Friday, October 20, 2006


The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said he backed a local council which suspended a Muslim classroom assistant for refusing to remove her veil, as part of what he described as a difficult but necessary debate about how Islam integrates into the modern world. Mr Blair said on Tuesday the niqab worn by some Muslim women was "a mark of separation and that is why it makes other people from outside of the community feel uncomfortable" - words likely to anger some religious leaders.

Asked if it was possible for a woman wearing a veil to make a full contribution to British society, Mr Blair said it was "a very difficult question … no one wants to say that people don't have the right to do it. That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society. "It's a very, very sensitive issue; all I'm saying is we need to have this debate about integration. I'm not saying anyone should be forced to do anything."

Mr Blair said he could "see the reason" why Kirklees Council had suspended Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Ms Azmi has taken the council to an employment tribunal. Mr Blair said he was mindful of that, though he did not go as far as the Minister for Local Government, Phil Woolas, in calling for her to be sacked. But he said he "fully" supported Kirklees. "I simply say that I back their handling of the case. I can see the reason why they came to the decision they did," Mr Blair said.

Ms Azmi's lawyer said he was considering taking an injunction against Mr Blair to stop him saying more about the case. The Prime Minister said Ms Azmi's case, along with the decision by a senior Labour MP, Jack Straw, to ask women to remove their veils in his constituency surgeries and a row over British Airways' ban on a staff member wearing a cross, were part of a broader debate which was "happening in a very haphazard way". The debate was about the degree of integration by Muslims, and about "how Islam comes to terms with and is comfortable with the modern world", he said. The debate had begun long before ministers contributed and was going on in different forms across the developed world including the Middle East. A spokesman in Mr Blair's office said later that ministers had not engineered the debate, but nor could they shy away from it.



A virtually unnoticed piece of legislation is wending its way through Parliament right now. You might think you could not take issue with something called the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. You might think that any legislation designed to promote child safety should be supported. You might be wrong. This new Bill will insist that every single person who could conceivably come into contact with a child, whether through work or volunteering, has to be subject to continuous criminal-record vetting.

Josie Appleton, author of The Case Against Vetting, calculates that up to a third of the adult working population will be covered, from the plumber who comes to mend a school’s leaking radiator to a parent running a football team or a 16-year-old helping schoolchildren to read. It will be an offence, subject to a fine of up to 5,000 pounds, for an employer to hire someone to work with children without being vetted, except in the context of private family arrangements.

Of course, those of us with nothing to hide will have nothing to lose. Except that the vetting is almost as bureaucratically onerous as getting a new passport. There are forms to be filled in, three pieces of identity to be proferred and, in some cases, cheques to be written. You then have to wait several weeks before you are cleared.

One new headmaster last year could not enter his own school for the first couple of weeks of term because his check had not come through. Another man — a father of three and member of the Scottish Parliament — was not allowed to lead the “walking bus” to his son’s primary school because he had not been officially cleared. We grown-ups, however public-spirited, are all now assumed guilty until proved innocent.

As a result, adults are being deterred from offering to help with children. The Girl Guides and Scouts are chronically short of volunteers: the Guides have a waiting list of 50,000, the Scouts 30,000, and some parents have resorted to signing their children up at birth. These checks will reveal not just convictions, but also offences of which people were accused but not convicted. This could wreck the lives of adults who have been falsely accused. And what about, for instance, Cherie Blair, who was investigated by the police for play-slapping a 17-year-old who made rabbit ears above her head while posing for a photograph? Will she now be banned from working with children? Or the vicar who kissed a girl on her forehead during a maths class?

One of the nicer aspects of being a child used to be the random acts of kindness offered by adults outside the family: the friendly shopkeeper who ruffled your hair and gave you a sweet; the enthusiastic PE coach who gave up time after school to help with your gymnastics and was constantly — and wholly innocently — adjusting your body position to get the moves right. These adults were generous with their time and their affection. We knew who the pervs were and took pains to avoid them.

Now all adults are deemed to be perverts unless they can prove that they are not. Most will now avoid contact with other people’s children and will refrain from touching them for fear of the action being misconstrued.

So what this Bill threatens to do is to poison the relationships between generations. Just as the ultra-feminist slogan “All men are rapists” tainted the relationship between men and women for a decade, so the assumption that all adults are potential paedophiles will imbue children with fear, parents with paranoia and other adults with excessive caution.

The new law was inspired by the Soham murders, in which Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, killed two young girls. Yet he did not even work at their school; it was his partner who did. In other words, the legislation may save no new lives. But what it will do is sour the trust between millions of children and millions of innocent adults. What a great shame.



Homeowners are being asked to spy on their neighbours and report them if they are not recycling, it emerged. A free telephone number has been set up by a council for residents to report anyone flouting strict rules on rubbish collection. Offenders will then be visited by a "recycling sheriff"' who will inspect their bins as part of the controversial scheme.

Last night the council officials were widely criticised for using tactics that will "turn neighbour against neighbour" and lead to families facing fines up to 2,500 pounds. The plan to get residents to report their neighbours was revealed after Teignbridge District Council distributed thousands of leaflets asking residents to look out for people who do not recycle correctly. Under the headline: "Wanted: People who can't recycle or won't recycle," it reads: "It is now easier than ever to recycle yet 30 per cent of residents still aren't!" "Do you know of someone in your road who is not doing their bit? Do you feel strongly enough about it to let us help them?" "Then contact us free on 0800 7310323 and a recycling sheriff will be there to assist."

