Where are the protesters now?

BACK in 1994 when the last Conservative government was really starting to head into stormy waters, Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley came to Ipswich to open the Bridge House centre for people with mental health problems.

BACK in 1994 when the last Conservative government was really starting to head into stormy waters, Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley came to Ipswich to open the Bridge House centre for people with mental health problems.

Her visit to Lower Brook Street caused major problems because of all the protesters who gathered.

They were trade union activists - including many well-known Labour Party members - who had turned out to protest about “Tory health cuts.”

But while they were protesting about health cuts, what was the Conservative Health Secretary doing? Opening a valuable new service for some of the most vulnerable people in the community.

I covered the opening and spoke to Mrs Bottomley about the new centre and its important role in caring for people with mental health problems.

Now skip forward 11 and a half years and what is happening?

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A Labour Health Secretary is trying to close Bridge House. Where is she? Sitting behind her desk in Westminster not even prepared to talk about the cuts in Suffolk, let alone showing her face here.

And where are the protesters from the Labour Party complaining about health cuts?

One polite community demonstration in Westminster frankly hardly compares with the vitriol that was being yelled in Mrs Bottomley's direction.

I know some of the protesters were from pressure groups well to the left of New Labour. But the fact is that there were some Labour stalwarts there - I remember speaking to them to write a balanced report of the visit.

Isn't it ironic that that the “Queen of health cuts” came to Ipswich to open a much-valued facility while the party that claims to protect the health service is now closing it!

A CIVILISED society needs laws to protect workers.

And it is quite right that these laws are enforced by local authorities or a statutory body like the Health and Safety Executive.

But there are times when laws brought in with the best of intentions are completely daft when, not to put too fine a point on it, the law is an ass. That was the case last week when pet food retailer Barnard Bros found itself in court because the inside of the shop was too cold for staff.

As someone who dislikes working in an office when the temperature gets too hot, I know how important it is to monitor working conditions.

But to start fining a company where the conditions are known and understood by the staff - and where they take appropriate measures by wearing thick clothes during the coldest days - seems pointless in the extreme.

And if the law says you're not allowed to work inside if the temperature is below 16 degrees, what about those who work outside?

You don't get roadworks stopped during the winter because it's less than 16 degrees. You don't get farms stopping work because there's frost on the ground.

If it's fine for people to wrap up warm when they're working outside, why isn't it all right for them to wrap up warm if it's cold inside?

What about people - like the Barnards workers - who are in and out all the time. Are they expected to keep taking their thermals on and off?

Of course, Ipswich council cannot pick and chose which health and safety law it enforces - but sometimes officers do need to use some common sense.

GOVERNMENT funding rules have made it next to impossible for local authorities to build new homes over the last 15 years - they have to rely on Housing Association projects to provide new social housing.

But I think this is a failing policy. There are simply not enough new homes for rent being built - and there haven't been enough for decades.

In Suffolk there are thousands of families on council waiting lists, desperate for a home to rent - and yet the number of new social homes is numbered in hundreds rather than thousands.

That is changing - especially with all the new developments in Ipswich - but nowhere near fast enough.

Meanwhile house prices continue to be out of the price range of many people leaving many families in a dreadful situation - can't afford to buy, nowhere to rent.

For too long home ownership has been seen as the ideal by governments of both political persuasions. What is needed is an appreciation at the highest level that for many people renting is the more viable option - and more must be done to promote more rental homes.

HOW long has Tony Blair got? That's the question I've been asked time and again after last week's parliamentary defeat.

The truth is that I don't know, neither do his colleagues - and neither does he.

What is clear, however, is that if he pig-headedly decides to go ahead with his education and health reforms in the part of next year against the wishes of many of his party then he will go sooner or later.

It would be disastrous for a Labour prime minister to have to rely on Conservative MPs in the face of opposition from his own side for controversial legislation and before too long party grandees would be marching into 10 Downing Street and demanding that he step down.

That would mean that the man who came to power hailed as Labour's second Clement Atlee left Number 10 reviled as the party's second Ramsay Macdonald.

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