Do we want the BNP in our schools?

Arguments over whether or not Adam Walker’s comments were “racist” obscure the real issue.

A BNP activist and former teacher has been cleared of racism by the General Teaching Council. Adam Walker, 41, used a school laptop to post comments online describing immigrants as "savage animals" while working at Houghton Kepier Sports College, in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham. He also claimed Britain was a "dumping ground for the filth of the third world".

Despite declaring itself "troubled" by Walker's views, the GTC decided that while Walker's postings demonstrated an attitude that might be considered racist, the specific references to immigrants were not necessarily "suggestive of any particular views on race".

The ruling has been criticised by teaching unions, including the NUT, whose leader, Christine Blower, described the decision as "perverse".

The decision in March by the then schools secretary, Ed Balls, not to ban teachers from joining the BNP outright means that the debate has now descended into an argument over semantics. (The GTC, in effect, is saying it's not racist to describe immigrants in general as "filth", because immigrants are an ethnically diverse group -- a line of argument not unlike that of a comedian who makes jokes about black people saying "I'm not racist, I hate everyone . . .") But this threatens to obscure a more fundamental question: should BNP members have any involvement in our schools at all?

The education system plays a crucial role in the far-right party's quest for respectabililty. It has made a determined effort to get its members elected to school governing bodies. (This has been made easier in recent years by a shortage of ordinary people willing to take up governors' posts.)

In Stoke-on-Trent last year, for example, three BNP councillors attempted to join the board of governors of Edensor Technology College, a school where 80 per cent of the pupils are Asian.

Speaking outside the GTC hearing in Birmingham, Walker and his party chairman, Nick Griffin, presented the case as a free speech issue. But there is a clear difference between expressing privately held views and being a member of a political organisation that is committed to dividing British society along ethnic lines -- the party's 2009 county council manifesto, for example, declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".

Furthermore, Walker plays an active role in the BNP. He stood as a parliamentary candidate in May and, as the NS revealed in April, during the BNP's election campaign he was frequently pictured by Nick Griffin's side, wearing army fatigues. Here is how we reported it at the time:

On Saturday [Walker] was parading in front of news cameras gathered in Barking to cover the BNP's campaign launch. Asked if he was a real soldier, he admitted he wasn't. "I'm wearing this uniform in solidarity with our boys in Afghanistan," Walker said.

David Cameron has already said that he sees membership of the BNP as "incompatible" with the role of a teacher. It remains to be seen whether his government will take a fresh look at the matter.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.