Wednesday, January 10, 2007


A warning to all about the Greenie enthusiasm for buses and trains. Even semi-privatization has not helped

I always swore not to write one of these grumpy holiday-return pieces. I am aware that plenty of my fellow citizens don't even get a week's respite from slum-Britannia, and to them I apologise. But this sense of reduced citizenship is not confined to travellers, so maybe it is worth recording what the sharpened senses perceive.

The most striking thing, obviously, is public transport. Under a Government that repeatedly nags us to get out of our cars, and that has failed to reverse its predecessor's disastrous privatisation, too much train travel is physically and psychologically nasty. Mainline fares have just risen by between 4.3 per cent and 7 per cent. Last year's rises were between 3.7 and 8.8 per cent. In return we get squalor (often) and insult (occasionally). After being wafted serenely 500 miles across Europe on fast, clean trains with smiling staff, our party crossed to Liverpool Street on a busy Saturday to find only one train an hour on the main line towards Ipswich and Norwich. Inconsiderately "scheduled" engineering works meant that at Colchester it was replaced by a bus.

The train, slow and grubby and without a ticket inspector to keep order, was packed with snoring lads belching and resting their feet on seats, their beer-cans rolling and leaking across the floor while quieter travellers resignedly tried to keep their children's feet out of the mess, or sat on their baggage by the door. At Colchester there were buses, but only one with a luggage hold; we did all right but my brother's family were ordered to put their heavy bags in one bus, then unload them all again because there were no seats, then switch to an ancient double-decker where cases were piled in the aisle, blocking any escape route. Which was a shame, since the vehicle then began leaking exhaust fumes into its lower deck as it bucketed down the A12, causing passengers to cough and gasp and one, recovering from a chest infection, to feel seriously ill. Through the fumes of carbon monoxide loomed a large sign announcing a fine of 1,000 pounds for smoking.

This tone of reprimand mingled with disregard, all too familiar to anyone who deals with British institutions, was continued when they stumbled out and reported the safety problems to the "duty supervisor". She snapped that it was nothing to do with her because the buses were subcontracted. The idea that her company had charged a full railway-comfort fare and provided a journey on a poisonous cramped bus seemed not to occur to her. Minutes later, coughing and struggling to load their car on an empty forecourt, they were accosted by the same official and vengefully told to move on.

Well, sometimes things go better. But that combination of official self-righteousness with contempt for the client-citizen is too familiar. Think of local authority decisions to collect the filthiest garbage only once a fortnight even in high summer, and soon charge by weight. Think what happens when you try to reduce that weight by telling the Royal Mail not to deliver sackfuls of unaddressed circulars: you get a threatening message telling you that if you opt out of double-glazing flyers you will miss "leaflets from Central and Local Government and other public bodies" because they refuse to separate these. So you won't know when your dustbin or surgery day changes.

And it'll be your fault. Everything is always your fault, in Britain. Never mind that your water company paid its directors huge bonuses rather than fix its pipes: the shortage is your fault for having baths. The theory behind Thatcherite privatisations was, I vaguely remember, that we would get better service if we were customers not sharers; in some cases it worked (it took the old GPO weeks to install a phone, and BT speeded things up). But in many cases - railways, airports, car parks, water, power, PFIs that overspend and put our children in hock for decades, NHS and Whitehall consultancies - the arrogance of state monopoly simply blends with the greediness of commerce to produce a hideous all-British hybrid in which the key principle is worship of its own systems and contempt for the public. John Major dimly saw this when he set up citizen's charters and cones hotlines; but the momentum was already too great.



The government's desire to extend the polluter pays principle to every sector of the economy took a bizarre new twist yesterday as UK farmers were urged to stop their flatulent livestock releasing methane into the atmosphere.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, environment secretary David Miliband warned that agriculture contributes seven percent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and a third of its methane - one of the most damaging climate change gases. As a result, he said, the polluter pays principle would soon be applied to farming in the way it is already being introduced to other industries. "That means greenhouse gases generated in producing food or in food miles carrying a price need to be recognised in the same way as greenhouse gases generated in other industries," he explained.

And in a veiled warning that legislation was on the agenda he confirmed the government "will look closely at how incentives within the food, energy and land markets can reflect environmental impact more closely".

While it is unlikely that this will result in a "fart-tax" with civil servants chasing cows round with breathalyzer style methane measurers, Miliband did argue that farmers should act to reduce methane emissions by feeding cattle different food, breeding them to live longer, altering the handling of manure and getting farms to generate "biogas" or "biofertiliser" from animal waste.

Extending the polluter pays principle to farming would likely lead to higher food prices, but Miliband insisted that climate change could provide an opportunity for farmers, as it has done in other sectors.


All the young prudes

Sanctimonious, censorious, snobbish and anti-progress: why has radical youth protest gone off the rails? A comment from Britain

There was a time when youth (or "yoof", in patronising Janet Street-Porter speak) were considered the most free-thinking and radical section of society. With their penchant for kicking against the pricks - their parents, the authorities, and other assorted guardians of received wisdom and outdated morality - young activists developed a reputation for being mad, bad and at least a little bit dangerous. Not any more. Today's "radical" youth protesters are deeply conservative and censorious, wishing to hold society back, shut down debate and keep the uppity oiks in their place. In 2007, beware these young authoritarians, who make even our miserabilist leaders look positively progressive by comparison.

It is reported that the Evangelical Christian Union at Exeter University is taking legal action after being suspended from the student guild and banned from using student facilities. Why was it outlawed? Because the guild decided in its infinite wisdom that the Christian Union was intolerant (of gay people, for example) and thus cannot be tolerated - deeply ironic, I know. It's yet another student-led attack on freedom of speech, assembly and belief, which are becoming all too frequent on petty censorious campuses across the UK - which these days seem more influenced by Mary Whitehouse and her blue-rinsed followers than Che Guevara or any of the other beret-wearing icons of old.

Sanctimonious intolerance of "offensive" viewpoints is rampant among British student officials. Student unions frequently respond to controversy and offensiveness by reaching for the blue felt tip pen. In recent years the Sussex University students' union banned the Daily Mail for being "bigoted" (again with the irony), leading one Sussex student to complain that the union was "treating us like babies and it's offensive". The union at Sheffield University famously, or infamously, banned the playing of Eminem records at student dos because the rapper's use of words such as "fags" breaks the union's anti-homophobia policies. At the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London, the union has banned Israeli embassy representatives from speaking because part of its union policy states that Zionism is racism, and racists should "not be given a platform". University is where boys become men and girls become women, free to think and act for themselves; yet unions insist on mollycoddling them like big overgrown babies in order to protect them from anything deemed remotely offensive.

Far from being a site of free thinking and free exchange of ideas, the university campus has become a laboratory for new forms of censorship and conformism. Indeed, student censoriousness sometimes leaks out into society at large. The government's religious hatred legislation - a serious and flagrant attack on the hard-won democratic right of our secular society to criticise and ridicule superstitious nonsense - can be seen as the logical consequence of a decade or more of student experimentation with censorship of words or images that cause "cultural offence" to certain groups. There's a similar trend in America, where free speech activist Wendy Kaminer has written of "the distressing number of young authoritarians" on US campuses. "Self-righteous intolerance of dissent remains distressingly common among supposedly progressive students on liberal campuses," says Kaminer, and the same is true here.

Outside of these clampdown-campuses, "young radicals" front campaigns that are more concerned with turning back the clock than pushing society forward and realising humanity's potential. One of today's most celebrated youthful campaign groups is Plane Stupid (you said it) which campaigns to "ground the plane". It wants big fat taxes to make flying more expensive; that is, less affordable for the mass of the population who only waste their time going on garish and drunken holidays to Spain and eastern Europe anyway. The erstwhile leader of Plane Stupid, Joss Garman, a 21-year-old student at censorious SOAS, says: "Our ability to live on the earth is at stake, and for what? So people can have a stag do in Prague."

Oh, that's right, global warming is being single-handedly caused by people like my brother, who recently spent three days and nights living it up on cheap beer (via a cheap flight) on a stag night in Prague. Never mind the fact that a recent study by The Economist found that aviation's contribution "to total man-made emissions worldwide is around 3%"; and that even in the world of transportation flying isn't the biggest carbon polluter (in America, for example, all forms of transportation contribute 27.4% of emissions; flying on its own causes 3.2% of emissions). No, these brave radical protesters would far rather target those cheap people who take cheap flights to cheap destinations that satisfy their cheap desires, rather than grapple with real questions about how we can satisfy people's needs and desires while also making the world a pleasant place to live in.

Flying is one of the most miraculous inventions of the past hundred years: it has broadened humanity's horizons and allowed us to explore the world and meet and get to know all sorts of peoples and cultures. Today's youth protesters want to put a stop to all that, and they even throw some anti-masses snobbery into the political pot for good measure. Nice.

Other youthful protesters demonise and protest against mass electricity production, another marvel of the modern age that has helped to make life more comfortable and enjoyable for vast swathes of humanity. Last year's demos against the Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire were led by what one contributor to my website spiked labelled "radicals for austerity": people who want to switch off the lights and go back to simpler times (a political demand that is "simple" in both senses of the word).

Some radical youngsters throw their weight into protesting for animal rights and against vivisection, which is one of the most anti-humanist streaks in contemporary politics. Their radical animalism elevates the interests of monkeys over men, and depicts humans - especially of the science-studying variety - as wicked and evil. Animal rights activism sums up everything that is wrong with radical protest today, where youthful activists actively campaign against humans and human interests rather than in defence of progress and equality for people everywhere.

Of course, it isn't entirely the yoofs' fault: they have grown up in a society that seems increasingly illiberal and pessimistic, and perhaps unsurprisingly that is reflected in their (anti) political campaigning. And I remain optimistic about the new generation: hundreds of young people protested in Oxford to defend the building of an animal experimentation lab, and lots of ordinary students continue to react against patronising student union bans.

Tens of thousands of young people continue to explore the world (even if it is just Prague) in the face of ridicule from their better-off counterparts from leafier suburbs. In 2007, we should support such youthful expressions of ambition, experimentation and open-mindedness. Today, young people who want to kick against the pricks would do well to start by challenging the student censors and "plain stupid" anti-progressives who are all around them.


British government minister who sent child to private school 'has let down Labour Party'

(It offends against their "all kids are equal" kneejerk)

A Cabinet minister is facing pressure to justify the decision to place a child in a private boarding school for pupils with special needs after rejecting state provision as inadequate. The decision was attacked by several Labour MPs as wrong. One left-wing MP called it a betrayal of the party’s principles.

The Mail on Sunday reported that the minister withdrew the child from a state school, choosing instead a preparatory school for children with learning difficulties which has annual fees of £15,000, saying that local state provision was inappropriate. The newspaper withheld the minister’s name on the ground that this would identify the child, but said that he or she had been “closely involved with Tony Blair’s education policy”.

Ian Gibson, the Labour MP for Norwich North, said: “I am fascinated to know who it is because there have been examples of this in the past and it has caused anger among Labour backbenchers. “I think it’s wrong. You should set an example as a minister and support your local school. It is a slap in the face for the teachers and the pupils in the school that the child has been taken out of.”

His words were echoed by Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley, who said: “MPs should try to get state provision for their children because that is what we believe in.” Lynne Jones, the MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, said: “I think it goes against the principles of the Labour Party. It makes me wonder about the sort of people who achieve high office who are in New Labour.” Margaret Hodge, a Trade and Industry minister, said that politicians’ children should be kept out of the spotlight, but admitted: “Given our commitment to state education, it is an issue of public interest.”

Neither the child’s former school nor the new one was identified. Nor was the local authority named, but more details emerged when The Sunday Times reported that the minister had spent time “working in the education team” in the Government and gave details of the child’s condition.

The school in question, where pupils board weekly or termly, is in a country house in the Home Counties. It has 60 pupils aged 7 to 13 and offers extensive grounds, a heated swimming pool, tennis courts, golf and horse-riding. Its main purpose is to help children with the child’s condition to pass exams for top public schools. Its pupils have gone on to Winchester, Harrow, Rugby and Gordonstoun in recent years.

One of the minister’s officials refused to comment when approached by The Times. The minister is understood to have sought the help of the Press Complaints Commission, the industry’s voluntary regulator, to block publication of all details that might identify him or her. The commission’s code of practice states that young people should be free to complete time at school without unnecessary intrusion and editors must not use the position of a parent as sole justification for publishing details of a child’s private life. Human rights legislation also gives a right to privacy.

The case has the potential to embarrass the Government by highlighting how a minister who has been involved in education policy is dissatisfied with the special needs provision in their area. The Government has faced criticism for closing special schools while seeking to cater for special needs children in mainstream schools under its policy of inclusion.

The Department for Education and Skills refused to discuss the case but defended its record on provision for children with special needs. It said: “We are increasing spending on pupils with special educational needs so that the quality of education available to them is improved. This year we will spend more than £4 billion on SEN, an increase of more than £1 billion in only three years.

“This is being made available both to special schools and to mainstream schools in order to improve their support for pupils with specific learning difficulties. Our policy is clear that every child with special educational needs must get a high-quality education which meets their individual needs.”


The minister replies:

Ruth Kelly launched an emotional defence yesterday of her decision to send her son to a 15,000 pounds-a-year private school, saying that he had "substantial learning difficulties" and she wanted to do the right thing for him. "Bringing up children in the public eye is never easy," she added.

Having failed in her attempt to keep her move secret in the interests of her child, the former Education Secretary said that she had removed her son from a state school after professional advice recommended that he be placed in a school "able to meet his particular needs". Ms Kelly emphasised that her three other children were in the state system, that she intended her son to return to the state secondary sector, and that none of the cost of the private schooling would fall to the taxpayer.

With Ms Kelly facing charges of hypocrisy for choosing to opt out of the state sector, her friends insisted that her son was facing more than one serious learning difficulty - it is thought dyspraxia as well as dyslexia - and that the state schools in her area could not meet his needs.

But one Labour MP called on Ms Kelly to stand down from her current job as Communities Secretary and others strongly criticised her decision. She has chosen to send her son to a school based at a country house which offers 60 pupils aged up to 13 the use of a swimming pool, tennis courts and a music room. The school refused to comment yesterday.

