Sunday, December 14, 2008

2011 British census to gauge the scope of immigration

Almost 500 million pounds will be spent on the biggest and most expensive census in an attempt to measure Britain's true immigrant population. Questions have been added to try to establish how long people have been living here, what passports they hold and their nationality. Ministers have been forced to admit that they have no idea how many immigrants are in Britain, which means that public services in areas of high migrant populations are often stretched because spending decisions are made using inaccurate data. For the 2011 Census, millions of pounds will be spent on a new mailing list to make sure that every property is included.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) will also hire about 35,000 temporary staff to track down people who fail to fill out their form. The full cost of the operation will be 480 million compared with 210 million in 2001.

Critics were unconvinced, however, that the extra money would make any difference. They say that the census is simply outdated as a vehicle for gathering comprehensive and up-to-date information, and unpublished data already held by government departments should be used instead.

Announcing plans for the census, which will take place on March 27, 2011, officials said they would devote considerable resources to getting back as many returns as possible. "Everyone who does not fill in the census will receive a knock on the door. We will have teams of 12-15 people who will visit households who have not returned their form and help them fill it in," said Glen Watson, the census director. Mr Watson said it was an offence punishable by a 1,000 pound fine not to fill in a census and hundreds of people have been taken to court in the past for refusing to complete the form.

However, a bigger problem is the far larger group who cannot be traced. In 2001 the ONS failed to find about one million people and were forced to extrapolate information from other returns. In addition, the first data is not published until about 18 months after census day, making it already out of date.

James Hulme, a spokesman for the New Local Government Network (NLGN), an independent think-tank, said: "We calculated that the Government could save about 250 million by drawing on records from existing public services, such as GP surgery lists and the electoral roll which is updated each year, rather than every ten years. At a time when the public finances are stretched, this is an ideal way of saving money."

Councils said that they did not want spending decisions to be made on the basis of the census. They were furious at being short-changed because resources were allocated on the basis of the 2001 Census.The Local Government Association said that improving alternative sources of information such as national insurance numbers would give a much clearer picture.


The junk food gene: DNA flaw means two-thirds of us can't stop eating

Genetics again

Slimmer souls have always maintained that a sweet tooth can be banished with a big helping of will-power. But perhaps those who always succumb to the lure of the biscuit tin and the creamcake shop shouldn't feel so guilty about their weakness. The ability to resist or otherwise, it seems, may be built into your DNA.

Researchers say that almost two-thirds of us carry 'junk food genes' making us crave fatty and sugary foods. Those with this genetic flaw eat 100 calories more per meal - the equivalent of a small Kit Kat or a bag of Wotsits. It may not sound much, but over a week, this amounts to an extra 2,100 calories - an entire day's food. The research helps explain why some men and women find it hard to resist fast food, and why some diets are doomed to fail. But it may also lead to ways of treating obesity, which blights the lives of almost a quarter of us.

The scientists, from Dundee University, pinned down the effect of a rogue version of a gene called FTO, they explained in the respected New England Journal of Medicine. The flaw, carried by almost twothirds of Britons, was first linked to obesity last year. Up to 14 per cent of Britons carry two rogue copies of the gene, increasing their risk of obesity by 70 per cent and diabetes by 50 per cent. These people are on average almost half a stone heavier. The 49 per cent who have inherited just one flawed FTO gene are 30 per cent more likely to be obese than those with two normal copies of the gene and 25 per cent more likely to develop diabetes.

It wasn't clear if the flaw led to weight gain by increasing appetite, slowing down metabolism, cutting exercise levels or by making men and women take longer to feel full. But the latest research shows that it drives us to eat calorie-laden foods. Scientists tested the DNA of 100 primary pupils and looked at what they ate for lunch. Although those with the rogue gene didn't eat more, they were drawn to fatty and sugary foods, so took in 100 calories more per meal. The gene did not affect their metabolic rate, exercise levels or how full they felt.

Researcher Professor Colin Palmer said: 'The increase in obesity-seen in children may be largely attributable to the widespread availability of inexpensive and energy-dense foods.' These may be more attractive to those with the genetic variant, he explained. 'One hundred calories in a single sitting is half a Mars Bar. It doesn't seem like a lot but in terms of an increased risk of obesity, it is enough.'

But the effects of the gene are not overpowering, he added. So the 63 per cent of us with the 'junk food gene' should not feel that losing weight is out of our control. 'The advice is the same - you will not become overweight if you do not overeat.'

In an accompanying editorial, Dr Rudolph Leibel, of Columbia University in New York, predicted the advent of genetic tests to give early warning of those at risk of putting on weight.


Elite British universities discriminate against academic merit

More than half of leading universities discriminate in favour of students from deprived backgrounds, sparking a fresh row over "social engineering". An official report reveals the majority of institutions belonging to the elite Russell Group show favour to sixth-formers from poor-performing schools. One in five give priority to applicants' whose parents missed out on higher education. And 53 per cent of universities take students' "family problems" into account as an admissions tiebreaker.

According to the report, Nottingham - which traditionally attracts more applicants than any other university - said students' A-level grades "may be valued more highly" if applicants were refugees or came from the traveller community, poor homes or a family without a history of going to university.

Last night, it prompted claims that children were being "punished" for attending a good school. Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "This will inevitable lead to someone with great potential, who doesn't tick all these boxes, being deprived of his or her rightful place. Social engineering like this can only weaken the university system and leave a sour taste in the mouth of many parents who see their bright and hard-working children denied places on social grounds."

The disclosure was made in a Government-backed study published four years after a landmark commission on fair access to university. The 2004 report, led by Professor Steven Schwartz, the former vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said institutions had to take a "wider view" of an applicant's potential to close the gap between the number of students admitted from professional and unskilled homes.

In the latest study, the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions unit, based at Sheffield Hallam University, said many "positive changes" had been made by universities in light of the Schwartz Report. It surveyed almost three-quarters of universities and colleges. Four in 10 vice-chancellors and principals said "should choose students partly in order to achieve a social mix".

The report said the 20-strong Russell Group - which includes Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London, Nottingham and St Andrews - were most likely to use admissions procedures to achieve a mixed student body. More than half of all universities - 51 per cent - said it was fair to make lower-grade offers to sixth formers from poor-performing schools and deprived homes.

Among Russell Group members, 53 per cent considered whether students attended a "low-achieving school" or had family problems, 40 per cent marked-up students in local authority care, 40 per cent favoured candidates with disabilities and 20 per cent looked favourably on those without university-educated parents.

Earlier this year, an investigation by the Telegraph found the London School of Economics, Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle, and Edinburgh were among those allowing staff to admit students from poor-performing comprehensives with worse A-levels than those from top schools.

Dr Wendy Piatt, Russell Group director general, said: "A-level qualifications are a key source of information about academic ability but we do not just rely on exam grades. Russell Group universities take a range of factors and information into account to ensure that we can identify the candidates with the most potential to excel on our courses - whatever their social or educational background."

David Lammy, Higher Education Minister, said: "Creating a transparent and open admissions process is crucial to ensuring fair access and maintaining public confidence in our universities and colleges."


The BBC hates Christmas -- as usual

As a much-loved fairytale, a sumptuous new version of Hansel and Gretel might seem like perfect family viewing for Christmas Day. But a new staging of the Brothers Grimm classic, featuring children's corpses hanging in an abattoir-like larder, has proved so terrifying that the Royal Opera House recommends it is not suitable for children under the age of eight. Which has left critics questioning why the BBC has chosen to screen the production at 3pm on Christmas Day - a prime-time family viewing slot.

Media watchdogs and the children's charity Kidscape have called on BBC2 to pull the controversial opera from its Christmas schedule over fears it could traumatise children. The two-hour fairytale features lust-crazed parents, a knife-wielding wicked witch who hangs children in her larder before baking them in a giant oven and a final scene of cannibalism in which children feast on her flesh. It has been marketed by the Royal Opera House as 'perfect family fare for everyone at holiday time'.

But opera critics have called it 'profoundly unpleasant' and said children in the audience on opening night were 'genuinely terrified'. Officials have now conceded the staging is unsuitable for younger children. But a BBC2 spokeswoman insisted it would still be screened on Christmas Day, but said there would be a parental warning about the opera's content.

Michele Elliott, founder of the children's charity Kidscape, said: 'Children could be really scared or even traumatised by watching this. Parents should write to the BBC to ask them not to show it.' John Beyer, of Mediawatch UK, said: 'What on earth are they thinking of? It beggars belief that they could contemplate showing that sort of barbarity on Christmas Day of all days.'

Like many Brothers Grimm fairytales, the story of Hansel and Gretel has an undeniably dark tone. Two children born to a poor woodcutter are abandoned in a forest and are captured by a witch who intends eat Hansel. She locks Hansel in a cage and forces Gretel to become her servant, but the children eventually outwit her and trap her in her own oven before escaping back to their father.

A Royal Opera House spokeman said: 'We haven't banned young children from coming to see it, but we felt eight might be an appropriate age to suggest. Children today grow up watching Doctor Who, they have seen far worse. I don't think there would be many kids having nightmares.' A BBC spokeswoman said the screening of the opera will be presented by newsreader Katie Derham, who will also give a warning about the production's content. She said: 'There are scary elements in the story which are reflected in the Royal Opera House's production, but these are given a comic and pantomime-like treatment.'


The importance of family

From almost the first moment of recorded history, one set of relationships has been at the heart of the human experience and the basis of civilisation itself: a mother and father who depend on each other; the children who rely on them both; a supportive network of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Without the loyalties and obligations of the committed family, our ancestors would certainly have struggled to survive in a dangerous and frightening world. How else but with the help of kin could they have coped with the critical moments in life: birth, sickness, old age, the need to educate and train their young? Without such help from the very beginning, it may be asked whether humankind would ever have developed the capacity to build an advanced civilisation.

This week a report from Unicef, the UN's child welfare agency, warned that working mothers take a massive risk when they put their offspring into low quality childcare. Experts at the world body said such toddlers could suffer psychological harm and fare poorly later at school. Aggressive behaviour learned by children at some nurseries might contribute later to classroom disruption.

The study for is the first major international report to warn of the dangers of the drive, pushed again by the Government this week, to get mothers back to work early. But the family has a significance that goes way beyond the practicalities of day-to-day existence. From the very beginning, it has also given a special meaning to our human notions of past, present and future. Human beings could have regarded themselves as isolated individuals whose meaningless lives were snuffed out and forgotten after a brief span. Instead - a hugely important factor in driving social development - we have always tended to see ourselves as part of a great chain of existence, binding us to our forebears and to generations yet unborn. 'To forget your ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root,' says the old Chinese proverb. That undoubtedly reflects one of our deepest human instincts.

In Britain, G. K. Chesterton summed it up strikingly more than 100 years ago when he described the family as 'this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of tomorrow'. To modern ears, those words may sound somewhat romantic, or even a trifle overblown. But back in 1900, his view would have been shared by the overwhelming majority of MPs, lawyers, academics and the wider public. Until very recently, in fact, the importance of the family was taken for granted, not only as the basis of society, but as the foundation of our human identity.

Today? In western societies - and especially in the English-speaking world - we think we know better. Forget the wisdom of the ages. Forget our deep-rooted instincts. Forget precepts that have governed every society in every era of history. The importance of the 'traditional' family is being challenged as never before. The idea has taken root that human families can be constructed in any way people want. The message is that biology counts for nothing. Biological mothers don't matter to their children. Biological fathers don't matter either. All that matters is what adults want - and children must adapt to it, whether they like it or not.

The sheer speed of what is happening is quite astonishing. In less than 50 years, the old values have been stood on their head. Today, legislators don't hesitate to plunge into 'reforms' that tear up the rights, duties and obligations that have underpinned the family for millennia. They rush into new ' postmodernist' concepts of family, partnering and parenthood. Indeed, they are even attempting to banish the word 'marriage' from the statute books.

Everywhere in the West, the liberal consensus is on the march. In Britain, for example, a Labour Government has discouraged the use of the 'm' word in official documents, while in the U.S., the American Law Institute recommends that marriage should be ' deprivileged' and not be given a status above any other relationship.

Yet on any rational analysis, this reckless embrace of a brave new world is simply perverse, since there is no doubt whatever that the traditional family, underpinned by marriage, is the best way of bringing up secure, happy children and maintaining social stability. You don't have to be a religious believer or a Victorian moralist to take this view. The evidence speaks for itself (despite the strenuous efforts of the liberal establishment to ignore it). Fact: one in two unmarried couples splits up before their first child is five years old. The figure for married couples is just one in 12.

Fact: children from broken homes are 75 per cent more likely than their classmates to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely to be involved with drugs and 50 per cent more likely to have alcohol problems. They are also more likely to run away from home, find themselves in the care system and end up in jail.

At the very least, those bleak statistics should give us pause. The truth is that some of the most intractable problems facing Britain today - from our tragically high rate of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases to petty crime, gang membership and welfare dependency - have their roots in family breakdown.

That's not to say that all families are perfect. Sometimes, sadly, it can be for the best that a child is removed from its parents. Sometimes, it is for the best when couples separate. And it is certainly true that many, many children are brought up wonderfully in lone-parent households. All credit to the mothers - and sometimes fathers - who manage to do so. But that doesn't invalidate the general principle. By ignoring the real benefits that marriage brings to children and wider society, our legislators are making a profound error of judgment - perhaps the most serious mistake of the past half-century.

So how have we come to this? As I outline in my new book, there are a whole range of complex reasons - not least the hatred of the family that some shallow-thinking but influential intellectuals feel. They continue to promote the message that traditional family structures have no place in a world of gender equality.

Our elected representatives have played their part, too, by demoting marriage as an institution, weakening its contractual aspects and promoting the dogma that 'family' is just a legal and social convention. Take the shabby way successive governments have treated marriage in this country, even though they know perfectly well that it is one of the great foundations of society.

It was a Tory Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, who dismissed the married couples' tax allowance as 'an anomaly'. And it was former Home Secretary Jack Straw who proclaimed: 'This Government will not preach about marriage.'

The result? In Britain today it just doesn't pay to get married. Our tax and benefits system is so arranged that if lower-income couples who are living together get married, they will significantly increase their tax payments and lower their benefits. Perhaps it's no wonder that this country has a higher percentage of lone-parent families than any other country in Europe, apart from Sweden. The system is designed to create family instability. And the costs, both social and financial, are huge.

How to explain this bizarre discouragement of an institution so important to the happiness, stability and financial health of the country? Politicians are terrified of being thought 'judgmental' about the way citizens live. And they obviously take the defeatist view that nothing can be done to improve matters anyway. Isn't it curious, then, that those same politicians feel no compunction at all about bossing us around to tell us to stop smoking, cut down our drinking and eat five portions of fruit and veg a day?

The same aversion to moralising applies increasingly to the laws on marriage and divorce. Not only are we witnessing ever easier divorce - whatever the children may need or want - and same-sex marriages, but there is also growing pressure to remove the words 'father' and 'mother' from birth certificates and replace them by 'Progenitor A' and 'Progenitor B' (as is already happening in Spain).

Whatever the motivation behind such trends, the ' traditional' family structure is being badly eroded. All this reminds me of the grim ideas floated in ancient Athens 2,500 years ago. In the vision sketched out in Plato's Republic - a philosophical treatise on the most fundamental principles of the conduct of human society - mating would be random. Children would be raised by the state. Neither mothers nor fathers could claim their biological offspring as their own. Nor could they raise their children. In Plato's bleak prescription, men and women would join together briefly, then separate. Fathers had children by many mothers. Mothers bore children by different men. A disturbing scenario indeed.

But isn't Plato's view now triumphant? In a few brief decades, the western world has so altered the traditional concept of the family that it's possible to recognise the basic elements of the Platonic blueprint. Ideas which once seemed just a speculative nightmare now appear to be an emerging reality.

And yet the family in its traditional form is crucial to us all - not simply because it underpins social stability or because it connects us to the past and the future, but because it's also a bulwark of freedom itself. Why? Because the invisible bonds it creates between its members generate loyalties and affections capable of resisting any tyranny. That's what, in the end, makes the family not just a conserving institution, but also the engine of liberty and progress.

Yes, the family can sometimes fail. When it does, the consequences can be appalling. But at its best, it provides an anchor for individuals who would otherwise have no inspiration or support in an uncertain world.

For these reasons we should think long and hard about where we are being taken by some of the fashionable dogmas of our day: the belief that divorce or separation doesn't hurt; that what adults do can't seriously harm their children; that cohabiting is at least as good as marrying; that genetic relationships don't matter; and that 'family' can mean whatever we want it to mean. All of these dogmas are false. All are deeply damaging. Every day we can see the consequences in broken families and broken lives. In allowing matters to come to this, the liberal establishment has made arguably the most profound mistake of the past half-century. Dare we allow it to continue?


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