A rosy celebration in a London square of good relations between Bulgaria and Britain

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The first  perfumed Damascene rose donated by the Bulgarians to London flowers in Golden Square

While London is shortly to have a nationalistic pro Brexit  demonstration following the “Free Tommy Robinson ”  violent right wing extremist march last weekend, a square in the heart of Soho  was a venue to  celebrate the  opposite to those stirring up hate and prejudice  – a celebration of how the Bulgarians contribute to London life.

Bulgaria Dancers Party

Bulgarian dancers

The Bulgarians took over Golden Square for an afternoon of dancing, singing and speeches from both the London mayor’s office and Tory councillors representing the area in Westminster plus an impromptu speech from me. My grandson Leon thought the dancing was similar in some ways to Irish dancing.

 

Bulgaria Group Food

A spread of Bulgarian food

There was also a a selection of Bulgarian food – which is influenced by both Turkish and Greek cuisine – and  was offered free to any members of the public who happened to be enjoying the sunshine in the square at the time.

Bulgaria Junior Dancer PartyAnd schoolchildren also performed dances

The contrast between the manufactured  fear of the other in the media  and the attitudes of the people there could not be stronger. And I suspect this is reflected in many other ethnic minority communities. Pictures were supplied by Boyko Boev.

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The Bulgarians and guests at the celebration

Official figures reveal a disturbing rise in right wing extremism among UK youth

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Scenes from the right wing demo in defence of extremist Tommy Robinson pic credit: You Tube

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The somewhat violent demonstration in London this weekend in support of jailed right wing extremist Tommy Robinson was foreshadowed by figures released under three months ago by the Home Office.

The figures come from the highly controversial Prevent programme which most people see as a plan to catch young people  being radicalised by so called Islamic State and Al Qaeda before they commit atrocities.

What is not  as well known is that the Prevent programme also tackles people radicalised by racist and Fascist organisations who aim to commit violent acts against Muslims, Sikhs and other ethnic minorities, including Africans and East Europeans.

Just over two months ago the Home Office published a report and analysis of the latest figures of who is being targeted.

These are people who if one follows the official guidance are those who  have “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

The disturbing fact is that the latest figures for 2016-17 reveal there has been a RISE in the number of young people radicalised by right wing extremism while there has been a FALL in the number of people radicalised by perversions of Islam.

The report says: “There was a 28% increase in the number of extreme right wing referrals in 2016/17 (968) when compared with 2015/16 (759); whilst referrals for concerns related to Islamist extremism decreased by 26% over the same time (2015/16, 4,997; 2016/17, 3,704).
The proportion of panel discussions [ most serious cases] regarding extreme right wing related concerns has increased by 44%, from 188 in 2015/16 to 271 in 2016/2017. Similarly, the number of individuals receiving Channel support for extreme right wing related concerns has also increased over the same time period by 27% (2015/16, 98; 2016/17, 124).
This is in contrast to individuals receiving support for concerns related to Islamist extremism,which has decreased by 30% between 2015/16 (264) and 2016/17 (184).”

The right wing extremists were almost exclusively male ( 902 out of 968) while only 77 per cent of those monitored for Islamic extremism only 77 per cent were men.

The largest proportion in both groups were teenagers aged between 15 and 20 with right wing extremists being almost exclusively male.

There was also a considerable variation between regions for the two groups.

“Of the 3,704 individuals referred for concerns related to Islamist extremism, the largest proportion was from London (1,039; 28%), whereas of the 968 individuals referred for concerns related to right wing extremism, the largest proportion was from the North East (171; 18%).

Of the 760 individuals discussed at a Channel panel for concerns related to Islamist extremism, the largest proportion was from London (214; 28%), whereas of the 271 individuals discussed at a Channel panel for concerns related to right wing extremism, the largest population was from the West Midlands (47; 17%).”

This suggests a considerable divide in the country – with  multi cultural London having fewer right wing extremists than the deprived North East and the West Midlands where there have been racial tensions.

The general message is that Britain is becoming more divided and that racism and Fascism among the young is rising, particularly in areas where there are fewer people from ethnic minorities.

This was born out by a chat with a person  at the Race on the Agenda conference on mental health reform  in London last week who was dealing with the Prevent programme in Dorset. Here it was in the rural areas where young poorly educated men who had seen few immigrants appeared to be attracted to right wing extremism. The issues raised by  Brexit had also been a factor in highlighting tensions.

Whatever it is this is a deeply disturbing trend and it suggests that focus on the rise of all types of extremism should concentrate equally on right wing racists as much as Islamic extremists.

 

 

 

 

The Downing Street state pension robbery

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I wonder if Mr Plod has a good sense of humour. It is a good photoshop. Pic Credit: Paul Downes @CallmeDownsie

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The mantra  that we cannot afford to pay the 3.9 million  50s women   their pensions until they are 65 and soon 66 is based on the premise that there is no money in the National Insurance Fund. The big question is why?

I have already in a previous report for #Backto60  shown that the accounts of the National Insurance Fund are in fact in surplus. But detractors point out that they soon won’t be if the government hands back £77 billion owed to the women.

But what if we have reached  this situation because the government has raided a fund  which is 91 per cent spent on pensions for other benefits. And what if the Treasury deliberately decided to  undermine the fund by avoiding paying any money into it?

This is what I have found out by investigating the history of this fund.

The original fund was set up in 1911 by Lloyd George and did not cover pensions – but helped pay  medical bills for wage earners and provided  unemployment benefit for  some workers. Employers and employees had to make compulsory contributions.

Pensions were introduced for those over 70  in 1908 and were means tested and supervised by local councillors. People could be disqualified from getting a pension if they had been imprisoned for ten years, weren’t of good character and were drunkards. The money came from general taxation. There is a House of Commons library report about the act here.

The real major changes came under the Attlee government which set up the welfare state. The National Insurance Act, 1946 introduced compulsory NI for all working people except married women. It set the pension age at 60 for women and 65 for men. Pensions, unemployment benefit, sickness benefit and a maternity allowance and death grant were paid out of it. There is a useful summary in the National Archives here. But it was run as a ” pay as you go ” scheme with money topped by the Treasury.

It is the attack on these provisions which began under the Thatcher government in the 1980s that has led to the 50s women losing out.

An excellent report by the House of Commons library describes what happened. It is worth quoting parts in full.

“In each year from 1948 to 1989, the National Insurance Fund received a grant from the
Treasury, known as the Treasury (or Consolidated Fund) Supplement. The origins of the
Supplement lay in the Beveridge Report, which envisaged a tripartite scheme of contributions to the Fund, whereby the Treasury would pay one third of the cost of unemployment benefits and one sixth of the cost of pensions and other benefits. In practice, the level of the Supplement tended to be around 18% of contribution income, a level at which it was fixed by the Social Security Act 1973.

“From 1980, the value of the Supplement began to decline, reflecting partly the growing level of contribution income and partly the constraining of spending on benefits by the abolition of earnings linking of the pension and other long-term benefits and earnings-related supplements to unemployment benefit. By 1988 the Fund’s contribution income exceeded its benefit expenditure, leading to a steady growth in the balance of the Fund (from £5.3bn in April 1986 to £10.4bn in April 1989 ).

In this context, the then Secretary of State for Social Security, John Moore, stated in 1989 that:

“The tripartite principle is already effectively a dead letter. The rationale behind it has
gone, and the Supplement has been shrinking steadily as a proportion of the Fund’s
income from about one-third in 1948. It now stands at only 5%. We consider that there
is now no need for it all. The £26bn of expenditure from the Fund is fully covered by
contributory income and the abolition of the Supplement will have absolutely no effect
on that expenditure”
“The Supplement was abolished by the Social Security Act 1989.”

It was a disaster – the fund which then  had  big surplus – went heading into the red – as it was now being raided for the full cost of unemployment and sickness benefit at a time of high unemployment.

So in 1993 the Major government had to partly retract by reintroducing a Treasury supplement because money in the fund had fallen by a staggering 50 per cent  due  to benefit pay outs as well as pensions. Pensioners were robbed.

But  the government fixed the rules so it was much less generous than the  system they bequeathed from Attlee. As the report says :

“There are a number of differences between the Treasury Grant and the Treasury
Supplement. First, the levels of Treasury Grant are set by reference to benefit expenditure rather than to contribution income. Second, and more significantly, whereas the Treasury Supplement was paid annually, irrespective of whether it was actually needed to finance a particular year’s expenditure, the Treasury Grant is paid at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

“The amount of Grant paid to the Fund was limited to a maximum of 20% of forecast
benefit expenditure in 1993-94, and to a maximum of 17% of forecast benefit expenditure in subsequent years.”

The truth of the matter is that the rules were skewed so the Treasury never had to pay out any money.  From 1989 to 2014 if the Treasury had returned to its original support  under  the Major, Blair and Brown governments, the Tory Liberal coalition and Cameron’s government, billions of pounds would be available now to help pay the 50s women. Instead as we know successive governments ruthlessly decided to solve the problem by raising the pension age.

In top of this the government also amended the benefits that would be paid out from the fund – including some new benefits like paternity benefit for example.

Anyone who believes the changes that happened – both the removal of Treasury contribution to the fund and the subsequent rise in the pension age – was a happy coincidence is deluding themselves. You can see here  in an article in the Daily Express what  George Osborne, the former chancellor, told investors at the Global Investment conference in 2013. Scroll down to the video

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George Osborne speaking at the 2013 Global Investment Conference

He said: “Tackling entitlement costs and the cost of an ageing society is a real challenge for Western democratic societies and in the UK we’ve brought forward the increase in pension age to 66 in this decade; we’ve brought forward the increase to 67 in the next decade and actually because of some reform taken some years ago the female pension age is increasing to 65 as we speak.”

“These changes, when you’re a finance minister, the savings dwarf almost everything else you do.

“They are absolutely enormous savings and they enable you to go on providing a decent retirement income. So you’re not necessarily reducing the entitlement of people who are retired you’re just increasing the age when that entitlement kicks in. ”

“Of course when these were first put into practice these pensions systems life expectations was dramatically less.

“I’ve found it one of the less controversial things we’ve done and probably saved more money than anything else we’ve done.”

Need I say more. The UK has one of the lowest and least generous state pension in the developed world and it has been bought about by making huge savings against 50s women.

 

Theresa May’s risky gamble with reforming an ” institutionally racist” mental health act

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Sir Simon Wessely, chair of the mental health review

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With very little publicity and dwarfed by Brexit  Theresa May has committed herself to a major reform of the Mental Health Act. Last year she convened a meeting at Downing Street and appointed a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Sir Simon Wessely. to conduct a review.

This month it published an interim report with a lot of warm words, some constructive proposals and a public admission that far too many people were locked up and a disproportionate number were from  the black and ethnic minority communities. A report in the Guardian on  May 1 highlighted some of the issues.

This Friday the charity Race on the Agenda  will host a conference at the University of East London on the  Stratford campus tackling the issues head on by addressing the issue of institutional racism in the mental health service.

They will have a lot to go from the interim review report which firmly  puts the case for change by highlighting the poor  and  often inhumane treatment of people of black African and Caribbean heritage in the worse case scenarios results in deaths in police custody.

It also appears to want to redress the balance between the role of the police and the NHS.

The interim report states: “Experience of people from black African and Caribbean heritage are particularly poor and they are detained more than any other group. Too often this can result in police becoming involved at time of crisis. The causes of this disparity are complex.” The  full report  and details of its members  and terms of reference is available here.

Among some of the salient points raised include phasing out the use of police cells to detain mentally ill people and using ambulances rather than police cars to transport mentally ill  people and increasing NHS involvement by looking at NHS England taking responsibility for  commissioning of health services in police custody.

This week’s conference will  go further than the report by looking at the culture and attitudes towards black people – the stereotyping, unconscious bias  and sometimes politically incorrect racism – as well as the role psychiatry has in defining who is mentally ill.

So why should this be a risky gamble for Theresa May ? The answer is the countervailing trends in society which could mitigate against reform.

First there is austerity. The state of some mental health hospitals , including one not far from the conference in Tottenham, have to be seen to be believed because there isn’t the money to provide adequate services. Thus all the reforms in the world could fall down because there are not the staff nor proper facilities to help people.

Then there is current hostile environment which led to the Windrush scandal , the rise of Islamaphobia and the Prevent strategy  which creates a climate of fear and fuels latent racism and fear among the white community of “the other”. The fight against terrorism can morph into discrimination against  particular ethnic groups in society.

So in the worst case scenario all Theresa May will be left with is warm words and no action – which, given the hope rising from the mental health act review, could make matters worse than they are now.

That is why it is important that conferences looking at issues the report may find difficult to confront – such as institutional racism – are being held and issues thoroughly aired.

 

 

Fight to save the iconic Gay Hussar

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Gay Hussar restuarant- a fight to save it as it is due to close June 21. Pic Credit: wikipedia

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The news today  that one of London’s iconic restuarants, the Gay Hussar, is closing on June 21  will  be a catalyst for a fight back.

The sad decision was  announced by manager John Wrobel at the end of a very convivial lunch for Old Guardian hacks last week leading to today’s  excellent article in the Observer by  Rebecca Smithers.

Some less kind might say a fitting end for us retired or semi retired reprobates. But  as she writes this has been a regular venue for Left wing plots and meetings between journos and sources. I myself  confess that the odd confidential document might have been slipped into my hands before I left  there after dining on  herrings and soured cream and crispy duck with red cabbage.

The place was also the venue for Michael Foot’s 90th birthday, a superb collection of political cartoons loaned by Martin Rowson featuring the great and not so good and it is not unknown for right wing dissenters to dine there. My previous lunch there was with an independently minded Tory peer.

The wider issue which pushed its closure is globalisation and a fierce policy of raising business rates (rents automatically seem to follow) which is leading to the disappearance of many independent businesses  and their replacement by franchised national chains.

The planned closure of the Gay Hussar follows the disappearance of the Gran Paradiso in Pimlico and Luigis in  Aldwych. And it is not a problem confined to the capital.  My local town, Berkhamsted,  has lost the House of High Tea, a popular cafe which had a eye watering selection of brews for precisely the same reason- a tripling of the rent.

The decision by its conglomerate owners Corus Hotels  appears to have taken place in Kuala Lumpur pushed by the big jump in rent  prompted by the business rate  rise.

However all is far from lost.

John Goodman, the energetic chair of the Goulash Co-operative, is riding to the rescue.

Ina an email sent out to the members of the co-operative last night ( I declare an interest I am a small investor), he says:

” At last our moment has come! The day for which we have all been waiting has unexpectedly arrived.

“We learned a few days ago that Corus, the owners of the Gay Hussar, intend to close the restaurant some time in the near future, despite still having four years to run on the lease, which is held by Corus subsidiary The Restaurant Partnership (TRP). Our understanding is the long suffering and loyal staff, who do so much to make the Gay Hussar what it is, have already met with HR managers.

“As your directors, we immediately called an emergency meeting for Monday 14th May to discuss our action and have been working on it intensively since then.

We understand that Corus/TRP has been in discussion with the landlord and has reached an arrangement for early termination of the lease. This will give the landlord vacant possession and they will therefore be looking for a new tenant.

“Two of our number, including our legal and property advisers, met the landlord’s representatives on 16 May to discuss their intentions. They told us the building was not for sale but they expressed interest in offering us a new lease to continue the operation of the Gay Hussar, albeit in an upgraded form. In such circumstances there are a huge number of questions to be answered, involving finance and the potential operation of the restaurant.”

He ends with a rallying cry:

“In due course, and if our plans make progress in the way we hope, we will re-open the Goulash Co-operative for additional and fresh investment and investors as we anticipate a good deal of interest. We would ask you to alert friends and family to join in this great venture to keep the Gay Hussar and to develop further its enormous potential.”

Let battle commence!

 

 

 

 

 

Celia Brackenridge: An outstanding sportswoman and a pioneering campaigner against sexual abuse in sport

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Very sadly yesterday Celia Brackenridge died after a long battle with leukemia.

I have written an obituary which has been published in my old newspaper  The Guardian this evening. You can read about her extraordinary career here.

She will be sadly missed by her immediate family, friends, her partner, Diana, sports professionals across the world , academics at Brunel University and local people who got to know her in Berkhamsted.

Her fearless  campaigning  against sexual abuse in sport was ahead of our time and comes just as some of the people, particularly in the football world are finally facing justice for the sexual abuse of young promising soccer stars.

She faced the equivalent of today’s internet trolls – hate mail – from people who did not want to believe  this was happening or wanted it covered up.

The good news is that her work will not die with her because there is substantial funding  for  the Safe Sport International  organisation she set up and  action will continue on the issues she has raised.

 

Esther Baker case: How the child sex abuse inquiry itself abused survivors’ trust and privacy

Alexis Jay at the Rotherham inquiry Pic credit BBC

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UPDATE: Since the publication of this blog the Crown Prosecution Service have responded to my questions. A spokesman said the CPS does not investigate allegations of a crime, including perverting the course of justice. Any allegations coming to them would be referred back to the relevant police force. In this case this would appear  to be Staffordshire police.

 Esther Baker is one of the few child sex abuse survivors who went public  about her allegations that she was abused by her father and other people.

The only other case I can think of recently is  46 year  old Andi Lavery who went public to the Scottish Sun but that followed a trial in Glasgow which led to the conviction of  paedophile Father Francis Moore after Lavery gave evidence anonymously.

Therefore it is rather surprising that independent child sex abuse inquiry should publish  considerable detail naming Esther Baker  in an adjudication in a case they themselves decided was ” highly contentious”. Even more given she had not asked them to re-investigate the case which has already been investigated by Staffordshire Police and could lead to separate civil proceedings. And then they published a false statement against her that they had to retract.

The ruling by Alexis Jay is worth quoting in some detail: This is what she said :”On behalf of Esther Baker, it was submitted that the allegations which she has made
should form part of the Westminster investigation.

Ms Baker alleges that she was sexually assaulted by her father and by persons of public prominence associated with Westminster and that there were institutional failings in connection with that alleged abuse by police and law enforcement services.

She says that her father introduced her to a paedophile ring which included persons of public prominence associated with Westminster. She also says that she was abused from the age of 8 to around age 12 and that the abuse was organised and sometimes ritualistic, that it was filmed, and that the police acted in a security role.

She says that at various times she tried to report the authorities, and as such there were institutional failings.”  I have decided that the Inquiry will not investigate the issues that Ms Baker has raised that relate to her own alleged experiences of child sexual abuse…

“Ms Baker’s allegations are highly contentious.They are the subject of both contested civil proceedings and an ongoing police investigation. I am also aware that Mr Hemming ( former Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham, Yardley) is reported to have made a complaint to the CPS that the allegations that MsBaker has made about him amount to perverting the course of justice.

“The fact that both the police investigation and the civil proceedings are ongoing is a factor that weighs strongly against the Inquiry attempting to investigate these matters. Even if it were appropriate for the Inquiry to investigate these matters before the conclusion of the other proceedings, such an investigation would be extremely resource intensive and would be likely to distract the Inquiry’s attention from the six core issues set out above.”

Now this statement has led Graham Wilmer, himself a former member of the first child sex abuse inquiry, to lodge a complaint which is now being investigated.

He wrote to them”Your decision to publish incorrect information about Esther Baker requires a robust independent investigation. The very idea that the IICSA would publish such incorrect information about a vulnerable victim of child sexual abuse is incomprehensible, and I am now asking you to investigate how this can about under your policies to protect vulnerable witnesses who come forward to the IICSA, regardless of the route.

“The below article in the Daily Mail is yet another example of why vulnerable victims of CSA/CSE should NOT come forward to the IICSA, without absolute assurance that they will be protected at all costs, which in the case of Esther Baker, you have failed completely so to do. As you are well aware, there are ongoing proceedings involving Esther, myself and others, and we will endeavour to expose the truth behind the lies, smears and malicious campaigns that have been waged against us, simply because we spoke out and disclosed what we had suffered. ”

An inquiry spokesperson did not want to comment.””The Inquiry does not comment on private correspondence it receives, nor on ongoing investigations.”

Now apart from releasing this information involving a named person – in other cases the person would have been anonymous -there is a serious flaw in the information that has been released. It implies that she could be investigated for perverting the course of justice for being as the Daily Mail put it ” a fantasist”. Worse their original public statement which was put up without Esther Baker’s knowledge  stated ” I understand that the police inquiries are now focused on whether Ms Baker should be charged with  perverting the course of justice.” 

I am told this was withdrawn after Staffordshire Police contacted them to tell them it was untrue and defamatory and it is now deleted from the website. The inquiry confirmed they had deleted it. Instead there is a reference to a complaint by Mr Hemming to the CPS.

There is NO investigation into Esther Baker about her perverting the course of justice. It is itself a fantasy. Staffordshire Police in a carefully crafted statement said she was a ” victim of crime ” and they are still supporting her. When I asked the police force whether there were further investigations into Esther Baker – after Mr Hemming is said to have complained  about the ” false accusations” against him – they made it clear there are none.

The reason why this is important is that the inquiry is already not trusted by a number of survivors who don’t believe they will get justice. Part of the reason is that survivors think the inquiry will  provide definite proof of sexual abuse against them. But that  is not the purpose of the inquiry – which is instead concentrating on the institutional failures of people not acting when they were told about sexual abuse. The inquiry in the Rochdale case was not afraid to pin people down for not doing their duty but they did not list or name fresh perpetrators.

In these circumstances you would expect the inquiry to be very sensitive about handling vulnerable survivors. Alexis Jay has already – rightly in my view – asked both survivors and those  representing people   who have been accused – to tone down their language.

Her previous ruling ends: ” I would …make a final plea that all those who report on the issues with which this Inquiry is concerned, and all those who comment on those issues using social media, should do so exercising a level of restraint and respect that is commensurate with the sensitivity of those issues, and the vulnerability of many of the individuals involved.”

Sound advice. She needs to take it herself.

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