Wednesday, 29 June 2011

One civil servant who won't have to worry about his pension - FSA head Baron Adair Turner

Baron Adair Turner is a multi-millionaire who last year pocketed £482,442 in wages and benefits for chairing the Financial Services Authority.  Taking the post of the body that failed to tackle the irresponsible bank lending practices that led to the economic crisis saw Turner quit his post as non-executive director at Standard Chartered where he was paid £188,000 in 2007. That same year also saw him receive £55,000 from UBM media firm, where he was in his seventh year as a non-executive director, and be allocated shares valued at £85,104.

If the figures are impressive they’re nothing compared to what he earned during his time as a senior executive at investment bank Merrill Lynch over a six year period from 2000 onwards. Obtaining a reliable figure has proven almost impossible but according to Charles Davis, an economist at the Centre for Economic and Business Research, “He was at Merrill Lynch when executives filled their boots at a time of massive expansion thanks to the dot com boom.”

Little good did it do the company itself however as whilst it was paying unaffordable bonuses it then lost billions as boom turned to bust and they pushed mortgages on people who couldn’t afford them. Merrill Lynch only subsequently survived by being bought out. Between 1995 and 1999 Baron Turner, whose wife Orna NĂ­ Chionna also collected over £50,000 last year as a non-executive director for Northern Foods, was Director General of the CBI where he was paid the equivalent of £300,000 at today’s prices.

Unions reps in the fight for equality

Disappointment at the failure of the Equality Act 2010 to include statutory rights and time off for union equality reps has failed to dampen the enthusiasm of Unite members already in post. Now the race is on to get many more to join them.

Despite trade unions honourable tradition of opposing discrimination and fighting for equality there remain problems to solve, such as establishing equal pay for women and the opening up of workplaces to disabled people.

So unwilling to stand still the Unite Equality Reps’ Project got underway in February 2008 courtesy of government funding via the union modernisation funding.

However, even before then things had started moving with the election of equality reps in a number of establishments across Britain.  As such when a seminar was held in March 2007 for the multi-industrial sector 27% of those who attended from workplaces such as TNT Express, Oldham and Plymouth Councils were already equality reps. Nine employees at the Ineos Oil Refinery in Falkirk had also jumped on-board, when following a 3 day UNITE on-site workshop, also attended by two Human Relations managers, they subsequently gained members support to become equality reps.

Ruth Swan, Stephen Mancini, Stevie Deans, Mark Lyon, Lisa Crawford, Colin Henderson, Ian Proudlove 
Amongst the newcomers was process operator Lisa Crawford, then just 25. Although she was already a shop steward and safety rep, and the new role would mean giving up more of her own time to assist her fellow union members, she was happy to get involved: “because I believe people should be treated equally whatever their sexuality, ethnicity, religion or age, as with regard to the latter I’ve witnessed young people with perfectly reasonable points of view being ignored because of their relative inexperience.”

In the past there would also have been a tendency to ignore what might have got hung on the walls, pornographic images creating an unwelcome working environment for many women in particular. Lisa has used her role as an equality rep “to challenge such displays and persuade fellow Unite members to take down page 3 posters from The Sun newspaper.”

Ruth Swan also became an equality rep at the same time as Lisa. She’s worked at Ineos for 20 years and has been active in the union for over half that time: “I’ve used the role to ensure female workers are properly treated. I discovered that, after their maternity leave, women were being refused requests to work part-time and transfers from nights to days. I’ve had some success in re-negotiating their work patterns. It’s been helped by the fact that the company is very positive about the equality reps posts.”

Ruth is also full of praise for the Unite training [*] she’s received saying “the courses help you to look at situations differently and give you the confidence to tackle any problems you might identify or have raised with you by members.”

One such problem currently being grappled with by all equality reps at Ineos is the fact that the number of young women applying to become apprentices appears to have fallen.

The issue was first raised under the equalities agenda listed as a standing item at every shop stewards meeting. No one is quite sure why there’s been a fall but management are now being pushed to look at their recruitment processes to see if improvements can be made. In the past the company has been willing to respond to requests to re-design personal protective equipment found to be unsuitable for women and also improve shower facilities to prevent embarrassment at shift change over times.

“There’s a big link between equality and welfare,” said Ian Proudlove who during his 18 years as a shop steward at Falkirk has seen local demographics change significantly. It’s also meant a change in attitudes and in language. Sadly that’s not the case in all workplaces, where fuelled by articles in anti-union newspapers such as The Sun and Daily Mail workers are encouraged to use language, and tell jokes, that demean their workmates for having a different colour skin or sexuality, or because someone has a disability.

The equality reps at Ineos have tried to stop this happening by using materials prepared for them by the Unite education department and have introduced, with management’s agreement, a two-hour equality session for new starters. Out have gone handicap, old fogey and best man for the job, in has come impairment, older and best person. Returning is a more welcoming workplace whereby everyone feels valued. 

