Category Archives: Around the UK

Lessons from the Savile saga

(First posted October 2012)

Stoke Mandeville hospital is being urged to open one. The BBC’s already started two. There’s another at the Department of Health.

The inquiries into Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children are mushrooming almost as fast as the sickening stories of what the TV showman did to dozens of teenaged girls (and, reportedly, some boys too.)

Still the Labour party wants more: one big, over-arching, independent inquiry into what Ed Miliband rightly called the “horrific allegations.” Putting aside the Labour leader’s knee-jerk inquiry-itis, he – like the BBC and all the others now investigating the past – is missing an important point.

Why was one man able to get away with abusing young people for so long? Because, as some of the victims have said, he told them if they raised the alarm and ratted on “King Jimmy” they would not be believed.

And he was right.

While 58% of rape cases that make it to court result in a conviction (not all for rape, sometimes for a lesser offence) only 13% of rapes recorded by the police end in any kind of conviction at all.

Convictions for sex offences against those under 18 are going up, but they still account for less than 10% of the total recorded by the police. (And I’m talking about the ones who report the allegations. Surveys suggest 34% of 11-17 year olds who’ve been abused by an adult do not tell anyone at all about it.)

Why? Well you could ask one of the 15 year olds raped repeatedly by the notorious Rochdale grooming gang. She told the police what had been going on and they believed her. But the Chief Prosecutor in the area decided “she would not be viewed as a credible witness by a jury” and shelved the case. The abuse continued.

“Not a credible witness.” As any reporter (myself included) who’s covered stories of alleged sexual abuse knows, that simple phrase can kill a journalistic investigation stone dead. It goes hand in hand with demands by victims for anonymity – completely understandable but tricky when building a bullet-proof case.

And what does “credible mean?” Well, for a case to get as far as a court room, prosecutors must be satisfied “there is evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” In sex abuse cases that’s hard because usually the only witnesses are the victim and the perpetrator.

In incidents involving children or teenagers it’s even harder. They will be asked detailed questions in court and, usually traumatised, will fail to remember dates, times, places and other details that the defence will almost certainly demand. Telling the truth is one thing, doing it “credibly” is another.

Then there are those whose very vulnerability is what led to them being preyed on in the first place. Jimmy Savile is accused of exploiting several young people who turned up for his TV shows. That’s opportunism, but there’s a calculated cunning in the stories of his prowling the corridors of Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor hospitals.

And let’s not forget the special “treats” he distributed when he rolled up to Duncroft Approved School for “disturbed girls.” As at least one of the pupils there has now said, they reported the abuse to school authorities but were told to hush their filthy mouths. How could they be believed – Jimmy was a star, while they were just “disturbed.”

How could a Rochdale teenager be believed when her violent and degrading sexual history meant (according to some social workers) she was clearly on the game? Several of the other teenagers came from chaotic families or were living in care. Meaning nobody much cared when police and social workers decided it was a “lifestyle choice” for a kid to hang out with older, abusive men.

The vulnerable are by no means the only people ever abused but they are often the easy targets. And the same factors that make them vulnerable, make them difficult to believe in the cut and thrust of our adversarial courts.

Of course, it’s right as a principle that the Crown Prosecution Service should need solid evidence to bring a case. That’s how our justice system works. In criminal trials the individual is assumed innocent and the far more powerful state has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they’re not.

But as Jimmy Savile proved, sometimes it’s the individual who’s got the power. The state is weak and that weakness means the victims are failed.

So should we change the rules of evidence in sex abuse cases? Educate juries about credibility and vulnerability? Improve police, prosecution and social work training and skills so that the abused are listened to, supported and given a more powerful voice?

There are many questions (and I haven’t even touched on a celebrity culture that puts creeps like Savile on a pedestal nor on his aggressive use of charity as a weapon to keep him there.)

As for answers, they won’t be found in the endless inquiries of institutions guilt-ridden at being duped by an exploitative man.

What we need is a task force, a commission or a national debate to put right a system and a culture that repeatedly fails the powerless.

The Playing Fields Myth

Find me the 2012 Olympic medallist who owes their sporting success to wet afternoons on an English school playing field and I’ll get worked up about selling off school playing fields.

The fact is, like so many stories from inside the Westminster village, the row over school sports fields is a red herring; great for political point scoring,  nothing to do with kids and sport. 

And even less to do with future Olympic triumph. 

Most of our Olympians came up through local clubs not schools. In track-side interviews, still breathless from their efforts, almost all pointed to the National Lottery and other public funds as key to their success.  Even hurdler Lawrence Clarke, heir to a baronetcy no less, only got serious about sport at university. School (Eton) he said, was of little help. The public money directed towards individuals like him, was.   

Double gold winning distance runner Mo Farah may have been spotted and encouraged by a school PE teacher but he ran on a public track. It is now apparently derelict.

And that is what we should be discussing: the need for investment in community sports facilities.

School fields are often many miles and long bus journeys away from the institutions they serve.  Much better to have a good gym and a hall that can be used whatever the weather.

The vast majority of school fields are closed outside school hours. Public facilities available to communities year round are of more use. The coaches and specialist staff that many of them host are more valuable than any PE teacher, however committed and skilled.

But even before the coalition took office in 2010 and began its massive spending cuts, the Daily Telegraph had started a campaign to halt the decline in community sports facilities. Since the budget-slashing spending review that followed the election, leisure centres – along with libraries and other “recreational” services – have felt the squeeze.  

Sport England, the body responsible for community sport saw its government grant slashed by 33% and its capital budget reduced by 40%.  All over the country, sports-related charities funded by local government have been axed.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary talk of wanting to change the culture in schools. There must be more competition they say, and an end to the leftie notion that everyone must have prizes.  That’ll make Olympians of us all.

It’s another red herring. Nobody in government has ever offered a shred of evidence to back their claims about prolific loser egalitarianism. A quick look at some of my local school websites confirms that competitive sports days with cups and trophies are very much in vogue, even in staunchly Labour Islington.  

The battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton. The battle for healthy, active children won’t be won on the soggy, expensive-to-maintain fields of our cash-strapped schools. Yes, they should have sports facilities. Yes, teachers must encourage sporting activity and identify those who excel.  But let’s fund grassroots community facilities and clubs with first-class trainers and talent spotters of the sort that led Mo and Jessica and all the others to Olympic gold.    


Going for (Economic) Gold

I never had any doubt that Danny Boyle’s Olympic celebration of proud, multi-cultural, contrarian Britain was spot on.  I loved every minute of the opening ceremony’s anarchic creativity. It even prompted my first ever act of patriotism. Incensed by the cynical tweets of a critical American, I clicked “unfollow” and banished him from my Twitter stream for good.  

I’m a Londoner. Born and bred in a vibrant, diverse city that has hummed with excitement as the medals have come pouring in, of course I’m infected by Olympic fever.

But I wondered whether the glow extended to the rest of a country beset by economic gloom, where spirits have been dampened by high unemployment and months of near-endless rain. 

First stop Birmingham, on the busiest weekend of the Games. When I first got to the city’s Victoria Square at 6pm, there was just a handful of spectators slumped in deck-chairs or sprawled on the steps in front of the Olympic Big Screen. They were barely glancing at Andy Murray’s doubles finals.   

But then the local Jamaican community arrived to watch the men’s 100m final and a damp Sunday evening turned into a glorious party wrapped in black, gold and green. 

They weren’t just there to cheer on Jamaican legend Usain Bolt. Earlier, two elderly men with rich Jamaican accents looked almost hurt when I asked whether they supported the British team.  Then, as the women lined up for their 400m heats, a middle aged afro-Caribbean woman waving a Jamaican flag yelled “come on team GB”.  

There were loud whoops as Britain’s Mo Farah mounted the podium to collect his 10,000m gold. And when at last Usain Bolt surged over the finish line in the sprint final, the white spectators roared just as loudly as the black.  Not quite as good as being in the stadium itself, but for buzz and bonhomie, a close second best.

But that was Birmingham.  A big multi-cultural city where people of Jamaican heritage were gearing up for the home country’s 50th anniversary celebrations and in a mood to party. 

 I found far less to cheer about in Jaywick.  

Built originally as a holiday resort for workers in London, about 120 km away, the small town on the Essex coast is officially the most deprived area in England.  

Many of the homes, never meant to be permanent residences, are poorly constructed. Some are boarded up; others are in a state of disrepair. An amusement arcade on the sea front is closed; the main high street offers only a handful of convenience stores and a couple of run down cafés selling fish and chips or take-away Chinese meals.

In a large, almost empty pub, the Olympics were on TV.  Two old men staring into half-finished pints at one end of the bar didn’t seem to be watching. But they surprised me when I asked how Britain’s Brownlee brothers had done in the Triathlon. They knew, telling me  the younger brother had won the bronze medal and  the older one the gold.

At a café near the beach I met two women drinking tea with their teenage granddaughters. They told me they spend all their summers in one of Jaywicks trailer parks. As for the Olympics, “we cheer when we win something” said one of the women “but apart from that, we don’t really notice the games”.  London they all agreed, felt a long way away.

I said that Jaywick, with its long gritty beach, seemed very quiet for a seaside town at the peak of holiday season. One of the women said that was partly because the weather had been so bad. Then the other chipped in “and because of the recession”.  

Ah, the recession. The Olympic Games are a welcome distraction but they will be gone in a few days time. Britain’s dire economic situation will be exactly the same. On the morning after the UK celebrated its greatest gold medal haul in more than one hundred years, the Bank of England announced there would be no economic growth at all in 2012   

The economic policy of the Conservative-led government is to focus on cutting Britain’s debt, largely by shrinking or even dismantling the state.  I’ve written about the impact of that before but with the chorus of demands for an alternative – a so called “Plan B” – growing louder, are there lessons to be drawn from the London Olympic Games?

When asked why cycling has been such a resounding winner at the Games, Sir Chris Hoy, his two London medals clinking around his neck, specifically mentioned the big investment in his sport over the past 15 years. That’s government investment. 

It’s done mostly through UK Sport set up in 1997 to invest about £100 million a year of public funds (from the National Lottery and from taxes) in the sports men and women most likely to succeed. For specific events like the Olympics, an additional £20 million has been raised through private sponsorship which is channelled to the same athletes. (The BBC’s John Beattie  has an excellent breakdown of how and where the funding has led to a gold rush). 

The lesson is that a clear vision, supported by state-led investment, works. No wonder some businesses and many economists  are crying out for an industrial policy.  If government can decide what it wants to achieve in sport, put the money on the table and deliver spectacular results, then why not try the same for an economy that has completely lost its way?    

It’s a question of imagination and commitment,  of investment and of the public and private sectors working together towards the same goal. It’s also about having a sense of national pride.  We’ve been a bit diffident about that in the past, surrendering our flag to the xenophobic parties on the far right, whispering patriotism as if it were a dirty word.

But Danny Boyle reminded us we can both laugh at ourselves and rejoice unashamedly in what we’ve achieved – as individuals and as a nation – and that’s what we’ve done during the Olympics. So if we set our minds to economic recovery, if that were the national vision we rallied behind, who knows. Maybe even Jaywick would feel a touch of the gold.

Looking for the “real” UK?

Photo: Andrew Billington

The phone rang about an hour after I’d completed my online order.

The woman on the other end – northern accent, friendly tone – sounded a little anxious. Had I just booked a ticket for a play at the New Vic Theatre?  Yes, I said, I certainly had.

“You do know we’re in Newcastle-Under-Lyme,” she said. I started to laugh. Yes, I knew. In fact I was just planning the train journey when she phoned.  

She sounded relieved. “Oh good, it’s just that we always check when someone with a London address books a ticket. You’d be surprised how many people don’t realise where we are. They think they’re booking one of those theatres in London with a similar name”.

 It was an exchange that in its own small way summed up what’s been bothering me for years: The gaping chasm not just in wealth and opportunity, but in understanding between London and the rest of the UK, particularly the north. 

“Londonitis” is what Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange called it in a recent piece for The Spectator. He argued that economically and socially “the capital now has little in common with the rest of Britain”.  That’s true for incomes, house prices, rents, higher education. You name it, we’re in a league of our own. Or at least, those of us with good jobs and a solid roof over our heads are. London produces a fifth of the UK’s total GDP, and you’ll find the nation’s richest households here. 

The capital’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country and London’s also home to the three areas with England’s highest levels of income deprivation. But it’s the high-end that drives the national conversation. Westminster and the City exert an irresistible gravitational pull on the media and on politicians (not to mention on Russian Oligarchs) because they dominate national politics and finance. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg once promised reform.  “We are now” he said, “the most centralised country in Europe bar Malta”.   That was 2 years ago and as any disillusioned Liberal Democrat will tell you, nothing’s changed. Nor will it if the government goes ahead with plans to let poorer regions hold down wages for public sector workers.  Roll on the north-south divide.

I say all this with both affection and dismay. I am a Londoner born and bred. But I have spent a large chunk of my career seeking nuance “beyond the Beltway” in the United States, searching for the “real” America as Republicans like to call the small towns scattered in the vast space between the Democratic-minded north-east, and the west coast. Now I am wondering, what and where is the “real”UK?  

Photo: Andrew Billington

Which is why I found myself in Newcastle-Under-Lyme on a wet Thursday evening watching a staggeringly good play. Where Have I Been All My life? was about talent show contestants  in Stoke-on-Trent. The characters were real people interviewed by playwright Alecky Blythe, who then edited the interviews and constructed a narrative. But the actors didn’t get a script: The interviews were played to them through earpieces during the performance and they spoke the words verbatim a second or so after hearing them. The result – hesitations, pauses, stumbles and all, was electrifying.

Almost as electrifying was the discussion after the show with cast members, the director, and the Chief Executive of Stoke-on-Trent Council. The play was essentially about aspiration in a post-industrial city. What struck me in the conversation that followed was the pride and optimism about the region despite years of economic decline. There was passionate talk about various local regeneration projects and about how to attract the kind of investment that would produce up to 40,000 desperately needed jobs. Nobody suggested the government in London might have the answers. Come to think of it, nobody mentioned the government at all.  

Is that the “real”UK? I don’t know, but whether it’s Hackney or Humberside, Brent or BirminghamI’d like to try to find out.

The perfect public library

I have seen a future for the public library – in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent.

I’ll admit, until now I’ve taken no interest in the campaigns to save Britain’s libraries from closure. Supporters say hundreds are threatened because of cuts in local council budgets. 115 disappeared in the last financial year alone. But the library-loving rhetoric is too often couched in romantic middle class memories of a long gone past. Even those who haven’t been in a library for years wax lyrical about the joys of children’s storytime or the day they first “discovered” a particular book.

When reminded that ebooks and internet learning are now popular alternatives, their response is (rightly) that not all homes have access to the web. But providing those additional services at a library simply isn’t enough. Especially as you still have to get people through the door. Long before the current round of cuts, a Parliamentary inquiry  said public libraries were a “service in distress” .  The cost of running the drafty Victorian buildings was going up, the number of books being issued was going down. 

Stoke-on-Trent’s Local Service Centre and Library says it’s reversed the trend.  Stoke was once the centre of a thriving pottery industry. With those jobs gone for good, it now comes high on national lists of deprivation and you can feel it on the streets. Charity shops compete for customers alongside endless discount stores and numerous fast food outlets – and we’re not talking about the big chains.  (My favourite, “Aladdyn’s” hedges its bets by serving American fried chicken, curries, baltis – and fish and chips).  

And in the middle of all that is the library, an eco-friendly conversion of the old market building  that opened in 2009.  Library membership has increased by 1,200 since then and it’s not hard to see why. The big, bright space has lots of seating tucked in amongst the books. Computers are arranged in circular hubs to one side, and there’s a separate area with computers for children and a “quick email” point. 

But more importantly, at the back of the library is a door into the offices of the Public Health Information Service and at the front is the one-stop-shop for all council and other official services. For housing benefit, council tax, local enterprise schemes and job training – you go to the library. So while you wrangle over some tedious local government form or talk to someone about a possible job, your kids can look at the books. Or perhaps having come in for a council service, you might be tempted yourself to have a nose around the shelves. Suddenly the often elite world of literature and learning is truly accessible to all.  And for those of us used to books but not benefits offices, we get to see as a matter of course a different side of our community – not just the claimants but the Council workers offering the services for which we pay. 

I have bad news for the romantics: there’s no reverential hush in this library, only the gentle hum of people going about their business in a clean, airy and truly communal space. Now that’s a library worth saving.