Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Launch of Betty Tebbs booklet goes well



Myself, Tony Burke, Maxine Peake, Pat Pilling and Jim Mowatt

Book launch: Betty Tebbs - a radical working class hero 

Bury born Betty Tebbs was a working class socialist, trade unionist, internationalist, equals rights champion, Peace activist and a class fighter for all of her 98 years. The 64-page biography of a remarkable woman is based on much of Betty’s own writings and is published by Unite the union. 

5pm on Tuesday 5 November 2019 at the Mechanics Conference Centre, Manchester 

Speakers - Tony Burke,  Unite assistant general secretary, Pat Pilling, Betty’s daughter, Maxine Peake, Jim Mowatt and author Mark Metcalf  

Born in 1918, Betty became an activist in one of Unite’s legacy unions, the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers, which later became SOGAT and eventually the GPMU. 
As a young woman Betty worked in the East Lancashire papermaking industry where shocked at unequal pay rates she began her work as a union activist, eventually becoming a highly respected Mother of the Chapel (Senior Shop Steward). 
During WWII she worked as a crane driver at the engineering munitions factory Mather & Platt. During the war her first husband was killed fighting fascism.
After 1945 she became politically active in the Communist Party and a committed peace campaigner having seen the devastation caused by the atom bombs dropped on Japanese cities. Betty eventually joined the Labour Party and became a hard working Labour Councillor. 
Betty also worked in different jobs becoming an activist in the shop workers union, USDAW. On returning to the papermaking industry she voluntarily took a job at the ‘worst organised company’ in her branch. She successfully organised all workers at the company into the union. 
She was a delegate to SOGAT conferences where she campaigned for equal pay.  She attended many international conferences campaigning for world peace. She was awarded SOGAT’s Gold Badge. 
She was also a founder member of the National Assembly of Women and secretary of her local CND branch. At aged 89 she was arrested on a demonstration at Faslane in Scotland and was honoured by Manchester City Council receiving the Elizabeth Gaskell Women’s Award. 
I was proud to speak alongside Betty at the 2016 Labour Party Conference at a packed Unite-Daily Mirror Fringe Meeting. Even in her 90’s she was a marvellous speaker and received a long and rousing standing ovation following her speech.”   Len McCluskey 
“Betty Tebbs was a great friend and comrade. I am therefore delighted that Unite has published this biography by Mark Metcalf of Betty’s remarkable life. 
When comrades became disheartened Betty always gave the same answer: “We have to carry on the struggle. It is up to us.” For Betty it was the only answer. Her story is a guiding light for all of us in that struggle.”  Maxine Peake.  
For more details:- Mark Metcalf on 07392 852561 mcmetcalf@icloud.com 

Tony Burke, assistant general secretary at Unite on 07831 659939 tony.burke@unitetheunion.org

Listen in to my interview on Pheonix radio - football and politics

https://www.mixcloud.com/CalderdaleSounds/mark-metcalf-unite-pamphlets-and-fred-spikesley-film/


