Thursday, 30 April 2015

Getting good at dying

This is a guest post by a local voter who has worked in a major London NHS hospital since 2011. He worked first as a Healthcare Assistant on the wards and is now an Emergency Department Assistant (EDA) in Accident & Emergency. 

He writes: 
As you're the Green Party candidate for Enfield North, I'm writing to you to ask you for your thoughts on recent attempts by organisations, such as Dignity in Dying, to legalise and enshrine an individual's right to choose to die under specific circumstances.

Obviously this is a sensitive and personal issue for all of us: we will all die at some point. I feel that as a nation we are prone to ignoring this very pertinent fact of life, to the detriment of our friends, family and loved ones. A more pragmatic reason for me to write to you about this is because I work in healthcare. I've seen people die, whether they were young or old, sick or (apparently) healthy. Death is indiscriminate and we do ourselves a disservice when we think of it as an enemy to be fended off at all costs.

I have looked after patients in the late stages of dementia, whose families have insisted that they be given feeding tubes when they are no longer capable of chewing and swallowing proper food. This is not a common occurrence, but it happens. These patients cannot communicate, move or control their bodily functions. Do they know what they're experiencing? Do they have a concept of time passing, as they lie there being drip-fed and hydrated by artificial means? I honestly couldn't tell you. What I can tell you is that being fed through a PEG feed gives a patient constant loose stool, which inevitably leads to them having to be turned and cleaned up with regularity, as well as extreme discomfort.

The NHS will proclaim an adherence to 'dignity in care' until they're blue in the face. Take a moment to consider the above scenario, to imagine what healthcare workers have to do to keep that individual clean, pressure-sore free and, for lack of a better word, 'healthy'. Perhaps I misunderstand the concept of dignity, but I cannot find any of it there. I can apply the word 'abuse' more readily to that situation than 'dignity'. The suffering is needless, sad and preventable.

This is an extreme example, but I want you to understand how the current attitudes towards death in our country have encouraged things to happen that are at best questionable, and at worst reprehensible. We do not die well in the UK, because most of us choose to reject the idea that death is inevitable. Many of us will die in hospital, surrounded by strangers and alone. Maybe in pain, maybe not. Maybe in our sleep, maybe not. I won't list the ways in which I've seen lives end, but you should understand that they are numerous and for the most part very unpleasant indeed.

We do our best in the NHS to look after those whose death is imminent, to give them relief from any pain or discomfort. Everything short of giving patients a choice. Sometimes a patient gets lucky and is able to go home and die, supported by their friends and relatives, but these instances are few and far between.

I'm 29-years-old and I don't take my life for granted. I never have. Before I worked in the NHS I was attempting to join the forces, and I certainly didn't assume that - in the event that I was successful and made it to combat zones overseas - I would survive because of my youth and physical fitness. After three and a half years in the NHS, I have seen enough to confirm it doesn't matter how young or healthy we are. We will all die of something. It is only right that we be given the means to choose, if possible and desirable, how we experience those final heartbeats.

A few weeks ago the well-loved and respected Sir Terry Pratchett died in his home, surrounded by his family. He was a leading voice in the campaign to change the law on Assisted Dying and was often quoted saying, "It's time we learned to get as good at dying as we are at living."

For those who would rather die when it is "their time", I endorse their decision and our current framework can cater to that. For those of us who want to choose when we die the current system is woefully inadequate. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Joan Ryan: The New Labour years

Every vote is a vote for a person as well as their party so it's fair to look at a candidate's track record. Joan Ryan, my Labour opponent, was an MP for 13 years before Nick de Bois defeated her and you can now see her key parts of her voting record online.

It's not a pretty sight.

Let's start with the good news. She voted for gay rights, higher alcohol prices and to ban hunting with hounds.

Now the rest.

The Iraq War
First and worst she voted for the Iraq war. That was a war for an unjust cause, fought without UN sanction and that was sold to the UN and to the British Parliament and people with lies; most notably the "dodgy dossier". Perhaps she believed the lies - though many of us saw through them even then. But if she believed them why did she not demand a full inquiry? In fact she voted against inquiries in both 2003 and 2009.

