Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Out of sight is not out of mind

Taken from Big Issue magazine - December 19th 2011

Not enough is being done to evaluate whether tiny airborne 
nanoparticles are damaging people’s health, according to a former 
Manchester University scientist.

Nanoparticles of substances such as iron and copper are produced by 
industrial and waste management processes and car emissions.

They are found in products ranging from tennis racquets to paints, 
and also occur naturally. Critically, nanoparticles are so small – 
less than a billionth of a metre – that can often possess properties 
that are different from the bulk material from which they are drawn.
Scientists have suggested that nanoparticles could be associated with 
heart attacks, asthma and a worsening of the condition in people with 

Last year new EU legislation reduced the level at which particulate 
matter (pm) is regulated from 10 to 2.5pm in diameter. But former 
research fellow Graham Cliff believes public bodies don’t have the 
equipment to do so.

 Graham Cliff 

The Environment Agency uses the well know method of light microscopy 
to assess particles. But Cliff said: “This cannot chemically analyse 
small particles, reducing our understanding of what is in the air.”
Cliff pointed out that that the initial failure to regulate asbestos 
particles below 10pm led to thousands of deaths from mesothelioma 
across Britain.

He said: “Cliff said: “We know that in 1947 scientists were 
instructed to ignore nanoparticles and then in the 1970s Professor 
John A Chandler from the Cardiff University Cancer Research Institute 
was restricted from analysing particles below 10pm because they were 
considered too small to do any damage.

“Although it’s now accepted that’s not the case the very same 
argument is being used with regard to nanoparticles down to 1pm.”

Three years ago at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital tests were carried out 
on seven young women exposed to nanoparticles in paint in their 
workplace for up to 13 months. Suffering from shortness of breath and 
excess fluids in their lungs, the women, two of whom died, were 
tested, with doctors concluding that “long-term exposure to some 
nanoparticles without protective measures may be related to serious 
damage to human lungs.”

Here in Britain Professor Patrick Case from Bristol University 
believes that “nanoparticles may cause DNA damage” and Professor 
Raymond Agius from Manchester University has suggested that 
“aggravation of dementia” may be a symptom. Cliff claimed other 
scientists fear that nanoparticles are contributing to heart attacks 
and a general rise in asthma amongst the public.

Yet Britain lags behind China and the US in assessing the possible 
health effects of human exposure to nanoparticles. The Health 
Protection Agency did establish a Nanotoxicology Research Centre in 
2008 in Oxfordshire – using sophisticated electron microscopes 
costing up to £3 million each – but could not say when it would issue 
any results.

But a Health Protection Agency spokesperson said this technique might 
not be suitable for other government departments. “It is not clear 
that electron microscopy would be the most appropriate technique for 
the Environment Agency to use to evaluate nanoparticles,” said the 

Friday, 16 December 2011

Race and the British media - one week in the Sunderland Echo

Race and the British media – the Sunderland Echo.
Part of the Johnston Press group the Sunderland Echo is published Monday-Saturday. It has an average daily circulation of over 34,000 with around 87,000 readers across the northeast of England, mainly in the City of Sunderland and County Durham.
At the 2001 census the City of Sunderland’s population was 98.1% white, 1% Asian and 0.4% mixed-race. It is expected that the 2011 census will see a rise in the % of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds as over the last decade a number of migrant workers, overseas students and refugee and asylum seekers have migrated to the City.
In 2002 the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers under the Labour government’s forced dispersal policy was met with hostility, boosting support for the British National Party at the local and general elections in the City. Largely housed in some of the poorest areas of the city the new arrivals were the victims of some brutal attacks culminating in the murder of Iranian refugee Payman Bahmani in August that year, which was met by a dignified passionate series of demonstrations and pickets by refugees, and those who supported them.
Ironically I benefited from events in that I was asked by the Guardian newspaper, via Northern correspondent Martin Wainwright, to write an article [s] for the paper and which I then followed up by writing a lengthy piece for the Big Issue in the South magazine – which for some reason also includes in its patch the north-east of England. Doing this got me started on writing for a living. 

As I was also secretary of Sunderland Fans against Racism then I helped co-ordinate with a number of fans counter-leafleting to the BNP, in which no punches were pulled in attacking the Labour Party’s refusal to try and tackle racism in the City. At one point this led to considerable correspondence with the Local Labour MP, Chris Mullin, who I still feel wanted to duck the issue.
At the time many anti-racists were also extremely critical of the Sunderland Echo for its coverage of events. In particular the paper was accused of constantly giving the BNP uncritical coverage, and of allowing them to create a poisonous atmosphere in the City and the surrounding areas. I am guessing here but I believe it was the death of Payman Bahmani – and less so the resistance that followed - that changed the stance of the Echo as quite simply Sunderland’s’ reputation was being [economically] damaged and rubbished. 