AIRLINES’ TOXIC SILENCE

Flying illnesses linked to organophosphates

Union takes action for 51 affected airline staff

The father of an airline steward whose dead body contained organophosphates has accused the airline industry of evading questions that toxic fumes circulating within airlines are causing serious illnesses and deaths among staff. 
The views of Charlie Bass, a former aircraft engineer in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, are supported by a pilot who has retired early due to ill health and who is now part of a group action on toxic air. 
Matt Bass died in 2014. The 34 year old, who worked for BA, had been unwell for some years and was suffering from severe fatigue. Tests failed to reach a diagnosis. He died soon after returning from a long-haul overnight flight to Ghana. The coroner’s office failed to identify the cause of death. After taking advice from aviation experts, his parents spent £5,000 on tests, which revealed their son had suffered organophosphate (OP) poisoning of his brain and nervous system – in particular the nerves that connect the heart and the lungs to the brain. 
Deadly poisons 
However, the inquest concluded Matt’s death was due to him having drunk four times the legal limit for drink driving. The coroner did say he was not ruling out exposure to OPs entirely and that he intended writing to the chief coroner to ask him to consider alerting other coroners to the possibility that toxic air syndrome might play a role in someone’s death. 
OPs were diagnosed in 1951 by Solly Zuckerman, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, as deadly poisons. They can accumulate in the body and attack the nervous system and brain cells. Symptoms can include memory loss, depression and psychiatric effects. 
Soldiers who served in the First Gulf War and many farmers have claimed they have suffered from being forced to use OP products. OPs were present in the chemical sprays used on tents where soldiers were billeted, and in sheep dip. 
OPs are present in aircraft engine oils, which can enter the cockpit and passenger cabin because of faults with engine seals. With airlines deciding not to install detection systems it is difficult to verify whether a contaminated air event has occurred, unless smoke can be seen. But when growing numbers of airline crew began to believe that their long-term health problems were the result of breathing in unpleasant-smelling air the Aerotoxic Association was born at a parliamentary meeting in 2007. 
Union action 
Since then many more crew have been raising their concerns. The union Unite is currently pursuing 51 court cases involving pilots and cabin crew working for EasyJet, BA, Virgin Atlantic, Jet4 and Thomas Cook. Unite has established a fume incident register. 
Dave*, a former pilot, claimed to have suffered several fume events before quitting work with chronic fatigue. After a lengthy struggle with the medical profession he was eventually diagnosed as suffering from OP poisoning. He started pursuing a case for medical damages. He believes that if the group action is successful it could play a role in forcing the civil aviation industry to act “as it could cost the companies huge sums of money in compensation”. 
He said: “I am grateful to Unite for taking on my case. I had a great life. I loved taking control of large airplanes, I was very well paid and have seen much of the world.” 
“Understood to be unlikely” 
Airline companies are also being hit by other costs on this issue. On 5 August a BA flight from London Heathrow to Valencia was evacuated after fumes filled the aircraft. It has been reported that the plane had previously been grounded following two similar incidents. 
Dave said: “Former colleagues report the incidents are increasing. More planes are being grounded with passengers being accommodated overnight. EU regulations means companies are fined 600 euros per passenger if there is a three hour delay and so the costs are rising. Companies should start by admitting there is a problem and then fixing it.” 
Big Issue North sent BA, EasyJet and the former Thomas Cook Group a lengthy series of questions asking if the companies were confident staff and passengers were not being made unwell by aerotoxins and what measures they were taking to prevent toxins entering the aircraft. Would they be considering installing fume detectors in their planes? Statistical information on fume incidents was requested along with crew sickness statistics. 
BA was also asked if it intended responding to staff requests for risk assessments under the Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and specifically those relating to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health. 
BA did not respond while the other two provided short statements. EasyJet said: “Incidents are extremely rare of smell events... which we try to prevent where possible using preventive engineering solutions.” 
Questions to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) brought the following reply: “Long term ill health due to any toxic effect from cabin air is understood to be unlikely, although such a link cannot be ruled out...a recent study commissioned by the European Aviation Safety Agency... concluded that the air quality they tested was similar or better than that being observed
in normal indoor environments.” 
The CAA added: “Public Health England (PHE) are responsible for the enforcement of Health and Safety legislation on board aircraft, not the CAA.” 
“Evasive on the issue” 
In response to this a spokesperson from PHE said the organisation “has no regulatory responsibilities in this area”. 
Big Issue North then sent questions to Grant Shapps, transport secretary, plus the CAA chair and chief executive. No replies were received. 
Charlie Bass said the failure to answer Big Issue North’s questions was typical of the industry’s evasiveness on the issue. “Similarly, with regard to the CAA telling you it is the responsibility of PHE to enforce health and safety legalisation, this is yet another statement from them that is designed to avoid answering your questions,” he said. “They have done the same to me on numerous occasions. 
“The Health and Safety Executive has told me very clearly it is the CAA who has responsibility for health and safety.” 
*not his real name 

