Why we need disability campaigners like Lord Rix now

Lord Rix pc credit BBC

Lord Rix who died this week aged 92

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The sad death recently of Lord Rix highlighted how much progress a determined individual can make in a particular field.

As well as being famous for his slapstick comedy Lord Rix went on to have  a second career fighting for people with learning disabilities ending up as a vocal champion in the House of Lords

I knew Lord Rix in the 1980s when I was social services correspondent of The Guardian and he became secretary general of Mencap, the charity which campaigns for people with learning disabilities.

At the time there was enormous stigma attached to people who were then called mentally handicapped or even worse, Mongols, which was both derogatory and racist.

Most of them at the time were locked away in a network of hospitals for the mentally handicapped which people often confused with hospitals for the mentally ill.

Reports on the treatment and living conditions for people with learning disabilities  and people with mental illness  in these hospitals were then kept confidential. Believe it or not, not only confidential, but protected by the Official Secrets Act, opening a person to prosecution if they were published.

It was then that Lord Rix and myself decided that this should stop and the living conditions for these people should be revealed.

We set up about collecting as many official reports on conditions in these hospitals as possible – both for the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill- and then in one fell swoop the Guardian published a front page news story and a summary of each report.

The reaction to disclosure of official reports was to re-open with a vengeance why these people were being locked up and kept in very bad conditions – without much privacy in neglected hospitals tucked away in rural areas.

I even discovered some people who had been placed in a Lancashire hospital way back in the early twentieth century and diagnosed as  “mentally ill ” because they had illegitimate children – something that is complete anathema in the 21st century.  They were so institutionalised that the hospital was creating flats on its premises – in the hope that they could go back to live in the community. They had to learn how to boil a kettle.

To his credit the response of Kenneth Clarke, then the health secretary, was not to order an investigation into the leaks but to scrap the provisions of the Official Secrets Act that banned their publication. It also speeded up the movement of people with learning disabilities into the community.

Lord Rix who has rightly received many accolades was extremely brave in helping with this enterprise –  and changed the debate.

Today enormous progress has been made but I feel with need a new generation of campaigners to fight disability on a wide range of fronts. The disabled – not only with learning difficulties but with physical challenges- are still facing neglect by the NHS and social services. Government cuts in benefits  are designed by this pernicious government to penalise the disabled and limit mobility. The British tabloid media with an agenda that many disabled people are scroungers or frauds does not help. They will need to be particularly vigilant with Britain leaving the European Union – as many of the disabled friendly advances have been made on the back of EU legislation.

The new challenges are as big as the old.

 

How government cuts led to blunders in complex criminal compensation awards

carole oatway chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

Carole Oatway, chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

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The government’s obsession with cutting Whitehall  staff is always portrayed by ministers as getting more ” value for money” and greater efficiency. No doubt it will be said again when the remorseless reduction continues over the next two years.

Yet this year’s  crop of annual reports has produced  a vignette from one Whitehall body that nobody knows much about which rather disproves this case.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is not well known but for those who suffer serious injury it is vital to ensure they receive some compensation for an injury that is no fault of their own. They include British victims of terrorist attacks including recently those injured in Paris and Tunisia and the families of those killed.

Most of its payouts are routine based on a tariff which was already reduced to save public money by Chris Grayling when he was justice secretary.

But for 10 per cent of claimants their cases are complex and they need a detailed assessment by Whitehall staff. It is these that have gone wrong.

As I wrote in Tribune this month the situation through staff cuts and people quitting the agency because of stress caused by their workload. The agency admits it itself.

It’s annual report for the last financial year says: “This issue … is the consequence of an exceptional level of staff turnover in 2015-16, that has resulted in a reduced level of resources  across increasing workloads. This situation is now being rectified with a major recruitment exercise underway.”
The errors were originally found when the National Audit Office, Parlia­ment’s financial watchdog, ran a spot check on payments made to victims in complex cases.
The worst case involved a significant overpayment of £69,023 on an award of £356,964 due to a maths mistake by a caseworker.
Another case revealed a potential underpayment of £15,118 on an award of £69,976 on a case involving two linked claims for dependency.
Other mistakes included under­pay­ments of £80 on a £395,727 award, £1,463 on a £113,071 award, and over­payment of £42 on a £445,355 award.
The NAO investigation triggered an internal inquiry by the agency which found even more errors. The CICA has now ordered a review into its practices.

