Monday, April 14, 2008

Is there any limit to British battiness?

Pirates can claim UK asylum so may not be detained by the navy

The Royal Navy, once the scourge of brigands on the high seas, has been told by the Foreign Office not to detain pirates because doing so may breach their human rights. Warships patrolling pirate-infested waters, such as those off Somalia, have been warned that there is also a risk that captured pirates could claim asylum in Britain. The Foreign Office has advised that pirates sent back to Somalia could have their human rights breached because, under Islamic law, they face beheading for murder or having a hand chopped off for theft.

In 2005 there were almost 40 attacks by pirates and 16 vessels were hijacked and held for ransom. Employing high-tech weaponry, they kill, steal and hold ships' crews to ransom. This year alone pirates killed three people near the Philippines. Last week French commandos seized a Somali pirate gang that had held a luxury yacht with 22 French citizens on board. The hijackers were paid off by the boat's owner and then a French helicopter carrier dispatched 50 commandos to seize the hijackers and the ransom money on dry land.

Britain is part of a coalition force that patrols piracy stricken areas and the guidance has troubled navy officers who believe they should have more freedom to intervene. The guidance was sharply criticised by Julian Brazier MP, the Conservative shipping spokesman, who said: "These people commit horrendous offences. The solution is not to turn a blind eye but to turn them over to the local authorities. The convention on human rights quite rightly doesn't cover the high seas. It's a pathetic indictment of what our legal system has come to."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "There are issues about human rights and what might happen in these circumstances. The main thing is to ensure any incident is resolved peacefully." The guidance is the latest blow to the robust image of the navy. Last year 15 of its sailors were taken prisoner by the Iranians and publicly humiliated. In the 19th century, British warships largely eradicated piracy when they policed the oceans. The death penalty for piracy on the high seas remained on the statute books until 1998. Modern piracy ranges from maritime mugging to stealing from merchant ships with the crew held at gunpoint.


Look, no scars: organs removed via the mouth

The minister charged with overhauling the NHS is testing a new form of scar-free surgery in which diseased organs are pulled out through the patient’s throat. Professor Lord Darzi, chair of surgery at Imperial College London, has conducted preliminary experiments with the technique in which robotically controlled instruments are lowered into the patient’s stomach. A hole is made in the lining of the stomach, then the organ - usually an appendix or gall bladder - is cut out and pulled up through the throat before the hole is stitched, leaving the patient with no external scars and a reduced risk of infection because the wounds are not exposed to the air. [But it is exposed to acid!]

The technique, called natural orifice translumenal endoscopic surgery, has been successfully used on patients in America, France and India. Darzi, who became a health minister last year, is one of the first surgeons in Britain to use the technique in experiments on pigs, before the first human tests. While admitting it was still “early days”, Darzi believes the probe could eventually be used to remove cancers.

The main after-effects include a sore throat and an unpleasant taste in the mouth from having a diseased organ pulled through it. Other orifices could be used but Darzi said he believed the mouth was the most promising. He said some aspects of the procedure needed perfecting. “If we are going to enter through the stomach we need to develop the appropriate tools to make sure we can close the hole properly,” he said.

Darzi’s team are developing a new surgical robot called the iSnake, which they hope will assist in the new procedure and in keyhole surgery. Other research projects on the new procedure are under way at hospitals around Britain. The first operations on patients in Britain are expected in three to four years.


British education boss on ropes over entry to faith schools

Ed Balls, the children's secretary, has been forced to soften his demands that faith schools change their admissions policies. Jim Knight, Balls's deputy, moved to defuse the row when he told a delegation from Jewish schools that ministers would consider changing the legal code governing admissions to "maintain the concept of equity whilst meeting the need to clarify how we define the ethos of [a religious school]". Religious groups claimed they were unfairly singled out by Balls when he accused dozens of schools of breaching the code, which is designed to prevent "backdoor selection" of middle-class children.

Those at the meeting last Thursday said Knight also talked of changing laws that prevent oversubscribed schools from admitting children only of their own faith, saying: "It is important that you [Jewish schools] preserve your ethos" and "are able to promote strong family values". The hour-long meeting, held at the offices of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in London, was described by Winston Pickett, a spokesman for the board, as a "frank and open interchange".

Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, described the concessions by Balls and Knight as "not a total retreat, but definitely a climb-down". "There was a miscalculation and an acknowledgment they had to retreat because they did not have their facts straight," he said. "For ideological reasons, though, they are still intent on making schools the villains in the admissions process."

The row erupted earlier when Balls accused dozens of schools from Manchester, Northamptonshire and Barnet, north London, of breaking the code. He claimed some were "asking parents to commit to making financial contributions as a condition of admission", putting off poor families. Ministers said the abuse was a national issue and "shocking", although they were able to name only six schools that linked payments to admissions. Most of the accused schools turned out to be religious and Balls was accused of a "witch hunt" to pander to the left, many of whom see faith schools as middle class strongholds.

The attack on Balls was joined last night by Frank Field, the reformist Labour MP, who called the criticism of faith schools "incomprehensible ... near-criminal" and "a rant" designed to position the schools secretary for the next leadership contest. He called on Gordon Brown to "rein him in".

Parts of Balls' claims came unstuck last weekend when it emerged that only about a third of parents at some of the schools made the voluntary payments. They are intended to subsidise religious education, security and refurbishments, but it is illegal to link them to admissions. It also emerged that many of the admissions criteria criticised by Balls's officials had been drawn up before the code came into force last year and had already been amended.

Although most schools have now changed their codes to meet the deadline on Tuesday, religious groups are particularly angry that they are not allowed to ask parents whether they support a school's ethos. They argue that this information is vital to preserve a school's distinctive character. Labour's code bans it as it may be interpreted as a request for financial support. It is also seen to favour articulate parents. "It has become absurd, it has come down to arguing over one person's interpretation of the word `support' against another's," said one Catholic head teacher, adding: "They should think hard before they pick a fight with us over angels dancing on pin-heads."

Knight said yesterday: "The Board of Deputies and the government are committed to ending unfair admissions practices . . . we look forward to working with them."

The government is not relaxing its approach to enforcement of the code. Philip Hunter, the schools adjudicator, has written to every education authority demanding signed assurances that they will force schools to comply with the code. Hunter has also taken on a team of barristers to vet policies and told councils "we will expect you to use your powers to object" to any policy deemed noncompliant by the lawyers.

Paul Barber, education officer of the Roman Catholic diocese of Westminster, called Hunter's approach " heavy-handed", but a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times suggests that many voters are sympathetic to Balls. It finds 38% believe that faith schools are being undermined by government statements, but these are outnumbered by the 50% who agree with the statement: "[Balls] is right to get tough on schools that erect hidden barriers that discourage poorer families from applying".


Lying Leftist British politician: "Des Browne, the defence secretary, appears to have misled MPs when he told them an independent report had ruled that the RAF's Nimrod aircraft were safe to fly. Browne made the claim while apologising to relatives of 14 men killed when leaking fuel led to an explosion which destroyed a Nimrod spy plane over Afghanistan in September 2006. A copy of the independent report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that it found the aircraft did not comply with the Ministry of Defence's own safety rules. The report, produced by QinetiQ in March last year, was highly critical, making 30 recommendations that had to be carried out before the aircraft could be deemed to be safe."

Ban on youngsters playing with toy guns can backfire, Scottish study finds: " Allowing young boys to play with toy guns and take part in superhero games can be good for their development, new research has found. A zero-tolerance approach to replica guns and other toy weapons is active in a large number of nurseries across Scotland and superhero-style play, where children imitate their favourite film characters, is also unpopular among staff as it can lead to fighting and aggression. But Cath Livingstone, a nursery teacher at Abernethy Primary School in Perth and Kinross, found that the "ban" drove the pretend weapons underground, rather than halt interest in them altogether, and children became deceitful and broke nursery rules in order to play their favourite games. She said that the ban went against Scottish Government guidance on engaging children with activities which respond to their needs and interests."

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