When this is the case the likelihood is that employers will benefit. Mark Lyon has been works convenor at Ineos for over a decade. During that time there have been a number of disputes and according to Mark there’s always “an edge to” relations between Unite and the company. Not so however with equality as “management know that a workplace where people feel included is good for morale, as it boosts productivity and ultimately profits. “

As a consequence when Unite and other unions were pushing in 2009 to get statutory rights for elected equality reps included by the Women’s and Equality Minster Harriet Harman in the Equality Bill management at Ineos backed the demands. They were even willing to go as far as sending ex-Human Resources head Ian Fife to speak before the select commission established to examine the proposals.

“I think they saw it as business and moral benefit for companies to have elected union equality reps” said Mark.

Sadly Harman chose to ignore the evidence, and whilst the new Government may also prove unsympathetic Unite, and most other unions, haven’t given up the fight - after all it took almost three decades of campaigning before the 1977 Safety Reps and Committees Regulations came into effect requiring employers to consult with employees on safety issues, and recognise elected safety reps by giving them time off to do their job.

“The union will be continuing to fight for legal rights for equality reps, but meanwhile I’d like to think that the successes we have had at our workplace, and those I know achieved by reps at other locations, might encourage Unite members in other locations to consider getting elected as an equality rep” said Mark Lyon.

Despite trade unions honourable tradition of opposing discrimination and fighting for equality there remain problems to solve, such as establishing equal pay for women and the opening up of workplaces to disabled people. 

Which is why Unite was disappointed by the failure of the Equality Act 2010 to include statutory rights and time off for union equality reps in order to put them on an equal footing with workplace, safety and learning reps.

This is a principle Unite remains committed to achieving and in the meantime electing new equality reps and then training them remains a priority. 

In November 2011 Shokat Ali, a Royal Bank of Scotland employee in Manchester, and Stagecoach bus drivers, Simon Bell and Phil Peak, utilised negotiated agreements with their companies to join the four day Equality and Diversity course in Unite’s offices close to Old Trafford. Joining them were voluntary sector and local government reps, all recently elected. 

“I became an equalities rep because of the introduction of the Equality Act that is designed to help achieve equal opportunities at work. I wanted to get up to date with all the new legislation. Then I want to use it to represent members as part of a fight to get their rights by establishing an effective line of communication with management,” explained Shokat. 

“And to do that you need a bit of guidance, which is where the course comes in,” said Simon, a driver for over 25 years. 

“We don’t want people being discriminated against, and fighting on someone’s behalf is helped if you’re up to date with case law and can put forward concise arguments,” said Phil, who works in Stockport.  

“We’ve studied how to evaluate and tackle harassment, victimisation and direct and indirect discrimination of groups that are protected under the act on grounds of age, race, religion, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, sexual orientation, disability and gender reassignment,” said Shokat. 

“Which will be a big help at our bus depots as there many people who want to know what are their equality rights. As such we deal with many issues around time off for dependents, illnesses and disabilities,” said Phil, who in his ‘spare time’ is also teaching English as a Second Language to foreign drivers at Stagecoach.

Admitting that “most drivers probably don’t understand the role of equality reps,” both Phil and Simon were intending to help educate them by using union notice boards to explain the role. Like Shokat, they had little doubt that sceptics could be won over when they explained what they’d learnt on the course. 

“It’s for the members benefit that I’ve attended,” said Simon “and very largely I think they appreciate that to be the case. Like most workplaces today we have a diverse workforce and equality at work is very important.”

The course was tutored by Dave Marshall, who was a shop steward for 27 years until wrongfully dismissed by his employer in 2004, following which he undertook a Law Degree and Masters before becoming a tutor in Trade Union education. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Toolkit fails to fix empty homes scandal

Taken from Big Issue in the North magazine dated June 27th 2011

Government plans to reduce what Housing Minister Grant Shapps describes as the “scandal” of thousand of empty homes have been criticised as “inadequate” by housing campaigners, squatters and the opposition Labour Party.

This follows the release earlier the month of a revised 35-page Empty Homes toolkit for property owners, concerned neighbours, council officers and community organisations that want to bring empty homes back into use.

At the launch meeting Shapps said: “This shows the government aims to bring empty homes back into use.” 

There are known to be over 700,000 homes standing empty including over 300,000 that have remained unoccupied for, at least, one year.

Late last year the coalition Government allocated £100 million late last year to Housing Associations to unlock 3,000 empty homes for affordable rent and agreed to support local councils by matching the council tax raised for every empty property brought back into use.

It’s hoped that the latter, which was a part of the Liberal Democrats manifesto at the May 2010 election, will prove a strong enough financial incentive for councils to deal with problems in their area.

But government is also cutting other housing funding with £4 billion [from £8.4 billion] coming off the affordable house building budget under which Housing Associations were given a 40% subsidy to construct some 50,000 homes each year. According to Roger Harding, Head of Policy and Research at Shelter, this move will “prevent an entire generation from being able to secure an affordable place to live.” Whilst he welcomes any measures to get the best use of existing housing stock Harding believes there will still be a need for “a massive number of new affordable homes.”

The shadow Housing Minster, Labour’s Alison Seabeck, meanwhile accused the Tories of having wasted 13 years in opposition by failing to develop a housing policy. She said that the government was more concerned about “getting a good press rather than making real progress such that no one really knows how many empty homes will have been brought back into use by the government’s programme. I’m not hopeful it will be that many.”

All of which might see the numbers considering squatting rise. According to the London based Advisory Service for Squatters [ASS] there are around 22,000 squatters in England and Wales, up from 9,500 in 1995 and last year a representative of the UK Bailiff Company claimed that the number of people squatting in Wales was at its highest for 40 years.

Set alongside 700,000 empty homes its still a relatively small figure at around 3% of the total and yet the toolkit makes regular references to the need to prevent empty homes being squatted in order to prevent them being damaged.

Myk from ASS accuses the government of misrepresenting squatters saying they are “simply people who find themselves homeless and need somewhere to live. ASS would welcome any funding that would encourage communities to take over empty space in a way that gives security to those housed. In the past short-life housing co-operatives  allowed thousands of people to house themselves and collectively carry out any repair works needed, and they often only failed because they didn’t lead to more secure housing options.”

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Michael Stone is innocent

Sky News tonight reported that 

Psychopath Levi Bellfield could also be the real killer of mother and daughter Lin and Megan Russell, according to the solicitor for the man now serving life for those notorious murders. Michael Stone was convicted of the 1996 killings at Chillenden, Kent, principally on the evidence of a fellow prisoner who claimed Stone had confessed to him in jail. Heroin addict Stone, 50, always denied the murders and campaigners have long argued he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

His solicitor Paul Bacon said there was "compelling" circumstantial evidence to suggest that Bellfield - now convicted of Milly Dowler's murder - could be the real killer. He is urging police to find and re-examine a key piece of evidence - a bloodied shoelace - for forensic links to Bellfield.

Back in 2005 i wrote a piece on Stone's case called 'Taking the piss out of common sense' - it can be found at 

and appears below:- 

The continued denial of Justice for Michael Stone
Taking the piss out of common sense
 by Mark Metcalf, February 2nd 2005
After months of preparation and two and a half days of legal argument it took three judges less than 10 minutes to dismiss Michael Stone's appeal on Wednesday January 19th 2005 against his convictions for murdering Lin and Megan Russell, and the attempted murder of Josie Russell in July 1996.

Without even glancing in Stone's direction Deputy Lord Justice Rose announced that  "This appeal is dismissed" thus confirming what Stone had clearly anticipated when at the start of the last day's proceedings he had entered the Appeal Court, nodded at his sister Barbara and in Roman fashion given the thumbs down sign. As he was taken away the three Appeal Court Judges announced they would give written reasons for their dismissal two days later. Journalists rushed to phone their papers, radio and TV stations with the news. 

Outside the court a scrum formed to interview Barbara Stone, who when she emerged said there was "not a scrap of evidence" to convict her brother.

Fighting back the tears she admitted that "whilst it was unfortunate that the thing we want the most" [the overturning of the convictions] would inevitably "cause distress to Josie and her father" she was sure "that no one would want the wrong person being locked up for such a terrible crime" as this would mean "the murderer or murderers were still out there." 

In numerous interviews that she conducted afterwards Barbara Stone continued to argue that her brother was innocent of the crimes he has been convicted of.

Remarkably, despite the fact that Barbara Stone was representing a man found guilty of the brutal slaying of two people, one a young child and the leaving for dead of another she was treated with respect. Journalists as a whole are not noted for treating people, especially those representing convicted child killers, with respect. Could this be that having heard the evidence in this case they know and recognise that something is just not right’? That Stone is, in fact, not the person responsible?

They were asked about their own opinions on the case. "Well it doesn't look right does it" said one; "he isn't guilty said another" and mostly "I'm not sure."

Back in Chillenden in Kent, where the murders had taken place, residents were asked their opinions. Jerry Copestake, landlord of the Griffins Head pub said "Most people round here don't think he did it." Two years ago on a visit to Chillenden with Barbara Stone I was anxious not to be seen, fearful that being in her company may lead to us being attacked. I could not have been more wrong, she popped in and out of the pub, we walked across the fields and no-one seemed concerned although some residents clearly knew who she was as they glanced in her direction.

No one has taken a poll to see if the majority of people in Britain believe Michael Stone is innocent, or guilty, but it would be an astute man, I guess who could predict with any certainty what the result would be. 

And this after two trials and two appeals. Clearly something is wrong? Is it really the case, as Barbara Stone has alleged on numerous occasions, that there is "not a scrap of evidence" against her brother?

Lin, Megan and Josie Russell were attacked as they walked along a secluded path next to a cornfield on their way home on July 9th 1996. It was a bright summer evening and the fields and vegetation were in full bloom. Although the path could and was used by cars it is not wide enough to allow overtaking, if two cars were to meet then one car must reverse into a small clearing to allow the other to pass.

At Stone's first trial in 1998 at Maidstone crown court the Prosecuting Barrister for the Crown suggested that he had sat in his car watching the Russell’'s cross a series of fields before walking down the path. He had intended to rob them in order to get money to feed his heroin habit.
The Jury was taken to the scene of the crime. The trial took place in October 1998, when the scenery and the environment are entirely different from the month when the crimes occurred. In October you can see a good distance. 

A visitor in July wanting to see if it is possible to sit and watch people coming from some distance away would soon see that it is not possible. The trees are too tall, and the vegetation is too dense. It is an unlikely place for anyone out on the rob’ to sit, and that is putting it mildly.

No person desperate for money to feed a serious drug habit, and Michael Stone had one, would be sitting in a car on a path alongside a field in Chillenden waiting for someone to come along. It simply defies commonsense.

Stone was arrested following a reconstruction of events on July 9th 1997 on the popular BBC Crimewatch series. His psychiatrist rang up to say his profile matched that of the killer or killers. From the start he protested his innocence, he still does. His defence was a strange one, he couldn't remember what he was doing on that day, or in fact what he was doing on many days during the summer of 1996.

He had lived in a children’s home as a young boy in nearby Canterbury. As such it was alleged that he knew the area around Chillenden well. Michael Stone denied this. If he had known the area well I think that makes it even more unlikely he would have gone there. He would have known that unless he was incredibly lucky few, if any people, would be wandering down a deserted lane. He could have waited hours for anyone to walk down the lane. This would not have helped him to secure some cash to feed his heroin addiction.

The Russell’s had been tied up with towels and bootlaces and attacked with a hammer, the motive cited by the police as being robbery. Stone, said the three Appeal judge’'s, was a heroin addict who kept bootlaces. Half of Britain must keep a spare set of bootlaces.  It was said that Stone used bootlaces as a tourniquet when he injected himself. The police didn't bring any to the first two trials; well none shown to belong to Michael Stone, and neither were they able to provide any witnesses to show that Stone did use such a method to inject himself.

Stone it was said had the habit of carrying tools in his car. Many people do, it doesn't make them murderers.

There was no forensic evidence to link Stone with the crimes, no D.N.A samples left behind and no witnesses to what had taken place. Josie, then nine, had been left for dead and mercifully recovered. In time she was able to recount some of her experiences to the police but has never been able to give an accurate description of her attacker. At an identity parade she did not pick out Michael Stone. Her grief must be intense; she appears to be a remarkable young woman who now aged 17 is rightfully trying to get on with her life. After Stone's appeal failed in January 2005 her father Shaun said, "Josie and I have made an effort to put our memories of this terrible affair behind us." No one can blame them for doing so.

The Appeal Court Judges also cited statements from a number of witnesses that Stone often changed his car and that in the summer of 1996 he had beige coloured car. Stone disputes this. A witness had said she had seen a beige coloured car emerge from the path at Chillenden on the evening of the murders; she had followed it. She claimed that a man with a blond French cropped hair was driving. Stone is bald so even if had had a beige car it wasn't his she saw.

Meanwhile it is known that Kent Police had stopped Michael Stone just two days before the murders and asked him to produce his driving documents to show that he was the owner of a white Toyota Tercil he was driving. He did this within 24 hours.

Sherry Bhatt, a friend of Michael Stone had given a statement that she had spoken with him the afternoon of July 10th 1996 the day after the attack on the Russell's. She said that she had asked him about blood on his t-shirt. She claimed that he'd said he'd had a fight and yet there were no indications of any injuries. She clearly didn't think this as being too important at the time, as it was only Michael Stone had been arrested a year later that she approached the police. Michael Stone denies that he had blood on his t-shirt. The t-shirt, naturally, has never been found so it will never be possible to say if there was blood on it and if so whose blood it was.

So at this point the case against Stone amounts to unproven claims that he changed his car a few times, keeping tools in the boot, possessing some boot laces, having lived as a child in a home ten miles from Chillenden and an unproven tale from someone about him having some blood on an old t-shirt.

However Maidstone Crown Court in 1998 heard evidence from three prisoners that Michael Stone had confessed, at separate times, to them that he’d carried out the murders. This was damming proof that Stone had done it; he'd killed Lin and Megan Russell and left Josie fighting for life.

Within days of his conviction however the statement of one of the prisoners Barry Thompson was discredited, when he admitted lying after obtaining a fee of £5,000 from 'The Sun'’ newspaper for his story with promises of another £10,000 if Stone was convicted.  A second witness, Mark Jennings, was known to be unreliable and was not used by the Prosecution at the second trial in Nottingham.

Stone's conviction was quashed and retrial was ordered. In 2001 at Nottingham crown court he was found guilty after the Jury, with a majority verdict of 10 to 2, decided to accept that the remaining witness of the three, Damien Daly, was telling the truth when he gave evidence that Stone had confessed to him that he had attacked the Russell's.

Daley, who has a long string of convictions for robbery and burglary, was on remand in Canterbury Prison whilst awaiting trial. He was being housed in the segregation wing. According to his statement this was because of an allegation of violence towards another inmate. ’

On Tuesday September 23rd 1997 he claims to have verbally defended Michael Stone when the latter was placed in the next-door cell after other prisoners abused him for the murders of Lin and Megan Russell and the attempted murder of Josie Russell.

