Thursday, February 28, 2008

British police useless at real policing

Persecuting ordinary decent people is all that they are good at

The man convicted yesterday of murdering two women and trying to kill a third was left free to continue his campaign of violence against women because of basic investigative errors by police. Levi Bellfield was found guilty at the Old Bailey of murdering Marsha McDonnell, 19, and Amelie Delagrange, 22, and attempting to murder Kate Sheedy. He was then identified as the prime suspect for the unsolved murder of the schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

A Scotland Yard task force has been set up to investigate Bellfield's possible connection to a series of 20 murders, attempted murders and other attacks dating back 25 years. Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton said that Bellfield was a dangerous man and that women would be safer now that he was behind bars. He stalked his victims, all young and blonde, as they waited for - or stepped off - buses late at night. Police said that they expected more victims of Bellfield, 39, a wheelclamper, to come forward after his picture was published widely for the first time.

As officers promised to uncover the full extent of Bellfield's crimes, it became clear that vital clues were missed that could have led to his arrest two years before he was eventually detained. Four officers from the Metropolitan Police have been reprimanded for serious errors in the inquiry into the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy in Isleworth in May 2004, three months before Miss Delagrange's death. Bellafield had attacked Miss Sheedy, now 21, with his car, knocking her down then driving over her twice. The Independent Police Complaints Commission found that officers had looked at the wrong day's CCTV footage, thereby failing to spot Bellfield's car stalking Miss Sheedy.

The Times has learnt that the written warning given to one officer was considered so serious that it was handed down by a Deputy Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard.

Police in Surrey investigating Milly Dowler's death failed to follow up on house-to-house inquries that could have led them to Bellfield in 2002 - before the murders of Miss McDonnell in 2003 and Miss Delagrange in 2004. They called 11 times at the house of Emma Mills, Bellfield's girlfriend, but after being told that she had moved they did not trace her new address. Miss Mills was by then living with Bellfield in West Drayton, West London. She has since been able to tell police that she owned a red Daewoo car of the kind seen on CCTV near Walton station on the day that Milly went missing. The car was reported stolen four days later. It has also emerged that a man in a similar car attempted to abduct a girl in the area the day before Milly disappeared.

A previous girlfriend of Bellfield's had a daughter who was a schoolfriend of Milly. The schoolgirl had been to her classmate's for tea and was thought to have met Bellfield. Miss Mills is also understood to have told detectives that, on the night of Milly's disappearance, Bellfield got out of bed at 4am and told her that he was going "to take care of the dog" at her flat in Walton. Detectives think this might have been when Bellfield went to dispose of Milly's body. Her remains were found in September 2002 in woods at Yateley Heath, Hampshire, an area known to Bellfield, who attended car auctions nearby.

Surrey police have issued a fresh appeal for information about the Daewoo car and are offering a œ50,000 reward for evidence leading to the conviction of Milly's murderer. Bob and Sally Dowler, Milly's parents, appealed for new witnesses to come forward. They said: "Milly was a loved and loving daughter and sister. She had every right to expect a happy, rich life ahead of her. As parents, how could we imagine anything else? We are pleading for anyone who knows anything to have the courage to speak up."

Surrey police sources emphasised that nothing had emerged in 2002 to make Bellfield a suspect. At the time he had nine previous convictions and there was intelligence to suggest that he made silent phone calls to women. "He was way off the radar, it was not until he was picked up in connection with the Amelie Delagrange murder that he began to be a possible suspect," said one source.

Bellfield was caught eventually by a combination of painstaking detective work and a bizarre stroke of luck. A police telephone hotline set up after the murder of Miss Delagrange received 129 calls from women who suspected that men they knew might be the killer. One woman said that Bellfield, who had violently attacked her during their relationship, was capable of killing women. At the same time officers were studying CCTV pictures from the streets around Twickenham Green on the night of the young French woman's murder. They appeared to show that she was followed by a white Ford Courier van but were too blurred to yield the vehicle's numberplate or driver. A smudge on the roof and two aluminium rear plates were the only things to mark it out from 26,000 similar vehicles in Britain.

The search for the van produced information about a wheelclamper who had bought a similar van for cash a few months earlier. The man had left his mobile phone number with the vehicle's previous owner. Then came the stroke of luck. When the phone number was punched into the police intelligence system, it matched with the number of a man who had called the antiterrorist hotline months earlier to report suspicions about his neighbour. The man was Levi Bellfield - the same name given by the woman caller. Surveillance revealed that his white van had similar markings to the one caught on CCTV.

His phone had also rung moments before Miss Delagrange was attacked. Bellfield, whose awareness of forensic science meant that he normally had his phone off before attacking his victims, immediately switched it off. But both the call and the act of switching the phone off left traces on the network that placed Bellfield at the murder scene. When police raided his home to arrest him in November 2004 they found him cowering in the loft.

The jury was unable to reach verdicts in connection with two other attacks, on Anna-Maria Rennie, then 17, in Whitton, South West London, in October 2001, and Irma Dragoshi, then 33, in December 2003. There was no evidence that any of his victims had been sexually assaulted.


British Gas broke into our house, say couple who owed them nothing

An Englishman's home is a long way from being his castle these days

When David Houghton returned home from a holiday, he was horrified to find the lock on his front door had been picked. But it wasn't thieves who had broken into his home. It was British Gas. The energy giant had taken the drastic - and perfectly legal - step in a row over an unpaid bill, even though it later emerged that Mr Houghton did not owe the company a penny.

The 34-year-old's nightmare began in July 2005, when he bought a two-bedroom flat in Willesden Green, North London, with his girlfriend Abby Simpson. He immediately decided to ditch the property's contract with British Gas for a better deal with rivals EDF. But the British Gas computer system wrongly continued to bill the couple. Mr Houghton dealt with numerous threats of legal action and visits from the bailiffs, before a personal apology from the energy giant's managing director, Phil Bentley, convinced him that his troubles were over.

But when the couple went on a long weekend to New York in June last year, they returned home to a nasty surprise. While they were away, British Gas had swapped their meter for a pay-as-you-go version. To do so, an engineer and locksmith had sneaked into the flat by picking the locks on the front door and an internal door. They then left a note informing the couple what they had done. British Gas switches customers to pay-as-you go meters if they consistently fail to pay their bills.

Investigators have since worked out that it was the occupants of the next-door flat who owed the money to British Gas. The company has now apologised, blaming the bungle on incorrect records at the National Grid and problems with the address at Royal Mail. It has also given Mr Houghton and Miss Simpson 200 pounds.

However, the watchdog Energywatch last night demanded that the gas supplier fully compensate the couple. Mr Houghton said: "I am totally disgusted and bewildered by their behaviour. "I spoke to manager after manager at their call centres and each time was promised the problem had been sorted out." Between 2005 and the break-in two years later, the bill demands rose from 90 to 900 pounds. Mr Houghton said: "We sent them letters in response but then the bailiffs came round trying to get access."

A spokesman for the company claimed last night that the Gas Act allows workers to break into a customer's home to change the meter, providing he or she has been warned in advance. However, Mr Houghton claims he was never notified. He added: "It felt so intrusive that they had been in our flat and could have gone into every room if they'd wanted to.

"I called the police, who said they weren't interested because nothing had been taken." Graham Kerr, a spokesman for Energywatch, said: "Mr Houghton and his partner have had appalling treatment from British Gas. "Having your home broken into is a traumatic experience and that blow isn't softened by the perpetrator being a household name that just happened to make a mistake."

A British Gas spokesman said: 'Our managing director, Phil Bentley, has spoken to Mr Houghton and apologised. "We've since corrected our records, changed the meter back and Mr Houghton has been given 200 pounds in compensation."


Ten myths about nuclear power

`It's dangerous, wasteful and too expensive!' Greens are busily putting the case against nuclear, but there is not a spark of truth in their arguments

The UK government is expected to announce tomorrow that it will give the green light to the building of new nuclear power stations in the UK - the first since the Sizewell `B' station was completed in 1995. These are urgently needed to make up the shortfall in power supply as older nuclear stations are closed over the next few years.

Yet the decision is bound to be controversial - not helped by widespread misinformation about nuclear power. Greens opposing nuclear power muddle every issue from terrorism to uranium supplies, in order to besmirch the only proven safe and cost-effective way to generate large amounts of electricity that won't produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. One would think that greens don't want a world with abundant energy and a stable climate!

