Saturday, July 11, 2009

Taking a stand against the hyper-regulation of British life

When everything from looking after kids to dancing in pubs requires a licence, Josie Appleton suggests a summer rebellion against regulation

There is no doubt that, over the past few years, there has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between state and civil society in Britain. But this shift has a peculiar quality. It is not that the state is oppressing society, or remoulding society in line with a political ideology. There are no New Labour boot camps; no smashing of newspapers that criticise the government.

The peculiar quality to state intervention was suggested by a letter I received recently, from my local National Health Service (NHS) trust. The letter announced a new NHS Camden initiative called ‘Walking Maps’, which ‘encourages local people to lead a healthier lifestyle by incorporating walking into their schedules’. The trust had mapped five walks around the borough of Camden in London, and invited me to come to the launch – where I could try one of the walks, and also ‘get lifestyle advice from our health trainers’ about healthy eating and so on.

It is not so much that the state is remoulding civil society. Instead, the state is demanding that we live our everyday lives through it. We are invited for a walk with the state; we are invited to eat with the state. More and more of social life is now lived through the state as an intermediary. Our everyday actions are supervised – and authorised – by an official bureaucracy.

The emblem of this peculiar situation is the licence. Obviously in pubs, you need a licence to sell alcohol. Now, however, you also need a licence for just about every other activity you might want to perform inside a pub. You need a sporting license to play darts. If somebody wants to watch the darts, you need a sporting events licence. There is a licence for dancing, which can be strictly enforced: undercover council officials spotted people ‘swaying’ in a bar in Westminster and chastised the owners. There is a licence to play music. There is even a ‘spoken word’ license, to cover poetry readings and plays.

The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, where all adults who work with children must first submit to an analysis of their pasts, is in effect a safe-adult licence – and if you don’t have it you shouldn’t go anywhere near children who are not your own, we are told. There is a licence to protest. In some areas you need a licence to hand out political leaflets, or to take photographs.

The meaning of the licence is, in effect, that you need the state’s permission to live. Your life is licensed. You can only dance, protest, photograph, volunteer and so on if you have the correct card.

Unlicensed social life is declared dirty and dangerous. If you don’t have the CRB check, you are a potential paedophile. If you don’t have an ID card, you are not a legitimate citizen (though the UK government has recently announced that ID cards probably won’t be compulsory). If you don’t have your photography licence, you are probably a terrorist taking pictures of public buildings in order to destroy those buildings at a later date.

Everyone who is not on a database, or who does not have a card to account for their actions, is illegitimate at best, and dangerous or tainted at worst. The state puts itself in the position of constituting civil society – not, however, by remoulding it, but merely by requiring that everyday life is authorised. It becomes the mass issuer of permission slips – permission to dance, sing, or read poetry. The state doesn’t so much ban activities as request that we ask it for its permission first.

We are seeing the bureaucratisation of everyday life. The methods of bureaucracy – which would have occurred in only very specific spheres in the past – now become part of every sphere.

There is a code or policy for the simplest situations. The English Golf Association has a ‘late-pick-up’ policy, which is a policy to deal with the situation of parents picking up their kids late after golf practice. The volunteer should wait with the child – categorically not give the child a lift home! – preferably with another adult, and in open view. If the parents cannot be contacted, the volunteer should consider calling the police for advice. Getting a child to and from sports practice now comes with an instruction manual.

Public space has been divided into zones: home zone, no-booze zone, low-emission zone, and so on. Although this is bureaucracy-speak, so it is not always clear what a particular zone means, and what implications it has for your behaviour. In a cafĂ© in Elephant and Castle in London, I saw a sign saying that this was part of an ‘Age Check Zone’.

You could say: it’s only a drink in the park, it’s only the local nursery, it’s only a game of darts in the pub – who cares if there are licences and checks? These are not suitably dramatic freedom issues: these are not about police beatings, or smashing printing presses, or banning political organisations.

But I would turn this around and say: if we can’t even have a drink in the park, how can we have a demonstration? If we need permission to help out at our child’s nursery, how can we change the government? If social life is licensed at its every step, then we cannot be citizens or subjects in any other respect.

The Manifesto Club campaigns on we what call ‘flashpoint freedom issues’. These are the points at which there is a conflict between state regulation and people’s aspirations, desires or sense of their own autonomy. These are the points where the silent process of state regulation can be revealed, made conscious, and protested against.

Our campaigns – including our campaigns against vetting, or against booze bans – have laid the groundwork for this. Our Freedom Summer events series takes this project further, around the rallying cry: social life should not be licensed!


Abusive teen causes well-liked teacher to snap in British school

A 14-YEAR-OLD student is in hospital with serious head injuries after a teacher allegedly attacked him in the middle of a lesson as shocked classmates looked on. Jack Waterhouse, 14, was taken to hospital after the incident in a classroom at All Saints' Roman Catholic School in Mansfield, England on Wednesday. Science teacher Peter Harvey, 49, has been arrested on suspicion of attempting to murder the boy and assaulting two other children, police have said. The Sun reported the boy was found in a pool of blood. Police said a weapon was used in the attack and the whole class had been "traumatised" by what they had seen. The Guardian website reported a weight from a set of scales was believed to have been used.

The Daily Mail reported Mr Harvey, a father of two, allegedly snapped after the boy swore at him.

Police said there were initial grave concerns about the boy's condition but he was now said to be stable, although still serious. "I can say that, allegedly as part of the incident, a weapon was used against the child. We are investigating exactly what did happen," Detective Superintendent Adrian Pearson said. "Obviously the whole class is traumatised by what has happened."

The other two children - a boy and a girl - who were allegedly assaulted did not need hospital treatment, he said. "The school have been working very closely with us to cooperate and to gain the full assistance of the children who were witnesses to what took place," Det Supt Pearson said.

Local news site Mansfield Chad reported that the boy's family was at his bedside in hospital. It quoted a parent as saying his son had been in the lesson. "You don't expect something like that to happen in a school," he said. "My son phoned me to tell me what happened and said all the kids in the lesson were just in shock." The school has offered counselling to students.

Other media reports said former pupils and parents had expressed surprise that the teacher, who taught science, was the one suspected of being involved. "I didn't think the pupils would give him stick," ex-pupil Tom Blythe, 19, was quoted as saying. "He was actually a decent bloke and got involved in school plays." On its website, the school said it had been a Performing Arts College since 2002 and had been described as "rapidly improving" in a 2009 Ofsted inspection. "All Saints' School is a lively, Catholic comprehensive school with a very special, warm ethos which is recognised by all who visit," the headteacher said on the website.

Det Supt Pearson said the incident was out of character for the school. "It's a school where people send their children from a wide catchment area. There have been no similar incidents before," he said.


When public health becomes a public nuisance

The bizarre advice given to British doctors on how to deal with swine flu confirms that top-down scaremongering is destroying medical practice

The combination of speculative scaremongering by Britain’s health authorities and increasingly absurd directives to general practitioner (GP) surgeries in response to the current flu outbreak confirms that public health has become a public nuisance.

On 3 July, the UK health minister Andy Burnham (the fourth since the last General Election) announced that the swine flu pandemic could no longer be contained and that there could be 100,000 cases a day by the end of August. In response to the suggestion from a TV interviewer that this could mean 40 deaths a day, the chief medical officer Liam Donaldson agreed that this was possible, and that it could be higher.

Burnham conceded that his figure was ‘a projection’, not a fact - he meant that it was a speculation based largely on ignorance, similar to previous (unfulfilled) predictions of catastrophic mortality from AIDS, mad cow disease and bird flu. Though leading public health authorities cling to the belief that proclaiming nightmare scenarios is useful in raising public awareness of disease, in reality this provokes anxiety out of all proportion to benefit.

On the same day we received in our GP surgery, by fax and email (and no doubt shortly also by post), the latest of the almost daily pandemic flu briefings from the local primary care trust (PCT). The headline barks: ‘PPE procedures to be used for every patient.’ The bulletin continues in the now familiar tone of an exasperated infant school teacher spelling things out for children who suffer from a combination of learning difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (though it never goes so far as to explain that PPE stands for ‘personal protective equipment’):

‘GPs are reminded that on seeing a patient with flu-like symptoms they need to follow all guidance on PPE, including wearing a surgical mask, gloves and apron.’

