Nurses and NHS workers will protest for pay on 8 August. They should be rewarded with money as well as clapping…

This Saturday (8 August), NHS staff will hold protests for pay – as well they might. They were excluded from Rishi Sunak’s recent public sector pay rise deal.

I sat in on a call with NHS workers and protest organisers last Saturday. There’s a lot of anger around, which is hardly surprising. Hundreds of health workers have died from coronavirus this year – a toll we may well not have seen had Boris Johnson got around to lockdowns and making sure people had adequate PPE.

This weekend’s (socially-distanced) protests are largely being generated and organised by staff themselves. According to staff on last Saturday’s call, one reason for that is that unions have been too slow to move on the issue. People decided to take things into their own hands. How often have we heard that?

Anyway. Can’t wait to see Boris Johnson out clapping for protesting NHS workers on the 8th. Here’s a list of protest events.

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Download a pdf copy of my book

My 2020 book “Abusing Power” is a collection of interviews with people who needed benefits and housing help in austerity.

You can access a pdf of the book here.

The book goes behind the scenes to jobcentre & homelessness meetings and shows how people’s experiences of the austerity state shaped their politics and thinking.

Thanks to Aditya Chakrabortty for the shoutout on the book in today’s Guardian.

Question: How did carework end up in such dire straits? Answer: outsourcing

I’m back. I’ve finished my book on austerity – more on getting a copy at the end of this article.

This article is about careworkers. Careworkers’ dreadful pay and working conditions won fleeting attention earlier this year when the coronavirus started wiping out carehome staff and residents, but alas – big media has moved onto new thrills. That can’t be the end of the story, though. Things have to change. Careworkers and carehome residents have been treated like garbage for years:

There is a problem with writing about attacks on careworker wages and working conditions over the past decades or so: I have too many examples to choose from.

Every carehome worker I met in the last decade was on a picket line in that first instance, fighting to protect already-meagre careworker wages from attacks and cutbacks. For as long as I’ve been writing, careworker wages and conditions have been targeted by a particularly witless brand of neoliberal: local councillors (of all political stripes), MPs (ditto) and the boards/trustees of private and third sector care companies who’ve been united by two of our era’s more perverted beliefs: 1) that care can be provided on the cheap and 2) if you achieve this cheapness by slashing careworker wages and standards, care can turn a profit.

Spawned in this manure, the stories are always, always the same. It all starts when care services, in one form or another, are outsourced from councils, or the NHS, to private or third sector companies. In the following months and years, managers of these companies cut careworker wages and sick-and-annual leave allowances, and direct that money elsewhere. Careworker contracts that were based on public sector wages and conditions – wages and conditions that private care companies swear they will protect – are, needless to say, quickly trashed. New carework starters begin on much-reduced wages and leave provisions – the bar set so low that it more or less disappears.

This model is so standard that you can cut and paste examples straight into it. Take the Fremantle careworkers in Barnet – a group of carerworkers who I first met on a picket line in 2007 and at plenty of strikes in the years after that. These long-time Barnet carehome workers (most were women) went home one day to find a letter from the Fremantle Trust, the company to which Barnet council had outsourced carehomes and the careworkers’ jobs.

That letter did not bring good news. The Trust told the the careworkers that their pay would be frozen and their all-important weekend enhancement pay rates removed. Many of the careworkers relied on that after-hours enhancement pay to meet their bills and mortgages. They hardly earned a fortune even with that money. Losing it was a catastrophe. The sums were simple enough – careworkers’ jobs no longer paid the bills:

“Some people are down three or four hundred (pounds) a month,” Fremantle careworker Carmel Reynolds told me at that time. Reynolds been in the job for 23 years at that point. “People organise their families around [that money].”

There was more, of course. There always is. The Fremantle Trust told the careworkers that it would also cut their annual leave allowances and slash their sick leave to the statutory minimum – the very same first-3-days-without-pay statutory sick leave “package” that many are convinced helped to fuel covid-19’s blaze through carehomes in 2020. Careworkers can’t afford to take 3 days’ sick leave unpaid, so they go to work when they’re ill. Fremantle careworkers were pointing that out even in 2007.

True to pompous form, Fremantle management told the shocked careworkers that they could either sign the new contract, or leave. Then, management rubbed the careworkers’ noses in it a little harder – managers told careworkers that if they were really worried about money, they could try and make their stolen wages back by working extra shifts. More work for less money – Fremantle Trust management seemed to reason that careworkers would be grateful for such a gig. No matter that many of the careworkers had children at home and would suddenly have childcare costs that they couldn’t cover. No matter either that the destruction of careworker wages and working conditions was grossly unfair:

“I said [to Fremantle managers] – how do you expect us to be able to cope…?” careworker Lango Gamanga told me. “They [Fremantle managers] said we could do more hours to make up the money… but what about the quality of our life – our daily life?”

Of course – careworkers’ quality of life is rarely a concern in these scenarios. Concern about workers’ quality of life was certainly nowhere to be seen in another battle I’ve picked from my list: the 2014 Care UK support workers dispute in Doncaster. That was the year that Doncaster Care UK workers took weeks-long strike action in protest at – you guessed it – wage cuts in the form of the removal of enhanced weekend and night rates, new-starter pay cut to £7 an hour and – again – cuts to sick leave.

As ever, this shambles started with privatisation. The Doncaster workers – they worked with people with learning difficulties – had their jobs transferred from the NHS to Care UK when the service was outsourced to Care UK. It didn’t take Care UK long to target their new employees. Implying that the careworkers had been spoiled by their NHS wages and working conditions – “annual holiday… for some people is close to 7 weeks on top of public holidays,” groused Care UK learning disability service boss Chris Hindle with the faux outrage that these people specialise in – Care UK proposed wage cuts that saw the Doncaster workers facing losses of £300 and £400 a month – just like the Fremantle workers

At one strike action, careworker Mags Dalton told me the wage cuts were so severe that she’d have to leave her flat and her job, and move back in with her parents in Newcastle while she found another job and saved up for the deposit on another flat. The Care UK cuts meant that she’d lose about £400 a month. Her rent was £465 a month. She couldn’t afford to keep paying:

“I made a life for myself in Doncaster with friends that I love and a job that I love. I only signed up for the house a year ago. I moved in on the 26th of June last year and the 25th of June this year, I moved out. How did that happen?”

It happened for the same reason that it always happens: when services are outsourced, money is re-routed from frontline staff. At Doncaster, Care UK executives tried to argue the usual toss – that cuts to workers’ wages were necessary if the rest of the business was to stay afloat financially. Curiously, senior staff and executive incomes appeared to be exempt from this do-or-die belt-tightening. Bridgepoint Capital, the private equity firm that owned Care UK, had managed to find around £14m for bonuses to senior staff while careworkers were facing pay cuts of £400 a month. Care UK was also reportedly expecting to make a profit of around 6% for the Doncaster contract. Careworker wages were obviously key to this windfall.

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Protests and government extremism

From yesterday’s DPAC, Black Triangle and Mental Health Resistance Network action in central London:

So interesting that the Taxpayers’ Alliance got a free, media-wide pass yesterday to bitch again about people on benefits – on the very day that disabled protestors turned out in numbers in central London to demonstrate against the benefit and care cuts that are excluding them from work and from life (let’s not forget, what with all this Tory-Lib Dem-Labour faffing about the joys and rewards and glories of work, that some people can’t work, but still deserve and want to live. Which means they’re entitled to benefits). So. Pity, really, that I didn’t see Matthew Sinclair skulking round Westminster yesterday (I presume he lives in this country, or at least visits it). I may just have walked on over and offered to shove the morning’s various ironies right up his arse (I speak metaphorically, I am sure).

Another time, perhaps. Hopefully, even. In the meantime, here is some video from yesterday’s DPAC, Black Triangle and Mental Health Resistance Network protest in central London. This one is outside the DWP and starts with the line of underpants that people left out the front for Iain Duncan Smith. I gave some thought to leaving IDS the sweaty pair (was a hot day) of knickers I was wearing – on which I would have written that plenty of us (taxpayers all, btw Mr Sinclair) are happy to pay for social security, thanks very much. We certainly would rather pay for social security than for the chance to bankroll Iain Duncan Smith into pissing away whatever’s left of the exchequer on a second pass at Universal Credit.

