Sunday 27 April 2008

A Cynical Act of Bad Faith over Heathrow

From the time the Government published it aviation white paper three years ago Minister after Minister has stood up in the House of Commons to state categorically that the expansion of Heathrow could only go ahead if strict European limits on air pollution were met. This must have been said at least 20 times by Government ministers in response to questions by local MPs and environmentalists.

In order to get round the European limits the Government first tried to fix the assessment of the projected levels of emissions and air pollution estimated from a new runway and 6th terminal. They did this by setting up a modelling process which they claim was fully tested by a peer review process. Unfortunately this has been discredited by the revelation by air quality experts that the modelling process may have been peer reviewed but the information fed into this process was not independently peer reviewed. In fact we now know that the information fed into the process came from BAA, the owners of Heathrow airport. It is a classic case of rubbish in rubbish out.

Having failed to convincingly doctor the assessment process the Government and BAA alliance has now become desperate. So Minsters have now instructed DEFRA to apply to the European Commission for "derogation" from the EU air pollution limits. This means the Government is admitting Heathrow expansion will result in poisoning the air of large numbers of people in London and therefore it can't meet the EU air pollution safety standards.

Asking for derogation means asking the EU to exempt the Government from the EU pollution standards to allow Heathrow expansion to go ahead. Their argument is that an exemption will give the aviation industry time to come up with some miraculous cure for the air pollution it creates.

This will be seen by many as the most cynical act of bad faith by the Government.

Friday 25 April 2008

Grangemouth Heroes

Gordon Brown has come out today condemning the strikers at Grangemouth oil refinery and demanding the Unite members call off their strike.

These trade unionists have decided to take industrial action to protect their pension scheme against attack from the profiteering venture capitalist who has taken over their company.

This dispute cannot be charicatured in the usual way by the media as a group of selfish workers striking out of self interest. These workers are striking to prevent their company's pension scheme being undermined for future workers joining the scheme. They are standing up to protect the pensions of future generations of workers in their industry.

Gordon Brown is currently supposed to be writing another of his books on heroes and heroism. I suggest that he includes a chapter on the selfless sacrifice of the Grangemouth heroes who have had the courage and determination to stand up and fight to protect for the pensions of workers yet to come.

Mobilising Success of Today's Co-ordinated Solidarity Action Across Public Sector

What a day!

First, I met the TGWU members at Shelter who are on a two day strike because their management has decided to tear up their contracts and impose new terms of employment, cutting their wages and undermining their conditions. These are people who have dedicated their lives to working to tackle homelessness and who through their dedication have made Shelter one of the most respected voluntary sector organisations in the country. Their Chief Executive has decided that the organisation has to embrace the contract culture and that the staff must pay for this with cuts in pay and conditions.

Next, on to attend the rally in Westminster Central Hall in support of the teachers, lecturers and civil servants on strike. Listening to three young teachers addressing 3000 trade unionists packed into the hall just lifted all our spirits. You couldn't fail to be impressed by this display of the idealism of workers committed to their profession and to providing public services. The buoyant atmosphere of determined solidarity across a range of public sector unions demonstrated the potential their is in our movement at present and for the future.

Then I went on to address the Grades Conference of the RMT, which represents many of those railway workers who undertake the maintenance work on the rail network and the underground. Many of these RMT members have seen their jobs privatised, their companies like Metronet go bust and in some instances have seen their jobs being brought back in house under Network Rail. They made it clear that they too had had enough of being treated like chattels and delegates raised with me the possibility of solidarity action across public services.

I was then interviewed by various news programmes asking me why I supported today's strikes and informing me of the round of ministerial statements, including one from Gordon Brown, condemning the strikes.

It is becoming increasingly clear that this Government is close to a political tipping point. New Labour continues to alienate section after section of our support and the political situation is now perilously close to being irretrievable. By turning on its own movement and supporters New Labour is handing government over to the Tories.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Lessons from the 10p Tax Debacle.

After days of threats from Labour MPs to back Frank Field's amendment to the Government's Finance Bill, the Prime Minister's crisis appears to have receded, at least for the time being.

Frank's amendment sought to compensate those people on low incomes who have suffered from Gordon Brown's abolition of the 10p tax rate in his last budget as Chancellor. Today Alistair Darling has offered a range of concessions and Frank has withdrawn his amendment.

I wrote to him both thanking him for the work he has put in to achieve a shift by the Government but also to explain that I would have preferred to have held out longer to ensure that we saw the detail of Darling's offer. It looks to me that there will still be people on low incomes who will lose out and we still do not have clarity on the amounts to be restored or when.

If it works out that the offer from Alistair Darling does not properly compensate the losers from the 10p abolition it will be seen as a significant act of bad faith on the part of Gordon Brown.

The question now being asked is how did we get into this mess.

My view is that the sequence of events went something like this. Last year Gordon Brown wanted to make a splash with his last budget to demonstrate that he can wrong foot the Tories and to project himself even further as the natural successor to Blair. So he seized on the political stunt of cutting the base rate of tax and bringing down corporation taxes at the same time. To pay for this he decided to raise £7 billion by cutting the 10p rate of tax.

Normally Treasury ministers would have been given the task of working out detailed examples of the implications of cutting the 10p rate and funds would have been set aside to smooth out any problems of potential losers.

I believe that this essential planning collapsed when just before the budget a heavy lobby was undertaken by MPs and charities campaigning for more resources to get the Government back on target of cutting child poverty. Gordon Brown scrambled round to put together resources for a child poverty package and either the resources were no longer readily available to compensate 10 p tax rate losers or the issue was just not thought significant enough.

Worryingly to pay for publicity seeking tax cuts Gordon Brown instinctively resorted to cutting financial support to the least well off rather than taking on the rich, the non doms or big business. In addition this whole exercise has demonstrated an almost amateurish approach to policy planning by creating an unnecessary crisis literally days before critically important local elections.

See my article on the Guardian's Comment is Free website for further comment on this issue.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Vote to Restore Pensions Link to Earnings Blocked by Government

The media has focused for the last few days on the threat of a rebellion by Labour MPs on the abolition of the 10p tax rate but tonight there was an equally important vote in Parliament that has gone ignored by the press.

The House of Commons was debating the final stages of the Government's Pensions Bill. An amendment was moved and supported by a number of Labour MPs to urge the Government to set a date for the restoration of the link between earnings and pensions.

The background to this issue is that as part of her attack on the welfare state Mrs Thatcher broke the link whereby state pensions would be increased each year by either the increase in inflation or earnings, whichever was the highest. Raising pensions only in line with inflation has meant that pensioners have lost out on over £35 a week.

In opposition the Labour Party promised to restore the link to earnings and after a long and hard campaign by pensioner organisations, particularly the National Pensioners Convention, Gordon Brown as Chancellor had to concede to restoring the link. However he only promised to do this at the earliest in 2012 and possibly only by 2015 if he judged the economic situation permitted.

This bitterly disappointed the pensioner groups because many current pensioners would simply not be alive by that time to enjoy the benefits of the restoration of the link. In the meantime 2 million pensioners remain in poverty. It is estimated by the Government that 60% of pensioners will eventually be forced to rely upon means tested benefits but the Government's own figures demonstrate that 40% of pensioners do not claim the means tested pensioner credits they are entitled to.

Tonight's amendment called upon the Government to announce the date when the earnings link will be restored in its next pre budget report. So it was hardly a revolutionary demand. Nevertheless the Government opposed it and despite 20 Labour MPs voting against the Government the amendment was lost. It's an irony that 24 hours after the Government was able to find £30 billion to bail out the banks who have profiteered at our expense over the last decade, it can't find less than a half a billion to fulfil a longstanding pledge to our pensioners. It demonstrates quite clearly where the Prime Minister's priorities lie.

Thursday 10 April 2008

BAE Saudi Bribery Allegations should be Relaunched and Constitutional Renewal Bill Withdrawn

Following todays damning High Court judgement of the Governments intervention to block the Serious Fraud Offices inquiry into alleged bribes by BAE to Saudi officials I have called upon Gordon Brown to re-launch the inquiry and to drop the Governments proposals in its recently published Constitutional Renewal Bill to give the Attorney Generals powers to prevent or halt prosecutions on grounds of national security without recourse to Parliament or the courts

This judgement is an absolutely damning indictment of the Governments interference in our legal system. Never again should a Government be allowed to prevent justice being upheld.”

We should congratulate the Campaign Against the Arms Trade CAAT and Corner House who brought this case to court. They have done us all a service in exposing the illegality of the Government's actions.

The explanatory notes to the Governments draft Constitutional Renewal Bill states that the Bill "enables the Attorney General to give a direction to a prosecutor that, in relation to an investigation of specified matters, no proceedings for an offence are to be instituted or a direction that proceedings for a specified offence against a specified person are not to be continued. ..........Such a direction may only be given if it is necessary for the purposes of safeguarding national security."

These are sweeping powers to be placed in the hands of an Attorney General appointed by the Prime Minister. You can imagine how they would be used if we were ever able to bring to court those Ministers and officials responsible for taking this country to war in Iraq. As well as covering up the alleged bribes and corruption surrounding the Saudi arms deal maybe that is what they are designed for.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Steve Sinnott and Greg Tucker: Socialists and Trade Unionists

Over the last week our movement has been dealt a real blow with the deaths of Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the NUT, and Greg Tucker, longstanding Left RMT activist.

Steve was a straightforward, decent, committed trade unionist who was absolutely dedicated to education as a means of transforming society. He was a brilliant advocate not only on behalf of NUT members and the teaching profession but also on behalf of public services more generally. As part of his commitment to public services and his opposition to privatisation he ensured that the NUT was a founding member of the Public Services Not Private Profit Campaign, which I chair. Steve knew the meaning of solidarity and put his solidarity into practice by co-ordinating with other trade unions in a number of campaigns including the current pay campaign. He will be missed not just by the NUT but by the Labour and Trade Union movement as a whole and by so many of us who had the privilege of working with him. The best tribute we can give to Steve is to ensure that we give every support we can to his members in the forthcoming industrial struggle for decent pay. This one is for you Steve.

Greg Tucker was a superb example of selfless dedication to the causes of socialism and trade unionism. I have known Greg for nearly 30 years from the days he was a rank and file activist campaigning in support of the Labour Left on the GLC, through the ratecapping campaign and the miners strike and onto his excellent work representing the RMT. Greg was one of those comrades who was always there if you needed support no matter how difficult the issue and whatever flack we were coming under. He embodied the best of our movement, a thinking, extremely well read, and determined socialist. Because he was such an effective representative of RMT members he was an automatic target for management victimisation but he stood up courageously to everything thrown at him. Greg would not allow anything to stand in the way of serving his members and our movement. The real heroes and heroines of our movement are those that quietly without thought of reward devote their lives to our cause. Greg was one of those heroes whom I am immensely proud to have known.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Reneging on the Housing Promise.

Last year after he was appointed Labour Party leader Gordon Brown announced to the delight of Labour Party members that under his leadership the Government would let councils build council houses once again. This was the seen as the culminating success of the "Defend Council Housing" campaign. For four years running the Labour Party conference had carried a resolution supporting the demands of this campaign that local authorities should be treated the same way as housing associations and be allowed once again to build council houses.

Last night the opportunity came to turn Gordon Brown's promise into reality with the enactment of the Goverment's Housing and Regeneration Bill. Austin Mitchell MP moved an amendment to the Bill which would have implemented the Priime Minister's promise and Labour Party conference policy.

Gordon Brown was addressing the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting at the time in order to rally the troops for the forthcoming local council elections.

In the Commons Chamber Government Ministers were ensuring that the amendment to implement Labour Party policy was voted down. Thirty Labour MPs voted against Gordon Brown but that was not enough to see the policy through.

Just check the voting list. There were some MPs who were unable to make the vote for understandable personal reasons with family illness and such reasons. Others, who have vocifereously shouted their support for more council housing, were noticeable by their absence.

On the Government's own calculations the new Housing Bill will generate at most an additional 2500 houses in the whole country. This is a disaster for those in housing need. To put this in context we have over 500,000 households living in overcrowded conditions, 80,000 families homeless and 112,000 children being brought up in temporary accomodation, 700 in bed and breakfast.

How in the name of all that the Labour Party has stood for over its history can we our expect our supporters to enthusiastically turn out and vote for policies that have resulted in a doubling of homelessness? The Government is undermining the campaigns of our Labour councillors and council candidates across the country by refusing to back Labour Party policies.

Instead of addressing the PLP on Monday evening Gordon Brown should have been leading Labour MPs through the Commons lobbies to fulfil the promise he gave last year to allow councils to build once again the homes our country needs so desperately.