This is the sort of advice that could only be given by somebody who has never set foot in a GP surgery, certainly not since the onset of the great swine flu scare. The simple fact is that many patients who have been alarmed by the pandemic propaganda take no notice of the advice to stay at home and come to the surgery (and bring their children) and - quite understandably - expect to be seen. So, after they have sat in the waiting room for hours, coughing and spluttering, we are then expected to scrub and gown up as though we were performing open-heart surgery - and then repeat this procedure for the 20 other patients in the queue? Dream on.

I am torn over what has been the most useful guidance we have received from on high. Is it the diagram showing a cross-section of the nasopharynx illustrating how to take a throat swab? Or is it the picture of the container showing how to package the swab for transport to the laboratory? It was also very helpful to receive ‘real examples’ of ‘what not to do’ detailing just how stupid some local GPs have been in misinterpreting simple guidelines. It is shocking to hear that some GPs have even confused World Health Organisation (WHO) pandemic alert algorithm S5a (for dealing with suspected cases) with algorithm S5b (for sporadic cases). Is it any wonder that the pandemic is out of control? Can revalidation come a moment too soon?

GPs who were instructed - as I was - by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to visit a suspected case of swine flu solely to do a throat swab may be alarmed by the proposals for home visiting in the grand pandemic flu contingency plan. This anticipates that 28.5 per cent (note the decimal place precision) of a predicted 30million cases in the UK (based on a 50 per cent ‘clinical attack rate’) will require visiting at home. By my humble calculations, assuming a four-week period (and assuming, improbably, no GP absenteeism), this would mean about 10 visits a day for every GP working seven days a week. Whether or not this would be of any benefit to these patients, it would certainly bring primary care services to a halt. But, if the epidemiologists want swabs, why not ask patients to do their own? (They could be sent pictures to help them locate their noses and throats.) We do this already with suspected cases of measles and mumps, so why not for flu? Patients are quite capable of doing their own genital swabs for chlamydia. Indeed this suggests another role for the ‘flu friend’: why not ask them to do your chlamydia swabs as well and get even friendlier?

The unfolding swine flu fiasco raises some hypothetical questions. What if the WHO, the HPA, the Department of Health and the rest had declared an embargo on press conferences and public statements? What if they had encouraged the virologists to concentrate their energies in the laboratories (where their achievements have been impressive) and stay away from the TV studios (where their pronouncements have often been ill-judged and alarmist)?

What if the PCTs had simply let GPs respond in the familiar way to cases of flu apparently occurring in an unfamiliar season? Given the evident mildness of the vast majority of swine flu cases (often milder than seasonal flu), it is difficult to believe that this approach would have resulted in any higher morbidity or mortality. It would certainly have led to less anxiety, to a much lower number of confirmed cases and to a vastly lower consumption of marginally effective anti-viral drugs. It would also have prevented much distress to patients, and much disruption to schools and workplaces (not to mention to surgeries, out-of-hours services, and hospitals).

Ah yes, but it could have been worse, comes the doomsday chorus from WHO, HPA, and all the rest. No doubt, the H1N1 virus could mutate to become the most virulent strain since the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 20million people. It could even be worse than the Black Death of 1348 that reduced the population of Europe by a third. Or maybe not. The public health authorities appear to have become incapable of distinguishing between sensible contingency planning and scaremongering propaganda. But instead of quietly admitting at the outset that very little was known about H1N1 and discreetly getting on with the job of preparing a vaccine and testing drugs, they reached for the megaphone. Better, according to the official mantra of twenty-first century risk aversion, ‘to prepare for the worst and hope for the best’. But even if swine flu had turned out to be a more serious illness, it is difficult to see how scaremongering, swabbing, PPE and Tamiflu would have made much difference.

The ascendancy of public health over primary care revealed in the swine flu scare is an ominous trend. The statements of both national and local public health practitioners confirm attitudes of condescension, even contempt, for the individuals traditionally regarded as being at the centre of primary care - patients and GPs. For public health specialists, our patients are merely people committed to unhealthy lifestyles. Their risk factor epidemiology repackages old prejudices: people get ill because they are idle, promiscuous, gluttonous, drunken, and as the spread of swine flu confirms, dirty. They regard GPs as sadly lacking in the moral fervour required to transform the deviant behaviour of our patients.

