Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Tories are coming to Manchester!

So it's conference season again and we've already had Greens & Lib-Dems conferences with Labour's conference ending tomorrow. This Sunday the Conservative Party are coming to Manchester until next Wednesday. This will mean for perhaps a whole week several roads will be closed to give way for delegates to the conference. It also means there will be a lot of people protesting in Manchester. This Sunday the TUC have organised a march against the NHS reforms the coalition government has brought forward where I'm expecting at least 5,000 people to show up.

The Conservatives came to Manchester just 2 years ago to the same venue, Manchester Central (formerly the GMEX Centre) and I was at the march then. Difficult to estimate figures of how many people turned up, but it was several thousand. Now that we've seen a lot of the reforms which were promised 2 years ago, I expect a lot more people to show up this time round. I was at the back of the march with the animal rights activists who oppose the government's plan for the badger cull, which has now gone ahead in 2 pilot zones (see my previous post on the badger cull here: http://jakewelsh.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/why-badger-cull-should-not-go-ahead.html). There were roughly 500 animal rights activists. Stuck at the end I wasn't sure if we were getting the most coverage that we could. But at least we were together and not all over the place, mixed up with everyone else.

Lots of people up and down the country are angry with what this government is doing. Sweeping welfare reforms that have torn families apart. The bedroom tax that means some people have to move out of a cheap 2 or 3 bedroom house and move to a much more expensive 1 bed flat all in the name of saving money while multi-millionaires who have 10 spare bedrooms don't get any penalties. The introduction of Universal Credit will make it harder for people to budget, and will reduce the amount of benefits people could claim. New private contracts in the NHS which signal the deepening of privatisation of the NHS. The badger cull will murder over 70% of all wild badgers in England. Major cuts to the budgets of almost all councils in the country. All this while the richest people in the country have been getting a 5% tax break. There's more than enough reason to come out and protest.

The march is starting at Liverpool Street and sets off around 11am. The march will finish at Whitworth Park at the beginning of Rusholme/Curry Mile so hey we can all go for a curry of falafel afterwards! I'll possibly be there with the anti-badger cull group again, but there's plenty of other groups you can join in along the march. I'll see you there, right?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Privatise the Royal Mail? Not even Thatcher tried that!

The Royal Mail is up for sale. At least that's what the government's Secretary of State for Business,
Innovation and Skills Vince Cable is saying. It was announced last week that the Royal Mail will be floated on the stock exchange in the upcoming weeks[1]. Under the plans, workers at the Royal Mail will be offered 10% of the shares of the company, with outside shareholders given the chance to buy the remaining 90% of shares. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) which represents around 100,000 Royal Mail staff has announced a ballot of it's members on the question of a strike in protest of these plans. Results are expected on 3rd of October[1].

Last November I started a casual Christmas job with the Royal Mail at the Preston Mail Centre, and I filled in a CWU membership application form on the day I started work. I found the regional office for the CWU by accident on the way home from the interview for the job, seeing a big sign with the words "Royal Mail is not for sale" outside a building. I knew that was something I had to be involved in during my time at Royal Mail so I went into the office and asked for literature straight away. During my time at the Royal Mail I learnt a lot about changes going on there over the last decade or two. One worker told me that highly paid members of staff whose work was largely bureaucratic office work and not necessary work were made redundant, saving the company money. A fellow Christmas casual who had been doing Christmas work there for over a decade told me that when he first stated working there, the number of casual workers were outnumbered by regular members of staff and each year since the numbers of regular staff had decreased while the number of temporary casual workers had increased and now outnumbered regular staff. Other regional mail centres such as Bolton MC and Warrington MC had closed down in recent years, putting more weight and pressure on remaining sites and leaving Preston the only mail centre between Manchester and Carlise. In recent years the Royal Mail has delivered post and packages for other companies who collected the mail (and payment) and paid the Royal Mail to deliver it on their behalf. Now more than half of Royal Mail deliveries are for other companies.

