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Online friends, suicide and threats thereof

20 July, 2014 - 14:08

Recently, two people I know (or knew) on Twitter posted threats to kill themselves. One of them is a woman who has bipolar disorder and has been in hospital on several occasions recently; the other has a chronic, disabling condition and has had her hopes raised and then dashed repeatedly since her condition deteriorated in 2012. The latter left Twitter this past week, after friends took her threats seriously and told both her husband and the police; this led to a hospital appointment having to be cancelled. I wasn’t one of the people who called the police, or her husband, because I do not know more about her than her first name. But if I had done, I would have called whoever I knew could help. I’ve seen people post their intentions to kill themselves before on Twitter, and I’ve always tried to raise the alarm, usually by alerting mutual friends who might be able to talk them round or call the police or someone they know. They don’t have to be someone I particularly like, or whose views I disagree with. The occasion with the bipolar lady, I did call the police when she posted on Twitter that she had decided that her best days were behind her, that she was planning to use her weekend leave from hospital to end her life, and that she felt at peace with her decision. Others pleaded with her to tell the hospital staff how she was feeling, which she did, and her leave was cancelled (although she was discharged a week or so later). I told the police everything I knew, except that the name I had for her was a pseudonym, so they would have found nobody by that description.

Why do we do this? The first and most important reason is that being told that someone is about to kill themselves causes worry and panic, and an urge to do something about it, much as if we saw someone in danger with our own eyes. We don’t want to interfere in someone else’s business, any more than the person we saw drowning or in danger of getting run over; we just want to protect them from danger, even if that is from themselves. The second is that none of us want to be that ‘friend’ who stood by and let someone kill themselves when they could have saved them, particularly if such details are reported in the media (as happened in the case of Simone Back in 2011 (see earlier entry).

A third reason is that people who announce that they intend to kill themselves usually don’t really want to die. People who really want to die do not do this; they quietly do it when they are on their own, and sometimes even disguise their intent (e.g. by finishing their day’s work first). There are some exceptions, such as those with very severe chronic or terminal illnesses who make a decision to end their lives over a long period, but for the most part an announcement of intent to commit suicide should be taken as a cry for help, and responded to accordingly. In one of the recent cases, I believed that the two women could be helped and did not need to die, and even if they wanted to at the time, they might be glad later that they had survived. One of them was clearly stressed because of two years of frustration dealing with doctors who were leaving her to slowly die from a treatable problem; the other was experiencing difficulty with her mental health which I believed was temporary and which she didn’t need to die from.

The case of the woman with the chronic illness I haven’t gone into too much detail about here. I’ve been following it since it started and it’s dreadful. Perhaps the story will be told at some point (probably not here as I’m no longer in contact with her since she left Twitter); the way some doctors are able to get away with doing damage to patients and then preventing them from getting it fixed, and their attitude to chronically ill people (who often know more about their own conditions than the doctors do) in general, are scandalous. The lady is a mother of two young boys, and they shouldn’t and need not lose her. The NHS shouldn’t be letting such a thing happen, and I won’t either, if I can help it.

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Claire threatened with secure unit transfer again

10 July, 2014 - 14:50

Claire (a young white woman wearing a stripey white and blue top and grey tracksuit bottoms, wearing red and black ear defenders) sitting on a beach with a small brown dog.Last January I wrote about Claire Dyer, a young autistic woman in Swansea who was at the time being threatened with transfer to a secure hospital in Northampton. Then as now, she was living mostly in an assessment and treatment unit, which is a mental health unit for people with learning disabilities, in Swansea and spending much time at home or out and about with her family, despite being detained under section 3 of the Mental Health Act. Her family were appealing against the section, which ultimately expired (but was renewed), and for a while it appeared that the Northampton option was “highly unlikely”, and bespoke placements (where she would occupy a bungalow and have support staff) were being looked at. This week, however, things have taken a serious downturn, and staff have ‘agreed’ (with other clinicians that have never met Claire) that she should be transferred to a secure unit, which could be anywhere in the UK, as soon as a bed is available. The family have invoked the “nearest relative” method to get her released (this means that if the unit do not discharge her within three days, a tribunal must be held within a month). She has since been denied a routine day out because of medication given in the evening, something that has not been done before and which neither she nor her family were warned of.

Claire, her parents, an advocate and a solicitor attended several tribunals earlier this year which were intended to challenge the section imposed last September. During this time, the management were banned from transferring her. A team from Northampton visited her unit, but this was on a day when she normally went out, and to disrupt this would have caused Claire a lot of distress and possibly a meltdown. I believe that the Northampton team got the distinct impression that Claire and her family were opposed to her moving there and that maintaining family relations was all-important, and could not have been done there to anything like the same extent as if she remained in her home region at least. In March her section was renewed, but focus appeared to shift to finding Claire a bespoke placement in or near Swansea, most likely a bungalow with dedicated support staff. However, this was always going to take time as the bungalow has not even been built.

Many of us suggested that they bring Claire home, but Claire herself did not want to live at home permanently as her parents will not live, or indeed be able to care for her, indefinitely and she feared what would happen then. Meanwhile, the unit allowed her to come home most days (Tuesday and Thursday she would spend most of at home or out with her family) and spend the weekend at home, and provided respite so that they did not always have to look after her and could get other things done (including working on her case). This arrangement worked until Claire broke down after seeing another woman who was in her unit go back to her care home, something she has been waiting for since she was re-admitted to the unit in April last year. This has led to an upsurge in violent outbursts, and she has reduced her trips out (not spending a night at home the past three weekends, for example) because she wanted to “keep home a happy place”. Unfortunately, the unit staff judge her on her behaviour in the unit, and hardly take any account of what goes on outside.

The family were told of the new plans at a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meeting on Monday. Her mother, Cath Dyer, wrote:

Such a shame that after a meeting today, which even the solicitor and advocate felt we were all being ambushed when we were told all the clinicians have taken advice from other clinicians about Claire’s behaviour and violence to people and property at the moment, and all feel she needs a medium secure unit, but could be anywhere in the UK. (These are people who have never met her, and others who have only seen her in the unit, which is a hospital and therefore a trigger for her behaviours). We have said that this will destroy her, especially as she relies on and loves coming home and spending time with her family, and visiting the community, and seeing her friends, but nobody seems to care about that.

Claire has not been told of the plans to move her. Today she was prevented from going home, as she normally does on a Thursday, because of medication she was given last night which supposedly requires 24-hour monitoring (which the family had not been previously told about). The demand for a nearest relative’s discount was submitted this week, and as of this writing, they have not heard back.

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Work

5 July, 2014 - 14:33

The past month or so, I’ve been working full-time, and most of that has been in one job that requires quite long hours — it usually starts at 9am (which is late for a driving job; they usually start around 7 or 8am) and finishes around 8pm. It involves driving an 18-tonne truck from Park Royal in north-west London, via Hemel Hempstead, to a depot outside Rotherham, and back (straight to Park Royal). What I’m doing is delivering sandwiches; the company is a major supplier of them and you can find their sandwiches in a number of high-street shops and at airports and railway stations. The upshot is that I’m earning money, but have very little time for myself at the moment and that includes for writing, particularly as I only got Saturday off this and last weekend (however, for legal reasons, I have to have three days off next weekend).

The job usually involves going straight up the M1 from the beginning to junction 31, and coming back the same way. When I know there is going to be traffic delays on the M1, I sometimes take the A1 or (if they’re far enough south) divert via Birmingham or Coventry and take the M40. The journey normally takes about three to four hours each way, although the evening journey is usually longer as I tend to hit busy points at rush hour (e.g. around Rugby where the M6 meets the M1 and they are improving that junction). The A1 is quieter than the M1, although longer, but it has a lower speed limit because it’s not a motorway, and nearer London it passes through several roundabouts, including the notorious “Black Cat” roundabout where there are often long queues northbound. The other problem with the A1 is that in parts it’s not very safe; there are short slip roads and sharp turns at junctions which means you get people pulling out at short notice into the path of faster moving vehicles in the outer lane. The worst places for this are at Newark and around Stamford. I tweeted that the time (and indeed the last time I used that road, when I went to Gateshead to see friends last summer) that the speed limits should be changed, as 50mph for trucks and 70mph for cars is not safe around those kinds of places. It should be 60mph for everyone.

So, I plan to keep on with this for the next few weeks; I have another round of class 1 HGV tuition (having failed a first, with a useless instructor, in May) provisionally booked for August. However, I do not want to be doing this job forever, because it’s tedious and leaves no time for anything else (I’m too tired to write once I’ve finished work, come home, cooked and eaten). I’ll probably post a round-up post of some of the things I’ve been wanting to write about this week, later today.

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McDougalls’ children removed yet again

23 June, 2014 - 14:08

Mark and Kerry McDougall, the Scottish couple who fled to Ireland in 2009 to avoid the social services in Fife, Scotland, taking her then unborn son into care at birth (on the grounds that she was unfit to be a parent because of her learning difficulties) have had both their sons removed by the same department last Saturday. The couple had returned to Dunfermline last year as they wanted to be near friends and family, but social workers interfered from the start, insisting that Mark not work as Kerry should not look after the children unsupervised. The latest development seems to have occurred after Mark was arrested for calling social services and ‘threatening’ one of the staff (he claims that his offending consisted of nothing more than a raised voice) after they interviewed one of the children at nursery without their presence or consent. Mark was bailed on the condition that he not contact the department.

According to friends of the couple on Facebook, the family were visited by police early on Saturday morning and asked if they planned to move back to Ireland, to which they said no. Mark asked if they could take the boys to see their grandparents, to which the police responded that they could go where they liked. The police returned around 1pm and held them at home for the next five hours until social workers came and took the boys away. We are informed that they are being fostered together but had asked for their mother. There is expected to be a hearing to decide whether the boys can return home some time this week. There are currently no reporting restrictions; Fife applied for a court order to impose them when the family returned to the area, but it was refused as the children were already in the public eye.

The couple are obviously very distressed and their friends are furious, as they had already proved their competency as parents over the first several months of Ben’s life. Irish social workers removed him at a few days old on instructions from Fife, and although Kerry was allowed to look after Ben for a short while in a mother and baby centre, he spent most of his first year in foster care with increasing, supervised contact. They remain friends with the Irish foster family who have visited them since their return to Scotland. Why is the judgement of the Irish social workers not good enough for those in Fife? To their friends and supporters in the wider disability community, it appears to be a case of naked prejudice mixed with malice towards a couple which embarrassed them. I hope the judge sees through their claims and returns Ben and Lochlan promptly. In a way, it’s a good thing that this may come to court, as it brings the possibility of their interference and the restrictions on their lives being ended, and it may set a precedent for future cases involving couples where one has a mild intellectual disability.

The Facebook page supporting the family can be found here. You may see links to my previous posts about this long-running saga below.

So, what are these ‘British values’, then?

22 June, 2014 - 13:26

Picture of Michael Wilshaw, a white man wearing a dark suit, accompanied by a middle-aged female teacher in a yellow coat and skirt, watching a lesson through a glass screen.I’m a bit late in writing about this, as I’ve been working long hours the past two weeks during which the Ofsted report into a number of Birmingham schools supposedly targeted by a conspiracy to turn them into Muslim schools by the back door was released and several of them were put into special measures, having previously been classified as outstanding. This past week, one of the governing bodies resigned en masse, and on Thursday it was reported that new government rules will require new academies and ‘free schools’ to abide by so-called fundamental British values, which include “respect for the law, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths and religious and other beliefs”, and enable the education secretary to close a school or dismiss governors if he deems them “unsuitable” if his conduct undermines these values. Meanwhile, former prime minister Tony Blair claimed that both the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria and the supposed Birmingham plot stemmed from the same “warped and abusive view of the religion”.

It’s remarkable that Michael Gove’s list of fundamental British values makes no mention of learning or erudition. Now that Ofsted found all the faults in these schools, among them that they did not engage with the PREVENT programme or guard pupils against the dangers of extremism (and some of these were primary schools!), some of the complaints about Ofsted centre on their over-emphasis on academic achievements rather than on promoting personal development or community cohesion. Park View Academy, in particular, was rated outstanding in 2012 and had made enormous efforts to improve standards since being in special measures in the early 2000s. Good schools with high academic achievements are fundamental to keeping the peace and bringing alienated religious communities on side. While it’s true that extremist networks have recruited in universities and some students (including some high-achieving ones) have become involved in terrorism, academic achievement and the economic opportunities it brings protect young people from becoming involved in crime and gang culture, and they stem the disaffection that leads to riots as we saw in 2001. And in this day and age, people do not need to be at university to have access to the Internet (as was the case for most people in the mid-90s); pretty much every drop-out has a smartphone and if they’re that way inclined, they can download all the jihadi videos they like and link up with “the brothers” on social media. Lectures about the dangers of extremism at school (easily dismissed as propaganda) will not be as valuable as academic and economic opportunities in keeping young people out of trouble.

Tony Blair’s comparison of Muslims trying to make their local schools compatible with their values with the depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Taliban’s attacks on girls’ education in Afghanistan and more recently Pakistan is fatuous and offensive. If you go to any university in England you will find scores of young women wearing hijab, and the same is true of secondary schools in Muslim areas, including Birmingham. While it is true that some parents still take their children (particularly daughters) out of school and send them ‘back home’ to marry, there is still a large proportion who want their daughters to get a good education and, if not to enter a professional job, then to be able to educate her children effectively. The complaints about boys and girls being separated in some instances in a mixed school are also misplaced, given that many schools (including most of the élite ‘public’ schools) are single-sex, and that many mixed schools have separate boys’ and girls’ playgrounds, or at least have done in the recent past (including the Catholic primary school I went to as a child, where boys and girls were allowed to have nothing to do with each other outside class, though this may have changed since then).

A page from the Magna Carta (with some modern ballpoint writing over it).Gove’s insistence on teaching the “values enshrined in the Magna Carta” demonstrates his historical illiteracy. Other democracies have written constitutions with robust bills of rights that protect freedom of speech and religion and the right to due process and even to family life; the best he can come up with is an 800-year-old document signed by an absolute monarch, prevailed on by feudal barons in a country where a large proportion of the population were serfs, something the document did nothing to change, and all but three of whose clauses have been repealed in the last two centuries. Of the parts still in force, one states that “the Church of England shall be free”; this of course refers to the then English part of the Catholic church, something which subsequent monarchs interfered with forcefully, changing its doctrine and abolishing its link to the Papacy. Another clause still in force preserves the “old Liberties and Customs” of the City of London, which today preserves its anachronistic form of local government, while the remaining extant clause (number 29) establishes what we now call Due Process, which is really the sole clause that is relevant to our times. However, while it is certainly a positive development that people could not be imprisoned or deprived of property without the due process of law, it does not provide protection from discrimination and from unjust laws that some modern constitutions provide. At the same time, the Tories seek to repeal the Human Rights Act which provides some of these safeguards, using their press to whisper to the white middle classes that only troublemakers need rights and that all it does is enrich fat-cat lawyers.

While there were some wrong things happening at some of the Birmingham schools that were criticised by Ofsted (notably the school trip to Saudi Arabia which, of course, only Muslim pupils at a nominally secular school could go on), much of it seems to consist of some baseless claims, attacks on legitimate cultural differences (such as the absence of tombolas at a school fair on grounds of gambling) and some things which are perfectly legitimate when non-Muslims do them. That the investigation involved a police officer previously known for anti-terrorism work, an entirely disproportionate response (especially at a time when people try to blame Muslims every time something goes bang, as with the bus fire in London yesterday), shows that the government regards any incident where Muslims assert themselves to be a matter of national security. All of this is being used to destabilise a group of good schools (and this happened just as GCSE exams were being taken), because giving an uppity community a knock over the head is more important than engaging them or providing a route out of the ghetto (if you can call it that; many would not) for those who want one. The values he talks of are just mid-market tabloid fodder; he is harking back to the feudal past, threatening to strip away rights while strengthening the hand of the rich and powerful. It will not only be Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities that are sidelined in Gove’s Little England, but anyone who is poor, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. Stuff the Magna Carta; this is not 13th-century feudal England. We need a modern bill of rights for a modern society.

Bloody foreigners

9 June, 2014 - 10:00

Front cover of Truck & Driver (not the issue referred to in this entry)There’s a letter in the current (July 2014) edition of Truck & Driver magazine from one D Pardner (address withheld) moaning about everything about foreign truck drivers, particularly eastern Europeans. He claims that they cause accidents through incompetence, leave truck stops and lay-bys in a filthy state, break the law (such as by transporting large amounts of diesel to avoid higher British fuel prices), rarely spend money in the UK, and in some cases even import prostitutes from their home countries. I’ve been driving trucks since 2000 (7.5-tonners most of that time, but I passed my class 2 HGV test last November) and I can say that British bad truck driving rivals anything eastern Europe has to offer.

Once when I was a driver’s mate for a big furniture company, the driver (of a 16-tonne Volvo) pulled over in a lay-by on the A12 (perhaps the same one where D Pardner saw the Lithuanian truck with all that diesel) and rolled himself a joint. He was definitely impaired as he drove that truck down back lanes in Essex, and I believe the company knew what he was doing. More recently, driving my car at 50mph through the roadworks (recently completed) on the M25 near Sevenoaks, I had two trucks (an 18-tonne box van and a four-axle tipper, both with British number plates) pull up right behind me and flash. With nowhere to go, I put my hazards on to warn them to back off. Instead, one of them overtook me on the left, the other on the right (both of which were illegal). I suspect they saw a small car and assumed the driver was female, and thus easily intimidated. I’ve come across other examples of dangerous driving by tipper drivers, including one who squeezed past me at high speed on the Western Avenue. It is common to blame this type of stupid driving on Bulgarians, but I don’t believe this can be the whole reason. In some companies tipper drivers are paid by the load, so they have an incentive to cram as many loads in as they can. Most driving is paid by the hour, so there is usually no financial motive to speed or cut corners; however, even they are not immune from the urge to speed, even (nay especially) on narrow and windy roads. This is why I don’t take jobs as mates, or pretty much any job that isn’t solo driving anymore.

As for filthy habits, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come to a job and found that the cab was a pig-sty, full of the last driver’s crisp dust and fast food remnants, complete with greasy steering wheel (eeew), and you can smell and even taste it as you drive. The guilty parties cannot all be from eastern Europe. I even saw one of “Our Boys” urinate against his truck at Fleet on the M3, and truck parks often stink of urine. People have no clue that others might not like sitting in their mess or take lunch in their open-air toilet. When I’ve delivered to places that employ foreign workers, like the guys that offloaded the scaffolding I delivered the other day, they’re generally courteous and easy-going. Rude and foul-mouthed British men are much more common (perhaps that’s not the case in their home countries, where they’re not foreigners or guests, but then again, Brits abroad don’t act like guests, especially when they’re drunk, and their French and Spanish is usually much less than the English spoken by eastern Europeans here). In short, we have nothing really to criticise eastern European drivers about — we have enough terrible drivers of our own, and most of the encounters I’ve had with dangerous driving have involved vehicles with British number plates.

Ayn van Dyk is coming home at last

8 June, 2014 - 11:04

Picture of Ayn van Dyk, a young white girl with a turqouise T-shirt on, sitting on a pink child-sized seat and playing with a pink kitchen-themed toy.On Tuesday Amie van Dyk, mother of Ayn van Dyk who was seized from her home in Canada by social services after briefly wandering from her father’s home in June 2011 (see previous posts), announced that said social services had decided to allow her to go and live with her mother, without any supervision order. She will remain at her foster placement until the end of the school term this month, at Amie’s request, spending the weekends at home, and then go to her mother’s house permanently after that. (I haven’t posted about it so far because I had been busy with work, and because I was waiting for more information.)

Ayn is autistic, and wandering is a known feature of that condition. In the original incident, she had been playing in a treehouse in her father’s back garden, and climbed over a fence into the neighbour’s garden. She had been found, playing happily, a few hours later, but social workers decided that Derek Hoare, her father, was overburdened caring for three children, two of them autistic, as a single father. It has been suggested that her return could have been enabled earlier had Derek visited her in care, but he feared that she would not be able to understand his appearing and then going away again (Ayn’s mother did visit, as she had been visiting since the couple had divorced). In December 2012, Derek announced that a transition home plan had been agreed, in which an autism expert would be employed to draw up some sort of behaviour management plan for Ayn, but the return didn’t happen and Derek’s circumstances changed, and he has disappeared from the Facebook group he set up.

Ayn’s apprehension attracted the attention of the international autism community online, and most of it was supportive of Derek’s position, including his position on visiting. Reports surfaced that Ayn was being cared for in a basement and at times left supervised only by teenagers, and that she had escaped at least twice, had been medicated (as she never previously had been) and that she was in terrible distress for the first few days after removal, eased only when she was given a picture of her father. The foster carers made a video of her kissing a picture of her father on a computer screen (which was posted to the Facebook group). Social workers seemed to change all the time, with each new one setting the case back weeks as they read up on each of their new cases, and in some cases the visiting schedules were disrupted or suspended.

In the end Ayn was returned to her mother by social services when a temporary care order lapsed, without a court order; the case never came to trial. Many of us always suspected that the real reason for their objection to Ayn living with her father was simply that they did not believe a man should be taking care of a disabled girl, particularly one that was reaching puberty, on his own. It also appeared that social workers knew they had made a mistake but did not want to lose face by admitting wrong and returning her at the earliest opportunity. The fact that they agreed (after a year’s delay) to something that Derek had suggested in the first few months and that there was no finding of a need for protection also suggests that the authorities had overreacted to a minor issue, were in the wrong and knew it. That it took this long, and that there was no way of bringing the case before a court quickly, shows that the legal process is flawed, because delays in these cases cause needless distress to families as one milestone after another has to be marked without everybody present.

People on the Facebook group set up to support Derek in June 2011 are suggesting it be renamed “Ayn’s law”, although there is no suggestion as to what that law would consist of (in Alberta there is a law called “Samantha’s law”, after a disabled girl who was taken into foster care at birth because her parents were told they could not be supported to look after her, but foster parents could, and she suffered years of abuse before returning home at age 12, and died not long after). I would suggest that it include a provision to speed up the process so that a parent can force a case to court within weeks, rather than years, as well as mandatory training for social workers in dealing with child safety issues arising from autism (or indeed, disability in general). Children should not be taken from good homes, institutionalised and traumatised, because a parent does not have eyes in the back of his or her head and cannot keep them under lock and key, or has differences of opinion with teachers or social workers.

Free speech

25 May, 2014 - 11:06

The last couple of weeks a few things have made me seriously consider the state of free speech in the UK. One was that a man (Michael Abberton, right) who had posted some innocuous anti-UKIP material (that didn’t call for people to riot, or assassinate UKIP politicians, or in any other way commit acts of violence) received a visit at home from the police, who “politely” suggested that he remove the material even though, as they said, it was perfectly legal. Someone else got a prison sentence for posting an offensive message about a teacher who was murdered in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago. Newspapers printed stories alleging that meat on sale in commercial restaurants is halal, as if that was a bad thing. And I have been reading yet another few sorry tales of people trapped in learning disability units whose families are trying desperately to get them out, or prevent them being transferred hundreds of miles away, and their only way of doing this is to use the press and social media to raise public awareness, something many professionals would like to see banned (and which is already banned in the case of children and people under the Court of Protection).

There is no constitutional guarantee of free speech in the UK (there is no constitution as such, just law). In the USA, it would be quite legal for someone to post on social media that they were glad someone had died, even if it was an entirely innocent person or a national hero. Futhermore, the reasons given for imposing prison sentences, that the remarks made (and shared by other people that they did not ask to do so) caused “public outrage” are plainly invalid; the remarks caused passing annoyance to a couple of hundred people spread thinly across the country. “The public” did not find out until the matter was reported in the news after their arrest. People have been prosecuted for even more ridiculously trivial offensive behaviour in the recent past, including someone who mocked the dead of the 1958 Munich air crash, in which a number of Manchester United players were killed, in a video made by the football team he supported (he got a suspended sentence). While I do not dispute that the law should punish people who harass grieving relatives or threaten violence (and this includes sending rape threats to women who run prominent feminist campaigns, for example), there should be no penalty in a democracy for merely offensive speech, the sort that children are routinely told off for saying in the playground. Adults do not have a right to have their feelings protected more than children do, or to not see things they find offensive.

While ordinary people are punished for inconsequential but distasteful speech, and we have libel laws that stifle what people can say about specific wealthy individuals (but not about anyone else), the corporate media can do what they like in terms of selling sensationalised nonsense and material that attacks sections of society in order to make money, and ultimately to advance the personal interests or pet causes of their owners. They have no obligation to report matters truthfully; they are allowed to lie (as long as it is not about an individual), to massage statistics, to portray minorities as demanding or getting special treatment, to stir up hostility to or injure the interests of one group in society or another with their reporting. The ownership of a press and control of a major newspaper gives unelected individuals power, and makes politicians fear them to the extent that they base policies on the reception they could get from them, yet there is no serious movement at present to change that, and no questioning of whether this concentration of power, the ability to fabricate public opinion, in the hands of unelected rich men, is for the general good.

Picture of a young white man with Down's syndrome, sitting on a green chair under a closed window, wearing a green T-shirt.There are situations where free speech is vital for ordinary people. It is vital to have free speech to fight injustice, and this includes situations where the people perpetrating it think (or pretend) they are acting in the “best interests” of the person they oppress. I am talking particularly about mental health care, learning disability care and (to a lesser extent) child care. This past week there was a story reported in the local papers in Yorkshire about a young man with Down’s syndrome and autism, named Thomas, who was being held in an inadequate Assessment and Treatment Centre (if that’s not a tautology) who was being threatened with removal to a secure hospital in Peterborough, about 150 miles away. This, of course, sounds a lot like the case of Claire Dyer, which I have written about at length here previously (although his condition appears to be more severe than hers), and a lot like the case of Stephen Neary, whose father Mark won a court battle to get him out of a unit where he was being held against his will in west London in 2010. The decisions to move both Claire and Thomas away from their home areas have now been chnaged, and both are still in their situations but placements are being looked at locally. These things would not have happened had their families been able to raise publicity through the local press, blogs and petitions and to talk openly about their situations on social media.

I have in the past agreed with specific situations where families were prevented from talking about their children by name when they were in care, but to prevent families talking openly about vulnerable relatives puts all the power in the hands of professionals, which includes some with a vested interest in keeping someone disempowered, some charged with making economies for a local authority’s or health board’s budget, and others who are bad at their job or unable to think outside their particular set of pet ideas. Publicity is not an ideal means of changing individuals’ situations, because it relies on being first (because later campaigns will get less public attention) and on having easy access to social media (not everyone can afford home internet or a smartphone), but when the official processes are often so slow and unreliable (tribunals adjourned multiple times, for example), there is often no other choice. However, even when there is clear wrongdoing, court orders are often made to prevent the names of the people affected or the institution or even the local area being mentioned, in one case explicitly to maintain confidence in social services! Mark Neary has recently published numerous reports of outright abuse against his son Steven while he was being held in an ATU, yet a court order bans identification of both the unit itself and any of the staff. The campaign to get justice for Connor Sparrowhawk’s death last year, and get the facts into the public domain, could not have even begun if the unit where he died (Slade House in Oxford), where staff negligently left him alone in the bath when he was known to have epilepsy, let alone the health trust that ran it (Southern Health) could not have been named.

So, free speech as it exists in the UK now needs to be rebalanced in favour of ordinary people and against the large corporate media entities. I do not believe opinion or ideas should be censored, as long as opinion is presented as opinion. Bad or wrong ideas can be challenged; propaganda presented as fact in a prominent position, as a front-page story on a news-stand, is a lot more difficult as those who challenge it often do not have access to a news-stand, only a website or blog, or at most a magazine, with a much smaller readership. We will never escape the march to the reactionary, inward-looking Right as long as these corporate giants dictate what is held to be public opinion. For ordinary people, free speech is vital. We must be able to talk about poitics and how this country is run without fearing a visit from the police. We must reform the libel laws so that the onus is on the plaintiff to prove libel, not on the defence to prove truth with one hand tied behind their back. We must not protect those with power over individuals’ lives from scrutiny, and we must allow those affected by their decisions to challenge them publicly.

Thalidomide: David Mason is no hero

17 May, 2014 - 21:10

A girl without arms uses her feet to play a board gameLast Thursday there was a BBC documentary about thalidomide, the drug used to suppress sickness in pregnant women which was responsible for serious birth defects in the children of the women who took it. The programme focussed on David Mason, a shareholder in the company which manufactured thalidomide in the UK and whose daughter Louise was affected (born with no arms or legs). Mason vetoed a confidential £3m settlement and proceeded to use the media to pressure Distillers to accept a much bigger settlement, ultimately successfully. However, a brief search for his name reveals that this wealthy man consigned Louise to an institution as a child, where she remained until age 17, something the programme did not mention. (The Telegraph’s review notes that the programme favoured the voices of journalists and of Mason over those of survivors, and only briefly mentions the current legal action against Grunenthal, the German developer of thalidomide.)

It’s fairly well known that in the 1960s it was quite common for children who were disabled from birth to be left in institutions, and for some doctors to tell parents to “leave it with us and go away and have another”, or words to that effect. There was much less (if any) support for raising disabled children at home and the only education available was at special boarding schools. Parents faced a fight, as did the children, but the decision was left up to the parents; they were not forced to give up their disabled children. It may be a huge sacrifice to be a full-time carer (although if the child is purely physically disabled, it is much less so than when they are, say, autistic with severe and violent challenging behaviour), it’s a greater sacrifice to spend years in an institution so as to avoid disrupting others’ lives or careers. Many of these institutions were cesspits of abuse and neglect. At Chailey, the institution in Sussex that housed many thalidomide victims, the children were addressed by numbers by staff, not by their names, and most of the thalidomide victims were forced to wear heavy and cumbersome prosthetics. If you were going to protect your child from all this, it helped if you were rich and well-connected — someone who could get substantial articles published about his plight in the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, and get Rupert Murdoch to help him with a publicity campaign, is one useful definition of this.

The programme featured interviews with a number of thalidomide survivors (now in their 50s) and mentioned that some parents used their ingenuity to make their homes accessible to their disabled children. Yet it only briefly mentioned that Louise Mason (now Medus-Mansell) was in an institution, and got bullied there during the dispute over the confidential deal, not that she spent her entire childhood there, as a brief search for Mason’s name will reveal (see this interview with Louise Medus-Mansell from 2009, for example). It did not mention that she was raped there as a teenager (by another young person, not a member of staff). It allowed Mason to say that he withdrew into himself and became depressed after the final settlement was reached; it did not say that he all but disappeared from his daughter’s life, and she was often the only child there who was not visited. It also did not mention that after leaving Chailey, Louise decided to go to the Star College while her father wanted her to go into a “home” for disabled adults, and that she had to sleep rough during the holidays.

The programme was too focussed on a flawed “hero” who ran a campaign that benefited others although it put back by years the time that benefit was delivered. Meanwhile, some of the parents he was fighting were actually caring for their disabled children full-time and could have done with the compensation while their children were children. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this was a variant of the “white saviour” phenomenon in film, where the only white man in sight is the hero and the natives are either villains or victims. Race wasn’t the issue here, but class, wealth and connections were: Mason was obviously someone the media could contact very easily, and was an affable individual with a normal appearance, no speech impediment and well-developed media skills who the reporters could deal with easily. As plenty of people at the BBC (like the rest of the British media) are public school products, judging a parent who de-parented his or her child by dumping them in an institution would be like judging their own, but there’s really no excuse for doing that to your child when you’ve got money. It goes to show why many adult disabled activists distrust high-profile parent activists: they tend to support and justify each other and gloss over their failures, even when they withhold care and even when they kill their kids.

Make no mistake: “halal hysteria” is malicious

12 May, 2014 - 09:16

Front page of the Sun, with the headline "Halal secret of Pizza Express"Last week a number of newspapers ran with prominent stories that supermarkets and restaurant chains were using halal meat, or had been doing so without their customers’ knowledge for some time. This is actually not news as a number of supermarkets have been doing this for years, chiefly because New Zealand abbatoirs employ Muslim slaughtermen so that the lamb they produce can be supplied to the Middle East. The media have been mixing the issue of the meat being halal with it being from animals that were not stunned before slaughter (which in fact is the case with only a minority of halal meat in the UK). It is the first time the story has made the front page of a national tabloid, however.

There are two types of halal meat in the UK: there is “HMC halal”, which is unstunned, and there is everything else, which is stunned. The Halal Monitoring Committee is run, I believe, by Indian scholars of the Deobandi school, which has a strict policy that the animal should not be stunned as this would render it an injured animal (and unfit to be slaughtered) and some forms of stunning may actually kill the animal, which would mean it died unslaughtered (and is therefore unlawful to eat). The HMC insist on animals being slaughtered in the way they always were before stunning was invented relatively recently, and as it still is in most of the Muslim world. Other slaughter monitoring agencies do not follow this position, although the majority of restaurants which claim to use halal meat do not even state who monitors the abbatoir or qualified the slaughterman; however, many Muslims prefer HMC meat because suppliers as well as abbatoirs are monitored, so there is much less chance of the meat being mixed up with anything else.

Muslims are not the only religious group that insists on slaughtering without stunning, of course: Jews do as well, and all the kosher monitoring groups (to my knowledge, there is one connected with the Chief Rabbi’s office and another which serves the Haredi communities who mainly live in the Stamford Hill area of north London). While the controversy about non-stun slaughter affects them as well, and those who wish to ban non-stun halal slaughter also want to ban kosher slaughter, it is hard to imagine that the Sun would make it front-page news if a restaurant chain had been using kosher meat without telling its customers. Of course, there is no economic imperative to do so, since the dietary rules in Judaism are much stricter than those in Islam (for example, there is no requirement to separate milk and meat products in Islam, and more types of meat are permissible in Islam, such as rabbit), so the use of halal meat would gain them many more customers than the use of kosher. To make a front-page story of it, implying that customers were being “tricked” into eating something they otherwise would not have done for the sake of Jews, would obviously open the Sun up to charges of anti-Semitism, and in any case, the paper’s well-known Zionist sympathies would preclude this. They did this because they could get away with it.

The use of halal chicken on its own does not make all the food a company sells halal. There has to be no haram (forbidden) ingredients; in particular, if food is cooked with an alcoholic drink, it becomes haram (most, but not all, Muslim authorities permit trace amounts of chemical alcohol, as found in food flavourings). There must also be no danger of cross-contamination, and the danger in a kitchen where non-halal meat, particularly pork, is cooked is enormous. In the particular case of pizzas, many Muslims would regard cheese made with calf rennet, when the calf is not slaughtered in the halal way, as being haram (though not all, as the rennet was milk the calf had eaten and was extracted from its stomach; it was never part of the calf’s body). Many observant Muslims would never eat a meal in a restaurant which routinely cooked meat that was not halal, even if some of it was. Therefore, the number of Muslim customers the restaurant would attract would not be that great, although an advantage could be gained if the meat was cheaper (which halal chicken often is).

Front page of the Daily Mail, with the headline "Millions are eating halal food without knowing it"The Daily Mail got Taj Hargey, a fringe figure who is always on hand to tell non-Muslims what they want to hear about Muslims (namely that we’re extremists and we’re doing Islam wrong) to write a piece full of plainly false claims about the subject (see here for more on Taj Hargey’s witterings). (I am not sure if it was in the print edition, but appears as part of their “RightMinds” blog section.) He claims, for example, that “it is completely wrong that the food sensitivities of Britain’s Muslims — who amount to just 4.8 per cent of the population — should take precedence over the other 95 per cent”. Of course, in any given area, the proportion of Muslims may be much higher than 4.8%, but the reason much supermarket meat is halal is because it comes from New Zealand which also exports to the Middle East, as already stated. He goes on to claim that the Islamic rules on halal meat have “no theological basis in the Koran, the supreme text of Islam”, but rather comes from the hadith, “a secondary and often suspect source”, and alleges that “three of the main fundamentalist Muslim sects”, the Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood and Deobandis, “are foisting their fabricated notions about it down our collective throats”, which is utter nonsense, because mainstream Islamic scholars who do not belong to any of these sects insist that meat be slaughtered with the prayer (which cannot be said at the time of consumption over meat that was not slaughtered with it; that is a baseless position which has been refuted). As for the position of the hadith, Muslims are well aware that there are hadith which are weak or even fabricated, but these are well-known. The word of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) has always been regarded by the Muslims as a main source of Islamic belief and law. The words do not have the same status as the Qur’an, but they are still Revelation.

The article comes at a time when Muslims, especially women, face persistent harassment in public places in many parts of the UK. Ava Vidal wrote two articles this week for the Telegraph, one of them about the harassment she found that Muslim women were describing being subjected to, and the other about the abuse she received when she wrote the piece. Vidal found that abuse of Muslim women has become normal, and that many women experience several incidents of verbal abuse or threatening behaviour a week, but there have been some violent incidents including a pregnant Muslim woman being pushed to the ground and stamped on. Vidal found that most of the abusers were young men (the experience of my Muslim female friends is the same) and that some of them displayed misogynistic attitudes of their own, regardless of their purported concern for “oppressed Muslim women”. One of her sources also observed that there was a link between media coverage of Muslims and upsurges of hostility, and the content of the abuse she received.

So, prominent and hostile coverage of halal meat could easily lead to further attacks of the sort Ava Vidal identified. As Richard Peppiat wrote in his resignation letter from the Daily Star, which alongside the fellow Desmond title the Daily Express has printed a number of prominent stories that were hostile to Muslims (and not just terrorists but ordinary Muslims):

You may have heard the phrase, “The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas.” Well, try this: “The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke’s head caved in down an alley in Bradford.”

The role of the media in fostering hostile attitudes to populations that subsequently became victims of genocide is a well-documented fact, and we should not consider ourselves so civilised in this country that we are safe from falling into the abyss of communal violence in the right circumstances. In Sri Lanka right now, where the Buddhist majority has succeeded in defeating an insurgency by the Tamil minority they oppressed (although the insurgency was brutal and committed atrocities of its own), they have now turned on the Muslims who supported them, and attacks on the halal meat industry have been an important part of that. In France, fascists who control town councils have abolished pork-free school meals and told Muslim children that they can either eat pork or go hungry. They do not do this out of concern for animals, as the suffering factory farming inflicts on animals far exceeds the brief pain of slaughter; rather, it is deliberate oppression. The Sun does not attack supermarket halal meat because its audience is really that bothered (many of them will have gone on holiday to Muslim countries where all the meat is halal, and eaten in Indian restaurants and off-brand fast food joints where all the meat is halal). The purpose is to stoke hostility so as to sell papers, because it sells, but a by-product of selling papers is violence on the streets. We cannot have violence in the streets and we cannot have government by tabloid; their activities must be regulated by law, or they must be closed down.

On the Kim Walmsley gender case

2 May, 2014 - 23:18

Newspapers are reporting that a woman from Liverpool, Kim Walmsley (right), has had her marriage annulled, and been refused a passport, because the official copy of her birth certificate wrongly records her gender as male. The result is that she had to leave Australia with her husband in 2005, where she had been living on a temporary work visa and had set up a business. The fact that she is actually female is demonstrated by having had five children of her own, but the law apparently provides no means of rectifying this error, unlike when people actually have their gender reassigned.

I learned about this by seeing a link on Twitter to the story on PinkNews, which itself was derived from a story on the Daily Mirror site. The Daily Mail has a fuller version. It seems she was able to get married and get a passport by submitting copies of the certificate her family had been issued after her birth, but when she needed to renew it and was out of the country (or perhaps had lost the original), it transpired that the register office had kept a copy that said she was male and so this was her “official” gender. The upshot was that her marriage was declared to be an illegal same-sex marriage and so was no basis for her to have a visa in Australia. The situation is a cause of distress for her not only because she is unable to get a passport, but also because she is a Christian and the Church has also ruled her marriage invalid. This is pretty ridiculous, because marriage as a religious ritual is separate from marriage as a legal document, and surely womanhood in the sense required for a religious marriage is not conferred by a bit of paper which can be written on in error. It is a matter of fact.

There actually is a precedent for someone to have their official gender changed without going through the gender recognition system: in 1998 a girl named Joella Holliday, who had been born intersex and who had no recognisable sex at birth, won a campaign to get her gender legally reassigned (according to the Daily Mirror, the Office for National Statistics agreed to reassign her). She had been given the name Joel David as her mother wanted to christen her and give her a name as she feared she would not survive. At age one, she was reassigned female as she did not have the body parts necessary to function as a male, but the state refused to issue her an amended birth certificate until the family were on the verge of taking the case to the European Court for Human Rights. Kim’s case should be clearer than that because she is actually biologically female and always was.

Some transgender activists have made an issue of this (it was a tweet by one of them that alerted me to this):

(“Cis” is the opposite of “trans”, in this case meaning a woman who was correctly identified as a girl at birth and has lived all of her life as a female and does not challenge this fact.)

The problem is that the law actually provides a mechanism for a trans person to change their legal gender, and the two-year wait is intended to make sure the change is permanent before altering an important legal document. This woman has been waiting nine years since this mistake came to light in 2005, and her current gender has been in place since she was born in 1965, not since 2005, so the two-year wait has already been exceeded. With trans people, their sex is correctly identified at birth and they develop a different gender identity and sometimes take steps to make it a physical reality. In this case, a mistake on a bit of paper means that an official document which consitutes the legal record of someone’s gender (or sex, as it actually says) does not match the physical reality or her identity. (Similar difficulties exist for some intersex people who develop a different gender identity to the one they were assigned, or identified with, at birth; the legal gender reassignment process that exists for transgender people does not apply to them.)

There is no legal mechanism for changing Kim’s gender because this mistake is quite rare and the eventuality was not taken into account when the law was written. It is much rarer than someone undergoing a gender reassignment process, but rectifying it should be a simple process as it was just a clerical error; there is no great debate to be had over it. The resentment of some trans activists for this story becoming prominent while they experience some of the same difficulties is misplaced, as this has nothing to do with transgenderism except for the fact that laws that benefit them, do not benefit her. It smacks of “if we suffer, so should she”.

Dudes

1 May, 2014 - 08:00

A graphic for Blogging Against Disablism Day, showing a 4x5 grid of stickmen in different colours on different backgrounds, some of which have crutches, and including one wheelchair.This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014.

Recently a fashion has emerged of referring to people with learning disabilities, particularly autism, as dudes. This fashion has emerged out of the Justice for LB campaign but has cropped up in some of their media interviews, and I believe it ought to be challenged before it becomes established anywhere else. LB, for anyone who isn’t a regular reader, was Connor “Laughing Boy” Sparrowhawk, an 18-year-old autisic man who died in an NHS assessment and treatment unit (a mental health unit for people with learning disabilities) in Oxford, England, as a result of staff negligence which was part of a culture which was exposed by both an independent investigation into his death and an inspection by the Care Quality Commission last year. His mother, Sara Ryan, blogs at My Daft Life and there is currently a campaign of 107 Days of Action, after the time Connor spent in the unit before he died, “to bring about #JusticeforLB and all young dudes”.

I have no problem with a mother referring to her son, whether he is still alive or not or has a learning disability or not, as a “wonderful dude” or something similar, but there are two separate problems when a campaign for the rights of people with learning disabilities is done in the name of “all the young dudes” and when someone refers a radio interview to so many thousand “dudes” stuck in inappropriate assessment and treatment unit placements. One of the problems is less obvious but simpler: that it might not stay affectionate, and like many other terms for people with learning disabilities, it might end up as an insult if it just becomes a term for someone with a learning disability. The biggest problem, however, is that it’s just not inclusive.

The word dude is commonly understood to mean a man, particularly a young man, and is marginally more complimentary than bloke, guy and similar colloquialisms, but isn’t always so. Yes, there are recorded incidences of it being used to refer to or address a woman (Wikipedia has a few examples) but it remains a term predominantly used to mean a man. It is not always complimentary, as seen with derivatives like “dudebro” (meaning obnoxiously sexist members of certain tech communities, particularly gaming) and “warez d00dz” (meaning people who crack the copy protection on commercial software and distribute the results). So if you introduce a piece on a young person you work with who has a learning disability with by saying he is a dude, not everyone will hear it as meaning that he’s young, good-looking, fun-loving and sociable and has a learning disability. There is a danger that those who don’t meet this ideal (and a lot of people with learning disabilities don’t — you are less likely to present an unthreatening, boyish image if you’re quite tall and have ballooned in weight from being on anti-psychotics, for example) will come to be seen as less photogenic and therefore less media-friendly, when they might be among the most needy.

Autism is a condition that affects more males than females, so perhaps it is inevitable that in stories about autistic people and their struggles with social services, the education system or health service, there will be more male than female subjects, but that doesn’t mean we should forget that there are women who are experiencing the same thing, including abuses of the Mental Health Act (the case of Claire Dyer, who was sectioned on a pretext last September and threatened with removal to a secure hospital in another part of the country a week later, which I have written about here in the past, is a classic example; her case is still waiting to be decided) and the other inadequacies and abuses of the ATU system, and probably a few specific to them. Remember the woman in the STATT CQC report, who left the unit because the staff refused to stop a man wandering into the women’s section? In the days of mixed mental health wards, women regularly complained that staff did not protect them from harassment by male patients and became aggressive with them when they complained; ATUs are still mostly (if not all) mixed-sex, so problems like this may be widespread.

Looking at the stories on the 107 Days of Action blog, it seems that quite a number of the stories about men refer to them as “dudes”, while there is just no equivalent for the women featured. Generally speaking, the colloquial terms for women are either insulting or patronising (‘chick’ being the most common) or otherwise inappropriate (like referring to women in general as “girls”). I tend to refer to women as ladies unless I’m told not to (or a particular woman is really unpleasant), but even that doesn’t equate to a female version of “dude”, and “dudette” really doesn’t work; it’s not a term anyone would use. When did you ever hear a woman called a cool dudette? Many women would not appreciate being called a guy or dude or anything which didn’t acknowledge that they were female, particularly if they had not done anything to give an impression of being other than a woman. If a woman looks less obviously feminine because of, medically-induced weight gain or other people’s decisions about her dress or grooming, then calling her a dude might be even more offensive or upsetting.

I do not think for a moment that any of this is intentional on their part and I do not want this to detract from the campaign to get justice for LB and all the others who have suffered or died in these units, whether because of outright abuse, neglect or just from being kept in a unit a long way from home for a long time because the money mysteriously cannot be found to enable him or her to live at home or in his home area; I’ve been following it since the beginning and supporting it, including on here. It’s not a movement which has a big problem with sexism, but people are not going to take as much of an interest in the welfare of women in this situation if they are confronted with stories about photogenic “young dudes”. It should be justice for all learning disabled people and all autistic people, not just the young dudes.

Why is T-Mobile censoring disability blogs?

29 April, 2014 - 13:28

imageI regularly read a blog, Blogging Astrid, by an autistic woman in the Netherlands who has been blogging about her life since her teens, but since 2007 it has been about her life in two psychiatric institutions following a breakdown that year. (Besides her autism, she is also blind and believes she could not live independently, even with her husband.) In the last couple of months I have, on about four occasions, tried to access that blog on my phone, which is on the EE (formerly T-Mobile, but which also includes the old Orange UK network) and been presented with their “content lock” page. Initially, to get that removed, I had to supply them with a credit card number to prove I was an adult (as if all adults have credit cards), but you can also do it through the T-Mobile account website (as they assume that the person with access to the account is the adult, and that if the child is the user, he or she does not have access).

Astrid has made occasional references to sexuality, abortion, pregnancy (not hers), and other ‘adult’ matters over the years, but not in a manner that I would consider explicit, let alone pornographic. The last post in which I remember her mentioning sex was a post on teaching autistic teenagers about personal hygiene, which was a few months ago. Most of it is about her dealings with the institution staff, about her outings, her relationship with her family, her various diagnoses over the years, and more recently about recipes. None of it is the sort of stuff most parents would not mind their children reading, if they were old enough to have a mobile phone and if they had any interest in the subject. She has written about self-harm and (non-serious) suicide attempts in the past, but not in a way that, for example, describes how to do it.

The fact that this website keeps getting caught in their net proves that content locks really don’t work, as they result in the censorship of perfectly innocent blogs and other websites, and this has been the experience whenever laws on written “pornography” have been imposed in other places, such as Canada. Parents obviously have a right to make sure their children do not read unsuitable material, but this should be an opt-in feature and they should have the right to decide exactly which types of content they want to screen out. Commercial software exists to do this, so it does not need to be applied as standard by a phone company. However, as an adult I object to having to prove that I’m an adult to the phone company when it’s me that’s paying the bill, something I could not do as a child, and to this erratic system being continually imposed on me without warning. This is obviously a new system as I’ve only been noticing it (particularly as regards to this website) the last couple of months, so perhaps they should get their “teething problems” sorted before rolling it out to everyone.

Rapists to Rio? Are we that desperate?

27 April, 2014 - 21:35

Polesden Lacey, an English stately home with yellow cladding and creeping plants over some parts of the exterior, and a small belfry above the middle section.This past week, a man from Surrey was given a non-custodial sentence for a series of serious sexual assaults against a 12-year-old girl in December 2012. Adam Hulin plied the young girl, whose age he knew from having asked which school year she was in on Facebook, with vodka, drove her to the grounds of Polesden Lacey (a stately home just outside Leatherhead, pictured right) and performed two sex acts on her while she was drunk. He denied having sexual intercourse with her (i.e. raping her, as she was 12 and had had several shots of vodka which she was presumably unaccustomed to) and the judge dismissed the jury to hear this aspect of the case alone. Hulin is described as “a talented middle-distance runner with the Aldershot, Farnham and District club team” and has a promising future ahead of him; he has been accepted at a university to study marketing from next September. The judge accepted his claim that he believed the girl was 16 (note: nobody is still in year 7 at age 16) and said he “certainly wouldn’t want to do anything which would prejudice his future career”.

After the infamous Steubenville rape case in Ohio, I thought something like this could not happen in this country because our sport culture is different, and sportsmen are nowhere near as valuable to their communities (schools in particular) here as in the USA. That case was a gang rape that was video’d and the footage distributed, while the girl in this case was 12, not 16. I am not sure if being a runner with that team means he is an Olympic hopeful, but even if he is, we should not be so desperate for Olympic glory that we will send a man convicted of sexually assaulting a young girl to Rio, or even to the Olympics after that. And it’s a fact of life that when you commit a serious crime and get caught, it will “prejudice your future” and if that means you lose your chance for a shot at a medal than so be it. Just ask Gavin Grant or Ched Evans. Young people with promising futures who were studnets have been jailed for a year for throwing missiles at a Starbuck’s café during a protest.

The news reports about the case are sketchy, because the prosecution claimed that Hulin found out about the girl’s age by asking her about which year she was in, while the judge later accepted Hulin’s claim that she lied about her age and he believed her. He also claimed that Hulin believed he was engaging in “regular sexual activity” and the rape charge (which was allowed to lie on file, so there is no verdict on it at the moment) would not have been brought in any case if the girl had been just two months older, as her 13th birthday was in February 2013. The problem is that men do not normally ply women with large amounts of vodka and disguise its taste in a soft drink. Her reported behaviour, like being afraid of the taste of vodka, is not that of a 16-year-old and these should have raised alarm bells even if she looked a bit older than 12. The liberal use of alcohol and his taking her to a remote location suggests that his behaviour was premeditated.

While it may be true that until recently, a sexual act involving a 12-year-old that the younger person agreed to would not have been classed as rape, it would certainly have been illegal for an 18-year-old man to have sex with a 12-year-old girl and the age gap would have been sufficient for it to merit a custodial sentence. Certainly when I was at school, sixth-formers did not socialise with first-years (of either sex) and did not even have a huge amount of contact, and the idea of them mistaking one for someone almost his own age is quite laughable.

The judge’s remarks seem to reflect a “boys will be boys” attitude, as well as a perception that the man’s future is so much more important than the trauma he has inflicted on a young girl, who he perhaps regards as some kind of tart for getting in a man’s car, even though she was only 12. If this is how he behaves with any 12-year-old girl he can talk into getting into his car, how on earth can he be trusted on a university campus where there are plenty of young women, away from home for the first time, who it is quite legal to have sex with (and therefore he can say they did even if they didn’t)? There is a campaign to refer this to the attorney general to appeal this sentence, which I am joining: you can find a template letter and his address at the website Ending Victimisation. (You can also write to your MP, particularly if you live anywhere near where the attack took place, which is Bookham, near Leatherhead in Surrey.)

Massachusetts: The land where torture is legal

24 April, 2014 - 23:01

 the school that teaches torture'Before and during the Afghan invasion twelve years ago, it was hotly debated whether torture of terrorist suspects is justified, particularly (but not only) when a terrorist has been arrested and it is suspected that they may know of a “ticking bomb” or someone just about to plant one. In civilian justice systems in every western country that I know of, torture has been illegal for centuries, not only because it is inhumane but also because it elicits misinformation, as the victims tell their captors what they want to hear, or implicate personal enemies, or just say anything that will make the torture stop. It’s unethical and doesn’t work. The sale of electroshock weapons has been illegal in the UK since 1997, and according to Mark Thomas, who has campaigned against and written a book on the arms trade, “the mere presence of a brochure advertising them will get companies thrown out of arms fairs”, and he himself had a man arrested for demonstrating them at a security fair in Birmingham in 2007. There is one part of the western world, however, where the use of electroshock as a punishment is allowed: in the United States, at institutions for people with learning disabilities who display challenging behaviour. And the “challenges” can be very mild indeed.

Today the Food and Drug Administration has been holding a meeting on the use of electroshock at the Judge Rotenberg Center, a facility for people with learning disabililities, particularly autism, in Canton, Massachusetts. I first heard about the JRC in an article in Mother Jones in 2007, School of Shock and the author of that later published this article in New York magazine. The young man featured in that article, Andre McCollins, appears in a video that was ordered sealed by a judge around that time, but was played in court after Fox News appealed to allow it to be played, and broadcast (you can watch it here). The boy is shown being strapped face-down on the floor after first refusing to take his coat off (because he wanted to hide the fact that he had been made to wear someone else’s clothes) and then hiding under a chair, kept there for seven hours and repeatedly given electric shocks. He was hospitalised for more than five weeks and never returned to the centre, and was severely traumatised. He had not been a particularly challenging pupil; on arrival, he was described as “a well-groomed young man with a pleasant disposition” who spoke of “wanting to get his driver’s license, becoming a police officer, and having a girlfriend”.

I’m rather shocked that a place like this has been allowed to survive this long in an advanced country, particularly in a place with a liberal reputation like Massachusetts. Much as we have numerous examples of poor care for people with learning disabilities and mental health problems in the UK, a place like this would be shut down immediately if it were openly using electric shocks for any reason. There are other examples in the USA of the rule of law not being applied fully to children and people who are disabled: they tolerated the private “boot camps” run by the World Wide Assocation of Speciality Programs, which was the subject of numerous abuse complaints besides the basic facts of them depriving people of their liberty without them being convicted of anything, and the media, including the BBC, have given that organisation some free publicity. The Rotenberg Center had to get court approvals to use the device, which it made the students wear all the time, but the offences for which they were shocked includes acts which are not violent by any stretch of the imagination, such as screaming, attempting to remove the electrodes or tensing up his body, supposedly a “health-dangerous behaviour”. One former inmate, Jennifer Msumba, testified that the device would frequently shock students by accident and that, as had been previously observed by state officials when evaluating the school’s effect on people they placed there, she did not make any progress as a result of the device:

The meeting has been live-tweeted using the #jrchearing hashtag, and while it does not appear to be possible to view the event or the testimonies online, the gist of what was said is on that hashtag, most of it from Lydia Brown (@autistichoya) and Ari Ne’eman (@aneeman), both noted autistic self-advocates. There is a widely expressed distress that torture is legal in 21st century America and that people can be shocked because they may become aggressive or because they get out of their seat. It was apparently questioned as to whether autistic people can feel pain.

Picture of a young white girl with two pony-tails on both sides of her head, wearing a pink top. She has a birthday cake in a large bowl, with pink icing, brightly coloured sweets scattered over it, and seven candles and a large number 7.Why does it take an FDA decision to decide whether to ban the use of a weapon on disabled people who are not threatening anyone with violence or in any way breaking the law? It should be a simple criminal matter: it is assault, regardless of whether it could be argued that it may produce some reduction in harmful or disruptive behaviour. Disobeying an order in a school or other institution is not a crime, and it is no excuse to use violence, and when the person affected has a learning disability, punishment does not even work and the violence ultimately inflicted may be completely out of proportion to the original behaviour: for example, in 2006 a seven-year-old girl, Angellika Arndt (left), was killed by special school staff when they restrained her when she refused to stop blowing bubbles in her milk.

Autistic and learning disabled people are human beings. We are not animals in a zoo. We should not have the treatments that are banned for use on criminals, and used only by tyrants on those they call subversives or troublemakers, reserved for us in response to often entirely harmless behaviour or trivial annoyance. It is illegal to treat anyone else like this. Americans with a learning disability cannot be greatly more violent or uncontrollable than Brits, and British schools and clinics that deal with people with autism, ADHD and other conditions that can cause difficult behaviour do without them. It’s disgraceful, it’s assault and there should be no question about banning it.

Before you say “poor mum” …

23 April, 2014 - 21:46

Picture of Katie McCarron in a pink top with flowers, standing on grass in front of a lake. Someone off-camera is holding her hand.Last night three children were found dead at their home in New Malden, at an address half a mile from where I live. The three children, all under age five, had a form of muscular dystrophy; their mother was also found with minor injuries, but has been released from hospital and is under arrest. As often happens in this case, the mainstream and social media commentary has included a number of suggestions that this was a really dedicated mother who must have cracked under the strain. For example, the Independent said that their mother “was the full-time carer for the children, but had been under immense pressure looking after children who had been struggling to sleep, according to acquaintances”.

I don’t want to prejudice the trial that will obviously result from this, but I do want to give a message to all the people who will readily identify with the mother rather than the three dead children. It’s normal to assume that the parent who killed was struggling financially as well as with the burden of looking after a “difficult” child, and that there were no services available. This claim is made in the Independent’s article: that the council had been “judgemental” and told her to pull herself together. Residential care had been suggested, but the mother had refused and said she would “see it through”.

In many of the cases where parents kill disabled children, the child is autistic and presents severe challenging behaviour. In this case, however, the children had spinal muscular atrophy, which is a hereditary, progressive muscle-weakening disorder. It is not generally a cause of learning disability or challenging behaviour; indeed, a physically disabled child is likely to present less challenging behaviour than ‘normal’ children, as they are far less capable of violence. The Independent states that the disorder meant that the condition “meant they were likely to spend their short lives in wheelchairs”. In truth, although it usually does lead to wheelchair reliance, people with SMA can live into middle age, access higher education, work, marry and have children. I am not sure how far progressed the condition was in this case, but I have seen videos of children with SMA using power-chairs at their age, and I have not seen such children in New Malden.

The family were also wealthy enough to afford a five-bedroom house in a fairly decent part of New Malden (which is a sought-after area because of better-than-average transport links) and then refurbish it and outfit it with wheelchair ramps. The father is a director in an investment bank and the family have the services of carers and a nanny. So, not a poor single mother in a council flat struggling to raise a disabled child on her own.

The Independent also mentions the case of Felicia Boots, the mother with severe post-natal depression who smothered her two children in 2012 after suffering paranoid delusions that they were to be taken into care. That case bears a superficial resemblance to this in that a mother killed (or appears to have killed) her children, but in fact has no relevance to this, because there is as yet no suggestion that the mother had psychosis and because Felicia Boots’s children were not disabled. It was a completely different category of murder.

There have been many disabled children murdered by their parents over the years, and there seems to be a few reported every year. A lot of them are autistic and presented challenging (i.e. violent) behaviour, but not all; some have physical disabilities and parents who are convinced that they are in pain and would be better off dead, and all too frequently there is a chorus of agreement in the media. Sometimes the parent is stressed and cannot cope; other times they are ashamed of having a disabled child. Sometimes the murder is a domestic matter and the murdered children’s disabilities are irrelevant. It’s true that this mother is innocent until proven guilty, but please remember before you jump to identify and empathise with the parent that the children were also innocent, and the children are now dead.

Happiness Will Prevail

22 April, 2014 - 22:09

Picture of the Kandyman, a monster made of Bassett-style sweets.Back in the 1980s, Doctor Who featured a storyline in which The Doctor was transported to a land ruled by so-called happy people, a land in which sadness is illegal and punished by the Happiness Patrol, who have the TARDIS painted pink, lock up blues musicians and execute so-called Killjoys in a river of strawberry fondant. In reality, the land is a colony in which the native inhabitants have been forced underground, and the happy message is reinforced by robotic announcements over the speaker system which reinforce the message “happiness will prevail”. (The secret police chief was loosely based on Margaret Thatcher, but the parallels with some of the self-proclaimed people’s paradises of the time are pretty obvious as well.) This enforced happiness was brought to mind by a recent video in which Muslims are shown dancing to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy”, and the reaction in which the press declared that it shows Muslims can be happy, and dissenters who pointed out that it contains a number of un-Islamic elements were labelled as puritanical killjoys.

There are a number of problems I have with this video. Of course, as a pop song it includes the use of musical instruments and most scholars say this is haraam (forbidden or sinful). That a lot of Muslims listen to music all the same is not news to anyone; what is distinctive about this is the presence of Abdul-Hakim Murad, widely respected as a traditional Islamic scholar, in the video. Scholars should maintain utmost propriety, particularly in public and particularly at a time when following difficult or unusual aspects of Islamic law are unfashionable, so as to encourage ordinary Muslims to do the same. This is not the same as if he was seen in a Sufi hadra (where musical instruments are almost never used), something that some Muslims have been comparing this with, which is a matter of sectarian disagreement. It’s just frivolous music. That he is involved says a lot about how far the community has come in the last 15 years, as back in 1998 he wrote under a pseudonym in Q-News:

Offered the choice between beautiful and ugly Western imports, the Saudis seem invariably to choose what is ugly. They reject their own music, but do not listen to Mozart instead, but to Michael Jackson and other exhalations of the damned degeneracy of America. They throw out traditional Arab or Ottoman furniture, and replace it with mock “Louis Farouk” vulgarity so extreme that it is produced in Europe largely for export.

A second problem is who the song is by. Pharrell Williams is otherwise best known for writing, singing on and appearing in the video for Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke (lyrics here), an obscene song that refers to women as bitches and which some regard as an ode to rape. (At least Michael Jackson called women ladies.) It’s true that most of the people who took part probably did not know that Pharrell Williams wrote Blurred Lines, and I am not sure if the authors knew it, but those of us who do know it shouldn’t be promoting it, or him. He or his record company may well end up making money out of people watching it, as Google have arrangements with record companies to pay for copyrighted content used in videos.

The biggest problem, though, is the culture of suspicion which it plays up to and justifies: the perception that as we eschew certain aspects of popular culture, we are somehow less integrated, and a video of “happy” Muslims smiling and dancing to a pop video makes us seem better integrated and less threatening. The problem is that this sets up a divide between “good”, unthreatening and “integrated” Muslims who elicit “joy” in popular culture, and those who shun it and can be portrayed as puritanical killjoys. As I saw when countering the anti-Muslim bigotry of the likes of Robert Spencer a decade ago, they will always judge Islam by those they dislike and dismiss the more moderate elements, let alone those willing to ‘bend’ so as to be better integrated or appear less threatening, as unrepresentative. Spencer used the phrases “religion of peace” and “tiny minority of extremists” like mantras, repeating them whenever an extreme group carried out an atrocity, while dismissing moderates whether they were orthodox or not.

Picture of Helen A, a woman (played by Sheila Hancock) with bright orange hair, a red jacket with a large letter A emblazoned on the arm, holding a 'stigorax', a vaguely dog-like animal with grey hairWe do not need to be seen prancing around to a pop video to prove that Muslims can be happy. We just have to have something to be happy about. The ending in The Happiness Patrol came when the police chief experienced unhappiness (after her pet stigorax, Fifi, pictured left, was killed in the revolution fomented by the Doctor and Earl Sigma, the blues harmonica player) and realised that happiness could only really mean anything if you experienced its opposite as well. A lot of us are happy because we have reasons to be happy, whether it has to do with Islam or to do with some personal event. On the other hand there is a lot to be unhappy about, both from a Muslim perspective (such as politicians making speeches inspired by a hoax conspiracy document about Muslim teachers as if it were fact, Muslim countries descending into civil war, and so on — and maybe having been harassed in the street for being Muslim, especially if one is female and wearing the hijaab — I know someone this happened to only today) as well as from things that are going on in our society, such as sick and disabled people being denounced as scroungers from the front pages of national newspapers and poor people having to use food banks in unprecedented numbers. In the Alice Walker book Possessing the Secret of Joy from the 1990s, it is mentioned that some European writer observed that Africans bore their sufferings because they possessed this so-called secret, and the narrator dismissed this contemptuously. Oppressors like to see their subjects pretend to be happy, bearing loads on their backs with a smile in the hot sun. This is really all we are doing by showing ourselves being “happy” to a song written and performed by one of the most offensive performers the dominant culture has recently produced.

Muslims (at least adults) are meant to be serious, not frivolous. The Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said in a well-known hadeeth: “if you knew what I knew, you would laugh little and weep much”. We are not expected to be humourless or po-faced, but we must not take our amusement from what is unlawful or inappropriate. We will have people calling us spoilsports or killjoys for refusing to laugh at “mong” jokes, mother-in-law jokes, even rape jokes — ask any feminist (or indeed any woman) who has challenged men over these things. There have always been excuses when people call out entertainment which is cruel or immoral; either it’s for a good cause or the people behind it see it as just good clean fun. I had the same reaction when I challenged the RAG group at college when their magazine printed jokes about paedophiles and racist Irish jokes. The situation is not new to me.

The people who made this video have let the community down, and they should not be attacking those who criticise it for causing “disunity” or making us look backward. They knew that it would face precisely this criticism and they knew it would lead to conservative Muslims being ridiculed, yet again. The Honesty Policy, the group of anonymous bloggers behind this video (although someone must surely know who they are; after all, they approached people to make the video), claim that they “have big ambitions, and that’s to completely break down established methodology about how we go about doing things”. So far, they have proved that Muslims can jump on a bandwagon like anyone else and can prance around to a banal pop song like anyone else. Oh, and that we can be happy! But none of that’s news.

Olympic Park: a sea of ugly

20 April, 2014 - 11:34

Yesterday I decided to have a walk through the Olympic Park, which opened a couple of weeks ago after having been closed since the end of the Olympics in 2012. I was excited that a new, large park had opened up in an inner area of London, but was hugely disappointed by what I saw. The park is scrappy, still full of building sites, and has too much concrete.

You reach the park by taking the train to Stratford and walking through a bit of the Westfield shopping complex. It’s then quite a long walk along a wide concrete pathway to the (still closed) athletics track. The Orbit “sculpture” is on the left, and a fairground helter-skelter is on the right, as if to invite comparisons with the hugely overblown, shapeless structure which appears to serve as an advertisement for a big Indian steel company. The London Aquatics Centre is also on the left as you walk into the park, and is now a public swimming pool (there is a viewing lobby off the entrance walkway, but you can only see the far end of the pool).

Walking around the rest of the park, I found not much to show for turning this from an Olympic complex into a public park. I remember when the South Norwood Country Park opened in the late 1980s, also on a reclaimed industrial landscape that had been cleared of pollution, and it was quite bare and we remarked at how “un-countrylike” it looked, but in a couple of years the wildlife grew and it became a favourite place for me to ride my bike and sit on my own and read, or whatever. There, the pathways are wide enough for three people or thereabouts, with a few narrow tracks.

The Olympic Park’s pathways are as wide as dual carriageways, and are clearly designed for crowds going to a big sporting event, not small numbers of people out enjoying a day in the park. There is even a pathway that’s as wide as a motorway, complete with a traffic bollard in the middle, which rather reminds me of that notorious traffic-free motorway in Pyongyang. No other London park has roads anything like this wide; Hyde Park’s Broad Walk is about three lanes wide, and tree-lined, while the roads through Richmond and Bushy Parks are only two fairly narrow lanes. As the park will still be used for sporting events, a few wide pathways to the car park and stations will still be needed, but they do not all need to be that wide in a park. There is also no disguising the fact that this is an ex-industrial landscape, complete with a river and several canals, neither of which have been in any way beautified or landscaped to fit in with the new park (it can be done, as you can see in any of the Royal Parks).

Passing by a tour group near one of the rivers, I heard some guy say that you wouldn’t believe that you are in the middle of London and surrounded by urban development. In fact, there is almost nowhere in the park where you are not conscious of it and cannot see one of the ugly buildings that surround the place, or a railway line, road or canal. I think it was a mistake to name it the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, because it makes it sound like a royal park and it’s nothing like any of the Royal Parks, all of which have extensive landscaping, are light on concrete and have large areas where there is tranquility. Admittedly, it’s early days, so the greenery will certainly grow, as it did in South Norwood and has done in other long-established parks, but here the greenery seems like islands amid all the roads. I don’t see why we have to name every major public works project after her, but equally I don’t see why it’s an honour to name this after anyone; it’s a dump.

Hunt opposes segregation (when it’s Muslims doing it)

19 April, 2014 - 08:43

Front page of the Birmingham Mail, showing the headline "Jihadist plot to take over city schools"BBC News - Hunt to warn against schools extremism in Birmingham

At a time when a “secret” report about a Muslim plot to take over schools in Birmingham and run them according to Islamic principles is looking increasingly like a hoax, Tristram Hunt, Labour shadow education secretary, shows up in Birmingham to “warn against religious extremism in schools” at the NASUWT (National Union of Schoolmasters / Union of Women Teachers) conference:

Mr Hunt, addressing the teachers’ union conference in Birmingham, will say that he does not want a French-style separation of religion from schools.

But he will respond to what he describes as “allegations of infiltration, intimidation and the pursuit of a divisive religious extremism through systems of school governorship”.

Mr Hunt is expected to say: “We need to be clear about the duties which a state-funded school is expected to fulfil.

“We cannot have narrow, religious motives - which seek to divide and isolate - dictating state schooling.

“We cannot have head teachers forced out; teachers undermined; curricula re-written; and cultural or gender-based segregation.”

Has he not forgotten that a large proportion of British state schools are single-sex, and the majority of élite private schools, including his own school, University College School in Hampstead? Has he not forgotten that a large proportion of white, middle-class families prefer single-sex schools for their daughters, as they find that girls get less teacher-time as teachers tailor their lessons to keep the attention of boys, or rather certain groups of them, and that girls are subject to sexual harassment on school grounds? Has he not forgotten that a large proportion are run by either the Church of England or the Catholic church, and these schools have the right to discriminate in favour of children of church-going parents and to teach their religious doctrines as fact?

Does Hunt plan to force segregated schools in white-majority, affluent areas to integrate, or is this only a bad thing when it’s Muslims doing it? Shame on him and his party for using unproven and probably false conspiracy accusations as fodder for a political speech, and shame on NASUWT for allowing this. Perhaps they should change the “Women” part in their name to “White” to show they are open to race-baiting and communal trouble-making.

Image: Islamophobia Watch.