Slopping Out

It's definitely not nice to have to pee or shit in a bucket in the night. In 2,000 cells across ten prisons in the British prison system, apparently, there is no in-cell toilet, which means the practice of "slopping out", though officially abolished in 1996, still continues.

The Guardian reported a legal challenge to this situation earlier this week:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/sep/26/prison-slopping-out-high-court-case?INTCMP=SRCH

That report prompted me to tweet that I had mixed views about the issue. That in turn prompted some tweetmates to ask what I think about slopping out. So here's what I think….

Slopping out is not OK. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that says that anyone who is in prison must forego any expectation of decent treatment. Loss of liberty is a punishment in itself; random additional discomfort or unpleasantness depending on where you're incarcerated has nothing to do with justice. Being able to provide decent toilet facilities in prisons ought to be a "good society" issue. If we want to create and live in a good society, prison sanitation is an aspect of that. We should certainly work towards all prisoners having access to in-cell toilets, and the sooner the better.

What I'm not convinced of is that lack of 'en-suite' facilities is a human rights issue.

I love the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the things I love most about it is that it its articles are not contingent on available resources or particular levels of affluence. It doesn't list things that we will do one day when we are rich enough, or when our society is developed enough or when we can make a strong enough business case. It lists the things that are such a fundamental or given entitlement of our human condition that they can be effectively realised in any human society anywhere on earth, for free, or at relatively low cost. it costs me nothing, other than the requirement of mindfulness, to act towards my fellow humans in a spirit of brother- or sisterhood; to choose not to discriminate; to choose not to enslave another person; to honour another person's right to think and speak freely. It costs a little more to ensure that everyone has a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of him/herself and of his/her family, or to provide education for all beyond the 'elementary and fundamental' stages, but across the world, it is not prohibitively expensive to do these things. Nowhere on the list do I see an article that enshrines an individual human right to 24-hour-a-day personal access to a fully plumbed toilet.

I presume, although the Guardian article doesn't say so, that the legal challenge to "slopping out" is on the basis of Article 5 – that the practice constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. If there was nowhere to defecate or urinate in a cell at night; if there was no alternative but to lie down to sleep in a foul mess of ones own (or another's) making – as is the case in many prisons across the world – I would absolutely consider that degrading. But we live in a world where £1.2 billion people have to quite ordinarily engage in open defecation; where 1.5 million lives of children under 5 are lost annually to diseases caused by poor sanitation; where girls' education (a right under Article 26) Is disrupted by lack of sanitary facilities in schools, and by their obligations to collect the family's water. We live in a 21st century when cholera is still a killer. But not in our country. Not even in our prisons.  

(http://www.unicef.org/wash/index_statistics.html)

This does not mean that I think lack of proper toilet facilities in prisons doesn't matter, or that we shouldn't be trying to phase out those remaining locations where slopping out continues. I do question the wisdom of spending public funds on lawyers to both sides of the argument on a case which – if won – will require the diversion of public funds away from other projects and into a prison building / rebuilding programme. I would – of course – fund prison toilets before bankers' bonuses, before cuts in corporation tax, before replacing trident, before electing police commissioners, before restructuring the NHS. But I wouldn't fund them before protecting people with disabilities from benefit cuts, before restoring EMA, before lowering VAT, before implementing a living wage, before investing in restorative justice programmes which might just keep enough people out of prison that we don't need to use old cells which can't accommodate modern plumbing.

If we have limited resources – and we do – I would want to rebuild justice in this world before I rebuilt prisons. I would want to be confident I had secured all the fundamental human rights to which everyone is entitled before I embarked on further upgrades to facilities.

That's what I think about slopping out.

Cage-fighting Children. Genuine safeguarding issue or moral panic?

I don't like fighting. I never watch adults box or wrestle. I understand that some people value the skill of these 'sports', but they don't appeal to me. They always seem a bit too close to real, uncontrollable rage for comfort.

The idea of children fighting feels worse. Children are soft, and sweet; growing and learning. They will experience more than enough pain, accrued accidentally, as they develop their skills to evaluate risk in the real world. Why would any adult encourage them to inflict pain on each other deliberately?

But some adults do like fighting as sport. Boxing, wrestling, martial arts etc. are respected (and in some cases highly remunerated) professions for those who excel. If you're going to aspire to become a professional fighter one day, I suppose you have to start young. And adults who enjoy your sport may well watch and enjoy your accomplishments. Is competitive boxing, at eight years old, or mixed martial arts at the same age very different from gymnastics, say, or ballet, which some experts worry about because of the pressures they appear to put on developing bodies? What is the difference (in terms of physical and emotional damage) between an eight year old taking a smack in the face in the ring, or a child of the same age having a nasty fall from their horse at the local Gymkhana, both events taking place before a cheering crowd? I'm not into ponies, or ballet, or gymnastics either so I have no benchmark against which to assess the reasonableness of parents allowing or expecting their children to participate or compete in these events. I just know that it's not what I like; it's not what I'd let my children do.

But no one – yet – has let me run the country according to my whims, beliefs and prejudices. Instead, we have child performance laws to help us understand and manage what children should or shouldn't be allowed to do.

If you're feeling nerdy, here's that legislation: The Children & Young Persons Act 1963  http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1963/37 and the Children (Performances) Regulations 1968 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1968/1728/made

"Child performance" includes paid / professional sporting activity. If the children in the "cage fight" (the nature of the bout is disputed, and I don't know enough about martial arts to judge) were being paid, or someone was receiving payment on account of their participation (I understand at the audience had paid to watch) they had to be licensed to be involved. If the "performance" is taking place in a licensed premises or registered club (which I understand it was) a licence was required. If they weren't licensed, that was a breach of the law, and since the licensing requirement is in place to safeguard children's wellbeing, that breach would be a safeguarding issue. Even if the children weren't being paid or there was no payment being made on account of their involvement, there are still circumstances in which a licence would be required: for example, if they appear in a "performance" more than five times in a six month period. In making licensing decisions a local authority has to be satisfied that the activity is safe for the child and that it takes place in a venue that the local authority has approved. The local authority needs to know if the performance will be filmed for broadcast (which raises some interesting questions about YouTube as a broadcast medium). When applying for a licence to cover sporting activity, parents have to make a declaration that the child is medically fit to participate. Records have to be kept of any injuries the child sustains while participating in the "performance".

I feel uncomfortable about judging other parents' decisions about their children, based on some fairly uninformed prejudices I have about fighting. But I feel professionally confident to say that the activity the children were involved in should have been considered by the local authority in the light of child performance regulations before it took place. If the local authority had issued a licence or confirmed that one was not required in these circumstances, then this is just another media-fuelled (and probably class-based) moral panic. If this sporting event and others like it hasn't yet been evaluated on safeguarding grounds, it should be.

“Losing a pound and finding a penny”…

If my Dad caught us children looking down in the dumps, he used to accuse us of looking like we'd "… lost a pound and found a penny." Whatever was good in our life at that moment (and there was always much to be glad of) it wasn't compensating for whatever was making us fed up.

Liberal Democrats (I voted for them, remember!?) busily cheering themselves up at their conference this weekend, want me to jump up and down with glee because they've grubbed me up a penny. Sorry. I'm still mourning my lost pound.

I have no fondness for the last Government (I voted against them, remember!?) and Sarah Teather is determined that I shouldn't develop any. At conference, apparently, she reminded us to judge Labour on their record in Government, not on their promises now. I suppose if someone's going to remind me not to trust a pre-election promise, a LibDem is an excellent choice. Nick Clegg's "vow" today on the 50p tax rate (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/clegg-in-vow-over-50p-tax-rate-2356732.html) prompted me to wonder exactly what a Clegg vow is valued at these days? No more, I hope, than the tuition fees "pledge" turned out to be worth. i.e nothing.

(I note "more in sorrow than in anger" (ha!) that the Liberal Democrats communicated their untrustworthiness on the tuition fees issue very poorly. Had they been clearer that their "pledge" was just a convenient, vote-winning ploy, I might not have voted for them. They must be very sorry they didn't get their message across.)

Because clear communication is so important, I really hope my next sentence is clear.

I DID JUDGE LABOUR ON THEIR RECORD IN GOVERNMENT!!!

That's why I voted them out.  I can't vote Labour out of Government any more than they already are. So my attention is on the current coalition Government. That's who I am judging. On the rather reasonable grounds that it is they who are running the country. I'm judging them, and I'm not liking what I find.

The Tories are – of course – doing nearly every horrid thing everyone thought they would do if elected, and a few other grotesque things no-one imagined they'd ever be able get away with. I didn't vote for them, remember!? Nor did millions of other people. And anticipation of the current mess is the reason why. But not winning the election seems to have done them no harm at all. Quite the reverse. With LibDems in tow anxiously wanting to prove that coalition "works", they are pushing ahead with an agenda from well outside their manifesto. Them not winning the election is a 'penny'. Them shafting us anyway is a 'pound'.

About the manifesto…..

"Did you read the manifesto?" (sub-text: aren't you really too ignorant to have an opinion on this?) I am asked.

"75% of the manifesto is in the coalition agreement, though we've only got 8% of the seats in parliament". (sub-text: aren't we great?) I am told.

Yes. I did. I read all the manifestos. Unsurprisingly, I didn't agree 100% with of any of them. Even the Conservative manifesto had one or two good bits in it though I can't remember what they were. The LibDem manifesto had lots in it to be pleased with, though many parts that I really didn't want. Coalition negotiation must be tough. Some decisions will be hotly contested. It follows that much of the Coalition's shared agenda will be those areas on which they saw eye-to-eye already. That makes it likely that a fair chunk of the 75% of the LibDem manifesto that's now part of the coalition work programme is made up of stuff I didn't like, even when I voted LibDem.

As a voter, the 75% figure doesn't mean much to me, unless I also know which specific policy commitments were in that 75%, what was excluded and how many of those 'included' have lost something in translation. What also matters more than a percentage is which of the many loathed Conserviative policies made it into the agreement? What details have LibDems compromised on, and why? Which policies that were in neither manifesto are now suddenly being brought forward and with what justification?

I've been back to look at both documents. There are more than 400 policy items in the Coalition Programme for Government, and more than 300 in the LibDem manifesto. A look at both, reveals what I feared. Important LibDem pre-election promises, don't make it into the agreement; of those that do, many are mealy-mouthed renditions that allow way too much flexibility to lurch rightwards; others are rendered specifically impotent in the move from one document to another (e.g. Electoral reform); many of those that are in the agreement show no signs of being actually delivered in the life of this parliament (banking reform) and others that have been "implemented" turn out to have been re-branding exercises, more than anything else (an end to child detention, except for – er – those inconvenient children still being detained).

The re-read with the benefit of hindsight also revealed something troubling. There was a lot more in the LibDem manifesto that I didn't like than I remembered. When I voted, I was wrong in my thinking. I believed more in the headlines, which the party was trumpeting, than in the thickets of detail, even while I was reading them. In my head as well as my heart I assumed that the ones the LibDems were shouting about were the things they were most committed to and that smaller details were of less significance. In fact they are the small print of the contract that will let the party off the hook. The "understanding" I thought I had of the 'nice guys' in yellow overlaid my reading of many of their election commitments. So the section on supporting social enterprises, mutuals and co-ops reads to me like a gentle support for a different, less rapacious way of working than private sector aggression. What it doesn't read like is a commitment to the kind of destruction of public service outlined in the Open Public Services White Paper. Nothing in the section about school reform, with its emphasis on freeing schools from a central government 'stranglehold', begins to describes the aggressive, centralising Free Schools and Academies agenda. Local democratic accountability for education is disappearing. Where, I wonder, is the Education Freedom Act? What was it sacrificed for?

The bottom line is that the LibDems seem to think that all manifesto bullet points are equal – but some are more important than others. They have dropped some of the most important ones. They seem to think that if – on a semantic level – it is possible to call what is currently happening the same name as they used in the manifesto, they can claim it as a triumph, even if it doesn't deliver what their voters must have thought were intended by the party's words when they cast their votes.

Above all, the LibDems don't seem to recognise that the detail of the manifesto is history, as is the coalition agreement, since so much that the government is now doing doesn't originate in either (NHS reforms – yes, I can see the bits which cross-refer, but really!?).

What truly matters are these things:

– did you make life harder for the most vulnerable, those in greatest need, those with least resilience or did you protect them?
– did you make public service better, or did you just make it easier for private companies to syphon money out of it?
– did you help to heal our economy, or did you just prop up private capital's vested interests on the backs of the hard-working and low paid?  
– are children safer, happier, better educated than they were, or have they been demonised, patronised, subordinated, and controlled?
– is our democracy stronger, are people freer, are our rights protected, or have you forgotten what you used to stand for.

You scrapped ID cards. And ContactPoint. Thank you. I have found my penny.

What the hell did you do with my pound?

If it ain’t broke…

…don't fix it.

That's what pro-choice supporters have been saying about this week's misbegotten and disingenuous attempts by Nadine Dorries, Frank Field and others to restrict access to abortion under the spurious guise of 'ensuring independent abortion counselling' and 'protecting vulnerable women'.

In the 140-character world where so much of the superficial discussion of these issues takes place, I have said it too. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" – meaning 'leave our hard-won abortion rights alone'. Or, to paraphrase Suzanne Moore in her outstanding Guardian piece: "Keep your rosaries off our ovaries". (Full article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/02/abortion-counselling)

But is it true to say that our arrangements for abortion "ain't broke"?

Released from tweet-length sound-bites, it turns out I've got quite a few things I'd like to see fixed. Here's some ways in which I think UK abortion policy could be improved.

1) Abortion policy should be the same everywhere in the UK.

The situation for the women of Northern Ireland should not be ignored in this debate. There, abortion can be legally provided only if the mother's life is in danger, or a mother's physical or mental health are likely to be severely impaired. Access to abortion should be made better, easier and safer for women everywhere. A good starting point would be to bring policy and practice in Northern Ireland to the same position as the rest of the UK.

2) There should be no requirement for the signature of two GPs before a woman can have an abortion.

Women should be treated as competent, independent decision-makers who know their own mind. Many women know as soon as they discover that they are pregnant that they do not want this baby. Many women will have already taken a number of steps to try to ensure they do not become pregnant. When these fail – as sometimes happens – it is simply bizarre to think that two other people should also need to be persuaded that abortion is the right next step before a woman can obtain one.

3) Abortion should be available to any woman on request, without her having to justify her reasons to anyone.

Unreadiness to parent is a good reason to want an abortion and should be treated as such. Abortions for what are derided as 'social reasons', or 'lifestyle choices' should not be disparaged. These 'social reasons' may include poverty or an unstable or unsafe relationship. These situations can be overcome, but no-one could argue that they are good conditions in which to bear and raise a child. 'Lifestyle choices' may be made by women who are currently focussing on study or a career rather than parenthood. A woman may choose to re-prioritise her life if she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, but she shouldn't have to. It is better for children to be much-wanted and born to parents who are ready for the challenges ahead. Critical voices will say: 'if she didn't want to have a baby, she shouldn't have let herself get pregnant / shouldn't have had sex". Well, maybe not. But once we've finished moralising and finger-wagging over a woman who was – for the sake of argument – too drunk to remember contraception in the heat of the moment, maybe we'll recognise that doesn't bode well for the 18+ years of responsibility-taking that comes with bringing a baby into the world. I'm not going to judge – I've chased down the morning-after-pill while carrying the hangover of a potent booze'n'hormone cocktail too.

4) The NHS should be funded to ensure that any woman who wants an abortion can have one, free of charge, within a fortnight of requesting one.

For women who want an abortion, early abortion should be encouraged and facilitated. At every gestational age abortion is safer than continuing a pregnancy. But the earlier an abortion takes place the lower the physical and psychological risk of the procedure. This means that nothing – and certainly not a requirement for 'counselling' that implies women don't know their own mind – should delay access to abortion when a woman has decided that she wants one. Clinical practice must continue to include providing comprehensive information to enable women to give informed consent to the abortion, as is the case for every other medical procedure.

5) Unbiased counselling and support for women should be available at their request.

Women know when they feel ambivalent or equivocal about continuing a pregnancy. If a woman needs more support when making up her mind – perhaps because she has to balance a pregnancy with a risk to her health; perhaps because she needs to decide if she has the capacity to parent a baby who will be born with challenging disabilities or may not live for long – it should be available to her.  She should be able to use the counselling and support confidently, knowing that the organisation that provides it is committed to helping her to make her own decision, and is not trying to make that decision for her. To be an unbiased counsellor in these circumstances is not to be 'neutral'. The counsellor must be firmly, unequivocally on the woman's side, whichever side that is, as she makes her difficult choice. (Susie Orbach makes this point well here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/03/abortion-services-selling-soap-powder)

6) Women having an abortion (and abortion providers) must be protected from harassment.

Anti-choice campaigners are entitled to their opinions, and – of course – to live their own lives in accordance with their beliefs, but they are not entitled to make misery in the lives of people they disagree with. Anti-choice campaigners should not be allowed to gather at abortion clinics, and other places where abortions are carried out, for the purpose of harassing women who are having an abortion. Threats and harassment against abortion providers should be taken seriously and pursued through the criminal justice system where a crime is committed. Civil (anti-harassment) injunctions should be used, as a matter of course, to enable women to exercise their legal right to abortion without having to be vilified and humiliated for doing so.  

Would I describe current abortion policy in the UK as 'broke'? No. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. I would start with those six improvements and then ask: "What next?"