Friday, 23 October 2015

New contract forces junior doctors to get militant

Traditionally, medicine is not a particularly militant profession.   However, last Saturday, hundreds of doctors and their supporters were angry enough to congregate outside Belfast City Hall, to protest against a new contract for junior doctors, proposed by the government.

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is determined to drive through changes he claims are necessary to deliver the ‘seven day NHS’ that Conservatives pledged in their general election manifesto.  The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors across the UK, opposes the new contract, on the grounds that it will compromise patient safety and force its members to work exhaustingly long hours. 

Currently junior doctors are paid at a standard rate for working between 7am and 7pm, on weekdays.  They receive a higher rate of pay, or ‘banding’, when they work nights, weekends or beyond 7pm in the evening. 

Legally, junior doctors can be asked to work up to 91 hours per week, under their current contract, although the average workload over a six month period should comply with the European Working Time Directive, unless they sign an ‘opt out clause’, exempting them from its conditions.  Health trusts, which are responsible for employing doctors and running NHS hospitals, can be penalised if they infringe the rules.

The contract Hunt is proposing would extend basic working hours from 7am to 10pm and add Saturdays.  It would also remove penalties which health trusts face for forcing doctors to work outside their contracted hours.  In addition, a requirement for junior doctors to get a break every four hours would be abolished and replaced by a mandatory twenty minute break every eleven hours.

The government claims that its proposals won’t cut pay or increase hours.  The health secretary points out that the new contract will decrease the maximum number of hours a junior doctor can work during the week from 91 to 72.  However, doctors counter that they often work beyond the terms of their current contract and ask how maximum hours will be enforced, if Trusts don’t face any type of penalty. 

Many medical professionals think hospitals are already operating at the limit.  Frequently there are gaps in rotas, which are filled by asking staff to do extra shifts, or bringing in locum doctors, paid at expensive rates.  Juniors doubt the government’s contention that services can be provided over a longer working week, without requiring them to work longer hours.

Jeremy Hunt’s proposals are for the NHS in England.  The devolved governments in Wales and Scotland say that junior doctors’ contracts in their jurisdictions will not be changed.  However, in Northern Ireland, the situation is much less clear.

Due to ongoing difficulties at Stormont, the DUP health minister, Simon Hamilton, has only just returned to his duties on a permanent basis.  He was one of the ministers involved in weekly resignations and reinstatements, while talks took place about IRA violence. 

Mr Hamilton has not yet indicated whether he intends to implement the new contract for the NHS in Northern Ireland.  In the absence of a clear decision, junior doctors are worried that the health minister will simply follow the example of the Westminster government.  There are even indications of disagreement within Mr Hamilton’s party, as some DUP MLAs responded favourably to the BMA’s overtures, while others were less positive.

Few patients would choose to be treated by a demoralised, exhausted, overworked doctor, who may not have eaten or drunk anything for almost eleven hours, if they were seriously ill in hospital.  Staff say that the NHS is already getting by only because it draws deeply upon copious reserves of their goodwill, as resources are stretched and trainees head abroad for better terms and conditions.  If this contract is imposed it is likely to create a furious reaction, which could result in industrial action and chaos in hospitals.  

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Northern Ireland 'paramilitary assessment' surprises no-one

Over the past six weeks, Northern Ireland’s Executive has not operated properly, even by its own fitful standards.  After revelations that IRA members were involved in a murder in Belfast, and the subsequent resignation of the Ulster Unionists’ only minister, the Democratic Unionists devised a bizarre ‘go slow’ to prove that it was not ‘business as usual’ at Stormont. 

Almost all the DUP's ministers, including the party’s leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, resigned from the Executive.  However, finance minister, Arlene Foster, was nominated to replace Mr Robinson in a temporary capacity, supposedly to prevent nationalist parties from running amok in government.  Meanwhile, the party’s remaining three ministers, whose portfolios include health, enterprise and social development, were continually re-nominated to their positions, from which they then resigned again, on a weekly basis. 

Confusing?  Absolutely.  Inexplicable?  Pretty much.

After weeks of manoeuvres, recriminations and choreography, it became clear that the DUP’s permanent return to the Executive hinged on the contents of a report into paramilitary activity, commissioned by the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers.  Peter Robinson indicated he needed this document, authored by the PSNI and MI5, to confirm the chief constable’s claim that the leadership of the IRA no longer sanctions terrorist attacks or criminality.

Given that the chief constable is the PSNI’s top officer, it was always glaringly obvious that the report’s assessment was unlikely to differ substantially from his own.  Nevertheless, Northern Ireland’s political class awaited its publication eagerly.

Now, after a short delay, their wait is over (PDF).  In the House of Commons this afternoon, Theresa Villiers announced the document’s publication.  Predictably, it contained few surprises.

This ‘assessment’ of paramilitary activity concludes that most of the main paramilitary groups which operated during the Troubles are still in existence.  However, it says none of the organisations are "planning or conducting terrorist attacks".  Members of the paramilitary groups continue to be involved in violence and crime, but their central leaderships, for the most part, seek to temper, rather than direct, these activities.

The section on the Provisional IRA will command closest attention, understandably.  The authors acknowledge that the organisation’s structures, including its ‘Army Council’, still exist, “in much reduced form”.  They believe that local or individual activity takes place “without the knowledge or direction of the leadership”.  The PIRA continues to gather intelligence, it retains “some weapons” and individual members are suspected of crimes, up to and including murder.

None of this information is new or surprising.  However, the document contained more than enough ambiguity to allow the DUP to justify any decision it took.    

Peter Robinson announced that his ministers will resume their full-time duties this afternoon. Given that this report adds little to the chief constable’s assessment of IRA activity, from late August, the public will ask why they were subjected to a month and a half of deserted Assembly debates and a 'ghost Executive’.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Politics is going through an angry, uncivil period

This article is originally from the Belfast Telegraph (9th October 2015).

At the Labour conference last week, the party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appealed for a new, ‘kinder’ form of politics.  Seven days later, as Conservatives gathered for their get-together in Manchester, some left-wing protesters refused to heed his call.  Delegates entering the venue were abused, spat at and even pelted with eggs and other missiles. 

The protesters didn’t distinguish between Conservative activists and neutral visitors to the conference either.  BBC Northern Ireland’s political correspondent, Stephen Walker, and even the high profile, hard-left columnist, Owen Jones, were among journalists who experienced the novelty of being described as ‘Tory scum’, as they covered events at Manchester Central.

Politics has always been a tribal business, exciting high passions and strong emotions, but there seems to be a particularly nasty, uncivil tenor to some of the debates currently raging across the UK. 
During the independence referendum in Scotland, the bullying tactics of some ‘Yes’ supporters were highlighted in the media.  ‘Cybernats’, as they became known, hectored people who disagreed with them online, targeting vocal supporters of the Union, like the author JK Rowling, and lingerie tycoon, Michelle Mone, who eventually left Scotland as a result.

Unfortunately, the abuse wasn’t confined to the internet.  Then Labour leader, Jim Murphy, was subjected to vitriolic taunts, describing him as a “traitor”, “scum” and “paedophile”, when he campaigned on Scotland’s high streets.  While Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, suffered a campaign of intimidation, including finding rubbish strewn across his property, during the weeks running up to his death.  The late politician’s father was convinced he was a victim of bullying by nationalists.

The Scottish referendum sparked a robust conversation, across Scotland, attracting unprecedented numbers of people to get involved in politics, but, at its fringes, a substantial minority of activists seemed determined to demonise anyone who disagreed with them.

The aftermath of the Conservatives’ victory at the General Election prompted another torrent of abuse, as protesters took to the streets to voice their displeasure.  The slurs were mainly verbal but, on the weekend after the results emerged, protesters sprayed “f**k Tory scum”, on a memorial in Whitehall, dedicated to women who fought in the Second World War.       

Many such acts can be attributed to vandals and extremists, but politicians and other prominent people in public life don’t help, if they abuse their opponents and contribute to an atmosphere of hysteria around political issues.

