Thursday, 29 May 2014

Are we against Female Genital Mutilation or not?

Are we, as a nation, and is our government, against Female Genital Mutilation or not? Just days ago Nick Clegg described the practice as one of the ‘most extreme manifestations of gender-based violence’. Yesterday, however, Afusat Saliu was arrested by our wretched border force and could be deported tonight, despite the very real threat that her four and two-year-old daughters could become victims of this barbaric abuse.

Ms Saliu, 31, is a Christian woman who fled Nigeria in 2011, while pregnant, after her stepmother threatened to subject her daughter, Bassy, 4, to FGM. Her second daughter, Rashidat, was born here in London. Both will accompany their mother – who was herself a victim of FGM – if she is deported later today (May 29). And there are very real fears that her two daughters will once again face the threat of FGM, she herself could be forced into a marriage or targeted by Islamic militants Boko Haram, especially since she converted to Christianity while living in Leeds.

The threat of FGM is real. Nigeria has the highest numbers of such cases of anywhere in the world (though not the highest as a percentage of population). It is estimated that 41 per cent of women have suffered 'genital cutting'.

Anj Handa, a friend of Ms Saliu, said:

'There is a risk of forced FGM on her two children if they are made to go back to Nigeria.

'Afusat is a victim of that herself. It is too late for her, but we have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and they are the "right age " for cutting from her family's point of view.'

But, reading Nick Clegg's comments at a press conference yesterday, it would seem the government is very much on her side. This is what he said:

'This is one of the most extreme manifestations of gender-based violence there is. it's already illegal here in the UK and in many countries around the world. Yet, despite this, millions of girls are still at risk of FGM. The first thing many of them know about this threat is when one day, terrified, they're physically held down and harmed. What follows is a lifetime of excruciating pain and trauma, serious health issues and, more often than not, dangerous complications in childbirth.'

He went on to say that while we should be sensitive towards other belief systems, they were not an excuse to allow such practices.

'There is a real limit to how much we should seek to understand cultural perspectives of others and the mutilation and cutting of girls with the horrific suffering that comes with it - there is no possible cultural excuse for that kind of practice. None at all.'

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has been doing some brave and committed, though sadly little noticed, campaigning against rape as a weapon of war, has pushed a £35million DFID project to reduce FGM across the globe. His commitment is unquestionable.

Yet, we are now left in the absurd, disgraceful, situation that another arm of government - albeit one which frequently distinguishes itself through acts of callousness and incompetence - is prepared to deport a mother and her children, knowing that these two, innocent, girls, could well become the next victims of this dreadful activity.

Thus far, more than 120,000 people have signed this petition, calling for a review of the evidence so her case can be judged again. But time is running out. Her supporters fear Afusat Saliu and her family will be put on to a plane at 10pm this evening.

Pathetically, the only response from the Home Office is that it does not comment on individual cases; a phrase that now seeks to excuse authorities from responsibility for the outrages it allows.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Plots, polling and pratfalls; the Lib Dems today

In fields, alongside houses, in windows and near stations, placards proclaiming ‘Liberal Democrats Winning Here’ were dotted, er, liberally, around the Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency of Tim Farron, where my family and I were recently holidaying.

I posted a photograph of one erected by a gate alongside a field – near Oxenholme station for the record:

And the tone of the reaction was somewhat mocking; replies included:

And it turned out the Liberal Democrats weren't 'winning here', there or anywhere in the European elections. They managed to hold on to one seat - just, Catherine Bearder in the South East - and their north west MEP, Chris Davies, lost his seat after polling just six per cent of the vote, behind the Greens, despite holding his position since 1999.

What the posters did, of course, was provide a clear demonstration of the tactics the junior coalition party was deploying in a desperate attempt to consolidate its position. Senior Lib Dem figures admitted to me they knew they were going to get a kicking at these elections but it was hoped that by concentrating on traditional strongholds -where they had MPs and MEPs - they might cling on to a handful of positions in Brussels.

Another aspect of the party's plan was represented by the debates with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip). Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg deserves some credit for trying to put forward the pro-EU argument - an unpopular position, perhaps, but one held by more people than often appreciated - and in the first debate he did pretty well, despite whatever the results of an instant poll may have found.

But Mr Clegg was appalling in the second debate: argumentative; curt and trying to sound superior. Farage wasn't going to be ruffled and, consummate performer that he is, was able to bat Clegg away. Maybe that was the moment the Lib Dem's campaign fell apart, for, as we now know, these tactics failed to return what was hoped. 

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to imagine any tactics would have resulted in a different outcome, especially, as now seems clear, the Lib Dem's second most senior figure, Vince Cable, has been on manoeuvres, with his lieutenants apparently testing the ground for a possible putsch.

Lord Matthew Oakeshott - long an irritating splinter for Nick Clegg - quit the party today after he realised he was facing disciplinary measures for polling he had done which indicated his friend Mr Cable would do better in the next General Election than Mr Clegg, if he was leader.

In his resignation statement, Lord Oakeshott warned that the Lib Dems were 'heading for disaster' with Nick Clegg at the helm, as the party had been left with 'no roots, no principles and no values'. More damagingly, Lord Oakeshott indicated that not only had he commissioned the polling, he had also shared the results with Vince Cable, for whom he has long been a highly vocal and visible cheerleader. In his statement he said:

'Several months ago a close colleague, concerned about voting intentions in Twickenham, asked me if I would arrange and pay for a poll to show us Vince's current position and how best to get him re-elected. I was happy to help, and Vince amended and approved the questionnaire, but at his request I excluded question on voting intentions with a change of leader.

'Although Vince has excellent ratings, both as a minister and a local MP, he was slightly behind the Conservatives in this poll, as the full details on the ICM website show.

'That poll worried me so much that I commissioned four more in different types of constituency all over the country and added back the change of leadership question. The results were in the Guardian yesterday and on the ICM website. Several weeks ago, I told Vince the results of those four polls too.'

The business secretary obviously denies being involved in the commissioning of the surveys - and would obviously reject accusations of a plot. He does, though, admit being told 'in general terms what the trends were'. The Business Secretary would have known the election results were likely to be catastrophic and these polls were carried out in April and May this year; the timing is most intriguing.

Clegg's position is not good: his critics are growing at local levels on a daily basis, though not sufficient in number to topple him; and, under his leadership, the Lib Dems do, indeed, seem to be 'heading for disaster', as Lord Oakeshott asserts. But, the revelation of this cackhanded scheming - to describe it as a plot would be too generous - has oddly secured his position until the election. Likely successors - Danny Alexander (though Oakeshott's polling suggests he will struggle to hang on to his seat) and Tim Farron - hardly want to succeed Clegg before the next General Election, knowing what a dismal outcome awaits the party. And Cable, who increasingly doesn't seem to be half as clever as he thinks he is (just think of this humiliating episode with two female Daily Telegraph reporters), may well have finally burned his bridges. Presumptuous plotters rarely prosper in politics.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Whatever happened to #BringBackOurGirls?

For a few brief days, the girls kidnapped in Nigeria captured international attention. The slogan #BringBackOurGirls, complete with hashtag, abounded on Twitter and, following Michelle Obama’s example, politicians and public figures the world over were photographed clutching posters bearing the same message.

But now, sadly, attention has moved on; the schoolgirls – taken by the Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram who stated their intention was to sell them into slavery – remain in captivity and Britain’s own feeble efforts to assist go almost unnoticed.

An RAF Sentinel left RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire, on Sunday. It is a spy plane equipped, according to the Daily Telegraph, with ‘ground mapping radars to build up detailed 3D images of terrain’ and it saw widespread use in Afghanistan.

Somewhat pathetically, however, the plane has not got to Nigeria; it is in Senegal more than 1,300 miles away from its destination. It is currently grounded with an unidentified problem and the Ministry of Defence have no idea how to fix it. They are, according to a spokesman, hopeful the plane will join the efforts to rescue the girls ‘sooner rather than later’. Doesn’t that statement resonate with a keen sense of urgency?

In many ways David Cameron is right; Britain and the West cannot simply dispatch troops, gunships and special forces to Nigeria to take command of the efforts. It is, after all, a sovereign country and one that is stuck in an increasingly wretched conflict with this appalling Islamic fundamentalist group, and it has to be allowed to decide for itself what outside assistance it wants and needs.

But that doesn’t preclude the British and other governments from heaping pressure on to the Nigerian authorities as it is evident how inadequate the response of Goodluck Jonathan’s government has been. For weeks, the president refused offers of international assistance; meanwhile, the girls were reportedly camped less than 30 kilometres from their school for 11 days, with no attempt made to free them. Haaretz has reported how Nigeria has been unable to deploy surveillance drones bought from Israel several years ago as routine maintenance has not been carried out and spare parts had not been ordered. The broken British plane just adds to this catalogue of ineptitude.

The fleeting nature of the international outrage over this issue is curious, especially as Boko Haram is stepping up its campaign of violence and has become a major destabilising force in the region. More than 250,000 people have been displaced in the north of the country and in the last two days alone bombings killed almost another 120 in the city of Jos and a further 48 were killed as three villages were attacked in the north of the country. Boko Haram's aims are to turn Africa's most populous country into a hardline Islamic state, where elections are banned, secular education stopped and contact with the West cut. The desperate poverty in the country, particularly in the north, acts as a significant recruiting sergeant for the cause; international involvement and cooperation is vital to overcome this movement.

But one gets the horrible impression that it is tragically being dismissed as just one of those things that happens in Africa.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Labour's strategy; what is it?

As we get closer to the European and local elections, many query whether the Labour Party has a coherent strategy or vision. A few policies have slipped out here and there - such as the energy price freeze and, just this week, plans to enable patients to get a GP appointment in 48 hours - but it is hard to discern a running theme. The squeezed middle and One Nation Labour are there, lacking focus, in the background, and frequently seem to be hiding in the shadows along with the Conservative's Big Society.

For Labour, addressing the question over their strategy becomes ever more important as their opinion lead has dwindled, or even vanished, in recent days. What is the Labour Party actually for? We know, regardless of who wins power at the next general election, that whoever forms the next government will have a mightily tough old time cutting more from public services to bring the deficit down. Essentially, the Labour Party is not offering a substantial alternative to austerity. So, at the same time as doing this, what would they offer that was different?

Ed Miliband, for all his undoubted decency, does appear to be struggling to get his message across. Ed Balls is carrying too much of Gordon Brown's baggage and the overall impression of the shadow cabinet is that they lack enough thrust and verve to put their case forward with any passion.

Step forward John McTernan, former adviser to Tony Blair and a whole host of other Labour figures; after a brief discussion on Twitter as to whether Labour was failing to oppose UKIP sufficiently, he put forward his definition of Labour's strategy. Here it is:

It is by no means a comprehensive list of policies, or a honed vision of government, but, on the hoof, this is a more coherent account offered than by any senior Labour figure. Perhaps it's time for Labour to produce some new pledge cards.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The case for 'natural' births

It is easy to see why so many would be sympathetic towards the guidelines recommending that healthy women should give birth in midwife-led units. Eschewing invasive and technical medical procedures and language, mothers-to-be can hope for a more natural, less clinical experience; an altogether more holistic – an even more spiritual – experience.

But seeing the new advice from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) brought back worrying memories and sent a shiver down my spine. While I am sure these midwife-led centres provide wonderful locations for thousands of mothers to give birth, from my own experience, I fear mothers are unduly pressured, by midwives, their peers and society itself to take what may not be the safest - or, even, the most relaxing, and least uncomfortable - option.

NICE’s latest guidelines say that women expecting a ‘straightforward’ pregnancy should be encouraged to give birth in a midwife-led unit rather than a traditional labour ward, filled with doctors and nurses. The study – featuring 65,000 births – found that such units were just as safe as doctor-led units in low-risk deliveries. 

Inevitably, I can only approach this from personal experience. Before my wife was due to give birth, we dutifully made our way to several meetings preparing us for the big day. They were all led by midwives and quickly my wife started mapping out as natural a birth as possible. A detailed birth plan was created featuring aromatherapy, massage and birthing balls; a water birth was mentioned. I even have vague memories of a conversation about what albums to put on an iPad to provide the whole experience with a suitable soundtrack.

The midwife-led unit we were due to use boasts, on its website, that the ‘rooms are less like clinical hospital rooms, instead decorated and furnished in a more “home-from-home” style’. The only pain relief on offer was to be gas and air. This was no place for epidurals. The way in which the whole experience was described, repeatedly, was undeniably persuasive; inevitably, it was a birth we would all wish for.

When the moment came, however – despite having been predicted a straightforward birth – our as-yet unborn baby started to have an irregular heartbeat. Our anxieties were fuelled by having experienced a family tragedy, under similar circumstances, just a couple of years earlier; any chance for a natural birth ended very quickly. My wife was attached to a monitor to track the baby’s heartbeat, which fell dramatically with each contraction. Tests were repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, carried out to see if there had been any brain damage, but ultimately our, mercifully healthy, daughter was born via a caesarean section. It turned out the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around her neck and any further efforts for a natural birth – which we could have insisted upon – may have proved disastrous.

The extent of the problem with the umbilical cord was never fully identified until the actual birth and it would be unfair to blame the midwife-led unit for failing to identify this problem. But, during the months of preparation, the whole process of childbirth had almost become sanitised and made straightforward by the midwives' descriptions of what they could provide. There was no space for brutal and complicated realities.

As it turned out, the doctor-led, traditional labour ward, was next door to the midwife-led unit so, in our case; there was no troublesome journey between them. It is vital that such proximity is maintained in all cases for when inevitable complications arise.

All of this is not to say we were not well treated by midwives. We had the same midwife with us consistently for about 12 hours, reassuring and helping us, as various doctors and consultants busied themselves with trying to work out what to do. And, the day after the birth, another spent more than an hour and half with us giving us invaluable advice on breastfeeding.

But, we do have to question why hospital births are promoted as, somehow, less 'empowering' than a 'natural' birth, and even anti-feminist. It has been many years since the hospital environment has been dominated by men and it seems strangely old-fashioned to imply that effective pain-killing and efficient medical intervention somehow represent the loss of maternal control and the exercise of masculine authority. Pain relief is somehow presented as a kind of admission of failure, a betrayal of the sisterhood.

And we only have to look at Victorian cemeteries to see what happened to enormous numbers of young, healthy women and their babies, when they were safely at home, trying to give birth.

The urge to provide choice of births is laudable, though one wonders how much cheaper midwife-led units are than doctor-led ones. Child birth must be guided by safety and not cost. And before any choice can be made, prospective parents must be fully informed of what midwife-led units can and, crucially, cannot offer.


It seems I am not the only one with such concerns. Here are a couple of reactions I have had:

A recent mother said:

'I was told be a midwife that all these natural birthing centres that have been popping up in NHS hospitals was much more money motivated. Apparently, the NHS gets a set amount of money for a woman in labour and this amount is reduced depending on the intervention so financially it is in their best interest to encourage as little intervention as possible and get women to go into these birth centres.

And a father of two said:

'I believe money is very much part of it. As soon as drugs are involved eg epidural then a doctor is required, the mother has to be more closely monitored in the earlier stages etc. Our experience with [our daughter] was about being pressured not to switch from the midwife area to the doctor area once we were there. [My wife] wanted an epidural and was offered aromatherapy! She was also made to feel guilty for wanting pain relieving drugs. Not very sisterly at all. [With our next child] we made sure we went straight to the doctor side of the ward and had a much better experience.'

Monday, 12 May 2014

Battle of the election leaflets

It is one of the inevitable chores one must address after returning from holiday; sifting through the mounds of post. It wasn't all bad news, there were a few birthday cards, a couple of books I had ordered and a hat, replacing the one currently keeping a very small patch of land dry in a field somewhere in the Lake District. The rest were bills (quickly binned), circulars (swiftly following the bills) and a raft of campaigning material from various parties, all gearing up to the local and Euro elections later this month.

In many ways, the Conservative Party's leaflet was the most interesting. Groovily lower case and called 'intouch', its top headline proclaims 'Time to Turn Penge and Cator Blue: Vote Conservative'. It describes Penge as an 'up and coming area with a vibrant and thriving High Street' and claims Tory councillors would be best to 'resist over-development and protect the unique character of Penge', accusing other parties of being 'obsessed with building more and more cramped housing' in the area.

To describe the High Street as 'vibrant and thriving' is generous to say the least. Apart from some noticable pockets, Penge is proving mightily hard to gentrify. When Woolworths closed it was replaced by a gargantuan 99p shop (followed by a smaller and mercifully short-lived 98p shop). In recent months, at least two banks have closed (the Tory leaflet acknowledges a shortage of banks), along with a Caribbean restaurant. There are several pawnbrokers - always a depressing sign of an area's economic health. The street is frequently strewn with litter, a blight which afflicts the whole neighbourhood and isn't addressed once by the Conservative literature.

As for their claims that they are best placed to protect the character of the area, this seems hard to reconcile considering Bromley Council features just three Labour and three Liberal Democrat councillors; the Conservatives have more than 50. Do these six councillors really impose over-developments upon a cautious council?

A consequence of the make-up of the council is that it is hard for opposition candidates to pledge anything at all in their literature. Indeed, we have received nothing at all from the Liberal Democrats and Labour's leaflet is understandably timid. They acknowledge the litter problem and want to improve local parks and the environment of the High Street. But while they claim they have pushed for more affordable housing, campaigned against the bedroom tax and called for a living wage for council employees, their efforts have either been blocked or ignored. Labour councillors also claim the blocking of an application to turn our local pub into a hostel was 'thanks to campaigning by Labour councillors', forgetting to mention the dozens of well crafted letters of opposition by worried local residents. Ah well, ho hum!

The only other pieces of election literature received were regarding the European elections, one from Ukip, the other from the Communities United Party (CUP). The Ukip one, somewhat disconcertingly addressed to my wife, was predictable enough, with a pledge to 'help you get our country back' though from whom wasn't entirely clear.

As for the CUP, led by Kamran Malik - described on the party's website as 'Legend Leader' - they claim to represent individuals who feel 'at best disillusioned and at worst betrayed by the Coalition government and its predecessors, The Labour Party'. The leaflet said it challenged public authorities on issues such as council tax costs, parking charges and local government spending; indeed, so persistent, or 'truly hopeless', have their challenges been, it was recently issued an injunction from future civil cases with a judge's permission in Newham. Sadly, though, while Mr Malik promises to 'ensure that the voice of the citizens of the United Kingdom is heard at home and in Europe', and some vague comments on taxes and business rates, the leaflet is remarkably light on actual policy.

Judging from these efforts, then, it would seem that the last few days before the election provide partyies with plenty of opportunity to affect opinion.