Category Archives: Society
The health secretary is taking a risk in gunning for family doctors. The public trust them more than they do those in government
The inevitable NHS crisis has begun to rumble even sooner than predicted. Not two months into the great commercialising upheaval, and blood pressure in the NHS is already rising. When a spending tourniquet squeezes both health and social care, A&E always shows the first symptoms. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has some gall in blaming GPs, when the entire NHS plan was designed with the pretence of putting the service into the friendly hands of your trusted family doctor. In the government’s lexicon of blame, GPs have gone from hero to zero in no time. Yesterday’s BMA conference made plain they won’t stand for it.
Money is the immediate cause: the NHS falls over if denied a 2% real increase. Everyone – from Stephen Dorrell, head of the health select committee, to just about every health economist – warned David Cameron. Margaret Thatcher caused eruptions by cutting too hard, as did Tony Blair by spending too little in his frozen first two years – but neither tried such a squeeze as this alongside a tumultuous £3bn re-disorganisation.
Blaming Labour’s GP contract of a decade ago is an absurdity contested even by those who solidly support the government’s plan, such as the NHS Confederation. Alan Milburn, as Labour health secretary, did have the wool pulled over his eyes on the 2004 GP contract, and the BMA struck gold – winning pay for lucrative targets too easy to hit while letting GPs buy off out-of-hours duties too cheaply.
But escape from unsocial hours did solve the acute shortage of GP trainees. Contrary to Hunt’s claim, A&E visits didn’t soar after the GP contract, only increasing by the 1% or 2% expected with an ageing population, according to the government’s own Emergency Care Review. Lest Hunt forgets, Labour left the NHS with virtually no waiting lists for operations or long A&E waits, and patient satisfaction at the highest ever recorded. Hunt’s attempt to blame the GP contract is, even by his standards, an eye-watering, breathtaking economy with the truth.
A&E pressure has risen sharply recently for obvious reasons. GPs are good value as gatekeepers to hospitals – a system envied by continental services where patients take themselves straight to costly specialists. But the government ignored warnings about giving professionals too much power over their own services. While most GPs were indignantly opposed to the privatising reforms, a few entrepreneurial types seized the chance to run care-commissioning groups: nothing stops them sending patients to private clinics that they have invested in. Some GPs never liked competition from Labour’s walk-in and urgent treatment centres, so these are being cut back, with 26 closing altogether – though they prevent far more expensive A&E visits. Lord Darzi’s plan for polyclinics to ease pressure on hospital outpatients was abandoned: GPs prefer keeping their own premises.
Tony Blair, assailed by an angry patient in the 2005 election, obliged GPs to open on a Saturday or at least one evening, and three-quarters did. But this government, when it was wooing GPs, abandoned the monitoring of their hours, since when over half of surgeries have cut opening times. Last year the numbers offering evenings and Saturdays dropped by almost 6%. You may remember that Cameron promised in the Mail just before the election: “You will be able to see a GP in your area until 8pm, seven days a week“. Instead there are too few GPs to cope with a growing need, and many are overworked.
Labour’s successful NHS Direct staffed by nurses was recklessly replaced with 111′s clueless call-centre operators. That swelled numbers referred to A&E by a third. “Teething problems”, says Hunt, but 111 may never win public trust, as 40% abandon their calls to it in some areas. South East Coast Ambulances Service staff say callouts have doubled as inept operators send them out to trivial complaints. Ambulances queue outside A&E, and only half of hospitals hit the government’s lower waiting target: no surprise in the 50% drop-out rate for young doctors in emergency medicine. Patients wait on trolleys in A&E partly because there are 6% fewer hospital beds than in 2010. Consultants warned the Commons this week that occupancy was dangerously near 100% .
Talk of getting people out of hospital and into the community is wildly unrealistic when social care is deeply cut. Last year there were 118,000 “bed-blockers”, people waiting in hospital for lack of community care or a home to go to. Protecting the NHS budget comes at the price of a massacre of local authority spending, so the frail getting inadequate 15-minute care visits end up in a crisis needing hospital treatment. Benefit cuts that shunt at least 660,000 families away from their GPs into distant temporary housing add to A&E visits.
