Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Friday, 29 June 2012

David Beckham's...

... dashed Olympic dreams are the topic of today's column which can be read on the Daily Mirror website here.

Have a nice weekend, folks!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Too big to jail.

ANOTHER day, another round of fury about bankers acting a lot like, well, bankers.

Turns out a bunch of traders at Barclays were telling porky pies about their finances in order to make more money, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off and for some reason doesn't work with my bank manager.

But then, if you have an awful lot of money, you are allowed to do an awful lot more things with it than the rest of us.

An investigation found Barclays traders fed false information into the system which is used to set the interest rate for banks lending to each other. The rates were lowered to make the bank look healthier, and then the traders gambled on whether the rate would go up or down and made a healthy profit.

The net effect was higher mortgage payments and loan rates for us, and more cash for them.

Cue the normal reactions, which include a £290million fine, calls for the boss to be sacked, the Prime Minister talking about "serious questions to answer", some low-grade grumbles about no police investigation and demands the bank be broken up.

And because those are the normal reactions, nothing's going to change. That fine is equivalent to 10 days' profits for Barclays in the first quarter of this year, the boss wasn't directly involved, the police are too busy investigating journalists to have any officers spare and seeing as the bank was healthy enough not to need a bailout it won't be closed.

Instead that fine will get passed on to the bank's 48million customers and the boss, Bob Diamond, won't be taking his bonus this year. The chances are he wouldn't have got much of it anyway, as the share price has dropped nearly 30 per cent since March.

No-one is going to stop to ask why anyone thought it was a good idea that banks should have so much influence over the lending rates. No-one is going to treat the people responsible in the same way as a benefit cheat who'd been found lying about the cash in his pocket. No-one is going to do anything except sit and wait for other banks to be found out doing the same thing.

And that's the heart of the problem that seems to escalate day after day - the way in which some people are treated differently because they're rich, whether they deserve it or not.

Had someone on £30,000 a year been able to shuffle their earnings through a tax-free loan from Jersey like comedian Jimmy Carr, they'd have the taxman on them quicker'n you could say "but it's all perfectly legal, honest".

Had someone gone into a branch of Barclays and told bare-faced lies about the health of their finances in order to wangle some cash they could expect to be prosecuted for fraud, the penalty for which would be more than 10 days' pay and would probably involve jail.

And had it been you or I so found guilty, the Prime Minister would denounce us as morally wrong in front of the first TV camera he could find. He wouldn't bother asking us any questions at all, but dismiss us as the undeserving poor.

So what would happen if we started treating the undeserving rich the same way?

The prison system would collapse, for a start. Seeing as the courts give six month sentences for stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water, the undeserving rich would have to spend several lifetimes in jail for tax avoidance, fiddling the books and tinkering with interest rates and we'd have to spend £38,000 a year on each of them to keep them there.

Hardly ideal. As a result it would be a far more practical - and cheaper - solution to make the incredibly wealthy do community service instead.

Disgraced bankers could help small businesses fill in loan applications so that they actually get accepted, and negotiate mortgage deals for first-time buyers so the housing market can be breathed back to life.

Accountants who exploit every loophole in the tax code could do some unpaid work experience at the Treasury helping to close them.

Millionaires who pay single figures of tax will be made to mop the floors of a busy A&E on Saturday nights while patients puke on their shoes, and Croxteth will be turned into the world's most lucrative tax haven so that billionaires who are domiciled elsewhere for tax purposes will have to live there 275 days a year. When they've done it all up the tax haven will get shifted to Forest Gate, then Hartlepool, and Margate...

Each of them will take a turn in front of Jeremy Paxman to explain themselves.

And afterwards they can be released on a tag and made to work on probation for the Treasury, because as they are so good finding a way to make a profit out of everything they can put that skill to good use for us rather than themselves.

Perhaps that way the Ministry of Defence wouldn't find itself suddenly sitting on £6.6bn of over-ordered, unused and defunct bits of kit.

Once the filthy rich have raised GDP, tax receipts, lending, and national productivity they will have answered all our most serious questions and proved that bankers can be very useful indeed - so long as there's someone keeping an eye on them and they're not allowed to rampage unsupervised around the world's financial systems like troublesome toddlers who've missed their Ritalin.

No-one's too big for a spank.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

See sense.

THAT'S it. It's happened. It's been coming for a while but now at last common sense is completely dead.

It started getting ill with health and safety silliness and schools banning the egg and spoon race in case someone lost, and it suffered a dreadful blow when some bright spark decided that conkers could kill.

But since then general sensibleness has been repeatedly battered by the growth of total unsensibleness in every sector, part and deepest recesses of modern life.

I'm not being melodramatic. Consider the evidence: Tony Blair thought replacing politics with personality would make people more engaged with the way the country's run.

Instead voter turnout fell off a cliff and has been getting lower with every election since his win in 1997, for the simple reason that politicians' personalities are 95 per cent ego, four per cent fiddling and one per cent devoted to having stupid ideas and as a result something of a turn-off.

Thousands of people every year think they have a crack at being world-famous millionaires and have sex with other world-famous millionaires because of the way they sing. They don't stop to think the way they sing is awful, their attitude is worse and the conversion rate of prole-to-millionaire is much higher in accountancy than it is on the X Factor.

At the same time we've developed such short attention spans that when a major event happens - whether it's the London riots, the scandalous death of a child in care, or the closure of the News of the World - that there's one big social spasm and then we forget to wonder what caused it all to happen in the first place.

A dab of common sense would tell you the riots were provoked by gangs and joined in with by idiots, and that it's the problem with gangs we need to address not giving six-month sentences to girls who were stood next to someone who'd stolen some gum. It would tell you to sort out the care system and that successful world-changing newspapers don't usually get shut down because someone's been bad.

Millions of us use the internet for work and leisure every day yet there's barely any effort made to track down the badly-behaved unless their victims are high-profile. So the person who tweets racist abuse to England football players is investigated, the troll who threatened an MP gets a 26-week suspended sentence, and the ordinary Joe who is sent the same will try in vain to get their local bobby bothered enough to turn on his ZX Spectrum.

And if you take a look at what's in the news today it seems like common sense has not just been killed but had a stake driven through its heart and buried at a crossroads at midnight.

An accountant who made a joke is being prosecuted for it rather than applauded for doing something so un-accountanty. He lost his job and was fined almost £1,000 for making a throwaway remark which the Establishment decided was menacing, despite the presence of three exclamation marks.

At the same time the very top of the Establishment is shaking hands with an ex-terrorist who's not in the least bit menacing, because he's no longer second-in-command of an IRA unit and wandering around Derry with a sub-machine gun in his hand but is now second in command of Northern Ireland.

Never mind that we're already friends; never mind there's been reconciliation and apologies on both sides and the understated 'Troubles' are over; no, there must be further backwards bending for absolutely no obvious gain beyond making a little old lady shake hands with someone who served six months for carrying 250lb of explosives and 5,000 rounds of ammo, which is a lot more menacing than any tweet if you ask me.

We've also got an 18-year-old girl who's good enough to play at Wimbledon being nicknamed The Incredible Bulk because she's been working out; a Chancellor who reckons that knocking a potential £2.10 off the cost of filling up a family car is going to "fuel our recovery at this very difficult economic time", and the flipping Spice Girls going on about Girl Power while half of them aren't talking to each other and who could be persuaded into the same room only by the prospect of millions in revenue from a new musical.

And in response to this mess, in defiance of bureaucratic Nazis, twisted priorities and people doing their best to get things as wrong as they possibly can, what do we do to hit back? Nothing. Nothing but gnash our teeth or give a resigned shrug that this is just the way things are.

It doesn't need to be like this.

We can watch Simon Cowell and just not make a phone vote, which eventually will make it not worth his while and he'll stop. We can vote for the politicians who take sides and cause a stir, even if we don't agree with everything they say, just to prove we want people with principles in Parliament.

We can try to make ourselves have second thoughts again instead of just a retweet or a Facebook share, we can expect and demand everyone behave politely in public whether it's removing their feet from train seats, not spitting in the street or not sending abusive messages on the internet.

We can forgive all the wrongs on all sides of the Troubles without bending our knee to the people who took part in them, we can laugh in the Chancellor's face and not give the Spice Girls any more money, we can tell the flipping difference between a threat and a silly remark and more than anything else we can be proud there's an 18-year-old girl who's devoted and focused enough to get herself to Wimbledon.

Even if it is for only five minutes.

Let's try to see sense, even when it's hard to spot, because the harder we look the more we will see.

Otherwise it's goodnight Vienna.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A bad business.

IF YOU had a business which cost more than it could ever make you'd shut it down.

If its customers were dying, its services needed constantly updating with the latest technology, and your staff complained about working longer for the pensions you couldn't afford to pay, you'd give up the whole thing as a bad job and do something else.

But then, the National Health Service is not a business.

It's an idea, which became an achievement, and is now a public service. It's not there to make a profit, have a turnover or help anyone pay less tax.

But for the past 20 years that's exactly what it has been doing.

The industry of being ill earns money for the companies that run the car parks, provide the agency nurses at ten times the cost of just employing them properly in the first place, serve up food that costs less per head than we give out in prisons, and charge £5 a day for watching telly.

Those firms pay a fee to the hospital which adds it to the balance sheet to show it's turned a profit on the business of saving lives. And to cut down the costs part of the balance sheet, in 1992 a bright spark called John Major decided to introduce Private Finance Initiatives.

It's not a new idea - PFI is simply a modern term to describe a way of getting a business to pay for something the public needs, which in return gives that business some trading opportunities. In the case of hospitals, someone builds one and is then given contracts to help run it for 10 or more years afterwards at guaranteed rates, which makes it a very nice business to be in.

Labour attacked the whole idea on moral grounds, and then when they came to power in 1997 realised that they had to stick with it if they were to build new facilities. Health Secretary Alan Milburn said at the time "It's PFI or bust", and started a bit of a spree.

By 2007 Britain had £68bn worth of PFI schemes which over the term of their contracts would cost the public £215bn. Then the financial crash came and in 2009 Labour had to fund PFI schemes itself, or see them cancelled. The Tories accused Labour of bodging the whole thing but once in power Gideon rubber-stamped a further £6.9bn of PFI schemes.

Our current PFI liability is £267bn, about one fifth of our GDP. And because we treat our hospitals like a business they have started going bust.

In 2001 a PFI scheme built two new hospitals near where I live. They shut one old hospital down and planned to sell it off for housing to help pay for everything. But it didn't sell, the debt was crippling and in 2009 three hospitals were put under the control of one body in the hope it would steady the ship.

It didn't. It still has a debt of £69m and for the first time since the NHS was founded the health secretary has warned it's about to go bankrupt, with the likely solution the public will have to shoulder the debt.

I've used that new hospital several times in the past few years. I've graced A&E, flirted with doctors, been x-rayed and maybe even had my life saved by the gynaecologist who burned off some pre-cancerous cells from my cervix. It's a very nice hospital, fairly clean, excellent staff. It needs to sort out its parking but other than that I'd say it was all money well-spent.

But the balance sheet says not and there are 19 other health trusts with similar problems. University Hospital Coventry had to borrow £54m from a bank to make its first PFI repayment before its doors had even opened, and up and down the country wards are being mothballed and services cut as the bean-counters make paying off the debts a priority.

It won't be long until other hospitals go phut, because death and illness only ever turns a reliable buck for the undertakers and we'll end up paying more in the long run for the services which someone had decided were too expensive to start with.

Perhaps when that happens, when the empty public purse is scrabbled in but cannot pay debts to corporations we didn't vote for and which pay as little tax back as possible, it might occur to someone that the NHS is not a corporation.

Never mind who did what or owes whom. Life and death don't get traded on the Stock Exchange and I don't want someone to look at me on a hospital bed one day and do some sums before they decide whether to fix me up.

The NHS will always be insolvent. It will always cost more than it makes. It has always been massive, unwieldy and inefficient. That it does not work like a business is not the problem.

The problem is that it is run by people who have lost sight of the one resounding and primary principle which has driven it for 66 years: that health is priceless.

And it's the corporations, politicians, bureaucrats and sheer inhuman beings who've had a hand in the whole sorry mess and are too busy doing sums to fix it who are the truly bankrupt.

It's not until you're sick you realise you need saving.

Monday, 25 June 2012

These people.

IT'S the culture of entitlement that sticks in the throat.

The idea that you are due something for not doing much, that someone else ought to pay for the roof over your head, and that however many children you have and however much they may cost the price for all of it will be covered, somehow, by another.

The scroungers, the cheats, the fraudsters who constantly have their hands in our pockets without so much as a by-your-leave or even a thank you.

They make tens of thousands a year, these little sods, while the hard-working classes slave and have to suffer cutbacks and decide they can't afford another child and turn down the heating.

It's about time we all stopped pussy-footing around it for fear of upsetting these leeches and had a proper, informed debate about the something-for-nothings who are bringing the nation to its knees.

So let's start with Dishface's plans to discourage people having more than three children. Why stop there? Two is the maximum required to sustain the population, and seeing as there's 62million of us already perhaps it should be only one, like they do in China.

As with all things the Government does this new policy is best illustrated by picking a particularly fecund family who cause a lot of trouble, so let's start the forced abortions and fines for over-breeding with the Windsors.

This shameless little lot - immigrants, originally - have boasted about their lifestyle in a series of TV documentaries. The matriarch comes from a long line of feckless layabouts and herself spawned four children, far more than necessary. One of them runs a charity and another only works three days a week, but they both do better than the other two who enjoy a lavish lifestyle the sources of funding for which are obscure.

Three of the four have created broken homes by wilfully getting divorced, the grandchildren seem to fall in and out of bars most nights, and one of them has had noted issues with drugs, Nazis, racist comments and even been questioned over killing rare birds.

One has just married a girl who's never done a proper job in her life yet blows around £35,000 a year on clothes and make-up - all paid for by someone else. The family's agog for her to start breeding too, to boost their claims upon the state.

A shocking bunch. They should all be spayed, according to Dishface's rules.

"Quite simply," he says, "we have been encouraging working-age people to have children and not work... this is difficult territory but at a time when so many are struggling isn't it right that we ask whether those in the welfare system are faced with the same kinds of decisions that working people have to wrestle with when they have a child?"

Of course we should, and about time. Did you know there is a group of 136 people who expect the state to pay their children's wages? Not just their offspring, either, but their spouses too sometimes, and they're earning a comfortable whack - 46 of them earn over £30,000.

We spend £3m a year providing jobs to the relatives of MPs, and while I'm sure there are some working hard for it you also have the likes of Derek Conway, who was suspended and then stepped down after being found to have employed sons Freddie and Henry as researchers when they hadn't actually done much research.

Outrageous. As Dishface says, these people should have to make the same kinds of decisions as ordinary parents who can't all get their youngsters a job someone else pays the wages for.

Then there's housing benefit being removed for the under-25s, forcing the unemployed to work for a living and limiting their financial support for two years.

Quite right. We'll start that policy with a man who was supported by his parents his entire life, who is one of four children, who thought nothing of staying out all night at 14, getting boozed at 16, who bought his first home with a mortgage he can't have afforded on his wages as a 'researcher'.

Neither his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had proper jobs, preferring instead to juggle other people's money while taking the occasional bit as a fee for the juggling, and he associated in his youth - and in fact is related to - those aforementioned feckless layabouts the Windsors.

He picked up girls at 'sherry parties', he not only demanded the state pay for his home but thought it right we pay for his wisteria to be trimmed as well, and he had four children himself without consideration for whether an over-populated island really needed them.

His cash benefits amount to £142,500, plus more for mortgage interest, council tax, heating, water, electricity, gas, two further free homes we pay for when he has two of his own (one without a mortgage), travel costs, food and oh yes, we pay for his parties too.

And what does he do for that money? Well, he watches football.

He plays fruit ninja.

He flies his tennis coach out to Tuscany while London is having riots.

He also makes lots of 'policy decicions' every day, and says that he gets up at 5.40am to start reading missives from a little army of people who do as he tells them without wondering if he actually has a mandate to make them do these things.

And he says lots of very sensible stuff about how we should crack down on the feckless and withdraw state support from those who don't earn it.

"We have created a welfare gap in this country," he said. "Between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it. This has sent out some incredibly damaging signals. That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing. It created a culture of entitlement."

He's quite right. Those living off the state in Buckingham Palace and Westminster think they deserve a comfortable lifestyle and that those who do not have the same lifestyle are wrong in all they do.

These people think that £20.30 a week child benefit for your first youngster, and £13.40 for successive children, is not only enough to pay for them but will even leave parents with a profit.

These people think that paying tens of thousands a year in housing benefit to under-25s, most of whom are working and on low income, is a way of the poor making money rather than private landlords.

These people think that they can have as many children as they please, but that other people can't.

But thankfully there is one man who wants to change all that, who wants to even out the unfairness and make everyone work and pay their way. He will stop the reliance on the public purse we are all disgusted by and make the scroungers knuckle down and earn.

I'd happily vote for that, but it seems that as the Prime Minister can't enforce any of these grand schemes while in Coalition and he also can't get elected on his own we'll miss out on all these lovely reforms and have to put up with the corrupt, degrading, them-and-us hierarchy we're stuck with.

Then he'll be made redundant and we'll have to pay him even more.

Man's a prophet if you ask me.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Top marks.

THE problem with school is that all the most useful lessons happen outside the classroom.

Things like how to dodge a scrap, and when to turn and fight. How to combine your dinner and bus money to buy a portion of chips while you walk all the way home. You learn how to lose friends and make new ones, and practice a look of total innocence.

You still need maths, and a smattering of science, and how to use an apostrophe correctly if people you meet are not to dismiss you as an idiot, but unless you make one of those subjects the centre of your career you can thankfully forget all about algebra and iambic pentameter.

Me, I picked apostrophes. I understood apostrophes.

That kind of realpolitik is not welcome news to people who think they know best, which is why the education system is constantly being tinkered with. When I was at school it was Baker days, ending dissection because it upset people, and trying to shove everyone at university because that way we'd all be millionaires.

After I left it was constant complaints about dumbing down the system, new-fangled subjects and starring A-grades to make them sound better. Now the government has decided to tear up the National Curriculum and retry exams which were scrapped for being unfair 30 years ago.

I sat GCSEs in the 1990s, and they were pretty hard as were my A-levels. We got graded not just on the exams but on modules and projects during the course of two years, which made it a slightly fairer judgement on our work. They weren't easy or dumbed-down, and I worked damn hard to do well.

Problems crept in because exam boards were allowed to bid for the task of setting exams, meaning that over the years those which were cheapest and promised the highest grades got picked by schools which were ordered to compete by means of exam league tables.

The open market in examinations, league tables, and penny pinching was carried out by a succession of government ministers each of whom seems to have felt that in order to succeed pupils should be more like government ministers.

So you must get As, and if other people get them too they are 'devalued' and you must have the ones with a special star. You must go to university, you must earn more than £60,000 a year, and you must be the kind of person who writes rules rather than follows them.

Never mind that the people who make the world go round are the ones who earn less, who pay their taxes, who follow the rules and grumble about it, or that the very few who change the world are usually those who can't see a rule without breaking it, who hated school and couldn't wait to get out.

Our current Education Secretary Michael Gove won a scholarship to an independent school and studied English at Oxford. Well done him, but if we were all like that who'd drive the buses?

His artfully-leaked exam blueprints - sneakily done, old son, I bet you learned that outside a classroom - show he wants to get rid of the competing exam boards and have a single standard by which children will be judged.

At the same time he wants to tell schools what to teach while getting rid of the National Curriculum which is the only real means by which he can enforce the instructions, and to introduce easier CSE exams for "less intelligent" pupils with questions on working out your change in a shop and understanding a rail timetable.

And that's where what he learned at school differs from what I did. First if you are going to tell someone what to do you need to make sure they will do it, and secondly there is no such thing as "less intelligent", not really. There are children who are slower, who find it harder, who don't get apostrophes so well or are wired a bit differently. If they find something they enjoy they'll soak it up like a sponge, and the main flaw in our education system is that if lessons don't turn you on you're left to find something that will.

Sometimes those children just become disruptive, sometimes they stare out of the window and get low marks, and live ordinary lives, and sometimes they become incredibly good criminals. They're all perfectly capable of applying themselves to things if they can see the point, and our courts are full of people who didn't get a lot of exams and would be amazing if they were running a legitimate business.

The single problem which no-one dares tinker with is that if you don't like exams there's nothing else for you. If you become a plumber, a builder, or run your own business it's because someone outside school helped you do it.

That's odd, because vocational classes - not just for the "less intelligent" but everyone - could not possibly hurt. Clever A-grade youngsters would know how to change a fan belt and plaster a wall, while the exam-phobic ones might just find they're inspired by computer code, building machines or inventing new and brilliant things.

Personally, if someone with a dozen A* grades and a degree under their belt wanted my help to get them a job I'd think twice, because life is about more than sitting exams. But if there were another with a skill of some kind it's far more impressive in the real world.

It's a shame that no-one in power thinks common sense or satire is worth an exam, because if they did perhaps we'd have tests that looked something like this:

1. You buy a £331 armchair, a £493 cabinet, a pair of elephant lamps for £134.50, a £750 Loire table, a birch Camargue chair worth £432, a birdcage coffee table for £238.50, a £454 dishwasher, a £639 range cooker, a £702 fridge freezer, a £20 toaster, a £35 children's mattress, and a £30 doormat. How much of it can you claim from the taxpayer?
a) none
b) some
c) all of it, while flipping your second home a couple of times, adding in your mortgage interest, utility bills and council tax and repaying a mere £7,000 because you helped write the rules

2. Your father built a family fortune of £25m with investment funds in tax-friendly Panama, Geneva and Jersey. Is perfectly legal tax management of this kind:
a) normal?
b) morally wrong?
c) something we won't mention?

3. Fill in the blank. People paid by public taxation to save lives go on strike because they are ______

4. Circle the correct answer. The world's worst role model is either:

Correct answers: Anything that makes you sound like you ought to be running the country.

The 'Gove levels' are just that - a way of turning youngsters into a version of a smug politician who not a soul in the world could warm to, while tinkering endlessly with a broken system without ever actually fixing it.

Which is hardly making the grade in anyone's book.

Concentrate, Gove.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A very naughty boy.

AND LO, it came to pass the Messiah entered the embassy, and demanded protection.

"Infamy! Infamy!" cried St Julian of Assange, for it was he. "They've all got it in for me! Suffer the little Ecuadorians to come unto me, for blessed are the WikiLeakers, and save me from these Pharisees who conspire to entrap me!"

Never mind that his attitude towards protection in the first place is what led St Julian to this sorry pass, and never mind that the ancient right to claim asylum is for those fleeing political or religious persecution. The fact is that St Julian feels persecuted, and he thinks he's at the centre of his own new faith.

Anyone who denies his messianic status is an unbeliever. Those who point out he is of questionable mental health are denounced. Mentioning the possibility he might be a bit odd, or even in the wrong, makes you an infidel in the world of the internet where the ability to understand computer code makes you 30 per cent more powerful than other mortals.

The fact is St Julian is mortal, and just like prophets of the past if you take a prosaic look at what he gets up to you start to wonder whether he's a bit unhinged.

First St Julian nicked the name of his website from another, unrelated one in a bid to piggyback on its success. His disciples issued a press release saying he was setting up the "Wikipedia of secrets", which prompted the real Wikipedia to register a few domain names in case they were under cyber attack.

They had a chat and things were resolved, so Wikipedia let St Julian have some of those domain names. He failed to change the register about who owned them, and hey presto it still looks like he's linked to the world's most popular online encyclopedia. He's not.

A 'wiki', in simple terms, means a website which the public can log on to and edit. WikiLeaks doesn't allow that, so it's not really right to call it wiki-anything. Not unless you want to pretend it's something it isn't, anyway.

The site he runs has revealed some amazing things; there was a period a couple of years ago when it dominated the news agenda all over the world. WikiLeaks released 250,000 pages of confidential documents, and in so doing proved two Reuters journalists were killed by a US helicopter gunship in Baghdad, that 15,000 more civilians than thought were killed in the Iraq War, that prisoner abuse was ignored, that governments worldwide covered up torture and carried out spying, and Prince Andrew is a bit of a pillock.

Good stuff. Well done, even though we could have guessed most of that anyway. Despite hysterical claims the leaks would lead to deaths of servicemen in retribution, the Pentagon has had to admit there's no evidence any such thing happened - not least because the people who want to kill soldiers are doing it anyway, leaks or no.

But you can't do that kind of thing without upsetting the big boys, and moves were made to cut off the money supply, to court martial a US soldier who had leaked lots of the cables, and to indict St Julian for - whether you approve of what he did or not - quite plainly breaking the law.

At which point WikiLeaks became less about the information we ought to know, and more about sanctifying one of the people who set it up.

St Julian began to sermonise and preach, to insist he had a higher calling to wage an online guerilla war against the powers that be who were persecuting him for his efforts. He wrapped himself in a cloak of sanctimony, and the flood of leaks slowed to a trickle.

On a visit to Sweden St Julian had a diddle with two disciples, and they later complained to the police that he may have assaulted them because he either didn't use a condom or removed it during sex. The police ummed and ahed, they talked to him about one accusation but not another, he caught a plane out, and then the police decided they wanted to talk to him some more.

An arrest warrant was issued and Interpol alerted, and eventually St Julian - sadly not riding on a donkey - presented himself at a London police station. Efforts began to extradite him, he dug in his heels, and he lost a series of legal moves which other people paid for. He agreed to write a book about his fight for more openness, then refused to answer personal questions and fell out with a lot of the people who had tried to help him.

St Julian thought it was all a conspiracy, that Sweden was like Saudi Arabia, while his followers claimed the women were CIA plants and it was all part of a plot to get him to America and kill him.

That's as may be. Most of it sounds pretty mad, and in my experience that means it probably is mad. The fact is that St Julian hasn't been charged with anything and the Swedes want only to ask him if what the girls say is true. If it is, and if they decide it's worth prosecuting him, there'll be a trial and sentence before anything else happens.

Maybe after that they will deport him to the US. Maybe if they do he'll be dropped into solitary at Guantanamo Bay, go on trial and potentially face the death penalty.

But unlike the rulers of pre-Christian Jerusalem I doubt any American president would want that on his watch. Assange has been in Britain for 18 months and we happily deport people to the US all the time, but our Government doesn't want to be seen sending him off to a possible death sentence.

Sweden will be in the same tricky diplomatic position if he goes there, and so would Ecuador. Australia doesn't want to get involved for the same reason. Crucifying people for saying unwelcome things, these days, doesn't look good.

So if St Julian's life is not at any serious risk, why run to the Ecuadorian embassy and ask for shelter? Why, for attention of course. Assange is so self-obsessed these days he makes Kim Kardashian seem plagued with self-doubt. WikiLeaks is not about the information, or freedoms, or knowledge - it's all about him, now.

It's not about the leaks, which have all but dried up and most recently revealed Robert Mugabe might have prostate cancer but is pretty healthy for it, a fact your average Zimbabwean would merely shrug over.

It's not about the sources of his information, many of whom have been tracked down, jailed, tried, convicted. He doesn't use his airtime to decry the treatment of whistleblowing US soldiers or Swiss bankers whose principled actions made him a media darling while they suffer for it.

It's all about St Julian, the man at the centre of a cult where he wants everyone to do as he says and not look too hard at what he does.

And all he does, as far as I can see, is feed his own persecution complex while leeching off others' good will. A variety of people paid £200,000 bail for him, and as he broke the conditions to stay in the embassy they will lose it. The value of his leaks, now quite distant, seems to be almost incidental rather than part of a thought-out campaign to change the world or improve the lot of anyone but himself. And with all the attention on him they've all but stopped altogether.

He was a hacker who spent too much time on his own in a darkened room; then he became an international celebrity, living out of suitcases and cocking a snook at blundering governments. Now he lives in a mansion for free, and if he goes to Ecuador there'll be more of the same.

There is one major difference between St Julian and the prophets he models his little cult on - most of them did what they did knowing it might lead to their deaths, and even welcoming it. He wants all the benefits of sainthood without the cost or questioning, which is the one evidence of sanity I can see in him. And if he's done all this while being sane, he's a calculating conman rather than a freedom fighter.

The truth is that all he's seeking asylum from is questions about whether he molested two women, that he might not get that ticket to Ecuador and will have to be arrested, no doubt with lots of photographs and an air of martyrdom. Maybe he'll even wear some thorns and a bedsheet for the full effect.

The truth is he's not the Messiah. He's not even close to it, and frankly the sooner he ascends the steps of a plane the better for all concerned.

And he dances like a twat.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Missed the taxman.

SET a speed limit, and most people will break it.

Tell us booze is bad, and we'll drink it anyway. Tax our pay, cars, fuel, heat, clothes, food, feet and pensions and most of us will wriggle as much as we can by dabbling in the black market and paying tradesmen in cash to keep things off the books.

And despite the fact Jimmy Carr's not very funny, enough of us want to see him that he earns £4million a year from us. As a result, and in much the same way I would if I had £4m a year, he asked an old school friend who's now an accountant to look after it as well as he could.

The net result was that £4m a year turned into a £100,000 salary and the rest of it became a 'loan' from a Jersey company on which he did not have to pay tax. Niiiiice.

There are two problems with this which raise it above what any of us would do given the chance. Firstly it's not the first time Mr Carr's done it - a previous tax avoidance scheme he invested in was shut down by ministers who denounced it as "highly abusive and completely contrived". And secondly he earned some of that money for lampooning bankers who did much the same thing.

Seeing as Jimmy 'Didn't Think It Through' Carr performed the above sketch two years after that first "abusive and contrived" scheme was shut down, his hypocrisy is nearly as breathtaking as the fact he gets £4m a year for such limp gags.

It is also inevitable. If you're in the public eye and you do something on the edge of legality - and tax lawyers reckon those 'loans' border on evasion - then you're bound to be found out eventually. It's a fact of life, and one which no doubt Mr Carr is hoping Brian Leveson will find a way to stamp out and most of us hope he won't.

But then tax is something that only seems to apply to most of us. There are some for whom it barely exists at all.

If you are in a job earning £25,000 a year you're taxed at source and end up with £19,176. Your employer has to pay some National Insurance and your take-home is further whittled away by VAT, a tax from your local authority, tax from the police, from the road agencies, excise man, and so on.

If you have a few million a year, you wouldn't want to see it cut by half and would probably ask an accountant to help you pay as little tax as possible. If you have a few billion, then tax is something that happens to other people.

If it were possible to be an ordinary employee and be paid via dodgy loans from the Channel Islands we didn't get taxed on, we'd all do it. The fact is that we can't, and because we can't we're just about keeping our heads above water as a nation with government debt reaching almost 70 per cent of GDP.

Greece, by comparison, has 150 per cent debt, about the same as Britain had after the First World War. And just like Britain its biggest firms are granted special exemptions from the taxman which save them billions.

So their shipping magnates are still rolling around in tax-free dividends while ordinary Athenians are eating in soup kitchens. Meanwhile British businesses like Vodafone and Barclays, and foreign firms which do business here like Google and Amazon, get a handshake and a wink from the taxman while special needs teachers are being laid off, respite care for the disabled is being cut, and unemployment has risen 42 per cent in a decade.

'Sir' Philip Green, the man who runs TopShop and a string of other firms, on paper works for his wife who owns everything and lives in Monaco where there's less tax. He's been working since he was 15 and created thousands of jobs, but he ought to be paying more than he does and didn't ought to be telling the government how to save money when he is so good at not giving it his.

None of us like being taxed but if the workers didn't pay it no-one else would do it for them. We'd be just like Greece, without the sunshine and with no-one left to bail us out.

Which is why the taxman comes after the humble drones and taxes them at source - it's easier. It's why Gideon Osborne denounces tax avoidance as "morally repugnant" on Budget Day and a day later Jimmy Carr's accountant announces: "We're delighted to inform you that most of the powerful tax-saving opportunities survived unscathed."

It's why official figures show individuals avoid £4.5bn of tax out of an annual £7bn missing from the Treasury, when campaigners say the real hole is nearer £25bn deep. Tackling all of that will cost time, effort, money, staff, and those nice big donations which political parties get from big business, so let's not do it.

The true hypocrisy is not to be found in unimportant, unfunny Jimmy Carr and his couple of mill. It's sitting behind a desk in the Treasury, pilfering the pockets of the lower orders and stroking the egos of big, fat men with big, fat bank accounts.

It is the rules that are at fault, and therefore the people who write them. MPs claimed expenses 'within the rules' and it was a scandal. Bankers gambled with more money than they had 'within the rules' and now everyone else is paying them back. If Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs are "fully aware" of all "legal tax avoidance vehicles" then it's HMRC that are the real tax dodgers.

No-one will sort them out, of course, and they'll say it's all very complex and how can poor little worker bees understand it. But in truth the solution is ridiculously simple, and that is to get rid of most of our taxes altogether.

Scrap VAT. Bin stamp duty. End the raids on pensions. Most of them are only there to fill up the coffers because rich people are busy avoiding tax anyway. Lower income tax to something low and inoffensive and make sure everyone pays exactly the same - billionaire or worker you pay, say, 10 per cent on your earnings and that's that. Everyone will, when the rate's so low.

And instead introduce the only tax which is fair - a tax on consumption. A sales tax is something no-one can avoid. Jimmy Carr has to eat and buy petrol, same as the rest of us. If he drives a rich man's car with a rich man's fuel consumption he pays more. A sales tax gets Philip Green every time he eats a steak dinner, it gets drug dealers and criminals and people who operate off the books. Everyone has to buy and spend, and if you tax at the point of sale everyone pays their share. The exchequer's big hole would start to fill up, the housing market would improve, and there would finally be a point to buying the same frock as Kate Middleton wore.

It would mean a little old lady buying a can of beans for her supper doesn't pay any more than she has to, and that Gideon would have nothing left to say.

Everyone's a winner, frankly.

Monday, 18 June 2012

A sickly constitution.

JUDGES decided Nuno Ramos was not a threat to public safety.

Despite beating, torturing and robbing a man who died as a result, they feel Nuno is entirely safe to be wandering around. Despite admitting manslaughter, despite admitting conspiracy to rob, despite being part of a vicious gang and having two drug offences under his belt.

More important than his crimes is the fact he has an ex-girlfriend and a baby son, and a brother who also lives here.  Luis Ramos was convicted of the same crimes as Nuno, but immigration judges felt there was no "serious grounds" for thinking the brothers made the place less safe, and refused to deport them to Portugal where they emigrated from 14 years ago because of their right to a family life.

Perhaps in their time in jail they recanted, studied, and were rehabilitated. Perhaps they came to regret bursting into a man's home armed with baseball bats, taping a bag over his face, binding his hands and feet, then stabbing and battering him before taking his valuables and fleeing as he died in his hallway.

Then again, perhaps not.

At the same time we have a new report into the care system which says children are being let down, abandoned and abused, that children's homes are "not fit for purpose" and there needs to be a full inquiry into what's gone wrong and how to reform things.

I believe Charles Dickens said much the same kind of thing a while ago. You might think a lot has changed since the 19th century, but if you leave your smartphone and car that's run by a computer behind and wander into some parts of London you'll find in some ways it's still the same. Overcrowding, lack of sanitation, poor education, tuberculosis, rickets, malnutrition, criminal gangs, addiction...

Charlie would find his feet in those places pretty quickly. He'd probably not understand why killers have more rights than children, and are better looked after by the 'system'. Maybe he'd even write a book about a child living in these modern ghettoes who was battered by the system until he grew up to batter someone else to death, or maybe he'd just snap his pencil in despair that human beings still haven't got this stuff sorted.

Having problems creates opportunities for ambitious politicians who like to cut a dash. That's why in 2006, shortly after it was announced the Italian-born killer of headteacher Philip Lawrence would not be deported because of his right to a family life, the then-Opposition leader Dishface announced he was going to sort it all out.

He criticised the Human Rights Act and said: "It has to go. Abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, which sets out rights and responsibilities. The fact that the murderer of Philip Lawrence cannot be deported flies in the face of common sense. It is a glaring example of what is going wrong in our country."

In 2010, after entering a coalition government with a party that quite likes human rights, Dishface couldn't quite do that and instead had to set up a commission and button his lip. Its report is due later this year and is expected, in the style of most government inquiries, commissions and reports, to achieve the square root of naff all.

The fact is we already have a Bill of Rights - it was written in 1689. It lays down the rules of the monarch and Parliament, and its rights were used as the basis for similar documents drawn up by the Americans, French, Canadians and the United Nations.

It became the foundation for the European Convention on Human Rights which - despite what Dishface would have you believe - we signed up to in 1953. The Human Rights Act 1998 was intended simply to make it possible for the convention to be enforced by our own courts without making people spend £30,000 and five years of their time taking it to Strasbourg, which if you've been denied what you should have is fair enough.

None of them are perfect. The 1689 law isn't very nice about Catholics, the convention is so loosely written it's been used to tie up a free press in legal knots and the 1998 act seems to do more for prisoners than anyone else.

Those laws don't need to be abolished - they just need to be written properly and brought up to date, tie up the loose ends by setting down things as they already are.

Something like this:
1. Every Briton is born free, and shall be taxed for the privilege for the entire duration of their life by the end of which they shall die in debt;

2. Parliament may make no law which will impede freedom of speech or expression, unless it is in the form of tweet, newspaper story, television report, books by Jeremy Clarkson's ex-wife, jokes not everyone thinks funny or about a footballer in which case it shall be outlawed;

3. Every Briton has the right to be recognised before the law, which is usually an ass;

4. Every Briton has the right to a free and anonymous vote during elections, which shall be held as rarely as possible;

5. It is the right of all Britons to petition the authorities about the spending of their tax money, who will ignore it and give it to their friends who in turn will lend it to nations with no natural resources and who spend most of the afternoon asleep;

6. Every Briton has the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, except where tourists can see them;

7. Every Briton has the right to attack their neighbour if they allow their garden to fall into disarray;

8. Every Briton has the right to swear and gesticulate at other road users regardless of age or gender;

9. No Briton shall have the right to strike or join a trade union for the improvement of their employment conditions, unless that Briton is an MP who shall judge their own behaviour, approve their own expenses, and be unsackable for periods of four years or more;

10. The provision of healthcare and education shall be universal, free at the point of service, and have its budgets repeatedly cut without question or complaint;

11. A publicly-paid judge running a public inquiry about what is in the public interest shall have the right to order other people not to publicly express an opinion about it;

12. Every Briton shall have the right to sing for a talent show judge, even the prisoners.

I expect even Dishface would think twice about setting that little lot in stone, even though it's pretty much already in force judging by the unending trickle of stories about prisoner rights, mistreated children, and public servants be they politicians or judges not only out of touch but wilfully ignoring the fact the public have a different opinion to theirs.

It would of course be preferable if we had a modern Bill of Rights which guaranteed our right to strike, free healthcare, decent education, to wander the streets in safety, have a say in how our tax is spent, and to treat our children at least as well as we do adults who have committed dreadful crimes.

But, like always, we'll end up with a fudge because pointing out what's gone wrong is easiest from the outside and almost impossible to see once you're sat on your £3,925 sofa in Downing Street.

A prisoner wouldn't get left in a pub.

Friday, 15 June 2012


... column on Argyll and Bute Council bullying a nine-year-old girl who wrote about her school dinners can be read on the Daily Mirror website here.

Have a nice weekend y'all.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Poor Iain.

IAIN Duncan Smith stood at the edge of his garden in the morning sunshine, a fine bone china cup of tea in his hand as he gazed at the view.

It was early but as Work and Pensions Secretary he was always up early perfecting whatever task he had in hand, with the aim of making Great Britain greater still. And as he stood there in his blue and white striped pyjamas, with a silk dressing gown to keep out the morning chill, he was near bursting with national pride.

There below the ha-ha at the bottom of his garden - just before the orchards, to the left of the swimming pool and tennis courts - was a scale model of the Olympic arena which he had been slaving over for a month.

He was very proud of it. It had taken him a great deal of effort and thought, as he directed his gardener to create it out of styrofoam and balsa wood, and the occasional flogging the servant had needed to correct his modelling mistakes had pained Iain greatly.

As the thought occurred to him, he rolled one arm in its shoulder joint to ease a twinge.

'This will make the country love me,' he told himself. 'The PM will realise this must be the basis for the Olympics opening ceremony, and all our policies for the future. A true celebration of all that our nation should be.'

Across a circular 'arena' the gardener had fashioned Iain's vision. There were green fields made of AstroTurf, little houses adapted from Iain's train set, and a variety of scenes depicting his political and Olympian vision.

One half of it was for the rich, and one for the poor. On the poor half there was a starting and a finish line, and the poor had to improve and meet Iain's targets along the way.

At the start line there were terraces and tower blocks, and lots and lots of people. Some of them were drug addicts, with weaselly faces, who were depicted stealing from one another, rioting, and fighting the lines of police by hurling javelins at them. Some of them were brown.

Iain was particularly proud of the flame-thrower which had been positioned beneath the area, which would send up random bursts of fire to torch the criminal underclass which couldn't escape.

The poor who fled the flames would have to wash, so that any of them who were brown would become white, and then move on to a running track. They might not want to run anywhere but would be made to using electronic ankle tags and high-powered magnets which would pull them along. Stewards would then use fishing rods to hold tax credits under the noses of the poor and induce them into high jumps.

Those that completed the athletics section of the course would then be given a choice - to join serfs toiling in the fields with horse-drawn ploughs, home-made jam and cold (not warm) pasties, or to enter the gymnastics section to cavort before an effigy of Simon Cowell.

What the poor didn't realise of course was that this was a trick, and one with which Iain was quietly thrilled. The serfs would toil quietly while those who debased themselves before Cowell would pay the price. As each person finished their act, Cowell's eyes would shoot fire and his jaw would dislocate like a snake's, and he would eat each of them alive.

There was no escape from this section - anyone who tried to scale the fences would be harried to death by Ant and Dec.

The only way out was to be the one in a million contestants who win, when Cowell would allow them through a gate which would lead only to a supermarket.

Probably an Asda, but maybe a Morrisons, he didn't really care so long as one of the proles' eateries coughed up sponsorship. Inside it a series of former X Factor winners would carry out synchronised shelf stacking while making lightly-racist remarks about Chinese drummers.

In one corner, locked into a pen, were some unmarried mothers, whose job was to weep and wail and pull at their hair while loudly decrying their selfishness. Their only way out of the pen was to enter a charmingly rural sheep dip, where Eric Pickles would completely immerse them by sitting on their heads and after which they would be considered clean enough to marry one of the male serfs.

There would be no other kind of marriage allowed at Iain's finish line.

At the border between the rich and poor halves celebrities would enter competitions of their own in an attempt to 'cross over' the series of high bollards between them and their final goal. Iain sipped his tea and narrowed his eyes as he picked out the Robbie Williams figurine, which was rubbing itself against an obstacle. There was Helen Mirren, neatly negotiating her way through. There were comedians larking around like jesters in an attempt to be allowed across the bollards, and a squadron of WAGs battering themselves against the barriers while squawking loudly in regional English.

Among them somewhere was Nancy Dell'Olio, depicted wandering off and eating some grass.

Sitting upon the bollards, and throwing faeces at everyone beneath them, were journalists. Some of them were mooning, Iain noted with disdain. The gardener would need another flogging.

Beyond the barricades was a short line of millionaires in suits, sitting on horses and using rifles to shoot the journalists down. They were matched shot for shot by a similar line on the poor side of the barriers, in slightly scruffier suits and armed only with rotten vegetables. Some of them were throwing missiles at the suited men on horseback, who in turn sent a few stray bullets back. This was the 'political divide', and Iain looked down upon his fellow MPs fondly.

'What good work we do,' he thought to himself with a smile.

Behind the Tories in the rich sector were rolling green meadows, some carefully washed cows, and a thatched Tudor mansion worth £2million not unlike the one at the top of Iain's garden, and pictures of which have of late been removed from various newspaper websites.

It had orchards, just like his one, tennis courts and a swimming pool. There was even a little blonde Betsy, if you looked hard enough (she had insisted, something or other about it being her daddy's house and Iain hadn't paid a penny, he hadn't really listened but best to keep the little lady happy!).

In the garden of the model house was a model of Iain himself, head shining in the early morning sun, with Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, stood beside him.

Iain had thought about using the Queen, but she wasn't as pretty. He frowned slightly as he looked at the waving Kate figure, and made a mental note to make sure that when this all got the go ahead his secretary would speak to the palace and make sure she was going to wear something new. The girl had an unenviable middle class habit of wearing the same clothes as often as twice, and that would never do.

Iain sighed with pleasure as he sipped his tea again. He had sent his plans through to the PM yesterday, it couldn't be long before he got a call telling him to go ahead. Then all it needed was to round up the people to take part, and sit back to await the international praise which would be heaped upon him.

Just then the pocket of his dressing gown vibrated with the pleasing sound of madrigals, and Iain fished out his mobile. At last! "Dave! Hi!" he said. "How are you this fine day?"

"Iain, you ******* ****, what the **** do you think you are ******* playing at you little ********?"

"Um, sorry, I don't follow you?"

"This ******* crazy Olympics opening ceremony idea of yours! Have you gone abso-*******-lutely mental, you dip**** ******* twazzock?"

Iain was stunned, frightened even. Was it possible someone didn't see he was right?

"Your plan says you're going to round up one million people at gunpoint, march them to Stratford, and then kill them off a dozen at a time! ******* flamethrowers! FLAMETHROWERS!"

Iain stammered. "B-b-b-but I thought that was the kind of thing we wanted to show? The best of Britain? Overcoming the riots, solving drug problems and stopping reoffending, you know..."

"Yes but we're not supposed to do it by means of mass murder! I'm not even going to start on what Priti Patel's going to say about the washing thing, and I'm sure Eric would quite enjoy the sheep dip, but morals aside the whole thing's a logistical nightmare."

Iain interrupted: "Cowell says he'd love to do it."

"Yes, I bet he would. Celebrities can always be relied upon to do idiotic stuff, but there's no way even our friendly journalists are going to volunteer to go in front of a firing squad you stupid little ****.

"Aside from all that, putting the murder and blood and torture played out in front of a 1 billion-strong worldwide TV audience which is something even the Chinese didn't dare to do, can you tell me how in the name of ******* ******* arse you're going to persuade Kate to stand there and ******* wave all the way through it?"

"Er, well, I'm sure..."

"Forget it Iain. FORGET IT. Stick to screwing up the welfare state like I told you to and let's leave the Olympics to Seb and his chums. Danny Boyle's doing it now anyway."

Iain's mouth flapped sadly as the PM hung up. Iain gazed once more upon his balsa and AstroTurf dream, but this time with gloom in his heart.

What if ... what if Britain wasn't what he thought it was after all? What if he was... wrong?

He sighed, then laughed. Of course that wasn't possible! He heard the clatter of fine bone china cutlery in the house and turned to go into breakfast with lovely Betsy, in the house he hadn't paid for, earning £134,565 a year for emitting wild ideas which were generally ignored by the people who paid him because everyone thought he was utterly mad.

"I'll just have to come up with a new idea," he said to himself as he went indoors.

The gardener watched him go, and plotted his revenge.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Right (adj.): Good, proper or just.

THERE is a belief that if you give people new rights they become somehow better people.

So if everyone has the 'right' to a mortgage they will always make the payments; the 'right' to drive a car means they will be good drivers; and the 'right' to own a pet means they are trained and treated well.

Except we all know that some people take out a mortgage when they can't afford it, and when too many people do that there's a crunch in the world economy, people pass their driving test and forget all they were taught, and there are animals whose owners are something less than animal themselves.

So giving fathers the right to see mothers jailed if they block access to their children after a split might just cause more problems than it could possibly solve. There are bad parents of course, but they're not taught to be better by taking away their driving licence, setting them a curfew or jailing them for up to six weeks.

What happens in a case of someone who married and divorced someone who later refuses to pay their share? Some parents might withhold access until their ex-partner meets their commitments, but according to the courts - and the new proposals - this would be bad parenting.

Anyone who did so could be fined, have their driving licence seized and face jail.

There are parents of both genders who have tales of  exes who have denied access unreasonably and are rubbish mums. I have fathers of my acquaintance frustrated that joint custody isn't the starting point for a family court, that their exes can move hours away and their precious time with children is eaten into by long car journeys, that former wives trash them in earshot of the offspring.

The problem is not one of gender, because bad parents come in every shape and size, but it is simply to do with an inability to accept that rights are about more than being recognised as the owner of something.

Of course there should be shared parenting. Of course mums and dads should get fair access. But the reason 20 per cent of children lose touch with an absent parent within three years is often because that parent has chosen to absent themselves.

The CSA was set up in 1993 and has consistently failed to be any good. There are as many stories of draconian insistence on high payments as there are of parents who fail to pay at all. It's utterly toothless, takes years to do nothing much, and has £3.8billion of maintenance arrears which it's not bothering to collect. Five per cent of it is from wealthy mothers who won't pay - 95 per cent is from dads.

The agency has recently got some new powers to seize money from bank accounts and has set up a task force which has grabbed £12m, but it's a drop in the ocean and making people pay doesn't make them better parents.

The truth is that it's not the state's job to tell other people how to raise their children, and seeing as we're not about to force sterilisation or 'child licences' upon anyone there are always going to be imperfect parents some of whom will try their best and others who'll do their worst.

If the Government really wants to help the best it can do is make mediation an unavoidable part of any divorce or custody dispute, to force people to get around the table and hammer out a deal.

When I divorced, even without children, there were things to argue about and my husband refused point-blank to do it through mediation because he thought he'd 'lose'. Instead we did it through lawyers, which cost us thousands and took forever, and he ended up losing even more.

I have female friends dealing with feckless exes and male friends who agreed everything their ex-wives asked for, and ended up with unfair division of assets. All of us, had we no option but to sit down with an independent mediator, would have got a better deal.

But then mediation is not as headline-grabbing as "lock up your ex-wife", which is what the Government prefers, so while it's making £10m available for mediation services it's not making it mandatory. As a result nothing much is going to improve.

And from an early age our children should be taught that the culture of 'rights' is flawed, that half the ones we talk about now are nothing to do with making things more even and everything to do with making our lives more frustrating and futile.

Rights are things you fight for - the right to sit on the same bus as white folk, to vote, to work, to be heard. When you get what you want, all of humanity is slightly improved.

Responsibilities are things you have a duty to do. To care for another, to pick up your litter, vote and work even when you don't feel inspired about it. You do them because you ought to, not because you really want to. But still when they are fulfilled the world is a better place because of it.

Rights are quite often wrong unless you also take responsibility for holding onto them.

"Responsibility? I took it once, left it in a pub."

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Our will be done.

LADIES and gentlemen, gather round. We're witnessing something you only get to see once in a millennium - the death of a church.

It's been unwell for a while. The Church of England isn't as popular as it once was, and although one million people attend its services every Sunday that's just 1/60th of the population. Seeing as around 70 per cent of us say we're Christian, that's a massive failure of getting bums on seats.

Now the church has decided to stake its survival on the issue of gay marriage, a move which is so obviously suicidal that it might be time to declare the Church of England mentally incompetent.

The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stephens, is even worried that gay sex might not constitute legal consummation of a marriage because it's done differently, a bit like when Queen Victoria outlawed male homosexuality but not female because she didn't see how it would work.

It doesn't really matter whether you think two people of the same sex should be able to marry in church or that they shouldn't. There are gays who want to, gays who don't, and clergy who have spent decades thinking one thing or the other who find it pretty tricky to think something different.

The fact is that it's happening. It's out of our hands. Under the European Convention on Human Rights we can't not allow people to get married in church on the basis of their sexuality any more than we could not allow it on the basis of their hair colour, skin tone or body mass index, so it's past the point of arguing.

The church's rules were last used as the law of the land in the 12th century, when the Normans realised the Saxon court system was much better. The church split four hundred years later and accepted the monarch as their supreme head, and canon law was officially repealed in 1638 when some antsy bishops picked a fight with Charles I.

These days their boss is the Queen, and she has to agree to laws voted for by Parliament. So Parliament is legally, practically and constitutionally able to regulate the church. It's a bit late for them to wail about that fact 900 years too late.

It's also ignoring its own history. The church has managed to adapt and change because of a variety of other social changes, although it tends to take its sweet time about it.

It was formed in 1534 solely because Henry VIII wanted to get rid of one wife and marry another but it wasn't until 2002 the general public could do the same in a religious ceremony. It picked bits of the Catholic liturgy and Protestant theology to use as suited, Latin was banned and reinstated then banned again, and today atheists, Muslims and Catholics can all marry in the CofE.

But the bishops in charge of the church today have forgotten the past few centuries of its history in favour of concentrating on the rules of a book written 2,000 years ago, and their pig-headed refusal to admit they're not all as relevant as they once were is pushing the church towards extinction.

On the one hand there are die-hards who won't change one thing more and insist their god doesn't talk to women or endorse the love between people of the same sex; and on the other there are modernisers who want to inhabit the 21st century with a website and Twitter account which proudly boasts: "We're here to learn and to engage."

Right then, vicar. Pin your ears back and listen to this.

Gays exist, and if they want to get married in a church then you are going to be incapable of stopping them. Gays aren't illegal anymore, and our laws take precedence over yours. Because of those laws you usually marry anyone who asks, even Katie Price who's demonstrably not very good at it.

The Government says there are 3.6m gay people in Britain, which is three times your average congregation. They don't want to all get hitched, but there's more of them than there are of you so they're going to win this one.

Last time your church split it did so with a great deal of pain, death and difficulty but various bits managed to grow new life, like an amoeba that's been through a bacon slicer. But then you were a big, sprawling thing that could take the division. If it happens again you're so small that you won't survive; you'll be reduced to a scream on the wind.

Frankly you're lucky anyone's still paying you attention at all.

Gay marriage isn't undermining the church; it's undermining itself. It has to decide if it wants to exist, and if so to admit what everyone else has got used to - that there's nowt so queer as folk, and if it wants to minister to them it had better start enjoying that fact.

It needs new customers, and needs them sharpish. Straight people are marrying in fewer numbers than ever before so relying on them for the future is a business plan Alan Sugar would laugh out the door.

And if the church can't cope with that, then for God's sake please just commit suicide quietly.

"Hello? Is that Dignitas? How much for a job lot?"

Monday, 11 June 2012

Bus stop rules.

IMAGINE a media company which wants to stick its nose into every single part of your life.

It wants your passwords, email address, phone number. It needs your home address, takes your bank details, and to keep a copy of your personal pictures.

It ends up knowing about your sexual tastes, your salary, your children. It does all this without your explicit permission; in fact it does it automatically whenever you use its products.

And it's not a secret. Most of us know about it only because unfriendly journalists - the best kind, unless you're the person they're being unfriendly towards - have been reporting on it.

The corporation behind it all is worth billions, is run by people we don't know but world leaders seem to, and sprawls all over the world. They've been caught out breaking the rules and invading our privacy, and then failing to co-operate with the authorities investigating them.

And nor do we. We still buy the products which they use to harvest our information, and give them our passwords quite willingly.

So where is the inquiry into the ethics and practices of the giants of our modern digital age? Where are the politicians demanding a change to the law, the celebrities wanting stricter regulation, the judges handing down decisions about how Google and Apple and Facebook are infringing the European Convention on Human Rights which says every individual has a right to respect for the privacy of their private and family life, home and correspondence?

Ah. Well the politicians are having dinner with the corporations, the celebrities are attending corporation parties to have their egos stroked, and the judges don't understand Twitter.

There are plenty of differences between newspapers and the internet, one of which is that so far the internet hasn't been shut down for hacking a dead girl's mobile phone. But if a part of it did do something as dramatically bad, would we use a different website? Throw the sexy modern phone away and buy a different model? Abandon our iPads and Kindles and tablets in dudgeon?

No. We wouldn't.

Which is why rather than changing anything those digital giants are stepping things up a gear. They're going to take pictures of our gardens, something which on the rare occasions a newspaper's done the same has led to a costly court case and most editors deciding it's not worth the bother.

A friend of mine bought an iPad the other day. "When I turned it on it wanted my email address and name," he told me in the pub. "So I thought fine, and used the pseudonym I always use for online stuff. Then it wanted my date of birth, so I put in 1/1/76 like I always do.

"Then it wanted my bank account details to check that information was correct. It wanted a second email address to verify the first one, it wanted me to OK loads of stuff I wasn't OK with, and there was no way to activate it without giving it everything about me. Why?"

If a newspaper invades your privacy it can be confusing, upsetting, wrong, but you can normally see something produced as a result of it. You might not like the end product but there is a system of cause and effect which is easy to understand. They want pictures and information in order to print them, and we all get to see and judge it when they do.

Of what use are baby pictures to Facebook? Why does Apple care if its customers have a bank account in a different name? How is a picture of my back garden going to be of anything more than passing interest even to people who have lived in my house and want to check if the roses are still there?

That's something we don't know so much about and can't see. We can't hold it in our hands on the train or argue about it much over Sunday lunch.

But they're using that stuff for something, because Google makes £40,000 a minute. Apple does twice that, and iPhones alone turnover £64bn a year. Regardless of its current share price, Facebook had a revenue of £2.3billion last year.

They also make, or sell products which are used to make, vast amounts from porn; to stalk, kill and terrify; and if you're of that bent there's dead schoolgirls to perv over as well.

Nothing wrong with a business turning a profit or avoiding paying more tax than it wants to, legally. But we treat our digital world as though it were a bit like a science-fiction movie - a place where everyone is equal, there's no war, people are in agreement and everything is clean and white and shiny and more than anything else, it's unquestionably moral.

In fact it's full of humans, doing human stuff. A lot of it's not moral at all and you would be horrified if you knew about it. And if you did know, you'd sit and complain about how awful it is to your friends and then Google the latest Facebook troll story, browse some online paparazzi pictures of celebrities, or send some nasty tweets you don't think will be traced back to you.

The most pernicious thing is this: if it's not on the internet, people don't think it exists. If it is on the internet, people think it must be true.

The other day I saw a press photographer from a reputable organisation - I won't name it because he'll only get trolled - announce he was building his own drone to send up and take pictures from the air. He illustrated his point by posting an aerial view of someone's back garden.

If a newspaper said they were doing that, a lot of people would get their knickers in a twist. When Apple and Google announce they're both sending up spy planes we merely wonder what the neighbours' back yard is like.

Morality cannot be forced and only comes about when we are, in Gordon Brown's words, "incentivised". As children we are taught that being good brings reward and being bad does not, and we figure out empathy and other stuff along the way. The traditional media are old and crotchety now, a bit like Prince Philip who doesn't see what's wrong with how we've always done things but quite capable of being modern when it suits.

The internet is a teenager, testing its strength and seeing how far it can go while at the same time never having been set a single rule and being taught that the more it does what it's doing the more money it'll make.

It will grow up, but it's going to hurt. In the meantime there is just one rule for the internet, which is otherwise a fairly lawless place: don't do anything you wouldn't do at a bus stop.

That means not swearing too much, no masturbating, don't scream at strangers and be careful what private information you reveal. Think about how you interact with the world, because that's what the internet is: a screen-sized portal to the entire planet.

And yes it's us that have to follow the rules, and perhaps it would be nice if just once the big boys had to do the same. If the internet giants had to behave, play nicely, and refrain from picking all our pockets while we wait for the number 42.

So let's hope our leaders give them some strict parenting.


"Have you seen the internet?" "I thought you had it." "No that's your job." "BUGGER."

Friday, 8 June 2012

Today's post...

... is about Cheryl Tweedy and can be read at Mirror Online here.

Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

How does this look?

WHEN I was young, I had thick NHS glasses that made me look like Deidre Barlow.

They made the skin on my nose itch, which I would scratch, and then it would weep and then there would be scabs. Mum put some felt on the bridge of the glasses to stop the itching, but all that happened was the felt got tangled in the scabs and when I took the glasses off half my face would come with it.

I had railway track braces on my teeth, and an extra head brace I had to wear at home held on with a huge elastic strap around the back of my head.

And I had a mullet, 10 years after they were fashionable.

You will probably be able to guess that I did not have a lot of boyfriends, and did have quite a lot of arguments with my mum, particularly when she took me to the hairdresser's.

That was my adolescence. It was shit.

But throughout the whole thing - when the pretty girls with long blonde hair bullied me, when the boys I was in love with laughed at me, when acne arrived and made me feel even worse - I never once thought I was a failure.

There were moments I felt ugly, but I knew I was loved even if it was just my mum. I was told throughout the important thing was to do well at school, rise above things, and that I could do whatever I wanted with my life so long as I applied myself to it.

I never wanted a spray tan. I didn't want the world to hear me sing. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, I wanted the boy who smoked Marlboro Reds to fall in love with me, and I wanted my hair to grow quicker.

All kind of normal, really, for a child. No-one treated me as a way of making money, which is just as well as the only way would have involved me joining the circus.

Today we're told about a very different way of doing things, in the distressing shape of Savanna Jackson, who has plucked eyebrows, lacquered hair, fake tan once a month and wears swimming costumes to parade around in front of strangers. She has a catwalk coach. She's three.

She's been doing beauty pageants since she was 10 months old. Her first spray tan was at age two. Her mother Lauren said: "To me the pageants are about having fun, building up her self-esteem, and giving my girl the best possible opportunity in life."

There is a bit of me that can't wait for Savanna to be an adolescent; for her to get zits and self-doubt, hide behind her hair and baggy jumpers and scream at her mum that she will never wear pink again. But maybe that won't happen, because she's been trained from birth that appearance is the most important thing about her.

So what will she do when the appearance isn't so great? Will she read lots of books, will she build a firm network of good friends who don't care about appearance, will she be proud of her stretchmarks, will she ever entertain the thought of being a fighter pilot? I'm going to guess no.

Her mum is destroying Savanna's self-esteem by teaching her as a child that the only way to gain parental approval is to win an obscene kind of beauty contest and make money which is spent on making her even more of a monster.

But they're American. We can dismiss the Americans, can't we?

Do you remember Malakai Paul, the nine-year-old who cried with nerves in his Britain's Got Talent audition? Judge Alesha Dixon rushed on stage to comfort him, as did his watching mum Toni-Ann. He tried again and was voted through, but lost out in the semi-finals.

The viewing public were aghast, especially as the programme makers cynically screened his breakdown either side of an ad break to maximise their viewing figures. There were complaints, but lots of us watched and in fact as a result of Malakai's trauma we probably watched and voted more.

Six months on he's still being stopped in the street for photographs and his mum's upset he didn't get invited on the BGT national tour. And she sounds a lot like Savanna's mum when she explains why she encouraged her son into a talent contest to try and win a £500,000 prize.

She said: "Malakai wasn't exploited, the show gave him opportunities he would never have had anywhere else. If ministers want to offer an alternative, fine. But for people like us these shows offer a real chance to lift ourselves out of our environment."

So does the lottery, love, and the upside is that it doesn't involve your son having a blub on prime-time telly which he is never going to be allowed to forget.

Malakai was exploited, because BGT made more money out of it than he did. The show gave him no opportunities at all but it gave all of us the chance to judge his mother's parenting. It's not up to Government ministers to offer £500,000 cash prizes for him to do something else, and if you're in a poor environment sudden wealth won't help you much.

Malakai's mum took her son to his first BGT audition at the age of seven. This year she got him out of bed at 3am to take three buses to the auditions, and by the time his turn rolled around at 5pm he was tired and fraught. Tears were just a matter of time.

But she still insists: "Not once did I think 'what have I done?' Even though it was a bit daunting for Malakai, it was a good experience. Character building."

Well, so's being hit around the head with a frying pan once a day, but that would seem unreasonable wouldn't it?

Both mums obviously love their children, and the children love their mums; but they are undeniably being encouraged to do something unnatural in return for financial gain and as a bonus are being taught that debasing themselves is the path to happiness. When they don't manage it, they're a failure.

"When I was voted off in the semi-finals I felt my career was over. I felt low," said Malakai. "I thought everyone was disappointed in me."

There are plenty of youngsters who were born for the stage, who love to sing and dance or make people laugh, and a few of them turn it into a career when they're older. There are lots of families which struggle financially or live in grubby areas and wish they could be somewhere else, but most of them don't expect their children to perform like a dancing poodle in order to achieve it.

We seem to have arrived at a point where it is socially acceptable to exploit your children for financial gain and call it 'an opportunity', even though the only opportunity they're being given is the chance of being screwed up in new and interesting ways.

It's what parents do, I suppose. I'm allergic to hairdressers, but at least my teeth are straight. And I am able to forget the bits that made me miserable, because every time someone got a camera out I ran away. More importantly still, my parents thought I was a child rather than a money making machine.

The one opportunity Malakai and Savanna have been given is never being proper children at all.

And I don't care how pretty you are - that never looks good.

Imagine it with a death-scowl and zits.