Hidden in plain sight: Labour trains a new generation of political activists

labour_conference Pic credit politicshome

Labour Conference 2017: the top of the iceberg Pic credit: politicshome

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The Labour  Party conference this year was like one huge political iceberg.

The ten per cent that was visible was dominated by the passionate, football chant style support for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – as the architects of a Labour revival that had seen membership soar to 569,500. It did unveil new and radical policies.It suppressed a public row over Brexit  which I notice Danny Finkelstein on The Times saw as shrewd politics, leaving divided Tories to take the flak. It contained a dispute about whether there was anti-Semitism among  Left wingers despite the best efforts of Guido Fawkes ,the Daily Mail and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to stir the pot.

But under the eyes of the media ( who were given very restricted access to the conference hall) the hidden 90 per cent of the Labour conference was carrying out another revolution which will ensure that the current revival of political activism among the young has a long term future.

Contrary to what most Conservatives would like to think the 369,000 new party members who joined after Corbyn became leader are not all former card carrying members of the Social Workers Party, the Communist Party and other Left wing groupings. And they even applies to those who joined Momentum

Just on a micro political point, members of the local Labour Party in Berkhamsted and Tring in  Hertfordshire have jumped from about 40 to 450 as a result of Corbyn.. If they were all committed former Communists, I think I would have noticed. Having lived in Berko since 1983, the town is not known for having Marxist banners festooned all over Berkhamsted station or the civic centre.

No the truth is – thanks to lack of any political  or civic education in our schools – they have ideals, strong views but little hard knowledge of how to participate in a political democracy. Many may be savvy with social media but need to know how to use it for the benefit of the Labour Party.

There were sessions on door knocking, electoral law, what becoming a councillor is like. making Labour Party branch meetings more fun, championing equality, building up women’s forums,  getting more disabled friendly meetings and how to use the traditional and social media to get your points across. There was also advice on how to tackle the problem of success, too many new members swamping local meetings.

Jeremy Corbyn has already transformed interest in politics by doubling the percentage of people involved in party membership in Britain. Now it looks as though Labour is going to get the new membership to engage in democracy. to help them win the next election. Even if only 10 per cent of the membership become fervent activists – that is still some 57,000 people – more than half the total Tory membership, I am told.

What is going to be interesting is when that hidden 90 per cent of the Labour iceberg hits  the opposition at the next election. Will it be the  sinking of the Tory Titanic or will the Tories try and steer well clear and come up with something new.

 

 

 

 

London Midland admits it got it wrong over its passenger assistance service

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Rather a lot of stairs to go up or down if you are disabled or have a buggy at Berkhamsted station if the lift is out of order.

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London Midland has admitted that a ” breakdown in communication ”   meant it didn’t know that one of its stations was unstaffed, had a faulty lift and that its  emergency passenger help service didn’t work last Sunday.

The admission came in an email from the company in response to a complaint I lodged after being dumped at Berkhamsted with my disabled wife Margaret at the end of a weekend break from Liverpool.

I highlighted this in a blog earlier this week purely because I thought the situation was potentially dangerous and that train companies should be more careful in ensuring that their passengers can travel safely.

An email from Sarah Brassingham, a customer relations adviser, admits :  ” Unfortunately there was a breakdown in communication that meant that the team at Milton Keynes Central were unaware of the issues at Berkhamsted that evening, which were obviously compounded by the issues with the help point on your arrival.

Steps are being taken to address this with the stations and Passenger Information teams, and our Facilities team are resolving the issues with both the lift and the Passenger Information points as quickly as possible.

I can assure you that we take any assistance failures extremely seriously and apologise again for the inconvenience and distress caused.”

We have been offered a rail refund for the Milton Keynes to Berkhamsted journey but it does raise wider questions. One solution would be to ensure that whoever helps a disabled person  to get on the train informs the guard about the person’s destination – so if there is no one there the guard can help. at the other end But that still doesn’t get over the problem of faulty lifts or emergency help systems not working.

London Midland say their policy is ” Pre-booked assistance is provided by the station team at staffed stations and by the Conductor on board the train when the station you are getting on or off the train at is unstaffed.”

That raises another question. London Midland still has guards. If Southern get their way they won’t be any and presumably if they have any unstaffed stations disabled people won’t be able to get off the trains or be unable to travel.

That is one reason to back the RMT union case to keep guards on trains and fight the company and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, who want to get rid of them.

 

 

Thames Water: Unfit to protect our environment

 

Sewage around Marlow pc credit Environment Agency

Raw Sewage and foam around sailing boats on the Thames. pic credit: Environment Agency

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The record £20m fine for  Thames Water’s multiple pollution of the River Thames and its tributaries  with over 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage shows  how badly the company was managed.

It makes the incident where the company polluted the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal seem small fry compared to the damage the company caused to humans, livestock. wildife and fish across Hertfordshire,Buckinghamshire, Berkshire  and Oxfordshire.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.

The court at Aylesbury also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

thames waterWhat was extraordinary was the lax attitude of  top managers who ignored warnings from staff about failures in the system

 No wonder the judge Francis Sheridan said: “This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action.”

He added: “What a dreadful state of affairs that is.

“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees.

“Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance.”

He later said of the firm: “There is a history of non-compliance.”

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency’s chief prosecutor, said in The Guardian: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”

But should  we be surprised? Thames Water is a remote multinational making huge profits – and a £20m fine – large as it is – will still hardly dent a £742m annual profit.It is also only a quarter of the annual dividend paid to investors.

And it’s owners include Kuwaitis, the Chinese, Canadians and other international foreign investors . What will they care if fish die in Oxfordshire and  humans running sailing clubs become ill.

They are now claiming it is better managed and promising tigher controls. But they won’t want to sacrifice the bottom line and have a captive audience who can’t live without water or disposing their waste.

If ever there is a case for the return of  public ownership Thames Water have made it today. They have proved themselves unfit to protect the environment.

 

 

Whitehall doesn’t rule OK: How Wendover canal trust tragically missed out on a £1 million payout from river polluters

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution of the Wendover Arm led to the £1m fine

Over a year ago I raged about the injustice of the very wealthy Thames Water private utility being fined £1m for polluting the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal  with sewage because they ignored a simple £30,000 repair to the outfall of Tring sewage works. The article is here.

I thought it was particularly unfair on the volunteers who are restoring the canal  and decided to write to our local MP, David Gauke, who is now chief secretary to the Treasury, suggesting that the government might reimburse the fine to help the trust. which desperately needs the money.I also lobbied David Lidington, now leader of the House, to see, as Wendover is in his constituency, whether he would back the idea.

Conservative Party Portraits

David Gauke MP, the Treasury minister said No

David Gauke took a long time to reply ( he admitted that his office had mislaid my letter) but finally at the end of January he replied from the Treasury.

His answer was a resounding NO. He wrote: ” Fines are considered a tax-type revenue and government departments and their agencies, in this case the Environment Agency, are legally obliged to surrender these receipts to the Treasury. revenue surrendered to this account is not ring fenced for any specific area of government funding..”

environment agency letter

Full Text of Letter saying NO from David Gauke

Imagine my surprise then to see this press release  on the same day from the Environment Agency.

Environmental charities receive over £1.5 million from businesses which broke environmental laws

This revealed :

“There are 26 Enforcement Undertakings on the new list with payments ranging from £1,500 – £375,000, including 6 companies that have agreed to make 6 figure payments: ( among these were)

  • Northumbrian Water Limited (£375,000) for pumping raw sewage into a tributary of the River Tyne.
  • Filippo Berio UK Limited (£253,906.91) for failing to recover or recycle packaging waste.
  • Anglian Water Services Limited have made two separate payments (£100,000 and £100,000) both for causing pollution incidents which killed fish.

Among the beneficiaries were the Nene Country Park in Northamptonshire and river trusts  on the Tyne. The list of enforcement undertakings is published here:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/enforcement-undertakings-accepted-by-the-environment-agency

It shows a much wider group of people have benefited.

So I wrote back to the minister which led to this reply last week from Department for Environment and Rural Affairs.

Yes they had been able to do this since 2015 – by accepting Enforcement Undertakings to cover river pollution rather than taking companies to court.

The court case involving Thames Water was in 2016. But here’s the rub -because the pollution took place in 2012 and 2013 it was not covered by the change in the law.

david gauke letterTwo points from this tragic state of affairs. First I am surprised by the ignorance of David Gauke that as a Cabinet minister he didn’t know his own government had changed the law.

Second it seems very unfair the Wendover Arm Trust has lost out. Perhaps pressure should be put on Thames Water – who has just been fined for polluting the River Thames – to give a donation to the trust. And certainly  if they repeat this pollution immediate representation should be made to the Environment Agency for an Enforcement Undertaking so money can be handed out to the trust in future.

 

How the government is allowing the Japanese to profit from captive London and Brummie commuters

 

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Earlier this month the Department of Transport extended its recommended list of bidders to run Britain’s railways to a privatised rail company in Japan.

It shortlisted East Japan Railway as a minority partner with the Dutch state rail company Abellio, in the consortium West Midlands Trains Ltd as one of three groups bidding to take over the West Midlands franchise next October. which provides commuter services into London and Birmingham including my home town of Berkhamsted.

But more significantly it decided that East Japan Railway would qualify as an approved bidder for any other franchise up for grabs until 2020.

The Telegraph presented  the bid as a move by a company at the cutting edge of technology as it provides some of  Japan’s bullet train services.

But anyone thinking those on the crowded commuter routes will be whisked in by a super bullet train service should think again.

The story is in fact the exact opposite once you study the company’s latest annual report.

What it shows is that the bedrock of the company’s regular income is its commuter services around Tokyo not its bullet trains. And the prospect for making any more money out of them is a tad bleak.

It reveals that the company is currently facing a downturn in its commuter services serving Tokyo partly caused by a declining population and is looking to expand abroad. It currently provides no services outside Asia – where it is helping develop a mass transit rail system for Bangkok and improve train services in Indonesia.

The annual report says: “Generally, Japan’s declining population is seen as unfavourable for the transportation industry. However, our performance in fiscal 2015 proved that, even in an era of population decline, we can grow revenues by steadily implementing various measures.”

These include developing stations and encouraging more retired people to use local trains as the number of commuters decline.

With lower fares in Japan than the UK, the move could give the operator access to the lucrative London commuter market and it could also offer its services to maintain and build new trains for the British market.

So in other words commuters using London Midland trains to get into Birmingham and London Euston will be contributing to  profits which can be repatriated to Tokyo to offset the declining  Japanese market.

Which makes an investment in London Midland a one way bet for the Japanese since the current Tory government will ensure fares rise every year and the growing population in the UK will all help boost profits.

I would not be surprised to see government ministers in the transport department helping themselves to directorships and consultancies with the company a couple of years after they have stepped down from their posts. After all they have done them a great favour.

I have written about this in Tribune. The three consortia bidding are:a consortium run by London and West Midlands Railway Ltd, a subsidiary of Govia Ltd (a joint venture between Keolis and Go-Ahead Group)’ West Midlands Trains Ltd, currently a wholly owned subsidiary of Abellio Transport Group Ltd with East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui & Co Ltd as minority partners; and MTR Corporation (West Midlands) Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of MTR Corporation (UK) Ltd which runs the Hong Kong rail system.

The new London Midland operator will take over in October this year.

Is a £1 million fine a drop in the ocean for Thames Water?

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution started all of this with a £1m fine

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Today the Environment Agency is rightly triumphant in celebrating a £1 million fine against Thames Water for polluting the Grand Union Canal for  nine months in nearby Tring.

This is the highest fine imposed by the courts ever in history according to a release from the Environment Agency. But is it really going to hurt Thames Water apart from the bad publicity?

First of all the case. It was brought by the Environment Agency after Thames Water caused repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring STW (Sewage Treatment Works) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

In May Thames Water pleaded guilty before Watford Magistrates Court to two charges under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. On Monday 4 January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1 million, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120.

Their report goes on:

“The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage debris and sewage sludge being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.”

And it adds: ” The Environment Agency received complaints from the Canal and Rivers Trust and from the general public about pollution in the canal. Officers attended the site on several occasions, they saw sewage debris including panty liners and ear buds in the vicinity of the outfall.”

Thames Water now says it has put matters right at a cost of only £30,000 but it seems to have taken a rather long time to do it. In the meantime it put anglers and boaters at risk from infection.

It also frankly was heaping a lot of shit (literally) on volunteers who are working to restore the rest of the Wendover Arm of the canal so that it can be used again by anglers and boaters. You can see their work here.

Yet put in context the £1m fine with Thames Water’s activities. The latest interim  half yearly figures from the company show it had a turnover of £1 billion, made a £200 million plus profit and paid out  interim dividends of £25m. So the £1 million fine is just 0.5 per cent of six months profit.

And if taken on a yearly basis – the last full year profit was £364m of which £169m was distributed in dividends. Investors include pension funds and the Chinese.

More interestingly the Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs entire package well exceeds the £1m fine. The accounts for 2014-15 show his package in the company is over £2m for services to the group. His £460,000 salary is boosted by £53,000 in benefits including a £36,000 housing allowance, £15,000 for a company car and £2000 private medical insurance. He has long term bonuses worth over £1m with payouts of nearly £350,00 planned for the next three years. And he has a handsome £115,000 contribution to his pension.

Put all this together and perhaps £1m should be the minimum Thames should pay for any pollution they cause.Perhaps fines of £10m or a personal deduction from fat cat salaries should also be included.

The public may be pleased with the level of the fine – but for the company it seems but a  few drops from its bank balance.

Closed today: The rehab hospital that should be at the cutting edge of NHS care

Gossoms End Community hospital, Berkhamsted : Closed today

Gossoms End Community hospital, Berkhamsted : Closed today

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When my wife Margaret was struck down by a stroke on holiday and  lost her mobility one of the  redeeming features was that after her initial care in Truro she was transferred at our GP’s insistence to Gossoms End Community Hospital in our home town, Berkhamsted.

As a result of her stay there and later at the now closed  Holywell rehab unit at St Albans Hospital she has progressed in two years from help to get out of bed and living in a wheelchair through to the first stage of slow independent walking without any aids.

That is in no small part to the loving care at Gossoms End which led me to write a blog two years ago praising the work there.

At the time I said :

“What is particularly good is that some one has properly planned this facility so that stroke victims and people recovering from serious injuries can get proper physiotherapy and nursing care in a decent environment. The hospital unlike Watford, the main accident and emergency hospital for West Herts, is under no pressure to throw people out at the earliest opportunity. The cost of running it is much less than using a ward in acute hospital.

But the real key is that this is a nurse and physiotherapy led unit – with a weekly visit from a consultant and a doctor on call. The result is that the driving force  behind the care is to find the most suitable  rehab treatment for the individual patient.”

Alas that is no more. The unit closed  today because the Herts Community Health Trust  which runs it has overspent on agency staff because they can’t get full-time staff. It has faced criticism over staffing levels at other hospitals. Staff have been transferred elsewhere.

If you read the latest board minutes you see a trust that is struggling to provide services across Hertfordshire It is short of staff in key areas, facing an emergency financial crisis and failing in its ambition to become an independent foundation trust. Indeed it can only achieve the latter as far as I can see by slashing services so it can become profitable. Most of the key issues at the board meeting have a red or amber tag – meaning they are facing a disaster unless they slash costs in four weeks by closing down every possible service.

This local example to my mind illustrates the lie by our national politicians particularly by Jeremy Hunt, the health  secretary – about the state of the NHS. They trip out figures boasting about how much extra money there is. They haven’t a clue about integrated planning. They don’t know  and  don’t care how one policy – high house prices in Hertfordshire probably contributes to difficulties in recruiting staff -impacts on another. They are incapable of joining anything up – silo politicians.

In the meantime they talk about  so-called government policy ” care in the community” or ” no care in the community” as I prefer to call it. This is just an excuse to close down facilities and dump the sick ,ill, disabled and the insane on their families knowing that taxpayers don’t have to pay out. And if they haven’t any family, well, they will probably fall over and die and that will be a saving on the pensions bill.

To my mind closure of such facilities is short sighted. It means they only half rehabilitate people, failing to draw out their full potential and not wishing to acknowledge that new medical research shows that stroke victims  continue to improve for a much longer period than people thought. We are lucky that we can still afford to pay for Margaret to have private physiotherapy. I notice the lack in improvements among those who can’t.

I realise we have been lucky but I fear for anybody who has the misfortune to have a stroke in Hertfordshire today. Don’t expect the board members of Hertfordshire Community Health trust to do much about it.