Sunday, 29 April 2012

Let the people petition the Council

Possibly the Scottish Parliament’s biggest success story, to date, is its Public Petitions Committee (PPC).

During my time as an MSP I served on the PPC, and that experience has led me to believe North Ayrshire Council and the general public would benefit from a local government version.

The Parliament’s PPC allows individuals, community groups, businesses and just about anyone else to petition elected representatives.  Some petitioners are invited to present their case directly to the committee, but the constraints of time mean that option is not available to everyone.  However, all petitions are considered by the committee, with a public record kept of MSPs comments and suggestions as to the way forward.

The main reason the PPC is so successful is that it attempts to resolve or at least get answers to issues raised by petitioners.  Often Scottish Government Ministers are summoned to the Committee and questioned over their actions or policy initiatives.  Even where the issue raised falls outwith the remit of the Scottish Parliament - such as Defence, Taxation or Foreign Affairs – the Committee would still write to relevant UK Government Ministers, requesting answers to specific questions.

There are exemptions that exclude certain issues from being acceptable as a petition’s subject, such as Planning decisions, which can be appealed and pursued through other means, but generally most areas of concern to the public can be raised.  It is also the case that an individual can petition the PPC, without having to seek additional signatures.

The success of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee has led to legislatures from around the world coming to Edinburgh to study how it works, before basically copying it and implementing their own: in my time on the Committee we had groups from the Bundestag (German Parliament) and the House of Commons in London, to name just two.

Some petitions related to local issues, such as attempting to keep open a school or a community centre, while others raised matters of national interest.  I remember an ex-soldier petitioning the Committee to investigate ‘Gulf War Syndrome’, the Free Church of Scotland attempting to have Sunday observed as a day of rest, and a bereaved family calling for tougher action to be taken against drunk-drivers.

Without doubt, though, the most memorable petition during my time on the Committee was the one presented by victims of institutional childhood abuse.  Now adults, the petitioners recounted their nightmare experiences as children, when the people supposed to care for them had, instead, subjected them to abuse.  They had spent their childhoods in the care of the state – in homes run by local authorities, charities or churches – and, rightly, they wanted an apology from the state for the abuse they suffered.

The Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee initially wrote to the Government Minister with responsibility for children, and also to every organisation that had run homes while the petitioners had been in care.  When the PPC met to again consider the petition, and the responses received to our initial letters, MSPs decided the petitioners deserved more.  For the first time, the Public Petitions Committee asked for, and received, debating time in a plenary session of parliament.

The subsequent debate was one of the most moving ever heard in the Scottish Parliament.  There were no party-political speeches: every MSP who spoke, including me, was motivated simply by attempting to raise the issue of institutional childhood abuse, and how, historically, the state had failed some our most vulnerable children.

The petitioners, many of whom were in the public gallery during the parliamentary debate, wanted their stories to be heard: they wanted lessons to be learned, so that today’s children did not have to suffer as they had.  The petitioners also wanted an apology from the state, and, to his credit, the then First Minister, Jack McConnell, put on record that public apology.

Without the Public Petitions Committee, those who were abused all those years ago would not have had the a parliamentary platform to raise their concerns: MSPs would not have heard, first hand, the nature and extent of abuse in homes run by the state; and it is unlikely sufficient pressure would have been brought to bear on the then Scottish Government to offer a public apology for historic institutional childhood abuse.

A local government version of the PPC could be of similar benefit to the people of North Ayrshire.  For example, in addition to being able to petition councillors on issues such as fly-tipping and keeping open local community centres, a Council Petitions Committee might have been asked to seek answers from officials over how the local authority became a speculator in international finance by investing £15m of our money in two Icelandic banks.  A local PPC might also have received a petition regarding the millions-of-pounds being spent by the Council on hiring private consultants to give advice to highly-paid officers.  There might even have been a petition demanding to know how Labour councillor Alan Munro apparently made five separate diary mix-ups, which resulted in him claiming mileage for five Council meetings he didn’t actually attend.

After the Council Election on May 3rd, a new batch of councillors (and some old faces) will have the opportunity to do things better than previous administrations.  A major step in the right direction - in terms of openness, accountability and public access to councillors and the workings of the local authority – would be the creation of a North Ayrshire Council Public Petitions Committee.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Spying on the people

After a serious backlash in the media and from the general public, the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government has stalled its plans to spy on us.

However, Home Secretary Theresa May is still fully committed to introducing amendments to communications laws that will allow the state to monitor our phone calls, e-mails, activities on social networking sites like Facebook, and which websites we visit.  The likelihood, therefore, is that the proposed changes will happen, eventually. 

Newspaper headlines warned the government’s plans would put us on a par with ‘secretive’ states such as China and Iran, but what they didn’t say was that, in the UK, we are already one of the most spied-upon peoples in the world.

Already the state, which includes the secret service, the police, government departments and even local councils, can apply for a warrant to listen to our phone calls.  Already there is a ‘listening station’ at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, where sophisticated computers monitor every piece of electronic communications in the UK – that’s our e-mails, Facebook messages, Twitter posts and so on.  Officially Menwith Hill is an RAF base, but the majority of staff are US services personnel and the destination of the information collected is Langley, Virginia in the USA, home of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): it is then shared with the secret services of the UK, Canada and Australia.

The way Menwith Hill operates is that every phone call, e-mail and electronic message is scanned by computer software designed to recognise specific words or their sound.  If such words are detected, the communication is set aside and a member of staff will listen to the call or read the e-mail.  If they decide it could be suspicious, further investigations and monitoring are carried out.

With all of this already happening, you might wonder why the UK Government wants to change the law.  Well, it certainly isn’t to give us more privacy.  Those who already listen to our private conversations and read our e-mails want to do away with the requirement placed on them to secure a warrant before they target specific individuals.  What they want is to be able to monitor us on demand and in real time.  In other words, those who already have the right to spy on us want to do it as and when they please.

Bear in mind that Menwith Hill already monitors our calls and e-mails, but the trigger words that lead to further investigation mostly relate to possible involvement in serious crimes, such as terrorism.  What the UK Government wants to do is bring snooping down to much lower levels of possible infringements. 

Local Councils already have powers to monitor calls and other communications, if they believe someone may be committing a crime.  North Ayrshire Council has used these powers in the past.  The UK Government’s planned amendments to communications laws could lead to a situation where Councils would no longer require a warrant to carry out surveillance.

Of course, in attempting to justify their proposals, Tories and other right-wingers trot-out the old chestnut that ‘If you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear’.  The problem with that, though, is people suspected of even relatively minor infringements could find their personal phone calls and e-mails being read by some faceless bureaucrat, even if the suspicion has been generated by an anonymous,  baseless and malicious ‘tip-off’.

We have already seen and been appalled by the level to which some newspapers stooped in gathering information by listening to voicemail messages and hacking e-mail accounts.  Why should we be any less appalled if such practices are carried out against us by servants of the state?

What should worry us more is the ‘below-the-radar’ surveillance.  The ‘legitimate’ snooping currently carried out does ultimately have a paper trail.  Someone, somewhere, at least in theory, can be held to account for it.  However, that isn’t the case with all spying, even when carried out on behalf of state agencies.

The British State spies on anyone considered to be a ‘threat to the realm’.  Into that category falls legitimate political parties and activist groups: it was recently exposed that a police officer had been undercover with an environmental group for seven years.

We now know that MI5 has, for many years, infiltrated trade unions and political parties of the left.  In Scotland we have the added factor of pro-independence parties and organisations.  Even the SNP, which forms the current government of Scotland, will have members who are actually serving officers of the British secret service, and I know who my money is on.  From a British establishment point of view, MI5 would not be doing its job properly if pro-independence groups, particularly left-wing pro-independence groups like the Scottish Socialist Party, were not monitored and spied upon.  After all, the SSP seeks to end the vested interests of a small, ruling elite that has built massive wealth by exploiting the ordinary people and natural resources of Scotland.

The British State already spies on legitimate political groups: the secret service, government departments and Councils already have the power to monitor our phone calls: Menwith Hill already checks every call, e-mail and Facebook message.  So when the government proposes granting even more powers to the snoopers, we should be concerned.  Even if we have done nothing wrong, we should be concerned.

Tanker drivers' dispute

The UK’s armed services are full of young people who joined-up to get a job, preferably a trade that would stand them in good stead for civilian life, should they survive postings to war zones such as Afghanistan.  I’m sure very few thought they could end up being used as strike-breakers by the government.

It speaks volumes about the current UK Government that their first reaction to the possibility of a strike by fuel-tanker drivers was to issue orders that army personnel be trained to do the job.  Tories and their Lib Dem lapdogs immediately put in place plans to use the armed services to break the possible strike, thereby undermining the legitimate right of workers to withdraw their labour as part of an industrial dispute.

Britain has some of the most draconian anti-trade union laws in Europe, and the tanker drivers’ dispute has shown that, even when workers fully comply with them, the government is prepared to call up the military to defeat legitimate strike action.

According to UK Government Ministers, the distribution of fuel is such an important national issue that “the country can’t be held to ransom by a group of disaffected drivers”.  Prime Minister David Cameron said there is “no justification” for a strike.  Energy Secretary Ed Davey added that, with the London Olympics approaching, “it is unacceptable and selfish” for tanker drivers to “behave in this manner and jeopardise our international reputation”.  Mr Davey is a Liberal Democrat, but see how quickly and easily he slips into the language of the Tories.  Of course, wishy-washy Labour leader Ed Miliband refused to give his support to the tanker drivers, saying instead that, “We must avoid strike action at all costs”.

Last week also saw senior members of the UK Government ratchet-up the rhetoric surrounding a possible strike by encouraging motorists to fill up the tanks of their cars, and even stockpile petrol in jerry cans.  A day later, one English police force ordered petrol stations to close after panic-buying turned into a frenzy.  Senior officers were quoted saying lives were being put at risk on roads blocked by queues of motorists rushing to fill up after ministerial warnings of fuel running out or being rationed.  Bear in mind, all of this happened without a single tanker driver actually going on strike.

Another consequence of UK politicians encouraging panic buying of fuel was revealed by the AA, which calculated the Treasury would benefit by around £32million in extra fuel excise duty.

So, against that background, maybe it would be a good idea to look at why tanker drivers feel they may have no option but to take strike action.  Certainly, you would look long and hard to find an objective analysis of the dispute in most of the UK’s print and broadcast media.

Companies like Shell and BP are amongst the most profitable in the world, but some years ago, in a move designed to make even more money, they decided to end the situation where they directly employed tanker drivers.  That part of their business was sub-contracted to a range of companies who introduced changes to suit their own business models, each of which was again driven by the profit motive.  Some tanker drivers have seen themselves employed by as many as six different companies in the space of ten years as contracts and companies were taken over.

Drivers report these changes have resulted in a steady erosion of terms and conditions, with one company attempting to implement changes that will see drivers’ wages being slashed by £9,000 a year.  In addition, contractors supplying fuel to garages across the country have introduced a culture known as ‘turn and burn’, which puts additional pressure on drivers to deliver and unload their fuel ever faster.  These practices, nothing less than cutting corners to make more money, have led drivers to fear for public safety.  We should remember that the vehicles drivers are being told to drive faster and unload quicker each carries a load of 38,000 tonnes of volatile fuel.

Trade unions representing tanker drivers have patiently negotiated with employers for years: the drivers want stability restored to the industry, in terms of employment, wages and conditions, and safety.  However, despite the supply of fuel being of paramount importance to so many industries, not to mention individuals who use their car to get to work, the industry is at the mercy of private companies operating within the free-market and driven – as all capitalists are – by maximising profit, even if that means compromising safety standards and pressuring drivers to work faster, for less pay.

The reason we now face the possibility of a strike is because the patience of tanker drivers and their trade union representatives has run out.  One driver summed-up the position last week, saying, “Literally, there is a race to the bottom taking place on our roads.  Bosses are continually driving down wages, conditions and safety standards.  We can no longer sit back and tolerate it.”

Rather than backing the unscrupulous bosses and scapegoating tanker drivers, the UK Government should be listening to the very serious issues raised by this dispute.  Of course, that won’t happen.  It won’t happen because the Conservatives and their Lib Dem lapdogs (not to mention Miliband’s Tory-Labour) fully support the capitalist system that prioritises the making of money over all other considerations.

Tanker drivers should be praised for conducting themselves with integrity as they have fought against the dangerous ‘race to the bottom’ in their industry.  If they are ultimately forced into strike action, they will deserve our full support.  Please bear this in mind as you hear UK Government ministers and read reports in right-wing newspapers attacking ‘selfish’ tanker drivers.

Back to the Future

Any minute now Michael J Fox will appear as the time-travelling character Marty McFly, because we really do appear to be living on the set of the 1985 film Back to the Future.

Many of the social and economic problems we are currently experiencing stem from the actions of the Thatcher Tory governments spanning 1979 to 1990 (with another seven years under John Major as Prime Minister).  Prior to the election of the Thatcher administration there had been a political consensus on the desirability of full employment.  Even Tory governments saw the wisdom of maximising the number of people in work, contributing tax revenue and going about their lives with a sense of pride that came from being able to earn a living and support their families.  Thatcher tore up that consensus.

The rabid capitalist policies executed by the Thatcher governments sought nothing more than to maximise profits for big business.  Assets owned by the state – on behalf of the people – were privatised and sold-off at knock-down prices, while anti-trade union laws were introduced to weaken the position of workers in every industry.  All that mattered to Thatcher and her government was that major corporations operating in the capitalist free-market should be able to make as much money as possible.  If goods could be produced more cheaply in far-east sweatshops, then Thatcher sold this as ‘good news’ for British companies expanding overseas and for consumers in Britain.

Of course, the reality was that manufacturing in the UK collapsed, workers were thrown onto the dole and cracks began to appear in the fabric of communities up and down the country.  Mass unemployment in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England was seen as a price worth paying for economic prosperity in the south-east of England, primarily in the financial sector and stock markets of the City of London.  A very small elite became fabulously wealthy through the exploitation of the majority, while the public wealth generated from oil fields in the Scottish sector of the North Sea was used to pay for keeping people idle.  So much ability, skill and talent was squandered because, to Thatcher and the capitalist bosses, people did not matter; all that was important was making money, as much money possible.

In the pre-Thatcher years, people worked, and even those who had a predilection towards excessive consumption of alcohol or to related over-boisterous behaviour knew the consequences for them and their family if they lost their job: the result of which was a generally much more responsible society.  People knew the dignity of work: they took pride in themselves as wage-earners and they looked after their family, their home, their part of the local community.  Thatcher’s greed-based policies led to mass unemployment, with people’s self-worth destroyed.  Instead of growing up with parents who worked and provided for them, children saw adults without jobs, deprived of dignity and with no positive purpose in life. 

Idleness went hand in hand with a lack of hope and opportunity, which drove people, young and old, to look for diversions.  Alcohol and drugs, albeit in only a transitory sense, took people out of the grind of a life where even the country’s government told them they were failures: Thatcher and her Ministers took every opportunity to tell the unemployed they were responsible for their own predicament, despite the fact it was the policies of her government that had destroyed the UK’s manufacturing base and the desperately-needed jobs that went with it.

Today’s mass unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, communities plagued by anti-social behaviour all have their genesis in the capitalist free-market policies of the Thatcher governments.  Things were made worse by the New Labour administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which abandoned the founding principles of the Labour Party and, instead, embraced the ideology of Thatcher.  Under those New Labour governments - 1997 to 2010 – the gap between the richest and the poorest in society got wider and wider, while Gordon Brown’s ‘light touch’ regulation of banks and the financial sector – a Thatcherite policy - played a very major part in the collapse of the capitalist economic system.

Now we have the Tories in power again, albeit only kept there by the support of the Liberal Democrats, and this is where Marty McFly makes his entrance because it’s Back to the Future time.

Since the last UK Election, in 2010, ordinary working-class people have been battered by savage cuts to public sector jobs and spending, implemented by the ideological son of Thatcher, multi-millionaire Prime Minister David Cameron.  Once again, we have the reality of mass unemployment, with workers thrown onto the scrapheap and told to look for jobs that don’t exist.  Young people, between the ages of 16 and 24, are being particularly badly affected by the ‘austerity measures’, which are actually just a mechanism for forcing the majority of us to pay the debts of a very small minority of capitalists. In North Ayrshire alone there are over 1,500 young adults without work or even hope of a job.  Yet, at the same time, corporate bankers are still receiving massive salaries and bonuses running into millions-of-pounds.

Then, last week, as if we needed further confirmation of a return to the dark days of Thatcherism, we had a budget presented by multi-millionaire Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.  The measure that attracted most media attention was Osborne’s attack on pensioners, which will mean people retiring from 2013 onwards will be an average of £259 a year worse off.  Over the next five years, pensioners with an income of between £10,000 and £24,000 will be paying an extra £3bn in tax.

Meanwhile, the Tory-Lib Dem Government scrapped the 50p tax rate for the UK’s highest earners, those pocketing salaries in excess of £150,000.  This move – taking the tax down to 45p for the richest people in the country – will produce a tax cut averaging £10,000 per individual: those paid salaries of £1million will find themselves £40,000 a year better off.

At the other end of the pay-scale, the Chancellor froze the minimum wage  levels for those under 21, which means 16 and 17 year-olds can still be paid as little as £3.68 an hour, with 18 to 20 year-olds on £4.98.  Workers over the age of 21 were granted an increase of 11p an hour, taking the national minimum wage to £6.19 an hour.  As the ‘increase’ is below the rate of inflation, it is actually a real-terms pay cut for the poorest in society.

As was the case with the Thatcher administrations, this is a government of the rich, for the rich.  The millionaires are ripping-off the millions, and it’s time we fought back.