Monday, 30 September 2013

G4S, BBC, police: All in it together?

So far, this is what we know about a BBC staff being prevented* from working on a balcony at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester yesterday...

1. There was a large protest about NHS cuts and privatisation - 50,000 people marching on the CPC - in Manchester.

2. It was a peaceful protest. Only two arrests were made.

3. BBC political correspondent Norman Smith did not film live coverage of the NHS demonstration from a balcony at the CPC venue.

4. According to Norman Smith's Twitter feed (@BBCNormanS), security staff had been told by police not to allow the BBC access to a balcony overlooking the protest, but no reason was given for this ban.

5. On the Greater Manchester Police Twitter feed (@gmpolice), it has been denied that police prevented the BBC from filming.

6. Whoever manages the police Twitter account did say that people were "prevented from entering plaza area outside venue reducing potential tensions between protestors & delegates".

Firstly, the balcony in question is private property in that it is part of the venue where the CPC is currently being held. But to say the CPC is a private event is a little absurd. A BBC reporter wanting to film here is not the same as demanding to film, say, a wedding at the same venue.

The CPC has been getting wall-to-wall coverage on the BBC Parliament TV channel, as did the Labour and Lib-Dem conferences. It is important in an open, functioning democracy that BBC, as well as all other news outlets, cover the party conferences. And it is important that people are free to protest at party conferences, regardless of their views. If a party conference is targeted by protestors, that should be covered and every assistance should be given to the media to properly cover it. If a balcony is a good vantage point for getting live footage of a protest, that should be made accessible to the media just as the CPC is open to cameras and reporters.

The NHS protest as well as the events of the conference are inextricably linked and need to be properly covered. Even if you would happily see the NHS disbanded tomorrow, it cannot be denied that 50,000 NHS-supporting people giving up part of their weekend to protest the party conference at which the Prime Minister and Health Secretary were both present is not newsworthy.

Norman Smith's Twitter feed raises more questions than it answers.

He tweeted: Also to be clear. I was stopped by security staff who said they had been told by police not to allow access. No reason was given  

Smith doesn't elaborate as to whether he challenged security staff. Nor does he say if he contacted Greater Manchester Police to ask why filming from the balcony was not permitted. All we have from the police is a tweet about other people being denied entry to other areas reduce "potential tensions between protestors and delegates".

Can anyone from the security company (G4S, by the way... Remember them? The company that did such an appalling job of London Olympic security that the army had to be called in...) or Greater Manchester Police elaborate as to what danger could have been caused by allowing filming to take place from a balcony? After all, a balcony would offer a safe, aerial shot of the protest. A bulky TV camera wouldn't be getting in the way of protestors from a balcony, would it? If filming took place from this particular vantage point, BBC staff would not be getting in the way of the police officers patrolling the protest either.

All in all, it sounds like it was a good place to film live events without obstructing either protestors trying to get a message across or police officers trying to do their jobs.

So, here are the questions that the public deserves to have answered. Our taxes pay for the police force and the BBC so accountability is crucial.

1. If nobody's personal safety was going to be compromised by BBC staff working from a balcony, what exactly was the problem?

2. Was there a problem with the BBC running live footage of the protest? Is it the live aspect of filming an event as unpredictable as a protest that caused consternation?

3. Was anyone from the Conservative Party passing on directives about how BBC journalists should do their jobs to members of the police force who then passed these directives on to a private security company?

4. Did the police force and G4S in their combined actions yesterday cross a line from simply ensuring people stayed safe to dictating how a media outlet does its job?

5. How strongly did Norman Smith protest when disallowed access to the balcony?

6. If Norman Smith proceeded to the balcony and carried on filming regardless, would he have risked being arrested?

I know I am not alone in wanting these questions answered. And if you still think this is a storm in a teacup, just remember how many important stories have been broken precisely because journalists showed some backbone and didn't bend to petty rules. A media populated by obedient people is not a media worth having.

* "Prevented" as far as we know from the journalist's Twitter feed. If he wasn't prevented from filming from the balcony, it is reasonable to gather that he would have filmed from the balcony and there would not be any questions that need to be answered about police and G4S interfering with journalists doing their jobs properly. 


