Fighting for fair pay

The Greens are more than a party simply for the environment.

Last Monday I helped to launch the Fair Pay Network, a new coalition of anti-poverty and workers’ rights campaigners, of which I am now a proud patron.

At the launch in Westminster were fellow patron John Cruddas MP and the chair of the Fair Pay Network, Karen Buck MP, as well as representatives from network members NUS, Unite, UNISON, the Fawcett Society, and Oxfam. Not forgetting campaigners from probably my favourite organisation in the capital (after the Green Party): London Citizens, whose work on the living wage I’ve http://www.newstatesman.com/200712170001">championed here before.

During the event, I spoke about fair pay for women. I've become a patron of the Fair Pay Network to demand decent wages for all workers, but it’s a simple fact that women workers are furthest from this modest goal. Low pay is worst among part-time and temporary workers - the workforces that are majority female.

As a result, women in Britain are 14% more likely to be in poverty than men. Close this gender gap, and we're well on the way to a fair deal for all workers.

I’m also very proud of the Green record on this issue. Green London Assembly members were instrumental in setting up the London Living Wage Unit, which carries out the annual assessment of the pay level needed to provide the basics of life in the capital, and Green AM Darren Johnson last year helped persuade the London Fire Authority to vote for all the cleaners in its fire stations to be paid a living wage.

There are no environmental reasons at all for my involvement in campaigning for fair pay. It’s all purely for reasons of social justice and equality – but these other facets of the Greens’ philosophy seem to be too much for some to take in.

Extremely curiously, Channel 4 insisted on removing a section covering the fire station cleaners’ story from our ‘Political Slot’ – an annual three-minute broadcast, which was aired by C4 on the Thursday before the Fair Pay Network launch.

This year, we decided to focus our film on the achievements of our two London Assembly Members, with me topping and tailing the piece with a short plug explaining how, ‘when voters put the Greens in positions of influence, we really get things done.’

After clearing the script with the producers and recording the piece without incident, the final cut was deemed ‘too election focused’ by Channel 4’s lawyers. Fair enough, we thought, and awaited a version without my plugs for electing Greens. However, in the final cut, all that stuff remained in and, instead, the entire section on low pay had been taken out.

Very, very odd indeed. We still have no idea why, but it has made us wonder about rates of pay at Channel 4. Whistleblowers and conspiracy theorists, please get in touch (about this, not about free energy, 9/11 or Diana).

Oh and of course you can watch the original cut, including the section on living wages on our http://youtube.com/watch?v=sSSjGnj6g7k">Green Party YouTube channel.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage