30 December 2007

New Hope For Pakistan

News that the Pakistan People's Party have chosen Benazir Bhutto's 19-year-old son, Bilawal, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as co-leaders of the party and that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has ended his threat to boycott the country's elections are both welcome developments to end what has been a traumatic week for the nuclear power. It is now to be hoped that when the country's election commission holds its emergency meeting on Monday, it will decide not to postpone the election scheduled for Tuesday week.

29 December 2007

Immigrants & Penal Substitution

A traditional understanding of punishment maintains that each person should be held accountable for their own actions and no person should be punished for the actions of others. As Ezekiel 18:20 puts it: "The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him."

So, why is the Shadow immigration minister Damian Green suggesting that relatives of foreigners who outstay their visas should face imprisonment? Jailing someone for another's misbehaviour seems as unfair as Government proposals requiring relatives of foreigners to pay a £1,000 bond to ensure their visitors do not outstay visas. More than being unfair, such a move would also set a dangerous precedent. For what other crimes might it then become politically convenient to find an innocent scapegoat to penalise?

This is not the way to deal with the negative repercussions of unprecedented mass migration. If politicians really want to establish a sense of collective accountability, perhaps they should begin by returning to the days when ministers accepted responsibility for the mistakes made by their departments.

28 December 2007

The End of Isolationism

Here we are, back again, after a very pleasant family Christmas. Quite clearly, the most significant event of the last couple of days — indeed, arguably of the year — is the assassination of Pakistan's opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

While The Sun headline, The Day Democracy Died, somewhat overstates the importance of yesterday's dramatic turn of affairs, it makes all the more pertinent the Taleban negotiation question, initially raised this week with the expulsion from Afghanistan of the acting head of the EU mission and the UN official criticised for having contact with the Taleban. For, peace and reconciliation are rarely if ever possible without dialogue. Yet, as the Conservative MEP Nirj Deva has written on ConservativeHome, western governments are now going to have to face the uncomfortable truth of "the dastardly and stealthy role the military regime in Pakistan has consistently played in perpetuating Islamic terrorism, both inside the country and in the wider international community."

The New Great Game is set to dominate the twenty-first century just as surely as the original British-Russian rivalry dominated Central Asian politics in the nineteenth. Sadly, for all the lives that will continue to be lost in what has become an internationalised conflict, there is no reason to suppose that the outcome this time will prove any more decisive or lasting than it was before.

24 December 2007

Happy Christmas!

Father Christmas worshipping JesusHappy Christmas to everyone who has helped to make a difference by joining our discussions and debates, wrestling with the policy challenges that face us all in society instead of simply focusing on the personalities and gossip that so often seem to dominate politics.

Let us know in the comments what you think the biggest challenges might be in the year ahead for Britain and the Government.

22 December 2007

Global Warming Fears Cooling?

"Many scientists from around the world have dubbed 2007 as the year man-made global warming fears “bite the dust”"

"Looks like man-made global warming theory is melting away faster than you can say Al Gore. A lot of reputations are now going to disappear along with it: all those who were part of the famous ‘consensus’ (not). Those people should never be taken seriously again.

It’s over, guys. Reason, truth and real science are fighting back."
Ouch! Don't miss Melanie Phillips in the Spectator, where she quotes geophysicist David Denning and a US Senate report, for all the details. She also quotes the New Statesman, which observes:
For the past decade the world has not warmed. Global warming has stopped. It’s not a viewpoint or a sceptic’s inaccuracy. It’s an observational fact…. So we are led to the conclusion that either the hypothesis of carbon dioxide induced global warming holds but its effects are being modified in what seems to be an improbable though not impossible way, or, and this really is heresy according to some, the working hypothesis does not stand the test of data.
Well worth a read, even if you disagree — perhaps, especially if you disagree.

Belief in Politicians

If George W.Bush prays for guidance on invading Iraq, I want to know that. If (as we now know) Mr Blair would regularly choose biblical texts to contemplate in Downing Street, I want to know that. If a Cabinet minister whose government must take decisions on abortion, or homosexuality, or contraception, or embryo research, belongs to Opus Dei, I want to know that. And if a party leader is an unbeliever, a convinced Christian voter should equally want to know that too.
Following the admission earlier this week by the LibDem's newly-selected leader Nick Clegg that he does not believe in God, Matthew Parris claims in the Times that only two prime ministers in two centuries have been strong Christians.

I'm not sure that I accept all the unspoken assumptions that underlie his analysis and, if anything, would sense a parting of the ways between secular belief and reason (rather than between faith and reason), but I suspect we would all, believers and unbelievers, agree with his desire for greater "honest clarity" in our politicians.

Parris is also right that "in a political leader religious faith is not simply personal." Contrary to what some secularists would have us believe, of course religious belief significantly influences a person's outlook on how society should be structured — just as lack of belief in a creator God and moral absolutes significantly influences the worldview of those who ascribe to the faith of the atheist or humanist. And yet, though we might hope that our elected representatives would "stand up and be counted," I think we all know that's not going to happen.

For one thing, our party machines do not like their members to think freely, let alone express any opinions considered off-message. Prospective candidates unwilling to reign in their personal idiosyncracies tend not to succeed [the likes of Boris Johnson are the exceptions that prove the rule] which is why, to quote one former MP, the upcoming generation of MPs "all look and sound like clones of each other." As is evident from any dictatorship around the world, "honest clarity" often loses out to sheep-like obedience when career prospects are at stake.

For another thing, as long as bureaucracy in our country remains "simply too big and ramshackle to function properly" and our "ministers are trammelled by EU treaties, ineptness and institutional inertia" (as the Telegraph puts it today, explaining why it is Gordon Brown appears to be in control of so very little), what our politicians think and say will make very little difference anyway. Consequently, faith in our increasingly eroded parliamentary democracy will continue to decline — unless our MPs heed the Telegraph's advice: "Put yourselves back in control. Seize power from the gentlemen in Whitehall and Brussels. Scrap the quangos. Abrogate the human rights codes. Make yourselves once again a sovereign Parliament."

Sadly, I fear that anyone waiting for that to happen might just as well believe in Father Christmas...

20 December 2007

A Royal Disgrace

As noted by the Telegraph and Archbishop Cranmer, Her Majesty the Queen today became Her Majesty the Queen and Queen Victoriathe oldest monarch in British history, outliving her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Did the BBC make mention of this great cause for national celebration in its ten o'clock news? Of course not, it was too fixated on Diana.

God save the Queen.

Sexual Offences Act Revisited

"Do we think it's right in the 21st Century that women should be in a sex trade or do we think it's exploitation and should be banned?"

"Can we really stop this trade [in human trafficking] when we've still got a lawful sex trade going on?"
The English Collective of Prostitutes and the vice chairman of the Police Federation say Harriet Harman is wrong to seek to outlaw prostitution, warning that such a move would simply force prostitution underground and make women more vulnerable to violence. Let us know what you think.

19 December 2007

2½ Cheers For Scotland

While we in England seem impotent to force Labour to honour its manifesto pledge to give us a referendum on the European Constitution, the Scottish Parliament has tonight voted by a margin of 64 votes to 17 in favour of a UK-wide referendum on the "Treaty of Lisbon". But, given that such a thing will still be in the gift of the Prime Minister, in Westminster, why didn't they also vote for a separate referendum in Scotland?

Diana: The Soap Opera

 [Credit: efluxmedia.com]As far as I am concerned, the birth of a son to Prince Edward and Sophie Countess of Wessex certainly ranks as news. But can anyone tell me why the BBC insists on inflicting on us daily installments of the Diana Soap Opera during its news bulletins? If I wanted to relive her final moments over and over, I would buy the Daily Express, not look to what is supposed to be a world leader in independent news coverage.

18 December 2007

DNA Programmers & Bio Hackers

"We're heading into an era where people will be writing DNA programs like the early days of computer programming, but who will own these programs?"

Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on a computer just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then use a synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual DNA. Experiments with "natural" DNA indicate that when a faux chromosome gets plopped into a cell, it will be able to direct the destruction of the cell's old DNA and become its new "brain" -- telling the cell to start making a valuable chemical, for example, or a medicine or a toxin, or a bio-based gasoline substitute.
By this time next year, the first living cells with fully artificial genomes could be growing.

So, which do you think legislators should most fear, bio-terror or bio-error? Check the Washington Post for more details on the status of mankind's creation of artificial life.

Zuma's Beliefs

Does anybody know what Jacob Zuma, the new leader of the African National Congress, thinks about (i) HIV, and (ii) Zimbabwe?

17 December 2007

Actions Speak Louder

This really deserves as wide dissemination as possible:

One would think that countries that committed to the Kyoto treaty are doing a better job of curtailing carbon emissions. One would also think that the United States, the only country that does not even intend to ratify, keeps on emitting carbon dioxide at growth levels much higher than those who signed.

And one would be wrong...

If we look at that data and compare 2004 (latest year for which data is available) to 1997 (last year before the Kyoto treaty was signed), we find the following:
  • Emissions worldwide increased 18.0 percent;
  • Emissions from countries that signed the treaty increased 21.1 percent;
  • Emissions from nonsigners increased 10.0 percent; and
  • Emissions from the United States increased 6.6 percent.
Source: American Thinker; hat-tip: Britain and America

16 December 2007

Sofa Surfing

A shortage of affordable housing has left 130,000 children homeless in England this Christmas – an increase of 128 per cent in the past decade, according to research by the shadow housing minister Grant Shapps...

The "social failure" of child homelessness is often followed by mental, physical and educational disadvantage. A homeless child is twice as likely to be admitted to an Accident & Emergency department, four times as likely to have respiratory infections and six times as likely to suffer speech impediments, as a child with a fixed address.
While this plight, as reported in today's Independent, is of course very real, lack of stable family life can be just as devastating as (and, indeed, a cause of) lack of permanent accommodation on a child's health and development. What these children need is more than just bricks and mortar.

15 December 2007

Talk Is Cheap

Fragile, Handle With Care!According to Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, the Bali roadmap is "a stark breakthrough." Really? Talks that have achieved "an extremely weak agreement" to start negotiations on a new pact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol are hardly going to change the world. Even their "groundbreaking agreement" on deforestation appears to amount to little more than agreement to include forest conservation in their future discussions. So much for the UN's "historic" climate deal.

14 December 2007

The Question Unasked

Gordon Brown belatedly signing the EU Constitution-cum-reform treaty [Credit: BBC]I'm afraid I spent most of yesterday feasting on Christmas dinners, so this post comes to you somewhat belatedly. Yes, I know, I could have used the Blackberry, but then, so could Gordon have missed his appearance before the Commons select committee.

Anyway, the question that I have been puzzling over and that I haven't seen asked anywhere else is why a million people can turn out on the streets of London over the poll tax or, more recently, over foxes, but there has been no mass rally protesting the Government's constitutional surrender to Europe (treason, I think Cranmer calls it) and failure to give us our promised democratic referendum on such a historic issue.

13 December 2007

Social Immobility

"Parental background continues to exert a significant influence on the academic progress of recent generations of children."

Those from the poorest fifth of households but in the brightest group drop from the 88th percentile on cognitive tests at age three to the 65th percentile at age five. Those from the richest households who are least able at age three move up from the 15th percentile to the 45th percentile by age five. If this trend were to continue, the children from affluent backgrounds would be likely to overtake the poorer children in test scores by age seven.
Since the Sutton Trust demonstrated earlier in the year that Britain has the lowest social mobility of any country you can measure, its latest revelations should hardly come as a surprise. The trouble is, as we have noted previously, many of the proposed mechanisms that might tackle the issue focus on education — but this is the area that Labour appears most to have failed the country.

12 December 2007

Legitimising Illegitimacy

Commenting on today's news that more than one in five births in Britain last year was to a woman from overseas (a fact that goes some way to explaining how Mohammed has now become the most popular boy's name in Britain), the Spectator's CoffeeHouse interestingly observes that, if you strip out immigrants, then 2007 will prove to be the first year in recorded British history that a majority of children have been born outside marriage — a fact that is only masked by mass migration. Quite what this apparent absence of commitment and responsibility reveals about the health of society I suppose will only truly become evident in another couple of decades...

Youth Restorative Justice

The Children's Plan: Building brighter futuresWe complained yesterday about the Government's Orwellian "One-Stop" plan to site the police, social care, advice and welfare services on school grounds. However, not everything in the Children's Plan was so ill-conceived. For, early next year a new scheme is to be piloted to deal with first-time offenders aged between 10 and 17 who have committed a minor offence. Under the scheme, such first time young offenders instead of being sent to court will have to explain their actions and apologise to their victim, either orally or in writing:

We intend therefore to pilot a restorative approach to youth offenders from April 2008. The Youth Restorative Disposal aims to prevent re-offending through a more rehabilitative approach and the involvement of victims so offenders have to face up to the consequences of even low level offending, and the pilots will look at whether this is a more appropriate way to deal with particularly low level, first offences.
Hopefully this will both help address behaviour to prevent reoffending at an early stage and allow police to deal with minor cases more speedily and efficiently, freeing them to deal with more serious crime. Whether the scheme proves at all successful may well depend on the kind of support provided to the first time young offenders after they apologise. Otherwise, the influences that led them to commit their first offence will presumably continue to lead them astray.

11 December 2007

St George's Cross Offensive

Inter’s centenary shirt [Credit: Goal.com]I don't normally blog about football, but a Turkish lawyer has filed a complaint to UEFA, asking the Union of European Football Associations to cancel the three points Inter Milan earned in their recent win against Fenerbahce in the Champions League match. The reason? The celebratory shirt for Inter's centenary worn by the team consists of a big red cross on a white background, a symbol of the city of Milan. This has apparently reminded the Turks of an emblem of the order of the Templars, which is therefore deemed offensive to Muslims.

Oh, please! Whatever next... After Turkey is allowed to join the European Union, is England to redesign Saint George's Cross?!

One-Stop State Service Providers

So, under the Government's latest harebrained idea, headteachers are not just to oversee "extended schools" that provide breakfast-til-bedtime supervision of children, their schools are to become centres for family welfare services, providing parents with information about housing, benefits, parenting skills, and health. As for the "parents council" proposal to allow parents to have more say in schools, perhaps Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls hasn't heard of parent governors and parents teachers associations.

No Ball GamesIf schools are forced to assume the role of social services and become seen as mere extensions of the state, not only will the education of our children suffer even more than it has already done under Labour, but the trust that currently exists between schools and their communities will quickly be forfeited. To borrow Ed's phrase, maybe schools need to display a new sign at their gates: "No Balls games here".

10 December 2007

Putting Wind-Carts Before Sea-Horses

The Government's green light to build more than two offshore wind turbines per mile of UK coastline without first implementing a proper marine planning system through comprehensive legislation is potentially devastating news for the marine environment and threatened wildlife, including seabirds, fish and whales, not to mention the impact they will have on shipping and fishing. But it's all in the name of saving the environment, so it must be OK, mustn't it?

Whatever happened to talk of sustainable development? Clearly the same thing as talk of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, which is now higher than it has ever been over the past ecologically-enlightened decade under Labour.

How To Destroy Society

Save our post offices [The Daily Mail]Have you been to a post office lately? At one point today, the queue went out the door and around the corner — and that was well before the lunchtime rush had even started! Spare a thought, then, for pensioners this Christmas, who may find themselves without cash to spend over the holidays. As ThisIsMoney reports:

As Christmas Day falls on a Tuesday this year, the Department for Work and Pensions will pay weekly pensions and benefits into bank accounts and Post Office Card Accounts on Christmas Eve for those who would normally get the cash on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

But the majority of post office branches will be open only until midday on Christmas Eve and are likely to be busy. It means pensioners with Post Office Card Accounts, who can only access funds from a branch, may not have time to withdraw their cash before Christmas.
And the DWP could so easily have authorised the payments to be made on Friday 21st instead, as in Northern Ireland, allowing pensioners to shop over the weekend.

With the Government tomorrow set to announce the closure of one in five post offices, it is quite clearly intent on destroying the vestiges of our country's post office network and cares nothing for the inconvenience that it is again subjecting the elderly to, despite the crucial contribution that both make to society, especially in rural areas.

09 December 2007

Neighbouring Continents — Worlds Apart

Gordon Brown, his proxy Baroness Amos, and the leaders of Africa may be too weak to stand up to Robert Mugabe, but at least the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken out against Zimbabwe's dictator, who has been in Europe this weekend for the EU-Africa summit, despite having been banned from entering the EU since 2002:

"The current state of Zimbabwe damages the image of the new Africa. Because this is so, we must take the chance here, in this framework, to put all our efforts together into strengthening democracy.

"We don't have the right to look away when human rights are trampled on. Intimidation of those with different opinions and breaches of the independence of the press cannot be justified."
Not that such words will make any more of a difference than our own Prime Minister's boycott of the meeting. Especially considering how South African President Thabo Mbeki is reported to have accused Merkel of being out of touch with the political situation in Zimbabwe. Quite what situation he was thinking of is anybody's guess — perhaps that of Zimbabwe as a world leader, with the world's highest inflation rate (what is variously reported as 8,000-15,000%), highest death rate (21.76 deaths/1,000 population — more than that for Sudan (14.39) and Iraq (5.26) combined!), highest number of AIDS orphans (1.6 million, almost one in four children, have now lost at least one parent to HIV), highest unemployment (at least 80%), and fastest-shrinking economy?

Unsurprisingly, the summit in Lisbon has now ended without any agreement being reached on the key issue of trade. The EU wants to replace expiring trade accords with temporary Economic Partnership Agreements by the end of the year, when a waiver by the World Trade Organisation on preferential trade arrangements for developing countries expires. However, anti-poverty groups have criticised the EPAs for failing to provide protection for Africa's poor farmers and its fragile industry.

08 December 2007

Another GM Warning

"What we’ve got in Europe is a regulatory system that increasingly says cars are dangerous, you might get knocked over by a car, so we’d better ban automobiles. That is the logical conclusion of the way we see the regulatory system being applied today, and it’s an extremely worrying trend."
So one of the world's most senior agricultural business leaders, Michael Pragnell, the chief executive of Syngenta, describes Europe's "increasingly policitised regulatory environment" in an interview for today's Times. Pragnell warns that new European rules potentially banning many pesticides and a failure to embrace genetically modified crops risk a reduction in crop yields of between 35 and 40 per cent across Europe, which would drive up food prices and increase the pressure on land usage at a time when world population is expected to soar by another two billion over the next twenty years. Like Professor Sir David King, who steps down as the Government's chief scientist at the end of the year, he is urging ministers to abandon their neutral stance on GM crops and campaign in favour of the technology.

07 December 2007

Where Are The Nativity Dragons?

You might be interested in this message from The Venerable Trevor Jones, Archdeacon of Hertford:

Royal Mail has traditionally alternated between sacred and secular designs for their Christmas stamps and this year it is the turn for a religious image. Royal Mail has issued two sets of designs this year. The main set of designs, available in all the main denominations is of angels, which is vaguely Christian but not explicitly so and certainly not specifically Christmassy. They have also issued a 'Madonna and Child' design for first and second class only. Post Office staff have been instructed only to sell this design if people specifically request it, but obviously people can't request it if they don't know it exists! If people don't buy these stamps, Royal Mail will claim there is no demand for religious Christmas stamps and not produce them in future. Please therefore ask for 'Madonna and Child' stamps when you do your Christmas posting and also tell your friends, contacts etc. to do the same. Thank You.
Sure enough, I asked my wife, who bought our supply of stamps about a week ago, and she knew nothing about the mother and child option, so came home with lots of angels.

My suggestion for next year, given the fascination with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, would be for various pictures of the ten-horned, seven-headed red dragon described in John's account of Jesus' birth in Revelation 12. After all, why is it we only ever hear Matthew and Luke's accounts? Shouldn't at least a few nativity scenes include John's red dragon lurking ominously, ready to devour the infant Saviour King?Royal Mail Christmas stamps

The Royal Christmas Petition

Further to this week's Christianophobia debate in Parliament, non-Christian Asian religious minorities are petitioning The Queen to protect Christmas and Christian worship:

Your Majesty The Queen, you vowed in Your Coronation Oath to both defend Justice and also to Defend The Faith in Your Realm, therefore we the undersigned urge you to formally call in Your Government ministers and instruct them on pain of dismissal to do the following by Christmas 2008:

1. End by Law the evil libel that Asian religious minorities are offended by Christmas or of peaceful public Christian worship;

2. End by Law the evil libel that Asian religious minorities in Your Realm are enemies of Christmas and Christian worship and education;

3. End by law that anyone can ban carol services in public or private places, nativity plays performed by children in schools or other Christmas worship;

4. Stop Your Government Ministers seeking to divide Your People in your Realm by emphasising and even inventing and fabricating bogus disagreements which cause needless resentment between religious groups;

5. Do all in their power to emphasise the huge areas of agreement and sincere goodwill between different religious groups seeking to express their faith by love for their neighbour and through acts of mercy and charity;

6. Put Merry Christmas on all Government Seasons Greetings Cards and official letters and websites issued in the month of December;

7. We also bless you Your Majesty and your family with a Very Merry Christmas and an extremely Happy New Year in 2008 in which we all pray that HOPE, FAITH and LOVE will re-emerge in our nation.
The petition will be presented to The Queen on December 21st and already has the support of Members of Parliament, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Christian leaders. Anyone interested in signing it should send their name to petition@apnalounge.com

06 December 2007

Power to the People

"In other countries low carbon energy sources have led a process of decentralisation – in the Netherlands, for instance, in little more than a decade, combined heat and power (CHP) became the single largest supplier of the country’s energy needs."

I was very interested by the above fact, cited by David Cameron in his intro to today's energy Green Paper, Power to the people: The decentralised energy revolution. I have heard various comments on the radio today noting the cost-ineffectiveness of wind and expressing reservations about photovoltaic power. However, micro-CHP (which Nick Spencer & Robert White also strongly support in their recent book Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living) appears to hold out real prospect of helping us become significantly more efficient in our production and consumption of energy, which has to be a good thing for our finances (personal and national), our national energy security, and our stewardship of the environment.

In contrast to Labour's myopic approach on renewables (it's all wind!), I also welcome David's commitment not to prescribe which energy sources should be used and to level the playing field, allowing "the market to deliver a globally competitive low carbon future." Quite clearly there will be many issues to work through as we "move from a top-down, old-world, centralised system to a bottom-up, new-world, decentralised system," but this seems an exciting contribution towards the creation of a "safer and greener" Britain.

Primary School League Tables

Two thirds of the 250 primaries in England achieving "perfect" test results were Church of England, Roman Catholic or Jewish schools. Despite making up just a third of schools nationally, faith schools increased their hold on the top places from 44 per cent two years ago to 66 per cent in 2007. Last night, they hailed the results as a testament to good teaching and discipline.
Thus reports today's Telegraph. It goes on to note that critics claim the schools do so well by selecting talented, middle-class pupils, often at the expense of poor children living nearby. However, as David Jesson, Economics professor at York University, comments in the paper, studies have proven that this is not the case: "In a recent study of London secondary schools, it was shown that mainstream faith schools had socio-economic and ability profiles almost identical with that of the society they served - and still helped their pupils gain substantially better results at GCSE than their secular counterparts." The question, as Jesson points out, is: Why?

Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England's chief education officer suggests the schools' "Christian character helps embed strong discipline, a caring attitude, and a sense of purpose." Not so many years ago, that might have seemed like stating the obvious, but with the PC brigade being what it is, I suppose such things cannot be taken for granted any longer.

05 December 2007

Labour's Super-Prisons

Among the questions asked today by Shadow Secretary of State for Justice Nick Herbert about the Government's proposal to build three "titan" super-prisons, each housing about 2,500 offenders, one seems most clearly to get to the heart of the issue, "Would it not be better to build smaller, local prisons where offenders could be closer to their families to aid rehabilitation?" Or, as the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham made the same point in the other chamber:

"I hate Titans and hate the thought of them. The last time they came in they were called “techno-prisons”; they were impersonal, because all locking was done electronically, which broke down the one thing that you need in prisons—the relationship between prisoner and staff. I see that all that electronic whiz-kiddery is mentioned in the Carter report. I hope that we will not have Titans, as they are the complete reversal of what everyone has been talking about, which is to place offenders near to the community from which they come so the community can be involved in their rehabilitation."
Put more fundamentally, what is the purpose of prison?

Russian Expansionism

Russia said on Wednesday it would start the first major navy sortie into the Mediterranean since Soviet times, the latest move by an increasingly assertive Moscow to demonstrate its military might.

"The aim of the sorties is to ensure a naval presence in tactically important regions of the world ocean," Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told President Vladimir Putin, who wished the sailors well. The rest of the meeting was closed.

Serdyukov said 11 ships, including an aircraft carrier, would take part in the sortie and be backed up by 47 aircraft -- including strategic bombers.
Here we go again, as they promised four months ago.

Source: Reuters

Time For Dialogue

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Iran's nuclear enrichment plant [Credit: Washington Post]This blog has previously argued for taking a more conciliatory approach to Iran (see Conservative Muslims May Be Right and Influencing Iran). In the wake of Monday's revelations from the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, The Washington Post is also now suggesting America should open direct talks with Tehran:

Negotiating will appear at first to be a sign of weakness. The Iranians could use talks to exploit fissures between the United States and its allies, and within the U.S. political system.

But there is a good case for negotiations. Many around the world and in the United States have imagined that the obstacle to improved Iranian behavior has been America's unwillingness to talk. This is a myth, but it will hamper American efforts now and for years to come. Eventually, the United States will have to take the plunge, as it has with so many adversaries throughout its history.
Going on, the author Robert Kagan notes, "The United States simultaneously contained the Soviet Union, negotiated with the Soviet Union and pressed for political change in the Soviet Union -- supporting dissidents, communicating directly to the Russian people through radio and other media, and holding the Soviet government to account under such international human rights agreements as the Helsinki Accords. There's no reason the United States cannot talk to Iran while beefing up containment in the region and pressing for change within Iran."

Whether the Bush administration proves to be "smart and creative enough" to adopt such an approach could affect us all.

04 December 2007

The Christianophobia Debate

Amidst the latest findings that four fifths of schools are not staging Nativity plays this year, the now common practice of rebranding Christmas as Winterval / Winter Lights / Celebrity Lights, and perennial reports that another council has ordered the removal of a wooden cross from a crematorium chapel over fears of giving offence, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has called a Westminster debate tomorrow on Christianophobia, suggesting that attempts to move Christian traditions to the "margins" of British life have "gone far enough" and that the "politically correct brigade" run the risk of Christianity being hijacked by extremist parties.

Some have questioned whether this is a proper use of Parliamentary time, but perhaps the debate should be broadened to consider the extent of the Christianophobic problem in countries of our allies, such as Saudi Arabia (with whom, you'll recall, we supposedly enjoy so many shared values), where the government continues to bar Jews and Christians from bringing items such as Bibles, crucifixes and Stars of David into the country, threatening to confiscate them on sight; or Turkey, whom we are told should be allowed to join the European Union, despite continued attacks against Christians within its borders.

Teddy Teacher's Homecoming

The Mail's leader says all that is needed over "how Britain has allowed itself to be manipulated and humiliated by a deeply amoral and tyrannical regime" over the Muhammad bear incident:

We have allowed Sudan's rulers to present themselves as behaving mercifully. The two peers who flew to Khartoum will be seen as representatives of our Parliament bending the knee.

The appeasing Foreign Office has been as hopeless handling Mrs Gibbons as it has in preventing the genocide in Darfur.

The Sudanese government, with its Janjaweed militia allies, have murdered 200,000 of their own citizens, and displaced 2million more. But despite endless international hand-wringing, the situation in Darfur is as bad as ever.

Meanwhile, Britain is one of the most generous donors to Sudan. Over the past five years, ministers have provided £333million in aid to the country; this year, we are giving another £110million.

Yet in return, we have neither managed to stop the obscenity of Darfur, nor apparently can we even protect our citizens from politically inspired malice.

Rather than kow-towing to this dreadful regime, we should cut off aid flows, insist that the UN stops dithering and puts a proper peacekeeping force on the ground, and enforce real sanctions on the country.

Dictators will never understand appeasement. Only strength of purpose.

Time To Emigrate?

Last week we learnt the extent to which this Government has failed our primary school pupils, the reading performance of our ten-year-olds having fallen from third to fifteenth place in the world in just five years. Today we are further informed that an equally disasterous slump in performance is evident in our secondary schools, with the UK dropping out of the top-performing group of countries for reading and maths standards. Seven years ago, the UK ranked eighth in maths and seventh in reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables; today, we sit at an appallingly average 24th place for maths and 17th for literacy. For school science, using a system which places countries within a range of rankings, we have slipped from fourth place to between 12th and 18th place.

Launching the report, the OECD Secretary-General Angel GurrĂ­a stressed the importance of education for the development of people and society: "Effective and innovative education policies open enormous opportunities for individuals. They also underpin healthy and vibrant economies." Quite. Conversely, chanting the mantra "Education, education, education," will no more equip the next generation than invoking the incantation "Abracadabra."

03 December 2007

America Leads Where Europe Fails

At a time when Europe is relaxing its sanctions against Robert Mugabe in order to permit him to have his say at the European-African summit in Lisbon, congratulations should go to America for imposing new travel and financial sanctions on another three and a half dozen people with ties to Zimbabwe's 83-year-old president, including the offspring of some prominent Zimbabweans studying in the US, whose visas will be revoked.

The Zimbabwean people deserve more than Europe's half-hearted support and their misery must not be allowed to continue. If you have not yet signed The Difference petition calling for the British government to do everything in its power to increase pressure on the dictator and his ZANU-PF regime, please take a moment to do so.

21st-Century Family Dilemmas

Five years ago a lesbian couple in a civil partnership persuaded a friend to donate sperm so that they could achieve their ambition of possessing children of their own, without having to pay for the costs of using a licensed clinic. At the time, the friend was not planning to have children and was in a relationship with a woman who had been sterilised, so he agreed. Five years on and he has married someone else but the lesbians have since separated. As a result, despite having no legal rights over the boy and girl conceived (now aged two and four), the man is reportedly being forced by the Child Support Agency to pay thousands of pounds in child maintenance.

Confused? Not half as much as the children are likely to be! Such is the tale of Sharon and Terri Arnold and their friend Andy Bathie, a fireman from Enfield.

The moral of the story, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, is that if men donate sperm, they should do so through an HFEA-licensed clinic even though this will prove more costly for the couple hoping to conceive, or else they may find themselves taking on all the responsibilities that comes with parenthood... And to think, until just two years ago, donors were guaranteed the right to remain anonymous throughout the lifetime of any conceived children.

Another moral could be that we ought to give more thought to the long-term and social consequences of our short-term decisions and desires. Before we exercise our "rights", it would behove us to consider from what corresponding duty those rights are derived. For, as Gandhi once noted, "I learned from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights have to be deserved and preserved from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship to the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of Man and Women and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed. Every other right can be shown to be a usurpation hardly worth fighting for."

Beyond GDP

Children living in households with income below 60% of UK median before housing costs [Credit:BBC]"They are, in a way, treating the symptoms - meanwhile, the root problems are getting worse."

Thus says one of the authors of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report claiming that one in three children in the UK is living in poverty, speaking about the Government's failing attempts to reach its 2010 target of halving child poverty. Yet, poverty is defined so that a couple with two children whose net income is less than £1300 per month after income tax and housing costs is reckoned to be poor. As someone who has never chosen a job because of its salary, I would say you can actually do quite a lot with that kind of money. It's all a question of priorities and budgeting. Now, I know we've had the debate about relative and absolute poverty before but, rather than worrying about how many televisions or foreign holidays someone can afford (not to mention expenses such as the £100 per month spent by the average 15 cigarettes-a-day smoker), I would be far more concerned about the world's ultra poor and those in this country trapped by family break-down, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addiction.

Yes, we do need to make British poverty history, but we also need a different measure of poverty: one that factors in welfare dependency, poor skills, and family breakdown — one that measures the true state of our country's broken communities. The five "pathways to poverty" are problems that cannot be addressed simply by the Treasury, for they are not simply economic. There is, after all, more to human well-being than GDP.

01 December 2007

Mental Health Inequalities

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is reporting that inequalities in the provision of specialist child mental health services have worsened in the last seven years.

Presumably we are expected to respond by demanding yet further investment so as to increase yet further the number of units and in-patient beds (both of which have increased over the seven years). Recalling how mental health-related hospital admissions resulting from cannabis use have almost doubled under Labour, one might understand why this would be a necessity.

And yet, given questions over the massive increase in prescription of medication for mental health problems among children that we have seen over the same period, and now that we know many young children who are diagnosed with mental disorders simply need time to settle down, perhaps we ought to be asking what level of specialist services are really required? Further, if the disproportionate provision in the south east (such as the vast majority of beds set aside for eating disorders being located in London) has arisen from "the effects of market forces," is there really a need for an equal level of provision across the country or are the problems particularly and increasingly acute in the south east? If this is the case, then why are conditions in the south east having such a negative impact on our young people? And how can we improve the situation to reduce the level of mental health problems in the south east to a level closer to those found elsewhere in the country?

Once again, are we simply treating symptoms rather than seeking to address root causes?

30 November 2007

The Special Relationship

May I commend to you Tim Montgomerie's article in the Weekly Standard on David Cameron's meeting with President Bush in Washington: Cameron's Conservatives? Tim notes:

Cameron's was the first visit by a Tory leader to America's capital city for six years. That's the longest absence since World War II. Those Americans who want long-term partners should realize the importance of the conservative party. It's not just because it is increasingly likely to form Britain's next government, but because the conservatives are the natural allies of an outward-looking America, and particularly of the GOP's worldview.

29 November 2007

On Blasphemy & Genocide

Personally, I'd have opted for forty lashes instead of 15 days imprisonment, but maybe Gillian Gibbons didn't have a choice over her punishment for allowing her pupils to name their class bear Muhammad after one of the seven-year-olds in their class — it would have made a far better photo for the world's media.

Given the Government's reaction to genocide in Sudan (not to mention the capture of our servicemen by Iran earlier this year), it is hardly surprising that they have done so little to intervene in what is essentially a political struggle between the various factions that have long been vying for control of the country.

The English Patient

Despite last year's report by Derek Wanless urging the Department of Health to reconsider its policy of means-testing for care such as washing, dressing and cleaning, Health Secretary Alan Johnson still believes Scotland is wrong to provide free personal care for the elderly, prompting Labour MP Charlotte Atkins to accuse him of giving English patients "a raw deal" compared with those in Scotland.

Whatever happened to an NHS free at the point of use? Going the same way as the NHS dentist? Has Labour abandoned its post-war vision of "cradle to grave" welfare-state reform, of which it was until fairly recently so proud?

28 November 2007

Labour's Greatest Political Failure

At the start of the month we were told that standards of reading have risen little in fifty years. Today the quinquennial Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) reveals that, in fact, in just five years the reading performance of our children has fallen from third to fifteenth in the world (and Scotland from 14th to 21st).

Gordon Brown once told us, "There is no greater educational priority than ensuring that all children are able to read." So one might expect an admission that there can be no greater political failure than this, that ten years of Labour has thus failed a whole generation and will affect our nation for decades to come. Yet Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls has reacted by suggesting parents must do more. Given that until recently they clearly used to, perhaps they would — or even, could — once again, if the State didn't keep trying to do more?

Cyberbullying

How can a person not believe in the depravity of man after reading stories such as the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, bullied online by her friend's mother after falling out with the friend?

Josh contacted Megan through her page on MySpace.com, the social networking Web site, said Megan's mother, Tina Meier. They flirted for weeks, but only online — Josh said his family had no phone. On Oct. 15, 2006, Josh suddenly turned mean. He called Megan names, and later they traded insults for an hour.

The next day, in his final message, said Megan's father, Ron Meier, Josh wrote, "The world would be a better place without you."

Sobbing, Megan ran into her bedroom closet. Her mother found her there, hanging from a belt. She was 13.

Six weeks after Megan's death, her parents learned that Josh Evans never existed. He was an online character created by Lori Drew, then 47, who lived four houses down the street in this rapidly growing community 35 miles northwest of St. Louis.
A tale of our times with a host of lessons, if we could but hear them?

From Annapolis To Islamabad

What a week we're having! Kevin Rudd sweeps to power as prime minister with a landslide victory over John Howard in Australia. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agree to resume long-stalled peace talks. President Pervez Musharraf steps down as Pakistan's chief of army staff and Turkish President Abdullah Gul accepts his invitation to hold talks next month in Pakistan. All these geo-political developments taking place against the domestic backdrop of Labour's latest funding scandal and the transfiguration of Brown from "a safe pair of hands" to slippery fingers, from "great clunking fist" to over-rated flunking fiddler — or, as the LibDem's acting leader Vince Cable so memorably put it in today's PMQs, from Stalin to Mr Bean, "creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos."

Whatever next? Keep your eyes on Russia, China and Iran...

27 November 2007

Another Victory For Mugabe

So, predictably, despite being subject to a European visa ban, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is to attend next week's summit of European and African leaders in Portugal. Gordon Brown had threatened to stay away from the talks if Mugabe was allowed to participate. However, a number of African leaders, who still hold Mugabe as a hero of the struggle that brought independence to his country in 1980, had threatened to boycott the summit if Mugabe was barred from attending. Britain is now expected to send a junior minister or diplomat instead.

Supposedly to discuss issues such as trade, climate change and AIDS, the Lisbon summit is now certain to be overshadowed by the question of human rights violations in Zimbabwe, where elections are due to be held in March. Once again, Mugabe wins and the people of Africa lose — not that the dictator will be in the least concerned about that.

26 November 2007

GM Crop Results Scandal

What are politicians to do when scientific studies undermine their political stances? One option would be to admit their previous judgement was mistaken. Another is to cover up the studies...

Just a month since France ran into trouble with the European Commission over its proposed freeze on the planting of genetically modified crops, we now learn that government officials in Italy have for two years been suppressing the results of field trials on a genetically engineered strain of maize showing that compared with conventional varieties, the GM crop has both a higher yield (by 28-43%) and significantly lower levels of toxins (less than 1% the fumonisin content, which appears to cause neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida).

As Peter Mandelson noted earlier this year, "We need an open and rational debate about the risks and benefits of biotechnology more than ever... We must be under no illusion that Europe's interests are served by being outside a global market that is steadily working its way through the issues raised by GM food. They are not."

UPDATE: Interesting to see the IHT is reporting that the European agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, has today warned farm ministers that resistance in Europe to imports of genetically modified products is contributing to the rising cost of raising pigs and chickens, and could pose a threat to the meat industry.

For further details, see Truth About Trade & Technology

What's In Another Name?

Rosie Reading Bear on holiday in CambridgeAt half-term my daughter had the privilege of looking after the class teddy, Rosie Reading Bear, and then writing in the bear's diary about what they did together. Six-to-seven-year-old pupils at Khartoum's Unity High School, an independent school for Christian and Muslim children in Sudan following the British national curriculum, were allowed to choose their own name for their bear and came up with a shortlist of eight of their favourite names, including Abdullah, Hassan, and Muhammad. Twenty out of the 23 children voted for Muhammad. Three months later, certain parents have complained to Sudan's Ministry of Education that this is an insult to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, resulting in the arrest of their British teacher, Gillian Gibbons from Liverpool, and the temporary closure of the school for fear of reprisals. Her punishment could be up to six months in jail, forty lashes, or a fine.

You couldn't make it up, could you?! Reminds me of another Muslim country, where parents are unable to give their children Christian names. I wonder if anyone has considered punishing the twenty mischievous children responsible for naming the bear.

Anyone care to suggest what lesson the pupils may have learnt from the whole affair?

25 November 2007

Lights Under Bushels

"There is no point in me denying it, I happen to have religious conviction. I don't actually think there is anything wrong in having religious conviction – on the contrary, I think it is a strength for people."

Our former Prime Minister, "who takes a Bible with him wherever he goes and last thing at night he will read from the Bible," now tells us that "the job is as much about character and temperament as it is about anything else. For me having faith was an important part of being able to do that." Given that 23% of our country's MPs admit to being Christian, it is a pity Blair didn't have the faith to say so while he was in his position of influence and leadership. Maybe Blair never got to reading his Lord and Saviour's exhortation in Matthew 5:14-16:

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

23 November 2007

Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap

GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Jason Fletcher

Earlier this month, David Cameron launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement to help people establish co-operatives that could set up or run local public services such as schools, providing a "flexibility and dynamism that a central state agency lacks." With the publication this week of the party's Green Paper on education, The Difference invited the headteacher of a newly created independent school to comment on the proposals to provide capital funding and loosen planning rules to allow charities and concerned parents to set up schools more easily.

I am privileged to be the Headteacher of Cambridge's newest independent school — Heritage School — which opened its doors to 16 lower-primary aged students on 5 September. Our intention is to grow year on year through the secondary level.

Although I've yet to read them in detail, the Tory proposals to back parent initiated schools are heartening. Why? After several months of evenings spent in research into our educational vision and the business case, we were very thankful in the end to secure sufficient start-up funding from a number of generous donors. But we are not out of the woods yet - as far as financial viability goes. The challenge of finding families able to pay a second time for their child's education, despite our intentionally modest fees, is considerable. Just last night a parent who is dissatisfied with the state school her child is in said she was 'envious' of what we are offering - but unable, at present, to afford it.

If government funding could follow successful recruitment in an open market I am confident that we could readily fill our available places. Our educational values and methods resonate with parents concerned by large class sizes, a one-size-fits-all system, a vacuum of Christian-based values, a test-driven school culture, the failure of so many children to be not only adequately 'up-skilled' but also, simply, to have the vitality of mind to be actively engaged with our very interesting world - to name a few concerns. Unsurprisingly, I would love to see parents given real choices. It strikes me as very wise for a government to unleash the most powerful social force for good we possess: the fierce, selfless nurturing instinct of the parent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the general well-being of children in Britain would be significantly advanced by a mature, diverse educational market.

A final thought or two: we held our first parents' evening two weeks ago. Sitting across the table from real parents who could choose to take their child elsewhere is a powerful motivator to excellence in educational provision - a far healthier motivator than excessive centralised target setting. A related point is this: independence in education ought to mean just that. Clearly some regulation is essential (a 'broad and balanced curriculum', health and safety, etc.), but there is an inevitable danger that there will be too many strings attached.

Our dream is to see other Child Light schools (Heritage is run by Child Light Limited, a registered charity) founded in the coming years. Dare I hope that we might be poised to ride a great wave of educational reform?

Cocaine's Health Time Bomb

Trends in prevalence of cocaine use among young adults (aged 15–34) in Europe

EMCDDA 2007 Annual report: the state of the drugs problem in Europe: Cocaine and crack cocaineThis year's annual report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reveals that the proportion of young Britons who take cocaine has overtaken that of Americans and that, after cannabis, cocaine is now the second most commonly used illicit drug. 4.9% of men and women aged between 15 and 34 used the drug in Britain last year and 6% of teenagers at or below school-leaving age have tried the drug, with many users also using other substances including alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and other stimulants.

Thus, although cannabis use in the UK has declined slightly (yet is still smoked by one in five people under 24), it has simply been replaced by a more fashionable — and significantly more harmful — alternative. The report's researchers warn that cocaine is a growing public health issue, its most common adverse effects including cardiovascular disorders, strokes, and seizures. Given that no effective medication exists to help cocaine users maintain abstinence or reduce use, more than ever we desperately need a new approach to the Government's failed drugs strategy.

22 November 2007

Conspiracy Of Silence

Last night's Ten O'Clock News had a good report on the rise of neo-nazism in Russia, including an interview with Nikolai Kuryanovich, a member of the extreme nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and deputy of the State Duma. Unfortunately, it left the viewer with the impression that ill-feeling towards the "ten million foreigners" who have moved to Russia in recent years is only to be found in the country's equivalent of the BNP. However, the truth is that Central Asians, such as the Uzbek they interviewed who had been beaten up for being "dark-skinned filth" (a rather tame translation of regular abuse that is actually as harsh and inflaming as was "filthy n****r" in America), were always treated as second-class citizens in the former Soviet Union and, as economic migrants today, continue to be harassed and exploited by both the authorities and population at large. Anti-Turkic, anti-Muslim, anti-Western, and even anti-Georgian or anti-Ukrainian stereotypes dominate the mainstream, Kremlin-controlled media.

I say that not simply to point fingers at the racist attitudes endemic in another country, but to question to what extent race has been allowed to subvert a proper and reasoned debate over immigration here† and to question whether we are aware of the ways that our attitudes towards "outsiders" are shaped by our own positive perceptions of national identity and expression of national pride. I am conscious that these are inconvenient questions that the politically correct might like to brush aside, but they are ones on which our elected representatives cannot afford to remain silent.

† Consider, for instance, the recent over-reaction to comments made by Nigel Hastilow, the now former Conservative parliamentary candidate for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, who observed:

"When you ask most people in the Black Country what the single biggest problem facing the country is, most people say immigration. Many insist: “Enoch Powell was right”. Enoch, once MP for Wolverhampton South West, was sacked from the Conservative front bench and marginalised politically for his 1968 “rivers of blood” speech warning that uncontrolled immigration would change our country irrevocably.

He was right. It has changed dramatically. But his speech was political suicide. Enoch’s successors in Parliament are desperate to avoid ever mentioning the issue. It’s too controversial and far too dangerous. Nobody wants to be labelled a racist. Immigration is the issue that dare not speak its name in public."

21 November 2007

Measuring Local Quality Of Life

The BBC reports that "English regions are to get 'quality of life' reports on health, education, social care, housing and policing." Replacing the present Comprehensive Performance Assessment — which, annoyingly for the Government, has on average awarded Conservative councils a higher overall service score and a better performance rating than non-Conservative councils — the Audit Commission claims that the new Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) will provide:

"the first independent assessment of the prospects for local areas and the quality of life for people living there. It will put the experience of citizens, people who use services and local taxpayers at the centre of a new local assessment framework, with a particular focus on those whose circumstances make them vulnerable. This focus on outcomes for local people requires CAA to look across councils, health bodies, police forces, fire and rescue authorities and others responsible for local public services, which are increasingly expected to work in partnership to tackle the challenges facing their communities."
The recurrent emphasis is clearly on our "local" communities. And yet the whole shift in focus away from individual county councils towards regions sounds like a move in the wrong direction — indeed, a move towards the European-determined regions and unelected regional assemblies to which local councils have already lost so many of their previous powers and which, where our opinion has been sought, have been rejected by voters.

If the CAA were really to evaluate our quality of life, it would take the localism agenda far more seriously and use it, in the words of the Conservatives' recent Quality of Life Policy Group report, "to empower the very lowest of levels of government, nearest to the people whose lives they affect." For, without considering how distant the relationship has become between us, as citizens, and those in authority whose decisions (and given the current state of the government, one might add, mistakes) have such an impact on our well-being, there is no prospect that this will achieve its stated aim of acting "as a catalyst for improvement in the quality of life for citizens, the experience of people who use services and value for money for taxpayers."

20 November 2007

How Safe Are Your Passwords?

What better present could Her Majesty the Queen want from her Government on her diamond wedding anniversary than the effective guarantee that they will not be able to introduce their ill-conceived ID card scheme?!

Rather ironically, as the news was breaking today about HM Revenue and Customs' loss of the names, addresses, dates of birth, and bank account details of every family in the country in receipt of child benefit, I was reporting back at work on a computer security review I recently conducted across our international organisation, and reminding colleagues of the need for every computer and all electronic communication to be protected by basic precautionary measures such as boot passwords, regularly updated anti-virus and anti-spyware software, firewall, and encryption.

Of course, even with encryption, the passphrase is typically the weakest link in the information security of most individuals and most organisations. Top passwords include "password", "passwd" and "pass" and, among Christians, "godblessyou" and "Jesus". Then there are simple keyboard combinations such as "123456", "asd123", and "qwerty". And, of course, people's names, dates of birth, postcodes, favourite hobbies, and favourite sports teams. All of which, since we've most of us got wise to the need for including digits as well as a mix of upper and lower case letters, are frequently followed by a number, more often than not a single digit, and usually "1" — making "password1" one of the more commonest passphrases. And simply choosing a word (in any language, even if it is slang or other jargon) won't delay any hacker with a basic dictionary search programme.

The other problem with most people's passwords is that they use the same one (or two) for their online banking, their email accounts, the various sites they login into online, and their computer (if this has any at all, it may only be a Windows login password, which offers very weak protection, rather than a boot password and screensaver password). So, once a hacker or fraudster obtains one password, they are well on their way to stealing their victim's identity.

So, if you find your password described above, now might be a good time to protect your identity and personal information a little more securely. Try to include non-alphanumeric characters and make each phrase at least eight characters in length. And perhaps choose a phrase rather than a word and use the initial letter of each word in the phrase as your password, with a couple of easily remembered substitutions, e.g. "Tk2mc1nmDOB!" (The key to my computer is not my date of birth!)

In any event, any parent will, of course, definitely want to change their online banking passwords and "memorable information" if it includes any of the details possessed by HMRC. I hope the above advice helps somebody sleep more peacefully tonight.

Common Fisheries Problem

British Fish Under New Management"The UK fishing industry is warning it faces ruin because of EU quotas which result in thousands of tonnes of dead fish being dumped back into the sea." [BBC: Fish dumping 'will ruin industry']

"Fisheries Minister Jonathan Shaw has agreed that dumping thousands of tonnes of dead fish back into the sea because of EU fishing quotas is 'immoral'." [BBC: Dumping North Sea fish 'immoral']

Save Britain's FishHaving recently learnt that 250% more fish are being caught than the oceans can produce in a sustainable manner, dumping back 40-60% of fish caught by trawlers in the North Sea is clearly not going to help the problem of over-fishing. However, neither is increasing the fishing quotas! The only way forward is to leave the European Common Fisheries Policy and regain control of the UK's exclusive fishing zone.

Click on either of the graphics for further details about the CFP from eurosceptic.com

Drugs Poll Results

Here are the results from our last poll, which asked whether you thought the ABC classification system for drugs should be replaced with an index of harms:

Should the ABC classification system for drugs be replaced with an "index of harms"?
Yes.  50% (11 votes)
No.  32% (7 votes)
Not sure.  18% (4 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 22

19 November 2007

On Punishment & Rehabilitation

Coinciding with the death after 55 years in jail of John Straffen, Britain's longest serving prisoner, at the age of 77, there was an interesting piece on the Today programme this morning about a cleaning firm in Birmingham that is training prisoners to help them find work on release. I've tried to find a few more details online, but can only locate a report from March 2005 describing a similar scheme in south Wales. With the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, last week criticising the government's sentencing policy for contributing to the problem of prison overcrowding, and knowing that 64% of those released from custody and 61% of those placed on probation are convicted of another crime within two years, perhaps now would be a good time to reconsider alternative options, such as tough community sentences†, that not only protect the public but also improve the reparation and rehabilitation of offenders.

† Not to mention more appropriate treatment for drug abusers and the mentally ill.
See also: Justice: Retributive or Restorative? and Prisons Need Inner Change

18 November 2007

P Is For Pupils, Politicians & Power

My daughter, who turned five today and who is desperate to catch up with her big brother, would, I'm sure, agree that all children should learn to read by the age of six. She was disappointed not to be able to do so already in time for when she joined her reception class little more than two months ago. However, do we really need another alternative externally-administered test for six to seven-year-olds and a one-size-fits-all prescription of synthetic phonics, as David Cameron is reported as suggesting? If this were a Labour proposal, I would at least understand the rationale, with their misplaced belief that "the state always knows best." Yet this is coming from the party that is supposed to stand for freedom and local empowerment.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove was right when he told Andrew Marr, "Unless they learn to read properly they won't be able to read to learn subsequently, and this is the key foundation stone on which the rest of learning is built." Which is precisely why teachers need to be freed to teach. The last thing we need is yet another state-administered National Literacy Strategy, a new Every Child a Reader programme, or the Conservatives aping Labour's failed approach.

In the summer, Mr Cameron criticised the Government for treating every child "not as unique, but as identical," and making schools "local outposts of the central state." He also explained how the Conservatives would improve the provision of education for excluded children by trusting schools and their local partners with more resources, more responsibility, longer contracts, and more freedom. Surely the same would benefit all children? What happened to the party's belief in the principle of subsidiarity, its call for an end to bureaucratic overload, and its promises of a massive liberalisation of the supply-side of education? Let us hope that when Cameron publishes his education policy on Tuesday, we find today's reports have given a distorted impression of the opposition's ideas...

17 November 2007

Dolly Scientist's U-Turn

The Government must be kicking itself. Just two months after the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority gave its go-ahead for the creation of human-animal embryos for research, Professor Ian Wilmut, the leading scientist who controversially created Dolly the sheep, is abandoning the cloning of human embryos in favour of a rival method developed in Japan that he says has greater potential for stem cell research than the use of embryonic cells.

If only the politicians had heeded the scientific advice they were given at the time detailing questions over the actual possible usefulness of these entities and the lack of evidence for any current scientific reasons to create them.

16 November 2007

The End Is Nigh

At last, the UN has agreed its fourth and final report on climate change — or, more accurately, its final "synthesis" of the report from the highly politicised Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The twenty-page document, to be released tomorrow in Valencia by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, is intended to act as a blueprint for the next round of climate talks starting next month in Bali, Indonesia, as the world's governments negotiate a successor to the Kyoto treaty, which expires in 2012.

Despite offering no new scientific evidence for human-caused global warming, and despite reducing their earlier predictions for future warming and suggesting its impact will be less severe and more distant than they had previously claimed, this latest forecast makes the strongest assertions yet that mankind is pushing the climate past some irreversible tipping point, some "point of no return."

As regular readers will know, I'm all for a serious discussion about environmental and social sustainability. I just wish the debate could be a little less myopic and a little more open, a little less hysterical and a little more rational.

Britain's Brain Drain

The Spectator's CoffeeHouse has picked up on an OECD report which sheds further illumination on yesterday's observations about immigration:

We’re so focussed on the 1,500 arriving here every day that no one really focuses on the 1,000 leaving every day. Figures from the OECD show more graduates, 1.3million, have fled Britain than any other developed country (even America, which has five times our population). On Brits deemed to have “high skills,” 15% have left to live abroad – the highest ratio in the developed world save for the notoriously itinerant Irish and Kiwis.
One could hope that this might be because we have a lot of people committed to providing humanitarian assistance in the developing world, but I suspect not. In fairness though, what Fraser Nelson doesn't note is that we also have one of the highest percentages of highly qualified immigrants and, indeed, have a net inflow of 108,507 highly qualified migrants, as the following chart from page 13 of the OECD report shows:Immigrant and emigrant population aged 15+ with tertiary education in OECD countries

15 November 2007

Our Unsustainable Immigration

They say a picture speaks a thousand words...Total International Migration To/From UK 1997-2006 [Credit: BBC]Two thirds of arrivals come from outside the EU and more than half of those leaving are British. Since 1997, there has been a net inflow of 2,337,000 foreign nationals and a net outflow of 715,000 Britons.

Coming on top of news earlier this month that 1.1 million of the 2.7 million jobs created in the past decade were taken by immigrants and news last month that one in seven prisoners come from overseas, it is little wonder that social cohesion has become such a hot issue.

14 November 2007

Alternatives To A Pound Of Flesh?

Treasury minister Kitty Ussher today launches a three-month consultation into issuing Islamic "sukuk" bonds, which are compliant with the prohibition on interest found in Shari'a law. The government's goal is to introduce the bonds in next year's budget with the view to establishing the UK a key world centre in the development of Islamic finance, a market started just five years ago with the first $600 million bond issue by the Malaysian Government and now estimated to be worth $400 billion globally.

Coinciding, as it does, with the ongoing global impact of America's sub-prime lending crisis and warnings that repossessions in the UK will keep on rising over the coming months, perhaps it is time for Christians to revisit the Biblical injunction against interest† and consider whether this is a product that we should use. For, as Thomas Aquinas famously observed, "To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice."

When Jesus applied the Old Testament teaching against taking interest for his disciples in the Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:34-36), his concern was that we might be kind and merciful. One of the issues, as Pope Gregory IX noted in the thirteenth century, is whether the lender shares in the risk associated with the loan or profits irrespective of what happens to the borrower. When you see the likes of Theo Paphitis, Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones investing their thousands in novel business ventures on Dragon's Den, you are witnessing the start of a relationship between lender and borrower as it is in the dragon's interests to ensure the entrepreneur makes the most of the borrowed funds. In contrast, when you or I visit the bank to negotiate a new mortgage, the bank is effectively able to ignore the needs of the borrower thereafter as they and their anonymous shareholders will profit whether or not we are able to make our monthly repayments.

The Islamic bonds, sukuks, are asset-based and tend to be used in conjunction with a structure where lease rental income provides a profit for the sukuk holders or where the profit share provides a return. In either case, the sukuk holder not only profits from the income generated from the underlying asset, but also holds a proportional ownership in it, so consequently assumes all rights and obligations for the maintenance of the asset. Here, at least there is shared risk, yet it still lacks the proximity of relationship seen in the Dragon's Den.

Once the Government has introduced the legislative framework to allow such bonds, promising to entrench London as "a global gateway to Islamic finance," perhaps Christian businessmen could devise a new set of financial institutions that would enable people to borrow and invest in a way that both shares any risk equitably and cultivates closer community relationships?

See Ex 22:25, Lev 25:35-37, Dt 23:20-21, Lk 6:34-36

13 November 2007

Disruptive Children Same As Peers

"Two new studies suggest that many young children who are identified as troubled or given diagnoses of mental disorders settle down in time and do as well in school as their peers."

Now we have yet more evidence to undermine the state's unnecessary practice of over-medicating our more troublesome (and troubled) children:

In one study, an international team of researchers analyzed measures of social and intellectual development from 20,000 children and found that disruptive or antisocial behaviors in kindergarten were not at all correlated with academic success at the end of elementary school. Kindergartners who interrupted the teacher, defied instructions, even picked fights, were performing just as well in reading and math as well-behaved children of the same abilities by fifth grade, the study found.

In the other study, government researchers using imaging techniques found that the brains of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder developed normally but more slowly, in some areas, than in children without the disorder.
For further details, see the International Herald Tribune

Dialogue Or Debate?

Do not miss Adrian Pabst's comments in today's IHT on last month's Common Word letter, which are worth quoting from fairly extensively:

To suggest, as the authors of "A Common Word" do, that Muslims and Christians are united by the same two commandments which are most essential to their respective faith and practice - love of God and love of the neighbor - is theologically dubious and politically dangerous.

Theologically, this glosses over elementary differences between the Christian God and the Muslim God. The Christian God is a relational and incarnate God. Moreover, the New Testament and early Christian writings speak of God as a single Godhead with three equally divine persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is not merely a doctrinal point, but one that has significant political and social implications. The equality of the three divine persons is the basis for equality among mankind - each and everyone is created in the image and likeness of the triune God.

As a result, Christianity calls for a radically egalitarian society beyond any divisions of race or class. The promise of universal equality and justice that is encapsulated in this conception of God thus provides Christians with a way to question and transform not only the norms of the prevailing political order but also the (frequently perverted) social practices of the Church.

By contrast, the Muslim God is disembodied and absolutely one: there is no god but God, He has no associate. This God is revealed exclusively to Muhammed, the messenger (or prophet), via the archangel Gabriel. As such, the Koran is the literal word of God and the final divine revelation first announced to the Hebrews and later to the Christians.

Again, this account of God has important consequences for politics and social relations. Islam does not simply posit absolute divisions between those who submit to its central creed and those who deny it; it also contains divine injunctions against apostates and unbelievers (though protecting the Jewish and Christian faithful).

Moreover, Islam's radical monotheism tends to fuse the religious and the political sphere: It privileges absolute unitary authority over intermediary institutions and also puts a premium on territorial conquest and control, under the direct rule of God.
The scary thing is, if I were to ask you whether you thought modern, Western society more closely resembled a relational society or a centralised, controlling one, I think you'd agree we're closer to the latter. Perhaps we really are at risk of losing our Christian roots after all?

Who's To Blame?

"Studies have shown that as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it's okay to force a woman to have sex. To my mind, this is an example of moral collapse. We need widespread cultural change, and addressing this moral failure represents a real challenge to British society: to families, schools, local communities and businesses."

When I heard Cameron's speech on rape yesterday, I thought it was all fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. Clearly I was wrong. The Guardian accuses him of invoking "the disaster of rape for a moralistic, collapse-of-civilisation-as-we know-it populist agenda that has nothing to do with contemporary culture or policing." On his pledge of tougher laws, it claims, "Explosive evidence from Scotland Yard - hitherto unpublished - shows the problem is not the law":

An independent team looked into all 677 rapes reported to the Met in two months of 2005. What they discovered challenged conventional wisdoms about victims and perpetrators. It found that men who like raping women target their victims and that these women cluster into the very groups least likely to attract police attention: those under 18; in present or past relationships with the perpetrators; living in domestically violent environments; under the influence of alcohol; suffering mental ill health. These groups constitute nearly 90% of reported rapes. Between half and a third of these reported rapes were not "crimed" - they don't appear in the books. It gets worse. In half of the not-crimed cases involving alcohol, for example, the suspects had not been investigated, despite having a history of sex offences.
At which point I find myself even more in agreement with Cameron. If police do not believe they are able to construct a sufficiently strong case to convince a jury that a someone who is drunk, under-aged, mentally-ill, and living in an abusive relationship is a victim of sexual violence, then the answer is not to lower the bar on the required burden of proof (which would set a terrible precedent, no doubt to be followed in other emotive areas, with inevitable miscarriages of justice) but to seek Cameron's "widespread cultural change".

For he did not merely talk about convictions and sentencing, but also about the need for improved victim support and a cultural change in attitudes towards women and sexual violence. Surely he is right that sex education should not be values-free and should include teaching young people about consent: that 'no' means 'no' — just as it should include teaching about the personal and social benefits of abstinence and marriage.

More than that, if 54% of rapes are committed by a partner or ex-partner of the victim (and just 17% by a stranger), then the principle issue is the nature of the relationship between the two individuals — and the nature of relationships that we, as society, have come to expect and encourage. A society in which a single mother cannot get the support she's after from the police or social services when her rebellious 14-year-old moves out, but wags its finger disapprovingly when three years later that teenager is pregnant, yet again. Can we truly lay all the blame on either the child or the mother, who has struggled for so long to do her best by her children, or are we willing to accept that we did not offer her the support she and her family needed? And what of the Church — are we not supposed to function as an alternative extended family to such widows and orphans?

The issue of violence against women (sexual or otherwise) is so much bigger than simply what goes on between two individuals when nobody else can see ... and we must all accept a portion of blame.