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News

Never mind the Christmas tinsel, watch the body language

 

A Christmas message from the Rev Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, Rector of Marlborough

The news this week before Christmas has been dominated by the deaths of two hugely contrasting political leaders -- Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong II.  Whilst one was a fearless fighter for freedom and truth, the other appears to have been merciless in his suppression of both.

In death as in life, the contrast continues.  The public response to Havels’ death has been restrained and dignified, but above all credible.  The lighting of candles in Wenceslas Square beneath a large Czech flag seems wholly apposite.

In North Korea, the public manifestation of grief feels entirely untrustworthy, an example of the kind of Kitsch that Havel and fellow Czech dissident, Milan Kundera, wrote about so compellingly.  It is an indication of the level of corruption in a state when the histrionics of grief take on a competitive quality.

Generally we believe that actions speak louder than words, but in North Korea it would appear that they are equally misleading.  Body language has ceased to communicate truth.

One of the features of being human is that we know the fragility of the words we utter; often there is a gap between what we say and what we do, between what we profess to be and how we actually behave.

The Christian story in general, and the Christmas part of it in particular, is based on the conviction that God’s Word does not have this kind of gap.

For God -- to speak is to do and to promise is to fulfil.

God’s word tells us that he loves us; God joining our human race in the form of a baby is the action that complements the word. The ‘body language of God’ is not misleading.

Love can never force its own way and is always open to the possibility of rejection. But it is also open to everyone and is therefore endlessly accessible.  For these reasons the Christmas story has a truth all of its own because there is a theological necessity that Jesus is born in the way that he is.

Love makes it reasonable that God’s human shape should be that of a new born child and not an earthly king.  And love makes it possible to believe that God’s coming is not some contract but a free gift.  It allows us to know that we are not cut off from the source of our life.

But God’s coming among us is not intended solely for our comfort; it is intended, too, for our transformation.  And here again, God’s ‘body language’ fits its task – for a new born baby is difficult to ignore and commands our attention.

So as we celebrate Christmas once more, as we celebrate God’s body language, let us also respond and allow such love to change us.

With best wishes for a very Happy Christmas and a New Year that is kind to us all.

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GWH support workers say they are prepared to take strike action

Support workers at Great Western Hospital employed by the contractor Carillion, have declared overwhelmingly that they are prepared to take strike action in a dispute over alleged bullying of staff.  There was a one hundred per cent ‘yes’ vote in the consultative ballot, on an eighty-nine per cent turnout of the GMB union’s one hundred and fifty members.

Andy Newman, the local branch secretary, explained: “Staff feel very strongly that they are being harassed and bullied, that the system for booking holidays is unfair, and they are angry that Carillion will not talk to their chosen union, the GMB.”

The GMB will now move to a formal strike ballot in the New Year.

The GMB alleges that an attempt was made by Carillion to prevent staff from voting in the consultative ballot.  Andy Newman says: “Carillion wrote to GMB falsely claiming that our ballot was illegal, so we brought in a solicitor to act as a legal observer.  We know that Carillion tried to prevent staff from speaking to us, even on their break times.”

The GMB trade union which represents 150 of Carillion’s 200 strong workforce at the hospital is proposing industrial action over allegations of bullying, discrimination and harassment.  They have presented Carillion management with a formal complaint signed by over a hundred staff.

Mr Newman is calling on Carillion to negotiate to prevent a strike.  “No one wants a strike in the NHS” he said, “but currently Carillion are refusing to talk to us.”

GMB wants the NHS Trust to intervene, and investigate the claims of bullying.   GMB’s local organiser, Carole Vallelly said: “The relationship between the NHS trust and Carillion is due to the private PFI funding of the hospital, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Carillion are the supplier, and the NHS representing the general public, are the customer.”

Ms Vallelly added “If there is a strike, then Carillion will not be providing the services that the NHS trust is paying for.  So the trust does have an interest in resolving the dispute.  It is a scandal that Carillion will not talk to the union to try to avert the strike, and the NHS trust should tell Carillion to get their act together.”

Oonagh Fitzgerald, GWH’s director of workforce and education has said that she was sure that Carillion would investigate any complaints openly and fairly with any complaint, but that it is a question for the contractor, not for the NHS trust.

The GMB believes the NHS Trust’s position is mistaken.  “We are keen to avoid a strike, but we have to emphasise that Carillion are not dealing with the issue at all, and are currently refusing to sit down and talk with us.  So staff who are being bullied feel they have no alternative other than to consider industrial action.”

In their only statement on the dispute, Carillion said they had not received the allegations to which the GMB has referred.

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The wonder of Waitrose brings a Christmas shopping boom to the High Street

 
As the last minute madcap Christmas shopping rush hit the High Street, Marlborough’s biggest store revealed that its takings yesterday and today (Friday) will equal those for a whole week – and that sales are now above all expectations.

Despite the austerity gloom, Waitrose is enjoying a boom increase of more than 13 percent reported throughout the John Lewis store partnership, which includes the employer-owned supermarket chain.

And it is not only the lack of snow this year that is playing a role.  The dramatic change in shopping patterns resulting from the internet is now responsible for some 25 per cent of sales, the click and collect service just one example.

“People are ordering their turkeys online now – we have orders so far for 450 – and their canapés too,” revealed manager Andy Davies.  “We have also done 350 single deliveries to customers so far this week and there are more on the way.”

“We’ve clearly now got competition in the town from Tesco.  So for us to consistently increase our figures year on year is brilliant and a real boost to expectations.”

“We are having more customers shopping with us in the High Street than we did last year.  We are already ahead of where we were at this time last year.  There’s a real buzz in the store -- and in the town.”

And he added: “I now see a much more vibrant High Street this Christmas.  It’s only a few years ago that we saw the demise of Woolworths and we were toasting all the staff and wishing them well.”

“Then Marks & Spencer went.  We’ve now got Landmark on one site and it’s good to see them and the independents doing well this Christmas and that we can forget all about the economy and enjoy ourselves.”

Among the surprises he has encountered is a huge demand for Waitrose/John Lewis gift vouchers, the store turning over tens of thousands of pounds in this area alone.

“The demand has certainly outstripped what we expected,” he said.  “We ran out of tokens on Monday and had to have more specially sent to us by courier.”

There have been more than 500 orders through click and collect, which allows customers to order on line and then pick up when they visit Waitrose, items ranging from new blankets to a 50inch wide screen TV.

“And the John Lewis clearance sale starts on Boxing Day, so we expect to see more click and collect items coming to Marlborough,” he pointed out.  “If you order online by seven o’clock, then the item is here by two o’clock the following day.”

Significant discounts of up to 50 percent are playing a vital role too resulting in “hundreds and hundreds of cases” of half price champagne being ordered.  Malt whiskies too are an unexpected best seller along with discounted fine wines for Christmas dinner.

The increased trade has provided temporary jobs for the 25 university students who are on the supermarket’s books.  “We say goodbye to them in September when they go off to university but then always welcome them back for Christmas,”  explained Mr Davies.

“And they always come back desperate to earn some money.”

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Union dispute threatens support services at Great Western Hospital

Claims of bullying and harassment against a contractor at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital (GWH) are threatening support services including porters, theatre technicians, catering and cleaning staff. One hundred and fifty members of the GMB union are in dispute with the contractor Carillion.

Local GMB organiser, Carole Vallelly, told Marlborough News Online that Carillion refuse to recognise the GMB although it represents “by far the biggest number” of support workers at GWHCarillion have told her that nationally they recognise Unison (with hardly any members at GWH) and Unite (with the minority of members at GWH.)

Ms Vallelly says there is a loophole in the law on the recognition of unions which allows an employer to recognise one or more unions even though they may not represent most of their workers. “But it is morally not right not to recognise the union most of your employees belong to.”

A ‘consultation ballot’ of GMB members will be held on Thursday (December 22) to see if they’d vote for strike action. This is a preliminary consultation and not a vote on whether to take strike action.
The message going out on Wednesday (December 21) to all GMB members at the hospital is “Vote ‘yes’ for respect at work.”

Carole Vallelly says that Carillion management shows too little respect to their workers and acts in a bullying way towards them.  Some workers are very afraid of the management and will not report incidents.

There is also an issue over restrictions imposed by Carillion on taking holidays – which causes special grievance at Christmas.

The ballot paper for the consultative vote will ask members if they are prepared to vote for strike action for the following reasons:  “An end to bullying management, a fair system for holiday booking, and recognition of the chosen union, the GMB.

The result will be announced on Thursday night. Ms Vallelly expects a good turn out and a strong ‘yes’ vote: “Our members are some of the loqwest paid in the hospital and can ill afford to lose a day’s pay, but we believe the majority feel so strongly about this issue that they’ll be prepared to take action.”

A full ballot on strike action could then be held after Christmas.  But Ms Vallelly adds: “Of course, our hope is that Carillion will negotiate with us to avert this dispute, but so far they have refused to talk to us.”

Following the GMB’s allegations of bullying and harassment, a Carillion spokeswoman at head office said the firm had a long history of excellent employee relations with their staff at GWH and “are very disappointed to hear of the allegations.”

“We take matters of this nature very seriously and have well-established processes under which our employees are encouraged to come forward with any concerns they may have, so that allegations of this kind can be thoroughly investigated.  However, as we have not received the allegations to which the GMNB refers, we cannot comment further at this stage.”

Oonagh Fitzgerald, Director of Workforce and Education at GWH said: “We work closely with Carillion to provide essential support to our front line services and the welfare of everybody working at the GWH is important to us as a Trust.”

“Allegations made by a member of staff of a contractor, or other third party are the responsibility of the company concerned. In this instance we are confident that if the union provides information to support the allegations then they will be investigated openly and fairly by Carillion.”

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Watch the water you use with all that washing up to do at Christmas

With the prospect of all that washing up to do over  Christmas – and the New Year celebrations to come - now is definitely not the time to turn on the taps and keep them running.

The warning to conserve the precious water that comes out of the River Kennet at Marlborough as been repeated by Charlotte Hitchmough, director of Action River Kennet, the group that campaigns for one of England’s rare chalk streams.

For although recent rainfall has undoubtedly ended, at least temporarily, this year’s significant drought, the Kennet remains in danger, its water level hit by both extraction by Thames Water, which has launched its own Care for the Kennet campaign, and by drought.

“Rainfall over the winter will be critical to fill the aquifer enough  to keep the river flowing through next summer,” Charlotte told Marlborough News Online.  “In the meantime, we can all make a vital difference by using less water every day.”

“There are simple steps everyone can take -- just having a four-minute shower, swapping your showerhead for a water-efficient one, fixing dripping taps and making sure you don't run water while you clean your teeth, add up to making a difference.”

“The less water that comes out of your tap, the more will be left in the river.  And that includes Christmas.”

Eric Gilbert, who has run the Marlborough weather station since 1984, agrees.

“The total rainfall of 603mm for the 12 month period in November 2011 was the driest since June 1997, when it was 584mm,” he reports. “The record low is for the period ending in April 1997 with just 513mm.”

“The two driest months in 2011 were March with 12.7mm and April with 5.4mm. The total for 2011, up to December 19 has been 640.4mm.”

Fortunately, the total rainfall in recent days is encouraging – from December 11 to 19 it hit 55.7mm and last week, December 13 to 19, provided 25.9mm.

And more rain is forecast by the Met Office with light rain due during the daylight hours of Friday.

The Kennet has benefited, the run off raising the level by a couple of centimetres but only for a few hours.

“The overall river level remains at 2cm measured at the Pewsey Road bridge,” explained Charlotte.   “Usually the level is  between half a metre and a metre at this time of year.”

“The rain we need for the aquifer levels to recover, and for the river to be full again will take months.  If over the winter we had average rainfall plus about half again, the river would start to get back to where we'd like it to be.”

“Rainfall over the winter will be critical to fill the aquifer enough  to keep the river flowing through next summer.”

For more detailed information about Marlborough’s weather –

www.windrushweather.co.uk

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Council tax payers face precept increase of 20p a month reveals finance chairman

 

Twenty pence a month. That’s the size of the threat to council tax payers in Marlborough when the town council’s finance committee meets on Monday to consider the size of the precept for next year.

The Christmas promise comes from finance chairman Andrew Ross (pictured), who says that the low figure has brought about thanks to two factors in the council’s overall £404,227 total budget for the next financial year.

And he reveals that whether or not the increase is recommended for approval, that sum takes in the future annual cost of the town hall improvement project, which “scaremongering councillors” have falsely led residents to believe will land them with an immediate £1 million debt.

One is the fact that a small rise of 156 in Marlborough’s households – to a new total of 3,343 – automatically brings in an additional £10,000. And the other is that the current year’s budget has been under-spent by roughly £30,000, when the council had budgeted for an £8,000 surplus.

“So my committee will on Monday night be considering a very, very small increase of one per cent to the precept,”  Councillor Ross told Marlborough News Online.

“As a band D council taxpayer that would cost less than 20 pence a month, a very modest increase indeed.”

And it won’t go higher than that even if the current consultation exercise taking place until the end of the month on the £1 million town hall revamp project goes ahead -- because that cost is being spread over years to come by way of a government-backed public loan scheme.

“The way the improvement scheme is being presented by some councillors and local groups is totally misleading and is really just scaremongering,” protested former mayor Councillor Ross, a retired accountant.

“I do appreciate people’s concern when they see the leaflets that are being sent out.  However, the situation is being misrepresented.  If residents only came and talked to us, we can explain to them how the costs all fit into our budget.”

“And show them that their concerns are generally groundless. Can I sleep easily in my bed at night? I have no conscience worrying me over the effect of what we are doing.”

He pointed out that when the present group of councillors took charge of the town council’s budget five years ago they found the reserves had been reduced to a meagre £150,000 and had to place an embargo on spending for two years in order to restore the council’s reserves.

The reserves now currently stand at £284,000 in cash, a sum that is being maintained while the town hall improvement project has been going ahead, partly paid for by grants, which have restored the assembly hall as an attractive centre for events and created the new steps at the entrance.

The town council has now bought both a dishwasher and glass washer for the town hall kitchens, which makes them more attractive for events such as wedding receptions and conferences.

“Even if the consultation should prove negative, that simply means we won’t do anything dramatic,” added Councillor Ross.  “But there will still be a continuing programme of improvements.  And people won’t be worse off in their pocket either way.”

Where the town council will lose out is in the savings coming from letting the present High Street council office accommodation by moving its headquarters  back to the town hall rather waiting for another year to achieve the transfer.

“The other point is that going ahead with the improvement scheme is a substantial investment of £65,000 a year in the town that will provide jobs at a difficult time in the country’s economy,” declared Councillor Ross.

“It has always been the town council’s policy to use local labour almost exclusively.  We only go outside the town when there is no such employment available.”

“Our ambition is to improve the town hall and give it a new status, to make it the real focus for Marlborough and what happens in this town.”

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Breakthrough talks start to end rift between Marlborough College and the town

The first of what are hoped to be a series of breakthrough talks to heal the rift between Marlborough College and the town has taken place.

It follows the completion by the College, one of the country’s leading public schools, of its controversial purchase of the Ivy House Hotel.

Marlborough News Online can reveal that Nicholas Sampson, the College’s master, met last Friday with retired company director Gordon Olson, one of the leading protagonists in the planning row that has gone on for almost a year.

“And I am very confident that we can look forward to a more positive situation in the future,” said Mr Olson, whose two sons were students at the College. “This the good message I can give you for Christmas.”

It was Mr Olson who challenged the decision of a government planning inspector to grant change of use to the College to convert the 28-room hotel as a hostel for female students, who, in the past, have included Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge.

He sought leading counsel’s advice on whether it could be challenged in law but discovered that this was possibly only on narrow points of law and within a tight time frame.

Now the College’s completion of its contract to buy the grade II listed hotel for a reputed £1.8 million has resulted in Mr Olson’s overtures for talks meeting with success last Friday.

“I met the Master, who was very helpful and friendly,” he told Marlborough News Online.  “We discussed ways in which the College and the town can re-engage in the future, certainly as far as culture is concerned.”

Mr Olson has been a significant supporter of Marlborough’s International Jazz Festival, has been its chief engineer since 1993 and played a part in the way it has prospered.

One of his concerns over the Ivy House debacle is the fact that the hotel’s car park has been a venue for jazz festival events and is interested too in the College’s memorial hall as another venue for jazz performances.

“The Master and I will meet again in the New Year,” he added.  “We want to draw up some sort of working paper to get a dialogue going between the College and the town.”

Wiltshire Council is meanwhile investigating its own planning process in dealing with the hotel takeover, which it overwhelmingly opposed along with Marlborough town council, the Chamber of Commerce and some 30 individuals.

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Beware “legal highs” from a drug called Slush Eric, warn Wiltshire police

A drug that is not illegal to possess is causing concern after a number of people have been treated for “legal highs” at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon, Wiltshire police have warned.

Those affected have shown symptoms which include anxiety, paranoia and vomiting, which are believed to be the consequence of a drug colloquially called Slush Eric or MPA, the police report.

Although this drug is not illegal to possess, it can be harmful and could have serious consequences.

Inspector Phil Staynings told Marlborough News Online: ‘We are concerned about these incidents and our officers are investigating.  Although classed as a legal high, there are no guarantees as to what chemicals these drugs actually contain.”

“We advise anyone who is suffering from the effects of this drug to seek medical advice.”

Anyone who has information regarding the supply of these drugs is asked to please contact Inspector Staynings on 101.  “We can assure callers that their information will be dealt with confidentially,” the police add.

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Jeff James to take role with NHS in Wales

 

Jeff James, who resigned in October as chief executive of two local primary care trusts (PCTs), has accepted a new assignment with the NHS in Wales.  From January 2012, James (pictured) will be programme director for the partnership of six South Wales health boards, working on a twelve month contract.

The Welsh Health Secretary has ordered all Wales’ health boards to draw up plans by November 2012 for sustainable health services.  And James will be coordinating the southern partnership’s plans for those services which need a regional approach.

Jeff James was brought up in Wales and has previously worked in several capacities for the NHS in Wales.  The British coalition government’s complete restructuring of the NHS under the Health and Social Care Bill applies only to the NHS in England.

Jeff James became chief executive of NHS Wiltshire in 2006, and earlier this year was named chief executive of the Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) PCT – ahead of the merging (or ‘clustering’) of the two PCTs as part of health secretary Andrew Lansley’s restructuring process.

The leadership of the ‘clustered’ NHS Wiltshire and NHS BANES for the final year of the current regime – assuming the Health and Social Care Bill becomes law – has still to be settled.
 

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Good jobs news for Swindon, but in Devizes constituency unemployment gets worse

Honda’s Swindon operation provided bright news (Monday, December 19) with the resumption of full-time shift work, the first of the new, ninth generation Civics coming off the production line and the announcement of five hundred new jobs in January.

The plant has not been working to full capacity since the credit crisis of 2008 saw car sales plummet.  More recently the plant has been hit by supply problems caused by natural disasters first in Japan and then in Thailand.

