeezed across the country, often at the behest of paying huge private finance initiative (PFI) debts, it seems exactly the opposite is taking place.
Indeed some would argue that what is happening now makes the chances of another Mid Staffordshire situation all the more likely to recur.
Take the case of Charlotte Monro, a union rep who worked at Whipps Cross hospital in east London for the past 26 years.
An occupational therapist and moving and handling co-ordinator, who four years ago received a special award, Monro was dismissed on October 30.
The dismissal followed an investigation that began after she addressed the local Waltham Forest scrutiny committee for Whipps Cross hospital in east London.
The scrutiny committee is a body made up of local representatives such as councillors and other concerned individuals charged with ensuring that local citizens receive the services to which they are entitled.
Monro addressed the scrutiny committee on June 26 2013, only to be told on July 2 that she was being investigated.
The final dismissal was justified on the grounds of bringing the Barts Health Trust into disrepute by speaking to the scrutiny committee and of speaking to staff she worked with prior to the official opening of a consultation on their service.
The trust also dredged up a charge of failing to disclose previous convictions relating to protest activities that occurred back in the 1970s. Monro had been involved in protests against apartheid and for peace in Ireland. This was never regarded as an issue over her previous 26 years of exemplary service.
Upon appeal, the charge of bringing the trust into disrepute was dropped, while breach of confidentiality and the failure to disclose the convictions were upheld. Monro is now planning to take her case to an employment tribunal.
The whole attack on Monro came about after the formation of Barts Health Trust in 2012. In a reorganisation, Whipps Cross, Newham General Hospital, St Bartholomews Hospital, the Royal London and Mile End hospitals were brought together under one body.
Monro tells how when she was dealing with the hospital management at Whipps Cross there was a good constructive working relationship based on respect.
This all changed when Barts Health Trust became involved.
"They were clearly out to get me as a union rep," says Monro, who sees her case as part of a wider effort to destabilise staff generally by creating an atmosphere of insecurity.
At a time when there have been job losses and posts are being down-graded, an action like this warns others who might think about putting their heads above the parapet as to what might happen.
The neutering of union activity in the NHS will also make it less likely that people will speak out. The union is a source of security and support to workers, allowing them when necessary to have the confidence and support to speak out about wrongdoing.
The unions themselves also represent a crucial element of any effective regulation or monitoring process across the NHS.
The role of a union is crucial to any ideas the government may have of fostering a "climate of openness" when people will not be afraid to speak out.
What seems certain is that the staff at Barts Health Trust need that voice. The latest report from the Care Quality Commission on Barts Health Trust says: "Morale across the trust is low, with staff being uncertain of their future with the trust and a perception of a closed culture and bullying.
"Too many members of staff of all levels and across all sites came to us to express their concerns about being bullied. Many only agreed to speak with us if they could be anonymous.
"In the 2013 staff survey 32 per cent of staff reported being bullied. The average score for trusts in England was 24 per cent.
"Staff told us they felt stressed at work and said there were not equal opportunities for career development. This must be addressed urgently if the trust's vision is to be realised."
Of course in the background of this process are the ongoing deficits caused by PFI.
Big trusts like Barts have been created so that there can be economies of scale, making cuts as and when possible.
These cuts are bound to hit patient care somewhere down the line.
Under section 118 of the care Bill going through Parliament, trust special administrators (TSAs) will be free to close, merge or privatise hospitals regardless of doctors, patients or the public.
In the light of the Monro case and other recent developments, maybe Hunt should go back and reread Robert Francis's report into Mid-Staffordshire Foundation Health Trust.
Francis referred to a story of "the appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people.
"They were failed by the system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety."
The question then is what has changed. Beyond the rhetoric of compassion, the market is being allowed to run riot in the NHS to the cost of staff and patients alike.
The potential whistleblowers who ensured that scandals like Mid Staffs were exposed are being forced out amid a growing atmosphere of fear and retribution.

