Thursday, January 08, 2009

Photographers criminalised as British police abuse anti-terror laws

Fury as stop-and-search powers are used to block and confiscate legal pictures

Reuben Powell is an unlikely terrorist. A white, middle-aged, middle-class artist, he has been photographing and drawing life around the capital's Elephant & Castle for 25 years. With a studio near the 1960s shopping centre at the heart of this area in south London, he is a familiar figure and is regularly seen snapping and sketching the people and buildings around his home - currently the site of Europe's largest regeneration project. But to the police officers who arrested him last week his photographing of the old HMSO print works close to the local police station posed an unacceptable security risk.

"The car skidded to a halt like something out of Starsky & Hutch and this officer jumped out very dramatically and said 'what are you doing?' I told him I was photographing the building and he said he was going to search me under the Anti-Terrorism Act," he recalled.

For Powell, this brush with the law resulted in five hours in a cell after police seized the lock-blade knife he uses to sharpen his pencils. His release only came after the intervention of the local MP, Simon Hughes, but not before he was handcuffed and his genetic material stored permanently on the DNA database.

But Powell's experience is far from uncommon. Every week photographers wielding their cameras in public find themselves on the receiving end of warnings either by police, who stop them under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, or from over-eager officials who believe that photography in a public area is somehow against the law. Groups from journalists to trainspotters have found themselves on the receiving end of this unwanted attention, with many photographers now fearing that their job or hobby could be under threat.

So serious has the situation become that the MP and keen photographer Austin Mitchell, chairman of the Parliamentary All-Party Photography Group, tabled an early day motion last March deploring the "officious interference or unjustified suspicion" facing camera enthusiasts around public buildings, where they are increasingly told that it is against the law to photograph public servants at all - especially police officers or community support officers - or that members of the public cannot be photographed without their written permission. The Labour MP is now calling for a photography code for officers so that snappers can continue going about their rightful business.

Yet, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the law is straightforward. "Police officers may not prevent someone from taking a photograph in public unless they suspect criminal or terrorist intent. Their powers are strictly regulated by law and once an image has been recorded, the police have no power to delete or confiscate it without a court order. This applies equally to members of the media seeking to record images, who do not need a permit to photograph or film in public places," a spokeswoman said.

But still the harassment goes on. Philip Haigh, the business editor of Rail magazine, said the bullying of enthusiasts on railway platforms has become an unwelcome fact of life in Britain. "It is a problem that doesn't ever seem to go away. We get complaints from railway photographers all the time that they are told to stop what they are doing, mainly by railway staff but also by the police. It usually results in an apologetic letter from a rail company," he said.

In the summer, armed police swooped on a group of trainspotters known as the Steam Boys as they waited with high-powered photographic equipment to capture a 1950s engine called The Great Marquess as it crossed the Forth Bridge near Gordon Brown's constituency home in Fife.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has also taken up the cause, highlighting the case last month of the photographer Jess Hurd, whose camera was taken from her when she was detained for 45 minutes under Section 44 while documenting a traveller wedding in London's Docklands. Last week police were filmed obstructing photographers covering a protest at the Greek embassy in London. Scotland Yard promised to investigate. Jeremy Dear, the general secretary of the NUJ, said: "It's time the police realised that taking photographs doesn't automatically mean you're a terrorist. Every month the NUJ finds itself dealing with yet more cases of officers infringing journalistic freedoms and, very often, exceeding their legal powers.

"Even the police's own guidance makes it clear that there's nothing in the Terrorism Act that can be used to prohibit the taking of photos in a public place. The authorities have got to do more to ensure that those people charged with upholding the law don't keep on contravening it by trampling over well-established civil liberties."


Surgeons who leave operating equipment inside patients cost NHS 9m pounds

Patients who leave operating theatres with surgical equipment accidentally left inside them are being awarded millions of pounds in compensation. About two people a week find surgeons have left behind foreign objects such as surgical swabs, clips and screws, according to Government figures released after a Freedom of Information request. And with the average victim pocketing 17,900 pounds, the mistakes have cost the NHS a total of o9million over the past five years, with payouts made to more than 550 patients.

In the past year, the highest payouts were 115,000 to a person who had the tip of a needle left inside them, 75,000 to a patient who later found a surgical clip and 60,000 to someone who still had `packaging material' inside them after an operation. The total compensation bill during 2007-2008 for such incidents was 2.2million, considerably more than the 1.4million awarded in 2003-2004, even though the number of incidents has not increased. The average payment has also risen from 15,000 just under two years ago. In 2006-2007, the damages reached a record level of 2.6million paid to 149 patients, including 119,000 to one patient found to have had a swab left behind and 100,000 to another who had a clip left inside them.

One victim was grandmother Gladys Condlyffe, 71, from Porthill, Staffordshire, who died in 2005 after surgeons accidentally left a plastic stent - a small pipe - inside her for seven years after a routine gall bladder operation. She died 12 hours after an operation to have it removed at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire. In 2007, two new mothers were sent home from Birmingham's City Hospital with surgical swabs inside them after bungled emergency caesareans.

Experts suggest the level of claims is just the tip of the iceberg, as many people do not discover a mistake unless it causes a problem, often years later. The incidents generally happen as a result of oversights by doctors under pressure in `stressful situations', such as emergency operations. Overweight patients are also more likely to be affected because their extra body mass can make it more difficult to spot tools that have been left behind.

Peter Walsh, chief executive of the patients' charity Action Against Medical Accidents, said the figures were scandalous and disappointing. He added: `These incidents are all easily avoidable. They are only the cases where compensation has been paid. You can safely assume there are many more out there where people have not brought cases for compensation.' And Susie Squire, campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: `All available funds should be put into improving frontline health services, not spent on paying out for costly and easily avoidable cock-ups.'

A list of `never events' - those which are serious and largely preventable - drawn up by the National Patient Safety Agency after Lord Darzi's review of the NHS, is currently out for consultation. It includes objects being left in the body after an operation. Kevin Cleary, the NPSA's medical director, said: `The World Health Organisation has started a Safer Surgery Saves Lives campaign that includes a checklist for surgical teams to help avoid such blunders.'


The chance of cutting obesity? A big fat zero

The number of failed British government healthy-eating initiatives is expanding in step with the national waistline

They're not talking about me, are they, in that fatty campaign thingy, the one done by the Wallace & Gromit people? I'm not obese. This new government weight campaign, the one with the Stone Age people modernising and growing flabby, is for the fatties, isn't it, and we all know who they are. It's not going to work either, is it? Because the very people the campaign is aimed at will ignore it, won't they?

Well, yes, probably. Because the people it is aimed at really is you and me. Public-health campaigns such as Change4Life, launched last week, have the greatest effect if a large number of low-risk people change their behaviour; far greater than if the smaller number of high-risk people do. So, yes, it is you and me they are talking to.

That brings its own problems: while the benefit to society as a whole if lots of low-risk people eat slightly better is large in terms of savings for the NHS in future, the benefit to the individual is small. Which is why nearly all public health campaigns fail; and why I suspect that this one, all 75 million pounds of it, will as well.

A man with the marvellous title of Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, David Spiegelhalter, of Cambridge University, last year analysed for the Royal Statistical Society the effects of a campaign to reduce alcohol consumption. He showed that a 20-year-old man drinking a "hazardous" four units a day who reduced his intake to the recommended safe limit of one per day, will gain 73 extra days of life, or 20 seconds for each pint not drunk - which may seem a poor return for forgoing the pleasure. While ministers and public health officials give advice based on what is good for society, Professor Spiegelhalter concluded, "individuals receiving that advice may, equally reasonably, choose to ignore it".

We're tricky like that, we are - and we hate being told what to do by ministers. As the Government admitted four years ago, after a mammoth consultation exercise to decide what to put in a White Paper on public health, the overwhelming message was: go away. "First, people told us that they want to take responsibility for their own health", wrote John Reid, the Health Secretary at the time, after consulting 150,000 people in one way and another. Mr Reid was never a big fan of the bossy government agenda: "They were clear that many choices they made - such as what to eat or drink, whether to smoke, whether to have sex and what contraception to use - were very personal issues. People do not want government, or anyone else, to make these decisions for them."

Those were the days. Hark at Alan Johnson, the present Health Secretary, last week: "If we do nothing, by 2050 we could be living in a Britain where two thirds of men and half of all women are clinically obese... That is why we are doing something about it NOW."

The reason for the change (4Life) is that ministers have realised - and this happens every few years or so, hence the endless campaigns - that if the Government doesn't actively do something about public health, nobody else does either. The question is, when ministers do try to do something about it, do we listen?

For decades, doctors have been warning of an obesity "time bomb" and ministers have been launching healthy-eating campaigns - remember Virginia Bottomley's "three egg-sized potatoes a day"? Under Labour alone there has been a White Paper on "healthy behaviours", a "food and health action plan", the "5 a day" fruit and veg campaign, a "choosing health" White Paper and last year, "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives; A Cross-Government Strategy".

Result: a great, fat zero. The nation's waistline has swelled with the list of public-health campaigns. When Mrs Bottomley was Health Secretary 13 per cent of men were obese and 15 per cent of women; in 2007 that had risen to 25 per cent of all adults. A third of children today are overweight or obese by the age of 11. It's our lifestyle: too many calories in, not enough exercise to burn them off. If present trends continue, by 2050, ministers expect levels of obesity to rise to 60 per cent in men, 50 per cent in women and 25 per cent in children, costing the economy 50 billion a year. If we cannot improve our public health, the NHS will become unaffordable. Simple as that.

So, what to do? Health ministers claim to be trying something completely new: not just a public health campaign but "a lifestyle revolution", no less, in Mr Johnson's words. Having persuaded food and supermarket companies to sign up, they plan to use "social marketing" techniques to penetrate the public consciousness.

Don't know what a social marketing technique is? Here's the scary thing - nor do they! If I could refer you to the website of National Social Marketing Centre - - you will see that the whole idea gets really boggy. The National Social Marketing Centre, you will learn, is a "strategic partnership" between the former National Consumer Council (NCC) and the Department of Health, set up two years ago after a report into the nation's health commissioned by the NCC, which recommended greater use of health-related social marketing, which is "the systematic application of marketing concepts and techniques, to achieve specific behavioural goals to improve health and reduce health inequalities". Which sounds to me like a public health campaign. And we know how effective those are...

When this campaign fails, and I hope it doesn't but I think that it will, ministers should be ready to legislate to force a change in behaviour. Smoking only dipped sharply when it was banned in public places. Strict food labelling, sugar tax, treadmills... I don't know. The makers of Wallace & Gromit might be able to come up with an idea or two. Gromit doesn't have a mouth.


Michael Palin replaces Alexander Pope in Britain's English lessons

Authors from an earlier age give a view of a different world and hence highlight different values. Losing that is to lose perspective on the follies of the modern world

They are the writers who have inspired generations of schoolchildren. But now such literary greats as Coleridge, Shelley and Browning have disappeared from school exams to be replaced by more modern writers like Hornby (Nick) and Palin (Michael). Dead poets and authors who are central figures in the canon of English literature are no longer being featured in GCSE papers, according to new research by Cambridge Assessment, the school examinations arm of Cambridge University. And as they lose their place in exam syllabuses to more contemporary text, their study is dying out in schools.

The analysis of GCSE papers and predecessor qualifications at ten year intervals, from the 1870s through to the present day, revealed that a number of literary greats have endured, such as William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy. However, others, from Alexander Pope to Jonathan Swift, have fallen out of fashion. Even Geoffrey Chaucer, described as the "father of English literature", had not appeared in the last two sample papers from 1997 and 2007.

Researchers found a general trend towards more contemporary authors. In the 1950s, for instance, it was common for pupils to study writers who had been born well over 200 years earlier. In modern papers, this time lag had been cut by half. "Overall it is possible to see that the exam specifications show increasing modernity," the study said. "More recently there has been a tendency to include a broader view of literature along side 'literary greats'."

Susan Hill, the award-winning author, said the pendulum had swung too far in the "modern direction". "Iris Murdock once told me that school students should not be studying her novels, they should only read the classics, the great Victorians, the major poets - in other words, the dead," said Ms Hill, whose novel I'm the King of the Castle, has featured in GCSE syllabuses. "I am sure that the brightest should indeed be studying the canon, as well as some modern writers - the key words being 'as well'. "At GCSE, the emphasis is almost wholly on modern writers, at A-level slightly less so, but the pendulum has still swung far in the modern direction over the last few decades."

