31 March 2007

UN Champions Islam

UN WatchFurther to my Tuesday post on proceedings of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which have now concluded, UN Watch has expressed its disappointment over the Council's failure to address the vast majority of human rights abuses occurring around the world.

Sharing the disbelief expressed on this blog two weeks ago, the Geneva-based non-governmental organisation is particularly appalled by the Council's rejection of the Williams report into Sudan's "large-scale international crimes in Darfur," noting that in its nine months of existence, the Council, which is dominated by Sudan's allies in the African and Islamic groups, has condemned only one country in the entire world for human rights violations: Israel. At this session, the Council passed yet another resolution—its ninth—against the Jewish state.

Furthermore, despite the objections and abstentions of nearly half of its members, the Council also adopted an Islamic Group-sponsored resolution against "defamation of religions." As UN Watch notes, this is "an attempt to suppress perceived offenses against Islam and even to justify violent reactions thereto. Not only does the resolution refer to Islam alone among the world's religions, it is inconsistent with free speech protections and with the fundamental principle that international human rights law is about protecting individuals, not religions."

NHS Cancer Care

In light of today's story that older women with breast cancer get poorer care than younger women and Thursday's report that two thirds of health staff would not be happy to be a patient in their own NHS trust, I feel I must point you to the NHS Blog Doctor who has today posted A tale of two cancers, which begins:

Mr R and Mrs D live within five hundred yards of each other. They have never met, but they have much in common.

They both have lung cancer with secondary spread.

They were both treated at the respiratory medicine department of the local District General Hospital, and they were both referred to the same radiation oncologist Dr M.

The final thing they have in common is that Dr M has recommended that they should each have a course of Tarceva.
I'll let you go the the good doctor's blog to see how the story develops. As you might fear, however, it doesn't have a happy ending: "After the second consultation, I had to walk up and down the corridor for a while."

No wonder this week saw a leading expert on modern day management of cancer calling for NHS patients to be allowed to top up cancer care in the private sector.

30 March 2007

Brown's Britain

Sceptic is right to note that Britain's carbon dioxide emissions are now at their highest level since Labour came to power. Today's Independent has an interesting analysis as to why, despite government targets and Tony Blair's apparent convictions about the threat posed by global warming, our greenhouse gas emissions are soaring:

Mr Blair has not been in charge of British domestic policy for the past 10 years. The man who has been in charge is Gordon Brown (a fact startlingly confirmed in a devastatingly frank interview earlier this month by Mr Brown's one-time top official, Lord Turnbull).

Over his 11 Budgets, Mr Brown could have brought in many more, and more radical, measures to tackle climate change than he has. He has in fact done very little. Most of his green taxes have pretended to change behaviour, but in reality merely raise revenue; many simple but effective measures have never been considered.

To take just one example: in his recent budget, Mr Brown said he would apply to the EU for VAT on energy-saving materials to be reduced from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent. Cue applause. But the Association for the Conservation of Energy has been calling for this since at least 1989.

Sedatives Killing Alzheimer's Patients

Many Alzheimer’s patients are dying earlier because of sedatives they are being prescribed. That is the conclusion of a five-year research project carried out by the Alzheimer's Research Trust

The sedatives, known as neuroleptics, were discovered to be associated with a significant deterioration in verbal fluency and cognitive function. They also have no benefit for patients with the mildest symptoms. The chart below shows the survival rates of patients on the sedatives compared with those taking a placebo drug after 24, 36 and 42 months. Worryingly, up to 45% of people in nursing homes with the disease are prescribed the drugs.
Results of drug trial, showing survival rates after 24, 36, and 42 monthsAlthough 700,000 people are affected by dementia in the UK, only £11 is spent on UK research into Alzheimer's for every person affected by the disease, compared to £289 for cancer patients.

29 March 2007

Non-Human Rights?

According to the BBC, an international movement is apparently gathering pace to give apes the same rights as humans. This follows the news earlier this month that South Korea is developing an ethical code to prevent humans abusing robots, and vice versa. The draft of a similar set of guidelines being drawn up by the European Robotics Research Network and to be released next month begins, "In the 21st Century humanity will coexist with the first alien intelligence we have ever come into contact with - robots."

Is science really equipped to deal with questions of morality? I thought not.

ISAAC ASIMOV'S LAWS OF ROBOTICS

I, Robot
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
EVENING UPDATE: You can find the details at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, whose report starts, "Beginning a movement that may propel Spain as a leader in animal welfare, the Balearic Parliament has recently announced its approval of a resolution to grant legal rights to great apes."

Hague on Slavery Apology

William HagueIn the current edition of The Difference magazine, William Hague writes about the inspiration of William Wilberforce's life:

"Many people have argued that it's a nonsense to apologise for something that happened before they were born, but there is an extent to which the benefits of the slave trade are still being enjoyed by the descendents of those responsible. Similarly, the economic and psychological legacies of that holocaust for people from Africa still impact on Africans and people of African descent today, leading many to call for a formal apology from governments of countries that profited. While Tony Blair has expressed 'regret' he has fallen short of a full apology. According to Hague: 'Of course it is beyond regret, it is one of the greatest catastrophes in history.' On a global level there is, he says, 'a vast collective guilt ... and Britain was 'a great agent for change.' 'One of the reasons Wilberforce is such an inspiration is that his own life is an example of what he preached,' says Hague. 'He approached life with the same generosity of spirit that he advocated for others. He ended his life relatively poor, but he has left an enduring framework for society which is being celebrated centuries after his death."

To read more of "William by William: Hague is inspired by the life of Wilberforce" obtain the magazine here.

To let others know who inspires you, add your comment here.

28 March 2007

All Bets Are Off!

Lords defeat Government casino plans by just three votes!

Remember, next election: every vote matters :-)

15 Captured Sailors Red Herring

At last in the British media, I find a reference (in The Daily Record) to what probably sparked and lies behind this whole episode: "Some in Iran have called for the 15 to be held until the release of Iranian diplomats and at least five Iranians detained by US forces in Iraq for allegedly being part of a Revolutionary Guard force there."

EVENING UPDATE: Some have asked for more on this story. Conveniently, Pepe Escobar has just provided it at Asia Times Online. You can find news of the original arrest of the Iranians at Reuters. Pepe Escobar concludes:

Tactically, as a backgammon or, better yet, chess move - in which Iranians excel - the Shatt-al-Arab incident may be much more clever than it appears. Oil is establishing itself well above US$60 a barrel as a result of the incident, and that's good for Iran. It's true that from London's point of view, the incident could have been arranged as a provocation, part of a mischievous plan to escalate the conflict with Iran and turn Western and possibly world public opinion against the regime.

But from Tehran's point of view, for all purposes British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a soft target. The episode has the potential to paralyze both President George W Bush and Blair. Neither can use the incident to start a war with Iran, although Blair has warned that his government is prepared to move to "a different phase" if Iran does not quickly release the sailors.

If the Tehran leadership decides to drag out the proceedings, the Shi'ites in southern Iraq, already exasperated by the British (as they were in the 1920s), may take the hint and accelerate a confrontation. Strands of the Shi'ite resistance may start merging with strands of the Sunni resistance (that's what Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has wanted all along). And this would prove once again that you don't need nuclear weapons when you excel at playing chess.

Zimbabwe's Illegal News Conference

Morgan TsvangiraiZimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been arrested again by armed riot police, who sealed off the headquarters of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change party in Harare shortly before its leader was due to hold a news conference. He was expected to address regional leaders beginning later today in Tanzania at a special summit of the Southern African Development Community focusing on the region's political and security situation.

How much longer will we simply look on?

Europe's Rights Violations Criticised

Further to the UN's recent failings, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights today condemns abuses perpetrated in the name of combating terrorism in Europe, Central Asia and North America. It specifically criticises the UK for expanding its panoply of anti-terrorist laws, "providing inadequate defense to suspects, and extending police and investigatory powers, including the disproportionately long detention period of 28 days without charge."

In addition, Europe's Foreign Affairs Committee criticises the EU's record on human rights protection. It expresses "deep concern regarding the deterioration of the human rights situation" in Iran and calls on the Commission to use the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) to promote cooperation with Iranian civil society.

"Regretting" that the EU has not taken "more unilateral action" to persuade the Sudanese government to accept an international peacekeeping force in Darfur, the report also urges the EU to back "an international peacekeeping force" and "the enforcement of the no-fly zone over Darfur."

Lords Reform Implications For Church

George CareyGeorge Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, speculates in today's Times on possible implications of Labour's confused attempts to reform the House of Lords:

"Any substantial reduction or abolition of the role of bishops in the House of Lords will result in the unravelling of the Establishment of the Church of England... I don’t believe that the Prime Minister intends to damage the Church-State link but he is playing into the hands of intolerant secularists whose aim seems to be division, not unity."

NHS Dental Crisis

Last Monday, I made reference to how the majority of us have been left without access to an NHS dentist as a result of Labour's botched reforms and failed contracts. This week we have three surveys confirming what we all already knew from our own experience: that Tony Blair has failed to deliver on his 1999 pledge that by September 2001 "everyone in the country will be able once again to see an NHS dentist just by telephoning NHS Direct."

First, a Which? survey of dentists found that two-thirds were turning away patients because local health bosses are running out of cash.

Now today, the British Dental Association has found that 85% of dentists do not think the government's reforms have improved access for patients and Citizens Advice says two milion patients do not have access to an NHS dentist and are forced to go private, go on waiting lists or do without.

Worse still, 95% of dentists feel less confident about the future of NHS dentistry than they did two years ago. The government, of course, claims that improvements are being made ... just don't ask where.

27 March 2007

UN Fails on Iran Rights Violations

UNHRCGiven all that is going on in Iran and Uzbekistan, you might be surprised to learn that the United Nations Human Rights Council, which only came into being last year to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission, voted yesterday to end routine scrutiny of human rights abuses in the two countries. According to diplomats, the suggestion was put forward to the 47-state council by a five-country working party including Azerbaijan, Bangladesh and - that bulwark of human rights - Zimbabwe.

Once again, the United Nations proves what it's worth.

Is Fair Trade Fair?

The New Scientist Environment Blog today asks "How fair is fair-trade coffee?"

One older farmer, Jacob Rumisha Mgase, slowly got to his feet. He thanked us for coming, but said: “We’d like to know how much our coffee costs in the shops in England.” John said it worked out at $12 for a pound of coffee. I think Jacob already knew that.

“So you buy our coffee for $1.46, and sell it for $12. Is that fair trade?” Good question.

The truth is that, because of the collapse in world coffee prices this decade, even farmers paid fair-trade prices are getting less than they did for a pound of coffee back in the mid-1990s. Is that fair trade?
Picking up the theme, here's something I wrote a while ago about trade justice campaigners:

If your conscience is nagging at you about poor farmers on the other side of the world, you might be better off going to your nearest Starbucks and ordering a cup of Fair Trade coffee - a little-known option that the world-famous coffee company introduced to appease the campaigners that were targeting it.

Now, some might claim Starbucks' response shows the power that people exercise when they protest en masse. Yet what did they really achieve? How many people even know that they can buy a cup of Fair Trade whenever they want? And how many actually exercise their right to do so? Whenever I have tried, I have found half the Bearistas have not even heard of the policy and even after the manager has confirmed that I can ensure some poor farmer is going to get a couple pence more for my fix of caffeine, they invariably have to hunt high and low to find the precious Fair Trade beans.

In February 2001, Bush and Blair claimed it was their goal to open markets both regionally and globally. However, leaders in the developed world seem incapable of resolving key transatlantic disputes (GM food, steel tariffs, hormone-treated beef, for instance), let alone making sacrificial policy decisions that will benefit the world's poor at the cost of all-important votes. The UK and US found $70 billion to "liberate" Iraq (not counting what it has cost to "win the peace" since then), whereas just $25 billion would halve African poverty. Instead, income among Africa's poorest has decreased 25% in the last two decades. Moreover, Europe and America spend seven times more subsidising their own farming than they provide in development aid - a policy that directly undermines Third World producers. Indeed, while we impose tariffs on imports from poor countries, some exceeding 100%, the British government is pressing them to reduce their tariffs, quotas and subsidies - measures they desperately need to limit the impact of cheap imports. Thus we preach liberalisation and free trade but practise protectionism and managed trade. Worse still, such hypocrisy has resulted in poverty reduction strategies across the developing world that encapsulate contradictory laissez-faire and interventionist policies - strategies that are therefore doomed to fail.

Cup of Coffee BeansSo, if you must lobby your MP, don't let them simply agree the world is unjust. Find out precisely what they intend on doing to make it a fairer place. Remember Michael Ancram's Zimbabwe visit to meet with opponents of Mugabe's regime? What exactly is your MP doing to promote freedom and opportunity for all across the world, not just in Britain? Buying the right coffee is no longer sufficient.

Relative Poverty Isn't Absolute

News that the number of children living in relative poverty in the UK rose by 200,000 last year re-opens last November's Polly Toynbee vs. Churchill debate.

Just this morning David Willetts was pointing out on the Today programme that the number of people living on less than 40% of average income had increased under Labour. Now we learn that even by the Government's standard of relative poverty – people living in homes on less than 60% of average income net of housing costs – more children are worse off now than they were a year ago. And all this at a time when the country is supposedly still enjoying "the longest period of economic growth" [just don't mention the increase in repossessions, bankruptcies and job losses, the fact that social mobility in Britain has declined over the last decade, or the increase in number of young people not involved in education, employment or training...]

However, although this increase casts doubt on the government's target of halving child poverty by 2010, by the very definition of relative poverty there will always be poverty. The more significant question, as Willetts tried to raise this morning, is not whether everyone has equal wealth, but whether everyone enjoys equality of opportunity. That surely is the definition of true poverty in modern, twenty-first-century Britain. As George Osborne says, what today's figures show is that the country needs a new approach "based on social responsibility so that, alongside financial support through tax credits, it can focus on tackling broken communities, poor skills and family breakdown."

Breaking The Cycle

I don't know if anyone else noticed the juxtaposition of two items referring to single parents in the news this morning. The first was on state-backed marriage preparation classes in America, where bolstering marriage has become a cornerstone of social policy, with fears that the remorseless rise in lone parenthood is fuelling welfare dependency and inner-city problems. One single mother interviewed who had been raised by a single mother and who had two daughters who were single mothers talked of how she was now trying to teach her fourteen-year-old daughter that it is better to have a child with a husband than a boyfriend. When asked whether she objected to the state trying to tell her how to approach her relationships, she complained that she would rather see politicians talk more about healthy marriages, to get off the fence and give more of a lead in this area.

The second item was about the Fabian Society report Born Unequal that more babies are born underweight in Britain than anywhere else in Europe except Greece, the proportion having increased by more than 15% since 1989, with teenage mothers and older women being most at risk. They also reveal that lone parents are nine times as likely to have a stillbirth as other parents and babies born to working-class mothers are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as those with middle-class parents.

Anyone else spot a connection?

26 March 2007

Toff at the Top

On tonight's C4 Dispatches, Peter Hitchens argued that David Cameron's move to the so-called centre ground carries grave risks for the British political system: "British politics is based not on consensus but on adversarialism - two distinct and different sides, representing real and passionate divisions within the country. Without that difference there can be no choice, without that choice there can be no liberty." So, has he got a point, or was this just Peter at his worst?

Burma Gas Rights

Human Rights Watch has expressed concern that the proposed development of gas fields off the coast of Burma will exacerbate serious human rights abuses and serve to entrench the brutal military rule in the country. Construction of overland gas pipelines would involve the use of forced labor, and result in illegal land confiscation, forced displacement, and unnecessary use of force against villagers.

This comes at a time when it has also been revealed that India is supplying arms to Burma's military junta in an attempt to counter China's influence over their neighbour. However, pro-democracy activists fear the junta will use the weapons to target ethnic minorities, suppress opposition, and resist democratisation.

The introduction to the Annual Human Rights Country Reports published earlier this month included the following summary about Burma:

"The military government in Burma extensively used executions, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and forced relocation of entire villages, particularly of ethnic minorities, to maintain its grip on power. Prisoners and detainees were subjected to abuse and held in harsh, life-threatening conditions. Surveillance, harassment, and imprisonment of political activists continued; Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained incommunicado under house arrest, and over 1,100 political prisoners languished in prison. The use of forced labor, trafficking in persons, conscription of child soldiers, and religious discrimination remained widespread. The government reconvened the sham National Convention, handpicking delegates and prohibiting free debate. Touted as part of a 'democracy road map', the convention was designed to nullify the results of the 1990 election and adopt a new, regime-friendly constitution. The regime's cruel and destructive misrule also resulted in refugee outflows, the spread of infectious diseases, and the trafficking of drugs and human beings into neighboring countries."

NI Historic Reconciliation

Credit: Daily Telegraph: Adams and Paisley agree historic dealThe picture and the smiles say all that is needed.

Knowing Your Roots

While the German Chancellor was claiming at the weekend that modern Europe is "a dream come true," Benedict XVI, the German Pope, denounced the EU's Berlin Declaration for not mentioning Europe's Christian roots and declared that Europe could "not be built by ignoring its people's identities."

Pointing out that Europe's moral, cultural, and historical values had been forged by Christianity, he expressed concern over the continent's "dangerous individualism" and questioned whether Europe was "losing faith in its own future," asking "Does not this unique form of apostasy of itself, even before God, lead it to doubt its very identity?"

EU Fails Sudan's Dispossessed

Responding on behalf of the EU to Saturday's call to action on Sudan, Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel has reportedly said, "We think of the people in Zimbabwe and Darfur. The suffering there is unbearable. We must look at stronger sanctions."

Is that all? At least 200,000 killed and 2.5 million displaced, and all Europe can do is to think about their plight and consider strengthening their presently very weak sanctions! What about demands for a peacekeeping mission to protect civilians and keep aid channels open, for a no-fly zone to prevent further aerial attacks against civilians, for Sudanese assets abroad to be frozen, and for an immediate extension of restrictions.

Coming just days after the UN also failed to reach any decision over the genocide, it seems clear that until serious institutional reform of the kind that I have previously written about elsewhere takes place in both the EU and the UN, these bodies will continue to fail oppressed peoples around the world.

25 March 2007

Europe's Mid-Life Crisis

European Union: 50 years oldSince its creation on 25 March 1957, the European Union, together with NATO, has facilitated economic reconstruction and the consolidation of democracy across the continent, so it is right to mark this anniversary. However, like any other 50-year-old, Europe today finds itself asking some fundamental questions about its purpose and needs to look to the future, to rise to the challenges that David Cameron calls "the priorities of a 3G Europe": Globalisation, Global warming, and Global poverty.
Liberty proclaimed to the Captives (c) BCC Museum
With Europe's semicentenary coming on the same day that we celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, Europe must embark on significant reform and start looking outward, if it is ever to make a reality of its rhetoric that Africa is now one of its top priorities. It must move on from its socialist dream, depart from its protectionist tendencies, and decentralise powers to national control.

A couple of days ago, European Commission President Jos̩ Manuel Barroso claimed: "In the Europe I want, the right to choose has primacy." This must apply not just to the rights of the individual but also to the rights of individual nation states Рboth within and without Europe.

24 March 2007

Iran Sanctions

I am reminded of one of my visits to America, about three years ago. On arrival in Los Angeles after an eleven hour flight, passport control was confused as to why I was travelling as a tourist when I had previously held a green card, and so they escorted me to Immigration and Naturalisation Services, where I joined what turned out to be a five to six hour queue for processing (while my wife waited outside the airport with our then 15-month-old and 3½-year-old jetlagged, over-tired children). I was struck by a rebuke I overheard one of the INS officers make to another of the passport controllers: "Just because someone is travelling on an Iranian passport doesn't mean you have to send them to us."

The UN Security Council's unanimously-backed new sanctions, blocking Iranian arms exports and freezing the assets of individuals and companies involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programmes, are clearly necessary and send a clear message to the country's leadership. However, the reality is that they are unlikely to have any real effect and we must be extremely careful how we proceed from here or we will once again find more innocent civilians inconvenienced (or worse) and more civil liberties threatened.

As I have warned repeatedly before, military action against Iran would undoubtedly have the reverse effects to those desired, possibly even rallying the people of Iran behind their hardline president, and economic sanctions would have little, if any, impact, not least because of the money the regime possesses from its oil exports. If the West is to have any positive influence over what happens inside Iran, we need to engage intelligently with the culture's sense of shame. Contrary to the image often cultivated in the Western media, Iranians are extremely welcoming of Westerners, including Americans, and the vast majority seem to desire better relations with us. Treating the state as a pariah, banning travel by its diplomats for instance, would be insulting to the Iranian's national pride and could well accelerate both the people's growing impatience with their choice of leader and the clerical elite's dissatisfaction with what even they reportedly consider as his extremism.

Call To Action

On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the EU, The Independent publishes a call to action on Sudan from some of Europe's most eminent writers:

To the leaders of the 27 nations of the EU,

How dare we Europeans celebrate this weekend while on a continent some few miles south of us the most defenceless, dispossessed and weak are murdered in Sudan?

Has the European Union - born of atrocity to unite against further atrocity - no word to utter, no principle to act on, no action to take, in order to prevent these massacres in Darfur? Is the cowardliness over Srebrenica to be repeated? If so, what do we celebrate?

The thin skin of our political join?

The futile posturings of our political class?

The impotent nullities of our bureaucracies?
The full letter can be read here.

23 March 2007

Harnessing the Abolitionist Spirit

Simon Schama's Rough Crossings on BBC2 this evening was history at its best - the forgotten story of the African-American slaves who fled the plantations to fight behind British lines in the American War of Independence and went on to establish Freetown in Sierra Leone. Not an all-white tale, as some have complained of Amazing Grace, nor a revisionist's version erasing the contribution of British abolitionists, as was the case with Moira Stewart's In Search of Wilberforce, but a shared story involving black and white from three continents.

The way the drama intercut with present-day scenes constantly emphasised the continuity between the problems of the past and present, forcibly reminding us that slavery remains a global issue. Not just for the 2.4 million people caught up in human trafficking throughout the world, but for at least 12 million who are forced to work and treated as property to be bought and sold.

As Beth Herzfeld of Anti-Slavery International writes in The Difference Magazine, in her piece "Will we finish what the abolitionists started?":

"In the Philippines, young girls are used as domestic slaves, boys as young as four years old are abducted from their families in South Asia to be used as camel jockeys in the Gulf, in Niger people are born into a slave class; young men in Brazil are used as forced labour to clear the Amazon, and women are trafficked to western Europe and forced to work in food-processing factories.

"In Niger at least 43,000 people are enslaved as a result of being born into an established slave class. They are used as herders, agricultural labourers and as domestic servants. Many are subjected to torture and other forms of violence, including rape. They are inherited over generations as property, some are given away as gifts or as part of a dowry. They work every day without pay and are denied the freedom to make choices, whether it is deciding when to eat and sleep or whom to marry."
As Beth goes on, the problem isn't something "out there" and demands action: "You too can harness the abolitionist spirit and demand an end to slavery once and for all."  So, what will you do?

Britain's Modern Slave Auctions

Stop The TraffikThe Government's U-turn on their previous refusal to sign the 2005 European Convention on Action against Trafficking, giving victims of human trafficking more time to recover from their ordeal before deciding whether to help police, is to be welcomed. Speaking on behalf of the Conservatives, who had called for Britain to sign up to the international convention earlier in the year, shadow home secretary David Davis said this was necessary for "moral reasons" such as protecting exploited victims, some of whom are forced to have sex with up to 40 men a day.

According to Home Office estimates, there were 4,000 victims of trafficking working in prostitution in the UK during 2003, up from just 1,400 two years earlier, and it is believed the problem has continued to grow since then. The Crown Prosecution Service last year revealed that "slave auctions" of women sold into forced prostitution are carried out on the concourses of British airports, with women being sold to the highest bidder as soon as they arrive on British soil from countries including eastern European states.

David Cameron's Faith

Returning home after Tuesday's Wilberforce Address, my wife asked me about David Cameron's faith. He has provided his own answer to the Jewish Chronicle, quoted in today's Telegraph:

"I have a faith, it's important, but not something I wear on my sleeve. I've always said I believe in God, but I don't think I have a direct line," he told the Jewish Chronicle. Mr Cameron underlined his support for faith schools, saying they played an important role in the community.
In his interview with JC, the Conservative leader claimed "his party’s renewed focus on 'social responsibility' is essentially based on core Jewish teachings."
Wilberforce Address Speakers' Panel: Bishop James Jones, Bishop Wayne Malcolm, Pastor Agu Irukwu, David Cameron

Just War

On the back of last night's Question Time Iraq Special, here's a couple of paragraph's from Christopher Catherwood's article Christians, Iraq and Just War in the first issue of The Difference Magazine:

"The war in Iraq poses considerable problems. Morally speaking, as those who defended it, from William Hague in the Conservative Party to Nick Cohen on the left, remind us, anyone who opposes the war has to answer the hard question, 'Would you have left Saddam Hussein in power?'

"As someone who, like Ken Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind and Andrew Lansley, opposed the war, I am very aware of the force of this moral argument. There is a sense in which getting rid of Saddam could be seen as just cause. Yet, as I was asked at the time on the Christian radio station Premier Radio, if evil and oppressive dictatorship is in and of itself just cause, why are we not after, for example, Robert Mugabe as well? That, too, is a fair point."
After explaining why Iraq fails to satisfy a number of the criteria of a just war, including requirements that it be defensive, have a clear outcome, and be based on legitimate authority, Christopher then goes on:
"Iraq is a war I would in many ways love to have supported, but felt that from a Christian viewpoint I could not. Apart from anything else, we changed a secular regime in Iraq that gave full freedom of religion to the very large Assyrian and Chaldean Christian minority there – not of course forgetting Saddam’s psychopathic oppression of his opponents – and have ended up with an increasingly Shiite theocratic regime which actively persecutes the rapidly dwindling Christian population. It is responsible for attacks on the Sunni Muslim minority, who, unlike the Christians, fight back militarily and are thus plunging the nation into civil war."
To continue reading, subscribe to the magazine.

22 March 2007

Islamophobic or Anti-fundamentalist?

Iranian womenJust when you thought the issue of Islam was beginning to disappear from the news, a couple of headlines come along that seem to indicate some kind of sensible balance between tolerance and freedom is now being achieved:

Schools allowed to ban face veils

Schools will be able to ban pupils from wearing full-face veils on security, safety or learning grounds under new uniforms guidance issued by ministers.
French cartoons editor acquitted

A French court has ruled in favour of the editor of a satirical magazine accused of insulting Muslims by reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, saying the cartoons were covered by freedom of expression laws and were not an attack on Islam, but fundamentalists.

Moral Maze

A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large. The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved. Would you push the stranger on to the tracks in order to save the five workmen?

Researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have been exploring the role of emotion in moral decisions and have discovered that while most people reject solutions to dilemmas that involve harming one person to save others, people with damage to an area of the brain just behind the forehead endorse such decisions.

Nature reports:

"Social emotions were really the scaffolding for what we came to construct as ethics. How those social emotions are taken into account in the process of decision-making seems to be very biological. When things get complicated, we engage an emotional system - it's not reason alone."
More moral dilemmas used in the research can be found in the report.

Legacies of the Slave Trade

Further to Tuesday night's report on the Wilberforce Address, here is the speech given by Rev Katie Kirby of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance. The official version of David Cameron's can be found at the Conservative Party website.

The pain, problems and potential of the legacies of the slave trade

In the year that we mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, I made my first visit to an African country. Malawi, which is known as the warm heart of Africa, welcomed me in a way that I found deeply connecting and deeply disturbing at the same time. Connecting, because of the similarities in food, body language and expression, and my instant adaptation to the warmer climate. Disturbing because in between the natural beauty and pockets of prosperity were clear signs of acute poverty and deprivation. It was in talking to local people and hearing their concerns and aspirations for their country and its people, that it became clear that some of those visible signs of deprivation had their roots in the mindsets that had been handed down through generations resulting in a legacy for some of poverty, a legacy which the government and churches are working to address.

In preparing to speak to you this evening, I came across a range of books, articles, official and unofficial websites, blogs and pod-casts dedicated to exploring the impact of the slave trade. While each author and contributor had their emphasis, tone and focus of their information, none left me in any doubt as to what slavery was – and indeed is.

Across the range of information, two common threads emerged. The first is that the footprints of the deplorable and systematic enslavement of human beings have been left across every country, continent, and culture. Where enforced, slavery devalues human life without exception and people become property. Where endorsed, slavery is seen a measure of economic strength or a means of political persuasion. The second and perhaps the more challenging thread, is the role that the church and the Christian community played in both the advancement and the abolition of slavery. What is clear is that both threads both have left legacies.

A legacy is defined as a bequest made in a will, something from the past, and something outdated or discontinued. And so 200 years after the British Parliament said ‘no’ to the slave trade, its important to ask ourselves the questions, what has been bequeathed or left from the past? What has been inherited and by whom? And does it remain relevant or should it be discontinued? The legacies of the slave trade are many and could keep a research fellow occupied for longer than I the time I have with you this evening. So I have grouped legacies of the slavery into three areas: the pains of the past, the problems of the present, and the potential of the prophetic (or the future).

The pain of the past

Dr Joy De Gruy Leary says that ‘we must return and claim our past in order to move toward our future’. Many who have traced their history and heritage have found that looking back means acknowledging events and information that are painful to process, and in some cases, difficult to disseminate. Coming face to face with the knowledge that our past includes your ancestors either being robbed of their identity, value and dignity, or that our ancestors were perpetrators of these atrocities opens up a plethora of challenging emotions and experiences that some have found difficult to process or channel while others have been confident enough to channel them into something beneficial. The question we each need to ask ourselves is: what in our history contributed to the pains of the past?

The problems of the present

The second broad group of legacies are issues those that manifest themselves in superior or inferior behaviour within or between people groups. These are problems of the present that show up as disrespect for human life, a disregard for authority, a disparagement of identity, and in a growing number of cases the disdain of a belief and faith.

Slavery blurred and indeed destroyed lines of heritage and lineage for those people groups who it was forced upon, deconstructing what many believe to be the foundation of a stable community and society – the family – a process that is still occurring today.

Slavery displaced Africans across the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe and despite abolition, the aftermath of slavery continues in various expressions of segregation, inequality and racism. Individual and institutional racism have been cited as the catalyst in a myriad of violent and often criminal actions which have made the headlines locally, nationally and internationally. Martin Luther King said that 11am on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, a statement that despite being a multi-cultural society, still seems to ring true here in the UK.

The gaps in educational achievement indicate the continuing disparity of access in learning, and the over-representation of Black people groups in mental health institutions and the criminal justice system clearly reveals the mindset towards those considered less able because of their background and heritage. The question we each need to ask ourselves is what in our history contributes to the problems of the present?

The potential of the prophetic

Before, during and since abolition, many voices have championed the cause of the marginalised, the disenfranchised, and the displaced. In the 18th century, Olaudah Equaino was among those who spoke and wrote about the possibilities that a ‘free’ future could hold for his people and all people. In the 20th century it was Martin Luther King who spoke and wrote prophetically about the future, raising the hopes and aspirations of millions of African Americans. Later in the same century, Nelson Mandela could be heard championing the cause of the oppressed in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

These three and others were bold enough to speak in their time, for their time and for the future, but not without risk or cost. The legacy that they have left was and is prophetic. The question we each need to ask ourselves is what in our history contributes to the potential of the prophetic?

Conclusion

To-date, we have heard from those who have expressed regret for the slave trade. Those expressions, although welcomed by some, were perceived by some as hollow because of the absence of an act of regret. We have also heard the calls for reparation which, if carried out like a refund from a high street store with a no-quibble policy, will simply reduce the rich and priceless heritage of the people, their personalities and potential ravaged by slavery to a monetary value.

In my view, an apology or expression of regret is insufficient if done in isolation, and there is no cheque that could be written to repair or replace valuable lives that were tragically and brutally lost because of slavery. A lasting legacy would be an act of repentance and reconciliation – a visible and tangible act through which the our churches, communities, agencies, businesses and governments demonstrate a lasting commitment to the reality of abolition by investing in the present and future of those disenfranchised by the negative legacies of the slave trade.

The footprints left by slavery cannot be ignored or indeed forgotten. In fact on the contrary, this painful and problematic era of our history needs to be told, and retold accurately, so that history is the right story. I call on Africans and Caribbeans to record our story, acknowledging our part in the slave trade and the legacies it has left. In doing this, I believe that we will not only learn from the mistakes of the past, but play our part in leaving a legacy of knowledge will better serve the heritage of those who have risen out of slavery. It will also ensure that the legacies that currently appear negative can be appropriately recognised, and better understood.

Martin Luther King said: I have a dream. I say, I have an expectation, an expectation that one day the legacies we rehearse about the slave trade, will lead to the legacies of abolition which include an honest recognition of the pain of the past, a willingness to address the problems of the present, and a strong desire to see (hear) the potential of the prophetic. I also believe that if we want to be, each of us can be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:21, and play our part in the restoration of identity, of value and of dignity to human life right across every custom, culture, country and continent.

Dick Whittington Coming To London

Credit: The Daily TelegraphJohn Bird, the founder of the Big Issue magazine sold by the homeless, has announced he is to stand as an independent candidate for the Mayor of London. A reformed criminal and drug taker, Mr Bird said he would be "a mayor of the streets" and would run on a platform of social inclusion, representing housing estates and communities and highlighting issues such as ghettoisation.

Some Conservatives had hoped to persuade Mr Bird to stand on their platform.

21 March 2007

Brown's Reverse Robin Hood Budget

Gordon appears to have misread Robin Hood. As a good socialist, he was supposed to tax the rich and give their money away to the poor. Instead, as even MPs in his own party have pointed out, by abolishing the 10p tax rate, he is effectively taxing the poor (especially those without children) to keep those on middle incomes happy (especially those with children). The rich will probably be unaffected either way by today's spectacle. Furthermore, he's also taxing small businesses to the profit of big businesses.

Maybe the great leader-in-waiting has simply lost the plot...

Drawing Inspiration

In his meditation Standing on the Shoulders of Giants in The Difference Magazine, a copy of which many people reading this blog will hopefully now have obtained, Michael Bates asks the question "Who inspires me and why?" One of the purposes of this blog is to encourage discussion and participation in debate among readers of the magazine - so, who inspires you and why?

Weapons of Mass Instruction

Weapons of Mass InstructionAs we embark on the fifth year of the war in Iraq, I thought I would highlight the Weapons of Mass Instruction campaign that is being run by Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people. They are calling on the government to invest in learning opportunities to help end homelessness, and thereby reduce the amount that currently has to be spent on the consequences of homelessness, such as unemployment, addiction, and mental health problems.

If anything is to be done about social breakdown in this country, this is precisely the kind of shift from state welfare to social welfare that we need to see. For, although the Government claims that it wants to get disadvantaged groups into jobs, just 2% of Learning and Skills Council funding goes directly towards voluntary organisations helping those most in need to gain the qualifications necessary for work.

Adoption Clash

While the the Roman Catholic Church continues to maintain that the hotly-contested Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations would lead to the closure of its adoption agencies, Baroness O’Cathain will seek to defeat the anti-discrimination proposals in tonight's final vote on the basis of concerns that the regulations compromise religious liberty and "will result in litigation over the content of classroom teaching."

Today's Times has the following letter from Conservative MP Alistair Burt:

Sir, That House of Commons procedures have not allowed for a full debate on the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SOR) is not in the country’s best interest, whichever side of the argument one supports.

The regulations pit against each other two important ideals, each of which would normally command members’ support; equality before the law and freedom of religious conscience. It is precisely the resolution of such a dilemma for MPs which deserves to be public. At a time when the Commons wonders why it is losing authority, this is an example which provides a clue.


UPDATE (Thursday): Peers have voted against Baroness O'Cathain's amendment by 168 votes to 122.

20 March 2007

The Challenge Of Freedom

"Racism is the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade."

That was the challenge from James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, at this evening's Wilberforce Address, made all the more powerful by the presence on stage of the 18-member-strong gospel choir The Tribe Of Judah, who had just moments before been leading a celebration in praise of freedom, to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave-trade.

He concluded his address by saying the country needs a new generation of men and women who can provide moral and political leadership.

David Cameron also spoke, answering questions during a mini "chat show" that what we need is not apology for a past generation's wrongs, but to learn from our shared history. He added that while it is right we should feel great shame for Britain's role in the slave-trade, we should also feel great pride in our role in bringing it to an end. He also noted that it is not political correctness for the Conservative Party to want to see more black and ethnic minority candidates in Parliament - it is a simple recognition of the need for role models in all walks of life.

Secret Scandal of Elder Abuse

In its 2000 "No Secrets" national framework, the Government set out guidance on developing and implementing policies and procedures so that local councils with social services responsibilities, local NHS bodies, local police forces and other partners could protect vulnerable adults from abuse.

The detailed assessment provided by the Commission for Social Care Inspection to the BBC revealing that a sixth of all councils in England are failing to protect vulnerable adults in their care will come as a shock to anyone with elderly relatives in care.

Yet, even accepting Labour's mistaken belief that it knows better and can do better than families and local communities, we probably shouldn't simply blame the state for this sorry state of affairs. We all have a duty towards those who nurtured and cared for us and who now need our help. We must all be involved in ensuring justice and compassion for the infirm and the elderly.

19 March 2007

Supermarket Supersurgeries

Government plans add substance to last year's rumours that Sainsbury's is poised to become the first supermarket with GP surgeries. You can see it now, can't you: "That will be £30 for the petrol, £50 for the cigarettes and wine, £25 for the microwave dinners and cakes, and I can book you an appointment with the nurse for 9.30am tomorrow."

If the trend continues, perhaps Blair will belatedly fulfil his promise of nationwide NHS dental care to the majority of us around the country who have been left (as a result of his botched reforms and failed contracts) without access to an NHS dentist?

Bible Endangers Security & Order

In recent days, I have received a number of confidential emails from friends in Uzbekistan reporting on human rights abuses there. While I am not in a position to quote specific details, I can point you to a typical report that has appeared online:

Interfax states that the leader of an "illegal religious organisation" has been sentenced to four years in prison after being found guilty of establishing an illegal organisation and of distributing materials endangering security and order.

The illegal religious organisation was a Protestant church and the dangerous materials included the Bible and Bible study materials.

For its part, the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry has responded to recent accusations of human rights abuses by suggesting that claims concerning the routine torture of prisoners are "cliché, biased and counterproductive."

From Hope To Despair

"There is no life at all. We are eating, drinking and sleeping like animals, but animals are lucky because they are not scared all the time like we are. They don't think that they might be killed at any moment, so I think even the animals are much happier than us," said one Baghdad resident in a poll of more than 2000 Iraqis, four years after the invasion.

By a ratio of more than 4-to-1, the Iraqis said they have little confidence in British and American troops and two-thirds said that they've seen little progress on reconstruction despite the billions spent on aid.

As top military commanders have been saying publicly for some months, we desperately need a new and different approach if we are to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.

UPDATE: The BBC has analysis of the full results here

18 March 2007

Can Dave Save the NHS?

NHYes - Credit: BBCIn his closing speech at the Conservative Party's spring conference, David Cameron has pledged to end the targets and "pointless reorganisations" that have done so much damage in recent years to the NHS.

That will come as good news to the friend I was talking with just an hour ago who is involved with the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. She is utterly disillusioned with the constant reorganisations that have meant the key people that they are supposed to consult with are always changing and that their views so often appear to be ignored or not even sought, such as over the recent decision suddenly to end community nurses with just three weeks notice.

The question is how to balance the independence that doctors and nurses need with the accountability expected of any service in receipt of public funds.

Another Weekend, Another Youth Killing

As David Cameron said after last month's spate of gun crime, "We have got to sit up and realise we are running things by the wrong values."

17 March 2007

Arrests in Prayer Protests

Credit: MWC NewsCNN reports that thousands of Christians in America kicked off a weekend of worldwide anti-war protests by praying for peace at a service in the Washington National Cathedral, ahead of Tuesday's fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq.  222 people were arrested after the service for demonstrating on the pavement outside the White House and for crossing a police line. The organisers called for "a surge in conscience and a surge in activism and a surge in truth-telling."

That religion plays a more significant role in American politics is evident from the comment of one first-time protester: "A lot of the rhetoric that we hear coming from Christians has been dominated by the religious right and has been strong advocacy for the war. That's just not the way I read my Gospel."

Saturday's demonstrations have begun with hundreds of supporters of the war verbally clashing with as many as 30,000 anti-war demonstrators as they formed a march from the Vietnam War Memorial to the Pentagon.

Scientists Criticise Climate Catastrophism

Making Sense of the Weather and ClimateCongratulations to Royal Meteorological Society professors Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier for cautioning against the doomsday claims made about global warming. The two climate researchers accept that recent intensification of severe weather may be an early warning sign of even more devastating damage to come, but highlight that convincing scientific evidence to back the claims has not yet emerged and fear that organisations guilty of overplaying the message could undermine the serious message about the real risks posed by climate change.

Sunday UPDATE: The director of The Great Global Warming Swindle defends his film in the Sunday Telegraph:

"The ice-core data was the jewel in the global-warming crown, cited again and again as evidence that carbon dioxide 'drives' the earth's climate. In fact, as its advocates have been forced to admit, the ice-core data says the opposite. Temperature change always precedes changes in CO2 by several hundred years. Temperature drives CO2, not the other way round. The global-warmers do not deny this. They cannot.

During the post-war economic boom, while industrial emissions of CO2 went up, the temperature went down (hence the great global-cooling scare in the 1970s). Why? They say maybe the cooling was caused by SO2 (sulphur dioxide) produced by industry. But they say it mumbling under their breath, because they know it makes no sense. Thanks to China and the rest, SO2 levels are far, far higher now than they were back then. Why isn't it perishing cold?"

16 March 2007

UN Sudan Inaction Scandal

There were two opposing voices heard by the UN's human rights watchdog today. The first, that of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams, who led the mission to Darfur. She told them, "Innocent civilians continue to suffer and die. They do not need more reports. They are pleading for protection. Our job is to attempt to try to alleviate the suffering of the people of Darfur who are being raped, pillaged and burned while political wrangling goes on here in the hallowed halls of the United Nations."

The second was that of Sudan's Justice Minister, who told the Council "This report has no legal standing. This faulty report should not be discussed."

Reuters reports that China and Russia decided the latter was more credible.

Unacceptable Behaviour

News of a seven-year-old repeatedly stabbing a neighbour with a kitchen knife once again raises the question as to how tolerant we have become of misbehaviour and disobedience, especially when we're told "he's not a bad lad or a wild child." Where I live, I know of a boy in reception class who recently forcefully stabbed a teacher in the leg with a pencil (this is not the same child or school that I recently referred to in Restore Order In Schools). It may not be appropriate to arrest someone so young, but something surely needs to change in society to restore a sense of order and discipline on our streets and in our schools.

15 March 2007

Home Office Targets Distort Policing

A former Sussex detective has resigned to expose the pressure police are under to massage their crime detection figures as a result of Home Office targets and detection-driven culture. Interviewed by the BBC, Johnno Mills said "Officers are attending jobs thinking 'What can I get out of this to make it look as if I am productive?'"

This comes just weeks after it was claimed that Government NHS targets distort patients' overall treatment and can cause their wider healthcare needs to be ignored. The British Medical Association (BMA) has previously revealed that most of the targets imposed by the Department of Health do not benefit patients and are damaging relations between doctors and managers, between doctors and patients, and between GPs and hospital doctors. A recent BMA survey also found that a third of medical staff believed trusts were manipulating data to meet the four-hour waiting target for A&E patients, and 58% said the target resulted in people being discharged too soon.

Targets may appear to give credibility to a Government's policies, but it is time we trusted professionals once again to do the jobs that they have been trained to do.

To Be, Or Not To Be?

That is the question raging across the world this week. In Spain on Wednesday, the breathing machine of a paralyzed woman who had breathed with the help of a machine for a decade was switched off. Despite being opposed by the Catholic Church, regional authorities approved the decision on the basis of advice from an ethics commission and a counselling judicial organ. They argued that the death of Inmaculada Echevarria would constitute a simple refusal of medical treatment, not euthanasia, which is illegal in Spain. Defending her right to die, the 51-year-old had declared "To be free, you have to fight."

Meanwhile, a 28-year-old Chinese woman who suffers from motor neurone disease and can only move her head and some fingers has appealed to delegates at the current annual session of parliament to legalise euthanasia. She protests that she needs to die before her parents or else she will die "even more miserably." Her parents are also concerned that nobody else will take care of her after they die.

Down under, the South Australia Parliament is considering its fourth bill since 1995 to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

Finally, the verdict is due tomorrow in the case of a doctor and nurse being tried for poisoning a terminally ill cancer patient in southern France, who had repeatedly expressed her desire to end her life. The doctor has defended her decision to prescribe an overdose for her 65-year-old patient, claiming that she wanted to preserve her patient's dignity. Two years ago, legislation was adopted that allows families to request that life-support equipment for a terminally-ill patient be switched off, but a doctor is still not allowed to take action to end a patient's life. However, 2000 health professionals have now signed a petition in support of the two accused, calling for a change in the law to allow active euthanasia, making this a sensitive campaign issue ahead of next month's presidential election.

Jailed Blogger Speaks Out

The IndependentA couple of days after an appeals court in Egypt upheld the four-year jail sentence imposed on the blogger convicted of insulting Islam and President Mubarak (see Blogger Imprisoned), the Independent has an interview with Iran's most prominent blogger, Kianoosh Sanjari, who has just been released following three months in prison. His crime was writing an account in his blog describing a security forces attack against followers of one of Tehran's dissident clerics. He says the worse thing about his interrogations was "they wanted to connect me to US politicians, especially to [neo-conservative] Richard Perle. They wanted me to write about US money being allocated to the democracy movement. Where does it go? Who gets it?"  The report goes on:

As tensions between Iran and Western countries have escalated over the nuclear crisis and the wars in Iraq and Lebanon, the authorities have come to regard democracy activists as a potential fifth column. Separatist attacks in border provinces have been blamed on the US and Britain.

When Condoleezza Rice promised cash for Iranian democracy movements last year, activists and non-governmental organisations started to feel the heat.

"Such measures always have the reverse effect on the country to those intended," said Elaheh Koolaee, a former member of parliament and official for a major reformist party. "They increase the domestic reaction because of suspicions over the motives of foreign countries."
Which begs the question, how can we best support the sacrifices of individuals who are fighting for freedom in Egypt, Iran, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere around the world?

14 March 2007

Blair's Slavery Apology

"I think for us the most important thing now is obviously to remember what happened in the past, to condemn it and say why it was entirely unacceptable."

Not for the first time, I find myself in disagreement with Tony Blair. For one thing, as we approach the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, we ought to be celebrating the efforts of, among others, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and the Royal Navy to bring an end to this practice. For another, it seems to me the most important thing now is not constantly apologising for the mistakes of generations gone by, but admitting that we too have made mistakes and need to apologise for these. Readers may wish to suggest a list of current unacceptable policies and practices, but I'll start the ball rolling with the lack of honesty and planning both prior to and since the invasion of Iraq.

Labour's "Shambolic" Health Reforms

Credit: Pharmaceutical FieldToday's Commons Public Accounts Committee report begins, "The Department of Health thoroughly mishandled the introduction of the new system of out-of-hours care" and complains that "a disproportionate amount of taxpayers' money is now having to be spent to provide the replacement out-of-hours service."  It goes on:

"The needs of patients are not best served by the ending of Saturday morning surgeries. They are not best served where access to advice and treatment is often extremely difficult and slow. And they are not best served where no one knows whether the new out-of-hours service is meant for urgent cases only or for any requests for help at all.

“To cap it all, the cost of the new out-of-hours service is around £70 million a year more than was expected. That’s the last thing the Primary Care Trusts need at this time of increasing financial pressure.”
The response of the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was uncannily reminiscent of those unconvincing adverts of a bygone generation for cat food: "eight out of ten patients are satisfied."

13 March 2007

Trusting Computers With Our Lives

Would you be willing to trust a computer with your life? Today's New Scientist has an article entitled Can computers make life-or-death medical decision? in which researchers claim they have developed a simple formula that can predict how people would want to be treated in dire medical situations as accurately as their loved ones can.

Irrespective of the value you place on life, anyone who has ever had a computer crash on them or otherwise had cause to swear at the inanimate screen in front of them might pause before embracing this latest technological advance.

12 March 2007

Breaking The Language Barrier

As the father of a six-year-old who, when living overseas three years ago, could speak one foreign language and understand another in addition to his native English, I welcome Lord Dearing's recommendation that all children should learn a language from the age of seven. I would also agree with the British Chambers of Commerce that the government's decision three years ago to make languages optional for 14-16-year-olds was a mistake arising from their failure to understand the importance of language skills to the British economy.

However, as a school governor, I also recognise that the demands placed upon teachers and pupils as a result of the national curriculum, school league tables, targets, and backwash from annual SATs means that the state will need to give schools not just more financial support but also significantly more freedom if the benefits of these recommendations are in fact to be realised. The trouble is, whatever positive noises the Education Secretary makes in response to the Languages Review, I just don't believe this government would ever be willing to give the schools that kind of freedom.

Cry Freedom

The BBC has the latest on police brutality against the leader of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change and other members of The Save Zimbabwe Campaign: Zimbabwe's Tsvangirai 'beaten up' (cf. yesterday's crushed prayer rally, at which one activist was shot dead by police).

They report that Morgan Tsvangirai can hardly walk or open his eyes and has his head bandaged and a swollen face after being beaten by police in custody; also that another prominent government critic suffered a broken arm and had to be rushed to hospital after passing out.

Nuclear Fall Out

I see Deputy Leader of the Commons, Labour's Nigel Griffiths is the latest to quit the Government in protest over plans to extend the life of Trident (cf. Saturday's Beyond Trident post).

Regime Change

"Don't run to a place when you can walk."

Credit: BBCSo says Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenistan's new president, who has been paid the supreme compliment by one resident quoted in today's BBC analysis, "Somehow he seems much more Soviet."

Despite promises of loyalty to the late Turkmenbashi in a succession that lacked any of the drama of neighbouring Iraq's leadership transition, the former dentist has given real grounds for optimism about the authoritarian nation's future.

11 March 2007

Morgan Tsvangirai Arrested

Q: When is it illegal to pray?
A: When you live in an authoritarian state and your petition is for freedom from oppression.
Zimbabwe police crush prayer rally, seize leaders

Conservative Green Tax Plans

So, we're all to be allowed one short-haul flight a year at the standard rate of tax but penalised for any further flights at a higher rate.

The trouble is Oxford University research published a month ago showed that green taxes fail to curb growth in greenhouse gas emissions from travel because high-income groups absorb any price increase rather than change their travel habits.

The reality is, even though George Osbourne says he doesn't want to "tax people out of their one foreign holiday a year," it is those in low and middle income groups who would pay the price by being deprived the opportunity to travel - some of whom would be denied the chance to visit immediate relatives living abroad or to cultivate important international business relationships.

For all the criticism that environmentalists have directed at America in recent years, perhaps Conservative MP Tim Yeo was closer to the mark with his private members bill at the end of January proposing that we move our clocks forward by one hour, as demand falls for electricity in the evening if it is still light. For America has today switched to daylight saving time three weeks earlier than usual in order to cut fuel consumption. Their summer time will also last a week longer into the autumn than it has previously. Overall, this move is expected to save $4.4bn in energy bills by 2020 and avoid the need to build more than three large electric power plants – and all without penalising individuals or damaging the economy.

10 March 2007

Beyond Trident

Credit: Defense Visual Information CenterJust this morning, while out canvassing ahead of May's local elections (is there any other way to spend a sunny Saturday morning?!), I was discussing the pros and cons of Britain maintaining its own nuclear defence with a very traditional Conservative voter who felt that we have been reduced to a "small minnow" in the global pond. Interesting, then, to come home to the news that Labour MP Jim Devine has announced that he will resign as a ministerial aide in protest over Wednesday's Commons vote on replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

However, as I wrote in The Times last November, the global threat that filled the ideological vacuum left after Communism's collapse - namely, Islamism - is one that the world's leaders are still only now beginning to realise we face. Moreover, today's threat is even more poisonous than was Communism as it taps into the deeper roots of God and religion.

It is precisely because the security threat this presents every nation in the world is so very different to anything that we have faced before and, further, because we no more know what threats we may face two decades from now than we could have predicted two decades ago those we now confront that extending the life of Trident is crucial for both our country's future defence and the contribution that we can yet make to security throughout the world.

09 March 2007

Annual Human Rights Country Reports

Commenting on the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:

Too often in the past year, we received painful reminders that human rights, though self-evident, are not self-enforcing and that mankind's desire to live in freedom, though universally deserved, is still not universally respected. Liberty and human rights require state institutions that function transparently and accountably, a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary and legislature, a free media, and security forces that can uphold the rule of law and protect the population from violence and extremism.
The overview highlights the following:

Hopeful Trends, Yet Sobering Realities

  • First, the advances made in human rights and democracy were hard won and challenging to sustain. While some countries made significant progress, some lagged and others regressed.
  • A second sobering reality is that insecurity due to internal and/or cross-border conflict can threaten or thwart advancements in human rights and democratic government.
  • Third, despite gains for human rights and democratic principles in every region of the world, much of humanity still lives in fear yet dreams of freedom.
  • The fourth sobering reality is that as the worldwide push for greater personal and political freedom grows stronger, it is being met with increasing resistance from those who feel threatened by political and societal change.
  • Genocide was the most sobering reality of all.
It concludes with a call to Defend the Defenders.

Europe's Unchallenging Renewables Challenge

Investment in all forms of renewable energy is clearly important if we are to achieve energy security without damaging either our economy or our ability to compete internationally. However, today's laughable headlines proclaim "EU challenges world with climate change plan" and "EU agrees renewable energy target" as though a 20% boost in renewable fuel use by 2020 would be a great achievement. In fact, a report out today concludes that, although the government is unlikely to meet its target of generating 10% of Britain's electricity from renewable sources by 2010, this level is already expected to rise to 20% by 2020.

Global Warming Impact Questioned


Annual Arctic air temperatures
relative to the 1961-1990 average
A day after the European Union agreed to cut carbon dioxide emissions by an arbitrary 20% from 1990 levels by the year 2020, a new survey of the number of polar bears in Canada's eastern Arctic suggests that the population is not declining, but has increased by 150% over the last twenty years because of mankind's interference in the environment, confirming the repeated claims of Inuit hunters that they were seeing more bears.

The latest study follows one published by the National Center for Policy Analysis last summer demonstrating that only two of the bear's populations, accounting for about 16% of the total number of bears, are decreasing, and they are in areas where air temperatures have actually fallen, while another two populations, representing about 14% of the total, are growing, and they are in areas were air temperatures have risen.

Of course, man's interference comes in various forms and the bears may have been helped by an increase in their food supply as a result of reduced hunting of seals. Yet, a professor from World Conservation Union, quoted in the Daily Telegraph, conceded, "Contrary to concern over a celebrated photograph of a bear and its cub floating on a tiny iceberg, the animals often travel in that way. Bears will often hang out on glacier ice or large pieces of multi-year ice." As has been pointed out elsewhere, polar bears obviously managed to survive five centuries of the warm weather during the relatively recent Medieval Warm Period.

It will be interesting to see what results come out of the International Polar Year's research over the next two years.

08 March 2007

Drugs - Facing Facts

The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) says UK drug law has been "driven by moral panic" and is "not fit for purpose."

Following calls on this blog a couple of days ago for a new approach to dealing with the drug problem at its origin, it was a welcome start to the day to hear the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith on the Today programme, who said the report was "worryingly complacent."  While the RSA calls for a switch in emphasis from criminalising offenders to harm reduction, Duncan Smith said we need to go further, learning from what has succeeded in other countries and focusing on rehabilitation.

The RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy also recommends replacing the Misuse of Drugs Act with a broader Misuse of Substances Act and substituting the existing ABC classification system of drugs with an "index of harms," similar to that proposed by the Commons Science Select Committee last year, which would include alcohol and tobacco.

Credit: BBC 'Drug classification rethink urged'

07 March 2007

Labour's Health Plans Fundamentally Flawed

Credit: SANEA major government review examining 72 studies into the use of compulsory community treatment orders (CTOs) in six countries has concluded that there is no robust evidence that they have any effect on hospital readmission, length of hospital stay, improved medication compliance, or patients' quality of life.

The mental health charity Mind said the Government's plans were "fundamentally flawed" while the Mental Health Alliance has called upon the government "to use the evidence its own research has provided and to listen to the professionals, patients and families who have expressed such strong concerns about CTOs."

What is perhaps most shocking is not that the Government has yet again got it wrong when it comes to the balance between the rights of the individual and of society, but that less than 2½ weeks ago, while already in possession of this report, and apparently some months after receiving the review's draft conclusions, Labour was still trying to push its ill-conceived Mental Health Bill through the House of Lords.

Most Vocal Win In National Lottery

The Telegraph reports the latest anecdote about the NHS postcode lottery under the headline "Couple faced choosing which one of them should go blind" while the couple's local paper goes with "PCT caves in over blind couple's treatment" and begins its report, "Health bosses have been forced into an embarrassing U-turn after refusing to pay for the treatment of two pensioners facing blindness."

In actual fact, reading to the end of the article, it seems clear that a more accurate headline would have been: "Couple anxious while PCT evaluates their individual healthcare requirements" but we all know sensationalism sells.

Clearly this was the best story that could be found to back up the latest public campaign to force the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to make a decision concerning one of the drugs waiting for its approval. Yet, however serious the condition or however promising the new treatment, is it right that the work of NICE should so often be driven by whoever shouts loudest in the media?

Wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of blindness in Britain, affecting 26,000 people a year. Of these, just 7,000 can benefit from the only existing form of treatment, photodynamic therapy, while a newly-licensed drug, Lucentis (ranibizumab), has been shown to significantly improve visual acuity in up to 40% of patients.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) complains that 80% of primary care trusts are still not funding the sight-saving treatment and the Department of Health says that patients should not be refused a treatment simply because NICE guidance does not exist yet. However, were PCTs to start paying for the drug and NICE were subsequently to reject it for use in the NHS, then patients and doctors would be forced into the same position that Alzheimer's patients recently found themselves in when approval for the drug that was bringing relief to their condition was turned down.

Clearly, the House of Commons Health Select Committee conducting an inquiry into the work of NICE has some tough decisions to take.

06 March 2007

Afghanistan Already A Narco-State

Afghanistan's Opium Harvest 2001-2006
Even two years ago, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission was lamenting the fact that Afghanistan had already become a narco-state. Today, the country's drugs trade accounts for about a third of Afghanistan's economy and last year's opium harvest of 6,100 tons was 50% higher than the previous two years record levels and three times higher than the level before the Taleban banned production. Under the Taleban, production in 2001 fell to just 185 tons, but then we went to war.

Without adequate international investment for reconstruction, the country has become the source of 92% of the world's supply of opium and the source of at least 90% of heroin on British streets. This means that it’s not a problem that we can simply dismiss as being on the other side of the world. Attempts to destroy the crop have clearly failed (no more than 10% of the crop has been eradicated since we ousted the Taleban) – unsurprisingly, given that it is such a lucrative trade for all involved. A good proportion of Afghanistan opium is smuggled out through the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, where I used to work. I recall being reliably informed by one of my government contacts there that when the chief of police arrests someone smuggling 1.5kg of drugs, he records just 1kg in the official records – efforts to restrict the trade are as affected by the culture of corruption as every other area of life.

It is high time therefore that we give serious consideration to other options, such as the Conservatives' recent suggestion that Afghan opium poppies should be purchased to make pharmaceutical products such as diamorphine, a pain-reliever used after operations and for the terminally ill, which is in short supply.

The US drug enforcement agency has previously noted that the opium industry is financing terrorism, subversive activities, and warlordism. If our troops are to have any chance of success in Afghanistan, and if we are to get a grip on the cheap drugs that are such a blight on society here in the UK, we cannot continue pursuing the same policies that have failed us so miserably since 2001. Otherwise, United Nations fears that this year's opium harvest will be even greater than last year's bumper crop will be realised.