All may be fair in love but not in divorce

‘All happy families,” as Tolstoy famously wrote, “are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Each divorce is miserable in its own particular way too. That is why for all the best will in the world and all the best legal minds in the country, it is almost impossible to legislate justly for all the thousand and one combinations of grief and guilt in the dissolution of a marriage.

Three sensational divorce rulings were announced last week. Two went in favour of non-earning wives. “Wives Win Out!” “Payday for the wives who stay at home!” “Landmark victory for ex-wives!”, cried the headlines. Melissa Miller and Julia McFarlane, whose faces were splashed all over front pages and television screens, were supported by the law lords in their settlement claims.

Mrs Miller was told she could keep the £5m she was originally awarded after the break-up of her childless, 2¾-year marriage to a rich man, which comes to £4,935.83 a day as the tabloids unkindly pointed out, and Mrs McFarlane was told that as well as half the couple’s assets, she was entitled to £250,000 a year from her former husband, a tax specialist, for as long as she needs it.

Mr McFarlane refused to comment, perhaps wisely. His wife had given up a lucrative career every bit as good as his to look after their three children for many years. But Mr Miller was publicly outraged. “My £5m warning to wealthy husbands” was the headline of an angry interview he gave to the Jewish Chronicle. “It seems I have been penalised for the high standard of living I gave my wife . . . I believe there should be a fair compensation for the breakdown of a marriage, but surely this should not equate to a meal ticket for life after a short, childless marriage.”

This was swiftly followed by the third sensational divorce settlement last week; what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander these days. “The Men Strike Back!” screamed one headline. “After those landmark divorce payouts for two ex-wives, British Airways pilot wins £3.5m from the lady of the manor”, and she will have to sell her pretty manor to find the money.

The law lords’ findings were said to be the most important ruling for more than 20 years on the division of property upon divorce. And they were widely said to establish new principles, in a long overdue reconsideration of these painful matters. But I remain confused and unconvinced, in so far as I understand their rulings.

Of course the central concept of fairness that guided them must be right. But as Lord Nicholls began by saying on Wednesday, fairness is an elusive concept, “an instinctive response to a given set of facts”, and to achieve fairness in the division of property is “that most intractable of problems”. People’s instinctive responses vary, to put it mildly.

It has already been established that fairness means no discrimination between husband and wife; there should be no bias in favour of the earner, or against the homemaker. The new principle the law lords have introduced is one of compensation. If one spouse gives up earnings and future earning power to look after the family and support the other spouse’s career, she or he is entitled to compensation for that loss, as with Mrs McFarlane. Four cheers for that.

Clearly without the prospect of compensation, should the marriage fail, it is — and has been — an enormous risk for a woman to give up her career prospects, great or small, to stay at home to look after her family. It’s a positive disincentive to do so and this has been a great injustice. This new finding seems to me entirely fair. Marriage should indeed mean shared risk, shared reward, even after the divorce if necessary.

All the same, I do wonder whether the principle of fairness can really be stretched in the same sort of spirit to a massive pay out for a short, childless marriage to somebody filthy rich. The principle is the fairness of sharing in a married partnership.

On divorce each should be entitled to an equal share of the assets of the partnership — the fruits of the partnership — unless there is good reason to the contrary. And, the law lords found, this principle applies just as much to short marriages as to long ones. Try as I will, I cannot work out whether this includes assets brought into the marriage. Are they also fruits of the marriage and therefore the spoils of divorce? Wednesday’s rulings are without a doubt going to put people off marriage. Sure enough, various lawyers have already said precisely that. Mr McFarlane’s lawyer said that his advice to successful men would be “One: don’t marry. Two: if you do, make sure your other half is as wealthy as you are. Three: do a prenuptial agreement and keep your fingers crossed.” (This would apply to rich and successful women as well.)

As things stand now anyone with any assets or any serious earning power would do much better not to marry. However, this may not protect them for long. This week law reform advisers to the government will publish proposals that unmarried couples should have rights and duties to share their wealth on breaking up, yet another nail in the coffin of the institution of marriage.

This is all very depressing. It almost seems that the pursuit of fairness in marriage exposes its internal contradictions and ugly truths. People are not equal. Partnerships are not equal. People marry for all kinds of different motives, some of them very cynical. There cannot be any principles that govern the countless possibilities. No amount of elegant pronouncement can embrace the varieties of unhappy marriage.

That’s why I am sorry that the question of conduct in marriage has been clearly ruled out. Like many people I thought it might have been upheld from an earlier decision in the Miller case, but it wasn’t. Yet how people behave seems to me to make a great difference, in real justice, in determining fairness on divorce.

It’s true, as Lord Nicholls said, that it is notoriously difficult to unravel mutual recriminations and get to any sort of truth. Perhaps the courts are no place to try to do it, but in no other contract would the behaviour of the parties be ignored.

The time is long overdue for binding prenuptial agreements, and now — of course — binding pre-cohabitation agreements; prenups and cohabs. No one should embark on a serious relationship without taking very sober thought for the morrow.

Squandering the glories of Thatcherism

Anyone who claims to remember the 1960s, so people say, can’t have been there. Anyone who claims to remember the 1980s with affection, so people also say, can’t be very nice. That is liberal orthodoxy to this day. Openly to admit that you loved the 1980s is in most circles — and, now, in many Conservative circles — to invite contempt and disapproval. This has always seemed sad to me. The 1980s was one of the best, most generous, most hopeful periods in recent times in this country and an example to other countries. To see the decade primarily as grotesquely vulgar, greedy and selfish is to misunderstand it and to be prepared to squander the huge advantages the decade brought. Sure enough, we have been busy squandering them.

I was reminded of this sadness last week, watching the much-publicised television series The Line of Beauty, based on Alan Hollinghurst’s prizewinning novel of that name. The book is a story of disenchantment; a clever and beautiful young man of humble origins finds himself living in splendour in Notting Hill, west London, with the family of a close Oxford friend, discovering his own sexuality in the midst of great wealth and fairly high politics in the 1980s; it all ends painfully.

The first of the TV series was a delight to look at — lush, beautifully produced and beautifully acted, not least the touching homosexual love scenes. Unfortunately, though, it could not reproduce what was best about the book — the complex inner life of the brilliant young hero and the subtle presence of the author. But the series does seem to be faithfully reproducing — perhaps enhancing — one of the greatest weaknesses of the novel, the stereotyped representation of the Tory toffs and their 1980s world.

Perhaps it is a little early to say so; this will all become clearer in later episodes. But judging from last week’s episode, we will be offered the standard received view of the 1980s: power was in the hands of a group of emotionally crippled, sexually incontinent, morally vacuous and mercenary rich prats with a ferocious sense of entitlement and few redeeming features.

Was this really typical of the top of the Conservative hierarchy and the culture? Were there really any politicians remotely like that? A very few, perhaps, and how frightful they were. One, to my own personal knowledge, was Alan Clark, whose behaviour to me on one occasion was quite hilariously bad; it has been said that the ghastly Thatcher-worshipping MP at the centre of The Line of Beauty was modelled on Clark. But to use him as some sort of icon of the time is to take a distorted view. Most senior Conservatives were reasonably serious, intelligent and hardworking and considerably less venal than their present-day Labour counterparts.

Of course creative artists are under no obligation to provide us with balance. The Line of Beauty is not a documentary. That is not my point. What struck me, once again, was the failure of creative writers to make anything, so to speak, of the 1980s or indeed of Thatcherism. It seems to reduce them to unthinking orthodoxy — to a long drawn-out liberal sneer. Caryl Churchill’s dazzling 1980s play Serious Money, for instance, was one of the funniest performances I have seen, and yet in the end it was simply a one-sided rant against the City. Why not? But there is something about this immensely interesting and complex era that brings out the most simple-minded artistic response.

This is odd, because the Conservative 1980s brought — fast — some radical changes that you might have supposed left-of-centre liberals would have welcomed with cries of joy. The 1980s saw an explosion of freedom and meritocracy, a detonation of the strangleholds of the old Establishment, an explosion of opportunity following the breaking of the stockbrokers’ cartel in the Big Bang and the breaking of the unions’ cartels and restrictive practices, an explosion of house ownership and share ownership and, above all, the spreading of that sense of entitlement, right down the social classes, which until then had been felt only in the old Establishment.

Bring on the barrow boys. Bring on the grocer’s daughter. Bring on the circus artist’s son. A woman prime minister! Top Conservative politicians who hadn’t been to university, let alone to Oxbridge! Bring on the shopping malls, the consumer choice, the cheap flights, the Essex girls. If vulgar is what people want, why shouldn’t they have it? Suddenly it became fun to have some money, some freedom and some choice, and lots and lots of people did, for the first time.

People who had never before thought of owning houses or shares began to do so. They began to buy art as well and they began to become more discriminating about food and travel; the 1980s saw the most heartening democratisation of taste. This must be a good country, I remember thinking, when a poorly educated but bright young woman told me in 1985 that she was buying an Armani suit for her boyfriend’s birthday; that such an underprivileged girl should have acquired the money and the taste to offer him something that the most fastidious posh boy could want struck me as just the way things should be. For the first time, class began to seem unimportant.

As for liberal contempt for City men and women, the fact is these much maligned people made the rest of us richer than we had ever been. Britain would be nothing without the great wealth creation of the City. It’s true there were painful casualties, particularly in dying industries, and periods of high unemployment. Meritocracy can be harsh. But this great pain was a successful economic corrective; the economic policies of the 1980s liberated this country from the statist, protectionist, uncommercial follies of the post-war years which are destabilising the economies of France and Germany, and will probably before long bring us low again as well, if new Labour is determined to revert to this retrograde spirit.

By contrast Britain in the 1980s became more vibrant, creative, inventive in commerce, financial services, fashion and music, leaving the rest of Europe well behind. The result is that we still have, if not for much longer, a strong economy with low unemployment. My view is that people who remember the 1980s with distaste can’t know much about economics and care much about the less fortunate.

An acceptable way to arrange our death

Last Friday the House of Lords voted, to my great disappointment, to wreck Lord Joffe’s private member’s bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill. The peers who oppose it, many of them for religious reasons, managed to kill the bill by 148 to 100 votes, and prevent any further parliamentary debate.

This was predicted. The Christian churches and others financed an enormous, very expensive campaign against it, organised by a group with the tendentious name of Care Not Killing — the Joffe bill has nothing to do with killing, only with the choice to commit suicide in extremis. All that Lord Joffe can now do is introduce another bill another time, and he has promised he will.

Remember Diane Pretty. She campaigned ceaselessly, despite the ravages of motor neurone disease, for the right to be helped to die, before her terrible disease reduced her to helpless misery, but she failed and she died exactly the terrifying death she most feared. This seems to me unspeakably inhumane.

There are conditions which palliative care cannot reach. Between 3% and 10% of the population cannot be helped by painkillers, for instance; besides, pain is not the only terror in the process of dying. In any case, why should a responsible adult be denied the freedom to die, with carefully supervised help, if she is one of the tiny minority of people who would wish to do so?

Whenever there are public discussions of matters of life and death, people never fail to talk ominously of slippery slopes. Last week’s impassioned debates, both inside and outside the Lords, were full of slippery slopes. Allow this one freedom, the argument goes — to choose to die, to select a healthy embryo or to do a few days’ stem cell research — and we will slide quickly into a hellish abyss of legalised mass murder or Nazi eugenics, or whatever.

The truth is that the slippery slope is the human condition. We are already on it, and we cannot escape it. It’s our destiny to struggle along in life, upwards or downwards, with very uncertain footing. There is no safe plateau of moral security; we are constantly faced with painful dilemmas. The threat of a slippery slope is no argument against something that’s acceptable in itself, even though if pushed to a logical conclusion it might lead to something unacceptable. That’s the nature of moral decision-making: human moral effort is to keep seeing and drawing the line, and struggling to stay above it.

Those who don’t believe in God are obliged to play God. Playing God on the slippery slope is not very comfortable, but unless you are religious, there is no alternative. Even religious people are not always agreed on what God has ordained. Christians disagree passionately on some matters of life and death, as was clear in the House of Lords, when some Christian peers spoke as eloquently in favour of doctor-assisted suicide as others spoke against it.

Friday’s debate strengthened my feeling that religion ought to be kept out of political decisions. You cannot argue with religious belief, or with holy writ; scriptures and edicts and personal convictions are knockdown arguments. You can, however, argue on secular questions. Secular thinking is open to change and compromise.

There has been a rather cunning rearguard action on the part of some religious people to suggest that the scientific-materialist world view is merely a chosen belief system like any other, in effect, another religion. It follows that that secular arguments are of no more value than religious. The Archbishop of Canterbury made this point in passing. But it isn’t true. The point about the scientific, empirical worldview is that it is open to evidence, it can be publicly tested and it can be shown to be wrong. It is corrigible. Scientific theories can be changed. Laws can be repealed. Facts help.

I’d like to suggest a few corrections that can be made to some current fears about the bill. In a letter to The Times on Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi said that “such a bill cannot guarantee that a right to die would not, for society’s most vulnerable, become a duty to die”. There’s a widespread fear, we’re told, that insensitive, overmighty doctors might bully confused little old ladies into signing their lives away, perhaps because they were a burden, or under pressure from greedy relations, or because NHS funds were low.

But these fears can be allayed by strict, legally binding safeguards. There were more than enough in the Joffe bill. (Furthermore, had the bill been allowed to go on to a standing committee of both houses, this question could have been re-examined).

Under the Joffe proposals, nobody — no patient, no doctor — could be required to have any part in doctor-assisted suicide; nor could any hospital or other establishment. No doctor could be required to raise the question with a patient, or to refer the patient to another doctor who would. The little old lady herself must make the request herself, in writing, she must be examined by two doctors, one of them a consultant independent of the other, and they must be satisfied that she is indeed terminally ill, with six months or less to live and that she has the capacity to make such a decision.

If in any doubt, she must be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist to assess her capacity. It’s my understanding that if she lacks capacity she will be protected by the Mental Capacity Act, like anyone else. She must also be told about and offered palliative care. If she still persists in wanting to die, she must sign a form, witnessed by two people, one of them a solicitor, and neither with any remote interest in her affairs (no greedy relations). Then after a period of two weeks, her doctor may give her a prescription, which she may never in fact choose to take, and she can revoke her decision to die at any time.

On my count that makes at the very least five independent professionals, not to mention the nurses and other care professionals surrounding her, who would all have to be complicit in pushing her into suicide, against her will and against her right to life. It assumes that her family members and friends would be either complicit or uninvolved. These sound to me like adequate safeguards; this is hardly a Shipman’s charter. It is indeed a slippery slope, but that’s inevitable in life, and how far we choose to slip lies in our own earthly power.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 16th, 2006

Forgiveness is an inhuman quality

‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” In the most important prayer in Christendom, the Lord’s Prayer, there are only seven requests and that is one of them. Forgiveness is central to Christianity (it is important in other faiths, too). Christians are taught that Christ sacrificed himself on the cross on Good Friday so that they might be forgiven for their sins and that they in turn, in the imitation of Christ, must forgive others. I was taught this myself as a child and I always found it incomprehensible.
I could imagine, just about, that God in his mysterious way, if he existed, could forgive whatever he chose, but I could not understand the meaning of human forgiveness, at least not in extreme cases. Forgiveness may be divine but I don’t think it is human. To me it seems either pointless or meaningless.

Holy Week is a time when traditionally the Christian world, and even heathen Anglicans like me, reflect on forgiveness. But it has been a bad week for it this year. The trial of terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in Virginia has reminded everyone of the deliberate, orchestrated atrocities of September 11, 2001; the recording of the last minutes of the victims of flight 93 was played in court last week and must have sickened anyone who heard it or read the transcripts.

Equally disturbing is Moussaoui’s cold, contemptuous lack of remorse. “We want to inflict pain on your country,” he told the American court. “You are the head of the snake for me. If we want to destroy the Jewish state of Palestine, we have to destroy you first.” What can forgiveness mean here?

A member of one of the bereaved American families was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and tried valiantly not to express his personal feelings about what should happen to Moussaoui, but in the end he could not restrain himself. He admitted that he would love to have some time alone in a room with Moussaoui; forgiveness was not apparently foremost in his mind.

Also last week an English woman vicar, whose daughter Jenny was killed in the London massacres of July 7 last year, spoke about her inability to forgive her child’s murderers. In fact, the Rev Julie Nicholson recently relinquished her parish duties in Bristol because she cannot reconcile her feelings with central Christian teachings on forgiveness. She cannot forgive the killers, nor does she want to.

She spoke of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan says, “I do not want the mother to embrace the torturer who tore her son to pieces with dogs! Let her not dare to forgive him! If she wants, she may forgive him on her account . . . for her limitless maternal suffering; but as for the suffering of her dismembered child, those she has no right to forgive, she dare not forgive his torturer, even if her child himself forgave him.” There are some acts, Julie Nicholson said, “which are humanly unforgivable, and rightly so”. I feel the same.

If someone dashed my baby’s brains against the wall, laughing, or cut my children’s arms off, I would think my forgiveness completely irrelevant. I might come to understand why it happened, I might come to terms with it somehow, I might put aside any feelings of vengeance. But either the wrongdoers could not really help what they were doing — they were themselves the victims of terror, superstition, abuse or madness and were not fully responsible for their actions — or else they were fully responsible and did it anyway. Forgiveness doesn’t seem to me to apply.

If somebody is not fully responsible for his actions, then by definition he is not fully answerable for what he does. And then also by definition he can never truly be either blamed or forgiven. That’s why in English law there is an idea of diminished responsibility, usually because of mental illness. In such cases the wrongdoer pleads not guilty, though admitting his actions; it follows that if he is not “guilty”, he can hardly be forgiven. You might as well forgive a cat for idly tormenting a bird. As Jesus said at his crucifixion, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Presumably, though no doubt theologians will disagree, this means that if they had known what they were doing Jesus would not have prayed for them to be forgiven.

There is a curious quirk in contemporary thinking about such things, with people supposed to have personality disorders. They are more likely than others to do things which are mad or bad or dangerous, but they are not considered mad because they are not considered treatable. Many, many people in prison fall into this category and they are at high risk of committing serious crimes.

He does what he does, tragically, because of the way he is. And that, equally tragically, is true of the rest of us to some degree. In western culture we start from a belief that we are all equally morally responsible, but while that might be a noble and useful idea it is not, unfortunately, true. We are not. It’s obvious from looking no further than one’s own extended family that some people are pretty much in the driving seat of their lives; others much less so and some hardly at all.

We are all formed by complex interactions of nature and nurture, which science is only barely beginning to understand; our aptitudes are inherited, our infant brains are rewired by our experiences, particularly traumatic ones, our behaviour is moulded by culture and habit, good and bad. This view is often ridiculed as crude determinism, but I think it is neither crude nor easy to refute.

Forgiveness has always been seen in our culture as a most noble, generous-hearted virtue and I don’t underestimate the courage and magnanimity of those who are able to forgive others for terrible wrongs. And I can understand forgiveness as a social construct; personal vengeance and vendetta cannot be allowed in a civilised society and forgiveness has no doubt developed as an antidote to the toxins of revenge.

But withholding forgiveness is not necessarily the same as demanding revenge. I do not think Moussaoui should be mistreated or executed, because I think both are wrong and bad for the executioners. But I do not think it is for me or for anyone else on earth to forgive him.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 9th, 2006

Up on a charge for being a typical child

There can be no point whatsoever in taking a little boy to court for calling another little boy names in the playground. It is insane. That ought to be glaringly obvious. Unfortunately it isn’t. Last week a 10-year-old boy found himself before a district court judge in Salford being prosecuted for allegedly calling an 11-year-old “Paki”, “Bin Laden” and “nigger”.

This was considered by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to be “a racially aggravated public order offence”. The boy denied the charge and claimed that the other boy had called him “white trash”. In any event, the boys are good friends now and play in each other’s houses, and the whole thing would have blown over long ago had not the forces of political correctness overcome common sense.

Fortunately there was one person in this astonishing story who did retain his common sense. Judge Jonathon Finestein angrily made the obvious point that this case was “political correctness gone mad”. He urged the CPS to reconsider its decision to prosecute and has adjourned the case until mid-April so that it can do so.

“This is how stupid the whole system is getting,” he remarked. “I was repeatedly called fat at school. Does this amount to a criminal offence? It’s crazy.”

In the past, he said, a head teacher would have dealt with this. “There are major crimes out there,” he continued, “and the police don’t bother to prosecute. If you get your car stolen it doesn’t matter, but you get two kids falling out over racist comments — this is nonsense.” This is so clearly true — given police failures to deal with much more serious crime — that you might have thought there was nothing more to say, other than bravo to Judge Finestein. But not so.

Almost immediately, teaching unions rose up to denounce him. Judith Elderkin, a member of the national executive of the National Union of Teachers, said she thought he was “a bit out of date on the way issues are handled in schools”. Schools have to report any racist abuse, she explained. “They don’t have any choice. It’s a legal requirement. The judge needs telling that it’s no longer within the control of the school to handle incidents of racial bullying. The CPS is abiding by guidelines.”

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, spoke even more alarmingly. She accused Finestein of feeding “the pernicious agenda of the far right, who are fielding candidates in many local elections”. Presumably, she meant his comments could help parties such as the BNP in next month’s council elections. She accused him of trivialising racist taunts and abuse.

We have become so used to public officials talking irresponsible nonsense that we are suffering from shock fatigue. But this is truly shocking. The judge did not trivialise racist insults; he went out of his way not to do so. He merely said they should be dealt with in school, in the case of young children, not in court. This onslaught must have been particularly irritating for him, as he is Jewish.

If this kind of sanctimonious silliness exists at the top of the teachers’ unions, what hope is there for education in this country? In this one case is demonstrated the institutionalised folly of most of Britain’s public bodies and the law on such matters. Greater Manchester police, for instance, have nothing more useful to say about this ridiculous case than that the force takes all crimes seriously and is totally opposed to any racism.

Of course racism is bad. Of course schoolchildren should be punished for insulting each other, racially or otherwise. In my youth, rather as in the judge’s, this kind of behaviour was severely dealt with at once in the school. When I was about nine, I had my mouth washed out with soap and water — a surprisingly nasty ordeal — by the headmistress for insulting another girl unforgivably, even though she had insulted me first, almost as nastily. Despite its injustice, it was a good lesson.

Today teachers and head teachers have no such authority; either they have let it go or it has been taken from them. “It’s no longer within the control of the school”, as Elderkin so chillingly said last week. That is one of the many things wrong with schools.

All this new Labour talk of localisation and empowerment for schools is simply hot air. Head teachers cannot usually rely on the law to protect them from children who do really very bad things, such as attacking others or taking or dealing in drugs. It’s almost impossible even to exclude them. Countless destructive children in every city get away, unprosecuted and unsupervised, despite committing many serious crimes — mugging younger children, “steaming” in shops, joyriding and vandalising.

Probation for convicted young criminals is in crisis. Yet when a young child makes a racist remark, the full weight of the criminal justice system descends upon him, defended by the teaching unions. This is a double standard of the worst kind.

The only good news in this sorry story is that the Muslim Council of Britain has taken a wise and adult line, sensitive though Muslims are to racism. It has supported the judge in his comments. “I would not criticise,” said Tahir Alam, chairman of the council’s education committee and a teacher himself. “We need to be sensible in relation to 10-year-old children. It does not seem eminently sensible, therefore, for this to go to court . . . The issue of racism is of course very serious but we should educate them, not take them to court.”

No doubt the CPS and the police, like the school, were abiding by anti-racism guidelines. What that means is that their discretion, their ability to judge individual cases with as much common sense as they can muster, has been taken away from them. What’s more, their common sense and adult discretion have been undermined by the regulations and culture of anti-racism.

Racism is, of course, a real evil but the current guilt-ridden obsession with it, so clearly expressed in this case, only serves to inflame it and actually to further the cause of racist politics — the reverse of what the politically correct protagonists intended. This entire episode has a faint whiff of the Soviet show trials or the Salem witch-hunts about it, a kind of public hysteria. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 2nd, 2006

You care for the old: the taxman doesn’t

Elder abuse is a clumsy American expression meaning hurting old people, physically and emotionally. It is chilling to think this is so common that people in the social care business need a snappy name for it. It’s also chilling to think that political correctness has made such a ridiculous effort to avoid the dread word “old”, as if it were a kind of obscenity. “Elder” indeed.

This past week has dispelled any fading doubts I might have had that wilfully abusing old people was common. We seem to have moved quickly from a society where ties between generations were strong to a culture of institutionalised elder abuse.

Last Monday the Healthcare Commission, the Audit Commission and the Commission for Social Care Inspection jointly published a report that said old people were being failed by the NHS and other public services, which were riddled with “ageism” — another nasty new word for a real evil.

According to this report, old people are subject to “patronising and thoughtless attitudes” from some doctors and carers. In hospital they are moved from one place to another, their meals are whisked away uneaten for lack of help, and despite the government’s promise of long ago to end mixed sex wards, old men and women are thrown in together to suffer indignity and shame as well as all their other problems. The care they receive after leaving hospital is erratic and inadequate.

One hardly needs a report to be convinced of that. It is pretty much what happened to my mother, not long before her death. It is what all too often is done to old people.

Two days after this depressing survey, another even more depressing report emerged. The King’s Fund published a review of England’s social care by Sir Derek Wanless. This demonstrates clearly what most people know: social care for old people in England, like healthcare, is miserably patchy, often miserable and often unavailable. Wanless said the system of means-tested personal care is a postcode lottery causing “anger and distress” to millions of old people. Home help goes only to the most needy; many who need just a little help in the home get no assistance from social services and many of those who qualify for services cannot afford the charges. The quality of these is variable and sometimes “unacceptably low”.

In an injustice that is bitterly resented, people with savings or homes worth more than £20,500 have to use them to pay for residential care, which — by contrast — is free for anyone with no assets. It does not pay to be prudent. Saving has become senseless. And Wanless finds that some social services departments force old people who don’t need residential care to go into homes so the council can seize the value of their property. About 70,000 people a year have to sell their houses and go into an old people’s home.

In short the system is “unsatisfactory”, with “serious shortcomings” and prevents old people from “thriving”. But we knew this too. I cannot count the readers’ letters I’ve had on such matters over the past 15 years. The real question is why everyone has tolerated this elder abuse for so long.

The answer is money: everyone senses how expensive proper care for the old would be. Wanless makes many worthy recommendations; he sets out a new system to help people live independently for as long as possible, and which avoids means testing. Every old person who needs help would get a generous personal care package, and the state would pay five-sixths of it. The elderly person would pay the rest, unless unable to do so — only then would means testing be used. This sounds wonderful, utopian and impossibly expensive.

The present inadequate deal costs £10 billion a year and the proportion of old and very old people is growing fast. The number of old people with high social care needs will increase by more than half by 2026. Wanless suggests that the sum should triple to £30 billion a year by then. But even such a huge increase does not seem likely to be nearly enough to meet the real need.

Personal care is eked out in hours — a visit here and there, once or twice a day. Each hour costs the council, in real terms, anywhere between £10 and £20, including administration, travel and high agency fees. But what a frail old lady needs is not just a rushed 45 minutes bathing and dressing. She needs company, attention, amusement — and increasingly the old and very old live alone. She needs someone around.

Traditionally families provided this and millions still do. This represents a huge saving to the taxpayer, yet such a carer’s allowance is only £45.70 a week. That is for 35 hours of caring, and can easily be cut off under complex rules and regulations. It will be stopped, for instance, if the carer earns more than £82 per week, or if he or she receives a state pension worth more than that. Without getting into the complexity of the carer premium, compare £45.70 for a 35-hour week of personal care from a family member or friend, with £48 for only four hours per week of professional personal care from social services, in a typical case reported last week. Startling isn’t it? It almost amounts to carer abuse.

Under the Wanless suggestions old people would get much more paid professional care and it would be heavily subsidised. But the point still stands out. It is hugely cheaper, and no doubt usually much better, if family carers look after old people. But the disincentives are extreme.

First there’s the opportunity cost. Caring means forgoing a job (above £82 per week), and so probably being unable to contribute to a mortgage or to save for old age — a nasty irony. Then there is tax. It seems both unjust and stupid to tax people who care for the sick and disabled as heavily as those who don’t. They are saving public money at the cost of their own financial security, yet they get no tax breaks for doing so.

Abolishing inheritance tax on legacies to family carers would be an obvious start; in that way the family home would indeed pay for the care of the old, within the family. Giving long tax holidays to family carers would be another sensible move. So would paying cash to those carers for whom a tax holiday would be insignificant. Tax relief would help foster family responsibility, but the current financial incentives are to neglect the old, consigning them to abuse.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 26th, 2006

Reading, writing and thoughtlessness

Learning to read well is one of life’s greatest joys, not least because reading is power. The same is true of learning to write well. The ability to write clearly and simply is both pleasurable and very useful. Fortunately, almost everybody is capable of both and both can easily be taught. Unfortunately, these days few schoolchildren and students learn either.

Despite all the money that the government has thrown at education, huge numbers of children arrive at secondary school unable to read properly for their age or for their studies. That is well known, despite new Labour’s empty claims of success in education. What is less well known is that most students arrive at university or at colleges of further education unable to write properly. Most of them have little or no idea of how to set out an essay or of how to express themselves in writing at all.

This is not merely my own opinion. The Royal Literary Fund (RLF) last week published a report, called Writing Matters, on student writing, and the author Hilary Spurling gave a short lecture at the Royal Society of Literature summarising its findings. “Most contemporary British students arriving at university lack the basic ability to express themselves in writing,” she said. “Growing numbers are simply not ready for the demands that higher education is — or should be — making of them.”

These findings come from a scheme that the fund set up in 1999 to send professional writers as RLF fellows into universities and colleges to help students with the basic skills of writing essays, reports or job applications. Since then more than 130 writers have worked in more than 70 institutions.

“What is worrying,” wrote one, “is that these young people are students of English literature at an ‘elite’ university. They ought to have attained, by this stage, a reasonably high level of written proficiency, but they are plainly floundering. They have genuine difficulty in writing a basic English sentence.” What the fellows discovered in all disciplines, at all levels, in all institutions, was, they unanimously felt, shocking.

It is indeed shocking. Quite apart from the unspeakable waste of young people’s abilities and the lifelong impoverishment of their minds, there is a wider social problem. Inarticulate and semi-literate graduates fall straight into what is now recognised as Britain’s skills gap. It is very odd, at a time when people take an increasingly utilitarian view of universities as places to produce workers, that they increasingly fail to do so.

The director of the Heads, Teachers & Industry trust recently said “there is a growing sense in industry that graduates are no more useful as employees than school-leavers. Transferable and functional skills such as communication, writing and comprehension are lacking, and companies often find it more cost-effective to employ school-leavers and train them themselves.”

Across the country employers say the same thing, in both private and public sectors. The graduate recruitment manager for Network Rail told a researcher that his organisation currently has to reject 50% of all job applications from graduates because they are “gobbledygook”. A recent CBI report suggests that low basic skills lose a typical business with 50 employees £165,000 a year, while separate figures published last week by the TUC estimate such shortages cost companies £10 billion a year.

There cannot be a university teacher in the country who would not agree that most students now have serious problems in writing because they have not been taught how to order and express their thoughts. Talk to any gathering of dons.

Foreigners from the former Soviet bloc and the Indian subcontinent almost read and write better English than British natives. British Indians who can afford it are beginning to send their children to school in India, and West Indians send theirs to the Caribbean, where standards are higher.

Why should a problem so well known to those directly concerned be so little known to the general public? Perhaps it is because politicians and the commentariat belong to the tiny minority whose children have learnt to write effectively at the tiny minority of schools that still teach it. But there is a great divide in this country between the few young people who know how to write clearly and the great majority who don’t. It is a terrible injustice. Articulacy is now a privilege for the few.

Good writing isn’t just a matter of presentation. As my ferocious history teacher used to say, if you can’t express something clearly, it is because you don’t understand it clearly. And even if you do understand it, if you haven’t learnt how to order your thoughts and construct a line of argument, you will appear not to do so. If students cannot write clearly, that is evidence that they cannot think clearly; they have not been encouraged to do so. But why not?

There are many directions in which one could point a finger of blame — at bad schools, at bad teaching, at the shortage of able teachers now that able women have many other opportunities besides teaching, at failed methods of teaching reading, at child-centred learning and other disastrous educational orthodoxies, at the abandonment of grammar and learning by heart, at the distractions of computers, at tick-boxes and coursework, which encourage laziness and internet plagiarism.

If the chancellor throws even more taxpayers’ money at schools, as he promises, without addressing any of that he will be wasting money to betray yet more children and students.

The RLF is providing a great public service. It has helped and continues to help thousands of students to write more effectively and confidently. Professional writers know about the practical business of writing simply and clearly and seem to be good at communicating this skill. Their results as fellows were good, and rapid; “all the students we successfully helped”, said the report, “expressed something close to joy at the result”. As so often, this inspired and pioneering work is the result of an independent charity, free of government orthodoxies, targets and bureaucracy.

I hope it remains that way, and that in his determination to colonise the voluntary sector, Gordon Brown doesn’t get his joyless, statist hands on it.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 19th, 2006

A murderous system claims more lives

Last week Daniel Gonzalez was found guilty of the murder of four strangers. He is by any standards a disturbed young man with a long history of bizarre and violent behaviour. He was aggressive, obsessed with knives, once diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, once sectioned under the mental health act for assault, once jailed for assault and a chronic drug user. Hours before the murders he ran naked through the streets and threw knives across his mother’s kitchen floor.

His family made incessant requests for help that they say were ignored. “Does my son have to commit murder to get help?” his mother wrote in one letter to social services. Only a month before the murders, Gonzalez himself wrote to a doctor, begging to be locked up, because he felt paranoid and close to a breakdown. “Please, please help me, this is very urgent,” he wrote. “I really, really do need medical help.”

Nonetheless, this dangerous young man remained at large and in September 2004 he went on a three-day rampage and stabbed two men and two women to death. Allegedly he was obsessed with slasher movies, wanted to become famous as a serial killer, and was even trying to imitate the film A Nightmare on Elm Street. At his trial last week the jury rejected his claim that he was not guilty of murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility — he claimed that demonic voices in his head were driving him to kill — and found him guilty.

It seems to me irrelevant to concentrate, as the trial did, on whether this young man was mad or bad. In cases like this, that is not a useful distinction. Psychiatric labels and distinctions are notoriously subject to fashion and change. Mad or bad, he was terribly dangerous. He had, judging from the evidence, all the obvious signs of it from his childhood and his family was extremely concerned. He was at one time officially considered mentally ill. He was diagnosed in 1999 as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. A psychiatrist warned him that his constant drug abuse could lead to psychotic behaviour.

Yet more recently specialists concluded that he was not mentally ill, and was even cunningly fabricating the symptoms of mental illness; the jury thought that too. Personally I should have thought that it was evidence in itself of madness — of diminished responsibility — to break into strangers’ houses and kill them horribly just for the buzz of it; sane people don’t do that.

As his family said last week: “This tragedy is one of human and organisational failings. We have posed over 100 questions to the police and the health services — we want those questions answered. Why, despite our incessant pleas to health services, social services and the police, was Daniel often turned away, passed from one group of professionals to another and left without the support and help he so obviously and desperately needed?”

This painful truth emerges again and again. The murder of John Monckton, the Chelsea banker, raised alarming questions about the probation services. The parole board let one of Monckton’s killers out of jail despite an official assessment that he was 91% likely to commit a violent offence again. As for the probation services that dealt with him thereafter, four officers were suspended and a report by the chief inspector of probation found “collective failure”. (The officers have been reinstated.)

Such “failure” is almost bound to occur under the government’s early release arrangements. Prisoners are normally considered for early release after serving half their term; a three-man panel then has an average of 20 minutes to look at a report from prison officers and from the probation officer who is due to supervise the offender after release. Following the withdrawal in April 2004 of funding for interviews, the panel usually does not set eyes on the criminal it is setting free. The risks are glaringly obvious and are compounded by recruitment problems and overwork in the probation service, along with a departmental shake-up and merger with the prison service.

The Climbié case and others have revealed the chronic inadequacies of social services. They can perhaps best be judged by what happens to children in care, and it is not good. The state makes a bad parent and its foster children all too often end up illiterate, unemployed, delinquent and in jail. As for mental health services, the care in the community movement did away with many secure psychiatric wards, so there are now few places, and some of them are hell holes. As a result deeply disturbed people like Gonzalez now have to take their chances in the so-called community, a risk to themselves and to others.

And our prisons are overcrowded; it’s no coincidence that there is growing pressure on judges and magistrates not to send people to jail. Only last week it emerged that the Sentencing Guidelines Council is likely to recommend that rapists and other violent sex offenders should serve shorter sentences.

The painful truth is that we need more prisons and more secure mental hospitals. The public needs protection. In the end we don’t care whether dangerous people are mad or bad or abused in childhood. We just want them to be kept away from us — rehabilitated if possible, but locked up. Parole and tagging are not working.

The usual liberal cry that this country locks up more people than others is simply misleading. It’s true that Britain imprisons more people per capita than any other major European country. But as the think tank Reform points out, that doesn’t take into account the relatively high level of crime in this country. There is more crime per capita here. Given the levels of crime, we don’t lock up many people relatively. A more revealing measure of a country’s imprisonment rate is the number of prisoners per thousand crimes committed. On this scale, Britain sends fewer people to prison, relatively, than most European countries.

If there were more prisons, they would be better prisons. They would be less crowded and less brutal. They could offer more help and guidance to prisoners; inmates would spend less time banged up and more time on rehabilitation, on learning to read. Some prisoners, like Gonzalez perhaps, cannot be helped. But they can at least be kept from harming others, and that ought to be done in much more civilised surroundings than we have now.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 29th, 2006

Sadly, there is a fate worse than death

What’s in a name? One of the many minor annoyances of contemporary life is that people change names for no obvious reason. The first time I noticed this was when the Dr Barnardo’s Homes charity became Dr Barnardo’s in the late 1960s, and then Barnardo’s in 1988; many others have followed. The Octavia Hill Housing Trust named after the great Victorian philanthropist, suddenly became Octavia in 2001, and the Royal Mail astonished the world by renaming itself Consignia, and then shamefacedly changing back again only 17 months later. Arthur Andersen became Accenture. And so on.

It is all very irritating. However, I have to admit that occasionally a change of name might be good. It was right for the Spastics Society to rename itself, even if Scope was hardly the most inspired of choices; the word spastic had become a term of abuse. Similarly it was right for all concerned to drop the distasteful word mongol and to insist on the term Down’s syndrome instead.

So last Monday, when the Voluntary Euthanasia Society announced it was changing its name to Dignity in Dying, I restrained instant indignation for a moment to wonder whether there isn’t perhaps some point in it. Names do matter; they affect the way we think.

Euthanasia is an alarming word. It ought not to be; strictly speaking it just means a good death, which is what we all hope for. However, it has come to mean rather the opposite; it has all kinds of terrible connotations with bad deaths, with murdering people because of their race or mental infirmities, or with hastening the deaths of the elderly sick without their consent. There have been some horrifying cases recently of nurses killing geriatric patients more or less to tidy up their wards.

Possibly for the trivial reason that both words are Greek and begin with “eu”, euthanasia has come in a confused way to be associated with eugenics, which is even more alarming. And eugenics is one of those overloaded words that silences argument and stifles thought. A great deal of unnecessary confusion and anxiety surrounds the word euthanasia; this in part explains the passionate resistance to Lord Joffe’s various versions of his bill on assisted dying; he has had to revise it, reducing its scope and — tellingly — eliminating the phrase voluntary euthanasia.

The society’s new name describes what we all want, whatever each of us may mean by that. Unfortunately dignity in dying is something you cannot choose in this country. It is a matter of luck, and if you are unlucky your dying will be drawn out, painful and frightening, like Diane Pretty’s. It is illegal deliberately to help someone to die. Last week’s launch coincided with the haunting story of Dr Anne Turner, who went to Switzerland to die on Tuesday with the help of a doctor, surrounded by her grown-up children.

Her story is a perfect reminder of why the law must be changed in this country. Turner had seen her mother die in pain with inadequate morphine, she had nursed her dying husband through a terrible degenerative disease, and she had recently been diagnosed with another.

Knowing what lay ahead she tried to commit suicide at home, but failed; clearly suicide isn’t easy even for a doctor. In the end she went to a clinic in Zurich where the charity Dignitas gave her a lethal solution of barbiturates to swallow. That meant that she had to be well enough to do so and fit enough to travel to Switzerland. So she had to go to her death earlier than otherwise she might have done. The day of her death she was talking and singing with her children. Had assisted suicide been legal in this country she would be alive today.

Turner was a member of Dignity in Dying; the day after her death another member and former chairman of the charity announced that he was being investigated by the police, after having said publicly that he had advised five terminally ill British people to commit suicide in Switzerland in the same way as Turner. He is Michael Irwin, the brave campaigner and doctor who was struck off the medical register last September for planning to help an old friend die rather than face a painful death from cancer; he says he is quite prepared to go to prison.

It should not need brave trips to Switzerland or the courage of campaigners who break the law to restore to us our freedom to choose our own death. We hear ceaselessly these days of our right to choose, but when it comes to one of the most important there is no choice at all, apart from a lonely and perhaps botched suicide.

I cannot understand why people are so squeamish about death, unless they have strong religious views. As my eccentric mother-in-law used to say, death isn’t the end of the world. In her case this was distinctly odd, as she was irreligious and envisaged no world after death. But what she meant is that there are things much worse than death, which are, so to speak, the end of one’s own world. One of them, surely, is a drawn-out dying, increasingly cut off from one’s world by increasing pain, disability and dependence. To prefer death in such circumstances is not to deny the value of life — rather the reverse. It is because one loves life that one does not want a living death.

Joffe’s new bill, which will soon have its second reading in the Lords, is now too limited. It deals only with “indirect assisted dying”, in which a doctor may give patients a prescription or oral barbiturates to kill themselves. Given the careful safeguards and constraints in the bill I would not be afraid to include directly assisted dying, in which a willing doctor may kill consenting patients themselves (as often happens in practice); some patients, when they decide they wish to die, are no longer physically able to take their own lives.

The only constant counter-argument seems to be another of those phrases that silence argument and thought — “the sanctity of life”. It is good and indeed essential to respect the absolute value of other people’s lives. But one does not have to think of one’s own life, at every stage, as sacrosanct, if one is not religious. It is what it is, and it is one’s own. As my mother-in-law said, death isn’t really the end of the world.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 22nd, 2006

Byte by byte, our identity is being stolen

Years ago sophisticated travellers in far-flung places used to smile indulgently at simple tribal people afraid of having their photograph taken. It seemed that in their ignorant way the tribal folk feared that their identity itself was being given for ever into the power of the photographer and his strange machine, to make whatever spells he liked. As it turns out, they were right and are having the last indulgent smile, if not exactly the last laugh, on us.

Our identity — or rather countless aspects of it — is being taken from us in countless new ways by information snapshots. It is complex and frightening. What is deceptive is that each individual loss seems quite trivial; it seems a small matter to hand over elaborate details to a bank, an insurance company, a mortgage company, a credit card company. But every time we make a trivial transaction, we make many of these details available to countless others, both legally and before long illegally.

It makes me feel faintly anxious when an unknown voice in a cinema booking office, on hearing my postcode, gives my exact address. What else does she know? What else could she know if she made the effort? Or if she were dishonest? It is alarming. The ether, or the virtual ether, is heaving with private details about all of us, like the accumulating rubbish in space. All that is as nothing, however, compared with the efforts of the state to steal our identities. What’s worse is that the rate of theft — for it really is a kind of theft — seems to be increasing fast.

On Friday it emerged that 24,000 young people aged between 10 and 18 have their DNA profiles stored on a nationwide database, even though they have never been cautioned, charged or convicted of an offence. Their genetic identities have been stored by the state for absolutely no reason.

This came out because a diligent MP took the trouble to find out for a constituent why a boy who was wrongly arrested in a case — please note — of mistaken identity, had his DNA profile taken and stored by the police. It seems that of the 3m DNA profiles now held by the national database, nearly 140,000 are from people who have never been charged or cautioned. Why? Worse still, this is perfectly legal. Why? Yesterday it was reported that records of all criminal convictions, and of all cautions, will remain on police files for 100 years, from April onwards. Chief constables have suddenly overturned the principle that offences can be “spent”. This puts paid to the chance of living down youthful indiscretions and turning over a new leaf.

Our medical records are to be made widely available on the new National Health Service computer system, under the Care Record Development Board, for all kinds of NHS employees to obtain, not to mention snoops and hackers. Last week the British Medical Association’s family doctors’ committee, to its great credit, decided that patients should be asked to consent, formally, to having their records entered on the new database.

Earlier the government was offering NHS patients the choice of opting out of this, but the GPs voted to require explicit consent, meaning explicit agreement to opt in. It seems extraordinary that there was ever any assumption that this extremely important matter need not necessarily be taken to parliament, and that we might just as well give way passively to the erratic powers of IT. But such is the temper of the times.

Our masters (and mistresses) seem determined to know more and more about us, right across the oceans and the ether. In this country we are still being threatened with ID cards, which might hold all sorts of information on those dark and shiny strips.

In the US the Department of Justice is even now trying to force Google, the internet search engine, to hand over records of what people have been looking for when they visit the site. Specifically they asked for a list of terms entered during a single week, and 1m randomly selected web addresses. Google is valiantly resisting this extreme invasion of privacy but Microsoft and Yahoo! have already complied. Good for Google one must say; but it is unlikely that even Google will be able to resist the Goliath of the US Justice Department.

Those who have nothing to hide, people always say, have nothing to fear from releasing all these personal details (voluntarily or otherwise). That is a terrible mistake. It is to misunderstand the importance of privacy in human affairs and it’s to ignore the constant threat of hackers.

It is also to underestimate the importance of error in human affairs, most particularly in computer use. One of the worst things about all these databases is the mistakes they make and then disseminate far and wide. Credit checking agencies, for instance, regularly make bad mistakes, as people with good credit who get wrongly listed as bad debtors will tell you. It is very hard to discover such mistakes or to reverse them.

IT is one of the most powerful tools and at the same time one of the most serious problems for public services today. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service, for instance, have had serious problems with IT interface and as for the NHS computer system, one can only call it an expensive disaster. The much vaunted electronic booking system is a year behind schedule and the entire £6.2 billion NHS computer system is in danger of collapsing, according to a recent leak from a civil servant. Would you seriously trust such a system with details about a mental illness or an abortion? It now emerges that there is a great deal of identity fraud surrounding the tax credit system; one would have to be daft to file tax returns online.

Perhaps I seem unduly cynical about police information systems, but there is always human error. In the trial of the Notting Hill rapist, for instance, it emerged that the rapist had originally been ignored as a suspect because a Home Office computer inaccurately reported that on the date of one of the offences he was still in jail. More recently we have the disgraceful confusion over lists of sex offenders.

I hardly know which is worse — a state that is good at getting and guarding our personal records, or one which is pretty bad. But either way, the time has come to think carefully and publicly about how we want to use technology to stop the recording eye of Big Brother stealing our identities.