Thursday, 23 April 2015

Britain isn't eating - more than 1 million go to foodbanks

A political slogan that does not seem to have appeared during the election campaign is one declaring “Britain isn’t eating.”
Perhaps, a poster showing the hundreds of thousands trooping into foodbanks in order to sustain themselves and their families should be adorning bill boards across the land.
It should be a cause of national shame that in a country that boasts more than 100 billionaires, more than one million people require food aid. A situation that can hardly be said to be for the common good.
Let’s remembers, the proliferation of foodbanks is a relatively recent development. Five years ago, there were 54 foodbanks being attended by 41,000 people, today there are 1,000,000 people going to 400 plus foodbanks.
These figures are according to the Trussell Trust, which runs the national foodbank network.
The untold story is just how much food aid is being provided beyond the Trussell Trust, largely by charitable bodies and churches.
A recent report by Leeds Diocese Justice and Peace Commission found that more than 50% of its 88 parishes are providing food aid. In Birmingham, there are 60 foodbanks operating out of churches. “Half of those responding had provided food to the Trussell Trust foodbank but half as many again give food through the St Vincent DePaul Society,” says the Leeds Diocesan report.
The Trussell Trust statistics show that 45% of food bank referrals are due to benefit delays and changes, including sanctions and 22% cite low income as the main trigger for the crisis.
So a major reason why so many people are going to foodbanks is low pay and the way in which benefits are being administered.
This should not be surprising as much of the so called economic recovery in the UK has resulted from the creation of low paid insecure jobs. These are typified by the 1.8 million employed on zero hours contracts and the fact that two out of five jobs in recent years were defined as self employed. (Figures from HM Revenue and Customs show that of the growing number of people who work for themselves, 35 per cent earn less than £10,000 a year.)
What is needed is properly paid secure work.
The danger though is that as the welfare state is dismantled amid the creation of a low pay economy, food aid becomes institutionalised. This is what has happened in North America.
Foodbanks were introduced in Canada in the early 1980s in what was perceived as a tough economic time.
There are now 700 foodbanks in Canada, providing help to 800,000 people. The number has increased by nearly 100,000 over the past six years – as the country has come out of economic recession – sound familiar.
The result in Canada has been that right to eat has been effectively taken off the political agenda. It has become a matter for the charitable sector. Foodbanks have become a service industry largely run by the charitable sector. Supermarkets have joined in, exploiting an opportunity to gain good PR by donating food.
This is not a path that the UK should want to follow back to Dickensian times. Following its conference in February on food aid, Leeds Diocese committed to hold would be MPs to account during the general election campaign. They have been asking those who seek to represent them in Parliament what they would do to address the question of why Britain is not eating.
There are many MPS who are only too happy to be associated with the warm charitable glow of foodbank charity, fewer ask why in a country as rich as Britain, are so many struggling to feed themselves.
The failure to feed the people of Britain is an appalling indictment of the past five years of government, it is something that needs to be urgently addressed by whoever makes up the next administration.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Wanstead Labour campaigner Peter Davies finishes up in hospital after good deed

Leyton and Wanstead Labour Party member Peter Davies went the extra mile to help out the electorate and ended up in hospital for his troubles.

Peter, 66, was out campaigning on a sunny afternoon in Wanstead, when he came across a distressed voter. They had locked themselves out of their house.

Peter, ever willing to help, sought to pull himself up on spike topped fence in order to get to a window.

In the process of helping the desperate member of the public, Peter slipped and impaled his arm on one of the spikes in the fence. With the help of the home owner he was seeking to help Peter bound up his arm.

He then called Leyton and Wanstead Party Chair Greg Eglin, who was out canvassing in a nearby road. Greg took Peter down to the local Whipps Cross hospital where he was admitted overnight.

On Monday he had an operation, as the spike had got into the tendons in his arm.

