Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Rising resistance in a rocky year: The Clarion’s review of 2012

In Editorial on December 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm

It’s been a rocky ride over the past year or so. Looking back to the Clarion of December 2011/January 2012, the Tory-led “austerity” programme was gathering pace, we had succeeded in defeating plans to sell off our forests – and legislation to privatise the NHS was already passing through Parliament.

But there was growing, organised, resistance to the Government’s agenda. After the riots that had swept London and other cities in August 2011, campaigners were taking to the streets with a more organised agenda. We focused attention on the “Occupy” movement, which had spread from Wall Street to the City of London. – a sign that many demonstrators had decided that enough was enough, and were keen to ensure that we didn’t forget who’d been responsible for the economic crisis – the bankers..


But it was the campaign to save the NHS from mass privatisation that occupied our attention for much of the year – and, indeed, still does. At the heart of the Tories’ plans was the fragmentation of a once-unified service, with healthcare to be farmed out to “any willing provider”. And there were plenty of those amongst the private healthcare corporations queuing up for contracts. Competition rather than co-ordination would be encouraged.

Opposition to the Tories’ plans was countrywide, not only amongst the public but also within the medical profession. Locally, the campaign against the Health and Social Care Bill was spearheaded by the “Forest Against the Cuts” group, working closely with campaigners in Stroud and Gloucester.

The Bill was finally passed on March 20th, when, as we commented, “the House of Commons delivered the death blow to the National Health Service as we’ve known it since 1948”. But one question remained both un-asked and unanswered. Why were the Tories so determined to push through the Act against such widespread opposition? After all, they’d caved in over plans to sell off our forests.

One possible answer lies in the power and persuasiveness of the private healthcare lobby, much of it US-owned. Nationally, the NHS is much more important than the Forestry Commission, overall it has an enormous budget, and consequently much more is up for grabs.

One might also ask why the Liberal Democrats had caved in and voted for the Bill. They claimed that they had helped to “reform” the original legislation, and on this basis they’d trooped through the Government lobbies in willing acquiescence. But their amendments did nothing to alter the main thrust of the legislation that was finally passed.

Local campaigners were now left with the task of defending NHS services within Gloucestershire, and trying to ensure that healthcare provision in the county would remain within the NHS. Mass petitioning was the main basis of activity, backed up by attendance at “consultation” meetings and events. Thousands of signatures were collected – and, finally, it was announced that healthcare within Gloucestershire would remain within the NHS.

This was, of course, a victory – but a limited one. We are still faced with an Act of Parliament that deliberately encourages the private sector. We have a new Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt, who has made no secret of his desire to “denationalise the provision of health care in Britain.”

And, of course, contracts for provision of health care services will be subject to renewal – and possible change. Who’s to say that three or four years down the line, our hospitals and clinics will remain within the NHS? After all, the ultimate aim of the Act is to reduce the NHS to an empty shell, with provision in the hands of private companies. Faced with tight budget controls (effectively leaving healthcare with less money), we still have a long and continuing fight ahead of us. We need continued vigilance if we’re to protect the NHS from its predators.
Another issue affecting our communities has been the remorseless impact of cuts in public spending at both national and local level. Such cuts are not merely a “one off” imposition. Each budget year, local authorities are expected to tighten their belts just a bit more.
Already, public libraries have been threatened, youth services reduced to a bare minimum – or less – legal aid services are being axed, and thousands of public sector jobs have been lost. And the Government hides much of this under the bogus slogan, “localisation” – otherwise known as passing the buck.
So, where will it end? If many in the Government have their way, with the gutting of the public sector.
The public sector unions have, of course, been fighting the cuts in services and to their livelihood. Clarion readers were on the march in Gloucester at the end of 2011, and again in London in October 2012 (see report on page 9 of this issue).
Whatever our views on Europe may be we must surely view Cameron’s shenanigans at the EU budget summit with (at least) distaste. He was posturing for effect – partly to appease his anti-Euro backbenchers, and partially to pretend that he could be as macho as the next man.
Cameron wants more austerity, more cuts in the Euro budget – whilst countries like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal are suffering from the cuts already imposed. Where do you want it all to end, Mr. Cameron?

THE PLIGHT OF PALESTINE: Experiences of occupation

Jane Harries is from South Wales. She is a Quaker, and has been involved in the “Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel”. And in November she came to the Forest, to the Bailey Inn, Yorkley, to give us the background to her work in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank.

The Ecumenical volunteers in Palestine have certain set roles. They are there to monitor and report violations of human rights; to offer protection through a non-violent presence; to support Israeli and Palestine peace activists – and to pass on their experiences at meetings back in the UK and Ireland.

Jane opened her talk with a look at the small Palestinian community of Yanoun on the West Bank, where she was based. It is now surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements and outposts, together with what have been designated “security areas” – blocking Palestinian access to much of their land and their olive groves.

Those who have set up these settlements in the Yahoun area are religiously motivated “and quite extreme”. Palestinian residents are constantly harassed in attempts to drive them from their homes. In this creeping process of settlement, 40 per cent of the West Bank is now occupied, reducing the integrity of the area. It is being ruthlessly torn apart, so that it now resembles “Swiss cheese” – in a clear violation of human international law. Jane talked of events in 2002, when threats from the settlers forced those living in Yahoun to leave their homes. However publicity and pressure allowed them to return. But harassment continues. Local people have had their sheep shot, and olive trees destroyed. The Israeli Army on the spot should have been there to protect local inhabitants – but instead Palestinian villagers have been fired on and wounded by soldiers as they attempted to defend their livelihood.

The Jordan valley, to the east is the “bread basket” of the West Bank – but 56 per cent of it is now taken up by closed military areas. To those who live on the West Bank, access to water and sanitation is vital. But the pumping stations now provide water exclusively to the Israeli settlements. Palestinian communities have to have it transported, and pay for the privilege – and Jane gave one example of villagers scraping by on as little water as possible, whilst one settlement boasted of a “fish farm”!

Jane also met up with Israeli peace groups, who are working away to improve relations between the two communities, and improve the lot of Palestinians. One group of Israeli women organises “sea days” for Palestinian children, who are taken on trips to the seaside. Meanwhile, in Sokrot, close to the Gaza border, another group calling itself “the Other Voice” has been formed, with the slogan, “Yes to Coexistence. No to Violence.”

Education is very important to Palestinian families – yet the provision of schools is very patchy. Access to settlement schools is denied, and Palestinian children often have to travel long distances to reach their nearest school.

Palestinian communities, meanwhile, put much faith in the international support that they receive – and this includes the tireless work provided by those like Jane Harries and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme.


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