Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Government needs to listen to ordinary people

Health and education workers don't take the decision to ballot for strike action lightly, says Patricia McKeown

'it gave me a feeling there was something to work for and fight for after all and that our efforts might be rewarded by some real social improvement, giving means to the phrase 'winning the peace'." (29-year-old soldier, Royal Artillery, speaking on the birth of the National Health Service and the welfare state, 1945.)

"If I have to, I will treat patients in the street before I witness the destruction of the NHS." (Eoin Stewart, A-amp;E nurse, Mater Hospital, 2011.)

These statements are separated by 66 years. They are united in the passionate belief that we can have a better, fairer, more equal society.

They both have particular resonance for the people of Northern Ireland today.

Unison members in our health and education services are embarking on a vote for strike action. They do not do so lightly.

It is six years since education workers were forced to take strike action because our schools were under attack from budget cuts under direct rule.

The last big health strikes were in the 1990s and were provoked by the dirty business of privatising the work of the lowest-paid and lowering standards of healthcare.

In both cases, strike action played a major role in reversing bad decisions.

In 2011, after three years of cuts and an explosion in redundancies, Unison members in both services have come together to say enough is enough.

Health and education services are now facing the biggest budget cuts in history. Between 2011 and 2015, the health service will face a £2.3bn shortfall, with a loss of up to 6,000 further jobs. Education faces a £300m shortfall.

Children with special needs have been targeted. Music therapy, staff training and classroom assistants face the axe.

Who could possibly justify the removal of music therapy from our children?

A-amp;E closures are in the spotlight. But they are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are too few doctors, we are told. In reality, these are budget cuts. Services in Omagh, South Tyrone, Magherafelt and Whiteabbey have already gone.

Partial closures are in effect in Lisburn and Downpatrick. In Belfast, the City Hospital A-amp;E and the Mater Hospital A-amp;E are under threat.

Patient safety is the establishment rallying-call.

Apparently, it is safer to have no A-amp;E at all. No additional staff have been employed to cope in the remaining hospitals, or in the Ambulance Service.

The knock-on effect on wards and departments and all grades of staff is deepening. Codes and standards for patient safety are being breached every day.

In our hospitals, day centres and health centres, health workers are struggling without proper cover and back-up. Social workers at all grades are reporting impossible case-loads.

Home care-workers have been especially hard hit.

Up to 70% of their work has been outsourced to the private sector - most often on the minimum wage.

NHS homecare workers are trying to cope with as little as 15 minutes per day for vulnerable clients. They are caring for twice the number of clients in just half the time.

Already some politicians are lining up to have a go at Unison. It would be more to the point if they challenged the UK Government for cutting the block grant.

It would be even more to the point if they listened to what health and education workers are saying and then made some different choices on the Budget.

Have they noticed that the cutback policy is failing? We are in a vicious spiral: job-loss, pay-freeze, less money to spend, shops and businesses closing as a result.

This equals more job-losses, more stress and ill-health and more pressure on the services.

There is a better way. It requires the democratic involvement of ordinary people in decisions which affect their daily lives.

It is what we were promised. It is what we demand. In health and education services, we all have "something to work for and fight for".

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