31 July 2007

Brown's Coalition For Justice

Gordon Brown with UN chief Ban Ki-moon at the UN headquartersSpeaking to the United Nations in New York, Gordon Brown says he wants to "summon into existence the greatest coalition of conscience in pursuit of the greatest of causes" — that the world should "forge a coalition for justice" to combat what he called the "emergency" of global poverty.

The problem is, while he talks a good talk, his record just doesn't give any confidence that he will deliver on his promises of empowerment and free trade:

We need a compact - the rich accepting their responsibilities to invest, to support, to end protectionism and to deliver our promises; the developing countries accepting their responsibilities to reform, to open up to trade, and to be transparent and free of corruption. But our objectives cannot be achieved by governments alone, however well intentioned; or private sector alone, however generous; or NGOs or faith groups alone, however well meaning or determined - it can only be achieved in a genuine partnership together.

So it is time to call into action the eighth of the Millennium Goals so we can meet the first seven. Let us remember Millennium Development Goal eight - to call into being, beyond governments alone, a global partnership for development, and together harness the energy, the ideas and the talents of the private sector, consumers, NGOs and faith groups, and citizens everywhere. The sum of all the individual actions working together to achieve real change. Some people call it the mobilisation of soft power...I call it people power. People power in support of the leadership of developing countries.
After all, he has spent the last ten years taking power away from the people under his influence, so what makes anybody think he will begin giving it back to us all now? Consider what he says on protectionism:
Perhaps for too long we have talked the language of development without defining its starting point in wealth creation - the dignity of individuals empowered to trade and be economically self sufficient.

No country has moved to development without opening up to trade.

So I accept an immediate obligation on world leaders to address protectionism and work to make what we promised - the development trade round - happen this year.
If he really means what he says, presumably we will see Britain adopting a new tough stance in Europe as we withdraw from the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy? I, for one, won't be holding my breath...

The Weakest Link

Leadership often means saying what others don't want to hear and being able to point out an alternative way forward. Anyone doubting David Cameron's leadership needs to read his speech on school discipline today.

With figures showing that almost 40,000 children were suspended from school at least three times last year, over 1,700 children were thrown out of school for assaults on teachers, and with Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) condemned by Ofsted as the weakest link in the education system, the Conservative Party leader calls for less reliance on PRUs and more emphasis on the independent voluntary sector to educate school troublemakers. But before detailing a plan of action for the future, he examines the ways in which the Government has failed us:

In education, the whole country is still suffering from a series of orthodoxies which are a sort of hangover from the 1960s.

First, the idea that we should treat every child not as unique, but as identical - that equality and equal rights mean throwing every child into the same class in the same school.

It is this that has bred the doctrine of inclusion for all - the idea that schools should cater for everyone, no matter what their needs, aptitudes or behaviour. The result is special schools closed, and some children with special needs inappropriately included in mainstream education. Bright kids are held back and less able kids are left behind.

Second, the orthodoxy that education is a process not of learning from a teacher, but of solitary discovery - that the child should guide himself to knowledge. The result is the lack of rigour and falling standards we are becoming so familiar with.

And finally, the orthodoxy that schools should not be independent institutions, accountable to parents and the local community, but local outposts of the central state. The result is a target culture which makes it far harder for heads to create their own ethos for their school - and that includes rules on discipline.
Of course, anyone can criticise the Government for its mistakes. But Mr Cameron goes on to explain how the Conservatives will improve the provision of education for excluded children:
  • First, we will stop the closure of special schools. Over 60 per cent of children in PRUs have special educational needs. That's too many, we need to ensure there is the proper provision for these kids.
  • Second, we will ensure there is earlier intervention for kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I would like to see kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties picked up much earlier, at the start of primary school, rather than later in secondary school when they cost far more to look after and are far less likely to change their ways. Schools specialising in emotional and behavioural difficulties do an important and difficult job - too many have closed or are facing cutbacks.
  • Third, and vitally, we need a whole new relationship between state schools and those voluntary bodies and social enterprises which have real expertise in turning around kids who get excluded. It's time for the state sector to say that when it comes to these children, we're doing a bad job and you're doing a great job, we want to trust you with more of the resources, more responsibility, longer contracts and more freedom.
Once again, it all comes down to the Government's inability to trust the people. And, once again, the principles of empowerment and subsidiarity should be applied to all of us, not just young people...

30 July 2007

It's The War, Stupid!

President Bush welcomes British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the presidential retreat at Camp David [Credit: TimesUnion.com]

George Bush - under enormous political pressure at home - needs to ensure that his voters cannot say that now even the Brits are deserting him. He will know what it is that his visitor needs to go home happy and he will want to deliver it.

Key to that is a war - not the one which Britain and America started but one which they hope to help stop - the war in Darfur. Both men are backing a UN resolution this week which will not merely establish a 19,000 strong peacekeeping force in Darfur and will not only back a peace process between the warring factions but will also offer Sudan a package of long term economic support if it agrees to co-operate - a carrot to accompany the sanctions stick.

For Gordon Brown this would prove that something can be done to tackle what he calls the greatest humanitarian crisis the world faces. For George Bush it would prove that America is willing to act on the world stage to build and not just to destroy.
Nick Robinson seems to think that the rebranded trans-Atlantic alliance might finally bring about decisive and long overdue action in Sudan. Much as I would love to believe it, with the likes of China and the EU still making "more time for diplomacy," I can't see the Brown-Bush summit being that successful.

29 July 2007

Aim High: Aim Local

A couple of days ago the Government published Aiming High for Young People: a ten year strategy for positive activities — its strategy to transform leisure-time opportunities, activities and support services for young people in England.

Perhaps most interesting, in this new era in which Brown appears to be undoing as much of the Blair legacy as quickly and decisively as he can, is the early admission that "an unintended consequence of Government policies to tackle some serious problems" has been "a culture that has widespread negative perceptions of youth." Thus we had Children's Secretary Ed Balls telling the Daily Mirror that he wants to end the era of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), saying every one that is issued is a "failure".

But, why stop at young people? Why not go the whole hog and accept that the Government's misguided attempts to tackle a whole raft of serious problems have resulted in a devastating series of "unintended consequences" — from its policies on drug use and teenage pregnancies, through NHS and educational "reform", to military action in the Middle East?

If the Prime Minister wanted to make a truly radical break with the past — and give more than just lip-service to "devolving power away from central government" and "pushing power downwards" — then he should apply what the report says about empowerment to all of us, not just young people. After all, it is not just young people who, when given the opportunity to influence services, are more likely to find them attractive and to access and benefit from them. Having devolved to Scotland powers such as education, health, housing, and economic development, there is no reason why these powers couldn't also be devolved to county councils. In one deft stroke, people would have a reason to take local elections seriously again and the whole "West Lothian" question would be resolved. If Wyoming in the States, with a population of just half a million, can manage such powers, there is no reason that even the smallest of our county councils Town hall(Shropshire: 289,000) could not also cope — if only the Government could see its way to trusting the people.

Ah, but therein lies the crucial difference between Labour and Conservative. With Labour — both old and new — the state (or, better still, multinational body) always knows best.

28 July 2007

The Genocide Olympics

Beijing 2008 Olympics - Steven Spielberg - Darfur, Sudan [Credit: ABC News]Rumours first broken by ABC News a couple of days ago that Hollywood film director Steven Spielberg is threatening to quit as artistic director of next year's Olympics have now been confirmed, although no final decision has yet been taken.

Director of the Oscar-winning film Schindler's List and founder of the Shoah Foundation, which records the testimony of survivors of the holocaust, Spielberg has been working for several months to develop the opening ceremony for the Beijing Games but has been accused of complicity by human rights activists concerned about China's involvement in the Darfur crisis.

China is coming under increasing pressure to improve its human rights situation and to review its economic support of the military regime in Sudan ahead of next year's Olympic Games.

Community Service

New homes being built for homeless survivors of the Rwandan genocide - David Mundell's blogVarious people have wondered what the Conservatives' Project Umubano was all about and why it had David Cameron flying out to address the Rwandan Parliament in the midst of the floods crisis here.

Perhaps Michael Bates has the answer in his meditation "Rediscovering the Spirit of Public Service" in the current issue of The Difference:

The starting point for a life of service is a belief in the intrinsic value of every human life. The true motive for service is compassion, and this cannot be measured by performance indicators and league tables. It cannot be legislated for. It is an ethos, which may be expressed though the body and mind but is born of the soul. If society addresses only the mind and body, then we fail to nurture the source of service.
Umubano means "friendship and co-operation" in the Kinyarwandan language; the project saw over 40 Conservative volunteers working alongside Rwandans on around 20 different social action projects.

27 July 2007

Wanted: Postal Competition

Free the Mail: Ending the postal monopolyI had the misfortune to need to post an urgent letter today. So, having managed to avoid the post office for some weeks (in fact, since the last time they failed to deliver for me...), off I went to get my certificate of posting, only to be informed that they could not guarantee delivery of my letter as there would be yet more postal action today. If I wanted to pay them lots of money they "should be able to guarantee delivery by Monday" but, as I informed them, last time I paid them any extra money to ensure swift and safe delivery they were two weeks late and, three months later, have still failed to compensate me in any way. I didn't even bother to explain about the matter of the envelope having been fraudulently switched or any of the other tiresome details, so I was astonished by the response to my next innocent question:

Me: Is there any other postal service besides Royal Mail that non-business customers such as me can use to post our letters?
Lady behind the counter: I'm not going to get into a political debate with you.

The Jolly Post OfficeA political debate?! All I wanted to know was whether I could post my letter somewhere else where I might have a greater chance of (1) my letter not being lost, (2) my letter being delivered on time, (3) the whole service not being further blighted by industrial action reminiscent of the 70s...

<Sigh> We desperately need an alternative ... When is someone going to compete with Royal Mail for residential services? </Sigh>

26 July 2007

An Unquiet World

An Unquiet WorldAlmost before any of us have had a chance to digest Tuesday's report from the Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Group, the Conservative Party's National and International Security Policy Group has today published its own final report, An Unquiet World. Unlike the ground-breaking first report from the Social Justice Policy Group, it is not always obvious why we had to wait eighteen months. For instance, take the first four conclusions:

  • The UK has not made enough of its natural advantages in developing a close relationship with India.
  • Our civil liberties at home and our human rights record abroad matter and must be upheld in a consistent manner.
  • The broader Middle East is a region in turmoil. ... Iraq has made some aspects worse.
  • The risk and danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have been increased by the situation in the broader Middle East.
... Or its verdict on the key relationships and institutions:
  • The continuing importance of the transatlantic Alliance.
  • The vital need for functioning US European relations.
  • UK security involves close partnership in Europe.
  • Functioning international law and invigorated international institutions protect and promote our interests. ... The UK should put effort into UN reform generally and Security Council enlargement in particular.
None of this sounds particularly fresh or insightful. Even once it reaches the sections on security, its criticisms of Government and European policy are nothing new:
  • The identity of the British people needs to be rebuilt to include minority communities on the basis of shared values and active equal citizenship.
  • The UK is without arrangements in place for guaranteed energy supply or a strategic reserve available for emergencies.
  • Policies being pursued by European governments towards Russia and the countries on the EU’s borders in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe do not serve the political and security interest of member states as well as they could and should.
  • It is urgent for EU leaders to agree with Turkey a way forward on the accession negotiations.
  • Our armed forces which serve the nation with great professionalism round the world are overstretched and there is no reserve available for emergency. ... Their mission no longer corresponds to the real security requirements of the nation.
The real interest, therefore, doesn't come until we reach its recommendations. It suggests that an incoming Conservative government should:
  • Conduct a Defence review not with the aim of inflicting further cuts, but of ensuring that our armed forces have been asked to do the right job, are properly equipped and trained and are employed on the right terms and conditions.
  • Establish a dedicated force with a permanent command headquarters for homeland defence and security, to provide assistance as and when requested to the civil authorities in the event of a major terrorist incident or other national emergency.
  • Maximise the influence of its considerable range of soft power assets (such as the British Council, the BBC World Service, and British university system). British diplomacy, an asset neglected by the Labour Government, should be revitalised.
  • Create a National Security Council in the Cabinet Office. The FCO should be brought back from the sidelines. The FCO and DfID should develop a dedicated civil expeditionary capability.
  • Adapt the method of budgeting for spending on the external aspects of national security by relevant departments (FCO, MOD, DfID) to support a national security approach and alter spending patterns to fund more adequately reform and nation building programmes relevant to the establishment of open societies.
Perhaps it should come as little surprise that "Much of the existing policy base is valid and should be built on." However, particularly coming so soon after the Prime Minister adopted Conservative calls for a unified border force (even though Brown's version turns out not be to quite as radical a reform as initially appeared), we could have hoped for a greater emphasis on those elements that would demonstrate to the public that there is in fact a difference between the major political parties — and that the Conservatives are the Party that can best meet the nation's domestic and international security challenges. ... Let's hope the next policy groups establish a little more "clear blue water" in their reports.

Rape of Nature

Renewables are not green. To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, water and biomass, cause serious environmental harm. Measuring renewables in watts per square metre that each source could produce smashes these environmental idols. Nuclear energy is green. However, in order to grow, the nuclear industry must extend out of its niche in baseload electric power generation, form alliances with the methane industry to introduce more hydrogen into energy markets, and start making hydrogen itself. Technologies succeed when economies of scale form part of their conditions of evolution. Like computers, to grow larger, the energy system must now shrink in size and cost. Considered in watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors.
In Renewable and nuclear heresies, the noted conservation biologist and climate change researcher Jesse Ausubel argues that key renewable energy sources, including sun, wind, and biomass, are "boutique fuels" — "They look attractive when they are quite small. But if we start producing renewable energy on a large scale, the fallout is going to be horrible." Analysing the amount of energy per square metre of land used that different power sources can produce, he shows that solar power would require 150 square kilometres of photovoltaic cells to obtain the same amount of energy as a 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant, while biofuels would require 2500 square kilometres of prime farm land.

One critic, from the US government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, quoted in the New Scientist, responds by noting that "even if the US got all of its power from solar energy, it would still need less than half the amount of land that has been paved over for highways" — which is rather perverse when you consider that 70% of Los Angeles is used for roads and car parking. One might just as well note that the whole of the US electricity demand could be met if they dedicated "just" 780,000 square kilometres of land to wind power alone — an area the size of Texas, America's second largest state!

As Ausubel concludes, "We should be sparing land for nature, not using it as pasture for cars and trucks."Car fuelled by plant oil in a field of rape [Credit: Nordic Folkecenter for Renewable Energy]

25 July 2007

Brown Embraces Cameronism

Armed policeman in front of ParliamentJust last November, Home Office minister Liam Byrne declared of the Conservatives, "All that they offer in place of ID cards is the chaos of a damaging, distracting and disruptive reorganisation of three agencies on the front line into a single border force. That idea is outdated and is rooted in a concept of a frontier that is long past. It is simplistic and dangerous in the disruption that it poses."

Today his new leader, Gordon Brown, announced, "To strengthen the powers and surveillance capability of our border guards and security officers, we will now integrate the vital work of the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs and UK Visas overseas and at the main points of entry to the UK and establish a unified border force."

Now all we need is for the new "Conservative" Prime Minister to ditch his misguided obsession with ID cards...

...Oh yes, and to give us the referendum we were promised on the Constitutional Treaty that Open Europe's analysis shows is 96% of the original European Constitution, already rejected by the French and the Dutch...

Sources: Hansard and BBC
No2ID: Stop ID cards and the database state

24 July 2007

In It Together

Globalisation and Global Poverty

Poverty is a denial of human potential. The stifling of dynamism, creativity and intelligence that attend poverty affects us all. Unleash that potential and we will all benefit through an explosion of thought, culture and trade.

In the twenty-first century extreme poverty is not only a preventable economic absurdity but a moral disgrace. That is what has motivated this group in its work.

But even if we were driven purely on the basis of self interest then act we must. Poverty undermines our security and prosperity as well as our humanity. It is necessary for our own well-being that we work together to remove the scourge of poverty that so blights our time.

The bald fact is that extreme poverty does not affect only the few, it harms the many. We are all in this, like it or not, together. And that is the only way that poverty will finally be eradicated: together.
So begins Peter Lilley in his introduction to the second of the Conservative Party's policy group reports, published today. Unlike the Social Justice Policy Group's recent report, media coverage of In it together: the attack on global poverty, from the Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Group, has so far been very poor.

Overall, with its emphasis on trade and training instead of aid and tariffs, it looks good, although expecting the World Bank and other multilateral organisations to track corruption seems rather naive. In all, the group makes 76 recommendations, all of which could be funded within the current commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid. Here are a few of the highlights, listed under the report's six headings:

  • DFID’s process for allocating bilateral aid should be adjusted from a cliff edge to a slide. So when low income countries pass the middle income threshold they should no longer risk losing all their aid.
  • DFID should continue to develop funding mechanisms which provide longer term, more stable and more flexible aid funding. This principle should apply both to bilateral aid and that provided through NGOs and local partners.
  • We recommend that DFID should allocate its aid budget so as to encourage NGOs to develop specialist competences and focus on them, and should be more willing to use smaller NGOs which have already specialised in a particular function or country and proven their ability and integrity.
  • DFID should create a Human Rights Review Panel to advise whether aid should continue to flow to governments after human rights abuses occur and DFID should respond speedily but proportionately to any deterioration in standards, thereby obviating the need for a more drastic response later on.
  • The UK must make a long-term commitment to training medical staff in countries with the greatest need for them.
Economic development
  • Increased UK support for skills and enterprise training for young people is necessary.
  • The UK should endeavour to extend its support for secondary education, to assist low income countries in moving towards universal secondary education.
  • We support the provision of development funding directly to private sector enterprises and entrepreneurs, if this offers the best way to tackle poverty.
  • There is a strong case for allowing low income countries, in particular, i) open access to EU and other developed country markets; and ii) flexibility as to how rapidly they liberalise their domestic markets. Real Trade involves both.
  • The UK should aim to spend a larger proportion of its existing aid budget to 2013 on aid for trade.
  • The UK should press the EU to take up the US offer of an end to all market distorting support as part of the Doha Round. At the very least the UK should press for the EU to meet the G20’s request for deeper reductions. The UK should also seek to hold the EC to its earlier offer to abolish all subsidies on exports from the EU ... The UK should push for an immediate end to certain CAP programmes such as tobacco and cotton subsidies.
Corruption and governance
  • DFID should live up to its promises and respond more vocally, robustly and proportionately to evidence of corruption affecting UK aid.
  • Aid to promote good governance should be used to help both stimulate and satisfy demand for greater accountability, by strengthening the capacity of civil society to challenge governments over issues of corruption, human rights, and transparency and accountability.
Conflict, fragile states and humanitarian aid
  • The UK should support an International Arms Trade Treaty to curb the flow of weapons to conflicts.
  • Pledges for quick-onset emergencies should either be made from existing contingency funds or from new money, and should not involve the re-allocation of previously allocated funds.
  • What is needed is greater coordination, not centralisation. If donors duplicate, this is a waste, but if the UN were to attempt to centralise all donors and then assign tasks this could take up valuable time – putting lives at risk. Attempts to centralise responsibility under a single agency should be resisted by the UK Government.
  • The UK should welcome and undertake to uphold the commitment of the international community at the UN Millennium Review Summit in 2005 to ‘take collective action [to protect vulnerable populations] in a timely and decisive manner . . . should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities [be] manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity’.
DFID - the aid effectiveness challenge
  • DFID should, as a leading bilateral donor, take a much more robust line with multilaterals, demand evidence of effectiveness and performance, be ready to withhold discretionary funding where necessary and through this more assertive stance create real impetus for change.
  • DFID must focus on results, rather than processes, and must develop methodologies and techniques that will enable a results-focused comparison of different projects and programmes.
  • Our proposed option for the evaluation of DFID’s effectiveness is the creation of an Independent Evaluation Group which would report to Parliament via the International Development Select Committee.

21st-Century Catastrophism

The Independent: A 21st century catastrophe

No one can yet attribute the flood events of the past week, or indeed, those of June, when Yorkshire suffered what Gloucestershire and Worcestershire are suffering now - again from one single day's rainfall - directly to global warming. All climates have a natural variability which includes exceptional occurrences.

But the catastrophic "extreme rainfall events" of the summer of 2007, on 24 June and 20 July, are entirely consistent with repeated predictions of what climate change will bring.
Excuse me? I don't think so! As the report in today's Independent goes on to make clear, current climate models predict that, although winters are predicted to be wetter, summers are supposed to be hotter and drier. As Michael Crichton correctly noted in his State of Fear, scientists' inability to make predictions over the past 5-20 years consistent with what has since happened underlies how little we understand trends and changes in the climate and invalidates any longer term predictions that are currently so fashionably bandied about.

It may well be that British summers will become wetter in the years that they are not hotter and drier, and that may well be caused by El Niño, La Niña, and cooler water in the Pacific Ocean off South America affecting the path of the Gulf Stream, but climate models to date have not predicted this — though no doubt it won't take the likes of Peter Stott at the Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research long to produce a new model "confirming" the newly postulated link between increases in rainfall and climate change. Whatever happened to rigorous scientific methodology...?

23 July 2007

Our Orwellian State

Mind Control 101 by JK Ellis: How to influence the thoughts & actions of others without them knowing or caringThe news is reporting that the number of prescriptions for antidepressants and other mind-altering drugs given to children under 16 has more than quadrupled in the last decade. As shocking as this statistic is, checking Hansard for the actual answer given to the Liberal Democrat shadow children's secretary, David Laws, reveals that it masks an even more shocking one.

The question asked was: "To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families what his latest estimate is of the number of school age pupils who have been prescribed drugs for (a) depression, (b) behaviour control and (c) mental health problems in each year from 1996-97 to 2006-07; and if he will make a statement." The headline summary is that there were more than 631,000 such prescriptions recorded in the last financial year compared to 146,000 in 1996-97 — an increase of more than 4.3 times the figure ten years ago. However, a breakdown of these prescriptions reveals that the increase in use of behaviour control drugs has been almost ten-fold among under-16s and almost twenty-fold among 16-18 year olds in full-time education:

Increase in use of mind-control drugs in the last ten years
 Under 16s16-18s in
full time
Antidepressant drugs1.41.1
Behaviour control drugs †9.419.6
Drugs used in psychoses and related disorders3.41.2
All mind-control drugs  4.31.4
† Central Nervous System stimulants and drugs used for
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

We've got Big Brother, NewSpeak, attempts to lock away the innocent and now mass use of mind control drugs ... and poor George Orwell thought he was writing a warning about, not a manifesto for a future government.

22 July 2007

Affordable Housing Solution

flood defences failIt appears all the recent flooding across the country may have helped the Government find a solution to the problem of affordable housing. Just consider some recent headlines and join the dots:

  • Gordon Brown to build three million new homes by 2020
  • 70,000 affordable homes per year over the next three years
  • 89% of the proposed properties in the Thames Gateway develop-ment are in the flood plain
  • Flood risk could make 300,000 homes uninsurable
Well? Who's going to want to buy an uninsurable home on a flood plain? Those who can't afford to live anywhere safer, that's who.

21 July 2007

State of Fear

Michael Crichton: State of FearWhile everyone else is reading the final installment in JK Rowling's very profitable Harry Potter phenomenon, I've spent the day racing my way through a book that a friend recommended to me last weekend: Michael Crichton's environmental adventure, State of Fear.

Rather predictable, it nevertheless made for an entertaining few hours. The author clearly intends to open the eyes of anyone of the opinion that "Everyone believes in Anthropogenic Global Warming!" However, my guess is that few people are going to become scientifically informed or challenged by a thriller, and even fewer take the effort to investigate the many source references that he provides.

Crichton attempts to summarise his assessment of current beliefs in his speech, Environmentalism as Religion. Yet, for all his attempts at persuasion, it's far easier to accept the dismissal from groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (who are "the earth's best defense" — or so they claim!) than to risk being branded a heretic. After all, nobody likes to be the object of a witch-hunt (except certain Hogwarts fans, I suppose). And these days, even some churches and Christian organisations are treating AGW sceptics as "wounded" (to borrow the Pope's recent description of non-Catholic Churches). Which is rather ironic for, as another friend recently put it to me, "Given that the Bible clearly states that the whole of creation is to be destroyed, what are Christians doing jumping on the bandwagon to save the planet when their commission is to save souls?"

On one point at least we can surely all agree that Crichton is right: "Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance." When it comes to environmentalism, as with all matters political, scientific, and religious, we need open and informed debate.

20 July 2007

Fight Against Government Suppression

http://www.uk-fags.co.ukMuch as I personally hate smoking, I wish Britain's newest political party, FAGS, every success. The smokers' equivalent of UKIP was launched by Hamish Howitt, who last night was served no less than seven separate court summonses at his Happy Scots Bar in Blackpool for flouting the recently introduced law banning smoking in enclosed public spaces.

Fight Against Government Suppression is of course right to remind people that the government broke its manifesto pledge to restrict the ban on private clubs and pubs to those serving food. When the issue reaches them, as it surely inevitably will, I suspect that the more liberal European Court of Human Rights will also delight in taking the opportunity once again to assert its supremacy over our federal national Parliament. However, the real issue is actually nothing to do with smoking — it is about enforced uniformity. Which is why I hope FAGS becomes so much more than just a single issue party.

For there are so many ways in which we have all been suppressed by NuLabour's nanny state-cum-police state mentality and the fight against government suppression needs to be waged on all fronts. Take the recent issue of the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Mr Howitt claims that his non-smoking customers may go next door to his smoke-free karaoke bar. Quite so. Just as the Catholic adoption agencies suggested that they could continue their previous practice of directing homosexual couples to the non-Catholic adoption agencies next door. Just as doctors who do not wish to carry out an abortion may, at present, point some of their patients towards other doctors who are prepared to assist them. But in modern socialist Britain, we must all conform to the one model. One size must fit all. As the Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve put it in the current issue of The Difference, the Government appears to believe that "greater diversity needs greater restrictions of freedoms, so that all will conform to a Government dictated framework."

No, enough is enough. We should not be forced to conform. We should all be treated with respect and have the freedom to choose.

"Conformity means death for any community.
A loyal opposition is a necessity in any community."
Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow (Pope John Paul II)

Morning After the Night Before

Over To You, Mr Brown: How Labour Can Win Again (Anthony Giddens)I think the Norfolk Blogger says it all when he notes: "A party that expects to challenge for power should at the very least have overtaken the Lib Dems in Ealing Southall (which is what [the Conservatives] claimed in their leaflets) and they should have hung on in Sedgefield to keep second place."

Once again, I find myself wondering, are we ready for a snap general election?

19 July 2007

Green Energy "Dangerously Oversold"

The Rush to Ethanol: Not All Biofuels are Created Equal [Network for New Energy Choices]Last month we were warned that the rush for biofuels is causing enormous environmental and social damage. We now learn that not only will the rapidly growing and heavily subsidised corn ethanol industry in America cause significant environmental damage, it will not significantly reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels either!

A comprehensive new report by the environmental advocacy groups Food & Water Watch, the Network for New Energy Choices, and the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School analyses hundreds of previous studies and concludes that even if all corn grown in the US was used for fuel, it would only offset 15% of the country's petroleum use. Yet, the same reduction could be achieved simply by increasing fuel efficiency standards for all cars and light trucks by just 3.5-miles-per-gallon. Instead, 27% of the country's entire corn crop is earmarked for biofuels this year — a level that is already beginning to put a squeeze on corn for food production. Worse news still, all recent attempts to assess the total carbon footprint of biofuels conclude that, once farm equipment and refineries are factored in, biofuel production can lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions than the so-called "dirty fuels" they are intended to replace.

Mississippi Dead Zone [Credit: Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center]
Reds and oranges represent
low oxygen concentrations,
making it very difficult for
marine life to survive [NASA]
It is further feared that development of a corn-based ethanol market will exacerbate problems already associated with large-scale corn production, such as groundwater depletion, soil erosion, algae blooms, and the formation of "dead zones" in waterways inundated with pesticide and fertiliser runoff (such as the 6,600 square mile "dead zone" pictured by NASA in the Gulf of Mexico).

Somewhat scathingly, the report concludes: "What looks like an attractive solution — farmers gaining from higher corn prices, agribusiness and investors increasing profits, and politicians pleasing their constituents by going green — could be a political move to avoid the truly effective measures that will result in genuine public benefits." Constructively, having recognised that "the continuing reliance upon foreign oil is one of the greatest threats to U.S. national security and economic stability," it makes eighteen recommendations ranging from promoting local ownership and farmer-owned cooperatives, through increasing fuel efficiency, to promoting smart growth in urban planning.

If we in Britain are to ensure the future provision of reliable and affordable energy supplies, our politicians would also do well to explore such "truly effective measures that will result in genuine public benefits" rather than simply "pleasing their constituents by going green."

18 July 2007

Brown's Religious Freedom Test

Samar RazaviWell done to Anne Widdecombe for raising the issue in Prime Minister's Questions of Samar Razavi, the Iranian woman who is due to be deported later today back to Iran, where she has been sentenced to death by stoning for abandoning Islam and converting to Christianity. The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, has also joined the campaign to save Samar, saying "It is deeply inhuman and wrong to send her back. I am in no doubt that she is in real danger if the Home Office send her back. I hope they see sense and don't deport her."

This is yet another test of whether the Government will take a stand for religious freedom — let's hope that this time they rise to the occasion, or Samar's blood will be on their hands.

For more on the issue of apostasy and Islam, see Obama, Islam & The West

17 July 2007

Anyone For Presumed Consent?

England's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, wants a system of "presumed consent" to be introduced in England to tackle organ shortages.

Do we really want to give the State presumed ownership of our body parts? Surely a better way to close the gap between the 70-90% who say they would be willing to donate their organs after death and the 20-25% who carry a donorcard or are on the NHS Organ Donor Register, and thereby combat the "transplant crisis," would be to make it easier to register? How about, for example, including a consent form as an integral part of every driving licence and passport application? Or making the forms available at every supermarket checkout, instead of all those useless offers of credit?

In the meantime, if you would be willing to give your consent but haven't done so, you can do so online at UK Transplant.

Mega-Mosque Protest

Hezbollah flags in front of Big Ben [Credit: moonbatmedia.com]Remember Tablighi Jamaat's mega-mosque proposal for West Ham — just a mile or so from Europe's biggest evangelical church, the Kingsway International Christian Centre, which is to be demolished to make way for the Olympic stadium? A proposal so suspect that even Muslims are opposed to it? A petition calling for the plans to be abolished is currently the most popular on the Downing Street website. The full petition is unfortunately unnecessarily misleading in its second sentence but, with over 261,000 signatures, it has clearly hit a nerve in these troubled times:

We the Christian population of this great country England would like the proposed plan to build a Mega Mosque in East London Scrapped. This will only cause terrible violence and suffering and more money should go into the NHS.

Ncube Discredited: Scandal or Smear?

Ncube at prayerZimbabwe's Archbishop Pius Ncube, outspoken critic of Mugabe has either become the target of an official smear campaign to discredit him, or has most regretfully made the kind of mistake that destroys anyone in the public eye and brings the Church's reputation into disrepute. One hopes it is a case of the former.

This is what NewZimbabwe.com is reporting:

ZIMBABWE'S state-run media has published what it said were photos of Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube in bed with a woman, a day after the outspoken critic of President Robert Mugabe was sued for adultery.

The scandal has dominated radio and television news on Zimbabwe's state-owned stations, beginning on Monday when a state TV crew filmed Ncube being served with the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, the government-owned Herald and Chronicle newspapers ran the photos under the headlines "Pius Ncube Shamed" and "Pius in Sex Scandal." Several photos showed a man identified by newspapers as Ncube removing his clothes and lying in bed with a woman.

The two dailies said the photos were from a security camera hidden in Ncube's bedroom in Bulawayo by a private investigator hired by Onesimus Sibanda, who is suing Ncube for allegedly having a two-year sexual affair with his wife, Rosemary Sibanda.

Adultery is illegal in Zimbabwe.

Polarisation of Poverty

Distribution of all households (2000): core poor, breadline poor, non-poor non-wealthy, asset wealthy, exclusive wealthyFor the third day in a row, we have yet another report highlighting the very real challenge of poverty in this country. This latest, a study from the social policy research and development charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reveals that Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than forty years ago, and that rich and poor are living further apart.

Looking at how the geographical distribution of wealth in Britain has changed in the last 40 years, the authors of Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005 argue that in order to understand social inequality it is crucial to understand what is happening to those people and households that are not poor. They conclude that over the last three decades, "slowly and not particularly steadily, more and more families became excluded from what it was normal to be able to do." Households in already-wealthy areas have tended to become disproportionately wealthier, more households have become poor over the last fifteen years, and the widening gap between rich and poor has meant that there are fewer "average" households — neither rich nor poor.

The report raises serious questions about what Britain will look like in ten years' time if trends continue and concludes by asking, "Who wants to be born in a neighbourhood where, odds on, you will grow up poor? Who wants to be born average where so many are poor, where the rich are gaining more and more and the exclusive rich are such a tiny group? Who will put up with that and who is going to change this?"

The sad thing is, although the methods used may be novel and although the results may shed additional light on the debate, all these reports merely confirm what we all already know and can see around us. How many more diagnoses of this problem do we need? Surely the money used to conduct all this research would now be better channelled to investigating best practice elsewhere to identify possible solutions? Perhaps the charities will now take a lead from Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservatives' Social Justice Policy Group who, having first defined the problem, went on to make specific policy proposals for how we might heal our broken society and improve the well-being of us all.

16 July 2007

Holy Rights!

What a bizarre country we live in. A High Court judge has saved Shambo the "sacred" bullock from slaughter, despite it testing positive for TB, after lawyers for monks at the multi-faith Skanda Vale community in Carmarthenshire argued putting the animal down would breach the Human Rights Convention. Another, however, has ruled against Lydia Playfoot and her wish to express her faith by wearing a ring showing her commitment to sexual abstinence.

So, religious freedom is no longer a human right? Better to be a cow, ape, or robot, it seems... Maybe Lydia should take refuge at Skanda Vale.


Two new reports this week provide yet more damning insights into the lives of the most deprived children in British society. Firstly, yesterday, in a report that the media covered as showing no link between poor diet and low incomes, the Food Standards Agency found higher levels of smoking and alcohol consumption and lower levels of activity in low income families.

Then, today, the National Consumer Council, summarising research into the viewing habits of children in the "tween" years (aged 9-13), concludes: "Perhaps one of the most important findings of our study is the uncovering of a divided society, in which different communities display very different attitudes to media consumption and, concomitantly, display very different levels of materialism. In this study, commercial influence was shown to be exerted unevenly across the population, as children in deprived areas seemingly had a great deal more unrestricted TV and computer access."

Children in affluent areas were found to spend substantially less time in front of TV and computer screens. What they watch differed qualitatively as well as quantitatively: "Less than half of the children from disadvantaged areas list children's programmes in their top three favourite programmes; nearly three-quarters in affluent areas do. Almost 30 per cent more disadvantaged kids watch music TV; 25 per cent more watch horror; and 13 per cent more watch soaps. Twice as many of the children from the affluent areas, on the other hand, watch nature programmes and documentaries."

Perhaps most seriously for this under-privileged generation of "screen kids," the study suggests their television viewing habits leads to a devastating cycle of family friction, low self-esteem and materialism. Children who spend more time in front of the TV or computer screen were found to have a lower opinion of their parents and to argue with them more. Although the report does not say so, presumably they also have a lower opinion of and argue more with other authority figures, such as teachers. Little wonder headteachers, the police and society at large face such a struggle with antisocial behaviour.

Of course, we need to separate cause and effect: taking away children's televisions won't solve the underlying problems. However, giving serious consideration to the many proposals made by Iain Duncan Smith's Social Justice Policy Group last week just might.

15 July 2007

Labour Wreaks Happy Families

"I cannot see how 'Dave' offering my £1000 a year to vote Conservative would influence me to get married if I wasn't already going to do it. All it is, in my view, is a cynical attempt to buy votes from those who are already married."
Thus opined Norfolk Blogger about Iain Duncan Smith's Social Justice Policy Group proposals earlier this week. He clearly misses the point that for many who are struggling to makes ends meet, the Government's present perverse policies DO result in families breaking up around the country who would otherwise seek to provide their children with the stability they need and most benefit from. The News of the World carries the story of a married couple who have chosen to split up purely because Gordon Brown's tax and benefits system encourages them to do so:
A MARRIED couple revealed how they split up —because under Britain's crazy benefit system they are BETTER OFF living apart.

Sean Ash and wife Chloe agreed to break up after realising they would lose out even MORE when he takes a new job.

They spoke in the wake of a major political row this week, sparked by Tory leader David Cameron's tax-break pledge to give married couples an extra £20 a week.

Sean and Chloe, who have both been on benefits, explained why they decided to join what Mr Cameron called "our broken society".

As a couple, they had a joint net income of £1,702 a month. But after the split, Sean now gets £1,184 and Chloe £1,396—making a total of £2,580.

That means they are £878 a month in benefits better off leading separate lives.

14 July 2007

Help Shape Election Manifesto

Following the issue of the Social Justice Policy Group proposals earlier this week, the Conservative Party has now launched its public consultation, Stand Up Speak Up. Make sure you read the reports, vote on the policy recommendations, and join the debate — you might even win a chance to have a one-on-one discussion with David Cameron.Stand Up Speak UpFixing our broken society - problems like crime, anti-social behaviour, poor schooling and family breakdown - is the biggest challenge Britain faces. Gordon Brown’s social failure is costing us £102 billion a year. We think it’s time for change.

As David Cameron said a month ago, let's "stand up and lead the way in getting people involved in a massive grassroots debate on the future of our country. Let’s show the cynics some energy, not apathy."

Visit: Stand Up Speak Up

13 July 2007

A Good Day For Free Speech

Which is the greater insult to Islam? [Credit: USA Today]The politically correct would maintain that nobody should be permitted to offend Muslims. A Danish court has today judged in favour of common sense:

Muslim group loses cartoons libel case in Denmark

A Muslim group lost a libel case on Friday against the leader of a Danish anti-immigrant party who had accused its members of treason for publicizing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

A court ruled that Pia Kjaersgaard, leader of the Danish People's Party (DPP), did not libel the Islamic Faith Community when she accused some of its members of treason for traveling to the Middle East to publicize a Danish newspaper's publication of the drawings, which caused a worldwide uproar in 2006.

The court said the term "treason" was not libelous because it was used extensively in public debate. It ordered the plaintiffs, a loose network of Danish Muslim organizations which says it represents 50,000 members, to pay Kjaersgaard 40,000 Danish crowns ($7,400) in costs.
The court's decision is in line with a similar verdict reached in France earlier in the year (see Islamophobic or Anti-fundamentalist?) However, a disappointed spokesman for the Muslim group threatened to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, against Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that first published twelve cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in September 2005 that provoked outrage among Muslims, if it did not receive an apology from the paper.

Has Boris Got News For London?

Boris Johnson on 'Have I Got News For You?'Hey, if London's 2012 Olympics risk turning into a disaster, who better to have as mayor to dissipate any fall-out and divert the frenzied panic?!

12 July 2007

Cyber Jihad

"As with nuclear or biological warfare, the Web is a dual-use technology. Technically adept Muslims, using out-of-the-box PC software and hardware, are outputting an electronic torrent of slick Web sites, discussion forums, videos, e-magazines and long-form movies, all with one purpose--to incite Muslims to join the jihad against the enemies of Islam in Baghdad, London, Glasgow or New York. Forget those Iraqi attack videos on YouTube; this is a sophisticated, globally distributed propaganda operation ... The language is invariably religious. There's no effort here to appeal to nationalistic sentiment; thus, for a global audience, the Islamic argument becomes wholly religious."

An RFE/RL Special Report by Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo: Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and IdeasSo writes Daniel Henninger in today's Wall Street Journal, describing a new study of Islamic media propaganda, "Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and Ideas" from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The report documents in significant detail the extent that media outlets and products created by Sunni insurgents in Iraq and their supporters seek to win hearts and minds by creating an alternate reality that feeds into the global jihadist media, and how this is "undermining the authority of the Iraqi government, demonizing coalition forces, fomenting sectarian strife, glorifying terrorism, and perpetrating falsehoods that obscure the accounts of responsible journalists." The authors argue that efforts to counter insurgent media should not focus on producing better propaganda than the insurgents, or trying to eliminate the demand for the insurgent message, but rather on exploiting the vulnerabilities of the insurgent media network:

"The popularity of online Iraqi Sunni insurgent media reflects a genuine demand for their message in the Arab world. An alternative, no matter how lavishly funded and cleverly produced, will not eliminate this demand. But this does not mean we should concede the battle without a fight. The vulnerabilities of insurgent media remain to be exploited."

"The lack of central coordination impedes coherence and message control. There is a widening rift between homegrown nationalist groups and the global jihadists who have gathered under the banner of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Moreover, insurgent media have not yet faced a serious challenge to their message on the Internet."
With the White House's interim Iraq report today warning that although military progress is satisfactory, political reconciliation is lagging, quite clearly it is not just the security situation in Iraq itself that remains "complex and extremely challenging." The battle is being waged right here in cyberspace.

Ofsted Drives Head To Suicide

Hampton Hargate Primary School"A headmaster is believed to have committed suicide on the eve of an inspection of his school by Ofsted."

I'm sorry, but on a day when the Government has announced yet another top-down initiative that is supposed to help our already over-burdened and strait-jacketed teachers, this news from the Telegraph should really be somewhere near the top of the news agenda.

This wasn't even a failing school expecting a bad inspection report — "His school opened in 2000 and was last inspected four years ago when it received a glowing report from Ofsted on the way it was run."

Neither is it the first time that an Ofsted inspection has ended in a suicide — "In 2000, a depressed primary school teacher with more than 30 years' experience drowned herself after being criticised in an Ofsted report."

I can but echo this week's Social Justice Policy Group's report, Breakthrough Britain, in its call for an end to bureaucratic overload, improved pay and job conditions for head teachers, and improved training to help heads deal with poor pupil behaviour. This is not how a life of public service is supposed to end and our sympathies go out to the family of Jed Holmes and to all who knew him.

In its section on Leadership in Schools, Breakthrough Britain noted:

There are currently more than 500,000 pupils in over 1,200 schools without a permanent head across the country and the following key statistics show the problems being encountered by all schools:
  • Head teachers are retiring early - the number is likely to rise from 2,250 in 2004 to nearly 3,500 in 2009.
  • There are insufficient newcomers to fill vacancies - 43% of deputy heads and 70% of middle leaders don’t want to be head teachers.
  • The number of advertisements for all heads during 2006 was above the average and hit a new record in primary schools with around a third having to re-advertise the position.
To improve educational outcomes, we need excellent leaders and our view is that there are enough potential and actual leaders in the system to deliver an excellent education to disadvantaged pupils.
However, we believe that we need to ensure that aspiring leaders:
  • Are convinced that the job they are being asked to do is possible and highly valued.
  • Have the freedom and flexibility to meet their pupils’ needs.
  • Are properly trained and resourced.
  • Are well rewarded for quality performance.

After Guantanamo

"Prisoners will be leaving Guantanamo for their home countries in the weeks to come. The closure of that appalling gulag may be trumpeted as a triumph of human rights, but the husks of the prisoners who have suffered so long are merely being passed down the line for the next chapter of their abuse."

I commend to you an article by the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity representing prisoners denied justice, in the New Statesman about the fate of prisoners being released from Guantanamo Bay, warning: "Much as they want to get out of Guantanamo - a purgatory of imprisonment without charge or trial - repatriation may take these men to hell itself."The America we believe in ... does not torture people [Credit: Amnesty USA]

11 July 2007

Obama, Islam & The West

Newsweek: Black & White: How Barack Obama is shaking up old assumptionsReligion, as everyone knows, is a big deal in American politics. Which is why Barack Hussein Obama might be just what the world needs as successor to George W Bush.

Described as "a liberal's liberal" and "way to the left of the repositioned Mrs Clinton," the media has understandably latched onto the question of race and asks whether he could become America's first black president. However, the question of faith is equally interesting. For, although he is a committed Christian, as is indicated by his non-Western names, he comes out of a Muslim background. Last October he wrote in a piece called "My Spiritual Journey" in Time magazine: "I was not raised in a religious household ... In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology." So, like the vast majority of the world's Muslims, it may be a nominal Muslim background. Nonetheless, Muslim it is — as is evident from his 1996 biography, Dreams from My Father, which describes how his father was a Muslim, he was raised by a Muslim stepfather, and his first two years education was at a Muslim school. To any orthodox Muslim, that makes him a Muslim — and, as a professing Christian, an apostate Muslim, at that.

Just as Obama is quick to reject any suggestion that his campaign represents "an easy shortcut to racial reconciliation," neither does his candidacy promise any swift solution to the problem of radicalised Islam. However, it does offer him a unique opportunity to reach out to moderate Muslims, who represent the majority within Islam, and invite them to affirm article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief."

Writing "The next president" in the current issue of The Difference, Michael Veitch concluded, "Whichever candidate ultimately ends up in the White House, the sort of relationship they choose to forge with Britain and the rest of the world promises to be a spectacle no less fascinating than the election itself." Taking a personal stand against the kind of rhetoric we have heard preached even this week by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's deputy, over "apostate" Salman Rushdie's knighthood, may not win Barack Obama the American presidency, and would almost certainly make him the prime target of Al-Qaeda's hatred, but it would go a long way in helping draw a clear distinction between the radical and the moderate sections of the Muslim community.

As this week's Newsweek notes, "From his earliest days as a politician, Obama has made a career out of reconciling opposing sides." Having consistently opposed the Iraq war, he might be uniquely placed to help reconcile Islam and the West.

10 July 2007

Criminals Unsupervised Under Labour

HM Inspectorate of ProbationThanks to ten years of Government obsession with targets and legislation, the Chief Inspector of Probation says that many offenders are not monitored or supervised properly because there are too many demands on probation staff in England and Wales. Writing in HM Inspectorate of Probation Annual Report, Andrew Bridges says:

"Over the past ten years the increasing demands have included new Orders or requirements for drug treatment and testing, for accredited programmes and for managing prolific offenders, extended periods of post-release supervision, increased public protection expectations, enhanced standards of quality for unpaid work and other supervision requirements. Case numbers have also increased by taking in less serious offenders, due in part to pressures to meet national quantitative targets and in part due to the general increasing severity of Court sentencing – a decade earlier many such offenders would have been fined."
Here in Kent, Maidstone Prison has today been condemned for its drugs culture, dirty and untidy facilities, and lack of training opportunities for inmates — problems compounded by the reopening of a wing deemed "unfit for purpose" in a belated attempt by the Government to deal with the national lack of prison places. Coming on the back of the recent announcement by the Home Office to release 25,500 prisoners early each year in order to ease prison overcrowding, is anybody else concerned that the Prisons and Probation Services will no longer be able to "punish, help, change and control" offenders? What ever happened to "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime"?Charles Clarke holding 'Get out of jail free' card [Credit: Beau Bo D'Or]
Hat-tip for graphic: Beau Bo D’Or

Highlights From Breakthrough Britain

Iain Duncan SmithWriting in the overview to the Social Justice Policy Group's report, Breakthrough Britain, Iain Duncan Smith says, "Breakthrough Britain advocates a new approach to welfare in the 21st century. We believe that, in order to reverse social breakdown, we need to start reinforcing the Welfare Society. The Welfare Society is that which delivers welfare beyond the State." He identifies two specific areas why their approach is unique: "Firstly, we have recommended a range of policies which are designed to break the cycle of disadvantage in the early years of a child’s life. Secondly, we wish to strengthen families by removing the perverse disincentives in the fiscal system which are an obstacle to stable families."

It is understandable that media coverage has so far focused on the group's marriage and tax-related suggestions. After all, the Government has spent ten years creating a tax and benefits system that perversely penalises married couples, perpetuating poverty for the 76% of children who live in couple households. However, any attempt to heal our broken society will need to change more than just the tax system. Duncan Smith explains the significance of the five pathways to poverty identified by the Group:

"Our approach is based on the belief that people must take responsibility for their own choices but that government has a responsibility to help people make the right choices. Government must therefore value and support positive life choices. At the heart of this approach is support for the role of marriage and initiatives to help people to live free of debt and addiction. Government has to be committed to providing every child with the best possible education and giving the most vulnerable people the necessary support to enter active employment. The problems of family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction, failed education, debt and worklessness and dependency affect us all, either directly or indirectly, as Breakdown Britain showed."
The Difference offers the following list of highlights from the report that it is hoped will receive due attention in the coming hours, days, and weeks:

Family Breakdown
  • Relationship education in schools
  • Creative ways for delivering more respite care
  • Targeted assistance for parents who currently struggle to nurture their children, rather than steering them towards local authority childcare
  • Removal of the bias towards state-provided childcare.
  • A review of family law conducted by a dedicated independent commission
  • Reinstatement of the use of ‘marital status’ in government forms and statements
Economic Dependency
  • Clear work expectations must be attached to the receipt of benefits for people who can work
  • Back-to-work services should be state determined but not state delivered
  • A serious and thorough review of the Housing Benefit system is needed
  • Parents should be given the opportunity to front-load child benefit
Educational Failure
  • £500 p.a. educational credits for disadvantaged children to fund supplementary educational services such as a year’s extra maths tuition, six months intensive literacy support and a year’s group music lessons
  • An end to bureaucratic overload
  • ‘Booster classes’ for pupils falling behind
  • More alternative provision to pupil referral units
  • An integrated addiction policy to replace the separate drugs and alcohol treatment
  • A devolved responsibility to local Addiction Action Centres
  • An expansion of third sector proven provision of ‘holistic’, value added, abstinence-based treatment
Serious Personal Debt
  • UK credit unions should be strengthened, supported and expanded
  • Local community based debt advice should be supported
  • The benefits system and Social Fund should be reviewed in detail
  • Education in personal finance should be improved
Third Sector
  • Gift Aid should be made easier to claim
  • Introduce Charitable Remainder Trusts as tax-efficient vehicles for planned giving
  • Launch a 'V Card' reward scheme to boost volunteering
  • Greater third sector delivery of public services
  • Less bureaucratic and prescriptive Government funding
  • Introduce voucher schemes to empower users of government-funded services
  • Enhance the third sector's voice in Cabinet and Parliament
  • Create a level playing field for faith based organisations
Yes, all this will come with a cost. But, as the report also notes, social breakdown presently costs the UK £102,000,000,000 per year, or around £3500 per taxpayer — that's a lot of money that could be better invested.

Substance With Style

Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron with Kid's Company, who provide practical and emotional support to over 11,000 ‘lone children’Today's much anticipated report, Breakthrough Britain, from the Conservatives' Social Justice Policy Group, headed by Iain Duncan Smith, is the result of 18 months work of consultation with over 800 experts, organisations and charities, the policy proposals will propose a completely fresh approach to tackling poverty in the UK.

Having previously identified the five interlinked "pathways to poverty" — family breakdown, education failure, welfare dependency, debt, and addiction — today's proposals, if adopted by the Conservative Party will "reset the balance" that currently makes it advantageous for couples to break up, or to pretend to be "living apart together" — a term referring to the 200,000 more people claiming benefits for lone parents than there truly are lone parents in the country.

The Conservatives are not proposing a return to the married person's tax allowance, which Duncan Smith accepts had flaws. Neither are they suggesting that lone parents should have less money. Instead, married couples would qualify for a £20-a-week tax break and receive higher benefit payments of £32-a-week, bringing the benefits awarded to married couples into line with those currently awarded to single parents. This will be paid for through welfare reform targetted to encourage recipients off one of the five "paths to poverty".

Labour is already trying to claim that these proposals would be unfair on the children of single parents or those whose parents choose not to marry. However, there is nothing unfair about levelling the playing field. Indeed, one could argue that such an egalitarian approach achieves what socialism has always failed to deliver: social justice.

09 July 2007

Human Rights Act Attracts Terrorists

Migration Watch UKIn addition to Interpol's damning criticisms about British immigration procedures, The Times has an article on yet another immigration story that the BBC has failed to make any mention of at all. The paper quotes a report from Migrationwatch warning that unless we pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, terrorist suspects will be able to remain in Britain indefinitely and at public expense, whether or not they are arrested or found guilty. The briefing paper begins:

"The UK’s continued adherence to the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) is an attraction for terrorists to operate in and from Britain, secure in the knowledge that, even if convicted, they can never be deported and that, if they come under suspicion, they cannot be effectively detained. We should therefore give six months notice to withdraw from the Convention and write our own Human Rights law with the same guarantees, except for terrorist offences.

Britain is now facing a security threat unparalleled in our history. Accordingly, we must amend our laws without delay. Suicidal terrorists (some from overseas and some born in Britain) do not operate alone; others encourage, finance and organise them. It is now essential that the latter be deterred by the certain prospect of immediate expulsion on completion of a sentence for a terrorist offence."
I wonder if Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith agree with their predecessors that the Government has struck the wrong balance between protecting the safety of the public and the rights of individuals suspected of being involved with terrorism and we should opt out of the ECHR.

If he can put down The Blair Years, maybe John Humphrys can find out for us in the next day or two...

Misplaced Priorities

Interpol logoWhy on earth did the Today programme give Alistair Campbell a full half-hour to promote his book and spin for Tony Blair this morning, when we have the head of Interpol criticising our immigration procedures and claiming "The UK's anti-terrorist effort is in the wrong century"? The day's top story was tomorrow's security, not yesterday's spin!

Noting that The UK currently makes only 50 checks a month on the Interpol database, compared with 700,000 by France and 300,000 by Switzerland, the head of the 186-nation international police agency accused the UK of failing to share information on terrorism investigations and not carrying out adequate checks on people crossing its borders. He also told the BBC that "We have received not one name, not one fingerprint, not one telephone number, not one address, nothing from the UK about the recent thwarted terrorist attacks."

With the new security minister, former navy chief Admiral Sir Alan West, suggesting the battle to deal with radicalisation in the fight against terrorism could take at least 15 years, the Government has some serious explaining to do. Two years after the so-called 7/7 attacks and nearly six years after the Al-Qaeda threat first struck so successfully against the West, why are we so far behind where we should be with securing our borders and international cooperation? I fully expect John Humphrys to take Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to task tomorrow — it is inexcusable that he did not do so today.

08 July 2007

Unusual Gift Ideas

Give a goat: Oxfamhedgehog executive toy: eclectech.co.ukEver have trouble thinking of a present to give someone on their birthday? Or, for that matter, to suggest someone give you on your own birthday? Here's a few animal-themed ideas, from the South Africa register of MPs' interests:

  • silver computer mice
  • packets of frozen hake
  • a panda
  • live oxen

07 July 2007

Live Earth's Carbon Footprint

Al Gore: Live Earth: The Concerts For a Climate in ChaosCan anyone tell me the size of the carbon footprint required to bring together and produce the many artists for today's latest musical reunion concert?

And they're supposed to be achieving what precisely?

06 July 2007

Smoking Ban

I want YOU to put out that cigaretteSo, former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has apparently been "spoken to" by police for smoking on a train.

This week I was asked by an office manager if I would shop them if they went next door for a cigarette. The tobacco-smelling offender made clear to the next person who arrived that anyone who complained was an interfering jobsworth. Personally, I'm extremely happy not to have to go home with my clothes stinking of second-hand smoke whenever I go out for a drink (or, indeed, to work) but I'm not the kind of person who's going to inform on anyone. We've got more than enough Soviet-style Big Brother culture as it is. Yet, if smokers such as my office manager and the former LibDem leader think it is fine to "smoke out of the window" or "next door," is this just another law that will fall into the category of petty crimes we may commit with impunity?

What do you think?

Islamic Terror Threat

Security guard extinguishes the flames engulfing one of the Glasgow airport attempted suicide bombers

So far, the government has refrained from introducing more Draconian legislation. Instead, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his ministerial colleagues have promised to reinforce the government's campaign "to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim community."

However, like Tony Blair's sterile appeal to moderate, mainstream Islam, this strategy is bound to fail because of two fatal assumptions. First, that every culture and every religion wants to become like the secular West. Second, resistance to Western secularization is fueled by false grievances and as such can be legitimately ignored.
The IHT has an interesting analysis on the Government's response to the recent failed car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. Noting that "Those who have abandoned terrorism did so not as a result of secular injunctions or indeed horror at what they were doing. Rather, it was the realization that the variant of Islam they were killing for was itself Western, modern and secular," it concludes that given we are losing the battle of hearts and minds, we should instead encourage an Islamic renaissance and revive Muslim traditions that the fundamentalists have so violently suppressed.