The Fight Against Poverty, Disease and Abuse:


Is "Poverty" about a lack of money -or is it really about a lack of  ideas, opportunity and choice?

-Or is it  just a question of  getting the balance right?


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The Guardian, Thursday 18 October 2012 
Patrick Wintour, political editor

Coalition's child poverty adviser: bring back EMA


Alan Milburn says abolishing education maintenance allowance was 'very bad mistake'

Alan Milburn – the coalition's child poverty adviser –has criticised the alternative to the EMA, saying the bursary scheme is flawed. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian
The coalition made "a very bad mistake" when it abolished the education maintenance allowance (EMA) in England aimed at helping poorer 16- to 17-year-olds stay on at school, Alan Milburn, the government's adviser on child poverty and social mobility, tells the Guardian today.
Before publication of his controversial report into improving access to higher education, Milburn also warns that there is no evidence that money being spent on tuition fee waivers designed to help low-income students at university is "in any way" effective.
Universities run various waiver schemes but students might have their first year of university paid for by the state if they had been eligible for free school meals. Milburn instead calls for much of the fee waivers money – the budget is due to rise from £94m this year to £261m in 2015/16 – to be transferred to restoring a revised form of the EMA, scrapped in 2010.
The suggestion is part of a wider assessment of how the government and universities spend nearly £600m to help children from poorer backgrounds attend higher education. Universities are estimated to spend as much as £81m on outreach.
Milburn will call on them to standardise the way in which they measure the social deprivation of a school student applying for a university place, saying institutions use too many variables, ranging from family income, deprivation of neighbourhood or number of children on free school meals.
He will also urge universities to do more to take into account how well a student is likely to do at university. "Students should not be admitted according to how well they did at school, but how well they are likely to do at university," he said. "It's not a reward for achievement, but a reward for potential to achieve."
Numerous studies showed students from poorer backgrounds did as well or better at university than those from wealthier backgrounds with equivalent A-levels, he said.
Milburn will also discuss the impact of the trebling of tuition fees, but will not call for the increase to be reversed.
EMA was abolished by Michael Gove on the grounds that it was badly targeted and went to too many children who would have stayed on at school anyway. It was worth £30 a week for those whose household income is under £20,817. Its abolition prompted widespread protests alongside student demonstrations over the rise in tuition fees.
Milburn will report that EMA was "generally regarded by universities as an initiative that encouraged progression, attainment and good study habits because of the way it was awarded.
"Equally, teachers have expressed concern that EMA acted as a clear incentive for young people to stay on in education, and fear that its removal may have a damaging impact. Independent evaluations also found that it significantly increased staying-on rates and attainment."
He also points out that when the Institute for Fiscal Studies looked into EMA, it found that it had significantly increased participation rates in post-16 education among young adults. It increased the proportion of eligible 16-year-olds staying in education from 65% to 69%, and of eligible 17-year-olds from 54% to 61%.
Milburn criticises the government's alternative to the EMA, saying the bursary scheme is flawed since students have to apply for the bursary after enrolment. "As a consequence students do not know, when applying for a place in post-16 education, whether they will receive a bursary – and if so, what its value will be."
The replacement, called the 16-19 bursary scheme, is worth £1,200 a year and goes only to the 12,000 poorest or most vulnerable students.
Milburn says: "Research into those in receipt of the new bursary fund has found that, while it is too soon to quantify the long-term impact on student numbers, many young people are not receiving the financial backup they need to support their everyday living expenses."
His report concludes: "In summary, there is legitimate cause for concern that these changes may have a negative impact on widening participation."
In the meantime, Milburn suggests that the government should increase the funding level and refine the targeting. He also proposes universities should consider providing EMA-style financial incentives directly for young people to stay on and succeed at school.
He argues that the best way to increase social mobility is to increase the number of young people staying on at school to achieve good A-levels, and says universities have a role in securing this aim.
He said: "It's not acceptable for universities to say 'it's nothing to do with me guv, and it's all down to schools'."
The chances of a child who is eligible for free school meals getting good qualifications at age 16 are just over half those for better-off classmates: only about one-third of children eligible for free meals get five good GCSEs compared with about two-thirds of other children. This is reflected in the post-16 attainment gap, where 32% of pupils who were eligible for free meals at age 15 attain level 3 qualifications by age 19, compared with 57% of those who were not.
Milburn quoted a Sutton Trust study showing that at highly selective universities, students from private schools are 22 times more likely to get a place than state school pupils eligible for free school meals.
"In 28 of the 88 universities in the Sutton Trust report, those who had been eligible for free school meals at age 15 formed less than 3% of their intake. Pupils eligible for free school meals at age 15 made up more than 10% of the intake at only 15 of the 88 universities."
He wants the government to set a long-term objective for spending on higher education to reach the OECD average of 1.5 % of GDP.


Energy companies to be compelled to offer lowest tariff to customers


David Cameron's solution to tackle widespread concern over rising bills attacked as a 'mistake' that would 'kill competition'

Nicholas Watt and Mark King
The Guardian, Thursday 18 October 2012
Household energy costs
New price hikes by four of the big six energy companies have put pressure on the government to act. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

David Cameron has been warned he will kill off competition in the energy market after he announced that companies will be forced to give all their customers the lowest tariff available.
To the surprise of some of his own officials and amid consternation in Whitehall, the PM told MPs the government would introduce legislation to compel companies to offer the lowest tariff.
Cameron said: "We have encouraged people to switch, which is one of the best ways to get energy bills down. I can announce that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers – something that Labour did not do in 13 years, even though the leader of the Labour party could have done it because he had the job."

The unequivocal pledge by the PM on the forthcoming energy bill caused some surprise in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc). One source said: "We are looking at lots of ideas about how to use the law to get the lowest tariffs. We are exploring all the options."
One price comparison website warned that legislation could work against consumers' interests by killing competition. Ann Robinson of, said: "This has to be a mistake – the unintended consequences would be to kill competition. Consumers will be left with Hobson's choice – there will be no spur, no choice, no innovation and no reason for consumers to engage any more. The only glimmer of hope would be that smaller suppliers will be able to offer cheaper prices than the big six and therefore competition is able to continue in that arena."

Cameron made his announcement in response to mounting concerns over rising household energy bills – four of the UK's big six energy firms have already announced above-inflation winter price hikes.
After the announcement, a spokesman for the PM said: "We've asked energy companies to take action themselves and make clear what the lowest available deals are. The point is, in practice this market is not operating for everyone. A small minority of people are actually switching deals, therefore we need to push some of this responsibility on to the energy companies."
He said customers would have to wait until the bill was published, possibly in the autumn, for details of how the change would work in practice. The move did not mean energy companies would offer only one tariff, as different customers would need different rates. "At the moment, the way the market works, people are encouraged to switch but many people don't … so lots of people are not benefiting from that market, particularly vulnerable people who are less likely to switch deals."
The announcement followed a strongly-worded open letter to Cameron from consumer rights group Which?, calling for an independent review into energy bills.
In the letter, the group's executive director Richard Lloyd wrote: "It's time to face facts: the energy market is broken. The sector is dominated by a handful of big and powerful players who are seemingly unaffected by the normal competitive pressure of price and customer service."
Reacting to Cameron's announcement, Lloyd said: "Legislating so energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers is a big statement from the prime minister and acknowledges that competition in the energy retail market has failed. This is a big moment for consumers, but we must now see these words turned into action and see the detail from the government in the energy bill."
Angela Knight, chief executive of Energy UK, the trade association for the gas and electricity sector, said: "Rebuilding trust with customers is a priority. Britain may have the cheapest gas and fourth-cheapest electricity prices in western Europe, but wholesale energy prices have been rising and now only represent half of a standard energy bill."

Regulator Ofgem has already announced that it is looking into predatory pricing and tariff simplicity as part of its retail market review, while the government has encouraged consumers to shop around to make sure they are on the best available deals: the Decc has backed collective purchasing schemes such as the controversial Which? Big Switch initiative.
On Monday SSE increased gas and electricity prices by 9%, with more price rises coming in November from other suppliers.

British Gas has announced price increases of 6% in both gas and electricity; npower will raise the cost of gas by 8.8% and electricity by 9.1%; while Scottish Power's prices will rise in December by an average of 7%.
The effect on household bills has spurred consumer advice groups into action. The National Right to Fuel Campaign warned that the UK was facing "an energy bill crisis", with cold and poorly lit homes posing "a serious health risk to people of all ages".

Citizens Advice is launching the Big Energy Saving Week on 22 October to target millions of families across the UK with advice on keeping energy bills down.
The campaign coincides with a warning from price comparison site that the best fixed rate energy deals – including deals from Ovo Energy and First Utility – are "disappearing fast".
The government will outline plans on Thursday for a new £160m gas market infrastructure. The government will "remove an ambiguity" in the Gas Act to make it easier for Ofgem to launch an innovation competition that could attract £160m of extra investment. The Electricity Act will also be amended so developers will only need to undertake a three-month consultation if they want to change plans to incorporate the most energy-efficient measures.

In the final announcement the energy secretary, Ed Davey, will say that reforms in the energy bill will unlock £110bn of new investment in the electricity market.

18 October 2012 Last updated at 06:50 GMT

Human trafficking to UK 'rising'


A file photo of a prostitute Many victims of trafficking are used for sexual exploitation or forced labour
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The number of people being trafficked into the UK is rising, latest government estimates suggest.
Last year the authorities learned of 946 victims, compared with 710 in 2010, the inter-departmental ministerial group on human trafficking said.

Crime gangs in China, Vietnam, Nigeria and eastern Europe now pose the biggest threat to the UK on the issue, it said.

The government said better co-ordination between its departments and with authorities abroad was key.
There is currently no official figure for the number of victims trafficked into the country each year.
However, the group's report said that last year 712 adult victims and 234 child victims were reported to the National Referral Mechanism, the official body that identifies and looks after those caught up in trafficking.
Of the victims referred in 2010, 524 were adults and 186 were children.

Case study
Sophie, 32, is British and from the north of England.
She still has to hide her identity from her trafficker - a man who pretended to be her boyfriend, who took her to Italy on a holiday before turning on her.
"Basically, he told me I'd have to work on the streets for him and I was going to have to become a prostitute.
"I thought I could reason with him and tell him I didn't want to do that. It wasn't me.
"He pinned me up against the wall and almost strangled me.
"He took over my whole head.
"I couldn't think anymore - I couldn't do anything because he controlled everything.
It is thought the increase could be explained by improvements in identifying victims, although campaigners say the figures of those being trafficked could be far higher as many victims choose not to come forward for fear of being sent back to where they came from.
The report detailed two cases of people being trafficked for illegal organ removals but they were detected and stopped before the operations were carried out. One involved the planned sale of a victim's kidneys.
The report also said there had been an increase in the number of children being forced into crime, including street begging. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre estimates there are about 300 child trafficking victims in the UK every year.
BBC home affairs correspondent Tom Symonds, who joined police on a raid in east London on Thursday morning, said two raids were taking place every week in London alone.