There was a good turnout at the protest and clever targets, just as the BBC was a clever target on Monday. Yesterday, protestors paid visits to the Department of Health (to make the point again that Hunt has no mandate to cut and sell the NHS and that social care cuts, particularly to vital funds like the Independent Living Fund, will prevent people from participating in exactly the work and independence that the Taxpayers’ Alliance so publicly excites itself over) the Department of Transport (to campaign for the accessible transport which would aid independence in a way that endless government lip-service re: inclusion does not), the Department of Energy and Climate Change to protest about the fuel poverty many must live in while energy companies hoover up unreal profits, and the Department of Education to oppose government attacks on inclusive education. And last, but by absolutely no means least, the Department for Work and Pensions.

A few words on extremism

People carried and wore signs which read “proud to be an extremist”: a reference to the comments Paul Maynard made earlier this year: “Pat’s Petition, We Are Spartacus and other extremist disability groups that do not speak for the overall majority.”

I like to mention this so-called extremism in relation to many of the protests I attend these days. If I say so myself and I do – the things I have to say on this aspect of protest can’t be said often enough. It seems to me that we’re fast reaching a point where a mere objection will be described as extremist: a raised voice, or a sit-down protest (I thought of this when I watched a small group of anti-fracking protestors superglue themselves to the Bell Pottinger building a couple of weeks ago) is somehow translated by the mainstream as galloping insurrection (not that I would mind a bit of that either).

I make a couple of points here. The first is that sitting outside a government department and holding a banner which outlines your objections to service cuts is not extremism. It really isn’t. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It really, really isn’t. Occupying a pavement outside the DWP and stringing up a row of underpants on which you’ve written a few rude words and drawn Iain Duncan Smith’s face (see video below – his face works brilliantly on an arse part) is not extremism. As I said during last month’s anti-fracking protests – gluing yourself to a building and refusing to move in protest at corporate plans to devastate your own planet is not extremism. It’s actually a very logical response to corporate plans to devastate your planet. By comparison, selling a public health service to your private sector mates when you’re in government – now that is extremism. It’s an extreme act. At the very least, it’s grand larceny. Taking public money from people who need public services and can’t get to work, or college and/or through life without those services, and giving that money to private companies – that’s extremism. Blowing big bloody holes in the planet with fracking gear is extremism. Those are actions that are likely to deliver extreme (read dangerous) results.

So.

The second point is that these protestors surely do speak for a majority. They speak for people who object mightily to the government’s cutting and selling of the NHS – see the Save Lewisham Hospital protests over the last year if you want to get a feel for that. They speak for people who are forced to watch as their fuel bills rise and rise as energy company profits grow. They speak for people who believe that social security ought to be a safety net for anyone in need, as opposed to a gravy train for the likes of Serco, Atos and Capita.

The problem is that more people need to hear them speak. This is where one of the major challenges lies. The political class does not want to hear these people and it absolutely does not want anyone else to hear them either. It was no surprise at all on Monday to find the BBC ignoring the protestors who’d shut down the BBC’s very own front entrance in protest at that broadcaster’s appalling “reporting” of benefit cuts, public sector cuts and austerity. No surprise either to find that yesterday, the enormous number of government and press worthies who inhabit the Westminster bubble and literally never leave it managed, somehow, to miss a large procession of people in wheelchairs, carers and supporters protesting in said bubble. A lot of tourists worked out that something was going on and asked questions (“what is happening? Is it a protest?”), but the silence elsewhere was loud.

The day finished with a lobby to deliver a disability manifesto – in, of course, a spectacularly inaccessible parliament committee room. At least half of the people who wanted to attend had to sit outside in the hall in their wheelchairs. That said it all, to be honest – a big bloody Up Yours from the government to everyone.

Save Lewisham hospital protest march 26 January 2013

A very big turnout today with people protesting at Jeremy Hunt’s plans to close Lewisham Hospital’s new A&E department and intensive care, maternity and children’s services. Career git Hunt will make a decision on the closures at the beginning of February.

The march went from Lewisham roundabout to Mountsfield Park. There were a lot of people talking today about upping the ante with occupations and so on.

I upload this video to give you an idea of scale. There were thousands of people there (I’ve heard 15,000 – it was definitely up there). There were thousands of people at the 24 November campaign march as well. There’s been very little said about either in the mainstream press. The growing resistance to this government – and to austerity generally, no matter who is peddling it – continues to be airbrushed from the picture, but that can’t and won’t last forever.

March and protest on 26 January: Save Lewisham A&E

From the Save Lewisham hospital campaign:

“The decision on the future of Lewisham A&E is due at the start of February. We must keep up the pressure. JOIN THE DEMO on SATURDAY 26th JANUARY to show Jeremy Hunt what we think of the proposals to close Lewisham Hospital A&E, Intensive Care and some children’s and maternity services!

Assemble at Lewisham roundabout (by Lewisham station) at 12 noon on Saturday 26th January. March past our hospital to Mountsfield Park for rally, music and giant petition.”

More on the campaign and contacts here.

Save Lewisham A&E protest 24 November 2012

A massive turnout for the hands-around-Lewisham-hospital march and protest today. Biggest protest I’ve seen for a while.

As followers of the Save Lewisham Hospital’s A&E campaign will know, a hand-picked (by Andrew Lansley) ‘special administrator’ (as ever) recently produced a report which recommended that Lewisham Hospital close its A&E Department, impose staff cuts and sell off 60% of hospital buildings to developers.

As the campaign says:

“Lewisham’s children’s wards, critical care unit and emergency surgery may close to pay massive debts at neighbouring hospitals. A&E would be replaced with an urgent care centre. Maternity services could be lost too.” There’s an excellent report on Andy Worthington’s blog which backgrounds the proposals and response in detail.

Thousands of people turned out to protest today at these developments – probably more than 10,000, I thought, and on a cold and rainy day, too. I’ve uploaded the videos below to give you an idea of the turnout. The fight for Lewisham hospital services goes on, with another meeting this week, so I’ll add some more links soon (Update 25 November: added now – see end of post). In the meantime, check out the videos for numbers.

As I like to say: you know a government is in serious shit when thousands of people show up to protest on a cold wet day. Interesting times.

Videos

I took the first video below from the top of the slide in Ladywell park at around 3pm. It shows very clearly that there was a huge number of people in the park right – and it’s worth remembering, too, that a lot of people were still in a very big queue outside the park to get in. The video is shaky in parts, but I wanted to leave it unbroken to show the numbers.

This one has some sequences from inside Ladywell park and a few from the walk there:

There will be another public meeting to continue the campaign in the Catford Broadway Theatre at 7pm this Wednesday, November 28.

More links

Andy Worthington: massive protest on 24 November

Report, interviews and photos on the East London Lines blog

Thousands march to demand Lewisham A&E stays open

Mental health illness and failing work capability assessments

This is a post in progress which I’ll be adding to, so there’ll be changes/additions/updates etc:

A couple of months ago, Mental Health Northeast (an umbrella group which represents about 340 voluntary and community groups for people with mental health illnesses in the northeast) ran a survey to collect information about the experiences people  with mental health problems were having as they went through Atos work capability assessments.

At a recent Hardest Hit meeting in Newcastle, MHNE chief executive Lyn Boyd, who ran through some of the survey’s first results, said the organisation decided to run the survey because:

“A lot of our member groups were getting in touch with us and saying that they were really concerned about the people they’re working with and the impact that this [Atos work capability assessments] was having on them.

“And individuals that didn’t belong to any organisation – they were getting in touch with us in very distressed states, not knowing where to turn where to go for help and really just being very distressed – not feeling up to coping with what was happening. So, we wanted to see how widespread the problem was. We wanted to see what effect it was having on people’s social lives, their housing, their mental states.”

MHNE is still analysing responses from their questionnaire and writing a final report, but they sent through some information. They say the responses represent the experiences of about 200 individual service users.

They report that 99% of respondents reported that their work capability assessments had a negative impact on them, their families/carers and their recovery. Many mentioned despair, outright trauma and suicidal thoughts.

About 85.7% of respondents felt that no notice was taken of medical evidence submitted in support of their employment and support allowance claim.

Other comments from respondents include:

“Medical evidence was routinely not sought when needed and often little consideration was given to it when received.”

“It is only at the [work capability assessment] appeal meeting that mental health concerns were taken into account. There was too much focus on physical elements of a person’s illness – for example, questions like: 1) can you walk in a straight line 2) read these words 3) [do you have] any injuries.”

S_ (am withholding his name, because he has further WCA sessions to take) has schizophrenia. He said this at the Newcastle Hardest Hit meeting:

“I got five points [at my first work capability assessment] when I needed 15 [text changed after publication – initially said for support group]. The second time – I got none. This time, I felt well enough, with the help of the community mental health team, to go through an appeal… then I lost the tribunal. It took a year, which made me feel worse anyway.

“Then I went on Jobseekers’ Allowance, because the community mental health team said – okay, you’ve recovered sufficiently. You don’t need our help. I think it was to do with the cuts – they couldn’t provide the service. Six months after being on JSA and not getting anywhere fast…I’ve been telling my GP to refer me back to the CMH team, because I’m getting worse….I’m telling you – it’s getting worse.

“I’m going back to Atos in the next few weeks and what Lyn has been saying – I fully concur with all of that. They don’t listen to anything to do with mental health. They’re not trained. They don’t listen to your GP at all – they barely look at your medication prescriptions. Basically, if it wasn’t so tragic, it would be an utter laugh, but it’s just the fear of going through that process again without any help and at the moment, the GP and CHM are arguing [about] whether I’m going to get that help, but they’re not with me every night when I get the schizophrenia coming back, so really, I’m basically between a devil and the deep blue sea all the time and it’s going to get worse.

“It’s tickboxes and if you don’t fully satisfy most of their criteria, you get nowhere and that’s what I found all the time and basically it’s a very very bad system.”

Other comments from survey respondents include: Continue reading

Needing the NHS: to Totnes

This is the latest in the transcripts from recorded interviews I’m publishing as I talk to people who are dealing firsthand with fallout from public sector cuts and the recession around the country. I’m publishing these transcripts between longer articles and testimonies that are appearing at False Economy and elsewhere.

This is a transcript from a discussion with Trina Furre, a member of a patient advisory and support group for people with arthritis in South Devon. Trina has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was 19. In this transcript, she talks about her concerns for the NHS and fears about having to pay for healthcare and also about her support group’s battle to keep a hydrotherapy pool at Torbay hospital open.

On relying on drug therapy:

“I got rheumatoid arthritis when I was 19 – so all the way through, I’ve been under the care of rheumatology departments. I’ve been put on a very expensive new drug (called Humira) which costs about £10,000 a year per patient. It’s been pretty life-changing for me, but you know… one of the things that I’ve done with my support group is put up a forum for people with arthritis and [there are] threads that are talking about the new biological drugs [for treatment of arthritis].

“[Because the forums are worldwide], a lot of people [in other countries] are saying -“Will your insurance company cover the cost of this? Which drugs will they pay for and which drugs won’t they pay for?” There’s a whole tier of stuff that [people outside the UK] have to think about. They have to try and convince their insurance companies that it’s worth funding that particluar drug – whereas here in the UK, if you qualify medically, you get the drug pretty much. There’s a bit of postcode lottery in that it is easier to get in some areas than others – but it is just so different than living in fear that [your] insurance company is going to stop the funding…

“It’s one of the new types of biologic drugs that are now used quite extensively for people with arthritis. The down side of it is that it is a new family of drugs that is very expensive to produce and they are very expensive per patient.

“A lot people don’t know…the thing that really worries a lot of people with chronic illnesses is that if this thing with [needing to buy private health] insurance comes in, there would be no insurance that I could get. Nobody [no insurance company] would touch me with a barge pole. Nobody in their right mind would give me health insurance. It only works if you’re completely healthy and very young. I don’t know what the provisions would be if you’re already ill… Most people don’t have private health insurance and it always used to be frowned upon if you went private. It wasn’t approved of in certain circles, so the whole notion of people having to buy health insurance will be a really hard one to sell.

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