As the City relies a lot on overseas investment – think Nissan, for example – this was not going to do a lot of good – and the stance changed. Coverage became more balanced – a response that led to the BNP even targeting some local journalists, and thus confirming what many people already know that their democratic values are shallow.
I left Sunderland in 2004 and although I go back to watch the World’s greatest team I no longer read the Sunderland Echo every evening. This was as such the first time I had read it for a whole week for some time, starting on Monday December 5th 2011.
There was little coverage of issues relating to race during the week. Five articles and one letter was the sum total, with a further three in which the actions of black people were economically and socially raised.
The five articles included two that covered the arrests and deportation at a Takeaway shop in nearby Horden Colliery of three workers in breach of their visa conditions.
Then there were articles on a Sunderland woman who claimed, at and Industrial Tribunal, to have been racially discriminated against by her NHS bosses and one on the actions being taken by Irish police after complaints that a Twitter user in Ireland had racially abused Sunderland Football Club’s black striker Frazier Campbell. This was a lengthy and prominent piece with reports of how Campbell is a keen supporter of the Show Racism the Red Card campaign.
The fifth piece – and only one not related to events locally – was an article about Mark Lambie’s appeal against being kept behind bars for having kidnapped two men in North London in 2002. In 1987 Lambie had been cleared of murdering PC Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm Riots two years earlier.
In terms of other coverage there was a piece on a shop’s plea to stay open longer being rejected and a Sunderland business-woman facing the possibility of losing her alcohol licence for serving under-age drinkers. In both cases the owners were of Asian background. Whilst finally there was a prominent piece on British long jump champion JJ Legede and his work with local young schoolchildren.
Finally there was a lengthy letter from a local resident that said ‘Most of the country has put an end to racism, yet Sunderland has a long way to go.’
The articles that did appear were balanced in their reporting but apart from the article on JJ Legede then none could be considered to be positive about black people. 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Save Remploy

The threatened closure of 54 Remploy factories shows the government is “intent on destroying the social welfare gains made after World War Two.” That’s the view of Brian Anderson, the Unite workplace rep at Wythenshawe print works, Manchester.
Like his 21 colleagues, part of a national workforce of 2,800, he is waiting anxiously to hear Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, announce the result of the Department of Work and Pensions consultation on the Sayce Report that recommended closing all of Remploy’s factories.
It would be a sad end for the government owned company established under the 1944 Disabled Persons [Employment] Act, with the first factory opening two years later in Bridgend, South Wales. At Remploy thousands of disabled people have benefited materially and mentally from having a proper job with the company.
After 23 years as an employee Brian, partially sighted in one eye, has witnessed this for himself saying, “employment here gives people pride and status. Some people only go out to come to work. I fear 90% will never work again if the factory shuts. Rather than contributing to the economy they will be an additional expense. I believe we have a future if the government were prepared to use procurement rules to place orders with us.”
Brian supports the Access to Work Fund that financially supports employers who hire individual disabled people. He’s not convinced however by government claims, used to support shutting Remploy down, that the average cost of helping 37,300 disabled people find work under it in 2009-10 was just £2,600. His letter asking the DWP to clarify matters however currently remains unanswered and he suspects the figures “are mainly composed of part time workers and volunteers.”
With Miller having said – even before the consultation period had ended - she was “attracted” to the Sayce Report conclusions Brian, a life-long union member has fully supported the Unite and GMB campaign to defend all the factories. This included participating with colleagues in the massive Manchester march in October to the Tory Party conference at the end of which he heard UNITE general secretary Len McCluskey praise their efforts and say, "They are fighting for their dignity and against an unscrupulous government.”
In 2007-08 the two unions forced the Labour Government to climb down from plans to close 43 factories. Eighteen were rescued including Wythenshawe.  The fight to save the remaining 54 continues.

Save Bombardier

It will be a bittersweet moment this Christmas for John Pearson, the Unite senior rep at Derby-based train manufacturer Bombardier, as he drives out of the gates for the last time.
Grateful for the extra money that will come his way - courtesy of the unions fight for enhanced redundancy payments - the 64 year old hopes to also be buoyed by having helped persuade management to “hang fire, for now” on issuing any compulsory redundancies on the shop floor. But also “very angry as despite the coherent arguments put forward by the trade union movement this uncaring government has failed to abort the decision to give the London Thameslink contract to Siemens of Germany and place it here. Unless they do then the future is bleak for Bombardier, its workers and thousands employed in the local supply chain industries.”
John had his hopes raised when the new Transport Minister Theresa Villiers visited Derby in November. He expected that, at the very least, she would bring news of orders for the 60 trains needed for the Crossrail link across London but “there was nothing except a repeat of previous excuses we had heard. Really we should have walked out. She didn’t even seem to understand that this plant could easily close. They should change their decision now.” 

Earlier piece written for UNITE works magazine 

Last time, under Thatcher and Major, it was coal, steel, the docks, cars and trucks……And whilst there’s still time to change their mind it’s now, under Cameron, train manufacturing after the Tories, with Liberal support, decided in June to make Siemens of Germany the preferred bidder to build 1,200 carriages for the London Thameslink route.

As a result 1,400 jobs at Derby based Bombardier are set to go, the long term future for Britain’s last train making company has been thrown into doubt and the supply chain industries are set to throw thousands on to an already rapidly expanding dole queue.

If the plan really is to switch employment away from the public to the private sector then the government clearly has a funny way of showing it.

Not that John Pearson, Unite senior rep and chairman of the works committee, at the massive Bombardier complex half a mile from Derby Midland station is laughing.

John’s worked there for 27 years and at 64 will be one of those leaving early. He’s grateful for the extra money that will come his way courtesy of all the unions on site fighting for enhanced redundancy payments. BUT, he’s deeply upset and angered that fifteen young people have had their apprenticeships cancelled, that plans to take on a further 100 in the next 8-10 years are on hold and he’s going to be walking out of the gates accompanied by hundreds of others.

The jobs that will be going, which include welders, vehicle builders, fitters, painters and testers, are decently paid. Back in the 90s one rate for all manufacturing staff was agreed with management and that’s currently £430 a week with a shift premium on top. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that once people’s redundancy money is exhausted that local shops and businesses are going to be hit when unemployed workers have a lot less to spend. More will be signing on.

“No-one could believe it when we heard the news.  Government claims that as a nation we’re all in this together ring hollow when they then give away a major contract to a German company that already has a full order book” says Pearson, who as a transport worker at Bombardier moves trailers across departments.

The company is currently building carriages for London Underground until 2014 but other contracts for the Victoria underground line, National Express and London Midland will come to an end shortly. An order of 1,200 carriages would have kept its 3,000 East Midlands employees in work for four years.

John’s aware that Bombardier is one of five companies shortlisted for the contract to supply stock for the Crossrail link under Central London that will require 60 trains 200 metres long. However as this won’t be awarded till late 2013 he fears that the Derby site might not even be functioning by then or in a position to fulfil such a contract due “to the loss of so many skilled workers.” Meanwhile he rejects Siemens claims that 2,000 jobs in the supply chain will be created “because only components are to be made here in Britain.”

John, those he represents and the Derby public, in a town originally built on rail, wanted to know exactly why the Government had sent the Thameslink contract abroad. However the nearest they’ve got to an answer is Transport minister Theresa Villiers stating “the Siemens bid represented best value for taxpayers” and Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, defending the decision on grounds that he was restricted by the tendering process set by the previous Labour government and that EU rules had tied his hands to prevent the Tories favouring home based industry.

That’s not the case however in other parts of Europe. In the last five years France has built 100% of its domestic trains at home and Germany 98%, their governments being convinced that they can justify any challenge at the European court of justice on grounds they have taken wider considerations into account such as unemployment.

A survey carried out for Unite by Survation has shown that 40% of companies who supply Bombardier will be cutting jobs as a result of the government’s actions, and not just in Derby and the East Midlands.

“There are 10,000 jobs right across the UK under threat from this decision and that’s why we need to see it reversed” says Diana Holland, Unite Assistant General Secretary.

And to help the Government do so John, other Unite members and colleagues in the RMT, TSSA and GMB have been out vigorously campaigning by taking their case across the UK and into Europe. In August over 10,000 marched through Derby city centre. “It was one of the greatest days of my life” says John. A delegation got a marvellous reception when they went on the pitch before the local team’s match against Birmingham City and the Derby County manager Nigel Clough backed their fight for justice.

Local and national newspapers, and in particular the Daily Mirror, have supported them.

There have also been lobbies at all the major party conferences and the TUC, as well as attendance at the Transport select committee that examined the decision to award the Thameslink contract to Bombardier.

This was presented with written evidence from Unite, which identified ‘the principal cause of the Derby problems as originating from the previous Conservative government decision to privatise the rail network in 1993.’ Following which John Major set up Rolling Stock Operating Companies who lease out the rolling stock to train operators. These companies have made massive profits, but an environment where train manufacturers don’t know when orders, or their size, might be placed has decimated the industry leaving just Bombardier standing in the UK.

“Which is why the union won’t be giving up the fight to get the Government to change its decision” says Diana Holland. Hammond has admitted they could saying he “has the ability to abort and look afresh at the Thameslink project” before its finally signed off.

“He would be doing the country a great favour if he did so. We need a government that is committed to investing in British manufacturing and we feel that if Bombardier loses out it will be another example of this government’s failure to do so. None of which workers can afford” said Holland.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Government pressurised to introduce CCTV in slaughterhouses

An increasing number of MPs are backing calls for CCTV to be made mandatory in UK slaughterhouses. Now over 30 have signed an early day motion calling on the government to act, with Dewsbury Conservative MP Simon Reevell and York Labour MP Hugh Bayley amongst the latest to add their signatures.

MPs have been left disturbed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ decision [DEFRA] not to prosecute when evidence of animal welfare abuses has been gathered secretly. And whilst DEFRA has recently had its prosecution powers passed over to the Crown Prosecution Service MPs are keen on further action to defend what they term is ‘the UK’s position as a world leader on animal welfare regulations.’

The MPs have acted after secret filming methods were employed over a 30-month period from January 2009 by national campaign group Animal Aid. This revealed shocking levels of abuse in eight out of the nine slaughterhouses they filmed.  These included multiple stuns being needed to render animals unconscious before slaughter and animals being kicked and hit in the face. At Cheale Meats, a family run firm in Essex, workers were shown in June this year stubbing out cigarettes on pig’s faces. None is to face prosecution.