'Better life'
Det Insp Kevin Hyland, of London's Metropolitan Police - which sees the UK's highest rates of trafficking - said some victims travelled to the UK in lorries or containers but the majority arrived lawfully, often accompanied by their traffickers.
"The vast majority of them think they're coming to a better life in the UK," he said.
Mr Hyland said it was often "almost impossible" for border guards to spot victims because they often did not even know they were being trafficked.
Many victims are promised jobs in the hotel or leisure industry, or as interpreters, but when they arrive they are "groomed or threatened," he said.
Once in the UK they are "moved on to the exploiters" to be used for sexual exploitation or forced labour, or both, he said.

In London, police deal with more than 100 cases of trafficking a year. Some will involve more than 400 victims but the majority involve about 10 to 15 people.
The group's report said that by far the largest number of referrals of potential victims of trafficking were Nigerian nationals. The largest number of referrals of victims from within Europe involved Romanian nationals.

There are an estimated 92 organised crime groups in the UK known to have an involvement in human trafficking, it said.

And 142 defendants were charged with offences related to human trafficking in 2011/12.
The report said intelligence sharing with international police forces was already "proving effective".
'No magic bullet'

Immigration minister Mark Harper said Thursday's report would "increase the awareness of what's going on" and demonstrate UK professionals were getting better at "spotting" the crime due to "cross-government" and cross-agency work.

"We're doing a better job of cracking down people involved in the vile trade, which is effectively modern-day slavery," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
But the number of those being prosecuted was still "not enough," he added.

"One of the things we do is to prosecute people for the most serious offences we can - and sometimes that's not a trafficking offence."

Mr Harper also said authorities were working hard to "make sure victims who are trafficked are treated as victims and not as offenders, which has happened in the past".
The report revealed thousands of "front-line" workers, including border staff, police and healthcare workers, have been trained to better identify, support and protect victims over the past two years.
Some airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and Thomas Cook, are also training cabin crew to identify those who engaged in trafficking and their potential victims.
And a 24-hour confidential line has been set up for crew to report concerns to border officials before a plane lands in the UK.


Websites' servers hacked to host child abuse images


Dozens of businesses have been hacked and their computer servers used to host images of child sexual abuse, the Internet Watch Foundation has said.

The charity said legal pornographic sites had also been attacked to redirect users to the illegal material.

The offending material was sometimes accompanied by malware, it said.

The IWF told BBC Radio 5 live it had received 227 reports about the trend over the past six weeks. Some complaints involved the same examples.

Hijacked links

Cambridge-based IWF described the images as showing "the worst of the worst" sexual abuse.

They included images of newborn babies and the rape and violent sexual abuse of very young children, it said.

The charity gave the example of one case in which a furniture business had had the servers it used breached.

It said the attackers had created an "orphan folder" on the computers and then uploaded hundreds of offending images to it - effectively creating a new section on the retailer's website which was not linked to any of its other pages.

The charity said the hackers then hijacked links on "adult" sites so that if a visitor clicked on one of the affected pornographic images or videos they would be directed to the offending material.

"We don't understand this entirely," said IWF chairman Sir Richard Tilt. "But some company websites have been hacked into and some of this appalling material has been placed there."

The charity said more than two dozen businesses across the world had had the servers they used compromised, in addition to the furniture seller.

Administrators of the sites involved might be unaware of the problem until someone complained, the charity said.

The IWF said it did not know what had motivated the perpetrators.

"We hadn't seen significant numbers of hacked websites for around two years, and then suddenly in June we started seeing this happening more and more," said the IWF's technical researcher, Sarah Smith.

"It shows how someone not looking for child sexual abuse images can stumble across it. The original adult content the internet user is viewing is far removed from anything related to young people or children.

"We've received reports from people distressed about what they've seen. Our reporters have been extremely diligent in explaining exactly what happened, enabling our analysts to retrace their steps and take action against the child sexual abuse images."

She added that the charity had passed on the information to the police and sister hotlines in other countries.

Children's charity the NSPCC urged anyone coming across abuse images to report them immediately, saying "something like 16% of men in particular" were failing to do so.

"We really encourage them to report it because potentially you'll then have a thumbnail of that image somewhere hidden in your computer system even if you only clicked on it for one second," said spokeswoman Claire Lilley.

Rise in reports

The issue of online images showing the sexual abuse of children has made headlines in recent months after the convictions of Stuart Hazell and Mark Bridger for the murders of Tia Sharp and April Jones.

Both Hazell and Bridger were known to have sought out and viewed child abuse images online.

The IWF said the Hazell and Bridger cases had led to a 42% increase in the number of reports it had received in the past three months, compared with the same period last year.

In June, representatives of a number of internet companies, including Google, Microsoft and Twitter, were summoned to a meeting in Whitehall by Culture Secretary Maria Miller and urged to do more to clamp down on child abuse images on the web.

5 August 2013 Last updated at 12:35 GMT

World's first lab-grown burger is eaten in London


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The world's first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London on Monday.

Scientists took cells from a cow and, at an institute in the Netherlands, turned them into strips of muscle that they combined to make a patty.

Researchers say the technology could be a sustainable way of meeting what they say is a growing demand for meat.

Critics say that eating less meat would be an easier way to tackle predicted food shortages.

The burger was cooked by chef Richard McGowan, from Cornwall, and tasted by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald.

Upon tasting the burger, Austrian food researcher Ms Ruetzler said: "I was expecting the texture to be more soft... there is quite some intense taste; it's close to meat, but it's not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper."

She added: "This is meat to me. It's not falling apart."

Food writer Mr Schonwald said: "The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger.

"What was consistently different was flavour."

Prof Mark Post, of Maastricht University, the scientist behind the burger, remarked: "It's a very good start."

The professor said the meat was made up of tens of billions of lab-grown cells. Asked when lab-grown burgers would reach the market, he said: "I think it will take a while. This is just to show we can do it."

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has been revealed as the project's mystery backer.

Prof Tara Garnett, head of the Food Policy Research Network at Oxford University, said decision-makers needed to look beyond technological solutions.

"We have a situation where 1.4 billion people in the world are overweight and obese, and at the same time one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry," she said.

"That's just weird and unacceptable. The solutions don't just lie with producing more food but changing the systems of supply and access and affordability, so not just more food but better food gets to the people who need it."

Stem cells are the body's "master cells", the templates from which specialised tissue such as nerve or skin cells develop.

Most institutes working in this area are trying to grow human tissue for transplantation to replace worn-out or diseased muscle, nerve cells or cartilage.

Prof Post is using similar techniques to grow muscle and fat for food.

He starts with stem cells extracted from cow muscle tissue. In the laboratory, these are cultured with nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals to help them develop and multiply. Three weeks later, there are more than a million stem cells, which are put into smaller dishes where they coalesce into small strips of muscle about a centimetre long and a few millimetres thick.

These strips are collected into small pellets, which are frozen. When there are enough, they are defrosted and compacted into a patty just before being cooked.

Because the meat is initially white in colour, Helen Breewood - who works with Prof Post - is trying to make the lab-grown muscle look red by adding the naturally-occurring compound myoglobin.

"If it doesn't look like normal meat, if it doesn't taste like normal meat, it's not... going to be a viable replacement," she said.

She added: "A lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first. But if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, I think they would also find that repulsive."

Currently, this is a work in progress. The burger revealed on Monday was coloured red with beetroot juice. The researchers have also added breadcrumbs, caramel and saffron, which were intended to add to the taste, although Ms Ruetzler said she could not taste these.

At the moment, scientists can only make small pieces of meat; larger ones would require artificial circulatory systems to distribute nutrients and oxygen.

In a statement, animal welfare campaigners People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said: "[Lab-grown meat] will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer."

The latest United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report on the future of agriculture indicates that most of the predicted growth in demand for meat from China and Brazil has already happened and many Indians are wedded to their largely vegetarian diets for cultural and culinary reasons.


Making stoves and changing lives in Haiti


Disaster struck Haitian stove-maker Duquesne Fednard only a week after his workers were trained and ready to start production.

The January 2010 earthquake killed more than 220,000 people and made more than 1.5 million homeless in Haiti.

Mr Fednard's new stove-making factory was destroyed, along with all but two pieces of equipment.

He had been in New York at the time of the quake. Mr Fednard returned to Haiti six weeks later and called a meeting with his 15 employees to tell them that with everything destroyed the business was over.

"It was a tough, tough moment," he says. "When I saw that I thought, 'OK, I guess that's the end for me.' "

But Mr Fednard's employees refused to let him walk away.

"One guy said to me, 'This is the only thing right now that we were holding on to. The earthquake took away our families and houses and everything we own. You're taking the last thing that we were counting on.' "

Mr Fednard was humbled. "After a statement like that, I felt like it wasn't about me anymore.

"This was more about giving these people hope."

Production was moved into two tents donated by a local businessman, with the stoves made using artisanal techniques.

Despite the setback, the company has sold 33,000 stoves, and employs 35 people. It had a turnover of more than £65,000 last year.

Going for impact

In Haiti, most people use metal charcoal stoves to cook their food.

Mr Fednard is the founder and chief executive of D&E Green Enterprises, a company that makes a fuel-efficient stove called the Eco Recho, which uses only half the charcoal of regular ones, and sells for £7 ($10.50) to £8.50.

The Eco Recho stoves are more efficient because, although they have a traditional metal exterior, there is also a heat-retaining inner ceramic layer.

An entrepreneur since his teens, Mr Fednard left Haiti at 18 to go to college in the US, using savings from his own businesses, including a print shop, and help from siblings to fund his move.

He was in America for more than a decade where he also worked in investment banking.

However, his aim was always to return home to help his country.

While on a trip to Ghana, he saw a cooking stove that used substantially less charcoal than regular versions thanks to better insulation and design.

With Haitian families spending up to a third of their income on charcoal, it was clear to Mr Fednard that a similar product would have both demand and a positive impact.

Such a stove would put less pressure on wood supplies in a country that suffers from severe deforestation - tree cover in Haiti today is only 1.5%, compared with almost three-quarters of all land in the 1920s.

Mr Fednard, now 36, used his savings to build a factory and quickly start production on a similar stove, and to modify its design according to customer feedback.

But then the earthquake struck, and three years on the company is still producing the stoves in tents, though it has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the factory building and equipment so it can mechanise production.

D&E plans to start exporting the stove to neighbouring countries soon, and to then expand to sustainable energy technologies.

"The goal right now is to come up with an alternative fuel that we can produce in Haiti that can replace charcoal," Mr Fednard says.

The company is looking at making briquettes from agricultural waste and materials such as sugar cane, sawdust and rice husks.

It is also piloting a programme for rural electrification, giving villages access to electricity for the first time. D&E plans to generate electricity using agricultural waste.

Jobs to prosperity

Mr Fednard recently won an international award for economic development. He strongly believes that business will provide the way out of poverty for Haiti, and that there is too much reliance on aid.

"You need to make business part of aid," he says. "That is how you are going to see the greatest return and the greatest impact."

He believes that having a job is the first step towards a better life for people in a country where two-thirds of adults are unemployed.

Mr Fednard's employees are all from the infamous Cite Soleil slum of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and for half of them this is their first job.

"My whole idea of development is that it's a holistic approach," he says. "Giving somebody a job is the first step, because you restore that sense of dignity and hope in that person."

The company gives workers a meal every day, and is hoping to provide health insurance and a stipend for education too.

Recently Smith, the employee who encouraged Mr Fednard to continue with the business after the quake, has moved out of Cite Soleil for the first time in his life.

Mr Fednard says: "Seeing how under very difficult circumstances life is changing for our employees who just started to work three years ago and can now actually purchase a home, to me that's a victory."

5 August 2013 Last updated at 09:48 GMT

Zero-hours contracts 'more widespread than thought'


More than a million UK workers are on zero-hours contracts with no guarantees of shifts or work patterns - four times official estimates, research suggests.

A survey of 1,000 employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development indicated 3-4% of the whole workforce were on such contracts.

Some 14% of affected staff could not earn a basic standard of living.

A review of the contracts by Business Secretary Vince Cable is already under way, amid union calls to ban them.

Despite controversy over their use, just 16% of those affected said their employer often fails to provide them with sufficient hours each week.

This was higher amongst those who described themselves as part-time, where 38% said they would like to work more hours.

Under zero-hours contracts employees agree to be available for work as and when it is required.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics last week suggested 250,000 workers were on zero-hours contracts.

The news emerged as it was reported that part-time staff at retailer Sports Direct and a number of London councils were among those employed on such terms.

Fluctuating wages

According to the CIPD's research, firms in the voluntary and public sectors were more likely to use zero-hours contracts than those in the private sector.

The industries where employers were most likely to report having at least one person on a zero-hours contracts were hotels, catering and leisure, education and healthcare.

The CPID said one in five employers in the UK had at least one person on a zero-hours contract. This means workers can be officially counted as employed, but have no guaranteed paid work and can be sent home from their workplace without warning and without having earned anything.

While zero-hours contracts may suit some due to the flexibility they provide, critics point out that the system can lead to fluctuating wages and a risk that managers may use their contract as both reward and punishment.

Rochelle Monte is a care worker on a zero-hours contract in Newcastle and she told Radio 4's Today Programme that she gave her employer details of her availability and then had to "hope for the best".

"It can change dramatically over the space of a week.

"So you might start off a week thinking you've got 40 hours, but by the end of the week you could be down to 12," she said.

Colin Angel from the UK Homecare Association said zero hours contracts were a response to the way that local authorities commissioned home care services.

"Councils buy 70-odd percent of all hours of home care - and it's proved to be the way that you can retain a workforce who are available very flexibly whose hours can change over a month.

"[It] works well for care workers who largely appreciate the flexibility that their contracts have," he said.

At places of employment found to be using the contracts, the average number of workers who were on them was around 16%, according to CIPD.

Based on these figures, CIPD calculated that between 3% and 4% of all workers were on zero-hour contracts - equating to a million people in the UK labour force.

The employees who took part in the poll worked an average of just under 20 hours a week and were most likely to be aged between 18 and 24 or over 55.

Further data on 148 employees with zero-hours contracts showed that 14% reported their employer often or very often failed to provide them with sufficient hours to sustain a basic standard of living.

Some 38% described themselves as employed full-time, working 30 hours or more a week.

Flexibility for employers

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said the reason his survey showed up to four more times the number of people on zero hour contracts compared to official figures could be down to a lack of precision in the measurement, as well as confusion over definitions.

"I think even sometimes employers themselves are not fully clear on the absolute nature of their contracts and whether it is genuinely zero hours," he said.

"There does need to be a closer look at what is meant by a zero-hours contract, the different forms that they take, and clearer guidance on what good and bad practice in their use looks like.

"Zero-hours contracts, used appropriately, can provide flexibility for employers and employees and can play a positive role in creating more flexible working opportunities.

"However, for some this may be a significant disadvantage where they need more certainty in their working hours and earnings... Zero-hours contracts cannot be used simply to avoid an employer's responsibilities to its employees."

The University and College Union said such contracts used among teaching staff denied them financial security or stability and left students without continuity.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, said: "The vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain."

He added: "The growing number of zero-hours contracts also calls into question government unemployment figures."

'Anecdotal evidence'

Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "For some these can be the right sort of employment contract, giving workers a choice of working patterns.

"However for a contract that is now more widely used, we know relatively little about its effect... There has been anecdotal evidence of abuse by certain employers - including in the public sector."

Mr Cable went on: "While it's important our workforce remains flexible, it is equally important that it is treated fairly. This is why I have asked my officials to undertake some work over the summer to better understand how this type of contract is working in practice today."

But shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said zero-hours contracts should be the exception to the rule and called for a formal consultation.

He said: "While some employees welcome the flexibility of such contracts, for many zero-hours contracts leave them insecure, unsure of when work will come, and undermining family life.

"The 'review' the business secretary has established into zero-hours contracts is clearly inadequate given the seriousness of this issue and the mounting evidence of the abuse of zero-hours contracts."

12 August 2013 Last updated at 16:44 GMT

China drug costs: The human price


At her home on the outskirts of Beijing, Yang Hongxia is busy preparing dinner. She makes noodles as her mother-in-law watches on.

For Hongxia, 39, life is pretty tough.

Her husband, Zhang Yansheng, 41, is in the room next door watching TV. He is suffering from a brain tumour and cannot walk or talk.

Like more than 95% of the population he has some form of government health insurance. But the schemes do not cover all the costs.

His wife works as a bus conductor. But she spends her entire salary, around $600 (£388), on paying for her husband's medication.

The family only survives with hand-outs from relatives.

"When my husband fell sick he was a young man," said Hongxia. "We didn't have a lot of savings. It's a huge burden for us."


As Beijing expands provisions for healthcare, government spending is soaring.

It was estimated at $385bn (£249bn) in 2011.

It is expected to more than double by the end of the decade, according to a report by the consultancy firm, McKinsey.

The government has made clear that reform is required to rein in costs. It is starting with the drugs industry - investigating possible price-fixing in up to 60 foreign and Chinese companies.

Last month a detained executive from the British firm GlaxoSmithKline confessed on state TV that his company paid bribes.

The firm has said it appears some of its local staff acted outside the company's "processes".

Five employees working for other foreign drugs firms have confirmed to the BBC that corruption is a problem.

One of the salesmen said his company paid about $1,000 (£647) to get its product back on the shelves at one hospital.

"I don't deny [giving money to doctors] happens in foreign companies," the sales representative said.

"It is rare though and only very few people get it," he added.

In a system overwhelmed by patients, corruption is an open secret.

We filmed touts illegally selling appointments outside a Beijing hospital. They are so well established they even have business cards.

One tout told us if we paid him $50 (£32) he would get us appointment that afternoon. Otherwise you would have to wait for weeks.


Families here spend a huge chunk of their savings when they get sick. By tackling corruption the authorities hope to make healthcare cheaper.

In doing so, Beijing hopes to boost domestic consumption.

"We've had the gold rush here and now the current economic model is unsustainable," says James McGregor, a business analyst.

"In order to build a consumption-driven economy, consumers need to be confident in the future, the government and their healthcare.

"And that may be why the government is going after all these pharmaceutical companies, because they've got to build confidence among the people.

"You can't order people to take money out of their pocket and spend it - you've got to lure them to do it because they're happy with the way things are."

Back at her home, Yang Hongxia and her family are finishing up dinner.

For Hongxia any thoughts about holidays or new furniture remain a distant dream.

Every penny she has goes on paying for her husband's medical bills. Until drugs get cheaper, the best they can hope for is to just scrape by.

27 September 2013 Last updated at 16:47 GMT

Making Time: Helping child workers save their earnings


Among the 3.5 million people packed into Dhaka's crowded slums are children who must work for a living. Some volunteer for a scheme to help fellow child workers save their earnings.

"People are boxed together in tiny little sheds with tin-covered roofs, it's noisy, smelly and there are there are few facilities," says Birgit Lundbak, a director at Save the Children in Bangladesh.

A black market thrives in the streets that wind their way through the makeshift city. Sparks fly from miniature workshops that sit adjacent to tea shops and tailors.

Local gangs act as unofficial landlords, and use "muscle men" to exert control over the residents, says Shamsul Alam, who specialises in children's welfare at the charity.

Young people make up a huge proportion of the workforce because they are so cheap to employ, he says. They carry out domestic work for wealthier families and operate lathes in motorcycle repair shops. Wages range from 20 taka (16p) up to 120 taka (£1) for more skilled labourers.

"There are no rules and regulations, no official working hours and no salary structure," says Alam. "There is no leave, no scope for education and no entertainment."

Most have no way of saving their earnings, either. "If they ask their employer to look after it, they will often withhold some of it to try and prevent the children leaving their jobs."

Holding on to the cash can pose even greater risks. Many of the children sleep rough and theft can be rife.

A legal ruling in Bangladesh means that children under 18 need an adult to co-sign an application for a bank account. "These children quite often don't live with their parents," says Lundbak. "[Some] have been kicked out from home and they're living in the street, this simply doesn't work for them."

In response to the problem, the charity created Chayabrikhkho in 2007 which allows the children to deposit their money, staffed by the children themselves on a voluntary basis.

"I think they see it as a learning opportunity, and they are helping their friends, so they're very proud to work there," says Lundbak.

Today the scheme holds accounts for about 750 street children, and similar projects across Bangladesh hold the savings of 13,000 young people in similar positions.

Lundbak wants to see Chayabrikhkho closed within a year, however. As successful as the volunteer projects have become, they can't hope to have the reach of a mainstream banking network. Save the Children is lobbying the Bangladeshi government to remove the age restriction on regular bank accounts and hopes the voluntary scheme will be absorbed by a bigger organisation.

There are 70 million children in Bangladesh, Lundbak says, of which seven million need to work on a regular basis. "In that sense, the support that the NGOs are providing is a drop in the ocean. We think this should be the business of regular banks."

As yet, it is unclear whether the government will respond to the calls, but the benefits to the children seem easy to discern.

"When they start depositing money, they start planning for the future," says Alam.

The scheme allows the children a degree of security and many of them invest their earnings once they have saved a sufficient amount.

