Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: October, 2016

Yoghurts, marmite and brexit: it must not come down to immigration

I worry about Rachel. Does she really stir all those yoghurts herself? Is she exempt from the European Working Hours Directive?  I also wonder why Yeo Valley has such good dairy pasture and whether anyone is looking after the welfare of those over worked cows. We have a penchant for products that are personalised and localised.

But l no longer worry about the workload of those cheery ice cream makers, Ben and Jerry, who, I learned last week, sold out to Unilever, an Anglo Dutch conglomerate, which supplies a vast range of my daily fare, from tea bags, pot noodles, soap and, of course, marmite. I imagine all these goods spew forth from one gigantic factory somewhere near Shirebrook.

Unilever apologised to us that “the brands we love” were temporarily unavailable while they fought the marmite wars with Tesco. I see that the Queen likes marmite lightly spread on toast topped with mushrooms, but would not say my affections are that strong towards the yeast extract spread.  Is this what we have come to, I asked in a moment of despair? The price of Brexit is the loss of marmite?

It may have been a storm in a tea cup but a 20% drop in the value of the pound is widely  expected to lead to increases in milk, bread, petrol, wine at the rate of the 10% increase that Unilever sought from the supermarkets. When basic food prices rise, the poor suffer most.

At about the same time, Carlos Ghosn was threatening to halt investment in the Sunderland plant because he would face a 10% tariff when exporting cars to Europe, which is where   80% of the cars are sold. He was hastily summoned to Downing Street to be reassured though what Theresa May told him is not known. This may be more huff and puff from a  business leader but I wonder why a company jointly owned by the French would stay in the United Kingdom if the terms of trade turn against it?

Has it come to this? Nissan is our pride and joy. The single largest industrial relocation to the region in the last fifty years sustaining an estimated 100,000 jobs may be run down because of Brexit?

When the people of Sunderland voted in surprisingly large numbers to leave the European Union, did they think that their vote would lead to a rise in the price of bread and the loss of well paid jobs? I have argued here previously that the vote to stay or go should not be made on economic grounds alone. In my view, European co operation is important for dealing with the really big issues of climate change and migration and that the European Union, for all its faults, is a force for good.

Now that ‘the people have spoken’, any such thoughts are derided as coming from the mouths of the educated liberal intelligentsia which is out of touch with reality.  It is a struggle for so called ‘Remoaners’ to make the case for working with Europe and difficult to remember that 48% of us did not want to leave.

It is especially difficult after a Conservative party conference at which Theresa May made it admirably clear that her top priority was to regain control of the borders and stop the flow of migrant workers from Europe. The scales tipped further in favour of leaving at any price.

It is astute politics on Mrs May’s part. She will get short change from  Donald Tusk so there is not much point in trying to negotiate terms. She will risk dividing her party again unless she takes a hard line. She will throw a lifeline to UKIP unless she tackles immigration before the next election. This is not to be the time for parliamentary scrutiny or public debate. There is really only one way to Brexit and Theresa May knows she must force it through as her survival depends upon it.

So it really does come down to this: we dislike foreigners so much that we cast aside all other considerations in order to clamp down on immigration as we shut the door on Europe. The single market is neither here nor there. Hate crimes are on the rise and xenophobia is unbridled.

This is still a phoney war that will last another two years. In that time, it is really important that those of us of a different mind, however we voted on 23rd June, say loud and clear that people from other lands make an inspirational contribution to the cultural and academic life of our country; that foreign workers are the life blood of the NHS  and that refugees fleeing from violence and famine must be embraced with open arms. Neighbours and friends from different faiths and backgrounds enrich our lives. We laugh together and learn more from each other than we ever could on our own. We are proudly called to be ‘citizens of the world’ whatever Theresa May might say.

It must not come to this: our future must not be determined by our anxieties, insecurities and fear of the unknown.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 18th October 2016



Are we kicking the horrors of child sexual abuse into the long grass?

Don’t worry about Sam Allerdyce. He will be up on his feet soon enough. It would not surprise me to see him back at Stadium of Light by the end of the season trying to save Sunderland from relegation again.

Do worry about the implications of the resignations last week  of Ben Emmerson and Elizabeth Prochaska, the two top lawyers running the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Worry especially for the former in mates of Medomsley Detention Centre and Stanhope Castle Approved School who were horribly abused. Emmerson was about the only person trusted by the victims groups to deal with their grievances.

The Inquiry was set up by Theresa May, then Home Secretary, in 2014 in the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal to investigate the cover up of child sexual abuse over the last sixty years. The first two chairs were compromised by their contacts with members of the establishment. One had supper with her neighbour Leon Brittain, who was under suspicion at the time.

Theresa May had the bright idea of bringing in a complete outsider from New Zealand to head the Inquiry but Dame Lowell Goddard resigned unexpectedly in August. She appears not to have been up to the job. Her replacement, Prof Alexis Jay, lauded for her handling of the Rotherham Child Abuse inquiry, is persona non grate with some of the victims groups because she is a social worker. Social workers are themselves are under suspicion for their negligence.

After two years, the Inquiry has yet to interview the first witness. It is shambling along  without any seeming regard for the urgent need for victims to be heard. Spare a thought for the nine men who claim to have been abused when boys in care at the former Stanhope Castle Approved School. They travelled to London to make a case before Dame Lowell to be core participants in the Inquiry.  Dame Lowell apparently struggled with the detail of British law and had not come to a decision before she packed her bags for New Zealand. The Stanhope nine will now have to make their submission all over again.

Consider what it must feel like to be one of the 1350 men claiming ill treatment at Medomsley  who have been interviewed by Durham Police as part of Operation Seabrook. There may yet be prosecutions against 31 surviving suspects involved in what now appears to be a widespread paedophile ring operating 30 years ago.  There has never been a public inquiry into the events at Medomsley. The Home Office fought a long campaign against paying compensation. The Inquiry has already ruled that the evidence from most of the Medomsley vicitms will be disallowed because they had reached their eighteenth birthday at the time of the offences. Can these long suffering men have any hope left of justice?

One of them, Kevin Young, has told how he went straight to Consett police station on his release  to report how he was repeatedly raped, tied up and ligatured at Medomsley. The police told him that if repeated such stories, he would be locked up again. Too many people knew what was going on and turned a blind eye. The problem goes far beyond the ‘bad apple’.

Others, myself included, had no idea that such practices took place. I dealt regularly with childrens homes and approved schools  as a trainee social worker without a clue of the potential dangers my clients faced. Sexual abuse was not on the syllabus and we were desperately naïve. We now know that one in five children experience some form of abuse and that nine out of ten abused children subsequently suffer from psychiatric problems.

In her resignation statement, Lowell Goddard urged the government to scale down the gargantuan Inquiry to more realistic proportions.  It was originally expected to last five years but may well take twenty, by which time most of those involved will be dead. The Police are overwhelmed by 100 new cases a month referred by the Inquiry team for investigation. Some say it is a waste of money raking over the traces of historic events. Others claim it is a deliberate way of kicking an unpalatable problem into the long grass.

Medomsley and Stanhope Castle are far from isolated examples but they are in our backyard. We should hang our heads in shame for having ignored the atrocities for so long and make sure there is a quicker way of giving the victims their say and considering their grievances.

Some improvements have been made such as the vetting of staff working with children and vulnerable adults but we cannot wait another twenty years to learn the lessons. And finally, the greatest challenge of all is to understand why child sexual abuse is such a pervasive and  degrading factor in our society.

Theresa May said last week that “we need to learn the lessons of the past and if we don’t do that we can’t guarantee we are going to be able to stop such abuse from happening again in the future.” Are these just more fine words from the steps of Downing Street?

Published in Newcastle Journal on 4th October 16