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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 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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So, the al-Qa’ida chiefs don’t like ISIS

13 June, 2015 - 18:41

Picture of Abu Qatada, a white man with a dark complexion with a long grey beard, wearing a loose beige Arab head covering and a light grey topLast Thursday, the Guardian carried a lengthy feature (the “big read” in their comment section) as well as a front-page article on how prominent members of al-Qa’ida have come out against ISIS. The long piece, written by Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili, features an interview with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a leader of al-Qa’ida in Jordan who spent many years in jail, as well as Abu Qatada (Omar Mahmoud Othman, right), a Palestinian preacher and scholar who operated in London from 1993 to 2002 and who some claim was a leading ideologue for al-Qa’ida. He was arrested in 2002 and spent much of the next 11 years in prison fighting deportation to Jordan, where he had been convicted of terrorism offences; he was acquitted of those in 2014.

The article claims that he was the first to pronounce the Saudi royal family as apostates, that his views were once considered extreme even by Osama bin Laden, that he counts al-Qa’ida’s current leader, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a personal friend (how he manages that given that they live in separate countries it doesn’t say) and “may be best known for personally mentoring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the organisation that would later become Isis, while the two men were jailed together on terrorism charges in Jordan in the mid-1990s”. However, after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate last June, Maqdisi released a long tract condemning ISIS as “ignorant and misguided”. ISIS in return have launched a social media campaign against Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, calling them stooges of the west and at one point calling them “misleading scholars” who should be avoided more than the Devil. A doctor who was present when the two scholars were interviewed said that donations to al-Qa’ida had dried up since the rise of ISIS, as donors either switched their allegiance or refused to fund hostilities between the two, and in some places al-Qa’ida cells are selling cars and computers to pay for food and rent.

According to the report:

The list of Isis’s crimes that have offended Maqdisi and Abu Qatada is long. They include creating division within the wider jihadi movement, publicly snubbing Zawahiri and establishing a caliphate to which Isis demands every other jihadi swear fealty or face death. For more than a year both say they have worked behind the scenes, negotiating with Isis – including with Baghdadi himself – to bring the group back into the al-Qaida fold, to no avail. “Isis don’t respect anyone. They are ruining the wider jihadi movement and are against the whole ummah [Muslim nation],” Abu Qatada said.

… As Qatada poured tea into small glass tumblers, he began reeling off images to better communicate the depth of his loathing for Isis. He likes speaking in metaphors. The group, he said, was “like a bad smell” that has polluted the radical Islamic environment. No, they were better described as a “cancerous growth” within the jihadi movement – or, he continued, like the diseased branch of a fig tree that needs to be pruned before it kills the entire organism.

… Both men are particularly appalled, they said, by the way Isis has used their scholarship to cloak its savagery in ideological legitimacy, to gain recruits and justify its battle with al-Qaida and its affiliates. “Isis took all our religious works,” Maqdisi said. “They took it from us – it’s all our writings, they are all our books, our thoughts.” Now, Abu Qatada said, “they don’t respect anyone”.

Such impudent behaviour, the two men agreed, would never have been accepted in the days when Bin Laden was alive. “No one used to speak against him,” Maqdisi lamented. “Bin Laden was a star. He had special charisma.” But despite their personal affection for his successor, Zawahiri – whom they call “Dr Ayman” – they both admit that he does not possess the authority and control to rebuff the threat from Isis. From the “very beginning” of his tenure, Zawahiri lacked “direct military or operational control,” Qatada said. “He has become accustomed to operating in this decentralised way – he is isolated.”

The report does not question the motives behind the two men’s sentiments, but it should not be surprising that al-Qa’ida should be afraid and suspicious about the rise of any major rival jihadi group. To begin with, al-Qa’ida have never had a state of their own; ISIS have gone ahead and set one up. In doing so, they have given an impression of what sort of a place an Islamic state ruled by al-Qa’ida would be like, as they have much the same ideological underpinnings. In fact, al-Qa’ida contributed directly to the downfall of two Muslim countries (Chechnya and Afghanistan) by using them as bases for their activities. It is no surprise that donors have switched their allegiance to ISIS as they can see the fruits in conquests on the ground, not pointless acts of destruction. It is no surprise that jihadi fighters would rather fight for ISIS, since the surviving members of al-Qa’ida are all either in jail, on the run with prices on their heads, or living in countries that are hostile to them (including Jordan), or in small pockets of territory, rather than in a large pocket of territory spanning two countries. Work for al-Qa’ida and you never know if your comrade is about to turn you in to the FBI; that won’t happen if you’re in ISIS territory.

Al-Qa’ida has nothing to show for nearly 20 years of bloodshed. Only one of the dictatorships of the Arab world has fallen (Tunisia), and that was nothing to do with them; all the Gulf dynasties remain in power, still supported by Western powers, many of them remain popular and some have increased in power and wealth since the 90s when al-Qa’ida started. They thought they could start a big war and force Muslims to side with them in the face of oppression from non-Muslims and their client rulers, but it failed to produce the tide of recruits they had been hoping for. People blamed them for the consequences of their actions or denied that the actions were the work of al-Qa’ida at all, attributing them to the government or a Zionist conspiracy, or both. They perhaps overestimated the anger of Muslims at the stationing of American troops in the Arabian peninsula during and (long) after the Gulf war, and in any case failed to capitalise on it. The al-Qa’ida remnants accuse ISIS of using their ‘scholarship’ to justify their ‘savagery’, but al-Qa’ida used it also to justify bombing innocent people in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, New York, London and many other places.

The two articles have some amusing revelations about how the US, so invested in fighting al-Qa’ida that it has military bases in every Middle Eastern country except Iran, still insists that the major terrorist threat comes from al-Qa’ida. In a sense they may be right, as ISIS may turn out to be less of a terrorist threat than a straightforward military one. But the anger of Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi sounds like resentment that some young whippersnappers have usurped their elders’ role and achieved rulership when they did not. They hate ISIS because they stole al-Qa’ida’s thunder. They have not become moderates, and are not moderates compared to ISIS; they are just an older version of the same thing with a discredited methodology, and are tolerated by some rulers now because ISIS are more feared, and al-Qa’ida cannot get recruits. They are yesterday’s men, and both they and the authorities know it.

Image source: Wikipedia, originally from the UK Home Office, released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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On Thomas Rawnsley’s 21st, Maisie’s tweet storm and the Kesgrave abuse inquiry

7 June, 2015 - 14:32

A picture of Thomas Rawnsley, a young man with Down's syndrome wearing a red Heinz tomato sauce T-shirt, holding a small birthday cake with a large '20' candle on itToday would have been Thomas Rawnsley’s 21st birthday. Thomas was a man with Down’s syndrome and autism, who was in a succession of care homes and NHS hospital units from 2013 until he died of pneumonia earlier this year. His mother had been fighting to get him individual provision in his home town, but a Court of Protection judge last year sided with those who wanted to keep him institutionalised. Thomas’s family were planning a protest outside Downing Street to mark his birthday, but had to cancel it because of a planned rail strike (which was itself, in the event, cancelled). Bringing Us Together have a collection of blog posts about Thomas and you may like to read my post from the week after he died. There is still an appeal for Thomas’s family’s costs, which have raised £4,345 (of a target of £20,000) at the time of writing.

As a reminder of why getting people with learning disabilities out of units like the one Thomas suffered in, this week a unit in Lincolnshire was temporarily closed after “a number of serious incidents”; the chief executive of the Lincolnshire Partnership NHS trust said that these were related to standards of care and patient safety. The patients have either been discharged or transferred elsewhere (which, of course, could be hundreds of miles away). So four years after Winterbourne View and nearly two years after the death of Connor Sparrowhawk, standards of care in some NHS learning disability units are still poor.

Graphic showing Maisie Shaw holding a sign saying "I miss home. I miss Mummy" with instructions as to how to participate in the tweet storm (see this paragraph).This evening at 7pm BST, Maisie Shaw’s family are holding a “tweet storm” to press the Department of Health and NHS England to re-open an inpatient paediatric mental health unit in Hull so that children in mental health crisis do not have be moved out of area to get treatment. In Maisie’s case this means a secure unit in Bury, and in at least one other case children were transferred to a unit in Cheadle which also houses young offenders as no other accommodation was available. The latest on Maisie herself is that she is being prepared for discharge but it was delayed after she disappeared on a home visit two weeks ago and was found only after she had injured herself. The police took 13 hours to respond and the local hospital did not know how to respond to a child in a mental health crisis, and in the end staff had to be called from the unit in Bury to take her back. If you are taking part in the Tweet Storm then please include the hashtag #getmaisiehome and link the petition.

On a more personal note, I heard from the police in Suffolk two weeks ago that no further charges are to be pressed regarding the physical abuse that took place at my school, Kesgrave Hall, in the 1980s and 90s; I have written about this extensively on this site in the past but another former pupil, Alexander Hanff, had a piece published on the Guardian’s website last week about the effect the abuse (much more of which was sexual than in my case) and the investigation had on him; you can read the long comment by me underneath it. One member of staff (John McKno, who I never met) is still facing charges, but the other abuse accusations were all of common assault which cannot be prosecuted this long after the event (I was told this by the police when I spoke to them, so this news was not a surprise to me), and some of the staff involved are dead, including two who committed suicide after the police caught up with them. One of the dead is Victor Harris, the abusive care worker named in a previous entry, although his death was nothing to do with the investigation. I was also told that none of the former staff are still teaching, and could not have continued to do so after being the focus of an investigation of this kind.

The two other reasons they could not pursue charges were that they could not have persuaded a jury that the staff’s behaviour was not lawful chastisement, as corporal punishment was not banned in private schools in 1987 as it was in state schools, and that reports from boys conflicted, with some old boys speaking very highly of members of staff that others said were abusive. (As I wrote in my comment, the first reason is dubious because staff knew that using force was illegal and told us this many times as an excuse for why they could not discipline bullies; they would use violence, which could not at all be confused with controlled physical punishment, in response to petty personal slights.) I didn’t particularly want to give evidence and have to prove that the abuse was abuse, while various people would have been on hand to claim I was out of control or making a fuss about nothing. I’m glad some of these men have had the frighteners put on them and that the abuse has been exposed.

We must not let things like this happen again; we must not take people from happy homes and put them in institutions when there is no need. I was sent there because the teaching community in Croydon chose to wash its hands of me because I was a bit of a handful — and yes, that’s really all it was. There must be due diligence about the sort of places we send people to when they really need residential care, but there must be an expectation that parents parent and professionals do their jobs. When these things don’t happen, people with special needs of whatever type end up on the “waste-heap of life”. It stinks. And it can’t be allowed to go on.

 'Learning Disability, Autism, Down's Syndrome, Learning Disabled, Assessment & Treatment Units'.

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Boycott ISIS? Boycott what?

4 June, 2015 - 22:27

Picture of a Palestinian woman wearing a white scarf and pink jacket clinging to an olive tree, with an Israeli military vehicle behind itThere is a story going around that the NUS recently passed a motion to align itself with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, while a year ago having rejected a motion to boycott ISIS. The Jerusalem Post reported the Israeli PM’s reaction to the vote, which in another story it claimed was passed 19-14. JPost put it in the context of all the forces ranged against Israel worldwide, such as how “in the UN, Turkey and Iran voted in favor of recognizing as an NGO a group linked to Hamas which fires missiles on Israeli cities, while hiding behind civilians”, also quoting a dissenting NEC member, Joe Vinson, who “tweeted later that anti-Semitism is like a virus, it mutates and infects everything it touches, it has mutated into BDS and the NUS is infected”. (There is a response from Electronic Intifada here.) Nobody passing the story around seems to have considered why one vote passed and the other didn’t: what on earth is there to boycott about ISIS?

The motion was not passed by the union’s conference but by the executive council, hence the small number of people voting (there are hundreds at conference), which means it can be overturned at the next conference. JPost claimed that the vote was “aligning all British students with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel”, which in fact it does not; it aligns the NUS itself, and is not binding on individual members or even on affiliated local student unions (although some of them have passed pro-BDS motions). What it means is presumably that the NUS won’t be serving up dates, humous or other Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food sourced from Israel at any of its events. How much they already buy, the story does not say.

I looked over the earlier motion and one of its clauses is to “encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers”. Boycott them how? There is Israeli produce (some of it grown in illegal settlements) in every British supermarket — citrus, dates, humous, avocadoes among other things. What do we buy from anyone who might be supplying ISIS? I can’t remember ever having seen Iraqi produce in British shops and Syrian only in a few specialist Arab food shops, and I wouldn’t have thought ISIS would be exporting food when they need it for themselves. Perhaps some arms manufacturer is doing so, indirectly, but most students in the UK don’t own or carry weapons and those that do would not admit it. Would the NUS have to choose where to get its Middle Eastern antiquities from? Perhaps they put ‘boycott’ so as not to put ‘turn in’ or something similar, which would have (rightly) invited the criticism that it encourages students to snoop and inform on each other, but boycotting only has any point to it if it involves changing one’s behaviour and making a sacrifice.

Student Union boycotts are very largely symbolic, in any case. They can stop stocking certain companies’ goods (unions did not sell Nestlé products for many years, and possibly still do not), but as all their funding comes from the colleges (nobody pays a fee to join), they receive public money and are restricted in being able to make decisions that involve money on other than quality or value-for-money grounds, and as the NUS receives most of its money from union affiliation fees, it is subject to the same restrictions. At my university (Aberystwyth), a motion was once proposed that the Guild join the Lloyds and Midland Boycott on the grounds that those banks (Midland is now part of HSBC) were involved in arms deals, but it was pointed out that the union would have to take the best deal, whether it came from the Co-Operative Bank or the Midland.

When I first heard of this, I thought the proposer must have been an Israeli sympathiser looking to accuse the NUS of anti-Semitism or hypocrisy after it (inevitably) rejected it. In fact, the proposer was Kurdish and the main argument against was from the NUS Black Students’ officer, Malia Bouattia, on the grounds that “condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamaphobia”, which the authors of the motion claim they could find no trace of in the wording, but perhaps Ms Bouattia thought there was enough noise about ISIS in the media, coupled with a lot of obvious Islamophobia, for the NUS to need to add to it. The NUS seems to do an awful lot of motion-passing, condemning or ‘supporting’ a lot of causes that have nothing to do with students in the UK or anywhere else, but a boycott only makes sense if there is something to boycott, which in the case of ISIS, there isn’t.

Image source: The Ecologist.

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Time to bring the air industry down to earth

31 May, 2015 - 13:40

 I am sitting on a United airlines flight in the air 30,000ft above and I am in tears of humiliation from discrimination. The flight attendant asked me what I would like to drink and I requested a can of diet coke. She brought me a can that was open so I requested an unopened can due to hygienic reasons. She said no one has consumed from the drink, but I requested an unopened can. She responded, "Well I'm sorry I just can't give you an unopened can so no diet coke for you." She then brought the man sitting next to me a can of UNOPENED beer. So I asked her again why she refused to give me an UNOPENED can of diet coke. She said, "We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a WEAPON on the plane." So I told her that she was clearly discriminating against me because she gave the man next to me an unopened can of beer. She looked at his can, quickly grabbed it and opened it and said, "it's so you don't use it as a weapon." Apphauled at her behavior I asked people around me if they witnessed this discriminatory and disgusting behavior and the man sitting in an aisle across from me yelled out to me, "you Moslem, you need to shut the F** up." I said, "what?!" He then leaned over from his seat, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "yes you know you would use it as a WEAPON so shut the f**k up." I felt the hate in his voice and his raging eyes. I can't help but cry on this plane because I thought people would defend me and say something. Some people just shook their heads in dismay. ‪#‎IslamophobiaISREAL‬Yesterday a story started circulating on social media in which an American female Muslim chaplain named Tahera Ahmad, who was travelling on a United Airlines flight (run by a partner, Shuttle America), asked for a Diet Coke and was given a can which had already been opened. The stewardess refused to give her one that was unopened because it could be used as a weapon, and her behaviour made it clear that this was because of her religion (she gave an unopened beer can to the white male passenger next to her, although when she challenged this, the stewardess took it and opened it for him). The incident, which she reported on Facebook and the screenshot from which has been shared thousands of times, has led to a call to boycott United until they apologise. I think there needs to be more pressure on airlines, and it has to come from above as well as from below. (United published a response to the story; Tahera Ahmad has published her response to that on Facebook, saying she is “truly disappointed”.)

I’ve been seeing stories about airline discrimination for years, and this is one area where my role as Muslim blogger and disability blogger intersect. In the UK, stringent anti-discrimination laws apply even to small businesses, as we see from time to time when a small hotel owner is fined for refusing a gay couple a double bed, or a baker for refusing to ice a pro-gay-marriage slogan on a cake. Yet the obstruction of disabled people in air travel, a much larger industry, persists. Apart from a number of incidents of Muslims being thrown off aeroplanes in the USA after 9/11 because pilots did not want to fly them, the majority of victims of airline discrimination (as opposed to discrimination by the state, such as intrusive searches, no-fly lists, exclusion from a country for spurious reasons and so on) have been disabled travellers. Every time I read about one of these incidents, the same thought goes through my head: these companies really are a law unto themselves. They discriminate apparently freely, and just as they apologise and give a free ticket to one traveller they have harassed or delayed because of their disability, there is another story, indicating that they do not learn from these incidents and perhaps they believe that paying out the odd free ticket costs less than changing their procedures, making alterations to accept wheelchairs on planes, and training their staff to not discriminate and to show basic courtesy.

Of course, there are laws prohibiting discrimination by airlines against disabled people, but the penalties have to be tough enough that the airlines will not find it easier to just pay up and carry on regardless. The US Department of Transport publishes statistics each year regarding the number of complaints about disability discrimination, and the statistics for 2013 (the most recent year available) are here. They show that, for example, a total of 546 complaints were received by wheelchair users (divided into paraplegic, quadriplegic and ‘other wheelchair’) about damage to assistive devices (most likely wheelchairs); 205 similar complaints were received from people with allergies. A very large number of complaints were received about the storage of the devices and the delay getting them back (from the same groups, but “other disability” is also heavily represented here); there were also quite a large number of complaints about refusals to allow boarding, mostly from oxygen-dependent people and the “other disability” category. The numbers of complaints have gone up year on year except for 2011, which may reflect the growth in air travel, but it also reflects a failure by the airlines to address problems which have been known of for years. William Peace noted in a recent blog entry that insurers will not cover a wheelchair on a plane, because the risk of it getting damaged is so great.

A further cause of discrimination and damage by airlines is their tendency to mysteriously and suddenly change policies, such that when a passenger checks in, regardless of whatever written assurances they have received, they are not allowed to board in the manner they had expected, or at all. This happened to musician Dave Schneider, who was prevented from taking his Gibson guitar on board a Delta Airlines flight from Buffalo to Detroit in December 2012, despite having been allowed to take it on a previous Delta flight from Portland to Philadelphia; the instrument was damaged on the carousel just before Schneider could retrieve it. (They later agreed to pay for the repairs ‘and more’, and Gibson gave him a special edition of the same model.) When the BBC reported on how restrictions on hand luggage in the UK were causing damage to instruments and costing musicians a lot of money, one woman wrote that her $30,000 cello, which she had grown up with, was smashed in transit after the airline reneged on their agreement to let it be carried in the cabin. And disabled people often find that, despite assurances to the contrary (or having received no indications to the effect until they get to the airport), they are refused boarding unless they have an attendant, often with the excuse that they will impede other passengers’ exit in the case of an emergency — the “safety hazard” excuse that every disabled person has heard.

Why does this happen? I believe that quite simply the law has not been brought to bear on these companies, perhaps because as large companies, they can lobby politicians not to “burden them with undue costs”. The political climate since 9/11 means that the safety needs of “normal” (white) passengers takes precedence over the desire of those from backgrounds associated with “trouble” or with other special needs not to be discriminated against, particularly in the USA. But experience in public transport in some cities shows that when staff are properly trained, incidents of discrimination beyond physical inaccessibility are rare or non-existent. For example, I have heard stories of holders of disability bus passes in the UK being refused entry because bus drivers did not believe they were really disabled, but in London (where I hold a disability Freedom Pass on the grounds of Asperger’s syndrome), I have never heard of it happening and any time I am asked to show my pass, the photo suffices as proof that I am entitled to it. In other cities in the UK, bus drivers will not make an issue when a mother refuses to move her buggy from the wheelchair space; in London it is made clear that the wheelchair user has priority and bus drivers are instructed not to move until both the wheelchair and buggy are positioned safely. So, it can be done. It just needs for someone in power to have the will.

Airlines enjoy a number of legal privileges which no other form of transport benefits from. They do not pay any fuel duty, for example, which gives them an unfair advantage over land-based forms of public transport, which given that they discharge large quantities of greenhouse gas straight into the atmosphere (far above the tree level), is quite inappropriate at a time where reducing carbon emissions is critical. But as long as it’s cheaper and easier to travel across the USA or Europe by air than by rail, the airlines must feel the full weight of the law when they discriminate against passengers on the grounds of disability, race, religion or anything else and cause them distress, inconvenience or financial loss, whether deliberately or by sloppy communication, poor training, unconscious bias on the part of staff or whatever. Despite their large size and trans-national reach, airlines must know that they are not above the law.

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Andy Burnham: an uninspiring, Tory-lite shop-minder

29 May, 2015 - 13:28

Picture of Rachel Reeves and Andy BurnhamLabour warning by Andy Burnham - You will not win if workshy have an ‘easy ride’ | Western Daily Press

Last week I got a letter printed in the New Statesman, in response to their leader column which, without naming names (although elsewhere in the edition, the criticism was levelled at Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union), claimed that some on the left preferred futile opposition to power. I responded that people who believe in social justice will not campaign enthusiastically for someone who promises to do no more than mind the shop for the Tories and take the edge off one or two of their worst policies. It would be hard to get people out to vote for such a man either, and Labour risk losing more of their core vote to nationalist parties (right now, UKIP, but who knows what parties will be on the scene by 2020). Andy Burnham, the front-runner for the Labour leadership, exposed himself as another shop-minder in a speech to ‘workers’ at Ernst and Young in London reported in the Western Daily Press today (also on the BBC website): that “Labour cannot win the next election while voters believe it gives the workshy an ‘easy ride’”, that “society’s wealth-creators must be valued as highly as NHS staff” and that Labour mismanaged the economy before the credit crunch, allowing a significant deficit to grow.

The website quotes his speech:

The painful truth is this: though we pride ourselves on being the party of the many, we only had answers for too few. Our appeal was too narrow.

Politicians make a terrible mistake when they try to compartmentalise the voters and speak only to the hope and dreams of some in certain parts of the country.

Aspiration is not the preserve of those who shop at John Lewis. Aspiration is universal; it is felt by Asda and Aldi shoppers too.

Since when was your social class or aspiration dictated by what shop you buy your food from? John Lewis is a chain of department stores, and they happen to be the biggest or only one in some town centres, while being absent from others. Some people shop for food at Waitrose because it’s just nearest, or in some way most convenient. There are Tescos, Morrisons’, Aldis and Asdas in affluent areas and while Waitrose (the food arm of John Lewis) does stock some more upmarket items, their commodity food items cost about the same as in other supermarkets.

I have never believed in levelling down, denigrating success or the politics of envy.

What are the so-called politics of envy? It seems that this accusation is levelled any time it is pointed out that the rich have too much power, or that positions of influence (e.g. in the media) are full of people born with silver spoons in their mouths, or that there is insufficient opportunity for people from less privileged backgrounds to get into a prestigious university or a professional job, or that a small number of very wealthy people are crowding everyone out of whole cities, with politicians’ help. None of this has to do with envying anyone’s wealth or lifestyle. It’s about wanting to get on in life and wanting barriers removed.

The “politics of envy” is a long-standing trick used by the rich and powerful to knock back challenges to their position, as articulated by the American diplomat George Kennan in a famous 1948 memo (emphasis mine):

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.

… We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers’ keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and—for the Far East—unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Remember this next time you hear a wealthy man say that the rich are not rich because the poor are poor, as Donald Trump did recently.

Back to Andy Burnham:

“Nor have I believed that people should be handed everything on a plate.

“It worries me that, in some people’s eyes, Labour has become associated with giving people who don’t want to help themselves an easy ride. That must change before we can win again.”

“Some people” meaning “people who believe what the Sun and the Daily Mail tell them. Labour used to be the party of the industrial working class, but since the industries were destroyed and Labour did nothing to rebuild them, the people left on the scrap-heap with nowhere to go have to be supported somehow, if they won’t be employed. Labour, when in office, did not “hand everything on a plate” to anyone; people did not get benefits for unemployment, for example, unless they proved they were looking for work. The system did not change from when John Major was in office, and he introduced the scheme for precisely this reason.

Mr Burnham will say Labour did not talk enough about the importance of businesses that create jobs and wealth.

“We didn’t celebrate the spirit of enterprise,” he will say. “Far too rarely over the last few years has Labour spoken up in praise of the everyday heroes of our society. The small businessman or woman; the sole trader; the innovator, the inventor, the entrepreneur. The small businesses that become big businesses.

Is there a culture of denigrating inventors or entrepreneurs? By and large, genuine inventors like Trevor Bayliss are celebrated, although so much advancement in technology is nowadays done by groups. Small businesses are not particularly valuable or convenient to either party; the Tories favour big businesses who can make large donations to their coffers and use economies of scale to drive down costs of public projects, while the left like large workforces that they can unionise, call out on strike, and fund the Labour party with. Small businesses are more likely to have a more personal connection to their workforce, and sometimes pay less but make up the difference in goodwill and in-kind benefits, when they can. This looks like inefficiency to a capitalist, and is equally anathema to anyone who advocates class struggle.

So, Labour should really spell out what they plan to offer small business owners rather than just mouth platitudes about the “spirit of enterprise” and “society’s wealth creators” in a speech to “senior business figures”. Their needs are often diametrically opposed, as they enjoy fewer tax breaks, fewer economies of scale, less publicity and cannot call in favours as large businesses can. And too much of the growth in ‘self-employment’ over the past five years masks people doing jobs at less than minimum wage rather than genuine entrepreneurship. It doesn’t offer the possibility of expansion.

“The people with the creative spark to think of a new idea and the get-up-and-go to make it work. Who often have to fight against the odds to succeed, but put in the hours, the sweat and the hard graft to do it.

“So I want this message to go out loud and clear today: in a Labour Party I lead, they will be as much our heroes as the nurse or the teacher.”

Does Burnham plan to even think of the worker who does not have the time or money to indulge their “creative spark”, who even if they had a good idea to offer their employers, would be dismissed as a low-level nobdoy with ideas above their station? How does he plan to improve wages, job security and working conditions for them? The genuine entrepreneurs (which a lot of large business owners are not) are certainly a group of people that Labour could prise away from the Tories, but it must not be at the cost of neglecting the people Labour was set up to represent, and whom they can no longer take for granted.

Perhaps you could call some business owners heroes, but they are the ones that provide good jobs with prospects and who contribute to their local communities, who don’t pollute the environment more than is absolutely necessary and do not look for any excuses to get out of paying back the state that educated them and their workers, treated them when sick, takes away their rubbish and paved the roads their goods are transported on. Quite a numnber of them are villains who do the exact opposite of all of these, and to say so is not to be “anti-business” and is not a sign of envy or resentment. And as for their value vis-a-vis teachers or NHS staff, some of us don’t regard the latter as heroes unless they actually do something heroic that is beyond the call of duty. Just doing your job does not make you a hero, any more than being a businessman or an employer. And much as business gets out of paying a lot of tax and can ruin the economy with sub-prime lending and other irresponsible behaviour and get away with it, so are teachers and NHS staff, as well as private and public healthcare management, not held accountable when their behaviour costs lives or causes unnecessary suffering (Nico Reed, Connor Sparrowhawk, Kane Gorny, Stephanie Bincliffe … the list goes on and on and it takes years to get anything resembling justice, if it ever happens).

And Burnham gave this speech at Ernst and Young of all places — a major finance company, to workers who are able to price those nurses and teachers, not to mention the cleaners and bus drivers, out of living in the neighbourhoods they grew up in or near where they work. A huge insult to all the struggling people in this country. Burnham is not an inspiring new Labour leader as Blair appeared to be in 1997; he offers the timid conservatism of the New Labour era without the few sparks of radicalism. He is a time-serving mediocrity and typical of the shop-minders the right wing of Labour produces. He is regurgitating Tory platitudes and straw-man arguments and making no attempt to challenge them. Surely someone must realise that serving up the Blair formula again will not work, given that its moment will have been 23 years gone by the time of the next election? Why on earth should anyone who believes in social justice expend money and effort campaigning for a party that dismisses it as the politics of envy?

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Why can’t a leading Muslim cop tell Islam from ISIS?

24 May, 2015 - 22:57

Picture of Mak Chishty, a balding and beardless South Asian man wearing a British police uniform, sitting signing a book.Today the Guardian published an interview with Britain’s “most senior Muslim police officer”, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty, head of community engagement for the Metropolitan police, in which he claimed that earlier and more intrusive intervention is needed to counter radicalisation at younger ages and earlier stages, that there is Islamist propaganda so powerful that he fears his own children could be radicalised and that children as young as five are being influenced, and that the state should intervene in “private spaces”, including what people read on their mobile phones or computers or talk about in a “shisha cafe”. Needless to say, the judgement on (mainstream) Muslim social media, and even from some outside the community, is pretty damning: “batshit crazy”, intrusive, “house Muslim”, “thought police”.

There are two specific things he names that he believes are evidence that someone is becoming radicalised. He mentions that he has heard of five-year-olds saying that Christmas is “haraam”, or forbidden in Islam. This is in fact mainstream Islamic opinion. Muslim families do not celebrate Christmas; the only Muslims who take part are those from non-Muslim families who fear alienating them, children who are surrounded by it at school towards the end of the autumn term, and those who want to make a show of how “integrated” they are. Muslims otherwise do not join in other religions’ celebrations, much as they, for the most part, do not take part in ours. The five-year-old who said that probably heard it from another child in the playground who had been told it by their parents. As for not shopping in Marks & Spencer because of its supposed Jewish ownership, this rumour (along with the claim that they donate a percentage of their Saturday takings to the Israeli army as expiation for trading on the Sabbath) has been in circulation for decades, although in recent years even George Galloway has refuted it (M&S is a publicly traded company; its shareholders would not tolerate a huge cut of its takings being given away, although what its directors or owners do with their earnings is their business). M&S also has a rather fusty, middle-aged image in everything except food and underwear, despite some ranges trying to broaden their appeal (e.g. Per Una, sometimes).

He also lists among the “subtle, unexplained changes” in Muslims’ behaviour that could indicate radicalisation “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol, social occasions and western clothing”. All these could just be signs of someone becoming more religious if they had not already been, since drinking alcohol is forbidden (a necessarily known fact of Islamic law), attending social gatherings where people are known to be drinking is as well, and wearing modest clothing is mandatory. People should be able to deepen their practice of Islam without fearing a visit from the police because someone suspected that they were under the influence of “Islamist propaganda”, or were annoyed that their favourite “normal Muslim” was slipping away from them.

Chishty claims that the use of social media by ISIS is a new thing. It is not: al-Qa’ida have been using sympathetic blogs, social media accounts and slick magazines for years (including the one with that infamous “how to make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” feature). They influenced people through preachers who operated openly, followers in many well-attended mosques, magazines, tapes and websites; it is not that ISIS is any more sophisticated than al-Qa’ida, but that people have more bandwidth available to them (so they can download a video rather than buy a CD or DVD) and that the social media available are more varied. He claims that “we are facing a risk, a threat which is global, which is powerfully driven by social media, reaching you on your own through your mobile phone”; for it to reach anyone’s phone or computer, they had to have sought it out somehow. They don’t spam their videos or propaganda to any email account with an Islamic-sounding name (a tactic they could use very easily). I have personally have seen much more anti-ISIS material on my social media networks than anything supporting it; the nearest thing to supportive is articles questioning some of the atrocity stories in the media.

And I am sceptical about the suggestion that ISIS’s propaganda is more potent than any other kind of propaganda, such that anyone who might possibly receive any of it should be subject to some kind of early state intervention. How potent is it even possible for propaganda to be? It’s necessary for their to be a drip-feed over several years for ideas in it to be commonly believed (the Tory press did not suddenly start saying that there was a huge problem with bogus benefit claimants after the 2010 election, and the propaganda of racist régimes does not go from nothing to advocating mass murder overnight). ISIS have been on the scene for just two or three years and their ideas are not new; what is new is that they have concentrated on taking territory and building a state rather than hiding in the shadows and trying to provoke a big world war.

That alone will impress some Muslims, young and old, many of whom feel threatened by the continual negative coverage of and accusations about Muslims in the national media and the drumbeat campaign against “multiculturalism”, not only from the right-wing blogosphere and low-circulation magazines as was the case in the late 2000s, but in mainstream newspapers and from politicians. Chishty does not mention that in his interview; the only threat to the safety of Muslims he acknowledged is backlash from terrorist acts by Muslims, not one of which has happened in the three years or so since ISIS first appeared. There has, in fact, only been one successful attack in the UK since 2001, and that was nearly 10 years ago. Chishty is trying to justify repressive government policies aimed at ordinary Muslims, not just “Islamists”, let alone terrorists, using practices that are just mainstream religious practice as examples of potential ‘radicalisation’ and a bit of scary rhetoric. The level of Muslim support here is much less than that for the original Afghan Taliban, let alone al-Qa’ida; there is no substantial body of Muslim opinion and no network of mosques or imams that support ISIS here. They do not have a base, only a small network of would-be followers on social media and obscure chat systems. His claim of an unprecedented and potent threat is wild scaremongering which can only damage the Muslim community; I do not know enough about him to know if that is its purpose.

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It’s always different when it’s you

23 May, 2015 - 17:06

Israel has many injustices. But it is not an apartheid state | Benjamin Pogrund | Comment is free | The Guardian

This bit of self-serving liberal Zionist guff was in yesterday’s Guardian — actually, it was the most prominent opinion piece on the tablet edition (I don’t get the print anymore), despite being more or less a rehash of another piece Pogrund wrote for the Guardian several years ago in which he claimed that whatever you could call Israel’s stranglehold over Palestinian life was, it wasn’t Apartheid. In this case “the A-word” raised its head when Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, approved a scheme which would involve the segregation of buses in the occupied territories, with Arabs banned from using Israeli-run services. As someone who really knows what Apartheid is, having spent 26 years as a journalist in South Africa and having been the first non-family visitor to Nelson Mandela while he was in prison, he claims that “there are few charges more grave” and that there is no comparison. The piece boils down to a criticism of tone and presents technical details as if they were fundamental differences, with a fair element of arguing from authority and a touch of The Color Purple’s Miss Millie (“ain’t I always been good to you people?”).

His piece hinges on two facts: first being that Israeli Arab citizens, although discriminated against, can vote and that there are Arab judges, surgeons, and army brigadiers and that Jews and Arabs can use the same hospitals, parks, buses etc., and the second is that Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territories are not Israeli citizens. While the first is true and the Israeli Arabs had no equivalent in South Africa under Apartheid, it is not necessary to be entirely without rights to be oppressed, and many racist societies have such minorities. In the USA under slavery, there were some Black citizens who were not slaves; later on, under Segregation, Blacks had the vote in some Southern states (e.g. Tennessee) but not others. Muslims were not formally stripped of rights in India during the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which they were massacred and raped and their properties were burned, or after it, when according to some reports, Muslims had to disguise themselves lest they be attacked in the street. So, the fact that Arab citizens of Israel are not subject to the same régime as Palestinians in the occupied territories can vote does not negate the claim that the latter is equivalent to Apartheid, and that Israel is a racist society.

As for the “not citizens” claim, this one is straight out of the Hasbara handbook. I recall someone on a Usenet newsgroup back in the 1990s flinging this at me when I compared Israel to Apartheid. For many of us, the fact that Palestinians are denied citizenship of the country that controls their comings and goings and can lock them up on a whim is part of the charge, not the defence. In fact, South Africa set up so-called homelands for Black people which consisted of 13% of the land area of South Africa, and in 1970 passed the Black Homelands Citizenship Act, which stripped Black South Africans of their citizenship and made them citizens of their homelands or “Bantustans”. In 1978, Connie Mulder, Minister of Plural Relations and Development, told the House of Assembly that if their policy was fully implemented, not one Black citizen of South Africa would remain. So, while the ‘homelands’ were not recognised internationally, internally many Black South Africans were not South African citizens but subjects, and had “citizenship” only of petty states, all of them encircled by South Africa and none of them recognised by any other country, entites much like the one Israel is prepared to tolerate in the West Bank. So, the comparison is not that far-fetched and is certainly not obscene.

Pogrund then furnishes us with a brief back-story about how the West Bank and Gaza came to be occupied, only skimming the surface of the tyranny of that occupation: the monopolising of resources (particularly water), the theft or destruction of crops, the construction of a wall that separates Palestinian homes from farmland, the harassment and humiliation of travellers, the arbitrary arrests and detentions, including of children, the fostering of racism among Israel youth (nowadays directed not only against Palestinians but also against African immigrants), and so on. He claims:

This is occupation. It is a tyranny. It is wrong and must end. The point does not need to be embellished.

But he does not suggest how this tyranny must be ended, because it could only end with a full Palestinian state with control of its borders, or the granting of citizenship to all residents of the occupied territories. The first could only work if the settlers are moved out, or agree to live under Palestinian rule, which most would not. The second, although Arabs would still be a minority, would be rejected by Jews on the grounds that it compromises Israel’s status as a “Jewish democratic state”.

Regardless of the back-story, in any case, the facts are now that Israel, whose base entirely consists of recent Jewish settlers and their descendants, is a ‘democratic’ state to its citizens, ruling over a group of native subjects who have no vote and face severe restrictions on their movements and economic opportunities which are in many respects more stringent than those placed on Black South Africans under Apartheid. Israel has maintained this situation for years and appears to have no plans to change it, occasionally mouthing talk of a “two-state solution” which its liberal apologists continue to cling, while blaming the Arabs for always sabotaging it. It’s not exactly Apartheid and perhaps there is a place for an academic paper setting out the distinctions between the discriminatory régimes in Palestine and South Africa, but that’s not what this article is. It’s an attempt to use the “tone argument”, where a member of an oppressor class tells his or her ‘inferiors’ (or their allies) that he really sympathises with them (there is always an affectation of concern, in this case his claim that the Apartheid comparison “distracts from the main issue”, which he doesn’t name), but that they might get their message across better if they were not so harsh or strident.

Nobody ever said that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is exactly like Apartheid, but two systems do not have to be identical to be comparable, just similar in a number of important aspects, much as some régimes have been labelled Stalinist without the need for dramatic purges or state-engineered famines. To anyone not deeply invested in maintaining a Jewish-dominated state and willing to excuse whatever lengths the Israelis will go to in order to crush the native resistance to their rule, the oppression by Israel in Palestine does appear broadly similar to Apartheid, and the excuses get less valid and historical background less relevant with each day that Israel maintains the status quo. Pogrund’s position is extraordinary: a man who opposed Apartheid when he was a white man in South Africa, being tried and on one occasion imprisoned, yet after Apartheid fell (after he had left), he migrated not back to the new South Africa, but to another country where his people dominated and oppressed another.

He finishes with the standard Zionist whine against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists: “Why do they single out Israel, above all others, for a torrent of false propaganda? Why is Israel the only country in the world whose very right to existence is challenged in this way?”. The answer is firstly that the white state he lived in that used to rule over South Africa was challenged on that basis, and fell, and secondly that there is no Zionism without the displacement and/or oppression of the native inhabitants of Palestine, and no amount of liberal good intentions will mask the oppression, except in the minds of the liberals who turn a blind eye to the racism of those they ally themselves with. Make no mistake: the white South Africans had their justifications for denying Blacks their rights as well; like Zionists, they did not think their behaviour was unreasonable (they thought Blacks were inferior; Pogrund takes a side-swipe at Israeli Arabs by claiming that they are under-represented in universities because they underperform at school). The main difference between Zionist oppression and that of Apartheid is who is doing the oppressing, and Zionists (Jewish ones especially) identify with Jews in Israel and don’t identify with the Boers in South Africa. It’s always different when it’s you doing the oppressing, but it’s much the same when you are the oppressed.

(An updated version of Phil Ochs’s Love Me, I’m a Liberal can be found here.)

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National Service? If I hear it again I’ll go Spare!

17 May, 2015 - 13:35

So, in today’s Telegraph there’s an interview with Prince Harry (right), who is set to leave the Army next month after ten years of service, in which he calls for the return of National Service because being in the Army kept him out of trouble and helped some of the men in his command turn their lives around. While Harry the Spare doesn’t have any political role, clearly when he speaks, the Establishment media listens, and while in opposition David Cameron proposed some kind of “school leaver programme” which might entail some kind of community service for a year but, as I pointed out at the time, could default to military conscription where no such civilian options were available.

There are solid reasons why we got rid of National Service and why most of the countries of the developed world have got rid of it over the past 30 years or so. It was never part of British tradition; it existed for two short periods of the 20th century, namely 1916 to 1920 and 1939 to 1960, the last conscripts leaving the Army in 1963. Only two west European countries, Spain and Austria, retain conscription. Countries that do nowadays tend to be third-world countries, often dictatorships. There are good reasons for having armed forces that entirely consist of people who chose to enter; many of them come from families where others, often several generations, have gone into the forces. It means absenteeism and desertion is low; in countries where conscription still exists, people (usually men as women are usually not called up) concoct excuses such as pretending to be gay, or flee abroad, or go into hiding. When they are deployed in a war that is not a matter of national existence (but may be of international importance, such as in peace-keeping forces), public tolerance for losses is that much less, and any setback could lead to pressure to pull out; it is, to say the least, unethical for conscripts to be used in a war of political choice.

In his interview, Harry says, “I dread to think where I’d be without the Army”, and that he joined because as a child he enjoyed “wearing the combats … running around with a rifle, jumping in a ditch and living in the rain, and stuff”. That’s all very well, but not all boys (let alone girls) are actually interested in that, and for some the world of work offers much the same opportunities for physical adventure and exercise (minus the rifles, of course). Then he says about the men under his command in Windsor:

“You know, I was a troop commander in Windsor for three and a half years, but I had 11 guys under my command.

“And some of those guys were - I mean naughty’s not the word - they were on a different level. And their backgrounds and the issues they had.

“And then over those three years to see the way that they changed is huge, absolutely huge.”

But the Army is not the only thing that can turn around a young man who is in trouble, and not everyone needs that anyway. Some young people leave school, or college, perfectly fit to go and get a job, and if there were still jobs available in many parts of the country, they might just go into them instead of hanging around with nothing to do. Prince Harry, of course, needed something to occupy his time, because he’s a Royal with no formal role or responsibilities, even personal ones, and therefore nothing to do; the same was true of his elder brother, but he has a higher profile as the heir and has a job coming up, albeit one he will most likely have to wait another 20 or 30 years for. The Army may have taught Harry a lot, but as someone remarked on Twitter earlier, most of us learn that by not having maids.

But my biggest objection is that it’s a theft of a year or two of a young person’s life when they could be establishing themselves in the world of work, and while for some they may gain skills or qualifications, for others it will consist of endless parades or “square-bashing”, to say nothing of the risk of racism and bullying. Some officers enjoy victimising those in their command, and young men frustrated at being denied their liberty or sent to unfamiliar places far from home will take it out on each other — as we already know they do in prison or in other institutions such as boarding school — or on local civilians or prisoners of war. There will be people victimised and there will be suicides and murders, as indeed there has been even in the Army as it is now. Most people accept the need for conscription when there is a war of national survival, but as things stand it’s just not necessary.

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Picking up the pieces from Thursday’s disaster

10 May, 2015 - 14:35

As anyone who reads the news will know, last Thursday there was a general election here and on Friday morning we learned that the Tories had gained an absolute majority of the seats, which means we have a Tory-only government without a Lib Dem coalition. The Lib Dems lost all but 8 of their seats (there is a full list of MPs who lost their seats at Wikipedia here); they are left with only one seat in London (Carshalton and Wallington) and none in their former south-western heartland. The Scottish National Party won all but three seats in Scotland, the Lib Dems, Labour and Tories being left with one seat each. The Tories now intend another £12m of public service cuts and have already earmarked the Access to Work scheme, which assists disabled people in finding work (so, it’s not an out-of-work benefit), for cuts; they also intend to press ahead with boundary changes which, according to the Telegraph, could “lock Labour out of power for a decades (sic)”, and to extending state surveillance powers, both of which they were unable to do while in coalition. They are also committed to a referendum on leaving the EU by 2017 and to abolishing the Human Rights Act. (More: Looking for Blue Sky, Lenin’s Tomb, Islamicate.)

There’s no doubting that this was a right-wing result: people keep repeating that the Tories ‘only’ won 36.9% of the vote, but forget that UKIP won 12.6% despite that translating only into one seat because of their wide distribution of votes. That’s a total of 49.5% of the vote, and that’s UK-wide — in England and Wales the figure would have been well over half (UKIP got around 10%, sometimes more, in several west Welsh seats although they won none). So, at least in England, there is now a clear democratic mandate for at least a referendum. David Cameron says he is in favour of remaining in a “reformed EU”, but we all know that the reforms are not going to happen. He is likely to pitch up with a series of “transitional demands” (meaning ludicrous ones) which he knows the other major EU states will reject, then go home and say “he tried but failed” to reform the EU. There are firm economic and social reasons for staying in, but supporters of the EU have a huge fight on their hands, especially given the numerical strength of UKIP, which could (depending on the credibility of its next leader, which could well be Douglas Carswell) attract more Tory defectors. Those demanding withdrawal must know that they will not have the consent of the people of Scotland or even Wales, however decisive the result in England.

The Tories won this with the help of major failings by both the Labour party and Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems’ failures I have already mentioned on here, as our local MP in Kingston and Surbiton was a Lib Dem until the last Parliament. Now, we have a Tory who was elected with 39.2% of the vote; Ed Davey’s result fell 15.3% to 34.5%. Not a total collapse, and the Tory (James Berry) gained by only 2.7%, but he won and the Lib Dems lost anyway. Labour’s vote went up 5.1% to 14.5% and the Greens also increased to nearly 4% from less than 1% last time. UKIP’s vote went up by 4.8% to 7.3%. This shows that the Lib Dems’ tactic of threatening voters “Labour cannot win here” does not work if their sitting MP has lost the trust of his voters. In some areas, like Cambridge and Norwich South, Labour took Lib Dem seats in middle-class provincial areas, which shows that they indeed can win if they make the effort. (In other areas, particularly in the south-west, there was a decisive rightward shift to both the Tories and UKIP, not a split progressive vote, which is perhaps a legacy of Cameron’s “we’re a rich country” response to the 2014 floods.)

As with before the election, the Lib Dems and their friends in the media claim they have no regrets and do not admit that they did anything wrong. For example, their former leader Menzies Campbell, who lost the seat of North East Fife to a Scottish Nationalist, said in a TV interview this morning that he did not regret going into the coalition “in the national interest” and mouthed the usual nonsense about clearing up the mess Labour made. Simon Hughes, who lost the seat in south-east London he had held since the 1980s, blamed the voters, saying “people were voting Labour because they wanted to get of a Tory government. They got rid of the MP, and ended up with a Tory government.” (In his case, however, they elected a Labour MP, as did two constituencies in north London.) Simon Hughes held an inner-city seat that should have been Labour for 30 years, and his is another case of years of hard work building up the trust of local people being thrown away for five years enjoying the privileges of office. They seem to think they made personal sacrifices, when what they sacrificed was public services and the needs of poor and disabled people.

As for Labour, it seems the timidity that has been their hallmark since the days of Kinnock has proven their undoing. Both in power and in opposition, Labour has always been cowardly when dealing with powerful actors, whether it’s the Tory media or an angry American president on the warpath. They only display a bit of muscle when there is a powerless, unpopular enemy on the floor to kick, often a recalcitrant left-winger in a local party somewhere. When the Daily Mail manufactured a scandal in 2006 about the low numbers of ‘foreign criminals’ being deported after completing their sentences, the Home Office put out a dragnet that caught many people who had lived in the UK a long time (often long enough to apply for citizenship) and who had already served their sentences, which were often for minor crimes. Labour had 13 years in office to reform the electoral system and ownership and control of the media. They did neither, because they were one of the two entrenched interests that benefited (sometimes) from First Past the Post, and because the Sun then supported them. This is why they ended up competing against an almost entirely hostile press and broadcast media in 2015.

I saw an article warning about the “delusions of the defeated”, one of which is to conclude that the party “isn’t left-wing enough”, harking back to the early 1980s Labour party which took away precisely this lesson from the defeat of 1979, and were defeated even more soundly (with a bit of help from the Social Democratic Party defectors) in 1983. The problem is that defending the last Labour government’s economic record or the public services they didn’t destroy is not left-wing; New Labour ran a mostly centre-right government. It’s not a question that they weren’t left-wing or right-wing enough; they were not courageous or forthright enough. They did not challenge the prevailing myth that Labour left the economy in a shambles; they allowed themselves to be strong-armed into accepting an economic strait-jacket; they dithered on the matter of a coalition with the SNP, which they could have resolved by insisting that there would be no referendum on independence in the next Parliament. (The SNP when in power in Scotland is not that left-wing, something they could also have stressed.) Exposing the lies peddled by the BNP, some of them given credence by the popular press, was key to sinking that party; the same must be done with UKIP’s tabloid-friendly lies. The next leader does not have to be a left-winger; he or she has to have a backbone.

An issue which has been given some attention since the election is that there may be another vote on whether fox hunting with hounds should be legalised. While I do not support re-legalising, it does not come close to the importance of preventing further welfare, disability or legal aid cuts, the privatising of the NHS, the abolition of the Human Rights Act, to name but a few threats we are now faced with. The Tories are not guaranteed to get this through Parliament as there were always Tory opponents of fox-hunting (e.g. Alan Clark) and there is a generation of young adults who do not remember when it was legal, and may be more concerned about the disruption hunts caused, as well as the danger to animals other than foxes (the turning point last time was when the hunt killed someone’s cat in an Essex village). So by all means write letters to your MP if he or she is a Tory (the others will most likely vote against), but don’t let it distract you from the big issues. Human beings, after all, aren’t vermin.

The Human Rights Act is something we have a fight on our hands to preserve. Again, this will not be a walk-over for the Tories as they have some MPs left who are not securocrats or Little Englanders, such as Dominic Grieve (former attorney general, member for Beaconsfield) and David Davis (for Haltemprice and Howden in east Yorkshire); they are likely to be the older, long-serving ones who associate the European project with keeping the peace in Europe. If we win this time, we can expect this to come back in the next, or next-but-one, Tory-dominated parliament as the old guard retire and the Tory party and press blame the HRA for everything they cannot do. (See earlier entry for why the HRA is important and why the arguments against it are unsound and heavily based on appeals to racism and white privilege, and this one on why the Magna Carta is no substitute. Abolishing it in Scotland would be a more complicated matter than in England.)

Why did the Tories win? Did years of campaigning against the Bedroom Tax, of highlighting the suffering caused to people, especially chronically ill and disabled people, by the coalition’s social security cuts, to say nothing of the young people who cannot find stable or meaningful work and cannot get housing, have no effect on people? The truth is it probably didn’t, partly because the public has been subjected to a drip-feed of propaganda about the billions lost through ‘fraud and error’, the need to ‘make savings’ to ‘fix Labour’s mess’, news reports and entire TV series about people living high on the hog on benefits (large families being housed in expensive London town-houses at public expense and so on, which would not be happening if the council houses had not been sold off), and this has been in the papers and on TV and the supposedly impartial BBC (fearing a licence fee cut) goes along with it rather than challenging it.

However, it seems the majority in Middle England really do not know (or think they don’t know) anyone affected by the cuts; their children aren’t the ones paying huge rents in tenancies that could end any time, or living in mouldy/damp/rat-infested properties and threatened with eviction if they complain (particularly outside London; there was more of a shift to Labour in the cities). And when you tell people that there is real suffering, they shrug: life isn’t fair; you only know one side of the story; it’s just the way of the world. The platitudes we all heard from adults when we were children when we said their decisions weren’t fair. The number of people who are doing OK, whether thanks to the coalition’s policies or not, clearly outweighs those who are suffering. However much we explain that living and working with disability costs money, most people will not ‘get it’ unless it affects them or their families directly, and in some cases (but not others) people’s generosity makes up for the lack of state support. And the threat of a “SNP chokehold” on a minority Labour government without the option of a Lib Dem coalition, however baseless that fear, may have driven many swing voters into the Tory camp.

The Tories themselves, it has to be stressed, really don’t give a toss. In Saturday’s Daily Mail, Max Hastings brushed away the evidence of impoverishment. “Privately, especially after watching those awful TV debates — obsessed with food banks, welfare claimants and the NHS — I feared the worst.” (Later on, he does call for the party to “present themselves as standard-bearers for a fair and decent capitalism, not the smash-and-grab kind”, but that’s always tomorrow for the Tories, never today.) David Cameron especially does not care about disabled people who are survivors; he appears to resent them, and answers any plea about the impoverishment of disabled people and their families by reminding them of Ivan. Iain Duncan Smith answers such pleas with a snigger. Some are too wealthy to care, and for some it’s all a game.

The Tories have played the ‘England card’, with the help of a partly partisan and partly sycophantic or cowed media, and won. This means that, for the next five years at least, there will be no let-up on welfare or disability support cuts, no proportional representation and no reform of the housing market. Preventing the repeal of the HRA, exit from the EU and the re-legalisation of fox hunting remain possible; we must also be vigilant for voter suppression, a common tactic of the American right who know that making it difficult to vote benefits them, and support whatever makes voting easier in future, such as making election day a public holiday. The Tories are committed to maintaining the United Kingdom and some of them are committed to dragging us out of the EU; however, they must realise that they cannot do both, as Scotland will not consent to an exit from the EU and, likely, neither will Wales. Even the Mail on Sunday today conceded that most people in the UK do not in fact want to exit, although around 18% are undecided. However, an English vote to leave the EU followed by an illegal secession by Scotland could have dire and bloody consequences, something I believe that many Tories (and some others) would not go out of their way to avoid. Anyone thinking of moving to Scotland to get away from Tory rule should bear that in mind.

Image sources: Wikimedia. 2010 map public domain. 2015 map uploaded to Wikipedia by Italay90 and re-coloured by Cryptographic.2014, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike International 4.0 Licence.

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So who’s a mensch, then? And who cares?

6 May, 2015 - 20:20

The front page of the Sun today (6th May), showing Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich, dropping some of it down his front, with the headline 'Save our bacon'.Today the Sun put that picture of Ed Miliband trying to eat a bacon butty and getting it all down his shirt, suggesting that if he can’t even eat without making a mess, he’ll do the same to the country if elected as Prime Minister tomorrow. A few people on Twitter have suggested that the picture is a reference to his Jewish background, because anti-Semites have a history of depicting Jews as pigs and because people will make the link if they see a Jew and pork together, even though the association is negative. I’m not so sure - if there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Sun of, it’s anti-Semitism, given that Rupert Murdoch is a noted Zionist. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t subliminal messages in the use of the picture.

1. Not ‘true’: the one thing people know about Jews is that they don’t eat pork. Now, we all know that some Jews are not practising, some are atheists and some have converted to Christianity, all of which have been true since at least the 19th century. Many people will call that a classic example of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. But it’s still a fact that the religion prohibits it, that even minimally observant Jews do not eat it, and that even if someone’s a ‘true Jew’ by birth, as far as religious Jews are concerned they’re not one by practice if they eat pork, especially if they do so brazenly and in public. I suspect that the picture elicited an “eeew” reaction from quite a few people, and reproducing it will remind them of it. I suspect it’s not only Jews who would make this connection, and think “if he’s not true to his roots, what is he, or will he be, true to?”. The perception that he is disloyal to his people might also remind people of the Daily Mail’s “his Dad hated Britain” campaign and of how he “stabbed his brother in the back” by standing against him for the Labour leadership, an entirely baseless claim since his older brother had no more right to it than he did, but still one that some people believe.

The Sun of course knows that there is tension between the Jewish community (the religious, Zionist mainstream of it, I mean) and Ed Miliband, not only because of the bacon sarnie incident but also because he supported the vote to recognise Palestine as a state earlier this year. Jews are only 1% of the population, but they are much more than that in certain north London constituencies, and there is suggestion that the Finchley and Golders Green seat (an earlier version of which was Thatcher’s seat) might fall to Labour. So a reminder of Ed chomping on a bacon butty might convince a few people to stay loyal, and remind them that he isn’t, as Maureen Lipman put it when she announced she was switching sides last November, “a mensch”.

2. Posh: a favourite (and justified) accusation against the Tory leadership is that they’re upper class and don’t know the price of eggs (or bacon). The Sun likes to present itself as the voice of the ‘real’ working class while the Labour leadership are dominated by middle-class academics and ‘champagne socialists’ who are out of touch with their intended voters. If Ed Miliband ate bacon sarnies a lot, rather than posh food, some might think he’d know how to eat one without getting it down his front, unless of course someone hurried him away while he was in the middle of eating it. (Of course, there’s posh food that is as difficult to get in your mouth as a bacon sarnie, like paninis, but I guess they’re content to gloss over that.) It’s right-wing anti-intellectualism on display, but it’s also saying “look, he’s pretending to be a bit like you, but you can tell he’s from out of town”.

3. SOB: I couldn’t help notice that this is what the initials of “Save Our Bacon” are. Coincidence? You decide.

David Cameron sitting at a table outdoors, eating a hotdog with a knife and fork.I’m not Jewish and I don’t really care if Ed Miliband is a “true Jew” or not. I suspect that the “not true Jew” implication is thought worth making because Jews are a well-respected and privileged, predominantly white, minority; a Muslim (or person of Muslim background) seen drinking or eating pork would be thought an example of integration, because Muslims are seen as obstinately refusing to integrate, much as Jews were in the late 19th century. Differences are regularly presented as threats. But much as I don’t believe there is anti-Semitic intent behind this, the paper is giving different subliminal messages or ‘dog-whistles’ to different parts of its audience, but besides the thin impression of incompetence the picture gives, the main impression is of disloyalty and treachery, all relating to utterly baseless accusations.

(Someone also said they heard there was a ‘three-page diatribe’ including that front page. In fact, it was at least another four pages of the usual Tory propaganda, including two purporting to expose Miliband’s and Labour’s “lies”. It’s about time newspapers delivered news, especially just before elections, rather than being vehicles for the rich to advance their personal interests.)

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Word from the local Lib Dem office

4 May, 2015 - 20:50

Picture of a Liberal Democrat poster featuring two characters from the Wizard of Oz, with the slogan "The Liberal Democrats will add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Tory one. Stronger economy, fairer society, opportunity for everyone"

Earlier today I left a message on the local Lib Dem constituency office’s answerphone, as our MP, who is defending his seat, is the Lib Dem Energy secretary Edward Davey. I asked him what his positions were on the matter of the Human Rights Act and us staying in the EU, as without these two things there was little to make it worth voting for him just to keep the Tories out. I didn’t get the caller’s name (it wasn’t Davey), but he did tell me that he couldn’t say if the HRA was a red line for the party but it was for Ed Davey, and that the party would agree to a referendum on the EU but would campaign for the UK to stay in. He said Davey would be writing to me himself later; I told him I’d like him to get clarification on party policy first.

On the HRA, the man told me that he knew Ed Davey to be passionate about the Act and that he had defended it on a number of occasions. However, I asked what would happen in the event that a Tory-led coalition put a bill through Parliament to abolish or replace it — if you are in the government, you are expected to vote with it or resign. He told me that he thought Ed Davey would resign in those circumstances, but hadn’t asked him that specific question. Quite frankly, given the numerous cave-ins by the Lib Dems in the past Parliament, his assurances would need to be rock solid.

On the matter of the EU, I made the point to him that in the event of a referendum, there would be some very powerful voices in the popular press arguing in favour of withdrawing and that supporters of the EU had not robustly defended it over the years. Most of what the public is aware of is news stories about nuisance legislation (e.g. “straight cucumbers”) and eastern European immigration (which, in fact, we were not required to accept and many other countries did not). I also mentioned that Labour had won three general elections on a platform that included staying in the EU, and that no party had won outright on a platform of withdrawal. As a country, we have a history of signing up to the parts of the European project that benefit business but not those that benefit individuals, such as the Social Chapter in the early 1990s, and the Schengen accord at any time. I also mentioned that parts of the press were heavily biased against, and that the public could be swayed by some brief scandal, perhaps exaggerated or even fabricated. He acknowledged that this was a danger of putting it to a vote, that it would not go our way, but it seems the party still agrees to a referendum.

I haven’t yet got that email from Ed Davey himself. Perhaps he’s taking the time to talk to his colleagues. But I find it pretty depressing that I’m contemplating voting for someone because they offer to only take the edge off a hard-right Tory government, that is if they even win enough seats, by defending two bits of legislation and not a whole lot of other very important things — Legal Aid, the Independent Living Fund, Disability Living Allowance and so on. There is no use them saying “Labour cannot win here”, as another flyer they delivered to my address today says, or that they’ll give “a heart to a Tory government and a brain to a Labour one”, if they do not distinguish themselves from the Tories. If they can’t work that out, one can assume they don’t have a brain to spare.

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Sometimes it’s the miles. Sometimes it’s the care. Sometimes it’s both.

1 May, 2015 - 10:00

The Blogging Against Disablism logo, showing stickmen of different colours on different coloured backgrounds, one of whom has a cane in his hand and another is a wheelchair symbol.This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015.

Phill Wills, the father of Josh Wills, an autistic boy from Cornwall who has been in a hospital unit in Birmingham since 2012 and has been promised a return home for mid-June, once commented regarding the care his son is receiving that “it’s about the miles, not the care”. He or other members of his family have to make a 260-mile trek north every weekend to spend a couple of days with Josh — including during the time when the only rail link to Cornwall had been severed during the 2014 floods. However, for some families and some disabled people, the problem is both. In the last year, one of the cases I have been following has had a happy ending, while another has ended suddenly in tragedy; there have also been two inquests into deaths of people with learning disabilities in residential or NHS care, while another is to begin in the autumn, more than two years after the person concerned died.

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman wearing a black and white striped T-shirt, with Andrea Orlandi, a young Italian man wearing a bright blue jacket, with his arm around her.The happy ending (well, so far) was in the case of Claire Dyer, who this time last year was under section, living in a residential unit in Swansea, spending weekends at home and seeing her family almost every day, after having been threatened with removal to a large hospital in Northampton, St Andrew’s. It appeared that they would be trying to find a bespoke placement, i.e. a house or flat with staff, in the local area. Sadly, in the summer, staff at her unit decided to send her away after all, after a brief spell of increased outbursts (triggered by another resident moving back to her care home, something she had been promised two years previously), and in July she was sent to a medium-secure unit, The Dene, near Brighton, 230 miles away from home, which did not cater for severe autism. She remained there for two full months, was then given two periods of home leave in October which passed without incident, and a third home leave was made permanent, as the clinician there decided to remove her section at the beginning of November. She is now living quite happily at home and has resumed the activities she was doing while in the unit in Swansea.

A picture of Thomas Rawnsley, a young man with Down's syndrome wearing a green/khaki T-shirt, sitting on a sofa next to Becky, a young woman with blonde hair wearing a blue and white striped T-shirt, a green jacket, black leggings and brown leather boots.The tragedy was that of Thomas Rawnsley, who died in February after having been sent to a new, privately-run unit in Sheffield, under a Deprivation of Liberty authorisation last year after having been promised a bespoke placement. Thomas had been in a string of special units and had one or two short spells at home following suffering abuse in a supported living placement. After being expelled from that unit, he was sent to an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) where he was plied with anti-psychotics to the extent that his mother found he could not talk or eat, but just dribbled. In his final unit, days before his death, his family noticed that he suffered still-unexplained injuries such as carpet burns, and was suffering from a serious chest infection. He suffered a cardiac arrest at his unit on 1st February; his life support was switched off on the 4th. He had Down’s syndrome and autism, and was only 4ft 11in tall.

The two inquests were those of Nico Reed and Stephanie Bincliffe. Nico was a young man with severe cerebral palsy, thought also to have learning disabilities although it is not clear how much of this was down to his communication difficulties, who choked to death while asleep in a supported living ‘home’ run by the NHS trust Southern Health in Oxfordshire in August 2012. An inquest last December found that he could have been saved if more checks had been made on him while asleep, but his mother revealed that the poor care was deeper than this; at boarding school he had been receiving daily physiotherapy and speech therapy which enabled him to avoid aspirating his vomit; this all stopped when he moved to the Southern Health home, resulting in vomiting incidents becoming more frequent and Nico himself becoming “thin, depressed and frightened”. As with Thomas Rawnsley, his family were trying to get him out of the unit, in this case by arranging for care to be provided at home, at the time of his death.

Stephanie Bincliffe had severe autism, and had been sectioned at age 18 after attacking a boy in a shop. She died aged 25 in August 2013, having spent most of the intervening seven years in a padded room, at the end of an otherwise all-male corridor in a secure hospital in East Yorkshire, some 75 miles from her home in Nottingham. Her weight had increased to 25 stone and she had not enjoyed fresh air or even left to wash or use the toilet, relying on wet wipes and a bedpan. The inquest recorded a narrative verdict, the coroner ruling that the hospital, run by the Huntercombe Group, had failed to tackle her weight gain, but that the three treatments usually available (bariatric surgery, appetite-suppressing drugs and a calorie-controlled diet) would not have worked for her. It apparently did not consider whether the hospital had a plan for getting her out of a padded cell and into the community; her mother, Liz, commented that if the so-called assessment and treatment unit could do neither “then there should have been some discussions with the commissioning body and us as to whether she might best be placed elsewhere rather than continue to be contained in a hospital for seven years until her death”.

Finally, the inquest into Connor Sparrowhawk’s death in July 2013 has yet to begin, although pre-inquest hearings have already taken place. His mother, Dr Sara Ryan, has detailed on her blog the various delaying tactics the Southern Health trust has used, as well as their attempts to portray his death (by drowning, during an epileptic seizure while in the bath in an NHS learning disability unit) as ‘natural’, the reports full of inaccurate information on both her and Connor, and the attempts to turn disability activists against her by making false claims about her care and theirs. Staff disciplinary procedures dragged on until this year, resulting in no significant action against any member of staff. This case is as cut-and-dried as they come, as you simply do not leave a person with epilepsy in the bath on their own — there simply is no excuse. He had been in the unit only 107 days, and as with Nico and Thomas, his family were also trying to arrange for him to be able to live at home again.

And some cases remain unresolved, meaning some people are still far away from their families and suffering. Besides Josh Wills’s case (which was ‘nearly’ resolved in February), Tianze Ni, who lived in Fife, Scotland until he was taken into hospital ‘temporarily’ last year, remains under section in Middlesbrough despite the promise of a return home within weeks. His parents have moved to Middlesbrough to be near him, and there is no date set for his release yet. He has been allowed a few trips out with them, lasting a couple of hours each, but the return to hospital is always hugely upsetting.

This issue of the removal of people with learning disabiities from their homes and familiar environments, often to institutions far away, is something that has made the news in the past couple of years entirely because the families of the victims have made a noise, and not let the matter drop, even when their own loved ones are back with their families or have found suitable care and living arrangements. Panorama notoriously uncovered one awful example of violent abuse in an assessment and treatment unit in 2011, but it did not really question why some of the people who were locked up there were there at all, and since then three young people have died in units a lot like it. People are sometimes sectioned on pretexts, held in overly restrictive environments for no good reason, blamed for behaviour that was provoked by the conditions they were held in, moved miles away regardless of their best interests or family connections, and sometimes moved because funding cuts and bureaucratic decisions mean that no inpatient care is available anywhere near them. Four years after the Winterbourne scandal, after promises were made to move all long-term residents out of short-term units — the separations, the suffering, the needless deaths are all still going on. It still takes months or years to get someone out of these situations, and sometimes a disabled person in poor health just cannot wait that long.


Lib Dems must understand why they are hated

28 April, 2015 - 08:29

Picture of Ed Davey, a middle-aged white man wearing a white-ish shirt, a patterned tie and a dark jacket.As I think I’ve said here in the past, I live in a Lib Dem constituency — specifically, Ed Davey’s constituency, Kingston and Surbiton, a constituency where the only main challenger is a Tory and Lib Dem publicity threatens us that Labour “cannot win here” (a tactic they have been using in their fiefdoms for decades — I recall seeing it while on holiday in Somerset in the mid-90s). I’ve seen quite a few of the standard Lib Dem yellow diamond signs with his name on it around, and nobody else’s that I’ve noticed. A couple of weeks ago Ed Davey (right) came to our house while I was at work and my mother spoke to him at length. He came on his own, without any minders or other help, which Mum said made her respect him a bit more, and she told him that she felt betrayed by his party’s coalition with the Tories (she and my Dad were Labour voters their whole adult lives until we moved to New Malden in 2001), and at the end of the conversation, she told him that she would consider voting for him again but could not guarantee it. Personally, I probably will vote for him as the Labour party have not put much effort in around here and so a vote for them probably is a vote for the Tories, but I can see a lot of his 2010 vote melting away, something the local party should have taken into account in good time for this election.

The attitude of the political classes and the media since the 2010 election has been generally contemptuous of Lib Dem voters. It caricatures us as protest voters, or the far left that did not want to vote Labour because of Tony Blair or the war. The standard line has been that the Lib Dems had to evolve, to grow up, from a “party of protest” to a “party of government” and that their enormous compromises to form the coalition are part of operating in the “real world”. Although the Tories blame the Lib Dems for not being able to do quite all they wanted, such as leave the EU, scrap the Human Rights Act and trample over civil liberties entirely, Tory commentators praise them for ‘robustly’ defending their record against the people who actually voted for them, as in this anecdote from the Daily Telegraph:

One Lib Dem MP recently recounted a story that has become a mini-legend in party circles. At a public meeting, a woman began assailing Clegg with the standard list of betrayals. When she had finished she received warm applause. Clegg’s adviser expected him try to placate her. Instead, he launched into an aggressive defence of his record.

By the end, those sitting either side of Clegg’s accuser were physically edging away. Watching the spectacle was the deputy prime minister’s personal protection officer. Turning to one of Clegg’s aides, the man who earns his living being prepared to take a bullet for other people, whistled, “wow, that was brutal”.

Nick Clegg’s campaign is set to be brutal, ruthless and single-minded. It has to be. His is in a fight to the death.

Some Tories, like Tim Montgomerie, have also expressed concern about the prospect of Nick Clegg losing his seat — you will notice the language of maturity: “hard choices”, rather than straightforward compromises so as to play at being in government:

If Nick Clegg loses — and high-ups in the Tory command fear he will — it’s hard to see the Lib Dems keeping Cameron in office. That would mean goodbye deficit reduction, goodbye welfare reform, goodbye schools reform. Clegg’s re-election might be the only thing between this country enjoying stable government and the Lib Dems entering a disastrous period of self-obsession in which they opted out from the hard choice they’ve so valiantly made since 2010.

(However, the Tories are still fielding a candidate in his constituency.)

This time, Clegg has said he would prefer a coalition with the Tories to one involving Labour and the SNP, and has called such a deal a “coalition of the losers” as if coming third was a greater victory than coming second, and as if coming first without a majority in Parliament constitutes winning (it does not). The Lib Dems are fond of explaining to people what they achieved in the Coalition, in terms of preventing an EU exit referendum and preserving the Human Rights Act. However, for this election, they refuse to rule the EU referendum out, and in a debate tonight (Monday) in Tottenham, north London, the host Eddie Nestor asked Tom Brake, a south London Lib Dem MP who is deputy leader of the Commons, what “red lines” the Lib Dems had for any coalition after this election, and the MP refused to name any. In other words, a Lib Dem coalition this time will not restrain the Tories from dragging us into isolation and destroying ordinary people’s rights before the State — so, what is the point of voting for them? When asked why they backed down over student tuition fees, they reply that this was one concession they could not wring out of the Tories, despite it having been a “red line” in their last Manifesto. However, what would the Tories have done to get the increase through the Commons had they not received Lib Dem support?

The Lib Dems, and all their cheerleaders in the media, remain convinced that the climbdown on university tuition fees is the sole, or at least biggest, thing that made voters feel betrayed and put them off, rather than all the other things they have enabled the Tories to do: the Bedroom Tax, the Legal Aid reforms, the disability benefit reforms, Universal Credit, the housing benefit caps which price poor people out of London, the local authority funding cuts — all things that could only have been motivated by upper-class spite and contempt on the Tories’ part, and which betray the fact that they do not care for justice or equality, even equality before the law. And perhaps this shared background explains Clegg’s preferred choice of coalition partner. I often can’t tell apart senior Lib Dems from senior Tories, having as they do the same accents, and much the same can be said for most BBC presenters, including the ones recently criticised for interrupting and talking over politicians on programmes like Today. It sounds like they all regard real-life politics as an extension of the Oxford or Cambridge debating society, whether it’s on Radio 4, where loaded political jargon like “wealth creators” is used unchallenged, or in the Commons, where Iain Duncan Smith responds to Labour pledging to end the Bedroom Tax by simply informing him, “that is a spending commitment”, and sniggers when a local MP tells of the suffering and hardship caused by the government’s policies.

Many of us do not believe for a moment that any of these things were necessary compromises. Many of us believe that the Lib Dems were eager to sit at the top table and were tempted by ministerial salaries and privileges, which they received in far greater proportion to Conservative MPs. There is no other reason why they would throw away decades of hard work building up their support base around the country, cultivating an image as a principled party which supported civil liberties and opposed pointless wars, of MPs that were well-liked locally and served their constituents, to support policies that nobody had voted for that principally target poor and vulnerable people, from a party that people had voted against when voting for them and which needed a coalition partner precisely because they didn’t win the election. They sold the trust of their voters for a miserable price, they have had their fun for five years, and they now deserve to lose this election comprehensively.

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