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No, we can’t hold all air shows by the sea

24 August, 2015 - 19:23

A picture of a Hawker Hunter jet in mid-air. The plane has been painted mostly blue with red, white and blue target symbols.I heard the most extraordinary and ridiculous interview on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. John Humphrys was interviewing John Turner from the British Air Display Association about the accident outside Shoreham, West Sussex on Saturday in which a 1950s fighter jet (a Hawker Hunter, right) crashed onto a highway, the A27, killing up to 20 people. In an interview with people around Shoreham, the last thing said was that local people wanted to make sure ‘something was done’ so that the annual air show could continue but that there were no future disasters. Humphrys started by asking him if he agreed with the sentiment that “something must be done”, and Turner responded by saying that his association had had 63 years of accident-free shows and that it was important not to speculate until proper investigations had been done.

Humphrys responded that he was not asking him to speculate, but rather if he agreed that the rules should be changed such that if another accident of this nature were to happen during a stunt, the plane would crash not onto a busy highway but into the sea. He said that air shows are important and that people love them, but they are entertainment and “don’t have to happen”, and accused Turner of not addressing his question as to why a pilot needs to be carrying out a stunt over a “built-up area” (which this was not; it was outside town). He kept repeating the point that the stunt should have taken place over the sea, especially as Shoreham is by the sea. Turner responded that “after 63 years of safe operation, this is a question of balance, I think”, that air shows are visited by millions every year, with an audience approaching that of football, and that they generated £79m last year for charities. Humphrys said that the long safety record is “in one sense” irrelevant, because when other aviation disasters happen, even after a long record of accident-free operation, the matter is investigated thoroughly and changes are made, and that it was “patently right” that if stunts happen over the sea, the number of casualties would be infinitely smaller.

Humphrys conducted all this with intermittent smirks and ‘patient reminders’ to his guest that he was not addressing the point he wanted him to address. Turner took time to respond each time, sometimes perhaps because the interview was “down the line” but also because he was perplexed at being expected to justify why air shows were not held to this stricture that nobody had ever considered before. Is Humphrys really suggesting that all air shows take place by the sea? We are not that small an island and most of our airfields are not near enough to the sea as to make this possible, and many of those do not have good rail or road links (Lydd in Kent springs to mind). Some airports that have long RAF histories (e.g. Farnborough) are used for air shows; Farnborough is a good 30 miles from the nearest sea. Even Shoreham’s airfield is not right by the sea; there is a railway line and another busy road (the A259), as well as some housing, in between. On the north side, there is the A27, a flood plain (through which runs another busy road, the A283) and one large building (Lancing College). It would arguably be less safe to have conducted that stunt on the south side of the airfield than it was on the north. And an air show does not have to be by the sea to avoid a plane crashing into a built-up area or onto a main road; it just has to be away from such hazards.

Google Map of Shoreham airfield areaAs it happens, there are new restrictions being imposed on air shows, with ‘vintage’ jets being restricted to flypasts with no stunts being performed over land, and all planes of the type involved (the Hawker Hunter) being grounded. But insisting that all such stunts happen over the sea is not only an unnecessarily draconian overraction but is classic “stable-door logic”, changing the rules to prevent a repetition of one particular disaster without considering how it might enable other types of disasters to happen in the future. The sea, especially near land, is not empty; a fighter plane crashing into the sea could come down on or near swimmers, boats or a pier, and could still cause loss of life and spill fuel; the explosion and materials projected could injure people on land. And there would be no point paying to go to an airfield to watch a flying show when you can sit on the beach and watch it for free.

But my real beef with this show was Humphrys’ manner. He sounded utterly sure that his solution was the obvious answer, and could not understand why the man who knew about air shows, having run their industry association for years, could not see that he was right. He treated his guest as an evasive politician trying to squirm off the hook when asked a difficult or potentially revealing question rather than someone dealing with an unprecedented situation, perhaps grieving, being presented with presumptuous demands to agree to an ‘obvious’ solution that had never occurred to anyone in 63 years of running air shows and being too polite to tell him that this was a ridiculous idea that would destroy the whole industry. John Humphrys may have a posher accent than BBC London’s old bully boy host Jon Gaunt, but he’s no less of a bully and in more than one case that I can think of, no less inappropriate. He should receive a stern dressing-down, but the BBC should be considering retiring him.

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Review: The World’s Worst Place to be Disabled

23 August, 2015 - 10:00

The World’s Worst Place… is a documentary featuring Sophie Morgan, a British model and TV presenter who has been a wheelchair user since being paralysed in a car accident twelve years ago, travelling to Ghana to investigate the situation facing disabled people there. She had been told by Shantha Rau Barriga, director of disability rights at Human Rights Watch, that Ghana was the world’s worst place to be disabled and that she would have to see it herself to believe it. So off she went, with her brother, to see various examples of poverty and discrimination facing disabled people, including children, around the country. I’m late reviewing this, so it’s only available for the next week here; the presenter has written a piece for the Huffington Post about the investigation.

Sophie Morgan, a young white woman in a wheelchair, facing Adamson, a young black man in a wheelchair with one of his legs bent over the other.She starts off interviewing Adamson, a homeless wheelchair user in the capital, Accra, who sleeps in a market (where he cannot remain during the day) and begs from motorists on a busy highway during the day, making not enough money to pay for a lift back home, meaning he has to wheel himself. He had been begging for ten years, originally hoping to go back to school, and said nobody had come to ask how they were doing or appeared to care. Sophie then takes him to where the city’s minibuses pick up passengers, but none of them would even consider taking her or Adamson despite their being able to dismantle their wheelchairs (Adamson appears to have a modern, lightweight chair; others have quite sophisticated wheelchairs but others use skateboards or crawl on their hands; this will have caught the eye of many disabled people watching, and in a lot of developing countries, poor people who need wheelchairs have to make do with wheelbarrows, or nothing). Sophie asks Adamson why he remains begging in Accra, and he tells her that things are far worse in the countryside where he comes from. So, off she and her brother go to investigate.

In the countryside, she finds one or two places where disabled people are being rehabilitated and taught life and work skills, mostly run by private philanthropy or foreign religious organisations, but there are a huge number of ‘prayer camps’ around the country which claim to be able to heal people’s impairments through prayer and by casting out demons. At one of the charity-run centres, an American nun told her that people often take their disabled relatives to her centre last because they go to a prayer camp or traditional healer first, and in a case she saw, this delay meant that a child needed an operation that could have been avoided by earlier medical treatment. She met one young man named Francis who had been kept in a dark room for years because he had some kind of mobility impairment; he initially claimed that his friends sometimes came to visit, but when someone who had been standing at the door telling him what to say was found out and left, he revealed that he only had his mother for company. Since the programme was made, Francis has died, and questions should be asked as to why, as he did not appear to be emaciated or ill.

An African woman wearing a blue, Muslim-style headscarf and a long pink and turcquoise dress, with chains around her ankleShe attempted to visit one prayer camp, a vast and apparently well-run establishment, but her guides told her that the management had refused to allow her to meet any ‘patients’, so she had to leave. She then went to a more downmarket camp run by a supposedly Muslim female mystic (oddly named Madam Irene) where disabled people were chained by their legs to posts or trees. One man she met had been tricked into coming there by his family some weeks ago and had only been allowed to wash twice, but towards the end of that segment an old lady was shown being chained to a tree without any complaint. The ‘Muslim’ mystic’s employees told Sophie that if parents brought her a child who “doesn’t look human”, i.e. have deformities, she would give them some potion or other and leave the child until he or she “goes back to the spirits”, i.e. dies. Accompanied by a Mr Burima, who works to protect disabled children in Ghana, she visits a bridge over a river where disabled children are given poisoned Schnapps by a “fetish priest” and then dumped in a river. He says that rituals like these are performed every Tuesday and Friday, and the place where this happens is next to a busy road; a Schnapps container has been discarded in the bushes.