The report says : “CICA tested a further 98 complex cases, based on a random sample selected by the NAO, and found 17 errors; 8 overpayments and 9 underpayments. These included three errors over £10,000 and four errors of under £80 on sample of cases with a combined value of over £5 million.”

The CICA took its time to reply to me and had to be pressed to admit that while it was refunding those who had been shortchanged it had no power to claim back money it had overpaid. Good news for those who got more cash but hardly an efficient way to run a service.It also stressed that it was only a relatively small number of people and not a huge part of its budget.

But this is not the point. For the individual suffering some damaging injury an underpayment of £15,000 is not a sum of money they won’t miss.

There is also a much wider point. Civil service cuts have also led to people being underpaid benefits, short changed on taxes and the bad handling of cases by public bodies. Cuts being imposed next include the Equality and Human Rights Commission losing lower paid case workers – meaning it will either cut the number of cases it handles or open the risk of stressed staff making mistakes. None of this seems to affect the higher paid.

The government should realise that it can’t magic savings in public services without any consequences for the general public. Something I suspect they won’t want to know as it damages their belief  that austerity doesn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

Alexis Jay: A game changer appointment for the Child Sex Abuse Inquiry?

 

Alexis Jay at the Rotherham inquiry Pic credit BBC

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The very fast decision by Amber Rudd, the home secretary, and Theresa May, to appoint Alexis Jay, as the new chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is a very positive move.

After three attempts to appoint leading lawyers  to run the inquiry have all failed, it was a breath of fresh air to decide that a non lawyer could take on the job. Amber Rudd used powers under the Inquiries Act to appoint an existing member of the inquiry to take over the job.

The appointment  shows ministers are thinking ” out of the box” after running into problems – two caused by perceived conflict of interest – over the three previous chairs, Dame Fiona Woolf, Baroness Butler-Sloss and Dame Lowell Goddard.

I fully expected  politicians to try and get another lawyer to run the inquiry – because of the legal minefield surrounding  child sex abuse claims – but I am glad they didn’t.

Indeed it is a shame they did not think of appointing Alexis Jay in the first place to counteract the legal dominance of the inquiry.

Alexis Jay will bring a more human face to the inquiry and will have empathy for the traumas facing child sex abuse survivors. As a former social worker she may at last take seriously the problems of support for survivors – which should be one of the mainstream concerns of the inquiry  and has been sadly lacking until now.

But there are also other big advantages.

Her appointment means there will continuity and the Amber Rudd’s commitment to the inquiry couldn’t be clearer.

As Amber Rudd said:

Let there be no doubt; our commitment to this inquiry is undiminished. We owe it to victims and survivors to confront the appalling reality of how children were let down by the very people who were charged to protect them and to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Any new person coming to chair the inquiry would have needed time and space to read into events and there would have been an inevitable delay to further progress. This will not happen now.

It also means that the driving force of the future inquiry will not be a lawyer – which is my view is a good thing and puts it closer to the model adopted by independent panels.

Hillsborough for example was not chaired by a judge – and its impact on raising issues such as the  re-opening of the inquest into the deaths of the Liverpool football fans – has been enormous.

She  also has enormous experience in the issues of child sex abuse – and contrary to issues raised by survivor  Andi Lavery – there seems to be little potential for conflicts of interest.

Her letter to Amber Rudd dealing with  conflicts of interest also reveals  the breadth of her knowledge of the issue. As well as her inquiry into the appalling sexual abuse scandal in Rotherham  she had done similar work investigating child sexual abuse cases in Scotland.

As chief inspector for social work  in Scotland from 2005 to 2011 she investigated child sex abuse under the direction of ministers and  also took  a wider role in advising ministers on social work policy. As Scotland is outside the terms of reference of the inquiry, there is no conflict of interest here.

So what is the downside. She will need a lot of legal advice on how to handle some of the most difficult cases of child sex abuse -I am thinking of the judicial challenge to the investigation into Greville Janner – as the most pressing example. In a way this will enhance the role of Ben Emmerson, the inquiry’s QC and his team, as they will be crucial in defending the role of the inquiry to investigate this.

Secondly she may have to take some hard decisions about what to pursue and what to decline to investigate because of the massive amount of paperwork from the 13 streams they are already investigating. Otherwise it will become unwieldy.

I still  think the panel as whole is unbalanced in one respect – it has no dedicated investigator to cross all disciplines. The decision to drop having a journalist – Sharon Evans was the chosen person but it fell apart- on the panel was a bad idea. Lawyers are brilliant when they have got all the facts and can cross examine people about them – but they are not natural investigators and do not have the journalist’s mind to think ” out of the box”and make  connections.

I am not making a bid for myself – I am already on one national independent panel inquiry – but I think the issue should be re-examined and they should attach an investigative journalist to the inquiry.

Otherwise at this stage one can only wish Alexis Jay well in her new and demanding job.

A very legal coup:How Theresa May’s triumph meant Lowell Goddard’s demise

Theresa May

Theresa May,  then home secretary,  now prime minister.Pic Credit: conservatives.com

Unexpected political events can have unforeseen circumstances. The surprise coronation of Theresa May as Britain’s Prime Minister is one of them. Winning power because of Cameron’s failure to persuade the British people to remain in the European Union, she took office much earlier than expected when her gaffe prone rival Andrea Leadsom stood down.

It appears May’s sudden elevation and departure from the Home Office was the catalyst  that allowed some seasoned plotters unhappy for some time with Lowell Goddard’s performance as chair of the  child sex abuse  inquiry to act.

If Cameron had won the referendum and Theresa May was still home secretary it might well not have happened. For Theresa May could hardly accept the resignation of the third chair of a troubled inquiry within two years.

Piecing together what happened is not an exact science and not without its problems but it all points to a clever legal coup.

ben emmerson

Ben Emmerson:  Pic Credit: UN

The most powerful figure in the inquiry  apart from Goddard is Ben Emmerson, the QC to the inquiry. Nothing would have happened without his blessing and he must have been involved in her departure He is a formidable human rights lawyer, highly intelligent  and an award winning barrister from a highly political chambers, Matrix, whose former partners included Cherie Blair. He also has an ego the size of The Shard and is remarkably focused to the point of being perceived as a bit of a bully.

The irony about his role in the departure of Dame Lowell is that he was the one who introduced her to the Home Office in the first place.  He was the one because of his connections with the UN human rights body knew of her reputation in the human rights field .

He also rescued Theresa May at a time when two previous chairs, Dame Fiona Woolf and Baroness Butler Sloss, had to quit because of perceived conflicts of interest. At the time it seemed a brilliant move – removing any connection with the British Establishment when Establishment figures faced allegations of child sex abuse.

So what went wrong? According to different sources two things. Dame Lowell came into conflict with her own legal team about the scope and direction of the inquiry until the differences could not be resolved.

And the hard pressed secretariat became demoralised by the sheer scope and size of the different strands of the inquiry which promised to swamp their work and bury them in mounds of paper.. One source talked about absenteeism and low morale.

The decision to model the inquiry on the Australian child sex abuse investigation might have seemed a good idea at the time. But it is now clear that Australia is not England and Wales. The long running Australian inquiry has fewer numbers of people, fewer institutions and the population  is much lower than England and Wales.

I suspect that one of the issues that any new chair will have to examine is how to give the inquiry more focus. This may prove to be unpopular with survivors.who are already unhappy that some institutions are not being covered and will be worried that it could be used to cover up abuse. But to have any hope of meeting a timetable the inquiry cannot be opened ended. Nor is the issue of support for survivors being addressed either.

So who will get the new job. Some see the move as a clever ploy by Ben Emmerson to take over the chair himself and appoint a new QC to the inquiry. I am not so  sure he will want to be tied down for five years.

Some survivors want Michael Mansfield but this seems unlikely according to my Whitehall sources..

lady justice hallett pic credit BBC

Dame Heather Hallett – powerful candidate. Pic credit: BBC

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My money is on Dame Heather Hallet – as being the most attractive to the PM who is bound to have a say alongside Amber Rudd, the home secretary.

A grammar school girl ( though an article  interviewing her suggested they did her no favours suggesting she would make a good domestic science teacher) and well grounded in the legal profession ( husband, Nigel Wilkinson is a mercantile judge and one of her sons, a barrister) she is a powerful contender.

She also showed considerable empathy as a coroner handling the  inquest into the 7/7 terrorism bombings and a fair amount of guts in investigating the scandal of the Blair government giving licence to IRA killers on the run  to avoid prosecution.

Whether she will want it is another matter.But whoever it is they will have to be very strong minded and an expert on English law. The first test will be the attempt by the Janner family to throw out any investigation into allegations against Greville Janner. The family are adamant that child sex abuse survivors have fabricated the allegations against him and therefore it should not even been considered  by the inquiry. This is why they want a judicial review not just to stop a ” trial “but I gather to reject any suggestion that such things ever happened.

