26 June 2004

Childhood hijacked by Pester Power plc

By Jacqui McCarney

Norfolk County Council's Every Norfolk Child Matters scheme is very heartening - a positive 10 year strategy to stamp out abuse and boost achievement for our county's 180,000 children. Council leader Alison King is right, our children are "the future", and an EDP leader called for each child to "be nurtured, loved, treated with respect and given every chance to fulfil their potential". Much focus in Norfolk's scheme will be to help our dedicated and committed child agencies deal better with the worst problems children face.

However, we are all stakeholders in our children and their future. The wider aim of satisfying their real needs requires a sea change in our cultural and economic attitudes.

In previous generations, children's need for playing and sharing with others and nature, was met in the freedom of "play streets" and fields. This gave children a private world in which they could explore spiritual, psychological, social and physical dimensions.

Now, many are kept indoors through fears of increased traffic and other dangers. Real life is replaced by the voyeuristic and artificial worldview of television. This hijacks the private world of childhood, as increasingly commercial interests supported by advertising and the media are moulding our children's experience.

"Pester Power" is recognised by advertising companies as a powerful tool in selling to children. From fizzy drinks to extortionately priced trainers, advertisers know that whining children are their best allies. This exploitation of the relationship between parent and child leads to stress and guilt for poor parents, and sheer weariness for all when such purchases go against their better instincts. Satisfaction is short lived and children caught up in the pestering habit are often restless, discontented and unhappy.

Restricted outdoor exercise encourages childhood obesity, but parents are offered little support from advertisers or governments in tackling this problem. Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell rejected the opportunity to ban junk food advertising during children's television, although it was recommended by The Commons Health Committee. Was this in the interests of children, or was Ms Jowell bowing to pressure from advertising companies? Local parents had no difficulty in seeing the contradictory messages given to children when they complained about McDonald's handing out meal vouchers on regular visits to the children's ward of The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

As well as commercial exploitation, children are faced with an onslaught of inappropriate role models in the media. I find particularly offensive the sugary pinkness of girlie magazines aimed at a pre-teen market. These talk a great deal about "girl power", but only if you are wearing the right gear, know how to do "makeovers" and look sexy, and how to please the boy in your life. Of course, the advertising promotes all the products you need to achieve this image.

This exploits the fear and insecurity of pre-teens growing up in a competitive and scary world, and offers glamour and the possibility of celebrity as ways of feeling good about yourself. It encourages an obsessive ness with appearance and sexuality among readers who may be as young as 8 years of age.

Then, there is the tobacco industry, brazenly flying in the face of parental concerns by targeting children. As Frank Dobson, a former health secretary said, "We all know that hardly anyone takes up smoking when they are grown up. That is why the tobacco industry wants to target children." British American Tobacco stooped to a all time low when it was announced they had been testing chocolate and alcohol flavoured cigarettes, which campaigners say are aimed at enticing children to smoke.

Until we cease using children as agents in the war to sell endless products, and grooming them as avid consumers in the race for continual economic growth, schemes like "Every Norfolk Child Matters" will only go so far. Despite the plethora of material processions from TV in bedrooms to computers and video games, children in the 21st century are poorer in a real sense than their parents and certainly their grandparents were.

I look forward to the fruits of Mrs King's Vision Statement particularly in developing children's sense of belonging, responsibility for their environment, and pursuit of creative, spiritual and leisure activities. However, we are collectively responsible for nurturing children in all their humanity, and this means protecting them from the excesses of commercial exploitation and returning key influence to responsible parents and guardians. Our culture can support this richer set of values and experiences to help our children grow into rounder and more whole adults. They are the foundations of a stable 21st century One World, and we must provide for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs now.

19 June 2004

Time to move on to World Peace

By Marguerite Finn

As we approach the hand-over of 'sovereignty' to the Iraqi people on 30th June, there are predictable calls from the US and UK governments for the public to "move on " from their preoccupation with the war. This is flawed, wishful thinking on their part.

The public are trapped in a limbo of mistrust and anxiety over the whole issue of the invasion and destruction of an ancient civilisation and its peoples in the name of freedom and democracy. The biggest obstacle to 'moving-on' is the fear that no lessons have been learnt from the US/UK's disastrous intervention in the region.

Is the world a safer place since March 2003 ? No.

Is the Middle East region more stable ? No .

Is the War on Terror any closer to being won? No.

What we have gained is the opprobrium of the international community and the national shame of our involvement in an illegal war, occupation and abuse of human rights. For any real 'moving on' to occur, there first has to be an adequate national contrition led by the government, followed by a radical re-orientation towards a non-nuclear, non-aligned foreign and defence policy and a build-up of a special relationship with the United Nations.

Meanwhile, here in East Anglia, we have a relevant concern with the prospects for international security, because we "host" the biggest concentration of American military bases in the country: Lakenheath and Mildenhall in Suffolk; Feltwell in Norfolk and Molesworth in Cambridgeshire. Personnel from the bases were directly involved in the war: re-fuelling bombers, rescuing missions and intelligence-gathering.

Longer-term concerns go well beyond this. There is no doubt that the US has nuclear weapons at Lakenheath. Having a nuclear base on the Norfolk / Suffolk border puts us in the front line of danger from terrorist attacks, not to speak of potentially horrifying accidents. The danger of radiation from a simulated crash in Thetford Forest of a US aircraft carrying unarmed nuclear weapons (the 2003 exercise ominously code named 'dimming sun') has never been made public. At a recent meeting in Dunwich, the consultant nuclear engineer John Large described in chilling terms the dangers facing the residents of East Anglia from a terrorist attack on the Sizewell nuclear complex. Current emergency procedures drawn up to deal with a small to medium range accident at Sizewell A or B power station, are totally inadequate to deal with a major radioactive emission following a well planned terrorist attack.

So, we are hostages to the proponents of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Moreover, preparations are being made for the manufacture of a new generation of "usable" mini-nukes here in the UK at AWE Aldermaston. This calls into question the commitment of both the UK and the US to Article V1 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ( signed and ratified by this country nearly 40 years ago) to achieve prompt, total and unequivocal elimination of nuclear weapons.

Even if, as is rumoured, the US intends to reduce some of its nuclear weapons in Europe - it will simply be a shift away from the big bases here in "old Europe" towards more flexible "lilly-pad" bases elsewhere.

So how do we, as a nation, regain our self-respect and 'move-on' from the horrors of this war? Two unlikely allies have recently shown one way: Madeleine Albright and Robin Cook, writing jointly in The Guardian on 9 June, called on the United States " to stop developing new nuclear weapons, to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty and, together with Britain, to support a fissile materials cut-off treaty that would end the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons". They went on to say that "given their nuclear weapons capacities, the US and European countries have a special responsibility to ensure that these terrible weapons do not spread further - but before they can fulfil this responsibility, they must be seen as credible proponents of nuclear non-proliferation." We must campaign for a bigger role for the UN in combating poverty by allowing the General Assembly, in which there is no veto, to control the IMF, the WTO and the arms trade. We must also control the multi-nationals and confine our military role to support for UN action authorised by the Security Council.

Current US/UK policies lead to perpetual war; these alternatives would open the way for world peace.

12 June 2004

Let's nurture our kids, not bash them

By Ian Sinclair

Often we hear or read that "kids today are getting away with murder", are "out of control", "know all their rights" and are therefore immune to discipline.

But this is a refrain throughout history. In 500 BC, Socrates felt the "youth today" have "bad manners, contempt for authority" and "disregard for older people." In 1843, Lord Ashley told the House of Commons "the morals of the children are tenfold worse than formerly." A Chief Constable in 1904 complained, "our young people have no idea of discipline or subordination."

Children probably change little, then, but the real issue is how we nurture them and protect their rights. In 1991, the UK ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a comprehensive international treaty that took ten years to develop, which grants children in all parts of the world a comprehensive set of social, political and civil rights. It binds the UK under international law and we are obliged to comply with its principles and provisions. But does the UK really meet the spirit of the convention?

In its 2002 report the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded the UK's record on children's human rights in the youth justice system is worsening. England and Wales sentenced 7,600 under-18s to custody in 2001 up from 4,000 in 1992 - a 90% increase. During the same period the number of under-15s incarcerated rose by an amazing 800%. It is no surprise then the rate of custodial sentencing for under-18s in the UK is more than ten times that in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Spain.

The Committee was also "extremely concerned" at the conditions children experience in detention noting the "very poor staff-child ratio, high levels of violence, bullying, self harm and suicide, the inadequate rehabilitative opportunities" and "the solitary confinement in inappropriate conditions for a long time as a disciplinary measure."

This unwholesome culture pervades our homes too - the NSPCC recently found approximately one in six British parents reported hitting children with implements such as belts, slippers or wooden spoons. The current legislation on this issue dates back to 1860, with the judge who set the legal precedent deeming physical punishment acceptable "to correct the evil of the child." Twice the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended the UK ban all physical punishment, and in 1998 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that British law does not provide adequate protection for children from assault by parents.

Rather than encouraging the best in children in trouble, it seems our culture re-inforces the worst - violence and aggression. This is compounded by child poverty rates which have risen dramatically over the past 30 years, despite a fall in both average family size and the numbers of families with children.

3.6 million UK children are currently living in poverty. This is one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe, which has grown from 1 in 10 in 1979 to just under 1 in 3 today. In contrast, Finland, Denmark and Sweden have a child poverty rate of below 1 in 10. Poverty greatly affects a child's human rights and life chances. In 2001, the Treasury released a report that noted children growing up in low-income households are "more likely than others to have poor health, to do badly at school, become teenage mothers or come into early contact with the police, to be unemployed as adults or to earn lower wages."

It can be seen then, that contrary to popular opinion, the future for UK children, and their rights, is in a sorry state, lagging far behind our European neighbours. Growing up in Britain in 2004 is tough. The Children's Rights Alliance for England agrees, noting that progress on children's rights "is painfully slow".

From now on the refrain "kids today!" should be met with the fact that complaints about children have been a constant throughout recorded history; the assertion that we need to be tougher on crime needs to be countered with the fact that the British criminal justice system is already the most punitive in Europe; and the person who believes "things have gone too far" in favour of the child should be reminded that in many areas the UK's record on children's rights is actually getting worse.

Rather than pursuing policies that exclude children from the community, we should be working towards their inclusion and rehabilitation. In short, it is time to change the way we respond to children in trouble.

5 June 2004

The East Anglian biofuels bubble

By Andrew Boswell

Slowing climate change is everyone's responsibility now, and much excitement has been generated by the plans for East Anglian farmers to grow oil seed rape for a local biodiesel fuel industry. It is suggested that biofuels can replace dwindling, price spiralling and polluting fossil fuel oil. Already the "Oil Fields of East Anglia" are being promoted as a green way to diminish the harmful global warming caused by road transport.

It is said these new crops will boost the fortunes of struggling small farmers all over East Anglia, and MPs like Gillian Shepherd and Keith Simpson are throwing their weight behind the biofuels movement.

Small scale biofuel production is a good idea, but can it scale up to have the desired good result for the climate? Well, we haven't enough land to replace Oil based diesel altogether with biodiesel, and, even highly intensive agriculture will produce at best enough biofuel to make a 5-10% diesel (ie 90-95% still Oil based). This reduces the amount of CO2 emitted from a diesel-burning engines, so is it enough to do the trick?

Well, the EU target is to create 5.75% biofuels by 2010, but EU road traffic is growing at around 2% per year, and the emissions from just 4 years' traffic growth at 2% per year would put us back to where we started again. The cost to get us back to square one would requires all "set-aside" land across Europe, and some food land to be used for biofuels.

That might give us a breathing space to come up with something else, but, in other countries, vehicle numbers aren't increasing by only 2%; in China, they doubled over the last three years alone, so there's their CO2 to consider as well as ours.

That's the bad news. We hear the good news is that unlike pumping Oil from underground, growing next year's crop of oil seed rape absorbs the CO2 produced by vehicles this year, thanks to the wonders of photosynthesis. So that's all right then.

Except, that to grow this year's crop, farmers will have to cultivate the fields with tractors and drive the product to the factory, 3-8 million transport miles per year depending on production capacity, all of which will have consumed large amounts of diesel, only 10% of which is likely to be biodiesel. And except that growing the rape, as intensively as modern agriculture insists, means applying plenty of nitrogenous fertiliser. Unfortunately, it needs huge amounts of energy and greenhouse gas emissions to produce it, as well as causing the soil to release nitrous oxide (N2O), a gas which is 310 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming.

So, we are still looking for some good news to entitle us to feel that biodiesel is going to change the climate in the right direction. Unfortunately, there is one more distinctly biodiesel-unfriendly point. The government's chief scientist recently warned again that severe weather conditions across the world can be expected more often. Insurance claims for drought and heat-related animal and crop losses came to over £7 billion in the EU alone. Biofuels cannot, therefore, be regarded as a 'reliable' fuel source.

And, every field that grows biodiesel means one less field growing food - one less field's worth of supermarket shelves for us to choose from. No one would put up with that, least of all the supermarket owners. So they will try to fill those shelves by importing the food from abroad with further more transportation emissions.

What about the small farmers? To operate industrial scale biofuel plants, long-term contract prices will have to be kept low, for production to be "viable". Low long-term contract prices favour only large landowners and agri-businesses amongst who will demand GM crops to meet their commercial drive for high yields. And small farms will be unable to act on this scale and will continue to be bought out by large ones.

I support any measure which provides verified long-term and sustainable benefits to our environment, but suggest more research and consultation is required on the real "climate change" costs of biofuels. Let's support small scale production exemplars, but we must be cautious in growing a large agri-business industry that may only be a diversion from developing longer-term greener renewable energy sources (eg wave and tidal power).

What we really need is the political will to demand the Government to develop transport policies which reduce dependence on private motor cars. The review of the 10-year transport plan, due in July, provides an ideal opportunity.

I am indebted to Peter Lanyon for the inspiration and much research for this article.