Friday, 28 December 2012


“Just get me out of here,” was Mum’s appeal after her latest six week stay in hospital. It’s been a bad year for Mum and hospitals. She spent seven weeks in hospital and rehabilitation between February and April. Now she’s back in again, the cause this time a chest infection but it has been lack of mobility that has delayed her return home.

We’re told that when she can get around better she’ll be let out. The hospital has a duty of care.

Mum has been on a steady physical decline over recent years. Dad died in 2008, after a number of years suffering with dementia. He spent the last 2.5 years of his life in homes, getting specialist care.

Mum’s experience is almost the opposite, mentally she is bright as a button, but physically it is as though everything is shutting down. It causes her incredible frustration, at times leading her to question why she is being punished in such a way.

A half empty rather than half full glass person, she does not celebrate her truly remarkable memory. A passionate historian, at the age of 87, she can still recall dates, places, battles and people from past centuries.

Instead, the physical demise has tended to dominate. She has lost most of her sight and hearing in recent years. Her legs are shot through with arthritis which makes movement ever more difficult. She suffers from incontinence which is another annoyance for a proud lady.

As Mum has physically deteriorated so her ability to do the most basic tasks has reduced. When a little while ago she could put herself to bed, make a cup of tea and some food, now she is reduced to getting out of her chair and going to and from the toilet – not a great quality of life. The need for support will increase as time goes by, moving to a time when she will need 24 hour care either at home or in a home.

The physical world seems to get smaller, closing in on her. So where 18 months ago, she was upstairs in her own bedroom, using the shower with a little help. Now, her bedroom has transferred downstairs to what used to be the dining room. She gets help with washing at the sink. She walked with a stick, now she has a frame and rising chair to help her mobilise.

All of these changes have meant buying in ever more care. The travails with the care services for Mum have been different to those for Dad. He was in the homes. The battle there was to ensure he was being treated properly, not drugged or exploited.

For Mum it has been about bringing care into the home. This began three years ago, with a carer coming in each morning to get her up. She helped Mum wash, fixed breakfast, did the washing and helped set up the day.

Mum established a good relationship with the carer. All went well for a couple of years. However, as Mum’s physical condition deteriorated, so more care was needed. When she came out after her first stay earlier this year the care visits were increased, so that a carer came in during the afternoon and at night to help her get to bed.

As the care requirement expanded so the care company seemed to provide ever less competent staff. I spoke to one new carer about what she did before. The answer: two weeks previously, she had been working as a PA. The training was to go out with one of the experienced carers a couple of times and then she was off on her own.

Care requirements ofcourse vary, from on the one hand getting the shopping for an elderly person to the whole personal care requirements of washing, feeding etc. The qualifications of many of the carers out there are lacking, the regulation, virtually non-existent.

A product of the market the job is done by people forced to take the minimum wage jobs that fit in with other family requirements like child care.

The whole experience has taught me that commerce and care simply cannot mix. It is almost possible to see the pound signs materializing in the care company managers eyes when the magic words self-funding are uttered in relation to a potential client.

I have spent more and more time looking after Mum. The role of carer for a parent is no small task. The responsibility means you virtually end up living two lives, your own and that of carer, Your own life tends to become more and more subsumed by the caring role.

Care cover has to be constantly planned out.

Around one million people in this country have given up careers in order to care for relatives. I haven’t reached that point yet, presently managing to keep all the different balls in the air.

Caring child is a strange place to be, as you almost come to share the same space of the person you are looking after. For Mum it just looks like a tunnel of life becoming worse and worse, more illnesses, more hospitals stays and eventually the end. For me, the recognition that Mum is right, she won’t suddenly get her mobility or eyesight back. Things will get worse, yet you don’t ever want the end to come, to reach that point where the person who brought you into the world is no longer there. Physically broken or not, she will always be my mum and I will always love her for being just who she is.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Cardboard Clergy

Cardboard Fabrications Ltd

Dear Sirs,

We are sure that you have came across our extremely successful products
already. Among our lines are cardboard police cars to discourage speeding,
and cardboard policemen to deter shoplifters, as well as other standard

Following an the success of these we are pleased to announce that we

can now supply cardboard clergy...

The cardboard Priest is invaluable to hard-pressed clergy who need a

holiday. It is life-sized and comes in progressive, middle-of-the-road and

the Tridentine models. It is especially effective when stood behind the

lectern. Field trials have shown that when a cardboard Priest was

installed without the congregation knowing, 40% of those later

questioned had noticed no difference, while 25% said there had been a

considerable improvement.

Soon we hope to have available a cardboard Bishop which can be placed in the
diocese while the real bishop is away in home. Trials models have been
installed for same time in the Bishops Conference without being detected.
One is even said to have made a short excellent speech, which was actually
related to its topic.

Our cardboard congregation is however now on the market and selling well.
Its response to homilies is indistinguishable from the real thing, and it
has the positive advantage that when volunteers are called for nobody makes
a dash for the door. In some churches there has even been a marked
improvement in the singing.

We recommend our quality products for your consideration and hope that you
will find that they are just what you have been looking for.

Yours faithfully,

C. Board,

Marketing Director

Friday, 14 December 2012

Let's not throw away press freedom amid Leveson inspired hysteria

The prank call by two Australian disc jockeys to the hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated for morning sickness has had tragic consequences.

The prank badly misfired, with the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha. The disc jockeys, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, are also said to be shattered by the news, However, this incident should not be used as another opportunity to bash journalism. Let’s remember the two pranksters were disc jockeys not journalists, simply because they were on radio does not change that fact.

Following on the report of Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s inquiry it does at times seem to have been open season on journalists. In an ironic twist, the way in which the media tends to conduct the public discourse seems in this instance to have come back to bite them. The polarization of the argument that sees everything reduced to black and white with no shades of grey has once again been seen in action.

So just as with previous scandals involving MPs expenses, bankers misbehavior and sex abusing priests there has been a move to label everyone in that particular sector as guilty, so it has proved with journalists.

Not all journalists are up to illegal phone hacking activities, in reality it is very few. Just as there are relatively few people involved in Parliament, the banks and the Church who have committed misdemeanors. Yet the broad brush focus is always adopted which simply does not strike any sort of balance or represent the truth.

Let’s remember, it was the Guardian that revealed the phone hacking scandal in the first place. The Telegraph brought us MPs expenses, the Daily Mail led the call for justice for Stephen Lawrence and the Times exposed celebrities cheating on their tax.

Lord Leveson came up with some fascinating findings but also questions have been raised. For example why did the police seem to get treated so mildly by the judge? They seemed in it up to their elbows, colluding with journalists and failing to prosecute in the first instance those who committed the offences. As Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has pointed out the crimes committed during the hacking scandal could all be dealt with under the present criminal law, there is no need for statutory press regulation to attain that goal.

There are real dangers that the Leveson report will not be taken in context, as different groups fight to get their way. The rush to legislate, led by the campaign group Hacked Off, and backed by the Labour Party could have far reaching consequences.

The concern of many is that once statutory regulation is in place it will be open to extension by future unscrupulous governments who fear press intervention in their affairs. Remembering the MPs expenses scandal, such a scenario raises the old question of who guards the guards?

The position taken by the Prime Minister against statutory regulation is the right one. Whether it is because he has a strong belief in press freedom or is scared of what some of the bigger beasts in the media jungle might do to him later is really irrelevant. He has handled the situation well, opposing statutory regulation but using the leverage gained by Leveson to force the press into creating a proper self-regulatory process to replace the present toothless Press Complaints Commission. All are agreed there needs to be change.

What finally comes out of the Leveson inquiry in terms of press regulation will be interesting to behold, not least as to whether it results from a well-reasoned wide ranging debate or one hinged on polarized positions born of self-interest.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Pat Finucane case proves lessons of history not learned

The reason that David Cameron uses the excuse of cost to resist the Finucane families call for an independent inquiry is because the De Silva report is about as far as the government thinks it can go.
Clearly the murder of Pat Finucane and others was sanctioned at a very high level of government. It is to establish at what just level that a full scale public inquiry is required.
What the De Silva report does provide is ample evidence of the need to keep the agencies and agents of the state under control. In Northern Ireland the whole security apparatus, including the legal system, became contaminated.
A similar thing is now happening in the remainder of the UK with proposals for secret courts and people being detained for years on end without trial. The hysteria aroused over Muslim clerics matches anything seen during the years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It is a sober reminder as to what happens when the lessons of history are not learned, namely that they simply get repeated leading to ever more innocent lives being wrecked.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Why are train passengers paying more?

Sitting on yet another delayed train while reading about a 17 pct rise in rail fares the question occurs - why? The service has not improved, most the people using the trains are earning less or the same as they did last year. Train operators are exploiting a captive audience. Another final question, why is it ok to cut fuel duty for motorists and subsidise air travel  but make train users pay  more for taking the environmentally sustainable form of transport?

Metro - 10/12/2012

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Time to tax the corporate rich

The call for big companies and wealthy individuals to pay more tax has gathered pace over recent months.

The latest public finance figures tell a story of two countries, where the public paid more and the corporations paid less. The corporation tax take was down 10 per cent for the year to October, whilst tax and VAT receipts were up 6.4 per cent.

Her Majestys Revenue and Customs (HMRC) believe that the tax gap – the amount that corporations ought to be paying versus what they are – is £4.1 billion. This amount would build 300 new schools, provide 430,000 nursery places or 153,000 nurses.

Overall, HMRC estimates that in 2010/11 it was deprived of £9.6 billion in VAT, with £3.3 billion in excise duties, and £14.4 billion in income tax revenues, national insurance contributions and capital gains tax. The HMRC say that the tax gap for the whole economy amounted to £32 billion in 2010/11 or a third of the deficit of £120 billion for 2012/13

Multinational corporations like Starbucks, Amazon, Vodafone and Google have been exposed over the lack of taxes that they pay in this country, despite using the facilities provided courtesy of the tax payer to make handsome profits.

The extent of the tax avoidance became clear at the hearings of the Public Accounts Committee, where the MPs view was that it maybe legal to avoid paying tax but it was not moral.

At the hearings, it was revealed Starbucks paid £8.6m in corporation tax over 14 years of trading in Britain, and none for the past three years, despite sales of £1.2bn in the UK. Starbucks pays a royalty to its parent company in the Netherlands, which offsets profits here.

Amazon reported turnover of £207m in 2011 for its UK operation, on which it paid tax of £1.8m. However, Amazon provided the PAC with information showing that for 2011, £3.35bn of its sales were from the UK, 25 per cent of all sales outside the United States. Its profits are booked in Luxembourg, where the tax is paid.

Google recorded revenues of £396m in 2011 in the UK and paid corporation tax of only £6m. However it is estimated that Google actually had £2.75bn of revenue from its operations in the UK with an estimated pre-tax profit of £836m. Google’s profits are registered in Ireland.

Not to be forgotten, Vodafone increased its underlying earnings in the UK before interest and tax from £1.2 billion to £1.3 billion to March 2011, yet paid no corporation tax.

The truth is that tax avoidance by both companies and highly paid individuals is huge in the UK.

On the individual front there have been the cases of celebrities like comedian Jimmy Carr using schemes to avoid tax. Carr though has since stopped using the much publicised offshore scheme.

Central to the debate at an individual and corporation level is a moral question about avoiding tax. It would seem at many levels it is legal to avoid paying taxes but to do so is also immoral because it amounts to stealing from the rest of us. Failure to pay tax means that there is less money for the NHS, health, education and welfare.

The need to get a grips with the multinational companies on tax points to a wider need to make them accountable across the board for their activities. The net worth of many of these companies now exceeds that of all but the biggest countries in the world.

The practice of only paying tax in the lowest charging country in which they operate is mirrored in other areas, such as labour rights and environmental law where the companies will move around to operate in the least regulated domain in order to maximise profits.

So in the longer term there needs to be international regulation in order that the huge multinationals do not just move their operations from country to country in order to maximise profit.

There are though encouraging signs of progress in the fight to at least make companies and individuals start paying their fair share of tax. The bad publicity that Starbucks received following the PFC inquiry, has led to negotations starting between the company and the UK government as to how it can pay more tax. Though the sting in the tail appears to being born by Starbucks workers, who the Guardian reports are having lunch break, sick pay and maternity benefits cut.

Consumer power to not purchase the products of companies like Starbucks, Vodafone and Amazon clearly has an impact. What such companies dread in the age of social media is having their brand damaged.

The same is true of individuals, with celebrities like Jimmy Carr quickly moving to change their accounting ways once the publicity came out about their tax avoidance methods.

Even the British government appears to be moving on the issue with Chancellor George Osborne providing another £150 million to HMRC to tackle tax avoidance and looking as to how the laws can be changed to stop multinationals avoiding tax.

Who knows if some of those missing taxes can be collected, then maybe the assault on public services can be halted?

Friday, 30 November 2012

Ownership is key to any real press change

Leveson's report  provides a thorough review of the press but fails in his conclusion to address the key issue which is the need for plurality of ownership. No one individual or group should be allowed to own more than one newspaper or television channel. Until such stipulations are enacted the media will remain the domain of in the main a group of powerful right wing individuals who use the press to promote their own prejudices and interests. A major divesting of ownership plus encouragement for new publications could see a genuine restoration of a plurality that would serve the common good.

Guardian letters - 1/12/2012

Metro - 3/12/2012

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Troubles could resume in North of Ireland without peace dividend

The situation in the north of Ireland has crept back into the national media agenda in Britain over recent months.

The reason for this reappearance has been increasing levels of violence. There was the murder of prison officer David Black, rioting around the marching season and bombs being found in various places.

The symbiotic link between violence in the north and coverage in the British media has always been there. Indeed, many believe that it was when the bullets and bombs stopped going off that the north slipped from being a national to regional news story at best.

Issues like the failure of the peace dividend to materialise and the growing tensions below the surface that could result in the Troubles reigniting again have been of little interest. But there is an important story about the north that really does need telling before those bombs and bullets do start to fly again.

The story is that really very little has changed. There are now more than double the number of peace walls keeping the communities apart than there were in 1998. The two communities are more divided than ever.

Sectariansim, racism and homophobia remain prevalent, much more so than in other parts of Britain. The recent furore over wearing the poppy around Remembrance Sunday, underlined just how stark these divisions remain.

Children continue to go to the schools of their faith denomination and are taught the version of history that their particular tradition believes is correct.

As the project co-ordinator of the anti-sectarian unit of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Trademark, Mel Corry said: there is “a benign apartheid” operating in the north of Ireland. The main political parties seem happy with this situation.

Corry believes that the peace process created the space whereby people could be brought together. “Few though are taking advantage of that space,”said Corry, who is worried that as the economic recession deepens and Westminster politicians continue to fail to deliver the promised peace dividend that violence could erupt once again.

If this thesis is accepted, that really very little has changed, then what is there to stop it all erupting again, as austerity bites deeper. The north of Ireland is the most dependent on the public sector for providing employment of any part of Britain, yet the Coalition Government is in the process of dismantling that sector.
The economic indices that existed at the time when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 have changed. Then there was a belief that the GFA would stop the violence, deal with some of the problems and in time Ireland would unite.

The economic drivers of a united Ireland would see to that. Business interests from both sides of the divide would see the advantage of a united Ireland in a European context, rather than remaining as a regional outpost of Britain. Now though with the Republic looking an even bigger economic basket case than Britain, the terrain has somewhat changed.
Many of the youngsters today have grown up in a period of relative peace, so have not seen the devastation caused by violent conflict. If things continue to get worse, disillusioned youth could drift toward the paramilitary organisations that remain ready to restart the violence.

Some efforts have been made to deal wth the legacy of the past but not enough. The new Irish revisionists, who like to peddle the line that the past doesn’t matter, let’s deal with the present and future get too much of a hearing.
Failure to deal with the legacy of the past and genuinely build for a new future will result in the past being repeated. If the economic situation continues to deteriorate to that point then all the ingredients are there for the Troubles to restart in earnest. The warnings from history are there, only delivery of the peace dividend and some serious work by politicians and community group representatives to bridge the ever growing divides between the communities will stop a return to the Troubles.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Former prisoner tells how he turned life around

Lynden has just finished a shift working at a call centre in central London. He’s looking fit and happy with life. Few of those milling around Victoria station on Friday night would have thought that less than three years ago Lynden was a habitual criminal.
Now 30, Lynden spent his early years travelling around the UK courtesy of the criminal justice system. Over a decade he was constantly in and out of prison. “There were two 2.5 years sentences, one for three years and three one year stretches,” recalled Lynden, who spent time in Feltham, Dover and Rochester prisons serving these sentences, mostly for drug related offences.
He first got involved in drugs when experimenting with cannabis at the age of 12. He later moved onto class A drugs like crack and heroine. It was the need to feed his drug habit that led to the life of crime. Burglaries became a way of life - a means to get the money he needed to buy the drugs. “When I was in prison was the one time I could stay clean,” recalled Lynden.
It was while in prison that Lynden decided he had to get off the drugs and start building a life. Three years ago, he met his partner Lara, who he had known since childhood. She was a friend of his brothers. “I knew if I went back to prison I would not be able to keep her,” said Lynden.
His last sentence was served in Wandsworth Prison, where he undertook a 12 step programme that helped get him off the drugs. This continued in partnership with Westminster Council for two months when he came out of prison. “I was doing work and going to drug meetings for 12 months,” said Lynden, who at this time also came into contact with Pact’s (Prison Advice and Care Trust) Basic Caring Communities programme. The BCCs operate with Bristol, Brixton, Forest Bank and Wandsworth prisons.
The programme involves five people supporting a prisoner when he comes out. They work together to support the prisoner and each other. “I knew I needed to get away from the people I had been hanging around with before,” said Lynden, who recalled meeting with the group at least once a week, sometimes two. He also got phoned daily by members of the group over an 18 month period. “We talked over what I would like to do, what I’d been doing – it was day to day stuff,” said Lynden. One member of the group also helped him to get onto the Open University degree course that he is now doing in economics and politics. “I enjoyed the meetings and became friends with people in the group,” said Lynden. “I’m still in touch with Chris (one of the BCC group members) on the phone.”
Lynden is pleased that he has got clear of the criminal drug world but stresses change is only possible if the individual really wants it to happen. “You can’t change people who don’t want to change,” said Lynden. “But it is important to have people there supporting if someone is about to wobble.
Lynden has now settled with Lara in their own flat. She is a care worker. He continues to work at the call centre and study. In time, he hopes to become a teacher.
But Lynden also wanted to put something back, so he joined the BCC programme as one of the volunteers. He has helped out with three different people. He tells how there have been different problems with homelessness and lack of food in one case for someone who was just out of prison.
Lynden has become the face of Pact’s initiative for the Year of Faith. The year began on 11 October and runs to 24 November 2013.
The former inmate is a keen supporter of the BCC programme. “If there was more support for the BCC programme and more volunteers more could be done,” said Lynden, who would like to see more of an emphasis on rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. He cites probation as an example of where things could be done differently. “It’s not about support anymore but monitoring. There are bigger numbers of people to deal with but the approach is less effective,” says Lynden.
Since coming out of prison Lynden has resumed playing football and is a keen supporter of Arsenal. He thinks there need to be more programmes like the BCC, with the opportunities being offered to access education and sport.
He believes it is important for people who have been inside and experienced the prison system to come out and join initiatives like BCC. “People who have experienced life inside find it easier to build a rapore with those coming out,” said Lynden. “It is a very worthwhile cause with hidden benefits, showing someone some kindness can start a process.”
Lynden believes people have the capacity to change, if given the right support. “It is a belief in human beings that means you think they are worth a second chance,” said Lynden.
Looking forward he is now very happy, “living the dream.”
“I am just counting my blessings,” said Lynden, who hopes to one day have children and continue on with his education to become a teacher.
As our interview ended, the talk turned to football. I was trying to continue the rehabilitation process further by converting him from supporting Arsenal to West Ham, when a quite aggressive guy came up. Not happy with one donation, the man continued to stand his ground. Lynden dealt calmly with the situation, questioning the man as to whether he had been fighting and advising he should “lay off the booze.” The man moved on.
In that brief moment it was possible to see where Lynden had come from and also where he could go. A man of quiet authority, who has learned more in his three decades of life, than most do in a lifetime. Someone also who could become a very good teacher.

