Pro-abortion misinformation

I was very frustrated and saddened to hear the misleading claims made by Irish pro-abortion activist Sinead Redmond on BBC World Service’s “HARDTalk” show (listen from about 15:40 minutes into the programme). In response to a specific question suggesting that abortion “on demand” will lead to more terminations, she replied “I don’t [accept that]… that’s not consistent with what we see internationally.” As evidence, she brought-up the example of Portugal, claiming that their abortion rate in has actually reduced since – and by implication as a result of – the law being changed in 2007.

This is very misleading and should have been challenged by the presenter. Firstly, any figures (such as the 14 women who died from back-street abortion 2001-2007) are estimates – and, of course, we have no idea how many babies were aborted before the ban. We do know 2008-2015, there were 145,000 voluntary abortions – apparently the trend is downwards since a peak of 20,480 in 2011, blamed on the recession, but is still expected to “stabilise” at 15,000 deaths per year.

Consider also that “abortion on demand” in Portugal is a relatively recent development and it is still too early to forecast long-term trends. A better comparison is the UK where the figures did appear to decline 1973 to 1976 but soon rose to almost 200,000 per year by 1990 (though there are continuing fluctuations). The worst year, 219,454 lives lost in 2007, was before the financial crash and resulting economic downturn!

However, if you listen to the HARDTalk interview, the pro-abort activist makes it sound like there are fewer (or at least the same number of) abortions now in Portugal, since the law changed, than there were before 2007, which is clearly misleading. She ignores the caveats and the many who have reservations about the change in Portugal’s laws.

The programme would have benefitted from slowing down and actually investigating properly some of the numbers, especially this one, which were thrown around, so that individuals were not misinformed about what changing abortion laws actually leads to. The BBC must do better and not abet the broadcast of “fake news”. I have complained to them and I hope they will set the record straight.

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Abortion – today’s Irish Question

Please don’t change your constitution. Think about all those many human beings alive and flourishing today because your country defended the right to life of those in the womb. In fact, a conservative estimate is 100,000 people – alive in Ireland today thanks to the 8th Amendment, as calculated between 1994 and 2014.

Beware the slippery slope. This is often derided as a so-called “logical fallacy” but there is hard evidence to back-up the warning: look at England and Wales. Abortion was introduced there in 1967 under the Abortion Act. At the time, the abortion rate was 1 in 40 pregnancies. Within five years, it had jumped to 1 in 7. Today, it’s a staggering 1 in 5. Moreover, campaigners are pushing for further liberalisation, removing the need for a doctor to consent and making pills that would terminate a pregnancy available for women at home. Some – particularly those providers who benefit financially from performing the surgery – even argue for no restrictions whatsoever.

Ireland, please do not allow the life of a defenceless child to be ended at precisely the time and place where they should be safest. Please vote to treasure and safeguard life.

Perusing the Internet – seven note-worthy articles

It’s fashionable at the moment to lambast the internet as a some sort of cyber-sewers, awash with nefarious activity from marauding trolls to sinister misinformation and propaganda campaigns by shadowy state actors.  To add some balance, I have drawn together ten articles that have caught my attention recently with interesting reporting, insightful analysis and hard-hitting conclusions.

1) “Meet Britain’s Willy Wonkas: the Ideas Factory that could save UK industry” – I love stories of innovation and regeneration, which is here evident in abundance.

2) “Ostersunds FK: Rise of Swedish club under English manager Graham Potter” – maybe one day, we will see this story turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, though sadly there is yet to be a fairy-tale ending.  Nevertheless, what an achievement from this football manager and his players who have transformed their club, without spending billions or even millions!

3) “We should all be working a four-day week. Here’s why” – a simple idea that could have a significant impact: “Our social model means economic growth all too often involves concentrating wealth produced by the many into the bank accounts of the few, without improving the lives of the majority. Growth should deliver not just shared prosperity and improved public services but a better balance between work, family and leisure.”

4) “50 Things that Shaped the Modern Economy: the Welfare State” – this was part of a fascinating series of articles which explored a very interesting question.  The author is a great story-teller using eye-catching anecdotes to unpack complicated issues.

5) “Schools can’t work miracles. But with a little help, parents can” – as an educator, I was intrigued by the suggestion that schools should be more involved in adult learning, tapping into the desire of parents to help their children and not be flummoxed by a 12-year-old’s mathematics homework.

6) “High Street take-over: Dumfries aims to be the first community to buy back its town centre” – as a citizen of Scotland, I am always interested in more local innovations and schemes, such as this attempt to revitalise a struggling town centre from the “Doon Toon Army”.  Let’s hope that such initiatives become the norm and the Government does everything possible to address the power imbalance between the rights of residents over absentee landlords.

7) “From sea to plate: how plastic got into our fish” – absolutely shocking.  Humanity is so wasteful and short-sighted that eight million tonnes of waste plastic ends up in the sea each year. Fish eat it – and then we do but we don’t even know for sure how bad it is for us.  We certainly do know, however, that this plastic pollution is damaging wildlife and creating huge messes in our natural landscape, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Dump.  I just wish everyone would engage with this issue and cut-off the problem at source.

The three stages of the working man

When you consider the trajectory of the average career, I believe you can pinpoint three stages for homo laborare (the working man) – attitude, aptitude and decrepitude.

1) Attitude: you arrive at your new workplace clean-faced and fresh-eyed, thinking that you know everything and determined to make a splash.  You question why on earth you must follow out-dated, illogical, unnecessary procedures and policies.  Maybe you want to shake things-up, or possibly you quietly ruminate on the silliness of holding yet another meeting to discuss a policy that no-one will look at again.  Attitude, when harnessed wisely, can be a powerful tool for businesses to unleash new ideas and creativity.

2) Aptitude: you now actually know what you are doing!  Through perseverance and politeness, you have gradually mastered the ropes and are ready for increasing responsibilities.  Alternatively, you have perfected the knack of appearing to know what you are talking about, maintaining a cool professionalism in the face of even the most alarming of “crises”.  Aptitude is a beautiful place to be – you have chiselled out a niche for yourself that fits snugly around who you are.  However, beware that complacency does not creep and do not forget to keep reflecting on what could be better.  Viva la revolution!

3) Decrepitude: hopefully, you never reach this stage in your career journey.  Watch out for these warning signs.  Cynicism has crept in and slowly contaminated your whole outlook.  Everything is a plot by management to extract more labour from your contract and any additional demand on your time is met with a semi-automatic lists of excuses, which push responsibility on to others and leave you with a withered husk of actual work.  You know the price of everything but the value of nothing.  Trying to learn a new skills has become almost impossible as your brain struggle to adapt to a different challenge and make connections.  Don’t count down the days to retirement but seize the moments you have left to make a difference.

So that, in my view, is the life cycle of the working man.  You could also label them as enthusiasm, professionalism and cynicism.  Where on the spectrum do you land?

Revamping cyberspace

Introduction

This question cannot be ignored any longer. There is a real need in a world of “filter bubbles”, Brexit, President-elect Trump and seemingly unending online vitriol to assess what is creating such deep division in our societies, stymying the goal of politics to reasonably discuss ideas in order to reach workable, sensible solutions. We must think boldly about how we can revamp our digital technologies to break individuals out of their echo chambers into the democratic lobby of reasoned discourse.

I was reminded of these ideas, first written in January 2017, by an opinion piece in the Guardian, where respected columnist Simon Jenkins argues for a scheme of online identification to tackle the deluge of vitriol that has turned a “global village into a lynch”.  We need governments to step-up to the challenge and every new revelation, from antisemitic abuse on social media group associated with the British Labour Party to Russia’s cyber propoganda only strengthens my case.

Responsible citizens

Our actions must be based on the classic “harm principle” – the “golden rule” that we do to others as we wish done to ourselves, focusing on the consequences of our actions for other people. As Google’s old motto “Don’t be evil” implies, this is a challenge for all of us: freedom must always be accompanied by responsibility. These fundamentals must be the drivers of any effort to clean-up cyber-space. We can see that untrammelled, uneducated self-expression and thoughtless clicking has a desperately corrosive effect on our polity. Already in Russia, we witness what happens when a deliberately-constructed fog of confusion casts doubts on all fact claims, causing perturbed individuals to crave strong, authoritarian leadership that seems best placed to help sort out the mess.

Tackling the root causes

Crucially, digital technologies should not be scapegoated. The anger and venom expressed online is rooted in fundamental inequalities in our societies, such as the fact average income growth for 90% of American has been negative for the last two decades. As Plutarch once warned, “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Nevertheless, politicians have allowed income inequality to soar to levels higher than at any time in America’s past. Too many believe – with justification – that their life chances are thwarted by corporate special interests and the mechanisms of government only really benefit the elite. Reforming how digital technologies operate, without addressing this gaping wound, can only ever provide the body politic with the scantiest of sticking plasters.

Strategic law-making

There is, nevertheless, a clear role for strategic law-making. Today’s “filter bubbles” have been created by the mechanics of search engines, like Google, and Facebook news feeds, which prioritise serving-up stories ever-more precisely calibrated to individual preferences. They lead to a situation where politics has become viciously polarised, caught in mutually exclusive feedback loops, meaning prejudices only ever seem to be strengthened and minds closed-off from opposing arguments.

For those who are enriched by web traffic and ad revenue, they must be compelled to re-invest into their systems. They should ensure better fact-checking, flag-up where sources are considered “Trusted” (i.e. non-partisan, balanced) and clearly explain how their algorithms influence the flow of information. Above all, they must work to promote respect for truth and our shared humanity, censoring what is patently false and abusive. The scale of distribution on social media is such that even 1% of fake news can have devastating consequences, especially in a tight election race.

If Facebook employed a proper, independent editorial team, they could assess the quality and reliability of articles from news sites, giving each one a ranking to influence how much they appear on their users’ feeds, creating an incentive for proper journalism, rather than the current clickbait-promoting model. Moreover, where a one-sided source is knowingly displayed, Facebook could automatically include a link to another article that provides counter-arguments and/or balance. As a matter of urgency, they must act against such obvious abuses of free speech as the Macedonian fake news factories and ensure news that is fake cannot outperform what is real. Whilst their recent proposals seem promising, their implementation must be closely scrutinised.

Just as the USA once passed an “equal-time rule”, something similar is required today to ensure the general public are encouraged to give both sides of an argument, whether encountered on or offline, a fair amount of attention. Without contact, empathy shrivels up and compromise becomes virtually impossible, effectively subverting democracy.

Whilst these changes might seem daunting, legislators should tap into the zeal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to create a better world. They must be reminded of previous bold claim, such as Zuckerberg’s declaration: “we make money to build better services.” What holds back so much progress is the fear that unilateral action would merely embolden unscrupulous competitors and lead to diminished market share, so regulations that apply to everyone fairly are required to create a level playing field. Moreover, many experts believe that the social media marketing model leaves no incentive for tackling the problem as what is fake (yet inflammatory) generally leads to more engagement – exactly the kind of situation where regulators should step-in to pre-empt harm.

Digital technologies are, of course, not limited to any single jurisdiction, so lawmakers must strive for international cooperation. Just as efforts to tackle global warming require restrictions on pollution from every country on Earth, so cleaning-up cyber sewers and policing information superhighways will necessitate collaboration. Where such support is not forthcoming, digital media should flag-up sites or accounts that are subject to integrity standards, making clear what is coming from suspect jurisdictions.

Earning your Digital ID

Before entrusting individuals with the freedom to drive a car, governments across the world understand the importance of some form of licensing system to ensure those behind the wheel have reached a minimum standard. This evolved over many year: firstly, as a means of simply identifying vehicles and their owners; today as a vital means of improving road safety. Similarly, we compromise our freedom to browse whatever we like by downloading and updating virus protection because we realise malicious coders can unleash devastation. We accept that this slows down our web browsing, especially when our computer shuts down for yet another update, but that is a price worth paying for greater security.

Yet we do nothing to protect ourselves from the biggest threat online – humans bent on spreading lies, misinformation and hoaxes, or trolling those they see as hateful. This cannot continue, if we want democracy and society to flourish.

I propose that every citizen must log-on to access Internet (ideally through fingerprint-recognition technology). There should be a home page that web users are firstly taken to where they are logged in and their activity recorded and then properly tracked, if necessary, just as we would expect any public activity to be traceable back to an individual. The home page should also ensure that everyone is properly educated through online civics classes, ranging from training in spotting fake news stories to education about how voting works. There is also the potential to include (eventually) lessons to help prevent fraud and health checks with guidance on how to exercise more or eat better.

It would be impossible to communicate online unless a user was up-to-date with their classes, though browsing of curated sites could be possible (providing this does not open the door to circumventing the system). If an ISP can shut-down your service for downloading pirated material (which should happen much more!) or failing to pay your bill, then why can a mechanism not be established to bar individuals known to be breaking cyber-laws?

Importantly, as with vehicle-driving, people could “lose” their license and be forced to re-sit relevant classes with an actual test of understanding required before they are re-admitted to the online community. The lessons would need to be reviewed regularly and essential updates rolled-out as new threats emerge. However, for the vast majority of people each tutorial would only be sat once, which is vital if such a system is to gain public confidence and not become unnecessarily burdensome. An independent committee could rollout and review this public education and accreditation effort. The basic goal would be to ensure every citizen has a web-surfing license, as this can be a hazardous activity for the uninitiated, dangerous to both themselves and their peers.

Addressing concerns about web-surfing licences

Basically, the laws of our lands must be applied to cyberspace. We cannot afford to tolerate a Wild Web where only profit matters and the unscrupulous battle to feed humanity’s worst instincts. There should be no difference in how those using inflammatory language, whether on or offline, are treated. Whilst these changes seem drastic, a focus on explaining and educating citizens will help everyone see this clean-up is vital. The general public need to understand clearly who is actually being targeted – trolls and lie-merchants. We must be exposed to real-life stories of how spreading false gossip hurts people and not be permitted to click away from viewing the consequences of our action. Where required, appropriate sanctions – such as heavily restricting offenders surfing to read-only certain sites or a post-delay/review function – must be deployed, and are proportionate to the damage we have seen caused through misuse of ICT tools.

The key is to shift mentalities. What we type online is no different from what we say in the real world. Actually, we should be more responsible because digital media creates an unambiguous digital record of whatever we contribute. We should see ad hominem verbal attacks as reprehensible and irrelevant – tackling the player, not the ball. For example, there is no place in a mature democracy for liberals or atheists slagging-off dismissively “religious nuts” or “bigots” when they seek to present evidence on abortion or family issues. This also involves making space for the widest possible range of views, not dismissing genuine concerns as politically incorrect or backward. Testing and weighing-up “facts” – critical thinking – should be one of the most highly prized skills developed across education curricula. We must not let those who can shout loudest, or dominate the most online discussions because they have little else to do, win by default.

As with Wikipedia’s panels of editors, government should be providing online tribunals and appeal systems to establish law and order online. This would allow unfair judgements to be challenged and corrected, increasing confidence in the system. Branches of the police and judiciary that specialise in web disputes and transgressions could be an invaluable tool in fighting the corruption of our digital public spaces. Governments should not be allowed to celebrate reductions in official crime statistics, such as burglaries, and ignore the fact this most likely results from deviance migrating online.

Crucial to this strategy is the role of Internet Service Providers. Just as they are rightly facing growing pressure to cut-off those who use their connections to download or share pirated content, so they are ideally positioned to help manage a digital ID system. This could become a condition of trading, as with the regulations that gambling companies or print newspapers must abide by to pre-empt the damage they could cause if completely unshackled and allowed to prey on human vulnerabilities.

To those who claim that forcing digital media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to make editorial judgments amounts to censorship, then they must realise this already happens. The world’s largest social network has previously acted to remove any photograph on Instagram with a female nipple visible (unless said image is run through the Prism app to create the effect of a painting). This laudable policy was tested by the iconic “napalm girl” photo that captures a horrific moment in the Vietnam war, which was eventually ruled to be of exceptional historic and “global importance”, showing how with feedback and engagement digital media can make the right calls. Twitter, meanwhile, removes ISIS propaganda video. Every act of journalism, deciding what to publish and what to ignore, what stories are worth pursuing and which are a waste of time, involves a form of censorship. As previously stated, free speech on social media should enable a wide-ranging debate with diverse opinions, whilst restricting or marginalising those who peddle dangerous, repeatedly disproved and utterly discredited, myths.

An additional benefit of robust, accurate digital IDs would be to weed-out fake accounts on social media sites. For example, one concerned citizen, Sarah Thompson, reported over 250 bogus profiles to Facebook in one week, estimating that 75% of these were removed, but clearly these could be easily re-created and, for her troubles, Ms Thompson’s News Feed now feeds her spam-like content because it thinks that is what she wishes to read. Most of these counterfeit accounts were infiltrating groups set-up by Sanders supporters and sharing horrendous falsehoods, including “Hillary murders opponents” and “Clinton uses body doubles”, in an obvious effort to suppress the vote. Digital IDs would allow these propagandists to be de-activated, or at the very least, labelled unverified and completely marginalised, rather than the current social media system where each user with a reasonable profile picture appears equally credible.

Examining free speech?

The freedom to speak one’s mind, or click to share whatever one happens upon online, must always be exercised responsibly and with consideration for our fellow-citizens. We sadly see, far too often, how easily a toxic debate can create a poisonous culture that leads to an utterly appalling outcome. How we discuss issues and describe those we do not agree with can have serious, life-threatening consequences, as was so tragically demonstrated in the murder of Jo Cox MP by Thomas Mair just days before the UK’s Brexit vote.

Imagine the situation. You’re a lonely, mentally-unstable middle-aged man who for years has nursed a grievance against a world that seems stacked against you. Distressed by how quickly your country is changing, you feel adrift and helpless, increasingly sceptical of those who promise so much, yet deliver so little. Much of your view of what is happening outside is shaped by snippets of news and complaints you consume online, divorced from context and frequently reflecting embittered, angry prejudices. Slowly, your thinking is being warped and you start to believe that “something must be done” to fix all the problems which never seem to be sorted out.

Suddenly, a new group of mavericks and wannabe revolutionaries appears and seems to offer an answer to all your gripes – one swift, simple solution that will transform Britain for the better. They accuse those who disagree of being liars, scaremongers and traitors. As these rhetorical flourishes trip off their tongues, they fail to consider how others will follow through on their accusations and, with a twisted, sickening logic, reach fatal conclusions.

We have always understood that free speech must not be abused to whip-up a mob into taking the law into their own hands – those who incite violence must be sanctioned for their crime. So, should the drip feed of false information and ugly insinuation be tolerated because it is too difficult to disentangle cause from effect? No, we know that hate speech and fake news has contributed to grievous bodily harm, and even murder, and this must be addressed, not necessarily with a custodial sentence, but through removing the megaphone from those who have failed to show any respect for our shared humanity. When seemingly respectable politicians pander to prejudice they should be opposed by digital media that is replete with evidence exposing the falsity of their misconceptions. There should be no “filter bubble” to which anyone can retreat where every click only reinforces dangerous discrimination. Fantasy and paranoia should not be fed by an alternate “reality”, accessible via phone or PC.

Finding out the facts

We also need much more research into these issues. The widely quoted statistic – 66% of Facebook users “get news” from the site is very ambiguous. How much news exactly do they “get”? Do they just skim headlines or explore detail? Can they spot a fake? Is this their only source of news? Again, laws could be passed to make social media providers more transparent and obliged to reveal the answers to many of these important questions. For example, Trump’s recent campaign involved voting suppression tactics where his team used Facebook “dark posts” to target black voters with South Park-style animated videos of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 “super predator” comments, in an effort to discredit her candidacy. Whilst given the final election outcome this would appear to have been very effective, what was the actual impact of these stories on their intended audience?

Interestingly, one Facebook user who took part in a Guardian newspaper experiment to “burst” the “filter bubble”, concluded: “Maybe we should stop having social media… maybe the ability with social media for people to construct their own reality to create a mob is not worth it.” Of course, this is an extreme reaction to the problem, but does provide an important illustration of how society can change, if allowed to see the breadth of views around us.

Another issue meriting further investigation is the potential of technology to combat online disinformation. If an AI toolkit, inspired by photographs of a toddler’s hand, can be used to automatically detect new child sexual abuse media uploaded to online networks, what else is possible? How can Google change their search algorithms, so a search starting with “are Jews…” does not lead to nine out of ten top returns being loaded with vile anti-Semitism?

Conclusion

Quite simply, a more restricted, collaborative Internet is not a negative development, but a necessary evolution if society is to hold together. Change is urgently needed as the problems outlined above will only become more entrenched. Politics will become increasingly impossible and nations more divided, unless there is protected space for an agreed set of facts to emerge that can then be used to build consensus.

In order to make any progress, there must be a commitment to create more equal, fairer countries that do not leave anyone behind and seek to address genuine grievances. Meanwhile, through strategic regulation, all digital media must be compelled to stop cossetting users and ensure everyone is, where appropriate, exposed to arguments and evidence running counter to their deeply-cherished beliefs, as well as enabled to discern truth from error. Individuals should be required to obtain a web-surfing licence that checks they have the minimum knowledge and understanding necessary to navigate the great debate online, as well as the basic decency to engage in civic discussion.

Alfie Evans – parents and the state

The tragic case of Alfie Evans once again illustrates the need for Parliament to consider giving parents more say over their children’s medical care. I know these are very difficult matters and we don’t see the full picture from the outside, but it does seem to me that there are serious issues, which must be addressed.

There is increasing presumption that the “state” knows better than parents and has the right to intervene. Of course, in cases of unarguable abuse this is absolutely justified. But what about when “professionals” go behind the back of parents, or deliberately mislead them, to give advice and treatments regarding controversial matters, like gender identity or birth control? This clearly diminishes trust between families and the state with all the disastrous consequences that ensue. These are highly debatable and contentious issues on which professionals should at most be neutral, allowing parents as much freedom as possible to shape their children’s development (providing they do not incite hatred of others). Of course, when age 16 or 18 is reached, then young people can enjoy more freedom to make life-changing decisions, but the state should not (for example) be facilitating a 14-year-old girl taking a male name. I often wonder how much LGBT groups are actively seeking to add to their numbers, sowing seeds of doubt and persuading people that they are trapped in the wrong bodies or prefer the same sex. Why, for example, are “drag queens” being parachuted into primary schools for story time?

Ideally, the state exists to defend the families and individuals against oppression, maximising freedoms, not trying to define a narrow version of what is right or wrong.

How absurd that in the tragic case of Alfie Evans, Alder Hays hospital is actively working against treatment and care options being offered by Italy. They want and expect him to die anyway, so why are they concerned if this happens in a foreign hospital, especially after discovering that he was capable of breathing unassisted much longer than they expected. Do they fear he might recover and prove them wrong? This is an act of real compassion from Italy, accorded with the desires of the parents and our refusal to allow the transfer makes Britain seem cold and heartless (just at the same point as our treatment of the “Windrush Generation” proves that point).

Surely, we must remember the case of Ashya King, who saw her parents hunted across Europe after they decided to remove him from hospital and take him to the Czech Republic for proton beam therapy. Today, Ashya is in remission and doing well.

We need to realise the sacrifices of parents. They have given birth to this child, carried in the womb for nine months, nursed over many long nights, love and fought for their child. They are closest to the little defenceless human being who is battling for their life. Most British mums and dads might decide to withdraw treatment in situations like Alfie’s but there will be some, through sincere beliefs and values, who will want to do everything possible and have the capacity to continue that struggle for survival. Alfie’s was an undiagnosed, “mystery” condition – who is to say that two or three years down the line, we do not learn more and discover that he could have been treated, or a miracle happens and he suddenly recovers? Who are the doctors to deem Alfie’s life as worthless?

Given the circumstances of the transfer offered to Italy and the fact that the British taxpayer would not even be paying for this further treatment/care, I simply cannot see why this has been allowed to happen. I would support the initiative by MEP Steve Woolfe and “Parliament Street” to change the country’s law to help parents maintain control over the medical care of their children, within suitable safeguards.

Ideological blinkers

This excellent article by Jack Bernhardt, reflecting initially on the latest evidence of Corbyn ignoring anti-Semitism amongst his far-left fellow-travellers but broadening out into an examination of the many “prisms” through which groups interpret the world, was a timely contribution to the debate.

I think the term ideological blinkers works better to describe how individuals suppress uncomfortable facts and focus only on what bolsters their sense of outrage.  We need to break out of the filter bubble and challenge the narrow thinking that prevents us from grappling with the subtle realities of the human condition.  Whether it’s the Brexiteer admitting the difficulties of finding solutions to the Irish border question or the Remainer addressing the genuine grievances of those left behind by socio-economic “progress” that promoted a “Leave” protest vote, there are so many ways where we desperately need to walk a mile in our neighbour’s shoes.

As we approach Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I’m struck by Christ’s example – His courageous sacrifice in bearing the weight of all our sin and grievances.  He did not run away from those who determined to destroy Him but willingly bled and died for His enemies.  Surely, we can take a little time to show compassion and understanding to those who think differently.  Rather than denouncing them from afar, we must draw close, listen and learn, speaking and doing only what builds-up.  For such is His command – “love your neighbour as yourself”.

Reform our out-dated, over-complicated tax system

Why is there so little discussion about radically re-designing our taxation and benefits system for the 21st Century?  In the UK, Income tax was introduced in 1799 as a temporary measure to fight the Napoleonic war.  National Insurance arrived in 1911, specifically designed to fund benefits for those who became too ill to work or suffered temporary unemployment. Council tax, though more recently introduced in 1993, still suffers from inconsistencies and is badly in need of reform.  For example, the value of someone’s home does not reflect their current ability to pay an annually-increasing monthly bill, whilst no charges are levied against those who hold land, waiting for its value to increase and denying everyone else the chance to use a scarce, finite resource. Of course, there are also VAT, Stamp Duty, Business rates, Excise duties, Corporate tax, Capital gains tax and many more.

Our current systems are complex and confusing.  We must seek to merge all taxes and benefits in one system, so each individual can see clearly what they are putting into the system and getting out.  Child benefits, pensions, allowances, student loans/fees and such like should all be processed in one network, so tax is easier to work out and there is less chance of fraud.  There should be one portal where you can see all the information.

People would know exactly where they stand and the government would have a much better idea of where they could make efficiencies.  This would also enable better phasing out of benefits as someone’s wages increase, so as to incentivise work.

Yet why can we not use the taxation system to do much more.  For example, there are hardly any recognised incentives to boost physical activity i.e. a tax rebate for everyone who can prove they do NOT drive into work, verified through each company’s HR department.  There could also be a tapered rebate for those who at least car share.  Of course, the monitoring and incentivising might need to reflect realities – like heavy rain and ice – that occasionally curtail even the enthusiastic cyclists but these are minor details when compared to the advantages. Just imagine, for a moment, the impact on citizens if this was implemented.  We would jump at the chance, re-imagining our lives, motivated to become more active, and in the process reducing pollution, as well as achieving so many benefits for our society.  Over time, the tax system would encourage people to live closer to their workplaces, helpfully increasing population density and stopping the flight to suburbia, denuding our town centres.

The urgency of action to tackle such social ills is clear.  For example a fifth of Scottish people say they have not walked for more than 20 minutes even once over the past year.  Meanwhile, in England and Wale, about 85,000 people (estimated) die early each year due to illnesses caused by sedentary living, mainly heart disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.  Physical activity keeps people stronger and more supple as they age.  Our exertions also improve balance, gives better bone density and make us less likely to become depressed or develop Alzheimer’s.  These are all things associated with needing less social care.

One of the few exercise regimes proved to stick is active travel, more specifically making walking or cycling to work, school or the shops sufficiently safe and convenient that it becomes easier for people to do it than not.  With political will, great success has proven possible: Denmark and the Netherlands have spent decades very deliberately re-shaping their road environments away from the car culture of the 1960s and 70s towards mass cycling.

The issue is that people need an immediate daily reminder, encouragement and motivation to look after their health, which obviously only unravels in the long-term – “a moment on the lips; a lifetime on the hips”. Consider Vitality Optimiser which provides Life Insurance but actively promotes a healthy lifestyle.  In return for unobtrusive monitoring (i.e. recording the number of your steps in any week), the package gives you “rewards”, such as a free Starbucks or discount codes, giving subscribers a tangible, short-term benefit that equates to a highly desirable, yet difficult to quantify, long-term positive outcome.  Why is the Government not seeking to investigate and potentially roll out these kinds of schemes to everyone?

Another key area where the taxation system should recognise the differing circumstances and contributions of individuals is childcare.  The same pay packet must cover a much greater range of expenses for a parent with dependent children, as opposed to an individual who only has to look after themselves.  Raising the next generation is vitally important for our long-term well-being – witness the frequent warnings about our falling birth rate and increasingly elderly, retired population.  Thus, we could create a generous Child Tax Credit for every parent, so they can be taxed at a lower rate (i.e. 2% for each child 20% off the current basic rate Income tax).

Alternatively, Child Benefit could be re-examined and integrated much more closely into HMRC’s current arrangements to provide proper help to those footing the bills for nappies, food, clothing, clubs, excursions, even the odd family holiday. And that’s before things like driving lessons or University tuition fees.  In fact, one study estimated the average cost of raising one child to age 21 was, in 2015, £229,251.  Assuming you claim Child Benefit for the maximum time available, you will receive a mere £17,222 from the government (for a first child, £20.40 per week till age 16).  That’s less than a 10th of the projected cost!

We need change.  Our current system is iniquitous, failing to properly incentivise choices that benefit us all, whilst being so complex and murky no-one really knows how much tax they pay and for what purpose.  We really could do so much better.

Innocent till proven guilty

With the slew of allegations launched in the media over the past few months, we must always remember this key principle of a just society – every individual is innocent until proven guilty.

Whilst I have the utmost sympathy for genuine victims of horrific crimes, we cannot ignore the fact that there are proven examples of false accusations, which also destroy the lives and careers of those targeted.  For example, consider the “torturous” experience of Simon Warr, subjected to “672 days on bail, in the glare of maximum publicity, during which time I suffered disgusting insults in the street and from the internet mob… my name and photograph were repeatedly published in the press and on the internet. After a nigh on two year nightmare, my accuser’s allegations were dismissed by a jury within a half an hour.”  He mentions the case of a fellow-teacher in a similar situation who, under the extreme pressure, committed suicide, as did Welsh Labour MSP, Carl Sargeant.

In the UK, we have seen the reputations of Sir Cliff Richards, Sir Ted Heath and many others dragged through the mud.  Lurid stories of a Westminster paedophile ring, stemming from one individual that never received any corroboration, were circulated with full page spreads by news outlets that said very little when the testimonies were disproven.

Even the Church of England has been targeted with serious questions raised about the case of Bishop George Bell who was posthumously ‘blackened” by an alleged victim – pocketed £16,800 “without sufficient investigation”.

So, given all the evidence of how much damage false accusations can inflict and the ease with which these claims can be concocted, why is there not more caution and less of a rush to judgement?  One case in point is the backlash against Lena Dunham, after a co-worker that she knew very well was accused: “Our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year … We stand by Murray and this is all we’ll be saying about this issue.”

She was effectively bullied by internet vigilantes to retract this statement by those who highlighted Dunham’s previous tweet – “Things women do lie about: what they ate for lunch. Things women don’t lie about: rape.”  This is clearly ridiculous.  How on earth can you make such a sweeping statement for all women on such a sensitive subject?

There seems to be a confusion between “believing” someone, and respecting their right to complain but then investigating carefully an allegation to discover the truth.  Again, we must highlight as misguided the likes of Hillary Clinton when she demands that all women be “heard and believed”.

Please don’t rush to judgement.  Give the accused a fair chance to defend themselves, just as we must afford victims the opportunity to seek justice.  Remember the context – are the complainants motivated by money, politics or ideology?  Above all ask… where is the evidence?

PS – on the day this was published, yet another shocking case emerged of a woman’s lies resulting in an innocent man having his life “flipped upside down.”  Student Liam Allan, speaking after his rape trial collapsed following the detectives’ failure to disclose vital evidence to the defence, said he felt “betrayed” by police and the CPS whose presumption of guilt inflicted “mental torture”.  The evidence in question was a disk of 40,000 text messages, many of which revealed the alleged “victim” pestered Liam for “casual sex”.  The Jezebel in question told her friends that she enjoyed sex with him and even spoke about her fantasies of having violent sex and being raped by him.  If this was finally uncovered, after the accused spent two years on bail, he faced 12 years in prison and on the sex offenders’ register for life with little chance of appeal.  Note how we do not even know her name and there has been nothing said about prosecuting her for wasting police time and attempting to pervert the course of justice…

In Googling that story, I also came across this report on Jemma Beale who invented four separate incidents of sexual assault, one of which led to a man being wrongfully convicted.  Thankfully, she has now received a 10-year prison sentence but are these cases just the tip of a treacherous iceberg?  Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has made a high profile push to bring more sex attack cases to court and asked her lawyers to trawl through a man’s relationship history to boost conviction.  Surely, the same rigour must be applied to scrutinising the complainant’s background?  We desperately need a fair, impartial, bias-free policing and criminal justice system.

 

Are you not moved?

Once again, the cynics sneer at the efforts of Comic Relief, the Disasters Emergencies Committee and a host of charities to raise awareness of, and funds for, the fight against poverty.  Their criticism is seriously misguided. Celebrities could just ignore the plight of other but are doing something to help.  Yes, of course, we need to address the structural issues but these are not going to be fixed overnight (if ever) and we have an immediate to give what we can to alleviate suffering.  Personal giving does not preclude activism and shows that we have skin in the game.  Individually, I cannot force Apple to pay their fair share of tax but I can remember how privileged I am and share what I have.

Look how insidious this argument can be: “By showing starving and sick children at their most vulnerable and exposed, it goes against the idea that their dignity is worth as much as his children’s, and creates an artificial distinction between “us” and “them”. Here we are, the resourceful and benevolent agents of change; and they are the passive others in need of our charity.”

Really?  These are people who are dying with the most appalling prospects.  Their plight cries out for mercy. Surely, the ire of this journalist should be focused on those who walk by on the other side of the road, not the Good Samaritans.  The priest and Levite no doubt pontificated later about how someone else should ensure that road was properly policed, but they are rightly condemned for doing nothing.

Sadly, the arguments advanced by the likes of Afua Hirsch (quoted above) only serve to provide fig leaves for those who can watch the evidence of immense human misery, close their eyes and whistle a tune.  In fact, they are – in some ways – modern-day versions of Scrooge, deaf to the pleas of their neighbours.

Then, there is this problematic phrase “poverty porn”.  Excuse me but there is a world of difference between watching titillating videos to be sexually aroused and making genuine efforts to raise awareness of the struggles faced by the world’s most destitute with the hope that concerned citizens will be moved to give.  Considering how comparatively luxurious our lives can be, we need these reminders of what is actually happening to our fellow human beings.  How is that even remotely comparable to pornographic smut?

Tragically, we have become desensitised and indifferent to the horrendous suffering of, for example, desperate kids living off the pickings they can glean from dangerous garbage sites.  We need to keep (or start?) giving generously AND campaign vociferously, so that these scandals poverty become history.