Saturday, 31 December 2011

If it's all the same to you.....

I have never much liked New Year's Eve. I think this may stem from one year I spent New Year's Eve with my parents at their local pub. 

This was usually a good event - a lock-in for regulars after the itinerant revellers had staggered off to somewhere hipper (if, indeed 'hip' can really be applied to anywhere in my home town). As kids, my sister and I were allowed to stay upstairs in the landlords' flat until the time it became a private party, at which point we were allowed down into the bar and my sister demonstrated a preternatural talent as a  barmaid, with a speed and accuracy on the optics which belied her tender age and stood her in good stead in adult life.  This, despite levels of cigarette smoke that would would today be declared a biohazard, seemed impossibly grown-up and we loved it.

As I got older, though, I would rather have been out with friends of my own age, although my parents would never have stood for that - their view (with which I now concur) is that getting used to social drinking in a safe environment was better than being allowed out god-knows-where unsupervised. As a result, I did the usual teenage thing of grumping my way through the whole night. Midnight came and a drunk I had never met grabbed me, attempted a slobbery snog and promptly threw up over my right shoulder. That rather settled my attitude to New Year's Eve and from that point on (somewhere in the late 1970s) I've always been decidedly 'ho-hum' about the whole thing.

That's not to say that I've never celebrated it - there have been some years where spending the evening with good friends has been a delight, but that's the key - it should always be with people you know and care about. The thought of dragging myself into a crowded city centre bar just to spend the evening with a bunch of drunks simply doesn't appeal.

In recent years, the demands of kids has meant that we both stay home and watch the glittering Novemberfest that is Jools' Hootenanny. Even this seems to be subject to a law of diminishing returns, with guests who are possibly the least interesting they could muster (with honourable exceptions, of course). Over the last couple of years, the girls have joined us at midnight (they were usually still awake anyway), which does at least mean that the family is together for the turn of the year. Sometimes we get a phone call from my octogenarian parents (if they haven't given up and got an early night) and my sister's fibromyalgia now prevents her from a) drinking very much b) going out revelling c) guaranteeing to be awake at midnight - although that's not to say she won't be awake at 3am, 4am or 5am, having been dropping with fatigue at 8.30pm. We get calls from a couple of our oldest friends, after which we head for bed, seldom drunk enough to worry about a hangover in the morning.

What bugs me about New Year, though, is the continual triumph of hope over experience that has us all saying things like "let's hope it's better than the last one!". I'm essentially a fairly optimistic and practical person, hard-headed enough to sort my problems out and fight my corner when needed. This year, though, I simply cannot remember a time when I've dreaded the thought of the following twelve months more. True, we can never know what the future will bring, but of the things I know are coming our way, none of them are good. Our family income will be hit by a double whammy; my partner's pay being downgraded (he doesn't deal directly with the public, you see, so he's one of those awful "back office" types we are all supposed to deride) and frozen (again). And then there's the financial penalty we'll pay on our tax credits for our selfish lifestyle choice of having a disabled child without the foresight to ensure that she was severely disabled. The utter cruelty of a government which chooses to reduce financial support for the "not disabled enough" while simultaneously removing all other support structures is utterly breathtaking. For this reason, I won't, if it's all the same to you, be wishing anyone empty platitudes about better times ahead. For the vast majority of us, 2012 is going to be dire, and my profound wish is that we all come through it as unscathed as possible. Those of you on my Facebook Friends List and my Twitter buddies are all wonderful people and I wish the best to all of you - just don't ask me to dance around any fountains spouting rubbish about next year being fab!

 My dad's usual new year greeting is "Duck! Here comes another one!" This year, more than ever, he's captured the zeitgeist.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

#asdmornings: When a Tweet's not long enough....

We had anticipated some problems this morning. We knew that she was not happy about doing Food Tech because she hadn't done last week's class and had therefore not made the puff pastry. The suggestion that she could take in some ready made stuff went down badly. Similarly, she's narky about not being "allowed" to do PE, despite several weeks where despite the best efforts of all concerned she has either refused to take part or has refused to leave the PE building afterwards, to a point where they have arranged alternative provision for this lesson while the school is still a building site (the logistics of getting the girls to PE currently involves leaving the premises by the front gate and walking around 2 sides of the perimeter to get to the PE Dept.).

Still, I heard her alarm go off at 6.45am and when I went in at 7am, she was awake and cheerful. "5 minutes" I said and went off to try and encourage her younger sister to engage with "morning."

By 7.30am, her mood had changed and she was refusing to get up. I warned her sister that she might have to walk up to school (it's cold but dry and not the end of the world not to have a lift), and that she'd need to be ready to leave by 8.00am.

At 7.57am, M complained that she also wanted to walk to school with her sister (despite still being in bed). Younger sister (and this is where it starts kicking off) complains that she didn't know she'd got to walk. This appears to trigger something and M then chases her down the stairs and we end up with YS locking herself in the downstairs toilet for protection, with M barring any exit therefrom. Eventually, YS ventures out and puts her blazer and winter coat on, but realises she can't put her shoes on as they're in the kitchen where M is hovering....

I try to encourage M away from her sister, but as she storms past (throwing stuff on the kitchen floor in the process) she pushes her, full strength, into the coat pegs in the hall. and heads back to her room, slamming the door and knocking more paint off the door frame as she does so.

Tears (YS's and mine) and a hug, and I bundle YS out of the house, and go into the living room to phone school to warn them that M is in meltdown and to request that they don't give YS a late mark, as she has been physically unable to leave the house before 8.15am. As I'm on the phone, I hear the merry ratchet-ing sound of the Chubb key on the outside of the living room door being locked behind me (a security measure we put in years ago when we had four break-ins in as many years, coincidentally the last time the Tories were in charge of law and order).  Can hear the sound of things being thrown around, but no idea what. At this point, YS appears at the living room window. In her earlier panic, she has accidentally picked up her sister's blazer rather than her own. I negotiate, through a locked door, for M to let her sister in and exchange it for the right blazer without causing her sister any physical pain. I think I can gauge her mood from peering through the small crack in the woodwork (this one not of her creation!), but have to hope that I've called it right.

Blazer-exchange seems to go off without major injury and YS scuttles off to school.  I then phone OH who, very sensibly, had left the house for work at 7.10am so he at least knows there is a problem. Offers to come home and let me out, but this seems unwise - the last thing a public sector worker needs at the moment is to be perceived as not being 100% productive. Also phone school, and we agree that it's unlikely I'll get her in, but that I will keep them posted

During the course of these conversations, M disappears upstairs, returning fully dressed for school and announces she's going to go in on foot. She then opens the front door, realises it's only just above freezing and asks for a lift. I try to phone school to warn them of this unexpected development, but can't get through, so I drive her there and phone them from the car park. I walk her to Reception, but her route to her classroom is blocked by a class of girls assembled to make the trek over to the PE building, so we lurk in the foyer until the way is clear. She then goes down to her classroom without a further murmur and appears in a perfectly good mood.

I am acutely aware, as I talk to members of staff and her support team, that I haven't yet had a chance to wash or clean my teeth and my hair is in need of a wash. Still, living with autism means that your sense of social embarrassment diminishes as you do what it takes to get by, and at least I'm not still in pyjamas!

Today was a fairly major version of the pre-school meltdown, but they're far from uncommon. I can never be sure what reception I will get when I go in at 7am, and it can often take 50 minutes to persuade her to get up (while trying to get the 11 year old sorted at the same time), to not wear the same shirt 3 days in a row, to have to judge how serious she is when she says, "if you make me go in I'll misbehave." Mixed in with the autism are the teenage hormones which would make life difficult anyway, but unlike the teenage hormones, there is every likelihood that a measure of this behaviour will remain into adulthood. Part of it is pure manipulation (she behaved better yesterday and was rewarded by being allowed to make peppermint creams and coconut ice for the end of term party), but once the manipulation has started, she doesn't always have the ability to stop it.

Autism is an unfairly invisible disability. Those who know her slightly, and have never encountered her in full meltdown see - quite rightly - what a lovely child she can be, but have no concept of what it's like trying to cope with the mercurial changes in temperament. They see that she is resourceful and resilient, but not that she can only do it sometimes - and there'e no predicting when she won't be able to.

Her sister, as many 11 year olds do, tends to overreact to perceived slights and unfairness. She hasn't yet learned the coping strategy of quietly ignoring the extreme provocation in the interests of self-preservation. That will come with maturity, but it's a lot to ask of her.

It's days like this where I wonder how I am ever going to find work that will enable me to combine caring with gainful employment. I'm reasonably intelligent, a good administrator, even ran a team of 30+ people at one time. At the moment, though, there is no prospect of me being able to go out to work on a full time basis. Childcare for secondary-aged children is patchy, so realistically, I'd be looking at term time only and, with the issues we face on a regular basis, it could really do with being something home-based and flexible.  You're no use to an employer if you are constantly having to rush off and sort out a crisis (with my former management hat on, I know that's the case) and with employee's rights being stripped away, I don't think I'd last long in the conventional work environment, do you?

Which is why, on days like these, I so appreciate politicians and unelected 'representatives' voting to reduce the support I receive through tax credits by 50%. Makes me feel truly valued.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Huge love and support for all my friends and former colleagues on strike today. Yesterday's Autumn Statement proved that the coalition won't be happy until it's returned us all to the Victorian era, where support for the poor and needy is dependent on the partisan sympathy of the elite (welcome back, the "undeserving poor") and where working people have no security or protection. 

I supported those in the private sector whose pensions were raided, whose schemes were shut down or made much worse; just because I wasn't immediately affected didn't mean that I sat there thinking, "I'm alright, Jack, I've got my nice public sector pension waiting for me." (which is the corrollory of some of the "Well, I haven't got a decent pension, so why should you have one?" comments I've been hearing recently).

In case no-one noticed, the public sector unions were prevented from taking action in support of you because of the "reforms" of the last Tory government. Sorry.

Today's action may be primarily about pensions, but it's about so much more. Snuck out yesterday was the abandonment of the TUPE regulations which (allegedly) offer protection to terms and conditions of public sector workers whose jobs are transferred to a private provider. Those of my former colleagues involved in the Learner Support debacle will know that the TUPE regulations aren't worth much, but they are a small buffer against exploitation. 

On transfer from the council, we were denied permission to retain our local government pensions, which now sit there as deferred benefits until we're 65 - sorry, 66 - no, sorry 67......... We can do nothing to help ourselves on this one - we can't even agree to the government's terms and contribute more for longer and get less - we just have to sit tight and hope that too many current members don't pull out of the scheme and make it unsustainable. 

Within a year of transferring out, I found myself demoted as part of a "restructure", the catch-all way for TUPE to be undermined. Within two years of transfer, I'd been paid off to make room for some more call centre staff (mostly unemployed graduates, with loans to pay off) on minimum wage. I relied on UNISON to make sure I didn't get ripped off as part of this process (as I had a few years earlier, when the council had ignored the fact that workplace bullying had driven me off sick and tried to instigate capability procedings against me (the bully, you might wish to note, was eventually sacked for inappropriate behaviour in a completely unrelated set of circumstances). 

For these reasons, if no others, I am fully behind today's action. The union protected me when I was vulnerable, so I have a duty to support those who are still vulnerable.

If the private sector (and by this, I mean ordinary workers in the private sector, not the so-called "wealth creators) has lost out in pay/pensions, etc over the last 30 years, it's because it has become de-unionised. Like the young women who describe themselves as "post-feminist" and then decry the fact that they are still discriminated against, many people towards the end of the 20th century convinced themselves that unions were an anachronism; that we had won all the battles. In the good times, this was a persuasive argument, although in hindsight it was clearly wrong.

My great-grandfather, a master baker, was sacked for suggesting that he and his fellow workers should be paid for the extra shifts they were asked to put in to provide the Navy with bread for the fleet putting in at Dover. My  (Tory) father worked all his life in the private sector, but was a member - and steward - of his staff association (GMB-linked, if I remember rightly). He knew that if you didn't have representation, you were vulnerable.

It is perfectly clear now, that the battles are far from won. The coalition is intent on wrecking civil society, and returning us to the conditions that made Dickens so "righteously indignant" (the same righteous indignation that Michael Gove, without a hint of irony, so admires!). Instead of support from the state, all but the independently wealthy will have to rely on the goodwill of charities (Job Centres are already referring people to food banks) and corporations.

