Tuesday, April 28, 2009

EU judges want Sharia law applied in British courts

Judges could be forced to bow to Sharia law in some divorce cases heard in Britain. An EU plan calls for family courts across Europe to hear cases using the laws of whichever country the couple involved have close links to. That could mean a court in England handling a case within the French legal framework, or even applying the laws of Saudi Arabia to a husband and wife living in Britain.

The Centre for Social Justice think tank today attacked the so-called Rome III reform as ludicrous. It warned it would slow down cases, increase costs and lead to unjust results. However, in a report it says existing arrangements are 'anti-family'.

Currently, a couple from different EU states can have their divorce heard in the first country where one of them files divorce papers. Because different states offer varying financial advantages to spouses in terms of division of wealth, the resulting 'race to court' in the best jurisdiction discourages couples from trying to save their marriage, it says.

The report calls for a simpler solution, with each country applying its own laws and cases being heard in the country where the couple have the closest connection. At least nine EU states - not including the UK - are said to want to push ahead with the Rome III plan.


British grandmother is refused cancer drug

The NHS thinks it has already spent enough money on her

Grandmother Beryl Jarvis, who is battling cancer for the fourth time, has been refused a drug that could save her life – because the NHS says it has already spent enough money on her treatment.

Mrs Jarvis has been told a drug cleared for use last November could help reduce a tumour in her lungs. But the NHS says it is not cost-effective to prescribe the drug. Mrs Jarvis, 66, said: "They are saying that for the sake of £10,000 a year my life is not worth saving. How could they put that price on my life?" Her daughter has described the decision as handing her mother a "death sentence".

Mrs Jarvis first contracted ovarian cancer in the early 1980s. She overcame the disease after she underwent a course of chemotherapy. But in January 2004 she was diagnosed with lung cancer. The former cleaner had a round of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy, and was free of the cancer for three years.

Early in 2007 the disease returned and Mrs Jarvis, of Home Close, Southmead, was given another round of chemotherapy. Last spring, her tumour grew again and she underwent more chemotherapy. In November the cancer increased in size and her consultant at Bristol Oncology Centre recommended a drug called Tarceva. He believed it could help reduce the size of the tumour. He applied to NHS Bristol – which is in charge of health spending in the city – to see if they would treat her as an exceptional funding case, but was turned down.

Mrs Jarvis said: "When I heard that Tarceva had been approved I thought I might be entitled to it." But she was turned down because the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) had not approved it for cases like hers. Other treatments were tried by Mrs Jarvis but she suffered side-effects. She said: "I did not know then that if you had already had two chemotherapy treatments you could not have it. "It seems as though if you have had cancer for so long they don't want to pay money."

Despite this, Mrs Jarvis is determined to continue battling the disease. She desperately wants to attend the wedding of her grandson Lee Brewer in July. It was this determination to see him grow up and get married which got her through her first battle with cancer in the 1980s. Her husband, Nigel, 59, said: "Beryl has been fighting for five and a half years now because she won't give up. The fight is there, why should she be denied this?"

Mrs Jarvis' daughter, Nikki Brewer, said: "When they sent the letter saying they would not pay for the treatment it was a death sentence. They call it exceptional funding, but we are also facing exceptional circumstances."

The drug hit the headlines last year with the case of Carol Rummels, from Stoke Lodge, who was eventually given Tarceva just before the change of guidelines.

Mrs Jarvis, and her husband have been in contact with Mrs Rummels and have also written to their MP, Doug Naysmith. He has passed their concerns on to Bristol South MP Dawn Primarolo in her capacity as a health minister.

A spokesman for NICE said: "The guidance does not recommend erlotinib (Tarceva) for the second-line treatment of locally advanced or metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer in patients who are intolerant of docetaxel, or for third-line treatment after docetaxel therapy because it is not a cost-effective use of NHS resources when used in this way."

