Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Why sacrifice the planet for the war business

Few noted the irony when in making his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, US President Barack Obama defended the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
The speech came the day after the UK government allocated funding in the pre-budget report to a number of green initiatives aimed at helping tackle, global warming, the most severe threat facing the future of the planet.
Among the measures announced was an extra £200 million to people to make their homes more energy efficient. There was £50 million invested in wind turbines development and an exemption for electric cars for five years from company car tax.
Sounded good, that was until £2.5 billion was announced for the war in Afghanistan bringing the total annual budget for the conflicts in that country and Iraq to £4.4 billion. This revealed the true priorities.
The world faces the biggest threat to its future in the form of global warming, yet instead of seriously addressing this with the sort of investment needed to tackle the problems a derisory amount is thrown in that direction. In comparison there is no limit to what can be spent on war and armaments.
This approach of allowing arms spending and war to trump all other needs is something that has been evidenced for more than a century.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a reforming Liberal Government under the Premiership of Herbert Asquith and Chancellorship of David Lloyd George sort to bring in welfare support, including the state pension. This was to be largely funded by national insurance. But as the decade wore on the demands of the military for the funds being used for the welfare reforms grew ever louder. The military wanted armaments in the build up to the First World War. The welfare budget was swallowed up.
Move forward 35 years to the post war Labour Government. This administration further built on welfare reform and put in place the National Health Service. But it was not long before the world of conflict came knocking again with the arrival of the Korean War. Much of the funding needed for the NHS and other welfare reforms was siphoned off to pay for this war.
Military spending has remained high ever since that time. Sceptics argue that the whole Cold War was largely a fa├žade created to support the arms industry. The over hyped threat and the falsified missile gaps.
The premiership of Margaret Thatcher represented an important period of development for what has become known as the military industrial complex. This amounts to a cabal of interests from government, finance, the intelligence world and the arms trade coming together to promote weapons sales. As the Arms to Iraq inquiry demonstrated there were large commissions to be had out of arms dealing. The Thatcher premiership was marked by a series of major arms deals the biggest of which was the Al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia. The client in this multi-billion deal was BAE Systems. The terms of the deal are highly secret and set alarm bells ringing whenever raised.
Arms spending generally took a bit of a dip in the 1990s following the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the hypnotic power of the arms industry to capture domestic budgets was evidenced by the limpet like attachment of the British Government to the Trident nuclear deterrent. The country maybe in the depths of recession but the government will hit the low paid and other suffering groups long before it would consider getting rid of this long outdated system.
The latest bonanza for the military industrial complex came with the attacks on America of 11 September 2001. Arms spending orbited in America and Britain to meet the needs of the war. The arms industry was delighted doing good business and with live theatres of war to show off its wares. The Americans and British it should not be forgotten are among the biggest sellers of arms in the world.
The grip that the military industrial complex holds was best summed up by another American President, Dwight Eisenhower. Speaking in the 1950s he said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children...”This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Surely it is time to come down from that iron cross and start devoting the mass of resources to development and countering global warming. It is time to start serving the real needs of the people rather than the vested interests of the military industrial complex.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Time to free the world from war and counter global warming

As US President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize justifying the war in Afghanistan and the UK government allocated billions to that conflict in the same week as world leaders discussed the threat of global warming in Copenhagen, the question arises as to why war always triumphs over development.
It is surely time to recall the words of a former US President President Dwight Eisenhower who declared that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children...This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” When will humanity come down from this cross and start dedicating resources to development and countering the real threats that face our planet like global warming?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Time to stop bailing out the bankers

The bankers it would seem continue to make merry with in the words of London Mayor Boris Johnson the “great stonking bonuses” while the rest of us pay the price for their appalling recklessness.
Two events over the past week underline the failure to bring any accountability to the sector. First came Sir David Walker’s report, conducted for the government by a banker into bankers. Not surprising perhaps then that the most dramatic recommendation that Sir David could come up with was for all of those earning £1 million plus to have their salaries published – well that will make us all feel a whole lot better.
Next came a Supreme Court decision allowing the banks to go on helping themselves to customers money in the form of overdraft charges. The Office of Fair Trading had been seeking redress in this area. The ruling resulted in one commentator questioning whether the state had taken over the banks or the other way around.
Let’s not forget that in the UK the government owns Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock and most of Lloyds/HBOS, while in Ireland the state took over Anglo Irish bank. There seems little doubt that the mass of tax payers in Britain and Ireland are continuing to pay the price for restoring bank balance sheets and funding the continuation of the bonus culture.
While interest rates have been cut, the banks have failed to pass this on with cuts in mortgage rates. Nor have they lent out money to get businesses going again. On the other side they have passed on the interest cuts to savers, forcing some pensioners in particular toward poverty.
Somewhat ironically there seems to have been far more public opprobrium poured on the MPs for their relatively minor expenses misdemeanours compared to the incredible rip off undertaken by the bankers.
There have though been some initiatives coming up from different groups seeking to redress some of the balance between bankers and tax payers.
One such move comes from the community based London Citizens. It comprises promoting the living wage, a cap on interest rates of 20 per cent for lending, a responsible lending charter, investment into local and mutual banking and a programme for financial literacy.
The present living wage level set in London by Mayor Boris Johnson is of £7.60 an hour has helped many individuals and families get above the poverty line. The level of the living wage is set to enable individuals and families to live above the poverty line in a defined area. So it could be lower in other parts of the country. However, in most cases it will be above the minimum wage which is £5.80 an hour.
In tough times unscrupulous lenders prosper. Many people get themselves in trouble going to loan sharks for credit. A report from the New Economics Foundation titled Doorstep Robbery: why the UK needs a new lending law points out that nine million people in the UK don’t have access to bank credit, so their only choice is to turn to “rip-off lenders.” Three million don’t have bank accounts. The idea of a 20 per cent cap on loans is aimed at addressing some of the injustice if this situation.
The London Citizen’s programme also wants some funds transferred via a levy to local and mutual banking so getting things going in the poorer communities.
The three political parties gave qualified backing to most of the proposals with the Conservative Treasury spokesman Greg Hands saying they would enact the lending rate cap while Liberal Democrat Vince Cable said they would implement the living wage but go further by taking anyone on minimum wage earnings out of income tax.
At the other end of the spectrum comes the suggestion from the left of centre think tank Compass that there should be a High Pay Commission. This would highlight and regulate high levels of pay in a similar fashion to that now done by the Low Pay Commission that sets the minimum wage.
Another major step forward would be to create a Postbank based at the 11,500 post office branches across the country. The network could be extended by say adding the state owned Northern Rock and National Savings and Investments (NSI) to the Postbank. This would be a state owned and run bank. It would be guaranteed by the state and offer credit at reasonable rates to customers. These could be individuals or small businesses. Such a bank could be run on social as well as economic criteria, so there could be a push to get those who do not have bank accounts into the system. The Postbank would be run on a not for profit basis.
A coaliton of groups including the Communication Workers Union, Federation of Small Businesses, National Pensioners Convention, New Economics Foundation, Public Interest Research Council, Unite the union, the Federation of Sub-postmasters and the Coutryside Alliance are campaigning for the creation of a Postbank. The government has put the idea out to consultation.
It is this type of initiative that is needed from government. . The approach of simply sitting on the side lines waiting for market forces to sort out the problems is not an answer. It is a denial of responsibility. It is high time that those in government started acting for the mass and not the few. People expect government to take responsibility. It can do so with initiatives like the Postbank and by making some real moves to regulate the financial sector. Failure to do so will ensure that the burden for the present economic debacle is paid by the poorest in our society. It will also help ensure that the same problem recur again in the not too distant future.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Leaders must act to save planet in Copenhagen

