Black and dangerous?

Patient experiences of mental health in London

This piece was commissioned and first published by openDemocracy’s Shine A Light project: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/rebecca-omoniraoyekanmi/black-and-dangerous-listening-to-patients%E2%80%99-experiences-of-mental-

It was also published by the Socialist Lawyer, Lacuna magazine, Counterfire magazine and the Justice Gap. The Illustration by Patrick Koduah, whose prizewinning work includes projects exhibited in the Embassy of Japan, commissioned portraiture of Prince Michael of Kent and music video animation for a recent Rolling Stone Magazine Band of the Year.

 


The boy with pale brown skin and black Afro is tall and has the face of young child. He’s wearing a baggy grey tracksuit and trainers. He turns away from the nurse, turns away from the other patients, his head raised, his face struck with irritation.

“He’s new,” Lawrence tells me. “He doesn’t want to take his meds.”

Lawrence, a young black man in his early twenties, calls over to the boy: “Calm down, man. Otherwise you’ll go to Bevan.”

Bevan. That’s a more secure ward, with fewer privileges, says Neil, who visits the psychiatric ward for the People’s Network, a local community group. 

Lawrence nods and turns back to his laptop.

Neil, a shy, six-foot tall black man with a heavy limp, who spent 17 years fighting a drug addiction, reckons his drug habit grew out of his inability since childhood to accept his physical disability. Memories of being isolated and shunned haunt him and help him better understand the men he works with.

The boy kicks over a bright, yellow wet-floor sign and a loud alarm sounds. Nurses crowd him.

Lawrence goes back to his search on Amazon for books on the fall of Lucifer. He tells me about his weekly 20-minute consultation with a doctor. “Are you seeing anything? Are you hearing voices?” he says, mimicking the consultant. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Lawrence was sectioned after falling out with his gran. (Being ‘sectioned’ means being detained against your will under Section 2 or 3 of the Mental Health Act). 

It’s Lawrence’s third time on the ward. Neil says a lot of the men have nowhere to go and struggle to get housing when they are released. They might get in trouble with the police. Once, they’d have been brought back to the ward. These days, because of bed shortages and poor aftercare, most hang about on the streets or in hostels after release. They often end up at the People’s Network office, a few miles from the hospital; they run a soup kitchen one day a week.

The ward’s lounge area is bright with large windows. The view is a green courtyard and the hospital’s redbrick buildings, no sky. A TV encased in a plastic box hangs on the wall. A limp, white man wearing a yellow bandana and baseball cap watches, eyes glazed. Tom, 28, doesn’t mind it here, it’s quite relaxed with a nice atmosphere, though sometimes there is “conflict”. He shifts slowly on the sofa; turning his head looks like a huge effort. Tom, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was sectioned after getting into a fight with the police. “I haven’t worked for seven years,” he says, “before that I worked in construction, coffee shops.”

John, another man with a paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis, has spent much of his life in and out of mental health hospitals. A cheerful, chatty 45-year-old, he puts his current stay down to a scuffle with the police. “I get upset when I’m angry. To be black and upset is a cardinal sin.”

He says a fight with a police officer prompted his first sectioning 15 years ago. In court, he had a choice between prison and hospital. “They told me I wouldn’t have to take drugs, it would be better than prison, but it screwed up my life. Eight years of studying down the tube. At least if I had gone to prison I would still study.” He had been working his way up to an interior design degree, he says, starting with a foundation course at the London College of Furniture.

“I grew up with a superwoman, she used to go to work at nighttime,” he says, rubbing his swollen ankles.

John’s mother emigrated to London from St Lucia in the 1960s and married his father, who worked for the post office. They had six children. “A middle class black family,” he says. John has four children including a 29-year-old son lately diagnosed with schizophrenia. “The police wanted to charge him with class A drugs. But the police said scrap that let’s just section him.” His son now lives at a halfway hostel.

Neil says there is an over-representation of black people on wards like this. “They can’t live their lives as free people, they are always been dragged back to the ward. The resentment builds up.”

The People’s Network spends a lot of time on the psychiatric ward, supporting patients and working with their local NHS Trust to improve mental health care. But often the ward seems a place where patients are controlled and medication is used as a punishment, not treatment.

What happens outside the ward also creates problems. People queue outside everyday asking for help. They say it’s going to get much worse.

The easiest cut

The stigma around mental illness makes it easy to cut. Easier still, since so many of the cuts’ immediate victims are poor blacks and other people pushed to the margins. Mental Health Trusts must cut 20 per cent more than other hospitals from their budgets, which, combined with changes to the benefit system, has intensified the pressure on vulnerable people.

Staff and charities say people are surviving for months without any financial support because of the lengthy assessment process for receiving Employment Support Allowance, and the changes to their personal budgets.

There was a time when, if the state failed in this way, people in poor areas suffering with a mental illness could turn to Day Centres for support. Such places matter more than ever these days, because other services have been damaged by cuts — it can take months to get NHS counselling and the quality varies. But Day Centres themselves, funded by local authorities and Mental Health Trusts, are also suffering from cuts and struggling to cover the cost of a range of care for people.

Where once a person might travel to a single Day Centre and access various kinds of support, now they have to make multiple journeys to various places for help such as counseling, group therapy sessions, walking groups, art and music lessons, employment and computer skills classes, a hot meal.

Some centres even offered beds and a place to stay for a week or more if someone experienced a crisis and couldn’t get help elsewhere. But several of these places have closed completely, and those left have limited beds and limited time to offer people.

The colour of mental health

It is likely that the disproportionate victims of these cuts will be black mental health patients, that is those defined as BAME (Black Asian or Minority Ethnic).

Marcel Vige has worked in the mental health sector, teaching, lobbying and campaigning for more than a decade. Now head of equalities at MIND, he runs programmes with local mental health support groups across the country. “Services that are focused specifically on meeting the need of marginalized groups,” he says. “Those are the ones that are often community based and they are the ones that are the first to feel the impact of any reduction in services delivered within local communities.”

Last year 50,408 people were sectioned – the highest number ever recorded, according to Care Quality Commission research, which also found that more black people than average are detained under the Mental Health Act and they are more likely to have been sent there by a judge or police officer, rather than their GP.

Statistics from a one-day census published in 2011 show that black people are more likely to be physically restrained on a psychiatric ward, given higher doses of medication, and less likely to be referred to counselling.

Paul Burstow, a Liberal Democrat MP, touched upon the issue in a parliamentary debate last May. “It is concerning that services are being withdrawn where they involve providing peer support or reaching into harder-to-reach communities, particularly black and minority ethnic communities, which often get left behind and often are most prone to being subject to the most coercive parts of our mental health system.”

For decades these inequalities have been softened by community groups like the Peoples Network and people like Neil, who understood the needs of black patients in ways the state failed to. Over time the government recognized this too, and from the mid-90s there was some acknowledgement of mental health inequalities, some desire to do better. Funding followed. That’s gone.

A sound mind

“I call myself the wounded healer,” says Devon, a tall thin musician with cropped hair peppered with grey. He’s 54 years old. Behind his wire-framed glasses his expression is solemn as he describes the work of Sound Minds, the mental health charity and social enterprise he helped set up 20 years ago.

People suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, any sort of mental illness, they can leave that outside and relax here, says Devon. “We have people in and out doing all sorts of things, making music, on the computers and stuff.”

Devon’s openness and enthusiasm attracts people often marginalized because of their mental illness. Over the years he has helped people set up two reggae groups and a rock band. “One fine day, come what may, you have got to rise up singing, no more tears,” goes one his own gentle, lulling reggae songs.

Devon lived with his grandmother in Jamaica till he was seven, and then was sent to live with his parents in London. When his grandmother died in Jamaica a few years later, his grief overwhelmed him. Later, in his early twenties, Rastafarianism’s music and spirituality gave Devon a sense of identity and security, and he found some relief from his grief.

This was short-lived. One day sometime in 1982 Devon went to visit his mum. Unbeknown to Devon, his mother had called a doctor in anticipation of his visit. She was worried about him and disapproved of his ‘lifestyle’, the Rastafarianism and that he was squatting in Battersea as part of the rent revolt movement.

When he arrived at her house, the doctor was waiting and examined him, then another doctor turned up with the police in tow. “I don’t know why the police came, I hadn’t done anything wrong.” He talks as though it happened just yesterday and not 32 years ago. “They said, come on we’re taking you to the hospital. But there was nothing wrong with me.”

Devon stayed sectioned for six months, tranquilised every few days, physically restrained by police officers on the ward, subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and diagnosed as schizophrenic. “There was nothing wrong with me before that,” he says. 

Two years after he was first sectioned, he had a ‘relapse’, was sectioned again and heavily medicated. “In the mental health system I lost my identity,” he says. “I didn’t feel like a black guy anymore. I felt like a white guy. I lost my cultural identity through the system.”

That echoes Lord Avebury, speaking in the House of Commons in 1982, the year Devon was first sectioned: “…It is said by the West Indian community that psychiatrists in the prisons, and indeed in the hospital service as a whole, are not properly trained in recognising the different cultures of ethnic minorities, and that as a result people may be wrongly diagnosed as suffering from mental illness when they talk, for instance, as the Rastafarians frequently do about God.”

Image by Patrick Koudah

Not long before then, a young black Rastafarian called Richard Campbell was convicted of attempted burglary. In prison he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and medicated. He refused to eat. An officer found Richard dead in his cell on 31 March 1980. He was 19 years old. The official cause of death was dehydration and the inquest jury returned a verdict of self-neglect, expressing “concern at the lack of specialist care facilities” in prison. The anger around Richard’s death — it took some time to establish what happened to him while in custody — was a trigger for the Brixton riots.

Some members of the psychiatric profession began to question the disproportionate occurrence of African Caribbean men compulsorily sectioned, detained on wards for long periods, diagnosed with psychosis and heavily medicated. Theories linking the experience of illnesses like psychosis to genetics abounded but have since been dismissed; studies based in the West Indies show that black people there do not suffer in such high numbers. This epidemic was something unique to the black population in the UK.

Among other fatalities: Michael Martin in 1984, Joseph Watts in 1988 andOrville Blackwood in 1991. These three black men had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. They died in custody after being restrained and injected with powerful anti-psychotic drugs. The inquiry report, into Orville Blackwood’s death (subtitled Big, Black and Dangerous?) officially recognises of what ordinary people had known for some time. It said:

“Over the last twenty years, studies have indicated that, if they come to the attention of the psychiatric services, black people are more likely to be removed by the police to a place of safety under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983; they are more likely to be detained in hospital under sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Mental Health Act 1983; they are more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia or another form of psychotic illness; they are more likely to be detained in the locked wards in psychiatric hospitals; they are more likely to receive higher doses of medication; they are less likely to receive non controlling treatments such as psychotherapy or counselling. In addition black mentally disordered offenders are more likely than their white counterparts to be remanded in custody for psychiatric reports; they are more likely to be in higher levels of security and for longer, and they are more likely to be referred from prison to regional secure units or special hospitals.”  

That was 1993.

People began to listen to (though not endorse) the work of black mental health professionals like Suman Fenando, who questioned the Eurocentric outlook of western psychiatry and its impact on migrant populations and people of Asian and African descent living or born in Britain. The Royal College of Psychiatrists began discussing ‘cultural problems’ and the Mental Health Act Commission produced several reports on race and culture.

Patterns emerged. The black experience of the mental health sector mirrored what was happening elsewhere in society: secondary school expulsion figures, unemployment, poor housing, poverty and racism. West Indian migrants had experienced relentless and deliberate social discrimination in the decades after their mass arrival in Britain following World War Two. Their children inherited severely limited access to decent housing, education and work, and were constantly stopped and searched by the police. British society, in the form of its institutions more than its individual citizens, had decided the blacks were dangerous and must be controlled.

Sidney did not arrive on the Windrush in 1948, he came from Zimbabwe in 1995. It took two years for his world to collapse.

Sidney worked for five years as a journalist in Zimbabwe. When his newspaper was shut down, he left the country to look for a more stable place to pursue his career and build a life for his family. Sidney wears a crisp ironed shirt and metal-rimmed glasses, has a clear professorial voice, with the occasional clipped tones of a Zimbabwean.

He looks down at his frothy coffee with a half smile and tells me about his hopes and ambitions on coming to Britain 15 years ago. The plan was to work, study and set up a home for his wife and children.

The reality was a £2 an hour job as a security guard six days a week. Sidney’s immigration status meant he had to pay his own way in further education. He enrolled on an access course (9am to 5pm) and kept the security job (7pm to 7am). Something had to give. In March 1997 he was sectioned.

Over a five-year period Sidney was sectioned 10 times and eventually diagnosed with psychosis. Sometimes a furious anger would erupt, once on the streets after being stopped by a police officer. Other times he was listless.

The tendency then of the mental health sector to treat him as a member of a homogenous group, a black man whose anger must be contained, frustrated Sidney. Only when he met a consultant who questioned his diagnosis and talked to him did Sidney begin to learn how to manage his illness. The consultant told him he was suffering from bipolar disorder and listened as he told her about his family, his ambitions and his disappointments. That was nine years ago and he hasn’t been sectioned since.

SIMBA is coming

Every person with a mental illness is an individual with singular circumstances, but as group there are common experiences that unite, says Sidney. Frustration with the mental health sector united black people of all backgrounds. By the time the Orville Blackwood report in 1993 set out what they already knew, black families and carers were forming befriending groups. Community-based groups operated from psychiatric wards, old community centres, libraries, parks, trips to the seaside, wherever they could find a space to talk. As well as Sound Minds, Devon set up Canerows and Plaits, a user-led ward-visiting group. These black-led organisations were part of a general ‘user-led’ revolution, by patients of all backgrounds, within the mental health service throughout the eighties and nineties.

Raj came to the movement after 20 years spent in and out of hospital. “I have had so many different diagnoses. I would go into crisis, not really knowing what was wrong, but just feeling like I didn’t fit, either in my family or the world around me,” she says.

Raj’s father came to England from India in 1947, and her mother and siblings followed soon after. She was born in London. In between long months in hospital, she tried to “carry on a life”. She worked in a science lab.

After many years of revolving door admissions, and during a period of relative stability, Raj attended a conference about mental health. She met people who expressed concerns about psychiatry, human rights and the disempowering ways in which they were being treated within mental health services. They chimed with her experience.

Raj tentatively started to question her own treatment: “As far as they were concerned I was always better because my behaviour was better. But as far as I was concerned I was still quite confused and felt very out of it at times.” The idea of challenging the system frightened and worried her: hadn’t these people saved her life? image by Patrick Kouduah

Raj attended a few black mental health events in Brixton, south London in the 1990s. “There was a lot of stuff going on in the voluntary sector in those days. There was lots of activism around race and mental health and the over-representation of young Black men in psychiatric hospitals.  One of these was Orville Blackwood, a young Black man who had died in Broadmoor as a result of being restrained. His mum was amazing. She was going around with this picture of her son and she was so passionate. I’d never been really political before, but now I began to see things through a different lens. It was a process for me because I was half a scaredy cat,” says Raj. She also worried about putting herself “out there”.

Raj joined a mixed user-led group based primarily at a psychiatric hospital in London which, though feisty and active, never discussed race. “It was us not mentioning it, not the white people being racist, it was us censoring ourselves. We had too much to lose.” The black members of the group didn’t want to “make waves” by bringing up race. But as confidence grew, some of the black people in the group set up a separate black group. They made waves.

“Lots of people were against us,” says Raj. They were accused of being racist. “People were suspicious. Some black people were saying it as well, ‘why do you want to separate yourselves?’”

The new group was called SIMBA, Share in Maudsley Black Action. They announced it by sticking up posters saying SIMBA is coming. Raj grins. “Nobody knew what it meant. Everybody was getting a bit freaked out.” SIMBA occupied a small room on the ground floor of the main building at the centre of the sprawling hospital. Raj laughs again, remembering the noise they made. “If anybody had come in under normal circumstances they would have probably have sectioned us all.”

Most of SIMBA’s members were African Caribbean men, and there were a few women. “I wrote a poem once about the rich diversity within that black group. Yet there was this commonality too. Partly because we had been through the system, but partly as well because we had all experienced racism.” Mental health rarely came up in their long, intense discussions. Instead they talked a “hell of a lot about race”, racism, identity, spirituality and their childhoods.

In and out of wards since her teenage years, Raj picked up on some of the inequalities within mental health care. But she wanted to take her thinking a step further, and had been working on a theory for some time about the revolving door within mental health for black communities. You start out in an overtly racist society, she says, which means you are more likely to live in poverty or be unemployed or suffer violence, factors that can influence poor mental health. Then you enter the mental health service, which is infused with the same implicit assumptions and prejudices of wider society, which drives you further into illness. “If you do manage to get out of mental health services, you get out, go back into society, but now you go back into society and not only are you black but you have also got psychiatric diagnoses.” And it is not just race, she adds, this idea applies to all forms of disadvantage; class, gender, disability . . . and so on.

Things were gonna get better 

A network of black-led user groups developed, spreading from London to cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Black people within psychiatry, practice and academia, were rising to senior positions, and working within charities such as MIND. After Labour’s 1997 Election victory, hopes were high, black voices were not so much outsider voices, there was a new willingness to listen.

The Macpherson Report in 1999 into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence signified an official commitment to ending a crude, brutal institutional racism that had dogged Britain’s black population for decades.

The MacPherson Report defines institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”.

An amendment to the Race Relations Act in 2000 charged all public authorities with a statutory duty to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination.

Soon afterwards, a group of psychiatrists, campaigners and patients contributed to Inside Outside, a report published by the Department of Health in 2003. The report, authored by Professor Sashidharan, then medical director of North Birmingham Mental Health Trust, set out a framework for race equality within the mental health service.

The Inside in the title referred to the need for change within the mental health sector and offered measurable ways to effect that change. Outside was about engaging community groups, removing the stigma around mental health within black communities and empowering patients.

The professor consulted widely, seeking out the views of patients, community groups and campaigners from Britain’s largest minority communities: Black and African-Caribbean, South Asian, Chinese and Irish.

Those involved believed Inside Outside was commissioned to form part of national policy on reforming mental health servicesThis never happened. Instead, Professor Sashidharan was replaced, and a new team brought in to write another report, which some described as a watered down version of Inside Outside.

One patient and mental health specialist who contributed to Inside Outside told me that the whole process felt “incredibly political”, and left everyone involved feeling pushed aside and frustrated.  Another contributor told me that perhaps it was because the changes proposed would be too difficult to make. Both asked not to be named. 

Around this time, an inquiry took place into the death of a healthy 38-year-old David ‘Rocky’ Bennett, an African Caribbean man diagnosed as schizophrenic. David Bennett died after being physically restrained —a team of nurses sat and lay across his body and held his head face down for 25 minutes — at a psychiatric hospital in Norwich. The final inquiry report called for “ministerial acknowledgment of the presence of institutional racism in the mental health services and a commitment to eliminate it”.

Two years later, in 2005, the Department for Health published its response to the David Bennett inquiry and a plan to revamp the mental health services in light of the two Inside Outside reports. This was Delivering Race Equality, a five-year action plan to improve the care given to minorities with mental health needs.

Project 3_c

For many it did not go far enough. Marcel Vige, now head of equality at MIND, says: “The Inside bit had been stripped out and the Outside bit expanded. The main delivery component of Delivering Race Equality was around these 500 community development workers. We had put in place key performance indicators, all that kind of stuff, all of that was dropped.”

People welcomed the community focus, but they were disappointed that there wasn’t equal emphasis on the role of the Mental Health Trusts and other state bodies, who urgently needed to change the way they responded to black and other minorities.

Raj, who was also involved in the consultation for Inside Outside, says aboutDelivering Race Equality: “It was set up in such a bad way that it was never going to change the world. They kept changing things at a senior level and there wasn’t much consistency. They said, ‘We’re going to employ 500 community development workers, but we won’t give them any power. They are going to go to your black communities who are very difficult to engage with.’”

