Socialist Worker

'Beyond Thatcher'

Issue No. 1755

Blair's assault on welfare state

'Beyond Thatcher'

TONY BLAIR last week pledged his government would embark on "the most fundamental reform of public services for many years". But the measures outlined in the Queen's Speech, and others in press briefings by cabinet ministers, are not the "reforms" most Labour voters hope for. Instead Blair plans an assault on what generations of Labour supporters have seen as the cornerstones of the welfare state.

  • The government plans to press ahead with its Private Finance Initiative in hospitals. It also wants to encourage private hospitals to take on more of the treatment now done in the NHS.
  • In education the government plans a major drive to hand over the running of schools to private companies, and to do so in ways that will be socially and racially divisive.
  • New Labour wants to continue its programme of handing council homes to private companies, and aims effectively to abolish council housing by 2015.

Blair says his programme goes "beyond Thatcherism". It does. Even Margaret Thatcher never dared launch such an assault on public services. Last week the Cullen report into the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster underlined the awful price of privatisation and profiteering in public services. Yet now Blair plans a Railtrack in our hospitals, our schools, and even in millions of people's homes.

No wonder New Labour's plans are causing shock and outrage. Trade union leaders who have spent years trying to clamp down on opposition to New Labour are furious at the government's plans. They are reflecting an even angrier feeling among millions of working class people, many of whom have traditionally voted Labour, to protect and improve public services.

Blair's plans have made clear that public need versus private greed will be the banners under which key battles will be fought in health, education, housing, the Post Office and elsewhere in the coming year.


Plans for more privatisation

Health

THE GOVERNMENT plans to massively extend its insane Private Finance Initiative (PFI) in the NHS. It says it will expand on the 29 existing PFI schemes already planned. It will use PFI to build up to 93 hospitals and hundreds of health centres. As UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis says, "In every PFI hospital building so far, beds and jobs have been cut to generate income and profit."

Under PFI a private company builds a new hospital or health centre and then leases it to the NHS. The cost in public funds is always more than it would be if the scheme was funded publicly, and the extra goes straight to the private company in profit.

The private company leases the hospital to the NHS for a period of, say, 30 years, at an exorbitant rate. But at the end the private company, not the NHS, owns the building and a new lease has to be negotiated. It is like paying an (expensive) mortgage for 25 years only then to find you have to start all over again.

In the Queen's Speech the government fought shy of spelling out its other detailed plans for the NHS. But health secretary Alan Milburn has said he wants private firms running "treatment centres" for NHS patients, and the Labour manifesto talked of "private-public partnerships".


Education

THE PLANNED Education Bill will contain a concerted drive to hand state schools over to private companies. The bill will give "new opportunities" for private firms to run or "sponsor" schools. It will also allow religious and "voluntary" organisations to take over more schools.

Schools can apply for "specialist " status, and any extra government funding is then dependent on them getting at least �50,000 in private sponsorships. Private companies will be making profit from our children's education. How long will it be before we have McDonald's academies or Coca-Cola high schools? The spread of specialist and religious schools will inevitably lead to a major increase in selection by class and race.

As John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says, the government's plans will lead to "a steeper hierarchy of schools" in every area. Nigel De Gruchy, leader of the NASUWT teachers' union, slammed the "government's preoccupation with sponsorship and privatisation".

And NUT teachers' union leader Doug McAvoy rightly says the plan will do nothing to address the real problems in schools-lack of funding and the shortage of teachers.


Housing

IN A little-noticed announcement last week the government gave the go-ahead to a huge new drive to privatise council homes. Some of the country's biggest local authorities, including Birmingham, Glasgow and Sheffield, are among the 27 councils which will try to hand over council homes to private companies.

The government wants to privatise some 200,000 council homes every year for the next five If this continued all three million council homes in Britain would be privatised by 2015. Under the plans homes are to be handed to housing associations or newly formed housing companies.

The result would be less secure tenancies, higher rents and lack of any democratic control over housing. The plans can only go through if tenants in each council vote to allow it. Already tenants in some areas have voted no to privatisation. Unions and tenants' organisations plan a major event at the Labour conference in the autumn.


Hopes dashed

WHAT WAS missing from the Queen's Speech was almost as significant as what was in it. The government has ditched plans for important measures that would bring real benefit to people.

  • Tobacco advertising: Doctors' leaders had been planning an enthusiastic public reaction to the expected announcement of a bill to ban advertising.

When the bill was ditched Ian Bogle, chair of the British Medical Association, said they were "shocked and dismayed".

  • section 28: There was no mention in the Queen's Speech of plans to scrap the anti-gay Section 28 law which tries to ban open discussion of sexuality in schools.

Teaching division

THE government's drive for more specialist and religious schools will increase selection by class and race. It will mean more of what is already happening in Oldham. The education authority and religious schools are fostering racial divisions in the town where the Nazi BNP won a significant vote at the election. The Times Education Supplement (TES) reported this week on the scandal of Oldham's schools.

Grange School and Blue Coat are minutes apart. Yet "while 97 percent of the pupils at Grange are of Asian origin, all but a handful at Blue Coat are white," reports the TES. How has this come about? "Along with Oldham's other Church of England school, Blue Coat demands regular church attendance-so Asian parents, most of them Muslim, know there is no point in applying...applicants need a reference from the vicar."

Parents have to attend church for five years to get their child in. But Oldham's director of education, Chris Berry, said, "The issue isn't that the schools are polarised in terms of Asian and white. I think that is an acceptable way for life to be." Berry should be sacked for such a disgraceful stance.


Dole+1

IF YOUR partner is made redundant it won't only be them who will face harassment and humiliation to get miserable welfare benefits. New Labour last week unveiled a shocking plan to force the partners of the unemployed to attend compulsory interviews at the benefits office.


Unison conference shows workers

Heading for a fight against New Labour

By Hazel Croft and Paul Mcgarr

THE NEW Labour government is on a collision course with public sector workers. That was dramatically underlined last week at the conference of UNISON-Britain's biggest trade union, with 1.3 million members. As New Labour was revealing its plans for the next term in the Queen's Speech,

UNISON delegates voted overwhelmingly for uncompromising rejection of central elements of that programme. Not since the 1970s has a big union so clearly said that it rejects the main thrust of a Labour government, a government which UNISON's Affiliated Political Fund made huge efforts to get members to vote for. Cabinet minister Stephen Byers had told the conference that New Labour planned to press ahead with privatisation of public services.

He might have expected some muttering, perhaps a refusal to give him warm applause at the end of the speech. But to his intense shock he was met with furious booing and heckling. When some delegates held up placards spelling out "No more privatisation" they won rousing support.

Byers had attacked people for being "dogmatically attached to the purity of public ownership, with a rejection of any role to be played by the private sector".

The outraged reaction among delegates saw Dave Prentis, UNISON's general secretary, deliver a stinging attack on the government.

Prentis has always had differences with New Labour. But Blairites backed him when he was elected last year. Last week he quoted a poll commissioned by the union that showed 77 percent of people do not want private companies running public services for profit. To enthusiastic applause he insisted, "The government received no mandate for privatisation of public services in the election. It is not the will of the people."

Prentis ended by attacking New Labour's "Thatcherite obsession with privatisation". It is not just a matter of delegates wanting industrial action against privatisation. The conference also voted to review the union's funding of Labour.

People who had previously supported Labour almost by instinct are now questioning whether the union should fund that party. For decades the "link with Labour" has been unquestioned. Now it is seriously under discussion.


"I'M A staff nurse in theatre, and as a UNISON convenor I deal with the private firm Interserve on a daily basis in our spanking new PFI hospital. On Friday last week the electricity blew at our spanking new hospital. But the generators didn't kick in. We had no electricity for 20 minutes. There were patients on operating tables, in the middle of surgery, in the theatre. The place was like a rabbit warren, pitch black, and there was no emergency lighting. Interserve has cut jobs, including the engineers and theatre services, because they said such services are no longer required. I went to the Interserve boss and said, "Where were your contingency plans?" They said they didn't have one. We have just conducted a consultative ballot of Interserve staff, and 94 percent voted to request a strike ballot."

