A chance to make it illegal to ignore child abuse

5 October 2014: Here’s my story in the Observer on the political push for “mandatory reporting”, which could help whistleblowers who uncover abuse in institutions, and make it a crime to cover it up. This “crucial” measure for tidying up the malfunctioning child protection system could – with some political will – become part of the current Serious Crimes Bill.

But currently government ministers have decided to kick the proposal into the long grass, by postponing any legislation until after the Woolf inquiry into institutional child abuse reports. Fiona Woolf and her colleagues have not yet published terms of reference, let alone begun hearing evidence and opinion. The process is likely to take two years or more.

“It is extraordinary,” says abuse survivor Tom Perry, “that child abuse is a crime, yet reporting it is entirely discretionary.” His campaign group Mandate Now is a good source of information on how mandatory reporting has worked in other countries – providing an answer to those like the NSPCC who say the proposal would swamp social services and the police with complaints.

Of course, the key question that follows that complaint is: does Britain want a child protection system that provides full safeguards for children, vulnerable adults and for the people who work caring for them – or one that admits we haven’t the resources to prevent abuse in institutions?

Full story in the Observer here – it was published alongside this piece by the Lib Dems’ former Home Affairs spokesperson, Baroness Walmsley – Children have a right to belief, not cover-up

The Scottish Spring – how democracy won

19 Sept 2014: Analysis for Newsweek magazine on the positive effects of the independence campaign and yesterday’s referendum voteCartoon  by slwoods.co.uk

(Original in Newsweek print edition of 19 September and online)

As the polling booths are dismantled and the dust settles across the country, one thing is gloriously clear to us. We are a Scotland rebooted, energised, empowered and – above all, after decades of feeling ignored and discounted by London – heard.

That separatism was on course for a stunning victory, we knew for certain 10 days before the vote. As one Yes supporter put it to me on the morning of that Monday, September 8th, when the British establishment went into panic mode, “We’re on the podium; we’ve done it. Now it’s just a question of whether we win silver or gold.” Independence or home rule – one or other was guaranteed to be Scotland’s future, more than any realist in Scotland could have dreamed when the campaigning began two years ago.

The Scottish Spring, like the other democratic upheavals of recent years, was at heart a huge mobilisation of people power: it saw 97% of the electorate register to vote and an 86% turnout, a record in modern British politics. It has delivered on its promise – Scotland will be a fairer and more democratic place. All that with hardly a window smashed; by my count only three eggs were thrown (at the Labour MP Jim Murphy, at a rally in Glasgow). A revolution with no riot police – perhaps the first in modern history. We Scots have a lot to smile about.

On that panicky Monday, London woke up to the fact that the 307-year-old Union was on life-suport. The previous day’s Sunday Times YouGov poll showed the Yes (to independence) movement ahead for the first time – not just in the campaign, but in 35 years. It seemed that all the don’t knows, who for months had been scratching their heads (or, simply, getting on with more pressing things) had turned into Yeses. It surprised fewer in Scotland – we knew how the wind had been blowing.

In Whitehall, the alarm was sounded: the rival party leaders Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and David Cameron cancelled all engagements and headed north. With them they brought gifts – more than shiny things for simple natives. Each of the leaders has outdone the other in the last two weeks to offer fancier prizes: “devo max”, tax-raising powers, complete control of domestic spending, even “home rule”, as former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown put it, with Cameron’s approval. All of this by January 2015.

The irony made our heads spin. The cavalry was speeding north to contain the damage by conceding defeat. They might save the Union, but they were giving away powers that would leave the UK a shell of a nation, offering far more than the Scottish National party strategists believed could be won just two years ago.

And the fault lay with one man – David Cameron. “Don’t break up our family of nations,” he pleaded at an Edinburgh press conference nine days before the vote. Cameron would rather people kicked the “effing” Tories than end the Union. We all knew that he was pleading for his political life: his grotesque tactical error had brought this humiliation about. Back in 2012 when the rules for the vote were drawn up, Cameron gambled. That was a disaster.

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Dead zones, acid seas and no fish

2 July 2014: My story in Newsweek magazine on the latest science of the rapidly-changing chemistry of the oceans – largely brought about by mankind. None of it’s good news. Unless you like jellyfish.

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On the Boqueria’s fish stands I count 10 types of bivalves—creatures like clams, oysters and mussels that use calcium carbonate to make their endlessly varied shells. In as little as 20 years they will be very different and, in some parts of the world, entirely gone. Then there are the ranks of huge Asian prawns and tiny shrimps, terra-cotta crabs from Scotland, and lobsters, magnificent admirals in blue fringed with gold. Lucky for them, these creatures make their shells differently (mostly out of a polymer called chitin), so the rapidly acidifying waters of our oceans won’t dissolve them as it will the exteriors of the bivalves. But the acidification—which some scientists believe is the fastest change in the ocean’s chemistry in 300 million years—appears to harm the working of the gills and change the behavior of the crustaceans when they are very young.

Read on in Newsweek here

Abuse and violence in boarding schools

July 28, 2014: I’m writing a series of stories looking at abuse in British boarding schools and its wider context – social, historical and psychological. The latest piece, published July 21st in the Observer magazine, looked at the experiences of those who have loved and cared for survivors of abuse, and the immense collateral damage early trauma can do. A lot of it came from those of you, including many wives, sisters and mothers, who have emailed me their stories. There’s 600 or more comments on the article

Here’s the first piecepublished May 4 in the Observer. It covers my personal experiences at Ashdown House preparatory school in the 1970s and the current surge of criminal and civil cases concerning similar schools then and more recently. The comments are fascinating; some of over 2,000 communications I’ve had since the article. Many of those are heart-rending; tales of lives warped and soured by early misery. Very few people have defended the system.

Boarding_schoolsChildren as young as six are still sent to boarding school in Britain; there are about 4000 kids under 11 boarding in the private sector, and an unknown number in the state boarding system. Along with the bulk of the child psychiatry profession, I believe sending a pre-teen away from home carries an unacceptably high risk of long-term damage, however kind and caring the institution.

Several campaigns exist to try and stop this bizarre practice. (Children as young as six are still going.) It is often done quite casually, for  notions of status, which can of course still be bought in Britain, or mere convenience.  Boarding School Action tracks the campaigns’ progress on this blog. There is also an important one to change regulation that encourages cronyism and cover-ups in all institutions looking after children – see @MandateNow on Twitter and this BBC story.

In June 2014, the government announced plans to create a crime of emotional abuse or neglect of children – the “Cinderella law”. If the legislation goes through before the election, it will at last bring Britain into line with the rest of the world. It will be interesting to see the scope of it: will it cover just parents, or those in “loco parentis”, like the head.

There’s good academic writing on the psychiatry of early broken attachment and “boarding school syndrome” – see Professor Joy Schaverien here.

Therapy appears to have a high success rate with people who have suffered these traumas – more details from Boarding Concern.

If you want to write to me in confidence about your experiences, good or bad, please do so at alex.renton@observer.co.uk. I will respond. It may take a little while – it’s a full in-box.

3x awards listings this month…

Don’t eat crap. Three times a day.

Actually, the fruit bit isn't so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

Actually, the fruit bit isn’t so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

6 April 2014: Published in the Observer, my piece on the “5 a day” debate got an amazing 900+ comments. Some of them quite well-tempered (must be something in the diet).

 

So now it’s seven a day? Here’s my easy alternative: just stop eating rubbish

Nanny Britain’s fruit and veg regime will never work while the list includes fruitcake and sugar-laden drinks

My children are apple-cheeked and glossy-haired, strong and slender as willow wands. Not a filling in their heads, either. All the same, we had a family council on diet last week. A study by the epidemiologists of University College, London found that the five-a-day diet is inadequate. Seven or even 10 portions of fruit and veg is more like it and might reduce our chances of early death by 42% or more. Odds worth having: so I asked them to audit their intake.

My daughter confessed that while she has a banana most breaks, she didn’t like the school lunch fruit salad. She is probably getting four a day, tops. My son said he easily ate five a day. You don’t count chips, I countered, because they are made from potatoes (he did know that) and a potato, being largely starch, does not make the NHS five-a-day lists. I think his score is perhaps three – as bad as mine.

Suddenly, I saw developmental disorders all around. The failure to learn Mandarin. The trouble with long division. The severe allergic reaction to the word “walk”. Might there be scurvy lurking there too? Rickets? And how the hell were we going to get up to seven a day? That’s 2,555 portions of fruit and veg a year for each of us, and we’d be living longer, too. Should we marry the kids to greengrocers?

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Coffee under threat: how climate and the global market combine to create a crisis

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 Broadcast by BBC World Service, From Our Own Correspondent, 27 May 2014: Audio http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zdr28

Published in the Observer, 30 March 2014: Under the coffee bushes, Rosibel and Benjamín Fijardo are on their knees, scraping carefully through a litter of dead leaves and dried mud. They are scavenging for stray coffee berries, fallen when the harvesters went through the plantation last week. After 20 minutes, Benjamín has a plastic cup half full. The beans look grey and mouldy, but he says they can be dried and sold. He returns to the work: “This is how we will feed our family for the next two months. By pecking like chickens!”

Nicaragua coffee picker

Benjamin Fijardo, coffee picker in Nicaragua (Oxfam)

For two million or more coffee workers and small farmers across Central America, the “hungry season” is beginning. It’s always a thin time before crops ripen, but with this winter’s coffee harvest down 50% or more on normal, for the second year running, hunger, malnutrition and debt are new curses for hundreds of thousands. Candida Rosa Piñeda, who owns this little plantation in the village of Atuna Uno, says she has not earned enough this year to buy a new pair of shoes. And she needs to replace most of her disease-damaged coffee bushes.

The disease that has brought these calamities to the pretty hills of Jinotega, in Nicaragua‘s central highlands, is new to most of the farmers I meet. They call it roya, rust. It is ugly. First, parts of the arabica bush’s glossy green leaves turn a dirty orange. Then dark dead patches appear and become holes. The infection spreads to the ripening berries, turning them from bright red to a zombie-skin grey. Trees can be saved, but they need to be carefully pruned and, just as carefully, treated with chemicals. The chemicals can be toxic to humans, and the trees will take years to come back to their normal production.

Hemileia vastatrix, the coffee rust fungus, is a known hazard of growing arabica, which is 70% of the world’s production and all of a cup of coffee’s taste. It has been a curse of coffee planters ever since it appeared in east Africa 150 years ago. However, the rust cannot survive temperatures below 10C. In this region of Nicaragua it usually occurred only below 1,300 metres. Up in the hills, cold nights and drier weather kept the disease at bay. And so that’s where the coffee farms are.

Most of the people I met said they had never seen it until three years ago: some believed it had been deliberately sprayed from the skies by aircraft. Some thought it had spread from the banana trees that shade the coffee plants and provide crucial food for farmers. But most agree that in recent years the weather has become hotter, wetter and less predictable.

Science is in no doubt that the changing climate is behind the rust and other problems affecting coffee production worldwide – and that things are likely to deteriorate. “In many cases, the area suitable for [coffee] production would decrease considerably with increases of temperature of only 2-2.5C,” said a leaked draft of a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, officially published on Monday. The panel predicts falling coffee production in a range of countries, largely because of warmer weather. In late February, markets scared by drought in Brazil saw futures prices in coffee rise by 70%. All the coffee-producing countries of Central America have seen drops in production of 30% or more in each of the past two years. Some, such as Guatemala, report rising cases of chronic malnutrition in coffee workers’ children.

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