Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Could the election ever have been all about the NHS, stupid?

"It's the economy, stupid!" is a frequent, if cliched, explanation for why elections are won. It's so obvious. The winning party was either strong on economic policy or, as is more likely in the case of this month's UK General Election, was strong on giving a good impersonation of being strong on the economy.

If the only payrise you've received of late is down to tax cuts, if you're not struggling on a zero hours contract, if you have never seen inside a food bank, if you really don't know what the difference is between the debt and the deficit and don't particularly care to find out, if you're genuinely happy with supermarket prices and the economy's current rate of growth, then yes, it is pretty obvious why the Conservative Party came out as looking like they might be strong on the economy. Whatever. It doesn't matter what your politics are, you can probably find figures to support your argument or you might genuinely believe George Osborne is doing a sterling job as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

For the beleaguered Labour Party, the polls (Ha! Remember those wacky polls before the election?), suggested the public thought Team Red rather than Team Blue was stronger and more trustworthy on the NHS. But this didn't translate into nearly enough votes for Labour to come close to a majority. The wheels fell off for Labour on the NHS long before Ed Miliband unveiled his stone tablet inscribed with the meaningless platitude of "An NHS with time to care".

While there certainly are people in Britain who would support the NHS moving towards a user-pays system and an increased take-up of private health insurance, the overwhelming feeling I get is that "free at the point of use" remains an important pillar of the NHS for many people from across the political spectrum. People understand that we pay for the NHS via our taxes and people expect in return to not receive a bill or have to file for bankruptcy as a result of receiving NHS treatment.

I remember debating UKIP's NHS policy with a Kipper on Twitter who was desperate to reassure me that UKIP is committed the NHS remaining free at the point of use (except immigrants like me, who have not yet lived here for five years, would have to take out private health insurance...). I found that UKIP, Tory, LibDem and Labour supporters all push the "free at the point of use" line but few seem too concerned with whether NHS services are publicly or privately provided.

And so the missed opportunities for Labour to show true strength on the NHS began.

Why didn't Labour promise to look into the billions of pounds the NHS internal market costs taxpayers in administration costs alone?

When we have situations across the country such as Virgin Care running essential urgent care services at Croydon University Hospital so poorly that quality standards are simply not being met, G4S being allowed anywhere near a hospital, Serco misuing public funds in relation to NHS contracts, we have a problem. The problem is compounded by private companies being exempt from FOI laws?

At the very least, Labour could have pledged to overturn the FOI exemption for private companies in relation to NHS contracts. Why did this not happen?

A promise to cap profits of private providers in the NHS did not resonate with voters.

The National Health Action Party, the Greens and UKIP all had policies on rolling back expensive PFI contracts, which are costing us billions in repayments, meaning we frequently get one hospital for the price of nine. Why was Labour afraid of a mea culpa on PFI? PFI may have been started by the Conservatives but it went nuclear under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A humble admission that this was a massively expensive SNAFU and a pledge to do something about it could have been a vote-winner.

The cost of the NHS internal market and PFI contracts represent cost pressures on the NHS that make the Daily Mail's constant wail of "health tourism" pale into insignificance. They would be pledges that would not fit nicely on a ridiculous stone or have the snappy insta-appeal of the mansion tax, even though that would not come close to helping plug the NHS funding gap.

Why couldn't the Labour Party found a way to get the message out there that internal market costs and PFI are crippling the NHS financially way more than immigrants ever will?

Instead, we have much NHS fun and games already with the all-new, all-singing, all-dancing Conservative majority government. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is now bashing nurses over anti-social hours pay in his quest to make what is already a 24-hour service an unachievable 24-hour service. There are unrealistic promises of hordes of new GPs despite there not being enough GPs in training to achieve this, and despite Britain struggling to attract foreign GPs to make up the shortfall. It all smacks of setting the system up for inevitable failure, ably assisted by a compliant NHS-bashing media, thus whetting the public appetite for selling off more services.

Whether Labour, under the election manifesto's NHS promises, would have done any better is a moot point. Whether the new Labour leader will be able to offer a genuine, cost-effective, patient outcomes-focused alternative remains to be seen. All I will say is that if one of the "modernisers" wins the leadership contest (I'm looking at you, Liz Kendall...), I predict more of the same for years to come.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Enough with MPs wanting to be London mayors already!

Being the Mayor of London is a big job. It is not just a ceremonial role where you get to throw on some robes and gold chains and open village fairs. It is a huge responsibility. Apart from New York City, London is pretty much the only major city in the world where people from other countries know who the mayor is, especially since the deliberately dishevelled showpony that is Boris Johnson has been in the job. As a result, he has a huge following from people who don't even live in the UK and certainly don't have to live with the consequences of his ridiculousness.

Now Boris is both an MP and the Mayor so he can do two jobs badly instead of just the one. Being an MP is also a big job and a huge responsibility. So why the hell do people keep thinking they can do both jobs and do them properly?

When Boris leaves his post as mayor next year, there will be a vacancy and sitting MPs keep sticking their heads over the parapet to declare they're running for the top London job. We have Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park, Diane Abbot, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham all with hats in the ring. Additionally, Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West, and Justine Greening, Conservative MP for Putney, are considered as potential candidates.

It has to stop. To try and be Mayor of London and an effective MP at the same time is to show no respect to the people you represent.

MPs cop a lot of flak and it is often well-deserved, especially when greedy snouts keep finding their way into troughs at our expense. But it is a demanding job, even if you are a humble backbencher, and there are plenty of MPs of all political shades who work hard and are genuinely trying to serve the people they represent. If you don't believe me, check out the excellent BBC documentary Inside The Commons.

And what is really sad is that among the MPs who have declared they want to be the Mayor of London, there are some genuinely talented people, in particular Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith. I can imagine both Khan and Goldsmith being better mayors for London than Boris Johnson.

But I don't want to see any of them as Mayor of London if it means they won't be able to devote as much time as they should to their roles as MP. And being a good MP, even if you are a London-based one, means you're not going to have time to take the helm of a city as huge, complex, diverse and challenging as the nation's capital. Nobody votes for a part-time MP any more than they vote for a part-time mayor.

And, frankly, while I'm at it, I've had it with the party politics focus on the job of Mayor of London. Hell, party politics at any level of local government can get messy and it can easily turn local councils into training grounds for ambitious wannabe MPs. This should not be the purpose of local government.

The media has to shoulder a lot of the blame for the party politicisation of the London mayoral elections. Every time it is portrayed as Labour versus Tory, red versus blue. As if the mayor can only ever be from one of two parties. And people are daft enough to view it as a two-horse race and vote for one of the two heads they see on every front page rather than carefully thinking about who might actually be the best person to run the capital.

In the last London mayoral election, it would have been magnificent if Siobhan Benita won. Imagine that. An independent mayor of London. A mayor who is not beholden to the policies of any of the major parties. A mayor who might actually have made decisions based on what was best for London and for Londoners. A mayor who is not distracted by the demands of being an MP. A mayor with no ambitions to be in the House of Commons or to be Prime Minister.

Will Londoners be bold enough to vote in a way that could set a great example for local government across the whole country? Or will it be another election of more of the same, regardless of the result?

Friday, 8 May 2015

OK, so what has gone on with the UK general election?

The polls predicted a close election. Britain was braced for a hung parliament and the possibility of voting again to break the deadlock. But the deadlock never happened and the Conservative Party won a majority. There will be no deals with the Liberal Democrats. With only eight LibDem MPs left in the House of Commons, they'll be able to hold their meetings in a booth at Pizza Hut. UKIP only won one seat. Labour members are in shock. And the SNP took almost every constituency in Scotland, which was about the only thing anyone predicted.

So why did vast swathes of Britain turn blue? I suspect UKIP helped the Conservatives enormously. It does not take a great leap of imagination to picture right-leaning, undecided voters across the country who were contemplating voting UKIP thinking better of it in the privacy of the ballot box. The Conservatives may have seemed a safer choice than a largely untested, gaffe-prone party that cannot quite shake its reputation for racism or sexism or being stuck in the 1950s or blaming floods on gay people getting married.

It is ironic that UKIP, the party that claims to be anti-establishment, helped to ensure the establishment retained power. Then again, this is the same party that all at once says it is in favour of free speech, constantly whines about "BBC lefty bias, appears on the BBC with alarming regularity, and called the police after Camilla Long had the temerity to make a joke about Nigel Farage on Have I Got News For You. We cannot expect any consistency from UKIP, the party that once had uniforms for taxi drivers as a policy despite claiming to be the party of minimal government interference.

The UKIP factor is more of a worry for the Labour party. In many seats, UKIP polled strongly against Labour candidates, eating into their majorities. This will mean some serious soul-searching for Labour. Ed Miliband attempted tough talk on immigration. Indeed, his bizarre stone monument named "Controlled immigration" as a promise.

For Labour, myriad questions have emerged. Will Labour need to try and out-UKIP UKIP to win back traditional working class Labour voters? Is it fair to tar all working class Labour voters as susceptible to UKIP policy? Should Labour instead try to educate voters in order to counteract UKIP's fear-mongering about immigrants? Or will Labour instead assume there will always be an element of the working class who will vote for them no matter what and try instead to appeal more to their liberal middle class supporters? Was Labour not radical enough on the NHS? Can Labour win over Green and Liberal Democrat voters in 2020 and would that be enough to dredge up a majority in five years' time? And what about being annihilated in Scotland?

Which brings us to the SNP. The Tories don't need the SNP to form a government, Labour is in no position to ask the SNP to help them take charge. The SNP rode high on a wave of Scottish nationalism but in England, English nationalism and a fear of being run by the SNP in a coalition, did not help Labour's cause. In the end, it didn't matter how many times Ed Miliband said there wouldn't be a Labour-SNP coalition. People were not convinced. As a result the SNP goal of ridding the UK of the Tories failed despite winning 56 seats.

Of course, there was also the rank hypocrisy of politicians who not so long ago were begging Scotland to stay in the union now encouraging everyone outside of Scotland to panic-vote a possible coalition away, neutering the influence of the very people they were courting during last year's referendum.

