Wednesday, 26 November 2014

TTIP and the betrayal of UK consumers

It has been said that “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Into this category falls the Government’s lie that savage cuts to essential public services are an austerity-driven imperative to reduce national debt. It is nothing of the sort: the debt rises to record levels, while big business cherry picks services that have been built over many years with public money and expertise. While their shareholders, wherever they may be, will reap the short-term benefit, the euphemistically named ‘third sector’ – charities and voluntary groups – will be left to pick up the pieces. Government has no interest in public service.

Some lies, though, are so big that they can’t even be spoken aloud – except in terms of baffling acronyms designed to send us into stupor before we’ve understood their consequences. No doubt it is for this reason that the media (dominated by the multinationals who stand to benefit) have told us nothing about TTIP and why there is no public debate about ISDS – though it is no exaggeration to say that these represent the biggest challenges to democratic governance in a generation.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a trade treaty that has been negotiated between the EU and the US for some years – almost entirely behind closed doors and the details of which the EU and our government appear shy about disclosing. Its purpose, apparently, is to remove the barriers to trade between the continental blocs. Who could possibly argue with that?! Except the current trade barriers between the EU and US are already very low. In fact, the treaty’s purpose is to remove those pesky profit-blocking rules – the ones that stop consumers being poisoned or killed, or that prevent pollution. 

It is argued that this consumer-protecting legislation (derided by government as “bureaucratic red tape”) needs to be “harmonised”. Again, difficult to argue with that (though US regulation is far less stringent – eg 70% of US processed food contains genetically modified ingredients). But that is where the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) – a part of the TTIP – comes into play. ISDS will allow big multinationals, using their armies of corporate lawyers, to sue national governments in offshore “arbitration tribunals” – beyond the UK courts – for doing anything that harms their profits. Fanciful? Not at all. Philip Morris, the US tobacco conglomerate, has already used similar trade treaties to sue the Uruguayan and Australian governments for trying to implement greater control on cigarette advertising. And a Swedish energy company has sued Germany for phasing out nuclear power. So should a future UK government try to enact a law that, for example, restricted the ability of a private-sector US medical services giant poaching great swathes of the NHS, it would find itself being sued for billions. 

By means of TTIP – supported by the three main parties and UKIP – our government is stripping UK citizens of the last vestiges of protection from rapacious big business. Speak out before it’s too late.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A Brand New Politics

Russell Brand does have a point. Though at times he seems to confuse a thesaurus with political eloquence (‘autodidact’ looms large in every Brand sermon), he has nevertheless highlighted the real disconnect between most ordinary people and our politicians. With a couple of notable exceptions, political party membership is lower than it has been for a century. And when people do get the opportunity to have their say – casting their vote at an election – increasingly they show their disengagement by abstaining. Our forefathers fought and died for the right to vote that today is so readily surrendered. But it is the politicians who are to blame.

There are many causes of this malaise. Our first-past-the-post system means most elections are decided in a handful of seats by a few voters; those of us unlucky enough to live elsewhere have the distinct impression we don’t matter and that the politicians have stopped listening. The main parties are all trying to occupy the same ‘middle ground’, to such an extent they have become entirely indistinct from one another. There’s actually a broad spectrum of opinion in this country – but when I hear the leaders of the main parties speak I am reminded of Marx (Groucho that is) who said ‘These are my principles. And if you don’t like them I have others.’ Additionally we must look for causes in the types of people we elect to Parliament. Just a generation ago, the Commons was filled with teachers, miners, dockers, health professionals – those who had in fact done a ‘proper’ job – not career politicians with little experience of real life beyond an apprenticeship in media or on a City trading floor so alien to most of us.

While Brand has highlighted the problem, he is somewhat hazier on the solutions. One positive to take from people’s disengagement from formal political dialogue is that they have found other ways of ‘making a difference’ in their communities – by working directly or indirectly with local groups on issues that affect their daily lives. Some of these will be overtly political – campaigning on specific issues. Many however will not be – but still they make a difference. Politicians need to start listening, and social media should increasingly play its part. People are beginning to rely on social media for their news and everyday discourse; and they rightly expect to be engaged by politicians via this medium. More importantly, though, social media is an open parliament, where its users, not politicians, set the agenda.

