New Worker Online Archive
Week of 28th February 1997

Editorial - The great train robbery.
Lead Story - "Fortunes for the few.Misery for the many" Tory tube sell-off
Feature - Hospital waiting lists now over a million
International - Czech government moves to ban "political" strikes
British News - Government passes the buck on Gulf War Syndrome


The great train robbery

THE TORIES' plan to sell-off London Underground deserves one clearcut response -- a massive vote for Labour at the general election. That's the only way to get lid of the Tories and call a halt to their asset-stripping programme.

Everyone knows that the tube network has been seriously under-funded for years and is in an appalling state. Water leaks in, wiring shorts out, the track needs repair and delays are everyday occurrences.

And yet passengers pay more for their journeys than users of similar city services in other European countries -- the Paris Metro for instance is considerably cheaper than London Underground and is less frequently disrupted.

This is mainly because the French award higher subsidies to these services and have a totally different approach to public transport in general.

Britain's ruling class persists in thinking that public transport ought to make a profit and that there should be no need for subsidies. And in the present climate where the wealthy are endlessly seeking new opportunities for investment, that sought-after profit is being lined-up for the wealthy elite's own pockets through a programme of privatisation.

But this view completely ignores the fact that public transport services require considerable funds if they are to maintain standards of safety and reliability. This money has to come from somewhere. If it doesn't come from public subsidy then either fares will go through the roof or the service will run into the ground.

No doubt the rich do think fares should be high, that public subsidies should be low or non-existent, that income tax should be as low as possible and their own unearned income ring-fenced. But since these same shareholders, bankers and financiers cut labour costs, including wages, to the bone in all the companies they invest in, there is a limit to what workers can afford to pay in fares to get to work and back each day. We are a low wage economy.

The Tories' argue that the urgent need for capital expenditure on the tube's infrastructure can be met by selling the whole thing off to the private sector. That, they claim, will keep public spending down and even bring in some ready money -- though, judging by past experience, it could be sold off well below its full value.

But of course the new owners would not be putting up this money in order to help us or the government out -- they would only be interested in the future profits to be made from their investment. These profits can only come, one way or another, from us.

Government guarantees to peg rate rises to just above inflation would only last for a year or so. After that the fares would almost certainly rise steeply.

Stations and lines that are deemed to be uneconomic would face the axe leading to longer and more difficult journeys for many people and a further rise in the number of cars on our already congested roads.

As has happened with all the privatisations to date, profits would be boosted by cutting the labour force. Job losses and privatisation go hand in hand. Pay and conditions would also be attacked.

And who believes in promises of a better service after we have suffered the many delays and cancellations produced by some of the newly-privatised rail companies?

As public ownership is taken away, control and regulation would almost certainly fall into the hands of an unelected quango.

There is an alternative. Public transport should be regarded as a public service which plays a vital part in the economy overall. It is essential in overcoming the increasing problems of air pollution and road traffic congestion and is the most efficient, energy-saving means of transporting people and goods. It is, in fact, a great public asset.

It has to be subsidised and it must have proper capital investment And it must remain under public ownership and control.

This is the way to ensure that the system is integrated, safe, reliable and affordable to the travelling public and that less heavily used sections of the system are protected.

We should not be taken in by a short-sighted Tory plan to avoid paying for the repair and maintenance of the tube network today so that Virgin, Stagecoach, National Express and their ilk can take a slice of every fare for years to come.

This latest Tory privatisation should and can be stopped at the ballot box.

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Lead Story

Fortunes for the few.Misery for the many"

Tory tube sell-off

TRANSPORT Secretary Sir George Young told the House ofCommons last Tuesday that the government plans to sell off London Underground. But happily for us, the Tories are running out of time.

This is one privatisation plan that can be derailed by voting Labour at the forthcoming general election.

One senior Labour source told journalists that "if the election is on a Thursday, privatisation of the Tube will be dropped on the Friday".

