Saturday, 17 June 2017

140 questions I would like answered about The Grenfell Tower disaster. And that's for a start


So many people are asking so many questions about Grenfell Tower disaster but to date few have been answered, and those largely by the media doing its research.  As the days go by more evidence is appearing of bureaucratic delays and prevarication, of inappropriate policy decisions and of money either causing problems directly or in an indirect way underlining the causes of the disaster and public sector responses.  To the outside observer the authorities, those ostensibly in control of the situation, seem to be frozen, like rabbits in the headlights.  In reality, they may be working away hard but this is not enough if they fail to communicate effectively with all involved, the victims, their neighbours, the general public, the media. 

I have watched the news unfold, to the extent that I no longer want to turn on the radio or television because I know what I will see and hear.  It did not seem appropriate to go to West Kensington to help on the ground, from the TV it was apparent there were plenty doing that, probably too many, so I did the easiest, and laziest, thing; I sent money, which is probably what people need most at the moment anyway.  Lets hope the millions that have been donated reach the right people at the right time to be of help.

I woke up this morning with so many questions in my own head.  The biggest question of course is why the Grenfell Tower disaster happened in the first place, and what should have been done differently to have prevented it (and who was responsible because holding people to account, and making it clear they will be in future, is part of the response).  The other big question is about how well, or otherwise, the authorities responded to the disaster.  There is a systematic way to address an emergency like Grenfell Tower and if Kensington and Chelsea Borough and the British government were prepared they should be following such a process.  So were they prepared? 

But here are the 140 questions, that I have thought of so far, that I would like the answers to.  You will no doubt be able to add many more.

Building Regulation, refurbishment and maintenance

Have Kensington and Chelsea (LA) carried out a risk assessment on this building?
What did it say about the adequacy of fire protection and responses?
 
Did the LA undertake a fire risk assessment when planning the refurbishment both of the refurbishment project, and of the proposed changes to the building? What does it say? 
Who undertook the risk assessment?
Were the refurbishment plans approved by the Council?
 
What were the building specifications, including for the cladding, in the refurbishment contract? What was the process for selecting contractors?
Was the work carried out in accordance with the original contract, if not what changes were made and how were they approved?
How did the LA oversee the contract to ensure that it was carried out in accordance with the contract?

Why was the contract awarded to one company but then terminated and replaced with a contract to another?
What arrangements were in place to manage sub-contracts?
What does the refurbishment contract (and sub-contracts) say about responsibility, indemnity, warranties, liability etc?
The press have indicated that the refurbishment company was in fact a pre-pack purchase of the business following administration of an earlier entity owned and managed by the same person.
  Did the LA evaluate the company to determine if it was financially and technically qualified to carry out the work?
Following on from the previous question, is it right that a person should be able to put his or her business into administration, avoid its debts and continue to trade under a different name?
  Why are directors of insolvent companies not treated like Bankrupt persons, particularly if they own and manage the businesses themselves?

How did the LA consult with the residents regarding the refurbishment? 
What was the communication process between refurbishment contractors and residents? 
How do residents feel about how this was done?

Who is responsible for routine maintenance of the building? 
How often were inspections carried out and how often?
Who decides what work is carried out and when (contractor or LA)?
 
How is maintenance work financed? 
What problems did the residents know about? 
What was the process for reporting faults and defects? 
What problems did the resident report?
How were residents’ reports of defects managed and how quickly were issues dealt with?
How were decisions communicated to the residents?
 
Is there a residents’ association, if is its role and relationship with the Council such that its concerns are taken seriously ad acted upon?
Did Councillors or LA officers meet with residents and if so, how often and what was the result?
Are residents satisfied with the way their concerns are dealt with?
 
What is the escalation process if they are not satisfied and were issues escalated?

Lots of tower blocks have been refurbished in the last 10 – 20 years. 
What is being done to assess the risks in these buildings by the responsible parties (LAs)?
When will the results be known?
What communication is taking place with residents and local communities?
 
What action will be taken if any in response to these investigations and over what time period? 
If work is required how will it be financed? 
What is the government’s position and what instructions has it issued to LAs to undertake this work and report back (if any)? 
What undertakings have been given (public and private, formal and informal) regarding follow through? 

What are the responsibilities of contractors and suppliers with respect to materials used? 
In the Chemicals industry a “responsible care” framework means suppliers are responsible for ensuring that products are only supplied for purposes that are legal and safe, and that dangerous products are transported, stored and managed safely.  Why are vendors of building materials and contractors working with them not responsible for ensuring that they are only used legally and safely?

Regulatory framework

What are the national guidelines and legally binding regulations regarding health and safety and building regulations in residential buildings, both in the private and public sector? 
Who is responsible for establishing these?
How have these guidelines been reviewed and amended over the last 20 years?
 