Never one to be put down for long Peter declared that he how understood “the effectiveness of some of those nasties at Bosworth battle field.”
"The staff at Whipps Cross were brilliant," said Peter.
Peter hopes soon to be fully recovered and back out canvassing for a Labour victory

Saturday, 18 April 2015

No time to sacrifice the right to vote on the altar of market driven governance

There has been a growing debate in the run up to the general election on the validity of voting.

The debate was sparked off by comedian Russell Brand, who famously declared: “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations."  

He suggested that politicians were only interested in "serving the needs of corporations" and that an administrative system based on the "massive redistribution of wealth" should replace the status quo.

The Brand argument chimes with those who declare that the parties are all the same and out of touch with ordinary people.

There is also, somewhat ironically, some common ground on the theme between Brand and his arch nemesis UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The UKIP leader’s regular mantra is how the political class are self-serving and out of touch with ordinary people.

The hypocrisy of the view only becomes apparent when it is recognised that Farage is something of an establishment insider himself, a former stockbroker, leading a party made up, at least in part, of ex-Tory Mps and local councillors.

The ruling elites opposed universal suffrage for centuries because it gave the mass of people some say over their lives. “The right to vote was won by the struggle of decent ordinary people,” said Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP. “Democracy brought the Factories Act, national insurance, council housing and the NHS.  Don’t’ pass up the right to vote. It is a crucial way of holding those in power to some form of account and democracy includes that and the right to free speech and fair trials. 
We must defend it all.”
The vote though has been a hard fought relatively recently won right.

A survey conducted in 1780 showed that in England and Wales just 214,000 – had the vote - less than 3% of a population of eight million. Large cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester did not have an MP between them, yet a “rotten borough” like Dunwich in Suffolk (with a population of 32 in 1831) had two MPs.

Growing pressure for the vote saw the three reform acts passed in 1832, 1867 and 1884. Revolutions taking place in other European countries helped move the British government to act. However, come turn of the century, it was still only male house owners who had the vote, some way short of universal suffrage.

The struggle for the vote was a long and hard fought one. There were notable losses of life along the way such as the “Peterloo massacre” in Manchester in 1819, when the local yeomanry killed 11 people attending a meeting about voting.

Women were not in the voting picture at all during the 19th century. It took the long running battles of the suffragettes to gain the vote for women in 1918, then only for those over 30. Real universal suffrage for both sexes only came about in 1928.

It is noticeable that the growing suffrage also coincided with the growth of the Labour Party as a potential party of government. The first Labour government being elected in 1924, the second in 1929.

The seeming disillusionment with voting has come about over the past couple of decades. Voting levels in general elections stayed in the 70 to 80% range pretty much from 1918 to 1997. There were highs and lows. The highest turnout for a general election came in 1950 when Clement Attlee’s post war Labour government was re-elected on an 83.9% turnout. The lowest turnout came in 1918, when just 57.2% of the electorate turned out to vote in war torn Britain.

Turnouts though do seem to have been on a steady decline since 1992, when there was a 77.7% turnout to return John Major to Downing Street. Some 71% voted to secure Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. It was then that the disillusion seemed to set in with turnouts of 59.4% (2001) and 61.4% (2005). There was a bit of recovery in 2010 with a 65.1% turnout.

A survey by Survation in September 2013 took a detailed look at the attitudes of non-voters. When asked, What would you say were your main reasons for not voting in the last the election? over half of respondents expressed disillusionment with contemporary politics.

Some 27 percent of those polled said they don’t believe my vote will make any difference,” while 25 percent said the parties/candidates are all the same.”

There is though also a distinct difference in voting tendencies down the generations. So in the last election, just 44% of 18 to 24 year olds voted compared to 76% of over 65s.

This tendency of the elderly to vote, while the young don’t has helped fuel the intergenerational argument in the media. The Coalition government it is argued have recognised that older people are more likely to vote, so they have responded accordingly, seeking to serve this group of people.

On the other side, the tendency of youth not to participate gives them less traction with the government, so they have been hit harder by the likes of austerity based policies. There is some truth in this view, which ofcourse offers a powerful argument for voting.

