Tuesday, September 26, 2006


They regularly ignore complaints about "Yobs", and Muslims can do as they please but a cat with one flea is a serious matter

Pet owner Robert Emberson was stunned as two cops swooped on his home - to seize his KITTEN. The bobbies went round after pet charity workers were tipped off that the moggy missed a routine appointment. Robert had adopted the rescue kitten named Plume.

But Cat Protection workers swooped to demand it back - and called in a police escort in case there was trouble. Horticultural student Robert, 18, accused the charity of being heavy-handed. He said: "They were so rude - barging in without warning. I was horrified." It followed an earlier visit by a Cat Protection worker who claimed to have seen a SINGLE FLEA on the cat. Robert, of Canvey Island, Essex, agreed to treat Plume. But he was waiting for his pay from his part-time job.

He said: "The flea treatment cost me a day's wages, but I paid for Plume to be vaccinated and everything. "I missed just one treatment, but they said they might take Plume away." The charity - criticised for refusing to let a man with an artificial leg adopt a cat - refused to comment. Robert was eventually allowed to keep the cat.

An Essex Police spokeswoman said: "We are frequently asked by other agencies to support them when there could be public order issues." [Fierce cat?]



They are helping BritGov's battle with its public servants, but at a cost

Private health centres are being paid tens of millions of pounds by the NHS for operations that are not happening. Hardly any of the independent centres set up under generous contracts are meeting their targets, an investigation by Health Service Journal has found. But they still get paid, unlike NHS hospitals, which are paid on the basis of how many operations they do.

The 20 centres were open by March. Information gathered by the journal from public documents, freedom of information requests and parliamentary answers indicates that so far they are doing only 59 per cent of the operations for which they are contracted. The Will Adams Treatment Centre in Gillingham, Kent, is performing at the rate of 945 procedures a year, compared with the 3,954 needed to meet its targets. It carries out hernia operations and day-surgery orthopaedic, gastroenterology and urology procedures.

The Department of Health denies that there is a problem. The centres were set up with five-year contracts and a spokesman said that it was completely misleading to say that activity below 100 per cent represented a waste of money. That could be determined only at the end of the contracts, when it would be clear how many operations the centres had done.

Its own figures put a different gloss on the situation by including other short-term programmes launched to shift the backlog. When those are included, it says that the programme is working at 84 per cent of capacity. Independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs) are controversial because NHS traditionalists say that they take money away from health service hospitals, disrupting their finances. The first ISTCs were set up under contracts that guaranteed an income based on the number of patients they undertook to treat, regardless of whether that many were treated.

Overall, HSJ calculated that the 20 centres should be treating patients at the rate of 78,242 a year, assuming that the target numbers are averaged over the whole of the five-year contract. But in the period to March their treatment rate was 46,073 patients a year, 59 per cent of the target.

In defence of the centres, many have not been open long, and the numbers they treat have not had time to build up. The main cause of the shortfall appears to be a reluctance by doctors to refer patients to them. Attempts have been made to persuade GPs to increase referral rates, but one obstacle is that ISTCs are staffed largely by doctors from abroad who are not known personally to GPs. This may affect judgments and make it less likely that patients will choose to go there.

The centres are costing primary care trusts a lot of money. Local reports suggest, for example, that the underperformance of the Will Adams ISTC is costing Medway PCT 100,000 pounds a month. The trust’s deficit in 2005-06 was £2.4 million.

A survey by HSJ of 42 NHS chief executives found considerable disquiet. More than three quarters felt that their own finances had been damaged by the centres — including 7 per cent who called the effect disastrous. Almost 60 per cent doubted that the centres had added to NHS capacity, and question marks were raised about whether the NHS needed any extra capacity anyway.

The health department, and 10 Downing Street, are unlikely to be unduly alarmed by the findings. The hidden agenda behind the ISTCs was an attempt to break the power of surgeons in NHS hospitals to control waiting lists, and that seems to be succeeding. The policy to allow patients a choice as to where they are treated has had such a dramatic effect on waiting times that top advisers regret that it was not introduced much sooner.


NHS fails as an insurer once again

A new drug that could transform the lives of children with a rare genetic condition might be judged too expensive for the NHS. Hunter Syndrome was in the headlines last year when Andrew Wragg, 40, a former SAS soldier, was driven to despair by the decline of his son Jacob, 10, and smothered him with a pillow. The father, from Worthing, was cleared of murder and given a suspended sentence for manslaughter with diminished responsibility.

The fatal syndrome, suffered almost exclusively by boys, is caused by a defective enzyme that is unable to break down complex sugars produced as waste products in the body. These compounds, called mucopolysaccharides, accumulate in the tissues and organs and cause worsening physical and mental health problems.

The new drug, Elaprase, developed by Shire Pharmaceuticals, has been approved in the US and is expected to be licensed in Europe by the end of the year. Given by infusion, it improves breathing and movement. Parents of some Hunter children say it has transformed them. But it will cost at least 100,000 pounds per child per year, and as much as 300,000 for older, heavier patients who need bigger doses. Although the number of Hunter children in the UK is small — no more than about 100 — the cost of providing it for all of them could well be prohibitive.

A patients’ group has been lobbying ministers to confirm that the drug will be funded under a special scheme for children with rare diseases. Christine Lavery, chief executive of The Society for Mucopolysaccharide Diseases (SMD), said: “Funding for treatments for rare diseases similar to Hunter Syndrome is due to end at Christmas. We expect that to be extended. But there has been no promise that the DoH will fund the new drug for Hunter Syndrome. “All our questions and requests for clarification of the position have met with a lack of response, which leads us to fear the worst.”

Although not a cure the drug, which replaces the missing enzyme, may allow affected children to lead near-normal lives if the condition is picked up early. Dr Ed Wraith, a consultant at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, said: “With this disease, there is damage to the heart, liver, brain and other organs which invariably leads to death well before the age of 20. The treatment is a major breakthrough and it would be a tragedy if the Department of Health didn’t provide the money.”

The Department of Health said: “No decision has yet been made on whether this expensive drug will be funded.” The same is likely to be the case north of the Border, where the Scottish Medicines Consortium has refused a related drug for a girl with a similar condition.

Bob Wragg, 64, grandfather of Jacob, said: “Thank God they have found a treatment at last.” His wife, Anne, a nurse, said: “A lot of people just don’t understand the torment that Andrew went through caring for Jacob and seeing him get worse and worse.” An adult sufferer of the syndrome, Colin Arrowsmith, 26, from Newcastle, has been receiving Elaprase weekly as part of a trial since February 2004. He had already defied doctors’ predictions that he would be dead by his early teens and until five years ago was able to live independently. He worked in the mailroom of an electricity company but was forced to give it up because his hips began to crumble. This forced him into a wheelchair and made him more reliant on his parents.

His mother, Barbara, said: “He was picking up lots of infections and his liver and spleen were very large. Since he began the weekly infusions his general health is better and his liver and spleen are no longer swollen. He has a lot more energy. “The treatment won’t reverse the damage done but we’ve been told that it should prevent further damage.”


'Cool Maths': The sum of all fears

Schoolchildren will never learn to love abstract subjects like maths if teachers are afraid to challenge them

One of the central themes in modern education debates is how to motivate pupils. How do we make learning maths, science, history or English an interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding experience for pupils? It is widely believed that if we fail to convince pupils that studying a particular subject is both relevant to their personal experience and enjoyable they will never learn it properly. This point was emphasised by Charles Clarke three years and two education secretaries ago: `Enjoyment is the birthright of every child. Children learn better when they are excited and engaged ... When there is joy in what they are doing, they learn to love learning.'

One of the subjects that most worries educationalists and policy makers is mathematics. Being the most abstract subject in the curriculum, maths is almost universally considered a hard subject, which is difficult to make relevant to pupils' lives. Minister for Higher Education Bill Rammell notes that `mathematics is too often seen as difficult or boring' and `we have a curriculum that all too often fails to excite and motivate learners'. Educationalist Adrian Smith, author in 2004 of a major inquiry into the state of post-14 mathematics, Making Mathematics Count, states in his report that there has long `been considerable concern about many young people's perception of mathematics as being "boring and irrelevant" and "too difficult", compared with other subjects'.

For the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), maths is worse than boring. It must be truly terrifying, as `the best teachers' build confidence by `enabling [students] to talk through misconceptions in a non-threatening way'. Ofsted cites as an example of a good lesson one where `the teacher valued and used all answers from students, whether correct or not'. As a result, the students were `highly motivated'. Ofsted wants to see lessons with pace, like stand-up comedy, in order to ensure the full attention of the audience. Yet in 2005 it criticised maths teachers for not slowing down the pace of the lesson when necessary: `In many of the less effective lessons, the teaching moves on before pupils have understood the concept; the pressure to cover new content as quickly as possible results in shallow coverage and lack of depth in learning.' Ofsted also implies that there must be a trade off between serious learning and entertainment: `A stimulating session with hairdressing students struck just the right balance between engaging the learners and keeping their mathematics moving forward.' But why should we strike a balance between engaging the learners and learning maths? It seems that we can only sell learning in an underhand way, as something else.

In June 2006, various newspapers reported as `cool maths' a 4 million pound initiative by the secretary of state for education Alan Johnson aimed at `giving teachers new and innovative ways to engage with pupils at Key Stage 3'. Johnson explained that the programme `will make learning engaging and fascinating [as] the problems will be based around things which appeal to pupils, such as fashion, football, or the Olympics'. But Johnson gave away his real views on serious learning when he stated that `the questions will be open, so that the answers will be found through discussion, activity and ingenuity, rather than sitting in a dark room with a wet towel around the head'. Like a self-conscious teenager, Mr Johnson seems so desperate to look cool that he doesn't hesitate to declare his disgust for swots.

However, the prize for coolest educators must go to the chemistry lecturers at Leicester University, who dressed up as Harry Potter characters to motivate primary school children to study their academic discipline. According to the BBC, `Dr Jonny Woodward is putting on a "Gryffindor gown" to become Harry while Dr Paul Jenkins dresses up as the headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore, and Mrs Tracy McGhie is transfigured into Professor Minerva McGonagall'.

We should be more honest and tell children what they already know: that maths has very little to do with fashion, football and the Olympics; that chemistry has nothing to do with Harry Potter. Middle-aged educators who try to jump on to every fashionable bandwagon like a bunch of groupies don't even look cool, never mind motivate pupils to study.

The real problem, then, is not that modern pupils are in any way different from previous generations. The problem is the era these children have been born into. Adults no longer believe that education is a worthwhile thing in its own right. It must always be made `relevant'. They have so little faith in pupils that they believe that children are now incapable of grasping abstract concepts, never mind developing a love of books. Learning necessarily involves hard work and individual effort. Teachers are unlikely to convince children that learning a school subject is worth the effort if we believe so little in our discipline and in our pupils' intelligence.


Brits are abandoning public transport

Despite the efforts of their very "Green" government

Thousands of daily bus services will be scrapped and fares will rise by 20 per cent during the next decade in a continuing exodus from public transport to the car, a report has found. The Government is falling well short of its official target of increasing bus use in every region. Passenger numbers are declining in every large city apart from London, the only area where services remain under public control.

The report, commissioned by the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG), which represents local authorities in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle upon Tyne and Birmingham, found that bus companies were exploiting local monopolies to make excessive profits. Fares have increased by 86 per cent above inflation since 1986 and passengers have fallen by half in those cities. By contrast, the cost of motoring has remained stable and the total distance travelled by car in Britain since 1986 has increased by 50 per cent.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said in 1997: "I will have failed if in five years' time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it." Rail travel has increased by a quarter since Mr Prescott made his pledge but the decline in bus services means the proportion of journeys made by bus, tram or train has fallen from 15 per cent to 12 per cent.

The Government's official target is to increase bus and tram journeys by 12 per cent in England by 2012 and to deliver growth in each region. Last year bus and tram journeys rose by 1.9 per cent in London but fell by 1.2 per cent in the rest of England. The report found that bus services had declined by 41 per cent in Tyne and Wear, 31 per cent in South Yorkshire and 20 per cent in the West Midlands since 1995. Services in Manchester, West Yorkshire and on Merseyside fell by 10 per cent to 12 per cent.

The report concludes: "Projecting these numbers forward gives an estimate that over the ten years from 2004-05 to 2014-15, bus patronage will fall by 20 per cent, fares will rise by about 20 per cent and service levels will fall by about 20 per cent. "Bus services are not providing a high-quality alternative to the private car and so motorists do not have incentives to switch to the only public transport mode that may be available to them."

In London, where the average fare is the same in real terms as a decade ago, bus passenger numbers have risen by 50 per cent since 2000. The services are controlled by Ken Livingstone, the mayor, who sets fare levels and determines the frequency and quality of the service under tightly drawn contracts with bus companies.

In the rest of England, private operators control all aspects of the service and can withdraw from routes with 56 days' notice. PTEG wants its members to be given similar powers to the London mayor. It believes that this will allow cities to offer a better service by cross-subsidising lightly used routes with the profits made from the busiest ones. It claims that private operators are contributing to decline by cherry-picking the most profitable routes, leaving others with an infrequent service that results in increasing numbers of people switching to cars.

The Government has begun a review of the way buses are regulated outside London and is drawing up proposals that would allow local authorities and bus companies to co-operate more closely on service levels. But ministers have balked at the idea of giving authorities the power to set fares, routes and frequencies. The report found one company dominating bus services in each of the biggest six English regional cities. National Express runs 81 per cent of buses in Birmingham and makes an estimated 21 to 35 per cent return on investment. The other companies also make "excess profits" despite presiding over declining services, and often failing to fulfil commitments to invest in newer, more reliable vehicles.


Racist Revving??

From Scotland we read:

"A driver spent two nights in jail after being accused of "revving his car in a racist manner".

Mechanic Ronnie Hutton, 49, yesterday described his court ordeal which finally ended when prosecutors dropped the allegation of racism.

But he was still convicted of a breach of the peace for revving the engine of his 25,000 pound Lotus.

Witnesses claimed he had been trying to intimidate a Libyan couple on the pavement. Ronnie, of Stirling, claims he was only revving the powerful V8 engine to avoid another 15,000 pound repair bill....


Liver cure: "British scientists have discovered a drug that could cure liver disease, even in alcoholics who continue drinking. The medicine, found by a team of doctors and scientists at Newcastle University, could become a potential alternative to liver transplants. Until now cirrhosis of the liver, caused by alcohol, obesity or the hepatitis C virus, was considered incurable in all but the rarest of cases. The only option for patients in the final stages of liver disease was to wait for a liver transplant. However, because of organ shortages many die while on the waiting list. Clinical trials of the drug Sulphasalazine are expected to begin in Britain next year. If these prove successful, the drug could be used to treat heavy drinkers, whose plight was recently illustrated by George Best, the former Manchester United footballer who died from liver disease last year. Sulphasalazine, which already has a licence to treat arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, acts by preventing scarring from developing on the liver."

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