Monday, 23 September 2013

10 reasons why I am maintaining the hospital rage

Back in May, I wrote about the threat to St Helier Hospital in my pocket of South West London. Under the "preferred option" cobbled together by a group under the Better Service, Better Value (BSBV) umbrella, we have the prospect of both St Helier and Epsom hospitals losing A&E and maternity units. St Helier would also lose its renal unit and paediatric intensive care and its hip fracture clinic, considered the best in the country by the National Hip Fracture Database, is also in danger because it is attached to the A&E unit.

Nobody with even a passing interest in the politics of the NHS would be surprised to know that this is all about money, in particular, saving money across a swathe of hospitals that serve an area of London where the population is both growing and ageing.

Since May, there has been a small victory. The consultation period was going to take place over the summer holidays, when people are often away and when consultations such as these are not meant to take place. This has been postponed until at least November. At this rate, it might just keep getting pushed further and further back until the next election rolls around and it may then become a moot point.

But this is not a time for complacency. It would be an anti-climax if it did become a moot point. However, the whole sorry process may not be abandoned and campaigners need to maintain the rage and keep up the pressure. Since May, the @Save_St_Helier Twitter feed has been very busy with challenging questions being asked of whoever manages the BSBV Twitter feed.

These 10 points are reasons why I am still angry as are so many people in my area.

1. BSBV claims that existing staff will be better deployed rather than either any investment in new staff or any job losses to save money (despite the whole process being about saving money). This may sound reasonable until you realise that it wouldn't matter if there was one gigantic hospital to serve the area or there was a little hospital on every street, the fact remains that there simply are not enough members of staff. The whole plan does nothing to address the issue of not enough junior doctors going into emergency medicine.

2. BSBV is extremely GP-heavy in its membership. While the rhetoric about more care in the community and a smaller number of A&Es again sounds laudable, one of the biggest issues is, quite simply, access to GPs. It is easy to bash GPs as lazy but when people have to wait a week for an appointment, it is obvious why many non-urgent cases end up overburdening A&E departments. We need more examination of innovative solutions such as group consultations for patients at risk of diabetes. This is working well at a GP clinic in Smethwick and it is this sort of creative thinking that prevents more cases of diabetes and reduces pressure on A&E departments.

3. If St Helier and Epsom lose A&E and maternity departments, the already-overburdened St Georges Hospital in Tooting will receive a massive multi-million pound upgrade. If you ever visit St Georges, you will find that parking is a nightmare and it is hard to see where the hospital can expand significantly without the compulsory acquisition of neighbouring homes. When asked how the cost of such a huge upgrade was arrived at, we were simply told "capital estimates". There has been no response to the question of whether these estimates were based on real quotations from architects or construction companies. We have been told that such massive work will "pay for itself in five years". We are still not sure if this is five years from now or five years from 2016, when St Helier and Epsom are slated to be downgraded under the preferred option, or five years from whenever construction might start at the already chaotic St Georges site.

On nine occasions in one 12-month period, St Georges had to divert ambulances to St Helier because it could not cope - BSBV is alarmingly calm about this and claims that the upgrade to St Georges will mean this won't be a problem if St Helier is A&E-free. I wish I knew where they keep their crystal ball.

And remember, the money needed to upgrade St Georges so it has any hope of coping with an increased flow of patients is taxpayers' money.

4. The plans to upgrade St Georges are made even more farcical by the fact that St Helier is in the midst of a massive upgrade. Already, £5 million has been spent on St Helier's A&E and £2 million on maternity and there is a big banner across the front of this Art Deco monolith proclaiming the hospital is in the midst of a £219 million upgrade. There have been no satisfactory answers as to what will become of this ongoing project if St Helier is downgraded. The giant banner really needs to come down with much fanfare as it is lulling local residents into a false sense of security about the hospital's future.

And remember again, the money already spent upgrading St Helier is taxpayers' money.

