Monday, December 31, 2007

Deadly equality in British socialized medicine

People are not allowed to help themselves

In still yet another shuddering preview of health under Hillarycare or whatever form of socialized medicine that the mainly Democratic candidates promise to impose on us, Britain's National Health Service has issued this truly Orwellian/Kafkaesque decree.
A woman will be denied free National Health Service treatment for breast cancer if she seeks to improve her chances by paying privately for an additional drug. Colette Mills, a former nurse, has been told that if she attempts to top up her treatment privately, she will have to foot the entire 10,000 pounds bill for her drugs and care. The bizarre threat stems from the refusal by the government to let patients pay for additional drugs that are not prescribed on the NHS.

Huh? And what is the purpose of this truly potentially deadly NHS policy?
Ministers say it is unfair on patients who cannot afford such top-up drugs and that it will create a two-tier NHS. It is thought thousands of patients suffer as a result of the policy..... The Department of Health said: "Co-payments would risk creating a two-tier health service and be in direct contravention with the principles and values of the NHS."

So instead of a two tier system, good (private) and bad (public), only one system--bad--is allowed in England with no role model for improvement (private). Death, in the holy pursuit of equality, seems to be the goal.

Other solutions are up against equally twisted negative rationalizations. And beware the politician who oh so sincerely promises that a similar situation could not happen here. Oh yeah? Surrendering to government for free treatment means surrendering freedom.

Having many friends and relatives, alas, afflicted with breast cancer, this article, and previous ones on socialized health posted here, and here, and here touch me personally and deeply. While these friends and relatives are in various stages of treatment--and sadly, a few are gone--not one seems to have been denied a beneficial treatment. For some reason, Michael Moore's film, Sicko, a paean to socialized medicine, failed to mention cases like this. He didn't so we must.


Why boys should be allowed to play with toy guns

Report from Britain

Playing with toy weapons helps the development of young boys, according to new Government advice to nurseries and playgroups. Staff have been told they must resist their "natural instinct" to stop boys using pretend weapons such as guns or light sabres in games with other toddlers. Fantasy play involving weapons and superheroes allows healthy and safe risk-taking and can also make learning more appealing, says the guidance. It conflicts with years of "political correctness" in nurseries and playgroups which has led to the banning of toy guns, action hero games and children pretending to fire "guns" using their fingers or Lego bricks.

But teachers' leaders insisted last night that guns "symbolise aggression" and said many nurseries and playgroups would ignore the change.

The guidance, called Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys' Achievements, is issued by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It says some members of staff "find the chosen play of boys more difficult to understand and value than that of girls." This is mainly because they tend to choose activities with more action, often based outdoors. "Images and ideas gleaned from the media are common starting points in boys' play and may involve characters with special powers or weapons. "Adults can find this particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it. "This is not necessary as long as practitioners help the boys to understand and respect the rights of other children and to take responsibility for the resources and environment."

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes says 'imaginary games are good for their development as well as good fun' The report says: "Creating situations so that boys' interests in these forms of play can be fostered through healthy and safe risk-taking will enhance every aspect of their learning and development." It cites a North London children's centre which helped boys create a "Spiderman House" and print pictures of the superhero from the internet. This led to improvements in their communication, ability to develop storylines in their play and skills in drawing, reading and writing.

The guidance is aimed at boosting boys' achievement. They often fall behind girls even before starting school and the trend can continue throughout their academic careers. Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said: "The guidance simply takes a commonsense approach to the fact that many young children and perhaps particularly many boys, like boisterous, physical activity." "Although noisy for adults such imaginary games are good for their development as well as good fun."

But Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The real problem with weapons is that they symbolise aggression. "The reason teachers often intervene when kids have toy guns is that the boy is usually being very aggressive. We do need to ensure, whether the playing is rumbustious or not, that there is a respect for your peers, however young they are."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) union said: "Many parents take the decision that their children won't have toy weapons."

Research by Penny Holland, academic leader for early childhood at London Metropolitan University, has also concluded that boys should be allowed to play gun games. She found boys became dispirited and withdrawn when they are told such play-fighting is wrong.


A dishonourable list (1)

A brief but biting editorial from "The Times" below about the annual British honours list (knighthoods etc.) just announced. I must say that an awful lot of nonentities have been gonged this year: Pop singers, actors, TV presenters, a rag-trader, a BBC apparatchik etc. Being already popular or being brown-skinned seem to have been major qualifiers. A more comprehensive commentary here

There are few more predictable annual rituals than the new year honours list. There are always a few well merited awards, valuable when they are given to people away from the public eye who would never dream of such recognition for the good work they do. But the list tends to be dominated by a mix of worthies and entertainers who ought to be content with the honour of banking large sums of money for their work. The latest list is little better. In the context of the refusal to honour those who put their lives at risk to save the lives of others on 7/7, it looks insulting.

Gordon Brown is in danger of promising much and delivering little. The prime minister made a song and dance about honouring members of the public who show bravery during terrorist attacks. As he put it in July: "It is right that we look at how our honours system can recognise those in our emergency services and members of the public who showed such bravery and heroism in the face of the recent terrorist attacks." That turns out to have been hot air. In reality, as we report, the Cabinet Office has actually turned down such nominations as undeserving.

Awards have indeed been made for behaviour on 7/7 - but to civil servants sitting at their desks co-ordinating the work of others. Heroes such as Tim Coulson, a teacher who smashed his way into a bombed Tube carriage, gave first aid, had a man die in his arms and was so badly affected by his experience that he has had to retire early, have been snubbed. Not one member of the public has been rewarded for bravery. Mr Coulson's wife was told by the Cabinet Office that "honours are awarded to people for meritorious service over a sustained period and not specifically for saving someone's life" - an explanation which contradicts the citation to the bureaucrats honoured for their co-ordination role on 7/7.

There have long been calls for the honours system to be reformed. Now the shame of these snubs to the brave brings dishonour to the establishment that bestows them.


A dishonourable list (2)

Rod Liddle offers a lighter version of the points made in the editorial above

Another year goes by and no bloody official recognition. Slave my guts out every week alerting people to the fact that Bono, Patricia Hewitt, Sting, the Milibands, Ruth Kelly, all doctors and most of the Conservative party are agents of Satan, all for no thanks. Not that one does it in expectation of ennoblement, of course. One does it, without fear or favour, for the good of the country. And for money, obviously.

But then you read the new year's honours list and discover, halfway down, that George Alagiah and Hanif Kureishi have both been bunged some Establishment bauble, and the rancour begins to build. Kureishi's got a CBE - for what? I mean, I have nothing against the chap. He's quite a good writer, in much the same way as Jimmy Carr is quite a good comedian and Bas Savage, of Brighton, is quite a good footballer. In truth, the three of them inhabit that vague, shadowy area where "quite good" merges imperceptibly with "actually, not very good at all".

Martin Amis, Iain Banks and, strange to say, JG Ballard have never been honoured - some people might argue that they have performed a greater service to literature over the years than Kureishi. Some people might even remember the name of a book one of them has written, which gives them the distinct edge over Hanif.

And then George Alagiah, recipient of an OBE - what's he done, exactly? Read the bloody news from an Autocue. Again, I have nothing against George, who seems a likeable chap. But his is an occupation that requires nothing in the way of skill, tenacity, intellectual ability or fortitude. All you have to do is sit there, read what's been written for you by some marginally postpubescent PC BBC monkey and try not to belch or snigger. A pig's bladder on a stick could read the news. Probably. You begin to wonder what honours are for.

Why, for example, has a person called Jazzie B been handed an OBE? Because he was the driving force of Soul II Soul, a mediocre Brit R&B band a decade or so back? Hell, is that all it takes? I could form a mediocre Brit R&B band tomorrow and so, I suspect, could you. If Jazzie B can get an OBE then surely So Solid Crew deserve knighthoods.

And then there's Kylie Minogue, who gets an OBE for shoving her arse in our faces whenever the opportunity arises, or for having successfully recovered from cancer, or for having taken part in an episode of The Vicar of Dibley. Gordon Brown recently published a book about what can be achieved by individuals who struggle against overwhelming odds to inspire and transform their communities. It was quite an uplifting book in a way. It's just that I never knew it was written with Kylie Minogue in mind, still less Hanif Kureishi. Are those the people he meant?


The Church that worships the environment instead of God is fading fast: "Last night, leading figures gave warning that the Church of England could become a minority faith and that the findings should act as a wake-up call. The statistics show that attendance at Anglican Sunday services has dropped by 20 per cent since 2000. A survey of 37,000 churches, to be published in the new year, shows the number of people going to Sunday Mass in England last year averaged 861,000, compared with 852,000 Anglicans -worshipping. [Out of a popoulation of 60 million]

Old Etonian wants the commoners to pay more for their chicken: "The television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, known for his earthy approach to cooking and love of offal, is to launch a campaign for the middle classes to boycott cheap chicken in protest at the cruelty of battery farming. Fearnley-Whittingstall believes well-heeled consumers should be prepared to pay more for their chicken so that fewer birds are reared in overcrowded, unnatural conditions. Currently, less than 5% of chicken bought in Britain is organic or free-range, and critics believe shoppers place too much emphasis on simply finding the lowest prices. Organic chicken in the supermarket is about twice the price of intensively reared birds"

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Russia likes British education

They presumably have Oxbridge in mind, not British "Comprehensives"

Vladimir Putin's controversial youth movement is to send a select group of activists to learn at British universities - despite its disdain for Britain and its harassment of the British ambassador in Moscow. The 100,000-strong Nashi group, which is reportedly funded by the Kremlin, is to pay for dozens of its activists to study in Britain - because the excellence of the education will help make Russia a "world leader".