MARK METCALF 


Suicide in farming


Industry called on for mental health support 
Brexit is named as one source of stress 
Farmers have highlighted the need for support for people in the industry suffering from poor mental health. 
Financial worries and the isolation some face are two major factors that have led to one suicide a week in farming. 
Their responsibilities towards the environment and Brexit are said to have added to farmers’ concerns. 
Denys Fell, a farmer from Hornsea, Humberside, who has suffered depression himself, promotes the East Riding Rural Stress Initiative and the Farming Community Network, which help farmers suffering from poor mental health. He wants to ensure more farmers in need are aware of the help available to them. 
Fell and his wife Mary manage a 270 acre farm that grows mainly wheat and look after up to 200 sheep. Fruit and nut trees, potatoes and flowers are also harvested. 
He suffered from depression after the foot and mouth crisis of 2001. Two farmers he knew took their own lives. 
“For three years I could see no way out of it,” said Fell. “I was taking medication and very frightened. I needed help and fortunately my local doctors were excellent. They helped me to change the way I thought and behaved. I was keen to make sure that other farmers received similar help.” 
Isolation and pressure 
He said isolation was a particular problem for farmers now financial pressures have cut the workforce. 
“Years ago most farmers would have employed staff and had time to go to market, where they would meet people,” he said. “Many now spend most of the time alone. They have to be independent and hard working and, once they lose motivation, which is easy enough if you see a crop you’ve grown being wiped out overnight, then this can become a problem that can quickly escalate and get out of hand. It helps to be able to share problems. 
“Anything that can highlight the problems and signpost farmers to specialist care people is a good thing.” 
Paul Wright, a Lancastrian farmer, agreed, but added that farming has the highest percentage levels of workplace deaths, with around 18 per cent of all deaths in an industry that employs just 1.4 per cent of the workforce. “This is also a problem that needs tackling,” he said. 
Wright also fears that some farmers diagnosed to be suffering from mental health problems are actually medically unwell. He had to quit farming after finally being diagnosed
with organophosphate (OP) poisoning. He attributes this to dipping sheep using products with OPs, which as long ago as 1951 were found to produce a range of symptoms including memory loss, depression and psychosis among people exposed to them. Zuckerman recommended that OP products be labelled deadly poisons. 
This advice was ignored. In the 1970s sheep farmers were legally required to tackle sheep scab by using products containing OPs. No protective clothing was offered. 
Later, Littleborough shepherd Brenda Sutcliffe, herself an OP victim, campaigned to highlight
the issue. She had a list of over 1,000 farmers who she considered had committed suicide over a 10-year period because of OP sheep dip. Sutcliffe died in 2017, by which time the law had changed so that anyone dipping sheep must obtain a safety certificate and wear protective clothing with a separate air supply. 
“Brenda was a lone voice for many years,” said Wright. “I dipped sheep as a teenager and for many years after.” 
Often unable to cope mentally, Wright has on four occasions attempted to take his own life. “I now visit a psychiatrist and it helps,” he said. But he remains unconvinced about the safety of current sheep dip procedures. 
“It is only the one on top of the dip that must wear equipment,” he said. ‘When the sheep emerge from the dipping they are then put into pens to dry off and you can see the steam rising up. The animals also have to be handled afterwards. 
“The public authorities should examine suicide rates among sheep farmers and undertake medical examinations to see if they have been affected by OPs. Bodies that are offering farmers advice on mental health issues should also be raising this as something to be explored.” 
In 2008, Fell opened a community care farm on his land. Students with disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health issues attend. 
Fell believes similar initiatives elsewhere could prove doubly beneficial for farmers. Firstly, as a social enterprise the care farm generates income and employs 12 people. It also breaks down isolation for the farmer. 

“We feel that working in the countryside, engaging with nature and building friendships with others at the farm can be enormously beneficial for students,” he said. 


