Saturday, July 18, 2009

The latest British injustice: How you could be acquitted and still face huge bill for costs

This makes the mere act of inititiating a prosecution a punishment for a crime of which you may be innocent. Costs will not be awarded in your favour if you use a private lawyer rather than a government one. And the government ones are so poorly paid that only the least competent ones would take on the work. And only the poor are eligible to use a government lawyer anyway. So this is yet another sly attack on the middle class by a hate-filled Leftist government

Plans to reform the legal aid system and cut almost £200 million from its budget have brought warnings of a two-tier justice system: one for the rich and another for the poor. For the first time, acquitted defendants in criminal trials will have to bear the bulk of their costs if they instruct someone other than a legal aid lawyer to defend them under the reforms. Defendants who are convicted in the Crown Court will be means-tested and forced to pay back some or all of their legal bills.

Details will be outlined next week of a new round of reforms to bring in fixed fees for legally aided family cases and “reverse auctions” for criminal legal aid contracts.

The measures, which have provoked fierce opposition from judges, lawyers and MPs, are part of an overhaul to save £193 million over three years from the £2 billion a year legal aid scheme. Some call it the biggest crisis in 60 years of legal aid.

Kim Hollis, QC, vice-chairwoman of equality and diversity on the Bar Council, said: “These proposed changes will set back the advances and benefits of access to justice brought by the legal aid scheme over decades. Overnight, a two-tier system will be created, whereby those who can afford to pay the best lawyers will be able to have their interests properly and fairly represented in court. But those who cannot will be left to the mercy of the spending cuts, the result of which is that high-quality advocates cannot afford to practise and are leaving in droves.”

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, told The Times that he also wanted to cut the £127 million a year in legal aid that is spent on expert witnesses in court, including interpreters. The costs of such experts in criminal and civil trials are included in solicitors’ legal aid costs. Mr Straw said that family cases in particular had become much more complex and needed to be simplified. “Costs have shot up and this is now a very expensive system.”

Critics say that plans for fixed fees in family cases, to be outlined next week by the Legal Services Commmission, which runs legal aid, will hit vulnerable children and families. They claim the new rates will lead to barristers earning up to 30 per cent less and drive the most experienced out of legal aid work, causing delays in children and family cases.

The commission intends to move ahead with controversial plans for “reverse auctions” of legal aid contracts for police station work. The contracts will go to bidders offering “best value”, with low bids a key factor. More than 6,000 solicitors have signed up to protest on Downing Street’s website. They say that the plans will be disastrous for legal aid, drive down standards and decimate the defence service. The Conservatives have promised to suspend the reforms if they win the general election.

In an attempt to defuse the row, Lord Bach, the Justice Minister, is expected to delay the timescale for testing the plans, The Times has learnt. “The timetable is not yet fixed,” he said. He robustly defended the reform package, which is aimed at achieving value for money within a tight budget and ensuring that legal aid helps as many people as possible. “Spending on legal aid in the last 20 years has increased from £835 million in today’s prices — an average annual real terms growth of about 5 per cent — one of the fastest-growing areas of public expenditure.”

He said he was determined that criminal legal aid should not squeeze the funds available for other kinds of help, and that was behind the drive to cut costs. Convicted defendants should pay towards their own costs if they could afford it, he said. Defendants who chose not to use legal aid and were acquitted should no longer be able to claim back all their costs. But for civil cases, eligibility limits had been increased by 5 per cent to “help those most in need”. He said: “Up to 750,000 extra people could become eligible for [legal aid] help and representation.”

The Government has also boosted funding for advice centres and other “not for profit” agencies, which now stood at £80 million compared with £24 million in 2001-02.

Carolyn Regan, chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, said: “Our aim is to ensure access to justice for a greater number of people through advice, help and representation in court, from high-quality practitioners or the not-for-profit sector.” Many more people were now being helped, she said. The total had doubled in five years to more than one million.


Children’s authors outraged at British "Big brother" scheme for schools

A prominent group of children’s authors and illustrators have said that they will stop visiting schools in protest against a new vetting scheme which comes into place in the Autumn. Some of the top names in children’s publishing - including Philip Pullman, Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake - have refused to register their names on a new government database.

Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, described the Home Office policy as “corrosive and poisonous to every kind of healthy social interaction.” He said: "I've been going into schools as an author for 20 years, and on no occasion have I ever been alone with a child. The idea that I have become more of a threat and I need to be vetted is both ludicrous and insulting. “Children have never been in any danger from visiting authors or illustrators, and the idea that they should be is preposterous.”

The Vetting and Barring Scheme is being managed by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which was set up following the murder of schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley, who was a janitor at their school at the time. All individuals working with children in schools will need to sign on to the database, at a cost of £64 per person, from October 12.

Michael Morpurgo, a former children’s laureate and the author of War Horse, said that children would suffer as authors decided to stop visiting schools because of the regulations. “Writers don’t go into schools for the money, they do it because they want to bring their stories to children and make readers of them. “The notion that I should somehow have got myself tested or passed in order to do this is absurd.”

Quentin Blake, who has illustrated said: “You don’t go to the trouble of being the Children’s Laureate to pay £64 to have permission to talk to children. That is bizarre.”

The Home Office said: “The UK already has one of the most advanced systems in the world for carrying out checks [That's a fact] on all those who work in positions of trust with children and vulnerable adults. From October this year the new Vetting and Barring Scheme will ensure these regulations are even more rigorous.”


Shoddy marking of British grade-school exams again

Head teachers angered by the poor quality of marking in this year’s national curriculum tests are sending back thousands of test papers to be marked again. Hundreds of primary schools are expected to write to the government agency responsible for exams to protest about sloppy marking and inconsistent standards.

The most talented children at some schools were penalised because the formulaic marking did not recognise their flair. Other schools discovered that right answers had been given a zero, or that wrong answers were marked as correct. Some pupils were penalised for not dotting the letter i — others were not.

The tests, formerly known as SATs, are a source of contention in schools and many heads and teachers would like them to be abolished. Those taken by 14-year-old pupils were scrapped last year, after the results from millions of papers went missing or were delayed. ETS, the company responsible, had its £156 million, five-year contract terminated, and an investigation found a backlog of 10,000 unanswered e-mails from worried schools.

Ministers insisted that this year’s tests for 11-year-olds would run more smoothly. Government agencies boasted last week that 99.9 per cent of pupils had their results on time. However, two teaching unions, representing the majority of primary school teachers and heads, are planning to boycott the tests for 11-year-olds next year if Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, refuses to get rid of them.

Yesterday one of those unions, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents 85 per cent of primary heads, said that it was encouraging its members to write to Ofqual, the government agency responsible for exam standards. It said heads had complained of harsh and unfair marking, spellings being marked right when wrong and vice versa, little consistency in the marking of composition, clerical errors and mistakes in adding up marks. The marking scheme was time consuming and weighted to discourage schools from returning papers for review, the union said.

The importance of dotting every “i” was brought home to West Hill Primary in Cannock, Staffordshire, where some pupils were marked down for incorrect spelling if they failed to do so, but other children who had made the omission had dots added by the marker and were given a point. One 11-year-old pupil was given 0 out of a possible 2 marks for correctly spelling “stunning” but without dotting the i. Another child received 3 out of 12 in spelling for failing to dot the i in the words remain, various, scorching, distinctive, carrying and magical, all of which were spelt correctly.

Shaun Miles, the head teacher, has sent back eight papers out of 58. He said: “It’s bizarre and petty. The marker had used a red pen and put dots over some letters, and given some children the mark, but not others. Those who were marked as wrong were graded Level 4 instead of Level 5.”

Ian Foster, assistant secretary of the NAHT, said: “The bureaucracy and stress surrounding these outmoded tests, compounded by clear examples of inadequate marking, can be dispiriting for pupils and parents, and potentially put school leaders’ careers on the line . . . There have been comments that maybe the quality has been usurped because of the tight marking deadline.”


Patient sues NHS after having terminal cancer wrongly diagnosed

When Philip Collins was told that he had cancer and had just six months to live, he quit his job, cashed in his pension and bought himself a powerful motorcycle. He was determined to enjoy the time left to him. When he was still alive a year later his doctors conducted a re-examination and admitted that there had been a mistake. The inoperable “tumour” on his gall bladder was a relatively harmless abscess.

Far from being delighted at his unexpected reprieve Mr Collins, 59, was devastated. He had spent his life savings and the powerful drugs that the doctors prescribed to keep him alive as long as possible had destroyed his health. Mr Collins, now 61, had even planned his own funeral. As well as buying the Triumph motorcycle, he had bought his wife Isabel a new car so that she would have transport after he had gone. The couple spent an emotional “last” Christmas together.

Two years later Mr Collins is seeking compensation from the NHS for his ordeal, which he said had left him “an absolute wreck” due to the quantity of drugs he had needlessly taken. Mr Collins, of Yetminster, Dorset, said: “When they told me I had cancer I knew I had a chance to do everything I wanted. I was a fit man and a keen motorcyclist. I still had a lot of working life left in me.

“When they told me I did not have cancer, it knocked me off balance. Now I cannot do anything. I’m an absolute wreck. If you have spent two years thinking you are going to die, then you are told you are not, it knocks you backwards.”

Mrs Collins, 62, said that the couple were delighted that the original diagnosis was a mistake, but added that it had ruined her husband’s life. She said: “We just don’t understand how it could have happened. They obviously didn’t look at the tests closely enough. I never used to believe in suing or compensation or anything like that.”

Mr Collins’s ordeal began when he lost his appetite suddenly and suffered weight loss and anaemia. He was given a scan at Dorset County Hospital in Dorchester that revealed he had an abnormal gall bladder and liver. Further tests led doctors to believe that he had cancer and they told the the couple that he had only six months to live.

Mrs Collins said: “He was bitter and tearful but he took the news that he was going to die calmly. We took £18,000 out of a pension and he bought the Triumph motorbike, which had always been his dream. He even told me he wanted his coffin to be carried on the back of it at his funeral, which he had arranged.”

After a grim “last Christmas” his 60th birthday came and went. Three weeks after a second CT scan doctors told Mr Collins that although he still had cancer, it was not terminal. Two weeks later he was told that he was suffering not from cancer, but from an abscess.

Dorset County Hospital’s chief executive, Jan Bergman, has written to Mr Collins disclosing that the initial diagnosis was made before all the test results had been examined. He said that practices had been reviewed to ensure that surgeons looked at all information before reaching a conclusion. Mr Collins is now being treated at Yeovil District Hospital. A spokesman for Dorset County Hospital said: “We have been in contact with Mr and Mrs Collins about the conclusions of our investigation.”


NHS: £286m to help terminally ill to die at home ‘lost in system’

Millions of pounds of extra funds pledged by the Government for the care of terminally ill patients are failing to reach frontline health services, The Times has discovered. Nine out of ten local health authorities cannot identify their share of the £286 million promised last year to help people who want to die in their own homes, rather than in hospital.

Alan Johnson, then Health Secretary, announced the spending over two years last July as part of the End of Life Care strategy, claiming that it would honour Labour’s manifesto pledge to double investment in specialist palliative care by 2011. Hospice directors say, however, that the money is being lost on the NHS balance sheet or spent on other services because it has not been ring-fenced.

Research by the charity Help the Hospices, seen by The Times, shows that of a sample of 28 NHS primary care trusts, only three could provide evidence of extra investment in palliative care this year. At least six of the trusts surveyed — in Blackpool, Bury, Cumbria, Devon, North Lancashire and West Essex — said that there was no extra money for end-of-life care because of financial pressures and the need for savings. Others were unable to identify a specific sum for end-of-life care, or said that no new money had appeared in their annual baseline allocation.

Only one in five deaths in England — most of which follow chronic illness such as heart disease, cancer or dementia — occurs in the home, although two thirds of people say that is where they would prefer to die. By comparison, 58 per cent of people die in hospital. Families complain that a lack of support, local hospice beds or pain management services leaves them no alternative.

A review of end-of-life care published yesterday by the Department of Health painted a quite different picture, claiming that the £286 million programme had made a good start and was set to deliver real service improvements. Mike Richards, the department’s national director for cancer, added that while some funds had gone directly to trusts, money was also being held by the department “for national work”.

The ten-year strategy aims to shift public attitudes to death and dying, invest in local workforce training and create “rapid response” nursing teams to provide care and support to those who wish to die in a hospice or at home.

David Praill, chief executive of Help the Hospices said: “This is a tragic indictment of the system. PCTs have been given a substantial amount of money to improve end-of-life care, and it simply isn’t good enough that, one year on, many don’t know where it is.”

The pressure on local hospices — three quarters of which are funded by local charities rather than by the NHS — is rising, with more than 100,000 patients using services last year.

Adult hospices in England receive on average only 31 per cent of their funding from the Government, and the gap between what they spend on NHS patients and what the NHS contributes to that care is estimated at £200 million a year, and widening. Help the Hospices is concerned that the extra funding will be diverted to hospital-based care rather than the voluntary sector.

Richard Cowie, chief executive of St Clare Hospice, in Harlow, Essex, said that many local charitable organisations had not seen money being passed on by local NHS managers. “We have a decent working relationship with our local PCT, but their key statement is that they have to make cost-savings on existing budgets and that there is no new money,” he said.


Daily dose of baking soda ‘can keep kidney patients off dialysis’

Hard to believe but great if a proper double-blind study confirms it. I sometimes take the stuff for indigestion so maybe I have been doing myself more good than I thought

Research by British scientists has found that sodium bicarbonate — otherwise known as baking soda — can dramatically slow the progress of the condition. About three million people in Britain suffer from chronic kidney disease, which can lead to complete kidney failure, requiring regular dialysis. Patients commonly suffer from low bicarbonate levels, a condition called metabolic acidosis.

The pilot study conducted at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, was the first controlled test of the treatment in a clinical setting. In the study, published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, researchers studied 134 patients with advanced chronic kidney disease and metabolic acidosis.

One group was randomly allocated a small daily dose of sodium bicarbonate in tablet form in addition to their usual care. Over a period of one year, the kidney function of these patients declined about two thirds more slowly than that of individuals who were not given the tablets. Their rate of decline was little different from what would be expected with normal ageing. Rapid progression of kidney disease occurred in just 9 per cent of patients given baking soda, compared with 45 per cent of the non-treated group.

Patients taking sodium bicarbonate tablets were also less likely to develop end-stage renal disease requiring dialysis, which takes over the function of the kidneys. Although their sodium levels were increased, it did not lead to problems with raised blood pressure.

An estimated 37,800 patients in Britain receive renal replacement therapy, which may involve dialysis or a kidney transplant. The cost of looking after kidney failure patients accounts for 3 per cent of the entire NHS budget. On average, each patient on dialysis costs the NHS £30,000 per year.

Magdi Yaqoob, professor of Renal Medicine at the Royal London, described the results as “amazing”. “This study shows that baking soda can be useful for people with kidney failure ... as long as the dose is regulated and under supervision,” he said. “This cheap and simple strategy also improves patients’ nutritional wellbeing and has the potential to improve quality of life and of course a clinical outcome that can remove the need for dialysis. Baking soda is not classed as a drug so this study has never been tried before.”

The scientists pointed out that their research was limited by not having a “placebo group” of patients receiving a “dummy” treatment. It was also not “blind” - the researchers knew which patients were receiving the baking soda. “Our results will need validation in a multi-centre study,” Professor Yaqoob said.


British 'green jobs’ claim a sham

Government claims that Britain already supports nearly one million “green-collar” jobs have been exposed as a sham after the figures were found to include North Sea gas industry workers as well as some petrol station attendants and skylight manufacturers.

Britain’s Low Carbon Industrial Strategy, outlined yesterday by Lord Mandelson, claimed that the economy already supported 880,000 “low-carbon jobs” — a figure that he said was poised to grow by up to 400,000 by 2015 to more than 1.28 million. But a detailed breakdown of the figures obtained by The Times shows that they include an extraordinarily loose definition of the term.

About a third of the jobs (266,000), comprises workers in “alternative fuels” — a category that includes the production and supply of natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), as well as nuclear power and conventional “green” fuels such as biodiesel, bioethanol and hydrogen.

John Sharp, of Innovas, a consultancy in Winsford, Cheshire, which was paid by the Government to produce the figures earlier this year, confirmed that this included thousands of workers on gas production platforms in the North Sea as well as petrol station attendants on forecourts where liquefied petroleum is dispensed and employees at gas-fired power stations. The list also includes manufacturers of a bizarre array of products — from skylights to wooden pallets and noise insulation materials, on the basis that they use recycled materials. Figures supplied by Innovas showed that the total included 207 jobs in the supply and manufacture of animal bedding, 90 providing equestrian surfaces and 164 in the recycling of footwear, “slippers and other carpet wear”. Mr Sharp acknowledged that there were some “weird and wonderful” categories. “We try to capture as much of the supply chain as possible,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change claimed that Innovas had defined the methodology used in the report. “They are looking at the whole low- carbon supply chain, not just at the end-energy production,” she said.

Robin Oakley, climate change campaigner for Greenpeace, said that the definition used by the Government seemed unfeasibly broad and that there was “no need for the Government to massage the figures” because it was unquestionable that the economic future opportunity in the low-carbon sector would be huge.

Yesterday Lord Mandelson said: “The Government is determined to ensure the economic and employment opportunities that this transition [to a low-carbon economy] offers to us.”

Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, said that the low-carbon economy presented “big potential” for economic growth and job creation.

But The Times revealed yesterday that a factory in Newport, Isle of Wight, which is Britain’s only significant manufacturer of wind turbines, will produce its last batch of seven-tonne blades this week. More than 600 people employed at the plant and a related facility in Southampton, will be made redundant at the end of the month. All 7,000 turbines that the Government committed itself yesterday to installing over the next decade will be manufactured overseas.

By 2020, renewable energy sources will provide 31 per cent of Britain’s electricity, up from 6 per cent today, while nuclear’s share will fall to 8 per cent from current levels of between15 per cent and nearly a quarter, depending on the variable output of nuclear plants.


Dealing with Britain's debt: “Currently, the public sector is swelling far beyond its means. The UK is forecast to suffer a budget deficit of £170 billion later this year. This equates to every man, woman and child being in nearly £3,000 of debt. Every year, our government pays £200 billion to public sector employees and this is not sustainable. The problem with this is that the increasing deficit needs to be funded somehow. There are several ways that this can be done. One way would be to increase taxes; however an increase in tax rates reduces incentives and is therefore likely to have the adverse effect of reducing tax revenues. Alternatively, ‘quantative easing’ (glorified printing money) could be used to pay off debt. But this is highly inflationary, as resources are no less scarce, so it would reduce the value of our currency, thus making the UK less attractive for investors. Surely the best way to deal with the deficit is to reduce government spending.”

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