A gendered spotlight on the Birmingham budget

This article was written as an editorial for the International Women’s Day special edition of Slaney Street which you can read, in all its glory, here.Birminghamcuts

Last Tuesday Birmingham City Council voted through another huge budget of cuts, totalling £85 million. In his opening speech Albert Bore, leader of the Labour council, warned of the years ahead – where hundreds of millions more will be slashed from our city’s services.

 

The consultation for this budget saw a strong response with a clear message: there is an expectation for our city council to safeguard social care services for vulnerable adults and young people, and to maintain ‘the city’s social fabric’ – which refers to public services such as libraries, parks and swimming pools. The view was also widely held that ‘volunteers could not fill the gaps created by cuts’; ever more true as wide-reaching staff cuts erode the infrastructure necessary to organise and maintain a volunteer base.
Despite this broad messages being agreed by almost all participants, the cuts are extensive and add to an ongoing onslaught on the working class and on the most vulnerable. As is typical, the cuts have a disproportionate, and often unassessed, impact on women.
£1 million will be cut from residential care services, £263,000 from older Adult day care, and £1.2 million cut from Learning Disability day care, and £7 million from Early Years children’s centres. Women make up the majority of unpaid carers; and over the past few years we have seen a shift where women have left the workplace and become full-time carers as a result of rising costs of care.
There is a £1.65 million cut earmarked for the brand new Library of Birmingham, repeated every year for the next four years. This is in addition to the closure of local libraries around Birmingham, and the closure of a number of other public services. These services are, again, often used primarily by women and their dependents as a form of respite; rising entry prices, or closure altogether will lead to isolation for the most vulnerable in the city.
We’re seeing cuts to street lights of a quarter of a million pounds. In a city where street harassment and sexual assault is known to be rife, we can expect this to have an impact on women’s safety and lead to women staying home at night.
This is, of course, on top of a controversial year where the City Council contracted out it’s Sexual Assault Referral Centres to the notorious company G4S, and considerable and sustained cuts to domestic violence services and shelters.

Interview with David Spilsbury Public Governor – Queen Elizabeth Hospital

queen-elizabeth-hospital
Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Interview by Bob Whitehead of Communities against the cuts David Spilsbury one of two public governors elected by members of the University Hospital Birmingham Foundation Trust.

Q.  David, can you tell us about your relationship with the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital? 

I am one of two public governors elected by members of the University Hospital Birmingham Foundation Trust in the parliamentary constituency of Hall Green.  UHBFT is the trust running QEH and a number of smaller units.  Governors are not paid and our job is to appoint the Chair and Non-Executive Directors and exercise a general scrutiny of the work of the Board of Directors in governance of the Trust.

Q.  About fifteen years ago, there was a strong campaign against the proposed new PFI hospital, and instead for the upgrading of the existing Selly Oak site. With the benefit of hindsight, do you think that campaign was justified?

Yes.  I was Vice-Chair of South Birmingham Community Health Council when Ursula Pearce, the Chair, began the investigation of what PFI was likely to mean in 1997 and what were the alternatives.  I became Chair in 2000 and continued the process.

We surveyed all the then existing PFI schemes (notably Norfolk & Norwich and Edinburgh) and our analysis concluded that in all cases the public finance option was deliberately skewed, especially over the cost estimates for “risk,” so as to make the private option inevitable.  We produced our own Alternative Option, involving upgrading of the existing hospitals and a gradual transfer (10-15 years) of all services to the Selly Oak site, especially by purchasing The Dingle from the City Council, a patch of land adjoining Selly Oak station and fronting onto the Bristol Road, giving ideal public transport access.  We proposed a new A&E on that site.

We carried out a public consultation on the five options that the Health Authority had to consider and the Alternative Option was overwhelmingly the most popular.  When the Health Authority carried out their own consultation, the PFI option came out top.  We subsequently learned of many corrupt practices involved, including all final year medical students being presented with approval letters to sign before they could collect their degrees and other such fiddles.

 

Q.  Given that we now have the new hospital, would you regard it as being a successful replacement, in a medical sense? 

Yes.  It is slightly smaller than the two hospitals it replaced, but that would have been no problem, but for two changes in use.

Firstly, the new QE is so efficient and does such a good job, that the number of “out-of-area” patients has soared.  People are choosing to cross the whole of the City or pour in from the Black Country, Staffordshire and Worcestershire, passing equivalent nearby hospitals.  UHB, as a tertiary specialist trust has always taken major trauma and technically difficult cases from as far away as Wales and the West Country, but there is no reason why some of our workload could not have been done locally.

Secondly, changes in primary care mean that A&E usage has gone up, with people coming for relatively minor reasons and clogging up the system, sometimes because of difficulties in getting GP appointments, but often just because they are adopting the American attitude that if it’s there, they should use it.

Q. Are mental health services being catered for adequately? 

I think so.  The Mental Health services nearby are not part of QEH, but there are psychiatric physicians and nurses who work on wards within the hospital, since people with mental health problems, of course, also frequently have physical health needs, which are met at QEH.

Q.  Is it financially secure? Are there any problems being encountered regarding finance? 

Financial security is not easy to assess.  There are no obvious problems at the moment.  This is one issue, though, that the Council of Governors has very much in view.  The Finance Director is very well thought of and UHB is the only trust in the country which has never had an operating deficit since it was set up in 1995.  The PFI payments are a matter of concern to us all.

Q.  Is the hospital adequately staffed? 

Yes.  Recent recruitment has taken staffing over 8000 and use of agency staff is fairly low and is closely monitored.  There are inevitable shortages in some specialties because of national under-provision.

Q.  Do patients find the hospital location accessible? 

 There were teething troubles when the building opened, but most people in Birmingham and all health professionals are now familiar with the site.  One big problem is private hire car (minicab) drivers, who drop people off at the wrong places.  Parking is privately run and people rightly complain about the charges, especially if they are frequent users/visitors.

 Another big problem is with the buses.  Centro has been very co-operative, but has little or no power over private companies who refuse to divert services (like the 11 Outer Circle route) or provide late night services.  It took nearly a year to get a stop actually outside the A&E, would you believe?

Q.  To what degree has the private sector made inroads into the hospital? 

Any inroads are undesirable.  Most renal dialysis is now contracted out, but all renal and hepatic surgery (we have the largest kidney and liver transplant units in Europe) are strictly in-house.  Some minor surgery and treatment is referred to local private hospitals because of waiting list pressures, but all major surgery and treatment is still in-house.

Q.  There are currently denials that the walk-in centres, for example at Katie Road, are under threat. However, for the medium and long term future that might not be the case. What impact would their hypothetical loss cause for the new hospital? 

The obvious outcome would be increasing pressure on the A&E, for reasons given above.  Walk-in centres are either run by the Community Health Trust or are private.

Q.  Do you feel we now have an adequate level of public accountability for local services since the Community Health Councils were abolished nearly ten years ago? For example, are the PPGs and HealthWatch schemes suitable replacements? 

No, no, no. As a member of the national council of the Association of CHCs for England & Wales, I fought abolition from the moment it was announced in June 2000.  We were told that SBCHC was such a thorn in the health establishment’s backside that we were one of the reasons Alan Milburn was so keen on abolition.  The trouble is that we did the job we were supposed to do.

PPGs never did any good and were replaced by LinK after 2 years.  That was no better and was abolished last year, replaced by HealthWatch.  Although HW is supposed to be operating in Birmingham, I see no signs of it.  Potentially, it can be half as good as the best CHCs, but only a handful of HWs, mainly in London and set up by old CHC apparatchiks, seem to be working at all.

 

A crisis in organisation: dangerous times ahead.

Why Slaney Street? Why a free paper? Why now?

Why you should join and get involved.

In advance of the conference taking place on the 23rd of this month, this article was also written with an eye to what Slaney Street aims to be now and in the future. This article has been written by Kelly Rogers and Edd Bauer, who have both been editors for Slaney Street’s opening trial months. The content is their own and does not represent the views of Slaney Street which is home to a diverse range of opinions.

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Historic changes are currently taking place across Birmingham. The last serious grassroots ties and channels of communication between activists and the city’s masses are being uprooted. The major trade unions have faced several severe setbacks and defeats and the most unionised workplaces in the city council and other public services are facing obliteration.

In the last three years Birmingham City Council has lost 27% of its employees – and the bulk of the cuts have yet to come to the workforce. The unions homing these workers still provide the backbone of much of the political activity in the city, and this as very serious long-term crisis for a city that faces the immediate threats of austerity and the far right.

There are still areas of dense trade union organisation; transport, fire brigades, education. However we must recognise that the prospects of these unions risk diminishing; privatisation in the fire brigades and many schools through academisation are very much on the cards for the next decade. In the early ‘70s there were over 50 factories employing thousands of unionized workers in Birmingham and the Black Country. Now there are only three.

 In Febru ary 1972 some 30,000 Birmingham engineers walked out on strike  in solidarity with striking miners who were fighting against austerity pay deals. Up to 15,000 then marched to join miners who were picketing Saltley coke depot. The blockade forced the police, who had kept the depot open all week, to surrender and close the gates.
In February 1972 some 30,000 Birmingham engineers walked out on strike in solidarity with striking miners who were fighting against austerity pay deals. Up to 15,000 then marched to join miners who were picketing Saltley coke depot. The blockade forced the police, who had kept the depot open all week, to surrender and close the gates. Could this be possible in Birmingham today?

We are also faced with a serious crisis in the death of any vitality in the Birmingham Labour Party. Birmingham is seeing a complete dearth of organised activity within the party. The Blair years ushered in a rigorous erosion of democracy and a collapse in Labour party membership by two-thirds in the last 20 years, leading to this vital community link being significantly reduced, or even severed. An illustration of the unbridled inefficacy of the Birmingham Labour Party can be seen in the recent Kingstanding by-election result. A deprived working class ward – a safe seat held by the Labour since the 1960s – was lost only a few weeks ago to the Conservative Party. This is, of course, in spite of the Conservative Party pursuing an overt agenda of devastating austerity against the working class.

With UKIP planning on targeting “working class Labour wards” and explosions in far right activity, defeats like this should set alarm bells ringing. We must question how much exposure working class are being given to alternative views and be worried about the lack of a visible alternative to the far right . If this is not dealt with and action is not taken to construct serious alternative organisational machines then we face being swept away.

There are moments when we are faced with premonitions of what type of society we could be subjected to. For example, let’s take the summer of 2013. The mass EDL demonstrations in response to the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich led to attacks on Birmingham mosques and to, in support, the Birmingham Mail running an editorial calling on the police to round up Muslims “in times of terror and hold them until they could prove themselves innocent”. This was alongside several Labour and Tory councillors calling for the re-installation of special CCTV cameras in the predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham. If we don’t take serious action to build systems that counter the prevailing political tendencies in the capitalist parties, press and system then this is the type of society that we should become used to seeing.

Drastic action?

We are now living in a society that is more atomised than ever. We work in the same place for shorter periods; young people are more likely to move away from their family home to find work; and, for many, religious institutions are becoming less influential. Traditional ties within communities are dissipating; social interactions are less likely to be long term. While exceptions to this rule will, of course, be common – the indisguisable wider trend means that we are no longer going to be able to rely on long-term community relationships acting as a hotbed for political consciousness.

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reaching out a fly post for the march on Saltley Gate.

Young activists activists often cannot find secure enough work to pursue trade union activities, and even in secure workplaces heavy anti-union legislation disincentivises participation. Further to this, the activist base of the Labour movement is ageing: “Trade union members are increasingly older employees. Over the seventeen years to 2012, the proportion of employees who belonged to a trade union has fallen in all age groups except those aged over 65. About 36 per cent of trade union member employees were aged over 50 in 2012, compared with 22 per cent in 1995” – Department of Business report 2012. Consider, then, that the average active trade union representative belongs to the older cadre. Within a decade a significant bulk of the trade union activists may well be retiring.

As such, action on our part cannot simply be a routine repetition of the stalwarts of activism, which remain vital but inaccessible to a generation recently radicalised. Turning up to workplaces and attempting to work miracles in highly precarious, casualised work forces or focusing on a rapidly diminishing swathe of secure workers would not be sufficient. In doing so, we would fail to reach the insecure, casual young force, which numbers many: Birmingham is Europe’s youngest city, and with 40 per cent of our population under 25 the youth must remain central to our activism.

With many traditional avenues for activism denied, people naturally turn to the most accessible forms of political expression. Regularly engaging activity such as community activism, public meetings, blogging and engagement with political internet communities are the most common forms of activism. The online communities often act as the springboard of youth mobilisations. It is these forms that are best placed to rebuild politically-conscious Left communities, and it is these forms that are the grassroots networks most likely to generate the next generation of trade unionists.

Overcoming isolation: organising for the win

For most the process of acquiring and developing political beliefs is heavily influenced by the people and ideas they are exposed to. It takes place on a grassroots level, largely through friends and family, in the context of the mainstream media and hegemonic political discourse. Community groups are unlikely to fully recruit someone into activist activity without a degree of implicit consent from their networks or without support of their friends, family and communities they may be embedded in.

Our highly atomised society has the tendency of isolating us from each other, and from recognising our common interests and goals. We are prevented from taking collective action against problems which have the same root cause.

In the face of an racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and classist society in which the state and media is becoming ever more totalitarian, projects like Slaney Street are crucial in providing a fall back. These initiatives offer communities a mass system for intellectual self-defence, helping them to link up and calcify around issues and ideas they share.

How can we build a strong politically-conscious city from the base we already have?

Community activists and online communities across Birmingham are crying out for a mass audience, provided it was created on a democratic basis – free from attempts to co-opt them into an agenda outside of their control.

We have seen a number of attempts to artificially bring groups together into hub websites, but none of these have reached the critical mass of participation required to become permanent and useful.

A physical paper copy of the online hub offers the gravity and draw that makes participation worthwhile: it encourages groups and activists to write, contribute and participate in a mass community, when otherwise they may not due to feelings of isolation and irrelevance.

Solidaridad Obrera (Spanish for Workers' Solidarity) is a newspaper, published by the Catalonian/Balearic regional section of the anarchist labor union Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), and mouthpiece of the CNT in Spain
Solidaridad Obrera (Spanish for Workers’ Solidarity) is a newspaper, published by the Catalonian/Balearic regional section of the anarchist labor union Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), and mouthpiece of the CNT in Spain

However, it is very clear that the current method of selling the paper on the street must change. A hundred years ago when Left organisations from the CNT, IWW, Marxist and Leninist parties made selling the paper part of the core of their activity the paper was the primary means of communication in capitalist society. This is no longer the case today. The internet has fundamentally and permanently altered the media landscape, and sale of physical newspapers is down across the board – including mainstream, corporate papers – especially amongst the digitally-native youth demographics. With the ease of dissemination and reproduction of news and information, the premium that young people are prepared to pay for a physical newspaper has collapsed, hence the rise of the free paper.

It was reported in June 2010 that this had been a successful move by the Standard; instead of selling around 140,000 copies a day, the paper now prints around 750,000 copies a day, and returns a profit, unlike many paid-for papers like The Guardian. Even in Birmingham the ‘freemium’ paper is emerging. The declining Birmingham Mail is declaring a turn around  in fortunes following the introduction of its free Friday edition, and The Metro is omnipresent on all modes of public transport.

There is no promised land online

Some advocate a promised land of cheap and easy communication solely online, hoping to see a repetition of the explosion of the organised student movement in 2010. However, only 50% of people in Birmingham use Facebook and far less use Twitter. Further to this, in the next few years it is expected that Facebook will enter a serious crisis, and it is already seeing its ability to recruit new user begin to flag. Facebook has begun a process of monetisation that inhibits its usability by on-the-ground community groups, without serious investment in paid-for advertising.

We should also keep in mind that the authorities have demonstrated their willingness and ability to control, map and watch social media. In the riots in 2011 accounts were blocked and shut down, and the evidence left in the wake of 2010 provided the basis for several prosecutions. It would be hugely irresponsibly, as we approach turbulent times, to be constructing a political edifice based on a means of communication wholly owned by the corporate and political elite.

community-manager
Tts not all that clear a nice! The utopian vision of the internet as a force for change is failing.

Initiatives like the Manchester Mule have shown progress which can be achieved under alternative media strategies; using a collaborative relationship between the trusty physical newspaper and the increasingly vital online community, perhaps moving into more secure online spaces with greater radical potential.

Internet communities provide a haven for many and engagement for many online can provide a forum in which they can talk overcoming anxiety issues they may feel in a public meeting. However repeated studies have shown that Facebook is generally associated with jealousy, social tension, isolation and depression. It is a means through which we are encourage to project perfected copies of ourselves in competition with each others who have posted amplified visions of their achievements 24/7. Rather than enhancing self-esteem and well-being online spaces like Facebook actively undermine it and build a deeper level of isolation and disempowerment into our interactions.

We must challenge the illusion that surfing the web can change the world. The presence of Slaney Street argues for reaching out of their online social networks. It is the embodiment of Michah White’s quote: “clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”

Our projects must be emancipatory and bring together new networks. While it is often easy for young people to seek out political projects online, and we should be prepared for that – it is very difficult to build beyond already existing networks in an online space.

A free paper can move towards bridging the generational gap, uniting and supporting community campaigns and providing a forum for the politicisation of a new layer of activists in a way that paid-for papers, or a solely online presence cannot achieve due to the failing of both mediums.

Lets avoid cult like thinking - Slaney St Stands for rigorous debate and diversity.
Lets avoid cult like thinking – Slaney St Stands for rigorous debate and diversity.