The devastation caused to parts of Britain and Ireland by the recent floods came just weeks before international leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss how best to combat climate change.
The floods devastated Cockermouth inCumbria and more than a dozen towns and villages in Ireland, including the centre of Cork. The River Suck burst its banks in County Leitrim, flooding the town of Ballinasloe and cutting off major roads to the northwest. About 40 families had to be evacuated by boat
The British and Irish army were deployed in their respective countries to save people from the worsening weather conditions. A policeman, Bill Barker, lost his life in Cumbria when a bridge he was standing on collapsed.
Britain’s Environment Secretary Hilary Benn claimed the flood was a one in a 1,000 year occurrence, compared to the one in 100 year ferocity which the Cumbria area had fortified to withstand. This was no doubt very reassuring to all those who lost their homes. There were some recriminations over whether adequate provision is being made for these types of natural occurrences in both countries.
Whether these were freak storms or not it would seem such occurrences are getting more commonplace. Floods have hit Ireland in each of the last three years. Two years ago in the UK it was the Midlands that was hit with floods in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Previous to that Cornwall was flooded.
There can be little doubt that these climatic changes are due to the effects in some way of global warming. Water levels are rising and the weather conditions are changing.
Another sign of rapid change comes with the news that the Thames Barrier has been raised 64 times in the last 10 years up to 2007. This compares to 10 times in the first decade of its existence. Interestingly, it would take a one in a 1000-year occurrence to overwhelm the barrier – not very reassuring given the same ratio applied in Cumbria.
All of this devastation and statistical evidence ought to be enough to focus minds at the Copenhagen summit. Yet there seems to be little urgency from world leaders. US President Barack Obama will show up briefly.
The British Government to its credit does seem to recognise the need to take international action to combat climate change. Prime Minister Gordon Brown will attend Copenhagen and has warned of the consequences of failure to act decisively. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband has also been actively lobbying in European capitals to ensure some coming together on a united agenda.
The inconsistency with the British Government comes when matching words and actions. There are moves to combat global warming but comparing say the £800 million put into flood defences with the billions pumped into the disastrous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan gives some idea of policy priority. Indeed, David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the government warned that climate change was a far bigger threat to the future of the nation than terrorism.
If world leaders are to seriously address climate change they need to recognise that the devastation being caused is intricately linked to the current economic model. If things continue as at present there is no doubt that the world will be devastated by ever-greater catastrophes. Whether these are dismissed in piecemeal style as one in a 100, one in a 1000 or one in 10,000 occurrences it will get a lot worse.
Damage done to the environment must be reflected in economic indicators. So for example, air travel should come to reflect the damage it does to the environment. Similarly, train travel would get cheaper because it is sustainable.
Take the journey to Copenhagen by way of example. Travelling by train costs £320. Taking a plane costs £72. If environmental factors were taken into account, the train would cost £70, the plane £600.
Other moves can be made to promote sustainable living. Why not take all tax off electric cars and offer incentives to businesses that operate fleets of company cars to go electric? There is an argument for making environmentally friendly forms of travel like rail free. No new house should be built in the UK or Ireland that is not carbon neutral.
Why not invest heavily in green technology? This is a new area that the UK and Ireland could major in, creating the new products and exporting to the rest of the world. There has been some investment but nothing like that undertaken in say Germany.
Britain and Ireland are uniquely placed to take advantage of energy devolved from the wind and waves.
There also need to be technological transfers to growing economies like India and China in order that they can develop sustainably.
The third area in need of addressing is people’s own lifestyles. It is not good enough to simply recycle a bit more and use the car a bit less. This crisis is such that it does genuinely mean a return to a more basic, less damaging style of living. The consumer lifestyle developed over the past few decades has brought the world to the brink of destruction. For everyone to live like the US and Europe do at present would require five planets. We have just one, so the maths says that lifestyles will have to change dramatically.
It is not too late but time is running out. To really address climate change requires sustained action at a number of levels – individual, community and government. Let’s hope world leaders recognise the very real dangers and act accordingly at Copenhagen.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Dementia sufferers deserve better treatment

The abuse of those suffering with dementia has come under the spotlight recently with first the revelation of the over subscribing of anti-psychotic drugs to elderly people and then that those with dementia are not receiving the treatment they deserve when in hospital.

A report from the Alzheimers Society has found half of all dementia patients leave hospital in a worse state than when they arrive and that they stay in far longer than others coming in with similar conditions. The Alzheimer's Society blames longer stays on a lack of communication, which can exacerbate problems associated with dementia, such as incontinence. The main reasons for a hospital stay were falls, broken hips or hip replacements, urine infections, chest infections and strokes.

Meanwhile, an independent review for the government found that 180,000 people with dementia are being prescribed a powerful cocktail of sedative drugs of which more than three quarters - 144,000 – are being prescribed inappropriately.

The drugs are estimated to cause 1,800 deaths and 1,620 strokes a year but despite warnings about the risks prescribing has continued. There are 700,000 people in Britain with dementia, of which half suffer with symptoms of agitation, aggression wandering shouting and other difficult behaviours.

As the son of a father who suffered with Alzheimer’s disease I have had first hand experience of how staff in care homes seek to control patients. When my father became unmanageable for my mother at home he went into a residential home. This home was unsuited to deal with dementia, so after a period in hospital he went on to a home that was more specialized in dealing with dementia patients. As things declined, he then moved a third and final home. The second home felt it was unable to cope with his increasingly agitated behaviour.

There was a perceivable change in Dad after the third home. He went from being alert to very drowsy. This was all the more perplexing, given that the manager of the home had sold the move on the basis of being able to stimulate and get better responses out of Dad. I became increasingly suspicious that Dad was being drugged and raised the issue with the manager. He acknowledged my concerns and said he would review the drug dosage.

This experience and others also underlined the importance for dementia sufferers of having an advocate to stand up for their interests. In many cases, dementia sufferers can be as vulnerable as babies. They are open to abuse at almost every turn so there is a need for someone to stand up for their rights as well as proper stringent regulation. For those without advocates, the abuse endured can no doubt be truly horrendous.

The other side of this story was that Dad could get quite aggressive. Despite being a shadow of his former self he retained a lot of upper body strength and when he started throwing his weight around the care assistants struggled to cope. On one occasion, a care assistant touched him on the head and he jumped up but my brother was present and managed to restrain him. Just prior to his death, I was in the room as care assistants edged round him, one declaring, and “I don’t want to get hit.”

Care homes that house dementia patients are not always nice places. There are no inhibitions with patients often screaming out or suddenly launching off towards a complete stranger. The occasional one will come and confine they think their own family is robbing them, sometimes. So given the circumstances it is possible to have some sympathy for those in the homes who resort to drugs by way of restraint. However, as the review points out it is not acceptable practice.

The government is now moving to impose long overdue regulation on the sector. There is to be investment in specialist dementia training with a new national director of dementia overseeing a reduction in the use of the anti-psychotic drugs. While this may reduce the use of the drugs it does not address the fundamental problem of how dementia is dealt with in the UK.

The problem is that dementia sufferers are farmed out to privately run homes, whose primary motivation for existence is profit. This means that most of the staff are on the minimum wage, many are migrant workers who are more easily exploited. In the worse case scenarios, these homes are warehouses of death, simply storing elderly dementia sufferers, while making money at their expense until death strikes.

Each dementia sufferer is no doubt viewed as a profit centre. This was underlined with in own father’s case as the extras beyond the £700 a week we were already paying for care began to roll in. One of the more amusing exchanges was over the exorbitant monthly charges for haircuts. My own plea was that Dad was having more haircuts then than at any other point in his life. “He’s having more hair cuts that I am and he only has about 100 hairs,” I said.

It is the precedence of profit over care that really needs to be addressed if dementia sufferers are to start receiving the care they deserve in a civilized society. The use of the “chemical cosh” is to a large degree symptomatic of the make a profit out of suffering culture that exists when it comes to the treatment of old people.

The whole attitude needs to change. There needs to be a more holistic approach taken to dementia sufferers, seeking to stimulate the senses rather than simply dull them. The new regulations are welcome but can only be a start. As the number of dementia sufferers continues to grow over one million in the next decade this is a problem that needs addressing now. The present approach is in many cases inhumane and a sad reflection on our society that seems to put a very low value on sanctity of life.

Other articles by Paul on dementia -http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=81949
www.newstatesman.com/society/2008/08/dementia-case-loved-dad-family
www.thetablet.co.uk/goprev.php?issue=1000107

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Racist jokes target the weakest in our society

