Friday, 28 December 2012

Real Britannia author Colin Brown interview

A shortened version of this interview will appear in the Big Issue in the North magazine shortly. I found the book to be very easy to read and highly informative. I didn't agree with everything Colin Brown wrote, but I would recommend this book to anyone.  

Our Ten Proudest Years - the glory and the spin
Colin Brown 

Veteran political reporter Colin Brown travels to the places where British history was made to sort fact from fiction. 

  1. Why did you write this book?

Because David Cameron provoked a heated national debate in 2010 by saying 1940 was our ‘proudest’ year. YouGov did a poll which showed a split in the nation – women chose years of social advance – the abolition of slavery (1833), equality of voting with men (1928) or the birth of the NHS (1948) while men chose military victories – Waterloo (1815), Agincourt (1415), or the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). I approached it like an investigative reporter, interrogating the past, the records, eye witness accounts, the places, and found loads of surprises. I did not realise, for example, that in the year Wellington defeated Napoleon, there were serious food riots at home. Was there a link between the riots in 1815 and those in 2011? There were big differences – the rioters in 1815 were protesting about the price of bread going up and they had no votes in the new big cities; those in 2011 were looting bling, not bread, and they have the vote if only they’d use it. But it is a reminder from history – street riots have been part of the British way of life for centuries.

2 Magna Carta is viewed as one of the great pillars of the British constitution – was that the intention in 1215?

It is almost certain President Barack Obama will be here in 2015 for the 800th anniversary ceremony at Runnymede meadows, where King John put his seal on the ‘Great Charter’. And I bet he will repeat the myth the Magna Carta lays down inalienable rights about the rule of law embodied in the US constitution. Magna Carta – the Great Charter – was a grubby deal reached between a bunch of rebellious landowners (the barons) and a weak king with his back to the wall. It was never intended to set out civil liberties. Magna Carta was a shopping list of Barons’ ‘belly aches’ about the king’s arbitrary use of his powers, right down to medieval measures of ale. The two key clauses that matter today prohibited the king from imprisoning any ‘free’ man except by lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land; and stopped the king from selling, denying or delaying a right to justice. But even these can be misleading – ‘free’ men were part of the upper classes; Magna Carta never applied to the mass of peasants. Claire Breay, the lead curator of the early manuscripts at the British Library where a copy is on display told me Magna Carta was ‘not a statement of fundamental principles of liberty’. What it did do was limit the powers of the Monarch. That was later embroidered and adapted by the Founding Fathers of revolutionary America for inclusion in their Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all Men are created equal.” Magna Carta today gives power to Parliament over the Monarch (or a President, if he ever became a Republic again), but it remains powerful because over the centuries it has come to mean what we want it to mean. 

  1. What is the double game you attribute to William Pitt the younger in the campaign to abolish slavery?
I came at this book as a political journalist of 30 years experience, and I asked questions that others had not raised. I sat on the same spot on the outskirts of Bromley where in  May 1787 Wilberforce sat under an oak tree and his great friend William Pitt suggested he should take up the campaign to ban slavery with a Parliamentary bill. Everyone – including Pitt’s biographer Foreign Secretary William Hague – seemed to take it for granted that Pitt was being generous to his friend. I was more sceptical. Why should the Prime Minister have invited Wilberforce to take up a bill that was highly controversial and could block up progress in Parliament? Pitt had just heard that his great Parliamentary rival, Charles James Fox was going to do it. So I speculate (I think rightly) that Pitt had gained two advantages – he could spike Fox’s guns, and he could have some influence over the passage of the measure while it was in the hands of his friend. The bill to outlaw the trade reached the statute book in 1807, nearly two years after Pitt’s death, but it was not until 1833 – a shocking delay - that full abolition was achieved. And don’t let anyone pretend that slavery doesn’t exist today. Modern slavery survives in people trafficking, gangmasters and pimping.

4) What makes you believe Queen Elizabeth knew the Spanish Armada had already capitulated when she drafted one of history’s most inspiring speeches?

There were ten days – ten crucial days - between the fire ships scattering the Spanish Armada on 7/8 August, 1588, as it lay at anchor near Calais awaiting the embarkation of the Spanish forces and Elizabeth sailing by barge from Whitehall to Tilbury fort on 18 August to rally her troops under the Earl of Leicester with her great speech. Walsingham, her great spymaster, was receiving regular reports and it is stretching belief to breaking point to imagine he did not know the Armada had been sent flying up the north sea by the time she arrived at their camp. Elizabeth’s great cry of defiance against the Dons – which has inspired later generations of Brits faced with invasion (by Napoleon and Hitler) - was as much a piece of elaborate Elizabethan theatre as Shakespeare’s plays which she loved. American academics have doubted she even made her famous speech, but I am sure the manuscript I tracked down in the British Library was written on the day she delivered it : ‘I have ye body butt of a weak and feeble woman, but I have ye heart and stomach of a king…’ Whether it was spin or not, touching it was like touching history. It lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.