In Northern Ireland we’re used to political figures inflaming emotions to the extent that it arguably contributes to disorder on the streets.  We’ve had allegations of political policing, from either side of our divide, dark mutterings about ‘securocrats’ from republicans and even a prominent MLA holding on to the front of a police Land Rover during trouble in North Belfast.  Provocative leaflets about the removal of the Union Flag at City Hall were distributed by unionists, and attacks on Alliance Party offices followed soon after.  Some of our politicians are masters at stirring up tensions, then denying responsibility if things get violent.

Political rioting and violence is rarer In Great Britain, but incidents do take place.  In London, members of a hard-left, anarchist group pelted the Cereal Killer cafĂ©, owned by Northern Irish twins Gary and Alan Keery, with paint bombs.  They claimed their attack was a protest against ‘gentrification’.  Meanwhile, far-right groups like Britain First are increasingly active, mounting ‘foot patrols’ and other intimidating demonstrations, directed at immigrants and Muslims.

Political arguments need not stir up violence to become damaging.  It’s enough that they’re often conducted in such a shrill, outraged tone, corroding the substance of debates and encouraging hostility and name-calling.    

Even as Jeremy Corbyn called for respect, at the Labour party conference, Len McCluskey, general secretary of trade union Unite, took to a stage at the same event and claimed that government proposals on strikes are like “what the Nazis did to trade unionists in the concentration camps at Dachau”.  The plan is to require strikers on picket lines to wear armbands for identification.  You don’t need to think the Conservatives’ proposals are right, to recognise that comparing the measure to Nazi persecution is gross hyperbole.

The debate around welfare reform in Northern Ireland has taken place at a similarly shrill pitch.  Rather than discuss calmly the merits or otherwise of the current system, the costs it entails or alternatives to replace it, the Stormont parties often prefer to sling insults at one another.  The opponents of reform bluster about ‘Tory cuts’, rather than setting out their objections in any detail.

The word ‘Tory’ derives from a Gaelic word meaning ‘outlaw’, and originally implied ‘an Irish rebel’ in English.  Ironically, in Northern Ireland in particular, it has returned to its nineteenth century roots as a term of political abuse, as well as a disapproving adjective attached to anything some politicians and campaigners don’t like.  The trade unionist, Bumper Graham, who represents the public sector union NIPSA, caused anger when he told the Nolan Show that he’d gladly put “all the Tories in Northern Ireland who voted in the General Election” onto a bus and send them “back to England”. 

The left-wing doesn’t have a monopoly on malice, though.  The referendum on membership of the European Union, which will be held by 2017, is likely to cause an outbreak of incivility on the political right. 

Much of the rancour is likely to take the form of infighting, as the Conservative Party divides along the fault-lines of ‘in’ or ‘out’.  Many Tory Eurosceptics are inclined to describe their own party colleagues as either ‘sound’ or ‘unsound’, depending on their views on Europe. 

At the same time, the debate around immigration has taken on an increasingly unpleasant colouring, with some politicians implying that people coming to the UK are responsible for poverty and unemployment among longer term residents.

Unfortunately, politics has always entailed an element of nastiness and politicians are necessarily a tough breed.  However, the current high-pitched tone is distorting important issues and encouraging an unpleasant atmosphere, even outside the political bubble.   

No-one should have to suffer abuse or even, potentially, assault, just because they disagree with someone else’s opinions.  Nor is it ok to demonise people because they vote for a particular party or even attend its conferences.

Jeremy Corbyn is right when he says that politics should be ‘kinder’ and that issues should be debated without personal abuse.  It’s up to political leaders like him, not only to set a personal example, but also to persuade colleagues and followers to consistently take a more respectful approach, with less tribalism, less scare-mongering and less name-calling. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 3) by Dr Phil Larkin

Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838).jpg
"Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838)" by Reading Tom from Reading, UK - IMG_3994. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the final part of his survey of the SNP, Dr Phil Larkin looks at the party's future and concludes by emphasising the importance of Scotland to the rest of the UK.  

The SNP’s Future?
As any military manual will tell you, a salient, or bulge, into enemy territory is a dangerous position for an army to be in, since it can be attacked from three sides. The 56 seats won by the SNP in May constitute just such a salient. Had they won, say, 30-40 seats, it might actually have been better for them, since they could continue to enthuse their core support with the cry that there “is still more work to be done.” A victory of such a resounding nature means that there is only one direction for the SNP’s electoral fortunes to head, namely, southwards. The present UK Government, with its small but workable majority, is not beholden in any way to the SNP, does not require their support, and is unlikely to offer any further devolution measures to Scotland beyond the ones presently being worked out. After that, there will be increasing calls for the Scottish Parliament and Executive to use the tax raising powers they already have if they hate austerity as much as they claim to. Indeed, for a Party who have persistently called for equality of citizenship, and railed so vociferously against austerity, the SNP Administration in Scotland has been curiously loathe to raise income tax: they realise instinctively, as a populist organisation, that this would cost them middle-class support. I suspect that the SNP will also be reluctant to use any future revenue raising power which they may be given by Westminster, for the same reason. So where does this leave the block of 56 SNP MPs? It is true that they can make a lot of noise, and strike plenty of agitated poses, but behind the flummery and hot air, they are essentially impotent. Unlike the Labour opposition, they do not even have the comfort of being able to form a Shadow Cabinet. The SNP would probably prefer Conservative government in Westminster, to demonstrate just how different Scotland is from England, and this is why Salmond helped to shatter Miliband’s chances of victory before the May election by talking up the prospects of a Labour/SNP coalition and asserting that he “would be writing Miliband’s budget for him.” It also explains why Sturgeon has endorsed Corbyn as Labour leader: in effect she is giving him the kiss of death before the English electorate (not that he needs this). However, how long will it be before the slogan “Vote SNP to ensure Tory Victory” gains currency in Labour circles north of the border?

Only by keeping the prospect of a future second referendum “around the next corner” can the Party keep its faithful enthused, and this is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon has been trying to do by sketching out nebulous conditions which would, in her opinion, “trigger” another referendum. The reality is, however, that the prospect of another referendum in the short to medium term terrifies the SNP, since they would be bound to lose it, and their chances of retaining political hegemony after that would plummet. In a perceptive FT article, Janan Ganesh argued that the UK would not leave the EU unless the exit campaign could show that the population would be demonstrably better off outside, a case that they simply cannot make. Ganesh drew parallels between this and the reasons why the Scottish electorate ultimately rejected independence: the majority of Scots were unconvinced that secession from the Union would make their lives any more prosperous or happy. They still remain unconvinced, especially with the example of Greece fresh in peoples’ minds. Yet how long can that core of diehard Scottish nationalists, the backbone of SNP support, who are itching for round two of the independence battle, be assuaged? There is plenty of scope for internal conflict within the SNP, and these splits are bound to come to the fore before too long.

This is why the SNP’s bluff now needs to be called on a number of different levels by the unionist parties. Far from resisting the idea of another independence referendum, unionists should, perhaps in the aftermath of next year’s Holyrood elections, should be saying with one voice, “bring it on!” My guess is that the SNP hierarchy would blanch with fear at such calls, while the more fiery party foot soldiers would be spoiling for the second round. Sturgeon will have a tremendous job on her hands reconciling realism with fervent enthusiasm. Whether she is capable of holding the Party together in these circumstances is anyone’s guess.