In conclusion

This is, at its core, a question of how class struggle and social struggle to overcome racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia can be recovered, in the wake of the obliteration of traditional community and workplace organisational spaces.

There is hope in the new swathes of activists wanting to develop an anti-authoritarian Left wing politics. Slaney Street attempts to embody that by attempting to create a broad, democratic paper which utilises social media effectively. To create a platform in which different visions and tendencies can co-exist. A free mass paper is accessible to important social struggles the Left has too often dismissed and has the capability overcoming divisions between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Left by giving them a shared forum for strategic thinking and a mass audience.

Spring Hill Library – Under threat of closure

Spring Hill Library is a red brick and terracotta Victorian building in Ladywood, Birmingham, England. Designed in 1891 by Martin & Chamberlain with a 65 foot (20 metres) clock tower on the corner of Icknield Street and Spring Hill and opened on January 7 1893
Spring Hill Library is a red brick and terracotta Victorian building in Ladywood, Birmingham, England. Designed in 1891 by Martin & Chamberlain with a 65 foot (20 metres) clock tower on the corner of Icknield Street and Spring Hill and opened on January 7 1893

By Robert Benchley

Following the opening of the new Library of Birmingham, the Council has announced proposed closures of our local libraries. Most libraries in suburban areas and marginal constituencies are to survive, while Spring Hill, Aston, West Hill and Wylde Green are to close. If we add Bloomsbury in Nechells, which has been closed following the theft of lead from the roof, that makes three in Ladywood constituency, the most deprived part of Birmingham.

I lived opposite Spring Hill Library for some years till I moved down the road to Five Ways. It’s a successful local library, which has been refurbished over the last five years; the Council has spent over £380 000, while Tesco has also made a major contribution, spending an estimated £600 000. This was done in full knowledge of the fact that the Library of Birmingham was being built. As a result of the refurbishment, combined with the arrival of Tesco and the consequent redevelopment of the site next door, users have more than doubled to 48 500 per quarter, while book loans increased to 8,761 per quarter. The building provides space for community groups, and facilities such as internet use, vital when many benefit claims have to be made online, and many people have no access at home.

It’s been claimed that there is now no need for a library at Spring Hill, as it’s so close to the Library of Birmingham. However, they are completely different facilities. The LoB is in the wrong place for a community facility, and lacks the friendly atmosphere of Spring Hill. It’s a major regional reference library, with a completely different function. Both are vital, in their very distinctive roles.

Community libraries are important everywhere, but particularly in a deprived area like Ladywood. One of the causes of poverty is lack of skills, often literary skills. Anything which encourages reading should be fostered, not cut back. Libraries often become places of refuge, for students with no place to study at home, for instance, or become meeting places.

Obviously, the same applies to the other libraries under threat; I’ve concentrated on Spring Hill because it’s local. There’s been a longstanding tendency in Birmingham to go for city centre prestige projects at the expense of the rest of the city. In the 1980’s we had money taken from education and housing to pay for the ICC and the Indoor Arena. The city has now incurred major debt building the LoB; the cost of the building was £188 million, while interest obviously has to be added to that. The website alone cost £1.2 million, and isn’t particularly easy to navigate. The result of this is that other services are being cut back to pay for it, including other aspects of the library service.

This is the sort of issue where public pressure can make a huge difference, but it would be a terrible pity to campaign over one local library, and leave the others to close. We need a coordinated campaign across the city to force the Council to back off and ensure the future of these vital facilities.

“The end of local government” – Council vote today.

Birminghamcuts

The council’s budget aims to make £825 million worth of cuts by 2016/7. £110.9m was cut last year, with £85m over the next two. This makes £200m – which will be the death of many local services. This latest round of cuts is following on from huge, painful cuts already delivered – since 2010 there have been cuts of £275m and a reduction in the number of council staff by 27%.

Birmingham already has the highest rates of unemployment in the UK. Of the 650 Parliamentary constituencies, Ladywood has the highest proportion of people claiming Jobseekers Allowance, followed by Hodge Hill. Middlesbrough is in third place but then it’s back to Birmingham again, with Erdington in fourth place for the highest proportion of claimants.

Not only this, but Birmingham has now also become the UK city with the highest rate of homelessness. Despite being perhaps the most deprived UK city, we are having the most taken out of our local services. Birmingham is being asked to make £825 million pounds worth of cuts whilst many rich councils are getting off lightly.It is the poorest who are being made to pay the most. The average reduction in Government funding for councils as a whole is £74 per person. However, Birmingham’s reduction has been more than double the national average, at £149 per person.