Shadow transport secretary Andrew Smith said: "This privatisation would put services at risk. It would involve a giveaway sale of public assets. The Tories can't wait to wash their hands of the Tube. Theirs has been a policy of "run it down, sell it off."

The Tories claim the sale will be popular. But the opposition parties disagree. Labour is sure it will seriously damage the Tory vote in London and the South East and expect between five and ten Tory seats to be at risk because of these plans.

Labour leader Tony Blair accused the government of abandoning a key public service "at a fraction of its true value so that a few people make a vastly inflated profit with no guarantee of a proper service for the future".

The sale is widely expected to raise between 1.2 billion and 2 billion. But the Tube network is actually worth around 13 billion. Is this a knock-down price or what?

What's more, Sir George Young says the proceeds from the sale would be ploughed back into the network to bring it up to scratch and overcome the backlog of investment.

In other words, the buyers will buy cheap and have all their purchasing money put back into the industry they have just bought to beef-up their newly acquired asset. It amounts to a giveaway for the investors and robbery for the public, who have owned the Underground for over 60 years.

But this is nothing new as far as this government is concerned. The rail system was also sold-off well below its value. Soon bits of the rail network were re-sold at much higher figures making fortunes for the original investors, directors and managers.

Once again the public is being promised big improvements in the service if privatisation goes ahead. But this has been said about all the privatised utilities and services and the public has not been impressed by the reality.

Water privatisation was followed by price rises across the country. Hosepipe bans, standpipes, meters and leaks have been the order of the day for thousands of customers.

The rail network was supposed to improve after privatlsation, but only last week South West Trains gave their passengers a "free travel" day as a gesture of goodwill following hundreds of train cancellations across the network.

Railtrack added to the misery of SWT passengers last week by failing to complete weekend signaling work on time delaying morning rush-hour trains for more than half an hour.

Labour's transport spokesperson Glenda Jackson commented: "Itis quite incredible that just as the great rail sell-off is unravelling before their eyes, ministers have chosen this moment to hurl L.U. into the privatisation abyss.

"If the Tories get their way the images of fat cat controllers lapping up the cream, while commuters face endless delays and cancellations, will become as much part of the Tube as they are now part of the railways".

While Sir George Young was announcing the Tube sell-off, Scotrail -- the last of the 25 rail Passenger franchises -- passed into private hands.

The franchise was awarded to National Express which also runs the Gatwick Express, Midland Main Line, North London and Central.

This government has to go. The only way to do that is to vote Labour and give the incoming Labour government a massive majority. Tory policies are not wanted. We should make sure that message is loud and clear.
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Hospital waiting lists now over a million

by Caroline Colebrook

THE NUMBER of people waiting for treatment in National Health Service hospitals is at a record level of 1.1 million in the run-up to the general election, according to figures released last week by the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts.

And it is likely to grow as more and more trusts are being forced to cancel all non-urgent surgery in order to cope with emergency cases.

The figures give the picture at the end of last December. They show there has been an overall rise inthe waiting lists of 3.2 per cent -- 34,380 patients -- over the three months from the end of September, and the total is 1,096,000.

There has been a 46 per cent increase -- 6,900 Patients -- in the number waiting over a year for their treatment.

In Wales the number on the list rose five per cent to 66,000, of whom 5,635 have been waiting for more than a year.

But these plain statistics cover many human tragedies, like the case of 69-year-old Queenie Harrild of Downham, south-east London, who died less than 24 hours after her heart operation was cancelled for the third time because of a shortage of intensive care beds at Guy's Hospital.

Thousands of other patients have had to face postponements of major surgery several times. The stress this causes can make heart disease a lot worse and precipitate a heart attack.

The increase in the waiting lists is a knock on effect of the nationwide crisis that has hit accident and emergency units this winter, with emergency patients queuing on trolleys in casualty units for up to 54 hours before a bed could be found for them.

Since the Tory NHS "reforms" of 1991, England has lost a total of 8,451 acute hospital beds (7.2 per cent of the total), of which 2,738 were in London (14.2 per cent of all London beds).

And many of those that remain are filled by eldery patients whose treatment is finished but who are not well enough to be discharged to look after themselves, and there are not enough places in nursing homes or residential care homes to take them.

Once upon a time, the NHS used to have specialist geriatric hospitals where such patients could be sent. They tended to be depressing places and are not the ideal solution but they should not have been closed until alternative residential care was available.

But the current crisis does highlight the false economy of dosing such places and the excellent NHS convalescent homes -- often by the coast -- that could give care to people who need time to recuperate from treatment.

And that care was under the supervision of trained and experienced nurses who could spot signs of a relapse or other problems immediately and get the problem resolved while it was a small one -- meaning less distress for the patient and less cost for the NHS.

Now, these elderly people in need of further care are referred to as "bed blockers" and are often pressured into going home too early.

This has led to an 11 per cent increase in the number of re-admissions since 1991, according to Labour health spokesperson Tessa Jewell.

The cost to the NHS of these re-admissions is 500 million. The cost to the patients in distress and discomfort is immeasurable.

And there is also a cost to their relatives who are thrust untrained and unwilling into the role of 24 hour, unpaid post-operative nurses, with all the responsibilities and stress that entails. Often they have to give up their regular jobs to do this.

Labour last week revealed new policy plans for public hearings on hospital closures and independent panels to make recommendations on closures to ministers.

This is a big retreat from the position a couple of years ago when Labour promised a freeze on all hospital closures.

Labour still remains in favour of a freeze on psychiatric bed closures but the fact that the party can envisage any more closures at all at present after the Tories have done away with so many beds is staggering.

Public hearings and independent panels may delay some closures but there are no guarantees the opinion of the public will be listened to or that the panel will not be just another faceless quango -- appointed by those who want to get on with wrecking the NHS.

This shows just how important it is for local community groups, like pensioners, trades unions and others to put pressure now on local Labour parties and on Labour candidates to promise not only no more closures but some desperately needed hospital openings as well.
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Czech government moves to ban "political" strikes

from Postmark Praha

THE Czech government announced last week it had instructed the labour minister Jindrich Vodicka and justice minister Vlasta Parkanova to speed up plans to draft a law banning what it calls "political" strikes.

Its action is a blatant attempt to prevent a repetition of the 5-day strike earlier this month, when rail workers won a remarkable victory in their struggle to force the government to come up with a state transport policy guaranteeing the future of the state owned railways and 100,000 workers' jobs.

The plan was immediately denounced by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) as "an attack on democracy". But it also appears likely that, under cover of a ban on all strikes which are not directly concerned with breakdowns in negotiations on annual pay and conditions contracts, the government will introduce new legislation which will severely limit the right of unions to strike even during collective bargaining disputes.

According to reports in the Czech press, the Klaus government plans to model its new strike law on British and United States anti-union legislation used in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to crush trade union opposition to attacks on workers' living standards by employers and the government.

Labour minister Vodicka is known to favour the introduction of compulsory arbitration linked to a two-week "cooling off" period, which would follow the calling of a strike alert by a union. He also favours compulsory strike ballots, non-payment of strikers even when the employer is to blame for the dispute, and clauses obliging strikers to codify their demands and not change them during the strike, and to guarantee certain "minimum services".

blocking union funds

The executive council of prime minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) -- the main party in the ruling right wing coalition and which Vodicka is a member of -- has also called for measures to block the funds of striking unions, quoting with approval the "firm action" taken by Thatcher against the British miners and Reagan against the US air traffic contollers.

The Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), a junior coalition partner, also wants unions to be financially responsible for losses incurred by employers during strikes.

The rail strike, provoked by repeated government refusals to act on the workers' grievances, caused losses of about $36 million.

The government would like to see its anti-strike legislation on the statute book as soon as possible because further disputes over transport policy lie ahead and industrial unrest continues to grow.

Czech Railway management has already signalled that it has no intention of changing the policies which have led to a catastrophic deterioration inthe country's railway system by announcing, in the wake of the strike, plans to cut passenger train services by one-third.

The government is also hellbent on clamping down on pay increases, despite endless rises in rents, food prices and domestic energy charges.

But, much to the government's embarrassment, a report issued last week by a special commission set up after the rail strike to investigate union claims of mismanagement of the railways admited that almost all of the union's claims were justified.

It was these claims which were behind the demand during the strike of the biggest union, OSZ, for the sacking of the entire senior management. It does not seem likely that this demand will be conceded, given the government's new resolve to end its talk of "Social partnership" and its open declaration of war on the unions.

Much depends on the attitude of the Social Democratic Party and the leadership of the main trade union centre, CMKOS -the Trade Union Council of Bohemia and Moravia.

restricting human rights

The Social Democrats' vice chair Petra Buzkova said that the planned legislation would be "a restriction on one of the basic human rights". But at its weekly press conference last Thursday the Communist Party said that It was regrettable that one of the first people to call for a ban on "political strikes" had been CMKOS leader, Richard Falbr, who last November was elected to the Senate of the Czech Republic with Social Democrat support.

In addition, three right-wing Social Democrat MPs in the lower house of the Czech Parliament have defected from the SocDem group and voted with the government on a number of major issues.

The ruling coalition has only 99 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies, but has been kept in power by the manoeuvring of a Social Democratic leadership which has the difficult task of claiming to be the main opposition party, while in practice coming to the rescue of a tottering minority government at every turn.

A hopeful sign that the rank-and-file trade unionists are prepared to fight where the CMKOS leadership is not, came last Thursday, when the Prague court, which declared the rail workers' strike of earlier this month illegal reconvened.

It adjourned proceedings on the unions' failure to obey the court order and return to work, pending the outcome of OSZ's appeal to the Supreme Court against its ruling.

In response to a call from OSZ leader Jaroslav Dusek, the part of the courtroom not occupied by press reporters was packed by rail workers and other trade unionists showing their solidarity with the OSZ leaders.

There was also considerable public sympathy with the striking rail workers both before and during their strike.

On a TV phone-in programme featuring Jaroslav Dusek and a panel of critics of the OSZ stand 8,000 people rang to give their view of the union's case. They backed Dusek by a majority of six to one.

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British News

Government passes the buck on Gulf War Syndrome

ARMED FORCES Minister Nicholas Soames last Wednesday claimed that Parliament was misled over the use of chemicals during the Gulf War. And he accused civil servants of giving him wrong advice.

His allegations come after a top-level inquiry which strongly criticised Ministry of Defence officials and military staff who could now face disciplinary action.

But it also provides a way for the Government to admit that Gulf War Syndrome does after all exist and the former soldiers whose lives are now blighted by a range of symptoms are not shamming.

The report shows that Parliament was seriously misled over the widespread use of organophosphate insecticides during the Gulf War.


Soames was obliged to apologise to the House of Commons but blamed his civil servants for giving him inaccurate information.

Nevertheless, Labour leaders called for his resignation. Even Tory backbenchers said there must have been a cover-up and that the inquiry was like "peeling the layers of an onion".

But research has still not started into other suspected culprits for Gulf War Syndrome-- the use of shells containing spent uranium and the cocktail of inoculations given to members of the armed forces in the Gulf.

Shadow defence spokesperson Dr David Clark said: "What we believe we're going to hear is that Mr Soames is going to use civil servants and soldiers as fall guys.

"He's been fiddling away while the Gulf War veterans have been suffering."

Meanwhile the plight of the population of the Gulf area, who must be suffering greatly after all the environmental damage caused by the war, goes unreported and the people are likely to have an even longer battle for compensation. .

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