5) What was gained by visiting Azincourt, Dover, Brixham etc?
A sense of place. They all have a different story to tell to us today. For example, I visited Azincourt on St Crispin’s Day – and found the water lying in the muddy fields, just as King Henry V and his bedraggled army must have done. The battlefield is largely unchanged. I’d like Real Britannia to be read not just as history book, but as a travel guide to inspire people to dig into their own local history. It is written as much about Azincourt, Dover, Brixham, Hull and Manchester today as the past. I used as my guide the books of a former colleague at the Independent Bill Bryson (particularly his Notes from the Small Island). I had many amazing encounters by travelling to these places – the Orange Lodge marchers from Liverpool I met in Brixham, Devon; my guide at the Wilberforce museum in Hull, who told me about the real anger of the Afro-Caribbean visitors who still feel pain for their ancestors, the slaves; and the guide who allowed me to step out onto the balcony where Churchill had stood on the White Cliffs of Dover in 1940. History is alive and kicking out there, if you look for it.

6) Surely suffragette Emily Davison was intent on committing suicide when she ran in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby?
That’s another myth, encouraged by the Pankhursts so that they could claim their first martyr. By the time she died, Davison had become alienated from the Pankhurst leadership because she was too radical. Pathe News captured the moment at the 1913 Derby and it is difficult to see what happened, but a remarkable enhanced version has been posted on YouTube (Muerte en el derby de Epsom - which shows she let three horses go by and picked the King’s horse to make her protest. The inquest never heard that she had a scarf in the Suffragettes’ colours (it’s now on show at the House of Commons). There is anecdotal evidence she had practised tying things to running horses bridles’ near her mother’s home in the Morpeth area of the north east. I think she was trying to tie the colours to the bridle. Her return ticket from Epsom to London Victoria and a ticket for a Suffragette event later that day (in the Women’s Library archive) add to the evidence she was planning a daring stunt, but I think the film shows she didn’t ‘throw herself under the king’s horse’…and the plaque put up by Tony Benn in Parliament is incorrect on that point! There will be a big exhibition at Westminster in 2013 to mark the first centenary of her death, so this controversy won’t lie down.

7) How important was the establishment of the NHS in postwar politics?
The creation of the Welfare State by the Attlee government was a crowning glory of the 20th Century Britain, in my view, and the NHS was the Cullinan Diamond. Sylvia Buckingham, officially the ‘first’ NHS patient at the Park Hospital, Trafford in Manchester, put it simply – before vesting day, her parents would not have been able to afford her life-saving treatment; after it, they didn’t have to pay a penny. Sir Winston Churchill, in my view, made a huge strategic mistake in voting against the legislation that gave birth to the NHS although he was right to have doubts about affordability. It is to the lasting credit of the coalition government that it launched Beveridge on the project in 1942, in the depths of war. It showed Churchill’s vision as a great war leader. Pity he didn’t keep it up in peace.

8) Do you have a favourite year and why?
I’d like it to be 2012 – the year Britain rediscovered its pride, reclaimed its flag, and re-united under the bunting we put out for the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics and Paralympics. But I don’t believe that great feeling of being at ease with ourselves will last. So I’d plump – like the majority in the YouGov poll and the PM – for 1940 because without Churchill’s resistance, I wouldn’t be here. My father, like all males between 17 and 45 in German-occupied Britain, would have been sent off to a camp in Europe. This is something the Appeasers never understood in their anxiety to do a deal with Hitler. And it’s worth noting that that great peacenik, Michael Foot, was a secret co-author of the attack on the Appeasers – the Guilty Men. You don’t have to be a warmonger to fight for something you believe in.

Evicted over water bills

A former Rochdale councillor claims council tenants are being unfairly evicted because they are unable to pay their quarterly water bills direct to their supplier. 
Seven years ago the council agreed to pay tenants’ bills in advance to the United Utilities water company and began issuing combined water and rent bills to tenants.  
Peter Evans, who in 2004-5 was a member of the council scrutiny committee - which raised a number of concerns about the agreement then being planned - also fears council tenants are not being given access to funds that assist those who fall into debt or being offered help to reduce their water bills. 
“What concerns me is that residents in non council properties are billed directly by United Utilities. If they can’t pay it then they have a private debt. They would not get evicted for this. 
“But in council properties a tenant’s combined bill makes it difficult - some might say almost impossible - to work out whether any debt is for water. As a result they have a debt with the council’s (now former) housing management company, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) and face being evicted. This is unfair,” says Evans.
Rochdale Law Centre echoed this concern in a report to the scrutiny committee in 2008. It said: “Council tenants are treated less favourably than other residents as no other section of the community is at risk of losing their homes for non-payment of water charges.” 
Four years on, the Law Centre has worked on cases in which water rate debts have been part of the reason for the evictions, according to its senior housing officer Gill Quine. “ The lack of differentiation on the tenants’ bill makes it impossible to say how many,” she said.
Rochdale council evict over 100 people each year from its properties. 
The United Utilities Trust Fund assists customers who fall behind with payments. Evans claims these are not available to council tenants. RBH has disputed this but failed to provide information on numbers. 
United Utilities customers who cannot have a water meter can apply for an assessment charge, which for  a single person is £272.60 annually, rising to £376.63 for multi-occupants. Evans has been informed that no occupants of Town House flats - seven large RBH tower blocks known locally as ‘the Seven Sisters’ - who pay just under £11 a week in water charges have applied for an assessment charge. 
Evans said: “Lack of advice and support means the lower tariffs are being missed by many tenants.”
One long-standing council tenant on the Kirklee Road Estate has for five years been refusing to pay his water rates in protest at the council’s actions. Labourer Frank Dixon  has just promised three appeal judges in the High Court that he will pay £5 a week off his arrears, which at £1,978 will take nearly eight years to erase. Dixon believes it has cost Rochdale Council almost £30,000 in protracted legal challenges to his case. The judges were not asked to rule on the legality of the agreement, which Dixon is continuing to contest. 
On the grounds that RBH became a separate company earlier this year, Rochdale Council would not answer the Big Issue in the North’s questions. These included a potential new twist in the long running saga as from April this year RBH has been a private company and Evans has been questioning whether “two private companies can conclude an agreement between themselves without the formal agreement of the payee.” 

