Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Gurkhas have earned the right to live in Britain

This is truly amazing stuff. The Gurkhas are most highly thought of in Britain -- though not among the Leftist British government and bureaucracy, apparently. Warriors of any sort are just "incorrect" in Leftist circles

There are times when the routine irritation we all feel with the idiocies that take place daily in government is supplanted by splenetic anger caused by something truly outlandish. The sight of Gurkha ex-servicemen gathered in front of the Palace of Westminster [the British parliament] to return the medals they had received for fighting with the British Army was just such a moment. They were objecting to the fact that many of their number are denied the right to settle in Britain because they retired before 1997.

The grievances of the Gurkhas are legitimate and long-standing. You could be forgiven for imagining that they were resolved in September 2004, when Tony Blair, then prime minister, announced after an 18-month Whitehall review that Gurkhas who had served with the British Army and wanted to settle here with their families would be allowed to apply for citizenship.

The Government confirmed it would change immigration rules to let them stay. Prior to that decision, they had no pension rights, no leave to remain in the UK, and could not apply to become British citizens. David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, said: "We have put together the best package to enable discharged Gurkhas to apply for settlement and citizenship. I hope this decision makes our gratitude clear."

But note the weasel word "discharged" in that statement; and, indeed, the devil was in the detail. The change meant that only Gurkhas who have served at least four years and were discharged after July 1, 1997 - the date at which the brigade's headquarters moved to the UK from Hong Kong - would be eligible for "fast-track" citizenship.

So an apparently generous gesture was instantly turned into something divisive. What possible moral case exists for saying that a Gurkha discharged in 1996 after 15 years' service is any less entitled to come here than one discharged a year later, after five years in the Army? For some Gurkhas falling outside the cut-off date who are already living in Britain, sometimes in penury, it means the prospect of deportation.

It is extraordinary that the authorities are prepared to deport someone who fought in our Army, yet last week the Court of Appeal ruled that under an EU directive, an Italian who served nine years for robbing a pensioner - and had a string of other convictions - could not be ejected because he did not pose a serious threat to the security of the nation.

Pre-1997 Gurkhas are not able to stay or settle because the Home Office says they cannot demonstrate "close ties" to this country. Even serving Gurkha soldiers are not treated equally. Their children are regarded as foreign students and must pay fees of up to 13,000 pounds a year if they want to attend university. Only when citizenship is granted after a lengthy application period once they leave the Army are their children regarded as home students in the UK.

All of this is particularly galling when you consider the mess the Government has made of our immigration system. Over the past 10 years, it has allowed hundreds of thousands of people who have no claim to settle here to do just that. Nepalese Gurkhas, by contrast, have been part of the British Army for nearly 200 years and about 200,000 of them fought for Britain in both world wars; some 43,000 were killed or wounded, and they have won 26 Victoria Crosses.

A few weeks ago, one of these VC winners, Havildar Bhanubhakta Gurung, died in Nepal aged 86. He was decorated with the highest award for valour when serving as a rifleman in the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles in Burma in 1945. It is worth quoting from the citation. "On approaching the objective, one of the sections of the company was forced to the ground by heavy machine-gun, grenade and mortar fire, and owing to the severity of this fire was unable to move. "While thus pinned down, the section also came under fire from a sniper in a tree 75 yards to the south. As this sniper was inflicting casualties on the section, Rifleman Gurung stood up and, while exposed to heavy fire, calmly killed the enemy sniper with his rifle, saving his section from further casualties."

Bhanubhakta then dashed forward alone, attacking enemy positions single-handed, using grenades, smoke bombs, his rifle and, eventually, his kukri. The citation continued: "He showed outstanding bravery and a complete disregard for his own safety. His courageous clearing of five enemy positions single-handed was decisive in capturing the objective and his inspiring example to the Company contributed to the speedy consolidation of the success."

Under the current immigration rules, had Bhanubhakta, whose three sons followed their father into the Gurkhas, wanted to come to live in Britain, he would not be allowed to stay and could be facing deportation were he here already.

When a big enough fuss is made, as in the case last year of Tul Bahadur Pun VC, 85, who wanted to move from Nepal for medical reasons, an "exceptional" visa can be granted, as it was in his case. But these men should not have to beg for entry. Given the sheer scale of immigration to Britain in recent years, this is a small group of people who are rightly insulted by the suggestion that their ties to this country are "insufficiently strong" when they see so many here who have none whatsoever, including some who would do us great harm.

When Gordon Brown was asked about this injustice in the Commons at Question Time by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, he said the right for retired Gurkhas to live in Britain had only been granted from 1997 because that was when Hong Kong, their former principal base, was handed over to Chinese rule. So what? The fact that previous administrations failed to treat the Gurkhas properly is no excuse to continue treating them badly. The Labour Government is entitled to be congratulated for making some attempt to rectify past mistakes, especially over pension entitlements; but the decision taken in 2004 was only half right and too many anomalies remain. It is time to honour our debt to the Gurkhas.


Women in labour turned away by NHS maternity units

Women in labour are being refused entry to overstretched maternity units and told to give birth elsewhere, NHS hospitals admitted yesterday in response to an application under the Freedom of Information Act. They disclosed that maternity wards in almost 10% of trusts closed their doors to new admissions on at least 10 days last year. One trust in North Yorkshire closed 39 times between October and January because it did not have enough staff to provide a safe service.

The NHS encourages mothers planning a hospital delivery to make a booking early in pregnancy and get to know about the facilities during regular check-ups with a midwife. Most mothers discuss a birth plan with a consultant obstetrician, including choice of pain relief. These preparations are made on the assumption that the hospital will have enough capacity to deal with unpredictable peaks in demand when women go into labour. But information disclosed to the Conservative party under the FoI Act showed 42% of trusts could not get through last year without turning women away at least once.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said the results showed large maternity units closed most often. The University Hospitals of Leicester NHS trust - the second largest unit in England, with 9,470 births last year - shut 28 times. The North Bristol NHS trust closed its doors 17 times. It said the problem was caused by a high birth rate at its Southmead hospital, the largest maternity unit in the south-west, which delivers about 5,500 babies a year. The trust that closed the maternity unit most often was Scarborough and East Yorkshire Health Care, which had only 1,615 births last year. Overwhelmingly, the trusts with most closures were dealing with double that number of births.

Lansley said: "Labour are fixated with cutting smaller, local maternity services and concentrating them in big units. But women don't want to have to travel miles to give birth. And they certainly don't want to have to travel even further because they're turned away by the hospital of their choice. Conservatives are committed to supporting smaller maternity units because the evidence shows they do better."

Lansley's disclosure coincided with a decision by an independent panel to reject NHS plans to close maternity services at Horton general hospital in Banbury. The Independent Reconfiguration Panel - set up by the government to take responsibility for unpopular decisions away from ministers - said access to services would be "seriously compromised" if Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS trust went ahead with plans to centralise its paediatric, gynaecological and obstetric departments.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said the increasing frequency of maternity unit closures emphasised the need for more resources. Richard Warren, the honorary secretary, said: "Our current calculation is that 400 extra consultants are immediately required across England and Wales."

Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "The key issue here is what the women want. Women want to know and develop a relationship with their midwife and not feel as if they are on a production line. Midwives want to be able to deliver the best possible individualised care and not feel like they are working in a baby factory."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "It is difficult precisely to predict when a mother will go into labour and sometimes, at times of peak demand, maternity units do temporarily divert women to nearby facilities. When this does happen, it is often only for a few hours and to ensure mother and baby can receive the best care possible."


The British school lottery

When Pauline Patrick had to tell her daughter that she wouldn't be starting at her chosen school in Brighton in the autumn with her friends, 11-year-old Chloe's response added to the anxiety her mother was already feeling. "She came home from school the day the letter arrived and asked, `Did I get in?'," says Patrick. "I had to say no and she just broke down, crying, `Why me, Why me?' I kept saying to her that we would appeal against the decision and we would win. But what if we don't win? What will we do then?"

The Patrick family's experience was replicated all over the country on the so-called "national offer day" earlier this month. Some families logged on after midnight to discover their child's fate; others waited for the envelope to drop through the letterbox. One way or another there was a lot of bad news: one in five families - 100,000 children - had missed out on their first choice of school place. Government ministers promptly admitted that many parents would feel "let down" by the system and urged them to make a case to local appeals panels.

But the thousands of families now caught in this predicament know that the chances of persuading a panel to throw open the gates of an oversubscribed school is stacked against them: two out of three appeals fail. So parents now face weeks of worry searching for alternatives to the sink schools that many have been offered.

With one-sixth of Britain's 3,000 secondary schools turning in appalling GCSE results, it is clear that there are simply not enough good schools to go round. National offer day 2008 seems to have condemned thousands of children to scrappy qualifications and a second-class life - at the age of 11.

Patrick, however, refused to be felled by the bad news. Within hours of learning the decision, she had shot off a letter to the appeals panel. She is now waiting for a date for a hearing where she will try to persuade them why her daughter should be given a place at Hove Park, a school close to the family's home. Instead, Chloe has been offered a place at a school several miles away, which means taking two long and, her mother says, unsafe bus journeys across the city twice a day. At this school, fewer than one in four children (23%) got five good GCSEs last summer.

In Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, dozens of parents have been left out in the cold because the Tiffin girls' school, the local grammar, accepts children from all over the country who pass the tough entrance exam, leaving local families scraping around. Among them is Tamsin McNicol's 10-year-old daughter Xanthe [above]. She was turned down at her first four choices and offered a place only at her fifth - a school in the neighbouring borough of Richmond, which was until recently failing badly. "It's bonkers," says McNicol. "The grammar school is two minutes from our home, but there are children applying from Yorkshire. Some pupils travel two hours each way to go there." Her daughter was a whisker away from achieving the marks to get a place, but lost out to children with higher marks who could be living at the other end of the country.

McNicol and other parents are campaigning for a new secondary school to be built in the north of Kingston, but in the meantime she is left high and dry. "I'm worried because I don't think the school Xanthe has been offered a place at is the right school for her," says McNicol. "It is undersubscribed because it used to be a failing school." She is appealing for a place at Tiffin girls, and will be writing to Ed Balls, the schools secretary, to point out just how unfair she feels the system is. However, McNicol's situation, to quote Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen, is "luxury" compared with that of Louis Modell, who has nowhere to go in September.

Louis was a Blair baby, born in February 1997 - three months before Tony Blair was elected - with the words "education, education, education" ringing in his ears. Eleven years on, Louis doesn't know what he will do in September after he finishes at Lauriston school in east London - ironically a primary that Gordon Brown singled out for praise in his 2007 Labour conference speech. And Louis's situation is by no means unique: he is one of 14 children out of 30 in his year 6 class in the same position. His father, David Modell, a documentary film-maker, has lived in Hackney for 13 years with his girlfriend Madeleine. The couple have two younger children in local primary schools.

Louis applied for six secondary school places - the only three in Hackney that his father said "he had a cat in hell's chance" of getting into, two schools in a neighbouring borough to hedge his bets, and one last-chance saloon: a school in Ingatestone in Essex, a 40-minute train journey away. With no offers so far, Louis has as yet no hope of any - the best the trust that runs education in Hackney could come up with was a suggestion that he consider home schooling. "We did everything we were asked to do. We were not picky - so when you get that letter saying you haven't got a place anywhere, it's shocking," says

Modell. "This year it's like carnage - all these kids and parents are walking around stunned." Three families, three unhappy unsettled children. Over the next few weeks they and their parents will have their lives turned upside down as they write letters, wait by the phone, attend appeal hearings and cross their fingers. Will Chloe avoid having to catch four buses a day? Will Xanthe be allowed to go to a better school closer to home where her friends go? And will Louis have a chance to go to school at all? Questions that, 11 years on, the Blair generation feel they should not be having to ask.


Britain's coldest Easter for a decade

A bank holiday weekend that is seen as heralding the arrival of spring produced a "white Easter" thought to have been the coldest for a decade. Any hope of the glorious sunshine of last Easter, when temperatures reached 21C (71F), disappeared yesterday in snow, sleet and strong winds. Snowball fights replaced Easter-egg hunts and trips to the garden centre as snow settled over many parts of northern England and Scotland. Temperatures were between 4C and 7C yesterday, compared with the seasonal average of 7C to 11C. At Carterhouse, in the Scottish Borders, 3cm of snow was recorded. Gusts of 60mph (97kmh) hit the south Devon coast over the weekend, with winds reaching 40-50mph more generally across Britain.

The weather is forecast to warm up from today with sunny spells predicted - just as much of the country prepares to return to work. However, cloudy and damp conditions will persist while further sleet and snow showers are expected for some regions. Forecasters have said that the potential remains today for heavy snowfalls in Scotland and eastern England. Wintry showers began to spread southwards from Scotland and northeastern England in the early hours of yesterday morning. By 5am, snow was falling across northeast England, Yorkshire and Manchester, and had made its way down through the Midlands and East Anglia. Light snow was also seen in London and parts of the South East.

Motorists struggled with the frosty conditions over the weekend, with a number of road accidents reported. North Yorkshire Police described the driving conditions yesterday as "horrendous", and Durham Police said that the A66 trans-Pennine route was closed for the second night running because of heavy snow. The misery was compounded on the railways, as Network Rail planned 30 engineering projects over the four-day break, leading to cancellations and delays. More than two million passengers face problems as they try to get home today. This year's early Easter has meant that many children will return to school tomorrow. The RAC said that the knock-on effect for road users would be vast numbers of families clogging the busiest routes today for their journey home.

The record books show that a white Easter is more likely than a white Christmas. Over the past 50 years, snow has fallen on a dozen Easters, most recently in 1998, when much of North Wales was brought to a standstill by more than a foot of snow. At this time of year the seas are close to their coldest, after losing their heat over the winter. This Easter, air from deep inside the Arctic Circle swept down over hundreds of miles of cold seas, keeping the winds biting cold and full of moisture, before bursting into heavy snow showers. One saving grace is that the lengthening days and strengthening sunlight mean that the land is warming up, and snow tends to melt quickly.

March is notorious for wild mood swings. The end of the month is when cold outbreaks are feared most and folklore tells the story of the borrowed days, when March took its last three days from stormy April: "The first is frost, the second snow, and the third is cold as it can blow". This was also called blackthorn winter, when blackthorn bushes came into blossom during a warm spell mid-month only to be dashed by a cold, frosty spell later.


Damage to unborn baby from smoking 'negligible' in the first five months

This is a nice bit of iconoclasm. Rather in line with the passive smoking findings, too. The authors even managed to reject the "correlation is causation" belief that seems to pervade medical research. Will wonders never cease?

Smoking in pregnancy is far less damaging to the unborn baby than commonly supposed, detailed analysis suggests. If women give up smoking by the fifth month of pregnancy, the effect on the baby is negligible, the study found. And even if they do not, the effect on birthweight is surprisingly small. The study by Emma Tominey, a research assistant at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, throws new light on government efforts to stop women smoking when they become pregnant. While it does not suggest that such efforts are pointless, it shows that directing advice towards the newly pregnant is worthwhile.

It also shows that the worst effects are suffered by women from the poorest backgrounds, because in their case smoking is often combined with other unhealthy activities, such as poor diet and consumption of alcohol. Middle-class women suffer almost no damaging effects, the analysis suggests, even if they continue to smoke throughout pregnancy.

The findings, published as a report by the centre, will not be welcomed by anti-smoking groups, whose message to young women is intended to make them feel guilty about damaging their babies. In Ms Tominey's view, the damage is real but relatively small, and even if all women gave up smoking, only about one in eight babies with a low birthweight would avoid being classified as such.

The report uses data from the UK National Child Development Study, which provides details of mothers and their children between 1973 and 2000 - a total of 3,368 women and 6,860 children. The information includes the mothers' smoking habits, information about their families, and the birthweight and gestation period of the children.

Analysis of the data shows that smoking throughout pregnancy reduces birthweight by 5.6 per cent, and the gestation period by just over a day. But when the results are corrected for other factors, such as diet, lifestyle and alcohol, the effect of smoking on birthweight drops to 1.8 per cent and the reduction in gestation becomes insignificant. The study also finds that, contrary to the normal belief that damage is done early in pregnancy, it is the final third that matters most, because this is when babies gain the most weight.

Another surprising finding is the strong class effect. The damage is greatest among mothers with the lowest levels of education. Those who leave school at 16 cause twice the harm to their babies with each cigarette smoked. Ms Tominey concludes: "Other behaviours of the mother play a large role . . . over and above her smoking habits." Policies intended to help babies should aim to educate mothers generally, not simply try to persuade them to stop smoking, she said.

However, she does not conclude that smoking is harmless. "We find that up to 13 per cent of children classified as low-birthweight born to smoking mothers could have been classified as healthy, had their mothers not smoked." The policy implications, however, are that stopping smoking alone is not enough to deal with inequalities in child health, she concludes. "Not only is it the low-socioeconomic-status mothers who choose to smoke, but they are also the mothers bearing the greatest burden from the smoking." She said: "Therefore, any potential solution must offer help to these mothers, to target those with the worst habits and poorest records of child health."


Socialists can't run an airport: "The opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow [Britain] last week has been hailed as a new beginning for the airport, but the four older terminals are still a disgrace, according to travellers. A list of the best and worst airports, decided by 7.8 million passengers, suggests that Heathrow's transit system is comparable with the chaos encountered at Bombay airport and that its reputation for baggage delivery is at the same level as the airport at Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. Heathrow was ranked 103rd out of 162 airports, with the main complaints regarding its snaking security queues, surly immigration officials and infuriating baggage system. The airport fell 58 places in the rankings last year, which was due partly to a luggage crisis in August, when British Airways was so overwhelmed that it had to hire a fleet of lorries to transport unclaimed bags from Heathrow to a sorting facility in Milan. Heathrow, which is operated by the British Airports Authority, has the largest number of delayed flights in Europe, with more than one in three departing at least 15 minutes late." [I advise visitors to Britain to come down in Paris and take the Eurostar (train) to London]

Nutty archbishop of doom: "The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave a warning yesterday against materialist greed and prophesied the collapse of civilisation. In his Easter Day sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Williams said that the luxuries we took for granted could not be sustained for ever. In our culture, thoughts of death were too painful to manage, he told worshippers. Criticising modern society's approach to mortality, Dr Williams said: "Individuals live in anxious and acquisitive ways, seizing what they can to provide a security that is bound to dissolve, because they are going to die," he said".

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