Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Can we also learn from this poor man's death by confronting our national ignorance of serious mental illness?

While Akmal Shaikh's execution by the Chinese authorities was vicious, barbaric and medieval in nature, we do need to confront the failures in our own country that allowed this tragedy to happen.

I am not fully up to date with the extent of education on mental illness in schools or the level of support teachers and other professionals in contact with young people have so that they might intervene in the course of someone's mental illness. I do however know that 12 years ago when my brother was behaving strangely, my family was absolutely failed by the education system (my parents were both secondary school teachers), the primary care system, and our own ignorance of mental illness. I was only able to suggest schizophrenia to my parents after a lecture about mental illnesses in my first year Psychology class at university. From what I recall, my suggestion didn't do us much good as my family's GP at the time expressed the opinion that he "seemed fine the last time I saw him". My brother went on to have three serious psychotic episodes involving hospitalisation in the next five years, attempted suicide on at least one occasion, and is now living alone with his delusions and no ambitions for employment some 12 years later.

In cold economic terms, my brother should be an asset not a burden to society. He was an international volleyball player when he became ill, and later achieved a 1st part-time at Glasgow University. I can't know for certain that early intervention in his illness would have allowed him to achieve the level of success he was destined for, but I'm sure a compassionate ear such as is presented by the early intervention programme presented in the link below, would have done wonders for the whole family in limiting the distress his illness caused.

Akmal Shaikh was well into middle-age when his symptoms first became apparent, so I can only blame our national collective ignorance of mental illness in granting the Chinese the ability to state that he had "no previous medical record" of mental illness. That is of course no excuse for the act of the Chinese in executing this man, but we need to take away much more from this sorry episode than writing another dark chapter in China's book of human rights abuses.

The job of a politician should not be to win votes, to make people richer, or pander to tabloid journalists. The job of a politician is to create and safeguard happiness, and I believe programmes such as this one in Maine can contribute immensely to that:

Early intervention in all illnesses can save lives. From personal experience, early intervention in mental illness has the potential to prevent emotional distress of the highest order.


Thursday, 24 December 2009

Can the slaughter of a grieving Mexican family be the final straw?


Melquisedet Angulo was the only marine who died in a military operation in which one of Mexico's most notorious drug barons was killed last week. In an apparent revenge attack, his mother, aunt, brother and sister have been slaughtered only hours after his funeral.

This is just the latest chapter in a shocking era of drug-fuelled terror that the Mexican government is clearly failing to contain. We need to ask ourselves what is the best way to help the Mexican people end this war. And from where I'm sitting the answer is fairly simple. The only way to prevent the drug users of the world enriching these savage terrorist cartels is to withdraw our support for the documents that grant them their power. The UN drugs conventions allow us to decriminalise drugs (as Portugal has done to great success), they allow us to prescribe heroin to desperate addicts (a model spreading across Europe following Switzerland's lead), but yet they leave the one step that will deprive the true evil-doers in the trade billions of pounds as unthinkable.

When the Portuguese Commission for a National Anti-Drug Strategy considered their options in tackling their nation's rapidly increasing drugs problem, they "concluded that legalisation was not a viable option due, in large part, to the fact that numerous international treaties impose the "obligation to establish in domestic law a prohibition" on drug use" (Quote from http://www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/greenwald_whitepaper.pdf). To not consider control and regulation of a legal market for drugs that takes away the billions of pounds of revenue from the cartels that are growing in power and influence in Latin America and West Africa is to offer a shrug of indifference to what remains of Melquisedet Angulo's family and to the families of the 15,000 other victims of the Mexican drug war since 2006. The UN drugs conventions are, in effect, contracts granting opportunistic and phenomenally violent criminals the rights to a drugs market worth hundreds of billions of pounds each year.

This is where the Liberal Democrats come in. As founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform, I have prepared a motion for Spring conference calling for the control and regulation of all currently illegal drugs. The current draft makes no reference to the UN drugs conventions, but following concerns raised I have proposed adding the following:

"It is precisely because of the Liberal Democrats full support for the excellent work of the UN in promoting liberty, health, human rights, peace and security across the globe that we should withdraw our support for the drugs conventions which are clearly creating quite opposite effects."

It is out of respect for the true aims of the UN that we should withdraw from the conventions which stand in their way.

If the Liberal Democrats were to adopt control and regulation as policy and achieve an unprecedented electoral boost as a result (and I genuinely believe this would occur), then we could be the instigators of a chain reaction that might spread across the world consigning prohibition to its historical status as the biggest, stupidest elephant to have stood in the world's most venerable debating chambers. And Melquisedet Angulo's family would not have died in vain.

Read the arguments I have prepared in support of my motion at http://lddpr.blogspot.com/ and join the debate on Lib Dem Act http://act.libdems.org.uk/group/liberaldemocratsfordrugpolicyreform

And Merry Christmas to one and all.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Are overseas call centres making us all a little more racist?

I've spent a fair bit of time on the phone to customer services departments over the last few days having just moved house from Inverness to Glasgow, and my heart sinks every time I hear an Asian accent asking "Mr Howel?" Immediately when I hear them murder my name (which incidentally is Hoyle, and is pronounced as read) I know that they are unlikely to understand what I am asking for, will repeatedly say the same things over and over again no matter my request, and will find me getting ruder and more impatient on the other end of the phone. I just signed off a particularly fruitless conversation with a young man from HSBC with "You're not answering my question! You're idiots! F*** off!" I did intend to hang up before I said the f word in frustration but am not entirely sure I made it in time. I am not the kind of man who is rude to anyone in any circumstances, so I can only imagine the kind of conversations these telephone operators are having with the more impolite of British citizens.

When I'm talking to a call centre in Cumbernauld or Clydebank, I'll cough (bad cold) and they'll say "Oh, have you got the cold that's going about, you're not sounding so good?" and I'll reply "Yeah, sorry for all the disgusting noises." We are able to have a conversation based on shared experience, culture and language which flows naturally based upon a level of empathetic understanding. When someone in India asks "Can I call you Ewan (NOT pronounced as read)" and I say simply "No" then we're immediately cast in my mind as the poorly trained performing monkey and the grumpy old man.

Having to have these conversations over the phone further establishes our alienation. They can't pick up the look of dismay on my face as they get my name wrong, I can't pick up the blank affect that they have learned to adopt as protection against British bile. What is worse is the fact that the relationship is likely to be creating considerable prejudice in both nations. We think they're idiots, they think we're angry, impolite racists. I wouldn't be surprised if tourism from India has taken a nosedive since the foreign call centre became commonplace. Anyone thinking of a visit will be told by all call-centre staff "Oh no, don't go there, they're all arseholes. I was just doing my job today, telling this guy "Ewan" - what kind of stupid name is that? - what he asked (yeah right) and he says "You're idiots, f*** off" No manners"

As soon as I've paid off my overdraft I'm finding a bank with no overseas call centres to do my bit for British-Indian relations. I never again want to tell a call-centre worker who I'm sure was trying his hardest to "f*** off".

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Police spending cuts don't have to hurt


The government have just asked police forces to find more than £500 million in savings each year up until 2014. Suggested solutions include cutting overtime and making officers patrol alone "to make them more accessible"

There is another option for saving money, a policy that could reduce acquisitive crime by over 50% and domestic burglaries by around 80%, thus freeing up tens of thousands of police for joint patrols or other priorities. Bringing drugs under the control and strict regulation of government gives us an opportunity to make heroin and crack users able to feed their habit without having to commit crime or prostitute themselves to fund it. The vast majority of addicts arrested for these crimes get released a few months later and then are back inside not long after that. The whole debacle reminds me of the You've Been Framed classic in which a small child keeps picking up a fish and putting it in a bucket of water only for it to jump right out again seconds later.

Surely the police force will be far better placed to keep communities safe while enduring these cuts if we removed the burden created by stubborn, cowardly and utterly self-defeating drugs policy.