Of course government MPs are expected to vote for the government line whilst ministers, Ryan was a Parliamentary Private Secretary and then a whip, are required to. But a decision to authorise killing is above all a moral decision and this decision had extraordinary consequences for Iraq, Syria and the flow of migrants to Europe. If she had disagreed with the leadership she could, and should, have resigned. So I believe that she believed the lies.

And what can we conclude from this? Surely that her political judgement is poor and that she's too ready to follow her party's leaders into folly.

Strengthening the state
Ryan has voted repeatedly for measures that increase the power of the state over its citizens. They include:
  • Identity cards - which help the state to track us.
  • To allow GCHQ to retain data about phone calls, e-mails, etc.
  • To allow ministers to intervene in inquests - to avoid embarrassment to the government.
  • Various 'anti-terrorism' measures which undermine the rule of law.
 Ryan is no friend of civil liberties on matters where such liberties inconvenience the state.

Climate change
Ryan voted against various measures against climate change. For instance:
  • In 2008 she voted against including climate change policies in the  National Policy Statement,
  • and against government powers to set emissions targets for power stations.
  • In 2009 she voted against the government's endorsing the 10:10 campaign.
New Labour did take action on climate change but these fall far short of what is needed to avoid catastrophe.

Of course she voted for and against many other measures but these illuminate her politics.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

What Ed should say to Nicola and Alex

Cameron demands that Miliband exclude the possibility of a deal with the SNP. Miliband duly does so.

Cameron's motive is clear - he wants to prevent Miliband from forming a government with SNP support (or in any other way, of course). But what is Miliband playing at?

We all know that Labour hates the SNP for stealing its votes in Scotland. The imminent loss of so many Scottish seats will prevent Labour from winning outright - possibly from winning at all. So we can hardly expect goodwill. But why should a desire for independence put the SNP beyond the political pale? 

Independence is a legitimate political desire. It's one we often support, at least abroad, and sufficiently legitimate that Scotland was allowed a referendum to decide if it wanted it. It's not like support for terrorism or torture or racism - positions that ought to make collaboration unthinkable.

So if the election gives the SNP 40 seats it may well have more than the LibDems. It will be the third largest UK parliamentary party with a just claim to be considered as a coalition partner.

So what Miliband should be saying to the SNP NOW is.
We agree with you on many issues. We disagree with you on issues like Trident and independence but if you become a major UK party and Labour is the largest party we will talk to you. You mustn't expect to get independence that way; remember you lost the referendum! But politics is the art of the possible and if we can't defeat you we'll just have to negotiate.
That's not just necessary and inevitable, it's also right. If the SNP wins 40 seats it will have a mandate to represent those voters. Miliband should swallow his pride and listen.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Russia: A new Cold War?

You don't have to be a warmonger to be worried by Russia's behaviour in the Ukraine. Its seizure of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine are contrary to international law and various agreements.

Critically, this is not the first time that Russia has used its army to reclaim parts of the old Soviet Union - think of Georgia. Putin is well known to resent the loss of Russia's 'near abroad' after the fall of the Wall so there's an obvious pattern here. And its very reminiscent, especially in the claim to be protecting Russian-speaking minorities, of Hitler's expansionism in the 1930s.

To ignore these acts would set a bad precedent and would encourage further military adventures which might ultimately affect countries, such as the Baltic states, to which the UK has direct treaty obligations. A policy response is needed. But what?

Greens always start with diplomacy and that must be right. But we have diplomacy and it's not achieving much. We also have sanctions against Russia which have also achieved little - still they give our diplomats something to bargain with so I would maintain them.

Happily no-one is talking about war - a lunatic choice against a nuclear state.

So here's what should our diplomacy be trying to achieve:
  1. Acceptance of the right for territories to secede from countries according to an internationally agreed AND SUPERVISED democratic protocol and subject to protection of minority rights. If we can let Scotland make its own decision about independence then others can do likewise.
  2. Subject to (1) respect of existing borders with clear penalties for offenders.
  3. More controversially - legitimise Russia's absorption of Crimea which should probably never have been part of Ukraine.
In parallel, since our diplomacy may not succeed, we need clarity about the military defence of EU members and West-looking non-EU countries. This is probably happening in secret anyway.

