Archives for December 2010

Time To Reflect?

I have reproduced this article by Camilla Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, which appeared in The Times just before Christmas, because it is one of the most moving articles I have read for a long time.

As bankers begin to salivate at the thought of the size of their January bonus cheques and politicians applaud themselves for their resolve in dishing out pain and misery for the so-called ‘common good’, isn’t it about time we took a long hard look at our desperately unequal society? Don’t we need some fresh thinking, some ‘big ideas’? I fear it’s a bit too much to hope for. Big ideas do not come from ‘little men’. We are going to need people like Camilla for the foreseeable future.

Fourteen years ago, we decided to open the doors of Kid’s Company on Christmas Day for the first time. The reason? Abuse doesn’t go on holiday. Too many of the children whom we knew and cared for had attempted suicide over the festive season.

Christmas can be one of the saddest times of the year for many of the 14,000 vulnerable children that the charity sees each year. As one little boy explained: “Father Christmas doesn’t know where we live.”

On Christmas Day he will be picked up and brought to a school that, with the help of some of the 10,799 amazing people who volunteer with Kids Company each year, will be converted into a magical Christmas land. An army of cooks will conjure up a meal of fish and chicken drumsticks, brussels sprouts and potatoes for about 3,000 children and young people.

As the queue of hungry children extends around the building we always live in fear that there won’t be enough food to feed them, as well as to provide takeaway boxes for those living alone in hostels and bed-and-breakfast hotels.

Bags of personalised, hand-wrapped presents are lined up for going home time. Teenage girls shriek with delight when they unwrap lotions and potions. The boys shyly try on scarves and hats. Wrapping paper is crushed by little feet as toys are excitedly opened. On the surface it’s like any Christmas gathering across Britain.

Kids fight and have tantrums, they giggle and tease, then collapse exhausted to listen to stories. Face painters transform weary faces. The dressing-up corner is busy with fairies and firemen fighting it out.

The teenagers grunt, strut and struggle to disguise their childlike delight. The staff work hard; they continuously set boundaries for the children, negotiate, mediate and accept the occasional defeat.

The child psychotherapist is dressed as a clown, ever vigilant for upset kids. The 30 security men watch every corner, and the police are on stand-by, because this Christmas party is not ordinary.

The majority of these kids are very disturbed. They have been chronically abused and neglected by parents who have unwittingly recycled their own childhood traumas. We look after children whose dads have been shot dead or who languish in prison; whose mums survive as sex workers, abuse drugs or struggle with mental illness.

They live in neighbourhoods where young people are regularly shot and stabbed. We have seen children too terrified to go to the toilet for fear of getting another beating – who lift the carpet to pee through the floorboards.

We see kids who lack a bed, who are not registered with a GP. These are children who survive, not enjoy, childhood – these are children who are too agitated to go to school day after day.

So we open on Christmas Day for Melinda, aged 13, who was raped four times this year; for Anushka who saw her mother’s head cracked open with a machete when she was 4; for Trevor who held his father in his arms after he had a fit after yet another crack cocaine binge. The nine-year-old frequently calls the ambulance and then sits biting his own arms, unable to cry. Sapphire won’t talk. Quennel won’t eat because his stepfather used to punish him by making him swallow his faeces. These are not parents who provide Christmas cheer.

The potential for shame is enormous. Sharon explains that because of her mother’s commitment to a mortgage there wasn’t enough money to buy Christmas presents. I know that they live in a squat and that there is no mortgage. Adrian is braver. He tells me that his mother couldn’t even be bothered to get him a pair of socks.

Sometimes the handful of mothers who attend show their desperation by trying to grab the present bags, terrified that there won’t be enough. I watch their children sigh with despair at yet another loss of control by their parents.

Very few say thank you; their hunger is too profound to be quenched. Those who have love for their children feel diminished and humiliated at not being able to buy the Xbox or PlayStation that the kids keep seeing under the Christmas tree in picture-perfect homes on television.

Everyone is hurting

Amid all this turbulence are the thousands of extraordinary volunteers who prepare food bags, wrap presents and act as entertainers on Christmas Day. Not to mention those who turn up on Boxing Day for the big clean-up. Our staff, resolute and kind, play-fight, hug and console children whose moods shift like quicksilver.

Through all of December I walk around with a bleak dread, terrified that we won’t have the money to buy presents, look after the children, pay for taxis, which we need to pick them up and drop them off.  I have sleepless nights but in the morning the kindness of an individual transforms the day.

There are incredible companies and individuals who donate money, food and gifts by the thousands. A complete a stranger left £10,000 to Kids Company in her will. She wasn’t rich, just awe-inspiringly generous.

At Kids Company on Christmas Day the best and the worst of humanity meet. At 9pm I hand over to our 24 hour Christmas emergency team who will keep an eye on all the vulnerable children until January 4.

At 10pm I get to go home and usually I burst into tears. I cry because of the grief of so many of the brave children, their incredible ability to forgive all of us for falling short time and time again. Then I ring the staff who came, to thank them personally, and then with two fat bags under my eyes I collapse into my bed.

My mother gave up her Christmas Day with me, so that I could be where my heart says I should be. I am both grateful and sorry.

If you have been moved by this account of Christmas at Kids Company, a donation can be made online at www.kidsco.org.uk/donate or by sending it to Kids Company, 1 Kenbury Street, London SE5 9BS. Thank you.

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A Blue Christmas?

I would think Vince will be feeling a bit blue this Christmas…Dave would have preferred a blue, blue Christmas and millions will be feeling more than a little blue at the prospect of the unthinkable pain which is likely to be handed out by the unthinking in 2011.
So, forget all your cares and woes, enjoy Elvis and Martina McBride singing Blue Christmas…she was 2 when he sang this song…it’s amazing what they can do…have a great holiday!

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Politicos by Roz

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Plan, What Plan?

“The commonest big mistake the individual outside politics makes about the people inside is to suppose they have a plan”. This is a quote from former MP Matthew Parris writing in the Times.

Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery warned the most dangerous individual is the industrious fool. I think we may have the worst of all possible worlds, a coalition full of industrious fools with no plan.

Michael Gove clearly has no plan. He has made so many cock-ups it’s embarrassing, but he ploughs on: using his vast inexperience and elitist zeal he appears intent not to reform our education system, but to take it back to the dark ages.

Andrew Lansley has an idea for the NHS, but it’s on the back of a fag packet. He is determined to force his ‘idea’ on the NHS with very little considered thought. Yet again the NHS is being subjected to more political meddling. The NHS may be in need of change, but the change he is proposing is so radical that there is a every chance it will sink the whole operation.

There is no question that the welfare system needs fundamental reform, but Iain Duncan Smith’s ideas are being implemented with very little consideration. The consequences of what he is proposing are far reaching and utterly devastating to hundreds of thousands of people. Welfare reform has to be accompanied by a plan to improve the position of the beneficiaries, not to punish them. No such plan exists.

George Osborne believes the deficit has to be reduced, nobody would argue with that, but the way he is approaching the problem will condemn Britain – unnecessarily – to years of austerity and misery. He appears to have a ‘cut at any cost’ approach and to take pride in delivering pain on others. Worse still he has no plan to create growth and jobs. He is trusting that the private sector will, as if by magic, conjure up jobs for the millions of public sector workers who are just about to join the ranks of the unemployed. It won’t.

Both Cameron and Osborne have no ‘big ideas’, no plan. For example, they have no plans to make labour less expensive by reducing income tax so that Britain can attract more inward investment. No plans to mitigate the effect of the cuts. Instead the ‘dynamic duo’ continue to tax people into poverty and increase the burden on an already overstretched and costly welfare system.

As for Cameron, he is turning out not to be a leader, but an ‘events’ politician. In other words he reacts to events rather than making things happen. With no big ideas and no plans he’s destined just to preside over events. The best we can hope for is piecemeal policies, muddle and confusion.

Vince Cable is right when he says that much of what the coalition is doing is Maoist: Maoist in that the Conservative element is doggedly pursuing its own political doctrine, but they’re not really Maoist. Why? Because Mao had a plan!

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Cheer Us Up George!

The double whammy of snow and a rise in VAT now makes the likelihood of a double-dip recession more likely. If you’re humming ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’, stop now!

Last weekend, usually the busiest weekend of the year, has been a disaster for many retailers. John Lewis reported their takings on Saturday were down by £5 million compared to the same time last year.

2011 was never going to be a very exciting year in terms of growth and today the CBI gave us all a bit of Christmas cheer by downgrading their first quarter forecast from 0.3% to 0.2%…wow! They based the change on higher than expected inflation, snow and ice were not included. Add the perishing duo to the equation and the chances of there being any growth in the last quarter of 2010 or the first quarter of 2011 are remote. Double dip here we come!

So, what to do? Well, there is one thing Osborne can do and that is to delay the introduction of the VAT rise until 4th February. Introducing it before the January sales was a totally dumbass thing to do anyway and demonstrated the Chancellor’s total lack of commercial awareness. But a delay would be very helpful.

Delaying the introduction would allow retailers to clear their stocks, restore some of their lost profits and keep production lines moving: might also delay a few thousand job losses too.

Is a flash of compassionate conservatism too much to hope for from the snowbound Chancellor sitting twiddling his thumbs in New York? A small gesture to brighten this blighted Christmas possible? I don’t hold out much hope. Pity.

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Monday Memo to Dave

As you know, Osborne and Cable are meeting heads of the banks this afternoon to discuss, amongst other things, bank bonuses. Vince has promised a ‘robust’ response by the coalition. I sincerely hope that it is and that he has your support.

The size of bank bonuses has amplified the size of the gap between rich and poor. You have argued that you want to see a fairer Britain. Today you have the opportunity to prove that you mean what you say.

To indulge these disproportionate rewards would be to sign up to a degenerate culture. You have to demonstrate your intention not to be a signatory.

I hope that you may also have realised that the bank bonus issue is about more than paying people ludicrous amounts of money. It’s about proportionate rewards and discriminating between the efforts of those who create real wealth through entrepreneurship, invention and innovation and those who capture the wealth of others and redistribute it amongst themselves.

We have to change our attitude to ensure that we reward those whose efforts produce real value and those who do not. You have an opportunity to start that process today.

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Beware Christmas Week Shenanigans!

The week before Xmas and the world goes doolally – except that is for astute politicians who know that this is an ideal time to slide things under the wire.

Next week David Cameron and George Osborne have a meeting with the heads of the banks to discuss bankers’ bonuses and lending to business – or the lack of it. We need to keep a close eye on this meeting. The outcome will be a very clear indicator as to whether the coalition have the bottle to carry through their much trumpeted banking reforms or if they have been knobbled by the bankers.

On the agenda, bonuses and business lending. So, what’s the score? Well, despite everything, bankers remain unrepentant. As far as bonuses are concerned, between them the banks have £7 billion to distribute, and rumour has it that they intend go ahead whatever Cameron or Osborne say. Dave and his chum are going to get the bankers’ finger on this one, I fear.

However, when it comes to lending to business banks have been found out. They’ve been more than a little economical with the truth. As the Bank of England pointed out in their latest quarterly report, banks have not been lending to business, especially small business. Their lending books have been closed – unless you are prepared to pay usurious rates. Cameron and Osborne need to get really angry about this. I fear they won’t and they’ll be fed a load of meaningless promises – again. I’m sure Robert Peston will have the best take on this.

The other important matter due to surface next week is Ofcom’s decision on BSkyB. Should it refer Rupert Murdoch’s request to be allowed to purchase the remainder of BSkyB’s shares to the Competition Commission or not?  If Ofcom don’t decide to refer his request then there is something seriously amiss. I would hesitate to infer that Ofcom could be knobbled, but they have been under a lot of direct and indirect pressure from some very interesting quarters. The case against Murdoch is overwhelming. At stake is plurality of the British media. We need to be on our guard and prepared to ask some serious questions if Murdoch is allowed to proceed.

Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open…despite the sore head.

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My Favourite Xmas Card

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Julian Assange Talks to Jon Snow

Julian Assange talks to Jon Snow having been released on bail last night. He is clearly concerned that there will be moves to extradite him to the US in the very near future. It would be helpful if we were unhelpful should the US try to extradite him from Britain. This is highly unlikely unfortunately. Our record of kow-towing to Uncle Sam speaks for itself.

There are going to be some very interesting ‘battles’ in the coming weeks.

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It’s Showtime!

Christmas is the time of pantomimes. In the spirit of the season, the Royal Courts of Justice have decided to put on their own little show today. Those legal fellows may be as dry as dust, but they’re determined not to be out-done by their thespian cousins. The title of their production? Well, that’s been taxing their brains a little. They’ve finally come up with ‘Julian and the Wiki Thieves’. You’ve got to give it to those legal fellows, original or what? It sounds as though it could be a real rib-tickler!

Unfortunately, no sooner had it been announced, some kill joy counsel with not enough to do decided to challenge the definition of the production. Was it a pantomime or a farce?

His argument? That a pantomime is essentially a fairy tale with a happy ending full of ‘contemporary references and audience participation to create fun and entertainment for the whole family’. A farce on the other hand is a ‘light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations and exaggerated characters are used for humorous effect’. Sadly he won the day. The show was renamed ‘Carry on Leaking’, but this was turned down on appeal. It’s now to be called ‘An Improbable Carry On’. I can’t wait!

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