And politicians, media-trained to reveal nothing of their personalities or beliefs, need to start having a dialogue directly with the people they serve. For this reason I fully applaud the efforts of the Lansdowne Church, supported by the town council and others, to launch a series of debates on topical issues. Last Saturday it was food banks, a debate that was lively, informative and revealing of the grotesque inequalities of 21st century Britain, with local people showing they were better informed than our representatives in Westminster.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Putting communities before developers

As MHDC prepares to vote on whether to add still more homes to the already bloated South Worcestershire Development Plan, its Tory leadership predictably wrings its hands. But let’s not forget how readily they’ve accepted central government’s bidding to build our way out of recession, regardless of the environmental and economic cost. To its pleas there is no choice – there is always a choice.

The SWDP needs to have people and communities at its heart and should be embracing their contributions and participation throughout the plan-making process and over the full life of the plan period that follows. Instead, the process appears to have generated more upset and disquiet than enthusiasm among communities in South Worcs, and while we appreciate that the proposed plan has been produced in line with the formal consultative requirements of a plan-making process, the outcome has clearly failed to attract the groundswell of active public support/ownership that would surely be the hallmark of a successful outcome. This is a highly unsatisfactory basis for committing to a long-term development plan and reflects an insufficiently ‘bottom-up’ plan-making process, with inadequate provision for active engagement and dialogue with communities.

When the SWDP was published in 2012, the Greens were the only local party to offer a formal response – a serious, radical alternative to the concentration of development in large urban extensions. We proposed a distributed form of additional development across the area (all existing settlements growing pro rata to their current size) as a more appropriate option for accommodating the extra housing and employment growth. Such distributed development:

  • better supports regeneration of rural and other local communities and makes them more self-sustainable as places to work as well as live
  • does not require such large-scale additional infrastructure (particularly roads) or risk further congestion of the existing travel network
  • provides a more manageable response to what is a fairly uncertain level of need for extra housing and employment provision, especially as distributed development (on smaller sites) can more easily be managed incrementally
  • represents a more logical response to 21st century trends and lifestyles when so much more business and communication will be electronic, rather than face-to-face and the costs of transport (at least with fossil fuels) are likely to have escalated much further, particularly in response to ‘peak oil’
  • enables the villages to become economically prosperous once again, able to sustain a wide range of local services and amenities, which in turn helps nurture and support local entrepreneurialism to further underpin their success as local economies
  • enables the character of Malvern, the views from the hills, and the town’s tourist potential, to be protected from further sub-urban sprawl and more town centre traffic congestion
  • is more likely to support sympathetic and high quality architecture and respect local vernacular design
  • saves large tracts of high quality land for agricultural/food production purposes (recognising the importance of South Worcestershire’s farm economy both for local and national food supply) 
  • minimises the pressure that large-scale concentrated development has on existing and new essential services (e.g. doctors’ surgeries, fire stations, water/sewerage mains and power supplies)
  • is more likely to promote and support strong community identity and sense of place than do the soulless commuter-oriented, upwardly-mobile and transient estates that large-scale housing extensions invariably become
  • avoids the risks of ghettoisation of less advantaged people and families that again so often goes hand in hand with large tracts of residential development, particularly where there is likely to be a significant proportion of social housing (e.g. the SWDP is looking for 50% affordable housing on larger sites).

In addition, particularly in response to the relatively high population/household growth envisaged for the sub-region, we proposed provision for one (possibly two) significant new green towns in the South Worcs area – zero/low carbon sustainable, self-sufficient communities, with a strong emphasis on advanced technology in terms of employment and economic base – of between 2,000–3,000 houses plus associated employment and amenity space and sufficient sites for a full range of service provision.

Certainly there is a need for more house-building – though there has been insufficient emphasis on bringing empty homes back into use and renovating our existing housing stock. But as important as the numbers are the variety of types, sizes and costs (affordability) of additional housing to meet a range of household circumstances. We want to see a much greater emphasis on achieving a better balance in the housing stock – with much more (affordable) provision for first-time buyers, more social housing (rented and shared equity), and many more smaller houses/bungalows to suit an aging population. The Plan should not just leave it to developers to build what they wish – since this only results in mass provision of (more profitable) executive homes that are unaffordable/unsuitable for many local needs and instead simply attract outsiders into the area, many of whom will commute long distances to work.

The SWDP, and the additional development it permits, also represents an important opportunity to upgrade significantly the standards of thermal efficiency in our housing stock to respond to the problems of climate change and escalating fuel costs. Exacting standards for new development with regard to energy efficiency and carbon emissions should be set. In this way the Plan can be the instrument by which we dramatically improve design standards in relation to a range of considerations, such as access to services and provision of community focal points, sound insulation and privacy etc.

The Plan is pessimistic about the prospects of being able to achieve the significant additional transport infrastructure (road schemes in particular), although having said that, the Plan also seems predicated on such additional infrastructure being provided. But cheap and easy car travel has been a major contributor to the loss of local facilities from smaller communities through diminished custom and viability. Moreover, experience tells us that road improvement/congestion alleviation schemes mostly only provide short-term relief and simply encourage more vehicles on to the highways so that soon the congestion and pollution problems re-emerge. This is a hopeless circular process out of which we must escape – and for which this SWDP again provided a golden opportunity that has been squandered. 

Our preferred option of a more distributed pattern of additional development seeks specifically to do this – by both reversing the trend to dormitory settlements for our villages and re-establishing them as sustainable and vibrant communities with local employment and services so that people need to travel far less. This is surely a more logical way to solve traffic congestion problems than continuing to throw public money at short-term alleviation schemes.

Such a vision requires imagination and the courage to stand up to central government and large developers. This administration has neither the imagination nor the courage, resorting to its party whip to ensure MHDC rejected our vision and forcing this unloved beast of a plan upon us.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Communities doing it for themselves

If you’ve travelled past the Cube this week you may have been intrigued by the frenetic activity on the roof. What you might not have realised, as work on installing a solar array was completed, is that this is a really good news story for community working – locals coming together to make their community better, a unique community renewable energy scheme to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions in Malvern.

One of the most expensive fixed costs of the Cube are its utilities and in order to meet the Cube’s mission, these costs need to be minimised. One means of achieving this is to obtain electricity at well below market price. Malvern Community Energy Co-operative, of which I am a director and which has installed the array, will sell electricity at a discounted rate to MYCT, who run the Cube. Any excess will be sold to the grid at a higher rate.

The Co-op electricity will also not be subject to the uncertainties associated with fossil fuel price increases (over twice inflation for the last 10 years), instead linking increases in price to RPI. The difference between the Co-op electricity prices and the market prices equates to the social benefit this scheme is delivering and is a part of creating a viable youth and community centre for the community run by the community. It is worth remembering that the Cube and all its services and facilities only exist today because a group of community-minded volunteers campaigned to be allowed to run it rather than the County Council following their plan to demolish the building.

Co-operative ownership of renewable energy is familiar to many in continental Europe and has been growing rapidly in the UK in recent years. There are now renewable energy co-operatives across the UK and across a range of technologies. These projects are not only helping to improve the local environment, but by bringing people together they are making renewable energy more accessible and affordable. Co-operatives of this kind are truly democratic structures: anyone can apply to join and with a ‘one member one vote’ system and a board elected from the membership, they offer a fair and transparent way to operate a community-owned renewable energy business. They also have the power to prioritise membership from the local area, ensuring that financial benefits from renewable energy flow to people in the locality.

The fossil fuel multinationals and their friends in government are hostile towards renewables. Unlike their diminishing supplies of oil and gas, renewables are inexhaustible and available to every community – not dependent on unstable sometimes undesirable overseas governments. And as renewables belong to nobody (even if the NestlĂ© chairman is reported as having said that water is not a right, but should be given a 'market value' and privatised) each and every one of us can benefit.

The sole planned activity of Malvern Community Energy Co-op is the ownership and management of one or more solar arrays in the Malvern Hills area. The establishment of the solar array at the Cube is the first stage in this process. With this demonstration model and the knowledge and lessons learnt from the set-up process the intention is to develop other projects. The Co-op is already pursuing other possibilities with organisations who own large roofs that face south and have a high electrical power demand. Watch this space!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

A world where everyone feels valued, equal and safe - free of domestic violence

Our country is justly proud of its record of supporting the rights of women around the world – whether it’s their fight for rights we take for granted or eradicating abusive practices – slavery, forced marriages, FGM.

So consider for a moment these statistics: 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; every 6 seconds a woman is assaulted in her own home; every minute an incident of domestic violence is reported to the police – though a victim is likely to have been assaulted 35 times before she seeks help for the first time. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner.

So from which illiberal backward, authoritarian part of the globe do these shameful statistics come? In fact, they come from Great Britain. Look again at those statistics – can you believe they come from Britain in the 21st century?

Make no mistake, domestic violence knows no social, economic or class boundaries – it is seen in every walk of life. Wherever it occurs, the victims are many: the women –sometimes the men – who suffer not only visible physical scars, but invisible mental scars that may take far longer to heal – loss of confidence, sense of worth, of being valued; children who are forced to witness the hurt of those they love, who may themselves become conditioned to accept abuse as the norm; parents and friends of victims, who feel helpless and guilty, seeing their loved ones so diminished and cowed.

The authorities – police, social services, judicial system – have become far better at tackling the issues of domestic abuse. They more often see the signs, are less likely to believe what happens between partners – a ‘mere domestic’ – is something to steer clear of. If what happens behind closed doors remains there it will not only be allowed to continue, but will become commonplace and the norm within families and communities. But even now, especially now, the will may be there, but the resources are lacking.

While the authorities have become better at tackling instances of abuse, and while the networks to support the victims are slowly being put in place – allowing victims to become survivors, and once more to take control of their lives – there is still a long way to go. And we shall never eradicate this malaise at the heart of our society until we have tackled the root causes – our attitudes as a society to the role of women within it. Changing attitudes takes time and it takes resources.

For this reason I was delighted to be invited to attend the launch of a new charity, the SupportWorks Foundation. The Foundation does invaluable work supporting survivors of abuse through its various educational recovery programmes – free of charge and designed to empower them and help rebuild their lives. The highest quality training is also being delivered to professionals who themselves deal with victims of domestic abuse.

But to eradicate this malaise once and for all we must start by educating our young. The Foundation delivers courses designed to prevent teenage relationship abuse, sexual assault and bullying and activate student leadership in promoting healthy and respectful relationships. These courses allow those in schools and other establishments to deliver the Coaching Healthy and Respectful Masculinity (CHARM) programme to boys and young men and the We Are Valued, Equal and Safe (WAVES) programme for girls and young women. To find out more, to offer your support, email

Monday, 30 June 2014

Living off the land - why a land value tax may help solve our housing crisis

Everyone recognises the need for more affordable accommodation, but what seems to be missing in the recent debates is any focus on the number of empty properties currently existing in our area. Recent statistics on empty homes suggest there are 6,406 in Worcestershire, including 923 in Malvern Hills of which 387 are ‘long-term empty’. In Britain there are at least 600,000 empty homes, many in the North and Midlands (the result of failed and non-existent regional development policies, and one more reason we shouldn't build HS2!). At the same time, developers sit on vast land banks, create an artificial housing shortage, and blame the planning system for resulting problems. The tax system encourages land hoarding. Keeping a property empty and unused makes excellent sense to speculators as minimal tax is payable on an empty plot.

