Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Patient to sue NHS over top-up drug

A woman's fight to halt the withdrawal of her free care could shatter goverment rules on drugs. But fancy having to sue to get the healthcare you have already paid for! I guess that's what's called socialist compassion

A WOMAN cancer patient is taking a landmark legal action against the National Health Service for withdrawing treatment because she has chosen to pay for a drug that the NHS does not fund. Sue Bentley, a potter, has had her NHS care withdrawn after paying privately for the drug Avastin to increase her chance of fighting lung cancer. The legal action will put pressure on the government to change its policy of penalising patients who try to improve their chances of survival by buying additional drugs.

An inquiry into the scandal, to be published at the end of October, is widely expected to propose that patients should be allowed to pay for additional drugs without losing their NHS care. Ministers will then consider changing the rules but patients such as Bentley say they do not have time to wait. Bentley, 67, from Monmouthshire, who was diagnosed with the disease last December, said: “We were told there was no way we would be allowed to top up and that we would need to opt out of the NHS and pay for everything. “It is quite frightening because, if I become ill, I know that we will need to pay up to $900 a day for me to go into hospital, as well as all the treatment costs.”

In addition to the Avastin, Bentley is also receiving two other drugs, cisplatin and gemcitabine, which are normally available on the NHS. She is now being charged for these drugs which are free to other NHS patients. She added: “Everyone else is getting the cisplatin and the gemcitabine for free. I am sitting beside them and I am being billed. It is horrendous.”

Bentley will challenge in court the decision by her hospital, Velindre NHS Trust, Cardiff, to refuse to allow her to pay for an additional drug without losing her NHS care. In previous legal challenges, the NHS has capitulated either by agreeing to fund the additional drug or by the hospital allowing co-payment. This is unlikely to happen in Bentley’s case.

Bentley’s solicitor, Melissa Worth, of Halliwells, the Manchester-based law firm, has a QC’s opinion stating that the NHS has no legal right to prevent Bentley paying for a private drug while continuing to receive her state-funded care. Worth said: “Ms Bentley has paid for her NHS care through insurance contributions and there is no bar to a patient purchasing a drug not ordinarily available on the NHS, bringing that to a hospital and having the NHS administer that drug. “These patients are not taking anything away from the NHS.”

Halliwells is not charging Bentley for its representation. Doctors for Reform, a group of 1,000 doctors, has a $70,000 fighting fund to pay any legal costs awarded to the NHS if Bentley loses her case.

Bentley’s companion of 24 years, Steve Rogers, 52, a conservationist, has paid for Avastin, which costs about $6,600 a month, from savings. He found trials on the internet showing that patients who add Avastin to their treatment are more likely to see their tumours shrink and will increase the time before their cancer returns.

The couple must also pay for the cost of the chemotherapy drugs, which would otherwise have been available to Bentley on the NHS, and the charges for administering them. Bentley’s oncologist, who is backing their decision to pay for Avastin, has waived his fees.

Velindre NHS Trust defended its decision to withdraw NHS care. Malcolm Adams, medical director, said: “Velindre’s policy is that patients cannot switch between NHS and private healthcare within a particular treatment episode. “The Trust awaits the outcome of this [Department of Health] review with considerable interest.”


Health and safety team enters conker championships

This sounds like a bit of that old-fashioned eccentricity that was once the glory of Britain -- and to a degree it is. It is also however a significant backdown from the insane safety obsession that has had Britain ban almost anything that moves in recent years. The game of conkers is played by two players, each with a nut threaded onto a piece of string. They take turns to strike each other's nut until one breaks. The game is about as harmless as you can get but has nonetheless been banned from time to time in British schools etc.

The World Conker Championships have found a rather unlikely sponsor - the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. Keen to shrug off their spoilsport image and dispel the myth that they make children wear protective goggles for the playground game, health and safety officers have also entered a team in the tournament.

After years of being derided for banning such jolly pastimes as sweets being thrown into the audience at theatres and balloon modelling by clowns, the supposed killjoys have said enough is enough. Ray Hurst, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health president, said: "I'm looking forward to captaining my team to glory at the championships to show that health and safety people are not spoilsports. We like to have fun like anyone else. You just have to manage the risks, not ban them into oblivion."

About 500 other entrants from as far afield as Jamaica, the US, Brazil, the Philippines and Benin will compete to be crowned conker champion at the championships in Ashton, Northamptonshire, on October 12.


Blind Greenie propaganda in "The Economist"

A comment in reply by Philip Stott, Emeritus professor of biogeography from the University of London

Your assertion that "global warming is happening faster than expected" exhibits a disturbing degree of cognitive dissonance ("Adapt or die ", September 13th). Since 1998 the world's average surface temperature has exhibited no warming, according to all the main temperature records. The trend has been a combination of flatlining and cooling, with a marked plunge over the past year; many countries, including Australia, Canada, China and the United States, experienced severe winters.

Moreover, recent work demonstrates that the Earth's temperature may stay roughly the same for at least a further decade through the impact of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. In addition, the next 11-year cycle of solar storms-Solar Cycle 24-is late by more than two years. The sun is currently spotless, conditions that obtained during the "Dalton Minimum", an especially cold period that lasted several decades starting from 1790 and which was implicated in the rout of Napoleon's Grand Army during the retreat from Moscow in 1812.

Finally, one expert, Victor Manuel Velasco Herrera of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has gone so far as to give warning that the Earth may enter a new "Little Ice Age" for up to 80 years because of decreases in solar activity. The immediate portents thus point in the direction of a cooling period.

Whatever one thinks about longer-term trends in world average temperatures and their possible relationship with carbon emissions, it cannot be claimed that currently "global warming is happening faster than expected". It troubles me when a publication with the standing of The Economist permits such a gap between observed reality and political rhetoric.


Be honest: we all love the sexist alpha male

By India Knight, an upper class British female, courtesy of the fact that her Indian mother married well -- several times

Many women will tell you that one of the most irritating things about life is that alpha males - great silverbacked gorilla types - strike us, maddeningly, as being rather more attractive than their kinder, gentler, more considerate dwarf-monkey counterparts. We know intellectually that it shouldn't be so, since the gorillas are often sexist pigs (just to mix the animal metaphors); but when push comes to shove and we're picking a boyfriend rather than a friend, few of us find beta males especially appealing.

In real life as in Georgette Heyer, the reprehensible, oddly sexy brute fares rather better than the sensitive flower. Now it turns out that the unreconstituted, sexist male chauvinist is not only more attractive to many women, but earns more money and is more professionally successful than the kind man who sympathises when you have period cramps and offers to make you a nice cup of camomile. Not fair, is it?

The Journal of Applied Psychology has just published findings from a University of Florida study based on interviews with more than 12,000 men and women. Between 1979 and 2005, they were questioned regularly about how they viewed male and female roles - whether they believed a woman's place was in the home, whether employing women led to more juvenile delinquency(!) and whether it was the woman's job to take care of the home and family.

Sexist men, the scientists found, made an average of $8,500 a year more than men who viewed women as work-place equals. Meanwhile, feminists earned more than their more traditionally minded female colleagues (but not a great deal more - $1600 a year, on average). And while there was only a small difference between the pay packets of "egalitarian" men and women, sexist men's wages outstripped everyone else's.

Surprised? Me neither. It's one of those stories that, even without being corroborated by the figures, has the horrible ring of truth about it: we've all worked in an office where the sexist monster is (a) very good at his job and (b) gruesomely and guilt-inducingly attractive despite his antediluvian attitudes.

The existence of such men is why sexism persists: it is obviously wrong on every level, as many an industrial tribunal will attest, but the combination of power and, shall we say, lack of political correctness can be a potent one - which is why everyone in Britain fell in love with Gene Hunt, the hulking great throwback in the BBC series Life on Mars, which was set in the 1970s. On paper the character was entirely despicable; in full flow he made his intelligent, evolved, sensitive sidekick look like a ladyboy. Men wanted to be Hunt; women wanted to be with him. This says a great deal about men's sense of being emasculated at every turn in modern Britain - a complaint that is, I think, pretty much justified and needs to be addressed before it does considerable damage.

It is surely no coincidence that men seem angrier than they have ever been; you notice it especially when it comes to pornography. Wanting to subjugate and violate powerless women used to be a specialist minority interest; it has now become mainstream. Nobody seems to mind much. I find that pretty alarming.

See also the extremes men now go to in order to punish their former wives or girlfriends: horrific news stories about fathers murdering their children and then killing themselves have become, if not quite commonplace, frequent enough to ring loud alarm bells. There was another one just last week. There's not much point in women saying, "Oh dear, how horrid - but anyway, about my right to breastfeed in public . . . " These are issues that need to be looked at urgently before the situation gets wholly out of control.

Women aren't powerless - au contraire. What is interesting about the sexist pay packet is that it doesn't happen despite women, but rather with their consent and, in many cases, their covert approval. The fact of the matter is that biology will always get in the way of gender politics; you can cogitate and reason all you like, but it isn't easy simply to eradicate attitudes and desires that have been hard-wired into us for millennia.

Wet men aren't generally considered desirable or attractive; manly men are. Manly men, knowing they are considered attractive, continue to behave in their retrograde way and are rewarded for it with popularity, success and, if they're good at their jobs, a heftier pay packet than anyone else's. And then everyone likes or admires them even more, secretly or otherwise: success, money, esteem - what's not to like, apart from the little matter of gender politics? And so it goes on.

Meanwhile, confusingly, everything we read and observe and are taught shows us that the object of our admiration is to be condemned and that being a victim of sexism is one of the most terrible things that can befall a helpless woman (in fact, it really isn't and we're not helpless: there are many worse things than people making jokes about your bosoms, especially if the jokes are quite funny. If they aren't, we all have a tongue in our head and, if need be, recourse to the law. Part of the problem with all this is the irritating assumption that women are constantly doomed to victimhood and need protecting from the big, mean boys).

No wonder people get muddled. So this is a little plea for the sexist alpha male - the one we all secretly think isn't as dreadful as he's made out to be. Isn't it time that we gave him a break from the full force of our disapproval? We live in a furtive sort of society where lots of women fancy men they feel they shouldn't and many men go through life pretending to be a great deal sweeter and more feminine than they actually are, because they've been told it's the only way to be.

It's unhealthy, really - smoke and mirrors masking the unavoidable fact that, underneath it all, women prefer manly men, even ones who make sexist jokes; and men prefer womanly women, even ones who whinge about being fat. Perhaps that's a terribly self-hating and sexist thing to say. Or perhaps it's just the truth.


The moralistic myth of the `demon drink'

The UK government's list of nine types of heavy drinker is based less on scientific research than puritan zeal. It's part of a campaign that is both absurd and insulting

Do you drink to `unwind and calm down and to gain a sense of control when switching between work and personal life'? Perhaps your preferred way to `reconnect with old friends' is to meet up in a pub. Maybe you drink in `fairly large social friendship groups' and find a `sense of community' in your local pub, or perhaps you don't go out, and just drink at the end of the day when all your chores are done.

If any of this applies to you, and if you're over 35, you'll soon be targeted by a UK government health campaign, which, according to public health minister Dawn Primarolo, will help people `understand the effects of their drinking habits and help them make changes for the better'.

Underlying this forthcoming campaign is new research by the Department of Health (DoH) which has defined nine personality types of `heavy drinkers', that is, men who drink over 50 units of alcohol a week, and women who drink over 35 units a week. These types not only include `depressed drinkers' and `border dependents', which might well indicate potentially serious alcohol-related psychological problems, but `de-stress drinkers', `re-bonding drinkers', `community drinkers', `conformist drinkers', `macho drinkers', `boredom drinkers' and `hedonistic drinkers'. The DoH hopes to use this segmentation to, in the words of one report, `tailor its propaganda to suit all the target personalities' (1).

According to the report, alcohol serves many functions: it's the `shared connector' that helps people to get along with old friends; it's the means to `feel a strong sense of belonging and acceptance' or a `sense of community' at the local pub; it's the tipple of an evening born of boredom; or it's a way to express `independence, freedom and "youthfulness"'. The net effect of the research is to transform normal behaviour like relaxing after work, socialising with your friends, or just relieving your inhibitions and having a good time, into pathological conditions dangerous to your health (2).

Yet, as with all governmental lifestyle regulation, the basis for the DoH campaign is moral and political, not scientific or medical (3). The cod-psychologising about `drinking types' aside, even the notion of a `heavy drinker' is suspect, based as it is on government-defined unit limits that have no scientific basis. A former editor of the British Medical Journal involved in the process of setting the government's recommended drinking limits, which were first introduced in 1987, recently revealed that reports advising that moderate drinking above these limits was beneficial to health were simply suppressed in favour of `useless' limits that were `plucked out of the air' (4).

Instead, the government seems intent on commissioning scientists to try to produce evidence to back up its essentially moralistic obsession with how much we drink. This July, for instance, research at the North West Public Health Observatory (NWPHO) fuelled suitably scary headlines, warning that 15,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths annually, a leap of 80 per cent on previous estimates. Alarmingly, over a quarter of all deaths among 16- to 24-year-olds were attributed to alcohol. On this basis the DoH stated alcohol-related hospital admissions totaled 810,000, costing $5bn a year (5). But on closer examination of the facts, the continued politicisation of science becomes obvious:

* The NWPHO research identifies 47 conditions caused by alcohol - 34 of them `partially', like cancer, and accidents like falls. This is actually a reduction from the previous total of 53, which was determined by the Cabinet Office in 2003, and included various scientifically unsubstantiated conditions (6). Despite this, the government continues to use its own dodgy figures to estimate alcohol-related National Health Service (NHS) costs, thereby claiming an increase from o1.7billion to o2.7billion between 2003 and 2006/7 (7). Moreover, the government continues to peddle its preferred figures of 810,000 hospital admissions and `15-20,000 premature deaths' when the NWPHO report identified significantly lower figures: 459,982 admissions and under 15,000 deaths (8). When the facts don't fit, just use your own.

* The massive leap in alcohol-related deaths is almost entirely related to the inclusion of these `partially' caused conditions (10,283 deaths out of 14,982), for which the evidence is weak. Associated risk factors are drawn from two decade-old pieces of research and have no `confidence intervals' associated with them. In other words, we don't know how reliable these numbers are. Given that we are talking about a few dozen or hundred cases of some conditions, the risk could be statistically insignificant. Furthermore, these `partially' caused conditions are largely accounted for by `mental and behavioural disorders caused by alcohol'. While it is true that many mentally ill people have alcohol problems, it is far from obvious that they are mentally ill because they drink. However, the uncertainties and qualifications scientists are compelled to indicate tend to be ignored in media commentaries and government statements. When in doubt, obliterate doubt.

* Even if we accept the figures as given, when put into context, they look far less scary. While 14,982 deaths sounds a lot, it constitutes just 3.1 per cent of deaths in the UK. Booze accounts for over a quarter of deaths among 16- to 24-year-olds, but in absolute terms this meant just 446 people in 2005; the percentage is high for the simple reason that very few people die young. Again, 459,842 hospital admissions sounds a lot, but it constitutes just 2.3 per cent of all hospital inpatient and outpatient admissions (9). Given that 70 per cent of Britons drink, these figures suggest a generally low health risk, with serious problems being confined to a hard-core minority. Despite popular belief that Britain has a serious drinking problem, the international figure for alcohol-related diseases is four per cent.

* The NWPHO report even admits that drinking seems to help prevent some conditions like heart disease, and initially its authors found drinking even saved 8,838 lives in 2005 - though they subsequently try to scale this figure back, selectively using research that found little preventive benefit, rather than the opposite (10). Still, if the context dilutes the message, dilute the context.

* The NWPHO research actually finds little evidence to substantiate the government's obsession with `heavy drinkers' beyond re-telling the already-obvious: that sustained alcohol abuse increases the risk of diseases directly caused by alcohol, like cirrhosis of the liver, alcohol poisoning and throat diseases. For some `partially' caused conditions, the evidence is very weak. The research actually finds that the incidence of cancer, hypertension and pancreatitis do not vary with alcohol consumption among men, and are in fact `attributable more to lower levels of alcohol consumption' among women. Instead of therefore questioning the link between boozing and such diseases, the report `suggest[s] that there is a requirement for harm reduction strategies to target the general population, and not just high-risk drinkers'. A failure to find the link is thus transformed into regulation for the entire population, on the basis of three diseases that account for a mere 0.07 per cent of annual hospital admissions (11).

Such contortions illustrate that scientific research is being harnessed to a pre-existing policy agenda that is rooted not in hard medical fact but in moral concerns. Put simply, elites have a moral problem with people who enjoy drinking. They describe town centres as `no-go areas', express amazement and disgust at the revelation that 5.9million of us `drink to get drunk', and hope 24-hour licensing laws will moderate our barbaric customs in the direction of `European caf, culture'. This contempt for the masses, coupled with the vacuousness of their own visions for how to take society forward, produces moralising and therapeutic interventions designed to wean us from the bottle.

The DoH suggests heavy drinkers booze because of a `general sense of malaise in their lives' and to `give their lives meaning'. Perhaps they do. But is it really the state's place to psychoanalyse us, pathologise our normal social interactions, and scare us into `making changes for the better'? After the smoking ban left them without a focus for public health policy, it's actually health ministers who experienced a `general sense of malaise' and now resort to hectoring drinkers to `give their lives meaning'.

So if you receive one of the 900,000 leaflets and self-help booklets being targeted at heavy drinkers in the next few weeks, do the rational thing: bin it, and tell the `health promotion' lobby that really should get out more.


UK's biggest school scraps homework

The dumbing down never stops in Britain. And these kids are backward already! It's just lazy teachers who don't want the hassle

A new school that will be the biggest in the country is to abandon homework because the head teacher believes it does not justify the detentions and family rows it causes. Nottingham East academy, which will have 3,570 pupils, claims it will be the first school to scrap homework. It will instead have an extra lesson and after-school activities such as sport, model aircraft-building and sari-making.

Government guidelines suggest primary schools should set pupils between one and 2 1/2 hours per week, while those at secondaries receive up to 2 1/2 hours a day. Many of the most academically successful schools in the private and state sectors prescribe three or four hours of homework a night for older children. Barry Day, who will be principal of the new academy, believes much of this time is wasted. "If you ask most heads what most detentions are for, they will tell you for non-completion of homework," he said. "Homework causes an enormous amount of home conflict and parents and the community certainly won't mind children coming home later. "It is often set simply because there is an expectation it should be set. It does not help with education at all."

Day's move follows news last week that Tiffin boys' school in Kingston, Surrey, one of the country's most successful selective schools, had slashed homework from two or three hours a day to just 40 minutes for the oldest pupils. [What you can get away with among bright kids can be very different from what works with average or backward kids]

Day believes his changes will be fairer particularly for children from poorer or illiterate families or those whose parents do not speak English. Nottingham East will retain some homework for exam revision and coursework, but otherwise will simply encourage parents to read books in a relaxed way with their children and ask the pupils to report twice a term what they have read.

Signs of moves away from homework were welcomed by Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which is campaigning for an end to the practice at all primary schools. "A lot of the time, state schools are just competing with the independent sector in setting lots of homework as they think that is what the parents want," Bousted said. "It is perfectly possible to teach independent learning properly within the school day."

However, Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education at London University, said Day was going too far. "Research shows homework does not make much of a difference, but that is because it is not properly planned and is too often, for example, just finishing off what you did during the day. "Properly designed, it can help pupils develop their autonomy in learning."

Geoff Lucas, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of independent schools, warned that, if widely adopted, the policy would result in lagging comprehensives falling even further behind. "Private study and independent learning are vital skills for university and employment," Lucas said. "It seems a terrible shame to have a blanket decision like this. It will inevitably widen the gap between schools like this and our members and the best-performing state schools."

Kenneth Durham, headmaster of University College school, London, said he was an enthusiast for homework. GCSE pupils at his school were given about two hours a night. "It is an education in its own right," Durham said. "Well-managed homework programmes leave students better able to cope with independent learning and give them time management skills."

The new academy has been given the go-ahead by Ed Balls, the schools secretary, and will open next year, educating children from nursery age to 19. It will cost about $100m and will start life in former school buildings next September before moving into new buildings in 2011, when homework will be scrapped.

Nottingham East will make its vast size manageable by sharing children around three mini-schools on different sites. Balls approved it after a confidential review backed the plan in June, finding that education at one of the schools to be replaced, Elliott Durham, was "parlous". The school's head was quoted in the review as declaring: "The attendance rate is very low . . . swearing and shouting is [sic] common . . . students flout the rules openly."


British Green heretic persecuted for his nuclear views

The climate change expert Mark Lynas has been scorned by eco-colleagues for daring to speak up for atomic power. He states his case below

I know I should be furious. The EDF takeover of British Energy means that four nuclear power stations could now be built around the UK, the first nuclear new build in a generation. As a long-standing Green party member, one who chops his own wood, grows his own leeks, keeps chickens and puts the kids in washable nappies, antinuclear indignation should spring easily to my lips.

After all, energy is something I care about. The last time I checked my carbon budget, I came in at a fifth of the national average. I rarely fly, even when booked to address faraway audiences about my personal obsession, climate change - a subject I've covered in three books. Whenever the word "nuclear" comes up at my talks, a shudder runs through the room. Because everyone knows that real environmentalists loathe nuclear power. It is just evil. Full stop.

Except, well, I don't believe that any more. Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. My tipping point came when I discovered just how much nuclear power has changed since I first set my mind against it. Prescription for the Planet, a new book by the American writer Tom Blees, opened my eyes to fourth-generation "fast-breeder" reactors, which use fuel much more efficiently than the old-style reactors, produce shorter-lived waste and can also be designed to be "walk-away safe".

Best of all, these new reactors - prototypes of which have already been tested - can produce power by burning up existing stocks of nuclear waste. As Blees puts it: "Thus we have a prodigious supply of free fuel that is actually even better than free, for it is material that we are quite desperate to get rid of." Who could object to that?

Just about everyone on the eco-scene, it turned out. I began to receive e-mails from friends and colleagues warning me off the topic. Did I really want to risk my entire reputation by alienating the green movement? The backlash to my first magazine article on the subject prompted my inbox to collapse, the blogs to drip with venom, the dirty looks to multiply.

A former Greenpeace campaigner posted on my website that I needed to show "a bit of humility" and "less arrogance". On Greenpeace's blog my views were mocked as "wishful thinking of the day". On Radio 4's Today programme, Green party leader Caroline Lucas accused me of having "lost the plot". When I argued back, she accused me of "just being silly". I was a traitor.

This was a moment I had been dreading for nearly three years, ever since I first suspected that much of what I had been brought up to believe about nuclear power - that it is, without exception, dirty, dangerous and unnecessary - was untrue. Science has moved on. The old figures just don't stack up any more.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nuclear is just as low-carbon a power source as wind and solar: the world's 439 operating nuclear reactors save the planet from 2 billion extra tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which would have been emitted had coal been used instead.

And those dangers? They're still there but we need to discuss them truthfully. Take Chernobyl. We all know it was a disaster: the Greenpeace website states a death toll of 60,000 already and predicts another 140,000 deaths in the future. But these statistics fly in the face of mainstream science: according to the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, 28 people died in the initial phase and several thousand more have suffered from nonfatal thyroid cancer because of the accident. The UN report concludes that "there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident" - so the real death toll from the world's worst nuclear accident is tiny. On a deaths per gigawatt-year basis, nuclear is safer than coal and oil.

Curiosity whetted, I searched the scientific literature for evidence to support the other great green charge levelled at nuclear power: it kills its neighbours. I sifted through piles of rigorous epidemiological studies from all over the world, searching for proof that people who live near nuclear sites are more prone to cancer and leukaemia. None of the reputable journals turned up a link. These are just two examples of eco-myths: there are many more. If only we were allowed to discuss them without being flayed for heresy.

When I e-mailed a senior ecological scientist with my conclusions, he agreed, but only privately. "Do not cite me as promoting nuclear," he begged. I am still shocked that people of his stature are too intimidated to speak out. The result of this fear is that the public is dangerously misinformed about nuclear power.

I have finally thought of something useful that I can do with my Green party membership card: I'll auction it on eBay and send the money to EDF - with a suggestion that it beefs up its marketing department. Any bids?


A stupid priest who is so far out of his depth he is drowning "The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has spoken up in support of Karl Marx, defending key aspects of his critique of capitalism. Dr Williams warns that in the face of the credit crisis, the financial world needs new regulation and says that our society is running the risk of idolatry in its relationship with wealth. In an article in Friday's Spectator, Dr Williams compares today's debtors and financiers to the feckless young clerics and landowners described in the novels of Anthony Trollope. He writes: "Individuals find that their own personal financial decisions and calculations have nothing to do with what is happening to their resources, in a process for which a debt is simply someone else's wholly disposable asset."

There is a new lot of postings by Chris Brand just up -- on his usual vastly "incorrect" themes of race, genes, IQ etc.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Muslim gang tries to firebomb British publisher of Allah novel

Scotland Yard's counter-terrorist command yesterday foiled an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to kill the publisher of a forthcoming novel featuring sexual encounters between the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride. Early yesterday armed undercover officers arrested three men after a petrol bomb was pushed through the door of the north London home of the book’s publisher. The Metropolitan police said the target of the assassination plot, the Dutch publisher Martin Rynja, had not been injured.

The suspected terror gang was being followed by undercover police and the fire was quickly put out after the fire brigade smashed down the front door. The foiled terrorist attack recalled the death threats and uproar 20 years ago following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the worldwide protests that followed the publication in a Danish newspaper in 2005 of cartoons deemed offensive to Islam, in which more than 100 people died.

Security officials believe Rynja was targeted for assassination because his firm, Gibson Square, is preparing to publish a romantic novel about Aisha, child bride of the Prophet Muhammad. The Jewel of Medina, by the first-time American author Sherry Jones, describes an imaginary sex scene between the prophet and his 14-year-old wife. It was withdrawn from publication in America last month after its publisher there, Random House, said it feared a violent reaction by “a small radical segment” of Muslims. It said “credible and unrelated sources” had warned that the book could incite violence.

Random House reacted after Islamic scholars objected to its contents, saying it treated the wife of the Prophet as a sex object. One of them, Denise Spellberg, of the University of Texas at Austin, described the novel as “soft-core pornography”, referring to a scene in which Muhammad consummates his marriage to Aisha. She called it “a declaration of war” and a “national security issue”.

At the time, her warnings were dismissed by the author. “Anyone who reads the book will not be offended,” said Jones. “I wrote the book with the utmost respect for Islam.” However, Jones admitted receiving death threats after the book was withdrawn.

It was soon after this that the Met appears to have received a tip-off that the British publisher who had subsequently agreed to print it could be the target of an attack. A Met spokesman said three men had been arrested in “a preplanned intelligence-led operation” at about 2.25am on Saturday. Two of the suspects were arrested in the street outside Rynja’s four-storey townhouse in Lonsdale Square, Islington, while the third was stopped by officers in an armed vehicle near Angel Tube station. They were being questioned yesterday on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, a spokesman said.

Rynja, 44, could not be contacted yesterday. He is believed to be under police guard. Yesterday, Natasha Kern, Jones’s agent, said she was shocked to learn of the attack. She said the book had been misinterpreted by its critics and did not contain sex scenes, as had been alleged. “I honestly believe that if people read the book they will see it is not disrespectful of Muhammad, and moderate Muslims will not be offended. I don’t want anyone to risk their lives but we could never imagine that there would be some madmen who would do something like this. I’m so sad about this act of terrorism. Moderate Muslims will suffer because of a few radicals.” Kern said it was too early for her to comment on whether the book should be withdrawn. “That’s up to Martin, and I still need to absorb the fact that he was at risk. I’m just so glad he has not been hurt.”