Sir David Nicholson, NHS England head, was the last glue holding together this organisational chaos, so losing him to the wolves of the Mail, Telegraph, Times and Sun should deeply alarm the government. He was hounded for the Mid Staffs scandal, though was not blamed in the Francis report. His real sin was to know (and almost say) that Lansley’s plan was a disaster in the making, but instead of blowing the whistle he tried to make it work. Fragmenting the service with private competition is no way to secure the NHS in hard times. The only hope is by binding health and social services budgets together, as Labour proposes. Easy to say, hard to do.
Jeremy Hunt takes a risk in gunning for GPs, walloping them with a “rigorous” new chief inspector. What chutzpah to talk of cutting their red tape so they can “care”, just as hefty commissioning duties are foisted on them. How will he give GPs back out-of-hours duties, just as clinical commissioning groups put them out to private tender? Hunt was put there to stop NHS noise and halt closures before the election, but this blundering blaming of GPs is bad politics. Who will the public trust? History is not on his side.
Even McDonald’s has left Rochdale town centre. But what can struggling high streets do to bring shoppers back?
The north-west of England has the highest number of empty shop units in the UK, and as big retailers leave our town centres, the kind of businesses that thrive in hard times are moving in.
Town centres across the region are becoming swamped with payday lenders, pawnbrokers and pound shops. As our high streets become increasingly geared towards making money from people who don’t have any, shoppers with disposable income are going elsewhere – and so are big name retailers.
Things aren’t looking good for my home town of Rochdale. Even McDonald’s fled the high street in 2011 after “seeing trading patterns in the town centre change”. Since then, many other big names have followed suit.
The shop unit where McDonald’s once stood is still vacant. Next door a nameless discount store has sprung up, and B&M Bargains has opened up across the street.
Nearby, a charity shop sits alongside a pawnbrokers. There’s a Quicksilver arcade next door, followed by Pound Zone, with two more charity shops opposite. Further up, The Money Shop stands opposite Cash Generator, and most of the surrounding units are closed or vacant.
It’s a bleak picture. Nearly one in five shops in the town now stand empty, according to the Local Data Company.
Though the 18.6% figure for Rochdale is lower than the regional average of 20.2%, many in the town expect the figure to increase as more shops face closure.
“High rent and business rates have now made trading unsustainable in Rochdale,” local business owner and campaigner Paul Turner-Mitchell, stated last month, when announcing the closure of the town centre fashion boutique he and his wife Kelly had run for several years. “Footfall and spending power is nowhere near as strong as it used to be, and the town faces a big challenge to get people with disposable income … to come back into Rochdale. At the moment, for a variety of reasons, they’re giving the town centre a wide berth.”
In the same month, the Rochdale branch of Mothercare closed its doors, saying they hoped customers would shop at its Bury store in future. Rochdale’s HMV store, which closed in February this year, also asks customers to visit its Bury branch. Optical Express meanwhile redirected surprised customers to the Trafford Centre, almost 20 miles away, after its sudden closure last year.
These units now stand empty, but others have been taken up by the kind of businesses that thrive in hard times, such as payday lenders.
The Office of Fair Trading recently accused these companies of causing “misery and hardship” for many borrowers because of irresponsible and unlawful lending practices, saying these businesses often rely on borrowers not being able to pay back their original loans.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Ed Miliband said last month that payday lenders are “taking advantage of the retail crisis to open businesses in town centres, tempting the unemployed and low-paid with loans at extortionate interest rates. In hard times it is no wonder people turn to them. But often they just engulf people in debts that they cannot pay.
And here in Rochdale there are plenty of people on hard times, with unemployment rates in some deprived areas of the town centre at up to 72%.
Payday lenders insist that, rather than taking advantage of people in desperate situations, they are providing a “credit lifeline”.
“Regulating supply will not regulate demand, and will force many people who currently use licensed lenders into the arms of loan sharks, who pose the most risk to consumers,” said a spokesperson for the Consumer Finance Association, which represents companies like QuickQuid, Cash Converters, Cash Generator and The Money Shop.
As the high street changes its focus towards making a profit from those with little or no money to spend, shoppers are getting fed up with the lack of quality and choice on offer.
Becky Armstrong works at one of the town centre’s bookmakers, William Hill, but shops in Bury because she says Rochdale is dull and “full of pound shops, bookmakers and phone shops.”
“There are no big name shops apart from River Island and New Look, but even those don’t have all the stock like the bigger stores,” she says, adding that there are few places to eat in the town centre, and no children’s clothes shops left at all.
As unhappy shoppers flee to nearby Bury, retail bosses there say sales are up once again in sharp contrast to the latest gloomy national figures.
The director of the Rock shopping centre in Bury, Arnold Wilcox-Wood, told the Bury Times that the complex had “beaten the national figures each and every month” since last August, adding that the centre was now attracting people from Oldham, Rochdale and other areas of North Manchester.
Oldham has one of the UK’s highest shop vacancy rates at 28.7%. “Oldham is dying,” said resident Vincent Blackburn, “I used to like Rochdale — it used to be a great place to eat, drink and shop, but I go to Manchester now.”
What can struggling high streets do to bring shoppers back? Free parking might be a start. Greg Couzens from the Rochdale High Street Foundation, points to the success of the town’s “Free after Three” parking scheme. He says parking spaces in the centre are now very hard to find after 3pm, and more parking spaces are now planned.
“Many towns up and down the country are considering free parking 24/7 but can’t afford the loss of revenue,” he says, “It should never have been revenue in the first place.”
Greg says Rochdale town centre needs “more unique independent shops” and suggests that other things which could help bring the town centre back to life include the introduction of café bar culture and farmers markets, as well as a focus on local heritage.
“Perception is the main problem in Rochdale,” he says, adding that “Pound shops are better than empty shops.”
Jeremy Hunt discusses proposals to rewrite GPs’ contracts on Thursday in a speech at the King’s Fund in London
Doctors’ leader says GPs finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile sharply rising workload with new managerial duties
GPs may have to give up working with the new NHS organisations that control £65bn of treatment budgets, to help their surgeries cope with the sharply rising workloads, medical leaders are warning.
A few GPs have already pulled out of involvement with their local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) because they could not spend enough time with patients while also helping run the groups. The growing demand for GP services is also making others consider withdrawing, even though CCGs are meant to be GP-led.
Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the difficulty of reconciling patient care with new managerial duties in their local CCGs meant it was “inevitable” some GPs would pull out of the CCGs.
The 211 CCGs are the key new NHS organisations that, as a result of the coalition’s NHS shakeup last month, replaced primary care trusts as the bodies to commission and pay for treatment for patients across England.
“Sadly, for some GPs being involved with CCGs is taking up considerable amounts of their time. If you have a workforce crisis and if you have a workload that’s not getting easier, it’s inevitable that we must be in the consulting room trying to address that rather than in CCG board meetings outside consulting rooms, doing what could be done by managers. This is already happening to some extent”, said Gerada.
“I find what many CCGs are doing immensely useful. But when push comes to shove, if GPs have to choose between seeing patients and involvement with a CCG, our first duty as clinicians is to our patients.”
Dr Kailash Chand, the British Medical Association’s deputy chair and a former GP who was awarded an OBE for his services to the NHS, said some GPs could not perform both roles adequately.
“About a quarter of GPs in England are involved in some way with their CCG, whether as the chair or just as someone who sits on one of their committees, and thus has a lot of meetings to go to. That extra work related to commissioning services is cutting into the time they can spend with patients, just at the time that demand for GP services has been going up, so some GPs now have too much to do,” said Chand.
“Some have already pulled out of active CCG work – attending meetings – because they can’t cope with the dual workload of the managerial stuff around commissioning and looking after patients. While that’s not happening on a large scale at the moment, it could become a wholesale pulling out if [the health secretary] Jeremy Hunt tries to force GPs to resume responsibility for providing out of hours care.”
Meanwhile, a row between the government and the medical profession intensified as the leader of Britain’s GPs accused the health secretary of “spouting rubbish” and rejected his demand that family doctors take back responsibility for out-of-hours care.
Dr Laurence Buckman, chair of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee – which represents the UK’s 40,000 GPs – launched a sustained assault on Hunt over his “denigration” of GPs and his blaming of them for the growing crisis in A&E care.
