Telling Stories

I ignored my nerves and followed the young man. He walked briskly, confidently weaving a path through Athens’ city centre and out to its shabbier outskirt. Dusk fell, and I began to feel afraid: the cramped streets all looked the same and I couldn’t read Greek script on the street signs. I had no idea where I was.

I looked nervously at Ezmerey striding ahead of me. Clad in jeans and leather jacket, a phone glued to his ear, he laughed, switching easily from Arabic to Greek, and occasionally turning to talk with me in near perfect English. We had met a few hours earlier. He was not the first refugee I had interviewed in Athens, but was the first to trust me. He had been a football player in Afghanistan, and had begun to impress in one of Athens’ smaller leagues. But his chances of a glittering football career had been cut short by Greece’s then dysfunctional asylum system. Ezmerey’s application for asylum was one of tens of thousands; it could be years before he received an answer.

Still, the sense that I had been too trusting only disappeared when eventually we turned into a dilapidated building, walked up several flights of stairs, and I found myself sitting opposite two young Afghan women. As children crawled around us and men spoke loudly in another room, I got my notebook out and said: “Tell me your story.”

The fear I felt at being led through a foreign city late at night with a near-stranger for a will-o’-the-wisp story fell away. Here were people who had fled real danger and instability, and were now battling a European bureaucracy indifferent to their plight. They had sunk into poverty while waiting to find out if they would be allowed sanctuary. Meanwhile, they could not legally leave the country or find work to support themselves. My job was to listen and tell their stories.

Two years later, I sat listening to students discussing their work at the University of Warwick’s Writing Wrongs class, and was reminded of the stories I was told that winter in Greece. I attended the seminar as part of Lacuna’s editorial team to give a talk about the process of putting together the magazine.

We discussed everything from how to combat existing mainstream narratives and connect personal stories of injustice to wider, systematic violations of rights, to the ethics of writing about other people’s suffering. At one point, Maureen Freely, the course tutor, in an attempt to elicit a thoughtful answer, asked ‘why do you bother?’

The question made me think of Greece, when, plagued with my own doubts, editors ignoring pitch after pitch, worrying about my own sustenance, I instinctively followed Ezmerey, in search of a story.

And by following Ezmerey I met Farida, one of the Afghan women in the house, who told me a story of floating for 16 hours in the Aegean Sea, clinging to life, and watching fellow passengers drown. Before Europe, Farida tried her luck in Iran, where her children were denied an education and she struggled to find work. But the pattern of poverty and discrimination she experienced in Iran continued in Greece. The dingy flat where we met was shared with 23 others, all piled into two rooms sleeping on rugs. Farida’s 9-year-old son, a pale child with dark circles under his eyes, escaped the flat everyday to sell cigarette lighters. They were trapped in Greece, unable to leave because of EU regulations limiting the movement of asylum seekers. Yet she harboured hope. “We don’t have any more hope for our lives,” she says. “The best hope is for our children.”

Farida’s story reminds me why I bother. She hoped that the telling of it might change something. Her story is symptomatic of a global injustice, which can be traced across continents from the footprints of people who dare to run. Telling her story exposes the behaviour of governments, bears witness to these atrocities and prevents a cynical world from saying we did not know.

Telling stories is important, but change takes time. For things to change, there must be enough people asking why bother, and deciding to act. Choosing the best way to act is not an easy decision to make. For me the most difficult obstacle is the lack of a blueprint. But, over time, what is becoming clear to me is that the people doing useful things to combat injustice rarely follow a plan. Instead, they do what they can, when they can, with the skills they have. And rather than offering others wanting to act on injustice a path to follow, they should simply be an inspiration. A starting point, not a blueprint.

It took a series of storytellers to catalogue the horrors of Greece’s chaotic asylum system, so that refugees and migrants are no longer sent back there from other European countries.

Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations a person must apply for asylum in the first member state he or she enters. If an asylum seeker moves to another European member state to seek refuge there, their fingerprints will appear on a central database with details of their first claim. They are then deported to that country.

Most asylum seekers and paperless migrants enter Europe through Greece, a country whose asylum system was already in crisis before its financial problems hit. By 2010 the backlog of asylum claims had crept towards 70,000, the immigration holding centres were severely overcrowded and poorly kept, and hundreds of refugees lived in various states of destitution in cities like Athens. Yet other European countries still deported refugees back to Greece.

After years of NGO and journalist reports, protests by angry citizens, and people like Farida choosing to speak out, European countries have stopped deporting people to Greece. Pivotal was the 2011 European Court of Human Rights judgement in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, which decreed that Belgium had acted unlawfully in deporting an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. The court also held that both countries had violated the asylum seeker’s human rights because of the deficiency in Greece’s asylum system and the deplorable detention conditions there.

One of Lacuna’s aims is to challenge the indifference to the suffering of others and stimulate action. To that end we’ll publish a series of frank, short interviews with people working across a range of professions, all working for the same goal, to challenge injustice and promote human rights. This will act as a useful starting point for those of you who read Lacuna and decide to act. And if you find yourself plagued with doubt or fear, asking why bother, look on these as a source of reassurance. There is no right way to tell a story, the important thing is that it is told.

The first of Lacuna’s interviews is with the author and journalist Clare Sambrook. You can also read interviews with campaigning journalist Katharine Quarmby and legal aid lawyer Nadia Salam, and a filmed interview with Russell Stetler, national mitigation coordinator for the federal death penalty projects in California. 

Photo by Zé Valdi


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Black and dangerous?

Patient experiences of mental health in London

This piece was commissioned and first published by openDemocracy’s Shine A Light project:

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.”



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)

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)


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)

Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health struggles to recruit workers
(November 2007)

Mental health: ethnic minority groups still over-represented (January 2010) 

Ethnic minorities still over-represented in mental healthcare (April 2011)

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) 

Abbott, Dianne 
On the end of DRE and quality of services for BME people2July 2014

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

Clark, Helen On David Bennett’s death in custody 9 November 2001

Cox, Thomas On the death of Richard Campbell

Lord Avebury on Rastafarians and mental health

Lord Hunt On mental health spending27 January 2014


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)


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 Inquiry 

Professor Roger Walker, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for Wales. Letter on the effects of some schizophrenia drugs

Ordinary Europeans welcome migrants and asylum seekers

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part IV

Celine, a French nurse, says before running a surgery for immigrants in Calais, she had no interest in politics; now she is angry that Europe’s immigration and asylum system is so dysfunctional. However, when treating her patients, Celine focuses on culture, not politics.

“It is important for them to be normal people,” she says. “When they are in the street people are afraid [of them], they don’t look at them with respect. When they speak English, they talk with me, just to explain when they are tired, when they have a lot of stress and they need to talk about that

“But they are very strong, they smile, they are proud. They need to talk about other things…they need to know how we live. We talk about the difference. Some of them say they are tired of being in that situation, to think only about their situation and to talk only about their situation.

“So they need to talk about another thing, to compare our lives. They like to explain to me the story of their country and they like to talk about their religion. I like it, it is very interesting because we talk about our differences but with respect.”

At another small centre, a short bus ride from Celine’s surgery is a place where migrants and asylum seekers, by now exhausted from journeys of months and even years, can relax. Caritas, an international Catholic charity, runs the centre offering languages lessons, a common room where people from around the world play board games, eat cake and drink tea. For a few moments they banish all thoughts of their transient lives.

Gone are the national divisions and tensions of the camps; instead the African jokes with the Afghan, different tribal groups, who usually refuse to even to live next to each other, show concern for each other.

Jacky Verhaegen, who runs the centre with several volunteers says the change in some of the Afghan boys, many barely into their teens, is most remarkable. Once they are taken out of their usual environment, an adult world concerned solely with survival, they become children again.

“When you see them outside they are like small men, playing rough and when they come here, they start drawing, they start playing games and being a child again. I am no shrink, but it is going to be difficult for them to build themselves as normal balanced adult with no teenage years. They are going from childhood to manhood with nothing in between.”

The centre offers practical support but most importantly it is a much-needed haven away from asylum applications, the Channel Tunnel, their camps and the French police.

Sher Wali, pictured, enjoys the respite offered by Caritas’s centre. Tired of mov­ing, he is keen to settle. “I used to live in the jungle for three months, it was very difficult. Every time people fight, drink alcohol, because they are stressed and depressed,” he says. He now lives with a French family, is studying French, and works as a mechanic. His gentle demeanor belies the trauma of his journey.

Sher Wali was born on the frontier be­tween Pakistan and Afghanistan, and lived in the Kunar province in north-eastern Afghani­stan. He left the country with his younger brother for Europe several years ago, while his mother went to Pakistan. The family sold their property to finance their escape.

It took Sher Wali and his brother 15 months to get to Europe. They were deported twice back to Afghanistan, from both Iran and Turkey, but determined, they simply began the journey again. Tragedy struck in Tur­key when Sher and his 18-year-old brother were separated. He has not seen or heard from him since. “He will be 22 soon,” he says.

Sher continued alone to Romania, Hungary, Germany, and Belgium, and now plans to stay in France.


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

And Camila Batmanghelidjh here


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.

“The police make us feel like animals”

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part II

The large decrepit factory stands tall but offers little by way of shelter. There are scraps of rusted metal and an assortment of garbage strewn over the concrete floor. The roof’s gaping holes, smashed windows, and missing doors mean the rain and wind will always get in.

Africa House, Calais

Everyone in Calais calls the building Africa House because it is where the town’s transient population of sub-Saharan African migrants and asylum seekers live. About 100 men reside in Africa House, most hail from Sudan and Eritrea. Other squats exist, dotted in and around Calais, home to other migrant populations from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

Every now and then Calais’ riot police raid Africa House, arresting any migrants they catch. When I was there in February, one migrant was chased up onto the roof of Africa House, fell and broke his wrist. In the scuffle that followed, two people from the Calais Migrant Solidarity group (an activist group) were also arrested after trying to alert the migrants to the police presence and capturing the arrests on camera.

Celine, a nurse working at the medical centre for immigrants in Calais, is furious about the incident. “The man is very lucky he broke only his wrist, he [could have] died or become paralysed.”

This is not the first time an immigrant has fallen from a roof and broken bones running away from the police, she says. “Sometimes they arrest them here [at the medical centre]. Last summer it happened. Everybody jumped.”

Haroon Abdurallam, a 25-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan, lives in Africa House. He lifts his hat to reveal a scar, the result of a run in with a French policeman:

“I don’t care. I am not scared. I am not a criminal. If you go anywhere, everyone looks at you like you are an animal. They don’t like black people. Police harassment makes [us] feel like animals.”

Constant police harassment is behind much of the animosity that some immigrants feel towards France. The criminalisation of migrants, which begins when they enter Europe and become ‘illegal immigrants’, ends in places like Calais, where a special police force patrols the streets and squats looking for immigrants without papers to arrest.

“The police drive around in vans looking for people who have dark skin because that is the only way they can really find people who don’t have papers. They say it is not racist but … it is not very convincing,” says Matthieu Gues, an activist from the Calais Migrant Solidarity group.

“They go round town during the day, they also go straight to the squats and camps, that is where they check people’s IDs. And we try to be there to warn people that the police are coming.”Africa House, Calais

On arrest, they could be held for 24 hours, or up to a week or more. This might happen once a week, once a day or, in some cases, several times in one day. Every time they are arrested they must walk six miles back from the police station to their squats and camps in Calais.

Mohammed Asif, a 27-year-old Hazare Afghani, who has been all over Europe trying to find a place to settle, is tired.

“I had a small tent,” he explains. “The police cut it and took blanket and put inside car. Every time police control for [your] document. ‘Where you sleep? Who are you?’ When you come to eat at Caritas, the police harass you. They take you to police station, maybe put you in jail.

“In one week, maybe three times[number of arrests]. It is too tiring. We got put inside the car, you go to police station, police station put you to jail for two, three days, one week. You leave the station. It is too much.”

Inside Africa House, CalaisNGOs and charities working in Calais and Dunkirk, where police are equally aggressive, are nonplussed at the tactic, which does not seem to have any point to it. No one is deported as a result of the arrests, and no finger prints are checked during these arrests (as is required under Europe’s Dublin II system).

“People are living like animals and for the police and the authorities it is not enough,” says Matt Quinette from Médicins du Monde, a charity that works with undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in Dunkirk.

“They [the police] destroy their shelter regularly. They destroy food. They arrest the people so many times. One time we had a young guy who was 19 or 20 years old, he was kept three times in the retention centre during 15 days, without any results. He was still in the camps, still on the coastline trying to reach England. But for him it is really difficult, he is really suffering.”

“We [Medicins du Monde] have been fired from south Darfur yesterday. Can you imagine if in Darfur we have a healthcare centre and people are arrested on the way? Can you imagine that we give goods to the people to build a shelter to improve their living conditions and the local authority of Darfur destroyed it? What will happen? You will have international community shouting, you will have UN shouting, here it happens every day and nobody does anything.”

Africa House, Calais

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