Evans, a former Conservative councillor, has now written to the communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles asking him to examine the contract signed by Rochdale Council and United Utilities, which runs till March 2015. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Should grouse shooters bog off? Ban the burn in Hebden Bridge

Blanket bog is known to reduce flooding risks. So why is public money helping to fuel its’ destruction at the expense of subsidising grouse shooting? Residents of a flooded West Yorkshire market town have now launched a Ban the burn campaign designed at reversing the destruction of one of the UK’s most vital habitats. The outcome will have implications for rural and urban areas right across the country.

All photographs courtesy of Mark Harvey of ID8 photography 

When the Upper Calder Valley was hit by heavy, prolonged rain earlier this year the picturesque town of Hebden Bridge was hit hard and flooded on two occasions, resulting in a £11 million clear-up bill and forcing some businesses to permanently close. 
Meantime there was better news for local businessman Richard Bannister, the owner of the upland Walshaw Moor Estate (WME), who it was announced in June would receive £2.5 million of public money over the next decade under an Environmental Stewardship agreement with Natural England.  

The news came soon after Natural England (NE) dropped plans to prosecute the WME on 43 grounds of unconsented damage, including converting a stream to a track. Seven years ago the estate was successfully prosecuted for building on protected habitat. A dissatisfied RSPB has now submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission regarding NE’s dealings with WME, alleging, amongst other complaints, it fails to protect the very sensitive blanket bog habitats on the estate. 

NE’s action follows the decision by the organisation in March 2012 to withdraw its Vital Uplands plans that proposed re-wetting all peat and blanket bog.  The Moorland Association, mainly grouse shooting owners, of which Environment Secretary Richard Benyon is one, had lobbied hard to block restrictions on moorland burning, a practice employed to generate young heather growth for shelter and food for grouse. 

Since Bannister purchased WME in 2002, the numbers of grouse have risen from 100 brace to 3,000 and there is regular burning of the blanket bog. A new drainage system facilitates further peat drying.  

Burnt heath on drained blanket bog 

Blanket peat bog is found on gently undulating ground with high rainfall. Peat forms, often over thousands of years, from the partial decomposition of wetland plants, especially Sphagnum moses. It is one of the most extensive habitats in England, covering around 245,000 upland hectares and vital in storing more than 3bn tonnes of carbon. Environmentalists fear that the loss of even 5% would double the UK’s annual emissions. 
According to NE: ‘Blanket bog can also secure high water quality and reduce flood risk downstream through slowing hydrological pathways.’
Knowing all this, Hebden Bridge residents are seeking to prevent burning on local upland areas. Ban the burn was formed in August. Active member Dongria Kondh, President of the towns socialist Trades Club, said: “We do not object to money going to landowners. But with increased flooding risks we need the burning to stop, drainage ditches removed and time given to allow revegetation of the peat habitat that acts as a buffer to water running down into the valley. We also want carbon emissions reduced.”
With the RSPB case expected to take a year to reach the European Commission, Dongria said the group would concentrate on monitoring activities on the WME, whose owner has yet to comment on growing local dissatisfaction at his actions.  

New shooting butts on Walshaw Moor estate

All photographs are copyright Mark Harvey 

Government wastes clean coal technology development

The government’s refusal to back a clean coal project in South Yorkshire puts the country’s energy supply at risk and means jobs will be lost, claims a former mineworkers’ official.

At Hatfield Power Station, the company 2CO Energy was planning a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project. The race is on to commercialise CCS technology as it could help drastically cut CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

2CO’s project at Hatfield, near Doncaster, would involve constructing a large underground pipeline to transport CO2 emissions out into the North Sea, where scientists believe it could be buried safely. 2CO had been granted £160 million from the EU and was earmarked for a further £250 million grant next year after it was chosen as the best scheme in Europe.

But in October the government announced it would not provide UK funding for the £1 billion project and would be backing four cheaper CCS schemes that are less advanced. It also said it will allow energy companies to increase their charges by £100 annually to fund renewable energy.

Dave Douglass, former National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) branch secretary at Hatfield Main Colliery, near Doncaster – which supplies coal to the nearby power station – said: “The government is driving a stake through the heart of the coal energy industry and killing off the last serious net energy supply.

“Coal is now dead. Wrecking the Hatfield project by not providing public funds for what is the most advanced CCS project and then bringing the tax on coal power to over £9 billion a year wrecks all prospects of developing what is currently the cheapest form of energy generation.

“The prospect of saving the eight deep coalmines in existence is certainly being killed off. Yet we have thousands of years of coal underneath our feet. Digging it up will provide jobs. Developing clean coal technology will protect the environment. Throw in the fact we can have cheaper energy as well and I’d hope some MPs would see sense.”

The mayor of Doncaster, Peter Davies, said: “The government’s decision was beyond belief as the project would have created over 7,000 jobs, opened up new export markets and have significant environmental benefits.”