'Good fences make good neighbours.'

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Some campaigns I support

Since becoming a candidate I have agreed to support the following causes (sorry for lack of detail!). I've also offered qualified support to a number of others:
  • CND's opposition to replacing Trident.
  • CAMRA's manifesto (beer and pubs)
  • Crisis' No One Turned Away (homelessness)
  • Cancer Research's Cross Cancer Out campaign
  • Barnado's and others A Stitch in Time campaign
  • The Royal Statistical Society;'s Data Manifesto
  • The Public Service Users Bill
  • Traidcraft
  • The Frack Free promise (FoE and Greenpeace)
  • The League Against Cruel Sports' five animal welfare calls.
  • The Living Streets Manifesto
  • Compassion in World Farming
  • Breast Cancer Campaign
  • The OneKind pledge
  • The Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England's manifesto.
  • The Local Goverbnm,ent Association's four points
  • The RSPB's I'm Backing Bob campaign
  • The Disability Benefits Consortium's 5 asks
  • The CTC
  • The Terrence Higgins Trust
  • The Empty Homes Agency
  • The LGBT Whip
  • London Cycling Campaign's demand to remove TSRGD
  • The Tibet Society's demand for human rights for Tibet.
  • The ASI

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The question of soil

After Friday's hustings someone asked me to explain the Party's policy on soil!

In fact it's a very good question. Good soil is obviously vital - 95% of our food comes from soil. Yet last December a senior UN official said that at current rates of degradation all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years.The official, Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), blamed chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming.

This is a key concern for Greens - it's one of the ways in which human activity is overloading the planet's carrying capacity. It's no accident that the Green Party of England and Wales is the only UK party led by someone with a degree in agricultural science!

[By the way, Cameron and Miliband both read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. But I digress.]

So what is our policy on soil?

The whole food and farming policy is at here. Paras 630 to 639 are the most relevant.

In summary we would make a transition to a more sustainable agriculture, that is, an agriculture that does not depend on large inputs of fossil fuel energy and which improves, not degrades, soil fertility.  It's not really that new. The Norfolk Crop Rotation does exactly that and was invented in the 17th century!  Doubtless we can do better now.

In the UK we would:
  • Support a rapid increase in the proportion of land designated as organic by providing advice and subsidies.
  • Encourage a reduction in the use of synthetic fertilisers by taxing them and supporting alternative methods of retaining soil fertility, such as green manures and composting
  • Support a shift towards farming systems based on perennial crops through targeted support and funding.
  • Progressively remove some of the tax rebate on fuel for agricultural use. 
  • Fund research into the best ways of making the transition.
Those policies address Semedo's "chemical-heavy farming and deforestation" in the UK and we also have energy and transport policies that would sharply reduce and then eliminate our contribution to climate change.

Looking beyond the UK we would encourage other countries to adopt similar policies and, especially, to halt the wave of deforestation and natural habitat destruction that is sweeping the tropics. Since much of that destruction is driven by our demand for the crops that replace old forests, notably oil palms, a complete solution requires all the developed countries to reduce their use of such products. That is also our policy and much more than an add-on to this one.

For more information about soil see the WWF view and Fred Pearce in New Scientist on losses from salt contamination and some US Soil data.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

US entrepreneur takes 90% pay cut for staff

I learnt with amazement that the CEO of  a US tech firm has cut his own pay by 90% to raise the minimum pay in his firm to $70,00 (£47,500) pa. The boss is Dan Price of Gravity Payments.

His reasons are interesting. According to the New York Times, "the move was inspired by Price reading an article suggesting that $70,000 was the magic salary above which workers stop caring so much about how much they earn."

So not merely altruistic but intelligent. More please!

Another day, another scandal

Today the Enfield Independent reports Labour claims that 4,879 Enfield children are living in temporary accommodation - a 17% increase over two years and the fourth highest of the London boroughs. That's pretty horrible, and wholly believable.

This is yet another sign of the accelerating housing crisis created by long-term policies under successive governments that have increased London's population ahead of its housing roads and schools, brought in foreign money and encouraged everyone to see houses as financial assets not places to live.

Geens would reverse all that.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

My rivals favour major waste of money

So far I'm the only Enfield North candidate to have replied to CND's letter to candidates. My reply was:

I have personally been opposed to nuclear weapons for about fifty years. The Green Party is opposed to any reliance on, or use of, nuclear weapons, by any nation. We would, therefore:
1)  decommission the UK's own nuclear weapons, and also insist on the removal of US nuclear bases and nuclear weapons from this country.
2)  ban from British ports any vessels (from whatever nation) known or suspected to be carrying nuclear weapons.

It is long-standing Green Party policy to scrap the UK’s current Trident nuclear deterrent: an unnecessary, dangerous and vastly expensive programme which does nothing to reduce conflict or promote peace in the world. I am therefore pleased to support CND’s call that Trident should not be replaced (or renewed) when the decision comes before Parliament in 2016.

Given the policies of their national parties we can assume that the Tory, Labour, LibDem and UKIP candidates all favour spending £100B on replacing Trident. That will give us a weapons system that cannot be used legally and for which its proponents can envisage no situation in which they would want to use it (which, I suppose, shows a degree of sanity) and which cannot be used without US consent anyway.

That money would be enough to build 13 new, Chase Farm size, hospitals every year for 30 years. Or, to stay with military stuff, 17 aircraft carriers.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Enfield North's debt problem

Text of letter sent to local papers on April 10th:

I was appalled to learn that more North Enfield people seek help with serious debts than in 90% of the UK.

The Money Advice Trust tells us that over 1,000 Enfield North residents have called its national debt advice line in the last two years. Since only 17% of people with debt problems seek help the total number of local people affected is probably about 3,000 a year.

It may well be more. This may be the Tory party’s idea of a recovery – it certainly isn’t mine!

The various debt advice charities are doing a good job, a necessary job, but the real need is to address the causes – low wages, insecure employment, high rents and a punitive benefits system. As the Green Party candidate for Enfield North I stand for the Living Wage, an end to zero hours contracts, rent controls and a full rethink of our benefit system. Practical policies that will get people out of debt.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The case for a universal Basic Income

Basic Income is a Green Party proposal to pay every UK resident a modest income that is free of means testing. It’s been proposed many times, under various names. It’s in Fritz Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful and our own Clive Lord has long advocated a Citizen’s Income. It’s even been implemented a few times.

There are four main reasons to introduce it now:
1.      So that we all share in our human heritage
2.      To end our punitive and uncivilised benefit system
3.      To abolish the poverty trap
4.      To reduce inequality

To share the common heritage
Our manufacturers and services do great things. They produce exciting products and deliver services that past kings could not dream of. But these products and services are not the result only of those who do today’s work; still less are the due solely to a few entrepreneurial geniuses. They are also due to work by millions of people over centuries that has created a legacy of technical knowledge and social order. That legacy is the common heritage of humanity and all should benefit – Basic Income is a practical way to deliver that benefit.

More concretely, much of the value in our economy is now delivered by machines – robots and websites. With less need for human labour it makes sense that some of the value of our heritage should be shared in a way independent of who does the labour.

But, you may say, doesn’t the benefits system already embody that principle?

Perhaps it did. It no longer does.

To end our punitive and uncivilised benefit system
Everyone who knows the system and the Job Centres has a fund of horror stories. Of demands that claimants apply for unsuitable jobs. Of disabled people deemed fit for work. Of instructions to improve a CV that has already been revised a dozen times. All these are within my personal knowledge or proved by official figures; or both.

And then there’s ‘sanctions’ – withdrawal of benefits for weeks or months – for trifling errors. JobCentre advisors – a title that’s surely in breach of the trade descriptions Act – have to meet targets for the sanctions they impose or themselves face sanctions from their management.

All this is to conceal the fact that the JobCentres have little to do with jobs any more.  They are systems of social control aimed at:
  • Reducing the benefit bill.
  • Undermining the confidence of the unemployed so that they will accept poverty wages and appalling conditions and NEVER think of criticising the system.
Basic Income addresses this simply by being an unconditional benefit. No-one need go to the JobCentre to get it!

To end the poverty trap
If you’re a worker on average pay and you get an extra £100 the state takes £32 in tax and NI – a marginal rate of 32%. You keep £68.

Now if you’re low-paid the state pays you benefits – and takes them back if you get paid more. So what do you keep if you are paid an extra £100?  In 2010 the Coalition said that UC would produce an effective marginal tax rate of 65% – so you’d keep £35.

But according to a recent article in the Telegraph you’ll get just £27. Actually this is optimistic since there are other benefits, eg Council Tax benefit, with their own independent clawbacks. For some people the claw-back rate could exceed 100%!

Now the most important shift is obviously from unemployment to employment. Suppose Jane Claimant of Enfield is lucky and gets a fulltime job at minimum wage on Oxford Street. She earns £45 a day – of which she’ll keep £12. But her tube fare will be £10 – leaving her with £2 per day for lunch. And no profit.

Not much of an inventive is it?

Basic Income addresses this because there is no claw-back. Jane Claimant will have to pay income tax and National Insurance just the same as anyone else. She’ll get £30 per day (though she’ll still need to pay for travel and lunch).

To reduce inequality
Inequality has been growing for the last 35 years having stayed low for the previous 35 years.

  • The poorest fifth of society have only 8% of the total income, whereas the top fifth have just less than half (41%).
  • The richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth.  The poorest 50% own just 9.5%. 
  • The bosses of the UK’s 100 biggest companies earn on average 143 times as much as their staff. [1]
  • 5 families in the UK are worth the same as 12 million UK citizens. [2]
  • Poverty and problem debt are increasing. Last year Trussell Trust foodbanks supplied three days’ emergency food to 913,000 people. That’s 14 times more than in 2010.
  • Inequality is especially bad in the UK. Out of a group of 30 OECD countries the UK is the fourth most unequal, and the most unequal in Europe. Those worse are Mexico, US and Israel. Those better include Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
Inequality is bad for everyone. Many research studies have shown that more unequal societies have worse records on health, crime, social and political participation. Thus unequal societies have worse outcomes for:
  • physical and mental health, obesity and life expectancy
  • violent crime and robbery
  • participation and voter turnout
  • social mobility and education.
A single example: A reduction of inequality from Spanish to Canadian levels would reduce murder by 20% and robbery by 23%.

Many of our problems – teenage pregnancy and class differences in life expectancy for instance – cannot be solved unless we reduce inequality. Please note that it’s not just wild lefties who say this. An increasing number of establishment figures have drawn attention to it and it was the theme of this year’s Davos meeting.

And here we have some direct evidence. For five years the town of Dauphin, Manitoba, had a version of Basic Income. An evaluation of the period reveals:
  • More children graduated from high school
  • 8.5% fewer hospital visits; plus various other health benefits
  • Fewer work-related accidents.
So Basic Income would help reduce the crisis in A&E!

Some historians and commentators point out that when inequality reaches an extreme a revolution is likely – probably not the benevolent democratic event that my Marxist friends seem to believe in.

The Green Party believes that inequality is a problem we should solve. Of the national parties only the Green Party believes this.

Labour sees it as embarrassing, regrettable – but a bit like the weather. A condition to be endured not cured.

The Coalition seems to see it as just – and any policy that reverses it as literally unthinkable.

The Green Party would address inequality in three ways.
  1. We would introduce Citizens Income and the Living Wage to raise the incomes of the poor.
  2. We would reduce housing costs both by building more and by reducing demand.,
  3. We would use higher taxation and a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion to limit the wealth of the rich.
The Basic Income will reduce inequality, ameliorate the poverty trap and humanise the benefit system. Its time has come.

[2] Oxfam via the Guardian: