We fully agree of course with Health Secretary Alan Milburn's sharp dismissal of William Hague's proposal to give tax breaks for private health insurance. "A private alternative to the NHS is not the right remedy", Milburn told the Tory leader -- and so say all of us. Hague's idea is after all nothing more than another tax Perk for the rich and a way of helping to boost the profits of the private insurance companies.
But the government's response has itself been an inadequate shambles. First Blair announced pay increases for health service workers but did not say exactly how they would be funded. This raised fears that money would be diverted from other parts of the health service budget or that other departments, like education, could lose out.
Then Blair said he aimed to increase health spending to European levels within six years -- estimated to cost around £11 billion a year. This has not gone down well with other members of the Cabinet, especially Chancellor Gordon Brown, who considers it far too ambitious. As a result Blair now seems to be backpeddling as fast as he can.
Of course, Gordon Brown and the rest did not raise the slightest objection when hundreds of millions of pounds were being poured out to bomb the people of Yugoslavia last year. Nor is it ever suggested that funding for the NHS could be boosted by diverting money from the millions it costs to keep nuclear-armed Trident weapons swanning around the world's oceans. Clearly the cause of killing for imperialism also ends up with another form of killing -- the deaths of people whose needs the NHS is unable to meet.
This gross mis-spending of public money is one aspect of the current problems of social funding. The other is the policy of keeping income tax down to the low level set by the previous Tory governments of Major and Thatcher. Such a policy can only lead to the continued under-funding of social services, including the NHS, so, when a crisis forces the government to boost spending in one service it then feels compelled to just take the money from another public service.
It is a programme of depriving the many in order to keep the few enjoying the luxunous tax bonanza they have had these past 21 years.
To a large extent successive governments have got away with this by making sure any proposed tax rises are relatively more painful to better paid workers and the middle strata than they are to the very rich. This is why the campaigning demand on taxation reform has to be for a policy of progressive taxation -- a system that lifts the tax burden from the working class and makes the wealthy, who can easily afford it, pay more. In particular to raise the top level of tax significantly.
It is also necessary to counter another argument doing the rounds these days which claims that little can be done to increase public revenue because the terms of the Maastricht Treaty prevent it.
Certainly the Maastricht Treaty has imposed EU-wide limits on public spending and there is little doubt that a common taxation policy is part of the EU plan for the European state. But the opposition to higher income tax for the rich comes from the capitalist class itself and it is an opposition based solely on greed.
It is this class, including the ruling class of Britain, which has designed the EU and which calls the shots within it -- to then use Europe as an excuse for doing nothing is simply a fraud.
It is a fraud aimed at making the working class feel powerless when in reality it has the potential power to force change and sweep the capitalists, their system and the capitalist super state of Europe away for good.
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THE LABOUR government last weekend was reeling under attacks for its failure to cope with this year's predicted flu outbreak -- a failure which has cost a number of lives through shortages of emergency hospital beds.
It responded by promising nurses an above-inflation level pay rise -- and about time too -- but failed to make extra funding available to finance it.
Then it said it would gradually increase health spending by five per cent a year to bring the NationalHealth Service up to a level comparable to other European countries.
But by Wednesday the Government was already backtracking on this commitment by saying it would only happen if the economy is in good shape.
This leaves everyone confused and the reality is that nothing extra has been guaranteed.
The most damaging attack on Labour's health record came from Lord Winston, famous as a leading fertility consultant and now a Labour peer.
In an article published in the New Statesman he spoke of his party's failure to implement its health service promises.
And he described the treatment of his 87-year-old mother, admitted to hospital a few weeks ago: "She waited 13 hours in casualty before getting a bed in a mixed-sex ward -- a place we said we would abolish.
"None of her drugs were given on time, she missed meals and she was found lying on the floor when the morning staff came on.
"She caught an infection and now has a leg ulcer."
This kind of experience is not unusual. But Lord Winston is in a better position than most relatives to make his complaints felt where it matters.
He said: "It is normal. The terrifying thing is we accept it."
He spoke of his disappointment at Labour's failure to improve on the devastation left by the private-enterprise obsessed Tories.
He said: "The truth is that our services are much the worst in Europe ...
"...We still have an internal market, but instead of commissioning by local health authorities, we have primary caregroups. I think we have been quite deceitful about it."
This coincided with the news that one cancer patient who has had a vital operation cancelled four times because of a shortage of intensive care beds, now finds that her tumour is inoperable.
All around the country similar tales have emerged in the last couple of weeks.
The Labour spin doctors got to work and persuaded Lord Winston to retract his criticisms but this fooled noone. The damage to Labour's credibility was done.
Then, at the beginning of the week, Labour hoped to quell the growing public anger by promising nurses a pay rise of 6.8 per cent -- effectively 4.3 per cent above inflation.
This was designed to staunch the flow of nurses leaving the profession and encourage new recruits.
But then came the sting. NHS trusts will have to fund the pay rise out of their existing budgets, meaning cuts elsewhere.
Later, Tony Blair made his promise to bring the NHS up to European standards within six years by increases in health spending of five per cent a year.
Only this was followed the next day with a condition that the increase will be tied to the performance of the economy as a whole.
Among the problems facing the NHS is the legacy of the previous Tory governments -- a legacy the government has failed to tackle. The NHS is still broken up into trusts that are paying through the nose for the very land the hospitals are built on. They were created with a vast burden of debt round their necks and interest payments drain vital funds.
Then they are paying the salaries of a vast army of managers and administrators needed to operate the internal market.
Only then can cash be spared for patients, doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff.
And the private finance initiative will see hospital buildings being transferred to the private sector with fewer and fewer beds being provided and the NHS being burdened with heavy rent costs payable to the new owners -- and who knows what future when the contracts run.
Things will not improve unless the Government reverses the sabotage done to the NHS structure by the Tories as well as vastly increasing health spending.
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by Caroline Colebrook
THE LEVEL of air pollution in Britain rose dramatically last year according to a report released last week by Friends of the Earth. The figures show that rural areas were just as badly affected as urban areas.
Modern records only began in 1993 -- a year of particularly high pollution levels. Since then they had been dropping gradually.
Six months ago Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott reported that 1998 had seen the biggest improvement in air quality and claimed it was due to Government policy.
But experts say the main cause of that improvement was the weather. There were fewer days of high pressure with little or no wind and there were fewer easterly winds that carry pollution from Europe to Britain.
But the weather in 1999 was very different and pollution rose alarmingly. The number of days on which air pollution was above official health standards rose by 20 percent in urban areas and by 53 per cent in rural areas.
Last year pollution levels exceeded health and safety standards on average one day in eight at eight rural monitoring sites and on one day in 13 at urban sites.
Also published last week was a Government report prepared by Stephen Glaister for the Department of Health which claims that London is a lot less polluted than many other major cities such as new York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
The Government's report claims that the level of toxic vehicle emissions is falling as a resultof the introduction of catalytic exhaust gas converters in 1992 and improved engine technology and fuels.
It also claims that the health dangers posed by increasing road traffic are exaggerated and that the risks from air pollution are 1,000 lower than those associated with smoking.
It says that of eight named and monitored air pollutants, five have little impact on health.
And it lets the Government off the hook on the need to impose specific air quality standards.
Professor Glaister is described as an independent adviser on pollution working for Imperial College, London.
One pollutant that really damages health is ozone at ground level. It is a form of oxygen which, when inhaled, is taken up in the lungs by the blood like normal oxygen.
It is carried around to all the cells of the body like normal oxygen but is not given up there to be used to fuel the activitv of the cell. It just remains in the blood and effectively clogs it up and reduces the efficiency of the blood in carrying oxygen around the body.
Its effects are cumulative and early symptoms of ozone poisoning are headaches and nose bleeds.
And according to the FoE report ozone levels are among those that have been exceeding safety levels so often last year.
Another, previous Government report revealed that around 24.000 people a year die earlier than they would have because of air pollution.
The FoE report found that the worst polluted city was London with 63 days with pollution levels above Government standards.
Second was Port Talbot in Wales with 60 days and third was Scunthorpe with 40 days.
Rob Jones of Port Talbot FoE called on the Government, the local authority and industry to act together to improve the health of local residents.
He said: "Urgent action must be taken to clean up industry and traffic emissions. As a first step we would like to see the local council declare Margam and Taibach special air quality management areas."
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by Steve Lawton
RUSSIAN forces are consolidating their military control of Chechenia and moving into the capital Grozny -- or what is left of it following renewed heavy bombardment, as we go to press. In areas cleared of separatist rebel activity, efforts to create a civil administration and a return to normality are tentatively underway.
Moscow's envoy to Chechenia, deputy Premier Nikolai Koshman, said last Sunday that Grozny would be cleared of separatist activity by the end of February and he was confident that part of the staff of his office would soon be moved into the capital. Meanwhile,he said they were setting up in the second largest city of Gudermes.
President Vladimir Putin warned the West to respect Moscow's north Caucasus security interests and recognise "real facts" from "propaganda" in the war to crush foreign-backed Islamic rebels in Chechenia. Speaking at a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, he said that while this "situation is not simple, it is under control."
The course of Russia's growing military and political role in Chechenia since last September, unlike the costly 1994-6 war, is facing a much bigger and menacing international dimension of interference.
Russian leaders resolve, consequently, may well be far deeper than the tactical considerations of the Presidential elections on 26 March.