5. Mr Hassan Shehata is one of the best obstetricians in the country. He is the Joint Director of Women and Children's Services for the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust. He has been instrumental in the creation of RCPG guidelines for maternal care. Yet he is being ignored by BSBV. This is probably because he has repeatedly and publicly stressed the urgency of getting women in labour to hospital quickly, especially when things go wrong. Here is a letter he wrote for the local paper about how in some cases, five minutes can be the difference between a good and bad outcome for some women. But if St Helier and Epsom lose their maternity units, women in labour, an event that can change for the worse very quickly, will have to travel for much longer than five extra minutes to get to a maternity unit.

Indeed, just last week a local woman gave birth in the car park of Epsom Hospital where she was then fortunate to be taken in to receive excellent medical care by that hospital's maternity unit. BSBV have not responded to my question as to whether she would have had the same outcome if she had to travel all the way to St Georges. Maybe the BSBV crystal ball wasn't working that day.

6. One of the oft-repeated comments from BSBV is that there are better outcomes for some patients if they spent longer in an ambulance and are taken to specialist A&E units, such as specialist stroke, trauma or cardiac units. This is already happening. It won't be something new that will suddenly start happening after St Helier and Epsom lose A&E units. But for the many, many cases, such as asthma attacks, bumps to the head or serious but not necessarily life-changing fractures, the nearest A&E is generally the best place to be. It is all well and good to constantly cite the case of star footballer Fabrice Muamba as an example of a patient surviving because he went to a specialist cardiac unit further away from where he collapsed - but his is an extreme case. And any similar cases to his are already being treated in this way.

7. If St Helier and Epsom lose A&E departments, they will be downgraded (and it is a downgrading, no matter which way you cut it...) to Urgent Care Centres (UCC). It is hard to get a clear definition from the NHS website as to exactly what treatment you can expect from a UCC. When I asked Dr Marilyn Plant, joint medical director for BSBV, about when patients should go to a UCC, she replied that this should happen when a patient "feels" their condition is not life-threatening. Right. So bad luck if you rocked up to the UCC rather than an A&E because you "felt" that your chest pain was a spot of nasty indigestion when it was in fact a heart attack. Whoopsie!

8. And while we are on the subject of these UCCs we can expect if St Helier and Epsom lose A&E, they may not be open 24/7 like A&E departments are. Understandably, this has scared a lot of people. So I asked BSBV about this. Here's the really freaky news - BSBV cannot guarantee that any new UCC will be open 24/7 and it is up to local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) to determine opening hours based on "clinical need". Firstly, BSBV is, as they are fond of reminding us constantly, largely made up of CCG members across a number of trusts but at the same time, BSBV is not prepared to commit to a guarantee of 24/7 opening hours. Secondly, it again seems like a case of the BSBV crystal ball working overtime. The minimum requirement for UCC opening hours is just 12 hours a day. It is intriguing that BSBV is confident people might not need urgent medical attention outside of certain hours. Because that's how it always works in real life...

9. As we are maybe - or maybe not - leading up to the consultation period, it has also become difficult to get any straight answers about what this means for the ongoing privatisation of the NHS. Croydon Hospital, one of the hospitals affected by the BSBV review, already has an UCC run by Virgin. But if anyone dares ask if St Helier or Epsom will also have privately run UCCs, the answers are vague and unclear. Indeed, Dr Marilyn Plant herself was interviewed on video for the local paper and she kicked off proceedings by saying she didn't want to talk about privatisation. We get told that any facilities will still be free at point of use for patients but we are not getting any confirmation as to whether such facilities will end up making people like Richard Branson even wealthier. Many CCG members across the trusts involved in this saga have declared interests in companies such as Virgin, Assura and Harmoni. Is it a crazy coincidence that these people are decision-makers who are involved in determining how money is spent?

Once again, this is taxpayers' money.

