The New Worker

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Week commencing 5th December, 1997

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Editorial - Cold at the heart.
Lead Story - 120 Labour MPs stand up to Blair.
Feature - The battle for coal.
International - Basque leaders jailed - general strike call.
British News - Adams-Blair meeting must signal talks progress.

Editorial

 Cold at the heart.

 THE HOMELESS charity, Crisis, estimates there are around 2,500 people sleeping rough every night in London and Shelter Scotland believes there are 1,000 people sleeping on the streets of Scotland in all weathers. In addition thousands more have nowhere to sleep but the doorways and pavements of cities and towns throughout the length and
breadth of Britain.

 The statistics have to be taken from the charities because people who are completely roofless and who are not deemed to meet the criteria for being accepted as homeless by local authorities, do not appear in the
official figures at all.

 The shameful fact is that thousands of people of all ages, for a variety of reasons, face a bleak and cold winter existing in cardboard boxes and huddled in old blankets on the streets of one of the world's richest countries.

 Some rough sleepers are unemployed young people affected by the reduced access to benefits, some have suffered family breakdown or the death of a partner. Others are victims of debt, including mortgage repossession -- and this too is almost always a consequence
of unemployment.

 Others suffer from a mental illness and some have problems of alcohol or drug addiction -- that people who are ill and in need of treatment and care should be sleeping on the streets is an indictment of the underfunding of the health service and a care in the community programme that has never had enough money to carry out its huge task.

 Rather than face up to the needs of the homeless, some reactionary elements try to argue that homeless people choose their "lifestyle" or are simply too lazy to work.

 The harsh fact is that on average people sleeping rough have a life expectancy of just 42 years. They often lack medical care, are more prone to diseases such as TB, are more likely to be assaulted and are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population -- hardly a picture of a chosen lifestyle!

 It is shocking and shameful that the only shelter and warmth many of these homeless people will find during the coldest part of the winter will be provided by charities and their volunteer workers.

 The visible homeless -- the rough sleepers -- are only the tip of the iceberg. Shelter estimates that in England and Wales around 400,000 people (131,139 households) are officially homeless. In Scotland the picture is just as bad but there, only those who apply to local councils are counted in the official figures.

 These figures include families who are struggling to survive in bed and breakfast hostels, women's refuges and individuals finding temporary accommodation in other hostels and shelters.

 There are many more who do not always qualify for official recogniton as homeless but who have severe housing needs such as those living in run down accommodation, young adults waiting for an affordable place of their own and people who have sought the shelter of squats.

 And all of this takes place in a country that can find the cash for enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the whole world and which readily spends over £22 billion on so-called "defence".

 This is a country that pretends it cannot afford to offer the most basic care for thousands of its people. But it has over the past twenty years cut the top rate of tax from 90 per cent to 40 per cent -- effectively putting many millions of pounds into the pockets of the very rich.

 The government is very quick to pontificate about "human rights" when it comes to other countries -particularly those it wants to berate or take issue with for political reasons.

 But while thousands of its own citizens lack the most basic of human rights -- an affordable decent home -the government should hold its tongue.

 The problem could be overcome. It is a matter of political will -- to carry on giving tax relief to the rich or putting the basic needs of the people at the top of the agenda -- pouring out the money on nightmare weapons like Trident or funding the services that people desperately need today.

 We say, scrap nuclear weapons, tax the rich and put an end to another winter of death on our streets!
 

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Lead Story

120 Labour MPs stand up to Blair.

Anger erupts at plan to cut lone parent benefit.
 
THE GOVERNMENT'S plan to cut lone parent benefit has provoked an angry response, including a storm of protest from within the Parliamentary Labour Party itself.

 Last week, over 120 Labour MPs put their names to a private letter calling on the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to postpone plans for implementing the cuts which are widely regarded as leftover policies from the former Tory government.

 The letter followed a Commons motion, signed by more than 50 MPs, also asking for the cuts to be delayed.

 This is the first time since the general election last May that a large number of Labour backbench MPs have collectively stood up to Tony Blair and exerted pressure on the party's right wing leadership.

 Dressed up as a scheme to help single parents get back into work, the plans are a thinly disguised attempt to save money by cutting benefits.

 But it is patently obvious Lhat if the jobs were there and affordable, good quality childcare was there and decent wages were there, parents, whether single or in partnerships, would have returned to work already.

 The proposals involve cutting the single parent premium for new claimants by up to £ll a week from next April. The measure would save the Treasury around £200 million a year.

 The Labour leaders have tried to placate their critics by pointing to other promises made by the Chancellor to put £300 million into childcare and schemes to help single parents find work.

 Though this may sound as if the government is giving more than it takes, the Chancellor's extra cash is a one-off, the cuts are intended to go on and on year upon year -- overall the government would save money at the expense of one-parent families.

 The protesting MPs were given support by TGWU general secretary Bill Morris who spoke out on last weekend's GMTV Sunday programme. He urged Gordon Brown to review his decision to keep public spending within the limits set by the previous Tory government for the next two years.

 He added that the plans for lone parent benefit should "be phased in or at least postponed for six months or a year".

 Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman came in for a barrage of criticism in Parliament and in the media largely because, as an opposition spokesperson, she had strongly opposed such cuts when they were put forward by the Tories.

 The willingness of so many MPs to put up a fight shows there is considerable concern and anger at what is seen as the Labour leadership's complete disregard for the views and feelings of many Labour voters and a further move away from the party's traditional policies.

 The government could raise MPs hackles even further. Last Tuesday it thumbed it's nose at the protest by freezing the single parents' special premiums at the present rate. Unlike other benefits and pensions they will not rise in next April's annual uprating.

 This means that with inflation the value of lone parent benefits will in any case go down. This will be the third year in a row that these premiums have been frozen.

 It is clear that the government is not just following the Tories -- it is essentially towing the line set out by the European Union and is fitting its spending limits to the requirements of eventual European Monetary Union.

 The price, it seems, must be paid by the most vulnerable people -- working class children and their families. If this is happening now what would we have to suffer if EMU goes ahead?

 It is vital that the protesting MPs receive our full support and that we add our own efforts to the struggle. And we need to keep up the campaigning against EMU and the European Union itself.
 

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Feature

The battle for coal.

By Caroline Colebrook
 
 
MIDLANDS Mining, a private coal company, may be the only hope of saving five RJB pits and 5,000 jobs after the Labour government refused to intervene to prevent the pits closing last week.

 The crisis arose as the contracts for supplying coal to the privatised electricity generating industry came up for renewal at the end of this year.

 RJB Mining, which took over most of what was left of Britain's coal industry after the Tories had devastated it, won contracts to supply only half as much coal from the beginning of next year compared to current levels.

 The electricity generating companies have continued their trend towards gas-fired power stations and buying imported coal.

 The government did order an investigation into "sweetheart" deals involving the contracts between the electricity distribution companies and gas-fired power stations.

Energy Minister John Battle came under heavy pressure from MPs from coal mining areas and from RJB to intervene.

 He promised that the government is putting more pressure on the European Union to take tougher action against subsidised coal production in Germany and Spain and "dumping" by Poland.

 But he refused to intervene further, or to halt the building of yet more gas-fired power stations.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said he had been promoting measures to oblige generator companies to increase stocks of coal.

 Bur National Power, Britain's biggest coal consumer, said it is already holding stocks in excess of minimum requirements and that RJB is charging too much.

 The company also retorted that it is "not on" for one private sector company to he required to subsidise another.

 Mr Prescott has claimed to be in a dilemma. His friends reported
that "he doesn't want any money to go into the company's pocket, but he knows the political and social repercussions of allowing these jobs to go to the wall." Apparently the re-nationalisation of this vital industry is not on his agenda.

 So RJB now has contracts to supply 14 million tonnes of coal to power stations next year -half the current level and at prices almost a third lower.

 Midlands founder Jim Sorbie confirmed last Sunday that he is considering making an offer to buy some or all of the threatened pits -- providing there is a market for the coal.
 

pressure
 

This has led to John Battle putting pressure on RJB. "I would be very interested to know why he could he about to shut pits which others believe they call keep open."

 And another Whitehall source has said that the market for RJB coal could be 10 million tonnes higher "if only the price was reasonable".

Mr Sorbie last year bought up the collapsed company Coal Investments. He said: "It would be remiss of us as a company not to look at any opportunities that prevail. We have managed to secure a market for our coal and so have other coal producers."

 So it seems that RJB is using the threat of pit closures and job losses to try to squeeze a subsidy out of the government -- after having bought out British Coal at a give-away price in the first
place.

 And Midlands Mining and National Power are also angling to get whatever they can.

 They are all doing what capitalists inevitably must do -- trying to maximise their own profits and to hell with anyone else.This was all perfectly predictable when our coal and power industries were privatised.

 The only answer, if we are to keep the mining jobs and skills, to preserve the industry for when natural gas runs out and to maintain an integrated, planned energy policy for the benefit of everyone who lives in Britain, is to take these industries back into public ownership.
 

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International

Basque leaders jailed - general strike call.

BASQUE Nationalists are calling for a general strike on 15 December in protest at the jailing of the entire leadership of Herri Batasuna for "collaboration with an armed band". The 23 leaders of the Basque independence movement have all been sentenced to seven years imprisonment by the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid following a week-long trial.

 The Spanish government has long accused Herri Batasuna of being the political wing of the Basque guerrilla movement ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna).

 The charges followed a move by Herri Batasuna to use an ETA video for their party political broadcast on Spanish television. The video showed three masked ETA members explaining the contents of their peace appeal to the Spanish government -- the Democratic Alternative.

 The Democratic Alternative had been made public as far back as April 1995 and the video has circulated throughout the Basque country at Herri Betasuna meetings though it was declared illegal.

 The convictions are part of the government's drive against the Basque nationalists following recent ETA attacks on politicians and the police. According to the Interior Ministry ETA has killed 761 people, mostly soldiers and police, since their armed struggle began in 1968.

 Last July ETA kidnapped and later executed a local Basque politician, Miguel Angel Blanco, firing demands in Madrid for a new crack-down against the nationalists.

 Herri Batasuna is the third largest party in the Basque "autonomous" region with 12 per cent of the vote. Their defence lawyers argued that they were simply publicising ETA's peace proposals.

 The two other Basque parties -- PNV and Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) -- who are opposed to ETA, nevertheless expressed unease at the trial. The PNV said the Spanish government had raised tension by stressing that the HB executive should all be jailed and accused the government of putting pressure on the judges.

 EA denounced the verdict saying: "In judicial terms, we consider it an outrage, and politically, it will have a very negative impact on the much-needed climate of normalisation".
 

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British News

Adams-Blair meeting must signal talks progress.
by Steve Lawton
 
A SIGNIFICANT moment in the multi-party peace talks at Stormont Castle, Belfast could arrive next Thursday, when Sinn Fein leaders meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.

 And as of last Tuesday the talks delegates have agreed a new format. This entails reducing the representation of parties down to a small group which, it is hoped, will then get to grips with the key issues to find an acceptable formula for progress.

 Senator George Mitchell, chairman of the talks and whose suggestion the new plan is, will meet two-member representatives from the 10 political Parties and from the British and Irish governments to seek a way out of the virtually deadlocked talks. The group will report back to the next full plenary in mid-December.

 But while Senator Mitchell hoped this new approach would engender a "productive period before Christmas" so they could all get down to "brass tacks", Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams cautioned that unless the Unionists displayed political will for negotiations, this move would be fruitless.

 Sine Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin, welcoming the announcement of the forthcoming meeting with Tony Blair, said it gave them an opportunity to raise, among other things, Britain's rule over the north of Ireland.

 But he also made it clear that they will be seeking discussion of how the talks process can be pushed forward -- inside and out -- and "specifically the domination of British policy by the "securocrats".

 Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator Martin MacGuinness MP said the meeting could give "impetus" to the talks. In particular, he believes Unionists will have to take note that constructive engagement in the talks is essential. But Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginness considered the Blair-Adams meeting will create a "doomsday situation".

 Premier Blair defended his decision to meet Gerry Adams despite "criticism". He said: "What I would point out is that if a party is in the peace process, it has to he treated in the same way as other parties."

 And he also said that he wanted the process speeded up. "But we have got to take it stage by stage, and I am still optimistic that we will make progress soon."

 Clearly, a positive outcome is sorely needed in the light of the fact that Unionists attempted to divert attention from the key issues. They played up comments by the Irish Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs David Andrews, who has recently been putting forward proposals on north-south links.

 David Andrews spoke to BBC Ulster Radio over the weekend about cross-border structures in which he is said to have compared this to a form of government. He subsequently said that he was talking about "delegated powers" not government powers.

While David Andrews conceded more precision was called for in his terminology, the Unionists were clearly delighted to find yet another angle in their attack on the talks in order to keep a distance between them and Sinn Fein. They blew the issue up -- while the UK Unionist leader Bob McCartney attacked them for doing so -- as something likely to endanger the peace process, which they in fact have been past masters at from the very outset.

 But even British northern Ireland Minister Mo Mowlem has dampened Unionist opportunism by clarifying -- as indeed did the Irish government -- what, from the Labour governments' perspective, the issue of north-south structures discussed in Strand Two of the talks really mean.

 Speaking at the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in London, she said that "governmentstyle powers" were more "likely" to take the form of agencies which have "real responsibility but which are accountable to government institutions in Northern Ireland and the Republic."

 And if there was inflammatory language which certainly didn't need a second thought, then it was provided by Tory MP David Wiltshire, a staunch unionist, at the London meeting in his attack on Blair's decision to meet with Gerry Adams.

 David Wiltshire suggested that if the Irish and British governments imposed a settlement after the May deadline, it would lead to "Blood on the streets of Belfast". Such attitudes serve to underline why getting down to substantive talks is now so urgent.

 Sinn Fein's point about the need to break the two-pronged unionist attack -- from within and from outside the talks -- must be constructively resolved if any thing is to come of either the Adams-Blair meeting or talks "restructuring".

  * As we go to press both Martin MacGuinness and Gerry Adams met at the House of Commons on Thursday with the Speaker, a week before the Blair meeting on 11 December. They will continue to be denied access to parliamentary facilities unless they swear an oath of allegence to the Queen.
 

 

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