One way to tackle this would be a locally determined Land Value Taxation (LVT), based on the annual rental value of the land, exempting all buildings on it, to replace the Council Tax and Non-Domestic Business Rates. As there would be no reduction of or exemption for buildings left vacant or that have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, this would encourage full use of existing properties and discourage the practice of people speculating on the price of sites whilst keeping the properties empty or derelict. It would become unprofitable to sit on unused land and would incentivise productive use of land.

Over time, this would help to stabilise the property market and tackle the boom-and-bust factor that contributed towards the 2008 financial crisis – discouraging disproportionate amounts of capital from being tied up in property and excessive accumulation of debt.

Moreover, the tax system should, whenever possible, target windfalls, not effort. The value of any plot is not the result of effort on the part of the landowner but the value added by the community; any increase is a windfall. As Winston Churchill recognised in a speech in 1909: "Roads are made, streets are made, railway services are improved, electric light turns night into day, electric trams glide swiftly to and fro, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still… To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist as a land monopolist contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced." The total value of the housing stock in the UK now stands at over £4trn, an increase above inflation since 1990 of £2trn. This £2trn increase has come through a rise in the value of land itself - not through new buildings (comparatively few houses have been built in the last two decades) but from improvements paid for by the community. Landowners have gained a windfall of £100bn yearly on average from a rise in land values to which they have not contributed. A tax levied on the value of the plot of land, without taking into account any building on it (value added by the landowner), targets this £100bn annual unearned windfall that at present is hardly taxed at all. Most goes to powerful and privileged freeloading landowners who fight to keep every penny, and in doing so harm the economy as well as damaging the environment.

The Green Party have developed a coherent LVT strategy:

LD400 The Green Party proposes introducing LVT (previously known as Community Ground Rent) as a tax payable on the annual value of land. The valuation would be of the land alone, exempting all buildings on it, recent and future improvements to it, or minerals extracted from it. LVT would therefore not be a tax on the rent of buildings, the value of crops, manufactured products or the product of other forms of work. (Minerals extracted from the land would be taxed separately - see NR423 & EC710s)

LD401 The proposed LVT would be levied by the local community at rates to be agreed amongst Districts and Regions. Any necessary redistribution between Districts and Regions would be undertaken by agreement between local governments in accordance with the principles agreed in EC551.

LD402 The level at which the tax would be levied would be based on the full value of the current permitted use of the land. Permitted use would mean, for example, that the taxable value of land which is deemed by the community to have special amenity or habitat value, thus inhibiting use for possible greater financial return , would be reduced. When it is considered desirable to change the use through the land-use planning framework, this new permitted use would then form the basis of the assessment.

LD403 Assessments would be reviewed automatically on change of use and every few years, or more frequently, on request. An arbitration process would be made available to provide compensation for those adversely affected by permitted use, and provision made for appeal against assessment.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old

The centenarian American comedian, George Burns, once said “You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old” – something he proved by performing well into his 90s while chomping on his trademark cigar. 

The first task that I had on being elected to a second term as mayor was to choose my charity for the year. The over-60s is the fastest-growing group in society – there are more of us living longer than ever. Ageing is not an illness, but it can be challenging. And so I have chosen as my charities Age UK and Dementia UK. Age UK state “We believe in a world where everyone can love later life. Age UK is here to inspire, enable and support older people to help people make the most of later life.”

The older generation are the last that would want or expect a “hand-out”: their lives have epitomised self-reliance and taking responsibility. Many pride themselves on their independence and fear becoming a “burden”. Those of us who have yet to reach this stage of our lives must respect this – but at the same time we must not use the dignity of old age as an excuse for our inaction. We should stand up and speak out especially for those for whom old age is marked by exclusion and poverty, and also protect the long-term interests of future generations. We must always remember that we work best as a community, and that every one of us will spend most of our lives dependent on others.

Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
I do that too," laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean," said the little old man.”

Our mutual dependency is not a burden but a strength. 

What in practical terms can we do for one another? Well, in the short term there are some easy steps. We must look out for one another. We should take a moment from our busy schedules to consider those around us. A simple phone call, a quick chat over the garden fence, can represent a lifeline to a world that for some is fast retreating. We already have a network in place – Neighbourhood Watch – that does a superb job at safeguarding our property. What a difference it would make if we could protect in the same way those in our community who may be at risk.

As many as one in four pensioners live in poverty. I would like to see the introduction of a Citizens' Pension to replace the current basic state pension and any additional top-up benefits, such as the demeaning pension credits and winter fuel allowances. Unlike the current system this would be unconditional, given as a right of citizenship and not subject to means testing. They will not be restricted to those people who have paid National Insurance contributions, which, for example currently leaves many women without a proper state pension due to having an incomplete payment record. This will not restrict an individual's right to continue working – there are many who wish to work well beyond the official retirement age and should be able to do so – and any additional earnings will be taxed just as they would for those below the pension age.

I would like too to see a supplement paid to pensioners living alone as well as for those with disabilities and special needs. This will include payments to cover the costs of residential care, should this become necessary. Elderly residents should no longer be forced to sell their homes in order to pay for such care, as these supplements will not be subject to means-testing.

There is much to be done. Let’s tackle together the challenges of old age so that we an all love later life.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Myth busting

Here I hope to set the record straight with some answers to the myths being spread by politicians intent on grabbing the headlines, but with little regard to the facts. With thanks to Tom Williams from Green World:

1) Immigration is damaging the UK The idea that the UK can't cope with current levels of immigration is overplayed. Immigrants make up just over 10 per cent of Britain's population –lower than the USA and Australia – and UK asylum claims are 33 per cent below the EU average. More importantly, immigrants have brought huge benefits to the UK, contributing 37 per cent more to public finances than the cost of services they use, according to a University of London study. Government figures show that other EU nationals are far less likely to claim working age benefits than UK nationals, with no evidence of systematic or widespread 'benefit tourism'. Elected Greens will speak out against the toxic rhetoric on immigration and support migrants in the UK. We will oppose spot checks for EU citizenship and the proposed requirement to carry ID cards, as well as moves to water down access to public services. 

2) The EU is too bureaucratic and is taking away our national sovereignty Wonky bananas is the right wing press's favourite example of 'EU bureaucracy gone mad'. In just the last few months, we've been fed false claims that it's seeking to impose laws banning high heels for hairdressers, UK flags on meat packaging and olive oil on restaurant tables. In reality, the EU is not full of bureaucrats; it employs 33,000 people to administer for the 28 member states -that's one per every 15,000 residents and 92 per cent fewer than the British Civil Service. The EU does have a serious democratic deficit problem -with power weighted towards the unelected European Commission. But withdrawing from the EU is unlikely to bring back national sovereignty. Norway -which opted out of EU membership in 1972 -has still implemented three quarters of its laws, without a say in any of them. Its citizens also pay 79 per cent of what British citizens pay for membership (in 2010, the average EU citizen paid only 67 cents per day to finance the annual budget -not bad considering the benefits that membership brings). It is better to be in the debating chamber, arguing for an EU that works for the common good. 

3) Poverty doesn't exist in modern Britain Food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. There was a 170 per cent rise in numbers turning to Trussell Trust food banks in 2012/13 compared to the previous year. Half of the people using food banks do so because of problems with the social security system – the very system meant to make food banks redundant. Work is no longer a route out of poverty either. Wages have stagnated and the price of food is rising by 3.5 per cent, meaning that minimum wage can't cover life's essentials. What's more, one in four of us live in unacceptably cold homes – a stark reminder that poverty does still exist in the seventh richest nation in the world – and that it renders people unable to fulfil basic human needs. 

4) Action on climate change isn't necessary because its effects have been overstated This is perhaps the most dangerous myth in modern-day Britain. Despite almost complete consensus in the scientific community and unprecedented weather events. there are still many who deny the existence of climate change. including our own Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Four of the five wettest years recorded in the UK have occurred since 2000. a chilling indication that the planet is changing faster than we ever expected. A recent study predicted severe flooding across Europe will double by 2050 The Green Party has a 10-point plan on flooding that Includes Increasing spending on defences, creating a new Cabinet-level committee on infrastructure and climate change resilience and redirecting billions of pounds of UK fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks to assisting the victims of flooding. 

5) Further austerity measures are the only answer to Britain's current financial woes We are living through the worst recovery from recession in over 100 years, and many are yet to feel any benefit. Unemployment is going down -but only because of part-time, temporary and self-employment work. Last year, wages fell to 2003 levels. As many as 158,300 people were wrongly found fit for work by Atos in a botched attempt to make the most vulnerable foot the bill. And the UK is still set to borrow £200 billion more than forecast when the Coalition took office. Yet George Osborne has promised austerity until 2020 and beyond, meaning further cuts, including removing unemployment and housing benefits for under-25s altogether. And Labour's two Eds promise not to reverse a single cut. From protecting public services to investing in the Green New Deal, Greens would do things differently. 

6) Greens' energy policies would make the lights go off A package of insulation and renewable measures could save the average household £166 by 2020. And, as the recent 'Zero Carbon Britain' report stated: 'We have the technology to power ourselves with 100 per cent renewable energy, to feed ourselves sustainably and to leave a safe and habitable climate for our children and future generations.' It's a far better option than gambling on fracking, which even Osborne admits wouldn't bring energy prices down.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Listen to the Victims

Recent cases of maltreatment in a few private care homes prove that "in order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing."

This became clear to me just a few years ago, when I was unfortunate enough to work on the Ryan Commission Report into Child Abuse. While the report catalogued abuse dating back a century in institutions in the Irish Republic, the stories told and the lessons learned were equally applicable this side of the Irish Channel.

The many reports of widespread abuse stretching back through the decades were of course harrowing, and at times the first-hand accounts were near impossible to read.

But what really left a deep-seated feeling of anger was that such abuse was known about, and yet nothing was done to protect the victims.

The children themselves tried on many occasions to bring their torment to the notice of the authorities. They were not taken seriously and were ridiculed. Indeed on occasions they were blamed for bringing their suffering on themselves, and any childish prank or indiscretion was used to justify their mistreatment. Those who have endured such abuse know how much it means simply to be listened to and believed. But when your pleas fall upon deaf ears, you sink into silent despair.

And yet the evidence was there for all to see. Little was done to conceal the sometimes wretched condition of the children, the perpetrators were so confident they would not be held to account. Why did those in a position to do so fail to intervene? Often it was because the abuser held a position of such standing and respect that their involvement in such behaviour was inconceivable. But more importantly, to admit it would be to upset the ‘natural order of things’, to disrupt the status quo and create a power vacuum. For them, to their eternal shame, that was more intolerable than the abuse. And so it continued.

Though we have come far, recent cases involving young and old alike suggest there is more to be done. We must start by listening.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Amnesty International recently invited me to introduce their panel discussion, “Women and Their Human Rights”. For me it felt like returning home. Long before I became involved in party politics, Amnesty represented my first political awakening – the realisation that freedoms we often take for granted at home were for many people the world over no more than distant aspirations – something that needed to be fought for. It was a brutal realisation that there were brave men and women – indeed children – willing to pay – or more accurately prepared to pay – the ultimate price for freedoms long ago gained in this country. That someone could pay with their lives in pursuit of the most basic rights was almost unimaginable – but that was and remains the shocking reality. As Mae West said, perhaps in a different context, “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often”. And that is something Amnesty does so well – they shock us, keep us on our toes.

Very quickly my thinking matured and I came to realise too that, once gained, such freedoms need to be treasured – you should never let your guard down – complacency delivers us into the hands of evil men. We should be careful of what we are prepared to surrender to those who claim to be our protectors. Never stop questioning. Always keep challenging.

Since those distant days of the 1970s when I joined Amnesty – wrote letters, signed petitions and occasionally demonstrated – we have come a long way. Strange as it might appear, how far we have come can perhaps best be demonstrated by looking back – with our hands over our eyes and through the gaps in our fingers – at some of the tv programmes that back then passed for comedy – the attitudes that were then commonplace, and that today have rightly been consigned to the dustbin of history.

But while we have come a long way, much remains to be done. And that is why I am so glad that, after more than half a century, Amnesty is alive and kicking, holding firm to the belief that It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. And few areas remain as dark, and in need of a shining light, as “Women and Their Human Rights”.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Myth of Localism

The best-informed decisions are those made by local people about their own communities. Unfortunately, this government’s localism agenda has shown that Orwell’s 1984 “doublespeak” (“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength”) is alive and well in 2014. Localism has come to mean the complete opposite of what had apparently been intended.

A community has the right to bid to run public services if it so wishes. However, when such a bid is made, a full-scale tendering process is triggered – allowing large and distant corporations – with armies of lawyers and accountants – to move in: how can neighbourhood groups compete? This is privatisation of local services behind the smokescreen of giving people a greater say.

A community has the right to buy assets in its neighbourhood. However, this is no more than a right to bid, the owner being entitled to reject such a bid, even if it is the best offer on the table.

And neighbourhood plans allow local people to shape their communities – so long as those communities accept the future includes building lots of new homes – with numbers dictated from on high.

The greatest scandal of localism is its use to roll back the state – shutting public services down and hoping families and charities pick up the pieces – Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ a pale echo of Thatcher’s ‘Care in the Community’. This taps into a perception that public services are often a second-best to doing it ourselves at home if we can. But as things stand, this would be the most regressive step for women possible to imagine – a return to the world before the welfare state – men went out to work and women stayed at home to look after the children, the sick and the elderly. 

Volunteering may be an answer. However, current government policies of privatisation cut right across the ethos of volunteering. People will volunteer for local charities, schools and hospitals, but are less inclined to help private providers make greater profits or reduce costs by making paid staff redundant. Privatisation undermines attempts to get more volunteers; public services run directly by the state or by voluntary organisations are more likely to attract them. 

People will volunteer, but only if the overall social framework is one of cooperation and mutual support, not one of competition and greed. “To serve is beautiful, but only if it is done with joy and a whole heart and a free mind.”

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Malvern and its Food Bank

Malvern has a food bank. Words I never thought I would utter. While it is a phrase that should gladden us – after all “You can judge a society by how they treat their weakest members”we must ask why it is that Malvern needs a food bank.
This week we have learnt that more than 1,400 people (over 600 of whom were children) received emergency aid from our local food bank. Even our relatively prosperous town is being hit by two pernicious philosophies that are leading to the devastation of public services – and to the concept of ‘public service’.
First, we have “trickle-down” economics – if we allow the richest in our society to become even wealthier (the household wealth of the top 10% is 100 times the wealth of the poorest 10%), some of that wealth will, eventually, “trickle down” to the least well-off. Feeding from the crumbs of the table of the rich is no basis for a caring and just society. The rich rarely know when they have enough and need to share. Successive governments of whatever persuasion have not been inclined to encourage them to do so.
At the same time there is the belief that the marketplace delivers more cost-effective and better-quality services. Whether it is the NHS, higher education, public utilities, transport – now the Royal Mail – history has taught us that a marketplace of privatised monopolies, where the short-term interests of shareholders are prioritised ahead of the needs of citizens, is no guarantee of the quality or cost-effectiveness of essential services.
Further we have the myth of ‘localism’ – government dressing up its disinclination to deliver essential public services as an exercise in giving communities the ‘opportunity’ to take on that burden – but without the resources and support to do so. Ever more services once delivered by qualified professionals are now run by well-meaning, but essentially amateur, volunteers, doing their best in the face of government indifference.

I urge you not to give in to politicians of every hue seeking to turn us against the weakest in society, but to support the likes of the Food Bank. Let’s be thankful that we have those willing to step in when government abrogates its responsibilities. But it is no cause for celebration.