Friday, February 08, 2008

Britain is welcoming to minorities. They in turn should respect Britain's Christian culture

By Daniel Finkelstein

Tu B'shvat. Latkes. Kinloss. Simchat Torah. The four questions. Viennas. Halacha dictates that you should affix your mezuzah on the right side of the door in the upper third of the doorpost within approximately three inches of the opening. Chrain.

If you are not Jewish my list will have lost you by now. Other people's religions are mystifying. The son of God - who came up with that one? The Eucharist - what's that when it's at home? Fortunately you don't need to understand any of the words with which I started this column. (Although I recommend finding out about latkes. And Viennas. Oh, and chrain.) If you insist on learning - because you think it might come up in a quiz or something - then by all means go ahead. But not on my account. All I really need you to do is leave me alone to get on with it.

And I don't doubt that you will. That's what I love about Britain. Our country is a very tolerant, quiet, modest, hospitable sort of place. We try and leave others in peace and expect to be left in peace ourselves. When a mass murderer is discovered in our midst, the neighbours still murmur with approval: "He kept himself to himself." You know what else I love? That none of you will have questioned my right to use the word "our" about this country, even though I am the son of immigrants naturalised not long before I was born. Imprisoned by communists and Nazis, expelled from their homes, seeing their relatives die, forced to start again with nothing, my parents found peace and freedom in this country. Because of its traditions and its culture. Because there is something precious about this place.

Now I'll tell you what I'd like to do. I'd like you to look after it. I'd like you to stand up for the principles that make this country what it is, even when it's mildly awkward to do so. And an awkward case has just arisen, as it happens. So I can test your resolve. Over in East Oxford, the Central Mosque wants to issue a call to prayer by loudspeaker three times a day. As the mosque's spokeman, Sardar Rana, put it: "The call to prayer would be made in the central hall and then linked to three speakers in the minaret, which would point in different directions." He then added, without, I think, trying to be funny: "I don't think it would disturb anybody."

You can see why this is awkward, can't you? The first, and correct, instinct of the Englishman is to see if we can accommodate the request without any fuss. It is, however, hard to see how this is possible. With the best will in the world, the muezzin's electronically enhanced recitation is going to be an intrusion.

Yet I don't think it's enough to confine one's objection purely to the noise. Let me dispense with a couple of minor - but in my view incorrect - arguments about the call to prayer. There's nothing all that wrong with the words that would be recited. Apart from anything else it would be in Arabic. And yes, the muezzin will announce that God is great, but fortunately we are entitled in Britain to disagree. I don't accept either the idea that this call to prayer would create a Muslim ghetto. Nor would I fear such a thing. It is natural that Muslims want to live near each other anyway, just as Jews do. And that they will wish to live near the mosque.

These arguments are diversions from the important principle involved. And that concerns this country's status as a Christian country with an established Church. Perhaps you feel reluctant to use this argument - feeling it a departure from inclusiveness. Well, I don't think you should be reluctant in the slightest. Immigrants and their children in this country receive a fantastic deal. We are able to practise our religion in peace. We can openly enjoy our culture. Our colleagues tolerate our taking vacations on holy days and they even let their children be taught about some of our practices, which is most courteous, I must say.

In return I think it reasonable for us to show respect for the majority religion and for the established religious institutions. We could, after all, live somewhere else. We came here on purpose. And here we have a right to practise, but not to dominate the public space. We have the right to pray, but not to blare out our prayer across Cowley.

Let's say that the call to prayer, the sound of the muezzin from the minaret, is the most precious sound to you. You do not have to live in East Oxford. There are any number of mosques all over the world, loudspeakering away to their hearts' content. One of the reasons I support the existence of the state of Israel is that I feel there should be one place in the world where Jews can loudspeaker away. Although most of us Jews talk loud enough without a megaphone, so we can settle in Pinner.

Here, however, they have church bells. And the Queen is defender of the faith. Many members of the Church of England aren't very religious - my favourite Spitting Image joke involved a man knocking on a door and saying: "Jehovah's Witnesses here. Do you believe in God?" To which the man inside replied: "No, I'm C of E." But even among the less religious many marry in church and are buried in a churchyard. And religiosity isn't the only issue here. It's also culture. Why should the mild, gentle culture of the Anglicans not deserve the same preservation and respect as any other ancient culture? I regard the Jewish tradition as something I hold in trust for my children. What of the culture and sights and sounds of this country and its heritage?

I'm not calling for a retreat from the tolerance and mutual respect of this country. That's the last thing I want. I depend on it, don't I? It's just that I don't think tolerance and mutual respect come from nowhere. There's a reason why this country shows it, why we have fought for it, and died for it. I am just saying that if this country doesn't protect its own heritage and culture, how can I expect it to protect mine?


Britain's charming Muslims again

Women face prison for ignoring a murder under their own roof

Two sisters wept and their mother screamed abuse when all three were found guilty yesterday of turning a blind eye to the horrific murder of a young woman in their house. Sabia Rani, 19, was systematically beaten and abused by her husband, Shazad Khan, over three months at the home that they shared in Leeds. When she died she had 15 broken ribs and bruising over 85 per cent of her body and, according to a pathologist, looked like the victim of a catastrophic road accident.

Khan was convicted of her murder a year ago. Yesterday his mother, Phullan Bibi, 52, his sisters, Nazia Naureen, 28, and Uzma Khan, 23, and Uzma's husband Majid Hussain, 28, were all found guilty of allowing the death of a vulnerable adult under the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act 2004. The judge told the family that they should be prepared for custodial sentences before they were bailed overnight to reappear before the court today.

As the jury delivered the verdicts all three women began wailing and shouting in the dock. The sisters hugged each other screaming "not guilty, not guilty" while their mother stood up and shouted abuse, slamming her hands down on the bench, before collapsing on the flooor.

Simon Myerson, QC, for the prosecution, had told the court that the young victim had been brought up in rural Pakistan. She married her cousin, Shazad Khan, in December 2002, but it was not until three years later that she came to England. She spoke no English when she arrived in Leeds as Khan's bride, five months before her death in May, 2006. She was kept a prisoner in a suburban semi-detached house in the Roundhay district of the city and was not allowed out unescorted. An ambulance crew found her collapsed on the bathroom floor of the house. Her bodily systems had simply given up, the prosecution said.

Mr Myerson said that each of the defendants must have known that she was in pain, and the cause of her suffering, but did nothing to stop it. Uzma Khan claimed in evidence at her brother's trial in January last year that the injuries were caused by evil spirits and black magic. Mr Myerson said: "It is not a question of faith. It is a question of evidence. No scientific report has ever stated that evil spirits could have beaten this woman to death. The evil spirit that beat Sabia Rani was Shazad Khan and Uzma knew that."

A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said that the defendants were among the first people in the country to be convicted of allowing the death of a vulnerable adult. Malcolm Taylor, from the CPS, said: "Sabia Rani was the victim of horrific violence at the hands of her husband while her family chose to do nothing. "If families or other people with a duty to look after those who need protection deliberately choose not to do so, their neglect will not be ignored by the law enforcement agencies, and prosecution will follow."


Loony British health and safety rules trip up pancake race

A Cathedral pancake race that is part of a 600-year-old tradition has been stopped because of health and safety rules. The bell at Ripon Cathedral, which has rung at 11am to mark Shrove Tuesday since the 15th century, has signalled the start of the city's pancake race for the past 11 years. However, the event, in which children, traders, soldiers and even clergy compete, has been abandoned because of the amount of work needed to carry out risk assessments.

The Dean of Ripon, the Very Rev Keith Jukes, who helps organise the races, said: "We have looked at this and there are a number of reasons why it won't take place and a big reason this year is, sadly, health and safety. "Any organisation that runs an event has to go through risk assessments. The insurance companies demand it and in the end you have to work out whether it's a risk you take. "There is also the issue of road closures, which can be an expensive business." Bernard Bateman, one of the organisers, said it was also becoming increasingly difficult to find volunteers willing to help as marshals.

In past years, the event, part of a long tradition of pancake races in Ripon, was likened to a village sports day, a last chance to have fun before the solemn season of Lent. The race has been growing in popularity and even involved members of 38 Regt Royal Engineers, based in Ripon, who cook pancakes from a field kitchen outside the west front of the cathedral.

Mr Bateman, a councillor, said: "The main problem is health and safety. There are so many things to put in place to make sure the event can get off the ground. "We had hoped to make the pancake race as much of a tradition as the pancake bell and it's a travesty that it has been killed off. "Everyone involved in the race is a volunteer and at the end of the day fewer and fewer people are volunteering these days, and it's because of the paperwork that started off as well-meaning but has now gone overboard. "It puts people off helping. It's just one thing after another."

Jean Smith, 61, a resident of Ripon, said: "It's totally daft. Why should paperwork get in the way of kids having fun? We seem to hear it all the time now but it's bureaucracy gone mad." Ripon Cathedral traditionally used the "pancake bell" to summon penitents to church to be "shriven" by making confessions before the start of Lent.

A survey has suggested that two thirds of people in the country no longer mark the Christian tradition of making pancakes. Many are even unaware of its place in the calendar. Shrove Tuesday, which falls 47 days before Easter Sunday, is today. Pancakes have featured in cookbooks since 1439. The custom of flipping or tossing them is believed to have started in the 17th century. They are made from rich ingredients that include eggs and milk, which were used up in households before the 40 days of Lent during which only plain food should be eaten.


Non-EU doctors barred from UK posts

An overdue burst of intelligence. Bringing in poorly trained Indian doctors when British-trained doctors could not get jobs was crazy

New immigration rules will stop doctors from outside the EU applying for postgraduate training posts in the UK, it has been announced. The Home Office has laid out new regulations to prevent overseas doctors applying for foundation and speciality training posts. It follows criticisms that homegrown doctors are unable to find jobs once they graduate from UK medical schools.

The rules, which will first affect recruitment in 2009, would see a drop of between 3,000 and 5,000 overseas applications next year, official estimates suggest. The rules apply to doctors currently not resident in the UK - it will not affect doctors with medical jobs already here on the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. The Government estimates that around 10,000 non-EU medical graduates are currently in the UK.

Figures suggest that up to 1,100 UK doctors could still miss out on a training post in 2009 and beyond owing to the number of overseas doctors. The Government said therefore it was launching a consultation on guidance which says doctors currently in the UK on HSMP can only get a job here if there is no UK or EU doctor suitable for the role.

The Court of Appeal ruled in November that such guidance was unlawful. The Government appealed against that decision and the case is due to be heard by the House of Lords, with a decision expected in May. Around 1,300 UK graduates missed out on a training post last year.


British wind farms: Blowing money on a fantasy

My electricity company has just sent me a handwringing letter, explaining why, despite its best efforts to keep costs down, my bill is set to soar again this year. The reason - apart from the usual rapacious profits enjoyed by our power suppliers - is a hidden subsidy paid towards the development of wind farms. In the last financial year, electricity consumers were forced to pay a total of 600million pounds in subsidy to the owners of wind turbines. This figure is due to rise to 3billion a year by 2020 as vast areas of the most beautiful parts of the country will be pockmarked with 500fthigh windmills.

The sudden growth in this area of energy supply is because the green lobby has convinced many that this renewable power source is the answer to our looming energy crisis. But the truth is that not only do renewables provide a mere 1.3 per cent of the country's energy needs but also that this money is being wasted. The subsidy system works on the principle of encouraging the development of new wind farms by forcing traditional energy companies to pay producers of renewable energy. The firms then recoup the money by charging consumers higher bills.

After an initial surge in the number of new wind farms, few are currently being built. The most obvious sites, far from human habitation, have already been filled and energy firms are now facing delays in obtaining planning permission to build in more environmentally sensitive locations. As a result, the huge subsidy is concentrated in a small number of hands. There is a rising amount of money for renewable energy and if less is produced each turbine gets more of the pot. At current subsidy rates, anyone who constructs a wind farm, which is expected to last for a minimum of 20 years, will have paid off their investment in only five years. From then on, its profit all the way to the bank.

John Constable, director of policy at the Renewable Energy Foundation, says that the system "has encouraged underperforming onshore wind turbines in low wind areas. Though of little engineering value, such plants attract speculators because they require little capital investment". As a result, consumers will soon be paying billions in unnecessary subsidy to a bunch of sharp-suited businessmen who have spotted an opportunity for easy money.

But the wind farm disaster story does not, by any means, end here. Even in the unlikely event that ministers managed to get the subsidy system right, there would still remain fundamental problems with wind power. First, the fact that the turbines stand idle when the wind doesn't blow. This leaves gas or coal power stations to be switched on and off at a moment's notice to fill the gap - something that is very environmentally inefficient.

Second, even if you accept that it's worth desecrating some of the most beautiful parts of Britain in pursuit of a renewable energy policy, you then must transport the energy to a population centre. That means building an expensive infrastructure of new power lines.

The third problem is the potential threat wildlife (including rare birds colliding with the blades) and the damage to quality of life of those people who live near the wind farms. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors estimates that the price of house located close to a new turbine falls by 20 per cent, if the owners are able to sell it at all.

Of course, none of this much matters while the turbines are out of sight, but that could be about to change. Although Britain currently has nearly 2,000 onshore turbines; ministers have signed up to European targets on renewables that will mean 7,000 more. The Government claims that most of these will be built offshore, but that's not true because the costs of building in deep water are still too high.

Finally, there is the revelation that wind farms stop the Ministry of Defence's radar working, so we can forget about early warning of an airborne attack.

Behind all this is one certainty: Britain is facing a looming energy crisis. Our ageing nuclear power plants, which currently provide 20 per cent of our energy, are nearing the end of their useful life. The Government, having dithered for years, wants to build new ones but says that, unlike renewables, there will be no subsidies or price guarantees for the nuclear industry. If they really mean this, then the energy companies won't build any reactors, because the commercial risks will be too great. That will mean Britain becomes even more dependent on gas power stations, at a time when our supplies of North Sea gas are running out.

We will have to import our supplies from unstable Middle Eastern nations, or from Russia, whose leaders have already shown they are happy to turn off the gas tap to make a political point. Britain could be held to energy ransom; even plunged into darkness.

Meanwhile we waste time fiddling with wind power. The solution in the medium term is a proper commitment to nuclear energy which, like wind power, doesn't generate greenhouse gases. Also, we should be funding for research into wave and tidal power - surely the long-term answer for an island nation like Britain. As for wind, ministers should cut off the funding tap, and use the money to help reduce our obscenely high electricity bills.


New immigration points system begins in Britain

Details of Britain's new Australian-style points based immigration system (PBS) were announced today as the Government published the rules for highly skilled foreign workers applying to come to the UK. The regulations will start coming into force on 29 February when any highly skilled foreign nationals currently working in Britain who want to extend their stay will need to apply under the new system.

In April, the new system will begin to be rolled out overseas when anyone from India who wants to work in the UK as a highly skilled migrant will need to apply under PBS. By the summer the new highly skilled system will operate worldwide.

Speaking from Delhi during a visit to discuss how PBS will work with the Indian Government, Borders and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne said: "Our points system is starting on time and on plan. "I've no problem with taking the best systems in the world, like Australia's points system, and bringing them to the UK. "This is a key part of the huge shake-up to our border security this year." "We want India to come first because India is Britain's most important market for highly skilled migrants."

The Highly Skilled tier 1 will build upon the success of the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme by continuing to attract the most talented people with the skills the UK needs to remain a global leader in the fields of finance, business and technological innovation.

The announcement follows the completion in January of the Border and Immigration Agency's global rollout of fingerprinting for all visas three months early. Now every person in the world coming to the UK on a visa has their fingerprints taken and their details checked against watch-lists - if they're on the list for the wrong reason they can't come in and could be banned from applying to come again for up to 10 years.


Stuff your face! Make a mint!

Britain: State-sponsored incentives, like paying obese people not to eat so much, will never work

Do you remember the sepia-tinted days when shopkeepers would give you 5p for the return of an empty fizzy-drink bottle? For me the memory of this early recycling venture excites a flush of shame. As children, our gang would pilfer the glass bottles from neighbours' porches and backyards and stuff our faces with sherbert on the profit. My more hard-faced schoolfriends went farther and would steal full bottles of Tizer from shop shelves, empty the contents down the grate, then return them to the same outlet, smiling innocently, to collect their wages of sin.

Fizzy-pop bottle crime was my instant thought when I read that the Government is considering giving fat people cash or vouchers to lose weight. What kind of crazed, inverted logic is this? Pay people to lose weight and you give them a motive to gain it in the first place. Don't be thin and a loser, folks. Eat all the pies and - wayhay! - it's payday. If history has taught us anything it is that where state-sponsored financial incentives are involved, human beings will find a way to double bluff the system.

We all heard the allegations during the foot-and-mouth epidemic that some farmers were deliberately infecting their livestock to claim the handsome compensation. Or the stories about people nicking M&S clothes just so they could return them sans receipt and take advantage of their generous refund policy. And the theory that some parents in this country push for their children to be prescribed Ritalin, the drug that combats attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, because they will then qualify for the 40 pounds or so a week "attendance allowance" that accompanies it.

Few anecdotes illustrate the point better than one submitted to the letters page of The Times this week about a town in Italy plagued by snakes where locals were paid each time they brought in a skin to the authorities. Guess what? It emerged that people were breeding snakes to trouser the money.

If the Government wants to give away cash, surely it should convey the right message and reward the already thin, the ones who don't eat buckets of KFC and who subscribe to gyms. Otherwise you may as well do something as daft as paying criminals to give up crime. Oh, hold on. Gordon Brown has considered that one before - a plan for troublemaking teenagers to be paid in vouchers, 20 pounds for every week in which they didn't make trouble.

It is fairly obvious that by introducing a system in which one can profit from obesity, one makes obesity a little more attractive. There are plenty of people in this country who fervently believe that disadvantaged teenage girls deliberately become pregnant so that they will land themselves a council flat.

What do the new obesity proposals do other than up those stakes? It's not just any kid you want, girls - it's a fat kid! Feed them Mars Bars and double your money.


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