Saturday, December 30, 2006

Christmas Carols are "Torture"??

"Forcing store clerks to listen to the same holiday music over and over could be akin to torture and should change, a British noise pollution group said.


I wonder why none of them seem ever to have complained of being tortured? I guess the Queen gets tortured too. Everywhere she goes they keep playing that same old national anthem.

NHS takes cash meant for charity

They've got a lot of bureaucrats to support

A pioneering scheme to help mental patients may have to close because the Department of Health has pocketed money promised by the Treasury. Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the executive director of the charity Community Service Volunteers, said it was outrageous that £3.7 million had disappeared into the NHS and that all attempts to extract it had failed. Appeals to ministers have been ignored, and only recourse to lawyers and a threat to tell the press what had happened produced any response.

Yesterday the Department of Health said that the money would be with CSV by the end of January — ten months late — although Dame Elisabeth is not counting on it. The money is the final tranche of a £7.3 million grant made by the Treasury in 2004 under the “Invest to Save” programme, designed to show that by investing money to improve services, more can be saved.

CVS won the grant for Capital Volunteering, in which people in London who have suffered mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder are encouraged to get involved in voluntary activities. This can include acting as helpers for other sufferers of mental illness, or activities such as gardening, sports and music. Its results are promising, with 25 per cent saying that they are gaining skills and 17 per cent reporting improved confidence.

At the end of March the Treasury passed £3.7 million to the Department of Health. It should have filtered through to the project via London Strategic Health Authority, Camden and Islington Primary Care Trust, Islington Mental Health Trust and the London Development Centre — a procedure that Dame Elisabeth describes as “pure Yes Minister”.

Somewhere along the line the cash-strapped NHS decided it would hang on to the money. “What authority had it got to do this?” Dame Elisabeth asked. “It is an abuse of power.”

CVS’s efforts to extract the cash have also been worthy of Yes Minister. It approached the Treasury, who condemned what the Department of Health had done as unacceptable. But nothing happened. Dame Elisabeth then went to a higher level in the Treasury, who agreed that the situation could not continue. But it did. Next she went to Ed Miliband, Minister responsible for the Third Sector (voluntary organisations) who said that he was anxious to help.

Hilary Armstrong, the Cabinet Office Minister, then spoke to Ivan Lewis, Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Nothing happened. “On Monday we took the decision to ask lawyers to sort it out,” Dame Elisabeth said, “and we also said we would be talking to the press.

“Things began to happen. We were told it would be in the ‘next bundle’ at the end of January. That’s not acceptable. Even if we get the money, we have lost £90,000 in interest it would have earned us, and which we need.

“What is distressing for us is that the Government is all the time saying it wants partnerships with the voluntary sector, but our trustees are now asking if this is a risk we want to take. “We’re not alone. There are a number of other organisations who have been let down by the department.”

Dame Elisabeth — the author of Getting Money from Central Government — is not in a mood to compromise. She wants the money, plus interest, immediately, before some of the staff face redundancy.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “They will get the money in January.” She made no mention of interest.



This one is too much fun for me to question the research methods too deeply

Doing housework can cut substantially a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to researchers. A study comparing the beneficial effects of different types of exercise found that moderate housework had the biggest obvious effect.

More than 44,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year. Last year 12,400 women died from the disease, most in their postmenopausal years.

Previous research has examined the link between exercise and breast cancer in postmenopausal women, but this is one of the first studies to include a large number of pre-menopausal women. Experts recommend that women exercise for 30 to 45 minutes five times a week to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

The study, part-funded by the charity Cancer Research UK, looked at a range of activities — including work, leisure and household occupations and chores. The pre-menopausal group doing housework spent, on average, 17.7 hours a week doing it while the post-menopausal women spent 16.1 hours. Pre-menopausal women who did housework were found to be about 30 per cent less likely to develop breast cancer than pre-menopausal women who did none. Meanwhile, post-menopausal women who did housework were found to be about 20 per cent less likely to develop the disease than post-menopausal women who did none.

The researchers analysed data from 218,169 women from nine European countries, with an age range of 20 to 80 years. They followed the women for an average of 6.4 years, during which time there were 3,423 cases of breast cancer. The average age at which the disease developed in the participants was 47.6 years for pre-menopausal women and 65.6 years for post-menopausal. All forms of activity combined was found to reduce the risk in the post-menopausal women participants, but had no obvious effect in the pre-menopausal women. But the researchers found that all women, both pre-menopausal and post-menopausal, who undertook housework had a “significantly” reduced risk of getting the disease.

