Friday, 28 May 2010

Zahrah Manuel - a life of struggle

The funeral of Zahrah Manuel was a true celebration of life. Zahrah died suddenly at the age of 22. She had endured cerebral palsy for all her life yet during that time with the support of her mother Preethi lived life to the full.
Life though was a struggle, not so much in terms of the cerebral palsy but the way in which our increasingly inhumane society reacted. Preethi has been a devoted mother to her daughter, giving up her career and committing her life to getting the care support needed on a daily basis. She has also had to fight for her daughter’s most basic rights.
The first battle was to get into a primary school. The school had been adapted for disabled people but did not want Zahrah. A sit in by 25 people at the education authorities offices in Camden helped ease the way to Zahrah being accepted.
A similar thing happened come the time for secondary education. Again Preethi fought the battle this time going to the high court after the school her daughter was going to turned her away on the first day, saying they were unable to cope.
They again won but Zahrah decided she did not then want to go to a school that so clearly did not want her. Instead another school that was most inaccessible, spent over £100,000 adapting their premises so that Zahrah and other disabled children could attend. The head and staff at this school clearly understood what sanctity of life really meant in practical terms.
Preethi and Zahrah’s battles really centred around the right to be included. One individual in the opposition camp on inclusion is Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr Cameron opposes the idea of inclusion, preferring instead that disabled people be treated seperately, so are educated together in special places. Preethi publically challenged Mr Cameron to come and meet Zahrah but he never took up the opportunity.
Inclusion of disabled people is such an important issue that goes to the heart of our humanity. It shows people care and have solidarity with one another. It sets us apart from the jungle. Seperating people out marks a backward step to the world of asylums and locking people away, who don’t fit in with societal norms.
People with disabilities in the view of society also have amazing abilities. World renowned theoretical scientist Professor Stephen Hawkings has suffered with cerebral palsy all of his life, yet has a brilliant mind. Had Hawkings been shepherded off to an asylum at an early age, the world would be a far more ignorant place in terms of the understanding of the workings of the solar system.
Kim Peak, who died last December, was a savant with a truly remarkable memory. He could read and memorise books. His abilities became known internationally with the story of his life, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man.
The life of Kim Peak marked another move forward for people of disability. His life could have been very different if it were not for his father Fran. When Kim was a child his condition was known as “idiot savant” which in those days meant he would spend the best part of his life in a mental institution. But Fran was not going to let this happen and became his son’s primary carer and guide through life.
Preethi played a similar role for Zahrah, devoting her life to that of her daughter. The battles that they won together have moved things forward for disabled people across the UK.
It is important to remember that despite commentary to the contrary we live in a quite ignorant and intolerant world. The gains for disabled people have been achieved by the hard struggle of the likes of the Manuel, Peak and Hawkings families. The advances do not come about because some government minister or think tank suddenly decide it is the right thing to do. In this world, rights have to be fought for, won and then defended.
Zahrah may now have passed on but the number of friends and relations who attended her funeral are testimony to the fact that she will never be forgotten. Others who have never known her will owe much in terms of the quality of life that they are able to enjoy.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Students case tests coaltion over human rights

The reaction of the coalition government to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) decision will determine how serious it will be on human rights.
Siac's ruling that the two students Abid Naseer and Ahmed Faraz Khan cannot be deported to Pakistan, while labelling the former as an al-Qaida operative, underlines the total injustice of the secret evidence system.
The two men were part of a group of 12 originally arrested at Easter last year over an alleged terror plot. All the men were released within three weeks without charge, with those who weren't British citizens served with deportation orders on the basis of them being a threat to national security. Most have gone back to Pakistan but a few stuck it out, Naseer and Khan challenging the deportation.
The decision exposes many of the vagaries of the system of justice based on secret evidence that has grown up here since September 11 2001. It also creates a very dangerous precedent whereby individuals can be effectively tried on the basis of information they cannot see or challenge. A judgement is then reached which places them in a state of limbo - labelled terrorists but effectively trapped in Britain. There can be no appeal because they won the case.
Sarah Kellas of solicitors Birnberg Peirce, who represented the men, summarised the situation: "The decision of Siac today in respect of the two students we represent is in fact, for them, the worst of all worlds.
"On the basis of secret evidence which it refuses to disclose to the students, the court tells the world, in its judgment, that they are closely connected to an al-Qaida plot to cause explosions in the UK.
"The court acknowledges they have not been told why it comes to this conclusion, yet these young men have been branded publicly and thereby exposed to personal danger for the rest of their lives.
"Siac moreover refused them permission to appeal against its decision on the basis that they had 'won.'
"At the same time Siac has decided that neither can be deported to Pakistan without the probability that he will be tortured.
"The risk of such a fate has, of course, been heightened but in all likelihood created by the Secretary of State's claim and Siac's decision."
The latest judgement, coming at the start of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, represents an immediate challenge.
The Liberal Democrats, to their credit, opposed much of the paraphernalia of the secret state built up by the Labour government over the past decade. They voted against the renewal of the control order regime under the Prevention of Terrorism Act - the Conservatives abstained - and against the extension of pre-charge detention to 90 days and then 42 days.
The Liberal Democrats have also opposed the detention of children in immigration centres. Liberal Democrat MPs like Sarah Teather were good in opposition at raising the question of Britain's complicity in torture abroad and involvement with extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo Bay.
The test now comes in government as to whether they will act to end the system of justice based on secret evidence.
The latest decision of the Siac certainly represents a challenge because it points to some sort of control order style detention/surveillance for the two students concerned, possibly in perpetuity.
This case represents an early test of the new government's human rights credentials. Will it act to truly role back the secret evidence system of injustice or lapse back into continuing to progress the authoritarian model of justice based on secret evidence?
The decision it takes will be a good indicator as to just how seriously the new coalition government does take human rights

Thursday, 13 May 2010

New Government must address poverty on the streets

The Cardinal Hume Centre is situated in Westminster, just around the corner from Whitehall and down the road from Parliament.
The powerful and wealthy share the same streets with the homeless, drug users, the undocumented and unemployed. The problem is that the powerful and priveliged seem oblivious to those around them who struggle to get by on a daily basis.
This sanitation process between the two groups was nowhere more in evidence than at the recent general election when the issue of poverty rarely came up in a contest that at times came to resemble a series of the X-factor.
This is in a country where more than one million children live in overcrowded accommodation, drug addiction is on the increase and 500,000 plus undocumented workers struggle by in the twilight zone. All of these people can be found on the streets around the Palace of Westminster and many finish up at the Cardinal Hume Centre (CHC).
The Irish descended chief executive of CHC Cathy Corcoran is appalled at what she has seen. “I am genuinely ashamed, at the depths of poverty in this country,” said Corcoran. “When a mother does not know where the money is coming from to feed her children, it is the same poverty as is seen overseas. When we did a survey of people coming here, it was shocking the number caught up in that situation.”
The CHC comprises a 32 bedroom hostel for 16 to 21 year olds and an eight bed hostel for people in recovery from substance misuse. There is a one year limit on staying in the hostels, with the emphasis on moving people to live independently and get employment. There are english classes, IT training , adult literacy, parenting and life skills, immigration and employment advice plus work experience available.
The family centre is where women can bring their young children, then attend other classes in the building. The drop in primary healthcare service has a GP and psychiatrist available. It offers general counselling and alcohol/drug counselling and treatment. The CHC also runs a mentoring system.
The problems faced are numerous and varied. Nian Baban attends the family centre most days with her three year old. She also has a nine and seven year old and lives in a one bedroom flat with her husband. The family have been living in the flat for 11 years and have been seeking to get larger accommodation. Baban explains how difficult it is for her and three children to all sleep in one 10 x 6 ft room. Her husband sleeps on the sofa. “We are nearly divorced, our relationship has suffered due to these conditions. I have depression,” said Baban, who is one of 2.3 million people living in overcrowded conditions in the UK, according to the National Housing Federation. 3,000 households in Westminster are living in temporary accommodation.
The drug culture that it is so easy to get caught up in can destroy lives as the story of Kerry Norridge proves. Brought up in a stable family in Oxford, Norridge fell into the drug culture during his teenage years. By the age of 20 he was addicted to heroine. “I found I couldn’t hold down a job or sustain relationships,” said Norridge. “I became parasitic with girl friends. They provided somewhere to live, food and a mother figure. I did driving jobs, worked on building sites, they never held my attention for long.”
In the end in his late 20s he left his partner and cut off from his family in order not to cause anymore hurt. He then did various jobs, like selling the Big Issue, just to pay for the drugs. “I was running away, never dealing with the issue. It got dark and lonely and I felt very isolated,” said Norridge, who admits to reaching an all time low when he thought he was about to die in “a sad lonely way.”
A fellow hostel dweller encouraged him to go to Narcotics Anonymous and it was from here that the long road to recovery began. He applied to Westminster Substance Misuse team who then put him into detox and rehabilitation. He came to the CHC. “This was a fantastic move for me, they are positively focused at getting people into a meaningful life,” said Norridge, who while living in the hostel learned basic things like washing his clothes, housekeeping and budgeting. He is now living independently in a flat in north London and is on a drama course to become an actor. “At Easter my parents came down. I made food, we went sight seeing, it was beautiful,” said Kerry, who is keen to stress that if the right type of help is offered people in his situation can get out of the underclass and start building a life.
The CHC sees a lot of undocumented workers around the area, working in the twilight zone, often exploited. One policy that would help this group is a regularisation (or amnesty).
Amina Shor came to the UK from Lebanon in 2003. She is struggling to bring up three children, having split from her husband. She has learned English and wants to contribute. “I am on income support but want to get out to do something for the future. After August I am going to apply for citizenship,” said Shor.
It must now be hoped that with the election over, that members of the government can find their way down the road to CHC and others dealing with the symptoms of poverty in our society. It is no good for those who hold power to occupy the same pavement space as the poor and conduct a dialogue of the deaf. Real change can only happen if the two sides come together genuinely committed to finding solutions.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Need to break away from financial dictatorship

The recent riots in Greece that greeted the news of an austerity package for that country could point the way to similar outcomes across the world.
The objection of the Greek people was that events over which they largely had little control, being conjured up by a combination of the financial, business and political stratas, were now resulting in hardship for the many. Cuts to jobs, pay and conditions were all to be born by ordinary people struggling to survive.
The scenario in Greece and other countries is not that different to what is faced in Britain. Here reckless behaviour by bankers has put the country into such debt that it is going to take decades to resolve. Strangely, the perpetrators of this injustice seem to have largely escaped too much public opprobrium due in part to the helpful smokescreen of MPs expenses which blew up at such a time as to distract public attention.
Meanwhile, the bankers have continued largely unaffected, drawing their bonuses, continuing live life in a bubble now largely subsidised by everyone else. The banks have also been helped out by the cutting of interest rates that has enabled them to restore their own balance sheets. So the cuts have been passed on in full to savers while only partially to borrowers. They have also shut up shop on credit for struggling businesses, thereby forcing many of them out of business.
The final act in this tragedy now seems set to take place with the arrival of a coalition government that can declare it is all worse than expected and impose swingeing cuts on public services. Education, health and transport infrastructure are all likely to suffer. There will be real dangers, especially for the most weak and vulnerable in our society.
One of the more irritating outcomes, following the general election has been the constant reference to the money markets and City of London as the arbiters of the countries future. Afterall was it not many of these same people who brought about the crisis in the first place? There are more than 6.5 million people in trade unions in this country, yet there views are rarely given air time. It is almost as if the mood music is being created for the formation of a national government of neo-liberals.
It is time that the unions and other civil society organisations were brought into the debate over the future of the economy in Britain. It is beginning to seem as though the country has become the preserve of some sort of financial dictatorship. Simple justice demands that those who helped create this crisis should be made to pay more fully for the consequences.
Beyond the immediate demands, there must be a whole restructuring of the British economy. There needs to be a move away from dependence on the financial sector. This should include major investment in green technology, which can lead to the resurrection of the manufacturing sector. It is ludicrous at the moment that much of this technology being used in Britain has to be imported from abroad. There also needs to be a move toward a more carbon neutral way of life. A greater emphasis needs to be made on producing from the land.
There is a real danger that instead of using this crisis as an opportunity to chart an environmentally sustainable way forward that the old argument about not being able to afford green development will be deployed. The world has changed the argument of economic growth regardless of environmental consequences no longer stands. The worry is that this penny has not dropped with many politicians who think only in short term time spans. Again the trade unions and civil society need to be heard in this debate. If once again the only voices heard are those of the money markets, this new environmentally sustainable way forward is unlikely to be chartered.Failure to make the voices of the many heard will result only in the present economic crisis being dumped on the most weak and vulnerable with the way forward being plotted regardless of the consequences to the planet and the common good of all.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

If the Pope is to be prosecuted it is for Catholics to do it

As a result of the ongoing abuse scandal it seems to have become open season on the Catholic Church worldwide.
Most recently this saw a leaked Foreign Office memo discussing the possibility of Pope Benedict opening an abortion clinic, attending a civil partnership ceremony, apologising for the Spanish Armada and having a brand of condoms named after himself. The explanation for this memo, that the intention was not to amuse but part of a blue sky thinking exercise, conjures up vistas of people in holes continuing to dig.
Prior to the Foreign Office contribution came the initiative from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins to prosecute the Pope during his visit to Britain in September for crimes against humanity over child abuse.
This latter action has the feel of yet another publicity seeking trick from two individuals who have never been slow to take any opportunity to have a go at people of faith generally and the Catholic Church in particular.
The interesting point arising from both of these events is that they reveal how far the reputation of the Catholic Church has fallen in such a short time. Not so long ago, such ideas would never have been thought let alone put down on paper and in the case of the prosecution proposal potentially enacted. Who knows what the standing of the papacy will be come September, if the abuse scandals continue to roll on across the world?
What is crucial at this juncture is to define between those secular critics of faith generally, who will take any chance to have a go, and people genuinely concerned about what has happened who seek the best outcome for all concerned - especially the victims.
The response of some Catholics has been to seek to shoot the messenger, pointing out that those raising these issues are opposed to the Church. It is all a secular conspiracy. These individuals have about as much credibility as those secularists using the crisis and its victims to settle old scores against the Church.
The media coverage of the scandal does seem to some degree to be drawn from people emanating from the two polarised extremes. Recently, this has developed on the critics side into something of a pack mentality with the overarching aim being to “get the Pope.” This broad brush media approach has also sought to simplify things down to the unhelpful and inaccurate shorthand that all priests must be abusers.
The real objection in all of this is that the authentic Catholic voice is not being heard. It is Catholics who in the main have been abused. It is Catholics who now, via their collections and ongoing support, are paying out compensation for the abuse committed. Yet somehow, particularly in the British media, Catholics have been denied a voice to articulate their own concerns.
To put it bluntly if anyone is going to prosecute the Pope it should be Catholics not the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.
It is important here to differentiate between what has happened over abuse in Britain and Ireland. When abuse hit the headlines in Britain a decade ago, Lord Nolan was called in to investigate and make recommendations. His report was enacted, to the degree that some may consider that child protection procedures have gone to such a level that they dominate the Church agenda to the exclusion of all else. This is not to say that there must be abuse here going back years that has not been revealed and that much more will come out. It is fair to say though that the level of abuse and cover up is not the same as has occurred in Ireland and other countries. Ironically, this may be because Britain has been so hostile to Catholicism for so long.
It was though a relief recently to see the Bishops Conference of England and Wales make a direct apology to the faithful over the abuses committed. They spoke of these “terrible crimes, and the inadequate response by some church leaders,” the suffering of those abused and the need for reparation. “We recognise the failings of some bishops and religious leaders in handling these matters. These, too, are aspects of this tragedy which we deeply regret and for which we apologise. The procedures now in place in our countries highlight what should have been done straightaway in the past. Full co-operation with statutory bodies is essential.”
The statement was uncompromising and uncomfortable to hear read out in Churches across the country. It was afterall admitting that many of those revered by Catholics countrywide had committed crimes and abused the most innocent of our people. It was a heinous crime that must shame all Catholics.
How serious the bishops are about addressing the question of abuse will be seen over the coming months. The benchmarks will be how victims are treated, what processes are put in place to discover other abuse and what happens to change the structures of the Church.
It is afterall the authoritarian hierarchial structure of the Church that has allowed this abuse to occur. The laity also need to grow up and take responsibility. There must be structures of accountability that become filled by grown ups who will hold those working for the Church to account.
These though are matters for Catholics. Let’s remember that as Irish Catholics it is our Church. We put in the plate, our children attend the schools. It is for us to sort out the problems, not those seeking to make cheap points at our expense.