Hospital Chaplains: Doing a good job

April 8, 2009

Yesterday the National Secular Society demanded an end to the NHS funding of hospital chaplains. Coverage from the National Secular Society website is  here. There’s been a fair bit of press coverage on this, and the issue has also sparked debate within Unite.

I’ve been an atheist for the whole of my adult life. However, I think the National Secular Society has got it wrong on this one. It’s absolutely reasonable to expect district nurses to have enough respect for their patients that they don’t go around forcing prayer cards on them. Actually, it’s equally reasonable to respect the wishes of patients who choose to seek support from hospital chaplains.

As a senior trade unionist, I represent hospital chaplains. Many of them are members of Unite, and many are active trade unionists. Hospital chaplains are NHS workers – employed by the NHS on standard NHS terms and conditions. They’re subject to the same pressures as any other NHS worker. They’re multi-faith – hospital chaplains are drawn from most major faith groups in the UK. Their job isn’t to proselytise. They’re there to provide spiritual and pastoral care to patients and patients’ families. My consistent experience has been that they do so in an open and generous way, with no question of quizzing people about their faith or trying to convert them to a particular religion.

At times I’ve worked closely with hospital chaplains in my role as a speech and language therapist. I worked for a few years on a neonatal unit, with premature or seriously ill babies. I saw for myself the care and support given by hospital chaplains to the families of critically ill babies, and the way their care continued for the families who lost their babies. We have a target driven NHS these days. There’s no time for nurses to sit and talk to the mother of a dying child, or to someone who is fearful of their own death, or to the wife who has just lost a cherished husband. Hospital chaplains can, and do, and do so with enormous skill and commitment. Their employment represents an important strand of humanity in an NHS that is under attack.

Hospital chaplains have been seen as a soft target for management cuts in recent years. They deserve the solidarity and support of trade unionists. I would be very sorry indeed if we lost hospital chaplains. Hospitals would be poorer places without them.


Solidarity with the Visteon Occupation

April 7, 2009

I was at an inspiring meeting in North London last night – a solidarity meeting with the Visteon workers who are in occupation now.

On Tuesday last week, over 500 Visteon workers were sacked with a few minutes notice. They were told to clear their lockers and get out. Some of them had been employed there for more than 40 years. There was no warning, and no consultation. They were told there’s no money for redundancy pay, and they’ll get the statutory minimum. They didn’t even get their pay for the final week at work.

What did they do? At two of the three plants involved (Enfield and Belfast) they’ve gone into occupation.

Visteon was hived off by Ford back in 2000, but workers were told they were guaranteed Ford contracts for life. That would mean no compulsory redundancies. Instead, Ford is saying ‘Nothing to do with us’, while Visteon has simply dumped them. The workers are fighting for a settlement that treats them like human beings – either for the plants to stay open, or for a fair redundancy package.

There’s a jobs massacre going on – in construction, in finance, in manufacturing generally – and right at the sharp end of things, in car plants and in motor components plants like Visteon. Far too much of this is happening without a fightback.

That’s why it’s so brilliant to see the Visteon workers standing up for their right to be treated with respect, and sending out a message loud and clear, ‘Workers fight back’.

It was a privilege to hear the Visteon workers yesterday talking about their fight. They spoke of their absolute determination to keep going, of the practical problems of sleeping in shifts in a building with no heating and limited washing facilities, and of the confidence that widespread solidarity has given them.

The stakes are very high here. The convenor and deputy convenor were threatened with two year jail sentences at the High Court yesterday. There’s now a brief stalemate while talks take place. What a disgrace that we have a Government that allows workers to be sacked with a few minutes notice, but has no problem with those same workers being jailed for defending their jobs.

Check out the  video, and download the collection sheet. This is a fight that has to win. The job of trade unionists and socialists is to deliver the practical solidarity that can ensure that victory.


Executive Council Report: March 2009

March 30, 2009

A report of the March Executive Council meeting is here. This report is obviously a personal one, giving my own impressions of the meeting. The document should in no way be seen as an official record of the meeting.

I spoke several times at this meeting about the NHS, and the Government’s moves to dismantle NHS community services. My contributions at the Executive Council meeting reflect my growing concern that the union response falls short of what is needed to withstand these attacks.


Money for the banks, cuts for the NHS

March 22, 2009

Unite organises workers in the finance sector. They’re not all ‘greedy bankers’ – in fact they earn, on average, around £15,000 a year. One of the real industrial problems they are now facing is that members of the public come into banks and abuse staff, somehow believing that they’re all greedy fat cats, and that they’re all responsible for the catastrophic recession.

At the Unite Executive Council last week, Rob McGregor, National Officer for Finance, reported on the massive job losses now taking place in the sector. He also gave us a reminder of just how much of our money has been poured into bailing out the banks (with a view to nationalising the debt and re-privatising the profit). The real City fat cats want to get back to ‘business as usual’ as soon as they can, and the Government is happy to support them. There is, of course, no trade union representation in the FSA, the agency that pretends to regulate financial services in the UK.

The public money spent on ‘capitalising’ the banks now stands at an astonishing £900 billion. This compares with only £82 billion in total spent on education – schools, colleges and universities.

Pouring this kind of money into banks has serious implications for public sector spending. The Government is pretty cagey about this, but reports are now emerging about the deep spending cuts that are planned for the NHS.

Monitor, the regulator of Foundation Trusts, has warned that NHS Trusts applying for foundation status will be required in the future to demonstrate that they can survive if their income grows by only 0.7 per cent a year from 2011-12 onwards, compared with 2.2 per cent next year. The Monitor estimate for ‘efficiency savings’ (the Government’s euphemism for cuts) stands at 4 to 4.5 per cent in 2011-12.

What does this mean? Real cuts of up to 3.8 per cent a year. The HSJ story on all this is here .

It may well be even worse than this. Sue Slipman, the Foundation Trust Network Director, says, ‘We all know it’s going to be infinitely more grim than the Monitor figures suggest’.

And Price Waterhouse Cooper – a company that knows nothing about healthcare but a good deal about money – says that Primary Care Trusts should reckon on cutting their spending by up to £6 billion between 2011-12 and 2012-13.

We have a Government that bails out banks but shows utter contempt for workers. We have a system – capitalism – that looks ever more corrupt.


Transforming Community Services: An attack that has to be stopped

March 15, 2009

I’ve posted before on the ‘Transforming Community Services’ guidance now being implemented across England. A detailed analysis of what’s happening is here. We have to understand what’s happening in order to resist it.

‘Transforming Community Services’ would be more accurately described as Transferring Community Services’ – transferring them out of the NHS. The clear intention is to strip community healthcare out of the NHS altogether. This has been an ambition of this reactionary Government since 2005. Then, we forced them to back down. Now, they are counting on unions falling into line as a general election looms.

This is an ideological attack, from a Government that has an increasingly open contempt for workers and trade unionists. The NHS was one of the greatest achievements of the last century. If our unions don’t wake up to the scale of the threat here, the loss of the NHS will be one of the greatest defeats of this one.


Community Healthcare: Opportunities for big business to make big profits

March 4, 2009

Many of us think of the NHS in terms of hospitals, cancer, cardiac arrests and blue light emergencies. Actually most NHS care is a lot less exciting than this. Around 80% of NHS appointments are in ‘primary care’ – the unglamorous community services offered by GPs, health visitors, district nurses, speech and language therapists and so on.

This is the ‘bread and butter’ work of the NHS. It doesn’t make for good TV, so we don’t have the primary care equivalent of Casualty or Holby City. But primary care is about ensuring quality of life for elderly people, people with disabilities, people with terminal illnesses, children.

The Government, through a vicious set of proposals called ‘Transforming Community Services’, is now trying to strip community healthcare out of the NHS. Short term, we’ll see a return to the 1930s – healthcare provided by a ragbag of charities, social enterprise companies and private companies. Longer term, it is a virtual certainty that big business will dominate the NHS ‘market’.

A brief commentary on the proposals is here. This was prepared for a Unite meeting tomorrow. I’m working at the moment on a much more detailed analysis of this. I regard ‘Transforming Community Services’ as the most serious threat the NHS has faced yet. The damage that will be done to the NHS (and to NHS workers) is immense.

It is essential that our trade unions oppose this nonsense at national level. We cannot possibly have the level of fightback we need if it is left to trade union activists to resist a national attack at local level.


Ivan Cameron – and the loss of expert care

February 26, 2009

I was genuinely saddened by the death of Ivan Cameron. The death of any child is a tragedy – no less so when they have profound disabilities. It’s clear from media coverage that Ivan was a much-loved child who had the very best care available. It’s also clear that he had informed, hands-on parents who worked phenomenally hard to ensure he had the best quality of life that was achievable.

For several years, Ivan Cameron attended the Cheyne Day Centre five days a week. I used to know the Cheyne Centre well a few years ago  – I worked sometimes with Cheyne staff, and visited the Centre regularly.  Cheyne was an absolute centre of excellence. It offered superb integrated care and intensive support for children with the most severe disabilities. Classroom and therapy staff worked together extraordinarily well, and the expertise and commitment of all staff were impressive. I have never seen care of this standard offered anywhere else.

The Cheyne Day Centre has gone now. It was closed down in 2007, essentially for financial reasons. Places like Cheyne cost a great deal of money to run. Over the last few years of its existence, it was increasingly clear that Cheyne was in trouble. Local authorities across London refused to pay for children to attend, hiding behind the pretence that mainstream schools or other special schools could offer the same provision. This was, of course, not true. The Primary Care Trust with overall responsibility for Cheyne waited until Ivan Cameron left before announcing the decision to close the centre. One might speculate that this was for political reasons. Just think of the adverse publicity that might have ensued otherwise.

In 2004, when Cheyne was initially under threat, the local Overview and Scrutiny Committee held its own hearing into the proposal. The report is here  – and it still makes moving reading.

David Cameron, then a prospective Cheyne parent, is reported to have reported the closure of the Centre as ‘a matter of life or death’ for his child.

A staff member commented that ‘Cheyne was a small, nurturing, calm, quiet environment where intensive and early intervention work could be undertaken, offering these severely disadvantaged children a chance to make sense of their world’.

The parent of a child at Cheyne said that the ‘Cheyne Day Centre offered a unique quality service, a model of excellence in the treatment of these kinds of severely disabled children. These children and their families had for too long been hidden and beaten down, but it was important that their needs were not ignored’.

Children like Ivan Cameron, with these profound disabilities, very often have short lives. There are choices to be made here. We can offer these children basic medical care and education that doesn’t meet their needs, and wait for them to die. Alternatively we can understand that they are human beings with real intrinsic worth, and we can value them and nurture them for who they are. I know which of these I want to see.

Public services are under attack. The overall direction of travel in the NHS is for cheap (and not very cheerful) care. ‘Inclusion’ in mainstream education can be an excuse for not spending the money on highly specialist provision. The death of Ivan Cameron is a tragedy. The loss of the superb specialist services that Ivan accessed is an ongoing  tragedy for other disabled children.