Tuesday, March 20, 2007


An amused email below from S. Fred Singer [singer@sepp.org] to Benny Peiser

I have just looked at The Guardian's Climate Summit to be held in London on June 11. What an assembly of Britain's finest! What a wonderful choir - with no dissonant voices to mar the harmony. No climate scientists, of course. After all, isn't the science all settled? But not even a critical observer, like Dr Philip Stott or Melanie Phillips. Only one problem: The lead sponsor of this remarkable celebration is a major oil company. I don't know if one can trust such an assembly if the funds come from Big Oil. Surely, we all realize that such money is tainted. I pray The Guardian will have the good sense to refuse to be bought, to become a lackey to an industry that thrives on bloated profits, etc, etc. Now where did we read this just recently?

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.

Admittedly there are some who believe that mixed wards are not a problem, but our prime minister is not one. "Is it really beyond the collective wits of the government and health administrators to deal with the problem?" he demanded in 1996, flying high on vectors of dizzying youthful indignation as leader of the opposition. "It's not just a question of money," he went on. "It's a question of political will." Well, he said it and he promised to end mixed-sex wards by 2002.

What we have come to expect of new Labour promises, following failure, changing the goalposts, more failure and exposure, is denial. Sure enough Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, was sent onto the Today programme in denial mode last week. Although the Healthcare Commission watchdog found that on average 22% of patients have to stay in mixed-sex wards, rising to 60% in some hospitals, Hewitt's officials at the Department of Health say the government has achieved its target of abolishing mixed-sex wards, with 99% of trusts providing single-sex accommodation. It is not difficult to spot the problem with that claim. It is not the same as saying 99% of patients get single-sex accommodation; it may be "provided" for very few. There has been the usual goalpost shifting: hospitals can claim they are providing single-sex accommodation by putting screens between beds in mixed-sex wards. Brilliant.

Hewitt admits there was a problem of perception; she even admitted that there was a "clear gap" between patients' experiences and figures provided by hospital trusts to the Department of Health. One does tend to have a problem of perception, I find, if one is being misled.

My feeling is that mixed-sex wards are not the worst of NHS hospitals' problems, although they demonstrate them. They demonstrate the incompetence and deviousness of hospital management in general, and they also show something worse. In all the stories I've come across what stands out is the ignorance, incompetence, laziness and heartlessness of all too many nurses, who are allowed to neglect and insult their patients without supervision and without sanction - in single-sex wards just as much as mixed. Blair did not just promise to abolish mixed-sex wards, he also promised to save the entire NHS. He believes in divine judgment; I wonder how he will answer.


Cannabis: An apology from "The Independent"

In 1997, this newspaper launched a campaign to decriminalise the drug. If only we had known then what we can reveal today... Record numbers of teenagers are requiring drug treatment as a result of smoking skunk, the highly potent cannabis strain that is 25 times stronger than resin sold a decade ago.

More than 22,000 people were treated last year for cannabis addiction - and almost half of those affected were under 18. With doctors and drugs experts warning that skunk can be as damaging as cocaine and heroin, leading to mental health problems and psychosis for thousands of teenagers, The Independent on Sunday has today reversed its landmark campaign for cannabis use to be decriminalised.

A decade after this newspaper's stance culminated in a 16,000-strong pro-cannabis march to London's Hyde Park - and was credited with forcing the Government to downgrade the legal status of cannabis to class C - an IoS editorial states that there is growing proof that skunk causes mental illness and psychosis. The decision comes as statistics from the NHS National Treatment Agency show that the number of young people in treatment almost doubled from about 5,000 in 2005 to 9,600 in 2006, and that 13,000 adults also needed treatment.

The skunk smoked by the majority of young Britons bears no relation to traditional cannabis resin - with a 25-fold increase in the amount of the main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabidinol (THC), typically found in the early 1990s. New research being published in this week's Lancet will show how cannabis is more dangerous than LSD and ecstasy. Experts analysed 20 substances for addictiveness, social harm and physical damage. The results will increase the pressure on the Government to have a full debate on drugs, and a new independent UK drug policy commission being launched next month will call for a rethink on the issue.

The findings last night reignited the debate about cannabis use, with a growing number of specialists saying that the drug bears no relation to the substance most law-makers would recognise. Professor Colin Blakemore, chief of the Medical Research Council, who backed our original campaign for cannabis to be decriminalised, has also changed his mind. He said: "The link between cannabis and psychosis is quite clear now; it wasn't 10 years ago."

Many medical specialists agree that the debate has changed. Robin Murray, professor of psychiatry at London's Institute of Psychiatry, estimates that at least 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the UK could have avoided the illness if they had not used cannabis. "The number of people taking cannabis may not be rising, but what people are taking is much more powerful, so there is a question of whether a few years on we may see more people getting ill as a consequence of that."

"Society has seriously underestimated how dangerous cannabis really is," said Professor Neil McKeganey, from Glasgow University's Centre for Drug Misuse Research. "We could well see over the next 10 years increasing numbers of young people in serious difficulties."

Politicians have also hardened their stance. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has changed his mind over the classification of cannabis, after backing successful calls to downgrade the drug from B to C in 2002. He abandoned that position last year, before the IoS revealed that he had smoked cannabis as a teenager, and now wants the drug's original classification to be restored.


Homosexual Fairy Tales Anger Christians/Muslims In UK

Parents in Britain are angered over the nationwide plan to teach children as young as four about homosexuality through fairy tales and children's books. The plan, "No Outsiders" is being backed by the Department of Education and is designed to help schools adjust to a new law mandating the affirming of homosexual conduct in Britain's schools. The law goes into effect later this year.

One school is already using the fairytale, "King & King" to tell the story of a prince who rejects three princesses before falling in love and marrying another prince. A school in London is having children ages 4 to 11 rehearsing for a performance of an opera called "The Sissy Duckling," about a duckling who loves cooking, cleaning and art.

Stephen Green, director of the British group Christian Voice, is angered by the new program. "This is tantamount to child abuse. The whole project is nothing more than propaganda aimed at primary school children to make them sympathetic to homosexuality." Green also noted that the program could expose children to sexual predators by making them think "that two boys fiddling with each other ... is perfectly normal. "Parents should be able to have the peace of mind of knowing that school is a safe place. And to have their children indoctrinated with pro-homosexual propaganda is an abuse of the trust parent place in schools," said Green.

Tahir Alam, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain also expressed concern about the teachings. "Why are we introducing these ideas to such young children. A lot of parent will be very concerned about the exposure of their children to such books, which are contrary to their religious beliefs and values."



Mercer was sacked 10 days ago as his party's homeland security spokesman, after having given an interview to a Times Online journalist about life in the army, an institution in which he served for half of his 50 years, before he became an MP in 2001. During this ill-fated and deeply regretted conversation, Mercer announced that it was not unheard of for ethnic minority soldiers to be called such things as "black bastard" - just as obese squaddies would occasionally be referred to as "fat bastards". Mercer said both insults were equally tantamount to bullying and quite unacceptable. He also said he'd come across plenty of black soldiers who had howled "racial prejudice" when upbraided for their indolence or uselessness.

All of this stuff was, when published, deemed either "offensive" or "racist" or both by his party bosses, despite, when you read the quotes in context, it is plainly neither. Anyway, he insists the interview was off the record and he harbours a fair amount of bitterness towards the journalist (hitherto a family friend) who none-theless gleefully wrote the whole thing up.

Within hours he had been sacked by David Cameron without being given much of a chance to explain his side of things. At the time, he said he agreed with the decision to sack him. Time, though, has perhaps ever so slightly altered this perspective....

It is not inconceivable that he could one day cross the floor of the house - though, despite his present rancour, I wouldn't bet on it. What he is most definitely not, though, is metropolitan. Not being properly metropolitan effectively got him sacked. "Politicians have got to understand that people outside of London view the world differently from those who live in the capital. They think very different things. And you need the votes of the people outside London to win a general election. It is a different world out there."

In his constituency of Newark, in rural Nottinghamshire, he says he has been "astonished" and "overwhelmed" by the support he has received in the wake of his abrupt defenestration. The local party, I'm told from elsewhere, has taken down the photographs of David Cameron from its walls. The e-mails have poured in - some 2,500, according to Mercer. "And were any of them critical of what you said?" I ask. "Yes. Seven of them. Actually six, because one chap e-mailed me again to apologise and retract his criticism." Do you think that what you said was wrong? "No, God no, not wrong. But I phrased it clumsily, I think." You would stand by your assertion that calling someone a black bastard and a fat bastard are just about equal in their manifest unpleasantness? "Yes, of course. They're both bullying, they're both hurtful. No real difference."

Mercer is certainly not a racist; his record, as a colonel in the Sherwood Foresters, was of incessant and successful recruitment within the area's black and Asian community. At one point, all five of his company sergeant-majors - recruited and promoted by Mercer - were black. Leroy Hutchinson, who served as a corporal under Mercer, said: "He never tolerated racism. Not a single one of his men would consider him a racist."

So, it is not racism that has done for Patrick Mercer's career. It is something altogether more damaging and corrosive to modern politics: candour. This is not the first time that he has been frustrated to the point of exasperation by punishment being meted out to people who speak what they believe to be the truth, in an unvarnished manner. "It's one thing I learnt from being in the army. You speak clearly and unambiguously, directly and without obfuscation. Then people understand what you mean. In politics, the reverse is true. The whole point is to obfuscate and prevaricate, to get up on your hind legs instead of stating clearly what you mean and proceeding to act." It is now that he becomes animated, talking about the thing that truly concerns him - indeed, scares the hell out of him.

"Take security in London. Nearly two years since 7/7 and not a thing, not a single thing has been done to improve our security on the Tube. Not a thing! We are exactly where we were two years ago. And then, the other day, I received an enormous document on my desk - paid for by the taxpayer, commissioned by the government - entitled The Definition of Terrorism. A great long semantic work explaining exactly what terrorism is . . ." He throws his hands up in exasperation. "I mean, I'm sure it has its place. Somewhere. But it's not the point. People will be killed. And we are mulling over the philosophy of what constitutes terrorism."

He is loyal to the army, too, describing the recent court martial (and acquittal) of six soldiers accused of allowing Iraqi detainees to be abused as a "political show trial". But his experience of internment in Northern Ireland (where he worked in plain clothes) makes him ill-disposed towards the government's wish to detain terrorism suspects for longer than 28 days without trial.

He is as candid about his misjudgments as he is about those policies where he feels he has been proven right (or, worse, is about to be proven horribly right). For example, he was one of the Conservative party's most stoical supporters of the invasion of Iraq. Got that badly wrong, didn't you, mate? "Yes, yes, yes," he says, head in hands. "Badly wrong. I should have listened to Hans Blix [the UN weapons inspector] when he begged me and other members of the select committee to give him just six months more. We should have done that, no doubt about it." He insists, however, that he believed Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

It is all too easy to consign Patrick Mercer to a box marked gung-ho backwoodsman (something that I suspect his leader has already done). But it is to miss the essential point, which is that Mercer is a plain-spoken maverick within a community of politicians where such qualities are punished rather than rewarded. For a man brought up within the rigid discipline of the armed forces he is refreshingly unconventional.

In 2000 he gave up his military career and asked me for a job on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (where I was editor) - a brave and frankly ludicrous decision by someone who had never trained as a journalist (and a pretty ludicrous appointment on my part, too). But it worked; he was brilliant. He was a natural journalist, concise and sharp and possessed of a greater knowledge of military matters than all the other BBC defence correspondents put together. He was regarded with intense suspicion by the largely liberal-tinted producers on Today - but he won them over. Using his military intelligence, he broke a string of important stories and risked his neck from beyond the front line in Kosovo.

His interviews with the programme presenters became the stuff of legend, for their clipped and wry observations. Are depleted uranium shells dangerous, Patrick? "Spoil your day," he replied. But beneath this parody of the stereotypical army officer was a deep understanding of geopolitical forces and a gentle Conservative sensibility.

What will he do now, I ask? His options are many and varied. He could keep his head down and hope for political rehabilitation in a couple of years, although if I were Patrick, I wouldn't hold my breath too long. He seems to be inimical to the current vision of Conservatism, though I cannot think of any better-equipped politician to preserve our domestic security. Or he could coalesce around him like-minded Tories, the legions of disaffected nonmetropolitans, and bide his time, waiting for the climate to change and occasionally firing heavy ordnance in the direction of his leader.

What does Conservatism mean to you, Patrick? "Freedom of speech!" He announces, the eyes glinting. Ah yes, that. And what else? "Trusting in the individual to make the best of himself." Anything else? "Having principle." Oh dear me, principle. This is all terribly old-fashioned stuff, don't you think? So is David Cameron a man of principle, I ask him?

"He is the leader," says Mercer. Yes, I know he's the leader. I asked you if he had principle. "He is the leader," he repeats. Yes, I persist, but does he have principle? He finishes his glass of water, smiles a little, narrows his eyes and, from the other side of the table, sticks two fingers up at me. "He is the leader," he says, with finality and stands to leave, which is when the pretty waitress, intrigued by something about this man, asks him what he does for a living. Disgraced Tory politician, love. But he'll be back.


Horsy schools are winners

It’s the morning break at Danesfield Church of England school, where the staff are engaged in a rather delicate discussion: which one of them is going to clean up the pile of freshly deposited horse manure on the playground?

Danesfield serves the Somerset town of Williton, in the middle of horsey country. Not red coat and 4x4 Mercedes horsey country but the sort of place where down-at-heel boxes — some apparently held together by bailer twine — are towed by elderly Land Rovers that wheeze up hills. The Quantocks are on one side, Exmoor and the Brendans are on the other.

No surprise then that some of the pupils here pack jodhpurs and hard hats into their kit bags. What might surprise you is that Danesfield is a state middle school where 25% of the pupils have special needs.

It’s one of a growing number of state schools that are taking an interest in riding, once seen as a rather upper crust occupation. The organisers of the schools championships at Hickstead in West Sussex say that nearly half the entries now come from state schools, competing alongside the likes of Millfield, also in Somerset, and Cheltenham Ladies’ college. At Danesfield they are particularly proud of their record as the only state school to win a local jumping competition, organised by Wellington school.

Riding is not only a test of athleticism and skill, but it teaches discipline: the horse is in the care of the rider. It can’t be thrown into a box like a cricket bat at the end of a poor innings: it needs feeding, brushing, and mucking out. Saddles and the rest of the tack need to be polished.

And all this discipline has had a marked effect on the special needs pupils of Danesfield. “What it’s really good for is the children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” says special needs co-ordinator Sian Moore. “Some of them come from very deprived backgrounds; they can be very aggressive. But learning to respect an animal, learning that an animal has feelings is very good for them.”

The school offers lunchtime riding lessons at a nearby stables, weekly lessons at the Conquest centre in Taunton, which specialises in teaching riders with learning difficulties.

For some, the prospect of riding lessons is much more attractive than maths, English and history. Parent Lorna Webber used to have difficulty getting her son Jake, 12, out of bed for school on a Monday. He has Asperger’s syndrome and found it difficult to concentrate on his work. Now he not only looks forward to riding on a Friday, but his new enthusiasm has had a knock-on effect with his other work. “He’s taken to it really well,” says Lorna. “He wakes up on Monday morning and says, ‘It’s horse riding on Friday’. “It’s really helped him with his other work because now he has something to look forward to at the end of the week. His concentration is better; he can get his head down and focus.”

The headmaster at Danesfield, Ian Bradbury, has been so struck by the impact of riding at his school that he’s considering expanding. “I’m thinking of putting in our own stables,” he says.

Even with a couple of stables, the school riding team will be a long way behind their independent rivals as far as facilities are concerned. Millfield, famed for its sport, is planning its own specialist polo unit to go with its polo field. It is also laying out its own cross country course. Millfield is just one of a number of schools that provides livery — accommodation for pupils who want to bring their own horses.

Stonar, an independent girls’ school near Bath, has stabling for 60 horses and offers riding scholarships. “Many girls choose to keep their own horses at school,” says the prospectus. “An ambitious young horsewoman can combine her studies with equestrian training, whether or not she has her own horse. Our most talented often go on to compete at national and international levels.” A team from Stonar won the national schools jumping championships last year at Hickstead.

But it’s not just the sport and the glory, it’s not just the discipline, it’s not even the boost it can give to pupils who are struggling with their academic work. There are hidden fringe benefits of riding lessons. As one Danesfield teacher told me: “We had a very promising rider here, who went on to work with horses. Thanks to that, she’s now living with a millionaire.”



Two leading UK climate researchers have criticised those among their peers who they say are "overplaying" the global warming message. Professors Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier, both Royal Meteorological Society figures, are voicing their concern at a conference in Oxford. They say some researchers make claims about possible future impacts that cannot be justified by the science. The pair believe this damages the credibility of all climate scientists. They think catastrophism and the "Hollywoodisation" of weather and climate only work to create confusion in the public mind. They argue for a more sober and reasoned explanation of the uncertainties about possible future changes in the Earth's climate.

As an example, they point to a recent statement from one of the foremost US science bodies - the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The association released a strongly worded statement at its last annual meeting in San Francisco in February which said: "As expected, intensification of droughts, heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and severe storms is occurring, with a mounting toll on vulnerable ecosystems and societies. "These events are early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible."

According to Professors Hardaker and Collier, this may well turn out to be true, but convincing evidence to back the claims has not yet emerged. "It's certainly a very strong statement," Professor Collier told BBC News. "I suspect it refers to evidence that hurricanes have increased as a result of global warming; but to make the blanket assumption that all extreme events are increasing is a bit too early yet."

A former president of the Royal Meteorological Society, Professor Collier is concerned that the serious message about the real risks posed by global warming could be undermined by making premature claims. "I think there is a good chance of that," he said. "We must guard against that - it would be very damaging. "I've no doubt that global warming is occurring, but we don't want to undermine that case by crying wolf."

This view is shared by Professor Hardaker, the society's chief executive. "Organisations have been guilty of overplaying the message," he says. "There's no evidence to show we're all due for very short-term devastating impacts as a result of global warming; so I think these statements can be dangerous where you mix in the science with unscientific assumptions."

The AAAS said it would not be commenting directly on the professors' remarks. "We feel that the recent consensus statement of the AAAS Board of Directors speaks for itself and stands on its own," a spokesperson explained. "The AAAS Board statement references (at the end), the scientific basis upon which the conclusions are based, including the joint National Academies' statement and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

Professor Hardaker also believes that overblown statements play into the hands of those who say that scientists are wrong on climate change - that global warming is a myth. "I think we do have to be careful as scientists not to overstate the case because it does damage the credibility of the many other things that we have greater certainty about," he said. "We have to stick to what the science is telling us; and I don't think making that sound more sensational, or more sexy, because it gets us more newspaper columns, is the right thing for us to be doing. "We have to let the science argument win out."


BBC "impartiality" at work: "At this year's conference, I was stopped by a BBC radio reporter who was soliciting opinions on the scandal involving Israel's president. "Should he resign?" asked the reporter. "I'm not sure," I replied. "I don't know the facts." "Nice to be able to sit on the fence," the BBC's seeker of truth responded. "Sorry," I added, "but in my country, someone is innocent until proven guilty." He was obviously disappointed by my wanting to examine the evidence before voicing an opinion. That's apparently not a requirement for the BBC in its coverage of accusations of Israelis' transgressions."

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