Instead of being run by elected, accountable local authorities, schools will be privatised (and make no mistake, that's what academy status is) and run by unaccountable private 'sponsors', many of which seem to have a (sometimes dubious) religious background. that's bad news for those of us who do not want our children indoctrinated and who welcomed the transfer of state education provision from church to state.

The NHS, widely found by independent studies to be one of the most cost-effective health systems in the world, is being sold off to Lansley's business associates, at anenormous cost in "restructuring"

For those who think public sectors are overpaid/lazy/do non-jobs, etc, or that it costs 'too much' to run local councils, just watch how much more it costs once council services are handed to the outsourcing corporations. And this doesn't go on wages for the staff, it goes to senior managers and shareholders. Capita is making healthy profits in the midst of the worst austerity in (almost) living memory, on the back of its multiple government contracts. And this at a time when hundreds of small (private) businesses are struggling to keep afloat (especially if they relied on council contracts for their business!).

The difference between the laissez faire economies of the industrial revolution and today, though, is that those who made enormous fortunes out of their workforce at least had some level of guilt about it and used philanthropy to redress the balance a little. Today, the multimillionaires see no reason why they should give anything back. Hell, they don't even pay the tax they're supposed to contribute! Laissez-faire, too, meant that governments, largely, did not intervene - this government is actively promoting the looting of the public sector.

So today, I am not merely supporting my colleagues in the public sector, but hoping that this action, supported by 60-70% of the public (when was the last time a public sector strike had that level of support?), will show that the people of this country are not the apathetic, unthinking consumerist drones the coalition believe and hope them to be. It is not public vs private, it is the super-rich vs the rest of us. This is looking increasingly like Class War - the rich really hate us, don't they?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Getting Through

Having a conversation yesterday morning about the upcoming 'Austerity Christmas' we're going to have.

My eldest daughter has high-functioning autism (not an Asperger's diagnosis, but she has no learning difficulties other than the anxiety/behavioural issues which prevent her accessing the curriculum on a regular basis). She's almost 14, and capable of quite sophisticated and nuanced discussions about current affairs (apart from those times when all we can elicit from her is a torrent of expletives and slamming doors when we say something she doesn't agree with*).

We discussed with her the fact that I have given up work to ensure that she can maintain her mainstream education, which has pretty much halved the family income over the last 2 years, and that with her dad employed by a local authority, our one income has been frozen for the same period. Next year, he will also lose several thousand pounds due to a job evaluation which downgraded him because he doesn't "deal with the public", which is clearly more important than, say, collating all the data which ensures the authority draws down the correct funding (Me, I'd have thought both functions have equal value, but that's what happens when local authorities buy in to the 'service economy' model - style over substance). As a result, we told her, we will have to be a lot more careful with our expenditure.

M: "You need to get a job, mum"

Me: "I'm trying to get a job, but there aren't that many around and I can't get a job if I'm going to be called out on a regular basis because there's a crisis at school. I'm no good to an employer if I'm always having to take time off or leave work at short notice. It needs to be something that's home-based, so I can work around you, and it needs to be term-time only, as there's no viable childcare."

M: "Well, I'll start to behave, then."

Me: "But you can't always help your behaviour; it's your autism, and it's unpredictable. 

[We did both work full-time during her primary school career, and it nearly broke us. Despite a family-friendly employer and remarkably supportive managers - at least before I was outsourced to the private sector - it was incredibly difficult to sustain. I came to hate Caller ID - seeing the school's number come up brought me out in a cold sweat. It still does, but at least now I don't have to go cap in hand to a boss and ask for permission to disappear - again.]

OH: "There have only been 3 days in the last 2 years when your mum hasn't been available, and on 2 of those, I've had a call from school and have had to leave work to come and take you home. Do you see why it's so difficult for mum to find a suitable job?"

She didn't. Sometimes it's like trying to have a reasoned argument with a government minister.

Hey! Maybe instead of stacking shelves in Tesco on unpaid workfare, there's a future job opportunity for her as an ATOS assessor - she has at least as much knowledge of her medical/psychological condition as they do and has the necessary rigidity of thinking. She probably has too much empathy, though.

* On re-reading this post, I think she could also have a career as a politician - that sounds very much like Cameron response.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Dear Cold Caller...

My partner is employed in the public sector and is about to lose £4000 per annum due to Job Evaluation, in addition to the 2 year pay freeze which was imposed on council workers when the banking crisis hit, which means the two years' pay protection he was entitled to was effectively wiped out.  That's if they don't have to make compulsory redundancies.

I was TUPE'd out of the public sector and subsequently made redundant, since which time I have been a full time carer for our autistic teenager. My chances of obtaining work which will fit around these family circumstances is low. Believe me, I've been looking, but not many employers are keen to take you on when you can get called away at a moment's notice because of a crisis.

So, although we're delighted you're in our area, unless you are offering your will-writing service/solar panel installation/ loft insulation/uPVC fascias and soffits for free, I'm afraid we really can't take you up on your kind offers.

Oh, and our Windows operating system isn't running slowly, because we're on Mac.

Thank you for thinking of us, though.

Friday, 7 October 2011

We'll Miss it When it's Gone....

After a text book pregnancy, I went into labour at 1am on Thursday 12 February 1998. Our birth plan had been for labour to start at home and for me to transfer to hospital for the birth. Our midwife was called out and did an examination, at which point it was discovered that the baby's umbilical cord was lodged round her neck, so as a precaution I was taken straight in to the hospital. After an uncomfortable night on the ward, I was taken to the birthing room in the morning and my partner and I spent the day waiting for the labour to progress. Not much happened over the course of the day, so on the Friday morning  they decided to induce.

When at midnight I still wasn't in established labour, they decided that if no progress had been made by morning, an emergency C-section would be needed. 

And so, at lunchtime on Saturday 14 February, our daughter finally arrived, looking pink and beautiful. Actually, a little pinker than we were expecting, due to a sizeable birth mark which covered most of the left half of her face and skull. She was a good weight, though, and all the necessary checks were done to pronounce her fit and healthy. My exhausted partner, who'd stayed with me throughout and who only had my old pullover to wear (it had been unseasonably warm, and he'd come into the hospital wearing only a T shirt and jeans), went home to get some well-earned rest.

The next day, she appeared a little jaundiced, so we were moved to a side room with a light-box and she 'sun-bathed' to reduce the jaundice. Staff came and went, pronounced her beautiful and assured us that the birth mark would fade in time. On her second night on the planet, a junior doctor came to visit me late at night to say that he had been doing some research and thought it possible that the birth mark was indicative of a rare but serious neurological condition called Sturge Weber Syndrome. After the trauma of a 3 day labour, this was not what I wanted to hear (especially in a lonely hospital room, on my own, late at night). 

The next day, she underwent X rays, and we were visited by the Chief Consultant to explain the condition, which could present as anything from - well, very little to very severe developmental problems, epilepsy, glaucoma, hemiplaegia (weakness on one side of the body), learning difficulties, etc.  Diagnosis couldn't be confirmed fully without further investigation and we were assured that she would be monitored closely.

After a week of sun treatment, we took her home and started life as a family. She had a CAT scan at two months, and was seen quarterly by a consultant at the Eye Hospital to make sure that the glaucoma would be spotted if it arose. Developmentally, she was fine, hitting the milestones on target and doing pretty well. Of course, we jumped at the slightest twitch, in  case it was the epilepsy kicking in, but she was fine and we made arrangements for me to go back to work, and arranging for a place for her at our local children's (later SureStart) centre.

A week before she was due to start nursery at 6 months old, I visited my sister in Shropshire. On the way back in the baby seat, my daughter seemed distressed, but I put it down to her picking up on my stress levels navigating the M6 in rush hour.

The next morning she was clearly unwell; listless, unfocused. We called our GP, who told us to bring her in. As we arrived, he ushered us in past a queue of waiting patients, examined her and said that she appeared to be post-ictal and suggested we took her in to the hospital. She was admitted as an in-patient and during the course of the day had more seizures. It took us a week to get her stabilised on phenobarbitone and carbamazapene, but she made a good recovery and started nursery only a week behind schedule. She also sat up for the first time while in the hospital, so clearly the seizures where not affecting her development.

And so it went on for a couple of years. Her seizures, usually partial, came in clusters, usually towards the end of the week when she was tired or when she was unwell and running a temperature. At 3, while on holiday with my parents, she had a major seizure, and her medication was raised in line with her increased body weight.

Shortly afterwards, she embarked on a course of laser treatment to reduce the appearance of her birthmark (see my previous post 10th Anniversary for the background on that), and a year ago decided to discharge herself. The birthmark has not gone completely (and probably would never have done), but is considerably reduced. More importantly, she is confident enough to face the world with it on display.

A few weeks into her school career, it was noticed that she was failing to settle and that her  behaviour could be very erratic. By Year 1 she had a statement of special educational needs and 1:1 support in class. Although she did not appear to have learning difficulties, her learning was being severely impaired by her behaviour, and so the NHS Child Psychology Service was brought in, and we attended parenting courses to help us understand and manage her behaviour. In Year 3, after a particularly severe meltdown, we were referred to a new psychologist who decided to investigate whether, apart from the Sturge Weber diagnosis, there might not be something else going on. After an intensive round of sessions with our daughter and us, looking at every aspect of her life to date, we were given the diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. 

I know you are supposed to be devastated when you get this diagnosis and mourn for the child you thought you had. We were just relieved that finally we had an explanation and - if you like - a label (Me, I don't mind labels if it gets us the help she needs). This enabled us to work with the medical and educational authorities to later manage her transition to a mainstream high school.

She had a good start to year 6 and then, on a routine visit to the Eye Hospital, they discovered that she had a choroidal haemangioma, leading to a detached retina. Not the normal, torn retina, but a bleed behind it which had been leaking fluid so that, in the words of the specialist, it was like wallpaper peeling of a damp wall. She was referred to another hospital, and an emergency operation to reattach the retina, with a silicone splint inserted to hold it in place, followed by a course of photodynamic therapy. This failed to reduce the tumour, so she was then referred to another hospital for radiotherapy. This appeared to be successful and on a subsequent visit, it was decided to remove the silicone splint. We had been told that it was likely that little, if any, sight would return, but my feeling was that with the eye still in place (instead of removing it - pretty traumatic for an 11 year old), it was at least possible that there might be some possible treatment in the future which might restore some sight. Unfortunately, the retina detached again and rubeosis developed so her eye is now effectively dead; we still have quarterly check ups to monitor it, in the hope that it can stay in place for as long as possible.

She still sees the psychology service on a regular basis - the problems of being a partially-sighted, autistic  teenager are many and varied - but fortunately, she has been seizure-free since 2001 and has recently been weaned off the medication, so far with no ill effects. She is currently undergoing orthodontic treatment to reduce the uneven appearance of her teeth (also an SWS manifestation). It's a struggle keeping her in mainstream school, but with the input of the medical professionals, we are getting there - just.

The point of this very long piece is to highlight how much interaction she has had with the National Health Service in her short life. She has had world-class treatment from many professionals - treatment that we, on modest public sector salaries, could never have afforded to pay for. I have said many times since she was born, "Thank goodness she wasn't born in America."

Which is why it both breaks my heart to see the NHS being sold off to the medi-vultures by Lansley and his pals, and scares me, too.

What will happen to her in later life, if her eye deteriorates? If her autism prevents her from meaningful (if any) employment and makes her behaviour more challenging as she ages? At the moment, her father and I can fight her corner, but what happens when we're no longer around? 

And make no mistake - if the Health Bill goes through, as it looks like it will - all this superlative care, free at the point of delivery, will go, and people like my daughter face a miserable future.

And that's not even starting in the issue of disability benefits and work.............

NHS Roll of Honour 1998-2011

St Mary's Hospital for Women and Children, Manchester - Neonatal and Neurological Depts
Manchester Royal Eye Hospital
Manchester Children's Hospital
Manchester Dental Hospital
Manchester Community Paediatric Service
West Point Medical Centre, Levenshulme, Manchester
West Point Dental Centre, Levenshulme, Manchester
Leeds General Infirmary, Dermatology Dept
Child/Adolescent Psychology Service, Winnicott Centre, Manchester
Royal Liverpool University Hospital, St Paul's Eye Centre
Clatterbridge Centre for Oncology, Wirrall

[I'm sure there are others I've forgotten about, too]


I wrote this some years ago. Sadly, the NHS has been decimated since then, just as we feared. My daughter's physical health is pretty stable these days, but the psychological support she got from CAMHS has, of course, ground to a halt now that she's an adult. So the next time she has extreme anxiety and lands in hospital after taking a potential overdose of prescription medication, there is likely to be no follow-up. 

My late parents spent their last few days in NHS care - superlative care. Lifelong Tories, they didn't live to see the absolute mess their party has made of what my mother described as "the best thing this country has ever done." I'm so glad they were spared that. As for the rest of us? The more people keep voting for Conservative governments, the quicker we will descend into the barbaric US-style system where one piece of bad luck can land you with bankrupting medical bills. If you value the NHS, you need to vote Labour (and yes, I know New Labour allowed the first fault-line of marketisation to creep in). For your sake and your loved ones. Bugger Brexit - this stuff's more important.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

10th Anniversary

We were sitting in the hospital waiting room at Leeds General Infirmary, understandably nervous for Meg (3), undergoing her first dose of laser treatment under general anaesthetic. The Bob the Builder video on the waiting room TV ended, and the picture reverted to real television, and a newly-emerging news story of a plane crashing into the World Trade Centre. With no visuals, we imagined something a bit like King Kong - a light aircraft gone off course, perhaps? As the afternoon progressed Meg came out of surgery, and we all sat transfixed as the story developed and she recuperated. Medics came off duty and huddled around the TV rather than go home. 

Away from the two aircraft in New York, reports came in of another plane coming down in rural Pennsylvania, and my thoughts turned to my friends there - the only state where I knew anybody! We were discharged and headed over the our friend's house where we had left the infant Nooka. She'd been in the garden with the children all afternoon and had only just heard that there had "been a plane crash in New York." It seems incredible in these days of 24 hour news and social networking, to think that only a decade ago you could remain unaware of a story for that long.

The journey back across the M62 had the quality of a particularly weird dream. The PM team on the car radio were trying to make sense of what was going on, the UK weather, unlike the clear blue skies of New York, was that oppressive low cloud through which you sense the sun might burst if it only had the courage. I remember it being muggy and uncomfortable, with a strange quality of light as we hit the 'split' section and summit of the motorway. At one point, Meg decided to extricate herself from her seatbelt and was sitting in the footwell in the rear passenger seats. In rush hour, it was impossible (and dangerous) to stop and re-seat her, so I just had to keep going, with Paul coaxing her back to her seat.

The memories are still vivid. The images still powerful. On future trips to LGI I usually went alone with Meg, but on that day I was grateful I had my family with me - it was no time to be dealing with things on your own.  For my generation, this was probably our JFK moment. I wonder if my girls will feel the same dislocation I do about that - old enough to have 'been there' but not old enough to remember it?

The reasons are still disputed, but in essence the attacks (and the response to them) stem from intolerance. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the British government's decision to get into bed with an oil-hungry, none-too-bright leader of the free world has been catastrophic. It de-railed the social progress which 1997 promised, diminished us internationally; it has made us no safer, while at the same time curtailing civil liberties and stifling dissent. And it's bolstered extremism in all its forms - the 'moralisers' of the Christian right are every bit as dangerous.

So my thoughts today are with all those who lost their lives that day, and those who have suffered as a result since. Just as the UK is being buffeted today by the far-off effects of an Atlantic weather system, so we are all still feeling the after-effects of 9/11.

What gives me hope is that the 3 year old that day is now a thriving teenager who is at ease with her appearance and has elected to discontinue her laser surgery. Now that's a victory.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Gordon Brown

I have always liked Gordon Brown. 

He's always seemed to me to be an honourable man, an un-showy politician and (despite what the spinners would try and tell you) a highly successful Chancellor who quietly redistributed wealth in the early years of the Labour government. 

True, he was very much part of the New Labour project, but I saw him as a moderator, curbing the worst excesses of Tony Blair. Shortly after the election of May 1997, Tories of my acquaintance wagged their fingers at me and said, "You wait - we'll see their true colours now they're in power." I waited. And waited. The true colours I had hoped Labour would show never actually materialised and I was, like many people, bitterly disappointed that they had failed to act decisively on so many things that mattered to me. I put this down to Blair, and had great hopes that Brown's administration would roll back some of the more 'Tory-Lite' policies we'd seen from the Blair years. Brown was, I felt, more committed to social justice than his predecessor, more in touch with ordinary people (as far as one can be at the top of the political tree). True, he was mocked for his social awkwardness, the rictus smile which appeared in photo opps, but at heart I always felt that here was an honourable man whose real smile (on the few occasions we saw it), was genuine and full of joy.

When my 10 year old daughter, facing a major operation on her eye to try and save it after a retinal detachment caused by Sturge Weber Syndrome, wrote to him because she knew he, too, had had problems with his eyesight, she received a letter back from 10 Downing Street. Now, we know it came from the Direct Communications Unit, and was not hand-written by him, but it was written in a very informal style and detailed the accident which had caused him to lose his sight. Even if Brown himself never set eyes on her original letter, his team cared enough to pitch the response just right for a scared 10 year old, rather than giving a stock response. (Compare that with the non-response Brown got from the Met when he wrote to them regarding being a possible victim of hacking).

After the initial honeymoon period (he was impressive in response to the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, for example), my faith in him started to wobble. His "government of all the talents" appeared to comprise the talents of slapstick and self-harm, to a point where I started to wonder if some of those allegedly working for him didn't have some other agenda (how far-fetched that seemed at the time!). His decision not to call an early general election seemed strange, as it would have given him extra legitimacy and drawn a definite line between him and Blair. The policies I had been appalled to see a Labour government introduce (academies, outsourcing of government contracts to the profit-driven private sector BPOs) continued seemingly unabated, and so much of it seemed at odds with what I knew of Brown's views and convictions. 

I concluded that although he might be a decent man, and a fine Chancellor, maybe he'd fallen victim to the Peter Principle. Maybe he just couldn't hack it in the top job? Perhaps being decent and having values was no longer enough? Maybe the Blairites were still exerting too much power for him to make any real difference?

During the 2010 election campaign, as one gaffe led to another disaster, it seemed clear that the value- and charm-free glibness of David Cameron and the student-bribing antics of Nick Clegg were probably going to sink Gordon. Both were more at home with the sound-bite populism of the leaders' debates than Brown, even though they had little to say of any real worth. Occasionally, in the big speeches, there were glimpses of the man I hoped Gordon was, but it was not enough, and so we now have the Slash and Burn Coalition wrecking British society to line the pockets of their influential, tax-avoiding cronies and its "Greasy Pole Social Mobility", where a few 'entrepreneurs' (God, how I'm growing to hate that term) make good from humble beginnings (and then pull the drawbridge up behind them) rather than real mobility (ie, modest improvements in living standards) for the majority.

Back in December 2010 when I started this blog I wrote about the last Labour government and what it had done for me, my family and millions of other ordinary citizens (all of which is now being unravelled). I also stated that:

Some of the trashing of Brown has been, frankly, disgraceful and I think it shows the mettle of the man that he's put up with it. In time, I think his reputation may recover - after all, John Major is now seen as a genial elder statesman!

I think that process may now be beginning. Yesterday's revelations about the 10 year campaign of hacking/blagging to trawl personal information on not just Brown, but on his son's medical condition, will have made all but the most venal commentators (and there are some, if you look at the comments on any given news story) feel compassion for a man whose family life had already been touched by the tragedy of his infant daughter's death. I remember the awful moment we received our daughter's diagnosis - how on earth would we have coped in similar circumstances if we had been - effectively - doorstepped by an extremely powerful and ruthless newspaper editor telling us that she was going to make our family front page news for no other reason than because she could? 

Suddenly, the inaction, the 'gaffes', the seeming ineffectiveness of Brown's term of office, start to make some sense. I doubt Gordon Brown is the sort of man for whom sucking up to the Murdoch Empire came easily, but knowing that they were always hovering around him, waiting to pounce, effectively hobbled his government. He was, no doubt, advised that he had to keep Murdoch and his henchmen/women sweet, the received wisdom of the time being that News International/Corporation were the king-makers. How much do you imagine it stuck in his craw to have to attend the harpies' wedding, knowing what she was capable of?

In fact, as I write this, another vile revelation has just appeared on my Twitter feed via the redoubtable Marina Hyde

Not only was Brown battling the Blairites (although given Blair's closeness to Murdoch, we probably can't rule out some additional influence there, too). Trying to run a country under the constant threat of blackmail (not that you've done anything wrong, but just that your personal life might be spread across the media). Throw in a global financial crisis to throw all your figures off-balance, and that's game over.

Unlike Cameron, Brown has never used his children to further his career and appeal to the masses, so why is their medical history of any 'public interest'? It's been pointed out today that the Murdoch-friendly Blair's refusal to admit whether Leo had had his MMR was 'respected' (if that's a term which could ever be applied to the Murdoch media).

So, I'm a little happier. I didn't want to think that Brown was a) just like Blair b) incompetent, and now it looks like I was right all along. What we are learning now explains so much about the Brown years which seemed inexplicable at the time. It explains why he never seemed to have the "courage of his convictions" (although now it seems there was a different kind of courage he was having to employ), why he always looked like a haunted man (because the Brooks ghoul was hovering over him) and why, as he left Downing Street with his family just over a year ago, we finally saw that 'real' smile which had not made much of an appearance in recent years. 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Homelessness and the Private Sector

I see that Grant Shapps MP has "called on councils to start forging closer links with landlords and letting agents", presumably because with waiting lists for council housing running to years in most authorities and the coalition starving housing associations of the funding which would have allowed more homes to be built, there is very little option but to put homeless people into private rented accommodation. In reality, a lot of councils already do this - my partner has worked in Homelessness for 20 years and says that most placements of homeless families in our authority are now in private rental properties.

Mr Shapps has stated that "[councils] will need to ensure that vulnerable or at-risk families are not inappropriately housed. And they must ensure that the accommodation is suitable, safe and secure and available for a minimum of 12 months", which sounds lovely and supportive, doesn't it? Private landlords are benevolent and have the best interests of their tenants at heart, so what could possibly go wrong?

Case History

My sister and her husband have never been wealthy; they managed to get by on a low income in rented accommodation, supported by HB and tax credits. Five years ago, they took the decision to relocate in order to be closer to my elderly parents. My brother in law, employed by HMRC [the irony of someone administering Tax Credits only surviving financially because of them was not lost on them], applied for a transfer on compassionate grounds and was told this would be possible.They started searching for properties in East Devon, but were unable to find anything suitable initially. Then my mother had to go into hospital for a knee operation and required substantial care on her return home; at the same time, my niece was due to start secondary school so in order to minimise disruption for her, my sister and the two children moved down and stayed with my parents while my brother in law remained in the midlands, awaiting news of his transfer. 

Eventually this came through, but the only job they could offer was in an office which was difficult to commute to (he's a non-driver in a rural county which has minimal rail services, thanks to Beeching). Their only option was to move nearer to the office, which would have meant my niece changing schools again after only a few months; this was untenable so he started looking for alternative jobs nearer to 'home'. Eventually, he was able to find a job in the town (albeit with a substantial pay cut), but still nowhere to live, so they ended up living with my parents - 4 adults and 2 children (4 and 12) in a 3 bedroomed semi. The council agreed that they were homeless, and that they had local connection, but simply did not have anywhere they could offer them. There are also precious few housing association properties in the area, so they were looking at private rental sector. 

Eventually, after a rather fraught 6 months, they found a property and were able to put down some roots and get their furniture out of (expensive) storage. For a while, things were fine, but then the owner, who had put the house up for rental while working away, came home again, so they were served with notice to quit. this time, they were luckier and managed to find a suitable property in a village about 5 miles away from my parents. Nice house, good landlord, all going well....

... and then the marriage failed. My sister ended up back at mum and dad's; my brother in law stayed in the house until he could find himself a smaller flat. After another six months back with my parents, my sister thought her luck was beginning to change, when the letting agent for the previous house contacted her to say that it was available again and was she interested? It was a three bedroomed house and there were now only two of them, but the rent was within HB limits and, with a lot of borrowing of deposits, etc, she was able to move in in time for Christmas.

At last things, seemed to be calming down and the following May she came to stay with us for a much-needed holiday. On her return, she found a notice to quit; her initial 6 month assured tenancy was up and the owner had decided to sell. The house was never advertised as being on the market, and it was a cash sale, so we now suspect that it had already been earmarked for sale and my sister brought in to maximise income while it was being sorted out. Quite apart from the disruption (again), and having been a model tenant (twice), my sister was very hurt that she'd been 'played' by someone she had thought was a responsible landlord.

Her furniture went back into storage; for the second time in as many years, I spent part of my holiday helping her move house; and back to my octogenarian parents again, not quite what they had had in mind for their retirement.

She has now managed to find a very small, 2 bedroomed house, and is just about surviving, although she lives in permanent fear of what the changes to HB and Tax Credits will do to her limited income. As if things weren't bad enough, she has now been diagnosed with a debilitating (permanent) medical condition and has had to reduce her hours of work and start to negotiate the labyrinth of DLA/ESA application processes. but again, her landlords (a lovely couple) may need the house back at any time and she has no security of tenure. With failing health, she is even less secure.

The irony is that Devon is considered an affluent county. Many of the 'golden generation' of post war property-owning, final-salary-pensioned older people retire there in some comfort and yet, for the majority of younger residents (those who man the schools, the care homes, the local shops) life is pretty hard. The council housing waiting lists run to a dozen years in some areas, there is little or no other social housing, and house prices are prohibitively high in an area where most wages are low.

As ever with the Tories (as with New Labour), the presumption that private is always the answer will cause disruption and misery for millions of people. We're not talking Rachman-esque slum landlords here, but a private landlord, as opposed to a social housing provider, will always put income above the needs of the tenant. You can't expect them not to - it's a business. Legislation might give limited protection from wrongdoing, but does not encourage longevity and settled communities. My grandparents never considered buying property, but by renting from the right private landlord (a man with a small number of properties which provided him with a moderate, regular income) and by being good tenants, were afforded 50+ years in their 'home.'

"Private landlords" are not just business people with a portfolio of properties; they are also homeowners who put their own homes on the rental market when they can't sell or are temporarily elsewhere. This builds an instability into the market and offers very little protection to tenants. The new class of 'amateur' private landlord - fuelled by the buy-to-let craze - has no real stake in the housing supply, and is usually in it for short term gain rather than long term investment.

So really, Mr Shapps, there is no point putting all your housing eggs into the same private basket. Without considerable investment in new affordable housing, we'll never solve the homelessness 'problem'. A "minimum of 12 months" is great, but there is little protection beyond that. Would Mr Shapps, or any of his coalition colleagues, relish a house move every 12-18 months, with the attendant disruption? That is the reality for many people in private rental accommodation.

'Homelessness' isn't simply the lack of a roof over one's head, but the lack of a secure home. At present, we have a lot of families who are housed, but still "home"-less.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Undeserving Poor

A horrible concept, redolent of a bygone age, and one which I thought had gone the way of covered piano legs and child chimney sweeps. For a start, who determines which of us is "undeserving"? It's a very subjective thing, and I'm not sure I would want the responsibility of turning someone away as "undeserving" only to find they had come to harm. Even for a hardened atheist such as myself, the phrase "there but for the grace of God go I" still informs much of my opinion-forming. Bad luck, bad choices, stupidity, ignorance, fate all play a part in how life turns out for us

But it seems the concept is back. Now I can accept this from the Tories - their world view has always been that anyone can succeed and if you don't it's down to a flaw in your personality. An easy, if stupid, conclusion to come to if you either have 'made it' or happen to be a self-made aristocrat who's never wanted for anything material, and with a network of advantage behind you from cradle to grave. 

More worrying is that it's creeping into Labour thinking as well. Yes, there are hard-working, low-paid people who are financially worse off than those on benefits; and yes, there are (a small number) of families who seem to relish their long-term joblessness and  reliance on state benefits. But the latter group, by far the smallest proportion of those living on benefits, could be classed as The Ungracious Poor - those who, having been given support from the state (and therefore their fellow citizens), proceed to rub our noses in it. It's infuriating for those of us who pay our way, but are they really 'undeserving'? Selfish, thoughtless, maybe, but are they any worse that the champagne-guzzling traders or bankers who wave wads of cash at protesting nurses, who are also not 'paying their way' because they have accountants who can minimise their tax bills? 

In proving that Labour understands the "squeezed middle",  let's also stand up for those who life has kicked in the teeth. Ed Milliband may be talking about: 

"some of those on benefits who were abusing the system because they could work - but didn't"

But what the majority will hear is "all those on benefits". Unless you've had to survive on benefits, you have no idea how tough it is. It's not that benefits are too high, but that wages for most of the working population are too low. And what about those who are unable to work through disability? Better people than me have written at length on the daily battles of living with disability in today's culture. And of those who, despite debilitating conditions, continue to try and work and contribute and fulfil "their duty to each other"? The insidious drip-drip-drip of public discourse (encouraged by the tabloid press) is that all benefit recipients are scroungers, despite the fact that we are all one piece of bad luck/judgement away from ill health or unemployment.

And even those families with multi-generational worklessness that we're all supposed to vilify because they 'take' from hard-working ordinary people's taxes? Is no-one querying why, after successive Tory and Labour governments have made it increasingly difficult to get unemployment benefits (regular interviews, training schemes, sanctions for refusing 'suitable' employment), such families remain unemployable? Seemingly, we have been content to allow them to remain outside the mainstream world of work - that seems to me a massive dereliction of duty on our part. Are they 'undeserving' or are we 'uncaring'? 

So before we formulate any policies on welfare reform, let's first change the culture - no-one is "undeserving", and if public opinion believes that some are, then we should be challenging public opinion, not feeding it. I'm all in favour of being part of "the party of the grafters", but I'd also like the grafters to acknowledge that the vast majority of benefits claimants would love to be able to graft, and that we are all potential 'benefits scroungers.'

Monday, 18 April 2011

Charlie Brooker's trending...

Charlie Brooker wrote a piece today about the phone hacking scandal. This has produced a few comments online of the "that's rich coming from someone who takes the p**s out of TV for a living" variety. He's taken in in good part, admitting that he never said he wasn't also "making the world worse" (except that he makes in immeasurably better for some of us).

What such people miss is that Brooker has no patience with bad, lazy TV (or journalism; rather the point of his piece). When something is good, he's very positive, and I defy anybody to have come up with a more genuine, appreciative tribute to Oliver Postgate than this:

If Brooker is scathing about you, it's probably because you deserve it.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

My Audience with Vince

The Right Hon Vince Cable MP came to Levenshulme today. Ostensibly, this was to meet local business people but I suspect it was actually because Leve's LibDems are severely rattled at the prospect of losing their grip on local politics in May. 

I wandered along, not expecting much to be going on, although I'd heard that there might be a demonstration to welcome him, and I thought I'd go and man the barricades! In the event, I was invited in by one of those business people inside (I'm a regular customer), and was waved past what passed for security (the obligatory Hennigan). 

Vince was over 40 minutes late and was ushered in through the back door to avoid the crowd outside. He shook our hands, in that politician's way (I have to report he has a limp handshake, the sure sign of a wrong 'un, according to my old mum), and commenced a short speech. You will not be surprised to hear that they inherited a mess, times are tough, etc, etc.

The crowd outside were good natured but vociferous and their chants could be heard over Vince. His speech was then curtailed by one of the demonstrators trying to charge into the building; it took several minutes for the police/PCSOs to subdue him and lead him out through the back of the bar. There was a bit of harrumphing, but frankly not as much as I expected. 

Vince then cut straight to questions. These ranged from locally grown produce (he was surprised Manchester has an agricultural sector), through the inability of successive governments to get to grips with excessive bank charges ("If we succeed, it's in spite of banks rather than because of them") to the iniquities of the Compulsory Purchase Order legislation. His responses were pretty bland, most of them seeming to be of the 'can't comment on specifics' variety, and in spite of his assertion that small businesses are the key to growth, didn't elaborate on how this might happen in an area with little disposable income and a high proportion of public sector workers who have either lost their jobs or had pay freezes. Still, nice know there will be a recovery - not sure when, but.....

You'll be pleased to hear, though, that he enjoys a good relationship with David Cameron (not what it looks like from Twitter this morning, but there you go).

I didn't ask any questions. I had a feeling that I was being given the evil eye by the Party faithful as a possible infiltrator (which I suppose I was!); what I wanted to ask was:

Why, in the 20+ years I've lived here, under both Tory and Labour governments, my local elected (LibDem) representatives have done nothing to halt the decline of the area? It's all very well to blame the Labour majority on Manchester City Council, but if they can't bring about change, why should we vote for them? (I think this thought may appear in previous blogposts).

Why, if he feels David Cameron's views on immigration are wrong, he signed up to the Coalition agreement (the non-EU immigration limits are on page 21, I understand)?

Can he remember where he left his integrity? (my thanks to @Isdancing for that one).

Eventually, the meeting dissolved into photo opps with the candidate and associated movers and shakers (or what passes for them in LibDem circles) and out again through the back door where (I believe) there were some more friendly protestors waiting to greet him. It was a pretty lacklustre performance all round, really, and it didn't sound a if he'd won anyone round who wasn't already going to vote LibDem in May. At least he had the good grace to look haunted and weary.

Actually, lacklustre pretty much describes how the LibDems have been around here. Heavily dependent on their core vote, they don't reach out to the rest of the community. Far too keen to claim a bit of credit, whether it's due or not, and AWOL when things get sticky. How hard did they fight for the swimming baths in 2010? According to Labour, the council received no representations from any of our LibDem councillors - I sincerely hope that isn't true.

The very fact that they've dragged a (relative) big hitter like Vince up from London for a local election campaign suggests they're worried. It's notable that the usual 'LibDems winning here' placards are notably absent from windows and gardens this year. As they said in their election leaflet, "Only LibDems or Labour can win here." May's going to be interesting.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Chancellor Snivelling Little Worm Shocker!!

Today's Mirror is running a story about George Osborne's expenses claims, in particular the fact he is claiming petrol expenses for driving in his constituency.

Now let's leave aside the feeling that as a millionaire he has little need of reimbursement for this (MPs are entitled to claim some expenses and to get rid of this entitlement will inevitably preclude all but the very wealthy from standing for parliament) and have a look at some the detail:

"Mr Osborne asked to be reimbursed for £32.80 in one bill - 40p per mile - for an 82 mile journey from "Macclesfield to Wilmslow"

82 miles? How in hell did he manage to clock up 82 miles?! Macclesfield to Knutsford is, according to Google maps, 12.8 miles each way, even if he'd just gone from point A to point B. Let's assume, though, that he had to visit a number of places around the consituency - we're in the heart of Cheshire, don't forget, where some of the drives are longer than my journey to the shops. I did a bit of fiddling around with additional destinations to see if I could bump it up a bit, and I managed to do so. 86.7 miles, to be precise, but then I did have to go via Stafford to get that!

Another issue here, of course, is the rigour with which the claims are scrutinised (proved wanting under the old system, so one would hope improved under IPSA). Did no-one sitting in London, think to question this? Or is it just that if it's outside the M25 it's bandit country where no reliable maps are available? In my years as a pen-pushing, back office, enemy-of-enterprise local government officer, I dealt with travel and expenses claims for peripatetic staff. Had anyone put in a single claim for 80+ miles within their normal working area, I would have undertaken some serious questioning before agreeing it, because it was public money I would be spending, and (as a taxpayer myself) I always took the expenditure I was responsible for extremely seriously.

Of course, the story is in the Mirror, so will inevitably be looking to portray Osborne in the worst light (not that he needs much help with that!). It's possible that the claim was, in fact, thrown out, but the story highlights two things:

That, despite his personal wealth, he sees nothing wrong with claiming substantial amounts from the taxpayer. Would it hurt him to absorb the costs, if only for the PR coup of being able to claim that "we're all in this together"? [Cue High School Musical dance routine]. (Sorry, this always springs to mind when they trot this cliche out).

That the administration of the expenses system is still far from robust. A little local knowledge goes a long way - my fear is that stuck in an office somewhere in Westminster (and probably underpaid and overworked), IPSA staff may not recognise when the wool is being pulled over their eyes. True I have a bit of local knowledge - Cheshire is the bit us Manchester proles are allowed to visit at the weekends if we want our kids to see a cow - but if it took me 30 seconds to Google it, it really isn't that hard to work out whether someone's working the system.

I'd have thought the name "George Osborne" on the claim form would give that away!