NHS Bristol spokeswoman, Julie Hendry, said: "While NHS Bristol has sympathy for Mrs Jarvis, NICE guidelines state that Erlotinib (Tarceva) therapy is not recommended for patients undergoing third- line treatment after docetaxel therapy and our local network of experts have endorsed this guidance. "Every application NHS Bristol receives for this treatment is considered using this guidance in order to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all patients."


Doctors attack embryo screening 'postcode lottery'

The NHS is contributing to needless abortions and the avoidable birth of children with inherited diseases because of a postcode lottery in embryo screening, medical experts said today. Couples who know they are at risk of passing on serious genetic diseases to their children are often refused funding for IVF tests that can detect affected embryos, according to doctors and nurses from Guy’s Hospital in London. This has led to cases in which couples have terminated pregnancies following the results of prenatal tests and incidents where children have been born with a genetic disease that could have been picked up with embryo screening.

When prospective parents know they are at risk of having children with a serious heritable disease, they can use an embryo screening test known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to ensure they have a healthy baby. Though such couples are generally fertile, they conceive by IVF and a single cell is removed from each embryo for genetic analysis. Only embryos that do not carry the faulty gene carried by the family are then chosen for transfer to the womb.

The service, which costs about £7,000, is available for hundreds of genetic conditions, including cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and muscular dystrophy, and several hundred PGD babies have been born in the UK. The only alternatives are prenatal testing, in which a foetus is tested several months into pregnancy, offering the parents the opportunity to have an abortion if it is affected, or taking no tests at all. All primary care trusts fund prenatal tests during pregnancy when there is a risk but many will not pay for PGD, even though this can prevent abortions.

Alison Lashwood, consultant nurse in genetics and PGD at Guy’s, said: “There are couples we have seen who have not been given funding, who have gone on to have affected children. Others have had to go down the prenatal testing route and some have had terminations.”

Speaking at the launch of Guy’s Hospital’s new Assisted Conception Unit and PGD centre, which opens tomorrow, she described one couple who had been refused PGD on the NHS, who had gone on to have a stillbirth and a baby with a severe inherited disease.

Some PCTs, Ms Lashwood said, apply the same eligibility criteria as they do to IVF for infertility even though it is not a fertility treatment. This means that couples can be refused on grounds of age or because they already have children. The latter is particularly unfair on couples who discover they need the procedure because they have already had a child with a genetic disease. “They cannot get the idea that PGD is an early approach to prenatal diagnosis, not a type of fertility treatment,” Ms Lashwood said. She urged trusts to set up common rules, as are already operated by a consortium of PCTs in south east England.

Yacoub Khalaf, head of the Guy’s unit, said: “More trusts than not understand the need for PGD and that it is not to be mixed up with fertility treatment, but some trusts say they offer prenatal diagnosis, so why don’t you have that? It denies patients a choice.”

Professor Peter Braude, of King’s College, London, said: “Some PCTs regard PGD as a bolt-on to IVF, but it should not be seen that way. Most patients who have PGD are not infertile.”


Britain: Give us back our private lives

As Labour unveils plans to monitor every one of our phone calls and emails, it is time to demand an end to state snooping. "Your moves are monitored by your bus tickets. There are CCTV cameras on every building and computer chips on the rubbish bin – and they can tell a lot about your life by studying your rubbish ...Security has got absurd."

The Russian journalist Irada Zeinalova wasn't talking about Putin's Russia. She wasn't even talking about life in the old Soviet Union. She was talking about Britain today.

Mrs Zeinalova has lived in Britain for several years. But she doesn't like the level of intrusion into her private life that she experiences. Many native Britons take the same view. An increasing number of people resent the constant surveillance that has become common in many cities in Britain. Britain has more security cameras per head of population than anywhere else in the world: each one is justified, at least by those who have installed it, by the role it plays in detecting and reducing crime.