An African man wearing a tall hat, a striped grey tunic with red trousers, with his right arm resting on a stone surface next to himShe then visits a “fetish priest” on the pretext of a consultation so he might cure her of her disability. She brings him two bottles of Schnapps and about £40 as a gift, and he sprinkles some seeds on a stone surface so as to “consult the gods” about her disability. He tells her that she was born someone great, but when she tried to be great her efforts came to nothing; that when she was a child her family tried to use witchcraft on her but her “spirit is great” so they could not do this. To heal her would be no problem at all, he said. She then told him that she was in fact injured in a car crash and asked him about the children that parents brought to him. He revealed that he disposed of them in much the same way as described by Mr Burima. After this, she says to the camera that this man murders children and that she does not want to talk to “this lunatic” anymore.

Mr Dennis of the National Council for People with Disabilities, a middle-aged African man wearing a pastel yellow and blue shirtAfter visiting another rehab centre in the countryside, she comes back to Accra and visits a government building (the one place she has been in which has ramps at the entrance) hoping to meet the minister for health, but instead she gets to meet a Mr Dennis, the secretary of the National Council for People with Disabilities, who has no obvious impairment of his own. She asks him what the government is doing, and he tells her that a large part of their work is “awareness raising”, including talking to disabled people, some of whom have accepted the treatment society throws at them, which she criticises for blaming disabled people for others’ neglect. He calls the country’s Disabilities Act a “very nice document”, but says that a lot of the problems are down to its provisions “not being respected”. She then tells him that people are chained up in some prayer camps, and Mr Dennis tells her that they had done nothing about this. As for the “fetish priests” and why they get away with murdering disabled children, he excuses this by saying they could only be prosecuted when there was “clear evidence”, which there often is not. Clearly it seems that the government is not doing much to make sure that fine words are translated into action and to stop the neglect and murders. One suspects that these beliefs are not confined to rural villages but that some people in power might believe them (or at least, are reliant on such people’s votes), but this wasn’t put to him.

A lot was missing from this documentary. She did not look at the sitation for disabled people in Accra itself other than by talking to one homeless man; there are surely disabled people trying to work or attend school, who surely must face some challenges: not only lack of public transport, but lack of accessible buildings, including clinics and perhaps even hospitals, discrimination, old-fashioned education practices such as boarding schools, and so on, and that’s only for the middle classes. In the countryside, she looked at extreme examples of neglect and abuse, but not what everyday life for disabled adults: can they get educated, work, marry? And her manner, and the style of this documentary, grated on my nerves the same way as Stacey Dooley’s documentaries do. There is too much focus on her reactions to what she sees; good documentaries let the facts do the talking.

A light-skinned African man with scars on his face with a blue and white striped T-shirt with his left hand missing and the stump covered in bandages, in a hospital in TanzaniaBut as for the question raised by the programme’s title, surely the answer is no. Ghana cannot be the worst place to be disabled because it is a prosperous country with a fairly free press where there is no war going on. That she was able to take a camera round and interview people without government agents harassing them speaks volumes. That is not the case in many other parts of Africa, and the beliefs that justify the killing of disabled children are not confined to Ghana: the belief that children are capable of witchcraft, may be possessed by demons, or similar, is widespread. In Tanzania, for example, nearly 80 albinos have been killed since 2000 because witch-doctors believe their body parts have medicinal properties (there are numerous pictures available of living albinos with missing limbs, for the same reason); earlier this year more than 200 of these witch-doctors were arrested. In other parts of West Africa, including neighbouring countries to Ghana, there have been civil wars in the past few years. This surely makes life more dangerous for all disabled people, whatever their parents’ beliefs.

But let’s not pretend we need to send a camera crew around a third-world country to find horrific examples of abuse of disabled people. If you’re experiencing long-term severe neglect, is it worse to be kept in a room at home where family can easily see you and bring you the same food they eat, or to be confined to a locked, padded room in a hospital 50 miles from home for seven years? No, we don’t have fetish priests dumping children in rivers, and this may be a fairly good place to be a middle-class person with an uncomplicated disability, but our care of people with complex disabilities, with mental health problems and learning disabilities (particularly if combined), while it may be more technologically advanced, is still often abysmal and they still die unnecessarily young, and unlike Ghana, we do not have the excuse of poverty.

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Fear-free healthcare, revisited

22 August, 2015 - 18:16

Picture of Emily Collingridge, a young white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a cream colour T-shirt wiht a long necklace of ornaments and a thick braceletBack in 2012, I published on this site a manifesto of sorts, calling for healthcare in the UK to be free of fear. Back then I was heavily involved in ME activism and three people with severe ME had died, notably the author and charity volunteer Emily Collingridge. These days my activism is mostly in the area of learning disability, but the same problems which provoked that article exist in this area too: where people need to go into hospital, neither they nor their family can be confident that they will not encounter prejudice against their condition, hard-set beliefs, abuse, neglect or isolation from their friends and family.

The readmission of Maisie Shaw, the young girl from Hull who was the focus of a campaign to re-open an adolescent unit in Hull earlier this year, who was suddenly released in June, to a hospital in Manchester last week (there are press reports, but I’m not linking them as they give details of precisely what led up to this, which I don’t think should be in the public domain) reminded me of those ideas, as I was immediately apprehensive: would she be bullied? Would she end up there much longer than expected, as has happened to other young people? Two of my friends have been suffering mental health crises in the past couple of weeks and I have had the same fears for them (one of them more than the other).

Picture of Nico Reed, a young white boy with ginger hair wearing a blue jumper and dark blue tracksuit bottoms, standing in a blue standing frame with a brown leather harness on.Today is also the third anniversary of the death of Nico Reed, a young man with severe physical disabilities who died in a supported living ‘home’ run by the NHS trust, Southern Health, which also ran the hospital unit where Connor Sparrowhawk died in 2013. Nico was prone to vomiting at night, and choked to death in bed; he died because he was not checked on in good time (although the physiotherapy which had kept this in check while he was at boarding school had also been discontinued; the inquest did not cast its net as widely as this). When Nico’s mother first told her story last year, she said that when Nico’s therapies stopped and his swallowing and choking problems returned, he became “thin, depressed and frightened”. Professionals were warning that Nico’s life was in danger; one physiotherapist even visited Nico in her own time to perform the therapies he needed, because she was so concerned about his welfare.

Nico’s mother has posted a week of blog entries leading up to the anniversary; today’s features a video in which she talks about how she was treated by the NHS trust after Nico’s death.

When I was involved in ME activism, the Syrian civil war was just starting, and hospitals in Syria were known stamping grounds for the country’s secret police; if you were a dissident, you might not survive an admission to hospital. In this country, along with many an advanced democracy, it is not your political views but a poorly-understood condition or behaviour the staff find challenging (whether it really comes under the category of “challenging behaviour” or not) are what could turn a hospital from a safe place to a frightening and dangerous one. This is because of attitudes among some professionals, and their power and lack of accountability. All these things must change if hospitals are to become genuinely safe places for people with chronic and mental health conditions, places where one need not fear that those who are meant to help you might become your enemy or your tormentor.

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Why does Amnesty need a policy on prostitution?

16 August, 2015 - 14:35

A group of people, mainly women, holding glasses of what looks like champaigne. One of them is holding a yellow rosette.Last week, Amnesty International adopted a policy supporting the decriminalisation of the sex trade after a debate in which it was subjected to intense lobbying from two groups of feminists (amid renewed mud-slinging between them; the two groups are the same as the pro- and anti-transgender feminist groups), one of which supports it because it claims a large proportion of ‘sex workers’ are in the business out of choice and need safer working conditions, while another regards the trade as inherently exploitative and abusive, questions the ‘choices’ that led to most of the women coming into the industry, and supports a “Nordic model” in which the selling of sex (mostly done by women) is decriminalised but the buying of it (mostly done by men) is a criminal offence. When Amnesty adopted the policy, feminists (those who had opposed it) denounced it as voting “in favour of pimps and johns over women’s human right to safety”; particular distaste was expressed for the spectacle of Amnesty staff sharing a bottle of champagne (!) after the vote was passed. This is how Amnesty justified their new policy.

This is the second time that I’ve noticed Amnesty International straying into areas far beyond what they were set up to address, which is the violation of the political human rights of peaceful people. When I was first introduced to them at school in the 1990s, their two principal activities were campaigning to free people who were imprisoned for the peaceful expression of political or religious views, and the abolition of capital punishment and opposition to the execution of individuals, guilty or otherwise. The latter policy was introduced because, as someone who came to talk to us at college said, it was not evil murderers that got it, but poor and mentally disabled people, often innocent or mentally ill, who could not afford proper legal defence, and often for political reasons. Some of the requests for letters in such cases did provoke anger from members, as in one case where the magazine printed an alert about a murderer in Guatemala who was facing the death penalty, and it was a multiple, sexually aggravated murder; but their reasoning was pretty sound as far as the United States was concerned (and the politically-motivated execution of a mentally disabled offender was a factor in its abolition in the UK).

In the last few years, however, they seem to have morphed into a generic liberal human rights campaign group — the letter-writing campaigns to free political prisoners are no longer prominent on their website — and this tendency has been long in development. In 1992 their British magazine Amnesty carried an extract from the book Princess by Jean Sasson, one of a genre of “first-person female narrative potboilers” about nasty Arab men and powerless Arab female victims, in this case ostensibly based on the diaries of an anonymous Saudi princess. The extract was about the execution of a Saudi 14-year-old girl after she had become pregnant as a result of a gang rape by some of her brothers’ friends; the usual punishment (flogging) had been ‘upgraded’ to the death penalty at the request of her father, who was “never comfortable with daughters”. Amnesty printed this highly dubious story without displaying any doubts as to its authenticity, but went one step further by omitting to mention that this story appeared in Sasson’s book before the assassination of King Faisal, which took place in 1974. It also made no secret of its prejudice against Islam, titling the extract “Surrender to the Will of God”, the translation of “Islam” given by Sasson, when what is described, if it happened at all, is completely against Islam (like the “Woman’s Room” story in the same book).

In 2007 Amnesty changed its policy on abortion from neutrality to supporting it in cases of rape or incest or where the mother’s life is in danger, which they justified with reference to large-scale rape in places like Darfur (a red herring since abortion would never be legalised in such places, nor supported by the population; it was aimed at places like Ireland, the USA and Latin America). This led to some organisations which had supported their work in freeing political prisoners withdrawing it, notably the Catholic church, which may not be able to compel adult supporters to abandon it but can, for example, shut down Amnesty groups in its schools, which were vital in raising support for its main work of freeing political prisoners. At the time, I referred to this as “mission creep”, a term originally coined to refer to military adventures straying well beyond their original purpose, but which often seems to affect campaigning organisations, resulting in the loss of some who supported their original aims. Of course, many of the feminists who condemn them for this latest advance into areas which have nothing to do with freeing prisoners of conscience supported them then.

However, that policy no doubt reflected the views of most of their western supporters. They are quite out of their depth here, and I suspect many who have heard about this on the news or social media will be scratching their heads and thinking “why do Amnesty need to have a policy on this at all?”. Their press release mentions a number of other global organisations which they say have taken a similar line, but as with Amnesty International, these groups may not have developed these policies independently (despite claims of “years of research”) but rather given in to lobbying; and if numerous other groups are campaigning on this issue already, why does Amnesty need to follow the crowd? It reflects a move away from defending basic, political human rights into criticising areas of policy and advancing western liberal ideas while disguising them as universal human rights. The ‘right’ to buy and sell sex is not a universal human right, and the doctrine of ‘consenting adults’ (i.e. that there should be no legal restrictions on what they can and cannot do with their bodies) is a modern liberal value, not a universal human right. Adopting these ideas as policy means Amnesty looks less like a broad movement for universal human rights and can make less headway with governments who do not share them, which the majority across the world do not.

Some of Amnesty’s divergences from campaigning to free political prisoners are wholly consistent with that aim — ending torture, ending the death penalty (although it has most relevance in a western, particularly American, context), controlling the arms trade, corporate accountability for things like forced labour and displacement of populations, for example. If they wanted to extend their reach in ending imprisonment and torture for innocent people, they might embrace the right of mentally ill people not to live in chains and for disabled people not to live their whole lives shut away in institutions, denied basic rights or exploited. These rights are not secure even in western countries, let alone anywhere else. Yet although Amnesty has a few briefings about it on their website (and do emphasise disability in death penalty cases), they do not have a campaign on the issue, despite it being far more consistent with their original aims than supporting the right to abortion or the decriminalisation of prostitution.

I am not saying Amnesty should have listened uncritically to the lobbying from the “Nordic model” campaigners. While I agree with them that prostitution should be ended and the Nordic model seeks to achieve this rather than letting the trade go on in the open, they place all responsibility on the users (mostly men), assuming them to be abusers or even rapists, while assuming that all “sex workers” are victims, which many are but not all. Others enter the trade becuase, despite the inherent degradation and risks, it is more lucrative than working as a cleaner or shop assistant. This model should certainly apply to cases where someone is in prostitution not of their own free will and the user knows it, but the law should not assume that a transaction (or relationship) that could be exploitative necessarily is. But the majority of human societies recognise that prostitution is a bad thing in itself and do not want it carried out in the open, not only because of the risk to sex workers’ health and safety but because they do not want to live next to it or for their children to have to, and because they do not want it influencing their sons’ behaviour or expectations or impacting on their daughters’ relationships. The slogan “sex workers’ rights are human rights” is chosen because it is difficult to disagree with, but their neighbours’ rights, and other women’s and children’s rights, are human rights too. This is why Amnesty should not be getting involved.

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Review of Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant

8 August, 2015 - 19:47

Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant is another part of BBC Three’s ongoing season of programmes about disability, Defying the Label. In this two-part series, four young people with mobility impairments of differing severity were matched with carers by another disabled man who apparently specialises in matching carers to disabled people. This programme sought to get unemployed and inexperienced young people into caring jobs under the premise that there were all these unemployed young people and all these disabled people who needed carers or assistants. The result, as you might imagine, was that some of the recruits were very poorly matched indeed. (If you’re in the UK, you can watch episode 1 here for the next two weeks, and episode 2 here for the next three.)

Picture of Jasmine, a young white woman wearing a dress with flowers on a black background, sitting in a wheelchairThe disabled people featured were Jasmine (right), a young woman with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA); Josh, who is a survivor of a brain injury from a cycling accident when he was 12; Rupy, who has cerebral palsy; and finally Michael, who is a quadriplegic following a diving accident while at university. With the exception of Josh, all of them are power-wheelchair users who are fairly successful; Josh, who can walk but has impaired arm function,. is a comedian who does a routine in comedy clubs styling himself “the disabled gangsta” and cracking jokes about disability. Josh is seeking to break away from having his parents do his personal care for him by having an assistant his own age, and believes having his father around when he is socialising is getting in the way of ‘pulling’ girls; the other three have no such concerns, but need the assistant to do cook, clean, wash and dress them and in some cases help them in their work.

The carer matched to Michael thought she could stomach emptying his bladder and bowels manually, but despite having done it to a dummy while in training, could not bring herself to do it for Michael, which resulted in his having to call an agency carer. (This job cannot just be left, as an overfull bowel or bladder can result in a life-threatening complication called autonomic dysreflexia or AD in a person with a high-level spinal cord injury.) The next day, she emptied his bladder, but was so disgusted when she got splashed with his urine (they did not say whether it went on her skin or her clothes — and she was wearing long sleeves) that she resigned. She eventually got a job as a legal secretary, then moved to Bahrain according to the closing captions; this rather suggested that she had no intention of pursuing a career in care (and let’s face it, it’s not well-paid, something this programme didn’t mention at any point).

The best match was that of Jasmine with Emily, and crucially she was the carer who was most like the person she was caring for: same sex, same age, looks so similar they could be cousins at least, and a similar cultural outlook. Emily and Jasmine got on extremely well and Jasmine had no complaints about how Emily washed and dressed her, but both did worry about how her lifestyle and lack of cooking and cleaning skills would impact on Jasmine’s health; Jasmine at one point revealed that a friend of hers had died just weeks ago because of an infection. Fortunately, one day while Jasmine was out doing something or other, Emily cleaned her flat from top to bottom, much to Jasmine’s satisfaction. Emily was the only one to keep the job.

A still in dim light of Josh and Francesca in an art gallery, Francesca explaining a Van Gogh painting to JoshThe most interesting story was that of Josh and Francesca, a rather prim, middle-class arts student who described herself as a committed feminist. Josh obviously came from a working-class background, liked his drink and called himself “the mong with the big dong”. He was rather obsessed with ‘getting laid’ and believed that all the other young lads were doing it, and that he wasn’t only because of his disability. Josh wanted Francesca to help him ‘pull’, but she was clearly uncomfortable in his world and was not much help. Then he decides to go on a trip to Amsterdam, which she is thrilled by, only she has ideas of visiting all the museums and art galleries and he wants to go to the Red Light district and, perferably, sleep with a prostitute. (She liked the idea of going to one of Amsterdam’s cafés but neither of them mentioned stronger chemicals than caffeine.) She has strong moral objections to this, regarding it as exploitation, and said she would resign if he actually did this. They agreed to both visit the galleries and tour the red light area, but he would not avail himself of their services.

In the event, he is nonplussed by the art (when Francesca explains that the bright colours in one painting were the result of the painter’s emotions colouring his view of something, Josh replied “maybe he was just colourblind”) although he says he loves Francesca’s company; Francesca is made profoundly uncomfortable by the women on display and men leering at them in the RLD. The pair meet with a dominatrix who explains that many of the girls are in fact in the ‘trade’ by choice, but Francesca feels that she and Josh have ganged up on her. In the end, Francesca insists on going back to the hotel early, which gives Josh a major disappointment as he had agreed to “do Francesca’s shit” and that she would do his. However, the next morning, they are both in a better mood, and Francesca suggests that they build an online dating profile for Josh and he accepts that his manner may be putting women off. In the end, the two stay friends but Francesca ceases to be his carer, as the two don’t want a “job” getting in the way of a beautiful friendship.

The premise of the programme — that the multitudes of unemployed should mean it’s easy to find assistants for all those disabled people who need them — was really not sound at all. While I’m very well aware that there are too many jobs out there where employers demand experience when it is not really needed, providing personal care or assistance to a severely disabled person is not something to do just because you need a job. It did not appear that any of these candidates had ever provided personal care for anyone, and they were not asked whether they had assisted in the care of an elderly relative or a baby. The issue of whether some of the disabled participants wanted a male or female carer was not asked, and they all got women (which nobody objected to here although it’s not always appropriate); a disabled female friend who advertised for a female PA a few months ago told me when I tweeted about this aspect that she had received a number of applications from men. It was possible, she agreed, that some of these had applied just to apply for as many jobs as possible to please their JSA “advisor”. And a good many of my disabled friends who have employed PAs or carers for themselves or relatives (for a variety of impairments from autism to motor neurone disease) have complained of incompetence, lateness, no-shows and in one case, theft.

I was on Job Seekers’ Allowance for two years (2008 to 2010) and although my interest in disability issues only really started halfway through that, the idea of inflicting myself on a quadriplegic when I couldn’t stomach emptying their bowels or changing another adult’s dirty nappies never occurred to me, nor was it suggested. If anyone is suggesting this to an unemployed person with no care experience, they should be stopped immediately. This series demonstrated, if inadvertantly as the issue really wasn’t discussed, that the job of providing intimate day-to-day care for a person with a severe mobility impairment is not a job to be left to anyone who walks in off the street: they need to be professional and not squeamish. If an agency provided too many carers like the one Michael got in this series, they would not last long in the business.

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Yes, we do get rid of ‘hate preachers’

2 August, 2015 - 22:26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: Calais Migrant Solidarity.

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There’s more to the Binladins than OBL

1 August, 2015 - 17:32

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

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

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

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

27 July, 2015 - 22:03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Don’t Take My Baby

24 July, 2015 - 09:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-FGM crusade brings out the busybodies

23 July, 2015 - 11:53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On feminists and girls’ school uniforms

20 July, 2015 - 21:46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Hadith 38′ isn’t about war

19 July, 2015 - 12:54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Close the units down?

18 July, 2015 - 11:02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 July, 2015 - 16:02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Kids in Crisis

2 July, 2015 - 17:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who’s sorry?

30 June, 2015 - 09:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hard come, easy go

27 June, 2015 - 13:23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No, we’re not “quietly condoning” ISIS

24 June, 2015 - 17:03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Magna Carta: the baby steps

15 June, 2015 - 20:52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, Maisie’s home, but …

14 June, 2015 - 16:00

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

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

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

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

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

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