Thursday, 24 July 2014

Government Secrets

Private Eye, the UK's best and only fortnightly satirical magazine, is always keen to highlight rank hypocrisy amongst the great and good.

So I had to laugh at this entry for the Secret Diary of Sir John Major, the former Tory Prime Minister, who has been waxing eloquent about the need for Tony Blair to share his personal correspondence with George Bush while keeping resolutely 'schtum' about his clandestine affair with Edwina Currie, a fellow Tory MP and Government health minister.

Funny that.   


I was not inconsiderably annoyed at the news that my successor in Number 10 Downing Street, Mr Tony Blair (who incidentally has never been given a Knighthood of the Garter, oh no) has refused to disclose his personal correspondence with the President of America, Mr George Bush.

"This is a disgrace," I told my wife Norman over breakfast, as I tucked into my Farage's Fruitloops, my new favourite cereal. "In my judgment, a prime minister should not be permitters to hide any secrets from the electorate. His every action should be transparent and open to public scrutiny."

"Oh good,," said Norman, accidentally tipping a pot of in no small measure scalding hot coffee over my head. "In that case, we look forward to reading all your love letters to that appalling woman whose name I will not mention."

"You mean Mrs Thatcher?" I replied.

"You know very well to whom I am referring," said Norman, apparently as usual missing the point about the necessity of total confidentiality over the conduct of top political affairs.

Oh yes.   

No Means?

'No means no', children are taught at school these days - and rightly so!

But not at Park View School in Birmingham apparently where young girls were taught that women who refuse to have sex with their husbands would be punished by angels from dusk to dawn.

Now I don't suppose this bizarre advice appears anywhere in the national curriculum and goodness only knows what the boys were being taught at Park View school - although I think we should be told.  

Christians lie and wives must have sex or go to hell, Trojan Horse pupils told

Inquiry commissioned by Birmingham City Council reveals details of religious extremism in 13 schools

Park View School in Birmingham, one of 13 schools where evidence of religious extremism was found Photo: PA

By Steven Swinford - The Telegraph

Children were taught that all Christians are liars and attempts were made to introduce Sharia law in classrooms as part of an alleged 'Trojan Horse' takeover plot of Birmingham schools, an inquiry has found.

The inquiry commissioned by Birmingham City Council found evidence of religious extremism in 13 schools as school governors and teachers tried to promote and enforce radical Islamic values.

Schools put up posters warning children that if they didn't pray they would "go to hell", Christmas was cancelled and girls were taught that women who refused to have sex with their husbands would be "punished" by angels "from dusk to dawn".

The report found that the extremism went unchecked because the council "disastrously" prioritised community cohesion over "doing what is right".

It concluded that there was a "determined effort" by "manipulative" governors to introduce "unacceptable" practices, "undermine" head teachers and deny students a broad and balanced education.

Sir Albert Bore, Birmingham's leader, apologised for the council's handling of the scandal.

He said: "The actions of a few, including some within the council, have undermined the reputation of our great city.

"We have previously shied away from tackling this problem out of a misguided fear of being accused of racism."

A separate review by Peter Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief, found evidence of "co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained" attempts to introduce an "intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos" in schools.

The review, which was commissioned by the Department for Education, found that the schools were trying to impose "segregationist attitudes and practices of a hardline and politicised strain Sunni Islam".

Birmingham City Council's report found no evidence of a "conspiracy" to promote "violent extremism or radicalisation" values, but was still highly critical.

A detailed summary of evidence suggested that there was an attempt to introduce Sharia law at the Al-Fuqan school, and when a woman was recommended for a job on individual suggested a "man with a beard" was needed.

At the Golden Hillock School a teacher allegedly told children at an assembly "not to listen to Christians as they were all liars". The incident was referred to counter-terrorism police. One teacher at the school also reportedly told children they were "lucky to be Muslims and not ignorant like Christians and Jews."

At Nansen School the study of French was replaced by the study of Arabic and Islamic religious assemblies were reinstated. Christmas and Diwali celebrations were councils, and children were not allowed to use a doll to represent Jesus in a nativity play. A total of 28 female teaching assistants were dismissed.

At the Oldknow academy, children were told at an assembly that they should not send Christmas cards and that Mary was not the mother of Jesus. Children were asked whether they believed in Christmas and encouraged to chant "no we don't".

At the Park View Academy children were taught that "if a woman said no to sex with her husband then angels would punish her from dusk till dawn". Girls were taught that a "good" Muslim woman wears a hijab and ties up her hair.

Poisoning the Waterhole

John Rentoul can always be relied upon to speak common sense when it comes to a discussion about Tony Blair although the same can't be said for many sections of the media and for many members of the Labour Party.  

Two decades on, what is Tony Blair's legacy worth?

Perhaps now would be a good time to remind young people about his record

By John Rentoul - The Independent

It was hot then, too. My memory of the Labour leadership campaign that unfolded 20 years ago is one of a long, sunny summer in which the candidates often spoke at crowded and sweaty venues, and which culminated in the air-conditioned cool of the auditorium at the Institute for Education near Russell Square.

The same evening, two decades ago tomorrow, I went to the victory party at Church House. The photographs show the mullet-haired young leader on the balcony, grin radiating confidence and modernity. Inside, Blair made a speech that included the words: "Thank you to a friend of mine called Bobby, who some of you will know. He played a great part and did so well." I did not have time to think about it then, because journalists weren't supposed to be at the party and I was being politely thrown out by Tim Allan, one of Blair's early minders. But it remains one of the strangest things Blair has ever said: thanking Peter Mandelson by his codename in front of his supporters, some of whom would have been offended to discover (as they did the next day because the story was in The Guardian) that Mandelson had been secretly working on the campaign all along.

You can tell it was a long time ago. The Daily Mail welcomed his election: "This paper is not in the habit of congratulating leaders of the Labour Party, but then few politicians recently have spoken with the courage and conviction of Mr Tony Blair."

Since then, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of the liberal left and the Mail has worked ceaselessly to poison Blair's reputation, which has continued to suffer since he left office. A whole generation is growing up who know only two things about him: that he "took us into an illegal war" and that he has become rich working for dictators.

Perhaps now would be a good time to remind these young people, who benefited from rigorous teaching of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, that there was a bit more to Blair's record than that. The country has changed, mostly for the better, in 20 years and much of it is because of Tony Blair.

Unexpectedly, the change was best summed up by David Cameron in his words on entering No 10 four years ago, when he said that the country he inherited was "more open at home and more compassionate abroad" than it had been. "Open" is a vague, big-tent word but it describes Blair's legacy well. It covers the public spending after decades of under-investment that rebalanced Thatcherite "private affluence and public squalor". State schools in London went from the worst in the country to the best. The minimum wage. Falling crime. "Open" also covers the greater acceptance of equal rights for women, ethnic minorities and gay people. And it describes Blair's achievement of making the UK, and London in particular, a place where people around the world want to live. London is now the world's most successful global city.

It was notable that when Blair stood down as Prime Minister people told pollsters that the worst part of his record was not Iraq, about which journalists tend to obsess, but immigration. Opening Britain to free movement of EU workers from 2004 helped sustain economic growth and may be part of today's jobs miracle. But it would have been better, looking back, to have adopted the same transitional controls as other EU countries, to slow the disruptive change.

That is the one question on which Blair can still break up the Guardian-Mail Axis. When he gave Ukip what for, on the Today programme the other day, liberal-left commentators were struck dumb by inner conflict as they tried to reconcile the pro-immigration saint with the warmongering sinner.

That wasn't a long struggle, of course. They went back to happily hating Blair for trying to steer General Sisi, Egypt's ruler, in the direction of liberal democracy. Indeed, it seems to have caused them no dissonance that Blair was instrumental in brokering the Egyptian-led ceasefires in Gaza. Fortunately for their world view, Blair has had no more success in bringing peace this time round than he had in securing a two-state settlement in his seven years as Quartet Representative. For the haters, this is proof of his moral failing, not of an impossible task.

The trouble is that, in office, he achieved the near-impossible in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. People in those places range in sentiment from the intensely grateful to the taking-for-granted. If Iraq has not gone so well, that was not because his motive was malign.

Twenty years ago, listening in the sunshine to his vacuous rhetoric, I was a bit of a Blair sceptic. Now I look back on his 10 years in office and think that he was, on balance, a good prime minister. For the moment, this opinion marks me out as unusual. In 20 years' time, however, it will be seen for the reasonable assessment that it is.


Segregation and Religion

Matt Ridley writing in The Times makes the point that the disturbing practices exposed in some of Birmingham's schools would have been deemed perfectly acceptable if the schools concerned had re-designated themselves as 'faith' or religious schools.

Now I was sent to a religious school in my youth, but I didn't follow this example when it came to my daughters' education because, as Matt Ridley says, the teaching of 'religious practice' as opposed to 'education about religion' has no place in our schools, if you ask me.      

Anglicans and atheists, unite against intolerance

By Matt Ridley - The Times

The excesses of the Trojan Horse scandal would be allowed in faith schools. Religious practice has no place in education

We now know from Peter Clarke’s report, published today but leaked last week, that there was indeed “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools” in Birmingham.

Whistleblowers first approached the British Humanist Association in January with such allegations, weeks before the appearance of the Trojan Horse letter. The BHA (of which I should declare I am a “distinguished supporter” though I’ve never done much to deserve this accolade) properly passed on the information to the Department for Education.

Pavan Dhaliwal, of the BHA, has made the awkward point that much of what went on in the Park View Trust schools would have been permissible if the schools had been designated “faith schools”. The BHA campaigns against the very existence of state-funded faith schools, pointing out that Britain is one of only four countries in the world to allow religious selection in admissions to state-funded schools. The others are Estonia, Ireland and Israel.

In short, we can hardly be shocked to find religious indoctrination going on in some schools if we encourage segregation on the basis of faith. Since 2000 the proportion of secondary schools that are legally religious has increased by 20 per cent, and their freedom of action has greatly increased. The best way to prevent young girls in Birmingham being told that “if a woman said no to sex with her husband then angels would punish her from dusk till dawn”, as happened in Birmingham, is to leave religious practice — though not education about religion — out of school altogether.

I know such a view is considered intolerant, even bigoted — a charge frequently levelled at non-believers. “The trouble with that Richard Dawkins”, a lay preacher said to me some years ago, “is that he’s welcome to his views, but I don’t like him forcing them on others.” Passing up the temptation to point out his own hypocrisy as a preacher, I gently reminded him that, whereas I had to go to prayers or chapel every day at my school, nobody has ever been forced to read Richard Dawkins on atheism.

August sees a great global gathering of atheists and humanists in Oxford for the World Humanist Congress, the first time this body has met in Britain since 1978. Professor Dawkins will be on the stage, along with a galaxy of infidel stars, including the Nobel prizewinner Wole Soyinka, Philip Pullman, Jim al-Khalili, Nick Clegg and the Bangladeshi blogger Asif Mohiddun, who was attacked and stabbed in the back, shoulder and chest by a group of radical religious fundamentalists because of his criticism of Islam.

Not there in person will be Mubarak Bala, the Nigerian detained on a psychiatric ward for being an atheist, whose case has been highlighted by the International Humanist Ethical Union. His father had Mr Bala sectioned for expressing doubts about religion and he got out, two weeks ago, only because of a strike at the hospital. Nor will Alexander Aan— the scientist in Indonesia who was arrested and imprisoned for two years for expressing doubts about God — be present. But many similar activists from Africa and Asia will be there, including Gululai Ismail, who runs the Aware Girls project in northwest Pakistan, challenging patriarchy and religious extremism, and under constant threat of violence. It was her organisation that Malala Yousafzai was working for when shot by the Taliban.

It is clear that the kind of rational scepticism that we British have been tolerating for three centuries is resulting in terrible persecution throughout the Muslim world, and it is getting worse. I say we tolerate atheism here, and we do, but still grudgingly. Atheists lose count of the number of times we are told we are lacking in imagination and wonder, or that we just don’t see the human need for spirituality, or that we must have trouble justifying morality.

British Christians are generally prepared to be much ruder about atheism than they are about Islam. Some of the stuff Professor Dawkins has to read about himself would be condemned as hate speech if said about a Muslim. This is partly because atheists do not threaten our critics with violence, whereas any “Islamophobic” remark or cartoon leads to death threats. It is also because Christians are continually trying to make common cause with other religions in defence of “faith” as a source of morality and harmony in the world. Did I dream it, or did a recent archbishop muse about the virtues of Sharia?

Anglicanism is a mild and attenuated form of the faith virus and may even act as a vaccine against more virulent infections, but Christianity is becoming more evangelical in response to its global competition with Islam. This has always happened in religious history: where religions compete, they become more extreme — the crusades, the 30-years war, Ulster.

So for all the pious talk of “faith communities”, the two religions are not on the same side. To combat the rise of radical Islam and radical Christianity, we should try the secular, free-thinking approach. Mild Anglicanism should make common cause with humanists in defence of tolerance.

The experience of the past three centuries is that if lots of people stop believing in gods, they do not become less moral. On the contrary, the number of people attending church has gone down at about the same rate as the number of people who commit violent crimes. I am not suggesting a causal connection — though I suspect religious people would if the trends were different — but these facts give the lie to the idea that godlessness leads to immorality. (And don’t tell me that communist regimes were irreligious — they enforced a worship of their leaders with all the techniques and fervour of religion.)

Unlike the almost triumphalist mood among atheists in the 1960s, when Francis Crick foresaw the end of religion and started a competition for what to do with the college chapels in Cambridge, rationalists no longer expect to get rid of religion altogether by explaining life and matter: they aim only to tame it instead, and to protect children from it. Nonetheless, they are slowly winning: witness the fact that more than 12 per cent of funerals in this country are now humanist in some form. And humanists are showing no signs of turning intolerant, let alone violent.

Independence Debate

The BBC reports on another interesting development in the Scottish independence referendum - support for a Yes vote from Peter Kilfoyle, a former MP and defence minister in the last Labour Government.

Now Peter looks a bit like the well known Liverpool comedian, Jimmy Tarbuck, but this is no laughing matter because it supports the claim that lots of Labour minded voters are switching to Yes as the referendum date (18 September) draws near.

The funny thing is, of course, that Peter doesn't have a vote as he's not resident in Scotland although like many others that's no reason not to have your say, especially if you believe as Peter Kilfoyle does that far too much political power is centralised in the Westminster Parliament.     

Scottish independence: Former Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle backs Yes vote

Mr Kilfoyle resigned from Tony Blair's government in 2000

A former Labour government minister has endorsed Scottish independence.

Peter Kilfoyle told BBC Scotland that it was vital for Scotland and the English regions to loosen London's grip on power.

The former Liverpool Walton MP was speaking ahead of a speech by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond in the city.

Labour has argued that Scots should vote "No" and then help elect a Labour government in the UK general election.

Mr Kilfoyle suggested that the Labour leadership's opposition to independence was motivated by a desire to maintain Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster.

And he said the nationalists were pushing a message which was "positive and aspirational" while the pro-UK campaign had been "very, very negative".

Mr Kilfoyle added: "As an issue it is bigger than any political party. It is about the aspirations of a country, and that is what is important to me. It (independence) will basically enable Scots to make decisions for themselves away from London.

"The sooner that people realise that this centralised country we call the United Kingdom actually mitigates the interests of people in the regions of England as well as of the countries of these British Isles, I think it will be to the benefit of all of us".

Mr Kilfoyle resigned from Tony Blair's government, where he had been a junior minister in the Ministry of Defence, in 2000, arguing that Labour was neglecting its roots.

'Labour values'

He became a vocal backbench critic of the Labour leadership until standing down as an MP ahead of the 2010 general election.

Earlier this month, another former Labour minister - Leslie Huckfield, who represented the Nuneaton constituency at Westminster but now lives in Perthshire - also said he was backing a "Yes" vote in the referendum.

Mr Kilfoyle's endorsement was warmly welcomed by Mr Salmond, who was making his last speech in England before September's referendum on Scottish independence.

Mr Salmond said: "Peter Kilfoyle is a Labour stalwart, and a much respected figure. This is a significant endorsement for the independence campaign - and it shows that a Yes vote is in line with traditional Labour values.

"Peter understands that what is happening in Scotland is a catalyst for change elsewhere. We've now had a range of key Labour figures endorsing Yes."

In his speech at a lunch organised by the FT newspaper on Thursday afternoon, Mr Salmond said that inequality in the UK had grown hugely under successive Westminster governments.
Alex Salmond's speech will be his last in England before the independence referendum

Scottish independence would help to redress that inequality gap while also creating an economic counterweight to London to the benefit of the whole of the UK, he argued.

Mr Salmond said: "The UK now has the highest levels of regional inequality in the European Union.

"Scottish independence will provide a powerful example for those elsewhere in the UK, who are looking at how to change the current system; who want to see a model of growth which is fairer, more sustainable and more resilient than the one being pursued at Westminster.

"In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Liverpool, together with cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle had real political power to, as well as economic power.

"Since 2007, London's economy has grown approximately twice as fast as the rest of the United Kingdom's."

Mr Salmond claimed that nothing the UK government was proposing would "even come close" to addressing the scale of the problem.

And he said that local authorities and business organisations in the north of England would be invited to participate in a Scottish economic forum after the referendum aimed at rebalancing the economy.

He said: "It is a practical demonstration of co-operation and partnership - a partnership which will be strengthened further by an outward looking, prosperous and independent Scotland."
Continue reading the main story
“Start Quote

Sadly, Peter Kilfoyle seems to have confused devolution and decentralisation within the UK and separation from the UK”Tom Greatrex MPScottish Labour

Ahead of the speech, Mr Salmond argued that only independence could protect the Scottish NHS from the UK's government's "privatisation agenda".

The NHS is fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but Mr Salmond argued that cuts to its budget south of the border also impacted on Scotland.

"Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with strong public finances," he said. "But, under the Westminster system, cuts to spending in England automatically trigger cuts in Scotland."

Responding to the remarks by by Mr Kilfoyle, Tom Greatrex, the Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, said: "Sadly, Peter Kilfoyle seems to have confused devolution and decentralisation within the UK and separation from the UK.

"The Labour Party devolved power to Scotland when we set up the Scottish Parliament, when we wrote the 2012 Scotland act and will continue to devolve power to the nations, regions and cities of the UK after we win the 2015 general election, decentralising within a pooling and sharing union to support communities throughout the UK.

"That is what many across England want to see, including Liverpool's city Mayor, Joe Anderson. Peter Kilfoyle seems to want the same thing without appreciating Alex Salmond's centralising of power since 2007 demonstrating that nationalists are not interested in devolution."

Responding to Mr Salmond's speech, Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray said: "Firms in Scotland have barrier-free access to a UK single market of more than 63 million people, rather than just 5 million people in Scotland. Where is the sense in creating a barrier between Scottish businesses and their customers elsewhere in the UK?

"As part of the UK we can have the best of both worlds for Scotland. We can have our strong Scottish Parliament, with the guarantee of more powers for Scotland, backed up by the strength, security and stability of being part of the larger UK economy.

\"Alex Salmond wants us to put that at risk on the strength of nothing more than his empty promises. We should say no thanks to independence in September."

The Squeezed Middle

The Times reports that Labour at Westminster is backing Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem policy of extending free school meals for all primary school children.

Now whether that represents a good use of scarce resources is a moot point, but one thing's for sure the policy diverts millions of pounds towards middle income earners while doing nothing at all for the low paid. 

Backing on school meals brings Labour closer to Lib Dems

Nick Clegg's “U-turn” on the spare room subsidy caused anger among Tory ministersSteve Parsons/PA

By Michael Savage - The Times

Further scope for a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats emerged yesterday after Ed Miliband’s party backed proposals for free school meals for all primary school pupils.

The Labour leadership agreed to endorse the policy, announced by Nick Clegg last year, after pressure from the party’s grass roots. It means that a raft of measures have now been jointly endorsed by the two parties.

The decision by the Lib Dem leadership last week to demand changes to the spare room subsidy, called the bedroom tax by its critics, has also led to the parties coming closer together. The move by Mr Clegg has caused anger among Tory cabinet ministers. Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, suggested that Mr Clegg was “spineless” for making the “U-turn”.

Labour agreed to back free school meals during its national policy forum at the weekend. “[It] is a policy that is core to our Labour party values, which is why we will continue the universal free school meals initiative for all infants in English primary schools,” the motion said.

There are now more than a dozen policies shared by Labour and the Lib Dems, including plans for a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £2 million, ensuring that all teachers are qualified, and cutting benefits for wealthy pensioners.

The Labour leadership managed to resist pressure from its own members over the weekend to endorse the scrapping of austerity and the Trident nuclear weapon programme. The party voted to back a pledge to match the government’s spending totals for 2015-16.

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said the party had agreed “a policy programme that is radical and credible and based on big reform, not big spending”.

The forum comes ahead of a speech by Tony Blair today in which he will warn the party that it can only win elections from the political centre, rather than veering off to the left. The speech is to mark the 20th anniversary of his election as Labour leader.

Mr Miliband will attempt to boost his international credentials today by meeting President Obama in Washington. His team hopes it will help to change polls suggesting that voters do not see the Labour leader as prime ministerial. However, Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor, warns in an article for The Times today that the Labour leader is wasting his time.

Who Gets What and Why? (6 April 2014)

I've been saying for a long time that in these tough economic times people living in rented accommodation have been getting a raw deal compared to their neighbours and friends who have a mortgage.

And that's because mortgage payers have seen their housing costs fall significantly over the past five years with interest rates being at artificially low levels - whereas the cost of rented accommodation keeps going up as this article from the BBC web site shows with a big increase of 7.63% in West Dunbartonshire Council, for example. 

Yet to add insult to injury the Scottish Government has announced extra spending on free school meals for a Primary 1-3 school pupils which is worth £114 million over two years or around £330 a year for each child - for families with children.

But not to the less well off families of course because their children already receive free school meals, so all these extra millions of pounds are going to support the better off - like Scotland's school teachers who enjoy much better than average pay.

Now Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, has been campaigning in support of these changes which is understandable as it is clearly in the interest of EIS members, but the bigger question is "Is such a policy fair and socially responsible?".  

I say "No" because in my view the money would be much better spent on targeting the the less well off instead of further cushioning the lives of the better paid, especially when you stop and think that the majority of teachers will have been benefiting from the mortgage situation over the past five years.

So if you ask me, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament has got this all wrong - the lower paid are the ones who deserve a break not people in already well paid jobs.  

West Dunbartonshire Council announces housing rent rise

Rents for council house tenants in West Dunbartonshire are to rise by 7.63% from 1 April, it has been announced.

The council said the increase would add an extra £4.67 each week to the average weekly rent over the year.

Housing convener, Cllr David McBride, said the rent rise was "needed to pay for the major improvements required to our properties".

He added: "Increasing rents is never an easy decision but I believe our tenants understand why we need to do this."

P1-3 pupils in Scotland to get free school meals

The Scottish government matched a plan being introduced in England

All Scottish P1-P3 pupils will get free school meals from January 2015, First Minister Alex Salmond has announced.

He said the move, affecting 165,000 youngsters, would boost health and was worth £330 a year for each child to families.

The move matches a plan being introduced in England, in September this year.

Opposition parties accused the Scottish government of playing catch-up, and taking credit for Westminster policies.

The first minister also told the Scottish Parliament that free childcare would be expanded to every two-year-old from a workless household in Scotland by August, affecting about 8,400 youngsters.

Mr Salmond said a further extension of the policy to reach 15,400 two-year-olds by August 2015 would see Scotland delivering 80 million hours of childcare to pre-school children, which he said was the greatest amount in the UK.

The free meals announcement came after UK ministers announced plans to offer pupils in the first three years of primary school in England a free cooked lunch.

Scottish ministers followed suit, partly by using extra money going to Scotland, through the Barnett Formula, as a consequence of the English plan.

Mr Salmond said the Scottish government announcements would bring improvements, but fell short of the childcare revolution which Scotland needed.

Ahead of the independence referendum on 18 September, the Scottish government said all three and four-year-olds, and vulnerable two-year-olds, would get 1,140 hours of childcare a year by the end of the first parliament, in the event of a "Yes" vote.

But opposition parties said SNP ministers had the devolved powers to realise their childcare plans now.

Mr Salmond told MSPs: "We need to create a tax welfare and childcare system that doesn't plunge children into poverty, as the UK government is doing, that puts us on a par with the best childcare systems in the world.

"That is why the future of Scotland's children is the future of Scotland, and why Scotland's future is an independent one."

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said the free school meals plan was promised by the SNP in 2007, but never delivered, adding: "Now it has been reprised, because the UK government has acted on it and provided the money."

She said of Mr Salmond's childcare vision: "What he had was an opportunity to show his new-found commitment to childcare was more than a referendum ploy and start delivering for working families and children now."

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, added: "A cynic might say that the SNP, having promised the earth and failed to deliver for years, has only now re-discovered its commitment to free school meals because the coalition government is delivering it.

"Today, we have a Westminster policy delivered with Westminster money, and the SNP playing catch-up but trying to claim the credit."

From Democracy Live: Alex Salmond announced his plan in parliament

However, the free school meal and childcare expansion plan, being funded at a total cost of £114m over two years, was welcomed by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, a long-time campaigner on the issue.

"The best educational investment we can make is in two-year-olds, because that can change their life," he said.

"If we're going to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty we can make efforts at later stages - we can do stuff about youth unemployment, we can try and improve life chances through schools - but the best impact we can make is in doing it at the age of two."

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group, told BBC Scotland the school meals announcement was long overdue, adding: "The pressures on families and their ability to support their children are extraordinary, so providing a free school lunch to children in primary one to primary three is a very immediate, direct and well-evidenced way of supporting families at a time of increasing pressures."


BBC Political editor, Scotland

Alex Salmond's critics suggested his enthusiasm for free school meals was driven by external factors: the availability of cash from the Treasury as a consequence of the previous announcement of a comparable scheme for England; a desire to cosset parents - and especially mothers - with an eye to the referendum.

The first minister insisted he was persuaded by the advantages of the policy: it encouraged uptake including among those who were nominally eligible at present; it improved the health and wellbeing of youngsters and thus their educational attainment

Give to the Needy (29 December 2013)

In the run up to Christmas Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, burst into fairy-lights by demanding that Scotland's 'share' of the extra public spending announced recently by the Coalition Government at Westminster - should be used to provide free school meals to all children in primaries 1, 2 and 3.

Now this is serious money we're talking about - around £60 million a year, I think, because Scotland will expect to get 10% or so of the extra public spending announced by the Chancellor, George Osborne, in his autumn statement.

Which is of course a free handout of taxpayers money to people who earn above average incomes - because school meals are already free to people on low incomes and to those claiming benefits.

So, the big beneficiaries of the new policy in England and Wales are the better off - since the less well off gain absolutely nothing from extending free school meals to children whose working parents are perfectly well able to meet the cost themselves.   

In fact the policy benefits people exactly like EIS members, as I can't believe that any of Scotland's teachers currently qualify for free school meals - as things stand.

But if I had a Magic Wand, I would target this £60 million on the less well off and probably not just those with children - since that leaves out a great many people who have never had children or whose kids have grown up.

To my mind, £60 million spent on those most in need, would do far more good than spreading £60 million across the whole population - or in this case just people with children of a certain age.

Now some people say that social benefits should be 'universal' or available to everyone on the same basis - free NHS prescriptions in Scotland are a good example although they are not really free since the cost is met out of general taxation.

Yet this approach does not apply to the cost of housing and I've written before about the £20 billion windfall that mortgage payers have enjoyed in recent times which has not been shared with people who rent their homes or living on a fixed income.    

So why not use the extra money in a more meaningful and imaginative way, for example, by holding down rents in the social housing sector?

Because this particular group within the Scottish population has not benefited from the artificially low interest rates that Scotland's mortgage payers have experienced in the past 5 years - which means that since 2008 mortgage payers have effectively been receiving special treatment as far as their standard of living is concerned.  

A much better and fairer use of £60 million, if you ask me, as such a policy would put a significant amount of money in the pockets of those at the bottom of the income ladder - instead of subsidising members of the teaching profession and EIS (Educational Institute  of Scotland). 

The statistics tell their own tale - Scotland's share of the great £20 billion mortgage windfall is around £2 billion which makes £60 million look like chickenfeed.

So the argument about universality, about everyone being treated the same way, does not stand up to serious scrutiny.  

£20 Billion Windfall

I read something the other day - a claim by an organisation know as the Family and Parenting Institute (FPI) - of which I know very little.

Presumably it does what it says on the tin - seeks to speak up for families with children - because the FPI claims that average income of households with children will drop between 2011 and 2016.

By 4.2% would you believe or around £1,250 a year - depending on the exact income of the household in question.

But I say - so what - what does that have to do with the price of mince?

Because unless you factor in other things - such as how much some households have benefited from our artificially low mortgage rates - then the FPI's claim is completely meaningless.

I know some folks - some with others without children - who are saving hundreds of pounds every month necause of low interest rates - worth many thosuands of pounds a year. 

So spare me all this special pleading from special interest groups - as ever they are concerned with their own narrow agenda - and have no time for the big picture.

And the big picture means big savings - not for everyone - but for those paying mortage interest when rates dropped like a stone - and the bigger the mortage the bigger some people's  windfall.

Here's what I had to say on the issue in 2011 - no doubt the £20 billion figure now needs to be revised - in an upwards direction.

'All in this together' (September 15th 2011)

When people start urging us to take the view that 'we are all in this together' - it's time to stop and think.

Who's 'we'? - will do for a start.

The fact is that not everyone in the UK has been doing badly in these hard economic times - in fact people who are in a secure job and who have been paying a mortgage off - are doing very nicely thank you very much!

Compared to lots of other people anyway.

And just to demonstrate this point here's something I wrote back in March 2011 - arguing for a 'windfall tax' on the £20 billion that mortgage payers have saved in recent years - as a resul tof artificially low interest rates.

Now the people who are not part of this £20 billion windfall are - typically - the less well off and those on fixed incomes who rely on their savings - which produce little or no interest these days - to help pay the bills.

So why don't we hear any of this at the TUC conference - where delegates are good at telling everyone else what to do - but seldom come up with practical ideas for resolving problems.

A special windfall tax would recoup just some of the £20 billion that mortage payers have gained - simply through sheer luck - and it would seem to embrace the 'were all in this together approach'.

Which the present government and the trade unions both espouse when it suits their own argument, of course.

I imagine most union leaders are paying mortgages - because most live in private housing - and most will have benefited hugely out of the artifically low interest rates - we have witnessed in recent times.

Ironically the one union leader who would escape a special 'windfall tax' on mortgages - would be Bob Crow - who has been living in subsidised social housing in London for years.

But a windfall tax on mortgages would be redistribute income between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.

A windfall tax would be progressive because it would tax 'unearned income' - and would be likely to affect the majority of delegates this year's TUC.
In other words - a real life demonstration of solidarity - that we really are 'all in this together'.

Windfall Tax On Mortgages (March 4th 2011)

I read a remarkable statistic the other day - which made me stop and think.

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) has apparently calculated that the UK's artifically low interest rates in recent years - have meant an unexpected windfall of £20 billion to the nation's mortgage payers.

Yet another example of the old saying - 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good'.

In this case £20 billion to the good - and the bigger the mortgage - the bigger the killing people have made - without any effort or risk.

While those who can't afford or no longer need a mortgage (e.g. low paid workers and pensioners) - have lost out big time, comparatively speaking.

So I have a suggestion for the government and our policy makers.

Bring in a special windfall tax on mortgages which claws back some of this £20 billion - and use the money to reintroduce the 10p tax rate to help the low paid.

Low paid workers will spend the money - because they don't have a lot to start with - and that will help to boost the economy.

Readers will remember that the 10p tax rate was abolished by the 'man with a moral compass' - Gordon Brown - in one of his worst decisions as Prime Minister.

But here's a chance to right a great wrong - help the lower paid - boost our flagging economy - and with money that has simply fallen into people's laps by sheer luck - nothing else.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Jesus Wept

People do crazy things, of that there's no doubt.

I read recently that an otherwise intelligent young woman in America is set on marrying the deranged murderer, Charles Manson, much to the disgust of her family.

But sometimes there's no telling people which is why there are folks around who believe that Elvis Presley is still alive and that the 9/11 attack on America was all the work of the CIA, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

So that's my attitude to this report from The Sunday Times which shows a young Jihadist in the making trying out an AK-47 assault rifle for size.

What a shame that these young women define themselves solely in terms of being mothers (Umm = Mum) instead of independent people in their own right, yet that is what they wish to believe as well as cooking and cleaning for their brave 'warriors' who have, of course, been killing fellow (Shia) Muslims with a messianic zeal. 

My boy Jesus, the little British jihadist

A former London student living in Syria with her Isis fighter husband is posting chilling images of her young son online and urging other British women to join them

Dipesh Gadher - The Sunday Times

The picture of Jesus was posted on Twitter by another British supporter of jihad

A SMILE across his face, a young British child in Syria poses for the camera as he struggles to cradle an AK-47 assault rifle.

Named Isa — the Arabic version of Jesus — the boy, who appears no older than three or four, is the son of a former London student who is among a growing number of British women travelling to Syria to live under the Islamic “caliphate” set up by the world’s most feared terrorist leader.

The boy has a younger brother, aged about 12 months, whom his mother refers to as a “mini mujahid”, or holy warrior.

The Sunday Times has identified at least five British women who have signed up to the cause of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or Isis.

An analysis of their postings on social media reveals:

•Chilling threats against Britain, including a call for more murders like that of the soldier Lee Rigby

• Girls as young as 15 being encouraged to join the jihad

•Female recruits to Isis being paid a monthly wage and offered free housing if they marry a foreign fighter.

One young woman, who is thought to come from Scotland, provides an insight into life as an Isis bride in an online diary. Despite her zeal for a regime that crucifies and beheads its opponents, she admits she misses her mother and pines for a taste of Irn Bru.

Last month it emerged that Salma and Zahra Halane, 16-year-old twin sisters from Manchester, had abandoned their studies and headed to Syria. Messages on social media suggest they are with other British women in Manbij, an Isis-controlled town in the north of the country.

Dozens of women from Europe are believed to have travelled to the region and a number are now raising children there. One Isis video has featured the purported blond offspring of a French jihadist couple.

Isa’s mother, who calls herself simply Umm Isa (Mother of Isa), has the image of her gun-toting son on her Twitter profile page. Her account is called Muhajirah fi Sham, which means “immigrant in Syria”.

It reveals she is married to a fighter from Sweden called Abu Bakr and their younger son is called Abdur Rahman.

The couple were featured in a Channel 4 News clip last year, although on that occasion Umm Isa gave her name as Maryam — the Arabic for Mary. Friends have identified her as a convert to Islam who attended a mosque in south London.

In last year’s clip, she was shown firing an AK-47 and a revolver while wearing a burqa in Syria. She said she had studied media, film, psychology and sociology in Britain. At the time, her husband was attached to a foreign fighters’ brigade, part of which later merged with Isis. It is unclear when Umm Isa travelled to Syria and whether her older son was born there. She has said she has no plans to return.

On Twitter, Umm Isa has retweeted a photograph of an Isis crucifixion and boasted about witnessing a public execution in Manbij.

In one post she complains: “Wer r all da sisters dat want 2 join us in Sham nd marry nd support a mujahid? Wer r all da brothers dat r spose 2 b on da front line?”

Her neighbour, another British woman who uses the alias Umm Khattab al-Britaniyya, has also posted the photograph of Isa carrying a rifle, adding: “Look at my little mujahid, this kid is the funniest man, love him.”

Umm Khattab started a Twitter account on June 27 — the day after the Halane twins went missing from their home in Manchester. She wrote: “I don’t think it’s still hit me that I’m in Sham.”

In a more recent tweet, the Briton cryptically said: “Missing twins — chilling with one of them now, look."

Online picture of a British woman using the pseudonyms Umm Isa and Maryam, with her Swedish husband (Channel 4)

A later post on the same day was more sinister: “The black flag is not only limited to iraq and sham, insha’Allah [God willing] it shall fly over 10 downing st.”

She has pledged her loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, whom she refers to as “my beloved amir [commander]”.

Umm Khattab also offers advice on, the controversial website used by teenagers. On Friday, she indicated that one of the Manchester twins “is my neighbour” and claimed that she had met “many British girls” since arriving in Syria.

When asked by a 15-year-old girl for help in joining the jihad, Umm Khattab replied: “I don’t think it’s young as long as you have common sense and a passport.”

A third British woman with Isis, who uses the alias Umm Layth, has used Twitter to advocate terrorist attacks against the UK and America.

The woman, who travelled to Syria last November and got married shortly afterwards, appears to be from Scotland and in her early twenties.

In a reference to the killers of Rigby in Woolwich, southeast London, the Boston marathon bombers and the perpetrator of a massacre at the Fort Hood US army base in Texas, Umm Layth recently wrote: “Follow the examples of your brothers from Woolwich, Texas and Boston.” She added: “If you cannot make it to the battlefield then bring the battlefield to yourself.”

Umm Layth has also posted a diary on Tumblr, making it clear that western women who join the jihad will not be allowed to fight and those who are single when they arrive in Syria will be expected to get married swiftly. All women receive a monthly income, she reveals, while couples are given a house by Isis.

She writes: “[There are] no martydom operations or a secret sisters’ katiba [brigade]. These are all rumours.

“Your day will revolve around cooking, cleaning, looking after and sometimes even educating children . . . We are created to be mothers and wives.”

Despite her stern advice, Umm Layth joked on Twitter: “Anyone making hijrah [emigrating] from Scotland . . . bring me some Irn Bru:D”