The Sunday Times

October 7th, 2012

A cocktail of tolerance and fear guarded Savile’s secrets

Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time? Why didn’t anyone do anything? Those were the questions people were asking after last week’s exposure of the late Sir Jimmy Savile as an alleged predatory paedophile over many years. But they are the wrong questions, asked in the misleading perspective of hindsight. It is all too easy to understand what happened, assuming that at least some of the allegations are true, and how such a man could get away with such crimes. It is no accident that allegations are emerging only after his death, when Savile can neither defend himself nor sue for libel.

The first obvious truth is that ugly rumours almost always surround stars. That being so, it is often entirely reasonable to dismiss nasty gossip about them, and all the more tempting if one has any interest in doing so. Many people knew for years of suspicions about Savile, but there were countless incentives to turn a blind eye.

That doesn’t in the least excuse anyone for ignoring the rumours, least of all those in the BBC who had the power, or the duty, to look into them: entirely inexcusable has been the BBC’s shocking attempt to cover up Savile’s crimes by suppressing its own Newsnight exposé last December. But it does make it less incomprehensible that Savile allegedly got away with sexually assaulting and raping schoolgirls, and possibly a 12-year-old boy, for so long.

Esther Rantzen, a BBC star at the same time as Savile and much photographed with him, has been much derided this past week for ignoring for years, as she has tearfully admitted, the many rumours she heard about him.

It’s all extremely awkward for her, as the righteous founder of ChildLine and scourge of child abusers. Now, having seen the ITV television exposé, she is convinced of Savile’s guilt. “We all colluded with him,” she said brokenly on television, “didn’t we? We turned him into the Jimmy Savile who was untouchable. He was a godlike figure.”

Unaccustomed though I am to defending Rantzen, I do have some slight sympathy. As a star herself, she must have known how much spiteful gossip celebrity attracts: jealousy, resentment and idle malice feed into nasty lies, designed to punish success. During my years in the BBC I heard plenty that were circulating about Rantzen, and I am ashamed to say I believed most of them.

It was only later, when I became a presenter of an arts show myself, and learnt of rumours people were spreading about me, that I realised that defamation is what happens to people who presume to put their heads above the parapet. So I stopped believing rumours, including those about Rantzen. And now I imagine she could easily have seen the persistent rumours about Savile as nothing more than the badmouthing that goes with stardom. So could other senior management figures at the top of the BBC.

As for those who did know the truth about Savile’s crimes, or thought they did, it would have been genuinely difficult to speak out. Whistleblowing takes enormous courage, and is usually punished. We know now that the complaints of a few brave girls were ignored. In one case a girl from an approved school who loudly objected to being groped by Savile was dragged from his arms by staff and locked up in solitary confinement, she says, for daring to suggest that saintly “Uncle Jimmy” was capable of such wickedness.

As for the people in the lower ranks of the BBC and of Savile’s nightclubs, the sources of what Rantzen called “green room gossip”, who may have seen something of Savile’s alleged sexual abuse of young girls, they had little hope of being believed either, even supposing they were prepared to risk their careers by spilling the beans on the sainted Jim. He was a national treasure, a man who raised £40m for charity, who was feted at Buckingham Palace and friends with Diana — box-office gold. Who would prefer their word to his Croesus-like celebrity? Even the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini must have felt intimidated. Once a colleague of Savile’s on Radio 1, he said last week that he had been “waiting 30 years” for such stories to come out. Savile, he said, used his charity work as a lever to prevent his private life from being exposed, and played the press “like a Stradivarius”. When one newspaper called him, threatening exposure, Savile supposedly said: “Well, you could run that story, but if you do, there goes the funds that come in to Stoke Mandeville — do you want to be responsible for the drying-up of the charity donations?” If true, this is yet another excellent reason for many people who lacked any specific evidence about Savile’s crimes to turn a blind eye to the rumours. He was, ITV alleged, a bully, a large and scary man who had been a coalminer and a wrestler. As Gambaccini said, “You just didn’t mess with Jim … and none of us were interested in going there.”

Besides, as people such as Rantzen pointed out last week with unconscious irony, he was a Catholic blessed by the Pope! These days that in itself might have been enough to take the accusations against him more seriously, but then it still conferred a faint whiff of sanctity.

Finally, one of the deepest, because most unconscious, reasons for ignoring all the Savile stories is the worst. It is that until recently few people listened to children and victims of sexual assault or took them seriously. From the 1960s onwards it was taken for granted that pop stars, music celebs and their hangers-on were entitled to make sexual use of groupies, young girls who were erotically obsessed with pop stars.

Much of their music was a mating call aimed directly at underage girls, as you can see from shots of contemporary audiences. And after all, what does the word teenybopper suggest? Most, if not all, pop and rock bands had sex with the chicks they encountered, regardless of their age: in the music world it was the droit de seigneur of the age, and Savile was not alone in exercising it.

Casually using young girls for sex simply wasn’t then seen as the crime it actually was and is. It wasn’t seen as paedophilia, or even as rape. Even those who disapproved of groupiedom often saw the girls as silly slags who deserved what they got, rather as with the underage victims in Rochdale.

Roman Polanski’s famous friends defend him to this day for his sexual abuse of an underage girl in 1977, partly because that’s what stars did then. The only proper and urgent question to ask in all this is whether such attitudes still exist to this day.

Fixing ‘Uncle Jimmy’, News Review

The Sunday Times

September 2nd, 2012

Stop huffing – we all called for this crackdown on immigration

Trying to believe two impossible things before breakfast is supposedly a religious discipline, absurd but unimportant. When it comes to public policy, trying to believe two mutually exclusive things at once can be dangerous: it makes government largely impossible.

In this country the great majority of citizens, nearly 80% according to some research, believe that net immigration should be reduced to tens of thousands a year from a peak in 2010 of 252,000.

The government has promised to do this within the present parliament, with little apparent chance of success but with solid public support. But many members of this same public expressed outrage last week when the UK Border Agency (UKBA) tried to implement the policy by disciplining London Metropolitan University for failing to check up on its foreign students.

This is incoherent. It is a fact that one way would-be immigrants from outside the EU try to get into Britain illegally is through the bogus college and or the bogus student route. There are plenty of bona fide students arriving in this country too, who also want to better their lot, and they should be welcome for many reasons: not least because they bring in money to struggling universities and to the economy generally. However, the number of non-EU students coming here to study is vast. In 2011 more than 320,000 student visas were issued to non-EU students. Altogether 500,000 students and short-term student visitors from outside the EU arrived in Britain. (EU students don’t need visas and can come here at any time for any reason.)

Among all these hundreds of thousands of non-EU students, there are some whose prime purpose is not to study but to settle here. Some may be entitled to bring in spouses and family members under the UK’s generous family reunion rules. They will also be entitled to use public services for the rest of their lives.

It is anybody’s guess how many such students there might be, but a good indicator is that the UKBA has already withdrawn the licences of 500 colleges of further education. These outfits failed to ensure that their non-EU students were entitled to be here, attended their courses or even spoke English.

Some of these colleges were deliberately selling a screen for illegal immigrants. Everyone has heard of them — dodgy rooms above a chip shop with no visible students and no exams. There are agencies in the Indian subcontinent and in Africa touting for clients for such operations.

Other colleges badly in need of overseas student fees are prepared to turn a blind eye to whether the golden goose was a bird of passage or had arrived to stay. Even so, London Metropolitan is the first university to have its licence to sponsor foreign students revoked.

One can argue about the numbers, but the fact is that no one knows what they are.Huge numbers of non-EU students arrive here but this country has no way of knowing how many leave.

It is known that a percentage stays legally, having found work. A Home Office analysis of non-EU students arriving in 2004 found that 20% were still legally in Britain five years later.

No one knows what happened to the other 80%. It’s almost incredible that any government can make promises about controlling immigration if there is no method of counting everybody out. Amazingly, it will be years before one is set up.

However, if the public wants immigration to be controlled, it shouldn’t protest when it is. The UKBA behaved perfectly reasonably. What was unreasonable was its timing, for which the government must take responsibility.

It is depressing how often the coalition has undermined an excellent policy and aroused public fury simply by poor timing. It was not right to make squatters criminals overnight last week without plenty of public advance warning, though the principle of making squatting in people’s houses a crime was right.

It wasn’t right to change GCSE standards in the middle of the academic year, though again the determination of Michael Gove, the education secretary, to raise standards is right.

In the case of London Metropolitan University, it was wrong to get tough without notice with the unlucky foreign students who are already there (genuine or not), or who had made elaborate plans to enrol this autumn.

Their stories are very sad. About 2,600 students, both those already here and those about to come, are suddenly bereft. They’ve lost their money, their university place and their right to be here. Many have only 60 days’ notice to leave.

Even so, despite this unnecessary misery, it must be right to deal sternly with colleges and universities who cannot be trusted to help stop illegal immigration. My own view is that it’s a mistake to expect colleges and universities to take on this trust.

There is so clearly a conflict of interest for them when they are all short of money and rely increasingly on foreigners’ fees to keep them afloat. The vetting of students ought to be done by an independent agency.

Since the country’s policy is to control immigration, the question of the short-term value to the economy of foreign students ought to be irrelevant. Besides, bona fide students won’t be deterred, unless last week’s appalling timing is repeated.

The figures about the economic benefits of foreign students to Britain are highly debatable and don’t include questions of the long-term cost overall of permanent immigrants and their families.

The National Union of Students claims that the income from higher education for foreigners is worth £12.5 billion a year. Universities UK estimates £8 billion. But these figures include EU students.

MigrationWatchUK believes that only £4.8 billion comes from tuition fees and spending by non-EU subjects, and some of this actually includes money earned by students working here. This brings the figure to £4.3 billion a year, but doesn’t include the cost to the exchequer of providing public services such as schools and hospitals.

Cracking down on immigration scams is legitimate when properly done. It’s a great shame that in this case it has been badly handled. But if the public wills it to end, it must will any legitimate means to that end without the usual chorus of incoherent indignation.

The Sunday Times

August 12th, 2012

Sentences are a joke and young thugs are laughing the hardest

The excitement of the London Olympics has largely eclipsed other national news. Perhaps that is why there was such a muted response to some shocking moments in the inner London crown court last Wednesday. On that day Judge Usha Karu handed down sentences to 16 members of a collection of about 50 violent thugs who rampaged through Notting Hill, west London, during last summer’s riots.

Theirs wasn’t just any old spontaneous red-mist rioting. Three local criminal gangs — the Ladbroke Bloods, the Lisson Green Mandem and the Mozart Bloods — had got together and co-ordinated on their mobile phones a plan of violent masked attacks, lootings and torchings in the neighbourhood, having set aside their usual quarrels for these criminal purposes.

Among other terrifying crimes, a number of gang members burst into the Ledbury restaurant and attacked the diners, threatening them with knives, bottles and bats. It was for some of these crimes that 16 of the young men involved were sentenced to various terms in jail last week. Most had previous convictions, many of them for offences with violence.

Their crimes were shocking enough, but worse still was the attitude of the guilty. It was reported that, as the judge was passing sentence, many of the young defendants were whooping, shouting obscenities and laughing. There seemed to be no remorse, no understanding of what they had done, no respect for the court and no fear of prison.

One of them, Karl Jensen, whistled with pleasure when he was sentenced to three years in jail. As he has already been in prison on remand for a year, he could now be out in six months. He had been released from prison for a series of robberies only 10 days before the Notting Hill mayhem. “Thank you, your honour,” he said as he was led away laughing. As well he might.

That such young people (aged 15 to 25) should be such vicious, persistent criminals, so remorseless and so without shame, is profoundly unsettling. More startling still, it seems to me, is the way they are sentenced. It was solemnly reported that most of these 16 were given particularly long jail sentences, some of the harshest sentences handed down after the riots. How the jaw drops. The worst two of them got nine years each, another two got seven years, one got 6Å, another got four and all the rest got three or less.

That doesn’t sound much to me for attacking people with bottles and baseball bats, burning their properties and cars (with the obvious risk of burning people), ripping off their jewellery and in one case pulling off a woman’s wedding ring — and doing all this with malice aforethought, cold-bloodedly and with many previous convictions in most cases.

Nine years does not mean nine years. If your prison sentence is for 12 months or more — as any criminal can discover on an easy-to-read government website apparently set up for the information of lawbreakers — you have to spend only half of it in jail. The other half will be spent “on licence” in the community, which no criminal takes seriously: plenty of crimes are committed by convicts on licence. So nine years means 4Å years, or less for good behaviour, with the rest of the time spent at large in the much put-upon community.

It’s the sort of sentencing that makes a criminal thank a judge. The judges cannot be blamed, of course, any more than thanked: their discretion over sentencing is limited, under strict statutory guidelines. But this status quo cannot be right.

Calls for tougher prison sentences are associated with the sensationalist press and heartless rightwingers. Liberals, resisting them, rightly say that prison achieves almost nothing in the way of rehabilitation and is in any case very expensive. Former prisoners’ reoffending rates are very high, if not quite as high as with “community penalties”, and many people are in prison for the wrong reasons, anyway — they are illiterates or drug addicts or unemployable.

That is all true, but, nonetheless, the first duty of a civilised country must be to protect its citizens. Without the rule of just law a good society cannot exist, as is obvious from all the failed states across the world where lawless gangs cause havoc with impunity. A very serious reckoning for serious crimes is what we need more of in this country.

It hardly matters to an anxious citizen whether a violent thug is sent to jail to punish him, to reform him or simply to put him away: what matters is that he should be kept off the streets for a long time. It would be nice if prisons could somehow start achieving miracles in the way of rehabilitation, and turn these damaged and dangerous young men into model citizens. But that seems unlikely: the prisons are overcrowded and their budgets are overstretched. Besides, even if money were no object, it seems quite likely — however much one might prefer not to think so — that some violent and unruly people are beyond redemption.

There is always hope, but there is also evidence that some people are irreparably damaged by their chaotic upbringing: neglect and abuse have been found to inhibit children’s cognitive development, so that in extreme cases they grow up unable to feel for others — they become youths who can tear off a woman’s wedding ring, or pour boiling water over an old woman to torture her.

Then there is the depressing evidence that some children with brain patterns that characterise attention deficit disorder are much more likely than others to grow up to lead lives of violent crime.

Such things may become clearer with advances in science. Meanwhile experience suggests — horribly unfair though it is — that out of the most alienated, disorderly households children are produced who are doomed to grow up to be a menace to society. Their heartless, remorseless violence, and their willingness to threaten and torture, cannot necessarily be cured, least of all by a short spell in this country’s prisons.

Perhaps they could be helped by extremely intensive, long-term therapy from the most gifted of teachers, at huge cost, but that does not seem a likely prospect in the current economic climate. Perhaps they could have been saved in infancy by adoption, but there is massive state sector resistance to that.

So even a liberal might be forced to consider locking such criminals up and, if not throwing the key away, at least putting it aside for a very long time.

The Sunday Times

July 15th, 2012

The maths is simple: it just costs too much to grow old

Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour chief secretary to the Treasury, famously left a note on his desk for his coalition successor saying there was no money left. He was absolutely right, but the general response was one of hilarity and I don’t think enough people took him seriously. There really is no money, or rather there isn’t enough money by a long way to pay for the things we have come to think essential in a welfare state like ours, such as decent care for old people.

Things are bad enough already. Already too many frail old people live alone and largely ignored, with only a few minutes of help or “social care” each day with their most essential needs. And they are the lucky ones: councils have been cutting back hard on social care and increasingly only the neediest can hope to get anything. And anyone with savings of more than £23,250 — excluding a flat or house — is not entitled to it.

Although the coalition gave local authorities £2 billion for extra social care for the elderly, it did not ring-fence the money, so it doesn’t always reach the old people who need it. The result is a sad grey crowd of people who are cruelly called bed blockers: old men and women who no longer need hospital care but whose lonely, unattended dwellings are not fit for them to go home to.

Meanwhile, when a person needs to go into a residential home, councils are required to pay the fees, but only when a person’s assets, including residential property, are worth less than £23,250.

Currently that means many people — about 40,000 a year — are forced to sell their houses or flats to pay for care homes. This is a cause of great bitterness — a bitterness that will grow if the rule about including one’s home in the assessment is extended to social care. On top of that, the system is complicated, bureaucratic and pretty much a lottery, varying from council to council. But things are not going to get better, whatever politicians might like to promise.

Last Thursday the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) announced in a chilling report that the escalating costs of an ageing population will mean yet more national austerity. Pointing out that the proportion of people over 65, who now make up 17% of the population, will rise to 26% by 2061, it estimates many increased costs, in care of the elderly, health and pensions, amounting to an added £80 billion a year in today’s money.

In the next 20 years, the number of people over 70 is set to rise by 50%, reaching nearly 10m, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The OBR states that Britain’s public spending will be “clearly unsustainable” over the next 50 years, despite the spending cuts. So, far from care for the elderly rising above today’s inadequate standards, it is almost certain to fall further below them. There’s no money now and in future there’s going to be even less.

Presumably that is why the government’s white paper and draft bill on social care, revealed last week, avoided the 64-squillion-dollar question, which is how in a time of increasing poverty the country can hope to pay for it — even as it is, let alone as one might like it to be. Forget the nuts and bolts; I agree for once with the gorgeous, pouting former Labour health secretary Andy Burnham, who said that “with no answers on the money, this white paper fails the credibility test — it is half a plan and … may raise false hopes among older people”.

Sometimes I think there isn’t much hope, true or false. This may be an insoluble problem. It may be that we are just beginning to face the fact that the welfare state and the expectations people have of it are no longer affordable. Austerity doesn’t begin to describe what will have to be a revolution: the old expectations and the old sense of entitlement will have to go. At the same time, those who can pay will have to pay more. Here are some suggestions about paying for care of the elderly, most of them unpleasant.

Universal benefits must go. The thinking behind them is out of date, and both unaffordable and undesirable. Scarce public money must go only to the neediest, through means testing. Universal bus passes (which cost £1 billion a year), winter fuel allowances (£2 billion) and free television licences must go. I’d say the same about child benefit (£11 billion). The well-off don’t need a heating handout that would hardly pay for a large dinner party, and the fertile don’t need perverse incentives to have more than two children.

Everyone must accept that their savings, including their homes, may have to be spent on paying for care in old age. There’s no universal right to leave one’s property to one’s children.

It’s true that those without assets may get much the same care as the provident, but there are many reasons why people end up penniless, not all of them bad. Besides, would anyone like to see a two-tier care system under which the “undeserving” elderly are offered a lower level of care?

Anyone who does have enough savings in some form to pay for the difficulties of old age should be glad of it and proud of it — and so should their children. Many adults actually have to impoverish themselves and wear themselves out to look after elderly relations; at least those whose parents have assets can be spared that.

Taxes of all kinds must rise hugely, or else there will have to be a large hypothecated tax upon people reaching old age. Services to old people must be reduced. In future they will have to rely more on their families, neighbours or charity. Families should be given big tax incentives to look after their own old people, or even other people’s.

NHS and social services must be amalgamated somehow, so the inadequacies of social care are no longer dumped on hospital beds, at much greater cost to the taxpayer. Health service care must be rationed for the very old. Palliative care of every kind should be available, but not ambitious treatments.

There should be fewer old people. I’ve often felt the best thing one can do for one’s children is to die before real infirmity sets in. The taboo against deliberately shuffling off this mortal coil, as people did in other cultures in the interests of younger people, is wrong. Most people say they never want to be a burden to others in old age; it would be good if more of us felt able to prove we mean it, by taking a timely and pleasant walk up the snowy mountain. Especially since there’s no money left.

The Sunday Times

July 8th, 2012

A girl’s life wasted for £250,000 a year and they dare to call it care

Charles Dickens had a great deal to say about a system of care for troublesome or unwanted children that shipped them up north, out of sight and out of mind, regardless of the outcome, to take their chances among wicked adults.

He invented — or rather he revealed under the guise of fiction, since such places existed — Dotheboys Hall in his novel Nicholas Nickleby, which remains an icon of cruelty to children to this day. In those days children were sent to places such as Dotheboys because they were illegitimate, disabled, financially inconvenient or unwanted.

These days problem children are sent up north for different reasons, supposedly in their own interests, but the outcome all too often seems remarkably similar. I wonder what Dickens would say today about a system that condemns children to a care home in Rochdale to be preyed upon by vicious men because nobody seems able to stop it and protect them or even know where they are.

All this is hardly believable in Britain, in the 21st century, after more than 50 years of welfare state promises to care for the most vulnerable. It has taken many years, and a revolting sex grooming scandal in Rochdale, for the political establishment to wake up and begin to believe it, but the facts are finally emerging about the neglect and abuse of supposedly “looked-after” children in residential care homes.

Two all-party parliamentary groups, one for runaway and missing children and adults, the other for looked-after children and care leavers, published a report of their inquiries last month and it’s now no longer possible to ignore what is going on. Some of these homes are doing an excellent and often extremely difficult job. But the way the system works, or rather doesn’t work, means that all too many are a disgrace and perhaps even worse than useless.

A similar report by Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, published last week concludes that the care system is not fit for purpose: its author said she had never before come across the scale of violence and sadism that she had discovered when writing it.

Lamenting this, Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, has admitted that to know the extent of the problem is impossible because the data collected by police, care services and Ofsted are “raw and erratic”. As David Simmonds, chairman of the Children and Young People Board, has said, the issues are obscured by a “statistical fog”.

That means nobody knows how many children go missing or for how long: the education department thought the number for last year was 930, while police estimate that there were 10,000. This is astonishing. It also means that Ofsted reports are frequently inadequate, failing to note low qualifications or signs of abuse.

It means, too, that police have not been told about care homes in their manor. The lack of good staff and training means that some professionals, rather in the brutal spirit of Wackford Squeers, perceive these children as “troublesome” , “promiscuous”, “criminals” or “slags who knew what they were getting themselves into”, as if they were doctors blaming underfed children for having rickets.

In the midst of all this Dickensian horror there is a shocking fact that isn’t Dickensian at all. In the 19th century there was no public money, apart from charity, for unfortunate children. But today the average amount of money spent by the state on each “looked-after” child in a children’s home is £200,000 a year — a huge sum.

In fact a single-person home in Rochdale charged a local authority £252,000 a year to care for one girl, offering “expert” 24-hour care and supervision. Despite this payment she was regularly drunk, disappeared often for weeks at a time and was persistently sexually abused by countless men near the home, while Ofsted gave the place a clean report.

All this for a mere £252,000. The waste of public money is nothing in comparison with the waste of this young girl’s life and chances. But, in its lesser way, it is a national scandal as well. The cost of keeping some 5,000 children in care homes, excluding associated costs such as council administration, social services deliberations, public inquiries, policing and so on, is close to £1 billion a year. So much money and so much misery.

I have checked with some leading voluntary sector providers of high-quality social care and asked how much money is needed in their experience. They reckon that to provide a single person with 24-hour one-to-one care, including trained staff, pleasant accommodation and food and other expenses such as transport, entertainment and clothing, would cost £140,000-£145,000 a year, tops, even in the south of England.

In practice many individuals may not want to live alone; they may benefit from sharing staff support and may not need staff who are awake at night. If so, the total costs could be significantly lower. It is my experience, too, that good residential social care can be provided for such sums, although it does not include profit.

There is nothing wrong with making a profit out of any useful service. But when experienced and reputable voluntary sector organisations can offer such a service for £140,000 or so, it is odd that local authority commissioners feel obliged to hand over an extra £100,000 on top to private care home providers. How is it that public servants are so reckless with public money? Why are they bamboozled by greedy private providers? It is obvious that a child could go to a top private school — and there are plenty of nice, comfortable boarding schools for rich misfits, where their problems are dealt with using as much enlightenment as possible — and still have plenty of change from £250,000: about £220,000 in change, to be precise. This would pay for three highly qualified 24/7 carers at £30,000 a year and still leave well over £100,000 for accommodation and all other expenses.

While nobody wants to penny-pinch on the cost of looking after the most troubled and unlucky children, £100,000 net of round-the-clock care seems excessive. When £250,000 is carelessly thrown at a personal disaster without solving it or even containing it, one can only say that public sector commissioners are not just deeply incompetent but also irresponsible. Why have there been no public sackings or public humiliations? The culture of childcare agencies is clearly much worse than useless.

The Sunday Times

July 1st, 2012

Here’s one form of child abuse we simply have to live with

Nothing, in all my years of journalism, has aroused such frenzied responses among readers as the subject of circumcision. If my main purpose were to excite the maximum number of emails and letters I would write about nothing else, such is the public obsession with it.

So it was hardly surprising last week that when a German court in Cologne ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal there was a public outcry — especially as this was in Germany.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” into the right to religious freedom and “an outrageous and insensitive act”. Likewise, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany called it “a blatant and inadmissible interference” in the rights of parents.

Other Muslims and Jews across the world, and those who express sympathy with them, have risen up in outrage. Germany’s foreign minister quickly added his voice by saying that “religious traditions must be permitted in a tolerant society”. Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on religious freedom, told German radio that the court’s reasoning was “nonsense”.

It wasn’t. No reasonable person could think it was nonsense or wrong. The court ruled that this type of circumcision should be made illegal — it did not itself have the power to do so — because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people — babies or children — who had not consented to it.

However, the court said boys who were able to give informed consent for circumcision should be able to have it done: this would mean that the religious tradition of circumcision would not be lost among those who value it. But in the case of babies, according to the ruling, “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of parents”. How can any reasonable person call that nonsense? It seems self-evident to me that cutting off the foreskin of a baby boy is a primitive, tribal form of child abuse. Quite apart from the question of consent, the procedure is painful and there are some risks attached to any surgery; the case in Germany arose because a four-year-old Muslim boy who had been circumcised started bleeding profusely two days later and was taken to the University Hospital of Cologne, where officials called the police.

The idea of taking a knife to an unsuspecting infant and cutting something off one of the most sensitive parts of his body, permanently changing its appearance and, perhaps, its sensations, has always seemed to me shocking. It is, objectively, a form of genital mutilation.

The argument that such a bizarre practice is an important part of religious freedom in the modern world carries no weight at all. If freedom of religion and the principle of religious tolerance are such overwhelming arguments in western legal decisions, then why not permit the stoning of women, the killing of homosexuals, the amputation of thieves’ hands and much else in Islamic law? There are plenty of practices required by certain religions that would not for one instant be tolerated in the West. One of them is female circumcision, otherwise known as female genital mutilation. And while not all Muslims and others who practise it consider it to be an absolute religious requirement, there are many who do, and who deeply resent western liberal attempts to stop it worldwide.

It’s one of the many mysteries regarding western double standards that while the circumcision of girls is abhorrent and illegal, even in its least invasive forms, the circumcision of boys is acceptable and widely practised by parents who are not in the least religious themselves.

This was true long before epidemiologists discovered that removing the foreskin offered some protection from sexually transmitted diseases: long before then, circumcision had become normalised. But one could imagine the howls of public contempt if religious leaders and human rights campaigners protested that people must in the name of religious freedom and tolerance continue to have the right to mutilate the genitals of little girls.

What’s wrong here, tragically, is article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is hard to believe that all those responsible for this noble manifesto, with their universalist ideals, really can have thought that all religious practices, everywhere, should be enshrined under the umbrella of equal rights.

Some of the authors, surely, must have known that religion is far from a vicarage tea party everywhere in the world. They must have known that some religious practices are, as the Cologne court pointed out, at odds with other central human rights.

Yet because of article 18, people worldwide have considerable force behind their demands for procedures such as male genital mutilation. What makes it worse is the growing conflation in recent years of religion, culture and ethnicity: Muslim women’s insistence on the right to wear the niqab or the hijab, whether or not such a requirement is truly koranic, is an obvious instance.

All the same, while I think the Cologne court was entirely right in its opinion, it was entirely wrong to offer it. Hardly anything could be more inflammatory to Muslims and Jews worldwide, hardly anything could be more symbolic to them of rejection and the painful truth is that it comes particularly badly from a German court, for reasons that need no explanation. Until now male circumcision has been a grey area in Germany and not necessarily illegal. That’s surely how it should stay for the time being.

In the real world, at least in the worlds of hygiene and medicine, surely the realistic view must be that male circumcision should be tolerated because any harm it might do to the child is minor compared to the harm a ban would do to public feeling.

God knows, so to speak, what the real point of circumcision is, but at least male circumcision is not aimed, as female circumcision specifically is, at destroying sexual pleasure.

Its risks in the developed world are tiny and its newly discovered protection against sexual diseases makes it almost desirable. The Protestant Henry IV of France famously said, on becoming Catholic to take the throne, that Paris was well worth a mass. Today one could say that international religious harmony is well worth a foreskin.

The Sunday Times

May 6th, 2012

Sorry, oafs, no toxic tweet will stop the brainbox babes

Twitter has enabled people to say in public the nastiest things they really think — for the first time in history and with impunity. It is fascinating. Everyone must be curious about what other people actually feel, simmering beneath what they’re prepared to say out loud, but until recently it has been almost impossible to know. The internet has changed all that.

Unsurprisingly, what has emerged is that the things that people really feel are sometimes revolting and frightening, as Sigmund Freud pointed out long ago. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that some of them are astonishingly misogynistic: so Louise Mensch MP found last week, when a cacophony of disgusting things was tweeted about her after she had voted against a select committee report on phone hacking that included a statement strongly criticising Rupert Murdoch.

Mensch’s view was the final report ought not to have included this statement since it went beyond the committee’s remit and in any case hadn’t been discussed. She spoke out very publicly, appearing on television and forcefully arguing her case in a confidently adversarial spirit. But the point, surely, is not what her view was. The point is that this woman was suddenly deluged by a torrent of violent and sexual abuse on Twitter, almost all of it from men and most too revolting to print — except on Twitter. Stuart Hyde, chief constable of Cumbria police, who is also nationally responsible for e-crime, said some of the tweets were “pretty horrendous” and could be illegal.

One can perhaps understand the political rage that some of these tweeters feel, but for them to express it in such terms suggests an intransigent misogyny — a fear and hatred of women that feminism has hardly touched. The idea that a woman must be kept in line by sexual humiliation, or that it is acceptable for men to fantasise in public about doing so, is astonishing in a developed society. We associate that attitude with medieval cultures in backward societies, not with literate British men with computers. I had thought that in my adult lifetime these primitive male responses had been at least suppressed. But the old Adam dies hard.

What is it about Mensch that has drawn down upon her this terrible, primitive roar of male sexual deviancy? I realise that many of her attackers are driven by a loathing of anything that might be called right wing in general and in particular by a loathing of the media mogul. But that doesn’t seem to be explanation enough. There seems to be something extreme about the misogyny, as if Mensch’s real crime were something to do with her sex.

She is not alone. Other women who dare to enter into public controversy, such as certain political columnists, report the same kind of distressing abuse. The annoying thing about Mensch, I suspect, is that she is that rare and alarming creature, an alpha female. She has it all: she is brilliant and beautiful. She is clever, famous and a babe.

I don’t want to exaggerate: I have several reservations about Mensch. But no one can deny that she is both good-looking and articulate. Compared with most women MPs she stands out like a racehorse among cobs — a woman who can really pace the men.

Blair’s babes of old were by comparison a drab, beta collection.

Mensch is quick on the intellectual draw, she speaks coolly and incisively without hesitation or repetition, she is not at all deferential or tentative, she usually has a trained lawyer’s precision and she wears her beauty with understated elegance.

This might all seem a bit much, perhaps, to those beta, gamma and delta males who have been howling like Caliban on Twitter: such women are an intolerable threat. It is hard not to feel that some men do still particularly resent women who are not only successful but beautiful as well. (Women may do, too, but at least they do not express their feelings in dreams of violent sexual attack.) Such a woman is a double affront to their status and to their sexuality: she is by virtue of her public success more powerful and by virtue of her glamour out of their sexual league. As Doll Tearsheet unkindly puts it in Henry IV, Part 2, as a sexual putdown to a lowlife suitor, “I am meat for your master.” Alpha women are doubly demoralising to any man who feels insecure on such points.

The problem is that most men in this country aren’t used to such women, because they are still unusual in public life. It is only recently that women of any description have made much of an appearance in public life here. By contrast in much of Europe and the United States, for some reason, alpha women are well established; the brilliant, elegant Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, stands for them all without apparently arousing blasts of misogyny.

Perhaps European men are more confident about themselves than Britons. Whatever the reason, here after decades of third wave or fourth wave feminism, such women are still few. Clearly such change takes longer than one might hope and so far, while women excel in many things, it is rare to find a truly outstanding woman in public life who is also very good-looking, particularly in politics: even Margaret Thatcher, though handsome, was far from babe-licious.

The result has been that some unreconstructed British males are not yet able to deal with such rare birds: they are an intolerable threat to the men’s atavistic idea of their place in the scheme of things. However, the men will have to get used to them appearing in ever larger numbers. Two perfect examples of this type of woman are the detective heroines in the Danish and American versions of the TV series The Killing. Played by Sofie Grabol and Mireille Enos, both women are babes, but with an intent, serious manner and a scraped-back ponytail, much like Mensch, as if to signal that their beauty is beside the point, even if it cannot be denied. They are driven, dedicated to their work and the equal of any man. At the same time they are cool and powerful.

These are the women of the future. There are already a few in the House of Commons — the Conservatives’ A-list produced many more interesting women than Blair’s babes — along with a couple of pioneers in the Lords. Progress has been made.

There are few men who, without the supposed anonymity of the internet, will say nasty things about women. But Twitter suggests that no matter what women prove about themselves, there is something elemental about misogyny and we may never quite be rid of it.

The Sunday Times

April 29th, 2012

If freedom means seeing our kids defiled by porn, I opt out

Freedom of expression is extremely precious. People all over the world who don’t have it envy those of us who do and some are even prepared to die for it. And one of the many almost miraculous features of the internet is that it has brought freedom of expression to countless millions, even those in the least free societies. But one wonders if this noble ideal should embrace the freedom to deluge our computers and our children’s minds with ceaseless pornography. I doubt that those who face torture and death in prison in the cause of freedom of expression would think so, or would think they should die so that 10-year-olds can stare at images of men and women coupling with animals.

The internet is awash with such stuff, and a great deal worse, and many children see it. In this country, six out of 10 households where there are children have no filters or firewalls in place to block out “adult content”, as it is quaintly called, and 52% of British children report having unsupervised access to computers in their bedrooms.

It would hardly be surprising if, as research last year suggested, one in three 10-year-olds has watched pornography online, 81% of 14 to 16-year-olds have done so regularly and 70% of parents of children who say they watch porn are happily unaware of it.

These figures are given in a report published a few days ago by a cross-party inquiry led by Claire Perry MP into online child protection. The group came together to examine the current system and review the arguments for and against network-level filtering.

The big question surrounding internet porn is whether to have opt-in or opt-out — whether to leave individuals who want to avoid adult content on their computers to opt out by asking for a personal filter, or whether to require network service providers to block all such content and leave those who want access to opt in by asking for it.

Opting in to pornography would be extremely simple to do (mobile phone service providers already have a filtering system for people under 18) and would have the obvious advantage of combining protection with freedom.

At first glance it is hard to think of any argument against it. With opt-in, people over 18 would be as free as they are now to watch on demand whatever bouncing bosoms or seriously depraved filth they fancy, but those who don’t want it would not need to have anything to do with it. They wouldn’t have to worry that their children were watching it secretly or clicking on to it by mistake.

What precious freedom is at risk from that? It is what the inter-party report has recommended and last week the Labour party came out in support of it. However, the government (in the person of the unlucky culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt) is against it. Last week Hunt said an opt-in would infringe civil liberties and that later this year he will publish plans for an opt-out system under which all internet service providers must ask each of their web users if they want access to pornography and to tick a yes or a no box accordingly.

This is strange coming from a Conservative. There can be no doubt that if Hunt’s aim is to protect children as far as possible from internet pornography (as David Cameron has eloquently promised to do) then this is the wrong choice, as opting out is obviously a far less efficient way of protecting them than opting in. One wonders what, exactly, his objection is.

The only one I can think of, as far as civil liberties go, applies just as much to Hunt’s opt-out and it is that in both cases a person wanting to watch pornography must identify himself or herself to the internet service provider.

Given what we know about internet security, it is almost certain that lists of such people will be kept and copied and will become available to others sooner or later. If the price to pay includes being on some future “list of shame”, this could be enough to deter some porn fanciers from opting in and that might constitute a constraint upon their freedom.

However, I cannot say I have much sympathy. If porn fanciers think there is nothing wrong with watching porn — and it seems that porn sites are far and away the most visited sites on the internet — then they should feel no embarrassment about being known to do so.

In any case, the point is that from a civil liberties view Hunt’s proposal is no better than that of the parliamentary group. This is odd coming from a Conservative minister in a Conservative-led coalition — neither conservative in the civil liberties sense nor conservative in terms of family values.

Where there’s muck there’s brass and it is hard not to feel — as Labour and others have suggested — that money lies at the bottom of all this. Internet porn and its related advertising are super-profitable and it would be quite a blow to those profits if the number of internet hits was suddenly to drop — perhaps substantially — as a result of government legislation.

It’s not surprising that the industry strongly opposes opt-in. Last week two shadow ministers said in its support that Cameron’s closeness to Google, the internet giant, means the coalition is too weak to take adequate action over “this modern-day form of pollution”. The government ought to answer that accusation.

Underlying all this fuss is a shared assumption that pornography really does pollute children’s minds and perhaps adults’ minds too, and that the explosion of pornography everywhere has contributed to a hyper-sexualisation of society, an obsession with body image, an increase in violence, the objectification of people and a trivialisation of relationships.

I share that view, but one has to admit that the evidence is so far extremely weak . No causal links have yet been established between pornography and, for example, violent sexual crime or increased promiscuity, despite what common sense suggests. Common sense can often be wrong and, as Bertrand Russell unkindly said, it “is the metaphysics of savages”; at any rate it certainly isn’t science.

We don’t know how pornography affects children, and we can’t even agree on what ought to be rated “adult material”. All the same, there is absolutely no reason why, in the bogus name of freedom, we and our children should be exposed to any of it. Unless, that is, we specifically choose to.

The Sunday Times

April 8th, 2012

Forcing the great equality lie into school has squeezed learning out

Some of the worst ideas of socialism refuse to die, despite having been tested to destruction. One of the most disastrous has been the belief that education should be used for social engineering. According to the orthodoxy of the past 40 years, schools and universities should be made to promote equality, fairness and social mobility. Elitism, competition and selection became dirty words in this mind-set. Yet at the same time the role of education was to deliver meritocracy. The tragedy — and it has been a tragedy for millions of schoolchildren — is that this toxic ideological muddle has brought education low without actually achieving any real social mobility.

It is hardly necessary to point to the failures of education over the past few decades since they are so well established by evidence. School-leavers’ literacy and numeracy standards are shockingly low, as employers constantly complain. Our schools are falling down the international tables. A-levels, despite howls of denial, have been debased: they have become much less demanding, and the proportion of A-level applicants getting A grades has rocketed. Top universities are now obliged to give new students remedial classes. And so on.

You might think parents, teachers and even educational theorists would finally have got the message that something isn’t working and start thinking differently. Yet it seems they can’t. They seem stuck in the old, undead mind-set. As Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said last week at a conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, lobby groups of all kinds expect teachers and schools to solve too many of society’s problems: “It seems that the first answer of many to almost any problem in society is to give a duty to schools to tackle it, be it obesity, teenage pregnancy or knife crime … every other week I am presented with proposals from one well-meaning group or another to add something ‘socially desirable’ to the curriculum.”

No doubt all these groups are indeed well-meaning. But to believe that it is the responsibility of schools to sort out these intractable problems when they struggle to provide even a minimal education is daft. Imagine the predicament of a teacher in an average secondary school with a large “inclusive” class of children of all aptitudes and social backgrounds. This vast unteachable mix is one of the worst results of the national obsession with equality. The teacher is already struggling to meet the all-too-various educational needs of her pupils. How is she supposed to administer an antidote to social deprivation, abusive families, mental disturbance and violent pupils when she can barely keep order? As Gibb rightly said, if schools filled the curriculum with social issues there would be no time left for academic subjects. He sees his role as resisting those pressures so schools can concentrate on educating pupils: “My view is that the best way for schools to tackle social problems … is to make sure children leave school well educated. That is the best way out of poverty.”

Well said, but why does it need saying at all? Why, after all the failures of social engineering of the past, isn’t that obvious? Underlying this confusion is a refusal to face unpleasant facts. The first is that equality is a myth. Inequality and unfairness are real enough and often very ugly. But the unswerving pursuit of equality in education can also be ugly and is always counterproductive. It is in practice unfair to everybody. Brighter children are used to improve the educational experience of less able children, holding them back unfairly and reducing their future educational chances — a nasty kind of equality.

The second nasty fact is that equality is at odds with meritocracy. That ought to be obvious, but time and again commentators talk of the need for equality in education to promote meritocracy. What they seem to ignore is that true meritocracy is unequal: the ablest rise to the top to grasp the glittering prizes and form new privileged elites, while the rest are left behind. Nor do they examine why some children rise up while others don’t, beyond denouncing privilege and “creaming off”.

To judge from the constraints upon what politicians can actually say, much of the public still seems to be in the grip of a fuzzy egalitarian dream. It is beautifully summed up in the oxymoronic slogan of Blair’s Department for Education: “Excellence for all.” Quite clearly, all cannot have excellence or excel. Excellence means pre-eminence, superiority, towering above others, from its Latin root.

I don’t doubt that if all children received the same advantages as the privileged few, they would all do vastly better and some would excel. But environment is not the only thing that matters. That’s proved by the experiences of all the luckiest and most successful families.

Clever Mr and Mrs Yuppie shower attention, stimulus, tutors and top schools on their children and what do they discover? They find that one or two of their children may be bright enough to pass into the top independent schools and universities, but a third child might fail to do so. That is because he or she is not as innately bright as their siblings. Not all children are born equally able, even in the Yuppies’ world.

In other words, the outstanding successes of the most privileged children cannot be explained away by privilege and money, as the leftists say; the children have to be very bright as well.

Clearly there are lots of children from less privileged backgrounds who are innately bright but who fall upon thorny ground. It is a disgrace that so few children now get a chance to prove their abilities. They have to watch with their poor A-levels while universities quarrel about positive discrimination, which won’t necessarily help them anyway.

The unmentionable truth is that no one actually knows how to find those children or who they are. The idea that bright children are equally represented in every socioeconomic group and that all groups should be equally “represented” at university is nothing but a lazy, unexamined assumption. It may be correct, but there are reasons for thinking it might well not be — assortative mating among the most privileged is one.

Trying to impose equality on all has succeeded in only one thing: destroying meritocracy and imposing mediocrity and failure on most schoolchildren. Socialism in its most insidious form remains undead.

The Sunday Times

April 1st, 2012

Hands up, all those who voted for welfare queens and kid gangsters

Looking at photographs last week of the young men who shot and paralysed a five-year-old girl in a shop in south London, and of the teenager who gunned down two young British men in Florida, and then reading the final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, I was reminded of the immortal words of Dr Heinz Kiosk: “We are all guilty.”

Dr Kiosk, a progressive psychoanalyst, was one of the great comic characters created by Michael Wharton under the pseudonym of Peter Simple in the 1960s and 1970s, to be laughed at by people such as me who despaired of the flabby left-liberalism of the time and the loss on all sides both of common sense and of conviction. Another unforgettable character was Dr Spacely-Trellis, the “go-ahead” Bishop of Bevindon and author of God the Humanist, who seems to live on today in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And laugh we did.

But perhaps Dr Kiosk ought now to be revisited. For these extremely bad boys are the product of our society — of our social dispensation. Whether or not we are all to blame for our current social arrangements, there is an obvious sense in which people get the societies they deserve.

Admittedly the rioters, the shooters and the delinquent, feral gangs are all to blame for their shocking crimes. But it is not just that they do bad things: many of them have become bad in themselves, brutalised like child soldiers by their bad lives. Who or what made them so bad? Who or what failed to make them good? This is Dr Kiosk territory, but perhaps he wasn’t entirely wrong.

We know, broadly, that “those to whom evil is done do evil in return”, in the words of WH Auden’s great poem September 1, 1939. Today we could extend that, thanks to recent developments in medical science. Neglect is not an active kind of evil, or at least it hasn’t been thought as such, in the way that physical and sexual abuse clearly are. But actually because of the damage neglect can do to a child’s cognitive and social development, from the first moments of its life, it is a very great evil. Those who are badly neglected will do evil in return as well.

Neglect is everywhere in inner-city ghettos. There are single mothers with many children by many fathers, some out of work, some addicts and many subjecting their children to chaos. Hovering round these unlucky children like predators are gangs, which terrorise them into joining and then make them take part in horrifying tests of loyalty, such as gang rape and shooting. If a child has escaped neglect and abuse at home, he or she can hardly escape the terror and corruption of the gangs. The south London estate where Damilola Taylor was killed was pretty much hell on earth.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company in London, takes in many children who are severely damaged, both by bad and neglectful families and by the gangs all around them. Commenting last week on the way we now vilify delinquent children and gang members, she argued that a small proportion of them are as severely damaged as soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is according to brain research now being undertaken among Kids Company children. That is hardly surprising.

It is no longer controversial, though it was unheard of in the heyday of Dr Kiosk, that chronic maltreatment alters young people’s neural pathways; it weakens the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that restrains emotions and impulses. As a result, the limbic system and the even more primitive “reptilian brain” have more sway over a person’s behaviour. Hence the uncontrolled and unfeeling violence of some boys: their own lives have been wrecked and they go on to wreck others. And this is just the beginning of new scientific explanations of behaviour.

The ways in which children’s natures can be damaged are obviously immensely complex and varied. And the question is, however much one would like to prevent such damage, whether it is actually possible. Isn’t it quite likely, or rather, unavoidable, that there will always be a number of desperately dysfunctional people “bumping along the bottom”, to use the phrase from the riots panel’s final report last week? I once knew a boy for a couple of years who by chance was a typical example of this problem. He went to a rough local school and lived with his brother in a council flat, while his single mother lived in another one with her child by another man and “worked nights”; he barely knew how to eat with a knife and fork. He was bright, articulate and charismatic. But soon he got into bad company and he began terrorising other children, and then tortured at least one boy to stop him giving evidence about some thefts. Finally he was removed for a while under an Asbo, but he soon reappeared. This attractive, clever boy had turned into a monster — turned or been turned.

A few years ago I encountered the celebrated Charles Murray, who first wrote about the notion of an underclass in The Sunday Times. I told him this boy’s story and asked what could be done about such teenagers. Forget him, he said. It’s too late for him to change. We should concentrate on the very young.

Even if Murray is wrong, the cost of trying to turn around such people and their families, their housing, their schools and their streets is unimaginably high, even supposing it could actually be done. At the end of last year, in response to the riots, David Cameron announced a policy to spend £448m on helping 120,000 of the country’s worst problem families, via a network of troubleshooters. That works out at less than £4,000 a family. And in most cases it does not even include visits from the troubleshooters: their role would merely be to co-ordinate existing state agencies. This is just a tiny drop in a vast ocean of harm.

That harm comes from policies accepted by voters over decades — policies that have led to a vast increase in single parenthood, in welfare queens and feckless fathers in workless households, in chaotic families, in violent classrooms, in increasing illiteracy and innumeracy, in uncontrolled street gangs and in the creation of vast ghettos boiling with ethnic tension. That is what has damaged these guilty children.

And so Dr Kiosk has proved himself right at last. We are now all guilty. At least, all those who, in the spirit of the ultra-progressive Dr Kiosk, voted for the irresponsible policies that led directly to this social breakdown are guilty now.