Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ignorance, stigma and blokism – personal reflections on the Asda fancy dress fiasco

That Asda, Tesco, Amazon and eBay should all have allowed Halloween costumes labelled as “mental” or “psychiatric” patient to be posted on their websites reinforces the views regularly expressed by mental health charities and campaign groups, that we still have a long way to go before the kind of casual discrimination and stereotyping that is now (thankfully) much more rare in relation to ethnicity and race, becomes equally unusual when dealing with mental illness. The five figure donations that have been made by Asda and Tesco to mental health charities will at least enable them to continue to fight the prejudice and misinformation that for so long have blighted the lives of those struggling with mental illness

The story touched a particular nerve with me, coming as it did very soon after somebody who I have known for many years, who I count as a friend, and for whom I have enormous professional respect, disclosed that they were receiving treatment for depression. The revelation must have taken enormous courage on the part of my friend, and it was a huge shock to me. That does not excuse the fact, though, that my response was bumbling and anodyne. I found myself trotting out a series of platitudes and aphorisms that must have left my friend wondering whether the emotional courage that it cost them to make the disclosure was really worth it

I have reflected long and hard on our conversation in the time since, and I have tried to write this blog entry on three or four previous occasions but have abandoned the attempts, having lost my way in a fog of psycho-babble, self-justification or self-pity. It seems to me that my inadequacy in providing the support that I should have done stems from two main issues : first, that I’m just not that good at talking about ‘feelings’ – my own or other people’s – and that this is particularly the case where I have no personal experience to draw on (a ‘blokish’ tendency that is simply reinforced in this case by my ignorance of what it is that somebody with a depressive illness is actually going through); and second, that I have been carrying around a set of preconceived ideas (or prejudices, to describe them more accurately) about the characteristics that define people who ‘get depressed’. My stereotypical depression sufferer was somebody displaying some or all of the following characteristics : highly strung, high maintenance, a bit ‘needy’, one of life’s victims, and who – frankly – probably just needed a bit of a kick in the seat of the pants to ‘snap out of it’ and stop ‘feeling sorry for themselves’

These prejudices have been brought out into the open and shattered when seen in the context of my friend. S/he fits none of these characteristics. The reality is – and I am sure that it is absolutely obvious to anyone reading this by now – the only person needing to snap out of it and stop feeling sorry for himself, is me

So – I have read up about depression from the perspective of healthcare professionals and those battling the illness, so that I have a better understanding of what it’s actually all about and  – more importantly – what I can do to help (actually, just ‘being there’ and ‘active listening’ feature high on the list of most helpful actions)

I’ve included links to a couple of the websites that I have found helpful here :

I know that my friend occasionally visits this blog. I hope that they’ll forgive my pitiful response to their disclosure. I am determined that it won’t happen again

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

The announcement that all children up to the age of 7 years in England’s primary schools are to receive free lunches has left me in a state of confusion. I am programmed almost as a matter of reflex to react negatively to any announcement from the ConDem government. It’s not something that I have much control over, and seems to me to be as natural as breathing. It is perplexing, therefore, to find myself in a position where actually – all things considered – there’s not very much to be said against the provision of a nutritious, hot meal as part of the overall educational offering to children at the start of their school lives. I could sound all sorts of dire warnings about the apparent lack of any real assessment of the preparedness of schools to cope with the increased demand (in terms of staff, space and cooking facilities); or the dangers of not properly funding the initiative and a consequent return to the barely edible but very cheap offerings of school catering legend, but that would be churlish

So what is it about this announcement that leaves me feeling so uneasy? In essence, it boils down to the fact that this looks like the very worst form of electioneering. If the commentators are correct, then the free school meals commitment has been secured from the Tories in return for LibDem support for a return of some form of married person’s allowance (presumably to be announced as the ‘headline’ initiative at the Tory Conference later in the month). The fact that neither the free school meals announcement nor an increase in tax concessions for married couples, is consistent in any way, shape or form with the overarching policy of the Coalition since its formation, seems to have passed almost unnoticed

To explain. The overarching policy aim of the Coalition has been to return the economy to something approaching fiscal balance in as short a period of time as possible. Deficit reduction has been almost the only lens through which policy formulation has been examined. Consequently, we have seen increasing restrictions on the availability and value of state benefits, the removal of the one remaining Universal Benefit through the taxation of Child Benefit, and real-terms reductions in funding to education, the NHS, legal aid, the environment, the police service, and so on. Whilst the approach has not been without its critics, it has been followed consistently, and whether you agree with it or not, it has at least been ideologically consistent and logical

It’s almost impossible to fit free school meals into this analysis. Yes – the evidence is compelling that children who have a hot meal at lunchtime learn faster and deeper than those who don’t. Equally, however, children need stability and a relatively stress-free environment to learn most effectively, and the impact of the so-called Bedroom Tax will lead to massive upheaval and/or significant additional financial stress to households that will either have to make up the difference in their rent from other (by definition, already stretched) resources, or move to a smaller home altogether

Similarly, what is the logical argument in favour of funding free school meals in the same parliament that has seen the taxation of child benefit (and its effective withdrawal from a significant proportion on middle-earning families). Taken together, the two policies seem almost like the worst form of “Nanny Statism” – we’re not going to give you a Universal benefit that you can decide to spend in the way that seems best for your family; instead we’re going to give your child a hot meal at lunchtime. It seems almost totally opposite to the creed of individual autonomy that has underpinned so much of Tory Party policy for the past forty years

The conclusion has to be therefore, that this is simply an attempt to soften up the electorate ahead of the general election. In this context, it looks like a cynical and rather tawdry attempt to deflect attention from the damage that has been done to so much of civic society under the banner of austerity (library closures, privatisation of large tracts of the NHS, reductions in public support for leisure services etc..). I should feel cheap and abused – and yet, the arguments in favour of free school meals are so overwhelming that I can’t get properly angry about it all!

Damn those politicians!!

Variable speed limits? Totally random would be a more accurate description

So far, I have managed to resist the temptation to go into full-on, ‘grumpy old man’ mode on this blog, but today I’m going to smash my self-restraint

I started work in Bristol at the end of July, meaning that I now commute from Cardiff to Bristol early in the morning (and complete the return journey after the conclusion of the evening rush hour) on Monday to Thursday of each week. It’s a round trip of 74 miles and usually takes about 45 minutes each way. It’s a reasonably pleasant journey, accompanied by the Today programme in the morning and Radio 2 in the evening – but I digress

The thing that I have found increasingly irritating in the past six weeks is the seemingly totally random operation of the variable speed limit system that operates on the M4 around Newport. I understand the principle – sensors in the road detect traffic flow and average speeds and algorithms in the software controlling the system then adjust the speed limit to maximise traffic flow and reduce delays. I applaud the aim

The problem is that the system appears to operate on a whim, with speed limits often changing apparently arbitrarily from gantry to gantry, and all apparently with no regard whatsoever to actual traffic flow or road conditions. An example from yesterday might help illustrate the point : travelling east towards the Brynglas Tunnels at 6.35am, the first gantry in the system displayed a 60mph limit – traffic was light and traffic flow was good; as we moved up the hill past High Cross, traffic built up and began to slow to an average speed of probably 50mph, but the next gantry was displaying the national speed limit sign, and this continued all the way through the remaining section, including the run up to the Coldra interchange where congestion was heavy and the average speed fell to 40 or 45mph. Returning home last evening, the whole section of the motorway from Coldra to Brynglass was set at 50mph, but there was literally not another car ahead of me on the road for at least half a mile, and there was no congestion at all even in the approach to the tunnels (something that has been almost unprecedented in my experience of travelling at this time so far)

The upshot of this is that people who now regularly travel the route have clearly lost all confidence in the variable speed limit system and largely ignore it, choosing to travel at a speed which is appropriate to the actual traffic density and weather conditions at the time. Bizarrely, the system appears to actually CAUSE congestion because some drivers respond to the random limits imposed by breaking sharply from (for example) 70mph to 50mph, to comply with the overhead gantry signs causing vehicles behind to slow down and/or move out to overtake them, and leading to an overall ‘backing-up’ of traffic where there would otherwise have been none

I don’t know what the statistics are on comparative accident and delay rates on this stretch of road since the introduction of the £20m scheme (and it would be interesting to see them), but it would be fascinating to know whether schemes of this type have been evaluated scientifically. My personal experience would suggest that where there is an apparent disconnect between the system and the road conditions that it’s supposed to be regulating, then its impact on actual driving behaviour is negligible

Anonymity no – but accelerated justice is essential

Two legal stories in the past week initially seem only loosely connected, but at the heart of each is a problem linked to the time that it now takes to bring legal cases to a conclusion in England and Wales

Michael le Vell was acquitted of child sex offences following trial at Manchester Crown Court. The jury found the actor not guilty of all charges following four hours of deliberation. The case has re-opened the debate about whether defendants facing sexual offences charges should be entitled to anonymity until found guilty. The arguments are compelling on both sides, but on balance I tend to the view that the interests of justice are best served under the present system

Earlier in the week, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced that the Government was rowing back from the full marketisation of publicly funded criminal defence services that had been the subject of an earlier consultation. Thankfully, common sense has prevailed, and access to justice and service quality will now be the factors governing the award of contracts, rather than tender price

Grayling still needs to make savings, however, to begin to balance the Justice Ministry’s budget, and has ordered a review of the criminal justice system to examine how costs can be stripped out of it. This is where the debate around anonymity for defendants and the legal aid story share a common interest. It is axiomatic in legal circles that justice delayed is justice denied. In essence, the longer cases take to bring to a resolution, the less satisfied with the outcome all the parties become. Victims and their families live with the stress of the impending trial and the anxiety that comes from knowing that they will have to re-live the episode over again in the courtroom before they can hope to achieve any closure. Defendants – especially celebrity defendants – (even allowing for the reporting restrictions that will often govern the specific allegations) will find themselves the subject of ‘dirt-digging’ and lurid speculation relating to other areas of their lives which may or may not be loosely linked to the charges faced. In both cases, the longer it takes to bring the matter to trial, the worse it is for accuser and accused

Equally, the longer the process runs on, the more expensive it inevitably becomes. It is self-evident that a case that is done and dusted in three months will cost much less in investigators’ time, lawyers’ time, court time, and administration than one which runs for six months. In le Vell’s case, he was originally charged in 2011 (charges that were subsequently dropped on the advice of the CPS) before a review in 2012 eventually led to charges in February 2013. It was almost six months’ to the day following the formal charges that he was finally acquitted

For justice to be done, it has to be seen to be done; but for justice to be done effectively, it also has to be seen to be done as speedily as possible. Hopefully, the review body soon to report to the Justice Secretary will be radical and incisive in its recommendations leading to a more cost-effective and just criminal justice system

Why middle lane smokers have little to fear

Cardiff & Vale University Health Board this week announced that it would ban smoking completely within all hospital grounds with effect from 1st October 2013

This came as something of a surprise to me (I thought they already had)

Alongside a total ban on smoking ‘real’ cigarettes, e-cigarettes will also be prohibited because there is currently no evidence to support their efficacy. Instead, patients will be offered nicotine patches and access to the Health Board’s smoking cessation service

Whilst the evidence that smoking is bad for health (and in particular that it delays recovery from illness or surgery) is clear and unambiguous, so is the evidence that practical implementation of a total smoking ban in hospital grounds is extremely difficult. Ratschen et al (2009 : Smoke-free hospitals – the English experience) conclude that where total bans had been attempted “policy infringements were widespread and appeared to be widely tolerated”. Similarly, Arack et al (2009 : An evaluation of the effects of the smoking ban at an acute NHS Trust) concluded that : “the ban is not sufficiently enforced and support services are either absent or not well-publicised”

Both studies found that a significant issue was the lack of rigorous enforcement of the ban on smoking, with staff in particular expressing a reluctance to challenge smokers on hospital grounds through fear of a hostile response. Given the financial constraints within which the Cardiff & Vale Board is already having to operate, and the size and scale of the grounds that are occupied by its main hospital sites in Cardiff and Llandough, it is very unlikely that there will be significant investment in additional security personnel to enforce the smoking ban. It seems that the change in policy will be little more than a gesture – an indication of good intentions but without the resource to properly see it through

There are parallels here with the recently announced ‘clampdown’ on so-called middle lane ‘hoggers’ and ‘tail-gaters’ on motorways. The policy intention is laudable – both driving behaviours are at best irritating, and at worst positively dangerous. The problem is that there are now so few police officers on patrol on the UK’s motorways that enforcement will be practically impossible

Given the continuing emphasis on deficit-reduction and financial stringency, perhaps its time for both politicians and public sector policy makers to start being a bit more honest about what’s do-able and what we will have to simply put up with. Gesture politics and policy announcements that are simply unenforceable are a luxury that we can no longer afford

Bale, £85m and the inevitable decline of domestic football

So Gareth Bale has finally completed his transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a fee reported to be £85m (or – more sensationally – Eu100m). Bale himself will earn £300,000 a week. However you dress it up, these are obscenely high values – especially in an overall economic climate in Spain and the UK that is hardly buoyant (even if the latest data is more positive than has previously been the case). Of course, none of this is Bale’s fault – and the best of luck to him as he makes a move that (if managed prudently) will ensure that neither he nor his family will ever need to wory about financial security again. Nobody facing the same opportunity would turn their back on it

Tottenham have already spent most of the proceeds on summer signings that are designed to increase the overall depth and quality of their squad; replacing Bale is almost certainly impossible – his is a prodigious talent – but Spurs should now be in a position to compete more strongly for a coveted top four finish

The problem is that the overall effect of the transfer (and a number of others like it involving the best teams in England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy) will be to further concentrate talent and wealth into a smaller and smaller group of elite clubs. This is alright to a point, but it cannot be sustainable indefinitely. It is already relatively easy to predict that the premier football league competitions in those countries will be won (once again) by a pool of no more than a dozen or fifteen clubs this season (and in each of Germany, France and Spain, there are probably only two teams with realistic title ambitions). Of course, there will continue to be occasional upsets (such as Cardiff City’s defeat of Manchester City in the English Premiership recently) but these results gain such widespread coverage precisely because they are so rare. It’s difficult to see the attraction of a domestic league competition that is consistently weighted in favour of no more than 25% of the competitors

Even worse, if the English Premiership is anything to go by, even the teams who may be in a position to compete are now so similar in the way that they play, that they are simply cancelling each other out. (Matches between Manchester United and Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, and Liverpool and Manchester United have produced the sum total of two goals between them). It’s football, but not as we know it

Football has traditionally adopted an completely laissez-faire approach to the management of the market for players. Rules to ensure financial fair play have been drawn up, but with more (and more expensive) lawyers and accountants at the disposal of the clubs than UEFA or FIFA can ever hope to be able to match, it is highly unlikely that the biggest and richest clubs will find it difficult to meet these, whilst at the same time ensuring that it is business as usual

The logical extension of the current concentration of wealth and talent in Europe will be the formal creation of a European Super League (replacing the de facto version that is now operating as the Champions’ League). The attraction to those in the elite is likely to become irresistible in the very near future; the impact on those clubs that remain in domestic competitions, meanwhile, is likely to be bloody