Stoptober – just make it stop

Encouraging people to look after their health is a good thing. Eat less fat and sugar, take more exercise, don’t drink too much alcohol and don’t smoke – all good, solid advice dished out in large helpings by doctors the length and breadth of the country.

In the UK, the NHS is running a month-long ‘stop smoking’ campaign in October. It’s called Stoptober.

While making my way through the centre of Reading on Sunday 21 September, I witnessed the local launch of Stoptober.

It was dismal. And that’s the kindest word I can find for it.

The town’s two MPs were there, as were five or six journalists and photographers, and at maybe 10 organisers/helpers. At 11am there were kick-off speeches from one of the organisers and the two MPs. What else happens at 11am on Sunday in Reading? The shops open. If you want to experience the centre of one of the UK’s largest towns at its absolute quietest, get there around 11am on a Sunday. Parking’s a breeze and shopping’s an absolute joy because there’s hardly anyone there.

What’s that, there’s hardly anyone there? Yes, hardly anyone there.

Just to recap then – two MPs, a marquee, a PA system, loads of balloons, a dozen or so people handing out balloons and leaflets, all being paid for via the public purse, but hardly anyone there.

I saw (nay, I *counted*) three members of the public standing and listening to the launch of Stoptober in Reading.


Why on earth coincide a launch of a month-long, publicly-funded anti-smoking campaign with one of the quietest times in the shopping week?

I can only presume the answer to that is something like “because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

If that sounds harsh, it’s meant to be harsh.

Smoking and related illnesses are a blight on the UK. In addition to the misery they cause, there’s also the cost to the health service to consider. To squander the opportunity to make a big and positive launch for such a campaign, and thereby waste the money being spent on that launch, demonstrates a lack of professionalism and accountability.

After the lacklustre speeches had finished I went on my way, only to be stopped by one of the leaflet ‘n’ balloon folk. “Do you know anyone who smokes?” she asked me, almost apologetically. I just shook my head and kept walking.

Targetting is also beyond the grasp of the gang of spend thrifts who decided on this launch, it would appear.

I don’t doubt the supine local press will find positive things to say about the launch, grateful as they are for real events to cover. But they shouldn’t. They should ignore the MPs’ speeches and the colourful balloons and they question the manner in which the money was spent on this event and how its effectiveness will be measured.

You could argue, and many people do, that if people want to smoke let them smoke, plus taxes on tobacco raise huge sums of money for the government.

I might or indeed I might not agree with that viewpoint. That’s not my point here. Once the decision has been taken to embark on a publicly-funded anti-smoking campaign paid for by smokers and non-smokers alike there is a responsibility to ensure that money is spent properly.

Not wasted, which it clearly was this morning.

Stoptober: make it stop


If you want information on stopping smoking, click here for the Stoptober website.


Syria: many shades of black

What follows is merely one man’s opinion – mine.

I find it desperately sad that the situation in Syria has been reduced to a series polarised caricatures. Good vs bad is such an appealing way to look at the world, and consequently we are presented with Assad vs democracy as one example, and (here in the UK) military intervention vs inaction as another.

I’m opposed to military action, as things stand. I’ve heard too many arguments from Syrians calling for the west to stay out of this, and I’m not at all convinced military intervention won’t actually make things worse. Much of that is, I freely admit, based on seeing the devastation left in the wake of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve also heard just enough voices of doubt on the origins of the recent chemical attack to make me think we need to work the evidence, and the associated intelligence, far harder before committing to acts of war.

I freely acknowledge it is entirely possible that my position on not intervening militarily may change. But any attack by the West is almost guaranteed to claim the lives of yet more innocent Syrians, and risks handing the Assad regime a substantial propaganda advantage.

But choosing not to intervene militarily should not become synonymous with doing nothing at all. I fear that’s precisely the line our current government will take, though.

Instead, I would like to see the UK now at the forefront of a vigorous non-violent interventionist strategy – freezing the financial assets of Assad and his associates, applying real pressure to stem the flow of arms into Syria from neighbouring countries, doing deals to circumvent the existing circles of international influence, whatever it takes.