HOMES ADAPTED FOR NEEDS

Families hail adapting their homes a success 
Autistic children spend more time at home 
The cost of adapting homes to allow autistic children to live at home are socially and economically worthwhile, insist their parents. 
In 2016 Big Issue North interviewed the Shepherds in Tingley, near Wakefield. Paula and Lee’s oldest daughter Katlyn, then 15, is severely autistic. This creates difficulties in processing sensory information such as textures, sounds, smells, tastes, movement and brightness. Family life can be difficult when ordinary situations overwhelm Katlyn, who can self harm and be destructive, which can frighten her younger sister, Ellie. 
Thanks to help from the Access Committee for Leeds (ACL), an unfunded body whose volunteers advocate for disabled people, the Shepherds obtained a £40,000 disabled facilities grant (DFG) from Leeds City Council (LCC). This helped install a new, highly colourful bedroom, an indestructible wet room with a steel toilet and a spare bedroom. 
Safe play space 
Katlyn’s self-contained space means Ellie can close her bedroom door to block out excessive noise. “Ellie’s school work has benefited because of this,” explains full-time mum Paula. 
The new facilities allowed Katlyn to reduce her stay at a specialist secure residential school from six to five nights. “This has now fallen to four in the last three years – if she wanted to be here seven nights a week that would be great,” said Lee, adding that everything must be put away before his daughter arrives home from school, where she is increasingly joining in other activities with fellow students. 
“The adaptations have massively benefited the family. We feel sorry for families in similar positions who are refused a DFG, which will mean their loved one spends more time away from home in secure residential accommodation that is costly,” said Paula. 
An annual 43,000 DFGs are awarded. Seven per cent are for people aged under 21. 
The Shepherds’ views are supported by Ian and Karen, from Otley, whose son Joshua is 11. They were awarded a £165,000 DFG. Significant adaptations include additional safe play space for their son, padding to prevent injuries and a big bedroom that allows someone to sleep next to Joshua, helping prevent self harm. There is also a safe outside play area. 
Ian, who quit his job to look after his son, said: “Joshua’s school visits would include some costly overnight stays if we didn’t have adaptations. 
It is exhausting caring for Joshua. We are struggling now with his behaviour and he will get bigger.” 
When families reach a point where they are unable to care for their children at home then the local authority has a duty to accommodate them at a cost of £7,000-£12,000 a week. 
“We look after Joshua because we love him, but doing so reduces public spending and it’s a strong argument for more families with autistic children to have funds to adapt their homes accordingly,” said Karen. 
In 2017, the School of Law at Leeds University and the children’s neurological charity Cerebra, with ACL assistance, studied the cost-effectiveness of home adaptations – averaging £60,000 each – for six disabled children. It was calculated that possibly 14 years of local authority funds had been saved due to the adaptations. The study was incorporated into a 2018 parliamentary briefing into disabled facilities grants for home adaptations. 
Drawn out decisions 
Tim McSharry of ACL said: “Apart from the wellbeing impact on younger disabled people and their families we believe the public purse savings of adaptations are considerable. The government should provide clearer advice, increase significantly the funding and scrap means testing of DFGs above the £30,000 cap. 
“It should replace the discretionary basis that permits the maximum limit of £30,000 for adaptations to be breached with clearer statutory guidelines. 
“Decisions are taking too long, leading to young people becoming looked after in institutions sooner than might otherwise be the case. The government should take time to re-examine the Leeds study and roll it out nationally.” 
A government spokesperson said: “Local housing authorities have a statutory duty to provide adaptations to anyone who qualifies for a DFG. We have invested more than £2.7 billion in DFG, providing over 280,000 adaptations by the end of 2018-19. DFG funding has increased from £220 million in 2016-17 to £505 million in 2019-20.” 

A review of the DFG by the University of the West of England, published late last year, makes 45 recommendations. The government spokesperson said it would respond in due course. 


Theatre of mystery: Bridlington hospital to lose mobile operating

Theatre of mystery 
Bridlington hospital to lose mobile operating 
Trust and firm cite client confidentiality 
Bridlington health campaigners fear for the long-term existence of the town’s hospital after the York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said its mobile operating theatre will close next month. 
This is the latest blow in a long-running saga in which a hospital that had 218 beds when it opened in 1988 now has just 70 in use. 
Protests ignored 
Cuts started in 2008 when the Labour health secretary Alan Johnson ignored large protests in the coastal resort and accepted the recommendation of the local NHS trust to move cardiac and acute medical services to Scarborough, 20 miles away. Local residents became accustomed to seeing flashing ambulances rushing seriously ill patients along the busy A64. Sir Greg Knight, the local MP since 2001, who was among the protestors and signed a petition against the rundown of the hospital, said he would expect a future Conservative government to “return all services”. Yet in 2013 the Buckrose Ward for up to 12 mental health patients was closed, with eight beds moved 40 miles away to Hull. 
In April 2018 the Macmillan Ward was also closed. This left three operating theatres for basic and orthopaedic surgery. A mobile theatre unit had been installed at Bridlington in 2013 to support orthopaedic surgery. 
The mobile theatre is leased from Vanguard Healthcare Solutions. According to York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust the company will not renew its contract and the theatre will be removed next month. Neither YTH nor 
Vanguard would answer Big Issue North’s questions about the decision making process behind the ending of the contract, citing commercial confidentiality. 
“Resources are needed” 
The planned closure has come as a shock to staff. Chris Daly, regional health officer for the union Unite, said: “The comprehensive service once provided by the NHS is being eroded and patients are suffering. More government resources are needed. 
“This is a well respected, successful service and who would benefit from degrading it? Why was the lease not renewed? Had the trust given an indication to the firm it would not be renewing the contract? We want assurances there will be no staff losses.” 
The closure has been condemned by Bridlington Health Forum, which brings together voluntary organisations dedicated to defending local health facilities. Its spokesperson said: “The long term existence of the hospital is very possibly in doubt as it is on its knees following numerous cuts.
We want services restored, including outpatients and local rehabilitation beds. Unsustainable and unaffordable travel for even basic healthcare for local residents must be reduced.” 
Unlike at the other hospitals in Scarborough and York that are managed by YTH, patients at Bridlington can be assured that their operations will not be stopped due to a lack of beds. Spare capacity meant that no procedures were cancelled due to bed shortages in the second half of 2017, whereas Scarborough and York cancelled 73 and 147. 
Knight last year wrote to the then health secretary Jeremy Hunt to ask him to do more to ensure facilities at Bridlington were fully employed. He would like to see YTH being more “open, transparent and honest” on the processes that led to the planned removal of the theatre. 
He remains concerned about the hospital being “grossly underused” and disagrees with the removal of some services. However he does not believe the hospital itself is under threat. 
Knight has invited health secretary Matt Hancock to visit the hospital with him. 
A spokesperson for Vanguard said its facilities were designed for short-term use by healthcare organisations. 
“While their use can vary from weeks to years, the facilities may be periodically rotated away from a site, whether that be for maintenance and upgrade work or to help meet the needs of another healthcare organization,” said the spokesperson. 
“Where one of our facilities does have to be removed from a site for whatever reason, we will endeavour to work with the trust to offer alternative provision wherever possible to ensure any disruption to the service they provide is minimised as much as possible.” 
A spokesperson for YTH added: “We are working on an interim plan for our two remaining theatres to minimise any disruption to patients and to ensure as far as possible that we can maintain theatre capacity at Bridlington.” 

