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.”
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?”
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.
- This piece first appeared in the Mirror.
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.”
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.
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.