Inquest travesty

Indigo Jo Blogs - 26 November, 2020 - 21:09
Picture of Thomas Rawnsley, a young white man with Down's syndrome wearing a grey top and blue trousers, sitting next to a woman who has her arm round him, and both are holding a baby girl who has a pink top, white bottoms with a floral pattern, and a white bib with a blue border. They are sitting on a red sofa.Thomas Rawnsley, pictured with his mother holding his baby niece

This week the inquest into the death of Thomas Rawnsley, the young man with Down’s syndrome and autism who died in 2015 in a privately-run care home, Kingdom House, where he had been placed by the Court of Protection after his family campaigned to free him from abusive hospital confinement, concluded with a verdict of death by natural causes after the assistant coroner ruled that the jury could not consider the background to the circumstances of Thomas’s death, only the events of the last five days. This was because, as he was in private rather than state care (even though this was against his and his family’s wishes and on court order), it was not an “Article 2 inquest”, meaning the right-to-life clause of the European Convention on Human Rights, which applies when someone dies in prison or an NHS hospital. The family are not satisfied with the verdict; his mother Paula Rawnsley, quoted in a BBC report, said “we are left wondering how it can be natural for a fit and healthy 20-year-old to die from a chest infection” and her supporters are calling it another example of “death by indifference”. The charity Inquest called the verdict ‘shocking’ in a Twitter thread and called for “clearer guidance for coroners” about Article 2 in a Twitter thread.

I had been following Thomas’s story as part of the online activist community that built up around Mark Neary after his son Steven was incarcerated for several months in 2009 after an incident in a respite unit; the community gives support to parents who are trying to free their children, who are usually autistic, from unsuitable or abusive hospital placements. When I first heard of him, Thomas was in the Assessment and Treatment Unit where he had been sent after a supported living placement broke down after he came to mistrust staff because one of them had been violent (he was convicted of this). In the ATU, according to his mother, he was over-medicated with anti-psychotics to keep him docile and had been lying in a corridor with just a quilt over him. At some point, the local NHS trust came up with a plan to house Thomas in a bungalow in his mother’s home town with trained staff, a similar arrangement to that found for Josh Wills and others, but the plan fell through for reasons unknown and the plan was then to move him to a “specialist unit” in Peterborough, which his family also opposed because it was too far and his mother did not drive. When he was ultimately sent to Kingdom House, where he was initially the only resident, the care also raised serious concerns; his family noticed unexplained injuries such as a carpet burn during a visit, and the home first agreed to allow him home for Christmas and then reneged, claiming he would not want to come back and would “act up”, though they subsequently backtracked.

The inquest that concluded today took five and a half years to be heard; there were pre-inquest hearings to decide the scope of the inquest, but when adjourned last September, it was understood that it was to be an Article 2 inquest. This was reversed after that coroner retired and the assistant coroner found that Article 2 did not apply; his family’s lawyer said it was “deeply concerning” that private care homes were not held to the same standards as prisons or hospitals. As a result of that ruling, neither the effects of the medication Thomas had been forced to take over the years nor the standard of his care prior to his collapse in February 2015 were allowed to be considered by the jury.

This saga demonstrates the extreme difficulty in securing justice and accountability when disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities, are abused or die in either private or state care. Inquests are delayed for many years, often at the request of the care provider, are often reduced in scope, and coroners are notorious for deferring to ‘expert’ opinion, often that of the medics held responsible for the person’s death (as in the case of Oliver McGowan, whose death is only now being re-investigated). When an inquest fails to find neglect, the media then lose interest in the story, treating the verdict as authoritative rather than looking into why, say, it did not find that neglect contributed to the death of someone who had been shut in a room on her own for seven years and fed on junk food for that whole period, because it did not look at the role of the NHS’s commissioners or whether the hospital responsible for this treatment should have been involved in her care at all, or indeed, anyone else’s; in this case (Stephanie Bincliffe’s), interviews and features which had been planned were cancelled. No neglect, no story. A blinkered inquest can also result in the wrong lessons being learned; it can make it appear that the solution to suicide is to make the act more difficult (by removing anything that could be used for that purpose, regardless of legitimate other uses), rather than improving the conditions or treatment, and that the solution to respiratory distress is to check someone every few minutes, disturbing their sleep, rather than to maintain the physiotherapy they had been receiving until moving to the unit where they died.

Families who have lost relatives to poor social or hospital care rely on inquests to expose the truth about how their loved ones lived and died; besides being a legal judgement which carries weight with the media, they may also be the gateway to legal action and to holding the individuals and organisations responsible and ensuring that they cannot harm anyone else. There is a legal fiction that inquests are non-adversarial; organisations (including NHS trusts and large private hospital chains) are able to pay for legal representation so as to minimise the risk of being found to have contributed while families are forced to pay for legal representation themselves. They are frequently subject to delay, often taking years to be heard as in this case. Of course, the entire legal system has been subject to financial cuts since the Tories came to power in 2010, with courts closed and sold and legal aid cut to the bone, resulting in widespread delays across the system even before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. It must be reformed so that it conducts robust investigations into the deaths of disabled people in any kind of institutional care, be it a prison, a hospital or a care home. Families must be funded to have legal representation and be able to call expert witnesses; they must examine the standard of care the disabled person received and the conditions they were living in; they must be wise to delaying tactics; they must be consistent in their application of the law. Coroners must abandon the false distinction that their role is to investigate “how someone died, not why”. The inquest must be about justice for the deceased if they died because of wrong, not fulfilling a legal formality. As things stand it has been a continual source of disappointment, and is part of a system that appears to consider some people’s lives as being worth less than others’.

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Subsidise eating in, not eating out

Indigo Jo Blogs - 13 November, 2020 - 18:33
A picture of an illuminated "Eat Out to Help Out" poster featuring a Black woman holding a plate of food. The poster is next to a 40mph speed limit sign on a dual carriageway; it is twilight and headlights can be seen.An Eat Out to Help Out poster from August 2020, Sheffield

There was talk yesterday that the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which ran through August and saw restaurants subsidised to offer a substantial discount on meals eaten in on weekdays, might be revived at some point this winter. Currently, England is under a semi-lockdown in which people are expected to stay at home except for a fairly liberal list of excuses; in Kingston today, most of the shops were shut, but cafes and food stalls were operating and the streets were fairly busy, in stark contrast to March and April during which streets were deserted and everything except food shops and pharmacies were closed. While the talk may be just rumours (though yesterday the chancellor refused to rule it out), I am going to set out why I believe this scheme should not be revived until well into next year when a vaccine may well have reduced the risk of catching the virus somewhat, and even then not in the same form as it previously took.

Many key workers, and others who worked outside and could not work from home, work irregular shifts, often long shifts that go through all the hours where one would normally eat lunch and dinner and which are often long and tiring. I’m a lorry driver; I help deliver a lot of the stuff ordered online. My shift tomorrow, for example, starts at 10:35am and finishes after 11pm. Very often, I will start in the mid-morning (7 or 8am) and not finish until 11 or 12 hours later, and I will be an hour’s drive from home and tired, and before Coronavirus happened I would have headed straight for a cheap Indian restaurant and had a curry or a biryani. These days, I can’t do that because they are all offering takeaway only, as per the law. However, during August I was able to do this to a limited extent, but much less so on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays as families crowded restaurants for their subsidised half-price meal. If I had been able to get a table, I would have been at increased risk of infection or might have been exposed but not infected, requiring me to isolate myself for two weeks and go without work.

This was the height of stupidity even in August. If the government wanted to help struggling restaurants, they should have subsidised the takeaways or home delivered meals so that people with homes to go back to could have got their food and gone there and eaten it and those of us who needed somewhere to get a meal after work could have eaten without putting ourselves at undue risk. (They could also get rid of the needless traffic obstructions that have been imposed in some areas like Tooting where you can’t turn into most of the roads where there’s parking, but although these were also subsidised, the decisions were made by local councils or mayors.)

Image source: Tim Dennell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial (BY-NC) 2.0 licence.

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“Liberals think conservatives are evil, while conservatives just think liberals are wrong”

Indigo Jo Blogs - 8 November, 2020 - 21:12

Yesterday I saw a thread by the American comedian Jeremy McLellan (known to the Muslim community for opposing some Islamophobes a couple of years ago) which identified what he saw as the main difference between how liberals and conservatives in the US see each other:

This reminded me of a comment by a British conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton if I remember rightly, in which he said that conservatives like himself could get on better with left-wingers than they could with him because the left regard conservatives as evil, while they just think the left are wrong. And it’s a bit of a myth.

To be fair, it has some truth as far as British socialists, liberals and conservatives are concerned. Perhaps as far as “old-school” American Republicans and Democrats were concerned also. In my experience, people who are “on the left” can get on with people who vote Tory; we can have an engaging conversation about anything except politics, and sometimes about some things political. Most people who vote Tory do not want to see the things we take for granted torn away, such as the National Health Service and welfare system; they may, however, be content with some things being cut or removed because it’s deemed unnecessary (even though we may disagree) although they do not seek the abolition of either. It gets difficult when a family member, in particular, keeps expressing views that upset us: that, for example, a lot of disabled benefit claimants are not really disabled or scroungers, that Britain is full and shouldn’t accept more immigrants, that this minority or that are demanding or getting special rights and impinging on others’ freedom or imposing “no-go areas”, often because they have heard it on the grapevine or read it in the papers and are impervious to facts. It’s more distressing when they believe that for some reason we should not have rights.

A pro-life protest featuring a white woman in a grey and white striped T-shirt and a knee-length white skirt holding a placard saying "Choose life", with two children either side of her holding banners saying "I am pro life" and "Honk 4 Life" with a drawing of a baby wearing a sash saying "save me" on it. Others (adults and children) can be seen behind them.Part of a pro-life protest in Lawndale, California.

It’s also a myth that conservatives regard liberals as just wrong or can easily empathise. British people of different persuasions can get on because there is no religious fervour on either side. In other contexts, conservatives or reactionaries regard liberals as godless atheists and see defeating them as the “work of God”. This can be seen in American campaigns against abortion which have been a mass movement in parts of the USA since the 1980s as depicted in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?. In the 1970s, reactionary military leaders (often in alliance with big landowners and American business interests) used it as justification to stage coups and lock up, torture and kill those they accused of being communists; they portrayed it as a defence of western civilisation and Christianity. Many conservatives use moralistic justifications for their opinions; they regard demands for a welfare state or redistribution of wealth as a product of envy by those who have achieved less because they are lazy or less intelligent. They see a threat to their freedom, or ‘uppity’ people (plebs or the N-word) challenging their rightful position from below.

It is also a fact that the Right, especially in the US, do not respect democracy and have a history of attempting to restrict access to the democratic process by those they believe are less likely to vote for them. This starts with voter ID laws which require identification which those who are disabled, poorer, or less well settled where they live (who are often less likely to vote for the Right, be they the Tories or the Republicans) are less likely to have (this has been going on for years in the US, but has been copied by the Tories in the UK) on the pretext of preventing fraud of which there is no evidence is a serious enough problem. It proceeds to the gerrymandering of voting districts to ensure that the opposition are corralled into one or two districts, at-large voting districts (so that minorities are never represented on a particular council or committee), to imposing restrictions on postal voting, to imposing daunting requirements on those registering others to vote, to deter them from doing so, to voting equipment being in shorter supply or mysteriously breaking down in areas less likely to vote for the Right, or registering a vote for the Right when the voter attempted to vote for the Left.

Quite simply, they do not believe that those who do not vote for them have a right to vote; they do not believe in equal citizenship. Their forebears used ‘literacy’ tests (based on unanswerable questions such as “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”) and outright violence to exclude Black people from the vote. They are not honourable opponents but oppressors and enemies. While not all American Republicans are evangelical Christian conservatives, it is worth remembering the words of Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion extremist group Operation Rescue:

I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…. Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this county. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.

Finally, many people hold a mixture of opinions from both camps. Very few people believe wholeheartedly the entire slate of liberal or conservative opinions. The definition of what constitutes liberal or conservative thought changes from generation to generation; in the 1990s, for example, a hallmark of liberal opinion was acceptance of homosexuality which nowadays is mainstream on both Left and Right here in the UK (not so in the US); the sticking point now is the status of transgender people, which is the subject of much disagreement on both sides. Equality and protection from discrimination for women, people of colour or immigrants and disabled people were controversial when they were introduced; today, the principle is mostly accepted by both sides; what would have identified someone as a feminist in 1965 would not now. Many people vote for a party with many policies they oppose simply because they see their natural party as being against them because of their race or religion; I know Muslims who are in line with evangelical Republicans on issues such as abortion and sexuality but who vote Democrat because the evangelicals who dominate the Republican party now are intolerant of Muslims and anti-immigrant. It has been said that the Jewish community is a liberal community with conservative needs (conservative in foreign policy, that is) while the Muslim community is a conservative community with liberal needs. So, this idea that “the Left” is full of hoity-toity urbanites stuck in their social media bubbles who have no understanding of most people’s values is a baseless stereotype (and the social media bubble, in any case, is easily matched by the niche media and talk radio bubble of the Right, particularly in the States and increasingly so here).

During the recent US election campaign, I heard many people on the centre-left here in the UK predict that the Biden campaign was doomed, that it was perceived as weak and too close to those who wanted to “defund the police” or were wedded to “critical theory” approaches to gender. I saw tweets purportedly demonstrating “this is how you lose an election” when the people being quoted were not in any election and were sometimes simply calling racism or ignorance for what it is. We should never be afraid to do that. When running for election one has to be diplomatic and appeal to the best in people, but the truth is that the Trump campaign and much of the Republican party are stuffed with fascists and racists, cruel, dishonourable and vicious people who do not respect democracy or the rule of law, and fanatics with tunnel vision who will believe nothing that does not come from a propagandistic ‘news’ source; everything else is “fake news”, even if it has been sympathetic to them in the past. What on earth is the point of running a political campaign based on principles of social justice, equality and the rule of law if we cannot call cruelty, ignorance, fanaticism and bigotry what they are?

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Why use Hermes?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 5 November, 2020 - 19:44
A still from a video shot during the night showing a blue Hermes van with a man throwing a parcel into the back. A roller cage of other parcels is waiting at the back of the van.An angry Hermes driver throwing parcels into the back of the company’s van

This week a video appeared on social media and in some newspapers of a Hermes van driver picking up a cage full of parcels and throwing them with great force into the back of his van. I saw the video and my impression was that the man was angry, perhaps because something hadn’t gone well for him or he had been asked to do another collection on top of his usual. But it’s also possible that this was his usual method of getting parcels quickly to the front of his vehicle. It understandably attracted outrage, with numerous stories shared of parcels arriving with fragile goods smashed or just never arriving. This is not the first time such behaviour by their drivers has been filmed and exposed; there is a video on YouTube from 2018 showing a driver doing much the same. I have worked for Hermes and used online retailers who use them and none of this surprises me.

It’s important to understand that most of Hermes’ business is delivering clothes and other soft items ordered through catalogues and their online equivalents. They are not really set up to deliver fragile goods such as craft products. If you send such products with them, it will be treated like a parcel of clothing which is unbreakable and thus can be thrown around the floor of a warehouse, much as airlines treat wheelchairs and guitars like suitcases full of clothes, with the result that both frequently get smashed. When I worked at one of their distribution centres I saw packages get thrown around the warehouse floor and dropped into big bags which then got humped around when delivering them to local agents, then they might get thrown over a fence at the point of delivery. I have been hearing complaints about craft products sent through Hermes arriving smashed for years and this can only be the reason.

One problem is that craftspeople do not wrap up their products carefully which might reduce the risk of them getting broken, but not eliminate it, but my advice to craftspeople other than clothes makers is to use other delivery services such as DPD or Yodel. These also offer better services to the recipient: in DPD’s case they allow the recipient to specify delivery to a pick-up shop, for example. They also offer better tracking than Hermes which will not tell a recipient where a package is, only at what ‘stage’ of delivery it is at. The best option is to allow the customer to specify a delivery service as different courier companies offer better service in one neighbourhood than another. I prefer DPD because of the pick-up shop option, but a friend in another part of the country has said that their local driver refuses to go to the right door and no amount of complaining does any good.

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