31 May 2007

Climate Convert Or Con Artist?

President George W Bush addressing the United States Global Leadership CampaignAmerican President George W Bush has urged countries to agree on long-term goals for greenhouse gas emissions but will oppose demands at next week's G8 summit in Germany for the USA to cut emissions and join a global carbon trading system. Is he belatedly trying to seize the initiative on climate change, or is this simply "a deliberate and carefully crafted attempt to derail any prospect of a climate change agreement," "a delaying tactic to keep the climate change issue off his back in terms of any real decisions until he leaves office," as Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth believes?

Outlining his development strategy "to bring progress and prosperity to struggling nations all across the world" to the United States Global Leadership Campaign, a coalition of more than 400 businesses, humanitarian organisations and community leaders, the President also called on Congress to double US funds for the global fight against HIV/AIDS and to fund his 2005 commitment to expand American assistance to sub-Saharan Africa to $8.67 billion by 2010.

More Darfur Dithering

A civilian killed by the Sudanese Government backed Janjaweed militia in Farawyaiah, West Darfur. The soldiers in the background are from the Sudanese Liberation Army. [Credit: Lynsey Addario at Reality Based Nation]"China appeals to all parties to maintain restraint and patience."

Over what, you might ask? Proposed new sanctions against Sudan, which the Chinese claim, "would only complicate the issue" — by which they presumably mean the issue of Chinese economic interests and their sale of weapons and aircraft to Khartoum.

In contrast, President Bush ordered new American sanctions against Sudan on Tuesday and is demanding new United Nations sanctions to pressure the Sudanese government to halt the bloodshed in Darfur. The American President insists, "We will continue to insist on the full implementation of the Darfur peace agreement. We will continue to promote a broadly supported and inclusive political settlement that is the only long-term solution to the crisis in Darfur." However, like China, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he wants more time for diplomacy and last month urged Britain to delay a push for tougher sanctions.

Once again, we are left wondering what it will take before the international community takes the effective action that is so desperately needed.

Blurring Professional Boundaries

Nurse Police [Credit: Forensic Education Website]Perhaps readers can help me out? The Government has community support officers doing jobs that were formerly for the police, midwives and nurses jobs that previously required a doctor, and teaching assistants taking on ever greater responsibilities from teachers. From today, teachers may undergo additional training, such as how to use airport-style metal detectors, in order to police schools. What other roles have been re-defined or re-assigned over the last ten years?

30 May 2007

China's Forced Abortions

Having been away for a long bank holiday weekend, I am just now catching up on some of the news and comment that I missed. Probably the most interesting is this from yesterday's International Herald Tribune:

Corruption in China: The anger boils over

For the past two months, local officials in the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi have pursued a harsh campaign aimed at enforcing China's population planning laws.

In order to meet targets for allowable births, they forced pregnant women to have abortions. They threatened to demolish homes to make residents cough up fines demanded for excess children.

This month citizen anger boiled over. Thousands of angry rural residents took to the streets, smashing cars and sacking government offices.
Examining the reasons for the social unrest, Carl Minzner, international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concludes that official abuses and riots in Guangxi are natural outcomes of China's authoritarian controls and warns that if Chinese leaders are serious about addressing these problems, they need to undertake institutional reform.

Sadly, if our Foreign Secretary's recent visit is any indicator of the kind of international pressure being placed on China, local demonstrators are going to have an uphill battle before they see any substantial improvements.

A Country Without A Hero

Russia's President Vladimir Putin yesterday maintained, "We consider it harmful and dangerous to turn Europe into a powder keg and to fill it with new kinds of weapons." Yet, in the latest round of what increasingly looks like a new Cold War, Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Sergei Ivanov announced that the former superpower has successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple independent warheads and a tactical cruise missile with an increased range "capable of overcoming any existing or future missile defence systems."

Perhaps now would be a good time for "Vanity Blair" to allow his successor Gordon "Joseph Sedley?" Brown to get on with the job of running our country. By all means, let our latter-day "Captain George Osborne" continue his tax-payer funded world tour, selling weapons of mass destruction to former terrorist states as he goes, but with such significant developments taking place on the world stage, we cannot afford any further paralysis or stagnation by this unprecedented electoral inter-regnum.

29 May 2007

Reality TV: Get A Life

I suppose that I have never understood the voyeuristic urges that have so popularised reality TV shows. However, the latest such show from Holland truly seems like something out of science fiction - somehow reminiscent of Schwarzenegger's Running Man, where lives of contestants are involved. For Dutch viewers will be phoning in to vote for which of three patients will receive the donated kidney from a terminally ill lady called Lisa.

Making money out of the televised modern equivalents of beauty and popularity contests is one thing. Doing the same to resolve ethical questions of medical need seems like a dangerous first step towards the legal sale of body parts.

28 May 2007

Rights & Wrongs

A pub in Melbourne has won the right to refuse entry to heterosexuals. It claims that raucous stag nights and hen parties were making life difficult for its homosexual regulars.

Now, I don't know about you, but this seems like yet another case of double standards and special treatment for minority groups. And don't think it couldn't and won't happen here - You only need to look at how homosexual interests trumped all others in the Sexual Orientation Regulations earlier this year.

Personally, I would have no desire to visit a gay pub, though have no problem in going to a pub with gay friends. However, my fear is that decisions such as this latest in Australia will ultimately undermine the West's commitment to and defence of equality for all. Am I wrong to be concerned about the current direction of the rights movement?

27 May 2007

Blair Sorry?

In his attempt to justify his latest piece of legislation, "wartime" stop and question powers for the police, Mr Blair claims in The Sunday Times, "We have chosen as a society to put the civil liberties of the suspect, even if a foreign national, first. I happen to believe this is misguided and wrong...a dangerous misjudgment."

With the Home Secretary, John Reid, suggesting that the Government might opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights, is the retreating Prime Minister apologising for incorporating the European Convention into British law through the Human Rights Act 1998 — for striking the wrong "balance between protecting the safety of the public and the rights of the individual suspected of being involved with terrorism"?

26 May 2007

Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Tomorrow's Sunday Times will reveal that the Government is considering "stop and question" powers for the police.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought about a year and a half ago the government-appointed independent reviewer of terrorism legislation indicated that "stop and search" powers were being used too widely by the police and could be halved without any reduction in public safety.

Civil liberty groups will doubtless be particularly concerned, especially with this move coming so soon after the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights criticised Britain for expanding its panoply of anti-terrorist laws and extending police and investigatory powers.

Is this power/legislation-obsessed government heading in the wrong direction, or am I missing something?

EU Energy Target Costs

"Unrealistic targets for renewable energy will cost the equivalent of £1,330 per household and are unachievable."

Ratcliffe Power Station [Credit: Michael Kenna]Reports on this week's Energy White Paper almost exclusively focused on nuclear power. Unless I missed it, the media appear to have overlooked warnings from one of Britain’s leading electrical engineers that, in its pursuit of overambitious environmental targets, the Government is in danger of overlooking the fundamental purpose of any energy policy — namely, to ensure the provision of reliable and affordable energy supplies.

In Energy Policy: The Feedback From Reality, Professor Michael Laughton suggests that any policy which pursues other objectives — however worthwhile they may be — risks ignoring the degree to which modern society is dependent on reliable and affordable electricity. As far as the UK is concerned, a recent legally binding EU target that 20% of inland energy consumption must be met by renewable sources by 2020 is unachievable. For, hard economic, scientific and engineering constraints mean that such a huge development of renewables and such a great displacement of existing patterns of supply are not realistic.

Besides which, it would also be very expensive and could, in the coming decade, delay or even shut out viable alternatives such as clean coal and nuclear build. The Renewables Obligation scheme which subsidises the development of renewable energy sources has cost £1.7 billion to date (the equivalent of £70 on the average household bill); it is forecast to cost £32 billion over its lifetime (the equivalent of £1,330 per household).

Thankfully, Professor Laughton says that there is an alternative: "The twin drivers of climate change and energy security complement each other in directing the UK towards an aggressive programme of replacing fossil fuels with a combination of renewable energy and nuclear." He concludes, "Long before the end of this century, major changes in energy supply availability and patterns of energy use appear to be inevitable. These changes will take many decades to accomplish; hence the need for foresight that is based on the “feedback from reality” – and not on the eternal human faith in unknown possibilities."

NuLab's NHS 2

Much has been said and written about the death of Penny Campbell, who consulted eight doctors over Easter in 2005 before dying of blood poisoning following a routine operation. Much of it appears to direct blame at the out-of-hours service provider Camidoc. However, as Wat Tyler makes clear at Burning Our Money, the real blame lies with the Department of Health and the new GP contract negotiated by the Government three years ago, which allowed GPs to opt out of their former responsibility for night and weekend healthcare cover but provided patients with no adequate alternative.

What should be done now to prevent further unnecessary tragedy? We could see what ideas the incoming Prime Minister, the man who has been in charge of British domestic policy for the past 10 years, has: "The health service has got to be there for people when they need it and we need to do better in the future." Then again, we could listen to the experts — This is what the NHS Blog Doctor suggested earlier in the year:

Here is the Crippen “back of envelope” plan for improving primary health care. Scrap all the targets. Use the money to pay incentives to GPs who provide wide availability.
  • a “before work” surgery from 7.00 am to 9.00 am
  • an “after work” surgery from 7.00 pm to 9.00 pm
  • a lunchtime surgery from 12.00 to 2.00 pm.
  • surgeries on Saturday and Sunday through-out the day
Any other thoughts anyone?

25 May 2007

Free Burma

Free Aung San Suu Kyi - Free BurmaAs widely expected, a week after President Bush extended US economic sanctions against Burma and two days before the seventeenth anniversary of elections in which the National League for Democracy Party won a landslide victory, the Burmese government has extended the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military junta in Rangoon has been in power since leading a coup in September 1988 and the pro-democracy leader has been under house arrest for most of the years since her government was prevented from taking office in 1990. That so little is being done, both by Burma's neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and further afield, should be an international scandal.

As Caroline Spelman said about The Difference's Zimbabwe campaign, "Uncertain what would actually work to bring an end to human rights abuses, politicians in the developed world seem paralysed by inaction."

However, the British Government could start by making the promotion of human rights a priority in its own right, rather than consigning them to a sub-set of sustainable development priorities. We should also do a lot more to support dissidents and pro-democracy movements, and to document and publicise human rights violations.

Upwardly Mobile

Whatever happened to social mobility?

So ask the shadow ministers for charities, Greg Clark, and for disabled people, Jeremy Hunt, in The Spectator, echoing David Willetts' recent CBI speech. They conclude:

"To have governed for a decade and seen the poorest grow in number and fall further and further behind the mainstream is little short of a disaster for a government whose moral purpose was to advance social justice. After ten years, Tony Blair has admitted ‘we need a radical revision of our methods for tackling social exclusion’. He is right. The enduring solutions to Britain’s social problems lie not in big government, but in healthy communities, strong families and in harnessing the dynamism and enthusiasm of individuals to improve their personal situation."
The question, of course, is what specific policy ideas might help reverse the decline in social mobility. Proposals that have been made in recent months, some referred to by the authors in their article, include:
  • Increase home ownership
  • Encourage personal pensions and savings
  • Introduce a free school transport system
  • Reduce means-testing for families with several children at school
  • Delay secondary school application until after grammar school selection
  • Integrate state religious schools into non-denominational education
  • Improve the quality of vocational training
As you can see, most of these focus on education. If you wish to comment on any of these suggestions, do so in the comments here; otherwise, if you have any others, you might prefer to submit them for inclusion in David Cameron's Blizzard of Ideas.

More School Voucher Support

Yet another publication has taken up Graeme Leach's call in The Difference for the introduction of school vouchers. This time it is The Spectator, in which Fraser Nelson argues:

[Sweden's voucher system] fits perfectly within Mr Cameron’s philosophical framework. The state pays the fees, but organises nothing. Civil society is invited to step in, run schools and take over in areas where the state fails appallingly. Nor is this an obscure Scandinavian theory. School choice is being used in the Netherlands, Chile, Canada and charter schools in the United States. Reams of data have now been assembled, proving that the choice works for the taxpayer, and promotes equality and social mobility. ...

In Mr Blair’s system, new schools can only open once they have a found a sponsor willing to part with £2 million in areas that fit ‘deprivation criteria’. Academies usually replace failed schools, thus adding nothing to the number of schools. Negotiations often take two years. And if the organisers want to open a second school, they must start this whole process from the beginning — and run the dispiriting gauntlet of the LEAs yet again

Mr Willetts is proposing to correct each of these defects.
The Spec's Political Editor concludes, "The freeing up of the education marketplace is a Conservative mission that, if implemented properly, could represent a bigger step forward than expanding grammar schools. But the first task for Mr Cameron is to make this case to his party."

To an extent that is clearly true. However, from my conversations with Conservatives over the past fortnight, I still wonder to what extent the Conservative "core vote" (especially the hidden, traditional blue vote that is either offline or not inclined to blog) is truly upset with the Party over the city academies / grammar school debate.

Education Lottery

A new survey claims to shed insight on how parents want places for over-subscribed schools decided, but omits any mention of the issue of academic selection that has so filled the news since David Willetts made his speech on expanding Labour's Academy Schools programme almost two weeks ago.

Commissioned by the Sutton Trust education charity two months ago, in the heat of the controversy over allocation of secondary school places by random ballot, the Mori poll found a surprisingly high proportion of parents unable to state whether they believed different methods of allocating places were fair or not:

Method to allocate placesFairUndecidedUnfair
Distance from school52%39%9%
Children with siblings at the same school42%51%7%
Random ballot9%63%28%
Religion or faith8%52%40%

Maybe the pollsters were working on the assumption that the Conservatives will easily deliver "a 'grammar stream' in every subject, in every school." However, given that the Party has not yet been able to do so, perhaps next time Mori conduct such a poll we'll find out what percentage of parents believe a child's schooling should be determined by merit... For, to quote the chairman of the Sutton Trust, "No child's educational future should be left purely to chance."

24 May 2007

The New Cold War

"A more efficient sword can be found for every shield."

This latest salvo was the threatening response of Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister and likely successor to President Putin, Sergei Ivanov, to last week's uncompromising remarks from America about its missile defence shield plans. Without actually pledging to opt out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, he described the pact as "a relic, a rudiment of the Cold War" and maintained that "Russia is one of the leading global powers, and it will remain such, not only because of its powerful military but also because of its economy and intellect."

Despite his belligerent tone, in a wide-ranging speech seen by many as laying out his personal manifesto, the former KGB spy rejected claims that the world has embarked upon a new Cold War. This is a man we would do well not to alienate.

Blair's Faith

Readers may wish to comment on the following letter from today's Independent:

Sir: Of all the reviews of Tony Blair's legacy the ones I find most surprising are those which refer to his Christian faith as though that had been pivotal in his policy making. True, he has been supportive in campaigning for trade justice but over a wide area of domestic policy he has largely ignored the pleadings from faith communities.

Recently there has been the case of the Sexual Orientation Regulations where the "gay rights" agenda has taken priority over the rights of those with an orthodox Christian conscience. In schools, the distribution of condoms and morning-after pills has taken precedence over moral education, even though such a policy has led to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and in contributing to Britain having the highest abortion rate in Europe.

Economically it has been more advantageous for couples to live together rather than marry, and mothers have been pressured into dumping young children in nurseries rather than being helped to be good home-makers.

Commenting on an adulterous minister Tony Blair said "he'd done nothing wrong", quite apart from trying to conceal the sleaze of cash for peerages.

On top of all this we've had the liberalising of drugs and drink laws, the promotion of big-time gambling, and new media laws which have made it more difficult to get a clean-up of TV.


Caroline Spelman Joins Our Campaign

Caroline Spelman MP, shadow secretary of state for the Department of Communities and Local Government, backs The Difference's call for tougher sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Caroline Spelman MP"The world is ringing its hands about the situation in Zimbabwe. Uncertain what would actually work to bring an end to human rights abuses, politicians in the developed world seem paralysed by inaction.

The Church in Zimbabwe has bravely mounted resistance to President Mugabe's cruel regime and our aid agencies are finding it is only by working through the churches that they can have confidence that food and other essential resources reach the people who most need it.

This brings alive for us today what it means to face persecution and we record our respect and admiration for our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe who face real threats to their lives for doing the right thing."
If you haven't already done so, don't forget to sign our online petition!

Zimbabwe: Will Anybody Help?

Zimbabwe is dying - will anybody help?Britain is faced with a choice. We have a unique opportunity to stand alongside the people of Zimbabwe as they attempt to reclaim their democratic rights, and we can make a difference.

EU sanctions are beginning to bite on key people in the Mugabe regime, people who are not prepared to back the President if this will damage their own financial interests. However, by using "sleeping partners" in EU countries and transferring assets into the names of other members of their family, the targets are able to avoid sanctions. It is vital that the EU moves to close this loophole by expanding the measures to include relatives and business associates of the Mugabe government, but at present there are no moves to do this.

The highly respected International Crisis Group, which has been monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe, has devised a specific set of recommendations for EU countries. You can play your part by writing to your MP and MEPs, pressing for the adoption of these measures, in your own words or using our sample letter. Please also sign The Difference petition, which will be sent to the Prime Minister, the Minister for International Development, and Peter Mandelson, the EU's Commissioner for External Trade, calling for Britain to use its influence to bring about these changes.

Campaign resources:

Thank you in advance for helping us to make a difference in Zimbabwe. As Amnesty International pointed out yesterday in their annual report on human rights, "Marches, petitions, virals, blogs, t-shirts and armbands may not seem much by themselves, but by bringing people together they unleash an energy for change that should not be underestimated ... People power will change the face of human rights in the 21st century."

More Global Warming Evidence

polar bears on the edge of the ice packAnyone who has watched or listened to the BBC's news lately will know they have become rather absorbed by an event that happened two years ago, when a sizeable chunk of the Arctic ice sheet came loose, setting it on the same course as all other icebergs.

You can be reasonably sure that they will not be giving the same airspace to the latest scientific evidence on global warming. For, a new study into Atlantic hurricanes published in Nature has found little correlation with ocean temperatures. Just as with recent research on hurricane activity in the Atlantic, Kilimanjaro's melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and changes in polar bear populations, the hard facts conflict with the fashionable message being promoted by the climate change industry.

The research, which analysed sediment records going back 5000 years, instead discovered an inverse correlation with El Niño-related warming in the eastern Pacific. So, whenever El Niño picked up in the Pacific, then hurricanes were almost non-existent in the Atlantic. Conversely, whenever El Niño fell away, the storms kicked up again. In the words of one of the researchers, we need to "Consider the whole picture: On the centennial and millennial scale, El Niño seems to trump the warming processes in the Atlantic."

23 May 2007

Free To Defend Freedom

Amnesty International

"In an age of technology, the Internet has become the new frontier in the struggle for the right to dissent. With the help of some of the world’s biggest IT companies, governments such as those in Belarus, China, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are monitoring chat rooms, deleting blogs, restricting search engines and blocking websites. People have been imprisoned in China, Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan and Viet Nam for posting and sharing information online."
We in the West take so much for granted — like the fact that I can write this blog and you can read it and, should you be sufficiently motivated, even comment on it. Today's Amnesty International annual report reminds us that not everyone enjoys such liberties — see for instance the recent cases of Sandmonkey, Savva Terentyev, Kianoosh Sanjari, and Kareem Amer.

Yet, as the foreword to Amnesty's report concludes, "Marches, petitions, virals, blogs, t-shirts and armbands may not seem much by themselves, but by bringing people together they unleash an energy for change that should not be underestimated ... People power will change the face of human rights in the 21st century. Hope is very much alive." It is in this spirit that The Difference will before the end of the week launch a campaign to help the people of Zimbabwe as they attempt to reclaim their democratic rights.

So, if you're sitting comfortably in the West, why not exercise your freedom and leave a comment? And if you're reading this in a country where you're at risk of imprisonment or worse, know that you are in our prayers.

Winner Announced!

Thank you to everyone who has visited this blog in its first three months of operation†, especially to everyone who has contributed to the many debates and discussions, either by posting a comment or taking our regular opinion polls — it makes all the effort worthwhile. The June issue of The Difference should be arriving through people's letter boxes in the coming few days — including the winner of our Comment Competition ... Congratulations to Alex, who receives a free copy of the magazine as his prize!

The winning comment provided a couple of thought-provoking questions that attempted to move the debate forwards — if anyone still wants to have a go at tackling those questions, you can find Alex's "Care in the Community" comment at Responsibility Revolution.

The competition to find the best comment over the next couple of months begins now ... all you have to do is let us know your opinions!

† To date we have had just under 3500 unique visitors and just under 5000 page loads.

Yet Another UN Scandal

Yesterday it was democracy for oil. Today it's guns for gold — this time involving Pakistani United Nations peacekeeping troops who were supposed to be disarming militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo but instead are reported to have sold weapons to them in exchange for gold. According to the BBC investigation that has exposed the malpractice, Human Rights Watch alerted the UN to the allegations of gold trading late in 2005, but the UN initially covered up an internal report into the scandal in a misguided attempt to "avoid political fallout."

UN peacekeepers in Congo were previously caught up in a different scandal two years ago when they were found guilty of having sex with Congolese women and girls in exchange for food or money. One wonders how much longer calls for serious reform or replacement of the international body can continue without action at last being taken.

Iraq Turns To Drugs

The Independent: Opium: Iraq's deadly new exportAnyone concerned about the flood of cheap heroin coming to Britain from Afghanistan will want to read today's frontpage story in The Independent.

The paper reports that "Farmers in southern Iraq have started to grow opium poppies in their fields for the first time, sparking fears that Iraq might become a serious drugs producer along the lines of Afghanistan." It carries two warnings. Firstly, that although the shift to opium cultivation is still in its early stages "there is little the Iraqi government can do about it because rival Shia militias and their surrogates in the security forces control Diwaniya and its neighbourhood." Secondly, "given that they can guarantee much higher profits from growing opium poppies than can be made from rice, many impoverished Iraqi farmers are likely to cultivate the new crop."

Once again, what have we done?

22 May 2007

What's In A Name?

A rose by any other name [Credit: bialystocker.net]Imagine if Muslims in this country were told they couldn't register the birth of their children unless they gave them Christian names; that anyone attempting to name their child Mohammed or Majida would find their child unable to go to school, unable to access hospital treatment, and unable to get a passport to travel abroad.

There would be uproar! Yet that is precisely what one reader of The Difference has written to say is happening in Azerbaijan. With one difference: it is Christians who are being told by the Muslim authorities that they are unable to give their children Christian names — in the latest high profile case, an eleven month old whose parents wish to christen him Ilya (Elijah).

Christians in Azerbaijan have previously complained that their democracy is being sold for oil, noting that "Foreigners are afraid to call things by their real name. They are afraid to tell our government bluntly that human rights violations must end."

As the West seeks to engage with Islamic communities around the world, this issue of religious double standards must be confronted. Indigenous believers across the Muslim world consistently find themselves unable to register with the authorities or denied permission to meet together, yet we in this country are supposed to sit idly by while Muslims backed by Islamist groups in Saudi Arabia seek to build a mega-mosque in east London with a initial capacity more than ten times greater than Britain's largest cathedral and an expected eventual capacity of more than twenty times greater.

In an age when politicians talk of promoting democracy far and wide, the international community must uphold and promote freedom of expression and freedom of religion for all. Failure to do so will not only leave it exposed to accusations of national self-interest but will foment the next generation of those disillusioned by broken promises and dashed hopes.

Core Values: Aspiration

"I lead — I don't follow my party."

In its 8:10 interview with David Cameron, the Today programme made no attempt to hide its intention of making as big a mountain out of the grammar school molehill as possible.

Yet for me the above quote was the most important thing Mr Cameron said. Yes, even more than "It's because I'm so passionate about aspiration that I want to get away from a sterile debate about grammar schools," "Let's import into all schools the things that make grammar schools successful," or "I want us to be the party that is for excellence and opportunity for all." His resolve to lead sets Mr Cameron in a different league from that of Mr Blair, driven as he has always been by his focus groups and pursuit of flattering media headlines.

Like everyone else, I have reservations and questions about some of the things that Mr Cameron is doing. Nevertheless, like the Conservative leader, I want the party to take the real steps necessary to deliver opportunity for all. Therefore I for one am willing to follow, not join the whipped-up peasants' revolt.

21 May 2007

Human Rights of the Forgotten

"Saddam Hussein's Iraq was constantly in the news; Mugabe's Zimbabwe though featuring less prominently nonetheless does make news; even Kim Jong Il, leader of what is probably the world's most secretive State merits the odd headline. But somehow Burma or Myanmar as it has been renamed by the SLORC military junta who have held it in its firm grasp, appears not to be newsworthy."
The American Chronicle has an excellent article on the largely forgotten and unreported plight of Burma's oppressed peoples and wonders whether the promise of the United Nations Charter of 1945 began, "We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scrouge of war..." or "determined to save particular generations from the scourge of particular wars that affect our narrow national interests?"

Lock 'Em Up?

An NSPCC survey indicates that a quarter of children have violent parents.

In a separate development, the Home Office wants to criminalise everyone that anyone else has even a suspicion might be pre-disposed to violence.

I suppose we need another 15 million prison places now...

20 May 2007

A New Politics?

On the grammar school farce, one could ask why Willetts didn't come out with something less open to confusion in the first place. Was this another over-intellectual gaffe in the fashion of the supposedly incomprehensible Oliver Letwin earlier this month?

Alternatively, is it possible that David Cameron and the Conservative Party are attempting to overcome political apathy and disengagement by introducing more intelligent debate into the political arena? If so, we should perhaps be somewhat more forgiving and hope that they persevere in their efforts to find a way of raising the level of debate. For, as I have said before: "What we need in the post-Blair era is a new approach to political leadership in which politicians are brave enough to argue their case and engage in intelligent debate — and so influence, instead of simply following, public opinion." However, let us also hope they find the way without leaving themselves open to misrepresentation too many more times!

Long Live Grammar Schools!

This past week, when David Willetts attempted to unveil a new Conservative policy to boost social mobility by expanding Labour's Academy Schools programme, the media tried to convince us that the Conservative Party under David Cameron no longer believed in grammar schools.

Today the Conservative leader effectively proclaims, "Grammar schools are dead - Long live grammar schools!" promising to deliver the benefits of academic streaming for all, not just the few — "a 'grammar stream' in every subject, in every school." He says that the Conservatives will introduce:

  • A policy of zero tolerance of bad behaviour and bad language in every school in the country.
  • Aggressive setting by ability.
  • A massive liberalisation of the supply-side of education, with open enrolment and money following the pupil.
Let's see how the media tries to spin that!

Blog of the Day: Bible Ban

"Legal Disclaimer Warning: This Web site contains Bible material which may offend and may not be distributed, circulated, sold, hired, given, lent, shown, played or projected to a person under the age of 18 years."

Having written to Cranmer about this article in yesterday's Telegraph, on calls in Hong Kong to reclassify the Bible as an indecent publication, I am happy to direct you to His Grace's post, Demands to ban the Bible, in which he speculates:

One might expect to hear very soon of such cases being brought in the courts of the United Kingdom. Cranmer suspects that they may come first from the militant gay lobby, demanding that any passages that may be adduced to make homosexuals ‘feel uncomfortable’ ought to be excised from (at least) Bibles used in schools. The Qur’an will, of course, be exempt (probably because it is not ‘widely used’).

If Prime Minister Brown were to revive attempts to outlaw the incitement to religious hatred, there are vast tranches of Scripture which may be deemed to fall foul of such a law.

19 May 2007

Beckett Condones Chinese Genocide Support

Margaret Beckett with China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi [Credit: China Daily]Zimbabwe, Sudan and Burma, three of the world's most oppressive regimes, all benefit from Chinese aid and trade. For instance, China sells the Sudanese government military equipment and purchases two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports. Given the country's economic interests, it is perhaps unsurprising that China should continue to use its veto on the United Nations Security Council to block efforts to send peacekeepers to Darfur.

However, even I am astonished by the support expressed by our own Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, for China's role in financing the Sudanese genocide: "I noticed there have been some criticism of China, but actually China has played a really quite positive role, particularly in the negotiation of the Darfur peace agreement."

One would have hoped that the Foreign Secretary, who is in the middle of a six-day visit to China, would be able to exert some pressure on her Chinese counterpart that it would be in China's interests to adopt a more principled and ethical approach to its foreign affairs. However, Mrs Beckett is clearly even less likely to achieve any results in this area than will Wednesday's call by the United States Congress for China to use its economic leverage with Sudan to stop the violence.

The American resolution noted that the spirit of the Olympics is "incompatible with any actions supporting acts of genocide," but a defiant Beijing is so far rejecting attempts to use the conflict to "politicise the Olympic Games."

United Nations Poll Results

Thank you to everyone who took part in last week's opinion poll. The results shown below indicate a clear desire for serious reform of the UN, by one means or another:

The United Nations - What should we call for?
No change in approach  0% (0 votes)
Withhold our contributions  22% (11 votes)
Make contributions voluntary  12% (6 votes)
Enlarge the Security Council  2% (1 votes)
Bar participation of human rights violators  24% (12 votes)
Replace with a League of Democracies  26% (13 votes)
Get out!  14% (7 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 50

In view of two factors, there will be no poll this week (just as you were becoming accustomed to there being one!)
  • Firstly, we have only just opened our forum to find out what policy ideas you would most like to see David Cameron incorporate as part of his Blizzard of Ideas against the incoming prime minister.
  • Secondly, later in the week we plan on launching a campaign on Zimbabwe to coincide with the distribution of the next issue of the magazine.
So, make sure you contribute to the policy survey and, if you've already ordered your copy of The Difference, look out for it in the post this coming week!

18 May 2007

Values-Based Foreign Policy

"American foreign policy has lost its compass. Voters across the United States, increasingly opposed to the war in Iraq and increasingly certain that the country as a whole is going in the wrong direction, are uncertain about the role that America should play in the world."
Writing in the International Herald Tribune, the author of "The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World" goes on to ask a question that is relevant to questions we've asked in relation to formulating an ethical foreign policy and defining Britain's role in what has been described as the new Cold War: "How do we stand for our values in the world in a way that is consistent with our values?"

Blizzard of Ideas

Gordon Brown BlizzardDavid Cameron is apparently planning a "blizzard of ideas" to be released when the "taxman behind the throne" finally takes over at the end of our pop star Prime Minister's valedictory world tour.

I propose collecting a list of suggestions under six headings to match those of the Party's official policy review process. The week that Gordon Brown officially becomes our Prime Minister, the suggestions will be compiled into six polls for you all to vote on, to see which policy ideas you think should lead the blizzard.

The six areas are as follows—When making your suggestions, please clearly identify them with one of these six headings:

  • Making our economy more competitive
  • Improving our quality of life
  • Public service improvement
  • Protecting our security
  • Social justice
  • Globalisation & global poverty

N.B. This short term campaign is in no way intended to compete with Conservative Home's more extensive 100policies experiment that has been running since last August to identify 100 policies proposed and approved by its readers—the conclusions of which, as one of its contributors, I look forward to seeing as it moves towards its third, amendment phase.

17 May 2007

Chimera Ban Lifted

As widely expected, the Government has caved in to pressure over its proposed chimera research ban and will now permit the creation of "inter-species entities"—that is, human-animal hybrid embryos—for research.

Regulars of this blog will be familiar with fears that Britain's apparent dismissal of a number of international ethical agreements means we increasingly risk becoming known as an ethical rogue state. It will be interesting to see what feedback we receive from international sources over this latest draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill.

The changes also remove a baby's right to a father, affording single women and lesbian couples in a civil partnership with the same "human rights" as married women, meaning that it will be easier for them to receive IVF treatment.

Afternoon UPDATE: Here's the first of the American commentary on today's Government U-turn: The Island Of Dr. Moreau, which asks "What happened to all of the European concern over genetic purity?"—a good question, in view of the European Parliament's decision at the end of last month to adopt new rules authorising so-called "advanced therapies" (adult stem-cell therapy, gene therapy, and tissue engineering) despite "considerable misgivings from some MEPs over ethical questions," principally from members in Eastern Europe, Italy and Germany, who warned "If Europe rightly wants to set human rights standards in the world, it can not afford to adopt a 'passive position' when it comes to advanced therapies."

Less Haste, More Reform

Yet again, it looks like the Government is rushing headlong into more botched education reforms.

A lesson in haste from Harriet, Darwin's tortoiseThe Commons Education and Skills Committee has warned of confusion over the introduction of new Specialised Diplomas for teenagers that mix practical and theoretical learning. The cross-party committee of MPs says ministers risk failure if they do not delay full implementation of the scheme and treat the first year as a genuine pilot.

Earlier in the year, industry leaders and exam boards expressed similar concerns. Just two weeks ago, buried beneath the elections news, leading science organisations warned the Government that schools are under too much pressure from other developments to implement changes in the school curriculum for 11 to 14-year-olds, also noting their alarm that the changes are not being piloted.

The Department for Education and Skills, of course, are ploughing ahead anyway with their "exciting new opportunity"—an opportunity that the Head of Education at the National Union of Teachers has described as "a cliff face," noting that "It's not only the diplomas that are going to hit schools; there's the revised Key Stage 3 curriculum and new functional syllabi for maths and English GCSE. We have got a bunching of major reforms in secondary schools. We are constantly warning the DfES that we cannot do it all at the same time."

16 May 2007

Tom, Dick & Harry

Prince Harry [Credit: BBC]So, now the insurgents are using precision-made mines that fire "explosively formed projectiles" capable of penetrating the armour of even our soldiers' Challenger 2 tanks, with their nuclear- chemical- and biological attack-resistant compartments, Iraq is too dangerous for Harry.

I bet Tom and Dick are encouraged.

No More Academic Selection?

David Willetts, Shadow Education Secretary"A Conservative agenda for education will not be about just helping a minority of pupils escape a bad education. We want better schools for all, based on fair admission and fair funding."

Fair enough, David Willetts, but does that really mean there is no place for academic selection?


15 May 2007

Star Wars

The Economist: Pining for the cold war: Condoleezza Rice & Vladimir PutinA week ago, I reported on the financial crisis facing Europe's bid to compete with America's Global Positioning System, the Galileo project. As expected, in its bid to make the continent the world's mightiest commercial and military empire, the European Commission now looks set to fund the ailing satellite navigation system.

Ever one step ahead in this battle for control of the skies, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has today announced in Moscow that America will not allow Russia to prevent it from extending its missile defence shield into Eastern Europe. However, Washington still needs Russia's support if it is going to maintain international pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.

So, we have Europe and America determined to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear programme, but slowly heading for conflict over Europe's potential military independence. Meanwhile, their mutual rival Russia is supplying the Islamic Republic with nuclear fuel and has today agreed to build a nuclear research centre in Burma—another pariah state.

Clearly seeing an opportunity to reassert its claim to be a superpower, Russia is now threatening to pull out of its 1987 treaty with the United States banning intermediate range nuclear forces and to end its commitments to force reductions under the Treaty on Conventional Weapons. So, when Mr Putin criticises the US for its "almost uncontained hyper use of military force" around the world and accuses it of making the world a more dangerous place, observers are surely right to talk of a new Cold War era dawning.

The question is, given this global struggle for superpower status between Europe, America, Russia, and emerging powers in the Middle East and Asia, what should Britain's role be in the new wargame? I invite your suggestions in the comments.

Blog of the Day: Crime Scene

In view of the news, I thought I'd check out the various Police bloggers and came across Inspector Gadget at the Police Inspector Blog, who posted yesterday:

Official statistics show that the amount of crime committed by tagged offenders has increased by four-fold and the cost of keeping an offender in prison is more than a suite at The Ritz.
As the inspector concludes, you couldn’t make it up.

Out To Get YOU!

"Watch Out! We're targeting YOU next!"

Tony Blair pointing: We're targetting YOU next!

First, in the NHS, we were told Government targets distort patients' overall treatment. Going further back, you may also remember the issue of not being able to make an appointment at your local surgery thanks to the Government's 48 hours target.

Next, in education, targets were identified as distorting the enforcement of school behaviour policies and, just a fortnight ago, headteachers complained that excessive testing and targets had led to an exodus of young people from school, producing an "army of the unemployable."

Then, a couple of months ago, a Sussex detective resigned to expose how Home Office targets place police under pressure to massage their crime detection figures.

Now, in the latest targets fiasco, we learn that police officers are forced to make arrests for petty offences in order to satisfy Home Office targets. The BBC has the following list of examples from the Police Federation's dossier:
  • A man from Cheshire who was cautioned for being "found in possession of an egg with intent to throw"
  • A child in Kent who was arrested after removing a slice of cucumber from a sandwich and throwing it at another youngster
  • A West Midlands woman arrested on her wedding day for criminal damage after her foot slipped on her accelerator pedal and her vehicle damaged a car park barrier
  • A child from Kent who was arrested for throwing cream buns at a bus
  • A 70-year-old Cheshire pensioner who was arrested for criminal damage after cutting back a neighbour's conifer trees
  • An officer in the West Midlands who was told to caution a man for throwing a glass of water over his girlfriend
  • Two children from Manchester who were arrested for being in possession of a plastic toy pistol
<despair> When will the Government learn and stop meddling?! </despair>

14 May 2007

Crucifix Ban Controversy Renewed

'Jesus' chastity ringOnce again, the issue of religious double standards has bubbled to the surface following inflammatory headlines in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph ("School ban for crosses but not Muslim lockets") and today's Daily Express ("Outrage Over New Ban On The Cross") reporting on draft guidance issued by Croydon Council to help teachers deal with issues relating to different faiths and beliefs.

The draft guidelines included a section on jewellery stating that, while schools should operate a no jewellery policy, teachers should be sensitive to the needs of children from faiths in which religious symbols cannot or should not be removed, listing as examples the Hindu rahki bracelet and the Sikh Kara bracelet.

At first glance this appears to be a repeat of last year's row after British Airways suspended check-in worker Nadia Eweida for wearing a cross necklace, despite allowing employees from other faiths to wear hijabs and turbans—a dispute that lasted three months and ended up with the airline changing its policy to allow religious symbols on a chain or lapel pin.

However, giving Croydon council the benefit of the doubt, the guidelines were in fact simply a draft and the document is still being developed in consultation with schools and will not be considered by the independent Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education until next month. Moreover, it claims the reports were inaccurate, maintaining that headteachers were not told to ban religious symbols, and has complained, "It is deeply disappointing that elements of the national media have chosen to present a provocative and mischievous slant on such a sensitive subject."

Yet, if they genuinely intended no slight against Christians, then they should have themselves been sensitive to the need to treat all religions equally, and not to presume that "headteachers know about Christian traditions"—particularly in light of the case of Lydia Playfoot, the teenager who is taking her school in Horsham to the High Court after it banned her for wearing a Christian chastity ring, even though it has no issue with Muslim and Sikh pupils wearing headscarves, shalwar trousers, and Kara bracelets as a cultural expression of their religion.

Quite clearly there are issues of religious inconsistency that need to be dealt with in the country, just as there is also a clear determination by secularists to undermine and deny Britain's Christian heritage (see Secularism and Islam Vs Society and Humanism Vs Religion). If these matters are not to become a perennial bone of contention, then we need soon a public discussion involving leaders from all walks of life and sensitivity on all sides, not least on the part of the media who are responsible for reporting on such controversies — and more often than not for inflaming people's passions over such religious disputes.

Another Forgotten African Tragedy

A bomb-shattered ‘no mans land’ divides the warring sectors of Mogadishu, a capital in ruins [Credit: IANSA]"In terms of numbers and access to them, Somalia is a worse displacement crisis than Darfur or Chad or anywhere else this year."

So says the United Nations' top aid official John Holmes, who had to cut short a trip to the Somali capital Mogadishu at the weekend after bombs planted by suspected insurgents killed at least three people.

Recent battles between rebels and allied Somali-Ethiopian forces are reported to have killed at least 1,300 civilians, more than 300,000 people have recently fled the city, and many more are suffering from an outbreak of cholera. However, aid workers say that they are only reaching 35-40% of those in need as the government is accused of obstructing aid and violating human rights and international humanitarian law.

Somalia's interim government was set up in 2004 following two years of peace talks, but it only ever controlled a small piece of territory around the town of Baidoa, about 150 miles north-west of the capital. Last summer, for the first time since Somalia's pro-American President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, the capital was briefly reunited under control of the Union of Islamic Courts. However, America claimed the UIC were linked to terrorist groups and supported Ethiopia-backed government forces who toppled the UIC in December.
Some suggest that the United States is only involved in order to secure its interests in the country's oil and gas reserves. In truth, America has not been well thought of in Somalia since its disasterous intervention in 1993 lead to the death of more than a thousand Somalis and 18 US troops, as portrayed in "Black Hawk Down".

New Deal's Woeful Failure

New DealGordon Brown's flagship New Deal scheme to help young unemployed people is a "woeful" failure and not adapting to fit the needs of participants or the current labour market, according to former Labour welfare reform minister Frank Field in a report for the think tank Reform.

What he says is, of course, not new. Other reports, such as last month's by The Prince's Trust, have noted that twice as many 16 to 24-year-olds are classified as not in education, employment or training (NEET) as are unemployed.

What is new is that a former Labour minister, albeit one who has been a long-standing critic of the Chancellor, now accepts that this is the case. Noting that, despite £3.5bn in funding, there are now 70,000 more 18 to 24-year-olds out of work than when the New Deal scheme began in 1998, Mr Field says, "The results show that even if the money was available, which it isn't, more of the same won't work and will be a betrayal of young unemployed people."  Just last week the National Association of Head Teachers criticised the Government's obsession with targets and testing, saying that schools are producing an "army of the unemployable" with tens of thousands of teenagers quitting education without any qualifications.

Mr Field echoes criticism made by the Conservatives, who have long claimed that many of the young people helped into employment by the New Deal would have found jobs anyway. He also adopts the suggestion made by Conservatives that time limits should be set for recipients of benefits — a policy that has proved successful in encouraging people back into work in America. In 1994, a record 5.1 million families were on American welfare. However, as a result of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act introduced by President Clinton in 1996, today just 1.9 million families get cash benefits—and in a third of those only the children qualify for aid. Overall, child poverty has been reduced by over 1.6 million, with unprecedented declines in poverty occurring among children of single mothers and the greatest decrease happening among black children. Whereas in Britain people on benefit frequently discover they will lose out financially if they seek employment, in America people who return to work are the ones who get help with child care, job training, and transportation.

The new American system has not been without its problems, but there is clearly a lot we could learn if we are to transform our own bloated state dependency and answer fundamental questions about how to guarantee the stability and security upon which the economy and well-being depend, such as:

13 May 2007

Supporting Pro-Democracy Movements

"The international community must put more pressure on [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov or there will be another Andijan."

Today's anti-government rally in Izmir [Credit: insurancebroadcasting.com]On the day that hundreds of thousands once again took to the streets in Turkey, we need to remember that today is also the second anniversary of the government massacre of pro-democracy protesters in eastern Uzbekistan.

This blog has monitored developments in Turkey as what happens there has the potential for having significant implications for both the direction of the European Union and the global conflict between moderate and extremist Islam. If we are serious about our desire to help promote democracy, then current human rights abuses in Uzbekistan should be of equal concern to us, as the country is of strategic importance to the future of the whole region.

When I worked in Central Asia, I often heard it said of the fertile Ferghana Valley in the east of Uzbekistan, the most populated area in Central Asia, that "Whoever wins the hearts of the people of Ferghana will win the hearts of the Uzbeks — and whoever wins the hearts of the Uzbeks, will win the hearts of the whole of Central Asia."  The West was wrong in 2005 to let Karimov play the disingenuous "war on terror" card and claim he was quashing Islamic extremists, just as the Foreign Office was wrong to censor the British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray when he attempted to raise concerns about widespread torture in the country.

If our Government's promises about developing a foreign policy with an ethical dimension are to mean anything, then we cannot continue overlooking such abuses. As we ponder what a truly ethical foreign policy would look like, it might be helpful to take a couple of minutes and watch this BBC news report recalling the Andijan uprising. We should be as determined that the blood of the hundreds of civilians killed there two years ago eventually leads to freedom in their nation as we are about the sacrifices still being paid daily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

12 May 2007

Labour's Erosion of Civil Liberties

"The idea that we can protect our collective and individual liberties through the common law and ancient statutes such as Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, The Bill of Rights of 1689 and the sovereignty of parliament is a romantic fancy in today’s world.

A modern, British Bill of Rights would enable us to do exactly what was done in 1215, 1679 and 1689 – find a pragmatic legislative response to the dangers of excessive executive power and action in a period of discord."
So the Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve maintains in the next issue of The Difference. In contrast with the Government, whose response to unprecedented immigration and increased diversity has been "greater restrictions of freedoms, so that all will conform to a Government dictated framework," Grieve argues that the Conservatives need to "remain true to our history of maintaining and promoting liberty and avoid the temptation of espousing populist short cuts to the mirage of security."

To find out what three great opportunities the Shadow Attorney General believes a Bill of Rights would offer and how it could help address problems with community cohesion and the threat of native terrorism, order your copy of The Difference today!

UN - Reform Or Dissolve?

First of all, here are the results of last week's Baby Sex Tests poll. As always, the results aren't necessarily representative of anything other than the opinions of people who read this blog and are willing to take a few seconds to contribute to the wider debate, but they are interesting nevertheless:

Would you use the new early pregnancy sex test?
Yes, definitely  0% (0 votes)
If it was free, but not for £189  14% (4 votes)
No, I'd wait for the 20 week scan  38% (11 votes)
No, I'd find out at the birth  31% (9 votes)
No, it shouldn't be allowed  17% (5 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 29

This week's poll (in the sidebar): Following the United Nations' election of Zimbabwe to head the Commission on Sustainable Development, what future should we seek for the UN and by what means?

Most people probably realise that the UN is as plagued by allegations of corruption as is the EU; however, while most appear to have woken up to how the vast majority of British legislation now comes out of the European Union, few still seem to realise that the United Nations is responsible for global tax schemes such as the international tax on airline travel and a new global carbon tax amounting to 15-20 pence a gallon on petrol. Yet these initiatives are surely equally unacceptable attacks on national sovereignty?

Earlier this year, America's former Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, suggested that reform of the United Nations had failed and called for an end to "assessed contributions" to the international body, arguing instead for a completely voluntary system to pay for UN activities.

Maybe readers think that, for all its problems, the UN remains a force for good in the world? Let us know what, if anything, you believe should be done about the UN — take the poll or leave a comment!