On a cold Sunday afternoon earlier this month, 800 people gathered at Hull Minster for a memorial service to mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘triple trawler tragedy’. In three weeks in January and February 1968, the trawlers St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland all sank in freezing North Atlantic waters. Fifty-eight men from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community died.
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found last month that Averil Hart, who had anorexia nervosa and died in December 2012, was failed by ‘every NHS organisation that should have cared for her’. ‘Sadly these failures, and her family’s subsequent fight to get answers,’ the PHSO report says, ‘are not unique.’ In October 2009 I went to see my GP to ask for help with my anorexia.
Earlier this year I was teaching an evening class for part-time degree students in Bristol. A woman in her late twenties approached me, to check that I knew she would be breastfeeding. She introduced her classmates to her son, a few weeks old. The university does not have a policy for student parents, although it has one for staff. One of the slides I had prepared for our discussion showed a page from a 1972 essay by Adrienne Rich, 'Towards a Woman-Centred University'. Rich argued that childcare should be central in a higher education system remade for the demands of women's lives.
There were several surprises in George Osborne’s sixth autumn statement as chancellor of the exchequer, but the announcement that grabbed the headlines was the (temporary) reversal on cutting working tax credit. For some commentators, that volte face, and the chancellor’s performance more broadly, was a display of unparalleled acumen. Here was a politician, they purred, at the top of his game, an exponent of statesmanship who could seize the centre ground while almost issuing an apology. For others, including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, Osborne’s offer was a political capitulation of the first order, a premier cru bottlejob by a champagne charlie. The truth, unsurprisingly, is somewhere in between, but what shouldn’t be overlooked is Osborne’s ambition for the top job.
‘Does it look big?’ an elderly woman asked me, craning her neck to see down the street. ‘I’m afraid so,’ I replied, thinking she might be worried about getting to the Tube. ‘Good,’ she said. Like thousands of others, she was in London on Saturday for the national anti-austerity demonstration organised by the People’s Assembly. As we marched from the Bank of England to Parliament Square, the crowd kept growing.
Dennis O'Sullivan, the headteacher of a secondary school in Hertfordshire, has written an open letter to David Cameron setting out the funding crisis facing schools in England and Wales: 'a school like mine needs to find £500,000 in savings on an income of just under £6,000,000 in each of the next three years.' This is because:
Birmingham City Council has unveiled its proposed budget cuts for 2015-16, including substantial reductions to funding for the Library of Birmingham, the £189 million project that opened in September 2013 and within a year was facing a financial black hole. Weekly opening hours are to be cut from 73 to 40, and around 100 of the 188 staff will lose their jobs.
‘We have come to assess you,’ the crowd in Triton Square chanted, outside Atos’s London headquarters. The French IT company is under contract to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out Work Capability Assessments on everyone applying for Employment and Support Allowance. A ‘disability analyst’ asks a ‘claimant’ a series of questions and enters the answers into a computer: if you score fewer than 15 points you are considered fit for work. There have been more than 1.2 million appeals against Atos’s assessments, 38 per cent of which have been successful. Atos’s blunders include the cases of Linda Wootton, who had a heart and lung transplant and died nine days after her allowance was withdrawn, and Mark Evans, a brain-damaged amputee who lost most of his benefits. Protests were held yesterday outside the company’s offices across Britain. The slogans in Triton Square included ‘Atos don't give a toss’ and ‘Atos £500m contract killer’: that’s the estimated cost of the appeals; the company's government contracts are worth a total of £3.1 billion.
Last Tuesday a group of 29 young mothers and mothers-to-be occupied an East Thames Housing Association show flat in protest against their prospective eviction from the Focus E15 Foyer, a hostel that provides temporary social housing and training to young people in Newham. Some of the Focus E15 Mothers have been there for more than three years. Six months ago, the women were served an eviction notice following a council decision to cut £41,000 of funding for the Foyer and its purpose-built single-parent units. The only alternative offered to them was private rental accommodation in Hastings, Birmingham or Manchester, far from their families, friends, jobs, colleges and children’s schools.
At one point on Monday night, during a meeting at the LSE about the government’s new proposals for legal aid, the lights went out. It went dark as Steve Hynes of the Legal Action Group was speaking about the justice minister, Chris Grayling, and Hynes’s quip – ‘Oh God, does Grayling control the lights as well?’ – brought one of the only genuine laughs of the night (the others were bitter). Grayling was invited to the meeting but didn’t make it, as far as I could tell. It didn’t matter. He was on everyone’s minds anyway.
On the drizzly evening of 7 November, I joined a demonstration in front of the Parliament in Athens. Like the estimated 100,000 other people in the vast square and surrounding streets to protest against the imposition of yet another – the fifth – round of austerity measures being debated inside the building, I wasn’t in a good mood. My pension had already been cut by 40 per cent, the tax rate on the remainder nearly doubled, and a further cut was planned. We were kept away from the building by multiple rows of police, a terrifying sight with their bulky black uniforms, white helmets and visors, assorted weapons and communications gear, tear-gas canisters and water cannons. The scene that wet evening made for a peculiar image of democracy in practice; the people’s elected representatives cowering inside the temple of democracy, protected from the people’s wrath by a praetorian guard. That was bad enough. Inside the building, parliamentary democracy was getting short shrift.
'I forgot how rare and intoxicating collective joy is. It revives the heart, a bit, doesn't it?' said Megan Cat-Noises on Twitter. I may be the only person in the country to have woken up depressed on Saturday morning. Perhaps it's just what collective joy does to me and I am therefore to be pitied. It's certainly the case that I deeply dislike spectacle of all kinds and the heavy symbolism it demands. Still, let me try and clarify a little my response to the Olympic opening ceremony.
Last week John Humphrys was seconded from the Today programme to present The Future State of Welfare on BBC2. He wrote a piece for the Daily Mail to promote the programme: ‘Our Shameless Society – How our welfare system has created an age of entitlement.’ Returning to his birthplace – Splott, in Cardiff – Humphrys found that ‘one in four people of working age in this area are now living on benefits,’ which he puts down to the ‘perverse incentives’ of an overgenerous welfare system rather than a lack of jobs. But in a piece for Left Foot Forward showing why ‘John Humphrys is wrong, wrong, wrong on social security’, Declan Gaffney points out that only 5.3 per cent of wards in Britain have such a high proportion of benefits claimants, down from 9.5 per cent of wards in November 1999.
Anyone who says the riots don't have anything to do with the cuts should have a read of 'Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe 1919-2009’, a discussion paper issued under the auspices of the Centre for Economic Policy Research's international macroeconomics programme and currently doing the rounds on Twitter, which looks at the relationship between budget cuts and civil unrest across Europe since the end of the First World War: The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. So much for 'criminality pure and simple'.
Graham Allen, the Labour MP for Nottingham North, was commissioned by the coalition government last year to review the benefits of ‘early intervention’. In his first report, published in January, he found that many damaging and costly social problems can be averted or reduced by giving families the right support during a child’s first three years. It’s a persuasive argument, which has also been made in other recent reviews commissioned by the government from Frank Field, Clare Tickell and Eileen Munro. The big question though is how to fund early intervention services when the government is committed to spending cuts.
Professional opposition to the government's higher education policies is growing. Tomorrow afternoon, academics at Oxford will be debating and voting on a motion of no confidence in the minister for universities and science, David Willetts. A similar vote may be going ahead in Cambridge, and petitions have been started at Warwick and Goldsmiths. Philip Pullman's account of going to Oxford for interview gives a sense of what's at stake.
The first time I set eyes on Oxford was on a day in December 1964, when I came up for interview. It was one of those bright clear days we sometimes get in winter, and it drew the honey colour out of the stone buildings and set it against a brilliant blue sky, and I fell in love with the place. What had made me think I could come here? I was the first member of my family to go to university; I was the first pupil from my school, a local comprehensive in north Wales, to go to Oxford. Simple: I thought I could come because tuition was free, and because Merionethshire County Council gave me a grant for my living expenses. The extraordinary benevolence of those facts now looks like something from a golden age.
On the same day that the architect of the Gherkin announced the death of the skyscraper, it emerged that Little, Brown have paid a ‘high six-figure sum’ for a romance, set in 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, between an out-of work-architect and a recently retired banker. So while we live through the consequences of the credit crunch – the Sure Start centres closing, the paramedics being sacked, the libraries disappearing – it seems we want to relive the moment in a cosy rom-com mode.
In the LRB earlier this month, Iain Pears regretted the government’s progressive undermining of the Haldane principle, ‘the century-old understanding that research should be protected from political interference’, and noted in passing that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) had issued a document stating that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) ‘will systematically address issues relating to... cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’ On Sunday, the Observer made quite a bit more capital out of the same story.
‘Fortnum and Mason’s is surrounded by police as this is a crime scene. Persons responsible will be arrested’: a message sent out by the Metropolitan Police text service for protesters at 18.33, just as I was getting home from Saturday’s TUC march. The slogan was ‘March for the alternative!’ – ‘what sort of alternative?’ Evan Davis asked on the Today programme that morning – but UK Uncut’s flyers encouraged us to ‘occupy for the alternative’. Fortnum’s was targeted because its owners, Whittington Investments, ‘have dodged over £40 million in tax’. Inside, ‘this has basically turned into a giant picnic,’ Laurie Penny tweeted, apart from the moment a display of chocolate bunnies was knocked over and had to be put painstakingly back together. Pictures and videos show protesters sitting on the floor, nestled between the glass cabinets and wooden counters or gathered behind brass railings, singing. The occupiers were arrested: of 149 charged by police on Saturday, 138 were done for 'aggravated trespass' or sitting on Fortnum's carpet for a few hours. Even Fortnum's have admitted that 'the damage is minimal.'
Section 20 of the UK census asks respondents to specify their religion. The tick-box options cover ‘no religion’ as well as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism; it also includes a space for ‘any other religion’. In the last census, in 2001, the space was hijacked by 400,000 self-professed adherents of Jediism and the odd Pastafarian – so-called ‘fictional’ religions. This time, secularists have been urging respondents not to do this, because the results would overstate levels of religiosity in the population at large. Of course, it is a nice question what a ‘fictional’ religion is: after all, one way to distinguish religious from non-religious people is by asking them whether they regard ‘non-fictional religion’ as an empty category.
Eric Cantor can’t have been expecting a warm reception when he came to speak at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Forum last Thursday. The House majority leader, who represents Virginia’s seventh congressional district, has consistently voted against abortion, gay marriage, union rights, affirmative action and gun control, but in favour of outlawing flag burning. So he must have been prepared for some hostile questions at the end of his address, vaguely entitled ‘We are a Nation at a Crossroads’. But before he even got inside the Kennedy School he was met by a crowd of around 500 students – from Tufts, Northeastern and Lesley as well as Harvard – protesting against House Republicans’ budget proposals.
For all Plato’s hopes, an education in philosophy is no guarantor of virtue. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s 2008 PhD from the LSE is an alleged kickback for a £1.5 million bung from the Gaddafi Foundation, now to be rejected, though it isn’t clear what’s going to happen to the £150,000 that’s already been spent. The LSE is also investigating allegations that the thesis was plagiarised, on the faintly ludicrous imputation that nobody in cahoots with the Mad Dog of Tripoli could knock out a competent discussion of John Rawls.
The black-brick Georgian terrace house at 5 Bloomsbury Square had been empty for years. Two weeks ago the Really Free School moved in. Now there is bunting hanging between the first floor windows and lessons to attend in the afternoons and evenings: Arabic, Alexander Technique, Art for Children but also talks about Palestine, radical feminism, wi-fi hacking, the financial crisis; they’ve even had Newsnight’s economics editor, Paul Mason, come to talk on the Paris Commune – perhaps he was learning from them as much as they from him – and after he had finished you could join in a game of ‘Werewolf’.
The Today programme, more politically tone deaf with every passing week, wonders why pop musicians are posher than they used to be. 'Conclusions': Are they really? Does it matter? Who knows why? Actually it does matter, and the reason for it is straightforward. One of the commenters on the BBC website gets closest to it when he says: 'It's not about being "posh", it's about there being cash in the family to support a potentially non-earning career.' But nobody there points out that changes to the benefits system mean that it's no longer possible to live on the dole while you're making your first demos and playing your first gigs.
When the Artful Dodger first takes Oliver Twist out ‘to make pocket-handkerchiefs’, Oliver gets caught while the Dodger escapes back to Fagin’s den in Saffron Hill, in what is now the southern end of the London Borough of Camden. The campaigning website 38 Degrees recently paid for newspaper ads depicting the chancellor of the exchequer as the Artful Dodger because of his tax avoidance. But some of George Osborne’s other sleights of hand are much sneakier. The 27 per cent cut in central government funding to local councils, combined with what the local government secretary, Eric Pickles, has called ‘the most radical shift in power to local government for a generation’, means that though the cuts are being imposed by Westminster, local authorities have to decide which services are to be affected – and therefore, or so the government hopes, take the blame (this seems to be what Pickles really means by a ‘shift in power’).
The prime minister admitted last week that supplies of seasonal three-component influenza vaccine in some English general practices had run out. The health minister, Andrew Lansley, had to appear on Newsnight to defend using old stocks of the single swine flu vaccine to meet demand. Leaving the ordering of vaccine to individual GP practices instead of maintaining a central stock was clearly a flawed policy.
The National Foundation for Educational Research, analysing the data in a Tellus Survey carried out in autumn 2009, last month drew some conclusions about what makes it more or less likely that a child will be happy – or say that she’s happy, which isn’t quite the same thing. The government decided in June to stop running the national survey (it’s an unnecessary drain on local authorities’ resources, they say), but the NFER analysis may have made them think twice about that, as one of the apparent findings is that poverty does not affect happiness.
The NFER, admitting that this is surprising, explains that no significant association was found between poverty and happiness once other influences had been taken into account. It doesn’t say, however, if it considered the association between poverty and those other influences –
The swine flu virus – Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 – is behaving as expected: it’s back as the dominant seasonal flu. Maybe a little early, but so is the winter. It’s also behaving like all previous influenza-A strains in that some infections have been fatal; usually, but not exclusively, in people with pre-existing health problems. We’re much better at handling flu than we used to be. Severe infections can be treated in intensive care units; the last pandemic before swine flu was in 1968-69 when ICUs hardly existed, and the development of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines was a long way off. Essentially, ECMO does the work of patients’ lungs for them; most of the 14 machines in England are currently being used to treat flu cases. We have effective anti-virals. And vaccine development and delivery is now very quick: six million doses were given in response to swine flu without significant safety issues. But vaccine uptake in those who need it most has been disappointing.
If you're in London and not sure what to do on Saturday afternoon, why not grab a book and head down to the read-in at the Vodafone shop on Oxford Street? It's being organised by UK Uncut to protest against both the mobile phone company's tax avoidance and the recently announced cuts in local government funding: The Library bloc’s mission is to target Vodafone and highlight the government’s 27% cuts to local government budgets. Vodafone’s £6bn tax dodge could pay for every single cut to every single council everywhere in the country for the next two years. Library bloc will meet inside Vodafone’s flagship store to stage a read-in. At exactly 1.04pm, on the librarian’s signal, everyone will sit down, take out a book and begin reading.
In the latest issue of Genome Biology (thanks to Alan Rudrum for pointing it out) there's an angry open letter to George Philip, the president of the State University of New York at Albany, from Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis, protesting against the budget cuts that have led to SUNY axeing its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and theatre departments. As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business.
David Cameron has told the BBC that the phone call from Buckingham Palace announcing Prince William and Kate Middleton's engagement, which arrived during a cabinet meeting, was 'greeted with "a great cheer" and "banging of the table" from fellow ministers'. I bet it was: how obliging of the royal family to provide such a glittering distraction from the savagery of the spending cuts. And what a boost to the economy, too! Unless William's parsimonious recycling of his mother's engagement ring is a sign that they're planning a frugal ceremony at Bangor register office. Anyway, 'the timing is right now,' the second in line to the throne says. He surely can't mean that he was waiting for a Tory government, can he?