Buckman’s speech, to Thursday’s annual conference of the BMA’s local medical committees (GP branches), highlighted the increasingly vocal unease about Hunt’s approach felt by the BMA and the medical royal colleges which represent the UK’s nurses and GPs.
Buckman rejected Hunt’s call for GPs to resume responsibility for providing out-of-hours care overnight and at weekends in England, as they did until 2004 when 90% chose to cease doing so in a revised contract deal with the then Labour government.
NHS Clinical Commissioners, the organisation that represents about 130 of the 211 CCGs, warned that “at practices across the country, workloads are at breaking points and GPs are ready to buckle under the strain” – and that Hunt’s blaming of GPs for the alarming rise in patients attending hospital A&E departments was damaging GPs’ morale.
Last month, Dr Chandra Kanneganti resigned as the clinical director for unscheduled care with Stoke-on-Trent CCG, just days after it assumed its powers on 1 April. He told the Pulse medical website at the time: “We need to spend more time at practices than we did before. Practice and patients are our main priority. With the recent changes in the [GPs'] contract, I’m not sure how long I can spend time on my commissioning duties. I don’t want my patient care compromised.”
Hunt on Thursday struck a more emollient tone towards GPs in a speech setting out ways to improve the quality of primary care, such as hiring a new chief inspector of primary care and rating GP surgeries.
On Tuesday, Hunt had claimed that GPs’ failings were leading to overcrowded A&E units. Dr Laurence Buckman, chair of the BMA’s GPs committee, yesterday made clear that GPs could not and would not take back responsibility for overnight and weekend care, a key ambition which Hunt reiterated.
Perpetrators of violent acts of terror thrive on publicity – so politicians and the media need to stop giving it to them
We will not buckle to terrorism said David Cameron after the Woolwich murder on Wednesday. He then buckled. Everyone buckled. The home secretary buckled, the defence secretary buckled, the communities secretary buckled, the mayor of London buckled, the chief of police buckled, the press buckled, the BBC summoned its senior editors and they buckled. Everyone buckled.
The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets. Any incident is now transmitted instantly round the globe by the nearest “citizen journalist”. The deranged of all causes and continents can step on stage and enjoy the freedom of cyberspace. Kill someone in the street and an obliging passerby will transmit the “message” to millions. The police, who have all but deserted the rougher parts of London, will grant you a full quarter hour for your press conference.
There is little a modern government can do to stem the initial publicity that terrorism craves. But it has considerable control over the subsequent response. When the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, pleaded for calm and for London to continue as normal, he was spitting into a hurricane. Terror could not have begged for more sensational attention than was granted it by Britain’s political community and media.
The killers commanded the news agenda. Front pages became their platform, authenticating their manifesto with blaring headlines. The prime minister obediently raced home from important business in Paris. He slavishly “cleared his diary”, plunged into his favourite Cobra bunker and summoned the mightiest in the land to “co-ordinate a response.” Had the youths merely shot a soldier, I doubt if Cameron would have snapped so quickly into line. It was the medieval crudity of the weaponry, the brazen hacking and stabbing and blood splashed over the internet that had every politician homing in on Cobra, press officers in tow. Tabloid terror invited tabloid government.
Intoning a response to horror is one of the rituals of modern politics. The adjective mountain grows ever higher, depraved, sickening, horrific, barbaric, unspeakable. Damnation is sanctified by platitude. Unctuous “thoughts for the day” are uttered by religious leaders. If it bleeds it not only leads, it pleads for cliched analysis.
“Terrorism experts” rushed to radio studios demanding we all “be on our guard”. Securocrats gleefully leapt forward to demand another snooper’s charter, another twist in their ratchet of control. While imitators were encouraged to imitate, racist extremists were invited on to the streets in retaliation. All sense of proportion departed. We were soon at terrorism’s apotheosis, violence dignified on the altar of fame.
We have a choice. Such acts nowadays mostly emanate from the fanatical corners of some sections of the community. We can treat them simply as crimes. While the professed cause may be different from that of gang feuds, robberies, domestic violence or mental illness, the outcome is the same – a violent death in the community. The police and security services are best placed to prevent it, not politicians. Violent people often claim “political status” for abhorrent deeds, but will only be encouraged to do so when politicians appear to agree with them. Two years ago the London rioters were invited by many on the left to supply political justification for their actions. Equally extremist politics will be attracted to use violence, as do certain strands of Islamist jihadism. There has always been an unholy alliance between criminality and authority. As Joseph Conrad noted of the terrorist and the policeman, “both come from the same basket”.
Thus it was inane yesterday for security pundits to seek to elevate a vaguely motivated religious killing by linking it to a “possible overseas al-Qaida network”. It recalled the 1950s Kefauver mafia committee in Washington, desperate to justify its existence by pleading with a series of small-time hoods to claim membership of some high-powered international network. The hoods blinked in amazement.
This week’s killers certainly claimed a political message, attributing their deed to Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They said that murdering a soldier in London was tit-for-tat for British soldiers killing Muslims in Asia. This does not require them to be part of some international network, merely to have read online propaganda. Nor does it require them to receive the accolade of a Cobra-style pandemonium. By doing so we risk accepting their terms of engagement in this grim debate.
British and American operators indeed use drone missiles to kill Muslim soldiers, and inevitably civilians, on the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. They deploy horrific airborne violence against communities, including in non-combatant countries. Retaliation for these killings may not be “justifiable” in our terms. But jihadists have no access to drones and must rely on car bombs, nail bombs, machetes and cleavers.
The result may appal Londoners, but there are no citizen journalists to witness the appalling impact of a drone attack on a Pashtun village. Can we be surprised when the other side (or its distant sympathisers) retaliates on London, where it gets so much more publicity than in Baghdad or Kabul? Of course, people should be able to walk peacefully down the street in London. They should also be able to walk peacefully in Kandahar, Yemen or Baluchistan.
In taking mundane acts of violence and setting them on a global stage, we not only politicise them, we risk validating the furies that drive them. Closing down the internet to starve terrorist acts of publicity is not feasible, and stifles the debate that should be taking place peacefully. But we do have the option to exercise self-restraint in the aftermath, to control the impulse to hyperbole. We can deny the terrorist the megaphone of exaggeration and hysteria. When Cameron yesterday said we should defy terror by going about our normal business, he was right. Why did he not do so?
It is this echo chamber of horror, set up by the media, public figures and government, that does much of terrorism’s job for it. It converts mere crimes into significant acts. It turns criminals into heroes in the eyes of their admirers. It takes violence and graces it with the terms of a political debate. The danger is that this debate is one the terrorist might sometimes win.
Barry Gourlay and colleagues from Anstruther lifeboat station battled three-metre waves in darkness to rescue two men
A lifeboat volunteer has been awarded a gallantry medal for his role in a dramatic sea rescue that saved the lives of two men.
Barry Gourlay, 30, and two colleagues battled three-metre waves in complete darkness to get to a boat which had run aground in poor conditions off the Fife coast last year.
Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) bosses said his expert seamanship undoubtedly saved the lives of the vessel’s occupants.
Gourlay, a mechanical engineer, was presented with a bronze medal for gallantry at the charity’s annual award ceremony in London on Thursday. It was the first such award presented to a crew member from Anstruther lifeboat station since it was established in 1865.
His fellow crew members, fisherman Euan Hoggan, 22, and PhD student Rebecca Jewell, 30, also attended the ceremony. They will be formally thanked by the institution at a July ceremony in Scotland, in recognition of their skill and bravery that night.
Gourlay said it was a great honour to receive the award for his courage and boat-handling skills.
“We are fortunate to receive such a high level of training from the RNLI, which gave us the skills to carry out this rescue,” he said.
“I was able to act decisively on the night because I had such confidence in the ability of my crew mates, Becci and Euan. It was very much a team effort, recognition must also go to the shore crew and the crew aboard the all-weather lifeboat.”
The rescue began at 1am on 1 August last year. The RNLI’s inshore lifeboat, named Norma and Bill Burleigh, was launched to help the two men whose boat had got into difficulty in challenging weather conditions.
The casualties, Paul Harrison and his son Sean Harrison, from Liverpool, had begun their journey in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, but hit trouble when a problem with their boat’s hydraulic steering emerged.
The vessel, Princess, ran aground at Crail, 10 miles south east of St Andrews, and the strong winds and swell had driven the boat onto the rocks.
With Gourlay in control as senior helm, the lifeboat picked its way through breaking waves, shallow water and debris to get to the men.
Once they were brought safely aboard, the inshore lifeboat made its way out to Anstruther’s larger all-weather lifeboat, which brought them ashore.
Speaking of Gourlay and the rest of the crew, Paul Harrison said: “To do what he did with that boat in those conditions – that takes something.
“They were just fantastic, there wasn’t anything that they didn’t do for us, a lot of people don’t realise that they’re not paid for it, they have jobs as well and they’re putting their lives in jeopardy to save other people.”
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Japanese climber who became oldest man to climb world’s highest mountain could see achievement surpassed immediately
A unprecedented battle for mountaineering supremacy has begun on the slopes of the world’s highest peak after an 80-year-old Japanese man became the oldest person to reach the summit of Mount Everest – days before his Nepalese rival was due to attempt the feat at the age of 81.
Yuichiro Miura, who has had four heart surgery operations, reached the top of the 8,848m (29,028ft) mountain at 9am local time on Thursday, according to reports from Kathmandu.
Miura, a fearless adventurer who skied down the mountain from the South Col in 1970, said he felt great after reaching the summit via the south-east ridge route, which was established by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay six decades ago.
“I made it!” Miura said in a phone call from the summit to his home in Japan that was captured by the broadcaster NHK. “I never imagined I could make it to the top of Mount Everest at age 80. This is the world’s best feeling, although I’m totally exhausted. Even at 80, I can still do quite well.”
But Miura could soon see his achievement surpassed by a fellow octogenarian whose record he beat this morning.
As the Japanese climber celebrated, 81-year-old Min Bahadur Sherchan, who set the previous record when he climbed Everest aged 76 in 2008, was at base camp preparing his own assault on the peak for early next week.
Miura’s successful ascent has reignited a rivalry that has captivated the climbing world since the pair arrived on the summit within a day of each other in 2008.
Miura reached the summit on 26 May that year aged 75 years and 227 days, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
But Sherchan had reached the top a day earlier, aged 76 and 340 days.
Sherchan, a former Gurkha, is reportedly on schedule to begin his attempt, despite recently suffering from a digestive complaint.
“Our team leader has just arrived back at base camp and we are holding a team meeting on when exactly I will head up to the summit,” Sherchan said in a phone call. “I am fine and in good health. I am ready to take up the challenge. Our plan is to reach the summit within one week.”
Miura, however, has tried to play down his rivalry with Sherchan. “The record is not so important to me,” he said last month. “It is important to get to the top.”
Whichever man appears in the record books once Sherchan has completed his attempt, both have a long list of mountaineering milestones to their names.
Miura climbed Everest in 2003, at the age of 70. By 1985 he had skied down the highest mountains on all seven continents, a feat achieved by his late father, Keizo, who skied down Mont Blanc when he was 99. When younger, Miura also descended Mount Fuji on skis, aided by parachutes.
He trained for the latest Everest climb by hiking in Tokyo with weighted packs and working out on a treadmill in a special low-oxygen room at home.
Sherchan, whose only obvious concession to age is the use of a hearing aid, began his career more than 50 years ago when he climbed the 8,166-metre (26,790ft) Mount Dhaulagiri in Nepal. He walked the entire length of the country in 2003.
By Wednesday, Miura, accompanied by three other Japanese climbers, including his son, Gota, and six Nepalese sherpas, had reached the steep, icy, oxygen-depleted area on Everest known as the death zone.
Writing on his website before he reached the summit Miura said he was making the climb to challenge his “own ultimate limit”. He wrote: “It is to honour the great mother nature. And if the limit of age 80 is at the summit of Mount Everest, the highest place on Earth, one can never be happier.”
Miura’s compatriot, Tamae Watanabe, became the world’s oldest woman to climb Everest at the age of 73 in 2012.
Miura’s ascent has been the subject of widespread media coverage in Japan. A recent broadcast included photographs of the climber and his team drinking green tea and eating sushi in their tent.
As Sherchan prepares to disappoint Miura a second time, his biggest challenger could be the mountain’s notoriously unstable weather, with the favourable conditions that helped the Japanese adventurer to the top on Thursday expected to deteriorate from Friday.
Miura is not the first record-setter on Everest this climbing season. Raha Moharrak, 27, became the first Saudi Arabian woman to conquer the peak, while Sudarshan Gautam, a 30-year-old Nepali-born Canadian who lost both arms in an accident, became the first double amputee to make the summit.
Nearly 4,000 climbers have reached the top of Everest since the pioneering May 1953 climb, while 240 have lost their lives on its slopes.
Andrew Sparrow’s rolling coverage of all the day’s political developments as they happen, including Jeremy Hunt’s speech on GP reformsAndrew Sparrow
Vulnerable families challenging £500-a-week cap say it may force victims of domestic violence to return to their abusers
Families will suffer catastrophic effects and victims of domestic violence may be forced to return to their abusers, it will be argued in the first test cases challenging the government’s imposition of a £500-a-week cap on benefits.
A judge has already given permission for a full judicial review of claims that involve four vulnerable families relying on welfare payments. One household is facing imminent eviction, according to documents filed at the high court.
One of the families lives in Haringey, one of the four London boroughs selected by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as pilot areas for introducing the controversial benefits cap.
The families have not been identified. Two of the claims involve victims of domestic abuse; their claims are supported by the refuge charity Women’s Aid.
The DWP restrictions are supposed to provide an incentive for those on benefit to seek work and prevent families from receiving more by remaining dependent on welfare.
The government’s own impact assessment of the Welfare Reform Act estimated that as many as 56,000 households would be affected, losing on average around £93 a week. The overall cap has been set at £500 per household and £350 for single adults.
There is no right of appeal against benefit reductions. The cap applies however many children there are in a household. Large families are therefore likely to be disproportionately affected by the regulations.
“The families who bring this claim are indicative of … concerns regarding the legality of the policy, including its discriminatory effect, given its disproportionately adverse impact upon women (particularly single mothers), children, the disabled, and certain racial and religious groups,” the court papers explain.
The families will suffer catastrophic effects if the cap is imposed on them, it is said. “Two of the families will receive nil for basic subsistence (food, clothes, heating) as their rent exceeds the £500 per week cap. They will immediately fall into arrears, face eviction and street homelessness.
“Two of the families have fled domestic violence in circumstances where they were financially reliant upon their abusive partners, and they now face a stark choice between descending further into poverty and risking losing their homes, or returning to their abusers in order to escape the imposition of the cap.”
Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor at Hopkin Murray Beskine, who acts for all of the claimants, said: “This is a cruel and misguided policy. It will have a catastrophic impact on our clients and many thousands more vulnerable children and adults. They face street homelessness and starvation.
“A year ago the children’s commissioner warned the government that these changes would result in a sharp increase in child poverty and homelessness, with a disproportionate impact upon disabled children and children of disabled parents, and some BME groups.
“The difficulties now faced by my clients were predictable and avoidable. The reason for the policy is said to be to encourage people to obtain work but my clients face difficulties in securing employment because they are lone parents with caring responsibilities for babies and toddlers, and disabled adults who have already been recognised as unable to work due to their disabilities.”
The case will be argued by Ian Wise QC and Caoilfhionn Gallagher of Doughty Street Chambers. Lawyers are looking at least another 15 similar claims as law centres are approached by desperate families seeking advice about the effect of the benefits cap.
In a supporting statement, Niki Norman, deputy chief executive of Women’s Aid, says: “The benefit cap is likely to have a significant adverse impact on women seeking to move on from refuge accommodation into other housing, and therefore on the availability of refuge space to women in crisis who seek urgent safe shelter.
“The inevitable result of the implementation of the benefit cap for women as they leave refuges is that some families will suffer destitution, some will become homeless again very quickly, and some will choose not to leave refuges, with all the resulting difficulties for refuges.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are confident that the benefit cap measures are lawful and do not discriminate against any groups. The benefit cap sets a fair limit to what people can expect to get from the welfare system – so that claimants cannot receive more than £500 a week, the average household income.”
The DWP has recently faced a number of judicial reviews on its welfare reform programme. Earlier this week a tribunal ruled that the work capability assessment (a test determining eligibility for disability benefits) put people with mental health problems at a substantial disadvantage. A separate judicial review has been considering whether the impact of the government’s so-called bedroom tax on tenants “under-occupying” social housing is discriminatory.
Women’s organisations say positive action in some areas of government is undermined by Department for Education
Government efforts to tackle domestic violence against women and girls are “virtually meaningless” in some areas, according to a group of women’s organisations.
In a report released on Thursday, the End Violence Against Women Coalition – an umbrella of 60 women’s organisations which aim to prevent domestic violence – gives the government 2.5 out of 10 for its preventative work, and argues that positive action from the Home Office, Department for International Development and Crown Prosecution Service is being undermined by the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
In the wake of a series of high-profile domestic and sexual abuse cases, the group urged the government to make sex and relationship education, which covers issues of consent and respect, compulsory. “For months now there has been a torrent of news reports about child sexual abuse, prosecutions of groups of men for child sexual exploitation, the murders of Tia Sharp and April Jones, and weekly stories of domestic violence murders, the rate of which is not falling,” said Marai Larasi, chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
“We urgently need a response from the prime minister as to the government’s plans not just to police but to prevent this abuse in the first place. It is not inevitable – strategic policy can detect risk and prevent abuse. Currently government work is at best patchy and education policy is a key barrier to improving this.”
The Department for Education was criticised for failing to support key government efforts to tackle domestic abuse, such as the Home Office’s “thisisabuse” campaign, which featured online, on youth television and in cinemas. The report states that the DfE did not distribute material about the campaign and did not warn schools and teachers to be prepared if children came forward to disclose abuse as a result of the campaign. It added that a DfE expert group on violence against women and girls was disbanded in early 2012 and “our experts also did not feel there was sufficient ongoing training on safeguarding for teachers and staff”.
Michael Gove, the education secretary, dropped Labour plans to introduce compulsory sex education lessons in English primary schools last year, and told an education select committee that there was a direct link between children doing well academically and their chances of indulging in “risky behaviour”.
“If governmental departments don’t work together on key initiatives, their effectiveness is undermined,” said Holly Dustin, manager of End Violence Against Women. “There is good work in some areas of government, but unfortunately in other key areas the government’s pledge is virtually meaningless.”
A YouGov poll of more than 2,000 adults, commissioned by the group in conjunction with the report, found 86% of UK adults questioned believed sex and relationships education “which addresses sexual consent and respectful relationships” should be compulsory in secondary schools. A third of respondents believed their school should be doing more to prevent abuse, while 44% did not know. Of the third who thought schools should do more, 87% said teachers should be trained in spotting signs of abuse; 76% said schools should proactively tackle “sexual bullying” such as groping and sexual name-calling and 65% agreed that schools should have a clear policy prohibiting pornography in school including via phones and online.
A Home Office spokesperson said the government had “driven forward significant progress in tackling violence against women and girls”, including ringfencing £40m for domestic and sexual violence support services, creating two new offences of stalking, launching the pilot of “Clare’s law”, introducing legislation to criminalise forced marriage and campaigning against female genital mutilation. “We are actively pursuing ways in which we can prevent domestic and sexual violence happening in the first place, do even more to help victims, bring perpetrators to justice and eradicate these appalling crimes for good.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said that sex and relationship education was already compulsory in maintained secondary schools. “Our guidance explicitly states that children must learn about ‘how to recognise and avoid exploitation and abuse’,” said a spokeswoman. “Teachers must also cover the concept of sexual consent and teach pupils to respect themselves and others. We supported the thisisabuse campaign and made it accessible to teachers. We are also working hard to tackle child sexual exploitation, sexual bullying and the sexualisation of childhood.”
According to the Sex Education Forum, current government policy states that it is compulsory to teach the biological aspect of sex education but sex and relationships education (SRE) is “currently not compulsory but is contained within non-statutory PSHE [personal, social, health and economic] education within the national curriculum and is strongly recommended within government SRE guidance.” Government guidelines state: “Parents have the right to withdraw their children from all or part of any sex education provided, but not from teaching the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction necessary under national curriculum science.”
Dustin said: “We are confused as to why the Department for Education are saying that sex and relationships education is already compulsory when ministers have said repeatedly that they will not make it so. There is no law requiring schools to address issues such as sexual consent or healthy and respectful relationships, nor indeed to discuss the harmful messages that pornography sends.”