30 November 2007

The Special Relationship

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

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

29 November 2007

On Blasphemy & Genocide

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

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

The English Patient

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

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

28 November 2007

Labour's Greatest Political Failure

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

From Annapolis To Islamabad

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

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

27 November 2007

Another Victory For Mugabe

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

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

26 November 2007

GM Crop Results Scandal

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

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

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

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

For further details, see Truth About Trade & Technology

What's In Another Name?

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

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

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

25 November 2007

Lights Under Bushels

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

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

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

23 November 2007

Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap


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

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

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

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

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

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

Cocaine's Health Time Bomb

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

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

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

22 November 2007

Conspiracy Of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

21 November 2007

Measuring Local Quality Of Life

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

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

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

20 November 2007

How Safe Are Your Passwords?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Fisheries Problem

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

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

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

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

Drugs Poll Results

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

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

19 November 2007

On Punishment & Rehabilitation

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

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

18 November 2007

P Is For Pupils, Politicians & Power

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

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

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

17 November 2007

Dolly Scientist's U-Turn

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

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

16 November 2007

The End Is Nigh

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

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

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

Britain's Brain Drain

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

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

15 November 2007

Our Unsustainable Immigration

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

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

14 November 2007

Alternatives To A Pound Of Flesh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 November 2007

Disruptive Children Same As Peers

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

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

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

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

Dialogue Or Debate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who's To Blame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 November 2007

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

"There were no beneficial effects — none."

Having learnt earlier this year that there has been almost ten-fold increase in use of behaviour control drugs among under-16s in the last decade and an almost twenty-fold increase among 16-18 year olds in full-time education, a study monitoring the treatment of 600 children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) since the 1990s has now shown that drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta are not effective and work no better than therapy.

Perhaps we can now better invest the £28m that is spent unnecessarily medicating around 55,000 children — and those children can start receiving the treatment, attention and discipline that they actually need?

10 November 2007

Conceiving Fatherless Children

While much public comment on the Government's Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (HTEB), published yesterday by Health Minister Dawn Primarolo, has focused on the likely attempts to use the legislation to amend abortion laws, the role of fathers is also undervalued by the proposed law according to David Burrowes MP, a member of the joint committee responsible for scrutinising the bill. In this month's issue of The Difference, David writes:

Of equal concern is the clause within the bill that makes provision for deliberately bringing children into the world who will be prevented, by law, from having any legal father. The bill’s fathers’ provisions prioritise the interests of adults over children whose parenting needs are best met by the presence of a mother and a father.

The HTEB proposes to omit the requirement for a father in the granting of an IVF licence. While it is already lawful for single women or women in a same-sex relationship to receive IVF, they currently have to show that there will be some male father figure involved in the child’s life. The HTEB removes this requirement. The symbolic impact of removing the need for a father at a time of growing evidence of the detrimental impact of fatherlessness is extremely significant. It would in effect be state-sanctioned fatherlessness.

The draft bill then goes further in respect of removing the legal need for a father. Where a woman gives birth as a result of IVF and is in a relationship with another woman, that woman is to be legally treated as the “parent” of the child – unless they did not give their permission for insemination – without the need for adoption. Where there are two female “parents”, according to the draft bill, no man is to be treated as the father of the child. At the present time, the non-childbearing parent can adopt the child and become its legal parent, but there is still scope for the child’s father to be present on the birth certificate. The HTEB allows for changes to be made to the Births and Deaths Act 1953 which would see the second female parent, while not referred to as “father”, to be registered as a parent at the registration of the child’s birth and to be included on the birth certificate. This will always be to the exclusion of having a legal father.
The evidence increasingly shows that children born to married parents tend to be physically and mentally healthier than other children, less accident-prone, and less likely to self-harm. They perform better in school, become sexually active at a later age, are less likely to have behavioural problems, suffer depression, or turn to drugs, smoking or heavy drinking, or to become involved in criminal activities. Furthermore, children from cohabiting households are 33 times more likely to suffer serious abuse than where the child lives with married parents and children under two have a 100 times greater risk of being killed by step-parents than by genetic parents.

If politicians are serious about mending our broken society, they are therefore going to have to start with the basic building block of the family and the emotional need of every child to be loved and disciplined by a mother and a father.

09 November 2007

Why So One-Sided?

Last night, my wife missed the ten o'clock news and asked me if there had been any update about Pakistan. Strangely, given the day's developments, there hadn't.

The night before, the BBC had reported on the state of emergency declared by President Musharraf last Saturday and the subsequent arrest of lawyers and judges. Tonight, we were treated to scenes of police beating and arresting supporters of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was briefly placed under house arrest to prevent her from holding a rally. Yet yesterday we were told nothing of Pervez Musharraf's renewed pledge to hold parliamentary elections before 15 February, as planned, and to stand down as head of the army, if and when the Supreme Court validates his recent election as president for another term. Indeed, still no mention was made of this tonight.

The world is complex enough to understand without the media making it more difficult (and depressing) by only ever reporting negative circumstances. That said, on its website, the BBC does have an interesting analysis worth reading: Is Musharraf-Bhutto conflict all it seems? Just a shame they couldn't find a bit more space in their television news to present a more balanced report.

08 November 2007

Global Trade Kills

Earlier in the year we noted how carbon dioxide emissions from shipping are double those of aviation, yet are not addressed by the Kyoto Protocol or any other proposed European legislation. Today we learn that shipping, used to transport 90% of world trade, is responsible for an arguably even more lethal atmospheric cocktail:

Pollution from ships, in the form of tiny airborne particles, kills at least 60,000 people each year, says a new study. And unless action is taken quickly to address the problem – such as by switching to cleaner fuels – the death toll will climb, researchers warn. Premature deaths due to ultra-fine particles spewed out by ships will increase by 40% globally by 2012, the team predicts.

Tiny airborne particles [including various carbon particles, sulphur and nitrogen oxides] are linked to premature deaths worldwide, and are believed to cause heart and lung failures. The particles get into the lungs and are small enough to pass through tissues and enter the blood. They can then trigger inflammations which eventually cause the heat and lungs to fail. There is also some evidence that shipping emissions contain some of the carcinogenic particles found in cigarette smoke.

Emissions of all of these particles could be limited by using more refined fuels in the shipping industry, which typically is powered by diesel fuel.
The scientist who led the research comments, "We leave judgement of what to do and how fast to do it to the policy process. Our aim was to provide a robust estimate on a global scale so that policy makers would have evidence that human impacts are occurring and so they could decide if the evidence was enough to justify strong and immediate action."

Sounds like yet another instance of the misplaced concerns of many in the environmental lobby. Neighbourly concern surely dictates that swift international action [an oxymoron if ever there were one] be taken to force the shipping industry to clean up its act.Cardiopulmonary mortality attributed to ship pollution [New Scientist]

07 November 2007

Keeping Time For Children

If it is true that 93% of employers respond favourably to requests by staff to work flexibly, and if there is now a growing political consensus that parents should be more involved in their children's upbringing and education, surely there can be no question that the right to flexible working† should be extended to all parents — those of secondary as well as of primary-school aged children?

Under current legislation, any parent who has been employed for at least twelve months can ask for flexible hours if their children are under six or are disabled. This includes flexitime, working from home, working a compressed week, working part-time, and job sharing. Employers can only reject a request on the grounds of excessive costs.

How To Make Ultra Poverty History

The World's Most Deprived [IFPRI]"If concentrated in a single nation, the world's poorest people—the ultra poor—would comprise the world's seventh most populous country."

Until now, analysis of global poverty has tended to focus on the almost one billion people who live on less than a dollar a day. A new report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) breaks this group down into those who live on between 75 cents and $1 a day, those who live on 50 to 75 cents a day, and the "ultra poor" who live on less than 50 cents a day. It finds that 162 million people are ultra poor and that, although economic growth is the factor that has had the greatest impact on poverty, for instance in countries such as China and India, the very poorest people benefit the least from reductions in poverty and typically need specific action to be taken to enable them to participate in growth. "The World's Most Deprived: Characteristics and Causes of Extreme Poverty and Hunger" concludes:

Looking at the characteristics of the poorest, we found that the poorest are those from excluded groups, those living in rural remote areas with little education, those with few assets, and—in Asia—those without land.

The analysis suggests that interventions to insure the poor against health shocks, address the exclusion of certain groups, prevent child malnutrition, and enable investment in education and other capital for those with few assets are essential to help the poorest move out of poverty.
Once again, in the reference to those "with few assets" and "without land," we see the wisdom of Old Testament economics, where every family was guaranteed shared access to and use of the land and its natural resources. To the extent that Israel served as a model of God's original economic purposes in creation, we are surely justified in asking how these family-oriented economic principles should be applied in the wider world of modern-day secular society. How, for instance, might enforceable property rights be ensured for those who have been trapped in the downward spiral of debt, poverty, dispossession, and bondage?

Around the world, governments regularly assert ownership of land that local communities believe was theirs and collude with powerful interests to seize land and resources from the poor. Examples that come to mind include: Tajikistan, where I recall whole neighbourhoods being given just weeks to find somewhere else to live in order to make way for a new presidential development in the capital; Chile, where the government sold the Araucaria forests of the Pehuenche people to logging companies; and Laos, where some 6,200 villagers are to be displaced by the Nam Theun 2 dam project, financed by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and resettled on insufficient land. To see what happens when property rights are not guaranteed, one only needs to look at what Robert Mugabe has done to the former "bread basket of Africa", Zimbabwe.

As the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (author of The Other Path: The economic answer to terrorism) has noted, "They have houses but not titles; crops but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation." Without clear title to their land, houses, and businesses, the poor cannot sell their assets or borrow against them and lack incentive to invest in that which could be taken from them at any moment; and thus they remain poor. De Soto has calculated the amount of "dead capital" in untitled assets held by the world's poor to be "at least $9.3 trillion" — a sum that dwarfs the amount of foreign aid given to the developing world since 1945.

Those who maintain religion has no place in politics and the Bible (whose vision for society they have probably never sought to read, let alone understand) has no relevance to the many social challenges facing the world might care to reflect that the answers might have been staring us in the face all along ... or rather have been sitting on the bookshelf, just waiting for us to rediscover them.

06 November 2007

Brown's LCD Vision

The Queen's speech [Credit: BBC]On the day that Gordon Brown announced yet another seven quangos in his "déjà vu" Queen's speech, a local news story seems to encapsulate much of what this Government has come to represent:

Pupils from a successful girls' secondary school in Kent today staged a protest over a proposal to create a new academy by merging it with Temple School, a nearby boys' school that, according to tables published in January, achieved England's worst GCSE results.

The head teacher at Strood's Chapter School is reported as acknowledging that an academy for Strood "could be really exciting" but insists, "I'm against the plan where Chapter School has to close, we lose the family image and ethos we have, and then we reopen in 2009 and who knows what staff would still be here."

Such is the failing of Brown's "vision": seeking to reduce Britain to its lowest common denominator, when we should be building on the nation's highest common factor.

05 November 2007

Happy Families

Modern happy families [Source: Daily Mail]Is the trend towards ever increasing family breakdown about to reverse? Are we on the edge of a cultural shift in which the family once again becomes central to our lives and society at large?

Earlier this year a UNICEF report revealed that, among the world's wealthiest nations, British children have the worst relationships with family and friends. Yet a new BBC poll claims that three-quarters of people in Britain (76%) are optimistic about the future for their families, a figure 24% higher than when the same question was asked in 1964.

To a certain extent, the apparent discrepancy is probably explained by our expectations of family life being much lower than they used to be. However, when we consider the recent fascination with exploring family trees, is it possible that our present optimism reflects the increasing importance we place upon the family?

That said, there is obviously still a long way to go before any change in perception is born out by reality — 17% no longer speak to one or more members of their family, this proportion being significantly influenced by marital status (23% for singles compared with 13% for married or cohabiting adults), social class (24% for DEs compared with 9% for ABs), and home ownership (34% for those who rent from their local council compared with 11% for those who own their own house).Modern happy families [Source: Daily Mail]

Click on the above graphics for more modern "happy families" from the Daily Mail.

Spelman In The Hot Seat

Those of you who submitted questions for us to ask Caroline Spelman will be pleased to know that the Conservative Party Chairman's responses to our "hot potatoes" can now be found in the new issue of The Difference. Questions include:

  • President Bush has warned those who wish to pull troops out of Iraq that we risk creating another Vietnam. Is he right?
  • In a multicultural society, should bishops be sitting in the House of Lords?
  • Do you think potential victims of crime should have the right to use force to defend themselves and their property?
  • Is pornography too easily available?
Here is how Caroline responded to a couple of the questions you suggested online:

Have the Conservatives gone lukewarm on the EU Referendum?
"Not at all, and recent interviews with David Cameron, and the numerous interviews that William Hague has given, are a clear demonstration that this is something we feel very strongly about, that Brown has broken the manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the European constitution and there needs to be a debate in parliament. If the government won’t give up its own time to debate this, then we certainly will."
How can the Conservatives stay in the news headlines in the run-up to an election?
"With a lot of hard work and planning! There has to be substance, which means we have to do a lot of research. We have to think through the consequences of any announcements and then follow through. You can’t have piecemeal, gimmicky announcements, that don’t hang together as a coherent whole.

"Something we learned through the last election is the importance of being consistent in our language and message: the importance attached to trying to heal the brokenness in our society and trying to help people understand the concept of social responsibility, which means that the problems we see around us are not somebody else’s problems but that we’re all in it together."

See also Caroline's views on Michael Ancram's "simple political creed"

04 November 2007

School Leaving Age

Can anybody tell me how compelling disillusioned and disaffected 16-year-olds to stay on at school until they are 18 is going to achieve anything besides delaying the day when they join the 1.2 million other 16-24-year-olds who are not productively involved in society?

03 November 2007

NHS Independence

Criticising Conservative proposals to make the NHS independent, Health Minister Ben Bradshaw says, "It is simply wrong to suggest that taxpayers should invest £90bn in the NHS but there should be no political accountability for how that money is spent."

Indeed! In truth, what is wrong is that the Government should throw so much of taxpayers' money at the NHS but without giving the medical professionals the freedom they need to look after their patients properly. Since we learnt about the death of ninety patients from C.difficile at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, I have heard two first-hand stories revealing a life-threatening lack of care and attention to detail.

The first went in to have a kidney out. When asked to sign the paperwork authorising the operation, my lawyer friend decided to read the details of what he was about to authorise. Noticing that it stated the left kidney was to be removed, he queried surely it was his right kidney that was the problem. His question was dismissed but when he persisted, a check was made. Sure enough, they had been about to operate on the wrong kidney ... a minor detail.

The second, just a couple of days ago, was to undergo a minor procedure but was turned away because he has MRSA — something that was detected and recorded in his medical records while he was in for a hernia operation earlier in the year but was left untreated with the patient, unaware of being a carrier, discharged into the community. Again ... a minor detail.

This is what the government healthcare watchdog means when it criticised the trust for "focusing too much on balancing the books and meeting waiting-time targets, at the expense of patient care and infection control." This is the consequence of Government targets, unprecedented cuts in the number of acute hospital beds, and a shortage of nursing staff.

It is time the NHS was freed from political tinkering. Let us hope that Gordon Brown is still happy to adopt Conservative proposals as he formulates his "vision" and that the Conservatives' draft NHS (Autonomy and Accountability) Bill becomes Government policy.

02 November 2007

Nontaial Liecraty Sartgety Fliarue

A report for an independent inquiry into England's primary schools says standards of reading have risen little in fifty years. The claims, made by the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at the University of Durham (whose work we have encountered previously), will come as little surprise to anyone who works in a primary school and whose daily experience seems a world away from the Government's persistent claims of improvement in literacy standards as a result of the five hundred million pounds it has poured into its National Literacy Strategy.

The funny thing is, those young minds are actually incredibly versatile ... Aoccdrnig to a rscheeearchr at Cmadribge Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

However, apparently only 55% of people can understand that and even they would still have needed to have been taught the rudiments of reading. I suggest the CEM report provides further support to calls for the state to be taken out of pedagogy. Whether you've got a classroom anecdote to share, want to share how you discovered the joy of a good book, or just want to complain about this latest evidence of Government waste, do leave a comment!

November's Winning Comment

The November issue of The Difference should be delivered early next week, so thank you once again to everyone who regularly visits this blog† and especially to everyone who has taken the time to contribute to the many debates and discussions. Congratulations to Roxoroxy, who is this issue's winner in our ongoing comment competition — a free copy of the magazine will be in the post to you very soon!

Roxoroxy's winning comment was a thoughtful and balanced response to the debate over the national DNA database — if you missed it at the time, you can find it at DNA Database Debate. Next issue will be out in January, so start posting your comments to be in with a chance of being the next winner!

† Traffic over the past two months increased our total traffic to date by more than 50%, now in excess of 21,000 unique visitors and 30,000 page loads.

From Rhetoric To Democracy

"To counter public cynicism about political institutions and low levels of turnout in elections, we have to find new ways to engage citizens in the political process. More devolution of power and the active involvement of local communities in decision-making are essential if we are to rebuild confidence in our democracy locally and nationally."
So says former Labour local government minister Nick Raynsford following the publication of a report by an informal grouping of peers and MPs known as the Chamberlain Group calling for central government to give local authorities more freedom to respond to local needs.

Coming a day after the Local Government Association demanded an extra £250m a year for councils to deal with the impact of migration on public services, the cross-party report says local councils should be given more freedom to run their budgets, perhaps including the ability to issue their own bonds (just as Mayor Ken Livingstone has been allowed to do in London to help fund investment in the city's transport network) or to take a share of national taxes such as income tax or vehicle excise duty.

Given that all three major political parties claim to believe in more localism, as one of the most centralised states in Europe, perhaps it is not unreasonable to hope that some of their rhetoric will now be translated into a genuine restoration of local democracy.

01 November 2007

Forget Christmas ... And Forget Democracy

The suggestion that Christmas should be "downgraded" to help race relations, made by the Labour think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research really does defy belief. The leaked report into identity, citizenship and community cohesion suggests, "Even-handedness dictates that we provide public recognition to minority cultures and traditions. If we are going to continue to mark Christmas - and it would be very hard to expunge it from our national life even if we wanted to - then public organisations should mark other major religious festivals too."

The IPPR clearly have no concept of how our national heritage and shared experiences contribute to a personal sense of identity in community. As for the suggestion that "We can no longer define ourselves as a Christian nation, nor an especially religious one in any sense" and that we "should recast the civic oaths and national ceremonies, or institutions like Parliament and the monarchy, in a more multi-religious or secular form and make religious education less sectarian" ... Where do they think the ethical foundation of our legal and political system is rooted - Hans Christian Andersen? Which book do they believe was the inspiration for modern democracy and the human rights we both hold so dear and so take for granted - Aesop's Fables?

How are we supposed to respect any other culture, when we're not even supposed to treasure our own?!