According to Daley, his defence led to Stone then lying down in his cell and using the water pipes to state, “"You’re my friend." Stone apparently also knew Daley's surname as according to Daley's statement I heard Stone call me by my surname’ although they clearly didn't know each other beforehand as Daley claims he wasn't certain on September 23rd whether his neighbour was Michael Stow or Stone.

Daley then claims that Stone told him all about the murders, that what he heard upset him so much that he was forced to move away from the wall, but that when he saw the Daily Mirror front page article of that day, with its details of events in the case, he went back to the pipes to listen.

At the second trial in Nottingham Daley had said that because the pipes were hot he had been forced to wrap a towel round them. The prison records showed that the heating was not turned on till October.

Daley claims that he told Stone [or Stow] he'd tell the prison officers but Stone said that they wouldn't believe him. Detective Constable P Phippin of Kent Police took Daley's statement on September 26th 1997. Daley claimed he needed to speak to his uncle, as he didn't want to be seen as a grass’ by speaking to the police. His uncle apparently said that for such a serious offence he should speak to the police.

Daley's statement, at just over 3 pages long takes approximately 10 minutes to read. According to the records it took nearly two hours to compile as it commenced at 17.15 and concluded at 19.12 hours. There must have an awful lot of silences during this time.

At Maidstone crown court Daley had told the jury that he had never taken heroin; in the second trial he said he had used it only occasionally.

Edward Fitzgerald QC for Michael Stone revealed during the appeal in January 2005 that Daley was now admitting to have used heroin heavily since 1996. As such he had perjured himself to two juries. Fitzgerald argued that this made all of his evidence "inherently unreliable."

Fitzgerald further argued that the Judge at the trial in Nottingham had an obligation to give the jury a warning "to be cautious" about "an oral confession" from "a person of dishonest character." If they had done so it is difficult to believe that the numbers being willing to convict Stone would not have fallen.

Fitzgerald claimed that the need to give the jury a warning was a point of law "which has arisen in this case.' After the appeal was refused Fitzgerald chose to argue that the appeal judges should allow the House of Lords to decide whether what he was arguing was correct. They declined to allow him to do so, thus probably cutting off the possibility of Michael Stone’s appeal case against his convictions being taken to the House of Lords.

As such probably the only legal avenue currently available, unless new evidence can be unearthed, is for Michael Stone to take his case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Meanwhile as Barbara Stone said on Friday January 21st "my brother is innocent" and "no matter how long it takes we shall prove that."

Meanwhile Stone languishes in prison for having killed Lin and Megan Russell and attempting to murder Josie Russell.

In Stone's case there is: -
·   No evidence linking him to the awful crimes
·   No D.N.A linking him to the scene of the crime.
·    No witnesses to the crime.
·   No body has picked him out of an I.D parade
·   No-one has been found who saw him in the Canterbury area on the day of the crime

Alongside which stands: -
·    Unproven claims that he swapped his car a few times
·   An unproven claim that he had blood on an old t-shirt the day after the murders took place

Meanwhile he has always protested his innocence.

And whilst
·   Yes, he did live at one time at a children's home nearby.
·   He did keep tools in the boot of his car.
·   He may even have owned some bootlaces.

These don't prove someone murdered two people and left another for dead.

And neither does the say-so of a convicted criminal who Barbara Stone correctly said outside the Court of Appeal on Wednesday January 19th has "laid his way through two trials."

Michael Stone's convictions for the murder of Lin and Megan Russell, as well as the attempted murder on Josie Russell literally takes the piss out of common sense’

Mark Metcalf, February 2nd 2005

Messages of Solidarity/support to Michael can be sent to:

Michael J Stone
HMP Full Sutton
Moor Lane
Stamford Bridge
York YO4 1PS

Birthday June 7th

The game farm tax dodgers - revenue loses millions.

Hundreds of game farms are not registered to pay business rates.  As a result the Treasury is losing out on millions of £s in valuable tax revenues that are used to help fund local services such as police, fire and care for the elderly.

Game farms that produce birds such as pheasants, ducks and partridges for shooting are commercial operations. That’s the case even if farmers with agricultural operations, that under the law enjoy exemption from non-domestic rates, run them. Previous legal challenges by game farms to this have all been lost.

The farms advertise their services in local newspapers, on the web and in specialist magazines such as Shooting Times that is sold in WH Smith. It’s legal and you can purchase a newly born pheasant or partridge chick for a £1 with 6-7 week old poults costing £3.60. Millions will be shot at locations such as the Ingleborough Estate of the Farer Family where a party of eight will pay £20,000 for a day killing pheasants.

All of which makes it big business and five years ago the shooting industry claimed to be contributing £1.6 billion to the British economy and employing 61,000 people.

As all commercial operations that are paying business rates, including public toilets and even the seafront ice-cream van, are listed on the Valuation Office Agency [VOA] website its easy to check which game farms are paying their way by using their registered postal addresses within the ‘business rates’ section.

Over the last ten years that’s just what the UK’s largest animal rights group Animal Aid has done on various occasions, uncovering systematic abuse with a huge list of game farms right across the country not listed.

