Recent Articles

When will Michael Gove take responsibility for failing Free Schools or Academies?

by Natalie Bennett     October 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

Free Schools and Academies are currently imposing a revolution in British education, but at great cost to many pupils’ education and public funds.

When local authorities had oversight, they were expected to understand what was going on, keep an eye on spending and step in if anything started to go off the rails. But what now?

The Al-Madinah free school in Derby was subjected to emergency closure, all of its pupils sent home for “health and safety” reasons, while it be given the lowest possible rating by Ofsted. Separately, there are investigations about possible financial irregularities in the letting of contracts at the school.

And a knighted superhead in the terminology of the tabloids, has pleaded guilty to six counts of false accounting and been sentenced to two years’ jail, albeit a suspended sentence, relating to a reported £900,000 in payments to him.

Meanwhile, at the Quintin Kynaston Community Academy, where the Department of Education concluded there had been misuse of public funds, and the head resigned when her situation became “untenable”.

Given that these free schools are directly under Michael Gove, is he going to take responsibility and resign? Of course not.

Indeed, David Cameron went out of his way at Tory conference last week to gush about just how well Mr Gove was doing. But it is important that we look at the trend in what’s happening here: identify it and highlight it.

The importing of the ethos of the City and the financial sector into schools – that the ‘superhead’, some kind of ‘educational master of the universe’ can transform through their will and brilliance an entire educational community, and in doing so they have a free hand. Of course we know how well that ended in the City: fraud, mismanagement and chaos.

The idea of more freedom for heads could and should be a positive – if Mr Gove stopped trying to dictate teaching methods (such as phonics), stopped shoving children through endless exams as though they were sausages, and dictating what literary texts they should read.

But that doesn’t mean there doesn’t need to be oversight – which should be local and democratic. Schools are there for their communities –and they should be controlled by those communities, through democratically elected councillors.

What we can do to help Syrians now

by Natalie Bennett     September 1, 2013 at 9:30 am

When we are thinking today about Syria there’s only one place to start: the desperate situation of up to 8 million people in urgent need of help.

More than a million and a half are refugees in neighbouring countries, states that have their own problems, serious economic strains, and that need help to provide the homes, the blankets, the care, that these often traumatised refugees need.

Millions more are displaced, or at risk, within Syria. We need to ensure that every effort is made to get humanitarian supplies, medical supplies, to them.

And we need to find a way for the UN to protect them from future attacks of all kinds, to fulfil its responsibility to protect. The UN should be creating safe corridors through which they can escape – and eventually to achieve a ceasefire in the civil war.

I agree with President Obama on one thing: “We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.” Indeed, we – the international community, acting collectively under UN auspices — must save them from attacks of all kinds.

And yet the US focus, the French focus, is on what are clearly plans for a missile strike against the Syrian regime, a strike that no one is claiming is going to remove the dreadful President Assad, that no one claims is going to take any productive step towards helping to construct an alternative government for Syria, a strike that will, simply, take more lives, including, undoubtedly, lives of people, men, women, and children, who have nothing to do with the conflict, but are simply trying to survive in the middle of an awful civil war.

But there’s no evidence, no sense, in the claim that a US missile strike, covered with a fig leaf of whatever other countries beyond France can be persuaded, bribed or pushed into “participation” in the attack, is going to stop any future gas attack, from whichever side it might come.

And no, we haven’t seen real evidence, independent scrutiny, in what happened in that hell in a Damascus suburb on August 21. John Kerry says: “This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.” Well, we’ve heard that before, and we’ve good reason not to believe it.

The vote in Parliament this week was a big step forward – a step forward for British democracy, a step forward for our place in the world. And the impact has been found around the world.

It seems unlikely that this evening’s decision by President Obama to refer his plans for an attack to Congress would have occurred without the Westminster vote. But is for Britain this should be only the start. We could take three more steps – important steps.

1. Call off the world’s biggest arms fair planned for London next month.

2. Stop selling UK arms to abusive regimes. Our £12bn arms industry is a trade in misery, in death, in supporting regimes like that of President Assad, and the dreadful human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

3. Scrap Trident nuclear weapons, making us truly world leaders. So I say to Congress, I say to President Hollande, I say to whichever Arab regime the Americans are hoping to bribe, bully or persuade on board an attack, please, stop, think.

The combined UN-regional talks route to a ceasefire in Syria is a difficult route, strewn with obstacles. But it’s the legal route. It’s the route that can help the people of Syria and the region to together find a way forward – not have it imposed on them, as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, had the route imposed on them, with continuing awful results.

The route to justice for a horrific gas attack is the International Criminal Court. As Caroline Lucas said this week: “Crimes against humanity and international law have been committed. Once there is evidence of responsibility for these appalling attacks, those responsible must be dealt with by the International Criminal Court.”

The UN and the International Criminal Court are the right routes. But it’s time the world – America, Nato, the UK – took the right route.

This article is an adaption of a speech I made today at the No Attack on Syria demonstration.

Why Zero-hours contracts should be banned

by Natalie Bennett     August 8, 2013 at 9:02 am

Imagine you get a phone call at 6am each morning, to tell you if you’ll get any work – or pay – each day. You’re awake, dressed, waiting, then it’s “stand down”. That can happen five days in a row, and you’ll get to the end of the week without a penny coming in to your pocket.

Imagine you’ve got to arrange childcare whenever you have to go to work – and you only get a couple of hours’ notice that you have to go to work. That’s not a situation that far too many British workers have to imagine – that’s their reality.

All of those cases I was told about by audiences to whom I’d been speaking about zero-hours contracts. And they’ve strengthened my conviction that these contracts should be banned.

It’s an issue that I’ve been addressing since I was elected Green Party leader almost a year ago, and I’ve noticed a trend. When I first asked meetings “do you know what zero-hours contracts are?”, I’d get lots of head-shaking, and would need to explain. Yet in the past month or two, that’s rare – in part no doubt because of publicity about the issue, but also it seems because the employment practice is spreading fast.

It’s still most common, and most known, in the sectors in which it began, in retail and care. And defenders of zero-hours contracts, like this Telegraph leader, which claims “many people have to take uncertain, unskilled jobs is because they lack the training to do anything else”. And many of the high-profile cases that have emerged in recent days, McDonald’s and Subway, and Sports Direct, have been in retail.

But – ignoring the question of whether caring for vulnerable elderly, disabled or young people really is something that should be regarded as an “uncertain, unskilled” job (or for the fact that other countries treat retailing as a proper career) – that’s a misunderstanding.

For these contracts are spreading like a disease among a wide range of workers, from academics, to IT professionals, to accountants, to lawyers, to doctors and nurses.

One claim often made about these contracts – indeed it was made yesterday morning by Ruth Porter of the Institute for Economic Affairs when we debated the issue on BBC Radio Ulster– is that they are desperately needed by struggling small businesses. But that’s belied by the facts – it’s 23% of workplaces with more than 100 employees that are using them, and only 6% of the businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

Yes, there are a few workers who these contracts suit perfectly, and they might be disadvantaged by a ban (by everette at testsforge). But the cost of having them available to employers, and used with abandon, far exceeds any benefit.

Flexibility can be maintained without leaving workers trapped, as Larry Elliot in the Guardian said, in a digitised version of the early 19tt century dockers line-up. Seasonal contracts, contracts with guaranteed hours that are flexible about when those hours are worked and allow staff to take other jobs as well, we might look at the German model which demands that a maximum of 25% of a contract can be flexible hours.

The Green Party is calling for zero-hours contracts to be banned, as part of a broader shake up of our labour laws. What we need from our economy are jobs that workers can build their life on – that pay a living wage.

Then workers can rent homes, start families, think about mortgages – or at the very least be certain of being able to pay for food and essential bills at the end of the week.

Has overseas anger sunk Cameron’s plan to charge certain immigrants bond money?

by Natalie Bennett     June 26, 2013 at 11:54 am

From a British perspective, this news story looks like a familiar model: government floats trial balloon that it hopes will become policy in Sunday papers, it is shot down by Tuesday night, and it is remembered at most as an incidental footnote in political history.

That’s the obvious fate of the proposal, presented with the backing of Theresa May and Nick Clegg in the Sunday Times (paywall), to force visitors from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana to pay a £3,000 bond before they can get a visa, to be repaid after they leave the country within the limits of its term. These states were labelled “high-risk” for over-stayers. (Labour had twice suggested similar schemes when it was in government, but they never came into being.)

David Cameron last night “slammed the brakes on the proposal”, in the terms of the Financial Times (partial paywall), on the basis that he doesn’t want to undermine “his growth agenda or the ‘open for business’ message he delivered on a recent trip to India”.

Outside the UK, in particular in the countries affected, however, the impact will, however, I’m afraid last a lot longer than the Sunday papers. That was clear to me after an appearance on Indian television last night (from London) to speak about the visa plan, when I was almost buried at times under giant gushes of anger, driven a sense of humiliation and ingratitude, from representatives of the business community, commentators and the host.

That’s widely reflected in the Indian media and blogosphere – the well-known FirstPost calling for matching retaliatory action against UK visitors. Discussion on the television show focused particularly on how the British economy could be damaged, with India being the fifth-largest source of foreign investment into Britain, and its home firm Tata the largest private-sector employer. “It seems that Britain is no longer interested [in trade],” The Economic Times quoted an unidentified CEO as saying.

Unsurprisingly, there seems to be similar anger in Nigeria, Ghana, and I’ve no doubt the other states.

I had a clear message that I hope got through to what I was told was up to 100 million viewers on The Newshour – that despite the stance of the British Government and Labour Party, both chasing after UKIP voters with astonishing desperation – the visa bond did not reflect the general view of the British public.

I was clearly stating that the Green Party is utterly opposed to the idea of the bonds – and more broadly to the government’s approach to immigration, and its attempts to drive down number of immigrants based on a single blunt target of a immigration cap, despite the damage the tactics employed are doing to industry and business, to our universities and colleges, to tourism, to the family life of many Britons, and to our international reputation.

On the specific bond idea, I pointed out that Canada had considered a similar proposal and discarded it as discriminatory, as it undoubtedly is. I understood why the Indian commentators to whom I was speaking were focusing on their own nationals’ treatment, but the selection of six predominately non-white Commonwealth countries for this special treatment – not the US or Australia or any Latin American state deserves to be highlighted.

The story by tomorrow in Britain will have disappeared. Its impact around the globe will take a lot longer to fade.

Charging for the NHS – another dam is to be breached

by Natalie Bennett     April 16, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Last month I was in Tremough, at the University of Exeter Cornwall branch, addressing a public meeting.

The subject of the NHS came up in the questions session, and I spoke about the Green Party’s belief in a publicly owned and publicly run system, and about how our current progression towards rapid privatisation was sending us in the direction of the American healthcare system, where obtaining most healthcare is dependent on your ability to pay (or to sustain insurance).

Having belonged for many years to an email list for mostly freelance copy editors with many American members, I know how worrying about health insurance shapes their lives. I know about horrors such as “drive-through” mastectomies, which I cited.

Some in the audience clearly thought this was not a fair comparison – we’d never see patients have to pay upfront in the NHS.

Then I remembered reading an article in the Financial Times (partial paywall), based on an interview with Malcolm Grant, chair of NHS England.

It notes that Professor Grant said he personally wouldn’t support charging for NHS services. But he is then quoted as going on to say:

It’s not my responsibility to introduce new charging systems but it’s something which a future government will wish to reflect [on], unless the economy has picked up sufficiently, because we can anticipate demand for NHS services rising by about 4 to 5 per cent per annum.

To say this looks like the start of a softening-up process is an understatement… a sense only magnified by today’s Financial Times editorial, which says in part:

There is room for serious debate about what role co-payment should play in healthcare. The NHS must continue to be a needs-blind system… but this does not preclude levying a charge to access the healthcare system. This would not only raise revenue but could serve to curb unnecessary demand.

All of this, as the Mid Staffs foundation trust is “declared bankrupt”, the second trust to meet this fate and the first of the supposed financial flagship foundation trusts to do so and as campaigners battle to see the NHS exempted from the US/EU Free Trade Agreement.

To say that the NHS and its “free at the point of use” principle is under attack is now surely beyond question. I’m also unsurprised that Professor Grant is at the centre of this.

I first encountered him in his still “main” job, the NHS one being only a sideline, as UCL provost. It was at a meeting to discuss the then proposed controversial UCL-sponsored academy secondary school in Camden, just opened after a troubled birth.

Like many others at the meeting, I left enraged by the professor’s arrogant certainty about the wisdom of the academy system, and at the idea that the university knew best about secondary education, rather than experienced teachers and parents. I encountered him next again in his UCL provost role resisting the finally successful Living age campaign for UCL cleaners.

He’s a representative of a special class – what you might call the privatariate – extremely well-rewarded proponents of privatisation who’ve moved seamlessly from serving New Labour’s neoliberalist agenda to lapping up posts promoting the Tory ideology of the small state. Another example is Lord Freud – now Tory Lord and Welfare Minister, formerly Labour “welfare reformer”, rightly targeted by UKUncut last weekend.

No surprise that Professor Grant is a standard bearing in threatening the very foundations of the much-loved NHS principle of “free at the point of use”.

My ‘first 100 days’ plan for the Green Party

by Natalie Bennett     August 3, 2012 at 11:20 am

Britain’s three largest parties offer voters slight variations on the financial liberalisation, privatisation, trash-the-planet hyper-capitalism that has left 19th-century levels of inequality on a fast-heating Earth with degraded soils and water.

The Green Party offers a radical alternative vision, yet since 2010 have not been making the electoral progress we could be.

If I’m elected leader my focus for the next two years will be to make the Green Party a truly national party – to focus on getting other people elected, rather than being elected myself.
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Extending abortion rights to N. Ireland

by Natalie Bennett     September 8, 2008 at 11:37 pm

The abortion law in England, Scotland and Wales is far from perfect. The unnecessary two-rule, the restrictions that prevent women who choose to do so completing medical abortions at home, the prevention of nurses and midwives providing the service. But those problems are slight compared to the situation for women in Northern Ireland, where women have almost no access to abortion at all.

As a result of past and present cowardice, grubby dealmaking and other political skulduggery, the 1967 Abortion Act that applies in England, Scotland and Wales does not apply in Northern Ireland. The basic rules date back to 1927 – but there are no clear guidelines. So only 70 to 80 abortions are carried out each year in Northern Ireland, under extremely restrictive conditions.

Otherwise, by the official count, more than 1,300 women last year, and 50,000 women over the past 40 years, have had to travel to England, Wales or Scotland, or even further afield, and to pay for their abortion, since if they give a Northern Ireland address they cannot have an NHS abortion.
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The Green Party’s abortion policy

by Natalie Bennett     February 18, 2008 at 1:39 am

Green Party policy on abortion was already pretty solid, saying that the party would not back any change in the law to reduce women’s access to abortion.

But I am pleased to say that after the Spring Conference in Reading, which concluded yesterday, it is now rather better, backing three changes to recognise medical developments: to remove the requirement to obtain two doctors’ signatures, to allow nurses and midwives to perform abortions, and to loosen restrictions on where abortions can be performed.

These are all measures backed (in slightly varying patterns) by the Royal College of Nurses, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Ob/Gyn, and match the finding of the Joint parliamentary committee on science and technology – which found that they would reduce waits for abortions that would anyway being carried out.

You would think that all sides of the debate would agree that earlier abortions are preferable to later ones, but I’m not seeing any sign of such sense from those who are trying to use the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to reduce women’s access to abortion.
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The Political Brain – a practical must-read

by Natalie Bennett     December 16, 2007 at 12:25 pm

There’s an old myth about the nature of human behaviour – the myth of the “rational consumer” – this is a man (and yes it always seems to be a man) who always acts in ways in his own self-interest, driving the “perfect” invisible hand of a market economy. It is a myth that even in economics has disappeared from the all but the wildest fringes of the capitalist apologists, but Drew Westen, in his powerful new The Political Brain shows that it clings on in some areas, including the world of the Democratic Party of the USA.

And, I suspect, further afield. There’s something about left politics that makes it particularly prone to believing that if you just present people with the facts, with a solid rational argument, then of course they’ll see sense. It tends to produce leaflets dense in text and detail, arguments involving complex mathematical formulae, and headline high on accuracy and low on sexiness.
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