The TUC regional secretary, Bill Adams, said he feared the mine at Hatfield “could now be at risk”.
Coal continues to provide 30 per cent of the country’s electricity, a figure that jumps to over 50 per cent on many days. But European legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions is forcing the closure of five of the country’s remaining 19 coal-fired stations by 2015.

In a bid to close the resulting energy deficit the energy minister Ed Davey has announced that switching the UK to a low-carbon economy will be encouraged by allowing energy firms to raise the “green levy” on bills from £3 billion to £7.6 billion a year by 2020.

This will increase household energy bills annually by £100 – money that would be used for investment in wind, nuclear and biomass projects. The move has all-party parliamentary support.

Douglass and the NUM had previously backed the National Coal Board’s Coal Research Establishment, where 200 engineers, scientists and technical staff developed a global lead in CCS technology. But the research establishment was closed in the early 1990s, since when carbon CCS development has been led by private companies.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

London infants more likely to die if born downwind of incinerators

A Shrewsbury man has analysed statistics for the last decade to show that infants in London are more likely to die if they are born downwind of incinerators. 

Michael Ryan was inspired to examine the health record of incinerators after he lost two children more than a decade ago and considered their deaths may have been the result of having lived downwind of an incinerator. Since then he has rigorously collected all publicly available statistics and consistently challenged the accepted wisdom that high infant mortality rates can solely be attributed to deprivation and cultural problems. 

England’s capital has 625 wards. The average for the 44 wards with the highest infant mortality rates is 8.8 per 1,000 live births. From a total of 95,574 live births there were 839 infant deaths. 

Nine of the 44 wards with the highest infant mortality rates are clustered around the Edmonton municipal waste incinerator and ten are downwind of the cluster of incinerators that include the Colnbrook incinerator which converts waste to electricity. Other clusters of above average infant mortality include wards around the Kings College Hospital incinerator and the South East London Combined Heat and Power incinerator in Bermondsey.

At the other scale the 59 wards with rates less than 2.0 per thousand averaged 1.4 deaths per 1,000 live births.  From a total of 89,380 live births just 128 infant deaths were recorded in the ten-year period 2002-2011. All of the 59 wards are sited in locations with minimal exposure to incinerators. 

“I’d like MPs and councillors to examine the statistics,” says Ryan. 

Justice demanded for miners’ arrested in 1984-85

Justice demanded for miners’ arrested in 1984-85
MPs are being asked to sign an early day motion on the policing of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.  
Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, a former President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), tabled the motion after South Yorkshire Police (SYP) referred themselves to Independent Police Complaints Commission  after a BBC documentary alleged that some of the police involved in prosecutions at the Orgreave Coke Plant near Rotherham had colluded when they wrote their statements. 
Miners had gathered in force at Orgreave on June 18 1984 with the intention of blockading the plant.  Unlike many pickets in the year-long dispute the strikers were escorted to a field nearby, which was flanked by police officers on all sides.  In the battle that followed, 95 pickets were arrested and charged with riot and unlawful assembly. 
Courts subsequently dismissed the charges after one PC reported that 15 colleagues had their statements dictated to them by two detectives. Later SYP paid £425,000 compensation to 39 pickets in an out of court settlement.
No police officer was reported to have been disciplined for fabricating evidence or the assaults on miners, a good number of which were caught on camera.
Michael Mansfield QC, who represented three acquitted miners, described the evidence given by SYP as “the biggest frame-up ever.” 
Nevertheless, the Battle of Orgreave was set to be a historical note if not for the work of that quite brilliant journalist, David Conn, who in April this year used the 23rd anniversary of the Hillsborough football disaster to highlight the connections with the two events.
This spurred former miners and supporters, like myself, to get organised and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign (OTJC) has been established and is demanding a public inquiry into the actions of the police at Orgreave. Members of the public are being asked to sign an epetition seeking truth and justice for all miners victimised by the police at Orgreave on June 18th 1984. (see 
The campaign has been backed by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC), who in September finally had confirmed what they had been saying for many years, including that many junior police officers had their statements doctored to remove criticism of police operations. The cover up extended to police trying to blame Liverpool fans, 96 of whom lost their lives at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground in April 1989.  
HJC spokeswoman, Sheila Coleman, said: “SYP is the common denominator that unites Orgreave and Hillsborough. At the inquests in Sheffield senior police officers referred to the crowd on the day of the disaster in relation to the policing of the miners’ strike. Indeed their experience of the miners’ strike was used as a positive indicator of their ability to police large crowds. 
“Liverpool people supported the miners and their families during their courageous fight in the 1980s. In the same spirit of solidarity, HJC extends its support to the Orgreave justice campaigners. 
The corrupt policing of working-class communities under Thatcher must be rigourously investigated and truthfully recorded in order for justice to be served.”
At the time of going to print, 38 MPs had signed the edm. None are Conservative. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

In the general direction - Len McCluskey interview

In the 1970s there were 13 million trade union members. Today’s figure is half that.  Nevertheless, 150,000 people marched to oppose the Government’s economic policies on the Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstrations in London, Belfast and Glasgow on October 20. Then when Unite leader Len McCluskey asked in London for a show of hands in favour of a General Strike there was a roar of approval and a sea of upraised arms.

A General Strike is where a substantial proportion of the labour force withdraws their labour. It is 86 years since the only general strike in British history and the unions lost when the Government refused to act to prevent coal miners having their wages slashed. In the aftermath millions of workers had their pay cut and the trade union movement lost hundreds of thousands of members.

Following a positive vote at its Brighton Conference, the TUC is currently canvassing opinion with constituent unions over their attitudes towards organising a stoppage in which teachers, nurses, tanker drivers and housing staff would refuse to work.

There is no certainty that the government would alter its policies as a result and no-one can predict how the general public might react, although last year’s British Social Attitude survey did show a rise, to 36%, in the numbers of people who felt “the Government should increase taxes and spend more.’ Only a quarter of UK workers are union members.

So McCluskey, who heads Britain’s biggest union, admits it will be difficult to drum up support for a general strike.

“I do not have a magic wand,” says the 62-year-old Liverpudlian. “We first need to raise people’s consciousness. They have been battered for the last 3-4 years by the media who, combined with the political leaders of all three main parties, have been telling them the cuts are essential to prevent economic collapse.”

McCluskey insists though the tide is turning. He cites recent International Monetary Fund calls for a UK interest rate cut and more quantitative easing to kick start the economic recovery. He is also buoyed by the Sunday Times investigating “tax avoidance by the rich, highlighting that many do not pay tax. How can comedian Jimmy Carr get away with paying virtually nothing?”

McCluskey became general-secretary of Unite, which has 1.5 million members across public and private sectors.  Unite was formed on 1 May 2007 by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

A former docker who became a shop steward in his teenage years, his involvement in Unite’s cabin crew dispute with British Airways in 2010 and 2011 saw him labelled “Red Len” by the Sun newspaper. A member of the Labour Party since 1970 he supported the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyite entrist group, during the 1980s, but was not a member. He names Tony Benn as his political hero and was “delighted” to accompany the former Bristol MP to the recent opening of Unite’s regional office named in honour of the former Labour Cabinet Minister.

But he will need to convince people right across the political spectrum if his campaign against austerity is to be successful

Speaking alongside actor Ricky Tomlinson at a Rebel Rants event organised by Liverpool community organisation Writing on the Wall, McCluskey said: “Austerity is not working and the government should change direction. Having millions of people out of work, including over a million young people, is not a price worth paying.

We need to invest the €215 (£150bn) Government public procurement annual budget to rebuild the manufacturing base. Otherwise we have an economy too reliant on the banking sector that sparked the recession now being made worse by the government’s austerity package.

We need an investment bank to invest in green industries and to put hundreds of thousands of unemployed building workers back to work constructing hundreds of thousands of new homes for sale and rent. “

McCluskey backed Tomlinson’s campaign to have his 1973 conviction for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ overturned. As a building worker, Tomlinson participated in the first ever-national building workers’ strike in 1972, only to be jailed a year later as one of the Shrewsbury Two. The former Brookside star has protested his innocence ever since. Earlier this month new evidence emerged that Edward Heath’s Conservative government ignored evidence from the attorney general, Sir Peter Rawlinson, not to prosecute as “the intimidation consisted of threatening words.” The Criminal Cases Review Commission is now expected to back calls to overturn Tomlinson’s conviction.

 McCluskey would “be delighted” if that happened and also calls for an inquiry “into continued blacklisting on Britain’s building sites.” A GMB trade union report has revealed that 3,213 building workers had their names recorded by the Consulting Association, which supplied construction giants such as Carillion with information on workers they variously described as “extreme troublemaker.” Many of those listed were union representatives with a strong interest in health and safety.

McCluskey believes construction companies would do well to “take note of the recent success by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) in finally getting what has been known for years out into the public domain. Eventually they, and companies we suspect are operating blacklists in other areas of the economy, will be exposed.”

But it is to future membership that he must pay the greatest attention. Unite has introduced community membership costing 50 pence a week, giving anyone not in work a chance to join the union. McCluskey says its intended to “to ensure we look after people from cradle to grave and make sure we are the big society.”

Community members get access to a variety of individual benefits and services and are also given the chance to join local branches and combine with their working colleagues on  campaigns. In Leeds the branch is campaigning against workfare. Many young people are involved. In Hull the members include pensioners who are focusing on the proposed NHS changes.

These campaigns are all directed against a government led by a cabinet, says McCluskey, of 31 ministers, 18 of whom are millionaires. “They have no concept of ordinary people’s lives. Consequently for the first time ever we have Save the Children putting some of their resources aside for UK children. Yet the government are content for Top Shop owner Sir Philip Green to give them advice on how to make cuts even though he has escaped paying £285 million tax by registering the company in his wife’s name in Monaco.”

McCluskey accuses the government of trying to piece back together “the neo-Liberal project that so spectacularly failed under the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher axis of the 1980s by using the crisis to draw back the gains made by our relatives who returned from the Second World War and created the welfare state, NHS and universal education. We face a different battle, but make no mistake we are going to fight as the future is too bleak if we fail to do so.”

Whether that will include leading Unite members into a General Strike has yet to be decided.


A fervent Liverpool fan, McCluskey was at Hillsborough on the fateful day when 96 supporters lost their lives. His favourite sporting hero is Bill Shankly, the manager who hauled Liverpool out of the Second Division in 1962 and then helped build the foundations for a club that has won more Trophies than any other English club. Shankly once said: "The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life." McCluskey says, “Shankly was a genuine man of the people who never lost touch with his roots and he was adored and loved because he was one of us.”

Although he doesn’t have a lot of time, when McCluskey dies get home to Liverpool he likes to play chess against the computer and read.

His favourite book is Jack London’s 1908 dystopian novel The Iron Heel, about the rise of a small politically powerful grouping in the US. For McCluskey it “demonstrated the stark reality that the ruling elite will not give up power through the ballot box, and that there is an inherent conflict under capitalism between labour and capital.”

As a film buff, McCluskey had some difficulty choosing his favourite. He eventually selected the 1942 film Casablanca. “It embraced romance, courage and a commitment to stand against evil.” 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Pilot's assets were sold without go-ahead

The Official Solicitor’s Office disposed of £130,000 of assets of a man in its care without obtaining the necessary permission.

Former airline pilot Leonard Lawrence was certified from 2004 to 2006 under the Mental Health Act.

The Official Solicitor’s Office was appointed to act as his power of attorney, looking after his business and legal affairs.

To prevent fraud, the Official Solicitor’s Office had a legal responsibility to get Court of Protection approval before any assets of the individual can be disposed of.

But although the Official Solicitor’s Office did dispose of Lawrence’s assets, May Maughan, the senior lawyer of the Official Solicitor at the Ministry of Justice, has now confirmed: “There are no Court of Protection orders in respect of you – the Court of Protection has never been involved in your affairs.”

Lawrence is suing the Official Solicitor for a “failure in his duty of care to protect a vulnerable adult”, as reported in October by The Big Issue in the North. (see

A spokesperson for the Official Solicitor’s Office confirmed that it was continuing to defend itself against Lawrence’s claim but was unable to say on what grounds. 

“Ongoing litigation means we can’t comment,” said the spokesperson.

Lawrence disputes being mentally unwell. A medical diagnosis at a US clinic later revealed he was suffering from moderate brain injury caused by chemical poisoning, which he believes was the result of toxic fumes being released into planes he was piloting.

Lawrence, who quit his job in 2004, said: “Many patients who may have neurological injuries have been misdiagnosed by psychiatrists and subsequently sectioned. I particularly fear that chemicals including organophosphates have poisoned many former soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Denied proper treatment it means too many are sectioned, homeless or in prison.” 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Alun Michael declares Hunting Act "an effective piece of legislation."

Alun Michael, the Labour Minister who presided over the enactment of the 2004 Hunting Act that banned hunting with dogs believes it has proven: “an effective piece of legislation.” 
Recently elected as Police Commissioner for Wales, Michael says he: “Adopted an evidence based approach, which showed that hunting with dogs was cruel and unnecessary.”  Even though MPs backed him, the House of Lords with its Tory majority held up the legislation until it proved necessary to invoke the Parliament Act that gives primacy to the elected Chamber. 
Critics of the new legislation claimed it would prove unenforceable and in the first two years there were just eight successful prosecutions under the Act. The figures though have steadily increased. Last year, 56 people - from 75 prosecuted - were convicted of offences under the Act. This exceeds other wildlife legislation prosecutions, with only the Badgers Act 1991, at 29 successful prosecutions in 2010, coming close. 
This has seen Mr Richard Crompton, Lincolnshire Chief Constable and the Association of Chief Police Officers lead for hunting, say: “This substantial number of convictions demonstrates the Hunting Act 2004 is enforceable.” 
Alun Michael agrees and he hopes the Countryside Alliance will now stop: “misinforming their supporters, convincing them that if they break the law they can escape prosecution. They have let many people down very badly.” Michael said he could see little reason to repeal the Hunting Act and he believes today’s Parliament feel the same. The coalition government has promised a free vote on the issue before the next election in 2015.

Slaughterhouse - agriculture remains at top spot in the killing league

Slaughterhouse - agriculture remains at top spot in the killing league 

The following people were killed in the agricultural sector in 2011/12.

Jason Reynolds 38, William Wilson Boow 67, Paulo Almeida De Silva 47, Norman Robertson 67, Geraldine Grace 67, Alexander Banks 64, Konrad Miskiewicz 24, Paul Gray 48, Craig Whipps 27, Colin Ellwood 38, James Steel 32, Odediyah Eastwood 57, Ieuan Evans 75, Marilyn Duffy 61, Luke Yardy 17, Ashley Yardy 22, Wallace Hale 88, Lee Woodhouse 30, Jeffrey Lee Jameson 32, Violet Crisp 83, Edward Arthur Davies 70, Angela Turnbull 55, Alexander Hamilton 68, William Laird 82, John Reid 84, Hugh Edward Percy Jones 18, John Mackinnon 65, Harold John Hitchcock 64, Ewen McGregor 59, Francis Alwyn Grassby 62, Phillip Egerton 60, Andrew Davis 39, Paul Davidson 33, Linda Keens 58, Terry Bailey 67, Roderick MacLean 33, Alistair Hislop 67. 

This total of 37 people is 21% of the total number of 173 fatalities in the UK at work. Yet agriculture accounts for just 2% of people working, making it by far the most dangerous industry in the land. Helping keep the country fed really does cost some people their lives. If the rate of killings were mirrored across the UK then the overall number of deaths would be 1,850 people. 

Of the 37 who lost their lives twenty were classed as self-employed, eleven as employees and six were members of the public. Nine fatalities were the result of contact with motor vehicles, five from falling objects and three each were as the result of falls from heights and asphyxiation. 

