Monday, May 18, 2009

The British hunting ban: a dead law

Thank God for our sensible police forces. At a time when our parliament is in complete disarray, the Association of Chief Police Officers has announced that the ban on hunting is hard to enforce and chief constables have more pressing priorities.

To force the ban through, more than 700 hours of parliamentary time and the Parliament Act were used to introduce a ridiculous and badly drafted bill. Since then there have been eight prosecutions of hunts, of which only three have been successful. Tony Wright, a huntsman in Devon, was in 2006 found guilty of illegal hunting by a district judge at Barnstaple magistrates’ court in a private prosecution taken out by the League Against Cruel Sports. After 3½ years, his case ended up in the High Court and he was acquitted.

The judgment interpreted the muddled law in such a way that two other prosecutions were dropped. If the courts can’t decide how to deal with this law, how can the police be expected to do so? There have been scenes of high comedy, with packs of hounds, huntsmen, saboteurs and policemen chasing each other round England’s pastures green.

There are 325 registered hunts in England and Wales and, as a result of the publicity engendered by the ban, more people than ever before are today following them, on foot or on horses or in cars. The police know that 99.9% of them are decent, law-abiding citizens who hold no brief for cruelty to animals.

The truth is that when this law came about Tony Blair, then prime minister, and other middle-of-the-road new Labour bigwigs had no real interest in banning hunting. Indeed, I had always wondered if the £1.1m they received from animal rights organisations, including the Political Animal Lobby, influenced their policy. A hunting ban was a bone to be thrown to their tiresome backbench dogs, many of whom saw it as “a revenge for the miners”, assuming that everyone who followed hounds was a signed-up Tory toff who had cheered for Margaret Thatcher when she closed down the mines.

I went to Wales before the ban and met former miners who said their jobs had been taken away from them, they couldn’t afford to go on holiday, no leisure centres had been built for them and now the powers-that-be wanted to take away hunting, their only pastime and pleasure.

By contrast, the zealots of the animal rights movement were delighted when the ban came into effect. In the 1990s I helped to run an organisation called Leave Country Sports Alone which represented members and supporters of the Labour party who objected to the proposed bill. I received through the post not only razor blades stuck to the inside of an envelope, but also excrement – whether human or otherwise I didn’t care to investigate – which Terry, our poor postman, was required by law to deliver, even though the package had broken open en route. I also received anonymous letters with such messages as “I hope your balls drop off (if you have any) and your fannies shrivel and dry up” and “I hope you get cancer and die a slow and painful death. Yours sincerely a well wisher”.

Earlier this year a supporter of the Warwickshire hunt was killed by a gyrocopter that had been used by anti-hunt “monitors” to follow the hunt for some weeks. A man linked to a local animal rights group, Protect Our Wild Animals, has been charged with murder and is now awaiting trial.

Animal rights “monitors” must be instructed firmly that it is the role of the police, and no one else, to uphold the law. Activists cannot appoint themselves to police hunting any more than other citizens can appoint themselves to police any other law.

The Hunting Act has done nothing to improve animal welfare but has, in fact, harmed it. The rights and wrongs of hunting have been debated ad nauseam for decades. It has to be accepted that legislation cannot change the predatory instincts of foxes or the views of farmers who seek to protect their pigs, sheep and poultry. In places where there is now no hunting, such as over National Trust land, the fox population is contained by trapping or shooting or worse. It is an utter fallacy to believe that shooting involves less suffering for foxes than hunting. Many people argue that it would be better for the welfare of the fox if there were more hunting taking place than at present.

There are no reasonable arguments left for retaining the Hunting Act. Bad laws should be repealed and this is a very bad law. David Cameron said about it last year: “It’s quite clear it isn’t working. There are more people hunting than ever before. The law is being made to look an idiot and that isn’t a good situation to be in. We have a very clear position on this: there will be a free vote and if there is a vote to repeal the hunting ban, there will be a government bill in government time.”

For the sake of our overburdened policemen, trying to foil terrorist plots, solve knife crime and keep the traffic moving, let’s hope he is one politician who will stick to his word.


Hate-filled Leftist bigotry in Britain

Bigotry, like poverty, is always with us. It is not often in this country that you come across open, unselfconsciously brutal bigotry, but it is always there somewhere, lurking in the most respectable of places, and sometimes it drops its mask and bares its vicious teeth.

Twice last week I was astonished by glimpses of this vindictive grimace. I had begun to think this country was largely free of the ideological hatred and class war that so disfigured it in the 1960s and 1970s. Even the ban on foxhunting has failed. But now I realise that impression is all too superficial. Bigotry will out, and it wants to condemn, punish and control. It is the mindset of the totalitarian.

The Guardian published a column by Zoe Williams on Tuesday that ought to make any right-minded person gasp with shock, no matter what his or her political views. Quite a few Guardian readers were indeed shocked, to judge by their comments online. Williams was discussing the fact that many parents who would prefer to send their children to private schools – she calls them privateers – are obliged by the economic slump to send them to state schools. Her view is that the children of such privateers should be forced to the bottom of the waiting lists for state primary schools.

Never mind, she says, whether such children are “swamping” state primaries, or might do in the future, or not at all: this has nothing to do with the availability of school places and everything to do with ideology – such children must be put at the back of the queue. Her view, unpleasant though it is, might be worth rational discussion. But Williams’s tone is far from rational. It is frightening. She writes like an old-fashioned class warrior who believes children must be punished for the class guilt of their parents, and if that sounds vindictive, she admits she means it to. “Ha! Good,” she exclaims unselfconsciously.

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to point out that Williams was privately educated at the expensive and selective Godolphin and Latymer school in west London, which no doubt helped her to get a place at Oxford and a job at The Guardian; should she, too, be punished for the class crimes of her parents in educating her privately? Which queue should Williams be shoved to the back of to atone for her inherited class guilt?

What horrifies me more than her general approach is the totalitarian detail in which she indulges her class hatred. Her list of exclusion for privateers’ children is precisely graded. To the bottom she dispatches those who have been recently removed from private schools; “above them but below everybody else” should be children with siblings at private schools; and somewhere near them should be children whose parents’ first choice was a faith school.

It reminded me at once of the careful protocols of Nazi selection systems, or the elaborate plans put forward by Stalinists and Maoists; it reads like those chilling, heart-rending accounts of life in the USSR and communist China, from Solzhenitsyn to Jung Chang.

“There are other questions”, Williams goes on, apparently ignorant of similar interrogations during the worst of 20th-century totalitarianism, that “an admissions process could use to whittle out privateers. Do they have a 4x4? Can parents provide a letter from any local left-wing organisation attesting to their commitment to open-access state education? Did they go to any meetings? . . . come on, you lefties . . . what happened to your sharp elbows?” I rest my case. This is hate speech, class war and political bigotry of the most vicious sort. What is one to make of the suggestion that “local left-wing organisations” should stand in judgment on parents and their thoughts?

Just as astonishing was a comment made in a guide to adoption published by a state-funded national agency, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Its new booklet, the Pink Guide to Adoption for Lesbians and Gay Men, describes people who oppose gay adoption as “retarded homophobes”. The association repeated this choice phrase on its Be My Parent website, although it has since been removed. This again was a shocking glimpse of the unmasked teeth of vicious bigotry, made even worse by unselfconscious hypocrisy.

“Retarded” is a word that no decent person would now use to describe another. It was a cruel and largely American expression for people with intellectual impairments. For years it has been considered inaccurate, ignorant and offensive and demeaning to people with learning disabilities.

I find it amazing that anyone would use it at all, let alone in public or in print, let alone the people in the adoption association, which is about as politically correct as an organisation can be, and still less in a booklet aimed at a minority that has good reason to notice and resent demeaning words. It seems the phrase was written by a contributor, not by the association, but that is no excuse – the word “retarded” should have leapt out at those responsible for producing the booklet.

