The distressing detail raised by the Oxford child abuse case raises echoes of the similar case of the grooming of children for sex in Rochdale last year. In both under-age white girls, as young as 11 and 13, were the victims. In both a gang of Asian men were the perpetrators. In both the girls were from vulnerable backgrounds, including local authority care homes. In both drugs, alcohol and violence were used to coerce the girls – and in both other men were brought in who paid to use the girls for sex.
With almost a year having passed between the two verdicts many will be tempted to ask why lessons were not learned from Rochdale which might have shortened the ordeal of the girls in Oxford.
In fact, for all the similarities, there are a number of key differences between the two cases which, despite the time-lag in the trials, were actually taking place over the same period. The Rochdale abuse was from 2008-9. The Oxford ordeal stretched over eight years from 2004 to 2012.
The greatest difference lay in the motivation of the two groups of abusers, according to Mohammed Shafiq, of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organisation, who was one of the first Asian community leaders to acknowledge that a disproportionate number of the men involved in on-street grooming are British Pakistanis.
“The Rochdale abusers were taxi drivers and takeaway workers using the girls for quick sex. When they took money from other men to have sex with the girls the amounts which changed hands were around £20-30 a time,” says Mr Shafiq. “Oxford is much more to do with money. The men exploiting the girls were charging others £200-£600 a time and bringing 8 to 10 men a day into hotels and restrooms. It was much more organised.”
That view is echoed by Alyas Karmani, a Muslim imam who is a psychologist with more than 20 years of practical experience in youth and community work – and who works within the Pakistani community in major UK cities to combat attitudes which tolerate or encourage attitudes which lead to sexual violence against women. “It’s important to understand the different pathways in and out of the offending behaviour,” he says since that makes a difference to how they are tackled.
Rome is abuzz with enthusiasm for the new Pope whose picture has everywhere ousted the portraits of his predecessor, and heavily outnumbers those of the man church luminaries like to call the Great John Paul. There is an infectious joy among the crowds – the vast bulk of them Italians rather than foreign pilgrims – flocking to see him at his weekly audiences. So much so that St Peter’s piazza is now as full on a weekday as on many a previous Easter Sunday.
The atmosphere on May day was heady with excitement as tens of thousands of people waited for the arrival of Pope Francis to tour the square before his address to mark the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker whom the former Cardinal Bergoglio regards, along with the Virgin Mary, as the model for the ordinary believer seeking to be faithful to God through the small tasks of everyday life.
Work, he declared, was fundamental to human dignity. It is how we participate in the work of creation – which is why it is a scandal that so many today, particularly young people, are unemployed thanks to a “purely economic conception of society” which puts “selfish profit” before social justice. Those in public office must therefore make every effort to give new impetus to employment. But society also needed to guard against making people victims of work that enslaves.
This points up one of the interesting characteristics of this new papacy. His remarks at the general audience were measured and largely abstract. But that morning at his daily 7am mass in one of a new style of off-the-cuff sermons he had been much more direct. He expressed his shock that the workers in the collapsed Bangladesh clothing factory were being paid just €38 a month. This was nothing less than a modern form of slavery which goes against God, he thundered.
Vatican officials are unsure yet as how to handle these unscripted homilies at the early morning masses to which the Pope invites different members of the public each day. When members of the Vatican Bank, known in Italian as the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR), were in the congregation he made a cryptic aside about “those guys at the IOR” adding “Excuse me, eh?” before describing their controversial institution as “necessary… up to a certain point”. Vatican Radio reported the remark, but the official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano censored it. Slightly less cryptic was his decision to axe the bonus all the employees traditionally receive on papal transitions, along with the annual €25,000 stipend paid to the five cardinals on the bank’s supervisory board.
My antennae twitched the other day at an interview on the radio in which Professor John Ashton, president of the nation’s public health doctors, pronounced that independent schools could form “reservoirs of disease” which might lead to another outbreak of infectious disease like the measles epidemic in south Wales.
This is, apparently, because they are full of middle-class children whose parents refused to have them vaccinated during the MMR scare, as well as overseas pupils with unknown immunisation records. Such folk, he later added, are as dodgy as groups such as gypsies and travellers, who he says have previously spread the disease.
The said schools were, predictably enough, outraged. The chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, Dr Christopher Ray, who is High Master of Manchester Grammar School, said the picture painted by Dr Ashton of the independent school sector’s approach to health was “woefully inaccurate”. Such schools had close links with the NHS, and their policies were highly regulated. Another head accused Dr Ashton of “peddling emotive opinions without regard for accuracy”.
Professor Ashton’s tone offers a salutary reminder of an aspect of the MMR controversy which has generally been forgotten in the concern at the current measles outbreak in which one man has died. But first I must declare an interest.
My wife and I did not give our son the MMR. The scare around the triple vaccine was couched in fears that it might trigger autism in a few susceptible individuals. But the later discredited research on which the worries were based also suggested children who had had the jab might develop a serious bowel condition called Crohn’s Disease – from which our son’s aunt suffers. Moreover his cousin had such a bad reaction to his first MMR jab that they had to admit him to hospital to do the second. And our boy had exhibited a spectacular series of allergic reactions to a wide variety of foods, colourings, flavourings and additives as a baby. We decided to have the three vaccines administered singly. There seemed no downside to that.
Margaret Thatcher saved Britain, or destroyed it, according to which commentator you choose to read. The truth is that she did both, in different ways. There can be little doubt that she reinvigorated an economy which was hidebound by excessive government regulation, restrictive trade union practices, a weak currency and an enfeebled business culture – problems to the previous generation of politicians, of both parties, had lacked the vigour or vision to find answers. But she also accelerated the decline of British manufacturing industry, created mass unemployment, destroyed entire communities and instigated financial deregulation in the City which paved the way for the global recession of recent times.
Yet the real truth about Lady Thatcher does not just lie somewhere between these two polarities. It is to be found somewhere different.
Someone with her fondness for reducing national issues to domestic metaphor might begin by quoting the proverb that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. To those enjoying the meal the Thatcherite omelette was undoubtedly a tasty dish. Those whose lives were broken would tell a different story. Her supporters shrugged that this was an evil necessity. Rising unemployment and recession were “a price well worth paying” to get inflation down, as a Tory Chancellor. Norman Lamont, was later to succinctly put it.
Such a view is at heart utilitarian. It holds that a society’s purpose must be to maximise the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But, as the recent debate between church leaders and government ministers on welfare reform has shown, Christianity has fundamental questions to raise about any system which assumes that it is necessary for one man, or one minority, to suffer for the good of the people. The insistence of Mrs Thatcher in 1983 that “the denial of personal choice is an outright denial of Christian faith” reveals a selective and rather eccentric notion of the values embodied in the gospels.
Margaret Thatcher did not want me at the intimate dinner in Downing Street. But the guest of honour did. So there I was. What ensued reveals the complexity of the Thatcher story, and lays bare the inadequacy of so many of the myths which have grown around her. The truth was something significantly different.
The contradictions of the phenomenon that was Margaret Thatcher were all on show in this one incident.
It was 1987 and the height of the Iron Lady’s implacable opposition to the struggle of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela for freedom for the black population of South Africa. She had branded Mandela as a “terrorist” and was a virulent opponent of international sanctions against the white minority-government. She was, many felt, apartheid’s greatest friend.
The guest of honour at that Downing Street dinner was Joaquim Chissano, the President of Mozambique, from whose country I had been sending back reports on his government’s struggle against the economic mess the former Portuguese colony had inherited on independence – and against guerrillas backed by the apartheid regime in neighbouring South Africa.