Spanish agricultural workers get occupied

Spanish agricultural workers get occupied 

Jobless Spanish farmworkers outmaneuvered police in August when they occupied the vacant pink palace Andalusian estate of the Duke of Segorbe in Spain’s agricultural heartland.  Record levels of unemployment has fueled resentment at European policies that pay absentee landlords not to grow crops.  

“We’re here to denounce a social class who leaves such places to waste,” said Diego CaƱamero, the leader of the Andalusian Union of Workers.
Somonte, a nearby government-owned farm, meanwhile remains occupied by about 20 people who since March have been growing red peppers, tomatoes and eggplant. 
Andalusia was wracked by confrontations over land ownership in the lead up to the Spanish Civil War in the 30s, when a landed elite blocked agrarian reforms aimed at giving farm workers better work conditions and job security.
There are some photographs of Somonte taken by photographer Guy Smallman at

Ivorian trade unionist needs support

Bitter sweet
The TUC has joined trade unionists globally in calling for the release of Basile Mahan Gahe, General Secretary of the Ivorian trade union confederation, DIGNITY.
Almost 70% of the Ivorian people are engaged in agriculture, and the West African country is the world's largest exporter of cocoa. Gahe was arrested in April 2011 and Amnesty International has since received credible reports indicating he has been tortured. 
During an International Trade Union Confederation mission in July the Ivorian authorities admitted that charges of possessing heavy weapons were groundless as no weapons had been found.  In August TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber wrote to the Ivoirean Ambassador in London pointing out: “The imprisonment of trade unionists is a violation of the ILO Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.....Mr Gahe should be released without further delay and allowed to exercise his rights in his capacity as general secretary of his union without interference from the State.” 
You can join the growing demand for Gahe to be released at: - 

No ball games here - why Israel should not get the Under 21 Championship

No ball games here 
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Palestinian Football Federation (PFF) want  UEFA not to hold the Under 21 European Football Championship in Israel next summer. Two years ago, the UEFA President Michel Platini said: “Israel must respect laws and international regulations otherwise there is no justification for them remaining in Europe...Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to prosper or face consequences.” 
Palestinian footballers have suffered at the hands of the Israeli authorities. In 2009 the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) air strikes in the Gaza strip killed three members of the national football team - Ayman Alkurd, Wajeh Moshtahe and Shadi Sbakhe.  Until recently, teammate Mahmoud Sarsak was also detained without trial for three years. Omar Abu Rois and Mohammed Nimr continue to be held. On November 19, 2012 the Palestinian National Stadium was bombed by the IDF as part of Operation Pillar of Cloud. 

As a result of these actions the PSC believe: “Palestinians are effectively barred from international football by the extreme restrictions placed on them by the Israeli occupation.”
The PSC, to which Unite is affiliated, is urging Landworker readers to join film maker Ken Loach in signing a petition to Platini, urging him to move the tournament, in which England will feature, to another country.  

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Scrapping agricultural wages board adds to rural destruction

They’ve decimated bus services, slashed funds for health, safety, youth and advice projects, damaged laws to protect animals and the environment, failed to support local Post Offices and advanced no strategy to create jobs for young people or to tackle the chronic shortage of affordable housing. 
Now the Coalition Government are set to impose further damage on rural communities by abolishing the England and Wales Agricultural Wages Board, on which equal numbers of employers and Unite reps sit along with five members appointed by the Farming Minister to fix wages and conditions. For most of the last century this has ensured that farm workers have received annual pay rises, recognition for advancing their skills, overtime pay, holidays and protection in their tied homes. 
Scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), a move not even Margaret Thatcher was prepared to sanction when she was in Government in the 1980s, demonstrates the callous indifference of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats towards farm and horticultural workers, who without someone to represent them can expect to see their pay and conditions eroded in future years. 
Wages councils were founded in 1909 by a radical Liberal government who paid for the subsequent improvement in low paid, vulnerable workers wages by levying unprecedented taxes on the wealthy in its People’s Budget. It was a move by the Liberals towards a more caring society funded by increased government expenditure. Just as importantly the Budget was an economic success with Chancellor Lloyd George raising a surplus of £5,607,000 in 1910-11 and £6,545,000 in 1911-12. 
It seems however that the current lot of Liberal Democrats know little about their most illustrious period as the man given the task of abolishing the AWB is David Heath, Lib Dem MP for Somerton and Frome. He was appointed as Farming Minister on September 4, replacing Jim Paice, who in the summer had revealed his ignorance about his job by being unable to respond to a simple question as to the price of a pint of milk.
Any hopes however that the new man in charge would quickly learn to speak with more authority have, so far, not been realised. At the end of October, Heath said the AWB abolition would “create almost 1,000 new jobs.” That’s not the case according to his own department, as the Defra impact assessment on abolition states: “There may also be increased employment of 0-930 workers which could benefit local economies.” 
Not that the latter point should also be taken literally as the assessment calculates that once the AWB is kicked into touch farmworkers are going to annually lose a total of £24 million. This will certainly suck money out of rural areas as there is no way - not even if 930 new jobs are created - that the total wages paid will make up for such a vast sum. To do so each new worker would need to be paid £25,806.45 annually, a figure far greater than those earned under the AWB. 
Heath claimed that his sudden announcement of a four-week consultation period on the AWB’s future - that ended on November 12 -  was necessary “to modernise the agricultural labour market.” Heath’s views were particularly welcomed by the Horticultural Trades Association, whose members are under pressure from the big supermarkets to reduce their prices, who following the introduction of the negotiated increases for 2012, said: “it was concerned we may have to face these unnecessary cost increases next year.” 
The employers organisation, the National Farmers Union has also backed the proposed changes even though in 2011 ‘Total Income for Farming’ leaped by £1.126bn or 25% in real terms and the sector continues to receive 62% of its income from taxpayers’ money that could be used to improve the pay of the workers that many farmers rely on.
It’s not as if the 154,000 farm and horticultural workers in England and Wales covered by the AWB are earning a fortune. The six grades range from £6.21 an hour, just 2p above the national minimum wage, up to £9.40 for farm management. 
Importantly though Unite has also been able to persuade the board into guaranteeing farm workers get decent holidays and in 2007 these were moved upwards from 23 to 28 days a year. Negotiated overtime rates at time-and-a-half are an essential component of workers’ wages and there are minimum rates for flexible workers. Employers who provide workers with a house can only charge a maximum of £1.50 a week and Unite has also persuaded the AWB to improve sick pay and bereavement leave. Shepherds have an income for each dog they are required to keep. With the abolition of the AWB new farm and horticultural workers can expect to find they have lost many of these benefits, whilst those already working in these sectors can expect to see them steadily eroded over time. 
Like David Heath, Unite wants to ‘modernise the agricultural labour market’ and the union has fought hard to get training included in farm and horticultural workers employment contracts. The AWB guarantees training for initial grade 1 workers after they have worked continuously worked for the same employer for 30 weeks. This means new entrants gain necessary qualifications to move into grade 2 for standard workers, thus increasing their pay rates from £6.21 to £6.96 an hour.
43% of workers covered under the AWB are classified as standard workers. With three quarters of all workers at grades 2-6 then the Defra claim, in support of abolition, that they “are well protected by national minimum wage legislation” is not backed by the facts as this pays considerably less than the amounts currently earned by over 112,000 workers. 
Neither does the national minimum wage legislation ensure workers get the current overtime or sick pay rates. There is no entitlement to paid time to train, rules on paid breaks are worse and there is no statutory provision for additional payments to be made for being on call. No wonder therefore that when Heath announced he was rushing forward his consultation that Guardian journalist Polly Tonybee said: “this withering assault on farm workers’ wages is a race to the bottom.”
A view echoed by the Labour Party, who since it became known that the Lib Dems were forgetting that they had not included the AWB abolition in their 2010 election manifesto, or the subsequent coalition agreement, has consistently opposed a piece of legislation that will add to the ongoing destruction of rural economies. 
In 2011 Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Gareth Thomas moved an amendment to block the abolition of the AWB under the Public Bodies Act. There was hope that the Liberal Democrats could be persuaded to back Labour.   Even today, Andrew George, the St Ives MP who was the Lib Dems shadow minister for food and rural affairs between 2002 and 2005, is in favour of retaining the legislation, although it would be under the umbrella of another body such as the Low Pay Commission. 
When it was clear that the junior coalition party backed abolition, Mary Creagh MP, shadow environment secretary, launched the “Back the Apple” campaign to ensure “fruit pickers and farm workers get a fair deal.”  Labour has raised the issue of the AWB at their party conferences and denounced the Tories and Lib Dems in Parliament. 
Today, Labour remains committed to retaining the AWB with Huw-Irranca Davies, the shadow minister for food and farming telling Landworker “the hand that picks the apple may no longer be able to afford it. 
Rural areas such as the East Anglian coast, Cumbria, parts of Wales and rural areas of the south coast are among the most deprived in the country. Rather than supporting the rural poor this Tory-led government is making the lives of some of the hardest workers in the nation more difficult.”
But surely with all the other wages council gone then it’s time to scrap the AWB? 
“In a report for the Low Pay Commission in December 2011, Incomes Data Services argued: ‘the agricultural sector is distinct from other sectors in that it is comprised of small employment units but with the additional feature of seasonal or casual workers.’
“The AWB may indeed be an anomaly now all the other wage councils are gone, but the agricultural sector is so different from other sectors of our economy that it is still needed. The majority of the industry is made up of small farmers, who do not have the time, the expertise or, the funds to negotiate with their workers time and time again in what is an increasingly high pressure working environment.
“The standards of pay and conditions set by the AWB enable farmers to focus on the running of their farms and on producing the products that we all need and enjoy. In abolishing the AWB, the Government is not freeing farms from overbearing bureaucracy. It is instead making their lives more difficult and creating a more bureaucratic industry. 
“This is the last thing that small farmers need. Instead of having to deal only with the AWB, in the future farmers will need to work with a myriad of different organisations, each one governing a different area of employment regulation and each, in turn, exposing every small farm business to new and different liabilities and complexities.” 
Davies echoed many people’s fears that the scrapping of the AWB will make it more difficult to attract young people into farming and horticulture, without which the long term prospects for either sector are certainly not healthy. 
All of which means that sometimes fact really is funnier than fiction as here we have a piece of legislation that will reduce workers wages and conditions, remove spending from rural communities, can promise no new jobs and threatens to leave gaping holes in the UK’s ability to feed itself. Welcome to the crazy economic world of the coalition Government.