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Archives for December 2010

Boxing Day Family Puzzler 2010

Mark Easton | 00:00 UK time, Sunday, 26 December 2010


Once is instigation.
Twice is repetition.
Thrice is tradition.

Now in its third year, my annual festive quiz is woven into the fabric of the BBC online Yuletide celebrations.

 Mark Easton's Boxing Day Family Puzzler

The quiz is unusual in that no-one is expected to know the answers. All the solutions are numbers and the idea is to see who gets closest. This gives all participants a chance to win, irrespective of age or festive state of repair.

The way I do it with my family is to divide the players into two or four teams depending on the size of the party. There are 20 questions and, to make it fair, each player/team should write their guesses down before revealing them.

The questions are below; the answers are here and there is a version of both that is easier to print here [53 Kb PDF].

Good luck and Merry Christmas!

1 There has been much fury at the government’s plans to introduce higher tuition fees for university students in England. What would be the weekly repayment for a graduate earning £500 a week?

2 The Royal Opera House saw its grant from the Arts Council slashed this year as part of the government’s Spending Review. How much money will it get next year?

3 Figures released this year compare the average annual mileage of cars today with that of 1995. Back then it was 9,700 a year. What is it now?

4 Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure became the highest paid Premier League footballer ever when he signed from Barcelona this year. How much was his five-year deal worth?

5 It has been suggested that more people vote in the X Factor than at Parliamentary elections. It is not true. How many more votes were cast in the 2010 general election than in the 2010 X Factor series?

Ceefax Christmas

A festive BBC message from bygone days

6 Peter Colat, a Swiss freediver, smashed the world record for holding his breath underwater this year. How long did he manage to stay submerged?

7 Bosnian cobblers made special shoes made of goat skin as a Christmas present for the Chilean miners who were rescued in October after spending 69 days deep underground. In feet, how deep were they?

8 Susan Boyle’s debut album I Dreamed A Dream smashed the Arctic Monkeys' UK record for the most albums sold in the first week. How many did she sell?

9 Figures out this year show that only 1% of 16-24 year-olds in Britain have never used the internet. What proportion of over 65-year-olds have never logged on?

10 How many Polish-born people are now resident in the UK, according to the latest official figures?

11 How much did Prince Charles receive from the National Offender Management Service this summer in rent for Dartmoor prison?

12 In 2000, the UK had the third-highest graduation rate among OECD countries with 37% of young people getting a degree compared with an average of 28%. The latest figures show the average is now 38%. What proportion of British young people currently graduate?

13 How much do the Russians say they will spend building new football grounds for the 2018 World Cup (in US dollars)?

14 In Greece, just 6% of children are born outside wedlock. What, according to the latest statistics, is the figure for the UK?

15 The latest unemployment figures show that the jobless rate for people aged 16-24 (including students) is 17.6%. What is the figure for people aged over 50?

16 The noise of a standard alarm clock is about 80 decibels, the level at which sustained exposure can cause hearing loss. A chainsaw is 100 decibels. A jet plane taking off is 120 decibels. The sound of the 2010 World Cup, the vuvuzela, was recorded as producing what level of noise at close proximity?

17 According to the Grocer magazine, by what percentage did sales of rhubarb increase in March as a consequence of Delia Smith’s recipe for rhubarb and ginger brulee?

18 According to new official survey data, out of 1,000 British adults, how many say they are gay or bisexual?

19 At Wimbledon this year, the American 23rd seed John Isner eventually beat the French qualifier Nicolas Mahut in the longest match in tennis history. The fifth set finished 70-68. Played over three days, how many minutes did they play?

20 Melissa Thompson, a 27-year-old from Salford, broke the world record for the fastest text message ever this year. Using a touchscreen keyboard, she wrote the phrase: “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human”. How long did it take her?

Translating cuts into savings isn't easy

Mark Easton | 16:25 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010


Cuts are not the same as savings. As the country waits for the axe to fall on public expenditure, one of the big questions is what the knock-on effect of the cuts will be. Some fear that slashing budgets in one place will simply force up spending somewhere else.

Screenshot of website

I was considering this as I scanned some of the latest spending data to be revealed today on the government's much-hyped transparency portal.

Having done some digging and a bit of basic arithmetic, I can tell you that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) spent £2.57m on translation/interpretation services in the six months from June this year. The spreadsheets itemise the payments to the language companies who make their living oiling the wheels of our increasingly multicultural, multilingual society.

On the 21st of July, for instance, the taxman signed six cheques totalling £474,346 payable to Thebigword Interpreting Services Ltd. The same month, HMRC paid out almost £30,000 to the translation firm K International.

Keeping such expenditure under control is a government ambition. The Ministry of Justice, for example, is currently "engaging with the market to explore how interpretation and translation can be delivered more efficiently". But they can't just pull the plug on these services.

The police and courts are obliged under articles five and six of the European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms to interpret or translate "for those who are arrested and who face criminal court proceedings".

However, at the same time, the government is looking to halve the amount of money spent on English classes. In October, Labour MP Keith Vaz asked the Skills Minister John Hayes: "In our multicultural big society, which is being created, what specific help will there be for those who do not have English as a first language to help them acquire these skills?"

"Language is critical", the minister replied. "The chances for people in settled communities without a grasp of English to acquire that grasp are essential if they are going to learn and work."

The key phrase in the response was "settled communities" and it has since become clear that the coalition plans to end public funding of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes for temporary migrant workers, asylum seekers and others who are not permanent residents.

Many will regard this as a sensible distinction, focusing spending on educating those who have the potential to contribute to national life over the longer-term. But there are warnings from trade unions and educationalists that the cuts will rob Peter to pay Paul.

The Institute of Race Relations published analysis last week suggesting that "English language proficiency is crucial to participation in the labour market, for accessing services, and to functioning independently in everyday life" and warning that "with language courses out of reach for many migrants, it will be all the more difficult for them to escape the traps of poverty and low-waged work.".

It may also push up the costs of employing translators and interpreters to help those without good English access public services.

Back in 2006 I revealed how the cost of translation and interpretation had topped £100m a year, prompting the Labour government to initiate a review. Since then, visa rules have been amended to push up the standard of English required for those wishing to live and work in the UK. New guidance has been issued to many departments on the necessity or otherwise of providing translated material for those already here.

But as I was totting up the 42 itemised payments for interpretation and translation services by HMRC since June, I couldn't help but wonder what impact the cuts to ESOL funding will have on the size of those costs in the future.

Can we imagine a Britain where all drugs are legal?

Mark Easton | 10:58 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010


As drugs minister for two years and more recently as defence secretary visiting the opium-producing region of Afghanistan, Bob Ainsworth says he saw how a policy of prohibition has failed to reduce the harms that drugs cause: in his words, "fuelling burglaries, gifting the trade to gangsters and increasing HIV infections".

Now, he argues, it is time to make all drugs available legally within a strict system of regulation - either prescribed by doctors or sold under licence like tobacco.

Many people find inconceivable the idea that you could pop to the High Street and buy some cannabis or ecstasy along with a packet of twenty and a bottle of scotch. The notion that a doctor might sign a script for pure cocaine or diamorphine might seem equally extraordinary.

But Bob Ainsworth's ideas reflect the situation that existed in Britain in the last century. Until 1916 you could buy cocaine and heroin over the counter in Harrods. Shop assistants might have suggested "Ryno's Hay Fever and Catarrh Remedy" (basically pure cocaine) "for when the nose is stuffed up, red and sore". And what better way to support the boys at the front during World War I than Harrods gift packs containing morphine and cocaine?

Until the mid-sixties in Britain, doctors could and did prescribe heroin and cocaine to patients. Records confirm that in 1962 one London doctor prescribed more than 600,000 heroin tablets to hundreds of users.

The patient list of psychiatrist Lady Isabella Frankau reads like a Who's Who of sixties bohemian cool. Poets, actors, musicians, writers and refugees from the strict drug laws in the US and Canada knew that Lady F would not ask too many questions and, if you were a bit short of readies, might even waive her consultancy fee. American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker turned up at her door and later recalled how "she simply asked my name, my address and how much cocaine and heroin I wanted per day".

So Mr Ainsworth seems to be essentially calling for a return to a situation that was once described as "the British System" of narcotics control - regarding drug use as a health rather than a criminal matter.

The theory is that if you regulate the supply of drugs, so that they are available legally, you take the trade away from criminal gangs. Instead of buying heavily-adulterated and dangerous heroin from a street dealer, a user could obtain quality-controlled morphine from a GP - and be encouraged to get treatment and support to overcome addiction.

Mr Ainsworth is not the first drugs minister to change their tune on prohibition once leaving office. His predecessor in the job Mo Mowlam wrote an article in the Guardian in 2002 in which she said pretty much the same thing, as British troops fought the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"May I suggest that rather than bombing civilians in various Muslim countries, the United States and Britain begin to take a more intelligent approach to the international drugs trade: namely, to legalise it. For by doing this, not only will we help solve one of the major problems facing the world today, the unregulated growth of drugs trafficking, but it would also further isolate the terrorists."

Mr Ainsworth knows that public attitudes and the political weather are against him - so, rather than simply urging that ministers end the system of prohibition, he wants an impact assessment to be conducted on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - the legislation which introduced drug classification in the UK:

"I call on those on all sides of the debate to support an independent, evidence-based review, exploring all policy options, including: further resourcing the war on drugs, decriminalising the possession of drugs, and legally regulating their production and supply."
Last week, in the foreword to a new UK drugs strategy, the home secretary said: "This Government does not believe that liberalisation and legalisation are the answer. Decriminalisation fails to recognise the complexity of the problem." Indeed, as reported at this blog, the government only considered two options in respect of its drugs strategy: doing nothing or implementing a prohibition-based strategy.

In my piece on BBC Breakfast this morning, Minister for Crime Prevention James Brokenshire said: "We don't think legalisation is the answer because it ignores why people actually get addicted to drugs in the first place. Those are a number of very complicated factors: some of them inter-generational, some of them relating to issues like homelessness or mental health."

However, Mr Ainsworth joins a growing number of public figures in Britain and around the world who are arguing for a rethink on global drugs strategy, among them chairman of the Bar Council Nicholas Green and former head of the Royal College of Physicians Sir Ian Gilmore.

Mr Ainsworth agrees that he has come a long way since his time as drugs minister. Then, in a debate in 2002, he warned Parliament that legalising drugs could see a rise in some crimes and that availability would inevitably increase with the risk that children as young as 10 could start using heroin and cocaine.

One MP on the opposite benches took a different view. "I ask the Government not to return to retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried, and we all know that it does not work," the member said. The rising star of the Conservative back benches had recently urged ministers to engage with the United Nations in considering legalisation and regulation of drugs. The MP's name was David Cameron.

Power to the parish

Mark Easton | 16:24 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010


It has been described to me as "a terrifying leap in the dark". Buried within the arcane text of the Localism Bill [667KB PDF] is a change which would effectively hand over hundreds of millions of pounds from English local authorities to rural parish councils and new ward-based councils in urban areas. Instead of being limited to maintaining the war memorial, civic clock or public conveniences, parishes and wards would suddenly be given real power backed up by real money.

Mother with two children at war memorial


Some see the change as a real commitment to localism, others as a recipe for disaster. If it goes ahead as planned, it may well amount to the biggest change to grass-roots politics in England since universal suffrage.

The parish council has its origins in the ancient Saxon and Norman villages of feudal England. Since 1894, when they were recognised in statute, grass-roots politics has been conducted in draughty English village halls. But for almost as long the parish council has been ridiculed as a refuge for the do-gooder, the self-serving and the strange.

But now neighbourhoods are to be given a "meaningful proportion" of what's called the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to spend on their local area. Sources at the Department for Communities and Local Government estimate that CIL is worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year and parish/ward councils could get "up to 50%" of that.

Community Infrastructure Levy - The Bill will require local authorities to allocate a proportion of Community Infrastructure Levy revenues back to the neighbourhood from which it was raised. This will allow those most directly affected by development to benefit from it.  

Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark told the BBC today:

"They'll get tens of thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of pounds a year coming into their communities for them to spend on a community centre, play facilities for children, perhaps to refurbish some of the local roads and local facilities under their direct control - very locally."


Currently, if a local authority gives permission for a private development it demands a Community Infrastructure Levy in return. So, say Tesco wants to build a new superstore, they might well have to agree to fund some capital project like a school or a new traffic system as well as handing over a cash lump sum before they get the green light. Under the government's plans, local people living near the development would get a sizeable chunk of that levy.

As well as money, parishes and wards will have a lot more influence. They will be encouraged to devise a neighbourhood plan to determine what development is allowed in their community subject to a referendum.

They might take over the running of some council services - parks, post offices or ponds. And local authorities will be required to consult the parish/ward representatives on new housing schemes which affect their neighbourhood.

There would be an expectation that if a local authority benefits from the New Homes Bonus (central government agrees to match council tax from new homes for six years) some of that money should be earmarked for the community.

Giving power to the people has a popular ring to it. But what power and to which people? There are some who are concerned that grass-roots localism might translate as dangerous amateurism.

The details are yet to be thrashed out but the government appears committed to pumping new life into the parish and ward. In the end it comes down to how much we trust local people to use their new powers wisely and well.

Update 0914, Tuesday 14 December: Some correspondents seem convinced that the committee portrayed in the Vicar of Dibley clip I used on my TV news reports on this story last night is not a parish council but a parochial church council. I am happy to put their minds at rest. The opening episode of the series sees the character David Horton calling "this meeting of Dibley Parish Council" to order and he is described on the programme's website as '"Chairman of the Parish Council". The fact that the vicar sits on the (fictional) committee does not exclude the council from discussing matters beyond the church. If viewers felt the portrayal was inaccurate or unfair, I suggest their grievance is with the Vicar of Dibley and not me.


Tuition fees: The argument in 50 words

Mark Easton | 11:33 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010


Some MPs are complaining that five hours is not long enough to debate the pros and cons of raising tuition fees in England.

Houses of Parliament

This might seem surprising since that amount of time would allow approximately 50,000 words to be spoken, equivalent to a decent-sized book.

Novels of about this length include The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

So, I wondered whether we might initiate an online debate on fees in which participants are allowed only 50 words to argue their point - one thousandth of those available to MPs.

I reckon we could get the whole matter sorted before lunch.

Do drug users need punishment or pity?

Mark Easton | 17:20 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Comments (70)

Today's government "Drugs Strategy" [466KB PDF] includes this five-word statement: "drug possession is a crime".

While technically accurate, the phrase disguises the national and global debate on whether we should view drug users as criminals deserving of punishment or patients in need of treatment. It is a debate that rages between the lines of the strategy itself.

On the one hand the document sets out a government approach that would "consistently enforce effective criminal sanctions to deter drug use" but simultaneously "offer every support for people to choose recovery as an achievable way out of dependency".

So there are "good" drug users who will be helped to give up and "bad" drug users whose refusal to enter treatment will leave them open to all the criminal sanctions on the statute book.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the body which tries to ensure signatories to the various UN drug conventions toe the international line, "people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution".

A recent UNODC report entitled "From coercion to cohesion: Treating drug dependence through health care, not punishment" [350KB PDF] questioned whether users of illicit substances may have already suffered enough.

Paragraph from UNODC paper, From Coercion to Cohesion

So, on one reading, today's strategy for the UK seems to be at odds with the direction of travel in the international arena. But beyond the two lines I have quoted concerning the criminality of drug possession, the document is largely in tune with ideas on how to "nudge" users to give up.

The UNODC has debated the kind of "coercion" that could be regarded as legitimate in the context of seeing the user as someone suffering from a disease and have concluded that cutting benefits does not necessarily mean "violating the rights of drug users and drug dependent individuals to refuse treatment".

Paragraph from UNODC paper, From Coercion to Cohesion

The UK government has leapt on that last suggestion, announcing that "we will offer claimants who are dependent on drugs or alcohol a choice between rigorous enforcement of the normal conditions and sanctions where they are not engaged in structured recovery activity, or appropriately tailored conditionality for those that are."

"Over the longer term, we will explore building appropriate incentives into the universal credit system to encourage and reward treatment take-up. In practice, this means that those not in treatment will neither be specifically targeted with, nor excused from, sanctions by virtue of their dependence, but will be expected to comply with the full requirements of the benefits regime or face the consequences."

For some, however, the drugs strategy will be seen as a missed opportunity to engage with another growing global debate: whether prohibition itself makes the problem worse.

The Home Secretary Theresa May closes down any thought that she might go down that road. "This Government does not believe that liberalisation and legalisation are the answer," she writes in the foreword to the strategy.

"Decriminalisation fails to recognise the complexity of the problem and gives insufficient regard to the harms that drugs pose to the individual. It neither addresses the risk factors which lead individuals to misuse drugs or alcohol, nor the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community."

In a separate "Impact Assessment" [303KB PDF] of the strategy it is explained what options the ministers considered when designing the policies:

Paragraph from Home Office's Impact Assessment

By restricting the reform agenda to a choice between doing nothing or Implimplementing their plans, ministers have effectively closed down all discussion of anything more radical.

Politics v Science yet again

Mark Easton | 10:03 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010


The government and the scientific community could be on a collision course over what critics describe as plans to "emasculate" the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The Home Office says its proposals will allow "greater flexibility".

Campaigners for drug law reform are claiming the government is "reaping vengeance" over the David Nutt affair with plans to remove the statutory requirement for scientists to sit on the ACMD.

Readers will recall how Professor Nutt, the former chairman of the advisory body, was sacked after suggesting that classification of some drugs was at odds with their relative harm. Seven members of the council then resigned in disgust, resulting in a showdown between ministers and the science community.

Without public consultation or any prior notification, government plans to remove the need for scientific experts on the committee appear under the "miscellaneous" section of the Police Reform Bill [742KB PDF].

Text from the Police Reform Bill

It may look like a small arcane change, but the amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act effectively removes a keystone in the architecture of Britain's drugs policy.

The ACMD was created to ensure that the prohibition of substances was conducted with regard to the evidence of how harmful those drugs were rather than moral or popular pressures. As such, the Misuse of Drugs Act insists there must be at least six scientists among the 20 members including a chemist, a doctor, a vet and a dentist.

Text from the Misuse of Drugs Act on membership of the Advisory Council

The Crime Prevention Minister James Brokenshire has told the BBC:

"Scientific advice is absolutely critical to the government's approach to drugs and any suggestion that we are moving away from it is absolutely not true. Removing the requirement on the Home Secretary to appoint to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs at least one person with experience in six specific areas will allow us greater flexibility in the expertise we are able to draw on. We want the ACMD to be adapted to best address the challenges posed by the accelerating pace of challenges in the drugs landscape."

This adaptation, however, has gone down very badly with some sections of the scientific community. The Drug Equality Alliance which campaigns for what it calls "rational and objective drugs laws" has penned an open letter condemning the proposals:

"Seemingly the legacy of the sacking of former council chair professor David Nutt, and the subsequent resignations of most of the former scientists on the council, is now reaping vengeance by sweeping away potential heretics that might seek to use evidence rather than tabloid hysteria to fulfil the need to be seen to be doing something."

Strong stuff, but representative of the depth of feeling still remaining after Professor Nutt's dismissal by the previous government. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has been equally forthright in its criticism of the move. Director Imran Khan says "the government are trying to take us back to the time of 'Minister knows best'."

"Scrapping the need for expertise on the drugs advice is not only bad science, but it's also terrible politics. The status of the ACMD is still a raw nerve, after Alan Johnson sacked its Chair and caused the resignation of over half a dozen of its members. The Home Office would be hard-pressed to find a worse fight to pick with the science community."

The government is adamant that it is not picking any fight and is committed to using evidence to drive policy decisions. The Science Minister David Willetts said as much to the BBC recently. "I certainly believe in evidence-based policy and the prime minister does and the cabinet are committed to it".

However, the decision to remove the statutory requirement to have half a dozen scientists on the ACMD is a significant moment in the sweep of UK drugs policy. The so-called "British system" of narcotics control, which held sway for most of the 20th Century, assumed that it was primarily a matter for doctors and other professionals.

In the 60s, amid public anxiety at the arrival of many new psychotropic substances, it was decided to follow the American model and criminalise the possession of a wide range of drugs. The legislation was enshrined in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

But also included in the statute was the creation of the ACMD, regarded as a bulwark against the perceived risk that prohibition and criminal sanction against drug users would be driven by morals or populism rather than evidence of harm. It was part of that debate which saw Parliament demand there must be at least six expert scientific advisors on the advisory council.

Dr Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP and Director of the Campaign for Evidence-based Policy, said:

"The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was ahead of its time in embedding expert and scientific advice into policy-making. In the forty years since then the need for good evidence to inform policy has increased, yet the Government seem to want to go back to a pre-scientific era in policy terms."

I understand existing members of the ACMD are broadly content with the idea of scrapping the requirement on the understanding it will make room for more social scientists to come onto the body rather than, perhaps, a dentist or a vet.

Critics of the move point out that there is no reason why you can't have more social scientists AND maintain the "key" scientific roles, but there has been growing ministerial disquiet that the strict rules can hamper the government's ability to move rapidly against a new drug threat.

In March this year, after a number of the scientists on the ACMD had resigned in protest at David Nutt's sacking, the home secretary was warned that the absence of a vet on the council meant the government could not proscribe mephedrone. I wrote about the crisis at the time.

In the end, Home Office lawyers found a way to work around the problem, aided by the fact that there was little Parliamentary opposition to the move to ban the so-called "legal high".

Since then, of course, there have been a number of learned articles suggesting that the absence of proper scientific scrutiny of the harms associated with mephedrone has made the situation worse, not better. Again, I wrote about this last month.

It is the desire to deal rapidly with new and potentially dangerous drugs arriving in Britain that is driving the government reform proposals for the ACMD. Section 149 of the Police Reform Bill enacts an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act allowing ministers to slap a temporary ban on any substance without consideration by the advisory council.

Some critics suggest that this is a "charter for political moral panic". The government argues it is a practical solution for dealing with the fast-moving threat from new and potentially dangerous drugs. Either way, it appears that hostilities may be about to start up once again between the worlds of politics and science.

Young and jobless

Mark Easton | 17:35 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010


The number of young long-term jobless in Britain has almost doubled in the last two years according to new analysis of official unemployment figures.

The research conducted by the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Prince's Trust charity suggests the cost of youth unemployment could be as high as £155m a week.

While the latest government statistics show falls in unemployment and a shorter dole queue, today's analysis of the data suggests the headlines disguise the plight of jobless young people.

The number of 16-24-year-olds out of work for more than 12 months has almost doubled in two years to 232,000 - a 16-year high. The number claiming Job Seekers Allowance for over a year has more than trebled in the same period.

Table showing youth unemployment and JSA claimants

The increase in long-term joblessness is a particular concern because evidence from previous recessions suggests that for young people taking the first tentative steps into the world of work, if unemployment lasts more than a few months it has a devastating impact on their life chances.

In East London, Laura Hurrell has been claiming Jobseekers Allowance for over a year. She tells a story of countless applications, a handful of interviews and daily knock-backs. Here she is, at the beginning of her working life, and it seems no-one wants her.

"It's been horrible. I am on depression tablets - I just don't want to be on benefits for the rest of my life." Laura lacks both self-confidence and skills. One in 10 16-24-year-olds in the UK left school without qualifications and it is this group who are suffering most in the downturn.

"Most of my friends have got jobs - they go out and they do stuff. But me, I don't because I just stay at home because I can't spend no money because I have to save it."

The Prince's Trust helps tens of thousands of young often disadvantaged young people every year. For as little as £1,000 investment, the charity has been able to turn many lives around.

Chief Executive Martina Milburn believes ministers ignore the implications of youth unemployment at their peril:

"For a relatively small amount of money you can help give young unemployed people confidence and the tools they need to get a job, otherwise it's too easy just to say we won't bother with them, we'll leave them, and then in 20 years time look at some huge great benefits bill and wonder how we got there."

Evidence of how fortunes can change is to be found among the gleaming towers of London's Dockland. Bankers out for a meal do not realise that the confident young woman making their burrito was rescued from worklessness and poverty by the Trust.

A few weeks ago Shoyagay Nelson was a single mum who could barely feed herself and her baby and so lacking in self-belief she"stared at the floor"all the time. She is now regarded as a high-flyer by the Wahaca restaurant chain having been given help to get on a chef's course.

"I feel really good because now I feel healthy, I can walk down the road with my head held high knowing that I have got a job and that I can provide for my son."

Government ministers say their Work Programme and welfare reforms are designed to ensure another generation does not get locked into benefit dependency but they accept the challenge is to get business moving again, creating jobs and giving young people the chance to get skills and experience.

Today's report estimates the price of failure. Adding together unemployment benefit and lost productivity the authors suggest the cost of youth joblessness currently runs at up to £155m every week. If we fail to support the hundreds of thousands of youngsters who have been without work for a year already, they suggest we risk betraying a generation.

The myths of 24-hour drinking

Post categories:

Mark Easton | 14:05 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Tony Blair's text pledge to students at the 2001 election - "cdnt give a xxxx 4 lst ordrs? vote labour on thrsdy 4 xtra time" - translated into one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented pieces of legislation ever passed. To many people, the Licensing Act 2003 was either about the madness of introducing 24-hour drinking or the futility of trying to create a continental cafe culture in England and Wales.

In reality, the law was almost entirely in tune with the instincts and ambitions of the current government: it sought to cut red tape, to move power from Whitehall to local people, to nudge the citizenry to behave responsibly. For all the political bluster at the time and since, in a White Paper today the coalition confirms it will not ditch the act but expand it.

A pint being pulled

A brief recap on how we got here... The story goes back to the 1980s when the collapse of traditional manufacturing led local authorities to look to the night-time economy to create jobs. Run-down urban centres would be regenerated into Continental-style piazzas filled with bars and restaurants, theatres and dance-halls.

But the dream of the cafe culture quickly evaporated. Drinks industry lawyers won a key legal battle that meant licences could not be refused simply because councils thought there were already enough bars in an area.

The result was that one type of business elbowed out almost all others - the mega-pub selling cheap alcohol to 18-24 year-olds, the so-called vertical drinking-dens turning over vast profits.

A decade later and the binge-drinking culture had turned town and city centres into no-go areas for large parts of the population. Government Ministers scratched their heads and wondered how they might reawaken that vision of a European-style night-time economy welcoming to all.

Local planners said: "Give us control of licensing." Ministers agreed.

Local police said: "Do away with the clang of the 11pm closing bell that creates nightly flash-points of disorder." Ministers agreed.

Local councillors said: "Give us more powers to close down problem pubs." Again Ministers agreed.

Three years later the government assessed the impact. Had the warnings of round-the-clock drunkenness been realised? Had café culture come to the British High Street?
No and no.

Only a few hundred bars and clubs had applied for the 24-hour licences and even these were rarely used. Levels of drinking and drink-related violence had remained stable or fallen slightly.

The problems seemed to be local council resistance to use the powers they had and police concern that extending opening times had simply pushed the booze-fuelled flash-point later into the night.

The Licensing Act 2003 has had terrible press but no-one is demanding a return to the old days. If anything, today's Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill simply hangs a few coalition horse brasses on the beams of the existing legislation: people living further away from a potential bar or club will be allowed to comment on licensing applications, councils can demand late-night venues pay for extra policing and there are a few minor tweaks to the rules.

As for cafe culture, let's give it time. Cultural change is more akin to a slow roast than a cup of instant.

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