I am 100% sure statistics alone won’t win the debate over legal aid

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Act for the Act: campaigners should shut up about what happened in 1815 and start shouting stories of ordinary people helped by Human Rights Act

When Lord Faulks, minister of state for justice, suggested that social welfare lawyers routinely earn ‘£200-odd an hour’, everyone with even passing knowledge of legal aid knew it was nonsense.

The response of most in the profession was to wonder what planet Faulks was on, quietly fume, and then get back to the job of trying to survive on hourly rates many times less than that.

Legal aid lawyers are used to being traduced as fat cats with their snouts in the gravy train, after all.

However, the claim was outlandish enough to pique the interest of the fact-checking organisation FullFact.org, which went to some lengths to investigate the veracity of Faulks’ statement. To no one’s great surprise (including, I suspect, Faulks himself), it established that, far from being ‘always necessary’, it is in fact ‘all but unheard of’ for social welfare lawyers to earn that kind of sum.

When challenged by FullFact to justify the £200 an hour claim, the best the Ministry of Justice could come up with was two remote scenarios: the first was nothing to do with advice work at all (senior barristers instructed on Supreme Court cases can earn up to £225 an hour, apparently); in the second, the MoJ pointed to the fixed fee regime for social welfare work: debt cases are paid at a fixed rate of £180, so any debt case knocked out in an hour would equate to an hourly rate of £180. QED.

Now, as social welfare lawyers know, it is rare for debt cases to be dispensed with that quickly (a client’s income assessment alone can take the best part of an hour), and thanks to the doggedness of Sara Stephens, conveynor of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, we now know just how rare.

According to figures released to her by the Legal Aid Agency, only 5 per cent of all social welfare law cases were resolved in an hour last year. For debt work (the area specifically cited by the MoJ in its justification), the average time taken is 12.7 hours, which works out to a rather more modest hourly rate of about £14.

FullFact claims that since its launch in 2010, it has won corrections from ‘politicians from across the political spectrum’. Not on this occasion. Despite being bang to rights, the MoJ declined to make a retraction.

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Illegal immigrant’s cat is sad because Theresa May won’t apologise

Similarly waiting in vain for an apology is the moggy much-maligned by the home secretary five years ago at the Conservative party conference. In her 2011 attack on the Human Rights Act, Theresa May famously cited the case of ‘the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because he has a pet cat‘. The story was fiction, but the kitty in question is, like FullFact, still awaiting a correction.

How is it that politicians know they can get away with peddling myths about legal aid fat cats, or about real cats being given the right to family life under the Human Rights Act?

Much of the answer is down to the power of story telling. What many politicians (or their speechwriters) and all tabloid editors understand is that often the way to win an argument is to tell the best story, rather cite a series of silly old facts.

The MoJ declined to make a retraction because it knows that, aside from a bunch of lawyers and professional fact-checkers, no one cares about dreary statistics showing debt lawyers earn £14 an hour, when there is a compelling story to tell about legal aid lawyers getting fat at our expense.

Lawyers are generally wrong-footed by these kinds of tactics because they are trained to argue using facts (the real kind, not the political kind). Lawyers assume that what works in court – citing evidence to prove your case – is the way to win the public debate.

To be fair, it’s not just lawyers that get this wrong. Even the most senior politician can make the mistake of thinking they can puncture cherished myths with hard facts alone.

Take Nick Clegg’s TV debate over Europe with Nigel Farage. The then deputy prime minister may have had all the best statistics (‘only 7 per cent of Britain’s laws are made in Europe’; ‘the European Commission employs the same amount of staff as Derbyshire County Council’), but Farage had the best story. Clegg’s no doubt well-researched facts were no match for colourful tales of overbearing bureaucrats banning bent bananas, and by common consent Farage won the debate. The UKIP leader didn’t even bother to rebut Clegg’s carefully memorised stats, he simply batted them away, accusing his opponent of ‘willfully lying to the British people’.

One of Clegg’s advisers should have told him that the only thing people remember about statistics is that they are in the same category as lies and damned lies; and, anyway, 75 per cent of them are made up.

As Alan Schroeder concluded after analysing 50 years of American presidential TV debates, trying to counter your opponent’s story with facts invariably fails. The only way to do it is with another story.

It’s a lesson that supporters of unpopular or widely misunderstood causes would do well to learn.

However, before you can hope to come up with a story of your own about, say, legal aid, or human rights, or immigration, you have to identify the story that your opponent tells – and understand why it is so resonant.

Whether lawyers like it or not (and however unfair), the story of legal aid that politicians of all stripes and much of the media tell goes something like this: there is too much of it; it goes to undeserving people; lawyers are doing too well out of it; and anyway the country can’t afford it.

I made this point at the Bush Theatre earlier this year, during a debate marking the opening of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play, The Invisible. Also on the platform was Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, who leads its access to justice campaign. Miller, whom I like personally and admire professionally (full disclosure: we set up the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards together in 2003), was invited to kick off the discussion by explaining to the theatre audience why legal aid matters. His reply was long on figures (legal aid lawyers only earn around £25,000 a year; at £2bn, the total legal aid budget was a fraction of the annual increase in NHS spending during the Blair years…) but short on emotion. It was only after being prompted that Miller recounted a recent conversation with a housing solicitor in Wales, distraught because his client had killed himself after losing his legal aid.

The Law Society’s access to justice campaign might have more success if it talked less about little legal aid costs, and more about how much it can do.

IMG_1625The Human Rights Act is equally poorly served by its friends. While defenders of the 1998 act bang on about Magna Carta, King John, the barons, Britain’s centuries old tradition of promoting international order, etc, etc, its opponents go for the jugular with stories of how it only protects terrorists and criminals (see left).

In the court of public opinion, the visceral will trump the cerebral every time. If the act is to be saved, its supporters need to shut up about 1815 and start shouting about the bereaved families and ordinary people it helps every day. (This, incidentally, is precisely the aim of the Act for the Act campaign (see above) – which I co-founded in May 2015, along with Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Martha Spurrier.)

As Jonathan Freedland says: ‘The political brain is an emotional brain. It responds not to data but to instinct and feeling.’ The only way to fight your opponent’s populist fire is with some populist fire of your own, he adds.

It is the story (rather than reality) of legal aid which makes it a soft target for cuts, just as it is the story of the NHS which means politicians mess with it at their peril. In the US, the story of gun ownership (enshrined in the Bill of Rights; an emblem of personal freedom) means, no matter how grim the statistics on mass shootings, attempts to introduce even the most modest controls invariable flounder.

Data providers like New Philanthropy Capital may claim that the Chancellor’s U-turn over tax credits ‘shows what can be achieved using robust evidence of impact’ (NPC has its own story to tell, after all), but in fact the opposite is the case.

George Osborne was forced to climb down on this particular issue, despite having made equally severe cuts in other areas, because critics of the tax credit cuts had such a compelling story to tell. A more populist, less aloof politician might have got away with it, but Osborne’s hard-edged persona means he is particularly vulnerable to accusations of heartlessly stomping on the hardworking poor.

Of course, there is a place for empirical data of the kind provided by NPC. But unless statistics chime with people’s existing beliefs or own experiences, they will invariably fail to make much impact (or, as in the case of Clegg, invite accusations of lying). In 1980, American presidential hopeful Ronald Regan demolished the incumbent Jimmy Carter’s statistics apparently showing the economy was recovering with a simple question to voters: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?’

Conversely, even the dodgiest of statistics will serve to reinforce a story which is already widely believed. Just ask the MoJ. Whenever the ‘save legal aid’ campaign appears to be gathering a bit of momentum, the ministry plays its ace. It simply releases the latest batch of figures showing how much top-earning legal aid solicitors and barristers are being paid from the fund.

Even with the best campaign tools, shifting an entrenched debate is a long and uncertain process. Sometimes, however, a change can happen at breathtaking speed. Such shifts may only be short-lived (with normal service being rapidly resumed), but they can still be powerful while they last – and create a platform for campaigners to build on for the future.

The most powerful example of this was last September, when the photograph of three-year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach provoked a wave of sympathy for Syrian refugees.

Overnight, the prevailing migrant story stopped being about the threat they posed to the British way of life, and became about Britain’s proud tradition of offering a safe haven to children. Even before the pictures of Aylan were published, Yvette Cooper MP had planted the seeds for this different narrative, with a spirited attempt to link the Syrian refugee crisis to Britain’s response during the second world war. In a speech which must have seemed politically risky at the time (and might be again now), Cooper called on UK local authorities to accept 10,000 more refugees. For us to ignore the Syrians’ plight would be immoral, cowardly, and ‘not the British way’, she said. ‘How can we be proud of our history of helping those who fled conflict if our generation turns its back?’

Aylan’s picture appeared on most front pages, and prompted even the Sun to call for Britain to take 3,000 orphans. Memories of Britain’s role in the kinder transport were invoked. The shift in sentiment happened so quickly, that it caught Prime Minister David Cameron on the hop. After a few days of insisting Britain couldn’t take any more Syrian refugees, he finally got in step with the public mood and announced we would accept thousands more, after all.

It wasn’t just the prime minister who was caught out. A few days later, Conservative MP Adam Holloway stood up in the commons to decry bogus refugees playing the system, and cited his own barber having gone back to Iraq for a holiday, despite claiming to have fled the country for his own safety. In his defence, Holloway’s tale was no more made up than Theresa May’s cat story, but the media response was entirely different. Rather than receiving plaudits, Holloway was ridiculed, by the Daily Mail of all papers.

Holloway got his timing and his facts wrong, but his real misfortune was that the barber’s story was so irresistible for the press. Rather than holidaying in Iraq, Holloway’s barber had been taking a break in a caravan in Great Yarmouth.

In the resulting gleeful coverage, it was the Tory toff bemoaning being unable to get his haircut in his barber’s absence, who appeared most alien, whereas the Iraqi refugee enjoying a bucket and spade holiday with his son and Gravesend-born wife, Chelsea, was positively one of us.

As Holloway found, when an alternative story gains traction, there are dangers in sticking to the old script. Generally speaking, the media sees things in black and white and can only cope with one overarching narrative at a time.

I saw a good example of this last summer, when a case to determine whether students from migrant backgrounds should be eligible for student loans reached the Supreme Court. A TV news crew sent to cover the case was called away mid-filming and sent to Calais. They were instructed to stop filming the dozens of British-educated teenagers from the Let us Learn campaign protesting peacefully outside the court, and go to Calais instead, to film hundreds of Syrians and Afghanis, storming barricades in their increasingly desperate attempts to reach the UK.

All too predictably, the more familiar migrant narrative – scary!; alien!; a threat to this country! – trumped the story of the Let us Learn campaigners – admirable!; entirely assimilated!; an asset to this country!

As the journalist apologetically explained,  with Calais dominating the news agenda, there was just no room for an entirely different migration story to be heard that day.

For all kinds of reasons, defenders of legal aid will never find it easy to get a hearing, but the very least campaigners should do is make sure they’ve got their story straight.









‘Kesia’s law’: anatomy of a successful campaign

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17-year-old Kesia Leatherbarrow died after being held in police station over the weekend

17-year-old Kesia Leatherbarrow died after being held in police station over the weekend

On Monday 10 November 2014, the government took the unusual step of accepting an amendment to a parliamentary bill during its third (and final) reading in the House of Lords. The legislation was the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. The amendment gives arrested 17 year olds the same rights as younger children to be transferred to local authority accommodation, rather than being locked in cells overnight.

The vote was a significant victory for Just for Kids Law, and other children’s rights campaigners. Equally importantly, it was a rare example of political parties coming together to give greater protection to children in the criminal justice system.

As far as the amendment was concerned, it was a case of third time lucky.

The crossbench peer, the Earl of Listowel, a long-standing advocate for young people’s rights, had put forward the exact same wording at the bill’s committee stage in July, and again at report stage, in October. On both occasions, it was flatly rejected. The Minister of State for Justice Lord Faulks told the house that, while government was sympathetic in principle, the change was too complicated to be rushed through via the current bill.

What happened between October and November to prompt the government’s sudden change of heart? It is a question which I and my Just for Kids Law colleagues have been asking itself ever since.

The concession came five months after we started a dedicated and multi-pronged campaign to bring about just such a change. Just for Kids Law has long argued that the legal discrepancy allowing 17 year olds to be treated as adults in the police station was anomalous and dangerous, and that children this age should have the full range of protections given to their younger counterparts. In 2013, we brought a high court challenge on the basis that the practice of denying them the right to have a parent or other ‘appropriate adult’ with them at the police station was unlawful and had to end. The high court agreed. But while its ruling was important recognition of the vulnerability of children this age, we were aware that other loopholes in police treatment of 17 year olds remained, and that these also needed closing.

Following our successful judicial review, we continued to urge the Home Office to act. In October 2013, an official assured us that in the wake of the case, the government did, indeed, intend to end all the anomalies which leave arrested 17 year olds less protected than other children. What he couldn’t tell us, was when this would happen. Just two months later, we heard news which confirmed that the change couldn’t come soon enough.

On 3 December 2013, 17-year-old Kesia Leatherbarrow (pictured, above) was found dead in a friend’s garden, soon after being released from police custody. Kesia had been arrested for breaking a window and having a small amount of cannabis, and had a history of self-harm and depression. Despite this, she was kept in a police cell all over the weekend. If she had been 16, she would have had the right to be transferred to local authority care overnight. As a 17 year old, however, she had to be treated as an adult and had no such right. Her mother, Martina Brincat Baines, knew nothing of her daughter’s arrest until after Kesia’s death. She believes that if Kesia had been able to be moved somewhere she could have been better looked after, she might not have taken her own life.

Kesia’s was the third suicide that we knew about associated with 17 year olds being treated as adults in the police station. Our earlier judicial review had been supported by the parents of Eddie Thornber and Joe Lawton, 17 year olds who had killed themselves in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Although Eddie and Joe’s deaths were unrelated, there were common threads: both boys had been arrested on minor charges; both died soon after being released from custody; both had been high-achieving and ambitious; neither had told their parents anything about their arrests, nor had an adult with them at the police station to give any guidance or reassurance. Both the Lawtons and Thornbers believe that if their sons had received older and wiser counsel, they would have seen their arrests were not the end of the world, and they would not have been driven to the despair of taking their own lives.

The loophole which meant Joe and Eddie’s parents weren’t informed of their sons’ arrests had now been closed, thanks to the judicial review, but learning of Kesia’s death jolted us back into action. Despite earlier assurances, Home Secretary Theresa May continued to delay (and refused to meet the three families to hear their concerns).

We realised that if the government wasn’t prepared to act quickly off its own bat, we would have to find a way of making them. We were supported by a team of barristers from Doughty Street chambers, who offered their services for free: Caoilfhionn Gallagher (who had acted in our first judicial review, and was also representing Joe Lawton’s family at his inquest), Kate O’Raghallaigh, and Martha Spurrier (who was acting for Kesia’s family at her inquest). They advised that there were grounds for bringing another judicial review on behalf of Kesia’s family, and between us we started putting those wheels in motion. However, we knew legal action alone would not be enough.

As a small charity, the risks of going to court are high in terms of cost and damage to reputation. The outcome is never certain, and we saw litigation very much as a last resort. It was also an ordeal we wanted to spare Kesia’s family, if at all possible. So, we also set about raising public and political awareness of the issue and drumming up interest in the media. We were in regular contact with Kesia’s mum and stepfather, Martina and Matt. They were still reeling from Kesia’s death, but determined to do everything they could to prevent another young, vulnerable, person being treated as she had. The parents of Joe and Eddie were also on board again and equally determined that all the remaining loopholes should be closed. (By bizarre coincidence, all three families lived in the Manchester area and had, by this stage, struck up a supportive friendship.)

On Sunday 13 July, an article appeared in the Sunday Times: ‘May failed us, say parents of teen suicides.’ The following Monday, BBC’s Newsnight featured a devastatingly powerful interview with Matt and Martina, where their grief and determination were evident in equal measure. They were filmed in their sitting room, surrounded by photos of Kesia. Other media interest swiftly followed.

Matt and Martina are teachers. Neither had ever had any dealings with the media before. Both were intensely apprehensive about putting themselves forward for interviews. With our support, however, they wanted to go ahead, as they knew that telling Kesia’s story was the best way of demonstrating the urgency of the issue, and bringing about the change that we all wanted to see. We were also active on social media: organising a ‘thunderclap’ on Twitter (a mass, simultaneous tweet) calling on Theresa May to make good on her promise to change the law relating to 17 year olds. With the support of Change.org, Martina set up an online petition which attracted an incredible 30,000 signatures in under a week. We drew heavily on the expertise and generosity of the Standing Committee on Youth Justice, who did sterling work on our behalf, filling in the extensive gaps in our knowledge about how the parliamentary process works. They were instrumental in getting the amendment tabled (all three times), and putting us in touch with the Earl of Listowel, who is known for his interest in child welfare issues. Others, including parliamentarians and doctors, joined the call.

It is impossible to know what finally tipped the balance and persuaded government to act. Just days before the successful vote, its lawyers were still opposing our judicial review on the basis that 17 year olds were already adequately protected and no change was needed. The message we were getting unofficially from sources close to the Home Office was more conciliatory – accepting that there was an issue – but still adamant we would have to be patient. These things take time, we were told. Even those who actively supported our campaign counselled that there was no chance anything would happen during the life of this parliament.

Below are some reflections following the passing of the amendment which may be helpful to other campaigners:

  • Working closely with families who have experienced the problem first hand, who are willing to speak to the media is utterly essential. No one can tell their story more powerfully and persuasively than they can, or highlight why change is needed. Kesia’s mum and step dad, Martina Brincat Baines and Matt Baines, went from being immobilised by grief, to accomplished and compelling media interviewees in front of our eyes during the space of a few weeks. On the day that the Lords vote was passed, Martina did a series of live radio and television interviews, one after the other, during what was an exhausting day. At each one, she explained clearly and simply why vulnerable teenagers like her daughter need better protection. No campaigner or lawyer – however experienced or media trained – could have matched her.
  • The media can be a powerful ally (although obviously not without risk). Press coverage in the shape of interviews with Kesia’s parents humanised the issue, forcing it up the political agenda, and helping garner public support for an ostensibly unpopular issue (safety of arrested 17 year olds). A side benefit is that we found journalists approaching the Home Office were able to elicit more information about its intentions from the press office than our legal team had been able to glean from its lawyers.
  • Know your organisation’s limitations – and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just for Kids Law is a small charity, with no previous experience of political lobbying. We knew we wanted the government to accept our amendment during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, but had no idea how to go about it. We relied to a huge extent on the expertise and generosity of both Anna Boehm at the Standing Committee on Youth Justice, and Mair Williams, at public relations company Weber Shandwick. SCYJ were already lobbying on the bill and agreed to put forward our amendment (and to keep putting it forward, until government finally said yes); Mair was an invaluable source of information and advice, particularly over how Matt and Martina should approach their own MP for support, and how to prepare for a subsequent meeting with a government minister.
  • Legal action is risky and expensive for charities and should only be considered as a last resort. However, it can be a useful additional source of pressure, and helps make an issue topical from the media’s point of view.
  • Don’t take no for an answer; don’t necessarily listen to those who say it can’t be done – or can’t be done, yet. If you have further strings to your bow and the families are still on board, keep going.
  • Public and media support was vital, but would only get us so far. For the campaign to succeed, we needed the law to change, either through legal action, or a change in legislation.
  • Press releases (however elegantly written) are often ignored. Far better to put resources into working with key trusted journalists (preferably who have a background of taking an interest in this kind of issue). Once a story has appeared in one media outlet, other organisations are far more likely to want to take it up.
  • Choose your battles carefully. Campaigning is demanding of time, energy and emotion – and inherently unpredictable. You need to be able to seize opportunities as they arise; and to adapt and respond as events unfold. In a small charity, you and your colleagues are only likely to be able to do this, and keep on doing it, if the issue at stake is absolutely at the core of what your organisation stands for, and is close to the hearts of all those involved.
  • Don’t be afraid to build unlikely allegiances. Just for Kids is probably better known for being on the opposite side of the argument to the police, say, when we are defending young people in court, or around the issue of stop and search. However, we found we were in agreement on the subject of whether arrested 17 year olds should be treated as adults or children. The police gave us a statement backing our campaign, which reinforced how widely supported and common sense the change we were calling for was.
  • Being bold and taking the initiative can make all the difference. It is easy for small charities to be reactive, given their limited resources. By going out on a limb, we were able to fire up the campaign in a way which would otherwise have been inconceivable. After learning of Joe Lawton’s tragic death, Just for Kids Law director Shauneen Lambe contacted his parents by sending a letter via their MP; she wrote to Kesia’s parents via the funeral director, which was the only detail included in a local newspaper report about Kesia’s death which gave any clue of how to contact them. Not every bereaved family will want to take part in a wider campaign, but it is our experience that some will welcome it as a way of channeling their grief into action.

Just for Kids Law had no previous experience of political lobbying. It may be that our naivety actually worked in our favour on this occasion. More seasoned political campaigners were telling us we were too late to get an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts bill – but no one seemed able to tell us why. Government had accepted that change was needed – Lord Faulks had said as much in the Lords when the Earl of Listowel had raised the amendment the first two times (although their lawyers were still saying the opposite to our lawyers).

We knew the Criminal Justice and Courts bill was an obvious legislative vehicle for the amendment. We knew the bill already included a provision relating to arrested 17 year olds (giving them the right to have an adult with them before DNA samples are taken), so didn’t understand why our amendment couldn’t be tagged on to this. We knew it was just, literally, a case of amending one word in existing legislation (changing the definition of ‘juvenile’ in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 from under 17s to under 18s). What we didn’t know was why government couldn’t just get on and make the change now.

As luck would have it, that was a question that Martina and Matt would have a chance to put directly to policing minister Mike Penning. Some time earlier, they had gone to see their MP, Lindsay Hoyle, to ask for his support. Hoyle, a Labour MP and deputy speaker, had offered to arrange a meeting with Penning, who happened to be a friend of his, and – entirely coincidentally – this was scheduled for just a few days ahead of the crucial Lords vote. Matt and Martina travelled down from Manchester for what was to be their first ever visit to the Houses of Parliament. Armed with photos of Kesia, they told Penning their story, explained their concerns about the lack of protections for 17 year olds, and made one simple request: please could he find out if there was a good reason why the law couldn’t be changed sooner rather than later? Penning appeared not to be familiar with Kesia’s case (we think he had seen them simply as a favour to Hoyle, without really knowing what he was letting himself in for). To his great credit, however, he was candid enough to admit he didn’t know the answer to their question. He would find out and get back to them.

Matt and Martina, flanked by members of Just for Kids Law team, at the House of Lords

Matt and Martina, flanked by members of Just for Kids Law team, at the House of Lords

Matt and Martina didn’t actually hear any more from Penning, and we have no idea what went on behind the scenes after the meeting. What we do know, however, is that on the Friday before the Monday when the third reading of the bill was due in the Lords, we started hearing whispers that there was movement afoot. We didn’t quite dare to believe it.

Matt and Martina had been planning to travel down to London on the day of the Lords vote to deliver their online petition to the Home Office. Instead, they found themselves sitting in the gallery of the House of Lords as guests of the Earl of Listowel, watching him put his amendment for the third time. On this occasion, instead of batting it back, Lord Faulks announced the government would accept the change. ‘17 year olds, as with 12- to 16-year-old children, must be transferred to suitable local authority accommodation,’ rather than being held in police cells overnight, Faulks told the House.

It was an incredibly emotional moment. All the more so when the earl went on to talk about Kesia, Eddie and Joe – and also about Martina and Matt. ‘Great tribute must go to Martina and Matt Baines, the mother and stepfather of Kesia Leatherbarrow. Despite their terrible and at times overwhelming grief, they threw themselves into campaigning for what they think of as “Kesia’s law”….Without the commitment of these extraordinary parents in their time of enormous loss, I do not think that the changes would have been made today.’

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Fiona Bawdon worked on Just for Kids Law’s #stillachildat17 campaign. These are her personal views. 

From a small selection of gold baubles; to tartan dachshunds, skateboarding Jack Skellingtons, and knitted Santas. What 26 years of family life will do to your Christmas tree decoration collection.

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We got married just before Christmas 1988. The reception was to be at our flat, so we wanted a IMG_1346Christmas tree to give it a suitably festive feel. We went to John Lewis (as about-to-be-married couples do), to buy the decorations, and I remember spending what seemed like an inordinate amount of money on probably three-dozen tasteful, gold-coloured glass baubles.

Twenty-six years on, a few of them still survive.

Over the years, however, they have been joined by an increasingly eclectic, mishmash of decorations, each of which has some special significance, and a particular memory attached to it.

I’ve now come to think of our tree decorations as a metaphor for the trajectory of married life. You start out, assuming you know what to expect: confident that your future will be happy, ordered, and largely within your control – as reflected in the choice of the tasteful, if faintly dull, matching baubles. You end up – after more than a quarter century of ups, downs, joys, sorrows (including bereavement and serious illness) – recognising that it was never going to be like that. You also discover that, far from being something to be regretted, the chaos and unpredictability of family life is cause for celebration – hence the fairly bonkers collection of ornaments we are proud to display each Christmas.

IMG_1295Our sons are now both six-foot plus, but the tree tells the tale of their smaller selves. There are festive plastic shapes bought from the Early Learning Centre, painted with more enthusiasm than talent when they were toddlers (and not much enthusiasm either, if I’m honest). There are umpteen Tiggers (both Disney and AA Milne versions); and many a superhero: batman with the Joker’s head as a Jack-in-a-box; Superman carrying a sack of presents. There are cartoon characters like an ice-fishing Taz: each of these figures is a mini work of art and irreplaceable.

There is a Santa and a snowman, knitted long ago by my mother-in-law for the grandsons that she is no longer capable of recognising. There are characters from Harry Potter, but less because we are fans of JK Rowling, and more because my late father-in-law’s name was Harold Potter.

There is a misshapen clay star covered with glitter, made by one of our sons at nursery (I can’t remember which); and a perfect, vivid green silk star, bought in memory of a new-born baby girl (whose name meant ‘emerald’), who survived just two hours.

IMG_1347 There are Christmas robots (me neither…); and Oogie Boogie, the bogeyman from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. In the film, Oogie is made of a sack filled with maggots, but our version is just plastic.

We have a Santa on a gondola, bought on a trip by the four of us to Venice marking our 20th wedding anniversary (we’d also been there on honeymoon, but would never have bought such a thing back then). There is a cheesy Statue of Liberty, bought the year we all went to New York; and a wooden reindeer from a trip to Lapland. Ironically, the sub-standard Santa – supposedly the highlight of the trip – couldn’t actually name a single one of his own reindeer when asked.

There are various breeds of dogs; some (I confess) sitting in sparkly stiletto shoes. The most numerous are dachshunds, in honour of our mini dachs, Flash, who is only just marginally too big to hang on the tree himself.

One of the biggest ornaments that we do manage to fit on the tree is a foot-long, glass and pointed. I think it is meant to be an icicle, but it reminds me more of a dagger, although that might be because it was a present from a friend who was in the middle of an unhappy split from her much-loved husband at the time.

There is a brace of baubles in the shape of Arsenal shirts – which were an absolute bargain, reduced to under half price in the Arsenal shop; and also ones to mark the 2012 Olympics, an event which showed the city where our children have been privileged to grow up at its absolute best.

London is also where we as a family have made some of our most stalwart and loyal friends. This year, we lost one of the staunchest of these; someone special to each of us, that our sons have known and loved and seen regularly all their lives. Her death left us all reeling, united in grief and incomprehension.

It is only a tiny act of remembrance, but we were all cheered to discover the glassware design company she worked for all the time we knew her, makes Christmas decorations. This year and every year from now on, we will hang an elegant engraved glass snowflake in her memory.

It seems a fitting tribute.

However brilliant the lawyer or enlightened the judges, the law can only develop if there are brave souls like ‘Mr and Mrs E,’ prepared to put themselves through the mill of the legal process

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It was supposed to have been a day of celebration.

Three years earlier, ‘HL’, a 48-year-old man with autism and learning difficulties, had come to live with a foster family. Despite having spent 32 years in institutions, he had adapted quickly to family life and had made remarkable progress.

Cheers! This year 'HL' (pictured) celebrated 20 years with his foster family and 10 years since the European Court ruling

Cheers! This year ‘HL’ (pictured) celebrated 20 years with his foster family and 10 years since the European Court ruling

‘He was off all medication and doing amazingly well,’ says Mrs E, one half of the married couple that cared for him. The health authority agreed the placement had been a success, and announced that it wanted to formally discharge HL from its care.

It was just the news that Mrs E and her husband had been hoping for. (Neither they, nor HL can be identified for legal reasons.) ‘He was part of the family by then, very popular with our three sons and the wider family,’ she says. While HL went off to the day centre, the pair went shopping for the party they were planning that evening to celebrate the arrangement being made permanent.

When they got back, they had a phone call with shocking news. HL had become distressed at the day centre after a mix up with the transport arrangements; when Mr and Mrs E couldn’t be contacted, he had been admitted to a hospital severe behavioural unit.

Not only was there to be no party for HL, Mr and Mrs E were not even to visit him. ‘We had to take him some clothes, but had to leave them at the entrance. They said we weren’t allowed to see him because it might upset him and he might want to leave with us,’ says Mrs E. It was to be several months before they would even set eyes on him again.

Mr and Mrs E had fostered HL after answering an ad in the paper seeking carers. ‘We just wanted to do something nice for somebody, now our boys were growing up.’ says Mrs E. They were to discover that in order to continue doing something nice for HL, they would first have to take on the entire UK legal system.

The 1997 ‘Bournewood gap’ case, as it came to be known, highlighted a loophole in the existing law, and the lack of protections for those like HL without mental capacity, who had been informally admitted to hospital and held in conditions amounting to detention. During a period of five months, the case wound its way through the high court, appeal court and House of Lords. At one point they even thought of contacting publicist Max Clifford, although are now glad they didn’t. They lost at every stage, and when they did eventually see HL again, he was barely recognisable. ‘I couldn’t believe it was him. He was covered in blood, where he had self-harmed, and had lost so much weight,’ says Mrs E. Eventually, and despite the courts ruling against them, HL was allowed to return to their care. Mrs E says: ‘When we gave him his coat to put on and said it’s time to go home, he was out in the car park before we could keep up with him.’

In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights was asked to rule on whether HL had been unlawfully detained by the hospital. The court agreed that he had, and that his human rights had been breached. It also called for UK law to be amended to fill the gap that HL’s case had identified, and for the creation of a legal mechanism for challenging the informal detention of someone without mental capacity. The ruling led directly to the introduction in 2009 of the deprivation of liberty safeguards (by way of an amendment to the Mental Capacity Act).

The DoL safeguards are far from perfect (of which more later), but they are an important recognition of the need to protect the rights of what one local authority director of social care calls ‘the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable’.

It was thanks to the safeguards that Mark Neary was able to get his son, Steven, out of the hospital where Hillingdon council said he should live, and back home with his dad. It was thanks to DoLS that a man who had been uprooted from the city where he’d lived all his life and stuck in a rural care home, was able to be moved back closer to his three daughters. His solicitor Nicola Mackintosh, who specialises in mental capacity cases, says: ‘He was really distressed. The DoLS best interests assessor came in and said, we have to get him a place in the city. The local authority said no. It’s in his best interests to be where he is.’ After two years during which the local authority ‘fought tooth and nail to keep him,’ Mackintosh finally succeeded in getting him back. ‘He is now much, much happier,’ she says.

Under DoLS, if a hospital or care home wants to deprive a patient of their liberty by restricting where they can go or what they can do, it has to apply to the local authority for approval. (A similar process applies where people are deprived of their liberty in their own homes, albeit with these decisions being overseen by the Court of Protection.) The patient has the right to have someone speak on their behalf, and to have their best interests taken into account. Restrictions must be the minimum needed to keep them safe from harm; must be regularly reviewed; and subject to appeal to the Court of Protection (which is what happened in the Neary case).

Most observers agree that the DoLS system is unnecessarily bureaucratic and lacks independence. The Law Commission has been asked to review its workings, after a critical report by a House of Lords select committee, in March this year. However, for all their failings, the safeguards introduced as a result of HL’s case will have made an immeasurable difference to the quality of life of many, many vulnerable people. Roger Hargreaves, a former mental health social worker, who leads on DoLS issues for the Mental Health Alliance, says the system needs overhauling, but adds: ‘There is a lot of good work being done. Care plans have been amended and people have been allowed home.’ Mr E says: ‘What happened to us just couldn’t happen now. Then, it was just a clinical decision by the doctor to keep him there.’

Nicola Mackintosh knows of patients who hadn’t been outside their care home in nine months, who are now taken out on a regular basis. Sophy Miles, the solicitor who acted for Steven Neary and chairs the Law Society mental health committee, points out that even a small change to a care plan can make the world of difference. She cites the example of a woman who was barred from entering the kitchen, to stop her getting hold of knives. After her case was assessed, her DoLS authorisation specified that the knife drawer should be kept locked. “So she was free to go into the kitchen if she wanted to get a biscuit or something,” says Miles.

Mr and Mrs E are by no means alone in winning significant legal changes by their willingness to put their heads above the parapet. There would have been no second Hillsborough inquest had it not been for the tenacity of Anne Williams, whose 15 year old son Kevin died in the 1989 disaster. In 2013, a remarkably brave young man, Hughes Chang, brought a judicial review which has led to better protections for all of the 75,000 17 year olds who are arrested each year.

The doyenne of courageous clients must, of course, be Doreen Lawrence, whose battle on behalf of her son, Stephen, led to sweeping legal and social reforms. I have written before on this blog of my admiration for Doreen, whose bravery and doggedness, has rightly been well recognised. By contrast, legal restrictions to protect HL’s anonymity mean Mr and Mrs E cannot even be identified, let alone feted (they sign off their emails with a cheery: ‘Yours anonymously, Mr & Mrs E!’). For them, there is no prospect of a seat in the House of Lords, or opportunity to carry the Olympic flag; no chance to be photographed alongside Emma Thompson and Annie Lennox in an advertising campaign for Marks & Spencer.

What also sets them apart is that Mr and Mrs E weren’t seeking justice for themselves or for a family member, but rather for a man they were being paid to foster, and who was no relation to them. Mrs E says: ‘If it was any other form of employment, you’d just walk away from it, but we couldn’t do that. We just wanted to get him back where he belonged and where he wanted to be.’

Seventeen years on, they continue to campaign on the issue, and provide support to others who find themselves battling local authority intransigence. Just recently, they heard from the wife of a dementia patient in his 80s, who was excluded from the DoLS decision-making process on safeguarding grounds. ‘He wanted to go home, but the local authority said the fact she called him “naughty boy” meant she was a danger to him.’ They were also contacted by a son was told he couldn’t bring his father home, because there was a cooker in his kitchen.