"Some of them have bought cows for their parents who live outside Dhaka. Others are paying for education for their younger brother and sisters," he says. "They feel more confident because they have money to deal with their problems."


Young woman breaks through in Sri Lankan business world

Nimali Gunawardana, a petite, soft-spoken 25-year-old, is a lot tougher than she looks.

From an impoverished upbringing as one of seven children in a poor family in rural Sri Lanka, she has turned herself through sheer drive and determination into one of the country's most up-and-coming young businesswomen.

Able to recover from one serious business setback along the way, the self-made boss and her company - Nimali Chips and Fibre Mill - are now continuing to prosper in Sri Lanka's male-dominated business community.

And Ms Gunawardana now has her sights set on exporting.


"I am happy that I have broken down the barriers a woman has to face in Sri Lankan society," she says.

"I've always had ambition, and I want to get to the top."

Ms Gunawardana's company turns discarded coconut husks into three useful materials - coir, coir pith and husk chips.

Coir is the fibrous outer cover of the coconut. It can be made into everything from string and rope to fishing nets, brushes and mattresses.

Coir pith, one layer down, has a cork-like texture, and is used as a compost. Husk chips, made by crushing up the hard part of coconut shells, are also used as a growing material for plants, and even to filter water.

Ms Gunawardana set up the company just over a year ago, and it now processes 15,000 coconuts a day.

The business, based in the southern rural district of Ambalantota, employs 13 people - 11 women and two men.

Bounce back

For Ms Gunawardana it is a far cry from her first job working as a sewing machine operator in a clothing factory.

She says: "My parents are poor, and when I was at school I always wanted more money for the family.

"So I had to earn money, and I got a job at a garment factory. I didn't like it, I didn't like the supervisors always blaming you, I didn't like working for someone else, but I was able to save up money.

"I knew I wanted to save up the money to establish my own business."

And so, using cash she had saved and money invested by some of her friends, she bought the lease for a coir-producing factory in 2010.

Unfortunately she soon realised she did not have the experience to run a company. More pressingly, she was unaware that the business had a number of outstanding loans.

As a result, she had to close down the company, losing 300,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($2,300; £1,400).

Many people would have given up the dream of owning their own business, but Ms Gunawardana was determined to bounce back.

After the company failure, no bank would lend to her, so she went to Youth Business Sri Lanka, a business support organisation that is part of Youth Business International, the global charity run by the Prince of Wales.

Youth Business gave her a week's training in running a company, her own mentor, and a modest loan of 100,000 Sri Lankan rupees.

And so her new company, Nimali Chips and Fibre Mill, was born in August last year, and is proving a success.

Ms Gunawardana says she is on target for turnover this year of 5.1m Sri Lankan rupees ($39,000), and she is able to pay back the money lent by her friends.

Start-up award

She says: "When I first started out in business, my parents did not agree with my choice, mainly because I am a girl. In rural parts of Sri Lanka, women like me are very rare.

"But now my parents are proud, and they give me their support, as does my husband."

Ms Gunawardana has now been married for nine months, and her husband quit his job to work for her.

Such has been the success of her new company that Youth Business International recently awarded her the global title of Start-up Entrepreneur of the Year 2013.

Ms Gunawardana travelled to London this month to receive the award from the Prince of Wales.

She now has her eyes on expanding the business.

Ms Gunawardana currently sells her products to other companies who then export them. She wants to start doing the exporting herself. She also plans to start making products from what she produces, with her company starting to turn its coir into rope.

"I have faced a lot of challenges, but I have also had help from Youth Business. I hope that more young women in Sri Lanka think of starting their own companies."


UK firm seeks to market world's first malaria vaccine


British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline is seeking regulatory approval for the world's first malaria vaccine after trial data showed that it had cut the number of cases in African children.

Experts say that they are optimistic about the possibility of the world's first vaccine after the trial results.

Malaria, a mosquito-borne parasitic disease, kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide every year.

Scientists say an effective vaccine is key to attempts to eradicate it.

The vaccine known as RTS,S was found to have almost halved the number of malaria cases in young children in the trial and to have reduced by about 25% the number of malaria cases in infants.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is developing RTS,S with the non-profit Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI), supported by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Many millions of malaria cases fill the wards of our hospitals," said Halidou Tinto, a lead investigator on the RTS,S trial from Burkina Faso.

"Progress is being made with bed nets and other measures, but we need more tools to battle this terrible disease."

The malaria trial was Africa's largest-ever clinical trial involving almost 15,500 children in seven countries.

The findings were presented at a medical meeting in Durban, South Africa.

"Based on these data, GSK now intends to submit, in 2014, a regulatory application to the European Medicines Agency (EMA)," GSK said in a statement.

The company has been developing the vaccine for three decades.

The statement said that the hope now is that the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) may recommend the use of the RTS,S vaccine from as early as 2015 if EMA drugs regulators back its licence application.

Testing showed that 18 months after vaccination, children aged five to 17 months had a 46% reduction in the risk of clinical malaria compared to unvaccinated contemporaries.

But in infants aged six to 12 weeks at the time of vaccination, there was only a 27% reduction in risk.

A spokeswoman for GSK told the AFP news agency that the company would file its application to the EMA under a process aimed at facilitating new drugs for poorer countries.


The technology modernising Kenya's matatus


Matatus - the ramshackle public minibuses seating between 14 and 24 people that zip along the streets of Kenya's capital Nairobi - carry a third of the city's residents to and from work each day.

The journey from the city centre to the working-class suburb of Rongai takes between 45 minutes and two hours, depending on traffic.

Yet inside the "Ferguson" matatu - named for its colourful images of the former Manchester United manager - half a dozen passengers seem oblivious to the length of their commute.

Instead, they sit glued to their smartphones, checking the latest news, YouTube videos and catching up on emails.

Ferguson is one of more than 1,000 matatus in the city now equipped with free wi-fi for passengers to enjoy through a service called Vuma Online, launched this April by Safaricom, Kenya's biggest telecom company.

The goal, according to Kevin Bett of Safaricom, is to "convert [passengers] to internet users".

But for matatu drivers and conductors it's giving them an edge over intense competition for passengers.

"We get more passengers," says Victor Njuguna, a Vuma-equipped matatu conductor. "They actually wait for our bus - they want to enjoy free wi-fi."

Commuter pain

Nairobi is East Africa's economic, business and technology hub.

It has grown from half a million residents in the 1970s to more than three million today. It has grown outward, not upward resulting in an unplanned semi-urban sprawl.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the city ranks as the fourth most painful commute in the world, according to IBM's Commuter Pain Index.

The government estimates that traffic jams cost the economy more than 50m Kenyan shillings (£365,000; $585,000) per day in lost productivity, fuel consumption and pollution.

While the government has ambitious plans to build new roads and bypasses for the city, and even establish a mass rapid transit system and rapid light rail by 2030, progress, like the traffic itself, seems painfully slow.

Though Nairobi's commute is dreadful to most, for some of Kenya's burgeoning "silicon savannah" techies, it's an opportunity.

"Commutes can be up to three hours long," says Jeremy Gordon, chief executive of FlashCast, a Kenyan tech start-up. "That's a captive audience whose time is pretty under-used."

Launched in 2012, FlashCast has designed a location-based advertising system for buses and matatus, using a red LED marquee display connected to a GPS unit and 3G modem installed in the vehicles.

Yet advertising alone can be boring.

"If we can't make it an entertaining, engaging experience, it's not worth it for them," explains Mr Gordon. "We also display news headlines, short quizzes, games, word scrambles and discussion topics."

For example, in April they asked riders on selected buses to nominate the #BestDressed Passenger on the bus.

The replies ended up being a huge hit, with responses such as "Red lipstick grey top blue jeans seated back seat next 2 the window on the left side. #pliz…"

"People have a desire to be stimulated when they're sitting in traffic," says Mr Gordon, "so it's a win win."

It's also a win for the vehicle owners, since they earn a share of the advertising revenues.

However, entertaining commuters - and occasionally helping them hit on each other - isn't the only service FlashCast offers.

Since its GPS units track vehicles in real time, it is making that traffic information available through its Android mobile app so that customers can track the location and movement of certain buses, to help figure out which route to take to beat the traffic.

From cash to cashless

Traffic delays are just one part of Nairobi's commuter woes. A greater problem lies in the structure of the public transportation system itself - a semi-formal and chaotic set-up of 20,000 privately owned matatus and buses.

Although in theory there may be set prices, the market forces of supply and demand come into play. So if it rains, for example, prices go up.

And since passengers pay cash fares directly to drivers or conductors, the matatu and bus owners have no way of knowing how much profit their vehicles are making.

As a result, owners simply demand a flat daily fee from their staff, with the remaining profits split between the driver and conductor.

While in Europe and other parts of the world prepaid cashless systems for public transportation are the norm, in Nairobi cash is still king.

Yet that may be about to change. In May, Google launched a cashless, prepaid card system for the city's public transport, called BebaPay.

Conductors are equipped with small, NFC (near-field communication) enabled smartphones. Passengers simply tap their BebaPay card to the phone.

Money is then digitally transferred from the card to the phone, and passengers get a message on their phone confirming the transaction.

The physical BebaPay cards can be purchased and topped up with credit at various locations across the city. The service doesn't require a bank account - just a Google account - and the cards and phones work without an internet connection.

"Cashless will lead to greater transparency, accountability, organisation… and ultimately better public transportation infrastructure," says Denis Gikunda from Google's Nairobi office.

BebaPay is part of Google's broader strategy to "simplify payments", he says, and improve lives of people in emerging markets.

"Transport was a great place to begin, because it captures all the problems - a lot of transactions, frequently, all cash-based."

Eventually, he says, BebaPay will not just be used for transportation, but for payment services across the city - from taxis, to public toilets and small retail kiosks.

Safety first

These high-tech solutions are certainly helping commuters in various ways, but few address one of passengers' main concerns - safety.

The World Health Organization's Global Status Report on Road Safety estimates that there were nearly 8,500 deaths from traffic incidents in Kenya last year.

One-third of all fatalities are passengers, many a result of "unsafe forms of public transportation". The finger is often pointed at reckless matatu drivers.

"What [passengers] want most is safety - to arrive at the destination in one piece," says Simon Kimuta of the Matatu Owners Association of Kenya.

For that, he says, what Nairobi needs is better fleet management to monitor activity, and vehicles fitted with gadgets to monitor speeding, so owners can react.

Yet more simple methods may also be effective.

An initiative called the Zusha Project, funded by Georgetown University, recently randomly assigned stickers to the passenger cabs of 2,500 matatus around Kenya, with mottos such as "stand up and speak up" against bad driving.

The idea was to get passengers to complain directly to the drivers about their reckless driving.

After looking at aggregated insurance data, the project found matatus with stickers were in fact half as likely to get into accidents.

As Billy Jack, associate professor of economics at Georgetown University who was part of the project, puts it: "Sometimes it's a low-tech solution that works the best."


Escape games attract Hong Kong youth


When 27-year-old commercial video producer Danny Ip wants to blow off steam, he does not automatically head to the nearest shopping mall or karaoke joint.

Instead the Hong Kong native is fond of frequenting a non-descript office building in the heart of the city's Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood.

Inside, behind several doors, he can choose to escape to the old American West, a Chinese Wuxia (martial arts) adventure, a gory haunted house or a cartoon wonderland - but only for 45 minutes at a time.

Mr Ip is a fan of playing real-life room escape games, the latest trend to catch on with Hong Kong's young, technology-savvy generation.

"Hong Kong is a busy city. We don't have much time for leisure," he said after a recent game with three of his friends.

"We always go to the same stuff, like karaoke and bars. It's the same thing over and over again. But this is something new, something different. That is why we enjoy it here."

His friend, Ophelia, agrees: "It's very smart and full of imagination. You trap yourself inside a room and you have to use all your brain juice to come out. I think it is fun."

The group had just successfully solved a series of puzzles and escaped from cowboy country.

In reality, they were playing in a series of three small rooms designed to look like Wild West.

It is the physical equivalent of computer games Mr Ip played as a child. But instead of playing alone, you must join forces with at least one other person, solving riddles and breaking codes as a team.

'Escape from reality'

The games, in either Chinese or English, are being offered by Freeing Hong Kong, the first company in the city to offer room escape games.

It was started less than a year ago by chief executive Raymond Sze and three other partners. They estimate about 100,000 people have played so far.

The company now has locations in five Hong Kong neighbourhoods, as well as Taipei, Singapore, Macau and Guangzhou.

All the games are created in-house by a team of about three dozen developers led by Mr Sze, who is also a 20-year-old student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (UST).

His parents were entrepreneurs, but they did not want the same for their son. Instead, they admonished him to study hard.

But Mr Sze, who got his first job at 16, had other ideas. He was dying to start his own business and fulfilled his dream at the age of 19, when Freeing Hong Kong opened.

"One of the reasons they like to play these games is that it provides a different experience for them. Maybe they want to escape from reality, because you know, reality is very stressful and very competitive," Mr Sze says.

"It's not because they need to think about their food or their way to live. It is something about society's expectations. They need to achieve so many things."

Although Hong Kong is one of the wealthiest cities in Asia, its success has made life difficult for many young people, who struggle to land high-paying jobs to get their foot on the property ladder.

The city has some of the most expensive real estate in the world - a recent survey from the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggests salaries are falling far short of property prices.

And locals are increasingly competing against ambitious mainland Chinese and Western expatriates for jobs.

Mr Sze says he wants to create a healthy outlet for players.

"You know, Hong Kong people love computer games and actually they lack communication with their friends or their family. In these games, they need to solve the problems and co-operate with each other," he says.

Gap year

The four founders were friends who loved Japanese comics, mysteries and adventure novels.

It takes anywhere from a week to three months to come up with a concept. Because they get many repeat players, all the games must be updated or replaced regularly.

Mr Sze jokingly calls his school the "University of Stress and Tension", and is currently taking a year off to focus on expanding the firm.

He says he had no idea how to set up a company at first. "I Googled everything: how to start a company, how to get a licence, how to get fire insurance," he recalls, laughing.

The work seems to have paid off, at least personally.

"Actually it was very tough for me at the very beginning, but after a few months, when the game became more popular, my parents started to see the media coverage and said, 'Okay, you can take a gap year for this'."

8 December 2013 Last updated at 02:42 GMT

Most people classed as being in poverty 'have job'


More working households were living in poverty in the UK last year than non-working ones - for the first time, a charity has reported.

Just over half of the 13 million people in poverty - surviving on less than 60% of the national median (middle) income - were from working families, it said.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said low pay and part-time work had prompted an unprecedented fall in living standards.

But it said the number of pensioners in poverty was at a 30-year low.

Ministers insisted that work remained the best route out of poverty and said the government's welfare reforms would further encourage people to get a job.

'Little security'

The JRF's annual Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report was written by the New Policy Institute and tracks a range of indicators, including government data and surveys covering income, education and social security.

The poverty measure it defines is based on net household income, adjusted for family size and after housing costs have been deducted.

In the 2011-12 period, the amount of earnings before a household was said to be in poverty was £128 a week for a single adult; £172 for a single parent with one child; £220 for a couple with no children, and £357 for a couple with two children.

Assessing Department for Work and Pensions figures, the report's authors found working adults without dependent children were the most likely group to be living in poverty, and that child poverty was at its lowest level for 25 years.

It said the number of people in low-paid jobs had risen, with average incomes falling by 8% since their peak in 2008.

It also credited private pensions, pension credits and the government's determination to shield retired people from austerity measures for the fact that the number of pensioners living in poverty had fallen to its lowest level in decades.

The JRF report acknowledged that the jobs market this year appeared to be reviving, while the number of jobless young people looked to have peaked.

But it said that while the overall poverty rate in the UK expressed as a proportion of the population was 21% - the second lowest since reliable official statistics began to be collected in the mid-1990s - the figures understated the squeeze there had been on people with low incomes and those affected by benefit changes.

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of JRF, said: "We have a labour market that lacks pay and protection, with jobs offering precious little security and paltry wages that are insufficient to make ends meet.

"While a recovery may be gathering momentum in the statistics and official forecasts, for those at the bottom, improving pay and prospects remain a mirage."

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: "Despite claims to the contrary, work absolutely remains the best route out poverty - children in workless families are around three times more likely to be in poverty than those in working families.

"Our welfare reforms are designed to further increase work incentives and improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with the [new benefit system] Universal Credit making three million households better off."

Are you employed but still living in poverty? Do you still believe that work is the best way out of poverty? You can share your views and experiences with us using the form below.

19 December 2013 Last updated at 17:12 GMT
Mark Mardell North America editor

Pitching Obamacare to a tough crowd in Mississippi


Comments (62)

The Reverend Michael Minor, resplendent in a mustard-coloured robe, stomps and sways as he belts out the words of his sermon, a synthesizer stabbing and swooping behind his voice.

"I said, are there any saved in the house today - saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost - who know they've been saved?"

He bounces on his feet, emphatically, keeping rhythm.

The music at Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi, is pretty amazing. But it's not the funk or the faith that sets them apart in the Deep South - it's that fried chicken is banned from church socials.

Mr Minor enforced the ban on such fatty food after he became worried about his congregation's health - he was conducting too many funerals. Now he's got a new cause.

He sees signing people up to Obamacare as a spiritual duty, a cure for his congregation's ills.

"You hurt mentally because you worry about not having insurance," he says.

"You hurt physically because you are not getting the check-ups and things you need. And then spiritually because you are wondering about your relationship with God.

"And if you are not careful, you are wondering how God let you get into this spot where you don't have coverage."

Oldest enemy

Mississippi is the poorest state in the US. It also has a huge number of people without health insurance - one in five.

It is exactly the sort of place Obamacare is supposed to help.

But the Republican Governor, Phil Bryant, will not spend government money to expand Medicaid, the US healthcare scheme for the poor. He has halted plans to set up healthcare exchanges, a one-stop online shop for those seeking private insurance.

So the pastor is what is known as a "navigator" for Obamacare - he gets federal funding to sign people up.

"We have more and more people coming to our office here who are excited about having insurance, and they don't look like me," he says, meaning they are white or Hispanic.

"They are leaving crying, they're so happy that they have it."

He's sanguine about the state's opposition - he says people will do what they have to do to get elected. Not all in the congregation feel the same way.

Harry Rhees tells me it is because Obamacare is a black man's plan.

"There always have been the bit-pickers down here, the white Americans, some, not all, who have to have the last word.

"And when somebody tries to help the middle class and the poor people they don't want it because we always had to go to them."

Mary Bledsoe blames an even older adversary.

"The enemy is always going to try to block something that is good and this will be a good thing for all people who don't have insurance and so the enemy will do all he can to block it."

I check that she is talking about Satan. She is.

Overwhelming hostility

Certainly the Obamacare website has been bedevilled by problems. Despite the enthusiasm here, it is still running into technical issues.

"I been trying to get it but I ain't," one man tells me. "There's a conflict there, and I can't pull it up, but I feel it's a good thing."

Aside from the website, the state's ill health makes it unattractive for health insurers - and means premiums will be higher here.

Only two insurance companies are willing to take part. One of them, Humana, is taking its plan out on the road - quite literally.

In Corinth, I watch as a truck pulls into a supermarket car park and two helpers quickly construct the steps to a mobile office, with little booths and computers all ready to work out what insurance people can buy.

One of the agents, Rick Wells, tells me he is a Republican but he likes Obamacare.

"I like the fact that pre-existing conditions don't exist on the healthcare exchange, so I can get insurance for people with diabetes or who have just won a battle with cancer.

"They weren't insurable for five years but now they will be. I think there are many good things to it."

But in the morning I spent at the mobile office, no-one signs up. No-one comes in. In fact, not a single person shows the slightest interest.

There's overwhelming hostility to Obamacare, at least in this car park. Some of it is political.

'It sucks'

"I think it sucks because you have to have it," one man tells me. "Shouldn't be made to have anything if you don't want it. It kind of contradicts the idea of a free country."

Some of it is practical.

"The factory where my husband works has pretty much told all employees that as from next year they'll drop them all," a woman says. "They'll take the penalty and drop the insurance."

She fears new insurance will cost them far more: "We're paying $300 a month and it sounds like from what we hear, we could be paying $900. Big difference."

And the hostility of younger, fitter people could doom Obamacare - if not enough of them sign up by next spring it won't work.

"I think we got to do what we need to do ourselves," one young man says. "I don't think we need anybody else to say whether we need healthcare or not."

Does he have any?

"No sir, I don't."

Will he get it now, as he's meant to?

"I'll probably pay the fine, that's what I'll do."

No 'free lunch'

Some doctors don't like the healthcare law either.

In the university town of Oxford, Dr Erik Richardson argues that medical care is already going badly wrong.

He no longer takes patients on Medicare and Medicaid. It's not worth the bother.

He says every year patients pay more, doctors get paid less and only the insurance companies grow richer. He thinks it will now get worse.

But it is not his only worry.

"This is a constitutional issue," Dr Richardson says. "You've had 250 years of the constitution and now you have a new law saying you must buy healthcare.

"That's a new law thrust upon the individual by the government. Would it be great to have coverage for all Americans? Yes. Is it a good thing to have a law? I'm not so sure."

But as a doctor in America's sickest state, doesn't he think it is vital to have health insurance?