MARK METCALF 

Plans by Rochdale Borough Housing to demolish four of the Seven Sisters high rise flats on the College Bank estate are polarising opinions.

Housing body plans to demolish tower blocks 
Tenant group denies misleading residents 
Plans by Rochdale Borough Housing to demolish four of the Seven Sisters high rise flats on the College Bank estate are polarising opinions. 
Two years ago, Rochdale Borough Housing (RBH), which took control of the local council’s housing stock seven years ago, announced a 20-year regeneration project for College Bank and the nearby Lower Falinge Estate and began to draw up proposals, including demolition. 
RBH intends that its proposals will unlock “further major investment, which will regenerate both neighbourhoods with a wider mix of high-quality homes and more green spaces”. 
RBH said any displaced tenants would be guaranteed somewhere “like for like” to live, close to the town centre, if they wished. 
‘Social cleansing’ 
RBH intends modernising the remaining three College Bank blocks. It claims its proposals could lead to 500 new homes on the land, some of which is lying empty. 
Within weeks of the demolition plans being announced a petition of 544 College Bank residents’ signatures was presented to Rochdale Borough Council. Councillor Neil Emmott, cabinet member for housing, claimed the plans “smacked of social cleansing”. 
Rochdale Council and residents opposed to its plans publicly disputed each other’s claims to speak on behalf of those living at College Bank. There were widely different claims about exactly how many residents’ opinions had been gathered by RBH. 
Although it was never disputed that most Lower Falinge residents backed demolition, former tenants representatives claimed this was because RBH had run down the estate. According to RBH it has supported 62 tenant households between July 2018 and May 2019 to move from Lower Falinge, with over half staying in the town centre area, “including families who moved from flats into our brand new family houses”. 
In May 2019, RBH accused a “small number of individuals on social media of inaccurate and misleading comments” and of personal attacks on its employees. RBH later publicly attacked the College Bank Support Group, claiming a number of residents had been unduly harassed by the group and that it had also “posted incorrect and deliberately misleading information, which appears designed to create unnecessary concerns and paint an inaccurate picture of RBH’s work in central Rochdale”. 
Private sector investment 
Mark Slater returned in 2014 to live for the third time on College Bank. His one-bedroom flat on the Mardyke block – consisting of 15 storeys with six flats on each level – costs £90 a week rent and is not due to be demolished. It is warm inside and soundproof. Slater enjoys a wonderful view, stretching high up on to the nearby countryside. He can look down on familiar sites in a town he was born in. 
Self-employed, Slater helps out at a local soup kitchen. “I know many people who used to need the kitchen and whose lives have been rebuilt thanks to getting accommodation in Seven Sisters flats,” he said. “But they remain vulnerable and they have told me so.” 
Slater himself desperately needed accommodation in 2014 as he was sleeping on a sofa at his dad’s house after his marriage collapsed. He has been active for over 18 months in the College Bank Support Group, which disputes RBH’s claims that it will be able to relocate any displaced tenants in like-for-like property. 
“When RBH advertise online two bedroom flats it is not unusual to see over 70 bids being made for them,” said Slater. “What will happen when hundreds more are added to the list?” 
Slater claimed older people will be dispersed and the subsequent lack of support networks would mean they would become isolated and lonely. He wants all seven blocks refurbished. 
RBH estimates this would cost £10 million per block, equivalent to around £110,000 per property. It says it does not have “any prospect of accessing this level of investment for all seven tower blocks”. 
Asked by Big Issue North to clarify how much funding it would need for its plans, RBH provided no figures. It is in discussion with government about investment but would not say how much it was looking for. 
RBH, which has committed over £25 million of its resources to College Bank and Lower Falinge, has however indicated that its plans will require private sector investment. 
According to Slater: “The flats are iconic and it is clear from examples in Salford and Manchester that people want to live in well-maintained tower blocks. Why not here in Rochdale? RBH is ignoring the views of local people on the estate and should revisit their plans.” 
The College Bank Support Group is working with a group of architects to draw up alternative plans. RBH has said it will consider them if they are “feasible and sustainable, as well as safe and genuinely affordable for tenants and residents”. 
With both sides in the dispute holding divergent views, local MP Tony Lloyd is seeking more information from RBH. He said: “I can’t yet see the big picture as to what we get at the end of
this process. Considerable numbers of constituents have approached me on this matter and proper answers are required to some big questions to reassure everyone concerned.” 

RBH, whose top five executives were criticised last week when it emerged they are to receive considerable pay increases over the next three years, said it was “pleased to have an ongoing and constructive dialogue” with the MP. 



Thursday, 11 July 2019

Forestry worker dies

A contract forestry worker Lesley Whitfield, aged 42, died on 28 November 2018, in an incident involving a quad bike in forestry near Castle Douglas. 

The tragedy occurred little over a year since Unite Forestry Commission lead rep Neil Grieve expressed concern in the Landworker summer 2017 edition that in Scotland: “Private companies are doing some of the harvesting, road repairs and replanting. This could reduce the direct workplace and we are aware that, just like in Wales, the employees are not enjoying decent terms and conditions. 

“They are being exploited by being employed on zero-hours contracts. For the first time in my 30 year career I have seen planting contractors who are living in tents in the forests.”

Asked to comment on whether Neil’s fear had now been confirmed, Forest Enterprise Scotland, which is responsible for managing the National Forest Estate in Scotland, and the HSE both said that whilst investigations, for which Police Scotland have primacy, were ongoing they could not comment. A FES spokesperson said they “would like to offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends at this difficult time.” 

The police will conduct a post-post-mortem examination and submit a report to the Procurator Fiscal, which is responsible for the prosecution of crime in Scotland.  

Lesley Whitfield’s death was the latest in a long list of 2018/19 countryside fatalities, which totalled 15 in the agricultural sector by 24 September 2018. This was just under a quarter of the overall total of 61, 16 of which were in Scotland. Of the 15, a third were employees and of the remaining ten that were classed as self employed the majority were working for someone else when they lost their lives. A third of the fifteen, were like Lesley Whitfield, killed in an incident involving a vehicle. 


Landworker will let readers know of development on this case as it progresses. 


"We need a radical change" - Ivan Monckton, Unite rural campaigner

Labour must win the next General Election says Unite's leading rural campaigner, Ivan Monckton 

Unite’s Ivan Monckton has been an agricultural workers champion since the 1970s. Today, he has a better relationship with many farmers, some of whom hated him so much that they’d cross the road to avoid him. The improved bond is though only because there are far fewer farm workers than when the freelance countryside contractor started taking on the role of being the Voice for the Voiceless

Although he is unpaid for his untiring efforts and is now aged 65, Ivan, a big fan of Leslie Smith, the vocal critic of austerity who died aged 95 in November 2018, is determined to remain active well into the future. 

Ivan, full of enthusiasm and energy, is also optimistic that a future Labour Government will introduce policies that will create more agricultural workers for him to represent. “I never worried when farmers got upset with me. It meant I was successfully representing workers who could not speak up for themselves because their employment, housing and social standing all depended on not falling out with the famers, who thankfully I have never relied on for work.”

Ivan, who has a well stocked library of rural social history books, recognises how having such independence has been crucial role in the development and sustainability of agricultural trade unionism. “Joseph Arch owned his own home and his skills as a hedge layer meant he could always find work, George Edwards was a small holder and the Higdons at Burston were teachers.  I am following the same tradition.” 

Born in a terraced house in Wolverhampton, his parents harboured hopes of him going to University but on a North Wales camping trip he visited a Forestry Commission (FC) exhibition. When he returned to England he wrote and got a job in 1974 with the organisation at Presteigne in Powys, close to the English border. 

Ivan, who comes from a family with a trade union tradition, twice unsuccessfully sent off his form to join the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). He then suffered a serious accident that left him incapacitated for over a year. Recognising their own mistake, the TGWU represented Ivan and he obtained £2,200 compensation. “It was a great example of the vital insurance role that unions play and why every worker should be in one. Forestry work can be very dangerous and it certainly was in the 1970s.”

On his return to work, Ivan stood for election as shop steward and won. He quickly realised, “I have a certain gift for the gab. I can argue a good case and bulls**t a bad one. I can generally get by at any meeting and get something for the people I represent.”

Ivan’s union involvement was deepened when he was elected onto the TGWU District Committee and began representing Welsh workers on the national committee for agricultural and allied workers. He has subsequently been on virtually every committee within the TGWU/UNITE including the national executive council, which he served on from 1984 until 2017. 

At the FC, Ivan, who rejected opportunities to take a management role, became part of the TGWU wages negotiating team but he departed his post when he became seriously unwell with rheumatoid arthritis and was not expected to make a recovery. Happily he later successfully experimented with alternative forms of medicine. “I was back working as freelancer for the FC within a year of leaving, which had been cushioned because the TGWU had negotiated a small lump sum and I had a pension. It was another example of why being in a union is essential.”

As a countryside contractor since the 1980s, Ivan, who lives with his partner in a remote cottage at the end of a long muddy road outside Evenjobb, near Old Radnor, has built numerous small bridges and paths, erected thousands of signs and hung many gates and fences. “Most of my work has been with the local council on providing the infrastructure for rights of way. For many years I did every single piece of work, some of which was exhausting, on around 50 miles of OFFA’s Dyke, the large earthwork that largely follows the Welsh/English border.” 

Recently, Ivan has utilised the skills learnt at the FC to do forestry work that over the winter included woodland management on a local private woodland. Coppicing is a traditional method of exploiting the capacity of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. A coppiced wood is harvested in sections with hazel, which takes around a decade to mature, being eagerly sought after by craft workers. Watching Ivan drag out the tree stems he had used a chain saw to cut down it was clear this is back breaking work. Surely he just now needs after work to go home, rest and put his feet up? As if! 

“I remain fully committed to my union work. I have been a branch secretary for over thirty years and I have represented, with varying degrees of success, numerous farm workers in battles to keep their jobs and homes. There has also been struggles for compensation for injured workers. ”


Ivan is the equalities officer within his local branch in North East (NE) Wales and he chairs the Unite NE and Mid Wales area activists committee. He is on the Unite negotiating team for agricultural workers on the Welsh Agricultural Advisory Panel or Wages Board that was established by the Welsh Assembly after the coalition Government scrapped the England and Wales AWB in 2013. 

“It was vindictive by the Cameron-Clegg government and was the most shocking political act against the rural working class in my lifetime. 

“It was not as if it had proven possible to obtain great wages for agricultural workers. Unite’s prediction that removing the protection that the AWB gave to farmworkers would make things worse in England has proven to be true.

“After I spoke at a conference about why we need an AWB the Welsh Labour ministers listened, then went to the Supreme Court to successfully obtain a legal ruling before establishing a board consisting of two members of UNITE, two members of Welsh farming unions and three independent members. In the second year the seven of us agreed on a substantial 9.85% pay rise. “

During the campaign to elect a new Labour leader in 2015, Ivan spoke at a Jeremy Corbyn support rally in Cardiff. He was delighted when the Chippenham born socialist, whose long running commitment to tacking rural poverty is well known amongst activists such as Ivan, was elected. “Jeremy, who lived in Shropshire as a boy, has been a regular visitor and speaker at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Annual Festival. Much of what he says I agree passionately with. I have been in the Labour Party all through my life. At times I have found the Party leaders have not reflected by beliefs and hopes.”

What would Ivan like to see a future Labour Government do in the countryside? “Jeremy has already committed to restoring the AWB. We need improved public transport as many people don’t have a car. There is plenty of housing going up round here but none is public or is affordable enough to purchase. That needs to change. Planning rules need to be upheld.

“Roving safety reps to prevent the large number of farming tragedies would be good. The £3 billion that currently goes to large landowners from the Common Agricultural Policy could be switched towards creating more jobs on the land. There is plenty that could be done including looking after the trees we have got rather than seeing them bulldozed down when they become diseased. 


“Once a General Election is called I will be doing my best to get Labour into power. We need a radical change of direction after the unnecessary austerity that has been imposed on working class people.” 


FORESTRY COMMISSION CHOPPED IN TWO

Unite reps at the Forestry Commission in Scotland and England veto centenary celebrations as Commission splits. 

FORESTRY COMMISSION CHOPPED IN TWO 

The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 to expand Britain’s forest and woodlands after depletion during WWI. It did just that, raising Britain’s forest cover over the next 70 years from 5 to 12 per cent. 

It meant that when an attempt was made in 2010 by the Tories to privatise the organisation that manages some of Britain’s most spectacular landscapes, provides outdoor recreation facilities and harvests timber to supply domestic industry, there were wide scale public and trade union protests that forced a climbdown. 

Yet even though it’s now a hundred years old there has been no celebration amongst Unite reps. Because on 1 April the once proud body that was until 2013 responsible for forestry in Wales, Scotland and England has been reduced to three national organisations after Scotland and England separated, six years after Wales went its own way and became Natural Resource Wales. 

Two new bodies - Scottish Forestry and Forestry and Land Scotland - have been established in Scotland. These bodies report to the devolved Scottish Government at Holyrood where back in 2009 the ruling SNP, which had quietly sold off a number of forests when they became the ruling party two years earlier, announced plans to lease off a quarter of forestry land to private companies for 75 years. Trade union and public opposition forced an SNP climbdown.

Unite senior steward in Scotland, Neil Grieve, wants to “build on the working relationship we have already developed with the Scottish Government. I am though concerned as most our funding comes in a block grant from Westminster, and the Tories have, since 2010, steadily reduced the amount going to the FC everywhere. 

“This has led to considerable job losses and pay scales being eroded such that there is a wide variety of salaries for employees doing the same job.” 

Neil also highlighted how the Scottish FC has employed contractors in Scotland’s remote forests and how they have housed them in caravans. Little wonder then the champagne remains firmly on ice.  

Prior to the new structures the FC managed around 1.7 million acres and of which 70% was in Scotland where timber production brings in much needed revenue. Grieve is concerned about the future of the FC in England. 

“England is more about conservation and recreational parks. I believe some Tories may try and persuade the electorate that the FC is uneconomic, which was the grounds used by the Thatcher government to sell off forests in the 80s.” It costs just over 40p annually for each of us to fund the FC. 

Grieve’s concerns are echoed by George Whitcher, the Unite rep in the New Forest and who has worked for the FC for 40 years. His lifetime of devotions mirrors that of  his grandfather, George, who was an employee for many decades and his father,  James, who was an FC tree cutter for 49 years.

George is currently a forest craftsman but for before that he was for many years a tree cutter, which he much preferred, a post that following Tory cuts since 2010 is increasingly undertaken by contractors that have few rights and are poorly paid. 

“I like being in the forest away from factory or office work. Many of my fellow workers have long service and also enjoy working outdoors. It’s a way of life and they really care for the forest and its habitat. My fear is that in the long term the FC in England will slowly be taken out from under the public umbrella and this will lead to more and more contractors replacing those who are devoted to maintaining the forest at a very high standard.” 

George has been an elected TGWU and then Unite rep for over two decades. He is full of praise for the work that Neil Grieve did as Unite lead rep in England and Scotland between 2014 and 2019. “Really we now need someone in England to come forward and take on what Neil was doing. We need many more reps overall and more engagement by members, whose current pay and conditions will clearly be eroded unless they do get active. The union is you.” 

George, 63, is currently fighting a battle on behalf of those he represents who live in FC tied accommodation within the New Forest. “The FC wants to get the cottages to reach market rents of over £18k annually. This would make them unaffordable. I pay £635 a month rent and which is very favourable for this area but my wages are £21,000 gross. “

When FC cottages now become available the organisation is asking staff to bid for them with whoever offers the most winning out. “Front line staff inevitably lose out. It happened recently with someone in his late 40s and he has been forced to moved back in with his parents,” explained George.

“I have raised this issue wherever I can including with many MPs. I did manage at one point to get the rents held back for 12 months during discussions and so I am not giving up on the battle as the struggle to improve pay and conditions is an ongoing one which never ends. It is why I would appeal again for younger members to get more involved everywhere across the FC.

“Reps are supported by full-time officials and the training you get on the courses helps a lot as well, you also get the satisfaction of helping your work mates and those reps currently elected can also be drawn upon to offer backing,” said George who closed with a tribute to the late Edwin Rowlands, the former Unite rep in the Forest of Dean. “He was a good man who encouraged you and was available for advice and information. He did a great deal for others,” he added.  


To find out more about being a rep please contact George Whitcher by emailing mila.fernandes@unitetheunion.org who will then pass on your details to George. Mark your email for his attention.