Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hypocrisy and hubris behind the shared society.

There is something deeply hypocritical about Prime Minister Theresa May’s sudden discovery of the crisis in mental health services.

In her speech to the Charity Commission this week, she pledged to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental illness and improve support for service users.

As a volunteer for two mental health charities part of me wanted to punch the air. Having our most senior politician speak about an issue that is so often side-lined has to be a good thing.

Then the cynic in me wakes up and smells the coffee in a world where nothing significant has changed.

The new money on offer isn’t all that new; it’s not all that much either. It has mostly been shuffled from elsewhere and won’t do more than plug a few holes in a fast sinking boat.

The rest is really just so many honeyed words, if you’ve been around long enough you’ll have heard most of them before.

Parity of esteem is a nice thing to talk about, it is a lot harder to achieve. Doing so requires joined up thinking and serious funding invested over the long term, neither of which are in anything other than short supply.

As for the ‘shared society’, this is a remix of a tune we’ve heard before.

I’m long enough in the tooth to remember John Major promising to create a ‘classless society’. That turned out well, didn't it?

Tony Blair and David Cameron both played variations on the same theme, with the same results. Their words warmed the air for a while; but there was little in the way of significant change

This is suggestive of a deep-seated hubris in the political elite. They believe all they have to do is touch a few tired bases and they can distract the public from the mounting problems in our society.

Those of who have seen into a darker reality know that something is going seriously wrong.

We see the lines forming at the food banks and the patients piling up in hospital corridors and know things are getting worse. Those with children see them saddled with debt and struggling to find somewhere to live and fear for the future.

The sugared sentiments and cynical positioning offered in response by Mrs May and her increasingly out of touch government are both irrelevant and insulting.

They are certainly no barrier against the rising tide of populism by which the political elite are both terrified and, bizarrely, still treat like a passing fad. The populists by contrast are not troubled by facts, common sense or decency; instead, they provide a parade of stereotypes and scapegoats.

People struggling with mental illness present a tempting target for bigots, letting them whip up threats that don't exist through amplifying difference into deviance.

If it were just a matter of the political class capering along the path to oblivion I’d treat Mrs May's posturing this week as just so much chaff thrown out to deflect criticism of the mess her party is making of the NHS.

Unfortunately they ignore the extent to which the policies of this government and the one before have made them complicit in excluding vulnerable people, worse yet they could lead to their being further marginalized; that is unforgivable.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Freedom is fragile; we shouldn’t let a scared political class put barriers in the way of our rights.

Two news stories reminded me recently that the franchise we all take for granted is less secure than we think.

Over Christmas, while the political circus was out of town the government slipped out the announcement that plans to trial requiring voters to produce ID at polling stations in eighteen areas at the next local elections.

This is, outwardly at least, a response to claims made in a report written by former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that electoral fraud is a real and present threat to the legitimacy of our democracy.

In nearly twenty years active involvement with politics I have seen little evidence of this. Where there are infringements of the rules, it is more often due to a mix of innocence and incompetence than criminality.

Never mind, it gives the government a chance to make a knee jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist.

Then a couple of days into the new year I opened the Daily Mirror to read a full page plea for readers to write to Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to protest against section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

This nasty little piece of legislation will make newspapers liable for the full legal costs of any case taken out against them, even if the court finds in the papers favour. The only way papers can avoid potential bankruptcy is by joining state backed press regulator IMPRESS, a quango so sinister it might have given Stalin second thoughts.

A better way of muzzling the press and scaring owners and editors out of supporting investigative journalism is impossible to imagine.

Both these stories have a subtext that says something dark and worrying about the attitudes of the political establishment.

Asking voters to produce ID at polling stations isn’t about combating electoral fraud; it is a way of keeping anyone who might support something other than the neo-liberal economic consensus quiet. After all the biggest impact of this plan will be on the communities it has hit hardest, where people haven’t got passports because they often can’t afford to eat never mind go on foreign holidays.

The political class have never forgiven the press for exposing their not so little fiddles over their expenses. Remember the people who wanted you to pay for their duck houses are the same hypocrites who want benefits claimants sanctioned for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.


In Britain, we like to imagine that we are different to other countries that have written constitutions. It is a comforting myth based on imagined superiority; it is as dangerous as it is deluded.

If we allow the press to be muzzled by people with deep pockets and dark secrets and voting to become something they let us do only when we have proved who we are to some official it will be a symbolic snipping of the silken cords that hold up our democracy. There is a real risk of their being replaced by the steel cables of control and coercion.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

A curate's egg at the Polite Vicar


In a bid to raise the tone I'd like to introduce what might be called the 'reviewer's paradox.' It goes like this, what do you write when your experience was just about ok but everyone else with you had a pretty rough time?

That is the problem a recent trip to this venue posed, to keep the clerical metaphor going it was a bit like the curate's egg, some parts were excellent, others less so.

The spicy nachos, 'Jingle Burger' and chocolate orange cheesecake combo I went for was well worth the close to £13 bill. Perhaps because the only thing Christmas related was the name of the burger that probably appears under a less spangly name the other eleven months of the year.

Where things went wrong was with the one thing everyone else had come for, a good old down home Christmas dinner. The vegetables were undercooked to the point of still being in the soil, things didn't get any better with dessert, unless hunt the Christmas pudding is your favorite party game.

The portion given to one of my companions and then hidden under a lake of custard could have been served up by Scrooge himself. To be fair though the profiteroles served to another resembled a miniature mountain range drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Maybe the chef was helping the time pass by playing dessert roulette, fine if your number comes up, not so good if it doesn't.

To their credit the staff were helpfulness incarnate when we complained about the veg, it's just doing something about it seemed to take forever. I suppose cook was off in some far corner of the kitchen wearing a tux and sweating over having put all his white chocolate gateaux down on black.

The Polite Vicar isn't the Ritz Grill; you expect competent simplicity not haute cuisine. For the most part that's what we got at a reasonable price too.

The trouble is some even simpler mistakes made on a night when the pub was far from busy mean we probably won't be back in a hurry. As any gambler knows you only get one throw of the dice and the poor old Vicar lost.

The Polite Vicar
600 Etruria Road
Newcastle-under-Lyme
ST5 0LU

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A psychologist walks into A pub

It’s early on a wet but mild December evening and I’m standing in a pub just outside Stoke town centre waiting for a psychologist to walk into the bar.

This sounds like the set-up for a joke, actually it was the prelude to a surprising evening.

The pub in question is The Glebe, which a friend recently described as having a distinctly ‘London’ vibe. Never having supped in the smoke I can’t comment, but being close to the campus of Staffordshire University gives it a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than most other pubs in town.

When he arrives the psychologist turns out to be an affable man called Dave Spence wearing a beard and a Christmas Jumper.

The talk, part of the ongoing Psychology in the pub series is on the ‘Psychology of Belief’, or more accurately the point where it turns into superstition. Something that we the audience, as smart broadsheet reading metropolitans could never be prone to; perish the thought.

Only, as Spence points out the more irrational elements of belief have a habit of catching us off guard. Otherwise reasonable people refuse to walk under ladders or wear their lucky socks to the most important meeting of their career.

Along the way he poked a little gentle fun at conflicting biblical accounts of the nativity, Christmas traditions that are less ancient than they seem and internet UFO photographs.

There was even time for a game of pass the parcel, something that brought back memories from my suburban childhood of squirming with embarrassment in case the music stopped while I was holding the parcel.

Thankfully it didn’t and so I was able to appreciate the whole thing as a metaphor for how belief is often several layers of wrapping around a confection, in this case a chocolate Santa.

The tone was light hearted with plenty of banter between Spence and his audience. Anyone willing to look a little closer would easily see a more serious message behind the jokes.

Beliefs are what help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Fair enough so far as it goes, apart from the fact they tend to be based on unconscious biases, making us worryingly easy to manipulate.

That is all well and good if it’s just a soft drink company fooling us into thinking it invented Santa Claus. Less so though when the manipulation is done by people with more sinister agendas.

Like getting a boorish reality TV star into the White House for example but something like that couldn’t happen, could it?


Monday, 5 December 2016

Local Greens respond to Bradwell closure plans.

North Staffs Green Party today made public its response to the ‘My Care My Way Home First’ consultation launched by Staffordshire NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).

In October the CCG announced plans to close 63 beds at Bradwell Hospital used to care for frail and elderly patients.

The move came on the back of threats to beds at other community hospitals in Cheadle, Leek and Burslem.

Health and community campaign groups expressed concern over the plans, as did several NHS staff employed at the hospital, the long term future of which is now in doubt.

The response states that the bed closures will have a ‘detrimental impact on the healthcare of the population of North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent.

Local Green Party Coordinator and author of the response Jan Zablocki said: ‘No one should be fooled into thinking it is just about more people living longer with more complex healthcare needs; it’s about much more than that.’

He added that: ‘It is about the future scale and shape of our health service. These bed closures represent a highly political agenda in which the NHS is being bludgeoned between the hammer of Tory privatization and budget cuts and the anvil of Labour’s massive PFI debt.’

The response highlights a number of problem areas in the plan put forward by the CCG, including the pressures likely to be placed on the Royal Stoke University Hospital as a result, particularly as services are transferred from Stafford to the RSUH site.

It also identifies a problem in relation to district nursing services being unable to cope with caring for more patients in their own homes, even though this is a key element of the plans put forward by NHS managers.

Figures obtained under freedom of information by the Green Party show that staffing levels have fallen dramatically between 2012 and 2016.

Concern regarding staffing was expressed in a report conducted by Sedgwick Igoe and Associates for the CCG in 2012 and again in a report by the Care Quality Commission in 2016.

Despite this CCG chief executive Marcus Warnes told a meeting of North Staffs Pensioners Convention in October that nine out of ten people currently occupying beds in community hospitals would have better outcomes being cared for at home.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Officer Adam Colclough said: ‘The CCG have not been honest with people about either the motivations for or the impact of these bed closures.’

Commenting on the announcement made earlier this week he said: ‘although any delay to the closure of the beds at Bradwell is welcome the problem of how to provide adequate community care when there aren’t enough staff available remains.’

Adding that: ‘Protecting the NHS is a key theme in Green Party policy and as a member of the Patients Congress I have raised this issue several times and will continue to do so until the CCG gives local people an honest answer.’

In conclusion Jan Zablocki said: ‘For those with their eyes and ears open the sirens are sounding and the blue lights flashing and the patient in mortal danger is the NHS itself.’

Monday, 21 November 2016

Greens back petition to keep BAC O’Connor Centre Open

North Staffs Green Party has backed a petition due to be handed in to Staffordshire County Council protesting against the removal of £800,000 funding from the BAC O’Connor Centre.

The cut comes as part of a package of £8million in savings made by the council following the decision by the NHS to stop funding its Better Care Fund including a £3.4million cut from the budget for drug and alcohol services.

Other areas facing cuts are funding for debt advice provided by the Citizens Advice Bureau, rehabilitative and intermediate care and assistive technology services.

The petition has gathered over forty thousand signatures since being shared online by comedian Russel Brand, if enough of those are from people living locally the council will debate it at their next meeting.

Campaign Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party Adam Colclough said ‘As a volunteer for two local mental health charities I have seen the devastating impact substance abuse can have on people’s lives.’

Adding that ‘The O’Connor Centre does remarkable work helping people regain control over their lives and to work towards recovery. Closing it down will not make the problem disappear, what it will do is force vulnerable people to rely on other services that are already stretched to breaking point.’

Monday, 7 November 2016

We need to fight poverty not waste time squabbling over Brexit.

However cynical you think you’ve become there will always be one story that brings you up short and acts as a welcome reminder that you can still be shocked, I came across just such a story last week.

Newcastle based Alice Charity has 88 families on its books waiting for a bed and 24 where a baby is waiting for a cot. Until these arrive children and parents in the families concerned will be sharing beds and some children may have to sleep on the floor.

The charity works with families in the Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle area who are struggling to cope, providing emotional support along with practical help with budgeting and accessing services.

Fund raising manager Sam Warrilow told the Sentinel last week their role was to help families ‘work out if there is a better way for them to spend their money until they are able to manage without our support.’

She added that they often had families on a waiting list for beds to be donated, but recently the number had risen sharply, this has been linked to figured published recently showing that 25% of families in Stoke and 17% in Newcastle were classed as having low incomes.

The appeal launched by the charity has been supported by several local businesses.

It is hard to credit that such a situation could exist in the Britain of 2016, the go-ahead country populated by hipsters where everyone is fixated on who will win Strictly we imagine ourselves to be; and yet it does.

The shock value of children having to sleep on the floor because they haven’t got a bed makes the news, but poverty, like an iceberg, is nine tenths submerged.
You can catch a glimpse of what is really there in the sad little paragraphs at the edge of the page in any local newspaper, sketches of people brought before the courts for stealing food that belong to Dickensian times; not the digital age.

Everyone knows about poverty and the bitter inequality of our society, but nobody ever talks about it. It is that angry elephant wrecking the drawing room of an ignorance in which we are aided and abetted by the media.

The political class mostly ignore the problem, preferring instead to engage in their favorite pastime of arguing about what, if anything Brexit means.

A media that has dumbed itself down to the point of idiocy helps them by typing judges who ruled that parliament should be allowed to debate how we negotiate our exit from the EU as ‘enemies of the people.’

When the issue of inequality is discussed it is usually through the repetition of hackneyed ideas, what we need is the return of grammar schools, because after all telling most kids they’re failures at the age of eleven is an excellent way to motivate them; not.

Anyway in the brave new world just around the corner we’re all going to drive for Uber or do some other job in the ‘gig economy’ so sparkly and new it hasn’t even been invented yet.
This ignores the fact that to make anything like a living in that sort of situation you have to start with the backing that comes from having inherited money behind you. If you don’t have that then the brave new world rapidly turns into a nightmare of stress and uncertainty.

Add to that the benefits cap and the simmering discontent stirred up by media rhetoric about ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ and you have an unwisely ignored problem wired to a ticking time-bomb.

Brexit is no doubt one of the major political issues of our time, but it is only one battle not the war the media make it out to be and so has only a limited influence of wider events.

The real fight is against poverty and it is one we must win; if we don’t the consequences could be disastrous.