The new jobs will start in January and recruiting is staring immediately – at www.hondamanufacturingcareers. co.uk 

The prime minister called the announcement of the new jobs “great news and a tremendous boost to the workforce, the car industry and UK manufacturing.”  Once recruitment is complete Honda’s Swindon workforce will stand at 3,500.  With an extra shift added next year, the plant’s annual car production is expected to rise from 100,000 to 180,000 cars.

Further south, in the Devizes constituency, the unemployment figures published this month did not bring good news.  Youth unemployment is still climbing – those aged under twenty-four and claiming jobseekers allowance (JSA) in November increased by 43.8 per cent on the same month in 2010.

Across all age groups in the constituency showed an 18.8 per cent increase in claimants over the year.

But the scale of the problem faced in creating jobs was shown by the comparative figures for November 2006 and November 2011 which showed an increase of 148.8 per cent.  By that measure Devizes constituency has suffered the second steepest rise in unemployment of all the English constituencies.

Across the country there were a thousand more men claiming JSA in November – bringing the total to 1.07 million.  But the government’s austerity measures are hitting women harder: two thousand more women claimed JSA in November. -bringing the total to 529,000 –which is the highest it’s been  since 1995.

And the national figures show public sector employment down by 67,000 over the previous quarter’s figure.  And employment in the private sector was up by 5,000 over last quarter. So far the private sector is simply not absorbing most of those who have lost their jobs due to cut-backs in the public services.

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No happy birthday – or Christmas – for sacked Ivy House Hotel manager

 A far from happy birthday and a far from happy Christmas.  That is the prospect facing Ina Thomas, general manager of Marlborough’s Ivy House Hotel, which has been sold to Marlborough College for conversion into a hostel.

She has lost her job in the wake of the controversy over the fate of the grade II listed hotel, one of 19 full and part-time members of staff who face the prospect of unemployment as from January 10.

And for Ina, who joined the staff as assistant manager in June, 2009 and was promoted to manager last February, it is a double blow as she celebrates her 46th birthday on Tuesday.

“And none of us are going to have a very happy Christmas,” she told Marlborough News Online.  “We are all in the same boat.”

“It is pretty sad.  Nobody is prepared to enjoy the Christmas season because of what has happened to us.  And it looks very scary right now for the staff to go out and find a job. It would be good if someone could help.”

The 28-room three star hotel, which dates back to 1707 when it started life as a school, is owned by Hunt’s Foodservice, a family company that  has Michael Douch as its hotel director, which bought Ivy House in 2008.

None of the staff, to Ina’s knowledge, has yet found a new post at a time when unemployment has hit its highest peak for 17 years.  Ina too, though she has been too busy to seek new employment.

“I am so busy,” she explained.  “The hotel is full for Christmas and we have functions happening.  The occupancy rate for the last three to six months has been about 85 per cent.”

“It is not a question of the hotel losing money, not at all.  The owner has been very apologetic about it.  I cannot fault him.  He is very helpful about everything.”

Was he surprised by the outcry in Marlborough over the loss of one of its two hotels, sold to the College for what is believed to be £1.8 million for conversion into a hostel for girl students?

“I think Yes and No,” replied Ina, who lives in Tisbury and will be looking initially for a new post nearer home.  “Obviously there is a company board and it is not one person’s decision.”

“The owners have let the hotel drift because they have always been in the process of selling and pulling out.  It started in October last year.”

“That’s when we all thought we might lose our jobs.  And it has just gone on from then.”

And she added: “There has been tremendous support for us from the town, from the people, neighbours, everybody, even the guests.  They are surprised about the outcome after all the protests.  They were sort of over-ruled by the planning inspector.”

“We didn’t have any contact with the College during this time, but we do now as they are sending all their contractors to carry out asbestos checks, everything, electricity, plumbing. It is all in the process of happening.”

But Ina is determined to stay in the hotel business.

“It’s been great fun here,” she said.  “It’s a lovely hotel and we’ve got some lovely guests.  I love the business.  It has always been my business until now.”

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