October 2014 - Fabian's newsletter
Leeds North East Constituency
October 2014 Newsletter
The UK response to the Ebola epidemic: There is something terrifying about the reports we are hearing from West Africa about the spread of Ebola. Fears are magnified when we learn of people contracting the disease and dying in hospitals in Spain and the USA. It is the stuff of disaster movies and of nightmares but panic is no remedy to any threat. I trust that here in the UK we will play our full part in the fight against the disease and be fully prepared for the situation if or when we have any cases in our own country.
For the moment Ebola remains a disease that is not spread easily and only through contact with the bodily fluids of a person infected. We are told the virus is fragile and easily destroyed by ordinary disinfectants outside the host bodies of those who are ill with the disease. What causes fear is the fact that there is no cure and currently no vaccine. Between 50% and 75% of those who catch the disease do not survive. In countries such as those in West Africa, the risk of transmission is very high. Public knowledge of simple health precautions, traditional burial rites, poor health services and lack of equipment all combine to produce conditions where the number of cases and consequent deaths are growing exponentially and, if unchecked, could lead to the destruction of governance, law and order in the countries affected.
Here in the UK, I believe that government not only has a duty to protect us from outbreaks of the disease but also to do everything possible to help fight the disease where it has broken out in West Africa and to assist the people who are suffering. I was proud to learn that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Argus set sail on Friday 17th October fully equipped to be a centre for operations to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone. I hope that the government is doing more. There must be no funding issues getting in the way of any contribution that British scientists might make to finding a vaccine or developing drugs that can help with treatment. The hospitals that have been designated to deal with any Ebola cases that appear in the UK must have all the money they need for equipment and staffing to deal with the intense isolation procedures necessary.
I pay tribute to the naval health personnel sailing on the Argus who know they will be subject to a huge level of risk and yet are fully prepared to do their duty. I know that health staff in UK hospitals on standby will display the highest standards of dedication and commitment in spite of the way that they have been snubbed by a government that has failed to implement a modest pay increase. I hope that governments worldwide will make a substantial contribution to helping the situation in Africa. Thankfully the UK and the USA are ready to step up to the mark when there is a crisis but there are very many other developed countries that could easily supply funding; indeed many promise to do so but then renege on making good their word. Ebola is too serious for these games. The world community must get its act together.
UKIP by election success in Clacton and Middleton: I wonder how long it will be before voters in Clacton realise the full implications of the choice they have made in endorsing the UKIP credentials of their former Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Thankfully constituents in Middleton and Heywood in Lancashire, have been spared - thanks to the Labour vote holding firm though there were many voters who were tempted by the ill informed anti-Europe and anti-immigration rhetoric of the UKIP message.
Clearly democracy is sacrosanct and the opinion of the voters of Clacton is final - at least until the next general election. I do wonder just how many of those attracted to UKIP know what the underlying party doctrine is. UKIP's antipathy to Europe stems from their basic wish to create a society where the state has much less of a role in our lives. Attacking the influence of Europe is a precursor to dismantling the UK structures as well. Arguing for much lower taxes can seem very appealing until you stop to consider what tax revenues are used for: defence, law and order, health services, education, social security, research, environmental protection and the benefits system that protects people from the worst ravages of poverty and homelessness. I'd bet that almost everybody who has voted for UKIP, at some time or other, has also complained about inadequate government provision in the past.
Immigration, according to the opinion polls, is of great public concern. In a situation where there is a shortage of housing, pressure on hospitals, schools and public services, growing population numbers boosted by immigration, are all seen as a valid worry. However, I think there are real dangers in the UKIP message since by stoking fears about immigration we risk sowing the seeds of racism. We must not risk the evil of racism but I think the potential for it to surface could stem from an uncaring and irrational anti-immigration agenda. Nationalism and associated fads such as UKIP's isolationism carry grave risks as we can see from countless examples in recent history.
Strike action in the Health Service: This month we have witnessed an event without precedent - a health service strike where even midwives felt moved to take strike action over pay. If ever there was evidence that the government management of the NHS was in a mess then this is it. The current funding situation in the NHS is grave because the service at almost every level cannot respond to the demands made upon it. Waiting times are getting longer, operations are delayed and workers at every level, particularly GPs, are telling us of the funding crisis that they are having to contend with.
The approach that the coalition government has taken reminds me of the ostrich that sticks its head in the sand and the only response ministers make is to talk about efficiency savings, doing more for less and working in different ways. No doubt all of these things are possible but they do not conceal the need for another substantial injection of resources. The victims at the moment are the staff whose independent pay review body recommended a modest 1% overall pay rise but was rejected by the government which has refused to give it to workers whose salary scales have incremental points. I have always viewed incremental pay scales as the tactic by which some employers, including the government, have delayed paying workers the full rate for the job. To deny this group their pay rise is disgraceful.
When he was Chancellor, Gordon Brown boosted NHS provision by increasing National Insurance payments. I think we need to bite the bullet and make a conscious decision to solve the NHS funding problem with a tax rise focussed on those with the ability to pay. The Conservatives won't do this because their mantra is to cut taxes, whether or not the nation afford it, and to ignore the needs of the National Health Service that David Cameron so fervently claims to cherish. We need some political leadership unafraid to take the action needed. My option would be to propose a further increase in employees National Insurance as we would all pay a little more according to our means.
Party Conference Season: For some years now, I have not attended the Labour Party Conference. It is very expensive for MPs to attend. I also consider that the conferences are rather surreal. They are not places where policy gets formed. Those who go are subjected to intense lobbying by companies and organisations seeking to influence politicians and so many of the contributions to debates seem to be from people playing to the gallery of their particular base of supporters. However I do concede that conferences can be helpful particularly in motivating party workers to go and campaign.
So what have we learned from this year's conference season? Well, we know that the Liberal Democrats are working hard to try and secure a historical record before most of them lose their seats at the next election. We also know that the Conservative Party is riven with dissent. The right wingers flirting with UKIP or their prejudiced ideas are poles apart from the moderates represented by people like David Cameron. If the party is disappointed by their next election result then I am sure that Boris Johnson will take over and that underneath his jocular affability lies a right wing mentality that will be quite content to roll back state provision to fund tax cuts for the richer section of society.
The housing crisis: One problem the next Labour government must start to solve is that of the housing crisis. We see the symptoms everywhere; Too few houses being built; People unable to afford deposits or mortgage; The age of first time buyers rising year on year; Soaring house price inflation; Generations condemned to renting; Unavailability of social housing; Horrendous rises in the national cost of Housing Benefit. Cut through all the detail and the fundamental problem is that far too few new homes are being built each year. In 2009 only 109,000 houses were built in the UK whereas the number needs to be in excess of 200000.
A review conducted for the Labour Party by Sir Michael Lyons, former chairman of the BBC, has made some radical proposals. It argues for speeded up planning procedures and government powers to require local councils to produce vigorous plans for development. What the report does not seem to cover is the other key to development and that is the funding that is needed to change the scale of current building operations. It does however recognise the vested interest of existing home owners who fear a situation where a sudden increase in housing supply might lead to the value of their homes falling and forcing them into negative equity.
I believe that the policy of the next Labour government must go further than that envisaged in the Lyons report. There are sources of money that institutions would be pleased to invest in the construction of social housing. Councils all over the country have land that could be used and they should be encouraged to release it even if this leads to some protests. We can use the opportunity to build energy efficient, low maintenance homes and to bring into service homes that lie unused. I have been doing some research into these ideas. Watch this space!
With my best wishes.
Labour MP for Leeds North East.