Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hooray! Arrogant bitch loses

Sharon Shoesmith, the former children's services chief who lost her job over the Baby P tragedy, has lost an appeal against her sacking from Haringey Council.

Ms Shoesmith, 55, was dismissed without compensation from her senior position at Haringey Council in north London last month after a damning report into her department's failings. She launched an attempt to overturn the decision to sack her but a panel of councillors rejected her appeal.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls sent inspectors into Haringey Council after the trial of those responsible for 17-month-old Baby P's death. The inspectors identified a string of "serious concerns" about the local authority's child protection services, which they described as "inadequate".

Mr Balls removed Ms Shoesmith from her post on December 1 but she remained suspended on full pay until Haringey councillors decided to dismiss her a week later. Ms Shoesmith's appeal hearing before a panel of three Haringey councillors began on Wednesday last week and lasted three days. A Haringey Council spokesman said: "A panel of councillors has rejected an appeal by Sharon Shoesmith against her dismissal on December 8 2008. "The decision was taken today by a different panel of councillors from the ones who made the original decision. "Ms Shoesmith will not be returning to work in Haringey. She will not receive any compensation package. She will not receive any payment in lieu of notice."

Employment law experts say Ms Shoesmith could be in line for a payout of up to œ173,000 if she can prove that the council was wrong to sack her. She may now make claims against Haringey for breach of contract and unfair dismissal.

Baby P, who cannot be named for legal reasons, died in a blood-splattered cot in August 2007. He had suffered more than 50 injuries at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and their lodger despite being on the child protection register and receiving 60 contacts with the authorities over eight months. The trio will be sentenced at the Old Bailey in the spring.


NHS squanders millions on agency staff - with some nurses earning up to $200 an HOUR

Millions of pounds of health service funds are being wasted employing agency nurses on up to 128 pounds an hour. This is almost ten times the amount paid to an experienced staff nurse - and equates to a salary of 250,000. Overall, the health service spent almost 800million on agency doctors, nurses and consultants in 2006-07, according to the figures uncovered in a Freedom of Information request. That could fund around ten hospitals or employ 30,000 full- time experienced nurses. Agency staff are plugging the holes left by the 11,000 nurses who left to work overseas last year, seeking better pay and conditions.

The yawning gap between rates for NHS workers and agency locums exists at every level including managers and even prison GPs, who have been paid up to 158 an hour. The figures also show that much of the money goes into the pockets of agency bosses rather than to the workers, who can earn less than two-thirds of what the NHS pays out.

The Department of Health insists that the amount spent on agency staff is falling, year on year. But critics say it must do more to prevent agencies 'creaming off' millions meant to improve the standards of care. Dr Peter Carter, the chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: 'We are concerned and we want the Government to tackle this as a matter of urgency. 'If the NHS made more effort attracting and retaining permanent staff, it would obviate the need for many agency nurses. 'It's understandable that members of the public seeing these huge rates wonder whether nurses really are underpaid, but the reality is that individuals working for agencies get much less than the NHS is charged. There are private companies that are making a killing out of the NHS.'

He said many nurses were emigrating, partly because the NHS could not help with high housing costs in many areas. He said: 'There has been a huge surge in UK nurses wanting to work abroad and they have employment opportunities in the U.S., Australia, South Africa and other countries. Almost 11,000 went last year.'

Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley, who obtained the figures, said: 'For years the Government have been telling us how many extra staff they have hired for the NHS. So surely we should have reached a situation by now where we no longer need to keep paying out millions each year to agencies and their staff? 'It is a dreadful waste of taxpayers' money at a time when we can least afford it.'

All NHS trusts were asked to provide details of the highest amount they paid to an agency worker between May and October 2008 and there was a response rate of more than 70 per cent. An agency nurse employed at Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Swindon was paid 128 an hour. An experienced nurse on Band 5 pay in the NHS gets 13 an hour or 26,000 a year - almost ten times less. Whipps Cross University Hospitals NHS Trust said it paid 188 an hour for an anaesthetics medical consultant, equivalent to a salary of 366,000.

The resulting data did not show whether the workers came from privately-run agencies or from NHS Professionals, a non-profit agency set up by the Government to provide flexible staff. Some agencies-were taking large cuts. Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust paid 116 per hour for a nurse but the agency took 50 (43 per cent).

Matthew Elliott of the TaxPayers' Alliance said: 'Agencies have creamed off millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, whilst patients continue to receive below-par care.' A Department of Health spokesman said: 'Temporary staff have, and continue to have, a key role in helping the NHS to respond to fluctuations in demand for services and in staff availability. 'The total pay bill spent on agency staff has reduced from 5.5 per cent in 2003-04, to 4.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 3.5 per cent in 2005-06, 2.7 per cent in 2006-07 and 3.2 per cent in 2007-08.'


British parents are turning to "no frills" private schools as the recession hits middle-class families

Note that Britain has a very large range of private schools. One guess why

Schools with fees set at a fraction of the national average are reporting increased demand during the economic downturn. Some cheap and mid-market independent chains are even preparing to open new schools despite fears of falling interest elsewhere. It comes just days after a leading headmistress warned the financial slump would result in a "difficult" year for schools. Jill Berry, president of the Girls' Schools Association, said elite schools should abandon the facilities "arms race" to cut costs.

Grammar schools [taxpayer-supported selective schools] are already reporting more interest, with the number of children taking the 11-plus jumping by up to a fifth this year.

Last year, average independent school fees increased by more than six per cent to 11,253 pounds. It is believed the downturn will lead to increased interest in schools with relatively low charges. The New Model School Company - linked to the Civitas think-tank - is opening two new prep schools in London charging around 5,000-a-year. Its one other existing school in West London is also expanding. Robert Whelan, Civitas deputy director, said: "The demand is fantastic. It is a question of finding buildings."

Talks are under way for a school to join the Alpha Schools Group, which has four "affordable" schools in the capital. Other independent schools are also looking to sell to private education companies which often keep fees down by sharing running costs between several institutions.

Sue Fieldman, of the Good Schools Guide, said lower fees were becoming more important to parents in considering which school to choose. She said: "If you have two schools more or less the same, if one is 500 cheaper, they are going for that rather than the flash swimming pool or the expensive theatre."

Chris Woodhead, former head of Ofsted, runs the Cognita chain, which currently charges an average of 8,500. He said the organisation - which has 44 schools - was in negotiation with more schools then ever before as owners consider selling up. Prof Woodhead has been critical in the past of the "frills and frippery" wasted by some independent schools. "I am not saying that facilities are unimportant but I do think that the competition between schools to provide five-star facilities in recent years has driven fees up," he said. "I think it is the case that if you are sending your children to a school like Eton or Millfield at the top end of the market then a few thousand pounds here and there isn't going to make a great difference. But if you have not got much spare cash you are going to shop around to find the best value for money."

But David Lyscom, chief executive of the ISC, insisted the number of pupils at top independent schools was "holding up well" - and branded talk of falling pupil numbers was "scaremongering". "Anecdotal evidence from heads suggests a healthy sector," he said. "Much as we do not wish to play down the seriousness of the economic situation for the UK as a whole, it should not be assumed that the independent schools sector will be badly hit by the downturn."


British credentialism implodes

Making higher and higher levels of education normal too often leads to overqualification for the available jobs and is very disappointing to kids who have to end up doing jobs that they could have done without a degree

After 12 years of school, four years of university and a degree in business management, Grant Bostock was last week sitting on a factory production line checking the solder on electronic circuit boards. If the solder was not complete, he dabbed an extra bit on. "It isn't exactly what I planned," he said. "I want to do something that gives me opportunities, so that I can work towards something. I am qualified to do all sorts of things, but I am working in a factory."

His hopes of a career that would use the knowledge he spent so much time and money acquiring have faded fast in recent months. "A lot of firms have just pulled their graduate schemes," said Bostock, who lives in Cheadle, Staffordshire. "It feels like hitting your head against a wall. If the jobs are out there, you can try your best; but if they aren't, there isn't anything you can do about it. "I am still living at home, which isn't exactly what I wanted either. I want to move on to the next step of my life, but I am stuck here."

In some ways, however, he is lucky: he has an income even though his job is temporary. Mike Leader, who graduated in English from Birmingham University last summer, is still unemployed despite heading to London in search of a job. "I applied for a few jobs in August and September but I didn't hear back from any of those," said Leader. "Then I decided to go to the Jobcentre and apply for work there. I don't think I've heard back from any job I've applied for there."

He has even struggled to claim benefits amid the bureaucratic maze of Gordon Brown's welfare system. "I'm living with someone who has managed to get a part-time job in a coffee shop so I was turned down," he explained. Despite his degree, Leader remains unemployed. And, yes, his girlfriend, the coffee-shop worker, is also overqualified for her job: she is a graduate, too. They are among an army of graduates emerging from the education system who face the toughest employment prospects for years as the recession deepens. The government, having encouraged youngsters into higher education that has saddled many with large debts, is deeply worried. Graduate numbers are hitting a record high just as the number of jobs is shrinking.

As John Denham, the skills secretary, said in an interview published yesterday: "They [new graduates] will be a very big group: around 400,000. We can't just leave people to fend for themselves." His solution is a scheme to create government-backed graduate internships, paying modest wages, at large firms. Barclays and Microsoft are among those that have agreed to take part, and Denham hopes to have what is being called the national internship scheme running by the summer.

Don't get too excited. Pay will be little more than the current student grant of 2,835 pounds, and it is not clear yet how much, if any, government money would be committed. But Denham hopes that the experience and skills gained by interns will pay dividends. "At the end they will be more employable, and some of them will get jobs," he said. "Employers won't want to let good people go."

However, critics question how many graduates the scheme will be able to help. "Businesses taking on graduate interns is welcome, but this does not match the scale of the crisis facing young people trying to find jobs," said David Willetts, the Conservative spokesman on skills. "This is another one of Gordon Brown's ill-thought-out initiatives that comes apart within 24 hours. It seems pretty clear there's going to be no extra public money for it."

Contemplating his unemployment prospects, Leader also welcomed the idea of internships, but he, too, pointed out one simple drawback. "The bar will be raised for everyone," he said. "When you go for a job, you'll be up against people who have had three months' internship."

So what are the prospects and what can be done? The looming crisis stems from two broad trends heading in opposite directions: more graduates and fewer jobs. Since Labour came to power, it has encouraged more school leavers to apply for university, with Tony Blair originally setting a target of 50% of all school leavers going on to higher education. As a result the number of graduates emerging from the university system each year has risen by more than 70%, from 206,000 in 1997 to 358,000 in 2007 (the latest confirmed annual figure). Even before the credit crunch struck, some graduates were finding it hard to obtain jobs commensurate with their qualifications. At institutions such as Plymouth, Thames Valley and Lancaster universities about 40% of graduates remained in "non-degree-level" jobs six months after leaving university, according to a study published last year. The proportion of graduates still in non-graduate jobs five years after university has also risen: up from 22% for male students in 1992 to 33%.

While students at the top end have seen huge rewards from their investment in education, overall the financial benefits have declined. The extra lifetime earnings generated by having a degree were estimated in 2004 to be an average of 400,000; that has now fallen to 100,000, as even one vice-chancellor, Deian Hopkin of London South Bank University, admitted recently. At the same time higher education fees and student debts have risen.

Coming the other way is the recession, which started in financial services and the City, the source of many graduate opportunities in recent years. Student boasts of fat starting salaries at City banks have been replaced with ruthless competition for a declining number of openings, even for high fliers.

Paul Kavanagh, 20, in his final year of an economics and management degree at Oxford, has experienced a sea-change in the recruitment process. "Every other year the banks handed out jobs to people on my course, but not this year," he said. Despite a predicted first-class degree, he has been turned down for seven investment banking posts. Boutique firms are taking on one graduate this year, compared with up to 10 previously, he said. "All the deadlines are now gone and a lot of my friends are in the same position," he said. "I'm really panicked about it. It's just really bad timing." He is applying to do a masters degree, though he fears the course fees will put him a further 20,000 in debt. "Doing the masters is going to be a real financial struggle and there's only bits of funding available," he said. "Doing a paid internship is definitely something I would consider." ...

A spokeswoman for the skills department said Denham's scheme was at a "very early stage" and the department was still making initial approaches to companies. No detail beyond what Denham had said was available. It could give no estimate for the number of internships that would be created. As the government tries to flesh out the scheme, economic assessments remain gloomy. "While the recession began in May, the rate of recession increased sharply in the autumn," said the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in a report yesterday. The way it has hit new graduates is reflected in the latest labour market figures: of the 137,000 rise in people unemployed in the three months to October, 55,000 were in the 18-24 age group.

