As I walked in I could see Charlotte’s body through the long rectangular window at the far side. A white sheet covered all but her face. Her eyes were closed, her eyelids blackened, her lips slightly parted. She looked as if she was frozen in time, neither peaceful nor troubled. Just an incredible, terrible stillness. As though she had died mid-sentence, or mid-gasp. Her skin was mottled brown, black lines tracing the veins across her face, dark hair pulled back from her forehead.
“Her hair looks thin – do you think she was eating properly?”, my mother asked, and somewhere I could hear Charlotte laughing.
Charlotte had been shot seven times in the back with an Eastern-European weapon, from a distance of two to three feet. She’d either have been kneeling or lying down. She would have died quickly. The only possible verdict was murder.
A lot has changed in my life since I finished the book from which the extract above is taken. It’s long enough ago now that I find it quite shocking to read back some of the things I wrote in the years following my sister’s murder. But Charlotte’s death changed the course of my life, and for me, the arms trade will always be a deeply personal issue.
Charlotte was shot dead in a bus massacre by Hutu-extremists in Burundi at the end of 2000. But the bullets that killed her, and the gun that fired them, were manufactured thousands of miles away. And they didn’t end up in Burundi by accident. Someone, somewhere, made a deliberate decision to transport these weapons to one of the poorest countries in the world, and put them in the hands of serial killers.
The reason I support the #armstreaty campaign is because I think it’s a good idea to try to stop serial killers getting hold of bullets and guns. According to Oxfam and Amnesty International, there are more international regulations controlling the global trade in bananas than the trade in deadly weapons. As a result, over 1,500 people die through armed violence every day, the majority of them civilians. If the international rules were more robust, it would be harder for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.
Now one of the big problems here is that the term “international regulation” is inherently dry and dull. I suspect this is one of the main reasons that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign (let’s face it, another quite dull term) has had so little media coverage.
This is a shame because, dull and legalistic though these terms are, the fact that we don’t yet have a comprehensive global system for regulating the arms trade (yawn, I know) means that hundreds of thousands of people are dying each year who might have lived, if it wasn’t quite so easy for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.
Happily, the inherent dullness of the words we have to use to talk about this problem has not stopped the United Nations from drawing up a treaty that could, if all goes well, make it much, much harder for serial killers to get hold of bullets and guns in future.
Even more happily, Oxfam and Amnesty have hit on a great way to make this issue less dull. On Wednesday, they will be driving around London in a tank, seeking to ramp up the pressure on the governments whose support could help to swing the crucial vote taking place at the UN next month. A number of bloggers, me included, will be tweeting from inside the tank under the #armstreaty hashtag.
Despite being quite boring, international treaties can make a huge difference, even when not everyone signs up to them. The 1998 treaty banning the use of landmines reportedly helped cut deaths and injuries from 26,000 per year to less than 6,000 a decade later – even though a number of countries refused to join in, and continued producing land-mines.
This is a really boring issue. It’s also a really important one, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign and what you can do to support it, please visit this website.
It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.
The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.
Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.
Update: Many thanks to Nick Wallis, who tells me that the film was pulled from the BBC schedules prior to being aired and never actually went out. Will update again if I can find out more…
Last year I blogged about the Rwandan government’s $50,000 deal with the US PR firm Racepoint, whose strategy includes promoting “Rwanda’s Visionary Leader… highlighting President Kagame and his visionary leadership”, while “communicating the successes of Rwanda with key stakeholders in the political and financial elite communities”.
The PR firm… outlines “a consolidated set of tactics to publicize both Rwanda and President Kagame“. This will initially involve “leveraging top print and broadcast outlets to communicate the Rwanda success story… and, in the process, validate it based on their credibility”, together with “a proactive campaign that leverages the web to seed stories favorable to Rwanda”.
Racepoint singles out the Huffington Post as a particular online media target, together with “careful seeding across the blogosphere” to “initiate an offensive to control the organic search on Rwanda and set the agenda in print and broadcast”.
One of the key themes within the PR strategy’s “Education and inform program” would include:
“The Rwandan Miracle: Healing of a Nation – We will highlight the rapid healing of the Rwandan nation, it will rely on visuals to drive the story home, Including inviting a handful of top-tier influencer media into the country to observe and Interview people in society.”
So I was very interested to hear about a new 45-minute film, reportedly due to air on May 12th and 13th on BBC World News, called “Rwanda-17 – Healing a Nation”.
The blurb from the film paints a heartwarming picture of the country’s under-17 football team, which it suggests “represents Rwanda’s breathtaking evolution and hopes for a better future, with good leadership and unity at the heart of not only sporting success but also a nation’s efforts to achieve reconciliation and prosperity.”
“What is it about Rwanda? What it is it that you’ve got *so* right?” asks the interviewer in the 2-minute trailer. His respondent tells him that “every ship” needs to have “a good captain”.
“Our team today, to play well, *they* a good captain, they need a good coach. They need somebody who has a vision. This is what we have in Rwanda.”
The shot then cuts to an interview with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame: “As the captain of this ship, what would you say you need to deliver to the people?”, his friendly interviewer asks. “We want to leave poverty behind us. We want to leave any kind of conflict behind us”, Kagame tells him.
This will doubtless come as good news to the UK-based dissidents who Rwanda’s government tried to murder last year… And the exiled opposition leader who has twice avoided assassination in South Africa, though it’s sadly too late for the opposition politician found beheaded in Rwanda in 2010.
There is a longer version of the trailer here, where it is stated that the film was “supported by Crystal Ventures”.
According to a DFID-funded research paper on Rwanda’s development, Kagame’s ruling party “funds itself by a combination of member contributions and the dividends paid by a private company which it fully owns… formerly known as Tri-Star Investments S.A.R.L. and now registered as Crystal Ventures Ltd.”
The Crystal Ventures website, meanwhile, states that:
“The company is wholly owned by Rwandan business people who pooled resources together to meet challenges of economic recovery and take advantage of growth opportunities in a virgin environment.”
Opposition activists, however, have claimed that the company is effectively controlled by the Rwandan President.
Google reveals lots more speculation – but far less concrete detail – about Crystal Ventures and its background. I’d be grateful for any input from readers on good sources to help unravel this…
My latest book review is in this month’s New Humanist magazine, looking at a harrowing account of religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect: “Breaking Their Will”, by Janet Heimlich. This month’s edition also features the excellent Alom Shaha and Martin Robbins.
The New Humanist magazine is published by a registered charity, the Rationalist Association. It’s a great example of the growing trend for non-profit organisations to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainstream news media, covering niche and public interest issues that are covered superficially or ignored by commercial newspapers. If you want to support this project, you can subscribe here.
Mystery surrounds a multi-million pound government grant to the charity behind one of Michael Gove’s flagship Academy schools.
Last year, the Durand Education Trust was awarded £17.3 million to build what the Telegraph heralded as the “first fully free state-run boarding school” .
Durand Primary School in Stockwell, South London, had earlier, said the Daily Mail, “used proceeds from a leisure and student accommodation business it runs” to buy St Cuthman’s, the site of a former special needs centre in Midhurst, West Sussex.
The school’s plan was to give its pupils an alternative to poorly-performing local secondary schools when they completed their time at Durand. The new secondary school would be based in the countryside to keep the children far away from “stabbings and the constant threat of trouble”.
“Teenagers will be transported from London on Monday mornings to spend five days and four nights in the country, returning on Friday evenings, all free of charge”, reported the Mail .
To those tempted to ask whether public money would be better spent improving the local secondary schools rather than building an entirely new one, 50 miles away, and then shipping hundreds of children there and back every week, the school had a good answer:
“It wouldn’t cost [the government] a penny”, Durand’s Executive Head told the Spectator. While the secondary school’s core expenditure would be funded by the state in the normal way, “we’d cover the costs of boarding from the profits of our health club”.
According to the Economist, “Nothing quite like it has been tried before”.
According to the Daily Express, “Parents… are delighted their youngsters will get the chance to enjoy a Harry Potter-style education away from the area’s notorious gang culture.”
“Unlike other state boarding schools, it will not charge for accommodation”, explained the Guardian. “Instead, its running costs will come out of private income the school generates from a swimming pool, gym and block of flats.”
Media coverage has been so positive, in fact, that the PR and lobbying company employed by Durand to promote the St Cuthman’s project, secure government funding, and “make Durand Academy synonymous with educational excellence” last year won an advertising industry award for the £200,000 campaign.
It may also have helped that the school has repeatedly deployed libel lawyers Carter Ruck against critics of the school’s management, and is currently suing Lambeth Council over three emails in which its chief auditor raised concerns about its financial affairs.
Yet amid all the glowing news reports, two big problems seem to have been overlooked.
1. Notwithstanding claims that Durand purchased the St Cuthman’s site “using its own funds”, and “using income from a gym and flats on its London site”, Companies House records appear to show that the Durand Education Trust actually took on a debt of £1.9 million to buy the property – over half of its reported £3.4 million sale price:
2. The reported profits from Durand’s business activities cover only a fraction of the school’s boarding costs. It appears that the project will therefore need millions of pounds in additional funding in order to become financially viable – at a time when other schools are having to cut back.
State boarding school lodging costs reportedly range from £7,500 to £12,000 per year for each child. Even at the lower end of that scale, Durand would need more than £4.3 million per year to board the 625 secondary pupils it hopes to take in. In the last three years, the school’s business arm, London Horizons, has generated £304,964 (2009), £255,157 (2010) and £350,120 (2011) for Durand Primary School and the Durand Education Trust – an average of just over £300,000 – less than 10% of the money the school looks to require.
According to “Spears Wealth Management Survey”, Durand has recently launched a public fundraising campaign urging wealthy individuals to sponsor children at the new school, costing this at £3,800 per child, per year. But even at that level, this would still require around £2,375,000 per year for 625 children. This is a sum that many long-standing charities would struggle to raise in a good year, let alone a start-up fundraising programme focussing on a single state school in the midst of a global recession.
When I asked for a copy of the budget and costings for the boarding school project, the Department for Education refused to reveal it, claiming that “Disclosure of certain information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the Department, the proposers or both by adversely affecting bargaining positions and resulting in less effective use of public money”.
So I made a Freedom of Information request to Durand Academy asking for:
“Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site”, “The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase” and “The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is
to be repaid”.
I got the following reply:
1. Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site in Sussex.
ZERO (DAT did not purchase the site)
2. Details of how Durand financed the above purchase.
NOT HELD. See above
3. The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase.
4. The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is to be repaid.
When I queried this, pointing out that a video on Durand Academy’s own website states that “Durand used its savings to purchase a site in the countryside”, I got no response.
But the school appears to be working on the basis – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information – that the Durand Education Trust is legally a separate entity from Durand Academy, and that FOI requests to the latter do not cover the former.
I subsequently told Durand that I’d seen information suggesting they were in debt, and that this seemed to raise questions about the viability of the St Cuthman’s project and the government’s decision to award it so much money at a time of “extreme national austerity”.
They issued a strong denial, stating that:
“Your assertions and source are factually incorrect on this matter. Durand Academy is not in debt, nor has liability for the land purchase and it would be wrong to suggest either.
“On the issue of value for money, we must object. More than any other school we are aware of, Durand has worked tirelessly and independently over the last twenty years to add significant value and opportunities for local tax payers, without impacting the public purse. Without additional central government support Durand has: improved the condition and value of the school estate substantially; absorbed a run-down failing primary school; completely refurbished that school to a high specification as a specialist early years site; expanded the number of places available to the local community; built state-of the art leisure facilities that children enjoy free use of and the wider community benefit from; reduced class sizes; subsidised healthy meals and; invested in a secondary school project that will provide choice and opportunity for local parents.
“We appreciate very much the ‘extreme national austerity’ that you refer, and that is why we believe that the Government has chosen to support a project and a project team that has never asked for hand-outs and are self-sufficient, has always made maximum efficient use of resources and have a strong record of delivery, not only in education, but in delivering projects on time and to budget.
“The £17.34 million pledged by the Government is some £8m to £15m less than has typically been spent on establishing a new secondary school to serve inner London in recent years. This money will help to deliver a secondary state boarding school from scratch, providing life changing opportunities for thousands of children. This project is innovative and ambitious, but we can assure you it is viable and we are committed to its delivery.”
Confused, I asked whether this applied to Durand as a whole – ie. not just Durand Academy but also the Durand Education Trust (for whom my usual correspondent at the school is listed as the main contact).
I was told: “As stated below this is from Durand Academy. Durand Education Trust is a separate entity. I am an administrator at Durand Academy and field correspondence for Durand Education Trust.”
So I asked my correspondent to refer my previous query about the financial situation to the Durand Education Trust. At the time of publication, a follow-up request for clarification had been acknowledged, but not replied to.
Given that the Durand Education Trust is legally constituted as an “independent charitable trust”, rather than a government body, it is not clear whether the Freedom of Information Act can be applied to it.
It may be that I’ve missed something obvious here (in which case, please do email me or leave a comment below). Or it may be that Durand has a substantial, and previously-undisclosed, source of additional income that can plug the financial gap.
But at the moment it is difficult to see how the Department for Education will be able to avoid committing many more millions each year to this experimental project – leaving millions less available for other, less favoured schools within the education system.
Update: I have now had some comments from the Durand Education Trust. Here’s what they say:
“1. Some of your estimates are so over the top as to be risible. For instance, though there will be costs associated with providing boarding (principally the extra costs associated with keeping duty staff on site overnight for safeguarding) the idea that these would amount to almost £30,000 per night, which is what is consistent with the lower figure in the range you cite, is frankly absurd.
2. DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site. Any information you have to the contrary is false.
3. The figures you quote for London Horizons revenues were figures supplied to you in respect of sums historically paid over to Durand Primary School and Durand Academy. They do not reflect the level of income accruing to DET now or in the future.”
The Durand Education Trust also complain that “Whilst we are prepared to be as transparent as commercial sensitivities allow, we note that almost everything you have written about Durand in the past… has been unfair or inaccurate, and sometimes both. It is hard to resist the conclusion that your reporting is actuated by malice and/or a political agenda…”
So it looks like the mystery will continue for a while yet. I’d welcome any comments from readers that could help to clear things up.
On the financial question, the figure of £7,500 to £12,000 per year per child for state school boarding costs comes from a broadly positive Telegraph article, in which Durand got a prominent mention (“More cash needed for state boarding schools, warns head“, November 28th 2011). Over a 39-week school year where 625 children were boarded for 4 nights per week, the lower end of this scale would indeed amount to approximately £30,000 per day, which certainly is a lot of money.
It’s worth noting, however, that the cost-per-child cited by Durand in their new fundraising campaign – £3,800, would, under the same analysis, equate to around £15,000 per day for 625 children – or £24 per child. While this is significantly less, it is still a substantial sum, and with a total yearly cost (£2,375,000) that would still be much higher than the reported annual income generated, to date, by London Horizons (£350,120 in 2011).
It is not yet clear how the costs of transporting 625 children on the 50 mile trip to and from West Sussex each week would fit into the above analysis, or where the money for this would come from.
I have asked the Durand Education Trust for more details of the things I’ve written that they feel have been unfair or inaccurate, and invited them to produce a “right to reply” piece for publication on this blog, putting their side of the story. I will update this post if and when I receive a reply.
In literal terms, The Durand Education Trust appear to be correct in stating that “DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site”. Records from Companies House show that the company which lent them £1.9 million was not a bank or a building society, but a firm called Alderley Land. More on that in due course…
“We have a wretched Government here which has… caused the resignation of me and many others, because it was this Government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act” – Conservative MP Anthony Steen, on being exposed in the MPs’ expenses scandal.
There’s been a lot of coverage this week about a Ministry of Justice study which among other things claimed, according to the Guardian that “Civil servants do not believe the Freedom of Information Act has increased accountability”.
This suggestion seemed surprising, given the number of high-profile cases where FOI has helped expose abusive behaviour by our public officials, most notably the MPs expenses scandal. Although the damning details were ultimately made public via a leak, the writer and activist Heather Brooke had fought a long and well-publicised legal campaign to establish that Parliamentary expenses were subject to FOI, and it is widely acknowledged that the existence of FOI requests by Brooke and others helped to precipitate the news story.
This is the case even for some of those exposed in the scandal. When the Conservative MP Anthony Steen was forced to resign after it emerged that he’d spent £90,000 of public money on his country home, he specifically blamed the Freedom of Information Act, saying:
“I think I have behaved impeccably. I’ve done nothing criminal. As far as I’m concerned and as of this day, I don’t know what the fuss is about…
We have a wretched government here which has completely mucked up the system and caused the resignation of me and many others because it was this government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act, and it is this Government that insisted on the things which caught me on the wrong foot… What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None.”
It’s difficult to think of a clearer example of FOI-induced accountability than this. So I had a look through the Ministry of Justice study. Here are some extracts:
“FOIA has resulted… in the disclosure of significant amounts of information which has enabled the public to hold public authorities to account.” (page 60)
“The Government believes that the expansion of the Act… will continue to promote openness, transparency and accountability across the public sector.” (page 66)
“% of FOI officers who agreed that the following objectives were being achieved:
- increased accountability 78%” (page 84)
“surveys of officials and stakeholders across public authorities found that the FOIA had indeed made central and local government more accountable” (page 88)
“the evidence suggests that the FOIA has had considerable success in achieving its primary objectives of greater openness and accountability… Claims that the FOIA would undermine civil service neutrality or ministerial accountability have likewise proved unfounded” (page 90)
“Conclusion: The FOI legislation set out to improve transparency and accountability, and evidence to date indicates this has been achieved…” (page 99)
Whoever told the Guardian that the study showed “civil servants do not believe the FOI act has increased accountability” appears to have been mistaken…