Saturday, March 25, 2006 

Dying to survive.

Karen Armstrong's moving piece on her mother's lingering death is a sharp reminder of the way society deals with what now seems to be the very last taboo yet to be broken: leaving this mortal coil.

In a world where youth, and with it, sex, has become fetishised, not only has growing old itself become something to fear, but death has become the unspoken ultimate horror. This seems in stark contrast to less than a century ago, when whole towns of young men went off to the trenches, never to return. What has changed since then has not only been the advent of modern medicine, but a sea change in the attitude towards life itself. This may well be because there has been no mass cull of human lives during the baby boomer generation, at least not in the west. There has been no Spanish influenza, no holocaust or war which has extinguished millions of lives in what now seems like a stroke. Famine here is a thing of the past; death, while still as certain as taxes, has been made to behave.

As well as not experiencing a mass loss of life, few actually face the stench of death. A slightly larger but still small number face death, or face up to, but are then pulled away, their time not yet come. As a result, our understanding and resistance to people dying has been both diluted and heightened. The modern existential problem is that of not being able to understand the motives or reasoning of the suicide bomber. Sure, we can make fun of them, question what makes them tick (groan) and condemn them for their final fit of selfish pique which takes innocents and those not in same mindframe along with them, but very few of us can sympathise or indeed, even be allowed to. To do so is to offend the relatives of the victims, or give credence to their twisted, wicked, mistaken ideology.

The suicide bomber is just a piece of the puzzle surrounding our modern take on mortality. The contradictions of the pro-life movement, which vehemently wants to stop what it sees as innocents slaughtered because of the whims of an individual, is usually part of the same far-right wing political movement which is vociferous in defence of capital punishment. Another parallel is those of us who believe in the right of individuals to die with dignity, at a time of their own choosing. Many of those who support such a right are against capital punishment, seeing it not only as an act of revenge, but as legitimised killing by the state which makes us no better than the one sentenced to die for their crime.

The fact, really, is that death just isn't sexy. It can be fetishised and idolized just as anything else, but it will always leave the majority cold. As a result, we seem to be prepared to let a lot of seriously ill people suffer. We hear the heartbreaking cases such as that of Baby MB, who a judge decided should not have life support withdrawn from him, despite doctors describing his life as "intolerable". The baby has type one spinal muscular atrophy which usually kills 80% of babies before they are a year old. He is going to die, yet his parents want him to live, and a judge agrees. Who are we to disagree with his parents wishes, even if the child itself is incredible pain which it cannot show? We hear of cases such as that as Karen Armstrong's, where our loved ones go through months and at times years of pain, with they themselves wishing they were dead, yet we can do nothing to help them towards that cause, even if they tell us they want to die now, for fear of prosecution. It has got worse in Britain since the antics of Harold Shipman, where now doctors are even more cautious in prescribing killer doses of morphine which would relieve the suffering of their patients, even when all parties are able to make such a decision, when they might have done in the past.

The deaths of just below 3,000 people on one day in September, 5 years ago has lead, directly or indirectly, to the deaths of 10 times that number at the lowest estimate in Iraq. Do such figures matter? The position of the US military is still that they don't do bodycounts, yet we know the exact number of the US servicemen who have died since the beginning of the US invasion. (2,482 according to Cryptome.) This perhaps shows the difference in our attitudes to death across the globe. We showered money on Indonesia after the tsunami (it may well have helped that some of "our" number were also the victims), yet we do little to help stop what the US has declared is genocide in Sudan. Having the pictures of the suffering helps us to remember, and what could be more burnt on the memory than what happened on September the 11th? There are no such images from Iraq, except for the opening "Shock and Awe", which had no actual sight of people dying or jumping, just explosions and smoke. The aftermath of suicide bombings is censored (although such images are easy to find if you are so inclined), and even the sight of the coffins of US soldiers returning from Iraq has been stopped from being published or broadcast, lest it affect morale.

Is it time to re-adjust what we think about death? Surely we should not go towards the attitude of the likes of al-Qaida, who claim that we love life while they love death, but there has to be a middle way. Moralists who stop brain damaged women from being allowed to die with dignity should be ridiculed, yet we must accept that many feel abortions are abhorrent. We need laws which allow suffering to be put to an end, but which also protect us from those who wish to deal death on a large scale. None of this can happen without the freedom of the individual to choose their own way, both to live and die, as long as it does not affect the rights or lifestyles which others choose. If that involves offending others sensibilities, so be it.

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Sun-watch: The Mr Rebekah Wade list.

The Sun has got a major exclusive today, namely it's obtained the pay list for the actors who star in the BBC1 soap EastEnders. It makes for fascinating reading. OK, I'm lying, the only thing interesting about it is one simple fact.

The whole article seems to be a piece of boasting about how much Mr Ross Kemp earns from only having a six-month contract with the soap. What the article doesn't tell you, and what a casual reader of the Sun most likely doesn't know, is that Mr Ross Kemp is none other than..... Mr Rebekah Wade, the husband of the Sun editor. Telling the world how much your husband earns is of course front page news for the biggest selling tabloid in the country, so congratulations then to husband and wife, and have fun spending!

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Friday, March 24, 2006 

The 7th of July: The need for an independent inquiry.

It seems that we may well have been lied to. We were repeatedly told of how brave, how fast and how quickly the emergency services had came to the rescue of those who were trapped and injured by the suicide bombings on the underground on the 7th of July. Many of them were honoured in the New Year's list. Now at a London Assembly review hearing those who survived have been giving evidence which in places seems to contradict those reports:

The ex-fireman who was pictured helping survivors of the 7 July London bombings has criticised the ambulance service for its response to the attacks.

Paul Dadge, who was at Edgware Road, said the London Ambulance Service (LAS) was "slow to respond".

He spoke at a London Assembly 7 July review hearing which is looking at what lessons can be learnt from the attacks.

Another survivor called for aircraft style lighting, first aid kits and a reintroduction of guards on trains.

Mr Dadge told the committee: "There was a severe lack of medical supplies and equipment.

"London Ambulance Service was slow to respond in numbers and was eventually backed up by St John's and the Red Cross."

Martin Flaherty of LAS said the events of 7 July were "unprecedented" but did accept there were some delays in replenishing supplies and equipment .

"We are looking at how to speed this process up to enable us to support multiple incident sites more effectively in future," he said.

A common criticism made of London Underground (LU) and the emergency services was poor information being given to victims on the day.

Kirsty, who was caught up at King's Cross, said: "There was a complete lack of guidance.

"I went around for a while not really knowing what to do. I wasn't contacted by anyone despite giving the officer my phone number."

This proved problematic when she submitted a compensation claim. She said: "Police had no record of my involvement."

Michael, told how he escaped from a bombed train by walking down the track at Aldgate.

He told the committee: "I walked up on to the platform and asked the first group of firemen why they weren't down there - there's people dying down there - and they wouldn't look at me.

During another hearing it emerged that LU's radio systems did not work properly and it had to rely on workers running into tunnels to find out what was going on.

Survivors of the July 7 terrorist attacks yesterday condemned the emergency operation that followed and called for procedures to be overhauled.

Commuters travelling on the three targeted tube trains accused the authorities of being under-prepared and of doing too little for those injured and traumatised.

One man claimed that in the immediate aftermath of the Aldgate bombing, two passengers pushed forward to see what had occurred and said: "Great, wow."

Another told how passengers fought to help a badly injured man but were forced to watch as his life ebbed away. A third said he asked a train driver to open the first aid box but was told he did not have the key and the box would be empty.

The survivors, six men and six women, told the London assembly's July 7 review committee that as people lay injured and dying in the tunnel after the Aldgate blast emergency crews stood on the station platform, their deployment delayed because of fears of a secondary explosion. Seven people were killed at Aldgate.

None of the survivors gave their full names. One passenger, Michael, said he saw two police officers as he and other passengers made their way down the track. "I said 'where are the rest of you? People are dying down there'," he said. "I was told not to worry about that. I walked on to the platform and asked the first group of firemen 'why aren't you down there?' They wouldn't look at me."

Michael said he believed there could have been a search for volunteers willing to enter the tunnel at that early stage. "My grandfather led a rescue service in the blitz. He went in when the bombs were dropped and places were on fire. If senior officers had said 'there could be a secondary explosion but are there any volunteers?' many fireman would have said yes."

The session was opened by John, a passenger on the carriage destroyed by Mohammad Sidique Khan at Edgware Road, killing six commuters. He described seeing "an orange fireball", adding: "I thought I was going to die. Horrific loud cries and screams filled the air, together with smoke." He and other passengers realised that people at the opposite end of the carriage had been seriously injured. He said that on moving toward the blast scene he "walked into an unknown hell".

At the centre of the carriage he fell through a hole and dangled above the live rail. Another passenger pulled him out.

He said a seriously injured commuter called Stan who had fallen through another hole. "Stan was calm and conscious and he was looking at me. I repeatedly told him not to worry and that help was on its way. He never shouted out or cried. He knew he was dying. He remained calm and peaceful."

Twenty-seven passengers died on the Piccadilly line train. Many suffer post traumatic stress. Speakers called for improvements including the reintroduction of guards on trains, first aid tuition in schools and more spending on training and equipment for emergency services.

It's just another question of what really happened on the 7th of July. Only one of the bombers, Mohammad Siddique Khan, has been properly linked with extremist networks. There are growing suspicions that MI5 had been monitoring the individuals, and that there may well have been failings by the intelligence services. Why was the original story on the day that there had been power surges on the lines, while it quickly became clear that there had been 4 explosions? Why did one of the bombers target a bus instead of a train? Is it possible that these men may well have been tricked by Sidique Khan, possibly thinking they were drug mules, only instead to have their backpacks explode by remote detonation? Why did the bombers leave a car behind which apparently had more explosives in it, when if they knew what they were about to do, they were obviously not going to return? Were the emergency services really as well prepared and as efficient as we have been told they were?

There are plenty of other questions about what happened, including about the apparent copycat attacks on July the 21st which either failed or were meant to fail. So far the government has refused to allow an independent inquiry in to what happened on both of those days, instead saying that a "narrative" will be given at a point in the future. It smacks of the government trying to cover up both for its own failings, and indeed policy failings, such as the Iraq war making this country even more of a target for Islamist extremists. Rachel from North London's father was insulted by Charles Clarke when he tried to question him about the need for such an inquiry. Her honest, heartbreaking and dignified blog on its own should should shame him into doing the least he can; order that inquiry.

You can also sign the petition calling for such an inquiry here.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006 

David Cameron: A vacuous lying buffoon.

David Cameron's pathetic reply to Gordon Brown's 10th budget shows just how far he yet has to go to even think about genuinely challenging Labour in the next election. It should mark the start of the end of the honeymoon.

Cameron stood up for only 8 minutes, letting rip with a volley of insults, half-jokes and blatant distortions which only showed just how completely lacking he is. The only jab which he managed to make was that the Chancellor hadn't mentioned the NHS once in his speech; true, but he had already set the amount of funding the NHS was to receive this year in a previous budget. Cameron from then on just ranted, seeming to believe that by shouting loud enough you'll somehow undo your opponent. He failed miserably.

Gordon Brown is an "analogue politician in a digital age" who is "completely stuck in the past", David Cameron told the Commons yesterday in a response to the budget, which previewed their likely head-to-head combat at the next general election.

Mr Cameron said the chancellor was "mortgaging the country's future" by leaving it with "£6,000 of debt for every household in this country". Far from being prudent he was "an old-fashioned tax- and-spend chancellor". Mr Brown had had 10 budgets to improve transport, but "some of our motorways look like car parks", NHS deficits had reached £1bn and more than half of the country's children were failing to reach the required standards by the time they left school.

"Billions raised, billions spent, no idea where the money's gone. With a record like that the chancellor should be running for treasurer of the Labour party," Mr Cameron said.

No idea where the money's gone? It's been used to vastly improve schools and hospitals from what they were like in 1997. They are not as good as they should be, schools still fail too many children, but these are not the failures of the chancellor; he provides the money, not the ethos and the curriculum. Taxes have gone up, it's very true, but they are only now reaching levels which are historically high, still low compared to on the continent and way below the levels of the early 70s before the later Thatcher years brought them way down and left the public services in disarray.

No, all Cameron's bluster was just a personal attack on the man he knows he has to beat at the next election. Cameron didn't offer any alternative, the Tories are highly unlikely to match his increased spending on education, and all he did was use insults which don't even make any sense. What the hell does an analogue politician in a digital age mean? It's pointlessly post-modern posturing, by a man who is trying so desperately to look young and "with-it" that he's willing to copy Blair in almost every way, right down to the empty slogans and non-answers. What really scares the Tories is that Brown actually might have some convictions that they will not be able to copy, which is what they have done so far since Cameron's succession to the party leadership. With such a witless personal attack, Cameron just looks a vacuous lying idiot, his pledge to end "punch and judy" politics fully tore apart in his screaming, a pledge already broken with previous attacks and smears against John Prescott by his front benchers.

Perhaps it was just me, but Brown's oratory yesterday almost made me believe in Labour again. All the signs point to his abandoning of any really radical policy positions he may have had, but it nearly had me thinking that he will be different. In reality what we are increasingly faced with is a vapid Tory leader who has no convictions whatsoever, and a Labour leader in waiting who has to abandon his in order to win the support of the Blairites. Menzies Campbell also did a good speech yesterday, but hardly anyone was listening. That sadly is the way that it's likely to stay for the next couple of years at least, with the Tories continuing their nasty attacks on Gordon Brown, while we wait for Blair to go. And politics will be much the worse for it.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006 

Loans and terror.

The Labour spin and smear machine has gone into overdrive following the loans for lordships scandal. Yesterday saw the Charles "No Trousers" Clarke say the following about Jack Dromey:

Charles Clarke says he has "serious questions about Jack Dromey's capacity" as Labour treasurer after the row over the £14m of secret loans to the party.

He says the fact Mr Dromey did not know about the loans meant "you have to wonder how well he was doing his work".

and today David Blunkett, in a tirade over on the Comment is Free blog:

Yet when Jack Dromey discovered his "latent anger", he was doing more than display his own pique at not having been told. After all, it was the Ides of March!

Yes, apparently Blunkett thinks that Jack Dromey was stabbing Blair in the back, as part of some attempted coup which was meant to lead Gordon Brown to the leadership as quickly as possible. Just one problem with this thesis: it's complete and utter piffle. Dromey was furious because he had been kept in the dark; he didn't inquire because he felt that those higher up were playing fair. It was only when Lord Levy's scheming came to the fore in the sunday newspapers that he found out about it. The smearing of Dromey as incompetent is reminiscent of the way that David Kelly was described as a 'Walter Mitty' type fantasist during the 45-minute furore which led to his death and the Hutton iniqury.

The government keeps repeating that nothing illegal has been done. That's true, but the simple fact that Levy asked Chai Patel (and likely the rest) for his pledge to the Labour party to be a loan rather than a declared donation shows the subterfuge which the fundraisers were indulging in. Now that Labour has published full details of all those who gave loans to the party prior to the election, we find that the one of them was Rod Aldridge, head of support services firm Crapita (sorry, Capita) which has helmed several public service disasters involving computer databases, and has numerous contracts with the government. Doubtless, this was a loan out of the goodness of his heart, and he would not have expected any favoritism in further contract bidding in return. No, that would be cynicism on my part of the highest order. The parties are now all falling over themselves to reform the system, even though they wouldn't have done anything had this not been exposed by the media. Just in case you don't believe me, Blair himself was asked about the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act back in January. Guess his answer. Not that the opposition parties are innocent, the Tories likely have even higher sums in undeclared loans (some suggest approaching £20 million), while the Lib Dems have had some loans, but only of a tiny amount.

So what does Blair do when the last tiny amount of authority he had is destroyed? Yep, he goes on another rant about foreign policy.

Tony Blair launched a staunch defence yesterday of the government's foreign policy, attacking critics for condemning terrorist attacks but failing to challenge the Islamist ideology which drove them.

In a wide-ranging and at times - as he admitted - controversial speech, he dismissed the argument that invading Iraq had spawned terrorism, insisting: "We must reject the thought that somehow we are the authors of our own distress."

Yes, that's right. The United States and Britain are entirely blameless in all this. Blair can't face up to and admit that his Iraq adventure has been a disaster, that it has made us less safe, plunged Iraq into chaos and left it as a place where terrorists can be both trained and which can be used by extremists as a recruiting issue for their cause. As the Guardian leader eloquently puts it:

No reasonable person will argue with Mr Blair's demand that religious extremism - including Islamist extremism - should be labelled as such, and fought. But no reasonable person can any longer deny that extremism and hatred has been fuelled by the disastrous war in Iraq. It would be good to hear that necessary admission made out loud by those responsible for it.

And if that wasn't enough to make you so miserable about politics that you feel like using the sharp edge of the Sun to slit your throat, we have Charlie Clark stalling yet again on phone intercept evidence and saying that the case for 90-day detention without trial for terrorist suspects is still "compelling".
Even though it was kicked out by a large majority of MPs', when this government gets an idea in its head, however illiberal and indefensible, whatever the circumstances, it won't let go. It's like a dog that when you throw something for it to fetch won't then let you take the object back. Its stubbornness and self-righteousness is just as ugly as all those years of gloom under Thatcher.

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Front page-watch: We're all going to die!

Another day, another despicable Sun front page.

Don't let the fact the prosecution in the case against 7 men accused of plotting bomb attacks was just making its opening statement in a trial which may well last six months, this was defintely a plot which was going to personally kill YOU. The defence has not even had a chance to speak yet, but the Sun seems to believe that these men are obviously guilty. Perhaps Rebekah Wade should be reminded of the contempt of court laws, especially seeing as the Sunday Mirror only a few years ago published an article which led to the collapse of the trial of two Leeds United footballers. Also of note is, as usual, that the Sun gets ever closer to being a parody of itself:

On to the Daily Mail, which has a slightly less hysterical take on the same story:

To the side of that, we have a very important story about the death of model Sally Anne Bowman, which of course cannot be reported without using one of the photos from her portfolio. Dead pretty girl = more sales for sure! We're all going to die, but we can rest assured when we arrive in hell that we'll have the company of gorgeous pouting murdered teenagers.

To the Sexpress then, which accuses Camilla of stealing Diana's previous style. Except that, err, she was visiting a mosque. I doubt it would have been looked kindly on if she hadn't covered her hair, so what else was she supposed to do? The Express's fanatical obsession with the dead princess gets stronger by the day.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006 

Sun-watch: Using the death of one girl to forward their own political agenda.

You have to hand it to the Sun (and not to let the Mirror off the hook, they have a very similar front page), at least they are somewhat consistent. Their front page today, showing the "trusting" face of Maryann Leneghan, who was murdered in an apparent revenge attack, is a typical piece of propaganda which only ever tells one side of a story. In the Sun's parlance, anyone ever convicted of any crime, however slight, is a yob. Maryann's death is apparently a scandal.

The motive behind the death of this trusting girl is only awarded two sentences in the Sun's story about her death.

"The two girls were grabbed from a car in which they were sleeping in a revenge attack masterminded by Thomas. He blamed them for setting him up as the victim of a robbery in which cash and drugs were stolen and he was stabbed."

Nowhere in the story is there room for the words of Richard Latham QC, who was prosecuting, not defending:

"Mary-Ann (and her friend) were not without their problems. Mary-Ann was bunking off school, neither had a job. They were certainly not the sort of girls who would have been tucked up at home at 10 o'clock at night."

No, that might take some of the force out of their story. Maryann was a trusting angel, there's no chance she could have been involved in what led to one of the men who took revenge being stabbed. After all, these girls would qualify for the same brush which the Sun often tars all youth with; The yob brush. And where did the killers find Maryann? In the car park of a pub, drinking wine underage. In another case she'd be called a yob and the Sun would demand that she should be locked away as well. Don't get me wrong, this is a case which really does question your own personal beliefs on punishment; nothing justifies what happened to the two girls, just as what the men did should not justify their own death, which is what many are calling for on the Sun website, but ignoring the background to the case doesn't help in the reaction to it, and the Sun's hypocrisy is to be expected. No matter though, let's just ignore that and use this case to force our political view of crime on everyone.

The Sun's leader is the really foul piece of today's paper.

"CHARLES Clarke is getting away with murder.

The Home Secretary is willing to insult the bereaved dad of a 7/7 bomb victim, but he won’t lift a politically-correct finger to protect us against killers.

On his watch, police are slow to arrest, prosecutors won’t charge, and judges won’t jail villains.

Even when a rapist or murderer is locked up, he is out again after serving half his time.

Loving dads like John Monckton and Robert Symons are hacked to death in their own homes by killers on early release.

A psycho with a violent record is set free to torture, rape and murder 16-year-old Maryann Leneghan.

These are merely daily examples of violence by thugs who treat the law — and us — with contempt.

Mr Clarke expresses concern. We don’t want his concern.

We want him to stop youngsters routinely carrying guns and using knives as fashion accessories.

We demand a crackdown on feral kids who have turned our town centres into no-go zones after dark.

Mr Clarke believes jail is the last resort. And we pay the price for his tolerance.

America has shown that criminals cannot rape and murder if they are behind bars.

But the mere thought of jail offends the sensitivities of our liberal elite.

We have the biggest prison population in Europe because we have the biggest crime rate.

Yet Labour is slow to build new prisons. It sneers at prison ships.

So we have to live in a country where violence is becoming a horrific way of life.

If Charles Clarke can’t find the guts to stop it, Tony Blair should use his next reshuffle to find someone who can."

Let's just start by acknowledging an inherent contradiction. Prosecutors won't prosecute, and judges won't jail, yet we have the biggest prison population in Europe. So if people aren't getting prosecuted and not being jailed, why are so many there?
Ah, that's right, we have the biggest crime rate. The Sun doesn't bother to back this up with any statistics, because they know that it would then fall apart. The crime rate in this country has now been falling for almost ten years, and the last statistics issued by the Home Office covering the last six weeks of 2005 showed a drop in violent crime of 11%. This was compared to the same period in 2004, which then also had a drop in serious violent crime by 8%, and all crime by 5%. The number of people shot dead in 2004 in the UK was 60, which was down on 70 from 2003. Still, if they included that it would destroy their arguments, so I can see why they didn't.

A psycho with a violent record? They must be referring to Michael Johnson, who attacked a boy of 13 with learning difficulties, hanging him upside down from a tree and battering his head. What they don't bother to explain is that happened when Johnson himself was 13. He served 2 years of a 3 year sentence for his crime, when he was discharged. Of course, the Sun doesn't believe in giving anyone a second chance.

The Sun also demands a crackdown on "feral kids" who make town centres no-go zones after dark. That's strange, I thought there had already been one going on for a couple of years now, with some councils handing out anti-social behaviour orders like sweets, with the police having the power to move on any group of 3 or more whether they're doing anything wrong or not. This isn't good enough for our moral guardians at the Sun though, they demand an even further crackdown, without suggesting what it should be. Maybe we should shoot any teenager seen out over a certain time of night? That would save us having to just lock every single young person up.

America has shown that criminals cannot rape and murder if they are behind bars? America has a far higher murder rate than the UK, even in the states with the death penalty, guns are much more easily available and the inner cities are even more ghettoised than here, yet America is the leading example. Silly me, I thought that should the last place we ought to look to.

When it comes down to it, the Sun turns to its favourite invented enemy, political correctness. The home secretary is politcally correct, our "liberal elite" whoever they are, is offended by jail. Could it be because politicians who aren't stuck back in the age of hanging and flogging realise that prison doesn't work?
No, the answer according to the Sun is to build more prisons, and seemingly use prison ships which Labour sneers at. Maybe they sneer at the prison ship, as according to the prison inspectors annual report, they were making up how many hours the inmates had spent out of their cells.

The Sun knows it will get away with such blatant distortions and untruths, as no one in the mainstream media will bother challenging it (There's the odd jibe in the Guardian and Independent, but that's about it). After all, why would anyone think it's worth bothering with when you see the number of comments on the story which call for the death penalty to be reinstated? I lost count at around 13 and lost the will to live myself shortly beforehand. Here's a couple of the "best" comments:
This Government should adopt the laws of our Far Eastern friends - they should all be flogged in public by Maryann's father, then hung by the neck until dead. Save the taxpayers' money - bury them now so they cannot be released to inflict pain onto any other innocent law abiding citizen.

Do this now and send a message to all the scum in Britain. You get caught, you pay the price - simple.

Colin Brothwood

The British no-capital-punishment policy is working wonders, isn't it?

At least on my side of the pond these scum would know they'd pay with their lives.

Frank Moss, Jr
Tennessee, USA

The probation service is getting all the stick, but there was nothing in what these men had just been involved with to suggest that they were capable of such a horrific crime:

The ringleader of the gang, Adrian Thomas, 20, and his followers Michael Johnson, 19, Jamaile Morally, 22 and Indrit Krasniqi, 18, were on a mixture of community punishment orders and a community rehabilitation order for a range of offences including possessing class C drugs, assaulting a police officer, driving offences and possessing a bladed article at the time they abducted and killed the teenager.


There were growing demands last night for an independent inquiry into the Leneghan case. But an unpublished internal inquiry by the London Probation Service is said to have found that national standards were met and there was nothing to justify a further independent investigation.

Just what were the probation service meant to do? Are we meant to lock everyone away for their entire sentence, knowing full well that no system is fool-proof, and that they may well reoffend whether they're released early or not? They seem to want all offenders to be permanently monitored or locked up until they're "changed". What the Sun can't face up to is that these problems cannot be solved by prison or by almost anything the government or social care can do. Crimes such as this have been around for hundreds of years, and they're not going to suddenly disappear. No one is suggesting that these men should not be locked up forever. They forfeited their second chance in the most brutal way possible, and now they must pay the price with imprisonment for the rest of their lives. Yet the Sun would seem to want to deny hundreds of people for who crime is an aberration in their lives and a one-off occurrence because of difficult circumstances which they would never turn to again their freedom. Surely it isn't the "human rights lobby" which is to blame, but rather society and human nature itself. And I really doubt there's anything we can do to change that.

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Monday, March 20, 2006 

"Failed" asylum seekers to return to being given hated vouchers.

Five years ago, in one of his rare acts of sanity, David Blunkett abolished the voucher scheme which marked asylum seekers out as being different. Five years later, less than a year on from a viciously anti-immigrant Tory electoral campaign, they're going to be brought back.

The vouchers are to be paid to more than 5,000 failed asylum seekers who qualify for "hard case" support because they cannot be sent back to countries such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and Iraq, which Britain considers unsafe, or there is no safe return route or the asylum seeker is too sick to travel.

They get a bed and either three meals a day and no financial support or £35 in vouchers each week to buy food and toiletries. MPs will be asked tomorrow to confirm this return of vouchers and approve the extension of their use for other essentials such as nappies or clothes.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the decision had been taken to reintroduce vouchers because "hard case" support provided a limited form of help for those about to leave Britain: "It should not act as an incentive to remain in the UK once they have exhausted their appeal rights."

The immigration minister, Tony McNulty, has said the immigration bill to be voted on by MPs tomorrow allows provision of cash or vouchers. But refugee groups say local providers are being told they can only use vouchers.

Ms Sherlock of the Refugee Council said the government may claim it was only a short-term measure but reality for many on "hard case" support was that a cashless system would be a long-term way of life because conditions in Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia showed no improvement.

"People whose applications have been rejected only get any support if they sign up for voluntary removal and follow all the rules. So why does the government still feel they have to be stigmatised, and made to jump through hoops to get the basics they need to survive?" she asked.

The government seems to be trying to make life as miserable as possible for those who have no home to return to. £35 is a shockingly low figure to be able live on for a whole week, especially if it's meant to pay for three square meals. It would possible, but only if those 3 square meals were either processed microwave meals or beans on toast. Added to that, the government now again intends to humiliate them when it comes to actually paying for their food. For a government whose main policy is apparently spreading choice, the voucher scheme seems to be very much at odds with it. As the article states, being able to get hold of culturally specific items such as halal prepared meat would be made more difficult, just as one example.

Then there's the increased reaction to immigration which has taken place since 2001. Following campaigns in the tabloid media, asylum seekers have increasingly been demonised as being here to sponge off the state, while the majority are in fact fleeing tyranny. The reintroduction of the voucher scheme will mark them out as exactly that; unable to leave, but living off "us". The government also knows that change in Somalia, Zimbabwe or Iraq does not at the moment look very likely. Even if Robert Mugabe were to die, there is little to suggest that the ruling Zanu-PF party in Zimbabwe would as a result lose power to the Movement for Democratic Change. Is it really too much to ask of Labour for these people, who are faced with returning to a country which may not welcome them back even when they are forced to return that in the meantime they are allowed actual cash to spend on themselves? Surely it isn't.

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Three years on.

It seems hard to believe, but today offically marks 3 years since the beginning of the war in Iraq. I don't think today should be a day for political grandstanding in any shape or form; the arguments over who was right and who wrong should be forgotten, at least for today.

Instead, we should be thinking about all of those who have lost their lives as a result of the war. Over 2,300 American servicemen and women. Over 100 British soldiers. The other "coalition of the willing" soldiers who have died. The (at minimum) 33,679 Iraqi civilians (, which could easily in reality total over 100,000. Then there's the over 500,000 that lost their lives a result of the pre-war sanctions, that Madeline Albright infamously described as being worth it.

Have we learned anything? Has anything been proved? Has it stopped the spread of weapons of mass destruction? Has it accelerated the progress of democracy and freedom in the Middle East? Has it reduced the threat of terrorism?

When we had 2 minutes silence for the victims of the July the 7th bombings, I wrote that I couldn't recall having such a silence either for our soldiers or for the Iraqi (and Afghani) citizens who have died as a result of our actions, directly or indirectly. I feel that today should be that day for silence, officially or not. Today should be a day of forgiving, but in the words of Nelson Mandela, not forgetting.

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