Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Paedophilia: time for an honest debate

With the on-going furore surrounding the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Saville(et al) scandal, I had hoped that the focus would by now be firmly on the wider issue of child sexual abuse and what we, as a society, should do about the problem. I’m not about to defend the BBC, and there’s no doubt they have made some serious errors, which should lead to an examination of how the ‘chain of command’ works, as well as other organisational issues.

However, over the past few days I have been wondering how much of the media’s fixation with a BBC ‘in crisis’ isn’t rather a distraction from the main issue. That is children in crisis, right now, as well as the crises faced by adult survivors and by abusers themselves. Perhaps the fact that these are difficult issues to discuss, and perhaps because they are almost impossible problems to find solutions for, we’d rather fixate on whether George Entwhistle was asleep at the wheel when in charge of the BBC.

According to the Survivors’ Network, 1 in 4 children are sexually abused. The NSPCC puts the number at 1 in 5. It has also been reported that up to 90% of sexual abuse isn’t reported, so goodness knows which figure – including that one – is accurate. What we can be sure of is that it happens. It happens behind closed doors in what look from the outside like happy, ‘normal’ families. The notion of the scary man in the woods abusing children or the perverted paedophile loner isn’t completely erroneous – those men do exist – but children are most likely to be abused by someone they know, and possibly trust and love. One can imagine how damaging that must be.

Indeed, statistics show that a high proportion of female prisoners have been sexually abused as children. Runaways are often escaping from such abuse. Some figures have shown that those involved in the sex industry are more likely to have experienced sexual abuse than those in other industries (though actually how many other industries would conduct such a survey? Where’s the stat about how many cleaners, for example, were sexually abused? So I would query that stat).

There are so many questions we should be asking. How can we better protect children who are being sexually abused right now? How can we ensure that when a child comes forward, they are listened to, believed and protected from any further abuse? What about abuse within institutions such as children’s homes? How can such places be better regulated? How can we help survivors of sexual abuse get on with their lives without being permanently scarred by their experiences? How can we prevent those men – and women, let’s not forget – who are tempted to sexually abuse children from offending in the first place?

Can a paedophile, or someone with paedophillic tendencies, be ‘cured’? The Lucy Faithful Foundation, who work with such people, say it is less about a ‘cure’ and more about people understanding the impact of their actions and learning not to act on them.

I have been talking about writing a Green Party policy on this important issue for a couple of years, and have had talks with the Lucy Faithful Foundation. Sexual abuse is a difficult, harrowing topic, but it’s a subject we ignore at our peril. Whilst the media evades the real issues and the other political parties brush the issue under the carpet, I think the Green Party should have something brave, useful and important to say.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

'Be a Green Councillor'

Today saw 36 Green Party members descend on Camden Town Hall for an inspiring day entitled ‘Be a Green Councillor.’ With the local elections in London now being under two years away, it was time to galvanise local parties across the capital into selecting candidates and working target wards.

Cllr Rob White from Reading kicked things off, talking about how he became involved with the Green Party after protesting against the Iraq War, and hearing Caroline Lucas speak. He spoke about what a positive experience being a ward councillor has been for him. Focusing on local issues can be, Rob explained, very rewarding. “You’re not going to change the world overnight from Reading!” he quipped, explaining that he prioritises casework relevant to the ward rather than bigger council issues.

The Reading Greens sound like an active bunch, door-knocking every week and campaigning on and debating  local issues, such as the lack of school places. Street letters are used a great deal to communicate with residents, and this generally brings back a greater response than ward newsletters.

Cllr Darren Johnson, who is also of course a Green London Assembly Member, explained how as Lewisham’s lone Green Councillor, he deals with two sorts of casework. The first is the individual issues, such as a broken street light. This is something to be processed quickly. The second sort of casework is on issues which affect hundreds or thousands of residents, and which become the focus of campaigns. Darren emphasised the importance of communication, including using social media, in order to make sure residents know how hard Greens are working for them. It is all too easy for the opposition to take credit for Green ideas; this was a sentiment that resonated with all the Green Councillors present!

Cllr Maya de Souza, Camden’s Green Councillor, explained the responsibilities of the local authority, and the powers of a councillor. Maya explained that councils in London are ‘unitary’ councils, and that four of them - Hackney, Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Newham – now have elected mayors. She also spoke about her experiences on the various committees within the council, as well as the importance of understanding the finances of the local authority.