Who reviews them how often and on what basis? 
What decisions have been made regarding fire safety in this time (including decisions not to implement recommendations)?
If there are no national guidelines, then who is responsible?
 
When accidents do happen is there an investigatory process to learn lessons and adapt? 
How are learnings addressed, both in the short term and in the long term?  (compare with aircraft safety procedures, where the aim is to learn and implement lessons so that issues do not recur).

What are the UK regulations regarding fire safety in residential buildings, especially tower blocks?   
Do they differ throughout the UK and why?
How do they apply retrospectively (ie: to older buildings)?
 
Why are they not applied equally to old as well as new buildings?  If it is not practicable to apply them to older buildings, then who makes this decision and on what basis?
How do regulations for public buildings, offices, commercial premises differ from those for residential buildings, and why?
 
What standards are applied in other countries, how do ours compare, and why?
What rules are there about installation of sprinkler systems, fire detection systems and fire extinguishers?

What advice has the government been given over the last 20 years on improvement of fire risk management, particularly in residential buildings?
What have fire authorities and Parliamentary All-Party committees said on this topic?
How did government respond to this advice and to learnings from previous tower blazes, both in the UK and overseas?
 
If non-UK fires and other governments’ responses were / are not taken into account why?  
What positions have various governments taken on the use of flammable cladding material?
Why have flammable cladding materials not been banned in this country, where they are banned in other countries?

Does the government think that current arrangements for overseeing building standards and fire risk management are fit for purpose? 
If not, what needs to change? 
Similarly, what does the LA think?  (since responses are likely to be party political, better ask opposition parties as well)

Risk Management and Emergency Response

Processes and controls should be in place to manage risks on a day-to day basis so that they are avoided, eliminated or sufficiently mitigated (normally part of operational activities).  In the case of Grenfell Tower, this will include the processes mentioned above relating to routine maintenance and periodic building refurbishment.  But when an emergency arises it will normally go through several phases and responses should be appropriate.  A lot of questions being asked right now suggest that this was, and is, not the case in Kensington and Chelsea. 

While terminology may differ in different organisations, effective frameworks are remarkably similar.  They should involve
Resilience – being ready to respond to issues as and when they arise in an appropriate way
Crisis Management
  - a process for managing specific incidents, including initial emergency response, public relations and communications
Continuity Management – how to maintain ongoing activities in a crisis, or to reinstate them as soon as is practicable.
Questions relate both to the existence and effectiveness of these processes generally, and also to what is happening specifically now in Kensington and Chelsea.

Does the LA undertake effective risk reviews?
Who is responsible for them?
 
Are they discussed and approved by Councillors?
When was the last review undertaken?

Does the LA have crisis management process?  
Does the LA have an appropriate emergency response plan?
Has it ever considered how it will respond to a major incident such as the Grenfell Tower fire?
 
Do plans include appropriate communication plans for people directly affected, and for their relatives (eg: relatives emergency telephone lines), emergency services, the public and the media?
How are such plans communicated to the people affected? Have plans for this kind of incident been tested and if so, when?
 
What were the results? 
How were lessons learned addressed?

Does the Government have similar plans and if so how so they consider that something like Grenfell Tower? 
Do they consider this a major incident that requires HMG attention, and if so what do the plans say they should deal with it? 
The same questions apply to the Department of Environment, which has oversight of LAs.

Grenfell Tower

What guidance was given to residents on how to respond to fire both in their own flats, in others or in public spaces? 
How and when did people evacuate the building?  
What advice were people given on how to deal with heat and smoke? 
Are smoke hoods provided to people living in high rise buildings?
If not, should they be?
 
What were evacuation instructions?
Does the LA have policies on fire drills and training?
 
Has there ever been a fire drill in Grenfell House? 
Was there an assembly area (appropriate for families in the middle of the night)? 
Were there any nominated fire wardens and what were their duties?  

Why were main gas pipes fitted in the stairs and corridors?  Not only are they unsightly but dangerous in the event of an emergency. 
Why were the pipes not boxed in during the original installation, with fireproof material?
Should gas pipes be installed in in the only escape route?
    

When did the fire start? 
When was the fire reported to emergency services and by whom? 
Were fire alarms activated in the building and by whom?
If not, why not?
Were fire alarms broken or could residents not hear them?

Emergency Response

Who advised the LA that there was an emergency? 
What did the LA do when it received notification? 
Was an emergency response coordination team set up, when and where? 
If not, why not?
What arrangements were put in place immediately to receive people evacuated from the building and provide assistance in the aftermath of the fire?
 
What process was put in place to deal with enquiries from relatives or friends?
Who was coordinating responses between LA, charities, NGOs, emergency services?
 
