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Can Labour tackle the private school problem now?

9 October, 2021 - 17:13
How state school funding has decreased relative to private fees since 2010. For more detail see this IFS report.

Yesterday I saw a tweet by the Labour MP Rachel Reeves saying that, “as Labour chancellor”, she would end the charitable status of private schools which costs the public £1.7billion per year, and move that money into the state education system where it is needed. She quoted another tweet by another Labour MP, Wes Streeting, which showed an IFS graphic (right) showing that while spending per pupil in private schools had risen steadily since around 2000, the figure for state schools rose roughly with private schools until 2010 and then dropped dramatically, and while it has risen for certain periods since, it has never come close to the 2010 figure. It would be interesting if Labour were to take the bull by the horns on this issue in a forthcoming general election, as it is something they have broached in the past, or their politicians have, and have run into a storm of media opposition and backed down.

I recall Clare Short raising the issue of private schools’ charitable status back in the mid-1990s when Labour were in opposition. When the Daily Mail and other right-wing newspapers made their opposition to it very clear, Blair disowned the policy and the institutions retained their charitable status throughout his time in office. He did abolish the assisted places scheme, by which a small number of children received state-assisted places at private schools, after complaints that it “creamed off” more motivated pupils from state schools and left the latter impoverished. He also abolished the grant-maintained school system which had allowed some state schools to opt out of local authority control, receiving a grant from central government, under which a small number of private schools entered the state school system. This policy was reversed later on during the Labour years with some schools becoming “city academies”, later just academies, also maintained by central government with a minority sponsorship from a private company. This status was to be imposed on schools deemed to be failing, even if the problems were temporary.

In the 90s, a common defence of private schools was that they freed up places in state schools: the wealthy paid for their own children’s education as well as paying through taxes for everyone else’s, which they did not use. The problem with this is that when anyone of means pays for private education, state schools become less diverse and typically only serve children of poor to lower middle class families. When members of parliament are typically people of means as a result of high MPs’ salaries as well as the extraneous jobs they may acquire because of their connections, state schools are no longer a priority for those who run our country: they are schools for other people’s children, not theirs. As well as class sizes going up and buildings falling into disrepair because of reduced finances, they become the focus of endless political interference with constant changes to the curriculum and to their governance and management, while private schools remain stable and fees continue to buy small class sizes.

Another common defence is that private schools offer a choice of school model: some offer religious education other than Catholic or Anglican, some are Steiner schools or follow some other educational philosophy. This is all well and good, but it seems most private schools that are not special schools simply offer an ‘improved’ traditional educational model; they tend to be grammar schools with the usual trappings of British institutional schooling such as uniforms and prefects. Very often the low-ranking private schools target wealthy families whose children failed the local 11-plus or failed to get into the ‘good’ comprehensives, or those who want a grammar school education in a borough or county where it is not available on the state. I have heard that some private schools have served some children with special needs who had been unable to cope in a large mainstream secondary school fairly well, sometimes offering reduced fees, though these arrangements have often become untenable since the pandemic hit. The question is, however, why should such choice not be available to everyone, including the choice of a small, friendly school?

Private schools that have charitable status often do little to justify that status. They provide bursaries, but often they are partial and even ‘full’ bursaries do not cover the costs of things like uniforms. In some schools pupils are required to bring tablets, which may still be beyond some parents’ reach but not beyond that of parents who can afford private school fees. They are often lax in protecting children from bullying, especially as those from poorer families are clearly identifiable as the “charity case” and stick out as different; private schools have featured heavily in recent exposures of sexual harassment and assaults as well as racism in prestigious schools. The selling point is the lack of diversity, the lack of tolerance for dissent, the “my way or the highway, fit in or get out” environment. And state schools often have to pick up the tab when private schools fail; when Winton School in Croydon closed suddenly in 1994 for financial and safety reasons, the borough had to find places for nearly 140 pupils at short notice (E. Blyth & J. Milner, 1996).

It seems that more of the public has woken up to the damage the private sector does; more and more of our political class, especially in the Tory party which has reverted to type after two state educated leaders in the 80s and 90s, and more of our media are dominated by its products and the damage that boarding schools do has become better understood, as evidenced by the sharp decline in the number of special boarding schools for disabled children. Yet simply removing the schools’ charitable status may well lead to some of them not even pretending to deliver a public good but just paying their taxes and teaching the children of the wealthy. In other European countries, private education has been banned or is much less powerful than it is here, only serving the extremely wealthy or expatriates (in their own language). Here, the private sector is vast and diverse and reforming it will be a very complicated process, and Labour must have a clear idea as to how they will do it. Our private schools take pupils from around the world, not just the British rich.

It’s not acceptable that most people only have access to large secondary schools which are often (and increasingly) rule-ridden, overly hierarchical, infested with bullies (pupils and staff), with uncomfortable uniforms rigidly enforced by image-obsessed “leadership teams”. People, including those in cities, should have access to a choice of educational models; this should not be the preserve of the wealthy. Schools which provide alternative models should be supported, as should home-educating parents, especially where their children have been frozen out of school as a result of disability. The private grammar schools, however, must be abolished if they will not come into the state school system. State schools must be for everyone’s children, not for other people’s.

Eric Blyth & Judith Milner, Unsaleable Goods and the Education Market; published in Reshaping Education In The 1990s: Perspectives On Secondary Schooling by R. Chawla-Duggan & C.J. Pole, Routledge, 1996. Image source: Institute for Fiscal Studies, via Wes Streeting MP on Twitter.

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Sarah Everard, the police and the public

3 October, 2021 - 19:55
A white woman wearing a blue face mask laying flowers at the base of a tree where a number of other flowers have been left. A banner attached to he tree reads "Reclaim these streets" and other banners can be seen on the wall behind, including one saying "Rest in love Sarah; you deserved to make it home safe". Another white woman, wearing a pink mask, if standing in front of the wall.A woman laying flowers at a vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield.

Last week, a former Metropolitan (i.e. London) Police officer named Wayne Couzens was sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, a woman he falsely arrested on Covid rules violation charges and then abducted, raped and murdered last March towards the end of the most recent lockdown. He was given a whole-life tariff, i.e. life without parole, because of the particularly aggravating matter of having abused his policing powers to abduct someone for personal gratification and because the action struck at the heart of policing by public consent and the rule of law. Over the last week or so, there has been talk of women feeling increasingly unsafe as it has become obvious that the police as well as random men are a threat to their safety, especially at night, and of them giving their daughters a similar talk to those that Black and other non-white parents give their children, especially their sons, on how to deal with the police. The way Couzens was able to gain sensitive roles and move from one constabulary to another despite numerous accusations of sexual misconduct (in a previous job, not with the Met, he was known as “the rapist”) and had not been suspended recently despite being accused of exposing himself in a MacDonalds has shed a light on how the Met fails to deal with predators in its ranks. Cressida Dick, the Met police commissioner who has weathered a number of other scandals and recently had her contract extended by two years, gave a statement the night of Couzens’s conviction which seemed to me to be devoid of any emotion and has refused to resign and is being supported in this by both the prime minister and the current leader of the Labour opposition, Keir Starmer.

On social media the afternoon following his conviction, I read suggestions that he must not have been acting alone and that this was probably not his first murder. I’m not convinced by this. Couzens used a hire car which could be easily traced to him, and abducted a woman from a main road in Clapham; main roads in London are very well covered by CCTV and buses all have forward-facing cameras to record vehicles in bus lanes that should not be there. I can think of three possibilities: first, he was counting on the support of other officers; second, that he just thought he was cleverer than he really was, and third, that this had been something he had been wanting to do for some time and avoiding getting caught was less important than actually fulfilling his aim. He made serious attempts to harm himself while in custody following his arrest, so it is possible that he intended to kill himself if caught and might make further attempts in prison.

Police chiefs have made suggestions as to how the public can protect themselves from false arrests, such as trying to flag down a passing bus or running to someone’s house, all of which have been roundly ridiculed as buses will simply not stop away from official bus stops and you cannot guarantee that the particular house you run to will be occupied or that the occupier will open the front door. Others have suggested that women should be more ‘streetwise’ and read up on their rights. What is needed is for the rules of how a police officer can or will arrest a member of the public to be clarified and, if necessary, changed. After all, the idea of abducting someone by using a false arrest is a genie that is now out of the bottle and the next person who tries this might be cleverer and less cocky than Wayne Couzens; the danger could come from a real police officer or an impersonator. The first change should be that nobody should be required to get into a car other than an identifiable police car or van, and I do not include cars with blue lights but no livery. The second is that off-duty police officers should not carry their warrant cards but be issued with an ID card that identifies them to other officers, allowing them to assist in the event of an incident, but should not confer powers of arrest, or at least powers to transport the arrested person anywhere. Police do not normally use such vehicles to transport arrested people; this norm must be made into well-known standard practice; the “don’t normallys” must become “nevers” and “can’ts”. This way, anybody witnessing an incident like this in future is under no illusions that this is a false arrest and are less likely to walk on by.

That Couzens could do this so easily, and also the reason why he received such a stiff penalty, was because he picked on an ideal victim: a white, middle-class woman who had no reason to fear the police and meekly complied with the arrest, even offering her other hand when he handcuffed her. Even if people familiar with police abuses who crowd around and record arrests or stops and searches they perceive as harassment had happened by, they would probably have thought nothing was amiss here. There is a danger of people becoming more concerned about police abducting and murdering white women, which has happened (as far as I’m aware) precisely once in recent years than about racially-targeted, sometimes violent, police harassment which targets children as well as adults and happens a lot. When Black families give their children “the talk”, the idea is to make it clear that they should not challgenge the officer even if he is aggressive or obviously prejudiced, as this will be used as an excuse to become more aggressive and violent and could result in them being arrested or killed; it was precisely this trust of and submission to authority that Couzens exploited.

A large collection of flowers under a bandstand on Clapham Common. A banner among them reads, in pink on a black background, "On the way home I want to feel free, not brave".Flowers left for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common in March 2021

It is disappointing, but not altogether surprising, that Keir Starmer has thrown his weight behind Cressida Dick. He is preoccupied with the need to appeal to the “Red Wall”, the group of former ‘safe’ Labour seats in the provincial North that switched to the Tories at the last election, where voters are presumed to be pro-establishment, patriotic, ‘true’ (read white) working-class people who trust the police. This presumption is misplaced: working-class people experienced police violence on many occasions during the 1980s, notably during the miners’ and steelworkers’ strikes, as well as the calumnies of the police (echoed by the tabloid press and by politicians) against the Liverpool fans who were killed or injured at Hillsborough. There is a sense that distrust of the police is confined to troublemakers and wrongdoers as well as minorities and some “metropolitan liberals” and that ‘normal’ (white, provincial) people regard the police as friendly to them and believe politicians’ and police chiefs’ claims that the corrupt or depraved police are a small minority of “bad apples”.

It is important that we keep the focus on the police culture that has allowed countless predators, domestic abusers and other criminals to maintain careers in the police force, allowing them power over ordinary people. Of course, such people exist in wider society, but this must not be a distraction: the police are there to maintain the law, order and decency. They must not be “no better than the rest of us” and certainly must not be allowed to cover up for those who abuse their position or less experienced officers or their families or ordinary people. We have seen too many situations where the police abused or injured people with impunity; the killing of Ian Tomlinson, who was hit over the head unprovoked by an officer with anger management issues that were known to his colleagues, in 2009 was a classic example (he was acquitted of even manslaughter, but dismissed from the force for gross misconduct and the force acknowledged that his actions had caused Tomlinson’s death). Couzens did not get away with it largely because there was no way of portraying his victim as being in any way blameworthy, nor his actions as an operational mistake, and would have done if either of these arguments could have been made. We must not allow the same excuses to be made for those who aided and abetted him along the way. There must be action now, and change now.

Image sources: Tim Dennell, via Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License v2.0 (CC BY 2.0), and Rosianna Rojas, via Twitter.

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Time for legislation on disability and late abortion

26 September, 2021 - 18:41
Picture of Heidi Crowter, a white woman with Down's syndrome wearing glasses with thick black rims and a pink raincoat and a black top with different coloured flowers on underneath it. A car, a tree and a stone building are behind her, but are blurred.Heidi Crowter

Last week the High Court in London rejected a suit from a woman with Down’s syndrome, Heidi Crowter (right), to overturn an aspect of the abortion law in the UK which allows a baby to be terminated after the usual 24-week limit if they have a disability, including Down’s syndrome. The judges refused the attempt to overturn this law on the grounds that they could not enter into controversies but could only decide in accordance with the law. Unlike in the US where a law can be overturned on constitutional grounds, in the UK judges can only rule according to the law; while a law can be found to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights or with other international agreements, the law cannot be struck down but it falls to Parliament to amend or revoke it. The case was supported by a number of disability activists, particularly those associated with learning disabilities or other congenital disabilities which are often the reason for termination, such as spina bifida; some feminists agreed with the ruling, with some even claiming that ‘equality’ should be achieved by abolishing time limits altogether.

When the law on abortion was passed, it was remarked that the wording that allowed a foetus with a severe abnormality to be aborted later than the original 28-week limit (subsequently reduced to 24 weeks) was so vague that it could result in someone being aborted for something as trivial as a club foot. Indeed, there was litigation more recently after it was discovered that an abortion was carried out on a foetus at 28 weeks because they had a cleft palate, something that can be rectified with surgery. Some would agree that not defining a severe abnormality is quite correct as the law cannot predict specific situations and the majority of later abortions are on the grounds of very severe, unsurvivable defects and the children involved were often very much wanted and the decision heartbreaking. However, it does seem clear that pregnancies are being aborted because the child will have a perfectly liveable albeit potentially challenging impairment, and although most of these are prior to the 24-week limit (Down’s syndrome is detected at a 12-week scan and spina bifida at 20 weeks, for example), parents have reported that doctors put pressure on them to have an abortion, mentioning it as soon as the diagnosis is made and then on many subsequent occasions.

A friend, a disability activist whose account is private so I will not name her, noted in a long Twitter thread on Thursday that much of the reason for the high abortion rate of people with liveable impairments is that doctors bully and coerce parents into terminations, telling them that it would be in the child’s own best interests to terminate on the grounds that they might never walk or talk or will probably be incontinent, as if these things alone mean they would be better off dead, and that parents were vulnerable to this kind of manipulation because they had often never actually known a single disabled person (this likelihood is increased if most babies with a detectable condition are aborted). She also mentioned that a friend in the US had been told by her obstetrician that he would cease treating her if she did not terminate, and kept his promise. While unconvinced by the case for a ban, she suggested that it be made illegal for doctors to use coercion or misinformation to pressure parents expecting a disabled child to have an abortion. The activist and Instagrammer Nina Tame, interviewed on Woman’s Hour yesterday (Friday), noted that she had been reminded again and again after the son she was carrying was diagnosed with spina bifida (which she also has) that she could terminate, and said that the time limit for abortion in the case of spina bifida should be the same as for other pregnancies.

The ruling has also allowed a number of fringe feminists to push demands for the removal of time limits for all abortions, with one spouting the ridiculous slogan “any woman, any reason, any time”. Does it even need to be explained why there are time limits? It is because in the last few weeks of any pregnancy, a baby is definitely a baby and there is no doubt that this is a human life and a child who can feel, can hear even if not understand, and can learn. At that stage, a pregnancy can be ended, if need be, without the loss of the baby’s life; as most of the pregnancy has already happened and birth by that stage unavoidable, the usual argument that abortion saves a woman who never wanted to be pregnant these difficulties does not apply. There simply is no excuse and no reason to permit a destructive abortion of a baby without a fatal abnormality late in pregnancy; there is no difference between this and killing a child after birth because a child just before and just after birth are the same thing; it is not a metamorphosis. The same clown then explains that:

Having a Disabled baby may change the dynamic for the entire family. There may be appointments, play dates, groups, or routines that are essential for that child. This can mean it’s difficult to juggle the needs of other children, too. A woman must choose if she is prepared to invest 18+ years in raising a child. A partner, or social structure, can provide an environment that supports her choice, but only the woman can decide if she can spend her limited maternal energy on this child, at this time.

So: it’s OK to snuff out a child’s life after it’s indisputably a child and not a mere bundle of cells to save the mother’s “maternal energy” — a bit of pseudo-mystical woo-woo that conveniently ignores the fact that a lot of children, disabled or otherwise, are raised by two parents and not just one — and to avoid inconvenience to other children. This is their brother or sister we are talking about.

The argument for permissiveness here typically involves reference to emotive cases of much-wanted pregnancies being aborted because of a genuine fatal foetal abnormality (such as in this article by Zoe Williams in the Guardian), yet this was not what the case was about; it was about the principle that any disability, including perfectly liveable ones, should be grounds for termination well after the normal time limit, which exists because it is roughly the border between an early foetus and a child who could survive out of the womb, lapses. This principle is, in my view and that of many disabled people, of a piece with the tendency towards leniency for adults who kill their disabled children when they are months or years old (the Tanya Clarence case is a recent example) and the sympathy shown when they kill themselves afterwards.

Nobody is suggesting that a woman be forced through an entire unwanted pregnancy for the principle of equality for disabled people. What is demanded is that, if it cannot be secured in the court, that the law be changed so that no child is aborted after the point of viability because of liveable impairments or defects that can be corrected with surgery. While these are not the majority of late terminations for medical reasons, they happen and they should not. Not all the parents involved will be poor, disabled or single mothers; some will be stable couples who have been told only bad things about what their child’s life may involve by doctors who regard the choice to abort as a no-brainer. While doctors must be required to present a true picture of life with the impairment in question to parents and not regale them with horror stories in order to push them towards termination, and this applies before and after 24 weeks, no child should be aborted late because they might be more costly to bring up or less of a social asset than an able-bodied child might be. And yes, it’s hard for the parents. But sometimes, doing the right thing is hard.

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We don’t need irrational old weights and measures back

17 September, 2021 - 22:27
A clear plastic four-pint bottle of milk with the metric measurement, 2.272 litres, given first, with a bar code and nutritional information on the label.A four-pint bottle of milk

Yesterday the government announced that merchants were to be allowed to sell food and other products solely using imperial weights and measures again, a practice that was banned some years ago when we were in the European Union and which has been on some Brexiteers’ and right-wing papers’ wish lists for some time with a handful of market stall holders becoming known as “metric martyrs” for refusing to use grams and getting fined. The Labour MP Jess Philips tweeted last night that she had never had complaints from constituents about the issue and those who really can’t get their heads around metric must be very old as metric has been around in the UK since the mid-60s and decimal currency (replacing the old system of 20 shillings to the pound and twelve pence to the shilling) since 1971. Yet it is one of a number of petty annoyances that the government will want to deal with now that its hand is freed by no longer having membership of the EU.

Most British people have some knowledge of imperial measures, and some products are commonly sold in old measures, such as milk and beer in pints (albeit with the metric quantity on the bottle, often down to four decimal places) and road distances in yards and miles. However, it’s doubtful that most people understand the whole system. Grams and meters are easy to calculate; it’s a simple sum to add two such weights or distances together and converting large to small measures is a matter of adding or removing zeroes or moving a decimal point. The same is not true when there are twelve inches to the foot, three feet to the yard, 22 yards to the chain, 10 chains to the furlong and eight of those to the mile (and three miles to the league). So there are 1,760 yards to the mile, while with metres, the conversion to kilometres is simple. Weight measurements (commonly but not officially used for weighing people) had similar inconsistency: a pound was 16 ounces, while a stone is 14 pounds; a hundredweight is 112 pounds. These measures seem arbitrary and are completely inconsistent; adding more than the simplest quantities together is difficult and error-prone.

The complexity of these measures becomes obvious when you look at descriptions and dimensions of things made in countries where they are still used. Look at an American guitar maker’s website, for example, and you will find scale lengths, body depths and widths and nut widths given in inches plus halves and quarters down to sixteenths and thirty-seconds of an inch (a third of an inch is called a barleycorn, but nobody seems to use that; a ‘thou’ or a ‘mil’ is a thousandth of an inch, but nobody thought to invent a measure for a reasonable fraction of an inch). European builders give all these measurements in millimetres which are easy to read and uncomplicated to add and subtract.

A few years ago an imperial measures advocate wrote a letter to a broadsheet (probably the Observer as it’s the one I read) claiming that the nature of number was binary rather than decimal. Binary is base 2, in which every place is a power of two rather than ten: instead of units, tens, hundreds, thousands etc. from right to left, it is units, twos, fours, eights, sixteens. Powers of two are conspicuous by their rarity in imperial measurements; apart from in fluid volume where a quart is two pints and a gallon is eight, powers of two appear only twice in weight (a pound being 16 ounces and an ounce being sixteen drachms or drams, therefore a pound being 256 drams) and twice in length (a hand, commonly used to measure horse height, being four inches and a mile being eight furlongs). The rest of the numbers are random.

If anything, Britain should have pushed further with metrication and faced down the so-called martyrs and their media cheerleaders. While converting all the road signs to kilometres might have been too expensive (although other countries, such as Ireland, have managed it albeit gradually), vehicle and bridge heights in metres would have avoided a whole lot of confusion and damage. There have been many incidents where a foreign truck driver struck a bridge because the stated height of the bridge in metres was higher than the height in feet and inches. Vehicles here use a confusing mixture, some (especially trailers) in feet and others in metres, while filling station canopy clearances are invariably in metres. Xenophobic tabloids have been able to falsely claim that metrication is a case of Europe imposing “their ways” on us, when in fact metric is the standard around the world and has been for many years. Apparently the only countries that mostly use imperial measures are Burma and Liberia; the USA uses a variant on imperial and some other countries, particularly in the Commonwealth, use a mixture.

To allow the sole use of imperial measures would benefit nobody except a handful of ageing market traders who cannot be bothered to learn a new system, or will not because they regard it as foreign, as well as merchants who would use it as cover to push up prices. To younger people, it would cause nothing but confusion. Metric is an internationally agreed-on system, it is logical and it is easy to use. Imperial is none of these things. It should be left in the past.

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Celebrity imams and dodgy marriages

5 September, 2021 - 20:05
The logo of the organisation FACE (Facing Abuse in Community Environments), consisting of a red and light blue square, with a profile of a face dividing the two parts.The logo for FACE, which produced the report on Fatih Seferagic

In the last week or so, two Muslim celebrities, one a social media celebrity with a spot on a mosque board and the other a well-known Qur’an reciter who could draw crowds and was booked for Eid gatherings around the world, including the UK, were exposed for abusive behaviour. The first, one Osama Eisa who used the social media handle ‘PartyTillFajr’, courted a woman in his local community, lied to her about why his parents would not be at their wedding, induced her to run up thousands of dollars of debts on her credit cards and refused for months to make their marriage official. To deny him more than his fifteen minutes of infamy, the Qur’an reciter Fatih Seferagic, was then the subject of a report published mid-week detailing some eighteen separate accusations of sexual assault (including one that resulted in a sexually transmitted infection that led to the woman developing cancer), physical assaults, misappropriation of funds (e.g. taking money for tuition that he did not deliver, and borrowing a large amount of money and refusing to pay it back) and professional misconduct while employed as a teacher. Despite the report detailing so many separate accusations, Seferagic has not been charged with any crime and is free to travel around the world even if his bookings in the West have dried up somewhat as a result of public outcry; currently, he is touring Togo in west Africa.

Predictably, some people have accused the organisation behind the report of having it in for imams and Muslim men in general. I’d like to address one particular claim made in an article on so-called “imam hunters”, published on the Muslim Skeptic website. The article is extremely long, laden with derogatory terms popular in online misogynist communities, and mostly concentrates on exposing the directors of FACE, the Dallas-based group that published the Seferagic report, of having a pro-gay stance and does not really address the truth of the accusations, but the claims are in the first few paragraphs.

The claim is that it is quite acceptable if an imam marries without publicising the marriage to his community. According to them, this is only abuse “according to feminism and #metoo garbage”. They quote FACE’s director Alia Salem as claiming that “it does not matter if it was 100% consensual, they made this decision of cognizant, sound mind, that does not remove the power dynamic at play”, which I accept is a dubious claim; the women involved are nearly always grown women and can refuse. The reason it’s problematic for imams to marry on the sly is that there are multiple hadith that attest to the importance if not the necessity of a marriage being public. One of them is from Tirmidhi, in which the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) says that “the difference between an unlawful and lawful marriage is the beating of drums and the raising of voices” (1088). In another well-authenticated hadith in Ibn Hibban, the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said “announce the marriage”. Some scholars deduced from this that a marriage with two witnesses was not valid until it was made public, though others said it was not invalid but still disapproved of.

Muslim Skeptic also claims:

As we see in this report, FACE considers it “abusive,” for example, when a powerful imam marries a community member who is younger than him. This is “abuse” only according to feminism and feminist legal standards. It is not “abuse” in Islam. But FACE is not concerned with Islamic standards. They are only concerned with feminist #metoo standards.

True, it’s not haraam and it’s not abuse for an imam to marry a younger woman. It’s been the norm throughout history. But normal men marry with the intention of growing old with their wives, not exchanging them for more young flesh as soon as they can; they work on a marriage and make it last. Some of these imams and touring public speakers have more marriages in their twenties than most people have in a lifetime; this demonstrates that they do not take marriage seriously or, worse, are doing so merely to fulfil sexual desires and make it look respectable. If an imam is continually marrying young women and then divorcing them a couple of years later, or if they go behind a young woman’s parents’ back to entice her into marriage without their blessing with the intention of exploiting her or getting her into debt or of concealing his past from her which they might be able to find out, this is abusive behaviour and it’s also deceitful. It’s not feminism or “me too” that requires the involvement of a young woman’s parents; it’s the Shari’ah.

It is clear from this article that the “Muslim Skeptic Team” (led by Daniel ‘Haqiqatjou’) do not realise that the rulings on unproven accusations of fornication or adultery (zina) in Islam is not the same as that on rape. When a woman approached the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) alleging she had been raped, he did not require her to produce four witnesses nor punish her for failing to do so. The reason is that zina is a matter of private morality and thus the proving of it has been made so difficult that, in practice, a couple would have to commit the act in public to be convicted. Rape and sexual abuse are matters of public safety and exposing it comes under the category of warning the community of evil. Sexual abuse often takes place in private spaces or at least secluded ones; if there are four witnesses, they are usually the perpetrators.

We shouldn’t be debating whether the devious marriage practices of some Muslim public speakers are haraam or not. An imam should not be indulging in behaviour that we might grudgingly accept is just about technically this side of the law if an ordinary Muslim did them. Their behaviour is meant to be excellent, exemplary. They are the face of Islam, especially to Muslims; they should be behaving according to the Sunnah, not the bare minimum within the Shari’ah. A man who cannot make a marriage last should not be accepted as a teacher or qari or anything else that makes him a representative of Islam and gives weight to any opinions he might express, or make people reluctant to criticise him or others harsh or emotional when people do; if he is, mosques and other Muslim organising bodies should stop giving him bookings. We need to have higher standards for those we look up to; they should be people we would be happy to have at the family dinner table on a regular basis, not celebrities we might admire from a distance for a natural talent, as having a beautiful voice is no substitute for a beautiful character.

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On imposing medical treatment without consent

3 September, 2021 - 23:11
A young girl with light brown skin receiving an oral polio vaccine (a red liquid being poured into her mouth through a small vial). Two men hold her hand and support her head while a third holds her mouth open with one hand and administers the vaccine with the other.A girl receiving an oral polio vaccine in Egypt (source)

The other day the Muslim scholar and blogger Musa Furber published a brief article on his blog answering claims from some Muslims that Muslim authorities do not have the right to impose medical treatment on anyone (in this case, presumably, referring to Covid vaccines) without their consent. He quoted the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Jeddah as saying that the authorities can impose medical treatment in some circumstances, such as for the prevention of infectious diseases, as well as in emergency treatment where the patient’s life is at risk (this is, as far as I know, standard practice everywhere). He then quotes a well-known scholar called Wahbe al-Zuhayli as saying, in his book Al-Fiqh al-Islami wal-Adillatuhu (Islamic legal rulings and their evidences):

It is obligatory for persons when leaving it would lead to loss of his life, one of his limbs, or disability, or if the disease’s harm spreads to others, such as with infectious diseases.

The question has to be asked why someone would choose not to accept medical treatment when the alternative is incurring a permanent disability such as the loss of a limb or one’s sight. If the matter were simple, that the medication is proven to work and would avert that possibility and the side effects were tolerable, anyone of sound mind would accept it gladly. If people do not, it is not because they want to be blind or to lose a limb but because they have weighed up the pros and cons and want to avoid other serious adverse consequences. This may include, in the case of a pregnant woman, the loss of or harm to her baby. In other cases, the treatment may have an extremely onerous or painful recovery period and success might not be guaranteed; the patient might also have tried several times to cure the condition that threatens the impairment, but they have failed, and continual hospital treatment puts a greater restriction on their life than the impairment would. Children are particularly prone to having these sorts of onerous and dangerous, even traumatic, long-drawn-out treatments inflicted on them, sometimes for dubious benefit, because their consent is not required and parents are apt to think of their future rather than their present and may justify short-term suffering on the grounds of long-term benefit; the same is true for people with learning disabilities, and quacks offering cures to the desperate for conditions such as autism abound. Where what is being refused is life-saving treatment, the likely reason is that it is far from guaranteed to succeed or might only lengthen their life by a few months, leaving little time to actually have any enjoyment. Again, people do not refuse proven treatments even with severe short-term side effects.

While the role of vaccines in preventing or eliminating a number of major infectious diseases cannot be denied, a minority have suffered complications and some of these have been serious. When I was a child, there was a fear of complications from the whooping cough vaccine which led to many parents (including mine) refusing it for their children. Vaccine damage can lead to lifelong severe disability, which may result in the parents having to care for their child for their whole life or to them falling into institutional care; the complications may well mean a miserable life for the affected person (Lynn Gilderdale springs to mind). If the state is to be given the power to enforce vaccination, will they also pay for the upkeep of those who suffer damage, and in a dignified manner (which many institutions have not provided)?

In most countries, as far as I am aware, vaccines are encouraged rather than forced, although vaccination may be required for admission to school or for work in public-facing or health and care roles. Diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria and polio have been successfully eliminated without forcing adults to receive or to subject their child to receive vaccination: the prospect of a life free of disease and the fear of disease, of no more iron lungs or empty school desks, is enough to motivate most people to get vaccinated (and to contribute to research funding, as with the March of Dimes which helped fund the original polio vaccine). Even though today’s Covid vaccines are only of partial efficacy, most people accepted them when offered and shared the news with family and friends. It is true, however, that the fear of particular diseases has waned in the years since they were eliminated, or largely eliminated, by mass vaccinations, and people remember some of them as mild when they could be extremely serious or fatal. The only possible situation where the use of force might be necessary is where there are large-scale refusals influenced by misinformation, but even here, the community has been won over by education rather than force. Quite often, the community becomes mistrustful because of actual misconduct, as seen in Pakistan where an inadequate partial vaccine against hepatitis was given as part of an intelligence operation to find Osama bin Laden.

This points towards an old-fashioned attitude towards consent, one in which doctors are presumed to know everything and patients should not dare voice an opinion about their own condition. Doctors should not be empowered to impose treatments on anyone “for their own good” when their refusal might well be the result of an informed decision.

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What was it all for?

22 August, 2021 - 21:28
A mosque with a turquoise dome with terraces surrounding it painted pastel blue, with miniature and full-size minarets. What look like pine trees of some sort can be seen in the foreground, partly obscuring the mosque.Mosque containing the shrine of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the first king of Afghanistan, in Kandahar

Last weekend, the Taliban completed its takeover of Afghanistan (well, it took the capital; it’s possible that pockets of resistance remain) after the Americans and British withdrew their troops which had been propping up the former government of Ashraf Ghani. It had been threatened that the takeover could take as little as 90 days; it has taken only a few days, prompting outrage and accusations that the western powers have betrayed the Afghan people (particularly those such as the interpreters who served the British army during the occupation) by pulling out; indignation has also come from soldiers who lost limbs or friends during the war. There have been numerous lurid reports of atrocities by the Taliban, who it has claimed have forced families to hand over daughters for marriage to Taliban fighters, as well as the automatic assumption that whatever they did in the mid-90s, they will do again now.

To answer the question of what it was for: it was to flush out al-Qa’ida who had killed thousands in a number of major terrorist attacks such as the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam US embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks. That job was done; al-Qa’ida have been dissipated and many of their fighters have been killed or captured. Many have renounced their ideology and others have moved onto ISIS and some of those were also killed or captured. The Taliban were not considered a threat until the 9/11 attacks; their oppression against women was never thought to be a good reason to send troops in to oust them. People are confusing the reason the invasion took place with the justifications, or at least the ones they bought into. We don’t invade other people’s countries to free women from oppression. It’s only in theory that we send troops in to arrest actual genocides (see Bosnia and Rwanda). We cannot keep our troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity to prop up a government which has not paid its army in several months and whose army, as a result, will not fight for it. The job they were there to do has been done and we have problems of our own: a pandemic and a climate emergency among other things.

I don’t doubt that some of the reports about the Taliban’s behaviour are exaggerated or fabricated and that people will believe a lot of nonsense because it fits with their prejudices about “how Muslims behave” when they take power, or because it matches with what they know about ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban are not ISIS; they are actually at war with the ISIS elements in Afghanistan. ISIS are an offshoot of al-Qa’ida (though that group’s remnants have more recently portrayed themselves as the moderates) and its roots trace back to American-run prisons in Iraq during their occupation. The original Taliban, as their name implies, were students in Deobandi religious schools in Pakistan in the 1990s. Their interpretation of Islam was informed by rural Pashtun customs and was an extremely harsh one, but they are not the unbridled ignoramuses that filled the ranks of ISIS, which included people who had learned their religion from a book called “Islam for Dummies”. The Deobandis are a large movement with mosques and religious schools throughout the Indian subcontinent and all its diaspora, notably including the UK and South Africa. There are differences of opinion among them; what distinguishes them is their position on certain matters of doctrine.

I see many Muslims making excuses for their oppressions, including the denial of education to girls. When first in power, they were widely perceived as having restored security after years of instability the war had brought, particularly after the mujahideen factions that overthrew the former Soviet-backed regime turned to fighting amongst themselves for control. Yet their supporters justified the restrictions on women’s liberty (not only education but work and healthcare also) by claiming that this was because of lack of security, and that once that security had been achieved, the Taliban would open the best Islamic schools and colleges in the world. Yet that security never materialised. The truth is that the use of ‘security’ to deny people liberty is a trick of tyrants the world over: look at how the Assad regime has maintained a “state of emergency” for years by using the excuse that the country was “at war” with and “occupied by” Israel, which does indeed occupy most of the Golan Heights, but this is no excuse for maintaining emergency legislation far from there. Similarly, the continuance of civil war in Badakhshan, in the north-east of the country, cannot justify shutting women in their homes hundreds of miles away in Kandahar.

Now, I hear the justification for closing schools is that people are starving. This may be the case, but it still sounds more like an excuse than a reason. In many parts of the world, children get a meal a day at school. In Pakistan and elsewhere, Islamic charities run schools and every school provides a midday meal unless the child has been sent in with food to eat (though if the school is a boarding school, this will not be the case). Hunger is not an excuse to not educate. Islam is a religion that encourages education and learning; the first word in the Qur’an to be revealed was ‘read’ as is well known. In the classical era, Islamic scholars were the envy of the world and women learned and taught, and major scholars married women who taught in mosques. They wore veils, of course, but they were teaching in public. A scholar was not ashamed if his wife was teaching hadith or something in the local madrassa or mosque. All this is unthinkable in Deobandi mosques today; colleges for women and girls are few and far between and those for boys have no women teaching religious subjects. I saw a thread on Twitter last week claiming that a book by a well-known Deobandi scholar advocated that girls only receive basic religious education and not even be taught to read and write if they appeared too independent, along with some ‘scientific’ justification about the nature of the female mind. This nonsense could more likely have come from a secular western philosopher of the preceding two centuries, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau with his “Emil and Sophie” proposals for education of boys and girls, than from any classical Muslim scholar. Islam is not a religion that fosters illiteracy or ignorance; quite the opposite.

The Taliban are back in power and if they defeat the revived Northern Alliance in the Panjshir valley (which I hope they do, as the last time that alliance gained power, they reduced much of Kabul to rubble in infighting), they will be for the foreseeable future. We will see if their promises bear fruit in the coming months. But as for Muslims elsewhere, let’s not see a return to justifying obvious oppressions and parroting excuses from a propaganda sheet while dismissing adverse reports from reliable journalists. Most of the same people would not like the same kind of rule the Taliban inflicted on Afghanistan last time in their home town, be it Keighley or Karachi, so we should not cheer it on in Kabul or Kandahar either.

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Plymouth murders, armed losers and terrorism

15 August, 2021 - 21:47
Picture of a densely-populated residential area with very few trees dominated by the rooftops of lots of small houses. A small park is visible on the left and the sea is visible at the very back.Keyham, Plymouth, where the killing spree took place

Last Thursday a man named Jake Davison murdered his mother and then four others in Plymouth before turning the gun on himself. It has been revealed that Davison had made YouTube videos in which he used similar rhetoric to other recent spree killers in the US and Canada: misogynists known as ‘incels’ who blame everyone but themselves for their failure to get on in life and get the sex they believe everyone else is having. Davison in particular expressed hatred for his mother who had raised him on her own; he accused her of pocketing the benefit money he received because of his autism, though he said he had recently regained control over it. It has also been revealed that he was a licensed firearms holder, though his licence had been withdrawn last year after he was accused of an assault but returned to him after he voluntarily attended an anger management course. As is usual with such cases in the UK, questions are now being asked as to how someone like this could have obtained a firearms licence at all.

As for how he could have got a licence, the simple answer is that background checks for people seeking such licences involve checks on their criminal record, which Davison did not have (although it was revealed in some of the papers today that he had committed assaults on people in his neighbourhood but not been charged), as well as diagnosed mental illness. It does not check on someone’s opinions or other aspects of real or perceived ill character. People are allowed to own shotguns for sport and other kinds of firearms for such activities as shooting wildlife, subject to approval from the local chief of police following a background check. Perhaps requests for licences should be subject to publicity, as is the case with applications for an HGV operator’s licence (this is for companies seeking to use trucks, not truck drivers) so that the public can object and people with obvious axes to grind can be screened out. As for whether guns should be kept at home or not, some types of firearms used for sport have to be kept at shooting clubs, but whether all guns should have to be kept on club or company premises is debatable as they would become attractive to robbers intending to use them for criminal purposes.

As with any incident of this kind, it was initially announced that the attack was “not terror related” and this provoked howls of indignation, especially when his attachment to the “incel ideology” became apparent; to some, the fact that the perpetrator was white was what disqualified it from being classed as terrorism. Terrorism used to refer to campaigns of violence that targeted civilians where there was a declared cause such as regime change or the liberation of a country, and the violence was intended to intimidate a democratic country into changing its policies; these days it increasingly means any politically motivated violence. While there have been others like Davison and may well be more, this does not make them part of a campaign; typically, incel spree killers are resentful losers with lonely lives and a lot of personal problems seeking to go out in a blaze of glory and take a few others with them. I’m against expanding the definition of terrorism beyond what it is understood to mean; there is a danger that it could end up encompassing things which do not even target civilians, such as sabotage of military hardware intended for the targeting of civilians by the state, or which cause disruption rather than destruction, let alone death.

The “Secret Barrister” claimed in a tweet that attacks like Davison’s are “designed to intimidate a section of the public (women) and for the purpose of advancing an ideological cause (incelism) - that’s terrorism”. However, all the major incel attacks have been targeted at men as well as women, killing in almost equal numbers (while the 1986 Montreal Polytechnic massacre, which claimed the lives of 19 women and no men, has much in common, it predates the existence of this particular community). Their online rants and manifestos have expressed hatred towards not only women but anyone they see as depriving them of the sexual satisfaction and companionship that they lack. While they do talk of women in very demeaning and derogatory ways, their resentment is directed at everyone and everyone is at some risk. I would dispute whether it seems intended to intimidate women or indeed anyone; intimidation requires that the perpetrators, or people closely connected with them, are still out there and have the capacity to attack. That isn’t the case here; the next attack could be in any country and will take place whenever the perpetrator feels like it, not when his superiors order it.

Finally, I hear people blaming Davison’s background for the killing spree, including the fact that he was raised by a single mother. We really don’t know why Davison’s father was not around; perhaps he had died, or perhaps his mother had left him because he was abusive. Let’s be clear that it’s Davison’s choice to get involved in the online misogynist community that led to this, as well as their encouragement to him to wallow in self-pity and resentment rather than to sort his life out. He was 22 years old, much too young for anyone to think that they are beyond ever getting a partner or a meaningful job. He would have had his whole life ahead of him and so would his victims if he had found supportive friends instead of a community of resentful and bitter people who turned him against his mother (as it was reported that he had previously been devoted to her) and, I strongly suspect, trolls who would egg them on. Single parenthood is a fact of life and always has been, and most people raised by one parent for lack of the other grow up to be rounded adults, especially if they have wider family and community support, the proverbial ‘village’. Neither this nor autism, nor the women of Plymouth as one quack widely quoted on Twitter suggested, are to blame; Davison and the sewer of misogynists and trolls he existed in are.

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It’s not just Brexit

1 August, 2021 - 18:17
A section of a Sainsbury's store where the shelves of milk substitutes are either sparsely-stocked or empty.Half-stocked shelves at a Sainsbury’s in Bedfordshire

Anyone who shops in any British supermarket (which is to say, pretty much anyone who lives in the UK) will have noticed that there are shortages of some goods, with some whole areas of shelving bare. So far, this hasn’t been anything essential, but the it’s often inconvenient and requires time-consuming visits to multiple stores to get what could previously been bought from one. While some have sought to blame driver absenteeism stemming from the so-called pingdemic, i.e. the recent upsurge in Covid cases resulting from the spread of the Indian or Delta variant, it’s also been pointed out that supermarkets on the Continent aren’t empty. While the Brexit deal still allows goods to come in from the EU without any tariffs, the new arrangements do impose additional bureaucracy which are a deterrent to hauliers to sending drivers here (and to drivers to agreeing to come here). However, Brexit has revealed other problems in the industry which have arisen right now partly because of the pandemic.

During the period following the 2004 accession of much of the former Eastern Bloc to the EU, at which point the UK and Ireland (unlike the rest of the former EU) allowed nationals of those countries to freely settle and work, Britain’s logistics industry made itself substantially dependent on this foreign labour. In my experience, it relieved British hauliers of having to invest in and take a risk on British talent. Many companies took out insurance policies which required them not to hire drivers who had held their licence for under two years; this meant that newly qualified truck drivers found it very difficult to get any work. In addition, very few companies sponsored drivers through their training (which bus companies did, and indeed prominently advertised this). They were able to do this because there was no shortage of drivers thanks to the “reserve army” (as one pro-Brexit blogger calls it) of drivers from eastern Europe. Wages stagnated; in most of the country there were and still are companies offering barely above minimum wage for both rigid and articulated truck driving. In addition, continental hauliers could pick up and drop loads while in the UK under EU cabotage rules; they could carry three such loads before having to leave (usually with a load, of course) but could come back as soon as that load was delivered. (Since Brexit, that limit has been reduced to one load.)

So, after Britain left the EU (with a deal that was cut specifically to allow us to prevent future EU worker immigration) and after drivers were held on motorways for days after the Kent variant of Covid ran rampant around the UK last December, a good many foreign drivers decided it was no longer worth working here and left. The rules that other countries applied after the 2004 accession that we could have applied but did not have now lapsed; drivers from Poland can work anywhere they like in Europe except the UK. Facilities for drivers on much of the Continent are a great deal better than here; there are more truck stops with better and cheaper food. Here, drivers are often expected to spend their nights in lay-bys where there are no facilities at all, not even toilets, and where they are at risk of fuel and load theft; actual truck stops are rare (and often closed at weekends), while service stations are expensive, with food subject to a mark-up as the vendors pass on the substantial rents to customers and almost no station offering independent vendors or speciality food.

A further factor pushing drivers out of the industry and deterring drivers who have left in the past 20 years from returning is the treatment drivers are expected to tolerate. Many large fleets consist of overly monitored trucks; speeds are restricted to below the actual limit and drivers can expect phone calls from the compliance depots demanding to know why they’ve stopped (many do not allow drivers to stop mid-route, and demand that they phone in if they do), or to second-guess their routing decision or to criticise their fuel economy score. An increasing number of depots have demeaning rules which are based on the assumption that drivers are thieves, morons or both. Many now require drivers to hand over keys when parked in the depot (not even just when being loaded) and sit in an enclosed room (sometimes effectively or actually a cage). Many companies refuse to allow drivers access to a toilet, regardless of how long a journey they have travelled; sometimes Covid is cited as an excuse. Some depots (particularly in the retail industry) require drivers to wait several hours before they will offload or reload, sometimes requiring trips to more than one loading bay. Recently some hauliers decided to boycott some major retailers, including Lidl, in response to their drivers being inconvenienced in this way, but many still allow their customers to treat their drivers with contempt even if drivers will walk out.

Pro-EU campaigners are calling for European truck drivers to be allowed back into the country to work. If they will come (and not all of those who left will return), it might solve a temporary crisis but will not solve the deeper problems that led to this crisis. (Waiving the much-derided Certificate of Professional Competence might also help get some former drivers back, even if temporarily.) British hauliers must not again be allowed to rely on low-wage labour from eastern Europe to get around having to pay decent wages or dealing with ‘demanding’ British drivers who want to maintain a normal standard of living rather than live in a multi-occupancy house and send money home. We must have a vast improvement in facilities on the road and an end to drivers being treated like dirt by both haulage bosses and depot management and staff. We rely on truck drivers to deliver everything we eat and everything we use and if they are not treated with respect, they will find other work and will tolerate the bottled water shortage if it means a less stressful and maybe even better-paid job with more consistent hours.

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A pile of mud won’t save Oxford Street

26 July, 2021 - 22:09
A picture of a small artificial hill with thin vegetation and small trees with a metal staircase running up it. Part of Marble Arch can be seen to its right and a road, cars and a blue traffic barrier are in the foreground.Marble Arch Mound, London

The other day a Twitter friend posted a picture of a large mound which had been erected (temporarily) on the island next to Marble Arch in London and said she hoped this was a joke. Sadly, it’s for real: the structure, which resembles a spoil tip poised to engulf the actual arch and the rest of the roundabout, has viewing platforms at the top, opens today (26th July) and will be there until next January; visits have to be booked and tickets start at £4.50 for something that is on public land (if you’re in London, there are other hills you can visit for free, which may be nearer to you and offer better views than this). The local council seems to envisage it as a way to attract visitors back to Oxford Street; according to Westminster city council’s deputy leader, people “are not just coming to Oxford Street for the shops anymore; people are interested in experiences and destinations”.

The Guardian article does mention that Marble Arch’s location, in the middle of a major roundabout (the arch itself was originally outside Buckingham Palace, then relocated to an entrance to Hyde Park before the construction of the roundabout left it isolated), is a problem, but as a way of attracting people to Oxford Street, another aspect of its location lets it down. Marble Arch has a Tube station, but only on the east-west Central Line and that only serves one major rail terminal, Liverpool Street, which is at the far end of London. All the lines that serve major rail terminals arrive from the north or south at Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus or Bond Street. So, it’s out of the way for most people unless they’re heading between Oxford Street and Edgware Road or Hyde Park. It has bus links to Victoria and Paddington, but these are likely to be slower than the Tube. It does offer views over Hyde Park, but why would you pay to see that when you can take a walk in the park for nothing?

But in any case, this pile of mud doesn’t change the fact that Oxford Street is one of the most unpleasant places to shop in the country. It is choked with traffic, even though the traffic is mostly restricted to buses and taxis (though parts of it are open to other traffic as access to other roads). Regent Street, another street with a lot of prestigious shops along it, is also choked with traffic. Regent Street at least has the famous shops such as the Hamley’s toy shop; Oxford Street is full of the same chain stores you can find on any high street or suburban shopping mall where it is a lot safer to shop because of lack of traffic, but even they have been dying because of competition from online stores, sometimes the chains’ own. It is only people who do not know better who will travel miles to shop at chain stores on the only unpedestrianised high street in the country. The only way to save Oxford Street is to pedestrianise it and shift the buses and taxis to other nearby roads such as Wigmore Street and Brook/Grosvenor Street.

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False neutrality

17 July, 2021 - 23:52
A picture of two beige skyscrapers with tall rectangular windows at random intervals. A series of different European flags can be found to the left in front of a two-storey red-brick building.European Court of Justice headquarters, Luxembourg

Last week the European Court of Justice ruled that employers have the right not to allow employees to wear ‘religious’ clothing (in this case, as is usual, the hijab or headscarf worn by Muslim women) if it is “justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes” if the employer has a “genuine need” to do so. The judgement is littered with language which talks of large and conspicuous ‘signs’ of a particular religion which could “cause conflict” and peddles the standard argument that the rule “appears to have been applied in a general and undifferentiated way” because another employee was required to remove a cross; in other words, if a rule applies to everyone, even though in practice it only affects some, it is not discrimination. It also claims that such ‘needs’ may include the “rights and legitimate wishes of customers” and of “parents’ wish to have their children supervised by persons who do not manifest their religion or belief when they are in contact with the children”. (More: Juveriah Alam @ CAGE).

An obvious flaw in this judgement is how fixated on the white view of hijab it is. Muslims are treated as newcomers, not as a large community which has been present in almost any European country for several generations. The doctrine that hijab represents a sign of a particular religion is repeated, although Muslims repeatedly tell them that it is an obligation and not some sort of identity badge. (It only serves as one today because head coverings have been abandoned by most other religious communities; in the past, it would not have distinguished a Muslim woman as being a Muslim, only as a respectable woman.) Islam does not really use symbols at all; there is no pictorial symbol of Islam, despite the ubiquity of the crescent and star on Muslim countries’ flags and so on; the original flag of Islam, now appropriated by Saudi Arabia, used the written Arabic shahada (this also appears on the flag of Somaliland).

In accepting the rights of customers not to be served by someone wearing an item of clothing associated with a particular religion, they are simply endorsing the right of a bigot to have their bigotry catered to. The correct solution to this is for all businesses not to discriminate, such that someone can either lump it or leave it; discrimination is what is costly, rather than refusal, and all businesses are required by law not to. As for the ‘rights’ of the parents: while we accept that teachers or carers should not use their position to actually preach, parents have no right for their child not to see anyone who follows a different religion to them which requires certain standards of dress. They cannot bring up their child with the illusion that the whole world is like their family; this is to bring them up in ignorance in a country with several million of a different religion. The logical conclusion of this ‘right’ is that the same parents have the right for their child not to be taught or looked after by Black or disabled teachers or care workers. (In the UK, certain people, including some newspaper columnists, complained when an amputee presenter appeared on the BBC children’s TV channel; the BBC kept her and the complaints died down. This is how you deal with bigotry; you do not appease it, you face it down.)

It also reveals the common white bias that allows the absence of hijab to be presented as ‘neutrality’. This does not consider the perspective of either the Muslim staff who are discriminated against or those in wider society who do not see people like them in key public facing roles or in education or the media. If a large section of the population are conspicuous by their absence, this is not neutrality but a policy of discrimination in favour of the majority, of the ‘norms’ of three generations ago when the country is presumed to have been monocultural and white, by underhand means. It also means that these people cannot have the confidence that they will be treated fairly or with respect by those serving them or those who have power over them, because those serving them will not have colleagues who are like them (there might be workers in lowly occupations such as cleaners who wear hijab, as is known to be the case in France, but this only reinforces the notion that they are inferior).

In a successful multicultural society, it is recognised that “just treating everyone the same” is not a recipe for equality; in fact, it’s a sure sign that someone does not understand the principles of equality. In much of Europe, a continent which has never really been able to accept different cultures (hence the recurrent persecutions and occasional genocides), this is a tactic used to implement discrimination while sidestepping laws that were designed to prevent it. Europe’s judges have not only failed to protect women from obvious discrimination based on their religion and sex (as Muslim men are not affected by this issue at all, as Arab and Turkish men in Europe tend to wear western clothing and if they do not, their clothing is regarded as cultural rather than religious), but are failing to stop Europe slipping back into its old ways of intolerance and ghettoisation.

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Relaxing drivers’ hours is a bad idea

11 July, 2021 - 22:56
A picture of the front of a blue Mercedes-Benz Atego truck in a parking bay. Next to it is a red Cartwright drawbar trailer without its leading vehicle.

Last week the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced that the government were going to be temporarily relaxing the maximum daily driving hours for truck drivers in the UK by an hour. Normally the daily maximum is nine hours, which can be extended to ten hours twice a week; the announcement was that it would be increased to ten and eleven hours, respectively. This announcement drew condemnation from across the board, including unions that represent (some) truck drivers as well as industry bodies. Much of the commentary was about the risk to road safety of having more tired drivers on the road. While this was an understandable fear, some of the commentary was misinformed.

For example, some people seemed to be under the impression that people might be driving solidly for ten or eleven hours. In fact, drivers have to have a 45 minute break after a maximum of 4.5 hours of driving, and in practice we would normally take a stop before then. If someone drives for 10 (or, under the new rules, 11) hours in a day, they would need to have two 45 minute breaks. In my experience, the majority of journeys take considerably less than that, and drivers then have to help load or unload (in many premises, such as retail distribution centres, that is done by the staff while we wait, and we take that time for a break). Working time (this means the time from the start of the working day to the end, including breaks) is 13 hours maximum, extensible to 15 hours twice a week, and this has not changed. Even if someone can drive for an hour longer, they cannot work any longer.

The main pretext for extending the hours was to compensate for a driver shortage. This shortage was caused by shutting off our access to European drivers last year when we left the EU, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and quarantine laws across Europe which serve as an additional deterrent to European drivers to come here. The government’s ham-fisted approach to allowing European citizens to remain settled here has probably driven a lot of foreign drivers out, given that there are 27 other countries they can move to including Germany, the Netherlands and France as well as their home countries in eastern Europe. Many British drivers are put off by poor conditions; cabs are often dirty, catering is lacking at depots, toilets are the luck of the draw as to whether they will be clean, in good condition etc., and pay is often poor even in parts of the country where the cost of living is high. A lot of work is through agencies and there is no job security; if you are never in a job for more than a week or two at a time, if that, you can be sacked for any reason or none. (If you approach a company for permanent work after having been working for agencies, you know when they say “I don’t know what the agency have been paying you, but …” that their hourly rate will be miserly, and if people are earning anything substantial, the reason will be long hours.)

The magazine Truck & Driver, through their Twitter account, raised the issue of the nature of fleet trucks that often reflect the management’s contempt for the drivers and how they are also a disincentive to people to stay in the industry: “locking out all gear shifting, permanent (sluggish) economy modes, overzealous use of telematic monitoring, low top speeds”, resulting in “unhappy drivers, low morale”. Drivers replied that they had had calls from the office because they were not keeping the revs in the green band (i.e. the ‘normal’ band), or that their economy scores were not high enough (in my experience, it takes a long time to get a low score up). I added that companies were already artificially extending the working day by restricting top speeds to 50 or 52mph when by law they only have to be restricted to 56mph (90km/h as per EU law, although the British national speed limit for trucks is 60mph). We suggested that they should remove these settings rather than ask drivers to drive an extra hour.

We shouldn’t forget that truck drivers already work hours that are not only long but unnatural: a 7am start is regarded as easy, and many shifts start much earlier. If someone is doing a 12-hour shift, they will probably have not had as much sleep as someone who, say, works in an office. A break between shifts need not be longer than 11 hours and, twice a week, a 9-hour break is permitted, which does not leave much time for sleep in between commuting, cooking, eating and washing. A driver can refuse a shift, of course, but an employer can choose to dismiss him (or an agency refuse to hire him again) for refusing a perfectly legal shift. Even with current hours limits, drivers will already be tired by the end of their shifts or even earlier. For this reason alone, we should not even consider lengthening driving hours that are already quite long enough against the backdrop of working hours that are often overlong.

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The wrong time to end the mask mandate

6 July, 2021 - 23:07
 I'm all set for Strictly [Come Dancing]".The Sun’s front page, 6th July 2021

Yesterday, the government announced that most if not all the current rules and restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Coronavirus, including the requirement to wear masks in enclosed public spaces and to keep at least a metre’s distance from others and the “rule of six” that governs indoor social gatherings (i.e. a maximum of six people), will end as of the 19th along with the requirement to register with the NHS’s test and trace system when visiting most enclosed spaces such as restaurants and the recommendation that people be allowed or required to work from home unless it is absolutely necessary to go into an office. It seems the government have given into pressure from Tories who were demanding that the economy be opened up and ignored the scientists who told them that infection rates are rising because of the Indian or ‘delta’ variant and large numbers of young and middle-aged people were still unvaccinated or had received only one dose. The wearing of masks will not be banned, of course, and some retailers will still ask their customers to wear them (though whether they can force them to when it is not required by law is another matter), but it is to become a matter of personal choice or judgement rather than a legal requirement. Some people are calling this “freedom day”, as if we’ve really been confined to our houses since January, while others fear that this will mean they have much less freedom than they do now.

Most of my friends who are disabled or chronically ill are terrified of what the removal of the mask mandate and social distancing means for them. Many of them have impaired immune systems or respiratory deficiencies and, even if vaccinated, being infected with Coronavirus would mean a far greater risk to their health than to a healthy, non-disabled adult. I have seen many people say that they have enjoyed the freedom of being able to go out, to use public transport, to shop and enjoy other public facilities with minimal fear of infection because most people wear masks and generally keep their distance, and some are saying they will go out much less if most people no longer do. Some people have no choice, of course; they have to work with the public and are also currently protected by masking and social distancing, which as things stand will be withdrawn on the 19th. The requirement to wear masks and to keep one’s distance from others reduces their risk of becoming infected when inside a shop or travelling on the bus considerably; masks mostly work by catching the droplets leaving the nose and mouth that are the major carriers for the virus, and offer much less protection for the wearer (though stronger masks, such as FFP3, offer more protection).

Removing the mask requirement at a time when infections are increasing is simply illogical. We may recall that it was introduced roughly a year ago during a lull in infections, after the first wave had died down and before the “Kent variant” (or alpha variant) started to spread in September, let alone before it produced the second wave in December and January which triggered the third lockdown. The situation today is just not the same as this time last year; it was thought safe enough to actively encourage people to eat out in restaurants, which nobody is suggesting right now. It had become obvious that supermarkets were a major source of infection as people could not avoid going into them, often could not get a home delivery slot as they were booked up for months and could not avoid bumping into people or at least coming into close proximity, and requiring masks made this transmission a lot less efficient.

A further reason to maintain the mask mandate is to ensure people who continue to wear masks for their own or others’ safety are not subject to harassment, much as it’s been reported that people who wear them in areas of the USA where it is not mandatory have been. Yesterday the Telegraph cartoonist Bob Moran tweeted that after the mandate was lifted, he would regard anyone still wearing one like someone wearing a T-shirt saying “I think child abuse is fine”, then justified it by claiming that children were society’s most vulnerable and Covid restrictions were harming them. This justification is, of course, wrong; although children are indeed the most vulnerable to some types of abuse, the most vulnerable to Covid infection and the most likely to get seriously ill or die, now that most elderly people are vaccinated, are the immunocompromised (such as transplant recipients) or those with weak lungs and other categories of chronically ill or disabled people, and those for whom the vaccination is counterindicated (i.e. ruled out for medical reasons). Covid restrictions and masking protects them. Healthy children are less likely to get ill, although some in fact do and some develop rare complications and others develop long Covid, but the rules are designed mostly to protect vulnerable adults. Moran later tweeted:

Every one of these claims is nonsense. Babies see their parents’ faces while at home, and even while in the street, as the mask mandate does not apply in the street (unlike in much of Europe). It also does not apply when someone is talking to a deaf person, adult or child. We do not “treat children like walking biohazards” any more than we do each other; when a virus is on the loose that can easily be transmitted from person to person, we all have to restrict our contacts with others and keep our distance when doing so. Masks actually do not restrict most people’s breathing, and those it does that to are exempt; children are also exempt. The virus itself is what caused harm to children; lockdown (the ‘LD’ he refers to) was necessary to slow the spread of the virus, and to stop hospitals becoming completely overwhelmed as had happened in Italy early last year. Sometimes, protecting everyone results in emotional harm to some, including children. It’s unavoidable.

And yes, right now, most of our elderly have been vaccinated. But most young people have not been, and many people in their 40s have had only one dose (as I have). There are still those who cannot be vaccinated for various medical reasons. The vaccines are not 100% effective and there is evidence that they are even less effective against the delta variant; another variant of concern currently is the lambda variant, originating in Peru, which has been recorded in the UK. The numbers of deaths are nowhere near the level they were in January, but today 37 new deaths and 118 new admissions to hospital were reported (the rolling averages for the past week or so have been between 16 and 18 daily) as well as nearly 29,000 new cases. Just because deaths are not in the thousands (yet) does not mean we should have to just live with it and not take reasonable measures to minimise the death toll. Continuing to wear masks in indoor public spaces is a reasonable measure. We do not need a lockdown, right now, but we do not need to end a practice that keeps transmission low in high-risk locations such as supermarkets.

And this brings us onto my last point: some people have been conflating taking reasonable measures to stop the spread of the virus such as masks, and reducing risk to zero with unreasonable measures; the difference between seatbelts and speed limits on one hand, and banning driving on the other. The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, was quoted as saying “I don’t think any avoidable deaths are acceptable”, which some leapt on as advocating the latter approach. An avoidable death is a term that means a death that could have been reasonably prevented: for example, when a person in a hospital who has epilepsy insists on having a bath, he should be supervised to make sure he does not have a seizure and drown. If he is not, or the people who were supposed to be supervising him decide to slip away and order a pizza or do the weekly Tesco shop, and he drowns, this is a classic avoidable death. (This really happened.) There are unreasonable measures inflicted on patients in some hospitals to prevent self-harm or other injury, which might be the equivalent of imposing a Spanish- or Italian-style lockdown in Britain now.

In the first wave of the lockdown, official statistics showed that nearly 60% of people who died with Covid-19 were disabled. In any forthcoming wave, that percentage, even if not the absolute number, is likely to be higher because most elderly people have had both their vaccines and younger people are still exposed. Many disabled people feel that the government, media and society do not regard their lives as being as of as much importance as the economy and the right not to wear a mask for the short time they do their supermarket shop. Removing a small number of mild restrictions at a time when infections are rising exponentially is not only stupid but shows contempt for the lives of disabled people and for all their family members. Think it’s child abuse to expect a child to wear a mask? Causing the death of their mother because you don’t think people should tolerate mild inconvenience to save others’ lives causes a much greater deal of emotional harm than that.

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Conservatorship is a disability issue

3 July, 2021 - 13:44
Picture of Bill Cosby and Britney Spears, with the words underneath "Bill Cosby is free and Britney Spears is not, because women's trauma is still ignored"A meme shared by Elle UK last week

A theme I keep coming across in discussions of the Britney Spears conservatorship case is the presumption that she is in this predicament because she is a woman. Yesterday I came across a meme that had been shared by Elle UK (the fashion magazine) which read “Bill Cosby is free and Britney Spears is not because women’s trauma is still ignored”. This reflects a typical trend across social media to conflate situations that are totally different, often in different countries or different US states which have different legal systems (Spears lives in California, while the Cosby case was in Pennsylvania), often on the basis of one superficial similarity. Cosby was freed (after serving two years in his 80s, which does not equate to “getting away with it”) not because judges believed he was innocent but because they believed the case against him was legally invalid, while Spears is actually not locked up. But that is not the point of this post.

Conservatorship or guardianship is a device typically used to control or manage the affairs of disabled and elderly people of both sexes. In some cases someone is wholly incapacitated and needs another adult to run their affairs or control their finances so as to provide the care they cannot provide themselves, to order food, clothing and toiletries and other essentials and pay for housing and people to care for them; otherwise, they would simply not eat. Others need a certain amount of help running their affairs but can make some decisions about their everyday lives; they do not need to be told what to eat or to wear, for example. Elderly people in the US have been targeted by law firms that seek to find them incapacitated so that they can control their money and dip into it when they need to use it, or to have them housed (incarcerated) in care homes they have an interest in. In other cases, people are subjected to guardianship because people refuse to admit that they are more capable than they think, or because they were at one point unable to run their own affairs because of a period of mental illness or a head injury, but have since recovered but the people who control their affairs will not let go. This may be the case for Britney Spears; the same happened to a man in the UK who suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident and won a £1.7m payout, but this was placed in a court-controlled account and his ‘deputy’ not only took a cut whenever the owner required any of his own money, but refused to release funds so that doctors could reassess his capacity. Clearly there is a conflict of interest here. Another complaint was that the payouts were not invested and were depreciating when they could have been increasing in value. (This case was last reported on in 2013; it is possible that the guardianship has been lifted since.)

Picture of Jenny Hatch and Kelly Morris, two white women with blonde hair; Hatch has Down's syndrome. Kelly has her arm round Jenny and is kissing the side of her face. They are standing in front of a wood panelled wall with two small pictures on it.Jenny Hatch and Kelly Morris

A more typical case of an abusive guardianship in the US was that of Jenny Hatch, in Virginia, whom I wrote about here back in 2013 when her case finally came to court (the back story can be found on an old blog by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg here). The arrangement had been forced on her by the courts at her parents’ application after she required medical treatment as the result of a cycling accident, and it resulted in her being held in a group home, prevented from seeing her friends and forced to undertake menial work for token wages. The courts ultimately struck this arrangement down and allowed her to go and live with the two friends (one of them, Kelly Morris, is pictured with Jenny here) she had been living with before and awarded them temporary guardianship, expecting that this arrangement would lead to her regaining control over most of her affairs. This was the result of a campaign by disability charities to allow supported decision making by people with some capacity. Some of the same charities have made the same point following the campaign to “free Britney”; it may well be that Spears does not need any form of guardianship at all, however. She had a period of mental illness many years ago, but that does not mean she is still ill or disabled now.

Some of the implications of Spears’s guardianship are the result of her being a woman; she has reported that she was fitted with an IUD without her consent and was refused its removal when she wanted it. But generally, abusive adult guardianship is something that affects elderly and disabled people and should not be misrepresented as a “women’s issue” just because it is something many women feel strongly about because one famous woman is affected. The majority of victims may be women, because women tend to live longer, but it is not typically imposed on people because of their sex but because of real or perceived disability.

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