Cllr Claire Stephenson, leader of the Green group on Norwich City Council, spoke next, and her first point was that as a councillor it is easy to lose track of what one has achieved, and all too easy to focus on what one has failed to deliver. Even in opposition, Claire noted, there are lots of things Greens have achieved. She pointed to the infamous achievements of Kirklees Greens with their renewable energy programme and free mass insulation project. She also told us that Green Councillors on Norwich County Council have just set up an ESCO (Energy Services Company), which has great promise.

Norwich Greens have had some of their biggest victories by getting amendments made to the council budget. For example, last year they secured £250,000 to fund solar energy generation, which saw solar panels being put on the roof of Norwich City Hall.

We also heard from Katie Dawson and Ute Michel, who up until 2010 were Green councillors in Islington and Lewisham respectively. Katie said that when she was elected in 2006 it felt like a ‘fluke’, and that her youngest child was just four and a half months old. However, never one to be fazed, she simple reasoned “this baby is very portable” and got on with the job.

She recalled the van from Islington Council bringing a big box of papers for her to read every day, and wondering what to do about it. In the end she realised that no councillor reads all of the papers, and it was possible to pick out the salient points on the bus ride to the council meeting!

Katie’s greatest achievement was arguing for 20mph speed limits on residential roads. When she put forward the idea, the opposition councillors “roared with laughter.” She joked that the other parties viewed her as a “stupid hippy with a baby”. However, we all know now that the idea of 20mph speed limits was agreed for Islington and the idea has spread around the country. One Green councillor – with a baby in tow – making one big difference.

Ute Michel also spoke fondly of her days as a Green councillor in Lewisham. “I didn’t have a clue what I was letting myself in for when I stood as a candidate,” she said. “But it was one of the best things I have ever done in my life.” She recalled the night when it was announced that the Greens’ budget amendment, which means an increase in the adult social care budget, had been accepted. Ute recalled walking out of the town hall “as though I was walking on air”, so delighted was she that Greens had managed to have such a positive impact on so many residents’ lives.

Attendees had lots of questions to ask the panellists, and much advice was proffered about how to survive as a Green Councillor, especially as a lone Green on a council. It was advised that councillors do not try to ‘do’ too much in the first 6 months to a year; listening, learning and making good working relationships with council officers was important. It is important, as a councillor, to stay focused, say no to things, and to do what you enjoy. It was noted that local parties really need to put the infrastructure in place in order to support their Green elected representatives. This might involve reading and summarising reports, taking on campaigning on behalf of the councillor, or simply taking the councillor out for a drink after a council meeting! Moral support, it was noted, should never be underestimated.

In short, ‘Be a Green Councillor’ was a positive, inspiring day, where many attendees left fuelled with the desire to get elected in 2014. We discussed briefly our next steps in terms of training, which will include Target to Win training, canvassing workshops and attending the Association of Green Councillors (AGC) conference.

I’ll leave you with a pertinent quotation from Katie Dawson. . “You can always come up with hundreds of reasons not to stand. But you can’t learn passion for politics. If you have that, go for it.”

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Why I'm Voting for Natalie Bennett as Green Party Leader

I’m going to be voting for Natalie Bennett as new leader of the Green Party, and here’s why.

Natalie has championed women within the party, encouraging them to stand for roles both within the party and as candidates in elections. She has also founded Green Party Women, a subgroup that works to make links between the party and women's groups and organisations nationally and internationally, to promote the women-friendly policies and approach of the party, and to work generally to promote women's rights. She has been instrumental in writing many of our women-centric policies, such as those on parental leave, women asylum seekers and abortion rights.

As Chair of the group she has travelled around the country, speaking with women from local parties and regions, inspiring women to take more active roles in their local parties. How do I know she has done this? Because, as Secretary of the group, I was often there too! Sheffield, Huddersfield, Brighton, Lewisham, Manchester, Lancaster, Norwich, Stroud, Cambridge - very inspiring days! Made all the more so by Natalie’s presence.

She’s also Chair of Camden Green Party, probably one of the most dynamic local party going. In the recent London Mayoral and London elections, Camden went all out to boost the Green vote, even opening a campaign shop for several months. The Green Party of course became the third party in London on May 3rd, and it was in no small part due to Natalie’s work, because as well as being Camden’s dynamic Chair she was also a fantastically eloquent London Assembly candidate. I witnessed her excellent performance at the Progressive Women Hustings at the House of Commons, in the run up to the elections, and, not for the first time, I was proud to be a Green Party member.

Indeed, public speaking is one of Natalie’s key skills. I will never forget how she left the other candidates standing at a hustings for the 2010 General Election, when she was the Green Party candidate for Holborn and St Pancras. Even veteran MP Frank Dobson looked somewhat amateur compared to Natalie’s passionate yet calm performance. I felt the mood of the room move in her favour, which was played out by the long line of people who lined up to speak to her afterwards – I had to get in the queue! People who perhaps hadn’t even thought about the Green Party were buzzing about ideas such as a Citizen’s Income and a London Living Wage, and other ideas which are radically, uniquely Green. Not every candidate can inspire people thus. Natalie can.

I could go on and on,  but there are many more people who are already singing Natalie’s praises, and rightly so! A dynamic exponent of our policies, an inspiring presence, an incredibly eloquent speaker, and also the hardest working person I’ve ever known. In short, a naturally brilliant leader.

Please vote for Natalie Bennett for Green Party leader!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Shocking State of Mental Health Services in Haringey

St Ann’s Hospital in Haringey is the one remaining NHS hospital in the borough. There used to be six, but one by one they were sold off, to become, in a couple of the cases, luxury housing. A new polyclinic has opened in Crouch End, of course, and it is a very shiny building. So all is well, apparently.

Last week I visited a friend in St Ann’s, which is a mental health hospital. For those who have not visited the hospital, it is made up of many buildings, quite higgledy-piggledy in layout, with grassy areas and mature trees. There is at least one ‘pen’ where people who have been deemed mentally ill are allowed out to ‘exercise’ – or smoke – with no chance of escaping due to the high metal fences. The ‘pen’ is currently decorated with plastic flags, and Haringey ward, the assessment ward where my friend was staying, was festooned with more plastic bunting, each piece bearing the image of the Queen’s face.

The first thing that surprised me on my first visit was that the ward is mixed gender. Haven’t the Tories promised that they would do away with those? To add to that, the female toilets were often covered in faeces, meaning women had to use the gents’ toilets. When my friend reported the toilets, a nurse shouted at her, telling her it was disgusting, and it was not her job to sort out as she had paperwork to do.

I was there for only an hour on my first visit (before being chucked out as visiting time had finished), but in that time I saw two extremely aggressive incidents. Both involved very angry men, the second one being directed at a very vulnerable woman. The poor woman cowered whilst the man shouted directly into her face, threatening her at one point with a wooden chair. The woman then tried to get out of the room, clearly in distress, but was restrained by staff.

All the time I was there the television was blaring out in the corner. My friend also reports that at one point very loud music which she described as ‘trippy and disturbing’ was pumped out on speakers into the communal lounge at the request of one patient.

The friend who I was visiting has had mental health problems, on and off, for some years, and has of course become an expert in her own condition. On arriving at the hospital she was kept waiting on a chair in a waiting area all night long, whilst staff repeatedly told her that the doctor was coming soon. Doctors didn’t appear until the morning. Why? THERE ARE NO DOCTORS ON DUTY OVERNIGHT AT THE HOSPITAL. This is because of the cuts, and didn’t use to be the case. My friend was told she could go home and ‘take an anti-histamene’ to help her sleep. Here was someone in acute mental distress, worried about harming herself, and with a track-record of doing just that, and she was given this little care. But things were about to get worse.

She asked not to be given tranquillisers, as she has abused them in the past; “they are like Smarties to me” was how she put it. However, staff insisted that she take them. Finally she saw a doctor. A few days later she saw a psychiatrist who told her that she had a personality disorder, the unit didn’t help people like her, and that she needed to make changes herself. In short, her problems were all her own fault.

Naturally, she hit the roof and ended up in an isolation cell. I saw these terrifying-looking cells, with their reinforced steel doors and crash mat. That’s what we do with people in this country, in this age. We lock them in cells and leave them to stew when they are at their lowest. We tell them they are the cause of their problems. We drug them in order to give mental health staff an easier life.

If cancer patients were treated like this there would be a national scandal, and rightly so. But because mental illness is such a taboo subject, mental health patients get treated worse than animals, and who is going to expose this, protest, and demand better?

My friend witnessed another young woman, who was believed to be under section, being told that they had made a mistake, she wasn’t actually sectioned, and if she ‘behaved’ she would be free to go. To go and do what, exactly? Harm herself, live in mental torment? Probably.

It struck me that here are people who are at the end of their tether, who have finally ended up in what should be the right place, and where they should be able to get the help that they need. Instead, they are being turned away or blamed for their own problems. My friend’s Mum visited, and one of the staff told her that although her daughter appeared to be upset, earlier she had been ‘fine’, sitting quietly in the lounge.
So unless you’re making a ‘scene’ you’re not suffering, apparently, and are at risk of being sent home. You’d think that would be preferable to staying in a mental hospital, but when you’re in need of psychiatric help and in acute distress, not in control of your actions, it may well be that you’d prefer to be in hospital. The result is that patients may feel the need to ‘act out’ their feelings more in order to ‘prove’ their mental distress. This is bad news for patients and staff alike.

The other thing that struck me was how little individual care the patients received. My friend has suffered from eating disorders in the past and has been bravely battling her demons for years. I’d say that she is now probably the healthiest person I know, though her battle to defeat her disorder will be a continuing fight. Why then weigh her, despite her protestations? She is clearly neither under- or overweight, so why possibly trigger a bad reaction from her, particularly when she is at her most vulnerable?

To add to this, the hospital hasn’t been providing her with suitable food (she’s a vegan), despite the fact that they do provide kosher, halal and even afro-Caribbean meal options. This is disrespectful and could have easily triggered another ‘starvation project’. Friends have had to bring in suitable food because the NHS just couldn’t come up with the goods. My friend also had difficulty keeping warm because, as well as the lack of food (portions were tiny even for those whose dietary requirements were catered for), patients only had one blanket each, and it is cold on the ward.

I wonder what will become of St Ann’s Hospital, with its dilapidated and in some cases empty buildings? Another luxury housing development is my guess, at some point in the next 10 to 15 years.* And what of the people in mental distress, who are at the end of the line and in desperate need of help? If they’re lucky they will access private psychiatric care. Those without the means to afford that will struggle on, doing untold harm to themselves and those around them. Spare a thought for the children of the severely mentally ill, for example; Philip Larkin’s line ‘man passes on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf’ springs sadly to mind.

The least fortunate will end their lives when things simply become too unbearable, just like the 19 year old man who jumped from ‘Suicide Bridge’ attempted to do last week. For over one hundred years it is where people have headed when they have wanted to end the misery. Usually they will be known to mental health services.

Our campaign to get better anti-suicide measures put in place at the bridge continues: please sign the petition: 

I consulted my friend before posting this article. She felt that although painful for her to read, she wanted it to be posted.

*Since I wrote this piece, a ‘consultation’ has arrived on my doormat regarding the future of St Ann’s. The plan is to make most of it into housing, some of it – it doesn’t say how much – will be ‘affordable’. Wow, I must be psychic. How about improving the existing mental health services rather than drastically reducing them?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

How to fuck things up good and proper: a coaltion government recipe

Take one already dysfunctional family (Dad is on drugs, abusive, violent; Mum is vulnerable; two kids aged 5 and 2, are witnessing everything). Leave to stew for several years. Cut the opening hours of the local children’s centre. Cut the benefits the family are receiving. Cut the funding for the women’s refuges and the domestic abuse charities. Separate the Mum and Dad after the Dad gives Mum a final thorough beating. Introduce the local authority. Remove the kids from the now homeless Mum. Mum doesn’t qualify for temporary accommodation. She is reduced to living on friends’ floors. Kids are now ‘in care’, sorry, ‘being looked after’. But remember: “You know the best welfare system of all, it's called the family” (David Cameron) And don’t forget: “I live in a nice house like most people in London.” (Lynne Featherstone Lib Dem MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and government minister). The above is a true story I heard today about a family in Haringey. Sadly they will be just one case amongst thousands across the country. Evidence, if it were needed, that the cuts are hitting women and the most vulnerable the hardest, and how much long term damage this government is doing.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Disgraceful harassment of women seeking abortions is supported by church

Yesterday I emailed the Jubilee Community Church in Worthing as part of an action organised by Abortion Rights. I asked them to withdraw the support they currently give to the Abort67 campaign group, which protests regularly outside the BPAS Wistons Centre in Brighton. The group have been taken to court for harassing women who were going for abortions in Brighton.

Today I received the following email from the church leader:

Dear Sarah

Firstly, many thanks for writing to me and expressing your opinion. As you are aware the issue of abortion is a very emotive issue, with lots of labels used, exaggerated stories and caricatures evoked which can be untrue and create even more misunderstanding, which I feel is unhelpful.

I’m not sure if you were expecting a reply from me, but as you have been kind enough to express your opinion directly to me, rather than simply listening to stories and feeling you can do nothing about it, I would like to take the chance to reply to you and explain why the church leadership at Jubilee support Abort67 in their aims and methods.

The fight for justice has a long tradition in the church, based on clear teaching from the bible that we should care for the poor, the overlooked and the most vulnerable in our society. It has been Christians shaped by these values that have changed countless wrongs in history, from the slave trade to civil rights. We look back with pride on them now, although at the time they were hated, mocked and misrepresented.

Here at Jubilee the leaders are convinced that justice is an issue for our time. We work among the poorest people in our town, feeding and caring for hundreds of people every year. Across the world, we work into the poorest areas, relieving suffering, bringing education and finance, and empowering them to find work and dignity.
Abort67 is not a church run project, it’s much bigger than that, encompassing people from different faith backgrounds and those with no formal faith. However, you are correct in your assumption that we as church leaders support what they are doing. There is no harassment, calling people murderers, or any such thing. What they do is show people the reality of what abortion does, and who it affects the most.
It seems to us that there are a lot of people looking to care for the vulnerable ladies who are pregnant, which of course we would whole heartedly agree with and actively look to support. However, there is no-one who is championing the cause of the unborn child. They are the most vulnerable people in our society, wholly dependant on those outside the womb, with no voice of their own to argue their case. Abort67 is a group of normal, caring people, some of whom have had abortions themselves, who believe the unborn child should have a voice. These children may not be as developed as you or I (and let’s face it, there are many in this world who are not as developed) but they are still human beings and as such deserve a right to live. Abort67 are giving the unborn a voice and not allowing the hundreds of thousands of deaths of these innocent children to pass by unnoticed.

I am aware that you will have heard the horror stories, and you no doubt believe that I am downplaying the aggressive nature of displays done by Abort67. Before we go our separate ways and you write us off as extreme fanatics, allow me to ask you one simple question. If all that you have heard about Abort67 is true, including all their ‘terrible’ behaviour outside of the abortion clinic, why do you think that so many women who have seen their photos have chosen to keep their babies? Intimidated and harassed into their decision? Unlikely, don’t you think? Perhaps they have seen something that they have never seen before, despite all the counselling. Something that shows them that their baby is a real human being, one that is worth saving.
Life is amazing. For all our sakes, let’s not pretend it doesn’t matter.
With best regards to you,

Colin Nichols
Church leader

I replied thus:

Dear Colin,

Thanks for your email. I sit here emailing you with my baby son playing on his mat and my 5 year old playing in the next room.

8 years ago I had an abortion and it was the right thing to do. There is such a big difference between being pregnant when you don't want to be and being pregnant when you do want to be. As a man you will never know this, so I feel I need to tell you that.

You ask why women changed their minds after being shown photos of abortions. It is because they have been guilt-tripped into believing abortion is a bad idea. Let's be frank, abortion isn't pretty, but unplanned pregnancies happen because sex is enjoyable. The alternatives to abortion for women who don't want to go through with a pregnancy - and pregnancy is HARD, believe me! - are backstreet, dangerous abortions or having a baby they may not look after.

Access to safe abortion is a right every woman should have. I do not regret my abortion though it was not a pleasant experience, and had there been protesters outside the clinic my day would have been so much tougher.


Sarah Cope