Given the SNP campaign was a strongly anti-austerity, let's-get-rid-of-the-Tories campaign, we can only assume their MPs will vote against any planned Conservative cuts in the new parliament. But even if they vote as a bloc with Labour, the Green MP and the smattering of LibDems, the Conservatives won't have any trouble getting things passed through the House of Commons. Whether the House of Lords is compliant, however, is another matter. And the Conservatives could easily face divisions, especially on issues such as Europe, if rebel MPs refuse to vote with the whip. We shall see...

And then there was the LibDems' obliteration across the whole country. London is left with just one LibDem, the cadaverously insincere Tom Brake, who has managed to convince people he is keeping the local hospital open on the strength of an e-petition so out of date it is addressed to the wrong body.

But were the LibDems punished for becoming yellow Tories? Given the number of yellow seats that turned blue, possibly not. Either there was a curiously apathetic attitude in polling booths of "Oh well, we may as well just vote Conservative, same difference" going on or perhaps there are more natural conservatives among us than we realised. With seats such as Twickenham, Sutton & Cheam and Kingston & Surbiton going from LibDem to Tory, were the more affluent and elderly voters, those more likely to vote and vote blue, coming out in force in these areas?

Oh well, maybe it is time for some good old electoral reform, eh? Remember way back in 2011 when we had the AV referendum? AV? Alternative vote? Anyone? Given that about three people turned out to vote, nobody seemed to understand what AV was, and the asinine Louise Mensch drearily sneered from the US that AV was bad because Australia and Papua New Guinea have it, it came as no surprise when the referendum failed. Now, all of a sudden, people who couldn't give a damn about electoral reform in 2011 are suddenly crying out for proportional representation instead of first-past-the-post.

In particular, losing parties are crying out for a spot of proportional representation - the Liberal Democrats and UKIP would have both done a whole lot better under that system. And maybe it isn't a fair reflection of the national mood if UKIP only gets one seat despite getting more than four million votes across the country. They are four million people the major parties will try to win over in 2020 if they are serious about governing with a comfortable majority.

But ultimately, UKIP may not matter at all in the long run. The purple pound-sign warriors can talk up their success-despite-only-having-one-seat all they like tonight. David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum on Europe in 2017. If he keeps his promise, UKIP will slink further into irrelevancy regardless of the result.

If the UK votes to leave the EU, that sucks the life out of pretty much every UKIP policy so they'd be instantly beside the point. If the UK votes to stay in the EU, the people will have spoken out against UKIP's obsession, life will go on and the UKIP MEPs will continue to be ineffective in Brussels at everything except riding the gravy train.

And as the night falls on the first day of the Conservative majority government, there will be a lot of pollsters, as well as Labour supporters, NHS campaigners, LibDems and people who'd sooner hammer rusty nails into their eardrums than vote Tory who are wondering what the hell to do now. Next up, we will have the inevitably unedifying spectacle of parties choosing new leaders as they lick their wounds. You might not like the result of this election but, chances are, you cannot look away. If you want change, however, you will have to do stuff as well as look, tweet and bleat.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The great Beach Body backfire

Bright yellow advertisements for weight loss products have improved/degenerated the commute for Londoners on the tube network in the past few weeks. These ads scream the stupid question: "ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?" at us alongside a picture of a woman in a bikini looking both slim and impressive of bosom all at once. In other words, she possesses a body type few of us have thanks to Mother Nature, some of us will attain through assorted methods, and most of us will never have.

In reality, if you share the model's waist size, you are more than likely to be small-breasted. If you share her generous cup size, the rest of you may well be in proportion too. Of course, there are exceptions as there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to body type - and that is why it is ridiculous that body types go in and out of fashion over the decades.

The obvious answer to the stupid question is: "Yes, I am beach body ready. I have a body and I am capable of taking it to the beach where I will be ready to do beach-related things."

There has been an outcry over these ads. The Advertising Standards Authority received more than 200 complaints. The posters have been improved/vandalised by protesters. I saw one on the tube tonight that had "Stop objectification" written on it.

So what has happened as a result of the brouhaha? Sales of the weight loss products went up.

Of course they did. Proving that any publicity is good publicity, the winner is Protein World. Which sounds like the worst-ever amusement park.

The two most likely reasons for this sales spike are equally depressing. If people have decided to spite those awful feminists by buying Protein World products, they are a bit sad. They are probably the same idiots who hijacked the #FeministsAreUgly hashtag on Twitter.

And the other equally depressing reason why Protein World got a boost in sales is that people wanted to see what all the fuss was about, decided they were not "beach body ready" and, as a result, have been conned into buying a completely moronic product. We are talking about capsules and meal replacements. Short-term quick fixes.

It is a get-rich-quick scheme for Protein World that does nothing to promote learning to prepare healthy meals or the benefits of regular exercise. These shysters are selling crap like "green tea extract powder" for £12. You can buy 80 green teabags for £2.80 today at Sainsburys. They're even fair-trade teabags.

So it would seem Protein World is appealing to snide feminist-haters, uneducated consumers and people desperate for a quick fix rather than a healthy lifestyle change.

Changing your lifestyle is boring but it works out cheaper and more effective in the long run than replacing meals with a £62 package of "The Slender Blend" meal replacement potion and multivitamin capsules.

If you bought Protein World products because you hate feminists, the joke is on you. You are now the proud owner of stupid, overpriced supplements all because you wanted to make a pathetic point. If you were fooled by the advertising campaign and truly think replace meals with overproduced slop in a glass is the way forward, I feel sorry for you. You have been tricked by a marketing campaign where not only does the model have a rare body type, she also has the benefit of good lighting and possibly the miracle of PhotoShop.

Protein World and similar companies will continue to use such models for their campaigns. Of course they will. Let's be realistic. Ann Widdecombe will not be the next face and body of Protein World.

But that does not mean you have to be an idiot consumer. All this beach body brouhaha has demonstrated is that many people are easily fooled. And that is most depressing of all.

Photography by Gerhard Lipold

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

St Helier Hospital, the political football that keeps getting a kicking...

We didn’t want to be right but we knew we were. While people from the major parties were telling the public that St Helier Hospital was safe, we – as in my fellow Keep Our St Helier Hospital (KOSHH) campaigners and I – knew the hospital was far from safe.

We suspected as much when we took the time to read a little-known document, the South West London Collaborative Commissioning strategy document. Yes, I am sure it is on your bedside table right now too. In short, it outlines strategies for “efficiency savings” (Read: cuts) for hospitals across South West London. It telegraphs keeping all services at St Georges Hospital in Tooting (as seen on Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E) at the expense of services at either Epsom, St Helier or Croydon University Hospitals, or a combination of the three.

This makes sense from an axeman’s point of view because St Georges has a PFI debt and this basically makes it too big to fail. St Georges has enjoyed the addition of a helipad, it is a major trauma centre for vast swathes of England, it occupies a huge site just off Tooting Broadway, it is at breaking point. St Helier Hospital is a handy back-up for St Georges. As well as taking its own patients in A&E and maternity, it is a place for St Georges to send ambulances and women in labour when it’s at full capacity.

And, in the midst of threats to St Helier Hospital, a new and misleading narrative emerged. 

The major parties, all desperate to look like they are serious about local health services, all desperate to win the forthcoming election, started parroting the line from the trust itself that St Helier Hospital was “safe for five years”. This has appeared on leaflets that local politicians have shoved through my front door. And, yes, we all knew there were plans for an overhaul of local services in the next few years and the strategy document tells us that after that, vital services at St Helier and Epsom Hospitals (the two hospitals that make up the Epsom-St Helier Hospital Trust) could be eliminated. 

So that is where this “safe for five years” line has come from.

We’re talking about the elimination of piddling little things like A&E, maternity, paediatric intensive care and the renal unit, no biggie… Except that without these, other services are then imperilled – the assisted conception clinic works with maternity, the fracture clinic works with A&E, the eye clinic that works with anyone with eyes, and so on and so forth…

The strategy document is just a reheated version of the farcically named “Better Service, Better Value” review that cost taxpayers at least £8 million, including (and this will become relevant soon…) loads of our damn money spent on hiring private consultancy firms to advise on how to best carve up local healthcare services.

Still, the major parties kept parroting the mindless “safe for five years” rhetoric. As if that is good enough. As if aiming for such a low target of five years of service followed by an abyss of uncertainty for patients and staff was somehow acceptable. As if nobody bothered to ask why, when all the proposals that have been bandied about will involve expenditure, investment in making Epsom and St Helier Hospitals as good as they can possibly be was not on the table.

And then last week it all kicked off.

First, Nick Clegg and incumbent LibDem MP for the constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake, thought it’d be a jolly wheeze to stroll on the green opposite St Helier Hospital for a photo opportunity. Just a photo opp, mind. They had no intention of taking questions about the hospital or the wider NHS. But 18 hours before the event, word got out that they were going to descend on the green. Protesters from KOSHH, the National Health Action Party, the Labour Party and the Greens did a great job of disrupting things. Good.

A tragic, orange placard-waving LibDem rent-a-crowd fawned over Nick Clegg as he said, with a straight face, that the cadaverous Tom Brake had worked really hard to keep the hospital open. Hint: Tom Brake has done no such thing. All he did was set up an e-petition so long ago, it is now addressed to the wrong body. I have no idea when he plans to hand it in or to whom. The only thing the e-petition has achieved is a bigger mailing list for Brake’s propaganda emails. A lot of people signed the e-petition in good faith. A lot of people have been taken for mugs.

And then, that very afternoon, an astounding story broke on the BBC. The story that showed KOSHH campaigners are not a bunch of scaremongering cranks after all. 

Representatives of a private consultancy firm were overheard on a train to Waterloo talking about a proposal to build an 800-bed “super-hospital” on the site of Sutton Hospital, a place that died the death of a thousand cuts and is now a depressing, largely abandoned site and the recent victim of an arson attack.  

And why the hell do we keep spending taxpayer money on private consultants? Oh, that’d be because the wretched Clinical Commissioning Groups, created by the Tories and the LibDems under the rancid Health and Social Care Act 2012, force doctors to become experts in things other than medicine and they require expensive, external advice. This advice isn't necessarily in the best interests of accessible patient care, mind you...

But local Tories and LibDems would sooner enjoy a napalm enema than admit that the actions of their parties in the House of Commons have put St Helier Hospital in jeopardy.

Instead, we are witnessing desperation politics of the highest order as local party stooges attempt to shut down discussion about the Health and Social Care Act or use the tired old cliché of “Don’t use the hospital as a political football!” to try and shut down debate. Sorry, kids, it is political. There is no way around that. Deal with it or pipe down and let the grown-ups talk.

Jeremy Hunt, the failed marmalade mogul who passes for the Secretary of State for Health, intervened, presumably after a panic-stricken call from local Tories who were seeing their hopes of winning the seats of Carshalton & Wallington and Sutton & Cheam evaporate before their very eyes.

In world record time, Hunt released a hastily chucked-together statement saying that a Conservative government would block any plans to build a hospital on the Sutton site. Slippery as ever, he did not actually mention blocking any plans to close either Epsom or St Helier Hospitals.

I have a few questions at this juncture. Firstly, why the hell would anyone trust anything this man has to say on the NHS? Secondly, did he really have time to read all three proposals in full, including costings, in the midst of an election campaign in order to make such a bold promise? Thirdly, given Jane Ellison said, when she was Health Minister, that the government has lost control of the NHS and that this is "exciting", can Hunt make such a promise at all? (Also, Jane Ellison's idea of excitement and my idea of excitement are two very different things...).  

Other proposals are a rebuild for St Helier and a refurbishment for Epsom Hospital. But, according to the BBC, the Sutton plan is the “preferred option” just as a plan to cut A&E and maternity from St Helier Hospital was the “preferred option” under the wasteful Better Service, Better Value programme.

So, there you have it. The BBC has exposed a bunch of overpaid private consultants who were either too arrogant or too stupid to think nobody would overhear them talking at length about a meeting with the Epsom-St Helier Trust CEO, one Daniel Elkeles. This would be the same Daniel Elkeles who told KOSHH campaigners a few weeks back that, surprise, surprise, St Helier Hospital was safe for five years. He just omitted to tell us that after five years, the hospital may be gone entirely.

What a bloody mess. But just as well the mess has bubbled to the surface before the election. It might force people in SW London to think hard about who they vote for on May 7.

And in the meantime, here are some questions that need to be answered as a matter of urgency.

1.  Can details on the three proposals, including full costings, be made available as soon as possible? And would a new hospital on the Sutton site be a PFI hospital?

2. Will the costings for the Sutton Hospital site hospital include the massive roadworks and transport upgrades that would be required to cope with the massive traffic increase for a residential area with narrow streets?

3. Why is the term "super-hospital" being bandied around for the 800-bed Sutton proposal when that would actually mean a decrease in beds for the area? What services would actually be provided at this place?

4. Will there be an independent analysis of travel times for ambulances that would have to go to Sutton instead of Epsom or St Helier's A&E, including those that are diverted from St Georges Hospital in Tooting? 

5. Will there be an independent analysis of journey times for cars as this will affect women in labour?

6. Did either Paul Burstow, the LibDem MP for Sutton & Cheam, or Tom Brake, the LibDem MP for Carshalton & Wallington, know about any of these plans before the story broke last week?

7. When did Daniel Elkeles, the Epsom-St Helier Trust CEO, first become aware of these plans?

8.  Why should anyone believe any promise of Jeremy Hunt's or any Conservative after the broken promise about no top-down reorganisation of the NHS?

9. Could the Sutton Hospital site land be disposed of expediently to ensure the "super-not-so-super hospital" option doesn't happen?

10. Given the other two options involve rebuilding St Helier Hospital and refurbishing Epsom Hospital, can we see how the combined costs of these compare to the Sutton Hospital option? Both these hospitals deserve the investment to make them the best they can possibly be.

We're waiting...

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Capital punishment and the abandonment of hope

When it comes to opposition to capital punishment, I am an absolutist. There are no ifs, no buts, no exceptions, no whataboutery. I believe it is wrong and has no place in a civilised world. I doubt it will happen in my lifetime but I would love to see a world free of capital punishment. It is barbaric, it has been used in cases where there is doubt, it has been used on the mentally incapacitated, on people who were underage at the time of the crime, and it is not even a particularly effective deterrent. Any one of these reasons is enough to reject the notion of capital punishment.

Even if a member of my family was murdered, I would not call for Deuteronomy's eye-for-an-eye punishment because it would not bring them back, it would not make anything better.

On Monday this week, an Indonesian court rejected a challenge by two convicted Australian drug smugglers who are facing the firing squad. The Indonesian president has also denied clemency. Things are looking bleak for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has appealed for their lives. Perhaps if Abbott hadn't been such an appalling diplomat, his pleas may have been taken more seriously. Perhaps if the Australian Federal Police hadn't tipped off their counterparts in Indonesia and instead intercepted Scott Rush, also accused with Chan and Sukumaran, we'd never have heard of the Bali Nine. Their only sliver of hope appears to be a plan by their lawyers to take the case to a constitutional court.

Chan and Sukumaran will probably live until at least April 24 because the government has decided to delay the executions until after the Asia-Africa Conferences, which started yesterday. The Attorney-General, HM Presetyo, said: "There is no fear involved in this decision, but you wouldn't execute people during a high-profile government event with lots of visitors."

Yes, heaven forbid a country shoots people while there are guests in the house...

I completely agree that smuggling heroin is a ridiculous, destructive, dreadful thing to do. I also agree that heroin is an insidious, destructive drug. However, I also think that extreme prohibition drug laws are ineffective. The people who end up on death row in countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are rarely the kingpins. Bali, even after the tragic terror attack of 2002, is renowned as a place to go and party hard, it is still a place where people go to take drugs. And it is still a busy transit point for the international drug market.

A CNN report found that according to local drug dealers, no more than 10% of traffickers get busted in Indonesia. Even if you know the penalty for being caught with drugs in Indonesia is death, there is still probably still a 90% chance you will be a successful mule. So that, in a nutshell, explains why people take the risk even when they are aware of the strict laws.

Or they are in a desperate, no-win situation such as the awful case of Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australian who was hanged in Singapore in 2005 at the age of 25. I was working at FHM in Sydney at the time and I will never forget the sad silence that swept across the usually noisy office when everyone's computer screen clocks clicked over to 9am and we realised his 6am Singapore time hanging had taken place.

Until the end, Nguyen maintained that he smuggled the drugs to pay off a debt owed by his twin brother, a heroin addict. But the people at the top of the pile in the drugs underworld wouldn't give a shit about this. Lives are expendable all the way down the chain, right down to the addict in the gutter.

And it is this cheap attitude to people that pervades the mentality that supports capital punishment. It is the abandonment of hope, the rejection of any chance of rehabilitation, that makes it such a bleak act.

Chan and Sukumaran are examples of how people can be rehabilitated and how getting caught should have been the best thing for them. Before being caught, they were not using their lives wisely at all and did terrible things. Sure, they could have continued smuggling drugs, and they probably would have done so, but instead, they have used their time in prison wisely, and were rehabilitated within the Indonesian prison system, and are now better people. This is how to deal with drug smugglers. Shooting them dead on a beach won't fix a damn thing.

Photography by George Hodan

Monday, 30 March 2015

Lufthansa, Germanwings and the reality that the world can never be 100% safe

The world can never be 100% safe. This is not a thought many of us want to dwell on when we are trying to go to sleep and it is cold comfort to anyone who lost a loved one in last week's Germanwings plane crash.

But it is the truth.

Two days after the crash, I flew to Prague with Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings. There was no sense of panic and it felt like business as usual. Aside from a predictably moronic headline about a "madman" pilot in The Sun and attention-seeking trolling from Katie bloody Hopkins, there has been a lack of hysteria since the crash. This is a good thing. Grief-stricken family members have spoken eloquently even when they are clearly angry with Andreas Lubitz. When the cause of the crash was completely uncertain, there was no awful rush to blame terrorists or condemn an entire religion.

The world can never be 100% safe.

Of course, an investigation into the crash is important and prevention mechanisms will be put in place. Assorted airlines have already started enforcing a policy of always having two people in the cockpit. And, no doubt, Lufthansa and other airlines will look into ways to more closely monitor the mental health of their staff.

But even then, there might well be another case down the line of someone else falling through the cracks. What do we do? If a doctor - or if anyone - suspects a pilot to be suicidal, do they have a duty to inform the airline? Should the doctor who issued Lubitz that fateful sick note, the one that was found torn to shreds, have been compelled to inform the airline that such a note had been issued and to share the dates Lubitz was deemed unfit for work? Would that be a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality? Or should people who fly planes be forced to give up an aspect of their medical privacy if it means lives may be saved?

Perhaps the cockpit door - the very door whose function is to keep the killers out - needs a security code that changes with each flight? Maybe this code would only be shared with select crew members in case the decision to lock the door endangers rather than protects people? Would this have stopped the terrified passengers witnessing the horrific spectacle of Captain Patrick Sondheimer yelling at Lubitz while trying to break the door down with a crowbar? But could an overriding security code also be used for dark purposes just as Lubitz did with the safety function that locked the cockpit door in the first place?

I don't pretend I know all the answers here. I am merely thinking out aloud. I first seriously thought about the notion of the world never being 100% safe when I visited the Volvo crash test facility in Sweden in 2010. Interestingly, they had an exhibit based around this idea - that we can do things to improve safety, and we should do things to improve safety, but a 100% safe world is not possible. I may be weird but I found that notion strangely comforting, that we should not live in fear, that we should take sensible precautions, but we should not fritter significant portions of our lives away worrying about things that may or may not happen and things that may ultimately be beyond our control.

Indeed, our flights over the weekend with Lufthansa were uneventful apart from one cancelled connecting flight, which led to a lost luggage debacle. Nobody we spoke to seemed to know why the flight was cancelled. Maybe people were panicking and cancelling their tickets? Or maybe the flight was cancelled for one of many reasons flights are cancelled around the world every day of the year. Maybe it was just one of those things, just as our temporarily missing luggage was just one of those things.

Perhaps last week's crash was "just one of those things", as flippant and disrespectful as that may sound. But it could also the "one thing" that leads to changes that will stop this hidoeus thing ever happening again. Or will it? Will pilots with depression just get better at hiding their condition? I know a lot of people who hide their depression well.

Could Lufthansa or any company have possibly foreseen such a genuinely shocking event any more than anyone could have predicted a couple of murderous maniacs were going to fly planes into the World Trade Center in 2001? It certainly should not be the start of a new wave of stigmatising people who suffer from depression. And, just as 9/11 or the shoe bomber idiot or the woes of Malaysian Airlines should not stop us from travelling, neither should the Germanwings tragedy.

The legacy of last week's tragedy should not be a world where even more people are terrified to travel, where more will miss out on the benefits that travel brings to people everywhere, where depression is further stigmatised. A world where the love of travel outweighs the fear of flying is the one that I want to live in, even if it can never be 100% safe.

Photography by John Edwards

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Azerbaijan's press freedom: #JeSuisYunus

Jeremy Clarkson has been fired as presenter of Top Gear. Assorted idiots across Britain are behaving as if this is a monstrous attack on free speech. It is not. He had all the free speech he wanted but he cannot get away with assaulting a colleague. The only person responsible for the likely end of Top Gear is Jeremy Clarkson himself.

I do not want to talk any more about Jeremy Clarkson. I want to talk about Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is home to true martyrs of free speech. Khadija Ismayilova is locked up on an absurd charge of inciting a colleague to commit suicide. She is best known for reporting on high level government corruption in Azerbaijan. Seymour Khazi, another journalist who has investigated the government, is serving five years for "aggravated hooliganism." His defence is that he was attacked and acted in self-defence. He has accused the president of ordering his arrest and has written an open letter in support of Khadija Ismayilova.

One of the most shocking cases is that of Leyla and Arif Yunus. Leyla is a leading human rights campaigner and her husband is an academic. The couple, married for 37 years, has been detained separately. They were arrested at home in July 2014 on trumped-up charges of state treason, high treason, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, falsification of documents and fraud. Leyla and Arif are both in poor health. Their detention period has been extended until August 2015. Leyla and Arif's daughter, Dinara, is currently exiled in The Netherlands where she is campaigning for their release as well as for true freedom for Azerbaijan.

The notion of a free media is laughable in Azerbaijan. As well as jailing journalists and activists without fair trials or due process, Radio Azadliq was raided and documents confiscated earlier this year. Last month, President Ilham Aliyev signed amendments to media legislation that make it easier for the government to shut down news outlets.

But none of this is getting a whole lot of attention in the west. Today if you do a Google News search of "Azerbaijan", the top two stories about this country are about the opening of a Harvey Nichols department store in Baku, and the country's increased oil production. The next cab off the rank on the Google News search is a scant eight reports from obscure news outlets about how the president is "miffed" about criticism ahead of the European Games, which Baku is hosting in June.

Boo hoo. Poor little President Aliyev is miffed that people are trying to call him out for his despotic ways.

Still, he won't waste too much time being miffed. He can simply shut down media outlets so much faster these days, in between jailing the outspoken. It's not as if there is a Europe-wide movement of country leaders calling for a boycott of the games. So they'll go ahead without controversy, just as the Winter Olympics did in Russia and the Summer Olympics did in China, those other bastions of human rights and freedom. And Qatar will keep its 2022 World Cup tournament despite its appalling record on human rights - everything from deaths of labourers building the stadium to Sheikha Mozah's involvement with a clinic that claims it can cure gay people.

It's all about the money. Whenever corruption is tolerated and human rights abuses swept under the carpet, there is almost always a trail of money that you can follow to the source of the stench.

Just as Europe is heavily reliant on Russian gas, everyone wants to do business with China and massive companies such as Shell are making a fortune in Qatar, Azerbaijan's economy is on the up thanks to oil. Foreign investment is on the rise. Nestle, another company with questionable ethics, has just been announced as a major sponsor of the European Games. As per today's news, Harvey Nicholls has opened up in Baku - it is rather like when Harvey Nicks opened in Dubai in an attempt by that particular city to replicate the best of the west in all but democracy.

There is money to be made, there are businesses to boom, there is oil to be drilled, there are human rights and freedoms to be thrown under the bus.

It is highly unlikely any western country will take a stand against Azerbaijan's human rights abuses any time soon. Sadly, the likes of #BringBackClarkson will continue to dominate in a way that #JeSuisYunus really should.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

It will never be the end of the road for Jeremy Clarkson

First, a disclaimer. Top Gear has been one of my favourite TV shows for years. I genuinely enjoy the car chatter as much as I enjoy the films where the cast travel the world frequently behaving like bellends.  A friend of mine, who is sadly no longer with us, was not being awful when he called me "Jeremy Clarkson with boobs" when I worked as a motoring journalist in the Middle East (although I suspect Jezza is more buxom than I am...).

But while Clarkson has survived multiple scandals, the "fracas" may be the end of the road. Sort of. Initially, my prediction was that Clarkson would survive this latest incident and the producer would be moved to another BBC programme, possibly for a pay rise. But as more unseemly details emerge and as Clarkson himself telegraphs that the end is nigh in his column in The Sun, it looks apparent that Sunday nights in Britain may no longer be enhanced/blighted (cross out whichever word you feel does not apply) by the highly successful motoring programme.

Hell, there could be breaking news on this wretched story while I am sitting here blogging away...

It could be that Clarkson will jump before he is pushed. What that will mean for his co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May, as well as the many people who are employed in multiple countries in the lucrative industry that Top Gear has generated, remains to be seen. Whether these people have been considered by the 900,000+ people who signed Guido Fawkes' lame #BringBackClarkson petition is dubious.

After all, the sparsely worded petition merely says:

We the undersigned petition the BBC to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson.
Freedom to fracas. 
There is no mention there, or in the comments from the petition's signatories, of the people who will be truly affected by this whole shitstorm. And here's the thing - no matter how this pans out, Clarkson will be fine. Do not worry about poor little Jezza. Jezza is not worried about poor little Jezza. He is a multi-millionaire with rich and powerful friends. He will get other offers, his kids won't go without shoes.
A BBC without Top Gear will be one that suffers a serious drop in revenue. A BBC without Top Gear may not be able to make quite so many lesser-watched but more worthwhile documentaries. A BBC without Top Gear will have to find alternative sources of revenue.
Or perhaps a Top Gear without Clarkson will prevail. Who knows? But if the allegations of physical violence against a colleague, and of using an expletive-laden racial slur against a colleague, turn out to be true, it will be very hard for the BBC to keep him on. If I was punched by a colleague or a colleague called me a "fucking Australian bitch", for example, I wouldn't be happy about continuing to work with that person. Why should anyone put up with that sort of behaviour in any workplace?
Is that the sort of "freedom to fracas" that Guido Fawkes thinks is appropriate for Britain's workplaces? 
If you don't like Top Gear, you have always had the freedom to not watch it. Easy. But if it turns out that Clarkson lost all self-control by physically and verbally abusing a colleague, his position will become untenable. And if Top Gear ends and fans are disappointed and people lose their jobs as a result, there will ultimately only be one person to blame.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Why I'm still a feminist: Part 3

And now for the last look at my feminist rants in honour of this year's International Women's Day... Let's see what I ranted about last year and whether anything has changed...

Just as I ended 2013 with a rant about first ladies, I started 2014 in the same vein in the wake of all manner of details about the private life of Francois Hollande emerging. Basically, it's only the business of those affected by his sex life and nobody else. Move on, nothing to see. Similarly, there was another sex work fauxrage over government employment incentives for strip clubs and the adult film industry. Sorry, but if the jobs are legal so are the incentives. And nobody is being forced by the government to work in these places. Again, move on, nothing to see.

Female genital mutilation was discussed in great detail for the first time on my blog last year - I am a bit saddened with myself that I did not do this sooner or more often. I have no time for cultural relativism here. It is a barbaric and brutal practice which pretty much always happens without consent and in appalling conditions. The privileged women who claim that it was their choice to be mutilated, that it was just a little nick and that the still-ghastly procedure was done in sanitary conditions by a doctor are ridiculous. They are in no way representative of the countless women whose lives are ruined in this way every year.

Reproductive rights in Australia came under the spotlight after the terrible Reverend Fred Nile used the suicide of an Australian TV presenter to push his anti-abortion barrow. Compared to the UK, Australian abortion laws are much tighter and differ from state to state. Here in the UK, they just differ if you live in Northern Ireland. That needs to change too.

And then another tragedy - the suicide of L'Wren Scott. She was reduced largely to being "Mick Jagger's girlfriend" rather than a talented fashion designer, a perfectionist, a woman from all reports of grace and charm.

And then there was the almost-abortion of Josie Cunningham. Her situation provided a challenge to prochoicers everywhere and a lot of snobbery emerged as a result, as well as some silly comments below the line. If you are prochoice, you need to be comfortable with all women's choices. That is how it works.

In may last year, the UAE trumpeted great results in a survey on women's rights. Having lived there for five years, I figured I was well-placed to analyse the results. The UAE remains a pretty good place to be a woman for the most part, but stats always need a closer study. This was no exception. It depends who you are as to whether being a woman in the UAE is a good thing or a bad thing. On the upside, it's not Saudi...

My eyes rolled hard last June when Kirstie Allsopp said she'd advise her daughter to skip university, find a nice boyfriend and just buy property. Given that her imaginary daughter would have access to education that millions of girls around the world still do not have, this was awful, head-in-the-clouds-and-up-one's-arse stuff. Allsopp gives sound property advice. Her life advice is another matter entirely.

I waded into murky territory with my "Fracking and feminism" blog post. The reality is that energy poverty denies girls and women the chance to reach their full potential in the developing world. It deprives them of access to education, it keeps them at home, often literally keeping the home fires burning. If shale gas was discovered in any of these places, the access to energy would be life-changing for many girls and women. But at what environmental cost? As opposition to fracking reaches fever pitch (although if Germany fracked more, it would not be relying on Russian gas...), intelligent long-term solutions are needed more than ever. But while everyone argues, girls and women are getting left behind.

The notion of women as victims is a murky one too so naturally I went there last October. Sympathy for women who have suffered something terrible varies wildly - it can depend on class, race, what she wore, how much she had to drink, the way she looks... And so the comparison of Monica Lewinsky and Ched Evan's rape victim led me to the conclusion that compassion for women remains conditional.

And then we ended the year with boobs. Another breastfeeding row... And now it is 2015 and International Women's Day has come and gone for another year and people still lose their shit about breastfeeding in public. Perhaps I need to resolve to do better. But I am just one blog. We need more voices across the world to be heard. And if you are doing anything to stifle freedom of speech, you are silencing women. So that is the uphill battle that now needs to be fought on top of improving the lot of women across the world. This is truly depressing.

Photo by Anna Langova