Whether or not Denham's scheme succeeds, students are likely to think harder whether university is worth the cost and commitment it now entails.


The correctness of electric cars

From the inimitable Jeremy Clarkson

All of which brings me on to the curious case of the battery-powered Tesla sports car that I reviewed recently on Top Gear. Things didn't go well. The company claimed it could run, even if driven briskly, for 200 miles, but after just a morning the battery power was down to 20% and we realised that it would not have enough juice for all the shots we needed. Happily, the company had brought a second car along, so we switched to that. But after a while its motor began to overheat. And so, even though the first was not fully charged, we unplugged it - only to find that its brakes weren't working properly. So then we had no cars.

Inevitably, the film we had shot was a bit of a mess. There was a handful of shots of a silver car. Some of a grey car. And only half the usual gaggle of nonsense from me shouting "Power" and making silly metaphors. And to make matters worse, we had the BBC's new compliance directive hanging over us like an enormous suffocating blanket. We had to be sure that what we said and what we showed was more than right, more than fair and more than accurate. Phone calls were made. Editorial policy wallahs were consulted. Experts were called in. No "i" was left undotted. No "t" was left uncrossed. No stone remained unturned in our quest for truth and decency.

Tesla could not complain about what was shown because it was there. And here's the strange thing. It didn't. But someone did. Loudly and to every newspaper in the world. The Daily Telegraph said we'd been caught up in a new fakery row. The Guardian accused us of being "underhanded". The New York Times wondered if we'd been "misleading". The Daily Mail said I could give you breast cancer.

This was weird. Tesla, when contacted by reporters, gave its account of what happened and it was exactly the same as ours. It explained that the brakes had stopped working because of a blown fuse and didn't question at all our claim that the car would have run out of electricity after 55 miles.

So who was driving this onslaught? Nobody in the big wide world ever minds when I say a BMW 1-series is crap or that a Kia Rio is the worst piece of machinery since the landmine. And yet everyone went mad when I said the Tesla, the red-blooded sports car and great white hope for the world's green movement, "absolutely does not work".

I fear that what we are seeing here is much the same thing professors see when they claim there is no such thing as man-made global warming. Immediately, they are drowned out by an unseen mob, and then their funding dries up. It's actually quite frightening.

The problem is, though, that really and honestly, the US-made Tesla works only at dinner parties. Tell someone you have one and in minutes you will be having sex. But as a device for moving you and your things around, it is about as much use as a bag of muddy spinach.

Yes, it is extremely fast. It's all out of ideas at 125mph, but the speed it gets there is quite literally electrifying. For instance, 0 to 60 takes 3.9sec. This is because a characteristic of the electric motor, apart from the fact it's the size of a grapefruit and has only one moving part, is massive torque.

And quietness. At speed, there's a deal of tyre roar and plenty of wind noise from the ill-fitting soft top, but at a town-centre crawl it's silent. Eerily so. Especially as you are behind a rev counter showing numbers that have no right to be there - 15,000, for example.

Through the corners things are less rosy. To minimise rolling resistance and therefore increase range, the wheels have no toe-in or camber. This affects the handling. So too does the sheer weight of the 6,831 laptop batteries, all of which have to be constantly cooled. But slightly wonky handling is nothing compared with this car's big problems. First of all, it costs 90,000 pounds. This means it is three times more than the Lotus Elise, on which it is loosely based, and 90,000 times more than it is actually worth. Yes, that cost will come down when the Hollywood elite have all bought one and the factory can get into its stride. But paying 90,000 for such a thing now indicates that you believe in goblins and fairy stories about the end of the world.

Of course, it will not be expensive to run. Filling a normal Elise with petrol costs 40 pounds. Filling a Tesla with cheap-rate electricity costs just 3.50. And that's enough to take you - let's be fair - somewhere between 55 and 200 miles, depending on how you drive. But if it's running costs you are worried about, consider this. The 60,000 or so you save by buying an Elise would buy 15,000 gallons of fuel. Enough to take you round the world 20 times. And there's more. Filling an Elise takes two minutes. Filling a Tesla from a normal 13-amp plug takes about 16 hours. Fit a beefier three-phase supply to your house and you could complete the process in four (Tesla now says 3«). But do not, whatever you do, imagine that you could charge your car from a domestic wind turbine. That would take about 25 days.

You see what I mean. Even if we ignore the argument that the so-called green power that propels this car comes from a dirty great power station, and that it is therefore not as green as you might hope, we are left with the simple fact that it takes a long time to charge it up and the charge doesn't take you very far. We must also remember that both the cars I tried went wrong.

In the fullness of time, I have no doubt that the Tesla can be honed and chiselled and developed to a point where the problems are gone. But time is one thing a car such as this does not have. Because while Tesla fiddles about with batteries, Honda and Ford are surging onwards with hydrogen cars, which don't need charging, can be fuelled normally and are completely green. The biggest problem, then, with the Tesla is not that it doesn't work. It's that even if it did, it would be driving down the wrong road.


Hormone clue could lead to pre-natal screening for autism

This is ridiculous. Few people would doubt that women are better communicators. Their verbal skills are certainly higher. So all that the report below shows is that the more male-like someone is in terms of hormones, the less good they are as communicators and the more they have male-pattern memories. But that is a long way from pointing to autism. Note that none of the kids were actually autistic!

Babies exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb have a higher risk of developing autistic traits, research has revealed. The link to the male hormone could provide a way to test unborn babies for the condition and has added a new dimension to the debate about the ethics of screening. The research suggests than abnormally high levels of testosterone in the womb could be one of the triggers for autistic traits to develop up to ten years later.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world's leading experts on autism, measured the level of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of 235 pregnant women. Their children were later given a series of tests. When they reached eight their mothers filled in questionnaires designed to pick up autistic traits. These included whether the child preferred solitary or social activities and if he or she was good at remembering telephone numbers and number plates.

Those who had been exposed to higher concentrations of the male hormone had higher scores, and high exposure accounted for 20 per cent of the variability in measures of autistic traits. The findings were published yesterday in the British Journal of Psychology.

Prof Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University, said the children did not have a diagnosis of autism but the research had found a correlation between testosterone produced by the unborn babies and the number of traits displayed. He said the research looked at causal factors which meant it was a long way from a screening test. But he added: `Our ongoing collaboration with the Biobank in Denmark will enable us to test that link in the future.' The prospect of pre-natal testing raised concerns that it could lead to parents feeling pressured to terminate an affected pregnancy.

A spokesman from Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales said: `The debate prompted by the possibility of genetic testing for autism in the womb needs to be channelled creatively. `What our society is contemplating are the first steps of a truly revolutionary and inhuman path. `The only way out is to rediscover the fundamental dignity and value of every human life from its first beginnings. `Without this firm moral bedrock, we are in grave danger of sliding inexorably towards a new eugenics.'

A National Autistic Society spokesman said: `Screening to identify autism at an early stage has the potential to radically improve the quality of life if the right environment, education and support can be put in place as soon as possible. `However, it is crucial that early screening or testing for autism does not lead to increased stigmatisation or discrimination. `Many people with autism and their families are understandably worried about the impact genetic or pre-natal testing may have on their lives and on public perception of the condition in the future.'


British black plays the race card on his former benefactor

We read:
"The head of Lewis Hamilton's Formula One team today described allegations that he was racist as "lies that have damaged my reputation". Ron Dennis, chairman of the McLaren team, denied claims made by a former steward that he was a racist and a bully. Peter Boland claimed last week that the tycoon had boarded his luxury executive jet in the Middle East and said that he must wash his hands because he had been "shaking hands with Arabs all day".

Mr Dennis, whose wealth is estimated at 100 million pounds, said that he had come to an employment tribunal in Southampton to rectify the accusations. The 61-year-old told the hearing that he had never made the racist remark and that he regularly washed his hands. "It's an absolute lie. It's the most ridiculous thing," he said, explaining that he washed his hands a lot for health reasons.

Mr Boland, 27, from Stowmarket in Suffolk, is alleging discrimination and victimisation due to sexual orientation after his sacking in May 2007. He has accused three companies controlled by Mr Dennis - McLaren Group Limited, Absolute Taste and Greyscape - of the offences.

Mr Dennis discovered Hamilton as a 13-year-old go cart racer and supported him until he became the first black driver to win the Formula One championship last season. The businessman said that Mr Boland had been sacked because he was not doing his job properly, had fallen asleep while working on his private jet and had been rude to important guests.


No good deed goes unpunished. If the boss was a racist, how come he did so much for the black guy? Do I get the impression that the black guy might have been a bit -- shall we say -- lazy?

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