Labour was criticised while Ms Kelly was Education Secretary for closing schools that cater for children with learning difficulties. Some 138 have shut in the past ten years. The Government's "inclusion" policy suggests that children with special needs should be taught in ordinary schools alongside their peers where possible.

Ms Kelly said: "I appreciate that some will disagree with my decision. I understand why, but we all face difficult choices as parents and I, like any mother, want to do the right thing for my son - that has been my sole motivation."

Dyspraxia is a learning difficulty that makes it difficult for people to co-ordinate their movements and to process information. It can affect speech and the fine movements that children need to hold a pencil and write, and often accompanies other conditions, such as dyslexia.

Ms Kelly received backing from Downing Street and the Conservatives. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said that Tony Blair did not believe being a minister barred a parent from sending his or her children to schools outside the state system.

David Cameron also defended Ms Kelly's right to choose, saying that he did not think she was being hypocritical. "Some people are going to say it's hypocrisy. Well, if they were going to abolish private education, then it would be hypocrisy, but they're not. He added: "People should recognise that politicians, like everyone else, are parents first and will act in the best interests of their children."

A spokesman for Tower Hamlets Council, the local authority involved, said that it had been rated highly by Ofsted and the Commission for Social Care Inspection. "We have a strong track record in helping children with a wide range of learning needs to succeed. We are confident that our schools are well resourced and provide high-quality education for all learners, including those with special needs."

Ken Purchase, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East, called for Ms Kelly to resign. "It's extremely disappointing that a person who was in charge of our schools clearly shows no commitment to state education." But Ian Austin, Labour MP for Dudley North, said: "I think Ruth's child ought to be able to get on with his or her education without being subjected to this sort of scrutiny."



An elderly stroke victim begged for a beetroot sandwich and macaroni cheese in hospital but no attempt was made to feed her, an inquest was told yesterday. Olive Nockels, 91, a former school matron, died after surviving for nearly a month on a subcutaneous drip that delivered only a quarter of the calorie intake specified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a short-term starvation diet. Even that was stopped for four days when the hospital claimed that she was suffering from excess fluid.

Relatives told the inquest that doctors and the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital had no interest in treating Mrs Nockels after she was admitted in September 2003. Her grandson, Christopher West, told William Armstrong, the Coroner, at the inquest in Norwich: "The only thing that was said most of the time, as the weeks went on, was that she hadn't died yet. "Immediately after her admission it became clear it was their intention not to treat her."

Mr West, 34, obtained a High Court ex parte injunction on October 6, 2003, forcing doctors to reinstate artificial nutrition and hydration, but the next day Mr Justice Forbes varied the order on an application by David Maisey, a consultant. In the amended version, nutrition and hydration were to be reinstated only "as far as medically possible".

Mrs Nockels died on October 10, 2003 - three days after the amendments were made. Mr West said that doctors told him that the quality of life of his grandmother would be so poor that "it would be in her best interests not to intervene and let her die". He said: "You don't just let someone die because you think it's best for them. It's inhuman. I would class it as starvation, actually."

Mrs Nockels's daughter, Ivy West, told the coroner that her mother's hearing aid and dentures had been removed - for reasons given to her as comfort and safety. She denied that her mother, from Holt, Norfolk, was incapable of responding when she visited. "I talked to her every day," she said. "She would tell me she was cold and that she wanted something to eat. She told me she wanted a beetroot sandwich and some macaroni cheese. She could make decisions for herself."

Michael Heath, a consultant pathologist who carried out a post-mortem examination, gave the cause of death as a stroke. Questioned by James Dingemans, QC, counsel for Mrs West, he agreed that the lack of fluids was also a possible cause of death. Brian Payne, a retired consultant geriatrician, said that he had been asked by Dr Maisey to give a second opinion, and examined Mrs Nockels on September 30, 2003. He said that she gave no response to questions that he asked about her having a stomach feeding tube fitted, nor to whether she wished or was ready to die. He felt that it was "highly probable" that she would die.

Between September 14 and September 30, Mrs Nockels had received a daily intake of 140 calories from a subcutaneous infusion consisting of five per cent dextrose - a quarter of the 600 calories adequate for short-term starvation according to the WHO. From October 2 to 6 all artificial hydration of fluids was withdrawn. The hospital says that it twice sought to give Mrs Nockels a nasal gastro tube but this had been impossible to insert.

Dr Payne was asked by Mr Dingemans: "If someone says, `I would like a beetroot sandwich', does it help you decide on whether they need nutrition?" Dr Payne replied: "It probably means they are hungry." If a patient has lost the swallowing reflex as the result of a stroke he or she is in danger of aspirating, and so at risk of pneumonia, he said.


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