Thursday, April 30, 2009

British family courts system accused of hiding evidence from parents

Parents fighting in the family courts for contact with their children are being denied access to their personal files by a corrupt system, a leading parental rights campaigner has said. Alison Stevens, head of Parents Against Injustice, has called for Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, to force social services and individual courts to comply with the Data Protection Act. She said: “Local authorities have to send the requested files within 40 days . . . but they are often not following public law guidelines. It’s corruption within the system. They are playing God, and there must be some reason why — perhaps to hide things they have got wrong in the cases.”

Evidence is gathered from a variety of sources before children are taken from their parents in family courts. Tracking down and obtaining these documents can be very difficult because they are held by various bodies and must be applied for in different ways.

Ms Stevens said: “Parents should be entitled to their files — not just social services files but all files: from health visitors, GPs, different hospitals, the ambulance trust, psychologist reports, paediatrician notes and so on.”

The Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming has written to all MPs calling for a parliamentary review into the operation of the family courts. He said: “One of the ways legal practitioners prevent parents from fighting cases is by not giving them the paperwork. Often the paperwork doesn’t add up, so if parents got hold of it they would see what was going on.”

Many parents have welcomed the call for greater accountability. Roland Simpkin (not his real name) received his social services files seven years after his children were taken into care in 2001 amid allegations of abuse. When the allegations were shown to be unfounded, he sought to obtain the evidence held on him by social services to find out why he was still not allowed to see his children. He was sent his files last year, after pursuing his case through a series of letters, complaints and court orders, but he found that parts of the notes had been crossed through with black pen, words had been deleted and sections of paragraphs had been removed during photocopying.

Mr Simpkin said: “Despite being repeatedly found not to have harmed or posed a risk of harm to \ children or anybody else’s, the sheer amount of delay introduced by the sluggishness of the social services department to share information is likely to be a serious negative factor in any potential repeated contact \.”

In another case, Marc Tufano, an actor who has appeared in EastEnders and The Bill, has not seen his two sons for seven years because he cannot obtain the documents that he needs to bring his case to appeal. His children were given residence with his partner in 2003 after their relationship broke down. Though he immediately tried to launch an appeal, he said that he had found it impossible to obtain transcripts of the original court hearings because the court authorities had been slow to reply to his requests and had since claimed to have destroyed the documents.

Mr Tufano said: “I have begged these government agents to leave me alone so as I can see my sons without being harassed by endless arguments over the paperwork they require. It is made impossible for parents to get hold of the documents they need.”

Sezgi Kapur’s two daughters were taken from her in 2003 amid allegations that her violent attitude towards care professionals could be harmful to her children, allegations she denies.

Before the hearings in the family court, her requests for her social services files were ignored or denied, and she was forced to apply for court orders to disclose the documents. Without them, Ms Kapur was unable to respond to the evidence gathered against her by social services and care workers, and so was unable to fight her case effectively.

After the files were provided, she discovered that the minutes from high-level social services meetings about her case had been withheld and that memos had been circulated to those who attended asking them to “destroy all previous copies” of notes from the meeting.

Ms Kapur said: “These meetings painted a picture of me as a volatile, aggressive, threatening individual who was alienating professionals, who might one day emotionally harm my children through this purported alienation. It was incredible to read this. “I fired six sets of solicitors because they failed to get disclosure of all my documents. If the parents do not get a fair trial, the children do not either.”

Shaun O’Connell, a lay adviser working on behalf of Environmental Law Centre, said: “If you’re not familiar with the Data Protection Act and you don’t know the format and structure, it’s impossible.”


British court rules that environmentalism is a religion

A former executive of a top property company has been told he can claim at a tribunal that he was sacked because of his "philosophical belief in climate change".

In the landmark ruling Tim Nicholson was told he could use employment law to argue that he was discriminated against because of his views on the environment. The head of the tribunal ruled that those views amounted to a philosophical belief under the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations, 2003. The case is the first of its kind and could open the way for hundreds of future claims to be made in the same fashion, the newspaper reported.

Mr Nicholson, 41, was made redundant while head of sustainability at Grainger plc, Britain's biggest residential property investment company, in July last year. He is now suing his former employers for unfair dismissal, arguing that his beliefs on the environment prompted clashes with other senior executives at the firm, and led to his sacking.

Mr Nicholson told the tribunal that he clashed with other executives over the way it adopted its policies on the environment and corporate social responsibility. He said he tried to get the company to act in a more environmentally responsible way, but was obstructed by senior company executives. Mr Nicholson said that his frustrations were exemplified by an occasion when the company's chief executive, Rupert Dickinson, "showed contempt for the need to cut carbon emissions by flying out a member of the IT staff to Ireland to deliver his BlackBerry that he had left behind in London."

At a pre-hearing review at an employment tribunal in London, tribunal head David Sneath ruled on a point of law that: "In my judgment, his belief goes beyond a mere opinion." The full employment tribunal is now set to take place from June 4. Grainger might consider an appeal against the ruling, the company's lawyer said.


The TRUTH about all those dodgy health claims, by one of Britain's top researchers


From vitamin supplements to detox kits, alternative medicines to supermarket foods, we are bombarded every day with extravagant claims about the health benefits of the products we put into our shopping baskets. But can we trust those claims? That's what renowned scientist Professor Lesley Regan sets out to discover in a fascinating new television series.

She's the researcher whose investigation into anti-ageing products caused shockwaves in an industry built around impressive claims that are rarely properly researched - and sparked a stampede for Boots No 7 Protect and Perfect serum, which she identified as one of the few beauty creams that actually worked.

Now, Professor Regan is applying her trademark scientific training to examine the health credentials of an even wider range of products for her latest BBC2 series. And not only has she discovered some bestsellers have little evidence backing them up, she believes many companies are, in fact, touting spurious claims. Here, she shares a few of her intriguing findings...


In Britain, we now spend £10 million a year on diet pills and patches. But while prescription weight loss tablets have real science behind them, do over-the-counter varieties too? When I set about trying to find out by asking the producers of popular diet products to send me details of their research, many companies flatly refused.

The Pink Patch said no evidence of its effectiveness actually exists, while Formoline L112 said they couldn't provide a copy as their research hasn't ever been published. Lipobind sent research results showing the tablets do bind with fat - but admitted they were yet to investigate whether the pills actually help people lose weight.

Only one company sent a paper showing a clear link between weight loss and their product - a herbal diet pill, called Zotrim, which makes you feel full. Their research had been published in a reputable journal and conducted with a control group to compare any placebo effect. Although statistics were not included, these are said to be significant. Yet I would still like to see more evidence as the study has never been repeated.

But even when diet pills are shown in studies to help weight loss, the results can still be meaningless. The secret is in the small print. For the instructions usually say that pills must be taken alongside a low-calorie diet and an exercise plan. They even say they should be taken before meals with a large glass of water - which will act as a bulking agent and stop you eating so much.

To prove this point, I developed my own diet pill and asked 17 overweight people to try it for a month, alongside a balanced diet and a sensible exercise plan. More than 70 per cent of the volunteers lost weight and believed the tablets had worked. Unbeknown to them, though, the tablets were simply sugar, a placebo - which shows the power of mind over matter. Yet I could easily use my results to launch an impressive marketing campaign, - as many companies do.

Diet and nutrition books are another minefield. There are 54,000 such books published worldwide, yet the authors need no qualifications and their diets are rarely scientifically proven. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Readers must bear in mind that just because a diet book is published, doesn't mean the plan actually works.


Foods marketed at dieters are proliferating, with supermarket shelves stocked full of foods for different eating plans - low fat, low carb, low calorie, high protein. But consumers must make sure they carefully read the label as these claims can be very misleading. We assume products labelled 'reduced fat' and 'light' will be better for us - but they can still be relatively high in fat and calories.

The only regulation in place is that foods labelled 'low fat' must contain 3 per cent or less fat, and 'fat free' must not contain more than 0.5 per cent fat - so these are usually a good buy. It's worth comparing nutrition labels, though, as 'low fat' could still contain more calories than standard versions.

Food manufacturers are always trying clever ways to make their foods appear healthy. An advert for Jaffa Cakes claiming they only contain one gram of fat each was recently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority because a cake weighs only 10 grams - meaning they actually contain 10 per cent fat.

And processed foods marketed as healthy are often anything but. This is because they contain large amounts of sugar and salt, and, through processing, have lost many of their nutrients.

'Whole grain' is another marketing craze, and although whole grain foods are healthy, just because something contains fibre doesn't mean much. A product must be high or rich in fibre to have any real benefit.

But some prepared foods can actually be a healthier option than fresh. For example, frozen peas contain more nutrients than fresh peas. This is because fresh peas lose a lot of their goodness during the time it takes to transport them from field to shop to dinner plate.


As a population, we also spend millions of pounds on vitamin supplements. But the simple truth is that people with a balanced diet don't need them, as even manufacturers admitted to me. Yet it is usually consumers who already have a balanced diet - the worried well - who take them, while those who have poor diets, and so could benefit from supplements, don't bother.

The result is that often people taking vitamin supplements end up getting far more of a vitamin than they actually need - which can do more harm than good. Evidence shows some nutrients have a range of adverse effects at high doses. A study of pregnant women taking 1,000mg of Vitamin C showed they gained no benefit but had an increased prevalence of premature delivery.

And the evidence which vitamin manufacturers cite as showing the benefits can be rather more complicated than it seems. For example, Immunace, which reportedly boosts the immune system, claims to have been proven in a 'ground breaking trial' - but when I asked for this research, I discovered it had actually been carried out on HIV positive people in Bangkok.

Another Vitabiotics product, Visionace, a supplement to maintain good eyesight, claims to have been independently verified, but again the research was not done on healthy recruits but on people with a specific eye condition called Marginal Dry Eye. Experts say you can't compare the benefits of someone with a damaged immune system or poor eyesight to healthy people.

The only vitamin worth taking is folic acid for pregnant women. That is scientifically proven to be beneficial: nothing else is.

Yet standing in a pharmacy, staring at the array of different varieties, even I sometimes start wondering about them myself. That is the result of the mass hysteria which clever marketing has created.

One supplement which has grown increasingly popular is fish oils, which people now generally believe can make you smarter. Yet the evidence is far from unanimous. EYEC market their fish oils as being beneficial for all children - yet their data comes from a study showing the supplement boosted the performance of a group of children with special needs.

Indeed, a new marketing trend which causes me some concern is the targeting of children. Or rather their parents, who are led to believe certain breakfast foods can improve their children's performance. In fact, the crucial thing is for kids to eat something in the morning, and it doesn't much matter what . .


The power of perception means a lot of products succeed where, scientifically, they should fail. The marketing is so powerful that people actually believe the benefits are occurring when they are not. This is particularly obvious in painkillers. Aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen can be bought very cheaply, yet people choose expensive branded versions which cost ten times as much yet have the same basic ingredients.

Some luxury brands promise to perk people up but simply contain added caffeine. People would be just as well off buying the cheap paracetomal and drinking a cup of coffee.

Often, painkillers are said to target different issues such as migraine, period pain or back ache. Yet as far as I can see, there is actually nothing different about them.

Again, with pain relief, it is often perception that matters. I carried out a study on a rugby team which took two painkillers, believing one to be their usual favourite brand and one a cheaper version. They thought the former worked much better - but in fact they were both their favourite painkiller.

Research shows, too, that the larger a pill the better it is perceived to work, and the reason most painkillers are sold in packs to be taken two at a time - rather than simply double the dose in one tablet - is because people believe two pills work better than one. It is quite extraordinary the effect perception alone can have on pain - and manufacturers know that.


I believe that similar effects explain the burgeoning alternative medicine industry. A popular part of this is homeopathy, which nine million people trust to work for them. But, in fact, the solution sold is a highly diluted liquid, meaning only a very slim chance of the dose containing any active ingredients. And while practitioners wear white labcoats and surround themselves with an aura of science, there is in fact no real scientific backing for their remedies.

Again, I tested the placebo effect of homeopathy, giving insomniacs my own 'homeopathic sleep remedies' - in fact simply sugar balls. Yet the volunteers reported 'remarkable' effects and actually slept better, simply due to believing in the tablets and wanting them to work.

Herbal supplements, on the other hand, can be highly effective. Echinacea is proven to help fight infections and garlic can lower cholesterol - though the benefits of Evening Primrose Oil and Ginseng are rather less certain.

But because herbal remedies are so powerful, they can have sideeffects and need to be treated with respect. Consumers' belief that natural means safe is wrong. They can also interfere with normal medication. For example, St John's Wort can interfere with the body's ability to absorb the contraceptive pill, and so stop it from working.


Detox products that claim to work through herbal ingredients should be treated with suspicion as most appear ineffective. When I spoke to people who design these products, nobody could even tell me what these packs are actually supposed to be detoxing. After all, our kidneys and liver are brilliantly effective at detoxing themselves already.

The packets tell people to stop drinking alcohol or caffeine and to eat healthily while taking them - which is likely to bring far more health benefits than the actual detox supplement. People would be better off simply following the advice and forgetting the product. Detox products are typical of the way many health and beauty companies are not interested in basing their developments on science - only their advertising campaigns. Yet customers assume the products they are buying are properly proven and researched. That is why we all need to be more enquiring about the products we buy. If the claims sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Although I have investigated as a scientist, anyone can seek out information about what they are being told by companies about a product. When spending money we should ask ourselves: 'What is the science behind this? Where is the evidence?' If there is none, then step away. If consumers become savvier and more questioning, then manufacturers will soon realise they need to provide better science - and better products.


British reservists to be trained for quick move to front line: "The Territorial Army is to be overhauled so that it can be deployed overseas more quickly, the Ministry of Defence has announced, a recognition of the military’s growing dependence on reservists in the war in Afghanistan. News of the overhaul came after months of speculation that the reserve force would be cut drastically to make savings in the defence budget. Bob Ainsworth, the Armed Forces Minister, told Parliament yesterday that there would be no drop in numbers, but that reservists would be relieved of “burdensome training that they don’t really need to do”, making them ready for deployment within three years. About 18,000 of Britain’s 33,000 active reservists have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 and reservists make up 8 per cent of Forces deployed in theatre".

Britain upstaged by Poland: "Gordon Brown's attempt to put the economic misery of Britain behind him on a whistle-stop world tour were stymied today when Poland's Prime Minister embarrassed him with a lecture on the perils of excessive public borrowing and culture of debt. Speaking after a breakfast meeting between the two leaders in Warsaw, Donald Tusk, the Polish premier said that while he did not want to comment on any other economy, the Poles had fared so well because they behaved with "full responsibility in terms of their deficit". While Britain is struggling to cope with the effect of three quarters of economic contraction, Poland is basking in 12 years of consecutive, uninterrupted growth. With Mr Brown standing next to him, Mr Tusk said that one of the main reasons Poland has so far managed to avoid the ravages of the credit crisis was because Warsaw had "efficient supervision to banks and sticking to the rules.... not exaggerating with living on credit. These are the most certain ways of avoiding [the consequences] of financial crisis."

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