I soon found out how effective and radical the CWU is. It was the first workplace I had entered where there were whole noticeboards for a trade union. The union also had a library installed in the workplace. I actually got to work with my trade union rep. In October 2012 one worker was suspended from Preston Central Delivery Officer for having "an argument" with a manager. Workers at the office went on strike in protest and called for the manager to be suspended while an investigation took place[2]. This was the sort of union I wanted to be involved in. It was refreshing as I had heard that most unions are happier to compromise in negotiations with employers than ballot it's own membership for a strike, with USDAW having a "no strike agreement" with Tesco.

Our government is arguing that the Royal Mail needs to be privatised so it can raise more money so it can properly invest and compete with modern companies. I agree that it could definitely benefit from more investment, but I don't see why this has to come from the private sector? I don't even believe that the private sector would invest in the Royal Mail, I haven't seen evidence that this will happen. What I fear is more likely to happen under privatisation is the freedom to cut more costs. This will mean lower wages, less jobs and less benefits at the work place for workers. The same Tory message was spread in the 80s under Thatcher - privatised companies based purely on making as much profit as possible no matter what will deliver a more cost effective and cheaper service. However, most privatised industries (take for example trains) have made services more expensive. Private companies serve only to make as much money for their owners, directors and shareholders. Public industries serve to provide services that are needed or of use to people. If public services are not run well, that isn't an argument for privatisation, it is an argument for better public infrastructure, management and investment. If the Royal Mail needs more investment, then that is an argument to raise taxes so the public can pay for it. There is a hidden agenda with Tory-led governments and that is to privatise public industries so that taxes can be lowered, and rich business owners have more freedom to keep earning big amounts of money while paying employees as little as they can get away with. Low tax, small government.

However, not even Thatcher dared to sell off the world's oldest postal service (founded in 1516) to the highest bidder and she was known for viciously privatising our public sector. This government is pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable to be privatised and what isn't. There have been some services which have in modern history been in public hands, and it has generally been accepted that they belong in public hands - schools, the NHS & hospitals, the police, fire fighters, roads, tax collection, prisons and your local postman (or postwomen) and post office. This government has started privatising some of these. G4S now do the security in prisons. NHS health contracts have been given to private companies. The head of your local police authority is now elected by voters and will have greater influence on how the police force is to be run in your area. Now the Royal Mail will be added to this list. We can't afford to let this happen and give a gateway to further public services being handed over to the private sector.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Why the badger cull should not go ahead

Did you know that the UK government wants to kill the majority of wild badgers in England? This vicious act is known as the badger cull and the excuse given is to combat bovine TB. Over the last couple of weeks they started 2 trial zones for culling badgers - Somerset and Gloucestershire. If the trials are successful, then the cull will be taken to the majority of the country. The plan is to murder over 70% of our wild badgers across the country.

Let's look at why this is happening shall we? England has high levels of bovine TB in cattle that has been on the increase since the 1980s. It is true that wild badgers can carry bovine TB and can pass it onto cattle. DEFRA (Department for Environmental and Rural Affairs) is suggesting that culling badgers will lead to a 16% reduction in bovine TB cases[1]. DEFRA and the government is using that as the reason, or the excuse for the badger cull. Bare in mind that this is a Tory-led coalition government and the Tories are well known for being in favour of killing wildlife for fun. They were fierce opponents to the ban on fox hunting and have threatened to repel the ban. David Cameron enjoys shooting deer and only last month was moaning about a bad back which prevented him from going deer stalking[2]. I contacted the MP for Wyre and Preston North where I am registered to vote, Tory MP Ben Wallace and I received a lengthy reply stating that while he doesn't like to see wildlife culled, we must protect British farmers from the dangers of bovine TB carrying badgers as the economic consequences of doing otherwise are unaffordable. I also spoke to the MP for Preston where I was living at the time, Labour MP Mark Hendrick. He told me that he had worked on a report in the 90s with Margaret Becket (or Harriet Harman, I can't quite remember) which showed that culling badgers does not solve the problem of bovine TB and in fact can increase cases of bovine TB. So there is scientific evidence to suggest that culling badgers does not get rid of bovine TB, and that such a cull could increase cases due to dispersing populations of badgers. Some badger activists have suggested that since it's supposed to be illegal to hunt foxes, the Tories want to provide a different animal which can be hunted for pleasure. Others have suggested that the government are using the badger cull as a scapegoat for the real cause of bovine TB - bad farming practices.

Lots of countries across Europe have high populations of the European badger, yet do not have high levels of bovine TB. Why is this? Well, frankly it's down to different farming methods. The UK is the 4th most densely populated country in Europe, after San Marino, Holland and Belgium. We are also one of the largest consumers and producers of meat in Europe. This leads to having intense farming practices where bovine TB can be spread much more easily. Following the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 farmers restocked their cattle without checking the new cattle for bovine TB and that has never really been dealt with properly since[3]. And if the government's own report suggests a badger cull will reduce bovine TB cases by around 16% then surely badgers must not be the main cause of bovine TB. In fact, the majority of badgers are healthy and not infected with bovine TB, and it is very difficult to distinguish between healthy and infected badgers. How else are we going to deal with the other 84% of bovine TB cases? Here's one suggestion - vaccinations. David Cameron has stated that vaccinating badgers would cost more than a cull of badgers. But this is simply not true, the government have estimated a cost for vaccinating badgers £2,250/sq km/year but the combined estimate for the cull and cost to police the cull will reach a total of £2,429/sq km/year[4]. There currently isn't a vaccination for cattle that is safe and ready to use, but one is being tested and will be ready in around 5-10 years time.

How will the cull take place? Farmers in the pilot areas are to go out at night and shoot badgers. Some badgers will be trapped before being shot. The farmers are not allowed to shoot in the day time for fear of being too close to members of the public. Farmers are going out in secret so it's difficult to find out where they will be.

So what can you do to help badgers? Firstly and from my point of view most importantly you can turn vegan. Turning vegan is not only good for your health and the environment it can help save the badgers. Reduce the demand for beef and dairy and you reduce the demand for cattle to be bred. If we had no demand for cattle then there would be no excuse for the badger cull.

Now is the time to act as culling has started in the pilot zones. Contact your local hunt sabotage group (search through the list here: http://hsa.enviroweb.org/index.php/get-involved/localgroups) and see if they're going to visit the pilot areas. Farmers cannot shoot if members of the public are around so activists are going out at night wearing hi-vis clothes. There are camps in both areas where activists can stay if they want. You can join Brian May's Badger Team campaign: http://www.teambadger.org.uk/. You can get involved in your local Badger Trust group (find your local group here: http://www.badger.org.uk/content/groups.asp). On Sunday 29th of September at 11am in Manchester you can join us on the Tory conference march and tell the government to stop this brutal slaughter of our innocent wildlife. I will be there along with Greens for Animal Protection (GAP, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GreensForAnimalProtection Twitter: https://twitter.com/Greens4Animals) and other Green Party members opposed to the cull. For more information visit the Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/498833810194210/. I'll see you there, come and say hello!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The NEED for a living wage.

In Britain today we have several different minimum wages.  Every October minimum wage is supposed to go up, ideally but not always in line with inflation. This year minimum wage for over 21s will rise by 12p to £6.31 an hour with the rate for 18-20 year olds going up by 5p to £5.03 per hour. Minimum wage for apprentices will rise by 3p to £2.68 an hour. This rise is below inflation rates. The Living Wage Foundation calls for the minimum wage to be replaced with a living wage, a wage that truly reflects the genuine minimum costs to have an acceptable standard of living. To this end they call for the living wage to be set differently for the London region as London is a more expensive place to live and work in. They are calling for a living wage of £8.55 per hour in London and £7.45 per hour outside of London.

The minimum wage was introduced in the UK under Tony Blair's Labour government with the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. It was in part a response to the declining trade union movement which led to less bargaining power for workers and thus lower wages. Initially it had two levels of minimum wage, £3.60 for adults aged 21 or over and £3.00 for those aged 18 to 20. There was opposition from Conservative MPs and business owners claiming that businesses will have to sack people as they would not be able to afford to employ them any longer. Fortunately however this did not happen on mass when minimum wage was introduced. In 2003 a minimum wage for 16 and 17 year olds was introduced at £3.00, while 18-20 year olds had £3.80 and over 21s £4.50. In 2010 a minimum wage for apprenticeships was introduced and set at £2.50 an hour. This may look like a good thing, but having a minimum wage for apprenticeships much lower than normal minimum wage has resulted in many jobs being described as an apprenticeship so that a company can get away with paying someone less money.

There is one big problem with the minimum wage. Before the minimum wage was introduced companies had to pay a competitive rate of pay. Since minimum wage has been introduced many employers have lowered their pay to minimum wage, or slightly higher. Competitive rates of pay in some industries have become about how much above minimum wage a job will pay. Often companies will justify low pay by stating something along the lines of "well it is a whole 50p above minimum wage". This wouldn't be a problem if the minimum wage was more than enough to live on, but it barely is.

Years of minimum wage being increased below inflation levels has brought more people and more families into poverty. This has pushed low paid workers into poorer areas, which are often further away from work which increases both travel time and travel cost. There are vast areas of London and the rest of the country where people on minimum wage just cannot afford to live in. God bless any minimum wage worker with children as they are unlikely to be able to afford to treat their children to a holiday or other such things many of us have taken for granted in our childhood. Child poverty really gets to me, and is a strong reason why I am an eco-socialist. People need to be paid a decent wage so we can help avoid child poverty. All children deserve a good happy childhood.

Another big problem with minimum wage is that it is set so low that workers on minimum wage can claim benefits which costs the government a lot of money. Working Tax Credits, currently set around £50-55 a week to any low paid worker over 25 years old working 30 hours or more is proof alone that minimum wage should be increased by at least £1.66. £29.91 billion was spent on tax credits in 2011-12, a whooping £25 billion more and more than 6 times higher than all job seeker's allowance[1]. This money is basically subsidising businesses who should be paying a higher wage. There are a whole host of other benefits that are going to people in low paid jobs. Housing benefit is the second largest state benefit after state pensions and a lot of this is being paid to people currently in work. Subsidising low wages is an expensive job for the government. Increasing minimum wage to the living wage would lower the amount the government spends on helping out low paid workers.

The idea that increasing the pay of the lowest paid will lead to financial ruin for businesses is absurd. The industries which employ people on minimum wage are also the industries with the largest turnover of staff. A high turnover of staff leads to more time and money spent on training up new members of staff. A lower turnover of staff and a higher satisfaction level for staff leads to higher productivity in the workplace. The living wage offers just that - happier and more productive workforces. It would save some businesses money rather than cost them extra money.

The Living Wage has a lot of support throughout society. The Green Party's policy supports the living wage in absence of a citizen's income:
"WR361 To these ends we propose (i) a Citizens Income payable to every citizen as a basic right, funded by an ecological and genuinely progressive taxation system, and (ii) a significant role for unions and workers to ensure decent wage levels. In the absence of a fully developed Citizens Income scheme, we support (a) the idea of minimum wage legislation, set at a level to combat social and economic injustice and the poverty and economic insecurity associated with low pay, and (b) the payment of decent benefits to low-and un-waged people.[2]"

Many councils across the country are becoming living wage employers, including the Green administration in Brighton and Lancaster where the Greens hold the balance of power. The London 2012 Olympics was the first ever living wage Olympics. It's time for the government to seriously consider making the minimum wage the living wage.