Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

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In Guest Feature on September 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm

A look at how the Health Service treats those in its care in Wales: by Dr. Brian Gibbons

Devolution was a major radical constitutional reform by the last Labour government. In recognising the national, social and cultural diversity across the UK, devolution has enhanced the democratic basis of our politics. Devolution allows each of the four administrations to innovate, and develop policies from which the other administrations can learn – for good or bad.

Health is a major area of responsibility for each of the devolved administrations and it is an obvious area where these varied approaches can be studied.


In January 2003, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places, the first national democratic body to do so. This mandated the Welsh Government to lobby Westminster for powers to give effect to this decision. In March 2004 the Irish Republic became the first country to implement such a smoking ban, followed by Scotland in March 2006. With clear evidence that the ban worked, a comprehensive smoking ban was legislated for Wales and England, coming into effect in 2007.

As part of its manifesto for the 2003 Welsh Assembly election, Welsh Labour proposed to end prescription charges. The management of long-term illnesses such as asthma, blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and cancer are becoming more important in promoting health amongst the working class population. However, there was clear evidence that many patients were not able to afford the multiple prescriptions that the best treatment for these conditions required. In addition, the loss of free prescriptions was a barrier for many people in moving from unemployment to work.

In April 2007, free prescriptions became a reality for Welsh patients. The main concern had been that it would lead to an explosion in prescription costs. But this did not happen and they are now free in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well.

Whilst New Labour was in power, the three devolved administrations were never very keen on the use of PFI to build or renew their hospital infrastructure, and took a cautious line. The wisdom of this approach is now becoming apparent, as the English NHS finds itself tied into many expensive and inflexible contracts. In Wales the NHS was able to introduce free hospital parking without re-negotiating with PFI companies who were using parking charges as a funding stream.


Another area of major difference between Westminster and the devolved administrations has been the role that the private sector should play in health care delivery. The Welsh Government has consistently taken the view that partnership rather than commercial competition is the best way to deliver more effective and equitable health services.

This view is largely shared by the other devolved governments in the UK, even though they each have different ruling political parties. In 2004 the Scottish Government took matters further by abolishing NHS trusts and thus eradicating the internal market in that country. Welsh Labour announced a similar move in its 2007 Assembly election manifesto, and set up seven integrated local health boards in October 2009.

These moves stand in stark contrast to the Tory/Lib Dem coalition’s approach enshrined in the Health & Social Care Act, which passed into law last March. This highly divisive and controversial legislation places the very essence of a public service NHS at risk.


It is true that when people are ill, all that matters is that they get appropriate quality treatment in an appropriate and timely way, regardless of the provider. Some have used this to argue that the British public are indifferent as to who provides their health and social care. However, there is little doubt that the overwhelming majority wants the NHS to stay as a public service – and they were delighted with the way it was celebrated at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

This view is also shared by the overwhelming majority of the NHS workforce. The Health & Social Care Act has provoked a storm of protest from those who work in the service. Virtually all NHS staff bodies campaigned vigorously against the Act. Many Royal Medical Colleges were obliged reluctantly to join the fray, often in response to angry grass roots opinion.

Already over a hundred private sector firms are lined up to contract for NHS services in England. In 2012, the Nuffield Trust/IFS estimated that the English NHS contracted for £8.7 billion’s worth of services from non-NHS providers. This is a 55 per cent increase since 2006. Organisations such as Virgin Care, UK Care, Circo and Circle are lining up for further rich pickings as the Health & Social Care Act is rolled out.


The public and NHS staff in England remain totally unconvinced about the direction that their NHS is taking. The Tory/Lib Dem coalition has clearly lost the argument. Over recent months it has given up trying to defend its own position and has sought to shift the argument to one about the performance of the NHS outside England – especially in Wales. But this is only a desperate smokescreen to divert responsibility for the failure of its own policies.

The differences in performance and patient experience in England and Wales is not something that has just happened since the Tory/Lib Dem coalition came to power. It is long standing. It is partly due to differences in policies, but it must also be seen as an outcome of the different levels of wealth, private health care use, demography and health experiences in the two countries.

Wales has an older population than England, which has a major effect on disease patterns. The levels of illness have historically been higher, a reflection of industrial and social economic deprivation. Similar levels are also seen in equally disadvantaged parts of England. Service delivery is more challenging due to Wales’ relatively large rural land mass, and because many of the most disadvantaged communities are in post-industrial valleys. This is in contrast to the more compact population concentrations in England.

Any survey of health service performance between the four countries can show a very wide range of experiences. Recent reports by the National Audit Office and British Medical Journal show that no single country is best or worse at everything. The picture is much more varied and figures can easily be cherry picked to plead a particular case. The National Audit Office report summarised the situation as follows: “… we cannot draw conclusions about which health service is achieving best value for money. Where comparative data are available, we find that no one nation has been consistently more economic, efficient or effective across the indicators we considered.”


In the last twelve months the Welsh Government undertook a national survey of the opinions of 4,500 people across Wales on how the public services were run. It showed that Welsh people felt that their Government was clearly outperforming that of the UK. About 96 per cent of respondents felt that they had been treated with respect when they last used the NHS in Wales, with 90-92 per cent happy with the care received. This verdict speaks for itself.


Across all of the UK, the NHS is facing the challenge of service re-design to deliver high quality sustainable services in the 21st Century. This is made all the more difficult due to the disastrous impact of the UK Government’s austerity programme. The devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have chosen to move forward with a public service model. In England, patients and staff face a top down, unwanted, dogma-driven programme of change which indeed represents a very dagger at the heart of everything that the NHS stands for.

Dr. Brian Gibbons hails originally from County Roscommon in the West of Ireland. He graduated in medicine at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and in 1976 he moved to Halifax in West Yorkshire to undertake vocational training in general practice.

He later moved to Blaengwynfi, in South Wales where he worked in partnership with Dr. Tudor Hart. He became a member of the Welsh Assembly, representing Aberavon, and for two years he served as Minister for Health and Social Services. He retired from the Assembly in 2011.


2 pieces: Match Girls Strike of 1888 & Royal Mail under the Tories

In A.Graham, R.Richardson on September 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm


One hundred and twenty five years ago this summer, women and girls working under horrific conditions at the Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow, East London, walked out . They were striking against both horrific conditions at the factory, and a massive reduction in their pay.

They weren’t seasoned campaigners. They were merely a brutalised workforce – and some of the girls who worked there were as young as 12. But they’d had enough. Working conditions were no longer acceptable. The machines were dangerous, and the phospherous used to make the “lucifer” matches often led to poisoning amongst those who were exposed to it. It was what the girls called “phossy jaw” and it was common amongst those who worked there. The jawbone simply rotted away after they had come into contact with this deadly phospherous.

Conditions at Bryant & May’s had been exposed in an article by journalist Annie Besant – but the decision to come out on strike was taken by the match girls themselves alone. They marched through the streets of London to Parliament, where their appearance caused an uproar. But many MPs were impressed both by their plight and by their eloquence.

Finally, after three weeks, Bryant & May’s were forced into a grudging defeat. The demands of the women were met – and on July 27th they went on to form themselves into the Union of Women Match Makers. From there, they carried on, to organise other female workers employed in jam and confectionary factories.

They also struck again, in support of the great Dockers’ Strike of 1889, and after the dockers had won they took part in the victory parade, all marching with feathers in their hats.

Until now, their achievements have been understated by historians – even those on the Left. But as Louise Raw (author of Striking a Light: the Match women and their place in history) writes, “these were the mothers of the entire modern labour movement, and Labour Party.

In July this year, these achievements were recognised at a festival in London. Meanwhile, the former Bryant & May’s factory has become a block of “yuppie” luxury flats. A sign of the times, perhaps?

Royal Mail: Cable talks from Tory script

Vince Cable, business secretary in the ConDem Government, is a Liberal Democrat. But to hear him talk you’d hardly know it.

It’s his department that’s spearheading the sell-off of the Royal Mail. His utterances could well have been provided by the Tories’ script writers. Maybe they were. Selling off the Royal Mail, he declared, would give it “real commercial freedom it’s needed for a long time”. The Royal Mail is now set on an “irreversible course” for privatisation.

This particular sale of public assets is being presented in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Even the right-wing Bow Group has found that 67 per cent of the public are opposed to the sell off. The Post Office workers union (the CWU) is adamantly against it, with 90 per cent of its members voting for industrial action if this Bill is forced through – rejecting a Government promise to give the workforce a ten per cent stake in any company that buys the Royal Mail.

Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, described the threatened privatisation as “a national disaster”. Under private ownership, the directors of the Royal Mail “would be under the same relentless hammer as those in every other British plc. They will put up prices as much as the regulator will allow, cut into universal provision and relentlessly contract out as much of the delivery to the lowest paid, least protected workers….”

He concludes his scenario with a picture of shareholders and directors taking their bonuses – and then selling on the Royal Mail to a foreign-based postal service, or to a private equity fund based in some overseas tax haven.

The over-riding reason why the Government wants to sell off the Royal Mail is because it’s making a profit. The notion that this profit could provide the administration with much needed revenue is not considered. No, it’s to be passed on to those speculators who no doubt will be queuing up to buy into the Royal Mail.

There are those in the City (and elsewhere) who are no doubt rubbing their hands in anticipation. For the rest of us, it’s important that we back the campaign to ensure that our postal services remain in public hands. Otherwise, the future looks bleak for those who rely on it.


In R.Richardson, Reviews on September 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm


The recently published memoir, “This Boy”, by Alan Johnson is no ordinary politician’s autobiography. It ends where others might begin, with Johnson’s marriage at the young age of 18. His childhood was quite unlike that of most of his political contemporaries, and he tells his story with a vividness and simplicity that is quite compelling.

Johnson was born in 1950, in poverty stricken North Kensington, now gentrified out of all recognition. Many houses, including his family’s, were condemned, had no electricity and shared a lavatory in the back yard. Indeed, the shocking conditions were what might have been expected half a century earlier.

His mother, Lily, is one of the stars of the book. The other is Linda, his elder sister. Lily, a small, feisty Liverpudlian has to cope with a feckless and sometimes violent husband, and also a serious heart condition which proves fatal when Alan is only 13. Lily does her best for her children, working two or three jobs, mainly cleaning, to support them. She dreams of “having her own front door”, and poignantly the offer of a new three bedroomed house in Welwyn Garden City comes through two weeks after her death.

Johnson’s sister, Linda, the other star in the book, takes charge aged just 16. She is determined that she and her brother should stay together. She fends off well meaning relations from Liverpool and council officials who want to send Alan to foster parents and herself to a Doctor Barnardo’s hostel (she is by now training as a nursery nurse). The offer of the house in Welwyn Garden City was withdrawn, but thanks to Linda’s persistance, a flat is finally offered to the two of them in Wandsworth.

This story is set against the backdrop of 1950s’ London. The unscrupulous land lord Peter Rachman was operating and there were racial tensions, though Alan Johnson had left the area by the time the Notting Hill riots finally erupted. The infamous murder of Kelso Cochrane. an innocent black immigrant, is almost witnessed by Lily.


By contrast, the music scene of ‘fifties London was important to young Alan, a self-taught guitarist. The one gift that his feckless father had left him was musical talent. Johnson was in a number of “boy bands” which peppered the London scene in the 1960s and indeed the ’70s. Johnson hoped when he left school to make a career in music, but as we know his life followed a very different path.


In an age when most of our politicians, especially those in the ranks of government, come from privileged backgrounds, Johnson is surely unique. He served in Cabinet under Blair and Brown, and according to the Spectator came to be “the potential Labour leader most feared by many Conservatives“.

Now aged 62, Alan Johnson is presently treading water on the opposition benches. He looks forward to Labour returning to power and doesn’t rule out an eventual front line post. A man to watch and a man to admire, I think – and you can’t say that about many politicians!

“This Boy: A memoir of a childhood” is published by Bantam Press. 2013.

FOCUS:The Unions and Labour: all part of the same movement?

In A.Graham on September 6, 2013 at 12:23 pm

by Alistair Graham

The links between the Labour Party and the trade union movement go back a long way – 113 years in fact. Indeed, it could be claimed that without the muscle of the trade unions, the Labour Party as we know it would not exist.

The Socialist movement – a key component of the Labour Party in its early years – began to organise in the latter part of the 19th Century. An early example was Hyndman’s SDF, followed in 1893 by the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Although it did manage to elect a few members to Parliament (including Keir Hardie), it became clear that without trade union backing it could make little impact.

But the trade union movement itself was divided. Politically, many unions and their members still backed a “Lib Lab” alliance, giving support to those Liberal candidates who in turn would promise to promote the interests of labour in Parliament.


The catalyst that changed the situation dramatically was the “Taff Vale Judgement”. Railwaymen working on the Taff Vale Railway in South Wales had come out on strike. Whilst they were members of the railwaymen’s union, the strike had failed to receive the backing of the union itself. In modern parlance, it was an “unofficial” stoppage. The company responded by taking the strikers to court, and the men were ordered back to work. But the law also decided to fine the union a fairly hefty amount for allowing the strike to take place in the first place!

This legal precedent set the alarm bells ringing. It could cripple the ability of unions and their members to take any industrial action. Many unions decided that they needed a party that would represent their interests in Parliament – and with the backing of Socialist bodies such as the ILP and the Fabian Society , they helped to form the “Labour Representation Committee” at a specially convened conference in 1900. This went on to become the Labour Party in 1906.


Of course, like in any family, the relationship between the affiliated trade unions and the Labour leadership hasn’t always been smooth. Between 1945 and 1951, the ties were close – perhaps too close – with trade union leaders becoming almost part of government (albeit in a consultative capacity). In the 1950s and early 1960s, Labour’s leadership seemed to be happy to accommodate such blatantly undemocratic practices as the union “block vote” at conferences. This was a time when many of the larger unions were under the control of such right-wing leaders as Arthur Deakin. But it became a different story when many key unions elected left-wingers to leadership positions. This was the era of Frank Cousins (who later became a minister in Wilson’s government), followed by Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. Now the unions were condemned for exercising “too much power”. 


But it wasn’t until the election of Blair’s “New Labour” government that relations really began to go down hill. By this time the unions had been gravely weakened by the impact of Thatcherism and the implementation of vicious anti-union laws. The trade unions were on the defensive. But if they expected Blair and his coterie to offer any succour they were mistaken. The Labour leadership at the time saw the unions as fulfilling one purpose only – providing cash for the Party coffers.

And of course it wasn’t only the unions who were to be shouldered aside. The membership, too, found that its rights to participate were being curtailed. Labour’s annual conference ceased to be a forum for discussing and deciding party policy and became more of a US-style convention  – a showcase to allow the leadership to publicise its achievements. It became little more than  a public relations exercise.

Which brings us to the constituency of Falkirk, where Labour is in the process of choosing a new candidate for what should be safe seat. Suddenly we’re embroiled in a controversy (stirred up by the Tories and the media) over whether the union “Unite” used dodgy practices to impose its own preferred candidate.

It’s difficult for an outsider to glean the truth, as most of the facts have been transmitted by a media, which has hardly been impartial. Len McClusky, Unite’s general secretary, has called for an independent inquiry into the affair. Meanwhile, there have been calls (some from the Blairite wing of the Party) for Labour to cut loose from the trade unions altogether.

A different view was expressed by the Independent’s correspondent, Owen Jones. He declared passionately that

the Labour Party is in great danger. An unholy alliance of politically ambitious uber-Blairite Shadow Cabinet members. Tory politicians and outriders and a large swathe of the press are conspiring to sever Labour’s trade union link.” (8 July)

The following day, Ed Miliband gave his response – one in which he outlined a new relationship with trade unions and their members.

“In the 21st Century,” he wrote, “individual trade unionists should be given the chance to make a personal, active choice to become affiliated members of the Party. I want a mass membership party, not of 200,000 but of many more.”


However one interprets these comments, they can only be seen as another move towards breaking the formal links between Labour and the trade unions – the severance of the ties between what was once seen as two wings of a great movement.


CLARION COMMENT: Let’s all attack the poor!

In Editorial on September 6, 2013 at 12:15 pm

If it wasn’t clear already, it certainly is now. It’s the poorest sections of society, those out of work, who are to pay during our financial crisis. Their benefits are to be capped, and they are to labelled as “workshy” if they fail to find work.

Sadly, this labelling seems to have struck a chord with far too many people. The notion that all those surviving on benefits are not even seriously looking for work seems to have become generally accepted by those “men and women in the street” who are stopped and interviewed by TV news reporters.

In fact such policies are mean-spirited, callous – and unproductive. And what makes their implementation even more depressing is the way in which the two Eds, Balls and Miliband, seem to have accepted their validity.

The consequences, of course, will be that families already struggling on the breadline will be driven even deeper into poverty. Many may lose their homes. In a whole range of ways, their lives will be even more impoverished than they are now. How this fits in with the idea of a “one nation” Britain (let alone the claim that “we’re all in this together”) is difficult to comprehend.

In many areas the jobs simply aren’t there to be had. The figures may be massaged by the growth in poorly paid part time jobs (often at rates below the statutory minimum wage), plus that latest iniquity, the “zero hours contract”. This last example is when a job seeker has to take on a job in which no regular hours are guaranteed but he/she has to be ready and able to take on work if and when called to do so.

As Lisa Nandy writes in Tribune, the exploitation of zero hours contracts “removes people’s control over their own lives leaving them at the beck and call of employers, unable to seek other work and trapped in insecure employment”.


Cameron and Osborne claim that such capping is necessary to ensure that those out of work don’t get more money than those with jobs. The inference is that those who exist on benefits are living a life of Riley at the taxpayers’ expense. They need to join the ranks of those “actively seeking work” – or suffer the consequences.


Of course those who’ve faced unemployment will know the bitter reality of life on the dole (as it used to be called). It’s not an experience we’d wish on anybody. And if there are families to support, it’s the children who will suffer.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it does result in more people leaving the dole queues and getting jobs. What sort of employment are we talking about? Yet more low-pay, part-time or irregular work. And that will have an impact on those already in work who may well see their own income suffering as a result. It will merely exacerbate the situation.

The fact is that those on benefit aren’t paid too much. They never have been. The reality is that in far too many cases those who are classified as employed are paid too little. They have to survive on wages that are often insufficient for their needs and those of their families. This is the scandal that we need to tackle. It’s bad for those who are paid a pittance for the work they do, and it’s bad for our society as a whole.

The call should be for a living wage for all. Those employers who refuse to pay it should be penalised. Wage rates should be forced up, not down.

But, of course, we don’t live in a fair (let alone a compassionate) society. It just doesn’t fit with the approach of the nastiest Tory regime since… well, since that of Thatcher. And the mean spirited approach by the Government’s supporters is going even further. It now seems to be a case of “blue sky thinking” when it comes to nastiness.

Now, in a new report from a group of Tory MPs, there are calls for teenage mothers to lose their right to council homes or housing benefit. There are also a whole raft of other policies to penalise young mums and those labelled as feckless. Such as fining parents of kids who play truant (the fines to be deducted from child benefit payments). And the report has been welcomed by David Cameron.


If this is the face of caring, compassionate Conservatism, we want none of it. And it’s high time that a concerted challenge is mounted against those who go along with such nonsense.

But where is the Labour Party in all this? Why aren’t the Labour ranks rising to denounce the impact of Tory policies on those least able to fight back? If, day after day, the Opposition was prepared to move on to the offensive on poverty and the impact of Tory policies, then it may well succeed in changing the agenda, and forcing Cameron, Osborne and Ian Duncan Smith on to the defensive.

As it is, we are left to wonder whether the inability to stand up and fight for those who can’t fight for themselves is influenced by the notion that there are few votes to be gained from campaigning on behalf of the poor. After all, those in this (growing) sector of our fractured society are the least likely to vote in any election. They are effectively disenfranchised.

We hope we’re wrong on this point. But it should be an issue that MPs should be prepared to return to time after time, until the point is hammered home. Tory policies create poverty, and misery for those effected by it.

And an anti-poverty programme should be high on the agenda of any party that really cares.

Forest of Dean & Wye Valley CLARION Editorial Committee

DINOSAUR: Modern Times & the NHS, G4S and a cunning plan

In Dinosaur on September 6, 2013 at 12:12 pm

dinosaurSo much for Security!

Let’s face it – that lot who run G4S haven’t been having much positive publicity recently, have they? I don’t want to say anything unkind, but on recent performance they seem to have moved on from debacle to fiasco.

Let’s not mention the Olympic Games, eh? Well, if you insist. That was when the company failed to muster enough guards to provide security, and the Army had to take over. Apart from the proverbial custard in the face, no harm was done. Unlike the latest bout of bad publicity.

It’s all to do with the tagging of parole prisoners. The contract for this operation is shared between G4S and another familiar name – Serco. The two companies were initially accused of gross overcharging for the service that they provided. OK, what’s a little overcharging between friends, eh? That’s what capitalism is all about – making a decent profit.

But, it seemed, they weren’t even doing the job properly. Some of those who had been tagged seemed to have become temporarily unavailable – and some seemed to have disposed of their tags altogether. Altogether, there’s been much tut-tutting, and even some sense of outrage.

G4S has come a long way since it was formed as a merger between two top security firms – Group 4 and Securicor. Both were in the more traditional business of providing security vans to transport valuable cargoes, or guards to patrol warehouses and offices – that sort of thing. But, of course, when a whole range of formerly publicly operated services came up for grabs, then many in the private sector decided that here was a golden opportunity.

What about Ofsted? Inspecting a school or two? Money for old rope! Tendering to run a hospital or two? Count me in! As for taking over the odd prison, well, that should be a doddle.

I’m not just talking about G4S here, of course. There’s a whole range of companies now involved in tendering for what should be public sector duties. They may be making tidy profits, but are they publicly accountable – or indeed capable of doing the job properly?

A cunning plan….

The Government, it seems, is now considering a cunning plan. One so cunning, that even Baldrick would have been proud of it.

It’s one to resolve what’s sometimes referred to as “the West Lothian question” (by folk who like to show off). Basically, should those MPs who represent, let’s say, Welsh , Scottish or Northern Irish constituencies have any say over legislation that doesn’t apply in their neck of the woods?

Government ministers are now thinking of disallowing any MPs from areas with devolved powers from voting on matters that are judged not to concern them. Let’s take one contentious issue for example – the National Health Service. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the NHS is under the control of their devolved parliaments – whilst we in England have to put up with the travesty produced by the Tory/Lib Dem Health & Social Care Act.

Now Labour is committed to repealing it. But let’s consider a scenario, where the Labour wins the next election – but fails to win an overall majority of English seats? Well, stranger things have happened at sea, they tell me.

It’s much too early to do the maths, of course – but it’s a thought to concentrate the mind!

Milking the NHS:

We all know that the National Health Service is strapped for cash – even though the Government insists that its budget is “ring fenced”. What this actually means is that the service isn’t having to face the kind of massive cuts that other sections of the public and local sector are having to make – but it’ll be given not quite enough to do its job adequately.

It doesn’t help when the drug companies decide to push up the prices of medicines supplied to the NHS sometimes by as much as 2,000 per cent a year.

Basically there’s what looks suspiciously like a scam going on. There is meant to be a price regulation mechanism operating when the NHS buys in drugs. But now many drug companies wait until their exclusive patents expire, and then sell the drug on to another firm which operates outside the price regulation scheme. The name of the drug changes, the price goes up – and Bob’s Your Uncle. And all of this is costing the NHS millions and millions of pounds.