Child-smacking, chain-smoking, spin-doctoring

14th November 1997 at 00:00
It has been a week of U-turns and own goals by New Labour -tobacco sponsorship and libraries closing in National Library Week launched by Culture Secretary Chris Smith. Despite this the Government's honeymoon with the electors is far from over, says a Gallup poll. This happy situation could be due to the work of spin doctors, though more than half the sample didn't know what they were and those who did took a dim view of them.

The despised breed are in for a tough time as the dons of Oxbridge are rolling up their sleeves for a fierce fight to keep their privileges, which look threatened by David Blunkett. The Education Secretary is thought to be considering rechannelling the Pounds 35 million special funds for the two universities' tutorial systems into red-bricks (such as his alma mater, Sheffield?). Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Chancellor of Oxford, condemned the plans, saying they were "perverse" and "lunatic" and egalitarian zeal gone too far.

Coming after the attack on another ancient institution, the Royal Opera House, it was heartening for some to see that the Prime Minister retains a modicum of respect for old-fashioned English customs - beating children -albeit not with canes, straps or slippers.

A European Commission on Human Rights ruling said an eight-year-old's step-father had violated his rights by caning him repeatedly. As anti-corporal punishment campaigners hailed this as the end of corporal punishment, the Government signalled it would not necessarily rule out an open-handed, short, sharp, parental smack.

It's surprising that the nation's children survive to get such reprimands, with news of lead poisoning in water and paint, and toxic toys. Researchers at Sussex University reckon that one in 10 children suffers brain damage before the age of six because of exposure to lead while their brains are still developing. And Britain will not meet World Health Organisation limits for lead in drinking water until 2010.

Soft PVC used in teething toys for babies could contain chemicals which cause liver and kidney damage, increase the risk of cancer and inhibit growth, among other nasties, says Greenpeace's evidence to an EU committee on toxicity.

At least our academics can speak out, however unpalatable the news. Not so in Malaysia where the education minister, Najib Tun Abdul Razak, issued a directive barring researchers from commenting on the haze from the forest fires in Indonesia which has blanketed the region in dense smog for the past three months.

Citing a report which quoted a researcher as saying that breathing air was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, the minister said this finding was speculative, not scientifically proven, could trigger alarm and distort the reputation of the country.

More cheerful findings from Northumbria University where Sandy Wolfson discovered that "To boldly go" was good for you, if not for good English campaigners. Star Trek can help you live long and prosper was the message from the 800 devotees she questioned at an exhibition based on the long-running TV show.

It was week of mixed messages on equality, with a 17-year-old winning her action against the mighty petrol giant, Texaco. Melissa Lambton, from Wellingborough, was made redundant from her Saturday job, found she had been replaced, took advice on legal aid and fought her own case against a barrister at an industrial tribunal. Described by her headteacher as a girl "with a touch of steel", Melissa wants to be a doctor, but the tribunal chairman thought she'd missed her calling and ought to be a lawyer.

Either way, she might be more sensible than many of her contemporaries who are turning to bad habits. Young women are bucking the trend on smoking which has been on the decline since 1972. The Office for National Statistics also warned that they are drinking more-a case of girls behaving badly.

Political prig of the week prize to Oliver Tickner, 12, who forced the BBC to apologise for placing anti-Tory propaganda in a children's programme about pirates. His proud dad, Michael, is Conservative leader of Bromley Council.

Techno-wizard of the week is 10-year-old Todd Green, who told us how to keep cyberpets alive-until his mother inadvertently put his latest in the washing machine. Perhaps he should be taken on to sort out Whitehall's chaos on a Web site which was, embarrassingly, found to have outdated and inaccurate information on public appointments and even on name changes of ministries; all in the name of open government.

And, with the festive season looming, it is heartwarming to find that in the age of the Tamagotchi, the famous New York store, Bloomingdales, was forced to reinstate Santa Claus after outraged children, and the mayor, jammed the switchboard in protest at his proposed abolition.

Diane Spencer

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