  * Morning Star - 21/1/2014
* Tribune - 24/1/2014

Monday, 20 January 2014

Coronation Street breaks new ground on assisted dying

Coronation Street fans will have been gripped over recent months by the unfolding story about the death of Hayley Cropper.
Played by actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, the character of Hayley has been a stalwart of the show for the past 16 years. The latest plotline though brought that time to a sad end as the character took her own life by taking poison.
The plot line began some months ago when Hayley was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The script writers then built the tension, with viewers no doubt expecting Hayley, as with other past cancer based soap plot lines, to recover. Not this time though.
Coronation Street have trod new territory, with the character facing terminal cancer. Tension builds further, when having thought she had a few months to live, it suddenly becomes clear Hayley now has just weeks.
There is a debate between Hayley and her screen husband Roy about what is going to happen. They seek to make the best of their final weeks together but Roy is horrified when Hayley reveals her plan to take her own life. He initially won’t contemplate the idea but comes round to agreement after seeing the pain she is under. This culminated in the final scenes, where Hayley takes poison and dies.
Coronation Street has certainly broken new ground with the Hayley story, stepping into the controversial area of assisted dying and suicide. It will be interesting to see the impact the programme has on the debate. When soaps have addressed such controversial subjects in the past, like Eastenders taking on aids, via the character of Mark Fowler, it has had a huge impact. The soap plot had far more impact than any series of public service information broadcasts on the subject.
Like them or loath them the soaps draw huge audiences on a weekly basis. They also tread that somewhat strange territory of being fictional yet causing so many of the public to relate directly to the character’s experiences.
It is this power that makes this genre of drama so attractive to those with a public service message to get across. So issues like homosexuality, domestic violence, child abuse and rape have all found their way into the plot lines of the soaps over recent years.
Given the past impact of such story lines on real world scenarios, it would seem likely that this latest offering will reignite the assisted dying debate.
Indeed, Hayley’s story is likely to have more impact than any number of documentaries on the subject.
So how does the soap depiction of assisted dying measure up to reality? In the early stages of Hayley’s diagnosis she meets someone called Jane from a support group. Jane also has terminal cancer. This element of the story, together with the latter part of Hayley’s life show some elements of palliative care. The desire to make the best of the time left comes through in both the characters of Jane and Hayley. When Jane suddenly dies, it comes as a shock and really sets Hayley on the road to her decision to take her own life.
Hayley is supported by husband Roy and her friends. The whole community seem to rally round to support Hayley. She takes her decision in what appears a very rational and considered way.
The problem with this sort of depiction of assisted dying or suicide is that it can simplify the argument to one of a person with support, who just cannot take any more pain and wants to die.
The reality is that there are the cases of the individual who does not have that support network. The person with no friends or family, alone afraid in the hospital bed. There will be the support of medical staff but in these cash strapped times, this type of support is becoming less likely to be available. Indeed, the pressure on NHS resources is a great worry in terms of how medical staff come to evaluate life. We have already seen the way that the Liverpool Care Pathway has been misused on occasion to bring about early death. Some argue that any loosening up on the rules on assisted dying will be the first steps on the road to euthanasia.
Then there is the situation of the greedy relatives who have little concern for the person who is dying but simply want to get their hands on their money as soon as possible. This element was briefly touched on in the Hayley story, when her estranged son appears on the scene with two grandchildren she didn’t know existed. He manages to effectively emotionally blackmail Hayley to give him some money in return for seeing the children.
The threat though of the greedy relative in the real world, maybe less of an issue in the case of a terminal illness, especially when life expectancy is so short.
There has been no effort in the soap script to take in faith dimensions of suicide. This would have been difficult though as the character was never shown to have any religious intent. Indeed, dramatically, the initial abhorrence of Roy, an atheist, to the idea of suicide, gives real insight.
Overall, the production team at Coronation Street deserve credit for this excellent piece of drama. However, the concern must be that it will be used to feed into a building momentum in the secular media to push forward the cause of assisted dying. This ofcourse is not a reason to ignore the subject.
It is important though to remember that this is fictional drama not fact based reality. It contributes something to the national discourse on the subject of assisted dying but should not be used as a prop for those seeking to make it easier for individuals to take their own lives. Maybe in the name of balance the next soap on the subject should create the character of the terminally ill person with no friends or family stranded in the hospital bed – less gripping viewing maybe but a dose of what amounts to reality for many in our society today.

*universe - 26/1/2014

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Not reporting a rise in deaths at Beachy Head

The story seemed a straightforward one. The number of people committing suicide by jumping off Beachy Head in East Sussex was on the rise. There had been 604 searches on the cliff up to the end of August. Some 252 people were saved. This compares with 428 and 423 searches for the comparable period in 2012 and 2011. Despite the rise in numbers, the story I was seeking to tell was a positive one, concerning the excellent work being done by the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team (BHCT), which has saved 2,088 people since it began operations back in 2004. The chaplaincy run teams of people who patrol the cliffs looking for likely jumpers. They are also tipped off if police, coastguards, staff at the local pub and cafe and members of the public see someone they think might be about to commit suicide. It was a good news story. Naively, I thought the BHCT would welcome the opportunity to tell what they did. I could have a meeting, go out with them and ideally meet one or two people who had been saved and put their lives back together. I was looking to do the story for the Church press, initially the Catholic weekly the Universe, then the Church Times and Tablet. It came as something of a shock having explained what I wanted to do, as well as providing examples of previous work, to be told they did not speak to the media. The journalistic hackles went up: the routine response that these people don’t want this story out – what have they to hide did not really apply. It was quite clear what they wanted to hide which was the fact that people wanted to jump off Beachy Head. The argument of the director of the BHCT Mark Pybus was that the media ban applied because they got a rise in people coming up to Beachy Head to attempt suicide whenever there was significant coverage in the media. He highlighted the case of the Puttick family, who died on 1 June 2009. The case, where parents Neil and Kazumi, killed themselves at Beachy Head after five year old son Sam died of meningitis, drew international media attention. In the month that followed there was a surge in the number of people coming to the beauty spot seeking to end their lives. The week that followed the BHCT conducted 33 searches, saving 15 despondent people. Similar patterns have been noted with other high profile cases. The point seemed a fair one, he was also right that I did not want to be responsible for someone jumping off. I tried to explain though that it was a positive article promoting their work and there was a big difference between the more niche like confines of the church press and the Daily Mail, Sun or BBC. I also said that these operations would do the story anyway, whether the chaplaincy spoke to them or not. The chaplaincy could get a constructive sensitive side into the story by co-operating. Nor would they stop the story getting out, as the nationals would likely receive tip offs from the emergency services, some of whom were less than happy anyway at having to pick up the remains of jumpers. The seeming piecemeal nature of the media ban was also irritating. They did seem willing to talk to local papers like the Brighton Argus but not a Church paper, which probably had a smaller circulation. In the end, I could see I was not going to get the full co-operation sought at the start but would settle for an updated version of what the BHCT team had told the Brighton Argus last December, namely that there could be a link between the economic recession and the rising number of people seeking to jump. The intervening months had simply proved the point. The reality of the story was that most of the material required in terms of statistics were all on the BHCT’s website. Beyond that, a simply google search brings up all anyone could want to know about committing suicide at Beachy Head. It was possible to do the story, with virtually no input from the BHCT. This though was slightly bizarre, as the point of the story was to highlight the good work that the BHCT were doing. The story though took on more bizarre twists. Pybus shifted his ground, agreeing that the Church press were not the same as the national media. He was the newly appointed director and could see the need for some good publicity. So he would co-operate but he wanted to see the copy. The Universe had already sent over the feature. I sent him the news story for the Church Times. He then helpfully came back with more up to date statistics. The quote provided was a slight variation on that provided to the Brighton Argus in December. All seemed fine and ready to go. However, then came the question as to how the Church Times was sold, if too many went through the newsagents then Pybus would not agree to the article. Paul Handley, editor at the Church Times confirmed that only 2 per cent of sales went through the newsagent, the rest being via subscription and the churches. This was acceptable. The Universe, however, told Pybus that 15 per cent of their sale went through newsagents. This was too much so the BHCT would not agree to publication. The Universe fell in line, spiking the article. It was surprising that the Universe did not point out to Pybus that there was a thing called the internet. The BHCT seemed to be suggesting that people tempted to jump off Beachy Head were all hard copy readers of newspapers, who bought their copies of these small circulation publications from the newsagents? Given also that any would-be jumper could find all they needed to know about Beachy Head from a google search the argument seemed all the more absurd. In the end, the news piece did get published in the Church Times and the feature went to the Tablet, who did not even enter into this tortuous process of dealing with BHCT. The arguments of BHCT while well intentioned showed a lack of understanding of the journalistic process and how media works in the 21st century. They cannot just control the information flow and by refusing to speak they just limited their own impact.

