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What kind of country are we?

31 March, 2014 - 21:49

Last week the campaign to stop a 19-year-old A-level student from Mauritius, Yashika Bageerathi, from being deported reached a climax. Yashika and her family (her parents and two younger siblings) came to the UK and claimed asylum on the grounds that their lives were threatened by an abusive relative back home, but as Yashika has become an adult, her case is being considered separately from theirs, although their claims have all been turned down. Yashika was detained when her family reported to the Home Office on 19th March, as asylum seekers are required to do on a regular basis, and was expected to be deported last Tuesday, but it appears that British Airways refused to take her. Today, another deportation date (again, alone) was abandoned, for reasons unknown (perhaps because there is a court action to prevent her deportation, perhaps because Air Mauritius also refused to carry her). The campaign has strong local support, including the support of the headteacher from her school in Enfield, and a petition in her support has gained, as of this writing, 166,330 supporters.

Regardless of the merits of the Bageerathis’ asylum claim, it immediately struck me as simply vindictive and mean-minded to deport anyone just a few months before they are due to take exams that could give them a huge advantage in their lives, whether they spend it here, in Mauritius or anywhere else. She had conditional offers from several universities, which she might have been able to take up as an overseas student, or which could have enabled her to access higher education in Mauritius. True, education is at public expense, but she has already been in British schools for two years, so sending her home with nothing to show for it would simply mean money wasted; in any case, her local community who actually know her do not seem to mind paying for it.

As this and many previous cases where families were threatened with deportation, many British people are willing to campaign to make sure that their friends aren’t thrown out of the country once they have settled here, when their children have been in school for a couple of years and put down roots (the Kachepa case a few years ago is another example), yet, millions of us read newspapers every day which promote this kind of spiteful, mean-spirited attitude towards poor immigrants (and only poor ones) as well as a culture of disbelief and a notion that they only come here to avail themselves of the benefits system, rather than to work. This is why governments of both parties engage in gratuitous shows of toughness against foreigners, and Labour are particularly vulnerable as the corporate press are hostile to them anyway. The practice of deporting “foreign criminals”, regardless of whether their offence is particularly serious and regardless of the strength of their family ties, is an American import; a law was passed under Clinton that made all offenders without American citizenship liable for deportation after a media campaign, and this has led to people with American spouses and children, whose offences were years ago, being thrown out, along with people born abroad but who were brought to the USA as children. The expulsion of some of these people has led to an explosion in crime in some of their countries of origin.

The mainstream of the Labour party ever since Blair was elected is characterised by cowardice; they regard any Labour government as guests in a house that is owned by the Conservatives. They will not tackle the problem of press ownership which is absolutely vital to ensuring the viability of any progressive government in this country. Running a newspaper is an expensive operation, requiring large premises, machinery, the power to run it, vehicles to deliver the papers and fuel to run them, people to research and write the stories and people to print and distribute it, and so on. It follows that most newspapers will be owned by rich people, and rich people are inclined to have conservative views on matters fiscal because the same proportion of our income that the rest of us pay is a lot more money for them than it is for us, even if they have a lot more left. However, these same rich people have worked out that they can sell more copies by appealing to people’s base instincts: fear and suspicion of others, envy and resentment of success (hence the reams of stories tearing down famous people over real or invented peccadillos), stinginess and selfishness with money, and uncomplicated notions of justice which easily admit revenge. These appeals distract people from what rich people are doing by encouraging them to concentrate on people below them, or similar to them. The rich do not want us to question the fact that wealthy foreigners, who face little restriction on migrating to and operating in the UK, are buying up small houses in mediocre London locations for the prices of mansions, making prices unaffordable for ordinary people. They prefer that we hate poor immigrants instead, who may compete with us for jobs and housing but cause nothing like the kind of disruptive inflation that has been caused by London becoming a playground for the super-rich.

The same notions are clearly behind the new rules that the government has imposed on prisoners, which famously include not being able to receive books from their families, but they also include a ban on parcels from families containing such things as home-made cards and underwear. The latter is particularly important to women as they do not get prison-issue underwear, and underwear stained during a particularly heavy period or two will need replacing. In a letter to the (female) poet laureate who had protested against the ban on receiving books (I am not sure if she mentioned underwear), Grayling (the justice secretary) claimed that allowing prisoners to receive regular parcels would “put in jeopardy the efforts of prison staff to keep drugs and other illicit materials out of prisons”; however, the Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform said that prisoners had indeed been able to receive such items in many prisons until last November and this had worked perfectly well until then. The reason given at the time was that their “IEP [Incentives and Earned Privileges] scheme is not undermined”.

The same mentality of petty cruelty, vindictiveness, class hatred and resentment is behind so much of the present government’s “reforms”, from the entire welfare reform programme to the cuts to Legal Aid, which leave poor people to litigate in person when they do not have the knowledge or the skills to do so, and end up losing their children to their spouse who can afford a lawyer, even if he is abusive. But it also manifests in individual decisions, such as their insistence on sending Trenton Oldfield, who disrupted the Boat Race in 2012, back to Australia despite his having a British wife and child and having lived in the UK since 2001 — an entirely vindictive, disproportional response to an offence that hurt nobody and was committed as a protest. The same tendencies were seen in the actions of John Major’s government in the mid-1990s, deporting two members of the Onibiyo family from Nigeria who had been here for years and were declared opponents of their country’s military government (including their teenaged son who had grown up in the UK, although he was born in Nigeria) and harping on “austerity” in the prison system.

Picture of Yashika Bageerathi, a young South Asian woman, holding a certificate and a stack of books with red ribbons round themThe fact that hundreds of thousands of people will sign a petition to try to save Yashika Bagheerathi from being deported at such a ridiculous time shows that most of us are not the moronic brutes that this government makes us out to be. The fact that the government does not openly display this kind of spiteful behaviour just before an election, that they can get elected on the promise of a National Care Service and talk of compassionate conservatism (even though they have no intention of delivering any of these things) also shows that displays of petty cruelty are not a vote-winner. Britain has to decide what kind of country it is; every story like this makes it more likely that Scotland will vote to leave the UK, such that the Tories will never rule over them again with their cynicism, class hatred and petty spite. I fear that we will never see progressive government in this country as long as the Tory press remains influential even when their party is out of office, but we should know Tory spite and Labour cowardice by their names and identify them. A country that would send a young woman back to a country she has not been to for years just before important exams that would give her a chance to make something of her life is a mean, small-minded, spiteful country. Is that the kind of country this is?

Muslim “has job” shock

25 March, 2014 - 21:15

Harry’s Place, a malicious website which is devoted to exposing Muslims as extremists wherever they appear to have influence, today exposed the fact that a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir works as … a psychiatrist. Someone going by the name “Sparkbrook Citizen” writes:

Imagine if you or your loved ones were suffering from depression, anxiety or another mental health related issue and, after seeking professional help, you were to be assessed and cared for by a healthcare professional. After being given advice and care by this individual imagine you learnt that they were a member of a far-right extremist group that hates your ethnic group, despises your values and actively works to destroy the foundations of the society you and your loved ones live in. This individual, outside of work hours, actively promotes hatred, sexism, homophobia and discrimination whilst supporting appalling human rights abuses against people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The person in question is Dr Imran Waheed, “a leading member and national former spokesperson for the clerical fascist group Hizb ut Tahrir (HT), which is openly sexist, homophobic, and anti-semitic and supports the violent overthrow of democratically elected governments with view to supplanting them with theocratic dictatorships”, who is a consultant psychiatrist in NHS and private practice in Birmingham, who according to his professional site “has a special interest in the assessment and treatment of depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobia, sexual dysfunction and psychosis” and can deliver “expert care” in several south Asian languages, which is important if you are working in a city with a large Asian population.

The fact is that when I go the doctor I don’t ask questions about his views on subjects other than medicine. His views on that could be far more problematic than what he thinks of the New World Order, the political situation anywhere, the moral status of homosexuality or anything not directly related to me or my condition. Both the GPs I saw when living in Croydon until 2011 were Hindus, and I never thought to ask their opinions regarding the Ayodhya incident or the rise of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim violence in India, or whether they were members of the VHP or BJP, and Harry’s Place does not seem to bother itself exposing Hindu fanatics in the NHS or any other health service. Doctors have all range of political views and do all kinds of activities outside their work, and it is part of being a professional that you do not let these things On the other hand, if doctors have hard-set opinions about certain conditions (particularly not believing they do not exist despite a large body of medical opinion and physical evidence) or have pet theories that they are unwilling to go against, that could seriously affect how they treat a patient.

If only doctors with approved ‘moderate’ political or religious views were ever allowed to hold positions where they had responsibilities towards others and, possibly, the power to make decisions for them and about them, there would not be a very large pool from which to draw such professionals — doctors (especially psychiatrists), social workers, teachers. This anonymous individual has offered no proof that Imran Waheed has ever behaved improperly in his professional life. There would surely be a record of any complaints or disciplinary proceedings against him if he had. Without it, it’s nothing more than innuendo, and a cowardly attempt at a witch hunt to drive an ideologically unsound person from a position of responsibility.

Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry: Will they tackle learning disability abuse?

23 March, 2014 - 22:12

Picture of James DaviesThis morning, I saw on the Facebook group for Invest in ME a link to an article on the Mad in America website announcing the launch of the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry (CEP), which is to take place at the Houses of Parliament (they don’t say which house; perhaps that will be supplied to people who attend) on 30th April. Their website seems to concentrate largely on the use of drugs in psychiatry, and includes a number of stories of people’s recovery from dependency on benzodiazepines (benzos), antidepressants and other psychiatric medications. The CEP was founded by James Davies, PhD, a psychotherapist and lecturer in social anthropology and psychotherapy at Roehampton, and the author of Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good. The launch is to feature Dr Joanna Moncrieff, a UCL psychiatrist, and Prof Peter Gotzsche of the Cochrane Collaboration, which analyses the results of drug trials. (The organisation is on Facebook and Twitter.)

That the link was on the Invest in ME page is natural, because people with ME have suffered years of interference in their treatment, and in public perception of their condition, by the psychiatric profession, and this has resulted in horrific abuses over the years, including sufferers being held in noisy wards, being made to do exercises at a time when their condition dictates rest, and being treated only for symptoms that are misunderstood (e.g. not eating because of nausea interpreted as anorexia) rather than the condition itself. However, there is a less obvious aspect of psychiatry that they may wish to take an interest in, which is its involvement in the treatment of people with learning disabilities, particularly when in crisis. The law gives them considerable power to intefere in the affected people’s lives, including to transfer them away from home (or from near home), and to prescribe the same medications that are used on people who are mentally ill, which often have dreadful side effects. The units, known as assessment and treatment units (ATUs), are meant to provide short-term treatment in a crisis, but they often end up holding people for months or even years, and the results are sometimes lamentable, even tragic.

Last night I watched a video in which Mark Neary, whose son Steven is autistic and currently lives at home with him in west London, explained what happened when he put his son into a local respite home in 2009, for what was meant to be a few days while he was ill with flu. After just a couple of days, Steven was transferred to a so-called positive behaviour unit after the respite centre staff claimed that they could not cope with Steven’s behaviour (as his routine had been disrupted by being placed in the unit without notice, his distress showed in challenging behaviour). The social worker and management immediately formed the impression that if his behaviour was “this bad” in the unit, it could not possibly be safe to return him home. They appeared to implement a “transition home” plan while secretly looking for residential care, eventually settling on a hospital in Wales that Steven would have to be sectioned to be sent to. However, just in time, Mark found a solicitor who challenged the orders the council had been using to keep Steven in the home, and he was released home just before they could transfer him.

In short, they would have had to find a pretext to impose a section on him (a section is the relevant part of the Mental Health Act that allows the detention of a mentally ill person who requires treatment). This is not the only time this trick has been used. Last September an ATU in south Wales imposed a section on a young autistic woman, Claire Dyer, who had attempted to run away a number of times and was sometimes violent, although was calmer when her parents and family were around, and was allowed out with them regularly. A month or so later, the team at the ATU conveniently decided she needed to be transferred to a secure hospital unit in Northampton, some 185 miles away, which would separate her from her family and friends whose contact obviously made a positive difference to her state of mind and behaviour. The family have fought the decision, but a tribunal is not due to meet again until May, and the team has refused to rule out the transfer to Northampton (where there are currently no beds and an interview was thwarted by her and her family’s lack of co-operation), something which has caused the young woman a lot of stress for which they at one point prescribed diazepam rather than simply abandoning the idea.

There are laws in this country which allow residential units to manage challenging behaviour and prevent escape attempts by people with learning disabilities or dementia when they would, for example, get themselves lost or run into the road or do something else dangerous, in particular the Mental Capacity Act. The Mental Health Act is meant for ensuring that mentally ill people get treatment when their illnesses mean they would resist, or cause them to behave dangerously.

NHS England has given a commitment to get long-stay residents out of ATUs by June this year, but only a small number have currently got an exit date of before June. The units are commonly used when there is a crisis in a learning disabled person’s life rather than the onset of mental illness as such; it is often precipitated by the end of school life and a transition to an uncertain adult life and the departure of most of their friends. An example was Connor Sparrowhawk, an 18-year-old who was autistic and had epilepsy, who was admitted to such a unit in Oxford in March 2013 after a crisis that was exacerbated by lack of support from local health and social services. It was intended that he remain there only as long as it would take to get home support in place, and the senior staff at the unit believed that he was not mentally ill and should be discharged. However, he drowned in the unit’s bath in July; he had been left alone, observed only at 15-minute intervals despite the staff knowing he had epilepsy. This, of course, is not because it was a psychiatric unit but because it was negligently run, as demonstrated by a subsequent Care Quality Commission inspection report and by the independent investigation into Connor’s death, but that an NHS trust can let that unit and its neighbouring unit get into that state does show that there is a lack of aspiration for people with learning disabilities in this country, and a low expectation of what kind of care can or should be provided for them.

It is to be welcomed that someone is publicly challenging the science behind psychiatry and exposing the harms caused by some common psychiatric drugs. All this is happening to people with learning disabilities as well, and for some there is no accommodation available other than one of these psychiatric units. I hope that his organisation will join in the fight to free both people with diseases like ME, as well as people with autism and other learning disabilities, from the tyranny of psychiatry, from sedatives which cause debilitating side effects, from laws which enable to clinicians to rearrange lives for dubious benefit at the stroke of a pen. They should, at most, be on tap rather than on top in the care of people with learning disabilities. Will Dr Davies join us in fighting this abuse against some of society’s most vulnerable?

Start of 107 days for LB

19 March, 2014 - 17:52

Black and white picture of Connor Sparrowhawk, a young white man with dark, tousled hair with a T-shirt with four cartoon figures on it. He has a wide smile on his face.This is the anniversary of Connor Sparrowhawk going into the Slade House learning disability unit in Oxford, where he died 107 days later, in the bath, as a result of staff negligence. His supporters have organised a 107-day campaign of action for him, and Mark Neary has started a blog of 107 days of stories about his own son, Steven, when he was being held in a residential unit in 2010. I don’t have the time to blog every day for 107 days on this or any other subject, but I am going to offer a few thoughts here, in light of this and of recent media appearances by Sara Ryan (his mother) and the NHS trust involved, Southern Health. (I’ve written two entries about this subject recently. here and here.)

As long-time readers will know, I was in a special school as a teenager, because of behavioural problems (probably stemming from acute thyroid deficiency in infancy) since diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome. Because the school dealt with boys with a variety of behavioural problems (basically, anyone deemed academically able but who normal schools declined to accept), and because the school hired completely unsuitable staff (because of a culture that really the boys did not need specialist care but simply a “bit of discipline”), the school was at times a hotbed of abuse (some of it from the staff) and was a particularly hostile and frightening environment for smaller boys. Kesgrave Hall, along with many other places like it, is now closed, in large part because such schools went out of fashion (the early 90s recession helped, though) along with the large-scale use of boarding for children with just about any disability. However, the lack of support means that many older children and young adults with more severe forms of autism and other learning disabilities end up in unsuitable residential care for years.

Schools like Kesgrave were expensive, despite the miserable care (and often mediocre education) they provided; the crisis care that seems to be the only show in town for some people with severe learning disabilities today is too. In the case of Steven Neary, according to his father, “the judge remarked about the lack of assessment when Steven was first taken there and there didn’t appear to be any treatment taking place. The unit appeared to me to be a holding container. And a very expensive holding container at that”. In the case of Claire Dyer, who I reported on in January, it is only recently that the staff have worked out that they need to engage her in suitable activities to make sure she remains calm, although she remains under section and her family still provide most of her activities. The family are hoping to find a suitable long-term residential care placement for her.

I have long believed that the reason our mental health and disability health care is so poor in this country is not only because of prejudice but because of our attitude to money. The drive from mass institutional care to home-based or community-based care was driven as much by a desire to save money as by a wave of progressive thinking. The fact that property values were creeping up also gave an impetus to close large institutions, because these grand buildings with spacious grounds were perfect for converting into luxury flats, especially in the south of England (the same impetus that drives the sale of buildings used for disability services, and even fire stations, today). Now, the government is cutting into the money that was set aside so that people who would formerly have been institutionalised can live in their homes, or with their families, with a degree of independence, but learning disability and mental health care have faced particular cuts because they are not seen as “critical” and has no glamour. The popular press gets agitated over mental health when it’s about the likes of Christopher Clunis stabbing someone; providing clean and safe care for people with chronic mental health problems when they have a flare-up is not such a priority. Day activities for people with learning disabilities are seen as a luxury that can be sacrificed in “hard times”, and again, those buildings will sell for six- or seven-figure sums.

We must get over this obsession with penny-pinching, this fixation with the price of things rather than their value. If we want a civilised country rather than one where it’s every man for himself (and every woman and child too, although they’ll tend to come off worse), we have to pay, much as is the case if we want our bins emptied, our streets cleaned and our roads repaired. It’s no use being outraged every time someone dies of neglect in an NHS unit or is killed by their stressed-out sole carer: the support has to be there, and we need to do research so as to make it more effective, and that will cost money too. This attitude did not start with the coalition’s austerity measures; it was already in place under New Labour, which repeatedly pandered to the corporate press and tried to impress people that it was not a “tax and spend” party. Austerity fed off attitudes that were already there. And it is depressing that Labour have pledged commitment to maintain austerity and not to reverse the Tories’ welfare cuts despite there never having been a popular mandate for them. If we want an end to neglected pockets of bad care in the NHS, we have to pay.

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman wearing a black and red striped jumper with headphones on (to cancel out noise). She has purple Pizza Hut balloons above her head and the strings are in front of her.Also this past week, there has been a review of the Deprivation of Liberty safeguards used to protect people with learning disabilities from being deprived of their right to liberty, as well as an important Supreme Court ruling that three people (two in Surrey, one in Cheshire) held with different degrees of security were subject to deprivation of liberty and their conditions were subject to the 2005 Mental Capacity Act and “living arrangements subjected to regular independent checks”, according to the Daily Telegraph’s report. One of the major problems with the implementation of the current safeguards is that people are often held against their or their former carers’ will (or both) and prevented from leaving, but with no legal deprivation of liberty authorisation, and have no access to an advocate because they have to be appointed by the same council that is holding them (see Mark Neary’s blog for more on this issue). The use of the Mental Health Act to control the challenging behaviour of those with learning disabilities should also be reviewed, as it gives clinicians too much power, including the power to transfer someone against their will, as was feared would happen to Claire Dyer. It also allows them to forcibly medicate, when the behaviour in question could also be managed or ameliorated by changing the disabled person’s situation, or removing threats to their living conditions (like possible involuntary transfers). These drugs have severe side effects, including weight gain, which besides its medical complications, may lead to someone’s challenging behaviour being seen as more challenging, and meriting a more brutal response, particularly in a male and/or black service user. An entirely new framework for managing such situations should be introduced.

Reading today’s media coverage (see the Guardian piece here and an associated blog here), it is heartening to see that the trust, Southern Health, have finally suspended three members of staff over Connor’s death. Katrina Percy, the CEO of Southern Health, has otherwise responded with her characteristic spin and PR clichés. In her interview with Saba Salman, she said that “what we need is a culture where people are able to be open when things don’t go as well as they possibly could”; the lack of openness became apparent after someone died, while as pointed out in the discussions of this on Twitter, this phrase is typically used to mean someone being late or not quite properly dressed for the job. Percy also invited the family to meet her “so they actually see what [she’s] like as an individual and as a chief executive”. Really … what she’s like as a person is irrelevant. You get child abusers and war criminals who appear quite personable when not abusing children or wielding a machete or machine gun. It is quite clear that she is more interested in justifying her position and protecting the organisation than in facing up to the catastrophic failings that have happened under her.

When will Google fix the Chrome wi-fi bug?

18 March, 2014 - 16:55

I’ve been using Linux on the desktop (and laptop) since about 2003, and I’ve seen it progress from being something that didn’t work with most of the hardware I had access to (including the modem on my first laptop) to something that works without incident with most of what I use (although wi-fi is the most likely to be a problem, still). When I first used it, font rendering was its biggest drawback; these days, it has the best of any major operating system including Mac OS X (on which text looks dreadful on non-Apple monitors, including mine). Recently, a bug has appeared in Chrome, which will soon become the only show in town as far as general-purpose Linux web browsers are concerned (when Adobe stops supporting Flash on Linux except through Chrome) which makes it unusable on wi-fi: that it just stops loading anything.

This has been an intermittent problem on Linux for several months: use Chrome on Linux over a wi-fi connection and after a while it will refuse to load any page (despite appearing to try and load it for a minute or so), and tell you it cannot find it or that you are offline. Other network apps, like Thunderbird and, significantly, Firefox, will continue to work. It continues to work if you use Chrome in Incognito mode as well. After a few minutes it will mysteriously start working again. This has in the recent past led me to wonder if it was not the wi-fi that was the problem (and to turn it off and back on again); since starting to use a Mac laptop regularly (and since a friend who recently installed Linux on her laptop complained about the same problem), it has become obvious that it isn’t, because other people (and my Android phone and tablet) continue to be able to access the web normally.

I’m not sure if this is a regression which has happened in Chrome recently or has been there for years, but we got our Virgin wi-fi router a few years ago and I know I haven’t always been having this problem, and it’s got markedly worse in the last few months. I attempted to fix it this afternoon by disconnecting it from my Google account, but after this it simply refused to load anything, stalling at “Waiting for cache” (again, incognito mode and all other apps worked fine), and then deleting my entire Chrome config directory (same result). In short, this app isn’t working and is rendering Linux as a networking platform useless. As Firefox will come to the end of its useful life on Linux later this year, and as many Linux users use it on laptops and access the Internet over a wi-fi connection, this bug really needs fixing urgently.

Katherine Bowes-Lyon’s death prompts outpouring of sycophancy

9 March, 2014 - 09:06

Picture of an old woman with curled hair, wearing an unidentifable dark garment with her arms crossed against her chestYesterday I read on the Telegraph’s website that Katherine Bowes-Lyon, a cousin of the Queen who was severely mentally disabled and had lived in an institution most of her life, had died aged 87. Her sister Nerissa, who had a similar disability and life history, died in 1986. The story was first revealed to the public in the late 1980s and Channel 4 ran a programme on them in 2011 (reviewed here), which also served as a study on attitudes to people with such disabilities in the early to mid 20th century and on the way conditions for them have changed over the years, which was panned in the media as giving no new information on the Bowes-Lyon sisters than was revealed in the 1980s. The Telegraph’s coverage was shocking, however; it claimed that she and her sister had been subject to “crass intrusion” and called her death “peace at last” in their headline. She was buried in a “private family funeral” and her death, on 23rd February, has only now been announced “because of the sensitivities involved”.

It’s disappointing but, I guess, not surprising that the Torygraph chooses the death of a neglected, disabled cousin of the royal family to display a bit of sycophancy towards that family. The article claims that the feelings of various royals were “hurt” by the 2011 documentary (which I reviewed here):

Two years ago, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, emotively entitled The Queen’s Hidden Cousins, that suggested the Royal family had behaved uncaringly towards the daughters of the late John and Fenella Bowes Lyon, who were the older brother and sister-in-law of Queen Elizabeth. In a rare insight into the Queen’s feelings, Lady Elizabeth Anson, her cousin, told me that the programme had “hurt” the monarch.

Lady Elizabeth considered it to be “an intrusion of privacy” and accused its makers of “capitalising on the royal connection and ignoring the facts, as the sisters have always been looked after by that family”. Of Katharine she said that, contrary to what was claimed, the Queen’s cousin was well looked after in a care home that was suited to her needs. “She has regular visits, too,” she added.

This may be true as far as Katherine’s life in the nursing home since the closure of Earlswood is concerned, but it must be remembered that Nerissa did not live to see that and that people who worked at Earlswood said that the two did not receive any visitors. People whose relatives were there said that they found the place forbidding and were nervous about visiting them because of that, a feeling that went away after she left the institution; people described having to wear communal clothing that was stained with urine. Now, did this happen to Nerissa and Katherine, or just to the ordinary disabled people there? One would have thought that such a wealthy family would have been able to buy their daughters their own clothes and keep them in clean underwear.

It’s true that their father died in 1930, when they were children, and that their mother looked after them until they became adult. However, this was a very rich family — rich enough to get a daughter into the royal family, and that got them very strong connections. All the usual explanations for why families left their disabled relatives in places like Earlswood, such as having too many responsibilities and not enough money or support, do not apply to the Bowes-Lyons or their in-laws: they could have afforded to overhaul that institution themselves, or set up one to care for Elizabeth and Nerissa and a few others (it is known that in the 19th century, wealthy families would hire servants to care for mentally ill relatives, such as the character of Grace Poole in the book Jane Eyre, as the asylums of the time were hellholes; the same was true for many of the large long-stay hospitals in the mid 20th cen. The excuse about how mental disability was a source of shame in the 1920s or 30s was no longer an excuse in the 50s or 60s, which was after the war when eugenics and social Darwinism was largely discredited and after their aunt had become Queen Consort and then Queen Mother, so nobody could say they were a family of imbeciles then (except those who say that of all the royals, of course).

This is not to say, of course, that I think the way the disabled people at Earlswood were treated was any more deserved for the non-royals, but the royal family was in a position for decades to make a difference to their lives and to the lives of those around them, if not for everyone with that kind of impairment, and chose not to. If Earlswood had not closed, Katherine would likely have died there, much as did Nerissa, perhaps sooner than February 2014. Still, the way the Telegraph covers this whenever the story appears gives the impression of a sycophantic newspaper in a dictatorship rather than an independent one in a democracy. In their review of the C4 programme, for example, they say the programme “used the fate of the Bowes-Lyon girls to illustrate the shocking way (to us) that people with learning disabilities were treated not so long ago”. It should have been shocking to them as well, and probably was to anyone forced to endure it, but why shouldn’t we be shocked? Surely if we can judge poor, under-educated people in places like Somalia for things like FGM, whose perpetrators believe it is beneficial to its victims, we can judge rich, well-educated people in the UK for prolonged cruelty to very vulnerable people? And why do they choose to believe royal sources now that the sisters were visited, when their actual carers say they were not?

The comments section on the Telegraph’s announcement of Katherine Bowes-Lyon’s death is full of ridiculous arguments about the Queen failing to show emotion after Lady Diana’s death, and in that situation she may well have been looking after her grandsons (then aged about 10) who had lost their mother, and had no obligation to cater to the public’s grief, but that does not mean she does not have a duty to care for her own family. The fact remains that the miserable conditions for disabled inmates at Earlswood are well-known, and the two sisters were left there for decades when they had very wealthy family who could have done better for them. I am sick of hearing the excuse that people “did not know any better” — they did.

What would Justice for LB look like?

4 March, 2014 - 18:40

This past week, since the publication of the report into the preventable death of Connor Sparrowhawk in a learning disability mental health unit in Oxford last July, my timeline has been buzzing with reactions to it — different blog articles (including mine) as well as criticism of the response from Southern Health and its leadership, the state of care for this group of people, not just in the Southern Health area, and of the more general attitudes of people, particularly the medical profession, towards people with learning disabilities and autism in particular. People have asked the question of “what would justice for LB look like”, and in this entry I intend to make a few suggestions.

1. Overhaul or abolish Southern Health

Picture of Katrina PercyOne might recall that in the aftermath of the two well-publicised deaths of children in the London Borough of Haringey, convenient scapegoats were found: in the case of Victoria Climbié it was a junior social worker, Lisa Arthurworrey, and in the case of Peter Connolly (Baby P) it was the director of children’s services, Sharon Shoesmith. Both ultimately won their case for unfair dismissal. It would be a mistake to just make an example of one leader, such as Katrina Percy, and leave everyone else in place. Southern Health’s record of treating patients with both learning disabilities and mental health problems is not good at all, and a number of its facilities have received damning CQC inspection reports, most recently the Parklands Hospital in Basingstoke and Antelope House in Southampton. There is evidence that services have in fact declined since some of the facilities formerly run by the Ridgeway Partnership were taken over by them; a CQC report from Slade House in December 2011, for example, found that they were meeting all the standards they were tested on and that patients had a positive view of the care they were receiving. Their report from the same place after Connor Sparrowhawk’s death revealed the opposite (assuming that they had not been remiss when inspecting the first time).

Not only have a number of their units been found lacking in standards of care, but their response to fatalities they are involved in seems to follow a familiar pattern, as Rich Watts notes: “sincere apologies”, admitting liability, platitudes about “lessons learned” and assurances that staff will have further training, that they will work with relatives and carers to ensure that their concerns are met, etc., but then nothing happening until the next fatality (and families report, in this and other cases, that a conclusion of “natural causes” is immediately recorded and maintained by the Trust). It’s very clear that this organisation’s stock reaction is damage limitation for themselves, not making amends or genuinely changing their working practices, and that the rot is at different levels — the leadership of some individual units is rotten as well as that of the Trust itself. The whole thing needs root-and-branch reform.

2. Accountability for the individuals responsible for Connor’s death

Picture of a young white man wearing a blue shirt and blue jean-shorts, sitting in a squatting position with his hands around his knees, on muddy ground in front of a wire fence, behind which is a green field.It’s very clear that the leadership of STATT failed to do the most basic checks, as the report demonstrates. The idea that they didn’t know that it was unsafe to leave someone with epilepsy in the bath unsupervised is preposterous, since a quarter of people with learning disabilities have epilepsy — they must have come across them in the past. They must be referred to their respective professional Councils. Prosecution should also be considered, if not for individuals than on a corporate manslaughter charge for the Trust itself. If manual workers are held responsible for deaths and injuries stemming from negligence in their work (such as an unsecured load being spilled onto a highway), then surely psychiatrists, managers and senior nurses must be as well when they make elementary mistakes that lead to a vulnerable person’s death.

3. Deal with the ATU problem properly

This is less a matter of justice for LB’s death and more a legacy to ensure that not only do young people with learning disabilities stop dying preventable deaths, but that the circumstances that lead up to them stop reoccurring. It has been observed again and again that so-called assessment and treatment units do not do much of either, and that many of the people in them are simply being warehoused because there is nowhere else for them to go. They are also often ill-equipped to deal with autistic people and make little attempt to improve their standards in this area. They are phenomenally expensive, costing much more than some very comprehensive home and respite care packages. They are led by psychiatrists, but very often the patients have no psychiatric reason for being there; they are there because a crisis in their life situation has prompted challenging behaviour as a result of a pre-existing learning disability. The report into LB’s death notes that an unnamed senior staff member at STATT said she believed that LB should not have been there, as early examinations proved that he had no psychiatric illness and was “ready for discharge” by the time he died. He was not discharged for lack of a care plan.

As I have written here before, I have heard of other cases of ATUs being used entirely inappropriately, psychiatric medications being used inappropriately, and sections of the Mental Health Act being used inappropriately, mostly to manage challenging behaviour, not psychiatric illness. These medications can have serious physical side effects; Mark Neary has recently told how his son Steven developed a painful liver condition as a result of years of being on psychiatric medication, which was only diagnosed when he took him to a private clinic. Another person I know of is kept under section because of behaviour that could have been managed in other ways (such as trying to run away) and was prescribed diazepam as a result of the stress of an impending, unwanted transfer to a secure hospital miles from home, which her family are fighting (this particular threat has receded, but her multi-disciplinary team still want to keep her under section and transfer her somewhere else if not there). That unit has made no attempt to accommodate her needs, providing only basic activities and no outings because of an escape incident several months ago (a problem her family deal with, on their very frequent outings, with a suitable harness that she cannot open). They could have better calmed her by lifting the threat.

A single-storey red-brick building with a large slate roof with some skylight windows in it, with a vehicle turning area in the foregroundSo the failure of ATUs must be addressed firmly. I suggest the following:

  • All ATU staff must be trained in understanding and managing autism, and be able to make the environment stimulating for all those who have to live there
  • Consider having separate units for autistic people
  • Better tools for managing challenging behaviour, escapes etc than the Mental Health Act (if they do not exist already, in which case staff should know about them and which to use). Specifically excluding autism from the MHA should be considered.
  • Staff should stop cutting families out of the care of their patients or service users, particularly when the SU is a young adult who has recently lived at home, and start listening to them about their concerns and about what the SU is used to, etc. Many families report that they are treated as the enemy, and often refused access to their relative’s living quarters. This must stop, except where abuse is a concern.
  • Stop cutting day activities and support, as lack of activity and being cut off from friends, etc., are factors which can precipitate crises and make living at home (when relatives have to work, for example) difficult or impossible
  • The NHS and charities should investigate ways to better manage the transition from school life to adult life, as again this is a major cause of crises in older teenagers with severe forms of autism
  • Charities have to educate themselves about the realities of some of these units. A campaigns officer for Mencap said in a radio interview on BBC Radio Oxford today at ATUs are “large, clinical settings” and that the job could better be done in more homely settings, closer to home. In fact, they are often small units; STATT had only seven beds, and only five of them were being used.
  • These same organisations should be championing service users and their families. Families often report that they are silent when they are fighting for their relatives’ rights or to get them home, but jump on the bandwagon when they succeed. That they are often commissioned to provide services for local authorities, etc., strikes some of us as not entirely coincidental.
  • Cut the red tape, as it is widely observed in a variety of institutions, including schools, care homes and hospitals that many staff seem to spend more time on paperwork than with the people they are teaching or serving. It is a major cause of people leaving some professions in large numbers and of stress-related absence and early medical retirement, and was noted in the CQC report into Slade House and the report into LB’s death that staff spent too much time on administration.
  • Deaths in these units should always be investigated by an independent body.

That we spend much money on ATUs is symptomatic of a much wider malaise: that we have to account for every penny and are always looking for an opportunity to cut spending because lower taxes win votes, and as a result, we can justify ATUs because they are “crisis care”, but not for home support or decent care homes — that looks like a luxury, or “freebies”, and for that, we always look for ways to make the user or their family pay if they have even modest means. So we must change this attitude to money and to disabled people, but there is so much that can be done in the meanwhile, both to improve crisis care and to keep people out of it. Much as heads deserve to roll at Southern Health and at STATT and other bad units, it won’t make things better for other people with learning disabilities outside the Southern Health area.

BBC Radio Oxford today (4th March) interviewed a mother of a former patient at Slade House from 2008-10, who told of dreadful conditions there before they were improved following her complaint, although it is clear that they declined again afterwards. Phil Gayle also interviewed Jason Carlisle, regional campaigns director for Mencap, and a representative from the organisation My Life, My Choice, who himself has a learning disability and was a former resident of the same unit as Connor Sparrowhawk. It can be listened to online here for the next week.

“Vote Red or get Blue” doesn’t work everywhere

1 March, 2014 - 16:10

“Want the Tories out next year? Only one way to do it” from Ron’s Rants

Ron Graves explains in the post above that if you want to get rid of the Tories in 2015, the only way to do it is to vote Labour, and not to “protest” by not voting, spoiling the paper or voting for a candidate that doesn’t have a chance of winning. While I agree that the best we can hope for in 2015 is a Labour government, unless you live in Scotland where the independence referendum gives other options, voting Labour will not get rid of the Tories in many constituencies - in fact, it may make a Tory win more likely.

I live in New Malden, which is in Edward Davey’s constituency of Kingston and Surbiton. Here, Labour hasn’t ever won, to my knowledge, and certainly not as long as I’ve lived here. The progressive vote has always gone to the Liberal Democrats, and their vote has been swelled by former Labour voters (like us) from less affluent places who didn’t let their (modestly” increased wealth push then into the Tory camp. Labour have always come third place here behind Lib Dems and Tories, and except in 1997 which was its first, its share has always been below 10%.

It’s possible that former Tory voters might switch to Labour, but most of the people who might switch are those who have voted Lib Dem because it’s the only apparently progressive party that has a chance of winning the seat. Voting Labour will just split that vote, resulting in this seat turning Tory. Admittedly, that might be counterbalanced by swings to Labour in Labour/Tory swing seats, but it still gives the Tory a chance to bed himself in with favours to various groups within the constituency.

That leaves many of us in places like Kingston with no real means of making sure we do not get a Tory government in 2015 - either we vote for a Lib Dem who will sell our vote to whoever the biggest single party is, or for a minor candidate (including Labour) and just let the Tory in. Either way, it’s likely to be a wasted vote.

Sarah Vibert and her daughters: reunite them!

27 February, 2014 - 02:00

Picture of a white woman in a wheelchair, with two young girls facing herThis morning I read a news report and a blog about a single mother who is fighting to keep her two daughters out of the foster care system in Alberta, and find them a home after a temporary arrangement broke down. Sarah Vibert, who lives in Edmonton, has multiple sclerosis and in 2009 suffered a non-traumatic spinal-cord injury that left most of her body paralysed; she has only the limited use of one arm. She is currently in full-time foster care and her husband is out of the country and does not contribute maintenance. The girls are eight and nine, and Sarah home-schools them in her care home during the day, but they live with family friends, but those friends can no longer look after them because of family problems of their own. She explains the situation more fully in this blog entry (and the blog has more recent updates, though not “forever family found” as yet).

Sarah is making this appeal because if she does not find a home for them within two weeks, she will be forced to place them with the province’s foster care system, which will mean she relinquishes guardianship over them and, although she may retain some contact, she will be excluded from decisions about their schooling and upbringing. The girls especially do not want to be placed in a foster family and do not want to be separated. The story has generated quite a substantial public reaction, with a number of offers to take the girls in posted in the comments box below the story. I found it because friends on Facebook and Twitter (none of them from Canada) shared it.

She will need quite a lot of support in finding the right family, because she is appealing to total strangers, but surely there is a better solution than simply placing the girls with a permanent family away from their mother, which is to provide a place for all three of them to live together. There are in fact single (often divorced) mothers with spinal cord injuries (and other severe disabilities) who care for their children, with help from hired carers. In 2009, a quadriplegic divorced mother in Chicago, Kaney O’Neill, fought her ex-boyfriend for custody of their son, and won (see earlier entry); in the UK in 1999, Penny Roberts, who became paralysed in a skydiving accident, had to fight the local social services to stop them taking her son away at birth, as they claimed her home would be more like an institution, and he would develop “attachment issues” by being looked after by a string of carers. She won, and looked after him quite successfully.

Sarah Vibert’s daughters are not babies, as Penny Roberts’s son was, but eight and nine years old. With help from carers, she could raise them quite effectively herself. It could even be possible to house them in the nursing home, as they are the same sex and very close, so could (if they do not already) share a room. However, surely a better solution would be to provide them with a house and whatever nurses or carers are required — it would cost not much more than housing Sarah in a nursing home and her daughters in a foster family or children’s home, and would more likely lead to the benefits of raising productive members of society than if they were in the care system without parental guidance.

In the UK, I am quite certain we would be talking about reuniting Sarah and her daughters. It is not a question of whether it is possible: experience has proved that it is. It is a question of whether people are willing.

Four years too short for “one-punch” killing

26 February, 2014 - 16:30

Front page of the Daily Mirror newspaper, showing the paper's logo in white on a red background in the top left, showing a black man punching a white man in the face with the caption "1 Punch, 1 Life, Just 4 Years Jail"It’s been reported recently that a man who killed a man with one punch on a street in Bournemouth has been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison (see also today’s Daily Mirror), which means he will likely be released in half that time. Lewis Gill punched Andrew Young in the face after the latter had argued with Gill’s friend, Victor Ibitoye, over cycling on the pavement; he fell back and hit his head on the road, and died the next day in hospital. Gill claimed that Young had made a racist remark (Young is white, Gill and Ibitoye are black) and that he felt “threatened” as Young put his hand in his pocket, assuming that he intended to draw a weapon. He was given two additional three-month terms because he offended while on a suspended sentence for robbery and handling stolen goods. The Attorney General is considering reviewing the sentence. (The Mirror’s story also has CCTV footage of the attack.)

The press reports describe Young as “suffering” from Asperger’s syndrome, which is not an accurate term; people with Asperger’s (and most forms of autism) do not ‘suffer’ from it; rather it causes difficulties in dealing with social situations, change and stress. In this case his mother thinks he may have challenged the cyclist because “he was very precise and particular because of his Asperger’s and he wouldn’t have liked seeing someone riding a bicycle on the pavement because it was dangerous”. Gill, of course, may not have entertained this idea; he saw an irritating man who had challenged his friend and caused him inconvenience. A taxi driver who knew him said he was “gentle and wouldn’t hurt a fly” and that he would often strike up conversations with strangers at the bus stop. Nobody comments on whether he would or would not have made the racist remark attributed to him, and it appears witnesses were not called to confirm or deny this. The CCTV footage also makes it impossible to see what Young might have been saying.

Regardless of that, it needs to be made clear that using violence to settle petty personal disputes is not acceptable, and this needs to start from home and be continued through school — there must be no “he mouthed me off” defence. Boys learn that it is OK to answer a slight with violence, and develop a sense of entitlement that they should not be annoyed, and when they become fully-grown men, they don’t realise that doing that to someone can kill them. While the crime was not murder because he did not intend to kill (and the level of violence used does not normally, unlike hitting someone over the head with a blunt instrument or stabbing them), it was a serious crime committed out of arrogance and petty annoyance. He should have got twice that sentence, at least, particularly as he is clearly a serial violent offender.

“Royal housing benefit” story is irresponsible

26 February, 2014 - 07:55

 Councils paying thousands to Royal Family for rent of hard-up tenants".The Queen and Prince Charles cash in on tens of thousands of pounds' worth of benefits every year - Mirror Online

The Daily Mirror yesterday ran with a story about how the royal estates, mostly owned by Prince Charles and the Queen, are raking in tens or hundreds of thousands from housing benefits every year — according to them the Duchy of Cornwall (Prince Charles’s estate) was paid “at least £111,000 from a string of councils providing cash to households”, while the Crown Estate received “at least £38,539” from just one council last year, and those figures do not include money paid first to the tenant. The sums, of course, are trivial, both for the royals mentioned and even for the councils, let alone the national budget. The Daily Mirror probably thought they were following an angle of “the rich are the real scroungers” in this, but they are wrong.

I know someone who lives on one of these estates in Dorset, and does receive Housing Benefit because she’s disabled. The fact is that the Queen and Prince Charles are just among the biggest landowners in these regions, and unlike many landlords, they own the properties outright, which means they can rent out houses and flats (and they are just houses and flats, not palaces) to Housing Benefit recipients. Landlords who are on buy-to-let mortgages can’t, because their banks and building societies specifically ban it. In addition, a dwelling on an estate owned by a prince is unlikely to be sold any time soon, so it is a more secure tenancy than one owned by a normal landlord (and tenants who are disabled or mentally ill need that security).

These journalists may think they are “bashing the rich” but many readers will look at it a different way: that councils are paying “work-shy” benefit claimants to live on royal estates, and they might recall that the right-wing press have run stories about families being paid housing benefit to live in Notting Hill town houses (which were slums a generation ago, but now sell for seven-figure sums). Any story like this runs the risk of seeming like money is being handed out by the state for luxury homes, even when the truth is nothing like that — the flat my friend moved into was a new build, and she had to supply the carpets and all the furniture and equipment. If there are not going to be council houses and flats anymore (because most of them have been sold off), social housing is going to have to be provided by someone, and if not Prince Charles, then it will have to be someone else. Do the poor and disabled deserve no better landlords than Rachman?

“Let it not be about lessons learned”

24 February, 2014 - 18:30

Black and white picture of a young white man with a straw hat on and rolled-up shirt sleeves, holidng an ice-cream cone in his hand, standing in front of a timber-framed building.Today the report into the death (PDF) of Connor Sparrowhawk, an 18-year-old who drowned in an NHS learning disability unit in Oxford last July (see earlier entry), was published. That it was published was thanks to a long campaign by his mother, which faced much opposition from the NHS trust involved, which made such excuses as protecting their staff, and faced a last-minute obstacle when police delayed publication so as to consider a criminal prosecution. His death was the result of epilepsy, and he had been left in the bath with observation at 15-minute intervals, which is nowhere close to adequate when supervising someone with epilepsy in the bath. The report also exposes some of the inadequacies of Connor’s care at the unit, which was obviously ill-prepared to care for him and two of whose senior staff believed he should not have been there in the first place. (See also the Southern Health NHS trust’s statement and the family’s solicitor’s report.

Connor’s mother, tweeting through the JusticeforLB account, asked earlier for media interest and asked “please don’t run with a superficial and largely meaningless ‘lessons learned’ angle” (LB, short for Laughing Boy, is the name his mother referred to him by on her blog). The main ‘lesson’ from this tragedy, that you shouldn’t leave a person with epilepsy in the bath unsupervised, has been well-known from time immemorial. When Connor lived at home, he was allowed to bathe but his family supervised him by talking him from outside the room; epilepsy charities advise people to take showers rather than baths and there are numerous reports of people with epilepsy dying in the bath, including many fully competent adults (and about half of people with learning disabilities have epilepsy, according to Epilepsy Action which is quoted in the report). The report notes that the unit had not implemented NICE guidelines on epilepsy, not considered his epilepsy in its risk assessments at admission time, not drawn up a care plan to manage his epilepsy or reviewed his bathing arrangements, and that there was not even any evidence in the last month that he was even monitored every 15 minutes.

The report also notes that Connor’s 13-year-old brother, with whom he had shared a room all his life, had been prevented from visiting as no visitors under 18 were allowed on the ward (and he was later not even allowed in the grounds, despite it being suggested that he could). This policy exists in a number of Southern Health’s mental health units, and as noted in the news last week, is common in other mental health settings even when the patient is under 18. It also mentions that Connor was, two days after being admitted to the unit as an informal patient (i.e. nominally free to leave, although that is often denied in many mental health settings, including that one), he was held under section 2 of the Mental Health Act; the report does not explore this issue, but it must be questioned whether that is the appropriate legislation to use in response to challenging behaviour by people with autism who are under stress, as both that and section 3 (renewable six-month detention) frequently are. As in Claire Dyer’s case (which is ongoing), the sections are used to deprive patients of liberty and give clinicians power over them when other tools are available to contain escape attempts and challenging behaviour.

The failures in Connor Sparrowhawk’s care on the STATT unit (and both his name and the unit’s have been redacted, rather pointlessly as it is public knowledge who died, and where) has to be seen in the context of the Care Quality Commission report from last November (PDF), in which it failed all ten areas, six of them with “enforcement action taken”, the lowest rating. The report revealed that some patients were being unlawfully denied liberty, that patients felt unsafe, that a woman patient had left because the staff failed to stop incursions by male patients into the supposedly female-only area, that there was an “impoverished environment with little therapeutic intervention or meaningful activities to do”, that the inspectors “saw few social or therapeutic nursing interactions with people who stayed there”, that hygiene standards were poor, that medicines were being stored in hot places where they could degrade, that the defibrillator had no batteries and the oxygen cylinder was out of date, that a third of the staff had not attended basic emergency training, and that medical and procedural records were “not accurate and fit for purpose”. The CQC report noted that while their inspectors were at the unit, “up to four staff mainly worked on administrative tasks within their office, with one member of staff out on the unit”, which gives some idea as to what the staff were doing while Connor was in the bath (which does not mean putting out a fire or splitting up a fight).

Connor was in the unit largely for lack of support, and recent investigations into these kinds of units reveal that many people with learning disabilities stay in them longer than they are intended for simply because of this lack of any other kind of support. It is clear that the clinical leads at STATT regarded the purpose of the unit as being the treatment of psychiatric disorders, and that as Connor did not have one, he should have been swiftly discharged, yet his mother was afraid of his being discharged without support. It is not the only place I am aware of where a person with autism is trapped in a unit not equipped for them; I have recently heard of another situation where someone with autism is trapped in a unit that mainly caters for people with less severe learning disablities, and which is ill-equipped to provide suitable activities which has in the past caused an upsurge in challenging behaviour. I am also aware of some quite dreadful unprofessional behaviour from staff in that situation, which I intend to report on in more detail in a future entry.

A major lesson that does need to be learned is how to help young people with autism make the transition to adulthood, since this is often the trigger for crisis situations, and much of it has to do with the fact that services drop off after school ends, leaving families to cope as best they can. This has a lot to do with lack of funding, as day activities for disabled people are an easy target when councils have to cut budgets and sell assets (and as we saw here in Kingston, the buildings have often become prime real estate, even in delapidated condition), and as Mark Neary has demonstrated through his blog, councils often use dishonest language to disguise the fact that they are cutting both services and service users’ budgets. Families have formed the impression that their learning disabled children are seen as less than human, and that this influences both their day-to-day care and their medical care, as demonstrated in the increased rates of preventable death of people with learning disabilities. There is not the glamour to learning disability care that there is to curing cancer, but failing to get it right still leads to preventable deaths and to misery for many more.

“Awaiting final written permission”

24 February, 2014 - 12:42

Southern Health: report publication update

Southern Health, the NHS trust responsible for the death of Connor Sparrowhawk in one of its units in Oxford last July, published this statement on its website this morning:

We are aware that many people are awaiting the publication of a report into the tragic death of a person whilst in our care. 

We are awaiting final written permission to publish this independent report.

As soon as we have this permission, we will publish the report on the front page of this website and share via twitter. 

We are doing all we can so this happens today. If we are unable to publish the report we will release a full statement later today.

The question remains as to whom they are awaiting this “permission” from, because they promised Connor’s mother last Friday that it would appear today. At which point did they realise that they would need anyone else’s permission?

It looks like yet another delaying tactic, and the family have been put through enough trauma by this shabby organisation. At every stage, paper seems to count for more than people - it was noted during the inspection of the unit where Connor died that four out of five staff were attending to administration rather than to residents.

Publish it now.

A plug for QTM

22 February, 2014 - 20:02

You probably know by now that (like most blogs) this blog uses WordPress. What’s less obvious is the software I normally use to write entries, and that’s because I write it myself and rarely mention it on here, but with the last couple of releases managed to get one out that fix some long-standing, irritating bugs that anyone using it would quickly run into, so I thought I’d mention it on the blog I write that most people read. The software is called QTM, and runs on all the major desktop platforms — Windows, the Mac and Linux, and that’s because it’s based on Qt, which (in theory) lets you write an app once and then run it on several different operating systems (not just the three mentioned, although they are the most common). In practice it’s a bit more complicated if you want the program to look good on all those platforms, but it will work.

QTM mainly supports WordPress these days, but also supports Movable Type as that’s what it was originally written for (not Blogger or LiveJournal). It lets you compose and format entries, save them and post them to your blog. It also lets you compose based on an existing story or blog post (similar to “Press This” on WordPress and “Quickpost” on Movable Type) and use templates to pre-format these posts. It supports Markdown on Mac and Linux (on Windows you will need to install Perl, since that’s what Markdown is written in). It doesn’t let you manage existing blog posts, as yet.

QTM’s web page is here and you can find a Windows installer and a Mac disk image there; I have also set up download repositories for the Ubuntu, OpenSUSE and Fedora Linux distributions. If you need help setting it up, let me know (easier set-up is probably the next thing on the list of things to do).

Rise in teens admitted to adult psych wards

20 February, 2014 - 10:47

A still from a TV programme showing a teenage girl wearing a pink cardigan and light blue jeans, sitting with her knees up and her arms wrapped around them, her face obscured.It was reported today that there has been a rise in the number of teenagers under 18 admitted to adult psychiatric wards, and that these were sometimes hundreds of miles from home and often proved to be highly unsuitable places for them. The BBC reported this here and there is a video clip of a young girl recounting her experience of being sent away (the other reports at present are just wire copy rewrites.) I have seen other reports of this sort of thing happening because of local inpatient facilities closing, notably this disturbing report of a young girl from Hull with Asperger’s syndrome who had been raped, who was sent to a secure unit in Cheshire after her local unit was closed to inpatients and there were no beds on other units in Yorkshire.

The case in Hull demonstrates that in fact unsuitable adolescent inpatient care can be as bad as putting a teenager in an adult ward, particularly if it is far from home. Putting a group of teenagers with different mental illnesses in one small section of a building and locking them in can make it an extremely hostile environment for some of them if the unit staff are unable or unwilling to protect the weaker children. The report notes that “the social care regulator had received an alert about a 12-year-old being admitted to an adult psychiatric unit”, but the majority of 12-year-olds are children, not adolescents, and putting them on a ward with 16-year-olds could have been every bit as traumatic as 16-year-olds, in our culture, have less responsibility for their actions than 22-year-olds.

The report also shines a light on the policy of banning visits by “children” (i.e. under-18s) to wards, even when the patient is under that age. (This is one of the ‘blanket policies’ that restricts the freedom of people in mental health wards, often beyond what is necessary; these include, for example, bans on accessing the Internet; see chapter 3 of this PDF from the Care Quality Commission.) I am not sure what the reason behind it is, but when I was a child I visited my uncle (who was in his 40s, and I must have been about eight) at a psychiatric hospital near Croydon (now closed), and although the environment was grim (dark and smoky) and it was a bit upsetting, neither my sister nor I came away traumatised by it. Looking on the website of Southern Health, which runs a number of mental health inpatient units in southern England, visitors under 18 are not allowed to visit one of them at all, and are only allowed into the visitor area at another. As one of these units admits people from age 18 up, this means that younger siblings of younger patients would not be allowed to visit, and nor would patients’ children (this is also true at their learning disability inpatient units, including the scandal-ridden STATT unit in Oxford). No reason for this policy is given anywhere.

Some might argue that it could traumatise children to be on a mental health ward, and when I mentioned this to a friend on Twitter, she told me that her son had never forgotten seeing his grandmother in a nursing home; but surely this is a decision parents have to make, and in any case, children are not banned from visiting nursing homes, and there needs to be a distinction made between children and adolescents, particularly those over 16. It sounds like a policy made to minimise ‘risk’, i.e. the liability of the unit, rather than for the welfare of the patients or the visitors. If under-18s can be admitted to these units, surely they should be allowed to visit. As one of the former patients interviewed said, it made it a lot harder that her friends were not allowed to visit, and she was on the adult ward (at age 17) for eight weeks before being moved to an adolescent unit.

There is no secret that mental health is considered a “Cinderella” service, i.e. one that is hidden from view and not glamorous, rather like the long-term care of people with learning disabilities. It seems that the only money available is for crisis care, which is all very well but people need something to move on to and just going back to the status quo ante is not always possible — it may have been what caused the crisis. It is good that in the UK we do not use hospitals for the long term care of these people — a situation like that of Astrid van Woerkom, the Dutch autistic blogger who has been in institutions since 2007 because the state will not provide the care she needs in the community, would be extremely unlikely to happen here — but the more we cut inpatient mental health beds and community services for both these groups of people, the more we end up with people in crisis being sent miles away from home to units that are completely unsuitable and which make bad situations a lot worse.

(The image is a still from the BBC series Don’t Call Me Crazy, which was broadcast on BBC Three in summer 2003. Reviewed here; one of the participants is interviewed here.)

CyModding your LG G-Pad

18 February, 2014 - 20:37

Picture of someone holding an LG G-Pad 8.3 in their hand, with a green and red background and a number of app icons on the screenSo, last week I got my replacement for my iPad, which I was dissatisfied with because of the completely inadequate Apple keypad (see earlier entry). I looked for a similar size Android tablet, because I did quite like the increased size of the iPad and my Nexus 7 was a bit long in the tooth. It seemed like the only Android tablet of similar size and with a decent screen resolution was the LG G-Pad 8.3, also known as the v500, which normally retails for around £250. However, I managed to get a last-minute discount as Amazon reduced its price to £200 just as mine was about to dispatch (if they’d dispatched a couple of hours earlier, they would have been £50 up) and they are still selling it for that price (make sure you get Amazon’s own deal, not the higher-priced one from LambdaTek). A major factor in my decision was that a version of CyanogenMod is available for this tablet, whose own OS is still two minor versions of Android behind (4.2 rather than 4.4). However, installing it on this tablet is much more involved than installing one on a Nexus, and somewhat riskier.

It has to be said that there is an awful lot of half-baked advice out there on modding this device, and much of it is incomplete and it relies on files that are often located on servers which also distribute junk software. Clicking the wrong link marked “download” means you will get some junk installed on your PC — I’m not sure if it’s malware as such but certainly it’s not the software I wanted (including a “malware checker” and a “file extractor”). Beware of unsolicited malware checkers; what they do is tell you you’ve got malware so you can pay them more to get rid of it.

There are three major differences to modding a Nexus phone. One of them is that you need Windows. The zip-files that root your tablet and install the recovery module (ClockworkMod Recovery) on your tablet only work on Windows, and the LG recovery software that you will need to use if you brick your tablet (which I did at first attempt) only works on Windows. The tablet does not have Fastroot, unlike the Nexus devices; it has LG’s “download mode” which only LG’s proprietary update app (which only runs on Windows) can communicate with.

The second, which they don’t tell you in the various how-tos that are out there, is that you need an SD card in the slot (a MicroSD card, not a full-size one that you will find on cameras). For some reason, neither the root script nor the ClockworkMod installer work if there’s no SD card.

The third is that you can’t sideload. I used sideload to install CyanogenMod and the Google Apps on my three Nexus devices; however, your computer will not be able to communicate with the phone when it is in recovery. The two zipfiles have to be on your tablet before starting recovery.

The question should be asked why you want to install CyanogenMod rather than use the supplied version of Android. In my case, it was because the supplied version is simply out of date, and also because I am used to the look and feel of that (and of stock Android, which are more or less identical — CyanogenMod offers more customisation). I also found that the interface was a bit buggy; when I double-tapped on the screen to enlarge the text when viewing websites in Chrome, for example, I sometimes found that it kept enlarging and then shrinking them again, and then would not enlarge again. This may be because double-tap is used to turn the device on and off, although in Chrome it did not do this. The website is not one that is particularly script-heavy. The supplied OS did not work with my stylus particularly well, nor with Swype, which would often not appear when I needed a keypad. LG’s keypad is better than Apple’s, but it’s nowhere near as good as Swype or SwiftKey (I could, however, use SwiftKey). I tweeted Swype to tell them of the problem.

Preparation

First, you need the right tablet. If you’ve got the Google Play Edition (which is only available in the USA), this doesn’t apply — it’s only to the retail edition. GPE is model v510 and CyanogenMod is so far not available for it; this is only for model v500.

So, to start you need two scripts, a root script and a recovery install script. When the scripts have downloaded, extract them (you can do this by opening your Downloads directory in the Windows Explorer, right-clicking and selecting “Extract All”). You can find those files here (to save you going to those malware-ridden file-sharing sites). You need to install that SD card (the slot is at the top of the tablet, next to the headphone jack).

You need the OS bundle (find that here — at present, you want the ‘M3’ snapshot of ‘cm-11’) and the Google Apps bundle (find that here — again, you need the CM 11 bundle).

They need to be in the /sdcard directory, which is not the root directory of your SD card but is a directory on the tablet’s own storage — use the File Manager or Terminal Emulator to relocate them. You can either use the tablet itself to download them, or upload them from your PC using Windows Explorer.

Your tablet needs to be well-charged — 30% will do (if there’s not much charge left, ClockworkMod will just not work, and will show an android logo lying on its back with a red warning triangle).

You also need to enable the developer options. To do that, open Settings and find “About tablet” at the bottom, and then select “Software information”. Click where it says “build number” several times; you will get a message on the screen saying “you are now x number of steps away from being a developer” and eventually “you are now a developer”.

Then, go back to the main settings and find “Developer options” near the bottom. There should be an option “Enable USB debugging”; turn it on (and if it is greyed out, go to the top of the list, turn off “developer options” and then back on again; USB debugging will then be enabled and you can turn it on). Use the USB lead that came with your tablet to connect it to your Windows PC.

Rooting

In your download directory, you should find two subdirectories called “root_gpad” and one beginning with “lg_g”; go into “root_gpad” and run the file called “root.bat”. (On the command line, just type “root”; you can double-click the file marked “root” if you’re using Windows Explorer.) Then follow the instructions on the screen; you will have to unplug and re-plug your tablet during the process. This will enable root on your device (which means allow you to act as a super-user, similar to an administrator on Windows) and upload programs that let you do this. Please note: some websites say that you can use a program called Framaroot to root your tablet. You can’t. I tried the latest version yesterday and it didn’t work; its developers state that it doesn’t support the G-Pad yet.

Then it’s time to install the ClockworkMod recovery utility; this is what will enable you to install CyanogenMod and the Google Apps. Using either the Windows command prompt, enter the directory (within your Downloads directory) that begins “lg_g…”. Now, you need to be able to see the batch file (name starts 1-click) because it opens up a shell program and doesn’t feed it the commands, so if you’re in Windows Explorer, right-click on the 1-click file and open it in Notepad (you can also open another command prompt and go to the same directory, and type “type 1-click…” — you can use the Tab key to complete the command). Run the script, and you will eventually see a prompt similar to “android:/ #”. This is where the authors of the script got it wrong and you have to feed the commands that appear below “adb shell” yourself. When you have done that, exit the shell by typing “exit” and it should return you to the Windows command prompt. Then type “adb reboot recovery” and it should then reboot and show you a menu: this is the ClockworkMod Recovery utility.

Using ClockworkMod Recovery

When in Clockwork, you use the volume switches to move up and down the menu and the Power button to select. You need to wipe the existing operating system before installing the new one; to do this, select where it says “Install zip”, then “Install from sdcard”; if you don’t find the two files containing CM itself and Google Apps, look in the subdirectory named 0. If it’s not there, then you need to reboot and make sure the files are there. If you proceed without making sure you have the two files, you may ‘brick’ the tablet (i.e. render it inoperable) and have to reinstall the old OS, which takes about half an hour.

Once you’ve found the two files, select “Go back” until you get to the main menu again. You need to perform the following operations:

  1. Do a “factory reset” from the main menu
  2. Wipe (format) the /system and /data partitions (DO NOT format /sdcard - that’s where the new OS is)
  3. Wipe the main cache
  4. Wipe the Dalvik cache (in the Advanced menu)
  5. Install the “cm” zipfile
  6. Install the “gapps” zipfile
  7. Return to the Main Menu and select “reboot”.

You should then see the CyanogenMod boot animation, and eventually it will prompt you to set up a CyanogenMod and a Google account (you can skip the first, as it’s really only of interest to developers at present).

If you brick your tablet

If you screw up your tablet (such as finding it only gets as far as the CyanogenMod boot animation or will only display the LG logo and does nothing else), you will need to re-flash the original operating system and then (if you want) start the whole process again. To do this, you need to make sure the tablet is turned off (I think you do this by holding down the Power and both sides of the volume switch until it turns off, and repeating until it doesn’t just turn back on again), then hold down the Volume Up and Down buttons and then plug the USB lead from your computer into the bottom of your tablet. A little box should appear in the middle of the screen which says “Download mode”. Start up the LG Mobile support program and then select the Recovery option from the menu at top right. It should then download and install the old OS, which takes at least 20 minutes on a decent cable internet connection.

Conclusion

The LG G-Pad is meant to be a mass-market Android tablet, and it is not a Nexus device, i.e. a device meant for running stock Android and made with developers in mind. That it requires Windows to do any hacking on it or to restore the OS shows that it was not made for modding. In addition, the port of CyanogenMod to this device is recent and appears to be unofficial, as there is no forum for this device on their website, and neither are there any instructions on the CM website, as there are for devices they actually support. So, it’s possible to install this and it works very well once installed, but it’s a very risky process. I’d advise it only if you really know what you’re doing and you can’t wait a couple of months to see if Google decide to bring out an 8in Nexus, as is rumoured they will.

The hidden costs of private schooling

16 February, 2014 - 10:33

I’ve just had my second letter in about a month published in the New Statesman, a British left-of-centre political magazine, this time on the subject of private education,  which they ran an extensive feature on two weeks ago and which continues to dominate their letters page. Last week they published a review of a BBC4 programme, These Four Walls, which featured several families as they struggled to make ends meet. One of them was a mother and daughter (we did not learn who or where the father was), the daughter having dreamed of attending the local private grammar school in Leeds. She sat the entrance exam and was awarded a full bursary, but her mother still had to meet the cost of the school’s uniform and a special bus pass, which came to £2,000, which she did by selling family heirlooms and borrowing from a loan shark. Sadly, and predictably, she left after a short time, despite achieving full marks, because the school (or other pupils) “made her feel like an outsider”.

My letter noted that none of the respondents to the original feature touched on these hidden costs, which parents have to meet even when school fees are waived, and they printed that bit, but not the connection between that feature and a review printed in the same edition as the responses to it. The review does not even mention that Niamh in fact left the school; it merely says that “the story does not end entirely happily, Niamh having struggled to fit in at her smart new school”. State schools have been moving towards allowing generic uniform clothes which can be bought from most supermarkets (although schools in many more affluent areas, and particularly Catholic schools, have resisted this trend, particularly demanding bespoke blazers and skirts for girls, and academies have brought the expensive bespoke uniform back into fashion). Private schools have faced no such pressure and can make their uniforms as distinctive, expensive and as ridiculous as they like, although some (like Christ’s Hospital near Horsham) fund the uniforms themselves, at least for some pupils.

I know something about this because in 1989, I spent two days at a local “independent grammar school”, Winton House in Croydon, after the Catholic secondary school I had been sent to the year before (Thomas More in Purley) wimped out. The private school expelled me after two days after a scuffle with a prefect, and this is what led to me being sent to the infamous Kesgrave Hall. Years later, I suggested that the local special needs co-ordinator (or whatever he was called then) had arranged for me to be sent to that school so as to make sure I would be sent to that ‘special’ school, and my mother replied that this was impossible as there was no way the SENCO would have had them spend that much money on the uniform. I’m not sure if they got any of it back.

Private schools can do this because not only does private schooling (in some places, not everywhere) offer better learning conditions (e.g. smaller classes, less able pupils excluded), but because having a child at a private school is a status symbol. As bursaries are by definition meant for parents who cannot pay fees, requiring them then to pay through the nose for a uniform and a special bus pass is simply despicable, particularly if the school is not a welcoming environment to children from poorer backgrounds. I have previously heard of incidents of children being removed from private schools because of class-based bullying which the teachers refused to address because the bully had particularly rich parents, and this was when the parent had paid the fees, not received a bursary. These schools should be accountable for this sort of behaviour, including for the fees and costs of children who are unable to stay because of these things, and bursaries should meet the full costs, so as to provide a genuine public service, not just be seen to throw a few crumbs to the peasants to justify their charitable status.

I am not saying that private schooling should not be allowed, because it often provides services that state schools don’t, such as alternative models of education, but schools like The Grammar School at Leeds, the school the girl in These Four Walls went to, should not be allowed to pretend to be charities for the tax advantages while providing little in the way of meaningful voluntary services — a few supported pupils in a sea of wealthy fee-paying ones are always going to stand out somehow, unless they really are just “distressed gentlefolk” (i.e. formerly rich people fallen on hard times). The programme should really have investigated this aspect of why Niamh did not last more than a year at a school her mother had spent £2,000 she did not have for her daughter to achieve her dreams. If she and her mother were stabbed in the back, the school should be held accountable.

The dangers of racism in the anti-FGM crusade

15 February, 2014 - 11:06

Picture of a girl with her mouth open, apparently gasping in pain, with her legs spread (although only one of them is visible), with one woman on each side of her.The Thursday before last was apparently “Zero Tolerance of FGM day”, accompanied by widespread media coverage of various campaigns against it, a petition which apparently gained two signatures per second, interviews with anti-FGM campaigners and various editorials, particularly in the Guardian. In some of these editorials, the authors gave free rein to prejudices that liberals normally manage to keep hidden, and fail to consider whether some of the potential cures aren’t worse than the disease. As is so often the case, the white liberal gets angry when others don’t respond to appeals to become “civilised”.

The first article I came across was this one, in which the word “barbaric” is dropped very easily:

As the face of the Guardian’s new campaign to have FGM recognised as a key government priority, Mohamed, one of nine daughters in a Muslim Somali family that came to Britain when she was seven, believes Gove could do more to help curtail the barbaric practice.

Does anyone stop to consider what this word means, or where it comes from? It’s a term which has been used down the centuries to simply mean foreign, right from ancient Greece to the present day. It always meant whichever civilisation the people who used it were up against; usually Persia in the case of Greece, the Celts, Germans and North Africans in the case of the Romans. The name stuck as a name for North Africa (and today, actual North Africans do not practise FGM), though even there the historical evidence suggests that the Carthaginians and Vandals were actually highly literate civilisations and that the names have stuck because the Romans wrote history. The point is that it means not us, therefore against us and/or less than us. Why do we use this imperialist put-down to refer to cultural practices we don’t like?

In its editorial, it makes an extraordinary claim that is really devoid of any evidence:

FGM, or cutting, is a violation that is inflicted only on girls, usually as very young children. It is not a religious ritual. It predates Christianity and Islam, although in some places both religions have incorporated it as a rite of passage. What it is, universally, is a weapon of control by men over women’s sexuality in which older women collude in order to observe social norms of marriageability and honour.

No, it’s not. It’s a custom which is perpetuated for a number of reasons, the most important of which is ignorance: it’s just always been done, and people do not imagine a woman being any other way, and imagine that the parts removed will cause sexual over-stimulation or disease if left in place (a female friend mentioned recently, for example, that she had seen people online saying that the labia minora are the source of “secretions that turn rancid” and that a clitoris can grow to 3cm when aroused, neither of which have any basis). These notions have fallen away in many places because people, particularly Muslims, have been exposed to people of the same religion from other parts of the world (including the major centres of Muslim learning, such as Syria) who do not practise FGM. There has been a rise in fundamentalist, normative Islam and of online fatwa banks, which invariably say that FGM as practised in Somalia, Sudan and other parts of Africa is simply prohibited in Islam because it consists of “changing Allah’s creation” and because it causes harm and possibly risks the girl’s life.

Much as with forced marriage, the practice is a cause of family disagreement and conflict as generations differ, and sometimes fathers resist and grandmothers insist on it, and sometimes even the daughter wants to have it done because they know most grown-up women (or many older girls they know) have had it done and are excited by the ceremony that surrounds it. Increasing numbers of men do not want a wife who has been cut (at least, cut significantly or ‘closed’), because they want someone who will enjoy sex, not be hurt by it and will not be significantly injured by childbirth to the point of dying, or never being able to have another one. Again, men have come to learn that normal women enjoy sex, and are meant to. It is not as simple as saying that it is a weapon used by men and a custom in which older women merely “collude”.

FGM was banned, explicitly, in the UK in 1985 (however, the charge of occasioning grievous bodily harm [GBH] could be made against someone who subjected a girl to it before then) and taking a girl abroad for the purpose of FGM was banned in 2003. However, there has not been a single prosecution for FGM, something that causes campaigners some degree of frustration. Prosecuting cutters or those who expose girls to it is, of course, only one way of making sure FGM does not take place — it is better The reason it is difficult to prosecute, even when it happens in the UK, is because the girls affected are simply unwilling to testify against their parents, or even their extended family, because there is no other violence being perpetrated in the family, who may also be supporting them well, paying their way through college and so on. In short, these are loving and stable families and splitting them up by putting either of the parents in jail would be in nobody’s best interests, particularly if there are no remaining girls at risk from it (and even if there are, it would cause other instability in their lives besides FGM). If we make parents liable for FGM happening, regardless of whether they actually wanted it done or not (as extended families, such as grandparents, can overrule parents in some cultures), there is the danger of the girl simply not returning from that “holiday” or being sent “home”.

The paper’s website also includes a “datablog” in which an attempt is made to gauge how many girls in the UK are at risk from FGM. It briefly mentions that their statistics represent an overrepresentation of the risk of FGM, since “they assume that British traditions, culture and education have no effect on the likelihood that migrants will carry out this procedure” — as if there’s really nothing else besides an exposure to good old British traditions that would stop African immigrants, or their second- or third-generation descendants, practising FGM. Other reasons could be that they have been persuaded by authorities in their own religion to stop doing it, or just that it’s not that important to them that they would maintain it in defiance of the law, or by taking expensive trips abroad. The data seems to make no distinction between different extents of cutting, treating the removal of the clitoral hood the same as the so-called Pharaonic form that is prevalent in Somalia, Eritrea etc, when their health ramifications are worlds apart, and also not taking into account the different socio-economic backgrounds of the diasporas (as Egyptians in the UK tend to be from wealthier and better educated backgrounds than Somalis, who tend to be war refugees).

There are other examples of what appear to be statistics being massaged in the press to make it look as if FGM and complications of FGM are more prevalent in the UK than they really are. An example is this piece from the Evening Standard from last December, which claimed that in a survey of GPs in London, “57 per cent of doctors who responded said they had seen at least one woman in the past 12 months who had been mutilated”. This, however, does not mean the doctors treated them for complications of FGM, or for anything that could have been complicated by FGM, just that they were aware that at least one female patient they saw had undergone it (the report does not even say how they knew — some of them could have just made the assumption by their origin and age). It should be no surprise that more than half of GPs have ever seen a woman who has undergone it, since people originating from the countries where it takes place are spread all over London, not concentrated in a few enclaves.

I don’t defend FGM, and attempts to educate people in Africa in particular about its harms (and lack of religious merit) are to be encouraged, as well as opening channels for girls to report that they or their sisters are in danger of undergoing it, so as to prevent them being taken abroad or to facilitate the arrest of whoever may be doing it in this country. However, there is a danger of falling into racism by assuming that all girls from any country where FGM happens are at risk (they are not), by assuming that the cultures involved will not change unless given the big stick by “civilised” whites, by branding a cultural norm which is not done for anyone’s gratification “child abuse”, by throwing around words like “barbarity” as if insulting a minority community with a different culture who consider themselves perfectly civilised will bring them on side. To see several pages dedicated to this issue in a major (albeit declining) newspaper, when the evidence for it happening to any significant extent in the UK is anecdodal and the statistics hugely unreliable, does appear like an onslaught against the minority communities involved, as if this was the last acceptable way of expressing superiority over an immigrant minority from an impoverished part of the world.

Bye-byePad

11 February, 2014 - 08:27

Picture of a white package sealed with packing tape with a label addressed to AmazonWell, I’m sending my iPad back to the vendor today. Amazon’s policy is that an item is returnable for about a month, and I’ve had mine a week and a half (although I made this decision last Saturday, but have only just got round to printing out the return labels and packing it up).

There are two reasons why I’m doing this. The most important is that I can’t tolerate the keypad. It takes ages to type things that would take much less time on an Android tablet, simply because the better predictive text on Android saves you multiple keypresses on a screen that you can’t touch-type on because it’s too small. And there’s just no alternative. Seriously, anyone migrating from Android is going to run up against this problem, and my advice is not to bother.

The second is that it won’t connect to certain wi-fi networks, and the reason I suspect is a bug which is preventing it sending passwords correctly on some forms (it did the same when logging into my own blog). You wouldn’t think this was huge, but I’ve already got a tablet and that works fine — £300 is too much to pay for a device that doesn’t work properly, and doesn’t allow you to find ways round its limitations.

As for what I’m going to replace it with, I’ve been looking at the LG G-Pad, which costs about £50 less and has a similar size screen (although it’s longer and the resolution is slightly less), but I might wait until April when it’s rumoured that Google will be bringing out a Nexus 8. I’d ideally like to try it in a shop before buying it, but none of the major high-street computer shops stock it. What I’d really like is an Android tablet with the same dimensions and screen resolution, but there doesn’t seem to be one and the shops seem to be selling Android tablets on the basis that they’re cheap, not that they’re good.

iPad: First impressions

4 February, 2014 - 20:10

Screenshot from an iPad's home screen, showing various app icons.The other day I took delivery of my new tablet computer, an iPad mini with a Retina display, which cost £290 plus delivery charges on Amazon. It’s a wi-fi only model; I can’t afford another contract for a data SIM when my mobile data is more than adequate already. The reason I bought it, despite never having considered buying one until a couple of weeks before, was that I was getting frustrated with the poor quality of my Nexus 7 tablet and the apps that run on it. It’s the cheapest Nexus by far and it really shows in the quality and reliability (or lack thereof) of the device and the performance of apps on it. As I said in a recent entry, I was blown away by what I saw when I tried out a relative’s iPad (the demonstration models in the Apple store don’t really do the system, let alone the software available for it, justice).

The IPad is certainly quality; the display really is top-notch and in most cases you can hardly detect the dots - this can’t even be said about my Nexus 4 phone and on that,they’re practically invisible. The operation of just about everything is an awful lot smoother than on the N7 and crashes seem to be a lot rarer (Safari crashed - meaning closed without warning - when I was viewing the Google Play website, but that doesn’t play well with Android browsers either, including Chrome). My Nexus 7 would seize up almost every time I used it, because it would attempt to run every network update whenever network connectivity was restored, at the same time - every social media timeline update, the Google Play app update, everything it hadn’t been able to do without the network. I’ve not had that problem with the iPad, perhaps because I don’t turn off the wi-fi because it doesn’t drain the battery nearly as quickly - indeed, neither does actually using the tablet.

The first app I installed was TweetBot, a Twitter client I’d been using on the Mac, which is easily the most fully featured and least buggy client I’ve seen on any platform, and as I mentioned a couple of entries back, certainly better than anything on Android. Facebook is also a huge cut above the Android offering, even though that’s improved (a few years ago it was so buggy as to be unusable). Sadly, Facebook haven’t ported it’s Messenger client to the iPad,meaning you have to either install the iPhone client, make do with the message support in the Facebook app itself or install a multi-protocol messenger client (in my case, IM+). This is a common problem on iOS: a lot of apps are written with the iPhone form factor in mind and don’t scale to the iPad, so you get either a tiny app or an enlarged one. This problem doesn’t arise on Android, where different size screens have been around since the beginning so developers know their apps have to scale. However, there is really no excuse for major apps not to scale now, nearly four years after the iPad first appeared. (And some apps are worse than on Android , notably the BBC iPlayer client.)

However, finding a decent mail client didn’t prove to be so easy. On Android I use AquaMail for all my mail needs including GMail; it provides a flat (non-threaded) message list and lets you delete messages easily (rather than insisting on you ‘archiving’ them as Google’s own client does) and configure just about everything. Apple Mail insists on a conversation view, as if everything is a forum, and hides the mail listing in a drawer, when you might want to see all of it at a time. There’s no client that does everything AquaMail does, but myMail comes pretty close. There are too many that insist on going into landscape mode when starting - I only ever use landscape for watching videos. None of them mention this in their App Store listing, either. A particularly dishonourable mention goes to Boxer, which added an entire set of sub-folders of its own to both the mail accounts I set it up to use.

However, the biggest weakness was what I expected it to be: the keypad, including Apple’s auto-correct system. Even on a fairly large screen, I can’t fit two hands on it and when I’m typing with two fingers, I need something that will cut down the number of key-presses I have to make to type a substantial amount of text (like this entry), and auto-correct, despite sometimes suggesting words and despite learning your writing habits to some extent, doesn’t cut it. (Even before Android’s keypads learn your style , they make some pretty educated guesses.) Apple have persisted with this inadequate keypad for years despite there having been better alternatives for years, charging a higher price than you pay for devices with this feature. You can now, as of last week, download an app called SwiftKey Note that has some of the features of their Android keypad, but you can only use it in that app and copy the text to another, not use it as the keypad. Perhaps Apple will argue that not allowing third-party launchers, keypads etc improves stability, but that shouldn’t stop them licensing the technology to improve their own product.

In short, it’s a high-quality piece of kit and smooth in operation, but it’s let down by annoying omissions and some bugs - the fact that it didn’t set my time correctly when I set my locale was the first one I noticed, just minutes after start-up, as well the fact that it doesn’t work well with a stylus , which means you have to use your fingers and the screen gets filthy very quickly (and don’t believe any shop assistant who tells you that any given stylus works - you have to press a lot harder than on a Nexus 7 to have any effect). I certainly won’t be getting an iPhone on the basis of this experience; not only have I got too much invested in Android, but the performance of my Android phone isn’t enough of a push factor, and iPhones are always vastly more expensive than the latest Nexus anyway. This device could be so much better, isn’t only because of perverse pride on Apple’s part, and should be given the money theycost.

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