High Society

Is modernist housing part of the problem?

“We all sleep down here in the living room – my two sons and I – because there are no radiators upstairs. There’s no lights upstairs either, because the water that comes through the ceiling has fused them.”

Anab Goodasir has lived in her ground-floor flat in the Balfron Tower since 1990, and the roof has leaked since 1992. “The landlord’s useless,” she adds. “I’m not sure they even remember where the tower is.”

The 27-storey Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, East London, is the first of architect Erno Goldfinger’s estates in the 1960s Brutalist style, all bare-faced concrete and imposing, right-angled corners. Its slightly larger twin, 31-storey Trellick Tower, stands in North Kensington, West London. In the four decades since they were built, the towers have been loved, despised, abandoned, rediscovered, and finally listed by English Heritage in the 1990s.

Iris Westwood moved into Carradale House, alongside Balfron, when it opened in 1971. “I was born and lived in a house that was bomb damaged, but it was crumbling around me,” the sprightly 83-year-old says. “I put my pound down as deposit for the keys and I’ve never regretted moving in here, not for a minute.”

She even had a brush with Goldfinger himself, who lived on the top floor of the Balfron for a few months. “He said that he hoped I’d keep the walls the colours they were, and not paper over them. It was all browns and yellows and greens, very sixties. Of course we wallpapered them all,” she laughs.

Carradale House, part of the Balfron Estate. Photo: Michael Parker
Carradale House, part of the Balfron Estate. Photo: Michael Parker

In spring sunlight the bare concrete seems less severe, the grass more green. But the rubbish hurled from flats above, the water-damaged concrete, the dark and twisty passages are obvious. Inside, flat after flat is cursed with water pouring through ceilings, mouldy walls and decades-old fixtures and fittings.

Alan Humphrey, 46, has lived in Balfron for 14 years with his family. “They’re quite spacious inside, but the council have just let them run down.”

Loved at first, Britain’s 1960s and 1970s housing estates became widely hated, the futuristic living their designers promised spurned in favour of Georgian and Victorian terraces – the very same ‘slums’ that were cleared to make way for these modern homes. Where did it all go wrong?

The Second World War left Britain bankrupt and in ruins, with bombing and slum clearances meaning two-and-a-half million people needed new homes, quickly and cheaply.

Towering over the rebuilding of post-war Europe were the ideas of Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier. An influential Modernist since the 1920s, he advocated the use of concrete stripped to its bare essentials, with simple, angular design making a clean break with the fussy ornamental styles of previous eras. Raised in the Swiss countryside, he was keenly aware of the health-giving benefits of nature and open space. He sought to refashion the way people lived, creating light, modern, healthy buildings that would raise workers out of the filthy air of the slums – so vividly described in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

His famous Unité de Habitation in Marseille, France, combined all a community’s needs: access to outside space and light, shops, services such as nurseries and schools combined with housing in unified structures – like a neighbourhood of streets, but stood on its end.

Lydia Yee, whose exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work is currently at London’s Barbican, explained his bold, inspiring ideas to change the way people lived. “Cities had become so crowded that people were crammed together in unhealthy conditions. The easiest way was to level whole neighbourhoods and start again,” she said. “Corbusier believed the right architecture, the right conditions and right environment could promote good social relations.”

But the views of mainly European architects were not accepted by all. While apartments are commonplace in Berlin, Barcelona or Bordeaux, British tastes favour the house and garden. And though the continent boasts many inventive, successful Modernist housing estates – in Berlin alone there are six with UNESCO world heritage status – the towers that mark British skylines today are the product of local authorities taking advantage of an architectural regard for concrete by throwing up tower blocks on the cheap.

Balfron Tower. Credit: Michael Parker
Balfron Tower. Credit: Michael Parker

“The Modernists tried to think sociologically, to build communities and new environments,” Jon Wright of the Twentieth Century Society says. “They shot way too high. While some achieved great things, when done poorly and cheaply it produced results no better than the slums that came before.”

Architects easily replicated the concrete construction of Le Corbusier, but failed to see the bigger picture – to include necessities like shops, schools and nurseries to bind a vertical community together. Instead: towers marooned in oceans of open space.

When Rowan Point, an undistinguished pre-fabricated tower block in east London, partially collapsed in 1968, killing four, public trust in high-rise living collapsed with it. The appearance of social problems in modern estates not foreseen by idealists like Le Corbusier turned public opinion against modern architecture for decades to come.

But Wright denies that the high-rise was responsible for the social problems they became synonymous with. “Vandalism is widely held to have sprung up without precedent in the 1960s, it was not something that was rooted in the living environment.”

Dutch sociologists studied what they called “broken window syndrome”; a single broken window, if left long enough, will attract vandals who destroy more. Local authorities, Wright said, were guilty of abdicating their responsibilities to estates by failing to keep on top of repairs.

Trellick Tower’s appearance is little different from its East London sibling; the same surface damage, the same twisty concrete passageways. But inside, full-time cleaners keep corridors clean and walls repaired. A security concierge regulates the entrance and keeps track of CCTV, and tenants’ association notices keep residents informed.

Sean O’Neill has lived on the top floor for six years: “It had a terrible reputation in the 70s and 80s, but now it’s listed and security are really on top of any antisocial behaviour.

“I lived here in the early 90s for a year, and it was definitely rougher. Now I travel down in the lift, at one floor a crackhead will get in and at another an elderly couple in dinner suits on their way out for the evening. You get all sorts living here, but the trouble stays out of the building. There’s a definite sense of a community.”

Flatmate Miguel Pagan, 36, agrees. “I can honestly say I feel comfortable here, you can’t hear anything through the walls from the neighbours. I’ve lived in some newer buildings where you can hear them fart. This building’s amazing, futuristic.”

O’Neill is selling up. “If I could stay I would. I’ll never have a view of London like this again.”

Trellick Tower. Photo credit: Michael Parker
Trellick Tower. Credit: Michael Parker

As with the slums and tenements before the war, buildings left to rot only exacerbate their residents’ problems. Robin Hood Gardens, an East End estate in the Brutalist style, is threatened with demolition after years of neglect, while investment and sympathetic restoration has changed residents’ views of the equally abrasive design of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate or Camden’s Brunswick Estate. Bethnal Green’s Keeling House was sold off, attracted middle-class owners and is now highly desirable, and of course the Barbican and Trellick have become bywords for rediscovered Modernist cool.

Wright adds: “Nationally, there has been horrendous neglect not just of the architecture but of people’s lives as a result of a popular misconception of the Modernist project. Concrete buildings need looking after just as a wooden fence or oak cabinet.”

What next? Contemporary house-building has concentrated on low- and medium-rise homes based on traditional styles, or luxury high-rise for the wealthy in prime locations.

Staiths South Bank estate in Gateshead, designed in 2001 by Wayne Hemingway, steers clear of harsh lines and template homes by mixing house shapes, sizes and finishes.

“You’ve got to listen to what the public want, and the majority don’t want to live high-rise,” Hemingway says. “Le Corbusier’s Unité might have attracted the middle-classes, but in Britain we built tower blocks, filled them with the poor and unwanted and created ghettos in the sky.

“Our estates have to be reconfigured for actually living in, otherwise they have no future.”

For conservationists and those with an eye on costs and sustainability, demolishing and starting again is not an option.

“We cannot sweep a growing population under the carpet,” says Wright. “I accept that some are only fit for the bin, but until the stigma of post-war idealism, of living in concrete, is exposed and discussed that debate cannot be had.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2009]


Answers to the repossessions crisis

Repossessions and unemployment are up, house prices and the economy are down – things look grim in UK plc, not least for those in danger of losing their home. So what can be done to stave off the repossessions crisis, refloat the housing market and keep families in their homes?

The Big Issue’s campaign, launched two weeks ago in partnership with 38 Degrees, calls upon the government to hold a moratorium on mortgage repossessions for owner-occupiers until the recession has passed. But how would it work in practice?

One solution proposed by experts is a mortgage-to-rent scheme. The government’s Mortgage Rescue Scheme, where homeowners struggling with payments can sell a share of or the whole property to a housing association, is similar. However, eligibility for this scheme is very tight, not all properties are attractive to housing associations – who also find themselves credit-crunched – and there are fears that families in the midst of a crisis may not apply for it. In fact, since its introduction in January the scheme has helped only two families from the 12,800 repossessions in the first quarter.

A more encompassing approach was suggested by Gwilym Pryce, economist and Professor of Urban Economics and Social Statistics at Glasgow University, in a report for the government’s Housing Expert Panel in October. This would compel lenders to contact local authorities as soon as repossession proceedings begin. Councils would offer the property for sale first to local housing associations, and secondly to a national company set up by the government. This national body would buy up properties at risk until the housing market picked up, at which point it could be floated on the stock market and sold to recoup taxpayer’s money.

Professor Pryce told The Big Issue: “It’s a classic role for government; government is so big, it can take the risks, play the long game – and win.”

He added: “The government has been advocating home ownership for years, despite the risks. I mean, skydiving is risky, but the government doesn’t advocate skydiving. It’s only fair that they bear some of that risk now.”

An alternative system devised by York University’s Centre for Housing Policy for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation envisions a collaboration between government, lenders and borrowers. Each contributes to a pool of cash used to support overstretched borrowers in the event of certain events, for example divorce, unemployment or bereavement. The point is to spread the risk and bail out the borrowers, not the banks, because if borrowers are secure in their payments, banks won’t panic and repossess.

Others share the view that fairly drastic action is required. In February, MPs on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee urged the government to introduce penalties for lenders who repossess too quickly, noting that efforts to limit repossessions – the pre-action protocol that requires lenders to explore all avenues before seeking possession – were unenforceable. “As useful as a chocolate teapot,” was how one economist more forcibly described it.

Despite protestations from the Council of Mortgage Lenders and lenders themselves, it is apparent that repossession is not always put off as long as possible. Mother-of-two Sharon Amato, from Bristol, found herself being repossessed by lender Halifax Bank of Scotland last year after they fell into arrears – despite not previously having missed a payment in 11 years, and, incredibly, despite the fact she was an HBoS employee.

“The judge in the court at the time was absolutely gobsmacked,” Sharon said.

“I’ve worked there for 24 years, I’ve got a good track record. I said, you’re paying me, take it straight from my salary, which I’m perfectly willing to do. And they said no.

“They would rather evict me and my children than allow me to stay and pay the mortgage.”

Only at the 11th hour – minutes before an eviction hearing – did HBoS back down after the questioning of a BBC reporter rang alarm bells.

The major lenders asked by The Big Issue all confirmed they would at least conform to the pre-action protocol requirement of three months forbearance before starting repossession. Only RBS has agreed to wait six months.

Part of the threat that repossessions pose to the economy suffering a recession stems from international banking regulations.

The rules used to stipulate that banks hold cash equal to a percentage of their loans, depending on the size and type of bank. But with the rapid growth of complex financial products, derivatives and securities, this restriction was seen as outmoded, leading to the Basel II banking accord in 2004.

Pryce said: “Basel II agreed to adopt mark-to-market as a means for lenders to value their assets, in other words, the current market prices of the houses they had mortgaged.

“But this is destabilising: whenever prices fell, red lights would start flashing at the banks because their ratio of debt to value of assets had suddenly risen. So the bank starts to rid itself of debt, cutting lending to others,” he said.

“Because no one can get credit, this pushes down demand for housing, which in turn pushes down prices. And as prices continue to fall, the bank’s red lights continue to flash as their assets continue to drop in value.”

As banks are required to reduce their burden of debt, the vicious circle that results, he said, could be “cataclysmic.” Using a longer-term average to value assets would protect banks from sudden rises and falls in the market, and provide an escape from the vicious circle.

Although Britain’s economic instability has been caused by ‘toxic debts’ from America, should repossessions continue in this country it could usher in a second wave of UK bank collapses, making the need for reform urgent.

