The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Big Brother, rainbow families and crowded prisons

Maybe we are all being affected by a peculiar globally warmed winter. 2007, so far, has been full of confusion and contradiction. The British are, of course, notorious for their dreary fascination with the weather, but it is increasingly difficult not to notice the idiosyncrasies of our current climate and the inability of our travel services to cope with anything new. During the last month, trains and aeroplanes have been delayed or cancelled because of fog, gales, flooding and now snow, as our traditional order of seasons runs amok. It is so warm that birds are nesting, spring plants are in full bloom and huge trees have been decimated by the sort of winds we normally get in October. Well it’s all jolly odd and perhaps such natural discombobulation is responsible for the lack of joined-up thinking among the powers that be. While disenchanted generals lament our situation in Iraq, the government seems unable now to follow any train of thought abroad or at home to a conclusion without constantly distracting itself with unnecessary detail.

Gordon Brown’s trip to India was overshadowed by the racism row over the disgusting Big Brother programme, although I doubt any of that embarrassment impinged on him as much as Tony Blair’s statement in his absence that he was going to stick around until the end of June, leaving the cabinet and the chancellor in a continuing state of flux. I cannot imagine what Shilpa Shetty thought she was letting herself in for, although she can hardly have expected that her fellow ‘celebrity’ inmates in the Big Brother house would include such ignorant and ugly individuals. Celebrity in India still includes a certain level of old-fashioned glamour, however closely surrounded with the latest juicy gossip.

No one should imagine for an instant that race discrimination has become so very rare in this country. The press here has justifiably reported poor international perceptions of British hospitality, especially the treatment received by foreign arrivals, including top foreign businessmen and politicians at Heathrow airport. No one, rich or poor, old or young, of any colour or creed, should be met with discourtesy and it does not surprise me that we are taking a deserved knocking on that score. I watched in real shame, a few years ago, as Sachin Tendulkar had his cases taken apart by an over-officious customs officer and things have got much worse in the present atmosphere of insularity and distrust. When Tendulkar boarded the flight in Mumbai, he was swept through the airport surrounded by security men and treated like the icon he is. I don’t suppose David Beckham expects to have his luggage checked too closely when he arrives for his new job in Los Angeles.

Government involvement and interference in every aspect of our lives have thrown up some curious anomalies. On the less serious side, there are moves afoot to appoint a child obesity ‘tsar’, an official to regulate the food industry’s marketing of unhealthy food to children. It seems likely that parents who overindulge their children may find themselves on the wrong side of the law too; after all, a father and son were recently prosecuted and fined for overfeeding their dog.

Excessively loving parents will probably earn a prison sentence. Wearing another hat, I am involved in raising funds for a national health and nutrition study of children in India, where there is still severe malnutrition. It seems that is also a problem here where too much rather than too little has created a fashion image the government is now attempting to change. Pressure is being put, rather unsuccessfully, on the fashion industry to self-regulate over the use of underweight and anorexic models. Well, I suppose if we weren’t allowed to overfeed our little darlings in the first place….

Children are likely to be the victims of a new anti-discrimination policy over adoptions and fostering. Adoption law is riddled with discriminatory anti-discriminatory policy where mixed race children are only allowed to go to mixed race families and children of any colour only to families with similar racial characteristics. Of course, this means that families desperate for children, who can afford to do so, go abroad to adopt and create the sort of rainbow families that might be our best hope for a genuinely non-discriminatory future. At the same time, many older and more problematic British children are left stuck in institutions for lack of the right type of family to go to.

The current issue is that of ‘gay’ adoption as increasing numbers of gay couples exercise their right to be parents. They are often the people who are prepared to take more difficult children and provide them with a loving family, but are not allowed to be considered as parents by Roman Catholic adoption agencies, which still maintain that homosexuality is a sin. The Roman Catholic church is campaigning for an exemption from new legislation to ban discrimination against gay couples as potential adopters. The government rightly is refusing to play, but the result may be more children missing out if the excellent Roman Catholic agencies close in protest. It may not fit well with any of our liberal ambitions or the ambitions of more militant gay groups, but in this already highly contradictory area, I suspect a bit of quiet compromise is the best way forward.

Children are also indirectly affected by the latest Home Office drama this week. The view of John Reid, the Home Secretary, when he took his new job, that the Home Office is “not fit for the purpose” is manifestly proving to be the case and things are getting worse. The Conservatives — who are unlikely to be able to do better with this unwieldy, all-purpose department — are having a field day. Yesterday, a convicted paedophile was given a non-custodial suspended sentence by a judge on grounds that new directives from the Home Secretary suggested that the severe overcrowding in our prisons should be relieved by more lenient court sentencing for offenders who were not a public risk. Even the man concerned described himself as lucky and the new policy as strange. What the press were doing by dignifying his opinions is a separate matter.

Years of what have always been seen as large- and small-‘c’ conservative anti-crime determination to “lock ’em up” are coming home to roost in more ways than one. The judiciary is overwhelmed by conflicting directives and ill-thought-out legislation. Prison conditions are said to be a disgrace as young opportunistic thieves are thrown in with hardened criminals, and there is little money to spare in a hugely expensive and creaking system for the redemptive work that we are told is the purpose of contemporary sentencing. The head of the Youth Justice Board, Rod Morgan, has resigned over the overcrowding issue as prisons are filled with minor offenders and young prisoners are corrupted by a chaotic system that provides them with no tools, education or hope for the future.

This is an issue that usually causes shock and horror on prison visits in the poorest developing countries and is wholly unacceptable in the first world. The disastrous state of the prison system can be laid fair and square at the door of piecemeal policy decisions. Prison management at the highest national level seems to attract vocational personnel who are highly intelligent and articulate and have to waste their considerable energy and compassion fighting against outdated infrastructure overlaid with reactive new government legislation.

This country, in the 21st century, has no excuse for getting things so badly wrong. A more dogged following of New Labour’s belief that “education, education, education” is the most important issue facing this country should have encompassed many of the problems of youth today. The effects would hardly have been fully realized but, by now, a sense of continuance, an understanding of correct process and public support for clearly stated goals should have been established.

I have little faith in the Conservative party’s ability to get to the bottom of the problems in the system for which their past governments bear considerable responsibility. Until the professionals are really listened too over and above the constantly vocal party-political quest for voter-popularity by appealing to our worst natures, we are only ever going to get policy decisions as sudden and confused as our new climate scenario.

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