Yet council bosses are famously overpaid and ruthless in their incompetence. There are currently no planned redundancies or pay cuts for the council’s 47 directors, who earn between them over £4.6m. A simple 27% cut proportional to the rest of the council would save £1.15 million – enough to offset last years £0.5m cut to disabled children’s services which took away support for disabled children in care and the £0.5m cut that removed the hospital social work team.

Benefits Street the Aftermath.

By Robert Brenchleyrainbowtv

Shortly after the first Benefits Street programme went out, I was at a meeting held in a primary school on the street involved. Unfortunately, it turned out that the school had become an academy the previous month, and the meeting was called by the man who runs the company behind it. He seemed to see it as a publicity opportunity, and it didn’t go down well. However, I did find out something about the effect of the programme on the people living there. As a result, I have not provided a photograph or named the road involved as I feel this would just be yet another intrusion.

There had been death threats, and the police were on guard twenty-four hours a day. Some people didn’t dare come out of their homes; kids were being bullied, and some were being kept away from school. It’s still going on now; TV-tourists cuise up and down, houses are egged, residents are harassed, and Shabana Mahmoud, the local MP, is appealing to Channel 4 to pay for community wardens as the police can’t cope on their own. Only a few people were filmed, and a proposed sixth episode covering someone in a job was apparently cancelled. Meanwhile, it’s being reported that they’re looking for another bunch of patsies to film for a second series.

The combination of reality TV with scapegoating of benefit claimants is evidently a profitable one, but it involves a massive distortion of what’s really going on. For a start, in the vast majority of cases, apart from school leavers and people who have grown up with severe disabilities, it isn’t ‘something for nothing’. It’s not the case that ‘Our taxes pay for these people’. It’s an insurance system, and people pay in for years, or, very often, decades. Then, when they can’t work for some reason, and have to claim, they’re shamed and vilified by politicians and media with an honesty problem.

We have now reached such a pass that people on JSA can be sanctioned (have their benefits cut off) for up to three years for ‘offences’ such as signing five minutes late because a bus was late, rearranging their signing time because of a job interview, or failing to turn up to an interview because a letter hasn’t arrived. Jobcentre staff are under pressure to reach ‘targets’ for sanctioning, and I’m told that those who miss them persistently are likely to be sidelined into roles where they can’t affect the statistics. Meanwhile, the DWP has been forced to issue guidelines to staff on how to deal with suicidal claimants.

Meanwhile, ATOS continues to find thousands of sick and disabled people ‘fit to work’. Labour have pledged not to renew their contract, but the real problem lies with the Work Capability Assessment, which creates a situation where peoples’ ability to work is measured by an unqualified person ticking boxes on a computer screen. The High Court has found that the system discriminates against people with mental health problems in particular, with staff being used who have no knowledge of the subject. The judge described the assessment as ‘pretty crude’. There cannot be any objection to the DWP obtaining a second opinion before sickness or disability benefits are approved, but it’s sheer common sense that this needs to involve an appropriately qualified professional.

At the same time, mainstream media and the government issue a stream of abuse aimed at anyone claiming benefit. The result is that people are left thinking, on average, that 24% of benefits claimed are paid out fraudulently, when the true figure is just over 0.7%. About £1.2 billion a year is lost in this way, compared to an estimated £2 billion a year in ESA and JSA which people are entitled to, but which goes unclaimed. At the same time, the banks have paid out twice as much in bonuses (£67.6 billion) as they’ve paid in Corporation Tax (32.4 billion) since the crash in 2008, and according to the Tax Justice Network, Britain lost almost £70 billion through tax evasion during 2010. These appalling figures go almost unmentioned by the mainstream media, while benefit fraud is treated as the scandal of the day.

The effect on the individual claimant is obvious. Benefit levels have been cut back to the bone already; when ‘New Labour’ brought in JSA, there was an outcry because it was set at a level so low that nobody could live on it adequately. Sanctions only make that worse. Rising levels of malnutrition are becoming a public health emergency, with the re-emergence of diseases like rickets and scurvy. The effect on the nation’s mental health can only be guessed at. Meanwhile, despite the ‘scroungers’ rhetoric, over 90% of new Housing Benefit claimants are in work. A poisonous combination of very high unregulated rents and very low pay creates a situation where many people are unable to cover the rent no matter how many hours they work. In effect, Housing Benefit has become a subsidy for rack-renting landlords, while the claimant is used as a scapegoat, with all the inevitable ill-effects on them.

Answers are obvious to anyone who is prepared to challenge the government’s austerity rhetoric. People on benefits or low incomes spend their money; they have no choice about it. The money then circulates. Some of it goes towards the shop assistant’s wages; some goes back to the government in VAT, and so on. It’s not lost to the economy, which works in a completely different way to household finances. The result is that, for every pound going in benefits, the economy gains by approximately £1.60. If the government pays benefits rather than looking for excuses to cut them off, and raises minimum pay levels to the living wage, this will be a big step towards getting the economy working again, for everyones’ benefit. Increased costs can be covered by taxing wealthy people and corporations, and cutting back on tax evasion. A further step might be to replace the current dysfunctional benefit system with a national minimum income, which would not be means-tested, and would thus not expose anyone to scapegoating. All we need is a return to political sanity, and if the will is there, it can be done.

Selly Oak faces budget apocalypse

Selly Oak faces brutal cuts - it is families and children who are taking the brunt.
Selly Oak faces brutal cuts – it is families and children who are taking the brunt.

By Bob Whitehead

There were plenty of supporters of the Tiverton Road Pool and the Coronation Road Play Centre at the recent Selly Oak Ward committee. They came to press the case for saving these much-used and much-loved public services.

When the meeting eventually reached budget cuts, the figures revealed were shocking. Out of a budget of just over £2 million, they will be cutting £0.7 million in 2014/15 and nearly one million by 2015/16. So, nearly half of the money for Selly Oak services will be cut if the budget passes through the City Council meeting on March 4th.

Children’s play services face a £80,000 cut, Youth Services £60,000, the local Neighbourhood Advice and Information Service gets £20,000 lopped off and there is much more. Sport and Leisure funding is dealt with separately from the District budget, although they do manage these local services. And here the news was that the pool has an extension on its life for two years, but after that it will be closed.

The news on the Coronation Road building was that a Community Asset Transfer was being looked into, but the Play Centre itself is still at risk, as is the 641 Youth Centre.

A petition of 1300 names was handed in to maintain the Play Centre and the 641 Youth house by the Selly Oak Community Action Group, collected in only one week. They will not be accepting the loss of this vital resource quietly.
The supporters of the pool were clearly not satisfied with the alternative on offer either. The new university pool, set to be ready in two or three years’ time, was not seen as a community pool, despite the hype.
Imagine if any of the local Councillors or mainstream parties had gone to the polls promising these cuts in their election manifestos? How many would have gotten elected?

It is no good the LibDems blaming Labour; it was their government that imposed this drastic austerity on Birmingham, which has now been devolved from the Council to the smaller Wards. It is no good Labour blaming the Coalition Government if they do not have a pledge to reverse these nightmare policies if elected. When this point was put to the Labour Councillors the reply was that the Coalition’s cuts were very unfairly skewed towards the urban areas and away from the more prosperous ones. True enough, but a ‘more equitable’ austerity policy under a future Labour government is not much good to those suffering now.

Either you choose to implement austerity or to fight it. Labour has chosen the former without so much as a rally or demonstration in Birmingham to oppose the government’s plans. The fine words, excuses and hand-wringing of the Selly Oak Labour Councillors are no good to the youth, parents, swimmers and general community in this part of the city.

No doubt these Councillors intend to vote for the overall budget in the Council Chamber on March 4th. Would that we had local Councillors who were made of sterner stuff.
Communities against meets every fortnight in the cotteridge church center – find them online http://communitiesagainstthecuts.com/

Three Acres and a Cow: don’t you wish you had it now?

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Three Acres and a Cow advert for another of their events.

By Nick Cooke

Three Acres and a Cow: don’t you wish you had it now? Well yes, I do, and not just because of my love of agriculture gained from my Grandpa’s farm, but because that’s part of the name of the uplifting and enlightening show written and performed by Robin Grey and Rachel Rose Reid. The full name of the show is “Three Acres And A Cow: A History Of Land Rights And Protest In Folk Song And Story”.

It deals with this country’s history from the Conquest to the modern day, dealing with enclosure amongst other themes, which has reared it ugly head many times, at one point being legalised by parliment after the Civil War.It also shows how the struggle over the right to land and it’s role in class struggle has played a central role in our folk memory and in politics – from the well loved tale of Robin Hood to ongoing struggles such as the fracking protests. It takes you on a winding path through the tragidies, the injustices and the rare but inspiring victories; often reminding us that although you may not live to see what you have fought for to be won doesn’t mean you fought in vain. It shows that what ever we may have been told by those in power the blame for the struggles we face lies with them, with their croneisem and greed, not with those at the bottom struggling to get by, where ever they may have been born.

What our rally was about – Selly Oak community action group.

 

coronation-protest-010Submitted by – Selly Oak community action group.

Why we held our rally to defend Coronation Road Play Centre from closure.

At Coronation Road Play Centre the childrens’ play is freely chosen and directed by them – there is lots for them to do. It is the childrens’ choice to attend the play centre, which hosts 40-50 children a day during holidays and 20-30 during term-time. As you can see by the numbers, the play centre is in constant use. The centre does yearly residentials for children and families who can’t afford a holiday, as well as cheap family day-trips to the seaside every year, which are subsidised by Friends of Coronation Road and the Selly Oak Ward Community Chest.

The centre is also used by St John’s Ambulance to teach local young people first-aid. On Saturdays the centre is used by two different groups who work with children with special needs. We also provide space for the Foster Carers’ Network, where older fosterers support newer foster carers and use the centre to allow children in all sorts of difficult situations to play: children in care, children with varying special needs, single parent children, and children whose parents are in prison.

With such a variety of users, the play centre stands at the heart of the community for children, but what is ironic is that the local councillor who has proposed these budget cuts lives up the road from the play centre and both her children attend. So, it seems it was great for her children to be able to use the service, but what about the people who voted for her? What about their children? What a slap in the face for the people of Selly Oak.

But Selly Oak Community Action Group will stand up and fight to say our children and young people matter to us, even if they don’t matter to the Birmingham Labour Party. Join us! Get in touch at: childrenofsellyoak@hotmail.co.uk

What kind of feminism? On International Women’s Day.

international-womens-day--001

By Kelly Rogers

It is less than two weeks until International Women’s Day 2014. The theme for this year is ‘inspiring change’, raising the question: what is IWD meant to be and what should it be?

IWD is often billed as a celebration of women. If this is what it should be, then the typical campaigns that idolise powerful, intelligent, remarkable women make total sense; although this is a message far from that envisaged by the (largely socialist) women who created IWD in 1910.

The theme ‘inspiring change’ immediately strikes me as lending to this type of campaign: the type of campaign the official IWD organisers have been running for years. See for example, their promotional videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaf_X9qSeVY#t=110

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfwAhsozXl0

But, by pointing to the powerful individual women of the past and giving contemporary women role models, do we challenge patriarchy? For me, these campaigns feed into the very problematic idea that if women work harder, aim higher, and aspire to be like all those women who excelled in science, literature, politics, activism – then patriarchy will just melt away. Eventually, it will all be ok – one woman at a time.

Let’s change our focus and look at organisations and movements. The suffragettes, ‘second wave’ feminists of the ’60s and ’70s, women at the heart of the Black Power and Womanist movements, feminist, lesbian and queer pornographers and sex-positive activists, sex worker unions – any of the myriad, powerful women’s collectives throughout history and in the present. Now we’re starting to get somewhere. If we’re going to ‘inspire change’ then we must recognise that we are a collective, comprising of many intersecting struggles and identities. By valorising the diverse and numerous movements that changed history we are embedding ourselves in that identity and arguing for a collective struggle today. But is it enough?

What really inspires us? When I began identifying as a feminist, it wasn’t because I had looked upon empowering women of the past, but because I had begun to understand the deep-seated inequality and violence that I and the women around me face.

Domestic violence, rape and everyday harassment. The capitalist swamp of confidence-crushing, identity-shaping messages, images, products that make me police myself and act against myself. The invisibility and forced silence of women (generally), black women, trans* women, queer women, disabled women, lesbian women in activism, and in every aspect of life. The deep and painful poverty felt by women, the escalating inequality triggered by austerity and neoliberalism, and the fact that many socialists still see feminism as a something to offer lip-service too only. These are some of the many things that inspired me, as I learned about them.

Making the inequality and violence go away, that’s what I dream of, not Nobel prizes, or a position inside whichever political party is systematically fucking over women this time, or becoming a high-flying CEO and exploiting other workers, or any other aspiration presented to me by liberal timelines in The Guardian, or ‘motivating’ videos from the United Nations.

The feel-good messages are valuable, but they need to comprise of stories of women collectively challenging the real causes of gender inequality, not circumventing struggle by aiming above it. Crucially, I want feminist messages to contain the gritty truth. I don’t want sanitised feminism. I want world-shaking, dark, dirty, powerful feminism that speaks the truth: we are in the gutter, and the stars remain out of reach, because our feminism is being appropriated by the forces we should be organising against.