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Mark Steel: Thatcher’s funeral is over. Can we go back to normal now, please? – Comment – Voices – The Independent

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

The Independent: Cutting benefits to poorest ‘a tragedy’

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cutting-benefits-to-poorest-a-tragedy-8374315.html

The Chancellor pledged to “tackle welfare bills” yesterday, as part of a range of measures to save billions of pounds in his autumn statement this week. He is expected to announce a below-inflation rise in key state benefits, including unemployment payments, while also raising revenue by cutting pension tax relief for the wealthy.

But in a letter to The Independent, more than 50 charities, academics and unions urged Mr Osborne not to penalise the poor at a time when food and utility prices are rising.

“It would be a tragedy for millions, and a travesty for the economy, to push the poorest into deeper poverty by this week failing to uprate benefits in line with inflation, or by making other cuts to social security for families and disabled people,” they state.

The Liberal Democrats are understood to have objected to plans for an absolute freeze in benefits, and have already blocked Tory plans to remove housing benefit for the under-25s. However with average earnings rising at a lower rate than inflation the two parties are believed to have agreed that welfare payments should not rise in line with inflation – but instead at a lower level, possibly one per cent.

Although pensioners and the disabled are expected to be spared any freeze, the charities claim that the plans will force vulnerable families to cut down on essentials.

“With basic living costs increasing, we know many families are having to make difficult choices; a freeze on benefits and tax credits will make these choices even harder,” the letter says.

Signatories include Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Anne Marie Carrie, chief executive of Barnardo’s, and Fiona Weir, chief executive of single parents charity Gingerbread.

They write: “This week’s autumn statement could leave thousands of children and families even further away from being able to meet their essential costs of living.

“As organisations and individuals concerned with their wellbeing, we are increasingly worried that the statement may worsen already-alarming projections that child poverty will rise by 800,000 by 2020.”

CPAG also cited a recent warning from the International Monetary Fund that struggling countries which cut social security payouts and housing subsidies risk doing further damage to their economies.

Yesterday Mr Osborne made clear that reducing the welfare bill would be a central element of Wednesday’s autumn statement, which is being touted as a mini-Budget.

“We are going to tackle welfare bills, and … the welfare system which is deeply unfair for working people,” he told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“We’ve already made £18bn of savings from the welfare bill … but we’re determined to reform welfare, not just to cut bills, so that work always pays, that it’s always better off for someone to work that extra hour, to go out and get the job, and fundamentally that is about creating not just a fairer society, but a more competitive society. That is the Conservative approach to fairness, make the rich pay but also make sure you are tackling the welfare system, which is deeply unfair.”

But the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, insisted that it was only Mr Osborne’s economic strategy that meant he needed to find further savings. “The welfare bill is up because inflation is up and long-term unemployment is up,” he said. “The Work Programme is failing, he’s cutting taxes at the top. And then he says ‘I’m going to hit people at the bottom’.”

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York added: “While the poorest see their incomes slashed, incomes at the top have been rising rapidly – but everyone deserves a decent quality of life.”

Liberal Democrat sources said they believed that they had negotiated a “balanced package” which would be seen as fair.

However they did not deny suggestions that the autumn statement would include some real-terms benefits cuts.

“This is an important moment for the Government,” they said. “But I think if you look at the range of measures in the statement people will see that it is fair.”

However research commissioned by the Trades Union Congress, published today, found that families would lose most, out of the £10bn cut in the welfare budget, with low-income households losing more than £700 each a year. That is compared with the richest 10 per cent of households who would lose an estimated £100 per family. Working single parents would lose more than £300 a year if the cuts go ahead, the report says.

Autumn statement: Osborne’s options

Freezing welfare benefits entirely

A popular measure among Tory backbenchers but opposed by charities and many Liberal Democrats who feel it’s draconian. Chances of inclusion: 2/5

Raising welfare benefits in line with average incomes – not inflation

Average incomes are rising at less than 2 per cent while the rate of inflation is higher. Osborne may argue that to make work pay, benefits should only go up this year by the rate of earnings. 4/5

Reduce the amount of money that people can pay into their pensions without paying tax on it from £50,000 to £30,000 a year

Mr Osborne has already stated that the autumn statement will increase the tax burden on the better off and pension tax relief is an obvious way of doing this. 3/5

Removing housing benefit from the under-25s

This idea was floated by David Cameron in a speech earlier this year – but appears to have been blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Expect it in the Conservative manifesto. 0/5

Introducing a mansion tax on the most expensive properties or introducing a new council tax band

A long-time aspiration of the Liberal Democrats, the proposal appears to have been vetoed by Mr Cameron so will not happen in this parliament. But again expect it in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. 0/5

Freezing fuel duty

Having been postponed once before, fuel duty is due to rise by 3p per litre in January. However Mr Osborne is almost certain to delay the rise again or scrap it entirely. 4/5

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The Independent: Standards fall as care operators get ‘too big to fail’

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/standards-fall-as-care-operators–get-too-big-to-fail-8374324.html

Standards in social care are being undermined because the handful of private companies which dominate public sector contracts are now “too big to fail”, a new report warns.

Outsourcing was supposed to drive up standards and cut costs, but the dominance of multinationals such as Serco and G4S risks harming vulnerable people, it claims.

Britain faces “another banking crisis” in the care sector unless charities and social enterprises are given a greater slice of the market, according to the report’s authors.

Peter Holbrook, the chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, who commissioned the investigation, told The Independent: “Britain’s most vulnerable people are suffering as competition and the delivery of efficient care is replaced by short-sighted bidding wars and low-quality service.”

The outsourced market for public services has an annual turnover of £82bn, which is predicted to rise to £140bn by 2014. The report identifies the emergence of a “shadow state”, with a small number of companies taking “large and complex stakes in public service markets, and a great deal of control over how they work”.

G4S, which made headlines this summer for failing to provide sufficient security at the Olympics, has contracts with 10 government departments and agencies and 14 police forces.

Serco has dozens of private contracts, running everything from prisons to hospital facilities to council waste collection. “Its failure would cause extreme turbulence in public services. No business should be too big to be allowed to fail,” the report warns.

About £1bn is spent every year looking after children and young people in residential care, with Sovereign and 3i the major private players. But the report found that it is “hard to pinpoint who owns what; their waters seem to be in perpetual motion, as they buy from one another and take one another over, and offload assets.”

Other private operators whose substantial public contracts are highlighted in the report include Atos, which has the contract to perform disability assessments, and Capita, which was recently named as the preferred bidder for a £1.7bn, 20-year contract to run educational services in Staffordshire.

“If we are going to go down this route of further marketisation, then it is imperative that these markets are open, transparent and well-functioning,” Mr Holbrook said. “There is a very small number of companies dominating these markets, and they surround themselves by complex legal structures so that it is hard to understand the level of profit they are taking from some of these contracts”.

The report, which is the result of interviews with policy-makers and front-line workers, accuses profit-seeking companies of bidding for public-sector contracts on short-term price alone, with devastating long-term effects, including a “race to the bottom” on pay.

One unnamed home-care worker for a “sizeable private provider” is quoted as saying: “Most of the carers don’t have English as a first language. It’s always the minimum wage.”

Charities and social enterprises can no longer compete, the report claims.

A G4S spokesman said yesterday: “There is absolutely no way we are comprising on service, for the very reason that every government contract we provide has to meet strict criteria and if we fail we incur financial penalties, which is not something echoed in the public sector.”

Serco could not be reached for comment.

Public sector market: Outsourcing giants

G4S Had its contract for Wold prison revoked last month after a shambolic performance in providing security at the London Olympics, pictured. The Government remains its biggest client, with 14 police forces within the firm’s remit.

SERCO Major shareholders include HBOS and Lloyds. Government contracts include maintaining the Docklands Light Railway, missile defence systems and military bases, and security services for the young offenders institutions.

ATOS The French multinational turned over €8m (£6.5m) last year. It made headlines after losing a memory stick with the passwords and names of a government computer system were found in a pub car park. Clients include the UK Border Agency.

CAPITA Contracts span administration of public-sector pensions and public grant programmes. Recently named preferred bidder for a 20-year contract to run educational services in Staffordshire. Specialises in “Business process Outsourcing”.

The Independent: The Tories are emasculating the Equality and Human Rights Commission

November 5, 2012 Leave a comment

The Tories are emasculating the Equality and Human Rights Commission

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-tories-are-emasculating-the-equality-and-human-rights-commission-8280977.html

 

Baroness Onora O’Neill, 71, has replaced Trevor Phillips as chair. Phillips was not as effective or dynamic as he needed to be, but he did understand how discrimination damaged individuals and society. O’Neill is a thoughtful philosopher, a former head of a Cambridge college, an establishment figure with no record in equality or human rights work. Oh, except for a paper on the “dark side of human rights” which suggests some victims get off on feelings of victimisation. The Hillsborough relatives and Doreen Lawrence have been accused of just that. Imagine what the Commission would be under Shami Chakrabarti, Geoffrey Robinson QC or the indomitable Helena Kennedy? They wouldn’t just play safe and would never be appointed.

The UN has just warned that the UK may lose its “A” status on human-rights protection and so be unable join in top-table discussions on those universal rights and country violations. On equality our UN figures are just as miserable. Latvia is getting better on gender parity and we are getting markedly worse. On race there is serious criticism of Government inaction.

The Tory right has always hated anti-discrimination remedies and talk of human rights. According to them, the members of this capitalist, individualistic nation should put up with hard luck and unfairness and not bother busy, busy businesses with profligate complaints. By comparison, the US, an even more fanatically individualistic, capitalist nation has had equality laws and anti-discrimination institutions since the 1960s for ethical and economic reasons. Not even George Bush and followers could persuade public opinion that such “interfering” legal protection was ruining the country.

The Human Rights Act and the Commission materialised after years of painstaking work by the Liberal Democrat lawyer Lord Anthony Lester and other civil rights and democracy experts. I remember endless seminars, fiery arguments and public meetings to work out a good model to defend all UK citizens from prejudice and injustice. That principle was what got me onside. The Commission would fight not only for black Britons and women, but white men too, old, young and gay people, anyone who had been treated unfairly. Though discrimination never stops, those rights are now firmly in our heads and hearts. Theresa May gave them as her reasons for not extraditing Gary McKinnon, Asperger’s sufferer and Pentagon hacker, to the USA recently; we are collectively profoundly upset when the human rights of children are violated as they were by Savile and others and shocked to see the abuse of vulnerable old people in some care homes, their right to human dignity violated.

I had an illuminating exchange at a party this week. A property developer wanted to know how to get the EHRC to take up his daughter’s case. Expected to get top grades, she applied to an Oxford college and was rejected. The disappointed teenager has, since, tried to kill herself: “It’s not fair, they didn’t give her a chance. They just judged her on class.” I replied I completely sympathised, and I do. And I hope he too now has some empathy with the qualified black man who never gets an interview, the old worker sacked because of his age. From being against such “PC nonsense” as he put it, the father had started to see why we need laws to safeguard us all.

David Cameron once seemed far removed from his anti-equality troglodytes.

David Cameron once seemed far removed from his anti-equality troglodytes. He worked tirelessly in the last election to persuade voters that under his leadership the Tories had undergone not a cosmetic makeover, but irreversible surgery. It was no longer the “ nasty party” (in Theresa May’s words), but nice, caring, sharing, modern, meritocratic, inclusive and diverse. He knew that without new blood the Conservatives were stuffed. Their most loyal white, middle-class supporters were ageing and most young Tory whippersnappers were almost as badly out of touch with modern Britain. Excluded and self-excluding voters had to be attracted to boost numbers and change the party’s image. I do think Cameron, in that moment, passionately believed and truly meant what he said – in that he is Tony Blair’s doppelgänger.

Now the PM backs off from all that idealism, dumps progressive policies and state institutions to enforce best practice, casually abandons his pre-election persona and swerves sharply right. Disabling the equalities and human rights agenda and sacrificing the Commission are offered as proof to the old guard that he is still one of them. And, as ever, Liberal Democrat leaders, warm in their ministerial cars and self-importance, do nothing to stop him or defend an institution they so wanted, so believed in.

Categories: Equality Tags:

The Independent: Thousands wrongly sectioned under mental health act following ‘technical error’

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/thousands-wrongly-sectioned-under-mental-health-act-following-technical-error-8231388.html

Thousands wrongly sectioned under mental health act following ‘technical error’

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Parliament that thousands of Britain’s most vulnerable patients have been locked up on the say so of doctors who, despite having the requisite medical knowledge, were not legally allowed to make such a decision.

The error will require immediate retrospective legislation to avoid a deluge of legal complaints whilst a review has been ordered to find out what went wrong.

The Department of Health insists that no patients have been wrongly sectioned in clinical terms and that the doctors behind the decisions had the correct professional qualifications.

Under the Mental Health Act those who are sectioned for their own or society’s safety are done so with the authorisation of a doctor who has to be approved by the Secretary of State. In recent years the Health Secretary has delegated responsibility for approving doctors to the 10 Strategic Health Authorities that cover England.

However four authorities – North East, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and East Midlands – delegated a further step top mental health trusts and then failed to sign off on the decisions they made, meaning they were effectively illegal.

In a statement to the Commons Mr Hunt said: “We believe that all the proper clinical processes were gone through when these patients were detained. They were detained by medically qualified doctors. We believe that no one is in hospital who shouldn’t be and no patients have suffered because of this.

He added: “But for the avoidance of any remaining doubt, and in the interests of the safety of patients themselves, as well as the potential concerns of their families and the staff who care for them, we are introducing emergency legislation to clarify the position.”

Andy Burnham, his opposite in the Labour party, said MPs would work with the Health Secretary in bringing in the emergency legislation but he warned: “There will be concerns about precedent – this the first time that the House has been presented with emergency legislation in this area which affects people’s rights. The public will want to know that it is being used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort, not as a convenient means of correcting administrative failures.”

Mental health charities reacted cautiously to the announcement saying that although the mistake was regrettable, they were assured by promises from the government that no-one had been sectioned falsely in clinical terms.

“Being involuntarily detained via the Mental Health Act is one of the most serious things that can happen to someone in terms of their mental health,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind. “For this reason it is essential that the system works as it should, with safeguards in place to protect the rights of the person being detained. It is therefore regrettable that this mistake has been made and that it went unnoticed for so long.”

Paul Jenkins, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness added: “All of us need to know that if we were ever ill enough to be sectioned, we would be treated according to the proper processes. At this stage, we have no reason to think that anyone has been detained who should not have been, even though the correct procedures have not been followed. We believe that the Department of Health and Strategic Health Authorities are taking swift action and we will continue to monitor the situation.”

Marjorie Wallace chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, added: “It is a matter of some concern that the procedures for something as sensitive as being sectioned have not been followed in so many cases. At the moment we have the Health Secretary’s assurance that no-one has been detained unnecessarily, and must hope that these errors are correctly swiftly so that confidence in the system can be preserved. This is particularly important when an individual is placed in the care and authority of the state.”

* Picture posed by model

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Owen Jones: Hatred of those on benefits is dangerously out of control

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Friday 18 May 2012

 

What does it say about modern Britain when the pre-meditated massacre of six children is described as “an accident waiting to happen” on national television? In the early hours of last Friday, someone poured petrol through the letterbox of the Philpott household, unleashing a blaze that ended in one of the most appalling mass murders in our country’s recent history. Whoever was responsible must have known the almost inevitable consequences of their actions. No rationalisations exist for this sort of atrocity.

But as the surviving Philpotts face an agony most would struggle to imagine, right-wing shock-jock Carole Malone argued that they had effectively brought it on themselves. “This family became a target a couple of years ago,” she argued on ITV’s This Morning; they had “probably upset a lot of people” by being a family of 17 who were receiving state benefits. “I suspect they have many enemies out there because they were seen to be on benefits,” she suggested with a tone that did not betray a hint of compassion. With the country in such a dire financial state, “People have seen families – maybe like this – wanting to take advantage.” Referring to the “culture of the family” and the fact they had brought “attention to themselves”, Malone concluded that “six innocent children have died as a result”.

Malone has form. In 2009, she absurdly claimed that illegal immigrants received “free cars”. The Press Complaints Commission forced the now defunct News of the World to apologise and publish a full retraction. After Karen Matthews shocked the nation by kidnapping her own daughter to extort money from the tabloid press, Malone claimed to have lived “next” to a council estate “full of people like Karen Matthews”. They were part of a “sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country”, she claimed, as though an abhorrent individual such as Karen Matthews was representative of anybody but herself. But as contemptible as this proven propagator of untruths is, Malone merely reflects prejudice that is increasingly rampant in austerity Britain. On the same day the children were killed, I am told that a producer at a leading radio station suggested using the tragedy as a hook for a feature on large families.

Before the general election, some of the media delighted in using the Philpotts as evidence the welfare system was out of control. They were featured on ITV shows Ann Widdecombe Versus The Benefit Culture and The Jeremy Kyle Show, and in several newspapers. The coverage had a simple aim: to provide proof of the age-old suspicion that the poor are breeding too much – and at taxpayers’ expense, too. It was a sentiment that was rife among the eugenicists who flourished in inter-war Britain; and Thatcher’s mentor, Keith Joseph, ruined his Conservative leadership ambitions in the mid-1970s by claiming that “our human stock is threatened” by single parents “in [social] classes 4 and 5” having too many children.

Echoing this tradition, Jeremy Hunt argued before the general election that long-term claimants had to “take responsibility’ for the number of children they had, adding that the state would no longer fund large workless families. But it is all based on myths. Just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more.

Hatred against those receiving benefits is out of control in Cameron’s Britain. The Tories transformed a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending, and determined that the most vulnerable would make the biggest sacrifices. But taking away support from the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor is not straightforward. It can only be achieved by a campaign of demonisation – to crush any potential sympathy. Benefit recipients must only appear as feckless, workshy scroungers, living in opulent quasi-mansions with wall-to-wall widescreen TVs, rampaging around the Canary Islands courtesy of handouts from the squeezed taxpayer. Benefit fraud does exist – according to Government estimates, it is worth less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – but the most extreme examples are passed off as representative, or as the “tip of the iceberg”. The reality is all but airbrushed out of existence.

Earlier this year, a Sunday Times article featured the headline “End the something for nothing culture”. Below was a picture of the Gallagher family from the comedy-drama Shameless, as though these fictional caricatures were real life. This one-time paper of record quoted a Whitehall official on benefit recipients: “If we want them to tap dance, then they will tap dance.” Rod Liddle – who dresses up the boorish rants of a thick pub bore as journalism – claimed that his new year’s resolution “was to become disabled”, perhaps with a “newly invented” illness like fibromyalgia, so he could claim benefits. As the economic catastrophe that began four years ago led to a national jobs’ crisis – there are now over six million people looking for full-time work – the “scrounger'”caricature perversely has become more and more popular.

It is tempting to ignore the ramblings of glorified internet trolls like Liddle, but their projected ignorance has consequences. Six of the biggest disability charities have warned that the campaign of demonisation – by both journalists and politicians – has led to a surge in abuse towards people with disabilities. According to Scope, two-thirds reported abuse in September last year, up from 41 per cent just four months earlier.