And how much worse it is to use the word “retarded” as a conscious insult. How can any outfit subsidised by the taxpayer and run by the supposedly politically correct use any disability as an insult? And how much worse again it is to use such bizarre insults against people to discredit their arguments and their beliefs. Does the association think that people who disagree with it are, ipso facto, “retards”? Is disagreement with it a sign of cognitive impairment? Does it perhaps think that people who disagree are not merely mentally handicapped (in another old-fashioned expression) but mentally ill as well, in need of locking up in an insane asylum as in totalitarian countries?

Whether people who oppose gay adoption are right or wrong is not the point. I happen to think they are wrong, but it will not do to dismiss their arguments with insults – insults that are not only offensive to them but also even more insulting to innocent bystanders. I am glad, however, that these bigots have done so, because those who wrote these words and published them and publicised them on the internet have revealed themselves in their true colours.

For the same reason I am glad that Williams felt free to publish her spiteful rant and that The Guardian printed it. By their words shall ye know them. That is one of the great beauties of free speech. If we must have bigots and totalitarians in our midst, it is good to know who they are and what they think, so we can beware of them.


Britain: The battle to find a good school

They cheat. They lie. They give a false address. . . No, not our MPs - just parents trying to find a decent school for their children, finds Julia Llewellyn Smith. Many of Britain's "sink" government schools would make any responsible parent quail

The letter was a shock. "Dear parent/guardian, Thank you for your primary-school application for the 2009/2010 school year. I am sorry to inform you that we are unable to offer you a place at any of your preferred schools."

I didn't think I'd asked for too much. With my eldest daughter, Sasha, due to start reception in September, I'd applied to my nearest state primary school. We live in the wealthy borough of Richmond, west London, and until this year the school had always been undersubscribed with most neighbours choosing to send their children private from the age of four.

However, we were impressed by the school's new, glowing Ofsted report, by the dynamic head and its happy, motivated children. We applied, congratulating ourselves on the fees we'd save, delighted our children would be able to walk to school and enjoy a circle of local friends.

We were far from alone. Everywhere, job-fearing parents, shocked at extortionate school fees, have decided to chance the state system. "Oxbridge favours state applicants," they convince each other. "We don't want our children to grow up in a privileged ghetto." The result is school places everywhere are being pursued as hotly as premier-league footballers in a nightclub. Two thirds of local authorities have reported a surge in primary-school applications, while the number of children aged five to seven in classes bigger than the legal limit of 30 has risen to 10,010, more than double the 2007 figure of 4,280.

At secondary level, 92,000 children have been denied their first choice of school, while 30,000 have been offered none anywhere. Official figures for primary schools have not yet been published, but a huge shortfall of places is reported in, among others, Birmingham, Bristol and Surrey. In London, 25 out of 33 boroughs are unable to cope with demand.

To win an elusive place, parents are using tactics that make Machiavelli look like Snow White. "These are extreme times and they push people into extreme measures," says Janette Wallis, an editor of the Good Schools Guide. "People have always been willing to stretch the truth for a good school. There's no question we are seeing the most highly driven parents, who would have done anything to get their children in a private school in normal times, use the same dedication and drive to get them into a good state school."

Last week, Harrow Council, in north-west London, said that it was prosecuting Mranil Patel for fraud, after she pretended she lived at her mother's address to win her son a place at a popular school. In fact, Mrs Patel was living at her husband's house two miles away. She claimed she was living at her mother's during a brief split with her husband, but reconciled with him shortly after the school's application deadline. If found guilty, she risks a fine of up to £5,000 – or a prison sentence.

Outwardly, parents tutted; secretly, many felt: "There but for the grace of God…" A recent YouGov survey showed that one in four parents would lie or cheat to win a school place. Since many are as coy about their deviousness as Hollywood starlets are about Botox, the real figure is probably higher.

In my madder moments, I have plotted how my husband and I could "separate" so I could temporarily move into a flat near a sought-after girls' comprehensive. Once Sasha's place was won (guaranteeing her sister's), we'd "reconcile". My more scrupulous husband will not consent, however; just as he refused to find God (we are both atheists) in order to get Sasha into the Ofsted-rated "outstanding" church primary yards from the house we used to live in.

Other parents had no such qualms. On Sundays, the ugly church at which they were required to worship three out of four Sundays a month for at least a year to secure a place, was surrounded by double-parked four-by-fours driven from as far as 10 miles away. The outfits and air-kissing on the pavement outside reminded me of Henley. "Of course the vicar knows most of us are agnostics at best," says Jane, who has three children at the school, despite living six miles away, and is a secret atheist. "His attitude is so long as there are bums on seats, who cares? We're all frantically volunteering for Sunday school, organising bake sales and having him over for drinks to keep him onside. It's totally hypocritical and everyone's in on it."

After all, an example is set from on high. No one doubts Tony Blair's or David Cameron's faith, but both shunned local primaries for their children in favour of distant church schools.

Other common ploys include having children "statemented" for special needs, which gives them priority in many entrance policies. "My child's a bit of a tearaway, but with the help of an educational psychologist, we're hoping to transform it into serious dyslexia and ADHD so he can get into ------," a neighbour cheerfully told me recently. Some put the "wrong" postcode with a correct address, knowing councils use the postcode to measure distance between home and school. If they are detected, they claim a slip of the pen. Others forge necessary council tax documents.

Some stay within the limits, if not the spirit, of the law by buying or renting a second home, or even a caravan, as close as possible (since catchments change from year to year) to their preferred school gates. Recently, John Burton, chair of governors of St Peter's, Eaton Square, a C of E primary much loved by politicians' children, admitted his family had twice moved into rented accommodation, while keeping his original home, to win his daughter a place at popular church secondary schools. "Parents pay money [for private schools] and everyone thinks that's fine, yet people think it's odd we'd want to move to stay in the state sector," he said, defending himself.

Parents in Devon, a grammar [selective school] hot spot, report an influx of pupils from as far as London, who live in their parents' second homes in term time and return to the capital for holidays.

Schools are fighting back with councils such as Poole using measures to spy on possible cheats. Friends of mine who have applied to church schools have got used to the vicar "unexpectedly" dropping in to check they are actually living at the address on their application forms. These vicars also demand to see parents' Baptism certificates and quiz children on the intricacies of their alleged faith.

Fiona Millar, partner of Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and vice-chairwoman of Comprehensive Futures, an organisation that lobbies for fair admissions, says it's unfair to blame parents for wanting the best for their children. "The Government has set schools up as a market, so people are automatically going to gravitate to what they perceive to be the best. But the problem with creating a marketplace is you need complete elasticity of supply and demand. It works for baked beans when if more people want them you can produce more, but you can't magically conjure up more school places in a crisis year like this."

After years of pious hectoring by the likes of Millar about supporting the state system, I am more than a little disillusioned to discover that option is not practically available. The council is legally obliged to find Sasha a place, but with the five nearest schools to me oversubscribed, the one they will eventually offer seems certain to be miles away.

So Sasha's going to a private prep school. As for secondary school, I wonder if the vicar needs help with the flower rota? Or maybe I'll call the divorce lawyers after all.


Accusations of effeminacy wrong?

British TV star Jonathan Ross is in trouble again:
"Ross was involved in a light-hearted discussion about prizes in a competition themed around the fictional teen pop star when he joked: ‘If your son asks for a Hannah Montana MP3 player, you might want to already think about putting him down for adoption before he brings his...erm...partner home.’

A spokeswoman for Ofcom was unable to say how many people had complained but said: ‘We have had complaints. We are assessing those complaints against the broadcasting code.’

Listener Karen Mills told Pink News: ‘How can these people earn such huge sums of public money to come out with this discriminatory rubbish?

The BBC insisted there was no link to any specific individual and that the joke was part of a light-hearted exchange.

Known for his irreverent humour and flamboyant fashion sense, Ross also presents a chat show, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross on BBC1, featuring music from 4 Poofs and a Piano. ["Poof" is British slang for an effeminate homosexual]


He obviously implied that a parent might be disappointed if their son brought home a homosexual lover but that is probably a pretty accurate judgment about how most parents would react. But truth-telling is a low priority in Britain.

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