Sunday, 28 October 2012

It's no laughing matter

It’s getting so bad on our estate that the other day when the dustbin men came round the neighbour asked them to leave three bins.

A Liberal Democrat came round the other day and the neighbour told him to get lost saying he would vote Labour, just like his dad and his granddad before him. But said the Liberal Democrat, “what would you vote if your father was a fool and his father before him was a fool too?” “In that case i’d vote Liberal Democrat or Tory.” 

Vince Cable” “What can we get Danny Alexander for his birthday?”
Paddy Ashdown” “A book perhaps?’
Vince Cable” “No, he’s got one of those already.”

What’s the difference between an accident and a misfortune.
The first is when Osborne falls into a river, and the second is when someone pulls him out. 

I’ve got some good and bad news. 
What’s the good news?
Thatcher is dead.
What’s the bad news?
It’s not true. 

Thatcher dies and goes to heaven. St Peter refuses her entry and sends her down to hell.
The next day, St Peter is woken early by a great clamour outside his window. Looking out, he see a huge crowd of devils, all demanding political asylum. 

Why are there no toilets in the Stock Exchange.
Because everyone shits on everyone else. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Union support for disabled farm worker maintains vital benefits

Farmworker Mark Giles decision to stick with Unite after he was forced to stop working due to chemical poisoning has paid off after the union helped him gain his Employment and Support Allowance. (ESA) 

Mark had been entitled to Incapacity Benefit since Christmas Day 2000. Eleven medical boards since then had confirmed he was not well enough to work. The 51 year-old from Bicester, Oxfordshire had found his immune system destroyed by the pesticides he worked with for more than 25 years. Inadequate safety equipment failed to protect him. 

Mark, a married man with four children, enjoyed “being a farm worker as I loved being outdoors working with animals in the peace and quiet.” Although his wages were never great Mark had no regrets in completing an agricultural engineering apprenticeship and working the land. 

Things changed dramatically in June 2000 when Mark says, “I was hit by what felt like a severe flu and which left me with no energy.” Mark’s doctor was able to offer a ‘pesticide exposure’ diagnosis, but with no known cure he has been unable to work since. Today, Mark needs medication for a range of health problems and continues to suffer from chronic fatigue. Communicating properly, going out, standing, picking up and moving things can all prove difficult.

Yet following a 20 minute medical conducted in October last year by private firm ATOS he was informed that ‘the decision maker decided Mr Giles’s award of Incapacity Benefit did not qualify for conversion to ESA and was to be terminated from 28/12/2011.’ All the other medical experts were wrong, Mark was fit enough for work! 

It is worth pointing out that despite being paid £100 million a year to carry out work capability assessments that ATOS aren’t aways right with their decisions. A special investigation by the Daily Mirror revealed that between January and August 2011 there were 1,100 claimants who actually died after being placed in the ‘work-related activity group’ that pays claimants a lower ESA and carries an expectation that they will go out and find work. 

The decision did not surprise Mark, “as I felt the assessor had made up her mind before I entered the room as she asked very few questions and simply asked me to wobble my arms and legs.” 

When Mark was working he was not a member of a trade union. He joined Unite after he became seriously ill and “they gave me good advice.” He has been a member ever since and he approached the union for support in appealing against a decision that could have ultimately wiped out his £350 a month income. This would have left him and his wife entirely dependent upon the latter’s wages from her job as a civilian worker with Thames Valley Police.

With more than 300,000 people in the appeal queue before him, Mark was given an appeal hearing date of October 1st this year. As he waited his benefits were cut by almost £130 a month. Fortunately a late cancellation saw his appeal moved forward to 15 June 2012. 

Mark was accompanied to this by David Weeks, a Unite regional officer based in Maidstone, Kent who has experience of supporting rural workers and members across all occupations who have been refused disability benefits. David spent a day preparing for the case and knows how important professional advice can be to appellants rarely familiar with the appeal process or the sorts of questions they may be asked. 

“More than anything, Unite is all about our collective support to those who are a little bit weaker. Our recently launched community membership scheme demonstrates this. It was a disgrace that Mark was threatened with losing part or even all of his income if he had been put into a working group that he would have been unable to attend because of his illness,” says David.  

Statistics show that people are twice as likely to win their appeal if they appear in person rather than having a paper hearing. Yet when the Ministry of Justice produced a video informing people of this they were pressurised by employment minister Chris Grayling to remove it from Youtube. Grayling is now the Justice Minister. 

The two Tribunal appeal judges didn’t take long to decide ATOS had got their decision wrong. There proved no need for David to make a concluding statement and it was agreed that ‘Mr Giles is entitled to ESA with Limited Capability for work related activity component.’ 

Success though was tinged with the knowledge that it had cost the taxpayer an estimated £12,000 for Mark’s medical, written and full appeal hearing. Times that by the 300,000 other appellants and that’s a lot of money, especially as 40% are winning their appeals.  

As it is abundantly clear that Mark Giles is not going to become fit for work, Tribunal Judge Ms GM Manning said in her summing up that it would be another 4-5 years before he could expect to again be called for a medical. After such a worrying ordeal lasting many months this was welcome news.
Mark Giles “delight” has though proved premature. Five weeks was all it took for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to write and inform him that he must re-appear before the ATOS assessor. Money that should be used to pay his benefits is being squandered on another futile exercise. Weeks re-affirms that “Unite will continue providing support” and he and Giles have written to the DWP asking them to take into account the tribunal judge’s statement. 

It’s not just workers who are affected by pesticides. A 2008 World Bank report estimated that 355,000 people worldwide die each year from unintentional pesticide poisoning. In December last year the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which examines and provides judgements relative to violations of human rights and rights of peoples, indicted the world’s six largest agrochemical companies for human rights violations.
In the United Kingdom, the campaigning work of Sussex resident Georgina Downs has highlighted the adverse health impacts on residents living near pesticide sprayed fields. Many of those affected subsequently find it difficult to keep working.
Yet according to Downs, “There is a serious lack of training for GP’s and specialists in relation to the adverse health impacts of pesticides. This results in many of the symptoms being misdiagnosed as something else.”  
Downs is now concerned that victims are under increasing pressure by ATOS to ‘justify’ their illnesses in order to obtain benefits and says, “Those with chemical injury need support, understanding and assistance, not doubt, disbelief and ignorance.” 
For further information on Georgina Downs’ UK Pesticides Campaign see

Great new book on Captain Swing lifts lid on biggest ever rural uprising

Due to appear in Landworker magazine of Unite shortly. 

Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest
Carl J Griffin 

Manchester University Press 

This meticulously researched book demonstrates that England’s biggest ever rural uprising was more organised, widespread and politically motivated than previously thought. 

Starting in August 1830 in Kent, riots swept across the country as the rural poor smashed 390 threshing machines, torched farm buildings, assembled in large numbers and sent threatening letters from the mythical Captain Swing.

Protestors demanded higher wages and regular, productive work. They didn’t get it and in the bloody repression that followed hundreds were transported with nineteen executed.   RURAL WAR focuses on the south-eastern heartland of Swing, where it started and lasted the longest. 


In the early nineteenth-century England was virtually unique among major nations by having no landed smallholding peasantry. Millions of acres of common land had meanwhile been enclosed, thus ensuring the landless were dependent on a wage.

The introduction of horse-drawn threshing machines then slashed the numbers needed to tend the crops. As unemployment soared and wage levels plummeted, farm labourers and their families starved. Parish relief to the ill and out of work was minimal and dropped further as more became dependent upon it. Work schemes rarely provided productive work. To make matters worse the harvest in 1828, 1829 and 1830 was disastrous.

Attacks on threshing machines had first taken place in 1815 and 1816 and had steadily increased since.  However it seems unlikely that when a threshing machine was destroyed on 24 August 1830 at Wingmore, a small hamlet in the Elham Valley of East Kent, that those involved could have imagined it would start a Rural War. Yet by the end of September another 18 had been destroyed in Kent as large numbers assembled to demand a ‘moral right’ of employment from farmers and landowners. 

Griffin’s fine book shows how the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire landless swiftly joined the protests.  These intensified to include threatening letters and the burning down of numerous farm buildings  belonging to  those employers unwilling to concede to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work

Having only sentenced the Elham ring-leaders to four days imprisonment the authorities now cracked down ruthlessly. With few across the region willing to become Special Constables, the Military was sent for. Hundreds of people were arrested. For trying to protect their families and communities from starvation, 160 were transported from Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex, some permanently. Hampshire suffered most with 115 torn from their loved ones.


The greatest revenge by the ruling class was reserved for arsonists. Although none had killed anybody, over the Christmas and New Year period of 1830/31 seven men were executed. A year later, five more went to the gallows and in December 1832 George Wren was executed for a firing a Uckfield barn six months earlier.

By then the conflict had largely ended with both sides in the war now having a mutual fear of one another. Yet with many labourers have shown a willingness to dispute their wages and openly question the nature of authority the way was open for the development of a rural workers trade union.  Enter the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834. 

Columbian killings continue

The callous execution of a Columbian peasant trade unionist in early August re-affirms that the South American state is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. Over 2,500 unionists have been murdered in the past 20 years. This is more than the rest of the world combined and yet there is now the prospect of things getting even worse. 

Aldemar Pinto Barrios of the Association of Peasant Workers of Caloto was killed instantly on Sunday 5 August when two men riding a motorbike shot him in the head, neck and chest. Two colleagues narrowly escaped with their lives.

Just days later Juan Carlos Pinzon, the Columbian Defence Minister, accused the Patriotic March social movement, whose membership includes Columbian trade unions and peasant organisations, of being funded by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) guerrillas. 

The last organisation to be similarly accused was the Patriotic Union in 1980s and following which paramilitary death squads assassinated over 3,000 people. An April 1988 report by Amnesty International accused the Columbian government and military of being involved in a ‘deliberate policy of political murder.’ Despite providing no proof to substantiate his allegations the fear now is that Pinzon’s statement will see the destruction of a movement that is campaigning peacefully to resolve the conflict in Columbia. 

Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey noted that five of the sixteen trade unionists murdered in 2012 were from the FENSUAGRO agricultural workers’ union. Promises of government protection had proved worthless and fuel to protection units has even been cut. 

Justice for Columbia (JFC) is the TUC-backed coalition of 40 national trade unions (including Unite) providing support to the Colombian people and trade union movement.

In an attempt to end anti-trade union violence in Columbia the JFC is asking union  members to send protest messages to the Colombian Ambassador in London. Help is also needed to stop UK military aid to Columbia and for persuading MPs to back an early day motion calling on the British Government to encourage the Columbian government and FARC into seeking a negotiated settlement.

020 7324 2490 

Palestinian agricultural workers also attacked 

Palestinian agricultural workers and organisers appear to have been targeted for an intensified arrest campaign in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. New Israeli settlements have made it increasingly difficult for Palestinians to defend their land and produce the farm products so urgently needed throughout the Palestinian territories.

The Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC) had its offices in Jericho ransacked by Israeli forces only hours after local coordinator Dr Moayad Ahmad Bisharart was taken from his home at dawn on 31 July 2012. Days earlier the UAWC’s Director of Development and Operations, engineer Fuad Abu Saif, along with activist Mohammad Nujoom were also abducted. The UAWC, formed in 1987, also remains has concerned that Board member Ahmad Soufan has been ordered into a third term of six months imprisonment without charge. 

Opposing child labour in agriculture

Child labour in agriculture opposed

60% of all child labour takes place in agriculture, with more than 129 million girls and boys aged five to seventeen often working in hazardous conditions. Few of the youngsters have access to trade union protection and to date limited progress has been made in addressing child labour in rural communities. 

Global March (GM) Against Child Labour aims to eliminate child labour and the International Union of Food workers. At the end of July GM organised a well-attended conference in Washington against agricultural child labour. 

Want to help trade unionists overseas? - where trade unionists start their day on the net – provides global labour news from every part of the planet. The site – which is in 21 languages - has a campaigns page where you can support trade unionists struggling for their rights. Take a look. 

Coalition set to kill kids

The death of any child is a tragedy. So when you realise the Government is proposing to scrap an effective tool in preventing children from suffering serious injuries and deaths from agriculture then you have to question whether the coalition has a heart.

The Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) on Preventing Accidents to children in agriculture has legal status and was first published in 1988. It was clearly needed as a year earlier Stephen Vallance aged six was crushed to death under the wheels of his father’s tractor.  

Stephen had fallen from the tractor trailer and his grieving father, Graham, was not consoled by “everyone telling me I am not to blame as I have to live with this for the rest of my life.” 

Graham Vallance, a farmer in Bere Alston, near Tavistock, Devon: “Hoped other farmers will see the dangers so that the same kind of accident doesn’t happen again.”  Sadly it is not possible to report that to be the case, but research by Unite’s Health and Safety Section reveals a significant drop in injuries and deaths over the years.

Between 1986 and 1997/8 there were 66 children killed in agricultural accidents. 300 were seriously injured. In the years since then the figures have totalled 29 and 153. Instead of 6 deaths annually there are now 2. 

Unite has worked closely with the HSE in promoting the ACOP within rural communities, helping produce two jointly badged guidance leaflets on child safety aimed at farmers and which were widely distributed to schools and other organisations. Industry seminars were organised and a seconded HSE agriculture inspector, Mike Walters, worked successfully with Unite to cut the number of tragic incidents. The partnership clearly worked because whilst the overall number of agricultural deaths has remained at a (sadly too high a) steady level, that involving children has fallen. 

All this is now under threat. Professor Ragnar Loftstedt was commissioned last year by the Government to review Britain’s health and safety laws. 

Loftstedt’s recommendations included withdrawing the ACOP guidance on child safety on agriculture, substituting instead what the HSE describes as ‘more practical guidance available in other HSE publications more suited to the target audience.’ According to the HSE guidance from the agricultural industry is also on its way. Asked however to clarify what this might consist of, the HSE was unable to say. 

This concerns Cath Speight who says, “Industry guidance won’t have the legislative powers of an approved ACOP, which is enforceable and can impose measures against employers found not to be compliant. This is another attempt by the government to trivialise workplace health and safety in extremely dangerous workplaces.”

A consultation period on Loftstedt’s recommendations has just ended. Unite responded seeking to retain ACOP and National Health and Safety Adviser Susan Murray argues “It would be far more sensible, and safer, to update the ACOP to take account of legislative changes and relaunch it as part of a new farm safety campaign coupled with a programme or proactive enforcement by the HSE.”  Kids lives now depend on this Government listening to reason.  

Derby Books will shortly publish my digital book on:- 

TOM THUMB – Ernie Taylor 

Ernie Taylor, the little midfield genius that helped Manchester United reach Wembley after the Munich tragedy in 1958. 


At 5’ 4” and barely ten stones Sunderland born Ernie Taylor is one of the smallest professional footballers ever. Wearing only size 4 boots, Taylor, known as ‘Tom Thumb’, had great skill on the ball, exemplary dribbling abilities, marvellous vision and an eye for a goal. Playing in midfield he performed with distinction for four giants of the post-war football world in Newcastle United (1942-1951), Blackpool (1951-1958), Manchester United (Feb – December 1958) and Sunderland (Dec 58– 1961).

Taylor played at Wembley on four occasions – winning with Newcastle United at the 1951 FA Cup Final and Blackpool two years later, and then losing 6-3 with England against Hungary in 1953 and losing 2-0 with Manchester United in the 1958 FA Cup Final.

However, the very fact that the latter made it to Wembley was a remarkable feat as it was only months after the Munich air tragedy. This book examines the critical role Ernie Taylor played in making this possible.

Much more land now registered

A voluntary land ownership registration scheme introduced by the Labour Government ten years ago has proved a major success with most land now on the books of the Land Registry. 

The Land Registration Act 2002 was introduced when most land in England and Wales was not registered with coverage levels below 40% in North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Powys, Wiltshire and Dorset. In addition,  Lincolnshire, Lancashire, Somerset, Norfolk and Suffolk were all below 50%.

That has now changed dramatically. As of 1 August 2012, Lancashire registration levels have risen to 83%. There have been large jumps in North Yorkshire (up from 44% to 81%), Norfolk (up from 37% to 81%). Somerset (up from 41% to 79%), Powys (up from 38% to 72%) and Gwynedd (up from 46% to 72%). 

Although registration is not complete, with around a fifth of land in England and Wales still unrecorded, these latest figures are closing the gap on the question as to who Owns Britain.  Back in 1874 the compilation by Local Government Boards of The Return of the Owners of Land proved an embarrassment to the handful of landowners who owned most of the country. 

No similar study was undertaken until Kevin Cahill’s 2001 book Who Owns Britain completed a lifetime’s work and revealed that 189,000 people owned 88% of the land. The Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall near Chester is a large landowner with over 130,000 acres. As some of the holdings are in central London then according to the Sunday Times Rich List for 2011 he is worth £7.35 bn and is the richest UK-born person in Britain.

Over the last decade the issue of land reform has been high on the political agenda in Scotland that has not been the case in England and Wales. Now, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, has tabled a private member’s bill seeking Parliamentary support for research into “the merits of replacing the Council Tax and non-domestic rates in England with an annual levy on the unimproved vale of all land.” 

A land value tax (LVT) was first promoted by American economist Henry George in 1879. It has been introduced in a number of countries including Russia and Estonia. Ireland appears to be currently wavering on its commitment to introduce LVT next year. In the UK the Liberal Democrats have a long-standing attachment. 

Supporters believe LVT can prevent investment in unproductive property. In her speech to MPs Lucas said: “LVT encourages efficient and sustainable use of land, as owners of derelict land or properties that they have deliberately allowed to become run down pay the same as those who take care of their properties.”

The Brighton MP said the Valuation Office Agency should be able to assess the value of all land. With most land now registered such a task would now be considerably easier than a decade ago. Lucas’s bill is due a second reading in November. 

Ex-pilot sues for lack of care

The Official Solicitor is being sued by a former airline pilot alleging  a lack of care. after he was deemed incapable of managing his affairs. 

Leonard Lawrence, who believes his ill health is the result of toxic fumes being released into aircrafts during flights, was placed in 2004 under the Officil Solicitor’s protection after a psychiatric assessment said he lacked the mental capacity to look after his property and affairs under Part V11 of the Mental Health Act 1983.

During this period, which lasted until 2006, he maintains that his assets were improperly disposed of.

Earlier this year Lawrence was given permission to sue the Official Solicitor’s Office by the Queen’s Bench of the High Court. He is seeking damages from the Official Solicitor for his alleged failure in his duty of care to protect a vulnerable adult.” 

Lawrence, who now lives in rented accommodation in Devon, was a pilot from 1989 to 2004.  He claims that on 29 November 1991 the flight deck of the passenger aircraft he was co-piloting was filled with hot acrid fumes on take-off. An emergency landing was made and the aircraft evacuated. The plane was later exported to Russia. 

Twelve years later, and a day after a fume event only hundreds of feet above Amsterdam, he quit his job after he was: “ unable to process information being given to me by Swiss air traffic control during a flight over the country. I couldn’t and still can’t think clearly enough to fly.”

When he visited his GP, Lawrence was referred for a psychiatric assessment to Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust and he was subsequently admitted to Godden Green Clinic. 

After being discharged he was certified in November 2004, without undergoing a medical, when solicitor’s for his ex-wife obtained a medical report from the clinic saying Lawrence was incapable of managing his property and affairs.

Although this was disputed by Lawrence’s own NHS psychiatrist it was accepted in Slough County Court and the former pilot was placed under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Official Solicitor at the  Ministry of Justice. The Official Solicitor acts as a last resort ‘Guardian ad litem’ for people who lack the mental capacity to properly manage their own affairs and who cannot find suitable people to protect them. Lawrence had assembled a number of distinguished people, including Mr Alistair Wilson FRCS, a clinical director at the Royal London Hospital, who were prepared to act as his guardian but the  county court chose to ignore them.  

Lawrence remained under the jurisdiction of the Official Solicitor until early in 2006. By then a medical diagnosis, undertaken by Professor Abou-Donia at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences in North Carolina, USA revealed he was suffering from moderate brain injury caused by chemical poisoning.  

Whilst under the care of the Official Solicitor there were three occasions on which some of Lawrence’s assets, which he estimates to be worth £130,000, were disposed of. To prevent a power of attorney - in this case the Official Solicitor - from committing fraud then any disposal of assets requires the approval of the Court of Protection.

The Manager at the Compliance and Regulatory Unit, Office of the Public Guardian has confirmed to Lawrence that ‘The Court of Protection has no  record of any application being received for him. It was clearly the responsibility of the holder of the medical certificate to ensure an application was made.’

Lawrence is being supported by the Aerotoxic Association. This is run by former airline pilots convinced they have been made ill by cabin air polluted with toxic oil fumes. The organisation seeks to bring about regulatory changes to improve air quality aboard airliners. Founder John Hoyte, who has known Lawrence for 23 years. said: “He has been badly let down by doctors who failed to diagnose and treat his illness. This was compounded by not being allowed to have someone he knew designated to look after his interests during the time he was certified. I think there needs to be a inquiry into Leonard Lawrence’s case.”

A spokesperson for the Official Solicitor said it couldn’t comment: “on ongoing litigation in which the Official Solicitor is defending a claim against Mr Lawrence against the previous office holder.” 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Author Q@A: Agents, Rovers and Cricket Loving Owners

Agents, Rovers and Cricket Loving Owners
Michael Blackburn
Grosvenor House Publishing

£12.99 or £7.99 direct from

In 2010 the Venky poultry manufacturing family from India bought Blackburn Rovers. After selling more than £40 million of playing talent, and witnessing key members of the club’s administration exiting, 18 months later the East Lancashire club was relegated. Meanwhile the new owners continued to put their trust in an inexperienced manager. Steve Kean’s recent resignation was wildly celebrated by fans and author Michael Blackburn. 

1) Why did you write this book?

Football used to be a laugh but in recent years I have become disillusioned with the game. After the Venky takeover I became frustrated with the way the club was heading and angry about how the story was being reported by career journalists who have little real passion for Rovers.

2) Surely Rovers relative lack of support means the second League is where they should be?

Football should never be about the numbers you get through the turnstiles. Rovers’ crowds are excellent considering the size of the town and the number of big clubs in the North West. We deserve to be in the Championship because we were relegated from the Premier League, but I have never had an inferiority complex about mixing at the top table with bigger cities with greater commercial appeal.

3) What’s wrong with agents in football?

It is important that any young person entering into contract negotiations with a multi-million pound corporation has some form of professional representation. But the financial rewards for agents, certainly at the top end, are just totally out of synch with the role they are fulfilling. Between October 2010 and September 2011 Premier League clubs paid £71.8 million to licenced agents. It is not good for the game or society or even the people they represent. 

4) Have you been able to work out why the Venkys bought Blackburn Rovers?

Mrs Desai, the Venkys driving force at Rovers, said the purchase was to gain recognition for the Indian brand in different international markets. That has worked and Venkys are now a household name. I doubt there are many Rovers fans eating chicken lollipops but I am sure there are fans of other clubs who do so.

5) What makes you believe football is a closed shop?

Football will always be great but if you want to challenge those in positions of power then don't expect a long list of people rushing to speak to you. Look at the difficulty Clarke Carlisle had when he made the recent BBC documentary "Is Football Racist?"  Carlisle is the Professional Footballers Chairman, a BBC pundit and a former Premier League player. Yet he really struggled to get people in the football world to speak publicly about the problem. I found the same thing with Rovers and no one involved with the club would answer my legitimate questions. It has been the same for the various Rovers fans groups who have emerged in the last 18 months.

6) Was the media’s portrayal of Steve Kean as a dignified man warranted? 

Anyone can be over-promoted. Anyone can lose football games. The driving ban, where his claim about having his drink spiked was unceremoniously rejected by the judge, left a bad taste and I remain totally unconvinced that he needed 24-hour bodyguard protection. He also constantly attempted to put out media messages that were clearly at odds with reality and in the end he made it really difficult for Rovers fans to do anything but dislike him.

7) Were the media accurate in reporting Rovers fans protests as foolish and violent?

The protests were justified, necessary and peaceful. It was never the organised campaign of hatred and vitriol that was reported.  It was proper football fans exasperated with the direction our club was heading. 100% of Rovers fans disliked Kean. 100% - think for a moment what that means. All the information is out there and I would urge people to read the facts and then try to tell me the protests were not justified.

Free speech in sentences

A Dewsbury man found guilty of posting an offensive Facebook message about British soldiers in Afghanistan has been spared jail after magistrates gave him a community service order.

But free speech campaigners believe his prosecution - and that of a Chorley man found guilty of posting offensive online jokes about missing five-year-old Welsh girl April Jones - should never have brought.

As well as a 240-hour community service order, Huddersfield magistrates last week fined 20-year old Azhar Ahmed £300 for sending a “grossly offensive communication.” 

His message, which said “all soldiers should die and go to hell”, was posted after six British soldiers from the Yorkshire Army regiment were killed by militants in Lashkar Gar, Helmand in March. The mother of one of the soldiers reported the message to the police.

District Judge Jane Goodwin told Ahmed: “You posted the message in response to tributes and messages of sympathy. You knew at the time that this was an emotive and sensitive issue. 

“With freedom of speech comes responsibility. On March 8 you failed to live up to that responsibility.”

Ahmed maintained that he was voicing “legitimate concerns” about British military involvement in Afghanistan and that he removed the comments when he realised they were causing distress.

A former soldier offended by Ahmed’s comments, Jim Fox - who served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s - said the Dewsbury man failed to recognise that most soldiers are young, poorly educated and apolitical. But Fox added: “Free speech is important and the courts are no place to argue over Britain’s role in Afghanistan.” 

Ahmed’s sentence came days after 19-year-old Matthew Woods from Chorley was jailed for 12 weeks after admitting making grossly offensive comments on his Facebook about April Jones.

His comments were reported to the police by members of the public and a 50-strong “vigilante mob” descended on his home, Chorley Magistrates Court heard.

Chairman of the Bench Bill Hudson said: “We have listened to the evidence in what can only be described as a disgusting and despicable crime and one the bench finds completely abhorrent.” 

But campaigners said the magistrates in both cases failed to take into account an earlier ruling that the Communications Act 2003 should not be used to punish “the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.”

This was the view expressed by the Lord Chief Justice in July when he upheld Paul Chambers’ appeal against his conviction for jokingly threatening on Twitter  to blow Robin Hood airport “sky high!” if his planned flight was affected by the weather in January 2010.

Writing on  Index on Censorship’s blog, Padraig Reidy said the law was being used in Woods’ case just in the way Lord Chief Justice had warned against - to diminish his “right to express unpopular, unfashionable and distasteful humour.”

Reidy wrote: “Woods would appear to have been found ‘guilty’ of crimes agains taste and against sentiment. We cannot allow this to continue. No one should be put in prison for making a joke that other people don’t like.”

Josie Appleton, spokesperson for the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against ‘the hyper regulation of everyday life’, said that prosecutions such as these should not be brought because there is no threat of violence.

She said: “ The last Government introduced a series of very vague laws that massively extended criminal offences to include comments on social media sites that are offensive, rude and stupid. The previously critical Conservative Party has retained these laws and we can now expect to see them more widely used, especially if proposed new laws introduce tracking for everyone’s email, Twitter and Facebook accounts.” 

Monday, 8 October 2012

It's an unfair game, says shooting film

Shooting game is not the natural and free-range activity its supporters claim it is, according to a new film by animal activists.

The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) film alleges that much of the produce is not genuinely wild but is intensively reared in poor conditions by the shooting industry.

More than 17.5 million partridges and pheasants are shot annually. Smaller numbers of hares and deer are also shot. Game meat sales have in recent years been boosted by the support of popular chefs such as Gregg Wallace, the BBC TV Masterchef presenter.

Both the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the Countryside Alliance (CA) claim game meat ‘is wild, natural and free range.’

According to LACS, Gunsmoke and Mirrors, shows ‘the reality of the intensive breeding and rearing conditions employed to protect this precious stock for shooting.... plus, evidence of the huge amount of wastage the industry produces making it clear that this is not about food but about sport.’

But a spokesperson for BASC said that much of the film was based on a misunderstanding of the industry.

The film quotes RSPB statistics that the UK’s natural habitat could support 1.6 million pheasants and yet sixteen times that number are released by the shooting industry annually, whilst 14 million partridges are also released. Covert filming in game farm laying pens shows cramped conditions for pheasants in the first eight weeks of their lives. Some birds also have bits inserted in their mouths and spectacles used to limit their vision.

Following the birds’ release in the countryside, the film claims the special provision of food and cover nearby ensures they do not need to seek new pastures. Consequently they are less likely to escape being shot by an estimated half-a-million people who annually pay many hundreds of pounds for the pleasure of killing the birds. Since 2007 it has no longer been necessary to obtain a game licence to shoot pheasant and the CA has recently been in the news for promoting shooting amongst young people.

Gunsmoke and Mirrors also shows incidents of dumping of birds following a shoot and disputes claims by shoot supporters that ‘99% of birds shot are ending up on the table.’

But BASC Communications Director Christopher Graffius insisted that 99 per cent of game farms were clearly following a new industry code of conduct introduced in 2010. He added that BASC had a taken a lead in criticising the three out of 300 game farms that rear birds for shooting using a cage system that didn’t meet its standards.

“The government is currently conducting its own enquiry to see if the conditions protect the welfare of the birds,” he said: “A lot of the LACS film is based on a misunderstanding of shooting.”

“Bits and spectacles are a welfare protection measure to prevent a weaker bird being picked on. Released birds quickly become self-reliant and towards the end of the shooting season they will move out of cover to start establishing territories.”

Graffius pointed to a 2011 study, conducted by market research company Mintel, predicting UK game meat sales will reach £84 million this year. Dumping, said Graffius, was not necessary “as the rest is taken home by shooters, those who work in the industry or sold to the continent. ”

Graffius said game meat sales were undoubtedly benefiting from well-known chefs support. One of these is Greg Wallace, who is much admired for his plain speaking approach on the popular BBC TV cooking programme, Masterchef.  Last month Wallace publicly backed the CA’s game-to-eat campaign. Asked if he had viewed the LACS film, or taken a look at the conditions where birds are kept, a spokesperson for Wallace said: “he had not and therefore has no comment to make.”

The release of the LACS film coincides with the signing of an early day motion by 58 MPs that seeks to ‘end the suffering of game birds being shot for sport’ and which calls on ‘the Government to ensure that animals are protected from such senseless destruction.’ 

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Masking the truth - are residents of Billinge being made ill by pesticides in crop spray

The use of pesticides by farmers is damaging the health of residents  of Billinge, St Helens. That’s the claim of former health practitioner Gillian Broughton, who has lived in the village for over 25 years. 

The former fell walker began collecting neighbours’ names after she and her son became seriously unwell following a local walk in June 2009. Broughton is convinced that a chance encounter with farm labourers using a public footpath on Garswood Road to spray nearby fields was behind the pair’s illnesses. According to Broughton: “I smelled what can best be described as Jeyes cleaning fluid and saw a team of three dressed like spacemen using a tractor to pull up the roots of a tree. They had large white drums from which they spraying what looked to me to be rabbit warrens at the side of the farmer’s field. I felt sorry for the rabbits.”

Fourty eight hours later she collapsed, “I never got out of bed for the next few weeks as I had a constant headache, couldn’t eat, felt totally confused and even thought i was suffering from dementia as my short term memory was so poor.” Her son Paul, aged 31, was able to briefly carry on working but following two massive rectal bleeds he was off work for almost six months. He is now back at his job as a gas fitter. Gillian however has never returned to work and complains of feeling constantly tired.

Broughton’s doctor diagnosed her with labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear. He sent her to a number of NHS specialists including a cardiologist. Nothing abnormal was discovered. 

She then approached two other doctors, Barry Durrant-Peatfield and Sarah Myhill, to see if she could find out more.

Durrant-Peatfield holds diagnostic and treatment advice clinics across the UK. His attempts to help people understand their metabolic illnesses have brought him into conflict with the General Medical Council (GMC), and he quit the body after they threatened to have him struck off as a registered medical practitioner. 

Myhill has practised in Llangunllo near Knighton, Powys since 1990. In this time she has seen hundreds of farmers and estimates that “one in three have been poisoned to such an extent that it’s affected their health in one way or another.” Throughout 2010 and 2011 Myhill was forced to practise medicine under severe restrictions from the GMC. Since 2001 she has faced the prospect of 7 Fitness to Practise Hearings, all of which have been cancelled with no case to answer.

Gillian Broughton
Following private laboratory tests, both doctors concluded Gillian had been chemically poisoned.  As this can switch on allergies Broughton, who avoids diary products, asked her primary care trust if she could receive treatment from the Brakespear private hospital that specialises in this field. She was refused. Myhill had recommended taking vitamin B12, which plays a key functioning role in the brain and nervous system and the formation of blood.

Broughton says: “My doctor ended my prescription after he read about Dr Myhill and the GMC. Since then i have purchased the product privately at a cost of around £200 a year. My son helps pay for this and other medicines as I am now living on benefits.” She’d like to go back to work and feels she is recovering slowly, estimating that she is now around 50% functional compared to just 20% three years ago.

Broughton wrote via a solicitor to the owner of the field close to Garswood Road. He has denied causing her health problems and she seems unlikely to be able to prove a direct link. She would, though, like to prevent others following in her footsteps. She has give out leaflets locally and to parents dropping off their children at the local school to ask “if they may be suffering from pesticide exposure from crop spraying.’

She has subsequently been contacted by a number of people. Christine Hughes has lived on Royden Road, Billinge since the 60s. In 1994, aged 53, she got breast cancer, since when she has experienced bladder cancer and, two years ago, a second illness with breast cancer. She says: “Gillian is not the first person to raise this as a concern. In the 90s the local vicar’s wife surveyed the road and found that 12 women from just eighty houses had cancer. We live backing on to fields where pesticides are commonly used. 

“When I got the leaflet I rang Gillian. What concerns me is that my doctor has never really tried to find out what might have caused my cancers and has simply asked me if I smoke or drink. I also think the parish council should call a meeting to discuss this issue.”

Billinge Parish Council did not respond to The Big Issue in the North’s request for comment. 

Claire Wildman, who lives in the nearby village of Rainford, contacted Gillian Broughton after her 58 year-old mum died of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). This is a rare form of cancer associated with the chemical industry and which was made infamous following the subsequent deaths of many thousands after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. According to Claire her mum “had always thought that the strong smells which came from the fields from spraying could not be doing anyone any good.” 

However, months after her mother’s death, Claire claims that when she attended an open meeting of Rainford Parish Council the concerns she raised were heavily cricitised by councillors.

Claire is aware of three other local cases of AML and feels more should be done to inform “people of the dangers of pesticides.’ Christine Hughes agrees and would “like to see farmers make residents aware of the days when they are going to be spraying.”

This is a priority too for Georgina Downs from Sussex who has run a vigorous campaign for over a decade to highlight the dangers of pesticides, which were estimated in a 2008 World Bank report to kill 355,000 people worldwide each year. Downs herself was left seriously unwell following spraying in the fields next to her home.

Broughton contacted her to seek advice before she started leafleting. According to Downs the Billinge resident is “one of thousands who have contacted me nationally in the last eleven years. It is heartbreaking to hear what so many people have had to suffer through no fault of their own, especially those who have been poisoned because their houses adjoin fields that are regularly sprayed with mixtures of toxic chemicals.”

Downs’ campaign has been calling for a ban on the use of pesticides in the locality of residents’ homes, schools, playgrounds, and public areas. Ms. Downs states, “There has never been any assessment in the UK of the risks to health for the long-term exposure for those who live or go to school near pesticide sprayed fields. Under EU law the absence of any risk assessment means that pesticides should never have been approved for use for spraying in the locality of homes, schools, children’s playgrounds and public areas. Therefore the use of pesticides in the locality of such areas must be banned without any further delay.”

Four years ago Downs won a landmark legal ruling in the High Court that the UK Government’s pesticide policy did not comply with European legislation. This was bizarrely overturned by the Court of Appeal when her arguments were substituted by a Government funded report from 2004. Downs’ legal case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. 

Georgina Downs’ UK Pesticides Campaign is at