Thursday 30 November 2006

Harmondsworth Crisis is not just about a single Detention Centre but the Detention Policy overall.

Most will have seen the pictures of Harmondsworth Removal Centre on television of the papers yesterday and today. Detainees placing sheets on the ground in courtyards spelling out their appeal for "Help."

Harmondsworth is in my constituency. Next to it is also the large scale Colnbrook Detention Centre. I deal with two to three deportation cases a week from the centres and at times a case every day or more. People often in the most desperate circumstances. They are not criminals but generally people who have come to the end of their asylum claims process and the Government has designated them for removal from the country. If allowed to remain my experience is that most would contribute to our society as any other citizen.

The decision by the Home Office to detain them is often a complete mystery to many of us who deal with these cases. Once they get detained they become trapped in what can be an incomprehensible, often demeaning and sometimes brutal bureaucratic system.

On Tuesday Anne Owers, Her Majesy's Inspector of Prisons, published a devastating report describing the dreadful and at times inhumane conditions detainees were experiencing at the hands of the private company running the Harmondsworth centre.

Her report found that 60% of detainees reported that they felt unsafe in the centre. As the report states "More worrying the main fear was of bullying by staff. 44% said they had been victimised by staff." The Inspectorate found an "over-emphasis on physical security which was more appropriate to a high security prison than a removal centre"

This not the first disturbance at Harmondsworth. In 2004 there was a riot and fires after a detainee committed suicide. From the Owers' report it looks as though few lessons have been learnt from that incident.

I wrote yesterday immediately to the Home Secretary and spoke to Minister of State at the Home Office explaining of course my worries for the safety of both detainees and staff but making it clear that in the first instance the centre should no longer be run by a private company and should be returned to the direct management of the Home Office. If people want to understand the implications of privatisation and putting profit before people, look no further than Harmondsworth.

The riot throws up wider questions though than just the management of one centre. We need an urgent review of the whole policy of mass detention of asylum seekers being pursued by the Government. Everybody understands that a Government has a duty to detain criminals but we were assured that these centres were not constructed to house criminals and that the detainees are not criminals.

The scale of detention taking place and the harsh and at times inhuman treatment being meted out to detainees reflects the fact that Government policy appears to be based more upon responding to the xenophobic attacks on all migrants by the Daily Mail than a rational approach to upholding our international duties to assist and shelter those who come to our shores in need.

Tuesday 28 November 2006

Brown Calls for us all to be "Evangelists for Globalisation."

Anyone who had any illusions left that a transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown would signal a shift to any semblance of more progressive policies should read the text of the Chancellor's speech to the CBI conference yesterday.

The Chancellor is promoting both nationally and internationally the standard neo con agenda of flexible labour, pay controls, privatisation and forcing developing world countries to open up their markets to the savagery of international competition.

Let me give you some direct quotes from the Chancellor's speech:

On Globalisation

"My theme today is that it is for us to be evangelists for globalisation, taking on the anti-globalisation and protectionist forces who fail to recognise today's economic truth that free trade, open markets and flexibility are pre-conditions of modern economic success across our global economy."

On Public Sector Pay

"We will entrench our stability, keep public sector pay under control, maintain discipline in public finances.....On pay we must do more to encourage local and regional pay flexibility."

We have witnessed the first round of this approach in the Chancellor's recent announcements of public secor pay cuts and the massive scale of job cuts in the civil service leading to the first compulsory redundancies and the pressure for local pay in some areas of the public sector.

Trade unionists at every level should take careful heed of the Chancellor's message for the future. It's simple - public sector job and pay cuts and privatisation on an international scale.

Does the phrase "Turkeys voting for Christmas" come to mind for any trade union supporting Gordon Brown for leader now?

Friday 24 November 2006

Another London is Possible

On the eve of the London Labour Party Conference this weekend, I have set out my manifesto for London, which you can download.

This alternative programme for London would dramatically improve the quality of life for Londoners by striking at the roots of the Capital's environmental, social, and economic problems.

London is one of the richest cities in the world but Londoners don't share in its wealth and opportunities. By using the wealth created in London to invest in its transport, environment, housing and industries we could transform the life of many of its citizens.

Central Government forced the disaster of tube part-privatisation on a resistant Mayor and Londoners. That disaster is now forecast to cost an extra £750m – money that would be better spent reducing fares and expanding the public transport network.

Fares Fair was an extremely popular policy that slashed public transport fares for Londoners and hugely reduced traffic congestion in the Capital before it was ruled illegal in the courts.