Thatcher ought to have hated Chissano, a black Marxist liberation-fighter in the Mandela mould. But in her first year in office Chissano and Samora Machel, his predecessor as president, had privately helped steer Robert Mugabe away from booting the whites out of Zimbabwe when he took over at independence. So Chissano was a Good Guy in the Thatcher litany. Yet at the end of the dinner, when I raised apartheid and sanctions, she cut me dead with steely imperiousness and, turning to make appreciative comments about my wife’s dress, took her off on a smiling tour of the Downing Street portraits of past prime ministers.
It was all there in a single incident –political prejudice, fierce loyalty, implacable certainty, easy contradictions, cognitive dissonance, ruthless assertion and the eye-flickering charmless flattery. No British prime minister of the last century has created greater myth than Margaret Thatcher. And yet there are huge chasms between the myths and the Mrs.
What have we really learned from the case of “Britain’s Biggest Scrounger”, Mick Philpott, now jailed for life for killing six of the 17 children he has fathered at the expense of the state? That welfare benefits sap initiative and moral responsibility? George Osborne, and his acolytes in the right-wing newspapers, think so. They see in Philpott the defining proof of why our benefits system is in such dire need of reform. Ed Balls and Labour party supporters say this is playing nasty politics with a freak tragedy. So what can we sensibly conclude?
It’s easy to see why the case, with its tone of social and sexual degeneracy, has aroused such vehement responses. Philpott’s children were not just his meal ticket but the providers of his fags, booze, drugs and the monster plasma tv set which Osborne & Co see as symbols of what has gone wrong with a welfare system intended to be a safety net for the truly needy but which has become a dependency trap for many. When it was set up the British welfare state cost the nation under 5pc of our annual national income; today that figure has risen to 13 per cent. One in eight Britons now live in a house where no-one has a job, compared to just one in 30 in Japan.
Last year Philpott trousered £8,000 in child benefit, another £8,000 in housing benefit, plus £38,000 from the working tax credits paid to his wife and mistress. Added to the £14,000 they earned between them from their cleaning jobs, that is a total of £68,000 a year – the take-home pay of someone earning £100,000 pa.
The semiotics of this are clear. Here is a poster boy for an underclass that breeds children it doesn’t much want, is not interested in caring for, and will not work to support. He is the exemplar of the generation of spongers who are bleeding the taxpayer dry. QED, suggests George Osborne.
But the statistics tell a different story. Around 8 million families in the UK are paid child benefit. Some 1.35 million families with children have a parent claiming out-of-work benefit. Of those around 45,000 have four children or more. Only 190 have more than 10 children. So the truth is that the awful Mick Philpott, far from representing an entire underclass, is typical of only a tiny percentage of the population. And most of those may not share his thuggish, misogynist, manipulative and vile behaviour.
I have to confess I was rather mystified, and a little sceptical, when I heard about the If campaign. The If in question is short for “Enough Food for Everyone If…” and it has been launched by a coalition of 100 development charities and faith groups to lobby the Government in the run-up to the next British presidency of the G8 group of top world leaders.
Last time the UK held the presidency it met in Gleneagles and a similar coalition, Make Poverty History, conducted such an effective campaign that a $1bn a year of debt was dropped and the rich world pledged more aid; it has given extra $11bn a year – less than was promised but a substantial increase. Make Poverty History had no real success in securing fairer trade practices for poor countries but the debt cancellation and extra aid have save 1,700 children’s lives every day, got 21 million more kids into African schools, halved malaria deaths in many countries and provided life-saving drugs to six million people with HIV or Aids.
This time the G8 will meet at Lough Erne near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland in June. In the interim, though massive strides have been made in reducing poverty, this is still a world in which one in eight people go to bed hungry every night. Each year 2.3 million children die from malnutrition and many more are physically and mentally stunted from lack of good food. The new campaign focuses on hunger.
At first glance its four main planks sound an odd collection of issues. The first If suggests that hunger could be alleviated if there were more aid for nutrition programmes and small-scale farming. That sounds obvious enough. But the other three Ifs concern themselves with tax, land and transparency – a trio which seem to lack the coherence of the Gleneagles aid, trade and debt strategy.
Last week, however, I chaired an interesting discussion at the Frontline Club with the title “Can we fix a broken food system?”. It revealed that the issues which constitute the underlying causes of hunger can appear unconnected – as do the trunk, legs and tail of the elephant to the six blind men in the Indian proverb – but are actually inter-related.
The days are long gone when the British public saw the bank manager as the acme of respectability, responsibility and rectitude. The scale of the banks bad behaviour during the 2008 financial crisis finally put paid to that with its orgy of reckless and self-serving greed. That said, there is still something shocking about the detail which is now emerging of just how bad that behaviour was.
The latest report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards into the scandalous behaviour at HBOS, the bank created through the 2001 merger of the former Halifax building society and the Bank of Scotland, shows that the total cost to the taxpayer of bailing out the bank was close to £30bn. But what is most disturbing are the levels of poor governance, weak credit risk controls and sheer personal incompetence by top bankers which are now revealed.
The commission, chaired by the Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, includes an impressive range of independent heavyweights including the former chancellor Lord Lawson and the oil executive turned Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Their verdict is as damning as it is authoritative. Stripping out the HBOS figures from those of Lloyds bank, with which it was merged in the taxpayer rescue, it is clear that the losses and misjudgements were staggering.
Yet only one man has been held to account for the mammoth fiasco – Peter Cummings, who led the rapid expansion of corporate lending at the bank. He is the only senior figure to be banned from the City by the Financial Services Authority. But the FSA has taken no action against the bank’s former chief executive Sir James Crosby who conceded before the commission that he had been “incompetent” in the run-up to the crisis. The bank’s chairman, Lord Stevenson, was adjudged by the commission to be delusional, evasive, repetitive and unrealistic. Yet he has escaped practical punishment.
Over at the Royal Bank of Scotland the responsible chief executive Fred Goodwin may have been stripped of his knighthood but he left the bank with a bumper pension. The bank’s Shareholders Action Group are so furious – unsurprisingly since they have seen their investments slump from a high of 607p before the crash to just 25.37p this week – that they are taking legal action against Mr Goodwin and 16 other former directors alleging “an incredible cover-up” in the months before the bank needed a £45bn taxpayers’ bail-out. Again the Financial Services Authority have taken no action against Mr Goodwin or any other of the bank’s directors.
And Barclays, the bank which prided itself in not needing a taxpayer rescue, has been the subject in recent days of a report into its behind-the-scenes culture which is utterly damning. In an attempt to restore its tarnished reputation Barclays commissioned an independent review of its business practices. What the report shows, however, is an “entitlement culture” in which the top 70 bankers paid themselves a staggering 35 per cent more than their peers in other banks – a pernicious attitude which remains since, though top pay has fallen in the bank, it was still 17 per cent above banking norms in 2011. Most ironically this excoriating report is revealed to have cost £17m to produce – an indication of how out of kilter and proportion attitudes to remuneration remain in the banking industry.
What the report says of Barclays might form an epitaph for the entire banking industry. Our bankers have pursued their own interests at the expense of those of both their customers and their shareholders. They have developed a myopic focus on quick-return profits at the expense of the long-term good functioning of the wider economy. They have allowed the search for a quick buck to create a vacuum in culture and values. They have lost their sense of proportion and humility and all too often appear oblivious to reality. The need for massive cultural change is clear. But there is still no sign our bankers understand that.
The paradox of the new Pope Francis is that we know so little of him and yet, already, he has communicated so much. The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope took the world by surprise. Barely a handful of Vatican insiders had mentioned his name before the conclave. When the announcement came from the balcony of St Peter’s commentators scrabbled for his Wikipedia entry or the papabili profiles written for the US National Catholic Reporter by its former Rome correspondent the redoubtable John Allen. Yet in the few days since then Pope Francis has sent out a tide of small signifiers which can leave us in no doubt that a new era has begun in Rome – and a very different one.
It commenced when he first appeared on the papal balcony in plain white, wearing the simplest of wooden crosses, giving a calm unostentatious wave. When he spoke there was none of the traditional formality. He started with Good Evening, made a gentle joke, and asked the crowd to join him in pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict and began the Our Father. Before offering a blessing to the city and the world he asked those before him for “a favour”: that they would pray for him. He bowed his head.
When the papal blessing came it was not just to the church but to “all people of good will”. This was the language of Vatican II. It sent out a ripple of shock after the retrenchments of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis used the same language at his press conference a few days later – telling journalists that, believers and non-believers alike, he respected them as made in the image of God. It was there again in his homily at his inaugural Mass on Tuesday. This pope wants to speak to the whole of humanity.
Behind the scenes the signals to papal courtiers were even clearer. When the Master of Ceremonies offered Francis the traditional ceremonial red cape trimmed with ermine he is said to have replied: “No thank you, Monsignore. Carnival time is over”. And when he broke the seals of the Papal Apartment to take possession of his new home Francis shocked Vatican staff by saying: “There’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space.” This was the man, they should have known, who renounced the archiepiscopal palace in Buenos Aires to remain living in the small apartment he had occupied as Jesuit Provincial, cooking his own food there and taking the bus round the city.
Nothing has struck the world about the new pope so much as his extraordinary determination to be ordinary. Humility is the word most regularly used about his common touch. The much-quoted trope is that he long ago rejected the bishop’s palace for a modest apartment and swapped his chauffeur-driven car for a bus pass. Even after he had been elected pontiff he spurned the papal limousine and returned to the conclave hostel on the coach with the rest of the cardinals. He went to his room to pack his own bag and then moved across to reception to ask if there was a bill to pay.
There was more to this than symbolism, though his brief first appearance on the balcony in St Peter’s showed his gift for sign and signifier. Catholics are big on that. The faith is rooted in sacrament, which theology defines as an outward sign of inward grace. Pope Francis pointedly refused to stand on an elevated platform when fellow cardinals approached to offer congratulation and pledges of fealty. It was as if he was saying: the old autocracy has gone, collegiality has returned; this pope is no feudal monarch but gains his status as a first among equals.
Humility has had a bad name in recent times. Its archetype has been Charles Dickens’s unctuous villain in David Copperfield . “I’m a very ’umble man, Master Copperfield…. ever so ’umble,” says the obsequious Uriah Heep. “I am well aware that I am the ’umblest person going. My mother is likewise a very ’umble person. We live in a numble abode.” Humble thus became something of a byword for a false ambitious manipulative greedy cloying insincerity. It was what the poet Southey described, rather more succinctly, as “pride that apes humility.”
There can, of course, be virtue in pretence. Socrates commonly resorted to the rhetorical strategy of feigning ignorance, or pretending to be less astute than he actually was, in order to trick his opponents into contradicting themselves. But what did for humility was a combination of Enlightenment rationalism and then the Romantic movement’s infatuation with individualism. The great empiricist philosopher David Hume went so far as to see humility as a vice: part of “a whole train of monkish virtues” which included fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, celibacy, silence and solitude. All these were “everywhere rejected by men of sense… because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment”.
Things went downhill from there, via Nietszche, to our own time when self-esteem, self-fulfilment and self-assertion are the contemporary desiderata. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” has rendered humility an anachronism. Modern psychologists and business gurus have now began to pronounce that humility is a distinguishing trait of top business leaders – so humble individuals can again be well-adjusted valuable members of society. But this is just a new empiricism. There is something tacky about the utilitarian and instrumentalist notion that humility breeds success.
Religions have always seen humility differently. In Buddhism it is a vehicle to bring the liberation from the sufferings and vexations of consciousness. Hinduism has a similar goal of losing ego through the struggle for self-mastery. The very word Islam means submission which necessitates humility. But in common parlance humility is often confused with modesty, bashfulness, self-effacement or lack of ambition.
Both the new Archbishop of Canterbury and Iain Duncan Smith need to think in more detail about welfare reform
The Church of England is now the Labour Party at prayer, according to its unimaginative critics in the Conservative Party. There is nothing like reviving an old cliché to avoid the effort of serious thinking. But there must be better ways to deal with welfare reform than redigging old trench-lines from the Thacher/Runcie era. Anglican bishops have expressed concern over the Coalition’s proposal to limit increases in most benefits and tax credits to one per cent over the next three years. The plan means that, regardless of how much prices rise in that time, poorer families with young children will pay the price for inflation which is currently running at 2.7 per cent. The poorest, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, pointed out, will be hit hardest. About 60 per cent of the savings will come from the bottom third of households. Only 3 per cent will come from the wealthiest third.
This should be a matter of concern for any government. But instead of acknowledging that the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, issued a counterblast declaiming that: “there is nothing moral or fair about a system which I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency”. Getting people back to work is the way to end child poverty, he added.
False polarisations are unhelpful here. Right-wing ideologues declare that Dr Welby’s view of poverty is socialist rather than Christian. He is accepting – they say, without any evidence – the old Labour government’s arbitrary definition of poverty as covering anyone below 60 per cent of median earnings. Real poverty is spiritual and comes from the Welfare State having created a dependency culture which, far from liberating the poor, enslaves them.
None of this tells the whole truth as Dr Welby and Mr Duncan Smith both know, being students of Catholic Social Teaching which insists that two principles – solidarity and subsidiarity – must be at work in such issues. Solidarity requires we see our mutual interdependence as a moral imperative as well as a social reality. Subsidiarity insists that the state should not take over what individuals or groups can do. And CST sees work as more than just a right or a responsibility. It is, as Pope John Paul II said, “the particular mark of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons”. Work is quintessential to our nature.
Yet it is a non-sequitur to move from that to right-wing expostulations that it cannot be right for some people to get more in benefits than the average family’s take-home pay of £26,000 per year. It can perfectly be right – in circumstances where that reflects what a particular family needs. Need, not dessert, is the yardstick for solidarity. Those bishops with experience as parish priests know that from living among the poor in parts of the inner city where church ministers are often the only middle-class professionals still present after 5pm. So dependency and perverse incentives are a moral issue. But so is the support of the most vulnerable, especially where there are no jobs.
The extent of the revolution which has just taken place in the Catholic Church was evident when the new Pope stepped out onto the balcony of St Peters around an hour after the white smoke had emerged from the chimney of the Sistine chapel and the mighty bells of the Vatican pealed out.
The world had had a few seconds to prepare itself. The French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran who made the announcement Habemus Papem – we have a Pope – in medieval Latin revealed two things. The first was the name Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The second was the name he had chosen – Francis.
With the name Bergoglio we knew some decisive changes had been set in train. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires is the first non-European pope for 1000 years. He is the first pope from the New World, most specifically from Latin America where the majority of the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics live. He is the first pope ever from the Jesuits, the order renowned for having produced some of the most intellectually profound, and often freethinking, church thinkers over the centuries.
With the name Francis came a signal of another new departure. No pope had ever before taken the name of the great saint of the poor, Francis of Assisi. And Bergoglio was known for his commitment to social justice and his championing of the poor of his native Argentina in the teeth of a global economic crisis whose cost fell chiefly upon the shoulders of the most vulnerable.
Bergoglio, it was known, was a humble man who had moved out of his archiepiscopal palace and into a simple apartment. He had given up his chauffeur-driven car and takes the bus to work. He cooks his own meals.
But it was when he stepped out onto the balcony that the true weight of the change became evident to the world. There was none of the double-handed boxer’s salute with which Benedict XVI had celebrated his triumph. Instead, in plain white, wearing the simplest of crosses, he gave a single wave to the assembled crowds in St Peter’s Square and then stood and just looked. He was the Bishop of Rome presenting himself to the people of Rome.