Sunday, February 08, 2009

British countryside Alliance jubilant as High Court ruling makes hunting ban 'even weaker'

Foxhunting supporters claimed a major legal victory tonight over the law banning their sport. A High Court judgment clarifying the definition of hunting effectively reduces the scope of the Hunting Act and makes prosecutions more difficult, they said. The hunt ban has produced just 90 prosecutions since its introduction in 2005, while hunt numbers have increased.

One reason mooted for the low number of prosecutions has been lack of clarity over the definition of hunting. The High Court had been asked to define what activities were covered by the hunting ban, following several appeals against convictions. Kerry Barker, of the Crown Prosecution Service, told the judges that 'hunt' must mean 'hunting for or searching for'. He said: 'If searching for a wild mammal with dogs is not illegal, then it is difficult to see how Parliament's intention of preventing cruelty and bringing an end to the sport of hunting can be met.'

But Sir Anthony May, president of the Queen's Bench Division, and Mr Justice Maddison ruled that hunting did not include mere 'searching for' an animal. And they said it was up to the prosecution to prove defendants were not covered by exemptions to the ban - rather than defendants having to show they were exempt.

The ruling is a victory for Tony Wright, of Exmoor Foxhounds, the first man prosecuted for hunting foxes. He had his conviction overturned after arguing that farmers had asked the hunt to kill foxes to reduce losses during the lambing season. Under the Act, there are exemptions in circumstances where animals are causing 'serious damage' and when only one or two dogs are used.

Tim Bonner, of the Countryside Alliance, called the High Court outcome 'very positive' and said: 'We have won on everything essentially. This should mean the prospect of Hunting Act offences being prosecuted will be far lower. We would expect there to have to be overwhelming evidence for a prosecution even to be launched.'

But opponents of blood sports said the law had simply been clarified and more court cases were likely to follow as a result. Douglas Batchelor, of the League Against Cruel Sports, accused the Countryside Alliance of 'trying to put the judgment wider than it goes'. He said: 'It is really a victory for clarity in the law and the backlog of hunting cases will be able to pass through the courts. 'We have been absolutely assured by our lawyers that the Hunting Act as it was intended is still in place.'

Hunts can take place legally by either laying a scent for hounds to follow or using a pack to flush a fox or another mammal out for a bird of prey to kill. The use of dogs to kill the animal is forbidden, except in certain circumstances. But critics say that in some cases they knowingly allow dogs to chase a fox after it has been 'flushed', while others lay artificial trails close to known fox habitats, then claim the animals are being 'accidentally' hunted by the pack.

More than 3,000 registered hunts in England and Wales have carried out 70,000 hunting days since the ban, while the number of people who subscribe to them is said to have increased by 10 per cent over the same period, to 44,000. The Tories have promised a free Commons vote on repealing the law if they win the next election.


Lives put at risk by lack of new X-ray facilities, claims senior British doctor

Patients are being denied a life-saving X-ray treatment because of the way NHS funding works, claims the country's most senior radiologist.

Interventional radiology can be used in a range of procedures from destroying cancerous tumours to stemming blood loss in women after childbirth. But the head of the Royal College of Radiologists said many hospitals are unable to offer an adequate service. "The irony is that this would save money by preventing more costly and complicated surgical interventions being carried out," said Professor Andy Adam who is calling for an urgent review of funding for the technique. He claims that because the treatment, known as IR, comes out of the relatively small radiology budget and not the larger surgical one, it means that the technique is not being employed enough. He is calling for an increase in the number of designated posts for trained IR professionals.

IR - sometimes known as "pinhole surgery" - uses images from X-ray or ultrasound to guide the doctor to the exact site of the problem. The blood supply to tumours can then be cut off and radio frequency heat used to effectively "cook" the growth. Arteries can also be blocked to stop internal bleeding after an accident, or a haemorrhage in women caused by childbirth.

