Sunday, 1 August 2021

There *were* George Dixons in the Met.

- and probably still are, but in all the current pudder of  corruption starting at the top and of systemic racism we do not hear of them.

It's not clear what suddenly brought this recollection to mind, but there was an off-beat story from the 1960s which exemplified neighbourhood policing. One of the duties of the junior clerical officer in the MoT's divisional road engineer's office in London was to visit Scotland Yard and obtain various statistics relating to road use. Our liaison man there was a genial man by the name of (if I recall correctly) Fred Vanderhoek. When I was on data collection duty, he told me of a police station where a call went out for a certain PC: there's a parrot at the front counter for you. What had happened was that an old lady in his area had confided in him that she felt lonely and he had put out feelers for someone to provide a caged bird to provide her with a bit of company. The parrot was the result.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Decline in bus services

 Earlier this month, Rebecca Riddell of SP Energy Networks and human rights campaigners Philip Alston and Bassam Khawaja published a report on the outcome of the Thatcher privatisation of bus services in England and Wales. Mark Valladares commented on Liberal Democrat Voice

as someone who lives in a village which lost its last scheduled bus service a decade or so ago, you might not be surprised that I took rather more interest than might otherwise be the case.

But, of course, it’s not just small, rural villages that are now cut off from the bus network. As the authors note, some 3.34 million people could not reach any food stores within fifteen minutes by public transport. That adds costs for the rural poor, adds traffic to the roads and leads to those who can’t drive for whatever reason to be forced towards larger communities in order to function more easily.

Interestingly, the “right to public transport” is emphasised. Now, I might once have thought that, amidst the rights that people should have, public transport might not be high on the list but consider this;

  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the United Kingdom ratified in 1976, obligates the government to promote realization of the rights to work, healthcare, education, social security, food, and an adequate standard of living.
  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the United Kingdom ratified in 2009, requires State Parties to take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to transportation on an equal basis with others.
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which the United Kingdom ratified in 1986, requires State Parties to take appropriate measures to ensure the right of women in rural areas to enjoy adequate living conditions, including in relation to transport.

I must, in fairness, exclude London, Scotland and Wales from relative criticism. Each of these jurisdictions has much more power over bus services than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and it is notable that bus services have expanded and fares remained relatively accessible. But when bus fares have risen by an average 403% since 1997, you can see how bus services elsewhere have gone into a seeming death spiral – higher fares lead to rider figures falling, which leads to growing unviability of routes, which leads to unreliable erratic services, which leads to lower rider figures…

The report makes five recommendations;

  • embrace public control of bus services
  • guarantee access to public transport
  • support local authorities
  • ensure affordability
  • combat climate change with a strong bus system

I fear Mark is too sanguine about the situation in Wales. Both the Welsh government and some local authorities (including Neath Port Talbot) had cut back on support for bus services even before the pandemic cut a swathe through even the profitable ones. So it would need more than a return to public ownership to achieve the report's aims.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Attack the causes of migration

 Before making his reprehensible grab for power (though he does seem now to be rowing back on it to some extend), Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed made some very sensible points in an interview with euronews about migration out of Africa. He warned that:

Europe can only stem the flow of migrants reaching its shores by helping to improve conditions in the countries that they are leaving. Saïed told Euronews that an approach to migration that only deals with security - preventing people from reaching Europe - would ultimately fail to solve what is a global crisis.

He went on:

If those illegal immigrants had fulfilled their ambition to live well and to make their dreams come true, and had the same opportunities European citizens have in their countries, the immigration issue would not be raised. It is better to find out about the real reasons for immigration rather than analysing the phenomena. 
Many illegal immigrants who reach Europe from Tunisia and North Africa are exploited by criminal organisations: they are forced to do illegal work, which violates their rights as refugees. [...]
What about the resources that Tunisia needs from the EU to fight human trafficking networks that are active in Tunisia? 
To fight these networks in Tunisia, but also in Europe, you need to look at those who welcome them. Who receives them when they turn up to work in the fields or in factories, or even on the black market? Who exploits them and who benefits from it? It's here in Europe. These migrants are forced to work illegally, so it is absolutely necessary to combat human trafficking networks within Europe as well. There will be no security and no peace here unless we eliminate the causes that led to this illegal migration. Some illegal immigrants were forced to do so because they had lost all kind of hope, they had no dream.

Denial of opportunity for and exploitation of citizens, especially the young, in poorer nations may be major drivers of emigration, but so also is the denial of human rights. In the stream of migrants from Central America to the US, Guatemalans are prominent. Eritreans form a disproportionate number of African migrants. Both sets are fleeing repressive regimes. It is to be hoped that Tunisia does not become another such.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Made it!

 There were times, before I discovered Becotide, when I doubted whether I would make it to the turn of the century never mind my eightieth, but today I can look forward to an extra 25p per week on my state pension. What bounty!

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Never more needed

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, the international treaty that protects the rights of refugees and has enabled millions of people to seek protection from war and persecution around the world.

Some top refugee facts: did you know…

Who can claim asylum?
The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum. It has saved millions of lives. No country has ever withdrawn from it.

Can countries return refugees?
The Convention sets out the principle of non-refoulement – meaning countries must not return refugees to a country where they fear persecution.

Where do refugees have to claim asylum?
There is nothing in international law to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach. A European regulation allows a country such as the UK to return an adult asylum seeker to the first European country they reached. This means that countries on the edge of Europe have responsibility for a lot more asylum seekers than others.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

ISDS dangers

 In May of this year I queried the government's silence over the possibility of an ISDS procedure being included in the Anglo-Australian trade deal. I also raised the matter with our local MP, and I am glad to say that he has received this assurance from a government minister:

The dangers of ISDS have been exposed by an action taken by a British oil exploitation company against the Italian government. Under a rather obscure international agreement dating from the 1990s, the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), fossil fuel extractors can claim compensation for the withdrawal of a licence, even though the nation concerned has withdrawn from the ECT.

In the wake of various oil shocks from the 1950s and 1970s, Western powers clearly felt vulnerable and therefore the extraordinary powers given to oil companies were justified.. However, since then the viability of renewable energy has been established and many different sources of petroleum have been discovered, making it difficult for OPEC, let alone an individual nation to hold the world to ransom. The balance has therefore shifted, and the ECT is now more of a threat than a boon. Until the original signatories repudiate it, it is fertile ground for exploitation by such companies as Rockhopper which seek a quick return on their investments and to the devil with the environment or the wishes of local people.

Monday, 26 July 2021

In 2016, Fiona Maddocks published her personal list of 100 pieces of music to see her through life.

Let's see if I can reach one hundred:

JS Bach (how to pick just a few!); St Matthew Passion, Partita for Violin 3, BWV 565 (and I don't care if it turns out to have been written by someone else; has anyone checked on WF Bach, by the way?)

Beethoven: Symphony 7

Berlioz: the Trojans (complete)

Brahms: Symphonies 1 & 3, most of the late piano works

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, War Requiem, Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Cantata Academica

Antonin Dvorak: Symphonies 7, 8, 9

Gerald Finzi: Dies Natalis

Victor Hely-Hutchinson: Carol Symphony (if possible the Boyd Neel recording)

S Prokoviev: Romeo and Juliet (complete ballet), Violin Concerto 1, Piano Concertos 1 and 3; Symphonies 3, 4 and 6

Shostakovich: Piano Concerto 2 (Maxim's birthday present); Symphony 11;

Smyth: The March of the Women

Stravinsky: Petrushka (first version); Symphony in Three Movements

Vaughan Williams Symphonies 1 (original version), 4 and 6; The Pilgrim's Progress;

Sir Arthur Bliss: Things to Come
Bernard Herrmann: Citizen Kane, North by Northwest
Ennio Morricone: The Mission, Once Upon a Time in the West
Pandit Ravi Shankar: Pather Panchali
Nino Rota: La Dolce Vita

Non-straight music:
Lennon/McCartney: I'll get you
Bob Dylan: Go 'way from my window; Black Diamond Bay
Julie Felix: The Friends I Love the Most
Joni Mitchell: Amelia; The Circle Game

Charles Trenet: La Mer

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Fires: 1981 and 1991

 439 New Cross Road, January 1981

Steve McQueen and James Rogan's mini-series Uprising chronicles dramatic events in South London sparked by a fire which killed 13 young people, and whose origins remain unexplained and disputed.
Full marks to the BBC for showing it on three successive nights in peak time on its main channel. It cannot have been easy to do so, given the Corporation's uneasy relationship with the Johnson administration which gives the impression of being on the side of racists. One wonders if only the award-winning status of the two film-makers enabled it to be made, let alone broadcast. Its painstaking examination of the disaster in New Cross was long overdue, and surely some valuable witnesses must have been lost to the ravages of time. On the other hand, given the rise in resistance to assimilation and civil rights given respectability by the current government and the people behind GB News, it is timely.

As I understand the thesis of the series, McQueen and Rogan see a clear chain of events linking the fire to the Brixton Riots, and possibly "race" riots in other parts of the country (I have not yet seen the concluding part of the series). I can attest to the under-current of racism in the population of 1960s South London and even in the civil service - though not in the newly-joined generation of which I was part, I hasten to add. Among the older generations, then as now, the more highly-educated the person, the less likely they were to be prejudiced. The degree of distrust of the police on the part of Afro-Caribbeans revealed by Uprising was not obvious at the time. It was this mutual lack of faith in the other community which led to two different explanations for the cause of the fire being held by the police and by the local community and the wider black activist movement.

Something else I had not realised was the youth of all the victims. The party was to celebrate the birthday of a teenager. So the image of a riotous assembly by West Indian muggers conjured up by the tabloids could not have been further from the truth. Even the BBC showed prejudice in reporting the deaths of West Indians, whereas all those who died were British, born and brought up here.  The only note of friction seems to have been an argument - not a physical fight - between two lads over a girl. 

In the aftermath, resentment of media treatment increased when the story was swept off the front pages by speculation about Prince Charles' interest in Diana Spencer and the return of the Iran hostages. To that was added disbelief and disappointment when the Queen sent a message of sympathy to the president of Ireland over the Valentine's Day Stardust fire, but nothing to the New Cross community. Prime Minister Thatcher did send condolences, but not to the individual bereaved families, only to a representative of the black community.

So the police line that the fire was started deliberately as a result of a dispute within the community has no basis in evidence. Lack of physical evidence casts doubt on the conclusion by the survivors that an incendiary device had been thrown in to the house. This supposition was based on the deliberate destruction by fire not long before the New Cross Road conflagration of two popular meeting-places in the area, and on the National Front targeting the area for their provocative marches. 

The contribution by a man who was then a young fire investigation officer was valuable. He regretted that the science of arson investigation was then not as sophisticated as it is now. Today, he is not convinced that the conclusion they reached as to the source of the fire was definitely correct. A small tube of an inflammable substance had been found outside the house, but since it had no signs of fire damage, it clearly not have been used to start the fire. Its origin remains unexplained.

In all the painstaking reconstruction by the makers of the series, I believe one line of inquiry was missed. There is a possibility that the physical remains of a petrol bomb or the like were on the site but were removed before it was declared safe for the investigation team to enter. The only person or persons able to do that were firemen. It is not possible that the fire service was untouched by racism, though maybe not to the extent of the Met. I am not accusing the fire crew of the day of covering up evidence, but it is a line of enquiry which does not seem to have been followed if only for elimination purposes.

Knowsley Heights, Huyton, 5th April 1991

Discovered by Inside Housing magazine and reported by both the Liverpool Echo and Private Eye, a fire at an experimental cladding installation in Liverpool was played down by the government. 

the new cladding system on the tower had been recently installed with £915,000 of government grant to test the efficacy of cladding systems for high rises around the country. But in April 1991, shortly after it was installed, a fire started outside the building and ripped up through the cavity between the cladding panels and insulation affecting all 11 floors. This prompted the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to produce a briefing for secretary of state Michael Heseltine about the fire. However, a handwritten note contained in the archives of government documents relating to the fire says: “We have received via [Housing Management Estates Action – the government team administering the funding] a request from M St Press Office to play down the issue of the fire. “Our briefing to the secretary of state is purely factual and as far as I am aware, Knowsley [Council] will not be making an issue of the fire.” 

 The note is signed only with a first name and does not identify the organisation that produced it. M St Press Office is believed to be a reference to Marsham Street, where the press office of the Department of the Environment (which provided funding to the project) is located.

Policy papers and politically sensitive materials are traditionally locked away by the civil service at the time of general elections. Presumably an "electronic lock" is put on the equivalent digital material these days. They are released when a government of the same stripe is installed. Thus the Blair/Brown administrations would not have been made privy to all the policy discussions of Thatcher and Major. But it would have been available to David Cameron in 2010, before the fad for external insulation of high-rise buildings took off. He and Nick Clegg also had the opportunity to review the Thatcher policy of removing the requirement for fire service approval of new buildings. Grenfell could have been prevented.

Labour and the coalition did go some way towards opening up government, making it more transparent to the people who put them in power. The Johnson administration's clear intent to reverse this is dangerous.