  • Linda Weightman, UNISON convenor Cumberland Infirmary, Carlisle. It is one of Blair's flagship PFI hospitals

I'm proud we heckled Byers

"I REALLY enjoy working in the public sector. I work in the Direct Service Organisation in Gloucester. We organise the repairs and things like that. I believe in public service, and privatisation is just wrong. Look at Railtrack. I'm 21 and a single parent. Now I'm just about better off working than on benefit. If we were privatised I wouldn't be, because wages would go down. I'm proud people heckled Byers. If we don't fight they will think they can get away with privatisation. All over the world you get the IMF, the G8 and the drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline just wanting to make profits. I was in Prague at the protest against the IMF last year. We have to fight back against the disgusting face of global capitalism everywhere." Laura Stuart, Gloucester City UNISON


We get pittance for a vital job

"DAVE PRENTIS was right to say to Labour that if you think you have a mandate for privatisation then think again. New Labour and established parties across the world no longer reflect the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people. That's why we see all these new movements developing. When our union leaders say we are going to fight privatisation, let's hold them to their words."

  • John McLoughlin, branch chair Tower Hamlets local government UNISON

"I'VE BEEN an NHS catering worker for 25 years. When a Labour government got in all my members thought that would mean the end of privatisation. But it hasn't. I've been privatised before. It means I'm not really earning any more now than when I was 16. Some of my members get just �4.36 an hour for doing a vital job. We used to have two domestics on each ward and they do a very good job. We were proud of it. But they cut jobs and people don't have the time, and that's why you get hospitals getting filthy."

  • Pat McKeever, branch secretary Manchester Children's Hospital UNISON

What do we get for our money?

UNISON DELEGATES passed a motion saying that "members are asking why we hand over millions of pounds of members' money to fund a party which is attacking our jobs, wages and conditions".

They voted to instruct the union's leaders to conduct a review on "the future of the political funds". Delegates stopped short of issuing an ultimatum to Labour that if it did not drop the Private Finance Initiative then the union should "withhold UNISON's considerable funding for the Labour Party".

But up to a quarter of delegates backed that stance. Delegate Richard Lugg from Hounslow told the conference, "The bankers and shareholders have bought themselves a New Labour government which is sponsoring the interests of big business.

"We should say to the Labour Party that if they do not deliver what we want we will withdraw the funding." And Theresa Higgins from Middlesbrough told a fringe meeting at the conference, "I'm a Labour Party member and have been for many years. I was appalled at Byers's speech. He talks to us like we are a different species. I don't want to spend our money supporting a government which says I have to work for the private sector. Our members are asking what's happening. Why are we paying somebody to do something to us that we don't want? I don't want to come out of the Labour Party, but I want them to listen and not privatise."


Heartbreaking realities of privatisation

"I WORK in a nursery in Brent in London. I love the job and have done it for 25 years. When I first started there were 15 council nurseries in Brent. Now there are only four. We were privatised under a Labour council. But the private firm went bankrupt and we had to be brought back into the council. Privatisation means people are more scared for their jobs. You see your friends and workmates made redundant, the service getting worse. It's heartbreaking. I voted Labour at the election, but with a very heavy heart. What Stephen Byers said was awful. When he talks about bringing in the private sector it makes me feel sick. There are going to be big battles if the government carries on like this."

  • Phil O'Reilly

They act like Tories

"BLAIR JUST simply picked up where the Tories left off. We are still short of nurses, still understaffed-morale is very low. The money just isn't going into hospitals, despite what Blair said. I wrote to Blair a week before the election-that's three times I've written to him now. I asked him why he is carrying on Tory policy, and why is our pay so low? The managers haven't got a clue about nursing and they don't care about the staff. They are just not being flexible. They're trying to make us work rotating shifts. But some of the nurses want to work permanent nights because of family commitments. They don't ask about your family when they sort out your shift. They've recently introduced "long day" shifts from 7.30am to 9.15pm. So how are mothers supposed to take and pick up their children from school? We've had to fight all the way, and we'll continue fighting."

  • Beverley Richards, staff nurse Mile End Hospital

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Article information

News
Sat 30 Jun 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1755
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