Critics of reform claim that bailing out borrowers creates a ‘moral hazard’, that the knowledge the government will step in will encourage risky borrowing.

Pryce is adamant: “The complex securitising and repackaging of risky sub-prime debts from the US has allowed lenders to profit from selling on debt – without any care to what happens after.

“There is a moral hazard, but it lies squarely with the banks, not the borrowers.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue]


Botox business is booming

Boobs, botox and a booming business

A young woman’s smile, flawless skin, delicate nose with perhaps a trace of worry in her eyes, pictured under the words: “When will your man start seeing a younger woman?”

The advert, recently thrust through the letterboxes of householders in north London, contains a cunning piece of marketing speak – does it seem almost inevitable that your man will start “seeing” a younger woman? Why not become that younger woman, it urges. The advert is for botox injections.

The Highbury-based clinic’s flyer is one of a steady stream of adverts for what are termed non-surgical cosmetic treatments that breach the Advertising Standards Authority’s guidelines. The clinic’s botox treatments are classed as Prescription-Only Medicine by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, for which direct advertising to customers is banned altogether.

Olivia Campbell from ASA said: “Although we don’t get lots and lots of these, they do pop up on a steady basis. Mostly they are by small firms who either don’t know the code or deliberately flout it.”

She said the restriction on advertising also covers other licensed medicinal treatments such as Viagra, for which the firm AMI recently fell foul for placing prominent billboard adverts for “longer lasting sex” across London.

Adverts for surgical procedures such as breast resizing or facelifts have also come under fire. In September, adverts showing a picture of an unhappy, flat-chested woman alongside a second picture of her with a wide grin and substantial breasts, and another unnaturally shaped woman alongside the line “Gorgeous breasts just got easy with cosmetic surgery” were pulled by the ASA.

The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, BAAPS, warned against “anatomically impossible breasts” and the suggestion of “lunchtime facelifts” or “easy” surgery.

“Surgery is a serious undertaking which requires realistic expectations,” it said, recommending that adverts should only include real life cases, not professional models, enhanced or otherwise.

It also criticised clinics that offer discounts for clients that signed up for surgery quickly and those that downplayed potential problems, encouraging people not to think about the consequences.

The use of cosmetic surgery and non-surgical treatments has rocketed over the last five years, propelled by a combination of falling prices, easy credit and celebrity endorsements, such as Kylie’s use of botox. The industry, which topped £1billion last year in Britain, carried out 230,000 treatments like botox or collagen injections in 2005, doubling to 472,000 in 2006. Surgical operations have tripled from 10,700 in 2003 to 34,100 last year, according to a survey of BAAPS members.

A growing number of men are also having treatments, from reshaping the nose or chin, to brow lifts, wrinkle reductions or liposuction.

The industry has benefitted from a virtuous circle of media coverage and increasingly overt advertising. Advertisements in Britain have risen from 132 in 2003 to 417 in 2007. The industry has moved from something deemed unpleasant, somewhat reprehensible and rarely admitted, to something commonplace. A Liverpool radio show even offered a free breast enhancement awarded by public vote to the contestant with the best reason for wanting a “new pair of funbags.”

American psychotherapist and author Catherine Baker-Pitts said advances in technology and an image-obsessed, visual culture were to blame.

She said: “The advertising market sells cosmetic treatment as empowerment and appeals to women’s desires to take control of their bodies. The irony of course being that surgery involves risk and complications, and while under anaesthesia there is a total loss of control.”

Even non-surgical treatments presented as ‘botox parties’ are presented as something for a fun, champagne-quaffing, feel-good, girl-bonding exercise, rather than injecting a poison, Botulinium, into the skin.

Celebrity culture and fantasies of perfection, as seen by television programmes like The Swan, I Want a Famous Face, Plastic Surgery Live and many others have all “normalised” the idea of reshaping the body as deemed necessary.

“The paradox is that women seek cosmetic surgery but aim to emerge looking ‘natural.’ Clinics emphasis the work involved in maintaining an acceptable female image, yet this work is meant to be invisible,” Baker-Pitts added.

The need to reappraise and if necessary alter the body is also driven by billboard, newspaper and magazine images that are increasingly unreal. Cover shoots are no longer model+photographer but the complex result of teams of stylists and experts, lighting and digital manipulation that enhance the model’s image beyond what is naturally possible.

On one estimate, we see between 2,000 and 5,000 images a week that have been digitally manipulated or ‘Photoshopped.’ While incidents such as Kate Winslet’s complaint about being slimmed for the cover of GQ magazine make occasional headlines, it is utterly routine – the March 2008 edition of Vogue contained 107 adverts and 36 fashion pictures including the cover that had been digitally altered. One highly sought-after re-toucher, Pascal Dangin, said: “It is known that everybody does it, but they protest. The people who complain about retouching are the first to say, ‘Get this thing off my arm.’”

Baker-Pitts said: “Even when consumers know that retouching happens, these images seep into our unconscious lives. Just as someone might binge eat or start planning their next diet in response to emotional distress, now people are turning to a cosmetic makeover, a sizeable distraction, to avoid uncomfortable feelings.”

A recent press release from Transform, one the UK’s largest cosmetic surgery clinics, trumpeted: “How to avoid redundancy during the credit crunch – get a boob job!” claiming that “while millions are struggling to buy food, pay for fuel and cloth themselves, boob jobs are playing a bigger part in our society.”

For as long as companies are able to exploit women’s insecurities or subconscious desires – and for as long as women allow them to – that is likely to be the case.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, April 2009]


Early Intervention

Illustration: Holly Wells - www.eatjapanesefood.co.uk

The Laming report into child protection published last week revealed that the most vulnerable children at risk are still not adequately protected. The report blamed the slow pace of reform, bureaucratic and legal complexities, and the immense pressure on social workers that leads to a high turnover of staff and 3,000 unfilled positions.

The fact is that with time and budgets constantly squeezed, local authorities can only ever care for a fraction of those thought to be at risk. Of 11million children in England in 2008, social services directly intervene in the lives of around 125,000. A further 200,000 children live in households where there is a known risk, and 235,000 are children in need of local authority support – but their circumstances never quite cross the threshold of “significant harm” to warrant action.

Over the last few decades, a picture has emerged of millions of parents whose chaotic lives – often drink or drug addicted, or with severe mental health problems – inflict physical and emotional abuse on their children. Growing up with fear and uncertainty around them from a young age, these youngsters all too often become the abusers and neglecters of the next generation.

Between 1971 and 1991, single parent families rose from four per cent, or 2.1million, to six per cent, or 6million, according to the Office of National Statistics’ Social Trends report. By 2007 it was 12 per cent, almost 7million.

There were 8,700 permanent and 363,450 temporary exclusions from state schools in 2007. Some 4.4 per cent of pupils are regarded as “persistent absentees”, typically missing 20 per cent or more of their school days. The rate of absence among the poorest families with children eligible for free school meals was almost triple that of the rest of the school population.

Hardships at home lead to emotional difficulties which flare up at school leading to exclusion. Leaving school with few – if any – qualifications restricts opportunities to find gainful employment and can lead to unemployment, homelessness, and crime.

It is perhaps no surprise then to find that youngsters in the criminal justice system are more than 80 per cent likely to have suffered family breakdown, neglect or abuse, and this is reflected in the adult prison population. A Social Exclusion Unit survey of the prison population in 2002 found nearly a third had been in local authority care, a third of women and almost half of men had been excluded from school, more than half of men and nearly three quarters of women had no qualifications. Almost three quarters had two or more mental health problems, and a fifth “severe” problems. A third of women in custody had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

All the while reoffending rates remain higher than ever – three quarters of young men convicted in 2004 reoffended within two years, at an annual cost to the country of £11 billion.

Efforts to reach those whose lives seem to rebound between care, crime and custody, are increasingly treating the matter as an issue of public health, not justice and retribution. But though the statistics and the science support this view, public policy has been slow to follow suit or to dedicate meaningful sums to tackling the problem.

For example, the government’s much vaunted investment in early years care has seen investment of £250million nationwide, while its plan to build a series of Titan super-prisons holding 2,000 offenders each is projected to cost £2.7billion.

Social organisations, charities and government are all searching for novel ways to interrupt this vicious circle.

Illustration: Holly Wells - www.eatjapanesefood.co.uk
Illustration: Holly Wells - www.eatjapanesefood.co.uk

A pilot scheme launched in Nottingham last year early shows the government has picked up on the ideas of ‘early intervention.’

The aim, the council said, is “to break intergenerational underachievement and deprivation” by finding those children and families at risk and getting to them quickly, on the understanding that healthcare, crime and justice costs in the future will far outweigh the cost of social care now.

The scheme in Nottingham, where 38,000 children live in families on benefits or very low incomes, includes efforts to tackle drug and alcohol use by children and their parents, the families of adult offenders, teenage pregnancies, help for young mums and single mums, homelessness and a mentoring project.

The scheme focuses on little victories that make a difference, as well as large ones. For example, the city has experienced a 15 per cent drop in persistent school absences. Dana Knight, 11, was bullied and increasingly refused to go to school. She had found it hard to fit in after moving from primary school – a common problem –and suffered low self-confidence. Elaine’s older brother also missed school, often associated with younger siblings following the same route, prompting support workers involvement.

Her mum Elaine said: “Dana was missing one or two days a week. It got to the stage where she just would not go in. She would say she had a tummyache or headaches but I noticed it was often on certain days.”

Among other things, the scheme gives financial aid to help families solve problems, even simple things such as paying for a bus pass for mum Elaine so she could take Dana to school in the morning.

Dana said: “I would feel sad on Sundays and start shouting at my mum but my mum takes me to school now.” And she has high hopes for the future. “I want to be a vet,” she said.

In the nine schools in which the scheme is being trialled, absence is down 14 per cent.

Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, said: “To fix an intergenerational problem, policies need to be in place for a whole generation.”

With a change of governments, he said, must come an understanding that early intervention is no “costly bureaucratic dream”, but “a proven, positive plan that will save us money, and crucially transform the life prospects of our most vulnerable citizens.”

That Allen has co-authored reports with Iain Duncan Smith MP, chairman of the Centre for Social Justice thinktank at the heart of the Conservatives’ recent approach to social policy, shows that perhaps that broad political base is building.

Kids Company based in south London has for 13 years opened its doors to children who come for help, without the need for referral by a social worker. Almost by word of mouth alone, the charity has expanded its outreach into 33 schools, with more than 200 staff and 11,000 children and teenagers on the books.

The charity’s purpose is to be the family these children have lacked, offer the love, attention and feeling of safety that has often been absent from their lives. Mentors are assigned to each child, working as parent, friend, and teacher.

Director Camila Batmanghelidjhs’ ideas, built up over a 20-year career in social work and psychology, are supported by a substantial body of scientific evidence that demonstrates how childhood trauma affects the developing brain.

“Social and emotional deprivation is creating a new kind of brain,” she said. “The element linking all these childrens’ lives is the absence of a functioning parental figure. If you don’t have a parent there is no food in the house, no one washes your clothes or organises socialising for you, you don’t get taken to the GP, the dentist or the optician. You live in chaos.”

Kids Company’s neuroscientist, Max Benjamin, explained their current advertising campaign comparing brain scans from traumatised and unaffected children.

“Adults have the tools to cope with stress, our brains are able to regulate our response to stressful situations. But for children whose brains are still developing, childhood trauma disrupts those mechanisms,” he said.

“Faced with violence or fear, a child’s stress response becomes hyperactivated – their flight or fight response becomes automatic because the child’s brain is changing to help it survive in a hostile environment. It doesn’t switch off. This leads to behavioural problems, emotional problems and extremely aggressive behaviour.”

The ‘flight or fight’ response floods the brain with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, but if this is sustained – such as in cases of severe, long-term abuse – parts of the brain that deal with memory, learning and emotional response become damaged or fail to develop properly.

Childhood trauma literally changes the wiring of the brain, increasing the chances of learning difficulties, educational failure and subsequent social exclusion.

“It has far-reaching implications for social care, and in terms of crime and justice, instead of locking them up and giving them Asbos, children with a history of trauma need rehabilitation and removing from the cycle of violence,” Benjamin added. “Reoffending is sky high. Punitive interventions just don’t work.”

The damage, however, though especially devastating before the ages of five or six, is reparable though it takes time.

Batmanghelidjh warned: “It’s not an argument for absolving kids from responsibility, but equipping them to take responsibility with techniques to balance their emotions.”

Their techniques appear to work: a University of London evaluation in 2007 showed that of those Kids Company helped, 89 per cent were helped to move away from crime, 81 per cent went into education or training, 79 per cent reported better emotional wellbeing, and 69 per cent better relations with their families. The charity is credited as the source of the Conservative’s recent “hug a hoody” approach to social justice.

For some boarding school is synonymous with privilege, rather than social need. But a project matching children struggling at home or school with boarding schools shows that some of the most needy can benefit from the schools’ rarefied environment.

While councils have long been able to fund assisted boarding places for children it was largely used as an alternative to care. However, the government’s Boarding Pathfinder scheme begun in 2006 introduced 18 local authorities and 80 schools to the idea that boarding school could benefit a far wider range of youngsters in difficult but less dire circumstances.

The scheme’s evaluation in January found children at boarding schools can benefit from “a strong ethos of personal and social development and access to many extra-curricular activities, as well as opportunities for educational success.”

But progress has been slow, with only 17 of the 76 children identified as potentially suitable for the scheme being placed at boarding school, and just 11 still at their schools after a year.

Many children considered were ruled out because they were not seen as capable of coping away from home, or boarding didn’t appeal to the child or family, or because their needs were seen as too high – suggesting the scheme is likely to exclude the children most in need.

One schoolgirl, Zoe, was 14 when she began at boarding school a year ago and is now taking her GCSEs. Her mother, Sarah, said: “She was a complete pain in the neck, smoking, drinking, arguing. One evening she punched me when she wouldn’t get off the computer. I was at the end of my tether.”

Through their local authority, Zoe was offered a place at a small boarding school in Norfolk.

“I think the main thing for Zoe is not having to switch between school and home, she couldn’t cope with the transition from one to the other,” Sarah added. Now she has to get along with everyone because she can’t just run away and not come in the following day.”

The school allows no mobile phones and little television. “It’s back to basics, it forces them to communicate with one another,” Sarah said. “She’s gone back to being a schoolgirl from being a rebel.”

Zoe, who has been granted funding to do her A-levels at a different boarding school, said she felt a different person.

“I realised I was out of control but couldn’t stop myself,” she said. “I’ve changed so much, I feel more sane, happier, more like a normal kid rather than a wannabe rockstar.

“It’s a much smaller school and they can lay down the law because they know who’s done what. I’d hate to think what would have happened to me – probably scraped a couple of GCSEs and be struggling to get a job. Now I want to go to university and study journalism.”

Paul Spencer-Ellis, headteacher at the Royal Alexandra and Albert School in Reigate, Surrey, is already familiar with Pathfinder’s aims. “Well, we’ve been doing it since 1760,” he said.

The school is one of a handful of state boarding schools, originally an orphanage, that has taken charity or local authority-funded pupils for more than 250 years.

He said: “It’s a very good idea. Other school heads can see it makes sense. At its simplest, we ensure the children get up, eat breakfast, get to school, eat lunch, have some activity in the afternoon, do their homework and are put to bed. Ask the head of a comprehensive if this will help his problems, he’ll say: of course. We are being the parents, giving them structures and boundaries.”

For the eight years he has been headteacher, funded pupils have been among the top achievers.

“When children are going off the rails it will help,” he said. “They have to want to do it, you can’t impose this on them. But they realise that education is their way out, and grasp the opportunity with both hands.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, April 2009]


Books: bound to fail?

Books or digital? Illustration: Aaron Blecha - www.monstersquid.com
Books or digital? Illustration: Aaron Blecha - www.monstersquid.com

There is no easy ride in the book trade these days. With online retailers like Amazon hoovering up ever more custom and high-street giants like Waterstones driving hard bargains with publishers, independent publishers and booksellers need to be more resourceful than ever to survive.

The exponential growth of Amazon and other online retailers and the role of supermarkets have played by stocking bestsellers as loss leaders have also hasted the demise of independent booksellers, the radical bookshop, of which only a handful still exist, and other local bookshops.

Even Waterstones had a difficult year last year, with a new stock ordering and delivery system, the hub, failing under the pressure of Christmas demand. The firm’s chief executive Gerry Johnson quit after a poor season’s results. And the shock of Borders spectacular bankruptcy affected many publishers, whose unpaid-for stock went down with the company.

However, books are not going out of fashion – but perhaps the traditional structures of book publishing and bookselling are facing their literary end.

Richard Jones, publisher of the small Bristol-based independent publisher Tangent Books, says: “No one’s really picked up on the sales that Borders would have made, no one like Waterstones or the like has benefitted, so we’ve taken a big hit on our future orders,” Jones says.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “I’m probably selling more books now than I ever have,” he says. “It’s just that the margins are less and less as Amazon and Waterstones demand bigger and bigger discounts.

“Perhaps 60 to 65 per cent of my sales are through the high street, of which almost all is through Waterstones, while around 40 per cent is online, direct sales or through independent bookshops,” he says. “But that figure has grown so fast I’d expect it to overtake the high street within 18 months.”

The traditionally slow-moving world of bookmen is changing with the arrival of new business models and technologies.

Take Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader, and the other models from manufacturers such as Sony and even retailer Barnes and Noble. Although between two and three million have been sold, this is still a tiny fraction of the book-buying public.

But it’s growing, and there are also another four million iPhone handsets, and other devices which can read eBooks. “The eBook is a completely new format, and it is only going to get bigger,” Jones says. “The Kindle is good for text, but the iPad suits graphical books too, which opens up the possibility of art eBooks, like the street art books I publish. If the bulk of the cost of producing a book goes is the printing and manufacturing costs, then that can be largely avoided.”

Is it possible to compare the upheavals in the book trade with those that the music industry has faced and continues to face with the combination of broadband internet, online file sharing, MySpace and digital downloads from services like iTunes?

“I think there is a similarity, but we don’t have a MySpace equivalent. The publishing industry is still largely reliant on the High Street or Amazon to sell the product.”

Internet entrepreneurs have not been slow in coming up with ideas, however. Several publish-on-demand services allow authors to by-pass the traditional model altogether and publish their books in small print-runs. The e-publisher lulu.com allows authors to produce physical copies to be placed on the site’s online marketplace, or on other online retailers like Amazon, or in bookshops. Another site, blurb.com, offers similar services and even links in to the popular online tools like blogs and image services like Picasa or Flickr in order for authors to easily assemble their text and image content. Considering that Blurb’s income grew from $1m to $30m in two years, and that the company now prints 300,000 titles, it is clear that this approach has struck a chord. Bob Young, Lulu’s founder, says he’d rather have one million authors selling 100 copies each than 100 authors selling one million copies each.

“It’s very liberating for people, obviously,” says Jones.

Other larger independents have joined forces to help themselves. Andrew Franklin, managing director of publisher Profile Books, was among the founding partners in the Independent Alliance, a group of ten larger independents including Faber and Faber, Canongate, Icon and Atlantic.

“It’s a bit like what organic famers and French wine growers do; you can’t compete with the conglomerates so you band together,” he says. “We try and combine the best advantages of being big with the important advantages of being small and independent: no bureaucracy, more nimble, better relations with our writers and buyers.”

The group offers better terms to independent booksellers, and saw their sales grow 60 per cent last year, expanding to become the UK’s fifth largest publisher.

“The alliance has greatly helped us [Profile],” Franklin added. “It would be a great thing to see other alliances in other parts of the trade, such as booksellers, or even in other industries entirely – local taxi companies, for example, banding together to fight off the likes of [large London minicab firm] Addison Lee.”

Some parts of the existing arcane publishing system need to be shaken up. For example, the nature of the sale-or-return ordering system means that books may be sent back to the publishers just as the same books are being ordered by customers and redelivered.

“If I’m supplying Waterstones in, say, Aberdeen, lorries bringing my books back may be passing other lorries on the way to drop off more copies of the same book,” Jones says.

The question is to what extent the high street will continue to flourish, when in many towns and cities the arrival of a Waterstones or Borders in the past has prompted a rash of closures.

Rob Coyne, from Bookmongers second-hand bookshop in Brixton, says that while there are ups and downs, trade is still stable. “We have quite a bohemian selection, I suppose: Kerouac, Burrows and so on,” he says. “We’re really fortunate that we’re here in Brixton where there is a strong community, but really it comes down to the fact that people will always enjoy the experience of shopping and reading in a room full of books.”

Something for Amazon to chew on.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]


The rise of the thuggettes

Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah - www.chrisleah.com
Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah - www.chrisleah.com

Society faces a surge of young girl criminals if it fails to intervene to tackle the reasons they break the law, a forthcoming report has concluded.

The study suggests projects and schemes aimed at young offenders should treat females differently by addressing the effects of the violent or sexually abusive relationships and family breakdown that often lie behind their offending.

The report by the Centre for British Teachers Education Trust (CfBT) research group found that while limited work in the US has shown “promising” results, there has been little take-up in Britain. Without this change, CfBT’s director Tony McAleavy said, “the figures seem to support the fact that the further into the youth justice system you go, the more likely you are to reoffend. It’s evidence that custody doesn’t work.”

One organisation has for three years put troubled teenagers back onto the right side of the law using – perhaps surprisingly – contemporary dance, and its results are impressive. One woman, Ruth, joked: “I was a majorette as a girl, so at least I have some dancing experience.” But after becoming addicted to heroin and crack, she has spent two years in prison. “My confidence was really low but, now, to be able to get on stage without using drugs is amazing, I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

The Dance United project based in Bradford accepts teenagers and young adults from across the north. Cohorts of around 10 to 15 are put through an intensive 12-week course, with a public performance after just three weeks.

They are drawn from prison and young offenders units, from youth offending teams and probation, and from local authority care. But on stage they look every inch the part, moving together in rhythm, with flowing costumes, subtle lighting and expressive choreography, their faces masks of concentration or calm.

Kathryn Brentwoods, one of the group’s dance teachers, said the skills required to perform a dance piece from scratch in such a short time tend to act directly on the needs and fears of the participants.

She said: “The programme is structured, very disciplined – they must be in on time, concentrate in class, and we don’t compromise on the rules. They need to learn to not talk or fidget, learn self-control, and to think before they act. This comes as a shock.”

Many will have problems with intimacy, personal space, touching and being touched from their experiences, barriers which are broken down by dance moves such as lifting and catching each other.

“We found we have to build up slowly to physical contact. We have to be clear about what is good touching and what isn’t. But they begin to build a lot of skills for life –confidence, negotiation, self-control, and teamwork,” she added.

Another of the group, Jaynie, 19, from Nottingham, has been in an open prison since December. “My friend had done it before, recommended it. It’s difficult, but I feel a lot more confident. I’ve learned how to control my anger, especially here when everyone’s a lot younger than me.

“It’s great to socialise with other people, where no one knows about you or why you’re here,” she said. “It’s nice that they can look at what were doing without disapproving of what we’ve done. You’re here on a clean slate.”

Ruth, 27, from North Wales, said: “The staff are really good with you and treat you well, better than the screws.

“I’ve learnt to get along with people really quickly. I’m quite turned into myself as a person, but I’ve got over that. It’s a place where everyone can be themselves. I love it.”

She hopes to go to college to study “something physical,” while one previous participant went on to study at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Dance United director, Rob Lynden, said the intense focus on the three-week project and discouraging talking about their backgrounds helped draw a line under their past.

He said: “It is designed to take them away from what is expected of them, where they are expected to be belligerent, problematic, where they expect to fail. Instead we can put them in a place where they can succeed.”

A Manchester University evaluation of the course found “a substantial positive impact with large numbers of participants,” and that almost three-quarters of participants re-engaged with education or employment, and reported better relationships in their personal lives.

Dance United, along with projects such as that run by Birmingham Youth Offending Team, are among the few organisations that have tried a new tack which McAleavy hopes will help cut the “alarming” rate of reoffending and high rates of self-harm among women in custody.

He said: “What we need is a much more calm and collected view about this, instead of a moral panic and media frenzy.”

“Undoubtedly people’s lives are blighted by youth crime. But question is this: will a 300 per cent increase in custody tackle youth crime? No, it will make it worse, because incarceration is strongly linked to further offending. Let’s have a debate about this and look for something that actually works.”

A common perception is that female offending is rising. Last month’s Ministry of Justice report, Women and the Criminal Justice System, fuelled headlines raging over “ladette culture.” The statistics showed a 22 per cent rise of crime over five years by girls under 18, with 251,000 arrests in 2006-07.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value, CfBT’s Tony McAleavy said: “There is no hard evidence for radical seismic shift in girls’ offending behaviour,” he said. “The issue is to do with the response to crime.

“More girls are in court and going to custody, but the report shows this is because fewer girls are getting dealt with by reprimands or cautions. It’s the response to crime that is changing, not the criminal behaviour.”

A more heavy-handed approach by the courts has seen a 297 per cent increase in custodial sentences for girls between 1992 and 2006, compared to a 56 per cent average for under-18s of both sexes.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, agreed that earlier interventions by youth workers had led to higher numbers: “We don’t draw any strong conclusions from the caseload data,” he said.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]


Stop and Search: a guide

Stop and search - a guide

From January 1 this year police have swapped a stop and search form described as “a foot long,” for a simple receipt, and while some welcome the cut in red tape, critics point to Home Office figures that seem to support fears the powers will be overused.

The police’s right to stop and search without arrest is controversial, and has often been the faultline for friction between officers and the communities they police. In the run up to the inner city riots of 1981, police in Brixton stopped more than 1,000 people in just six days on grounds of only ‘suspicion’, causing a surge in tensions.

After a critical public enquiry, the hated ‘sus’ laws were dropped and replaced with clearly defined and limited powers to stop and search. But fast-forward 20 years and section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has reintroduced those powers to stop without “reasonable suspicion.” An example of how broadly the police interpret these powers include bundling 82-year-old Labour supporter Walter Wolfgang out of the Labour Party conference after he heckled Jack Straw in 2005, to public outcry.

Figures for 2006-07, the most recent year available, show that the police carried out a total of 2,907,539 stops or searches – 4.8 per cent of the population, or nearly one in 20 of us. Only around 12 per cent of those resulted in an arrest, and this does not necessarily mean that charges were brought and someone found guilty of an offence.

More zealous stopping and searching has thrust unlikely groups of people into the path of police, among them photographers and trainspotters.

Public photography is perfectly legal, except in situations where a subject might have “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as a bathroom. But hobbyist and professional photographers have experienced harassment from staff, security guards and police in the name of security.

British Transport Police figures that record 62,584 section 44 stops at railway stations last year, and another 87,000 stops or searches under other laws, demonstrate the extent to which trainspotters have come under fire.

In October, 15-year-old schoolboy Fabian Sabbara was stopped and threatened with arrest under the Terrorism Act for taking pictures of Wimbledon station on his mobile phone, despite explaining it was for his GCSE course work.

Chris Milner, deputy editor at Railway Magazine, said that though train operators and police broadly agreed that rail enthusiasts posed no problem, frontline staff and managers were ignorant of – or ignored – the guidelines.

He said: “A lot of us remember [former Met Police chief] Iain Blair saying after the 2005 bombs: who’s got pictures, evidence that might help us? When there’s an incident they want our help, yet every day staff tell us not to take photos.”

Milner said he had travelled extensively around Europe and never been approached for taking pictures, but in the UK staff always had a reason to hand to stop photographers.

“It’s a shame,” he added. “Photography has never been more popular, and yet so restricted.”

Freelance photographer Carmen Valino was stopped in Canary Wharf by police who radioed to base every detail, from her name, address and description to the make and model of her camera and lenses. “They stopped me again later and asked me why I was still here, as if I had no right to be,” she recalled. And last month two press photographers were prevented by police from covering protests outside the Greek Embassy.

Yet guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidelines are clear: “Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record. It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police.”

With the latest Metropolitan police figures recording more than triple the number of stop and searches, 157,000 for the year to September 2008, it is clear that having to explain ourselves and empty our pockets to the police will become more common for us all.

The Law

Powers to stop and search begin with the Vagrancy Act 1824, allowing constables to stop “a suspected person or reputed thief” on grounds of suspicion alone. Lord Scarman’s report into the inner city riots led to an end to this ‘sus’ law, culminating in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). This gives police the power to stop and search if they have reasonable suspicion that an offence has been or is about to be committed, including looking for drugs, firearms or weapons, tools for damaging property or theft, (eg. spray paint, jemmy) or stolen goods.

The Criminal Evidence and Public Order Act 1994, section 60, was aimed at seizing weapons from football hooligans. It allows officers to search for weapons, but only in situations where a senior officer believes it necessary to prevent “serious violence,” and those stopped do not have to give name, address or other details.

The Terrorism Act 2000, section 43 and 44, allows police to stop and search if they believe someone to be a terrorist, if “expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism,” or if looking for “articles that could be used for terrorism whether or not there are grounds for suspecting that such articles are present” – essentially, regardless of whether officers believe a crime has been or may be committed.

Your rights, as described by Liberty

Police conducting a search must: identify themselves and their police station; explain why you are being searched, under which powers and what they are searching for; take a written record of the search, unless impractical to do so; record your name and address if known; ethnic origin; date, time and place of the search; any objects found or damaged during the search, and any injury resulting from the search. But police have no powers to search you in order to find something that would provide grounds to justify the search.

You are entitled to a record of the search on the spot, or can obtain a copy for 12 months if this is not practical. You are not required to give your name, address or date of birth. You should be searched by an officer of the same gender. You cannot be compelled to give DNA or fingerprints or be photographed during the search.

Under a section 44 search, though police need not have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has or may be committed, to use the powers lawfully he must reasonably believe you to be involved in terrorist activity. Under these powers, you may be arrested and subsequently compelled to give DNA and fingerprints.

Ministry of Justice stop and search statistics

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004/05 2005/06 2006/07
Search 686,114 713,683 869,164 738,016 839,977 878,153 955,113
Stop 1,400,745 1,868,570
s.60 11,203 18,639 50,562 40,193 41,301 36,248 44,659
s.44 21,577 29,407 32,062 44,543 37,197
Stop – chance of being stopped by ethnic origin
Black x2.9 x2.4
Asian x1.3 x1.1
Search – chance of being stopped by ethnic origin
Black x6 x8 x5.8 x6.4 x6 x6.8 x7.1
Asian x1.7 x1.9 x1.8 x2.1 x2.2
Arrest % 14% 13% 13% 13% 11% 12% 12%


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2009]


Who independently polices the IPCC?

When Peter Mahon was unlawfully removed from his house by police, he did not expect to spend four years chasing his case through the complaints process and courts.

Asleep on his sofa in November 2004, he was woken at 1.30am by two uniformed police officers who told him to leave or be arrested. The officers intervened in a civil dispute between Mahon and his ex-partner following the end of their relationship over rights to the house they had bought together in Hemel Hempstead.

Mahon, an actor, musician and filmmaker in his 50s, said: “The first thing [the police] asked me was, “Is this your house? Is your name on the deeds? They said they’d arrest me if I didn’t leave. They didn’t give any explanation.”

The solicitors Mahon sought advice from were astonished. “They didn’t believe me,” Mahon recalled. “They told me the police couldn’t do that. I said, I know – but they just have.”

Mahon lodged complaints first with Hertfordshire Constabulary and then the IPCC – the Independent Police Complaints Commission, an independent body established in 2004 seen as offering greater police accountability than its predecessors.

His complaint was that officers PC Hughes and PC Thornton had no right to remove him, but threatened him with arrest if he didn’t leave in order to prevent a breach of the peace – even though Mahon had been asleep when they entered and was, as Thornton later acknowledged, not threatening and calm throughout. Hughes’ notes made no mention of Mahon being abusive or threatening.

After four years of chasing the case through the system, Mahon was told the upshot would be that a senior officer would “have a word” with PC Thornton. PC Hughes, had resigned when the investigation began, without being interviewed.

The police receive around 30,000 complaints a year for anything from verbal abuse or malicious arrest to physical assault or death in custody. Though Peter Mahon’s case is far from the most serious it demonstrates how difficult it can be for complainants to receive an apology or sense of redress.

Few complaints brought against the police are upheld – according to the IPCC, 89 per cent of the 14,558 investigations last year found the claims unsubstantiated. Of 3,592 appeals, 72 per cent were rejected. Fewer still lead to serious disciplinary action; across the 43 divisions of England and Wales a total of 257 officers were disciplined as a result of a complaint: six were sacked, nine asked to resign, one demoted, 24 fined, 10 reprimanded, 97 given a written warning and for 106 no further action was taken. It is incredibly rare for an officer to face criminal prosecution.

The outcomes of high-profile cases, such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005, and less serious complaints such as Mahon’s have led critics to conclude that after five years the IPCC is failing to deliver.

Mahon’s complaint was not investigated by Hertfordshire Constabulary’s professional standards department until November 2005, which rejected Mahon’s complaint in April 2006. The IPCC, to whom Mahon appealed, also rejected it in June that year.

Both investigations relied heavily on the officers’ testimony and did not include taking any further evidence from Mahon or anyone else. Caseworkers at the IPCC deal with appeals on paperwork alone, without conducting further investigations.

Frustrated after 18 months, Mahon took the unusual step of seeking judicial review of the IPCC’s ruling from the Court of Appeal in September 2007. Granting judicial review, Lord Justice Auld said he felt “considerable unease about the circumstances of the case,” adding: “Given the information available beforehand to the police officers concerned, their conduct in awakening and removing Mr Mahon from his home in the middle of the night in the claimed belief of an apprehended breach of the peace, the matter deserved in my view a more vigorous and thorough investigation by Hertfordshire Constabulary.”

The IPCC agreed to review the case, and in October 2008 concluded: “The evidence indicates that the officers did not have sufficient grounds to arrest Mr Mahon for breach of the peace. The fact that Mr Mahon was asleep does not indicate that harm was sufficiently imminent for a breach of the peace to be threatened.”

But when Hertfordshire Constabulary were asked to review the case again, it informed Mahon in December only that it would have “words of advice” with the remaining officer.

Nick Hardwick, chairman of the IPCC’s commissioners, told The Big Issue that he was awaiting the full report required from Hertfordshire Constabulary, but admitted it had taken far too long.

“Stripping away the bureaucracy behind this, if the force had said to Mr Mahon in Christmas 2004, yes, actually officers have made a mistake and got the law wrong on this. We’re really sorry about this, please accept our apologies. If it had said that, this would never have come so far. Four years later, Mr Mahon must be beside himself with rage, which is terrible. The system itself is worse that what happened to him in the first place.”

A change of culture was required in dealing with complaints resolved locally by the force, rather than by the IPCC’s investigators, Hardwick said: “It’s about PC Bloggs being able to say, sorry, it was late, I’d had a long day, I got it wrong and I’ll refresh myself on breach of the peace law, for example. If that is done well, complainants like Mr Mahon would be happy.

“Almost half the complaints against the police are for incivility or other neglect of duty. Relatively minor if taken alone, but the scale of them is huge. Dealing with these better is crucial to the police’s relationship with the public.”

The Police Action Lawyers Group, representing those complaining against the police, are not surprised that a comparatively minor case could have taken years to achieve, effectively, nothing. The PALG spokesmen resigned from their IPCC advisory board role last year expressing their “dismay and disillusionment” with “consistently poor quality of decision-making at all levels.”

But Hardwick replied: “It has improved. Have we still got a long way to go? Absolutely.”

Mahon, a father of two who has recorded several albums under the moniker Pete Bite and acted in EastEnders and The Bill, intends to sue. He said: “I stopped acting, stopped working on films, stopped regular work at all. This has taken over my life, and years of my time. This could have been sorted out the next day – they get slapped on the wrist, I get my keys back and go home. But with every lie they told about me I just got angrier and more determined.

“I’m trying to prove that you can take on the police and win. The problem is that the bad coppers lie and the good coppers stay silent.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2009]


The Social: a band, not a bar

The Social. Photo - Oliver Twitchett
The Social. Photo - Oliver Twitchett

I cast down my pen with a dramatical flourish. Come on then, admit it, I say. You basically sound like The Smiths.

Six-foot singer Laurence blinks. “Yep,” he replies.

I’d expected some attempt to rebuff suggestions that his throaty, bass voice had more than a little echo of the strident, urgent lyrical exhortations of Morrissey, or even Ian Curtis. Or that Liam’s contradictory guitar melodies are so Johnny Marr-esque as to border on tribute act. But not a bit of it.

“It’s inevitable that we are going to synthesize what we love into what we do, but really you have to take us at our lyrics first before working back to the music,” bass player Stuart says.

“The Smiths are one of those bands that had a massive effect on British music,” Laurence adds. “But they were also unique – Nirvana and many others made a massive impact too, but none of them had the uniqueness of the sound The Smiths had, and it’s that sound that’s been deserted.

“I didn’t want to go to far from their sound, from their ethic, from their movement, because that’s what made them great. And we’ve only been together two years, so the next lot of songs will probably sound totally different.”

The Social are singer Lawrence, 26, and bassist Stuart, 29, both originally old friends from Birmingham, who met guitarist Liam and drummer Alfie after moving to London a few years ago.

They look like a mash-up of 1980s and 1880s – Teddy Boy-punks with white socks peeking above tasselled loafers, pleat trousers and dress shirts paired with ripped t-shirts, inappropriate PVC hats and scarves worn as cravats. There are no gladioli in Laurence’s pocket.

Though they wear some influences – The Smiths, The Cure – proudly on their sleeve, others more surprising lurk beneath the surface – Killing Joke, and fellow West Midlanders The Specials and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, evidenced by strong leading bass and drum tracks in songs like “To the Bone.”

Following a well received 7” double-A-side on Influx records last year, Under Grey Skies/London Is Divided, a chance meeting with producer Dave Allen called them back into the studio – away from their Camden shop, Divided London, that had become more of a speakeasy than a shopfront. The result is the five-track EP A Call To Arms, out next month.

The Social’s songs are tales of the dole – the DSS to which their name refers – of frustrated lives, big ideas, and idiots at the wheel.

“It’s a swipe at the times really; the 1990s consumer society, the apathy. We’re not a political band, but we’re attacking people that fall victim to what politics makes them. People that are blind and stupid,” Laurence says.

Indeed, The Social have views on many things, from NME (“like OK or Hello magazine these days”), to ways of making ends meet (Stuart DJs cheese at clubs like Bungalow 8, Laurence sings opera) and ‘indie landfill’ bands (“they’ve got nothing to say – The Wombats are making a Christmas record for god’s sake”).

Is the fact the boys released both on their own label, Divided London, a nod to a punk DIY ethic?

“The label helps us keep our momentum going,” says Laurence, “and with the way the things are at the moment – two of the big four labels not taking on new acts – small labels may be the only way things are done in the future. The system’s failing.”

“We’re not going to do music for adverts. In fact we’ve already turned down some offers, but it’s not what we’re about and we’d look like idiots,” adds Stuart. “But if the man puts a contract in front of me I’ll sign it – I want my swimming pool shaped like a guitar.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]


Hostel that serves up cold turkey warm

St George's Hostel residents

A project has won an award for its approach of treating hardened drug users with honesty and acceptance by allowing them to continue using drug use.

The King George’s hostel in Westminster, run by English Churches Housing Group, scooped first prize at the Chartered Institute of Housing awards last week, while ECHG picked up an outstanding achievement award.

Based in a 1920s hostel in the backstreets of Victoria, King George’s houses 68 men in self-contained clusters of flats based on their needs – drugs, alcohol or mental health problems – and their progress through the programme, starting with a compulsory six-week harm reduction course called the Gateway.

ECHG specialises in working with those with the most complex problems, those that have been serially excluded or found themselves suffering the ‘revolving door syndrome’ of being bounced from provider to provider without improvement.

Despite this, there are no bars on the windows, no airlock doors and reception staff are not cocooned behind safety glass.

King George’s builds on the success of an ECHG-run wet hostel for alcoholics in Derby, another Institute of Housing award winner, taking the same approach of talking frankly and honestly with addicts about their problems in order that they can be treated from the outset, while working at reducing drug use.

Project director Stephen Davies said: “We have a twofold approach: setting up a structure with the police, hostels and support workers for the clients, while accepting that abstinence in the short term is unrealistic, instead teaching harm reduction measures. We’ve not had an overdose in the two years since Gateway started.”

Working closely with Westminster police, the project uses a loophole in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which, while forbidding landlords to “permit or suffer the use of” opiates and cannabis on the premises, makes no mention of cocaine.

The use of crack cocaine in resident’s rooms is tolerated, though it does not go unchallenged. “Using drugs in the building means they are not using them out on the streets. It’s reduced crime and antisocial behaviour. They have access to a needle exchange and the help they need here,” Davies explained.

For users with the most chaotic, destructive lives, King George’s gives them an opportunity to eat better, live better, stay safer in their use of drugs and, ultimately, fight their addictions. The hostel’s needle exchange has a return rate of over 100 per cent – sharps are even brought in for safe disposal from elsewhere – and the residents have a near-100 per cent screening rate for TB and other blood-borne diseases.

One resident, 39-year-old Taff from Cardiff, had been a heroin user for 20 years, but reduced his methadone usage from 120ml to 30ml since entering King George’s. He has started training with British Military Fitness and has run three charity runs in the last few months.

“It feels great. I couldn’t run 100 meters when I came here,” he laughed. “Now I can outrun the Old Bill. I’ve changed so much since I got here.”

The cluster system works well, he added. “You get a single support staff for each cluster, they know your problems and what you’re like, and they’re only dealing with a few of you so you can see them if you need to, unlike in other places.”

Rodriguez, 31, from Portugal and a resident for four years, said: “Some people look at the homeless and say, we’re just filthy junkies. But we’ve got problems. When I see fat people, who say they can’t lose weight, I think, just stop eating. But the fact is they’ve got problems too, like us. To be honest, I wish I’d never met drugs in my life.”

Rodriguez, a former carpenter, works as the handyman in the hostel, keeping busy by fixing and mending.

“It’s about finding that spark of interest to move someone onto work or training, any interest to fill the gap that drugs have filled, whether its gardening, DIY, sport – anything,” Davies said.

Banning drugs and alcohol outright, as in almost all other hostels, does not ultimately help users, Davies said, as breaking rules leads to expulsion from the hostel – back onto the streets, possibly back towards crime and antisocial behaviour and away from the help they need.

Davies said the approach was “very effective. It sounds obvious, but most hostels don’t work with drug users, and few if any allow drugs on the premises.

“For many of our guys abstinence is a long way off, but by teaching harm reduction they have moved from heavy to light use, from injecting to smoking. The path from harm reduction to abstinence is a rocky road which we try to help people along, but it’s not a journey we can hope to make unless we are honest about it.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, December 2008]


Operation Poncho

Thomas Penrose is fiercely critical of Operation Poncho. Photo credit - Michael Parker
Thomas Penrose is fiercely critical of Operation Poncho. Photo credit - Michael Parker

For the homeless rough sleeper, life has enough complications without being woken at 3am on a cold night, quizzed by police and having your sleeping pitch hosed down with water.

Known as Operation Poncho, this approach has been taking place in the City of London since May last year. For a year, rough sleepers were shaken from their sleep and moved on while their shelter for the night was soaked, forcing them on to find another place to rest. At the same time staff from homeless charity St Mungo’s or more recently Broadway were present to steer rough sleepers towards hostels.

While the government has ploughed £538m in council homelessness projects and £106m into improving hostels since 1997, rough sleeping and homelessness is still a problem as it was 10 years ago.

The use of enforcement measures against street sleepers including Asbos or tactics such as Poncho suggest a tougher approach by the authorities toward those they define as “refusing to engage” with services. But why would someone prefer to remain outside?

The St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square and the Connections service have a long history of working with homeless. Its day centre behind the church now assist around 5,000 people a year after a £4million refurb, offering showers, food, healthcare, training, advice and safety in addition to outreach teams on the streets at night.

Outreach manager Annie O’Brien said: “On any night we may have 10 new faces on the street, but most others we know. We have 82-year-olds living on the street who don’t want to go indoors. Being on their own outdoors is what they know, they don’t want to change.”

And the alternative is not always attractive. “Hostels used to be diabolical, but they are improving,” she added. “They have learned to diversify – they can’t be a melting pot.”

Director Colin Glover said that only an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of street homeless used services available to them. “The issue of carrot and stick has been around forever,” he added. “Turn the clock back 15 years and there was huge sympathy with the homeless as it was seen as a failure of government. Now there is a hardening towards unemployed homeless people, and we are caught in the swing of attitudes that almost make things like Operation Poncho seem acceptable.”

The benefit of a roof over one’s head is not always sufficient to tempt rough sleepers indoors, and the one-size-fits-all policy of hostels has thrown together a potentially explosive mix of residents with complex problems.

Thomas Penrose, 59, has been homeless for seven years following a divorce. The soft-spoken Cornishman has never used a hostel, and has always slept rough.

“I wouldn’t go near hostels. I haven’t in seven years and have no intention to,” he told The Big Issue. “I know people that have gone into hostels and come back out again many times over. You’re bound to get clashes between characters there, especially with the mental health or drug problems that you get. But often it’s the aggressive superiority of the staff – the attitudes make it feel more like a correctional facility than a hostel.”

Penrose has experienced early morning calls from City of London officers during Operation Poncho while sleeping on Fleet Street, and believes it is just the latest part of the “factory line” approach to drive people through what he calls the “homelessness industry.”

“For every homeless guy there’s four or five people working for him, from outreach workers to administrators to managers. The system moves so slowly, and so much money is spent on administration. It’s an industry that supports itself.”

Penrose recalls a friend who was offered a flat, but on the day that various staff from housing association, outreach charity, and others met at the arranged time to hand over the keys, he didn’t turn up.

“No one had bothered to tell him,” Penrose recalled. “With attitudes like that, it becomes easier just to say: to hell with it, I’ll stay on the street where it’s easy.”

Even if someone is removed from the street to a flat of their own, he says, it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is solved: “You might just end up with a man sleeping on the floor of his bare flat, with bills to pay, and no friends. The homelessness industry counts that as a success. But it’s not – it’s just not their problem any more.”

One large hostel in central London, housing around 100 men, is shabby, drab and very reminiscent of a correctional facility.

Around 80 per cent of residents have drug or alcohol dependencies. One is Colin Barclay, who has lived there almost two years, after spending 28 of his 42 years homeless.

He talks animatedly: “I’ve been in 20 or 30 hostels and night shelters in London. With some you’d rather be out on the street,” he said. “There’s solidarity among those outside, keeping and eye out for one another. I’d sooner stay with people I know on the street than come inside where there are strangers. And if you’re a stranger coming in here, it can be very intimidating – there is an undercurrent of violence in most hostels.”

Tattooed ex-punk Eugene, 48, agreed. “I was rough sleeping so long it was comfortable. There’s nothing romantic about it – I just couldn’t deal with any kind of structure at all. Even the three meetings you have to attend to get into the hostel,” he said.

Eugene, also a methadone user, was given an Asbo banning him from south Camden – where most of the services he uses are based. “I’ve breached it eight times,” he explained, “It’s pointless because stopping someone from getting help just means they’re more likely to commit crime.”

Although hostels are moving towards a smaller, more specialised model, the problems of institutionalising the homeless and treating them with a broad brush remain. As Penrose puts it: “Behind the term ‘the homeless’ are as broad a cross-section of society as you’d find anywhere else.”

Poncho is the first example of its kind in Britain, with nothing similar occurring in Birmingham, Leeds or Brighton. Sarah Johnsen from York University’s Centre for Housing Policy published a report last year that found the effects of enforcement on rough sleepers was unpredictable and a “high risk strategy.”

Some targeted homeless were driven to more dangerous activities or social groups, or criminalised through the breaching of Asbos, while for others it was the trigger needed to take positive steps. The report concluded that it should always be used carefully with support available immediately and suitable to each individual.

Johnsen added: “Poncho is founded on the assumption that services are there, but even if the beds spaces were available unless they are immediately accessible then the claims are misleading at best.”

(some names have been changed)


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]



Barbed graphic design studio
Barbed graphic design studio. Credit: Barbed/Howard League

A groundbreaking project in which prison inmates run a design company from behind bars in an effort to reduce reoffending rates is under threat of closure.

Barbed, a graphic design studio based at HMP Coldingley in Bisley, Surrey, was set up by charity the Howard League for Penal Reform in October 2005 to train and employ inmates as graphic designers.

Launched with £100,000 funding, Barbed is the first attempt to run a commercially viable social enterprise within a prison and supports 60 per cent of its costs through client work.

Clients include many organisations within the field, such as the Butler Trust, Prison Education Trust and the Howard League, but also NHS trusts, legal firm Clifford Chance and even Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But according to a report seen exclusively by The Big Issue, the project, housed within the Category C secure prison, may close because of lack of support.

Andrew Neilson, assistant director of policy at the Howard League, who oversees Barbed, told The Big Issue: “The project was never set up to run forever, but neither the Prison Service nor the government have showed any interest in the idea as a pilot of how real, skilled labour in prisons could work.”

Report author Penny Green, professor of criminology at King’s College London, was tasked by the Howard League to independently assess Barbed’s progress. Her findings, due for publication next month, detail a catalogue of obstacles that have undermined the credibility of the project.

Many of the setbacks are directly linked to prison overcrowding: inmates trained for six months are moved without warning to other prisons to make way for new arrivals, or moved after being re-categorised up to category B or down to category D open prisons. Studio staff are prevented from working by security lock-downs, and working hours have also been cut to around five hours a day.

Barbed staff are also paid a real, above-minimum wage from which tax and National Insurance contributions are deducted. To further emulate the costs of life on the outside, a third of prisoners’ wages is deducted and given to charity.

Barbed’s organisers aimed to introduce skilled work to prisoners who perhaps had no experience of it, complete with a working day, deadlines and the payment of tax to the state as part of the social contract.

But late last year, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) refused to accept the tax and returned a cheque for £18,000 to the Howard League. A letter from HMRC stated that while prisoners based at open prisons working on day release were liable for tax, those working within more secure prisons were not.

The Ministry Of Justice argued that as prisoners are not under contract for the work they do, they are not employees, and as such cannot be taxed.

This contradiction was described by the Howard League’s Euginia Lolomari as “an anomaly that they recognise, but on which they are unwilling to shift”.

She believes government ministers quail at inmates earning a ‘real’ wage for productive work, as opposed to the token Prison Service wage of between £5 and £30 a week earned by inmates for prison jobs such as laundry and packing – and in particular the legal employment rights it would imply.

She said: “The whole point of the project is to demonstrate that businesses based in prison can work, and that prisoners given a full working day and paid a realistic wage are motivated to produce a good level of skilled work.”

Describing the HMRC’s position as ‘Kafkaesque’, Professor Green’s report states that the future of Barbed and projects like it requires the “urgent resolution” of legal issues surrounding prisoner employment. Reforming prison work would require “a wholesale commitment on the part of the Prison Service, which to date is absent”.

She continues: “Denied a meaningful wage and legal employment rights, prison work, from the prisoner’s perspective, is thus linked more with exploitative punishment than reward, and does little to challenge offending behaviour.”

At HMP Coldingley, the Barbed studio looks much like any other small business office: there are half a dozen Apple Macs, pin-boards cluttered with newspaper clippings, diagrams, and finished work adorns the walls.

Barbed has trained 11 inmates, but this has been reduced to three designers and professional studio manager David Allen after staff were moved to other prisons.

For designer Leon, who is in the last stretch of a five-year sentence, it has been a steep learning curve. The 33-year-old said: “It was tricky getting my head around it, but I really enjoy it. It gives me something to look forward to. When I get out in six months I’m planning to set up a social enterprise design business of my own. It’s given me the skills to do that.”

He criticised much of the prison’s other work training. “You just sit around all day. It’s not actually teaching you skills to get a job with outside,” he said.

Another designer, 48-year-old B, has spent the last five years of his life sentence at Coldingley and is up for parole in April. He said: “Working here has been great for me. It’s been a great distraction to everything out there” – he gestures outside the studio’s partition walls – “and a break from the monotony of it all.

“I’ve learnt skills I can use outside. There were a few guys in here that had never worked a job in their life, so it must have been a great help for them and great experience to keep them out of prison in the future.”

One former inmate who worked on the Barbed project has even gone on to work for the Howard League since his release.

But organisations working in the penal system say that the loss of inventive projects like Barbed is almost certain under new recommendations to build super-prisons.

Critics have warned that Titan prisons mean less staff per prisoner, longer lock-up hours and tighter security, all of which work against organisations trying to run rehabilitation programmes.

Barbed studio manager David Allen described running the studio as both rewarding and frustrating. He said: “People get upset that prisoners are working, but would they rather they were doing nothing and getting angrier and more resentful with society? The effect on the guys has been massively positive. They are enthusiastic and keen to work. In prison, at some point, the punishment has to end and the rehabilitation to begin.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]


Prescription heroin

Prescription future for heroin drug treatment

Doctors will be encouraged to prescribe pharmaceutical heroin to addicts in order to slash drug-related crime, the Liberal Democrats have said.

At a conference on Drugs, Race and Discrimination held by drugs charity Release on Thursday, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne MP said that it was time addiction was seen as a public health issue.

Arriving directly from the Liberal Democrat Party conference in Brighton, he said: “We must treat addicts as a matter of public health not as a matter for punishment. They are people who have no option but to try to feed their addiction, and there is nothing to gain from threatening them with prison.

“GPs and clinics should be given the right to prescribe heroin in cases of addiction. The principle is clear.”

The Liberal Democrats’ policy is informed by trials in Switzerland and the Netherlands where around 1,000 addicts were prescribed diamorphine – pharmaceutical heroin, in injectable or pill form. The results were a sharp fall in crime, improvement in the addicts’ health and a better rate of beating the addiction than those using methadone, an alternative heroin treatment. The results also showed after three years on the programme they had more friends who were not addicts, stable housing, and jobs.

The MP and former economist was fiercely critical of the current attitude towards drugs and crime, adding: “If we ran economic policy the same way we ran criminal justice policy we’d be in a perpetual recession. There is an enormous gap between the clear evidence that exists and practice.”

Prison sentences only serve to disrupt the treatment of addicts, the UK Drug Policy Commission has said, and, with drugs available in prison, cannot even act as a period of ‘cold turkey.’

Though doctors can prescribe diamorphine doing so requires meeting stringent regulations and obtaining a Home Office licence, which the Lib Dems would relax. The introduction of methadone in the 1960s and 1970s means that now only a handful of doctors do so – of the UK’s population of 300,000 ‘problem drug users’ and 40,000 registered heroin addicts, only around 300 to 400 addicts deemed as ‘treatment-resistant’ are offered diamorphine as a last resort from 128 licensed clinics.

Steve Rolles, head of research for drug policy reform group Transform, said that, uniquely, it was possible with heroin to compare both legal and illegal use.

He said: “It’s as if there are two alternate realities running in parallel; one where drug users are buying street heroin on the corner, robbing people to fund their habit, catching diseases from dirty needles and dying. At the same time you have medical facilities prescribing safe diamorphine in a controlled environment to addicts who are drawn towards the support services, aren’t committing crime and are living more stable lives.

“One works very well and the other is a complete disaster.”

A growing number of voices are advocating a less punitive approach towards addicts. Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee stated in 2003: “If diamorphine treatment could be offered to all problematic users who do not successfully access other treatments, we believe it could play a useful part in managing the social problems generated by this group of people.” On the committee was a Conservative MP, one David Cameron.

The Chief Constable of North Wales Richard Brunstrom in 2004 suggested legalising heroin to undermine drug-related crime, and Scottish police chief Clive Fairweather and the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones, recommended prescribing diamorphine as a more “realistic” approach to long-term drug abuse, pointing to overcrowded prisons choked with drug users.

HM Prison Service figures show that in July there were 12,814 inmates sentenced or held on remand for drugs offences. An estimated 60 per cent of acquisitive crimes are drug-related, costing the taxpayer around £12 billion a year. If those on theft, robbery or burglary charges were included the total prison population held because of drug use, and their prohibition, could be as high as 27,524.

However, many doctors have strong ethical reservations about supplying addictive drugs, and baulk at describing it as a ‘treatment.’ There are also concerns over the extra cost of supervised ‘shooting galleries’ where users can inject or take their diamorphine, and fears that prescription drugs given to be taken away may end up sold on the black market, as happened in the 1960s.

In 2006, the Addiction Research Unit based in London’s Maudsley Hospital started trials similar to those in Switzerland, and the Home Office plans a future review in the light of its results.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, September 2008]


Family court changes comes at glacial pace

Dad's army

“If your partner is reasonable, stay as far away as possible from the court system. They are rife with litigation instead of mitigation. Find a support group and don’t give up, your children need you.”

– John Baker, former chairman of Families need Fathers, speaking on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

After five years of the sight of spandex-clad men dressed as comic-book superheroes on motorway bridges, government buildings, even Wimbledon’s Centre Court, campaigners hope that new laws will stem the rising tide of parents denied access to their children.

Activist group Fathers 4 Justice has used humour, pithy punchlines and high-profile stunts to focus the media’s attention on the parlous state of the Family Court, and the unreasonable manner in which one parent, all too often the father, can be denied access to their children.

With family court proceedings taking place in private behind closed doors, the group argued that there is little accountability for the decisions of the courts, a tendency to grant residence to the mother, and insufficient rigour paid to examining claims of abuse, violence or fear.

This week, Fathers 4 Justice’s founder, flamboyant father-of-three Matt O’Connor, announced that after six years he was closing not just the support group but winding up the campaign in order to spend more time with his three sons.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Matt said: “We don’t have the resources or the training to help people who are clinging to the cliff face. We never started it for that, but it evolved from awareness-raising to self-help,” Matt said.

“The final straw for me was Brian Philcox, who killed his children. The headlines spoke about a ‘Fathers 4 Justice link’, as if we were responsible for what he did.”

However, the high-profile posturing of the caped campaigners has led the government at last to turn its attention to some of the more intractable problems of the Family Court.

Some 200,000 parents separate every year leading to around 25,000 to 30,000 single residency court orders, where the child lives at one parent’s home.

In the majority of cases, courts award custody of the child to the mother, and once a routine has been set it is harder for the father to get access.

A common “standard issue” arrangement handed out by the courts is alternate weekends and half the summer holidays, but this falls far short of the time required to build relationships.

Policy officer Becky Sabine from Families Need Fathers, set up over 30 years ago, said: “It is difficult to make up time apart, court cases can take six months or more and that’s a long time in a child’s life. It is important to have quality time, based on mundane things like picking kids up from school, shared mealtimes, parents’ evenings, bedtime stories – not just a few days out.”

Sabine is hopeful that courts will use the new powers under Children and Adoption Act 2006, which comes into force in November, to compel parents to cooperate and create a culture of genuinely shared residency. Officers from CAFCASS, the government agency which prepares reports for judges on the parents and children involved, have also been given an expanded role of mediating and befriending the parents to help in hostile relationships.

Family Law practitioner Miranda Fisher from legal firm Charles Russell said some progress had been made over the last five years.

“The changes that have happened are largely due to Fathers 4 Justice because their efforts have brought it into the spotlight,” she said.

“There has been a shift in the attitudes of the court towards shared residence orders, but though courts have always been sympathetic towards strong and meaningful relationships with both parents, the problem lies in enforcement.”

The lack of effective measures against resident parents that continually block the visiting parent’s access to their children has led to furious criticism of the Family Courts and CAFCAS.

In May, Lord Justice Alan Ward gave the system an unprecedented savaging when ruling that a father have no contact with the daughter he has been fighting to see for 12 years.

Laying blame squarely on the mother, Lord Justice Ward said her “drip, drip drip of venom” had led her daughter to believe false claims that she had been abused by her father – claims rejected in court 10 years ago. As seeing her father only upset her, he could not allow contact.

He said: “The father complains bitterly, passionately and with every justification that the law is sterile, impotent and utterly useless. But the question is: what can this court do? The answer is nothing.

“This is a truly distressing case. It may be typical of many, but in some ways it borders on the scandalous. It is certainly tragic.”

Such cases are termed “intractable hostility” by the courts, also known as Parental Alienation Syndrome. While many thousands of parents whose relationships break down settle their differences themselves, difficult court disputes for the most part arise when parents are blinded to doing the best by their children by their animosity toward each other.

Such hostility can often lead a young child or teenager to become alienated from the non-resident parent after constant exposure to the feelings of the resident parent, for example the delusional beliefs of the mother in the case above.

In part, the courts are to blame as the system encourages an adversarial approach, and judges have been reluctant to punish, arguing that a heavy fine or prison stretch for the mother or father would hardly be in the child’s interest.

Miranda Fisher said: “When people divorce they lose sight of what’s good for the child. We need to help parents to help their children through a divorce, and remind parents of the effects on their children of seeing two people they love ripping each other to pieces in front of them.”

Others have gone so far to say that, with the weight of evidence demonstrating the negative effects of having only one parent in a child’ life, deliberately denying the child access to both its parents is tantamount to child abuse.

A Canadian Judge, John Gomery said: “Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child. It has to be taught. A parent who would teach a child to hate the other parent represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child.”

Mothers Apart from Their Children, MATCH, supports those mothers separated from their children, as both mothers and fathers can use the child to alienate the other. One member, Linda, found her ex-husband blackening her name in the court to keep her away from her children. She said: “He told me that my children would grow up with only bad memories of me and he would make sure that they would hate me so much they would wish me dead. Parental Alienation is real, it is emotional abuse and should be recognised by the law.”

The Ministry of Justice said the new measures would “give the court new ways to help find solutions where there is a serious conflict between parties.”

Sabine from Fathers Need Families said that it “cultural change” is required: “It must become unacceptable for one parent to deny another the right to see their children, in the same way drink driving or domestic violence has become unacceptable.

“A child has two parents and needs them both.”

John Fyfe, 37, came home one day to find his house empty and ransacked, and no sight of his wife and children. Neither the police, nor social services would tell him where they were, but Families Need Fathers helped him to get a court order to bring his wife to court. Over six months, he pieced together the story that his wife had run off with another man by whom she was pregnant, changed her name having run up thousands of pounds of debt and taken their five children with them.

John had asked 42 solicitors firms for help, but as the cheapest was £140 an hour he represented himself, including cross-examining his own wife at the final hearing.

In all, he went to court nine times and saw a different judge on each occasion.

Although he was granted a shared residence order in February, his house was burnt down in an arson attack, leaving him able to see them only every Saturday.

Though he maintains a good relationship with his younger children, aged six, nine, 11 and 15, he has not spoken to his eldest son since.

He said: “She used the children to shield her from the law, from work, and from me. It didn’t matter what I said, or how she acted, the courts would never give me custody.

I completely trusted and loved her, I had no reasons to be suspicious of anything. I’ve completely lost my trust and confidence in women now.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, September 2008]


Making rape an electoral issue

Jill Saward

You might imagine that anyone suffering the trauma of a sexual attack would seek to remain unknown and heal their wounds, rather than reveal themselves, go on the offensive and campaign for change.

But that is exactly what Jill Saward did when, in 1986 aged just 21, she was raped at her home after her father, a priest, and her boyfriend were beaten nearly to death during what the press called the Ealing Vicarage Rape.

Forfeiting her right to anonymity Saward became the first victim of a sex attack to ‘go public’ when she wrote her story in 1990, and has since supported victims of sexual violence and campaigned for changes to the way the law treats rape victims.

In July, she stood against David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election in East Yorkshire, flying in the face of the MP’s fears of a ‘big brother’ state by calling for a compulsory national DNA database of all British citizens.

Saward is a resilient woman. The judge at the trial of her three attackers, Justice Leonard, gave harsher sentences to the man who organised the burglary than the two rapists, and said her suffering was “not so very great,” evidently on the performance of the strong-willed young woman giving evidence to the court.

Her Christian faith saw her through hard times including thoughts of suicide, but with characteristic kindness, she didn’t throw herself in front of train for fear of traumatising the driver. And ten years later, she met and forgave Robert Horscroft, the burglar that led the raid but didn’t rape her, when he was released from prison.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Saward, now 43, married with three children, recalled that forfeiting her anonymity was not so big a step to take: “I had little anonymity from the word go. Apart from the name ‘Jill’ – I have an identical twin – everything else they already knew,” she said.

“The policewoman supporting me said I should write a book, and she said it so often in the end I did. In some ways it was cathartic, but in other ways it meant I had to live through things all over again. But that other people were helped by it, I’m glad.”

Her work since then has included direct support to victims, training police officers and media work but it was, she said, the silence from David Davis on the subject of rape during his four years as shadow Home Secretary that made her want to stand.

With a tiny budget and few supporters to help Saward found the campaign trail lonely, with some voters accusing her of being a “Labour stooge.” But she found it worthwhile, with many commentators in the press adding their voices to hers, and voters openly supportive of her highlighting the issue as she did – whether or not they voted for her.

Saward said: “David Davis made no attempt to take me on, didn’t try and address the issues I was talking about. He blanked me. Since the election I’ve written to ask why the Tories couldn’t support the Rape Crisis Centre in Hull, which received no money from the Tory council whatsoever. They just haven’t addressed the issue. I wrote to David Cameron. No response.”

It is such inactivity from politicians that spurs Saward on, but her principle policy of expanding the police national DNA database into a compulsory record of every British citizens’ DNA has far-reaching consequences and few facts to support it.

In a report on the retention policy used by police in England, whose powers to take samples without consent and store them indefinitely are wider than in any other country, a Nuffield Council on Bioethics report stated: “There is very limited evidence indeed that the retention regime of England and Wales is effective in significantly improving detection rates.”

It found the stricter regulations in Scotland, where records are deleted if charges are dropped or the accused is acquitted, have not led to fewer matches between profiles on the database and DNA found at crime scenes – in fact higher in Scotland at 68 per cent than England and Wales with 52 per cent.

Furthermore, a DNA profile of everyone in the country would still not guarantee raising rape conviction rates, for the same reason that rape has historically been a difficult crime to prosecute: it is generally consent, rather than the identity of the attacker, that is the issue – violent stranger rapes as in Saward’s case represent only around 10 per cent of the 11,648 reported rapes last year, with the majority of attackers known to the victim.

Saward recognises this but says: “Even so, that’s 10 per cent of cases – potentially thousands of women – where it could help find an attacker,” she said. “And it’s not just rape, it’s murder and other crimes as well.”

It is a statistical truth that a small minority of the population commit the vast majority of crime. By including everybody on the database, law-abiding or not, the possibility of false matches and miscarriages of justice increases dramatically.

But Saward dismisses this, and other civil liberty objections, saying: “We have miscarriages of justice already. Why would you want to get rid of technologies that could help?”

She suggests other technologies targeted by Davis such as CCTV could be better used in rape investigations, especially where alcohol is involved or there are concerns drinks have been spiked.

“If a girl says, I had two glasses of wine and two glasses doesn’t usually affect me like this, then police have more to go on, not least if it can be seen on CCTV that the drinks have been spiked,” Saward adds.

“I think there’s a lot of spiking going on in pubs and clubs, but police don’t take blood tests from the girls to see if what’s in their bloodstream corresponds to what they’ve thought they’d drunk.”

Despite much recent public hand-wringing, government support for the victims of sexual abuse is sparse. There are only 38 centres of the locally-run Rape Crisis network in England, and only 20 of the new government-run Sexual Assault Referral Centres, each set up on a shoe-string budget. Funding comes from many different sources, each with different, usually onerous statistical or reporting requirements that pull staff away from the work of supporting victims.

“The picture is dismal and getting worse,” Saward said. “There are groups closing – eight Rape Crisis centres in the last five years – and funding is geared towards domestic violence rather than sexual violence.”

In truth, there are no easy answers. The nature of the crime makes the requirements of the police investigation difficult for the victim, with up to a quarter dropping out early on. But with more female officers and specialist training this is improving.

Saward says: “I think we have to look more to educating juries, and their attitudes towards sexual violence. Cases judged by judges alone might be better – but only if they understand the complexities and consequences of rape.”

She points out that jurors generally don’t realise that, for the case to have come to trial at all, the CPS must already have been convinced of the possibility of a conviction on the strength of the evidence.

And she has a point. It is worth noting an Amnesty International survey from 2005 that showed 25 per cent of Britons believed that how a woman dressed or her number of previous sexual partners made her partially or even totally responsible for being raped, and nearly a third blamed the woman if she was drunk, because it is this British public that as jurors convict or acquit rapists.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, August 2008]


Soulwax: still tearing up the musical landscape

Stephen & David Dewaele - Soulwax/2ManyDJs

Two brothers whose musical prowess fuels three different live shows return to Britain for a festival-fuelled summer as their two alter-egos, 2ManyDJs and Soulwax.

Stephen and David Dewaele hit the radar after being largely responsible for reinventing the remix when, as 2ManyDJs, they dismantled over 40 records and rebuilt them by mixing riffs and vocals from different tracks. Their triple-gold 2002 album As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2 neatly vaults across decades and genres, from Peaches to the Velvet Underground, from The Stooges to Salt ‘n’ Pepa, from Lil Louis’ house classic French Kiss to Belgian ravers the Lords of Acid.

These days such musical mashups appear every other week on bootlegged white labels, but the brothers spent two years embroiled in what must be the world’s most dedicated act of licence clearing. From 114 chosen recordings, 62 of the owners refused permission and 11 could not be traced. Even the cover artwork caused a legal wrangle after the owner complained of his photograph being mashed up along with the music on the record.

Speaking from his hometown of Ghent in Belgium, Stephen says: “I don’t think we could ever make a record like that again. It was pretty special, at a musical level and on a clearing level, it’s something no one had ever done before.

“Musically it was at the right time, a lot of dance music was still house music, very anal about itself in my opinion. We were just rock kids, going hey, this is fun, but we just don’t want to groove out for 12 minutes, we want to rock for one minute and then move on to something else.”

But even before their 2ManyDJs radio shows, albums and DJ sets, the brothers had been working hard at Soulwax, their bluesy sometimes almost psychedelic rock band whose sound has become gradually more infected with dirty electronic sounds and dancefloor beats, from their 1996 debut Leave the Story Untold, to 1999s breakthrough album Much Against Everyone’s Advice followed by Any Minute Now in 2005.

It’s a combination popular enough to have found favour with most indie rockers over the last decade, from Franz Ferdinand to Interpol.

How did a Belgium rock act end up spearheading an invasion of electronic dance rhythms into tight-trousered guitar music worldwide?

“Out of boredom, really,” he says. “When you’re in a band you play live but waste so much time before and after just hanging around. We’d support other bands and we’d be free so we’d ask the DJ, who most of the time would be playing house music, if we could play, and most of the time they’d be happy. We wanted to hear something different. We need the chaos.”

It is Soulwax’s standout remixes of the likes of Justice, Klaxons, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and The Gossip that has put them in such high demand.

Stephen says: “The electronic sound has always been in us, from the very first Soulwax record. We grew up on stoner rock, but even then we were interested in using electronics. We just never have imagined 2ManyDJs would have become so big, or that our remixes would become so big.”

In fact, their native Ghent hosts I Love Techno, a massive technofest every year in November for 35,000 ravers, and is the home to pioneering techno label R&S records, so their love of dark electronic noises and pulsing rhythms comes with a good pedigree.

“That Frank de Wulf [leading Euro techno DJ], he’s a friend of mine,” recalled Stephen. “I lent him all my Kraftwerk records when I was 15 when he had a radio show. I bumped into him the other day, and realised I keep forgetting my hometown is at the heart of techno.”

He adds: “For us, I really love DJing, playing music live, writing music and producing music for other people too. I’m very lucky that we’re able to do all these things with a fair amount of success,” he laughs, “because we never planned on it.”

And the chance to see the before and after effects of their treatment has not been missed – “We used to play the original Gossip track [Standing In The Way Of Control] before anyone else, we’d DJ and see everyone go nuts on it. We thought, this is a rock track with a dance feeling to it, but it just needs to get beefed up. We remixed it for no money and when you see the result it’s really gratifying.”

This month sees the release of Part of the Weekend Never Dies, a “film-slash-documentary” of the last three years touring around the world, part live show and part behind-the-scenes footage featuring some of the bands Soulwax gigged with: Erol Alkan, Tiga, Justice, Busy P, So-Me, Peaches, Kitsuné and Klaxons.

The full Radio Soulwax tour sees Stephen on guitar and vocals and David on keyboards play alongside Stefaan Van Leuven and Steve Slingeneyer as the Soulwax live band. They belt out not just own rock tracks but also their many successful remixes of other artists and the work they have done remixing themselves, Nite Versions.

Released in 2005, Nite Versions is a dancefloor-friendly re-imagining of their third album Any Minute Now with a hat-tip to the 12” mixes of the 1980s, which bands like Duran Duran called their “night versions.”

“It’s hard to remix your own music,” Stephen says, “it’s a bit of an exercise, but we managed it in two weeks after we just got our head round the fact that you can’t be too precious about it.”

How do you feel about other people taking the cutters’ knife to Soulwax records as you do to theirs?

“I’ve got no problem with people remixing our records, but nothing has made me stand up and go, wow. But, no problem, they can do whatever they want,” laughs Stephen.

“We’ve been bootlegged so much, there are whole record labels full of radio DJ sets that we’ve been doing. It’s so easy with modern technology, who am I to stop them?”

With talk in Britain of the government implementing a tax on internet users to cover illegal music downloads, it’s clear that the music industry is experiencing a seismic shift that Stephen acknowledges is pulling in different directions.

“I think the revenue for bands is shifting to live gigs, things are changing and we have to go with it not try and fight it. I mean, a lot of publishing contracts are not the best in the world, they’re based on old ideas and ideals. But I have no problem with people taking music, fucking it up and making something new—unless they get a number one with it!”

Soulwax play at Get Loaded in the Park on Clapham Common, Bank Holiday Sunday August 24. www.getloadedinthepark.com


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]


Holding out against “transformational government”

Transformational government - be afraid

Six official reviews in as many weeks have been heavily critical of government policies and procedures that led to millions of citizens’ personal details being exposed, published to the internet, or lost.

In response to dozens of incidents in which private information including health records and bank details went missing, the reports’ authors agree on an urgent need for a complete overhaul of how such data is collected, stored and shared in the public sector.

In November the largest ever information loss occurred when two CDs, containing the private details of 25 million mothers and children and seven million bank account details, were sent by post from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. They never arrived.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into the HMRC loss stated that the agency’s data protection was “woefully inadequate,” and that there was a “complete lack of any meaningful systems, a lack of understanding of the importance of data handling and a ‘muddle-through ethos.’”

A forensic analysis of the events by chairman of auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Kieron Poynter, described it as “entirely avoidable, and the fact that it could happen points to serious institutional deficiencies at HMRC.”

In the months after this blunder, barely a week went by without revelations of further losses: 571 laptops lost by the Ministry of Defence in a decade, including one holding current British troop positions; 20 years of payroll details lost by a Kent NHS trust; 20,000 patient details lost by a London Hospital; confidential police computers dumped at a council tip; millions of driver details lost by the DVLA.

A total of 30 losses from Whitehall alone were reported between November and June this year to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees and upholds privacy legislation.

Calls for change and criticism come from offices including the Home Affairs Committee, the Cabinet Office and the Independent Police Complaints Commission among them.

Justice Minster Michael Wills said last week that: “There is a clear need for radical change in government in how we handle data. We don’t handle data in the same way as we handle money, and I think we should.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see gigantic databases where anyone can go and search. I think the security implications of that are horrendous.”

A report from MPs on the Home Affairs Committee was specific in its demands that: “The Government should give an explicit undertaking to adhere to a principle of data minimisation and should resist a tendency to collect more personal information and establish larger databases.

“Any decision to create a major new database, to share information on databases, or to implement proposals for increased surveillance should be based on a proven need.”

While a Home Office spokesman said that a response to the Home Affairs Committee was due for release later this week, despite the criticism the government and civil service ‘Transformational Government’ project continues, with the express purpose of knowing and storing as much as possible about you.

The Transformational Government Vision Statement released in October states “there are enormous benefits to sharing information” and that the Data Protection Act “must not be used to justify unnecessary barriers to sharing information.”

“Codes of practice,” it continues, “will be to facilitate information sharing, not to add a burden to the data sharing process.”

A re-structured government would see personal details of citizens and businesses routinely shared between government departments. Key parts of this infrastructure are the large government databases that exist or are being prepared in the wings, such as the National Identity Scheme, a database of every citizen in the country, ContactPoint, a database of every child, and the National DNA Database.

James Hall, Head of the Identity and Passport Service which will operate the identity card scheme wrote last year that “increased inter-departmental co-operation will, by its nature, involve sharing more data about an individual between public sector organisations. The National Identity Scheme is being designed to meet that public expectation of improved services and joined-up government.”

Privacy campaigners hold that the government’s demonstrated failure to be able to keep hold of sensitive data is ample proof that Whitehall is incapable of safeguarding the details of our private lives. Such a ‘transformational government’ would be doomed to failure, they say.

As if to back this point, an independent review of the ContactPoint children’s database by auditors Deloitte in Touche in February reported that the system could never be made safe.

It said: “Risk can only be managed, not eliminated, and therefore there will always be a risk data security incidents occurring,” adding that this would arise mostly from the procedures of local authorities and agencies that accessed the database, and for whose child support services it has been created.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services suggested that “an abuser could be able to access ContactPoint for illegitimate purposes with limited fear of any repercussions.”

With the government’s admission that celebrities and politicians can have their children’s details removed, Terri Dowty, from Action on Rights for Children, Arch, said that this amounted to an admission that it was insecure.

“The Government acknowledges the risks by instituting these protocols on celebrity and vulnerable children,” she said. “But all children are potentially vulnerable.”

Phil Booth, national coordinator of the NO2ID campaign against the ‘database state’ explained: “What the bureaucrats don’t understand is that information security is not the same as data protection, in the sense recognised by our Data Protection Act, which in turn is not the same as privacy.

“The government and Whitehall are determined to see objections to their hoarding of our personal details as only a problem of information security—a technical problem at which they can throw computer hardware and software.

“But the desire for privacy is much deeper than that: it is an emotional, psychological response to the feeling of having your life laid open for others to see. It has nothing to do with efficient public services, and it has not been addressed by the government–in fact it’s been wilfully ignored.”

The most recent report, the government Data Sharing Review written by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and Dr Mark Walport, director of medical research charity the Wellcome Trust, was released last week.

It recommended that the government’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, should be given new powers of spot checks, more stringent penalties and better resources. It also suggested better access to anonymised personal records for medical research purposes.

But speaking only in general terms, it avoided any comment on the National Identity Scheme or ContactPoint, which together represent the largest repository of government-held personal information. Most extraordinarily, while the authors stated that data sharing is “intrinsically neither good nor bad” they suggested that ministers should have powers to remove “legislative barriers to data sharing,” where appropriate.

The Ministry of Justice said that it welcomed the recommendations in the report and had begun assessing what could be implemented, while a Home Office spokesman said that a response to the Home Affairs Committee was due for release later this week.

July saw David Davis MP re-elected in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election with an increased majority of 15,000 after standing on a civil liberties platform. But while Mr Davis is associated most with opposition to the government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill to incarcerate suspects for up to 42 days without charge, the more abstract—but very real—threat to liberty represented by a growing culture of data surveillance still lacks both a prominent poster boy and wider public understanding.

It is hard to quantify the harm that Whitehall’s lax approach to keeping our personal details safe is having.

Certainly some, like Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, thought the dangers were overblown and published his bank details in his column to prove it.

But after a £500 charity donation was made from his account, he changed his tune. The 25 million families affected by the HMRC scandal may not have had the opportunity to be so blasé.

But tales of misuse of information are all too common: last week, Humberside anti-corruption police investigated reports that officers had searched confidential police records to check out their daughters’ boyfriends. A further seven officers are under investigation after fears that they may be leaking information to known criminals.

In another case, Geoffrey Peck was captured on CCTV in 1995 when, while suffering from depression, he attempted to commit suicide in Brentwood High Street. When the council and newspapers passed published recognisable footage of incident, he argued in the court that his privacy had been breached. The European Court of Human Rights found in his favour in 2003.

And just this week, an investigation by the National Aids Trust found that children as young as four were being discriminated against at school after their HIV status was disclosed.

In one case, a girl who was not even aware of her condition discovered it from a teacher.

What will a ‘transformational’ government look like?

The architects of Transformational Government foresee a future civil service that uses modern technology to store and share records on every citizen, from name and address information to financial, tax, benefits and health records.

As the public sector delivers its services through separate departments, we find ourselves contacting several departments to notify them of the same changes. By enabling data-sharing across Whitehall, the policy’s designers say it will make our lives easier by informing all relevant departments of changes, help cut down on administrative wastage and the potential for fraud.

But while an efficient civil service is a noble aim, public services can be improved without the need to know more about the public, and the proven failure of the government and its contractors like Capita and EDS to deliver massive IT projects that actually work point to the enormous risks dangers of putting all the eggs in a single basket.

For example, the National Identity Register database at the core of the Identity Scheme will contain 50 categories of facts about us, from name and address, biometric fingerprints and photo, to passport, driving licence and NI numbers. It will also contain an ‘audit trail,’ recording each occasion an identity check is made against the register. As the Identity Cards Act requires this for access to public services such as local and central government departments or the NHS at least, this would leave a detailed record of our dealings.

Bringing such wide-ranging information and official identifiers together will prove a magnet for thieves and fraudsters, and with the register at the heart of an information-centric administration that touches millions of public sector workers in central and local government, the NHS and police, the likelihood of loss, misuse, or mishap is huge.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, July 2008]