However watered down the programme was, it was a rare opportunity, and so Raj, like others in the black community, threw themselves into making the best of it.

Over decades one common flaw in reports and investigations into the treatment of black people by the mental health sector was the lack of hard data.

The Delivering Race Equality programme promised an annual Count Me Incensus to record the number of inpatients across England and Wales on March 31st each year, noting the ethnicity of people detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 and the reasons they had got there.

The first census confirmed what black communities knew. Most minority groups — including white Irish people — experienced higher than average rates of detention compared to the white British population, the rates of compulsory detention among people of African descent outstripped all other groups. Black people were three times more likely to be referred to hospital and 44 per cent more likely to be detained when they got there. Referrals were more likely to come from the courts or the police for black men and this group was more likely to be kept in seclusion or physically restrained.

Many in the psychiatry profession felt that the conversation around Delivering Race Equality unfairly accused them of racism. Such unease inhibited progress.

Ian, who has worked for a range of NHS and charitable mental health bodies since the mid-nineties, says it took him two years to convince the NHS Trust he worked for to let him implement race equality and culture awareness training.

“They weren’t getting it right at all,” he says. Most of the patients on the ward were black. The only black members of staff were cleaners or nurses. The entire board, the people with power who were responsible for commissioning, was white. “How could they know what was going on in the communities they were trying to serve?”

In November 2006 the architect and national director of Delivering Race Equality, Kamlesh Patel, resigned from his role. He told Community Care that race equality and mental health tended to drop off the agenda when “the money runs out”. Delivering Race Equality needed more robust central leadership with a “strong message” sent out to health chiefs that there would be “repercussions” if it were not delivered.

In 2007, in an article in The Psychiatric Bulletin co-authored with Chris Heginbotham (PDF here) Patel wrote:

No one has yet provided an adequate explanation for the very high rates of admission and detention for some of these groups – notably for Black African, Black Caribbean and Black Other (Black British) people.

Practitioners who complained that psychiatry and psychiatrists were being accused of racism, “misunderstand the concept of institutional racism and dismiss the legitimate concerns of the Black community.”

Patel and Heginbotham wrote: “Either there is an epidemic of mental illness among certain Black groups or there are seriously worrying practices that are leading to disproportionate levels of admission. Wherever the answer lies on the spectrum between the two extremes it is essential that we find out as a matter of urgency.”

Among the multiple reasons for the high rates of admission and detention of some Black and minority ethnic groups, they said: “institutional racism in mental health and in wider public services is a contributory factor.”

In 2010 the Delivering Race Equality programme ended. The government’s target of 500 development workers was never reached; some of those who were employed felt abandoned and powerless once the programme ended. The money for the programme had not been ring-fenced; stretched healthcare Trusts may have spent it elsewhere. The Count Me In census stopped. The last set of statistics published in 2011 suggested that things were getting worse, particularly for young men with mixed ethnicity.

Big, black and dangerous?

There are few mentions of race in the current government’s Mental health strategy documents. Instead it has been submerged under the general heading ‘equalities’. Within the black community, there are wide variations of experience and concern including high rates of self-harm among Asian women and high occurrences of African Caribbean men sectioned by the police. Lumping all such variances together under the general heading ‘equalities’ increases the risk of mental health providers ignoring them. It is much cheaper to focus on meeting a general equalities duty, than commission work to investigate and improve services for specific groups. People are marginalised in different ways and each group, whether gender, class or race, needs tailored support.

At a London psychiatric hospital ward a member of staff says most of the people brought in by the police are black. On another London ward 12 out of 15 patients are black and diagnosed with schizophrenia, despite a marked difference in their behaviour. Sean Rigg was a physically healthy 40-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia who died of a heart attack in Brixton police station after being restrained by officers in 2008. In 2010, Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old man, died after being physically restrained three times over the course of 45 minutes at a psychiatric hospital in London. The stereotype big, black and dangerous persists.

“Black people are considered more dangerous and there is more fear about them,” says Matilda MacAttram, a human rights campaigner who managed to convince politicians to debate black deaths in custody last December.

Matilda set up Black Mental Health UK, a human rights campaign group in 2007 because after 30 years of discussion she wanted action.

A tall, elegant woman, Matilda speaks softly but firmly: “This is not a BME issue. This is an issue that disproportionately only affects one group. Three generations from one community have been lost in this system. Detention rates have fallen over the last five years from 2005 to 2010 nationally. But for one group they have doubled – it is not a BME issue.

“It doesn’t matter what you call it when you can see consistent inequalities of this nature. Not only that, the sort of outcomes that make the Sean Rigg experience almost the norm. I don’t know what other adjectives you could use. Any system that can take the life of a physically healthy person with impunity and then there is no accountability, what do you call that?”

Matilda MacAttram lobbies policymakers, collects data on lives lost in state custody, helps black families pursue justice. Her vision for change? “Compassion, decency, justice.”

Project 3_d4

The wounded healer

“Ethnic minority populations continue to have the worst experiences of mental health,” the Care Quality Commission reported in June 2014.

The community groups – made up of churches, family, friends, activists – that have always sprung up to meet needs not filled by the state, carry on, but they have more battles to fight than in the early days of New Labour.

Organisations that once battled Trusts for better care for ethnic minorities, have suffered funding cuts. Some have gone under.

Many of the individuals who campaign have mental illnesses themselves. They strive to manage employment around their health, claiming benefits when they need to. Welfare ‘reform’ has brought them fresh adversity and new battles to fight.

Raj has decided to take a step back. “I think I have just got burnt out really,” she says. Sometimes it is just too depressing to go back to the wards and see nothing has changed after so long.

Once Sidney got care and treatment that helped him, he turned to help others. He works with refugees and African Caribbean men. He started peer support groups to battle stigma within black communities. He helps former patients get basic housing and finance advice, trains school teachers, police officers, local university staff on how to deal with mental ill people.

Funding for one peer group he set up ended when the Delivering Race Equalitystopped. Spending money on such groups, is no longer a priority for NHS Trusts cutting budgets and restructuring services.

Devon uses his experience to help other people. He visits patients on the ward that once held him prisoner. Sound Minds is one of the few self-help mental health groups left in south London. Many have closed or are winding down for lack of funding.

Over decades Devon has developed ways to manage his ‘condition’ and takes anti-psychotic pills every day.

Devon sits with his hands interlaced and gazes steadily ahead, serious, but occasionally that surprising smile. There is no trace of bitterness or anger; instead his reflections about the faults of a system that may have misdiagnosed him and certainly disempowered him are mixed up with pride and positivity about how he has used this experience. To form several reggae bands, to set up two mental health charities, to visit the psychiatric ward of his local hospital offering advocacy, kindness and support.

The wounded healer. He no longer looks like a Rastafarian, but, “I kept the music”, he says, “Thank god for that.”


Bibliography:

REPORTS:

Bayliss, Elizabeth
Hear I Am A Social Action for Health report on life on a mental health ward in East London. (May 2010)

Care Quality Commission:

Monitoring the Mental Health Act in 2012/13 (January 2014)

A Criminal Use of Police Cells? The use of police custody as a place of safety for people with mental health needs (2013)

Count Me In’ census reports: 20062007200820092010 

Department for Health:
Delivering Race Equality: A Framework for Action(October 2003)

Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care: an action plan for reform inside and outside services & the government’s response to the independent inquiry into the death of David Bennett (January 2005)

Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care: a review (December 2009)

No Health Without Mental Health(February 2011)

Post-legislative Scrutiny of the Mental Health Act 2007(October 2013)

Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody Third statistical report by the Independent Advisory Panel (IAP) into deaths in custody and covers the period between 2000 and 2012 (May 2014)

Mind:
Mental health crisis care: physical restraint in crisis (June 2013)

The End of Delivering Race Equality? Perspectives of frontline workers and service-users from racialised groups (2010)

Nacro Black communities, mental health and the criminal justice system(2007)

National Audit Office Helping people through mental health crisis: The role of crisis resolution and home treatment services (7 December 2007)

National Institute for Mental Health in England Inside Outside: Improving Mental Health Services for Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in England (March 2003)

National Mental Health Development Unit BME groups and mental health
Evidence for Centre for Social Justice Mental Health review (18 October 2010) 

Race Equality Foundation The importance of promoting mental health in children and young people from black and minority ethnic communities (April 2014)

The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health:
The costs of race inequality (October 2006)

Breaking the Circles of Fear (July 2002)

JOURNAL ARTICLES:

AESOP study group First episode psychosis and ethnicity Published in World Psychiatry (February 2006)

Community Care magazine:
Count me in survey shows DRE failing (February 2010)
http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2010/02/19/count-me-in-racial-inequalities-in-mental-health-services/#.U71i2KiuBHI

Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health struggles to recruit workers
(November 2007)
http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/11/08/delivering-race-equality-in-mental-health-struggles-to-recruit-workers/#.U71kW6iuBHI

Mental health: ethnic minority groups still over-represented (January 2010)
http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2010/01/20/mental-health-ethnic-minority-groups-still-over-represented/#.U715rqiuBHI 

Ethnic minorities still over-represented in mental healthcare (April 2011)
http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2011/04/05/ethnic-minorities-still-over-represented-in-mental-healthcare/

Crichton, John. H. M.
Comments on the Blackwood Inquiry Published in Psychiatric Bulletin(1994)

Forensic Psychiatry Research Unit, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital
Raised incidence rates of all psychoses among migrant groups: findings from the East London first episode psychosis study
Published in General Psychiatry (November 2008) 

McKenzie, Kwame
Institutional racism in mental health care
Published in the British Medical Journal (29 March 2007)

Patel, Kamlesh & Chris Heginbotham
Institutional racism in psychiatry
Published in the Psychiatric Bulletin (2007) 

Hansard:
Abbott, Dianne 
On the end of DRE and quality of services for BME people2July 2014
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm140702/text/140702w0002.htm

Black Mental Health UK
Written evidence submitted to the Home Affairs select committee inquiry into the IPCC

Burstow, Paul On inequality and mental health services 16 May 2013
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2013-05-16a.814.2

Clark, Helen On David Bennett’s death in custody 9 November 2001
http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/2001/nov/09/mental-health-racism

Cox, Thomas On the death of Richard Campbell
http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1980/aug/08/richard-campbell-death-in-custody

Lord Avebury on Rastafarians and mental health
http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1982/jan/19/mental-health-amendment-bill-hl-1#S5LV0426P0_19820119_HOL_484

Lord Hunt On mental health spending27 January 2014
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldhansrd/text/140127-0001.htm

BOOKS:

Burke, David
Crisis in the Community: The African Caribbean Experience of Mental Health(2008)

Fernando, Suman & Frank Keating (Eds)
Mental Health in a Multi-Ethnic Society (August 2008)

Ryan, Mick. Lobbying from Below (1995)

MISCELLANEOUS:

Sean Duggan Chief executive, Centre for Mental Health, Jenny Edwards CEO, Mental Health Foundation, Stephen Dalton Chief executive, Mental Health Network, Paul Farmer CEO, Mind, Mark Winstanley CEO, Rethink Mental Illness, Professor Sue Bailey President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.Letter to the Guardian Risks of deep cuts in mental health funds (12 March 2014)

Schizophrenia Inquiryhttp://www.schizophreniainquiry.org/news/black-and-mad 

Professor Roger Walker, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for Wales. Letter on the effects of some schizophrenia drugs
http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sites3/documents/428/RW%20-%20CPhO%20Letter%20clozapine.pdf

Rats in the lunchbox, mould in the mattress: living in squalor in London

Stories of private and social tenants in London

This piece was funded jointly by OurKingdom’s Shine a Light project and The Fox Report (the Friend’s investigative arm, funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust). It was published by Open Democracy, Quaker magazine – the Friend, Lacuna magazine, the Socialist Lawyer magazine, the Justice Gap and Counterfire Magazine.
 
This is my third collaboration with talented illustrator Patrick Koudah. Our first, The Lone Parent Trap, was published in August 2013, and most recent Black and Dangerous? was published in September 2013.
 
 

 

Mahder Redie has not slept since finishing an 8-hour cleaning shift at 7am. It is noon on Thursday 3rd April. Since 8am he has been waiting for the repairman, sent by his landlord.

Mahder, 35, prepares lunch for his pregnant wife and daughter in the closet-sized kitchen. His wife Hiriti tries to relax on the sofa. One-year-old Merken wants to play, squealing happily.

Hiriti is subdued. ‘I want a fresh start,’ she says. Speaking a mixture of Bilen, her native Eritrean tongue, and English, Hiriti says the thought of raising another child in the mouldy flat is depressing. Above the dining table is a framed photograph of 30-year-old Hiriti wearing traditional Eritrean clothes; her dark hair pulled into thick braids that fan out into luxuriant mahogany cloud; her face is decorated and her expression carefree.

The Redie’s one-bedroom flat is infected with mould; they can’t afford to move. Spooning sweet white rice and salad into a bowl for Merken, Mahder says that since the start of the year his housing association landlord has sent seven inspectors to the flat and, each time, ‘They do nothing.’

Illustration by Patrick Koudah
Illustration by Patrick Koudah

 

Mahder Redie earns £8.61 an hour as a cleaner at the Westfield shopping centre in East London, across the road from the multimillion-pound Olympic Park. Like many low paid workers, his job is temporary and barely covers living costs in a city where the average monthly rent is £1,233.

The family is desperate to move, but for those on low incomes there is little choice. The provision of council homes and social housing continues to fall. Nine London councils recently lost a legal challenge to Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan to increase the upper limit of rents deemed ‘affordable’ in the capital.

These circumstances have deepened an inequality of arms between London’s poorest renters and their landlords. Pamela Fitzpatrick sees the consequences every day.

After nearly 30 years spent working in social welfare, for organisations such as Child Poverty Action Group and the Citizens Advice Bureau, Pamela set up the Harrow Law Centre four years ago. ‘I have never seen the level of poverty that we are seeing today,’ she says. The centre takes calls from all over London. The biggest problem is housing.

‘Evictions are a real problem, even with housing associations,’ says Pamela. ‘We have had a case where somebody got into arrears with their rent [and was] unlawfully evicted. Her 10-year-old son came home and found they had changed the locks with no notice.’

The ease with which landlords can evict tenants makes it difficult to challenge the poor state of some housing. Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated tenancies back in 1989. In parliament at the time, deregulation’s champions claimed this would encourage private sector landlords to invest and better maintain homes.

‘That has not happened,’ Pamela says. ‘All we really have are people who are in very poor accommodation paying really high levels of rent and living in squalor. One five-year-old child brought in her lunchbox to show me that rats had eaten it. We are talking about pretty grim situations.’

 


 

Mahder Redie’s problems began in 2008, a few months after he moved into the one-bedroom flat in Brixton, South London. He scrubbed the dark smudges on the bedroom walls, but they always came back: furry, blackish green blotches, spreading upwards and outwards from the wall’s corners.

Each year the mould got worse, seeping into the bedframe, the wardrobe, onto the frame of his daughter’s cot. Merken has been rushed to hospital three times after struggling to breathe while asleep.

‘Every year since 2008 I took a picture of the room,’ Mahder says. The landlord ‘just sent people to come and check it, but they did nothing.’

Mahder’s landlord is Metropolitan, a national housing association providing homes to social tenants across England.

Hiriti became ill while pregnant with Merken back in 2012. A desperate Mahder went to Metropolitan to complain, saying he was sure the damp was affecting her health. Hiriti developed asthma, coughed up blood. After Merken’s birth in January last year, Metropolitan sent a handyman to repaint the bedroom walls, and install a small ventilator in the bedroom. The mould soon came back.

Mahder began to fall behind on rent; he had to spend money replacing things ruined by damp — mattress, bedframe, clothes. ‘I took my family to the housing office to discuss in person the problems,’ he said. ‘When the receptionist informed the housing officer that we had come to see her, she refused to see us and told the receptionist to tell us that nothing can be done until I pay the arrears.’

Up till the summer of 2011 when he lost regular work on a construction site, Mahder paid the rent on time. He put in a claim for housing benefit. The money arrived in November, too little, too late.

Illustration by Patrick Koudah

When Mahder found work again the following March, housing benefit payments stopped. But the job paid £72 a week, not enough to cover the rent or clear the arrears.

It’s a common situation, says Pete Elliott, a caseworker at Brixton Advice Centre. Pete also volunteers at a local food bank at St Paul’s church in Brixton. He sometimes bumps into former clients he’s advised on welfare benefits or housing.

‘A lot of rent arrears are through welfare benefits not being paid properly,’ he said. ‘For the majority of our clients, it is because they start working 10 hours a week and immediately their Jobseeker’s Allowance gets stopped and recalculated.’

By 2013 Mahder’s arrears exceeded £2,000. But when Merken got sick, Mahder spent what little he earned trying to clear the mould. The family moved Merken’s cot into the living room, the adults took turns sleeping on the two-seat sofa.

Then in April last year, Metropolitan served Mahder an eviction notice: ‘You have failed to make satisfactory payments to clear your arrears, so we are in the process of applying to the County Court for possession of your home.’

Did this mean that Mahder and his family would be evicted and rehoused?

No. People evicted due to rent arrears are considered ‘deliberately homeless’; the council is under no obligation to rehouse them.

Mahder and Hiriti were miserable in their squalid flat, but now they faced something worse.

 


 

 

Across the River Thames in Stamford Hill, one private landlord has decided to evict tenants two months earlier than planned. One Thursday in March, the residents of a three-storey terrace house are given 15 minutes to pack and leave.

Two police vans, blue lights flashing, pull up in the large drive. Around half a dozen police officers and high court sheriffs pile out. They break into the house, run up and down the stairs, shouting over and over: “You have to leave, you have got 10 minutes!”

The house is sectioned into 22 rooms, each one home for families, couples, and individuals. Some of the residents try to show the sheriffs an order with the original eviction date: 22nd May. They are ignored. Other residents gather what they can, piling clothes into plastic bags.

Libia Montaya, a 57-year-old cleaner from Colombia, lives alone in a small room on the top floor. She’s had a difficult few years. She separated from her husband and is estranged from her daughter. She’s on medication for depression. Her hours at work have been cut. When the sheriffs bang at her door, she crumbles.

“Why is this happening? Someone help me please.”

Libia struggles to breathe, her head is spinning. Terrified, she rushes into the toilet and in her distress grabs a bottle of bleach and tries to drink it. The officers tackle her, handcuff her, and then she blacks out.


Some of the residents spend the night in a nearby park. Others stay with friends or find hostels. One group takes a bus to the local town hall. They find the grand Art Deco building closed, and try to bed down on the stone steps. Security guards order them to move on.

In the morning they are first in line for the council’s housing officer. The families with children and an elderly woman who recently suffered a stroke are given temporary accommodation, but 16 adults are ineligible for help. Around 5pm they are sent to the local law centre.

Nathaniel Mathews, a senior solicitor for Hackney Community Law Centre, immediately gets to work on their case. He applies to the high court for an interim injunction against the eviction. The warrant possession was obtained unlawfully and the residents have the right to challenge it in court.

Nathaniel, a tall Englishman with a shoulder-length ponytail and bemused expression, converses with the residents in fluent Spanish (most are originally from South America). He’ll need immaculate financial information from each tenant otherwise the legal aid agency could refuse to fund the work.

Hackney Law Centre, like legal aid providers across the country, has struggled to stay afloat after more than a decade of cuts. Legal aid ‘reform’ means only the very poorest are eligible for legal aid, and even those on income-related benefits do not automatically qualify. Drastic cuts have been made to advice and representation for housing disrepair and welfare benefits. There is nothing for employment and debt.

The injunction has been granted. One Mr Justice Collins rules that the landlord, named as Destbray Limited, must allow the 16 tenants to re-enter the property. They can return home, for now.

 

 


 

Back in South London, in January, with the help of Brixton Advice Centre, Mahder kept his home, negotiating a repayment plan of £3.60 a week on top of his rent. Hiriti was pregnant and their case against the housing association was due in court within weeks. In court Mahder’s lawyers would argue that Metropolitan should waive the arrears and cover the cost of extensive work to improve the ventilation in the flat.

Then Hiriti miscarried. Mahder blames stress caused by their housing situation. As well as the damp and debt, the couple had to contend with a broken kitchen sink. They placed a large bucket under the sink, emptying it three or four times a day. Mahder says this went on for ‘several months’ before the sink was replaced. In February, Hiriti’s doctor wrote a letter which said: ‘I would be grateful if these repairs [to the sink] could be carried out as soon as possible as in her present condition she cannot manage to carry these heavy loads. She is also complaining of back pain and abdominal pain relating to this.’

Mahder went to court in February 2014. He had managed to reduce the arrears from £2,292.80 to £953.70, partly by borrowing money from friends. He told the court: ‘Since I’ve moved to the flat I have been miserable as the housing office neglects our needs. We are physically, emotionally, mentally drained from this situation and still saddened by the loss of our unborn child and nobody seems to understand.’

Metropolitan agreed to waive the arrears and carry out improvements to the flat. The court order decreed that work must begin within 28 days.

 

Illustration by Patrick Koudah

 

 


 

After leaving the law centre, the 16 tenants broke into their home. In the time they had been away the landlord had changed the locks and the house had been vandalised.

Mattresses slashed, toilets ripped from the floor surrounded by broken tiles, cisterns discarded in the yard, windows nailed shut. Chunks of plaster gauged from walls. Clothes left behind strewn across rooms. No heating or gas.

Diego was embarrassed. ‘We usually keep the house very clean, we don’t live like this,’ he says. The trim, pepper-haired Colombian is 45. Before moving to London, he lived in Spain for 10 years — he was a social worker for a charity, providing support for new migrants and refugees.

Now Diego earns slightly more than the minimum wage as cleaning supervisor for an agency contracted to clean offices at Canary Wharf, the financial district across the city in East London. He paid £550 a month for his room with a double bed, a sink, a wardrobe, and a portable shower. But, he says, it will be difficult to find somewhere similar. ‘They want £1,200 or £1,300 and you see the flat and you want to cry.’

Libia paid £433 a month for her room, slightly smaller than Diego’s and without a shower. She earns about £200 a month from her cleaning job and receives £83 a week in housing benefit. ‘I am too exhausted and too tense,’ she says. ‘I can’t think about where to go or what to do. Committing suicide was the only way to leave behind all of these problems.’

Who owns the house? The tenants don’t know. They paid their money to managers who say the house was sold several months ago. Whoever owns it wants rid of them before the agreed notice period. ‘I imagined London to be a city that welcomed you, but it’s the opposite,’ says Diego, ‘I think London is becoming a city only for rich people.’

Nathaniel says the exploitation of poorer tenants is routine. ‘We have got tenants in low paying jobs from abroad, all cleaners, in relatively cheap but completely unregulated accommodation. It is not uncommon for landlords one way or another to evict these people whether through the courts, or not through the courts, and often giving them no notice at all. You have got people who just don’t know their rights.’

 

Illustration by Patrick Koudah

 

In a statement about Mahder Redie’s flat, the Metropolitan Housing Association said: ‘We settled compensation in February and agreed to carry out improvement works. A maintenance survey report was undertaken before then which identified a condensation issue and suggested an action plan to remedy the situation. The condensation was found to be as a result of a number of factors, including ventilation and heating, rather than attributable solely to the structure of the building.

‘We aim to carry out repairs quickly and efficiently… and we have regularly attended the property to carry out improvements to assist the resident with managing the condensation. Unfortunately, it reoccurred. Prior to the legal process, we have no record of the resident making a complaint through our complaints procedure.’

 


 

On 3rd April the Redie family wait for a repairman to arrive between 8am and 1pm. They finish lunch and Mahder looks at his phone.

Around 1.15pm he calls the housing association to find out why the repairman hasn’t shown up. The visit is rearranged. Mahder tries to sleep before his next shift at 11pm.

Book review

Hinterlandby Caroline Brothers
(Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408817759)

Hinterland by Caroline BrothersHinterland is the disturbing story of two Afghan children, who embark on a journey across continents when their family is destroyed by the conflict in Afghanistan. Aryan and Kabir seek sanctuary in Europe, but instead find themselves lost in a dangerous, adult underworld, where desperate migrants are fair game for criminals and brutal police officers with unchecked power. Vulnerable by virtue of their years but toughened by a childish hope, the brothers have a ditty to recite in times of difficulty:

“Remind me where we’re going, Soldierboy.”

“We’re going to school.”

“And when are we going to get there?”

“At half past nine!”

“And how are we going to get there?”

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon!”

Caroline Brothers, a journalist for the International Herald Tribune with extensive experience reporting on unaccompanied migrant children, does not overtly discuss the politics of immigration in the Europe Union, but the questions are present behind every tragic episode. Why is so little being done to help these children? Why are some European countries deporting them back to Afghanistan, where many have no family left?

The utter isolation of these two children as they travel alone across Europe, through countries that profess commitment to, not just human rights, but the rights of the child, is startling; nowhere are they safe. Instead, Aryan and Kabir are attacked with teargas by French police officers, abused by strangers and ignored by too many in authority.

That is not to say the book is sheer misery; Brothers evokes the beautiful moments of humanity that keep the boys moving. The kind strangers who pay their fare to Paris, the poverty-stricken couple who wash their clothes, the street-vendor who feeds them kebabs and the friendships they develop with other young migrants. There isn’t space for such moments in a newspaper article, but here Brothers uses her novel to bring to life the funny, touching and compelling characters behind the typically, downtrodden stories of refugees in Europe. Every European border official from Athens to London should be forced to read this book.

Paradise Lost

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part III

What is this post about? Read part I and II on Italy

porto empedocle immigration holding centre

Europe is El Dorado for clandestine migrants arriving from Africa. Many survive journeys spanning thousands of miles across the harshest terrain, sustained by the vision of a golden continent where there is freedom and work. But for those who step off the ferry in Sicily, just 145km from the continent they have left behind, how long does Europe, the gilded continent, retain its’ shine?

When Ghanaian migrant Samuel Quanson first arrived in Palermo, he slept outside a crowded refugee shelter. “I see my brown friends from Africa, Mo­rocco … how they live – like refugees. Wow. The place [shelter] is doing a good thing but there is no space for people to sleep. So I slept outside. When it rained they gave me a plastic cover.

“I stood there crying and thinking, ‘what am I doing?’ I had a job, I had a nice place in Africa, my house, my car. From that to liv­ing like a refugee. It was sad. I cried a lot.”

***

Usually, if a migrant registers with local officials, the first place they sleep is in an immigration holding centre. These centres are prisons in all but name, and are dotted along the coast of Sicily. There are also several large centres inland near major airports and cities (ready for mass deportations).

I was told that the Tunisians I saw arriving in Lampedusa would be taken to a large holding centre in Porto Empedocle, a coastal town in Agrigento. After days of trying and failing to get permission to visit, I turned up on at the centre hoping to convince the guards to let me in or failing that, speak to some of the migrants through windows or in the yard.

The centre is a large, wide building with tiny windows surrounded by barbed wire, located next to a ferry port, with rows of grand yachts set against the brilliant turquoise of the Mediter­ranean. Smartly dressed Italians and ship work­ers drink espressos and eat miniature éclairs at nearby coffee bar. It is a hot day, but there are no inmates in the centre yard, only three large ferocious dogs patrolling the gates. porto empedocle immigration holding centre in Sicily

porto empedocle immigration holding centre in Sicily

Though the centres are shrouded in security and policed like prisons, the people detained in them are not yet considered criminals. The purpose of the centres is to process a migrant’s claim to remain, or an asylum seekers claim to refuge. If a claim is refused, the claimant is given five days to leave Italy. If he or she remains in Italy after five days, they can be arrested and sentenced to prison for staying in the country illegally. On comple­tion of the sentence, they are deported.

Unsurprisingly, many people remain underground once their claims have been refused. Most live in abject poverty, others survive on black market work, while others try their luck elsewhere in Europe. To deter those that remain, in July 2009 the Italian government drew up a new immigration law giving doctors the authority to report migrants without papers to the police. Prior to this it was illegal for doctors to refuse treatment to anyone, regardless of their immigration status. The new law obliged doctors to call the police when confronted with a sick irregular migrant.

Italians I interviewed in Sicily working with destitute migrants were outraged at the proposal. “This law is moving towards creating a sense of fear of immigrants,” says Sandra Voutsinas, a social worker, working with immigrants in Palermo. “Health belongs to everyone – if we don’t cure immigrants when they are sick they can cause problems also to us. The point is that health is not just important for the single person but for the community. So an immigrant without leave of stay must have the right to be cured in Italy.”

Italian doctors were vocal in their op­position to the new rules and the law was revoked. However, Sandra argues that there are still too many restrictive rules to make life difficult for immigrants in Italy. “My personal opinion is that it is a terrible system,” she says. “There are too many laws concentrated in the last 10 years on immigration. [It is] as if immigration is the most terrible prob­lem of Italy, like mafia. They are concentrating too much on immigration as the hugest problem in our society. Whereas unemployment and ma­fia, and other things are more important.”

Not everyone agrees that the system is broken. One Italian charity worker, who works with refugees in Agrigento, reckons Italy’s asylum and immigration system has actually improved in recent years. “Italy has a good system because it has been going for 10 years. It used to be it took longer [to process immigration applications] but since the law of immigration in 2002, they introduced 10 commissions to manage immigra­tion. There are two in Sicily and asylum seekers wait one or two months for a decision.”

