Monday, 21 December 2015

Putting Margaret in prison will only make her problems worse.

A little over two weeks ago Margaret Wooliscroft was jailed for twenty eight months for breaching an ASBO placed on her five times. The front page article in the Sentinel telling her story sprinkled with claims by neighbours that she had led a 'reign of terror' around Brindley Ford as part of an ongoing dispute over use of the lane by her farm. It also contained the none too flattering comment made by her barrister that she was a 'disagreeable old trout.'

It could have been any tale of a neighbourhood dispute gone too far, the sort of thing that is the stock in trade of any provincial newspaper. I happened though to meet someone a few days after reading the story who has known Margaret for most of her life, the version of events she told me changed my perspective.

Margaret Wooliscroft has suffered from serious mental health problems for many years and has lived a life of frugal isolation on the smallholding left to her by her father that belongs to the century before last, or earlier.

The setting may be modern; the basic scenario though could have been lifted from the pagers of a novel by Thomas Hardy. Not for the first time an awkward outsider has ended up on the wrong end of a serious injustice.

There is no doubt that Margaret could be 'difficult' and would be unlikely to 'engage' with social services of her own volition. That is no excuse though for the way she has been allowed to fall though the cracks of a system that should have done more sooner to help her.

Her conviction and subsequent imprisonment are all to sadly symptomatic of a system that seems to be going back to the values of Victorian times. These, despite their Middle England friendly image, are unthinkingly harsh and show little compassion to anyone who differs from a tightly defined norm.

Their first, last and most powerful instinct when faced with a lifelong member of the awkward squad like Margaret is to hand out punishment. Even though in most cases; and certainly in this case, finding an alternative solution would be fairer for all concerned in the longer term.

Fairness is a term that has assumed an almost totemic stature for we Britons, yet as a society we seem to be fast losing sight of its true meaning.

Margaret Wooliscroft may have been a 'difficult' person, but anyone with even the most basic understanding of mental illness knows that those people who present with the worst behaviour are often the most in need of help. As for the dispute over access to the lane she had come to see as her property that could have been resolved through restorative justice, something Staffordshire Police endorse, in a way that allowed all parties to have their say and sought to find a workable compromise.

All handing her an ASBO and now sending her to prison has done is further entrench Margaret's feelings of alienation and insecurity, feelings she expressed through antagonism. The actual dispute at the heart of this sorry story remains unresolved, in fact it has probably been made worse.

We talk endlessly about the importance of fairness, yet only want to practice it when doing so requires no effort. That makes a mockery of the whole concept; to mean anything fairness must be applied to the most troubled people, not just those who know how to flatter the egos of those handing out the help.

This skewed view of fairness also sets us up as individuals for the fall that lurks at the edge of every life. It takes only one wrong turn, one of the cruel prat-falls life delights in inflicting on the unwary, to put any of us in Margaret's shoes.

Adrift on a sea of troubles and faced with a bureaucracy that has been made hard by having to meet ever more confusing targets and distracted by boxes hungry for ticks. If that happened wouldn't we want to be treated with real fairness by a system that's first instinct was to help not punish?

The answer is yet; so doesn't an awkward woman like Margaret Wooliscroft deserve the same?

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A threat to the NHS too dangerous to be kicked into the long grass.

The City Independents have made their first political mistake since taking control of Stoke-on-Trent City Council in May. As is the way with such things it is a biggie; perhaps the biggest and most dangerous one they could have made.

This week Labour tabled a motion calling on the council to oppose plans by Stoke-on-Trent NHS Clinical Commissioning Group to allow private companies to tender for a contract to provide cancer and end of lifer services worth £1.2 billion.

Thanks to a successful intervention by Independent cabinet member Ann James the motion was amended so that the issue will simply be referred to the relevant overview and scrutiny committee. A small victory for her, a bis mistake for everyone else; positively huge in fact.

The threat this thinly veiled assault on the existence of a free at the point of delivery health service are many and various. Introducing competition to NHS contracts will have a huge impact on how decisions are made, visiting upon the health service 'predatory pricing', where companies underbid to win a contract, shutting out small local companies and charities who cannot afford to take the short term losses and leaving the field open to the big outsourcing companies. Capita, Virgin, and all the other usual suspects who have brought us countless disasters involving public services that have been sold off.

This freeze out happened to the Douglas Macmillan Hospice and St Giles Hospice when they tried to make a joint bis to deliver cancer and end of life services, they were ejected at the first stage without explanation. Prompting Dougie Mac chief executive Michelle Roberts to say the plan was 'undoubtedly a privatisation of a service and we cannot support such as move due to the serious damage it could inflict on the care we are able to provide.'

The clinical commissioning group has defended the plan on the grounds it will consolidate cancer and end of life services, improving how they are delivered. Possibly, but if it turns out to be a mistake, and the omens aren't good, we're stuck with it because the contract would be essentially unbreakable.

The cancer care contract has yet to be awarded due to ongoing difficulties, at present only the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust still in the frame. No shortlisted bidders have been announced for the end of life services contracts, although at least seven companies may be in the race.

An answer is expected over the Christmas period, a fact that should set a fire station filled with alarm bells ringing. Politicians like nothing better than announcing burying bad news whilst we the voters are all busy jingling bells under the Christmas tree.

It is hard to disassociate the plans to sell off cancer services with another and even more serious threat to the survival of the NHS as we know it, the silent approach of the Transatlantic Trade and investment Partnership (TTIP). This shadowy deal between the US and the EU hasn't registered on the domestic political radar, but could radically change our public services and not for the better.

Under the provisions of TTIP large corporations, just the sort of businesses who will be bidding for this contract and the others that will follow, will be able to sue anyone, councils, the NHS even the government, they feel has damaged their profits.

You can all too easily imagine a scenario where an NHS trust trying to protect services from cost cutting that may be good for the corporate balance sheet; but a disaster for the staff who work their and the patients who depend on it finding itself in court. Even is a trust won its case in the wonderful world of TTIP they would have no recourse to damages or ability to recoup their legal costs.

This could tie the hands of cash strapped public services, erode the employment rights of their staff and, in the case of the NHS, result in a debacle that makes the sorry events in South Staffs look minor. The big beasts of the corporate jungle would have power without responsibility or accountability; that never ends well.

Councils, trades unions and anyone else who can make a noise need to send a clear message to the decision makers in Brussels that they are not going to stand by and see vital services sold off to corporate asset strippers. By not doing so and instead kicking the issue into the long grass the Independents have done themselves and the people of this city few favours.

Since May they have managed, more by luck perhaps than design, to retain a surprising amount of public good will, mostly by not being Labour. That will dissolve entirely if they persist in ignoring a dangerous policy backed by a government that pours honeyed words over the NHS, then deprives it of money and puts its continued existence in danger.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

TTIP- a disaster in the making we should all be worried about.

Last night members of North Staffs Green Party met at Hanley Fire Station to discuss how the party should respond to the threat posed by the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

TTIP is a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, the negotiations to set it up have been shrouded in secrecy with parliamentarians across the EU being given only limited information as to what it will entail.

In a speech made in 2014 Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said TTIP, if it were to be implemented would 'blow apart the power of our democratic decision making,' adding that it posed a huge threat to worker's rights, food safety and environmental protection.

Last night's meeting took place ahead of a debate on TTIP to be held in parliament on Thursday, the first to have taken place since the mostly secret negotiation on the agreement began.

TTIP, members heard, represents a direct challenge to the authority of councils, public services such as the NHS and the UK government to take decisions that could be perceived by large, mostly US based corporations as posing a threat to their profits.

Large corporations would be able to sue for compensation on these grounds and even if the organisation being sued won its case it would have no right to claim compensation.

An example of this given at the meeting was that of tobacco company Philip Morris, who took the Australian government to court over their plans to introduce, for public health reasons, plain packaging for cigarettes. This happened under the provisions of the Pacific Rim Agreement which is identical to TTIP, although the Australian government won its case it received no compensation and was left with a massive legal bill to pay.

When the UK government was considering introducing plain packaging for cigarettes it is thought that covert pressure from the tobacco lobby was partly to behind the eventual decision to drop the policy.

It is feared that the legal costs of fighting even a successful case against a large corporation backed by TTIP could shrink further already diminished budgets for public services, inhibiting the willingness of parties to take action and placing big business above the law.

This, one member said, would 'play into the hands' of the 147 mostly US based corporations who exert an 'unnatural' degree of influence over the world economy and have been implicated in dubious business practices. Giving them the power enshrined in TTIP had about it, he said, 'the makings of a real disaster.'

Locally MPs Rob Flello and Paul Farrelly, representing Stoke South and Newcastle respectively, are believed to be opposed to TTIP, Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt and Stoke North's Ruth Smeeth have not expressed an opinion. Labour members of Newcastle Borough council are also believed to be opposed to TTIP.

Local Green Party members have been active in protesting against TTIP, in October they took to the streets of Newcastle to raise public awareness. Over the next few months they will be in action again with campaign activities planned including a petition to Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the possible tabling of a motion on TTIP by Keele Green councillor Wenslie Naylon.

TTIP is one of the defining political issues of our time, it could, if implemented, shatter irrevocably employment rights and laws protecting the environment that have been hard fought for over decades.

There is also a real risk that TTIP could do lasting damage to the local, national and European economy by squeezing out the small and medium size enterprises that drive innovation and create the jobs of the future.

TTIP is a complex issue and doesn't fit easily into the bite-sized, information-lite format followed by much of the news media. It requires close examination of the facts, figures and potential risks along with a serious debate about the sort of economy and society we want to hand on to our children.

Hard though it may be this is a discussion we need to have before it is too late and the freedoms we value but too often take for granted are either diluted or lost altogether.