He says some better-off people prefer to pay out of their own pocket - and now they won't have that choice.

"Always ask who is going to pay that bill, because in my life there has never been a free lunch," he adds. "Somebody, somewhere is buying that lunch.

"Is it going to be the American tax payer? I'm concerned this is just going to make the private health insurance companies richer."

Given the widespread opposition, it is little wonder that the Tea Party has urged Republicans to stand firm and resist the law.

A huge gamble

State Senator Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favourite, is challenging the Republican US senator who has held the seat for 34 years.

Mr McDaniel is adamant that more is at stake than people's health.

"What it needs is to respect liberty first and foremost," Mr McDaniel says. "Simply because something is good theoretically, doesn't mean you jump into it in violation of our constitution.

"You have to ask the question can it be afforded, can it be administered effectively and efficiently. And from what we've seen so far it is so structurally deficient that it can't be."

I ask him where that leaves those who don't have healthcare, can't afford it and have terrible health.

"The terrible health in Mississippi, that's not related to the lack of healthcare," he says.

"It is related to some bad habits we all have as Mississippians, myself included. Our diet isn't very good, our exercise isn't very good and it creates some negative health outcomes. That is not related to the lack of healthcare, it is the result of some of us making poor personal decisions."

But Mr Minor thinks Obamacare will become popular and Republicans are frightened of the prospect.

"A lot of people on the other side of the political spectrum, they do recognise it is going to be something that could change a whole generation," he says.

"They want to make it look bad because if it turns out people like it, who are they going to give credit to? Because not one Republican voted for it."

He has a point. But for the Democrats - and for Barack Obama - it is more of a huge gamble than a sure bet.

And states like Mississippi, where the new law is struggling to get off the ground, may determine whether it succeeds or fails.

3 January 2014 Last updated at 00:23 GMT

Intermittent fasting: The good things it did to my body


Many of the changes in my body when I took part in the clinical trial of an intermittent fasting diet, were no surprise. Eating very little for five days each month, I lost weight, and I felt hungry. I also felt more alert a lot of the time, though I tired easily. But there were other effects too that were possibly more important.

During each five-day fasting cycle, when I ate about a quarter the average person's diet, I lost between 2kg and 4kg (4.4-8.8lbs) but before the next cycle came round, 25 days of eating normally had returned me almost to my original weight.

But not all consequences of the diet faded so quickly.

"What we are seeing is the maintenance of some of the effects even when normal feeding resumes," explains Dr Valter Longo, director of USC's Longevity institute, who has observed similar results in rodents.

"That was very good news because that's exactly what we were hoping to achieve."

Clinical tests showed that during the diet cycles my systolic blood pressure dropped by about 10%, while the diastolic number remained about the same. For someone who has, at times, has borderline hypertension, this was encouraging. However, after the control period (normal diet), my blood pressure, like my weight, returned to its original - not-so-healthy - state.

The researchers will be looking at whether repeated cycles of the diet could be used to help manage blood pressure in people over the longer term.

Arguably, the most interesting changes were in the levels of a growth hormone known as IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). High levels of IGF-1, which is a protein produced by the liver, are believed significantly to increase the risks of colorectal, breast and prostate cancer. Low levels of IGF-1 reduce those risks.

"In animals studies we and others have shown this to be a growth factor that is very much associated with ageing and a variety of diseases, including cancer," says Longo.

Studies in mice have shown that an extreme diet, similar to the one I experienced, causes IGF-1 levels to drop and to stay down for a period after a return to normal eating.

My data showed exactly the same pattern.

"You had a dramatic drop in IGF-1, close to 60% and then once you re-fed it went up, but was still down 20%," Longo told me.

Such a reduction could make a significant difference to an individual's likelihood of developing certain cancers, he says. A study of a small population of people in Ecuador, who have much lower levels of IGF-1, because they lack a growth hormone receptor, showed that they rarely develop cancer and other age-related conditions.

My blood tests also revealed that the major inhibitor of IGF-1, which is called IGFBP-1, was significantly up during the fasting period. Even when I resumed a normal diet, the IGFBP-1 level was elevated compared with my baseline. It is, according to Longo, a sign that my body switched into a mode that was much more conducive to healthy ageing.

Data from other participants in the study is still being analysed, but if they also show lower levels of IGF-1 and higher levels of IGFBP-1, it could help scientists develop an intermittent fasting regime that allows people to eat a normal diet for the vast majority of the time, and still slow down the ageing process.

One idea being explored by Longo is that a five-day intervention every 60 days may be enough to trigger positive changes in the body.

"This is exactly what we have in mind to allow people, for let's say 55 every 60 days, to decide what they are going to eat with the help of a good doctor, and diet in the five days. They may not think it is the greatest food they have ever eaten, but it's a lot easier, let's say, than complete fasting and it's a lot safer than complete fasting and it may be more effective than complete fasting."

The very small meals I was given during the five-day fast were far from gourmet cooking, but I was glad to have something to eat. There are advocates of calorie restriction who promote complete fasting.

My blood tests also detected a significant rise in a type of cell, which may play a role in the regeneration of tissues and organs.

It is a controversial area and not fully understood by scientists.

"Your data corresponds to pre-clinical data that we got from animal models that shows that cycles of fasting could elevate this particular substance, considered to be stem cells," said Dr Min Wei, the lead investigator.

The substance has also been referred to, clumsily, as "embryonic-like".

"At least in humans we have a very limited understanding of what they do. In animal studies they are believed to be 'embryonic-like' meaning... they are the type of cells that have the ability to regenerate almost anything," says Longo.

It would be highly beneficial if intermittent fasting could trigger a response that enhances the body's ability to repair itself, but much more research is required to confirm these observations.

This diet is still at the experimental stage and data from the trial is still being studied. Other scientists will eventually scrutinise the findings independently, and may attempt to replicate them.

"We generally like to see not only an initial discovery in a trial but we like to see confirmatory trials to be sure that in the broadest kind of sense, in the general population that these findings are going to be applicable," says Dr Lawrence Piro, a cancer specialist at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute.

"I do believe fasting to be a very effective mechanism. They are pieces of a puzzle, that puzzle is not fully revealed yet, the picture isn't clear yet but there's enough of the picture clear. I think we can be really excited that there is some substantial truth here, some substantial data coming forward and something that we can really be hopeful about."

Future clinical trials will focus on "at-risk" members of community - those who are obese - to gauge their response to a severely restricted diet.

But if this diet, or another intermittent fasting diet, is eventually proven be effective and sustainable, it could have profound implications for weight loss and the way doctors fight the diseases of old age.

This is the third part of a series. See also: Fasting for science and Sitting out the hunger pangs.

3 January 2014 Last updated at 00:04 GMT

Obesity quadruples to nearly one billion in developing world


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The number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world has almost quadrupled to around one billion since 1980, says a report from a UK think tank.

The Overseas Development Institute said one in three people worldwide was now overweight and urged governments to do more to influence diets.

In the UK, 64% of adults are classed as being overweight or obese.

The report predicts a "huge increase" in heart attacks, strokes and diabetes.

Globally, the percentage of adults who were overweight or obese - classed as having a body mass index greater than 25 - grew from 23% to 34% between 1980 and 2008.

The majority of this increase was seen in the developing world, particularly in countries where incomes were rising, such as Egypt and Mexico.

The ODI's Future Diets report says this is due to changing diets and a shift from eating cereals and grains to the consumption of more fats, sugar, oils and animal produce.

A total of 904 million people in developing countries are now classed as overweight or above, with a BMI of more than 25, up from 250 million in 1980.

This compares to 557 million in high-income countries. Over the same period, the global population nearly doubled.

At the same time, however, under-nourishment is still recognised to be a problem for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, particularly children.

Using data published in Population Health Metrics last year, the researchers looked at changing overweight and obesity rates across the regions of the world and by individual country.

The regions of North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America saw large increases in overweight and obesity rates to a level on a par with Europe, around 58%.

While North America still has the highest percentage of overweight adults at 70%, regions such as Australasia and southern Latin America are now not far behind with 63%.

Diet linked to income

The greatest growth in overweight people occurred in south east Asia, where the percentage tripled from a lower starting point of 7% to 22%.

Among individual countries, the report found that overweight and obesity rates had almost doubled in China and Mexico, and risen by a third in South Africa since 1980. Many countries in the Middle East also had a high percentage of overweight adults.

One of the report authors, Steve Wiggins, said there were likely to be multiple reasons for the increases.

"People with higher incomes have the ability to choose the kind of foods they want. Changes in lifestyle, the increasing availability of processed foods, advertising, media influences... have all led to dietary changes."

He said this was particularly the case in emerging economies, where a large middle class of people with rising incomes was living in urban centres and not taking much physical exercise.

The result, he says, is "an explosion in overweight and obesity in the past 30 years" which could lead to serious health implications.

This is because consumption of fat, salt and sugar, which has increased globally according to the United Nations, is a significant factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

The world's top sugar consumers include the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

To combat the rising tide of obesity, Mr Wiggins recommends more concerted public health measures from governments, similar to those taken to limit smoking in developed countries.

He said: "Politicians need to be less shy about trying to influence what food ends up on our plates.

"The challenge is to make healthy diets viable whilst reducing the appeal of foods which carry a less certain nutritional value."

The report cites the example of South Korea where efforts to preserve the country's traditional diet have included public campaigns and large-scale meal preparation training for women.

Alan Dangour, a reader in food and nutritional global health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said urbanisation in many parts of the world had changed people's eating habits away from traditional, healthy diets.

But he said obesity and under-nutrition often existed side by side, sometimes in the same household.

"We need to act urgently to deal with the scandal of millions of cases of extreme hunger and under-nutrition in children, but we also need to think what happens if we provide lots of extra calories, containing few vitamins, and encourage excess consumption.

"Clever, joined-up policies are needed."

A spokesperson from the Department of Health said they recognised that high rates of obesity caused dangerous health conditions and were taking action.

"We are already taking the lead in helping tackle and prevent this challenge, including through the government's Responsibility Deal with industry, NHS Health Checks, the National Child Measurement Programme in schools and through Change4Life.

"For the first time ever, we've given local authorities ring-fenced budgets to tackle public health issues in their local area, including obesity."

The Department of Health also said that industry and health professionals had a role to play in helping people improve their diet and lifestyles.


How India managed to defeat polio


It is three years since India last reported a case of polio. Patralekha Chatterjee reports on how the country appears to have finally managed to beat the disease.

Despite a healthcare system beset by severe problems, India has ushered in the new year with an achievement to be proud of.

In 2009, India reported 741 polio cases, more than any other country in the world, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The last case was reported from the eastern state of West Bengal in 2011, when an 18-month-old girl was found to have contracted the disease.

The country faced unique challenges in eradicating polio.

Among them was the high population density and birth rate, poor sanitation, widespread diarrhoea, inaccessible terrain and reluctance of a section of the population, notably members of the Muslim community in certain pockets, to accept the polio vaccine.

Nicole Deutsch, head of polio operations in India for UN children's charity Unicef, said: "Despite these obstacles, India proved to the world how to conquer this disease: through the strong commitment of the government, seamless partnership comprising the government, Rotary clubs, WHO and Unicef, and above all the tireless hard work of millions of front-line workers - vaccinators, social mobilisers and community and health workers - who continue to implement innovative strategies to rid India of polio,"

The introduction of bivalent oral polio vaccine in 2010 also helped India to battle the disease. Previously, India had been using a monovalent vaccine that protected only against type 1 poliovirus transmission, not type 3. which was causing repeated disease outbreaks.

But it was organisation that was key in enabling India to cover the last mile in its battle against polio.

In a vast country of more than a billion people who are culturally, economically, linguistically and socially diverse, "micro-plans" helped because they tossed up precious data about the specifics of a particular place - areas to be covered by each vaccination team on each day of the immunisation campaign, names and designations of the vaccinators, supervisors and community workers assigned to the area along with the vaccine, logistics distribution plan and so on.

But data alone did not deliver results. Unicef set up the Social Mobilisation Network for polio in 2001 in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

The initiative was a response to resistance against the polio vaccine. Families were refusing to immunise their children in some districts in Uttar Pradesh.

There were many reasons why this happened - parents did not see polio as a risk; repeated immunisation rounds had created doubts in their minds; and some believed rumours that linked the polio vaccine to impotency.

The Indian government and its polio partners realised that a new approach was needed.

This led to strategies to make polio vaccination more acceptable among people who had been resisting it.


Children who suffered from severe bouts of diarrhoea did not fully benefit from the oral polio vaccine.

So, community mobilisers started talking about the need for hand-washing, hygiene and sanitation, exclusive breastfeeding up to the age of six months, diarrhoea management with zinc and oral rehydration therapy, and routine immunisation, necessary to sustain the success of polio eradication.

This holistic approach has paid off.

India's polio campaign gathered momentum when it focused on marginalised and mobile people, and began working in earnest with religious leaders in Muslim communities to urge parents to immunise their children.

For example, in Bihar in eastern India - once a polio hotspot in the country - a key focus of the polio programme is migrants.

In recent years, continuous vaccination has been conducted at 51 transit locations at the state's international border with Nepal and 11 important railway stations. Bihar also saw special drives during popular festivals and fairs.

While India appears to have stopped indigenous transmission of wild poliovirus, the risk of importation is real and has increased since 2013 with outbreaks in the Horn of Africa region and the Middle East, in addition to the continuing poliovirus transmission in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

"India needs to stay extremely vigilant and continue its efforts to ensure that the children remain protected against polio, until the disease is eradicated globally," said Nicole Deutsch of Unicef.

"India plans six polio campaigns in 2014 and 2015. In each campaign, 2.3 million vaccinators will immunise nearly 172 million children."

India has also set up polio immunisation posts along the international borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Bhutan to vaccinate all children up to the age of five years crossing the international borders.

India's dramatic turnaround paves the way for polio-free certification of the entire South East Asia Region of the World Health Organization. The South-East Asia Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication (RCCPE) is expected to meet in Delhi in the last week of March 2014.

"If the commission is convinced that there is no wild poliovirus in the region and the surveillance quality is good enough to pick up any wild poliovirus and phase 1 laboratory containment work has been completed, it will certify the South East Asia Region of WHO as polio-free," a WHO spokesperson told the BBC.

India's successful control of polio has had other benefits.

A health ministry official connected with India's National Polio Surveillance Project (NPSP), a collaboration between the government and the WHO, said strategies that worked in the case of polio were now being used to push up routine immunisation.

This is good news. Too many Indian children still die because they do not get the vital vaccines.

Patralekha Chatterjee is an independent Delhi-based journalist.


Philippines web abuse ring smashed in UK-led operation


A paedophile ring which streamed live child abuse from the Philippines over the internet has been broken up after an operation by UK police and their counterparts in Australia and the US.

The National Crime Agency said 17 Britons have been arrested in Operation Endeavour, which spanned 14 countries.

Three other probes into men who pay to see live abuse via webcams are ongoing, with 139 Britons among 733 suspects.

The NCA say it is an "emerging threat", particularly in developing countries.

It said: "Extreme poverty, the increasing availability of high-speed internet and the existence of a vast and comparatively wealthy overseas customer base has led to organised crime groups exploiting children for financial gain."

The Philippines investigation, which began in 2012, saw British officers work alongside the Australian Federal Police and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Five of the 17 UK suspects arrested have been convicted; one will face no further action, and two are dead. Nine more are still being investigated.

Operation Endeavour has also resulted in 29 arrests in other countries, including of 11 people suspected of facilitating the abuse in the Philippines.

Suspects have been identified in Australia, the US, France, Germany, Canada, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Taiwan, Denmark and Switzerland.

In the Philippines, some 15 children aged six to 15 were rescued after being identified as victims.

Payments by customers totalling more than £37,500 were uncovered by the investigation, with relatives getting paid for abuse of the children in some instances.

The investigation began in 2012 after Northamptonshire Police carried out a routine visit at the Kettering home of registered sex offender Timothy Ford, where they found a number of indecent videos on computers and a collection of DVDs recorded from webcams.

'Every link in chain'

The force contacted the UK's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) - now part of the NCA - leading to the launch of the global investigation.

Analysis of the digital media seized led to the identification of suspects and the child victims, and the Philippine National Police became involved.

Ford was sentenced in March last year to eight-and-a-half years in prison for his role in the case.

Detectives found records of money transfers to the parents of five children whose abuse he had paid to watch.

Among the other Britons convicted over the Philppines abuse was Michael Eller, 68, from Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, who was jailed for 14 years last December.

Thomas Owen from Merseyside was jailed in July 2013 for seven years after being convicted as a result of the investigation.

Ceop deputy director Andy Baker said: "This investigation has identified some extremely dangerous child sexual offenders who believed paying for children to be abused to order was something they could get away with.

"Being thousands of miles away makes no difference to their guilt. In my mind they are just as responsible for the abuse of these children as the contact abusers overseas.

"Protecting the victims of abuse is our priority and that means attacking every link in the chain, from dismantling the organised groups who are motivated by profit through to targeting their customers."


What makes a global property hot spot?


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What makes a city an attractive place to buy in and what's the impact on domestic buyers when foreigners come in?

Despite the tepid economic recovery, property prices are rising at a pace last seen before the financial crash in key cities in post-crisis countries, such as London and New York. London prices have led the best year for property in Britain since 2006, now at 27% above their peak by one gauge. Elsewhere, Singapore and Hong Kong rank among the most expensive markets in the world (alongside London, Geneva and Monaco) and their governments are trying to rein in home prices.

Those looking to buy homes know all too well - property prices have skyrocketed in recent years. In London, home prices have more than doubled (+107%) since 2005, according to UK estate agent Savills.

In other global property hot spots it's even more - home prices have surged 232% in Singapore, and Hong Kong has the most expensive property market in the world.

What's driving up property prices in these cities? Record low interest rates help. Foreign buyers are another contributor as they seek places to park their money - so property is treated more like an investment asset.

And London is attractive. For a $15m property, the annual cost of owning the property is $16,000 paid on council tax. In Hong Kong, it's $95,918, in Singapore it's $121,907 and it's $1.43m in New York. The difference is due to the fact that London has no annual property tax based on the value of the property, only a local council tax.


For Asian cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, there's another attraction. Neither place has capital gains tax. That's rather appealing including to foreigners. It's why there are new hefty taxes in Hong Kong. Foreign buyers now pay a tax equal to a quarter of the purchase price. Prices are cooling a bit as a result, but are still high.

It's hard not to wonder: Is there a bubble? House prices in Hong Kong are overvalued by an estimated 30-40% - one of the highest overvaluations in the world. Based on the IMF estimate of the price-to-rent ratio, it's 33 times more expensive to buy a property in the city than to rent.

When the last bubble burst in 1997 during the Asian financial crisis, Hong Kong's property prices fell by more than 60% and continued to decline for six years. Now, house prices are 13 times the average salary - higher than even during the last bubble.

The trouble with bubbly markets is that once interest rates rise - which is starting to happen with the US Fed reining back on its cheap cash injections as of this month - so does the risk of the bubble bursting.

Social impact

Hong Kong's sky-high property prices have a bigger social impact because public housing is inadequate - such housing only covers 30% of the population and is still expensive. Public housing residents in Hong Kong tell me that they pay as much as half of their income in rent.

By contrast, in Singapore, more than 80% of the population live in quality social housing that can be bought with a government-subsidised mortgage.

The subsidy comes from a person's own savings because it's drawn from the forced saving scheme known as the Central Provident Fund. Singaporeans put in about 20% of their wages into this government-run savings plan, with matching contributions by employers. The funds can then be used to finance a cheaper mortgage or health needs or retirement.

Global rich

But, the global rich can afford to buy pretty much anywhere in the world. The average price of an overseas home is $2m for the wealthy, who tend to buy with cash in places with a good quality of life and a favourable tax regime.

For the rest of us, it means that house prices are more out of reach if we live in a global property hot spot.


Thaksin, the protesters and the battle for Thailand's soul

It is not easy to feel sympathy for protesters who are often clearly well-off, show surprising ignorance - and at times contempt - for the political preferences of poorer Thais, and who are waging a campaign against electoral democracy.

Some have likened the supporters of the People's Democratic Reform Committee in Thailand, to fascism in Europe. Their determination to stop this election, culminating in scenes of polling stations being blockaded and voters assaulted, have done immense harm to their image, in Thailand and especially abroad.

Yet the movement has aroused a passionate following among Bangkok's middle-class, and gets plenty of sympathy well beyond its core supporters.

It is a minority trying to force out a government elected by a clear majority. But the grievances and fears you hear expressed time and again at the protests are genuinely felt and widely shared in Thailand. They cannot just be dismissed.

Simply put, they believe that if the Pheu Thai party, headed by Thaksin Shinawatra's sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is allowed to win a sixth successive election victory, Mr Thaksin will use his wealth and the power of office to ensure his family dominates Thailand for generations.

How reasonable is this?

"He certainly had ambitions to run the country for a very long time, rather like [Singapore's] Lee Kuan Yew or [Malaysia's] Mahathir Mohamad," says academic Chris Baker.

"He was very aggressive in moving into new areas of business, with the help of government power. But to say he would dominate everything is a massive exaggeration. It would be beyond the capacity of one man to dominate the Thai economy, which has a number of capitalists far bigger than Thaksin."

Taboo topics

Another charge levelled at Mr Thaksin is that he was corrupt on an unprecedented scale. Lots of allegations are thrown at him, and lots of cases investigated after he was overthrown by a coup in 2006.

But his only conviction was for a relatively minor conflict of interest relating to his wife's purchase of land in 2002.

As for precedents, before he died in 1963 military ruler Sarit Thanarat siphoned off riches conservatively estimated at 1% of Thailand's economic output. Corruption has been endemic in politics and business for so long that it is the rare clean politician who has stood out.

Chris Baker says: "The clever thing Thaksin did was that, unlike previous figures who made money by dipping their hands in the till, he used power to increase the profits of his companies, and increase the number of companies in which he had a stake."

There are other fears expressed by the protesters. One is that Thaksin threatens the monarchy.

The severe lese-majeste law prevents any open discussion of this, but the notion that with his ambition and mass support base in the countryside Thaksin could somehow supplant the exalted position held for six decades by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is now elderly and very frail, is a source of anxiety.

Mr Thaksin has always strongly asserted his loyalty to the monarchy.

Rural-urban divide

The other fear is that he will squander resources buying electoral support with populist policies. His opponents point to the troubled rice-purchase scheme, under which the government has been buying most of the rice crops for the past two years at a price 50% higher than world prices.

It is certainly wasteful, and expensive enough to prompt warnings from the IMF of potential damage to Thailand's fiscal position.

But it is his party's populist policies that have earned him such staunch loyalty among many lower-income Thais.

This is not always blind loyalty to Thaksin. I have been told many times by people in the pro-Thaksin heartland of the north-east that they are willing to support any government willing to help lift their living standards.

Mr Thaksin's party was simply the first. It has given him a hold on their allegiance for now.

"It's true, Pheu Thai 'owns' the brand of 'people's champion'," Democrat party politician Korn Chatikavanij said to me several months ago.

He acknowledged then that his party has yet to find a way to compete, having lost every election since 1992. In this election, it has chosen instead not to take part at all. But

it is not just the benefits brought by Mr Thaksin's party that explain its popularity.

People repeatedly speak of the sense of empowerment they have felt in being able to elect a government they see as representing their interests, and not one backed by the traditional Bangkok-based royalist and business establishment.

The statistics speak for themselves. Thirty years ago less than 10% of the national budget went to areas outside Bangkok. That has risen to roughly 25% today.

Media brainwashing?

So the idea that well-heeled protesters in Bangkok are trying to overthrow the government they have elected offends many in rural areas.

"What we are fighting for, in defending this election, is equality - equality in politics", said Tida Tawornseth, who leads the pro-government red-shirt movement, the UDD.

On the other hand, a lot of Bangkokians are appalled at the idea that they can be outvoted by maids, drivers and farmers, who will then choose - in their view - a profligate, corrupt and high-handed government.

Their explanation for the successive victories of the Thaksin camp is usually that the elections are fraudulent, or bought with bribes, though there is no evidence that either have significantly influenced the results.

Then they often point to the limited education of rural voters. "They have no ideas, they just watch the red-shirt TV channels and believe everything they hear," one protest supporter told me recently.

The irony is that many of the protesters spend hours watching their own Blue Sky channel, which broadcasts endless tirades against "Tyrant Thaksin".

Eight years of unresolved political rivalry has entrenched mistrust, misunderstanding and outright hatred on both sides.

The absence of any group with sufficient stature to try to broker a compromise is striking and worrying, as is the presence of armed groups on the fringes that are increasingly willing and able to confront each other.


California drought: Why some farmers are 'exporting water' to China


While historic winter storms have battered much of the US, California is suffering its worst drought on record. So why is America's most valuable farming state using billions of gallons of water to grow hay - specifically alfalfa - which is then shipped to China?

The reservoirs of California are just a fraction of capacity amid the worst drought in the state's history.

"This should be like Eden right now," farmer John Dofflemyer says, looking out over a brutally dry, brown valley as his remaining cows feed on the hay he's had to buy in to keep them healthy.

In the dried-up fields of California's Central Valley, farmers like Dofflemyer are selling their cattle. Others have to choose which crops get the scarce irrigation water and which will wither.

"These dry times, this drought, has a far-reaching impact well beyond California," he said as the cattle fell in line behind his small tractor following the single hay bale on the back.

"We have never seen anything like this before - it's new ground for everybody."

California is the biggest agricultural state in the US - half the nation's fruit and vegetables are grown here.

Farmers are calling for urgent help, people in cities are being told to conserve water and the governor is warning of record drought.

But at the other end of the state the water is flowing as the sprinklers are making it rain in at least one part of southern California.

The farmers are making hay while the year-round sun shines, and they are exporting cattle-feed to China.

The southern Imperial Valley, which borders Mexico, draws its water from the Colorado river along the blue liquid lifeline of the All American Canal.

It brings the desert alive with hundreds of hectares of lush green fields - much of it alfalfa hay, a water-hungry but nutritious animal feed which once propped up the dairy industry here, and is now doing a similar job in China.

"A hundred billion gallons of water per year is being exported in the form of alfalfa from California," argues Professor Robert Glennon from Arizona College of Law.

"It's a huge amount. It's enough for a year's supply for a million families - it's a lot of water, particularly when you're looking at the dreadful drought throughout the south-west."

Manuel Ramirez from K&M Press is an exporter in the Imperial Valley, and his barns are full of hay to be compressed, plastic-wrapped, packed directly into containers and driven straight to port where they are shipped to Asia and the Middle East.

"The last few years there has been an increase in exports to China. We started five years back and the demand for alfalfa hay has increased," he says.

"It's cost effective. We have abundance of water here which allows us to grow hay for the foreign market."

Cheap water rights and America's trade imbalance with China make this not just viable, but profitable.

"We have more imports than exports so a lot of the steamship lines are looking to take something back," Glennon says. "And hay is one of the products which they take back."

It's now cheaper to send alfalfa from LA to Beijing than it is to send it from the Imperial Valley to the Central Valley.

"We need to treat the resource as finite, which it is," he says. "Instead, most of us in the states, we think of water like the air, it's infinite and inexhaustible, when for all practical purposes it's finite and it's exhaustible."

Alfalfa farmer Ronnie Langrueber believes he's doing his bit to help the American economy out of recession.

"In my opinion it's part of the global economy," he says, adding that only a fraction of the hay goes to China.

"We have to do something to balance that trade imbalance, and alfalfa is a small part we can do in the Imperial Valley to help that."

He believes the whole "exporting water" argument is nonsense - that all agricultural exports contain water - and that there are few better uses for it.

"Is it more efficient to use water for a golf course for the movie stars?" Langrueber said.

"Or is it more efficient for farmers to use it to grow a crop and export it and create this mass economic engine that drives the country?"

Japan, Korea and the United Arab Emirates all buy Californian hay. The price is now so high that many local dairy farmers and cattle ranchers can't afford the cost when the rains fail and their usual supplies are insufficient.

But they have to buy what they can.

Cattle rancher John Dofflemyer certainly sees it as exporting water abroad - he resents the fact hay is sent overseas.

Hay trucks are a common sight heading north up the road from the Imperial Valley - despite the high prices, the cattle farmers have to buy what they can.

Even with recent rains in northern California there's still a critical shortage of water.

Drought is often an excuse for politicians to build dams or reduce environmental controls, but it's no long-term fix.

In those places awash with water - where global trade distorts the local market - decisions need to be made by those without something to gain.

That's where it gets even more complicated.


How parasites manipulate us


Humans infected with parasites could behave in surprising ways. Michael Mosley infected himself with tapeworms and leeches to find out more.

Over the last couple of months I have been deliberately infecting myself with a range of parasites in an attempt to understand more about these fascinating creatures. Perhaps the greatest surprise is the extent to which parasites are able to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) manipulate their host to their advantage.

The first parasite I experimented with was a beef tapeworm, taenia saginata. This parasite only infects humans and cattle. In Victorian times women would, allegedly, swallow tapeworm eggs as a way of losing weight. This would almost certainly have been a waste of time as tapeworm eggs are not infectious to humans. They first have to be eaten by a cow or bull, where they form a cyst, and it is only if we eat raw, infected meat that we acquire a worm.

Eve if you were infected would you lose weight? Despite hosting three worms I actually put on weight. It could be that the tapeworms were actually encouraging me to eat more, or it could be that I was unconsciously compensating for them there. Either way, they don't seem to be a great weight loss aid.

A far more lethal and dangerous parasite is plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria. Like all parasites it needs to find ways to spread itself, jumping from one host, the mosquito, to us and then back again. Scientists are only just beginning to understand the ways it manoeuvres us to achieve its ends.

You have probably had the experience of going on holiday with a friend and discovering that one of you gets bitten far more than the other. The reason is that while mosquitoes are attracted by the heat and carbon dioxide we produce, they can be repelled by chemicals in our body odour.

To test this idea out I went into a closed room with Dr James Logan of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Then mosquitoes were released. Over the next 15 minutes James was bitten 25 times, while I was only bitten once. It turns out that I have a body odour that is far more strongly repellent to mosquitoes than James. He said, however, that if there had been a third person in the room who had malaria then that person would have been bitten the most. New research has shown that the malaria parasite is able to alter our smell, making us more attractive to mosquitoes.

Once the mosquito has drunk blood from a human with malaria, the parasite infects the mosquito's brain, making it more likely to target another human. By manipulating mosquitoes and humans the parasite is able to spread itself extremely successfully.

However, by doing this sort of research James and his colleagues are hoping to find ways to create natural smells that might be effective at repelling mosquitoes. Since malaria kills around a million people a year and mosquitoes are becoming increasingly resistant to insecticides, new approaches are urgently needed.

An even more remarkable mind-manipulating parasite I've looked at is is toxoplasma gondii. It infects many warm blooded mammals, but the best studied relationship is that between rodents and cats. Normally a rat or mouse will keep to the shadows, thus avoiding cats. But when they are infected by toxoplasma the parasite completely changes their behaviour. An infected mouse is attracted to the smell of cat urine and will move out into the open, displaying reckless behaviour. The reason, of course, is the parasite wants the mouse to be eaten by a cat, so it can then infect its new host.

Humans also get infected by toxoplasma, though it is only really serious when a woman is pregnant as toxoplasma can damage the unborn child. But new research suggests that toxoplasma may influence us in more subtle ways.

We know, for example, that people who have antibodies to toxoplasma are more than twice as likely to be involved in a traffic accident. It could be that the parasite is making us, like rodents, behave in a more reckless fashion. Research also suggests it may slow down reaction times, with the intention of making us more vulnerable to large predators. Either way it is a chilling thought that parasites may be influencing how we behave in ways we do not yet begin to understand.


Land News
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Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
A Brief History of America and the Moros 1899-1920
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)
Imagine a world without shops or factories


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Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2014