Friday, April 28, 2006

Government racism can damage your health

ONE health authority after another announces that it is shedding staff and reducing services. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was heckled by delegates at the once-staid and respectable Royal College of Nurses conference for saying the National Health Service was "in good shape". But a nasty little move by this "Labour" government has not had the attention it deserves.

It won't help improve your health service, or answer criticism from the nurses. It will make matters worse, for health professionals and patients. But it should have one group of Labour's political opponents stomping and cheering.

Barking, Havering and Redbridge Hospitals NHS trust has just announced up to 650 job cuts and 190 bed closures. The trust says it is necessary to cope with a £24 million deficit. This brings the number of hospital job losses announced in the week to over 1,000. NHS trusts were set up under Tory "internal market" policies, which New Labour has continued with talk about "choice", and running the health service on more "businesslike" lines. If you're in business, and losing money, that's what you do.

Barking's Labour MP, since 1994, is Margaret Hodge, one-time leader of supposedly "loony left" Islington council, albeit a millionaire's daughter, who entered the mother of all parliaments as a Blairite, with what was a safe Labour seat. Mrs.Hodge is the Employment Secretary. But she made headlines recently by announcing that eight out of 10 white working people she met felt let down by Labour, and were thinking of voting for the British National Party.

"They can't get a home for their children, they see black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry," said Mrs Hodge. "When I knock on doors I say to people, 'are you tempted to vote BNP?' and many, many, many - eight out of 10 of the white families - say 'yes'. That's something we have never seen before, in all my years. Even when people voted BNP, they used to be ashamed to vote BNP. Now they are not."

Blaming changes in the area which saw black and Asian people moving in while poor white people could not get housing, Mrs.Hodge claimed politicians had been frightened of the issue.
"The Labour Party hasn't talked to these people. This is a traditional Labour area but they are not used to engaging with us because all we do is put leaflets through doors. Part of the reason they switch to the BNP is they feel no one else is listening to them."

What not even their MP?

Could bitterness expressed in racialism be a symptom, rather than the cause, of disillusionment with Labour? Hodge admitted that Labour has not reversed Tory policies that ran down social housing. "It isn't that we have done nothing. But where we haven't done enough is affordable housing for families and the quality of life for families. Were we to blame for the change? No, it happened on the back of Right To Buy. But we could have built more affordable housing. We must do that. It isn't happening yet."

She also blamed failure to clean up run-down estates. "What we haven't significantly addressed are these issues that are the quality of life on council estates. It is the poorest whites who feel the greatest anger because there is no way out for them."

Actually, recent surveys indicate that it is not the poorest people who are most inclined to fear change, blame black people and immigrants, or vote for the racist BNP. Maybe that is because East Enders know that housing space in dockland was not taken away by other working-class people, but by fancy office developments, yuppie gentrification, and property speculation - the process about to be expanded with the Olympic project.

Workers might also consider that it was not immigrants who decided to close industries in east London - as when Ford stopped car production at Dagenham. Has Mrs.Hodge, the Employment Secretary, asked her constituents about their worries on those kind of changes?

Racists and ignorami relying on papers like the Sun often blame immigrants and asylum seekers for supposedly taking beds and putting a strain on the NHS. If your gran was kept waiting for a hip replacement (unlike the late Queen Mother) it is tempting to look for someone to blame. But even before we had an NHS, poor people in many places appreciated the service of an Asian doctor, and everyone knows that without immigrants our hospitals would have few staff. As for "shortage of beds", it is the hospital authorities which, not for the first time, are reducing them.

A few days before the RCN nurses gathered for their conference, another group of health professionals protested outside the Department of Health in Whitehall against a sudden change in visa rules which will bar them from completing training in the NHS. Doctors from India and other countries feel betrayed by a rule change requiring hospitals to give first preference to graduates from within the European Economic Area. They say thousands who came to Britain to study will be denied work permits and forced to leave the country this Summer, heavily in debt and with no qualifications.

The government says it is protecting jobs for British graduates.

Is Britain so overloaded with qualified medical personnel it cannot find work for them? Not according to the patient waiting lists. In fact, as a letter in the Guardian (April 27) points out, Britain has 175 doctors per 100,000 population, compared with 330 per 100,000 in France. There are 34,000 consultants (specialists) and about 46,000 General Practitioners in this country, whereas France has 99,000 specialists and 100,000 generalists for the same 60 million population.

It could be argued that Britain should be widening the medical education intake, to attract and train more of its young people rather than relying on doctors from abroad, particularly from poorer countries. But the government's move is simply damaging people's careers without improving health provision here or in their home countries, where they might have wanted to practice with British qualifications and experience.

Dr Belinda Colaco, 32, from Goa, India, has been in the UK for approximately a year. She completed her graduate medical training in India but wanted to do her final training placements in the UK.
"I sat the PLAB exams [the competency test for overseas doctors], passed and was allowed to come here," she said.
"But since I arrived I have been unemployed. I have spent so much money to come here and study and now the government has taken away our permission to complete our training as doctors.

"I didn't expect a guaranteed job - but I was told I would get equal opportunities to compete along with other doctors in the UK, as so many doctors from India have done all these years. By taking away my right to seek work and finish my training, they have effectively destroyed my life. I just feel utterly destroyed."

"I borrowed a lot of money back home because I wanted to come here to get British qualifications before going into practice back home.
But the key thing is that I would not have come here if we had not received the impression [from the UK medical authorities and government] that they needed us. We got that impression because they offer the Plab tests at home."

Dr Sumit Reisinghaney, 28, from Bombay graduated in India and decided to go for the opportunity of a few years' work in the NHS.
"I came to the UK as part of a significant investment in my career and for the opportunity to learn within the British system.
Since I arrived I have had some locum work but no proper placements. I have applied for hundreds of jobs across surgery.
I have applied to every area of the UK, sometimes writing 20 applications a week. The costs of doing this are extremely high.
Today, with this rule change, I feel very, very cheated. We were never promised anything - nor did we think we were. But we were told that if we sat our Plab exams, passed and came to Britain, we would have the same chance as others in getting posts.

"The new system will prefer EU doctors over us - to me that is simply discrimination because the decisions to fill posts will not be made on merit. If I return home now this investment will have been for nothing.
"Had I known how difficult it was going to be, had they been clear with us, I would not have done it."

Gone are the days when narrow-minded British doctors were only concerned to defend their professional fief against refugee doctors coming here from Nazi Europe. The Asian and African doctors protesting the ban have had support from the British Medical Association.

Is "New Labour" looking for applause from different quarters? If it has decided that rather than a shortage of staff it has a shortage of jobs, it has to try something desperate. "British jobs for British workers" is the kind of slogan we'd expect from racists, such as the BNP. Perhaps any remaining "Alf Garnett"s who object to being seen by a "Paki" will look forward to a white European seeing them - even if they'll need to brush up their Polish to be sure of explaining their symptoms.

While the fascists must welcome a concession to their arguments, what about the "anti-fascists"? Can they just keep saying the BNP is evil, which it is, without looking below the rash to see what has caused this disease?

The Health Minister is Lord Warner of Brockley.
I'd be interested to see how much say Labour MPs have had in the new DHS policy, and how much MPs were even told about it. Instead of politicians like Margaret Hodge, suddenly discovering what people say, panicking, and claiming her colleagues are "frightened" to talk about race, we need a party that is not afraid to talk about class , and to pledge housing and health for all, and plenty of jobs providing them, if we change the system.

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