10. Finally, the cost of the whole BSBV programme is a bone of contention that campaigners are, quite rightly, not prepared to bury. I aksed for a breakdown of costings - with a figure of £11 million being bandied about, I wanted details. But instead I was given a very basic breakdown of phases two to five of the programme, a grand total of a not-insignificant £6 million pounds but no breakdown of the first two phases. I asked again today about this and got another load of fobbing off - I was told this information wasn't kept by BSBV (because, hey, why would they bother to keep a record of how they're spending our money - that's just nuts!) and that it was on an old website but not the new website and then I was told to make an FOI request. Which isn't always free and can take at least 20 days. Finally, I received word today from BSBV that they would soon share this information.

This is the tweet they sent:

"It's a perfectly reasonable request though, so will access and publish phases 1 and 2 figures on our website."

Good to know that is is "a perfectly reasonable request" to access information about how taxpayers' money has been spent on a programme aimed at saving money in ways of which many clinicians are raising serious doubts.

I eagerly await this full breakdown of how £11 million has been spent. I do wonder if the salaries of the communications team will be outlined in this breakdown. This would be the team that blocked a local doctor's Twitter account but is not explaining why. Good to see that people being paid with our money are stifling free and open discussion at our expense.

If you have read this far, congratulations. I just hope that at least one journalist on a national newspaper or the BBC or Channel 4 or Sky News picks it up and runs with it too. I can only do so much from my little blog but I couldn't simply do nothing.

Image courtesy of Noel Foster.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Late for Friday the 13th... Why sex workers' rights matter

 I feel terrible. I had every good intention to write a blog piece for Friday the 13th in support of sex workers. But I missed the deadline. And I missed the deadline because I was doing something pretty darn conventional. I was attending a wedding. Between a man and a woman. With my husband. A bunch of us, all of us heterosexual married couples, all met at a pub and got on a minibus to go to lovely stately home for a lovely wedding.

And all of us are privileged. Among the group of friends on that minibus, the women represented a range of occupations - teacher, nurse, journalist, brand manager, stay-at-home mum. Not one of us, as far as I am aware, is a sex worker.

So why should any of us care about the rights of sex workers?

Because, under current laws in Britain, sex workers do not enjoy the same rights as the rest of us working in supposedly non-controversial occupations.

UK laws are muddy when it comes to prostitution. The exchange of sexual services for money is perfectly legal but soliciting in a public place and owning or managing a brothel are illegal. Pandering is illegal, but this can mean anything from trafficking a person into Britain for the purposes of sex to transporting a prostitute to the location of her work. In theory, if a taxi driver knowingly drove a prostitute to a client's house or to a hotel where she (or he) intended to work, they are breaking the law.

Meanwhile in the Australian state of New South Wales, sex workers can work in legal brothels, which are subject to the same sort of planning and zoning laws as other businesses. This means these brothels are subject to the same taxes as other businesses as well as workplace laws. Most importantly, this means that sex workers do not have to tolerate sexual harassment, they are entitled to fair pay and they can report any sort of physical attacks, including rape, to the police without any fear of ending up in trouble themselves.

Whether a prostitute is raped at work or not, she should not have to fear ending up getting arrested herself.

Just as my friends and I would not be accused of asking for it if we were raped because of the jobs we happen to do, the same should be true for a sex worker. Any sex worker. Regardless of who they are or the type of work they do. When there is no consent, there is rape.

But under current British law, it is not necessarily that simple for the sex worker who wants to report a rape or any other kind of assault.The possibility for too many terrible situations is ever-present for sex workers in Britain.

If, for example, a prostitute was attacked in any way while travelling in the back of a taxi with a client, her reporting of the crime could land the taxi driver in trouble under absurdly broad pandering laws. Even if the driver tried to help the sex worker. There is also the additional risk of exposure to charges for laws about soliciting in public as well as indecency laws. In such a hostile legal environment, it would not be surprising if such attacks have happened but have never been reported at all.

It's not good enough. Laws need to change. Nobody is saying life is all sunshine and rainbows for every sex worker. If someone has been forced into any form of sex work against their will, that needs to be dealt with under the law. But when a sex worker is working of his or her own free will, not only should they have the respectability of earning a fair wage and paying tax without stigma, but they should also have the same rights to safety as anyone else, regardless of their occupation.