The question as to why so many people feel so disillusioned with politicians and government no doubt has its roots in much of what has gone on over recent years. It does not seem inconsequential that the fall in voter turnouts at general elections between 1997 and 2005 coincided, somewhat ironically, with a huge upsurge of popular political engagement.

This engagement centred around opposition to the Iraq war and the extremes of capitalism. The response of those in government was to ignore all of those protesters – especially the 2 million who came out onto the streets to protest against the Iraq war in 2003.

There then followed the decade of disillusion with public institutions generally. There was the financial crisis, police corruption, the phone hacking scandal and most pertinently, the MPs expenses scandal.

It has been these developments over the past couple of decades, coupled with a coming together of the mainstream parties on the basic neo-liberal economic agenda that has bred disillusionment with the political system and voting.

There is another unhealthy development on the right, which would benefit from general disillusion with voting and the democratic process. The proponents of this authoritarian view favour good governance over democracy. It is a market driven viewpoint.

The most obvious manifestation of this development has been seen in Italy, where in the wake of the financial crisis the democratically elected government was replaced by a technocratic alternative that was to the liking of the markets. It was an obvious example of governance taking precedence over democracy or perhaps more accurately of markets deciding what sort of democracy they are prepared to permit.

The opposite side of this coin was seen in Greece, where the people revolted against the austerity policies demanded by the markets and elected the left wing party Syriza. This was a case of democracy striking back. The people spoke and were not going to be forced into poverty at the behest of the corporations and neo-liberal European governments.

How things work out in Greece will have significance for the battle between democracy and governance. If the markets don’t like what a democratically elected government does then they have huge powers to destabilise that country, cutting off credit, destabilising currencies etc. Equally, though in the final analysis if people’s votes don’t count the only route left is revolt.

Developments in Italy and other countries post the financial crisis of 2008, show that the calls for good governance , rather than healthy democracy have grown louder. It is wise to remember at these times the populist governance pledges of the fascists of the last century. This, in the case of Mussolini in Italy, translated into a pledge to make the trains run on time.
"Each time a person says they don't vote, the rich and powerful corporations celebrate. It means that they are that bit freer to do whatever they like because there is nobody to hold them to account. When people don't vote the worst elements take control," John McDonnell, Labour MP
The vote has been a right long fought for by working people. It was not easy to get the ruling classes to part up with this very basic right, now is not the time to be offering it up on the altar of technocratic market based economic efficiency.  

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Secured energy bonds investors remain in the dark after creditors meeting

Creditors of Secured Energy Bonds remained none the wiser as to what had happened to their combined investment of £7.5 million in solar panels as a result of the recent creditors meeting.

The meeting was called by administrators Grant Thornton to principally elect a creditors committee of five people. Some 48 attended out of a total of 973 investors in Secured Energy Bonds.

Grant Thornton appeared unable to provide any information even as to where or how many solar panels had been fixed to school buildings before the bulk of the money seemed to be siphoned off to Secured Energy Bonds parent company CBD Energy in Australia. CBD Energy went into administration last November.

There was much anger directed at CBD Energy, Independent Portfolio Managers (IPM) and the Financial Conduct Authority.

Investors repeatedly claimed that this was a simple case of “corporate theft,” a number asking why the police had not been called in to investigate.

The total failure of the regulators in the form of the FCA and the security trustee, IPM, which was supposed to be safeguarding investors’ interests, formed another focus.

A number of investors had contacted the FCA, who took the attitude that it was nothing to do with them.

Investors were also frustrated that what little media coverage there has been of the SEB default seemed couched in the language that this was a risky investment and those making such a chance knew the dangers.

The reality, as more than one person testified, is that if this venture had been undertaken as sold, namely that solar panels would be installed on 22 schools with returns from the feed in tariffs etc then the 6.5% return over three years, was easily attainable.

The root cause of the problem is that the money has been siphoned off for other purposes, not being spent on the panels as originally stipulated.

There are some glimmers of hope for investors in the shape of recent court decisions, notably one in March in favour of the FCA on exotic investment schemes. Whether such decisions will help the SEB investors or simply illustrate that the FCA recognise that there is a problem in this area remains to be seen.  

One investor nicely summarised the concerns as being corporate theft, the role of the security trustee and mis-selling. 

Friday, 10 April 2015

Rodney Bickerstaffe confirms "bastard" jibe was correct

Former Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaff was out on the stump, speaking at an east London fundraiser for Leyton and Wanstead Labour Mp John Cryer. Among the gems revealed was that Rodney had been conceived (not born) at the local Whipps Cross hospital back in 1945. Things though have gone downhill since then for Whipps, which was recently placed under special measures, following a Care Quality Commission report, highlighting bullying of staff. Clearly, there was a more relaxed attitude to matters of life and death back in 1945. Then dwelling on his birthright Rodney confirmed that both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had been right in their definition of him as being a bastard.

* see Independent - 10/4/2015

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Common good should be central driving force of the economy

There was much media coverage of a letter from 100 business leaders to the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday praising the Coalition Government’s economic strategy over the past five years.
“We believe this Conservative-led Government has been good for business and has pursued policies which have supported investment and job creation,” they wrote, adding: “We believe a change in course … would put the recovery at risk.”
The letter was warmly received, particularly by the Prime Minister.
On the same day, the Centre for Macroeconomics, which brings together economists from Cambridge University, the LSE, University College London, the Bank of England and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, polled experts on whether the "austerity policies of the coalition government have had a positive effect on aggregate economic activity (employment and GDP) in the UK.” Its result was a decisive no. Two-thirds of the 33 economists who responded disagreed with the proposition that austerity had been good for the UK.
The reaction from the Labour Party to the Telegraph letter was that the business leaders were wrong, and that while the economic approach may have benefited them, for the mass of ordinary people there has been little sign of recovery.
The 1.8 million people on zero-hours contracts have become a focus for the Government’s critics, who claim that while millions of jobs may have been created, they are insecure and low paid.
Critics from the Trade Unions critics point to the two in five of new jobs created over recent years being classified as self-employed work. Figures from HM Revenue and Customs show that of the growing number of people who work for themselves, 35 per cent earn less than £10,000 a year. Part-time jobs account for half of all jobs created between 2010 and 2012, despite many of the people concerned wanting full-time employment, according to the unions.
The low-paid nature of much of the work created has been reflected in the tax take, which has not gone up in the way that Government hoped with the economy recovering. Put crudely, people in low-paid jobs are often not earning enough to pay much tax. (One credit to the Coalition is that they have also raised the threshold so people have to be earning over £10,000 before they pay tax.)
Many business people, such as those who signed the letter, have been doing very nicely thank you with their pay and share portfolios benefiting as their companies profits have risen. They, though, often won’t be spending that money in the British market place, thus fuelling our economy, but instead investing it elsewhere.
It is the lopsided nature of the recovery that enables the Labour Party to argue that the mass of people are not feeling that life is getting any better.
In its most grotesque form, the polarisation of wealth that is resulting from this type of economic approach sees more than 100 billionaires living in a country where more than 900,000 go to food banks – a large number of them employed.
Business clearly has its role but it must also serve the common good. So the letter’s signatories might have more credibility across the board if their companies were beacons of good business practice, paying the living wage to all employees, ensuring the company paid full tax in the UK and encouraging trade union membership. These types of developments would lead to the more equal society resulting in the long term – so that when the economy recovers it benefits all, not just the few

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Kevin Spacey's battle against the ongoing nuisance of the mobile phone

Kevin Spacey's dramatic objections to mobile phones in the audience continue it would seem to fall on stony ground. During the first run of his one man show Darrow at the Old Vic, last year, he famously in character told a member of the audience to answer their mobile or he would.
 The audience though it would seem have not been deterred, during the shows latest run, on Saturday, Spacey again had to intervene this time declaring: "turn that mobile phone off the one that's lighting up your face." The audience applauded, whilst no doubt hurriedly putting off their own mobile appliances

*see Independent diary - 7/4/2015