"At the moment there is a genuine postcode lottery when it comes to accessing this service - and it could genuinely save lives," Professor Adam said. "Surgery to stop internal bleeding in someone who has had a major accident is much riskier than using interventional radiology."

Virginia Beckett, a spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, agreed that interventional radiology "was not available as it should be". "It may not be possible for every hospital - and it's not always practical in an emergency - but there should at the very least be regional centres where such treatment can be obtained - it shouldn't be the struggle to organise which is currently is."


Arrogant British schoolteachers

Last week, before the snow, I received a distinctly snotty letter from one of my youngest son's school mistresses, rebuking me for my failure to attend a parents' evening at his comprehensive. 'I was disappointed that you were unable to attend,' she wrote. She went on: 'Attendance at the annual Parents' Meeting is part of the Home-School agreement that you signed on your child's admission.' But it was the last sentence that really irritated me: 'If you have not already notified the school in writing of the reason why you were unable to attend, please return the reply slip below so that it can be recorded in the student file.'

Blimey! I hadn't been ticked off like that since I was a schoolboy myself, summoned to the headmaster's study to account for the appearance of a frog in the matron's room. I can understand how teachers get into the habit of addressing everyone like children. But at the age of 55, I rather resent being treated like a delinquent teenager for my failure to attend a meeting arranged for the school's convenience, not mine. I remembered, too, that her original summons had been just as bossy, telling me it was 'essential' that all parents should attend and that we should make sure to arrive before 5.30pm so that we would have time to meet all our son's teachers before the meeting ended at 8.30pm.

Well, I don't finish work until 9.30pm at the earliest. I wondered how this teacher would feel if I summoned her to my office on the other side of London at a time she couldn't manage - and then demanded a written explanation and apology. Besides, I've always found these evenings a complete waste of time for teachers and parents alike. Yes, I know that my boys are intelligent, and I know that they could work harder. Why should my wife and I have to queue for three hours to be told that, by one teacher after another?

Fizzing with indignation, therefore, I seized the reply slip - headed in bold type 'Non Attendance at Year 11 Parents Meeting' and beginning 'I/we were not able to attend the Year 11 Parents Meeting because. . .'. I wrote: 'In these desperate times for job security in the private sector, I simply cannot afford to take time off in the middle of my working day to accommodate your desire to get home early and your unwillingness to hold parents' evenings at the weekend. I am disappointed that you seem unable to appreciate what is happening in the world beyond the school gates.' I reckoned that if she could be snotty, then so could I.

My poor son was horrified. 'You just can't send that,' he said. 'You can't!' He told me it made me sound disgustingly pompous and arrogant. Oh, all right, what he actually said was that it made me sound like a 'd***head'. He wouldn't be able to show his face in school ever again if his teacher read it. In fact, he would have to kill me.

Still indignant, I stuck to my guns and gave the reply slip to my wife to post in the morning, since our boy was obviously not going to hand it in himself. She put it in her handbag. The following day, it had disappeared. Somebody had got up in the middle of the night and disposed of it. If truth be told, I was quite glad. In the cold light of dawn, I could see that what I'd written was indeed a little hoity-toity and unfair, and that the moral ground on which I stood was not quite as high as it had seemed the night before.

After all, journalists' working hours are unusual, and probably most parents would have been able to make it to the school by 5.30pm without too much disruption. I supposed, too, that with its very mixed catchment area, my son's school must have problems with feckless parents who don't really care about their children's education. Perhaps his teacher's hectoring language was understandable - and, yes, perhaps I could have made more effort to find someone to cover for me so that I could attend the wretched meeting. Then there was the fact that my son had said he particularly liked this teacher. I suspect that, with her strong disciplinarian streak, she is also very good at her job. The last thing I wanted was to stir up ill-feeling.

