Thursday, November 02, 2006

London news round-up

Students protest over tuition fees

by Caroline Colebrook

THOUSANDS of students marched through the streets of London last Sunday to protest as the rise in tuition fees to as much as £3,000 a year comes into force with the new college term, which started this month.Demonstrators marched past Parliament and Downing Street before holding a rally in Trafalgar Square.
Recent figures from the admissions service Ucas show that 15,000 fewer students are beginning courses this autumn than last year, a fall of 3.7 per cent. The National Union of Students claims this drop is a result of the rise in tuition fees and the prospect of long-term serious debt before young people even begin their working lives.
Most students, especially those from working class backgrounds, will not only incur debts for their loans but also for their accommodation and subsistence living costs. This can total up to £33,000 by the end of a course.
Many students try to lessen this burden by doing part-time and weekend work during their courses but this reduces the time they can give to their studies and leaves them tired so that the quality of their academic work suffers.
The Government claims that the new package is fairer as the fees are no longer paid upfront and grants and bursaries are available to some disadvantaged students.
The National Union of Students has called for the policy to be reversed. It takes years to recover from that financial burden, particularly for women, due to career breaks and pay inequality
NUS president Gemma Tumelty said: “We really believe that debt will be a huge deterrent on students entering education. “This year there were 15,000 fewer students – that’s a huge concern to us, particularly when Government is trying to widen participation.”
Tumelty said that having to pay off student debt prevented graduates from investing in pensions and mortgages and contributing to society through spending.
“It takes years to recover from that financial burden, particularly for women, due to career breaks and pay inequality”, she said. “What is always overlooked is that education is a benefit to society as well as the individual.
“We’re the institutions producing doctors, nurses, engineers, and that is a huge benefit to society and therefore society should pay.”
A recent ICM opinion poll conducted for the NUS found that 74 per cent of the public felt higher costs would deter students. The survey of 1,019 adults in Britain found most thought estimated costs of £33,000 for a three-year degree course would put young people off going to university.
The NUS demand for the abolition of tuition fees was backed by the University and College Union (formerly Natfhe). UCU general secretary Paul Mackney said: “Anyone who believes that charging more for degrees is the way to encourage the most able candidates to apply to, or even consider, university is living in a dream world.”

Shop stewards fight to restore union rights

by Rob Laurie

LAST SATURDAY saw about 250 trade unionists from around the country meet at the Camden Centre in north London for a National Shop Stewards’ Conference, which focused on building the grass-roots campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Bill.
The conference was organised by the National Union of Rail and Maritime and Transport Workers, who’s general secretary, Bob Crow, delivered the opening address.
He observed that at present Britain’s trade unions are encumbered with more legal shackles than they had after Trade Disputes Act was passed in 1906 by the Liberal government and that nine years of a Labour government have done very little to undo the damage wrought by the anti-trade union offensive launched by Margaret Thatcher.
He called for widespread support for the Trade Union Freedom Bill which, while still not meeting International Labour Organisation standards, will be a welcome first step towards restoring trade union rights.
He was disappointed that the TUC while officially in favour has not put much energy into the campaign. Crow also argued that mergers are no solution to declining union membership, at present while density in the public sector remains high, in the private sector 91 per cent of the workforce is unorganised.
While the Tories claimed their trade union laws were about “levelling the playing field”, one speaker described the present “level playing field” as being like the north face of the Eiger, which forces trade unions to give employers notice of strikes, but allows employers to sack workers instantly by megaphone.
Perhaps oddly for a conference which sought to encourage a grass roots movement, most of the platform speakers were general secretaries or deputy secretaries. Among them was Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, who paid tribute to his members on the tabloid Daily Star who recently prevented the publication of a racist front page.
The fact that this action was illegal did not deter the journalists from taking this welcome stand, the first such action in decades.
Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades’ Union noted that if, as we are often told, the class struggle is over, then the employers have not been taking any notice.
Both inside and outside the conference a number of grouplets called for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and support one or other political party which would unite the working class on an unstoppable path to socialism.
The RMT itself has already tried this approach and supported the Scottish Socialist Party shortly before that organisation split over a court case in which the leader’s allegedly lively sex life came under scrutiny.
One speaker from Liverpool claimed that if only the working class elected enough MPs from his “United Socialist Party”, then the struggle would be speedily won, but unsurprisingly he was a bit vague about how this is might be achieved. A steering committee was elected to establish a National Shop Stewards’ Network which plans to hold a formal delegate conference next spring, which will be composed of bona fide trade union representatives. The planned network does not seek to replace any existing trade union structures but to offer them support.

Pensioners: ‘don’t leave us to rot in poverty’

HUNDREDS of pensioners rallied to Westminster last Wednesday to accuse Prime Minister Tony Blair of leaving millions of them to “rot in poverty” by denying them a decent pension before they die. The event was organised by the National Pensioners’ Convention (NPC) to demand an immediate rise in the basic state pension and the restoration of the link with average earnings.
The Government has said it will restore the link by the year 2012, but, as the pensioners point out, this will be too late for today’s 2.5 million pensioners who are currently living below the poverty line.
Some of the protesters made the point by dressing up in skeleton costumes. Others carried placards attacking the generous pensions that MPs have awarded to themselves.
The NPC is demanding a rise in the basic state pension from £84.25 a week to £114 a week, which is the minimum income guaranteed to pensioners who have no other income.
“The Government’s White Paper on pensions contains nothing of immediate benefit to today’s pensioners,” said NPC general secretary Joe Harris.
“Already one in five older people live below the poverty line and millions more are being forced into hardship by rising fuel and council tax bills.”
He accused the Government of being “breathtakingly complacent” on the issue by refusing to restore the earnings-pension link before 2012, adding: “Pensioners cannot afford to wait any longer – we need a decent state pension now.”
Joe Harris is calling for the balance in the National Insurance fund – more than £34 billion – to be used to pay for an immediate increase in the state pension.
“The question therefore is not whether the country can afford to provide a decent state pension for everyone, but whether MPs have the political will to do the decent thing. It’s our job to convince them they must,” he said.
Ironically, Shadow Work and Pensions Minister Anne McIntosh gave support to the rally, as has Tory leader David Cameron. But the pensioners were quick to remind them that it was their “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher who scrapped the link.
They say that if the earnings link had not been abolished by the Conservative Government in 1980, basic state pension would now be around £136 a week, compared with the current figure of £84.25.
The pensioners also handed in a petition of 100,000 signatures calling for action to end poverty among the elderly will be handed into Downing Street.
Meanwhile official figures released last week showed that 25,000 people died in England and Wales last winter as a direct result of cold weather and the illnesses that accompany it.
Gordon Lishman, a director of the charity Age Concern, said: “It is a scandal that so many people over 65 are put at risk every winter. More needs to be done for older people so that they can heat their homes adequately without worrying about the cost.”

Network Rail fine over Ladbroke Grove

NETWORK Rail, the Government-owned body that controls Britain’s entire railway infrastructure, last week admitted errors under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and some liability in the 1999 Ladbroke Grove rail crash.
The crash claimed 31 lives after the driver of a local Thames train went through a red light and took his train across the path of an oncoming Great Western express during the morning rush hour.
But that red light was notoriously difficult to see – especially with the early morning sun shining straight on to it so that the electric light was practically invisible in the more powerful sunlight. Drivers had problems with it on many occasions before and Railtrack, the privately-run company that preceded Network Rail, had been warned many times of the danger of an error.
Network Rail admitting risk creation but denied responsibility for the accident. Now it faces an unlimited fine, which is due to be set in December.

Peace protesters arrested in Parliament Square

FIVE peace protesters were arrested outside the Houses of Parliament last weekend as around 100 of their comrades erected tents on Parliament Square to commemorate the second anniversary of the Fallujah uprising.
The protest was also in defiance of a new “anti-terror” law that forbids unauthorised protests within one kilometre of Parliament.
The protesters demanded “No more Fallujahs”
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said: “Five people were arrested in Parliament Square yesterday afternoon on suspicion of unlawfully demonstrating without authority having failed to give their personal details when requested by police – contrary to the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act.
“One person was de-arrested shortly afterwards. The remaining four are currently in custody at a central London police station.”

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