The research, published in the January edition of the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, concluded: “In this large cohort of women , . . increased non-occupational physical activity and, in particular, increased household activity, were significantly associated with reduced breast cancer risk, independent of other potential risk factors. “Our results . . . provide additional evidence that moderate forms of physical activity, such as household activity, may be more important than less frequent but more intense recreational physical activity in reducing breast cancer risk in European women.”

The authors noted that housework was one of the “main sources of activity” for women living in these countries. Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said: “We already know that women who keep a healthy weight are less likely to develop breast cancer [Rubbish! Fatties get least breast cancer]. “This study suggests that being physically active may also help reduce the risk and that something as simple and cheap as doing the housework can help. “Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk Campaign recommends that men and women take regular exercise and maintain a healthy body weight to help prevent cancer.”


Let's say farewell to the 'ethnic minorities'

Ten per cent of the British population come from “ethnic minorities”, a reporter on the BBC Today programme told us solemnly on Monday. He was discussing the Conservative Party’s drive to make the choice of candidates better reflect what Tories, too, call the “ethnic minority” population. The reporter added that this should be 10 per cent. By “ethnic minorities” he didn’t (and the Tories don’t) mean Albanians (Christian or Muslim) or the Irish, or Australians, Japanese or Jews.

Labour, meanwhile, has established an “ethnic minority taskforce” chaired by Keith Vaz, MP. His roadshow will not be visiting the Ukrainian community in Derby, or the Polish community in West London. It will not be talking to the substantial number of more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who do not yet even speak English. Its remit includes third-generation black Christians whose only language is English. It does not include (white) Bosnian Muslims who speak no English at all. Mr Vaz is himself described as coming from the “ethnic minorities”. He (a Roman Catholic whose English is rather plummier than mine) is of Indian (Goanese) origin.

Oh, come on. Ethnic means “coloured” doesn’t it? If not, tell me in what respect not. The word is an adjective. The noun “minorities” is increasingly and unceremoniously dumped these days in favour of a new usage of “ethnic” as a noun in its own right — as though “ethnics” were members of a single tribe. Only one thing unites this wholly imaginary tribe: not their language, not their religion, not their background, not their culture — but the colour of their skin.

What hypocrisy this is. In Britain the word “coloured” is now more or less shunned in polite usage, and for a good reason: use of the term implicitly categorises people by the colour of their skin, which we shouldn’t do unless it tells us something useful and distinctive about the whole set.

What does a description of the colour of someone’s skin usefully convey in modern Britain? Their religion, language or culture? No; the Afro-Caribbean “community” (itself a conflation of two quite distinct groups) is mostly English-speaking and Christian: a culture closer to the British mainstream than that of a (white) Albanian. Indian Sikhs and Bengali Muslims are worlds apart. Those from the Indian sub-continent do not consider themselves to be black. Islam is much closer to Christianity than Buddhism or Hinduism.

Mr Vaz is no more or less representative of a black British voter in Brixton than I would be. A Bangladeshi Muslim in Tower Hamlets is unlikely to want Priti Patel (a new Tory candidate whose family origins are in India and Uganda) to speak for him on the dispute in Kashmir. Do British Indians consider themselves an oppressed minority any more? I doubt they would agree on this. Do prospering immigrants from Hong Kong feel common cause with refugees from Zimbabwe?

A growing diversity — of race, outlook, culture, gender — among our representatives in Parliament is an excellent thing and the Tories and Labour are right to push hard for it. But quotas for skin-colour are surreptitiously insulting, and plain wrong about the category they presume to identify. It’s time we recognised the whole concept of “the ethnic minorities” as the sloppy and ignorant anachronism it is: a category that simply does not exist.



Parents are tackling universities over poor grades and lack of teaching time as they seek better value for money from their children’s degrees. As students increasingly turn to their families to help with tuition fees, Baroness Deech, head of the student complaints watchdog, has given warning that parental disgruntlement will escalate.

Last year the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), which was set up to handle student complaints against universities, upheld a third of the 350 cases it investigated. Of those, almost half (43 per cent) involved students challenging exam results. They felt they deserved better grades or were treated unfairly at appeal. Universities had to pay about 260,000 pounds in compensation.

This is known as the “my little Lucy syndrome” — when middle-class parents challenge their son or daughter’s disappointing degree result. While a 2:2 from a top university was acceptable a decade ago, a 2:1 is now a prerequisite for many high-paid jobs. So as parents prepare to pay off their children’s fees to spare them years of debt, they are beginning to question what they are getting for their money.

“Parents will fill in forms saying, ‘My little Lucy has a first-class brain and certainly should have been awarded more than a lower second degree’,” Lady Deech told The Times. “We then go to the university, which says, ‘Well, she had an average brain and a good time here, and did averagely well’. But the parents have invested in her so they want more.”

Although she has yet to receive complaints since the introduction of 3,000 pounds-a-year top-up fees in the autumn, Lady Deech predicts that the number will rise “because of the growth in higher education and the fact that the job market isn’t as exciting for graduates as it was 20 to 30 years ago unless they have a good degree. “So if they find that the degree that they have is lower than they believe their rightful grade to be, they will find ways to challenge that decision.” She suggests that universities employ independent mediators, as in America and Australia. The adjudicator operates an open-door policy, all advice is given and sought in confidence, there are no notes and he or she is either the first port of call, as in America, or the last, as in Australia.

Although her office has received few complaints arising from the recent strike by lecturers, students are already seeking better value for money. Last month, students at the University of Bristol complained after learning that they were to have two hours’ lecture time a week in their final year, instead of a promised six.

The complaints followed a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which exposed how older research-led universities often pass off teaching to postgraduate assistants. It found that more than 90 per cent of tutorials and seminars at new universities were taught by academics, compared with 70 per cent at older institutions, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge.

Last year the OIA’s first annual report also revealed that students studying “subjects allied to medicine” were behind 60 per cent of all complaints. They were followed by students studying creative arts and design, business administration and law. Veterinary students and architects were least likely to complain. Postgraduate students were five times more likely to complain than undergraduates, and non-EU students were slightly more likely to lodge a complaint than EU students. Most complaints were made by white British students (38.5 per cent), followed by African students (19.3 per cent).



Of a sort

A groundbreaking voucher system is being introduced to schools in England for the first time next week in an attempt to meet the educational needs of the brightest pupils. Under the initiative the country's brightest 800,000 pupils will receive vouchers to spend on extra lessons, such as "master classes" at university-run summer schools, online evening classes or even web-based courses from Nasa, the US space agency.

Every primary and secondary school will be told to supply the names of 10 per cent of their pupils who best meet the new criteria for the "gifted and talented" programme when they complete the January schools census. Only 5 per cent of pupils achieving top marks in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds have been eligible for funding under the programme. The new project would ensure that the brightest 10 per cent in each school were selected, regardless of how many pupils met the present criteria. Each pupil will initially receive 151 credits that act as vouchers towards extra lessons.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Lord Adonis, the Schools Minister, and delivered by the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT), a non-profit education company. CfBT will invite companies, independent schools, universities and other educational bodies to offer activities for an agreed fee. The move is an attempt to prove that Labour values gifted and talented pupils and that they can expect a high standard of education in the state, as well as private, sector.

However, the voucher initiative is likely to prove controversial among many Labour backbenchers who oppose the notion of pupils as "consumers" in an education market, and teachers who believe that the plan is divisive and elitist. The Conservatives recently ditched plans to give parents a flat-rate voucher of 5,000 pounds a year to spend at the school of their choice, state or private.

An initial 65 million pounds has been earmarked for the credit system, with extra money coming from the Government's existing 930 million "personalised learning" programme. Lord Adonis said: "The national register set up earlier this year will enable thousands more gifted and talented children to be identified, especially late developers and those underachieving because of social disadvantage. This register will ensure they are identified early and get the appropriate learning opportunities inside and outside school."

Tim Emmett, development director for CfBT, said: "The Government is seeing this as part of school improvement, rather than a lifeboat for a few bright children. If you can raise the metre for 10 per cent of children in a school, you can do it for the other 90 per cent as well."

The voucher scheme follows plans announced earlier this year to cherry-pick the brightest children in English state schools from the age of 11 for places at top universities. The controversial move was denounced by some Labour MPs as a new system of "super-selection" that effectively made the final tests at primary school a university entrance exam. Critics also pointed out that it left little room for late developers, and in particular boys, who do less well in all tests except mathematics at 11. However, it was welcomed by academics as a way of opening up university admissions without lowering standards.

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has already identified 180,000 children aged 11 to 17 from their Key Stage 2 exams, taken by all pupils attending state primary schools. Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the trust, said he was determined that no child should be overlooked as a result of a poor secondary school education. In a letter sent to all schools, he asked head teachers to help pupils to realise their full potential and told them that he expected each child to achieve straight A grades at A level.


Bug counters to infest kitchens

British food frenzy

What do you look for in a restaurant to celebrate the new year? Good food, wine and atmosphere? No, the authorities are sure that what diners really want to know is how many bacteria are in the kitchen, and how much saturated fat is on the menu. Yummy.

The Times reported this week that the Food Standards Agency is to give every restaurant a cleanliness rating, with orders to post their “scores on the doors”. Eateries will then be graded on the “nutritional value” of their food. Perhaps we should also be told whether they kill vermin humanely, what their policy is on workplace bullying by chefs, and the immigration status of their washers-up.

Anybody would think we were in the middle of a food poisoning epidemic. In fact, Britain’s eateries are not only better but also cleaner and more inspected than ever before, and have mostly stopped putting strychnine or lead in food, like their Victorian forebears did.

It may make the grease police and droppings inspectors of the FSA choke on their low-fat diet, but most of us do not eat out in search of hygiene or “nutritional values”. If we did, we would never eat burgers or foie gras. If we wanted to dine in a clinical environment, we could eat straight from the fridge wearing latex gloves.

Even in these “transparent” times there are some things better done behind closed doors. As Fergus Henderson, chef at the immaculate St John restaurant in Smithfield, says “a scoring system on the doors suggests there is something tainted about eating out”, and risks bringing “magic” restaurants down to earth by “showing their dirty laundry on the door when it’s not dirty”.

It turns out that half of Britain’s remaining cases of food poisoning are not in restaurants at all, but in hospitals, schools and care homes where the food is often unsavoury in every sense. If the authorities want something for their prodnoses and peckstaffs to do, they might start by putting their own kitchens in order.



The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was designed to make U.S. company finance more transparent and company bosses more accountable. In practice it has placed huge bureaucratic burdens on companies domiciled in the USA. The solution? Move domicile! The post below says that the move is on

Paul Sarbanes and Michael Oxley... London loves you! The more I read about the flood of money coming into the City of London from the United States, the more I am convinced that in the spirit of Christmas and fraternal Anglosphere conviviality, the people of London should say a heartily thank you to Maryland Democrat Paul Sarbanes and Ohio Republican Michael Oxley.

In fact, in the new year I plan to launch a subscription appeal to put up a pair of gold plated statues somewhere in the square mile, depicting these two fine politicians throwing handfuls of dollar bills to a multitude of grateful City of London bankers, fund managers, stock brokers and other sundry worthy capitalists, as great numbers of companies decamp from New York and list in London instead.

And so Paul and Michael, on behalf of all those fine folks here in Merry old England whose Christmas bonus packages have gone through the roof, thank you. We could not have done it without you. God bless globalisation.

If England is less bureaucratic, it shows how exceedingly bureaucratic the alternative is. Prof. Bainbridge has more details about the idiocies of Sarbanes-Oxley


Climate-change panic is not new, nor is unusual weather

During the long, hot summer of 1976, when Britain faced its worst drought in 250 years, the Government considered a number of unusual solutions. An emergency Drought Act was passed on August 6 and, by August 20, the Government had gathered information on the sinking of bore holes, the use of oil tankers to bring water from Norway, and the seeding of rain clouds - a method of forcing clouds to rain by spraying chemicals into the air. But cloud-seeding was ruled out and ministers were told that building a barrage at Morecambe Bay would be a cheaper way access water than importing it from Norway.

A letter of August 23 from the Home Office to the Prime Minister reported on the challenge facing the fire service: "Everything is tinder dry and the particular difficulty this weekend has been caused by higher wind speeds. The fires in Hampshire and Dorset are under control at present but the situation could change dramatically if the wind increases."

Days later, over the Bank Holiday weekend, the heavens opened and the drought came to an end. But the Government had been shaken and said the population needed to have its complacency about water availability "shattered".


How Britain gets people out of those evil cars: "The chance of being assaulted at a mainline railway station has nearly doubled in the past five years, according to figures from the British Transport Police. There were 1,270 violent attacks against passengers at stations last year compared with 702 in 2001 - an increase of 80 per cent. By far the most dangerous station is Leeds Central, where there were 159 attacks. In 2001 there were 75. Next are listed the main London stations - including Victoria and Waterloo - Birmingham New Street and Cardiff Central. The amount of violence had increased or stayed level at all the 61 stations covered by the British Transport Police figures, with the sole exception of Liverpool Lime Street".

No comments: