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UK-based Burundians mobilise to protest worsening repression in Burundi

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Written by Richard Wilson

April 28, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Meet the new Bosco, same as the old Bosco…

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A new piece from me in the New Humanist

Thousands of lives are at risk in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a new and brutal rebellion, with a leadership described by the United Nations as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations… in the world”, has flared up in a region where millions have died since the 1990s.

The “March 23” insurgency began as a mutiny earlier this year by former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army after a previous peace deal in March 2009. The mutiny was ostensibly triggered by violations of that agreement. But there are mounting allegations by the UN and human rights groups that the rebels are being directed, trained and supported by the government of neighbouring Rwanda. On 30 November, the UK government became the latest international donor to suspend aid to Rwanda as a result.

M23’s leaders reportedly include the notorious Rwandan-born warlord Bosco Ntaganda, whose bloody track record in previous conflicts has earned him the nickname “The Terminator”. Despite being wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Bosco was given a senior role in the Congolese army as part of the 2009 peace deal.

“Bosco Ntaganda is the most notorious but he’s by no means the only one”, says Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch, who talks of a strong sense of déjà vu around the current crisis. “Quite a few of his mates are and have been doing the same kinds of things for years… No one has ever done anything to arrest them so they just carry on, they become emboldened… the use of violence and those atrocities start being rewarded.”

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Written by Richard Wilson

February 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

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Why I’m supporting the #armstreaty campaign

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As I walked in I could see Charlotte’s body through the long rectangular window at the far side. A white sheet covered all but her face. Her eyes were closed, her eyelids blackened, her lips slightly parted. She looked as if she was frozen in time, neither peaceful nor troubled. Just an incredible, terrible stillness. As though she had died mid-sentence, or mid-gasp. Her skin was mottled brown, black lines tracing the veins across her face, dark hair pulled back from her forehead.

“Her hair looks thin – do you think she was eating properly?”, my mother asked, and somewhere I could hear Charlotte laughing.

Charlotte had been shot seven times in the back with an Eastern-European weapon, from a distance of two to three feet. She’d either have been kneeling or lying down. She would have died quickly. The only possible verdict was murder.

A lot has changed in my life since I finished the book from which the extract above is taken. It’s long enough ago now that I find it quite shocking to read back some of the things I wrote in the years following my sister’s murder.  But Charlotte’s death changed the course of my life, and for me,  the arms trade will always be a deeply personal issue.

Charlotte was shot dead in a bus massacre by Hutu-extremists in Burundi at the end of 2000. But the bullets that killed her, and the gun that fired them, were manufactured thousands of miles away. And they didn’t end up in Burundi by accident. Someone, somewhere, made a deliberate decision to transport these weapons to one of the poorest countries in the world, and put them in the hands of serial killers.

The reason I support the #armstreaty campaign is because I think it’s a good idea to try to stop serial killers getting hold of bullets and guns. According to Oxfam and Amnesty International, there are more international regulations controlling the global trade in bananas than the trade in deadly weapons. As a result, over 1,500 people die through armed violence every day, the majority of them civilians. If the international rules were more robust, it would be harder for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Now one of the big problems here is that the term “international regulation” is inherently dry and dull. I suspect this is one of the main reasons that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign (let’s face it, another quite dull term)  has had so little media coverage.

This is a shame because, dull and legalistic though these terms are, the fact that we don’t yet have a comprehensive global system for regulating the arms trade (yawn, I know) means that hundreds of thousands of people are dying each year who might have lived, if it wasn’t quite so easy for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Happily, the inherent dullness of the words we have to use to talk about this problem has not stopped the United Nations from drawing up a treaty that could, if all goes well, make it much, much harder for serial killers to get hold of bullets and guns in future.

Even more happily, Oxfam and Amnesty have hit on a great way to make this issue less dull. On Wednesday, they will be driving around London in a tank, seeking to ramp up the pressure on the governments whose support could help to swing the crucial vote taking place at the UN next month. A number of bloggers, me included, will be tweeting from inside the tank under the #armstreaty hashtag.

Despite being quite boring, international treaties can make a huge difference, even when not everyone signs up to them. The 1998 treaty banning the use of landmines reportedly helped cut deaths and injuries from 26,000 per year to less than 6,000 a decade later – even though a number of countries refused to join in, and continued producing land-mines.

This is a really boring issue. It’s also a really important one, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign and what you can do to support it, please visit this website.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 27, 2012 at 12:17 am

“Breaking Their Will” – book review in the New Humanist

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My latest book review is in this month’s New Humanist magazine, looking at a harrowing account of religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect: “Breaking Their Will”, by Janet Heimlich. This month’s edition also features the excellent Alom Shaha and Martin Robbins.

The New Humanist magazine is published by a registered charity, the Rationalist Association. It’s a great example of the growing trend for non-profit organisations to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainstream news media, covering niche and public interest issues that are covered superficially or ignored by commercial newspapers. If you want to support this project, you can subscribe here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am

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Gove’s Folly? The mystery of Durand and Saint Cuthman’s

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Mystery surrounds a multi-million pound government grant to the charity behind one of Michael Gove’s flagship Academy schools.

Last year, the Durand Education Trust was awarded £17.3 million to build what the Telegraph heralded as the “first fully free state-run boarding school” .

Durand Primary School in Stockwell, South London, had earlier, said the Daily Mail, “used proceeds from a leisure and student accommodation business it runs” to buy St Cuthman’s, the site of a former special needs centre in Midhurst, West Sussex.

The school’s plan was to  give its pupils an alternative to poorly-performing local secondary schools when they completed their time at Durand. The new secondary school would be based in the countryside to keep the children far away from “stabbings and the constant threat of trouble”.

“Teenagers will be transported from London on Monday mornings to spend five days and four nights in the country, returning on Friday evenings, all free of charge”, reported the Mail .

To those tempted to ask whether public money would be better spent improving the local secondary schools rather than building an entirely new one, 50 miles away, and then shipping hundreds of children there and back every week, the school had a good answer:

“It wouldn’t cost [the government] a penny”, Durand’s Executive Head told the Spectator. While the secondary school’s core expenditure would be funded by the state in the normal way, “we’d cover the costs of boarding from the profits of our health club”.

According to the Economist, “Nothing quite like it has been tried before”.

According to the Daily Express, “Parents… are delighted their youngsters will get the chance to enjoy a Harry Potter-style education away from the area’s notorious gang culture.”

“Unlike other state boarding schools, it will not charge for accommodation”, explained the Guardian. “Instead, its running costs will come out of private income the school generates from a swimming pool, gym and block of flats.”

Media coverage has been so positive, in fact, that the PR and lobbying company employed by Durand to promote the St Cuthman’s project, secure government funding, and “make Durand Academy synonymous with educational excellence” last year won an advertising industry award for the £200,000 campaign.

It may also have helped that the school has repeatedly deployed libel lawyers Carter Ruck against critics of the school’s management, and is currently suing Lambeth Council over three emails in which its chief auditor raised concerns about its financial affairs.

Yet amid all the glowing news reports, two big problems seem to have been overlooked.

1. Notwithstanding claims that Durand purchased the St Cuthman’s site “using its own funds”, and  “using income from a gym and flats on its London site”, Companies House records  appear to show that the Durand Education Trust actually took on a debt of £1.9 million to buy the property – over half of its reported £3.4 million sale price:

2. The reported profits from Durand’s business activities cover only a fraction of the school’s boarding costs. It appears that the project will therefore need millions of pounds in additional funding in order to become financially viable – at a time when other schools are having to cut back.

State boarding school lodging costs reportedly range from £7,500 to £12,000 per year for each child. Even at the lower end of that scale, Durand would need more than £4.3 million per year to board the 625 secondary pupils it hopes to take in. In the last three years, the school’s business arm, London Horizons, has generated £304,964 (2009), £255,157 (2010) and £350,120 (2011) for Durand Primary School and the Durand Education Trust – an average of just over £300,000 – less than 10% of the money the school looks to require.

According to “Spears Wealth Management Survey”, Durand has recently launched a public fundraising campaign urging wealthy individuals to sponsor children at the new school, costing this at £3,800 per child, per year. But even at that level, this would still require around £2,375,000 per year for 625 children. This is a sum that many long-standing charities would struggle to raise in a good year, let alone a start-up fundraising programme focussing on a single state school in the midst of a global recession.

When I asked for a copy of the budget and costings for the boarding school project, the Department for Education refused to reveal it, claiming that “Disclosure of certain information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the Department, the proposers or both by adversely affecting bargaining positions and resulting in less effective use of public money”.

So I made a Freedom of Information request to Durand Academy asking for:

“Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site”, “The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase” and “The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is
to be repaid”.

I got the following reply:

1.    Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site in Sussex.

ZERO (DAT did not purchase the site)

2.    Details of how Durand financed the above purchase.

NOT HELD.  See above

3.    The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase.

ZERO

4.    The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is to be repaid.

See above

When I queried this, pointing out that a video on Durand Academy’s own website states that “Durand used its savings to purchase a site in the countryside”, I got no response.

But the school appears to be working on the basis – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information – that the Durand Education Trust is legally a separate entity from Durand Academy, and that FOI requests to the latter do not cover the former.

I subsequently told Durand that I’d seen information suggesting they were in debt, and that this seemed to raise questions about the viability of the St Cuthman’s project and the government’s decision to award it so much money at a time of “extreme national austerity”.

They issued a strong denial, stating that:

“Your assertions and source are factually incorrect on this matter. Durand Academy is not in debt, nor has liability for the land purchase and it would be wrong to suggest either.

“On the issue of value for money, we must object. More than any other school we are aware of, Durand has worked tirelessly and independently over the last twenty years to add significant value and opportunities for local tax payers, without impacting the public purse. Without additional central government support Durand has: improved the condition and value of the school estate substantially; absorbed a run-down failing primary school; completely refurbished that school to a high specification as a specialist early years site; expanded the number of places available to the local community; built state-of the art leisure facilities that children enjoy free use of and the wider community benefit from; reduced class sizes; subsidised healthy meals and; invested in a secondary school project that will provide choice and opportunity for local parents.

“We appreciate very much the ‘extreme national austerity’ that you refer, and that is why we believe that the Government has chosen to support a project and a project team that has never asked for hand-outs and are self-sufficient, has always made maximum efficient use of resources and have a strong record of delivery, not only in education, but in delivering projects on time and to budget.

“The £17.34 million pledged by the Government is some £8m to £15m less than has typically been spent on establishing a new secondary school to serve inner London in recent years. This money will help to deliver a secondary state boarding school from scratch, providing life changing opportunities for thousands of children. This project is innovative and ambitious, but we can assure you it is viable and we are committed to its delivery.”

Confused, I asked whether this applied to Durand as a whole – ie. not just Durand Academy but also the Durand Education Trust (for whom my usual correspondent at the school is listed as the main contact).

I was told: “As stated below this is from Durand Academy. Durand Education Trust is a separate entity. I am an administrator at Durand Academy and field correspondence for Durand Education Trust.”

So I asked my correspondent to refer my previous query about the financial situation to the Durand Education Trust. At the time of publication, a follow-up request for clarification had been acknowledged, but not replied to.

Given that the Durand Education Trust is legally constituted as an “independent charitable trust”, rather than a government body, it is not clear whether the Freedom of Information Act can be applied to it.

It may be that I’ve missed something obvious here (in which case, please do email me or leave a comment below). Or it may be that Durand has a substantial, and previously-undisclosed, source of additional income that can plug the financial gap.

But at the moment it is difficult to see how the Department for Education will be able to avoid committing many more millions each year to this experimental project – leaving millions less available for other, less favoured schools within the education system.

Update: I have now had some comments from the Durand Education Trust. Here’s what they say:

“1. Some of your estimates are so over the top as to be risible. For instance, though there will be costs associated with providing boarding (principally the extra costs associated with keeping duty staff on site overnight for safeguarding) the idea that these would amount to almost £30,000 per night, which is what is consistent with the lower figure in the range you cite, is frankly absurd.

2. DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site. Any information you have to the contrary is false.

3. The figures you quote for London Horizons revenues were figures supplied to you in respect of sums historically paid over to Durand Primary School and Durand Academy. They do not reflect the level of income accruing to DET now or in the future.”

The Durand Education Trust also complain that “Whilst we are prepared to be as transparent as commercial sensitivities allow, we note that almost everything you have written about Durand in the past… has been unfair or inaccurate, and sometimes both. It is hard to resist the conclusion that your reporting is actuated by malice and/or a political agenda…”

So it looks like the mystery will continue for a while yet. I’d welcome any comments from readers that could help to clear things up.

On the financial question, the figure of £7,500 to £12,000 per year per child for state school boarding costs comes from a broadly positive Telegraph article, in which Durand got a prominent mention (“More cash needed for state boarding schools, warns head“, November 28th 2011). Over a 39-week school year where 625 children were boarded for 4 nights per week, the lower end of this scale would indeed amount to approximately £30,000 per day, which certainly is a lot of money.

It’s worth noting, however, that the cost-per-child cited by Durand in their new fundraising campaign – £3,800, would, under the same analysis, equate to around £15,000 per day for 625 children – or £24 per child. While this is significantly less, it is still a substantial sum, and with a total yearly cost (£2,375,000) that would still be much higher than the reported annual income generated, to date, by London Horizons (£350,120 in 2011).

It is not yet clear how the costs of transporting 625 children on the 50 mile trip to and from West Sussex each week would fit into the above analysis, or where the money for this would come from.

I have asked the Durand Education Trust for more details of the things I’ve written that they feel have been unfair or inaccurate, and invited them to produce a “right to reply” piece for publication on this blog, putting their side of the story. I will update this post if and when I receive a reply.

In literal terms, The Durand Education Trust appear to be correct in stating that “DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site”. Records from Companies House show that the company which lent them £1.9 million was not a bank or a building society, but a firm called Alderley Land. More on that in due course…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Trevor Kavanagh learns a hard lesson about human rights and due process

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“The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.” – Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2007

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted“, Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2012

Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper has long been hostile to the idea that people suspected of wrongdoing should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, that no-one should be locked up for extended periods without a fair trial and due process, and that even if someone is tried and convicted of a criminal offence, they are still entitled to basic human rights.

When, in 2005, 47 Labour MPs joined opposition ranks to throw out the Blair government’s attempt to award itself the right to detain for 3 months, without charge or trial, anyone it claimed was a “terrorist”, the Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh branded them “traitor MPs” who had “betrayed the British people”.

When, in 2007, Gordon Brown’s government requested the release of five UK residents who had been held for years without charge or trial in Guantanamo Bay, the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh declared that “The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.”

“It’s just about possible the five… are totally innocent… But not very likely”, he suggested.

Yet despite these “overwhelming odds”, four of the five men – Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna and Sameur Abdenour – were subsequently freed after the US government failed to produce any evidence that could convict them of a crime. The fifth, Shaker Aamer, has still not been charged or tried, ten years after he was first detained.

Mohamed, Deghayes and El Banna were subsequently awarded millions of pounds in compensation after a court heard evidence (or as the Sun might describe it, a “sob story”) detailing the UK government’s complicity in their “rendition” and subsequent torture.

This weekend, another five men were arrested on suspicion of a criminal offence. Unlike Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna, Sameur Abdenour and Shaker Aamer, these five men were given prompt access to a lawyer, questioned, and then freed on bail.  Unlike Binyam Mohamed, they were not bundled into a plane, flown to Morocco and tortured with a scalpel, forced into stress positions or subjected to deliberate and prolonged sleep deprivation. They were not – as would have been the case for anyone accused of terrorist offences under the 2005 Bill championed by Trevor Kavanagh and the Sun – held without charge for 90 days while the Police scraped around for evidence.

Has British Justice Gone Soft? Given Trevor Kavanagh’s previous comments on human rights and due process, we might have expected him to be outraged that these five criminal suspects have been treated so leniently. But here he is discussing the case in today’s Sun:

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.”

Here he is on Radio 5: “the evidence that’s been suggested to those who have been arrested so far, is pretty flimsy stuff… people are wondering what on earth is happening… I feel very sorry for them and I know it’s causing them and their families a great deal of anguish”.

What could possibly explain this change in tone? Perhaps the fact that *these* five criminal suspects were Sun journalists, suspected of making corrupt payments to police and other public officials.

The problem with attacking basic democratic principles like human rights and due process is that you never know when you – or someone you care about – might be in need of them. Trevor Kavanagh’s Damascine conversion to the cause is surely to be welcomed. His friends at the Sun do, of course, have a right to a fair trial and to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. It will be interesting to see if they will now extend that same courtesy to the rest of us.

See also: Thaksin Shinawatra: “They don’t care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognised due process!”

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2012 at 12:41 am

Burden of proof: Should evidence determine policy?

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My latest piece for the New Humanist

A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts

In the latter days of the last Labour government, then Home Office minister Vernon Coaker introduced a law designed to enable the prosecution of those who paid for sexual services. The government had published a lengthy report, “Tackling Demand for Prostitution”, arguing that evidence showed such a change could reduce the violence and exploitation suffered by commercial sex workers.

In the House, Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris raised concerns that the evidence in the report had not yet been published – and could therefore not be properly scrutinised. Harris cited the fact that the Royal College of Nursing had expressed concern that further criminalisation could actually be counterproductive, driving victims of sexual exploitation further underground, and away from where they might seek help. There was, Harris argued, a need to examine more thoroughly the evidence on which the proposed legislation was based. “We are looking at publishing the evidence,” replied the Minister, but “in the end, you pick the evidence which backs your argument.”

To those familiar with the scientific method this cherry-picking of data to support a preconceived hypothesis is a hallmark of quackery. Watching the debate, “mouth agape”, was Harris’s Parliamentary researcher, and biology graduate, Imran Khan. Khan was astonished that a government minister could think about, or talk about, scientific evidence in this way. He is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobby group for science and technology education, and cites this tale as a textbook example of “policy-based evidence-making” – when evidence is chosen only to support or defend an already decided policy. Khan is one of a growing cadre of scientifically literate activists who see it as their job to root out this kind of back-to-front thinking, and to promote instead “evidence-based policy-making”, where rigorous, reputable and, crucially, publicly available evidence plays more than merely a fig leaf role in public policy. These include prominent public figures like Khan’s old boss Harris, who writes the Political Science blog for the Guardian, science writer and scourge of the chiropractors Simon Singh, and the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre.

Read more at the New Humanist

 

Written by Richard Wilson

January 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm