Deborah Orr: Sinking or swimming in some of the harshest environments in Britain

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The Independent Online

Of course it was wrong of the Government to have suppressed the critical 2002 report by Oxford Brookes University into the dispersal of asylum-seekers. But you can understand why the Home Office was so desperate for it not to get out.

The report is robust in its criticism of the "big bang" approach to dispersal, a policy which encouraged the settlement of refugees around the country, in order to take the pressure off south-eastern entry points. There was, it says, "a failure to take into account the impact on local health and education services of placing asylum-seekers in low-cost accommodation in deprived areas".

There was also, in a number of parts of Britain, a substantial degree of local resentment against the new arrivals, who were seen as receiving preferential treatment, and who were sometimes racially harassed or physically abused. Typically, this sort of behaviour occurred in the places already most socially excluded.

The great irony, of course, was that the very presence of asylum-seekers in these communities was a signal that their treatment was not very "preferential" at all. Asylum-seekers were left to sink or swim in some of the harshest environments in Britain. Their presence provoked anger because all resources in such places are extremely rare indeed.

There are about a million and half people in Britain, for example, on waiting lists for affordable homes. People complain about the fact that they cannot find housing within their price range, but that asylum-seekers get priority. Local people in the areas cited in the report would certainly have perceived that asylum-seekers were being given homes instead of their own family members. You can see quite easily where less than charitable feelings may have sprung from.

What the report highlights is a really intractable difficulty. By treating asylum-seekers as harshly as possible, in order to minimise "the pull factor", the Government also advertises the scarcity more generally of such social resources as affordable homes. The report is clear that asylum-seekers are being cruelly disadvantaged by being placed in such tough conditions.

The fact is that all the other people already living there, born and bred, are cruelly disadvantaged by their conditions as well. This state of affairs continues also, to minimise "the pull factor", in this case not the pull of refuge in Britain, but the pull of welfare dependency (though decent provision of social housing would actually be a solution rather than a motor of it).

Asylum-seekers are a particularly vulnerable group, as they are often traumatised by the experiences they have undergone in the countries they have fled from. Yet it is still a damning indictment of the way Britain deals with its most vulnerable citizens more generally, that the minimal services doled out as a matter of course should be so inadequate.

An object of pity, not ridicule

Poor old Heather Mills. I really do feel sorry for her. She is routinely accused in the press of being a fantasist, and the reason why she never sues is that there is so much evidence that this really is the case. But the fantasy she is clearly locked in now is that she can somehow manage to turn things round, make the media into her friend again, and settle back into her place as some sort of campaigning, admired, "star".

No doubt she is bolstered by the undeniable fact that she is still "in demand". She is followed about by the paparazzi. She is able to drum up lots of publicity for the causes she espouses. Any old photo of her, it seems, is worth a lot of money, this week's offering being a fur coat she wore before she decided wearing fur was Not On.

Clearly, she craves attention and continues to get it. There's something almost touchingly plucky about the way she keeps coming back for more. She is the willing object of orchestrated abuse, like a teacher who volunteers to let the kids throw custard pies at him at the school fête. Except that there is no good cause here. The woman is afflicted, and she's being mocked. Not pretty.

Universities should demand the family tree

First there was outrage over the perfectly fair and sensible suggestion that pupils from poorly performing schools might have the inadequacy of their educational background taken into account when they are applying to university.

Now, in a reversal of tradition, there is apoplexy over the idea that what mummy and daddy do might be a relevant factor in determining a school leaver's future life chances.

Again the howl is that the privileged may be discriminated against, with people who are the first in their families to try for a university place being looked at more sympathetically. I'm all for the idea, so much so that I'm thinking of starting a campaign for the disclosure of whether grandparents have degrees or not. Since I was the first person in my family to go to university, I very much want the admissions service to understand that my own children are still in the vanguard of a fragile family tradition that must not be upset under any circumstances whatsoever.

* It has not been a good week for sat nav, with one report insisting that the system is as likely to cause accidents as talking on a mobile phone, and one hapless woman proving the point by obeying her all-powerful machine when it exhorted her to drive her car into a river. The other dumb thing about sat nav is that when you get into a mini-cab that uses it, the driver fails to move until you have told him not just the address you wish to go to but the full postcode. One charming chauffeur recently handed me his mobile and requested that I call his controller, tell her the address I wanted, then tell him what the postcode was after she had looked it up. Some people say that sat nav will mean the end of black cab drivers' tradition of doing The Knowledge. I wouldn't bet on it though.

* An astonishing rape case in the US features a man who got in touch with a woman he'd raped may years before and confessed to her by letter in order to "make amends" in step nine of his 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programme. The woman in question, a Mrs Seccuro, was unimpressed by the gesture, because her own recollection was of a violent gang rape, while her assailant's was of something deeply unpleasant but rather less elaborate. The man, a Mr Beebe, was arrested and charged with rape, which he then, with breathtaking cheek, denied. He later pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated sexual battery. Mrs Seccuro, on the other hand, started receiving hate mail, and had a miscarriage. I'll say she did.

* What larks in Parliament Square on Wednesday evening. The huge concourse outside the Palace of Westminster looked as if it was hosting a vast demonstration staged by disgruntled Metropolitan Police officers. Minute examination, however, uncovered that the many hundreds of fluorescent crime stoppers were there to corral a tiny contingent of CND types who had turned up to protest on the evening of the Trident vote. The vast police presence, of course, was expensive, entirely unnecessary and hardly a high watermark for democracy. And therefore, strangely appropriate. I dare say there is plenty more of this sort of thing to come.

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