Archive for June, 2011

In Scotland we are still waiting for summer to arrive. And it is more than a little galling to hear of the high temperatures in the south of England, or to see media headlines talking erroneously of a UK heat wave.

But there are difficulties associated with temperatures that reached 32C in the south on England. As well as avoiding sunburn and watching their gardens wilt, southerners are now facing travel disruptions – because of the good weather.

Heat on overhead power lines caused the cancellation of trains from London Liverpool Street to Suffolk, and from Essex to London yesterday.

The National Express East Anglia hourly service from London to Ipswich was cancelled from 12:02 yesterday, while others terminated at Colchester. And the Southend to Liverpool Street line was also hit with a total of 35 trains affected.

National Express East Anglia said: “Due to high temperature on Monday 27 June, speed restrictions have been imposed due to the design of the overhead line equipment.

“This equipment is subject to major renewal which will prevent the need for speed restrictions in the long term.”

A Network Rail spokeswoman said speeds were being reduced on the London to Norwich Great Eastern line from 90mph to 80mph and could be further reduced to 60mph “in the hottest part of the day”.

Surely equipment should have been designed to cope with temperatures that are not exactly tropical?

Trains have in the past had difficulties with snow and ice and, famously, the wrong sort of leaves on the line. It now seems that sun can be added to the list of events that can disrupt our public transport services.

Still, it’s something we are unlikely to have to worry about too much north of the border.

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Illegal drugs are always something to look out for at the major music festivals. But at Glastonbury they are going one stage further. Police have set up an off-site lab to test “legal highs” seized at the festival.

Police spokesman Paul Bunt said: “Because there are so many new drugs, we know very little about them.”

Brunt also said that it was “essential” that festival organizers co-operate with the project, adding there were a number of legal high shops on the Glastonbury site. Shop owners have worked with police to narrow down the range of merchandise they sell to make sure their products do not contain illegal or harmful substances.

Police take drugs seized at Glastonbury to a laboratory located several miles off site where they are tested, identified and catalogued. With all sorts of substances available on the web there are genuine concerns that potentially lethal drugs can be obtained legally.

As one music fan commented to the BBC, “It doesn’t make sense that things like cocaine and weed are illegal but you can buy stuff over the internet totally legally that somebody has made in a lab and you don’t know what it is.”

Festival organisers at Glastonbury turned down a police request to access the festival toilets to allow scientists to test sewage for traces of illegal drugs. Police argued that they could trace substances being used across the site.

But because the event takes place on private land, any search had to be permitted by the owners.

In a statement, organiser Michael Eavis said: “The drug culture these days has changed beyond belief. What a cheek to even suggest there’s a problem.”

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The salaries of 24 top civil servants will be made public following a decision by the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham.

The ruling follows a review triggered by a BBC Freedom of Information request. Last year ministers published a list of public sector workers paid more than £150,000, but 24 individuals refused to allow their details to be included.

The Commissioner decided that it was a “legitimate expectation” for the details to be made public given that the civil servants’ jobs are paid for by the taxpayer.

“Being open and transparent is an integral part of being accountable to the taxpayer and, like it or not, this level of disclosure goes with the territory,” he said.

“There is strong, legitimate public interest in the public knowing how its money is spent, how public sector salaries compare with those in other areas and how money is distributed between different levels of staff.”

The Cabinet Office has 35 days in which to comply with the ruling or appeal against it. It is thought that ministers are happy to publish the information and will not appeal.

Look out for the list of the top earning civil servants to be big news over the next few weeks.

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Last year Buckingham Palace published figures costing the monarch at £38.3M per annum, which they claimed represented excellent value for money.

But figures released by the campaign group Republic show that the Palace hasn’t calculated the true cost of maintaining the royal family and that the actual cost is £202.4M – five times the official figure.

That makes Britain’s royal family the most expensive monarchy in Europe at more than double the price of the Dutch, which comes second in the cost table.

Leaving aside for the moment arguments about whether the monarch should exist, and I count myself as an abolitionist, there is a clear and undeniable case for the public to know the true cost of the monarchy. Taxpayers pick up the bill and have a right to know.

The Civil List, which pays for the staff of the royal household, is granted by Parliament. The payment was set at £7.9M per annum back in 2000, based on an absurdly high estimate of inflation, meaning that spending was well below the level of grant for 10 years and a surplus created.

This surplus is now being added to the annual grant, meaning actual spending is currently £14.2M per annum. This represents a 94% rise in real terms since 1991. So much for value for money.

In addition, the royal family receives further grants totalling £24.5 M from various government departments for the costs associated with various family members, as well as for property costs, press and PR and travel.

Not included in the official Palace figures are the incomes received from the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, portfolios of land, property and assets whose surplus is paid to the Queen and Prince Charles each year. If there was no monarchy the sums of £13.2M and £24.5M confirmed tin the Duchies’ annual reports would be paid to the state.

And the Palace figures do not include the annual costs for security associated with the royal family. From figures reported in various newspapers this is estimated at £100M per annum.

So getting rid of the Royal Family would mean a net gain to the country of over £200M each and every year.

At a time of massive public sector spending cuts, that sum could be used to employ an additional 9,560 nurses or 8,200 police officers. It could be used to double the support that the government gives to medical research charities. Or it could be added to many other deserving budgets.

All of which would be far better uses of public money than maintaining a royal family.

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Stewart Regan, Chief Executive of the Scottish Football Association (SFA), wants to recruit professionals from the worlds of business, finance, law, and the public sector to volunteer for a new disciplinary Judicial Panel system.

The move is part of much needed reforms that will revolutionise the disciplinary system in Scottish football. Cases are now expected to be resolved within a week, with evidence potentially drawn from referees’ reports, TV or CCTV coverage, and press reports.

The new independent members will become part of a “jury” system, with Panels meeting every week to make decisions on cases brought by the SFA’s new Compliance Officer, who will take the role of “prosecutor”.

Regan also told the Herald newspaper that a set tariff of punishments for different types of offence will be published on the SFA website before the new season starts.

Regan says the broader membership, combined with the explicit tariff system for offences and weekly meetings of the Judicial Panel, will mean a system that is “more speedy…much more transparent.”

The SFA’s old disciplinary system, which has been in place for many years, was shrouded in secrecy. Meetings were held at irregular intervals with some cases heard within days while others dragged on for weeks. There was no transparency in the decision making, no accountability of those involved,

So what qualities will the SFA look for as it recruits its new independent jurors?

Knowledge of football is an obvious start, perhaps with some experience in running a club at some level. Similar knowledge of another sport is also desirable. And a background at a senior level in law, business or the public sector with experience of governance issues would help. Free time is also a must – these are purely voluntary posts and there will be no pay.

Interested? Then contact Sandra Buchanan, PA to the Chief Executive, SFA, Hampden Park, Glasgow, or email sandra.buchanan@scottishfa.co.uk

The old disciplinary system was brought into disrepute by the actions of those who administered it and made up its committees. The case for change was clear and it is great to see Regan taking another step forward in his efforts to reform the organisation he heads.

The new system will offer swift decisions made in a consistent and transparent manner, with members from outside the game bringing an independent and unbiased view to the table. Add in equity of punishment for those found guilty and this will be a major step forward for Scottish football.

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Holyrood magazine, a leading Scottish political publication, is facing the threat of legal action from human rights lawyer Tony Kelly after it published highly critical remarks about his work from First Minister Alex Salmond.

Kelly represented the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, and has played a pivotal role in several major defeats for the Scottish courts in the UK Supreme Court and the European Court in Strasbourg relating to breaches of prisoners’ rights.

The magazine, which describes itself as “Scotland’s leading political and current affairs magazine designed entirely with the purpose of reaching Scotland’s key movers and shakers”, published an interview with Salmond last week.

The First Minister made a series of allegations questioning Kelly’s motives and actions in acting for prisoners. He said Kelly was “making an incredibly comfortable living” on civil actions brought by convicted criminals.

Salmond was asked to apologise for his remarks several times during First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament, but refused to do so.

Kelly initially threatened to take legal action against the First Minister, but instead London law firm Bindmans has now written to Holyrood magazine on Kelly’s behalf asking for an apology, a donation to charity in lieu of damages and payment of his legal costs.

Mandy Rhodes, the magazine’s editor, who carried out the Salmond interview, said, “It’s interesting, given the headlines that we had last week about Tony Kelly suing the first minister, that’s he’s decided to make a magazine his first port of call. It’s in the hands of our lawyers and that’s where we will leave it.”

There could be much more to come from this story.

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Holy Flying Circus

The BBC is to screen a dramatisation of the controversy surrounding the release of Monty Python’s brilliant film The Life Of Brian.

Back in 1979 the film caused fury in religious circles, with many claiming that it mocked Jesus. Church leaders in the US and the UK protested and the film was banned in several countries, including Ireland and Norway, as well as by several local authorities in the UK.

The main character in the film is Brian Cohen, who was born in Bethlehem and mistaken for Jesus. He is crucified at the end of the film, memorably singing “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.”

Many of the critics did not seem to acknowledge that Brian and Jesus are actually two different characters. After all, as any Python fan will tell you, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”

Holy Flying Circus will air this autumn on BBC4 and the ninety minute programme aims to use the Life of Brian controversy to explore the subject of free speech.

“Holy Flying Circus is not a biopic, but a fantastical reimagining of the Pythons’ struggle with censorship in the runup to the release of Life of Brian,” said a BBC spokesperson. The drama will incorporate “surreal cutaways” including puppetry and animation, according to the BBC.

The programme will lead up to the famous TV debate where Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin defended the film against journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood.

Co-producer Kate Norrish said, “Holy Flying Circus takes a moment from our recent past to shed light on the present. When Palin and Cleese were called to defend Life of Brian, they were fighting not just for the future of their film but for their artistic credibility. It was a moment when freedom of speech was pitted against religious belief and is a debate that is just as precariously balanced today.”

Satire is an art form that deserves protection against those who seek to censor views that they happen not to agree with. And The Life Of Brian is a quite superb film, routinely featuring high on lists of the best ever made.

I hope that this new programme is both accurate and entertaining.

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RIP Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons, sax player with the E Street Band, and a key part of Bruce Springsteen’s music for forty years, died last night in a Florida hospital following a stroke.

The Big Man, as he was known throughout the musical world, was an integral part of the E Street Band, contributing massively both on record and on stage. In any Springsteen concert it was a magical moment when Clarence moved forward to take his first solo of the night.

And when it came to the band introductions, Clarence was always left until last, a mark of respect from the Boss. The elaborate homage described him at various times as master of the universe, king of the world, the next President of the USA and, at Hampden Park, “the biggest Scotsman you will ever see”.

Clarence Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia to a southern family and grew up listening to gospel music. He started playing saxophone at the age of nine and quickly mastered the instrument. The young Clemons was a promising football player and attended Maryland State College on both music and football scholarships.

And the pros were looking at the big lineman. He had a trial lined up with the Cleveland Browns, but was involved in a car crash which ended his sporting dreams. Football’s loss was to be music’s gain.

It was in 1971 when, as Springsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freeze Out records it, “we made that change up town and the big man joined the band.”

The young Springsteen was already a fixture in the music scene of Asbury Park, New Jersey. One night, as he told the story on stage many times, the door blew off when he was playing at the Student Prince and the biggest man he had even seen walked in, dressed in a white suit. Clarence asked if he could join the band on stage, Bruce agreed.

And the rest is history. The two men formed a deep friendship that was to last forty years. And their musical collaboration was to change the face of rock music. In the scene everyone had a nickname. The Boss, Miami Steve (Van Zandt), Phantom Dan (Frederici). What else could Clemons be called but The Big Man?

From the very first record he recorded, 1972’s Greetings From Asbury Park, Clemons was by Springsteen’s side. His sax solos became a vital component of the E Street sound and it’s hard to imagine Thunder Road, Badlands, Born To Run, Jungleland or so many others without his contribution. For almost forty years he was by Springsteen’s right hand on stage, often playing the straight man. But always with a smile on his face.

Clemons was in demand outside of his main job. He played with, among others, the Grateful Dead, Aretha Franklin, Jackson Browne, Ringo Star and Lady Gaga, with whom he made his final appearance. He owned night clubs, acted in several films and tv programmes and wrote a book. He was married four times and is father to five sons.

In recent years health problems dogged Clemons. Both knees were replaced, he had back surgery and severe hip deterioration. But he continued to tour with the E Street Band and even when he was unable to walk he played sitting in a golden throne. Everyone knew he was in constant pain but nothing would stop the Big Man from doing what he did best.

And then came the stroke that was ultimately to prove fatal. At first it seemed like he would pull through, amazing his doctors by recovering from the paralysis that had affected his left side. But last night Clarence Clemons died.

Bruce Springsteen summed up his fiend’s contribution.

“His loss is immeasurable, and we’re honoured and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years,” the Boss said.

“He was my great friend and my partner. With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.

“His life, his memory and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

Rest in peace, Clarence.

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Many Tories have never agreed with the notion of a minimum wage. Let’s face it, protecting the low paid has never been something that the Conservative party has cared too much about.

But right wing backbencher Philip Davies has taken callousness to a whole new level.

He stated in a House of Commons debate that the £5.93 per hour minimum wage may be a “hindrance” to those with learning difficulties or mental health conditions when they seek work and argued that they should be allowed to work for less and undercut other workers to access jobs.

Those who have barriers to employment need additional help and support to access the few jobs that are actually available. They need action to stop the stigma and discrimination that still exists. What they don’t need is Tory MPs making absurd suggestions like this one.

Even some of his fellow Tories felt that the odious Davies had gone too far. Edward Leigh MP told him, “Forget the fact there is a minimum wage for a moment. Why actually should a disabled person work for less than £5.93 an hour. It is not a lot of money, is it?”

Sophie Corlett, a spokesperson for the mental health charity Mind said, “It is a preposterous suggestion that someone who has a mental health problem should be prepared to accept less than minimum wage to get their foot in the door with an employer.

“People with mental health problems should not be considered a source of cheap labour and should be paid appropriately for the jobs they do.”

And Labour MP Anne Begg, chairman of the Commons’ Work and Pensions Committee, spoke for many. She said, “These comments are utterly outrageous and unacceptable. To suggest disabled people should be treated as second-class citizens is shocking and shows just what a warped world some Tories demonstrate they inhabit.”

Davies has an unusual background for a Tory MP. Despite attending a posh boarding school he did not manage to get into Oxbridge, studying instead at Huddersfield University. Prior to entering Parliament in 2005 he managed a bookmakers shop before working as a customer relations manager for Asda.

Davis though does not have to worry too much about the impact of the minimum wage. As an MP he earns around six times the sum that he thinks is too much for disabled people.

Plus expenses of course.

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It seems that it’s not only fans of a certain football team who riot after a defeat.

In Vancouver last night fans went on the rampage after the city’s ice hockey team, the Canucks, lost in the final of the North American championship, the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins.

The Canucks had the NHL’s best regular season record, but have never won the Stanley Cup since entering the league 40 years ago. Expectations were high in the city as fans gathered to watch the game. But it was to be another loss for the Canadians in the deciding game of the seven match playoff.

Trouble began after the end of the Canucks’ 4-0 defeat to the Boston Bruins. With scenes that residents of Greater Manchester would recognise, drunken fans showered giant TV screens with beer before taking to the streets, setting cars and rubbish bins ablaze, smashing windows, bottles, dancing atop overturned vehicles and looting shops.

Police responded with teargas, the first time it has been used in the city since riots in 1994, which was also sparked by a Canucks defeat. Police also used pepper spray and flash-bangs – non-lethal stun grenades – but struggled to contain the crowds.

Television images showed a large fire burning inside a garage. One car exploded, prompting bystanders to duck. Fans who were trying to get out of the danger zone found their visibility reduced by thick black smoke.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson described the violence as, “embarrassing and shameful”.

“The vast majority of people who were in the downtown tonight were there to enjoy the game in a peaceful and respectful manner,” he said. “It is unfortunate that a small number of people intent on criminal activity have turned pockets of the downtown into areas involving destruction of property and confrontations with police.”

Violence after sporting events is not a new phenomenon. And this incident shows that it’s not just a Scottish or British issue either.

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