The council says it has been forced to adopt the strategy to tackle residents who do not adhere to their complex four-bin recycling scheme. But there are fears the recycling "hotline" could lead to numerous prosecutions as well as prank calls from people who have disputes with their neighbours. One resident, who asked not to be named said: "It is a sneaky business to turn neighbour against neighbour - a dream come true for every curtain twitcher and busy-body." "The council should be ashamed of itself to use such underhand tactics."

The leaflet was distributed to thousands of homes in several Devon towns including Newton Abbot, Kingsteignton and Teignmouth where all homes have four bins each, consisting of separate containers for newspapers, glass, food waste and non-recyclable landfill. Last night a spokesman for the Liberal Democrat controlled council insisted the leaflet was not meant to be "sinister" or designed to seek prosecutions. She said: "The council just wanted to help people who were having difficulty getting to grips with recycling." "This is all about providing assistance to people who aren't sure about how to recycle, particularly the elderly."

News of the scheme emerged after one man made a personal protest against fortnightly rubbish collections. When bin men refused to collect John Chandler's rubbish yesterday he threw the bag in to the lorry himself. Mr Chandler, a mechanic, says he and his neighbours are fed up with mountains of bags left uncollected because of rules which restrict residents to one wheelie bin every two weeks. The 28-year-old father-of-one said: "It looks awful, you can always smell the rubbish when you're walking up the street." "Lots of people are upset about it. I've tried talking to the council but nothing has happened so I decided to take action." But the council claims that John is failing to recycle his waste properly and is threatening legal action against him for allegedly intimidating refuse collectors.

Last weekend the Daily Mail told how fortnightly rubbish collections are to be forced on millions of homeowners in a backdoor campaign." Town hall chiefs have been told to end weekly visits by the binmen in winter - so that the cold weather keeps down the smell and vermin. The hope is that by the summer, when the odours and rats return, it will be too late to bring back once-a-week collections. The guidance over fortnightly collections comes in the wake of concern over Government plans to slap extra taxes on rubbish. One in ten councils has started fitting wheelie bins with microchips which weigh rubbish so that householders can be billed by the kilo.



Privatization called for

Social workers have set a 15-minute limit on the amount of home help they will allow frail and vulnerable elderly people, a shocking watchdog report revealed. Care workers are under strict orders to take no more than a quarter of an hour to dress and bathe someone who needs help looking after themselves. Then they must abandon the job and move on to the next one, a report by the Government's social services inspectors said.

Their inquiry into the treatment of more than 350,000 vulnerable older people who need help to stay in their own homes found the system is riddled with shortages, failure and indifference. Most hurtful of the miseries inflicted on the elderly who get home help is the "15 minute slot", which is "undignified and unsafe", the Commission for Social Care Inspection said. It called for radical reforms to strip local council social workers of the right to organise home help for the elderly, and instead give older people their own buying power to get help from outside or pay the relatives who already care for them.

Inspectorate chief Dame Denise Platt said: "Failure to listen to what people really need, and respond to this, results in missed opportunities to promote independence. "At worst, it can also result in services that do not respect people’s rights and dignity."

The condemnation of the way elderly people are treated in their own homes by social workers and contractors hired by local councils is the latest in a series of scathing reports into the way frail and sick old people are cared for. The Daily Mail's Dignity for the Elderly campaign has highlighted the ill-treatment suffered by older people in care homes and hospitals, and the way the controversial means-testing scheme covering care home places forces 70,000 people a year to sell their homes to meet the bills.

The new report by inspectors backed the findings of an independent inquiry into care of the elderly carried out earlier this year by former Treasury troubleshooter Sir Derek Wanless. His findings - which were instantly dismissed by Chancellor Gordon Brown - said the Government should put greatly increased public spending into caring for people in their own homes in order to help them stay independent and out of care homes. The CSCI report said that far from increasing numbers who are helped at home, the total of those given assistance in dressing, washing, cleaning and preparing meals has dropped by a third over the past 13 years to just over 350,000. The inspectors found "widespread problems in relation to the shortness of visits, the timing of visits, and reliability, associated with care workers rushing between visits and turning up late."

Social work chiefs, it said, "restrict the help they will offer to a list of prescribed activities." "Care managers draw up individual care plans that tightly specify both the tasks to be undertaken and the time to be evoted to thise tasks. "People using services, their families and their care workers told us that it could be difficult to carry out the required tasks in the time available." The report called for a shake-up to strip social workers of their powers to organise care and give older people and their families more say. Pressure groups for the elderly endorsed the inspectors' findings.

Gordon Lishman of Age Concern said: "Too many frail and vulnerable older people are being let down by under-pressure staff and over-stretched councils who are not providing the care they need." A survey by the charity Counsel and Care last month found that one in three town halls have cut back the level of services they offer to elderly people getting help at home.

The Government has launched a 'Dignity in Care' campaign under which care workers and hospital staff will be told not to call old people "poppet" or "love" as part of an effort to cut maltreatment. But ministers have offered no new money to help improve the care system. Councils blamed the Government for giving them too little cash to provide home help. David Rogers of the Local Government Association said: "Councils want to provide more personalised services to give elderly people the care they both need and deserve. "An increasingly ageing population and issues around central government funding means there is not enough money in the system."


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