The niqab and the Plimsoll line of modesty

Has anybody who is currently exercising a disproportionate vomit of rage over the niqab ever actually spoken to a woman wearing one? Do they know personally of any niqab-wearers? Have any of their rights actually been violated because of a niqab?

While a woman who is forced to wear a niqab is having her rights violated on a daily basis, every woman who wears whatever the hell she likes, whether it's a niqab or a bikini, is not. That is the basic starting point for not advocating a ban on the niqab, except for genuine reasons of security and identity, such as airports and courtrooms. In airports in Muslim countries, women who wear the niqab have to show their faces at passport control, usually to a female member of staff. It's not as if there is some bizarre rule in other countries that allows veiled women to board planes sight unseen.

The first time I saw a woman in a niqab, I was 15, on holiday in Malaysia. The woman was shrouded from head to toe in grey with only her eyes peeking through a slot and a really thick pair of glasses. It all seemed comical and I found it almost impossible not to laugh. I'd never seen a woman dressed like that in rural Australia.

I may have evolved somewhat since then. I regularly spoke to women in niqabs when I lived in the UAE. The first time, I was in a Dubai bank and was served pretty quickly thanks to the ladies' queues they often have in banks there. I mentally noted that I'd never actually spoken to a woman with only her eyes showing and, at first, I had a ridiculous urge to speak louder as if her eyesight was somehow sharper than her sense of hearing. Then I realised she could hear me just fine, she was perfectly helpful, and I got on with my day.

On another occasion, I spoke at length to a veiled woman in an estate agent's office in Abu Dhabi. I have no idea what her job was - she was more interested in learning about Australia - but she had a big glass office. After talking for a while, I stopped noticing the black cloth across her face and my imagination filled in the blanks as to what her face might have looked like. Suddenly, the muezzin rang out, she excused herself to pray and then continued the conversation without missing a beat.

Even though a niqab hides a major part of a woman's identity from the wider world, every woman behind the niqab is a human being with her own story as to how she came to be wearing such a garment. I completely understand why people find it confronting, weird, scary but as soon as we start banning it from public life, we create a new series of problems.

For women and girls who are forced by husbands, fathers and brothers to wear the niqab, a ban will make them even more invisible. Women who are under this kind of awful male control would be at risk of not being allowed out in public at all by the men who have appointed themselves their guardians. While many feel it is not ideal for women to be walking the streets or attending educational institutions with only their eyes on show, at least they are out in public, they are accessing education and engaging with other people. If these women were stopped from working or studying or leaving the house at all by the men in their lives, they may disappear without a trace. If any of these women want to get help to escape domineering family members, a law that means they may be kept indoors is not going to help.

Which brings me neatly to the bigger picture of abuse of veiled women. It is easy to imagine the glee and dancing in the street by readers of The Sun if a niqab ban ever became law. But it won't do a damn thing to help women access domestic violence assistance, to come forward to report abuse or to leave awful family situations. It's a simplistic response. Plenty of women who are not wearing niqabs struggle to come forward to report domestic violence or leave horrible relationships. Why would it be any easier for a woman who is made to cover her face by a male relative and lives in the fearful shadow of an awful interpretation of Islam?

In France, the niqab is banned but no woman has been prosecuted for wearing one and no man has been prosecuted for forcing a woman to wear one (although it is perfectly reasonable to pass a law against forcing women to do anything against their will). The laws don't appear to have done a damn thing to stop abuse towards Muslim women either in their own homes or by members of the public.

If the niqab is banned, will this clear the way for the banning of the hijab or the abaya too? For other items of religious clothing? What about Roman Catholic nuns who still wear the long enclosure veil? And if you're the kind of idiot who likes to slag off women in "revealing outfits" and you also rail against Islamic clothing, where do you draw the line at either end of the modesty spectrum? Is there some sort of dual Plimsoll line of modesty whereby there is too much coverage at one end, because it is a Muslim thing, and then too little coverage at the other end because you think a woman looks like a slut?

Whenever a law is passed that dictates what women can wear, whether it forces them to cover up or not, nobody really wins.

Image courtesy of Steve Evans

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The tragic hopelessness of Yemen

There is no excuse for what happened to Rawan that awful day. None at all. She was eight years old. Her parents married her off to a 40-year-old man in Meedi, her Yemeni hometown.

He raped her. That is the only word for such an act.

To call the night she was raped her "wedding night" is completely inappropriate. A wedding night is a time for joy, happiness, fun, for two people who consented to be together to enjoy each other and to make a positive start to their married life. This was a night devoid of any of that love or joy.

The internal injuries she suffered as a result of this rape killed her. He raped and murdered her. And her parents are culpable too. All three of them, and anyone else who facilitated the marriage, be it a celebrant, wedding dress seller or caterer, all have blood on their hands.

To call Rawan a "bride" is to reinforce the notion of a bride as a piece of property whose feelings, opinions, hopes and aspirations simply do not matter.

The death of Rawan cannot be explained away by "cultural differences". The rape and murder of a child is not acceptable. Not in any country or culture or religion. 

It is easy to blame all of Islam for the death of Rawan. But the story broke because of brave villagers in the town of Meedi. Local tribal chiefs tried to cover the story up and a journalist was warned off but outraged villagers spoke out and the journalist prevailed.

Kuwaiti bloggers also helped get Rawan's story wider exposure, especially in the western media. This also took considerable courage. Kuwait, despite having perhaps the most progressive media laws among the Arabian Gulf states, is still not exactly a bastion of press freedom. It is certainly easier for Kuwaiti activists and journalists to speak out against other countries than it is for them to criticise their own leaders. And Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan deserves kudos for reporting the story - sadly, the story was conspicuous by its absence from The National and Gulf News in the UAE, and the Saudi Gazette in Saudi Arabia.

But on top of the warped interpretation of Islam that made even one person think it was OK for Rawan to be married off to a 40-year-old man, the horrific situation has arisen, as ever, from bigger problems. The UN released a report in January which chronicles the shocking extent of Yemen's poverty, healthcare and education issues.

Consider these figures:

1. Of Yemen's 24 million people, 10.5 million lack sufficient food supplies and 13 million have no access to safe water and basic sanitation.

2. Nearly 14% of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 15 and 52% before the age of 18.

3. According to Human Rights Watch, many Yemeni girls are kept from school when they reach puberty.

4. Yemen is ranked a lowly 154 on the UN Human Development Index.

5. Yemenis spend an average of 2.5 years at school.

6. Mortality rates for those aged under five are at 66 per 1,000 live births.

7. Adult illiteracy is at 37.6% for both sexes and at 60% for women.

8. There are 68.1 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 18.

9. The maternal mortality rate is at 210 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Yemen is broken. Its education system is verging on non-existent for many, especially girls. The country's healthcare is beyond appalling and Yemen is not blessed with the oil and natural gas that has boosted the economies of many of its neighbours. Education is an essential element of any country's fight to overcome poverty - there are plenty of other Muslim countries where education rates, especially among women, are high and these countries are prospering, so it is simplistic to simply blanket-blame religion.

Poor education levels beget poverty and poverty begets oppression and desperation. Rawan's parents would have saved a lot of money by marrying her off at such a young age, avoiding the costs of feeding, clothing and educating her, and gained a windfall in the form of a dowry. But this does not excuse the fact they failed horrifically to protect their child.

Campaigners in Yemen have been pushing for a law that makes 15 to be the minimum age for marriage. The current law allows for girls of any age to be married but bans sex with them until they are "suitable for sexual intercourse" - but this isn't clearly defined. In that context, a minimum age of 15 seems positively progressive.

But it's not enough. As long as Yemen is a poor nation, as long as it struggles to achieve even a basic modicum of democracy, as long as the country's problems are dismissed as being "because of Islam" or are ignored by feminists who think it is more important to complain about wolf-whistling or lads' mags, as long as foreign aid is both distributed corruptly and condemned as a waste of money, as long as we all throw our hands in the air at every level, from the personal to the governmental, and believe nothing can ever done, Rawan's story will just be one of many.

* For advice on what you can do at personal level, check the Plan UK website.