The move comes as Russia is threatening to forcibly close the St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg offices of the British Council, which promotes education overseas, as part of a diplomatic row. Nashi recently resumed its campaign against the British ambassador, Sir Anthony Brenton, after his speech on democracy to Putin opponents. Sir Anthony has called the campaign "psychological harassment bordering on violence", and complained that it had affected his wife and children. His car has been followed and he has been picketed on trips out of Moscow.

Yet despite its views on Britain, Nashi states: "We lag behind in knowledge and experience vital for making Russia a 21st-century world leader. British education is rated highly all over the world. The graduates of British universities are in great demand. This is because of the high quality of education and also control from the government."

Relations between Moscow and London have been soured by Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, wanted over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. Britain has refused to extradite Boris Berezovsky, who Russia accuses of financial crimes. An embassy source said: "The British Government supports young Russians who wish to study in the UK. This is a core activity of the British Council's three offices in Russia. We are delighted that Nashi clearly supports the objectives of the British Council."


Why I've no appetite for the Fife Diet

A 'small, grassroots movement' has sprung up in Scotland based on eating only food produced nearby. Local boy James Panton is appalled.

Burntisland is a picturesque town on the banks of the River Forth in east Scotland. It is home to the Fife Diet, the latest eco-trend, in which people are attempting to minimize their `carbon footprint' by living only on food that has been grown or produced in Fife. I grew up in Burntisland and lived for the first few years of my life on an enforced `Fife diet' - and I find the idea of eating nothing but local produce appalling.

The Fife diet, at least the one I vaguely remember from childhood, seemed to consist of an awful lot of mince with neeps and tatties (turnip and potatoes), stovies (bacon or corned beef with potatoes and onions) and stews (made of god-knows-what, but there were definitely potatoes involved). My mother was an immigrant from Nottingham in the English midlands, so she knew of culinary possibilities that existed beyond the Firth of Forth and she worked hard to educate my dad's rather conservative tastebuds.

Once a week, she would slip in a spaghetti bolognese, which Dad approved of as sufficiently mince-based, although to this day he cuts up his spaghetti with a knife and fork and is suspicious of parmesan. One of my sisters was a dab hand at quiche lorraine (or egg and bacon flan with exotic aspirations). A couple of times a year we had food from the Chinese takeaway on the High Street. Traditional Scottish egg foo yung, which I remember bearing remarkable similarities to scrambled egg with peas and onions, was a favourite. I know for a fact that we had a fondue set, but it was never used in front of the children.

I suspect that my early childhood diet wasn't that different to many people with my kind of Scottish small-ish town background in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We weren't particularly conservative, but the menu was pretty traditional, based on ingredients that had been used for decades and cooked in the same old ways. More interesting ingredients and ways of cooking were available: Edinburgh was just over 30 minutes away on the train and it was home to fruit and veg shops selling exotica of all shapes and sizes; there were Italian delicatessens with cheeses that came in a wider range than `red cheese' and `yellow cheese', and there were general stores that smelt of Indian spices and even Chinese supermarkets if you knew where to look. The foods from such specialist shops weren't part of my daily diet, though - they were expensive treats and curiosities, not daily staples, and they weren't generally available down in our local Co-op store.

Since I left Burntisland and moved to London at the age of 18, my daily diet has changed beyond all recognition. But what is remarkable is that so too has the daily diet of my parents and my older brothers and sisters who still live in or around Burntisland. Things that were once exotic are now commonplace in the supermarket and even at the Co-op: shipped and flown from around the world in bulk, they are available at a price that makes them affordable as everyday grub.

So there is something depressing about the news that Burntisland is now home to what the Guardian has called a `small grassroots movement' (1) (note the radical twang) that thinks the way to make the world a better place is to eat only foods that have been grown in the region of Fife. Inspired by the Vancouver-based 100 Mile Diet (2), in which participants attempted to survive on food produced within 100 miles of their homes, the Fife Diet draws its ingredients from an even smaller area of land. The diet is premised on the notion that reducing the number of `food miles' (the miles travelled by the food we eat between production and consumption) is one of the most important contributions individuals can make to saving the planet.

Mike Small, the inspiration behind the diet, claims that this is `not a back-to-nature movement rejecting the twenty-first century. It is a flexible, consciousness-raising exercise to show what realistic changes individuals can make'. He is surely right - the Fife Diet is a product of a peculiarly twenty-first century form of moralistic miserliness where the future of the planet is understood to be dependent upon the consumption choices made by individual families. The more they can reject the advances of food production and transportation that the late twentieth century brought to small towns like Burntisland the better.

The Fife Diet is celebrated as a way of bringing local communities together and supporting local producers and their products against `the ecological insanity of transporting food around the world' (3). Implicit in this is a politically correct kind of economic protectionism which seeks to celebrate everything local in opposition to producers from other parts of the world. Although I'm a fan of Burntisland, and I have many friends in Fife, I'm not convinced that its small farmers are any more deserving than the rather more efficient producers in many other parts of the world.

According to the diet's website `It's no good just saying no. We can't just oppose Tesco, rage against food miles and rant against food-packaging. In all aspects of socio-ecology we need to build alternative platforms and movements from within the shell of the old decaying society' (4). Unlike the 19 families who have so far signed up to the Fife Diet, I'm not at all convinced that having a diet so exotic as to include such luxuries as salt and pepper, tea and coffee and even the occasional glass of wine - all of which are ruled out in the Fife Diet in an attempt to curb climate change - is an expression of social decay. On the contrary, these foodstuffs were even part of the rather limited diet of my family when I was a young child.

And I am certainly not convinced that Tesco and other supermarket chains are the source of social decay. In fact, they are the means by which everyone from London to Burntisland can get hold of cheaply produced and distributed food from around the world - and all a damned sight more interesting than the neeps and tatties of my youth. The Fife Diet may be regarded as radical by those with low horizons, but attempting to solve the world's problems by retreating to the local shows that such campaigners are starved of imagination.


Stupid British rules say homes must be safe for robbers

A woman who suffered a break-in robbery in which she lost some valuable antiques worth "thousands" has been told she could face a significant liability if she beefs up her home's security, and a returning robber would be injured. "If I have got to live behind locked doors for the rest of my life, I hope the rest of my life isn't very long," the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Rugby, England, Advertiser. "But why would I want my house safe for these people? It's crazy," she said.

The woman had antiques and personal items worth "thousands" stolen from her home during her absence to attend to the needs of her brother, suffering with cancer. The invaders smashed through a security gate and broke windows in order to get inside, police reports said.

During their investigation, Rugby police provided her with a crime-fighting booklet that discusses home security. But she told the Advertiser when she asked about putting in a new security fence and upgrading its capabilities, she was told the laws on liability meant she risked a police investigation herself if any trespassers hurt themselves climbing it. She had wanted to add barbed wire to the fence in order to reduce the ease with which the robbers apparently gained access to her home.

But the Warwickshire Police "Operation Impact" booklet, which gives victims information on crime-fighting, suggested she could risk a prosecution herself if someone would be hurt. "I respect that if the postman or the gas man calls, they don't expect to hurt himself. But I was speechless - you couldn't make it up. I think these laws show we have gone soft in the head," she told the newspaper.


Austrian company offers to remove UK's 'disruptive' migrants in adapted aircraft

A company specialising in removing failed asylum-seekers is to approach the Government with plans to use specially adapted aircraft to deport hundreds of "disruptive" refugees. Asylum Airways, run by an Austrian aviation consultant with ties to British security firms, will operate aircraft for European countries which do not wish to use established airlines for the forced removal of asylum-seekers. The planes will have specially designed seats so that the "passengers" can be strapped down and restrained by guards. A deal could save the Government millions of pounds compared with the piecemeal contracts it has negotiated with dozens of airlines as well as reduce the number of aborted deportations.

Hundreds of asylum-seeker removals have had to be aborted in the past two years because of what the Home Office describes as "disruptive behaviour". And in the past few months airlines have been criticised for carrying failed asylum-seekers, many of whom allege they have been physically and racially abused by private security guards paid to escort them.

Earlier this year XL airlines announced that it would no longer work with the Home Office in removing failed asylum-seekers. But British Airways and others argue that they have a legal duty to take asylum-seekers on their aircraft.

Heinz Berger, who has set up the Asylum Airlines company and has worked with British companies providing security at British airports, says that he is still involved with the "bureaucracy" of the scheme but has identified Britain as a key market for his service. Mr Berger said that Britain was on a list of countries with whom he was seeking to do business. He said there was "ongoing interest all over Europe" for an airline that will organise flights around Europe, picking up failed asylum-seekers from various countries and then flying them back to their home nations around Africa, the Middle East and Asia. A special feature will be bespoke aircraft with padded rooms and restraining equipment.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the removal of hundreds of asylum-seekers each year has to be cancelled because of "disruptive behaviour". But this can include medical problems as well as complaints from passengers. A spokeswoman for the Home Office said that while the Government was "open to new ideas" she said the present arrangements were working "pretty well".


Divorcees are bad for the environment. Do environmentalists care?

A small item in the British Medical Journal recently caught my eye. It was a brief digest of a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the environmental impact of divorce. Researchers from Michigan found that people in divorced households spent 46 and 56 percent more on electricity and water, respectively, than did people in married households. This outcome is not all that surprising: marriage involves (among many other things, of course) economies of scale.

One of the interesting questions that this little piece of research poses is whether the environmentalist lobby will now throw itself behind the cause of family values. Will it, for example, push for the tightening of divorce laws, and for financial penalties-in the form, say, of higher taxes-to be imposed on those who insist upon divorcing, and therefore upon using 46 percent more electricity and 52 percent more water per person than married couples who stay together? Will environmentalists march down the streets with banners reading SAVE THE PLANET: STAY WITH THE HUSBAND YOU HATE?

For myself, I doubt it. Yet these figures, if true, are certainly suggestive. The fact that there will be no demonstrations against environmentally destructive divorcees, who probably emit as much extra carbon dioxide as the average SUV, suggests that the desire to save the planet is not nearly as powerful as the desire to destroy a way of life.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

A bad year to be fat in Britain

The year kicked off with the news that an overweight boy from North Tyneside could be taken from his mother by child protection officials. Her apparent crime: overfeeding her son. He was allowed to stay at home, but in the months to come various investigations - including one by the BBC - would uncover that obesity had been a factor in perhaps as many as two dozen child protection cases.

Some professionals said allowing a child to become obese had to be viewed as a form of neglect, given the potential health consequences. Others believed that to treat childhood obesity as a parental crime was foraying into unchartered - and potentially rather sinister - territory.

Other obesity-related headlines rolled in thick and fast. From fire chiefs considering charging to move large people from their homes to government equating obesity with climate change, fatness was never far away. "When we first started talking about obesity as a problem, it was very hard to be heard," says Dr Ian Campbell, medical director of the charity Weight Concern. "Now the pendulum has swung too far the other way - we hear nothing but. And the net result is that the kind of moralising the obese and overweight have always suffered has somehow become institutionalised."

One of the recent developments that particularly concerns the National Obesity Forum (NOF) is the move towards what has been described as "rationing" healthcare for the obese. According to one tally, there are at least eight NHS trusts which have introduced some form of restriction for non-urgent operations on the overweight. Such measures, which range from patients having to prove they have tried to lose weight to straightforward refusal to refer those above a certain BMI (body mass index), received something of an endorsement from then health secretary Patricia Hewitt earlier this year.

The fact is, doctors say, there are sound clinical reasons to delay treatment until patients lose weight. The operation is likely to be more successful, the recovery time shorter. But Dr Colin Waine, NOF chairman, believes that the obese are simply being used by hospitals as a convenient way to cut down on expenditure. "This is really about resources. You can't argue that denying a hip-and-knee operation to an obese person is in their interests, as it may well be the inability to walk about and exercise which is making their problems worse."

Recently the British Fertility Society has joined in, arguing that the obese should be barred from IVF as extra weight put the health and welfare of both mother and baby at risk. This, Dr Waine claims, is "discriminatory".

And the constant debate about the problems fat people pose can get very tiresome for those on the receiving end. "There's always been prejudice," says Vicki Swinden, founder of Fat Is The New Black. "But what's changed is that this now seems to be totally acceptable. It's perfectly legitimate now for a person standing in an airline queue to say: 'I'm not sitting next to that person, they're too fat.'" Fat Is The New Black argues that being fat does not necessarily mean you are not fit, or prone to ill health, and indeed this stance has been backed up by several studies. Most recently, a major US investigation found the overweight had no higher risk of dying of cancer or heart disease and overall lived longer than those of a "normal" weight.

Yet no-one seriously contends that obesity is not a problem - even if there is debate as to how great a risk it poses. But there is suggestion that perhaps we are harping on too much about it. "It's got to a stage now where it's actually hard to get any useful messages across because people have heard so much, often contradictory, information, that they just think: obesity blah blah blah," says Mrs Swinden.

The Health Secretary Alan Johnson recently said obesity was a problem "on the scale of climate change". Increasingly there are fears that we hear so much about the doom and gloom of global warming that we have started to switch off. "We don't want this to happen with obesity. We know what the problem is. We don't need more reports, more studies, more talking," says Dr Waine. "We just need to get with it now: the government, the food industry, the community and the individual - we need to get cracking."


Friday, December 28, 2007

The chocolate merry-go-round

Good for you, bad for you, good for you ....

For those of you tucking into dark chocolate this Christmas using the excuse it is good for you, think again. A top medical journal said any health claims about plain chocolate may be misleading. Plain chocolate is naturally rich in flavanols, plant chemicals that are believed to protect the heart. But an editorial in the Lancet points out that many manufacturers remove flavanols because of their bitter taste. Instead, many products may just be abundant in fat and sugar - both of which are harmful to the heart and arteries, the journal reported.

Previous studies have suggested that plain chocolate can help protect the heart, lower blood pressure and aid tiredness. But the Lancet said: "Dark chocolate can be deceptive. "When chocolate manufacturers make confectionery, the natural cocoa solids can be darkened and the flavanols, which are bitter, removed, so even a dark-looking chocolate can have no flavanol. "Consumers are also kept in the dark about the flavanol content of chocolate because manufacturers rarely label their products with this information."

And the journal also pointed out that even with flavanols present, chocolate-lovers should be mindful of the other contents. "The devil in the dark chocolate is the fat, sugar and calories it also contains. "To gain any health benefit, those who eat a moderate amount of flavanol-rich dark chocolate will have to balance the calories by reducing their intake of other foods - a tricky job for even the most ardent calorie counter.

"So, with the holiday season upon us, it might be worth getting familiar with the calories in a bar of dark chocolate versus a mince pie and having a calculator at hand."


Mainstreaming of backward and disabled children not working

Teachers' leaders and opposition MPs have raised the alarm over increasing numbers of special needs children being excluded from schools. Figures unearthed by the Liberal Democrats show that for the first time in years more than half the children being excluded from school have some special need. They place a question mark over the success of the policy of integrating children with disabilities into mainstream schools.

The figures show 55 per cent of all exclusions involved pupils with special needs - up from 45 per cent four years ago. This amounts to 23,300 pupils with a statement outlining their special needs and 164,450 children considered to have special needs but without a statement.

The figures, included in an answer by the Children's minister Kevin Brennan to a parliamentary question by David Laws, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on children, schools and families, has prompted demands for a review of government policy towards "inclusion" - which aims to provide places for children with special needs in mainstream schools.

"Despite only making up a fifth of the school population, more than half of those children excluded have special educational needs," said Mr Laws. He said they risked falling behind in their education as a result of exclusion, adding: "Despite recent warnings from Ofsted and the Parliamentary Select Committee, government policy is continuing to fail children who require extra individual support - not exclusion from school. "I am concerned that ministers are not providing schools with the necessary support to integrate pupils with special needs into mainstream schools. This is likely to create behavioural problems which many headteachers simply don't have the resources to tackle."

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which has campaigned against disruptive behaviour in school, said it was "concerned" that the drive for inclusion "can lead to these pupils and their teachers being deprived of the specialist support and advice to which they are entitled".

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that the figures for permanent exclusions of special needs youngsters with statements had fallen since 1997 from 2,250 to 880. The parliamentary figures cover both fixed-term and permanent exclusion and include all children who need special help - regardless of whether they have a statement or not.


Anger over plan to broadcast Muslim call to prayer on loudspeaker in Oxford

Muslim plans to broadcast a loudspeaker call to prayer from a city centre mosque have been attacked by local residents who say it would turn the area into a "Muslim ghetto". Dozens of people packed out a council meeting to express their concerns over the plans for a two-minute long call to prayer to be issued three times a day, saying that it could drown out the traditional sound of church bells. But a spokesman for the Central Mosque said that Muslim's also have the right to summon worshippers.

Dr Mark Huckster, who lives in Stanton Road and works at East Oxford hospice Helen House, told the Oxford Mail: "The proposal to issue a prayer call is very un-neighbourly, especially in a crowded urban space such as Oxford. "I have lived in the Middle East and a prayer call has a very different feel to church bells and I personally found the noise extremely unpleasant, rather disturbing and very alien to the western mindset." He added: "If an evangelical Christian preacher proposed issuing sermons three times a day at full volume there would be an outcry. "There could be a sense of ghettoisation of East Oxford. Cowley Road would have a Muslim flavour and could become a Muslim ghetto which is contrary to what we want in a multicultural society."


Deaf demand right to designer deaf children

This is the logical outcome of "All cultures are equal"

DEAF parents should be allowed to screen their embryos so they can pick a deaf child over one that has all its senses intact, according to the chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (RNID). Jackie Ballard, a former Liberal Democrat MP, says that although the vast majority of deaf parents would want a child who has normal hearing, a small minority of couples would prefer to create a child who is effectively disabled, to fit in better with the family lifestyle. Ballard's stance is likely to be welcomed by other deaf organisations, including the British Deaf Association (BDA), which is campaigning to amend government legislation to allow the creation of babies with disabilities.

A clause in the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords, would make it illegal for parents undergoing embryo screening to choose an embryo with an abnormality if healthy embryos exist. In America a deaf couple deliberately created a baby with hearing difficulties by choosing a sperm donor with generations of deafness in his family. This would be impossible under the bill in its present form in the UK. Disability charities say this makes the proposed legislation discriminatory, because it gives parents the right to create "designer babies" free from genetic conditions while banning couples from deliberately creating a baby with a disability.

The prospect of selecting "deaf embryos" is likely to be seized on by campaigners against genetic screening who will argue that this is an inevitable outcome of allowing "designer babies". Doctors are opposed to creating deaf babies. Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the Bridge Centre, a clinic in London that screens embyros, said: "This would be an abuse of medical technology. Deafness is not the normal state, it is a disability. To deliberately create a deaf embryo would be contrary to the ethos of our society."

Ballard, who previously ran into controversy as director-general of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) where she pushed through extensive job cuts, said in an interview with The Sunday Times: "Most parents would choose to have a hearing embryo, but for those few parents who do not, we think they should be allowed to exercise that choice and we would support them in that decision. "There are a number of deaf forums where there are discussions about this. There are a small minority of activists who say that there is a cultural identity in being born deaf and that we should not destroy that cultural identity by preventing children from being born deaf." Ballard added: "We would like to retain, as far as possible, parental choice, but it has to be in conjunction with a clinician so that people know exactly what they are choosing."

Next month a coalition of disability organisations will launch a campaign to amend the bill to make it possible for parents to choose the embryos that carry a genetic abnormality. Francis Murphy, chairman of the BDA, said: "If choice of embryos for implantation is to be given to citizens in general, and if hearing and other people are allowed to choose embryos that will be `like them', sharing the same characteristics, language and culture, then we believe that deaf people should have the same right." Murphy added that the BDA believes it is very unlikely that it would become common for deaf parents to deliberately create deaf children.

To create a "designer baby" using preimplantation genetic diagnosis, couples need to go through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) even if they could conceive naturally. The embryos created are then genetically screened and normally only the healthy ones are implanted in the mother's womb. This weekend the RNID played down Ballard's comments by pointing out that the charity does not advocate deliberately creating deaf babies. A spokesman said: "While the RNID believes in the individual's right to choose, we would not actively encourage the selection of deaf embryos over hearing ones for implantation when both are available."


A freedom to shout about

YOU get a better class of political protester at Oxford University. Last week, when students broke into an Oxford Union debate to protest at the presence of the British National Party leader and a notorious Holocaust denier, one of the intruders commandeered a piano and shouted a question to the packed hall: "Wagner, perhaps?"

Free speech. A noble idea. But the debate about it in Britain today isn't really about free speech at all. It has become a Trojan Horse for a different debate entirely - one about religion and race. By deciding what's permissible to say in public, we are defining how tolerant a society we are prepared to be. In practical terms, this means how tolerant we are of religious and racial intolerance.

For the majority of us, liberal by instinct and live-and-let-live by inclination, this throws up some uncomfortable conflicts. On one hand we have to decide what leeway to allow extremists to spout race hate. On the other we have to judge when to curb the hateful preachings of religious fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim.

Last week in Oxford, Nick Griffin of the BNP and the disgraced historian David Irving were faced with protesters who seemed to be split into three camps, each with its own distinctive take on the right of free speech.

The first, echoed by a number of eminent commentators in the past week, goes something like this: Yes, these men have the right to free speech; but they are not entitled to make their loathsome case on such hallowed ground as the Oxford Union, which has played host to great historical figures including Mahatma Gandhi, Bobby Kennedy and Mother Teresa.

What tosh. If the Oxford University is indeed the apex of intellect it professes to be, then where better to forensically dismantle some bampot fascist ideas and show them up as historically illiterate, morally indefensible and politically naive?

The second group's viewpoint is slightly different: yes, we have a right to free speech in this country, but that only applies if your views are nice and cuddly and liberal, like ours. Otherwise, we will shut you up. If you want to preach racial intolerance then we will deny you a platform, we will deny you a debate and we will try to drown you out by shouting very loudly.

More tosh. By refusing to engage in debate with the extreme right - or any group that plays to base fears - all we do is nurture and sustain them. It's not good enough to say we're not going to dignify their views by responding to them. We must meet them head-on, always giving trust to reason and the power of argument. Anything else is a counsel of despair.

Of course, the right to free speech is never an absolute. There are laws in place to ensure that if BNP statements stray into incitement to racial hatred they become a criminal offence. But within the bounds of what is legal, free speech should mean exactly that. Even if it means the freedom to be racist, misogynistic, homophobic or any other intolerant social trait.

There was a third group at Oxford too, and their reasoning could be summed up like this: whether or not you have the right to free speech is irrelevant - you're a fascist bastard and I'm going to try my best to give you a good kicking. I admit in my student days in the early 1980s - the era of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League - I may have had some sympathy with this view. These days I hope I'm more reasonable.

A useful rule of thumb is this: your fundamental right to free speech will only be curbed when it infringes on the fundamental rights of others. And there's an important distinction to be made here. There is no fundamental right to have your religious beliefs protected from criticism. Just because you claim your views are sanctioned by God does not provide you with any additional protection, or justification for that matter. This is what psychologists call a 'category error'.

At the moment, the novelist Martin Amis is being accused of being a racist because of his sustained criticism of extremist Islamism. His critics' reasoning appears to be that because most followers of Islam are non-white, Amis's views are therefore racist. At the risk of repeating myself: utter tosh.

Amis is exercising his right to free speech in the precise area where it is most needed - in seeking clarity in a debate about religion and race that is too often a fug of lazy assumptions and unexamined prejudices. His criticism is not of a race or a religion but of an ideology. He refuses to take the craven and cowardly position that we must accept other cultures and other traditions entirely on their own terms, without any reference to our own morality and values.

There's a phrase we're all familiar with, for which we can thank Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Here and now, in Britain in 2007, this notion feels a bit antique. Today we are far more likely to say: "I disapprove of what you say, so I will accuse you of racism/religious intolerance/political incorrectness until you shut up."

It's time we rediscovered the spirit of Voltaire's original sentiment and applied it anew to the troubled age in which we live. Free speech, after all, has a price.


Australia/Britain ties still strong

Article below by Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor of "The Australian". He notes strong ties at the military level between Australian and Britain. One reason is that there are many British-born people in Australia's armed forces and even some Australians in the British armed forces

IT was good to see Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Aussie troops just before Christmas. That is the right place for a leader to be. Rudd bolstered the troops' morale, showing them that we all care about them. The trip also had geo-strategic purposes. In Iraq, Rudd is withdrawing our combat troops, but he underlined Canberra's continuing commitment to help Iraq, not least through military assets, and indeed help the US project in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Rudd said Australia was committed "for the long haul" to fighting the Taliban.

These are admirable and important statements. They indicate clearly that, contrary to the wishes of some commentators, Rudd is not withdrawing from Australia's global engagement in security matters, including involvement in the Middle East. It also means the US-Australia intimacy of recent years, especially the military intimacy and its all-important intelligence aspect, will continue. It was not an aberration born of the unique circumstances of Iraq but a natural evolution. Although Rudd will rightly put heavy emphasis on Asia, he also cites the US alliance as another of the three pillars of his foreign policy. (The third is the UN.) He also has close British connections and spoke to Gordon Brown soon after his victory.

Last year I wrote a book on the US-Australia alliance called The Partnership. In researching it I was astonished at just how intimate the US-Australian military and intelligence relationships have become. But the most surprising thing I discovered while writing the book did not directly concern the Americans at all. Rather, it was the astonishing, continuing, political, military and intelligence closeness between Australia and Britain. This was surprising in part because we are not big players in Britain's primary sphere of concern, Europe. And London's direct security interests in our part of the world are limited. But we are global players and so is Britain, even more so. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the G8 and NATO, and with renowned armed forces, London doesn't have to punch above its weight to be highly influential. It merely has to punch at its weight.

Everywhere I went in the US-Australia alliance, I found the Brits. Our special forces train with theirs, as we do with the Americans. Our troops on exchange with the Brits can deploy into military operations with them, an extremely rare practice, but something we also do with the Yanks. Australian liaison officers attend the most sensitive British intelligence meetings and vice versa, in arrangements of such intimacy that they are equalled only in our relationship with the US.

Then another thing struck me: that while this was all entirely to the good as we share so much in values and history with the Brits (and I say this an Irish Australian), this was really all happening without any overarching structure to inform the public or even to give top level policy guidance. It was organic.

Now here, dear reader, I have to confess, for the sake of the historical record, an episode of direct personal activism. I have never had any problems with journalistic activism so long as this activism consists primarily of advocating a policy and so long as this advocacy is carried out primarily in print. But in this particular case events moved more swiftly than I could get into print and I also faced some question about the status, in terms of on or off-the-record, of certain conversations. In any event, now that all the politicians involved at the time are retired, here is the story, for what it'sworth.

When then British prime minister Tony Blair visited Australia I was invited to participate in an Australia-UK Dialogue held in Canberra. Given the chance to put in my two bobs' worth, I argued that the two nations were military allies in effect, but there was no formal framework for this alliance and, while economic, cultural and sporting links were well celebrated and understood, there should be some agreement, pact or structure that carried the security relationship. Most attendees at this function were business types and the idea didn't seem to grab them.

That night, there was a reception for Blair at the Lodge in Canberra and those of us who had attended the day's meeting were invited along. Howard introduced Blair around the room and I had a few minutes' conversation with him. Determined not to waste this opportunity, I put my idea to Blair. Blair was quite euphoric about Australia, where he was getting a very friendly reception, but gently joked about my idea, saying (with full irony and no intent to be taken seriously) that perhaps Britain and Australia could team up against China.

Howard reacted politely enough to the idea but had that uneasy quality of the politician cornered by the mad voter from Gulargambone who wants him to turn the rivers back. But if you have a mad policy idea, you mustn't be deterred by mere indifference at the highest level. Around the Lodge that night I buttonholed various senior defence, foreign affairs and intelligence bureaucrats and put the idea to them as well. None had any argument against it, but all were similarly noncommittal. Finally I found Alexander Downer and put the idea to him. He, too, was noncommittal, but he pointed out that Iraq and Afghanistan had intensified Australian-British military and intelligence co-operation from an admittedly already high base. He seemed to chew the idea over.

I was planning to write a column in a few days making the argument in print that I'd been making verbally. But the next day Blair attended an Australian cabinet meeting. In the middle of the meeting, without any preparatory staff work, Downer suggested a new Australian-British body of foreign and defence ministers meeting annually, along the lines of the AUSMIN meetings Australia has annually with the US. Downer apologised to Howard for not having raised it in advance privately. Blair, without consulting his advisers, was generous and enthusiastic in his response. He thought it was a great idea.

Thus was born AUKMIN, which is now the highest level formal strategic consultation we have with the Brits. I felt weirdly constrained about writing about this, as I presumed the Lodge conversations were more or less off the record. Bureaucrats in both countries were taken wholly by surprise, despite what they might tell you. Rudd was also at the Lodge that night. His splendid words in Afghanistan suggest he will make full and intelligent use of AUKMIN, as sound an institution as has ever been created with so little bureaucratic preparation.


Britain rapidly becoming less English

At least a dozen British towns and cities will have no single ethnic group in a majority within the next 30 years. Leicester will become the first 'super-diverse' city in 2020, then Birmingham in 2024, followed by Slough and Luton, according to a new study of population trends in the UK.

The report reveals that Leicester has seen the proportion of its white population fall from 70.1 per cent in 1991 to 59.5 per cent today. By 2016 the white population will make up 52.2 per cent of the population, falling to 44.5 per cent by 2026. 'Britain is becoming ever more plural; our diversity ever more diverse,' said Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, whose predictions are based on the most comprehensive study into the country's population trends. 'This increased diversity is most evident in its cities, with plurality becoming commonplace.'

The immigrant and ethnic populations are no longer characterised by large, well organised Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities, said Dorling. Instead, increasing numbers come from countries scattered across the globe - from Germany to Guyana, from Sweden to Singapore.

'It is going to become increasingly difficult to generalise about Britain's plurality because different cities are experiencing different levels and types of diversity,' he said. 'This creates a complex challenge for those responsible for successfully managing the country's changing population.'

In the Thirties, the proportion of people living in Britain who were born in foreign countries was 2.5 per cent. Typically these individuals came from one of 15 countries, in particular Ireland and India. Today more than 10 per cent of the population were born abroad, with no single ethnic group dominating.

Sukhvinder Stubbs, chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which commissioned Dorling's research, said the findings indicate key challenges facing Britain, including a need to reframe the immigration debate and to focus on the changing pressure on the country's resources. 'For Britain's major urban centres, ethnic diversity is the reality,' she said. 'Regardless of future immigration patterns, it is just a matter of time until cities such as Birmingham become plural. Even if we prohibited another single soul from entering the country, the trends have already laid root.'

In the period from 1991 to 2026, which will see Leicester's white population fall from 70.1 per cent to 44.5 per cent, the city's second largest ethnic group, Indians, is predicted to rise from 22.9 per cent to 26 per cent. The Pakistani population will triple to 3.3 per cent, while the proportion of Africans will rise from 0.4 per cent in 1991 to 11.2 per cent.

Birmingham's transition to plural city status will, however, be markedly different to Leicester's, added Dorling. The proportion of white people in its population will fall from 77 per cent to 47.7 per cent. But while much of Leicester's growth in ethnic minorities will be driven by African growth, Birmingham's population shift will be dominated by those of Pakistani descent.

Dorling's research also looks at the shifts in population patterns in towns that are not expected to become plural in the foreseeable future. Oldham, for example, will remain a town with an overwhelmingly white population. However, it will witness a significant change in its demographic profile, with the town's white population falling from more than 90 per cent to 74.4 per cent in the 30 years from 1991. 'Contrary to popular opinion, Oldham's ethnic minority population is not homogeneous,' said Dorling. 'The town's second largest ethnic group after whites is Pakistani, but by 2021 there are likely to be as many Bangladeshis in Oldham as there are Pakistanis.' [Few others would be able to tell the difference]

Dorling's research also shows that, although Greater London's population is already significantly diverse with a white population of 67.5 per cent, it is not likely to become plural in the near future. By 2026 the white population is predicted to reach 60.7 per cent, with just eight of London's 33 local authority areas predicted to become plural.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

On the first day of Christmas...

Three lighter posts from the Unhinged Kingdom to start with today: Post below lifted from Adam Smith blog. See the original for links

My true love sent to me: a partridge in a pear tree. In the original song it seems that 'my true love' is God, that the partridge symbolizes Christ, and the pear tree represents the Cross. Well, maybe.

But in Britain, until this year, if you wanted to deal in game - not just partridges but pheasants, hares, grouse, moor game, woodcock, deer, or rabbits, you needed a licence from the local authority under section 18 of the 1831 Game Act (plus an excise licence from the Post Office under section 14 of the 1860 Game Licences Act). The 1831 legislation laid down strict rules on when game could be sold - an attempt to ensure that breeding cycles were not disrupted. Freezing and refrigeration of course make a nonsense out of this, but our politicians seem to have overlooked this for the last half century. That is how laws are made.

The requirement for a licence to shoot game has been scrapped, but shooting on Sundays and Christmas Day is still banned, thanks to a campaign by the League Against Cruel Sports. (I guess it's not so cruel to shoot things Monday-Saturday.)

Critics also argued that Sunday shooting would disrupt people's lie-in, and could prove dangerous as people went for a Sunday stroll. Still, they told us that nobody wanted to shop on a Sunday too, and now (even though our rulers allow the shops to open only a few hours) Sunday is a hugely popular shopping day. We really should scrap all this regulation.


Red Ken's bureaucracy defeats the Greenies!

Transport for London, run by far-Left Mayor "Red Ken" Livingstone, claims that pedicabs (a glorified bicycle) are the same as taxicabs. It has resorted to litigation against a company called Bugbugs - which operates pedicabs - in pursuit of the point. Post below lifted from The Croydonian. See the original for links and pics

"Bugbugs had sought to strike out, on the grounds of abuse of process, a claim made under CPR Part 8 by the respondent, Transport for London ("TfL"), for a declaration that a pedicab is a "hackney carriage" for the purposes of section 4 of the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 ("the 1869 Act"). The Master dismissed Bugbugs' application to strike out TfL's claim. He gave permission to appeal".

And the appeal failed. I am not going to go off on a 'the law is an ass' rant since that would be a - dull and b- not entirely justified as this and previous litigation revolve around whether a pedicab is a hackney carriage or a stage carriage. What is more noteworthy is that TfL is behaving like a classic monopolist and attempting to destroy a competitor by loading it with an unsupportable regulatory burden. Apparently the old bale of hay law has been repealed, but the added weight of insurance and so like will inevitably wreck the ability of pedicab riders (that would appear to be the technical term) to make a living. And meanwhile, how many accidents have been caused by the riders, public nuisances etc etc? Few I imagine.