For a long time accusations of Western meddling have been levelled by Russian leaders, particularly at the US and European Union. This first came to prominence in the early '90s when big energy companies began sniffing out potential profits in the Caspian.
There has been heightened unrest in the region ever since as energy predators moved in and as Nato-EU expansion pressed east. But with the provocative oil & gas pipeline deal between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, sealed in President Clinton's presence recently, the first definitive move into doorstep Russian regional interests was set.
Shevardnadze -- hosting Turkey's President Demirel in Tbilisi, Georgia last Saturday -said that the economic projects in the region "are of European and international importance". That means, he said, those forces "won't remain indifferent to problems in the Caucasus."
The presidents of Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed in 1996 to stabilise the Caucasus at a summit in Kislovodsk. But Demirel, faithful and pivotal Nato ally in the region with EU membership on his mind, proposed a security pact in the region which Shevardnadze described as "historically important."
On Monday he elaborated, explaining that regional security could be maintained not only by the 1996 parties, but by "international organisations" and the US. This sits uneasily with Shevardnadze's public announcements that Chechenia is Russia's legitimate security concern.
And despite repeated denials by Shevardnadze -- formerly Gorbachov's foreign minister and survivor of assassination attempts -- Moscow continues to insist that his country is a support base for Chechen rebels.
Chechen separatists' so-called foreign minister, Iliyas Akhmadov, was last week welcomed in the US by State Department official James Rubin. The move angered Russian leaders. Russia's foreign minister Igor Ivanov said: "Acts of this kind," Itar-Tass reported, "in fact mean support of terrorists and separatists, and not only in Russia."
And Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban opposition has openly declared its support for the Chechen rebels by recognising Chechenia as an independent state. The Russian foreign ministry on Monday denounced the action as an attempt to create a "gangster international". The ministry said this "once again testifies to a link between Chechenia's terrorists and the forces of belligerent religious extremism."
China again made clear its support for Russia's stand on Chechenia on Tuesday. Defence minister Chi Haotian, in Russia on a three day visit told Russia's deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov that Chechenia is a part of the Russian Federation and regards the matter as its internal affair. Both agreed military relations between China and Russia are "developing successfully."
And in response to the Taliban's recognition of Chechenia as an independent state, an external affairs ministry official of India said that it supported the Russian government's actions in defence of "constitutional order" and "territorial integrity." He said: "Both India and the Russian Federation have committed themselves to take joint action against aggressive nationalism, religious and political extremism, terrorism and separatism."
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TRAIN drivers employed by the south London commuter train company Conner Central are set to step up their industrial action with a series of six one-day strikes beginning on 25 January.
The dispute has been running for months and concerns an agreement reached between the drivers' union Aslef and Connex management to cut the working week from 37 to 35 hours and that all pay should count towards pensions. Only this has yet to be implemented.
The union planned a work to rule and overtime ban to start over the Christmas and New Year period but Conner obtained a court injunction against this, rather than sit down and negotiate with the union about the implementation of the agreement.
Connex used the injunction to impose heavy overtime schedules throughout the holiday period when drivers wanted some opportunity to be with their families. This caused very strong feelings.
But the overtime ban did come into force two weeks ago and since then the Connex services have been severely disrupted. Up to 380 trains a day have had to be cancelled and the company has been forced to reschedule many services.
Aslef points out that this indicates Conner's incompetence to run a railway without demanding levels of overtime that exhaust drivers -- with obvious safety implications for drives and passengers.
Aslef says the company has had plenty of time to recruit new drivers
since the cut in hours was agreed.
Aslef general secretary Mick Rix said: "It is quite ridiculous that Conner relies on train drivers in a stressful and safety-critical job to work their rest days simply to deliver a normal timetabled service."
Now Connex is saying it agreed only to "work towards" a 35 hour week and 100 per cent pensionable pay -- providing both schemes were "self-financing".
Connex management will not say exactly what it means by this but the implication is that it can only be achieved through cuts in driver allowances and/or meal break times.
The union has turned this down flat on the grounds that it is only robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Mick Rix has called on Rail Regulator Tom Winsor and the new Strategic Rail Authority to take account of Connex's inability to run a normal service without unacceptable levels of overtime when the Connex franchise is due for renewal.
He said: "the majority of staff in other sections of the rail industry already enjoy 100 percent pensionable pay. Why should out members in Connex have to take a pay cut when they retire?
He says negotiations with other rail companies have been conducted in a reasonable manner with an agreeable outcome for both sides.
Many of Connex's passengers would agree that the company is failing to run a proper rail service.
One commuter from Beckenham said: " I don't accept the view that it's just militant train drivers doing what they want. The strike is another symptom of a badly run service."
And another from Finsbury Park said: "I don't really blame the unions or the rail companies. You have to say that privatisation has not done commuters an awful lot of good."
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