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Bedroom Tax gag on Lamont typical of Labour’s cowardice

26 October, 2014 - 08:37

Picture of Johann Lamont, a white woman with fair hair wearing a light green jacket.Miliband barred Lamont from attacking bedroom tax for 12 months | Politics | theguardian.com

Yesterday, in the fallout from Johann Lamont’s resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour party (a nominally independent Scottish version of the Labour party), “sources close” to Lamont revealed that Ed Miliband had ordered her not to attack the Bedroom Tax (the policy by which a person or family’s housing benefit is cut if they are deemed to have “spare bedrooms”, which may not be spare at all) while he made up his mind on the issue; this resulted in the widespread perception that Lamont was indecisive and vague on the issue. This, to me, is typical of the cowardice which Labour show when the agenda is being set by the Tories and their press, and it goes back to well before Tony Blair came to office.

I saw it most clearly when I was active in the student union in Aberystwyth in the mid-1990s. The National Union of Students had been largely controlled by the Labour students’ group for years, but as that group became more right-wing, the union itself retained its policy of demanding a return to full grants and the abolition of loans. Labour wanted to introduce tuition fees, and its student wing was full of ambitious young politicians who wanted to impress the party and secure nominations for seats to fight. Indeed, Jim Murphy, currently MP for East Renfrewshire, was the president of the NUS at the time I attended conference in 1996; he was elected in 1997. Quite a number of presidents of the NUS became Labour MPs and other became chairs of Labour-associated groups like the Fabian Society. The NUS’s policy on grants was an embarrassment to Labour, and they needed to overturn the policy.

Labour tabled motions to abolish the grants policy at conference after conference and in 1996 they finally got it through. Labour students were seated in the central part of the hall so that someone in the balcony could indicate to them how to vote (as Aberystwyth was controlled by dissenters — mostly Plaid Cymru — we were in the wings and couldn’t see them, but a delegate on the other wing pointed this out in a procedural motion to expel the visitors from conference for this reason), and I remember one incident where a Labour union officer got up to speak and a couple of seconds later, the central part of the hall erupted in applause — as if they’d only just realised they were being told to cheer. It was an open secret that Labour students regarded it as their job to use positions such as student union sabbatical officers to help Labour win the 1997 election, and this often involved going against other union officers or union policy. At one college, for example, the Labour slogan “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was printed on the union’s rape alarms.

The reasons why returning to 1979 grant levels was infeasible are obvious; the number of students had increased dramatically since then. Of course, this meant that a university degree had become a more essential qualification, which it certainly was not in 1979, but the drain on the economy would have been enormous. The same is not true of the Bedroom Tax; it is a new policy, conceived in obvious malice by wealthy Tories, known to be causing a lot of suffering and hardship because the ‘spare rooms’ are not spare at all, or because there is no alternative accommodation for many of the families affected, and because it takes no account of family circumstances. The amount saved cannot be very high, if any has been given the additional burden of administration. It is something Labour should make a priority of abolishing, but feels unable to for fear of an onslaught from the Tory-controlled commercial press. The same is much less true in Scotland, where the Tories have only a single MP, but as with the student unions in the 1990s, Labour has to control its affiliates and even nominally independent but ‘associated’ groups to make sure they do not step out of line and embarrass the leadership.

This tendency of toning down the Labour aspects of Labour, the elements who seek social justice, goes back further than Blair — recent interviews with Neil Kinnock mentioned that he was himself influenced by some young politicians, including his chief of staff Charles Clarke, who told him to tone himself down, say less and sound less working-class and less Welsh:

A posse of clever men and women a decade younger than himself, politicians of the harsher era of the 1970s, became his praetorian guard: the Cambridge graduates Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke, who had been president of the National Union of Students (NUS); the Oxford graduate Peter Mandelson, who had been chairman of the British Youth Council. Kinnock says they “had been student union officers very young, and after that they came and worked for me”.

Among the other Kinnock confidants who had cut their teeth in student politics were the former NUS president Jack Straw and John Reid, a former young communist. Fighting the ultra-left was in their bones. They had fought them in the student unions and now they fought them for Kinnock, unrelentingly and obsessively …

Kinnock’s protectors told him that his personality was all wrong. The noise, the passion, the bons mots, the houndstooth suits – everything that had endeared him to the public before he was elected leader – it all had to go. He started to wrap himself up in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. Brendan Bruce, the Conservative director of communications for part of Kinnock’s time as leader, has said: “He was badly let down by his image-makers in recent years. There were endless things they could have done.”

I can think of so many other incidents, particularly in the 1990s but even well into Labour’s term in office, where policy moves were based on cowardice. There was, for example, the stamping on Clare Short when she proposed legalising cannabis, and the way they jumped when the Daily Mail attacked them for not deporting “foreign criminals” in 2007, something that up until then had not even been part of the deal. It is the New Labour tendency to cringe before power which is what led the UK into the disastrous Iraq war in 2003: Tony Blair simply was not prepared to say no to an angry and powerful US president. That they are not willing to take on the Tories on a policy which would not entail an enormous spending commitment demonstrates that they are still led by people without courage, and until that changes, they will only win empty victories, enabling them to mind the shop while the Tories regroup, or stay in opposition.

Image source: Scottish Labour.

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Julie Bindel does not deserve a “no-platform” policy

19 October, 2014 - 19:31

Julie BindelThis week Julie Bindel (right) is due to speak in a debate at Essex University about pornography. Bindel is a radical feminist best known for her work with Justice for Women, a group that fought to get women who killed violent husbands and partners out of prison starting with Sara Thornton in the early 90s; she has also written extensively on violence against women, on prostitution and people-trafficking, transgenderism and pornography. Someone has started a petition to get her dis-invited, however, and so far it has attracted 200 signatures, mostly from well away from the university. The event she is due to speak at next week is aimed at first year undergrads and is part of their “Think!” seminars, organised by the social sciences faculty. While other attempts to prevent Julie Bindel appearing at university events have been successful, at present she is still listed as attending the event. (I read about this campaign on the Edinburgh-based feminist Louise Pennington’s blog, but she does not accept comments from men anymore. She covered a previous attempt to exclude Julie Bindel, and I did comment on that.)

The cause of the hostility is a series of articles Bindel wrote on transgenderism; she is known to be opposed to male-to-female transgenderism in particular, and is notorious for an article she wrote for the Guardian Weekend magazine in 2004. The article has since been deleted, but is available in image form here; it includes a number of nasty stereotypes of transsexuals such as “at least those women were women, and hadn’t gone to gender reassignment clinics to have their breasts sliced off and a penis made out of their beer bellies”, but the opinions are pretty typical of a certain type of lesbian radical feminist: that transgenderism is a reaction to homophobia, that it consists of reinforcing traditional gender roles rather than breaking them down, and that “a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts [do not] make you a woman”. The latter is probably more widely shared outside the rad fem community than the first two, along with the notion that having been a man, and lived as a man, until middle age does not make one particularly well qualified to counsel (female) rape victims (it is possible that some will not mind, but others will).

This event is not about transgenderism, however; it’s about pornography, and radical feminists are well known to be opposed to the popularisation of pornography because it often depicts abuse (albeit of adults, not children) and because it depicts women appearing to enjoy sexual acts that are degrading to them. In addition, the widespread availability of this material means that children can also easily get hold of it, and it is known to have an effect on what boys expect from girls in a relationship and the way they treat them. Some feminists also cast doubt on the consent given to the acts they have to engage in when in pornography; while they may have signed a contract at the beginning, they may not have fully realised or been informed of what acts the ‘job’ would entail. The fact is that there are plenty of objections to pornography, and reasons why it should be restricted or kept away from children especially, and if they did not get a feminist to debate that side of the argument, they would have to get someone with a religious reason to be against pornography, and he would probably come across as not trying to sound too prudish or conservative and his (or her) arguments would not resonate very well, particularly with younger and non-religious students.

Having seen some of the ‘objections’ to Bindel’s appearance that are listed on the Change.org petition, it seems that much of it boils down to “she’s a TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and little else. The person who wrote the petition is a man, and is from Durham, which is a long way from Essex. Most of the signatories were not from the university, or the area, or even the UK. They all objected to her writings on transgenderism, suggesting that her mere presence would make the university an unsafe place for trans women, and did not even touch on her opinions on pornography or the sex trade (probably they do not know about her campaigning on violence against women). There is one comment (from someone in Hale, which is also a long way from Essex) that says:

It is one thing to tolerate the views of the hatefilled, it is quite another to invite them to toss vitriol into our faces

But having heard Julie Bindel talk about the sex trade (and discussing the idea of a legalised sex trade with a Nevada brothel owner on BBC Woman’s Hour), I can say that she doesn’t “toss vitriol” at anyone or indeed bring her work on other issues, whether it’s domestic violence or transgenderism, into her anti-sex-trade work. She sounded pretty calm and reasonable to me, and had clearly done her research, which is more than can be said for many of the signatories to this petition.

This is not the first time Bindel has faced efforts to prevent her speaking at a university event; sometimes they have involved appealing to the university or the venue concerned, and other times it has consisted of sending her death and rape threats. This reflects a sinister ‘creep’ of the no-platform policy from its original application to racists and fascists to pretty much anyone who has opinions that anyone considers bigoted, even if they are not being given a platform to express those particular opinions; there has been a wave of incidents in which conferences have been cancelled because they were to discuss views that were less than liberal on matters of sexuality, but were not violent, much less racist or fascist. It is right to ban racists and others whose presence on campus may cause violence or intimidate dissenting or minority students or staff; Julie Bindel is not a violent person, has no history of using political violence and is no threat to anyone. (And if you have ever joined in or supported an effort to get a Muslim speaker banned because he has expressed “anti-Semitic” or “homophobic” views at some point, or shared a platform with someone who has, you are participating in the same tendency of using censorship to defeat ideas you dislike.)

There is much I disagree with among Julie Bindel’s views, much as with a lot of other radical feminists, but these are things that can be debated, because they are not going to bring a bunch of thugs into the debate or to hang around the venue afterwards. In the case of feminists hostile to transgender people, one might make an exception for those who harassed them, outed them or tried to interfere in their education or medical treatment, but I have never heard of Julie Bindel doing this. The debate is about pornography and she is one of the best people to put the case against from a feminist point of view, as it is a genre that thrives on the exploitation of women (the other speaker that springs to mind is Gail Dines, who is also known to associate with the same group of radical feminists). I hope Essex University lets the debate go ahead and is not swayed by this small, noisy, self-selecting group of would-be censors.

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From Clegg to Clacton

12 October, 2014 - 23:21

Douglas CarswellThe other night I was driving home (I had a long drive from Diss, Norfolk to west London, which takes three hours by any reasonable route in an 18-tonne lorry) and listening to reports on Nick Clegg’s speech at the (now forgotten, I think) Lib Dem party conference. In that speech, he told everyone off for looking for someone to blame for the current crisis, be it big business, immigrants or Europe. He also reminded everyone how he’d toned down the Tories’ worst instincts during his four years cosying up to them, and promised that he’d never repeat the mistake of caving in on increasing student tuition fees. Then on Friday morning, we woke to find that UKIP had gained the seat of Clacton in Essex in a by-election in which the sitting (former Tory) MP, Douglas Carswell (right), had defected and put himself up for re-election. In a 51% turnout, Carswell won 60% of the vote, more than double the nearest rival (a Conservative). In another by-election in Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester, Labour held the seat and increased its share of the vote by 1%, but UKIP came second with only about 600 fewer votes.

To deal with the Lib Dem conference first, Clegg and other Lib Dems are deluding themselves if they think his voters’ sense of betrayal is purely down to the tuition fees issue. He caved in on so many other issues, including the Tories’ welfare reform programme and the cuts to legal aid, which leave some very vulnerable people without legal representation (e.g. mothers trying to secure custody of their children, when their husbands often have better ability to afford a lawyer). Last Monday (before the speech), Sue Marsh posted an entry in which she described Clegg and Danny Alexander at the time of the formation of the coalition as “eager as 6th formers convinced they are ready to play men’s games”, and this sums up my impression of why they gave so much away: they were just too eager for the privileges and prestige of “office”. Nor can it be said that they have tempered the Conservatives’ wilder instincts as these elements are snapping at the leadership’s heels as we speak. They have an established group within the party that wants to take Britain out of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights; some of them are defecting to UKIP and their press are egging both groups on. They did not accept a coalition and blame the Lib Dems for everything that they were unable to do if they had been a “Tory government”, apparently ignorant of the fact that they did not, in fact, win the election. The Lib Dems have not gained as a party from coalition with the Tories; only their ministers have gained, and only personally. Their values are treated as if they are on the fringes of current thinking, with the two major parties (and there are only two now, and if there is a third, it is not the Lib Dems) competing to be ‘tough’ on right-wing media issues such as immigration and Europe.

That the Lib Dem vote has collapsed is evident from both of last week’s by-elections: in Clacton, they received only 483 votes, a loss of 12%, and lost their deposit, coming fifth after the Greens; in Heywood and Middleton, they lost 18% of the vote and received only 1,457, coming fourth. While the Clacton result can be explained partly by there being a popular local MP who would have won whichever party he represented, in Heywood the Labour party gained only 1% of the vote while UKIP gained 36%. I’ve seen blog posts and a diagram (since deleted, it seems) suggesting that this was not hugely significant because Labour held its vote while the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ votes were transferred to UKIP. The problem is that the Lib Dems appealed to an entirely different demographic to UKIP, which expects to take votes from people who are swayed by the right-wing press rather than progressive, well-educated voters who actually think about what they are voting for. The Lib Dems also benefited from a large number of left-wing votes during the New Labour era, and from left-wing voters in mostly affluent areas where they were the main opposition to the Tories. It is inconceivable that these voters will vote UKIP in large numbers. The only possible explanation is that Labour (and the Tories) lost voters to UKIP while gaining them from the Lib Dems (although the Greens, who also increased their share of the vote in Heywood, may have gained from both). A possible reason why UKIP gained such a large share of the vote was the low turnout, which demonstrates the danger of not turning out to vote because you believe you live in a ‘safe’ seat and because it’s “only a by-election”.

The success of UKIP also shows that being wealthy and having a background in the financial sector is no bar to winning votes among impoverished and poorly-educated voters. In theory, it shouldn’t be, on its own, but Farage, like a lot of American right-wing politicians, affects a ‘common touch’ that disguises policies that benefit only his own class, while exploiting people’s fears and resentments, however ill-founded they may be. Thomas Frank exposed this tendency in American politics in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? (America, in the UK version): that white voters across the USA, except in the big cities, the university towns and coastal metropolitan areas, had taken to voting for Republican candidates whose economic policies were against their interests, largely for reasons of morality (e.g., opposition to abortion) or because it was not acceptable to draw attention to their wealth and background; that was the “politics of envy” and wealthy men are winners. The same rhetoric can be seen creeping into British politics, along with the same dishonesty, the same fake common touch, the blunt talking, the hostility to experts and intellectuals. The deception is perpetrated on the BBC and in papers which are meant to be a bit more balanced: the Observer, for example, portrayed him taking a beer (a common theme in the American version of this deceit as well - they can’t be shown sipping a latte) in his “village pub in Kent” when it was actually in an exclusive and expensive London suburb.

I’ve found the media’s coverage of these by-elections disappointing, but perhaps I shouldn’t as they have been talking up UKIP for years. On Friday morning I followed a link which appeared to be to a story about the Heywood result, but it turned out to be mostly about Clacton and contain mostly chatter by various politicians, as if that was the news. There were no statistics — no tables of the candidates and their votes and percentages, nor of the changes since 2010 (after I complained to the BBC myself, graphs showing these details appeared). This result is disturbing: it’s a victory for apathy, unthinkingness, fear and resentment, stoked by the commercial right-wing press and recklessly fed by the BBC, and is in no way comparable to the “protest votes” cast while the Liberal Democrats seemed the only principled party during the New Labour era (let alone to tactical votes for the Lib Dems cast in constituencies where Labour could not win). It used to be said that people vote with their pockets, hence the recurrent victories for the Tories in the 1980s and 90s, but now it seems people will vote against their interests on the vague notion that a party “says what they are thinking” or “are on their side”, even though a cursory investigation will prove that they are in fact firmly part of the establishment and playing a trick. The BNP were brought to earth when their incompetence, lies and criminality were exposed; will anyone expose the deceptions of UKIP? Or do people just not care?

Image source: Wikipedia.

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Would Braille have thrived in inclusive education?

4 October, 2014 - 11:30

The other day I had a brief tweet discussion with Liz Ball, campaigns involvement officer with Sense, the British deafblind charity, about whether Braille would have become established as the major means of written communication for blind people had the Victorians embraced inclusive education. That was prompted by an article on the BBC’s Ouch (disability) section on a forgotten group of Victorian educationalists who deplored the trend towards segregated schools for deaf and blind children which often taught particular trades which sometimes enriched the institutions, not the pupils. In the 21st century, the majority of blind children in the UK are taught in mainstream schools and Braille has declined in popularity. I do not think that these two facts mean that Braille would have been forgotten without the segregated schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Image of a thin print volume on top of a large ring binder containing the same book in Braille, with a tape measure diagonally across the bottom-right corner.For one thing, at that time computers did not exist. The technology available now, with computers available on the High Street with inbuilt screen readers (Macs), was not even available at the turn of the current century, let alone in the Victorian era. These days many blind people find that talking computers are easier to use and more convenient than Braille, particularly for large volumes. Liz mentioned that this technology is also more convenient for teachers, not many of whom in mainstream education know Braille, which is still widely taught in special schools; she suggested that the raised print that was favoured in the 19th century (which was originally taught in the school Louis Braille was in) was favoured because it was easier for teachers. Braille’s system was originally opposed by his teachers, although the school adopted it after his death, at the pupils’ insistence.

I am not convinced by this argument. Braille was a pre-Victorian invention, first presented by Louis Braille to his fellow pupils when he was 15, in 1824. The raised-print system he was exposed to was dreadfully inefficient, and could only be read, not written, by a blind user, but it had the prestige of having been invented by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy. Had he not been in that school, and yet received an education at all, he would likely not have been expected to read raised-print books but simply to learn books and facts from memory. However, he may still have learned about the Barbier raised-dot system used in the French military and may still have been inspired to develop his system. Without the environment of a boarding school, he may have had greater liberty to promote his invention, but may have had less time to develop it because of requirements to do house chores; however, his teachers may have been unencumbered by loyalty to someone like Haüy and embraced an invention that allowed blind people to read and write. During both that and the Victorian eras, there were more blind and deafblind people (at least relative to the population at large) because of the prevalence of diseases like measles, smallpox and rubella (although Braille himself was blinded by an accident), so he may still have known enough blind people to find a user base for his system.

Inclusive education can be good or bad, and have good or bad motives, much as with inclusion of disabled people (and mentally ill people) generally. It can be done for the welfare and educational betterment of the children, or it can be done because it costs less than special education, especially if you do little to accommodate the blind (or otherwise impaired) child’s needs. A progressive, inclusive school might pay for one or two of its teachers to learn Braille so as to make sure Braille learning material is available for blind pupils or students, while a badly-run school with a transient staff might provide them with a laptop but provide little support, let alone maintenance. In the Victorian era, it might not have seemed progressive to “integrate” blind children into schools that were not taught by proper teachers, where the methods were Gradgrind-esque, where discipline was harsh and physical and which were located in insanitary, polluted cities; the reason why many institutions for disabled people and the mentally ill were built in the countryside in that era was not to do with segregation but with its health benefits (élite schools were often similarly located). In the case of the better institutions, having a place there was seen as a benefit, not a way of getting rid of an embarrassing or burdensome disabled child; in the case of the inferior ones that taught basket-weaving and other manual crafts, how important were they in teaching and popularising Braille anyway?

I think Braille, or something a lot like it, may still have thrived if the Victorians had embraced inclusive education for positive reasons (as the BBC’s article says was already happening in France and Belgium). The same philanthropists who funded blind schools may well have instead funded Braille Institutes or something similar, to print and distribute texts in Braille and to train teachers and blind adults to use it. Despite raised print having the advantage of being easily readable by a sighted person and thus slightly more convenient for teachers, it is still a lot more limited than Braille; the letters are huge, and the resulting book would be enormous, or spread over several volumes. They would not have been considered in a school with only a handful of blind pupils, or just one. Braille has the clear technical superiority of being easier to produce than raised print, both by the blind writer and the commercial printer; the schoolteacher is only one link in the chain and will not dominate a child’s life forever (and does not teach someone blinded as an adult). Braille and talking computers both serve the purpose of allowing a blind person to both record and read back information; raised print was a one-way means of communication. Faced with the inefficiency and bulk of raised print, I suspect many blind people would have preferred memorisation, and the better-off would have hired scribes. Raised print could not have enjoyed widespread popularity; the need for something like Braille would have been obvious until it was met.

Image source: “Braille book” by Karl-Heinz Wellmann - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Braillebook.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Braillebook.JPG

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Niqab in Camden: where are the Muslim voices?

27 September, 2014 - 17:20

Picture of a white woman wearing a white headscarf and separate face-covering, with an embroidered 'border' under the eyes.The niqab is not just a fashion statement | @guardianletters | World news | The Guardian

These two letters appeared in today’s Guardian in response to an article in yesterday’s edition by Gaby Hinsliff, a former politics editor at the Observer, which argued that people who wear unusual or disapproved-of clothing, including niqaab, should not be denied an education even if banning niqaab could be justified in other contexts. The second letter raises the issue that the veil could make it difficult for deaf fellow students or teachers to interact with this girl; the first is just the standard, uninformed white woman’s opinion about what the niqab ‘represents’:

However, she wilfully ignores what it means to cover schoolgirls’ faces: the face-veil is no more just “a scrap of fabric” than a gag is, it is an iconic manifestation of an ideology which holds that women’s faces are analogous to their genitals as a source of shame which must be hidden from all men other than their husbands.

If it is a fashion choice, it is that of Isis, the Taliban, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, who – along with our Saudi allies – brutally enforce this particular deletion of women from public life. Tolerating misogyny is one thing, but it is depressing that a certain patronising mindset seems to cover its own liberal face so it cannot see and challenge it.

Neither of the names below these letters are Muslim ones. It appears that when it comes to discussing a young Muslim woman’s education, their voices should not be heard. It is the same every time this ‘controversy’ arises, and when there is purportedly a Muslim woman’s opinion offered, it is almost always a secular one, often a “Muslim in name only” (e.g. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown). Experiences of niqab are often by women who “tried it on” for a few weeks and reported that it was a hellish experience, particularly because they experienced more public hostility than they usually do (the connection between this and attempts to ban it, and the erasure of Muslim women’s voices from the discussion, is never made). A few years ago, the Guardian printed interviews ([1], [2]) with a teacher in Loughborough, Rahmanara Chowdhury, who wore niqab (and taught “interpersonal skills, teamwork, personal development” to teenagers), but such opportunities for real Muslim women to speak are rare. A few years ago I published an interview with a young woman I knew who had worn niqab to school in Canada from age 17 (although she has since stopped wearing the niqab); you can find that here. I personally knew a young woman who wore niqab at my sixth form college in the early 1990s; she attended some of the same classes as me and was in my tutor group. Her attire did not cause any trouble or inconvenience to anyone and it did not seem to hinder her from participating in classroom discussions, etc.

The niqab has nothing to do with any ‘ideology’; it has to do with Islam, and forms of it have been found in Muslim societies since the beginning, although the niqab worn today was probably invented more recently (and is a lot more practical than wrapping a large head-wrap around one’s face). Calling something an ‘ideology’, of course, makes it sound less legitimate and more threatening, a practice popularised by the likes of Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz. It does not “hold that women’s faces are analagous to their genitals”; even according to the opinion that holds that women covering their faces in public is mandatory, women can show their faces to other women and to close family members. (Others hold that they can actually show their faces to other men, but not show them in public mixed situations.) Neither men nor women are allowed to show their genitals to anyone except their spouses, or to medical staff when necessary.

The comparison with ISIS etc is also ridiculous. The Taliban, as is well-known, enforced the Afghan burqa, which bears no resemblance to the niqab and which is almost unknown among Muslim women anywhere beyond Afghanistan and neighbouring parts of Pakistan. Boko Haram kidnap girls and kill boys; ISIS murder peaceful people so as to provoke a war. The vast majority of women who wear the niqab in the UK and elsewhere are in no way connected to any of these groups. In fact, not all the jihadist preachers who have been active in the UK have said that niqab is compulsory, while some who opposed al-Qa’ida and related violence have said it is. Women in many countries where niqab is normal go to school and college, work, run businesses, drive and vote (with the obvious exception of Saudi Arabia).

As for the concern for deaf students or teachers in the college, it is not known whether there are any deaf people in her classes and if there are, it is possible that she may agree to take it off if they cannot communicate with her any other way. (The same was the reason why Jack Straw asked a woman to take her niqab off during a constituency surgery, but this detail got lost in the controversy which led to an explosion of hostility against women who wear the niqab; it has since become quite rare outside a couple of ‘safe’ Muslim areas such as Whitechapel. I have not seen one in Kingston for years; it was common among Muslim students when I briefly studied there in the early 2000s.) It is a red herring which has been raised as an excuse, and I have not heard of campaigners for deaf people’s rights, or disability campaigners in general, make any issue of this. If you are not deaf, you can still hear what she is saying — you just have to listen. It is disappointing that a newspaper which is aimed at educated and intelligent people, with a cover price to match, prints ill-informed and prejudiced drivel like this and silences the people affected. Women should not be paying the price for acts of terrorism perpetrated by a minority of male Muslim extremists; the niqab has never been proven to be a factor in any terrorist incident here.

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ITV’s soft focus on learning disability crisis

21 September, 2014 - 09:49

A woman and man sitting on the floor with their baby son, who has Down's syndromeLast Thursday ITV broadcast a 24-minute programme titled Against the Odds, which supposedly revealed “the reality of life for people with learning disabilities in the UK, with many experiencing harassment and violence and just 6.4% in paid work”, as part of its Tonight strand. They interviewed several families, including the parents of a boy with Down’s syndrome who had faced the suggestion that they abort him, a young woman who had participated in equestrian and running events at the Special Olympics, a man who had been the victim of public harassment when trying to live independently a few years ago, another who was bullied at school because of his condition and had been out of work for four years, and a man in his 40s with Down’s syndrome who was preparing to move into a shared house. The format of the documentary did not give enough time to investigate all these issues, but very little attempt was made even within this limited format. The programme just consisted of a procession of happy endings. (It can be viewed in the UK here for the next four weeks or so.)

There were only two stories which featured bullying or hate crime, and even then that aspect was only mentioned briefly, and it was all in the past and not recent. Nothing was said about prosecuting the people responsible, or about prosecutions for disability hate crime generally (and, for example, the fact that the police often fail to investigate the disability connection when disabled people are attacked, when it can result in increased sentences). In the first of those stories, the man returned home to live with his mother after the attacks made his life impossible, but has more recently decided to move to his mother’s home town in Kent, where he’s happy. The second man was bullied at school because of what was described as a “language disorder”, including having his head forced down the toilet. That stopped when they transferred him to a special school. As an adult, he had a good job as a receptionist but quit for reasons that were not fully explained. He was out of work for four years, during which time he became depressed — until Mencap stepped in, and found him work in McDonalds, clearing up tables.

They also interviewed a mother who had an autistic daughter, who after finding that the services available were inadequate, set up her own charity called New Hope, providing “out of school respite care for children with learning disabilities”. They didn’t explain how she got the money to do that; most people do not have the resources. The last family featured was that of a man with Down’s syndrome who had been living with his parents all his life, but his parents were getting old and their health was declining, so a local charity managed to find a house which they could adapt, so that he and three other disabled people, plus a care worker, could move in. They were still refitting the house when the programme was being made, but he and the three other residents were all interviewed briefly and were enthusiastic.

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman wearing a pink and white striped T-shirt, holding pictures of Swansea City footballersThere was no mention of the fact that some families struggle for years to get access to any services for their disabled children or adult children. It doesn’t always happen that there is a local charity on hand that has the resources to buy a house and re-fit it. In some parts of the country, like London, property prices are sky-high and four- or five-bedroom houses are just way out of reach. Some people with learning disabilities do not have strong families that are able to support them for most of their adult lives. Some do not have families who have the money, know-how or connections to set up charities. It did not, of course, even mention that families are having benefits and services cut because of austerity, and it appeared to concentrate on middle-class families as nobody mentioned poverty or long-term financial difficulty. The programme did not even touch on the fact that people with learning disabilities often die because of negligence in the healthcare system, nor on the miserable way that challenging behaviour is dealt with: there is no specialist service for dealing with autistic adults in crisis, and the result is that they end up in psychiatric units, and when they say they cannot deal with them (because they are not autism specialists), they ship them to other special units often hundreds of miles from home, like Claire Dyer (left). People are spending years in some of these places, because of lack of support for them to live at home, or because they are being judged on how they behave while locked up, deprived of family and normal activity.

This documentary was rubbish. I’ve always said that if something is worth investigating, it is worth a good 45 to 60 minutes of TV time, but this programme barely scratched the surface of what it purported to investigate. It went for the feel-good factor, implying that life is generally pretty good for people with learning disabilities although there’s room for improvement. Well, it often isn’t good unless you’re from a fairly wealthy family. There is a crisis, and people are suffering and dying. ITV did not even look.

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The UK is not the USSR, nor an abusive relationship

19 September, 2014 - 21:20

Recently I’ve seen some quite preposterous commentary on the Scottish independence referendum, which is taking place as I type this. I have heard that the turnout for this has been higher than at any recent general election, which shows what happens when voters think voting will make a difference. Social media seems to favour Yes, but a fairly large proportion of the population do not have access to it, or just don’t use it. Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, published an article on his blog, based on a conversation he had with a Polish friend who had changed his mind and decided to vote Yes. The article compared Scotland within the UK to Poland under the Warsaw Pact, and the British media now to Poland’s under communism. It’s a quite ridiculous comparison.

The article reads:

He had supported Solidarnosc as a young man, and he had lived through the overwhelming barrage of state media propaganda against it. All the newspapers, radio and TV had broadcast for month after month that if Poland left the Soviet orbit the economy would be destroyed, trading links would be severed, everybody would lose their pensions and housing, they would be invaded, the currency would collapse. Democracy campaigners were branded as right wing nationalist thugs. The people had no access to a fair hearing on the media, and communities had to organise alternatively through social networks.

A few weeks ago he had suddenly realised that precisely the same thing was happening in Scotland that he had witnessed in Soviet controlled Poland. A monolithic and all-pervading media was pumping out the same propaganda on a permanent basis, and even the arguments they were making were precisely the same arguments the Soviets had made. He had suddenly realised that democracy in the UK was an illusion – the apparatchiks of the main political parties and the entire media, both state and private, in fact belonged to and promoted the same ruling establishment. Only the methodologies were different, and raw power slightly better hidden in the UK than in the old Soviet bloc. But the truth was of hard rich men wielding power, in both cases, and keeping the people down.

This is quite a ridiculous comparison between the state-controlled media of a dictatorship and police state with the merely biased corporate and publicly funded media in a democracy. There are good reasons why a commercial media company should oppose the truncation of the country where they are based; it means their reach is likely to be less and selling copies in the newly separated country may well get harder, for example because new taxes make the papers more expensive. This bias is less justifiable coming from the BBC, which is funded by a licence fee which is compulsory for anyone who has a TV set, but it’s still not comparable to a police state’s controlled media. It reflects the prejudices of the people who run it and work for it. However, the major difference with 1980s Poland is that the Internet was available and there was a free social media in Scotland; the corporate media and BBC could not control what was said over Twitter and Facebook, or over mailing lists, forums or blogs. The groups campaigning for independence, which included a major political party, did not face state persecution or harassment. There was a space in which people could organise without fear.

(The rest of this was written after the result was declared.)

Another bizarre comparison that has done the rounds is between the UK and an abusive relationship. This actually had some truth to it in the 18th century and even more recently, where there was no Scottish parliament and the Tories plundered their oil wealth and tested out unpopular policies (such as the Poll Tax) there first. Some political unions really are abusive relationships, and some even started with a forced marriage. This is why a lot of the federations of the old Eastern Bloc broke down as soon as the opportunity arose. In 21st century Britain, Scotland does not get that bad a deal out of the UK. They have a legislature of their own, so they are cushioned to a certain extent from the depredations of the London political and economic élite. If the UK is an abusive relationship for anyone, it is the poor and disabled and they are all over the country, but in England they do not have their own parliament to protect them.

This is probably why the Yes campaign could not persuade the majority of Scots to support it: because they knew that they got a good deal out of the UK and because the fears stoked by the No campaign, much as they may have been motivated by self-interest, were at least partly justifiable: the country would not be able to immediately join the EU, they would have a weak currency and they would be a small, weak country rather than part of a substantial one. Some may have been swayed by last-minute appeals and promises to transfer more powers or to reform the UK’s constitutional structure, although already many Tories are saying they will oppose any such measures and the Prime Minister has already made a speech about listening to “English voices” that object to Scottish MPs voting on English laws. He is clearly referring to Labour governments using Scottish Labour MPs to vote for their policies in matters that only affect England, but his own government uses Lib Dem MPs from north of the border for the same purpose; Labour have a much greater number of MPs in England than the Lib Dems do in total. There has been some talk of devolving power within England, but the most worrying suggestion is devolving it to cities like London. The problem is that London does not have a democratic assembly, so without a radical reform of London local government, this will mean giving more power to the Mayor.

The biggest danger is that a pretext may be found to simply reverse devolution. This could easily happen if the Tories win the next election with a majority, or in coalition with UKIP: they will find a big hole in the finances, or there will be a financial or sex scandal; there may also be a national security crisis, which may lead senior Tories or UKIPpers to claim that devolution had brought the UK to the brink of collapse, and that Britain needs to be strong and that means united. Power-sharing has never been in the Tories’ DNA; their world is the “corridors of power” in Westminster, and their way of administering ‘troublesome’ parts of the UK was through centrally-appointed quangos, not elected assemblies. The Scots do not have the power to stop this if the Tories are determined, and nor are many English very enthusiastic about devolution in England.

The video shows a young woman having a saltire flag torn from her hands by a man holding a Union flag. This was taken in George Square, Glasgow today.

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There will be FUD

13 September, 2014 - 18:00

A demonstration in favour of a Yes vote in Glasgow, today (13th September 2014); people are filling a street and there are Scottish flags being held in the foregroundIn under a week as of this writing, the Scottish independence referendum will have been held and the votes will either have been counted, or will be in the process. Last Sunday in the Observer, Will Hutton proposed a constitutional settlement to save the union: a wholesale change to the British constitution, giving each of the constituent nations an assembly of its own, including England, the replacement of the House of Lords with a “House of Britain” representing the nations and regions, and greater autonomy for cities and towns. The major parties have already promised to transfer more powers to the Scottish parliament in the event of a No vote, in particular greater control over taxes.

The campaign for a No vote styles itself “Better Together” but its major tactic seems to consist of what the computer industry calls FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt. The fears are mostly about the economy: of major companies moving their headquarters to London, of prices in shops rising, of North Sea oil running out (or sometimes, of a large part of it being claimed by England), of what currency Scotland will use or of it having to join the Euro, of whether it can join the EU immediately, of whether the British armed forces will still get ships built there, even of border controls at Gretna (which, of course, there aren’t on crossings to Ireland; you did not need a passport even during the Troubles). Last week it started to appear that the FUD tactics were not working and that opinion polls showed that support for a Yes vote was increasing (in some cases that the Yes vote was ahead); Prime Minister’s Questions was cancelled so that the leaders of the three major Westminster parties could go up to Scotland and campaign against independence, and promises of more power for Holyrood were made. Nobody was suggesting a comprehensive reform of the British constitution. The last thing any politician down south wants is more power slipping away to the English regions, or having to share power with anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary, or of meaningful regional assemblies in England. Labour and the Tories are used to power being an all-or-nothing affair.

As a British citizen of English and Irish origin, I do not particularly want to see the UK split up, but I do not blame Scots for wanting out, particularly in the present political climate. If I was a Scottish voter the topmost thought in my head would be “no more Tories”. Of course, independence will give the political right a chance to re-emerge in Scotland once it is no longer associated with support for the union (witness Alex Salmond’s fondness for Donald Trump’s developments and golf courses), but they will in the short term be free of the mindless, uncaring vulture capitalism which has been imposed by the present coalition (and even then, the Scots are partly protected from it by devolution). I am more worried about what it will mean for the rest of the UK. Many minority populations in Scotland identify as Scottish, but not many in England identify as English; they use the term to mean white (although in my experience, they can often spot the Irish in someone at ten paces). Much like those with a Soviet national identity in parts of the former USSR after that union broke up (notably Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine), there are a lot of people around the UK who identify as British, and their home country will no longer exist if Scotland leaves (even though the name “Britain” in fact refers to the Celtic ancestors of the Welsh and Cornish). I am less worried about the “perpetual Tory government” scenario; the recriminations over the break-up of the Union may well prevent the party winning the next election, particularly when the party faces competition with UKIP. Nobody seems to have considered the status of Northern Ireland; the loyalty of its mostly Scottish Protestant population is to Britain, not England.

The major reason why nationalism has grown in the past couple of generations has a lot to do with the failure of the British state to adapt to modern times. Britain likes to pride itself on taking the first steps towards the Rule of Law and constitutional government, but it was left behind by other large modern democracies such as the USA, Germany, Spain, Canada and Australia decades ago. We now have a political structure built for a time when most of the population was illiterate and disenfranchised; the political classes resist reform because it would likely mean neither of the big two parties would ever form a single-party government again. We have had decades since the end of the Empire to redress the political balance, but the political classes have formed a vested interest in their own right and resisted at every step of the way. Even the current “five-year Parliament” law was enacted only to stop the coalition being broken up if the Liberal Democrats decided to back out. The signs are that the Tories want to sink us deeper into the past, celebrating the feudal Magna Carta while campaigning to strip away from British citizens the rights that citizens of those countries take for granted by removing us from the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Union. Elsewhere in Europe, physical borders and obstacles to travel have been torn down; the Tories and their press defend ours, despite the unnecessary expense and inconvenience they cause.

I do agree that in the event of a Scottish No vote, the UK will need major constitutional reform, but it should happen regardless of which way the vote goes. It should have happened decades ago, rather than merely being discussed in a panic just as it seemed that Scotland would leave the union in a referendum held as a challenge to Alex Salmond. A hundred days was probably too short to “save the Union”; ten days certainly was. We have no hope now, except to pray that the Scots vote No. But we cannot blame them if they voted Yes. Our sclerotic and antiquated political system and the political classes and press that defend it are to blame for the current crisis.

Image source: @YesVoteScots.

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Ice buckets and cruelty

6 September, 2014 - 10:14

 you waste clean water as a challenge in order to avoid raising money for charity?"I’m sure everyone has heard of the “ice-bucket challenge”, in which someone is filmed having a bucket of freezing water poured over their head in response to donations to a charity, usually one dedicated to Motor Neurone Disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or, in the USA, Lou Gehrig’s Disease after a baseball player from the 1930s who died of it aged 37. Various complaints have been raised about it, including that it’s a waste of water (see image right), that many people aren’t donating at all or don’t really understand what it’s about, and that it’s already leading to bullying incidents or assaults. However, the silliest complaint, in my opinion, is that the major ALS charities fund research that uses experiments on animals.

I’ll be straight about this: I support experiments on animals, especially for developing medicines. The animal rights lobby has a number of facile and often baseless claims, such as that the same medicines have opposite effects on different families of mammals, that you can simulate effects on a particular organ (the kidney, if I remember rightly) by using a potato, and that animal experiments just don’t work. This simply isn’t true; all medications are tried on animals before they are tested on humans, and there are nowhere near enough people to test every medication ever developed on. They can only use healthy, young, male volunteers, and not every young, healthy man would or could volunteer. They can only do it once they are satisfied that the medication will not just kill them. (I have heard it suggested that we should test new medication on murderers and rapists; needless to say, there are not enough of these for this purpose either, and we cannot breed them like we breed rats. In addition, some people imprisoned for such offences are innocent.)

I have seen someone recently express similar sentiments about a particular drug being trialled for the treatment of ME. I have my own doubts about this treatment which is why I haven’t contributed to it, but the idea that laboratory rats or guinea pigs might suffer is not among them. The life-span of these animals, if allowed to run its course, is barely five years (less so for rats); there are people who have been suffering from severe ME for twenty years and counting, spending most of it lying in dark, quiet rooms in pain. ALS does not feature the extreme pain and isolation of severe ME but it is a killer, and it causes progressive muscle weakening and paralysis in the years leading up to death (usually from respiratory failure); people can spend years unable to walk, look after themselves, speak or swallow. True, technology and good care can enable the sufferer to communicate and perform some functions, but they will still be increasingly dependent and will still die.

There is a strong reason not to encourage this particular charity stunt, and it’s connected to human suffering: pouring water over someone is assault, and while obviously the challenge is meant to be voluntary, it has already been done to people without consent, as bullying or hate crime. In Liverpool, a group of thugs poured a bucket of water over the head of a homeless man in a wheelchair, who then had to sleep in the open in his wet clothes. (More recently, people have had fluids other than water poured over them as a ‘prank’.) When a trend gets to this point, it should be understood that the good humour has run its course and people should find other ways of raising money for this particular cause.

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Claire Dyer and the LB Bill

11 August, 2014 - 19:47

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman with shoulder-length hair, looking through a closed window at her dog, Jonjo, who is being held up to the window by a person in a black raincoat.On Friday 1st August, Claire Dyer’s family lost their legal bid to stop her being transferred from an assessment and treatment unit in Swansea, where her family live, to a medium-secure unit near Brighton, some 230 miles from her home. Claire was transported within an hour of the decision being made, without any of her family being given the chance to say goodbye. A number of charities have spoken out over this dreadful decision, including Mencap, after Claire’s supporters contacted them en masse through Twitter in the days before her transfer. Hamish Laing, medical director of the local health board, promised a number of people who alerted him on Twitter that he would “speak with MH team to get more info”, but it didn’t have the desired effect, if he said anything (although she is still under the board’s care, even though she is a long way out of area).

The disadvantages of the move to everyone except the staff at her old unit (and the American-owned company that runs the unit where she is now) are obvious: it’s more than 200 miles from home, a five-hour car journey (one of the family gets car-sick, by the way), which makes it not only a lot more difficult to visit her but also to attend care team meetings and to communicate with the staff, all of which could be done easily while she was in Swansea. That she does not need to be in secure conditions is borne out by the fact that she was allowed out almost every day during the entire period she was sectioned (since last September), including after the supposed need for a secure unit was determined, except for about three days in the last month, including spending almost every weekend at home. There is plenty of photographic evidence of this, and if the unit could be bothered to contact the management of the various public places Claire has been, they could easily verify it. The health board’s solicitor said that they believed that the family had been under-reporting incidents (while they, of course, had been meticulously logging all of them), but they were not, it seems, called on to provide evidence, and the fact that the places Claire goes have allowed her back time and again, including various public sports facilities, demonstrates that there have not been that many outside the unit.

In addition, there is concern about the types of other patients Claire is being exposed to at this unit. I searched for the name of the unit and three separate stories appeared; two of them were about suicides of women who were referred there for serious crimes, and another of a woman who died of a heart attack and an ambulance was not called for 25 minutes after she was found unresponsive. That woman, who was sectioned after being admitted voluntarily, had recently complained that family visits were being made difficult (and she only lived in south London). The unit’s main patient focus is identified on their website as mental illness and personality disorder, and the website mentions “mild learning disability” and not autism at all. Claire is, in other words, being housed in a unit known to be unsuited to her needs among women with severe mental health problems and a history of serious violence who are mostly of normal intelligence, which puts her in considerable danger, when she could be out in the community if the authorities were willing to provide the necessary support. It also appears that the staff do not understand either her autism or her communication difficulties; she cannot attend meetings without having someone to explain what is going on in simple language (which her parents previously did), which has not been provided.

Picture of Connor Sparrowhawk, a young white man wearing a blue shirt and denim shorts, squatting on dry muddy ground in front of a wire fence, behind which is a green fieldThere has been a movement to introduce an “LB Bill”, named after Connor Sparrowhawk who died in an ATU in Oxford last July as a result of negligence. Of course, poor care and neglect happens in a variety of different types of homes and hospitals, and a report by Mencap in 2007, Death by Indifference, found that people with learning disabilities were more likely to die preventable deaths and that they were not receiving equal healthcare. Unlawful or abusive long-term deprivation liberty is a different issue facing people with learning disabilities, and their families, as they try to access care and suitable accommodation. The main thrust of the “LB Bill” would be to enshrine in English law the right to independent living which is part of article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Although the UK has ratified this treaty, it does not become enforceable without an Act of Parliament.

The problem is that merely legislating a “right” does not mean that this right will be honoured; there are numerous countries which have constitutions that supposedly enshrine rights, but these rights can often be overridden, especially when the political class and most of society believes it should be (usually during times of war or other crisis). In this case, a right on its own could easily fail to be delivered because of lack of money, lack of suitable alternatives to needing to “balance their rights with others’ rights”, or because other legislation prevents it. And an important piece of such legislation that is being used to deprive people with learning disabilities of their liberty is the Mental Health Act, under which Claire is being held and which is what facilitated her transfer. Mental health hospitals are often unnecessarily restrictive environments; they often restrict family visits and ban under-18s from visiting altogether, even on adolescent units; they confiscate personal possessions on “safety” grounds without reference to whether they pose a risk to that individual’s safety; they bar access to the Internet, often for no good reason (a common excuse is that the cameras could be used to violate other patients’ confidentiality, but if only used in patients’ rooms, this problem can easily be avoided). Patients who are newly transferred are often put on the most restrictive level of security on arrival, regardless of what ‘privileges’ they enjoyed before (and regardless of the reason for their transfer). In Claire’s case, she has not been allowed out of doors since moving on 1st August. This could have been avoided if the responsible clinician had not been on holiday, but why are patients allowed to be transferred at such times, other than in emergencies?

Others have covered such issues as reforms that need making to the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards, especially in the light of recent court rulings that have resulted in a dramatic rise in applications for Deprivation of Liberty authorisations under the Mental Capacity Act (although there, more money to handle the volume of cases is needed as well). Besides the relevant section of the CRPD, the right to family life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights should be emphasised in protecting the rights of people like Claire, and Steven Neary (who was threatened with similar machinations under the Mental Health Act to transfer him to Wales, of all places) before her. However, the Mental Health Act is widely being used to side-step the safeguards and abusively detain people with learning disabilities, particularly autism, for the convenience of staff rather than their own best interests. Among the reforms which must be implemented are:

  • It should be less easy to detain a person with a learning disability under section 3, and there should be a distinct mental illness rather than the effects of their disability (in cases of their causing severe injury to someone, court orders should be available to allow them to be held securely).
  • Sectionings should be subject to review, so as to make sure there is a genuine reason and not a mere pretext (e.g. “s/he behaves better when on the section than when off it”).
  • There should be a requirement to distinguish between behaviour in a unit setting (where there are often particular stresses, such as a hospital environment, chemical smells, unfamiliar rules, other autistic patients, obstructive staff behaviour etc) and their behaviour when out in the community or with their family.
  • Their best interests should be paramount in any transfer decision, not those of the staff unless they pose a dire threat which cannot be handled by increasing staff.
  • MHA Tribunals should be convened promptly, should not be subject to undue delays and should not lapse if a section lapses and is renewed.
  • Patients’ security status should be passed on when they are moved to new wards or units, and maintained.
  • Patients should not be transferred when the responsible clinician at their new units are away, except in an emergency.
  • People with learning disabilities should not be accommodated alongside those without, especially where staff are not specialists in (their) learning disability.

I have been following the updates in Claire’s situation and it is appalling. Her treatment is simply cruel; she has not been allowed out of doors in all the time she has been there; she has been allowed to see her family only in a visitors’ room and only with staff present; she has been told off for crying in front of unit management; she has not been provided with the means to communicate with her sister, who is deaf. She should, however, simply not be in a secure unit, let alone one hundreds of miles from home. She should not be in a mental health environment, or in any kind of detention, at all. She should be home with her family, or in a suitable residential care placement nearby. The law needs reforming so that such abuses cannot keep happening to vulnerable people.

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Claire Dyer: Transfer postponed!

29 July, 2014 - 14:45

Selection of pictures of Claire and family at the Race for Life in Swansea last Sunday; participants are all in pink, as is usual

Update 14:55: There is to be a court hearing this Friday; Claire will not be moved before then.

Yesterday Catherine Dyer, mother of Claire who I have been writing about for some time, told us that her daughter was to be transferred to a medium-secure hospital unit near Brighton tomorrow (Wednesday). Claire is autistic and displays challenging behaviour (ie., self-injury, hitting others and property), particularly in stressful situations, as is fairly common with autism. However, the family say they have only experienced a few such incidents over the last few years, mainly because they keep her occupied, which the assessment and treatment unit she is currently in does not. Claire has been out or home with her family on most days since being sectioned last September, which is otherwise unheard-of for someone held under Section 3. This will not continue when she is transferred, and visits will be much less frequent as it’s a five-hour journey.

What is even more worrying is that her destination is a mental health facility, not one that specialises in learning disabilities. There are two medium secure units in Sussex; one is The Dene, outside Burgess Hill, which caters for women only, including those referred by the courts because of offending behaviour, including homicide. The other is Hellingly, near Hailsham (much closer to Eastbourne than Brighton), run by the NHS Sussex Partnership, a mixed unit which also houses male sex offenders. The family have not revealed which unit she is being sent to, but unless there’s one being kept a huge secret, it must be one of these two.

That the so-called responsible clinician at Swansea is willing to send a vulnerable woman hundreds of miles away to such a wholly unsuitable place suggests that he wants to get rid of her by any means necessary and cares nothing about her best interests. Mark Neary has suggested that there may be a financial motive (if she remains out of area long enough, the local health trust in Sussex picks up the bill, not the health board in Swansea); I suspect that also, the target of getting long stayers out of ATUs can be more easily be met by moving the more difficult cases to secure units rather than discharging them home or finding care home or bespoke housing placements for them (you might recall that previously, Claire was offered such an arrangement, but would have to wait for it to be built).

Claire’s supporters have been contacting various charities to see if people can use their influence to get this move stopped. The Sussex Partnership responded to my tweet (and several others’) by posting a link to their help page; if you’re familiar with Claire’s case (and only then), you might like to contact them or the email contact on The Dene’s website to try and get them to see sense. One thing is certain is that Claire does not fit the profile of person that these units take, something they may quickly find out if she is moved there. She’s an autistic person who needs moderate supervision and stimulation, not months or years in a lock-up. As for this psychiatrist at Swansea, he should be facing a fitness-to-practise hearing because of this – his conduct has been damnable.

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‘Retirement flats’ to free up family homes

25 July, 2014 - 13:22

Picture of Vanessa Feltz, a white woman with long blonde hair wearing a thick white coat of some sortDemos: build retirement properties to free up 3 million family homes

I was going to be writing a piece this morning about how unworkable it would be to ‘encourage’ the over-55s to move out of their family homes in London into retirement flats on the coast, as was being discussed on the Vanessa Feltz show on BBC London yesterday morning. I listened to the first hour and a bit of the show as I drove out of London on my run up to Rotherham; I go out of range around Luton and switch to Radio 4 then anyway. The prompt for that was a Demos report which she said claimed that the think-tank were proposing encouraging older people living in family homes in the suburbs to move out so that young families could move in. However, I took a look at the press release this morning, and it really says no such thing.

The report was titled The Top of the Ladder and was actually published last September (you can download it free). It claimed that older home-owners wishing to down-size were sitting on £400bn of housing wealth and that “helping them move would free up 3.29 million properties, including 2 million three-bedroom homes”. They also claimed that their poll showed that 76% of over-60s in three-, four- or five-bedroom houses who wanted to move, wanted to move to somewhere smaller. It also criticised the government’s policy of favouring bungalows for retirees:

The report goes on to argue that the Government’s recent focus on housing for older people is a welcome step in the right direction, but the focus on bungalows as a solution to the housing crisis, put forward by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, is unsustainable and does not go far enough to ‘grasp the nettle’.

Demos finds older people want to be centrally located near shops and transport. However, bungalows can’t be built in town centres in the quantity needed to prevent the looming crisis of an ageing population.

Instead what is urgently required is more retirement housing, particularly to cater for the specific needs of Britain’s fastest-increasing demographic bubble of over-85s, who often need on-hand care and are inadequately catered for by bungalows.

Often misunderstood, retirement housing is defined as accommodation where older people have their own dwellings and front door, but share communal areas such as lounges and restaurants, with facilities and staff on hand to provide round-the-clock support.

So, the report was not about encouraging them all to move out of London down to the coast, even though they paid for those houses themselves. That would be a bad idea, for a number of reasons: many of their houses are still a focal point for their family activities even when their adult children no longer live at home (although they often do, because much London housing is too expensive for people on low incomes), and where they look after the grandchildren and so on. In addition, even though many of them are quite healthy at 60, the same is unlikely to still be true when they are 80 and need the support of their family. Until last year, my parents were fulfilling this role for my grandparents, as we were the only part of the family remaining in London. Many of these younger retirees are in fact carers and are not living lives of carefree leisure. And many country and coastal towns in the south also have a housing crisis; younger people and key workers cannot find a place to live because the houses are being bought by wealthy retirees, who often do not want to live in a retirement flat or ‘village’; they want to live in a house, where they can entertain family or have them to stay.

I do not know where Feltz got the impression that this was news, except for maybe this article by Peter Girling, chairman of Girlings Retirement Rentals, published last Tuesday which made reference to the September 2013 report. That report made no mention of ‘encouraging’ older home-owners to move out either. Feltz seized the opportunity to stir up a heated debate and some of the calls were impassioned and made quite valid points, like the lady who said that removing older people removes wisdom, and also that some older people like to remain in the city because they “like a bit of life”, as her mother did, but it was all based on a false premise. There is a lot of mileage to be made in blaming one group or another for the housing shortage or the cost-of-living crisis and more still in defending older people who’ve worked hard and paid taxes all their lives (and the foreign oligarchs and kleptocrats who splash other people’s money around London, like the recently deposed president of Ukraine, are not going to be in the firing line any time soon), but surely someone in Feltz’s team could have looked at the date on the report or the footnotes to the press release (which mentions the date)?

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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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