Moving that the question be put

‎In the third of three posts this evening reflecting upon this week's UNISON Special Local Government Conference I want to deal with the question of Conference delegates moving " that the question be now put." A fair bit of this went on on Tuesday, to the extent that the President (who was chairing...

Should a Conference overrule a ballot?

Among the questions I've been asked since the decision of Tuesday's Special UNISON Local Government Service Group Conference to submit a pay‎ claim for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for this year, one worthy of particular consideration concerns the propriety of a...

Labour Campaign Launch at Olympic Park

Yesterday morning Labour Leader Ed Miliband launched the Party campaign at the top of the Orbit. Ed is pictured in the collage (top left) shaking the tiny hand of Juniper baby daughter of Newham Councillor, Farah Nazeer. UNISON Assistant General Secretary, Liz Snapes,  was also there....

Come clean on cuts, demands TUC

disabled badgeThe TUC has called on the Tories to explain how they are going to cut £12bn from the welfare budget.

Last night the BBC reported leaked files revealed the Conservatives were looking restricting child benefits and taxing disability benefits.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It is time the Conservatives came clean about exactly how they plan to make a further £12bn of cuts to the welfare budget.

“These leaked proposals make for very disturbing reading, especially for severely disabled people and carers. But even these dramatic cuts in support won’t go half way to meeting the Chancellor’s target.

“Low-paid working families with children deserve to know what plans George Osborne has for their tax credits and child benefit payments. The only way to reach £12bn is to slash these vital sources of support too.”

The Necessity of Connectivity:

Concerning a Fixed-Link to the Isle of Wight: The debate on “For or Against” is irrelevant when it it comes to connectivity. Whether it is a ferry, bridge or tunnel or a balloon. It is a...

IOW Island Roads PFI:

Quality of pavement resurfacing not up to scratch, forcing re-resurfacing. OntheWight It’s good to hear that shoddy work carried out on behalf of Island Roads is being corrected at no extra cost to...

Food safety at risk

Most of us eat a meal without ever even really thinking about whether or not the food is safe – we simply assume it is. And most of the time, this is true.

 
But the reason most of the food we consume is indeed safe is thanks to the thousands of men and women who do the work in this important field.

 
One agency carrying out work vital to food safety is the independent Food, Environment and Research Agency (Fera). The agency, which was instrumental in identifying horsemeat in the UK food chain, analyses chemical risks and diseases in the food supply chain, among other projects, which include studying the effects of invasive species and pesticides.

 
But this work may just be threatened as it joins the ranks of public services being sucked up by private companies.

 
Outsourcing giant Capita is set to take over Fera next week (April 1) and has already announced plans to significantly change how the agency does its work – it will shift its focus to more commercial projects in an effort to double sales.

 
Leading food policy expert Professor Tim Lang says the move will spell disaster for the agency and food safety as a whole.

 
“No one will pay for evidence about food and biodiversity, or food and pesticide residues,” Lang told the Independent on Wednesday (March 25).

 
“There’s no profit in that. In fact, there’s more profit in not having it. There’s an absolute incentive not to have public-interest research about these areas. And that’s a concern.

 
“Government needs to have optimum advice at its fingertips… Climate change, pesticides – all sorts of things that politicians ought to have good advice on are wrapped up in the daily bread and butter of Fera,” Lang added. “And the Government privatising that basically gets rid of that.”

 
Fera, which currently employs about 400 scientists in York, made £1.6m in profits as a government agency last year, with £40m in sales. Capita, however, wants to significantly increase profits. It has said it wants the unit to make £700m in sales over the next decade, at £70m a year.

 
Global contractor Capita, like many giant outsourcing companies seeking entry into public services, has not had an entirely wholesome past.

 
The National Audit Office (NAO) is currently investigating a contract between Capita and the Cabinet Office to provide civil service training and development training, following allegations from smaller businesses that the contractor had exploited its dominant position at the expense of the suppliers it had been working with.

 
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner condemned the impending corporate takeover, saying it was business as usual for the privatisation juggernaut increasingly dominating UK public life.

 
“This news is yet another example showing why privatisation is always an attack on the public interest,” he said. “What business does big business have in a research agency whose most important work is food safety?”

 
“Projects vital to public safety are by their very nature not lucrative. And why should they be?” Turner added. “A profit-seeking firm taking over a once public enterprise will undoubtedly abandon public interest projects in favour of commercial projects that bring in the money.

 
“We’ve seen it with the NHS and other public services – private firms coming in and ruthlessly cutting costs in their endless quest for profits at the expense of the people being served.

 
But Turner argued that there was a way out of relentless privatisation.

 
“The ongoing privatisation of every institution we hold dear must stop,” he said. “That’s why voting in the general election in May is so important. We are at a crossroads, and we have the power to decide – do we want a government that will irreversibly accelerate our current, privatise-at-all-costs status quo? Or do we want something different?”

 

 

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The fight of our lives

As Unite announces a further £1m donation to the Labour Party, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey explains why this is the right thing to do.

 

 

Unite said that it would not stand by and see a one-side election fight against a Tory party made fat on the gifts from the shady and the super-wealthy, and we are keeping to that promise.

 
David Cameron has shown that he is utterly clueless about the troubles that his government have caused for the good people of this country.

 

 

People working hard but only just getting by, or forced to the foodbank when the wages won’t stretch.

 

 

People desperate to see a doctor but waiting weeks for an appointment.

 

 

Kids denied a chance to use their talents stuck in dead-end work.

 

 

It is terrifying to think of what five years of Tory government could do to their hopes.

 
This is a fight for the poor and vulnerable.

 

 

A fight for everyone squeezed by the crisis and the cuts, and for everyone who believes that Britain has gone badly wrong, and who wants to live in a fairer country.

 
Support for Labour is not just us doing our duty to democracy and ensuring the political playing field is not tilted too far in favour of the rich and their Party. We also know that that if the Tories buy a new lease on power, life will be for the people we serve will become very much harder.

 
So, while the Tories hoover up millions from shadowy dinner clubs and vulture fund financiers, this money from Unite members is clean, democratically-sanctioned and honestly accounted for.

 

 

 

It’s the pennies of working people given in the hope of building a better world that we can all enjoy, not the ill-gotten gains of a secret elite.

 
There can be no doubt that Labour’s commitments will make a huge difference to the ordinary people of these islands. They will provide a platform for tackling the crippling inequalities in our society.

 
That’s why Unite is getting behind a Labour victory in May. We will not stand aside from this battle – because we are now facing the fight of our lives.

 

 

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‘Race to the bottom’ disease must stop

Unite closed its consultative ballot of North Sea offshore members today (March 27), and the results were resoundingly clear.

 
An almost unanimous 94 per cent voted in favour of proceeding to an industrial action ballot to stop the vicious attacks on jobs, pay and working time that North Sea offshore workers have suffered.

 
If a potential North Sea strike action were to occur, it would be the first in a generation and would affect operations on nearly every installation across the North Sea, where Unite’s members covered by the Offshore Contractors Agreement (OCA) work.

 
Offshore workers have faced a ruthless oil industry which failed to strategically plan for a slump in oil prices. Since the price slump, an estimated 10,000 offshore jobs have been lost, alongside attacks on pay and imposed changes to shift patterns from two weeks on, two weeks off to three weeks on, three weeks off.

 
“This massive support for industrial action should come as no surprise to offshore employers,” said Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty.

 
“Since the turn of the year, workers covered by the OCA have been at the coal face of the opportunistic cuts agenda, which has continued unabated across the industry.

 
“The industry agenda is clear in that it wants to impose a reduced number of employees to work longer and for much less – it’s a ‘race to the bottom’ disease that is unsustainable and unacceptable,” he added.

 
The consultative ballot results come in the wake of yet another blow to offshore workers, as oil giants Shell and Taqa announced yesterday (March 26) that they would be axing a further 350 North Sea jobs, as well as imposing changes to shift patterns.

 
The news comes less than a week after chancellor George Osborne announced an eye-watering £1.3bn tax break for the UK offshore industry to encourage growth and sustainability.

 
Rafferty said the “industry got everything it wanted from the chancellor” but nonetheless the “cut and gut of ordinary offshore workers’ livelihoods and terms and conditions goes unchallenged while executive pay across oil company majors goes through the roof.”

 
Indeed, in 2014, for example, Royal Dutch Shell generated net profits of $15bn, while its CEO Ben Van Beurden became the second highest paid boss in the FTSE 100, with a remarkable pay deal worth €24.2m.

 
Rafferty noted that the near-unanimous results of the consultative ballot shows the extent to which offshore workers have had enough.

 
“Unite’s message to OCA employers is simple: Our members are not prepared to accept these impositions and they want proper participation over their livelihoods and the future of the offshore industry,” he said.

 
“It’s not too late to talk but the ball is in the employers’ court,” Rafferty added.

 
He also argued that although trade unions are as yet the only real barriers to the oil industry’s attacks, politicians need to get involved, too.

 
“[Politicians] need to wake up to the reality of what’s happening in the North Sea – it’s a growing scandal which could turn into a catastrophe.”

 

 

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Civic fightback call

Banks – who needs them? Well, actually, we all do. And news that thousands of local branches up and down the land could be set to close will not be taken lying down by campaigners and trade unions.

 
“We need a civic fightback on this; it’s in all our interests,” said Unite national officer for finance Rob MacGregor,  after details emerged yesterday (March 26) of an agreement between Vince Cable and the British Bankers’ Association.

 
MacGregor estimates as many as half of all British high street banks may be set to close in the next few years as a result of the ‘Access to Banking Protocol’ deal.

 
He described this as giving “state approval” and “rubber stamping a vast closure model with no veto from the communities involved.”

 
MacGregor accused the Business Secretary of “failing miserably” and creating “havoc in communities through the closure programme.” He also said Cable – who’s on record as saying branches ‘can often be a lifeline’ – was now guilty of “betrayal and hypocrisy.”

 
Almost five hundred branches were closed last year, more than double the total for 2013 – including 124 which were the last bank in the community. Some 142 more are due to close before this April, more than a third of which are the last banks in the town or village.

 
MacGregor scoffs at lenders being required to provide a 12-week notice period of any plans to close a branch. “This agreement is not a case of ‘we are talking about closing your branch’, it’s ‘we are closing your branch’,” he said.

 
He’s also convinced those most likely to shut their doors will be in deprived areas, rather than what he calls the “shires and leafy suburbs”, where middle class residents may be more apt to complain.

 
For their part, banks argue they are simply catering to the increased demand for online services, and that in many rural communities not enough customers come in on a given week.

 
MacGregor acknowledges this point but believes lenders have short memories.

 

 

“Yes there has to be change because of the advance of online banking and so forth but banks must also remember how they have been fully supported by the taxpayer.

 
“The entire banking system would have gone to the wall in 2008 had it not been for the British taxpayer. This is our finance industry and it belongs to all of us, not the well-heeled individuals who run it,”  he said.

 
“Yet it seems the bosses of British banks have no interest in our communities,” he added. “It’s important to remember that bank branches, like pubs and post offices, are integral to community life.”

 
That’s a point taken up by the Campaign for Community Banking Services, which estimates that more than 1200 communities in total have lost all their banks.

 

“This protocol will be a disappointment to communities and bank customers affected by bank closures past, present and future who need much more commitment from the banks and government,” said CCBS director Derek French.

 
“We had hoped for more progress and now look to the individual communities and small business organisations to keep up the pressure on the industry and the next government.”

 
With the general election just around the corner, the future of banking and branches may be about to force its way onto the political agenda as people around the UK begin to realise the effect losing local branches would have on their towns and villages.

 

 

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Self-driving cars — the way of the future

Are self-driving cars the future? Will connectivity and autonomous vehicles revolutionise the UK automotive industry?

 
After attending the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders conference on connectivity and autonomous vehicles this week, I believe the answer is yes to both questions.

 
A new report by KPMG for the SMMT says connectivity and autonomous vehicles (car programmed from a smart phone or tablet with an ability to be “driverless”) will give the UK economy a £51 billion boost while “cutting road congestion and accidents”.

 
It also claims that connectivity and the autonomous car industry will generate 320,000 new jobs in UK by 2030, while delivering benefits to society. We shall see – glowing predictions such as this sometimes go horribly wrong!

 
Mike Hawes, chief executive of SMMT, said: “The report clearly shows the UK automotive industry is leading the way in developing the cars of the future and that it will act as a catalyst for wider economic benefits. The UK must grasp the opportunities ahead and ensure it is continually at the forefront of pushing through these next breakthrough technologies.”

 
Among the companies making presentations on connectivity and autonomous vehicles at the conference were BMW, Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Bosch and Volvo.

 
They outlined developments to date, including vehicles already using smart phones or an embedded SIM card to programme navigation, in-car entertainment, and security, obtain road information. Self-parking and cars with 360-degree sensors and cameras that monitor road conditions and the environment around the car will become standard.

 
It all sounds simple – you get in the car – push the button and you arrive at your destination safe and sound.

 
The Volvo video of their driverless car cruising on a Swedish highway, switching lanes, slowing down, speeding up all with no driver – and a guy in a passenger seat casually using his mobile (not hands free!) and eating an apple which had me trying to press the non existent brake peddle!

 
A presentation by Bosch referred to “the time saved on the hour long commute to work” giving you more time to – you guessed it – do more work. Also the answer to the car “failing”? Well, it slows down, and then parks itself in a handy lay by and the driver takes over. Try doing that on the M1 or M25 on a Friday afternoon!

 
But connectivity is already well underway. Pre-programming, parking and traffic jam assistanance are available. Development work by vehicle manufacturers and tier one suppliers on “part driverless” systems and full automation is also underway.

 
There will be a number of major issues for Unite members and our highly successful automotive industry. The KPMG report forecasts that by 2030, every new car will have some form of connectivity and more than a quarter will be fully autonomous, so there will be big questions not least on future jobs, skills, re-training and how will the industry handle the change and ensure the UK auto sector stays successful.

 
To do that it has to be done in conjunction with the workforce. In the UK we have the skills and dedication to handle these developments. Workers in the industry and future apprentices will need to learn digital skills and there are also many questions of concern to the public – road safety, road and transport infrastructure, sustainability and data protection.

 
Connectivity and autonomous vehicles are not just buzzwords. Unite believes the UK needs to be at the forefront of research, development, design and manufacturing.

 
Our members have a big stake in the industry – they helped it survive in the economic crisis and help turn the industry around. Working with Unite and our members, the UK automotive sector will ensure we are not just in the race – but leading it.
 

 

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Pay your tax

Activists dressed as tax collectors and doctors, accompanied by a giant piggy bank, presented a tax bill to Virgin Care on Wednesday (March 25), following the revelation that the firm continues to bid for NHS contracts despite extensive use of tax havens.

 

 

Protesters from The Peoples NHS have joined forces with UKUncut following a new report from Unite the union, which revealed Virgin Care’s lucrative NHS deals and tax haven status.

 

 

The demonstration was held just one day before Virgin Care won a £280m contract to run NHS healthcare in East Staffordshire.

 

 

Photo: Mark Thomas

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Kitchen sink soap opera

How many column inches, hours of air time and rage in one hundred and forty five characters have we had this last week over a kitchenette? Too many to mention, and I know I’m adding to it all. I do so because the kitchenette saga is symptomatic of what passes for political discussion.

 
Tune into PMQs at any point since 2010 and the commonest emotional feeling is – gloom. I don’t write this as someone who bewails adversarial politics – far from it. Yet I can’t be alone in thinking that, while insults have always bounced about, there has in the past been some attempt at answering the question.

 
Nowadays an exchange goes something like this. Last week Ed Miliband asked about the general election debates. He accused the Prime Minister of resorting to; “feeble excuses” after Downing Street announced that the prime minister would refuse to take part in a head-to-head televised debate with him during the general election campaign.

 
The absurdity of it all is instead of a debate about the state of the economy its on who has a kitchen or a kitchenette. This is at a time when we have a major housing crisis.

 
While I’d have preferred that Cameron’s refusal to take part had been used as a supplementary line rather than a central point, it was nevertheless a perfectly legitimate question.

 
The Prime Minister’s response was predictable in its boorishness:

 
“The truth is you are weak and despicable and want to crawl to power into Alex Salmond’s pocket”.

 
The language of the playground gets him through weekly jousting session, but not enough to get him through a TV debate hence the Crosby veto.

 
Not surprisingly Cameron’s allies in the right wing press are doing all they can to shore up the Prime Minister with a constant drip, drip of poison against the Labour leader. Their interests, along with the Tories ideological drive to dismantle the state and tear up regulations that might rein them in, are synchronized.

 
It was into this noxious atmosphere that Justine Miliband entered and let in the cameras.

 
Politicians parading themselves in ‘at home sessions’ are nothing new. Margaret Thatcher let TV cameras into her Downing Street kitchen as she poured tea out of a china teapot in Downing Street’s kitchen.

 
Photo calls at home were used by Thatcher’s PR people to soften her image. Frankly it needed more than photo ops to make acceptable the damage her policies had wreaked on the UK. Her legacy of a devastated manufacturing base, weakened trade unions, the wholesale privatization of our utilities and mass unemployment are still causing negative consequences. Chuck in sales of council houses and we have all the conditions that polarized the UK.

 
She tore up the post war consensus and Tony Blair and New Labour bought into it. Osborne and Cameron have taken her legacy on to a much further level. They have over-seen an economy predicated on an insecure jobs market with low wages, zero hours working, and the new scam in the mix, ‘umbrella companies’ that force workers into bogus self-employment. The upshot is a blatant shifting of obligation from the employer to the employee.

 
Yet it hasn’t even worked in their own economic terms. Nevertheless here we are on the eve of the election and their finger tips are still clinging on to 10 and 11 Downing Street.

 
This really is the election of a lifetime and unless Labour wins we can kiss goodbye to a welfare state, an end to a National Health Service and a country where inequality reigns supreme.

 
Instead of the economic crash bringing about a social democratic revival the Tories seized the moment to consolidate neo economic liberalism. As Tony Blair once famously said about New Labour ‘I really do believe it’ – Osborne and Cameron – ‘really do believe it’. They appear to have won the argument that the misery of austerity aligned to Duncan Smith’s malevolent welfare strictures are necessary to repair the consequence caused by the last Labour government and its ‘profligacy’ on public services.

 
It wasn’t only Thatcher at home that we were lumbered with it was her pearls of economic wisdom that became established truths. “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country”, was as patronizingly inane then as it is now. But it served an economic purpose and it is still churned out today by Tories who turn cutting the deficit into a fetish and idolize austerity.

 
This article first appeared in Tribune.

 

 

 

 

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HELL, YES

The first live TV action of this general election was a bruising encounter. But Ed Miliband boosted Labour’s hopes and morale with a focused and passionate performance.
Hell, yes, he has truly arrived on the political stage. And hell yes, he’s shown he is capable of winning this election.
Miliband looked as if he is back to the Ed of the Labour leadership hustings. Back to the Ed when the Daily Mail attacked his family.
He showed passion for his beliefs. Not just what he thinks, but what he feels.
David Cameron can be very good. But he was out of sorts.
He seemed distracted, lacking in focus. A man without a long-term plan beyond his retirement years.
Neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband got off without taking some political punches. They were both roughed up by Paxman, but that’s what he does.
Cameron struggled to recover from the opening exchanges about the rise of food banks — the growing numbers of people relying on charity just to avoid going hungry.
Paxman reminded him that he had fought the 2010 election on the theme of ‘broken Britain’. Hadn’t the Tories broken it a bit more, was the suggestion.
Then rising Government debt – rising by £500 billion under Cameron. Paxman had done his homework (sometimes he doesn’t). Cameron had not.
Paxman probed on low wages and zero hours contracts, a job but no guaranteed income. Cameron did not seem comfortable dealing with the consequences of his own actions.
His judgement was questioned. Although Cameron did not quite twig this.
HSBC’s boss Stephen Green had been made a Lord and a Tory minister. Had Cameron asked questions about HSBC’s Swiss operation and money laundering, tax evasion and tax avoidance?
Not much.
Many questions asked about Andy Coulson, later jailed for conspiracy to hack phones? Clearly he had not probed too deeply.
And his support for his friend Jeremy Clarkson, shown the door by the BBC for punching a producer?
On all three Cameron was not happy dealing with the consequences of his actions. And so it went on through immigration, the EU and foreign policy.
Having watched it on BBC, the first commentariat response was from the Tory behind so called ‘free’ schools, Toby Young. Young looked shaken by what he had seen and complained about Paxman’s ‘aggression’.
Cameron was much steadier and more polished with the audience questions. After a bruising encounter which he did not enjoy, he showed poise and composure.
He was helped by Kay Burley taking some time to get involved beyond simply introducing the next question. That finished very downbeat, even boring, and Cameron seemed relieved it was all over.
He will have to be careful not to come across too much like a timeshare salesman looking for us to buy him another 5 years in Downing Street. There is such a thing as too slick.
Miliband faced the same tough time with Paxman. But he was much more focused and on the counterattack with zero hours contracts and a fairer society.
Like Cameron, he was unclear on where he would make the cuts. And a bit shakier still on Labour’s track record on immigration.
But he was not afraid to say – four times – where he thought Labour had gone wrong in the past. He distanced himself from ‘New Labour’ and said some spending decisions – such as the Millenium Dome – had not been great.
He’s clearly not trying to make friends with ‘Mr Dome’, Peter Mandelson.
He took his knocks on the Mansion Tax and defended it well. There would be no deal with the SNP.
An EU referendum. Not a priority and only if there was a further transfer of power by Treaty.
The most uncomfortable questions were very personal. Wasn’t he just a north London geek whose brother would have been better?
He faced those from one audience member, fair enough. But Kay Burley, interrupting and commenting more than she did with Cameron, pressed the same question.
And just for overkill, so did Paxman. Ed Miliband handled them all very well and may well have put that question to bed.
In any event, if the other Miliband boy would have faced some very awkward questions about his time at the top end of the last Labour Government.
The Tories, as they say in boxing, talk a good fight. But their man did not seem to have the heart needed to take the pain and last the distance.
One of those in the TV ‘ring’ was hungrier for it. And hell – yes – Ed Miliband showed he also has the heart and the head.
And he was ‘tough enough’.
No wonder Cameron has been ducking and diving to avoid a true head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband. He was ill-prepared, but experienced enough to get through without it being anywhere near a car crash.
Miliband had passion, energy and impact. He had more screen presence but still has work to do.
It was Ed Miliband’s breakthrough moment – not a knock out moment. Labour will be buoyed by now.
For once the public saw him unfiltered. Not through the sieve and bias of the media.
Ed needs to keep his hat on and batten down the hatches, because the bumpy ride to Downing Street has just started.

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