The New Worker

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Week commencing 15th October, 1999

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Editorial - Safety first. & Goalposts moved again.
Lead Story - Outrage over pityful state pension rise.
Feature - Straw turns to Brussels to curb "soft" asylum judges.
International - Sharif ousted by Pakistani army.
British News - No more privatisations.

Editorial

Safety first

LAST week's rail disaster near Paddington, the Southall crash two years ago and the earlier tragedy at Clapham Junction were all avoidable accidents, and to date the lessons of those terrible events have not been learned and acted upon.

 If the same thing happens again and recommendations from safety experts and public inquiries are not implemented, another tragedy will occur.

 Workers in the rail industry have already given a fighting lead and are demanding improved safety now. These demands are supported by passenger groups and the wider public.

 If pressure is sustained on the government the Paddington disaster could become a turning point -- the accident-too-far that brought Automatic Train Protection (ATP) to the rail network of Britain.

 The other cheaper systems will not do. The warning system (AWS) has been around since before the war -- it is yesterday's equipment and does not serve today's needs. Trains need the computerised APT svstem which actually stops a train when it goes through a red light. There is no reason why this system should cause delays to trains if the signals work efficiently.

 This is the time to take the hands of private profit makers out of our railways. Since privatisation, when the former British Rail was broken up and sold off at knock-down prices, a minority of investors have made fortunes. Yet the repeated calls for APT have been ignored because it is expensive.

 The shareholders of the track and train companies have already had far more back than they put in -- there is no reason why compensation should be paid. The public could then reap the benefits of the ticket revenues and invest in all the safety measures required.

 There is also a lesson for other industries. Privatisation is not in the best interests of the majority of people whether they are employees, customers or taxpayers. And in some industries the introduction of profit hungry private companies raises serious questions about public safety, the environment and the overall economy.

 There should be no further moves towards privatising the tube network or air traffic control. Keep it public, put safety first!

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Goalposts moved again

EVERYONE, including the runners, thought the Labour Party was committed to choosing its candidate for the London Mayoral election by the system of One Member One Vote (Omov). But out of the blue everything's changed and we learn that an electoral college will be used instead.

 Given the determination of Labour's leaders, just a few years ago, to get the Omov system adopted, it seems very odd that it should now be considered inappropriate for this London contest.

 It is widely believed that the change of plan is designed to help the late runner, Frank Dobson, get the edge over Ken Livingstone.

 Whatever the truth, it is clear the wishes of ordinary Labour Party members and affiliated members should be made to count. This means urging affiliated trades unions to carry out ballots of their London members before the electoral college votes.

 The London Fire Brigades Union has already agreed to ballot London's firefighters and Unison has also said it intends to ballot its members.

 The choice is between a right-wing social democrat -- a Blairite nominee -- and the left-wing social democrat Ken Livingstone -- a former Greater London Council leader with a track record of supporting the interests of Londoners and someone who has said he favours further democratisation of the soon-to-be elected Greater London Authority.

 Though we would not always agree with Ken Livingstone, or he with us, we believe he is the best candidate for London's Mayor and should be supported.

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Lead Story

Outrage over pityful state pension rise


By Daphne Liddle

"I CAN'T believe it! I really didn't think they would stoop so low," one pensioner activist told the New Worker on hearing the news that the annual rise in the basic state pension next year is likely to be just 75p.

 This is because the rate is tied to the official inflation rate which is currently running at 1.1 per cent -- partly due to a price war among supermarkets.

 Pensioners are campaigning fiercely for the pension to be linked once again to average earnings which would give a more respectable rise.

 Former Labour Cabinet minister Barbara Castle was another pensioner who was outraged at the proposed rise -- though she had predicted it at Labour's annual conference last month.

 When she heard the news last week she accused the Labour government of betraying its election promises.

 "It won the election on a promise to make the basic state pension the foundation of our pension provision.

 "But it is, just as the Tories did, allowing it to decline steadily relative to the standard of living of the rest of us," she said.

 "It's putting people who have contributed all their working lives -- they have to, by law -- into a sort of unfair category."

 Jack Jones, president of the National Pensioners' Convention, commented: "Next year's rise will be peanuts and pensioners will fall further behind the rest of society."

 Even Frank Field, the former social security minister, said the government could afford to do better and called for a £15-aweek increase for those over 80, financed by the "spare" money within the national insurance fund.

 Chancellor Gordon Brown is likely to come under severe pressure to loosen the purse strings a little and not just from the pensioners.

 Many unions are now putting their weight behinds the pensioners' claims including the giant public sector union Unison.

 The government's policy is to let the value of the state pension wither and to drive everyone to take out a private pension, an occupational pension or one of the new "stake-holder" pensions.

 These are designed for those who cannot afford other private pensions because they do not have a consistent working record -- through disability, childcare responsibilities, unemployment or the casual nature of their job.

 But stakeholder pensions will be cheap and nasty. Those with very low incomes will be able to pay very little into them and get next to nothing out.

 All the stakeholder pensions will do is put the holders just above the level where the government would have had to top up their state pension with Income Support to save them from starvation.

 Occupational pensions are not secure. Just last week the steelworkers' union, the ISTC, accused British Steel of raiding hundreds of millions of pounds from its pension fund to help finance its merger with the Dutch group Hoogovens to create the Corns group.

 An ISTC official said: "While legally British Steel can do this there is a question of natural justice and the ombudsman can rule on that."

 Last march British Steel declared a pension fund surplus of i £1 billion. The ISTC and other unions proposed using some of the money to help lower earners, making a one-off £500 payment to pensioners and gradually lowering the retirement age from 65 for men to 60.

 "British Steel have now told us they are going to act unilaterally. They are going to take £863 million of the surplus for themselves," the union said.

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Feature

Straw turns to Brussels to curb "soft" asylum judges

by Caroline Colebrook

HOME SECRETARY Jack Straw last week announced his intention to use a European summit this weekend to try to invoke curbs on the liberalism of some of Britain's judges.

 He rounded on the judges for being "over-liberal" and undermining the integrity of the system and being too protective of the rights of asylum seekers.

 The meeting, being held in Tampere, Finland, is to adopt long-term and far-reaching common plans by all EU countries on asylum and to improve co-operation across Europe.

 It will also discuss special measures to combat any criminals who may seek to take advantages of the gradual erosion of national boundaries within Europe.

 Once again, asylum seekers are being lumped in with drug runners and terrorists to imply they are all bogus and criminals.

 This is another step along the road mapped out by the Shengen treaty, agreed about a decade ago and ratified by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

 But it is the most blatant acknowledgement of the "Fortress Europe", the closing of Europe's boundaries to those from other continents or from eastern Europe with all EU governments agreeing to be equally rigid in this.

 Of course there will always be a level of illegal immigration into Europe, people who, like the Mexicans in the United States, will be vulnerable to extreme exploitation.

 Mr Straw was particularly critical of the broadening of the reasons given by judges for allowing asylum seekers to stay.

 He said: "For good or ill, our courts interpret our obligations under the 1951 convention to a much more liberal degree than almost any other European country.

 "One example was the case in which it has been held that women who are in fear of domestic violence in Pakistan may come under the terms of the convention.

 "Now I am concerned about women in fear of domestic violence in Pakistan, but there is no way it can be realistically argued that was in contemplation when the convention was put in place."

 This is an amazing change of attitude from a man who, in July 1997, just after the Labour landslide victory, honoured the pledge he had given in opposition by allowing Prakash Chavrimoto and her son to stay in Britain.

 This was a case that involved domestic violence and clearly, speaking to the woman, he was able to understand the justice of her case.

 In the same way, taking each case individually as judges must do, the justice of the reasons for these women to be given asylum are obvious.

 Is Jack Straw now insisting they must be returned to face certain torture or even death? Or is he just passing the buck onto a European court?

 He also attacked Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf for ruling that the Home Office had acted illegally in returning three asylum seekers to France and Germany -- countries through which they had travelled on their way to Britain.

 One plan to be floated at Tampere is the setting up of a separate asylum tribunals court in Strasbourg as a subsidiary of the European Court of Justice.

 This would be a big step forward towards an undemocratic European super-state -- that cases should be referred straight to Europe without being heard in British courts at all.

 Those who oppose the capitalist EU from an internationalist working class perspective should be raising voices in protest at the proposed changes.

 And we should remember that a large number of the refugees who are now seeking asylum throughout Europe have been displaced by Nato's war on Yugoslavia.

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International

Sharif ousted by Pakistani army

THE PAKISTANI army took over the country in a bloodless army coup on Tuesday. Premier Nawaz Sharif is under house arrest. The rest of his government has been detained and the army is in full control.

 The leader of the coup, Army chief of staff General Pervaiz Musharraf, moved swiftly on Tuesday when he heard that Sharif had dismissed him. Within hours it was Sharif who was out of a job as army units seized government buildings and media centres.

 Exiled opposition leaders, including former premier Benazir Bhutto in London, did little to hide their pleasure at the downfall of the man who had tried to drive them underground on corruption charges which could equally be laid at his own door. But all expressed the hope that the army would soon call fresh elections and return to barracks.

 They may have a long wait. This is the fifth successful army coup since independence from Britain in 1947. Speaking on Pakistani television General Musharraf accused Sharif of trying to "create dissent in the ranks". He said he acted "with all sincerity, loyalty and selfless devotion to the country with the armed forces firmly behind me".

 "You are all well aware of the kind of turmoil and uncertainty that our country has gone through in recent times," Musharraf declared. "Not only have all the institutions been played around with and systematically destroyed, the economy too is in a state of collapse".

 He called on the people to remain calm and support the armed forces " in the re-establishment of order to pave the way for a prosperous future for Pakistan".

 Though Sharif was elected in February 1997 after an overwhelming victory in the general elections the only people to go onto the streets when the news broke of the army's move were his enemies, who lit fireworks to celebrate while hundreds more gathered outside the television centre in Islamabad to chant "Long live the Army!".

 "It's a very sad day in Pakistan's history," Pakistan People's Party leader Benazir Bhutto told the American CNN news. "I'm awfully disturbed today. I feared this moment would arrive and I asked Mr Sharif to resign to save civilian society in Pakistan. However, he clung onto power even though the people had risen against him and today's rash action of sacking Musharraf ... precipitated this martial law".

 Sharifs ousting had long been expected. While the Pakistani people and its political elite expect a degree of cronyism and nepotism in any government, Sharif and his friends were accused of gross corruption, the very charges they levelled against Bhutto and others to hound them out. The generals were angered by the sacking of senior officers to make way for Sharif placemen and the dismal diplomatic and military response to India's recent actions in Kashmir. The attempt to sack the chief of staff was the last straw.

 Pakistan has been independent for 52 years. The army has been in power on and off for 25 of them. But though the generals have a taste for power their past record is undistinguished to say the least. Every war with India has been lost and every period of martial law has collapsed under mass protest from the Pakistani people.

 General Musharraf is enjoying a brief honeymoon with the people for ridding the country of a corrupt administration. That will soon evaporate unless he quickly announces a programme for the speedy return to civilian rule and free elections.

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British News

No more privatisations

by Daphne Liddle

DEPUTY Prime Minister John Prescott has been wavering all over the place this week in the wake of last week's horrendous rail crash at Paddington.

 For a while last weekend he seemed to be reconsidering the proposed privatisations of the air traffic control system (National Air Traffic Services or Nats) and parts of the London Underground system.

 Senior Whitehall sources conceded that privatisation may now be politically impossible and a senior official admitted "we are going to have to reconsider what is possible".

 John Prescott did act quickly to strip Railtrack of its responsibility for safety on the railways -- there is too much conflict of interest between making profits and ensuring safety.

 And at one stage it seemed as though railtrack would lose its licence to run Britain's rail tracks and signalling systems.

 But since last Monday, when it was finally disclosed that the death toll was under 40 and not as high as had been feared, there has been some back-tracking.

 Sir Poy McNulty, the head of Nats, reports that he has been assured the air traffic control privatisation is still on schedule.

 Air traffic control unions and the pilots' union Balpa are campaigning determinedly against the sell off, giving public safety as the main danger if the service is privatised.
 
 Meanwhile both the main rail unions, the RMT and the drivers' union Aslef are planning to ballot for national strike action if proper safety improvements are not announced within a few days.

 This means the fitting of the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system that is used throughout Europe. It was recommended at the inquiry into the Clapham, rail disaster but later shelved by the then Tory government because it was too expensive (£700 million)in the run up to privatisation.

 The government is claiming it will now cost £l billion and take ten years to fit. Prescott still seems to favour the cheaper Advanced Train Warning System which will not work on trains doing more than 70 miles an hour.
 

time and profit

 The unions say it will only take four years to fit -- the government's ten years is based on allowing the rail companies to make enough profit each year in the mean time.

 Others have pointed out that if the government treated this with the urgency it gave to bombing Yugoslavia, it could be done within a year.

 The report of the preliminary investigation into the causes of the crash say the local Thames train crossed a red light as it was crossing from line three to line one, into the path of the oncoming Great Western express on line two.

 ATP would have prevented this by slopping the Thames train as soon as it passed the red light.

 The light in question had been reported many times for its lack of visibility. There is an angular pole supporting some other structure obscuring the view from one angle.

 And with the early morning sun, low in the sky, shining straight on to the red light, it is not easy to see if it is on.

 Dozens of other similar lights have been reported throughout the country where there are visibility problems and which have been passed while at red on a number of occasions.

 Aslef has instructed all its members in future to drive very slowly past all these lights.

 Another factor that could be involved came to light last week when drivers reported the pressures that are on them to work long hours without proper breaks in order for the train companies to keep to their schedules.

 The companies face fines if too many trains are late or cancelled. Yet one of their first acts after privatisation was to sack large numbers of train crews to cut costs, throwing a heavy burden on those left.

 The closure of Paddington meant commuters from the west of London having to use Waterloo where normal schedules were disrupted.

 Throughout Saturday there were announcements of cancellations of umpteen trains "due to misplaced crews".

 If they employed a few more crews to cover for emergencies this would not have been a problem.

 The preliminary investigation revealed that the Great Western train involved in the accident had ATP but it was not switched on.

 In this case, it would not have prevented the accident because that train had a green light. But just a few weeks ago the directors of Great Western had attended the inquiry into the Southall rail crash where one of their trains, fitted with ATP that was switched off went through a red light.

 They were wringing their hands and shedding crocodile tears of apology (they only escaped charges of manslaughter on a technicality) and promising this would not happen again.

 Railtrack had also been apologising for its shortcomings in that disaster. Railtrack had also received warning after warning from the Health and Safety Executive and the rail watchdog that it was neglecting safety.

 It made all the necessary promises but as the Paddington crash shows, nothing has changed. Giving warnings and fines, even threats of prison have little or no impact on these companies.

 The only way to ensure public safety on the railways is to bring them back into public ownership. And under no circumstances should air traffic control or the London Underground be put in private hands.

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