Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Time to decriminalise prostitution

The Kings Cross area of London is renowned for prostitution. The girls stand on street corners waiting for punters to come looking for their services. And the Irish are well represented among this number. The Irish Post recently reported that the New Horizon Youth Centre believed 20 per cent of the girls working in the area were first or second generation Irish.
Mercy Sister Lynda Dearlove, the director of the Women@theWell centre in Kings Cross, confirms that many of the girls do come from Ireland. The causes are varied. Some come because of simple poverty. “I’ve met girls who are over to earn money to pay for first communion dresses back home. The grandmother is at home looking after the children while the mother is raising money for the whole occasion over here,” said Sister Dearlove, who quotes other cases of traveller women fleeing forced marriages or domestic violence. “There are those who drink that come from pioneer families and those who come over for an abortion and become estranged from their families,” said Sister Dearlove, who points to a lot of denial in some areas of Irish society.
Denial though is a common currency when it comes to prostitution. While the women forced into the trade are vilified, there is no such condemnation for the men who create the demand for their services. “When I was doing outreach work in east London, men came out of offices in suits, there would be cars with children’s seats in the back and they’d be picking up girls,” said Sister Dearlove, who recently received an MBE for her services to vulnerable women. “Compare the attitude to a son paying for sex to a daughter selling sex – one is shrugged off with ‘boys will be boys,’ the attitude to the female is altogether different.”
Those working on the street with the women see poverty and underlying causes like mental illness driving them toward prostitution. Drugs and alcohol are often used to block out some other problem. “They have often been in care, then their children go into care. There are high incidents of sexual abuse. Many didn’t finish school and don’t have jobs. They then get into drugs and prostitution to feed the habit,” said Sister Dearlove.
The main thrust of national and local government is to seek to criminalize the women. So they get arrested finish up in the courts, then remerge from prison to start the cycle again.
There is a particular problem in the Kings Cross area with the liberal use by Camden Council of Anti-social behaviour orders (ASBO) to keep the women out of certain areas. This really just shifts the problem around.
When an ASBO is breached it can mean 17 weeks in prison. “It is a vicious circle, they then come out of prison with nowhere to stay. They have lost their hostel place and have problems getting a methadone prescription, so where do they then go but the crack house,” said Sister Dearlove.
Convictions for prostitution have the added stigma of coming under the category of sex offences so they cannot be spent. When an offence is spent it comes off an individual’s record. So if a woman goes for a job, a Criminal Records Bureau check will show a sex offence. That often leaves them no chance of getting the job. This is a major reason why prostitution needs to be decriminalised.
It is important to note here that soliciting or to use the dictionary definition “to entice in a public place” is illegal, not prostitution. Exchanging sex for money is not illegal, so escorts or single women working from flats are ok. What is illegal is soliciting and procuring sex for money in a public place.
A growing number of groups support decriminalisation including the English Collective of Prostitutes, Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe and Mercy Sisters. “We don’t approve prostitution as a life choice, it is the sexual exploitation of women. I’ve never met a woman who felt good about being a prostitute,” said Sister Dearlove.
It is the market driving prostitution that really needs to become the target. “The men who pay women are someone’s husband, father and son. They sit in offices and go to the churches. There are judges, police and lawyers all represented amongst the customers,” said Sister Dearlove. “The majority of men using women are not scruffy oiks but straight out of the ranks of middle England.”
In Sweden, the law has gone further with criminalisation of the men. It has worked effectively and the approach seems to be getting growing support here. It could certainly mark a move forward.
Prostitution has been described as the oldest profession, it seems unlikely that it can be totally eradicated. It is something of a barometer of society. Women, often damaged in some way, forced into the work to survive. The market driving the trade being fuelled by men who live totally separate lives as husbands and fathers elsewhere.
Decriminalisation would be a first step toward shifting the balance away from the woman toward the man who is the perpetrator. Criminalising the men is probably an approach worth taking. But beyond the criminal law, there need to be other steps taken. The routine use of prostitution by so many men needs to become stigmatised. The true nature of the suffering caused to the women also needs to be highlighted with those working to keep the women safe and off the streets getting the requisite support needed.
One such support is Women@theWell which enables the women to get off the street and receive help in building a new life away from prostitution. The work fits well with the mission of the founder Catherine McAuley, who 180 years ago established the order to help young women in Dublin.
There is much that needs to be done to address prostitution, decriminalising it and moving the problem out of the criminal justice arena would be a good start.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

why euthanasia must never be the answer to dementia

Dementia has hit the headlines recently with an Alzheimer Trust report showing there are far more people suffering with the condition than previously thought while the funding for research is 12 times less than that being devoted to cancer.
Muddying the waters further has been the contribution of Alzheimer sufferer and author Terry Pratchett who raised the question of the right to die for dementia sufferers.
The research found that there are 821,884 sufferers, compared to the previously quoted 700,000. The number is expected to pass 1 million by 2025.
The total cost to the economy was found to be £23 billion a year. This was made up of social care, unpaid carers and productivity losses. Every patient costs the economy £27,647 each year - nearly five times more than a cancer patient, and eight times more than those with heart disease, according to the research.
Despite the costs the amount being ploughed into dementia research is twelve times less than for cancer - £600 million compared to £50 million a year.
There are though clear problems in getting the recognition for this disease and so the subsequent support and research funds needed to find an answer.
The research also rightly identifies how so much of the caring falls on the family and friends of the victim of dementia.
My 80-year-old mother took on the care role as my Dad slipped deeper into dementia . During the final two years before he went into a specialist home my mother struggled to cope. The irrationality of actions such as my father getting on his hat and coat every night to go home. We think home was a distant memory from childhood. Then there were the wanderings in the night when he would come down stairs and turning everything over and attempting to climb out of the windows. There were the accidents that brought the ambulance around. The care he received was generally good as far as we were aware but there is so much room for abuse. Dementia homes can seem like asylums at times. The view that they are like warehouses of death is not totally inaccurate.
Terry Pratchett addressed some of these issues. He argued for the right to die when and where he wanted to without repercussions for his nearest and dearest. The rational of much he said made perfect sense. He does not want to suffer at home or be stored in a care home. However, in making the case for dementia sufferers to be assisted to die he opened a potential Pandora’s box.
Mr Pratchett waved away suggestions that once assisted dying was legal there would be a pressure on the old and vulnerable to take that path. He mused that such a thing could only happen in a real tyranny. His views were at best naïve. We live in a society that puts increasingly less value on life. It is increasingly a case of serving the machine that is market capitalism. If the assisted dying option became available there is little doubt those with conditions like dementia would be helped on their way.
There is also the question of third parties making judgements about those suffering with the disease. Had I been asked to make a judgement on my father in the late stages of dementia I would not have been able to do so. Neither I nor anybody else as far as I am aware knows the cognitive state of the dementia sufferer. They have by the later stages moved off into another world totally. They may be troubled in that place or they may be happy with no responsibilities and simply enjoying life mentally. No one yet knows, so how can any third party make a judgement on another’s life. Seeing my Dad go down hill from a strong confident individual to a person that did not recognise his own wife and sons was devastating for the family but what about him? He passed away peacefully, after a good life. A bit of suffering for his nearest and dearest should not really enter the equation on life and death matters. It is for these reasons that I would say that euthanasia should not be seen as an answer for dementia.
The other route of supporting victims and carers as well as putting more funding into research is the one to follow. It must be hoped that this more humane route is followed in as the way to address the dementia time bomb. Voluntary euthanasia is certainly not the answer.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Standing up for Vatican II means formation and education

The recent launch of a new group called Stand up for Vatican II drew a crowd of over 200 to a hotel venue in central London. The most striking thing about the evening was the age of the people attending, 90 per cent must have been well over 50. This led to another question, is there not a real danger that the groundbreaking teachings of Vatican II could virtually be lost if active steps are not taken to educate the mass of people in the Church as to what it was all about.
Let’s remember, it is 45 years since the Council closed, so only those of over 60 years of age are going to remember the whole exciting phase when the Church threw open its doors and decided it was going to look out and change the world. The teachings and enlightened leadership of first Pope John XXIII and then Pope Paul VI led to the teachings being developed in exciting form by the liberation theologians of Latin America.

In the UK, Vatican II breathed life into a whole number of organisations committed to working to bring to fruition the social teachings. Church was not something to be put away in a box and only got out on a Sunday, pursuing social justice was described as a constituent part of the faith. These were exciting times and much of the inspiration lives on today.

One concern voiced has been of an undermining over recent years of crucial elements of Vatican II like subsidarity. This was about divesting power from the top and letting decisions be taken at the local level. Bishops and priests were to be representative of the people for whom they were the shepherds. The concern has been that over recent years decisions on the appointment of bishops have been increasingly drawn to Rome, with little local consultation. Previously, there was a great deal of local consultation before a bishop was appointed. Such criticism though must surely be of process and administration.
There are certainly no bishops in England and Wales who would not claim to be standing up for Vatican II. The Church has in many areas taken a leading role on social justice with the Pope particularly speaking out on climate change, the economic meltdown and migrants. Neither has he been slow to condemn war. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor and Archbishop Nichols have been outspoken in defence of migrants and economic injustice.
The most important concern linked to Vatican II today is the lack of formation amongst the faithful. Former Chair of the Justice and Peace Commission in Brentwood diocese Kathy Piper has pointed to the lack of formation, particularly among the young. Vatican II saw formation of people with a mature understanding of what it means to be Catholic in the modern world as a key priority. This has clearly not happened in much of the Church.
There has to be a concern that some clergy have given up on formation, if they ever started. The faithful need to be challenged constantly. Education and formation are what is needed in our Church. We need more adults who have a mature understanding of the faith and what it is all about. People inspired to want to get out there and change the world. Then far fewer would walk away at time of confirmation and only return to the Church when they want to get their children in the local Catholic school.
One encouraging development in this area comes from the Live Simply initiative being hosted by Progressio which is putting together a website that seeks to bring the social teachings to life. It will include sections on human dignity, a call to community and action, life and work, peace, solidarity. The site goes live in June.

There are some rumblings of discontent in the Churh with the formation of groups like Stand up for Vatican II and the 10,000 people from 43 countries recently signing up to a petition that urges caution before uniformly imposing the latest translation of the mass on the Church worldwide.

Vatican II though opened the door to a more confident and open Church prepared to change and challenge that world. The most productive thing that can be done around the diocese is to have a renewal process regarding the teachings of Vatican II. The formation that will come from following those teachings will then lead to a restating of concepts like subsidiarity and in the long term a more grown up Church.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Confusion over assisted dying needs to be resolved

The question of whether it is ever right to assist someone to take their own life has surfaced recently with two highly publicised cases.First, there was Frances Inglis, who injected her 22 year old severely disabled son, Tom, with heroin to bring his suffering to an end. He had been severely brain damaged after a road accident in 2007. His mother argued he was locked into
“a living hell” with no hope of recovery.Inglis, who had tried before to kill her son, insisted on her innocence because she had killed her son with love in her heart, not malice. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life, with a recommendation to serve nine years.
Then came the case of Kathleen Gilderdale who helped her 31 year old daughter, Lynn, end her own life by handing her morphine to inject.When the drugs were not enough, Gilderdale searched the house for more tablets, which she crushed and gave her daughter through a feeding tube in her nose.She then administered three syringes of air through an intravenous catheter with the intention of causing fatal air bubbles in her bloodstream. The jury found Gilderdale not guilty of attempted murder and she was given a a 12-month conditional discharge for the offence of assisted suicide. The area of assisted suicide has been furiously debated in Britain due mainly to some of the high profile cases paraded before the courts. It has been less of an issue in Ireland, where possibly the stronger influence of the Catholic Church, with its prohibition against assisted suicide has held sway. There seems little doubt though that it is only a matter of time before this debate reaches Ireland.The water in Britain has been further muddied by a succession of individuals going to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland, where drugs are administered to help them die. Notable recent cases include, conductor Sir Edward Downes, 85, who travelled last summer to Dignitas to die together with his wife Joan, 74, who had terminal liver and pancreatic cancer. He was virtually blind and increasingly deaf, but not himself terminally ill. Then there was Daniel James, a 23-year-old rugby player, paralysed during a training accident, who was helped to die. Some 1032 people have been helped to take their own lives at Dignitas since 1998.The most recent development came last September when the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) brought forward draft guidelines regarding prosecution in assisted dying cases. The guidelines followed a Law Lords ruling in favour of Debby Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, and wanted clarified under what circumstances people would be prosecuted for helping someone die. She was concerned for the fate of her husband.The guideliines comprise a checklist of factors to be taken into account in each case – 16 in favour of prosecution and 13 against. "The policy makes a distinction between, on the one hand, relatives, close family members, and friends, who, as a one-off and on a compassionate basis, may assist in a suicide, and on the other hand those that, on an ongoing basis, provide either a service or a business,” said Keir Starmer, the DPP. " Suspects would be less likely to face charges if the "victim" had a "clear, settled and informed wish" to take their life, which they had "indicated unequivocally" and in person.”
The interim guidelines have been out to consultation with the government set to legislate on the position in the spring.
The opposition to changes in the law on assisted dying is led by the Catholic Church. Its concerns revolve mainly around weakening of the law resulting in the more vulnerable and those deemed of less value being being helped to die.
As Archbishop Peter Smith Smith, chairman of the Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship at the Bishops Conference of England and Wales,.says with a rapidly ageing population over the next 20 years, pressures on people to die are likely to increase. "We need to try in particular to ensure that there is no suggestion that certain classes of people have lives that are less worth living or less deserving of the full protection of the law. From a moral perspective all are equal in dignity and the protection of the lives of citizens, especially the most vulnerable, has to remain the foundation of the law,” said Archbishop Smith. "Moreover, there are very serious concerns not only from a moral point of view, but also in respect of public safety. There is a danger of subtle pressure being felt by those who are vulnerable that they are unwanted or a burden to others – those with disabilities and chronic illness especially.”
There are medical concerns too, with the pressure of scarcity of resources being a factor taken into account in making such decisions. Already, many elderly people are scared to go into hosptial for fear of not re-emerging.
The Church’s sanctity of life argument also carries much weight.
If the individual whose life is at stake has followed a reasoned route to a decision that they want to die then that is one thing but how about in the case of say a dementia sufferer. No one knows what the quality of life is of a person in that situation. They could be in such a world of their own, devoid of all responsibility that life is enjoyable. A third party, whether medical or family, just does not know.
The whole area of assisted suicide is very difficult to judge. The moves away from prosecuting those acting for the right reasons to help end the life of a loved one who is clearly suffering are understandable. Locking people up for murder in such circumstances achives little. The argument of those like the Church holds equal weight. It is a short step from assisted dying to euthanasia and beyond to simply getting rid of people not deemed to be “of value” to society. The government is certainly going to have to think very carefully before it decides which path to follow over the coming months.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Prison policy should be based on fact rather than scare stories

There seems to be a dangerous trend whereby policy enacted by government is increasingly being driven by media headlines. Take prisons policy.
The latest report confirming that prison does not work comes from the cross party Parliamentary Justice Committee.
In its report to government, the Justice Committee recommends that jails should be cut by a third and the money saved put into community penalties. It claims that the £2.4 billion prison building plan was a “costly mistake.”
The cross-party committee said evidence showed community punishments would have a better chance at cutting re-offending.There are more than 82,000 people in prison in England and Wales.With a major building programme under way, there are likely to be 96,000 prison places by 2014.''The prison population could be safely capped at current levels and then reduced over a specified period to a safe and manageable level likely to be about two-thirds of the current population,” said the Committee.This is not the first time that government has been told and presented with evidence that prison does not work when it comes to cutting offending.
When Lord David Ramsbotham left the job of chief inspector of prisons in 2001 the prison population stood at 63,000. He said this number could be reduced by 40,000 if the kids, elderly, mentally ill, asylum seekers, and those in for trivial shop lifting or drugs offences were taken out.
What has happened since would suggest little notice was taken with the prison population going up by another third. Recently, clearly exasperated by the moves in the opposite direction to his recommendations Lord Ramsbotham said: “They (government) are frightened of facts because facts interfere with their theories. There has been no improvement in the prison system because the policies are based on fudge.”
The question must be why do government ministers constantly ignore such experts and go on with a failing policy. Despite much rhetoric about rehabilitation, the policies of the present government seem only to have entrenched the view of the previous Conservative administration, whose Home Secretary Michael Howard coined the phrase that prison works.
No doubt there are a number of forces at play. Locking people up has become big business. More and more of the prison sector is being run by private companies whose prime aim is to turn a profit. Bishop Terence Brain illustrated this point when he recalled the builder of a new private prison in his diocese declaring he had brought long term employment to the area. A full prison seemed a prerequisite.
Another force that pushes a vengeance model of punishment as the only solution to offending is the media. The statistic that 60 per cent of those sent to prison re-offend inside two years rarely figures in much coverage.
Chair of the Justice Committee Sir Alan Beith confirmed the role of the media when he spoke of “a demand-led policy of building ever more prison places is being fuelled by political and media pressure for more and longer custodial sentences, diverting resources away from measures which are more likely to prevent future crime."
On the face of it, it seems that government policy in this area is being run in the interests of private enterprise and media headlines rather than expert advice and research. The role of media is nominally to educate, entertain and inform but the prime driving motivation is profit. What sells papers is often appealing to the lowest common denominator in society. Locking people up as an answer to the problems of crime, stirring up racist insecurities over fear of the other in terms of immigration both sell newspapers but they should not be the basis for making policy. It is a sobering thought at a time when actual crime is probably at a lower level than for many years, public fear of crime is higher than ever. This says much about the discourse engendered by the media, which is more about engendering fear that articulating solutions.It must be hoped that whatever political colour of the next government that it returns to making policy on the basis of empirical evidence rather than media headlines. The evidence of the Justice Committee and the reports of a series of chief inspectors of prisons would be a good place to start for moulding a new criminal justice system. At present all of this good advice appears to end up in the bin whilst policy is formed, based only on the latest scare story engendered to sell media products.