Wednesday, 20 March 2013

'Violence will not be tolerated by our armed forces'

As news stories go, it didn’t seem the most – well… newsworthy. A bit like being told France is full of French people or the Sahara desert has lots of sand.
Nevertheless, someone at the BBC decreed that it was the most interesting item on what was admittedly a fairly quiet morning for news.
“Younger members of the armed forces returning from duty are more likely to commit violent offences than the rest of the population,” we were told. Then, standing back a little from this less-than-amazing assertion, the newsreader added the rider, “a study suggests”.
In other news, professional sportspeople tend to be fitter than the man on the Kesgrave omnibus. A study suggests.
But let’s consider this a moment. The violence of young servicemen  may not be surprising, but it is worth thinking about.
The report, first published in the medical journal The Lancet, comes from analysis by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London. It is based on the records of 14,000 British service personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And the headline story is about people who are paid to be violent abroad continuing to be violent when they get home. As if anyone should be shocked by that.
There are, of course, several reasons why this might happen. And several ways, too, of spinning the figures.
Supporters of military discipline may point with pride to the fact that military personnel are slightly less likely to break the law than the average person.
As if there was any average person out there. It might be interesting to see how the forces compare in this respect with people in other jobs – with teachers, for example, or the police. Or journalists. Or the unemployed.
Those figures, however – without which the bare statistic about the military doesn’t really mean a lot – are not available.
On the other side of the coin there’s the fact that men under 30 who have been in combat zones are three times more likely to commit violent offences than those who haven’t.
An army man says “the vast majority” of forces personnel commit no offence.
Someone else might think it shocking that 20 per cent of our young soldiers have committed a violent offence after coming home. That’s one in five of those under-30s.
One suggested reason for this aggressive behaviour is the mental problem now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s the aspect, naturally, that the Institute of Psychiatry is most interested in.
Age, rank and experience have all been identified as factors in the likelihood of violence.
Those under 30, those in the lower ranks, and those who have been shot at are likelier to offend. (And basketball players are likely to be taller than jockeys.)
Those who drink a lot are also more likely to get violent. (And jockeys tend to be slimmer than sumo wrestlers.)
Put those findings together (not necessarily the bits about jockeys) and you have a pretty obvious chicken-or-egg situation. Which came first, the drink or the stress?
And, to be fair to Professor Simon Wessely, who led the research, he’s aware of the most obvious fact underlying the whole issue.
“The military don’t select chess-playing choirboys,” he says. “They select people who often come from difficult and aggressive backgrounds – and they’re the ones who are most likely to end up in the parts of the military that do the actual fighting.”
Quite rightly, though, he’s concerned for the mental welfare of the troops.
And the inevitable difficulty many have in adjusting between “out there” and “back here”, where vastly different behaviour is expected of them.
Acting in what might seem a properly military way on patrol in Kabul may not look so good in Tavern Street. (It may not look that great to the ordinary people of Kabul, either, but that’s another matter.)
The MOD spokesman quoted in the BBC report seemed unaware of the irony in his words when he said: “Any violent offence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated by our armed forces.”
Professor Wessely doesn’t draw – at least, not publicly – what seems to me the no-brain conclusion from all of this research.
That if we really cared about our young people; if we really considered their mental (and physical) well-being; if we really didn’t want them to behave violently back here (or out there); if we really supported our troops… we wouldn’t go sending them off into needless wars in the first place.




Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The inconvenience of Fukushima

You have to admire the politeness and reserve of the Japanese. On a tour of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant last week – or what’s left of it – the manager, Takeshi Takahashi, apologised to visiting journalists for the inconvenience of the disaster that took place there two years ago this week.
Some inconvenience.
One BBC report of the visit suggested that fuel rods with “the potential to wipe out the northern hemisphere” were teetering at the top of an unstable 100ft tower.
Not the most reassuring report I’ve ever taken in with my breakfast. And not, perhaps, quite the most balanced.
But even the calmest assessments of the situation are troubling, to put it mildy.
That “teetering tower” is the plant’s reactor building four, where more than 1,500 highly radioactive spent fuel rods sit in a cooling pool three storeys up. They are outside the reactor's steel and concrete containment vessel.
The complicated operation to remove the rods to a place of relative safety will take more than two years to complete. And it won’t start until the end of this year, after a separate building has been completed around the outside of the existing one.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the plant, says the building is safe. But then it would undoubtedly have said the same thing the day before the tsunami struck in 2011.
If another big earthquake hits the region any time soon, who knows what will happen?
And then there’s reactor building three. Unvisited – unvisitable – by journalists, managers or safety crews because its twisted, rusting steel and concrete hulk remains too radioactive.
Remote-control cranes peck at the rubble, under which lie more spent ruel rods.
Meanwhile, water leaking into the basements around the reactors is too contaminated to be flushed out to sea. Instead it is pumped into huge storage tanks for “safe” keeping.
There are already hundreds of the specially-built 1,000-tonne tanks. A new one has to be built every two or three days. What happens in a couple of years when there is no room on the site for more tanks is an open question.
For now, the clean-up operation is employing 3,000 workers. I can only begin to imagine how stressful their job must be.
“We need to remove the broken and damaged fuel and safely isolate it,” Mr Takahashi explains.
“This work will take 30 to 40 years. Even during the process we should never release any radioactive material into the surrounding environment.”
That should safely see out Mr Takahashi’s career, and probably that of his successor’s successor.
Well, maybe not that safely.
Who can say what further shocks the earth’s itchy crust may have in store within that sort of timescale?


One of the first questions posed about Fukushima – even while the devastated people were fleeing their homes, or the place their homes had been – was: Who pays?
And the answer, quick as a nuclear flash, came back from the insurance companies of the world: Not us.
It was said in a way that was obviously meant to be reassuring. Even if Japan is totally engulfed by the sea, it won’t mean meltdown for the rest of the world’s economy. Or at least for its insurance companies.
Two years on, it’s clear that the companies that built and serviced the disaster-hit plant – the American firm General Electric and the Japanese Toshiba and Hitachi – have got away scot-free too.
And that despite the fact that the official review ordered by the Japanese government found that faulty, outdated equipment played a major role in the catastrophe.
Most of the enormous cost of trying to clear up the environmental damage has fallen on the Japanese taxpayer.
None of the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes, their livelihoods, their communities, their loved ones have received enough compensation to rebuild their lives.
Early on in the aftermath, it was reported that the disaster would make many countries look again at their laws governing liability for such events.
So far just one country has actually enacted a law to make the suppliers of nuclear equipment liable in case of disaster. India.

Stand up for the fox


Statistics that float around the internet, especially in forums such as Facebook, are notoriously unreliable. And they can be very difficult to check.
But even if the figures are imprecise, a very clear case is made here: “Four fox attacks on children reported in last 10 years, leading to a call for a cull on foxes; 6,000 dog attacks on children requiring hospital treatment each year, not leading to a call for a cull on dogs.”
Frankly, I’m extremely sceptical about even those four reported fox attacks.
Of course, I’m not calling for a cull on dogs (though a case might be made for some of their owners). Just for a little balance and sanity.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Protest votes a fillip for the real Nasty Party

Last week’s Eastleigh by-election was hailed by many people – not least UKIP themselves – as a triumph for the UK Independence Party. But it was really a triumph for the Liberal Democrats.

It was, after all, the junior partners in the government coalition who won the seat. UKIP came second, an achievement that wasn’t so much good news for them as bad news for the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems won despite their part in a rightly unpopular government.

Despite the fact that the previous (and previously popular) holder of the seat had lost it over a well-publicised guilty plea to a charge of perverting the course of justice.

Despite the campaign being overshadowed, right up to polling-day, by some very seedy allegations indeed against the party’s former chief executive.

And despite the fact that they have clearly been displaced by UKIP as the party that attracts the protest vote.

Many people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 in protest against both the Labour government and the Tory opposition are highly unlikely to do it again.

And one hopes that few people would vote for UKIP if there was any danger of them actually getting into office. Or if anyone actually took the trouble to find out what they really stand for.

Their chinless leader, Nigel Farage, may be a decent comedy turn but he’s a deeply unappealing politician.

The funniest thing about his quip against the Tories – “now the party of gay marriage and windmills” – was that those are arguably the best things David Cameron and his party stand for. (Not that I think gay marriage is an issue worth troubling with. I find it equally baffling that any gay couple would think getting married mattered, or that anyone else would think it mattered to prevent them.)

Farage’s own party pretends to be a single-issue lobby against the European Union, the gravy train on which he and 11 of his colleagues are passengers. But it does profess other policies.

Policies which mostly fall into one or more of three categories: the barmy, the nasty and the deluded.

Their tax policies, for instance, would add up to a severe worsening of the country’s economic mess – and that’s before you even consider the potentially disastrous consequences of quitting Europe.

Their underlying theme is, surprise surprise, to benefit people like themselves – small to middling self-made businessmen. So, then, abolition of employers’contributions to National Insurance, inheritance tax and (unspecified) “taxes on small businesses”.

They want to reduce government spending drastically – yet spend 40 per cent more on defence and double the number of prison places.

It doesn’t come anywhere near adding up – except to a sense that they want to take over the Tories’ old mantle of Nasty Party.

They also want, somewhat irrelevantly, to repeal the ban on smoking in pubs and hold a referendum on the hunting ban. And, interestingly, to bring back student grants – which sounds superficially appealing but is totally inconsistent with their other financial ideas.

Their real doorstep appeal, though, is on immigration. And it’s there that their true xenophobic nastiness comes to the fore.

The point is quite well made by one of their former MEPs, who defected to the Conservatives during the Eastleigh campaign.

Spanish by passport, Argentinian by birth, and a woman, Marta Andreasen was always a somewhat eccentric UKIP member.

She explained her decision to quit the party like this: “I agree that there should be proper controls on immigration, but UKIP’s position on this – warning that millions of Bulgarians and Romanians would come to this country – was one of the things that contributed to my leaving the party.

“We were coming too close to the BNP. We were on the margins of the racists.”

Pretty narrow margins, I’d say.

The Bulgarian/Romanian question, of course, has yet to be proven either way.

It may be that, like so many Poles, they will come here, take a look, then go home again.

Or that, as with the Lithuanians and Latvians, their presence here in fairly small numbers relative to the UK population will be enough to cause real problems in the countries they have left.

As foreign secretary William Hague admits, any estimate of the number of Bulgarians and Romanians who will head for the UK once current restrictions end next year can only be guesswork.

Hague, understandably, wants to tackle what he calls “benefit tourism” – “so that people are not drawn to our country, or any country, just by being attracted to the benefits”.

Of course, Hague’s government has the answer to that in its hands. And one it sometimes seems intent on pursuing.

Wreck the benefits system entirely – and with it the NHS and the education system too – and no one will want to live here. Including those of us who already do.

That ought to suit Farage and his chums down to the depopulated, non-European ground.