Residents said they saw armed police break down the door of Rynja’s house, helped by firefighters. Francesca Liebowitz, 16, a neighbour, said: “The police couldn’t get the door open so the fire brigade battered it down.” Another neighbour, who declined to be named, said: “I was woken at about 3am and I looked out the window and I saw several unmarked cars with what I now think were police officers in them. These officers came out of the cars and there was huge screaming and shouting. Some of the police officers were carrying sub-machineguns. “I then saw a small fire at the bottom of the door at the house. I heard the police officers shout and scream and try to get neighbours out of the house.”

The Jewel of Medina is due to be published next month.


Nasty British bureaucrats surrender! They knew that their petty harassment of private medicine would not stand up in court

IVF watchdog lifts ban on Mohammed Taranissi to avoid challenge in High Court. He was so successful he made the NHS look stupid: Unforgiveable!

Mohammed Taranissi, Britain’s most successful fertility doctor, has been cleared to continue running his London clinic by the IVF watchdog, after it agreed to rescind a disciplinary ban imposed last year. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will annul its ruling that Mr Taranissi was unfit to be in charge of his Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre (ARGC), to avoid a judicial review.

The doctor, who has long boasted Britain’s highest IVF success rates, was stripped of his right to be “person responsible” for the clinic last July, after an HFEA committee found that he had been practising without the proper licence.

Mr Taranissi, however, was granted permission to challenge the decision in the High Court, on the ground that the panel could have appeared to be biased against him. Rather than risk a defeat that would have been highly damaging to the authority, it will set aside the decision and pay his legal costs. The climbdown is the latest of a string of costly legal embarrassments for the HFEA over its handling of the doctor. In June last year the High Court ruled it had illegally obtained a warrant to search Mr Taranissi’s clinic, leaving the regulator facing a legal bill that could reach $2 million.

It was also forced to clarify in court comments made by Angela McNab, then its chief executive, in a BBC Panorama programme broadcast last January. Mr Taranissi is suing the BBC for libel over allegations in the documentary that his clinic put pressure on patients to pay for unnecessary treatments.

The HFEA’s climbdown will also encourage the doctor as he prepares to defend a General Medical Council hearing into complaints from two unnamed patients, which begins on Monday. One of the women alleges that the ARGC put inappropriate pressure on her to have particular treatments, and the other claims he failed to examine her properly and was insensitive to her husband. In both cases, he is also accused of failing to keep proper records. Mr Taranissi denies the allegations, which the HFEA investigated in 2003 and 2004 without ruling against him.

The HFEA’s action against Mr Taranissi followed Panorama’s claim that he treated patients during 2006 at a second London clinic, the Reproductive Genetics Institute, while it did not have the correct licence. Mr Taranissi has always rejected the charge, contending that he had been given special permission to continue therapy after the licence expired. He appealed against the sanction, which is among the toughest that the HFEA can impose, and which has been used only once before. The decision to strike out the licence committee’s ruling means that appeal will now not be heard. Instead, Mr Taranissi has been cleared to continue practising while he applies for a fresh licence. The agreement between the parties still has to be sealed by a judge, but this is expected to be a formality.

His application will be considered by six new members of the authority, who were appointed this month at the request of Dawn Primarolo, the Public Health Minister. It was agreed that authority members who had deliberated on the doctor’s case before could not be involved without the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Mr Taranissi said yesterday: “I always maintained that the decision was wrong, and I am delighted it has been set aside. I hadn’t done anything wrong and I wouldn’t accept it.” He said his case had highlighted serious flaws in the HFEA’s appeals process. “It is impossible to complain about their decisions to anyone apart from the HFEA, and that cannot be right,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to take legal action, but most people won’t be. There needs to be a way for people to appeal to a third party, without having to go to court.”


The moronic British ID card

The long-dreaded day has finally arrived: Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, revealed the first UK identity card last week. I have to admit that it didn't look particularly threatening. It was just an ordinary piece of plastic, the size of a credit card, with the holder's name, date of birth, immigration status, and a chip that holds fingerprints and a digital facial image.

As civil libertarians like to remind us, one of Hitler's first acts as chancellor was to impose compulsory ID cards on every German citizen. If the smiling Ms Smith's ID card was the beginning of the totalitarian state in Britain, it came not with a bang but a simper. Still, it has taken six votes in the Commons, and five defeats in the House of Lords, for the Government to get this far. And the price of getting around the legislative obstacle course has been that ministers had to give up their original hope of making ID cards compulsory.

Under the legislation that was passed by Parliament, they will be compulsory only for foreign nationals (people such as my Californian wife), who will need one to enter the UK, to work and to claim benefits. UK citizens will not be forced to carry one: the Home Secretary hopes that most of us will pay the £30 required to get one "voluntarily".

Dream on, Jacqui! Having dropped the requirement that the ID card be compulsory, the Government has destroyed its case for them, because it has ensured that ID cards can't possibly work as an effective tool for catching terrorists or criminals. Obviously, no self-respecting jihadi will carry an ID card voluntarily. There will be other refuseniks, such as those who object on principle to the idea of ID cards (and they include senior members of the judiciary, the House of Lords and all three political parties, as well as thousands of ordinary citizens). So the police won't be able to take your failure to produce an ID card as an admission that you are planning to detonate a suicide bomb.

How, then, will ID cards help the cops track the terrorists? The Government hasn't provided an answer - which may be why the Home Secretary insisted last week that their primary use is to control illegal immigration. And perhaps ID cards will make it more difficult for those not entitled to be in Britain to get through immigration control, although since many illegal immigrants are indeed illegal - that is, they arrive smuggled in lorries and do not come into contact with any of UK's border agencies - it is not obvious how much difference ID cards will make.

A more significant problem will be the inevitable proliferation of fakes. Anyone who claims that it will be impossible to copy or clone ID cards is not telling the truth: any system devised by a human being can, and will, be broken by another human being. The ID card system will not be "foolproof": if there is one certainty, it is that the criminal gangs who make fortunes smuggling illegal immigrants into Britain will find a way to clone and distribute fake cards. And that's without a government official leaving a data stick containing the ID details of 60 million people in Starbucks or on the train.

The system is currently projected to cost a cool $68 billion. You can be sure it will end up costing a lot more than that, and that it won't work as intended.

There is only one computer system in the UK on the same scale as the one proposed for ID cards: the National Programme, the system designed to centralise all NHS patient records. Almost a decade ago, when planning started, that system was budgeted at $10 billion. Then it went up to $12.4 billion. As of last year, it had cost $25 billion - and it still doesn't work properly. Its defenders cite "teething problems". Its detractors note that "some of the most senior officials in the NHS know perfectly well that the National Programme will never work properly - indeed, that many hospitals would now be better off if they had never taken part in the scheme in the first place".

The problems aren't limited to sudden crashes or disappearing data. Medical records have been inaccurately inputted with alarming frequency. Doctors routinely find that as much as 10 per cent of the information is wrong. Just imagine that degree of error transferred to the system for ID cards. If errors are not corrected, the system will be useless as a tool for fighting crime or curbing illegal immigration (never mind the number of innocents it will enmesh in criminal prosecutions). In the unlikely event that those errors are discovered, correcting them will clog the system to the point where it cannot function.

The objections to ID cards do not depend on positing mad, power-hungry politicians eager to snoop on all of us. We could have the most conscientious and morally decent rulers in the world: ID cards would still fail to be worth their cost, because human fallibility will inevitably intervene to ensure that the beautiful new system does not work. If there is one lesson we all should have learnt from the past 100 years, it is that even benign design can lead to pernicious practice.

Our present Government has not learnt that lesson - and it does not bode well for the future of liberty in Britain.


Going over the top in the `climate war'

A recent BBC series showed how dubious scientific conclusions are weapons in the politicised debate over global warming

`Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand. The evidence is clear - the long-term trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise.' (1) This emphatic statement from the UK Met Office yesterday is just the latest shot in the `climate war'. But in truth, the polarised and highly politicised nature of the current discussion on global warming features plenty of people on both sides with their heads firmly buried, using `science' to disguise the real debate about the future political and economic direction of society.

This was neatly illustrated by a recent BBC TV series, Earth: The Climate Wars, which ended on Sunday. Last week's episode, entitled `Fightback' was a particularly one-sided attempt to undermine the critics of the orthodox position on global warming.

Iain Stewart, professor of geosciences communication at Plymouth University, introduced last week's instalment with the words: `Global warming - the defining challenge of the twenty-first century.' The programme examined the arguments made by the two putative `sides' in the global warming debate, to show `how [the sceptic's] positions have changed over time'. But Stewart misconstrued scepticism of the idea that `global warming is the defining issue of our time' with scepticism of climate research. In this story, `the scientists' occupied one camp (situated conveniently on the moral high ground) and the bad-minded, politically and financially motivated sceptics the other. But there was no nuance, no depth and no justice done to the debate in this unsophisticated tale, and it did nothing to help the audience understand the science.

`At the start of the 1990s it seemed the world was united', Stewart told us. World leaders were gathered at the Rio Summit to sign up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the instrument that would pave the way for the Kyoto Protocol. He recalled the excitement felt by researchers at the prospect of the world being united by concern for the environment. `Even George Bush [Senior] was there. But the consensus didn't last.' Sceptics, it seems, are responsible, not just for the imminent end of the world, but also for corroding global unity.

Stewart's intention was to show that `the scientific consensus' existed prior to international agreements to prevent climate change. But the basis of the UNFCCC was not a consensus about scientific facts. It could not have been, because scientific facts about human influence on the climate did not exist in 1992, as is revealed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) First Assessment Report in 1990, which concluded that `The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.' Even the second IPCC assessment report in 1995 did not provide the world with the certainty that Stewart claims: `Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors.' (2)

Instead of consensus and certainty, the UNFCCC was driven by the precautionary principle. Principle 15 of the Rio declaration states: `In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.'

Omitting the role of the precautionary principle creates the idea that scientists have always known that industrial activity caused global warming. So, with the benefit of hindsight, Stewart could lump various objections to the interpretation of controversial evidence which existed at the time into one `sceptic' category. Not according to the scientific substance of the argument, but according to whether the argument was later vindicated; not by the consistency of the argument with reality, but whether or not it `supported' the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

In 1992, the data simply wasn't available to conclude with any great confidence that global warming was happening. But by the logic of Stewart's argument, as long as you were right about global warming being a `fact' at that time - even if that meant in reality you were wrongly interpreting the evidence available - you were a `scientist'. But, if you were right about the unreliability of data in 1992, then you were wrong in 2001, because you were a `sceptic'. If this were just a debate within an academic discipline, such challenges would not have any major significance outside of it. But Stewart, like many others, takes routine and isolated differences of scientific opinion, and groups them to imbue them with political significance.

A warming world?

The first scientific debate Stewart presented concerned the reliability of data generated by compiling the records of tens of thousands of surface-based weather stations. Sceptics had argued that these installations were too sparsely distributed and data from them had been contaminated by urbanisation over the twentieth century. Stewart demonstrated that this is indeed a problem. He used the example of the temperature at Las Vegas Airport - home to a monitoring station and heavily urbanised since it was originally set up - and compared it with the temperature outside the city limits, which was markedly cooler. This suggests that making comparisons over time using data from many such stations, where the local environment has changed, may result in over-stating global warming.

The sceptics' argument was seemingly corroborated in the 1990s by satellite data that showed a slight cooling trend over the 1980s. Ten years later, it turned out that the satellite data had been flawed, Stewart told us. The satellite's orbits had been drifting downward, and the data they had produced improperly compiled. A correction to the data revealed a warming trend. `The sceptics had to admit the world was warming', said Stewart.

But here again, we see an artefact of the retrospective polarisation of the `climate wars'. The truth was that both `sides' were wrong while they had invested their confidence either in the surface station data or the satellite data; both sets of data were `wrong' - Stewart had just demonstrated it himself. But the nuances of the debate don't interest Stewart. `The scientists' are vindicated by any evidence which shows that `the earth is warming', regardless of its quality. The sceptics, on the other hand, are not vindicated for having pointed out that the surface station record was questionable.

The not-so jolly `hockey stick'

Stewart then examined the sceptic claim that an episode in Earth's history known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) shows that current temperatures are not unprecedented in recent geological history. This was countered by climate researcher Michael Mann, who reconstructed past temperatures where no instrument data were available. By analysing `proxies', such as tree-ring width, ice cores, and coral reefs, he produced a graph which apparently revealed that the MWP was not a global phenomenon, and showed current temperatures to be in excess of anything in the previous millennium.

`Sceptics hated it' announced Stewart. Indeed they did. Mann's study remains highly controversial for good reasons. But Stewart gave no time to explaining the objection to these reconstructions, other than to characterise them as `personal attacks' against Mann. The graphic had been the centrepiece of the IPCC's 2001 Third Assessment Report, used to demonstrate the unequivocal influence of human activity on the climate.

Yet perhaps one of the reasons it was so prominent - in spite of criticism - is that Mann himself was a lead author on the chapter which featured it (3). The IPCC is understood to be a meta-review of the available literature on climate change, but allowing authors to review their own work represents something of a departure from the scientific process. In 2007, following continued criticism of Mann's method, the IPCC were far more circumspect about the value of such reconstructions. Where Stewart presented these reconstructions as `proof' of todays high temperatures, the IPCC give the statement that `twentieth century was the warmest in at least the past [1,300 years]' just 66 per cent confidence (4).

Sceptical `guns for hire'

It is only Stewart's binary treatment of the issue into true and false and `scientists'/'sceptics' that allowed him to reach his conclusion: `There are a lot of people who don't want global warming to be true', he tells us. `Cutting back on greenhouse gases threatens the freedom of companies to go about their business.' According to Stewart, companies used the media to emphasise the uncertainties in climate science for their own ends - profit - a cause and strategy taken up by the Bush administration.

This is an almost verbatim copy of an argument put forward by a prominent climate change advocate and science historian at the University of California, San Diego, Naomi Oreskes. She had claimed that the `climate change denial' movement comprised the same individuals and network of organisations that had been instrumental in denying the link between smoking and cancer (5). By emphasising doubt and uncertainty in the claims of honest and decent scientists, Oreskes claims, `the tobacco strategy' aimed to influence public opinion to secure the interests of oil and tobacco companies, and the political Right. It should be no surprise then, that Naomi Oreskes was credited on the first episode of the series.

Stewart's and Oreskes' conspiracy theories depend on reducing scientific arguments to meaningless factoids, and casting the debate as one between goodies and baddies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the film's closing moments. In order to demonstrate that `the sceptics' had changed their arguments in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, the film used footage from the Manhattan Conference on Climate Change earlier this year, a meeting that featured a large number of sceptical writers and researchers.

`For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet, today, he's in surprising agreement with the advocates of global warming', said Stewart. Michaels is then shown giving his talk, saying `global warming is real, and in the second half of the twentieth century, humans had something to do with it'. But there is nothing surprising about Michael's apparent turnaround, because it isn't one. A 2002 article in the Journal of Climatic Research, authored by Michaels et al argued for a revision of the IPCC's projections for the year 2100. Instead of saying that there would be no warming, the paper concluded that rises of `of 1.0 to 3.0 degrees Celsius, with a central value that averages 1.8 degrees Celsius' were more likely than the IPCC's range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius (6). Hardly climate change denial.

What could have been an interesting film was instead a fiction. It attached fictional arguments to fictional interests to legitimise the politicisation of the debate - exactly what it accused the sceptics of. Rather than concentrating on the arguments that have actually been made, Stewart invented the sceptic's argument to turn climate science into an arena for an exhausted political argument for `change' that has failed to engage the public.

The real `climate war' is between those who do not believe that our future is determined by the weather and those who think that `climate change is the defining challenge of our time' and define themselves - and everybody else - accordingly. Don't expect a documentary film about it any time soon.


BBC investigated after peer says climate change programme was biased 'one-sided polemic'

The BBC is being investigated by television watchdogs after a leading climate change sceptic claimed his views were deliberately misrepresented. Lord Monckton, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, says he was made to look like a `potty peer' on a TV programme that `was a one-sided polemic for the new religion of global warming'.

Earth: The Climate Wars, which was broadcast on BBC 2, was billed as a definitive guide to the history of global warming, including arguments for and against. During the series, Dr Iain Stewart, a geologist, interviewed leading climate change sceptics, including Lord Monckton. But the peer complained to Ofcom that the broadcast had been unfairly edited.

`I very much hope Ofcom will do something about this,' he said yesterday. `The BBC very gravely misrepresented me and several others, as well as the science behind our argument. It is a breach of its code of conduct. `I was interviewed for 90 minutes and all my views were backed up by sound scientific data, but this was all omitted. They made it sound as if these were just my personal views, as if I was some potty peer. It was caddish of them.'

Ofcom confirmed it was looking into a `fairness complaint' about the documentary. A BBC spokesman said: `We stand by the programme.'

Lord Monckton, 56, a former journalist and Cambridge graduate, says scientific data shows the world is cooler today than in the Middle Ages. He appeared alongside other sceptics including distinguished Florida-based meteorologist Professor Fred Singer, John Christy, a climate change expert and adviser to the U.S. government and the climatologist Dr Patrick Michaels, of the University of Virginia. All their interviews, he claims, were heavily cut so that they appeared as personal views.

`We do not dispute that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but we do dispute its effects', he said. `The data shows that 2008 is the same temperature as 1980 and that the effects of these changes in the atmosphere are not negative but more likely to be beneficial.'

Lord Monckton played a key role in a legal challenge heard in the High Court in October 2007 in an effort to prevent Al Gore's film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, from being shown in English schools.


How the culture wars killed free expression

Christopher Shinn, the writer of new political play Now or Later, explains how campus censorship strangles debate

In America and Britain, theatre has become a notable battleground on questions of free speech and free artistic expression. In 2004, the controversial play Behzti was cancelled in Birmingham after Sikhs protested that the play offended their community, while in America religious fundamentalists have objected to The Crucible and My Name is Rachel Corrie on similar grounds.

American playwright Christopher Shinn has followed, often in exasperation, the on-going discussions and debates on the rights and wrongs of staging controversial plays in the West. He decided to do something artistic about it: write a play called Now or Later that tackles campus censorship through the very topical lens of the American presidential elections.

Shinn's play is set on the eve of a presidential election. The Democrats are on the point of victory when news breaks out, via political blogs, that the would-be new president's homosexual son, John, has gone to a party dressed as the prophet Mohammed and his friend as the gay-baiting evangelist Pastor Bob.

As footage of the party circulates around the globe, sparking riots in the Muslim world, John is under immense pressure from presidential advisers to make a public apology. While John insists on the importance of free expression, and also that he was attending a private party, his friend Matt points out that he could be responsible for deaths around the world. Principle and pragmatism collide to fascinating effect. Staged in real-time, Now or Later carefully explores the anguish and arguments of this very contemporary concern.

When I meet the man behind Now or Later, he is dressed in casual t-shirt and jeans and overseeing the play's final rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. The Royal Court discovered Shinn 10 years ago - when he was just 23 - meaning that most of his plays, such as Dying City and Other People, have been premiered there, too. The theatre's director, Dominic Cooke, has programmed the play to coincide with the run-up to the real American presidential elections. Now or Later couldn't be more timely.

`I think the first thing I wanted to do was give myself a formal challenge', says Shinn carefully, `which was to write a play in real time and then I started to think, what could happen in real time that is interesting and dramatic? And in politics today, with blogs and 24-hour news channels, things can happen very rapidly. So I started thinking about politics in order to find a subject that was fit for formal challenge. In my mind, I had politics, power and issues of freedom of expression and, as a dramatist, I'm always looking for conflict.'

Shinn says that in Now or Later he is exploring conflicts and clashes between the West and Islam. As he puts it: `With Islam, it is perceived that the current administration is responsible for suffering in the Muslim world', says Shinn, `and therefore there can be no criticising of that world or how Muslims might experience that. The end result is to limit the conversations that Muslims can have about that themselves.'

Nevertheless, Shinn's well-crafted central protagonist in Now or Later, John, is motivated just as much by exposing the censorious nature of Ivy League students, as attacking Muslims in and of themselves. Surely, I ask him, the problem of censorship has its roots within the liberal left rather than any external threat to `Western values'? `Yeah, I think you're right,' says Shinn. `I think in many ways American campuses are a distorted and extreme way of dealing with problems in US culture. The left-wing ideology in these campuses doesn't seem to be related to the way the world is. The antics on campus almost have a feeling of play acting, as it's so divorced from people's lives. Nevertheless, the Ivy League students are the future politicians and opinion leaders so it's worth examining how they're getting a distorted picture of how the world is working.'

As a left-wing champion of free speech, and a fan and reader of spiked, Shinn is exasperated that it is often the left who are now the loudest advocates of blue pens and artistic clampdowns. He reckons that there was a sea change in universities back in the 1990s that has now become politically mainstream.

`As a gay man, I found the left's fight for free expression very beneficial', he says, `but that crossed over into identity politics. From there it was important to privilege the subjectivity of people who had previously been oppressed and marginalised. But instead of this emphasis on a diversity of voices, there became an unspoken rule whereby only people who experienced something, whether as a gay man or black woman, were allowed to speak about it directly. This created a real fracture where these oppressed groups, rather than finding commonality, separated out. These different groups ended up in these retreats which itself created paranoia and bad blood.'

Shinn's work seems to belong to a lineage of American playwrights and artists, from Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer through to Philip Roth, who offer an unflinching examination of the gaping holes in American society. Although European liberals love to dismiss American culture as rather candy-floss and dumb, no other Western nation produces art that is not only self-aware and self-critical, but resists the temptation of self-loathing. Shinn's work is no exception.

`Yes, it is one of the really good things about America', says Shinn cheerfully, `it thrives on that self-critique. You know, you even see it in relation to the Bush administration where a lot of extreme policy has been moderated due to the ongoing critiques and debates. The real strength of American culture is always in searching for ways of moving on from difficulties. That's something I'm proud of within America and what I want to achieve in my work as well.'

Naturally enough, Shinn has been eagerly following the US presidential election and is neither cynical nor goggle-eyed about Obama. `He has no track record so people are projecting all kinds of things onto him', says Shinn. `The Democratic Party haven't yet been in a position whereby they are explicitly running to the right in order to appeal to swing voters.' And as Now or Later deals with the question of a presidential candidate's children, the play unwittingly anticipates the furore surrounding Sarah Palin's pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, who is under pressure to conform to conventional morality. As Shinn says, `yes, all that does evoke the play in general, as it deals with children, sexuality and lies.'

At heart, though, Now or Later is a timely, not to mention, expert exploration of how censorship, and perhaps the need for self-censorship, is acting as a straitjacket within Western culture and politics. Although the play might seem a little didactic, Shinn doesn't marshal the audience into accepting any conclusive argument. Now or Later provokes thought rather than stymies it. `It is one thing to believe in freedom of expression,' he says, `but that may lead to the death of other people. So the play is asking: would you be responsible for that? And then what happens afterwards? So how badly do you believe in freedom of expression?'


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Try to define Britishness and not sound banal

There was once a set of ideas and customs that were characteristically British but years of being ground down under the millstones of socialism and moral relativism have destroyed most of that. Just as one instance: British justice was once a source of pride. But now all Britain has is political police who ignore threats to life and limb but pursue forbidden political speech with great energy -- and who refuse to acknowledge any culpability for executing an innocent Brazilian because the deed was supervised by a prominent Lesbian (the aptly-named Cressida Dick). Who could be proud of that?

To update Dr Samuel Johnson, it appears that "Britishness" is now the last refuge of a politician who hasn't a clue in what country we live. New Labour is obsessed with promoting a shared sense of Britishness, claiming anything from an Olympic yachtsman to a chicken tikka masala as a safe symbol of "what unites us". The latest chapter of this sad attempt to write a new island story is a pamphlet A More United Britain by Liam Byrne, the Immigration Minister.

After a year consulting the public, Mr Byrne has come up with 27 ways to celebrate the British bank holiday proposed by Gordon Brown. One look at the list - Morris dancing, drinking in the pub, listening to a Queen's speech, looking at pictures of Winston Churchill, multicultural street parties, all to be done "cheaply" - might have many taking to the lifeboats for a day trip to France. Some have suggested Mr Brown could best bring everybody together on a Thursday, by calling a general election when they can unite to vote out the Government.

But could you do much better? I defy anybody to define Britishness today, without sounding as banal as Mr Byrne or as archaic as John Major rambling on about warm spinsters drinking beer while playing cricket on bicycles. It is not just new Labour's proposals that are vacuous. They reflect the way that any notion of "Britishness" is now empty of real meaning. National identities that count for something cannot be dreamt up by committees.

When the British had a strong sense of national identity, nobody had to ask what it meant. The "British way of life" was something whose shared meaning could be taken for granted. But any such sense of national superiority or self-confidence has long gone, along with the empire.

It is not only our new immigrant communities who fail to identify with Britain today. The obsessive search for Britishness through the Blair-Brown years shows that uncertainty about who we are and what we stand for goes right to the top. The more unsure they are of how or where we live now, the more politicans talk about our "shared values", although the only one they seem able to name is "tolerance" - ie, we accept everybody's values.

As one whose political loyalties have long been red, without the white and blue, I have no problems with the decline of the old conceited British nationalism. But what Mr Byrne and Mr Brown's banal celebration of both "Britishness" and "difference" reveals is that we have not found any universal values to replace it. I wouldn't want to drink to that on their "cheap" British bank holiday, even if the Prime Minister was paying.


Britain's anti-citizenship education

According to a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research, children who have citizenship lessons at school - introduced in 2002 to boost pupils' civic pride and sense of social responsibility -- display less trust in authority figures and institutions and end up with a more negative attitude towards society.

Why is anyone surprised at this? I could have told them this would be the outcome. Indeed, I did tell them this would be the outcome. Repeatedly. I wrote column after column warning that the model of citizenship being adopted, drawn up by the retired politics Professor Bernard Crick, was actually a model of anti-citizenship. In 2004, for example, I wrote in the Mail that
the citizenship teaching inspired by Sir Bernard amounted to politically correct indoctrination in which multiculturalism, `globalisation' and `a shrinking planet' were all buzz phrases; and in which, far from being taught about their obligations to Britain, pupils were encouraged to develop `their own ground rules'.

The doctrinaire thinking behind this hollowing out of citizenship was clear enough in the late nineties, when Sir Bernard first produced his advice on citizenship for Mr Blunkett who was then Education Secretary. Beneath its pious invocations of `responsibility' and `community involvement', it was all about enabling young people to get more out of society. Even more strikingly, it wanted teachers to promote `active citizenship', by equipping pupils with the political skills to change the laws. Duty to obey the law - the first obligation of citizenship - wasn't even mentioned.

Now we read in the Telegraph:
The study said that pupils in their final year of school only expressed `moderate levels of agreement with laws'.

Well, there's a surprise. Let's raise our glasses once again to Antonio Gramsci, whose posthumous triumph in turning Britain's values inside out has surely been more spectacular than he could ever have dreamed.


The revolting world of middle class prejudice

A new `protesters' handbook' is about as rebellious as the newspaper that published it: the Guardian.

In August, that well-known agitator for social progress, Prince Charles, was prattling incoherently about the `evils' of GM crops to a journalist from the UK Daily Telegraph. The BBC's news report on Charles' outburst was accompanied by stock footage of young protesters dressed in faux-science lab garb, awkwardly prancing around on fields where GM crops were being developed. Who would have guessed that being a supposed radical protester today would mean being on the same side as the mad and reactionary Charles Windsor?

Such is the peculiar state of what passes for radical politics, or what sociologists call `New Social Movements'. Increasingly, single-issue campaigns for the environment or against global corporations tend to win approval from the very elitists they claim to oppose. In recent years, these dreadlocked stilt-walkers have also joined forces with the fag end of the Labourist left to protest against the war in Iraq. Such developments apparently scotch rumours that `radicalism' is dead. Anyone who dares to question the political viability of all this protesting must be a black-hearted cynic, right.?

Indeed, to combat the pernicious influence of those who criticise today's supposedly radical protests - and to `shake you out of your apathy once and for all' - journalist and activist Bibi van der Zee has compiled Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor's Handbook. In each chapter, van der Zee outlines how to fundraise, how to demonstrate, how to lobby parliament and, with an eye on New Labour's Key Skills agenda, how to write a letter. Thanks for that.

And yet, the very manner of this handbook, even the fact that it exists, suggests that it is not very rebellious at all. In the 1980s, another type of protesters' manual - The Anarchist's Cookbook, which gave handy tips on how to use a catapult with ball-bearings on demonstrations, amongst other things - was only available under-the-counter at radical bookshops. By contrast, Rebel, Rebel is published and distributed by a national broadsheet newspaper, the Guardian, which columnist and Tory Party supporter Max Hastings has described as the newspaper of `the new establishment'.

Indeed, much of the ideological content of Rebel, Rebel echoes and champions the petty concerns of. well, the new establishment. Top of the agenda is concern about climate change and other `environmental issues', which are peppered throughout the handbook like an unwanted rash of measles. Perhaps van der Zee hasn't realised it yet, but with everyone from UK prime minister Gordon Brown to London mayor Boris Johnson to Tory millionaire Zac Goldsmith banging on about `environmental concerns', being green is not very rebellious. In fact, rarely has `rebellion' looked and sounded more like an unthinking, unblinking form of mindless conformity than when it comes to the green issue.

Van der Zee at least starts off at the right place. She cites John Locke's Social Contract theory and points out that protests and campaigns have long been central to the safeguarding and extension of our freedoms and rights. Van der Zee starts each chapter by quoting Hobbes, Locke, Marx and Engels, the Suffragettes and Martin Luther King to make a parallel between grand political visions of the past and the `how to' mechanics of organising a protest today. Yet where those illustrious radicals of yesteryear were motivated by a desire to liberate humanity from its constraints, Rebel, Rebel seeks to do precisely the opposite: to impose unnecessary limits and restraints on everyday human behaviour.

In the side-panels titled `Why I Fight', Joss Garman, an environmental activist, says he protests to stop people from flying abroad on holiday; Bernadette Vallely, founder of the Women's Environmental Network, wants to stop mums from using disposable nappies; Rebecca Lush Blum, an anti-road protester, wants to restrict people's mobility by car.

`Are you desperate to right a wrong?' asks the blurb on the back cover of Rebel, Rebel. And in almost every instance throughout the book, the `wrong' that apparently needs to be righted is the unthinking behaviour and poor choices of ill-informed plebs or those tacky `new money' types. So after Vallely was met by hoots of derision from time-stretched mothers who refused to give up disposable nappies - which, after all, were invented precisely to make mums' lives easier - she condescendingly writes, `They didn't seem to understand how privileged they are', as if she was talking about a bunch of spoilt five-year-olds.

Outwardly, the handbook purports to be concerned with combating global warming, but references to `these people' exposes, yet again, that green radicalism is frequently a transparent cover for banal and old-fashioned class snobbery. And the chatty, kids' TV presenter style of prose means that some very revealing, quite spiteful comments - such as `I started discussing politics recently with a London cabby (I know, I know - next time I'll remember to start chewing my own hand off first)' - manage to slip through.

Such barely concealed disdain for ordinary people leads inexorably to a form of campaigning where activists don't have to talk to Joe Schmo at all (and thus save themselves from getting gnarled hands in the process). Rebel, Rebel naturally salutes the direct action methods of Greenpeace and crusty rioters who find chainstore coffee shops so very offensive. Van der Zee makes a fanciful connection between these pantomime antics and Martin Luther King's civil rights campaigning in the 1960s. Yet where King took his argument to the white American working classes, to try to win them to his cause, today's direct activists prefer to shun democratic participation in favour of protesting `on behalf' of others: victims, the vulnerable, animals, the planet.

And where King campaigned for equal rights and better living standards for black Americans, today's `demands are NOT for more anything - more rights, more votes, more wages', says van der Zee. Instead `they are for something "different"'. In fact, after reading Rebel, Rebel, one becomes convinced that today's campaigners are freakishly demanding less and less of everything: less driving, less holidaying, fewer consumer goods. In essence, the desire to do `something different', as van der Zee describes it, is similar to that adolescent urge not to become one of the `rat race drones', which most of us grew out of in our late teens.

Rebel, Rebel has its work out cut out when it examines the former bˆte noire of middle-class liberals: trade unions. One chapter republishes a famous photo of a striking miner from 1984 squaring up to a policeman, yet the chapter's tone is one of relief that those days of class warfare and picket-line violence are long gone. Indeed, Rebel, Rebel is delighted that these old organisations are `relaxing the idea of trade-based unions and making them far more inclusive and adopting a new kind of internationalism that's not just about voting in a notion of solidarity but actually applying pressure in several places at once'.

In other words, trade unions are no longer sectional interest groups but rather morally altruistic outfits in tune with prevailing middle-class sensibilities. As van der Zee points out, sounding oddly like the old union-busting Tory minister Norman Tebbit, `the old stereotype of the "I'm All Right Jack" 1970s striker is slowly eroding' (er, slowly?). Elsewhere, Rebel, Rebel expresses delight that trade unions have devised `environmental representatives' in the workplace similar to traditional union reps. Of course, this particular chapter closes by advising readers to join unions, but only in the safe knowledge that they no longer aggressively fight for the material self-interest of their members.

If Rebel, Rebel is uneasy about trade unions, it is downright hostile to political parties. Van der Zee asks a question: `Is there really any point in forming your own political party?' After a brief history of the Labour Party's `betrayals', and the recent fiasco of the Socialist Worker's Party's RESPECT campaign, the answer to van der Zee's question is the same again and again: `Of course there's no point setting up a party!' It is true that the days of mass political parties are over, and it would be a waste of energy to mourn the demise of the Labour and Conservative parties as mass organisations. But what van der Zee really seems to object to is the idea of being partisan, of organisations being defined by their members' sectional interests, as the old mass parties once were.

In the sections on party politics, there is also a cynical and contemptuous undertone in relation to the mass of the people who, through the democratic process, hold parties to account. A book that champions middle-class individuals who hector busy mums about nappies, but which denounces political parties comes across as deeply anti-democratic. Indeed, protest is presented as a way of getting around and even controlling mass sentiment, rather than harnessing it and representing it.

Rebel, Rebel's preferred politician is Martin Bell, who in 1997 successfully defeated the Tatton Conservative MP Neil Hamilton. As both Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew themselves from the election in Tatton, Bell won by occupying the moral high-ground over the scandalised Tories. Van der Zee's message seems clear: one man-in-a-white-suit's subjective sense of `what is right' is preferable to old-style party politics and issues-based democratic engagement. The chapter on `Legal Action', which advises on how to get unelected lawyers and crusty judges to challenge government decision-making, further reveals the contempt of Rebel, Rebel for the democratic participation of the masses.

Little of this is new or surprising. Many of the issues in the handbook have been championed by the liberal intelligentsia and the new political elites for more than a decade. In particular, `saving the planet' and cancelling Third World debt are campaigns that have been supported by everyone from anarchists and radical lefties to Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Far from this handbook putting forward anything truly radical or rebellious, it is a bible of contemporary conformism and consensus. Why else would a national newspaper which in the past has expressed hostility to popular protest movements publish it?

And if there is so much common ground between political decision-makers and the contributors to Rebel, Rebel, it makes you wonder who exactly van der Zee is railing against.

Of course, the manual points the finger at global corporations and big business. Yet this sounds unconvincing, especially when you consider that many of today's global giants have rebranded themselves as green and ethical. Indeed, the rise of environmentalism has provided something of a boost to certain capitalist sectors, stimulating fresh demands for `ethical' consumer goods and enabling capitalists to restructure business practices and boost profitability in the process.

No, the main targets of the protesters lauded in Rebel, Rebel are those who are really seen as standing in the way of the middle-class, caring, ethical agenda: the unethical masses. Those who still shop at Tesco, fly abroad on holiday, drive 4x4s, and haven't got round to buying low-energy light-bulbs yet. Clearly, they don't understand how `privileged they are' and must be taught to rein in their unethical consumerism and follow the lead of more sussed individuals like van der Zee.

As the section in society that is most estranged from the production process, either as workers or as capitalist decision-makers, the middle classes have always found it difficult to relate to modern, mass society. Their response has usually been to adopt a detached bemusement at the two great competing classes, or to offer themselves up as society's `moral conscience' against both corrupt capitalists and materialist, oafish proles (but mostly against the proles).

Today, the middle-class activists' self-styled position as the `watchful ones amongst the slaves' - as one green-leaning author recently referred to himself - has been boosted as the traditional sources of elite authority and rule have diminished. Ethical activism has, slowly but surely, become a kind of amorphous, pervasive mechanism through which other people's behaviour can be morally judged as either `acceptable' or `unacceptable'. Far from offering progressive rebellion, the rebels of Rebel, Rebel seem really to be concerned with imposing and popularising these new behavioural standards across society at large.

In this context, protesting is recast as opposing those who do not conform to ethical standards of behaviour. Protesting against McDonald's, smashing up Starbucks or setting up camps near Heathrow airport are all designed to shame those who have bought the `wrong' type of burger or chosen the `wrong' type of holiday. The language of limits, which is dominant in this deeply cynical handbook, is really about placing limits on personal freedom via a new form of ethical and moral blackmail.

Rebel, Rebel is a handbook packed with the new establishment's prejudices and all of its petty, authoritarian concerns. Even by their own miserable standards, the middle classes have never sounded quite so revolting.


BBC2 still furiously biased

The Climate Wars is at the centre of a new TV global warming row after four contributors claimed it misrepresented them.The complaints surround the 14 September episode of the three-part, in-house programme, in which presenter Dr Iain Stewart interviewed key global warming sceptics, including Lord Monckton of Brenchley.

Lord Monckton has made a formal complaint to Ofcom and the BBC Trust that the programme-makers unfairly misrepresented him in a 90-minute interview. "In the two minutes it [BBC2] broadcast, it omitted all my scientific points, including my criticism of the defective 'hockey-stick' graph which the presenter had questioned me about," Monckton told Broadcast.

Canadian climate expert Dr Tim Ball and fellow contributor Dr Fred Singer also told Broadcast that they would complain to Ofcom and another scientist, Dr Roy Spencer, said he was considering complaining to both Ofcom and the BBC Trust.

The row follows the controversy that surrounded Channel 4's 2007 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle.

Ofcom said it had received four complaints from viewers about the 14 September episode of Climate Wars. The BBC said it stood by the programme.


Sleepy British paramedic service kills woman

The evening of May 25 last year had all the makings of a great night for Rebecca Wedd. She had turned 23 the day before and was on her way to a summer ball to celebrate finishing her final year at college. Instead, it ended in her death.

Ms Wedd was knocked down by a car near Coates on her way to the party at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. An ambulance was called but it took 42 minutes to arrive. By the time she reached an A&E department, almost 40 minutes later, "it was too late", her father said.

Peter Wedd, 53, from Cambridge, said that his daughter had been let down in the worst possible way. "I had always thought that Britain's ambulance services were the best in the world. Clearly, I was wrong. I could blame anybody for her death. Becky was clearly in a position she shouldn't have been. The car driver didn't see her. But the fact is . . . Great Western Ambulance Service did not do its job."

The service's target response time for life-threatening emergency calls is eight minutes. "They missed it by 34 minutes," Mr Wedd said. "It's appalling."

The Healthcare Commission investigated Great Western Ambulance Trust over Ms Wedd's death. It found that the trust had "learnt lessons" from the case and made improvements to its service.

Mr Wedd said: "People should be aware of how the ambulance service failed that night. Services . . . should sit up and say, `This is not going to happen here'."


Emergency NHS patients still waiting too long to see doctor, review says

Patients who need emergency medical care are facing unnecessary delays in seeing a doctor, despite government targets to speed up urgent treatment, a review says today. In the most comprehensive review yet of NHS emergency and urgent care, the Healthcare Commission found significant variations in how patients are treated across England, particularly on evenings and at weekends.

In some hospitals only 40 per cent of patients were seen by a doctor or nurse within an hour of arrival at the accident and emergency department, while others achieved 100 per cent. The proportion of children with a broken arm or leg who attended A&E and were given pain relief within one hour varied from 20 per cent in some hospitals to 100 per cent elsewhere.

The review, which measured the performance of local ambulance trusts, accident and emergency departments, out-of-hours GP and telephone services and walk-in centres, found that patients were often confused over where to seek help. Overall, emergency care services were "least well performing" or only "fair" in four out of ten areas, with some patients facing delays in transfers to hospital, which are not covered by existing targets.

A new national target is needed to measure how quickly patients receive care from the moment they call an ambulance to the point of admission to casualty departments, the commission suggests. This would provide a more accurate assessment of patients' experience than existing measures, which only cover ambulance response times or stipulate a maximum four-hour waiting time in A&E.

In some A&E departments, for 95 per cent of the time, ambulances are back on the road within 15 minutes of delivering a patient, but in other departments this figure is as low as 10 per cent. This could reflect delays because of a lack of staff or beds to admit a patient, the commission said.

Its review found on average, that services in rural areas performed better than those in urban areas, such as London.

In total, out of 152 primary care trust areas, a third were ranked "best performing" in urgent and emergency care; 41, or 27 per cent, were better performing; 33, or 22 per cent were fair-performing; and 28, or 18 per cent, were categorised as least well performing. Services in the North East performed best overall, with all of the region's trusts rated as "best" or "better performing".

Anna Walker, chief executive of the Healthcare Commission, said there had been improvements in performance on government targets, with 97.9 per cent of A&E patients being treated within the four-hour target in 2007-08, up from 91.2 per cent in 2003-04.

Mike Penning, Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, said the Government was "hitting self-imposed targets, but missing the point in providing care. Patient outcomes are being neglected."


Britain's endless diet of government intervention in food choice

Health authorities and food campaigners have pursued their pet projects by promoting scare stories about children's health.

Next week sees the start of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign to change the way children are fed. But while providing children with better meals and facilities at school is a worthy enough aim, lecturing the nation's parents about how they are setting up their kids for a (short) lifetime of ill-health is simply nauseating.

While campaigners call for more government intervention into our eating habits, it is surely time to call a halt. The last thing we need is a further expansion of schemes and initiatives.

We have been led to believe that we are facing a timebomb of ill-health that can only be defused by changing the way our children eat. That might be justified if children were dropping like flies from disease. In fact, the opposite is true. According to figures for England and Wales, in 1981 there were 30 deaths for every 100,000 children aged between one and 14 years. In 2006, that had more than halved to 14 deaths per 100,000. Death in childhood was rare and has become even rarer in the last 25 years or so.

Are children becoming sicker? Clearly, serious infectious disease is largely a thing of the past. Obesity may be increasing, but obesity is not a disease; at most, it is associated with a number of chronic conditions. The most obvious of these in relation to children is the apparent emergence of type-2 diabetes among children, something previously considered to be a condition of middle age. Yet research published in Diabetes Care in 2007 suggests that type-2 diabetes remains unusual in children under the age of 17. The researchers undertook a year-long survey of 2,665 consultant paediatricians in the UK and Ireland. During this period, 67 cases of type-2 diabetes were reported, all of them in the UK, suggesting an overall incidence of 5.3 cases per million children.

So, type-2 diabetes in children would seem to be, if not a one-in-a-million occurrence, not far off. Furthermore, while there is a strong association between being overweight and type-2 diabetes, the association with ethnic status is worrying. As the authors note: `The incidence rates for South Asians and blacks are an alarming 3.5 times and 11 times higher, respectively, than in whites.' This ethnic differential continues into adulthood. If the government were really serious about tackling type-2 diabetes, it would do better to devote a substantial research effort to understanding this differential rather than lecturing the whole population about our personal habits.

Nor is it the case that there is mass malnutrition among children. According to Family Food 2006, the average UK family is getting all the protein and energy required, plus plenty of vitamins and minerals. The average household now spends just 10 per cent of its income on food and non-alcoholic drinks. Food has never been so readily available and in such variety. Even where children do have rather limited tastes, we should chill out. While nutritionists may be sniffy about about children eating cheeseburger, chips and fish fingers all the time, such foods do actually provide a fair proportion of a child's nutritional needs. They may not be perfect, but such eating habits are highly unlikely to result in an epidemic of disease, either.

But there is a more fundamental principle at stake: it is not the government's business to interfere in our personal lives except in the most exceptional circumstances. Yet we are subject to endless health advice both from official sources and through the popular media, from shows like Honey, We're Killing the Kids to the much-praised but frankly hectoring series by Jamie Oliver on school meals. If that were not enough, that intervention is increasingly direct, with parents receiving letters home about their children's supposed weight problems and being given strict instructions about what to put in their lunchboxes.

It seems that the government, the health authorities and a variety of different campaigners see it as their job to overrule parents about how their children should eat. In reality, the vast majority of parents endeavour to get their children to eat well, but in the absence of eating well, they make pragmatic, personal decisions about how to ensure they eat something. Current levels of intervention are unlikely to help matters and are an insult to the decision-making abilities of parents.

If children's food is a top priority, then make school meals free, or at least cheap, at the point of delivery and give them the time and surroundings to eat them comfortably. That's not a health strategy, that's just common decency. If adults would not tolerate being forced to queue up for ages to receive mediocre food in a hall so crowded that there is often nowhere to sit, why should we assume our children should put up with it? And let those meals taste of something; salt in recent years has been treated in school canteens like it is a chemical weapon rather than a fundamental requirement of good cooking. It is noticeable that the new cookbook produced by the government to teach kids how to prepare their own meals avoids salt or sneaks it into recipes in stock. No wonder children are rejecting such bland offerings.

But before the first school bell of the day sounds, and after hometime, it would be far better if the government, the health authorities and the self-appointed guardians of our diets did what children up and down the country do at lunchtime: bugger off.


Data security? Unknown in Britain: "Files containing the personal records of thousands of serving and former RAF staff have been stolen, the Ministry of Defence confirmed last night. Three computer hard drives storing the information were taken last Wednesday in a raid on a high-security area at the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency at RAF Innsworth, Gloucester. The agency provides support for about 900,000 current and former RAF personnel. The loss of the data comes in the same week as a disk containing the names and addresses of almost 11,500 teachers went missing in the post. The Government has already come under scrutiny for its data protection procedures since the details of 25 million child benefit recipients were lost in transit by a courier almost a year ago. Earlier this month, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, ordered an inquiry into the loss of a computer hard drive containing the details of up to 5,000 employees of the justice system."