Animal Aid’s exposure led to another Essex slaughterhouse closing down after A&G Barber had major contracts cancelled. Meanwhile during Labour’s time in office cases were built by DEFRA for prosecution – under the Welfare of Animals Regulations [Slaughter or Killing] of 1995 - against four operators and nine men. These were dropped in August 2010 after DEFRA lawyers concluded that ‘legal action can only be taken where evidence has been gathered legally’ which they determined ruled out using a hidden camera.
Yet in comparison Panorama’s ‘Undercover Care - the abuse exposed’, that revealed shocking mistreatment by staff at Bristol’s Winterbourne View residential hospital for patients with learning disabilities, and which was filmed secretly, is now being used to prosecute.
Meanwhile DEFRA has defended its position not to require slaughterhouses to make compulsory use of CCTV. They’ve done so on the grounds that because a new piece of European Legislation, effective from January 1st 2013, does not include such provision the UK is prevented from ‘introducing stricter national measures such as CCTV.’
However when Animal Aid asked the European Union on this they were told ‘it is in the domain of the competent authorities of the Member States to take the necessary measures in order to ensure compliance with the requirements of EU legislation.’ This would appear to pave the way to allow the UK government to introduce CCTV if it chose to do so in Britain’s 350 plus slaughterhouses.

Kate Fowler, Animal Aid’s Head of Campaigns, is pleased “that an increasing number of MPs are signing the early day motion.” Even with Animal Aid having earlier this year claimed that ‘This government could hardly have done more to damage animal protection’ she’s still confident that the coalition can “be forced to change their minds because the public feels very strongly about this issue and some supermarkets have already forced their suppliers to introduce CCTV.”

But does it matter if animals that are only a few minutes away from being slaughtered aren’t properly treated? “Yes, it does. All animals - no matter their circumstances - deserve to be treated with respect and to be spared deliberate suffering. This is what the law demands and what the public expects, especially after we’ve revealed shocking levels of abuse in Britain’s slaughterhouses” said Fowler.

Whilst DEFRA said “We care deeply about animal welfare and are horrified by any abuse’ they refused to respond to a series of questions put to them.  

Grahame Morris, the MP behind the early day motion, said he would like to see “all those passionate about animal welfare contacting their MPs to support the motion and protect animals from unnecessary cruelty.” Morris, the MP for Easington Colliery, County Durham accused DEFRA of dithering and delaying and having lost “all sense of purpose” on animal welfare. 

Land grab?

Over the last ten years land equalling the size of Western Europe has been sold or leased in developing countries to international investors. Most of the acquisitions have taken place in the last two years and can be explained by the international food prices crisis of 2007-08 that sparked riots in a number of countries.

Keen to discover how these developments have impacted on local people Oxfam has conducted studies in Uganda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Honduras and Southern Sudan.

The resulting report – Land and Power: The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land - does not make for pleasant reading. Now the charity is calling for changes to ensure that any further investment contributes ‘to rather than undermine the food security and livelihoods of local communities.’

In Uganda, where following decades of human rights abuses multi-party politics were restored five years ago, Oxfam viewed the actions of the UK-based New Forests Company with alarm.

The charity accuses New Forest [NFC], which describes itself as ‘a sustainable and socially responsible forestry company’; of benefiting from what it claims was the forcible eviction of 22,500 people in the forest reserves of Namwasa and Luwunga in the Mudende District.

NFC is now leasing the land to plant trees. It has denied its operations are designed to sell carbon credits to companies in the developed world to offset their carbon emissions.

The company disputes the numbers evicted arguing its closer to 9,700.  They’ve cited a census paid for by them as evidence. However they’ve, so far, refused to make it publicly available. Meanwhile Oxfam’s figures said policy officer Radhika Sarin “were derived from speaking to former community leaders in Luwunga and estimating that a court case brought by 1,489 families in Namwasa represents, on the basis of five people per family, a further 7,445 people being evicted.”

NFC also disputes Oxfam’s claims, supported by testimonies from some of those evicted, that violence was used, by security personnel and government officials, with a company spokesperson saying “no violence was used and none has been reported to the NFC or local police.”

The company claims that the vast majority of those evicted were on the lands illegally and that as owners of the land the Uganda government could lease it to whomever they wanted.

However according to Sarin many of “those evicted have lived there for many years. But everyone affected has the right to fair consultation and compensation, including assistance in finding another place to live where they can raise their families. Oxfam doesn’t oppose investment in developing countries but the manner in which it is undertaken is important. Our report shows communities across the developing world are finding their land being grabbed from under them.”

The report, and the subsequent campaign, has however been attacked by the Ugandan government with the Minister of Water and Environment Maria Mutagamba stating NFC are “a responsible company who has performed satisfactorily within the legal, policy and regulatory frameworks of Uganda. The insinuation of a land grab by NFC is patently false.”  She has called for Oxfam to review their findings.

Meanwhile NFC has now agreed to conduct an external investigation into Oxfam’s claims. In a prepared statement the company said they “will consult many parties including Oxfam and would welcome their suggestions for appointees to a supervisory committee that we will establish.“

“ We will continue to monitor the situation on the ground in order to confirm that the investigation is happening. We are pleased at the news,” said Sarin.

Less pleasing however were Oxfam and other charities failure to get MPs to support their calls not to reduce overseas petitioners access to legal aid in cases against British companies operating abroad. The new Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was passed by the House of Commons on November 1st. Unless the House of Lords offers opposition it will become, after gaining Royal Assent, Law. Civil liberties organisation Liberty believes it ‘will decimate the legal aid system, placing justice beyond the reach of many.” 

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Let's picket

A striker gives his personal views on his first picket. 

7.45am - Arrived at Halifax Connexions office and joined colleagues Judy and Mick. After 34 years as a public services worker this was my first experience of picket duty. We were all apprehensive as we knew that all other Connexions offices were closed in Calderdale and Kirklees. We had also been told that workers who wanted to work were being directed to Halifax so that this office could stay open. 

By 9.00am we were wishing that we had brought a brazier as the temperature wasn't much above freezing. However, our cause was warmed by shoppers and people on their way to work who stopped to offer support:-

Fiona - explained that her husband is a refuse collector and there had been problems with their strike ballot and the fact that the refuse collection service has been privatised further complicated things. She felt that her 18 year old unemployed son was suffering as there were very few prospects at present. She said they were struggling with finances and that she hoped the government would take notice of the strikers.

Tammy and Jess - fellow strikers and administration workers from Northgate House offered to get us hot drinks if we needed them. They said around 30 workers had crossed the picket line where they were.

Stan - a former rent collector for Halifax MBC said he was pleased to see us demonstrating. He felt that someone needed to stand up for the futures of his children and grand children. He said that all people should have decent pensions.

Catherine - a teacher from the King Cross area of Halifax said she was behind our cause and hoped  that we didn't get too cold. 

At 9.30am the first worker turned up who wanted to cross the picket line. He wasn't in the union and didn't contribute to the pension scheme. Fifteen minutes later another 2 workers and a manager appeared. Thankfully only 3 workers were willing to cross the line and the centre stayed closed. At 10.20am we left for the demonstration in Huddersfield. 

After over 2 hours on the picket line I had received no abuse and had met over a dozen supportive members of the public. I have been heartened by the experience and will be willing to do the same again if necessary.

See link below for photos from Halifax and Huddersfield.

The TUC Day of Action in Yorkshire and Humberside has been a big success

The TUC Day of Action in Yorkshire and Humberside has been a big success. Picket lines have largely been respected and the four [*] major rallies in Bradford, Sheffield, Hull and Leeds drew a combined total of 25,000 people to listen to a range of speakers from the 29 unions on strike. If the Government were hoping that public sector workers would refuse to stand up and fight for their pension rights then they will have been disappointed.

Picketing started early at many workplaces. At Kirklees Building Services the atmosphere was lively with Jan Grabowski, Unite deputy convenor reporting that from a total staff of around 600 “less than 20 had gone into work.”

Directly opposite members of UNISON at Street Scene and Housing were doing their best to keep out the cold. They may have had the youngest picket in Edward Williams who at just three months had joined his engineering dad Robert in protesting about changes that will leave both of them worse off. No wonder then that Kirklees UNISON had 61 newly completed forms from non-members this week as people from all occupations begin to understand just how important being in a trade union is.

Less than half a mile away members of UNISON and NAPO were unlikely to remain cold for long as they danced up and down and urged passing motorists to honk their horns in support. Plenty were willing to oblige as Natalie Atkinson, NAPO steward, explained "They just wanted to get over the message that we are not just against pension cuts but are for good public services that everyone needs and relies upon. Also it is not right that a crisis caused by unregulated financial banking should be paid for by working people.”

In nearby Leeds some of the pickets were on strike for the first time in their lives. At St James Hospital these were multi-union and they’d even gathered the support of a local pub owner who had provided sandwiches and light refreshments.

Suitably refreshed, and buoyed by news that even those who had been forced to work - in order to rightly provide emergency cover - were intending to join them at the end of their shifts they joined thousands of their colleagues from right across the public sector in converging on Leeds City Centre. With the Leeds Trades Union Council and University and College Union banners at its head a demonstration led the way. 

By the time the rally on the steps of the Art Gallery kicked off then there were an estimated 9,000 people present.

Bill Adams, secretary of Yorkshire and the Humber TUC said he was “proud to be amongst them” as he introduced the speakers. They were to draw warm applause with Hugh Lanning, the PCS Deputy General Secretary saying, “It has been a great day and if the government thought the public services were a soft touch they probably don’t now. But make no mistake the Tories never had a plan B and they are just using the financial recession as a cover for what has always been their political and ideological objectives. But we can fight and win.” 

Kate Mayer, a GMB education steward pointed out that all “pension funds are in surplus” and called for tax avoidance loopholes to be closed in order to raise an “annual £123 billion that could easily fund decent pensions for everyone in the public and private sector.” She said she was proud to have participated in the largest public sector strike since 1926.

Karen Reay, Unite Regional Secretary asked, “What will happen to young people, who want to work, if we force those who want to take a deserved break to work much longer? They are expecting nurses to work into their sixties, which will not only impact on their own health but will impact on the level of service members of the public can expect.”

Celia Foote of the NAS/UWT said it “was the government which wanted to put children’s education at risk and not teachers. Public sector pensions are affordable and it’s not just our pensions that are under attack as can be seen at Unilever where workers have voted for action.” Noting that it was the unions who had forced the Government to the negotiating table she called on “people to stick together in a battle we must win.”

At the end Bill Adams summed up the day’s events saying “this great turnout has been matched elsewhere across the region and we should all be proud of our efforts.”

Sheffield had 10,000 people at the closing rally
Thanks to Ralph Dyson from Rawmarsh School for photo 

  • Rallies were also held in 8 of the regions smaller towns and cities with an estimated total attendance of close to 8,000.

Power to the pickets
Thanks to Ralph Dyson for photograph. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Leveson Inquiry

The Leveson Inquiry - Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press

I’ve only been working as a Journalist/writer for a small number of years and certainly wouldn’t consider myself important enough to appear at the Leveson Inquiry, especially as I haven’t done much work for the national papers that set the tone for the press industry.

There are though three events worth recalling. In 2002 a young Iranian refugee, Payman Behmani, was stabbed to death in Hendon, Sunderland. It wasn’t much more than a few hundred yards from where I then lived and I contacted the Guardian newspaper and provided much of the copy that was filed on the story by their Northern correspondent Martin Wainwright.

Not too long after an asylum seeker in Sunderland was also stabbed in Hendon and taken critically ill to the hospital. I re-rang the Guardian and asked if they wanted me to file some copy and was told by the then Deputy Editor [whose name I can’t recall] they would only be interested if the man died. Fortunately he survived.

In the autumn of 2003 I also wrote a number of articles [potentially 3 of around 1,000 words each] for publication in the popular regional newspaper The Journal. I had already written a number of pieces that had been published in the Morning Star about gulf war syndrome affecting British servicemen who had served in the first Gulf War a decade earlier. I’d followed this up with other pieces on how badly members of the military have always been treated if they fall sick, or are left injured or invalided as a result of their service. The pieces in the Journal were to have a similar focus, but with a more human touch with interviews with local ex-servicemen.

The articles were to go out on a Saturday, starting with September 20th. The night before I was rang by the paper and the final content was read down the phone to me. Next morning – nothing and none of them were ever to appear. On the Tuesday I rang the deputy editor I had been working with and was told he had left his post. I never did manage to speak to him to confirm exactly why but I was told by someone who wished to remain anonymous that “he had quit in disgust” when following a call from the Ministry of Defence the paper had decided to drop all the articles. To matters even worse I got not a penny for my work.

Three years later I was alerted to the fact that Arsenal’s new multi-million pound Emirates Stadium was not up to scratch when it came to facilities for disabled fans. In a nutshell helpers had their seats situated behind the fans, thus when assistance was needed they were forced to stand. Many were doing so throughout the whole match, and as Arsenal were at the time throwing out other supporters for doing just that then the Gunners had a potentially bad news story on their hands.

I worked with the Sunday Express reporter in the North on standing up the information and we had a good piece written and ready to run in the paper. Again it never appeared and the reason was that alerted to the story - by asking them to comment - the North London club had contacted the paper and promised them a couple of major football exclusives if they dropped it. In this case I did get well paid and I was subsequently able to alter and have the piece published in the Big Issue in the South magazine. Arsenal though had avoided national publicity over their new Stadium - and to their credit
they did alter the seating arrangements at the Emirates subsequently.

Monday, 28 November 2011

GMB fears care homes rescue could be storing up future problems

One of Britain’s biggest unions believes that the rescue of 30 threatened care homes in the region may simply be storing up future problems.

When Southern Cross, the UK’s largest home care operator, went bust earlier this year there were fears that thousands of its 31,000 residents could find themselves on the streets.

Thankfully, that has proven not to be the case with the company transferring its 750 plus homes in the UK to over 30 existing operators. One of these is Four Seasons Health Care Group that by being registered in Jersey does not post accounts.

On October 31st its subsidiary company Four Seasons Healthcare assumed control of the final wave of 139 homes being transferred to it. Of these 22 are in the North West with a further eight across Yorkshire and Humberside. The moves brought the total number of homes under the care of the company to over 500.

Four Seasons homes are rated highly by the Care Quality Commission; the body that oversees standards in care homes, with 88% rated as good or excellent. Nevertheless the company has experienced financial difficulties in recent times.
In 2009 its creditors agreed to write off half of the group’s £1.6 billion debt. Previous owners Qatari Investment Authority, a private equity company walked away having lost their entire investment and ownership was transferred to its creditors, the main one being the Royal Bank of Scotland who took a 40% share. The maturity – repayment - of the remaining debt of £780 million is set for September 2012.

The GMB, Britain’s third biggest union after Unite and Unison, is worried that Four Seasons may not be able to pay it especially as in 2010 the subsidiary company itself posted a £12.1 pre-tax loss. They’ve suggested that ‘If Southern Cross was the original motion picture, Four Seasons are the sequel, and they’re coming soon to a town near you’ whilst also querying why just over a quarter of the £31,800 income earned per occupied bed in 2010 was spent on rents and interest payments.
In response a Four Seasons spokesperson accused the union of “singling us out for attack after we had declined voluntarily to give them collective bargaining rights or deduct union subscriptions from staff pay.” He denied GMB claims that  Four Seasons was anti-union and pointed to the single agreement the group has covering one of its homes.
The spokesperson said “we are well able to manage our debt and are very confident we will be able to refinance it before it becomes due next year. The company has recently been valued at £950 million, much greater than our debt. Southern Cross was a private sector problem that has been resolved by the private sector, thus saving a massive burden falling on local authorities or the public purse. We’ve taken on operating homes that were marked for closure, will be investing in them and working with 7,300 transferred staff to improve the quality of care in homes.”
None of which has reassured Jon Smith, GMB organiser in Yorkshire and North Derbyshire who said, “that for nearly two years we warned that Southern Cross’s business model was fundamentally flawed. We feel the same model is being adopted by Four Seasons and that concerns us greatly.”
Also worried that Four Seasons could prove to be short-term custodians of the three care homes they taken control of in his Blackley and Broughton constituency is Graham Stringer, MP. He said; “I was appalled by the financial arrangements around these care homes and I think it brings into question whether or not care homes providing a public service for vulnerable people should ever be in the private sector.”
Asked to provide an alternative to the transfer of Southern Cross homes  Smith said “they could have been brought under direct local authority control or transferred to not for profit providers. 80% of funds for these homes comes anyway from the taxpayer via local authorities and the NHS and such a move would cut out the costly middle men.”

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sunderland 1 Wigan Athletic 2

Sunderland 1

Wigan Athletic 2

With four of their next five matches against Champions’ League challengers this was a vital win for Roberto Martinez’s side. The victory took Wigan off the bottom and within touching distance of a Sunderland side plummeting fast. It’s now just two homes win in sixteen for manager Steve Bruce who was roundly booed at the end and urged to go by the home crowd. With games against Wolves and Blackburn next on the calendar finding someone to put the ball into the net is a priority, as otherwise Sunderland will be relegated.

The Wearsiders should have wrapped the game up in the first half an hour. They took the lead when Ali Al Habsi spilled Nicklas Bendtner’s shot and even though the keeper then did well to block Kieran Richardson’s follow-up shot he had no chance when the ball ran loose to allow Sebastian Larsson to score his fourth League goal of the season. Credit must go to the Wigan custodian who then put his mistake behind him to produce a good performance saving neatly from Richardson, performing heroics to keep out a Wes Brown header and touching away John O’Shea’s header before half-time. An unmarked Phil Bardsley, the Sunderland fullback blasting high and wide from eight yards out should then though have beaten him.

This proved a costly miss as on the stroke of half-time Wigan drew level when Larsson stepped a little too close to Victor Moses and from the resulting penalty Jordi Gomez gave Wigan’s 200 travelling fans something to cheer.

The away side improved in the second half and for much of it their better passing had them in control. Yet it was Sunderland who carved out the only real chance but Richardson failed to direct a lovely Jack Colback cross home. However in added time Wes Brown was guilty of failing to clear quickly enough and suffered when substitute James McArthur nudged him off the ball and then squared it for Franco Di Santo to push home into an empty net. This was the queue for huge celebrations amongst the Wigan staff and fans.

In comparison the home fans – rightly – hurled abuse at their manager who appears to believe that the on-loan signing of Bendtner will somehow prove good enough to replace the centre-forwards he’s lost in recent years such as Kenwyne Jones, Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan. The big Dane though appears to have no appetite for a challenge and rarely appears in the box. As regards some of the other signings then one of the worst is John O’Shea who simply left Larsson all afternoon to deal with Moses, can’t pass accurately over 15 yards and generally went missing for most of the match.

In the middle of midfield Bruce seeks to play two holding players in Colback and Lee Cattermole, neither of who has yet to score a goal for Sunderland. In the summer the Wearsiders allowed Jordan Henderson to depart to Liverpool, a figure of £20 million apparently being too much to refuse even though in reality the sum received was £14 million as Sunderland had to then spend £6 million replacing the departing youngster with Craig Gardner, who has hardly started a game. Without Henderson Sunderland lack pace and enthusiasm and his going had been a very big loss.

That wouldn’t be the case if Bruce also departed. When he was appointed Niall Quinn said that the former Manchester United man was “perfect’ for Sunderland as he “understood the northeast.” It was a view I found difficult to equate because if really true then as a Newcastle lad he wouldn’t have taken the job, and when he later said he had never watched a local Derby match between the sides then it was clear Quinn’s statement didn’t stack up.

If he ‘understands’ then why does Bruce suggest we should somehow be grateful for the fact that he took us to tenth in the League. Sunderland has won the League six times, it might be a good many years ago but it’s still a fact. A decade ago we finished seventh twice in a row, and Peter Reid’s side was a lot better than anything Bruce has assembled. Just because we’ve had shit sides for many years does not make him some sort of Messiah, and he was just lucky as I still maintain that Sunderland were ‘only five minutes’ away from going down last season as if Wigan had held on to their 1-0 lead for five more minutes at the Stadium of Light in March then they would have won the match and sent Sunderland into free fall. That is conjecture, what is not is the ridiculous comments earlier this week from Phil Bardsley, a full-back of limited talent who suggested that the criticism Bruce – and the team – have endured was because Sunderland fans feel we should see our side challenging for the Title or a Champions League place. It would certainly be nice to see us do so – and after all we are the only ‘big’ club never to qualify for Europe by finishing high enough in the League to do so – but I’ve not met any Sunderland fan that believes what Bardsley was suggesting.

However we do expect - given the resources the club has at their disposal to see better players than the likes of Bardsley playing for Sunderland, and O’Shea and Bendtner, Cattermole, Richardson. So do us a favour Phil and take a trip back to your beloved Manchester United with Mr Bruce and take O’Shea and Richardson with you.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Can coal be made 'clean'?

Taken from Big Issue in the North magazine. Please buy the magazine as it is a good read and helps out people who are working to improve their lives. 

The abandonment of a carbon capture project at a Scottish power station
could finish coalmining in the north, increase unemployment, create chaos in energy supplies and make it more difficult to cut CO2 emissions. That’s the view of Bill Adams, secretary of Yorkshire and Humber Trades Union Congress that represents trade unionists in the Region.

Longannet, in Fife, was set to trial technology aimed at removing or capturing
emissions in coal or gas burning power plants. After processing they would then be transported by pipeline for sub-sea rock burial.

One billion pounds of public money through the Department of Energy and Climate Change [DECC] was available, but according to Keith Anderson, chief corporate officer at Scottish Power, one of three companies  behind the project, they required a sum 50% greater and one that in the current climate the government was unwilling to advance.

The decision is a further blow to any hopes of developing clean coal technology in a long-running saga that stretches back to the 1980s. At that time the National Coal Board’s Coal Research Establishment [CRE] was, according to Dave Feickert, head of research for the National Union of Mineworkers between 1984 and 1993, and who now advises the Chinese Government on mine safety, “the world leader in developing clean coal technology, particularly the pressurised fluidised bed power plant at Grimethorpe. We also had supercritical boiler technology that burnt coal at high pressure but reduced CO2 emissions by at least 20% though increasing thermal efficiency.

CRE had 200 engineers, scientists and technical staff and the electricity industry had its own labs as well. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then John Major shut them down and made everyone redundant. Many went to work abroad.”

No one knows for sure - and in 1987 New Scientist magazine was already casting doubt on whether coal could ever be made ‘clean’ -  what might have been achieved if research had continued. What is though certain is that Britain, like much of the rest of the world, currently still needs a significant amount of coal to keep the lights on. Around 30% of the nation’s electricity is generated from 19 coal-fired stations and five are, as a result of European legislation aimed at cutting CO2 emissions, due to close by 2015.

With coal mines across the north having been closed after the Miners year-long strike in 84-85 then 70% of the 51 million of tons coal currently used in  power stations comes from abroad. Yet there are billions of tonnes of coal reserves underground. 

Adams was hoping to see a lot more of them being used in the future. Like Feickert he accepts that carbon capture and storage “is not a proven technology.” Making him keen to see established a project aimed at de-carbonising one-sixth of the output at Longannet, the UK’s second largest coal power plant.

Now despite Anderson calling the engineering study already undertaken, at an estimated cost of in excess of 20 million pounds “a huge success” it has been abandoned.

“It’s very disappointing” says Adams.  “If we can’t develop this technology then the jobs of miners such as the 800 or so at Kellingley are under threat. We could also extract the coal we have beneath our feet. A successful test could also see new power stations being built, bringing contracts for local suppliers and creating skilled, well-paid work.” 

He’s pleased to see that David Cameron and energy secretary Chris Huhne have promised that £1 billion is still available for new projects but wants “things to move quickly.” Peterhead gas-fired power station in Aberdeenshire is believed to be the most likely site for any future project.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF] this would avoid
trialling the new technology on a newly built coal plant currently being proposed at Huntertston in Scotland. Its spokesperson said “ the work at Longannet has significantly improved our understanding of the technology. It’s testing should continue, but at an already existing site where we can, at the very least, know that during testing it will reduce our green house gas emissions.”

Britain is committed to reducing such emissions by 80% by 2050 and Adams believes that target and keeping the lights on can only be met by pushing ahead on carbon capture and storage. He argues that “the development of renewable energy isn’t going to be quick enough, especially in the next decade or so, to prevent energy shortages and simply switching from coal to gas powered stations isn’t going to reduce emissions. “

The WWF is also keen not to see a switch to gas but believes that much more has to be done to push ahead on renewable sources of energy, which in its wake it argues could create 4.4 million jobs across Europe. Its recently released report ‘Positive Energy’ argues that the 60-90% of the UK’s 2030 electricity demand could be met by renewables, but only if the government sets a legal target at no less than 60% for renewable energy generation to ‘provide certainty for investors.’ Failure to do so argues the WWF would mean ‘dangerous levels of climate change and high energy prices.’

“Both of which I’d like to see avoided” says Adams. “But in a world where coal production is expected to jump from today’s seven billion tonnes to ten by 2030 then I’d like to think we can push ahead on getting this technology right so that we can protect and create jobs here before exploiting what would be a valuable export market.”