But that was last week, before Sunday night's snowfall. On Monday morning, when my son arrived at school, he found it closed for the day - and it was shut on Tuesday, too. (His elder brother's school, further out of town, was also shut on Wednesday.) For heaven's sake, why? Almost all the pupils at my youngest's school live within walking distance of its gates - and I suspect most of the teachers do, too. Is there really a law which makes schools financially answerable for falls in the playground, when everywhere for miles around is covered in ice? If so, it's a damned silly one, which should be repealed immediately.

As I trudged to work through the snow on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, while my sons' teachers snuggled up under their duvets, I found myself wishing that I had indeed posted my hoity-toity reply slip. The moral high ground was mine once again!

I haven't managed to lay my hands on that 'Home-School agreement'. But if it really obliges me to attend parents' evenings, shouldn't it also have a clause suggesting that teachers should turn up to work in term-time - even when it's a little parky? The closures weren't so bad for me because my young are just old enough to be left at home alone. But what about those hundreds of thousands of working parents of younger children, who had to take time off work themselves if they couldn't make alternative childcare arrangements?

There's a public sector mentality at work here - both in the casual assumption that we can all abandon our factories and offices to attend parents' meetings and in the failure of so many schools to make any effort to stay open in the snow.

Of course, there are many thousands of dedicated teachers in this land, who constantly put themselves out for their pupils and who often don't get the recognition they richly deserve. But I can't help remembering, too, that every day of the school year, an average of 15,000 teachers in Britain are off sick - whatever the weather. It's the same in the police force, where absenteeism is endemic, and in almost every other area of the public sector. I notice, for example, that my newsagent managed to deliver my papers yesterday, whereas the postman hasn't called all week. They have the same hill and the same ice to contend with. The difference is that one works in the private sector, while the other works in the public, where there's much less need to bother.

Indeed, I find this increasing divide between the two sectors of our economy even more worrying in its implications for social cohesion than the row over foreign workers. Only this week, we learned that a quarter of our council taxes now go to financing gold-plated, final-salary town hall pensions which are now all but unavailable in the private sector. Meanwhile, state-sector workers are paid on average 62 pounds a week more than their private-sector counterparts.

As the recession bites harder, I see trouble ahead - particularly since the public sector goes on expanding, while jobs in private industry are disappearing at a terrifying rate. Schools Secretary Ed Balls's latest wheeze, I notice, is to set up 20,000 public sector apprenticeships - including jobs for school-leavers as assistant teachers. I can tell you that if I get any snotty letters from a 16-year-old, with three GCSEs, admonishing me for failing to attend a parents' evening, I won't be answerable for my actions.


Snow plunges Britain back into chaos

FRESH snowstorms plunged parts of Britain back into travel chaos today, after a week which saw the heaviest falls in nearly 20 years paralyse the country. Some 200 cars were stranded in up to 30cm of snow overnight in Devon, southwest England, and the occupants had to be rescued by the army as well as police and others emergency workers. More than 800 schools were closed in the west of the country, where rural areas were virtually cut off from the outside world as minor roads became impassable. Heavy snowfalls were reported in counties north of London, while the capital itself saw flurries for the first time since Monday when it almost ground to a halt.

The two Severn bridges, linking England to south Wales, were closed for "safety reasons in the present weather conditions," a spokeswoman for the Highways Agency said. Flights were suspended at Bristol airport in southwest England while Luton and Stansted airports north of London also saw disruption. Train services were disrupted notably in Wales and Yorkshire, northern England.

The rare heavy snowfalls - which have lasted for five days across the country - have led to shortages of grit to spread on roads, with some local authorities appealing for help from neighbouring areas. "Gritting routes will have to be prioritised," said a county council spokesman in Berkshire, near London. "The district's network of secondary roads will not be re-gritted until further supplies are obtained, and roadside salt bins will not be replenished," he added.

The cold snap has killed at least one person this week. A 16-year-old girl died Tuesday after being badly injured in a sledging accident in Yorkshire, northern England. Two climbers died on Mount Snowdon in Wales on Monday, although it was unclear if their death was due to the snow. The Guardian newspaper reported that two people had been killed in weather-related car accidents.


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