It is this author’s unwavering belief that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader will be disastrous for the Party in electoral terms, yet even disasters can be mitigated. His leadership will allow Labour to call the bluff of the SNP’s left wing. Mhairi Black, the Party’s youngest MP, made an impassioned Bernadette Devlin-type maiden speech in the House of Commons, in which she excoriated the policy of austerity, and explained that she had parted company with the Labour Party because it had ceased to adhere to the ideas of figures like Tony Benn, whose memory she specifically invoked. While this speech was lauded at the time (the House of Commons being a sentimental institution), it left Miss Black open to attack on a number of different fronts. The point that an independent Scotland would be forced to adopt fierce austerity measures has been made above. In addition, she laid out no viable alternative to austerity in the speech, and has not done so since. However, the main charge her speech laid her open to is, with Corbyn (a disciple of Tony Benn) as Labour Leader, and John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, why does she not simply return to the Labour fold? This author is surprised that the argument has not already been made by any of the unionist parties. Furthermore, Ms Black’s far left credentials are difficult to reconcile with the actions of certain of her SNP colleagues. It was recently disclosed that Michelle Thomson,[1] the SNP’s frontbench business spokeswoman, built up a buy-to-let property portfolio with her husband by buying homes at knocked down prices from families struggling to pay their mortgages. Some of the properties targeted and purchased were local authority homes bought by tenants under the right-to-buy scheme, which is to be banned in Scotland by the SNP next year. While this article does not suggest that Thomson has done anything illegal, her actions stink of hypocrisy: a senior SNP MP who had campaigned against social deprivation looks to have profited handsomely from those who suffered from it. Is Mhairi Black going to condemn Thomson publicly for these actions? I doubt it. The revelations also underscore the reality that the SNP is scarcely a genuinely left-wing party, but rather a catch-all confederacy of different personalities and views bound together with one solitary aim, to end the Union.

As Alan Massie has argued, there may, ironically, be an opportunity now for the Tories to revive in Scotland. They have a very capable leader in the form of Ruth Davidson, whose stature was actually enhanced by the Referendum campaign. She is far too young to be tainted by the nastiness which characterised previous Tory government attitudes towards Scotland, and whether one agrees with her or not, she comes across as an ebullient and engaging personality, just the sort of person the Conservatives need to detoxify their image north of the border. She has spoken convincingly of the chronic need for technical education and an expansion of industrial apprenticeships in Scotland, and suggested creative ways in which a Scottish Parliament might lower income tax to entice wealthy English and other professionals to settle and invest their skills and cash in Scotland, a policy likely to find at least some favour among canny Scots. None of this is to minimise the task that lies ahead of her and her Party. One thing in her favour is that she can characterise the Tories as a Party passionately dedicated to preserving the union, something that Labour under Corbyn will find it much more difficult to do.

The main aim of this article has been to set out the case that there is really much less to the SNP than meets the eye, and that the unionist parties should be more vociferous in declaring that this emperor really does have no clothes. While I do not intend to speculate on how long Corbyn will remain as Labour leader, if he does survive for any length of time in office the Conservatives look set to win the 2020 election. Therefore the task of preserving the Union will fall to them. This will require a level of tact, sympathy, and understanding which Tories have not always demonstrated in the past towards Scotland. There is definitely some truth in the criticism that the “No” campaign during the 2014 Referendum was overly negative (although one can see why they chose to focus on the reality that the SNP could not formulate anything like a convincing economic case for independence). The unionist parties could have formulated a much more positive case for the status quo, demonstrating just to what extent Scotland and the Scots are a huge part of the fabric of life and history in the entire United Kingdom. For instance, Scotland gave birth to the father of modern economic theory, Adam Smith, while James Watt, another Scot, made possible the rapid advancement of the Industrial Revolution with his improvements in steam engine design. William Patterson was the prime mover behind the creation of that most British of institutions, the Bank of England, while Scottish inventions from television, to the telephone, to the ATM, have improved and enriched the lives of millions around the world. More mention could have been made of the political contribution which Scottish statesmen and women have made to the entire nation: one need only consider the number of Scottish Prime Ministers and PMs of Scottish extraction (including Cameron himself) there have been for this to be proved. Scots like Keir Hardie and Ramsay McDonald were instrumental in the creation of the Labour Party. The poems of Robbie Burns, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott are justifiably world famous because, like the plays of Shakespeare, they deal with eternal themes which touch the whole of mankind, and are not confined to the confines of Scotland. Scotland is too precious the rest of the UK for them to be separated from us. It is high time that this was stated more vociferously.

[1] The Sunday Times, 20 September 2015.