* British Journalism Review - December 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Pensions debate should not be set in the context of inter-generational conflict

Why are pensioner’s issues increasingly getting framed in the public discourse in terms of inter-generational conflict.
There was a recent example of this happening when Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government would be retaining the triple lock approach to pension rises beyond the next general election. The triple lock ensures that pensions will increase by the level of inflation, wage rises or 2.5% whichever is the greater.
The immediate media response was to contrast this approach with that of the freeze that has been imposed on benefit rises that go to younger people.
So there was a visible effort to set one generation against another. This dangerous argument has been being fostered in the media for some time now, namely that younger people are having a tough time because the elderly are getting all the benefits and have lived in a profligate way in the past.
It is an insidious development that follows the attempts to set worker against worker and low paid worker against benefit recipient – the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor, the striver and skiver. It is a very reductionist argument.
The National Pensioners Convention makes the point that pensioners should not be seen as some sort of drain on the country.
“Whilst the overall cost to the Exchequer (providing pensions, age-related welfare payments and health services) was found to be £136.2bn, the revenues from older people (financial or otherwise) added up to £175.8bn. The overall net contribution by older people to the economy was therefore almost £40bn a year,” said a spokesperson for the NPC.
In addition, between £3.7 and £5.5 billion of means-tested benefits that should rightfully go to older people in Britain went unclaimed in 2009-10. 
The reality is that pensions and benefits can be afforded for old and young alike. At present, the National Insurance Fund, which pays for the state pensions is actually £30 billion in surplus, so there is no shortage of funding.
The pot may need to be made bigger in the future but why not look to do increase income by collecting more tax from the richest in society as well as claiming the tax from the large corporate tax dodgers.
Let’s stop wasting so much money on conflicts in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as scrapping weapons like the Trident nuclear system. Then there would be a lot more funding available.
Let’s not fall for divide and rule arguments. Pensions that enable everyone when they reach retirement age to live above the poverty line are easily affordable as well as being for the common good of all – young and old alike.  

Saturday, 4 January 2014

If Cameron's government can't get to grips with climate change they should go

The floods crisis has once again shown the total lack of environmental priorities of the Coalition government.
David Cameron starts criticising the local councils -that his administration have stripped of resources-for not coping.
More flooding follows, so obviously it must be time to make savage cuts to the body charged with dealing with the crisis, so1,500 jobs are to go at the Environment Agency.
The unspoken possibility must be that climate change is not only happening but happening far more quickly than previously predicted. Given the urgency of the situation can we really afford to have a government stuffed full of climate sceptics.
Indeed, if Cameron did refer to the need to “get rid of the green crap” as recently reported, then he should head the list of those resigning from government. Neither he nor his colleagues are fit for the purpose of governing in these dangerous times.
Climate change is happening, responsible people are needed in government who recognise the crisis and will prioritise resources accordingly