Sunday, 28 June 2015

Wales County Councillor: Up Close and Under Scrutiny - Exclusive Special In Depth Report!

Who are our local elected Councillors?
What do they do?
Councillor: Up Close and Under Scrutiny
By Bernadette Horton

In Wales local government will soon be undergoing radical reform with recommendations made by The Williams Report and Welsh Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews, implementing the changes. Mr Andrews is keen to see a raft of changes aimed at reforming and governing our elected local community, town and county councillors be brought into force. The aim is to improve local government, streamline it, and make it more accountable to the people it represents.

 But who are our Councillors? What do they do? How much are they paid and what hours do they work? Are they worth the money they are paid and just how accountable are they to the people they represent? Is it one long gravy train with ‘jobs for life’ once elected with little work done? I was keen to find out exactly all of the above, but would I find a councillor willing to spend 2 months under close scrutiny on my terms, with their whole officially elected life accountable at all times?

I approached an Independent County Councillor in Wrexham, N E Wales who is not governed by party politics or has to follow a party line. He agreed to my strict terms of scrutiny and I was surprised at what I found. I have always been as sceptical as the next person about local councillors and have found there is a mixed bag of very inactive ones, brilliant ones, and frankly stupid ones who shouldn’t be let anywhere near public relations! For my study I spent considerable time with the councillor asking many questions and grilling him on his role, attended council meetings and committees he sits on, received feedback from constituents and also a school he is a governor of. I wanted an honest, accurate, in-your-face, in depth report, and that is exactly what I got!

So I will introduce you to the brave councillor who put his head above the parapet and agreed to be under the spotlight for this article; Independent County Councillor Mark Owens, aged 52 of Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham.

Mark Owens is the youngest of 5 children and has lived in Rhosllanerchrugog (Rhos), Wrexham all his life. His dad was a coal miner, member of the NUM, and he comes from a strong Labour household tradition. When Blair delivered a Labour victory back in 1997, Mark initially thought that some of the working rights for working people abolished under Thatcher would be restored, but this was not the case. It so influenced his perception of the Labour Party that when he decided to enter local government as a councillor he decided to stand as an Independent rather than follow any party line.

He is married with two daughters aged 26 and 23. His eldest daughter is autistic and his wife is a full time carer. He works full time as well as being a councillor. His daughter’s disability has had a huge impact on his life and the issues that he cares passionately about include disabled and carers rights. He says ’When Cameron came to power in 2010 he said he understood the issues affecting carers and disabled people. Due to his own experience of caring for his disabled son, he would certainly look after the most vulnerable. It is appalling that this has been proven to be quite the reverse!’

Mark started off as a voluntary Community Councillor for Rhos at the same time as he was elected Independent County Councillor for the Pant ward in May 2012. There are 2 groups of Independent Councillors in Wrexham one with 20 members which Mark is part of, and the other with 8 members making the Independents the largest group on the council. The Pant ward he represents is a mixture of both private and social housing with an adult population of roughly 1800 people.

Mark works full time on the shop floor for Coveris Advanced Coatings in Wrexham. He works quite a complicated 12 hour shift pattern which varies from week to week and between day and night shifts. However, the company are extremely supportive and give him time off for a lot of his councillor work. I was amazed when I found out the roles and committees he sits on for the county council. These include:

*      Full Council
*      Audit Committee
*      Democratic Services Committee of which he is Vice-Chair. (Vice Chairs receive no additional payments on top of their councillors salary)
*      Safeguarding Communities and Well Being Committee
*      Scrutiny Committee/Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Committee

On top of this he is an LEA Governor for both Ysgol y Grango and Ysgol Maes y Mynydd schools and Vice-Chair of Rhos Community Council!

As a county councillor he receives a taxable remuneration of £13,175 per year. He personally does not claim any travel or other expenses, although other councillors do. Is he worth it? What do his constituents think? What makes him tick?  My initial reaction is that working full time and sitting on all these committees would surely need some kind of superhuman effort?

I asked the councillor what he believes are three of the most important issues currently, which are important to him both nationally and locally, as he has strong views on political issues.

‘Nationally I would definitely say it is the state of our NHS. There is a lack of funding for cancer patients and a lack of suitable drugs available under this ridiculous postcode lottery patients seem to suffer all over the UK. I believe firmly that the NHS is far too top heavy with admin staff and we need to recruit more doctors and nurses.

‘In Wales the Williams report itself, is, (in my view) an assault on local democracy by Welsh Labour and the local government minister. Under the reforms it will definitely be harder for Independent Councillors to stand for election. Wards will be a lot bigger and a heavier workload will ensue. Possibly this will have a detrimental effect and restrict the role required to older non-working councillors, which I believe is the one thing Leighton Andrews wishes to avoid.

‘Locally, affordable housing in both Wrexham and the villages is sorely needed, especially for young people. We need more social housing built in village communities plus a mix of greatly discounted starter homes. I would like to see incentives for builders brought in to encourage this mix. I could go on as I believe better paid jobs and more funding for road repairs are urgently needed too!’

As someone involved in party politics as a member of the Labour Party myself, I have often wondered why people stand as Independents on councils. In the past I have always seen it as a maverick, lone-wolf type person who stands as an Independent, so what are Mark’s reasons?

‘Independents don’t follow a party line or are forced to vote a certain way by the party whip. They have been elected by constituents to represent their local community, and do their utmost to do just that. I believe the role of a good councillor is to always address constituent’s problems with an honest, open and frank approach, and to only promise what you can 100% deliver. It is my duty to also speak up on behalf of those who cannot, and try to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.’

‘But how can constituents know how you are going to vote on local issues, if there is no official party line to follow? Surely you could end up voting for what a minority want?’ I queried.

‘I reassure all constituents that they can contact me anytime to discuss which way I will be voting on various local issues. If there are conflicting interests I go with the majority decision. If it is too close to call, I trust my instinct to do what I consider to be the right thing for the benefit of all.’

After shadowing the councillor closely, I have been able to see what both his normal full time job workload is like, and also his councillor workload. I have been present to a phone that never stops ringing; morning, afternoon and evening council meetings, community visits, workshops, training and school meetings, and have seen the deluge of emails he receives. My estimate of his councillor workload is in excess of 40 hours a week, because I have witnessed it across several different weeks; something he agreed with me upon.

‘My employers are very supportive and I often take half day holidays to fit everything in too. It would be easier if scrutiny meetings were combined into one meeting, rather than the 2 or 3 we have currently where we can scrutinise all the reports’

It is no secret that 60% majority of councillors across Wales are retired older people who do not have to work full time too. But after shadowing this working age councillor it is no surprise. It seems virtually impossible to manage full time work and a councillor’s workload effectively, without seriously damaging your home/work/life balance. Mark agreed wholeheartedly!

‘Local councils do have a lot of retired people as councillors, and I don’t believe we could afford to lose that wealth of experience. I also believe in total democracy and that any adult, irrespective of age, should be allowed to put their name forward to stand for election, it is only the electorate who can decide who they want to represent them.

However I think there does need to be better support for working age councillors and to encourage younger people to come forward and stand for election. I’d like to see statutory rights for time off for councillors that employers have to abide by. My employers are exceptionally supportive, but that is rare. We need a bigger age range of councillors with different experiences and we need to encourage that by making it easier to stand for local office.’

We moved on to the thorny issue of money! Councillors in Wrexham receive a taxable £13,175 P/A and on top of this are expenses and travel expenses, although Mark does not claim the latter, just the basic salary. The general public perception is that this is far and away too high. I too, (prior to this research) thought it was very generous, compared to many jobs on zero hours or agency employment but have altered my view for working age councillors in particular. What view did our Councillor have?

‘I think it should be higher to attract younger professional full time councillors who don’t have to constantly fit in working commitments alongside council commitments. For example, it is pretty difficult to pay a mortgage on £13,175 per year if you didn’t work full time as well. For retired councillors the sum is a nice top up for their pension, but I firmly believe the councillors I am associated with in Wrexham, (cross party) earn every penny of their salary.’

Do constituents therefore have a realistic view of a councillor’s role? Due to the salaried aspect of the job when is a councillor actually required to ‘work’ I wondered.

‘I’ve been called at 3, 4, 5am on various issues’ Mark says, ‘Some that could have waited and others that couldn’t. I am very often on the phone until 11pm at night, especially when I have worked a 12 hour day shift at work too. I never had a realistic view myself prior to becoming a councillor of what the job actually means and entails. It’s only when the public need to contact us about an issue that they can see what we do and the hours we work’

‘So there are no set hours really,’ I questioned. ‘You are on call 24/7?’

‘Yes you could definitely say that!’

Mark has an impressive campaigning record since 2012 and is not backwards at coming forward on issues that affect his ward. He is very concerned at closures of community facilities, particularly in the village areas, and has spoken out time and again on the closure of Rhos Nat West Bank, Rhos Library, Funding cuts to the Miners Institute and on safe routes to school, to name but a few. He also produces regular newsletters informing constituents of the work he does and the great pride he takes at developments in the local area. Successes have included many things that benefit the community like garden furniture and planters for residents in warden controlled flats, WI-FI installation for residents to participate in an IT club, plus new fencing for bungalows, security lights, and the need to arrange regular litter picks for untidy areas of community land. Mark has helped in organising events for Rhos community council which have included 2000 people attending a bonfire event in 2014. The list is impressive by any standards, all of which can be attested to by his constituents.

I spoke to several constituents about their views on their councillor. John White lives in the Pant ward that Mark is councillor of in Erw Gerrig Sheltered Housing Units. He said-

‘I knew of Mark when he was growing up in the village, but have got to know him properly as a local councillor. I think Mark has been an excellent councillor during a tough few years of austere times when councils have limited funds. If you approach Mark with an issue or query he always researches whether things are possible to do or not and always comes back with an honest answer. He makes a point of going out of his way to help. I run a computer club and he has been instrumental in getting Wi-Fi put into the sheltered units. He has helped to secure other items for the gardens too. I hope he is re-elected in 2017 as we definitely need more like him.’

Cheryl Vaughn is a resident in the Pant ward too, and she has had dealings with Mark over contentious planning issues and neighbour problems.

‘Mark grew up in Rhos and knows the area better than anyone. He connects to the people who live here very well. He is always at the end of the phone and regularly visits people in the area to discuss issues. I find his best quality is that he speaks to people on their level and explains things properly. He is a local lad who fights for local people and this is what makes him a great councillor.’

During my research asking constituents about their councillor, I did not come across one negative comment or adverse opinion. Everyone agrees Mark is an exceptionally hard working councillor.

Mark is also a keen supporter of N E Wales Unite Community branch and gave his support recently to the national day of action Unite Community took against the benefit sanctions regime. Mark believes the system of routinely sanctioning benefit claimants for being 5 minutes late for appointments, or for attending a family funeral on signing on day is pernicious and an attack on the poorest in society.

 During my research for this article, I witnessed the councillor speaking in the arena of Wrexham Guildhall. Attending council meetings is not something generally thought of as an afternoon or evening out for the public (myself included) but I was curious to know how all our councillors perform in meetings and in particular Mark himself.

I came to the conclusion I would definitely like to see time limits put on some councillors who frankly like to hear the sound of their own voices- repeatedly it seemed, even when similar questions had been asked by other councillors! Mark is one of the more thoughtful councillors, intervening and asking pertinent questions when necessary. He is fully tuned into the discussions and has an enquiring firm style of engagement.

 I attended a Lifelong Learning Scrutiny meeting where he enquired about the data available on how Parents are engaging with the Welsh Flying Start programme – a programme that begins intervention with specialised help and support to parents even prior to the Childs birth to age 4. Flying Start helps to prevent children in the most deprived communities coming to school at 4+ with huge gaps in attainment levels already. Mark recognises this as a vital programme but wondered how parents were engaged in the home environment.

Although Flying Start is out of the remit currently of the committee, he pushed for the committee to be provided with a Flying Start report at future meetings, as he felt the link between this programme and early years in school was essential to make. Frankly while some councillor’s nit picked over technicalities, Mark was engaged in the issues that people need to know about and which are necessary for the committee.

Part of a County Councillors responsibility is to act as a school governor for the local education authority. Mark is a school governor for 2 schools; Ysgol y Grango a local High school and Ysgol Maes y Mynydd in Rhos. I spoke to Headteacher Steve Garthwaite at Ysgol y Grango to ascertain Mark’s role and how well he does his job there!

‘Mark is an excellent governor. He is involved with the strategic running of the school and sits on the finance and disciplinary committee, but also is integral to interviewing new staff members etc. Mark provides us with an excellent link to the community as a very informed and active county and community councillor, and he also brings things to us that we can act upon. For example, he has supported us 100% in our campaign to close a public footpath that runs right through the school grounds that was a risk to our pupils. Likewise if he hears of any community issues that affect the school he brings these to our immediate attention. Our school rates him very highly, and we are proud to have such an excellent school governor on our team.’

High praise indeed, but fitting in 2 school governorships on top of full time work and his councillor’s work, is a tough task. Again, in my opinion, this severely impacts on working age councillors. To do a thorough job, while holding down full time work, seems almost impossible.

As previously outlined the Williams report and Welsh government proposals for the reform of Welsh councils and councillors are currently causing a stir in local government in Wales. I asked the councillor about some of the findings and recommendations in the report that have been put out for public consultation. One recommendation is that councillors should be able to communicate with local people in a wide variety of ways – one of which is social media, as well as face to face, email and phone.

‘Personally I am happy to converse with constituents in any form- whether that be phone, email, at their front door or social media. I don’t believe however, engaging on social media should be compulsory. We have a lot of older people who have never heard of social media in our communities, and for them the phone or face to face talking to their councillor is essential. However, local government could offer social media training for councillors, but again time constraints are demanding if councillors work too. We are offered media training and core training currently but this could be improved in my opinion. Training for new councillors and ongoing training is essential, but fitting it all in under the current system is frankly impossible.’

Currently only 30% of councillors in Wales are women. What are Mark’s views on this anomaly in the figures?

‘It is a shame that there are only 30% of councillors who are women. Women are juggling work and frequently caring duties for children or older relatives. I believe women should be encouraged to come forward to stand for election with specific targeted support. This could be in the form of perhaps a crèche facility in the town hall, less meetings and more family friendly timed meetings. However, I do believe the electorate should decide who they want to represent them ultimately regardless of gender. I do not believe in quotas but the best person to do the job.’

The recommendations are also to reform council elections. A range of options are open which include 4, 5 year fixed elections or the same phased system in England where one third of councillors are up for election every year. What are Mark’s views?

‘I would be happy for either 4 or 5 year fixed elections to take place but I feel phased elections like the ones in England would lack continuity with different councillors coming and going. It would interfere with the councils work programme and committees as new members would not be up to speed with discussions.’

Controversially the Williams report recommends compulsory annual reports on an individual councillors record and performance and what they have achieved in the given 12 month period. Is our Councillor in favour of this scrutiny?

‘I feel we should have an individual report on each councillor as it is in our and the electorates best interests. It should be both a report and an appraisal done by the leader of each group. However with the lack of funding coming to individual councils currently, and councillors not being able to achieve all they wish to for constituents, this may reflect badly on a councillors individual performance. This aspect should be taken into consideration when reports are made.’

I wondered whether Mark would like to see more use of Youth Councils which are also being talked about for the new look local government in Wales-

‘Absolutely. In Rhos we already have a youth council, as well as one in Wrexham. I would like to see younger people playing a bigger part in local government decisions and having a bigger say. It is vital to engage younger people in democratic decisions and enable them to become future potential councillors themselves.’

There are currently 1,245 councillors in Wales. Under the new proposals there will be considerably less in fewer larger councils. I wondered how this would impact councillors, but particularly Independent ones like Mark? He took a strong view on this –

‘It will impact Independent councillors more than those in the political party groups as we have no party machine behind us. Imagine either standing or canvassing as an Independent candidate who works full time in a much larger area? It’s a very tough task now. I think it will totally discourage Independent candidates from standing for election and this is not particularly democratic in my view.’

One major proposal is to cap terms of office for councillors at 25 years and for leaders of councils 10 years. Whilst Mark has already told us of his views on 25 years, what does he think of 10 years for leaders?

‘I disagree with 10 year fixed terms for leaders of the council. By the time you get used to being leader after 4 or 5 years and gain your stride in a second but final term of office, you then have to step down. I do not believe this is necessarily the right option for excellent leaders.’

I put it to Mark that currently some leaders of councils had been in post for over 20 years and many deputies might never get the chance to be leaders of the council as under the current rules leaders can stay on indefinitely. Mark thinks that if leaders were voted for at the start of each term of office this would be more democratic. Those leaders who were doing a fine job could then stay in situ having been voted for in the democratic process and so avoid the definite step down after 10 years.

The power to recall a councillor as well as the current discussions to recall MPs are also under the spotlight. The report is recommending 10% of the people in the area sign a petition calling for a councillor to step down if they have broken the law and been convicted of an offence or been imprisoned. Did Mark agree with this?

‘In some ways I disagree as I believe it should be crime dependent. For serious crimes yes, but for something like speeding then no. I do believe that when a councillor has been voted in by the majority in the constituency to remove him/her on 10% is far too low. If there were a robust system of monitoring recall then I would agree with it, but there has to be a well planned and well thought out system in place to go ahead with this.

The report is looking at whether county councillors should be stopped from serving as AM’s at the same time as being county councillors and also whether to stop them also serving as community councillors. What were Marks thoughts on these proposals?

‘My opinion is a county councillor should not be able to stand as an AM simultaneously. It is the equivalent of 2 full time jobs and you would not be able to do justice to both. I do believe serving as both a county and community councillor is a must as you have been voted in to represent community on the county council anyway. Community councillors are voluntary and receive no remuneration so there is no conflict of interest between community and county councillors.’

After 3 years as a county councillor what advice would Mark give to someone thinking of standing as a councillor and how did he find the process of co-operating for this article?

‘Do your homework first. Read this article! It’s all about being passionate for the local area and wanting to make a difference in the community. It can never be about financial gain. You must be willing to put yourself out for constituents and grow a thick skin because sometimes when you cannot get a good outcome for someone, they tend to forget the favourable outcomes you have secured in the past. I would definitely recommend sitting on a community council first to get a taste of wha
ts involved and if you are the right person for the job. Speak to existing county councillors in your area and sit in on public meetings at the town hall. Be honest and frank with people, and above all never promise anything you cannot deliver!

‘I found the process of co-operating for this article intriguing but certainly challenging! Being grilled in depth made me explore my views on the wider issues involved in my role as a councillor. I would like to thank Bernadette for the length of time she spent shadowing me and researching this article. It was indeed a challenge! I hope the wider public respect my views even if they disagree with them. I would like it to be known all views are my own personal ones, and are not associated with Wrexham County Council in anyway at all.’

After 2 months of intense research and scrutiny for this article, personally my opinions on how our councillors work and the job they do has changed dramatically. I firmly believe there should be changes to the working practices of our councils and that far more support for working age councillors should be given, in order to balance out the age and gender gap of our current councillor make up in Wales. It simply can’t be right that 60% of councillors are aged over 65 due to the time demands of the job, and that only 30% are women, while tiny percentages are disabled and of black or ethnic minority. This is not a true reflection of the electorate and radical proposals need to be made and put into place as soon as possible. The proposal of fixed terms for councillors of no more than 25 years is a double edged sword. In order to bring down the high percentage of elderly councillors, many of whom may have served 25 years+; can it be right to say to a 30 year old active councillor, you are no longer required aged 55? I feel a blanket approach is not needed, but a realistic proposal to allow younger councillors to gain experience and then go on to leadership roles without having to wait decades to achieve those roles.

I believe there is a definite need to either make a councillors role full time with a salary to suit so they can do the job properly with no financial worries, or if the current system remains, there needs to be statutory requirements on employers for time off with pay to do the councillors role. A dividing line in the sand needs to be drawn: Do we need intelligent, highly skilled, professional motivated local councillors who are properly paid to do the job? Or do we continue with the same system that is heavily biased towards retired people and also has very low proportions of women, disabled and black and ethnic minority representatives? A 21st century Wales now needs to move to 21st century local government, but the people of Wales need to have a big say in how they want their local communities to be governed too. Volunteers on community councils and their skills and enthusiasm should not be lost just for the sake of making local government more accountable.

It has been a pleasure working with Councillor Mark Owens on this article and I would like to thank him for his complete co-operation, time and effort into producing a worthwhile piece of work. Hopefully readers are more informed and want to have their say in the reforms taking place in Wales currently.

Austerity for the Poor

Austerity has covered acres of newspaper space since 2010. There has been excellent coverage by journalists who have penned millions of words on austerity from every conceivable angle. Yet by virtue of their job, not many actually ‘live’ austerity; spend day in and day out experiencing austerity on the front line, sleep, eat and breathe austerity as a way of life. They can only record the details of ordinary people’s struggles; the struggles of the poor.

Since 2010 being ‘poor’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Us, the poor, now have our own subsections – the unemployed poor, the disabled poor, the carers poor, the student poor, and probably for one of the first periods in UK history, whole battalions of working poor, of which I am a member. An austerity driven Tory government, once in coalition and now masters of their own universe until 2020, have created more poor people than Thatcher could ever dream about. You could argue we have always had the unemployed poor, the vast majority of which move back into work within 6 months. No government has ever got to grips with being a compassionate government for disabled people and carers. They, including myself, have remained bottom of the focus group ‘to do’ list since we are the unseen, invisible, 11 million votes the political parties have refused to court. The young student poor are now having every dream of a good career, decent house, decent standard of living ripped away while they carry thousands of pounds of student loan debt into their adult lives. Students were encouraged to believe university was, and is, the only option of a good job, while no emphasis has been placed on technical apprenticeships to provide the next generation of skilled workers on our shop floors.

The working poor. A phrase that would have been thought comedic twenty, thirty years ago when going to work paid. Having a job, whether you were a factory production line worker, a hairdresser, a bricklayer or a teacher meant having a permanent job, renting a flat or house with friends when young, then your own home either in the social or private sector mostly by your twenty-fifth birthday. Work paid to get that car, to pay your bills, save for a new cooker or carpet, a summer holiday, and a few pints down the pub. And while you were toasting the fruits of your labour, parents knew their kids were well clothed and fed, birthdays enjoyed and pocket money given for a trip to the cinema on a Saturday. Sure, it wasn’t utopia, but work damned well paid back then. So what has gone wrong? Why is austerity being borne on the shoulders of the poor and working poor? And don’t forget the ‘in word’ at the moment among politicians cross party – Aspiration. What has happened to the hopes and aspirations of the poor?

First of all, us poor are our own worse enemies. The Tory/LibDem government peddled the lie austerity is needed and we are ‘all in it together’ and judging by the result of the recent General Election far too many believed the Tory lie. Those at the top, the Tory MPs, the bankers, the right wing media were and are definitely all in it together! They decided the poor must suffer and should the poor dare to aspire to a better way of life, like heaven forbid a permanent job on a decent wage, then that ladder of opportunity will be denied from the outset with the introduction of mass zero hours contract jobs. Employers who treat the minimum wage as the maximum wage proliferate, both partners in a couple are expected to work and once their kids are 5, then full time. The message is let the childminder bring your kids up. The right wing media find poor people with little or no education to exploit as scroungers in a never ending diet of poverty porn TV, which many now believe is the norm of society among the poor. Foodbank programmes rarely show struggling families, but always the chancer or the people we deem not to be pitied like alcoholics and drug addicts. And sadly as the programmes are screened endlessly the right wing media work their magic and we poor turn against each other.

Austerity for us is a daily struggle. The aspirations of the poor that our politicians talk about are a pipe dream for many. In short our aspiration is survival. Having a decent home free from threat of having to constantly move, a house with a garden for families has been replaced with having a roof over your head in the short term. Any roof that does not require moving every 6 months is aspiration. This form of housing is often poor quality owned by buy-let landlords not interested in providing decent accommodation, but just viewing you as an easy way to make a fast buck through housing benefit. The working poor, once able to pay rent on their council house now need housing benefit to subsidise sky high rents in the private sector for basic accommodation. This is often where both partners work too, and is not confined to lone parents the pariahs of this capitalist Tory government.

Austerity for the poor is a grinding daily struggle of being able to keep a roof over your head, feed yourself and your family and pay the bills, and in the winter months particularly taking the choice to eat or heat your home. These are the choices forced on people the government say are undeserving of support. While we used to tell our children a good education, studying hard and perhaps a chance at university is the way out of poverty, which is sadly no longer the case. Many university graduates are in zero hours minimum wage jobs too. A whole new young generation of 16+ are being told low pay is the norm and your aspiration, zero hours contracts or as Duncan-Smith calls them ‘flexible working contracts’ is the norm and your aspiration, and belonging to a union is a thing of the past and something you should not belong to. This generation were only 9 years old or more when the Tories came into power in 2010.. They know no different. They have been indoctrinated with TV and newspaper articles insisting they must look down and despise the poor and those less fortunate, not feel compassion for the unemployed and understand that ‘hard work’ is the correct and only thing to do now from nursery age to 70. If you are poor, your education will be poor too with schools full of teachers who teach to a set curriculum to get results and meet targets, not there to answer questions of enquiring young minds and nurture and educate young people’s ideas and hopes.

On Saturday June 20th thousands of people from across unions and communities will march in the People’s assembly national demonstration against austerity. Demonstrating and protesting is what we have left to tell this Tory government we are not allowing the poor to take this burden for another 5 years. Osborne is planning another £12 billion of welfare cuts to fall on our shoulders and we literally cannot tolerate any more cuts to tax credits, working tax credit, disability benefits or carers allowance. Our kids need to be able to go to university or take a technical apprenticeship without fear of lifelong debt.

Aspiration should not be the preserve of the middle classes. Working hard with noses to the grindstone on a zero hours contract with no stability on low pay should not be the aspiration of the poor. If you cannot make the demonstration in London take to social media and use twitter and facebook as your protest weapon. Take compassion on your neighbour, made redundant and seeking a new job, open your eyes to the carer down the road getting £63 a week to look after a disabled person, note how many of your community are suffering due to the bedroom tax and job centre sanctions and stop living in a selfish bubble of I’m alright Jack. Its only by standing together us poor will defeat the dark forces of Toryism that seek to destroy us.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

My Message to Trade Union Members for May 7th.

I have spoken at many factories over the past few months to people on the shop floor about trade union activism and the General Election coming up on May 7th. Here is the speech I have been giving.

You may be asking why I’m taking up your time when there are better things to be doing. Well let’s talk about you and your relationship with both your union and who you’re going to use your precious vote for at the General Election in May.

Ok. You pay your union subs every month but the union is only useful when you need something, you have a grievance, you need a workplace rep, you want a pay rise. You may work in a factory that has a proud percentage of workers in a union.

My history of joining Unite – my union - is different to yours as I am a member of Unite Community. Community is the conception of Len McCluskey. With the birth of Unite Community that opens up membership of the union at 50p pw to people who don’t work in the traditional unionised workplaces, like carers, the disabled, students, self employed, unemployed and retired Unite help out with all travel costs that previously held me back from participation and education. Unite give me self belief and self confidence that I WILL be able to change the political narrative and enter the political arena in the future as the courses provide a toolbox of skills I can use.

This woman is hungry to change the austerity story. This woman demands change!

It is not enough for me to simply speak to you about your union. I need to know what is going on in our workplaces; factories like yours. I am currently doing a workplace reps course because I feel it is vital anyone who claims to want to represent you in Parliament in the future has to have some kind of idea of the issues facing ordinary people like us.

You may have been in the union a long time, you may have recently joined, but each individual is needed and more importantly your input. We can all be guilty of standing back whilst others arrange events, but we need committed trade union activists, people coming from our number to represent us working classes locally and nationally.

I love to see representatives from our communities like local councillors come forward to stand up and fight for us on a range of issues like the bedroom tax, job centre sanctions, foodbanks and low pay. I have the privilege of having met such a councillor recently. He is passionate about social justice and standing up for the most vulnerable in our society. Putting his head above the parapet to represent local people as a councillor on top of his work commitments may be daunting to some, but it epitomises the true working class hero we have on our doorstep. I for one am proud to know him as he puts his energy into his community. We urgently need more like him to shake off our fear and apathy at coming forward.

Even if you can’t play such an active role you can play a huge role within your union. Educate, Agitate and Organise is our motto and that is the only way we really are going to see changes in our workplaces and our communities. There are many educational courses you can take through Unite or your own union, free of charge, to improve your knowledge and skills. I’ve been learning about the sheer power of collective bargaining on my course and this is burned into my soul as the only way the working man/woman can achieve results.

As for the Labour Party and May 2015. Never has there been a time when your vote is so precious and the right choice for not just yourself but working class communities is vital.

I chat to people all the time as a member of Unite Community. All I hear is the plea:
‘ We need MPS who have done a factory job, worked in a supermarket, cared for a disabled relative, shop in our shops, don’t just TRY to look like us but ARE one of us’. Indeed recently an elderly lady complemented me on the dress I was wearing whilst speaking at an event. She had had her eye on the same £14 Matalan dress but felt it was too young for her but added ‘Well at least you’re one of us love and not all fur coat and no knickers like most women MPS’.  I smiled with her. Her view entirely of course but a view echoed in different situations on the doorstep. Walk a mile in our shoes…

Compassionate MPs are needed urgently in our communities. Our working class people have born the brunt of this austerity going into a 5th year in 2015. We are austerity battered, weary, frightened and trying to hang on in there as best we can, often living from week to week on zero hours contracts, and a pay day away from losing our homes. I know this because it’s happening to me too. As my 3rd son started 6th form last September, HMRC already cut to the bone with staff shortages, inadvertently cut all working tax credits from every family in the UK with a child starting college or 6th form that week. It meant an immediate £50 cut in income, a time where every penny counts as you kit your child out and spend money on bus fares, lunches, books for their first week in a new part of their lives. That error made me panic over what to cut down on, alongside all the thousands of other families affected too. These ‘errors’ can tip us over the edge into financial peril; such is our grip on the cliff edge of austerity.

Why I believe you should vote Labour? We are the party of social justice. We are a party of compassion for the vulnerable. If we get a Tory government in May we are signing up to 5 more years of savage cuts, the like of which you have never seen before. Cameron has said he will clamp down on trade union activities, and make it virtually illegal to belong and participate in a union. Ukip and their chancer leader Nigel Farage want a privatised health system, waving goodbye to our free NHS, an end to maternity leave for women in small businesses and an end to paternity leave; a far right vision of a wealthy middle class England breathing fear and xenophobia into our land. Is this what we want? Is this your vision of Britain?

Labour are the party of the NHS. We build it while the Tories destroy it. It is so precious to us a vote for any other party in May will see it end forever. The Tories and Ukip want us all signed up to private health insurance like the USA.

Labour are the party of opportunity for the young. New technical apprenticeships, highly skilled have been announced. Tuition fees for universities will be cut from £9,000 to £6000 per year in England and just over £3000 in Wales under a socialist government. Votes for 16 yr olds will be  brought in. Hope not despair for our young.

Labour are the party of families. Free 25 hour a week childcare for all ¾ year olds,  and paid extended paternity leave. Family centred policies. Not tax breaks for millionaires like the Tories hand out.

Labour are the party of workers. The only party to promise to push employers for a  Living Wage for all and the minimum wage to be increased to £8 an hour. The same party that brought in the minimum wage to employers screams and it’s worked out alright hasn’t it?

You will of course make up your own minds shortly on how you will vote. You may already know. But make no mistake this will be the general election that will be a catalyst for years to come. I cannot even imagine another 5 years of Tory rule with £12 billion of cuts being targeted at the disabled, working poor and carers.

Let me leave you with this;

Our Unions built the Labour Party.
In numbers we stand United.
Unity is strength.

Together we are ‘un-bloody breakable’!!!!!           

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Tories: Baby Milk Snatchers!

I visited two Foodbanks recently and spoke to the fantastic volunteers who are now virtually pseudo social workers, in the absence of the safety net that was once the proviso of local authority social services.

Row upon row of tinned food and pasta, long life milk and  even donated tins of pet food (contrary to popular belief, those who have been sanctioned or are poor do have pets!) were stacked neatly. Volunteers informed me they also try and ask for toothpaste, shampoo, sanitary towels and soap to be donated as those on the breadline still need these vital products the rest of us take for granted. Being clean and being able to brush your teeth is not the sole preserve of the rich! But I stopped when I came to one shelf in particular which contained large tins of baby milk formula, and also jars of baby food.  Before I had time to ask, one of the volunteers told me-

"Recently we have seen parents sanctioned due to various minor reasons at job centres.. Not being on time or phoning up because their child is ill and asking to sign on at another time, even going for a job interview that coincides with signing on time. Once a parent gets sanctioned, so do their baby milk tokens. This means that while parents need to turn to us for food parcels during the time they are sanctioned they also arrive here in a dreadful state as they have no baby milk formula to provide for their babies. Now we are asking for baby milk tins as well as all the usual food items. This part of Foodbank work is not being highlighted enough. Babies are being punished for being poor."

To be frank I was numb for a minute trying to take this in. Here is a coalition government led by Tories where sanctioning people for being unemployed is routine and so this forces them to seek food aid to get them by as without food parcels they cannot survive. On top of that if they have a baby, the baby is at the mercy of the Foodbank and its generous donors to survive too! In 21st century Britain! The sixth richest country on earth!

This is not just a national disgrace, it is downright evil political idealogy!  Many of us remember Thatcher coming along as the then Education Secretary and taking the free school milk away from  our schools. She earned the title of "Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher" among many other names at the time, but her Tory spawn of Cameron and Duncan-Smith have sent our society to a place where babies are denied milk  because their parent(s) are poor!  Of course these right wing posh boys will deny this practice goes on in Job Centres, just as they deny that there are no sanction targets, just as how they deny the poor are getting poorer. But it is up to us to fight back and get these pernicious and  politically motivated attacks out into the wider psyche of society.

On Thursday 19 March Unite Community will be demonstrating all over the UK at Job Centres to call for a complete end to sanctions. I don't want to live in a UK which takes the food out of innocent babies mouths. I am disgusted and ferociously angry that I live under a Coalition government that thinks this is acceptable.

Punishing the most vulnerable, punishing the poor and punishing babies must stop. Full stop.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Dehumanisation of our Welfare State

I want to point out one fact: The Welfare State, just like the NHS belongs to us all. It was set up by a socialist Attlee government to protect citizens in times of great need. It is OUR welfare state. A rock solid tangible acknowledgement that the Britain we live in protects its most vulnerable citizens in their time of need. As socialists it is our biggest achievement alongside the NHS. In times of crisis it says to me "Turn to your country. We will look after and protect you through this hard time".  To  disabled citizens, many with lifelong disabilities, the Welfare State has without question stepped in and declared " As a compassionate,caring, civilised country, the state will  protect you financially from poverty. Full stop."

Right up until Thatcher's regime the Welfare Stare was never questioned regarding its role. It existed to protect vulnerable citizens unreservedly. Then the right wing Thatcher government set about undermining and  prepared to dismantle the welfare state as we knew it. Three consecutive years of freezing child benefit and targeting women and children was eventually thrown out by John Major when he took over from Thatcher, but the damage had already been done; thousands of children thrown into poverty. But Thatcher was just the start. How proud she must be of Duncan-Smith and Cameron for daring to do what she couldn't, as public opinion back in the 80's would not have tolerated it. How times change.

The toxic elements of a ruling class Tory cabinet and front bench, stuffed full of individuals who think they have a divine right to rule the country, coupled with a march of right wing media people, both on TV and in newspapers, has produced a hatred of anyone who has to claim any benefit from the Welfare State. It started off with the complete dehumanisation of the unemployed. Unemployment for the vast majority of people is a temporary predicament. Who the hell wants to live on £71 a week by choice? Yet that is exactly what Iain Duncan-Smith and the DWP have pushed into the media and into working class lives. Osborne jumped in with the 'hard working people going to work every morning while they see other neighbours curtains drawn'. By 2011 this Coalition had made unemployment shameful. Something that had to be hidden at all costs when in conversation. Within a year of coming to power, we were seeing TV programmes like 'Saints and Scroungers' on the BBC. The Daily Mail has weekly articles on unemployed people, many with large families as their centrepiece, praying on people who have no idea they are being ridiculed and scapegoated: the offer of a quick shot at 'X factor style' notoriety of celebrity, soon to fade with the next days salacious headlines.

Being unemployed however is not good enough for the ConDems. There has to be an element of 'sport' in it for our over priveleged Eton boys. Benefit sanctions have been brought in. We are sold the lie thousands of unemployed people can't be bothered even going to the Job Centre so its worthwhile giving them a kick by stopping their benefit altogether. However, its not quite so simple is it? Here in my rural area of N Wales some 'local' job centres are 10+ miles away. So the staff at Job Centres are told to sanction claimants for being 5 minutes late. To hell with the fact the buses and trains are ultra expensive when on benefit anyway, but when they are late too, your whole existence can depend on it! Funerals of close relatives are sanctioned too because you can't be in two places at once and the 'icing on the cake sanction' is when you get a job interview on the same day as signing on. Often a choice has to be made; job interview or survival. But if you attend the job centre, you get sanctioned for not attending the job interview! Unite Community branches throughout the UK are demonstrating against these sanctions in a National Day of Action on 19 March at job centres everywhere. I am leading the NE Wales Unite Community demonstration in Wrexham, and I urge you all to find out locally what is happening in your area on 19 March so we can highlight this scandalous abuse of power by the DWP. More info on the Unite Community website;Unite Community v Benefit Sanctions

Hellbent on demonising not just the unemployed in people's eyes, the ConDems and the media barons then decided to turn their sights on the disabled. Disability hate crimes in 2013-2014 rocketed accounting for 4% of all hate crime. Much of this can be attributed to both the right wing newspapers highlighting the tiny 0.7% of disability living allowance fraud, but conveniently overlooking the 99.3% of genuine disability claimants. There have been suicides by disabled people directly attributable to stoppages of benefit and having nothing left to live on since 2010.

What kind of government hounds its disabled citizens to the point where the only way out is to take your own life? The dehumanisation of the disabled is being felt acutely as Cameron steps up his attack on this section of society. New announcements include a promise to end disability benefit for the obese and people with an addiction. No announcement on any help or support however, to deal with either affliction. The Tory way of course; sink or try to swim with no lifejacket on. The disabled are judged to be the flotsam of society and not worth helping as the spin doctors have us way down on the list of electoral priorities. The rest of society have been sold the lie again on TV mostly that the disabled are 'scroungers' and 'putting it on' and not worthy of being treated with dignity by our government. The only disabled people Cameron seems to favour are Paralympians. If only all disabled people could aspire so high, he says.

But isn't it up to us working class people to say enough is enough? There have always been a tiny percentage of people trying to game the system. But we have been sucked into this Tory mantra of believing the majority of benefit claimants are unworthy of our support. This simply is not the case.Now we are left with whole sections of our society, villified, verbally and physically abused, and met with disgust at being unemployed or disabled.

Hold this thought. If we devalue, dehumanise our once proud Welfare State, what will happen when misfortune comes yours or your families way? You are one accident, one redundancy, one factory shut down away from perhaps having to claim a state benefit. Don't you want a compassionate government to be there and help you out in your hour of need? I do!

So support your Unite Community National Day of Action v Benefit Sanctions on 19 March and shout from the rooftops enough is enough! And secondly ensure you vote in a Labour government in May. The alternative is a Tory or even a Con-Kip coalition that will destroy the welfare state for good. Don't let that be the legacy you leave your children and grandchildren. I personally will fight until my last breath to preserve our Welfare State. Make sure you do too.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

International Womens Day - From Wales

International Women's Day 2015 is a celebration of strong, inspiring, talented and downright hardy Welsh women here in Wales! There is a warrior-like spirit among the female bretheren of Wales, that has produced singers, actors, doctors, writers, musicians, but also ordinary working class women - miners wives, carers, community leaders who are the real backbone of our great nation.

Whilst many newspapers will be full of the celebrity women who adorn their covers weekly on IWD, here in Wales we will celebrate the working class women who keep this country running; the real heroes doing the jobs no one else wants to do; caring for disabled relatives, nursing elderly people through dementia, those working in mundane zero hours contract jobs to make ends meet.

On top of the mundane jobs that the Con-Dem government take for granted, Welsh women are very active and vocal in their communities. Fighting to save local community facilities, volunteering at sports clubs, running foodbanks, school breakfast clubs. This is where you will find inspirational, intelligent, highly articulate women. Leaders of their communities. This is why I am very proud to live, work and write in Wales, and hopefully one day be honoured to represent us all in Parliament.

I wish women everywhere, but especially in Wales, a celebration of IWD, and an outward roar of  fiery praise from our own Welsh dragon, at the greatness achieved daily by all Welsh women.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Wales and EMA - A Land of opportunity for our Young.

For the record, let's put this straight from the start. From the Welsh side of the Offa's Dyke we are  redrawing the education line. In plain language I serve notice on Cameron and his side kick Stephen Crabb, the "so called Secretary of State for Wales" the Welsh side of the Offa's Dyke path is the difference between educational opportunity for ALL young people regardless of income as opposed to  those who are able to afford it in England. In Wales we have Education Maintenance Alllowance at £30 per week but step over the border into Tory imposed England, and many are not able to access further education if they are poor. Cameron with Gove in charge pulled the rug under poor sixth formers and abolished EMA without a thought in England. With his Eton education Cameron was certainly taught all the prerequisites of today's Tory politician: empty stone hearted automatons, whose core belief is their divine right to rule.

Not so here in Wales. After a blistering performance by both Owen Smith, Shadow Welsh Secretary and Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales at Welsh Labour Conference last week, we are fortunate in having 2 leaders with a clear vision of  protecting the poorest in our society and providing opportunities to escape poverty. The best way to tackle poverty is through education  and the decision to retain EMA in Wales is helping record numbers of 16-18 year olds access further education and become the skilled workforce of Wales in the future. Nearly 30,000 Welsh teenagers are being helped with the weekly £30 which is a lifeline for books, expensive bus and train travel, often in rural areas and college lunches. This important lifeline makes huge differences in our communities and eases the burden for poor and working poor parents too. I shudder to think of the sheer scale of the waste of talent currently going on in England due to the abolition of EMA by the Nasty Party. But then empathy is not a quality you find among Tory MPs in general.

Why am I so passionate about EMA in Wales? My own son has access to it. He is nearly 17 and doing A Levels. His sixth form cannot afford to supply pupils with the course books he needs for the 4 subjects he is studying so he has to buy them all himself. English Literature and History for example have an extensive reading list. It is a sheer relief as parents that the £30 EMA is used to cover the course text books and he is able to study independently at home as a result and not just on loan books at the school library. This September our youngest son will join him in sixth form. We will have 2 sons doing A Levels. In England we would certainly have to consider whether we were able to support both sons further education. As Working poor parents, there are no further belts to tighten or cuts to be made. Would a decision to support one son and not the other have to be made? That's the kind of  issue facing many parents in England I am sure. In Wales opportunity and talent are embraced and nurtured under a socialist government. Children from poorer backgrounds can blend into their sixth forms and embark on school educational trips knowing that EMA is there supporting them.

 My sons sixth form also insists that although 2 hours voluntary work a week is optimal, it positively discourages any evening or weekend employment as the A level courses require 20-25 hours a week of study outside school. The EMA £30 support means my son is not juggling work and study and  worrying whether he can fit it all in. Instead he commits to volunteering with Childline and the NSPCC 2 hours a week which is providing him with valuable workplace experience. The sixth form is a level playing field for all, and ensures everyone is able to participate and take an active role in their studies regardless of income.

Abolishing EMA in England was not only a grave error of judgement from this abominable coalition government, but a direct attack on the poorest children in our society. And before the LibDems moan I most definitely point the finger at them! The LibDems had the power to halt the worse excesses of Toryism. They blatantly voted with their Tory masters to pull up the ladder of opportunity from children of the poor. Not only EMA but university tuition fees will be the shameful legacy of Nick Cleggs time as party leader.  They deserve the misery of electoral annihilation in May as a result.

The Tory War on Wales is unprecedented. Never has there been a Prime Minister and  Welsh Secretary hell bent on the destruction of a sovereign country within the UK. Like the right wing media, it's a fact that those who are shouting and protesting the loudest about Wales obviously have something they fear. Cameron fears Welsh success stories. Whether that is EMA, Free Prescriptions, Jobs Growth Wales or our early years Flying Start scheme, he broods within Westminster, with his out of touch extreme right wing spin doctors who are so London-centric they couldn't plot Wales on a map!