These are some of the myths we are likely to hear from greens debating nuclear power over the next few weeks:

1) Uranium is running out

According to Greenpeace, uranium reserves are `relatively limited' and last week the Nuclear Consultation Working Group claimed that a significant increase in nuclear generating capacity would reduce reliable supplies from 50 to 12 years

In fact, there is 600 times more uranium in the ground than gold and there is as much uranium as tin. There has been no major new uranium exploration for 20 years, but at current consumption levels, known uranium reserves are predicted to last for 85 years. Geological estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that at least six times more uranium is extractable - enough for 500 years' supply at current demand. Modern reactors can use thorium as a fuel and convert it into uranium - and there is three times more thorium in the ground than uranium.

Uranium is the only fuel which, when burnt, generates more fuel. Not only existing nuclear warheads, but also the uranium and plutonium in radioactive waste can be reprocessed into new fuel, which former UK chief scientist Sir David King estimates could supply 60 per cent of Britain's electricity to 2060. In short, there is more than enough uranium, thorium and plutonium to supply the entire world's electricity for several hundred years.

2) Nuclear is not a low-carbon option

Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power contains `hidden emissions' of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from uranium mining and reactor construction. But so do wind turbines, built from huge amounts of concrete, steel and plastic. The OECD analysed the total lifetime releases of GHG from energy technologies and concluded that, taking into account mining of building materials, construction and energy production, nuclear is still a `lower carbon' option than wind, solar or hydroelectric generation. For example, during its whole life cycle, nuclear power releases three to six grams of carbon per kiloWatthour (GC kWh) of electricity produced, compared with three to 10 GC/kWh for wind turbines, 105 GC/kWh for natural gas and 228 GC/kWh for lignite (`dirty' coal)

Greens, exemplified by the Sustainable Development Commission, place their trust in `carbon capture and storage' (CCS) to reduce the GHG emissions from coal and gas plants. But carbon capture is, at present, a myth. There is no functioning power station with CCS in the world - not even a demonstration plant - and if it did work, it would still greatly reduce the energy efficiency of any power station where it is installed.

3) Nuclear power is expensive

With all power generation technology, the cost of electricity depends upon the investment in construction (including interest on capital loans), fuel, management and operation. Like wind, solar and hydroelectric dams, the principal costs of nuclear lie in construction. Acquisition of uranium accounts for only about 10 per cent of the price of total costs, so nuclear power is not as vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of fuel as gas and oil generation.

Unlike the UK's existing stations, any new designs will be pre-approved for operational safety, modular to lower construction costs, produce 90 per cent less volume of waste and incorporate decommissioning and waste management costs.

A worst-case analysis conducted for the UK Department of Trade and Industry (now the Department of Business and Enterprise), which was accepted by Greenpeace, shows nuclear-generated electricity to be only marginally more expensive than gas (before the late-2007 hike in gas prices), and 10 to 20 times cheaper than onshore and offshore wind. With expected carbon-pricing penalties for gas and coal, nuclear power will be considerably cheaper than all the alternatives

4) Reactors produce too much waste

Contrary to environmentalists' claims, Britain is not overwhelmed with radioactive waste and has no radioactive waste `problem'. By 2040 there will be a total of 2,000 cubic metres of the most radioactive high-level waste (9), which would fit in a 13 x 13 x 13 metre hole - about the size of the foundations for one small wind turbine. Much of this high-level waste is actually a leftover from Britain's atomic weapons programme. All of the UK's intermediate and high-level radioactive waste for the past 50 years and the next 30 years would fit in just one Royal Albert Hall, an entertainment venue in London that holds 6,000 people (and which seems, for some reason, to have become the standard unit of measurement in debates about any kind of waste in the UK)

The largest volume of waste from the nuclear power programme is low-level waste - concrete from outbuildings, car parks, construction materials, soil from the surroundings and so on. By 2100, there will be 473,000 cubic metres of such waste from decommissioned plants - enough to fill five Albert Halls. Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste, and new nuclear build will not make any significant contribution to existing radioactive waste levels for 20-40 years.

5) Decommissioning is too expensive

Existing UK reactors were built with no regard for future demolition. New reactors will be constructed from modular designs with the need for decommissioning built-in. The costs of decommissioning and waste management will be incorporated into the price of electricity to consumers. New nuclear plants are expected to have a working life of 40 years so the cost of decommissioning is spread over a longer period. Current government subsidy of decommissioning costs is approximately o1 billion annually (for 20 per cent of Britain's electrical supply) - half the subsidy to `sustainable' energy (two per cent of Britain's electrical supply).

6) Building reactors takes too long

This is perhaps the most ironic of the anti-nuclear arguments, since the legal manoeuvrings of Greenpeace delayed the UK government's nuclear decision by a year and it is the very opposition of greens that will cause most of the future delays.

The best construction schedules are achieved by the Canadian company AECL, which has built six new reactors since 1991; from the pouring of concrete to criticality (when the reactors come on-line), the longest build took six-and-a-half years and the shortest just over four years. The UK government expects pre-licensing of standard designs and modular construction to reduce construction times significantly - to about 6 years. New nuclear build could certainly start making significant contributions to UK carbon reduction targets by 2020.

7) Leukaemia rates are higher near reactors

Childhood leukaemia rates are no higher near nuclear power plants than they are near organic farms. `Leukaemia clusters' are geographic areas where the rates of childhood leukaemia appear to be higher than normal, but the definition is controversial because it ignores the fact that leukaemia is actually several very different (and unrelated) diseases with different causes.

The major increase in UK childhood leukaemia rates occurred before the Second World War. The very small (one per cent) annual increase seen now is probably due to better diagnosis, although it is possible that there is a viral contribution to the disease. It is purely by chance that a leukaemia `cluster' will occur near a nuclear installation, a national park or a rollercoaster ride. One such `cluster' occurred in Seascale, the nearest village to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, but there are no other examples. Clusters tend to be found in isolated areas where there has been a recent influx of immigration - which hints at a virus.

Men who work on nuclear submarines or in nuclear plants are no more likely to father children with leukaemia (or any other disease) than workers in any other industry

8) Reactors lead to weapons proliferation

More nuclear plants (in Britain and elsewhere) would actually reduce weapons proliferation. Atomic warheads make excellent reactor fuel; decommissioned warheads (containing greatly enriched uranium or plutonium) currently provide about 15 per cent of world nuclear fuel. Increased demand for reactor fuel would divert such warheads away from potential terrorists. Nuclear build is closely monitored by the IAEA, which polices anti-proliferation treaties.

9) Wind and wave power are more sustainable

If, as greens say, new nuclear power cannot come on-line in time to prevent climate change, how much less impact can wind, wave and carbon capture make? Environmentalists claim offshore wind turbines can make a significant contribution to electricity supply. Even if that were true - which it is certainly not - the environmental impact disqualifies wind as `sustainable'. The opening up of the North Sea continental shelf to 7,000 wind turbines is, essentially, the building of a huge industrial infrastructure across a vast swathe of ecologically sensitive seabed - as `unsustainable' in its own way as the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.

Wave power is still highly experimental and unproven as a method of generating electricity. Even if we allow the Severn Tidal Bore, the tidal surge that runs up and down the River Severn estuary in south-west England (and a great natural wonder of the world), to be destroyed, the cost overruns and time delays would make any problems of the nuclear industry look cheap by comparison.

10) Reactors are a terrorist target

Since 11 September 2001, several studies have examined the possibility of attacks by a large aircraft on reactor containment buildings. The US Department of Energy sponsored an independent computer-modelling study of the effects of a fully fuelled Boeing 767-400 hitting the reactor containment vessel. Under none of the possible scenarios was containment breached.

Only the highly specialised US `bunker busting' ordnance would be capable - after several direct strikes - of penetrating the amount of reinforced concrete that surrounds reactors. And besides, terrorists have already demonstrated that they prefer large, high visibility, soft targets with maximum human casualties (as in the attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai) rather than well-guarded, isolated, low-population targets. Any new generation of nuclear reactors in the UK will be designed with even greater protection against attack than existing plants, and with `passive' safety measures that work without human intervention or computer control.