Still, life for asylum seekers given leave to remain in Italy is tough. Somali refugee Abdarrazaq spent eight months at an immigration holding cen­tre, after that he was given subsidiary protec­tion. This means he can stay legal­ly in Italy for three years. If after that time his country is deemed safe, he will be deported. If not, his protection would be renewed for another three years. “Always three years, three years, three years,” he says, looking despondent at the prospect of a transient future.

On his release, the centre’s guards told Ab­darrazaq to go and find his people in Rome. “I was like a blind person, I have no family there. It is not like in Africa, in Africa you can sleep on the streets because of the weather. But the weather [here] doesn’t allow you to sleep on the streets.”

Luckily Abdarrazaq escaped the fate of others and was taken in by Pro­gretto Tarik, one of several government-fund­ed hostels for refugees across Italy. The Agrigento-based charity takes in newly arrived refugees, teaches them Italian and gives them somewhere to sleep for six months. “When they finish six months they have to make integration into society and look for work. If they can find work, they can manage their life,” says Emilio, head of the charity.

“Their life in Italy is not easy. Particularly in Sicily, there is no work, but in the north it is bet­ter. We can help immigrants by giving them more chances. Right now … six months … is not enough for someone to come from Africa or another con­tinent, and he doesn’t know anything about this society. In six months he cannot integrate.

“I would change it to one year at least. During that one year we have to give them a chance to learn something important that they could work if they get out today.”

Emilio let Abdarrazaq stay an extra six months so he could complete a computer course. Now he is on his own. Abdarrazaq’s grand plan for survival is to stay legal.

Having witnessed compatriots move from one European country to another, start­ing and failing to overcome mountainous strug­gles in each, he plans to find work in Italy. “I have studied the language, I have stud­ied some vocational to work. And I am hoping to get another profession. If I get another pro­fession or if you study something, you will learn how to work, but if you not study anything and say you look for a work, you cannot get it.”

Abdarrazaq says other migrants tell him to leave Italy for a country with more concern for human rights and more opportunities. He refuses to listen, preferring to settle in Italy, even though he finds it difficult. “Some people enter a coun­try, they say, ‘We will understand how it works and we will not run to another European coun­try. They understand and they get a work.”

***

Not everyone is so sanguine. Irregular mi­grants living in Sicily say Italians employers often mistreat them, paying them very little or in ex­treme cases not at all. A migrant might be paid €35 for 10 hours of farm work or some earn as little as €20 a day usually working for small businesses or doing housekeeping work.

Samuel Quanson, now liv­ing in Palermo, had one employer, an Italian law­yer, who did not pay him for three months work. Samuel worked on the lawyer’s estate, feeding and caring for his dogs and other pets.

One day, Samuel’s boss said he would take him to the bank to get the money to pay his wages. Instead he dropped Samuel off at a train sta­tion and never came back.

Samuel had no idea how to find the large country es­tate some­where in Sic­ily’s rolling valleys and meadows, so begged till he had enough to pay for a train fare to Paler­mo, Sicily’s capital and a hub for irreg­ular migrants and asylum seekers in the south.

Sweet prison: migrants in Spanish limbo II

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain –  part III

What’s this blog post about?

CETI immigration centre, Ceuta, Spain

Mention CETI to a taxi driver anywhere in Ceuta and he will know what you mean. Everyone in Ceuta knows about the immigration removal centre perched upon a steep hill overlooking the sea.

The conditions are humane, even inviting, compared to similar immigrant-holding centres elsewhere in Europe. This is why the migrants call it a ‘sweet prison’. The open centre is home to around 500 people, most of whom are waiting to be deported. Inhabitants come and go as they please, though they cannot leave between 11pm and 7am without special permission. It is a bit like a children’s summer camp, except it is for adults and their stay is indefinite.

The centre has been open since 2000 and is run by the Spanish ministry for labour and immigration at a cost of around €8m a year. There is a hospital open 24-hours dealing with everything from tuberculosis to headaches to depression. Breakfast is served at 8am, dinner is at 7pm and snacks are provided at 5pm. There is a gym, outdoor courts for basketball, football and table tennis. However, it is not the gym or the sewing classes, but the presence of trained-staff from NGOs providing much-needed expert legal and health services that make life bearable for the migrants.

Compared to immigration holding centres across Europe, CETI is a five-star establishment. Turning up at CETI is a relief for irregular migrants after the traumas of their journey across the Sahara. There are showers, food, beds, computer access, a doctor and staff with a genuine interest in their wellbeing. What more could they want?

Across Europe the answers are the same: freedom from misgovernment, poverty and con­flict. One Nigerian, since deported from Spain, ex­plained that though he was a graduate it was nearly impossible for him to find work at home without connections and contacts. Afghans always speak passionately of their motherland; we have food, we have beautiful mountains, they say, but we also have ISAF, warlords and the Taliban.

What irregular migrants and asylum seek­ers want is access to education and work. Globalisation means they are well aware that these things are accessible in Europe and other western countries. But what happens to that drive and ambition in a place like CETI where all they can do is wait? Does it infantilize them?

The man in charge of CETI since May 2010 is adamant that it is a good place for immigrants. Car­los Bengoechea, 52, is a Spanish civil servant with experience working on EU immigration policy. “We have conceived this centre as an open centre so that immigrants can interact with the rest of the population of the city. There are no problems, it works quite well.

“When they arrive here, they have prob­ably made a long trip in which they have suf­fered a lot. They have been probably vic­tims of many violations of their rights. And probably the average period they use to arrive here in Ceuta is around a year and a half, two years. Then they get into the sea in very small dangerous boats and most of them before coming here to the centre have been saved from the sea in very difficult circumstanc­es and they have seen death very, very near.

“When they come here their psycho­logical state and condition is very weak and to recover their human dignity and their own estimation takes our psychological team a few months of work, it’s not easy, before enter­ing the rest of the integration programme.”

At CETI, the Red Cross and CEAR, a Spanish NGO for refugees, help prepare asylum applications and appeals. Sheila Mohammed Salah, 25, works at CETI as a social worker. “I love my work. I used to work in a high school teaching, but I like the humanitarian work.” As we wander around the centre, Sheila is at ease with CETI’s migrants, chatting, joking and providing moments of light relief.

The migrants living at CETI are packed into tiny dorms, each containing 10 beds and personal lockers. In one cramped room a Nigerian woman cradles her new-born baby, while discussing the possibil­ity of being transferred to the Spanish mainland. Modern Afro-francophone mu­sic reverberates from another room where a group men sit talking.

football game at CETI, immigration centre in Ceuta, Spain

“Ahora aqui muy bueno,” says one mi­grant, who is part Liberian and part Ivo­rian. He is studying a long-distance Spanish course and is keen to show-off. “Here we don’t have any problems,” he says, adding:

“Here in Ceuta we don’t know how long we stay here – some peo­ple stay for one, two years. We cannot call our family because we cannot work.

“We go to school and after we can’t do anything else. The problem is we can­not leave here. It is a big problem. I want to live in Spain to get the paper. To stay in Spain, two years you can get the paper and then you can go anywhere to get the work.”

Most of the inmates speak at least three languages, mostly Arabic, French and Eng­lish (as well as tribal tongues). All are keen to learn Spanish, a sign of their desire to settle rather than keep moving through Eu­rope. CETI provides Spanish classes as well Spanish cooking, creative art and IT lessons.

There is a palpable sense of frus­tration among the migrants; while CETI is a pleasant place, many have made long journeys to find work, and being delayed for months and years in Ceuta is difficult.

Even finding black market work is dif­ficult in Ceuta, mostly because Moroc­can migrants have the monopoly on poor­ly paid unregulated employment. “Ceuta is a small town, it is very difficult compared to the rest of Spain. In places like Ma­drid it is easier for foreign people to get a job with or without a work permit,” says CEARS lawyer Alejandro Romero Aliaga.  “For sub-Saharan people it is very difficult to get a job because in Ceu­ta people [only] work with Moroccan people.”

Moroccans from Tetouan, a city in northern Morocco, have the right to enter Ceuta during the day, but they must leave each night. It is against the law for them to work in Ceuta, and or travel to the Spanish penin­sula. Most Tetouans work on the black market selling fruit and other wares, or cleaning homes. For those in CETI, this leaves the most menial jobs, such as carry­ing people’s grocery shopping or parking cars. On a good day, they may make €4 or €5 from this work.

Rocky, though, is desperate for a nor­mal life, preferably in Europe. “I want to leave [Ceuta] legally. The only way to go from here is go on a truck, it is very dangerous and you can lose your life. People do that. People who have been here for a long period of time.

“There is no other option. But I am not going to do this because I want to live. We are hoping that the Spanish govern­ment will understand our feelings and let us go to the mainland and have a good future and the life we want to live, nothing else.”

CETI immigration holding centre in Ceuta

Is this what gentrification looks like?

I’m not really an opinion blogger; instead I prefer to tell stories based on my reporting and research. However, every now and then, I do like to let off steam. So below are a few of my scattered reflections on the riots in London this summer, which I reported on for the Washington Post here, here and here, and for the New Internationalist here, and Legal Action magazine here.

And if you want some meaningful polemic, go read what Gary Younge says about rioting http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/young-british-rioters-political-actions

And Camila Batmanghelidjh here http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/camila-batmanghelidjh-caring-costs-ndash-but-so-do-riots-2333991.html

***

I hate the word gentrification. It carries such unpleasant connotations. The dictionary definition of ‘to gentrify’ is to renovate or improve a house or district so that it is in keeping with middle class taste. There is nothing wrong with improvement as such, but it does depend on who it is for, how it’s done and why it is being done.

On the radio a few days ago, the area where I live in East London was described as the UK’s answer to the Silicon Valley. The comment referenced the number of tech/design start-ups in the area. More intriguing for me is the social effect of the contrast between a new, elite and flourishing industry, and increasing hardship for everyone else as the effects of the recession start to kick in.

I have never been to San Francisco; I wonder if it really is as divided as where I live. In nearly every street you can find plenty of middle-class hipsters lounging in charming, if overpriced, cafes with identikit Macbooks and single-speed bikes in tow. And in nearly every street, living cheek by jowl to the gated communities and posh bars, are communities of much less time-rich, and significantly less cash rich, families. Add to that a generous sprinkling of neglected, mentally ill people and many long-term unemployed men.