The publication of three irish jokes by prison newspaper Inside Times caused much offence recently among other prisoners and support groups.
The Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas reported receiving complaints from a number of prisoners. “There is no debate about this – anti-Irish jokes are racist and totally unacceptable. They should never be printed,” said Conor McGinn of the ICPO.
The paper responded to one prisoner’s complaints, quoting Dave Allen making jokes about the Irish, claiming “you might as well laugh at yourself once in a while – everyone else does.”
There is no doubt that there are Irish comedians around, like Patrick Kielty, who do make jokes at the expense of their own nationality. But there is somehow a line that says it is ok to joke at yourself but when others of the opposing dominant nationality in the society take the same approach it has a different context.
Jennie McShannon, chief executive of the Federation of Irish Societies, does not think that irish jokes are any longer meant to offend and ridicule. “They do however by their nature carry on such a tradition which is now outdated and irrelevant. Why would successful people such as Bono, Bob Geldof, Dermott O’Leary, the Cusacks, Michael O’Leary, Tony O’Reilly and those of Irish decent including parliamentarians such as such as Stephen O’Brien,…., etc find such jokes either relevant to them or funny?” said Ms McShannon. “And who do they target but the more vulnerable Irish people in our society, those who perhaps did not benefit from education or economic success but who still contributed greatly to British life.”
The question of racist jokes surfaced recently in the context of the Strictly Come Dancing show where one of the dancers Anton Du Beck said his partner looked like a paki. There was much furore resulting in the dancer apologising. Then show host Bruce Forsyth chipped in questioning the whole context of political correctness. "We used to have a sense of humour about this. You go back 25, 30, 40 years and there has always been a bit of humour about the whole thing,” said Forsyth, who also later apologised.
Go back 35 years, though, and there was Alf Garnett on Till Death us do part ranting on about black people. The ITV opposition saw Love thy neighbour starring Rudolph Walker, now or Eastenders fame, in another attack on black and ethnic minority peoples. These programmes disappeared with the passing of the Race Relations Act in 1976. So to a large degree did the No blacks, irish or dogs notices in boarding house front windows.
It is significant that the ethnic jokes are always made at the expense of a weaker minority that is not in a position to defend itself against attack. How often do you hear jokes about the stupid Brit or English person?
This tendency to pick on the weakest is no better illustrated than in the case of Irish Travellers, who over recent years have often been the butt of this type of humour. Comedian Jimmy Carr was recently forced to apologise for comments he made on the BBC programme Loose Ends. Maybe it is in the anti-traveller joke that can be seen the real agenda running behind such humour.
The Travellers are among the most vilified of groups in British society, under constant attack particularly in the tabloid press. Derogatory comments are made about them without any concern. This is due in part because Travellers lack advocates to stand up for them – though this has improved in recent years. It is felt ok to attack Travellers in the mainstream so they are seen as fair game for the joke world.
The Irish community has been voluble in its denounciation of slurs aimed at their nationality. A few years ago columnist Julie Burchill made derogatory comments about the Irish. A complaint was made to the police under the Race Relations Act and an investigation followed. The matter was taken no further but the bad publicity that followed, no doubt made an impact on the liberal Guardian for whom the column was written.
It has been as a result of the culture that has developed in the wake of legislation brought in to outlaw overt racism that has largely seen the death of the ethnic joke.
Jennie McShannon refutes the claim that political correctness has gone mad, that people have lost their sense of humour, and that British culture is now under threat. “This is the kind of rhetoric which undermines all the very positive work done here to create a more cohesive, accepting and egalitarian society and which has supported so many from different minorities to engage positively and contribute to a thriving British society,” said Ms McShannon, who welcomes the forthcoming Equalities Bill as providing further legislative impetus for the inclusive agenda.
Ruling out offensive racism whether in joke form or normal conversation has helped cut down discrimination. The world is not a worse place for the absence of jokes aimed at ethnic minorities. This is not to say ofcourse that racism has disappeared as a result of these developments. In many ways racism has tended to become more covert. Moves are made to exclude ethnic minorities in far more subtle ways from work and other arenas. Public attacks are launched under other guises. Immigrants and refugees can be catch all phrases symptomatic of attacks on the other.So there is still plenty of discrimination around against ethnic minority groups. Fortunately much of the overt racism has disappeared from popular discourse as a result of legislation and the growing confidence of the minorities under attack. As a result the gutter humour reflecting an “acceptable racism” has largely disappeared in most areas of life. This is something to be welcomed but will only remain so if the minorities under attack continue to volubly complain when someone seeks to get a cheap laugh at their expense.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Activists opposing detention without trial

A group of human rights activists have been at the forefront of opposing efforts by the government over the past eight years to impose detention without trial.
Most well known of this group is Bruce Kent, who has for the past four years been visiting an Algerian man called Mustafa Taleb. Mr Kent has visited Taleb in prison and under control order. Today after six years in detention, Mr Kent travels regularly to meet up with him, detained as he now is under house arrest style deportation bail.
Taleb was originally arrested back in 2003 in what was to become known as the "ricin" trial where no ricin was actually found. He and seven others were finally acquitted in April 2005.
A free man, he then tried to pick up the pieces of his life, having fled Algeria for fear of his life in the early 1990s and gained refugee status in Britain. Freedom, though, was not to last for long.
Following the London bombings in 2005, he together with a number of other individuals, were picked up under immigration law and taken to prison. They were served with deportation orders on the grounds of being a risk to national security.
After another period in prison, the judges at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) finally granted Taleb deportation bail to live under house arrest conditions, unable to go outside a prescribed area, tagged and only able to meet people like Mr Kent who had been vetted by the Home Office. Throughout this period of detention neither Mr Taleb or his lawyers have been told what he is accused of doing. He has become a victim of secret evidence. At the SIAC hearings only the judges and appointed special advocates are allowed to see the material upon which detention is being sought. Neither the men or their lawyers get to see this material.
For Mr Taleb, the only route out of the nightmare is to agree to return to Algeria – a place where he has already been sentenced to death in absentia.
Mr Kent recalled that on one occasion he was accused of breaking bail conditions on a control order when living in a flat. “He was never told what he was supposed to have done but returned to Long Larten prison for another 18 months nonetheless,” said Mr Kent. “This whole process has been about forcing a number of individuals to return to their countries of origin. Life has been made so difficult that it is hoped they will give up and go home. That is regardless of what might await them there such as torture or ultimately death.”
“No one should be detained unless they have been before a jury or panel of judges in a fully accredited court of law. Everyone has the right to be dealt with under the law,” he added.
The whole process that has ensnared Mr Taleb and a number of other individuals began following the attacks on America of 11 September 2001, when the British government rushed through the Anti-Terror Crime and Security Act (ATCSA), which allowed foreign nationals to be detained without trial indefinitely.
In 2004, the Law Lords ruled that it was unlawful under the Human Rights Act. It was as a result of this ruling that control orders were devised under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.
This meant effectively being detained under house arrest. There were short periods when the individual could go outside into a proscribed area. They were also required to wear a tag and ring up the tagging company a number of times a day.
East London justice and peace activists Desiree Howells, MBE, and Olive Flynn became involved in the detention cases through the group Peace and Justice in east London. This began following 9/11 and in the early years was in the main a peace protest group. However, following a number of public meetings at Our Lady of Lourdes Pastoral Centre, the group members found out about the individuals concerned being detained without trial.
Desiree and Olive monitored on an almost daily basis the trial that was to clear Taleb and the others accused of the ricin plot. They are also regular visitors at SIAC monitoring those proceedings. They are vetted to visit a number of the men being held on deportation bail. Both appear in the award winning film Taking Liberties and are appalled at what they have witnessed over the years. “I did not think it possible in Britain,” said Mrs Howells. “It has dragged British justice through the dirt and destroyed its reputation internationally.”
She has been particularly effected by the way in which this form of detention has ruined so many lives. “These young men’s lives have been destroyed completely. The single ones have been unable to develop meaningful relationships, “said Mrs Howells. “For those with families there has been a collective suffering. The children are growing up with a fear of when the police are going to come calling.”
One of those first detained under the ATCSA in December 2001 was an Algerian man known only as G. He was imprisoned, then released on house arrest style bail conditions then re-arrested after the London bombings, and served with a deportation notice. While in prison he tried to kill himself using wire. Today, G continues to live with his wife and two young children under house arrest conditions on deportation bail. “No one here has ever told me what I am accused of. I have no rights here it seems. In Britain animals have rights. I have less rights than an animal,” he said.
A regular vetted visitor to the family is Adrienne Burrows of Peace and Justice in east London. “There is incredible stress that builds up from so many years of being detained without knowing what you are supposed to have done. This is made worse by seemingly indefinite nature of the detention,” said Ms Burrows. “Restrictions that can seem minor come to put an intangible strain on family life with particularly bad effects on the children.”
There are though some encouraging signs of progress in the effort to roll back the operation of this secretive system of injustice.
In July, the Law Lords ruled that control orders breached the Human Rights Act in that the reliance on secret evidence denied the appellants a fair trial. There are 15 individuals still on control orders but these are expected to be overturned during the next few months in accordance with the ruling. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson has set up a review of control orders under Lord Carlile.
This breach of the secret evidence type system though has not yet effected those like Mr Taleb and G being held in similar style conditions, pending possible deportation from the country, though the principles are similar. Their cases at present look set to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg.
The Coalition Against Secret Evidence (CASE) was established back in March and some 91 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion calling for an end to the use of secret evidence. CASE have organised an open letter to the Home Secretary that will soon be published in national newspapers demanding an end to the use of secret evidence. So there are signs that the tide is turning against secret evidence and not before time. Few would have thought that individuals could be held for year after year, denied a fair trial on the basis of secret evidence. Only now is it becoming clear just how much damage has been done to the British justice system as a result of the decision to take part in the war on terror, begun by US President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001. There are many casualties and they are not all to be found on the battlefield.
* To sign Downng Street petiton on detention see: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/secret-evidence/

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Professor Nutt sacking proves policy is made by tabloid

What the sacking of Home Office drugs advisor Professor Nutt reveals is how policy is formed on the basis of certain powerful newspaper's editorials and headlines. A serious examination of the areas of drugs, immigration and prisons policy show this process at work.