Who was in overall charge of the emergency response?
What plans were put in place to communicate with neighbours and local residents, other LAs?
 
Were all these matters part of the emergency response plan? If not, why not? 
Or were they only determined in response to the incident itself? (NB: From the lack of communication from Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council and officers, it appears that a process to deal with such major incidents had not been planned in advance, and a coordination team was only, finally, put in place until Saturday, 3 days after the incident).

When did the Fire Brigade arrive at Grenfell Tower? 
Did they have access problems (residents have said that they had earlier expressed concern about this)? 
What did they find once they arrived, when they initially entered the building and subsequently when they searched the building? 
What is the fire service’s view about the building and about LAs position on fire risk issues? 
Had the fire service carried out any reviews on this building, or other council owned properties in Kensington & Chelsea, in the last 3 years, and what did they conclude? 
Have any of these buildings been found to be unsafe or require urgent and important rectification?
If so, what recommendations were made and what did the Council do about them?
 
Had their views been expressed publicly or, if no appropriate response received, escalated?

Who was coordinating emergency response on the ground?
What communications process was put in place to advise the public and media of what was happening on a routine and regular basis as the emergency response took place?
 
Were residents represented in the emergency response team or otherwise were their views taken into account?

Immediate Response

What is being done about housing people displaced from Grenfell Tower both in the short term (day 1), medium term (first 3-4 weeks) and thereafter? 
If no empty Council properties are available what privately owned property can be requisitioned/rented to assist (including student hostels, which may be empty at this time)? 
Who is going to pay for this?
Are there emergency funds available to underwrite this kind of response in the future?
 
If so, who holds the funds and how are they accessed? 

What arrangements are in place to ensure that residents have access to cash (directly or via their banks), can communicate with concerned relatives and friends, have sufficient clothes, food and shelter, etc…if they don’t have access to their own property (including wallets, phones)?
Who is coordinating this effort (largely charitable I guess) with the emergency response team in the LA?
 
How are the Red Cross and other charitable organisations being involved efficiently?

When and how will the search of the building be complete?
Why did this not happen straight away?
 
If there are good reasons (eg: building safety), why were these not adequately explained to the general public?
When do the fire brigade anticipate being able to report on the cause of the fire, how it spread, what they found during their inspection?
 

Is the position regarding survivors, deaths and injuries being communicated to all stakeholders on a frequent basis, and if not why not?
Is there a central enquiry line for relatives to call?
 

Longer Term response

How will the LA provide appropriate accommodation for the former residents of the block, where and when? 
Will the authorities re-imburse people for loss of property urgently (so they can buy what they need for their new homes)?  (Many people are unlikely to have sufficient insurance to cover the loss of property but even if they do the insurance companies will be looking to recover from liable parties, that may well include the LA.  The residents of Grenfell House should not be asked to wait while this wrangle goes on).

What is going to be done about similarly-clad blocks that are now clearly a fire risk and worrying for the residents, both in Kensington and Chelsea and in other LAs?
Will replacement of any non-fire-retardant materials be made the number 1 priority?
   
Will people be re-housed while further refurbishment takes place?
Will the government, which holds the purse strings, pay for this enormous cost?
  If not, why not?

What will be done by LAs to implement known weaknesses in fire protection in similar properties and in response to recommendations made by previous investigations? 
Will the Department of Environment take responsibility for ensuring that building control standards are mandatory and updated to reflect current knowledge? 
If not, what is their excuse this time?

What will the government do to ensure that in future it is prepared to respond to emergencies such as this in a coordinated way on day 1, not after a delay of 3 days? (imagine if the oil companies delayed 3 days before responding to Piper Alpha). 

What will the LA and government do to ensure that its response is not only technocratically correct but also show humanity and empathy for those involved? (this has been a major public relations disaster for Theresa May, which could have been avoided, just like the fire itself).

Will we receive answers to these and other questions as soon as possible?
When will we receive answers?
 
Will answers be public and if not, why not? (there is no good reason).

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

More lions please, and fewer weasels.

What is leadership?  Doing what is populist or setting out what you believe in and working to persuade your electorate to your point of view?  Weasels do the first, Lions do the second.

Donald Trump is definitely a weasel, despite his claim to have a big swinging dick (or perhaps, to use his own words, bigly swinging). I conclude this because he comes across as someone either with no convictions, other than that he is great, or alternatively as someone so incoherent that he cannot adequately explain what they are.  No wonder he says he loves stupid people (what an accolade for the people who voted for him).

Turning to British politics, leaders of both Conservative and Labour parties are in the weasel camp as they seem unable to articulate a position of their own but are running after whatever they think will attract the popular vote.  I admire the SNP, or at least Nicola Sturgeon, for her relative honesty in maintaining her position on independence although built on a post-North Sea oil chimera.  As for UKIP their premise would appear to be populist.

Of course if your position does not accord with the electorate, then the strong ask why and deal with it.  This may mean revising your position but can equally mean standing by your principles and seeking to persuade, through facts and argument and not with scares and half-truths that seem to be meat and grist to many politicians. The weak change direction and run with the pack, the strong stand their ground and fight their corner.   Of the major parties, only the Liberal Democrats are showing true grit and leadership by sticking to their strongly europhile position despite everything, although  those moderate labour politicians who have chosen to fight the tide of populism in the Labour Party deserve credit too.

For our democracy to survive, people of principle need to be heard.  It doesn't not matter if  we agree or disagree, providing the debate moves from sound-bites and scaremongering to  rational debate. It is unfortunate that voices of principle or rationality are usually drowned out in the clamour of populism, amplified by sensation-seeking media.  In the process, people are being divided into self-sustaining camps of ignorance and bigotry.  In this war we need not only politicians but also journalists and commentators to provide leadership; to be lions and not weasels.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

MPs aren't perfect, but try being them before you criticise

I was prompted to write by one of those annoying Facebook postings with a graphic inviting you to agree with a superficially appealing political or philosophical point that fails to provide any constructive solutions.  In this case

"Our parliament, once the envy of the world, now filled with the vile stench of corporate corruption and greed.  I that what you voted for?"

Now I am as cynical as the next modestly cynical person and I know that the motives of our parliamentarians vary considerably.  Some are undoubtedly attracted by status and power but the vast majority are there because they want to make a difference and do good.  What is most incredible to me is that they put up with so much to succeed; years of long, tedious and sometimes unpleasant meetings in cold church halls, interminable debates with party die-hard constituency members who have not changed their narrow-minded ideas in decades, drinking cheap wine and dining out on another plate of curling cheese sandwiches and Iceland budget party sausage rolls.   And this is just to get elected.  Then they do the same thing over and over again to keep their seats, spending the rest of their lives in draughty committee rooms, cramped shared offices or fighting for a seat in the chamber to ask a question in the debate on obscure legislation that you or I would not understand even if we could be bothered to read it, though will complain bitterly about when it impacts on our lives.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the surgeries where they meet and help some people in genuine need, but also put up with abuse from the disgruntled, and canvassing door-to-door on a cold rainy evening only to be insulted by unwashed and foul-mouthed constituents (I am not saying all the electorate is like this but the few there are, like scum on the broth, tend to rise to the surface).  Occasionally they go home to their families, if they are still there.

Yes, some MPs have shown themselves bribable, some seek highly remunerated positions trading on their status and supposed influence, some get caught with their trousers down (usually trousers, though there have been cases of female infidelity, so that should be skirts or trouser).  But is Parliament really filled with any more corruption and greed a) than it ever was before, b) than any other part of our society where people hold power, c) than politics anywhere else in the world?  If it is, provide the evidence before pouring scorn on our elected representatives.  Otherwise  perhaps better not to point the finger.

Or do we just shine a light on it more, with the help of a venal press who are no less corrupt and primarily interested in selling newspapers and, in many cases, spewing out bile and salacious news to pander to their readers' existing prejudices rather than to inform and supply a public service?

Get real.  If you don't like our politicians, try doing the job yourself and see that the electorate has its own shortcomings; they are no more paragons of virtue than MPs.  The difference is that we seem to  take every opportunity to reflect our own shortcomings on those who do step forward to do this difficult job and criticise them for it.  If you have a biblical turn of mind, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  Let him, or her, be the first to click "like" on the Facebook page anyway.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Why the Bible and the Koran are not Manuals for today


How can anyone point to the Koran or the Bible and say these documents are the bedrock of a peaceful and humane religion?  (This may apply equally to other holy scriptures but I am less familiar with them, so let's stick to these two).  They are full of blood-curdling violence and attitudes that would be completely unacceptable if they were promoted today.   But their violence and anachronistic attitudes are not at all surprising; they were written by people who were ignorant about the world around them, when science as we know it today did not exist, when human life was cheap and hung by a thread, threatened by hunger, natural disaster and disease, where people attacked and murdered each other over food and water as well as the gods they worshipped.  Even the concept of written knowledge was pretty much unknown, other than amongst a few educated elite (and they did not include The Prophet Muhammed, apparently).



So when Saint Paul espouses slavery, or The Prophet wields his bloody sword, or women are treated as chattels, we should not get too hung up about it.  That was then, and this is now.  What the authors of these sacred texts thought 1300 or 2000 years ago is irrelevant to our lives today.  Sure, they have contributed to the intellectual development of the human race, and are interesting from an historical perspective, but as a species we moved on.  We have learned to order our societies better, to control our environment so that life became safer and in doing so we have created time and space to become more tolerant of each other and show empathy for other human beings.  We replaced ignorance and superstition with science and intellect.



To rely on The Bible or the Koran to inform your behaviour is to say that you believe the world in which they were created is a better place than the one you live in today.  Some people may think so; the real fundamentalists.  I think there are even people who believe the world is flat.  But I don't see them rushing to live without clean running water, modern medicine, the written word, (almost) universal literacy, electronic communications or even ready meals.   They do not yearn to live in a time when you existed every day with simple fear that your life might be extinguished tomorrow by a wild animal, a microbe the tribe down the valley or some incomprehensible natural disaster.  



I am not saying you should not live without belief though.  You can believe in the inherent good nature of (most of) humanity; that we know what ethical behaviour is, without recourse to "the good book", and (most people) usually display it. You can believe that an enquiring mind is always better than a closed one.  Of course some people have thoughts that are dangerous to the people around them, or to sections of society, or to humanity as a whole.  To those we show a healthy scepticism.  But approach other ideas with an enquiring and scientific mind and the ascent of mankind will continue unabated, albeit with some hiccups on the way, even further from the distant and irrelevant world to which the Bible and Koran relate.


Some believers will counter by saying that there are lots of good bits in the Bible that they find help them to feel their way in the world.  Some say that the Koran guides them to a pacific way of life.  But if you seriously believe these books have some authority beyond anything else in your local bookshop, then you cannot pick and choose.  You cannot deny the violence, inhumanity, the unacceptable side of them and you cannot rationally argue with anyone who chooses to use that unacceptable side as the basis of their own personal beliefs.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

We will have to accept a coalition with Assad's Syria

When are we going to get off the fence about Syria?  Nigel BiggR writes today (10th October) in The Times that military action is required on the ground, and if necessary The UK should participate even if "illegal", which in this case means without UN approval.  It won't be the first time that The UK would embark on foreign military intervention without UN endorsement, but what is the basis for doing so?  Surely the primary reason would be national self interest, though one might make an argument for humanitarian reasons (to enable refugees to go home or to defeat a palpably evil ISIL regime).

Why do we balk at the idea of supporting the repugnant Assad regime?  There are many inhumane and murderous dictatorships that the west has supported over the years because it has been in one country or another's national interest, or simply to keep them from the Soviet (now Russian) sphere of influence.  Legitimacy has never in our eyes been based on a democratic outcome or moral standing.  We are more than happy to endorse the Saudi Arabian regime, which has judicially beheaded more people than ISIL, jails opponents and oppresses its female subjects.  The only criterion should be a) what will get the right result in the end, and b) what are our national interests?

Iraq, Afghanistan and Lybia, to name a few recent interventions, surely show that we cannot succeed without a sufficiently strong and, preferably, legitimate partner on the ground who can from an effective government when military activity ceases.  Who would that be in Syria?  Are there any amongst the 30 (or is it 60?) opposition groups who can do this?  Only Assad and Al-Baghdadi of ISIL surely are anywhere near strong enough.  Of the two, and with Russia now supporting Assad, is there really any alternative at least in the short term?  Can we not use our influence, such as it is, to persuade the opposition to save their powder for another day?  Given the number of people that have dies so far this may be a far fetched idea, unless something valuable is offered in return.

If Russia expects the West to support Assad then we need something in return.  It should agree to creating a safe space for refugees in the north, protected by NATO.  This would defer resolution of internal Syrian political problems until Assad is firmly in control again of the majority of Syrian territory.  In the meantime the focus can be on eliminating the scourge of Da'esh/ISIL, which is to only murdering Muslims in the Middle East but will, if left to its own devices become a threat to Western Europe as well.

Join the coalition bombing Syria by all means, but that is not the solution to Da’ish

By the time this article is posted, the Parliamentary debate will be nearly over and Britain is likely to moving to join its allies in bombing Da’ish in Syria (Da'ish, Da'esh, ISIL, ISIS, lets not quibble, they are murderous religious zealots. I call them Da'ish after taking advice from someone who claims to know)  The Twitter storm on this topic does not seem to have added much to the arguments on either side; most commentators are dug in on one side or the other as are using increasingly inflamed language.  My reason for writing this blog is not to hope to change anyone else’s mind, though I would hope that some might agree with my position, but to try to articulate my own views by setting them down in writing.

Rod Liddle in the Sunday times is usually good for a laugh and occasionally makes serious points.  Last Sunday he gave some pretty good, if presented tongue-in-cheek, reasons for not bombing Syria.  Here are his reasons:
- whenever we take military action in the Middle East we make things worse.
- our allies, the Free Syrian Army – does not exist as a viable military force
- our other allies out there are no better than ISIS
- ISIS is not a threat to Britain, but radical Islam is
- if we shoot down any Russian jets, this will escalate the war in directions we don’t want.
- it is a knee-jerk action, and not properly thought through.
- lots of innocent people will be killed.
He raises some pretty good points.  But as a satirist, unlike the government, he is not required to go on and provide any practical proposals on what to do. Still food for thought.

Principles will get you nowhere
 There are only two positions of principle:
1.   Pacifism – do not fight wars on the grounds that people (including innocent people) will be killed.
2.   Dogmatists (whether based on religion or politics) – both in favour and against war to achieve some “ideal” end. 
I say positions of principle, though of course in each case there will be ample arguments that can be put in contradiction to individual issues, but the point is that these people are not swayed by logic or by evidence and are, generally, irrationally held views and not open to debate.  Not that that stops them putting their own point of view in the strongest possible terms.  They can be distinguished from the vast majority of opinions in social media that are simply gut reactions, uninformed but nevertheless honest for that.

What is the ultimate aim?
The decision about what to do in Syria, or indeed in any other war, will most likely not be made as a matter of principle, but a matter of calculation of how best to achieve a desired end.  The first key question is is “WHAT IS THE DESIRED END”?  In this case I believe the ultimate aim should be to eliminate the threat that Da’ish pose to the United Kingdom and its allies.  Removing the threat to innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq, and indeed freeing them from the tyranny of Da’ish, is of course also a great objective, but unfortunately this can only be a happy subsidiary outcome; we cannot, neither should we, intervene to address any conflict, war and inhumanity everywhere in the world, even if Tim Farron was moved by meeting Syrian refugees to support the Government’s motion.          
The next question is how is this ultimate aim going to be achieved?  Given the nature of Da’ish, diplomatic and political activity will not be sufficient in itself. Unfortunately military action is the only way that a regime based on force and terrorising people on the ground, can be defeated.  The only position of principle that pacifists can take is that they “would rather die than be responsible for the death of someone else”, that they will not cause harm to others, even if that results in others having harm done to them.  This is surely where the pacifist view fails. 

What about Saudi Arabia’s RoleSaudi Arabia has been criticised both for not doing enough to counter Da’ish and indeed for allowing (private) funding of the terrorist quasi-state. On the first point, Saudi Arabia did participate in the bombing campaign in early days, but seems to have pulled back and is now leaving this work to its western “allies”(Washington Post 25.11.2015).   It seems that, having made a token effort for political reasons, it does not have the appetite to continue the fight.  On the second point, ("Saudi Funding of ISIS", Lori Boghardt, 23rd June 2014) – an article also quoted in the Washington Post article, it is clear that the Saudi Government does not directly fund Da’ish,but there is strong evidence that hundreds of millions of dollars of support comes from private sources in the Kingdom, usually routed via other countries such as Kuwait (which is not an anti-Da’ish coalition member, see below).  Given the corrupt plutocracy that runs Saudi Arabia, it seems inconceivable to me that those funds are not coming directly or otherwise from people connected with either the Government or the Saudi Royal Family.  In any event such large flows of funds cannot be too difficult to trace. 

And Kuwait?Kuwait declared war on Da’ish following the attack an a Shia mosque in June this year and has announced the purchase of billions of dollars of arms from France.  It had previously suffered a number of missile attacks following the beginning of the civil war against President Assad.    However at this time I have found no evidence that they are playing a material role in the current operations.  Unlike Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia It is “pro coalition” but not a coalition member.

But ariel bombardment is proving beneficial today; it is containing Da’ish, supporting some military successes by rebel troops by removing suicide-attacks, tanks, artillery etc., and degrading the economic power of Da’ish, through disruption of the oil-smuggling operation (though not as much as we might thing.  See Raqqa News, 30th November 2015.  And while on this point, why are Turkey and Syria still buying oil and gas from Da’ish?).  Thousands of attacks have been undertaken by the USA, France, Qatar and other coalition air-forces.  The government (and others) have also said that the UK has unique competencies that mean the RAF will make a real contribution.  Nevertheless our 8 Tornados do seem a drop in the ocean compared what is there already.   So in reality, notwithstanding that we can make a (very) small difference, is it not really just a case that, as part of the coalition, we need to be acting alongside our allies?  If the Paris bombs had been in London, how would we react to a French or US vote not to support our response?

The value of military intervention
A massive military intervention such as the invasion of Iraq could be successful in removing Da’ish, but without an effective political follow-up, as we saw in Iraq, it will not eliminate this multi-headed hydra.  It will merely reappear in elsewhere in another form.  Furthermore I doubt that any of the players locally would be supportive of such an action by western powers.  And given the Iran/Saudi Arabia politico/religious divide, it is doubtful that a regional coalition could be formed that could achieve the same end.  The only options available would therefore seem to be to work through established local armies, perhaps with material and practical support from those aforementioned regional powers. 

Whether there are 70,000 soldiers available on the ground, as the Prime Minister says, I doubt.  Ignore those fighting the Syrian government in the western provinces and the north; they won’t want to fight in the eastern provinces.  Ignore too those only interested in the material support they gain from being positive towards the coalition; given half a chance many will revert to their sectarian nature and may even join with the fundamentalist Al-Queda factions to continue fighting against the forces of moderation (Spectator, 27th November 2015)  In reality we might be dealing with 10-15,000 Sunni that the opponents of bombing (@YasminQureshiMP in the chamber today) suggest, plus the Kurds who are not considered favourably in Sunni and Shia areas after some pretty appalling war crimes of their own.  These would be insufficient, even with a groundswell of local support, to take and to hold significant swathes of Da’ish territory, let alone the Raqqa and other cities.


Join the coalition bombing Syria, but other actions are more important
So yes I am in favour of the UK taking a full part in the coalition action in Syria.  But to be clear, air attacks alone are not going to achieve our objectives.  Ground troops are needed as well, but not ours.  And neither will military action on the ground ever be enough to eliminate the threat of Da’ish.  Political and diplomatic actions is also required to deliver a coalition in Syria that includes both Assad (supported by Russia) as well as any opposition that is prepared to participate in an inclusive political process.  Inclusion of Assad is difficult for western coalition partners to swallow, though we have supported many intolerable regimes around the world to achieve our foreign policy objectives.  More difficult is to get most, or any, of the 70+ opposition forces to sit with Assad.  At least some of them however will surely come round because they know that ultimately they will not defeat Assed now that Russia has joined him, and they are also more likely now that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are working together on a political settlement.

Military action and Middle-eastern political  solutions are not the only requirement.  It is necessary to be “tough on terrorism and touch of the causes of terrorism” (to slightly misquote a former Prime Minister).  Those causes fall into three categories:
1.  Enforced poverty and disenfranchisement of failed and absolutist politics throughout the region.  We must speak up and challenge our so-called allies in the region who deny their own populations freedom of politics and thought and discriminate against minorities and women.  Why do we not stand up to Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Bahrain (to name just a few) to get away with it?
2.   Tackling racial and religious discrimination against  minorities in western societies.  Quite apart from the injustice in its own right, continuation will inevitably lead to a (small) number of people moving towards an extremist position?  
3.  Tackling discrimination, ignorance and intolerance within minority communities.  As well as external factors helping individuals move towards extremism, there is enough authoritarianism and intolerance of diversity amongst many minority ethnic communities in the UK to alienate young people.

Taking action on item 1 requires principled political and diplomatic stands abroad, even if others may choose to benefit by taking a different line.  Taking action on items 2 and 3 is more difficult.  Government can legislate and the courts and police can take action, but real change starts with education of children and influencing people throughout their lives; it takes a generation or more.  But we should not shy away from this; the levels of gender and racial discrimination, though still existing today, is immensely less than in my childhood when racist thoughts and language were used on a daily basis in public and private as quite “normal”.  Notwithstanding that he was then a figure of fun, it is inconceivable now that the character of Alf Garnett would be allowed on TV at all, let alone before the watershed.

To tackle item 3 there also needs to be another change and one that is probably most difficult for liberal white middle-class males like me.  Liberal values, in part that have lead to the inclusiveness in much of British society that is the corollary of addressing discrimination.  It has also resulted in a level of “moral relativism” that has allowed the continuation of practices in some minority communities that are either illegal or morally unacceptable to the majority of British citizens.  By majority I am not saying to “white” or “christian”, but inevitably the core of what is termed “British” values do stem from our political and social past so it is idle to claim that they have not been a major influence.  What we should no longer tolerate is “cultural” behaviour which conflicts with the broad values of Britain today in the 21st century. 

As individuals we need to speak up about forced marriage, FGM, gender discrimination.  We should challenge extreme and illiberal practices wherever we see them including religious practices and intolerance, voodoo cults, violent and invasive exorcism that are imposed on non-consenting adults. Let us be clear that  just as religious people should be able in most cases to excuse themselves from doing something that is against their “faith”, so religion or culture should not be an acceptable excuse for imposing personal preferences on others.  If the majority are cowed by accusations of “racism” and “discrimination” from speaking up then how much more difficult will it be for those in the minority communities who feel trapped, from speaking their minds?  Rather straying off the topic of bombing Syria, but it just goes to show how complicated the whole issue is!


Tim O’Brien
2/12/15

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Cultural Norms are not an excuse for acting inhumanely, or illegally

Jenny McCartney in the Sunday Times commented on Mrs Justice Pauffley’s ruling that appears to allow children to be hit by parents, on “cultural grounds”.  The father concerned was also alleged to have beaten his wife horribly.  The mitigation, I believe it only applied in relation to beating his child, appears to be that “recently arrived immigrants” may had different cultural norms and that it takes time for them to adjust.  In this case I don’t believe the gentleman concerned had recently arrived on our shores, but even if he had, it made me wonder how long exactly after arriving in the UK was a person allowed in order to become familiar with, and to adjust to, our cultural norms?  And which aspects of British culture are immigrants expected to adopt (presumably not all since we are supposed to olive in a multi-cultural society)?

As a minimum surely people should abide by the law.  If the laws of this country mean beating your wife or your child is a crime, then so be it.  It matters not a jot that the perpetrator has just stepped off a plane from  half way round the world, because if you want to come and live in this country then you should accept the rule of our laws.  It is often said that ignorance of the law is no excuse, so why should it be any different for a new arrival  (though I suppose there could be mitigation of the punishment, and that is part of our justice system anyway).   Of course we also ought to enforce these laws, which is another issue.

We should also avoid calling our cultural "errors" for fear of being branded racist.  Trevor Philips in the Daily Mail, argued that making excuses for immigrants is not liberal, but racist; that liberals are afraid to challenge unacceptable behaviour by members of ethnic minorities for fear of being called racist, and that this is itself racist.  I applaud the the underlying tenet of the article, but this is nonsensical.  Racism means treating a person or persons unreasonably or unfairly purely on the basis of their race, or ethnicity. It is too much of a stretch to say that includes letting them get away with things that other members of society cannot.   The term  racist is used quite often enough by members of minority ethnic groups as an accusation against anyone and everyone who challenges cultural practices and even accuses them of wrongdoing (breaking the law).  This is enough abuse of the term without Mr Phillips piling on more.   I agree that there is something wrong if people look the other way, for fear of being accused of racism, but that is not itself racist.  For if fear of being called racist is racism in itself we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Take what in British culture we would regard as misogynistic behaviour for example.  Should we accept involuntary arranged marriages, women walking a respectful few feet behind their husbands, or religious texts that are use to justify restricting women’s participation in civil society (this is not anti- any particular religion by the way; it applies just as much to more conservative forms of all world religions).  I think the libertarian view is that if women choose of their own free will, and with all the information they need at their disposal,to follow a way of life that is different from our British cultural norms they should be allowed to do so. But is it really a free choice if the behaviour is a cultural norm?  Not many people voluntarily cut themselves off from family and community; it is so much easier just to “fit in”.  

Female modesty is interpreted differently by different cultures, although of course the rules in most cases were not set by women.   But while in most of Western Europe we are relaxed enough to allow people to dress the way they like (but not to take off all your clothes in public places, with the exception of a few parks in Germany, whether in a religiously sensitive location or not, idiotic western tourists to Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu please note), I think many people (OK, “UK or Irish  white” as one might tick on an ethnicity questionnaire) are still uncomfortable about dealing with someone who, say, covers their face in social or commercial situations (Lets be clear, wearing niqab or Burka is not a religious obligation, it is a cultural choice, or the majority of Muslim women in the world would be haram).

So should we allow people to cover their faces in public?  It is not illegal (except in France) so the answer must be yes, but only a qualified yes.  In our culture we generally think that if a person covers their face, it is to disguise their feelings, intent or identity.  Bandits cover their faces and bank clerks don’t have to deal with people in motorcycle helmets, while on a more personal level, facial expressions are part of the way we communicate.  So I don’t see why a judge should have to deal with a witness who covers her face, or why I should have to seek help from a local council official wearing a face mask.  But If I were to complain there would sure as eggs are eggs be a chorus accusing me of “racism” or perhaps “islamophobia”.

Of course the law also allows for free speech, but increasingly cultural, and religious (because as far as I am concerned this is also cultural) are considered areas where we should be sensitive to other people’s points of view.  We should be free to object to someone else’s culture or religion, and also to find someone else’s comments offensive, but not to take the law into our own hands or act belligerently or threateningly in response.  And anyway in the UK there are there are cultural norms like respect for others which surely go beyond the law. 

Is this not the most important aspect of our culture; if we can discuss our differences openly, without risk and, if you don’t think this is too old fashioned, with politeness and good manners, then there is no need to accuse or be accused of racism or cultural insensitivity.  And if you are so sensitive as to object to challenge or criticism  of your cultural or religious norms, then perhaps you should keep them private and not express your views in public space.  Unless they are illegal, like thrashing children or your spouse, in which case you should desist altogether.