The outlook of public health would not be of much consequence were it not for the fact that it has, over the past 20 years, acquired a growing influence over primary health care. This is confirmed by the prominent role of public health specialists, who often have little knowledge or experience of General Practice, in primary care trusts. It is also reflected in the shift in the focus of primary care away from the diagnosis and treatment of the illnesses presented by patients towards the attempt to manage the health-related behaviour of the practice population. The burgeoning activities of check-ups and screening are resulting in what might be called an epidemic (perhaps not yet a pandemic) of overdiagnosis and overtreatment particularly in relation to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

The moralising propaganda of public health has a generally demoralising effect on society, encouraging fear and anxiety - and attendant sentiments of stigma and blame. It has a degrading effect on medical practice and is corrosive of good relations between doctors and their patients. As the swine flu scare confirms, it is also disruptive of day-to-day medical practice.


British "reforms" see pupils reject school food

The number of children having school meals has stalled after the increase in nutritional standards pioneered by Jamie Oliver, official figures show today. Only a third of secondary age pupils eat a cooked lunch. Participation has decreased ever since the standard of food rose after Oliver’s School Dinners campaign in 2005 which resulted in the banning of Turkey Twizzlers and daily helpings of chips.

The School Food Trust, a government agency responsible for improving the quality and take-up of school meals, claimed a victory because the figures rose marginally when comparing schools that had used exactly the same method of calculation last year. But the figures are an embarrassment for the Government, which pledged three years ago to achieve an increase of 10 percentage points in the number of children eating school meals, by this autumn — a target that has been missed whichever set of data is used.

The School Food Trust claimed this year’s was the first “statistically robust national survey” of school meal take-up, but did not say in previous years that the figures were unreliable. When comparing schools that had collected the figures in the same way year-on-year, it said the number of children eating school meals had risen by 0.1 per cent, from 43.8 per cent to 43.9 per cent at primary level, and from 35.5 per cent to 36 per cent in secondary schools.

But figures from all local authorities that responded show the overall national figures were 39.3 per cent in primary schools, compared with 43.6 per cent last year, and 35.1 per cent at secondary level, compared with 37.2 per cent in 2008. The School Food Trust said that this year's figures had been collected in a different way, so that the years could not be compared.

The Local Authority Caterers’ Association(LACA) described the increase as “marginal”. Neil Porter, its chairman, said: “We recognise that this year we are using a different way to calculate the data on the take-up of school lunches. LACA is encouraged by the apparent marginal upward trend in meal take-up in both primary and secondary schools. “However, we believe that we are on a longer journey when it comes to secondary school students. Increasing secondary meal take-up will continue to be a challenge for all of us.”

It was at a secondary school in South Yorkshire that mothers of pupils took orders from the local fast food shop for pupils at lunchtime, after children refused to eat the new healthy school meals. They were seen pushing burgers, fish and chips through the school gates.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Schools Secretary, said the figures showed a “massive drop” in the number of children eating school meals, and had missed its target to increase participation by “well over one million children”. He added: “We now know that barely a third of secondary school pupils are eating school meals. “There are a number of reasons why the Government has missed its target — including the rushed introduction of new food standards before the groundwork had been done to ensure children will eat the new healthier option.

“The Government stands little chance in meeting its targets unless there is both more investment in the school meals service and a massive change in expectations, so that sitting down for a proper lunch once again becomes the norm for every child.”

Prue Leith, chairwoman of the School Food Trust, said: “We now have a genuine picture of take-up across the country and we can see that real progress is being made the length and breadth of England. “I am heartened that take-up has increased slightly in primary schools following the introduction of new nutrient-based standards and am convinced we are winning the battle for the hearts, minds and tastebuds of children and parents. “It is particularly pleasing that secondary schools have turned the corner. This has always been a long-term project.”

Diana Johnson, the Schools Minister, said: “Four years ago, the majority of children were eating unhealthy meals at school. Chips, chocolate and sugar-filled fizzy drinks were available everyday as a choice for school lunch. Today there is no school where this can now happen — all schools must provide a portion of vegetable and fruit as part of a nutritionally balanced main meal. Now millions of children across the country are eating healthy school lunches. “We know that it is often the state of dining facilities and poor organisation, not nutritional changes that put children off schools dinners. That is why we have invested significant funds in improving dining facilities and the School Food Trust is supporting schools to improve the way they organise their meals services.”


UK: BNP Leader says “sink immigrants’ boats”

The EU should sink boats carrying illegal immigrants to prevent them entering Europe, British National Party leader Nick Griffin has told the BBC. The MEP for the North-West of England said the EU had to get "very tough" with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Pressed on what should happen to those on board, he said: "Throw them a life raft and they can go back to Libya". Libya has long been a staging post for migrants from Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa wanting to reach Europe.

Nearly 37,000 immigrants landed on Italian shores last year, an increase of about 75% on the year before. But with the prospect of a new immigration and asylum policy being voted on this autumn by MEPs, Mr Griffin is advocating measures to destroy boats used by illegal immigrants to reach the EU's southern coastline.

In an interview with this week's edition of BBC Parliament's The Record Europe, he said: "If there's measures to set up some kind of force or to help, say the Italians, set up a force which actually blocks the Mediterranean then we'd support that. Europe has sooner or later to close its borders or its simply going to be swamped by the Third World

"But the only measure, sooner or later, which is going to stop immigration and stop large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans dying on the way to get over here is to get very tough with those coming over. "Frankly, they need to sink several of those boats. "Anyone coming up with measures like that we'll support but anything which is there as a 'oh, we need to do something about it' but in the end doing something about it means bringing them into Europe' we will oppose."

The interviewer, BBC Correspondent Shirin Wheeler, said: "I don't think the EU is in the business of murdering people at sea." Mr Griffin replied: "I didn't say anyone should be murdered at sea - I say boats should be sunk, they can throw them a life raft and they can go back to Libya. "But Europe has sooner or later to close its borders or its simply going to be swamped by the Third World."

In May, the Italian government gave Libya three patrol boats as part of a deal aimed at combating the flow of illegal migrants making the crossing to Italy. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Lega Nord party, hailed the first 200 migrants picked up by the boats and returned to Libya as an "historic" moment.

But human rights groups have raised concerns about Italy sending migrants back to Libya without first screening them for asylum claims or to discover whether they are sick, injured, unaccompanied children or victims of human trafficking. Libya has no functioning asylum system and is not a party to the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees.

Separately Mr Griffin, who will next week formally take up his seat in Brussels, has admitted that the BNP has failed to convince other like-minded parties to form an alliance in the new European Parliament. Talks with France's Front National, Lega Nord, and other groups fell apart, with Lega Nord now joining the new Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, led by Britain's UK Independence Party.

Mr Griffin told The "We needed at least 25 members from seven different member states to form a group. There is no doubt that we would have been able to wield a lot more influence if we could have formed a group. "No one was prepared to commit themselves knowing that we had not got Lega Nord on board. "Even so, we will continue to work together with these other groups and share ideas. We will have less access to things like speaking time and committee votes but it's too bad."

The BNP advocates British withdrawal from the European Union and an end to all immigration to the UK and last month won its first two seats in the European Parliament. Mr Griffin and the party's other recently-elected MEP Andrew Brons will sit in the "non-attached" section of the Parliament, which means they will be entitled to less administrative and financial support.

You can watch the full interview with Nick Griffin on The Record Europe on BBC Parliament, BBC World and the BBC News Channel


British Labour isn’t working : "The latest figures released by the Department of Work and Pensions show a telling but frightening story as to the societal damage New Labour have inflicted upon Britain. According to the data, over a million people have been on constant state benefits since 1997 whilst another 1.9 million have been on benefits for over seven years. These results are not as surprising once New Labour’s welfare policies have been inspected. Although they claim to support the most vulnerable in society they seem to have penalised them at every opportunity. State benefits are set at a level where it is more beneficial for an individual to remain on them rather than seek employment.”

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