On a slightly drab but mild October morning, I set off early to go to the Level in Brighton and meet supporters from across Brighton and Hove at a rally to promote public services today, Saturday, 13 October. It was organised by Sussex Defend the NHS and Brighton and Hove Trades Council.
Before formal proceedings kicked off, I met Beverley Berstow who is standing as the Women’s Equality Party next year in Hanover in the local elections. Ms Berstow explained her party’s vision to me in this way: “We don’t really want to exist as a party but none of the other parties are doing anything for women’s rights. I don’t think they are taking them seriously.” She said many members of other parties including men as well as women came to the Women’s Equality Party because of disaffection with mainstream politics.
Abi Pearce and Claire Campbell are teachers in Brighton and Hove. Ms Pearce said: “The funding crisis is having a huge impact on schools and has a big impact on teachers. Schools can’t retain or recruit teachers which impacts directly on children’s education.”
Ms Campbell wanted to talk about the detrimental effect underfunding was having on special educational needs. She said: “Schools cannot afford to employ 1:1 teachers and general classroom assistants. All the council services are being streamlined so referrals are taking longer, assessments are taking longer which is hugely frustrating for parents and teachers.”
Next, I met Glory and Michelle who are both British, Glory is a Latino Brit who has lived in Britain for many years. Michelle said: “I believe in a caring society where you are valued and not equated (judged by) your ability to pay for the NHS. Some years back, in healthcare representatives didn’t check how much money you had before giving you the healthcare. That is no longer true.”
Glory said: “I work in education and my son is a junior doctor. I think it’s disgraceful that essential services are being underfunded and sold off and our conditions of employment are getting worse.”
Valerie Mainstone who works at the Brighton Unemployed Centre among other places across the city said we should challenge the government’s hostile environment wherever we can. She said: “I saw the valuable contribution made by the immigrants to the NHS ever since 1948, when African-Caribbean nurses first appeared in hospitals.
“My great-grandmother died for want of a sixpence before the NHS because no doctor would come unless you could pay.
“Our NHS was created to be publicly owned and free at the point of need for everyone – and that’s how it should stay.”
Maud from Migrant English Project and Brighton Migrant Solidarity took to the podium to talk about immigration and, in particular, unfair detention. She said the UK has the largest number of detainees in Europe, although the number of children in detention has dropped from 109 in 2009 to 42 this year. She criticised the government for putting structures in place that means people from outside Britain pay a healthcare tariff which is 50% higher than the tariff the government pays for British nationals.
Clara Astill is a member of the Unite union which was set up to help unemployed people, fight for a fully funded NHS, truly affordable housing and a decent welfare system. She said: “The latest campaign which we, with other groups, are involved with is the fight against Universal Credit. This benefit has impoverished, not only the unemployed, leading to people losing their homes and sometimes their families, but has begun to affect employed people, those paid so little they rely on state benefits to top up their income.”
Matthew Webb, a member of Brighton and Hove Trades Council which is a branch of the TUC, said: “The misfortune of sickness should not become a burden of poverty and indignity.” He said trade unions supported the victims of Grenfell and the Schools SOS as well as the NHS, migrants and young workers at Wetherspoons.
He said: “We support the NHS and the people who rely on it to get from one day to the next.” And he warned politicians locally and nationally: “Where we see injustice, we will organise.”
Brighton Council’s Unison leader said it was an ominous sign three days ago when Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a suicide prevention minister for the first time whose name is Jackie Doyle -Price. She said: “We could not make this up.” Mrs Beatty criticised the government for taking millions of pounds from public services and giving it to private companies but she told the rally to take heart because, “we are the many, you are few.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas opened her speech by saying: “We’re here to protest against the way this government has wrecked our public services. A government that is dismantling the welfare state, flogging off public services, privatising services, attacking the rights of migrants, impoverishing our children. And we’re here to say, ‘Enough is Enough – the fightback is on!’
“We’re here because we’re angry. Angry that this government continues to break up and marketise our NHS.
“Angry that Brexit will make this even worse – putting off EU workers who no longer feel welcome here. Freedom of movement is a precious gift – the right to work and study and live and love in 27 other countries – we should be defending it, not trashing it.
“Angry that health workers have to rely on handouts and foodbanks. And that’s why our message is loud and clear – invest in public services and Stop the Cuts.
“The Prime Minister had the gall to stand up at her party conference and to expect our gratitude for declaring that austerity is over. The truth is that austerity was never needed. It had nothing to do with the financial crisis and everything to do with an ideological obsession with shrinking the state.
“And the damage that has been done to our hospitals and schools is immense.
“They’re at breaking point:
- Ambulances backed up outside A&E departments.
- One of my 84 constituents left alone on her bathroom floor for over four hours waiting for an ambulance.
- And when it comes to our schools, per pupil funding slashed.
“It’s wrong that head teachers are forced to sack teaching assistants, to end support to pupils with mental health problems, that parents are having to organise jumble sales for basics like books.
“So as well as saying Defend our NHS, we are absolutely here to say, Save Our Schools as well…
“So what can we hope for from his replacement (Jeremy Hunt’s) at the Department for Health, Matt Hancock? Well, don’t hold your breath.
“This is the Health Minister who has received £32,000 in donations from the Institute of Economic Affairs – an organisation which describes the NHS as one of the most, “over-valued, inefficient systems in the world.
“A Health Minister who’s been actively endorsing the GP at Hand app operated by the private company Babylon, and requiring patients to deregister from their existing practice before they can sign up.
“With a tally of 10 GP practices having closed in our city in the last few years alone… (he should) start investing properly in our national health service.
“Friends, we know things could and should be different. And we know that by coming together we can make them different.
“We are the sixth richest country in the world, and we are working for a country with
- No patients waiting hours on a trolley in A&E.
- No patients suffering in pain, as operations are repeatedly cancelled.
- No more running down and dismantling our NHS.
- No more slashing funds for our schools and our welfare state.
“I’m proud to be standing up in Parliament to fight for our public services. I’m proud that the Green Party has championed the NHS Reinstatement Bill from the very beginning.
“And I’m proud that all of us together are saying – loudly and clearly – No to the government’s ‘Slash, Trash and Privatise Agenda’ – and Yes to keeping our schools and our NHS public. Always. Thank you.”
An edited version of this article was published in Brighton and Hove News.