The company itself appears to be achingly right on - "It is a not-for-profit organisation, limited by guarantee and run by a board of trustees. It was founded in 1998 and its aims include the provision of a sustainable emission-free integrated form of passenger transport and the creation of work and training opportunities for people from all backgrounds and nationalities". Doubtless regular users are Guardianistas to a wo/man, and occasional users tourists. I went for a ride in one in Edinburgh in the summer and it was rather fun.

So well done TfL. What a great day's work - an almighty spoke has been rammed into the wheel of both a harmless diversion for denizens of the metropolis and the ability of folk to make a living.


The super-efficient British cops will get their man!

Unless there is a serious problem, of course. Post below lifted from Adam Smith blog. See the original for links

Alain Roberts climbed Portland House the other day - a tall building (mainly full of quangos) near London's Victoria Station. He did it all with his hands and feet - he used no ropes, pitons or other kit. At the top he was promptly arrested. The charge? Wasting police time.

Now I don't know what makes the police think their time is so valuable that the antics of this harmless eccentric amount to a waste of it. Presumably they reckon that while they were taking tea on the roof and waiting for 'Spiderman' Roberts to arrive, they could have been out booking motorists for doing 36mph, or harrassing middle class citizens for trying to stop thugs breaking into their homes.

The police didn't have to be there. Their action reminds me of the supposed lawyer's bill: To crossing the road to update you on your case, 100 pounds . To crossing back after realizing it wasn't you 100 pounds. We seem to live in a society where we invent crimes for no good reason. Why punish people for smoking weed (or tobacco for that matter) when the only person caused any harm is themselves? I'd really prefer it if the police sat at home rather than having to think up new reasons to arrest folk.


New hope from Britain in battle against Clostridium difficile

A vaccine that operates on the same principle as the jab for diphtheria and tetanus could be used to stamp out cases of the virulent hospital superbug Clostridium difficile, researchers say. Scientists will start recruiting patients next year for clinical trials of the vaccine, which has the potential to prevent thousands of deaths in British hospitals each year.

The vaccine, given to healthy patients last year to check its safety, works by using a small quantity of formaldehyde to neutralise toxins emitted by the bacteria. In laboratory trials and tests on at least three patients with chronic C. difficile infections, it rendered these toxins harmless, helping the immune system to fight off illness naturally. A jab against C. difficilecould be provided to at-risk groups within eight years, the researchers suggest.

C. difficile is the most common form of hospital-acquired infection and diarrhoea in the Western world. It contributed to the deaths of nearly 4,000 people last year. Cases of the superbug, which is harder to control than MRSA, increased by 8 per cent last year compared with 2005.

Acambis, the company developing the vaccine, said that it was negotiating with the Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency on whether British patients could take part in the next stage of the trials. The company, based in Cambridge, East Anglia, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that it had identified a number of vaccine formulations and planned to begin the second phase of trials towards the end of next year.

The bacterium occurs naturally in the intestines of 3 per cent of healthy adults and two thirds of infants, where it rarely causes problems. However, it can cause illness - from mild to severe diarrhoea, or in some cases severe inflammation of the bowel - when its growth is unchecked. Treatment with antibiotics can disturb the balance of "normal" bacteria in the gut, allowing C. difficile to thrive.

Michael Watson, the executive vice-president for research and development at Acambis, said: "Formaldehyde may be best known as the pickling ingredient for Damien Hirst's shark, but it's also a key ingredient in vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. "In a typical C. difficile infection the toxins break apart and irritate the lining of the bowel. Our vaccine is designed to prevent this and render the toxins harmless, so they can be destroyed by the immune system."

Most people can recover from an infection naturally but patients whose immune reaction is weakened by age or illness have trouble fighting off the bug. Infections can be treated with antibiotics but an estimated 20-30 per cent of patients suffer a relapse.

The vaccine could provide a longer-term solution to the problem, and counter the emergence of drug-resistant strains, Dr Watson said. "We estimate that between 2010 and 2015, patients could start seeing the benefits," he added. The NHS is also using technology invented to protect Britain against biological weapons to fight superbugs. Air disinfection units, which kill up to 98.5 per cent of germs in the air, including drug-resistant strains of C. difficile, E. coli and MRSA, have been approved for use in hospitals after tests at Porton Down, the Government's bio-warfare research centre in Wiltshire.

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells hospitals trust in Kent, where at least 90 patients died as a result of C. difficile infections, will be the first to use the technology.


Harvard's deep pockets lure bright Brits

A record number of talented British teenagers are snubbing Oxbridge and applying to Ivy League universities, lured by more substantial American bursaries. Students from families whose household income is 90,000 pounds qualify for financial assistance at Harvard. It also recently raised its threshold for free tuition and board for the poorest students.

Leading British schools say that some of their highest-achieving pupils no longer see Oxford and Cambridge as the pinnacle. Instead they are attracted by the broader curriculum and supposedly superior facilities at Ivy League universities - an elite group of eight in the northeast of the United States. It raises fears that the cream of British students will increasingly look abroad, potentially undermining the global standing of our top universities.

The number of British students applying to Harvard was 197 five years ago. By last year it had risen to 290. Applications to Yale from British teenagers have more than trebled from 74 in 1997 to 234 last year. Harvard students whose parents' income is less than 30,000 pounds have all tuition fees, accommodation, living expenses and flights home paid by the university - a package worth almost 25,000. Those with household earnings of between 30,000 and 90,000 pounds have to contribute only between 4 and 10 per cent of their income. Even families earning more than 100,000 can be entitled to assistance if they have dependants such as elderly relatives, or more than one child at university. William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, said: "We just take the best people wherever they apply from, and we fly to the UK every year to talk to schools about it."

Leading independent schools said that an increasing number of pupils had set their sights on the Ivy League. Clarissa Farr, High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School in London, said that about 15 sixth-formers were applying to American universities this year, a big increase on previous years. She said: "They see themselves operating on a worldwide stage. Our students still see Oxbridge as very desirable, but other pinnacles are appearing beyond those mountains." For many, she said, the attraction was that students did not need to choose their specialist subject until their second year. Ms Farr added: "The American universities are very well resourced and their facilities are much bigger. There is also a huge range of scholarships and bursary programmes."

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, said that about 10 per cent of his pupils were applying to American universities this year. He said: "I think British universities have had it too easy for too long, with students queueing up to join them. It's a stimulus to British universities and good for them to have some com-petitition. US univerities offer a great deal that UK universities don't: far broader courses, much greater recognition of all-round achievement and richer extracurricular life. They have a more generous student/teacher ratio."

Vicky Tuck, Principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, said that more than a dozen of her pupils had applied for American universities this year. "There has certainly been an increase over the past two or three years," she said. "Some of the girls see their life prospects being enhanced by going to a good US university. "American universities are so well funded through philanthropic donations, it's just astonishing. I had one pupil from Poland who was offered places at Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT had a huge bursary and she couldn't afford to go to Cambridge, so she went to America instead." Mrs Tuck said that in such a competitive markent Oxbridge could start to lose some of its best candidates. "People who want the best will go overseas if they think they're not getting it here."

Students at British universities are now an average of 30,000 pounds in debt when they graduate. But the brightest applicants can emerge debt-free from an American education because at some Ivy League universities admissions tutors have no idea whether applicants can afford their fees and are determined to attract elite students from around the world, regardless of cost. They can easily afford to do so with alumni donations creating huge endowments. Harvard's is worth $35 billion which is more than the combined annual funding for all English universities.


Jeremy Clarkson on Christmas correctness

If you are a frizzy-headed, saggily breasted, left-threaded lunatic, Christmas is not a time for giving or receiving. It's not quality time for the family. Nor is it a time to worship the baby Jesus, because of course that's not multicultural or Winterval enough.

Christmas for these people is mostly a time of industrial-strength guilt. All year they feel guilty for being paid and comfortable but at Christmas they can really turn up the heat in the sauna of shame. They are guilty about the carbon vapour trail left by their cranberry sauce as it came over from America. They are guilty about the sheer volume of presents they bought for Tarquin. They are guilty about having central heating and a well-toned tummy, and teeth.

And so, to assuage the guilt, many have been buying charity Christmas presents for random families in Africa. All you do is make a donation to Oxfam and it will send a gift down the chimney of some mud hut in Mozambique. You may think this is all jolly noble, and I'd have to agree if the presents were iPods or Manchester United football shirts or something the average African villager might actually want.

But unfortunately we are talking about a bunch of fair-trade lunatics so what they've actually been buying is goats. Hundreds of them. Oxfam says this is a brilliant idea, and ActionAid even posts a quote from Elias Nadeba Silva, a farmer, who was given one last year. "I have great plans for my field," he said, "and my family is very grateful for ActionAid's help . . .

"But next year, no more goats, Okay? I'd prefer a copy of Mothership by Led Zeppelin."

Other popular choices from well-meaning idealists in the media-fuelled parts of eastern London include cans of worms, piles of dung, catering packs of condoms and the materials for making toilets. Who wants that for Christmas? "Daddy, Daddy. Santa's been!! He's been!!!! And he's brought me . . . an Armitage Shanks Accolade back-to-wall bog, which combines classical elegance with a contemporary style."

I can only begin to imagine the look of desperation on the little lad's face. That crushing, all-enveloping sense of overwhelming disappointment. Someone in faraway England has gone to all the bother of buying him a Christmas present. It's probably the only one he'll get. And it's a bloody bog.

Think about it. We're told that we should never buy our wives or girlfriends anything with a plug, because this is bound to be something they need, rather than want. And exactly the same thing holds true the world over. No child anywhere wants a lavatory for Christmas. You need a lavatory. You want teddies and footballs and BMX bicycles. And AK47s. It is hard, honestly, to think of a more useless, patronising and stupid present than a toilet. Not even a gift-wrapped copy of the worst book ever written - Versailles: The View from Sweden - comes close.


British diplomat gets a pounding

Taking the steps needed to combat global warming would also boost the economy, improve air quality and ensure cleaner water, a British official told state lawmakers at a hearing on climate change.

But one legislator challenged the international scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to warming the world and implied that the globe might not be heating up, something conceded even by many skeptics of man-made climate change..... Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, questioned the scientific consensus that the Earth is warming. He pointed out that most scientists in Christopher Columbus' day believed the Earth was flat and that a squadron of fighter planes lost over Greenland in 1942 was found in the 1990s under 250 feet of ice, even as the world was reportedly getting warmer.

Seabaugh said he believed the theory of man-made climate change was being pushed by industries that could benefit financially. "That is the reason why I remain highly skeptical of the hysteria over global warming," he said.

Rickerd later disputed Seabaugh's characterization. "It isn't hysteria," he said. "It isn't a bandwagon." The British envoy said while some areas of the world have cooled, the average global temperature is rising.

In a separate presentation, self-proclaimed global warming skeptic Harold Brown, an agricultural scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, said many were worried about "global cooling" as recently as the 1970s. He also said some of the direst effects of a warming world, such as an increase in the number of deaths because of heat-related illnesses, might not be as bad as some feared, even if climate change were to continue.

"Global warming is a wonderful environmental disease," he said sarcastically. "It has a thousand symptoms and a thousand cures and it has tens of thousands of practitioners with job security for decades to come unless the press and public opinion get tired of it."

Environmental groups, meanwhile, said lawmakers needed to quit rehashing a debate about climate change that green organizations consider settled.

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NHS told to return to the past

Nurses should take back responsibility for cooking and cleaning in hospitals instead of letting private contractors do the work, a medical expert says. Many doctors are afraid of being treated in their own hospitals, while a lack of support from the Government has left elderly patients at risk from hospital-acquired infections and malnourishment, according to academics writing in the British Journal of Hospital Medicine. Dame Betty Kershaw, the Emeritus Dean of Sheffield University School of Nursing and Midwifery, says that the NHS is offering an extremely poor service to older people in clinical settings and those being cared for in their homes. Recent attempts by ministers to lower rates of MRSA and Clostridium difficile infections through a “deep clean” of hospitals will not have any significant impact, she writes.

Dame Betty, a former president of the Royal College of Nursing, recommends giving responsibility back to nurses for tasks such as cleaning and catering. “We must return the power and control of nursing care to the ward sister (or the equivalent senior nursing post in the community) if we are to improve standards, address the serious loss of patients’ dignity and deal with the growing number of hospital-acquired infections,” she says. “The proposed ‘deep clean’ will be merely papering over the cracks. Cleaning staff need to be employed by the NHS, not contracted out.”

Gordon Brown announced the “deep clean” at the Labour Party conference, insisting that “a ward at a time, walls, ceilings, fittings and ventilation shafts, will be disinfected and scrubbed clean”. Health workers believe that the high volume of bed turnover in wards is a more serious issue. But the latest official report from the Department of Health suggests that dirty wards and high bed-occupancy rates no longer contribute significantly to the spread of MRSA.

Dame Betty is joining a debate prompted by Sir Roy Calne’ Emeritus Professor of Surgery at the University of Cambridge, who in a previous editorial for the journal declared that attitudes and standards in the NHS had changed so much that many doctors were afraid of being treated in their own hospitals. “As a consequence of bad treatment of nurses, the unions have become very strong and discipline has deteriorated, so that it is almost impossible to dismiss an unsafe nurse whose poor practice endangers patients,” he said.

Like Dame Betty, Sir Roy wants to see ward sisters in control of ancillary activity. He believes that a two-tier system of NHS treatment now exists, putting elderly patients at particular risk. He compared the high standards of flagship units with the “dismal” environment of geriatric wards, which were so dangerous they had become “a lottery for euthanasia from infection and malnourishment”.

The health workers’ union Unison says that the number of cleaners in the NHS has halved in the past 20 years. There have been concerns that hospitals are hiring the cheapest cleaning contracts and cutting corners. The standard of hospital food has also been recently criticised by the Healthcare Commission and the Royal College of Nursing.

Sir Roy said that boosting pay and morale among nurses would help to restore standards. “The shortage of nurses as a result of poor pay and perceived poor status has forced us to rely on the services of nurses from abroad, often from countries which can ill afford to lose their nurses,” he wrote.

Ministers argue that the increased focus on tackling hospital-acquired infections has contributed to a 27 per cent fall in the probability that a patient will acquire MRSA compared with 2001. But the Government is still expected to miss a three-year target to halve rates of MRSA by April.

A report published by the Department of Health concludes that high bed occupancy, greater use of temporary nursing staff and low cleanliness scores were correlated with higher MRSA rates up to 2003-04, but that in recent years these links have weakened to the point where they are not statistically significant. “One possibility is that trusts have become significantly better in recent years at understanding and meeting these challenges,” the report adds. Ann Keen, the Health Minister, said: “We have given the NHS comprehensive guidance on infection control and this report is consistent with our interventions and support beginning to bear fruit.”


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Britain: 'This isn't the country I grew up in. No one speaks a word of English these days,' says Dame Shirley Bassey

Few would recognise this rather slight figure as the vertiginously high-heeled, big-bosomed diva of Big Spender or Diamonds Are Forever, but this may be no bad thing. She is safe enough here within the portrait-lined walls of Cliveden House in Berkshire, the sort of hotel where the staff remember she is a Dame Commander of the British Empire. But a recent brush with the criminal classes has left her shaken. "It was all rather nerve-racking," she says. "I was Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge with my daughter Sharon. We'd been into Harvey Nichols to find some presents. "Somebody must have seen all the money and cards when I opened my bag to pay and followed me. I felt a bump but nothing more than that. And when I opened my bag at the next shop, there was no purse."

It seems unremarkable, perhaps. Pickpockets are a fact of life in most big European cities, and ever more so in London. But to someone used to the security of life in Monte Carlo - the ritzy, casino-laden side of Monaco - it was a genuine shock. "The worst of it is the worry," she says. "My cards can be cancelled but I worry who has my details or a picture of me. They took my residence card for Monaco."

She spends most of her time in the principality these days and, as she explains in her first interview for two years, the comparison with the life she sees back here is far from flattering. "This isn't England any more - at least it is not the country I remember growing up in," she says. "You don't hear English spoken here. You read about terrible things - not just drugs but all the killings. "When you live in a safe place like Monte Carlo, you can walk home at any time of the night and you don't have to worry. I don't feel at risk there. If I drive myself, I can leave the car doors unlocked. I wouldn't do that in London."

But at Christmas, not even the balmy warmth of the Mediterranean will keep her from flying over to be with her daughter Sharon and partner Des, and the rest of the family. Her business interests, too, are based in London and Shirley is at pains to say that she has not rejected Britain. However, the rising sense of physical danger here is not the only change to worry her. When the conversation comes to the unstoppable spread of reality television, she becomes animated, sitting forward on a silk chair in the Cliveden library for a heartfelt denunciation of what now passes for showbusiness.

"It seems there's no place for people with talent any more," she expostulates. "You have only to look at television to see that. And if people do have any talent, they get voted out of the shows. It's disgusting. It's an abuse. It seems that people want to be famous for doing nothing - or drinking. "It was totally different when I was breaking into the business. I learned by standing in the wings and watching established acts on stage. Today, no one seems to have any training. "I'm always being asked if I watch The X Factor and I do from time to time. I know it makes for great TV and that Simon Cowell has a real gift. "But it is a crying shame that kids who ought to have a great future are being ignored. "Another difference is that I was well looked after. Who advised Rhydian to have that hair? I don't call that looking after him."

Shirley had to scrap for her breaks. Raised by a lone mother in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff, she was repeatedly dismissed until that extraordinary voice finally won over the record labels. By the early Sixties she had a string of hits and an EMI recording contract. Then, in 1964, she found international fame with the title song of Goldfinger, the Bond film. "If hard work and talent can't get you anywhere, what hope is there?" she asks, warming to the theme. "Someone like Tallulah Rendell, a young singer at my 70th party last Sunday, she's got a wonderful voice. "What can she do to get a chance? Why should you have to wear a dress slashed to your backside to get recognised alongside all these no-talent-nothings out there? "I'm for old-fashioned glamour. There's not enough of it. Glamour has gone out of our lives. It's very sad."


Official censorship breeds mistrust of officialdom

In 2003, the local council in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire refused to show an A4 poster for a Christmas carol service in the local library, because it might constitute a political or religious message. The same year, the Red Cross banned nativity decorations from its British shops because it stated that an alignment to a particular religion could `compromise our ability to work in conflict situations around the world'. In 2006, a survey of 428 firms in Manchester found that 77 per cent of employers said they were banning decorations because they were worried about offending other faiths (2). In all these cases, the ban was about preventing possible harm, rather than responding to actual complaints.

It is stories like these that create suspicion that things are being heavily regulated. Of course, in reality, people in authority today rarely have the luxury to monitor everything they encounter. Most decisions are made defensively and in a knee-jerk fashion, rather than according to some sinister conspiracy plan. But the end result is a surge in urban myths which feed upon existing reality.

While the stories I have mentioned so far (and there are many more) were all reported in reputable papers, there are also plenty of emails circulating from `unofficial sources'. These are less reliable, but they feed our suspicion that this is `what you don't hear from those in charge'. The other day I received an email about how Royal Mail staff have been told only to offer their Christmas stamps (showing religious images of angels and the Madonna and Child) to those who asked explicitly for them over the counter. While a quick scan of the Royal Mail website shows that these stamps do indeed exist, there is probably no other way to test this story than to walk into a post office and see what happens.

The point about rumours is that they feed off a broader suspicion and distrust of `official sources'. We don't have to experience things firsthand to believe them. When I was conducting interviews with residents in the town of Oldham in the north-west of England last year, I kept hearing a claim that the council had banned the St George's flag (the flag of England). I casually asked various council staff about it but none of them could tell me for certain whether it had actually happened or not. One of them suggested that it might have been for `health-and-safety reasons'. Another guessed it might have been out of sensitivity to local ethnic groups and concerns about the presence in the area of the far-right British National Party (BNP). When I asked local people about it - Asian and white - many felt that this sort of decision was `typical' of the council. Crucially, it was not important whether the flag was actually banned or not, but that it was seen as entirely believable.

Official anti-racism has made cultural symbols and language so politicised that the public is bound to think that festivals, flags and images are being `managed' on their behalf. In March 2002, Oldham council publicised its decision to fly the Union Jack flag from the Civic Centre, as a way to reclaim it as a symbol from the extreme right. It also stated it would fly the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi flags for the duration of official visits from those countries. The authorities were paying attention to cultural images and using them to engineer attitudes.

The corollary to that, of course, is that language and images are not only promoted but also banned if they are seen to be a threat to community relations. We believe that official sources aren't telling us the truth because, ultimately, we feel that they don't trust us to make our own minds up about what see and hear.

In the 2001 local elections in Oldham, when the BNP gained its strongest electoral result in the UK in over a decade, the council censored all political parties from speaking on election night in order to prevent the BNP from talking to the electorate. In September 2001, the home secretary banned all public marches in Oldham for two months on grounds of `safety'. Likewise, Ted Cantle, in his report into the 2001 riots in the north-west, pointed out that there were complaints from the public about the police's over-zealous restrictions on political marches in the town against racism, and festivals to celebrate cultural diversity. Returning to the town in 2006, Cantle noted that despite all the diversity training and race equality guidelines, people in Oldham `wanted to ask questions around faith and culture, but were afraid to do so because it might be thought "politically incorrect"' (3).

In such a climate, where people are not expressing their views openly, rumours surge. In a 2001 US-based study, Fine and Turner argue that race rumours emerge as an expression of angst and suspicion when more public channels are censored or closed to certain opinions: `What happens when we dare not speak these beliefs? What happens when we deny - to ourselves and to others - that we hold them because we have come to accept that they are morally illegitimate? We believe that two responses are common. First, we become ashamed; we withdraw from dialogue. Second, following from this, we become too willing to accept claims of "actual happenings" that support these hidden beliefs.' (4)

The most recent high-profile example of a race rumour in Britain was in Lozells, Birmingham in 2006, when local Asian and black youths clashed on the streets. The riot was triggered by a story of a black girl having been gangraped by a group of Asian men. While the allegation lacked substance, and no witnesses or victim ever officially came forward, the story gained a life of its own on the airwaves of local community radio stations, like Hot FM and Sting FM, whose djs called for large-scale protests.

These unofficial channels picked up on local suspicions that the authorities always treated one group better than another and some people always got their way - a feeling probably compounded by the competitive dynamic of local community politics and the stress on difference in official local policies. Likewise, in his study of south-east London, the sociologist Roger Hewitt described how the media demonisation of white residents in the area following the murder of the young black youth Stephen Lawrence led to a `white backlash'. He describes how racism was `tucked away' amongst the politically powerless white working classes, who could not publicly object to the way in which they were being depicted. Suspicion grew through neighbourhood talk, rumour, narrative and counter-narrative. The authorities' tactics to silence these views by `scary and oblique references' to the BNP ended up reinforcing the sense of shame people felt, and further driving these views underground without proper scrutiny.

All of this suggests that the backlash against `political correctness gone mad' is not simply about a surge in racism or bigotry amongst the public against other groups (although it certainly doesn't help community relations in places like Lozells). There is also another factor at work here: a large number of people quite rightly resent the feeling that they are being `managed'. We indulge in the collective rolling of the eyeballs at political correctness gone mad because it allows us to momentarily express our irritation with officious policies. Perhaps next year, when junior officials think about how not to cause offence, they would be wise to think a bit more carefully about not insulting the public first.


NHS "Target" insanity

Targets intended to cut long waits in hospital Accident and Emergency units have cost the NHS in England 2 billion pounds over the past five years, an assessment of healthcare information has concluded.

The extra costs come from patients who are in danger of having to wait more than four hours in A&E – the target limit – and are admitted to hospital “just in case”. Many are later discharged the same day, suggesting they had no real need to be admitted, with today – Christmas Eve – having the highest proportion of patients sent out on the day of admission.

Primary care trusts have to pay as much as 1,000 pounds per admission, compared with about £100 for a patient treated in A&E. So the costs of admitting a patient – even for less than a day – are large. Data collected by the CHKS Group, an independent provider of healthcare information, suggest that over the past five years, about two million extra patients were admitted to hospital through A&E units in England. But in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which do not have the four-hour target, there has been no increase in admissions. In Wales, which implemented the target later, the rise was delayed, but began to appear in 2005.

Dr Paul Robinson, Head of Market Intelligence at CHKS, said: “There is no obvious clinical reason why growth in emergency admissions should differ between countries in the UK. However, the A&E target in England has clearly had an impact and potentially cost the taxpayer more than 2 billion. “It is only England that showed this increase, and it is difficult to see why other places did not, unless the A&E targets were the cause. “There are some other possible explanations, including changes to out-of-hours care, and NHS Direct. But a large proportion of the increase must be due to the target. It’s another example of how targets that are good in principle can have unexpected effects”.

The A&E target was introduced in the NHS Plan of 2000 and came fully into force in England at the end of 2004. It charges hospitals with ensuring that patients attending A&E departments should be admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours. A hospital is deemed to have met the target if 98 per cent of patients are dealt with within four hours. Studies have shown that the target causes a huge flurry of activity as the four-hour wait nears its end, with a substantial proportion of patients being dealt with in the last 20 minutes.

Between 2002 and 2006 emergency admissions to English hopsitals rose by 20 per cent, a total increase of 720,000 a year. Admissions through A&E accounted for 37 per cent of this increase. CHKS analysis of NHS data shows that more than a quarter of emergency admissions are discharged the same day. The majority of these are patients admitted through A&E. CHKS data shows that “same day” discharges after admission through A&E rose by 65 per cent between 2001 and 2005, when the target was being introduced in England.

Each week, Friday is the peak day for patients to be discharged on the same day they are admitted. But Christmas Eve is a Friday writ large. People prefer not to be admitted for Christmas and doctors prefer to keep them out of hospital, Dr Robinson said. But to discharge so many more on Christmas Eve – 8 to 10 per cent more than on an average day – implies a change in discharge criteria. One reason, he suggests, could be “poor medicine and rushing through the workload on the day” but there is no evidence for this in increased readmission rates. The numbers readmitted within 14 to 28 days are very similar to those discharged on any other day.

The increase in admission through A&E could have another explanation, apart from the four-hour target. To admit more patients is greatly in the financial interests of hospitals because under payment by results they get paid much more. Using the system in this way is called “gaming” within the NHS and is frowned upon. But trusts have been under such pressure to balance their books that some degree of gaming cannot be ruled out. Dr Robinson said: “There is the potential for that, but I wouldn’t see it as the main motivator.”

In a study published earlier this year by Cass Business School, City University, London, Les Mayhew and David Smith said that payment by results could have encouraged some trusts to “push patients through A&E even more quickly so benefiting from the higher inpatient tariff as compared to A&E tariffs. “The possibility of perverse incentives such as these was not the original aim behind the introduction of A&E targets, which were primarily a response to patients’ concerns, and may have encouraged the manipulation of data,” they said.