We must help families whose children root through bins for food

Hollings Street where children have been seen rooting through bins.

Hollings Street where children have been seen rooting through bins.

Don’t laugh, but I’ll admit I had a hard time believing our own story the other day.

The headline certainly grabbed me: “Starving children are eating from bins in Fenton.”

Really? Surely not, I thought. Not in this day and age. And where are their parents anyway?

Can it honestly be the case that in one of the richest countries in the world in 2014 there are hungry children rummaging through bins for other people’s leftovers?

This is the kind of thing you shake your head at when you see it on the TV in some Third World shanty town on the TV.

It’s like something you’d read in a post-apocalyptic novel. Some sort of twisted future where a privileged fview live in safety, comfort and sometimes luxury and the rest eke out a living in medieval-style villages or Dickensian urban squalor.

But, according to eye-witnesses, this is actually happening in certain parts of our city – the Hollings Street and the Brocksford Street areas of Fenton, to be precise.

Concerned residents raised the matter at a recent meeting with police – citing the problems of rubbish-strewn streets and the potential risk to the health of those involved.

One of the people quoted in our story was Glenn Parkes – a volunteer at the local foodbank and someone I know. If Glenn says this is happening, then I believe him.

But why is it happening? Why are children, especially, going hungry and resorting to such sad, desperate and potentially dangerous measures?

The answer may be complex and multi-faceted but it also fairly obvious.

Families who were previously almost entirely or perhaps solely supported by the welfare state have seen their incomes dramatically reduced under coalition gGovernment reforms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for everyone contributing to society and getting the feckless and the lazy off their backsides.

They do exist and they make my blood boil in the same way useless bankers and untouchable public sector executives do when they’ve done a poor job and then get a ridiculous pay-off.

But the one-size-fits-all approach to welfare reform adopted by the Government assumed that families for whom benefits was a way of life would overnight become hard-working and valuable citizens.

I’m sorry, but in the real world that just doesn’t happen without massive intervention on the part of the state to help turn such lives and aspirations around.

And wWhile Chancellor George Osborne eulogises about the recovery and talks of the need for further reform, the truth is many families who are his ideal ‘hard-working’ stereotype are themselves on the breadline because of redundancy or continuing low wages.

Then there are those parents who simply aren’t very capable – lacking either the knowledge or care to properly look after their children and prioritise their needs.

People of my age will remember there were always one or two children who were seen as poor and unloved in their class or year at school. The ones with the messy hair and shabby clothes, with shirts and blouses un-ironed and ill-fitting, scuffed shoes.

Strangely, it seems to me there are a lot more of those these days than there were 30 years ago.

There are, of course, other factors too – such as a flawed immigration policy.

This certainly plays its part in perpetuating deprivation in areas where local services can’t cope and where integration of various cultures doesn’t fit the grand vision of our multi-cultural utopia.

Whatever the reasons, as a society we surely can’t stand for a situation where children, from whatever background, are rifling through rubbish for food?

There is clearly something very wrong when foodbanks are expanding quicker than multi-nationals and where ordinary families are constantly being asked to set aside tins of beans and packets of pasta and rice for people living down the road in Stoke-on-Trent.

If anyone knows of a family or individuals in such desperate need that they resort to picking through other people’s leftovers then for heaven’s sake do something to help them.

There’s no shame in someone falling on hard times or wanting help and support.

The shame is if we, as a society, turn our backs on them in their hour of need.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Don’t just sit and moan: Have your say on future of the Six Towns

The Wyg report says the city council is right to focus on Hanley as the retail centre of the city, but suggests Burslem and Fenton are downgraded.

The Wyg report says the city council is right to focus on Hanley as the retail centre of the city, but suggests Burslem and Fenton are downgraded.

It was easy to spot the killer line in the report which attempts to create a retail blueprint for Stoke-on-Trent over the next 15 years.

The reclassification – a softer term than the perhaps more honest ‘downgrading’ – of Burslem and Fenton would see them viewed as district centres, along with Meir, rather than town centres.

I can’t help it but I instinctively balk at the suggestion that the Mother Town of the Potteries along with Fenton, which successive administrations at the local authority have overlooked, should no longer be considered towns.

It may annoy planning officers and those tasked with attracting inward investment to the Potteries but, for me, Stoke-on-Trent IS the Six Towns.

The fact that we have the Six Towns, each with their own heritage and distinct identity, is one of the city’s many unique features.

After all, Arnold Bennett didn’t write a novel entitled: ‘Anna of the four towns and two or three district centres’.

The problem is, of course, that over the last 20 years or so some of the towns have benefitted from investment, time and resource and others have not. Burslem, a town I know well, has never really recovered from the closure of the Royal Doulton factory in Nile Street.

It is no longer somewhere that people go to do their shopping – like my mum did every Saturday when I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties.

It has no supermarket, no indoor market, no big chain stores. Instead it relies on craft-type shops and a night-time/weekend economy.

However, there are at least grounds for optimism in the Mother Town thanks to the advent of the Burslem Regeneration Partnership, the proposed Haywood Academy and the planned work of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust on the Wedgwood Institute – (facilitated, I should point out, by the city council). Boslem also, of course, has a League One football club.

There is, as far as I can tell, no such optimism surrounding the future of Fenton which seems to have been branded little more than a residential zone.

I suppose the devil is in the detail of this study. The sobering statistic is that 22.8 per cent of retail space in the city is empty – a figure which is twice the national average.

In simple terms, then, there isn’t the capacity to sustain all those vacant units and so we need to rethink our retail strategy and that will, inevitably, impact on other planning matters.

As I understand it, the report by Manchester-based consultants Wyg suggests that Burslem, Fenton and Meir be considered ‘local centres’ in retail and planning terms.

This is because towns such as Longton and Tunstall are seen as having a more sustainable retail base.

Meanwhile, Stoke (minus the Civic Centre) will hopefully benefit hugely from the relocation of Staffordshire University’s Stafford campus and all those students needing accommodation and shops.

But what are the consequences of a ’reclassification’ for Burslem, Fenton and Meir? Will it, for example, mean that businesses wanting to set up shop in Burslem will instead be encouraged to opt for Tunstall where the retail base is viewed as more viable?

Will chain stores looking at Fenton simply be steered towards Longton? It is vital that this is explained properly to people living in these areas.

And what exactly is the plan for Fenton over the next decade beyond it being a place where people live?

It doesn’t have Burslem’s magnificent architecture but it does have a beautiful Town Hall and square which should surely be the focal point for investment and the community.

We should remember that this report focuses purely on the city’s retail needs and, as one commentator posted on Facebook: ‘There’s more to life than shopping’.

However, Wyg’s study will feed directly into the city council’s Local Plan so its findings are significant and we should all take note and make our views known.

I believe the council is right to prioritise Hanley as a strong city centre. It is, to my mind, key to the regeneration of Stoke-on-Trent as a whole. (Note to planners: It should never be referred to as Stoke city centre because Stoke is, of course, a town).

Hanley is, after all, where the bulk of our shops are. It is also the home of three terrific live entertainment venues as well as the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

Hanley will be fine. We just need developer Realis to get their skates on and deliver what they promised in terms of an, albeit smaller, City Sentral shopping centre as soon as possible.

I can even live with the daft name if they show a little willing now by bulldozing the eyesore East/West precinct.

Likewise, I think there are also plans for Stoke, Longton and Tunstall which will ensure their viability in the medium-term.

What I would like to see now is two things. Firstly, a pledge that the local authority will put some energy and resource into the regeneration of Fenton and Burslem so that the former, in particular, does not continue to be the ‘forgotten town’.

Secondly, I‘d like as many local people as possible to be involved in a big conversation about the future of our city.

Write to The Sentinel, comment on our website, contact your ward councillor and attend meetings in your locality or at the Civic Centre.

Just please don’t sit there and moan because this is too important for people to fall back on the old chestnut that the ‘council is rubbish and no-one ever listens’.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Fining ‘bad parents’ won’t solve any problems…

Schoolchildren need the help and support of their parents. No excuses.

Schoolchildren need the help and support of their parents. No excuses.

There’s been much discussion this week about the role and responsibilities of parents in relation to their children’s education.

I thought Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said some very sensible, and long overdue things, when interviewed by The Times.

He underlined the apathy that pervades sections of society and hampers the development of many children and young people whilst also acknowledging that the State has a role to play in requiring certain standards of parents.

However, Sir Michael also opened a can of worms in doing so and received criticism from the usual suspects – i.e. teaching unions and left wing commentators.

Ofsted’s chief is right when he advocates telling parents if they’re failing their children by not reading with them, not helping with homework or continually failing to turn up for parents’ evenings.

He’s also surely correct when he says that if parents love their children they should support them through school. After all, who doesn’t want their children to do well and aspire?

Where I disagree with the Ofsted chief is in his assertion that schools should start fining parents who don’t properly support their children.

I’m afraid that, to my mind, the issue of parental responsibility for a child’s education is simply too nuanced for such a simplistic approach.

Fining parents is the bureaucratic equivalent of a sledgehammer to crack a nut and I genuinely believe it would do more harm than good.

Let me start by saying that I’m sure my fellow columnist Tristram Hunt MP, the Shadow Education Secretary, will have an informed take on all of this.

I can, however, only come at the subject from the point of view of someone who was supported well through school by my own parents and who now takes an active role in the school life of my own children.

At home I, or my wife, read to our children nightly before bed. We help them with homework.

We even try our best to stimulate them through the TV programmes they are allowed to watch and the computer games they play.

Dull as it may seem, education is always the watch-word in our house. Tea-time is when we talk about the school day and Lois and Mina blurt out what they’ve learned that day (along with who fell over in the playground and what their friends ate for lunch).

My wife and I attend every parents’ evening – together when possible. We have also been on many school trips, helped out at school fairs and sports days and even run fund-raising discos.

As the Deputy Chair of Governors, I was present during the last Ofsted inspection and I write this column a few hours ahead of a two-hour, full governors’ meeting at little ’un’s school.

Bear in mind that I’m extremely lucky, however. I have a job which involves me working long, often anti-social hours but which is also relatively flexible.

This means I can attend most governors’ meetings and parents’ evenings. I can go on some school trips.

Most evenings I am there to read to my children before they go to sleep.

There are millions of parents just like me the length and breadth of the country who do the same.

However, we must also accept that there are many mums and dads across the UK who, for a variety of reasons, do not or cannot devote as much time to their children’s education as perhaps they, or society, would like.

Perhaps they are single parents with little or no support from relatives to enable them to take a more active role in school life. Or maybe they are families with no grandparents to help out with babysitting.

Perhaps they are shift workers or one of the growing number of people with multiple, low-paid jobs.

Perhaps they themselves had a poor experience at school and received little or no support from their own parents and therefore have no positive educational experiences to draw upon.

Perhaps they are embarrassed because they can’t read or write well or because their grasp of numbers is so poor that they are simply unable to help their own children.

Deprivation, poor levels of parental education, low aspirations and generations of worklessness have created large numbers of families for whom education simply isn’t a priority.

It’s shocking and deeply sad but we all see it every day. The latch-key kids, the children falling asleep in class because they’ve had so little sleep or because they missed a proper breakfast. The kids whose lunchboxes contain nothing but crisps, chocolate and sugary drinks.

The increasing number of children whose behaviour would have been called just plain ‘naughty’ when I was at school. The lack of respect from some children towards teaching staff.

There is no denying the apathy among some parents towards their children’s schooling and, whilst we may be able to explain it, it is inexcusable and unforgivable.

However, fining these people won’t make them homework geniuses, encourage them to go on school trips or suddenly make them better scholars themselves.

In fact, I would suggest that if schools were to start dishing out fines to ‘bad parents’ then this would simply lead to a further deterioration in the relationship between teachers and these mums and dads. That won’t help their children and surely they should be our priority here.

I’m not making excuses. This is the reality in Britain in 2014 and unless we help to motivate, rather than punish, such parents we are in danger of merely perpetuating the problems.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

FIFA, the World Cup 2014 paradox, and 48 years of hurt…

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia '90.

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90.

And so it begins. The office sweepstakes have been organised, the wall charts are up, the sticker albums are almost complete and a solid month of football lies ahead.

Despite the fact the game’s world governing body, FIFA, has about as much credibility as the elections in Syria, that didn’t matter last night when hosts Brazil kicked off the World Cup against Croatia.

The suits were out in force, amid all the pomp and ceremony, as the first match provided a welcome distraction for the embattled charisma vacuum that is Sepp Blatter.

The internal strife of the South American nation has been forgotten. The furore surrounding FIFA’s dubious decision to award the 2022 tournament to a country which is hotter than the sun has been conveniently parked.

As much as the World Cup is an inspirational event, we must accept that it’s also the poster boy for corporate largesse and hyperbole.

Here in England, the Spirit of ‘66 lives on – well at least it does in supermarkets up and down the country where you can buy flags of St George and T-shirts showing the late, great Bobby Moore OBE which will be worn by people of all ages – many of whom have no idea who he was.

England play their first game on Saturday night in a brand new stadium in Manaus – a place more suited to a location shoot for Raiders of the Lost Ark than top flight football.

The pitch is of a standard that many pub teams would baulk at and the stadium itself will only be used for four World Cup games because no major team in Brazil wants to base themselves in, well… the jungle.

But the lunacy that accompanies the tournament will be overlooked by fans of England and Italy because all that matters on Saturday night is the result.

I suppose it’s easy to understand why your average fan isn’t too bothered by what happens off the field or the domestic problems of the host nation.

The World Cup is one of those rare events – a sporting occasion which brings nations together, united in hope for an improbable dream.

Club allegiances are set aside (we’re all England now) and the only debates take place over matters such as whether Wellbeck or Sterling should start a game and the fitness or otherwise of Wayne Rooney.

For the millions of supporters of lower league clubs, like myself, the World Cup gives us – albeit briefly – a seat at the top table.

Whether you’re Port Vale or Rotherham, Crewe Alex or Yeovil, the multi-million pound Premier League superstars are now yours to support.

Even if it’s only for the group stages.

I was born in 1972 – by which time the glow of England’s only World Cup triumph was already fading.

Even so, I dare say few people who were around to see Geoff Hurst’s heroics would have thought that almost 50 years later the Three Lions would still be waiting to appear in another World Cup Final.

For as long as I’ve been watching England, they’ve been hugely disappointing.

Glorious and not-so-glorious failures are all I can remember.

We cling on to Bryan Robson’s lightning-quick goal, Lineker’s Golden Boot, David Platt’s sublime volley and Gazza’s tears.

We have recurring nightmares about penalty shoot-outs and still feel aggrieved that the greatest footballer of his generation used his hand to knock us out of the tournament.

We’ve seen a so-called ‘golden generation’ under-achieve hugely and been left questioning whether or not Champions League football perhaps matters more to overpaid Premier League stars than representing their country.

If I sound cynical I am. But it doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the World Cup.

The one saving grace this time is that I can’t find anyone who thinks England are a force to be reckoned with.

Like Germany in 2010, we have an interesting mix of experience and youngsters with potential. We have no superstars. None.

No-one expects us to tear up any trees and that may just be Roy Hodgson’s greatest weapon.

I don’t expect miracles. I don’t expect beautiful football. But I do expect the national anthem to be sung with gusto and for the players representing our country to give their all. To show some passion.

Come on England. Do us proud.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

We’ll never see the like of our D-Day heroes again…

The Sentinel's D-Day 70th anniversary souvenir.

The Sentinel’s D-Day 70th anniversary souvenir.

We’ve all seen the grainy, black and white images. Most of us will have watched the Pathé news reels and limited film footage.

Many will have enjoyed, time and again, the classic war movie The Longest Day, Spielberg’s masterpiece Saving Private Ryan or the excellent Band of Brothers TV series.

A lucky few, like yours truly may have visited northern France and stood on the beaches, seen the remains of the Mulberry Harbours, touched a landing craft or a glider and seen the scars of that great conflict across Normandy.

But I’d venture to say that it’s only when you digest personal stories of the Normandy Landings or read news reports from the time that you get a genuine sense of what it was like for both those involved in D-Day – and, of course, the millions waiting anxiously for news back home.

There was no TV, no social media.

Millions huddled around radios or scoured newspapers such as The Sentinel for more information as the landings became public knowledge.

It is no exaggeration to say that much of the world held its breath on June 6, 1944, as the greatest seaborne invasion in history was executed.

Here in Britain, just a short stretch of water separated us from Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’ and people knew details of the landings announced 70 years ago today in Parliament by the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill represented a calculated gamble.

It had been made possible by years of planning and subterfuge as well as the combined efforts of the Russian armies in the East and the almost forgotten Allied armies slogging away in the Mediterranean who had greatly diluted the fighting strength of the Germans.

Success was still, however, by no means guaranteed.

Indeed, The Sentinel’s leader column of that fateful day ended with the words: ‘So, in quiet confidence, in the conviction of the righteousness of our cause and with determination to endure, we place ourselves in the hands of good Providence who has supported us all the day long of these troublous years’.

For several years Britain had stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany – Hitler’s impressive armies cutting a bloody swathe across the continent and staring hungrily across the English Channel.

First came the heroic retreat from Dunkirk. Then followed the Battle of Britain in which the Spitfire designed by our very own Reginald Mitchell, of Butt Lane, played a pivotal role.

Thanks to the bravery and skill of a small number of pilots and their ground crew, along with the indefatigable Royal Navy, Hitler was forced to abandon his planned conquest of our country – just as Napoleon had more than a century before. The people of these islands had put up with The Blitz and several years of rationing.

The country itself had been transformed into a lean society, fit to survive the travails of a war which impacted on everything from the food people ate, to the jobs they did, to the clothes they wore and even the time they went to bed.

(For the record, Black-Out time on June 6, 1944, here in Stoke-on-Trent was 11.17pm to 4.57, as you’ll see on your souvenir Sentinel front page in today’s special supplement).

It is almost impossible for us today, equipped as we are with technology linking us to people around the world, to conceive of what life was like for our ancestors during those dark days of the early 1940s.

The nation was united by a total war the likes of which we will never see again.

Ours is a throw-away society. Few of us make-do and mend. Most can’t darn a pair of socks. Many can’t cook. The thought of the Government telling us what we can and can’t do is a complete anathema to the social media generation.

Loose lips sank ships back in 1944. These days it seems many people can’t go to the toilet without telling people about it on Facebook.

There are a dwindling number of veterans, most of whom are in their nineties, and – indeed – people over the age of 75 who can recall the momentous events 70 years ago today.

Twelve months ago I suggested we set about tracking down our remaining D-Day veterans for the supplement you will find in the middle of today’s newspaper.

As well as telling their stories in print, I was keen to capture these ageing warriors on film and you can now watch them recall what took place by clicking on to our website.

They’re ordinary blokes from our neck of the woods who, in their prime, took part in a truly extraordinary crusade.

They are not boastful but their evocative words are imbued with an endearing honesty which is lacking in today’s politically-correct world.

My colleagues and I have been in genuine awe of them while putting together today’s 70th anniversary souvenir.

We are extremely grateful to them for giving us their time and sharing with us and our readers their memories of a remarkable moment in human history.

They are indeed the best of us. Thoroughly deserving of the tag of ‘the greatest generation’ having fought so valiantly to preserve the freedoms we enjoy in 2014.

Today we salute Bert, Albert, Ken, Herbert, Eric, Robert and all those who sailed, flew and marched with them on D-Day.

God bless them all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Why a little friendly football rivalry is good for Stoke-on-Trent

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor with Stoke and Vale mascots Pottermus and Boomer.

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor with Stoke and Vale mascots Pottermus and Boomer.

As much as some people would like to hype things up, if you’re from Stoke-on-Trent you know there’s only ever been one football derby worth talking about in these parts – and it doesn’t involve Crewe Alexandra, Shrewsbury Town or another Midlands club.

If you were there on that famous FA Cup night at Vale Park in November 1992 when Stoke striker Dave Regis’s shot got stuck in a puddle a yard or so away from the empty Vale net then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the derbies in which the likes of Stein, Gleghorn and Sheron made headlines for the Potters and Cummins, van der Laan and Bogie became heroes for the Valiants.

How great it was last Sunday that the Potteries derby was resurrected at Vale Park – complete with legends from both clubs and a smattering of celebrities.

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor and his friend, local businessman Kevin Jones, organised the Legends game at pretty short notice and, in all honesty, I don’t think many people thought they could make it happen.

But on a rare sunny weekend almost 4,000 Vale and Stoke fans turned out to watch former players roll back the years in aid of charity.

The Vale team, featuring the likes of Ray Walker and Neil Aspin lined up against a Stoke team including the aforementioned Dave Regis and Micky Pejic while famous names like Jonathan Wilkes, Paddy McGuinness and darts maestro Adrian Lewis added to the mix.

Potteries football icons John Rudge and Denis Smith were there in a managerial capacity, for Vale and Stoke respectively, while top flight referee Phil Dowd volunteered to officiate.

Many Vale employees, including stewards, worked for free in the knowledge that local organisation Approach, which helps older people with dementia or mental health needs, would benefit.

The charity was chosen because Tony Naylor’s father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and he wanted to do something which raises awareness of dementia.

While we await the final figure for how much money has been raised, it’s safe to assume that more than £20,000 will be going into Approach’s coffers as a result of last Sunday’s game.

But perhaps more important than that, the event shone a light on dementia – something which affects more than 800,000 people across the UK. I think Vale and Stoke fans can also be immensely proud of how they pulled together for this worthy cause.

Yes, there was banter – with Stoke fans reminding home supporters of the gulf between the clubs these days and Vale fans enjoying ‘normal service being resumed’ as their team put eight past the visitors without reply.

In the end, however, the result was of secondary importance. The charity was the real winner and Stoke City and Port Vale fans proved they can sit side-by-side in friendly rivalry.

Barring a random cup draw, there’s no guarantee that the proper Potteries derby will happen again in my lifetime.

As a Vale supporter, I live in hope, of course.

But if it doesn’t happen then I’d settle for an annual ‘legends game’ – perhaps alternating between the Brit and Vale Park – in aid of different local charities.

Given more time to organise the game for next summer, and with the involvement of both clubs and perhaps the city council, this could become a brilliant off-season celebration – particularly as Stoke-on-Trent bids to become a ‘football city’, as championed by out-going MP Joan Walley.

Events such as this are relatively inexpensive to organise and they generate enormous goodwill.

It’s another easy way to tap into our city’s heritage and help cement football as a sport fit for a family day out.

Fingers crossed for next year and many congratulations to Tony, Kevin, Stoke City fan Angela Smith and all the volunteers for their efforts on Sunday.

They did us all proud – which ever half of the city you come from.

Did you go to the legends game? Would you like to see this become an annual event?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

It’s time we made ‘trolling’ socially unacceptable

Internet abuse is rife.

Internet abuse is rife.

I suspect like me, many people love and loathe the internet in equal measure.

Perhaps it’s an over-simplification but I would suggest that if you went to school in the days before the worldwide web then you realise that a) books (real ones, with paper) are good and b) there really is more to life than having a mobile phone surgically attached to your hand.

Don’t get me wrong: The internet has its uses. It’s a wonderful tool for learning (so long as you’re savvy enough to wade through the dross for reliable sources). It’s also great for shopping.

But, of course, the best thing about the web is that it brings people together. It instantly connects us with friends and loved ones around the country and all over the world.

For example, yours truly can chat online, face-to-face with my gamer friends in the States or via social media with my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

I’ll be sitting at work here in Hanley early in the morning and suddenly a message will pop up on Facebook from a little town called Feilding in the Manawatu region of the North Island where Steve is just about to hit the hay. This will never cease to amaze me. Bear in mind I’m still in awe of touch-screen technology.

But for all the advantages of the internet, there are many down-sides – not least the way in which it, and social media in particular, perpetuate bullying and abuse.

I was heartened to hear this week that people who abuse their victims on social media face prosecution for the first time in a shake-up of domestic violence rules.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders announced that criminal prosecutors have been given new guidance to modernise the way they investigate abuse.

She said some teenagers may not consider themselves victims if they are being targeted on sites such as Facebook and Twitter – as opposed to being physically abused.

This new guidance means online abuse will now be taken into account in domestic violence cases.

The problem is that these kinds of incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

There have been numerous documented cases of teenagers committing suicide after being bullied online; Of celebrities and high-profile individuals being stalked or harassed; Of organisations being unfairly targeted by individuals with an axe to grind.

It’s just so easy, isn’t it? This technological marvel which is seen as a vital lifeline in countries where people live in fear of oppressive regimes is a double-edged sword.

Anyone, anywhere can log on to the internet and create a platform to spout their (very often not so nice) views about other people.

Anyone with a social media account will see this abuse daily. Anyone who logs on to forums – such as the hugely popular football club fan sites – is exposed to it. Anyone who reads The Sentinel online and looks at some of the comments posted beneath stories will know what I’m talking about.

Many of the worst offenders hide behind pseudonyms and often have several of them. They like having the last word – believing this means they have somehow made their point or won the argument.

Ironically, I suspect very few of the abusers – because that’s what they are – would have the courage to say such things to the faces of their victims. Otherwise presumably they wouldn’t hide their identities.

The internet tends to embolden morons and give such people an over-inflated sense of their own importance.

I thought I had left the playground bullies behind when I finished school 26 years ago but it seems many of them have re-emerged via keyboards.

Forgive me if I sound like a representative of the Thought Police but it is hugely worrying to me that this sort of abuse is commonplace.

There’s a world of difference in my mind to free speech enabling robust, healthy debate and the insidious persecution of individuals because someone has an axe to grind with them or just because they can.

To my mind, swearing at someone on the internet or calling them ‘scum’ or a ‘liar’ or worse should be as socially-unacceptable as drink-driving.

I’ve blocked about 80 people from my Twitter feed in the last five years – the vast majority of whom claimed to be Port Vale supporters. Most of them began abusing me when the club’s chairman fell out with The Sentinel last November (ignoring the fact that this newspaper and yours truly did a bit to help the Vale in recent years).

Such abuse is water off a duck’s back to me these days but not everyone can shrug it off. We should remember that sticks and stones may break bones but words can also hurt people.

Sure, you can ‘block’ someone from your Twitter account or ‘unfriend’ them on Facebook. You can avoid forums or report abuse. But why should you have to?

Internet forums and social media are the verbal equivalent of the Wild West.

Given that children now have access to tablets and mobile telephones from a very early age, I think it’s vital that parents and teachers advise them how to behave online.

It’s one thing to install restrictions on devices to block certain websites or to protect your child from predators through education, but I think it is equally important to equip youngsters to deal with online abuse which can’t be filtered out – and to ensure they don’t actually dish it out themselves.

My view is: If you can’t say something politely then don’t say anything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel