Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Insane Britain again: Grandmother who has brushed doorstep for 62 years told by council she could face court

Grandmother Betty Davies has swept the street clean outside her house for the past 62 years without so much as raising an eyebrow. The 88-year-old widow prides herself on keeping her front doorstep and pavement pristine. But after one of her daily tidy-ups, a council worker knocked on the door of her home in Splott, Cardiff, to warn her she could be taken to court. Mrs Davies was told she could be breaking litter laws and might be fined for brushing the leaves into the roadway.

Neighbours in the quiet terraced street immediately rushed to defend her and dubbed the warning "political correctness gone mad". The uproar forced council chiefs to climb down and assure residents they would not be fined for sweeping leaves into the road.

Mrs Davies, a retired school cook who has lived on her own since her husband Bryn died 20 years ago, was incredulous at how she had been treated. The grandmother of 13, who also has three great-grandchildren, said: "I was just doing what I've been doing for more than 60 years, keeping my front door neat and tidy. "I'm always afraid of people tripping over the pile up of leaves so I was sweeping them into the gutter in the road. "After I had spent a few minutes with my broom I had gone back into the house when there was a knock on the door. "It was a council worker in a fluorescent jacket who I had seen earlier clearing up on the other side of the street. "He said: 'Do you realise you could be fined for doing that'."

The pensionser said she had given the council worker a "piece of her mind" and told him "I've been doing that for 60-odd years, young man". She added: "I just couldn't believe it - it's the first time I've been given a telling-off for sweeping my front door clean. "I have always done it - it was the way my generation were brought up. "You would think they would spend their time chasing litterbugs and vandals rather than people who really care about their homes and the streets they live in."

The 88-year-old is regarded by her neighbours as one of the most houseproud women in Wilson Street, Splott, which is where singer Shirley Bassey grew up. Until just a couple of years ago she used to scrub the front doorstep and pavement on hands and knees but has had to give that up because of her age. Neighbour Sharon John, 32, said: "Betty is always jolly, very fit and healthy and gives a lot to the community. "To warn her about litter was completely uncalled for and council workers like this should just get a life."

Another neighbour, Mary Merchant, 59, said: "This is the same as children banned from playing hopscotch in the street - it's political correctness gone mad. "These street cleaners pick up pieces of rubbish with their ridiculous clippers instead of using proper brushes."

A Cardiff council spokesman said: "We apologise for the comments made to Mrs Davies. "We want to assure people we won't fine them for sweeping leaves onto the road from the front of their home."


Writer's speech 'too Christian' for carol service

The Royal Commonwealth Society is at the centre of an embarrassing row after it barred a well-known Roman Catholic commentator from attacking intolerance towards Christians at its annual carol service

Cristina Odone, the former deputy editor of the New Statesman, was to be one of the "celebrity readers" at the service in St Martin in the Fields church in central London next month, which is attended by diplomats and politicians.

But she has pulled out of the event, accusing the society of demonstrating exactly the kind of intolerance she had planned to criticise. "I am incandescent," she said. "I was told that the words I had written were not appropriate because the congregation would include people of little or no faith who presumably would be upset. Even more insultingly, I was asked instead to read a passage from Bertrand Russell, a militant atheist."

Ms Odone was invited three months ago to take part in the service alongside George Alagiah, the broadcaster, Gareth Thomas, the Government minister, and Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth Secretary General. As an experienced writer and broadcaster on religion, she was asked to write a short piece on the theme of "opportunities for all" that could be "political and controversial".

She developed the theme of secular intolerance towards believers of all faiths, from the British Airways worker suspended for wearing a cross to the Muslim schoolgirl banned from wearing the veil. "When it comes to expressing their faith, this country's believers have found that opportunities are blocked," Ms Odone wrote. "Whether it is the boss at work or the head at school, the local authority or the chattering classes, people of faith know that their worldview is under siege, and their allegiances under suspicion.

"To parade this allegiance by wearing a cross, a cap or a veil is red rag to the secularist bull. What little opportunity believers have to bear witness to their faith is being quashed. If you are black or gay or female, your plea for equal opportunity is met with respect, and your campaign is applauded by supporters. But not if you are a believer. In a culture increasingly hostile to God and his followers, expressions of faith have become taboo. The only opportunity we have is for silence."

Stuart Mole, the director-general of the society, an educational charity that promotes the Commonwealth and whose patron is the Queen, told her the script was not acceptable. He said it did not fit in with the overall theme of the readings, adding: "We also need to be mindful of the congregation, which will probably include quite a few drawn by the occasion and by the carols but who do not hold a deep (or even a shallow) faith."

Yesterday Ms Odone said: "I think there is a tremendous move to down play this country's Christian heritage, to silence, ridicule and marginalise religious belief. "They have shown precisely the kind of intolerance and disapproval of Christianity that I am talking about."

Mr Mole said he was "deeply sorry" Ms Odone felt unable to participate in the service but the tone of her script was too polemical for a "multi-faith" carol service. [Will the "carols" be restricted to Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer too?]


Lack of development: that's the real disaster

An Oxfam report suggests climate change has led to a quadrupling of weather-related disasters. It pays to interrogate such heated claims

Are we seeing the disastrous consequences of global warming already? That's the conclusion of a new report, Climate Alarm, by the British aid charity, Oxfam: `Climatic disasters are on the increase as the Earth warms up - in line with scientific observations and computer simulations that model future climate. 2007 has been a year of climatic crises, especially floods, often of an unprecedented nature. The total number of natural disasters has quadrupled in the last two decades - most of them floods, cyclones and storms.' (1)

It certainly sounds like it's been a bad year for bad weather. While much of the UK was under water during a particularly wet summer, the Oxfam report notes that Africa has suffered its worst floods for three decades, affecting 23 countries and nearly two million people. As of August, 248million people in Asia had been affected by flooding, followed by cyclone Sidr hitting Bangladesh in November, killing an estimated 3,000 people. Two category-five hurricanes hit Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, with four-fifths of the Mexican state of Tabasco under water at one point. Meanwhile, heatwaves and forest fires affected more than a million people in Greece and Eastern Europe, and severe drought also contributed to fires in Australia and California.

But it is the suggestion that there are now four times as many disasters per year as there were in the early 1980s that has grabbed the media's attention. Between 1980 and 2006, according to the Oxfam report, the number of floods and cyclones quadrupled from 60 to 240 a year, while the number of earthquakes remained approximately the same, at 20 per year. The report suggests that over the past two decades, the number of people annually affected by disasters has increased from an average of 174million to 254million. It notes that `small- and medium-scale disasters are occurring more frequently than the kind of large-scale disasters that hit the headlines', but, if these disasters occur close together in time or location, they can merge to produce a `mega disaster'.

Much of this seems to be down to definition. For example, the Oxfam figures are based on statistics from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) which seems to take a fairly promiscuous approach to `disasters'. An event qualifies as a `disaster' for the CRED statistics if one of the following applies: 10 or more people are killed; 100 or more are affected; there is a state of emergency declared; a call for international assistance is made. A `small- to medium- disaster' involves up to 50 deaths, affects up to 150,000 people, or causes $200million in economic losses.

What the Oxfam report fails to mention is the caution that the CRED itself places on historical trends in disaster statistics (2). There are good reasons to suggest that the statistics may largely reflect increased reporting of disasters rather than an increase in the occurrence of disasters. Firstly, improvements in telecommunications and the media mean we are more likely to hear about disasters. Secondly, there are more agencies dedicated to working in disaster zones. Thirdly, as insurance claims become more common, so insurance companies have become more and more likely to report and document disasters.....

There is another series of statistics on disasters, issued by the insurance company Swiss Re. Its annual reports on disasters have been available online for the past decade (3). From these, it is possible to get an alternative take on the number of flood, storm, fire, drought and extreme cold events, and the number of deaths-by-disaster over the past 10 years. If there was a strong upward trend, we would expect to see it here, too:

While over the course of the decade, the average number of disastrous events does appear to have gone up, it is nothing like the dramatic increase the Oxfam figures describe. Moreover, given increasing wealth and population, the chances of an event hitting an area with sufficient population, or causing enough economic damage, to qualify as a disaster may well have increased even if the weather itself hasn't changed much.

Perhaps more important than the issue of whether and why these events are occurring is the question: what impact are they having? One way their impact can be measured is through looking at death tolls. (This is not to suggest, however, that life is dandy for those left behind: disasters leave a legacy of economic disruption, which is often a severe blow, particularly in poor countries where survival is difficult at the best of times.) Death tolls seem to be extremely variable, but in the current century they don't seem to have changed greatly:

Deaths from earthquakes, on average, seem to outweigh deaths from weather-related events - even when the massive death toll from 2004, which includes the earthquake and tsunami in South Asia, is ignored. (Earthquake deaths averaged about 46,000 per year including 2004 and about 20,000 per year excluding 2004; deaths from weather-related disasters average at about 18,000 a year.) And the average annual death toll from all the natural disasters listed by Swiss Re over a 10-year period - even including the 2004 tsunami - is around 65,000 people. That is a terribly tragic loss of life. It would seem that the risk of dying in a noteworthy natural disaster is about 100,000-to-one for the world's six billion-plus people; more prosaic causes of death, including from easily curable diseases and a lack of clean water, have a far more devastating impact around the world.

What the Oxfam report really reveals is how climate change has become the only debate in town. The demand for development has been placed on the back burner, replaced by an overarching concern about carbon emissions. In fairness to Oxfam, the report makes quite clear that natural disasters have a disproportionate impact on the developing world, while emergency aid is extremely variable and tends to focus on high-profile disasters. The report makes some sensible proposals on improving the aid system and increasing the resilience of societies to sudden shocks.

Nonetheless, it seems the Oxfam report hit the headlines because it chimes with our doom-mongering times: that is, it seems to have dramatically overstated the number and impact of serious disasters in recent years. For example, there is a sharp contrast between the worst floods in living memory in the UK this year - which caused a handful of deaths and led to a depressing clearing-up operation - and floods that occur in the developing world, which cause many more deaths and societal dislocation that can last for months and even years. This disaster disparity demonstrates the need for rapid development in the infrastructure and wealth of developing nations.

Even relatively simple measures can make a huge difference, as the Oxfam report notes: `Bangladesh has made great strides in reducing the impact of the hazards that constantly assail it. In 1991 over 138,000 people perished in a cyclone. Subsequent cyclones - even the devastating cyclone that hit on 15 November [this year], the biggest since 1991 - have killed far fewer people, due to the existence of cyclone shelters and greater community-based preparedness including evacuation plans, early warnings and the mobilisation of volunteers. In the Bangladesh countryside, "raised villages" and flood shelters - artificial mounds the size of soccer pitches to which whole communities can retreat from floods - are fairly common sights. Mozambique too has got steadily better at implementing flood contingency plans, including providing essential services for displaced people (reducing recourse to international assistance).'

In Cuba, the report tells us, things have gone even further: `At the national level, Cuba's disaster legislation, public education on disasters, meteorological research, early warning system, effective communication system for emergencies, comprehensive emergency plan, and Civil Defence structure are important resources in avoiding disaster. At the local level, high levels of literacy, developed infrastructure in rural areas, and access to reliable healthcare are crucial for national efforts in disaster mitigation, preparation, and response.'

Instead of pandering to current obsessions about climate change, then, perhaps Oxfam and other aid agencies should make the argument that development, not carbon counting, is key to freeing people from the occasional tyranny of natural disasters. It is only through development that socities can make themselves resilient to extreme weather, and also raise their horizons to more than surviving the next flood or storm. Today, the exaggerated notion that disasters are the fault of man, with his continual carbon-emitting, suggests that meaningful development and industrialisation will only make matters worse. By focusing heavily on climate change, charities like Oxfam ensure that their reports make the front pages - but at the same time they implicitly undermine the case for sweeping development around the globe. That the goal of development is now deemed to be unrealistic - or worse, undesirable - is the real disaster of modern times.


Nasty EU: "People who rely on motorised scooters to help to cope with disabilities are to be hit with a 300 pound tax, after an EU ruling that they should be categorised along with "leisure vehicles". The electric power-driven wheelchairs with flexible handlebars are used by people with severe mobility difficulties, such as disabled ex-servicemen. They are now taxed in the same class as snowmobiles, jet skis and racing cars. A personal appeal has been made to Gordon Brown to intervene, but there has been no response from Downing Street, according to Jim Dooley, who runs the Mobility Bureau that provides motorised wheelchairs and scooters for hundreds of Service veterans. Under the EU ruling the scooters are now subject to a 300 pound import tax on top of their 2,000 pound cost. The decision by the EU was made in 2001 but it was not properly implemented by Revenue & Customs until this year, after a complaint from Belgium that the required 10 per cent import tax was not being enforced by Britain."

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