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The UK is not the USSR, nor an abusive relationship

19 September, 2014 - 21:20

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

The article reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There will be FUD

13 September, 2014 - 18:00

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: @YesVoteScots.

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Ice buckets and cruelty

6 September, 2014 - 10:14

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

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

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

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

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Claire Dyer and the LB Bill

11 August, 2014 - 19:47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Claire Dyer: Transfer postponed!

29 July, 2014 - 14:45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Retirement flats’ to free up family homes

25 July, 2014 - 13:22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Online friends, suicide and threats thereof

20 July, 2014 - 14:08

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

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

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

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

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Claire threatened with secure unit transfer again

10 July, 2014 - 14:50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5 July, 2014 - 14:33

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

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

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

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McDougalls’ children removed yet again

23 June, 2014 - 14:08

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

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

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

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

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

22 June, 2014 - 13:26

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody foreigners

9 June, 2014 - 10:00

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

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

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

Ayn van Dyk is coming home at last

8 June, 2014 - 11:04

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

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

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

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

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