Miliband is the son of a noted Marxist theoretician so this obeisance to Communist China is not unexpected

Rich industrialized nations must help the developing world pay for a shift to cleaner technologies to fight climate change, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Tuesday during a visit to China's financial center. Major developing nations such as China and India will face a devastating "boomerang effect" of devastating effects from global warming such as drought and crop disruptions if they do not opt for cleaner, less polluting economic development, Miliband told students at the China-Europe International Business School.

Adapting energy technologies that emit fewer of the greenhouse gases viewed as a main contributor to climate change "does not sacrifice development but ... it is much more expensive than high-carbon development," he said. "The question is, who pays for it?" Miliband said. "The richer countries have got to lead in taking the burden of paying for the shift to a lower-carbon economy." Scientists believe carbon dioxide is one of the leading contributors to global warming.

China, which chiefly relies on heavily polluting coal to fuel its surging economy, now rivals the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Britain backs calls for industrialized countries to help the developing world cope with the consequences of centuries of pollution by the West. Last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged about 50 million pounds (US$98.3 million) to support investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean coal and carbon dioxide capture-and-storage technology during his first state visit to China. China has pledged to improve energy efficiency, while insisting on its right to pursue the economic growth needed to supply jobs to its 1.3 billion people.

For the poorest countries, the focus should be on promoting sustainable development, Miliband said. "Their aid programs have got to be 'greened,'" he said. Miliband was to travel to the southwestern industrial hub of Chongqing before heading to Beijing later in the week. During a stopover in Hong Kong, he said Monday that he would discuss the issue of Sudan with his Chinese counterparts, but added that Beijing alone should not be held responsible for trying to end the conflict there. "We all have our responsibility to use our weight in the country and in the international arena to argue for dialogue, for responsibilities on both sides."



Claims that changes in global climate are the result of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are used as a pretext to demand increased taxes on vehicle use and restrictions such as lower speed limits. Yet the level of public debate about this highly complex subject has often been at a simplistic and emotive level, rather than a serious examination of the scientific evidence. Indeed, attempts to question the claimed `scientific consensus' are often met with abusive personal attacks designed to discourage dissenters - a clear sign that the issue has been hijacked for political purposes.

There are two questions that need to be considered: whether man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are actually changing the world's climate; and, even if they are, whether any action taken to reduce the UK's emissions could have a significant remedial impact at a global level.

On the first point, a scientific consensus on the causes of climate change does not exist, despite strenuous efforts to create that impression by those who wish to maintain and exploit public alarm. As explained by Dr Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, in an open letter to the Royal Society, the claimed link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming does not even merit the scientific title of `theory'; it is merely a hypothesis, since causation has not been demonstrated in any conclusive way. He also points out that the recent warming trend began long before human-caused increase in carbon dioxide was evident.

The main alternative hypothesis to explain climate change is rapidly gaining credibility: variations in the sun's output of charged particles and in its magnetic field, linked to the sun-spot cycle, affect the flow of cosmic rays reaching the Earth's atmosphere, where they help to seed clouds. At times of high solar activity (such as recently), fewer cosmic rays reach the atmosphere so there is less cloud cover; more of the sun's heat radiation reaches the Earth's surface and the planet warms. When solar activity is low, more clouds form and reflect the sun's radiation back into space, so cooling takes place. Evidence is mounting to support this hypothesis and there are some scientists predicting a period of global cooling ahead, as solar activity decreases.

There is also nothing unprecedented about recent global temperatures or rates of change. There have been many fluctuations in temperature since the end of the last ice age, most recently the Medieval Warm Period of around a thousand years ago and the Little Ice Age that followed it. The existence of these natural fluctuations is an embarrassment to the proponents of man-made climate change, and attempts have been made to rewrite climate history to eliminate them. Also, since direct daily observations of temperature only began during the Little Ice Age, claims about recent temperatures being the `hottest ever recorded' are highly misleading.

Even if man-made carbon dioxide emissions were the cause of climate change, any measures that the UK could take to reduce its own emissions would have a negligible impact at a global level. In 2004, the UK emitted 158.09 million tonnes (carbon equivalent) of carbon dioxide, amounting to 2.1 per cent of the world total. Of the UK figure, 21.6 per cent came from road transport in 2004, or 0.46 per cent of the world total.

While road transport in the UK emits 34 million tonnes of carbon per year, China's total output of carbon dioxide in 2004 was 1,284 million tonnes (carbon equivalent), up from 1,063 million tonnes in 2003. Thus a single year's increase in carbon emissions by China, at 221 million tonnes, was six and a half times the output from road transport in Britain, or 40 per cent more than the UK's total emissions.

Any reduction that could be achieved in the UK's road transport emissions would be insignificant by comparison: a 10 per cent reduction would be negated in less than six days, if China's emissions continue to grow at their current rate. There can be no justification, therefore, for taxation increases or other restrictions that would affect mobility, on the grounds of tackling climate change. Suggesting that an example set by the UK would lead countries such as China and India to forgo the benefits of economic growth is risible.

Whether climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions is real and set to continue or not, responses to it need to be based on rational assessments of the costs and benefits of the options, not futile, damaging and expensive political gestures. This was the message delivered by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs in its 2005 report, in which it also pointed out that there are positive aspects to global warming, such as fewer cold-related winter deaths. There is no justification for singling out the drivers of Britain as responsible for climate change.


The English are fleeing Britain for Australia

More British people are moving to Australia than ever. For the first time, Australia is the preferred destination for British emigrants, more popular than America and the Med. In 2006-7, 23,223 British people emigrated to Australia, according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship; of the total, 3,837 were members of families who had uprooted, and 18,115 were "skilled migrants" granted resident visas under the more relaxed residential points system. The figure is double that of a decade ago, and compares with 18,000 in 2004. British people make up almost a quarter of foreigners applying for Australian citizenship: in 2005-6, Australian citizenship was conferred on 103,350 people from over 175 different countries. Of those, people of British origin numbered 22,143, or 21.4% of the total.

Hundreds of thousands of British people go to Australia every year - for a holiday, a long-term stay, or to test the waters prior to emigrating. In the 12 months to July 2007, nearly 200,000 native British citizens packed their bags for Australia, the highest number to leave since the heavily subsidised mass emigration Down Under in the 1960s (1 in 12 Britons now lives abroad, a total of about 5.5m, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research).

And the British easily top the census lists of foreigners resident in Australia and eligible to apply for citizenship. In 2001 they numbered 346,000, or 36.9% of the total ahead of the New Zealanders with 204,900 and Italians with 44,200. In fact, a quarter of a million British people (245,311) living in Australia claimed a British pension in 2006.....

Local trades, too, such as plumbing, electrical services, building and bricklaying, are in need of skilled labour, and often advertise in Britain. While the salaries are about the same as in the UK, their purchasing power is greater because the cost of living in Australia is lower. Others go in search of love, or the promise of it. Australia's outback regions are severely short of women, especially "young wife fodder", said one farmer.

Many recent newcomers are middle-class professionals with young families, drawn by an immigration policy that appeals to the highly skilled. Australian cities fiercely compete for the most talented. Among last year's British emigres were a Sikh family - the father an investment banker, the mother a dentist - who settled here, their third country of residence, to enjoy better prospects and a more child-friendly environment.....

In the 1950s, over 90% of Australians saw themselves as proudly British or Irish, regardless of whether they traced their lineage to a Georgian pickpocket, an East End prostitute, a declasse aristocrat, a potato-famine refugee or a family of graziers (cattle herders) and squatters.

Today's influx has subtly different motives for emigrating: they tend to be pursuing a realisable dream, rather than escaping a nightmare. Asked why they emigrated, most cite: sun and coastal living, lots of space, affordable housing (outside city centres), a generally reliable public health system, good, cheap schools, many jobs and relative security. They are also drawn by some of the world's last unspoilt natural wildernesses, ie, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Tasmania, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. Holidays to exotic South Pacific islands - Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia - are relatively cheap and a few hours away.

But the latest wave of emigrants are motivated by deeper social and economic impulses. Christopher Wade, the director of British Council Australia, said: "Australia has a great work ethic, but a very good after-work ethic too." He especially admires the "fair go" and egalitarian spirit. This is best expressed, he said, in the culture of "volunteerism": for example, many parents commonly coach their children's sports teams. There is such a thing as a community here, Wade insists.