This year saw a number of significant milestones for HL. It is 20 years since he came to live with Mr and Mrs E, 10 years since the European court ruling, and his 65th birthday. Unsurprisingly, they threw a big party for him, which he did actually get to attend this time. The event was a great success and well attended. Mrs E says: ‘I thought to myself, if anyone tried to take him away again, there’s 40 people in this room who would vouch for him.’


Home Secretary: time to change your record on keeping arrested 17 year olds safe

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IMG_1240For my 17th birthday, my boyfriend gave me a single by punk band the Lurkers. My suspicion then (and now), was that he’d bought it for himself; had belatedly realised he couldn’t pitch up empty-handed on his (still relatively new) girlfriend’s birthday, and so gave it to me instead. It was still in the bag. I don’t remember if there was a card.

My 17th was also the day I had my provisional driving licence. That morning, I went with my mum in her red Opel Kadett to a quiet bit of road near the river to have my first go at driving. After several minutes of kangaroo starts, stalling, and yelling at each other, we gave up, and my mum drove us home again. (In fact, it was said boyfriend, who deserves much of the credit for teaching me to drive.)

Seventeen is a strange age. Still at school, but very much focused on life beyond school. On the brink of adulthood, but reminded daily you are not quite there yet. Able to take on the huge responsibility of driving a car, but not trusted to vote.

It can be an equally strange time for parents. Your child still lives at home, but probably spends less and less time there. They remain financially dependent on you (through no fault of their own), but are becoming increasingly independent from you in other ways. They may be taller and more streetwise than you, but remain your legal responsibility.

Recent social and educational changes have reinforced the message that 17 year olds are more child than adult. Not just the raising of the school leaving age (many of my friends left school and started their first job at 16), but also the advent of AS levels. The introduction of these exams, taken at 17, will only have encouraged parents (and schools) to grant children this age less autonomy than they otherwise might. Gone are the days when the first year of sixth form didn’t really count for much, so the lower sixth passed largely under the school radar. Now, the academic performance of 17 year olds is treated as a matter of great import, requiring intense oversight by parents and teachers, alike.

Once a child turns 17, they no longer receive all the protections in the police station given to younger children

Once a child turns 17, they no longer receive all the protections in the police station given to younger children

Whereas we’d been getting served in pubs from about 14, the age limit in pubs is now much more strictly enforced, which also makes the divide between 17 and 18 more significant. A friend’s daughter, the oldest in her year, bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t go clubbing to celebrate her 18th, because none of her friends were yet old enough to get in. (An offer from her dad to accompany her, was met with the disdain it deserved.) There was none of this ‘Challenge 25’ malarkey in my day; more of a ‘Don’t ask; don’t tell,’ approach by publicans. (There were no alcopops, either, and as no one could afford more than about one bottle of pilsner lager all evening, no great harm was done.)

No one quite knows what to make of 17 year olds: they’re neither fish nor fowl; not fitting easily into either camp.

When Socialist Worker wrote gleefully recently about the terrible death of Horatio Chapple (‘Eton by bear? The inquest begins’), it provoked outrage. How could anyone find the violent and terrifying death of a schoolchild an occasion for mirth and bad puns? I suspect it was the fact Horatio was 17, which made him fair game for this kind of (ironically) juvenile bile. If it had been an equally posh 16 year old who had been killed by that polar bear, I imagine decency might have prevailed, even among armchair class warriors.

While some confusion over the adult/child status of 17 year olds may be understandable (necessary, even, for the parents and teens, themselves), it seems less understandable for the law to share that ambivalence. If the law in question relates to the way 17 year olds are treated in that most adult of environments, the police station, it seems entirely inexcusable.

Yet legal confusion and inconsistency over the status of 17 year olds in the police station remains – and has now been linked to three deaths in three years.

Legal confusion remains despite a successful high court challenge (HC v Home Secretary) brought last year by the charity Just for Kids Law. It remains despite the judge saying the case showed just how vulnerable arrested 17 year olds can be, and how much in need of adult support.

It remains despite the subsequent assurances given by Home Secretary Theresa May that she would review all the legal loopholes which allow 17 year olds to be treated as adults in the police station. It remains despite the UK’s very clear obligations under the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child, to treat all under 18s as children.

Most damning of all, it remains, despite the third suicide of a 17 year old, who had not received all the protections that would have been given to an arrested 16 year old.

The deaths of these three 17 year olds were unrelated, but the families of Kesia Leatherbarrow (6 March 1996-3 December 2013); Joe Lawton (9 January 1995-11 August 2012) and Eddie Thornber (17 December 1993-14 September 2011), all believe that if their children had been given appropriate support after arrest, they would not have died.

It is to Theresa May’s great shame that she opposed the legal action last April, arguing for the status quo. It is to her shame that she did this, despite knowing that Eddie and Joe’s deaths had been linked to the loophole which meant their parents weren’t informed of their arrests. It is equally to her shame that, after losing the case, she paid only lip service to the judge’s ruling, making limited changes, and leaving the anomaly which allowed Kesia to be held for two nights and three days in the police station. If Kesia had been 16, rather than spending the whole weekend in a police cell, she could have been moved to local authority care, where trained staff would have been available to look after her welfare.

May’s stance towards 17 year olds is in stark contrast to that of her counterpart at the Ministry of Justice, who seems clear that they are still only children. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling recently announced that 15-17 year olds in young offender institutions will have to be tucked up in bed with the lights out by 10.30pm, or face punishment..

Yet, as the new policing minister Michael Penning recently confirmed, the government doesn’t even bother to collect centralised figures on the number of 17 year olds who are arrested, and so may be at risk. Infantalising 17 year olds is fine, it seems, if it’s punitive, but not if it’s in the interest of protecting their welfare

Eddie was a former head boy and keen sportsman; Joe was bright and ambitious; Kesia was a troubled soul, with a history of depression and self harm. What their tragic deaths show is that all arrested 17 year olds, regardless of their situation or previous mental state, need proper protections. Thrust into the alien, isolating environment of a police station, even the most confident among them is likely to be vulnerable, in a way that someone even just a little older, with more experience of life beyond home and school, may not be.

The three bereaved families recently wrote jointly to Theresa May, calling on her to act. ‘We do not want to meet another family whose lives have been devastated by the failure in the law to comply with its duties to children. None of us wants to see another family suffer as we are.’

Nothing will ever take away these parents’ suffering over the loss of their beloved children, but if the Home Secretary were to heed their call for change, it really would be music to their ears.

Fiona is working with Just for Kids Law on its #stillachildat17 campaign, to force the Home Secretary to close all the remaining legal loopholes, which allow 17 year olds to be treated as adults in the police station.




Maybe it’s because I’m (not originally) a Londoner…


Londoners showing characteristic insouciance   & ignoring 40 foot tall spider...

Londoners showing characteristic insouciance by ignoring 40 foot tall spider on South Bank…

Not so long ago, late one evening, a man who lives on our street in north London hammered on the front door. It was my 18-year-old son who heard him and opened it. Rather breathlessly, the man – whom my son didn’t recognise  – explained he had nearly been mugged and had headed for the nearest front door to get away from his would-be assailants.

After waiting a few minutes in our hall, it appeared the muggers had disappeared, so he went on his way.

The next night, he came back. This time, he was carrying a bottle of red wine, by way of thanks for the previous night. My son opened the door again, gratefully accepted the wine, and they had a bit of a chat. It didn’t occur to him to ask the man’s name or which number he lived at on our (not very long) street.

For me, this episode (the attempted mugging bit aside, obviously) encapsulates everything I love about my adoptive home town (of which more, later).

One in three  22-30 year-olds who move city move to the capital

One in three 22-30 year-olds who move city move to the capital

There was a moment when, as a fairly disaffected teen living at home in Reading, Berkshire, I realised the only place I ever wanted to live was London. It wasn’t the sights, or the shops, or even the fact that so many of the punk bands we wanted to see played here. It was the green Mohican. I was on a busy bus heading back to Paddington station, when a youth, in full punk regalia and foot-high green plumage, got on – and no one took the slightest bit of notice of him. Not one eyelid was batted. This, I remember thinking, is the place for me. Not because I wanted green spiky hair, but because I wanted to live somewhere no one would care if I did. Having seen my mum tell my sister to move out after she came home with an afro perm (for fear of what the neighbours would say), it felt like liberation.

In Reading in those days, anyone outlandish or unconventional would get stares at best, a good kicking from the New Town Boys at worst. The NTB were local hard nuts, who lived around Cemetery Junction – the area featured in the Ricky Gervais film of the same name (although the filmatic version bears no resemblance…). A bit like skins, with crombies and DMs but longer hair, the NTB thought it only their duty to beat non-conformity out of anyone they happened upon.

In London, I was delighted to discover, even the most ludicrous hairstyle wasn’t enough to warrant a second glance, let alone a punch in the face.

It may be that places like Reading have changed in the last 30 years, but perhaps not as much as you might think.

When I was growing up, an elderly man who lived two doors down, put up a sign in his front garden berating the man opposite for regularly parking his car outside his house. On a public road. Not blocking his drive way, or anything. Just parked outside, entirely legally. It probably didn’t help our neighbour’s temper that the family opposite were Asian – still a rarity in that area at the time.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the close where my mum now lives, when one of her neighbours came out to say I couldn’t park directly opposite his drive. I was more amused than annoyed (displaying characteristic Londoner tolerance); explained I hadn’t realised he owned the road, and meekly parked elsewhere. (In fairness, he did have the good grace to apologise to my mum subsequently for being a bit of a prat.)

So what is it about the doorstep incident that cheers me so much?

I love the fact that that the man knew he could call at our door for help, even though he didn’t know us from Adam (or vice versa). I love it that my otherwise streetwise son’s instinct was to open the door to someone in apparent distress. Although not unaware it might be a scam (and we have had plenty of those…), the desire to help overrode other worries. I love it that the man was sweet enough to bring wine, and the fact he went out to buy it the next night, rather than sitting at home worrying about getting mugged again. And I particularly love the fact that, although both wanted to acknowledge they’d done the other a good turn, neither my son or the man felt the need to go crazy and act as if they were now best buddies and ask the other’s name or anything…..

People criticise London for its anonymity, but that is also its greatest strength. With anonymity comes acceptance, tolerance, and suspension of judgement, all qualities which, in my (possibly atypical) experience, tend to be in shorter supply outside the capital.

Vince Cable, the business secretary, recently said London was ‘draining life out of the rest of the country,’ oblivious to the fact that the capital is creating the kind of life for some people that is just not possible elsewhere. No wonder, one in three 22-30 year olds who move city, move to London. The only surprise to me is that when they hit their 30s and start families, 60% of Londoners move out to the ‘burbs. Maybe it’s (largely unwarranted) fears about London schools that does it, but why anyone would want to deprive their children of the chance of growing up in one of the best, most divese cities in the world, I cannot imagine.

When I see the class photo of the daughter of friends who live two hours up the M1, and it is a sea of white faces, I feel faintly depressed and slightly claustrophobic. When I hear the father say their holiday hotel was run by ‘two poofs,’ I reflect that the word ‘poofs’ has probably not been uttered in polite society in north London in 30 years.

As the roll call of dead emerged after 7/7, mixed with shock and outrage was very real pride, that people from so many different countries and cultures, had chosen this magnet of a city as their home, and been rubbing along in the same tube train. The week after the bombings, the cover of Timeout magazine read: ‘London Carries On.’ And, of course, being Londoners, we did. (And, if UKIP leader Nigel Farage feels ‘slightly awkward‘ only hearing foreign voices, may I suggest he stops taking up valuable space on rush-hour trains out of Charing Cross and buggers off back to the 1950s.)

What some perceive as Londoners’ unfriendliness, I would characterise as keeping our noses out where they’re not wanted. Where help is obviously needed, it tends to be forthcoming. The friendliness of the 2012 Olympics was not an aberration, but London doing what it mostly does. Anyone who travels by bus – and invariably witnesses people springing up to offer a seat if someone pregnant, or with a walking stick gets on – can testify to that. Just this week, a friend over from Paris (only two-and-a-bit hours by Eurostar…), who was making a pig’s ear of getting through the Arsenal tube barrier with her suitcase, had two Underground staff instantly at her side offering joshing assistance (while I waited further ahead shouting, ‘Get a grip, woman!’)

Obviously, London isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The journalist Ian Jack recently compared London’s ‘noisy, febrile and decadent’ restaurants (I think it was meant to be a criticism) unfavourably with one he had just visited in Belgium, which was ‘full of middle-class and middle-aged-to-elderly people in forgettable clothes’. Each to their own. What sounds to me like a geriatric ward – quiet, men in white aprons, elderly people eating ‘potato soup and cod’ – is Ian’s idea of a good night out. That’s absolutely fine, Ian. I am a Londoner, and I Do Not Judge (even though you’re wrong).

I am of course horribly biased. All the best things in my life, have happened to me in London: studying, working, meeting my husband (who also grew up in the sticks, and had a map of the Underground on his bedroom wall), setting up home, getting married, having children, the opportunity to forge friendships with all manner of fine folk.

London is not Nirvana. But Londoners should take pride in the fact that, in the main, we don’t care if you’re gay or straight, or somewhere in between. We don’t care if you’re black or white. I’d be lying if I said we’d got to a state of indifference towards transgender people, but I’d like to think we’re starting to get there (thanks in no small part to my good friends at All About Trans), and I’m prepared to bet we’ll do so before anywhere else in the UK. We absolutely don’t care if you keep your front garden tidy (should you be lucky enough to have one), and feel free to park outside my house any time. On a good day, we don’t even care what class you’re from. If you’re here, you’re one of us, and you’re very, very welcome. Just don’t expect us to make eye contact on the tube.

In sickness and in health


My husband, Tim, and I are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary today (17 December).

This is us 25 years ago; on honeymoon, on xmas day, in Venice. No wonder, we are smiling.

This is us 25 years ago; on honeymoon, on xmas day, in Venice. No wonder, we are smiling.

There was a time just a few months ago, when I thought we might not get here. Not, as you could be forgiven for thinking (given that nearly four out of 10 marriages end in divorce), because we might decide to go our separate ways, but because in July this year, he nearly – very, very nearly – died.

The details of his sudden illness are not especially relevant here (and that is his story to tell, not mine), but such a close brush with widowhood inevitably makes you reappraise some beliefs and confirms you in others. These are my reflections on a traumatic few months.

Things the medical profession should know, but doesn’t appear to

Patients’ families are not annoyances to be tolerated at best, avoided and ignored, if at all possible. Ill people are not islands. They come with baggage, called families, to which they hope to return. There is little point in doctors employing all their skills and expertise and precious NHS resources to save someone’s life if, by the time they have fixed them, there is no family to go back to because everyone is in pieces, having been driven to the brink of craziness by the medics’ failure to treat them with any kind of respect, or tell them what the hell is going on during what is the most important, difficult and frightening time of their lives.

It is not ok to say to the wife of a dangerously ill patient who was hospitalised while on holiday in Cornwall, that he may be stuffed in an ambulance and shipped 265 miles back to some random hospital in London, if they happen to need the bed over the weekend. Nor is it ok to tell a patient in the early stages of recovering from brain surgery that, now his life is not in immediate danger, you can’t continue to treat him for budgetary reasons. This kind of stuff does not aid a patient’s recovery, however marvellous the surgery performed or drugs prescribed.

To the consultant who couldn’t be arsed to turn up to an agreed meeting the day my husband was discharged, shame on you. It would have taken you 10 minutes. It would have saved us untold distress, when we had already been through quite enough, thank you. When someone is going home after an emergency craniotomy, it is not unreasonable to allow his spouse the chance to ask questions such as: do we have to watch him like a hawk, or can he be left on his own for short periods? Basic stuff, like that.

Things I probably should have known, but didn’t

You can survive a lot longer than you might think on a diet of chewy mints, Pro Plus and tea.

One of the earliest 'selfies'. Wales, easter 1988. Our first trip together

One of the earliest ‘selfies’. Wales, easter 1988. Our first trip together

Cornwall is lovely, but I wouldn’t advise getting ill there. Everything is so far away from everywhere else. My husband ended up in a hospital a three-hour round trip from where we were staying. (Even the closest hospital was an hour away.) If we hadn’t been able to hole-up in a charity-run hostel near the hospital (until I was less wired and more fit to drive), I don’t know what we would have done. Anyone thinking of retiring to Cornwall, might wish to take note.

Casualty is not necessarily a hellhole. It can be the NHS at its finest. When the A&E doctor takes you into a room with pastel sofas, you should brace yourself for bad news. But however bad the news, the fact that it is delivered with such sensitivity and kindness will be really, really appreciated. Casualty doctor, you were a credit to your calling. We met only briefly and in the most difficult of circumstances, but my son still remembers your name.

When it comes to arrogance, QCs (and I deal with them quite often), have nothing on consultants. I used to think the question: ‘What’s the difference between god and a surgeon? (Answer: God doesn’t want to be a surgeon),’ was a joke. I now realise this is not the case.

Sometimes, only a cliché will do. Nurse Cathy at Truro hospital, you were not just an angel, but a star and a marvel. Even in our distress, we know how hard you fought for us. When, after a hellish day’s waiting, a doctor we had not seen before, arrived to announce that no specialist hospital would take Tim, after all (but they would discuss his case at their next regular case conference in five days’ time….), your face was as much a mask of horror as my own. I honestly do not think my husband would be alive now if you hadn’t stayed beyond the end of your shift to argue his case in a way, at the time, I could not.

Having GP friends (even if they are hundreds of miles away) can be bloody reassuring, if you are ensnared by NHS bureaucracy. I will never, ever, forget the response of doctor friends to my increasingly desperate and hysterical phone calls, when we were told there was no transport available to move my husband to a specialist neurological unit. When I phoned them again, this time on the verge of a complete meltdown at the hospital’s intransigence, my friends had already organised the charter of an air ambulance and accompanying anaesthetist.  (In the event, such DIY tactics were not needed because, after much pleading and arguing, the hospital suddenly found a solution…)

Intensive care is an amazing, humbling place. Witnessing every medical device available to the NHS devoted to keeping your husband alive and monitoring his progress, is awe-inspiring. Intensive care nurses have a unique ability to be constantly and reassuringly present, but unobtrusive and almost invisible. Nurse Alan was particularly impressive in this regard. We were also pleased to discover that, if needed, he could get in the face of an elusive consultant. When Alan saw the agony we were in, two days after Tim had been admitted to intensive care and still no doctor had come to talk to us (against the hospital’s own guidelines), we watched Alan go and just stand next to the doctor on the ward, until he agreed to come over to Tim’s bed. That was the first time anyone told us that, despite being intubated and apparently completely unaware, Tim would most likely make a full recovery. It would have been nice to have known a bit earlier that we were safe to dare to hope.

Sometimes you have to shout, literally, to be heard. Sometimes, you have to argue and demand and sob to get anyone to take any notice. Acting like a demented harpy is distressing and draining, but it may be what keeps the person you care about alive.

Things I was right about

That you should not believe all the negative crap you read about teenage boys (hello, Daily Mail!). Ours two sons are:

a) Fairly typical teens, and b) Wise, selfless and mature young men; fantastic in a crisis.

There is no contradiction between those two statements. I can think of no finer tribute to my husband’s abilities as a father than the way his sons reacted to his near demise. Whatever worries I may have for the future, those two going far wrong is not one of them. You were both brilliant, brave and resilient, and I have never been more proud to be your mum.

Animal lovers can be people lovers, too. Among our logistical nightmares, was what to do with the dog and the cat, while we decamped nearer to the hospital. Huge, huge thanks to the two complete strangers who run the local kennel and cattery. Their response to a panicky, middle-of-the-night, email was to phone first thing the next morning and say: ‘Just bring the animals, now.  Do not worry about bringing food or bedding or anything else. We have everything here and you have enough to worry about. We will keep them as long as you need us to.’ Ladies, you helped save this family.

Things I was wrong about

There is an assumption that, when the chips are really down, members of your extended family will rally round to help. Not in every case, I discovered. A couple of other things: uninviting those who are in the middle of a medical emergency from a family wedding because they didn’t RSVP in time, not kind; leaving sobbing messages about how hard you are finding it to cope on the answer phone of someone who is stuck 265 miles away from home, with a husband in intensive care, and two teenage sons scared out of their wits that their father is going to die, also not kind. Nobody likes a drama queen – particularly in the middle of a very real drama.

Whoever said that while you can’t choose your family, at least you can choose your friends was spot on. I would, therefore, like to congratulate myself for my excellent choices.  Friends, you are lovely, lovely, people – and I salute you all. We would not have got this far without you. To those who dropped everything to come to Plymouth, who sent flowers and gifts, and endless, endless, texts and emails, who visited the hospital so many times, who love-bombed us into surviving, there are no words. To the friend who, although more used to five-star luxury, came and shacked up with us in the hostel, without demur; who packed her Kindle and her unrelenting air of calm, and just sat in the waiting room for days on end, so I would have company when I emerged from the ward, I can never thank you enough. To my friend in France who really was there on the phone, day or night, with extreme good sense and wise counsel (even at 3am) – that’s a debt I can never repay.

It won’t be the silver wedding anniversary we were expecting. We’ll have to have that party we talked about another year, but happy anniversary, Tim. It probably goes without saying, we are so glad to have you back.

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