Sunday, 17 September 2017

‘Broken’ PIP assessment system isn’t working for people living with MS.

North Staffs Green Party today put its support behind a campaign by the Multiple Sclerosis Society calling for an improvement to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments.

A report published by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) this week has shown that PIP is not working for people living with long term medical conditions and disabilities.

Since the introduction of PIP in October 2013 people living with MS have lost some £6million in benefits.

Figures obtained by the MS Society from the Department of Work and Pensions show that between the introduction of PIP in 2013 and October 2016, 2600 people previously on the highest mobility component of the old Disability Living Allowance have had their payments cut; 800 people claiming the highest care component on the old system have also lost out.

The report shows that over half the people who responded to a survey conducted by the DBC felt that DWP assessors didn’t properly understand their condition. Three quarters of respondents said that applying for PIP had caused them levels of anxiety that made their condition worse.

MS Society Director of External Affairs Genevieve Edwards said’ these staggering figures show how PIP is failing people with MS who need the highest level of support’.

She added that it ‘doesn’t make sense that people are losing money they once qualified for when they are living with a progressive condition’.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said, ‘this is another example of the government cutting support for vulnerable people for no good reason, the impact of PIP stress on the physical and mental health of claimants even if they are successful can be hugely damaging’.

The MS society are calling on the government to reform what they describe as a ‘broken’ system.

Adam Colclough said, ‘as a party we are fully behind the MS Society in this campaign and will be supporting them locally in any way we can’.

The campaign is set to last for six weeks.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Discussion paper highlights more roads are not the answer to city’s traffic problems.

Building more roads is not the answer to solving Stoke-on-Trent’s traffic problems says North Staffs Green Party Coordinator Jan Zablocki in a newly published discussion paper.

The paper highlights the local and global impact of traffic congestion and the air pollution it causes, citing World Health Organisation figures showing that globally air pollution causes 467,000 premature deaths every year. In the UK, the Institute for Public Policy Research described the air quality in London as ‘both lethal and illegal’, and linking it to 9000 premature deaths.

The report also highlights the rapid growth in the number of cars on Britain’s roads, up by 680,00 from 31.1 million in 2012 to 37.5 million today. This has caused congestion on A roads across the country with average speeds falling to less than 20mph, in Stoke-on-Trent they are as low as 18.5mph.

Locally traffic congestion has led to air quality levels in the city being in excess of UK and EU safe limits with particular hotspots in Meir, Basford, Weston Coyney and Bentilee. Author Jan Zablocki draws parallels between the health implications of traffic pollution and the levels of illness faced by generations living before the 1956 Clean Air Act.

In the second part of the paper he demonstrates how a fully integrated transport system, linking rails, bus and tram networks through a ‘hub’ on Festival Park along with improved facilities for walking and cycling could drive improvements in public health and strengthen the local economy.

Campaigns Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party Adam Colclough described the discussion paper as ‘an impressive analysis of the problems we have now that leads on to highly credible suggestions as to how we can turn things around’.

He added that ‘in the two parliamentary elections we fought this year sorting out the city’s transport system was a major issue. Only the Green Party has shown the imagination to suggest an alternative to building more roads, we have also, as this paper demonstrates, advanced a clear and workable alternative.’
At the 2017 general election the Green Party campaigned on a manifesto proposing to take the railways back into public ownership, improve regional rail networks and to improve the overall quality and accessibility of public transport. The Greens also pledged to invest in low traffic neighbourhoods, improving facilities for walking and cycling and to tackle air pollution.

Jan Zablocki will be taking part in a broadcast on Staffslive Radio presented by Adam Gratton on Wednesday 20th September at 11.30am during which he will be discussing his paper and the Green Party’s transport policy.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Cash ‘leaking’ from the NHS through cost of PFI

A report from the Centre for Health and Public Interest (CHPI) published today highlights the huge cost of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes to the NHS.

PFI is a government backed scheme under which private companies provide money to build new hospitals paid back with interest by the NHS.

The report examined 107 PFI contracts in England and found that the companies involved have generated £831million over the past six years. This money, CHPI say would have been better spent on patient services.

In their report, they call for a cap on PFI costs and for the government to buy out contracts where private companies are making too much profit at the expense of taxpayers.

Speaking to the BBC CHPI chair Colin Leys said the report showed for the first time ‘the huge amount of taxpayer’s money leaking out of the NHS’ through PFI costs.

He added that given the ‘extreme austerity’ faced by NHS services the government needs to act urgently.

Commenting on the CHPI report British Medical Association council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said NHS providers and commissioners were ‘being pushed to breaking point’ by the cost of PFI.

He described the scheme as an ‘extortionate drain on the public purse’, and said that private companies were ‘gaining at the expense of tax-payers and patients’, something he said was ‘scandalous’.

Dr Nagpaul backed the call by CHPI for the government to either renegotiate or buy out PFI contracts.

Speaking to the BBC a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that the NHS was recognised by the independent Commonwealth Fund as being ‘the most efficient healthcare system in the world’, and that PFI costs accounted for just 3% of its annual budget.

Despite the attempts to persuade patients and voters alike differently on the part of the Department of Health this report will have struck a chord with anyone who has used an NHS hospital over the twenty years since PFI was launched.

The buildings may have been transformed from institutional monoliths into the sort of slick architecture that wins prizes, this though, has come at a price.

Private finance has muscled its way into the once sacred turf of the NHS, either in the shape of PFI or retail outlets turning the foyers of hospitals into another place to shop or sip coffee.

There is a real risk this may pave the way for privatization by the back door, if Costa can sell you a coffee while you wait to have your ingrown toenail fixed, why can’t Virgin provide the chiropodist who sorts it out?

That is a question the founders of the NHS would have been shocked to hear asked, because they know that behind it lurks the much more troubling one of how do the people who can’t afford a skinny latte, let alone the cost of falling ill, pay for their healthcare in a system where the hospitals all look like hotels.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Breaking Point: Inequality is damaging our mental health.

Mental illness is something many people will experience over the course of their life in one form or another. It is something we are more comfortable talking about now than we were in the past, even so a worrying level of stigma still surrounds the issue.

This is deeply problematic because, as one leading charity has noted recently, the decline in our national mental wellbeing is a potential public health crisis. One that has its most damaging impact on the most vulnerable members of society and can be linked to the ‘austerity’ policies of the past decade.

The shocking reality is that behind the glitz and gleaming glass towers, the regenerated mill towns and the new tech based industries, if you are poor, unemployed or in a low paid job; then your physical and mental health will be worse and you are at risk of dying sooner.

In their ‘Surviving or Thriving’ report published earlier this year the Mental Health Foundation painted a bleak picture of the mental health of the UK in 2017. Out of the people they spoke to as part of their research 65% said they had experienced some type of mental health problem, amongst the respondents who were unemployed or in low paid work that rose to 85%.

The most common problems reported were depression, anxiety and panic attacks, all of which can be linked to the stresses associated with life in the ‘precariat’, as the new class of insecure workers have come to be known.

The report concludes that the mental health of the UK is deteriorating, with the young and members of the lowest socio-economic group suffering most. This is reflected in the number of people accessing mental health services, NHS Digital record this as 1,227,312 for the year to March, with 7843 people requiring treatment on acute wards and 5637 on general wards, 21.2% of the people who accessed mental health services over this period were aged under 19.

Is there a case for attributing this decline in our national mental wellbeing to inequality as the Mental Health Foundation claims? Another charity, The Equality Trust has highlighted some indicators that the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK has grown alarmingly over the past decade.

These include concerns expressed by UNICEF about levels of child poverty, the Social Mobility Commission saying that twenty years of government policy initiatives have failed to ‘level the playing field’ for individuals and communities living in poverty; and research published by Oxford University suggesting the number of people using food banks is set to rise.

Over the past ten years the poorest tenth of the population has seen a huge fall in its collective income to just 1.3% of that for the nation, the richest tenth claims 31% (source: The Poverty Site). This has resulted in a situation where, as Christians Against Poverty put it the poorest and most vulnerable people are forced to walk a ‘financial tightrope’.

Faced with such a situation on a daily basis is it any wonder that it has a detrimental impact on people’s physical and mental health?

Health inequalities, both physical and mental, can be linked, among other factors, to the amount of control an individual’s socio-economic position gives them over their daily lives. Unemployment, poor housing, lack of security for those in low paid work can all aggravate health problems. The poor die younger and when people in that group have been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, they die even younger still.

Mental health problems amongst people who are out of work can be linked to loss of status and a sense of purpose, along with grinding money worries and the relentless struggle to qualify and retain even the limited support on offer from the DWP. Even when people find a job working, if the job in question is low paid, insecure and repetitive can cause stress levels that are unhealthy.

City life is more stressful than rural living, particularly in disadvantaged communities where there is more vandalism, higher crime rates and more opportunities to make unhealthy lifestyle choices. People living in disadvantaged communities also tend to have weaker social support networks and members often lack the social and cultural capital necessary to seek help effectively.

For people living in such circumstances and experiencing mental health problems along with all the above problems there is the added difficulty of stigma making them into a separate minority existing on the edge of an already marginalized community.
The government defines tackling inequality as:

‘Addressing the causes and consequences of stigma, discrimination, social inequality and exclusion on service users, carers and mental health services’
(cited in Pilgrim, 2008: pp105)

The evidence shown so far demonstrates that despite claims to the contrary the current government, and many of its predecessors, has failed to do so in any meaningful way. There is, sadly, little chance that any government will so long as we as a country remain wedded to the economic and social policies of the past forty years.

There is a need for fresh and radical thinking of a sort the three mainstream political parties simply cannot provide. In this respect, as in so many others, the Green Party has a real alternative to offer.

In their manifesto at this year’s general election they said they would bring mental healthcare in line with physical health, making parity of esteem a reality not just an empty promise. They also pledged to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness and to tackle the inequality that causes it by reforming the benefits system.

In their wider policy offer they called for the introduction of a four- day working week to help reduce workplace stress and make our economy more productive. They also said they would take steps to look into introducing a universal basic income to close forever the poverty trap and set people free to be more creative.

Theirs is a vison of a fairer Britain that really does work for all its people. A country where wealth and opportunity are shared for the good of all.

As a volunteer and trustee at two mental health charities I fully endorse the Green Party’s plans to tackle inequality and the health problems it creates.

Over the past century Britain has made huge strides in overcoming many of its public health problems, at the same time we have consigned once entrenched prejudices to the cultural dustbin. I believe that with the sort of fresh thinking provide by the Green Party we can do the same for mental illness and the stigma that still too often surrounds it.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Council to spend £335,000 on cleaning up Hanley.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to spend £335,000 on tackling anti-social behaviour in Hanley.

Under a proposed public spaces protection order begging and street drinking would be criminalized and the police would have new powers to move on rough sleepers.

Money from the pot will also be spent on funding three new PCSOs to patrol the town centre and £10,000 will be spent on using vinyl window stickers to smarten up empty shops.

The plan will see the creation of a new post for a city centre strategic coordinator with a salary of £50,000 to oversee the project.

Spending on pastoral support for street drinkers, rough sleepers and other people coping with chaotic lived will be set at £35,000.

Jonathan Bellamy chair of the City Centre Partnership welcomed the plan saying it would ‘see a return as people will feel safer and will therefore spend more time in the town centre.’

The council will also set up a City Centre Business Improvement District (BID) to raise money from local businesses ring fenced to be spent in the town centre.

Is this money well spent? Hanley certainly has its problems. Like all town centres it is a magnet for the troubled and the lost.

At a time when Stoke-on-Trent as a newly shortlisted runner to be the 2021 City of Culture needs to show its best face to the world. Look beyond the headline figure and something more problematic can be seen.

Make no mistake £335,000 is a serious chunk of cash, a large slice of which, £961,00 a week to be exact, will be paid to the new strategic coordinator.

Only £631,00 a week will be spent on pastoral care for people who, for the most part, have ended up on the streets through bad luck rather than personal failings. The money will be split between multiple charities and projects, reducing the figure even further.

This seems like a strange, but sadly not unfamiliar, set of priorities. Once again hiring a highly paid manager to oversee services has been put ahead of funding said services properly. Past experience has taught everyone outside the ivory tower inhabited by senior council officers that this doesn't work.

Setting up a BID may prove problematic too if the experience of people in nearby Newcastle is anything to go by. Some businesses there have complained of being strong armed into joining.

There is also the small matter of communities being made up of more than businesses, but under BID only business owners, many of whom might live out of the area, will have a say on how the money raised is spent. That is far from democratic and could cause a serious clash of interests.

There is also the perennial problem of how to spread the benefits out to the other five towns.

Hanley is on the up after years of decline, walk down Piccadilly and it almost seems cosmopolitan, slickly metropolitan certainly. That is a good thing, every city needs a centre, but you can't solve social problems just by moving them on to somewhere else.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Democracy dies in darkness.

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time, setting up an independent panel to scrutinize allowances paid to members of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Like many bold initiatives before it this one has hit the rocks of unforeseen problems. The announcement of who would sit on the panel was due to be made last Thursday and has now been delayed.

Elections monitoring officer Fiona Ledden told the Sentinel thus was due to ‘technical’ issues. Code, it would seem, for concerns having been expressed by Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez about the appointment of Alan Barrett to sit on the members remuneration panel.

Mr Barrett was a leading light in the March on Stoke campaign against the building of a new civic centre. In 2014, he launched a petition calling for a 30% cut in councillor’s allowances.

In the headline to an article published on Friday the Sentinel called the holding back of an announcement about the panel a ‘mystery’. You probably don't need Sherlock on speed dial to work out what's going on.

If you do and you happen to think politics is more than just a distraction, then you will have ample cause for concern.

What has happened is that the political establishment, represented here by our own dear council, has dipped a toe into the water of transparency, only to pull back at the last moment.

There is something distinctly farcical about the claim made by the Labour leader that Alan Barratt was too ‘political’ a figure to sit on the panel.

Having met him on several occasions I would agree that he is a man of strong opinions, not all of them relating to politics. He is also someone with a strong sense of public service and a demonstrable commitment to working to improve his community.

Those are, you might reasonably think, the sort of qualities you'd look for in a councillor. They certainly more than qualify him to scrutinize how councillors are paid.

I find it hard to believe that someone who has been around the block as many times as Mr Pervez fails to realize how important effective scrutiny is to the political process. Particularly when the people doing it ask awkward questions; which is exactly what I'd expect Alan Barratt to do.

Why does all this matter? It's hardly something hipster types munching on artisan sandwiches in the Cultural Quarter are talking about between bites, never mind those who inhabit the corridors of power.

It matters because it reveals a wider malaise in the state of politics. We are rapidly reaching a state where two rival camps warily eye each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

On one side, we have an establishment cocooned within the Westminster bubble that increasingly fears and distrusts a public it feels are unpredictable. In the other corner stand we the public growing ever more sceptical and restive by the day.

Democracy is a fragile flower, it dies in darkness, particularly if its roots are doused in dishonesty. If we want it to thrive then we have to let in the light of transparency.

The bad old days when payments for special responsibilities were handed out like prizes at a school sports day with everyone sure of getting something, whether they deserved it or not, are long over. Today's councillors serving larger wards for the most part deliver value for money.

As the old saying goes if members of the council have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear.

By acting like they do and quibbling over an entirely suitable appointment, they are helping to fuel a distrust that will make their already difficult job even harder.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

We have to move beyond ‘them and us’ and recognize there is just ‘us’.

There was something tragically inevitable about waking up on Monday morning to hear there had been another ‘terrorist incident’ in London. This time the victims were worshippers leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park after evening prayers mown down by a van driven by Cardiff born Darren Osborne, different community; the misery and mayhem is the same.

The authorities were right to describe his actions as a terrorist attack instead of speculating about his mental state or falling back on describing him as a ‘loner’. Unfortunately that he was able to commit the crime at all shows how the already flawed PREVENT program ignores white extremism.

This is due to a number of factors coming together to make a combination of miscalculations with toxic consequences.

For years, experts have warned about the steady rise of right wing extremism, particularly in white working class communities that feel themselves to have been marginalized. The myopic focus of PREVENT on Islamic radicalization and its clumsy attempts to address the problem, most of which seem to have created more trouble than they solved, has pushed everything else to the sidelines.

Meanwhile in communities that feel they have been forgotten the insidious voice of extremism with its reassuring, though false, explanation that for every problem there’s a scapegoat has been quietly gaining ground.

Supporting Brexit does not automatically equate to endorsing right wing politics, let alone extremism, but how the leave campaign was run legitimized many of the tactics extremists use. It portrayed an image of plucky Britain being kept down by an expansionist EU, never mind the fact that we have gained more from Europe than it took form us, fear won the day.

The rhetoric that ‘they’ are out to get ‘us’, to turn our green and pleasant land into a client state of some larger empire can and is easily expropriated by extremists with an axe to grind and a desire for power without responsibility. There is a tragic irony that the concerns of the likes of Darren Osborne and the people they have been brainwashed into thinking are ‘other’ and therefore dangerous, lack of jobs and housing a gnawing feeling that they have no control over how and how fast the world around them is changing, are marked by their similarity.

The finger of blame must also point to what might be called the ‘metropolitan elite’, be they nominally on the left or right politically. They are profoundly uncomfortable with anyone from outside the, metaphorically, gated community they inhabit.

If they think about right wing extremists at all, they do so in terms of shaven headed stereotypes with tattooed knuckles and single figure reading ages. People like that might talk about fighting in the streets, but they lack the organizational ability to take action. It is a viewpoint similar in its complacency to that their great grandparents might have held regarding whether or not those funny little Japanese soldiers could capture Singapore; we all know how that ended.

The truth is that it is astonishingly easy to be an effective terrorist. All you really need is a van, some simplistic ideas about who is to blame for your misfortunes and a feeling that nothing you can do will ever put them right.

The one positive that can be drawn from the attacks in Manchester, London and elsewhere is that when the worst happened it brought out the best in ordinary Britons. Presented with a need to help others people filled whole warehouses with food and clothing donated for fire victims in a matter of hours, taxi drivers switched off their meters to take frightened teenagers home when a concert ended in bloodshed.

That sends a powerful message to the people, whatever cause they pretend to do so in the name of, who want to attain power by fostering division. As the late Jo Cox, herself a victim of extremism put it there is more that unites us than keeps us apart.

Whatever horrors we face, and there are likely to be more on the way however much money we spend on security, if we want to be safe we have to understand there is no ‘them and us’; there’s just us.