The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 27th, 2006

Obesity? This is a job for Supernanny

Fat is not a feminist issue, as Susie Orbach once claimed. Fat is a class issue. Rich, educated people are not fat; you see almost no children in private schools who are overweight. Fatness and obesity are directly related to lower education and lower incomes.

What is sad is that at a time when this country is richer than ever and ought to have better schools than ever, we have far more fat people than ever — a dangerous explosion of flab. Last week the Department of Health issued a report grimly called Forecasting Obesity to 2010 and its findings were grotesque. Within four years, it predicts, a third of all adults — 13m people — will be obese. So will 1m children.

Obese means not just podgy, but dangerously, disablingly, distastefully fat, as in American fat.

This is not just shocking; it has also happened shockingly fast. As the report says, a third of all men will be obese by 2010; in 1993 the figure was only — if one can say only of such a large figure — 13%, rising to 24% in 2004.

The same is true of women, although the rate is rising more slowly; 16% were obese in 1993, 24% in 2004, and the trend is expected to rise until 2010. The proportion of boys who were obese stood at 17% in 2003 and is predicted to rise to 19% by 2010, while among girls it is expected to increase more swiftly from 16% to 22%.

This presents an awkward challenge to libertarians. The libertarian assumption is that we should all be free to do what we want, as far as possible, and if some people’s lifestyle choices involve snacking on deep-fried Mars bars and triple-processed cheeseburgers, other people have no business interfering, still less the government.

Besides, there is the embarrassing fact that those who eat and drink junk do so for cheap comfort and because they are either too poor or too ignorant (or both) to prepare healthy food. It doesn’t come well from the consumers of steamed organic asparagus and free-range ducks’ breasts to criticise those who can manage only frozen reconstituted chicken nuggets and sugary baked beans.

However, obesity does not concern only the obese. It concerns all of us. Obese parents produce obese children, and obesity places a crippling burden on the National Health Service, quite apart from the many personal miseries involved. Currently 10% of NHS resources are spent on diabetes (two-thirds of which is the avoidable type 2 associated with obesity) and this could easily double within the next four years to 20%.

This is quite apart from the increased risk among the obese of heart disease and other serious illness. More young people are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, something previously seen only in people over 40. In these circumstances even the most swivel-eyed libertarian would probably agree, for once, that something must be done and even perhaps by the government.

Curiously enough, however, in one of the few areas where our ever-intrusive government might for once justifiably intrude, new Labour does almost nothing. Possibly as a result of the ferocious lobbying of the food industry, ministers restrict themselves to making repetitive noises about healthy living and “small changes” that won’t cost anybody anything.

Tony Blair said last month that if the food industry did not agree to limit junk food advertisements by 2007 he would bring in mandatory rules, but he has said that before and more than once. Besides, why not bring them in straight away? His government has persistently ignored the demands of the Commons health select committee for a traffic light system of food labelling, enabling shoppers to make informed choices.

England’s chief medical officer warned in this year’s annual report that public health budgets were being raided to deal with deficits. That is the reality behind government talk of raising public awareness.

I have never been convinced that government health education has any effect. Despite the “five-a-day” campaign, only a quarter of people in England eat vegetables every day. About half of overweight men are in denial; they don’t see themselves as overweight, according to the report.

There is nothing complicated about being thin. Being fat is usually the result of eating too much junk food and taking too little exercise. Being thin means eating much less food, avoiding junk food altogether and taking exercise every day. It may be that nothing can be done about the plague of obesity; there is a growing epidemic in Europe and worldwide. Perhaps affluence is a disease to which only the fortunate few are immune. But if anything could be done about it, it would have to be radical.

Nobody who craves cheap comfort food will willingly give it up. But if over-processed, over-refined food and junk food were to become expensive while healthy fresh food became cheap — the opposite of the case today — people would be forced to eat well. This could be done through taxes or subsidies. Alternatively, you could ration unhealthy food.

There could be a public campaign against fattening food, just as there was against smoking, aimed at making everyone ashamed of consuming anything naughty but nice. I am just as greedy as anyone else but I have come to think of cakes, biscuits, crisps, sweets, white bread and puddings as more or less toxic. Foods like this should have health warnings — “cake can kill”. They are not just unnecessary, empty calories; they interfere with your blood sugar levels, affect your appetite and your mood; they may even induce food addiction. The same applies to alcohol: more than a modest amount makes you fat, interferes with your mood and is often addictive.

Just as there would need to be financial incentives to eat well, there should also be inducements to take exercise. The cost should be subsidised or declarable against tax. Employers should be required to give workers time off to go to the gym or jog. We could imitate the Japanese and have mass group exercises at work every day.

And that is the problem. Obesity, one of the trials of affluence, can be solved only, if at all, by the kind of interventionism that has been discredited by the failure of socialism. Liberty is indivisible; it belongs to the ignorant and the low paid just as much as to anyone else. Perhaps obesity is one of the many prices of liberty. Fat is a freedom issue.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 13th, 2006

Our murderous migrant Tower of Babel

Last week, at long last, Damilola Taylor’s teenage killers were convicted of manslaughter after years of incompetence in the criminal justice system. Also last week, at long last, after years of incompetence — not to mention wilful blindness and dishonesty — the government admitted that the immigration system wasn’t working. The home secretary confessed as much in a speech on Wednesday. Even Polly Toynbee, La Pasionaria of The Guardian, at long last has agreed.

This coincidence isn’t just striking; it is shameful. For although Damilola was killed by the two Preddie brothers, a large part of the responsibility for his death lies with the sanctimonious irresponsibility at the heart of Britain’s immigration policy.

The estate where he died in Peckham, south London, was, and is, a disgraceful monument to it and to the dishonest thinking behind it. The government has been either unwilling or unable to control, or to admit to, or even to estimate the vast numbers of new arrivals. Only now is it beginning to wonder whether this influx was an entirely good thing.

At the time of Damilola’s death the ethnic composition of north Peckham in Southwark, where the estate lies, was 43.4% white, 15.9% black Caribbean, 26.6% black African, 4.1% black other, 7.9% Asian and 2.2% other. Today, in the borough of Southwark as a whole, about a third of the entire population comes from a black or ethnic minority “community”, as official figures so tendentiously put it, when the problem is precisely the lack of community. “More than 100 languages are spoken in our schools and 43% of our pupils speak English as an additional language,” says the council.

This shows, as the council says, a rich diversity and for many years in this country we have been required by the progressive establishment to celebrate this diversity. Yet such extreme diversity is quite obviously at odds with community. It is at odds with the development of shared culture and shared purpose, of shared language in shared school rooms and the creation of the ties that bind a community together.

To throw together such a hugely various collection of people from all over the world, in such numbers, from all kinds of different cultures speaking different languages, is to create a miserable, murderous Tower of Babel. So it has proved in Southwark and in other places like it. The result is racial tension of all kinds, bullying, crime and fear.

If you wanted to invent a way of demoralising people and setting them against each other in their deprivation, you could hardly have come up with anything better, short of bombing them. The ties of community are fragile; they are hard to weave but easy to break; they can’t be drawn together by wishful thinking.

Community needs a critical mass of familiarity, shared language, shared tradition and shared moral attitudes. A strong community can accept outsiders and is often enriched by them, as ours has been, but it also needs a high degree of common purpose and common culture. That might seem blindingly obvious, yet immigration policy has been based on a determined refusal to admit the obvious.

Southwark today is still considered a high crime area by the Home Office and a high youth crime area. Its crime rate has been rising since Damilola’s death, largely because crimes of violence against the person committed by the young and very young are rising. Violent crime there has risen from 10,000 incidents in 2000-01 to 12,500 in 2005-06, even though huge sums of money have been thrown at the problem.

The council’s Safer Southwark Partnership report describes well established youth gangs shamelessly in place, detailing their ethnic make-up and precise territory. These gangs are made up of the most wretched children, rather like Damilola’s feral killers — uncared for, uneducated, unremembered and directionless in a Dickensian urban wilderness. To call such lost boys “the scum of the earth”, as the Preddies were denounced last week, is to be wilfully ignorant of what has been done to them — of how they have been failed by society at every level, by their own cultures and by irresponsible political policies.

Meanwhile, it seems that Southwark’s educational attainments are “low”, by this country’s already low standards. That is hardly surprising. It is difficult to teach children of different ability in one class, let alone children who speak little English but many other languages. That’s another obvious fact that is rarely discussed.

It must also be difficult to teach (or protect) children who have been uprooted from elsewhere, to try to cope in a new and harsh environment, like Damilola, a recent arrival himself. One of the problems faced by inner-city schoolchildren, many of them migrants or from minorities, is constant movement. They hardly settle in one school when for various reasons they move to another, full of new strangers. This is another serious problem in the education system that is hardly discussed.

It may be that large sums of money cannot solve these intractable, government-made problems, but certainly money is a part of any solution. Last week, for instance, it emerged that the Youth Justice Board has told prison governors to try to identify young offenders in prison who might be suitable for early release, because we are about to run out of prison cells. So boys like Damilola’s killers, at an earlier stage of their criminal careers perhaps, could be set free. It defies belief.

Also last week Lord Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the Local Government Association, wrote to the home secretary saying that council tax might have to rise because of Labour’s inability to work out how many immigrants were coming here. The government has seriously underestimated the numbers. As a result there is extreme pressure on some schools and social services. The same is true of hospitals.

John Reid has, at long last, begun to talk of “optimum levels” of immigration. This sounds faintly encouraging but he will have to be courageous if he means to do anything. The optimum number, for some time to come, is not far from zero — impossible though that would be. Damilola’s fate, and the fate of his killers, ought to remind us forcibly that we are not really able to look after the immigrants who are here already.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 6th, 2006

An unliberated bias in favour of women

What is a woman worth? That is the question that has to be faced by divorcing couples and by their lawyers. The answers seem to be getting curiouser and curiouser

Last week a judge ordered an insurance broker to give his former wife a settlement of £48m. She had earlier refused his offer of about £20m, which is why the matter went to court. No doubt Beverley Charman was an exemplary wife in every way, and it is of course written in the Book of Proverbs that the price of a virtuous woman is above rubies, but even so, £48m seems a little steep. It would buy a couple of continents’ worth of rubies.

The same nasty question was lurking behind the sum of £800,000 awarded last week in compensation to Helen Green who had been bullied at Deutsche Bank by several colleagues. Why £800,000? Why are this young woman’s hurt feelings worth nearly £1m? It is distinctly more than she would get in state criminal injuries compensation if she lost a lung (£3,500), the use of all her limbs (£250,000) or all her lifetime’s earnings (£500,000 maximum and rarely granted). Something has gone wrong with the national sense of priorities.

Bullying is as wrong as it is common, and it is right that her employers should be held to account for allowing it to continue. So, however, should she. Mature women (and men) are responsible for defending themselves. Most women, or at any rate most women over 40, have had to handle constant bullying or sexual harassment at work without expecting compensation or even sympathy, still less a small fortune.

I think with regret back to the days when I could have claimed at least one rather large fortune, if only I had gone to an industrial tribunal. “You’re finished. You’re pregnant,” my head of department told me in front of several witnesses. If only I had developed the ferocious sense of entitlement that many women seem to have today. If only I had seen those L’Oréal advertisements for expensive face cream, in which a smirking woman murmurs, “ Because I’m worth it.”

What women are really worth is beset with confusion and contradiction. I’m not talking about our existential value: I mean a woman’s worth when money and portable property change hands — on employment, on unfair treatment, on paying taxes, on receiving pensions, on getting cash from her husband or, above all, on divorce.

There was a time, until about 20 years ago, when what women wanted — what women felt they were worth — was equal pay for equal work in a climate of equal opportunity and genuine meritocracy. One of the logical consequences was that no woman was entitled to take out of a marriage any more than she brought into it.

That view was later softened by a recognition that childbearing and childcare present a serious opportunity cost to most women — value lost, so to speak, although it represents tremendous value added to her children and family. So now people tend to agree that at divorce a woman should be compensated both for the real value that she brought to the marriage and for the opportunity cost to herself — her long slide down the career ladder, her loss of a personal pension, her reduced chances of finding another spouse. That all comes expensive, especially to a rich husband.

Even so I do not see how it could come to £48m, unless the wife had been directly involved in creating that wealth. No matter how swollen my self-esteem, no matter how exquisite my catering or cosseted my children, no matter how alpha my embonpoint, I would find it embarrassing to turn down a £20m divorce settlement on the grounds that I was worth more. Even Princess Diana settled for £17m.

My husband and I once tried to work out, purely commercially, what a particular wife was worth — she and her highly paid husband were old friends and she was by agreement a stay-at-home mother. We tried to figure out what her various services — housekeeping, administrative, catering, childcare, sexual, social and other — were worth as tactfully as possible, but the depressing truth was that he could easily have replaced her with nannies and caterers and a part-time PA, not to mention high-class sex workers, for a great deal less than the cash it cost him to support her as things were. In a happy marriage, of course, all this is meaningless; the value of a wife is above rubies and so is her husband’s, for richer and for poorer. The trouble starts when people start having to make estimates.

There is a surprisingly unliberated tendency among women, and among men, to make estimates that are unfairly biased in favour of women. The judge in the Charmans’ hearing said, rightly, that although both of them, starting with nothing, had played their part in the marriage, this was one of the “very small category of cases where, wholly exceptionally, the wealth created is of extraordinary proportions from extraordinary talent and energy” — which I take to mean that the wife did not have a lot to do with the success — and therefore the husband could keep more than half the assets.

That still left the wife with £48m (37% of the assets). But then the judge made some odd remarks about old-fashioned attitudes. Discussing John Charman’s determination “to protect what he regards as wealth generated entirely by his efforts”, he said: “In the narrow, old-fashioned sense, that perspective is understandable, if somewhat anachronistic. Nowadays it must attract little sympathy.”

Wrong. It is the judge who sounds old-fashioned. This country is awash with clever and hardworking men who earn or make huge sums of money while their wives do little — rather less than the average wife on an average income — to contribute to domestic comfort and not much to advance their husband’s careers. Often they do not work themselves.

That does not mean they are not entitled to proper compensation on divorce, but I think the assumption that they are entitled to half the fruits of the marriage, unless there is good reason why not, is absurd. If feminism means anything worthwhile at all, it means that women should try to be fair to men, just as they demand men be fair to them. Women should not try to inflate their value merely because men have deflated it for generations.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 30th, 2006

We need to talk numbers on immigration

To those who prefer to laugh whenever possible, news on the immigration front last week provided an opportunity for a grim little snigger. The day after the home secretary brought forth his much-heralded cunning plan for Rebuilding Confidence in our Immigration System, The Sun accused a senior immigration officer at the Home Office of running an asylum racket.

Joseph Dzumbira, the official, allegedly boasted to an undercover reporter that he could get anyone refugee status here for up to £2,000, and that he has done so “a couple of hundred times”. If correct, then the last laugh is on us — we gave Dzumbira himself asylum in the first place.

Dzumbira has, reportedly, many ways of beating the byzantine immigration system, but allegedly his biggest scam is helping bogus asylum seekers of quite different nationalities to pretend they are “Zims” — Zimbabweans threatened with arrest in their home country. If successful these immigrants can rely on the humanity of British courts, which refuse to send Zimbabweans back to Robert Mugabe’s police state. Dzumbira is Zimbabwean-born and can allegedly arrange fake arrest warrants directly from Zimbabwe.

Apparently his best efforts are not always needed: he reportedly told The Sun that Zimbabwean asylum seekers here do not get subjected to proper security checks. What’s more, he says our border controls are so lax anyone could arrive in Britain and then post their passport home for a relation to use to come here as well. This man appears to know what he is talking about; he is in charge of vetting thousands of asylum claims a year.

Rebuilding Confidence in our Immigration System? You can only laugh. That will take a great deal more than John Reid’s sweeping promises of last week. We cannot really be said to have an immigration system at all or any coherent policy. Such as it is, it’s overwhelmed by inefficiency, bad faith, muddled thinking, corruption and incompetence. The government has no concept of an ideal number of immigrants (asylum seekers or others).

The last comment on the matter came from David Blunkett who said, when home secretary, that he could not really see the need for any particular limit. It is only recently that people have stopped throwing about indignant accusations of “playing the numbers game”, as if discussing the optimum number of newcomers to this crowded country was in itself a clear sign of vicious racism. Meanwhile our economy, everyone says, needs immigrants regardless of housing pressures and the public services.

We know that the head of enforcement and removals at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) admitted in May that he had not the “faintest idea” how many illegal immigrants there were. Reid claimed last week that the government had made progress towards its goals of increasing the removal of failed asylum seekers and cutting illegal immigration. But this was quite obviously absurd since, just a few days earlier, his own department had had to admit that there could be as many as 450,000 failed asylum seekers, although only months previously it had denied there were as many as 250,000.

One is left wondering how on earth it happened that almost by stealth, by corruption or by incompetence such enormous numbers of people have been let into this country without any policy and without any democratic debate. If Reid wants to persuade the public that he intends to do something about this shameful mess, he has a great deal of explaining to do first.

Why, for instance, does he promise to impose full passport checks on people entering and leaving Britain each year, but not until 2014? That is perhaps the single most important thing he could do to control immigration (and to check terrorism) and it can hardly be complicated. I went to a Third World country last month where passports are checked in and out of the borders, every time, by being scanned onto a computer. State-of-the-art bioscans are not essential.

Why does the home secretary promise that the asylum backlog will be cleared in five years when the Home Office doesn’t know the size of the backlog? It doesn’t know how many foreign nationals are here, even legally. It does, however, know that more than 10,265 foreign nationals are in jail in England and Wales (as of February this year); that is more than a tenth of all prisoners (76,717).

Why can’t we get rid of them? Most Britons agree that they should be deported — the prime minister got carried away recently and promised to do just that, to general consternation. It might prove a powerful deterrent to crime; perhaps the Zimbabwe immigration scam might be less popular if it carried a risk of deportation to Zimbabwe. As the law stands, it’s not possible.

Then there is the further problem, pointed out by a chief immigration officer in The Daily Telegraph last week: “To a greater or lesser extent, IND staff shy away from dealing with removals of failed asylum seekers to China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Kenya, Jamaica, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Turkey and Nigeria . . . because the authorities of those countries refuse to accept their nationals back without a travel document — which their British representatives won’t issue within an acceptable time scale.” Why is that difficult?

It may perhaps have something to do with the general culture of the Home Office and the IND. Steve Moxon, the immigration whistleblower, paints a depressing picture on his website of IND caseworking — bedevilled by inefficiency, ignorance and low morale, with politically correct distractions from the work. Other sources have told me that the standard of candidates in the Home Office has declined seriously.

Lastly, or rather firstly, the home secretary must talk openly and accurately about numbers. Of course immigrants are good for a society, up to a point. New Labour has offered no serious consideration of that point. Nor has it demonstrated that an open door is good for the economy; the real argument is the other way. What we need is rational and controlled immigration; until we have rational and controlled politicians and civil servants, we are hardly likely to get it. It isn’t really funny.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 23rd, 2006

The state is waging class war on the poor

In a country as rich as ours, which has recently spent vast sums on education, is it not a shame and a disgrace that nearly half of all 16-year-olds are functionally innumerate and illiterate? According to the Department for Education itself, 300,000 (47%) of 16-years-olds leave school without having achieved level 2 in functional maths, and 265,000 (42%) of them fail to achieve level 2 in functional English. In other terms, 42% of school leavers finish 11 years of compulsory education without achieving at least a grade C in GCSE, debased though that standard is. It is even said, with justice, that the Poles and Russians and Hungarians who come here write better English than the natives.

In England, Scotland and Wales the proportion of pupils from state schools gaining university places has been falling for two years, according to figures announced on Friday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. So is the proportion of students from low-income families. What’s more, the proportion of students from state schools getting places at 14 of the country’s leading 19 universities was actually lower last year than in the past two years. Education, education, education? I don’t think so.

University drop-out figures are also up, particularly among students from poor homes. In the worst universities about a third of undergraduates fail to finish their courses, The students most likely to drop out, unsurprisingly, are those with “vocational” qualifications or low exam grades or — astonishingly — with no qualifications whatsoever.

You might well ask what a student with no qualifications is doing on a degree course in the first place. The government aspires to “excellence for all” and therefore everyone has a right to a degree — or, according to government targets, at least 50% of the 18 to 30-year-old population have that right. When you consider that almost 50% of school leavers are functionally illiterate and innumerate this seems quixotic at best.

At the same time it has emerged in a study by Harrow school that pupils with very poor spelling and grammar are still able to gain top GCSE grades in English. The school introduced a basic literacy test after teachers noticed that even children who had achieved As and A*s were making glaring mistakes — confirmation, if any were needed, of the debasement of standards in GCSEs.

Meanwhile the government is anxious to abolish grammar schools in Northern Ireland. It has emerged that the three universities there have by far exceeded their targets for recruitment of students from the lowest socio-economic classes. Whatever the rights and wrongs of grammar schools, they did provide opportunities for bright children from the least privileged backgrounds. In fact, recent research from the London School of Economics shows that the abolition of grammar schools here has reduced the opportunities for society’s poorest to work their way up. Yet grammar schools are to be abolished regardless — personal opportunity sacrificed to egalitarian orthodoxy.

In comprehensives in England, by contrast, bright children are being failed again and again; only half of our cleverest 11-year-olds go on to get three As at A-level, and some do not even attempt to go to university.

Partly because of ideological objections to the very idea of “gifted” children, about a third of schools never send very bright (or indeed any) pupils to the annual sessions run by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at Warwick University — a clear sign, according to Sir Cyril Taylor, one of the government’s senior education advisers, that “some very able children are being badly let down . . . We are talking about 10,000 to

15,000 of our most able children in each age cohort who do not fulfil their potential”. It is hardly surprising in such a culture that social mobility has actually decreased under this government and is lower than in comparable western countries.

Need one say more? A-levels have been debased. Previous O-level papers are now used at A-level. Course work can be and is abused by parents and even by teachers. Science courses and even music exams are being dropped. Employers are appalled by the low educational standard of school leavers and of graduates. Degrees have been debased and no longer offer the promise of good jobs and good salaries, but simply years of debt. Universities have to do a great deal of remedial teaching. Soon we will have Poles and Russians teaching British children remedial English. What is going on? The simple truth is that all too many state school teachers can’t teach or don’t teach, so their pupils can’t or don’t learn. The reasons are legion but one big reason is that the educational establishment still clings to the blindly egalitarian educational theory of the 1960s and its determined social engineering, which still pervades schools and teacher training colleges. It is a theory which despite all the facts refuses to accept that children’s innate abilities vary.

A second reason is the demoralisation of teachers by Whitehall micromanagement. Another, perhaps, is the quality of women going into teaching — and most teachers are women. Before they got (nearly) equal opportunities, one of the few careers open to very bright women was teaching. Now they are able to look elsewhere, very much to the detriment of teaching in the state sector.

What state sector reformers should do is to analyse the success of private schools. Rich parents can have dim as well as bright children, and many private schools have developed to educate non-academic or more average children; they get excellent “value added” reports from the Office for Standards in Education, meaning that they have made the most of each child, irrespective of ability.

Like high-flying private schools they believe that children do best when taught with those of similar ability and they are not afraid to impose reasonable discipline. They accept ideas of competition, difference, success and failure, which all children must soon enough encounter in real life, but in a civilised and protected atmosphere.

In the state sector today countless children — about half — are having their prospects blasted and their youth blighted. As I think John Stuart Mill said, an education ought to be very good to justify a child’s loss of liberty. British education isn’t; I wouldn’t object to my children playing truant from a bog standard comprehensive.

No, minister, keep it clean

Oh, foreign secretary! Oh, Mrs Beckett! Can you not see that you are letting your country down? I am not referring to your dress sense. On the contrary, you clearly dress as you do deliberately out of a proper sense of political modesty. A second-rate power, you obviously feel, is rightly represented by high street rather than haute couture.

No. I am referring, minister, to your language. Last Wednesday it emerged that on hearing from Tony Blair that you were to become foreign secretary, the first word you used, in your surprise and delight, was “F***”. Anyone can have a little lapse, of course. What made it truly, comically awful was that you appear to be proud of it, recounting the story happily last week to a journalist and posing with gravitas for a photograph. What, one wonders, would you say if the United States signed up to Kyoto: “Well, b****r me!”?

I am not for one moment suggesting that a foreign secretary should never use the F-word or the B-word, good solid English words that they are, in private. What’s startling is that she feels no embarrassment in confessing to it in public. On the contrary she must have had a reason; nobody asked her, after all.

Beckett must be aware that not so long ago top politicians wouldn’t have dreamt of using such words in public, and not so long before that most women wouldn’t have used them in private either. She must have thought that these days it would do her no harm, and maybe some good, to publicise the fact she uses slaggy prolespeak, even to the prime minister.

That may of course be because he sometimes uses it himself. He once notoriously referred to the effing Welsh. Last year in an interview with his unusual wife Cherie he saw fit to reveal to a gaggle of journalists that he is a five-times-a-night man. “At least,” he said, having affectionately warned his wife to keep her hands to herself. “I can do it more, depending how I feel.” This was corroborated by his wife, who then hinted that “size matters”. Astute politicians like Blair don’t make mistakes. They clearly think this kind of talk pays. So do the hangers-on.

So does Jonathan Ross, the BBC television presenter; it makes him £6m a year in salary. Nine days ago he interviewed David Cameron and cunningly turned the conversation about Cameron’s adolescent admiration of the Iron Lady into what Ross presumably knows is a crowd-pleasing question.

“But did you,” said Wossy “or did you not have a w*** thinking ‘Margaret Thatcher’?” Mindful of its duty, no doubt, to be inclusive in its broadcasting, the BBC did not cut out this question before transmission. Mindful, no doubt, of the temper of the times, Cameron did not object to it; he just laughed. It would not have been cool to protest.

There were a few predictable cries of outrage but surprisingly few; not many people seemed to mind about it. I think that’s because something seems to have changed radically in public discourse recently.

In a few years culture has become so hyper-sexualised that in order to speak demotic you need to talk dirty — or at least politicians and celebrities think you do. They feel the way to appeal to the voter or the punter is to pepper what you say with sexy words and sexy allusions, because that’s what most voters and punters increasingly do themselves. A touch of Tourette’s gives you street cred. Like the taboo against invading privacy, the taboo against using sexual words and talking freely about sex will soon have disappeared; it won’t be long before an archbishop starts sounding fruity in public.

I am not sure it’s an entirely bad thing. I love the freedom of English, and a lot of its richness is in its vulgarity and rawness just as much as in its subtlety. I like supposedly low humour. Manners tend to go in fashions, and spoken English has not always been restrained. But it is a remarkable phenomenon. It is also remarkably British; I cannot imagine European foreign secretaries, in the diplomatic drawing rooms of Paris, Bonn and Madrid, exclaiming “f***!” to each other.

There was a time in this country when only the working classes and the upper classes went in for effing and blinding and swearing like troopers, and not all of them. The respectable middle classes didn’t swear or talk dirty at all. Something changed in the 1960s; would-be left-wing intellectuals felt that to show solidarity with the masses they should talk like them. Hence student mockney, hence a fashion for swearing and talking dirty. Middle-class guilt made students feel they shouldn’t talk in the mannerly tones of middle-class privilege. This has persisted and spread.

Now young people of all backgrounds talk with what would once have been seen as astonishing vulgarity. As commerce has fanned the flames of sexuality into a profitable blaze, it was perhaps inevitable that at the end of this short road, we should find demure Beckett saying “f***”. However, I think she’s misguided to do it. It’s not necessary, it’s not inspirational, and it’s obliquely patronising. Cameron could do himself and his party and perhaps his country a favour by avoiding it.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 25th, 2006

Scientists playing God? We should rejoice

‘What a piece of work is a man!” as Hamlet says. “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! . . . In apprehension how like a god!” Usually I think rather less enthusiastically than that about humankind, but sometimes I am reminded of the nobility of man and of woman and it is often by scientists.

Last week British scientists announced a revolutionary screening process for inherited diseases in embryos. It will be quicker and more accurate than the existing method and it will detect thousands more genetic defects than previously possible.

About 200 heritable conditions can be detected by pre-implantation diagnosis in IVF treatment so that only healthy embryos are implanted in the mother or frozen; the new technique — pre-implantation genetic haplotyping — will be able to detect nearly 6,000 diseases and conditions. As one of the British pioneers said, this changes everything. One could almost call it godlike.

What it means is that thousands of parents who are at known risk of passing on terrible disabilities and diseases will now be able to have only healthy babies. This is the best news I have heard for years.

Those who don’t know about it can perhaps hardly imagine the drawn out suffering of Huntington’s disease or Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Prader-Willi syndrome or Fragile X, both for the people affected and for their families, until death puts an end to it.

Nature is astonishingly cruel. Science, by contrast, has the power of mercy. One can only be dazzled by the inventiveness and compassion of the scientists involved in this screening breakthrough — “in action”, as Hamlet said, “how like an angel!” Admittedly genetic screening means that embryos carrying disabilities and diseases will be discarded. It is a stretch, however, to use the word destroyed, or even killed, as the test is done on embryos that are only three days old. And what is appealing about this early screening is that it offers the hope that, in the foreseeable future, abortion and late abortion will be less frequently used in dealing with serious defects and disabilities.

It will be easier and better in every way to get rid of a tiny collection of cells. This is indeed playing God, as all the usual campaigners were quick to point out last week. But what on earth is wrong with humans playing God? I am all for it, especially as God doesn’t seem to be doing it. Besides, whatever we may think about playing God and defying nature, we are doing it already and even though we don’t necessarily recognise it, we approve of it.

For instance, there are many people who in the course of nature would die before they were old enough to have children. They might suffer from inherited heart defects or blood disorders that would kill them if they did not get transplants or dialysis. They might have disabilities that would kill them as newborn babies, without intervention. If properly treated these people may well live to be able to have children and some of those children will be at risk of inheriting the same problems and, in their turn, may pass them down the generations.

Eugenicists might think, and used to say publicly, that this is bad for the gene pool. Yet hardly anybody, I imagine, believes that such people should be denied treatment. It now seems absurd and cruel to suggest that people with heritable problems should not risk having children. It’s hard to imagine the intellectual climate in which Marie Stopes could oppose her son marrying a girl with the heritable defect of short sight.

It is surely the point of modern medicine to relieve suffering and restore people to as full a life as possible. If one wanted to risk sounding unfeeling and darkly Darwinist (and I don’t), one could argue that rescuing such people from extinction is also rescuing their disability from extinction — a godlike activity, surely.

Such is the miraculous power of human invention that even this problem is on the way to being solved — by the screening tests announced last week. One way of playing God has now been balanced by another, even more ingenious, human invention. That is the way of science. It mystifies me that so many people oppose it.

There will always be absolutists, who claim the right to life for even the most infinitesimal scrap of tissue. But there are others who oppose screening on what seem to me to be even more irrational grounds.

Simone Aspis of the British Council of Disabled People said last week that she was opposed in principle to such screening on the grounds that it sent the signal that being born disabled was a bad thing. The mind reels. Over the years I have got used to the disability lobby talking in this spirit, so it no longer seems as absurd as once it did, but surely it must be obvious that it would be far better for a person not to have a disability than to have one.

It would be far better to be able to walk, or hear or see than not to. It would be far better not to have a miserable fate like Huntington’s or Fragile X. In a culture where many normal girls are obsessed to the point of illness with their minor imperfections, it is surely better not to have major impairments. In that sense, being born with a disability is obviously a bad thing.

For some reason the disability lobby seems to be in denial about this, perhaps because it’s in the grip of a logical muddle. Apsis made a typical expression of it when she wondered whether the intention of the screening was to remove disabled people. It sent a message, she said, particularly to young people with disabilities, that their lives were worth less than everyone else’s. This seems to me to confuse a disability with a person with a disability. (This is a confusion that people with disabilities normally resent, understandably.)

To say that a disability is undesirable in itself is not to say that a person with that disability is undesirable in herself, or her life worth less than someone else’s. The disability is not the person. It is to say that her life would be better without that disability. And saying it assumes that a person with a life and a history here in the world, with family and friends, is not the same as a minuscule collection of defective cells on a petri dish. One is dispensable, the other most certainly is not.

What a piece of work is a man and partly, now, it is the work of godlike humankind.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 18th, 2006

The dangerous business of happiness

Now that the Conservatives are trying, wisely, to reposition themselves as a party of fellow-feeling free from the old, damaging charge of selfish greed, they are increasingly using the language of feeling.

It can be dangerous. Although Conservatism has a long and honourable history of social responsibility and concern for the less fortunate, I think it is rather un-Conservative to dwell incautiously on abstractions such as happiness. Pursuing abstractions is what statists do.

David Cameron spoke recently of wellbeing — the new Conservative buzz word. “It’s time we focused not on GDP but on GWB — general wellbeing” he said. “There’s more to life than money.” Wellbeing, he went on, has to do with our surroundings, our culture and “above all, the strength of our relationships”.

It is true that wellbeing is not quite the same as happiness, but the idea clearly has its origins in the work of Professor Lord Layard of the London School of Economics, who caused a great stir a year ago with his views on happiness in society and what promotes it. I think it is fair enough to assume that Cameron means something quite like happiness, or at least contentment.

I accept that although we are richer than in 1950, we are no happier. Of course I would like to see more happiness (or less unhappiness) in this country. I do believe that politics is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or at least the liberty to pursue happiness. But the idea that there might be some sort of happiness agenda among new Conservatives is distinctly alarming.

When Cameron says that “improving society’s sense of wellbeing is the central political challenge of our time”, that sounds like a happiness agenda to me.

The essential difference between left and right — between Conservatives and Labour — is that the left seeks actively to intervene in every aspect of life and to set one agenda for us all, whereas the right seeks to promote freedom and security, so that people can pursue their own many agendas. The left is hands on, the right is hands off. It is the difference between enforcing and enabling.

The suspicion that Conservatives may be toying with some kind of felicific or hedonic calculus, to organise our joys for us just like the social engineering tendency, is too terrible. I doubt that they are, but it is all too easy, when talking the language of happiness, for them to sound as if they might be. One wonders what David Cameron had in mind for “celebrating parenthood”, as he promises. In politics, as in science, it is surely more effective to eliminate what is clearly wrong rather than to pursue what may elusively be right. The greatest obstacle to happiness, obviously enough, is unhappiness and unhappiness is something that can sometimes be relieved.

One of the chief causes of unhappiness which a government — or at least Britain’s government-controlled National Health Service — could do something about is mental illness. Relieving someone’s mental distress might not make him or her happy, but it would make them feel freer to pursue happiness in their own ways.

Treatments for mental illness are still quite crude, but there is no doubt that modern medicine can help many people very significantly. Of the talking therapies, the only one that impresses me is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a rapid retraining of one’s negative thoughts and feelings, which is both effective and cheap. Modern antidepressants can be almost miraculously effective, although not cheap.

The country is full of people who need such help — people who are profoundly unhappy in one way or another. Most families have at least one person who is made wretched by depression or anxiety, whose relationships and whose work are blighted by it. It is now clearly recognised that even quite young children can suffer badly from mood disorders. One in six people suffers from significant depression or anxiety. About 40% of disability is due to mental illness.

Yet mental illness or, as it is now usually called in the euphemistic spirit of the times, mental health is scandalously neglected. Common as they are, miserable though they are, depression and anxiety get only 2% of NHS spending. Mental health units are often little more than hellholes and there are hardly any beds anyway. Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) suggest that everyone suffering from depression should be offered CBT because it is so cost-effective.

Yet the guidelines are being ignored because there is not enough money. Care in the community is all too often a double oxymoron — no care and no community. Yet if the acute pain of mental illness were recognised in the way that physical pain attracts instant sympathy and painkillers, this cruelty and neglect could not continue.

For once I find myself in total agreement with Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, that this is a scandal. But I am in total disagreement with her attitude to it. Drawing on a report on depression by Lord Layard, of happiness fame, to be published tomorrow, she argues it would be cheap and easy to relieve a huge amount of mental suffering, to do away with whole sloughs of despond.

As Layard points out, if the NHS ignored Nice guidelines to offer some very expensive new cancer drug, there would be a public scandal. Why is it that there is no public outrage at the shortage of money that goes to relieve mental illness and at the way Nice guidelines are being ignored? Toynbee and Layard are both entirely right.

Where Toynbee, a cheerleader for another natural interventionist, Gordon Brown, remains alarming, though, is in her general view that happiness is the concern of the state. She even believes that happiness can be objectively quantified by measuring electrical activity in the brain. She thinks that it would be easy to audit the progress of national happiness each year, just as we monitor the GDP.

The “national happiness audit” would enable us to form and judge social policies, she explains. This is without a doubt the scariest idea I have read for many years. If Cameron is going to carry on talking of gross domestic happiness, he would be well advised to distance himself from this horrifying vision of a Happy New World.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 11th, 2006

Our mealy-mouthed muddle over rape

In the dog days of this government there seems to be a mood in the air not just of incompetence but of confusion. It cannot entirely be new Labour’s fault — we probably get the Establishment we deserve — and it probably isn’t entirely new, but there is a feeling of moral muddle that seems more intense than in the days of cool Britannia.

There are countless examples of it. Three from last week have to do with the lurid subject of rape and they show all too clearly the sort of doubt and dither I mean.

It must be obvious to most people that rape — sex without consent — is always wrong. It ought to be obvious, too, that some rapes are worse than others. The degree of guilt must depend on the circumstances and so must the degree of punishment. To have confidence in British justice the public needs to feel that the punishment fits the crime, and fits the criminal, and consistently so. But we are beginning to feel that less and less. Last week’s rape cases — baby rape, wife rape and bride rape — were a strange medley of contradictions.

In the case of the baby rapist, Alan Webster had raped a girl of only 12 weeks old. He had also indecently assaulted a teenager and downloaded more than 7,000 pornographic pictures involving the rape and sexual abuse of children, including pictures of the rape of the baby. He was given a life sentence with a minimum of six years in jail, but last week, following understandable public outrage, the Court of Appeal increased that minimum to eight years.

That means that eight years from now, if the Parole Board sees fit, this man of “horrifying depravity” could be living in the community again. Meanwhile the Home Office is considering proposals to classify as dealers people possessing enough cannabis for just 10 joints, and make them liable to up to 14 years in prison. Where is the moral consistency in all this?

Admittedly the Parole Board might not see fit to let the baby rapist loose after eight years. As the appeal court said, it is “questionable” whether Webster will ever be released. On the other hand we know from recent and bitter experience that the Parole Board and the probation service have made terrible mistakes with obviously dangerous prisoners, who have been let out to kill again. Besides, the idea that eight years means anything one way or another with a man like Webster is absurd. Quite clearly this man is either so mad or so bad that there should be no “question” of letting him out at all, unless and until there is some future revolution in psychiatric medicine.

For now the evidence that serious sex offenders can redeem themselves and control their dreadful appetites is at best weak and controversial. In extreme cases, like the Moors murders, life should mean life, or at least that should be the presumption, rather than the current presumption that it doesn’t.

So here was the revolting rape of a baby being leniently treated, on the face of it. But in the same week new draft sentencing guidelines were announced that recommended rape in marriage should be treated as seriously as, or more seriously than, rape by a stranger: a husband convicted of raping his wife might face the same punishment as rapists who abduct their victims or attack them in a gang. According to the guidelines, the seriousness of rape is “always aggravated when the offender is in a position of trust in relation to the victim”.

Aggravated means made more serious; according to the draft guidelines, a rape by a male partner is more serious than a typical rape by a stranger. I suppose there may be cases when that is so, but mostly speaking it is plainly daft. I know which I would find more traumatic and more criminal.

There is one case, however, of rape in marriage that is obviously shocking and wrong — bride rape. When British women of Asian origin are forced into marriage against their consent, they are, one can only assume, forced into sex against their consent, or in plain English raped. It is bad enough that it happens all over the underdeveloped world; it is unacceptable that it happens here.

Forced marriage is not the same as arranged marriage. It is the horrible practice of forcing a young British girl (or boy) to marry someone of his or her parents’ choice, often so the spouse can acquire British nationality and its benefits. And it is all too common. About 300 are reported every year and there are probably many others that go unreported, along with some suspected cases of honour killings in Britain and a high rate of suicide among young Asian females here, at three times the national average.

If ever there were a case for protecting vulnerable young women from institutionalised rape, this must be it. For some time the government has been contemplating laws specifically against forced marriage, and though new Labour regularly proposes quite unnecessary laws to make political points when there are plenty of adequate laws in existence (as with incitement to religious hatred), this time for once I thought there was good reason to make forced marriage an offence. It would send a clear message that it goes against British values and is unacceptable no matter how multicultural anyone might feel.

However, despite some ambitious proposals and consultations, last week the government did one of its many U-turns and announced that a specific law to ban forced marriage was “not needed”. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that this was yet again done for political advantage — either to hang on to ethnic minority votes, or to appease the multicultural lobby.

This is not an end to the inconsistencies. Although the guidelines advise that “date rape” and “acquaintance rape” are as serious as “stranger rape”, they also say that where both parties have indulged in some consensual intimacy before the rape, that “must have some relevance for sentencing purposes”. As you were then: acquaintance rape is not necessarily so serious.

It so happens that I agree with that, but I remain puzzled about the inconsistencies. As Ruth Hall of Women Against Rape promptly said: “The Sentencing Guidelines Council is talking out of both sides of its mouth.” That’s what you do when you are confused, of course, and confusion does seem to have taken over, among lawyers just as much as among the rest of us.

Don’t call them prisons, but build them

Last year Verna Bryant’s daughter Naomi was brutally murdered by a dangerous sex offender who had just been let out of jail on parole (life licence). His release into the community was not just a tragic mistake, the sort of terrible error that can occur from time to time in any system. It was, in the words of a damning report by the chief inspector of probation, due to “a string of failures”. Last Friday Verna Bryant announced that she is suing the government under the Human Rights Act for violation of her daughter’s human right to be protected by the state.

One can only sympathise, odd though this sounds. I am extremely wary of the notion of human rights and of the ways in which human rights legislation can be used to perverse ends. However, it does certainly seem to me that the single most important duty that a government has to its citizens is to protect them. One might call that a universal human right, or one might more reasonably call it the first essential of a social contract in a civilised society. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that in this country our government and our criminal justice service are failing us and — if you want to put it this way, which I wouldn’t — violating our right to be safe.

Naomi Bryant’s murder is not an isolated case. One of the killers of John Monckton, the London banker, was let out of jail despite an official assessment that he was 91% likely to commit a violent offence again. Four of the torturers and killers of the teenager Mary-Ann Leneghan were on probation, supposedly under proper supervision. Perhaps the victims’ families should consider suing the government.

Admittedly it would be unfair to dump the entire burden of blame on the probation service; it suffers from recruitment problems, overwork, underfunding and a departmental shake-up. These things are disasters waiting to happen and along with them are many other lesser crimes.

For all new Labour’s promises to be tough on crime, violent crime has gone up since 1997 and recent reports of stabbings among teenagers suggest what police and social workers have also been saying: that a frightening new knife culture has developed — so much so that the government recently promised a daft knife amnesty.

This is to say nothing of dangerous foreign criminals being let loose into the community and then “lost”, despite the repeated warnings since 2002 of the chief inspector of prisons, who broke silence on this last week.

What is the response of the powers that be to all this? Confusion, contradiction and undignified spats between government and top judges. It defies belief. The home secretary took office just the other day saying that the government wanted tougher jail sentences, and last Thursday he was considering plans with ministers to give longer sentences of up to five years to people who carry knives.

Yet the same day it emerged that murderers and rapists who confess could get their sentences hugely reduced in accordance with new proposals being considered by the Sentencing Advisory Panel under Lord Phillips, the lord chief justice.

He caused quite a sensation last week by saying in public that the prison service is fatally flawed and warning that judges should not send people to prison unless they absolutely have to; overcrowding makes rehabilitation impossible and “the sensible place for rehabilitation is in the community”. He went on to say, however, that the public would not tolerate community sentencing if it did not involve “significant punishment”.

Then, in a genuinely shocking exposure in The Times on Friday, it emerged that for all the government’s tough talk, ministers are seeking emergency powers to allow the early release of thousands of prisoners, not on judicial grounds but to relieve overcrowding in prisons; there are only 1,860 spaces left in jails in England and Wales. The wonderfully weaselly name which has been dreamt up for this ruse is “administrative release”.

This hardly inspires confidence. It is ludicrous. Yet there is, if only people could get the better of their preconceptions, a solution which would suit everyone from liberal to authoritarian. The two passionately held preconceptions that have to go are first, that prison doesn’t work (as a deterrent) and second, that community sentencing does.

Neither is true and there is plenty of evidence. Nor is it true that we imprison more people, proportionately, than other countries do; on the contrary, we have a higher crime rate than most Europeans and jail relatively fewer criminals.

It is true that prisons are no place for rehabilitation (in so far as it might be possible) as they are today, but nor is the community. If it is impossible, as it clearly is, even to supervise offenders for a couple of hours a week in the community, how could it be possible genuinely to teach and guide and help them? It is also true that many of the wrong people are in prison, so to speak, for lack of anything else to do with them. Many suffer from mental illness, personality disorders or learning disabilities, and at least two-thirds are illiterate and unemployable, and they are all slung in together to take their miserable chances.

What all these offenders need is a safe, uncrowded place where they can be humanely detained, treated and educated — perhaps rehabilitated. They don’t all need the same kind of place and they don’t all need the same kind of treatment, but they need to be separated from the rest of us, for a time at least, for our protection. For their own protection they should be sent to different kinds of institution, from decent mental hospitals to enlightened training centres as well as secure prisons.

What is blindingly clear is that we need more institutions for offenders, whether they are actually called prisons or not. And the man who is standing in the way of this, in the way of proper treatment of prisoners and proper protection of the public, is Gordon Brown. Labour has been very reluctant to build new jails and all but two requests for more prisons have been turned down by the Treasury.

I am beginning to have some sympathy with the quaint idea of suing the government, starting with the Treasury.