Of course, it is Wade's job to talk up the Australian-British relationship. But the nation's rude economic success and political stability are strong magnets. During the past 15 years, Australia's standard of living has risen constantly and in 2006 it surpassed that of all Group of Eight countries except the US, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since 1990, Australia's real economy grew by an average of around 3.3% a year, coupled with low inflation averaging around 2.5% (however, it recently exceeded the Reserve Bank's threshold, driving up variable interest rates to a mortgage-busting 8.97%, and rendering the cost of inner-city homes, as a multiple of income, less affordable than that of any other developed nation). There are jobs aplenty, however: the rate of unemployment fell from a peak of nearly 11% in 1992 to below 5% last year - its lowest level since the early 1970s.

The unprecedented Asian, chiefly Chinese, demand for Australia's mineral resources is behind this boom. Australia has some of the world's largest coal, iron ore and uranium reserves, and is one of the biggest gold and diamond producers. Western Australia, lavishly endowed with natural gas and minerals, is enjoying the biggest mining-led surge in its history, and Perth is one of the most expensive cities.

Buttressing that success is the world's oldest continuous democracy. At first glance, Australian standards of public debate suggest an Anglo-Celtic version of Italy's saloon-bar atmosphere. Yet the nation's raucous politicians - witness the Welsh-born deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, herself the daughter of 10-pound poms, who last year called an opponent "a snivelling little grub", and the former prime minister Paul Keating, who regularly emerges from retirement to toss in a little more rebarbative Aussie wit (the former treasurer Paul Costello, he said last year, was "all tip and no iceberg") - are constrained by a parliamentary system that draws on the best of the Westminster tradition and the English and Scots enlightenment. The November 2007 general election was a sublime example of Australian democracy. When the incumbent prime minister, John Howard, lost the election - and his seat - after 11 years in power, the leadership shifted seamlessly to Labor's Kevin Rudd. Thanks to the compulsory system of preferential voting, the transition was gracious, popular, representative and bloodless....

Gratitude is never far away, either. More Australians seem to realise how good they've got it, and how hard won. Every year more than 10,000 young Australians gather on the shores of Gallipoli on Anzac Day to commemorate the fallen Australian troops. The Kokoda Track and Milne Bay in Papua - the battleground on which Australian forces, many of them untrained militia, first defeated the imperial Japanese army on land - is now considered to be hallowed turf.

And as I watched younger Australians and British backpackers dance in the New Year and partying on the beaches of Sydney, it occurred to me that perhaps Britain had made a terrible mistake - surely they should have left the convicts at home and emigrated?

More here

Antidepressants don't work?

The report discussed below has required more thought from me than the usual crap that I find in reports of medical research. The study concerned has many strong features. I note that the study was led by a psychologist. I am not usually very supportive of my fellow psychologists (See here) but I do note that a much higher standard of evidence seems to be required for publication in psychology than in medicine.

In the end, however, I think the study below confirms something I have been saying for some years: That our taxonomy of depression is a big problem. There is a strong tendency for any mental state characterized by suicidal thoughts to be seen as depression. But there are in fact TWO broad mental states characterized by such thoughts: True depression and what used to be called anxious depression. And those states are so different as to be almost opposite. The first is characterized by very low levels of activation and the second by very high levels of activation.

The DSM has now given anxious depression a fancy new name and listed it separately but I doubt that the distinction is as yet commonly made by practitioners. ANY suicidal state will often be given Prozac etc. And where Prozac is probably helpful in livening up true depressives, it would tend to push anxious depressives over the top and cause them actually to commit suicide -- which we know does happen. It is however crazy for a drug that helps some in a category to have the opposite effect for others in the same category so it seems to me that the fault lies with patient categorization. Prozac should be rigorously EXCLUDED as a treatment for anxious depression.

And I think the same distinction helps make sense of the report below. It is true that the therapeutic responses tabulated are often not much different from placebo. That overall statement, however, ignores what seem to me to be important details. The most striking is that in their Table 1, the difference from placebo varies markedly. In some studies, a LOT of the patients were helped by the drug while in others few were. And there were in fact two instances where placebo gave a better response than the drug! The latter result is about as crazy as Prozac driving you to suicide. My hypothesis would be that the samples where few were helped included a lot of anxious depressives and, in the two very deviant cases, a predominance of anxious depressives.

So I think we are still at the "Don't know" stage. I think we need studies from which anxious depressives have been rigorously excluded before we can evaluate the therapeutic effect of drugs on true depressives. If I were prescribing, however, I would certainly give Prozac etc. to anyone who was obviously a true depressive. I suspect that it has a much stronger effect for them than would at first appear from the results of the existing poorly-categorized studies.

I am particularly concerned about the response to this study from NICE. NICE are well-known for depriving Brits of drugs that might help them and I am afraid that this study will cause NICE to issue guidance that will deprive many Brits of relief from their suffering -- leading to suicide in some cases. Not to put to fine a point on it, I think this study could kill. Popular summary of the research follows. -- JR
Millions of people taking commonly prescribed antidepressants such as Prozac and Seroxat might as well be taking a placebo, according to the first study to include unpublished evidence. The new generation of antidepressant drugs work no better than a placebo for the majority of patients with mild or even severe depression, comprehensive research of clinical trials has found. The researchers said that the drug was more effective than a placebo in severely depressed patients but that this was because of a decreased placebo effect. The study, described as “fantastically important” by British experts, comes as the Government publishes plans to help people to manage depression without popping pills.

More than 291 million pounds was spent on antidepressants in 2006, including nearly 120 million on SSRIs. As many as one in five people suffers depression at some point. With that in mind, ministers will today publish plans to train 3,600 therapists to treat depression. Spending on counselling and other psychological therapies will rise to at least 30 million a year.

The study, by Irving Kirsch, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Hull, is the first to examine both published and unpublished evidence of the effectiveness of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which account for 16 million NHS prescriptions a year. It suggests that the effectiveness of the drugs may have been exaggerated in the past by drugs companies cherry-picking the best results for publication. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which is due to review its guidance on treating depression, said that it would consider the study.

Mental health charities say that most GPs admit that they are still overprescribing SSRIs, which are considered as effective as older drugs but with fewer side-effects. SSRIs account for more than half of all antidrepressant prescriptions, despite guidelines from NICE in 2004 that they should not be used as a first-stop remedy.

American and British experts led by Professor Kirsch examined the clinical trials submitted to gain licences for four commonly used SSRIs, including fluoxetine (better known as Prozac), venlafaxine (Efexor) and paroxetine (Seroxat). The study is published today in the journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) Medicine. Analysing both the unpublished and published data from the trials, the team found little evidence that the drugs were much better than a placebo.

“Given these results there seems little reason to prescribe antidepressant medication to any but the most severely depressed patients, unless alternative treatments have failed,” Professor Kirsch said. “The difference in improvement between patients taking placebos and patients taking antidepressants is not very great. This means that depressed people can improve without chemical treatments.” He added that the study “raises serious issues that need to be addressed surrounding drug licensing and how drug trial data is reported”.

The data for all 47 clinical trials for the drugs were released by the US Food and Drug Administration under freedom of information rules. They included unpublished trials that were not made available to NICE when it recommended the drugs for use on the NHS. “Had NICE seen all the relevant unpublished studies, it might have come to a different conclusion,” Professor Kirsch said.

Tim Kendall, a deputy director of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Research Unit, who helped to formulate the NICE guidance, said that the findings were “fantastically important” and that it was “dangerous” for drug companies not to have to publish their full data. He added: “Three of these drugs are some of the most commonly used antidepressants in this country. It’s not mandatory for drug companies to publish all this research. I think it should be.”

SSRIs are not prescribed to patients under 18 because of the risk of suicide.Drugs watchdogs in Europe are considering tighter controls on the development of new medicines, The Times reported this month, and may soon require regulators to monitor psychiatric effects and the risk of suicide more closely during clinical trials.

A spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Seroxat, said: “The authors have failed to acknowledge the very positive benefits these treatments have provided to patients and their families dealing with depression and their conclusions are at odds with what has been seen in actual clinical practice. This one study should not be used to cause unnecessary alarm and concern for patients.” A spokesman for Eli Lilly, which makes Prozac, said: “Extensive scientific and medical experience has demonstrated that fluoxetine is an effective antidepressant.”

Source. Original journal article here

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