Saturday, 27 November 2010

Miliband's Monumental Boob

It must be hard being an MP these days, particularly if you’re a new parent. You can’t claim expenses in the way that you used to do, there’s a pressure to look like ‘we’re all in it together’, and you’ll be grappling with how expensive it is to get together all the baby equipment you need.

Pity then Ed Miliband, who this week was having a walkaround, with the BBC, in Dudley Tescos (you can’t say being a leader of a political party isn’t dead glamorous). Approaching a shelf of baby formula, Miliband commented ‘Yeah, this is the formula we use, Aptimil 0-3 month.’ The BBC camera then zoomed in to the product in question, showing the container very clearly. Aptimil bosses must’ve been punching the air (or maybe slapping the table is more their style, in the manner of the cabinet when they learned of the impending royal wedding…Ugh, what an image).

There’s enough difficulty trying to convince women that breastfeeding is the best way to feed your baby, and that formula can cause all manner of health problems. In 2006 it was reported that the Government were spending just 13 pence per baby on promoting formula, compared by £20 per baby being spent promoting formula by the formula industry.

But let’s look at the facts about formula. Bottle fed babies are twice as likely to die in the first six weeks of life than breastfed babies. Formula manufacturers are not required to log the contents of their product with any body, and there have been many documented cases of contaminated batches.

The last thing we need is a public endorsement of formula, which will only serve to heighten the perception that formula is best and that breastfeeding is something only ‘earth mothers’ would ever contemplate.

Do you know what I’d like to see instead? I’d like to see Miliband’s partner breastfeeding their baby in the audience of the next Labour Party Conference. I’d like no one to make a fuss about this, and for it to be as normal as her sitting there and breathing. Which of course it is. But of course this won’t happen.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see the female leader of a political party – actually, let’s go one further – a female Prime Minister – breastfeeding her baby in the chamber of the House of Commons. Women, as I’ve written before and will no doubt reiterate, are fantastic multi-taskers, and when I was breastfeeding I would regularly be on the ‘phone to the council or the local papers, or would attend meetings, whilst breastfeeding my daughter at the same time. It was a godsend because it kept her quiet and content, leaving me free to contribute as usual.

We’ve a long way to go before breastfeeding is normalised to that extent, but that’s what we must aim for. Miliband’s actions this week were a massive step backwards, and show just how out of touch he is – but I expect the Aptimil van will be rolling up outside his house soon, so at least he’ll have bagged himself a freebie.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Don't get sick in Haringey...

Today I attended the NHS Haringey executive board meeting, and presented a deputation on behalf of the Haringey Breastfeeding Campaign. Before the meeting, we unfurled our spectacular banner on an unsuspecting public - see above photo! Marvellous, isn't it?!

Here's what I said to the board (the most senior three members of which were men in suits, who I am sure are passionate about breastfeeding)...ahem...

"We welcome the review into breastfeeding support in the borough. We have read the report and last week had a meeting with Sheena Carr and Claire Wright to discuss our concerns and our recommended changes to the review.

We welcome the recommendation that NHS Haringey and the North Middlesex Hospital begin the process which will see them accredited as ‘Baby Friendly’, according to the UNICEF model. We would assume that beginning the process would result in actually achieving baby friendly as soon as is feasibly possible. We further welcome the recommendation of training for health professionals which is focussed on high quality outcomes not just attendance of training.

We are however surprised at the report's conclusion that ‘where there are specialists there is a tendency for people to over refer to the specialist service’, and that this leads to ‘staff in universal services’ becoming ‘deskilled’. Having read the draft review we have repeatedly asked for a reference to be included in the review on which evidence this assumption is based. As you will see from your copy of the review there is still no reference to any evidence. We would ask you to disregard this recommendation until sound evidence has been provided to back up this conclusion.

The review further highlights the absence of breastfeeding support skills of universal health professionals. Although 11 out of 15 staff who responded to the survey had received training within the last 5 years, and 8 out of 15 felt they were ‘very’ confident about giving advice, 9 of the 15 scored poorly on basic breastfeeding support questions.

We believe that the post of the specialist midwife needs to be re-instated until universal health professionals have been trained to a satisfactorily level and there is sound evidence available to prove that.

We also believe that you need to allocate a separate budget for breastfeeding support until breastfeeding rates in the east of the borough have improved significantly. The inequalities in health in the borough, which the review highlights begin at birth (with, for example, 64.3% of babies in Highgate ward being wholly breastfed at 6-8 weeks, compared to 26.7% in St Ann’s ward).

By not investing in specialist breastfeeding support now you are failing women and babies in the east of the borough.

By not investing in specialist breastfeeding support now the national health service will have to pay more money in future.

As the review points out a recent study in the United States found that if 90% of mothers followed the recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months then the country would save more than 13 billion dollars per year and prevent more than 900 deaths.

If one were to extrapolate the findings of the US study to the population of Haringey, then it would amount to a saving of more than 9.5 million dollars per year (6 million pounds). For each 1% increase in mothers breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months – which amounts to 42 women, seeing as there were just under 4,200 births in 2009 - the borough would save an incredible £78, 500 per year.

The study looked at only 10 childhood diseases so in fact the savings and deaths prevented would actually be higher. It did not include deaths prevented from breast cancer, for example. If women in the UK breastfed for an extra 6 months on average then 1000 cases of breast cancer, and hundreds of deaths, could be prevented each year.

In the light of all this we are asking you

• to set a separate for specialist breastfeeding support
• to budget enough money to pay for the entire process of achieving UNICEF baby friendly accreditation
• and to re-instate the post of breastfeeding specialist midwife until the borough is accredited with UNICEF ‘baby friendly’ status."


I stayed for the next three hours of the meeting, and here are my observations:

-The PCT will not exist after April. I was concerned in the meeting that there's a real feel of 'we don't know what will happen, and we don't know if we will have jobs, either', so it was as though they weren't sure what they could plan for.

-The breastfeeding campaign presented the case for investing in the borough, as above, explaining how, by investing in breastfeeding support, the borough could save £6m a year. The board didn't respond to this element of the deputation, despite the fact that the focus of almost the entire meeting was on how to save money!

- There was a new 'Interim Chief Exec' at the wheel, one Ian Wilson. He wasn't up to speed on a lot of what's going on (I know he's only been in the job for 5 weeks, so it's not surprising really). At one point, board chair Richard Sumray asked him to comment on something, and Wilson was stumped. Sumray commented "You ARE the executive lead on this..." and Wilson blushed a deep purple. I wonder if he is taking home the same salary as his predecessor Tracey Baldwin (who earned £190,000 pa!) and whether he thinks it is time to accept a pay cut? In the words of David Cameron, we are all in this together...(I am laughing hollowly as I type, dear reader).

- I was shocked to hear that Clinicenta, the medical arm of a construction company, who last year had their north London contracts suspended due to two 'unexplained deaths', are again active in Haringey. They talked about trying to get out of the contract early, but this was for budgetry reasons, not clinical standards reasons.

- The acute sector is where the overspend is, but Haringey, not having any actual hospitals (lest St Ann's, which is of course mostly mental health), has no control over this. I wonder whether there will ever be a day where our borough once again has a general hospital with an A&E. (There used to be 7 hospitals in the borough. Some of these are now luxury housing...).

- There were some concerns expressed about mental health services within the borough, particularly around the treatment of those with psychosis. I wonder what is being done to address this, particularly because the current financial climate means more and more people will be feeling the pinch, experiencing stress, unemployment, homelessness - all which lead to a decline in mental health.

- I sensed that the board were VERY removed from the health services 'on the ground'. For example, at one point, they mused amongst themselves about what it is that school nurses in the borough actually DO. None of the 18 board members knew. I wondered whether, post-April. the set-up we will have will see the people in charge being more in touch with the service they are running (here's hoping!), or yet more divorced from it?

- There was no sense of planning ahead for the long-term health of residents (as evidenced by the breastfeeding issue). It seemed more that they were in a crisis (financial) and were looking at the least painful ways to cut. Simple as that.

My recommendation, then, is clear: if you live in Haringey, don't get sick.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Community Garden awarded funding!

This morning I joined my fellow Transition Crouch Enders at Hornsey Vale Community Centre in Stroud Green for a spot of gardening. You may recall I helped set this garden up in July, when we had loads of fun rolling tyres and filling them with bin bags full of compost.

The area, which is along the front of the main hall, turned out to be a fantastic growing spot, both sheltered and sunny. We've grown various veg as well as flowers, most notably nasturtiums, which went wild!

Today we had a clear-up and also put in some blueberries, kiwi (that's what I am putting in in the above picture!), and lots of garlic.

We also enjoyed Tilly reading out the letter we received from Capital Growth yesterday, which told us that having being declared one of the 2,012 official Capital Growth site, we've been awarded £500 to use to develop the garden. So next year it will be raised beds and lots more growing potential!

It was good to have a visit from a couple of people from the plot on Tottenham Lane, which I helped start in summer 2009. They've also been declared a Capital Growth space, as has the 'Learning through Growing' project behind Stroud Green library.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Desperate times, desperate people

This morning I met up with fellow community campaigner Sue Hessel on Archway Bridge to assess what more could be done to prevent yet more suicides from occuring. Since I blogged a few days ago, it has been reported that a third man has jumped to his death in as many weeks. David Bennett, 33, Andrew Mactier, 31, and Ryan George, 29, have all died here since October 19th.

Sue and I are standing next to the old SOS phone which is now defunct. Two days ago the Samaritans put up some signs about their helpline (which is sadly not a freephone number). Already one of the signs has been made illegible due to vandalism.

The messages which have been written and left with the flowers on the bridge are almost too heartbreaking to read. There is no doubt that these men were let down by the woefully inadequate mental health provision in this country. With the slashing of budgets and the stresses of redundancy, unemployment and personal debt, our fear is that we will see yet more deaths like this.

The time to act to help desperate people is right now.

Postscript: After this photo was taken, I went down the Holloway Road to run an errand (actually, to buy industrial-strength staples to make up some placards ahead of the demo outside Monday's council meeting). There I found a man collapsed by a bus stop, blood coming from a cut on his head. A few of us called for an ambulance and then ensued a game of chase down the Holloway Road, where the man, confused, drunk, and I expect concussed, tried to walk away but kept falling over, sometimes precariously close to the busy road. We eventually united him with ambulance staff.

This encounter, so soon after I had been up on the Archway Bridge, just served to drive home the desperate state so many people are in, and how the present Government's slash and burn approach to the deficit will drive so many more into such a sorry state.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

My day at the London Assembly

Yesterday I shadowed Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones at City Hall.

The day started with Mayor’s Question Time, where the first question came from Darren Johnson, our other Green Party London Assembly member. Darren asked whether key parts of the work done by the London Assembly on Climate Change, such as the crucial Renew and Refit programme, would now fail to happen because of Government cuts.

Boris Johnson responded that he is sure that David Cameron knows the importance of Climate Change. Darren counteracted that whilst Cameron may indeed grasp the importance of the issue, that is not the same as ensuring the money is there for work to be carried out. Continuing, Darren asked the Mayor whether he would promise to lobby the boroughs to commit to the Renew and Refit programme. “I am acutely aware of the pressure the boroughs are under,” responded Boris Johnson. In other words, no.

Len Duvall, a Labour member of the Assembly, asked whether the mayor would use the same rhetoric the Tories are using in Government about ‘benefit cheats’ about tax evaders. Brian Coleman, Tory member of the Assembly shouted “Socialism is alive and well!” not realising that that is not actually an insult…

Indeed, watching the Mayor trying to keep the more unruly and right-wing Tory members in line was extremely amusing. Some of the gems they came out with included abolishing the Assembly, introducing prison ships (“because prison works”. Really? Have you seen the stats?!), and how ‘kettling’ should be used again as a way to police demos. Oh, and following a question by Jenny Jones on how the boroughs were going to be able to pay for improvements to cycling (“You’re making a lot of promises,” said Jenny “but I just don’t see the money there to deliver those promises”), Brian Coleman commented that it was “nonsense about cycling and walking”). Vote Blue, get Green, remember? Er…

Of course, it’s well-documented how much Boris Johnson will avoid answering any question that is put to him. Rather than answering, he will make “jokes” and play to the gallery, many of whom were indeed laughing (though I certainly wasn’t). However, there were also whispered comments, along the lines of “Answer the question!” I’d like to see the public, rather than laughing, simply chant “Answer the question! Answer the question!” over and over again. Boris has only one way of operating, and that is to employ “humour” to distract from the fact that he has no idea what he is talking about. He is both an oaf and clueless, but he is able to get away with it by turning those very failings into attributes, his “brand”, if you will.

I also noted that sexism is alive and well in the chamber at City Hall. James Cleverly (Con), said the mayor was “gallant” in the way he dealt with a question from Joanne McCartney (Lab). Boris Johnson, in response to a question by Caroline Pidgeon (Lib Dem – and she was excellent, I thought – I know, me praising a Lib Dem, what’s occurring?!), referred to her, patronisingly, as “dear Caroline”, shortly before being reprimanded by the chair.

If one of the roles of the London Assembly is to hold the Mayor to account, it seems that the Assembly members who do the best job of that are the ones that ask direct, simple questions and have the temerity to keep hammering home the points they wish to make. Detailed questions allow Johnson to take a side-road, and he is always delighted when an assembly member makes this faux pas.

I am delighted to report that our Green London Assembly Members gave some of the strongest performances of the session, despite being given the shortest time. It’s a real shame though that our politicians are having to play word games and concentrate all their efforts into outwitting and out-manoeuvring Boris Johnson, who for some reason the people of the capital decided to make Mayor of London.

Archway Bridge Death toll

I was pleased to see that the Hornsey Journal have given a whole page today to the rising death toll from the Archway Bridge (often dubbed 'Suicide Bridge'). I had written to the local papers this week about the issue, and it looks as though we're set to launch a campaign. Here's my letter explaining what needs to be done...

I was saddened to hear that the second person in less than three weeks had jumped to their death from the Archway Bridge. As high unemployment, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the lack of mental health provision takes its toll and is exacerbated by the deeply unfair cuts imposed by the ConDem government, I fear we will see more untimely deaths at this infamous suicide spot.

Can anyone explain to me why the SOS phone on the bridge, which used to connect to a helpline, has been removed? Up until few years ago, it was in working order. If a suicidal person was to go up onto the bridge and see that the last chance of help has been removed, it could be the last straw.

It’s my belief that in these difficult times the need for a working SOS phone on Archway Bridge, as the recent sad spate of suicides suggests, is more pressing than ever.

UPDATE: See our campaign website:

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Problems with Poppies

It's Poppy season and newsreaders everywhere can be seen sporting red paper flowers on their lapels. Every year, I have the same conversation running through my head about this particular issue. To poppy or not to poppy? Now, I'm not a massive fan of pre-emptive strikes or bombing civilians. But the money raised by selling poppies goes to a good cause (veterans and the families of the servicemen and women killed), so you kind of have to think, fair-dos.

I investigated the white 'poppies for peace' notion this year. The issue I was most concerned about was where the money goes. I came across a rather curious statement on their website about this, which I have to say didn't really reassure me any:

Every year there is always someone, often in the media, who implies that money raised is used for some suspect activity; others categorically insists that the white poppies are 'taking money from the valuable work the British Legion is doing' and we get a lot of intemperate emails.
If you happen to hold this view why not check with the British Legion whether this is true before complaining to us.

Ooooh, that's a bit pacifist aggressive isn't it - ho ho! Anyway, that put me off white poppies for good.

So a red poppy it is - though I've customised mine. I've written 'NO MORE WAR THOUGH, EH?' on one of the petals. What can I say? I'm conflicted. But I can't be the only one. I hope to start a trend.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Spot the Difference?

A father pushes his crying baby in a pushchair around the supermarket whilst struggling to control his two-year-old and balance the shopping basket on the edge of the pushchair.

Shoppers look on kindly, commenting on how ‘beautiful’ his children are, commiserating about how difficult it is to be out and about with kids (“you’ve got your hands full!”) and boosting him with well-meaning if patronising comments (“Aren’t you good?!”/”It’ll get easier, I promise!”).

Women look on and think what a good man he must be to help out with the kids. Older men look on and think perhaps he’s a bit of a sop but his heart’s in the right place. The checkout woman gives him extra help with packing because she can see he’s struggling.

‘I am good,’ thinks the father to himself.

Meanwhile, a mother pushes her crying baby in a pushchair around the supermarket whilst struggling to control her two-year-old and balance the shopping basket on the edge of the pushchair.

People avert their eyes and wish the noise of the baby would simply cease. Or at least not occur within their earshot. Men look on and notice the woman’s shoddy appearance. How long since she last brushed her hair? And what’s that on her shoulder – baby puke? Figures. Wow, she’s let herself go.

Someone else’ tuts’ as the woman veers across the fruit and veg aisle with the pushchair, and a comment is made in a loud whisper about women drivers…

Women look on and think ‘must remember to take my pill…’

The woman at the checkout eyes her with disapproval – she would never go out looking like that.

‘I am a disaster zone,’ muses the mother miserably to herself.

Spot the difference!

A piece that came out of a conversation over Sunday lunch with a mother and father of my acquaintance!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Dark Day provides light relief

With all the doom and gloom thanks to the impending cuts, plus the general hideousness of living under a ConDem government, it's worth doing something a little frivolous and fun now and again.

Today I helped out at Dark Day at Hornsey Vale Community Centre in Stroud Green, where I'm an active trustee. Dark Day is an event we hold every year instead of fireworks and it's always a massive hit with families. Children decorate glass jars with tissue paper and then drop a lit tea-light inside their creations. We all then parade through dark Stationer's Park, forming a circle at the top of the hill and singing songs. It's kind of magical and a wee bit other words, very Stroud Green! As for health and safety...see the poster above of the song that our chair, Lynne Brackley, was singing in dulcet if slightly anxious tones!

I helped out in the kitchen which is always fun if chaotic. Totting up the prices in my head for various tea, mulled wine and cake orders was quite a challenge, maths not being my strongpoint. It's great seeing all the familiar faces from the community coming along - many people commented to me today how great such events were. "I can't think of anything better to be doing on a Sunday afternoon," was how one woman put it. Quite!

I couldn't help thinking, though, of what would happen if the council cuts funding to the community centre. Would such events become a thing of the past? Would the community centre stand empty, all boarded up? What constitutes a 'front line service' - and will all such services really be protected in reality, anyway? A few dark thoughts, then, but for today let's just appreciate the light relief and revel in the community coming together to enjoy a bit of candle-lit fun.

Friday, 5 November 2010

What referendum?

Today is exactly six months until the referendum on voting reform. For that reason, the ‘Take Back Parliament’ campaign took to the streets across the UK, holding stalls and talking to voters, with the aim being to encourage a ‘yes’ vote next May. My daughter and I helped out on the stall in Muswell Hill, handing out leaflets and discussing First Past the Post and Additional Vote (AV) with passers’ by. It was very interesting seeing the various reactions and hearing the differing opinions.

If the good burghers of Muswell Hill (or ‘Muesli Hill’) are anything to go by, people will either not bother voting, or if they do, they’ll be voting for reform. Either way, they’re not all that excited about it yet (“what referendum?”). I can’t blame them, really. It is half a year away and not everyone is a political geek like me. (Never can seem to remember that…).

There’s another good reason why they might be right not to be too excited, of course. The fact is, we’re not going to have the option of voting for true Proportional Representation (PR). Although Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tabled an amendment to get the option of PR on the ballot paper next May, it wasn’t supported by…guess who? Well, naturally, the Tories, but also their little bedfellows in the yellow pyjamas, The Lib Dems, who of course have always had PR as a cornerstone of their manifesto. It was, for many people I’ve spoken to on the doorsteps over the years, the one redeeming feature of the Lib Dems. But of course that’s up the swanny now.

One of the other people helping out on the stall was a Lib Dem activist. “I’m a Lib Dem,” he whispered, “but PLEASE don’t tell anyone! We’re not exactly popular at the moment…” Poor chap.

He went on to say that he keeps getting emails from the Lib Dem spin machine about how well they’re doing in government, all the changes they’re bringing in, and what a load of tommy rot it is. “We’ve gone back on just about everything we promised!” he despaired. I gently suggested he might want to join the Greens instead…