They currently include Rushwood Game Breeders near York, County Farm in Malton, North Yorkshire, Ashley Game Farm in Devon, Heart of England Farms in Warwickshire and Fayre Game Limited in Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire.

Animal Aid has frequently alerted the VOA about their concerns. It wants others to do so if they suspect a game farm is not listed. The organisation would also like to see the government put under pressure to tighten responsibility of those agencies charged with the collection and listing of NDR-liable properties.

Because whilst the VOA is responsible for compiling the lists of farms it often relies heavily on local authorities passing on information such as when applications for planning consent are made. In the past Powys County Council failed, due to no formal link between their planning and financial services departments, to alert the VOA to a massive expansion programme at Bettws Hall Hatcheries and as a result the first years business rates were lost.

Animal Aid’s campaign aims to raise the cost of shooting in order to take it out of the reach of some of those currently participating. Five years ago the organisation successfully campaigned to get HM Revenue and Customs [HMRC] to examine the shooting industry for ‘non-compliance and misunderstanding’ on the need to charge VAT on their activities.

Within months the HMRC had undertaken over 100 estate visits. During which they discovered businesses with multiple irregularities that included not registering to pay VAT and under reporting of sales values. There were even attempts to defraud with some businesses attempting to recover VAT on goods used for shooting purposes by claiming they were for agricultural use. 

Within a year £12 million in previously lost revenues had been harvested. And whilst Britain’s tax department hasn’t issued a total figure in additional tax paid since 2006 it must run into millions. Isn’t it now time the Government started a similar initiative to get game farms contributing.  

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

What's happening with the proposed incinerator emission study?

The exact details of the proposed study on the impact of incinerator emissions on public heath are still months away from being announced. This is to be conducted on behalf of the Health Protection Agency [HPA] by a team from the Small Area Health Statistics Unit at Imperial College London led by Professor Brian Elliott, whose secretary said:  “We are still talking to the HPA about what it will involve, so nothing is confirmed yet.”

Whilst at present the HPA is maintaining its stance that incinerators pose little risk to public health the fact that they have failed, despite previous promises, to conduct any studies to prove this to be the case must inevitably cast doubt on such a view. Especially when it is known that properly organised studies conducted overseas - such as in Japan in 2004 - prove the exact opposite.

Shasha Khan is the co-ordinator of Croydon Green Party and also a founder member of the Stop the South London incinerator campaign.  He would “very much welcome” a study, especially as one of his nearest relatives, who lived close to the Edmonton incinerator in North London, is dying of lung cancer even though she never smoked. He doesn’t know if the emissions from it are the cause but is curious to find out.

“We need to finally understand if there is an impact from incinerators and we need a study which has the resources to do it properly. Let’s hope we are not too far away from this happening. I can’t see how the bodies that license incinerators can say they are safe because they haven’t conducted any studies to demonstrate that is the case” says Shasha who stressed that he also objects to incinerators on cost grounds and the fact that they reduce waste recycling levels.

“Incinerator’s are being built under the Private Finance Initiative that ties councils into 20-25 year contracts whereby they promise to supply a certain amount of waste or the cash equivalent. As the world’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 there will be an awful lot of waste and we need international co-ordination to ensure we recycle much more than we currently manage to do. Plenty of what we burn could be re-used,” says Shasha.

Shlomo Dowen, national co-ordinator of the campaign body UK without incinerators [UKWIN] makes many of the same points when asked about the proposed study. As he was quoted in the Sunday Express article of May 1st at

then I express my surprise that he appears not to have informed the various groups dotted around the UK of its contents or the study - and certainly there’s nothing on the UKWIN site as of today. [June 22nd

He states this is because “the scientific method is stacked against us if we have to prove damage. Even if every single incinerator was surrounded by a string of dead people they could say it was due to something else. My job is to work with local groups and there’s nothing such groups can do to change the government view that these are safe. Even if we all agree it’s a wrong policy once a group makes that argument at a planning meeting they are told it’s not a material planning reason. We need to go with what is effective and the recent Rainworth decision
proves that we can win without the health arguments.”

Confused by such a line of argument and aware that in the Sunday Express article he mentions health as one of the reasons against incinerators I ask Shlomo what he thinks about Michael Ryan’s work
In my case Ryan has caused me to re-examine some of my views on the link between infant mortality levels and deprivation as it seems pretty clear that where incinerators are sited the number of deaths rise.

“The HPA should look at Michael’s work. His thesis is that incinerators and other industrial processes have a causal effect in that when they turn out emissions people breath it in and they become ill. According to that if the incinerators were switched off then those people wouldn’t die. Yet there was a period of years during the 1990s when they were in fact switched off to upgrade their filters to make them in line with European Union regulations and at that time there was no equivalent drop in the levels of infant mortality” said Shlomo Dowen. 

Monday, 20 June 2011

Future food in doubt

Britain’s future food security remains under threat after a new report failed to recommend new research or consider how more of the nation’s land can be used for food production. 

So says Lancashire scientist Charles Clutterbuck. He’s concerned that Britain’s reliance on imports for 40% of its food will - with emerging economies such as China and India seeking to lease land abroad - cause problems here. [*]

Global Food Security [GFS] was established when UK research councils, government departments and other public bodies agreed to combine their activities. It was a response to an earlier parliamentary committee examining whether the UK food system could double production over the next four decades.

GFS was going to ensure research activities designed to boost food and agricultural production were now going to be properly coordinated. Clutterbuck, who in his role as the special advisor to the parliamentary committee had been left amazed that Tesco hadn’t considered how they might source food in 20 years time, was delighted. Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s dominate the UK grocery market with over 75% of sales combined.  

One of the Big Four that dominate the UK Grocery Market

One year on he’s unimpressed. Firstly, Imperial College in London is closing their plant science department. This follows massive cuts last year at the vegetable centre at Wellesbourne, Warwickshire where research will now focus on a few key crops such as the lettuce, brassica, carrot and onion.

Britain first began closing its research centres during the 1980s, when amongst those that disappeared were ones covering fruit, grass and plant breeding. According to Clutterbuck, an agricultural scientist for four decades, this broke the link with farmers that helped ensure any research had a final practical implementation.

With the GFS report making no case for their re-opening Clutterbuck is convinced that: “Britain’s 65% drop in vegetable and fruit production over the last quarter of a century will accelerate. If we hope to feed ourselves in the future it’s just not good enough.”

Such conservatism Clutterbuck argues is compounded in the report’s belief that Britain can’t use more of its land. The Nelson resident contends that he has seen for himself in recent years a switch in land use away from agriculture towards recreational hobbies such as horse riding. A regular moorland visitor he knows that in France and Germany the land would be used for food production. He’d also like to see land used for pheasant shooting reconverted back into “forest with trees that grow edibles such as fruit.”

He’s aware the GFS plan envisages scientific advances will increase productivity per hectare but he doesn’t believe science always “produces what we hope as it’s not a straight line, therefore we should utilise what we’ve already got as a precaution.” 

He’s not too confident that will prove to be the case under the current government and he’s critical of its environmental spokesperson Caroline Spelman for her comments that it should be illegal for major food-growing countries to halt food exports during times of national crisis. This was a reference to Russia and the Ukraine, both of whom temporarily halted wheat exports last year to retain supplies during an unprecedented heat wave at home. This followed, after food commodity prices, doubled, 40 countries food export bans in 2008

“Telling Vladimir Putin he should let his own people starve to give people here cheap food isn’t a serious option and what we need on this issue is some serious thinking to ensure Britain moves beyond growing just 60% of the food we consume” says Clutterbuck.

A view National Farmers Union President Peter Kendall mirrored when he said “A country short of food trying to protect its own people’s supplies by banning grain exports is nothing compared to rich countries allowing their agriculture to decline and then expecting the rest of the world to feed them."

Not that Charlie, an active member of the trade union Unite, believes the NFU has the policies to revive agriculture and food production.

For that he’s convinced it’s a matter of ensuring we replace an ageing farming population with younger people. To do so they will need “proper training and a decent income either as farmers or workers” and that’s why “it’s so daft for the Government to be closing down the Agricultural Wages Board at a time when we need to be making the case that better paid workers are key to ensuring that Britain doesn’t in the future find itself going hungry and can also feed others across the world. ”

* This has, of course, caused problems within the host nations - in 2009 in Madagascar over 100 people were killed during protests against the signing of a 99-year lease to 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land to South Korean firm Daewoo.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Who's this bloke Lord Hutton, the pensions pincher?

As a Labour MP for eighteen years Lord John Hutton received close to a million pounds from the public purse. Yet, despite having a number of jobs lined up, he took a £64,776 're-adjustment' cash payment when he quit last year with a pension payout of £37,000 a year.

Lord Hutton was handsomely rewarded for his proposals to cut public sector workers pensions with a monthly salary of £4,000 for a three-day week.

He's also guaranteed £300 a day for attending the Lords. Finding the time could be difficult because as a paid advisor for law firm Eversheds he's currently speaking on the future of public sector pensions to audiences that include private pension providers. 

A year ago Hutton, a nuclear energy supporter, joined the board of U.S. firm Hyperion Power Generation Inc. The company aims to sell mini nuclear reactors but has attracted critics who fear the technology will be utilised as a 'bombmaking threat' by rogue regimes.

Meanwhile Hutton works as a 'strategic communications' consultant for PR firm APCO. The company hit the headlines last year when a former employee revealed it had been behind attacks on Michael Moore's filmSicko that pushed the case for a publicly funded US healthcare system.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Iraqi workers face fight for union rights

Iraq’s newly formed government is under pressure to reverse its decision to derecognise the countries major trade union federation. 

Created in 2005 the General Federation of Iraqi Workers [GFIW] is made up of 12 national unions. These emerged from decades of clandestine activity after the USA coalition led forces brought Saddam Hussein’s barbarous rule to an end in 2003. In a country where the average wage is under £200 a month the unions have sought to push up wage levels alongside campaigning for a more democratic Iraq.