All the survivors have been assured at a meeting with the remaining panel members ( but minus  Ben Emmerson) last week that the inquiry will continue. But how it will continue will depend on the next chair.

 

Corbyn’s Progress: How council by elections are now panning out

lloyd russell-moyle

LLoyd Russell-Moyle. Victorious Labour candidate in Brighton council by-election last week. Pic credit: Twitter

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The mainstream press has been universally hostile  in reporting Labour’s performance in council by elections. The results either go unreported or they report only Labour defeats. Or they ridicule Corbyn when he chose to mention a Labour gain from UKIP on Ramsgate Town Council ( admittedly he could have cited better examples including  gains in Staffordshire and Essex on bigger councils).

So how exactly are Labour doing. Remember one has to take local council by elections with a degree of scepticism. The polls are lower and local factors play a part  which can distort the result. Nevertheless these are not opinion polls – they are results from people actually bothering to go out and vote. They also tell you something about the state of party organisation whatever is happening at  national level.

I am drawing my conclusions from two websites – http://election-data.co.uk/  – written by Andrew Teale which provides pen portraits of forthcoming by-elections and Vote UK Forum – which produces  detailed results and analysis along with the Twitterfeed @britainelects.

Since the referendum.there have been a rash of by elections across the country. Contrary to what little appears in the press Labour have not done badly. They have recently in rural areas been outclassed by the Liberal Democrats who are winning seats from the Tories, Independents and UKIP with double digit increases in the share of their vote. But most of these seats are not natural Labour territory.And where the Liberal Democrats challenge Labour they make little progress.

So what is really happening? Critics of Corbyn say all Labour is doing is building massive majorities in areas they already hold.

There is evidence for this in a spate of by election results in places like the London boroughs of Haringey, Hackney, Newham, Manchester where Labour have easily held  seats-sometimes with an increased majority.

An example last Thursday in Sussex  was the East Brighton ward  which covers Kemptown and a working class estate called Whitehawk – a traditional safe Labour seat. Labour’s share of the vote went up by over 11 per cent to 57.5 per cent. They had a strong candidate in  Lloyd Russell-Moyle who fought Lewes at the last general election and is a consultant for the United Nations on children and young people. But this is a ward they would not be expected to lose.

But what in other areas where they need to win. In Staffordshire they have taken two seats recently-including one last Thursday with a 19.5 per cent increase in the share of the vote- from UKIP. The seats they are taking back were originally won way back in 2003 before UKIP achieved such prominence.and guess what- UKIP in Staffordshire is a mess. They are split with some resigning the UKIP whip and becoming Independents. A warning to Labour not to do the same.

The other interesting result was in South East Holderness in the East Riding of Yorkshire. This is solid Tory territory since 2000 yet a 18 year old Labour candidate  Patrick Wilkinson,  managed  an increase of 7.9 per cent share of the vote  to run the Tory close – cutting the majority. He has been a member of the party for two years and is an avid supporter of  Corbyn. If the Tory share had not increased by.3.6 per cent it would have been a very close run result. Interestingly UKIP who were second last time saw a big drop in their share.

Yet an error by a young enthusiastic candidate in Totnes, Devon, who hadn’t been a member of the Labour Party long enough to stand for the council, cost the party its only seat on South Hams council in Devon when she had to stand as an independent and gifted the seat to the Liberal Democrats.

Labour is still losing ground to UKIP in Kent, with a working class area of Ashford, Beaver, resulting in a UKIP gain. But UKIP in general are doing badly in almost every seat they stand – and this result seems different to most.other parts of the country.

The jury is still out on whether a Labour party led by Corbyn can succeed or just pile up votes in Labour strongholds.For those voting in the leadership re-election  it will have to be a gut reaction – either stick with Corbyn and see whether his  approach eventually succeeds against a right wing Tory government. Or go for Smith and  return to a more consensual  politics but risk losing these new  energetic members who can  galvanise people to vote.

But what is clear is that a divided Labour Party will eventually fail – luckily at the moment the rows in Westminster are not showing up in local town halls.

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Dame Lowell Goddard to explain why she quit

lowell goddard

Dame Lowell Goddard giving evidence to House of Commons home affairs committee today. Pic credit: BBC

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The shock decision of Dame Lowell Goddard to quit the child sex abuse inquiry has been compounded by her very terse statement on why she resigned. See here Dame_Lowell_Goddard_letter

Survivors have been suddenly let down  by someone who only two years ago committed herself to a five year comprehensive inquiry that would cover every aspect of child sex abuse from VIP paedophiles to institutions as varied as children’s homes, religious orders,  schools and colleges.
It already has a packed programme  including a controversial hearing of the facts surrounding the allegations against Lord Janner; the scandal in Rochdale around Sir Cyril Smith, Lambeth Council, the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England to name but a  few. It was also, I understand, to look at the Westminster paedophile ring and Operation Midland but not until 2018.

So her decision to leave at this crucial moment when the inquiry was starting to get into its stride is more perplexing. Her statement today in full  read :

“I announce with regret my decision to resign as Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, effective from today.

“When I was first approached through the British High Commissioner in Wellington in late 2014, and asked to consider taking up the role, I had to think long and hard about it. After carefully discussing the matter with the Home Secretary and her Officials and seeking the counsel of those people in New Zealand whose opinions mattered to me, I decided that I should undertake the role, given my relevant experience and track record in the area.  It was however an incredibly difficult step to take, as it meant relinquishing my career in New Zealand and leaving behind my beloved family.

“The conduct of any public inquiry is not an easy task, let alone one of the magnitude of this. Compounding the many difficulties was its legacy of failure which has been very hard to shake off and with hindsight it would have been better to have started completely afresh.

“While it has been a struggle in many respects I am confident there have been achievements and some very real gains for victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse in getting their voices heard. I have nothing but the greatest of respect for the victims and survivors and have particularly enjoyed working with the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel which I established.”

What I find particularly perplexing is her implication that she should never have been appointed to continue the inquiry in the first place. If suggests that she did not think things through.

The inquiry following the resignations of Baroness Butler Sloss and Fiona Woolf because of conflicts of interest had already been remodelled – changing it from an independent panel to a  statutory judicial inquiry. Its work  and costs have gone up enormously and Lowell Goddard, as The Times pointed out, has taken time off and obviously misses her family.

The volume of work must be enormous – I know from sitting on a much smaller independent panel myself which I cannot talk about – that historic inquiries generate masses of documents.

In the child abuse area  a chair also needs to have a tough skin and a focused mind – since he or she is entering a minefield of controversy – and will face a barrage of complaints from a small but vocal minority who don’t believe that most of the child abuse took place – and most survivors are liars or bounty hunters.

Remember there are websites  devoted to the idea  that Jimmy Savile was totally innocent and everything has been made up by disturbed people. After all as Dame Janet Smith found the BBC either didn’t know or couldn’t bring itself to believe that he was a paedophile.

Therefore it seems to me that if she thinks there is something wrong in the process she should say so and she owes  the public who paid her a lot of money to chair this inquiry a full and frank explanation.

Reports suggested to me that her decision to go was not sudden. She has been seen as a little distant from event ( and not just physically ). There have been suggestions that Home Officials have tried to capture the direction of an independent inquiry and other suggestions that Ben Emmerson, the counsel in charge of the inquiry, may have had too much power.

Whatever happened we need a full explanation. And action from the Home Office and Theresa May, the PM who originally set up the inquiry as home secretary to make sure investigations and hearings go ahead regardless.

As I am the only person made redundant from Exaro who has a personal website – I intend to continue reporting on child sex abuse issues here and on Byline.com. Those who wish to keep abreast of developments should follow this blog or keep an eye on  Byline.com.

 

 

 

 

 

My views on Exaro,the Middle East and Jeremy Corbyn before MPs resigned en masse from his Shadow Cabinet

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This interview with the Lebanon based Arab News Network was about to be put up on the Exaro News  website just before it abruptly  closed. Arranged through Tim Pendry. then a director of Exaro, it puts the case for Exaro’s investigative journalism. It also discusses events in the Middle East and why Jeremy Corbyn became popular with the rank and file membership of the Labour Party. It took some time from the date of the original interview which took place at the end of March before it was put up on YouTube in June. It is rather long so I don’t expect you to listen to the lot.

Expect a sequel to this as  I am planning to do an interview with Fabrice Bardsley on The Bunker Show for Dark City Radio on what happened since for both Exaro and Jeremy Corbyn and my hopes for the future. The broadcast is scheduled to go out on August 10.