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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Yes, we do get rid of ‘hate preachers’

2 August, 2015 - 22:26

A picture of a group of migrants or refugees standing or sitting on a ramp behind a metal fench, behind which are several lanes of queueing cars, approaching the Calais ferry port‘If you hate the migrants in Calais, you hate yourself’ | Nick Cohen (in today’s Observer)

People have been sharing this feature by Nick Cohen since it first appeared online yesterday (and I had a hard job getting to it on the Guardian’s website, eventually having to scroll through all the contributors with C surnames before finding his among the Cohens which weren’t in alphabetical order). Someone pointed out that Cohen has been publishing Islamophobic, warmongering posts for years, and people forget this as soon as he writes something “right-on”. But actually, there’s nothing much right-on about this piece. It follows a very typical pattern for him.

His technique, which I exposed in a previous entry, is to write a long article full of fairly uncontroversial, “right-on” lefty opinions, before getting a dig at one of his pet hates in towards the end. In this case, he fills the first two thirds of the article with righteous indignation at the racism directed at the migrants in Calais, the ugly language used by David Cameron (“swarms” etc) and the abandonment of the pretense that we accept genuine refugees but not economic migrants. However, towards the end he tells us why we’re shutting out real refugees:

Meanwhile – and I accept that this may be hard for readers to take – liberals ought to realise that the inability of the state to deport Islamist preachers and foreign criminals has made life immeasurably harder for refugees who threaten no one. In the past, there was no question that they could go. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees states that a country could deport a refugee if “there are reasonable grounds for regarding [him] as a danger to security” or if a court found him guilty of “a particularly serious crime”.

Over the succeeding decades, judges and further treaties have watered down that unambiguous statement. They have often acted from the best of motives, to save people from torture most obviously.

But the road to hell is paved with human rights lawyers’ briefs, and the liberal attempt to stop the deportations of Islamists and common criminals has had the profoundly illiberal effect of destroying what public support there was for welcoming refugees.

First, he is referencing tabloid myths about criminals being allowed to stay because of their “family life” rights, when in fact these are often tabloid distortions. Second, he is suggesting (a common theme on the xenophobic “muscular” liberal right) that human rights only be applied to cuddly and friendly figures, not people whose opinions might cause offence or who don’t agree that you can always defeat tyranny by standing in front of a tank.

I have nothing against getting rid of foreign criminals if they are people who came here for the purpose of committing a crime, or committed a serious crime without having built particularly strong family connections in the UK. The reason the deportation of foreign criminals has attracted significant human rights challenge is that some of the people affected had spouses and children in the UK and were not career criminals but had done one or two things wrong. In some cases (particularly after the tabloids made an issue of this in 2006), the convictions were years in the past and time had already been served. Besides, this country always objects when other countries (usually white Commonwealth countries) deports people who emigrated there as children and turned to crime (particularly sexual crime) as adults, then justifies such deportations on such grounds as that if a rapist had been deported to Poland, say, after his last crime, he would not have committed the latest one — a plainly false justification.

As for “Islamists”, the fact is that this country has deported several, in some cases despite lengthy human rights challenges. After Abdullah Faisal completed his sentence for inciting murder, he was deported, and was further deported from at least one other country (Nigeria). We also locked up and later deported Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada and others, and have refused entry to other preachers deemed to be ‘hate preachers’ including Louis Farrakhan, and there have been occasions where Cohen’s fans (and friends) at Harry’s Place have made a fuss because a Muslim preacher or imam they disapprove of because his opinions conflict with modish liberal values has been granted a visa, or a platform to speak somewhere, and it has been withdrawn. But also, ‘liberals’ tried to stop people being deported because the ‘evidence’ against them was obtained through torture, or because the supposed offences they had committed were carried out in this country, which has perfectly good laws under which they could have been prosecuted, but did not carry the wildly disproportionate sentences the same offences attracted in the USA.

I am not convinced that the supposed difficulty in getting rid of a few rabble-rousers is the reason it is difficult to accept more refugees, anyway. The public’s view of these issues, much as on so much else, is framed by how the commercial Tory press reports them, which in turn feeds into the “public opinion” found on radio phone-ins and below-line comments. The idea that policy on accepting genuine refugees should be formed on the basis of a handful of troublesome public figures is simply ludicrous; the blame should not be on those who did their jobs and fought for the human rights of those they were intended for, but those who make money or political capital out of stoking hostility towards the weakest in society, be they refugees, poor people, disabled people or whoever.

Image source: Calais Migrant Solidarity.

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There’s more to the Binladins than OBL

1 August, 2015 - 17:32

The main building and control tower of Blackbushe AirportYesterday a light aircraft crashed when attempting to land at Blackbushe airfield near Farnborough. The airfield is a former RAF base which has also been a passenger airport, but these days is used for executive jets and for pilots’ training. More significantly, there is a big car auction site next to it, which has an auction house as well as acres and acres of car park used to store the goods (cars). The aircraft came down in the middle of one of these car lots and destroyed several cars. I’ve delivered there (during a three-week period driving cars to and from that site for British Car Auctions) and my first thought was that the plane might have hit the auction house, which would have caused far more casualties, but which it did not. Anyway, the three passengers all belonged to the Saudi Binladin family, a large and wealthy Saudi family which owns, among other things, a large construction company, but whose most famous member over here was Osama, who is better known for demolition.

You may notice that I have spelled “Binladin” differently to how the name is usually spelled in the media. That is how the family spells it when they write in English. Media reports about this crash, such as this one in the Guardian and this one in the Daily Mail, said that the four people killed were relatives of Osama bin Laden, giving their relation to him rather than to his father Mohammed, who had more than one wife (I am not sure how many) and plenty of descendants. Although many Saudis sympathised with (and helped finance) the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in which Osama bin Laden was active, after the Gulf War when the latter turned to terrorism and attacked western targets instead of Russian ones, both the Binladin family (who have substantial western connections and business interests) and the Saudi government turned against him. While any Google search for any of the Binladins will return lots of references to (and pictures of) Osama, the men are often shown in suits and ties and the women without hijab or with pretty floral headscarves, hardly a sign of a fanatically religious Muslim family, especially in Saudi Arabia.

Picture of Sana bin Laden, a middle-aged Arab woman in a floral headscarfOsama bin Laden is dead now, the organisation he ran is well-known to have lost so much ground to ISIS that its leaders are free men in some Arab countries. The other Binladins are not that well-known in the west but the fact that they are uninvolved in their late brother’s activities has been well-known for years. I don’t intend this as an advert for their corporation, which has been involved in all the religious building projects in Saudi Arabia (and the Saudis are notorious for demolishing historic buildings, including libraries, in the name of religious purism or to make way for vanity projects), though the woman killed in the crash (Sana, left) was a philanthropist known in Saudi as the “mother of orphans”, but it was not necessary to prominently report the relation of the dead in this crash to Osama bin Laden. It was newsworthy in itself that a passenger plane crashed near London with the loss of four lives, and in naming those killed, the fact that they were related to Osama bin Laden could have been mentioned in passing.

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On Jeremy Corbyn: no, it’s not about purity

27 July, 2015 - 22:03

Black and white picture of Jeremy Corbyn, standing in front of a lectern addressing the 2014 People's AssemblyThe Labour Party are currently holding their leadership election following the resignation of Ed Miliband after he lost the general election in May. The four candidates are Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn, the last being the only left-wing candidate who has been widely ridiculed as a throwback to the early 80s and a certain election loser. Meanwhile, the others are being condemned as closet Tories at worst and uninspiring Blairite functionaries at best. As Corbyn is deemed the most likely candidate to lose the 2020 election, there has been a campaign to encourage Tories to join the party as “supporters” so as to get a vote in the leadership election. That the party’s rules allow this is pretty stupid; most parties (including, for example, the Tories at the time David Cameron was elected leader) do not allow new members to vote.

One of the themes that has been constantly repeated in the criticism of Corbyn and his supporters is that he represents a retreat to idealism, to the ‘freedom’ of being a principled opposition rather than having to make compromises to win and keep power, and a “delusion” that the party lost because it was not left-wing enough. Examples include Saturday’s piece in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, in which he claims that the Corbyn ‘tribe’ cares about “identity, not power” and about being true to themselves; Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Observer suggests that the current debate reflects a party which has already resigned itself to losing the next election. Much as in the coverage of Lib Dem party members who opposed their MPs’ caving-in to the Tories’ coalition demands in the last parliament, we have the same language of maturity and of ‘sensible’, ‘realistic’ compromises versus ‘protest’ — a dirty word — and opposition. Freedland even talks of Blair and others who “tried to sit the kids down” and persuade them that Corbyn will never get elected.

Both raise the spectre of the 1980s, with Rawnsley opining that although 1983 was “a mathematically more severe defeat, in some ways Labour’s predicament is worse today”. How is it? In the 1980s Labour faced an infiltration from Militant; there is no such threat today; Militant are a spent force even on the hard left and even Socialist Worker are a shadow of what they were in 2005, let alone the 1980s, as a result of the rape scandal. There are still a few Marxists knocking around, but they are not regarded as the threat that they once were because the USSR no longer exists and cannot fund Marxist entryist groups abroad. So, the press can throw around a few insults but they cannot make left-wingers in the Labour party out to be a threat as they could in the 1980s; and as nobody under 40 remembers the early 1980s (or anything of the Cold War) anyway, the insults have much less resonance than they used to. The world is a totally different place, and it is not Corbyn’s supporters who are living in the past.

Rawnsley accuses Miliband of taking the party to the left “on the basis that the party’s 13 years in office were essentially a terrible mistake” while conceding that Blairites are “not being more vigorous or persuasive in defending their record”. But that’s the whole point. The Blairites have not learned the lessons of the mistakes of Blair’s time in office and in some cases regard them as Blair’s good points. Thatcher and Major fought two wars between them, both of which were popular and generally considered to be just wars. Blair (and Brown) also fought two, both of them (Iraq in particular) unpopular affairs which dragged on for years and did not achieve much. Blair scraped a win in the 2005 election, having won a landslide in 1997 and a respectable majority in 2001. The tendency to centralise everything and to slap down local leaders who make too much noise was already in evidence in the mid-1990s, and is what lost the confidence of Scottish voters in Labour (and in turn, costing the confidence of many English ones).

But by far the biggest New Labour flaw is its timidity, which is what led us into the Iraq war and into accepting humiliations like the 2003 extradition treaty, and it is really what stops the supposed Blairites from defending Blair’s own legacy. Let’s remember that when Blair was in office, there was no serious criticism of his and Brown’s handling of the economy except from people who were regarded as cranks. (The New Statesman carried adverts for books like Gordon is a Moron which predicted a dire economic future, but I don’t recall these books ever getting a review.) It’s generally understood that the deregulation of the banking industry both here and in the USA is what led to the failures of major banks that led to the 2008 crash or “credit crunch”, but despite a change of government, there has been no move to seriously reform the finance industry to prevent another crash. Now, we hear supporters of Liz Kendall, as on the BBC Breakfast programme the other day, claim that Labour have to convince the public that they can be trusted with the economy, which means going along with every ideological Tory benefit ‘reform’ and never challenging the lie, repeated so often in the media that people assume it is true, that Blair and Brown governed as socialist spendthrifts.

The neo-Blairites are very inventive in thinking for reasons why Labour supporters might want a leader who stands for social justice rather than just getting into power. It must be about purity, or identity, or about reducing one’s role in evil rather than reducing evil (which requires power, and thus compromise). Labour supporters usually did not join the party to change the colour of the government or to put some particular individual in office for its own sake. Red does not equal socialism. In the USA a “red state” is one that voted for Bush and then McCain, and in China the ruling party calls itself Communist (and flies a red flag) but implements capitalism, albeit in some respects state capitalism. They joined the party to fight for social justice, for people to have an opportunity to better themselves, for workers’ rights, for better education and healthcare. With three of the four current leadership candidates, people see these things slipping further out of reach as they refuse to defend even their former leader’s legacy and oppose Tory plans to shrink the state. The best we can hope for from them is that they will mind the shop for the Tories when they are down, maybe for ten or fifteen years or so, until the Tories regroup, as they did in the last term of Blair and Brown’s government. And it’s not much to hope for.

It could be true that Corbyn is unelectable. It could be that by 2020, the Tories might be discredited enough for any donkey with a red ribbon to win the election; this is, after all, why governments usually change (those elections in the 1980s were not only Labour losses; the Tories won, because enough people were satisfied with them — something critics of Labour so often fail to take account of). But if the so-called modernisers (who aren’t really all that modern, as Paul Bernal notes) fear Corbyn, they had better start offering a serious alternative. Much like the Liberal Democrats, they need to stop blaming voters and start looking at what they are doing wrong. They may win back a few extra votes in Middle England now, but their supporter base is drifting off in favour of disaffection or UKIP.

Image credit: “The People’s Assembly National Demonstration Jeremy Corbyn MP 21 June 2014 124” by DAVID HOLT from London, England - The People’s Assembly National Demonstration Jeremy Corbyn MP 21 June 2014 124. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Review: Don’t Take My Baby

24 July, 2015 - 09:00

Picture of Anna, a young white woman in a wheelchair, played by Ruth MadeleyDon’t Take My Baby is an hour-long BBC drama, broadcast on BBC Three (which is likely to be removed from digital TV and only shown online as of next year, something one review says this programme helps make the case against) as part of a series of programmes titled Defying the Label, challenging popular stereotypes about disability. It tells the story of Anna, a wheelchair user with a muscle-wasting condition, and Tom, a man with a hereditary visual impairment that gets worse as the programme goes on. Anna and Tom have a baby, Danielle (Dani), who becomes the subject of a “child in need investigation” in which Anna (played by Ruth Madeley, who is a wheelchair user, albeit with spina bifida rather than muscular dystrophy) and Tom have to prove that they are fit parents before they are even allowed to take Dani home. The couple’s relationships with their parents, who clearly disapprove of their relationship and their decision to have the child, is explored and they have some rows, but eventually work through their difficulties and their fears. Eventually the couple are allowed to keep Dani.

I must say that when I first heard about the premise of the programme, I was a bit disturbed and wondered if this still went on. I was well aware of couples where there is a history of mental illness or a learning disability, even when the former is well in the past or the latter is mild, having their children threatened or even taken away and adopted, but was unaware that this was still going on when it came to otherwise competent, physically disabled parents. (Disability is sometimes used in custody disputes, particularly in the USA — the case of Kaney O’Neill in 2009 [see earlier entry] and the ongoing case of Jessie Lorenz and her daughter are examples — and even though the argument that a parent is less than ideal because of disability is rejected often, it keeps coming back.) The programme is said to be inspired by real stories, which would suggest that the characters are composites, but the scriptwriter, in his BBC blog, says that the story is loosely based on a real couple’s story. The follow-up notes at the end of the programme, saying that Dani had inherited Tom’s condition but not Anna’s and that Anna’s life expectancy remained uncertain, only added to the confusion.

The programme often left me confused as to the time frames involved. It was not clear, for example, how many days elapsed between Dani’s Caeasarian birth and Anna’s discharge — I would have thought it would have taken a few days, given that it was a high-risk birth and that if it was not guaranteed that Anna would survive the birth, there could have been complications. Those few days would have been an ideal time to make sure she and Tom were able to manage, and do any assessments, rather than discharging Anna without Dani. I’m well aware that people are discharged from hospital early a lot of the time, whether after childbirth or surgery, often resulting in readmission, but discharging someone at such high risk this early in these circumstances seems like a pointlessly high risk to me. I also wondered why the question of breast-feeding was never even raised — they didn’t, they were never encouraged to breast-feed or even for Anna to express milk, and it was never discussed why this was. While women with high-level spinal cord injuries who bear children often cannot breast-feed after a few months, Anna did not have a SCI. And on that subject, when Tom asked her how much of ‘that’ she could feel (after they had sex early on in their relationship), Anna said she could feel all of it but did not explain that her impairment was not an SCI — a common assumption of healthy-looking young people in wheelchairs which Anna would likely have encountered. Neither of these things altered the course of the story, but they seemed like curious omissions to me.

Tom is understandably hostile to the social workers and regards their intervention as an insult. At one point a support worker turns up and makes them watch a video explaining how to cook, something they already knew very well how to do. However, after bathing Dani in the family centre (which he did quite competently, with Anna and the social worker, Belinda, watching), he slipped on a wet floor and fell backwards with Dani in his arms. Dani is uninjured, but he panics and accuses the social workers of wetting the floor deliberately so as to make him look bad. Despite this, after a few wordless scenes of Belinda having a pained phone conversation in her car, the next day (or at least, in the next scene at Anna and Tom’s house), Tom is told that they can bring Dani home as they are moving the assessment to their house. We do not find out why this decision is made so quickly after the bath incident which clearly unnerves Belinda.

Picture of Belinda, a black woman in her mid-30s, standing behind Tom and AnnaAfter Dani goes home, although the couple are clearly overjoyed, they find it extremely difficult. Caring for Dani takes up all their time and Tom soon complains that he is doing all the work while Anna does nothing other than hold her. The floor gets cluttered as a result, and at one point Tom falls over and hits his head just as the social worker turns up for one of her unannounced visits (several of which they delay answering or entirely refuse). Three of their parents (Anna’s mother left when Anna was young, not long after her diagnosis) come to dinner and Tom casts aspersions on Anna’s mother’s support and asks why she was not at the birth and did not come for weeks afterwards; the mother responded that she feared Anna would die and did not want to meet the baby who might kill her. It comes to a head when Anna demands that Tom bathe her as she has not been bathed for days, and smells; when Tom refuses, insisting he has had a long day and wants a beer, Anna throws herself off the chair and onto the floor. Tom tells her he already has one baby to look after and does not need another. He ends up walking out and walking to the social services offices, where he meets Belinda coming out, and pours his heart out to her before saying he does not want her help, he just wants to be left alone to be a Dad. However, after this, the two settle their differences and admit that they are both afraid of what the future might bring for both them and Dani.

Towards the end, the couple go to the social work offices to address the panel which will decide if Dani can stay with them or not. When Belinda comes to tell them that they are ready for them, Tom takes out a folding white cane and uses it to navigate his way to the room, the first we learn that his sight impediment has got worse (he has not used a cane before) and something that is not remarked on. The two make an emotional appeal and Tom in particular stresses that his love and commitment should not have been in question, as he had gone into a relationship with a girl that “he sometimes had to help to shit” and that other parents who had faults, including his and Anna’s, and quite possibly the members of the team, did not have to prove themselves. He also said he was willing to accept more help parenting.

They then left, the panel continuing their deliberations without them. Belinda and the male social worker stressed that the two were competent, had accepted more help and had parented their daughter for four months without incident, but a third person, a woman we had not previously seen, said she was “not convinced” as they had failed to answer visits on more than one occasion, that Dani was likely to have to care for Anna if she even lived that long, and that she had previously had to remove a daughter from a disabled mother because she was living in absolute squalor. The fact that these arguments have been thrown out of court in cases in the past when social workers attempted to remove children from single parents far more disabled than Tom and Anna was not pointed out.) However, the panel decide to ‘downgrade’ Dani, which when Belinda breaks the news makes Tom furious and he threatens to sue them; it actually means that they have decided she is not at risk.

Picture of Tom, a young white man holding a small baby in a blanketThe programme left me wondering how common the scenario facing Tom and Anna is for disabled parents. Does this happen everywhere, or do different children’s services departments in different areas have different approaches? If it is common for loving, stable couples to be treated as if under suspicion and presumed incompetent until they prove otherwise, then this really is a scandal as I’m sure it would result in a proportion of such couples losing children to adoption; however, I am aware that some departments have a more relaxed and confident attitude towards even learning disabled parents, as was seen in the case of Steve and Tricia McHale, featured in One Born Every Minute in 2012, where social workers saw no danger despite Tricia’s worries (see earlier entry). That this happens to parents with learning difficulties and mental health issues is already well-known; that parents with purely physical impairments are being threatened in this way as well is not. If it is, the public should know about it, and there should be some anger, and a lot of debate. The question is, is there?

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Anti-FGM crusade brings out the busybodies

23 July, 2015 - 11:53

Picture of Jenny TongeThe crusade against FGM is out of control - Spectator Blogs

Brendan O’Neill wrote the above article on the incident reported recently in the British press, in which Baroness Jenny Tonge took a flight to Addis Ababa that was full of what appeared to her to be British-Somali families, including a lot of women and girls, and immediately formed the suspicion that they, or at least some of them, were going for the purpose of undergoing FGM. She said she “chickened out” of actually talking to them and asking, but informed the police on return who are apparently going to “check the passenger list”. (I checked Tonge’s FB page and it is either private or has been removed.) O’Neill mentions a few of the other problems that arise from the “crusade” against FGM:

There is a new raft of anti-FGM measures that could have a seriously detrimental impact on community relations. As of this month, anyone — literally anyone — can apply for an FGM Protection Order to prevent people from travelling abroad if there’s any reason to think they might be going for FGM. Are your Somalian neighbours planning a six-week trip abroad? Do they have daughters? Are their daughters a bit moody? Quick, get an FGM Protection Order.

Starting in Autumn, all teachers and health workers will be legally required to report cases of FGM to the authorities. According to the NSPCC, signs of FGM can include girls ‘spending longer than normal in the bathroom’ or talking about being ‘taken “home” to visit family’. Is this for real? Every girl going though puberty takes long trips to the loo. And loads of children of immigrants spend their summers abroad (as I did). To become suspicious of girls who start to feel embarrassed around the age of 12 and who talk about going on holiday to Africa is to be suspicious of virtually every pubescent African girl in Britain.

Tonge said her suspicion was raised because there were more girls than boys and “all just about pubescent”. Mutilation of girls at or around puberty happens in some parts of Africa but in Somalia it happens around six or seven. The idea that in this day and age, a large group of ‘pubescent’ (i.e. aged around 12) girls might be seen travelling to a place where they suspect they might have their bits cut off without anaesthetic, and none of them appear to be unhappy, is a bit unlikely. Africans do talk amongst themselves about FGM and girls that age may well know what it involves, especially if they know girls who have been through it. As for why there were more girls than boys, perhaps the families decided that because of the political situation it might be better not to take the boys. A whole Muslim family travelling to a country where there is still al-Qa’ida activity (and who knows where they might travel to afterwards) might arouse a lot more suspicion than just the women and girls going.

O’Neill also mentions the persistent suggestion that girls be subject to intimate examinations on leaving and entering the country if they come from a background where FGM is common. What these people do not consider is that if they are determined to carry out the procedure, they will find ways to circumvent the inspection (e.g. by flying back into Dublin and crossing back into the UK overland), and if they did not intend mutilation when they left but were unable to prevent it (and it is common for parents to resist FGM but for aunts or grandparents to insist on it), they might just not bring the girls back but keep them living with relatives in Kenya, Dubai or another surrounding country — or even Somalia, if they come from a part where there is no longer war. Being subjected to FGM does not actually prevent a girl going on to higher education and a career; living in a country where access to education is very limited, especially for girls, and where early marriage is expected, might do that.

Such inspections also undermine efforts to teach children how to protect themselves from abuse, namely that they know that their bodies are their own and their private parts are private. Anyone in authority who wishes to “take a look” after such an encounter only need compare themselves to the person at the airport, even though they may be of the other sex, particularly if the girl is too young to know what they were being inspected for. And there’s always the risk that the inspections will be traumatic in themselves, particularly if a girl has already been a victim of sexual abuse (or has had it drilled into her never to show her body to anyone), and there is no guarantee that every inspection will be done sensitively, particularly if there are dozens of girls to inspect before a plane can leave for Addis Ababa. And if a girl comes from a family where FGM is not practised, this intrusion from an ignorant official with a supicious mind will be entirely unnecessary (and they will use their ignorance as an excuse to carry out unnecessary inspections).

There is an obsession with FGM in this country and any findings on the matter are reported as sensationally as people can manage. For example, back in February it was reported that 500 “new cases” of FGM were reported at hospitals in England and that “campaigners” had warned that this was the “tip of the iceberg”. However, the new cases consisted of doctors becoming aware of women who had undergone FGM, not of girls undergoing FGM, yet this detail was buried in the stories. In David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham last Monday, he claimed that “too often we have lacked the confidence to enforce our values, for fear of causing offence”, specifically mentioning FGM and forced marriage, alleging that “there were nearly 4,000 cases of FGM reported in our country last year alone”, which appears to refer to a statistic that nearly 4,000 women were treated for effects of FGM in the UK since 2009; there is no evidence of how many of these cases were inflicted in the UK. The fact that not a single case has ever been successfully prosecuted should be instructive, given that it’s well-known that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported, yet there have always been reports, and convictions.

This persistent exaggeration and sensationalising of FGM and its supposed prevalence in this country is used to fuel another debate, namely about integration and the supposed refusal of Muslim minorities in particular to “fit in”. The truth is that it’s widespread in Africa, not just in Muslim countries, and when a London radio station held a phone-in on the issue a few years ago, the majority of callers were Nigerians, not Somalis, yet we never hear Nigeria mentioned as a place where FGM is common. The fact is that it is being debated among the communities which traditionally practised it, that many families have abandoned it, that some groups did not traditionally practise it, that many adult women from the communities involved have not had it done, and that it is declining for reasons that are not entirely to do with western influence, including exposure to Muslim cultures where FGM is unheard-of — yet these campaigners, and all the well-connected ignorant busybodies like Jenny Tonge, remain convinced that only they know what is in girls’ best interests when they often know very little about the cultures involved, and appear to believe they do not need to.

Image credit: “Baroness Tonge Liverpool” by Keith Edkins - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

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On feminists and girls’ school uniforms

20 July, 2015 - 21:46

Picture of Sarah Pashley, a middle-aged white woman with reddish hair, wearing a dark grey jacket over a white blouse.Last Thursday Woman’s Hour, the 10am slot on BBC Radio 4, had a feature on the growing trend in the UK for schools to ban girls from wearing skirts (it starts at 32:25, not where the dividing line is), after teachers have got sick of sending girls home or into isolation for wearing their skirts too short. Most recently this has included Bridlington School in Hull, whose headteacher Sarah Pashley (right) said that the behaviour of some girls was causing incidents that had made male teachers uncomfortable. Over the years schools have moved from making skirts compulsory for girls to allowing trousers and the ban on skirts has come more recently. The first I remember was Kesgrave High near Ipswich, which banned skirts in 2004 because the (female) chair of governors said she did not like girls cycling to school in short skirts which gave them what she called a “come hither” look. (The ban remains in place.) These days such bans are often justified in terms of preventing girls’ dress becoming a distraction for both boys and male teachers, and the same is true of similar rules in non-uniform dress codes in other schools, particularly in the USA. The Woman’s Hour feature included two male teachers (Vic Goddard, who has featured in Educating Essex, and Francis Gilbert), oddly given that some of those who have introduced these rules are themselves women, and a female gender studies academic, Jessica Ringrose of University College London.

Nearly all the schools I attended had uniforms, and in the 80s and early 90s it was usual for them to be sharply differentiated by sex — the boys were expected to wear shirts and ties, and the girls, blouses (sometimes shirts and ties) with a skirt that came well below the knee. The top button and tie rule was a persistent source of conflict for me as I found it (though not the tie itself) uncomfortable. A lot of schools now have abandoned these rules, making them more gender-neutral, though the more prestigious ones (including grammars, Catholic schools and many of the new academies) have retained them or even reintroduced them. It’s actually difficult to buy long school skirts for girls now (I can find only one, in fact), unless it’s a bespoke uniform item for a specific school.

In this feature, one of the teachers made reference to what he called the “magic walk” that girls have that causes their skirts to be long when they leave home and short when they reach school. He also mentioned that policing skirt lengths is a problem that comes up often because although they specify a grey uniform skirt that can be bought at Asda (a WalMart-owned British supermarket chain), it comes in different lengths and one girl was 6ft tall, resulting it being too short on her. Francis Gilbert said that his school expects teachers to measure skirt length with a ruler, but he finds this uncomfortable and tends not to do it; however, girls play up to a TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) culture and come to school dressed like they are going to a nightclub. Prof Ringrose said that the claims of ‘distraction’ was deeply sexist, objectifying of girls’ bodies and insulting to men, and that objectification of girls’ bodies should be addressed in the curriculum rather than making out that girls’ bodies are sexually inappropriate.

The presenter asked Francis Gilbert how often boys were told off for having their trousers down around their waists; he said that they did this quite often, particularly with boys’ haircuts. Ringrose interrupted to say that he was not branding boys’ bodies as inappropriate and that it represented a sexual double standard which she found ‘distressing’. She also said that making girls wear trousers was not an answer, because girls were often told off for having trousers that were too tight and that girls had reported to her that the school trousers were often ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Towards the end, she said that schools should be addressing sexism and sexual harassment and that a uniform policy “does not get to the root of the problem, which is sexual violence against girls and women”.

Personally, I find the “distraction” argument fairly flimsy, but if the dress is distracting then it should be understood that it is not the girl’s body that is distracting but the particular way she displays it. Nobody, after all, makes the same claims about women in swimsuits, which display far more flesh than a school uniform. It’s not only the girl’s appearance itself that is a distraction; it is also the time taken out of teaching to tell off a pupil who openly breaches a rule. But to say men and boys (especially boys who are going through puberty and really do think about girls and sex a lot) are distracted by a girl dressed in an obviously sexualising manner is not the same as suggesting that they will not be able to control their behaviour; rather, it means just that: that it will distract him from thinking about other things. It can also lead to compromising situations, such as when a woman wears a skirt above the knee then sits on a low chair, putting the ‘opening’ (and possibly her underwear) right below where the man would look to talk to her, such that the man or boy need only cast his eyes down briefly to appear to be looking up her skirt. This is illustrated by what happened when a male teacher told a girl to lengthen her skirt at a school in Yorkshire a few years ago: she told him he should not be looking at her legs, despite their being on clear display and it being his job to enforce the school rules. I should add that it is not just schoolgirls who do this; the female police officer who interviewed me about abuse at my boarding school last year did precisely this.

Picture of Chris Whitehead, a 12-year-old white boy with blond hair, wearing a light blue school T-shirt and a dark grey school skirtIt is not true that girls’ bodies are being policed more than boys’. This attitude is rather typical of feminist attitudes that scorn any notion that women and girls should be ascribed personal responsibility for their behaviour, particularly where it has any connection with sex or sexuality. Boys’ uniforms are almost always heavier and more concealing than girls’. In many schools girls are still allowed to wear a skirt in the summer while boys are required to wear long trousers; there have been a few incidents of boys wearing skirts to get around this problem (which it turned out was not against the rules). Boys’ haircuts are a common source of uniform conflicts for boys, and a boy cannot vary his haircut in and out of school; a girl can wear what she likes when out of uniform. The rules offer more choice to girls and are easier to follow for them, yet they break the rules more often, because some girls know their bodies, particularly when decorated a certain way, are visually appealing to boys, while others do not, and dress as their friends do to fit in without knowing the messages their dress sends out. And if girls cannot, or will not, obey a rule that is hardly onerous and does not impose discomfort, that choice is going to be withdrawn.

I’m not in favour of uniforms; the majority of the arguments in their favour (such as masking social class differences) are spurious. But if a school is meant to be a learning environment (and I’m well aware that they often are not, especially at secondary level), it is not unreasonable to ask pupils to dress in a way that looks appropriate for one, and which shows good taste. We can argue as long as we like over how distracting a girl in an “extended belt”, as the BBC presenter told us her mother used to call a very short school, is, and in what way, but the biggest objection to it is that it doesn’t look very nice. Schools are (meant to be) places to broaden the mind, not to reduce young people to their bodies before they’ve even begun trying to do that.

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‘Hadith 38′ isn’t about war

19 July, 2015 - 12:54

Picture of a young man of Arab appearance, with dark hair and a large dark beard and moustache, with an orange shirt.The BBC reported today that Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez (right), the gunman of Kuwaiti origin who murdered five US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last week, had sent what it called a “war text” to a friend the day before the shooting. The text quoted what the BBC calls “hadith 38”, which the friend “said he thought nothing of the text at the time, but now wonders if it was a hint at the attack to come”. Other friends (also not named) said that he “spoke of his anger about conflicts in the Middle East, including Israeli bombing campaigns in Gaza and the civil war in Syria, after returning from a trip to Jordan last year”, and that “his level of understanding and awareness really rose after he came back”.

Hadith 38 (it is the 38th in Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, which although very well-known is not one of the primary collections; it is sourced from the collection by Bukhari) is one of the most famous of all the hadiths, which are sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). This one is a hadith qudsi or sacred hadith, in which the speech of God is reported (it is also in the collection known as Forty Hadith Qudsi). It reads:

The messenger of Allah said: “Allah the Almighty has said: ‘Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, I shall be at war with him. My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have imposed upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it.’”

Almost all Muslims have heard or read this hadith. I’m not a scholar and there’s really not much I need to say to explain this. I’m sure whole books have been written about it. It’s about the virtues and enormous rewards of performing religious duties and of other rituals which are not compulsory but meritorious. While most readers will see the “religious duties” referred to as meaning prayers, fasting, paying the zakaat and making the Hajj, as well as the things we are required to do as Muslims in our daily life, religious duties sometimes involve fighting as well. But carrying out a random attack on a military base and killing five people when you are living in a non-Muslim country as an immigrant can in no way be described as a religious duty. In fact, there was at least one case of an early Muslim being excused fighting because he had been allowed to go on to Madinah (which composed almost the entire Muslim world then) after agreeing with the then pagan Meccans not to fight against them.

Among Muslims the term “friend of Allah” (waliullah) is commonly used in the same way as “saint” among Christians, although it can be used of a living person as well, usually of a great scholar or Sufi shaikh, or perhaps of a particularly pious ordinary person. Some scholars have said that the term refers to scholars, others to the Believers (Muslims) in general. But Muslim sectarian fighters and rulers who persecute and kill scholars who speak the truth and who obstruct Muslims in performing prayers and harass them for displaying signs of religiousness such as beards or hijab, would appear to fit into the description. Any Muslim thinking of joining an outfit like ISIS thinking they will be building up a great Islamic state should think of how they will be treating those they are ruling, and not be so certain that those they call deviants aren’t in fact awliyaa’ (the plural of wali).

And if someone sent me a text containing that hadith, the last thing I’d imagine is that they were about to carry out a mass shooting or suicide bombing. It’s a very general hadith and this is the first time I have ever heard it linked to violence. And Allah knows best.

(Some media reports have also noted that his school yearbook entry contained a quote from “Hijabman” which said “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”. Hijabman is in fact Javed Memon, a Muslim blogger and photographer who has never been linked to extremism or violence of any sort. It indicates, if anything, that his ‘conversion’ is more recent than that. Hijabman issued a statement on this on Friday.)

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Close the units down?

18 July, 2015 - 11:02

Picture of Josh and Phill Wills (a white teenage boy and man) sitting on a park bench, with deep blue sky and trees behind themLast Wednesday the BBC’s Call You and Yours programme on Radio 4 held a feature on the ‘progress’ in getting long-term residents out of assessment and treatment units (ATUs), the type of short-term mental health units for people with learning disabilities that includes Winterbourne View, where abuse was exposed in Panorama in 2011, and the Slade House STATT unit in Oxford in which Connor Sparrowhawk died because of neglect in 2013. The programme featured an interview with Phill Wills, whose son Josh has been in a residential unit in Birmingham since 2012, 260 miles from his family who live in Cornwall, and with Sir Stephen Bubb, who this week published a report which showed that thousands of people were still languishing in ATUs despite ministers’ pledging four years ago to get them out.

The calls didn’t just focus on that immediate issue; they included parents who had had to struggle to get statements of Special Educational Needs for their children in the face of opposition from local authorities. It would have been more useful to hear more calls from relatives of people who have been wrongly deprived of their liberty for extended periods, subject to abusive sectionings or referrals, been transferred a long distance or have died as a result of poor care or abuse. The opening call was from a relative of a young autistic girl who was placed in a hospital unit at age 15 because her school was concerned about deteriorations in her behaviour, but on arrival she was immediately restrained and given medicine by injection, and she remained in her room for most of the next two years, and it was only when the family got help from Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation that they were able to get her out of the unit, and she has not needed to be restrained or injected since. But she was the only caller from a family in this position; while Phill and Josh’s story is important, they have no qualms with the quality of care their son has received. Some autistic people’s experiences have been very different. (Josh was expected to go to a new home in Cornwall this month, but the latest in a long line of bureaucratic and legal delays has meant there is no longer a date for his return although the home is ready for him.)

There has, in my opinion, been too heavy a focus on the matter of ATUs and not enough on other types of units which are taking in people with learning disabilities in which they do not have expertise. The reaction to the abuse scandal in one institution, which happened to be an ATU, has been “close the ATUs down”, when there are many other types of institutions in which bad care flourishes behind closed doors because carers are hired who are of poor calibre and they are not vetted, trained or monitored — old people’s homes, boarding schools, psychiatric wards, young offenders’ institutions. There is a song doing the rounds called “Close the Units Down”, which names four people as autistics who died in ATUs (Stephanie Bincliffe, Thomas Rawnsley, Nico Reed and Connor Sparrowhawk), when in fact Nico and Thomas were in what were meant to be specialist care homes and Nico was not autistic. Every hospital assesses and treats; that’s what they are for. If we just close ATUs down, people with autism or other learning disabilities who suffer a crisis or actually become mentally ill will end up in other types of equally inappropriate units. Autistic people with challenging behaviour are already being sent to secure psychiatric units and other institiutions which house offenders, in some cases with violent consequences.

Listening to some of the victims’ and their families’ stories and talking to some of the parents, I hear the theme of mental health staff not understanding autism coming up time and again, even in learning disability mental health environments and homes and this affects people with autism at every level of functioning (for example, young people with Asperger’s hospitalised because of a mental health crisis are affected by it too). I would suggest that a better solution to autistic people being the victims of inappropriate treatment is to make sure that all mental health professionals, particularly those dealing with in-patients (and deprivation of liberty is a fact in almost all psychiatric wards, since the vast majority house sectioned and informal patients in the same wards, requiring them to be locked), have training in autism, and this must include mandatory retraining for those already practising. It should be part of every psychiatrist’s and mental health nurse’s university education, and training in dealing with autism and challenging behaviour should be available to other medical staff (so that, for example, the events that led to the death of Kane Gorny in south London need not be repeated). This should ensure that institutions do not trigger the very types of behaviour that may have resulted in the person being sent there, and then punish them for it with denial of ‘privileges’ such as being allowed in the grounds or trips out with family, or escalate confrontations such that a patient is injured or killed in restraint, or assume that they would behave the same everywhere (rather than just in the unfamiliar institutional environment) and therefore keep them there longer than they need to be.

(However, autism is not the only thing some mental health staff seem not to understand. Connor Sparrowhawk died not because of a lack of understanding of autism (although that was an issue), but because staff forgot, or were not trained in, basic necessities in caring for someone with epilepsy, i.e. don’t leave them alone in the bath. I also know a woman who was hospitalised in Burnley during the Orchard Beds affair last year who had an asthma attack, and it took about an hour for that to be seen to. You can die of that as well. She also had difficulty attending to other serious physical health problems while in hospital. The poor state and underfunding of mental health services does not only affect people with learning disabilities; children and adolescents, as in the ongoing Hull scandal, are another badly affected group.)

I agree wholeheartedly that people with learning disabilities should not be spending years living in hospital units that were meant to care for short periods for people in crisis when they ought to be receiving care at home or in the community, and certainly that people should not be deprived of their liberty when there is no need. And some units are beyond saving and should be closed (the unit where Stephanie Bincliffe died has been). But not all ATUs are bad and sometimes they deal with problems thrown up by badly-run supported living. Simply closing ATUs down will simply mean there is nowhere to go when someone has a crisis which is too difficult for their family to manage at home, much as closing mainstream adult or paediatric psychiatric beds and units means the same thing, and the upshot will be that more people are transferred to unsuitable units miles from home. We need to see money spent on making sure these people can live in their communities, with their families if possible and if they want, so that they can get out of ATUs and other inpatient units, and a major programme of training for medical and nursing staff, particularly in mental health (although it should be available to others, as they may have to treat autistic people as well), in autism and how to treat people with autism appropriately and effectively, so as to avoid further suffering and needless tragedies.

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Price tags on medication: why it’s a stupid, callous idea

3 July, 2015 - 16:02

 £522.89 at the 5-star Carlton Hotel in Osaka, Japan; £1,147.95 at John Lewis; £3,346 at Searcy's, which has several champagne bars across London; £624.88 in a store specialising in bar equipment and bottle openers; £1,382 at the Hotel Melia in Berlin, 'one of the best in Germany'; £788 at the Miramar luxury hotel and spa in Santa Monica, California; £542.68 in a store which rents out drills, shredders and other toolsYesterday the government announced that labels on drugs prescribed by the NHS in England that cost over £20 will have the cost printed on them along with the words “funded by the UK taxpayer”. According to the BBC report, the decision is part of an effort to reduce medication wastage — medicines prescribed but never used — which allegedly costs £300m a year. Quite a few of my friends online are chronically ill and rely on medications to keep them alive or at least to make some semblance of normal life possible. Personally, I’m on thyroid supplements daily, and have been since age 5, and get free prescriptions, which I suspect many of my friends don’t. The reasons this is a bad idea were obvious.

First, over the past few years there has actually been demand for the state to finance expensive new drugs, particularly for rare diseases and cancer. I have seen more than one petition over the past couple of weeks for a particular drug that is licensed for use on some conditions but not others to be made available for a young girl who has one of the conditions for which it is not licensed, but which evidence suggests could allow her to live a normal life. This week, for example, NHS England refused to license a new drug, Vimizin, which is available in several other countries, to treat Morquio’s syndrome, to people who had already been part of a clinical trial, while NICE investigates its “cost-effectiveness”. Media reports say that people who took the drug found their health improved dramatically and that they were able to work and school and undertake university courses which they would otherwise be unable to. So it is clear that the public is willing to have expensive medications available on the NHS if they work.

Second, the reason prescription charges are set as they are is that cheaper medications are used to partly fund the cost of more expensive ones, yet these cheaper medications would not be subject to these rules as it would be politically impossible, putting the prescription charge scheme in jeopardy.

Third, drugs have side effects and it has been known for drugs to kill rather than cure a patient (especially chemotherapy drugs) or to expose them to an infection that kills them. Admittedly, some of these are likely to be administered by staff rather than given to the patient to administer themselves, so they might not see the label unless the person administering it is obliged to read it out to them. But why lecture a patient about the cost of their medication (based on the assumption that they’re going to waste it) when, even though it may be relieving another health problem, it is destroying their immune system or causing osteoporosis or some other life-altering complaint which costs them an awful lot? And of course we will be reminding them of the cost of all the medication for the side effects as well.

Fourth, whether or not drugs to treat mental health conditions are to be exempted from this, mentally ill people get physically ill, some chronically ill people also have mental health problems and some conditions affect both. Reminding someone with depression that they are a burden on the taxpayer (something many are already keenly aware of) is cruel, and is going to make their condition worse, affecting their decisions about seeing doctors or accepting prescriptions. Some of this will cost ‘the taxpayer’ in treating their future health (perhaps requiring some patients who refuse medication to be sectioned), but the real cost will be to that person, and their family, in suffering and perhaps loss of life.

Fifth, some ‘wastage’ of medication is due to mistakes at the pharmacy, where medication is prescribed but not delivered (or when it cannot be delivered); even if unopened, it cannot be reused. Other ‘wastage’ is due to medication being prescribed on a PRN (pro re nata) basis, to use when necessary. If the necessity never arises, or does not arise enough to use all the medication, or the patient decides to go without, some of it will get poured down the toilet or returned to the pharmacy for disposal.

Picture of a red London brick, with the word "London" and the number 33 etched into itSixth, why the focus on drugs? They are not the only expense the NHS has to cover. Perhaps every nurse, doctor, cleaner, occupational therapist, healthcare assistant, receptionist and whoever else works in a clinic or hospital should carry a name badge saying “Hello, my name is [whoever] and I cost the taxpayer £50,000 a year (or however much) a year”. Perhaps we should price-tag every bit of furniture, every lift, every vehicle, every syringe, tube and cannula.

Seventh, the use of ‘the taxpayer’ makes it sound like a single individual is footing the bill. The whole point of a public health system is that the cost is shared between anyone who might have to use it, so that poor people do not die or suffer lifelong disability (and thus impoverishment) because of an illness which could easily be treated. The individual taxpayer does not feel the cost of any individual drug, let alone any individual prescription.

The fact is that running a good national health service costs money, and if it is going to be free at the point of need, some of it is going to be under-utilised; this has been cited as a reason for closing whole centres down, much to the detriment of the health of the people who needed it (see Beth’s story from the previous entry). I do not really think that reducing drug wastage is the real reason for labelling medications with cost; it is to make people routinely aware of the cost so as to soften us up for cutting public healthcare. As all the evidence shows that the public currently supports maintaining the NHS and providing drugs that improve or save lives, however much they cost, the issue of ‘wastage’ of supposedly expensive drugs is being used as a ‘wedge’ to gradually open up the possibility of restricting medication availability, particularly to people who might be portrayed as less than deserving. Yet it is more likely to reduce legitimate usage than wastage, adding to the cost of treating ongoing and future illness, worsening mental health problems and costing lives.

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Review: Kids in Crisis

2 July, 2015 - 17:14

Picture of Oli, a young white boy with wavy blond hair which glistens in the sunKids in Crisis was a programme about children with severe mental health problems in the UK who are being transferred a long way from home, sometimes hundreds of miles, because there is no inpatient care anywhere near where they live. They focussed on four families (with one exception, the young people themselves did not appear in person), three of whose children were already in that situation and one who was displaying difficult behaviour including damaging property and self-harm, and who it was suggesetd might need inpatient care in the future, which was not available in his home area. While at least two of the young people have Asperger’s syndrome, this was about child and adolescent mental illness, not learning disability; similar cases involving children and young people with challenging behaivour stemming from severe autism (e.g. Josh Wills, who is expected to return to Cornwall from Birmingham after three years this month) were not featured. They also interviewed mental health support workers from the local NHS trust, who explained the difficulties they had in finding beds for young people during a mental health crisis. It was mentioned in the programme that the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that nine out of ten psychiatrists surveyed said they had sent a patient a long way from home for treatment in the past year. (The programme can be viewed in the UK on the Channel 4 website for the next 29 days.)

Picture of Oli's motherThe four young people whose stories were featured were Oli, aged 13 and Chloe, aged 17, both from Cornwall, Beth, aged 15 from Hull, and Emily, aged 18 (although she was 16 when she was first admitted) from Belfast. Oli is currently living at home with his mother and sisters, and sometimes has long and violent meltdowns which stem from mental health difficulties and Asperger’s syndrome; he also has epilepsy, and is aware of and distressed by some of his seizures. He enjoys surfing (there is a local charity, the Wave Project, which uses surfing as therapy for young people with mental health difficulties) and music, and his mother describes him as a lovely boy when not in a meltdown. Currently his behaviour is controlled, where necessary, by temporary increases in medication, but it is feared that he might need to be admitted to hospital at some point, which would mean moving out of county, as the nearest children’s mental health inpatient facility is in Plymouth, and the next nearest is in Bristol. Oli’s mother said “I don’t know how children are expected to heal when they are separated from their family”; the reality for many is that they do not.

Chloe, also from Cornwall, is 17 and adopted. She was a happy child, did well at school and was keen on sport, especially cricket (she was described as someone who “made things happen” and could turn a game when she became involved), but when she reached adolescence anxieties that had already been present became more severe, and eventually she became violent, suffering hallucinations and wrecked her room. She was admitted to hospital and was moved several times, all of them close to London, before ending up in a secure unit near Orpington. Her parents have to travel the 300 miles to Orpington for a two-hour visit and then go straight home, saying they would “get into trouble” if the visit exceeded that time. While home leave is considered an important part of getting someone in inpatient mental health care back into the community, this is extremely difficult because of the distance — it would require two staff to travel with her, and back. There is talk of finding less secure accommodation in “the south-west”, but as her mother pointed out, that could mean Wiltshire, itself nearer to London than to Cornwall.

Picture of Kathy, Beth and Corey HopperBeth Hopper, whose case I have been aware of since it was reported anonymously in the local press in 2013, has Asperger’s syndrome and her problems also began with the transition to secondary school; although her mother, a nurse, had moved the family to their “dream home”, she became withdrawn and refused to come out of her room. Eventually, she had to be admitted to the local West End children’s unit where she made progress and was released and was able to go back to school. However, when she needed to be admitted again, West End had been closed because of “restructuring”, despite being a well-regarded unit. Beth has since been in some 14 hospitals, mostly in the north-west. At the start of the programme, she was looking forward to a transfer to another hospital in Liverpool which would allow her home leave, which she got; however, after some “violent incidents” with other patients, she was moved somewhere else (a very restrictive environment which does not allow home leave). The crisis meant that Kathy was unable to work full-time and it led to her home being repossessed. Beth is desperately homesick and her mother said she was losing hope that she would ever return home, but she has also picked up destructive behaviours from other mentally ill teenagers she has had to mix with. Her mother says she “tends to morph” into whoever she is with. The programme showed her and her son Corey trying to maintain family life with Beth gone, Kathy playing the games with him that Beth would have done if she was still around.

Emily, from Belfast, was admitted to a local eating disorders unit, but had to be transferred to the main hospital in Belfast because the ED unit lacked the expertise to fit naso-gastric tubes, which are essential in treating severe eating disorders. She was then transferred to an adolescent ED unit in London, requiring her parents to fly weekly to London to see her, and when she turned 18, she was abruptly moved to an adult ED unit, where the focus changed to encouraging her to “take responsibility” for her condition, while excluding her parents, who have never been allowed into her room. This exclusion of the parents of young adults from their care and treatment has been widely complained of in the learning disability field as well, when often families are well-placed to explain their relatives’ individual needs, triggers, likes and dislikes and so on, which do not suddenly change when someone reaches 18.

Picture of Corey Hopper, a young white boy, kissing a mobile phone which someone (off camera) is holding out to himNone of the three who are in units away from home featured in person in the programme. We did not hear Emily’s voice at all, but only saw pictures; we heard the voice of Chloe down the phone, talking about what she was going to be doing and what she wanted her parents to bring, and we heard most from Beth, whose letters were read out by her mother (and her local MP, in Parliament) and we also heard her talking on the phone to her mother and younger brother, Corey. It was not explained why Beth was not interviewed despite being on home leave during the making of the programme, although her mother told me that she was restricted in what she could say about Beth’s life while in hospital, but the Telegraph’s review noted that “their presence was felt in their absence, in letters and phone calls and empty bedrooms”, which strikes me as rather unnecessary when Beth was, in fact, present. One of the phone calls we heard was Beth talking to her brother about what he was doing at school and both saying they loved each other, before Corey hugged and kissed the phone as if it was Beth. Later on, we hear Beth crying that she wanted to come home and Kathy, her mother, tells her hug her pillow and imagine that it was her. Beth replied “but it’s not you” (from personal experience, I was not surprised that this did not comfort her much). This was certainly the most emotionally affecting part of the programme.

I do not think the programme asked deeper questions about why this is happening and why more was not being done to accommodate the parents. It has been known for some time that parents have to travel far to visit their children (and the same for relatives of adults in far-away hospitals), so why is there nowhere for them to stay so they can spend a weekend with their loved one rather than one or two hours in between eight or twelve hours’ travel? It did not ask why there is only one children’s mental health inpatient facilities south-west of Bristol, despite a fairly large population even if not in Cornwall. The reason in the case of Hull is obvious — it was shut down — but it may also have something to do with much of the capacity being in private hands; both Oakview, where Chloe is now, and Cheadle Royal, where Beth is, are run by private companies (Emily’s unit in London looked like it was as well; there was no NHS sign outside) and private companies go where the money is. If a private company will not invest in building a children’s mental health unit in Devon or Cornwall, the state needs to do it.

Picture of Chloe, a white teenage girl with blond hair, wearing a turcquoise sweatshirt with pink writing on it, wearing headphones and smilingThe lack of person-centredness of the care being provided was not examined either. It was clear, for example, that Beth benefited from home visits, but the unit she was in at the start of the programme and the one she is in now (I am not sure if they are the same place) do not allow them. If she is in a unit for reasons other than needing the particular type of care they provide, really there ought to be some flexibility rather than a “that’s how we do it here” attitude. (The same was true when Claire Dyer was sent to a medium-secure unit hundreds of miles from home last year; she was confined to the building for several weeks despite having been out almost every day for the past two years without incident. The care in these places is often centred around the needs of the institution, not the individual forced to live there.) And does a young girl who self-harms and trashes her room really need to be confined in a place with fences some four times the height of a man? Is she being confined with convicted offenders, as has been the case with autistic young people sent away? (The prospectus for Oakview [PDF] is careful not to show it, but it was there in the programme.) It has been understood for years that you should not mix young people with autistic spectrum disorders with disturbed, violent teenagers (something that was explained to me as an adult with regard to my own schooling), but the lesson seems to have been lost in mental health care, leading to enormous damage and lengthened time in institutions for the former. And as was seen last month in the case of Maisie Shaw, also from Hull, they have been known to discharge patients suddenly and inappropriately, without ensuring there is on-going support. An NHS hospital that doesn’t badly need to free up a bed would not do this.

The programme exposes one scandalous fact — that children with mental health problems who are vulnerable are being sent hundreds of miles away from their families for treatment, which in some cases makes them worse — but really doesn’t look at the deeper issues besides the closure of West End, perhaps for lack of time. For one thing, there is the nature of secondary schooling, with its inappropriate 11-16 or 11-18 age ranges which present numerous problems of their own (bullying, sexual harassment), the lack of ASD bases in many schools and the closure of special schools, even day schools, often on ideological grounds. But the main reason is the public attitude to mental health and health care. For decades we have been closing local mental health provision, outsourcing it to private companies who can build glossy-looking “units” rather than refurbishing existing hospitals to provide modern conveniences and privacy. Some of these old hospitals were grim, but they were large (and so can accommodate the smaller number of inpatients we have now) and they were local. People were glad to see these places closed; there is a stigma surrounding both the patients and the institutions (there is distrust even for psychiatrists themselves) but do not think of where those who do need inpatient care will go. This does not just affect people in remote areas, either in mental health or learning disability; people from London and Essex have been moved to unsuitable units in Manchester, people from central Scotland to Middlesbrough.

Picture of Maisie Shaw, a young white girl with dyed green hair, a black suit and a T-shirt, standing next to Jane Asher, a middle-aged white woman with brown hair wearing a knee-length flowery dressWe must get back to having local inpatient mental health care and there must be some slack — there should be empty beds, so that those who need a bed locally can get one. We are not a poor country and we do not need to pinch pennies in an area of healthcare which is not glamorous, but can mean long-term illness or good health, or life or death, for a child.

There is still a petition to re-open the West End unit in Hull, so that young people like Beth and Maisie, who has featured on this blog previously, can receive appropriate treatment and have ample support from their families. There are now plans to re-open it, but it has not been decided for sure and there is still a long way to go before it does open. Maisie was released last month.

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Who’s sorry?

30 June, 2015 - 09:00

Black and white picture of Connor Sparrowhawk, a young white man with shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a straw hat, eating an ice creamNHS staff told to say ‘I am sorry’ to patients for medical blunders | Society | The Guardian

Recently the health blogosphere and Twitter has been buzzing with talk of NHS managers’ and other public health and social care bureaucrats’ love of the “non-apology” — the statement that they are sorry if we are offended by their statement, or sorry that you are not satisfied, rather than sorry causing injury or death with mistakes or negligence. This report states that “doctors, nurses and midwives” will be subject to “tough new rules designed to make the NHS more honest”, which will compel them to apologise personally for such mistakes:

The General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates doctors, and the Nursing and Midwifery Council think that genuine, personal apologies will help patients overcome their anxiety and distress.

“Patients are likely to find it more meaningful if you offer a personalised apology – for example ‘I am sorry …’ – rather than a general expression of regret about the incident on the organisation’s behalf,” says the guidance, which was prompted by the Mid Staffordshire care scandal.

“Saying ‘I am sorry’ is intuitive. You want to avoid saying, for example, ‘my trust regrets’ or ‘the organisation that I work for regrets’. These could be seen by patients as slightly weasel words. They want a personal apology and for the doctor or the team to show genuine contrition,” said Professor Terence Stephenson, an eminent paediatrician who is the GMC’s chairman.

The report goes on to suggest that the new rules could “ultimately reduce the rising tide of medical negligence against the NHS, which now costs it about £1.3bn a year in damages and legal fees”, because patients often take legal action “because they feel they have not been told the truth about a lapse in safety”:

The guidance will make it much harder for any doctor, nurse or midwife to do what some have done until now, namely keep silent about a failing they have caused or witnessed for fear that that they or their colleagues or employer will be sued. Failure to comply with the regulators’ new instructions will mean that any doctor, nurse or midwife whose conduct prompts a complaint will be judged more harshly when their fitness to practise is being considered by their disciplinary body …

The guidance has been beefed-up since a draft was released last year. It now includes a duty on NHS medical personnel not to obstruct colleagues or ex-colleagues who want to raise concerns about patient safety.

That staff will be expected to be more open and forthright about mistakes they may have made is a good thing, but certainly in the Guardian’s version of events, there is no mention of managers, or staff outside the nursing and medical professions such as healthcare assistants, occupational therapists and care workers in NHS-run units such as assessment and treatment units (ATUs). Some medical mistakes are the fault of those who make them, alone; others are the result of overwork or poor training. As with mistakes in any other field, sometimes a group of people is to blame, but an attempt is made to make a scapegoat of one individual for everything, and this guidance might make it easy for them to blame them not only for a group mistake, but add “lack of candour” to it so as to make sure they are more severely punished, preferably removing them from the group.

The other problem with requiring medical staff to ‘say sorry’ is that it does not state what they should say sorry for. It is possible to say that you are sorry for your patient’s death, for example, without saying you are sorry for causing it, and in cases of severe injury or death, any apology will be couched in such terms as not to constitute an admission of guilt for fear of influencing any legal action. Even van drivers are told by their bosses not to make statements that could be received that way (and presented as evidence against them) in the event of an accident; most ordinary car drivers know this as well. In a case where someone suffers a fatal injury in a unit and is promptly removed to hospital, the family might not get to speak to any of the staff involved, and they may well be ordered not to discuss the incident. So there is still the potential for non-apologies and stonewalling in very serious cases.

And while an apology might be enough for a minor mistake that causes passing distress, it won’t be enough when someone has died, or suffered lasting and life-changing injuries. In such cases, there must be a thorough, independent investigation and the people responsible have to be removed, re-trained or prosecuted as appropriate, as well as the particular failings that led to that being fixed. Sometimes there will need to be financial compensation. Unless the cause really is a mistake (or malicious action) by one individual, the victim or their family will want a fulsome apology and an understanding by the organisation’s leadership that attitudes or behaviours were wrong and a commitment to changing them. Apologies, scapegoating and token resignations aren’t enough.

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Hard come, easy go

27 June, 2015 - 13:23

Picture of a white teenaged girl wearing a grey jumper with a tiger motif on, with two badges saying "Birthday Girl" and a shiny tiara-like hair decoration, standing next to a middle-aged white woman with curly hair wearing a grey flowery top.Over the past month the BBC has been running a four-part series called Protecting Our Foster Kids, which went out late at night and featured a series of children in Dorset (a mostly rural county in southern England) who were in foster care, and their carers and some of the social workers. It did not feature any disputes (there was no argument about the chidren’s need to be in foster care and no challenges from the parents, and only one of the children — a baby — was facing adoption) but did feature two of the placements breaking down, in both cases months after they started. The first featured two sisters who had been in a number of placements, and although it was meant to be a permanent place for the younger (14-year-old) sister, it broke down after the older one entered the family. The second featured a baby whose mother had post-natal depression and could not cope, and although she maintained contact at first, she ultimately relinquished the baby. The third featured a boy who was in what was meant to be a year-long “intensive” foster placement, but this broke down after about three months. It also featured a family in which the foster carers were seeking special guardianship for the three children in their care, allowing them to make most decisions about their lives and to be without social services’ involvement, which proceeded without objection from anyone.

The first programme (viewable until 7th July in UK) was titled “One of the Family” and featured a mother of four who had been fostering on a short-term basis but who decided to take on a 14-year-old girl on named Amy a long-term basis. The girl had been in a number of other placements and had been taken into care aged 10 because of neglect, although she did not seem to remember what this consisted of. She clearly thrived in her new home and enjoyed having her own room. However, her older sister Natalie needed an emergency placement and was moved into her room with her, which Amy clearly resented, although it was apparently necessary to maintain Natalie’s school place. They started fighting almost immediately, the other children began complaining, and the younger girl became increasingly rebellious. After a few weeks, she was involved in a drug incident at her school, which resulted in her being moved into an ‘emergency’ foster placement over the weekend, which she clearly interpreted as rejection by her ‘long-term’ foster carer. Ultimately, the carer decided she could no longer look after the girls and other long-term placements in the area were found for them, which the programme said they were both thriving in. The carer reverted to providing respite care only.

The second (viewable until 14th July in the UK) featured a baby boy, Jesse, whose mother had put him in care at a few weeks old because she suffered post-natal depression and found she could not cope with another child (she continued to care for his older sister). Although she had regular contact with him at first, when the contact was increased and home visits were due to start, she began cancelling, and went weeks without seeing him. Ultimately she decided she could not have him back, claiming that she could not care for him as well as his foster carer was doing. It was clear that the baby was going to be adopted, although it was unclear at the end whether the foster carer would adopt him, or someone else. The Daily Mail also interviewed Jesse’s carer, Dawn, and the interview features Jesse’s story.

Picture of Tyler, a 14-year-old white boy, riding a scooter on top of a flat-bed farm trailer, against a backdrop of fields with sheepThe third (viewable until 25th July in the UK) featured Tyler, who had been removed from his parents some years previously but had been living with his grandparents for three years; they had returned from Portugal to look after him. He was put in foster care as part of some kind of year-long “intensive” programme as he kept missing school and had been in trouble with the law. He loved his new home, which was on a farm in the Dorset countryside, at first, although he would go into Dorchester every day to ride his scooter at the local skating park. He attended a “learning centre” for two hours every day, a condition of his carer, named Kate, taking him into Dorchester. However, after a few months, he started going missing, on one occasion requiring picking up from a nearby village; on the third occasion, he went missing from school and was found safe and well with his friends, but told Kate he was not coming back. Kate decided then that he could not come back as “he was not letting me keep him safe”. He returned to his grandparents, and was filmed saying he missed Kate, would always want to go back to her, and was upset at having let her down. However, the closing statements said that he was now thriving, attending school regularly and wanted to stay with his grandparents. (The fourth programme has yet to be shown, and appears to have no fixed broadcast date.)

All the carers were affluent — they all had big houses with large gardens in the countryside, something that foster carers in urban areas no doubt mostly do not have. They were all older people (in their 40s and 50s) who had retired from well-paid professions to “give something back”. Some had children of their own, some did not. Some foster carers are in fact single and some are disabled, and others have health problems which mean they can be taken into hospital at short notice, resulting in the child having to be suddenly rehoused (other programmes have featured this). None of this featured in the programme; of course, many social service departments will not allow media access to the children in their care, even with their own and the parents’ permission. And stories involving malpractice by social workers never feature in any of these programmes, and rarely in the media at all because of reporting restrictions. Still, a few programmes over the years have been made: Kids In Care, Safeguarding Our Children, FInding Mum and Dad. In this series, the foster carers took centre stage, the social workers mostly a back seat. It’s not about how tough it is to be a social worker.

Something that’s not been questioned in any of these programmes, including this one, is the ease with which foster carers can pull out of a placement. In some cases children are moved suddenly, several times, often fearing making friends or putting donw roots in case they are separated for reasons that are nothing to do with them. If there is a pretense that a foster child is part of the family (despite the old term “foster parent” being abolished, quite rightly as the children usually have parents, do not want to call anyone else Mum or Dad and want to return to them), then the carers should be willing to persevere through a blip or a crisis. In a family, a single incident where a child was hanging around with people who were taking drugs would not result in them being exiled for a weekend, unless it was happening regularly. In a family, a few incidents in which a child ran off and was found safe and well in a village would not cause a breakdown. In a previous series on this subject, a 14-year-old girl was in a small care home which did not allow her (or any other resident) out unsupervised, and was looking forward to moving back with foster carers she had had to leave (for reasons unknown, but apparently neither she nor the carers wanted it) a number of years ago. Shortly before she was due to move, she slipped out one night and went into town, and didn’t come to any harm but caused the adults some worry and it was suggested that this could imperil her new foster placement, something the carers themselves did not entirely rule out when she spoke to them on the phone, although it was probably not their decision. In the event, she did move in with them, but the threat of rejection, of an entire new home being withdrawn at short notice, was used as a disciplinary tool for a fairly minor infraction.

In a family, of course, parents use the loss of privileges — the use of a computer or games console, or a bicycle, or going-out time, or a trip out at their expense — as a means of discipline, which is fine. But in care, one’s very home and security of place can be used against them, and often these are children who have been moved several times, they badly need the stability and to know that the people caring for them love them and will stick by them. It is also known that children in care have been reported to the police for fights and damage that takes place in foster or care homes, incurring criminal convictions, something that again would not usually happen in a family. But parents do not reject their children for going out without permission; it is a given that they remain at least until they finish school, often longer, unless there is a total breakdown in relations or the parents become unable to parent.

It’s hard to think of a way to deter foster carers from pulling out of a placement over small things that could be weathered, with a bit of help, without deterring them from becoming foster carers in the first place, and authorities would not want to lose the affluent carers who can give children a lot of space. But they should be doing everything they can to encourage them to persevere, and to require those taking on troubled teenagers to undergo some training rather than naively thinking they can “make a difference”. But certainly, the use of the threat of rejection or removal to keep children in line is wrong and should be eliminated.

Roya (right), a young, mixed-race white/Asian girl, wearing a light blue top wtih a white pattern on it, holding a large bag over her shoulder, with her unnamed male foster carer (left), a well-built white man with a moustache, wearing a white T-shirt, a black quilted waistcoat, and an old pair of jeans.(And has anyone else been following the story of Shabnam and Roya/Jade in the BBC soap EastEnders? Sarah Ismail has been monitoring this — [1], [2], [3] — as a developing story about the lung disease cystic fibrosis, but as a story about a child in care, it has so many holes. To begin with, if Shabnam named her Roya at birth, she would still have that name as she has not been adopted. The ease with which people can so easily find out where people are with a few phonecalls beggars belief after a few such incidents, as with Sharon and her long-lost dad. The foster carer would not covertly meet the natural family of someone he was fostering or agree to allow a visit from her natural father and his chaotic family, and any such contact would have been supervised by social workers after a thorough background check, and it would not have been at the foster home but at a social services contact centre. And although it might be possible for her natural family to reclaim her as she has not been adopted, the fact that they have not seen her for seven years would make that a very gradual process if it was allowed at all. It’s very surprising that she has yet to be adopted, even with her condition. Needless to say, Shirley’s and Buster’s histories as well as the question mark over Dean’s character, even without a criminal conviction for rape, would make it a lot harder. They clearly did not do their research on this aspect of the story.)

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No, we’re not “quietly condoning” ISIS

24 June, 2015 - 17:03

 Communities must stop 'quietly condoning' barbaric IS, he warns"Last week, in a speech to a gathering of security chiefs in Bratislava, Slovakia, David Cameron accused Muslims of pointing the finger at everyone but themselves for some Muslims being attracted to ISIS. The speech, sections of which were briefed to the media in advance and which made the front pages of two Tory newspapers, claimed that the cause of western Muslim attraction to ISIS was “an Islamist extremist ideology: one that says the West is bad and democracy is wrong, that women are inferior and homosexuality is evil”, rather than Islamophobia or the failure of the security services or police to prevent them being radicalised or leaving. The speech follows an incident in which three sisters from Bradford whose brother is already in ISIS territory took, between them, nine children to join him after going on the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and a 17-year-old from Dewsbury carried out a suicide bombing for ISIS in Iraq. (A video of part of the speech can be found here; the Guardian’s write-up can be found here.)

In a sense, he is right about blaming the security forces: Muslims should not be relying on the state too much to protect their youth from being radicalised or running away, because that will end up with all our liberties, to talk and travel freely, being restricted. The family’s solicitors accuse the police of complicity in radicalising the three sisters by facilitating contact between them and their brother, but really, he is their brother and for all the police knew when they made the contact, they could have been trying to persuade him to return home. But that doesn’t mean that all the blame for some Muslim youth being attracted to ISIS lies within the Muslim community here. Islamophobia is a real thing, manifested in repeated stories in the Tory tabloid press (and sometimes their broadsheets) about Muslims getting special treatment and the latest poll about what Muslims think about Britain. And as Deeyah Khan, the director of the film Jihad — A British Story, wrote in today’s Observer, “a great deal of racist violence is also directed at Muslim women, who are more visible than men. This can leave women isolated and fearful; hyper-aware of their identity, which marks them out for hostility”.

Cameron referred to “young people, boys and girls, leaving often loving, well-to-do homes, good schools and bright prospects travelling thousands of miles from home”. It is ironic that he mentioned good schools, as his own inspectors rated several schools that promoted some of the values he criticises as outstanding, then failed them after the government moved the goalposts following the publication of the fake “Trojan Horse” letter. British politicians of both major parties have long denigrated British state schools, subjecting them to one initiative after another and increasing the bureaucratic workload year on year yet always claiming standards are falling.

He is simply wrong about those who hold the opinions he mentions condoning ISIS’s behaviour. As he well knows, a number of people on the Islamist fringe have in fact appealed to ISIS to release western hostages they were holding, many of whom had gone to Syria to help victims of the civil war and one of whom was a Muslim. It is unusual to hear so many Muslim voices come out against a group or movement which claims to represent Islam and Muslims and which has also attracted the enmity of politicians and the media; if one thinks back to when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, their practices were not quietly condoned but openly justified in some mosques and Muslim publications. When the media reported that the Taliban were preventing women from working and girls from gaining an education, or flogging people for some infraction or other, some Muslims here called it propaganda, said we shouldn’t believe what “the kuffar media” said about the Muslims, or justified it. There is none of this conflict with ISIS; people will believe almost anything they read, whoever it comes from. This is a huge shift, and the material on ‘Salafi’ Facebook pages about ISIS is remarkably similar to what is in the mainstream media.

The disappearance of the women and children from Bradford demonstrates something in the jihadi mentality which predates ISIS which is clearly contrary to Islam and to the practice of the salaf or early Muslims, which is their lying to and deception of their Muslim family and friends, in at least one case leaving a medical degree half done. It is unlawful in Islam for someone from a Muslim family to go to fight without their parents’ permission unless their community is under imminent threat. A few years ago someone I had met a few times — a British Pakistani from west London — was involved in a suicide bombing in Israel, and all who knew him were shocked as he had shown no signs of interest in extremist politics, let alone terrorism, when living in London; he was studying in Damascus at the time he went to do the bombing. Someone who knew him and his family told me that the two men borrowed money before they left for Palestine, as if to say that he could not have done that and then gone off to certain death, knowing he would not be able to pay it back (i.e. he must have been set up, something I believed until I saw him explaining his action on video). It reflects an attitude that since they are ‘saved’, or guaranteed Paradise by virtue of martyrdom, they can do what they like. The Sahaba (the companions of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) certainly did not take this attitude even though they defeated attempts to kill what were then all the Muslims in the world, but were diligent in making sure they did not have outstanding debts or obligations, as it could be held against them on Judgement Day. So they have deviated far from acceptable Islamic standards of behaviour, and have done for years. This should be prominent in any attempt to educate young people against going off to join ISIS or to fight abroad in any other Islamic cause.

Cameron’s speech also ignores the fact that extremists often target people through underhand means, often pretending to be someone’s friend or ingratiating themselves into a group of friends, often on social media, and influence them in ways their parents may not be aware of. As one person who was a target for them noted, the “shaikhs” that encourage people towards joining ISIS are not well-known scholars but “Twitter shaikhs” who are unknown in their community. I have been told that they have released propaganda videos showing people who have moved over there having access to pools, gyms and other western conveniences (which actually do exist in Iraq and Syria, as if this should be a surprise), but much of it consists of footage of executions set to echoey Arabic male singing. While most westerners know that Assad is a brutal dictator and many Muslims want him and his thugs gone, the majority of those executed are presented as “Iraqi spies” or similar, and few Muslims in the west are so hostile to the present government in Iraq that they would care particularly to see such people killed, especially by burning or drowning.

So, their recruitment potential is fairly low, and as Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, noted (at a Jewish News event on the theme of “challenges facing the UK and Israel today” featuring a number of noted Islamophobic speakers plus the Quilliam Foundation), “the more we overstate them the more, frankly, we risk labelling Muslim communities as somehow intrinsically extremist, which actually despite an unprecedented wealth of social media propaganda, they have proved not to be. So I think we need to be cautious with our metaphors and with our numbers”. Cameron is appealing to the politics of suspicion, associating beliefs held by many Muslims (e.g. that homosexuality is evil or that the caliphate comes before the nation state) with extremist positions held by jihadis and in particular ISIS, and with the intent to join them, when all the evidence suggests that Muslims in the UK do not support ISIS.

(As an afterword, in response to Sayeeda Warsi’s article last weekend in which she specifically criticised Cameron’s speech and said that Muslim activists had complained that it undermined what they were doing, the Tory MP Peter Bone called his speech “courageous” and said he “took on an issue which other politicians have been too scared to touch”. It can hardly be called courageous for a politician to make a speech casting suspicion on a minority at home, in front of a gathering of security chiefs abroad. Courage is something one displays when in difficulty, when facing a powerful enemy, when the odds are stacked against one, not when you are the most powerful man in the country, articulating a popular view and attacking a group that is already the focus of suspicion and hostility.)

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Magna Carta: the baby steps

15 June, 2015 - 20:52

A page from the Magna Carta (with some modern ballpoint writing over it).Right now there are celebrations going on in Surrey and Berkshire to mark the 800th anniversary of the passing of Magna Carta, the charter sealed by King John that established the rule of law in England. A flotilla has been making its way down the Thames from Hurley, Berkshire to Runnymede (between Staines and Windsor, on the south bank of the Thames) where the document was sealed. David Cameron gave a speech about how ‘revolutionary’ the document was in its time; Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk took the speech apart, showing that David Cameron, while in office, has betrayed every principle he identifies. As has been widely noted, including here ([1], [2], this comes at a time when the government intends to do away with the Human Rights Act, which is a fairly modern bill of rights though not as robust, in constitutional terms, as those found in written constitutions (for example, courts cannot annul statute law by finding it incompatible).

The New Statesman ran a feature a couple of weeks ago on the myths surrounding Magna Carta, and one of the essays was by Melvyn Bragg, who noted that a prominent male intellectual had stood up at a recent public meeting and called it a “squalid little deal” which among other things made no mention of women. Bragg acknowledges that the document doesn’t say anything about “the rights of women, the welfare state, the trade unions or the euro”, nor about “the right to parliamentary democracy, trial by jury or habeas corpus”:

But it can be argued that all these flowed from and were triggered by this document. And not only in this country, but as time went on, most powerfully in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and as a foundation stone in the constitution of India and elsewhere. After the Second World War, the UN set up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt called a “Magna Carta for all mankind”.

Magna Carta has 63 clauses in abbreviated Latin. Two of them that are still on the statute book, numbers 39 and 40, could be said to have changed the way in which the free world has grown. “No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseised [his lands taken away], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way ruined; nor will we go against him nor sin against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, his equals and by the law of the land.” And, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.” These two clauses have so far proved to be indestructible, though often defied. They came to apply to all men and then all women, and have elasticated their earliest purpose to become universal with a legendary, even mythical aura to them.

The problem comes when this document is brandished not by peasants asserting their rights but by a politician seeking to take those rights away. It looks absurd that a country which has no written constitution or bill of rights is congratulating itself on being the country where a very early milestone in the history of constitutional government took place, when other countries have constitutions establishing the separation of powers and bills of rights that include things not dreamed of in the 13th century. Imagine two cousins, aged a couple of months either side of a year old, the younger of which is taken to visit his aunt and sees his older cousin walking by holiding onto furniture, and learns to walk from him. Then imagine twenty years later: the younger cousin can walk, run and cycle, while the elder still clings to furniture, yet tells the younger cousin that he taught him to walk.

Britain is like that older cousin: an adult bragging about the baby steps he took when he was barely more than a year old, when we are threatening to let go of the furniture and just settle for crawling! In reality, an adult like this is almost certainly disabled. What’s our excuse? Magna Carta is an important historical event and deserves to be commemorated. The boats were lovely. But the document is a product of the feudal 13th century and only three of its clauses remain law — its relevance to our time is minimal, and to promote its virtues in the place of a law which protects the rights of ordinary citizens, including the weak and unpopular, is cynical and dishonest.

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So, Maisie’s home, but …

14 June, 2015 - 16:00

Picture of Maisie Shaw, a white girl in her early teens with green dyed hair, wearing a blue jumper and grey dress or skirt to below the knee, flanked by two white women with purple running T-shirts bearing the National Autistic Society logo and the words "Hull and East Riding Running Team"Last Sunday I mentioned that there was to be a “tweet storm” in support of the “Get Maisie Home” campaign, which was really about re-opening a children’s mental health unit in Hull which was closed in 2013, requiring anyone needing inpatient care in Hull to go to other cities, often to highly unsuitable units. The focus was Maisie Shaw, a 13-year-old girl from Hull with Asperger’s syndrome and a history of self-harming, who was sent to a unit in Sheffield last December, then a private secure unit in Bury in April after running away several times. Early last week, she was suddenly released; her mother went to the hospital to pick her up for a one-night home visit and was told she did not have to bring Maisie back as it was agreed the unit was unsuitable for her. However, as her mother pointed out, she was still very much not well, and while the local paper has printed the good news, they also mentioned that Maisie has gone missing twice since being released.

The fact that this happened just after the campaign went big on social media, coupled with the fact that Maisie’s mother was not told she was being discharged until she got there, really does suggest that she was discharged to avoid bad publicity for the unit and the company running it, rather than for reasons to do with Maisie’s health or welfare. There are some echoes of what happened to Claire Dyer last November — she was discharged from a wholly unsuitable private secure unit in Sussex after three months there, just before a mental health tribunal — but she had already been home on leave for two weeks without incident (Maisie’s last home leave ended after she went missing at night) and her family wanted her to live at home and disputed the need for her to be in a hospital at all. In both cases, the companies involved must have been keenly aware of the potential for bad publicity (the families had not named either the companies or the units, although they would have done if anything had gone seriously wrong) and may have had someone lined up to replace her.

The campaign wasn’t just to get Maisie home as soon as possible at all costs; it was to get a facility reopened that could have cared for her near her family, where even if she had run away, she could have found her way home fairly quickly, and maybe spent the night there before going back in the morning. Last month Zoe Thompson of Bringing Us Together reported that she, Maisie’s mother and another supporter had met the Commissioner for children’s mental health who had agreed to fund a support package for Maisie once discharged, but it was understood that this would take time, and nobody was expecting Maisie to be released so soon; it was reported that the local CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) were taking her out during the day, but she is at greater risk at night, when there is no support.

Everyone is glad that Maisie is home for now, but there is serious potential for something to go wrong, something that a couple of other parents of children with autism (more severe than Maisie’s) said had happened to them: their children were quickly discharged to no support, and ended up in hospital again very quickly. It is quite unusual for details about a child’s mental health to be made public; the name of the girl from Hull who was sent to Cheadle in 2013 and 2014, for example, was not released although her mother’s was, and often when children go missing, their names are reported while they are missing but not afterwards, particularly if a ‘relationship’ with an adult was a factor (as with the 2012 “missing schoolgirl and teacher” case). There is likely to be an attempt to blame the publicity for any future crisis, but if a child is put in danger because of a privately-employed clinician’s hasty response to publicity, their professionalism should be under investigation rather than a family doing what they felt they needed to to get their daughter cared for at or near home.

(Maisie’s cousins Emily Frank and Emma Hoe ran the Hull 10K today in support of the Hull and East Riding branch of the National Autistic Society, and the picture above was taken after they finished. You can still donate to Emily’s or Emma’s pages.)

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So, the al-Qa’ida chiefs don’t like ISIS

13 June, 2015 - 18:41

Picture of Abu Qatada, a white man with a dark complexion with a long grey beard, wearing a loose beige Arab head covering and a light grey topLast Thursday, the Guardian carried a lengthy feature (the “big read” in their comment section) as well as a front-page article on how prominent members of al-Qa’ida have come out against ISIS. The long piece, written by Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili, features an interview with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a leader of al-Qa’ida in Jordan who spent many years in jail, as well as Abu Qatada (Omar Mahmoud Othman, right), a Palestinian preacher and scholar who operated in London from 1993 to 2002 and who some claim was a leading ideologue for al-Qa’ida. He was arrested in 2002 and spent much of the next 11 years in prison fighting deportation to Jordan, where he had been convicted of terrorism offences; he was acquitted of those in 2014.

The article claims that he was the first to pronounce the Saudi royal family as apostates, that his views were once considered extreme even by Osama bin Laden, that he counts al-Qa’ida’s current leader, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a personal friend (how he manages that given that they live in separate countries it doesn’t say) and “may be best known for personally mentoring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the organisation that would later become Isis, while the two men were jailed together on terrorism charges in Jordan in the mid-1990s”. However, after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate last June, Maqdisi released a long tract condemning ISIS as “ignorant and misguided”. ISIS in return have launched a social media campaign against Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, calling them stooges of the west and at one point calling them “misleading scholars” who should be avoided more than the Devil. A doctor who was present when the two scholars were interviewed said that donations to al-Qa’ida had dried up since the rise of ISIS, as donors either switched their allegiance or refused to fund hostilities between the two, and in some places al-Qa’ida cells are selling cars and computers to pay for food and rent.

According to the report:

The list of Isis’s crimes that have offended Maqdisi and Abu Qatada is long. They include creating division within the wider jihadi movement, publicly snubbing Zawahiri and establishing a caliphate to which Isis demands every other jihadi swear fealty or face death. For more than a year both say they have worked behind the scenes, negotiating with Isis – including with Baghdadi himself – to bring the group back into the al-Qaida fold, to no avail. “Isis don’t respect anyone. They are ruining the wider jihadi movement and are against the whole ummah [Muslim nation],” Abu Qatada said.

… As Qatada poured tea into small glass tumblers, he began reeling off images to better communicate the depth of his loathing for Isis. He likes speaking in metaphors. The group, he said, was “like a bad smell” that has polluted the radical Islamic environment. No, they were better described as a “cancerous growth” within the jihadi movement – or, he continued, like the diseased branch of a fig tree that needs to be pruned before it kills the entire organism.

… Both men are particularly appalled, they said, by the way Isis has used their scholarship to cloak its savagery in ideological legitimacy, to gain recruits and justify its battle with al-Qaida and its affiliates. “Isis took all our religious works,” Maqdisi said. “They took it from us – it’s all our writings, they are all our books, our thoughts.” Now, Abu Qatada said, “they don’t respect anyone”.

Such impudent behaviour, the two men agreed, would never have been accepted in the days when Bin Laden was alive. “No one used to speak against him,” Maqdisi lamented. “Bin Laden was a star. He had special charisma.” But despite their personal affection for his successor, Zawahiri – whom they call “Dr Ayman” – they both admit that he does not possess the authority and control to rebuff the threat from Isis. From the “very beginning” of his tenure, Zawahiri lacked “direct military or operational control,” Qatada said. “He has become accustomed to operating in this decentralised way – he is isolated.”

The report does not question the motives behind the two men’s sentiments, but it should not be surprising that al-Qa’ida should be afraid and suspicious about the rise of any major rival jihadi group. To begin with, al-Qa’ida have never had a state of their own; ISIS have gone ahead and set one up. In doing so, they have given an impression of what sort of a place an Islamic state ruled by al-Qa’ida would be like, as they have much the same ideological underpinnings. In fact, al-Qa’ida contributed directly to the downfall of two Muslim countries (Chechnya and Afghanistan) by using them as bases for their activities. It is no surprise that donors have switched their allegiance to ISIS as they can see the fruits in conquests on the ground, not pointless acts of destruction. It is no surprise that jihadi fighters would rather fight for ISIS, since the surviving members of al-Qa’ida are all either in jail, on the run with prices on their heads, or living in countries that are hostile to them (including Jordan), or in small pockets of territory, rather than in a large pocket of territory spanning two countries. Work for al-Qa’ida and you never know if your comrade is about to turn you in to the FBI; that won’t happen if you’re in ISIS territory.

Al-Qa’ida has nothing to show for nearly 20 years of bloodshed. Only one of the dictatorships of the Arab world has fallen (Tunisia), and that was nothing to do with them; all the Gulf dynasties remain in power, still supported by Western powers, many of them remain popular and some have increased in power and wealth since the 90s when al-Qa’ida started. They thought they could start a big war and force Muslims to side with them in the face of oppression from non-Muslims and their client rulers, but it failed to produce the tide of recruits they had been hoping for. People blamed them for the consequences of their actions or denied that the actions were the work of al-Qa’ida at all, attributing them to the government or a Zionist conspiracy, or both. They perhaps overestimated the anger of Muslims at the stationing of American troops in the Arabian peninsula during and (long) after the Gulf war, and in any case failed to capitalise on it. The al-Qa’ida remnants accuse ISIS of using their ‘scholarship’ to justify their ‘savagery’, but al-Qa’ida used it also to justify bombing innocent people in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, New York, London and many other places.

The two articles have some amusing revelations about how the US, so invested in fighting al-Qa’ida that it has military bases in every Middle Eastern country except Iran, still insists that the major terrorist threat comes from al-Qa’ida. In a sense they may be right, as ISIS may turn out to be less of a terrorist threat than a straightforward military one. But the anger of Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi sounds like resentment that some young whippersnappers have usurped their elders’ role and achieved rulership when they did not. They hate ISIS because they stole al-Qa’ida’s thunder. They have not become moderates, and are not moderates compared to ISIS; they are just an older version of the same thing with a discredited methodology, and are tolerated by some rulers now because ISIS are more feared, and al-Qa’ida cannot get recruits. They are yesterday’s men, and both they and the authorities know it.

Image source: Wikipedia, originally from the UK Home Office, released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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On Thomas Rawnsley’s 21st, Maisie’s tweet storm and the Kesgrave abuse inquiry

7 June, 2015 - 14:32

A picture of Thomas Rawnsley, a young man with Down's syndrome wearing a red Heinz tomato sauce T-shirt, holding a small birthday cake with a large '20' candle on itToday would have been Thomas Rawnsley’s 21st birthday. Thomas was a man with Down’s syndrome and autism, who was in a succession of care homes and NHS hospital units from 2013 until he died of pneumonia earlier this year. His mother had been fighting to get him individual provision in his home town, but a Court of Protection judge last year sided with those who wanted to keep him institutionalised. Thomas’s family were planning a protest outside Downing Street to mark his birthday, but had to cancel it because of a planned rail strike (which was itself, in the event, cancelled). Bringing Us Together have a collection of blog posts about Thomas and you may like to read my post from the week after he died. There is still an appeal for Thomas’s family’s costs, which have raised £4,345 (of a target of £20,000) at the time of writing.

As a reminder of why getting people with learning disabilities out of units like the one Thomas suffered in, this week a unit in Lincolnshire was temporarily closed after “a number of serious incidents”; the chief executive of the Lincolnshire Partnership NHS trust said that these were related to standards of care and patient safety. The patients have either been discharged or transferred elsewhere (which, of course, could be hundreds of miles away). So four years after Winterbourne View and nearly two years after the death of Connor Sparrowhawk, standards of care in some NHS learning disability units are still poor.

Graphic showing Maisie Shaw holding a sign saying "I miss home. I miss Mummy" with instructions as to how to participate in the tweet storm (see this paragraph).This evening at 7pm BST, Maisie Shaw’s family are holding a “tweet storm” to press the Department of Health and NHS England to re-open an inpatient paediatric mental health unit in Hull so that children in mental health crisis do not have be moved out of area to get treatment. In Maisie’s case this means a secure unit in Bury, and in at least one other case children were transferred to a unit in Cheadle which also houses young offenders as no other accommodation was available. The latest on Maisie herself is that she is being prepared for discharge but it was delayed after she disappeared on a home visit two weeks ago and was found only after she had injured herself. The police took 13 hours to respond and the local hospital did not know how to respond to a child in a mental health crisis, and in the end staff had to be called from the unit in Bury to take her back. If you are taking part in the Tweet Storm then please include the hashtag #getmaisiehome and link the petition.

On a more personal note, I heard from the police in Suffolk two weeks ago that no further charges are to be pressed regarding the physical abuse that took place at my school, Kesgrave Hall, in the 1980s and 90s; I have written about this extensively on this site in the past but another former pupil, Alexander Hanff, had a piece published on the Guardian’s website last week about the effect the abuse (much more of which was sexual than in my case) and the investigation had on him; you can read the long comment by me underneath it. One member of staff (John McKno, who I never met) is still facing charges, but the other abuse accusations were all of common assault which cannot be prosecuted this long after the event (I was told this by the police when I spoke to them, so this news was not a surprise to me), and some of the staff involved are dead, including two who committed suicide after the police caught up with them. One of the dead is Victor Harris, the abusive care worker named in a previous entry, although his death was nothing to do with the investigation. I was also told that none of the former staff are still teaching, and could not have continued to do so after being the focus of an investigation of this kind.

The two other reasons they could not pursue charges were that they could not have persuaded a jury that the staff’s behaviour was not lawful chastisement, as corporal punishment was not banned in private schools in 1987 as it was in state schools, and that reports from boys conflicted, with some old boys speaking very highly of members of staff that others said were abusive. (As I wrote in my comment, the first reason is dubious because staff knew that using force was illegal and told us this many times as an excuse for why they could not discipline bullies; they would use violence, which could not at all be confused with controlled physical punishment, in response to petty personal slights.) I didn’t particularly want to give evidence and have to prove that the abuse was abuse, while various people would have been on hand to claim I was out of control or making a fuss about nothing. I’m glad some of these men have had the frighteners put on them and that the abuse has been exposed.

We must not let things like this happen again; we must not take people from happy homes and put them in institutions when there is no need. I was sent there because the teaching community in Croydon chose to wash its hands of me because I was a bit of a handful — and yes, that’s really all it was. There must be due diligence about the sort of places we send people to when they really need residential care, but there must be an expectation that parents parent and professionals do their jobs. When these things don’t happen, people with special needs of whatever type end up on the “waste-heap of life”. It stinks. And it can’t be allowed to go on.

 'Learning Disability, Autism, Down's Syndrome, Learning Disabled, Assessment & Treatment Units'.

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Boycott ISIS? Boycott what?

4 June, 2015 - 22:27

Picture of a Palestinian woman wearing a white scarf and pink jacket clinging to an olive tree, with an Israeli military vehicle behind itThere is a story going around that the NUS recently passed a motion to align itself with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, while a year ago having rejected a motion to boycott ISIS. The Jerusalem Post reported the Israeli PM’s reaction to the vote, which in another story it claimed was passed 19-14. JPost put it in the context of all the forces ranged against Israel worldwide, such as how “in the UN, Turkey and Iran voted in favor of recognizing as an NGO a group linked to Hamas which fires missiles on Israeli cities, while hiding behind civilians”, also quoting a dissenting NEC member, Joe Vinson, who “tweeted later that anti-Semitism is like a virus, it mutates and infects everything it touches, it has mutated into BDS and the NUS is infected”. (There is a response from Electronic Intifada here.) Nobody passing the story around seems to have considered why one vote passed and the other didn’t: what on earth is there to boycott about ISIS?

The motion was not passed by the union’s conference but by the executive council, hence the small number of people voting (there are hundreds at conference), which means it can be overturned at the next conference. JPost claimed that the vote was “aligning all British students with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel”, which in fact it does not; it aligns the NUS itself, and is not binding on individual members or even on affiliated local student unions (although some of them have passed pro-BDS motions). What it means is presumably that the NUS won’t be serving up dates, humous or other Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food sourced from Israel at any of its events. How much they already buy, the story does not say.

I looked over the earlier motion and one of its clauses is to “encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers”. Boycott them how? There is Israeli produce (some of it grown in illegal settlements) in every British supermarket — citrus, dates, humous, avocadoes among other things. What do we buy from anyone who might be supplying ISIS? I can’t remember ever having seen Iraqi produce in British shops and Syrian only in a few specialist Arab food shops, and I wouldn’t have thought ISIS would be exporting food when they need it for themselves. Perhaps some arms manufacturer is doing so, indirectly, but most students in the UK don’t own or carry weapons and those that do would not admit it. Would the NUS have to choose where to get its Middle Eastern antiquities from? Perhaps they put ‘boycott’ so as not to put ‘turn in’ or something similar, which would have (rightly) invited the criticism that it encourages students to snoop and inform on each other, but boycotting only has any point to it if it involves changing one’s behaviour and making a sacrifice.

Student Union boycotts are very largely symbolic, in any case. They can stop stocking certain companies’ goods (unions did not sell Nestlé products for many years, and possibly still do not), but as all their funding comes from the colleges (nobody pays a fee to join), they receive public money and are restricted in being able to make decisions that involve money on other than quality or value-for-money grounds, and as the NUS receives most of its money from union affiliation fees, it is subject to the same restrictions. At my university (Aberystwyth), a motion was once proposed that the Guild join the Lloyds and Midland Boycott on the grounds that those banks (Midland is now part of HSBC) were involved in arms deals, but it was pointed out that the union would have to take the best deal, whether it came from the Co-Operative Bank or the Midland.

When I first heard of this, I thought the proposer must have been an Israeli sympathiser looking to accuse the NUS of anti-Semitism or hypocrisy after it (inevitably) rejected it. In fact, the proposer was Kurdish and the main argument against was from the NUS Black Students’ officer, Malia Bouattia, on the grounds that “condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamaphobia”, which the authors of the motion claim they could find no trace of in the wording, but perhaps Ms Bouattia thought there was enough noise about ISIS in the media, coupled with a lot of obvious Islamophobia, for the NUS to need to add to it. The NUS seems to do an awful lot of motion-passing, condemning or ‘supporting’ a lot of causes that have nothing to do with students in the UK or anywhere else, but a boycott only makes sense if there is something to boycott, which in the case of ISIS, there isn’t.

Image source: The Ecologist.

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Time to bring the air industry down to earth

31 May, 2015 - 13:40

 I am sitting on a United airlines flight in the air 30,000ft above and I am in tears of humiliation from discrimination. The flight attendant asked me what I would like to drink and I requested a can of diet coke. She brought me a can that was open so I requested an unopened can due to hygienic reasons. She said no one has consumed from the drink, but I requested an unopened can. She responded, "Well I'm sorry I just can't give you an unopened can so no diet coke for you." She then brought the man sitting next to me a can of UNOPENED beer. So I asked her again why she refused to give me an UNOPENED can of diet coke. She said, "We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a WEAPON on the plane." So I told her that she was clearly discriminating against me because she gave the man next to me an unopened can of beer. She looked at his can, quickly grabbed it and opened it and said, "it's so you don't use it as a weapon." Apphauled at her behavior I asked people around me if they witnessed this discriminatory and disgusting behavior and the man sitting in an aisle across from me yelled out to me, "you Moslem, you need to shut the F** up." I said, "what?!" He then leaned over from his seat, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "yes you know you would use it as a WEAPON so shut the f**k up." I felt the hate in his voice and his raging eyes. I can't help but cry on this plane because I thought people would defend me and say something. Some people just shook their heads in dismay. ‪#‎IslamophobiaISREAL‬Yesterday a story started circulating on social media in which an American female Muslim chaplain named Tahera Ahmad, who was travelling on a United Airlines flight (run by a partner, Shuttle America), asked for a Diet Coke and was given a can which had already been opened. The stewardess refused to give her one that was unopened because it could be used as a weapon, and her behaviour made it clear that this was because of her religion (she gave an unopened beer can to the white male passenger next to her, although when she challenged this, the stewardess took it and opened it for him). The incident, which she reported on Facebook and the screenshot from which has been shared thousands of times, has led to a call to boycott United until they apologise. I think there needs to be more pressure on airlines, and it has to come from above as well as from below. (United published a response to the story; Tahera Ahmad has published her response to that on Facebook, saying she is “truly disappointed”.)

I’ve been seeing stories about airline discrimination for years, and this is one area where my role as Muslim blogger and disability blogger intersect. In the UK, stringent anti-discrimination laws apply even to small businesses, as we see from time to time when a small hotel owner is fined for refusing a gay couple a double bed, or a baker for refusing to ice a pro-gay-marriage slogan on a cake. Yet the obstruction of disabled people in air travel, a much larger industry, persists. Apart from a number of incidents of Muslims being thrown off aeroplanes in the USA after 9/11 because pilots did not want to fly them, the majority of victims of airline discrimination (as opposed to discrimination by the state, such as intrusive searches, no-fly lists, exclusion from a country for spurious reasons and so on) have been disabled travellers. Every time I read about one of these incidents, the same thought goes through my head: these companies really are a law unto themselves. They discriminate apparently freely, and just as they apologise and give a free ticket to one traveller they have harassed or delayed because of their disability, there is another story, indicating that they do not learn from these incidents and perhaps they believe that paying out the odd free ticket costs less than changing their procedures, making alterations to accept wheelchairs on planes, and training their staff to not discriminate and to show basic courtesy.

Of course, there are laws prohibiting discrimination by airlines against disabled people, but the penalties have to be tough enough that the airlines will not find it easier to just pay up and carry on regardless. The US Department of Transport publishes statistics each year regarding the number of complaints about disability discrimination, and the statistics for 2013 (the most recent year available) are here. They show that, for example, a total of 546 complaints were received by wheelchair users (divided into paraplegic, quadriplegic and ‘other wheelchair’) about damage to assistive devices (most likely wheelchairs); 205 similar complaints were received from people with allergies. A very large number of complaints were received about the storage of the devices and the delay getting them back (from the same groups, but “other disability” is also heavily represented here); there were also quite a large number of complaints about refusals to allow boarding, mostly from oxygen-dependent people and the “other disability” category. The numbers of complaints have gone up year on year except for 2011, which may reflect the growth in air travel, but it also reflects a failure by the airlines to address problems which have been known of for years. William Peace noted in a recent blog entry that insurers will not cover a wheelchair on a plane, because the risk of it getting damaged is so great.

A further cause of discrimination and damage by airlines is their tendency to mysteriously and suddenly change policies, such that when a passenger checks in, regardless of whatever written assurances they have received, they are not allowed to board in the manner they had expected, or at all. This happened to musician Dave Schneider, who was prevented from taking his Gibson guitar on board a Delta Airlines flight from Buffalo to Detroit in December 2012, despite having been allowed to take it on a previous Delta flight from Portland to Philadelphia; the instrument was damaged on the carousel just before Schneider could retrieve it. (They later agreed to pay for the repairs ‘and more’, and Gibson gave him a special edition of the same model.) When the BBC reported on how restrictions on hand luggage in the UK were causing damage to instruments and costing musicians a lot of money, one woman wrote that her $30,000 cello, which she had grown up with, was smashed in transit after the airline reneged on their agreement to let it be carried in the cabin. And disabled people often find that, despite assurances to the contrary (or having received no indications to the effect until they get to the airport), they are refused boarding unless they have an attendant, often with the excuse that they will impede other passengers’ exit in the case of an emergency — the “safety hazard” excuse that every disabled person has heard.

Why does this happen? I believe that quite simply the law has not been brought to bear on these companies, perhaps because as large companies, they can lobby politicians not to “burden them with undue costs”. The political climate since 9/11 means that the safety needs of “normal” (white) passengers takes precedence over the desire of those from backgrounds associated with “trouble” or with other special needs not to be discriminated against, particularly in the USA. But experience in public transport in some cities shows that when staff are properly trained, incidents of discrimination beyond physical inaccessibility are rare or non-existent. For example, I have heard stories of holders of disability bus passes in the UK being refused entry because bus drivers did not believe they were really disabled, but in London (where I hold a disability Freedom Pass on the grounds of Asperger’s syndrome), I have never heard of it happening and any time I am asked to show my pass, the photo suffices as proof that I am entitled to it. In other cities in the UK, bus drivers will not make an issue when a mother refuses to move her buggy from the wheelchair space; in London it is made clear that the wheelchair user has priority and bus drivers are instructed not to move until both the wheelchair and buggy are positioned safely. So, it can be done. It just needs for someone in power to have the will.

Airlines enjoy a number of legal privileges which no other form of transport benefits from. They do not pay any fuel duty, for example, which gives them an unfair advantage over land-based forms of public transport, which given that they discharge large quantities of greenhouse gas straight into the atmosphere (far above the tree level), is quite inappropriate at a time where reducing carbon emissions is critical. But as long as it’s cheaper and easier to travel across the USA or Europe by air than by rail, the airlines must feel the full weight of the law when they discriminate against passengers on the grounds of disability, race, religion or anything else and cause them distress, inconvenience or financial loss, whether deliberately or by sloppy communication, poor training, unconscious bias on the part of staff or whatever. Despite their large size and trans-national reach, airlines must know that they are not above the law.

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Andy Burnham: an uninspiring, Tory-lite shop-minder

29 May, 2015 - 13:28

Picture of Rachel Reeves and Andy BurnhamLabour warning by Andy Burnham - You will not win if workshy have an ‘easy ride’ | Western Daily Press

Last week I got a letter printed in the New Statesman, in response to their leader column which, without naming names (although elsewhere in the edition, the criticism was levelled at Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union), claimed that some on the left preferred futile opposition to power. I responded that people who believe in social justice will not campaign enthusiastically for someone who promises to do no more than mind the shop for the Tories and take the edge off one or two of their worst policies. It would be hard to get people out to vote for such a man either, and Labour risk losing more of their core vote to nationalist parties (right now, UKIP, but who knows what parties will be on the scene by 2020). Andy Burnham, the front-runner for the Labour leadership, exposed himself as another shop-minder in a speech to ‘workers’ at Ernst and Young in London reported in the Western Daily Press today (also on the BBC website): that “Labour cannot win the next election while voters believe it gives the workshy an ‘easy ride’”, that “society’s wealth-creators must be valued as highly as NHS staff” and that Labour mismanaged the economy before the credit crunch, allowing a significant deficit to grow.

The website quotes his speech:

The painful truth is this: though we pride ourselves on being the party of the many, we only had answers for too few. Our appeal was too narrow.

Politicians make a terrible mistake when they try to compartmentalise the voters and speak only to the hope and dreams of some in certain parts of the country.

Aspiration is not the preserve of those who shop at John Lewis. Aspiration is universal; it is felt by Asda and Aldi shoppers too.

Since when was your social class or aspiration dictated by what shop you buy your food from? John Lewis is a chain of department stores, and they happen to be the biggest or only one in some town centres, while being absent from others. Some people shop for food at Waitrose because it’s just nearest, or in some way most convenient. There are Tescos, Morrisons’, Aldis and Asdas in affluent areas and while Waitrose (the food arm of John Lewis) does stock some more upmarket items, their commodity food items cost about the same as in other supermarkets.

I have never believed in levelling down, denigrating success or the politics of envy.

What are the so-called politics of envy? It seems that this accusation is levelled any time it is pointed out that the rich have too much power, or that positions of influence (e.g. in the media) are full of people born with silver spoons in their mouths, or that there is insufficient opportunity for people from less privileged backgrounds to get into a prestigious university or a professional job, or that a small number of very wealthy people are crowding everyone out of whole cities, with politicians’ help. None of this has to do with envying anyone’s wealth or lifestyle. It’s about wanting to get on in life and wanting barriers removed.

The “politics of envy” is a long-standing trick used by the rich and powerful to knock back challenges to their position, as articulated by the American diplomat George Kennan in a famous 1948 memo (emphasis mine):

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.

… We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers’ keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and—for the Far East—unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Remember this next time you hear a wealthy man say that the rich are not rich because the poor are poor, as Donald Trump did recently.

Back to Andy Burnham:

“Nor have I believed that people should be handed everything on a plate.

“It worries me that, in some people’s eyes, Labour has become associated with giving people who don’t want to help themselves an easy ride. That must change before we can win again.”

“Some people” meaning “people who believe what the Sun and the Daily Mail tell them. Labour used to be the party of the industrial working class, but since the industries were destroyed and Labour did nothing to rebuild them, the people left on the scrap-heap with nowhere to go have to be supported somehow, if they won’t be employed. Labour, when in office, did not “hand everything on a plate” to anyone; people did not get benefits for unemployment, for example, unless they proved they were looking for work. The system did not change from when John Major was in office, and he introduced the scheme for precisely this reason.

Mr Burnham will say Labour did not talk enough about the importance of businesses that create jobs and wealth.

“We didn’t celebrate the spirit of enterprise,” he will say. “Far too rarely over the last few years has Labour spoken up in praise of the everyday heroes of our society. The small businessman or woman; the sole trader; the innovator, the inventor, the entrepreneur. The small businesses that become big businesses.

Is there a culture of denigrating inventors or entrepreneurs? By and large, genuine inventors like Trevor Bayliss are celebrated, although so much advancement in technology is nowadays done by groups. Small businesses are not particularly valuable or convenient to either party; the Tories favour big businesses who can make large donations to their coffers and use economies of scale to drive down costs of public projects, while the left like large workforces that they can unionise, call out on strike, and fund the Labour party with. Small businesses are more likely to have a more personal connection to their workforce, and sometimes pay less but make up the difference in goodwill and in-kind benefits, when they can. This looks like inefficiency to a capitalist, and is equally anathema to anyone who advocates class struggle.

So, Labour should really spell out what they plan to offer small business owners rather than just mouth platitudes about the “spirit of enterprise” and “society’s wealth creators” in a speech to “senior business figures”. Their needs are often diametrically opposed, as they enjoy fewer tax breaks, fewer economies of scale, less publicity and cannot call in favours as large businesses can. And too much of the growth in ‘self-employment’ over the past five years masks people doing jobs at less than minimum wage rather than genuine entrepreneurship. It doesn’t offer the possibility of expansion.

“The people with the creative spark to think of a new idea and the get-up-and-go to make it work. Who often have to fight against the odds to succeed, but put in the hours, the sweat and the hard graft to do it.

“So I want this message to go out loud and clear today: in a Labour Party I lead, they will be as much our heroes as the nurse or the teacher.”

Does Burnham plan to even think of the worker who does not have the time or money to indulge their “creative spark”, who even if they had a good idea to offer their employers, would be dismissed as a low-level nobdoy with ideas above their station? How does he plan to improve wages, job security and working conditions for them? The genuine entrepreneurs (which a lot of large business owners are not) are certainly a group of people that Labour could prise away from the Tories, but it must not be at the cost of neglecting the people Labour was set up to represent, and whom they can no longer take for granted.

Perhaps you could call some business owners heroes, but they are the ones that provide good jobs with prospects and who contribute to their local communities, who don’t pollute the environment more than is absolutely necessary and do not look for any excuses to get out of paying back the state that educated them and their workers, treated them when sick, takes away their rubbish and paved the roads their goods are transported on. Quite a numnber of them are villains who do the exact opposite of all of these, and to say so is not to be “anti-business” and is not a sign of envy or resentment. And as for their value vis-a-vis teachers or NHS staff, some of us don’t regard the latter as heroes unless they actually do something heroic that is beyond the call of duty. Just doing your job does not make you a hero, any more than being a businessman or an employer. And much as business gets out of paying a lot of tax and can ruin the economy with sub-prime lending and other irresponsible behaviour and get away with it, so are teachers and NHS staff, as well as private and public healthcare management, not held accountable when their behaviour costs lives or causes unnecessary suffering (Nico Reed, Connor Sparrowhawk, Kane Gorny, Stephanie Bincliffe … the list goes on and on and it takes years to get anything resembling justice, if it ever happens).

And Burnham gave this speech at Ernst and Young of all places — a major finance company, to workers who are able to price those nurses and teachers, not to mention the cleaners and bus drivers, out of living in the neighbourhoods they grew up in or near where they work. A huge insult to all the struggling people in this country. Burnham is not an inspiring new Labour leader as Blair appeared to be in 1997; he offers the timid conservatism of the New Labour era without the few sparks of radicalism. He is a time-serving mediocrity and typical of the shop-minders the right wing of Labour produces. He is regurgitating Tory platitudes and straw-man arguments and making no attempt to challenge them. Surely someone must realise that serving up the Blair formula again will not work, given that its moment will have been 23 years gone by the time of the next election? Why on earth should anyone who believes in social justice expend money and effort campaigning for a party that dismisses it as the politics of envy?

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