Friday, 30 August 2013

Cornwall Calls - and I’m heartened by the work of the Surf Action charity

I'm looking forward to a short break with my wife, Susanne, in the far west of Cornwall - a place we know and love. We’ll be checking into The Gurnard’s Head to begin with and then taking a trip to the Hell Bay Hotel on the Scilly isle of Bryher.

Despite its name, I'm assured the Hell Bay Hotel is a lovely and relaxing place. It might be just what we need because while at The Gurnard’s Head we plan to try surfing. The Gurnard’s Head is near the superb surfing beach of Sennen Cove and despite many visits to this part of Cornwall neither Susanne nor I ever got round to learning to surf. I have a feeling we’re going to find it pretty tiring - hence the need to recuperate while on Bryher.

Great work by Surf Action

While researching available surf schools at Sennen Cove (there seem to be two - the Sennen Surfing Centre and the Smart Surf School), I came across the work of a pioneering charity called Surf Action. The name rang bells and I realised I’ve read about Surf Action in the national press. They’re based in Cornwall and have close ties to the Sennen area, and perform a truly valuable service in helping ex-servicemen who have suffered physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

If you take a look at Surf Action’s website, I’m sure you’ll be as impressed as I am by the images of its team taking military veterans and their families surfing. Clearly, the people being helped by the charity have suffered gravely, whether through physical injury or the no less debilitating condition of PTSD. It is heartening to see the smiles of everyone in the sea, once they’ve been taken under Surf Action’s wing.

The charity was the brainchild of Rich Emerson, himself a former soldier who knows first-hand just how damaging PTSD can be. Emerson served with the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars in Operation Desert Storm. He became a physical training instructor and thoroughly enjoyed army life.

“I loved serving in the military, experiencing its camaraderie and sense of purpose. I was proud to serve my country and to help in the liberation of Kuwait,” he told The Guardian. 

Surfing is a life-affirming activity

However, as this story recounts, Emerson’s life went off track after he left the army. He suffered nightmares about the war and the things he’d seen, and began to behave very self-destructively. His first marriage unravelled. He drank too much. He felt suicidal. 

What Emerson didn't know was that he was suffering from PTSD – a condition barely recognised back then. Fortunately, he discovered surfing. It seems that no sooner had he caught his first wave than he was smitten. For me, as a non-surfer, I can imagine why - the sport looks so fresh and healthy, so clean and invigorating. Even in the depths of winter I can believe that for its diehards it’s still a positive, life-affirming activity.

Certainly, surfing was a major factor in turning Emerson’s life around. He got himself back on track and then started putting his energy into helping other soldiers who were similarly suffering. The result, now, is the fully fledged charity Surf Action – which was last year short-listed for lottery funding. 

All in all, the story of Surf Action is a hugely positive one, showing how much we can do to help people in need when we turn our minds to it. I'm not sure that Susanne and I will emerge from our Cornish trip as surfers, but one thing is certain: just researching this niche but compelling sport has led me to a great charity whose work is an inspiration. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Taking a leaf out of Jesse Owens' book

Lately I've blogged about ethics in sport, not least because, to me, sport operates as a kind of mirror of our moral and ethical compass. Sportspeople are role models; their behaviour affects not just youngsters but adults, too. A society that condones institutionalised cheating in sport is likely to be one with ethical problems elsewhere. As such, we could all do with taking a leaf out of the great American track and field athlete Jesse Owens' book. I particularly like this quote by Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics:

In the end, it's the extra effort that separates a winner from second place. But winning takes a lot more than that, too. It starts with complete command of the fundamentals. Then it takes desire, determination, discipline, and self-sacrifice. And finally, it takes a great deal of love, fairness and respect for your fellow man. Put all these together, and even if you don’t win, how can you lose?

Jesse Owens in 1936

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Hats off to The Spireites. Here’s to a promotion-winning season - and meaningful grappling with Derbyshire's asbestos problem

Hats off to Chesterfield FC. By all accounts the club's away fixture at Rochdale last Saturday was a thriller. It ended in a 2-2 draw, with Marc Richards and Gary Roberts on the scoresheet for The Spireites. Good work especially by Roberts, who also set up the opening goal by Richards.

Spencers is proud to sponsor Chesterfield FC's community stand. Football is important to communities up and down the country: it's part of the fabric of our daily lives, giving a focus and sense of identity to thousands of fans. Wouldn't it be fantastic if The Spireites, under the guidance of manager Paul Cook, can maintain their excellent form at the beginning of the season and secure promotion to League One? So far, so good, with the team unbeaten in three games and sitting nicely in third place in the League Two table.

A long, hard season looms, but the sense in the town is that the talent is there, so too the commitment and dedication needed to mount a promotion push. And Derbyshire's largest town certainly has the stadium for an upper tier football club. The Proact Stadium, with a capacity of 10,504 (roughly the same as newly promoted Yeovil Town, currently adjusting to life in the Championship), is as good as they come. It's easily capable of hosting Championship games - which is where the club aims to be.

Chesterfield could do with a success story. Derbyshire could, too. There is so much to commend about the county's market town and Derbyshire itself, but the area is not without its problems. In particular, heavy industrialism has left a dangerous legacy. I am thinking of the so-called 'hidden killer' - asbestos.

Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team
The problem of asbestos in many public buildings, homes and schools has been revealed by the excellent campaigning work of the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team. In particular, in July 2011 it displayed a life size model of a house - showing where asbestos could be found in an average house - in New Square in Chesterfield. Colleagues of mine well remember the house (created as part of Mesothelioma Action Day) and the way in which it captivated the interest of passers-by. The charity continues to do its best to publicise the dangers posed by asbestos, not least in our schools.

Management of asbestos in schools is, indeed, a serious worry. Many experts regard its management as inadequate. There is concern that governors have little awareness, understanding or training in managing asbestos. Local authorities are supposed to have individual plans per school and yet many have one for all schools. There is the question of who is responsible in schools outside local authority control, many of which are unaware of the liability they are taking on in regard to asbestos. There is an overall lack of transparency and availability of data. Surely every parent has the right to know of the existence of asbestos in their child's school, and how the known risks it poses are managed? This seems self-evident, and yet the government continues to drag its feet on the problem of asbestos, lagging a long way behind the excellent model for its treatment in Australia.

Some of Chesterfield's children of today may one day don the blue shirts of The Spireites. Here's hoping that when they do, the club is plying its trade in the Championship. And that by then, the government has at last got its house in order when it comes to asbestos.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

In praise of ethics in sport

The football season seems to start earlier each year. I'm sure, when I was a boy, that games didn't start in early August, as they have for all of England’s professional and semi-professional leagues bar the Premier League. My memory might be playing tricks on me but one thing is certain: this weekend sees the beginning of another season of Premier League football.

Hot on the heels of an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable England v Scotland game on Wednesday, I'm hoping that this season's Premier League fixtures will be played in a similar spirit. On Wednesday night, the ancient football foes contested a hard-fought game with skill and passion in equal measure. There were one or two feisty moments, as is only to be expected in competitive fixtures, but what especially struck me about the game was the absence of any malice or cheating. I don't recall seeing any players diving to the turf as if felled by an axe; nor do I remember clusters of aggrieved individuals surrounding the referee and trying to intimidate him into giving a decision their way.

England v Scotland was a tough, dynamic game; it was football as it should be. On Sunday, I'll be watching my club, Chelsea, when they host newly promoted Hull City. Or rather, as they are now known, Hull City Tigers. Quite why the new name was required is beyond me; likewise, I don't understand why one of the other promoted teams, Cardiff City, elected to stop playing in their traditional all-blue strip and play in red.

Doubtless there is some marketing rationale for both changes. And lately, reading Rob Steen's excellent 1995 book The Mavericks: English Football When Flair Wore Flairs, I'm reminded of the era of greats like Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson, Charlie George, Stan Bowles and Rodney Marsh. The book brilliantly evokes their time as players, and is all the more intriguing with its accounts of how flair players dealt with the likes of Ron 'Chopper' Harris and Norman 'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter. Often enough, they gave as good as they got.

Football today is faster and more tactically complex than it was when the mavericks graced the pitches with their fancy footwork. But while the game has evolved, it has, in a sense, lost something. Rob Steen's book is a portrait of a more honest game than we see today. Players would try to gain an advantage by bending the rules, but somehow what they did strikes me as more ethical than the players of the modern game who feign injury and harangue officials. This sort of behaviour is doubtless a consequence of the vastly greater sums of money at stake in football now but there is no excuse for it. It demeans the game and those who play it.

Needless to say, I'll be hoping for a Chelsea win on Sunday. I also wish Hull City Tigers well in their new Premier League incarnation. But as much as I hope for Chelsea success, I hope that maybe, just maybe, this season we will have the privilege of watching games like England v Scotland: hard-fought, competitive and with no quarter given, but with a fundamental honesty. Ethics, in sport, are just as important as they are in other walks of life.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Hats off to the Transport Select Committee for an insightful and balanced Report

Last week saw the publication of the long-awaited report by the cross-party Transport Select Committee on the cost of motor insurance, and in their deliberations a number of sensible points were made.

As significant as anything, though, was the revelation that the report contained this paragraph:

MPs on the committee were surprised to find that insurers sometimes made an offer to personal injury claimants even before they had received their medical report.

Pre-medical offers are wrong

To this, I would substitute the word 'sometimes' with 'often'. As I have previously mentioned, the practice of pre-medical offers of settlement is both endemic and contrary to the interests of justice. How can it be right that injured people compromise claims without the benefit of legal advice?

The committee took a commendably robust view of this practice, urging insurers to put their house in order and stop it at once. Not least in the committee's thinking was the fact that settling cases without a medical assessment, still less with any legal input, encourages the very things that insurers say they are trying to combat (and which drive up consumers' premiums): fraud and exaggeration.

Cost of motor  insurance: whiplash

Common sense about whiplash

What, though, of whiplash? The committee noted that there is no statistical, verifiable evidence to support the oft heard assertion that "the UK is the whiplash capital of the world". In fact, the committee observed that the number of UK claims for whiplash has fallen; and they are in fact below the level they were 5 years ago.

Moreover, the committee found that there was no authoritative data publically available about the prevalence of fraudulent or exaggerated claims for whiplash injuries. By way of a wider point, the committee recommended that the government ask that the Association of British Insurers provide better data about fraudulent or exaggerated personal injury claims. This step is critical to combat fraud, and long over due.

The committee recommended that the government should not switch whiplash claims to the small claims track, by increasing the small claims court limit. Its reasoning is again sensible: namely that there was a real likelihood that genuine claims would not be brought.

There was further congruity between the government and the committee. The government proposed demanding medical reports from accredited medical experts for whiplash claims - a good idea, and one backed by the committee. This will be particularly powerful in eradicating unmeritorious claims, especially if combined with the committees recommendation that insurers stop making pre medical offers. In addition, the committee suggested claimants should have to prove they saw a medical practitioner shortly after their accident.

Hats off to the committee for some sterling work and balanced common sense, and to the government for having the wisdom to await receipt and give consideration to the Transport Select Committee Report before taking further reform steps.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Litvinenko case and the principles of public life

Nearly seven years ago, in November 2006, the former Russian KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London. His widow, Marina, has since been engaged in a protracted struggle to find the truth behind her husband's death. Regrettably for Mrs Litvinenko, it seems that what has already been a frustrating search is set only to get worse.

Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary rejected calls for a public inquiry into Litvinenko's killing. Theresa May outlined the government's reasons in a letter dated 17 July to Sir Robert Owen, the coroner who had asked that an inquiry (under the Inquiries Act 2005) be established as a matter of urgency.

Full, fair and fearless?

Sir Robert made his request on 4 June. Among the factors persuading him that a public inquiry was desirable was the government's seeming determination to keep a variety of documents secret. This, he felt, meant that it would not be possible to conduct a "full, fair and fearless" inquest. A public inquiry, which would, if necessary, enable certain evidence to be considered behind closed doors, was the only way for the truth to be established.

Theresa May did not agree, and expressly alluded to the political machinations behind her decision: "It is true that international relations have been a factor in the government's decision-making." This was taken further by Elena Tsirlina, Mrs Litvinenko's solicitor, who said the decision not to hold a public inquiry followed "months of talks between the two governments at the highest level" including discussion between the prime ministers of Russia and the UK. She added: "What deals have been made behind the scene is difficult to know."

It is easy to sympathise with Mrs Litvinenko. Here we are, seven years after her husband's murder, and no one is any the wiser as to why it happened and who perpetrated it. Rumour and counter-rumour continue to swirl, and the Russian authorities refuse to extradite two men suspected of the killing, former agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun (both of whom deny any involvement). The Litvinenko family intend to launch a judicial review on the grounds of "irrationality" into the decision not to hold a public inquiry.

The principles of public life

I empathise with the family's plight. Their plan to initiate judicial review proceedings is understandable. Along with just about everyone, I cannot pretend to know the facts, but then again, that is the point: a man has been killed in deeply suspicious circumstances, and both his family and, given his occupation, we, the public, have a right to know what happened. I also wonder if the decision not to hold an inquiry could have been more sensitively handled.

By way of a wider point, openness and transparency should be watchwords for those who govern us, as, indeed, is enshrined in The Seven Principles of Public Life, also known as the "Nolan principles" given their genesis in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I republish the principles here. They're worth taking to heart by anyone, in whatever sphere, who serves the public.

The seven principles of public life

All candidates for public appointments are expected to demonstrate a commitment to, and an understanding of, the value and importance of the principles of public service. The seven principles of public life are:


Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.


Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.


In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.


Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.


Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it.


Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.


Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.