Safe in their hands? Coalition changes law to make it easier to cut services at Lewisham Hospital

Lewisham_Hospital_Victory - July 2013In 2013 proposals to savagely cut services at Lewisham Hospital –  downgrading Maternity and A&E services and selling off a large chunk of land – were twice defeated by the High Court, which ruled that the Government was acting outside of its powers with its plans, thanks to an energetic community campaign.

But damaging cuts to Lewisham may yet emerge by the back door, and this is a threat we need to remind voters of in the run up to the May elections. Clause 119, hastily tacked on to the coalition government’s Care Bill, will make it easier for Trust Special Administrators (TSAs) to  close down hospital departments with little meaningful consultation on proposals until it’s too late.

The clause was voted through on Tuesday evening (March 11th), opposed by Labour but with only six Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat MP voting against. As the Save Lewisham Hospital website reports: “The vote was lost in Parliament this evening – with Labour’s amendment of a strike out of the clause being voted down and with Lib Dem Paul Burstow withdrawing his support for his own amendment in weasly fashion at the last minute”.

Some concessions have been made – GP-led Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) will have more of  say over hospital closures than the clause originally proposed – but it is now a lot easier for the government to close down hospital departments in the teeth of huge local opposition, as a good report on the OpenDemocracy website explains. If the new clause means that cuts to Lewisham are pushed through again, local Lib Dems and Conservatives will have a lot of explaining to do.

The Greenwich Labour banner on the march to save Lewisham Hospital,  January 2013

The Greenwich Labour banner on the march to save Lewisham Hospital, January 2013

While the clause was being debated in Parliament on Monday night, Labour held a public meeting in Greenwich to discuss the ongoing Tory threat to the NHS. All the meeting’s speakers – including two who work in the local NHS, QEH Midwife Debbie Jordan and Lewisham GP Brian Fisher  – said that the huge improvements that Labour made to the NHS between 1997 and 2010 are now under threat. When the Tories were last in government in the 1990s, they introduced a 18-month target wait for hospital treatment which the NHS struggled to meet because of a lack of resources: even a two-year wait for a heart operation was common. Under Labour, the maximum wait for hospital treatment was reduced to just 18 weeks. Read more of this post

Advertisements

Blue badges: another botched Coalition “reform”

Coalition consequences logoChanges to the application process for Blue Badges are leaving elderly and disabled residents in Greenwich in the lurch – with some having to wait weeks or months for their badges to be renewed, and a doubling of refusals.

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition has come up with a new system that is slow and bureaucratic, with local councils forced to administer the new rules, pick up the pieces and get the system back on track.

The Government announced in February 2011 that it was overhauling the Blue Badge system (the first thorough overhaul since Blue Badges were introduced in 1971, thanks largely to Labour MP Alf Morris). The government claimed that “tens of thousands of people” were abusing the scheme at a cost of £50m a year to the taxpayer, citing Audit Commission  figures which showed that 16,535 blue badges were still in operation even though their registered holders had died.

Blue badge sign

There’s nothing wrong with clamping down on fraudulent applications for, or abuse of, Blue Badges. As the Badges give people the right to park just about everywhere for free in London and avoid the Congestion Charge, the scope for abuse is beyond doubt (the annual value of benefits to holders is estimated to be more than £300m, or more than £100 per badge).

Read more of this post

The Greenwich Foodbank: helping those who the Coalition forgot

Foodbank 4

Just before Christmas a group of eight councillors visited the Greenwich Foodbank‘s headquarters in Eltham. We were all impressed by the hard work and determination of its volunteers, led by Alan Robinson who showed us around.

Although a foodbank had been set up by two churches  in Thamesmead in 2009, demand shot up after the coalition’s welfare cuts started in 2010, with people from all over Greenwich and Bexley boroughs beating a path to its doors. With help from the Trussell Trust, the Christian charity that helps foodbanks across Britain, a new borough-wide foodbank was set up in October 2012 by 45 Greenwich churches (including St John’s in Blackheath, which acts as a collection point for donations).

The Greenwich Foodbank is a very well-organised operation that gives out three-quarters of a ton of food and other goods each week. Increasingly, toiletries are given out as well as food: Office of National Statistics figures show that unemployed people on the breadline  are going without soap and shampoo to afford to feed themselves. People can only receive a week’s food if they have been given a voucher by an authorised person working at the sharp end: in Social Services, the NHS, Police, Probation service, or the voluntary sector (need is the only factor: the Foodbank helps people regardless of their religious faith).Foodbank 2

Normally, no-one is allowed to redeem vouchers more than three times: the Foodbank is determined to help people out of poverty, not make them dependent on handouts. As well as giving out food, the Foodbank has put together a cookbook (many of its clients are used to fast food, and find it hard to make a nutritious meal out of the ingredients the Foodbank provides). Giving out food helps alleviate some of the immediate effects of the cost-of-living crisis, but it is not a long-term cure on its own, which is why the Foodbank acts as a “signpost” to other services so its clients can find a long-term solution to whatever problems they face.

But no-one should be pleased that more and more Foodbanks are starting in Britain in 2014: everyone should afford to feed themselves and their families without the indignity of going to a Foodbank. Dave Wilcox, a veteran labour councillor in Derbyshire who helped his local foodbank get lottery money, recently wrote of his “sadness in success”. Like many, he hopes that one day foodbanks will run out of customers, return their money to the lottery, and that everyone will have enough money to buy their own food rather than need handouts. How right he is. Read more of this post

Coalition Consequences: forcing children to move home isn’t fair – and won’t save a penny of public money

The penny has finally dropped for the Liberal Democrats: the Government’s changes to welfare benefits will do little or nothing to reduce public spending overall, will unfairly demonise the poor and jobless, and will prompt a mass exodus of poorer people from many parts of London to poorer districts – and in many cases out of the capital entirely.

So says former children’s Minister Sarah Teather (the Lib Dem MP for Brent Central)  in an interview in today’s Observer, belatedly echoing concerns that many community organisations, trade unions and housing and family charities – and the Labour Party – have been raising for many months. Read more of this post

Coalition Consequences

 I’m starting a new, occasional feature on this website, devoted to the – often unintended – consequences of Coalition Government policy on ordinary people and communities, here in Greenwich and in Blackheath Westcombe ward in particular.

Coalition Consequences is not meant to just be a list of the problems that these policies are causing – although there is indeed a long list of those – or merely a party-political attack on them. It will also be as objective as possible an account of what is happening, why, and what lessons Labour can learn.  Or, more positively, how these problems can be put right, or how the policies can be adjusted in some cases to remove their negative side-effects. Read more of this post