It's time to shut up Dave! There's a reason this side of the Offa's Dyke is loyally socialist. We want to live in a land of opportunity for all, not just for millionaires. We want to be led by leaders of integrity and vision like Owen Smith and Carwyn Jones. We want to live in an inspired powerhouse of Wales and Welsh success stories. We urge the people of England to boot you and your rancid party out  of No.10 in May and replace you with a Labour government.  Hope, compassion and empathy need to be returned to the UK and nothing less than Tory long term political wilderness will suffice!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Wales to scrap Thatcherite Right to Buy Scheme

Socialist Wales has taken the decision that should Labour win the Assembly Elections in 2016 it  will look to abolish the Thatcherite policy of the Right to Buy Council House scheme. There have already been the expected "nanny state" accusations from the Tories and  Mark Isherwood the Shadow Housing Minster in Wales accusing Labour of being "anti aspiration".

Before we all get carried away on the sea of  laments going out regarding this somewhat controversial move by Welsh Labour, let's stop and assess the current social housing situation in Wales, which in all likelihood is not much different to the rest of the UK. Thatcher's landscape of 1980 Britain when the Right to Buy your council home was first introduced is highly different from today's  landscape.  Thatcher preyed on working class vanity and aspiration.  "You too can be a home owner like the ruling class" she said. And we fell for it. I remember as a teenager in 1980, it became a standing joke when walking through council estates to spot the right to buy house. The new owners always made altering the exterior of the house a priority with a new porch or stone cladding so it did not look like the standard council house any longer. "We're now better than you" was  meant and only whispered in corners. In 1980 Britain, a decent union negotiated wage meant a mortgage was affordable at a time when there was only 1 full time wage coming into the house. If a couple both worked then the council home was bought, transformed, extended and there was still room for a weeks holiday in Spain.

So while the working class bought and aspired to home ownership, and councils sold off their properties often with discounts of up to 60% of the market value, social house building declined dramatically. When  Thatcher came to power in 1979 we built 150,000 new council houses every year. By 1991 this was down to 1500. While huge swathes of social housing was bought up, there was nothing built to replace them and so waiting lists have become longer and longer, and the working class forced into the hands of the private buy-to-let landlord.

Labour's housing minister Lesley Griffiths AM, says "now we have to protect social housing stock for people who really need it". Hence the decision to look at abolishing Right to Buy in Wales in 2016. Since Thatcher's time in office, Wales has seen a 45% decline in its council housing  stock. More than 130,000 houses in Wales have been sold under the scheme and virtually none built to replace them. Wales is already implementing a decrease in the maximum discount allowed for buying from £16k down to £8k.

But while those who bought under the scheme and those who will rush to buy before 2016 will defend Right to Buy, let's look at the terrible consequences of a policy where houses were sold but none were built to replace them.

The consequences are happening now and are painful for those involved. London has been a ripe peach of a target for private buy-let Landlords. Vast numbers of former council homes are now in the hands of greedy opportunistic landlords with sky high rents that are now completely unaffordable to ordinary working class people. Indeed, an article I read this week showed a one bed boxroom in a shared house with shared kitchen and shared bathroom at a staggering £1k a month rent in London against a 6 bed detached house in Redcar for rent at the same amount! The Tory imposed benefits cap has seen people moved from London to Hull as housing benefit and low paid work simply are not enough to live in London anymore.

Buy to let landlords attend property auctions of reposessed council homes throughout the UK and have no problem buying up ex council homes and renting them out at huge profits to people who are then back in the social housing queue with their local councils. A vicious circle and one we need to stop.

Cameron and co are always telling us of the cost of the welfare bill. But the costs of the welfare bill
include huge housing benefit costs, where working poor people cannot afford the rent on zero hours contracts and are forced to apply for Housing Benefit which then lines the pockets of the greedy landlords who are imposing the rocketing rents. Add on the pernicious Bedroom Tax fixated on social housing tenants where there is a race to downsize to 1 or 2 bedroomed properties and local councils simply cannot meat the demand. Indeed in my own county there is a 10 year waiting list for 3/4 bedroomed homes for larger families.

Aspiration is a word used by government and by the ruling classes to con the working class into thinking there is something wrong in living in social housing and working in a factory or shop and that we should want more. We bought that word "aspiration" hook, line and sinker and still do today to an even greater extent than we did in 1979 with our celebrity -inspired aspiration.

Due to our housing landscape becoming something out of  an Orwellian novel, where owning a house by the working class is a distant memory and our young people even unable to afford the rent on a
property, is it not wise and prudent to follow Wales' bold stance and say enough is enough? The Welsh budget is handed over from Westminster. It is limited to the fact it cannot build anymore social housing, but it does have the right to protect the levels of social housing we have right now.

Making extortionate amounts of money from working class people desperate to put a roof over their heads is everyday Tory mantra. It's what they do best. Selling us the dream of becoming just like them is where we have let ourselves down.

I am both proud and lucky to live in a socialist Wales who will be calling time on the Right to Buy scheme. Yes I have aspiration! I aspire to see all working class people  housed in decent homes at affordable rents with enough money left over for a decent way of life. Not too much to ask.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Our NHS - Weaponise it! Fight for it! Vote for it!

Cameron constantly accuses Ed Miliband of ' weaponising' the NHS as a hot topic of debate leading up to the General Election in May. So out of touch is the PM and his sidekicks from what the electorate feel, they actually think that Miliband and Labour will be offended by the term 'weaponising' and the public will react by seeing the Tory viewpoint.

It doesn't matter whether you are middle class or working class - the NHS is beloved by a cross section of the public, so beloved we even had the NHS featured in the opening of the Olympic Games ceremony in London in 2012.

Our NHS always suffers when it is in Tory hands and this time around has suffered intolerably at the hands of the ConDems. Ed Miliband is right to weaponise it. He is right to follow in Nye Bevans footsteps for as Nye said 'the NHS will only last as long as their are folk left with the faith to fight for it'. To me weaponising the topic of free healthcare for all is just a mild start! The ConDems promised no top down re-organisation of the NHS, but have spent millions doing just that, the ConDems promised that there would be more doctors, more nurses more midwives yet staff are crying openly on wards unable to cope with the sheer numbers of patients to staff ratios. Ambulances are queuing up for hours outside hospitals with dangerously ill people in them, all waiting for a bed to become available. Tents have been erected in hospital grounds to treat patients.Cameron points the finger at socialist Wales and our NHS here, yet is the author of austerity and a hugely slashed budget for Wales in Westminster, Jeremy Hunt the Tory Health Secretary admitted himself it took so long to get a GP appointment he brought his own child to A+E to be treated instead! What further evidence is needed to flash up the red light ' The current system is not working' under this abysmal coalition government.

Andy Burnham and Labour have an answer that can be put into practice if Labour win in May. A joined up health care system. If bed blocking is occuring in hospital, most often because elderly patients will not be accepted into nursing homes due to the level of care they require, Labour will unite the NHS to team up with social services and take a whole approach to problems arising. It appears simple, but will require a full scale change to ensure the service is working to its full potential and not being undermined at every level by an NHS working separately from its partners. An holistic approach is terribly needed. Burnham is wholeheartedly committed to it.

Our NHS is free. Something those of us born after 1948, with no recollection of what life was like when you had to pay to see a doctor and pay for medicine, take quite often for granted or as our British 'right'. That is fine when we have a Labour government in power. We are then reassured that the NHS is in safe hands and free at the point of need, whether that be A+E or our GP. But what would happen if come the General Election in May we woke up with a Tory government, or indeed a Con-Kip coalition which is more likely? I've heard it on the doorsteps and whilst phoning the electorate ' I used to vote Tory/Labour but I am voting Ukip in May'. Almost 100% of the time this is due to worries concerning immigration and no other issue. I ask voters to look beyond immigration and ask them what the NHS would be like under Nigel Farage and Ukip. The Ukip manifesto is currently in mayhem as it has not been completed in time, but Farage himself spoke out this week on the Ukip plan for the NHS.

Farage wants to bring in USA style private medical insurance. He said 'State funded Health Service needs to be replaced with a Private Insurance Model.' This will mean the end of our free NHS for all. I'd like to emphasise 'FOR ALL'. This means you could be sat next to an MP, a banker, a Lord as you sit in A+E, where everyones emergencies suddenly become an equaliser in health. The same doctors and nurses in the NHS bandage us all up, regardless of ability to pay or class. This would be erased under Ukip. In America those who have no private insurance and  can't afford it are sent to 'Ghetto hospitals' the like of which we do not want to see darken our shores in the UK.

Ask yourself this: Is your precious vote in May going to be used as a lame protest vote that could ultimately destroy our free medical care - our NHS? Will you kick yourself when you are handing over £10 to see a GP? Will you be in so much distress about where to find the money to pay for your long term health condition like asthma, and think back to that silly wasted protest vote for Ukip?

Nigel Farage and his kind are chancers. Ukip is the 'rice pudding party'. Once you get past the crust of the  laddish charmer on top that is Farage, you have an interior of  mad, sad and bad individuals that Farage is trying desperately to keep in line. Hours after Farage spoke about the need for private health insurance replacing the free NHS service, the Ukip Health spokesperson Louise Bours said Ukip as a party 'reject that idea'. But Ukip is Farage. He alone decides what policies the party commit to and private health insurance is one of them.

As for Cameron and his cronies they are privatising and selling off chunks of the NHS to their mates. The blood service has been privatised and lots more to follow. We have in the Tories privatisation of the NHS by the back door. The Tories like to be seen as cleverer than Ukip and a lot more slippery. They lie to our faces about protecting the NHS then simply go ahead and privatise it anyway.

So as I sit and read the powerful testimony by Harry Smith - a soon to be 92 year old- who grew up when we had no free health system, I can only be moved when he talks about how his sister died from TB as there was no NHS and no free healthcare and his stark warning - 'Don't let my past be your future'.

Our free NHS for all - weaponise it, shout for it, fight for it, vote for it! For our own sake don't let us lose it!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

A Nation Divided in Headlines

We end 2014 as we started it, but with an evermore unequal society. A Britain that is more divided, a Britain where the haves are laughing at the have-nots, a Britain where it does no good to be poor, sick, young or working class.

In the final death throes of 2014, never has this division became more apparent than with recent newspaper headlines. I thought I had woken in a parallel universe when The Times named Nigel Farage as  potentially "Briton of the Year". Seriously. Briton of the Year. I thought maybe Simon Cowell was the chief  panellist and he wanted a Briton that would go on to make him the most money! Nigel Farage- a leader of a racist, bigoted, homophobic, sexist party who feels breast feeding mothers should sit in corners and has numerous parliamentary candidates who try to outdo each other for over the top, outlandish, diabolical comments.

Briton of the Year in my opinion is 91 year old Harry Smith, the NHS fighter who stood up at Labour Conference and told Cameron " Keep your mitts off my NHS" in a barnstorming speech no MP could  match in its passion as he warned us all what it was like prior to the conception of the NHS where his own sister died of TB in 1926. For the Rupert Murdoch owned Times to even contemplate Farage as Briton of the Year when we have Harry or indeed the inspirational Steven Sutton suffering from cancer himself who raised nearly £5m from his hospital bed for teenage cancer sufferers, before dying earlier in May this year. Of course there was the hostage Alan Henning who was beheaded by terrorists who was a volunteer humanitarian aid worker. These are the real true heros and Britons we should be applauding not the "pound shop Enoch Powell" that is Nigel Farage.

And showing up our divisive society further, the Mail showed us pictures of the Royal Family Christmas, complete with photographs of all the ornate Christmas trees in many of the royal palaces and articles on the cost of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridges apartment refurb in Kensington. Costs to the taxpayer are spiralling it seems, yet we are assured the Cambridges are buying all their own carpets and curtains! A collective sigh of relief then....

While the Royals enjoyed their Christmas, news of the utter tragedy of  a couple from Sussex with 2 disabled children made the headlines briefly. The parents had celebrated a Christmas Eve dinner with family and left the children with relatives overnight. The couple were thought to be in deep financial trouble but kept it all to themselves. A neighbour found them on Christmas morning in an apparent suicide double pact.  Without speculating too much, it is obvious their money worries had reached a stage when they felt unable to cope or reach out for help. Caring for 2 disabled children probably had taken an immense toll on them too. People have no idea just how financially crippling it can be if you have a disabled child. Even with both parents, one often has to give up work to become a full time carer. In this very sad case, caring for two disabled children was literally double the burden. Yet this poor couple felt there was no way out of their financial problems and nowhere to turn.

How many times have we seen the headlines in the past few years of  people committing suicide who have been stripped of benefit entitlement through the sanctions regime? People so desperate the only way out is to take their own life to prevent further suffering. The DWP have been urged to come clean on the numbers who have committed suicide where a death has been related to "DWP activity". 60 cases have been looked into and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Sanctions for  sick people claiming Employment and Support Allowance have risen a staggering 470% in 18 months pushing the most vulnerable to the brink. This is our divided society.

Richard Bransons Carribean Island of Mustique playground of the super rich revealed its secrets of guests eating caviar off a beautiful woman's stomach and shooting golf balls at human targets dressed in sumo wrestling suits. The mind boggles.  Lives so removed from the ordinary world, yet our newspapers think we are interested and want to know about the pursuits of the rich and famous. On a slightly lesser scale Farage dresses up in his customary tweed and goes down to the Boxing Day Hunt. Not exactly the pursuit of the leader of the "Peoples Army" eh Nigel?

Meanwhile back in reality my 15 year old son had co-ordinated his schools appeal for donations to the local Independent Foodbank. Independent Foodbanks rely totally on local donations as they are not part of the Trussell Trust network and so don't benefit from being linked to Tesco who do a few store collections every year to aid Foodbanks in the area. The use of Foodbanks will go through the roof when the latest stats are published shortly. Over 1m people have been to a Foodbank in 2014 and that is just to Trussell Trust ones. There are no stats collected from Inde Foodbanks.

A 22 year old councillor from Merseyside co-ordinated and ran Christmas Dinner at St George's Hall in Liverpool on Christmas Day for elderly and lonely people and people who could not afford a Christmas lunch. Thanks to Jake Morrisons Herculean efforts 500 people enjoyed each other's company and a Christmas Dinner that they otherwise would not have had. This is what is going on in the real Britain we live in and not in Rupert Murdochs narrow vision of it.

While the gap between rich and poor gets ever wider under this ConDem government, it will be the duty of the Labour Party should it get elected in May 2015 to reduce the gap. It will be an immense task and certainly won't happen overnight. Cameron and his henchmen have done so much damage to policies affecting this wealth divide, it will take some time to challenge and reduce the gap. But it has to be done. In the meantime ordinary people like us will continue to prop up our Foodbanks so people in our communities can eat.

But we want titles like "Briton of the Year" bestowed on those who truly deserve it. People who
have made a huge contribution to our lives, not stood at the bar pint in one hand and fag in the other, laughing at us. We won't get that from Murdoch and his right wing media cronies. The Harry Smiths, the Steven Suttons will be lauded by the Peoples Paper, your Morning Star. The only paper that fights to pull down the class and wealth divide and expose the real truth to its readers.