Thursday, November 30, 2006

Censorship = Tolerance and Diversity?

Sometimes even obvious possibilities may not be mentioned

Satoshi Kanazawa, a virtually unknown professor of evolutionary psychology at the London School of Economics (LSE), has published in the pages of the British Journal of Health Psychology an article suggesting that ill-health and poverty in less-developed countries in Africa can be blamed on low IQs. Predictably, student activists have circulated an electronic petition across Europe calling on the well-known school to stand up for tolerance and diversity--by condemning Kanazawa.

Thankfully, these self-appointed do-gooders are off to a slow start. At the time I finished editing this column, the student petition, "LSE Lecturer: Research or Racism?" had only 151 signatures. Needless to say, I was not one of its signatories. It's not that I support Kanazawa (I don't even know who he is). Rather, I consider the petition's aim to be nothing more than a call for censorship. I'm not sure I like that.

I also bristle anytime student activists and other pimple-faced do-gooders decide what views or opinions I should be protected from. But more than anything else, the petition embodies the worst kind of political correctness and is, with no hyperbole intended, fundamentally dangerous to the very idea of academic freedom.

In my way of thinking, if you really aim to be diverse and tolerant--as an individual, institution, or society--then I think freedom of thought and liberty of opinion (no matter how objectionable) is fundamental. I am therefore perplexed by a petition that calls for institutional condemnation of a professor. How can censorship of a particular view--no matter how obtuse or misguided it may be--be equated to standing up for tolerance and diversity?

Now, let's be up-front about things here: Racist or racialist theories are repugnant. And Kanazawa may be shown to have, in the end, some questionable views. But I'm not ready to label him a racist or eugenicist yet since I haven't read his article (and I'm not about to blindly trust the British tabloids). His publishing record is certainly provocative and includes such choice works as "Why beautiful people are more intelligent", "You can judge a book by its cover", and "The myth of racial discrimination in pay in the US".

But the truth is I am not in the least bit interested in discussing Kanazawa or his article. What concerns me is the well-intentioned but wholly misguided reactions to his ideas. In other words, the problem is not Kanazawa but the LSE petition and the authoritarian liberals signing it. Their morally righteous and knee-jerk reaction to ideas deemed "dangerous" frankly terrifies me much more than Kanazawa himself

To be sure, this is the first that any of us studying journalism here have ever heard of Kanazawa. But I have little doubt that the Kanazawa story will get bigger in the coming weeks--especially as the petition spreads and if the LSE continues to admirably defend the professor's right to publish controversial research.

Of course, in the US, we've seen this all before: earlier this year, when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their paper "The Israel Lobby"; in, 2005, when Larry Summers at Harvard raised questions about gender and academic achievement in mathematics; in 2004, when Samuel Huntington published Who Are We?, on America's national identity and Hispanic immigration; in 1994, when Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein co-wrote The Bell Curve. It's no different on the other side of the Atlantic. In March, Leeds University forced the early retirement of a professor accused of racism because he supported the ideas of Murray and Herrnstein (which have, by the way, almost nothing to do with race but everything to do with the erosion of social cohesion in the US). And incidents of political correctness abound in England and across the Euro-zone.

That's why with regards to Kanazawa, I am surprised that the LSE hasn't yet fired him. (The last time I saw this kind of back-bone in defense of free speech was when the Danish government refused to condemn the news daily Jyllands-Posten for publishing a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.)

What to do about Kanazawa? Laissez faire, laissez aller, laissez passer. Let him continue to put his ideas into circulation--by publishing articles, lecturing, giving provocative presentations--and watch just how quickly the marketplace of ideas at the LSE and elsewhere will churn with indignant responses to his outrageous claims. I have no doubt that his work will eventually serve as a catalyst for others to carry out their own research. Some of these researchers will overwhelm him with reams of new data. Others may eventually (si Deus vult) prove him flat-out wrong--and effectively reduce him to academic irrelevance.

But liberty of thought and mind is vital. And if there is one place in the world where crack-pot ideas can be discussed and hair-brained schemes explored without fear of retribution it should be in the halls of academe. It is precisely because the LSE is a diverse and tolerant [academic] institution that it should do nothing about Kanazawa and leave the professor to his fever swamps. Let the student petitioners gnash their teeth.


Starbucks again in the sights of the success-haters

Starbucks was accused yesterday of "playing Russian roulette" with its brand as a row over prices for Ethiopian coffee farmers intensified. As an Oxford academic lambasted the American coffee shops chain, Jim Donald, Starbucks' chief executive, was preparing to visit Ethiopia tomorrow for talks with Meles Zenawi, its Prime Minister, The Times has learnt.

Douglas Holt, the L'Or‚al Professor of Marketing at Oxford University's Said Business School, accused Starbucks of hypocrisy and abuse of power and said that the company was in danger of damaging its name among its educated middle-class customers by opposing Addis Ababa's attempts to trademark Ethiopia's coffee varieties in the United States.

The international coffee chain had worked hard to cultivate a progressive image, selling fair trade and "ethical" products and promoting sustainable development among the poorest coffee-growers, he said. "In their rash attempt to shut down Ethiopia's applications, [Starbucks] have placed the Starbucks brand in significant peril. Starbucks customers will be shocked by the disconnect between their current perceptions of Starbucks' ethics and the company's actions against Ethiopia," he said. He claimed that Starbucks' stance was likely to hit profits much harder than any price rises brought about by trademarking.

Oxfam said last month that the Ethiopian growers selling to Starbucks earned between 75 cents and $1.60 a pound on beans that Starbucks sold at up to $26 (13.40 pounds sterling) a pound. The aid organisation issued a strongly worded statement accusing Starbucks of actively blocking Ethiopia's trademark bid.

Starbucks, in turn, denied this and issued a statement demanding that Oxfam stop its attack. Oxfam took out full-page advertisements on the issue in The New York Times and two Seattle-based newspapers. Starbucks said that trademarks were not the best way to help growers and suggested a regional certification alternative that it said was used in many countries to brand premium food and wine. It made no sense, the company said, for trademarks to be geographically based, as in the Ethiopian application for three regional names. Starbucks added that it consistently paid premium bean prices and that between 2002 and 2006 it had quadrupled its Ethiopian coffee purchases.

"We support the recognition of the source of our coffees and have a deep appreciation for the farmers that grow them," the company said. "We are committed to working collaboratively and continuing dialogue with key stakeholders to find a solution that benefits Ethiopian coffee farmers. We have had recent conversations with Oxfam about planning logistics for a stakeholder summit. "Our investment in social development projects and providing access to affordable loans . . . has been recognised for its leadership within the industry," it said.

Getachew Mengistie, the director-general of the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office, said that Addis Ababa had studied the merits of both trademarks and certification and found that trademarks would strengthen the position of farmers, enabling them to get a reasonable return for their product.

Professor Holt said: "With a certification mark, Starbucks and other Western coffee marketers would still have full control over Ethiopian coffee brands." Trademarks would require licences for companies wanting to use the names - giving the coffee producers a commercial asset that they could control.

Starbucks declined to confirm or deny Mr Donald's visit. Oxfam said that it had invited supporters to fax Mr Donald in protest and that more than 70,000 people had done so. "Speciality coffees in other regions of the world can get up to 45 per cent of the retail price, compared with the 5 to 10 per cent Ethiopians are currently receiving," Oxfam said. "We're meeting with Starbucks again next week and are hoping there can be progress." Ethiopia's growers could earn $88 million more per year with trademarks, it said. Starbucks declined to respond directly to Professor Holt's comments.

Brian Smith, research fellow at Cranfield University and author of Guarding the Brand, questioned Professor Holt's assertions. He said that Western consumers had limited sympathy with subsistence farmers in Africa and although they might be prepared to pay 5p more for a fair trade latte, they might not walk an extra 50 yards to another coffee shop to avoid Starbucks and its policy on trademarks. "I don't see this doing Starbucks significant long-lasting harm . . . Starbucks will handle this in an intelligent manner, offering an alternative," he said.



There are a few leaps in the reasoning below but it has given room for debate in an area not usually discussed scientifically

Your mother probably told you, as her mother told her: sit up straight. Whether at table, in class or at work we have always been told that sitting stiff-backed and upright is good for our bones, our posture, our digestion, our alertness and our general air of looking as if we are plugged into the world. Now research suggests that we would be far better off slouching and slumping. Today's advice is to let go and recline. Using a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a team of radiologists have found that sitting up straight puts unneccesary strain on the spine and could cause chronic back pain because of trapped nerves or slipped discs.

The ideal angle for office workers who sit for long periods is about 135 degrees. It might make working at a computer impractical but it will put less pressure on the spine than a hunched or upright position, the researchers say. The study at Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen involved 22 healthy volunteers who had no history of back pain or surgery. They adjusted their posture while being scanned by a movable MRI machine, assuming three sitting positions: a slouch, with the body hunched forward over a desk or video game console; an upright 90-degree sitting position; and a relaxed position where the patient reclined at 135 degrees but kept their feet on the floor. By measuring the spinal angles and the arrangement and height of spinal discs and movement across the positions, the radiologists found that the relaxed posture best preserved the spine's natural shape.

Waseem Amir Bashir, from Edinburgh, lead author of the study, said: "When pressure is put on the spine it becomes squashed and misaligned. A 135-degree body-thigh sitting posture was demonstrated to be the best biomechanical sitting position, as opposed to a 90-degree posture, which most people consider normal. "Sitting in a sound anatomic position is essential, since the strain put on the spine and its associated muscles and ligaments over time can lead to pain, deformity and chronic illness." Dr Bashir, who now works at the University of Alberta Hospital in Canada, presented the research yesterday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago. The study was the first of its kind because MRI scanning has previously required patients to lie flat.

Back pain is the cause of one in six days off work and about 80 per cent of Britons are expected to suffer from it at some point. Office workers and school children may stave off future back problems by correcting their sitting posture and finding a chair that allows them to recline, Dr Bashir said. He added: "We were not created to sit down for long hours, but somehow modern life requires the vast majority of the global population to work in a seated position, The best position for our backs is arguably lying down, but this is hardly practical."

However, Gordon Waddell, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Glasgow Nuffield Hospital, said that the link between biomechanics as shown in MRI scans and preventing back pain was still very theoretical. It was "human nature" to develop back pain, he said. "Like a headache or a cold, it seems we all get back pain and most of the evidence suggests that sitting position does not make a difference



So far only in dogs but child obesity cannot be far behind

Obesity has become such an issue of political incorrectness that two brothers appeared in court yesterday charged with allowing a dog to get too fat. Rusty, a nine-year-old labrador, may only have been doing what labradors do, which is to eat everything in sight. But he ballooned to more than 11« stone (161lb, 73kg), the ideal weight for a large-boned 6ft (1.82m) woman, but not a retriever, which should be chasing sticks and newly shot game. Rusty had trouble standing up, and after no more than five paces he had to sit down again, breathless. He looked, magistrates at Ely, Cambridgeshire, were told yesterday, more like a seal than a dog.

In what is thought to be the first case of its kind, Rusty's owners, David Benton and his brother Derek, have been charged with animal cruelty for allowing him to become grossly overweight. According to the Kennel Club, the ideal weight for a dog of Rusty's age and breed is between 65lb and 80lb. When found by an RSPCA inspector, Rusty was more than twice the upper limit. Unlike most labradors, he was quite incapable of leaping into a van. The Benton brothers, of Fordham, Cambridgeshire, deny causing the dog unncessary suffering. They claim that they fed Rusty a normal diet of dried pet food with only the odd bone as a treat.

When Jason Finch of the RSPCA first saw Rusty in February, he found the dog virtually unable to move, the court was told. He issued a notice advising the owners to take the dog to a vet as soon as possible. When he returned in March, they had not done so. The owners declined to sign the dog over to the RSPCA, but agreed to let Mr Finch take Rusty to the charity's own vet. But the dog could not even walk to Mr Finch's van.

Stephen Climie, for the prosecution, said that Rusty had been found to be morbidly obese at 74.2kg, double the weight of a normal labrador; the brothers had been told repeatedly by vets over five years to put the dog on a diet, but had not done so. Rusty suffers from arthritis, a common complaint in labradors, but his condition had been made worse by his being grossly overweight, Mr Climie said. Alex Wylie, a vet from Bury St Edmunds who treated Rusty, said that the dog suffered from painful joints and breathing problems. "He did literally look like a walrus. There were times when he couldn't get up from his back legs at all. It was horrible to see."

When interviewed by the RSPCA, David Benton insisted that Rusty ate only one meal of dried food each evening and a snack in the morning. "He has been plump ever since he was a puppy. He is a poor old thing but he is not in pain. We have tried to give him many foods, but it does not make any difference," he said. Derek Benton told the charity that Rusty's weight gain was old age catching up with him.

The court was told that Rusty had not seen a vet for 17 months before the RSPCA took him away. The brothers claimed that they used to get him treated under a pet insurance plan, but could no longer get cover because of his age. Since living with an RSPCA dog carer, the court was told, Rusty had lost 3.5 stone [49lb].


British Labour's health chaos: you couldn't make it up

They are trying to close an A&E [ER] department in Casualty. In Holby City more and more patients have to be transferred to specialist centres elsewhere. In No 10 they wish everyone could understand what the scriptwriters do: the NHS is changing.

The voters certainly don’t get it. It used to be Labour’s boast that it was the party of the NHS. And it was true: every single poll showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives on the health service, always. Until this summer. In the past ten years Labour has achieved the extraordinary feat of turning a 49-point lead over the Tories on health into a four-point lead for the Tories (Ipsos MORI). That’s a stunning fall at a time when spending on the NHS under Labour has ballooned from £35 billion to £80 billion, and waiting lists have fallen from 18 to six months.

In part the decline reflects growing cynicism about the Government in general, in part it is a riposte to overblown promises about “saving the NHS”. Ten years after promising to “save” it, the health service has a £500 million debt and 60 hospitals are threatened with closure or downgrading.

What went wrong? First, not as much as it sounds. The debt isn’t a lot for a health service with a budget of £80 billion. Gordon Brown could flick that away with a stroke of his pen, or his big clunking fist.

Nor is it on the whole that the Conservative Party is trusted more with the NHS; Labour is just trusted less. Four in ten people say that they don’t know who would do the best job any more.

That’s the good news for the Government. The rest is bad. With hospital closures imminent and a ferocious Conservative assault on the territory, including a cheeky campaign to “stop Brown’s NHS cuts”, Labour is worried. Not quite worried sick, but it should be.

The drive to cut the debt has coincided with a big push towards “reconfiguration” of services — hospital closures to you and me. It is almost impossible now for ministers to disentangle in people’s minds the idea that the local health service is in debt with the fact that their hospital is under threat. The Government argues that the closure or downgrading of some hospitals was always implicit in its reforms, regardless of the current financial difficulties, as some treatment was brought “closer to the people” while greater specialisation saw fewer, more specialised hospitals. I don’t remember them championing hospital closures when they published their reform programme, the NHS Plan, six years ago. It was an implicit not an explicit part of it.

The area I live in is in debt and has a number of hospitals under threat. Throughout Surrey and Sussex, in East Anglia and other threatened areas, this is the big conversation. It dominates local media. What ministers may have hoped could be contained in a few mainly Conservative rural areas has spilled over into the national press, and they haven’t even started shutting any of the hospitals yet. We are in a pre-consultation planning period, when health authorities are drawing up plans for public consultation next year, and rumours abound as to what hideousness they may contain. The vacuum of information is filled by local GPs, who tell patients they cannot take on the extra work the Government says they are going to do when the hospital closes: no staff, and no space to expand the surgery.

What mastermind at the heart of government, I wonder, planned this? And planned it so perfectly that the next election is going to coincide with massive hospital cuts?

“It’s the right thing to do,” they repeat. Tony Blair is not for turning. Fewer, more specialised hospitals will be safer for patients who will end up overall with better services, not worse. And what is more, we won’t get to the maximum 18-week wait between GP referral and treatment by the end of 2008 unless we do it.

So between spring next year and the end of 2008 the Government is simultaneously going to jump through the hoops of closing hospitals, reorganise local services, open new treatment centres and make the biggest, deepest cut yet in waiting lists? Forget it.

There is a broader tension in government policy that nobody can resolve: just as it claims to be bringing care closer to the people, it is planning to take local A&E and maternity departments further away from them. Local health planners calculate how long an ambulance with a flashing blue light might take to reach the specialist hospital, not an ordinary driver distracted by a sick family member in the car. Ministers have realised that these are the issues that have to be addressed, tangibly, in the local reorganisation proposals, which is why they have been put back until next year.

Let’s assume that the Government is right and a lot of conditions — asthma, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis — as well as many minor operations could be better and more cheaply managed in local communities or at home than in big hospitals. Let’s allow too that superhospitals with knobs on have a better chance of saving the life of a seriously injured person, and that babies are marginally more safely delivered in larger specialist centres (which is why mothers at high risk will be transferred there anyway).

That still won’t answer the “local” problem. People do not feel safe without access to an A&E that they can reach within a reasonable time. They would prefer to have their babies in a local hospital, which means maintaining a full maternity unit — there were some terrible problems in Kidderminster when the maternity unit was downgraded to a midwife-led one. And when a baby is born, or someone is taken ill in the night, the family wants to be able to visit the next day, without making a two to three-hour round trip, plus the visit time.

These are human needs outside the medical charts, and the Government has failed to grasp them. I wonder if it’s too late to ask Casualty’s scriptwriters for help.



But about Britain only

The days of empire may be gone but global warming will make Britain the centre of the civilised world once again, according to James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory, which views the world as a self-sustaining organic system. In a bleak prophecy he says that global warming will become so intense within a century that much of the world will become uninhabitable. The British Isles, however, is perfectly placed to become the most desirable location in the world in which to live and one of the few areas able to feed itself. It will be able to survive the devastating consequences of global heating, as he now terms it.

Professor Lovelock was one of the first scientists to give warning of the dangers of global warming, which he believes is here for 200,000 years. It will wreak so much havoc that the Earth wil be able to support only 500 million people, just one in six of today's population. Adaptation, Professor Lovelock said yesterday, is the only choice left as the world warms up and there is a rapid northwards shift of its population. Equatorial regions will become so hot that they can no longer sustain agriculture and will turn into deserts. Much of Europe will dry out so extensively that millions of people will be forced to make a new life closer to the Arctic.

The British Isles, small and surrounded by water, will remain cool enough to sustain a modern, technologically advanced nation, despite being 8C (14F) hotter on average. "The British Isles may be a very desirable bit of real estate because we are surrounded by the sea," he said. "The summer of 2003 will be typical of conditions by 2100." Displaced millions will settle in Britain and Ireland and will have to be accommodated in skyscrapers that will make cities resemble the Hong Kong of today - which by 2100 will be uninhabitable, he said.

Speaking to the media before a speech to the Institution of Chemical Engineers yesterday, Professor Lovelock said that agricultural land would be at a premium and rationing would have to be reintroduced. Among the countries forecast by Professor Lovelock to face agricultural collapse is China. A warming world will open up Siberia as a potential grainbelt but he doubts that Russia will welcome a billion Chinese immigrants. Island nations such as New Zealand may remain habitable but large land masses, including most of the USA and Asia, will become too hot to grow sufficient food, with the possible exception of some coastal regions.

His Gaia theory suggests that rather than temperatures continuing to rise indefinitely until emissions are controlled, the increase will be limited to 8C. He likens it to a human suffering a fever - but one from which it will take the planet 200,000 years to recover from. Despite his bleak prophecy he remains optimistic for the species if not for individuals: "We are not all doomed," he said. "An awful lot of people will die, but I don't see the species dying out."


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Filth and shame in an NHS hospital

Twenty-four hours to save the NHS! I wonder how often that promise comes back to haunt Tony Blair 10 years later. Week after week reliable reports and the government’s own figures tell a disgraceful story of incompetence, debt, misery and filth in the National Health Service. That story is supported, week after week, by heart-rending personal accounts of horrors on the wards.

The broken new Labour promise that caught most public attention last week was the failure to abolish mixed-sex wards. Janet Street-Porter, the ferocious media personality, wrote about the misery of her sister when dying of cancer in a mixed-sex NHS ward. Plenty of other people have tried to draw attention to this disgrace and Baroness Knight, the Conservative peer, has been campaigning about it for years but — such is the spirit of the times — it takes a loud-mouth celebrity to get public attention.

The same thing happened when Lord Winston made a fuss about the dreadful treatment that his elderly mother received in hospital. Only then did the government stop denying that there was anything wrong.

Street-Porter published extracts last week of the diary of Patricia Balsom, her dying sister. They were horrifying. Among the miseries she endured was lying neglected in a mixed ward, where she was woken more than once to see a naked male patient masturbating opposite her bed. Her shocking stories prompted a flood of others.

The late Eileen Fahey, for instance, dying of cancer, was put onto a mixed geriatric ward where confused people wandered about without supervision. One man with dementia regularly masturbated at the nurses’ station and tried to get into women patients’ beds; he was a threat to them all but staff took no notice, according to her daughter Maureen. Other patients have to give answers to intimate questions in the hearing of other patients. One deaf old man was repeatedly asked when he last had an erection, until tears ran down his cheeks.

A former midwife described eloquently on Radio 4 the indignities of being in a 24-bed mixed-sex ward, stripped of all dignity and intimidated. Bedlam was the word she used, and it applies even more accurately to the secure psychiatric mixed ward in London endured by Susan Craig last year, after a breakdown. She suffered regular sexual harassment, with mentally ill men groping her and exposing themselves. The nurses disbelieved her and told her husband she was “flaunting herself”.

If so (I don’t believe them), their job was to protect a patient from her own folly. Instead they chose, in modern cant, to blame the victim. Sexual harassment is only a small part of the problem. Many people, both men and women, feel their modesty is violated by such closeness to random members of the opposite sex, even when they are not threatened.

Patients lie naked, half washed and forgotten, their sick and ageing flesh exposed to everyone, while nurses rush elsewhere. It is commonplace to have to walk to filthy mixed lavatories with gowns wide open at the back. At a time of sickness and anxiety many people are profoundly embarrassed to be surrounded by a clutter of bed pans, colostomy bags, nakedness, cries of pain and sweat, blood and tears — their own and other people’s.

All this is much worse, for many, when they are surrounded by members of the opposite sex; shame and anxiety are not the best bedfellows of hope and healing. Much has been written about the rape of modesty and the death of shame. However, it is still true in this weary country that most men and women prefer to perform private bodily functions alone if possible, and among their own sex only, if not. That’s why we have separate public lavatories and separate changing rooms in shops and clubs and pubs. That’s why people put up towels on the beach. That’s why women give birth in female wards, not in mixed wards or not — I hope — so far.



The scandalous way that Labour has allowed State handouts to undermine marriage was exposed last night. A newlywed couple revealed how they were told by a Government welfare official: "You'd get more money if you split up." Janet and Mark Fensome were advised by their local Job Centre that if they wanted extra money in handouts, the best thing to do was to get divorced because under existing rules, couples who live apart get more. They had married three weeks earlier and were shocked to find out that the welfare official was right - but they refused to take the advice and complained to their MP.

The Job Centre's manager later apologised for the advice and said the official had acted wrongly. But aides to Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton has confirmed that, technically, the official was right: if the Fensomes had split up they would get an extra 25 pounds a week - or 1,250 a year. The Tories claimed that this showed how Labour has downgraded marriage and encouraged family break-ups by making it profitable to become single parents. Shadow Work and Pensions Minister Andrew Selous, who by chance is the Fensomes' MP, said: "John Hutton says he wants to encourage families together but Job Centres are telling people to do the opposite."

Mrs Fensome, of Houghton Regis, near Dunstable, in Bedfordshire, said: "We went to sort out a problem with our benefits after we came back from our honeymoon in Blackpool. "The woman at the Job Centre said, "If only you were split up and you were both single, it would be much easier to deal with and you would get more money too." I couldn't believe it." Mother-of-four Mrs Fensome, 41, who is training to be a marriage guidance counsellor, married engineer Mark on September 9. She helps with the local Cubs and Scouts and gave up work to care for her two infirm parents. Mr Fensome has been with the same engineering firm for more than 20 years but has been off work on incapacity benefit since suffering a nervous breakdown. For most of his time off work, Mr Fensome, 44, did not claim a penny in benefits and lived off his savings. When The Mail on Sunday visited the family yesterday, one of Mrs Fensome's teenage sons was practising the clarinet and another was doing his maths homework.

After their honeymoon in Blackpool paid for by friends and family, the couple went to Dunstable Job Centre Plus to sort out their benefit entitlements as a married couple. "The Government says it believes in families and yet it is advising people to part to claim more benefits. It doesn't make sense,' said Mrs Fensome. They were so shocked by the advice, they went to Bedfordshire South West MP Mr Selous, who complained to the head of Bedfordshire Job Centres. "I told him it was completely out of order,' said Mr Selous. "He apologised and said the official should not have said it and it was not their policy to advise people to break up. I want an assurance that this is not happening in other Job Centres."

The tax and benefits attack on marriage under Labour started when Gordon Brown abolished the married couples' tax allowance. The Tories claim the new system for helping people with children is biased against couples because single-parent families get the same amount in tax rebates as a couple where one parent stays at home to bring up the children. There are other handouts where couples can claim more by breaking up. Divorced couples can claim two portions of housing benefit and council tax rebate. Single parents get a 22.20 housing benefit premium. The unemployed can also claim more in income support and job seekers' allowance. In both cases a couple who split up can claim an additional 25 pounds a week. A single person gets 57.45 a week in income support. A couple who are both claiming receive a total of 90.10, or 45.05 each. The difference for two people is 24.80 a week or 1,289.60 a year.

A total of 200 million pounds of income support was claimed fraudulently last year - 130million going to people claiming to be lone parents. The Department for Work and Pensions launched a campaign last month to crack down on people pretending to live alone to get more. Billboard posters show a woman standing in a circle with the slogan: "But pretending I live on my own doesn't make me a benefits thief." The Department of Work and Pensions said: "The rate of benefits paid to couples reflects the lower cost of shared living expenses. It costs more for a single person to run a household than a couple."



First read the following press report:

The humble cheese stick could be killing your children. Visiting cardiovascular medicine specialist Graham MacGregor, of St George's Hospital Medical School in London, has warned parents that diets high in salt were placing children at risk of heart attacks and strokes later in life. Autopsies on preschool accident victims revealed signs of diseased blood vessels, he said. Professor MacGregor's latest research, published this month in the journal Hypertension, showed a modest reduction in salt intake among children caused significant falls in blood pressure.

A review by Australia's National Heart Foundation found one processed cheese stick provided almost all the salt intake a toddler needed in a day. A pack of instant flavoured noodles contained almost three times a teenager's recommended daily salt needs.

"If you got all the nutritionists together in the world and said let's design a diet that's going to cause strokes and heart attacks later in life, that's exactly what these products seem to be designed to do," Professor MacGregor said. "It's mad how we allow ourselves to be feeding our children something that is going to cause heart attacks and strokes later in life. We know how to prevent strokes and heart attacks yet we seem to be doing our best to cause them."

Professor MacGregor said the battle to prevent heart attacks and strokes needed to begin in childhood. Feeding children salty food suppressed their taste receptors, getting them used to eating foods with high salt levels. "Most of these things are the concentration of sea water," Professor MacGregor said. "Do you really want your children to be eating solid seawater for lunch?"

Heart foundation national nutrition manager Barbara Eden said consumers should compare the sodium content of foods before purchasing. She said low salt foods must contain no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g of product.

Professor MacGregor called on food manufacturers to reduce salt levels in their products by a fifth. He said the salt concentration of most processed foods could be cut by 20 per cent tomorrow without anyone noticing. Prof MacGregor is in Sydney this week to address health professionals and food industry representatives on the need to reduce salt intake.


If however you read the actual abstract of Macgregor's paper, it says only about one tenth of all the assertions above. It reports simply that children who have had their salt intake experimentally suppressed to varying degees show reduced blood pressure during the experiment. And that is no suprise. Studies with mice show the same.

What is NOT shown is ANY long-term effect of such salt reductions. That artificial salt restriction might also DO HARM in various ways is not considered -- which is just negligent, considering that people on salt-restricted diets die younger.

Note also that blood pressure response to salt varies between individuals. Genetic differences make some individuals more responsive to salt level than others. So any policy that treates everybody as the same is Leftist ideology, not medical science.

Note further that in healthy ADULTS, level of salt intake does NOT affect the level of salt in your blood. You just piss out any salt you do not need.

What utter crap the salt phobia is!


Economist William Nordhaus has published a critique of Britain's Stern Report (PDF here) Here is his summary...

"How much and how fast should the globe reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? How should nations balance the costs of the reductions against the damages and dangers of climate change? The Stern Review answers these questions clearly and unambiguously: we need urgent, sharp, and immediate reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions."

I am reminded here of President Harry Truman's complaint that his economists would always say, on the one hand this and on the other hand that. He wanted a one-handed economist. The Stern Review is a Prime Minister's dream come true. It provides decisive and compelling answers instead of the dreaded conjectures, contingencies, and qualifications.

However, a closer look reveals that there is indeed another hand to these answers. The radical revision of the economics of climate change proposed by the Review does not arise from any new economics, science, or modeling. Rather, it depends decisively on the assumption of a near-zero social discount rate. The Review's unambiguous conclusions about the need for extreme immediate action will not survive the substitution of discounting assumptions that are consistent with today's market place. So the central questions about global-warming policy - how much, how fast, and how costly - remain open. The Review informs but does not answer these fundamental questions."

Nordhaus's paper is fairly technical but he does make an amusing aside imagining what would happen if Stern-like zero discount rate reasoning were applied to other areas of public policy....

"While this feature of low discounting might appear benign in climate change policy, we could imagine other areas where the implications could themselves be dangerous. Imagine the preventive war strategies that might be devised with low social discount rates. Countries might start wars today because of the possibility of nuclear proliferation a century ahead; or because of a potential adverse shift in the balance of power two centuries ahead; or because of speculative futuristic technologies three centuries ahead. It is not clear how long the globe could long survive the calculations and machinations of zero-discount-rate military powers. This is yet a final example of a surprising implication of a low discount rate."

(William D. Nordhaus is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Advertising is a free speech issue

The ban on junk food ads on British TV is far more 'mind-controlling' than anything a cynical adman could come up with.

I can’t have been the only person who, upon hearing that the Office for Communications planned to introduce a widespread ban on junk food advertising on British TV, thought to himself: ‘Who the hell do these poncy unelected suits think they are?’ And yet there has been little outcry over the ban. Ofcom announced this week that in March 2007 it will introduce a ‘total ban’ on ads for hamburgers, crisps, chocolate and other foodstuffs high in fat, salt or sugar during all children’s programming, on all children’s channels and during any other programmes that have a ‘particular appeal’ to 16-year-olds and under. The only complaint is that Ofcom hasn’t gone far enough. The failure to extend the ban to adults programmes that children also watch – like Coronation Street or, come to think of it, pretty much any show on TV – was a ‘betrayal’ of future generations, who now face the prospect of obesity, ill-health and early death, said health campaigners and commentators.

A far better response to Ofcom’s illiberal, patronising and bizarre ban would have been to tell Ofcom officials to get stuffed, and to disband themselves while they’re at it. I don’t hold a candle for big corporations; I don’t like the fact that they can afford to flog their wares in primetime TV slots or on big brash billboards on street corners, while cash-strapped outfits who make far better products – like spiked, for example – have to rely on word-of-mouth and something called ‘viral marketing’ (which I’ve never liked the sound of).

And yet I would far rather take my chances in the weird and loud chatroom that is the world of advertising than have public space sanitised on my behalf by an unrepresentative quango which, like mother, thinks it knows best. Advertising is a free speech issue, or at least it ought to be. Because behind today’s anti-ad campaigning there lurks a degrading view of the public as fickle and easily bought off, who must be protected from certain words and imagery by better men and women. And that is far more patronising – far more ‘mind-controlling’ – than anything a cynical suited and booted adman could come up with.

The first striking thing about Ofcom’s ban on junk food ads is that the justifications for it are – if you will forgive my post-watershed language – total bollocks. Forget facts or evidence; this ban is based on a creepy combination of scaremongering, snobbery and paternalism.

Ofcom documents and media coverage of the ban constantly refer to ‘junk food’, as if it were an always-existing factual and historical category. In fact, some experts argue that there is no such thing as junk food. According to Vincent Marks, emeritus professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Surrey and co-editor of Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We’re Told About Food and Health: ‘Junk food is an oxymoron. Food is either good – that is, it is enjoyable to eat and will sustain life – or it is good food that has gone bad, meaning that it has deteriorated and gone off.’ For Marks, the ‘junk food’ tag is a moral judgement rather than a health-based one: ‘To label a food as “junk” is just another way of saying, “I disapprove of it”.’ (1)

There’s always a big side order of snobbery in denunciations of junk food – which might explain why Ofcom’s rules will mean that Domino’s Pizzas (an eaterie popular in working-class areas) will have to stop sponsoring The Simpsons, while Gordon Ramsay (whose Channel 4 show The F Word is popular among teens who like his swearing and general cockiness) will still be free to make fatty dishes like duck a la orange and salty pork steaks and chunky chips with their red potato skins still attached. It is hard not to sympathise with the boss of Domino’s Pizzas, who said he might try to get around the new rules by sticking a bowl of salad next to his pizzas because at least salad is seen as ‘good’ grub (2).

Ofcom and its backers claim their tough action is necessary to stop the new generation of Brits from fast becoming the most ‘unhealthy in history’ (3). What, more unhealthy than those kids who lived through (or didn’t live through, more to the point) Black Death, smallpox, wars and food shortages? This is clearly codswallop. In 1900, there were 140 deaths per 1,000 births; that had fallen to 5.7 by 1999 and it continues to fall. Of those born in the early 1900s, 63 per cent died before they reached 60; today only 11 per cent die before 60. A boy born in 1901 could expect to live to 46, and a girl to 50; today a boy is likely to live to 76 and a girl to 81. British children can expect to live more comfortably, and for longer, than any generation in history.

And Ofcom relies on very shaky evidence for its basic premise that banning junk food ads will change children’s eating habits. One of its pieces of evidence is an email from a self-selected group of parents called NetMums, who claim that ‘TV ads for junk food do work – they make children demand junk food which inevitably means more consumption of junk food.’ (4) More serious studies have found little evidence of a clear link between ads and eating habits. As one news report said this week, there is a ‘relative paucity of evidence that TV advertising has much effect on children’s food choices’ (5). An academic study found that ‘just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising’ (6).

Ofcom’s ban is based on fear dressed up as facts: children are not as unhealthy as the hysterical headlines claim, and there’s little evidence that the blunt instrument of TV censorship will make them switch from a Happy Meal to broccoli with a side of semi-skimmed milk. What really seems to be motivating Ofcom and its supporters is a patronising view of parents. Mums and dads are seen as powerless to resist ‘pester power’ demands for sweets and snacks. In banning ads during children’s programmes, Ofcom sends a powerful message that parents cannot be trusted to do right by their kids. It is effectively setting itself up as a surrogate parent, making decisions on behalf of mums and dads who are apparently too weak-minded or thick to make the right decision themselves.

We’ve gone from ‘Watch with mother’ to ‘Watch with the strange men and women from a jumped-up quango called Ofcom because they’re more caring than your mother’.

Ofcom likes to present itself as a ‘media literacy’ outfit whose aim is to ensure balance and quality in the communications media in Britain. That is a case of false advertising if ever I heard one. Someone call the trading standards authority. In truth, Ofcom is a petty and censorious organisation seeking to control public debate and public space and protect people from what it views as their own worst instincts. It is at the forefront of new forms of censorship that cloak themselves in ethical lingo and use nice words like ‘diversity’ and ‘respect’ as a cover for clamping down on free speech.

So Ofcom banned a beer advert for giving ‘undue emphasis to the alcohol strength of the product’. Er, why else do people buy beer, if it isn’t for a bit of ‘alcohol strength’? It banned a radio ad that made a pun on the word ‘faggot’ (which can mean a meat product or a homosexual), decreeing that the ad was ‘capable of causing serious offence’. And usually it bans things in response to handfuls of complaints. That beer ad was banned after Ofcom received one complaint, the radio ad after it received three complaints. Recently Ofcom demanded that Hanna-Barbera remove all cigarette-smoking from its entire back catalogue of Tom and Jerry cartoons after it received a single complaint (7).

Ofcom represents the tyranny of the minority. What about the 60 million of us who aren’t offended by strong booze or the word ‘faggot’ or cartoon cats puffing on a cartoon fag? Why should the public realm – that marketplace of ads, goods, debate and argument – be designed to the tastes of tiny handfuls of people who are weirdly oversensitive? Outraged of Oldham was once restricted to writing cranky green-ink letters to the local paper. Now, thanks to Ofcom and its mission to ensure that no one is ever offended, he’s dictating what images and words the rest of us can see and hear.

No, the world of advertising is not a level playing field. Yes, big corporations can speak more loudly and to more people than you or I can. But we should still defend advertising from today’s gracious and caring censors. You can’t make things more equal or free by running to powerful bodies like Ofcom and pleading with them to punish the nasty corporation and its adman who offended your sensibilities on the train to work. I would rather be Richard Branson’s potential target than Ofcom’s bitch; a free citizen or consumer able to make up my own mind about what I want to buy from companies that are at least upfront, rather than the charge of a powerful quango whose board members I don’t know from Adam.

From Ofcom’s attack on junk food ads to those campaign groups who demand bans on ads for 4x4s, cheap flights, cigarettes and booze: the argument seems to be that people are gullible and thus must be watched over by caring men and women in positions of power. Funnily enough, that is the same justification used by censors throughout history, from Torquemada to Tony Blair: all of their bans are about giving a sedative to society, sanitising public discussion, and protecting people from an alleged harm. Thanks, but no thanks.

For Karl Marx, the ‘chatter’ of consumerist society was one of the more positive aspects of capitalism. The capitalist ‘searches for means to spur [people] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire [people] with new needs by constant chatter etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment…’ (8) So what if ads are sometimes irritating and get into our heads? Forever knowing the tune to ‘Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water’ is a small price to pay for openness in public space and chatter.


Extremist views? Bring them on, we're ready

By Mick Hume

Back when I was a revolting revolutionary student, Labour students who ran university unions operated under the delusion that shutting up their opponents was the same as defeating them. Thus they demanded “No platform” for everybody from “fascists” (which included Tory ministers) to Zionists or the Moonies. Twenty-five years later those student politicians are running the country. And to judge by the Government’s new guidelines about Islamic radicalism on campus, they have learnt nothing.

The guidelines issued by Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, tell universities how to combat “violent extremism in the name of Islam” by spotting extremists, banning outside speakers or informing the police. Just about everything, in fact, except the one thing that’s needed: some good arguments to explode the conspiracy theories of Islamic radicals.

Despite insisting that the Government supports freedom of expression, the guidelines’ definition of “unacceptable extremism” lumps “incitement of social[?], racial or religious hatred” in with terrorist acts, as if words and bombs were more or less equally dangerous.

There should be room for intellectual “extremism” of all sorts at university, the one place where young people ought to be free to experiment with ideas as well as everything else. Yet these days our ivory towers look more like fortresses of intolerance. Lecturers are wary of raising edgy questions that might offend some students, while freedom-phobic student union leaders seek to outlaw whatever-phobic words or images.

If debate is suppressed and the crazed ideas and conspiracies of Islamic radicals are never openly challenged, they can only fester and spread. Any attempt to silence them increases their credibility. And guidelines that leave the impression that the Government is afraid of a few bearded students are even better publicity for these groups.

Somebody needs to throw some intellectual grenades into university life, with arguments to incite hatred of illiberalism, whether it is offered “in the name of” Islam or of combating Islamophobia. Instead the only argument the guidelines propose concerns the radicals’ “distorted interpretation of Islamic texts”. Students can look forward to more sermons about the real meaning of being a Muslim from those noted Islamic scholars in new Labour.

Back in my day I recall one Labour union official with a megaphone, ordering Manchester University students to ignore Moonie leaflets. “These people want to brainwash you! DON’T LISTEN TO A WORD THEY SAY!” So in the name of free-thinking, you tell students what not to think about. Today, who needs a megaphone when you have the Minister for Higher Education?


Diversity is divisive

A new manifesto looks set to kickstart a debate about how multiculturalism fosters tribalism and political victimhood.

The manifesto of the New Generation Network (NGN), published this week, has thrown out an impressive challenge to improve the national conversation about racism. Amongst other things, the manifesto calls for a proper debate about multiculturalism, an end to ‘communal politics’, and it criticises self-appointed ethnic ‘community leaders’ for hijacking certain issues (read the manifesto in full here). Perhaps inevitably, much of the debate it has provoked so far is focused on the comments about self-appointed leaders. However, these issues can only be fully understood in the context of official anti-racism measures that have been built up over the past two decades.

As NGN states, we have come a long way since the first Race Relations Act was created in 1976. Back then, racist attacks were more common and prejudice more evident in the immigration service, police, employment, housing and education. Thirty years on, racism is clearly in decline, thanks to the efforts of many progressive activists and the gradual cultural integration of ethnic groups in society.

Yet in many ways, our society is much more anxious about race than before. Early findings from the 2005 Home Office Citizenship survey show that nearly half of all people (48 per cent) questioned believed that racism had got worse in the past five years. This was a rise from 43 per cent in 2001. White people were more likely to say this than ethnic minorities, suggesting that perception does not reflect the reality experienced by most people.

Why has this strange paradox emerged? While people from ethnic minority backgrounds are today less likely to confront old-fashioned racism, they are much more likely to confront multicultural policies and practises that racialise them. The principle of equality – that all people should be treated the same regardless of their skin colour or ethnic background – has now been replaced with the principle of diversity, where all cultural identities must be given public recognition. While this sounds nice and inclusive in principle, the overall effect is that people are being treated differently, which fuels a sense of exclusion.

The ‘race relations industry’ has expanded massively on the back of government policies, legislation and funding. Most public services – housing, healthcare, arts and cultural provision, voluntary support, public broadcasting, and policing – have strategies to accommodate the supposedly different needs of ethnic users. Many organisations now have targets to ensure they are employing enough ethnic minorities.

The effect of such measures, however, is not to get rid of racial categories, but to reinforce their grip on our consciousness. For example, there has been much debate about the lack of ethnic minorities in the media and arts sectors. The reasons are complex, and can be explained by different aspirations, socioeconomic factors and cultural expectations (many of which also affect the white working class).

But the dominance of racial thinking leads to the simplistic explanation that the ‘white male establishment’ is full of bigots. This leads to positive discrimination schemes that put ethnicity before talent, and results in the hired hand being sent to work in this or that department as the unofficial spokesperson for their ‘community’. No wonder these individuals then think there is racism in the sector where they work, when they are so obviously treated as ‘the token ethnic’. Diversity policies often appear as the flipside of old racial thinking, making us see people’s ethnicity first and their (often diverse) talents and interests second.

The most pernicious effect of this new racial thinking is how it fosters tribalism between ethnic and religious groups. They end up competing for resources on the basis that they are more excluded and vulnerable than others. Some Muslim lobby groups have argued that Christian groups already have public funding for their schools and services, so they should, too. In response, there are now Hindu and Sikh organisations demanding their own concessions lest they feel left out. The demand to wear the headscarf one day spurs the demand to wear the crucifix the next. There is a perverse incentive to assert one’s victimisation by others, rather than build alliances. In this climate, no wonder everyone thinks that racism and discrimination is rife.

To challenge the dominance of identity politics, we need to champion an alternative universalist approach. This wouldn’t mean bland similarity, with everybody talking and looking the same. Instead, it would help us challenge the imposition of formal, ethnic categories and allow us to develop richer differences based on character and interests.

A major step towards the universalist approach would be to dismantle the countless diversity policies that encourage people to see everything through the prism of racial difference. We should get rid of ‘tick box’ measures that do nothing to address underlying inequality in areas like employment. And we should interrogate the claims of victimisation made by some organisations to get their slice of pie. If the NGN will help to expose some of the damage being done in the name of diversity, I welcome it.


Business to save British schools?

Business executives should be drafted into schools to help to raise standards, the new chief inspector of England's schools said yesterday as figures revealed that more than half of secondary schools were under-performing. Christine Gilbert, the head of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), blamed poor leadership and management in schools for persistent poor standards. "We should certainly look at drawing in heads from business and industry," she said. "If you have teaching experience, it may get you to first base quicker, but I do think that schools could benefit from the leadership expertise of people from outside, particularly those who have taken early retirement in their 50s. They could come in as consultants or heads."

Ms Gilbert's comments came after the publication of Ofsted's annual report, which showed that 51 per cent of England's secondary schools were failing to provide a good education for their pupils. With one in eight secondaries and one in 12 schools overall judged inadequate, she said that the proportion of failing schools in England was too high. "The report card for English education has been increasingly encouraging over the past ten years, but it is still not good enough," she said. Of the 6,129 schools inspected last year, twice the proportion of secondaries (13 per cent) were judged inadequate, compared with primaries (7 per cent).

The key to raising standards was good school leadership and early intervention with primary school children, Ms Gilbert, a former history teacher, said. She acknowledged that academies were one possible response to raising standards, but said that only three of the nine inspected were judged effective. There were 46 academies operating and the Government hoped to have 200 by 2010.

Progress had been made, but inexperienced staff and problems recruiting and retaining teachers remained a significant problem. Secondaries without sixth forms suffered the greatest difficulties in raising the achievement among pupils, with more than half (52 per cent) failing to make good progress. At the same time, poor behaviour was disrupting one third of classes in secondaries, the inspectors said.

Those schools that had focused on the underlying causes of poor discipline, such as poor reading and writing skills and emotional problems, found that behaviour often improved.

More than half (58 per cent) of primaries were judged good or outstanding, but inspectors expressed serious concerns about primary teachers' "weak subject knowledge" in science, history, geography, music, art and design and technology.

Ms Gilbert's idea of appointing head teachers from outside the sector drew a mixed reaction. Liz Sidwell, chief executive of the Haberdashers' Aske's federation of schools in South London, said: "As long as the chief executive of a school has people on the management team who understand the curriculum and standards, it could work. The business skills you need to run a school are not the skills that teachers necessarily have."

John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that outsiders may make good heads, but added: "You could not recruit straight from business. School leadership is very different from business leadership and business leaders would be the first to spot that." Dr Dunford was very critial of the inspectors' report overall and accused them of setting schools up for failure. "Reports such as these will cause a crisis of confidence among the leaders of the profession unless we start to accentuate the positive aspects of schools' performance," he said. "Of the schools cited as `inadequate', many have good value-added scores for very weak intakes."


British welfare madness: "The welfare state cost 79 billion pounds last year, more than is spent on the entire education system, twice as much as on law and order and almost as much as on the NHS. It totals nearly 3,000 pounds a household a year.There are 51 different benefits, with 39 per cent of households claiming one or more. Although the Chancellor often boasts about his record on unemployment, there are 5.4 million people of working age who are out of work and living on benefits. Many of those are registered disabled; Britain has more long-term sick than any European country besides Poland. The benefits system has become so generous that being "on welfare" is no longer a mark of even relative poverty. Households with incomes of up to 66,350 pounds - which puts them in the richest fifth - can be entitled to welfare.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Liberty belle becomes a pin-up for extremism

Shami Chakrabarti is to Britain’s intelligentsia what Posh Spice was to teenage girls. Well, if success and celebrity are synonymous. Always available to perform on the Today programme or in the columns of serious newspapers, the director of Liberty has made herself the closest thing this country possesses to an intellectual pin-up girl. But in making her instant opinions so universally available she has done little for the cause she claims to promote.

The core challenge to democracy since September 11, 2001, has been to achieve proportionality between the competing priorities of individual liberty and public protection. Ms Chakrabarti has come down relentlessly on the quasi-anarchist side of the debate. Her defence of individual rights against collective needs takes the demos out of democracy and leaves her organisation marooned on the extra-parliamentary left of politics.

In her enthusiasm to see the good in every terrorist suspect and a heart of unalloyed evil in each successive Home Secretary, the lady from Liberty has revealed extraordinary naivety about Labour’s favourite tactic. Acquired from Bill Clinton, the trick known as triangulation seeks to popularise government policy by contrasting it with the views of unpopular minorities. Ms Chakrabarti never rejects the invitation to play the extremist.

Almost single-handedly she has shifted the civil liberties lobby so far beyond the parameters of mainstream opinion that ministers pray she will oppose them. Their logic is simple: if Liberty objects, Middle Britain will automatically conclude that a policy is pure common sense.

Ms Chakrabarti easily achieved her ambition to reassert Liberty’s prominence after its name change from the National Council for Civil Liberties. But since then, through reams of anti-terror law and attempts to control asylum and antisocial behaviour, she has forgotten what the “civil” in that historic title meant. Liberty’s guiding principle should be John Stuart Mill’s advice that “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” By championing the errant individual to the detriment of the majority she ignores it completely.

Few mistakes better illustrate this debilitating flaw than Liberty’s backing for Graeme Chessum, the Nottinghamshire man banned from his local pubs for behaving aggressively towards staff at one of them. The Pubwatch scheme under which he is excluded is a fine example of community action against antisocial conduct. As such it achieves the utilitarian ideal of the greatest good of the greatest number. By threatening to challenge it under human rights legislation Liberty extends beyond absurdity its director’s faith that high profile is preferable to high principle.



MILLIONS of families were facing a new wave of taxes on their holidays last night. Chancellor Gordon Brown will announce his latest cash raid in the run-up to Christmas. Middle Britain will be hammered by a series of stealth taxes which will be disguised as green measures. Holiday and business flights along with family cars are set to be the target of the new squeeze. Mr Brown, who has devised more than 80 ways of increasing tax since taking over at the Treasury, will say the higher levies are vital to save the planet from global warming.

Last night critics warned that the green agenda will be merely an excuse to wring yet more cash out of Britain's hard-working families, with questionable benefits for the environment. James Frayne, of the TaxPayers' Alliance pressure group, said: "This confirms what we have suspected: Politicians are going to start raising taxes massively in the name of the environment. "It's a convenient excuse. All they are interested in is extra revenue. These tax rises will penalise millions of ordinary middle class families."

Mr Brown is expected to unveil plans in his Pre-Budget Report on December 6 for an increase in air passenger duty, which is paid by every traveller leaving a UK airport. Tax on bigger family cars is also expected to rise in a bid to outflank David Cameron, who has put the environment at the heart of his Tory policy agenda.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said last night: "I want to see a shift to green taxes but they have to pay for tax reductions elsewhere. "My motto is pay as you burn, not pay as you earn. My fear about Gordon Brown is that he will use this as an excuse for a stealthy increase in the tax burden for families." Radical action to stave off disaster for the Earth was demanded by the recent Stern review, which was commissioned by the Treasury.

Mr Brown was said yesterday to have been persuaded that higher air passenger duty, which was frozen in the spring Budget, could have a part to play in tackling the damage done by aviation. There are currently four rates: 5 or 10 pounds for European destinations, and 20 or 40 for long-haul flights. An indication of Government thinking on the issue was revealed in a leaked memo from Environment Secretary David Miliband. He said air travel was "lightly taxed". Slapping 5 on air passenger duty would bring in 400 million a year, he said, adding that there was also a case for levying VAT on flights.

James Fremantle, of the Air Transport Users Council, said: "We do not shut our eyes to environmental concerns, and passengers have those concerns too. "But we are not convinced that raising air passenger duty would be the way to go. We are not convinced that higher taxes would stop people flying.''

Mr Brown is also poised to pile more pressure on the owners of family cars, believing that raising indirect taxation could help to persuade motorists to switch to less polluting vehicles. Since March, vehicle excise duty has included a top band of 210 pounds a year for new cars which emit the most carbon dioxide. Vehicles likely to be targeted include Land Rover Freelanders and Discoveries, and also Jeeps. But any new tax would also hit Mondeo Man, long seen as a political barometer, by affecting 2.5-litre models as well as owners of Vauxhall Astra 2L Twin Tops and Vauxhall Vectra 2.8Ls.

But critics say the 20 pound increase has not done enough to dissuade people from buying the most polluting models. Mr Miliband called for tough measures to combat car use and ownership, with a substantial increase in road tax to force people to switch to smaller vehicles.

Edmund King of the RAC Foundation stressed the Government must ensure that any duty rises are announced several years in advance of taking effect. "We have no problem with higher tax for the more polluting vehicles, it's about giving people time to adapt," he said. Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne said official figures this week showed that green taxes on fuel, vehicles, energy and landfill fell last year to 2.9 per cent of national income, the lowest since 1989. He added: "Reports about raising vehicle excise duty and air passenger duty would ring rather less hollow if Gordon Brown did not have such an embarrassing record on environmental taxes."

Mr Brown's Pre-Budget report is also expected to support an international market in carbon trading in which companies can buy and sell emission quotas to keep the overall level within a set limit. The Treasury last night described as "speculation" reports that Mr Brown was poised to raise taxes on air travel and large cars.



Odd that such exams were not too hard for British kids in the past!

An exam modelled on the old O-level is too difficult to be offered in state schools, a report has revealed. Watchdogs concluded that International GCSEs in key subjects are "more demanding" than the standard exam, effectively ruling out their introduction in state secondaries. Hundreds of private schools have already adopted IGCSEs in some subjects, mainly maths and science, because they consider them to be better preparation for A-levels.

Now a report from the Government's exams watchdog has confirmed that popular IGCSE syllabuses contain tougher questions and challenge pupils on topics that GCSE pupils only encounter at AS-level. But it means that, without substantial changes, they cannot be added to the list of qualifications approved for use in state schools since they are not directly comparable to GCSEs. The exams may need to be dumbed down if they are to fit strict official criteria laid down for teenagers' studies.

Opposition politicians warned of a widening gulf between the state and independent sectors as fee-paying schools increasingly turn to tougher qualifications. Ministers admitted yesterday there were "significant obstacles" to the introduction of IGCSEs in secondary schools. But they agreed to launch a public consultation on whether they should "explore further" with exam boards "how to overcome these obstacles".

IGCSEs were developed primarily for schools overseas but are attracting increasing interest from British private schools dissatisfied with the standard GCSE. They are similar to the old O-level - scrapped in 1987 - as pupils are tested in a series of final exams at the end of a two-year course. There is a coursework option but most schools do not use it. Teachers also consider questions to be more "traditional" and open-ended.

The report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority exposes the apparently low demands placed on GCSE candidates in crucial subjects compared with counterparts abroad who are following IGCSE syllabuses. It reveals that English GCSEs have too many "formulaic questions" while pupils taking double science GCSE are even awarded marks for giving the wrong answers. They can be given credit if an answer is written in "appropriately scientic" language - even if "the science is incorrect".

But there were sharp variations across the two exam boards offering IGCSEs. IGCSEs set by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) is taken in 200 independent schools, in at least one subject, while Edexcel's are used in 170. But only CIE's papers were found to be more demanding than standard GCSEs. And out of four subjects studied, CIE papers in just two - maths and science - were judged to be tougher. The report said: "The content of the CIE IGCSE coordinated syllabus is broad and deep compared with the other syllabuses reviewed. A number of the areas included are currently part of AS syllabuses. "CIE IGCSE was judged to be more demanding for the higher tier candidates and very demanding for foundation tier candidates." In contrast, standard GCSEs were "less demanding than they should be" for brighter candidates

Meanwhile a CIE maths paper was "by a long way" more difficult than others reviewed by a panel of assessors. Candidates were only allowed scientific calculators and no formula sheets. There were also "extensive structured questions" which "require organisation and a systematic approach from candidates". The report concluded there were "major differences" between GCSEs and IGCSEs across all four subjects studied - maths, science, English and French. "In almost every case, these differences meant that the IGCSE examinations did not meet the GCSE subject criteria in significant ways" it said.

Nick Gibb, Tory schools spokesman, said: "If the Government and the QCA refuse to allow state schools the same options as independent schools, an even greater divide between the two sectors will emerge as schools in the private sector increasingly adopt what the QCA has termed the 'demanding' IGCSE exam."



Since its birth 58 years ago, Israel has always been prepared to compromise for peace. From Begin's agreement with Sadat in 1979 to the Arafat-Barak talks at Camp David in 2000, Israeli leaders have been prepared to challenge their own people in pursuit of peace. Last summer Israel withdrew from Gaza, angry settlers and all. Yet the terror from the Gaza Strip has continued - more than 1,000 rockets have been fired into southern Israel in the past year. Since 2000, nine fatalities have been caused by Qassam missiles.

Some media have reported the panic these missiles have caused but they downplay the impact because of the small scale of fatalities compared with those on the Palestinian side. My husband, a British soldier, is currently serving a tour of duty in Iraq. His unit has come under mortar fire nearly every night for the past six months. Not many service personnel have been killed by these missiles but every soldier fears that the next one might have his or her name on it. Do you think that a child, a parent or a grandmother in one of the towns bordering Gaza thinks there have been "only" nine fatalities? Can you imagine what that does to a civilian population?

We need to think carefully about the consequences of questioning the defensive reactions of a nation-state that is constantly bombarded by an enemy calling for its destruction, especially after it has withdrawn from Lebanon and Gaza. Would we as British citizens accept a single rocket on a British town, let alone hundreds?

The commentators' objection is that the response is "disproportionate". But how does a nation-state defend itself against a terrorist organisation or organisations that are part of, and deliberately hide behind, ordinary citizens? Of course the Israeli military and all military forces must act ethically. But if the number of civilian casualties continues to be the main issue, there is no incentive for the terrorists to stop using the civilian population as a shield.

We live in dangerous times when, in parts of the left especially, you can't be a friend to Islam or to Muslims unless you are anti-Israel. That is exactly what al-Qaida wants us to think. Events in Rochdale at the last election represent a microcosm of what we are sleepwalking into globally. The Islamists and the left argued that, because I supported Israel and its right to exist, all my work for my Muslim constituents was a lie. They suggested I was an opportunistic, neocon Zionist, aiming to dupe them.

Israel's willingness to compromise for peace has never been enough, because Israel alone cannot gain peace. The Palestinians and others in the region also have to want peace. Israel needs a serious interlocutor so that peace can stand a chance. So my question to the left is this: why not concentrate your attention there, rather than on the one player in the region who has always been serious about peace?

More here

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Their favourite way of meeting their "targets"

The government has been accused of failing to meet a promise to scrap mixed-sex wards in NHS hospitals. The Department of Health said its targets had been achieved, and 99% of trusts are providing single sex accommodation. But patients groups said they were getting an increasing number of calls from people who think they have been in mixed-sex wards.

There appears to be confusion about the definition of the term. Katherine Murphy, from the Patients Association, said there had been 25-30 calls in the last month to the charity's helpline, mostly from elderly patients, who had been nursed on mixed-sex wards.

Andrew Lansley said it was not acceptable to claim that partitioned single-sex bays on mixed-sex wards were doing the job. "If you can be seen by patients of another sex, and they are coming and going past your bed in order to go to the toilet facilities you may not think you have the privacy you want."

The government pledged to scrap mixed-sex wards when it came to power in 1997. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said most trusts offered single-sex wards, but said more could be done.

More here

Britain: School helper who refused to remove her veil is sacked

A teaching assistant who refused to remove her Muslim veil in the classroom has been sacked. Aishah Azmi’s dismissal from a Church of England primary school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, followed a lengthy period of suspension over her insistence on wearing the niqab in lessons led by a male teacher. She had already failed to persuade an employment tribunal that she was a victim of religious discrimination and harassment by Kirklees local education authority.

Mrs Azmi, 24, said that it was her Islamic duty to wear the black veil, which covered her face except for a narrow slit at the eyes, in the presence of adult males who were not her blood relatives.

Headfield Junior School argued that its pupils, many of whom are learning to speak English, found it difficult to understand what Mrs Azmi was saying when her mouth was hidden.

In a statement issued yesterday, the LEA said that the school governing body’s staff dismissals committee had recently held a hearing to discuss Mrs Azmi’s case.

“As a result of the hearing, the committee decided to terminate the employment of the employee concerned,” it said.

Shahid Malik, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, said that the Azmi case had not been about religion but about seeking the best possible education for children at the school.

More than 90 per cent of Headfield’s pupils are Muslim, many of them learning English as a second language.

Earlier this year, Ofsted criticised “exceptionally low” standards of achievement by pupils and said that many of the school’s difficulties were caused by “speech and communication problems”.

Mr Malik said: “I’m obviously disappointed that a compromise could not be reached. While I defend her right to wear the veil in society, it’s very clear that her wearing the veil in the classroom inhibits her ability to support children.”

When she was observed during lessons, the tribunal heard that, “it was readily apparent that the children were seeking visual clues from her which they could not obtain because they could not see her facial expressions”.

Mrs Azmi did not wear the veil when she was interviewed for the Headfield post, nor at her first training day, but problems arose soon after she started work on a one-year fixed contract last September. Although the school’s other female Muslim teachers wore a headscarf, Mrs Azmi insisted on wearing the niqab.

Mrs Azmi taught at the school for only a few weeks before being told that she must be unveiled during lessons. Soon after she went on long-term sick leave due to stress. She was suspended on full pay in February and took her case against the school to an employment tribunal which sat for four days in July.

Kirklees LEA renewed Mrs Azmi’s one-year contract after it expired on August 31, even though she was under suspension at the time.

When the tribunal issued its findings last month, it rejected her claims of discrimination and harassment but awarded her £1,000 for “injury to feelings” caused by the way her case was handled.

Mrs Azmi, whose appearance before the tribunal was a test case brought under new religious discrimination regulations, vowed to continue her fight for the right to wear the niqab.

She attacked the Government for treating ethnic minorities “as outcasts” and said that she was “fearful for the consequences for Muslim women in this country”.

Mrs Azmi’s lawyer, Nick Whittingham, of the Kirklees Law Centre, said that he had not yet received a decision in writing following this week’s disciplinary hearing.


Prestigious British private schools exported

In what is believed to be the first venture of its kind, Brighton College, a leading independent school, is planning to export British public school education to Russia. Boarding schools in England have attracted interest from growing numbers of wealthy Russians in the past decade who are keen to give their children a high-quality education in a secure, friendly environment. Brighton College is seeking to build on these links by building its own public school, 50 miles south of Moscow.

Several elite schools, such as Dulwich College, Harrow and Shrewsbury, have set up in the Far East to feed a growing appetite for British public school education, but none has so far attempted such an undertaking on Russian soil. Four hundred boys and girls will be offered Mandarin, polo and cricket, and taught a European-style curriculum, in English, in the grounds of a school near Borovsk, south of Moscow. Estimated to cost 18 million pounds, it could open as early as 2009. The school is the brainchild of Mikhail Orloff, a Russian businessman and the grandson of King Farouk, and it hopes to blend the best of English education with Russia's culture and history. It would operate mostly as a weekly boarding school.

Richard Cairns, the headmaster of Brighton College, said that Russian parents were attracted to the school because they would no longer have to send their children abroad for a top-class education. "Parents have been sending their children to Europe, but they don't like it because when they come over, they stay," he said. "They believe that Russia is losing her children. But this way, they hope to keep the same value system and the children."

The cleverest pupils would be able to spend their last couple of years studying A levels at Brighton College, which also has partnerships with schools in China and Australia. Mr Orloff approached the college after it became the first private school in England to make Mandarin compulsory for all new pupils. Brighton College is developing a three-year plan with Lord Skidelsky, an economist of Russian origin and chairman of its board of governors, to raise the money. Richard Niblett, the director of music, is overseeing the project. He has been living in Moscow since September to undertake feasibility studies and raise to funds for the school. "The concept is to draw on the best of both education systems - the logic of science and maths, which the Russians excel at, and the house-style system and arts of British public schools," he said. "Teaching in Russia is quite dogmatic, whereas we tend to help them think outside the box more."

There would certainly seem to be a market for it. According to the Independent Schools Council, which includes 1,288 of the Britain's 2,500 private schools, 343 Russian students were attending its schools in 2005-6. These parents were paying more than 5.5 million pounds for one year's school fees. Brighton College charges about 16,000 a year for weekly boarders, but their Russian affiliate would charge just 10,350 a year.

While Russia already has a handful of good Western-style private day schools, such as the Anglo-American School, the English International School and the British International School, they are not linked to any leading independent schools in Britain. The advantage of its model, Brighton College argues, is not only that it will follow a tried and tested method of schooling, which has worked well for centuries in Britain, but will also take children out of the pollution of Moscow during the week


British Airways buckles under pressure: "British Airways is to lift its ban on workers openly wearing small crosses after an unprecedented backlash from MPs, bishops and customers. BA made the decision after 100 MPs and 14 bishops joined a campaign of support for Nadia Eweida, a check-in worker who lost an employment appeal to wear a tiny cross. It comes after condemnation by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a threat from the Church of England to sell its 9 million pound stake in the airline. Despite winning a legal battle against its employee, the company said it would review its uniform policy to find a way to allow symbols of faith to be worn openly.... Miss Eweida, who has begun a second appeal, issued a statement saying that she hoped that it would help her to win her case. "If they are going to review the policy and allow Christians their place in the workforce, it is a big relief." The ban on Miss Eweida caused outrage because members of other faiths, such as Muslims and Sikhs, are allowed to wear religious symbols..... Ann Widdecombe, the former Conservative Home Office minister, said: "I cannot believe that a major company couldn't have worked out weeks ago that the way out of this was a review instead of taking everything to the wire and losing custom and goodwill en route."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Young British Criminals are now "Trainees"

We read:

"Teenage muggers and burglars sentenced to jail by the courts will instead attend local schools and live alongside orphans in open children's homes. The hardened criminals would normally be locked in detention centres with specialist classrooms. But it has emerged an overcrowding crisis in the juvenile prison system is forcing the Government to dramatically relax the law. It will allow the criminals to mix with society's most vulnerable youngsters in the relaxed regime of a mainstream children's home for the first time. And some will even be allowed to attend local schools.

The Government has also ruled they should no longer be considered young offenders. Instead, in yet another example of political correctness, the Home Office's new Offender Management Bill refers to the tearaways as 'trainees'.


Basic physics supports solar activity as cause of global warming

Comments from a successful long-range weather forecaster:

Science, not argument about conspiracy, must be central to the debate about climate change (Letters, November 13), nevertheless Al Gore's stake in green business (Generation Investment Management) and David Miliband's closeness to the nuclear industry merit attention. Dr Wolff's claim that the climate-sceptical position "is in contradiction to everything we expect from basic physics" is bizarre, since physics is the basis of Weather Action's world-leading solar weather technique of long-range forecasting. The SWT relies on predictable effects of solar particles, not on CO2 or meteorology models - and I can assure your correspondent Richard Nunn that the SWT will be published when matters of intellectual property are sorted out

Dr Wolff admits "CO2 has indeed increased in response to temperature change in the past ..." This is a general pattern in slow changes over the last 250,000 years (Caillon et al, Science, March 2003). Furthermore proxy measurements covering thousands of years (eg Neff et al, Nature 2001) show that, in timescales of 22 years, the magnetic sun-spot cycle and world temperatures move together, whereas CO2, while following temperature in slow general terms, also moves the other way for quite long periods. This contradicts the theory that CO2 drives temperature and climate.

Current CO2 levels, or rate of CO2 rise, are not unprecedented. CO2 levels have been three times current levels (Bob Carter, Marine Geophysical Lab, Queensland). CO2 rapid rise "spikes" doubtless happened before, given the power of nature compared with man's puny activity (not even 1% of total greenhouse effect), but ice-core data smoothes them out.

The global warmers' claim that current extra CO2 causes warming which gets dangerously magnified through the greenhouse effect of extra water vapour in the atmosphere, consequent to the temperature rise, also fails. The sea absorbs extra CO2. Furthermore, increased transpiration-cooling by enhanced growth of plants, which is caused by extra CO2, cancels out the extra greenhouse warming of that same CO2. Increased greenhouse heating due to doubling CO2 is 3.7 watts per sq metre. This is negated by about the same amount of enhanced transpiration-cooling of plants, all of which grow faster in extra CO2. Therefore there is no CO2 driven net heat flow and surface temperature rise. Temperature and climate change in our epoch is therefore driven by other factors, especially solar particle and magnetic effects.

So can action against climate change make a difference? Even if temperature trends can be changed - and controlling the sun is a tall order even for a Bush/ Blair legacy - there is no evidence of connected change in weather extremes or useful outcomes. Let's save the planet from real chemical pollutants, but CO2 is not one of them. Wouldn't it be better to work to predict climate than make vain attempts to change it?



Its stupid policy of allowing non-Christian religious attire only was asking for trouble

Ms Eweida, a former member of BA's check-in staff who has lost her appeal to wear a tiny cross outside her uniform, has become a Christian cause celebre. She has the support of nearly 100 MPs. More worryingly for BA, churches are railing against the airline. There is talk of a Christian boycott of the airline worldwide. Only for the worldly is it still the world's favourite airline.

British Airways is at fault. For it is mishandling for a religious issue, betraying both its multicultural principles and a huge potential market. For, Ms Eweida not only has a strong argument of freedom of religious expression on her side, but also hundreds of millions of potential passengers. The 2001 census showed that 71.1 per cent of Britons identify themselves as Christians. According to Aquarius, a marketing consultancy focused on religious affairs, there are 2.1 billion people who call themselves Christian, by comparison with 1.1 billion who describe themselves as secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist. The devout represent a powerful market: The Passion of the Christ has grossed $613 million at box offices worldwide.

British Airways has previously struggled with icons. When it came to removing the flag from the tailfin, it underestimated patriotism. Now, it has misunderstood the nature of modern faith. There are a growing number of Christians who feel threatened by secularism. Spiritually, the world is more polarised and politicised. Christians, particularly evangelicals, are adopting the activist habits of other religious communities.

By sticking to its guidelines on uniforms, BA is insensitively, perhaps unintentionally, appearing to use its professional code to make a secular case. People of faith expect not just tolerance, but respect. BA needs to show it.



One in eight secondary schools was judged "inadequate" in the past year, while more than a third were no better than satisfactory, Government inspectors said today. Chief Inspector of Schools Christine Gilbert condemned the high failure rate and said it was "unacceptable" that the gap between the best and worst state schools was so wide. She demanded urgent action to raise standards, warning: ""The report card for English education has been increasingly encouraging over the past 10 years, but it is still not good enough."

In her first annual report since becoming Chief Inspector, Ms Gilbert said a good education can "liberate and empower" children. "The story is not always positive, however," she added. "That is why I am so concerned at the gap between the best provision and that which makes an inadequate contribution to improving the life chances of children and young people. "Too many schools are inadequate - about one in 12 of those inspected, and in secondary schools this proportion rises to just over one in eight."

Ms Gilbert said many secondary schools, which are often far larger than primaries, faced a "substantial" range of issues which held them back. "However, more needs to be done, and swiftly, to reduce the number of secondary schools found to be inadequate," she said. Ofsted's annual report was based on evidence from inspections of 6,000 state schools during the 2005-06 academic year. The watchdog found:

11 per cent of all state schools were outstanding, about half were good, 34 per cent satisfactory and 8 per cent inadequate; 13 per cent of secondary schools were inadequate, and 7% of primaries; School attendance was not good enough in one in 10 schools, with particular problems in London and the North of England. In nearly one in three secondary schools, behaviour is "no better than satisfactory overall, and in these schools there are also instances of disruptive or distracting behaviour from some pupils".

The findings follow the first year of a new inspection system, in which Ofsted conducted "shorter and sharper" inspections, giving schools only a few days' notice before visiting. The new criteria for schools were also tougher than before, which explained in part why so many schools were judged to be poor. Ms Gilbert said: "The new inspection arrangements have raised the bar, but without putting it out of reach. "The performance of schools, and the public's expectations of them, have both risen, and it is right that inspection should reflect that."

Schools Minister Jim Knight said it would not be fair to make comparisons with previous years. "Direct comparisons between school judgments in this year's report and previous ones would be misleading," he said. "This report reflects the first year of the toughest inspection regime we have yet introduced. "Schools that may have been judged as good in previous years might only be judged as satisfactory now. "However, we make no apology for raising the bar - expectations are higher than ever and judgments need to be tougher than ever. "No school should be inadequate and there should be no hiding places for under-performance or coasting. "That is why the Education and Inspections Act is introducing tough new powers to turn around schools, closing or replacing them if they do not make adequate progress within 12 months."

Shadow education secretary David Willetts said: "It is still not good enough that four out of 10 schools are regarded by Ofsted as merely satisfactory or downright inadequate. "There is one success story - special schools. "But the Government is putting more effort into closing good special schools than closing inadequate secondary schools. "We need a moratorium on special school closures. "The wide gap between the best and worst-performing schools is also very worrying. "The best way to bridge this gap is by concentrating on discipline, improving behaviour and more streaming and setting in all schools."



Plenty of money to pay an army of "administrators", though

The cost of making the breast cancer drug Herceptin available on the NHS will mean that health trusts have to deny patients other treatments, according to doctors writing in the British Medical Journal. Herceptin works for up to 25 per cent of breast cancer patients with a particular defective gene. But the cost of treating 75 patients with the 20,000 pound-a- year drug is equivalent to providing cancer treatment for more than 350 patients - while still requiring 500,000 pounds in extra funding.

In July the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommended Herceptin for those with HER2- positive breast cancer. But three cancer specialists have now challenged the wisdom of the decision. Writing in the BMJ, the doctors, from Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust, calculated that in drug costs alone they would have to find 1.9 million pounds to treat 75 patients with Herceptin. Supplementary costs pushed the figure to 2.3 million, according to Ann Barrett, Tom Roques and Matthew Small.

The team, working with Richard Smith, a health economist from the University of East Anglia, said that they could fund Herceptin if they dropped post-surgery cancer treatments for 355 other patients - 16 of whom were likely to be cured. Or they could stop palliative chemotherapy for 208 patients. Either way they would also need to find 500,000 pounds. The doctors write: "These untreated patients will be people we know. We will be the ones to tell them they are not getting a treatment that has been proved to be effective, which costs relatively little, because it is not the `treatment of the moment'."