Monday, January 01, 2007


It has been a gluttonous few weeks. The parties, the chocolates, the mince pies - all capped with that 6,000-calorie Christmas Day feast. A January detox sounds sensible. A chance to purge those toxins, burn away the flab and give our furred arteries a well earned break.

Millions of us will be making just such a resolve today as we prepare for New Year's Eve and one last night of hedonistic indulgence. If, however, you are thinking of joining that bandwagon then you may be about to suffer in vain. After sponsoring one of the biggest nutritional research programmes of its kind, the BBC is set to debunk the notion of detoxing, together with a list of other food myths.

"The detox diet idea is nonsense," said Nigel Denby, a dietician at Queen Charlotte's hospital in west London, who worked on the BBC's detox experiment. "Our research has confirmed what medics have long suspected: that our bodies are extremely efficient machines for doing all the detoxing needed and they don't need much extra help."

The BBC's six-part series The Truth About Food will set out the results of dozens of scientific experiments commissioned to test popular beliefs about food. Can, for example, foods really make you feel sexy? Some can, it appears - but not the ones you might think. (Forget oysters and chocolate, think garlic instead.)

The new series, supported with a book, is not the only thing that will keep food in the headlines throughout January. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is also to hit the airwaves with advertisements promoting its traffic light labelling system for packaged foods. The voluntary system, which puts a red warning blob on foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar is driving junk food retailers and manufacturers such as Tesco, Kellogg's and Nestl‚ to distraction. They are expected to launch their own television counter-blast.

Neville Rigby, policy director at the International Obesity Task Force, said: "The labelling of food has been confusing consumers for too long. The FSA's new traffic light system is the first attempt to give consumers clear, simple information that they can use to make simple decisions about which foods to buy. It would give consumers an easy way of spotting foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar - and that is why the industry is so set against it. It will be a hard-fought battle."

All this comes as Ofcom, the communications regulator, is preparing to implement its long discussed ban on television advertising for junk food before the 9pm watershed. That could see advertisements for up to 75% of breakfast cereals and other products aimed at children being taken off the air.



Vast amounts of money that was supposed to be used to help poor people was diverted to be used in a dangerous campaign designed to show that British government lawyers knew more about medical products than did the drug companies or the FDA. All they succeeded in doing was to turn people off one of the safest and most helpful medical procedures -- with resultant deaths

Andrew Wakefield, the former surgeon whose campaign linking the MMR vaccine with autism caused a collapse in immunisation rates, was paid more than 400,000 pounds by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. The payments, unearthed by The Sunday Times, were part of 3.4 million pounds distributed from the legal aid fund to doctors and scientists who had been recruited to support a now failed lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.

Critics this weekend voiced amazement at the sums, which they said created a clear conflict of interest and were the “financial engine” behind a worldwide alarm over the triple measles, mumps and rubella shot. “These figures are astonishing,” said Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. “This lawsuit was an industry, and an industry peddling what turned out to be a myth.”

According to the figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, Wakefield was paid 435,643 in fees, plus 3,910 expenses. Wakefield’s work for the lawyers began two years before he published his now notorious report in The Lancet medical journal in February 1998, proposing a link between the vaccine and autism. This suggestion, followed by a campaign led by Wakefield, caused immunisation rates to slump from 92% to 78.9%, although they have since partly recovered. In March this year the first British child in 14 years died from measles.

Later The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s claim and apologised after a Sunday Times investigation showed that his research had been backed with 55,000 from lawyers, and that the children in the study used as evidence against the vaccine were also claimants in the lawsuit. At the time Wakefield denied any conflict of interest and said that the money went to his hospital, not to him personally. No disclosure was made, however, of the vastly greater sums that he was receiving directly from the lawyers.

The bulk of the amount in the new figures, released by the Legal Services Commission (LSC), covers an eight to 10-year period. All payments had to be approved by the courts. Those who received money include numerous Wakefield associates, business partners and employees who had acted as experts in the case. Five of his former colleagues at the Royal Free hospital, north London, under whose aegis The Lancet paper was written, received a total of 183,000 in fees, according to the LSC.

Wakefield now runs a business in Austin, Texas, two of whose employees are listed as receiving a total of 112,000 in fees, while a Florida physician, who appointed the former surgeon as his “director of research”, was paid 21,600, the figures show. All have appeared in media reports as apparently confirming Wakefield’s claims.

It is understood that the payments — for writing reports, attending meetings and in some cases carrying out research — were made at hourly rates varying between 120 and 200, or 1,000 a day. “There was a huge conflict of interest,” said Dr John March, an animal vaccine specialist who was among those recruited. “It bothered me quite a lot because I thought, well, if I’m getting paid for doing this, then surely it’s in my interest to keep it going as long as possible.” March, who the LSC allowed almost 90,000 to research an aspect of Wakefield’s theories, broke ranks this weekend to denounce both the science of the attack and the amount that the case had cost in lawyers’ and experts’ fees. “The ironic thing is they were always going on about how, you know, how we’ve hardly got any money compared with the other side, who are funded by large pharmaceutical companies. And I’m thinking, judging by the amounts of money you’re paying out, the other side must be living like millionaires,” he said.

Also among those named as being paid from the legal aid fund was a referee for one of Wakefield’s papers, who was allowed 40,000. A private GP who runs a single vaccines clinic received 6,000, the LSC says.

Following The Sunday Times investigation, immunisation rates have risen and the General Medical Council launched an inquiry. This is due to culminate in a three-month hearing next summer, where Wakefield faces charges — which he denies — of dishonesty over his research. The LSC is also unlikely to escape criticism. Three years ago the commission, which administers a 2 billion budget to give poor people access to justice, acknowledged that the attempt to make a case against MMR with taxpayers’ money was “not effective or appropriate”. The total cost for the attack on the vaccine was 14,053,856, plus Vat.

Following media campaigning, lawyers eventually registered 1,600 claimants in the lawsuit. None received any money. This weekend Earl Howe, a Conservative party health spokesman, called for a parliamentary inquiry. “It’s astonishing,” he said. “This is crying out for select committee scrutiny.” Wakefield said in a statement that he had worked on the lawsuit for nine years, charged at a recommended rate, and gave money to charity. “This work involved nights, weekends and much of my holidays, such that I saw little of my family during this time,” he said. “I believed and still believe in the just cause of the matter under investigation.”



Schools that fail to show enthusiasm in rooting out prejudice against homosexuals should be reported to the police by pupils and parents, a Home Office report recommended yesterday. It called for parents and children to identify schools that ignore "homophobic" language in the playground and teachers who produce "homophobic" lessons. And it called for head teachers to bring lessons about "homophobia" on to school timetables and to involve their pupils in gay "awareness weeks".

The advice from Home Secretary John Reid's officials comes at a time of deep concern among churches that new gay rights laws due next spring will bar traditional teaching on sexual morality in schools and force them instead to include gay rights dogma in lessons.

The paper on "homophobic hate crime" is aimed at guiding police forces, local authorities, social services and schools among other public bodies. It defined homophobia - a word invented by gay lobby groups to apply to their critics - as "resentment, or fear, of gay and lesbian people" which "can be just a passive dislike of gay people". The report asked police and other groups to consider whether homophobia is happening in schools and in lessons. It said: "Schools can be a little concerned about a negative impact on their reputation, that it would be perceived as a school which has problems rather than one which deals with them positively."

Urging that school incidents be reported to a "hate crime co-ordinator", the report said: "It would be dangerous to assume that homophobic incidents to not occur in a particular school as victims and witnesses might be too worried or frightened to bring the abuse to greater attention." It called for reporting systems to "allow pupils and parents to make referrals direct if they feel the school is not taking the issue seriously."

The report added: "The seriousness of using homophobic language is not fully appreciated in schools. "Whilst it is probably made clear to pupils that the use of racist language is unacceptable, the same is not true for use of homophobic language. "However, constant use of such language and homophobic crimes and incidents will have an effect on pupils' ability to learn, or willingness to stay on in schools."

The Home Office advice also said that "it should be possible to find times working within each year group's timetable to slot in work on citizenship and homophobia". Home Office minister Tony McNulty said: "Any form of crime motivated by prejudice or hate is unacceptable. "People who commit homophobic crime need to know their prejudices and actions will be tackled." He added: "We know that hate crime can get worse if it goes unchallenged. That is why gay people need to feel they can come forward to the police."

The report also contained an endorsement from Lancashire Assistant Chief Constable Michaal Cunningham, who said: "The implementation of this guidance will assist in bringing offenders to justice and making individuals and communities feel safer." Last week Mr Cunningham's force paid 50,000 pounds in legal costs and damages to an elderly couple, Joe and Helen Roberts, who were questioned in their home by two of its officers after they complained to the local councils about its gay rights policies and asked for a right of reply for their traditional Christian beliefs. Lancashire police have brought in guidance warning officers to avoid being influenced by political groups because of the case.

Colin Hart of the Christian Institute think tank that backed the Roberts said yesterday: "There is an element of desperation about this advice. "No-one wants to see any kind of bullying in schools. But this is not about bullying of pupils who others think are homosexual. It is about punishing schools unless they try to stop pupils using "gay" as a perjorative word."

Gay lobby groups are deeply upset about the use of "homophobic" language in schools, partly because of the common use by teenagers of the word 'gay' as an insult regardless of the perceived sexual orientation of the individual they are insulting. The Home Office guidance also said that gay lobby groups could set up "third party reporting centres" to pass to police details of "homophobic" incidents which gay individuals themselves have been too scared to report to police. Police should then record the names and details of individuals passed on by gay lobby groups, it said.



If someone owed me millions, I would know all about it all the time

The government has been forced to release official accounts showing that in its rush to sign up city academy [charter school] sponsors it may have failed to collect millions of pounds pledged by wealthy businessmen. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has released figures showing that it has received only 32 million pounds of the 74m pledged to build academies that have already opened. Ministers said that for seven academies they "did not know" how much money had been paid by sponsors. It is not clear whether the money has not been paid, is not formally due, or whether the figures reflect lax accounting at the DfES.

The disclosure, made in a written parliamentary answer on the day Tony Blair was interviewed by detectives investigating the cash-for-peerages scandal, comes amid increasing concern over the city academy programme. Blair is desperate to sign up hundreds of sponsors before he steps down in the new year amid fears that Brown may halt the scheme. The premier has lauded and honoured businessmen backing academies. City academies are controlled by wealthy men or companies who have pledged 1.5m to 2m. The money is supposed to pay for the construction of the buildings.

However, the new figures show that for the 45 academies already open, the government can account for the full sponsorship pledged from only five donors. Teaching unions and other critics were led to believe that the sponsorship would be paid before any academy opened. The biggest shortfall in the DfES figures appears in the payments pledged by United Learning Trust (ULT), a Christian charity that has Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, on its board. The ULT has pledged 14.6m for the academies, but the government said it could account for only 2,979,000 received. The government has paid more than 120m towards the capital costs of building ULT academies.

In some cases, the DfES figures appear to be out of date. Lord Harris is recorded as having paid 1,157,000 of the 4.5m he pledged for four academies. However, yesterday he detailed how he had given all the money due so far. Last week ARK, the charitable group headed by Arpad Busson, the financier, which has opened one academy, also insisted it was up to date with its pledges, raising questions over the internal accounting system of the DfES.

The DfES figures also show that Barry Townsley, the stockbroker who secretly loaned Labour 1m before being nominated for a peerage, has handed over only 896,000 of his 2m. He said recently that he was up to date with his payments. Peter Shalson, another Labour donor, is said to have handed over only 989,000 of his 1,490,000. He could not be reached for comment.

Paul Holmes, a Liberal Democrat on the Education Select Committee, described the figures as outrageous. He said: "Nobody - either politician or DfES official - has ever been able to give clear figures on the finances of the academies. There's also a question over what is being handed over `in kind'." Under the system, each donor forms a trust that oversees the construction and running of the new school. The DfES then hands over tens of millions of pounds and the private sponsor provides their share of the money. The development plans are jointly agreed and regular accounts and invoices are submitted to the DfES.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, called for urgent action. She said: "The government does not know whether sponsors are actually giving the money to the academies. ULT has had 120m of public money and yet parents can't tell whether their schools have had any sponsorship."

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