Saturday, November 18, 2006

The nursery rhyme police - British parents to take lessons in reading and singing

Parents could be forced to go to special classes to learn to sing their children nursery rhymes, a minister said. Those who fail to read stories or sing to their youngsters threaten their children's future and the state must put them right, Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said. Their children's well-being is at risk 'unless we act', she declared. And Mrs Hughes said the state would train a new 'parenting workforce' to ensure parents who fail to do their duty with nursery rhymes are found and 'supported'.

The call for state intervention in the minute details of family life followed a series of Labour efforts to reduce anti-social behaviour and improve educational standards by imposing rigorous controls on the lives of the youngest children. Mrs Hughes has established a national curriculum to set down how babies are taught to speak in childcare from the age of three months. Her efforts have gone alongside a push by other ministers to determine exactly how parents treat their children down to how they should brush their teeth.

Tony Blair has backed the idea of 'fasbos' - efforts to identify and correct the lives of children who are likely to fail even before they are born - and new laws to compel parents to attend parenting classes are on the way. This autumn is likely to see an extension of parenting orders that can force parents to attend parenting classes so that they can be used on the say so of local councils against parents. For the first time, parenting orders are likely to be directed against parents whose children have committed no criminal offence.

The threat of action against parents who fail to sing nursery rhymes was unveiled by Mrs Hughes as she gave the first details of Mr Blair's 'national parenting academy', a body that will train teachers, psychologists and social workers to intervene in the lives of families and become the 'parenting workforce'. Mrs Hughes said that it was necessary for children to develop 'emotional intelligence and flexibility, and to have good problem-solving and interpersonal skills too.' She added: 'These attitudes start with good family experiences, in the home, with strong, loving, aspirational parents. So supporting parents and providing good early years education can pay dividends here.'

Mrs Hughes said: 'It is now clear that what parents actually do has a huge impact on children's well-being and capacity to succeed, both at the time and in future. 'Some parents already know that reading and singing nursery rhymes with their young children will get them off to a flying start - often because this is how they themselves were brought up. 'For other parents without this inheritance these simple techniques are a mystery and are likely to remain so - unless we act and draw them to their attention.' She added: 'If friendly and skilful early years practitioners work in partnership with disadvantaged parents, as co-educators of their children, these gaps in children's development and achievement can be narrowed.'

The National Academy for Parenting Practitioner, Mrs Hughes said, would operate from next autumn to train a parenting workforce and 'support the Government's parenting agenda as it develops'. She did not mention any figures for the cost of the scheme.

Mrs Hughes condemned the way governments before 1997 thought they had no role in the upbringing of children, which it 'regarded as the entirely private arrangements families make.' She praised the Government's record of pouring billions into state benefits for single parents, into providing subsidies for childcare, into pushing mothers into work, and into the 'Sure Start' children's centres. 'Over the past 10 years what I have described is, I believe, an example of the enabling 21st century state in action,' Mrs Hughes said. Without Labour's policies, she said, 'we would be on the road to ruin, that is back to where we were 10 years ago.'

Mrs Hughes did not refer to independent reports on the success of Sure Start commissioned by Whitehall which say that despite £20 billion of planned spending it has been a failure in helping the most deprived children who are its target.

Critics of Government family policies condemned the 'nursery rhyme' intervention plan as intrusive and arrogant yesterday. Jill Kirby of the centre right think tank Centre for Policy Studies said: 'This is the micro-management of family life. 'They have told us the books that our children should read and how to brush their teeth. Now they tell us what we should sing to them. 'This is what happens when a government has failed to do anything at all about the real problems of family breakdown, fatherless families and neglect of children. It is setting about wasting its time and our money.'

Anastasia de Waal of the Civitas civic values study group said: 'The problem in the real world is not that people are bad parents but that they are not parenting at all. We know that some children hardly see their parents and many don't have two parents at all. 'This is just one more worthless scheme that will have no impact at all on children's lives.'

New powers for councils to impose parenting orders are expected to be announced in the Queen's Speech tomorrow. Part of Mr Blair's 'Respect Agenda', they extend current powers for courts to instruct parents of children who commit crimes to attend parenting classes. Mrs Hughes' parenting workforce will include local council social workers who are likely to have the new powers.

Her speech to the National Family and Parenting Institute - an organisation set up by Labour eight years ago to further its family agenda - ignored the question of two-parent families which has begun feature in left-wing debate. Mr Blair's Government has long declared that all families are equal. However, in recent weeks Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton has acknowledged that children with two natural parents fare better. Last week the Blairite think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, also acknowledged that children brought up by single parents are more likely to end up without jobs and on state benefits.


U.K.: Police-check fiasco stops 12,000 nurses working

Thousands of nurses and public sector staff have been left unable to work for months because of a backlog of police checks. Up to 50,000 workers, including 12,000 nurses, were caught in delays as new computer equipment meant criminal records checks were stockpiled. A row has broken out between the Metropolitan Police and the Criminal Records Bureau over who is to blame for the fiasco.

The delay occurred when the bureau installed a new computer system which was not compatible with the Met's software. It meant all new applications were stacked up until the police fitted their own new system. During that time nurses and other staff could not legally work. Agency nurse Sally Powell, from Islington, threatened to sue the police after delays meant she was unable to work for five months. A letter to her from the Met, passed to Nursing Times, said: "The problem arose because the Criminal Records Bureau went live with a computer system linking to a national database in February 2006. "The Metropolitan Police Service told the Criminal Records Bureau that its computer system would not be ready to link into this in time and that they should not send referrals on that system until the Metropolitan Police Service was live. "However the bureau went ahead anyway and the Met had no choice but to stockpile the CRB referrals."

Ms Powell, 53, filed her application in April but did not get clearance to work until September. Ms Powell, a senior nurse who has been in the NHS since 1969, said: "99.99 per cent of the time you never even need these checks but every time you change organisation you have to get it done. "I was told the check would take between four and six weeks but it took five months. I had to take work doing odd jobs. I had to freeze my mortgage because I had no money coming in. "Some nurses have had to wait for eight months and that has impoverished them. It is an infringement of my civil rights to employment as a qualified nurse. I have written to the Home Secretary." Ms Powell was told by the Met that 50,000 people had been caught up in the delay and 12,000 of those were nurses.

A spokesman for the Met said: "The technical problems which are referred to in the letter sent to Ms Powell were addressed when the MPS system went live on 2 May 2006. "There are a number of outstanding checks - however the backlog referred to has been reduced considerably. Since the new system went live the Metropolitan Police have been processing 50,000 checks a month." A spokeswoman for the Criminal Records Bureau said the problem arose as new systems were introduced and data was added to a national database. She said: "The CRB's first and foremost priority is to help protect children and vulnerable adults by assisting organisations who are recruiting people into positions of trust. "Priority must be the safety of children and vulnerable adults - neither the CRB or the Met will sacrifice quality for speed.


Rewrite History to Remove the N-word?

An old and popular British comic book has just been reprinted:

"Race watchdogs have launched a probe into a relaunched 1939 Dandy annual after claims it uses racist and inflammatory language.

The children's annual, which has been reprinted for the Christmas market, has been branded racist for using the word 'n*gger.'

In the 1939 comic strip, Smarty Grandpa, the word is used four times by characters during the course of single-page story.


The n-word is probably less offensive in Britain than it is in the USA. The High Court of Australia recently ruled that in Australia it is not offensive at all.

Food fads invite fakery

If there's no discernable difference, faking a label must be very tempting

The Food Standards Agency has begun a comprehensive inquiry into food fraud in Britain. Trading standards officers throughout the country have been reporting irregularities from fake organic chickens to labels written in felt pen on certified foods at market stalls. Some butchers have also been trying to cash in on the higher value of organic meat, which can sell at prices up to five times those of meat from a conventionally reared animal. A nationwide survey into bogus organic foods by trading standards will not be completed until the new year, but the agency has already been alerted to possible scams.

With consumers demanding high quality and healthy food and people willing to pay a premium, David Statham, head of enforcement at the agency, has recognised that the market is one in which cheats are prepared to take a chance. Investigations are being conducted to root out the fraudsters and to assess the scale of illegal activity around the country and on the internet. They follow the disclosure in The Times yesterday that shoppers have been duped into buying bogus free-range eggs and paying double the usual prices for eggs from factory farms on the Continent.

The agency is investigating a range of activities. There is particular concern about the authenticity of beef being sold under premium labels such as Aberdeen Angus or Scotch beef when it is imported meat from South America or poor-quality beef from Britain. Similarly the alarm has been raised over farmed salmon being passed off as wild salmon, as rogue traders cash in on the public demand for higher-priced ethically produced food. The growth in popularity of expensive corn-fed chickens has also caught the attention of enforcement officers. It is an easy label to put on a bird that has not eaten a crumb of corn. A new isotope test can show whether a bird has had a corn diet.

Mr Statham said: "Three studies are under way and we expect the results in March. We are particularly concerned about geographic origin of beef because what it is on the label does not mean where it has come from. If you are buying a prime piece of English or Scotch beef and it has come from South America you are being defrauded." It will distribute new testing kits that will enable trading standards officers to speed up the identification of fakes without spending hours on a paperwork trail.

A test now exists to distinguish organic vegetables from non-organic. A product can now be tested to see whether a nitrogen-based fertiliser had been used during production. Any vegetable showing traces of the chemical will not meet the organic standard. Similarly the agency, in collaboration with the Central Science Laboratory in York, is just completing a test that can detect a piece of organic meat from meat from a conventionally farmed animal. Animals on organic farms may only have one therapeutic dose of an antibiotic in a year. The new tests can detect the build up of anti- biotics from a piece of meat.


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