Just as insidious is the amount of data the state now holds on its citizens – and the Government last week unveiled plans to hold still more, because your every phone call, email and visit to a website will be monitored by the state.

Some of the material the state collects, such as tax and pension details, is an unavoidable part of the bureaucracy necessary to run a modern state. Other databases are also, in principle, uncontentious: doctors cannot treat you effectively if they do not know your medical history, for instance, so the keeping of medical records is beneficial rather than harmful.

Still other databases – the violent offender and sex offender registers, for example – can be said to have a role in fighting crime. But there is a slippery slope here, and it leads to a state of permanent police supervision of everyone. "Preventing and detecting crime" can be used as a justification for expanding databases and surveillance almost indefinitely. And it has been. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) defines and regulates spying by government bodies. As the Home Office's latest consultation paper on RIPA reveals, at least 42 government departments and organisations are entitled to spy on the public. They include such bodies as the Charity Commission, the Department for Environment, and the Department of Work and Pensions. If you include local authorities who are also allowed to spy on you, there are more than 400 government agencies entitled to snoop.

The Government says that such organisations are involved in ensuring that people comply with the law. It adds that the police cannot be required to do everything: they simply do not have the resources. Ministers stress that we have no reason to be worried. They insist that those "with nothing to hide have nothing to fear". The problem is that everybody has something to hide: some degree of privacy is necessary for human dignity – as Jacqui Smith, of all people, should now know, after what happened to her husband. [Exposed as a porn addict]

The protections against any government department using surveillance unjustifiably are, in theory, considerable. Public authorities have to be "satisfied" that surveillance is "necessary and proportionate". Officials are meant to "consider the impact of these techniques on the privacy of those under investigation". Public authorities who use surveillance are "subject to independent inspection". The practice, however, has been very different. Officials frequently seem to think that they are justified in spying on private citizens if they suspect them of any violation, however apparently insignificant. That explains the hundreds of hours spent secretly observing whether people have been recycling correctly, or have let their dogs foul the pavement.

But it has not been the independent inspectors who have revealed such abuses. It has been newspapers such as The Sunday Telegraph. The checks and balances have clearly not worked: 183 councils have used surveillance powers 10,288 times over the past five years. Only in one in 10 cases has the result been a successful prosecution, caution or even a fixed penalty notice.

Given past practice, is it possible to believe that an effective system of regulation can be put in place? If you think it is, you will accept the ministers' argument that surveillance can be restricted to cases where it is "necessary and proportionate". If you do not, then you will agree that the only way to halt our slide towards a version of Orwell's Big Brother is to curb the power of state officials to order surveillance, restricting it to cases where national security is clearly at stake, and to the agencies that are dedicated to that purpose.

The increasing amount of spying raises another problem: how to ensure that the data will not fall into the wrong hands. The Government promises to safeguard our privacy but it has not been able to do so. For example, even Gordon Brown's medical records have recently been accessed by a doctor who had no reason to look at them. Officials also enter data wrongly into data bases. People have been wrongly identified as criminals, as benefit cheats or frauds.

The fallibility of state officials may be the biggest threat. In the 18 months since computer disks containing the records of all 25 million families receiving child benefit were lost by officials, at least a dozen other departments have admitted to losing vital personal data on millions of people. Should the data fall into the hands of criminals, the potential for damage is immense.

Neither of these problems has deterred the Government from increasing the spying powers of state organisations. Under the rubric of "data modernisation", Labour is committed to expanding the databases it holds on the population, and so the state's capacity for surveillance. The "Intercept Modernisation Programme" will store details of all of our phone calls, text messages, emails and visits to internet sites; the "National Identity Register" will store biometric data on each of us; "eBorders" will keep a record on each time anyone leaves or arrives in Britain ... The list of "data modernisation" programmes continues to grow. If all of them come to fruition, it will mean that in Britain private life, at least as we know it, will become a thing of the past.

We might all be safer. But the price of that greater security will be the destruction of privacy – and a significant amount of human dignity.


Suicides “unchanged by antidepressant pill ban”

So they'll relax the ban now? Not likely! That would mean admitting that they jumped to conclusions and so hurt a lot of people

Restrictions on teenagers' use of antidepressants have had no measurable impact on suicide rates, a study says. In 2003, regulators warned against use of the drugs in the under-18s after concerns from clinical trials that some patients may become suicidal.

Bristol university analysis of suicide rates among 15 to 19-year-olds in 22 countries from 1990 to 2006 found no change in the wake of the restrictions. Antidepressant use in young people in the UK fell by 50% after the warnings.

The expert committee put together to assess the safety of the drugs said at the time of the restrictions that the harmful effects of most SSRI antidepressants outweighed the benefits in young people. Only fluoxetine (Prozac) should be used and only then in severe cases, the committee said.

Some mental health experts have raised concerns that limits on prescribing antidepressants may have led to increased levels of untreated depression.

Research into the effects of the changing use of antidepressants has been hampered by the fact that suicide in teenagers is a relatively rare event and trends are subject to random fluctuations.

In an attempt to get a clearer picture, a team from the University of Bristol looked at suicide rates in 15-to-19 year olds from 22 countries between 1990 and 2006. Overall, they could not detect any differences after antidepressant use was restricted, they reported in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety. Study leader Dr Ben Wheeler said the team had set out with the hypothesis that restrictions on antidepressant use would have caused a reduction in the rates of suicide. But the results showed "no clear beneficial effect" of the regulation on youth suicide rates, he said.

Some other studies in the US and Canada had suggested that falling use of the drugs had caused an effect of increasing teenage suicides after rates had previously been going down, but there was no evidence of that in this data, he added.

Professor Ian Wong, a paediatric medicines expert from the London School of Pharmacy, said a survey they had done a few years ago suggested that over half of specialists disagreed with the stricter regulations. "The evidence is not that strong regarding SSRIs causing suicide but they restricted it because they said there's no clear evidence they work. "We're just starting another survey to see if they have changed their minds."

Professor David Cottrell, spokesman for the charity Young Minds and dean of medicine at the University of Leeds, said the results could suggest the risk of suicide with antidepressants was all a "big red herring", but also that the change in advice and more careful monitoring had mitigated any risk associated with reduced prescribing. "It depends which way you look at it but I think it's good news. "There's no evidence of a rise in suicide which means young people are still being treated; there's no evidence it made things worse."


'Cancer risk of nicotine gum and lozenges higher than thought'

Nicotine chewing gum, lozenges and inhalers designed to help people to give up smoking may have the potential to cause cancer, research has suggested. Evidence for the link does seem rather nebulous, however

Scientists have discovered a link between mouth cancer and exposure to nicotine, which may indicate that using oral nicotine replacement therapies for long periods could contribute to a raised risk of the disease. A study led by Muy-Teck Teh, of Queen Mary, University of London, has found that the effects of a genetic mutation that is common in mouth cancer can be worsened by nicotine in the levels that are typically found in smoking cessation products.

The results raise the prospect that nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco, may be more carcinogenic than had previously been appreciated. “Although we acknowledge the importance of encouraging people to quit smoking, our research suggests nicotine found in lozenges and chewing gums may increase the risk of mouth cancer,” Dr Teh said. “Smoking is of course far more dangerous, and people who are using nicotine replacement to give up should continue to use it and consult their GPs if they are concerned. The important message is not to overuse it, and to follow advice on the packet.” Most nicotine replacement products have labels advising people to cut down after three months of use and to stop completely after six months.

Mouth cancer affects nearly 5,000 people each year in Britain and is usually linked to smoking, chewing tobacco or drinking alcohol. It is often diagnosed at a late stage, and consequently has a poor prognosis.

Although nicotine is acknowledged as the addictive element in cigarettes its role in cancer has long been disputed. It is not as potent a carcinogen as other chemicals found in tobacco smoke, such as tar, but some previous research has suggested that it may also contribute to the formation of tumours. Nonetheless, it is much less dangerous than cigarettes and is therefore used in a wide variety of smoking cessation products that allow addicts to satisfy a craving for the chemical without smoking.

In the new research, published in the journal Public Library of Science One, Dr Teh’s team has investigated the role of a gene called FOXM1 in mouth cancer. A mutation that raises the activity of this gene is commonly found in many tumours, and is also present in pre-cancerous cells in the mouth, the scientists found. This raised expression can then be worsened by exposure to nicotine, according to Dr Teh. “If you already have a mouth lesion that is expressing high levels of FOXM1 and you expose it to nicotine, it may add to the risk of converting it into cancer,” he said. “Neither the raised FOXM1 nor nicotine is alone sufficient to trigger cancer, but together they may have an effect. “The concern is that with smokers, you are looking at people who are already at risk of oral cancer. I’m worried that some may already have lesions they don’t know about in the mouth, and if they keep on taking nicotine replacement when they stop smoking products they will not be doing themselves any good.”

The findings could also lead to new ways of diagnosing mouth cancer while it is still in its early stages and easier to treat.

Dr Teh emphasised that smokers should not stop their attempts to give up. “There is no doubt about the harmful effects of smoking, so smokers should make every effort to quit.”


Why boys are held back by girls in English and should be taught separately

Children should be taught in single-sex classes for English because boys are being held back by the presence of girls, a study suggests. It found that many boys are left 'hiding in the background', and perform up to a 10th of a grade worse when they are placed in mixed lessons. And it claimed that the more girls there are, the worse boys do.

The researchers from Bristol University found that the trend was particularly marked in primary schools but may also apply in secondaries. The study, which is being presented this week at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society, also found that in maths and science, primary school girls benefit from being taught in single-sex groups.

However, boys do better in those subjects with girls present, suggesting there is no way of organising classes to maximise exam results for both sexes. The report said: 'It is not possible to increase the proportion of girls for both boys and girls, implying that a mix of the genders is optimal in both maths and science.'

For the study, researcher Steven Proud analysed the exam results of boys and girls at every state school in England between 2002 and 2004. Most state primary schools are mixed-sex, although there are more single-sex ones in the independent sector.

Mr Proud found that, during English lessons, boys gained 'significantly' lower scores when there were girls present. However, it made no difference to girls whether they were taught with boys or not. 'These results suggest that it may be beneficial to teach boys in single-sex classrooms for English,' Mr Proud said.

One explanation is that boys may feel they can 'hide in the background' in English classes if there are large numbers of girls, he added. 'Alternatively, the class may appear to be performing at an acceptable level while the boys are left behind,' Mr Proud said. 'An alternative mechanism could be that, since girls and boys learn in different ways, if the majority of the pupils are female, then the teaching may be focused towards learning styles that benefit girls more than boys.'

Schools minister Sarah McCarthy-Fry has suggested boys and girls should be taught separately for key subjects after expressing concerns that boys 'hog the limelight'.


Crisis for new British High school exams

The Government’s new exams that will replace GCSEs and A-levels are in crisis.

A letter signed by every exam board in England and Wales has urged ministers “in the strongest terms” to delay their new academic diplomas, or face a potential disaster. The qualifications will be introduced in the next two years to thousands of secondary schools across the country and will signal the death knell for GCSEs and the gold standard A-level because they cover the same subjects. In an emphatic warning to the Government, the exam boards said that introducing the academic diplomas too quickly will destroy their “standards and quality” and leave them potentially valueless to universities and employers.

But despite the letter, sent on March 16 to Ed Balls, the Children’s secretary, the Government is pushing ahead with virtually all the diplomas in humanities, languages and science.

The academic diplomas come on top of 14 vocational diplomas which began to be phased in to schools last September. The unprecedented pace and extent of change in the exam regime is threatening a complete meltdown in the system, academics and head teachers have said.

The clash over academic diplomas is the latest crisis to rock England’s examinations system. On Wednesday, Ken Boston, the former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, accused ministers of “sexing up” evidence to the independent inquiry into last summer’s Sats fiasco so that ministers could not be blamed for their role in the crisis. Mr Boston said his warnings that the national tests taken by 1.8 million children were a “high-wire act” went unheeded. Now Mr Balls is accused of “steamrollering” through academic diplomas.

Michael Gove, the shadow children’s secretary, said: “Ed Balls is playing fast and loose with our exam and qualification system. He must think again before embarking on diploma plans that will threaten academic excellence.”

Mike Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “It is high time the Department listened to its professional bodies instead of pushing through a political timetable that will compromise the quality of these qualifications.”

The academic diplomas will initially be introduced alongside GCSE and A-levels in 2011 but ministers have repeatedly refused to guarantee a future for A-levels. The letter from the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents Britain’s major exam boards, said: “The original timescale could only be achieved if we now compromise the quality of development in the areas of assessment and standards,” the letter said. “We urge you in the strongest terms to defer implementation.”

Despite the letter, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is pushing ahead with the “fourth phase” of diplomas. There will be nine in total, with courses below GCSE and at GCSE and A level-standard in humanities, languages and science. Only the advanced level science diploma will be held back for a year.

Graham Stuart, a Conservative MP on the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, said: “If Mr Balls does ignore the advice, as he seems determined to do, I hope that on this occasion, ministers do not seek to smear the reputation of public servants so that they take the blame for what are ministerial decisions.”

Jim Knight, the schools minister, said: “I’ve always been clear that we cannot afford to rush the development of Diplomas – which is why I announced last week that we are phasing in the advanced science diploma. “Our recent consultation demonstrates strong backing from employers, experts and higher education for the current timetable. We have involved exam boards fully throughout the development of diplomas.”


Bullets meant for bankers could kill the British welfare state

Note: "The City" is shorthand for London's financial services district. But it is the people there, not the geography, that matters and Britain's new higher taxes seem set to drive many of them abroad

My first reaction to Wednesday’s Budget was to focus on the increase in the top tax rate, rather than the explosion in public borrowing that horrified other commentators. On examining the Budget documents in greater detail, I am more confident than ever that the tax rise was Alistair Darling’s biggest blunder; but I have to concede that some other decisions and numbers hidden in the small print were far worse than I first thought....

The eye-catching measure in this respect was the increase to 50 per cent in the top tax rate, but there were several equally damaging changes, mostly relating to pensions, in the fine print. In terms of Treasury revenues, these reforms are likely to be self-defeating, or at best, utterly futile.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, behavioural changes, such as changes in work patterns, relocations abroad and conversion of wages into corporate profits or capital gains, will mean that the Treasury raises much less than the £2 billion of revenue predicted. And even in the unlikely event that Mr Darling’s pre-election tax gesture did manage to raise the odd billion, these sums would be far too small to have any impact on public borrowing projections running at £150 billion to £200 billion a year...

Hopes of the quick improvement in UK economic conditions assumed by Treasury forecasts rely more than ever on maintaining the City’s role as the dominant centre of global financial and business services and on reviving the top end of the housing market. The Budget Red Book says the financial sector provided 25 per cent of the £47 billion in Britain’s total corporation tax before the recession, plus a “significant” proportion of income tax and national insurance receipts....

Yet the Budget tax measures seem deliberately designed to ensure that Britain’s financial and business service sectors never return to the global dominance they enjoyed... That, in turn, means that the growth of government revenues and the solvency of the British welfare state will depend largely on what happens to the international competitiveness of the financial sector. The logic of the Budget is simple: those who want to punish the bankers could end up destroying the welfare state.


No comments: