Monday, August 1, 2011

At least Lord Coe is up to speed | Victoria Coren

Sebastian Coe does not like the idea of gymnasts going to raves. He doesn't want them getting E'd off their faces in fields. He doesn't want synchronised swimmers slipping off their nose clips to wang a line of charlie. He doesn't want to see archers on speed.

With all this concern, it sounds like the London Olympics are going to be quite the party.

Michael Stow, head of science and medicine at UK Anti-Doping (the agency responsible for drug testing in British sport) has suggested relaxing the rules on recreational drugs in time for 2012. Good news for the nightclubs of Hackney, if not the street cleaners.

Athletes currently receive an automatic two-year ban if they are found using prohibited stimulants. Mr Stow thinks this penalty is a little draconian when the stimulants are not always intended for cheating.

"More often," he says, "it's a case of them being used in a social setting." That's a charming use of language. A "social setting"? One pictures an array of athletes taking tea on the lawns of a stately home, their muscles rippling under lace gowns and boaters.

"May I offer you a cucumber sandwich?"

"Very kind. Might I pass you the crack pipe?"

"Thank you, I won't. But I wouldn't say no to a spot of LSD and perhaps another slice of that wonderful Dundee cake."

Michael Stow argues that "social" drugs should not necessarily result in the same ban as the cheating type. Retired Olympian Steve Cram says he might be right.

Enter Lord Coe.

"There is no ambiguity," he roared. "You want to be part of this project then don't take drugs. Full stop. There is no place for drugs. You can't mix the message up. It is the morality of the knacker's yard."

Thrilling! I love his certainty, I love his rhetoric; I love his strong, clear, emphatic statement of principle. There is something incredibly seductive, in these nervous, non-committal and focus-groupy times, about a person who knows his own mind and is not afraid to say so.

Most of us feel confused, indecisive and slightly fraudulent as we scurry around pretending to be grown-ups. Lost, flawed and desperate for guidance (or is that just me?), we're suckers for someone who appears to know what's what.

We love the crisp, Tannoyed voice of an airline pilot, the busy sternness of a hospital doctor, the ethical clarity of a vicar or the technical know-how of a visiting builder – all of whom probably feel equally confused and fraudulent underneath, but God bless them for pretending otherwise. Someone in this mess has got to be mother. That's why, however strong the arguments for electoral reform, the British will never go for it because the one thing we don't want is an uncertain coalition. Lucky we haven't… oh.

Reading Michael Stow's arguments, I drifted in my usual fog of moral relativism (Sportsmen should be role models, shouldn't they? Or is that an unjust burden? Drugs ruin lives and bodies, don't they? Or is that hysterical? I'm allowed an opinion, aren't I? Or am I too drug-ignorant to be qualified? Should I wait until I stop waking up in the night in tears for everything I might be screwing up in my own life, holding on to heartfelt faith but doubting my own hopeful actions and inactions, staring my errors and fears and faults and massive life-gambles in the face, praying daily that this bumpy and winding path leads home, before I start judging other people?) until Seb Coe's fearless absolutism burned through like a shaft of sunlight.

For Lord Coe, it's simple. Bend the rules for Olympic athletes? That way, he knows, lies the coke-snorting, drunk-driving, tart-shagging, spit-roasting, injunction-shopping lifestyle of the footballer. No dice. That's one problem solved. Hurray!

Then I turned the page and read that activists are putting posters up all over east London which say "Shariah Controlled Zone: no alcohol, no gambling, no music or concerts, no form of prostitution, no drugs or smoking". I assume these are not intended solely for the incoming athletes.

And I thought: no drugs, I like that. No smoking: bit harsh, I wish they'd just kept it to restaurants. No alcohol: wouldn't be a big problem for me, might feel a bit sorry for those who love a pint, I'd be delighted to compromise on "No drunkenness". No prostitution: unrealistic, better to legalise and tax it for the workers' protection. No gambling: that would be bearable as long as people understood the moral and practical differences between poker, sports betting and casino gaming, which they don't. No music or concerts: don't be so bloody stupid.

And I realised: 1) politically, we all know exactly what we believe, even we limp-liberal relativists who like to see all sides; we cheer strong opining only when it's the expression of what we secretly or unconsciously think already, stated more bravely than we'd dare ourselves.

2) Governments operate exactly like we do, their certainties a boringly predictable product of their environment and experience. Being increasingly made up of career politicians straight out of university, they are rather particular: they do drink, they don't smoke, they fear drugs, they like music, they're deeply conflicted about prostitutes and they don't know the first thing about gambling.

So, I tell myself and anyone with a similar weakness: beware the yearning for clear leadership, for as long as Parliament is so stubbornly homogeneous. It's comforting at home. But until a wider range of social types is in that house, be grateful for every vagueness, every uncertainty and every law they don't make.

Having said that, Sebastian Coe is still right. Obviously the drug rules for athletes should not be softened up. I mean, like, duh.

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A letter to … Dad, who needs to start living again

I want to say sorry. Only in these last few awful months have we realised that Mum was ill and life should not have been this way. We were young when she started the indoctrination. My sister and I found it fun; a girly gossip about your family. We bonded through our dislike of your relatives; Mum always keen to tell us some new treat of information that would be layered on our already warped picture of our aunt, your only sibling, and her children.

We lived far away and had no real experience of them. Mum was keen to paint their lives: every detail and decision used by her to show us how wrong they were, that their values were not ours. We started seeing them as a group, never allowed to know them as individuals.

When we were growing up, it was easier for you not to see it. You went along with Mum's plans in exchange for a painless life, not noticing how little contact you had with your family. The times we did see our cousins, our minds were primed only to see the differences, my sister and I picking up each new morsel of shocking behaviour and bringing it back to her like a gift.

Mum wanted you to sever your family ties; not to see your own sister, your nephews. We closed ranks. If only you knew how much hate your wife had and how she was passing that hate on to us.

When your sister died too young, Mum got what she wanted. No more visits. Our cousins almost adults, no more strained family reunions. It was then that she started on you. It was the small things at first; a night out when you had a little too much to drink, an awayday where you bought the wrong tickets at the train station. All compiled in Mum's head, then passed on to my sister and me as clear evidence of your uselessness. She started not going out with you, blaming you for causing her to live like a hermit.

When you retired and started to do all the things you wanted to, she stepped up the campaign. Your cookery lessons were giggled over. Imagine a 65-year-old wanting to learn how to cook! You rekindled a passion for Spanish, but she would not let you carry on, convincing you that it was stupid and pointless. I saw you trying so hard to make her happy, only to be hurt and confused by her constant criticism and icy condemnation.

Mum's breakdown at Christmas caused us to start painfully talking to each other. You were unused to, and unsure of, opening up to your grown-up daughters, initially hesitant to lay blame, reticent about telling us of how sometimes you had feared getting up in the morning in case you did something wrong. A book placed on the wrong shelf, a pan left to bubble over for a second would spell the end of your day, cursed by Mum's disapproval.

And now we know that Mum's mind is ill, and her treatment has begun, we need also to reinstate your life. It took us all so long to see that she had an illness. Dad, I need to you find your love of life again, to play music and sing out loud, to discover new passions and enjoy long forgotten ones, or even just to let the pan boil over. Lots of love, Anna

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Public sector workers need 'discipline and fear', says Oliver Letwin

Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin says he is determined to 'instil' fear among public sector workers to push productivity. Photograph: David Levene

Oliver Letwin, the coalition's policy minister, has revealed the government's determination to instil "fear" among those working in the public sector, who he claimed had failed for the past 20 years to improve their productivity.

Letwin, architect of the coalition's plans to reform public services, told a meeting at the offices of a leading consultancy firm that the public sector had atrophied over the past two decades.

In controversial comments angering teachers, nurses and doctors, he warned that it was only through "some real discipline and some fear" of job losses that excellence would be achieved in the public sector.

Letwin added that some of those running schools and hospitals would not survive the process and that it was an "inevitable and intended" consequence of government policy.

"You can't have room for innovation and the pressure for excellence without having some real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers that things may go wrong if they don't live up to the aims that society as a whole is demanding of them," he said.

"If you have diversity of provision and personal choice and power, some providers will be better and some worse. Inevitably, some will not, whether it's because they can't attract the patient or the pupil, for example, or because they can't get results and hence can't get paid. Some will not survive. It is an inevitable and intended consequence of what we are talking about."

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU), reacted angrily to Letwin's comments, describing them as "nonsense".

He added: "Public sector workers are already working in fear – fear of cuts to their job, pension, living standards and of privatisation. Far from improving productivity, the cuts are creating chaos in vital public services."

Letwin was speaking at the launch of a liberal thinktank's report at the London headquarters of KPMG, one of the biggest recipients of government cash, which won the first contract for NHS commissioning following the decision to scrap primary care trusts and further open the health service to private companies.

Letwin's recent white paper on public sector reform had been dismissed as watered down earlier this month amid speculation that the Liberal Democrats had vetoed radical change. But Letwin said on Wednesday that he believed he was prosecuting "the most ambitious set of public service reforms that any government in modern Britain has undertaken", adding that productivity had improved across the economy except in the public sector in the past 20 years.

A spokesman for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said he did not know where Letwin had sourced his figures. However, an ONS analysis that works back to 1997, shows that productivity in public services fell on average by 0.3% a year between 1997 and 2008 because the level of inputs, such as staff and equipment, increased faster than the output, such as operations performed and numbers of pupils taught.

Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, said last night that she did not recognise Letwin's portrayal of the public sector. "Death rates in hospitals have been falling, satisfaction levels have been rising," she said. "What hasn't changed is the Tories' antipathy to public services. And the idea that the way to improve public services is to put fear into those who provide them is absolutely grotesque."

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "It is widely acknowledged that there is a problem with productivity in public services. The government's policy is to improve it and provide the best value for the taxpayer."

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Knife crime on rise as youth services cut

Knife crime Knife crime in London has increased by almost 10% in the past year as local authorities cut youth services. Photograph: Katie Collins/PA

UK cities should brace themselves for a summer of gang and knife violence as the impact of cuts to youth services takes hold, experts are warning.

Youth violence is already increasing in London. Figures given to the Guardian reveal that serious youth violence increased by 4% year on year across the capital, with a 9.6% hike in knife crime.

There are fears that deep reductions in youth service budgets, particularly to programmes that divert inner-city youths away from gangs and knife crime, could have a devastating impact on crime levels.

Professor John Pitts, who advises several London local authorities on gangs and violent crime, warned that inner cities were likely to experience increased crime as the holidays begin.

"If you cut summer activities for young people as night follows day you will see an increase in crime," he said. "My anxiety is that those gang members who were in school will now be on the streets. Coupled with cuts to the services they use and fewer youth workers who can mediate, those streets will be a lot more dangerous and I would expect the level of crime and violence to rise."

Gang violence, including peer violence against girls and young women, is increasing, he said. "It is getting worse, it is becoming more embedded and more serious – this is not the time to be pulling the plug."

Eight teenagers have died in London already this year, including Negus McLean, 15, who was chased by seven youths on bicycles before being stabbed. Earlier this month Yemurai Kanyangarara, 16, died after being stabbed in the neck – two 15-years-old youths and a 14-year-old boy have since been arrested.

According to Scotland Yard the number of recorded knife-crime injuries in London went up from 941 to 1,070 in the three months between February and April this year compared with the previous three months; victims in the 13-24 age group injured during knife crime increased by more than 30% between 2008-09 and 2010-11.

Youth services, particularly those that prevent gang violence, have been savaged by local authorities because of government-imposed cuts. More than ?100m was removed from local authority services for young people up to March this year, according to the Confederation of Heads of Young People's Services, which surveyed 41 of their members. Budget cuts imposed at the start of the financial year averaged 28%, but some local authorities were cutting 70%, 80% or even 100% of youth services, it said. Almost 3,000 full-time staff who work with youths have been lost.

Universal services such as youth clubs have been hit hardest: 96% of the 41 heads of youth services who responded said club activities would be either reduced or stopped altogether by April next year.

MPs on the education select committee warned parliament last month that "disproportionate budget reductions" could have "dramatic and long-lasting" consequences. Graham Stuart, the select committee's chairman, said the current situation was "damaging" and an increase in crime was "inevitable". He said: "Tim Loughton [the children's minister] has said that cuts to children's services are disproportionate and we agree."

Youth services have been cut in every area of the country. According to the union Unison, Norfolk, Suffolk, Buckinghamshire and Manchester part of a "growing number of local authorities planning to get rid of the youth service altogether". Birmingham is likely to reduce youth services by 50% over the next three years; Haringey and Hull local authorities have cut 75% of its their youth services; Warwickshire is facing an 80% cut; the prime minister's Witney constituency, in Oxfordshire, has closed 20 out of 27 youth centres – there is not a youth service in the country that remains untouched.

At the same time London Councils – a lobbying organisation that promotes the interests of the 32 London boroughs, the City of London, the Metropolitan Police Authority and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority – has warned about the consequences of slashing funding to youth-offending teams by as much as 30% in some boroughs.

And the Youth Justice Board is to be scrapped, leading MPs to warn that the move could prove costly if crime rates rise.

The government hopes the voluntary sector will play a bigger role in tackling the youth violence, announcing ?18m of funding earlier this year to help charities tackle knife, gun and gang crime after Brooke Kinsella, the actress turned knife crime campaigner whose brother Ben was killed in 2008, released a report.

Some charities argue this is not new money, and with 70% of voluntary organisation funding coming from already squeezed local authorities, according to the union Unison, some in the sector fear charities will be unable to provide a comprehensive system.

Smaller charities, while doing positive work, can be unco-ordinated and much effective inter-agency work will be lost, warned Mick Hurley, an adviser to Greater Manchester police on serious youth violence, who was awarded an OBE last year for services to young people.

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Problem solved

My seven-year-old daughter weighs 32kg (five stone). She is not fat, but is tubby and can be greedy. She is my build – overweight, but not grossly so. I don't want to give her a phobia about being overweight but, on the other hand, I don't want her to eat herself into a miserable, fat adulthood with all the related illness that obesity brings. I tell her she needs to eat healthily and should not overeat. I do not ban sweets and crisps, but I do monitor them. Friends say I am far too worried about it and will give her a complex if I tell her not to eat too much. She exercises – dancing three times a week and walks and swims.

What am I to do? If I let her eat what she likes, she will be fat; if I tell her not to eat too much, I will give her a complex.

F, via email

If you go to you can input your daughter's age, height and weight to find out her BMI, which will tell you if she is overweight. You will then have a much better idea of whether you have cause to worry.

Then, you can act on this by yourself, or ask your GP for a referral to a nutritionist. I think it is great that you want to your child to be healthy, not overweight, while remaining mindful of not giving her a complex. It is a difficult line to tread but try to make talking about food factual, not emotive.

I spoke to three specialists about your letter. Carlos Gonzalez, a paediatrician, Helen Crawley, reader in nutrition policy at City University, London, and Toni Steer, a public health dietician who works for the Medical Research Council.

All agreed that it is important not to have unhealthy snacks in the house, so the temptation to eat them is not there. Gonzalez and Steer suggested keeping a food diary for a few days, to see what your daughter is eating and when. Steer recommended you note any difficult times of day and plan strategies accordingly. So if your daughter comes in feeling really hungry after school, have some healthy snacks ready. Steer also recommended not being too strict or too permissive, but "authoritative": give your daughter a controlled choice. So, for example: would she like an apple or a banana?

You may also need to look at what, and how, you eat. There is no point telling your daughter to eat healthily if you don't. Do you all sit down to eat together? Do you buy lots of prepared foods (which can contain hidden sugar and fat); do you eat watching TV so that you're not mindful of what you are eating? What size are your portions?

I think it is unrealistic to cut out all sweets and crisps, but try to make healthier choices (high-cocoa rather than milk chocolate, for example). Or go for smaller portions – buy one small bag of crisps not a big family bag.

It is also a good idea to get your daughter involved in all aspects of food: learn about good nutrition together so it is not about "good" or "bad" food; let her choose new fruits and vegetables while shopping, or grow some together. She is also at an age where she can help with cooking. Don't make mealtimes stressful – enjoy the experience. Once your kitchen is full of healthier food, I hope you'll be more relaxed. Make sure she isn't taking in excess calories from fruit juices (fine in moderation) or soft drinks that have little nutritional value.

I note that she is exercising, but don't forget about everyday activities, too: use stairs instead of lifts, walk or cycle to school if possible.

Other than in extreme circumstances, it is never a good idea for a child to lose weight. You simply want them to catch up with their weight so their BMI is in a healthier range. Finally, remember to compliment your daughter, too. I appreciate that you are coming at this from a health point of view, but you don't want your child to think her worth is in her weight, or lack of it.

Two helpful websites are and

Contact Annalisa Barbieri, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence

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Cameron accused of breaking pledge on NHS

nhs spending cameron In their manifesto, the Tories promised to increase health spending every year. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

David Cameron was accused of breaking his biggest pledge at the general election – a guarantee that health spending will increase every year in real terms – after Treasury figures showed a fall in spending in the coalition's first year in government.

Labour accused the government of burying figures in a Treasury document which show that spending on the NHS was cut in real terms to ?101.9bn in the coalition's first year in office from ?102.7bn in Labour's last year in government.

John Healey, the shadow health secretary, said: "David Cameron has broken his NHS pledge. He put up posters pledging to cut the deficit, not the NHS, but we see now that the Tory-led government has already cut spending on the NHS in its first year.

"On top of this cut, Cameron's reckless NHS reorganisation is set to cost ?2bn, money which could be better spent treating patients. And there are more cuts forecast in future years. This proves again what people have seen before: that you can't trust the Tories with the NHS."

Labour criticised the government after figures in the Treasury's Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses (PESA) for this month showed a cut in NHS spending in real terms from ?102.7bn in 2009-10 to ?101.9bn in 2010-11. The Tories opened their NHS section in their general election manifesto with the words: "We will back the NHS. We will increase health spending every year."

In a question and answer session on 14 June the prime minister said: "I want to make this clear, you know we are not cutting spending on the NHS, we are increasing spending on the NHS. This government took a very big decision, given that the NHS is one of the biggest budgets there is in the country, we took a decision to increase by more than inflation in each year NHS spending."

The Institute for Fiscal Studies gave a cautious endorsement of the Labour interpretation of the figures. It said that "NHS (Health)" spending had increased in cash terms but had fallen, or at the very least been frozen, in real terms.

Rowena Crawford, of the IFS, said: "In reality whether the NHS gets plus 0.0% or minus 0.0% growth in a year makes very little real difference. While one 'breaks the pledge' and the other doesn't, the NHS still essentially faces a real freeze in its budget which it will find very constraining given increases in demand for healthcare and the large real increases in spending it has enjoyed for the past decade or so."

George Osborne hit back last night. He said that the year identified by Healey as the coalition's first year in office – 2010-11 – was in fact the final year of Labour's 2007 spending review.

The chancellor said that he had decided to stick to the Labour plan because he came to office just over a month into the 2010-11 financial year. In his first spending review, outlined in November last year, Osborne said that health spending would increase every year from April 2011.

Osborne said: "This is a massive own goal from Labour – attacking their own NHS spending plans. Under Labour spending plans, NHS spending fell, under this government's spending plans it is projected to rise – people can draw their own conclusions about who they trust on the NHS."

Labour hopes that the apparent breach of the Tories' election pledge will put further pressure on the government, which was forced to pause its NHS changes in the spring. But the IFS said it was not surprised by the fall.

Crawford said: "That NHS spending may be lower than it was last year in real terms I'm not sure is particularly surprising. I think the Treasury have previously indicated that they were expecting an NHS underspend in 2010-11."

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Public sector workers 'frogmarched' into strike action over pensions

public sector strikes Unions say public sector workers are being forced into further strike action after the details of pension contribution increases were announced. Photograph: Sang Tan/AP

Leaders of teachers, nurses, civil servants, firefighters and other public sector workers claimed they were being "frogmarched" into co-ordinated strike action after the Treasury took the surprise step of setting out in detail how much individuals will have to pay in contributions to their pension schemes from next April.

The overall cost of ?1.2bn is broadly as expected, but senior union sources said "we had no warning of this co-ordinated announcement for each scheme, or that it would be leaked to the Telegraph and the Sun laced with the usual rhetoric about 'gold-plated pensions'."

Union leaders said they were convinced some ministers, including Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and health secretary Andrew Lansley, remain committed to a negotiated settlement before the new regime is introduced next April, but they questioned whether Treasury ministers were only interested in cash savings.

There was frustration at a recent Liberal Democrat away day for MPs that the party, including Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander, had found themselves cast in the role of bearer of bad news to the public.

Brian Strutton, national secretary for public services at the GMB union, and one of the negotiators in recent talks, said Alexander had "spiked" the discussions for the second time in two months. "Is the government trying to negotiate or frogmarch us into a dispute?"

He added: "In the past, if somebody had asked me, it was 50/50 whether we solved this through negotiation or not. That balance has now significantly changed and it is 60/40 against us being able to reach a negotiated outcome, which makes the prospect of industrial action in the autumn much more likely."

Alexander said the proposals protected low-paid workers, and ensured a better balance between what taxpayers and workers contributed. Around 750,000 workers should pay nothing extra and another one million should pay no more than 1.5% extra. Talks on specific schemes, such as those in local government and the NHS, will lead to more proposals by the end of October on how further savings of ?2.3bn in 2013/14 and ?2.8bn in 2014/15 can be made.

Under the proposed changes to be introduced next year, nurses and classroom teachers earning ?25,700 will pay an extra ?10 a month for their pension, an NHS consultant on ?130,000 will pay an extra ?152 a month, while civil servants will see their contributions rise by between ?20 and ?140 a month.

Teachers in the most typical pay band – ?32,000 to ?39,999 a year – will see their contributions rise from 6.4% to 7.6%.

"It has nothing to do with the affordability or sustainability of teachers' pensions, it is a tax on teachers to pay for the mistakes of others," said Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Higher up the income scale, teachers earning ?50,000 would be expected to pay an additional ?696 a year, civil servants ?684 and those working in the NHS would be set for a ?768 hike.

Highest earners would face increases of up to ?284 a month – ?3,400 a year more.

In the ?100,000 bracket, civil servants would pay an extra ?2,100 annually, doctors almost ?2,000 and teachers ?1,752.

In the main firefighter pension scheme members would face rises from 11% to 14%, and to 17% for fire officers. The pension age will also rise to 60. The Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said preliminary arrangements for a strike ballot were being prepared. He said: "This pensions robbery is a crude smash-and-grab raid on firefighter pension rights to help pay for the budget deficit. It is nothing to do with long-term sustainability or affordability."

The greatest savings for the taxpayer will come from the NHS scheme (?530m), followed by the teachers' scheme (?300m) and the civil service (?180m).

Unison leader Dave Prentis accused Alexander of "crude and naive tactics", urging ministers to "stop treating these talks like some kind of playground game".

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: "The unions have absolutely known that this process was going on. The idea that anyone is taken by surprise by this is nonsense."

He said strikes would be "very disappointing" because the government was committed to ensuring that public sector pensions were "among the very best available", adding: "There's still a lot to talk about for the future long-term design of the scheme but there will continue to be, unlike most pension schemes, defined benefit with a guaranteed pension level so no investment risk and they'll be good pensions."

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