City bonuses this year are expected to total £8.8bn. A windfall tax of just 10% on these grotesque payments would cover the £875m that Londoners will contribute towards the Olympics. A similar tax in five years' time could fund free tickets to the Games for Londoners.

The ten points in full are:

The main 10 points of the London manifesto are:

1. A new 'Fares Fair' policy for the 21st Century, slashing fares for Londoners

2. End privatisation of the London Underground, including the East London Line, restoring the tube to public ownership

3. Windfall tax on City bonuses to pay London's contribution to the Olympics and ensure free access to Londoners

4. Restore control of business rates to local councils and abolish the Corporation of London, transferring its functions and resource base to the GLA

5. A real living wage of at least £7 per hour, plus a London weighting of 20%

6. Decentralised London energy system, based on alternative energy sources

7. No further expansion at Heathrow and no third runway

8. Halt hospital cuts and NHS privatisations

9. Emergency house-building programme, and allow 4th option, to tackle London's housing crisis

10. Support free and comprehensive education and an end to Trusts, City Academies and tuition fees

Wednesday 22 November 2006

Government in Mess over Local Government Pensions

I attended a briefing meeting today from my own trade union, Unison, just before trade union members from all the local government unions came across to Parliament to lobby MPs on the future of pensions for local government workers. The briefing was to explain to the trade union members how to lobby their MP and what the key issues were they had to get across.

What absolutely perplexes me is how has the Government got itself into this mess. The Government has demanded that public sector pensions must change. Ministers have argued that because people are living longer the public sector pension schemes are no longer afordable and must change. This means basically people retiring later, paying more and receiving less.

Strange, I didn't hear this argument used in the debate around MPs' pensions.

The reality in local government as it is in many parts of the private sector is that employers have at various times opted out of paying their full contribution to maintaining the pension scheme.

Nevertheless the eleven unions, representing about 2 million local government workers, have done everything possible to negotiate a reasonable settlement, which is practical, affordable and maintains the basic benefits of the pension scheme. Their proposals are generally in line with the new scheme the Government agreed with the civil service unions last year.

The unions mobilised a lobby today because of their frustration at the Government's intransigence. Over the next few days the employers'body will be meeting and subsequently Government MInisters will be coming to a view.

I urge MPs and Government Ministers in particular to listen to local government workers and those effected by changes in this pension scheme. They have real and genuine fears for the future which could be overcome by the Government simply agreeing to offering the same pension scheme protections agreed for the civil service.

If this issue is not sorted soon the Government could be faced with industrial action and local government workers and their families marching out to vote against Labour in next year's Scottish, Welsh and local government elections. The anxiety must be the risk that if people have decided to vote against the Labour Party once it will become extremely difficult to regain their confidence and support in the future.

Tuesday 21 November 2006

CND shows the way on Trident

The CND Alternative White Paper, which was launched this morning, is the definitive argument on why the Government should not waste billions of pounds on these ineffective weapons, which fulfil no role in creating a peaceful world.

Trident replacement is opposed by the TUC, thousands of Labour Party members and MPs, and by an increasing majority of the British public. A recent opinion poll showed 59% of the public opposed the replacement of Trident.

My concern is that despite the Labour leadership promising an open debate on the future of Trident, this debate has been pre-empted by statements from both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in recent weeks endorsing the renewal of Trident.

Friday 17 November 2006

Campaign Hits Scotland

Scotland has always been a bedrock of support for the Labour movement. That's why I'm particularly pleased to be up in Scotland as part of my national campaign to build up grassroots support for the campaign.

Yesterday I had a packed day in Edinburgh, including interviews with local radio, TV and newspapers as well as meetings with MSPs and students and a big public meeting in the evening. The enthusiasm of the evening meeting was contageous - and I was particularly impressed by the number of young people turning up. There were a couple of great speeches made by members of School Students Against The War which demonstrates that young people are once again becoming politically inspired.

At the meeting, we discussed putting together a campaign strategy for the New Year - including lobbying MPs and building support for getting on the nomination paper. As people said at the meeting, unless Scottish MPs nominate, tens of thousands of Labour party members and trade unionists will be deprived of a vote. We also discussed the issues that are particularly hitting Scotland at the moment - not least the new wave of PFI of PFI and privatisations in the health service and beyond, as well as public sector pay freezes.

Today I've got meetings in Glasgow, including a seminar on the Trade Union Freedom Bill with Scottish trade unionists, a meeting with students at Strathclyde University, and a public meeting at 7.30pm at the Scottish TUC.

I return to London on the Saturday for both the Campaign for State Education conference and the Stop The War People's Assembly.

What has struck me as the running theme of all of the meetings that I've been doing is that people are demanding a say over the future, the right to a choice on the ballot paper, and - most importantly of all - a radical break with New Labour. The enthusiasm for change continues to build.

I hope to be meeting a lot more of you in the months to come.

Wednesday 15 November 2006

My Alternative Queen's Speech

Below is an article I've written for the Guardian's Comment Is Free website on today's Queen's Speech. You can also see the article I wrote for the Guardian yesterday here. If you want to download the full alternative Queen's Speech I am proposing, you can download it in PDF format here.

The whole point about the new politics I am trying to engender in my campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party is to encourage politicians to be straight about their aims and political judgements. This is not the same as political balance or objectivity. I have a political philosophy by which I judge political events. It's called socialism, which at its core is about achieving equality, justice and peace through democracy.

How do the proposals in the Government's Queen's speech stack up against these criteria?

Will our society become more equal? I'm pleased that pensioners will be able to travel free on buses across local authority boundaries and that measures are being taken to improve child maintenance but these welcome additional benefits pale into insignificance with the announcement this morning that city financiers have awarded themselves up to £5.5m each in bonuses this year.

Will our society become more just as a result of the Government's Criminal Justice bill proposals to increase sentences and extend ASBOs and its plans to privatise the probation service and our prisons? This model of criminal justice has failed to work in America so there must be serious doubts about its efficacy here. The private companies which run some of our prisons already make their profits out of cutting the wages and conditions of staff, undermining the professional approach needed if prison is to rehabilitate. The laws aimed at restricting trial by jury and using legal powers against those suffering mental illness need careful consideration if our basic civil liberties are to be protected.

Will our society be better protected against terrorism and part of a more peaceful world as a result of the proposals in the Queen's speech? Tightening up border and immigration controls go nowhere in addressing the underlying causes of terrorism in our society and in our world. There is a widespread consensus that the government's policies of pursuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East have led to an increased threat of terrorism and increasing division between communities. We have got to deal with Iraq sooner rather than later and recognise that the presence of occupying forces is part of the problem not the solution. Instead of remaining isolated with Bush and the neo-cons, all our powers of diplomacy should be directed towards fully involving the international community in helping resolve Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world's conflicts. Unless the injustice of the Palestinians is effectively dealt with the terrorist threat will continue.

Overall this Queen's speech provides even more evidence of the gap between the government and the real world.

Friday 10 November 2006

Blair Left Isolated After Bush Smashed in Elections

I've been meaning to update you with my thoughts on the US elections - but I've been on the road all week, addressing packed meetings in Brighton, Oxford, Manchester, Bristol, Swindon and Leicester. Once again, I've been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of people for this campaign.

The results of Tuesday's elections in the States are a watershed. The message of the American people is clear - there needs to be a major change of direction on Iraq. Just as in Britain, people in the US feel that they have been ill-advised, misled, and ignored and with the death toll in Iraq mounting on a daily basis they are saying enough is enough.

These election results have not only damaged Bush, but they mean that Blair is now totally isolated in the international community.

Unless we heed the people's verdict in the US, there is every chance that the British electorate will similarly punish Labour at the next election for our role in the chaos of Iraq.

I also want to take this opportunity to congratulate Bernie Sanders for his successful election to the US Senate. This is the first time in American history that a socialist has been elected to the Senate. Bernie opposed the war in Iraq, opposed the Patriot Act and is a support of free health care. The election of Senator Bernie Sanders shows that there is a growing demand in the US for an alternative to the disastrous policies of Bush's administration.

Thursday 9 November 2006

Don't Duck Climate Change Agenda in Queen's Speech

The Queen's Speech will be absolutely critical in determining the Government's agenda on climate change. We are now in the last chance saloon and our fear is that we will get a climate change bill heavy on spin but light on substance.

According to Friends of the Earth, the UK produces 2.3% of the world's CO2, from just 1% of the world's population. The UK must take its responsibilities seriously and harness the technology and resources at our disposal to stop climate change.

What we need is a Climate Change Bill with teeth, which has measurable annual targets. These must be met if we're going to tackle the climate change catastrophe facing our planet.

The sort of targets we will be looking to be included in the proposed legislation will include:

  • Annual reductions in carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 3% per annum
  • Sectoral targets for industry
  • Tougher energy efficiency targets
  • Significant increase in renewable energy sources in electricity generation and in transport

Sunday 5 November 2006

Website success

It's been nearly four months now since I launched my campaign for Labour's future. One of the main ways that I have tried to communicate with you is through this blog - by letting you know what I'm up to as well as explaining what I'm standing for. I've been absolutely overwhelmed by your response. Since the website was launched in July, there have been nearly half a million hits. I've been absolutely overwhelmed by thousands of your emails of support. I want to thank all those who've written to me - and I look forward to meeting many of you on the campaign trail over the coming months.

I've also been fascinated by the debates that have taken place on the blog over the main issues of the day. In order to allow the debate to flow better, I'm turning off the moderation of comments for now. That means that your contributions will instantly appear without having to wait for approval. This is a trial run - but I hope that we will see even more debate conducted in a friendly spirit over the issues that matter to you.

Friday 3 November 2006

Concrete Support for the Policies Mobilising Tomorrow's Climate Change Demonstration

Tomorrow (Saturday) will see a broad based coalition demonstrating for action on climate change from our own Government and internationally.

I want to express again my support for this critically important initiative. At last the issue of the environmental threat to our planet is hitting the popular and political agendas in an effective way.

Many are sceptical about the impact of demonstrations particularly after the Government ignored the 2 million people marching against the war. This fails to recognise that people coming out on the streets to show a commonality of purpose builds solidarity and confidence not just in those demonstrating but also in those who care about the issue but who at this stage are on the edge of action.

More and more now we are seeing groups campaigning on one issue linking in solidarity with others campaigning on another concern. The pensioners joining health workers on the lobby of Parliament on Wednesday and joining students marching against tuition fees were excellent examples of this re-emerging sense of solidarity in our society which politicians for over three decades have tried to extinguish.

I just want to express my solidarity with tomorrow's demo in one more very concrete way. In our newspapers this morning was an advertisement placed by Greenpeace. The ad said "What's really needed is a government that will create policies of real substance, and will commit proper resources to preventing climate change. A Government, in short, that will deliver a new kind of power. Is there any leader out there up for the challenge?"

Yes there is. I am campaigning to become leader of the Labour Party to introduce the very policies that Greenpeace and the Coalition on Climate Change are advocating.

So I express my solidarity with tomorrow's demo not just by committing myself to promoting this policy programme in my campaign but more importantly by undertaking publicly to ensuring its implementation if elected leader of the Labour Party.

Wednesday 1 November 2006

Iraq Inquiry Vote in Parliament

The first debate on Iraq on the floor of the House of Commons for two years took place this evening on a motion calling for an inquiry into the build up to the invasion and its aftermath. The proposal was for a committee to be established of Privy Counsellors who would investigate and receive evidence on the wide range of issues and concerns about what is increasingly being recognised as a policy disaster of the Prime Minister's making, for which thousand upon thousand of Iraqi people are paying for with their lives.

My main concern was to use this debate to press the Government to bring forward a clear programme for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. Of course it is important to know what happened, how and why, but more important is the question of what is going to happen from now on.

The Government line of staying "until the job is done" is clearly no longer feasible. It is now widely accepted that the occupying forces are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I was hoping that this debate would provide the Government with the opportunity to outline its exit strategy to help move the situation forward from the chaotic daily bloodbath that is now Iraq.

I believe that this exit strategy should include:

An announcement of a timetable for immediate withdrawal of UK forces.

A return to the UN and the launching of an appeal to the international community for assistance in peacekeeping and transitional arrangements.

A rehabilitation of Britain's role in international affairs by the UK government convening with our EU partners an international peace conference for the Middle East, including Israel and Palestine.

I was also hoping that today's debate would rise above the usual tribal, partisan bickering of the Commons but of course it didn't and we are no further forward in properly addressing the future of Iraq. The Government celebrated defeating the motion to call for an inquiry with a majority of 25.

Then within hours the Secretary of State for Defence stated that an inquiry will eventually take place but within minutes he is denounced and overridden by Downing Street. What absolute chaos in government.

I then get home and watch more scenes of casualties in Iraq, including young children killed and wounded who were just members of a wedding party.

Rather than despair it is critical that the campaign for withdrawal goes on and the campaigning to restore the Labour Party as a party of peace continues with increased commitment and vigour.

Many have made comparisons with the Suez crisis of the 1950s. Suez was a break in history that marked the confirmation that Britain could no longer play the role of an imperial, world power. If anything of value is to come out of the disaster of Iraq it may be the recognition that the days of Britain being an agressive military force are over.

Instead Britain could now become a world leader in the promotion of peace, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. Britain has shown what a skilful player for peace it has become in the role it has played in Northern Ireland. What a service our country could povide the world as a major force for peace