Ms Hill said too many teachers took the easy option when a choice was offered in GCSE courses because they were afraid of pupils being bored or that older work would not be considered "relevant" to pupils today. "Once it was 'Hamlet or King Lear', now it is 'the poems of Wordsworth or Carol Ann Duffy' - and it is easier to teach Duffy than Wordsworth, I'm the King of the Castle than Wuthering Heights," she said.

A shake-up of GCSEs four years ago introduced non-fiction to English literature courses in an attempt to entice teenagers, especially boys, to read more. Nick Hornby's autobiographical book about being an Arsenal supporter, Fever Pitch, and TV travel presenter Michael Palin's bestseller Pole to Pole, have since featured on syllabuses. Thousands of pupils can also now sit an English language GCSE which they able to pass without studying any plays, poetry or classic novels. Other modern authors now studied are Frank McCourt, Penelope Lively and Janni Howker.

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: "We want young people to study works which illuminate the human condition. This tends to be true of works that have stood the test of time which are perhaps in a better position than more recent authors who could turn out to be a fad."

A spokesman for Cambridge Assessment said the study could not be used to provide a commentary on exam standards over time. Exams have changed because at the turn of the 20th century, only a tiny proportion of 16-year-olds sat the School Certificate, whereas the vast majority are now entered for GCSE. As a consequence, exam papers had to be more assessable, he said. "Modern questions must be worded in such a way that all students being targeted can make some attempt at answering," he said. "The target candidature of past questions, particularly those from the earliest years sampled, was undoubtedly very different."

The study also found that earlier question papers required a much closer knowledge and memory of the poetry and novels studied. For example every paper between 1877 and 1937 required candidates to quote verbatim from memory substantial sections of the prescribed text. Later papers give more emphasis to the candidate's own response to the work, for instance asking which character students "feel most sympathy for". There is also greater discussion of the overall meaning or themes of a text.

OUT: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith

IN: Nick Hornby, Michael Palin, Frank McCourt, Penelope Lively, Janni Howker, Carol Ann Duffy


Poorer pupils are falling farther behind, say British Tories

The British Labour party is committed to lifting up the poor but their addled policies (such as attacks on selective schools) have the opposite effect

Poorer pupils appear to be falling farther behind their middle-class contemporaries as better-off families increasingly colonise the best state secondary schools.

An analysis by the Conservatives of government data shows the achievement divide between rich and poor schools to have risen by two percentage points within a year, despite the resources directed at reducing it. The proportion of teenagers achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths in schools where more than half of pupils are eligible for free school meals fell from 14 to 13 per cent between 2006 and 2007. At schools where fewer than a tenth of pupils are eligible, the proportion rose from 57 per cent to 58 per cent.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children's Secretary, said that the system favoured those fortunate or rich enough, to live in areas with good state schools. The Tories plan to allow good new schools to open in deprived areas, with extra cash for children from poor homes.


British district council bans the 'rude' street names that might offend

We read:
"For some, the road signs mean one thing - home. For others they may simply raise a smile. But one council is failing to see the funny side of names such as Hoare Road and Cracknuts Lane.

In a bid to avoid double entendres and unflattering place names, Lewes District Council, in East Sussex, has drawn up guidelines for new street names. The council's cabinet is expected to agree its first street naming and numbering policy on Tuesday which will ban potentially rude sounding names. Cockshut Lane is among the innuendo-laden road names to be outlawed by Lewes District Council

They say that 'aesthetically unsuitable' names, such as Gaswork Road, Tip House and Coalpit Lane, should be avoided. Also banned are 'names capable of deliberate misinterpretation like Hoare Road, Typple Avenue, Quare Street, Corfe Close (4 Corfe Close) etc'.

It adds: 'Street names which could give offence are not used, nor are names which encourage defacing name plates.' Under the scheme, Lewes's present day Juggs Road and Cockshut Road may have been rejected.


Nobody must be offended by anything these days

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

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