(A random example of such disparities is a hilarious restaurant review by Giles Coren, where he ventures all the way from West London to London Fields (east London) for dinner, and is alarmed by the presence of young boys wearing hooded jumpers riding low bikes and the proximity of people on low incomes. Maybe it was a joke. Except I think there are lots of people like Mr Coren that actually live in Hackney.)

I remember researching an article looking at the effects of the British government’s spending cuts on women; within a short a distance of the Town Hall I was able to find two mothers who would both be affected adversely, except one would be cushioned by the comforts of her class while the other, an Eastern European immigrant, foresaw only a future of despair.

It is not apartheid; there are plenty of people in the middle, people just getting by. There are good schools, people running up their own businesses, excellent social programmes and a ton of working class people doing just fine. So generally it all feels quite harmonious. Every Saturday the Socialist Worker party tries to radicalize everyone by selling their newspapers on the main high streets; most people happily wander past into Primark or McDonalds or one of the aforementioned cafes. Before the riots in August, I was oblivious to any serious tensions between East London’s wildly differing communities.

And yet when out reporting on the riots, what emerged was a mess of resentment and bewilderment at the growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the area.

I got chatting to a young woman in London Fields, born and bred in East London; she expressed shock at the levels of violence, though was not surprise that the riots happened. Then she revealed her plans to leave Hackney and set up a fashion business. But surely the best place to run a fashion business would be Hackney? The East London borough is a stone’s throw from the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley.  And it’s not just the next Facebook or Google that could spring from the area; artists, designers and fashion industry types all ply their various trades from the borough’s warehouses and cafes.

Yes, all that’s true, she agreed. There are all these new communities, but they are separate, “they all have degrees”. Degree-less, and from a different community, she feels unable to network or move in their circles. She was not complaining, simply stating the facts of her experience.

The inadvertent segregation that sometimes follows gentrification can breed unhealthy resentment or, as in the case above, an intangible sense of unease. This is not created not by residents living within that community, but by outside forces such as property developers, for example, creating expensive homes beyond even the dreams of those living on the estate across the road.

The media plays its role; I did not realize that the road I live on is part of a no go area till I read about it during the riots. Some of the journalists and columnists that opined and wrung their hands about this bit of London, probably live a stone’s throw away from the worst estates, but still have little clue as to what goes on there; so they imagine the worst. This bugged one teenage boy I spoke to:

“Wherever someone has been stabbed, they will now pinpoint that area and say it is a bad area and they will start bringing up articles and numbers of people stabbed in this area, and make [out] … that area is unsafe.

“But day in and day out, that area is actually good. It is not as bad as they are making out. They make it seem like it is happening everyday, which is making everyone else more scared. So it is corrupting them. If they are there to see it day in and out they will see that … it is not as bad as they are saying.”

This clash of identities in so-called “gentrified areas” was summed up best for me, when during the riots, a young man wearing rolled up skinny jeans, a fitted T-Shirt and a trilby, tried to cycle his one-speed through a crowd of rioters. The contrast between the teenage boys wearing their own uniform of hooded jumpers, baggy pants-on-display trousers, was striking.

This sharp disconnect between tribes was made more stark the day after the riots when a group of well meaning people organized a mass clean-up. An eager gaggle of people with brooms and grins descended on our street ready to sweep away the miserable mess of the riots. But the overturned rubbish bins, broken glass, remnants of the impromptu bonfires and even the blood red graffiti (Fuck Cameron, Fuck the Feds), had all been cleaned up already. By 7am, the poorly-paid cleaners had done what they do everyday; after that they duly melted into the background.

A humanitarian crisis in the forests of northern France

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part III

Many asylum seekers and migrants intent on getting to Britain set up camps close to the ferry ports and lorry depots along the northern coast of France. The camp I visit is just off a busy motorway in Teteghem, a town outside Dunkirk.

Motorists speed by the vast stretch of forest, unaware of the chaos and desperation festering nearby. The forest provides the barest shelter for a group of Afghan men, who share four flimsy tents made with bits of wood and thick plastic sheets.

A makeshift living area, thick with mud, has formed at the centre of the tents. There is rubbish everywhere; bottles, old clothes, odd shoes and stale bread. A stack of dirty plastic plates sits abandoned in a shopping trolley. It is around 11am and the Af­ghan campers are sound asleep, having spent all night trying to stow away on trucks heading to England.

The charity field workers I am with, there to provide food and medicine, are concerned about the mess. If the place isn’t kept clean, the authorities will destroy it, they say.

But the campers are unlikely to start spring-cleaning anytime soon; a clean, homely camp would create a permanence they refuse to accept. The Afghans at the camp do not expect to remain in this desolate place for long. They set off every day, with no plan to return, in search of a lorry to stow away in. And every day they believe is the day they will get to Britain.

However, their chances of success are slim and most return to the mud of their temporary home. There are around 6,000 trucks crossing to Dover eve­ry day, and 99% are searched for stowaways.

This does not bother Zia-ur-ahman. He emerges from his tent, shivering and wincing slightly. It is February and bitterly cold. Zia-ur-ahm is sockless, his bare feet in poorly fitted loafers. His left eye is closed and sunken into his swollen cheek. The 14-year-old fell off a truck the night before. But Zia-ur-ah­man, who hails from Kabul, is not deterred. He plans to try the trucks again tonight. Young Afghan boy in Dunkirk, France

Many of the men and boys at the camp need medi­cal attention. The men wear thin torn clothes, no match for the winter chill. Most wear shoes worn from walking miles to and from ferry ports or lorry depots in search of a passage. Many are covered in bruises and scrapes, acquired either running from the police or falling from trucks.

But the young Afghans I chatted to, perhaps being well accustomed to the grimmer things in life, were cheerful, and pleased at a diversion from their dangerous, unhappy task. Yes, one admitted, you could die falling from a truck, and it is cold and dirty living in camps, but life is worse in Afghanistan.

At another camp, this one partly provided by Dunkirk’s local authority, the migrants are bitter and much less hopeful.

The ‘official’ camp is home to a mix of Kurds, Iranians, Ira­qis, Afghans and Vietnamese nationals, and the conditions are just as miser­able. The council has provided one large marquee, big enough to fit around 30 people in it, and a smaller tent, both of which sit in a muddy grass opening surrounded by trees.

The Afghans have built their own shelter away from the council tents, us­ing bits of plastic, in some nearby trees. There is plenty of room for them in the large tent, but they accuse the Kurds of not wanting to “live with others”. The two Vietnamese migrants avoid the conflict, refuse to speak to an­yone and live alone in the small tent.

It is cold and dirty, and everyone is tired and ill. A harmless cold can quickly become debilitating when a person is forced to sleep outside in wet weather, with no warm clothes, and hot food just two or three times a week.

young Afghans in Dunkirk in France“The humanitarian situation is very bad”, says Matt Quinette of Médicins du Monde. “We are in France but you can­not imagine we are in France. People have real difficulties getting access to water, they don’t have hygiene, they don’t have good shelter, they are open to the wind, humidity.  They are vulnerable with the cold. There is no waste management in the camps … so sanitary con­ditions on these camps are really, really bad. They affect the health of the people.”

While I am there, some UNHCR officials also arrive at the camp.  As they leave, the Iraqi man I am talking to, mutters: “thanks”. His voice is full of sarcasm.

“We are pissed off here in this jungle,” says another migrant named Abdil. “Everyone is itchy because we are dirty. Everyone catches fleas. Every day my legs hurt, my shoes…” His annoyance stems from the fact that he was pulled from a truck at around 7am that morning.

He is getting tired of lying to his family at home in Afghanistan too.

“Everyone comes here to benefit his family, if I make money, I can send it back to Afghani­stan. Everyone wants to escape war and the threat of death from IEDs. Right now day by day the situation is bad, what should we do?”

An Iraqi named Saman Gaala is absolutely certain of his position; he will go to England. A British soldier he met fighting in Iraq invited him, he says. The soldier even gave Saman his mo­bile and told him to call once he got to the UK. Talk of the UK raises spir­its among the small crowd gathered around me. One migrant asks me how much money he would need to set up a business in England.

***

Eventually this hope will vanish. Some ir­regular migrants in France are so mentally and physically beaten, that they opt to be deported voluntarily. “It is not the Europe they pictured when they left their own country,” says Jacky Verhaegen, who works for Caritas in Calais. “Two to three hun­dred have asked for voluntary returns to their home country. Mostly for the same reason that they apply for asylum: desperation.”

For those fleeing countries like Eritrea, Su­dan or Afghanistan, this is not an option, so they plough their efforts into navigating the French asy­lum system. If they have no fingerprint in another European Union country, then they will receive a permit to stay in France for one month, while their asylum application is being processed. During this period the government allocates them €300 a month to live on while they wait for a decision, twice as much as they would receive in Britain.

The entire process takes around one year. The situation is slightly different if a mi­grant has a fingerprint in another EU country. In such circumstances, their application is fast tracked with no social assistance while they wait for a decision. Fast track applications are most likely to be rejected and deported back to the European coun­try where their fingerprint was first taken.

What price justice?

Legal aid scores highly on the coalition government’s list of public services surplus to requirement, and is therefore ripe for cutting. This week politicians debate the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which includes proposals to reduce the £2bn spent on legal aid each year by £350m.

One way the government plans to achieve this is by reducing the number of people eligible for legal aid – currently around 36% of the population (down from 80% when the scheme began in 1949). A second plan will remove from the scope of civil legal aid particular social problems where people might need professional legal advice to seek redress. This means the government will no longer cover legal costs for people too poor to pay their own legal bills in the following areas: clinical negligence, debt or housing (except where someone faces an immediate risk of homelessness), employment, education (except for Special Education Needs cases), immigration (except for those detained by the state) and asylum issues (except for asylum applications).

