In recent years public spending has come under increasing attack andthis, it is rightly said, is mainly to enable the government to meet the terms of the European Union's Maastricht Treaty.
But this explanation is only part of the story. Public spending, with the exception of military spending, was being savagely cut years before the Maastricht Treaty was drafted.
Indeed, the levels of benefits and pensions have always been low and, so far as means-tested benefits are concerned, not much better than the old Poor Law system that existed in the past.
The terms of Maastricht did not come from thin air. The treaty was written at the behest of Europe's leading capitalists to impose and advance measures they were already carrying out in the individual states. And the reason they wanted those measures was to help protect the wealthy from pressures to increase taxation and to help employers push down wages across the board.
The capitalists are driven to these policies by the deepening crisis in the capitalist system -- now openly on show in the bleeding, gaping wounds that are so obvious in the so-called "tiger economies" of Asia.
Capitalists everywhere are struggling against what Marx described as "the tendency of the rate of profit to fall". This is inherent in the system and is always addressed by stepping up the attacks on labour -- cutting wages and conditions, including the social wage paid in the form of benefits, pensions and public services.
Wages paid for work and wages paid in the form of social provision are not separate. They are two sides of the same coin, with benefit levels being kept deliberately low to "encourage" workers to take any job they can get however low the pay and rotten the working conditions. Just to make sure, tough new rules are introduced -- like the Job Seekers' Allowance -- to stop the benefits of anyone refusing to accept a dead-end, low paid job.
And it works the other way around -- low wages are used to justify low rates of benefit on the grounds that higher benefits would discourage workers from taking the rotten low paid jobs.
It is clearly in the interests of all working class people to stand together in fighting the mounting attacks on our class. It is in the interests of employed workers to defend the social wage and it is in the interests of unemployed workers to show solidarity for workers in struggle for better pay and conditions.
Not surprisingly every means is used by the capitalist class to Prevent working class solidarity obstructing its path. This sets out to directly attack working class consciousness and to obscure. the realities of class power and class struggle. It also seeks to divide the working class, which includes promoting racism and nationalism.
Of course these divisive and weakening ideas are not delivered directly from the ruling class -- they don't address us from the leather armchairs of "gentlemen's" clubs, or from the country houses in the shires.
Instead they are fed into society -- well disguised -- through academic institutions and "think tanks", the books and journals available in every High Street, the films put out on the main cinema circuits, the majority of newspapers, the TV, videos and, of course, through the carefully constructed sound bites of the politicians.
And sometimes confusing notions about the class nature. of capitalist society are peddled by people posing as socialists or even communists -- the Euro-communists of the seventies and early eighties played a shameful part in trying to undermine class consciousness by proclaiming the working class was shrinking and that progress could be made through alliances of various social groups and oppressed minorities in place of class struggle -- which was sneered at as old-fashioned and dogmatic.
The capitalist propaganda onslaught also puts working class people down while elevating the status of the rich. We are supposed to aspire to individual and unattainable wealth and admire from afar the luxurious lifestyle of the rich. And we are supposed to be ashamed of being working class and despise all that is deemed unfashionable and down-market.
The reality is the very opposite of these bourgeoise ideas. The wealthy are not to be admired -- they are parasites who make nothing, give nothing and do nothing.
The working class, which is all who have to sell their labour in order to live, including many who regard themselves as "middle class", create everything that is made, every morsel of food, every home that is built, every shirt on the rich man's back.
Progress can only come through the united struggle of the working class.
Let us stand together and let us stand tall!
Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman quickly waded in and told The Observer newspaper: "People do not like the idea of a means test on the poor, but they may wear an affluence test, and that is one of the options which should be looked at.
"Do people want benefits all the way up the income scale, or is there a point when it is fair to say these people are so rich that we do not want income to be distributed this way?"
The government front bench can play with words all it likes - this proposal is still a means test. How could the "affluent" he singled out in the first place without submitting all applications for benefit to a means test?
Nor is this a new idea. It's just a revamped version of the previous Tory government's proposals to introduce "targeting" into the benefits system, supposedly to help the poor by taking benefits away from those the government decides are well off.
And like those Tory ideas it is a direct attack on the principle of universality in the provision of statutory pensions and benefits.
The principle of universality for pensions and benefits needs to be urgently and vigorously defended if the slow murder of the welfare system is to be stopped.
The universal principle, introduced in the post-war reforms, ensures that everyone who contributes while they are earning is entitled to claim a statutory pension or benefit when they retire or become sick or incapacitated or are made unemployed.
There is no stigma of poverty in making a claim, no means test, no regional differences in the benefit levels and the system is straight forward. Everyone is treated equally and has a vested interest in defending the system and in supporting the struggles for better levels of the pensions and benefits provided.
If the universal principle is breached there will he a two-tier system based on widespread use of means- testing. People, including the working class, will be divided into better-off and worse-off by the new arrangements a nd the struggle todefend benefit and pension levels in general will he seriously weakened.
Those currently in work will be encouraged to top up their retirement pension by taking out private pension plans. And it won't be long before we are being urged to buy private insurance plans for sickness, maternity and unemployment cover.
This is of course great news for the already wealthy giant insurance companies.
Universal statutory benefits also provide a measure of security in an increasingly insecure society. Jobs today can be gone tomorrow and good wages earned by some now could be eroded by the growing pressure on pay.
Britain is, compared to other advanced industrial countries, a low waged economy. If Blair has his way an public sector pay the situation will become worse. While wages continue to be attacked and with another downturn in the economy looming it is more and more important to defend and improve universal benefits and pensions.
The government has been jolted by the widespread outcry over their plans to cut lone parent and disability benefits. Tony Blair has therefore decided to try the hard-sell and is planning a propaganda roadshow to peddle his so-called "welfare reforms".
He will present his plans as measures designed to give more help to the poorest people and try to win the support of critics in his own party by arguing that it is inequitable to keep on paying benefits to the rich.
On the surface this might sound progressive. But it is anything but. The driving force behind his plans is the desire to trim the spending budget.
If the Blair government was seriously concerned to make the rich pay it could reverse the taxation changes introduced by the Tories, and restore the level of the top rates ofincome tax to their 1979 levels on the basis of a system of progressive taxation.
Tory tax changes gave the wealthiest sector a massive benefit
of billions of pounds. Blair says he is committed to keeping tax rates
down. This position has to be changed.
But one London teacher told the New Worker that the changes, announced last Tuesday by Employment and Education Secretary David Blunkett, are "just a mask to disguise yet more cuts".
Schools will be obliged to teach primary pupils at least one hour each of basic literacy and basic numeracy every day to achieve standard skills targets in English, maths, science and information technology.
But progressive teachers are deeply concerned that children will miss out on the broad range of subjects they find interesting and enjoyable.
The schools most likely to make the most drastic cuts in these subjects are those that have furthest to go to meet the government targets, the schools that have been labelled as "failing" by the pernicious League tables of test results.
In other words it is the children of working class families living in inner cities who will be denied the opportunity to learn about their cultural heritage as members of the human race.
Primary school education lays the foundations for later learning. If children have no grounding in the humanities and creative subjects, they will be at a disadvantage later on.
What the "failing" schools need is a lot more investment in terms of resources and teachers. Instead they will get yet more cuts and then public "naming and shaming" if they don't hit the targets.
But our government, following in the steps of the Tories before them, is trimming our education service to meet the needs of bosses.
And bosses need workers who can read, write, add up and use computers. Too much interest in art, music and culture could just be a diversion.
And cuts in physical education subjects come just a week after a survey showed that many young children now are suffering health problems from a lack of exercise.
The Labour leadership has portrayed the changes as a sop to teachers
to allow them "greater flexibility". But it is plain there will be very
little latitude of options, especially for "failing" schools.
But it is not only the "failing" schools that are threatened with the damaging circus of "naming and shaming".
Schools Standards Minister Stephen Byers last week continued the onslaught on teachers with a threat to "expose" complacent primary schools which coast along with above-average test results if they fail to play their part in raising national standards of literacy.
The government seems to he under an irresistible compulsion to "name and shame" someone, come what may. This behaviour may not be as irrational as it seems, it certainly diverts attention from the continuing and remorseless funding cuts.
Mr Byers was speaking at the North of England education conference in Bradford, outlining the government's ambitious targets for a rise in literacy standards th roughout every local education authority in Britain.
The targets are to raise the number of pupils reaching the required standard in English tests from 57 per cent in 1996 to 80 per cent by 2002.
Mr Byers told the conference that the government will be just as vigorous in pursuing sleepy schools resting on the laurels of above-average results.
"We are not prescribing teaching techniques," he said, "but most people have an idea of what works. It may well be that an authority falls behind and thatits schools are not adopting these measures.
"We will put pressure on those schools. They will be exposed. People will know they are falling behind."
He said that too many local education authorities have becotne stuck with just over 70 percent of their 11-year-olds reaching the standard.
"It may be they have got complacent," he said.
Also last week the government announced that, in collaboration with the British subsidiary ofthe US Internet service company Excite Inc, they will be providing every schoolchild with an email address to use for the rest of their lives.
The company involved is being portrayed as very generous. But it stands to capture millions of potential future customers ahead of its rivals.
This news came hard on the heels of another report that the amount of money spent on school text books has fallen steeply.
Currently one in five primary schools in Britain spends less than £5 per pupil for reading and text books.
It is important for our children to he familiar with the new information
technology. But this should not mean discarding the information technology
system that has already served human society very well for thousands of
years, and is still a re markably efficient information access and retrieval
system available to all -- books and libraries.
The joint statement issued by both governments last weekend said the two-page document, Propositions on Heads of Agreement, emphasised the provisional nature of its ideas as "an outline of an acceptable agreement". As it stands, "acceptable" seems unlikely, particularly as Far as Sinn Fein is concerned.
The main positions consist of a northern Ireland assembly elected by a form of proportional representation; a new Britain-Ireland agreement to replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a standing intergovernmental body meeting biennially; and a North-South ministerial council -- the most contentious issue -- "to bring together those with executive responsibilities in northern Ireland and the Irish Government."
Sinn Fein argues the new document is more accommodating to unionist views than the more extensive 1995 Joint Framework Document. In particular, they maintain the two governments have retreated on the executive powers of cross-herder institutions. The Framework Document calls for a north-south body with "delegated executive, harmonising or consultative functions" covering a broad range of issues.
Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said on Monday that this "sop" to unionists and loyalists they "intend to test vigorously". He said they will have nothing to do with a partitionist settlement through any watering down of the Framework Document -- a central negotiating plank in the talks. Any retreat by the two governments from previously agreed positions would he resisted by Sinn Fein.
Such a shift would signify that two weeks of unionist pressure were succeeding which, Sinn Fein argue, would constitute "a very serious matter." He said: "If this proves to be the case, such an approach would encourage further pressure of the same kind, and demands for concessions from the unionist and loyalist parties."
The propositions were worked out during the Christmas break with a final round of intense activity last weekend around the two Premier's -- Britain's Tony Blair and Ireland's Bertie Ahern.
That clearly had much to do with the outcome of last Friday's Maze prison visit by the northern Ireland secretary Dr Mo Mowlem, where she reassured Loyalists (and met Republicans) that prisoners' release would be part of the talks process -- as the Mitchell principles had already intended for both loyalist and republican prisoners.
The question is whether the propositions now tabled for discussion by the British and Irish governments, will enable an all inclusive and serious face-to-face process of negotiation to unfold.
Sinn Fein"s Mitchel McLaughlin said they believed there was a "determination to succeed" in negotiations and that the document is a means to substantive talks. Moreover, on Tuesday, he said Sinn Fein would not be "driven out" of the talks.
Dr Mo Mowlem, echoing the joint statement which explains that the propositions "are not detailed", said nothing was "excluded or ruled out". On Monday she specified that: "The Framework Document, the Downing Street declaration, are still there. This joint statement is of a different status, designed to try and move the talks process forward."
A three-day intensive session is being prepared from 26 January in London, and a further session in mid-February in Dublin. Strand One working group on internal northern Ireland arrangements meets on Monday morning followed the next day by Strand Two -- the north-south working group.
United States Senator George Mitchell, chairman of the talks process, said he was "hopeful that it will produce what the vast majority of the people of northern Ireland want, an agreement that will establish permament peace, stability and reconciliation."
This figure is much higher than was expected. Those most at risk are the elderly and those with heart or lung disease.
Air pollution can bring forward their deaths by days, weeks or even years.
Government officials believe the true death toll is much higher because the report recorded only deaths caused by the three most common pollutants: particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and ozone.
That leaves different oxides of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and several others.
And the report did not cover how much pollution shortens the lives of otherwise healthy people.
"We have truly underestimated the true overall effects of air pollution," said John Ayres, chairperson of the Department of Health committee on the medical effects of air pollutants.
The report makes a powerful case for policies to reduce the use of cars in cities in favour of public transport.
But this will require considerable investment in buses and trains
and their renationalisation if services are to be good enough to tempt
people away from using their cars.