Hardship a reality for many students

Chloe Ferguson, NUS-USI president has responded to Economy Minister Gordon Lyons announcement of an additional £2.8 million in support for higher education students studying in Northern Ireland. 

While we welcome this additional funding and the certainty that it provides to higher education institutions as the year begin, consistently students report financial troubles as being the biggest barrier to completing their studies, and one of the main contributors to poor mental health. Hardship funds help to keep students in education. 

“However, this funding is a drop in the ocean compared to the real support students need to get through the cost of living crisis. Student finance hasn’t risen with inflation for over a decade. How is a student today supposed to survive on the same amount when electricity and gas is sky rocketing, rents are going up and food bills are also increasing? 

“Hardship funds provide vital emergency support to students who need it. But the funds are notoriously difficult to access, and often leaves students waiting several weeks for an amount which might only cover a single month’s rent. By allowing student incomes to stagnate year after year our government is letting students reach crisis point unnecessarily. We need real action to help students this winter – and we need a government back up and running.”

GP Services Being Primed for Privatisation

As GP shortages, practice closures and difficulties getting appointments are making headlines, it is worth looking behind some of the issues.

It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that GP surgeries are not part of the NHS in the same way that hospitals are. GP surgeries are private independent contractors. In most cases the doctors own or rent their premises, or work rent free from health centres and employ their own staff.

However, and with a small number of exceptions, all GP’s work is done for the NHS

We believe that for as long as GPs remain as private independent contractors there will continue to be the difficulties in recruitment and threats to services that we have been hearing about recently.

It would be inconceivable that other health and care professionals like nurses, social workers and hospital doctors would sit outside the NHS rather than be its employees/. Why should GPs  be any different?

GPs becoming NHS employees, instead of private contractors, would improve the service, reduce waiting times and address many of the problems currently faced in primary care.

There is no doubt that GP services and community care in general are severely underfunded and, just like some hospital based services, there is  more than a suspicion that this is a deliberate  political decision to run them down in preparation for privatisation.

Recently, 37 GP practices in the London area were bought over by the American multi-million dollar and Fortune 500 company, Centene-Operose. It also operates private eye and skin clinics and some private mental health services in England. The company’s main business is private health insurance.

This represents a further, and dangerous, distancing between GP services and the NHS and a further barrier between working people and free accessible healthcare.

GPs must cease operating as private contractors and become employees of the NHS like all other health and care staff and all primary care services must be fully resourced.

If there was not already enough cause for concern them the appointment by the Tory government last year of the outgoing chief executive of Operose Health as an “expert adviser for NHS transformation” should leave no doubt about the planned direction of travel.

PRIDE: Human Rights v Rainbow Capitalism

PRIDE remains important. It is a celebration but it is also a protest at the inequalities, discrimination and hatred which still persist.

The struggle for equality continues, desite recent advances. Protection from discrimination in employment, health and  housing, access to  goods and services must be secured. Family rights must be safeguarded and upheld. Sexual orientation and gender identity should never be a case for abuse or prejudice.

The commercialisation of PRIDE

In recent years it has been impossible not to notice the growing commercialisation of PRIDE.

Multi national corporations, many of them characterised by anti-worker practices, low wages, poor conditions and precarious contracts of employment, have been falling over themselves to produce ‘special’ PRIDE editions of their products and add rainbows to their packing to demonstrate their pro-PRIDE credentials.

Whether the practices of many of these corporations live up to their manufactured image is questionable. The commercial hijacking of PRIDE by companies wanting to prove that they are anti-homoophobic means little when those same companies and corporations make political donations to right wing conservative parties, exploit young people, discrimanate against women and people with disabilities, engage in oppressive working practices and avoid paying their rightful taxes. 

PRIDE has become a useful social marketing tool for corporations and brands. They use it to distract attention from the real and oppressive nature of their values and actions.

Fast food delivery companies,for example, paying poverty wages, and no sick pay or holiday pay presenting a smiling face to the public by changing its logo to rainbow colours  for PRIDE week. A cosmetics company declaring its support for PRIDE but sacking its celebrity promoter for speaking out aganist racism or the major UK bank which adds rainbow colours to its credit cards and merchandising while being guilty of gender pay discrimination, financing companies that manufacture and sell arms to Israel for use aganist Palestine and , on an environmental note, bankrolling fossil fuel companies to the tune of billions of US dollars in the last five years alone.

Rainbow capitalism has no conscience and no scrupples. If PRIDE can turn a profit or enhance its image, then it’s game on.

Endorsements by global brands do not liberate, elevate or alleviate the human condition. As we rightly celebrate PRIDE 2022, we should reflect on its origins and its purpose. We should not content ourselves with a level of recognition and acceptance inside a social order that is corrupt, oppressive and dehumanising.

Capitalism is captialism, what ever colours it chooses to dress up in.

Homelessness and Housing Crisis

Workers Party members have joined with hundreds of community workers, volunteers and concerned citizens to highlight the recent deaths of homeless people and the crisis in housing provision.

The march to Belfast City Hall was organised in response to the deaths of 14 homeless people in recent months.

The Facts & Figures

Fourteen homeless people died on our streets or hostels in the past few months.

There are currently 16,000 people in Northern Ireland officially classed as homeless.

36% of those are single men and 29% are families

There are more than 44,000 people on the Housing Executives waiting lists

In 2005 there were more than 15,000 new homes started in Northern Ireland.

Last year that figure was 7,500—a 50% decrease

 Of the total number of homes built last year only 650 were public housing

We are in a housing crisis that is taking the lives of, mostly, young homeless people and is impacting on the quality of life, the mental well-being and the opportunities for thousands of individuals and families.

Not only are we not building sufficient and affordable public housing, but the fundamental and basic human right to a roof over our heads is classed as a Workers Party members have joined with hundreds of community workers, volunteers and concerned citizens to highlight the recent deaths of homeless people and the crisis in housing provision.

Not only are we not building sufficient and affordable public housing, but the fundamental and basic human right to a roof over our heads is classed as a commodity to be profited from – the housing ‘market’.

Well intentioned as they may be, and vitally necessary as they are, short term measures and one-off initiatives are neither capable of addressing nor resolving these problems.

Only a state-controlled house building programme can begin to alleviate the current distress and dangers and eventually lead to a society in which every citizen can be guaranteed the security and dignity of a home.

The cost-of-living crisis is causing devastation for the least well off.

The following article by Nick Garbutt was first published in Scope Magazine and highlights the difficulties inflicted on poor and vulnerable people. The Workers Party analysis of poverty and austerity is rooted in its critique of the capitalist system and the absolute and immediate need for a socialist alternative.

Before, the cost of living crisis struck our welfare system was already deficient. Years of austerity coupled with barely disguised contempt for those who struggled to get by had seen to that.

A country that used to pride itself on providing a safety net for the vulnerable had turned its back.  So when banking systems all but collapsed as a result of deregulation … it was not those culpable who were forced to pick up the tab.

They continued to enrich themselves. Instead, we were told that what was needed most was a good strong dose of austerity. In practice that meant cutting benefits and other supports to the vulnerable.

At the time, and to its shame, the media bought into this and didn’t ask awkward questions. If they had they would have discovered that far from helping revive economies it has the opposite effect. Indeed every country that introduced significant austerity has seen its economy suffer, with the depth of the suffering closely related to the harshness of the austerity

In the interim we’ve learned the hard way that poverty actually kills. 

The British government’s response was one of the most severe and although it did not fix the economy it did succeed in reversing what had been steady progress in increasing life expectancy, creating the necessity for foodbanks and ensuring that many in employment became reliant on welfare to survive.

By March Richard Walker, managing director of frozen food stores Iceland, was telling BBC Radio 4 that families using food banks to keep themselves fed were having to leave root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes behind because they could not afford to cook them.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s latest rescue package may well make a difference … (but)…there are, … several problems which remain.

The absolute desperation that so many found themselves in when inflation hit at a time when household budgets were not able to cope with existing costs is the most worrying.

It demonstrated just how vulnerable poorer people are. The safety net which welfare is supposed to provide is not adequate to cater for the most basic needs.

What was really required was not just a one-off package, no matter how generous, but a reversal of the welfare policies that have become fashionable over the past decade or so.

These are based on ideas which are rooted in America, that the poor and vulnerable are somehow culpable for their own plight and that any benefits provided by the state should be the bare minimum for their survival.

And there should also be a rigorous examination of the energy industry and how it is regulated. These assets used to be publicly owned and for a very good reason.

The reason why oil and gas companies are having such a bumper time when so many are suffering is because of how the investment markets work. They don’t look at the actual amount of profit, rather they measure profit as a percentage of sales the resulting calculation constitutes the profit margin.

So therefore prices don’t just go up because the fuel is more expensive to buy they are also increased by the relevant profit margin. Hence when SSE CEO Alistair Phillips-Davies , who earned 1.6 million in 20/21 was asked about how people should cope with rising prices he did not offer to lower bills, instead he said people should: try “having a cuddle with your pets”, eating “hearty bowls of porridge” and “doing a few star jumps”.

A system that determines prices and measure performance to please investors is not one which necessarily suits the needs of people who can’t even afford to light the cooker.

 See Nick Garbutt’s article in full: https://scopeni.nicva.org/article/the-cost-of-living-crisis

Threats to Ulster University staff ‘outrageous’

The University of Ulster’s threat to deduct 100% of salary for each day that a member of staff participates in a marking and assessment boycott has been branded as ‘outrageous’ by the Workers Party

The action effectively amounts to a lockout in an attempt to force members of University and College Union (UCU) to end their industrial action.

After voting decisively in favour of industrial action, including a marking and assessment boycott, their university employers have refused to meet UCU’s reasonable and just demands in the pay and working conditions dispute, which also include a framework to eliminate zero-hours, and other insecure, contracts and meaningful action to tackle unmanageable workloads.

They are also protesting against dramatic changes to their pension rights which would see at least 35% slashed from a typical member’s guaranteed retirement income.

The latest threats come against a backdrop of similar coercions in third level education across the UK with job losses and course closures in at least a dozen universities – all of them ones which predominately service local communities, mature students and 1st generation students, meaning they will have the greatest impact on working class students

The UCU members taking industrial action here are not only seeking to protect the interests of their members but also the future security and quality of third level education.

It is clear from this and other recent instances, the sacking of the P&O workers for example, that the gains and achievements fought for and attained by workers over generations are being undermined and reversed.

We extend our solidarity and best wishes to the UCU and its members in this dispute.

Holiday Meals scheme must be funded

Workers Party representative in South Belfast, Patrick Lynn has written to the acting Education Minister Michelle McIlveen demanding that she takes the necessary steps to ensure that holiday meals money is made available this summer.

The £22m needed to fund the school summer holiday home meals scheme is claimed to be ’frozen’ because the Executive is not currently functioning due to the DUP refusing to nominate a Speaker or Deputy First Minister.

“Ninety-eight thousand children here will be dependent on these payments for regular meals during the summer holidays”, Patrick said.

” Whatever the arguments about process, and how the money can or cannot be released, the imperative is that the scheme is fully funded and that children’s health, well being and nutrition are protected,” he said.

“I have written to the Acting Education Minister Michelle McIlveen demanding that she contacts her fellow Ministers to secure their agreement to release the money immediately. This is not only possible but it has a precedent with other Ministers releasing money from their budgets for other schemes,” Patrick explained.

“There can be no excuses for depriving children of food and nutrition. There must be no excuses. If golf clubs and businesses can be given cash subsidies of over £22 billion, then vulnerable children can also be provided for.” concluded Patrick

Northern Ireland Protocol: incompetence and hypocrisy

Tuesday’s announcement of proposed changes to the existing EU Protocol reek of both hypocrisy and incompetence.

Many will ask why these relatively straightforward solutions – like a Green Lane and a Red Lane – have taken so long to get to the negotiating table.

Others will question the gross incompetence of the Tory government in its drafting and acceptance of the Protocol Bill in the first place. Yet more will point to the hypocrisy of the Irish Government, Sinn Fein and the SDLP for their aggressive defence and unconditional insistence on its full implementation when they knew all along that it was flawed and problematic.

The changes to the Protocol will take time. The changes can be made and they can wait for the amendments to take their course.

What cannot wait is the need for a fully functioning Assembly and Executive to start addressing the real and growing problems facing working people and their families, the cost of living, NHS wating lists, the shortage of public housing, low pay, integrated education, a Bill of Rights and the absence of accessible affordable childcare.

The Democratic Unionist Party must now return to Stormont, appoint a Speaker, nominate a Deputy First Minister and bring to an end, the current phase of, this dysfunctional government.

Amnesty proposals disregard the needs of victims

Irrespective of how it is dressed up, what conditions are attached or how often the British government says it – an amnesty for those responsible for murder and other serious crimes during the ‘Troubles’ will never be acceptable.

Any attempts to bypass and forgo full judicial scrutiny of legacy murders and other serious crimes of the Troubles are designed to cover up and excuse the excesses of state and terrorist actions.

Such proposals totally disregard the needs of victims, survivors and their families.

Whatever process is finally adopted it cannot and must not provide an escape route for murder irrespective of those responsible.

No Executive – No Salaries

The Democratic Unionist Party has an obligation and a responsibility to the electorate to immediately propose an Assembly Speaker, take their seats and nominate a Deputy First Minister. Nothing less is acceptable.

The Northern Ireland Protocol needs to be amended. Many of its aspects are damaging and unnecessary, but walking away from the Executive is not the answer.

We witnessed the pattern of ‘stop/start’ government throughout the last Assembly and now, yet again, the Executive has been collapsed.

The structures of government set out in the Good Friday Agreement may be understandable in the context of the time when agreement was reached, but they are no longer fit for purpose – in part due to the ways in which these structures and mechanisms have been abused.

To secure the ability of the Assembly to function, to hold parties to account and to ensure that neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein are ever able to collapse the institutions in future, we need, as a minimum,  to move from mandatory to voluntary coalition, abolish the  community designation requirements and  reform the Petition of Concern to ensure that it can never again be used to veto social or equality legislation.

In the meantime, those MLAs who are preventing the Assembly from functioning by frustrating the election of a new Speaker and blocking the formation of an Executive should have their salaries withheld until they return to government.

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No Executive – No Salaries

If DUP MLAs do not take their seats , nominate a Deputy First Minister and allow the Executive to function then they shoud not receive their salaries until they do

Sign the Petition

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