Wednesday, January 31, 2007


This is the sort of thing the Democrats are wishing onto Americans -- people being sent blind by a system that refuses to treat them

A former MP who is going blind is set to sue the NHS after it refused to give her a new drug that could help save her sight, it emerged yesterday. Veteran left-winger Alice Mahon has lost most of the sight in one eye while waiting for treatment. The former Labour MP - and thorn in Tony Blair's side - is now preparing to go to the High Court to make the Health Service pay for a drug that can help her.

Miss Mahon, aged 69, was told by her consultant in November that she should get Lucentis - one of a new generation of drugs for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The drug, which costs 12,000 pounds for a year's treatment, stabilises vision loss and may reverse the damage, but needs to be given quickly because the sight can rapidly deteriorate. But an urgent application for funding from Calderdale primary care trust (PCT) was rejected because the Government's 'rationing' body had not yet approved the drug for NHS use.

Although Mrs Mahon is wating for the outcome of an appeal, she lost much of the vision in her left eye in the nine weeks since the original application. She has now been forced to pay more than 5,000 pounds for private treatment to stop herself going blind. The former Halifax Labour MP is now taking legal action in a move that could help an estimated 18,000 Britons who go blind each year due to wet AMD, with some denied funding by cash-strapped PCTs.

Mrs Mahon said: "I have been an ardent supporter of the NHS all my life, and now feel totally let down. "The excuses that PCTs are giving for not funding treatment are scandalously lame. "Everyone has a right to free treatment on the NHS for a condition that results in blindness and devastates lives. "Supporting people who are blind or partially sighted, who may need home help and suffer injuries from falls, is far more expensive than the treatment. "The Chancellor must ensure the NHS budget is large enough to fund such a basic health care need. "I have written personally to Gordon Brown, and not as yet received a reply."

Mrs Mahon, who is being treated at Calderdale Royal Hospital and has a "dry" form of AMD in her right eye, was turned down for funding in December by the PCT's exceptional cases committee. However, a patient leaflet prepared by the PCT last autumn claimed those using the drug "were very likely to enjoy stable vision" and over one-third got a significant improvement.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed 30 per cent of patients receiving monthly injections of the drug into the affected eye had a "marked improvement" in vision. It prevented vision loss in nine out of 10 patients. The drug targets abnormal blood vessels that grow behind the eyeball - these vessels can leak and cause damage to parts of the eye responsible for central vision.

Lucentis was licensed earlier this month but, along with another wet AMD drug called Macugen, will not be considered for approval by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) until October. [Take your time boys! Nothing is ever urgent in a bureaucracy!] However, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has made clear to PCTs that they cannot withhold NHS funding simply on the grounds that NICE has not made a decision.

Mrs Mahon's solicitor, Yogi Amin, from Irwin Mitchell, wrote to her PCT in Calderdale and also Kirklees PCT, which share an exceptional cases committee, saying their refusal to fund the drug breaches her human rights. The letter says the PCTs have until today to overturn their decision or "we will proceed with an application for judicial review in the High Court". It says "Mrs Mahon has been forced to fund her urgent treatment privately, for which she has had to pay the amount of 5,325 pounds in order to avoid losing her eyesight while her application was and her appeal is being considered." Mrs Mahon will be joined by other MPS in Parliament today to speak out against the refusal to fund treatment for wet AMD patients.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has been campaigning to stop people going needlessly blind. It says PCTs can use their discretion when deciding whether to fund the drugs, yet some have imposed an outright ban while others wait until the patient has gone blind in one eye before treating the other. Steve Winyard, head of campaigns at the RNIB, said "Fifty people a day are being condemned to blindness because PCTs are refusing to fund a licensed treatment, even though it could save patients" sight. "The actions of these PCTs are simply unacceptable."

In the UK, 220,000 people with AMD registered blind or partially sighted. According to the RNIB, 57 per cent of all people newly-registered blind or partially sighted in the UK have AMD. A spokeswoman for Calderdale PCT said it did not comment on individual cases.


Multiculturalism 'drives young Muslims to shun British values'

The doctrine of multi-culturalism has alienated an entire generation of young Muslims and made them increasingly radical, a report has found. In stark contrast with their parents, growing numbers sympathise with extreme teachings of Islam, with almost four in ten wanting to live under Sharia law in Britain. The study identifies significant support for wearing the veil in public, Islamic schools and even punishment by death for Muslims who convert to another religion. Most alarmingly, 13 per cent of young Muslims said they "admired" organisations such as Al Qaeda which are prepared to "fight the West".

The poll exposes a fracture between the attitudes of Muslims aged 16 to 24, most of whom were born in Britain, and those of their parents’ generation, who are more likely to have been immigrants. A report published alongside the poll, commissioned by the Right-wing think tank Policy Exchange and carried out by Populus, said the doctrine of multi-culturalism was at least partly responsible.

A series of Labour ministers have broken recently with the idea that different communities should not be forced to integrate but should be allowed to maintain their own culture and identities. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, have also expressed serious doubts about multi-culturalism.

Academic Munira Mirza, lead author of the report, said: "The emergence of a strong Muslim identity in Britain is, in part, a result of multi-cultural policies implemented since the 1980s which have emphasised difference at the expense of shared national identity and divided people along ethnic, religious and cultural lines."

The poll of 1,000 Muslims, weighted to represent the population across the UK, found that a growing minority of youngsters felt they had less in common with non-Muslims than their parents did. While only 17 per cent of over-55s said they would prefer to live under Sharia law, that increased to 37 per cent of those aged 16 to 24. Sharia law, which is practised in large parts of the Middle East, specifies stonings and amputations as routine punishments for crimes. It also acts as a religious code for living, covering dietary laws and dress codes. Religious police are responsible for bringing suspects before special courts.

The poll found that just 19 per cent of Muslims over 55 would prefer to send their children to Islamic state schools. That increased to 37 per cent of those aged 16 to 24. If a Muslim converts to another religion, 36 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds thought this should be punished by death, compared with 19 per cent of 55s and over. According to the poll, 74 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 prefer Muslim women to wear the veil, compared with only 28 per cent of over 55s.

The report by Miss Mirza, British-born daughter of Pakistani immigrants, concludes that some Muslim groups have exaggerated the problems of "Islamophobic" sentiment among non-Muslim Britons, which has fuelled a sense of victimhood. The vast majority of Muslims – 84 per cent – believed they had been treated fairly in British society. And just over a quarter – 28 per cent – believed that authorities in Britain had gone "over the top" in trying not to offend Muslims.

The Government has been accused of failing to tackle the so-called "preachers of hate". No one has convicted under legislation introduced to deal with such figures. One radical cleric, Abu Hamza, was allowed to encourage extremism for years before finally being prosecuted – but under separate laws and only under threat of him being extradited to the U.S.

Muslim Labour MP Shahid Malik said the poll findings were disturbing. "There are evil voices out there and this poll shows some of them are definitely having an impact. "People are still turning a blind eye and hoping it will all go away. It cannot and it will not of its own accord. "Of course the Government has a role, but with the Muslim community itself more has to be done to acknowledge that this challenge exists. "For years, I have argued that the British National Party is a white phenomenon which it is up to the white community to address. Well, extremism exists in the name of Islam and that’s something the Muslim community has to take leadership on. "It’s my view that the mainstream, umbrella Muslim organisations have not risen to the challenge and don’t accept the depth of the problem that’s facing them." Mr Malik said one legal change which could help address radicalisation was to make committees of faith leaders who run mosques legally responsible for inflammatory statements made on their premises.

Baroness Uddin, the only female Muslim peer, said the poll did not reflect her experiences of the views of most members of the community. But she said many young Muslims who had been born in the UK did have completely different attitudes to their parents and grandparents, who migrated into this country from overseas. "Whereas we said, 'This isn’t our home, we have to fit in, we have to contribute', young people do have a sense that this is now their home and they are prepared to say what they don’t like about it. "They have asserted their identity and gone deeper into their religion. It would have been unheard of for someone like me, as a 16-year-old, to have complained about England. "But now, when young people go through difficulties in terms of job opportunities and education, they do make their opinions known." Baroness Uddin said she agreed with the "majority view" that British foreign policy had also aggravated Muslim grievances.

The Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, Khalid Mahmood, said: "Our young people have been allowed to fall into the hands of fringe organisations who are getting at them at universities, schools, colleges and mosques. They are being manipulated. "It’s difficult for the Government to prescribe a way forward for the Muslim community. I don’t think it can do that. "It’s up to the mainstream, national Muslim organisations, who frankly have failed."



Muslims seeking to live under Islamic law are as extreme as supporters of the British National Party, according to David Cameron. Making his first foray into the highly sensitive issue of Islam and multiculturalism, the Conservative leader said that Muslims who want Sharia, or Islamic religious law, are the “mirror image” of the neo-Nazi BNP, wanting to divide the country into “us” and “them”. He made the claim as an opinion poll from Policy Exchange, Mr Cameron’s favourite think-tank, suggested that 40 per cent of young Muslims want Sharia in Britain.

In a hard-hitting speech, Mr Cameron said that uncontrolled immigration and the failed “doctrine of multiculturalism” was threatening national unity. He claimed that the terrorist ideology of radical Islam was “one of the great threats of our age”, and said that public money spent translating documents should be spent instead on teaching people English.

The speech on Britishness, made from a church in Birmingham near the scene of recent race riots between blacks and Asians, was welcomed by Tory rightwingers who had complained that he had been too soft on the issue. However, Mr Cameron balanced his robust defence of British values by calling for greater support for Muslims — in particular women — to improve their opportunities in education and work. Today he will publish the party’s interim report on national security, which will propose measures to tackle Muslim alienation and underachievement. Most controversially it suggests that the Government should require immigrants to learn English before they are allowed to move to Britain.

In an uncompromising attack on Islamic radicals, Mr Cameron said: “Those who seek a Sharia state, or special treatment and a separate law for British Muslims are, in many ways, the mirror image of the BNP. They also want to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ And they seek out grievances to exploit.”

Sharia covers topics including marriage (allowing a man to have four wives, and stoning to death for adultery), criminal justice (hand amputation for theft) and religious affairs (death penalty for leaving Islam).

Inayat Banglawala, the spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said that Muslims had an emotional attachment to Sharia, just as Christians did to the Ten Commandments, but said it was scaremongering to suggest that they wanted to introduce it. “The idea of 3 per cent of the population imposing Sharia on the rest is nonsense. It is unfair to compare a real threat [the BNP] with fringe [Islamic] groups that no one takes seriously,” he said.

Mr Cameron promised to tackle what he said were the five barriers to social cohesion in the UK: extremist ideology, multiculturalism, excessive immigration, poverty and poor education. He attacked multiculturalism, saying that although it sounded good, it “has come to mean an approach that focuses on what divides us rather than what brings us together”. He blamed multiculturalism for public housing being allocated along ethnic lines, for police allowing Muslim protesters publicly to incite violence, and for the growth in translation in public documents, which he said reduced the incentive to learn English. He said that uncontrolled immigration was also threatening national unity, declaring that “it puts pressure on housing, on public services, and helps to create division, fear and resentment — among British people from all ethnic backgrounds”.

The report published today, from the Conservative’s national security policy review group, says that Muslims in Britain are held back by their traditional views on marriage and women’s education.



The number of people having liposuction treatments to remove fat has risen by 90 per cent in a year, prompting a warning from experts that it should not be seen as a solution for obesity. The operation, which involves vacuuming fat from areas such as the thighs and abdomen, was the third most popular cosmetic procedure last year, after breast enlargement and eyelid surgery.

But the surgery is not without risks. Last year Denise Hendry, the wife of the former Scotland football captain Colin Hendry, accepted more than 100,000 pounds in compensation after suffering complications during liposuction in 2002. She was in intensive care for nearly two months after sustaining nine punctures to her bowel and colon during a procedure. At one point her heart stopped for four minutes.

According to figures from the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, at least 4,000 of the 90,000 cosmetic surgery operations carried out last year were liposuction procedures, compared with 2,100 in 2005. Patients included men wanting to remove excess fat from their chests, often referred to as "man breasts". Side-effects can include permanent scarring and loose skin, but Adam Searle, a consultant plastic surgeon and the association's former president, said that the procedure was becoming more refined.

However, it should not be considered as an alternative to losing weight, he said. "There are lots of misconceptions. Every week someone comes into a clinic weighing 25 stone [159kg] and wanting liposuction. This technique is not appropriate for the obese. "It should be reserved for very specific areas of fat in an otherwise fit person. The ideal candidate would be a woman who says, `I go to the gym, I have lost weight but this area on the side of my thigh refuses to go'."

Members of the association carried out 28,921 plastic surgery procedures last year - up about one third on 2005. The association said that the number of other plastic surgery procedures - such as breast and nose surgery - had also risen.

The figures show that anti-ageing procedures were also popular, with facelifts up 44 per cent on 2005, eyelid surgery up 48 per cent, and brow lifts up 50 per cent. The vast majority of procedures - about 92 per cent - were carried out on women, 6,156 of whom had breast surgery. Nose surgery was most common in men, but they also had eyelid surgery, liposuction, altered their ears, and had face and neck lifts.

Louise Braham, the director of the Harley Medical Group, said that demand had increased in the past year. More professionals - including lawyers, teachers, estate agents and accountants - had opted for treatment, she said. She said that "growth hotspots" included the use of botox - the number of procedures had risen 89 per cent in the past six months - breast reductions, which rose 85 per cent in the same time, and nose surgery, which rose 25 per cent.


British top-grade graduates who aren't worth hiring

Lots of Brits with university honours degrees now "don't know nuffink": Poor social skills, poor mathematics skills and poor ability to write correct English. The universites are now teaching less than High Schools once did. But I guess they know that they have to save the planet and love Muslims, blacks and homosexuals

Half the country's leading employers are unable to fill graduate vacancies because studentss lack basic work skills, a survey revealed. Bosses are forced to leave prized graduate jobs open every year even though universities are turning out soaring numbers of students. Employers blame their continued recruitment difficulties on the low calibre of graduates - even those armed with first and 2.1s in their degrees. Many have such poor communication skills that bosses are worried about allowing them to answer the phone, sit in meetings or give presentations. One graduate going for a job at an investment bank began his interview saying: "You alright mate?"

The survey of 211 leading employers, including Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Government departments and GlaxoSmithKline, reveals that bosses are finding it increasingly tough to recruit capable candidates - despite repeated warnings to students to work on "soft skills" such as team-working and commercial savvy. Forty-three per cent of employers polled by the Association of Graduate Recruiters said they had unfilled graduate vacancies last year, against fewer than a third in 2005. And 55 per cent of bosses are anticipating facing recruitment shortfalls in 2007. Of these, 62 per cent are not expecting to receive sufficient applications from graduates with the necessary skills.

In its winter review, the AGR says employers feel there is an "inadequate supply of applicants of sufficient calibre". It adds: "They go on to explain that candidates are normally academically proficient but lacking in soft skills such as communication as well as verbal and numerical reasoning." One telecoms company reported: "We received more than sufficient applications but I think whilst the candidates have the academic ability they didn't have the communication and soft employability skills so weren't getting through the assessment centres. "We lost quite a few students through the psychometric testing stages because of a lack of numerical and verbal reasoning skills."

Among organisations failing to fill their graduate posts last year, the average number of vacancies was 12. However five per cent left more than 50 jobs unfilled. The shortfalls forced bosses to call in expensive contractors to get the work done, the survey found. Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive, said: "Much more effort needs to be made in schools to get the message across that going to university and coming out with a 2.1, while an achievement, is not enough to land a graduate level job. "You have to develop your skills and experience, and learn to demonstrate you have got those skills and experience. "People who put in applications full of spelling mistakes on online application forms deserve what they get. "Over the last few years, employers have raised the stakes. Their requirements have grown because of the demands of their business "They are looking for people of a higher calibre and graduates have not really caught onto that."

He added: "There are also some serious issues around science and technology courses as there are not enough students taking them. "The engineering and construction sectors are really struggling despite having some great career opportunities." Despite the difficulties recruiting top graduates, employers will be offering lower-than-inflation rises in graduate salaries this year. Starting pay packets will average 23,431 pounds, a rise of just 2.1 per cent on 2006 - the smallest increase in six years. This may be down to a predicted surge in the overall number of job opportunities available this year. Employers polled will offer 15.1 per cent more graduate-level posts in 2007. Mr Gilleard said: "Once again, we are seeing an increase in the number of graduate level vacancies which is great news for anyone applying for a graduate job this year."


Nutty Britain to discriminate against educated families?

University applicants will be asked to declare whether their parents have a degree. The Government wants the information for its campaign to attract more working-class students into higher education, but critics say that it could be used to discriminate against middle-class candidates and raises suspicion of social engineering. The new question, asking whether parents "have been through higher education", will appear on application forms from next year. The Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) will use it to build up a detailed picture of every applicant's background.

A spokesman for UCAS insisted that the information would not be used in the allocation of places, but would merely help universities to collect data on how successful they have been at broadening their intake. "It's just another attempt to establish the background of applicants for statistical purposes," he said. He added that applicants would not be forced to provide the information, but would merely be asked to tick a box, indicating "yes/no/don't know/decline to answer".

A compulsory question on the UCAS form already requires applicants under 21 to "give the occupation of your parent, step-parent or guardian who earns the most". Nick Gibb, a Tory education spokesman, described the new question as unwise. "At the very least it allows suspicions of social engineering to enter into the application process," he said.



But Australia's Leftists don't seem to know what is going on around them

In the campaign for the 1997 general election in Britain the then Labour Opposition leader Tony Blair famously declared that his three highest priorities were "education, education, education". In 1999 he unveiled a 10-year reform agenda. Blair said that previous governments had neglected education, and promised to significantly increase funding as a percentage of gross domestic product. He said investment in education was essential to ensure the workforce was highly skilled to boost productivity gains and promised an "education revolution". Sound familiar?

Australia's Labor Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, has promised an "education revolution" underpinned by funding increases to raise expenditure as a percentage of GDP to boost productivity gains. Blair's so-called "Third Way" has become a template for democratic socialist parties around the world. Given Rudd has unashamedly lifted Blair's education terms and rhetoric, it is instructive to examine the Blair "education revolution" for the likely directions Rudd will take.

At the heart of the British reforms has been a much stronger focus on accountability and measurement of school performance. League tables which rank school performance were introduced in 1992, but Blair has expanded them and used school performance data to apply pressure and target funding. He said there would be "no hiding place for schools that were not striving to improve". The tables now include an "improvement index" to show which schools have shown steady improvement, or decline. More recently, Blair has added "value added" tables which show the average progress pupils make while at individual schools. This type of performance reporting has been introduced into Australian schools but has been fiercely opposed by education unions as well as state Labor governments.

School report cards are one of the most important performance indicators. In response to complaints from parents that they could not decipher the jargon on school report cards, it is now a condition of federal government funding that parents be provided with report cards in plain English and with children rated on a five-point scale. Unions have fought this at every turn.

One controversial aspect of Blair's reforms has been the involvement and funding support of the private sector in some government schools, contributing about a fifth of the capital cost and having a say in how a school is run, with limited influence over curriculum. Blair is reported to be considering plans to provide government schools with much greater autonomy through "radical reforms" that would give "more power to parents". This would involve giving school communities greater control over the hiring and firing of teachers and school principals and allow greater flexibility to innovate. It would mean parents being given a fuller picture of the individual progress of their children.

The Howard Government has consistently called for parents to be given more information about the performance of schools, teachers and students. The funding agreement also requires state governments to provide greater discretion at the school level to hire teachers, and requires a range of school performance data to be provided to parents.

With universities, the Blair Government introduced a scheme closely modelled on the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) introduced by the ALP. It has since introduced variable fees and received a report that recommended students pay about a quarter of the cost of their studies, the same average rate as for HECS. In recent times, the Blair Government has urged universities to reduce their reliance on public funding.

On January 7 Blair announced plans for tax relief for property owners if they donate their homes to their former universities, as part of efforts to create endowment funds for higher education. He also outlined plans for a scheme where cash donations to universities will be matched by government funds, to promote a culture of philanthropy. As the British Minister for Higher Education, Bill Rammell, said last year, "the UK Government is already a minority shareholder in universities" and "we should not worry if over time public funding continues to reduce as a proportion of the total funding the higher education sector is able to generate".

If Rudd is serious about a Blair-style education revolution, he will be disappointed to find that most of these reforms have been introduced by the Howard Government, and in some cases are further advanced than in Britain. These reforms have been resisted by state Labor governments and education unions. The key challenge for Rudd will be to deliver on the hype. No matter what form his education agenda takes, he will be confronted by staunch opposition from the all-powerful education unions and state Labor governments. Already the unions are threatening to withdraw election campaign funds from federal Labor. Rudd can steal the rhetorical clothing from Blair. He is yet to demonstrate he has the courage for the battle.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

White students 'do better' in British universities

Below is a brief summary from a Leftist newspaper of an official British government report that does not appear to be online. It is difficult to dissect the sort of "massaged" statistics one has to expect from official Britain but I expect that the following is going on:

1). Blacks do badly as usual because of their low average IQ.

2). Chinese do badly because of their poor English skills. Most Chinese probably are not born in Britain and mastering English is very difficult for Orientals -- as mastering oriental languages is for us. Most immigrant blacks, by contrast, would come from places where at least a form of English is spoken (e.g. Nigeria, The Caribbean).

3). The "whites" include Jews -- who usually perform very well indeed and who are disproportionately present in higher education.

4). The female advantage comes from the black component. Black females are normally much better motivated than black males and take full advantage of the official and unofficial favouritism that is given to blacks.

5). Amusing that South Asians (Indians etc.) are not mentioned. The obvious inference from the omission is that they did as well as whites overall. So skin colour or "xenophobia" was not a factor.

Black and Chinese students are less likely to get top university degrees than their white contemporaries, a government report has found. The study suggested that ethnic minority undergraduates faced "a considerable cost" as a result because students who get first-class degrees increasingly command higher salaries.

The Department for Education and Skills report also found that students living at home were more likely to get firsts, women performed better than men, and older students tended to get better degrees.

Analysing data for 65,000 students, the researchers predicted the odds of different ethnic groups getting first-class degrees, 2:1s, 2:2s or thirds. The gap was widest for black Caribbean, black African and Chinese students. The analysis took account of factors such as gender, prior academic performance, subject studied and deprivation levels.

"A number of studies have found that attaining a 'good' degree carries a premium in the labour market, and that this premium has been increasing over time, as the higher education system has expanded," the study said. "As a result, there is a considerable cost attached to this attainment gap identified in relation to minority ethnic students."

It cautioned that the findings did not "automatically" imply "ethnic bias". The Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said the Government was committed to ensuring people of all backgrounds could thrive in higher education."



A Muslim doctors' leader has provoked an outcry by urging British Muslims not to vaccinate their children against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella because it is "un-Islamic". Dr Abdul Majid Katme, head of the Islamic Medical Association, is telling Muslims that almost all vaccines contain products derived from animal and human tissue, which make them "haram", or unlawful for Muslims to take. Islam permits only the consumption of halal products, where the animal has had its throat cut and bled to death while God's name is invoked. Islam also forbids the eating of any pig meat, which Katme says is another reason why vaccines should be avoided, as some contain or have been made using pork-based gelatine.

His warning has been criticised by the Department of Health and the British Medical Association, who said Katme risked increasing infections ranging from flu and measles to polio and diphtheria in Muslim communities.

Katme, a psychiatrist who has worked in the National Health Service for 15 years, wields influence as the head of one of only two national Islamic medical organisations as well as being a member of the Muslim Council of Britain. Moderate Muslims are concerned at the potential impact because other Islamic doctors will have to confirm vaccines are derived from animal and human products. There is already evidence of lower than average vaccination rates in Muslim areas, reducing the prospect of the "herd immunity" needed to curb infectious diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella.

Katme's appeal reflects a global movement by some hardline Islamic leaders who are telling followers torefuse vaccines from the West. In Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India, Muslims have refused to be immunised against polio after being told that the vaccines contain products that the West has deliberately added to make the recipients infertile.

Katme said he was bringing the message to Britain after analysing the products used for the manufacture of the vaccines. He claimed that Muslims must allow their children to develop their own immune system naturally rather than rely on vaccines. He argued that leading "Islamically healthy lives" would be enough to ward off illnesses and diseases. "You see, God created us perfect and with a very strong defence system. If you breast-feed your child for two years - as the Koran says - and you eat Koranic food like olives and black seed, and you do ablution each time you pray, then you will have a strong defence system," he said. "Many vaccines, especially those given to children, are full of haram substances - human parts, gelatine from pork, alcohol, animal/monkey parts, all coming from the West who do not have knowledge of halal or haram. It is forbidden in Islam to have any of these haram substances in our bodies." Katme singled out vaccines such as MMR as ones to avoid, despite doctors saying that they are essential to keep a baby healthy. Others included those for diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis and meningitis.

Dr Shuja Shafi, a spokesman for the health and medical committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "In terms of ingredients in vaccines, there are so many things that are probably haram, but in the absence of an alternative we are allowed to take it for the sake of our health."


Time to evict official anti-racism

The row over Britain's Celebrity Big Brother shows that hysterically witch-hunting 'racists' is a new British sport

Jade Goody may have been evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother house on Friday, yet the bizarre controversy surrounding her rows with Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty continues to rumble on and reverberate. And the acres of handwringing commentary in the tabloids and broadsheets suggest that Ms Goody is not the only one who is firing-off ill-judged opinions.

Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, waded in on Sunday with demands that Channel 4 be overseen by supernanny-in-waiting, Tessa Jowell. In his eyes the refusal of Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson to describe the Goody/Shetty fallout as `racist' should be a sackable offence. Elsewhere, the granddaddy of race monitoring, London mayor Ken Livingstone, sought to slap Channel 4's wrists. And according to Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley, apparently the Big Brother freakshow is all New Labour's fault anyway - or at least Tony Blair's, whom she accuses of nurturing a public culture as cruel as any that existed under Thatcher.

It is a measure of the disrepair of political and public life that so many public figures, including Blair and the PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown, feel compelled to comment on Celebrity Big Brother. As Brendan O'Neill has pointed out, the speed with which commentators (over)reacted to Goody and her sidekicks' outbursts reveals their own blinkered prejudices about the white working class as a whole (1). Pundits have gleefully pounced on this incident as insurmountable `proof' that nasty racial prejudice is alive and kicking among the great unwashed.

In fact, the most striking thing about Celebrity Big Brother is that it simultaneously tells us very little about British society and an awful lot about brass-necked opinion makers. It is clear to anyone with eyes and ears that race no longer has the same corrosive impact it once had in British society. Indeed, many of my students who have Indian backgrounds say that Goody's clanking comments are hardly representative of their experience of living in Britain in the twenty-first century. They can shrug off the Goody v Shetty row precisely because race doesn't impinge on their lives. However, high-minded pundits cannot shrug off the idea that Big Brother exerts great `influence' on all the `couch potatoes' out there. Germaine Greer thinks the masses who watch the programme were probably cheering on Goody's taunts, seeing Shetty as just another `Paki bird'. Leaving aside the risible `monkey say/monkey do' implications here, it's worth questioning whether Big Brother is as popular or influential as pundits claim.

Prior to this year's race controversy, viewing figures were down to a paltry 1.4 million, before climbing to a still unremarkable four million. Even at the height of the non-celebrity Big Brother `mania' during the summer months, viewing figures hover around the seven million mark. If soap operas or flagship dramas like Prime Suspect pulled in those kind of viewing figures, they would be deemed as failures and possibly dropped. So why is Big Brother seen as `required viewing' for the mass of the population, when, in fact, relatively speaking not that many people watch it?

The truth is that Big Brother's core audience is teenage girls, students, and fashionistas/style journalists who can't let go of irony. It is this (largely) youthful audience that makes BB appealing to advertisers, as well as celebrity magazines and tabloids and broadsheets seeking a new generation of readers. For older generations of working people, Big Brother is largely irrelevant and a somewhat bizarre spectacle. Ironically enough, it is because Big Brother is a media rather than social phenomenon that all kinds of outlandish claims can be projected on to it. And in the Goody v Shetty debacle, reams of half-baked rubbish have been spouted about the `Vicky Pollards' who supposedly populate both the show and its audience.

The response to this year's Celebrity Big Brother shows how forceful official anti-racism has become as a conforming mechanism. Whether it is through televised autopsies or wankathons, Channel 4 has long courted rather prurient `controversy'. But engineering racial and cultural tensions has been a step `too far' for even staunch supporters of this increasingly idiotic channel. It seems Channel 4 can dabble with any taboo it likes, apart from the new orthodoxies surrounding race. There is a baying hysteria in contemporary `anti-racism'. As Goody herself said after the eviction: `I've never been so terrified in all my life.'

Far from striking a blow for racial equality and freedom, official and tyrannical anti-racism nurtures fresh divisions and fosters a culture of unfreedom. This was reflected by one anti-racist group's statement that `private utterances should be viewed in the same light as public ones' - that is, what people say behind closed doors, or presumably even think in their own minds, should be subject to rules and regulations in the same way that public speech too often is. The reaction to the Goody/Shetty farce has popularised such a dangerous and nonsensical idea, with its blurred distinction between a private argument between two people (filmed and aired, of course) and the wild claims made about what this reveals about our public culture.

The commentary on Goody/Shetty has become a vehicle for expressing a broader anti-human sentiment. If some pundits are sceptical that Goody is consciously `racist', nearly all agree that she is a `bully'. For Jackie Ashley, it is bullying rather than overt racism that is the single defining characteristic of contemporary British society. So much so that even `Jade-the-bully is then vigorously bullied and abused by the same newspapers that so recently found her funny' (2). In this light, Celebrity Big Brother is portrayed as a reflection on how rotten the (unregulated) human subject really is. Apparently if you put humans together the essential desire to dominate `the other' will always win through. And for many, racism naturally follows bullying as the primeval urge lurking within us all. Celebrity Big Brother popularises the idea that, in the words of actor/director Gary Oldman, `we all need therapy'.

For many pundits, the problem with Goody is that because of her `poor breeding', she is apparently more pathologically prone to hateful outbursts than others. Goody's blubbering, confessional interviews with both Davina McCall and the News of the World shows how quickly she has internalised the therapeutic mode.

The furore over Goody's crass behaviour towards Shetty has been a heaven-sent opportunity for half-witted commentators to obsess over an imaginary underclass. In truth, the tantrums inside the CBB house say nothing about what's happening in multi-racial Britain, though the furore reveals much about the nasty prejudices of certain commentators. If the Goody/Shetty incident reveals anything about the state of Britain, it is that official anti-racism has become an hysterical and authoritarian force. Far from fretting about Goody and Co's infantile behaviour, isn't it time we put that up for eviction instead?


Child obesity

Is the next generation of Brits facing an epidemic of ill-health?

Panic: The UK House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts has published a new report lambasting the government for failing to tackle child obesity. The report notes that `obesity is a serious health condition', `a causal factor in a number of chronic diseases and conditions', and that `overall, it reduces life expectancy by an average of nine years'. According to the report, `there has been a steady rise in the number of children aged 2 to 10 who are obese - from 9.9 per cent in 1995 to 13.9 per cent in 2004.'

Don't panic: If the committee wishes to attack the government, and demand ever-greater intervention against parents, schools and companies, it had better get its facts straight. Obesity is not a serious health condition. It is a category of body morphology. The definition employed by the committee, the standard one in health circles, is that someone is `obese' if they have a body mass index (BMI) above 30; essentially, if the ratio of their weight to height is above a certain level. Aside from the fact that this ratio can just as easily describe excess muscle as excess fat, being fat does not necessarily imply ill-health. The majority of fat people are pretty healthy. In fact, it is those who, under today's abitrary categories, would be defined as `overweight' or moderately obese (with a BMI between 25 and 32) who seem to have the best life expectancy.

We do not know to what extent, if at all, obesity is a causal factor in chronic disease. We do know that obesity - particularly morbid obesity - is associated with increased risks of heart disease and type-2 diabetes, for example, but causation is a different matter. Given that fat people who are also fit seem to have very similar health profiles to thin but sedentary people, it may well be that lack of exercise not fatty tissue is the most important factor. In any event, untangling all the potential confounding factors makes the simple `obesity=disease/death' equation far too simplistic.

Specifically, the figure given for years of life lost is wrong. It appears to be repeating a statistic from a National Audit Office (NAO) report in 2001. However, what that report actually says is: `On average, each person whose death could be attributed to obesity lost nine years of life.' While this kind of attribution is fraught with problems, it is also very different from the statement in the latest report. The NAO report said six per cent of deaths were due to obesity - suggesting that most obese people die because of some other factor. Therefore, simple maths suggests the average number of years lost due to obesity is substantially lower than the nine years suggested by the new report.

As for child obesity, there is much dispute about what is an appropriate measure - BMI, for example, is even less relevant in children than in adults. But, according to the Health Survey for England in 2002: `About one in 20 boys (5.5 per cent) and about one in 15 girls (7.2 per cent) aged 2 to 15 were obese in 2002, according to the international classification.' While children have got a bit fatter in recent years, average weights for children have changed little.

We are facing an epidemic, it's true: an epidemic of regulation, intervention and fear-mongering. And it will all be based on reports like this one from the Committee of Public Accounts. While the motivations of these politicians may be sincere, their role in the obesity panic is likely only to make us more unhealthily obsessed with food and weight.


A diet of misinformation

John Luik, co-author of Diet Nation, tells Rob Lyons that the obesity panic is being fattened by savvy interest groups and junk science

`More than any other government, the UK government has bought into it. The UK leads the world in bad obesity policy.' I'm sitting in the offices of the Advertising Association discussing the obesity panic with John Luik, co-author of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade. Luik is a genial American policy analyst who's gunning for the `relatively small group of people around the world who have decided, manufactured, this as a problem, and who have sold it to governments.'

`If we had gotten paid by the advertising industry to write this book - which we didn't - people would say, "You guys are on the take". But you can have people on the other side who get hundreds of thousands of pounds from those who have a deliberate interest in making people think they're fat, and no-one thinks that is a question of corruption.'

In Diet Nation, Luik and his co-authors, Patrick Basham and Gio Gori, show that the fear of expanding waistlines is nothing new. But they argue that the modern hysteria about getting fat has little to do with real dangers to our health, or that of our children; rather it has become the obsession of an unholy alliance of sophisticated lobby groups and junk science.

This is perfectly illustrated by a report published by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts this week, which leaps from making plainly untrue statements about the problem of obesity to berating the government for not doing enough to address it, by clamping down on the food industry, for example, or frightening parents and stigmatising children.

Fretting over our waistlines has a long history. There was already medical discussion about the problem of obesity in the late nineteenth century, but as a `product rather than a cause' of the prejudice against excess weight. Within a few years, this issue started impacting on popular culture. In 1907 a popular American play called Nobody Likes a Fat Man was staged, and in 1913 Edith Wharton described one of her characters fretting about being anything more than `perpendicular'. As the authors of Diet Nation note, in one respect `the century-long European and American preoccupation with thinness and the rejection of fat is very much a social construct in which obesity is increasingly associated with the morally unacceptable' (p33).

The first obesity crusade took off in the Fifties, and was particularly inspired by the work of Louis Dublin, a biologist working for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in the US. He was a man on a mission. He wrote hundreds of articles on the subject and produced just the kind of research that is the mainstay of obesity discussions today: he rather dubiously compared the weight of individuals (often self-reported) with mortality many years later. There were many obvious limitations, especially the fact that the subjects were self-selected (insurance buyers were not typical of the population then), and that their weight was not regularly measured over the period of study; in fact, it was often not measured independently at all. And yet, Dublin tried to persuade America using this shaky data that not only was being morbidly obese bad for your health, but even levels of weight 10 per cent above his `ideal' could shorten your life.

While much of the medical profession supported Dublin, others were puzzled to find his results difficult to replicate. Anyway, his worst fears were not realised, as Diet Nation notes: `As the 1960s and 70s came and went, Americans did not lose significant amounts of weight, though they dieted continuously. They enjoyed better health, while the prevalence of most major diseases declined and longevity increased.' (p42)

For Luik et al, while the modern obesity crusade - which began in earnest in the 1990s - still has a moralising tone to it, the message coming from the crusaders emphasises another message just as much: `obesity is no longer a moral failing of bad fat people, but a sickness, acquired in large measure from a "toxic food environment", that requires medical treatment' (p34). It is true that contemporary campaigners against obesity talk about `evil corporations' as much as they do feckless individuals. So, much of the debate increasingly focuses on processed food (like the infamous Turkey Twizzler), fast-food restaurants like McDonald's, agonised debates about labelling, and bans on adverts.

However, it would be wrong to understate the powerful moralistic streak in discussions of obesity and food. In the focus on junk-food restaurants, for example, there is often a barely concealed contempt for the largely working-class people who eat there, who are presumed to be lazy, unthinking and not sufficiently concerned with healthy cooking and physical exercise. They are seen as `junk' people. At a time when it is unfashionable to pass strictly moral judgements on people's lifestyles, the lower orders tend to be maligned through the coded issue of food and health.

The crusaders have maintained a clear and oft-repeated message, according to Luik and his co-authors: `Overweight/obesity equals death; weight loss is possible and necessary; the sources of the problem are to be found in corporate misbehaviour, not individual gluttony or sloth; and personal responsibility is insufficient, as significant governmental action is required.' (p43) While the authors concede that many campaigners may be sincere, `the existence of an obesity epidemic offers enormous commercial, financial and power-maximising opportunities for. the medical profession, academic researchers, the public health community, the government health bureaucracy, the pharmaceutical industry, the fitness industry and the weight-loss industry' (p44).

From this point of view, it's the persistence, brilliance and deviousness of the campaigners, backed by the attitude-distorting presence of very sizeable amounts of money and influence, that have driven the current panic. There is no doubt much truth in this. Often, it is the same relatively small band of experts who conduct research, get paid to be consultants for industry, sit on the boards of specialist journals, and are asked to give evidence to, or advise, governments on public health policy.

The mechanics of how power and influence are grabbed are intriguing, especially when the players involved occasionally make a hash of it. Consider the report of the House of Commons Health Committee published in May 2004, which focused on the effect of obesity on children. The report made a huge splash with the case of a three-year-old girl who had died `from heart failure where obesity was a contributory factor'. The doctor giving evidence on the case described children on her own ward as `choking on their own fat'. However, as spiked revealed at the time, this was not a case of parents negligently feeding a child to death; rather the little girl suffered from a rare genetic disorder (see Choking on the facts, by Brendan O'Neill).

Then there is the case of the US report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004, which proclaimed that obesity was causing 400,000 deaths a year. This immediately sparked calls for massive government intervention. However, the authors of Diet Nation note how the report was prepared, not by the CDC's top experts on the subject, but by the CDC's director and other researchers attached to her office. After what appears to have been considerable internal criticism of the report, another group of CDC researchers reviewed it, and their review eventually found its way into the public domain under a Freedom of Information request. This second report suggested that a more accurate figure for excess obesity deaths was about 25,000 - 94 per cent lower than the original estimate. Strikingly, the original report was produced under pressure to `get the right result' because a range of groups had an interest in reaching the highest possible figure.

Such methods of securing influence may be increasingly common; yet there is something slightly unsatisfactory in using this as an explanation for the obesity panic. Are governments and the public simply being suckered? Or have there been social and political changes that have left individuals more open to being spooked about their health, and politicians more enthusiastic about interfering in areas of our lives that were previously off-limits? These questions aren't really answered in Diet Nation.

Too often the debate about obesity ends up in a mud-slinging contest over which side is the more corrupted. This provides little illumination into the facts of the matter, and it feeds the cynical outlook that suggests anyone's position can be evaluated by those who have paid to support it. On that basis, Luik and his co-authors could easily be pigeonholed as `free market libertarians' or something similar, as a means of dismissing them. But they clearly have a great deal more to say about obesity than the question of who-paid-who.

The chapter on the science of obesity will surprise many. Luik tells me about a presentation he gave recently at the offices of a major international bank in London. Having discovered that the audience's main concern was with the possibility of dying young from being overweight, he told them: `You'll probably find this astonishing but the people who are most long-lived in these studies are people who I would call "pleasantly plump" or overweight. In fact, even moderately obese live longer those who are the "norm".' The reaction he received shows how deeply imbued the panic has become: `People look at you like you're someone who has two heads.'

Yet Diet Nation claims that in the arbitrary weight categories set by the health authorities and their supporters today, those who are `overweight' - officially `ill', according to today's standards - live longer than those whose weight is apparently `ideal'. This would seem to highlight the ridiculous nature of the Body Mass Index and weight charts that are so popular now. Even those who are morbidly obese are likely to be able to reduce many of the risks associated with their weight by simply taking moderate exercise, even if they fail to lose any weight at all. And the usual prescription for losing weight - dieting - is, by any sensible medical standards, a failure. Weight loss is very difficult to sustain; around 96 per cent of dieters are at least as heavy as their starting weight five years later.

The myth of dieting is a subject that Luik and his colleagues are keen to return to in another book. Having looked at 28 separate papers on the long-term effects of dieting, Luik tells me that 24 show no benefit to losing weight. Even where a benefit is found, it's small. `Here's an example. One study concluded that if you were successful in losing 50 pounds and keeping it off for the rest of your life, you would have a longevity increase in the order of 11 hours.'

Another area where the science is pretty much the opposite of what we've been led to believe is the effect of advertising on children - a topical issue in the UK since Ofcom's recent decision to ban the advertising of `unhealthy' foods during children's TV programmes. Luik sums up the evidence pithily: `We're saying that kids that can operate computers from the time they're three, and have immense media literacy, are so unaware of advertising up to the age of 16 that they can be convinced to buy a packet of crisps by seeing an advertisement, or that a cartoon character is going to convince them to buy a breakfast cereal.' All of which explains why I'm meeting Luik at the offices of Advertising Association: he's just given a talk to the association about why they must tackle the dubious claims made about obesity and the draconian measures being proposed to deal with it.

This isn't just a concern for advertisers, though. The lessons of the campaign against tobacco illustrate that a tactical move to attack industry will sooner or later lead to further attacks on our individual freedoms. Having convinced the world that cigarettes were an evil brought down upon us from on high by Big Tobacco, smokers now find themselves banned in public places; some agencies now ban smokers from lighting up in their own homes if they are being visited by health or social workers; and doctors are increasingly feeling free to refuse treatment to those who won't give up. In turn, the obesity panic is already leading to parents being instructed about how they should feed their children, while hospitals are also turning away the obese.

For the moment, Big Food or the advertising industry might be the fall guys; but it's in all of our interests to oppose the stringent measures being implemented on the basis of this junk panic. Diet Nation has its flaws, but it is an important contribution to our understanding, cutting through the flabby debate that has taken place so far.


NHS patients need to buy organs from Third World to survive

British doctors had written "Joseph" off, saying he was too old to be treated on the National Health Service. But, at 72, he flew to Asia for a double-lung transplant and now claims to be the oldest man in Britain to have survived the operation. Joseph - not his real name - is one of a growing number of Britons who, frustrated with NHS waiting lists, are venturing into the murky world of organ brokers offering kidneys and livers harvested from the poorest quarters of the world, sometimes illicitly. Buying an organ is illegal in Britain, but generally not in Asia.

A former factory worker, Joseph is far from wealthy. He owes his life to his two daughters who used their savings and sold a holiday home to pay the 220,000 pound bill. "Without their sacrifice I would probably have been dead by now," said Joseph. He remains unsure where his new lungs came from. The Singapore surgeons told him only that they had been donated by the family of a much younger man who died from an unspecified head trauma.

His daughters are delighted with his recovery. "You cannot guarantee the success of any major operation. But now he is out hiking," said the eldest last week. "Just looking at him, smiling, brings tears to my eyes."

The family acknowledges its debt to James Cohan, a self-styled "organ transplant co-ordinator" from California who spoke for the first time last week about his pioneering role in the booming organ trade. Cohan has been "matchmaking" dangerously ill Europeans and Americans with Asian and African hospitals for 20 years. He says that over the past decade British inquiries have grown from a trickle into a flood.

Cohan, a tall, slim 66-year-old who lives in the hills outside Los Angeles, works like a stock-market day trader - with a phone and internet connection in a bedroom. He says he has seldom left home since he was arrested in Italy in 1998 for allegedly dealing in stolen body parts from South Africa, charges that were later dismissed. He says he breaks no American laws and deals with 15 hospitals that he has verified are using only legally donated organs.

A cultural and legal mismatch between Asia and the West has led to the current "grey market" where criminal gangs thrive and the sick die on waiting lists, he claimed. "Nightmarish tales of children snatched from streets for their organs will carry on until supply and demand are balanced. Right now there are 300,000 people on waiting lists whose lives could be saved with a more open approach to donation," he said.

This week David Kilgour, a former Canadian MP, will publish a follow-up report to his 2006 investigation that forced China to admit its hospitals sold organs taken from executed prisoners. Kilgour is concerned that executions are timed to coincide with operations, and that surging demand may even influence sentencing.

In May, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of medical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, will publish The Ends of the Body, which will expose the horrors of the 300m-a-year trade. She will name Asian towns known as "kidney zones", where hundreds of locals bear a diagonal scar marking the removal of an organ for 300 pounds, and have suffered ill health ever since. "This is a cruel, unfair trade," she said. "Technology and greed have far outstripped any government's abilities to regulate it. It's out of control."

Doctors at the Aadil hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, which charges 7,500 for a kidney transplant and deals with up to 30 western organ brokers at a time, say they seek healthy organs from dozens of countries. "Our priority is health, not politics," said a spokesman last week. "We always abide by current laws."

However, surgeons have warned that the failure rate of overseas operations is high and have called for the trade to be banned. Professor Nadey Hakim, president of the International College of Surgeons, said that more than half such operations end up with a bad transplant or the patients die. "The donors get paid very little. The recipient who gets the organ is not treated well either and they get sent back in a very bad condition," he said. I am betting that patients get BETTER treatment in Singapore than they do in the filthy NHS. Han Chinese surgeons are often brilliant and Singapore is immaculate.


Monday, January 29, 2007

British "social workers" put fat children on "abused" list

The Unhinged Kingdom devises a new madness

Social workers are placing obese children on the child protection register alongside victims thought to be at risk of sexual or physical abuse. In extreme cases children have been placed in foster care because their parents have contributed to the health problems of their offspring by failing to respond to medical advice. The intervention of social services in what was previously regarded as a private matter is likely to raise concerns about the emergence of the "fat police".

Some doctors even advocate taking legal action against parents for illtreating their children by feeding them so much that they develop health problems. Dr Russell Viner, a consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street and University College London hospitals, said: "In my practice, I can think of about 10 or 15 cases in which child protection action has been taken because of obesity. We now constantly get letters from social workers about child protection due to childhood obesity."

Viner points out that children are not placed on the child protection register simply for being obese but only if parents fail to act on advice and take steps to help their children lose weight. "Obesity in itself is not a child protection concern," he said. "When parents fail to act in their child's best interests with regard to their weight - for example, if they are enrolled on a behavioural treatment session and only get to two out of 10 sessions or if they miss medical appointments - then the obesity becomes a child protection concern."

Dr Alyson Hall, consultant child psychiatrist at the Emmanuel Miller Centre for Families and Children in east London, said that in some cases children were put into foster care to ensure their safety. "I have known instances where local authorities have had to consider placement outside the family. It has been voluntary so far, and has not gone to care proceedings, but that could happen," she said. "These are children suffering from sleep apnoea and serious health complications from diabetes. Initially, social workers try to help the parents but, in some cases, the parents are the problem."

Earlier this month two brothers were convicted of causing unnecessary suffering by letting their dog become obese. The labrador, Rusty, was 11 stone, more than double the weight he should have been, and could hardly stand. "We wonder whether the same charge should be applicable to the parents of dangerously obese children," said Dr Tom Solomon, a neurologist at Royal Liverpool University hospital. "I think it should be considered. It depends on the parents' attitude. If the parents say there is nothing they can do because their child only likes to eat chips and biscuits then perhaps it might be worth the state intervening. "The state intervenes with schooling. Parents who do not send their children to school are prosecuted eventually. To be badly educated is not dangerous but we are making our children diabetic, and even killing our children by our feeding habits."

Tam Fry, chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, a charity that fights childhood obesity, agreed. "It should be a punishable offence," he said. "Very obese children are taking up NHS resources that should be used for legitimate purposes. Parents have got to be held accountable for overfeeding their children or letting their children become fat without taking action."

Other health workers, however, argue that parents should not be punished because social circumstances sometimes prevent them from ensuring their children follow a healthy diet. Last week the government's strategy for tackling childhood obesity was criticised as "confused" and "dithering" by the Commons public accounts committee. MPs warned that ministers are set to miss their target to halt the rise in childhood obesity by 2010. The number of children aged under 11 who are obese leapt from 9.9% in 1995 to 13.4% in 2004


British police refuse to chase 'helmetless' bike thieves

A mother has spoken of her fury after police refused to chase her sons' stolen motorbikes - because the thieves weren't wearing helmets. Pauline Nolan, of Droylsden, Greater Manchester, claims traffic officers told her they could not pursue the pair in case they fell off and sued the police force. She says her sons Bradley, 11, and Ashley, 18, are devastated. They usually spend every weekend travelling to motocross competitions up and down the country, but are now stuck at home.

Mrs Nolan, 44, was on her way home from work at 1.45pm when the thieves raced past her at 60mph on her son's bikes. "I recognised them immediately, but they were gone in a flash," she said. "I arrived home to find the garage door had been forced open. "They had drilled through the locks and cut the chains. They had even pushed our Corsa out of the way to steal Ashley's bike, which was purposefully blocked in.

"I can't believe they had the cheek to do it in broad daylight. I was minutes away from catching them red-handed. I called the police and someone arrived to take a statement." She says the police officer then told her that the bikes had been spotted in Beswick, Manchester. She said: "I thought 'we've got them', until he sheepishly added they couldn't give chase because they weren't wearing helmets. I was speechless. How pathetic is that? "I've never heard such a stupid law. It seems everything is weighed in favour of criminals nowadays."

Inspector Martin O'Connor, of the road policing unit, said: "In situations like this officers need to carefully consider the safety of all road users before deciding whether or not to begin a pursuit. "This means taking into consideration the time of day, weather, traffic conditions, the nature of the original offence and then make a risk assessment based on all these circumstances. "In this case a decision was made that it would not have been safe to pursue the bikes."

Mrs Nolan has put up a cash reward for the bikes' return - an orange and black KTM 250 and a black and green Kawasaki 65 with distinctive "Monster Energy" graphics. She said: "My kids live for motocross. We can't afford 7,000 pounds to replace them. The 11-year-old said he's going to sell his toys and his X-Box to save up for a new one. It's heartbreaking."


University: Who needs it?

Britain: As more and more pupils go to university – and pay ever more for the privilege – many are questioning whether they are getting a fair return

When Anthony Kluk set off for Leeds University to read physics with two As and two Bs in his pocket he thought it was going to be the first day of the rest of his life: a bright new start in a brave new world. It didn’t quite work out like that. “Once I got to university I found myself repeating the material I had studied for the last two years. I was forced to spend hours in the laboratory doing what can only be described as watching paint dry. It was so tedious that going back to halls and doing homework was the last thing on my mind. “And since Leeds was filled with alcohol-fuelled distractions, as well as my complete lack of motivation, I started every day with a hangover. I decided to cut my losses and start my career.” One year into his course he dropped out. Two years on he is happily employed as a corporate banker.

Similar self-doubt has also crept into the cloistered quads of Oxbridge. By the end of her first year reading English Lucy Tobin found herself sitting on the manicured lawns of Lady Margaret Hall on the banks of the Cherwell and wondering why. A year earlier the main thing on her mind had been not Alfred Lord Tennyson but Tanya from Footballers’ Wives, as she did a gap year on a tabloid newspaper. “The allure of Oxford swung my decision towards academia, but there are still times when I’m sitting in a crowded lecture theatre and wonder if I did the right thing swapping a salary for Malory.”

None of this is what Tony Blair wants to hear with his vision of a country where half the population is university-educated. At first glance the need for a degree is a no-brainer. Professions allow entry only to graduates, and many companies insist on recruits with a degree — or even two. Yet employers also insist that a degree alone is not an accurate measure of employability; indeed 40% of them believe the qualification has become devalued. Some of the most important skills — numeracy, literacy and communication — are supposed to be instilled in school but are still lacking in many students emerging from university.

So does a degree really mean anything any more? At £3,000 a year in most cases is it worth the mock-vellum it is inscribed on? Increasingly students and their parents (who usually have to stump up for the fees) don’t think so.

THE number of students starting university in the current academic year fell by 3.6% from 2005, although because the figures were up on 2004 it is not yet clear if it represents the beginning of a downward trend. What is certain is that it reflects the leap in tuition fees from just over £1,000 a year to £3,000. And with the top universities now lobbying for fees to rise even higher, possibly doubling to £6,000, those who are taking up what was once seen as a prestigious privilege are beginning to see it as a risky business proposition.

Eytan Austin, 20, saw his experience in those terms before pulling out of what he calls a “poor quality” course at Thames Valley University. “I enrolled in events management, but I quickly realised I would be better off learning independently,” he said.

“There was a day and a half of lessons per week, but they were teaching us how to be employees when I want to be an entrepreneur. I’m sure it was helpful for some people; but for me the course fees were not worth it. Now I’m in the real world I’m learning from my mistakes rather than sitting through lectures. Since dropping out I’ve got no regrets at all. I’m just really happy with life.”

Drop-out rates, particularly among the “new universities”, mostly former polytechnics, are disturbingly high and rising. London South Bank and East London universities as well as Bolton University all have projected drop-out rates of more than 27%.

It is not just those who drop out who are challenging the value-added nature of a university education. Those who are eager to stick it through are wondering if they are getting their money’s worth.

When Bristol University cut teaching time in history for third-year undergraduates from six hours a week to two last year, it triggered protests from both the students and their parents. Etan Smallman, 20, a history student, reckoned he was being short-changed. “We expect better services for more money, not reduced ones,” he said.

One Bristol undergraduate told the university’s student newspaper: “I thought I was paying to be educated by leading academics, not for a library membership and a reading list.”

There is evidence now of a student revolt that has more in common with a consumer watchdog campaign than the campus politics of the 1960s. A maverick website called rates universities on student-to-tutor ratios and produces some damning comments. Several universities are rated by their own students as “rubbish” or “shocking”. The academic departments concerned are talking about legal action. But so are some students and parents. Jack Rabinowicz, an education lawyer whose daughter is a student at a northern university, complains that the number of seminars and tutorials seems to be decreasing drastically. Rabinowicz would like to see legally binding contracts spelling out what students are entitled to in return for their fees.

“Some students have one-sided contracts with the obligations on the student not to break university rules,” he said. “What is needed is a contract that the university has an obligation not to employ crap lecturers. I had a land law lecturer who was usually drunk. These people still exist.” Rabinowicz suggests that “mass actions for compensation — a hundred students getting together and claiming the return of £1,000 each — could be worthwhile”.

THE question is how much of this growing malaise is due to the government’s 50% target for pupils in higher education and how much is the result of a school system that does not teach students how to cope before they are herded into university.

“Now that kids are more force-fed at school and less educated to work independently, they need tutor-time,” said Alex Farquarson, who has one child studying in London and another at Sheffield. “I get cross when my daughter comes home and says she is sick of trying to work out what an essay question means while her tutor reads a book somewhere.”

Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London and a respected authority on tertiary education, agrees that universities are accepting people who haven’t been prepared well enough at school.

“There is an issue here about whether our system encourages universities to accept people on courses who can’t cope with them,” she said. “Universities are under tremendous pressure to fill places if they don’t want their business model to go down the plughole.”

She disagrees with the target of 50% of young people going to university and challenges the idea that it is necessitated by “the supposed skills needs of the workforce”.

“I think the market should find its own level,” she said. “Graduates are coming out and getting jobs that do not need graduate level skills. I am really opposed to the idea that the government should decide how many people should go to university.”

Wolf’s own son read classics at Oxford but is now “an extremely poor” self-employed musician. “If and when he gives up being a self-employed musician will he be better off with a degree? I don’t know.” The American sociologist Charles Murray argues that only people with an IQ of 115 or better, which he puts at 15% of the population, are equipped to do well at university. According to Murray a good university education should teach “advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people”. Struggling students, he suggests, are like someone “athletically unqualified” trying to cope with top-level sport.

Murray suggests the other problem is social pressure: middle class kids go to university because it is what their parents want rather than what society needs. “Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason — the list goes on and on — is difficult . . . ”This is a lesson that the influx of skilled eastern European craftsmen is rapidly teaching us in Britain. Yet the old class-driven attitudes prevail and can lead to traumatic mistakes.

Philip Kitcher liked his job as a senior nurse earning £28,000 a year, but he thought he might improve himself by training as a lawyer to become a nurse advocate. With no A-levels, he applied as a mature student to six universities.Three accepted him. He chose the University of Greenwich, which in 2001 offered him a place on its LLB course over the phone, saying his nursing qualification was the equivalent of two A-levels. A year later, he felt badly misled, having lost his place through an external exam.

“I am £15,000 in debt, have no job and have just failed my first year exams,” he said at the time. “My confidence has been knocked sideways. So has that of many of the people on the course. The university is being cagey about just how many failed the exams, because some people are now doing resits, but last year one-in-three first years [30%] didn't go on to the second year.

“Since I now know that at the end of the second and third years there are further failures, I feel angry. I was never told that there was such a low probability of actually getting the qualification I need. And I don't think any of the other students who failed were told either.

“If I had been told that the failure rate was so high and the chances of success so questionable I would have thought very hard before turning my life upside down. It is a big con. I feel that I have been duped. Every year Greenwich takes lots of [law] students who will fail. It takes their money and they run up huge debts.”

Kitcher said that some tutors were unacceptably rude. “When I asked how we did in our last piece of coursework, one tutor said, ‘You were all crap’. I said, ‘Could you be more specific?’ and the answer was, ‘No, wait for your marks’.” Since leaving Greenwich, he has gained a vocational degree in emergency nursing and is now back doing what he likes best. Greenwich said it was reviewing the curriculum and support offered to law students.

Readers of Tom Sharpe (sadly not yet on the compulsory list for undergraduates studying English) might hear echoes of “Wilt” syndrome, the brutal apathy acquired by his hapless polytechnic lecturer required to give poetry lessons to “plumbers II and gasfitters III”.

There is a growing dysfunction between the teachers and the taught that reflects flaws in the structure of the higher education system. A prime reason for reduced teaching time is the requirement, set by government, for universities to produce more research. This, rather than time spent on teaching, significantly determines a university’s state funding. When it comes to a university’s income from students, the prime requirement is quantity.

At the same time the conveyor belt is fed by the fact that a degree is increasingly a basic essential for young people looking for almost any sort of job. According to Bah-ram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, “there is not a career left you do not need a degree for. I don’t know about chiropody or massage but physiotherapy you need a degree for, likewise nursing”.

Paradoxically, it is these new degrees that have the most obvious value as proof of a skill. If a “degree” is another name for a vocational diploma, we don’t want to be messed around by unqualified physiotherapists or masseurs.

Do such skills have to be taught in a “university”, however? Traditionally they were learnt through apprenticeships and day-release courses at technical colleges. They still are in Germany, France and Switzerland, where the proportions of young people at university are between 30% and 40%, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And then there are the unskilled degrees, which equip students for nothing in particular except passing the first barrier in getting some sort of job. As Murray puts it, a university degree today, particularly in the arts, is simply “a screening device for employers”. Without one, your application is simply binned.

The second screening device is quality. Since the rebranding of polytechnics in 1992, employers put stock not only on how good a degree is but on the subject and the university at which it was earned. Under those circumstances it might be reasonable to expect higher student satisfaction and better job prospects from the members of the Russell Group, the 20-strong self-appointed “premier league” of British universities. Yet they are keen to call themselves “research-in-tensive” — which, as the Bristol experience has shown, does not automatically result in the best teaching.

Many academics, perhaps particularly those at Oxford and Cambridge and other top-flight universities, regard general degree-level teaching even to bright undergraduates as “a bore”. Nurturing the young is far less important to their own careers than publications on South African tort law or Renaissance theatre techniques. This is a world in which John Reid’s epithet “not fit for purpose” comes to mind. WHAT about the value of a university education in assuring future personal prosperity? The government would like us to believe that a degree buys a higher salary. Yes, this is valid as a rule of thumb, but it depends on whose thumb. As Wolf points out, the degrees with a high return are the quantitative ones: “Maths, physics, chemistry, the hard sciences, law, medicine. They earn you money . . . An arts degree is not the thing to do if you want to make a fortune.”

According to the government’s 2003 white paper, The Future of Higher Education, a degree can bring an additional 50% to 64% in salary. Even today, however, 41% of members of the Institute of Directors do not have a university degree. Furthermore, the government’s determination to push more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the best universities does not always pay off. The Council for Industry and Higher Education has found that graduates from poorer backgrounds go on to earn less than graduates from professional families with identical qualifications — by as much as 16% in the case of Oxbridge graduates.

Increasingly, large numbers of graduates emerging even from the Russell Group universities are finding themselves just one of the crowd and are drifting before they sort out what they can do for a living.

Hannah Fletcher signed up for a degree in Chinese at Cambridge but dropped out because her course “bore little relevance to the real world”. Part of her disillusion set in with seeing the finals-year girl in the next room spend months dressed in grubby tracksuit pants eating pasta in her room, swotting away and winning a first — only to end up burnt out and taking a job as a cleaner while she waited for decent offers.

Fletcher has seen “one bright, articulate graduate after another wave their devalued degree in front of indifferent employers”. Of her contemporaries, “one friend is working in a cider factory. Another has gone to teach English in Japan on a second gap year, while a third, with nothing better to do, has gone to visit her”. The most steady job any of them has is as an NHS administrator, taken to pay off debts.

So was it all a waste of time, effort and money? Wolf thinks it is still rational to go to university as “having a degree still pushes you up the potential shortlist for jobs”. She added: “In a society where lots of people have got degrees it is likely to go on being rational.”

The tipping point will be when so many people are going to university that “just having a degree does not earn you very much. Then the question will be — is it worth it? Will I be just as likely to do well getting three years’ work experience?” THE old idea of university education was to broaden the mind and to build independence and character; but it was also absolutely and unashamedly elitist. Evelyn Waugh defined this dream in Brideshead Revisited: “The truth is that Oxford is simply a very beautiful city in which it is convenient to segregate a certain number of the young of the nation while they are growing up.”

Students continue to find university rewarding and fun, a place for social and sexual adventure. But the dream was over long before Waugh wrote it. The real truth was glimpsed decades ago in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Brad-bury’s The History Man, both the products of bitter experience.

Universities today are driven by government targets, employers’ requirements, high fees and financially pressed students looking for a return on investment.

The Blairite concept of educational democratisation has turned the ivory towers into degree factories, turning out a product that has lost its niche status in a flooded market. Ironic when a factory was what the gifted young once went to university to escape.


Immigration Benefit 'Equivalent to a Mars bar a Month': "New figures out today reveal that, on the Government's own figures, the benefit to each member of the native population of the UK from immigration is worth about 4p a week - or less than the equivalent of a small Mars bar a month. In an analysis of a series of reports on the economic impact of immigration on the UK think-tank Migrationwatch has found that overall the much vaunted contribution of immigrants to the economy is very slight indeed - a finding that coincides with the results of major studies around the world."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

British Conservatives go nuts too

They have become the "me too" party

Food and drink manufacturers could be given strict quotas for producing fatty and sugary foods and alcohol under plans to tackle obesity and excessive drinking being considered by the Conservative Party. Under the plan drawn up by the Working Group on Responsible Business, set up by David Cameron last July, producers would be allocated production limits allowing them to produce a certain quantity of fatty food or alcoholic drink. Manufacturers wanting to produce more would have to buy credits from companies prepared to produce less. The regime would give a financial incentive for producers to make products containing less fat, sugar, salt and alcohol.

The consultative paper, aimed at making business more responsible, described obesity and excessive drinking as "social pollutants" that might be tackled in the same way that carbon emissions trading schemes reduced environmental damage. The proposal surprised food and drink makers, who said that the idea was not wanted and would not work.

In the foreword to the paper, Mr Cameron said that he wanted the Conservatives to reclaim responsible business from the Left. While paying tribute to the benefits of capitalism, he said: "I've never believed that we can leave everything to market forces. I'm not prepared to turn a blind eye if the system sometimes leaves casualties in its wake."

Emissions trading had been an invaluable tool in addressing environmental pollution, the paper said. "If . . . social and environmental pollution may be seen as in some ways analagous, might not a process of social emissions trading be a way of addressing some aspects of social pollution?" The amount of fat, sugar and salt in processed foods was easily quantifiable, which would make setting quotas straightforward, the report said. Similarly alcoholic consumption across the country was easily quantified, which would simplify setting quotas for companies. "In this case, companies who lowered the alcohol content of their products would have a significant incentive, as well as selling off alcohol quotas they did not need."

Manufacturers questioned whether the system could work in practice. It would have to be applied to imports to work, and could have the opposite of the desired effect by pushing up the prices of targeted products and so widening profit margins.

Graeme Leach, the policy director of the Institute of Directors said: "This sounds pretty radical. For this to get off the ground a lot of detailed work would have to be done and a very large number of problems would have to be overcome. I don't think it's going to happen."

The Food and Drink Federation was surprised, saying that it was already making progress in reducing fat, salt and sugar levels in processed foods. Spokeswoman Christine Welberry said: "No form of quota system would be wanted by the industry." She said that the FDF had asked to see Mr Cameron but had been rebuffed. "So far he's refused to meet us." The group has also proposed that responsible corporate behaviour be rewarded by lighter regulation. Companies could be awarded bronze, silver and gold standards, according to their behaviour.



A young Indian MP told me a story about the Communist chief minister of the state of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu. Basu’s policies weren’t always popular, and there would often be large demonstrations and sit-down protests outside his office by the disaffected. Basu’s way of dealing with these outcries was to join them. He would slip unobtrusively into the crowd and eventually be found sitting among the protesters, holding a placard or chanting a slogan denouncing his own follies.

Perhaps Mr Basu’s disconcerting tactics have had a wider press than I realised, because in the past few weeks his approach seems to have caught on among British ministers. The Labour Party chair, Hazel Blears, has joined protests in her constituency aimed at saving the local maternity unit from merger. The Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith, has been trying to defend the status quo at the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch, and — perhaps most bizarrely — the junior health minister, Ivan Lewis, has been doing the same with regard to facilities at the Fairfield Hospital in Bury.

The national policy, of course, is to move some facilities to centres of excellence, which would provide a higher standard of medical care. Inevitably, because this involves shutting down smaller local units, the policy becomes the focus of local campaigning which — in Britain — is usually devoted to stopping something from happening, and exercises our native ingenuity at full stretch in discovering reasons as to why it shouldn’t.

Naysaying can sometimes be costly. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research argued that successful resistance to the closure of some local A&E departments might well compromise patient care and lead to preventable deaths. “If heart attack victims are taken by ambulance past their local hospital to a specialist centre, they will be more likely to survive,” said the IPPR.

Which is why the Government, of which these three are members, supported the policy. Mr Lewis still does, but not in Bury. Ms Blears does, but not in Salford. Ms Smith does, but not in Redditch. Unsurprisingly the public has noticed that the policy seems to be right in general but wrong in all its specific applications. A BBC poll last weekend registered 72 per cent believing that it was hypocritical for ministers to campaign against the local consequences of their own national policies.

So we are at a strange moment in the recent history of the NHS, its strangeness emphasised because just when there ought to be a sharp political debate about its future, the Conservative Party has decided that it too will join the movement against change, and sit Basu-like on the steps.

By 2008 the Government will have raised the proportion of GDP spent on health in this country from 6.5 per cent to more than 9 per cent, and doubled expenditure in real terms. For that money it has managed a significant reduction in waiting times, an improvement in some key health indicators, a huge increase in numbers of NHS employees and a whacking great pay rise for doctors. Such a government funding bonanza couldn’t last, and the rate of growth will now slow substantially.

Last week we were told by Sir Michael Rawlins, head of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), that healthcare spending would have to rise above 9.3 per cent of GDP in the future to deal with medical inflation and the ageing population. “It is the elephant in the room, really,” he said. PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that there is a tax or an expenditure-cutting crunch coming some time soon if we are to keep up with the desire to maintain or improve health outcomes.

The obvious answer, to judge by yesterday’s news story, is for everyone to get a dog. The even more obvious answer is for everyone to eat properly and take exercise. So we won’t do that. Sections of the Labour Party, looking to its next leader, have begun agitating for a substantial rise in taxes, while simultaneously wanting an end to targets and a reduced reliance on involving the private sector in health. Which will leave us with the GPs’ contract story in spades, whereby we spend lots more money and don’t get much more work.

This should be the cue for the entrance, like a fragrant wind over a stagnant pool, of Mr David Cameron. Yesterday the Conservatives unveiled some of their new thinking on the radical policies needed to deal with the funding gap and get us all looking at health in a different way. Mr Cameron might well have noted that many of Labour’s early failures in health were as a consequence of suggesting, before 1997, that just by changing a policy (in Mr Blair’s case, the internal market), and spending a bit, lots of resource would be made available for patient care. Labour is still paying for that approach.

Mr Cameron must admire the early Blair because he seems hell-bent on repeating the error. First with his absurd Stop the NHS Cuts campaign, in which petitioners can “call on Gordon Brown to stop his mismanagement of the NHS”, and not — note — to provide any extra money, as if this absence of “mismanagement” will magically stop trusts running deficits. And, secondly, with the notion, promulgated yesterday, that all will be well if you just get rid of Labour’s “national top-down” waiting-list and other targets and replace them with Tory health outcome targets, to be called “objectives”, and somehow to be local and bottom-up. The difference is, of course, that everyone in the public sector knows that targets must be hit, while an objective is something you make progress towards. If you can. And if you can’t . . .

As to money: “Tony Blair’s great pledge,” said Mr Cameron, “was to raise health spending in Britain to the European average. Our aim is different — we won’t just concentrate on the money going in, but on what comes out as well.” So nothing about raising money from individuals by extending the scope of charging, which will shift some of the burden away from tax, and which is done in many European countries. Nothing about funding following the patient. Nothing at all, really.

Mr Cameron may well believe that his best chance of power comes from neutralising the fears of a Conservative government, only to be radical once in power. But history suggests that you can only do that if your radicalism goes with the grain of your assault on power. For their own long-term good, and ours, the Tories should be offering what Labour may be too conservative, too hidebound to suggest. They aren’t; and — for all the Basu-like nonsense from his leading colleagues — there still seems to be more chance of radical policies from Gordon Brown than from the Opposition.



BBC comment below:

When the Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change came out last year, it was showered with praise. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called it, "the most important report on the future ever published by this government". But expert critics of the review now claim that it overestimates the risk of severe global warming, and underestimates the cost of acting to stop it.

The message from the report's chief author, the economist Sir Nicholas Stern, was simple: if we did nothing about climate change, it would cost us the equivalent of at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. But if we acted today, we could prevent a catastrophe. This point was emphasised at the report's launch by Mr Blair who warned we would see the disastrous consequences of climate change - not in some science fiction future, but in our lifetimes.

These figures sounded scary and imminent. But if you read the report in detail, that is not what it actually says. The 5% damage to global GDP figure will not happen for well over one hundred years, according to Stern's predictions. And the review certainly does not forecast disastrous consequences in our lifetimes.

The report may have been loved by the politicians and headline writers but when climate scientists and environmental economists read the 670-page review, many said there were serious flaws. These critics are not climate change sceptics, but researchers with years of experience who believe that human-induced climate change is real and that we need to act now.

Richard Tol is a professor at both Hamburg and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and is one of the world's leading environmental economists. The Stern Review cites his work 63 times; but that does not mean he agrees with it. "If a student of mine were to hand in this report as a Masters thesis, perhaps if I were in a good mood I would give him a 'D' for diligence; but more likely I would give him an 'F' for fail. "There is a whole range of very basic economics mistakes that somebody who claims to be a Professor of Economics simply should not make," he told The Investigation on BBC Radio 4.

At the core of the Stern Review is an economic comparison between the damage caused by climate change with the costs of cutting our greenhouse gases. Professor Tol believes the figures for damage are exaggerated. "Stern consistently picks the most pessimistic for every choice that one can make. He overestimates through cherry-picking, he double counts particularly the risks and he underestimates what development and adaptation will do to impacts," he said.

Many economists are also sceptical about the figures Stern uses to estimate the costs of reducing are greenhouse gas emissions. The review suggests this will cost only 1% of GDP but according to Yale University Economist Robert Mendelsohn, this is far too optimistic and the figure could easily be much higher. "One of the depressing things about the greenhouse gas problem is that the cost of eliminating [it] is quite high. We will actually have to sacrifice a great deal to cut emissions dramatically," he said.

But it is not just economists who have found fault with the Stern Review; climate scientists have also been critical. Next week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its fourth report. It is designed to be the authoritative statement on the state of global warming science. Anyone expecting to see the scary figures of the Stern report repeated is going to be disappointed. The predictions in the IPCC report will be significantly lower. For instance, the Stern review comes up with a figure for temperature increase by 2050 of 2-3 degrees, whereas the IPCC says this will probably not happen until the end of the century.

Professor Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, believes that when the IPCC report comes out next week, there will be a big difference between the science it contains and the climate debate in the UK. "The IPCC is not going to talk about tipping points; it's not going to talk about 5m rises in sea level; it's not going to talk about the next ice age because the Gulf Stream collapses; and it's going to have none of the economics of the Stern Review," he said. "It's almost as if a credibility gap has emerged between what the British public thinks and what the international science community think."

When we put this comment to Sir Nicholas Stern, he replied: "The IPCC is a good process but it does depend on consensus and it means that they have to be quite cautious in what they say. "We were able to look to the evidence and use it in a very particular way, to look at the economics of risk." Sir Nicholas is aware of the increasing number of academic critiques of his review, but remains certain about his conclusions. "It is very important that the report is discussed; a number of people have raised interesting points and we will be discussing them all. "There are no certainties; but the broad conclusion that the costs of action are a good deal less than the damages they save, I think is pretty robust."

None of Stern's critics are advocating doing nothing about climate change. What they disagree about is how much it is worth sacrificing now to try to prevent a worst-case scenario in a hundred years' time.

BBC News, 25 January 2007. You can listen to the full BBC Investigation of the Stern Review here.

Britain: Libertarian traffic management coming?

Traffic lights, road signs and white lines would be removed from many high streets across the country under Conservative proposals to improve safety and reduce congestion by giving drivers and pedestrians equal status. Road humps, chicanes and other physical measures designed to reduce the speed of vehicles would be removed and the question of who had priority would be left open deliberately, making drivers more cautious.

The Conservatives are planning to publish a "green paper" on roads this year which will borrow heavily from so-called shared-space schemes in the Netherlands, where pedestrians, cyclists and cars are encouraged to mingle. Kerbs in several Dutch towns have been removed and the boundaries between the pavement and road blurred deliberately to prevent people from assuming they have right of way. Traffic lights have been uprooted and drivers must negotiate their way across junctions, forcing them to slow down and establish eye contact with pedestrians.

In the town of Drachten, the removal of traffic lights at one major junction has resulted in accidents falling from thirty-six in the four years before the scheme was introduced to two in the next two years. The average time for each vehicle to cross the junction fell from 50 seconds to 30 seconds, despite a rise in the volume of traffic.

Owen Paterson, the Shadow Transport Minister, visited Drachten and other Dutch towns. He told The Times: "There are some great ideas here which I would like to see in Britain. It's the opposite of the 1960s ethos of separating cars and pedestrians. By removing road signs and traffic lights and changing the appearance of the road, you avoid the impression that areas are designated just for cars. "The idea is to create space where there is mild anxiety among everyone so they all behave cautiously. No one thunders along at 30mph on a high street thinking that they have priority." Mr Paterson said that putting up more speed limit signs and painting more lines on the road had failed to make streets safer. "Instead of the State laying down the rules, we need to give responsibility back to road users. It's about creating an environment where it just doesn't feel right to drive faster than 20mph."

Some aspects of the shared space approach have already been adopted on London streets that have high numbers of pedestrians. At Seven Dials in Covent Garden, the road surface has been altered to give it the appearance of a pedestrian area and kerbs have been lowered to encourage people to wander across the street. In Kensington High Street, almost 600 metres of railings have been removed to allow pedestrians to cross where they want. The results have discredited the belief that railings prevent accidents: in the two years after they were removed, pedestrian casualties declined three times faster than the London average. Traffic engineers believe that drivers are now keeping a sharper eye out for pedestrians because they know that they may cross at any point.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is planning to introduce shared space ideas to Sloane Square next year. The aim is to encourage pedestrians to make greater use of the square, which is currently marooned by busy roads. A similar scheme is being planned for Exhibition Road.The idea of removing traffic lights was supported in a report published last month by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Martin Cassini, the report's author, said: "Removing lights removes barriers to traffic flow and improves behaviour. If you observe a junction where the lights are out of action, there is rarely congestion. People approach slowly, wave each other on and filter in turn. Lights and other controls hamper instead of harness human nature, causing untold delay and harm."


That Pesky Woodpile Inhabitant Again

We read:

"A chief executive at one of the UK's largest financial services companies has apologised for using the phrase "n*gger in the woodpile".

Trevor Matthews, head of Standard Life's life and pensions business, made the comment at a staff presentation at its Edinburgh headquarters on Monday.

Matthews has posted an apology on the company's internal website and said the comment was "a terrible mistake".


To the best of my recollection, the expression comes from an old story in which a black thief hid in a woodpile -- a story from those dim faroff days when you were allowed to criticize anyone you wanted to.