Even before the latest proposals critics have argued that too few people are eligible for legal aid in Britain, leaving only the poorest covered by the scheme. But these changes mean that, once the bill is passed, even society’s most vulnerable will find it hard to access justice. The government’s own equality impact assessment of the bill states that those most affected by cuts to legal aid will be ethnic minorities, ill or disabled people and women. In a separate assessment the justice ministry reports that 80% of those affected by proposed changes to legal aid come from the poorest fifth of society.

Not only will the changes impact society’s most vulnerable, they are false economy. Radical changes to the welfare state increase the likelihood of mistakes being made and more people needing recourse to professional legal advice. Already appeals against decisions made under the new work capability assessment have cost the state £50m a year, with 40% of appeals so far successful.

Regardless of the expense, as is the case with the other great pillars of the welfare state, legal aid is a necessary safety net in a civilised and democratic society. In Britain everyone is entitled to liberty and justice, but what is the point of possessing human rights if they cannot be enforced? If legal aid was abolished completely then only the wealthy could access justice, receive a fair trial, protect their rights and liberties, and hold public officials to account: all essential components to the rule of law.

In Britain everyone is entitled to liberty and justice, but what is the point of possessing human rights if they cannot be enforced?

It is thus baffling that Britain’s three main political parties profess a profound commitment to the rule of law, yet proposals effectively decimating the means for ordinary people to access it have sailed through parliament with only minor tinkering. It appears that the retrenchment of legal aid fails to stir the consciences of politicians in the way that other recent issues have, such as Britain’s place in the European Union or the changes to the NHS. If they cannot be persuaded by the principles of the rule of law, politicians debating the bill this week would do well to consider testimonies from ordinary recipients of legal aid.

Testimonies like that of Mrs Whitehouse, who gave evidence to the Commission of Inquiry on legal aid earlier this year. The 78-year-old woman and her husband faced eviction from their home of nearly 50 years because their landlord decided to sell the flat. The couple were “terrified” of leaving their home, where they had hoped to live until they were “no longer well enough to do so”. With little means of their own, the couple were granted legal aid to challenge the landlord’s decision, and won their case at the Court of Appeal. Mrs Whitehouse, whose husband died of a heart attack before the court decision, was initially reluctant to take “money from the public purse”. But says: “I am completely indebted to legal aid. If we had not received legal aid we would have no way of funding this case. We would have had to move out to the flat our landlord was offering, leaving our home of 50 years and all our friends, without knowing that our landlord had no right to do this.”

According to the inquiry report, Unequal Before the Law? The Future of Legal Aid, under the proposed changes to legal aid, “there is a real possibility that Mrs Whitehouse … would not get legal aid. This is because … [they] were ‘merely’ facing the loss of their home and not homeless.”

Other testimonies from the inquiry reinforce the notion that, often, the courts are a last resort for disenfranchised citizens seeking to hold public bodies to account. Darwin Stanley Kealey killed himself while in custody at Wormwood Scrubs prison in 2008. His family sought legal aid to be represented at the inquest into his death. In evidence to the inquiry, his sister Zoe said: “The jury at Darwin’s inquest, which concluded in March 2010, identified no less than nine failings on the part of the police, Serco, the prison and the PCT [Hammersmith and Fulham Primary Care Trust]. The jury found that Darwin died of an act of self harm ‘in part because the risk of taking his own life or harming himself was not recognised and appropriate cautions were not take to prevent him from doing so’.”

The jury at Darwin’s inquest, which concluded in March 2010, identified no less than nine failings on the part of the police, Serco, the prison and the PCT [Hammersmith and Fulham Primary Care Trust].”

In effect, as Zoe sets out in her testimony, Darwin’s death might have been prevented had various state bodies done their jobs properly. The coroner ruled that action must be taken by all authorities involved to prevent the same mistakes being made in future and to prevent future deaths. Such a ruling would not have been made without the support from lawyers, paid for by legal aid, who “worked tirelessly to obtain and scrutinise all the documentation and ensure that evidence was heard to explain the circumstances surrounding my brother’s death,” says Zoe. “My family has found solace in the knowledge that the state has been notified of the failings identified by the jury, and we hope that no other family will have to suffer in the way that we have.”

Ministers in favour of slashing the legal aid bill talk of a compensation culture where the public funds frivolous cases; yet often, as testimony from Mrs Whitehouse and Zoe Kealey illustrate, legal aid is spent on enforcing rights or correcting the mistakes of public bodies. If public officials, from local councils to Whitehall departments, made less mistakes, the bill for civil legal aid would fall by far more than £350m.

Children: the deserving poor?

‘If there’s anything extra to buy such as a pair of boots for one of the children … me and the children goes without dinner.’ So says a working class woman from York interviewed for Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s painstaking study of poverty in late nineteenth century Britain. When conducting his research between 1898 and 1901, Rowntree was alarmed at what he found:

This suffering may be all but voiceless, and we may long remain ignorant of its extent and severity, but when once we realise it we see that social questions of profound importance await solution.

Yet, over a century later, 1.6 million British children live in severe poverty, defined as £134 a week for a lone parent with one child and £240 a week for a couple with two children, according to the charity Save the Children.

Like the Yorkshire housewife before her, Jacqueline Robinson, a mother of two from Wales, goes without food to get by. ‘There is always one week in every month when things are bad and I wonder how I will manage. I will go without when things are tight, sometimes going without food for a day to keep my children fed and properly dressed.’

It is not just parents who worry about being poor; children are acutely aware of their poverty. In recent BBC documentary ‘Poor Kids’ four children describe in their own words what it is like to be poor. ‘We’re like a kind of poor family, we’re different cause we can’t do that much in our house,’ says eight-year-old Courtney.

‘When people haven’t got nowt to do and they’re bored outside they can go in and do puzzles and colour … and we can’t do that. When we’re bored outside, we’ve got to go inside and watch TV.’

Twelve-year-old Sam gets bullied because of his second-hand clothes and is always hungry. He lives with his dad and older sister. His mum left the family when he was two. ‘I think I’m poor because we only get £420 a month. That goes on what we need and not what we want. We have to spend it on food and electric and gas.’

The last government made ending child poverty a key policy; yet in recent years the number of children living in relative income poverty, defined as a household with an equivalised income that is less than 60% of the median income, has reached an astounding 2.8 million (22%). Labour managed to cut rates from 26% to 21% by 2004/05, but despite spending £134bn over 10 years on child benefits and working tax credits, from then onwards child poverty worsened.

Can a new government turn this depressing trend around? Poverty campaigners have already attacked the Coalition’s three-year strategy, published in April, as ‘empty’ and below standard. The strategy forms part of a long-term plan to cut the rate of child poverty to less than 10% by 2020, a legal requirement under the Child Poverty Act 2010. Much of it is based on the recommendations made by Labour MP Frank Field who wants child poverty policy to focus on the first years of a child’s life. This is no bad thing. Mr Field argues that the government should prioritise things like improving parental education, quality nursery education and early childhood cognitive attainment.

This work has already begun in many Sure Start centres around the country, but is under threat because of the government’s refusal to ring fence funding for the centres. Councils under pressure to make savings are under no obligation to spend a set amount on Sure Start – as they were under the previous government. In Tower Hamlets, for example, where one in four children lives in severe poverty, the council has promised not to close any of its Sure Start centres, but budgets will be reduced. At one centre in a working class area of Bow, a member of staff said he and colleagues were seriously concerned about job losses.

The government insists that the Early Intervention Grant, funding diverted from several existing programmes including Sure Start, will provide ‘intervention and preventative services’ for young children. There is also £625m pupil premium fund for schools that provide extra help for poor children and annual increases in the child element of tax credits until 2013. However, the child poverty strategy contains few other concrete policies; instead, there are a lot of references to aspiration, worklessness and responsibility. In one section it says: ‘…we create a system which rewards people who do the right thing and work themselves out of poverty.’

This chimes with simplistic rhetoric used elsewhere – from both the government and the opposition – about encouraging a better work ethic among people dependent on welfare. It is a rhetoric that fails to take into account the miserable reality of living on benefits and the fact that 55% of children living in relative poverty – that’s 1.5 million children – come from households where at least one adult works.

The strategy also indicates that the government won’t rely on working tax credits and benefits to reduce poverty. Instead, it government expects the success of its reforms to public services to create the right circumstances for families to lift themselves out of poverty. The Big Society, reforms to housing allowance and welfare, changes to employment support allowance, enlisting the private sector to deliver public services and localism are all cited as policies that will help improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and eventually end child poverty. There is little detail on how long this will take and how it will be measured. The report also ignores criticism from groups who argue that these same policies will deepen poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that the coalition’s austerity measures will mean nearly 300,000 children more will be pushed into poverty over the next three years.

The decision to review the statutory duty on local authorities to address child poverty also seems at odds with the end goal of the Act. The report says government wants ‘to make sure… they strike the right balance between giving local authorities the freedom … to get things done, whilst protecting the most vulnerable’.

Another flaw in the strategy is the failure to properly address issues around existing poverty measurements. Many poverty campaigners argue that the current measures aren’t properly reflective and need reforming. The government’s strategy mentions the importance of measuring severe poverty and including life chance indicators, but fails to develop the idea.

Kristian Niemietz, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues that policies shaped around the existing measurement, households with an equivalised income less than 60% of the median income, do not work. In a recession, for example, if average incomes fall, then poverty falls, even though living standards among the poor might have gotten worse.

Instead we should update Rowntree’s method and create a consensual poverty line based on necessities needed to subsist, pegged to the cost of purchasing these items. Niemietz argues that this would enable the government to use supply-side policies to stimulate competition in industries such as utilities creating cheaper, more affordable goods and services, in turn reducing material deprivation.

Of course it will take more than markets to reduce the number of poor children in Britain; better education, flexible employment opportunities and more skills-based jobs training are just some ways the state can stop poor children becoming poor adults.

The government would do well to take seriously its commitment to child poverty; children should not be condemned to penury in today’s Britain. Rowntree was right to conclude that, ‘however difficult the path of social progress may be, a way of advance will open out before patient and penetrating thought if inspired by a true human sympathy.’

This article first appeared on hackeryblog