Yes Mr Hunt, this is unacceptable
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One of the few positives to note about Jeremy Hunt’s perennial tenure at the Department of Health, is that he’s actually been there long enough to witness his own policies, and rhetoric, unravel. Take the decision last year to scrap bursaries for student nurses. At the time it was obvious to seemingly everyone outside of the Cabinet that encumbering future nursing students with huge private debts would harm applications and jeopardise recruitment, not free up 10,000 new places as was spun at the time. Now the figures are bearing those warnings out – applications for nursing and midwifery training places for September are down 23% year on year. Of course, it wasn’t entirely down to Hunt – if anyone could pluck David Cameron out of the cosy lifestyle in which he’s now ensconced, we could ask him too. Then there’s A&E. Countless warnings over the years have been largely dismissed with casuistry and creative number-play. It takes a leak to the BBC to reveal that January’s A&E figures are likely to be the worst ever, with emergency departments falling dramatically short of their targets throughout England. Take your pick from the horror stories: the 500,000 hours spent by paramedics waiting to get into A&E; 12-hour waits for beds; photos of chaotic corridors reminiscent of, well, the last time the Conservatives were in power. In short: with each year that passes with Jeremy Hunt in charge of the NHS, A&E departments in England get steadily worse. With each year that passes […]

Vaccine “free for all” market

This article  first appeared on the newstatesman.com in March 2016 Take a look at the World Health Assembly’s action plan on tackling the barriers to global vaccination, and time and time again, the almighty dollar comes up. The resolution, passed by all 193 countries present at the Assembly last summer, raises deep concerns about the “increased financial burden of new vaccines”; that “many low- and middle-income countries may not have the opportunity to access newer and improved vaccines, particularly because of the costs related to the procurement and introduction of these vaccines”; and that “globally immunization coverage has increased only marginally since the late 2000s”. Behind the resolution, on the floor of the Assembly, apparently the language wasn’t so polite. Delegates from almost 60 countries spoke out vituperatively against the high prices of vaccines as being the main culprits for the sickening lingering of killer diseases, and urged the global community to act. Take pneumonia. It is the biggest cause of childhood death under the age of five globally, claiming the lives of almost one million children each year – one every 35 seconds – yet in 2016 70 per cent of all the world’s children remain unprotected. The reasons why are complex and many, but humanitarian agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says that it can name one for sure: the cost of vaccinations is prohibitively high. The life-saving pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) is big business. And the entire market, worth $30bn to date, is sewn up by just two companies: […]

Why didn’t Cameron give Dan Hodges a peerage?

“It’s not the professional Labourphobia and ceaseless smearing of the Left that bothers me. It’s the total unwillingness to hold the Conservatives to account”. Andrew Lansley got one, and his Health and Social Care Act has been one of the most catastrophic pieces of legislation in modern politics. It’s been condemned by the medical profession, activists, campaigners, even Conservative MPs, and given the Tories multiple headaches. If it wasn’t for such an indifferent electorate, it might have been much worse. So surely Dan Hodges, who has done more to distract the public from such sins and help the Tories back into power than almost anyone, should have been kicked something? To be a successful journalist you need a USP. It’s not enough to write well, have good ideas, even know the right people. You have to stand out, find that unique angle that nobody else has got. In the cynical arena of British political writing, there’s plenty of tribalism; plenty of exploitation of facts and words to paint your own team in a better light and more importantly, smear the other lot whenever possible. Every now and then there’s another category; the angry defector who switches over and gleefully pans his former comrades. But Dan has found even more of a specialism, a truly surreal position – as the Kevin Pieterson of political commentary. The former union man and Labour Party member-turned-ex-member-turned-member-again’s columns in the Telegraph receive rapturous applause from Conservatives and conservatives. And why wouldn’t they? I bet they […]

‘The triumph of Corbynism is the death rattle of New Labour’
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn, address delegates at the annual conference of the GMB union in Dublin.

This piece appeared in the New Statesman on August 18th 2015 Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Tony Blair is that his trademark brand of politics, the mastery of style-over-content, is alive and well in the Labour Party. For a while it wasn’t the third way: it was the only way. The ease with which New Labour swaggered onto the top table of the party, and then into Downing Street, was testament to its ability to beguile the left and the right with the same conjuring trick.  How have we come from that dazzling show to this crude spectacle of tearing our own insides out in public? All of Labour’s gory details and contradictions lie on the slab. The uncomfortable truth that this is an organism of incommensurable anatomical parts sharing a blood stream is there for all to see. I’ve been gripped by politics since my mid-teens, coincidentally, perhaps, just at the point that New Labour was at its zenith circa 1997.What I understand now, that I didn’t then, is that Blairism tried to thwart the core of the Labour Party that cares more about issues than power. Now, I understand where he and others are coming from when they talk about unelectability; I understand that you have to be in power, or at least a sizeable opposition, to make anything happen, and to do that you need broad appeal. Not that it matters, but this is not a ‘Why I’m supporting Candidate X.’ piece. What I’m certainly not shying […]

The quiet exodus of GPs
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This article appeared in the New Statesman in July 2015 George Osborne quietly slipped into his budget some news that the medical staff perhaps dreaded, perhaps didn’t even imagine was possible: the public sector pay freeze will continue. For another four years. I’ll just let that sink in. For months, doctors and nurses have been begging the public and the government to take notice: pressure on the wards is building to dangerous levels. Medical staff are overworked, under-appreciated and underpaid, and now there’s this insult to injury – a further slap in the face from a Chancellor unwilling to reward their graft with a share of the recovery, for which they have already sacrificed so much. It’s so far from justice, such a total misdirection of priorities, it’s taken this long to process. The Conservatives are on such a high at the moment that judgement seems to be on hold. Back in April at the health election debate, Jeremy Hunt barely managed to defend the Health and Social Care Act, on which the Conservative government’s entire health record will be judged. But last week he unveiled a policy that could only have made it into the X-rated version of the Health and Social Care Act. And his explanation for why printing the cost of a prescription, with the words ‘Funded by the taxpayer’ on the box would help patients and not just leave them guilt-ridden as well as sick, was so unconvincingly delivered on Question Time that I doubt it would […]

The blind faith of the right (+what’s left for the left)
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‘Sanctioned’ by Dani Lafez. Dani’s artwork is for sale here – proceeds go to arthritis research.  The blind faith of the right  (and what’s left for the Left)   Dani is a very poorly lady. Severe rheumatoid arthritis is attacking her spine, she has a snapped lumbar ligament, and last week after a gruelling eight needles were injected into her vertebra, an x-ray revealed that a hoped operation to fuse two of the disks in her back wouldn’t be possible because the surrounding disks have disintegrated too much. At the age of 26 she is facing the rest of her life taking morphine, by 40 she is likely to be in a wheelchair, and she has been told that the prospects of her body being able to bear a child are almost non-existent. But these aren’t her only troubles. A month ago she was sanctioned by the DWP. It’s been a tough month. Dani’s been handed around from person to person, with vague explanations given, such as her partner being in ‘full time work’ now (it’s an apprenticeship and he’s on £3.25/hour) and a so-called administrative error in which a ‘change of circumstance’ application Dani had to fill out didn’t have a due date on it. By the time she had gathered the masses of personal medical information the DWP required, only five days later, it was too late. No benefits for a month. At the next ‘infringement’ the sanction will be for 13 weeks. – Dani is one of […]

Privatisation is unravelling
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…before our eyes. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/01/nhs-privatisation-experiment-unravelling-our-eyes As Circle Holdings, the first private firm to manage an NHS hospital, looks to leaving its contract, we have a depressing example of how privatisation can go badly wrong. Hinchingbrooke Hospital is to lose the private firm that runs it. Photo: YouTube screengrab What a difference (less than) a year makes. In a press release back in February last year [3], private healthcare company Circle Holdings spun that it had, “transformed services at Hinchingbrooke”. The hospital, it boasted, “is now secure for the future”. Which would make the news today that it was walking away two years into a 10-year contract to run Hinchingbrooke – the UK’s only privately-run NHS hospital – a shock, were it not for the sheer, abject predictability of it. The fact that Circle is dumping the contract on financial grounds, citing a lack of funding and pressure on the casualty department, is certainly no surprise to many, not least the National Health Action Party founding member and Save Lewisham Hospital veteran Dr Louise Irvine. She says: “This is exactly what we warned and predicted would happen and illustrates the folly of private sector involvement in our NHS. When the going gets tough, the private sector gets going – and dumps NHS patients. The privatisation experiment has lamentably failed”. It isn’t unexpected, not least because in September last year, when Health Service Journal obtained a damning report by the Care Quality Commission [4] (CQC) in which a litany of shocking failings were revealed, the writing was […]

The root of the A&E crisis
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lies far beyond the wards… http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/01/real-root-ae-crisis-lies-far-beyond-wards How restful it must be to be Jeremy Hunt. Lesser health secretaries would regard the NHS’ worst ever A&E performance [3] happening on their watch as a damning indictment. More insecure an operator might take the calling of an urgent summit [4] to discuss the unfolding crisis as a sobering reflection on their own ability. Perish the thought. Outcry from Labour over the alarming figures is merely “an example of the politicisation of the NHS that people find so distressing,” he said, during an urgent question session called today by Labour in the hope of prising some answers from him. Since the figures were published yesterday the Tories have done everything but accept them for the depressing landmark they are. They have continuously blamed unprecedented demand from an ageing population for the surge, combined with the traditional winter spike in admissions. Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that A&E attendance in England was actually higher over the summer than the “unprecedented demand” in December [5] that has led to this crisis. But let’s leave that to one side. Even accepting that overall admissions are increasing, it’s facile of Hunt to blame increasing demand on an ageing population alone. Accident and emergency is not an island, entire of itself. Cut the wider social and welfare system, squeeze GPs, and enforce a hugely wasteful internal market [6] – as this government has done compulsively – and A&E figures will go up, hospitals will […]

The marketisation myth
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  NHS reform and the hollow marketisation myth http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/10/nhs-reform-and-hollow-marketisation-myth A metamorphosis is taking place; a mutation of the NHS from a public service into a lucrative marketplace. by Benedict Cooper [2] Published 30 October, 2014 – 11:42 When the chief executive of NHS England produces a 39-page, 15,000-word rescue plan [3] for the health service that, a senior doctor later told me, “doesn’t even mention the real problem in the system”, you know something is up. Not that it’s any great surprise. Simon Stevens isn’t likely to agree with my source that the real problem in the NHS is a prevailing ideological dogma that “private is good and public is bad” among top brass, nor that the aggressive marketisation programme currently underway is all based on a myth. The private healthcare man turned NHS-saviour has only been in his post for seven months after 10 years at global giant United Health Group, and old habits die hard. But the real paradox at the heart of Stevens’ five-year plan is that he calls for ruthless efficiencies and then turns a blind eye to the sort of “grotesque financial waste” that consultant clinical oncologist and National Health Action Party [4] (NHAP) co-leader Clive Peedell says is crippling the system. Peedell says: “Wasteful internal markets, commissioning support units, management consultancy fees, the cost of procurement of clinical services, profit-taking by private providers, the cost of fragmenting pathways due to outsourcing components to private contractors, and PFI deals bankrupting our hospitals; they are draining billions from frontline care in our NHS”. A metamorphosis is taking place; a mutation of the NHS from a public service into a lucrative marketplace. None of this is particularly new – but since the Health and Social Care Act kicked in two years ago, trusts have […]

Open Democracy: Our NHS
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I have written various stories for Our NHS, part of Open Democracy, a progressive news site dedicated to preserving democracy and fighting for social justice. These can be viewed here: Labour’s Andy Burnham moves to strike out “Hospital Closure Clause” Benedict Cooper 7 March 2014 Labour confirmed yesterday that it would be staging a last ditch attempt in parliament on Tuesday to strike out the deeply unpopular “Hospital Closure Clause”. Government brushes aside NHS Free Trade Treaty Concerns Benedict Cooper 27 February 2014 MPs raise concerns about the impact the forthcoming trade treaty, TTIP, will have on the NHS – but Minster Without Portfolio Ken Clarke says it will make no difference. Hunt seeks to shed his duty to keep our medical data safe Benedict Cooper 7 February 2014 Ministers dodge Labour grilling on the care.data controversy.

Driven to suicide by payday loans
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WHEN DANNY took out his first payday loan he had no idea what a terrible cycle he had just stepped into. A cycle that would see him make repeated suicide attempts as he got deeper and deeper into debt and found himself eventually struggling with a sickening 30 different loans at once. Danny is no stranger to suffering. Growing up family life was so dangerous that at the age of 12 he was taken into care, and placed in the tough new environment of a boy’s care home. “I had nobody there to support me,” he tells me. “I didn’t have much family support. It was me on my own fighting the world”. When he came out of the care system, at the age of 17, and was placed into his own accommodation, Danny was left to manage almost single-handed. It wasn’t long before the bills came flying in and, floundering, he ran out of options. “At one point I didn’t have any money; I was out in the high street and had people coming up to me in the street asking if I needed cash. They targeted me because I was a vulnerable person. “So I went to Wonga for a short term loan. But I didn’t think it was as short terms as it was. I borrowed £100 and it was £130 after 30 days”. Helpless, he started borrowing more money just to pay the interest on the first one. It’s become known as ‘rollover borrowing’ and is […]

Life between the rock & the hard place
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Update: this piece was featured on the Huffington Post UK, here. The police were on alert. Above hearts-and-minds grins, vigilant eyes followed a disparate procession as it streamed into the community hall on a still, pale evening in May. A week before, almost to the hour, a young soldier’s death had sickened a nation. But he had not bitten the dust of the Helmand desert. Lee Rigby fell on a far more ominous corner of the world, a hard grey London street, mowed down and hacked to death in broad daylight by two men wielding carving knives. Almost as soon as the news had hit, the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamist’ were darting around computer screens and rolling newscasts, and an ugly reality dawned. And there was an even more shuddering detail to emerge, with the grainy footage of a bloodied murderer, strangely composed, summoning the rhetoric of the jihadist to explain the still warm corpse lying face down in the street behind him. It felt like the end of a very long fuse had been reached. By nightfall men in EDL balaclavas filled the streets around the murder scene, vengefully hurling hostilities at an unseen enemy.  A fragile truce looked like it could be shattered at any point. With such a tense background behind it, I doubt I was alone in feeling a mixture of intrigue and apprehension as I walked to a public meeting aimed at opening the channels of communication between people on the front line of the […]

One from the archives… ‘Islamophobic Britain’, LeftLion magazine, July 2006

The tensions in the UK over the past two weeks, and the subsequent backlash against Muslims in Britain is distressing, but, as sobering reading of an article I wrote in 2006 shows, it’s hardly new….     A year on from 7/7 07/07/2006 Ben Cooper examines the effects of 7 July 2005 a year on…   Twelve months ago four young men plunged an entire faith into turmoil. Since the London bombings Islam has been thrust into centre stage to face scrutiny, persecution and rage. Fear, intolerance, extremism, and terrorism are the most lasting images of Islam reflected in the national media, which at times has chosen to ignore the core truths behind a fundamentally peaceful, loving and accepting faith. A year on from LeftLion asks why Britain still suffers from Islamophobia. Click here for the rest of the article

The wet dream is over
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The grey skies over Britain were a fitting tribute to Maggie as she sucked a final helping of Britain’s resources down with her into the darkness. It was a gratuitous day that wrapped up a fortnight of a very modern, cynical type of grief. In reality her death changed nothing: the Lady was long gone, but it said so much more. About the world she has shuffled off, the grey she leaves behind. Those who still revere Thatcher choose only to look at what came before her, the rest of us see what has followed.

The protest movement doesn’t have a monopoly on ethics

Three men stand on a pavement in London looking reluctantly at the scene in front of them. A pile of maybe 20 bulging sacks of waste sit festering at the edge of the Occupy camp off City Road, stewing in the morning sun. Not that these men are dismayed about them being there. It is after all their job to take them away, and a job they do day in day out all around the city. These council workers aren’t annoyed they’re there; it is that once again the protestors have welched on the deal. The agreement is, they told me: we give you the refuse sacks if you load the full ones onto our lorry, and we’ll take them away free of charge (council tax). But this morning nobody has got up in time. So after standing and waiting, they shut up the back of the lorry and drive off, bemused.

The gap between the rich and poor is widening before our eyes

It was the usual haughty performance from the Prime Minister at PMQs. Cameron looked delighted at his own ability to deftly avoid questions on child poverty and public sector suffering, as his party and the liberal democrats next to them chortled and brayed at every witty evasion. There were even a few heart-warming jokes about honourable members’ facial hair grown for Movember. Top fun! Has there even been a more potent example of being out of touch? The anger from Ed Miliband and the Labour opposition, an inoculation-strength dose of the real bad blood that has been let all over the UK, was rejected, ignored, mocked, scorned.

Fear & Greed

Perhaps it was because a Friday afternoon coffee had turned into a beer, or perhaps it was because I was on my way out of my job as a reporter, that a contact was being unusually honest. As we sank our pints and rued the barren economic climate that had cost this senior property agent his big-bonus lifestyle and me, in part, my job, he volunteered a very simple truth in honest language. “Ben,” he said resignedly, “our system exists in one of only two states: fear or greed”. Speaking for himself and his Mayfair colleagues, he explained how when things are good the industry grossly overvalues property and clambers all over itself to make as much as it can while it can, and “when the chips are down” the opposite occurs. Values are distorted downwards, credit becomes like a puddle in a desert, and frantic survival becomes the only concern.

Odiousness of ‘no’ campaign proves why we need a ‘yes’

If there was any doubt in my mind about which way to vote on AV, the ‘no’ campaign has helped clear up the matter. The patronising force-feeding of crudely couched untruths and malevolent over-simplifications instead of presenting us with a well thought-out list of arguments and cogent analysis shows the present system up for all of its flaws. Is it because they think we wouldn’t get our feeble heads around their elevated and lofty arguments? Is it because they don’t know why they are against it themselves they just know that they don’t want change? Is it because they know that if they tried to build a solid case for opposing AV it would stand up as robustly as a house of cards in a sandstorm? So let’s take the only semblance of an argument that we have been slapped with. That AV would cost the country too much – soldiers would be mercilessly slaughtered and babies would die horrific lonely futile deaths. Errrm, pardon? Does this mean that no reform should ever be made because it costs money? Were the NHS/ welfare/ public health acts/ universal suffrage/ abolition of slavery gross errors because they were administratively costly to set up? And how can the tories, sorry the ‘No’ campaign, sleep at night after a day of flogging the “let’s not waste money” argument given the millions of pounds our  intervention in Libya is scouring from the public purse? Are they saying that attacking Gadafi – while not an entirely […]