Tablet - 17/11/2012

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Politicians should not lead Muslim witch hunt

The public pursuit of Abu Qatada proves only that Britain has advanced little from the days of the old witch hunts. A hate figure has been created for the public to focus its anger on. Most know little about the man and even less about what he is purported to have done. Note, the television reporter who recently proved the bias by referring to Abu Hamza in a report about Abu Qatada. Muslim clerics have become the hate figures of the 21st century.
In this febrile atmosphere, those who stand up for human rights such as Mr Qatada's solicitor Gareth Peirce, Liberty, Amnesty International and others deserve everyones gratitude. The government and Labour opposition have behaved disgracefully on these cases. We elect these people to represent us, safeguard our liberties and govern, not act as conductors of the witchhunters hate mob.

- Independent - 15/11/2012

- Times - 15/11/2012

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

No time left to indulge climate change deniers

A recent Daily Telegraph front page nicely encapsulated the sense of denial that still abounds over climate change.

A picture of devastation was accompanied by the headline: "The thriving community turned into a wasteland by Sandy," below the second story: "Death knell for wind farms."Hurricane Sandy blew in causing devastation across the US, just as the presidential election campaign was entering its final week. A campaign incidentally that had not featured climate change as a topic at all. The one politician to push the issue forward was not surprisingly Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg who saw the ravages being caused at first hand as a result of the effects of climate change.
Meanwhile, in sleepy hollow, otherwise known as the right wing of the Conservative Party, the new minister of state for the environment John Hayes was attacking wind turbines. Hayes gave a speech sounding the death knell for wind turbines, something the right of the Conservative Party and assorted odd bod celebrities have been campaigning to achieve for some time.
It remains extraordinary that the biggest threat facing the very survival of human kind today, namely climate change can still be treated with the gravity of a VI form debate.
In Little England the climate change deniers are still getting a disproportionate share of air time to put their side of the argument.

The lords of balance at the BBC have played a particularly active part in continuing to maintain the farce that there are two sides to this argument. The nature of this process is not just evident as climate change deniers, who receive some support from the oil, gas and other energy companies, are pitched against those who claim it is happening.

Another more subtle approach has crept in whereby climate catastrophe, whether drought, hurricane or storm are reported as isolated and separate incidents. There is no narrative joining these happenings together - the words climate and change in some cases seem deliberately to have been removed from the vocabulary.

The approach is difficult to understand. As scientists have been warning for some time now, there needs to be urgent action taken to address climate change. It really is the most indulgent form of naval gazing to still be arguing over whether it is happening or not. From the residents of New York who have been blown out of their homes to humble allotment holders like myself the evidence is clear for all to see.

This year has come as a rude shock to those of us with dreams of becoming self-sufficient and growing our own food. The drastic change in climate, from drought to flood has made growing vegetables desperately difficult. In the south, we have managed to come through with some decent crops, other allotment holders though living further north simply gave up due to the effects of the weather. It was simply too wet.

And these type of dramatic variants in climate look set to continue over the coming years. Growing your own in the future is going to become far more difficult. The change is not, as some tabloids would have us believe, all about a warming climate that will turn UK beaches into Mediterranean idylls, with vines growing inland.

What is difficult to understand is why the public discourse as undertaken in the media, involving the political class remains so backward. In the UK, steps have been taken to address climate change such as big investments in renewables, though this has been reined back since the present government took office. Chancellor George Osborne appears to be a committed member of the climate sceptic club. He neither seems to accept the threat or want to embrace the opportunity that green technology offers for economic growth. The UK has been retreating from the field when it comes to green technology, leaving it to the likes of Germany to once again take the lead.

The public debate needs to move way beyond tepid acceptance of maybe climate change is happening. No house should be being built now without full insulation and equipped with solar energy. The impetus needs to return to the renewables market.

Then there is the incredible amount of hot air being expended discussing where airport capacity can be expanded. This is totally unrealistic; the world has already reached the point of peak oil. The next few years are going to see oil exploration becoming increasingly desperate and expensive. As oil prices rise there will come a time when the tax payer is no longer willing to continue to subsidise air travel to the extent it does today. The cost of air travel will rise inexorably and reduce accordingly. Any new airport built now will be seen as a huge white elephant in 20 years’ time. Indeed, the way the airport debate is conducted, with the accepted truth being that passenger growth will continue forever, serves only to expose the land of denial most politicians inhabit.

The only place seemingly more backward on climate change than the UK is the US, where despite the devastation caused by Sandy the country seems to live in a collective denial. For a politician to discuss seriously addressing climate change is about as popular as advocating the abolition of the death penalty. The only hope can be that the words of Mayor Bloomberg and the devastation caused by increasing numbers of hurricanes do one day help the penny to drop.

The US is a huge carbon consumer and polluter that needs to accept the realities and act accordingly if the world is ever to seriously address climate change. Elsewhere, real steps need to be taken – the fundamental nature of the shift required in all our lives just to have any chance of survival needs to be accepted and most importantly seriously acted upon.

Morning Star - 12/11/2012

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Shame of Dale Farm provides witness to failed traveller policies

A year on from the eviction of Irish Travellers from the site at Dale Farm in Essex, what has been achieved?

The eviction cost £7.2 million. The funding for this action was provided from general taxation, as well as the coffers of Basildon Council tax payers.

The result, some 86 families were moved, most though not going that far. Some moved next door to park up on the plots of neighbours on the legal site. Another 20 plus families sit on an approach road to the original site.

So the “problem” of the travellers at Dale farm has not been solved but simply moved next door. The council recently served eviction orders on the 20 plus vans parked up on the access road, with the local families now gearing up for another expensive confrontation at sometime in the next few weeks.

The cleared site resembles in the words of the former local parish priest Dan Mason “a battle site from the First World War.” Huge coffin like holes have been dug, most of the dwellings crushed and scattered around the area.

Piles of religious statues, so important to the devoutly Catholic travellers, lie abandoned around the site. A few homes remain, isolated amongst this scene of devastation.

A recent visit by the all party parliamentary group for Gypsies and Travellers found the area rat-infested and covered with human excrement. They found it poses a health hazard. Impetigo, chickenpox and diarrhea have spread through the encampment, with children affected by vomiting bouts.

The MPs report found that many travelers have reported health complaints due to these unhygienic and unsuitable living conditions. A number of travelers suffer mental and physical illness.

The MPs expressed concern that families have no access to toilets. Some even had no electricity and sanitation was judged to be poor.

Many of the women at Dale Farm were prescribed antidepressants before the eviction and, more than a year later, are still on them.

The report said that mothers and young children were particularly vulnerable, with one baby born at the roadside encampment two weeks ago. The midwife visits to women living on the temporary site were suspended for eight months.

"The delegation found that many of the residents are highly vulnerable and have serious conditions such as Parkinson's disease, dementia, osteoporosis, Crohn's disease, bowel cancer, Down's syndrome etc," said a statement from the MPs.

There are also concerns that the Environment Agency may have found asbestos on the site, after the demolition of various properties. The Environment Agency report is imminent.

What has happened at Dale Farm has achieved nothing. It epitomizes the public order approach to the problems of the travelling community. The expensive action 12 months ago, succeeded only in moving the problem literally yards down the road.

Dale Farm amounts to a microcosm of the problems of the travelling population countrywide.

The last Labour Government took steps toward identifying potential sites around the country, with local authorities being encouraged to provide facilities that would mean some resolution to the problem.

The present government seems to have returned to the straight public order approach, which just amounts to criminalizing the travelling community, simply moving them on from one site to another. As long as there is no uniform obligation on local authorities to provide sites, then few will – where is the incentive?

In the absence of a universal obligation, the few authorities that do provide sites will simply become magnets for the whole travelling community of the UK.

Something needs to be done to address the problems of the travelling community. A new more tolerant approach that seeks to find equitable solutions between travelling and settled populations must mark the way forward. A statutory obligation needs to be placed on local authorities to identify and provide a certain number of sites. Health, education and welfare support for travelling communities also needs to be improved.

It is a real stain on the UK that in the 21st century this particular ethnic minority should remain very much second class citizens in a divided land.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Racism on the football pitch reflects deeper divisions in society

The subject or racism in football has very much been in the headlines of late.

Most recently there were the appalling scenes in Serbia where England’s black footballers were physically and verbally abused whilst playing a match. These appalling scenes echoed other racist incidents particularly in eastern Europe aimed at Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) players.

At home though some would argue things are little better, with the incident involving former England and Chelsea captain John Terry racially abusing fellow QPR player Anton Ferdinand. Terry was cleared of the offence in the courts but the FA found that he had used racial abuse in the incident.

Recently, former England international Luther Blissett and the director of Operation Black Vote Simon Woolley attacked the failure on the one hand of the FA to act more quickly in the Terry incident and on the other to not believe black players.

Blissett told of the wounding effect that racism had had on him as a player starting out in the 1970s. The monkey chants and bananas being thrown on the pitch.

He felt that stronger action needs to be taken against racism both nationally and internationally. He wanted to see the FA act much more quickly in the Terry case and impose bans when things like the Serbia incident occurs.

Woolley picked up on the fact that black people are simply not believed in this society. He highlighted how it wasn’t until a bunch of white men on a panel at the FA found Terry had acted in a racist manner that it was really believed by the wider society.

Moving beyond football he quoted the instance of black people hailing taxis, that just drive by empty. When the black people complain they are accused of being “oversensitive” or “having chips on their shoulders.”

His concern is that black people and their claims of being racially abused are simply not believed in what is still a white male dominated society.

Further evidence that this is not an uncommon feeling amongst black people comes again from the football world. This has seen black players like Rio Ferdinand and Jason Roberts refusing to take part in the Kick It (racism) Out activities last weekend.

They believe that Kick It Out, an organisation concerned with addressing racism in football, has been ineffectual. It has just become another part of the self perpetuating football industry.

The charges seem harsh against an organisation that seems over the years to have done its best to address racism in football but clearly there are quite a few influential black players around that feel differently.

They do not believe they are being heard or that racism is really being addressed.

The world of football has definitely tried to tackle racism over recent years. The days of monkey chants and bananas being thrown on the pitch are long gone but institutional racism still definitely exists.

The lack of black managers in a game where there are so many black players suggests a problem. Chris Hughton at Premiership club Norwich and and Chris Powell at Championship team Charlton are the only two black managers in the top two echelons of English football.

There is also clear racism being shown toward Asian players. A TV documentary recently revealed how some English clubs don’t scout for asian players, whilst there are very few playing at professional levels. There is a definite race bar at work in football in this respect.

The problems of racism in football though are really only a mirror reflection of what is going on in the rest of society. BME people are not believed, as Mr Woolley says, compared to their white counterparts.

BME people are being hit disproportionately hard hit by the present economic down turn. The cuts are hitting the BME community the hardest because they most often are at the bottom of the pile. To find those being hardest hit in the present circumstances a good place to start is with BME women.

Strides have been made in society to address racism but much still needs to be done. There was the Race Relations Act of 1976 which addressed much overt racism. The creation of bodies like the Commission For Racial Equality ensured that such legislation was enacted. A culture where racist jokes were not tolerated developed.

Then came the McPherson inquiry following on the murder of Stephen Lawrence. McPherson found institutional racism commonplace in society. There have been steps taken to address these problems but many still remain.

The concern is that racism is still very prevalent in society, it has just become less overt. The days of shows like Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death Us Do Part are no longer part of TV schedules. The no blacks, Irish or dogs notices are not allowed by law to appear in bedsit windows but the BME person still has trouble hailing down a cab in the street.

The present worsening economic situation is likely to bring more racism to the surface as people go looking for scapegoats for the problems. It is a time when efforts need to be redoubled to address racism in all its forms across the country, from the football pitch to the workplace and places of worship. The recent Olympics was a great celebration of multicultural Britain but there is still much to be done before this society can be truly described as inclusive and colour blind.

Friday, 19 October 2012

TUC marching for justice and a future

There will be 100,000s turning out on Saturday for the TUC march ‘a future that works.’

The numbers will be guaranteed due to the way in which the Coalition Government has decided to tackle the deficit, which has united people across the spectrum, from teachers and police to doctors and Sure Start Centre organisers.

The dividing line is becoming very clear between a government drawn from an elite that seeks to dump the misery of austerity on the mass of people to pay for the actions of reckless bankers. The phrase “we’re all in it together”looks set to go down in history as one of the most ironic of all time.

The deficit is being used for idealogical reasons to further extend the neo-liberal market led approach to running society that started 30 years ago. Many thought the economic crisis created by this form of short termist capitalism would mark a new departure. However, it has just provided another opportunity to restructure capitalism so that the elite group of extremely rich individuals and corporations can continue to prosper to the cost of everyone else and the common good.

This has been most evident in the workplace. The changes the government has made in employment and health and safety laws benefit bad employers, who seek to exploit their workforce. One example has been the extension of the term of employment required before it is possible to go to an employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal from one to two years.

The type of workplace culture that this cultivates was brought home recently in relation to a person employed by a national charity. She had done an excellent job, worked hard, continuously having her contract renewed on a three monthly basis. When she got up to the statutory point that employment rights began to accrue the contract was terminated.

The effort put into do the job meant nothing, the only concern being how cheaply the organisation could get the work done. The worth of the individual in this type of situation it would seem counts for nothing, they have simply become a commodity. The life of that individual, the implications for his or her family meaningless.

This short termist selfish approach has become commonplace in British industry, it is the product of those so often praised “flexible” markets.

Another change the government are planning will see a fee being charged to actually access an employment tribunal at all. There is then to be another charge if the case goes forward. A cap is being proposed to any compensation awards made against bad employers.

All of these changes are justified on the basis of making British business more competitive or put another way, making it easier to exploit the workforce.

The economic rationale does not stack up. Germany has a far more protection for employees, coupled with much higher levels of productivity than Britain.

Germany together with other progressive countries in Scandanavia have a grown up attitude to trade unions. They work co-operatively together: government, employer and trade union to bring about the best outcome. British employers still look backwards to the class based attritional approach of the 19thcentury, as they seek to virtually eliminate trade unions.

Germany has also recognised the opportunity that green technology offers to create a second industrial revolution. The need for this technology grows as the ravages of climate change are seen on a daily basis throughout the world. The Germans are at the forefront of this technology and set to prosper. In Britain, a climate sceptic Chancellor has done all he can to choke off the burgeoning green industries in the UK. This is foolhardy at so many levels. The TUC vision calls for the embracing of green technology.

What the future that works vision is about above all is some social justice being applied as to how the country is run. As well as dignity in the workplace there is a call for companies to pay their fair share of tax.

There has been much publicity recently about large multinational companies operating in the UK but paying no tax. This is effectively theft from British citizens. All those facilities and resources being used in the UK are effectively provided free of charge by the tax payer - it simply cannot be right.

What the people marching on Saturday are calling for is justice in the workplace and vision for the future that will reward all in our society justly. Not a lot to ask for in the fourth biggest economy in the world

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Jimmy Saville case raises questions over the cult of celebrity and the role of charities

The scandal over the sex abuse committed by Jimmy Savile over four decades raises a number of questions.

One has been why it remained undetected for so long. Clearly many of the victims were frightened of the power that Savile wielded as a major public figure with huge wealth. This provided him with the capacity to conduct an offensive through the courts against anyone questioning his name.
The whole Savile affair though raises questions about the cult of celebrity and the role charities play within that sphere. Once individuals achieve celebrity status, they are virtually worshipped like idols. Whether that celebrity comes in the world of show business or sport, these people become Gods.

Many of them really are not very nice people in the first place. When the adulation of becoming a celebrity in the public eye comes about it really does go to their heads.

Footballers provide a good example. Many come from very humble backgrounds, then suddenly they are elevated to being paid tens of thousands of pounds a week. The fans adore them and they become mini-Gods. Observe any Premiership football club car park after a game, as the stars drive off in their huge expensive cars to see the sort of adulation in action.

Many of the misdeeds of footballers feature in the newspapers these days to a level that they never have done in the past. But still much goes on that is not in the public eye. The use of the super injunction over recent years has kept much hidden.

Another thing that comes with celebrity status is a desire to embrace charity. This was seen with Savile, who famously worked at Stoke Mandeville and did many marathons for charity. It raised a vista of good in the public sphere. This so called good though can also act as a cover for nefarious behaviour as was the case with Savile.

Just as Royaly split a number of good causes between them, so it is all part of the PR profiling to encourage celebrities to embrace charity. It always gives me an uncomfortable feeling when seeing the celebrities clamouring to be part of things like Children in Need, Sport Aid and Comic Relief. Are they really doing it for the cause or simply to help with the PR profile?

The Savile affair also raises questions for the charities themselves, who clamour to get celebrities to promote their various causes. This is understandable in such a debased public discourse, where it is difficult to get serious issues into the mainstream, the celebrity path can be the only channel to make an impact. But charities need to be aware of the way they are being used, as well as being the users.

The media also needs to look at its role in raising celebrity to the level of prominence that it enjoys in society. The media often build celebrities up, only to take equal pleasure in pulling them down.

It has been a strange sight to behold some newspapers idolising Savile when he died only to hardly mention the serial allegations of rape and abuse that have now surfaced about the individual. There is a lesson in this affair for these publications, namely to never fly too close to the celebrity sun.

So much copy is wasted on the cult of celebrity because it sells paper – in the case of Jimmy Savile and many others this has proved to be a very grubby faustian pact.

Though on the other side of the argument, it was the excellent ITV Exposure documentary team who brought the Savile abuse out into the open.

Possibly the decline of religion, particularly in this country, has played a part in the rise of the cult of celebrity. The need of people to worship something. The Savile affair certainly raises many questions about that cult: the role of charity and the way in which society seems to need to idolise certain individuals. This gives the individuals concerned immense power, which as the Savile case proves, all too often gets abused.

*see Morning Star - 17/10/2012

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Debased media discourse does not promote the common good

The furore over the case of school teacher Jeremy Forrest and 15 year old pupil Megan Stammers going off together hit the headlines recently.

It reminded me of my early days at Wanstead High School when the headmaster Donald Mackay ran off with a sixth former. The year was 1973 and just as with the Stammers case, the press were crowded round the school gates.

Mackay was an austere authority figure, a man to be respected if not feared. The idea of him running off with a sixth former came as quite a shock.

These cases though it would seem are less unusual than many imagine. It is believed that one in six of the population know someone who has had an affair with their teacher. This does not make it right but does cause pause for thought about the great moralising that occurs when these incidents hit the press.

There is a real smell of hypocrisy about the media outlets that sell many of their products based on the sexualising of youngsters at younger and younger ages and then get up on their high moral horse when one of these incidents occurs.

The coverage of the Stammers and Forrest case had all the hallmarks of the 24 hour news era. A local story that broke about a teacher running off with a student. It rapidly became a national story, dominating news bulletins for days until the couple were found in France. Legions of reporters camped outside Bishop Bell School, offering regular updates.

When there was nothing to update the journalists had to look for new angles. The immediate one ofcourse being to seek to blame the school in some way.

The question is what is the point of this type of coverage, what does it add – if anything – to the national understanding of events? Is the media fulfilling its informing, educating and entertaining role? Yes, it provides good copy for news and broadcast outlets but what does it do for the common good?

Another recent story that attracted huge coverage was that of the murder of the two women police constables in Manchester. Again saturation coverage, though this time the story took on the additional aspect of some in the media seeking to obtain a change in the law and/or policing. The killings were seen as a reason to arm the police. This made no sense whatever. But from a media angle if it could be claimed that something had changed, then it would be a case of problem solved, let’s move on to the next one.

Fortunately, there has been no great uptake on this particular knee jerk suggestion either by the police or the government.

This approach though has led to the demise of rational discourse in the media on crucial issues. It is now all about quick fixes and polarised debates. So there cannot be a reasoned debate on important subjects like immigration and benefit fraud. The wrong solutions come about often because the wrong question were being asked in the first place.

Crime provides a classic example of the limitations. There is a general perception among the public that crime is rising, the reality is the opposite - it is falling. Many media outlets instead of telling the good news about crime, prefer to criticise the credibility of the figures in order to further promote the false view that crime is rising.

Another part of the crime debate is the use of prisons. The previous Justice Secretary Ken Clarke tried to reduce levels of incarceration. He argued prison does not work. Yet again the media debate tended toward the old mantra that it does work and the more people that can be locked up the better. The fact that nearly every method of measuring the effects of prisons on individuals suggests that they do not work in stopping reoffending didn’t matter. Better to reinforce prejudices, mistaken beliefs and continue with expensive ill conceived policy made on that basis.

The move toward 24 hour saturation coverage, angled toward quick fixes and polarised debates is degrading the public discourse. As the crime and prison examples prove, it does not bring about the best solution for society based on the common good. Indeed it may bring absolutely the wrong approach and bad policy.

This is not a reason in the era of the Leveson inquiry for more restrictions on the media but maybe for some reflection on what it is for. Is it simply about sensationalism, quick fixes and coming up with the wrong answers to the wrong questions - all based on the need to sell media products? Or is there a higher calling to promote measured coverage with rational wide ranging debate aimed at promoting the common good.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Renationalising the railways and other public services would offer a real way forward for Ed Miliband's one nationism

The news that the franchising process relating to the West Coast mainline railway route has collapsed came the day after Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech to the annual conference trumpeting one nationism.


While Miliband attempted to set out an alternative vision to that of the cuts crazed Coaltion Government, the collapse of the franchise process offers a real opportunity to put meat on the bones of his one nationism. What better way to set out a new vision than to announce the renationalization of the railways and indeed maybe go further by adding other public services like water, gas and electricity?


The call for the railways to be renationalized has grown over recent months, with the latest far hikes allowing tickets to go up by 3 per cent above the Retail Price Index. The rises come at a time when food, energy and other living costs are rising while wages flat line or fall.


The rises have helped the campaign of those who argue for the re-nationalization of the railways. They claim that the service provided is the most expensive anywhere in Europe.

Figures from the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) show a season ticket, including tube travel, for a journey from Woking in Surrey to central London costing £3,268 last year. This compares to £336.17 in Italy for a similar 22-mile journey from Velletri to Rome.

In France, the 24-mile journey from Ballancourt-sur-Essonne to Paris cost £924.66.

The RMT union claim that since privatisation, more than £11 billion of public funds has been misspent. “On debt write-offs, dividend payments to private investors, fragmentation costs including profit margins of complex tiers of contractors and sub-contractors, and higher interest payments in order to keep Network Rail’s debts off the government balance sheet,” say the RMT, who believe that “removing complex interfaces, transaction costs, increased debt servicing and private profit and dividend payments from the industry could save over £1bn a year, resulting in lower fares and public subsidy.”

Further evidence of the case for renationalisation comes with the case of East Coast mainline, which following the collapse of two previous private operators has been run directly by the state for the last three years.

Directly Owned Railways (DOR) posted results for the last year showing turnover of £665.8 million, an increase of £20 million, leaving a profit before tax and service payments to the Department for Transport of £195.7 million, an increase of £13 million.

Passenger journeys at East Coast, which runs trains from London to Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland, increased by 2.1%

Customer satisfaction at East Coast rose by 2%, and the latest punctuality figures were its best since records began in 1999.

There are signs that the Labour Party may be tipping toward a policy of at least renationalizing the railways by stealth, taking different lines back into public ownership as the franchises become due or are reneged upon by their private owners. It happened with the East Coast line and the same could happen with the West Coast line.

But the argument though over renationalization of the railways is but a microcosm of a much bigger debate on public services generally. And it is on this subject of re-nationalisation that the Labour Party could at last come up with a big idea that would appeal to the one nation.

Put very simply how can a privatized concern, whose first priority is always going to be its shareholders, ever provide better value for money that a nationalized industry. There is always going to be a substantial amount of the money raised via the service going out to shareholders that could otherwise be reinvested in the service and the workforce.

If the neo-liberal based argument that the private sector can provide a more efficient service is accepted for one moment there then has to be an evaluation as to why. If it is providing a cheaper service that can only be through reducing the pay, terms and conditions of the workforce. This has implications for individuals and families, so cannot be for the common good of the country.

So should other privatized industries be renationalized? The water industry that was privatized by Thatcher back in 1989 is hardly a shining example of success.

Some 23 years on, 25 per cent (3.4 billion litres a day) of water is lost through leaks. Leaks have been reduced by just 5 per cent since privatisation in 1989. In Germany, where the water utilities remain under the public control of the municipalities, less than 10 per cent is lost.

A look at Thames Water’s record on leakage since privatisation is revealing. In 2006, Thames Water was leaking 900 mega litres per day. It missed its leaks target under the regulatory framework for the third year in a row and was fined. At the same time, the company declared a 31 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £346.5 million.

The average customer bill for water has risen by £64 since 2001 and is now £376, while the companies have collectively made a £2 billion in pre-tax profits and paid £1.5 billion in dividends to shareholders in 2010-11.

Other parts of the energy market tell a similar tale, shareholders first, consumers second. Even the advocates of privatisation have not been able to hide the fact in an area like electricity, whilst there has been a 40% fall in wholesale cost since privatisation, the consumer has seen only a 25% cut – how much cheaper would it have been to the consumer if those shareholders had not had to be paid?

The debate over renationalizing some of these privatized public services is only now seriously beginning. The case of the railways seems to offer the most conclusive case for renationalization. The same argument though can be advanced to other areas like water and electricity.

This is a popular idea that the Labour Party could adopt and really push forward under the flag of one-nationism. It would have to be prepared to face down those in the private sector and Parliament who will attack the idea but this can be done. The offer would be to provide cheaper transport and energy sources to the tax paying public in austere times. There can be few better ways in which Miliband could really put forward a sellable idea that epitomizes his idea of one nationism appealing to the common good.
see also - 15/10/2012


Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What is happening to journalism?

When I started in journalism 20 years ago, it was for idealistic reasons. Coming from the world of banking, some might say how could it be for anything else? Next stop must be an MP with an estate agency  business.
The aims of journalism in those days was very much to educate, inform and entertain. I was inspired to the writing world by the likes of journalists John Pilger and Alexander Cockburn. The writings of Noam Chomsky opened new windows. When I crossed  the divide into journalism it was with the aim of to quote the old phrase comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Over the years to a large degree I think it has been possible to carry out that mission. There were pieces on the effects of landmines and the miscarriage of justice cases like the East Ham II and Bridgewater Four.  The lot of ex-soldiers suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Irish prisoners dying in British jails. More recently the concept of a living wage and economic justice in the workplace.

There are though growing concerns as to what is happening with journalism. During the past two decades, the value of journalism and particularly journalists has decreased. At a local level, newspapers that used to be produced by a team of people are now being put together by a couple of overworked and underpaid journalists.

The advent of the internet and accountants taking over the running of publications has created a perfect storm that has not been good for journalism. It has encouraged an attitude amongst managers that there is no need to leave the desk and go out of the office for stories. All can be attained from the internet, so no need to go out.
This point was well illustrated by former Independent journalist Barry Clements, who recalled 25 years ago how the news editor would come into the news room at lunch time and if there was anyone there ask why they weren't out looking for stories and making contacts. Today, the news editor would ask where someone had gone if they were missing from the office.
Is there any other profession in the land where having put a proposal to do some work to someone, the response comes back we don't pay or we don't pay much - try that one next time on your plummer when he or she comes to do a job? I recently did a piece for the British Journalism Review on the growing trend among publications to pay less than they have been doing in the past - less in some cases than they did 10 years ago.
This tendency stretches from the national newspapers to the trade press, television and radio. Ironically, journalism is becoming a rich person's pursuit because it is rapidly moving toward a situation where a person has to have money or the support of a partner on a decent wage to make it a viable trade at all.
At the same time the public relations industry which is mostly concerned with afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable continues to grow. PRs are paid more and more, often to keep the truth away from the public. The concern is all about putting out good news on their clients. And as real journalism becomes more and more starved of resources so perversely the dependency on PR grows.
This dichotomy is clear at local newspaper level. It is now a well trod path from badly paid journalist on a local paper to well paid press officer in local council offices or working on the council's own paper. All of this though is bad for democracy and the holding to account of those in power. Under resourcing has seen the extinction of things like local paper court and council meeting reporting.
So where will it all end up? The job of investigative journalism certainly needs some supporting in the future. It is under threat as never before, due to the imposition of cuts on resources and a one sided focus on entertainment in media generally. A way needs to be found to support serious journalism and those who practice that art - democracy requires no less. For the moment though it is a case of plugging away, seeking continually to afflict that growing band of the extremely comfortable.