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    Hundreds of female asylum-seekers are housed in Yarl’s Wood. They have done nothing wrong, so why are we locking them up?

    They take everything from you when you go into Yarl’s Wood. Even on a visit to a friend or family member, you have to turn out your pockets and stand in line to have your biometric data recorded and stored. You hand in everything you are carrying, down to pens and chewing gum, and then you go down a bare corridor plastered with warning signs, passing through a rub-down, a metal detector and three sets of locked doors – almost as if this were a prison, rather than a holding facility for some of the most vulnerable people in society.

    Hundreds of female asylum-seekers are housed in Yarl’s Wood. The centre opened in 2001 and is run by the private security company Serco, tucked away on an industrial estate among the rolling Bedfordshire fields. The people locked up here have done nothing wrong, unless it is now considered morally abhorrent to come to a new country with nothing and ask for shelter.

    To arrive in Britain seeking asylum today is to sink into a bureaucratic nightmare in which you are no longer a person. You are a problem to be dealt with. You are a drain on a system that forbids you to work and insists on keeping you locked up at great expense – the former immigration minister Damian Green estimated it at £100 per person per night. You don’t know when, or if, you will be taken from your room and forced on to a plane in handcuffs, screaming and crying.

    I visited Yarl’s Wood with help from the charity Women for Refugee Women and was able to speak to several of the inmates. Mary* is from Zimbabwe. She was at college when she was kidnapped and taken to the Border Gezi militia training camp. After a dangerous journey, she made her way to the UK and claimed asylum, and was staying with friends when she was picked up without warning and taken to Yarl’s Wood.

    She has been here for five months and describes to me how the windows open only a crack, how you put your face against them to suck in fresh air from a world without locked doors or guards.

    Across Europe, attitudes to refugees are hardening. In a climate of job losses and social unrest, anti-immigration parties are gaining popularity; mainstream politicians with little else to offer echo their rhetoric, promising to secure the borders. But imagine running from your home in fear for your life. Imagine making a long, hard journey that takes you far from your family and arriving in a strange new country you have been told is safe. Instead of the refuge you longed for, you are treated like a criminal, paraded in front of a series of border guards, most of them men, and made to repeat your story of trauma and abuse before being told that you’re a liar. Many of the women who arrive in this country as asylum-seekers have been victims of horrifying physical violence, some of it sexual.

    “They ask you about it again and again,” Mary said. After she escaped the Border Gezi camp, guards tracked her down to her home, kidnapped her, raped her, beat her and left her to die in the bush. She tells this story almost without emotion, with the weary ease of somebody who has repeated it countless times and not been believed. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with the men,” she said.

    Last year, the Yarl’s Wood facility faced allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual contact between female inmates and Serco guards, several of whom were disciplined. Inmates described how vulnerable women allowed abuse to continue because they were led to believe it was the only way to get out of Yarl’s Wood. Serco maintains that alleged sexual contact is not “widespread” nor “tolerated”.

    But another detainee to whom I spoke on the phone disagrees. She told me that one current trend is to burst in on women in the showers, especially when roll-call is going on.

    This week, the campaign group Women for Refugee Women will protest outside the Home Office to demand an end to the inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers, and especially to indefinite detention in centres such as Yarl’s Wood. The novelist Zadie Smith called the facility a “shame to any civilised nation”. “I hate this place,” said Mary. “The way they are treating us, they treat us as if we are criminals, as if we are murderers.”

    Yet even most murderers know that they eventually will be released. The people held in immigration detention centres across the country don’t know how long they’re going to be there, or if they will ever get out. That’s what makes indefinite detention so inhumane. In a week’s time, it might be Mary’s turn to be taken from her room in the middle of the night, forced on to a plane in cuffs and shipped out against her will, like so much industrial waste.

    “If they give me my stay I’ll go to school,” Mary says. “I want to become a midwife. It’s always been my dream.” The NHS currently has a shortage of 2,300 midwives, and training one of them costs less than it does to hold a female prisoner in a detention centre at public expense for six months. Yet even for a nation that calculates the lives of human beings in pennies and finds the most vulnerable least deserving of care, this was never about the money. This is about political positioning.

    At some point in the past ten years, “refugee” became a dirty word. At some point, “asylum-seeker” started to be spoken as a slur, as if to seek asylum – to flee persecution for a chance to live and work with dignity – were a shameful thing to do.

    It should be an insult to anyone’s idea of justice that victims of persecution, torture and rape are imprisoned and treated as if they were worse than criminals. It’s time to shut down Yarl’s Wood and expunge everything it stands for.

    *Names have been changed
     


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    Why are international sporting events so dangerous for construction workers?

    Around 400 Nepalese workers have died in construction sites across Qatar since the oil-rich Gulf state won the bid to host the 2022 football World Cup, according to a report by the human rights organisation the Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee, which is due to be released later this week. Some are warning that the death toll could rise to 4000 by the time the games are held.

    When it comes to big sporting events – whether it’s the ongoing winter Olympics at Sochi, or the Fifa world cup taking place in Brazil later this year – the focus is often on protecting athletes and spectators. Much less attention is paid to those who lose their lives building the stadiums that are used, not only as sporting venues, but as symbols of international prestige. And yet, for construction workers, international sporting events are a dangerous business. According to the Washington Post 25 workers died on building sites for Sochi’s winter Olympics, although some estimates place this figure as high as 60. Reuters reports that six people have died at World Cup construction sites in Brazil too.

    One of the under-reported achievements of the London Olympics was that no workers were killed while constructing the Olympic stadiums. This was an unprecedented achievement: two died while constructing the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, one in Sydney in 2000, 14 in Greece in 2004 and 10 during the building of the Beijing Olympic stadiums. 

    So why are international sporting events so dangerous for the construction workers involved? Construction is a dangerous industry – according to UK government figures, five per cent of the UK workforce is employed in construction, but the sector accounts for 26 per cent of at work fatalities. In 2012 39 construction workers died on the job, equivalent to 1.9 deaths per 100,000. But – as the London Olympics demonstrated – strong health and safety standards can keep deaths and injuries to a minimum. The deaths we have seen in the run up to other big sporting events are not inevitable.

    Those working in Qatar face long days of hard labour in the searing heat – so as well as accidents, many died of cardiac arrest. The disgusting lack of concern for worker safety is reflective of a broader disinterest in the rights of the migrant workforce. The kafala sponsorship system, common to many Gulf states, means that workers can’t leave the country without their employer’s permission. They are not allowed to unionise, and so have no way of protesting the cramped, unsanitary conditions they are forced to live in, or their unsafe working environment. Many have also had their passports confiscated, and have been forced to pay high recruitment fees that mean they are tied into dangerous, underpaid work – as Human Rights Watch reports. 

    Similarly, in Sochi migrant construction workers were forced to work 12-hour shifts, often without contracts, safety training or insurance. As the Economist noted, some had their passports confiscated, and were either paid late or not paid at all.

    Much has been made of the fact that both Sochi and Qatar shouldn't have been picked as sporting venues because they are too hot: there were fears that Sochi wouldn’t have enough snow, and Qatar will have to air-condition its stadiums. But a far bigger concern ought to be that both sporting venues have shown a callous disregard for the rights and safety of the construction workers helping to realise their international ambitions. Governments know that successful international games are excellent PR – and organisations like Fifa and the IOC need to stop offering this opportunity to countries that are happy to sacrifice workers’ lives in the process.


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    The Labour leader's combative words on climate change fit a pattern of well-calculated risk

    One of Ed Miliband’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters in the parliamentary Labour party last year told me: “Ed doesn’t pick a fight in an empty room.”

    The context was criticism I had made of the way reform of Labour’s relations with trade unions was being handled. My suggestion was that the leader had ignored an issue, wanting it to go away and then been bounced into something big and potentially ruinous at quite the wrong point in the electoral cycle. He would end up meandering across a minefield where there was no credit with most voters and ample opportunity to lose a limb. As it turns out (and as I wrote last week) the Labour leader has navigated his way across rather niftily.

    The defence at the time was that Miliband didn’t want to provoke the unions gratuitously. He had been explicit from the start in ruling out any gesture to define himself through confected conflict with the left. But when crisis struck and managing the relationship became a point of political urgency, he acted swiftly and without inhibition.

    This, the stalwart Ed defender put it to me, was characteristic of the way he does politics. He has strong views on certain things. He has the capacity to act – or speak – boldly, but he prefers to wait and only intervene in a fight when it obviously needs fighting. One example cited to support this interpretation was Miliband's decision, when the phone-hacking scandal erupted, to configure Labour’s response as a war against Rupert Murdoch. Similarly, he chose to fight back hard against the Daily Mail over articles attacking his late father on bogus and spiteful allegations of national disloyalty. It is worth noting, too, that the fight Miliband picked last autumn against the big six energy companies was begun only after meticulous political stress-testing and war-gaming.

    It is no longer plausible to claim, as Miliband’s critics once liked to do, that he is paralysed with caution. Plainly, he can take risks. Nor is it right to say that his gambles are reckless. They are made with assiduous calculation. That doesn’t prove that the calculations are the right ones and there is no shortage of people in Westminster ready to say that Miliband has misjudged all manner of critical choices. But there are also people who decided in 2010 that he was ridiculous and still scour each move he makes for evidence to sustain that belief. In reality, it is getting harder to deny that Miliband can be rather good at politics when he really needs to be.

    I thought of the empty room this weekend when I saw Miliband’s comments on climate change. There had been some chatter for a while in Labour circles about his relative silence on the subject. He had been the responsible Secretary of State after all; it was supposed to be a topic close to his heart. Surely in all his speeches on remaking Britain’s economy and society, there was room for more than a half-paragraph on an issue of epoch-defining urgency?

    But climate change, much to the chagrin of the activists whose lives are consumed by the struggle, is a niche concern for most voters. Had Miliband made it a defining matter last year, or the year before, he would have won plaudits from people who are probably voting for him anyway and been ignored by everyone else. His critics would have sneered that he was ducking the big economic issues to fiddle around in comfort-zone corner.

    In the last week, that has changed. The floods have swept the climate question into the headlines. Tory peers are making common cause with Ukip at the Tea Party end of unscientific conjecture. They are an embarrassment to David Cameron, who once wore green sensibility as the emblem of his ambition to “modernise” his party. The fight was going off in the room and that’s when Miliband waded in. It is not the most significant political action of recent weeks. It will not, I expect, have an impact on opinion polls. But it does serve as a reminder that the Labour leader picks his moments carefully, which isn’t at all the same thing as being too careful.


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    Since the new Personal Independence Payments began to replace Disability Living Allowance, fewer than one in six people who applied have had their claims decided. While assessments drag out over months, bills still have to be paid and food still has to be bought.

    Paul Richardson* has just got off the phone with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It was another phone call trying to check on the progress of his daughter Jennifer’s application for the new disability benefit, the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), but it was another conversation that got them nowhere.

    Jennifer has borderline personality disorder and has made two suicide attempts since she left school. She’s now 22 and this year moved back to live with her parents. She finds it difficult to talk to strangers and her mum and dad have been dealing with the PIP process as much as they can on her behalf. The process has been difficult from the offset when they had their first meeting at home in November.    

    “The DWP person arrived and explained the form to us but didn’t have a blank copy of the form with her so we had to wait for a form to be sent,” Paul tells me. “By this time it was just before Christmas and we were told that nothing would be done with the form over the Christmas holiday period.”

    When Paul called the DWP to try and update them on Jennifer’s meetings with mental health specialists, he was told they would hear nothing about their application for up to a year.

    “She told us…we’d have to wait 10 months at least for any kind of decision or even for a first assessment meeting,” Paul says. “When asked why it was taking so long I was told that as this is a new benefit there have been a lot of applications. When asked if the government had made sure that there were enough people to deal with the assessments I was told ‘presumably no’.” 

    The Richardsons are not alone in their experience. Fewer than one in six people who apply for Personal Independence Payment have had their claim decided, DWP figures revealed this month (pdf). They are the first figures to be released since the PIP’s rollout began to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the outgoing benefit to help people with mobility or care problems, and present an initial picture of widespread delays, backlogs and rejections.

    Jennifer has no income of her own. Like many people with a disability or long-term health problem, extra costs continue to mount up. The family has to spend more on something as seemingly insignificant as heating.

    “I have to bath a number of times each day and the bath needs to be full,” Jennifer explains. “When I’m having a bad spell I lie in bed, get up and bath, lie in bed for a few hour, another bath, back to bed and will repeat this cycle continuously.”

    Paul has had to give up his job as a teacher and taken work as a lorry driver so that he can drive Jennifer to her medical appointments in the week or college when she feels well enough.

    “This is all just a waiting list before an assessment,” he says. “It may take even longer for a decision to be made.”  

    Almost two out of three people who apply for PIP are receiving nothing at all unless they are terminally ill, the first figures show. Out of the 15.4 per cent of new claims that have received a decision, only 37 per cent were awarded some rate of PIP. This means that only 12, 654 people, out of the 220,300 who have made a new claim since its initial introduction in April 2013 have been awarded the benefit.

    Amanda Jones* received her rejection letter at the start of this month. The forty-six-year-old has profound hearing loss and is unable to communicate without British Sign Language (BSL). Despite receiving DLA until the benefit expired, she was turned down for its replacement and now faces appealing the decision or having no financial support for her disability.  

    “Disability costs and [people] forget what the extra costs are,” Amanda writes when we talk via email. Small but costly things like having to keep her car because she can’t use a bus.  

    “No one goes through such a process as the DLA or PIP applications without needing it,” she says. 

    She tells me her PIP assessment lasted two hours with no break and she was unable to communicate at various points.

    “The assessor stood behind me and talked over my head with the sun blazing through the window behind her making it impossible for me to lip-read,” she says. “The BSL interpreter was not in the room at that point.”

    “I’m told by some BSL interpreters that they have been told by assessors to stop signing to deaf clients as they want to find out how much they can understand,” she adds.  

    She was awarded only four points; half as many as she would need to even receive the lower rate of PIP.

    Unlike DLA, Personal Independence Payment is a points-based assessment, awarded on “descriptors” on a range of activities related to someone’s daily living needs and mobility, such as washing and bathing, or communicating verbally. Campaigners have long been concerned that, like the other key disability benefit, Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and its controversial Work Capability Assessment, PIP’s point-based assessment would result in poor decision-making and widespread appeals. The Government’s own figures predict that 600,000 people with disabilities will lose their entitlement to support under the new criteria.

    “Many deaf people and other disabled people I know are terrified of the assessment and what will happen. It is clear that in terms of mental health, hidden disabilities where it is not obvious and especially deafness, is being completely disregarded during the assessment process,” Amanda says.

    Jennifer has similar feelings when I ask her about her experience. “The PIP form [that I had to fill in before the face-to-face assessment] isn’t geared to mental illness, more physical issues,” she says.

    Her dad agrees.

    “On a bad day [Jennifer] is totally incapacitated.  There are as many bad days as good days. On a bad day she won’t be able to physically do anything and yet there are no physical problems at all,” Paul adds.

    The assessment process itself, and the multiple, often testing stages of which it consists, is feared to be unsuited to people with mental health problems. Jennifer tells me her condition means she finds it impossible to talk on the phone or communicate with many strangers.

    “My parents have to make all appointments and try and sort out things for me,” she says. “But very often people won’t speak to them about me and that can be frustrating.”

    In my conversations with people experiencing these first assessments for PIP, in addition to six, eight or ten month delays, “frustrating” as well as “worrying” and “circular” were common themes.

    Amanda tells me Capita – the private company who along with Atos were awarded the PIP contracts by the Government – have been forced to apologise twice to her during her assessment process for basic errors.

    “The last time was when they kept ringing me despite telling them I was deaf,” she says.

    She waited five months to be assessed but at one point was sent two different dates for her appointment. “They ignored my emails,” she says

    “My MP had to intervene to get them to sort out [it out].”

    Having someone to turn to is not a guarantee, of course, whether that’s a local politician, family member, or the increasingly pressed services assisting people affected by social security changes.

    Jay Henderson, 49, suffered a stroke last summer and was left with severely restricted speech and mobility. She now uses a wheelchair and needs a carer to help her with basic needs such as washing and preparing food.

    Her ex-partner, Ken, has given up work to help with Jay’s care and has been trying to access her benefits for her for seven months.

    “I've tried so hard since her stroke last June…but not having the right information from the beginning from all the different agencies has made it very difficult and it's beginning to take it's toll on me,” Ken, 49, says. “I try to remain positive but it seems like we are fighting a losing battle.”

    Jay applied for PIP a month after her stroke and over half a year later has heard nothing. It is not the only benefit delay affecting her. PIP, of course, does not exist in a vacuum but is often part of a wider set of benefit needs, each reliant on the same system. With Ken’s help, Jay applied for the out of work sickness benefit, ESA, at the same time as PIP but has had no response since being put on the assessment rate (a lower rate than she would receive once she has been assessed). This period should last no more than thirteen weeks but, for Jay, has been seven months.

    “I’m at my wits end,” Ken says.

    He tells me he’s been providing medical evidence for months but all he finds is dead ends.

    “I contacted DWP and they say contact Atos even though they are the employer's of Atos. What are you supposed to do?”  

    The delay with both PIP and ESA mean money is now too short to pay for even the basic things Jay needs. She’s had to rely on food parcels from her local food bank to eat. Tins of powdered custard and jelly.

    “They were appreciated but not very practical,” Ken says. “Sufficient to live on…nothing really matched up to make a meal. Plus Jay wouldn’t have been able to prepare any of it or even open it [if I wasn’t here].”

    “You’re only supposed to receive three parcels,” he adds. “They did get them extended to two weeks as there wasn't enough money coming in for Jay to live on.” 

    The phone was due to be cut off but, worried what would happen if Jay had a fall and needed to call the hospital, Ken managed to delay payment until the end of this month. The electricity is in arrears and the bills are starting to mount.

    “How long will these people wait, who knows?” Ken asks. “How long will benefits take, who knows?”

    “The system just isn't working. No one’s following the rules or their own guidance. DWP blame Atos, Atos blame DWP, legal aid cuts mean people can’t challenge the system…you end up going round in circles.”  

    Paul, meanwhile, is waiting for another letter from the DWP. The phone call ended when he was told him he needed security information before he could talk about Jennifer’s claim. The computer wouldn’t tell him what that information was, he was told, but it would be posted to him.  

    “We’ll cope with or without government help, but this system is so poor it needs someone to expose it for what it is,” Paul says.

    “If my daughter had no family support I reckon she'd be dead by now,” he adds.

    *Names have been changed


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    The Scottish First Minister offered no persuasive argument for Scotland entering a currency union with the rest of the UK.

    If Alex Salmond's speech today was intended to be a "deconstruction" of Westminster's warning (delivered by the triumvirate of George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander) that the UK would not form a currency union with an independent Scotland, it didn't go to plan. His opening gambit was to suggest, as Nicola Sturgeon did last week, that Osborne and others are simply bluffing. After a vote in favour of independence, "enlightened self-interest" would lead the Treasury to agree to share the pound. But all of the public - and private - statements by the unionist side suggest that this is no bluff: they really are not prepared to risk the health of the UK economy by placing it in an unstable currency union with a country with a decidedly poor fiscal outlook and a banking sector 12 times its GDP. 

    In a tacit admission of as much, Salmond went on to make two other main arguments against denying Scotland the pound. The first was that it would impose transaction costs of around £500m per year (dubbed "the George tax" by Salmond) on UK businesses: "I am publishing today an estimate of the transactions cost he would potentially impose on businesses in the rest of the UK. They run to many hundreds of millions of pounds. My submission is that this charge – let us call it the George tax – would be impossible to sell to English business."

    The problem with this argument is that it simply isn't true. The figure of £500m (less than 0.0005 per cent of the UK's GDP) is too small for it to outweigh the negative costs of a currency union between England and Scotland. But in any case, as Alistair Darling noted after the speech, Salmond's championing of the pound merely reinforces the case for the status quo. He said: "Alex Salmond was arguing against about a problem of his own making - the problem of transaction costs for business due to changing currency. Avoiding extra costs to business and not placing jobs at risk are powerful reasons why we should vote to remain in the UK and keep the pound."

    As a last resort, Salmond again brandished the threat to default on Scotland's share of the UK's national debt if the government vetoes a currency union. "If there is no legal basis for Scotland having a share of the public asset of the Bank of England then there is equally no legal basis for Scotland accepting a share of the public liability of the national debt," he claimed. But any default would, as he surely knows, would render Scotland an economic pariah, destroying its creditworthiness at a single stroke and preventing it from raising the funds it needs on the international money markets. 

    With arguments as weak as these, Salmond was forced to fall back on essentially political points: Westminster is bullying Scotland and Labour is dancing to the Tories' tunes. "The sight of the Labour Shadow Chancellor reading from a script prepared by George Osborne" was, he declared, "too much to bear for many Labour supporters in Scotland". With no opinion polls published since Osborne delivered his threat, it is impossible to know whether he is right about the mood of this crucial swing group. But today, Panglossian as ever, he unambiguously failed on his own terms. 


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    There are more working than non-working households in poverty for the first time ever. But don't assume a living wage will solve all problems.

    It is often assumed that a rising tide will lift all boats and, as the economy grows, some of the benefits will trickle down, hopefully reducing poverty as they go. But JRF research shows that if the recovery is not rich in jobs, the impact on poverty will be muted. And as the CIPID this week warned, ahead of the monthly unemployment figures, jobs growth could yet slow. In addition, not only does the UK need more jobs, it needs better jobs too.

    The face of poverty in the UK is changing and in-work poverty has increased over recent decades. The latest data shows – for the first time – that more than half the 13 million people experiencing poverty in the UK live in households where at least one person is working. This is an inconvenient truth for politicians fond of saying work is the best route out of poverty.

    Discussion of "better jobs" often quickly turns to the topic of the living wage. That this debate is gathering momentum is welcome, as higher pay is an important part of the fight against poverty. Industries with large numbers of low paid jobs such as retail, hospitality, personal services and care have higher rates of poverty among their workers compared to other industries.

    But the relationship between low pay and poverty is not straightforward, not least because poverty is measured according to household income, meaning who you live with - and their circumstances - influences your likelihood of being in poverty. Analysis by the New Policy Institute shows that over half (56 per cent) of adults in working poverty live in households where at least one person is paid below the Living Wage. But that means nearly half do not, so higher pay provides half an answer to in-work poverty.

    As well as higher pay, a better job means sufficient hours, security and the opportunity to progress. Part-time work is prevalent among families in working poverty, indicating that more good quality part-time work – especially for those with caring responsibilities – is important too. But the UK has a large number of low-paid and low-skilled jobs compared to other developed countries. Surveys find these workers are more likely to face insecure or temporary contracts and less likely to receive training from their employer, hampering their chances of progressing to a different job.

    What is more, many businesses offering low pay and poor terms and conditions are able to survive using a low cost, low quality approach to their business. They have no difficulty hiring people into jobs that require little by way of formal skills and training. However, there are examples of individual businesses in low pay sectors constructing a business case for "better jobs". The precise argument varies, but examples include better pay and progression to reduce the cost of labour turnover and sickness absence; to improve service quality; and to ensure a "pipeline of talent" to support organisational growth.

    But such business cases need to be backed by capable managers, an organisational culture that promotes progression and worker engagement. They also need a coalition of champions within the organisation – from senior managers to union representatives and individual staff members – to maintain momentum. Otherwise policies that look good on paper can fail to deliver in reality.

    The challenge is how to spread better business practice and drive up employer demand for skilled workers in order to grow the economy and tackle poverty. The government’s City Deal process, whereby powers and responsibilities linked to economic growth and skills and are devolved to major cities, offer an opportunity for more experimentation in this area.

    Nonetheless, the IFS projects that poverty will increase by 2020, largely as a result of cuts to benefits for both working and non-working low income families, but made worse by anticipated changes to the labour market. The coalition’s primary answer is to reform welfare to make sure it always pays to work more. This is a worthy goal, but welfare reform alone will not address poverty unless the quality of jobs at the bottom end of the labour market is also addressed.

    Katie Schmuecker is Policy and Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Smart Alex Salmond has had a nasty run-in with reality (Daily Telegraph)

    The latest assault from London on keeping the pound and Brussels on joining the EU has left the SNP leader bruised and battered, writes Alan Cochrane. 

    2. With seven months to go to the Scottish referendum, the scaremongering has begun (Guardian)

    It is simply not true that an independent Scotland would get no place in the EU or a currency union, says Angus Roxburgh. We need facts not scare tactics.

    3. Clegg may be batting his eyelashes at Labour, but he won't turn a cold shoulder on the Tories (Independent)

    The key issue in any future negotiations for a coalition is the precise context in which they take place, not Clegg’s politics, writes Steve Richards. 

    4. How we ended up paying farmers to flood our homes (Guardian)

    This government let the farming lobby rip up the rulebook on soil protection – and now we are suffering the consequences, says George Monbiot.

    5. The storms reveal how little governments can do (Financial Times)

    We have come to see the state as omnipotent in the face of any problem, writes Janan Ganesh. 

    6. Cameron's student visa policy is a disastrous own goal (Guardian)

    The prime minister's careless immigration pledge is putting off some of our brightest visitors – and damaging Britain, says Timothy Garton Ash.

    7. Scotland can be a model for how to split (Financial Times)

    There are remarkably few examples of nations breaking up in a civilised way, writes Gideon Rachman. 

    8. Salmond’s case for keeping sterling is bluster and abuse (Times)

    By the SNP’s logic Britain should adopt the dollar, writes John McTernan. 

    9. Fashion is one of the most hyper-capitalist businesses (Guardian)

    Haute couture is one of the very few businesses allowed to present itself as not being wholly about commerce, but the facts say otherwise, writes Aditya Chakrabortty.

    10. Clegg’s Dangerous Shift (Times)

    In his attempt to woo the left, the Deputy Prime Minister risks losing voters in southern and rural constituencies, says a Times editorial. 


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    Local voters resent outside interference and Lib Dem activists will be encouraged to rush to their leader's defence.

    For Labour, talk of a future coalition with the Lib Dems is politically dangerous. Party strategists fear that the prospect of Ed Miliband entering government with Nick Clegg in just over a year's time could be viewed by Lib Dem defectors as "permission" to return home. With Labour's poll lead heavily reliant on this group (it enjoys the support of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters), the party needs to do all it can to discourage this impression. 

    Ed Miliband, then, has been quick to dismiss Clegg's latest overtures. While no longer insisting that the Lib Dem leader's departure would be a precondition of any coalition agreement (in common with Ed Balls), he told Daybreak: "What I'm looking for is a majority Labour government. There are such big issues that the country faces, I think Nick Clegg should be worried about the Liberal Democrats." Today, the party is briefing that it has launched a "major bid" to defeat Clegg in his Sheffield Hallam constituency at the next election, with one NEC source declaring that it is "pouring resources" into the seat. 

    Whether these "resources" amount to more than a few extra leaflets is unclear. As I said, the story has much more to do with conveying the broader message that Labour isn't going soft on Clegg. But given his dismal approval ratings and the large student population in the area, the Deputy PM might be thought an easy target. Yet for several reasons, the odds are against Labour taking the seat. For a start, Clegg currently enjoys a majority of 15,284, making him the safest Lib Dem MP in the country. In 2010, Labour finished in third place with just 16.1 per cent, 3,812 votes behind the Tories (it has never won and last finished second in 1979) and 19,096 behind Clegg. That Labour chose not to make the seat one of its 106 targets suggest that it recognises there is little prospect of advancing to first. 

    In October 2010, a Lord Ashcroft poll put Labour just two points behind the Lib Dems (33-31) but recent council election results suggest the party's vote is holding up better than many expected. In a by-election in the suburb of Fulwood last year, for instance, it won 400 more votes than in 2012. 

    Labour's decision to explicitly target the seat could, if anything, tilt the odds further in Clegg's favour. Lib Dem activists now have an excuse to rush to their leader's defence (albeit potentially drawing valuable resources from other seats), while local voters are likely to resent interference by outsiders with little knowledge of the constituency. For the latter reason, no prominent "decapitation strategy" has succeeded in recent times. As Lord Ashcroft wrote (see p. 304) of the Lib Dems' attempt to oust prominent Tories, including Oliver Letwin, David Davis and Theresa May in 2005, "My polling uncovered many interesting facts, including that voters in the Liberal Democrats' decapitation seats were less inclined to vote against the sitting Conservative MP when they were told of the decapitation motivation...Oliver Letwin clearly understood the message because when he was interviewed by Ann Treneman of the Times during the campaign, he asked her to use the word 'decapitation' a lot because he said it would help him to get elected"

    In 2010, the Tories similarly failed to oust Labour heavyweights such as Ed Balls, Jack Straw and John Denham. The smart money is on Clegg continuing this trend. 


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    Of the 2.3 million new cases of TB reported in Africa last year, almost a third were connected to mining in sub-Saharan Africa. According to research, one mine worker with active TB can spread the disease to between 10 and 15 other people.

    South Africa's gold mining industry has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. Repeated union strikes have resulted in bloody clashes between workers and police. Economic pressure has increased after a recent fall in the price of gold. However, there is another major problem blighting the South African gold mining industry - one which rarely makes international headlines: the seemingly unstoppable tuberculosis (TB) epidemic, which has spread through the majority of the workforce.

    Pulmonary TB is a known killer in many countries, but nowhere is it thought to be more prolific than deep underground in South Africa’s gold mines. Statistics provided by non-profit biotech company Aeras, which works to advance TB research and development and is this month heading up a TB and mining awareness campaign, states that of the 2.3 million new cases of TB reported in Africa last year, 760,000 – almost a third – were connected to mining in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Aeras, nine out of ten gold miners in South Africa are latently infected with TB and one mine worker with active TB can spread the disease to between 10 and 15 other people.

    “The [South African] mining industry, in particular gold and platinum, has some of the highest rates of TB in the world, if not the highest,” says Aeras Vice President of External Affairs, Kari Stoever.

    “TB is a major risk in this occupation [mining] that is providing a livelihood for over a million people in just the South African region.”

    One of the biggest gold miners in the region, AngloGold Ashanti, said the company recognises the scale of the problem: “We are certainly cognisant of the gravity of the TB problem in South Africa as a whole, and therefore also in the gold mining industry. Over the past decade we have intensified our efforts to address this issue,” said a representative.

    HIV infection and exposure to silica dust in ultra-deep mines, along with close working and living conditions predispose South African gold miners to TB, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January.

    Results of the large-scale, five-year study of 78,744 miners in 15 gold mines from 2006 to 2011, showed that intervention treatment did not reduce the incidence of TB. Although it did show a reduced incidence of TB during treatment, 12 months after the study, researchers did not find any difference in the number of cases of TB in those who had preventative therapy and those who didn’t.

    Stoever says the problem may not be isolated to South Africa, but other African mining nations as well, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where TB is endemic, and Ghana, but it is impossible to know for sure because the data isn’t being collected.

    The infectious and often fatal disease, which attacks the lungs and is spread through the air, is having a huge affect on miner’s health, as well as that of their families and their finances. It’s also costing mining companies heavily in lost productivity and costly treatment and in turn the general economy because the mining industry makes up 18 per cent of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product.

    According to Aeras, the TB epidemic results in miners losing $320 million per year in lost wages. TB treatment is reported to cost the South African government and mining industry more than $360 million per year.

    Stoever says the total economic toll of TB in South Africa is estimated to be about $1.3bn per year. “South Africa went from being number one in production of gold to sixth in the world but they are number one for cost,” she adds.

    However, there is no straight-forward solution to the problem. Treating TB isn’t cheap and it can be complicated due to increasing drug resistance or the presence of HIV. Stoever says treatment for straightforward TB is six months of antibiotics followed by ensuring the individual is not infectious before returning down the mine. For drug-resistant TB, treatment is a combination of highly toxic drugs for up to two years. In some mine treatment centres this can cause a sanatorium-type lockdown until the workers' sputum clears. Drug resistance is also a huge concern which, if it worsens, which is entirely possible, could be “catastrophic” says Stoever.

    Currently there is no vaccine for TB in adults, but there is a common misconception that the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine (BCG) given to school children around the world can protect against adult respiratory TB , but it is much less effective in protecting adults against pulmonary TB than it is children.

    Mining companies, particularly the bigger ones, have largely been addressing the TB epidemic head-on. Stoever, speaking after visiting hospitals run by both AngloGold Ashanti and Anglo American Platinum, two of the biggest gold miners in South Africa, said both companies are doing an  “outstanding" job of finding TB cases and ensuring miners are getting the appropriate treatments but adds that she is sure “some [companies] have better practises than others”.

    AngloGold Ashanti say it has had some success in reducing the incidence rate of TB, reducing the incidence rate [percentage of employees who develop TB during the year] in its South African operations from 4.3 per cent in 2006 to 1.8 per cent in 2012. It added that all patients remain in employment throughout the course of their treatment. Despite these positive results the company recognises that “more challenges remain.”

    In the wake of the disappointing trial results published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January, Aeras is currently in discussion with the Chamber of Mines in South Africa and many mining executives to find an alternative long-term solution.

    Stoever says Aeras wants to create a “virtuous cycle” related to the markets.

    She explains: “If we could somehow look at gold  as a commodity, gold as a natural resource, gold as a big driver of economic development in the South Africa region… and figure out a way to create this virtuous cycle where we then put money into the health system to fight infectious diseases like TB and HIV both with our current tools, which have their limitations, but also in research and development, where we really have  our best bet in potentially eliminating TB and HIV with vaccines in the future.”

    “This isn’t an act of charity; this is a real bottom line business for families and communities,” she adds.

    Anglo-Gold Ashanti also recognise that any long-term solution must be a collaborative one. It says: “The fight against TB is a collective responsibility of all the role players in society – people in their individual capacity, organised business, organised labour and other organs of civil society.”

    It adds that it is “willing to partner with like-minded stakeholders to find durable solutions.”

    Right now a vaccine seems to be the only viable long-term solution, but Stoever admits that although research and development has improved from no TB vaccine candidates in 2000 to 13 today, six of which Aeras is working on, a usable vaccine is still likely a decade away. The key, as Aeras knows, is keeping up thorough and rigorous treatment of TB and convincing mining companies and the government that a vaccine is worth investing in. No one should have to risk repeated TB infection just from going to work.


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    The plan to demolish the award-winning primary to build a free school shows contempt for parents and for children.

    Last week in the Commons, I asked Michael Gove  to save Sulivan Primary School in Hammersmith & Fulham from closure. Sulivan is currently rated the 233rd best primary school in the country which comfortably places it in the the top two per cent in England and Wales. The school holds over 300 pupils, from diverse and different social backgrounds, with over 30 different languages spoken. It is a model of an modern inclusive community primary. Recent accolades include a letter from Education minister David Laws praising the school and Boris Johnson placing the school in his "Gold Club list".

    Despite all this, the school finds itself threatened with closure by the local Conservative council. One of the school’s few remaining hopes lies with Gove, who could grant Sulivan’s application to become an academy, removing it from the grip of what he calls the "dead hand" of local authorities.

    So what was his response when I asked him to save Sulivan? First, he praised Hammersmith & Fulham Council – the enemy of Sulivan. Then he noted that Sulivan is not in my constituency (though some of its pupils live there), but that of Tory MP Greg Hands – whose silence on Sulivan’s fate has been total. Finally, he said I should not deny a good education to others since I had attended an independent school.

    Gove’s response is typical of the way he operates, and shows why teachers and parents are losing any respect they had for him. But it is revealing nonetheless.  Firstly, he – like the Conservatives in Hammersmith & Fulham – thinks a good school must be a free school or academy, or an independent. Thus he ignores the evidence and disparages the majority of excellent schools in the country.

    Secondly, he prejudges the decision on Sulivan – he will adopt unquestioningly the decision of fellow Tories to close Sulivan, rather than doing his job by considering its application for academy status.

    Thirdly, he shows contempt for the hundreds of children, parents, staff and supporters of Sulivan by turning a reasonable request into a bit of silly political sparring.

    The Tories’ proposal is to close and demolish Sulivan in order that a Church of England secondary boys’ free school can be built on its site. Officially, the council maintains that no decision has been made but Gove’s letter to me in January rather gave the game away. The Sulivan debate is not, as the Education Secretary would have it, a community versus free school battle with both sides in their trenches. Unlike Gove, the Sulivan campaigners are not prejudiced. They do not attack free schools, church schools, or this school in particular. Indeed Sulivan’s application to remain in business is as an academy is sponsored by the London Diocesan Board for Schools – which, in recognition of its excellence and ethos, wishes to adopt it as a community school in preference to a Church of England school taking its site.

    They do, however, object to the personal and political ties between the senior local Tories and some of the free school’s sponsors. But this is something on which the Tories have form. It is only a few years since Peterborough primary – Sulivan’s neighbour – was closed to provide accommodation for a lycee sponsored by the French government. I should declare an interest – I went to Peterborough too.

    Hammersmith & Fulham will not use capital to expand community schools despite a shortage of places. New schools are opening across the borough but they must be free schools or academies, even though one of these is already in the top 50 most unequal schools in the country (when eligibility for free school meals among pupils is compared to that in the catchment area) 

    The Sulivan case is compelling and is receiving a lot of public attention for one reason only. The Conservatives are trying to close a great school for ideological and partisan reasons. No one should defend that, least of all the Secretary of State for Education.

    Andy Slaughter is MP for Hammersmith and shadow justice minister


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    The most commonly-used swear words reveal more about our medieval past than just attitudes towards sex and body parts.

    Fuck. Shit. Cunt. Our favourite four-letter words have a fascinating history. Rather than being written in manuscripts by monks, we find them used by normal people and preserved in surprising places like place names, personal names, and animal names and they reveal more about our medieval past than just attitudes towards sex and body parts.

    Fuck

    Fuck isn’t thought to have existed in English before the fifteenth century and possibly arrived later from German or Dutch. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says it wasn’t used until 1500. Using place names though, we can trace it back a bit earlier.

    Many early instances of fuck were actually used to mean “to strike” rather than being anything to do with actual fucking. The more common Middle English word for sex was swive, which has developed nicely into the Modern English word swivel, as in: go swivel on it. Some of the earliest instances of fuck then, turn out to mean “hitting” or “striking”, such as Simon Fuckebotere (recorded in 1290), who was disappointingly probably in the milk industry, hitting butter rather than doing anything else with it, or Henry Fuckebeggar (1286/7) who may have, unfortunately, hit the poor.

    The earliest examples of fuck in English appear in place names. The first is found near Sherwood in 1287: Ric Wyndfuk and Ric Wyndfuck de Wodehous. These both feature a kestrel known as the Windfucker which, we must assume, went at the wind. The next definite example comes from Bristol 1373 in Fockynggroue, which may have been named for a grove where couples went for some quiet alone time.

    Shit

    Like fuck, shit has a rich history, being used across the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, making it one of our oldest words. It originally had a technical usage, meaning diarrhoea in cattle, and it crops up in lots of place names from a time when people were herding cattle and naming things, such as Schitebroc– now Skidbrook– which literally means “shit-stream”, found in the Domesday Book for Lincolnshire.

    Shit did not just happen in the countryside though. Street-names, for example, reflect the grotty state of urban living in graphic detail. Schiteburne Lane – now Sherbourn Lane in London – means “shit-stream lane”, and Schiteburglane in Romford uses borough in the middle, meaning a fortress, to paint a vivid picture of a privy, standing proud as a mockery of a palace in the middle of town.

    Cunt

    This too is an old word, appearing across the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, although any connection to the Latin cunnus is unlikely, despite the apparent similarity. Originally, rather than being a taboo word, it was the general descriptive term for the vagina. Cunt is, etymologically, more feminist than vagina, which is dependent on the penis for its definition, coming from the Latin for “sword sheath”.

    Records of cunt start comparatively early. There’s a runic inscription which reads ‘kunt’, but that was probably a spelling mistake. Nearly all of the early evidence comes from place names and even personal names – pity, or perhaps applaud, Bele Wydecunthe in 1328, for example.

    The most famous of the place names is Gropecuntlane which at one point appeared in twenty places, generally describing – with pleasing matter-of-factness – a red light district. These have all since been lost, or have been changed to Grape Lane, but all are still easily traced.

    But other place names are no less revealing.

    Shavecuntewelle in Kent in 1275, for example, could describe a nearby valley with a narrow wooded area – a literal lady-garden, if you will – or it could be a site where women were punished. Cuntewellewang in Lincolnshire (1317) seems to describe a similar type of landscape.

    And the thirteenth-century Hardecunt? Who knows, it’s just a great name.

    Perhaps the most glorious example of cunt in a place name is Hungery Cunt, found in a 1750 military map of Kinross-shire, Scotland. Disappointingly, though, this is probably just a mistake: a misreading of Hungeremout.

    These early instances of now heavily taboo words open up the world of normal people in medieval England and a different – and more vibrant – picture of the history of our language. They allow us to meet a very literal and pragmatic people with a healthy sense of (toilet) humour about their bodies and their environment.

    That is not to say that monks themselves weren’t interested in bodily matters. They were, and they wrote their fare share of smut to prove it. Take the following example, which, more than anything else, shows that dick-jokes are universal:

    A curious thing hangs by a man’s thigh
    Under his coat. It has a hole in the front
    It is stiff and hard, it has a good standing place;
    When the man pulls his clothing up
    Above his knee, he wants to touch that hole
    With the head of his hanging thing.
    It is the same length as that which it has filled before.

    It’s a key, in case you were wondering. A KEY.


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    The party's new 404 page features Ed Balls and the message "Just like Labour's plan for the economy, this page doesn't exist."

    It looks like the Lib Dems' web designer didn't get the memo about going softer on Labour. While searching for the party's Spring Conference papers (not available at the stated address), I discovered its new 404 page which features Ed Balls (despite his recent rapprochement with Nick Clegg) and the message "Just like Labour's plan for the economy, this page doesn't exist."

    It might be a humorous innovation (and look what happens when you click on Balls) but the Lib Dems would have been wiser to enjoy a joke at the Tories' expense. As defeated deputy leadership candidate Lorely Burt rightly notes in an interview with the Huffington Post today, to hold most of its seats, the party needs to focus on winning tactical votes from Labour supporters. Of the Lib Dems' 57 seats, the Tories are in second place in 37 and in 14 of the 20 most marginal.

    Burt observed: "What we also need to do is talk to Labour supporters, who have lent us their vote in the past, to keep the Conservatives out. Because the message is stronger now than ever. In places like Solihull, you’ve got a small Labour vote but it will make the difference between winning and losing."

    Meanwhile, with Burt's status as one of just seven female Lib Dem MPs in mind, Guido Fawkes's Alex Wickham has designed the alternative below. 


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    Nadia Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, who were released from prison less than two months ago, say they were arrested in Sochi with a group of activists and journalists.

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

    Pussy Riot was arrested in Sochi today. 

    Yes, you read that right. Pussy Riot members and internationally known “prisoners of conscience” Nadia Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, who were released from prison less than two months ago, were just arrested in Sochi.

    Tolokonnikova claims they were just strolling through town (with a group of activists and journalists), the police claim there was a theft at the hotel where they were staying. 

    Pussy Riot had come down to Sochi to do a performance piece called “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland.” “The police didn’t know how to neutralize them, so they made up a theft in the hotel,” a local lawyer told me as he drove to the station to which the Pussy Rioters were being driven.

    But Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are not your average hotel thieves. After their August 2012 show trial, these girls are media experts, live tweeting their arrest. 

    (“Masha Alyokhina, another member of Pussy Riot and I are being taken to the Blinovo [police] station for being in Sochi.”)

    (“This is Olympic Sochi. Going to the ADLER STATION.”) 

    (“They used force while arresting us.”)

    Pyotr Verzilov, Nadia’s husband and the group’s informal manager, tweeted out their local lawyer’s number. Then he tweeted out the address of the police precinct to which the Pussy Rioters were being taken, adding, “See you at the station, journalist friends!”

    Nadia tweeted out her cell phone number and even picked up the phone and talked, allowing this reporter to hear Alyokhina yelling at someone in the background.

    Something tells me that heads are going to get bopped at the local police station. The local cops probably got the tip that Pussy Riot was in town and were told to make the problem go away. Panicking about messing up Putin’s Sochi party, they made the situation far worse, given the group’s brand recognition in the West and the number of foreign journalists swarming the place and bored of covering ski jumps.

    What’s arguably even stupider is that they did the thing the Russian is state is great at doing: they remade heroes out of Pussy Riot, just as Nadia and Masha were busy mucking uptheir own image, going on junkets to authoritarian countries and shamelessly asking for money around the world. 

    “How stupid do you have to be to arrest Pussy Riot in Sochi during the Olympics?” opposition leader Alexei Navalny tweeted. “There is no Ketchum in the world that can help you on this one.”

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com. New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.


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    “I don’t hide behind the title ‘journalist’ any more,” says Tetiana Chornovol. “My investigative reporting is just one of the weapons I use in my battle against Yanukovych and his clan.”

    Tetiana Chornovol specialises in exposing the murky world of Ukraine’s top officials. As an investigative reporter for opposition websites, she has a reputation for unorthodox methods and daring stunts. On Christmas Day 2013, she was dragged out of her car, beaten up and almost killed in an attack most Ukrainians believe was linked to her work as a journalist.

    When I arrive at her house on the outskirts of Kiev her three-year-old son is racing around the front room on a scooter. Chornovol’s mother, Natalia, watches him nervously. “He’s fearless and Tetiana was just the same as a child,” she tells me. “She climbed up the highest fences in our village and scared her granny witless.”

    Now 34, Chornovol is still fearless and still climbing fences. As we drink tea, she shows me photographs she took secretly a couple years ago of the palatial residence outside Kiev occupied by the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Wearing a camouflage jacket, she hid in the forest nearby, waiting for the right moment. Then she shimmied up the wall Lara Croft-style, using a plank and a rope, right over the heads of the security patrol.

    Before she was caught, she smuggled out some images of a gold-plated barge where he’d throw parties. Just one of the imported crystal chandeliers there costs £60,000 – almost the equivalent of Yanukovych’s official annual salary. “The worst thing,” she says, “is that we don’t have a hospital in Ukraine for children with cancer – the government says it lacks the funds.”

    The president’s estate is just one of many lavish residences built by the ruling elite. Chornovol believes a new mansion south of the capital is for the president’s eldest son, Oleksandr, but she could find no official documents for the building. So, a few months ago, wearing a plastic helmet, she crawled through a hole in the fence. She managed to blend in with the workforce and grab a blueprint from the construction office. “Crudely speaking, I stole it,” she admits. “But since all that property is being built with stolen government funds, I felt I had the right.

    “The security service probably said if these plans reach the public, everything would have to be rebuilt,” she says. “I think this was the reason they went for me.”

    Whatever the case, Chornovol is not short of enemies. The night before she was attacked, she had published a blog featuring pictures of what she says was the out-of-town residence of the interior minister.

    Five men are in custody for the attack on Chornovol but few believe that whoever ordered the attack will be brought to justice. The prosecutor general’s office says she was a victim of road rage, a theory Chornovol dismisses as “absurd”.

    Some are uncomfortable with her close links to the Fatherland party of the imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In the October 2012 election, she ran unsuccessfully for parliament as a candidate of the party in western Ukraine.

    “I don’t hide behind the title ‘journalist’ any more,” she says. “My investigative reporting is just one of the weapons I use in my battle against Yanukovych and his clan. I’m also very active socially.” She has been on the front line of the mass protests that have rocked Kiev since November last year.

    “I would be much more active if I wasn’t a mother,” she says, but her children motivate her, too. “I can’t give up because I know that this is for their future, about what sort of country they’ll grow up in.”

    Lucy Ash’s profile of Tetiana Chornovol will feature in the BBC Radio 4 series “Europe’s Troublemakers”, which runs from 17-21 February (1.45pm)


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    Voters believe the welfare system is too generous but also remain committed to fairness and to tackling "causes not symptoms".

    Last night’s Channel 4 debate on welfare, which followed the final episode of Benefits Street was predictably feisty. Welfare and benefits are fairly hot topics, drawing opinions which come with plenty of baggage on a range of issues including self-responsibility and the role of the state.

    During the debate some contributors talked about the need to understand "real" opinion beyond the audience of James Turner Street residents, programme makers, commentators and politicians. As well as (mis)representation, there was also much talk about (mis)perceptions.

    These are clearly important factors driving the commissioning of the series in the first place as well as subsequent reaction to it. They also provide the backdrop to one of the most reformist periods in the history of our benefits system. That history has seen changing attitudes but it is worth remembering that there has never been universal support for the modern welfare state. In a survey commissioned by the BBC in 1956, two in five believed that the British way of life was deteriorating and the most common reason given was "too much welfare and care".

    Today, behind every ten doors we knock on, we find seven Britons who think the benefits system is not working effectively, and three times as many who consider benefits too generous than think the opposite. There is a sense that there is insufficient link between paying in and getting out, and that some claimants are more deserving than others. Little wonder that we have found high levels of public support – by more than five to one – for the £26,000 household cap on benefits.

    But attitudes are not all one-way. For example, there are equally strongly held views that it is important to have a benefits system to provide a safety net for anyone who needs it, and also evidence of a preference for reform tackling causes, not symptoms. The British are also sensitive to fairness; so, just as context shapes policy on benefits, the impact of policy and its perceived fairness might itself shape that context. Reflecting this, while support for the benefit cap looks set to endure, public opinion on the "bedroom tax" is more nuanced and less predictable.

    Last year, the British Social Attitudes Survey found a "softening of attitudes" towards unemployment and welfare payments. At a time when the economy has started to improve, our monthly Issues Index – measuring what the public consider to be "the most important/among the most important issues facing the country" – has detected a rise in the salience of "poverty/inequality".

    Finally, it is worth considering what the public understand about these issues. Ipsos MORI surveys have shown this to be fairly shallow in respect of benefits and welfare. Related to this, a study of housing benefit last year concluded that "facts in and of themselves will not change hearts and minds, but stories and emotions do". Given this, it is clear why Benefits Street has hit such a nerve.


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    Shadow chancellor's comments suggest mood in the party is hardening against an in/out referendum.

    Ed Balls's interview with Progress, in which he says of the Lib Dems: "I’m not going to let them off the hook", is being presented by some as a retreat from his recent comments on Nick Clegg in my NS interview. But a close reading shows nothing has changed: while remaining fiercely critical of the Lib Dems' record in government (as he was last month), Balls is still no longer making Clegg's head the price of any future coalition agreement. As he says: "He made some remarks over Christmas about personalities. I’m not going to get involved in playing personality politics, I have no personal animosity to Nick Clegg."

    Rather than Balls's comments on the Lib Dems, it's his remarks on the EU that are most striking. In the course of rejecting the claim that Labour is "anti-business", he says: 

    The most pro-business thing about Labour at the moment is that we are the only pro-European party of government. What the Conservatives have done by putting party interest before national interest is deeply dangerous and actually if you sat around with a group of businesspeople and ask 'what are you most worried about?', they’re worried about a Conservative party allowing us to sleepwalk and drift away from Europe. It’s a massively dangerous proposition. Only Labour can save the country from that Conservative anti-Europeanism.

    Balls is certainly right that many businesses are far more worried about the threat of EU withdrawal (as a result of the in/out referendum promised by the Tories in 2017) than they are about Labour's proposed energy price freeze or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told Cameron that "if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in". That's almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU. 

    That Balls has chosen to point out as much is significant. The shadow chancellor is one of the senior Labour figures who has come closest to promising a referendum, warning in 2013 that "if we allow ourselves either to be the 'status quo party' on Europe, or the 'anti-referendum party' on Europe, then we’ve got a problem...I think we would be pretty stupid to allow ourselves to get into either of those positions". But his latest remarks suggest that he believes the national interest demands that Labour unambiguously commit to EU membership.

    This shift in tone reflects a wider hardening of the mood against an in/out referendum. As I revealed last week, Labour will almost certainly avoid promising a public vote in its general election manifesto, with one senior strategist suggesting that the position would likely be identical to that offered at the European elections in May. 

    Separately, one shadow cabinet minister told me that Ed Miliband was "instinctively opposed" to a referendum whenever the issue was discussed. This is not least because he recognises that he has a good chance of being in power after the next election and does not want the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by an unpredictable vote. A public decision to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband's wishes, would badly damage his authority. 

    Far from being a clever ruse to enhance the party's standing, a Labour pledge would shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow Cameron to claim that a "weak" Miliband is dancing to his tune. As the Labour leader himself said when James Wharton's EU referendum bill was being debated in the Commons: "I think what we see today is the Conservative Party talking to itself about Europe when actually what they should be doing is talking to the country about the most important issue that people are facing, which is the cost of living crisis. That’s what Labour’s talking about; that’s the right priority for the country." 

    Balls's comments are further evidence that Labour will hold this line through the general election campaign. 


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    Chinese artist Sun Xun blends printmaking, drawing and calligraphy to depict a fantastical plain where mythology meets modernity.

    Capitalism is a relatively new process in China. Although the reform-era economy is deeply marked by Chinese characteristics, it is nevertheless premised on production methods developed in Britain two centuries ago. Much ink has been spent in telling the story of the Chinese artistic avant-garde as it emerged, deeply shaken, from the excesses of the Maoist era. But the post-millenial generation are living through a different trauma: that of socialist neoliberalism. China’s third wave artists exist at a critical time, in which Communist vocabulary enacts a capitalist imagination.

    The third wave’s turn to animation has been a powerful development in the story of Chinese art, even as the Chinese film industry runs up against the power of Japanese anime and Western disneyfication.

    Yang Yongliang, born in Shanghai in 1980, apes the mannerisms of the Chinese landscape painting tradition, and then radically uproots them from their origins in cerebral reflections on the natural world. In Yang’s animations, quiet motifs of the Chinese landscape are subjected to the nightmare of Chinese urbanisation: mist is indistinguishable from polluted smog, trees make way for forests made of cranes. As Yang explains, “if I love the city for its familiarity, I hate it even more for the staggering speed at which it grows and engulfs the environment.”

    London’s Hayward Gallery is currently screening a series of films from the animator Sun Xun, who was born in 1980 within the northeast Chinese province of Liaoning. If Yang Yongliang wanders through a ravaged world, the oppressive art of Sun Xun screeches through it in malevolent fashion.

    The contradictions of Chinese history have haunted every step of Sun Xun’s life. As a child, Sun would come home from a day of schooling in official history to listen to his father recount how his grandmother was publicly humiliated as a bourgeois collaborator during the Cultural Revolution. And the dislocations did not end there. As Sun Xun’s home province transitioned from mining county into China’s rust belt, its symbolic life still largely played out to the tune of loudspeaker propaganda. When Sun moved to the Huangzhou Academy of Art to take up calligraphy training, he experienced a profound sense of disconnection. While the prevailing ideology of his hometown “thought that people in business were evil capitalists,” he told the New York Times last year, “in Hangzhou, everyone was doing business.”

    Sun Xun’s art plays out in a fantastical plain where mythology meets modernity. His films flow out of traditional silk printmaking, calligraphy and the pages of old Communist literature. As word and image are set in animation, frame by frame, Sun Xun revels in history and lies.

    In his 2010 animation piece, “21 KE” (21 Grams), top-hatted men assemble in plazas as steampunk flying machines fill the sky overhead, all smeared through with an indefinable sense of threat. Sun Xun renders China as imagined through the lens of 19th century western capitalism, where riotous modernity is made possible only through it’s sinister underside. It is an apt portrait for a country in which the logic of capitalist development has gone hand in hand with bloody exploitation.

    In his 2006 Dissent essay, “Marx in China”, Marshall Berman observed that the rhetoric of development since Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist turn offers striking historical parallels: “The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England.” And yet at that time of Industrial Revolutionary celebration, so many of the brightest lights depended on the perpetual poverty of the industrial working class.

    Sun’s 2011 film “Some Actions Which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution”, built up from the carving of over 5,000 different woodcuts, converges in a pulsating dreamscape filled with the revulsion of putrefaction; flies and rats exist in a heady state of animation, while a man draws out an insect from his mouth, only to ingest it. The film’s medium invokes the spectre of the 1920s New Woodcut Movement in China, in which the new efficiency afforded by the artistic form was put to the work of political propaganda. But in Sun Xun’s hands, nostalgic dalliance is corrupted in the brutal conflicts of New China.

    In Sun’s animations, the figure of the politician often melds with the character of the magician. The magician embodies the dynamics of a revolutionary century which often played out as pseudo-tragedy, in which death was carried out according to brutal farce. The leaders of the Chinese revolution proved highly skilled in manipulating the rhetoric of progress, while at the same time, dangerously inept at mitigating the destruction of false development.

    But China is no longer the latecomer to modernity, and there is none better than Sun Xun to expose the violence that rages through a society which has fused the most savage tools of capitalism and communism.

    Image credit: Sun Xun, π animation studio


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    Michael Gove joins the debate.

    This week, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, joins our debate on the dominance of the privately educated in public life and the correlation between poverty and educational failure. (Thank you to all readers who have contributed excellent letters on the subject; our postbag continues to overflow.) In a bold article, starting on page 25, he declares that our “segregated” education system is “perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back … From the England cricket team to the comment pages of the Guardian, the Baftas to the BBC, the privately educated – and wealthy – dominate. Access to the best universities and the most powerful seats around boardroom tables, influence in our media and office in our politics are allocated disproportionately to the privately educated children of already wealthy parents.” These are good words and true. Mr Gove then explains why he believes the “Berlin Wall” between private and state in education is beginning to crumble.

    Meanwhile, our shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt has announced that, if Labour wins power in 2015, he hopes to introduce “behaviour experts” into schools to stop children misbehaving.


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. It's the cumulative impact of benefit cuts that is shocking (Guardian)

    Disabled people are the worst hit of any group by myriad welfare changes that relentlessly reduce already meagre incomes, writes Zoe Williams. 

    2. Why the Archbishop of Westminster is wrong about welfare (Daily Telegraph)

    Our plan for Britain is not just about saving money, but about doing what is right, says David Cameron.

    3. Neglect pre-school education and we will all be the poorer (Daily Telegraph)

    Britains's youngsters are falling behind and our shambolic nursery system is partly to blame, says Mary Riddell. 

    4. High price of ignoring risks of catastrophe (Financial Times)

    Models of climate change all but assume it cannot have a huge effect on the economy, writes Robin Harding.

    5. Who will replace David Cameron as Tory leader? Maybe a man you don't expect (Guardian)

    Boris Johnson, George Osborne and Theresa May are all favourites, but a rank outsider, who models himself on Michael Gove, could pip the lot of them, writes Ian Birrell. 

    6. We’re in a mess. We must know who to blame (Times)

    Response to the floods and the Ofsted row both show that public appointments should be more political, not less, says Daniel Finkelstein. 

    7. The trouble with the economic recovery is it mainly benefits those already doing well (Independent)

    We are setting up trouble, as you can see most obviously in the property market, says Hamish McRae. 

    8. Sometimes a polite letter can be a pistol shot (Daily Telegraph)

    It has taken a retired Australian judge to show us how to deal with Kim Jong-un's atrocities in North Korea, says Colin Freeman. 

    9. Failing states such as Syria deserve to fail (Times)

    There is so much hatred inside some national borders that divorce can be the only solution, writes Roger Boyes.

    10. Let schools compete to aid students (Financial Times)

    Competition between schools lifts grades, write Gabriel Sahlgren and Julian Le Grand.


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    The PM claims that the number of workless families "doubled" under Labour, but the figures show it fell.

    David Cameron's response in today's Telegraph to the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who rightly warned at the weekend that the coalition's benefit cuts had left many in "hunger and destitution", includes the remarkable statistic that "the number of workless households doubled" under Labour. Unfortunately for the PM, it simply isn't true. 

    As data from the ONS shows, the number of workless households (defined as a household where no one aged over 16 is in employment) rose from 3.7 million in 1997 to 3.9 million in 2010 (having fallen to 3.5 million before the crash), not 7.4 million as Cameron's claim would suggest. As a percentage, the number actually fell from 19.8 per cent to 19.2 per cent. 

    What Cameron most likely meant to say is that the number of households that had never worked nearly doubled from 136,000 in 1997 to 269,000 in 2010. Regardless, he should now issue a correction. 


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