But this campaign helps sustain public acquiescence in a massacre of the welfare state. George Osborne plans £10bn of further benefit cuts; Cameron’s parting spinmeister Steve Hilton has proposed £25bn. Half a million people are to have their disability living allowance taken away, even though the estimated fraud rate is just 0.5 per cent. People with serious illnesses are being stripped of their employment and support allowance, after undergoing the horrendous (and often humiliating) ordeal of a points-based assessment by French corporation Atos. One man with a degenerative lung disease, Larry Newman, was awarded no points – just a few weeks before he died of his illness. Under New Labour (let’s not forget who started this), one woman had her benefits cut after missing an assessment appointment – because she was in hospital having chemotherapy for stomach cancer.

But we rarely see this reality: it is intentionally hidden from us. The Government and much of the media divert anger from those who caused the crisis, to your “scrounging” neighbour down the street. And so we end with Carole Malone arguing that a family whose children died in a fire brought it on themselves. It is beyond shameful. And it must be challenged.

Categories: Benefits Tags: , ,

Andy Burnham, The Independent: We have the truth, now we need justice for the 96

September 14, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/we-have-the-truth-now-we-need-justice-for-the-96-8135801.html

 

In Liverpool, there have been people who saw people die at close quarters, in unimaginable circumstances and have been walking round for 23 years hearing that in some way they were to blame for what happened. It’s hard to understand the psychological impact of that. I’ve come across so many people over the years who have spoken of their difficulty in dealing with what happened and the way in which the tragedy was portrayed by the police.

On Wednesday, we cleared the names of all Liverpool fans who were there that day, and the value of that can’t be overestimated. The enormity of what was revealed made it more difficult to comprehend. You asked yourself: why hadn’t it been revealed, an injustice on this scale? But there are also deep questions, and the Prime Minister touched on this. The policing system, the coroners’ system, the legal system and the political system all failed to bring out the truth. Why?

In the legal system, people prepare a version of events and then fight it out in court. That is what they tried to do in this case. But because it came at the end of a decade when football supporters were treated as second-class citizens and the police were believed whatever they said, they created a version of events that stuck. When it came to fight out these versions of events in court, the truth wasn’t established.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel has done a magnificent job. It has created a potentially valuable model for government and society in the future, because what it did in a non-adversarial way was to put the emphasis on disclosure, not on two sides fighting their case.

There is also a parallel between Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough. Although the initial events were very different – one involving direct violence in Northern Ireland which left 14 dead, and the other where terrible negligence left 96 dead – the actions of the state in the aftermath were very similar. The effect on the bereaved was also similar: the denigration and the attempts to smear innocent people.

Believing eventually that the “truth will out”, I took the Hillsborough families over to Derry in July via Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP. To hear the two groups of families talk was a humbling experience. But what was interesting was that the Derry families told us that they only eventually got together to fight properly in 1992, 20 years after the shootings.

The SDLP and Sinn Fein put their differences aside and fought as one for 20 years. And on the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough, I went to Anfield and listened as people told me what they wanted. Twenty years – that seems to be the period when people recover enough to eventually demand truth and justice.

If we hadn’t made the call for disclosure when we did, it is unlikely the truth about Hillsborough would have been able to be told in the way it has. We are talking here not so much about Cabinet papers, but papers held at local level by public bodies; every year that passed our inability to retrieve this material increased.

All this came together at the right time and may not have happened with further passage of time. The key thing now is that after truth, must come justice. And that means a new inquest.

I cannot rest until that verdict of accidental death is removed from public record. The case for a new inquest is overwhelming. Only then will we be able to say we have righted one of the greatest injustices on British soil of the 20th century.

The writer is the Merseyside-born shadow Health Secretary and helped set up the Hillsborough Panel

Categories: Media, Stigma Tags: , ,
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