Having decided we aren’t sending in bullets and bombs, now is precisely the time for the UK to redouble its efforts to end the war in Syria.

It isn’t good enough to claim a diplomatic solution is unrealistic. Ultimately there will be a diplomatic solution – history teaches us that every conflict resolves itself eventually and all wars end with ceasefires, treaties and negotiations.

There will be a ceasefire. There will be a diplomatic solution. This is inevitable.

So why not, Mr Cameron, be the person who pushes the hardest to see that happen sooner rather than later, rather than someone who opted to launch cruise missiles, or do nothing?

The pleb, the whip, his bike and some bother

It’s more than three weeks since Plebgate. For once I feel ok about using the ‘gate’ suffix, as there was actually a gate involved in the story.
First, a quick recap… Andrew Mitchell (millionaire MP and government Chief Whip) was stopped at the gates of Downing Street and asked by a police officer to dismount from his bicycle, whereupon Mr Mitchell may or may not have called the police officer a “fucking pleb”.
This happened less than two days after two police officers were shot dead in the line of duty, prompting a nationwide out-pouring of sympathy and respect for the police.
Initial claims that Mr Mitchell had had a particularly “long and frustrating” day were subsequently found lacking in credibility, when it was revealed he’d had lunch at the Cinnamon Club, which is a very nice and fairly expensive restaurant in Westminster. He’d also spent part of his day at another (even more) exclusive establishment, the Carlton Club in St James’s – one of the oldest and most elite of Conservative clubs, is how it likes to be known.
Three weeks have passed and Mr Mitchell has failed to exorcise the Ghost of Insults Past. His apologies have only gone so far and his steadfast refusal to accept he used the word “pleb” have angered the police force in general, and the Police Federation in particular. Having said that, I think we all know how difficult it is to untangle one of those “he said / she said” arguments. Although it’s a “he said / he said” on this occasion.
On the BBC Radio 4 current affairs discussion programme Any Questions (aired on 12 October and repeated the following day), the government’s Defence Minister, Philip Hammond, described how no one other than those people directly involved actually know the truth over what was said.
This point of view was offered as an explanation as to why Mr Mitchell’s attempts at apology, which have been rejected by many in the police service as inadequate, ought to have been enough and that everyone (IE the media and the police) should now forget the whole thing and move on.
I witnessed something similar only a few days ago. I was on a train going into London that had been held between stations for over an hour. There was a very heated exchange between two male passengers – one accused the other of having upset one of the train staff. Several people saw their heated exchange, which almost came to blows, yet the only people who actually knew what had been said to cause the train employee to become upset, were the people involved.
There are some significant points of difference with Plebgate though, not just that there was a bike involved rather than a train.
Chief among those differences, in my opinion, is that one of the parties involved here is a serving police officer who was on duty at the time.
A police officer’s notes are generally deemed to be admissible in a court of law as evidence. As, indeed, would anyone’s eye-witness account. Yet Mr Mitchell has called on the whole country to ignore the police officer, their account and their notes, and instead to believe him, a man who’d had a long and frustrating day spending time at a nice restaurant and in a swanky club.
Of course, Mr Mitchell is not the first person to claim that a police officer is misrepresenting the truth in their account of an incident. But it’s not often we hear a member of the government claiming the police are playing fast and loose with the facts, being economical with the actualité, being less than trustworthy, making shit up… lying.
What sort of example is he setting? I don’t mean that to sound shrill or hysterical – it is (and ought to be) a genuine consideration. After all, his is the party of law and order, the party that announced very recently that it wanted a change in the law so that householders could, if the circumstances presented themselves, batter intruders to death. OK, maybe now I’m being economical with the actualité, but hey… it’s what the cool kids (by which I mean government ministers not actual cool kids) are doing these days.
This man is in government, by most people’s reckoning he enjoys a privileged position in life, a position of authority and responsibility, and yet his view is that the account of the police officer is not to be trusted.
Setting aside any opportunistic jibes I may have made, there are some very serious points here.
Only those with poor memories will have already forgotten the MPs’ expenses scandal, where our lords and masters were caught with their collective fingers in the till, trousering great handfuls of cash; sometimes out of greed and ignorance, sometimes out of a premeditated willingness to lie about where they lived or who owned the homes they paid rent on.
They were, en masse, deemed to have been acting as though they were above the law. Our Prime Minister pledged it was time for MPs to clean up their collective act.
Yet here we have the government Chief Whip and the Defence Minister both espousing the point of view that one ought not to trust the police. Their belief, one might come to believe, is that Mr Mitchell is not subject to the same laws as the rest of us.
Not every millionaire former public schoolboy is arrogant, obnoxious and self-important. But we seem to have a few of them currently ruining running the country.
So much for David Cameron’s hollow notion that we are somehow all in this together, and that we must all adopt a big society mentality.
Of course the police aren’t perfect. But they do a job that, by and large, most of us would not and could not cope with.
I wrote last year that we get the press we deserve. I think we get the police we deserve too. Accepting the fallibilities and frailties that are part of the human package, if we want a police force we can trust we surely – at some point – have to stop regarding them as untrustworthy. And if our politicians want to be believed and trusted surely it’s about time they started acting like they want to earn that trust.
Footnote: a big thank you to Brent Martin, aka @ZeitgeistLondon (“Be-wigged defence Counsel, working in the City of London in criminal law”) who, despite being on holiday, was kind enough to answer a quick legal question for me when I was writing this piece.
Today’s Independent carries this piece
The Guardian produced a handy timeline to the first few days of Plebgate
Alternatively, stick ‘plebgate’ in your preferred search engine and read what has been said elsewhere.

You can click here for more on
 Sean Fleming.

Beating domestic violence needs more than Clare’s Law

Read the next sentence slowly and carefully please, because it’s important you understand my position on this subject.

Domestic violence – of any sort – is inexcusable, wrong and should not be tolerated.

At a time when charities are struggling to provide real practical help to women who have been the victims of domestic abuse, the government is introducing a piece of legislation which, in my opinion, will never achieve its aim of helping women avoid abusive relationships in the first place.  At least, not in meaningful numbers.

Furthermore, it does nothing to shift the focus and responsibility away from women and on to men, who make up the majority of abusers.

The introduction of the so-called Clare’s Law will be done via four 12 month pilot schemes in Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire, Gwent and Greater Manchester.

For those who don’t know, Clare’s Law is an idea predicated very much on the existing sex-offenders’ register – only relating to crimes of domestic violence.  The idea being that a woman can check if the man she is about to start a relationship with has a criminal conviction for domestic violence.

But I see a number of flaws in what I am quite sure started out as a laudable attempt to do something to help women who are suffering domestic abuse. Maybe that’s because I think that doing something is not at all the same as doing the right thing.

Perhaps the biggest flaw I can see is this – no crime = no criminal record.

You can be bullied into psychological submission, ground down, have your self-worth and self-esteem eroded, live in fear that the threats and sinister atmosphere will one day become a painful, life-threatening physical reality, all (and more) of these things can take place in your home without anyone ever laying so much as a finger on you in anger, or breaking any laws.

Leave morality to one side – if you can – because the law is not a function of morality, and Clare’s Law is indeed a law.  While I’m no lawyer, I don’t think you’ll find many people have been convicted of bullying behaviour toward their spouse.

Similarly, you can avoid a criminal record by not getting caught or not being reported in the first place.

Over the course of my adult life, I think I’ve known two close female friends who had been physically assaulted by their male partners.  Or perhaps what I mean is I’ve known two women who felt able to talk about it.  In both cases it was after the fact, not during.

The 2010/11 British Crime Survey revealed that at least one-in-four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their life.  According to other estimates, there may be around 40,000 incidents of domestic violence in the UK every year.  These are sickening statistics.

I know a serving police officer who works in the Met’s domestic violence unit.  The biggest problem she faces, she says, is convincing the victims to see their abuser arrested, charged, and tried.  Far too many will back down at the point of having to commit to a statement or giving evidence, leaving a prosecution impossible. The police can now prosecute without the partner’s direct involvement, but if the victim won’t cooperate this means the possible omission from a case of the only witness and a great deal of evidence.

The cases that have made it to court and secured a conviction are, sadly, the minority.  The Liberal Democrat Party undertook research in 2009 that showed only 6.4% of reported incidents of domestic violence resulted in acriminal conviction.

That’s a lot of people (men, in the overwhelming majority) not picking up a criminal record for domestic abuse.  A lot.

Clare’s Law might be able to tell a woman that the guy she might be about to fall in love with doesn’t have a record for domestic abuse.  But it’ll never be able to tell her the reason might be because he’s one of the 93.6% of cases that evaded a successful prosecution.

However, something Clare’s Law does achieve effectively is to create the impression that we have a government committed to helping the victims of domestic abuse.  It’s a very visible thing to do and legislation is a great way of demonstrating to the country that you take a matter very seriously.

Let me be clear here… if it helps just one woman avoid falling into the clutches of one of the 6.4% that will, of course, be a good thing.

But it doesn’t address the causes, only the symptoms of the problem, and will never offer real help and real hope to the overwhelming majority of women, many of whom find their only lifeline to be charities and support groups.

Local authority funding to charities working with the victims of domestic violence fell from £7.8 million in 2010/11 to £5.4 million this year, according to the Guardian.

In fact, the decline in government-funding of this vitally important sector is such that some campaigners (again, according to the Guardian) claim as many as 230 women seeking help are turned away from shelters and refuges every day.

One of the leading charities looking after these women (and their children) is Refuge.  It has had its funding slashed by 50% and may have to close.  Clearly, that would be catastrophic for the 1,600 or so women and children it currently supports, not to mention all those who will never be able to turn to it for help in the future.

(The above points can be referred back to here.)

Sometimes having a safe place to turn to can literally mean the difference between life and death.  Sometimes it can mean getting the right support to be able to find the courage to press charges and cooperate with a prosecution.  Sometimes it is the first step toward rebuilding your life, regaining a sense of self-worth and everything that comes with it.

On one hand I see charities that save lives, and that provide shelter and support, having to turn women away now and possibly facing closure in the future.

On the other hand, there is a piece of legislation that will record the past crimes of the fewer-than-10% of men convicted of domestic violence and make that information available to those who request it. And let’s not forget, there’s nothing anyone can do to make it compulsory for women to CRB check all their future partners, so even some of those will slip through the net.

This is another key flaw in the make up of Clare’s Law in my opinion.  It puts the responsibility on women to conduct background checks on men they may be starting relationships with.  From a practical point of view, I can’t help but wonder how likely it is that this will actually happen? This means every woman having to request a background check on every potential partner, anything less is a failure of the system.

Human nature will be the undoing of that, I fear. I think we’ve probably all rushed into a relationship half-blinded by love and optimism at some point in our lives. How many of us would stop to carry out some sort of background check on someone we were already starting to feel attached to?

There is, of course, also a role for men to play in tackling the problem of domestic violence.  I’d like to see the government do something more inclusive and more sustainable that involves men (the whole of society even) in an attempt at breaking down the taboos that still surround so many of the issues connected with domestic abuse, something that engenders a real deep-rooted sense of the unacceptable.

If you’ve read this far, thank you.  If you’ve read this far and are thinking “you’re a man, you could never understand” you’re a bit of an idiot.  Domestic violence can, and does, affect everyone.

I will offer this hesitant apology though.  This is a very serious topic.  I don’t claim to be an expert.  Nor do I claim to be the most eloquent of writers.  So, reader, I implore you to forgive any rough-hewn turns of phrase or arguments that don’t quite go as deep as they could.

Frankly I could have written several thousand words on this, decorating it with anecdotes and more research. I haven’t even touched on the countless cases where women had lodged complaints with the police about their partner (or former partner) only to end up being murdered before the police had done anything meaningful to intervene. In fact, Clare’s Law is named after one such woman.

But that isn’t what this piece is for.

This is my opinion on things my government is doing that will ultimately allow tragic loss of life to occur by reducing access to life-saving refuge, while blithely seeking to appease us with a piece of no doubt well-intentioned legislation that will never do more than warm the tip of the iceberg.