31 August 2004

Crimes of hate

In 1993 young Stephen Lawrence was murdered in London by racist thugs. It took over five years to get an inquiry going.

Meanwhile Simon Tang, an Oxford graduate, was bludgeoned to death in Carrickfergus. He was still alive on arrival in hospital, was then released and died an hour later, a factor which, in itself, raised legal issues about his proper medical treatment. Simon Tang’s story barely produced a headline – have you, as you read this, ever heard of his case?

My point takes nothing away from both the horror and the significance of the Stephen Lawrence murder but it does say something about local attitudes.

Racist attacks in Northern Ireland are now commonplace. At least we seem to be moving away from the complacent view we once held that, while we can’t get on with our local home-grown tribal rivals, we are extremely tolerant of strangers.

But such new ‘liberal’ attitudes are changing – for the worse.

Many wholeheartedly agree we should be nice to new arrivals in our land – provided there aren’t too many of them.

So perhaps we should look at some facts about actual numbers.

According to the most recent census just over 92% of the UK’s population is white – blotchy pink actually. About 1% is of mixed race – that includes my own family circle I’m proud to say. 4% of the population is Asian, 2% black (for want of a better word) and just 0.4 of 1% Chinese. Of these groups, a significant fraction was born in the UK.

In Northern Ireland the proportions are different but the general ethnic component is extremely low by European standards.

But what about the hordes of people who are supposedly arriving in our beloved country every day?

The latest figures show that in a twelve month period, when inward migration was at its highest, the UK had 512 thousand new arrivals, many as a result of the globalisation of industry and commerce. There; what did I tell you!

But at the same time 369 thousand Brits emigrated, so the net gain in population was actually 153 thousand. The ‘natural’ increase (births minus deaths) was 61 thousand and it’s been as high as 404 thousand in recent years. The UK population is now over 59 million so the number which is allegedly crowding us out annually is about one-quarter of one percent.

Countries all over the world have accepted millions of economic migrants from Ireland, our Northern part included.

What’s the problem if a tiny trickle from this outgoing tide should flow back the other way?

17 August 2004

Synthetic gold

By the time you read this the Olympic Games will be in full swing with wall-to-wall coverage on television. Tears of joy and failure will have been shed, and records toppled.

The first of the drug scandals may have broken – two world-record holders (Kelli White and Torri Edwards) were caught even before the Games started. Anti-drug measures will have reached a new intensity. But, as with all forms of crime, the criminals will be just that bit ahead. Reliable testing for the performance-enhancing THG hormone is not yet in place so hundreds of athletes may be tempted to take the risk.

It was ever thus.

Both in religion and sport (not all that different) drugs have been on the team since ancient times. Funny mushrooms and herbs helped the earliest 8th century BC Olympians to concentrate the mind and relieve muscle fatigue. And how about the will to demolish the other side at all costs? The word ‘assassin’ comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘hashish smokers’.

Performance enhancement drugs at the Olympics were tolerated until the early 1930s. Then medicine produced a new range to treat various neurological disorders – amphetamines. They were soon in widespread use in athletics. Steroids arrived some years later. It is now recognised that, at the 1952 Helsinki games, Olympic gold was won as much in the laboratory as in track or field.

As late as Barcelona 1992 whole teams were beating the ban – the Chinese female swimmers being the most notorious example.

Professor Charles Yesalis is the leading expert in the subject in the United States and he estimates that as many as 600,000 American high-school kids have used steroids. Used early and abandoned later, steroids can give future Olympian careers a flying start. He claims that a ‘huge percentage’ of world records have been drug-assisted.

But the worst is yet to come. Gene therapy will be the new frontier in medicine. This is not science-fiction. Scientists have already produced ‘Schwarzenegger mice’. Applied selectively to key neuro and muscle areas in humans, gene therapy may be impossible to detect, and again, it can be applied at the early career stage.

Just how long will it take for human beings to be genetically re-programmed into super-athletes?

Dr Theodore Friedman, the human genome expert, suggests the answer may be in years not decades.

The three-minute mile may not be too far away.

10 August 2004

Midsummer madness

The Court of Appeal has upheld a ruling that wrongly convicted prisoners should pay for their board and lodgings while in jail.

Vincent Hickey spent 17 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit and will now be required to pay his jailers £60,000. His cousin Michael will be similarly billed. It is of course true that miscarriage of justice victims have received compensation but even that has its twists and turns.

Paddy Hill spent 16 years behind bars. It took nearly 20 years for the Courts to agree the level of compensation but in the meantime they had given him advances of around 30% of the final amount. He was later required to pay a reported 23% APR interest on the advances.

Mike O’Brien was wrongly imprisoned for 10 years. He has been charged £37,500 for board and lodging.

Robert Brown was 19 when he was wrongly convicted of murder. Released at the age of 44 in 2002 he now has to pay back around £80,000.

David Potter's 9-year imprisonment for rape has just been overturned at the High Court. His life ruined, he will soon become part of the compensation charade. His false accuser has had her identity fully protected. Potter’s name was splashed over every tabloid in the land.
No compensation can ever make up for the years of frustration, of anger, of loss, of depression, of separation endured by innocent men – and women.

Numbed by these discoveries I thought I should research the bottom end of the law-and-order scale.

I read that a local Borough Council in Derbyshire (name withheld to protect the insane) have asked a couple to stop feeding the wild birds that come to their garden. They say that they have received complaints about the noise of the birds in the early morning.

Obviously your back garden can become a hot-bed of serious crime. The new Animal Welfare Bill would provide for a £20,000 fine and one year in prison (if properly convicted of course) for causing an animal unnecessary suffering. The Times reports that worms, caterpillars, slugs and insects would be covered if scientific evidence proves that they feel pain – and if they haven’t already been chewed to death by those wild birds.

The animal rights group PETA are in favour. ‘Compassion,’ they say, ‘must extend to all living beings.’

One would hope that might include those who have been wrongly imprisoned.

06 August 2004

Eat drink and be guilty

First it was the demon drink. Now it’s obesity. Before you could say Pavarotti a second shock-horror Government report has again attacked one of our more personal misdemeanours

Take in more calories than you expend in energy and you build up fatty tissue in all the wrong places and you increase the risk of a range of illnesses – it’s as simple as that. The Atkins diet seemed at first to reverse that theory until it was discovered that the hidden secret of the diet is its reduction in calorie intake.

Over-eating – more particularly, eating the wrong kind of food – is not the only factor and the real worry is the rising obesity in children who, for a variety of reasons do not get enough exercise.

20% of boys and 31% of girls in the UK age 6-10 are overweight or obese. Because of obesity in children, obesity in the adults of the future will soar above the present levels. As of now 25% of men are obese and a further 42% are overweight. 20% of women are obese and a further 32% are overweight. Ironically, while overweight is linked to general affluence, it’s only the wealthy who can take effective control over diet.

As to young people and exercise, again the better-off are at an advantage. The best schools, invariably grammar and public schools, have excellent sports facilities and playing fields. All the rest, whose pupils generally come from the lower end of the economic spectrum, have minimal sporting opportunities at school. Many school playing fields were sold off to developers in the Thatcher era.

There is one simple starting point that the Government might think of. Insist that all packaged food is CLEARLY marked with its calorific value. Under current regulations suppliers can make the information complicated to obscure the truth.

Example: a typical statement in very small print: “Energy values per 100g, 1574 kj, 371 kcal.”

The busy shopper, with reading glasses and a knowledge of bio-chemistry is now theoretically well informed. The hidden fact is that the whole package actually adds up to 1855 calories. So why not put that big 1855 on the package for all to see?

Imagine the shelves in the supermarket full of products where the calorie count on each packet is clearly marked in one-inch high figures.

Might that not have some real influence on customer choice?

03 August 2004

Timing and reorganisation

It used to be that proposed new legislation would first appear in the Queen’s Speech, then as a ‘green paper’, then as a white one and then as a bill. The bill would be debated in the House of Commons. Then it would go to the Lords, then back to the Commons, then . . . .

Well it wasn’t a perfect system. But today the Prime Minister will visit some up-country gathering – any one will do – and announce a vast new legislative programme out of the blue. Political opponents are caught napping. Sympathetic newspapers get the best interviews. Parliament will just have to wait.

The latest is about law and order. A week or to two earlier it was hospitals. Before that, school examinations. In a week when the Prime Minister was facing criticism for waging war he comes up with a totally untested theory that the Sixties is the cause of our current crime problem. No researcher, politician, police chief or churchman had ever hinted at that possibility but it set the media off in another direction and that suited Number 10 very well.

Yes timing is the thing. I used to observe civil servants working out when a ‘good news’ release would get the best uncompetitive coverage or when a ‘difficult’ story stood the greatest chance of being ignored, swamped by other events or released just after an antagonistic newspaper had gone to press.

What’s timing got to do with County Down?

Well this year, again, property developers have so timed their applications to the Planning Service that the required information about proposed development in our countryside just happened to appear in our newspapers in the ‘twelfth week’. Fewer people will therefore have noticed how dodgy and anti-social some of these proposals are. So fewer people may complain.

As to the Government’s passion to reorganise everything at the drop of a sound bite, let’s consider this plea from an earlier era:

It seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress whilst producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.

It was written by Petronius, adviser to the Roman Emperor Nero, in AD 66.

A lesson from the Sixties perhaps?