Last year the GFIW was encouraged by the country’s president, Jalal Talabani, expression of support for the scrapping of Article 150. A hangover from the 1980s this banned public sector workers from joining trade unions. The hope was that once the political stalemate, that followed parliamentary elections in early 2010, had been resolved the subsequently formed Iraqi government would lift the ban.

Instead of which has come news - that following Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inclusion of representatives from all of the countries major political blocs in his cabinet  - that further restrictions are to be placed on trade unions rights to organise.

New Minster of Labour and Social Affairs, Nasser-al-Rabie, belongs to the Sadrist Party led by the radical Islamist Muqtada al-Sadr. In April Rabie announced he was derecognising the GFIW. On April 17th its offices were entered by troops that according to one of those present, GFIW international representative Abdullah Muhsin: “terrified everyone by pointing their armed weapons in people’s faces until we were forced to leave. We protested saying that we are not appointed by the government, but it did little good.”

The federation has since faced down arrest threats by re-occupying the offices. Demonstrations have been organised and an appeal has been made to the government to change its mind. Two sympathetic lawyers are working for free on taking out a court case. In the meantime appeals have been made for international support.

Here in Britain the Trades Union Congress [TUC] is backing the GFIW. A spokesperson said it was a “legitimate trade union movement that includes people from all parts of Iraq and all different religious groups. If there is to be a democratic Iraq then the right for workers to organise and participate in political affairs must be respected.”

The TUC he said was working with the International Labour Organisation and had urged the Government, and in particular, Foreign Secretary William Hague to raise the issue with his overseas counterparts. “William Hague has previously been good on workers’ rights in Iraq,” said the TUC spokesperson.

According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office its “officials at the British Embassy in Baghdad are aware that the British government is concerned at the withdrawal of recognition rights for the GFIW. We understand that the Government of Iraq may now be reconsidering their position.

“We, working with our EU partners, will continue to support efforts by the TUC and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to encourage the Government of Iraq to frame their labour legislation in a way that meets ILO standards and protects the rights of Iraqi workers.”

Monday, 13 June 2011

What future for young people?

A lack of jobs, University tuition fee increases and the ending of the Educational Maintenance Allowance are serious concerns for young people. So say teenagers attending a major skills event in Bolton.

SKILLS North West attracted 8,000 young people over its two days. With training providers, colleges, employers, careers advice agencies and Universities all mounting exhibitions, and providing interactive learning opportunities, there was a chance for 14-19 year olds to explore future career paths. 

That’s vital in a period when youth unemployment has hit a record national high of over 20%. All the more interesting therefore that some employers, said event organiser Nina Hurst Jones, had stayed away “for fear of being seen recruiting when they are making large redundancies.”

One stall with a regular stream of visitors was that of Babcock International. It’s a training provider for 19,000 youngsters on workplace apprenticeships, mainly in hospitality, public service and social and child-care.  According to Loraine Prendegast they’ve seen an increase in the “numbers considering earning while learning.”

Seventeen-year-old Oli Bond would be delighted to do so. He’s a public services student at Salford College who has applied unsuccessfully for many jobs. Whilst this doesn’t appear to have got him down, as “you have to get on with life’ he said smiling, that’s not the case for all his friends as “some are demoralised, feel there’s not much to be gained from seeking work, do very little and rely on their parents for money.”

Young people not in education, employment or training, or NEET’s for short, account for around one fifth of youth unemployment. Meanwhile around a quarter of young people aged 16 to 24 seeking work have been unable to find any for over a year. Such figures appear unlikely to fall shortly, especially as the public sector cuts that are in the offing have not yet hit home.

These include the coalition government’s removal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. [EMA] Labour introduced this in 2003 over concerns that fewer young people aged 16 were staying on at school or college. The scheme, which gives teenagers £30 while they study A-levels or vocational qualifications, is now in its final year in England, although in Scotland and Wales it continues courtesy of support from the Parliament’s there.

Manchester College media students Bhekin Ngwbnya and James Haskew will both stop receiving EMA when the second year of their course starts in September. It will mean Bhekin will now have to abandon the bus and walk each day to college whilst also finding a job. According to Science student Mohamed Sheikh, aged 19, there are a good number around “although pay rates rarely rise above the minimum wage.”

Already working in two jobs, news that University tuition fees would increase considerably made Mohamed consider abandoning plans to go to University only for “family and friends to persuade me that I should go on the understanding that if necessary they will assist financially.”

Brought here from Somalia by his father in 1999 he worries others from his community won’t be able to enjoy such support from their loved ones. As a result he’s convinced most won’t go to University knowing that they will leave with large debts to repay.

Rita Stevenson, aged 18 from Chester has already decided she doesn’t want to be in such a position. The sports student is now actively seeking an apprenticeship “ as going to University doesn’t guarantee you a job, so you could be left owing money for a long time.”  Along with her friends Yasmin Bridges and Ceara Doyle she’s upset at “being denied an opportunity that others before me have enjoyed.” Not that any of them, or the other dozen I spoke to, felt there was “much point in getting involved in protests as the government isn’t going to change its mind.” It certainly won’t however if they don’t!