Saturday, September 8, 2012

Across the pond: news roundup

Different countries, same conservative agenda

While a debate rages in the US over the economic future of the state, it's worth taking a look at how things are going for "our closest ally," Great Britain. The government is currently run by a coalition made up of the conservative Tory party and the moderate Liberal Democrat party. However, as everyone knows, it pretty much is the government of the Tories. They didn't get enough of the popular vote to win a majority, but they don't really appear to be in the power-sharing business. Although logically, the Liberal Democrats would have had a more natural partnership with the  Labour party, the Lib Dem leadership instead opted to go to bed with the Tories. The result has been pretty devastating so far, with the exception of the smooth handling of the Olympics, which cannot be considered too much of an exception as the games have not proven to be the magic boon to the economy that was sorely needed.

Instead, the conservative government is on the austerity bandwagon and continuing the path of the Thatcherites: dismantling publicly funded institutions in favor of privatization. It is their belief that private companies operating for-profit can deliver public services more cheaply and more efficiently than can state employees.

With the US Presidential election less than two months away, we should really consider what effects conservative policies are having on economic recovery and on the public. Below are some recent stories which highlights the policies that Tories are pushing (and with a breathtaking speed when compared to the length of time it takes reforms and policy to pass in a Presidential system):


Britain's National Healthcare Service, or NHS, is not the best of the European healthcare systems. But, it does have all of the perks of being totally free (for now). But despite Danny Boyle's touching homage to the NHS during the Olympic opening ceremonies, the system is under attack and the standards of care are slipping. Nursing staff, holiday pay and wages are being cut, while the government rolls out more market-driven initiatives that will turn doctors into businessmen and the NHS into a partially privatized service. This means that certain services will no longer be free (this process is already occurring), and patients will be directed to privatized for-profit care. The latest news is that some 1200 NHS employees are now working under zero-hour contracts, which are popular with fast food companies like McDonald's. These contracts, which are spreading throughout some NHS trusts, offer no guaranteed hours and thus, no job security.

Sometimes referred to as being "in work, but not always at work", zero-hours contracts have traditionally been associated with service and retail sector jobs that reflect seasonal changes in demand.
McDonald's, which employs 87,500 staff across 1,200 restaurants in the UK, says that the majority of its staff are employed on an hourly basis, which it insists suits those looking for flexible working. The company would not reveal how many of its shift workers were employed on zero-hours contracts, though the number is thought to be high.
The TUC say those on zero-hours contracts have fewer workplace rights and can struggle with the uncertainty of not being able to calculate week-to-week earnings.


Similar to "voucher school" programs that are pushed by the right in America, the British government is also pouring money into schools that are privatized. These "free schools" (they are seriously called that), have been a pet project of Education Secretary Michael Gove. Yet, the schools aren't free. Just like public schools, public funds pay for them. In a time of austerity, the solution here appears to be to divert what funds are left from the inevitable cuts into a smattering of privately run schools. The number of free schools are set to more than triple in 2013. According to the Guardian, 39 out of 102  hoping to open next year are faith or pseudoscientific schools.
The free schools policy is the most ideological of all the coalition's policies. Trumpeted in the Conservative manifesto, it was one of Michael Gove's first projects as education secretary. His vision was that thousands of schools set up by parents, private companies and faith groups would spring up in direct opposition to their state-run counterparts – as they did when a similar policy was pursued in Sweden in the 1990s. Free schools, Gove believed, would turn the state sector into a free market with schools competing for pupils in the way shops compete for customers.
Over two years later, the reality is very different from Gove's vision. His aim was that free schools would educate 200,000 pupils but my estimate indicates they will educate no more than 20,000 pupils by 2015 – and this is a generous estimate because most free schools are very small. Clearly, the policy can never hope to meet the demand for hundreds of thousands of new places created by the recent baby boom.
The policy is not only unworkable but also very wasteful – and in these times of austerity, too. It's hard to quantify exactly how much money has been spent, because a veil of secrecy has been drawn over the policy, with countless freedom of information requests being turned down by a defensive government. What we do know is that nearly 100 civil servants at the Department for Education are working on the policy and that the capital costs for some free schools are between £10m-£20m. Nearly £400,000 was spent on Bradford and Rivendale free schools alone, despite the fact they will not now open. The total cost of the free school project could run into billions.
But it's not just the huge waste of resources that should concern us. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that free schools will not raise standards overall – indeed, they are likely to damage the prospects of the country's poorest pupils. Gove claimed that free schools would narrow the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children. However, existing free schools admit fewer poor children than the national average, with figures showing that only 9.4% of their pupils are on free school meals – a key indicator of poverty – compared with a national average of 16.7%. In my borough, Tower Hamlets, the free school – Canary Wharf College – has only 2% of pupils on free school meals when the borough average is 48%. Indeed research carried out by this paper indicates that the majority of free schools are being established in wealthier areas.
While the efforts of those individuals who set up free schools may be commendable, the overall effect on society is to deepen social segregation. Research shows that long-running free school policies in the US and Sweden have fuelled social segregation in both countries.
Postal Service

That's right, the government apparently can't even handle delivering the post. The Royal Mail is set to be auctioned off in the fall of 2013, which won't keep the price of stamps down. The sale may raise an estimated £4bn.

Emergency Call Services

I'm not sure how comfortable I would feel if a private company handled my 911 calls. Yet, in the UK, if your house is on fire, that 999 call goes through Capita first.  The outsourcing company won a lucrative contract to handle emergency calls for the London Fire Brigade. Paying this company to run the Fire Brigade's control center will apparently simultaneously save the state £5m over a decade and deliver super-duper high tech something-or-other.
The outsourcing giant Capita has won the lucrative contract to handle 999 calls for the London Fire Brigade (LFB) – the largest in the UK – from the summer. Other brigades – under pressure to identify savings – will monitor the initiative to consider whether it can be introduced in their areas.
Chris Williamson, the shadow Fire Services Minister, claimed members of the fire service were anxious about the move, fearing private companies winning such contracts would not be accountable for mistakes.
He said: "People would be alarmed if they realised their lives are being put at risk by the cuts being imposed."
Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said: "It is outrageous that London has taken this politically motivated decision to privatise its control centre."
There is particular anger that Capita will run the service from a control centre in Morden, south London, built with public money – and use equipment paid for by the taxpayer.

No comments:

Post a Comment

No to the Status Quo! News and Opinion Blogs

Blogger Widgets