The drugs policy is not working. Prohibion has grown the problem and now the prisons are full of addicts who have been stealing to feed their habits. The recommendations of experts like Professor Nutt target reducing demand and also point out the danger of other legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. The tabloids disagree, so expert advice is ignored.

On immigration, with a rapidly ageing population no serious economist advising government would advise putting blocks on migration. But what does government do but obey the tabloid witterings that migration must be cut if not stopped altogether. The result migration has been literally halted with the largely unworkable points system - already the CBI has warned on the serious impact this will have on business in the long term.

Similarly in the area of criminal justice, all credible evidence shows that locking more and more people up does not cut crime but makes for the creation of better criminals. It is expensive and two in three reoffend inside six months. But rather than follow expert advice about alternatives the government continues building more and more prisons.

The foremost objective of any newspaper is to sell copies and make profit. Sadly, this often amounts to pandering to the lowest common denominator. In the case of immigration that is racism and in criminal justice it is a collective desire for vengeance. This does not provide a basis to make effective policy. Governments are elected to make reasoned decisions on the basis of objective evidence not make policy on the hoof depending on what headline any particular newspaper editor decides will sell most papers on any given day

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Review of What Fatima Did

The debut play of 21-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta uses the difficult subject of the hijab to investigate a whole number of different layers of racism, bigotry and juvenile angst. The fact that this is carried off with a quick fire comedy dialogue, makes it all the more compelling.
The plot revolves around Fatima who comes back to school after the six week summer holiday wearing the hijab. Prior to this the impression is that she was like the other students out drinking and spending time with her boyfriend George.
The whole play focuses on eight characters. Black students Craig and Stacey, Muslims Aisha and Mohamed, who is also Fatima’s brother, and white George whose parents are Irish but he hates. There is also an excellent cameo from Shobu Kapoor as the mother of Fatima and Mohamed. And there is ofourse the obligatory teacher or maybe that should be referee.
Once Fatima starts to wear the hijab everyone’s attitude changes, especially George. He at one point takes off her hjijab resulting in a fight with Mohamed and being reported for racism to the school authorities by Fatima.
The strongest protests though, apart from George, come from Aisha and Fatima’s mother Ruckshana. She protests how she fought her husband not to wear the hijab and accuses her daughter of looking like “a fundamentalist post box.”
Aisha is equally fervent in her opposition to the hijab, attacking it’s use to subjugate women. At times it is difficult not to think that the character has morphed into Jack Straw, who she quotes approvingly. This representation of Muslims being opposed to the hijab brings another refreshing dynamic to the piece.
Interesting clashes emerge such as the teacher being prepared to put up with the hijab but not a baseball cap on Craig. The play is very much of the post 9/11 world, fast moving showing how friends have been split apart and communities polarised. It shows a real intolerance among some of the kids over what is merely a piece of clothing.
George becomes so disillusioned that he drifts off to the far right. Mohamed becomes fearlessly defensive of his sister against Ruckshana and George. One of the most powerful narratives of the play comes when after a row with his mother Mohamed talks about how Muslims have become a suspect community and how people move away on the trains when spotting a Muslim with a backpack. The Muslim is seen as a potential bomber, the white person as a backpacker. “Why can’t we all be backpackers,” laments Mohamed
The dialogue of the play is fast and furious with plenty of swearing from the characters. What Fatima Did is an excellent debut play for Sen-Gupta and it must be hoped that it goes on from the Hampstead theatre. The power of the play is that it speaks to young people about politics in their language. It would though be interesting to see how it went down with a sixth form full of kids wearing hijabs. Whether it works quite as well for the over 50s remains to be seen. If Sen Gupta does nothing else other than establish a way to hold effective political dialogue with younger people she has already achieved more than most.
* What Fatima Did runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 7 November

Monday, 19 October 2009

Don't bash the posties

The answer to Royal Mail's problems is not to bash the workers The increasingly bitter mail dispute reached a new low recently when the Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced it would be taking national strike action.The dispute has been escalating since the summer with sporadic strikes across the country. Ironically, the dispute began when the Government announced acceded to the union demand that it would not be proceeding with its plans for part privatisation.
At that time the union offered to sit down and talk with Royal Mail (RM) over a set period with no strikes in order to try and resolve differences over modernisation and the development of new products. RM refused and relations between management and workforce have got increasingly worse ever since. The CWU have accused RM of breaking previous agreements, imposing cutbacks and deploying bullying tactics. RM accuse the union of breaking agreements and opposing change. The dispute has not actually been about any demand for more money.As the situation has deteriorated so strikes have mushroomed with London being particularly hard hit. As a result a massive mail backlog has built up in warehouses around the land. Public support for the postal workers is not thought to be high, due in part no doubt to the way that much of the media has reported the dispute. The narrative has largely been one of unreasonable workers opposing modernisation of the business at time of economic recession. The pressure that the mail strike is putting particularly on small businesses is regularly quoted, with vital payments and products not getting through. This claim is no doubt true but on the other side of the equation, postal workers earning less than £15,000 a year do not go on strike for nothing. They will lose money, putting their families under pressure, so there must be substantive issues at stake. The vote of 76 per cent in favour on a 67 per cent turnout suggests that a lot have been driven to the brink.The lack of sympathy among the public also locks into another media driven truth that public sector workers are in a priveliged position with better pay, terms and conditions. The recession has been used as a prop to argue that these benefits need to be taken away from the public sector to bring them down to private sector levels rather than the other way round. For mail workers this would mean getting the minimum wage and having all security of employment destroyed. Lower paid workers both in Britain and Ireland it would seem are increasingly expected to take up a disproportionate amount of the pain for an economic crisis caused by reckless bankers. The bankers meantime seem to continue with business as usual.Much has also been made of alternative companies coming into take over RM business. This is pretty much a total myth. Since the mail market was opened up to competition in 2006 private companies like DHL, TNT and Business Post have come in but only to take business mail. Business mail is where the profits are to be made, residential deliveries are loss making. Previously, RM would use the profits from business mail to subsidise the loss making residential delivery side. The private companies were allowed to come in and cherry pick the best contracts without picking up any of the universal service obligation to deliver mail across the board. This development, together with the historic £4 billion plus pension deficit, underlies many of the problems that RM has at present. However, despite the opening up of the market, the final mile of delivery for the private companies is still done by RM. So a private company will pick up mail from the customer but then deliver it to RM which for a price delivers at the other end. So the idea of there being lots of alternatives to send mail via is a complete illusion. There are obviously courier style services but at £20 plus a go it seems unlikely that any business small or large could employ them for routine deliveries and stay afloat for long.Another underlying problem with RM is that its management under the leadership of former Football Association chief executive Adam Crozier has been committed to privatisation of the business. Privatisation would see many senior managers being rewarded handsomely and the failure of the most recent plan to go through has no doubt added to the resentment that many feel toward the CWU.It is against this background that the postal dispute continues to escalate. Mail remains a largely manual industry that is gradually becoming more automated. Both RM and the CWU accept that this has to happen, the outstanding question remains how. The management believe it is their perogative to manage, while the union want to be part of a genuine consultative process. The whole RM business though is being penalised by the preferential treatment being given to the private companies that can take their pick of the business post without taking any of the obligation to deliver loss making products. If this situation were resolved and Government picked up the RM pension deficit – made largely as a result of a 13 year pension holiday during the 1990s and stockmarket downturn - then the company could compete and no doubt provide a better service for the public. A management that was committed to providing the service in the public sector and not constantly looking for privatisation would ofcourse help.The present mail dispute is certainly not intractable. All the sides need to get round the table to talk but there also need to be fundamental changes made to RM management and a resolution to the pension deficit issue if things are to genuinely move forward rather than splutter along to the next dispute

Thursday, 15 October 2009

What is best strategy to counter BNP

The decision of the BBC to invite British National Party leader Nick Griffin onto the Question Time panel next Thursday has caused much consternation.The views have been split. There are those who think exposing the BNP will help show what they are really about. The opposite view is to deny the oxygen of publicity that can only be helping to make the party seem more acceptable. The BBC seems to have positioned itself in the first camp. Since two BNP candidates were elected to the European Parliament in June members of the party have featured in a number of BBC programmes. These have varied from the tough questioning of the likes of John Humphreys on Today to seeming free runs in other arenas. The trade union backed group Unite Against Fascism complained about Newsbeat on Radio 1 allowing two young BNP supporters to express their views unopposed and only subject to the mildest of questioning. Undoubtedly,Mr Griffin will not be allowed such a free run by David Dimbleby on Question Time. The Labour Party have put forward Justice minister Jack Straw for the programme and no doubt the other parties will put forward similar heavy hitters. The BBC is in a difficult position, given that nearly a million people voted for the BNP at the European elections. How from its angle can the Corporation go on justifying inviting representatives of other small parties like the Greens onto Question Time while denying that right to the BNP? The approach of UAF has been to oppose the BNP wherever they go. This led to the egg-throwing incident, following the European election victory. It has also seen other ugly scenes. More seem promised on the night of the Question Time broadcast with the UAF calling for a demonstration outside the BBC in London and at other regional centres. The problem with the UAF is that while it falls firmly in the denying the oxygen of publicity camp, its very actions so far have created much coverage for the BNP. Indeed, the whole development of far right politics and opposition to it have moved on significantly since the European elections. The fascists themselves have “mutated” with the arrival on the scene of the English Defence League (EDL). It seems as the BNP have moved closer to the centres of power whether in Europe or local councils, so the more unsavoury violent side has been downloaded into the EDL. Events so far have included violent demonstrations in Harrow and Birmingham. The EDL have future events planned for most of the major city centres across the UK.The actions of the EDL have brought forward a reaction from some of the communities which now seem themselves as targets. So Muslim defence groups have formed in different parts of the country.On the opposition side, there is UAF, Searchlight and the Hope not Hate campaign. The latter groups are much more Labour Party orientated, favouring mass grass roots organisation. There are other voices also beginning to be heard including among the different faith communities. Churches Together in Britain and Ireland recently ran a conference looking at how to challenge the politics of the far right. Head of Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe Arlington Trotman called for the Churches to unite as one voice and speak out against the far right. He also declared that “there needs to be a recognition that we can’t fight fascism without a just social system.”It is the underlying injustice of the political and economic system that is no doubt fuelling the likes of the BNP. The European elections saw the far right parties picking up some votes no doubt as a result of disgust at the MPs expenses scandal. However, the failure of the Labour Government in particular to address the needs of its traditional constituency has helped the growth of the BNP. This was born out by the election results with the collapse of the traditional Labour vote in areas like Yorkshire and Humberside and the North West letting in the BNP. The BNP’s actual share of the vote has only increased from 4.9 per cent to 6.2 per cent in the last four years.The Labour Party needs to refocus its agenda to help those in its heartland areas. This means generating jobs, building social housing, funding public services and combating myths over issues like immigration. If this happens then no doubt those who have deserted for the BNP will return to their more traditional homeland.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

More ex-soldiers in prison than Afghanistan

The news that there are more ex-service personnel occupying UK prisons than there are troops fighting in Afghanistan should be a cause for real concern. Research conducted by the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) found that there are 20,000 veterans in the criminal justice system, 8,500 behind bars and 12,500 on probation or parole. The survey of 90 probation case histories of convicted veterans shows a majority with chronic alcohol or drug problems, and nearly half suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as a result of their wartime experiences on active service. Those involved had served in the North of Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are most likely to have been convicted of a violent offence, particularly domestic violence.

The figures lift the lid on a ticking time bomb that has steadily been primed to explode in the home population for years. The conflict in the North of Ireland has no doubt provided many of those 20,000 veterans. For most of that conflict there was little recognition of the effects of combat stress on the individuals concerned.One early victim in the North was former squaddie Jimmy Johnson, who suffered from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had flashbacks to incidents that had happened to him in Belfast. On one occasion after he left the service he was out with mates one Saturday night in the north east. Johnson finished up hospitalising a number of people in a fight but the next day could recall little. Later another flashback resulted in his beating another individual to death. He finished up in jail. After serving his sentence Johnson came out still undiagnosed. As a result some months later he had another flashback and killed another individual. Again he was sent to prison. It was only due to meeting a struck off doctor in prison who recognised the PTSD symptoms that he learnt of the condition. At that time in the mid 1990s the prison service could not provide figures regarding the number of ex-service personnel in the prison system. A psychiatrist at the time suggested there could at least be a prison full of just ex-service personnel. He was obviously right and the number has obviously grown incredibly over the past 15 years, as British forces have become engaged in more conflicts across the globe. Recognition of the personal cost and fall out of conflict has grown but resourcing of the support needed to help the victims has not.The North or Ireland situation alone has created many new inmates in the prison system. 30 years of conflict that saw thousands of soldiers taking on series of active service duties. Certainly for much of this period the Ministry of Defence were unwilling to admit PTSD was a real problem. A similar attitude was adopted to the condition known as Gulf Ward Syndrome. There were no doubt concerns about the possible compensation claims that could result but all the same this was a clear breach of the duty of care owed to service personnel. Now at least the MOD has admitted that PTSD and other conditions can result from active service involvement. There is clearly a duty of care owed to the soldiers who put their lives on the line to serve. However, the latest revelations must surely make the case for a proper investigation to be conducted into the true cost and effects of combat on the individual concerned and the society as a whole. It is a failure of the system that sees 20,000 ex-service personnel finishing up in the prisons. The cost at £35,000 per year per prisoners should be prohibitive in itself. Prison is also clearly the wrong place for people with such mental health problems to be housed. Beyond the prisons, many service personnel finish up as alcoholics and living homeless on the streets. The MOD estimate that 6 in 10 people returning from the front line could finish up with alcohol problems. These are incredible costs for individuals to be paying and society as a whole. They are certainly not the images brought forward in the shiny ads for a life of adventure in the armed forces.It is high time that a proper study was conducted of the true costs of war in all its ugly forms, and then just maybe those who send other people’s sons and daughters to fight on behalf of the country might just think twice about what they are doing. These latest revelations showing a prison population dominated by ex-squaddies, who have in many cases taken out their own mental health issues on partners and totally innocent members of the public, makes the case for withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan even stronger. The amount of crime being committed by ex-service personnel certainly bears out the view that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So for every Irish, Afghani or Iraqi person abused or killed by a British squaddie there could ultimately be a reaction on people living and working in the UK. These are sobering thoughts that underline the need to take these latest revelations from the probation service seriously and act accordingly. Failure to do so will simply result in the time bomb continuing to grow, claiming ever more victims along the way.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Why are the poorest being asked to pay for the bankes folly

Why do politicians from both political parties seem to think the way to address the deficit is to hit the poorest people hardest? Both Conservatives and Labour seem obsessed with cutting benefits and hitting the lowest paid. Meanwhile, the real public welfare recipients, the banks, escape untouched.
Instead of attempting to make the banks pay back some of the money they have absorbed, the concern the worry seems to be that a few of them might leave the country if unduly penalised. The hedge funds are relocating to Switzerland - who really cares? Is there really any truth in the line that these people are such great wealth creators that we cannot let them go. Most of the highest paid employ accountants to keep their tax payments down to the absolute minimum anyway.
In the longer term governement should be looking to move the countries economy away from reliance on this volatile sector. In the short term, why not impose a flat rate tax on the profits of all banks. This would hit those hardest who caused the problems in the first place and encourage self regulation of the whole sector. Implementation of the Compass recommendation for a High Pay Commission would be another welcome move.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Labour must continue journey back to its roots

So the recession is over we are told. Whatever happened to all those stories about it was going to be worse than the 1930s and last forever. Much it now seems was spin, no doubt created to fill 24-hour news schedules. All of course is not now right with the world. Unemployment continues to increase, the economy has retracted and there is now a huge debt to service. It has been this debt servicing that has dominated the agendas during the party conference season. The debate has moved strangely from the recklessness of bankers and the dangers of unregulated market capitalism to how to make everyone – including the poorest – pay for the mess.The Conservative Party have been most gung ho about the cuts they are going to make to public services. They have also made a few They have also made a few disapproving comments about banker’s bonuses. The Liberal Democrats also have been keen to cut, though less happy to see the burden dumped on the poorest. The Labour Government continues to lose the ongoing media battle with the other two parties. It suits the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to keep the public debate on the subject of cuts for as long as possible. For the government the cuts debate is bad news.
Gordon Brown ought to be taking some plaudits. The government has dealt well with the financial crisis. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Chancellor Alistair Darling and the Treasury took the right steps at the right time. The original projections of when the country would pull out of the recession have also proved correct. There is ofcourse the small matter of Brown having created the conditions for the crisis in the first place - with the cutting of regulation and general lording of business - but that aside he has done well.The big pity is that it has taken the financial crisis to get the government enacting real labour policies. So for example, some £1.5 billion has been pumped into housing. Powers to build new council housing have been devolved to councils and a new programme is getting underway. There are plans for programmes to expand transport systems. Small businesses have received help to get them going. There seems a genuine commitment at the heart of government to tackle climate change. It is difficult not to think that if many of these policies had come into play ten years ago and the country had not gone wading into Afghanistan and Iraq then Labour would be looking at a landslide victory, not almost certain electoral defeat.There are other dividends coming from the slump. The shortage of funds looks likely to claim unpopular initiatives like ID cards, Trident nuclear submarines renewal and it must be hoped the ongoing involvement in Afghanistan.Despite the aforesaid developments, many people in the Labour Party seem to be preparing for life in opposition. One of the problems no doubt has been that Labour has had the look of a defeated party for so long. There is a weariness born of 12 years in government. Some it would seem are looking forward to a spell on the opposition benches.Gordon Brown has failed to renew the party, instead his tenure in office has tended to open up divisions and breed that feeling of defeatism. This has helped land the Labour Party with more blame for the expenses scandal than it probably deserves.Another problem is as the right wing political commentator Peter Hitchens has pointed out an obsession in Fleet Street with getting David Cameron into 10 Downing Street. This seems to be allowing the Conservatives to practically dictate the political agenda on for example the need for cuts. The Labour Government has a perfectly robust response, which is that too much cutting will throw the country back into recession. The economy needs to grow to get people back into work and paying taxes. Increasing the tax take will cut the deficit and provide funds for public services. The big poll leads for the Tories are all the more amazing given that they have outlined very few real policies. Their main appeal is that they are not Labour.So all of these things make it very difficult to see what the Labour Government could do to pull things round before the next election. Labour would though have a better chance if it got back onto the agenda of dealing with the bankers. There is a correct perception that having got the country into this mess the bankers are now getting away with it. Interest rate cuts have only been passed onto savers not morgage holders. Everyone else has to pay for the banker's errors while they apparently live in a bubble where pretty much everything continues as before, including bonuses. Labour also needs to get across what it is doing right. Its competence in dealing with the economy, policies like council house building, investment in green technologies and transport expansion. A timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and restoration of recently denied liberties would also no doubt help. A recommitment to policies like keeping the postal service public and returning the railways totally to public ownership could also prove popular. The success of Labour over the last year has been in managing the crisis and getting back to some of its old roots. To have any chance at the next election it needs to stop the Conservatives dictating the terms of debate and reconnect with more of those roots – then just maybe Labour could be in with a chance at the next general election.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Siege mentality underlying the peace in Northern Ireland

Sectarian attacks continue to rumble on in the north of Ireland, despite or maybe because of the peace process.
There have been 1500 attacks in each of the past two years, an average of four a day. Last year, some 560 of the incidents were in Belfast.
In May, a Catholic Kevin McDaid was killed by Loyalists. In July, there were attacks on five Catholic Churches in Balymena.
While there have been some attacks by Catholics, the vast majority have been by Loyalists on Catholics. Not something immediately apparent from reporting in British media which continues to portray the north as a place of feuding religious tribes with any resultant violence being committed on a tit for tat basis by one community against the other.
In June, there were also attacks by Loyalists on Roma in Belfast. These were so ferocious that they forced the Roma to leave the country.
At face value, it seems that the society is becoming ever more divided in the wake of the peace process.
A physical sign of this growing division is the fourfold increase over the past decade in the number of peace walls in the north.
A recent photographic exhibition mounted at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith showed just how divisive the walls have become.
There were around 27 peace walls at the time that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. This number has now risen to over 80.
When the Troubles first began back in 1969, the Catholics started putting up barriers to stop the assaults of Loyalist mobs. The walls grew as dividers of the society, many in the early days were made up of barbed wire. Today the structures are far more permanent in construction. The recently completed wall at Somersdale Gardens, dividing Glencairn and Ardoyne, is a massive structure made of brick. Others are more like fences. Most are built high to stop those from the other communities throwing things over. “Some of the walls are up to a mile in length, some are up to 30 feet in height – the one unmistakable thing is that they mark the separation of communities,” said Louise Jefferson, the photojournalist who with writer Stephen Martin put together the exhibition at the Irish Cultural Centre.
Jim O’Hara, a Belfast born lecturer in Irish history, believes the walls reflect an insecurity among the people, a concern that they would be attacked by the other community. “People feel safe behind the walls. Most people want the walls down but don’t feel safe without them being there,” said Mr O’Hara.
The worry must be that the proliferation of sectarian attacks and growth in walls underline the insecurities in the community and just how potentially brittle the peace process is.
On the face of it there seems to be a growing dislocation between the political class running the country and what is going on at street level. While the political parties appear to be reconciling and learning to slowly work together, on the streets the divisions are growing more stark as people pull back into their own communities adopting a siege mentality.
The pressure points become obvious as walls go up and sectarian violence breaks out where tensions are highest.
It can be argued that these developments were inevitable. By its very nature the GFA tended to inbed the divisions between the communities in the north, rather than offer a blueprint for unity. There are ofcourse many other elements to the GFA like the cross border bodies but the divisions in the north remain institutionalised.
There is also the fact that many of those causing the trouble are on the extremes of both communities. The Loyalist groups don’t feel represented in the political discourse while the dissident republicans, represented by the likes of the Real and Continuity IRAs, have totally rejected the peace process and vowed to continue on with the war. These are the people who feel most alienated from the political process and so have least to lose.
It is in bridging the gaps and bringing the communities together that the next challenge for the peace process lies. The politicians need to be bold and not simply collude in the proliferation of peace walls and structures of division as a way to make quick political capital. There no doubt needs to be funding provided to pay for integration between the communities. Active steps need to be taken.
It would certainly be wrong to sit back and think that the violence and walls are a passing phase, a residual of the Troubles, something that will burn itself out with time. Adopting such an attitude would only invite disaster with the divisions in the community, if left alone, likely to grow deeper and wider. In the end it could well result in the Troubles re-igniting in more virulent form. Now is the time for active intervention to heal the breaches and build a real and lasting peace.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Hands up who has heard enough from Tony Blair on faith

There must be plenty of people out there who are getting tired of hearing the views of former Prime Minister Tony Blair on faith. Not least those in his newly adopted spirtual home the Catholic Church. Hardly a week seems to go by without the former premiers views being quoted on faith and particularly inter-faith issues.
Recent offerings have included a talk in London on the importance of faith communities working together to help make a difference in the world. This followed on a lecture in Rome on the central role of religion in society.
Irony is certainly not one of the former PM’s stronger suites. Only those suffering total historical amnesia could not be struck when told that Mr Blair had said that political leaders should listen more to the Pope and that dialogue between religions was important.
Let’s not forget, this is the man who led the country into an illegal war in Iraq, expressly against the advice of Pope John Paul II. And the same man who did so much to damage interfaith relations both internationally and at home.
The Blair Foundation devoted as it is to promoting interfaith dialogue is staffed by people who seem to suffer from the same historical amnesia as their leader. The former head of a leading humanitarian NGO has told how faith communities provide a vital avenue to advance development. He is right, interfaith co-operation could bring rich dividends in the area of development. However, coming from the Blair Foundation it lacks a certain credibility.
This is not a rant against Tony Blair. His governments did many good things to advance the cause of social justice in the UK. Peace in Northern Ireland, devolution, the minimum wage, trade union legislation, support for parents, the Human Rights Act, the Lawrence Inquiry, investment in health and education. However, these achievements are not alone enough to qualify the former PM for sainthood.
On the downside there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of civil rights at home, collusion with the US in rendition and practice of torture across the world and the worship of big business and the rich - laying the way for the present financial crash.
Mr Blair is a great communicator and a successful politician. Since stepping down he has no doubt been looking for a new role on the world stage. He has emulated former US President Bill Clinton by setting up his foundation. He remains as Middle East peace envoy. He clearly covets the job of president of the EU with no doubt many of his present globe trotting speeches forming a crucial part of his campaign to win that role.
The worry is that the response of the Catholic Church to Mr Blair could be seen as indicating something of its own love affair with power. There were criticisms of the Blair government over the Iraq war and other un-Catholic actions committed by his administration but it is as though as soon as he became a Catholic an historical amnesia descended upon the hierarchy and it was as though none of it mattered anymore. The former Prime Minister was now one of us so never mind what he may have done in the past. He is an influential man of the type that can be useful.
This attitude is not healthy and can allow politicians to make hay at the expense of the Church. Mr Blair can contribute to the work of the Church in many areas. He can promote peace, interfaith relations and social justice but prior to taking on such a role he needs to make an act of contrition regarding his past actions. He needs to admit that invading Iraq was wrong. He should apologise to people in those countries bombed and obliterated by western forces. He must admit his role in destroying civil rights and victimising so many Muslim people in this country. Then he maybe able to go on and be taken seriously as a man of peace and social justice.
But he has not made any such act of contrition because he probably does not think he has done anything wrong. In his world, the war on terror was probably about defeating evil, promoting peace and advancing interfaith dialogue. He now continues to pursue that aim via other means. The Church should not stand for this. The Church must be about making an option for the poor and speaking truth to power. Time surely for a little contrition from Mr Blair and a bit more opprobrium from the Catholic Church.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Alzheimers must be given same priority as cancer

The news that four genes have now been identified that could lead to a treatment being found for Alzheimers will offer hope to thousands of people.
It is hoped that early identification of these genes could lead to a diagnosis being found to address the condition.
Dementia is a growing problem in the UK with 700,000 diagnosed with some form, the most prominent of which is Alzheimers. This figure is predicted to rise to 940,000 by 2015 and 1.7 million by 2051.
There has been a growing debate over the subject of dementia with the increasing numbers of sufferers. In our celebrity led world ofcourse, this has meant the likes of TV presenter Fiona Phillips and Cliff Richard revealing how they have been effected.
Ms Phillips did make a moving documentary about the deterioration of her father and the problems this brought for the family. It also brought out some of the inconsistencies over treatment. One doctor notably pointed out how if someone comes in with cancer they are not told to go away and come back when it gets worse. This is the approach of many to Alzheimers.
My own Dad suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last few years of his life. This was painful for the whole family to endure, seeing a man who had always been full of zest for life gradually deteriorate.
In the early stages it could all be taken as a joke as we set off after one Christmas from London heading for the south coast – a journey he had done hundreds of times before, only to finish up in Maidstone. It should have been clear then something was seriously wrong. Later, the positive drives to achieve things in life could also become negatives resulting in an aggression that was difficult for my mother to cope with.
The question why certain people get Alzheimer’s can become an all encompassing one for the family of sufferers. In my own and brothers’ case the worry is that it may be hereditary. Dad’s mother had Alzheimer’s before him and his sister developed early Alzheimer’s just before she died three weeks after him last year.
The thought though does regularly occur as to whether you will get Alzheimer’s. Forgetting things takes on a more sinister meaning for those with the condition in the family. When that forgetfulness can be traced back to something similar that a relative with Alzheimer’s used to do then it takes on an even greater resonance. In my case for example forgetting whether I have locked the house up and turned all the appliances off. This was a regular lapse in the early days with Dad.
This all no doubt is reading far too much into what are probably in the main purely the signs of ageing and general tiredness.
As a potential dementia sufferer there are the preventative measures that can be adopted. These though seem to vary. Stay mentally active, stimulate the brain. Other suggestions are that it is those who live an overly stressed life who are most at risk, so relax. Don’t smoke, eat vegetables and get exercise – the standard recipe for long and healthy lives - are suggested as ways to avoid Alzheimer’s.
The area is something of a maze of confusion. The other approach is the fatalistic one, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. A few moves to try and make sure it doesn’t though always seem like a good idea. A bit of an insurance policy.
Mentioning insurance brings the argument back to the latest genetic breakthrough. Some commentators have pointed out that being able to identify potential Alzheimer sufferers in advance could be used by insurance companies to refuse future cover. This is no doubt a potential downside of such developments. However, it must be hoped that this will not prove to be the case. The hope must be that the latest breakthrough will lead to further developments in how the condition can be treated. Better care options and drug treatments. The key though to such developments will be funding of further research into Alzheimer’s. This disease has moved up in the public consciousness due to media coverage and the growing number of people affected, however the pressure needs to be kept up. Only when dementia is given the same sort of priority in medical terms as cancer can the condition really be said to be being taken seriously. If this condition does gain that sort of priority then a solution can be found to so much suffering.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Al Megrahi case shows falseness of special relationship with America

The release of the Libyan Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, brought a heap of criticism down on the Scottish National Party government. Most of the criticism emanated from America, which does not seem to be able to resist the urge to interfere in the affairs of other people’s countries.
Considerations like the fact that the punishment of Al-Megrahi did not include as part of its construct the need to satisfy the vengeance of the relatives of the 270 killed on Pan Am Flight 103 were laid aside. The release was on compassionate grounds, just as the release by Justice Secretary Jack Straw a week earlier of great train robber Ronald Biggs was agreed because he also only has a few months to live.Other factors like the probability of Al-Megrahi’s innocence of the crime in question were also conveniently forgotten on the other side of the Atlantic. Amongst Scottish relatives like Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died on the flight, this question was a major cause of concern as it should be for all the relatives. Afterall, if the wrong man has been convicted a guilty individual is still at liberty walking free.What was most revealing about the whole episode was the light it threw on the one sided nature of the so-called special relationship between the UK and the US. This relationship has been useful to the US particularly over recent years, as the UK has backed it up in a variety of illegal operations, like the Iraq war. On the British side the advantages are less clear. From going to war to refusing the pay the congestion charge in London, the Americans seem to have very little respect for the junior partner in this “special relationship.” Take the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The UK has backed America in both foolhardy ventures with British troops paying the price on the battlefield. The UK has paid the price at home with such actions making it more of a target for terrorism. The UK would be a whole lot freer more peaceful place had the country not followed America into these two wars. Maybe when Americans threaten to boycott coming to Scotland, in response Britons should boycott going to Afghanistan.Then there has been the complicity of the UK in rendition and torture being pursued by the US in the name of fighting the war on terror. The case of Binyam Mohamed again underlines the one sided nature of the special relationship. It was revealed in court that America would withdraw co-operation on intelligence matters if a document were made public revealing its complicity in torture relating to Mr Mohamed. The Foreign Office has been fighting in the courts to keep these documents secret in order not to upset the Americans. It remains unclear just how many CIA personnel are deployed on active service in the UK.At a more petty level there is the refusal of the US embassy to pay the congestion charge in London. The bills have now orbited over £3 million. Whether the president is Obama or Bush this policy seems unlikely to change. Examination of what the special relationship really involves reveals a one sided deal with all the benefits with America. At some levels it looks as though the UK has almost become a colony of the US – the 51st state. There are US forces stationed across the UK from the base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire to the airforce base at Mildenhall in Suffolk. How much this could be described, as an army of occupation is a matter for conjecture. It is a sobering thought to remember that the US bombing of Libya in 1986 was staged from a by the US airforce operating out of a number of UK bases. Never has there been a better example of violence begetting violence.The use of the term relationship is misleading. A relationship suggests some sort of deal, a bit of give and take on both sides, something for everyone. The value of the British relationship with America appears to be all on the one side. The relationship if any appears at times to be more akin to that of master and servant. The sooner that Britain comes out of its historical malaise and recognises the true nature of the “special relationship” the sooner it will be able to resolve its own international identity crisis. This should in the long term lead to Britain taking up a much fuller role within the context of Europe. If the Al Megrahi case helps speed this process on then so much the better.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Harry Patch would not support the war in Afghanistan

The deaths of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham the last surviving World War I veterans brought forth much emotion.
The funerals of the two men dominated received much coverage, less though was given to the strong stance that Mr Patch took against war. In one of his few interviews, given after he reached the age of 100 Mr Patch talked of the futility of war, the terrible loss of so many lives in the name of what?
Although many mainstream news programmes did their best to play it down, Mr Patch’s funeral was really all about peace and reconciliation. It was a protest against war from the last survivor of that terrible waste known as the First World War. There were not just British soldiers involved at Mr Patch’s funeral but also Germans and French.
The terrible irony of the funerals of messrs Patch and Allingham is that they were carried out against a background of soldiers bodies being brought back from Afghanistan. One of the abiding memories of this summer no doubt will be the sight of that plane door opening and the union jack draped coffins being brought out to be placed in a hearse. There were then the mourners and well wishers marking the sides of the road in Wootton Bassett.
The links between what is going on now in Afghanistan, Harry Patch and the First World War are prescient. It is not clear what the mission in Afghanistan is about. It seems to change by the week. At one point fighting Al Queda, then the Taliban, stopping the drug trade or standing up for women’s rights – take your pick. All that we do know is that it is costing many lives.
The most blatant lie put forward to justify the war in Afghanistan is that the soldiers are fighting there to keep the streets of the UK safe. The logic of this construction must be that the Taliban having once regained Afghanistan will then march on London. It is so ludicrous that it merely betrays the desperation of those now seeking to justify this ongoing appalling loss of life. The truth is the exact opposite of what the country is being told by government ministers. British forces involvement in Afghanistan make the streets of the UK far more dangerous. It is as a result of attacking other people’s countries that people here are radicalised or may come here to cause death and destruction. A look around the world at others countries that are not intervening, like Switzerland, Norway and Sweden confirms this truth.
Another lesson from Harry Patch’s funeral is respect for all sides and all peoples. In the case of British soldiers at least the names are known. 204 have died to date. The thousands of Afghan civilians killed have no names apparently. They just don’t matter in this hierarchy of suffering.
One of the major problems that allow wars like Iraq and Afghanistan to develop is the passivity of so much of the UK population. The assertion that you can be opposed to the war but once committed the troops must be supported is such a ridiculous construct. And the government, helpfully aided by its propagandists in much of the media play on this tendency.
The continual linkage of the lives of those who fought in the World Wars and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is also disingenuous to say the least. The militarisation of most of the funerals of those who return in coffins is also disrespectful to the deceased. It often amounts to a glorification of what amounts to a futile waste of mostly young lives.There needs to be a little clearer articulation of what war is all about. It is bloody, nasty and in many cases totally unjustified business. When the war is unjustified it is wrong to take the cop out route of well I oppose the war but now we are there I’ll support those carrying it out on my behalf. It would be good to see some British soldiers following the example of Israeli soldiers who have refused to fight in certain areas like the west bank. If they were to take such a stand over Afghanistan they must be supported. It is good to see Stop the War redoubling efforts of opposing the senseless waste that is the war in Afghanistan. It is time to bring the troops home – its what Harry Patch would have wanted.

Truth behind torture, secret evidence and detention must be revealed

The declaration by two Parliamentary committees of concerns as to the complicity of British officers in torture abroad has dominated the headlines over recent weeks.
First, the Joint Human Rights Committee called for an independent inquiry into whether the UK was complicit in torture. Then the Foreign Affairs Select Committee expressed grave concerns that British officers were complicit in torture.
The Home and Foreign Secretary’s responded declaring it is not policy to “collude in, solicit or directly participate in abuses of prisoners.” Great play has since been made of their failure to mention complicity, suggesting that the UK may well have been complicit in torture.
The evidence of Britain’s role in torture has been growing for some years. British resident Binyam Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, taken to Morocco and finally onto Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed’s lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has protested as to the torture that his client suffered, particularly in Morocco, where he was subject to mutilation via razor blades on his genitals among other things. Mohamed has told how there were British officers present during much of his ordeal. Mohamed’s case has now been handed over to Scotland Yard to investigate and find out whether British agents should face charges.
Then there is the case of Shaker Aamer who went to Afghanistan in 2001 to work with local charities, He shared a house with Moazzem Begg, who also ended up interned in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer was captured and finished up being tortured. He spent seven years in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer has lodged a legal claim in the High Court alleging MI5 and MI6 were complicit in his torture.
It would not ofcourse be the first time that Britain has faced accusations of involvement in torture. Moazzem Begg recently recalled that British military methods used in the north of Ireland to obtain information. These were what became known as the five techniques of hooding, wall standing, subjection to noise, denial of food and water and sleep deprivation.
There was also the exercise of creating the impression that a detainee was about to be thrown out of a helicopter, only to find the simulation was on the ground.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has given graphic description of how he was subjected to a number of the techniques, as well as beatings, when he was arrested in the 1970s.
The five techniques were branded cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights in 1977. This did not, however, stop Britain standing by while many of these techniques were deployed by the US as part of its war on terror over recent years.
More also needs to be known about the process of rendition, whereby people were kidnapped from one country and taken to another where they could be interrogated and tortured to get information. Another accusation presently before the courts is that the British dominion Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean was used as a site for rendition flights.
In the cases of Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer, the focus has been on the need for secret evidence to be disclosed as to what exactly went on. In both cases the US Government has proved reluctant to disclose the information it holds, while the British Government has been disingenuous about its role in the whole affair. These cases though have wide implications for the whole unjust legal paraphernalia that has been established since 9/11 around the world.
Many of these activities link directly to developments in this country over the past eight years that have seen a number of individuals detained without trial on the basis of secret evidence. Since 2001, a number of individuals have been held first in prison then under control orders using immigration law overseen by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC).
One of the ongoing claims is that they have not been told of what they are accused. They come before the SIAC, unable to see the material on which their detention is based. The lawyers for the detainees are not allowed to see this material either. Only the judges and special advocates appointed to act on the detainees behalf are able to see this material.
The suspicion has been for some time that the reason for much of this secrecy is that the material in question has been obtained via torture in foreign countries. The veil of secrecy over this whole process has meant that there has been no independent way of assessing the material in question. Lawyer Gareth Peirce has described the process as bringing the two evils of torture and secrecy together. Clearly these structures also need to be addressed in any process that examines questions of complicity in torture.
There does need to be a full independent public inquiry conducted into the British role in the practice of torture. The role of Britain as first lieutenant to the US on this and other related policies like rendition need to also be exposed. However, the inquiry needs to go further looking into the system of detention established in this country under the SIAC operating under immigration law. This system of injustice is also a product of illegal international operations based on torture. It needs to be wiped away together with the various torture chambers supported by the British and US governments around the world.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Let’s hope self-serving sycophants are replaced with free thinkers at the next election

The House of Commons will be a poorer place when Andrew MacKinlay retires at the next general election. MacKinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock since 1992, has long been a steadfast defender of Parliament against government in the name of democracy.
He doggedly pursued the case of pardons for shot-at-dawn victims of the First World War. He has served with distinction on a number of parliamentary committees, notably the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He received a lot of hate mail for his intense questioning of Dr David Kelly over the question of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
One of the reasons for his departure is the supine nature of the current crop of MPs, who tend to fall in line with any diktat of the party whips. As far as MacKinlay was concerned, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the vote against a review of the extradition treaty with the United States. This one-sided agreement allows the Americans to demand whoever they want from this country. However, Britain has no reciprocal arrangement. MacKinlay is just one of many MPs quitting the Commons in 2010. Some will be missed. More will not be. One who will be a big loss and who is also somewhat disillusioned with Parliament is Alan Simpson, the Labour MP for Nottingham South. A noted environmentalist, he has said he will be more effective campaigning for radical environmental change outside the Commons, rather than remaining on the backbenches. At one point, Simpson suggested MPs have become so subservient to the party machines that they would vote for the slaughter of the first-born, if they were told to.
A number of MPs are stepping down due to the fallout over the expenses scandal. This has led some commentators to see the upcoming election as something of a cleaning out of the stables. While we can hope they will be proved right, the worry is that the party leaderships will regard this as an opportunity to replace independent-minded politicians with even more lobby fodder – those who will vote for just about anything they are ordered to support.
The next election could offer an opportunity for genuine independents to come forward. Television personality Esther Rantzen has already said she will contest Luton South. This is even though sitting MP Margaret Moran is not standing again because of the expenses scandal. The pundits predicting Rantzen’s heavy defeat have clearly not detected the same popular clamour for her candidacy as she has.
Nevertheless, independents have won before. At the 2001 election, retired doctor Richard Taylor won Wyre Forest in Worcestershire, fighting on a platform of opposition to the downgrading of his local hospital in Kidderminster. Taylor was also opposed to the Private Finance Initiative in healthcare. He is a popular MP and his tenure was deemed sufficiently successful for him to retain his seat at the 2005 election.
There was widespread public revulsion over the expenses scandal and this could still count against the mainstream parties next year, with Labour likely to be hardest hit. At this year’s European elections, 56 per cent of those who voted opted to support parties other than the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems. So there is clearly an appetite for independent representation.
Recently, Andrew MacKinlay urged more people to seek to get involved in parliamentary politics. He said: “It takes courage sometimes to stand up and get elected. It can mean putting your head above the parapet.”
A significant number of independents in the Commons could help voters to reconnect with the democratic process. An independent is directly accountable to those who elect him or her. There is no need to follow party lines, no fear of whips twisting their arms and no threat of deselection at the whim of leaders they might upset.
The downside is that, since they are not members of a major party, especially the one that happens to be in government, they have less opportunity to influence those with their hands on the levers of power.
However, if a large number of independents got elected, this could form the basis of a coalition of interests coming together to bring about meaningful change. One of the biggest problems of the present system is that there is little difference between the three main parties. The political agenda in this country has been taken so far to the right that elections are fought over who can best manage the system rather than offering any alternative way of doing things.
Changing the system in favour of the common good should focus the minds of all of us. That change seems more likely to happen if the main political power bases are weakened and some genuine power is returned to the legislature (individual MPs) at the expense of the executive (whoever happens to form the government). For this to be a real possibility, we need the election of independent-minded MPs – whether as representatives of a political party or standing as actual independents.