Thursday, 1 August 2013

How can government fight everyday sexism?

Thanks to the work of some admirable women, many of us are becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which women are harassed, groped, and intimidated in their everyday lives. Social networks and blogs are becoming spaces where people can share disturbing experiences, find solidarity, and open the eyes of men to just how odious other men can be.

My eyes have been opened, and having been disgusted by what I've been seeing, I did what I do these days when I find an aspect of our culture or society that needs changing. I reached for my laptop to start writing a policy motion*, trying to think of the things that government could do to spare people harassment and trauma.

I included three things I thought government could do to change our culture:
1) Improve relationship and sex education.
2) Develop rape prevention classes and advertising campaigns.
3) Develop public information campaigns to promote appropriate responses to sexual assault or harassment in victims and witnesses.

1) Improve relationship and sex education

When David Cameron delivered his speech on internet pornography last month he described many ways that children could theoretically be prevented from accessing pornography, but completely ignored the thrust of the major report "Basically... porn is everywhere." produced in May of this year. In the accompanying press release Dr Miranda Horvath, Senior Lecturer, Middlesex University said:

"It is clear that children and young people want and need safe spaces in which they can ask questions about, and discuss their experiences with pornography. The onus must be on adults to provide them with evidence based education and support and help them to develop healthy, not harmful relationships with one another."

I'm not surprised our Conservative Prime Minister has baulked at the idea of adults talking to children about pornography, but I am disappointed. It seems likely that preparing children for what they might encounter in pornography and helping them develop healthy attitudes towards relationships, sex, and gender roles through education is going to be far more effective in changing our culture than placing all the internet porn in a cookie jar and putting it on a high shelf.

2) Develop rape prevention classes and advertising campaigns.
This part of the proposal doesn't need much explanation beyond a recommendation that you read this excellent blog post by Christin Bowman. On the issue of advertising, Police Scotland already have a campaign "We can stop it", though to me it stops well short of communicating the same level of derision and stigma as the Canadian "Don't be that guy" campaign. On rape prevention classes, if they work - and they certainly appear to - then we should use them. We need to ask ourselves when we should use them though. Do we deploy them in the later school years, in colleges and universities, or even in work places with high numbers of young people? Could we even develop targeted delivery for those identified expressing sexist attitudes or harassment. If we could identify transgressors who stop short of a criminal offence, could we perhaps compel them to attend a Commission for the Dissuasion of Everyday Sexism (with an acronym that could be pronounced as the suitably stigmatising "seedies")? 
3) Develop public information campaigns to promote appropriate responses to sexual assault or harassment in victims and witnesses.

And so to the final proposal, and I think the one that - if it works - has the greatest potential to transform our culture and people's safety from assault in public places. This idea stemmed from something that I was picking up from many of the blogs and articles that I was reading on the subject. It makes me very uncomfortable to know that a very common response to being harassed or assaulted in a public place is to freeze, to try to ignore the assault and to hope it stops. It's quite sickening to think that I might have been in the presence of a sexual assault and not have known, that I could have prevented distress and trauma if I had been more aware or had heard or seen a sign. The freezing response might be due to a reluctance to make a fuss, or a lack of confidence in society to come to their aid. Regardless of the reason we have to consider how we might change attitudes and behaviours in both victims and bystanders so that we can create a genuinely hostile environment for the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.
I think a public information campaign could be developed, like this one in which Vinnie Jones intervenes to save a life. But for this campaign you'd have clear instructions on what to do in case of assault or harassment for the victim, the witnesses, and the perpetrator.
For the victim, there might be key words or gestures that could be used to indicate that they were uncomfortable to witnesses. Words for quieter public places, and gestures for noisy environments like pubs or clubs, or whichever is easiest at the time. Perhaps a clear warning could be issued before deploying these words or gestures when the victim is unsure of whether to escalate.
Witnesses, on hearing or seeing these words or gestures, should feel obliged to intervene, firstly with an audible or physical gesture warning, then perhaps by deploying technology to make a record of the perpetrator's identity and behaviour (over 50% of adults have smartphones now), before passing them to the police. And by witnesses, I mean all witnesses should engage in this behaviour if they can. If witnesses have been exposed to the public information campaign their perception of their behaviour would hopefully convert from having to be brave/stupid to intervene, to having to be cowardly or to neglect their duty to not intervene.
Perpetrators will be given the simple message that they can walk away at any point and any delay in walking away, any attempt to return to that behaviour or follow their victim, or any violence against the victim or witnesses will rapidly escalate the actions that might be taken against them.
I'm not pretending that this is the answer. I'm sure there will be many ethical, psychological and practical questions to consider concerning this approach, but I think we have got to a point where people are more aware something needs to be done to help people enjoy themselves without fear of assault, and the technology appears to be ready to support such an environment.
The ubiquity of smartphones provides society with a potentially excellent tool in the fight against sexual harassment and criminality generally. We can't be far off having the necessary technology to be able to beam live feeds and geographical locations from smart-phones into police control rooms.
The greater question perhaps is whether society is ready to step up. Are we ready to be inspired into rescuing our fellow citizens from distressing experiences? Or are we cowards who would resent feeling obliged to interfere with a lecherous asshole's enjoyment of his evening?

I'm hopeful for the former.

*The motion I describe was submitted to Scottish Liberal Democrat conference as part of a larger motion that also covered reform of laws regarding sex work and sex workers. It was not selected for debate, but I intend to separate the motion in two motions and resubmit them in the future. 

I'd welcome any comments on these measures in order to guide what eventually makes it into the motion for next time.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

When prohibitionists lie, we have to call bullshit

My latest letter to The Herald, this time taking a former chief constable over my knee:

I'd like to praise The Herald for shedding further light on the deadly effects of fake ecstasy pills (headline of 13th July 2013), but I'd also like to raise concerns about some of the counter arguments to the 'regulation of a legal market' proposals I outlined in my letter of July 8th, both in Christopher Gilfedder's letter of July 10th, and in Dr Ian Oliver's appearance on BBC's Newsnight Scotland programme on July 11th
Both offenders peddle the ridiculous notion that the illegal drug industry would in some way be successful in fighting back against a legal, regulated market. They forget that the risk premium on drug supply is absolutely enormous, escalating exponentially the cost of drugs as they progress from grower or manufacturer, through distributors and local gangsters to the drug user. Without that risk premium, the government-regulated market could sell cannabis or MDMA at similar prices to herbs or aspirin if they wished to. Instead the government would tax the products, filling as much of the gap between the small manufacturing costs and current illegal market prices as they thought suitable. They would have to pile on an awful lot of tax to cause customers to disregard the guarantees of quality, dose predictability, personal safety and ethical considerations and give their money to criminals.
That tax would be wisely invested in the education and treatment services that would help both prevent and treat the problematic drug use that blights Scotland more than any other western European nation.
To see what such policies can bring about we need look no further than Portugal. Though they have not legalised and regulated the drug market, decriminalisation has allowed them to divert resources from policing to health and education interventions. Rather than the massive increases in drug use and significant increases in drug deaths that Ian Oliver asserts, the latest statistics indicate that past month use of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin in Portugal have at least halved between 2001 - when their reforms were introduced - and 2012. (I can send the full document to you or recommend you speak to Alex Stevens of the Uni of Kent to verify this). Portugal's Special Registry of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine estimate that there were 19 drug-related death cases in 2011. In 2008 that estimated number was 94. There were 584 drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2011 for a population half the size of Portugal's. From where I'm sitting it looks like we have a lot of catching up to do, and it greatly saddens me that a former chief constable would commit heinous crimes against statistics in an attempt to hinder that progress.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The speech I couldn't finish

It's been seven weeks now since I broke down about a third of the way through my speech in the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference mental health debate. It was a debate characterised by quite astounding bravery from almost all of those who got up to speak. Each brave speaker independently chose to disregard the stigma surrounding the issue and relate their own experiences of mental ill health in the hope that those present could learn from those experiences and help to bring change. I am especially grateful to Christine Jardine for abandoning her prepared speech in order to deliver the rest of my own. It was an extremely kind and compassionate gesture that reflected the remarkably supportive and familial atmosphere in the hall.

I have been holding the emotions behind this speech inside me for about 15 years now, so it's perhaps unsurprising that I couldn't get to the end. Even siphoning off that emotion to drive my drug policy work for the last 5 years clearly wasn't sufficient to prepare me for confronting the one thing more than any other that drives me in my political activity.

I hope in publishing my speech in blog form it can reach a wider audience, and maybe cause some people to think about how we can make things better.

"Good afternoon conference. This is very much the second draft of my speech. The first one was basically me taking the opportunity to confront my brother's mental illness and how I feel about it. There was no way I could have delivered that speech. A good friend described it as very touching and very raw, so if you're into that kind of thing I'll probably put it up as a blog early next week*.

I have a brother with schizophrenia. It has been a hugely traumatic thing for my family to deal with over the last 17 years, and I sadly don't see anything in this motion that might have spared us that trauma. This is a fairly solid, well-meaning mental health motion and I'm sorry I couldn't have engaged earlier in an attempt to improve it.

But I'm here now, so I have to take this opportunity to encourage the party to additionally focus its efforts on the key issues of prevention and early intervention.

Schizophrenia is a condition that can render young people a traumatising burden for the rest of their lives. It usually first appears in someone's late teens or early twenties, and it affects approximately 1% of the population. Why, why are we not preparing school children for the distinct possibility themselves, a family member, or friend, might start to lose their grip on rationality and reality. Why are we leaving families open to this devastating impact, that sets off a chain reaction of pain, anguish and mental ill health that ricochets wildly through our society.

I've said this to a UK government health minister's face and I'll say it again to you today. I would have given all my As for the knowledge to identify the warning signs of my brother's impending deterioration. The knowledge that could allow me to do the right thing in good time to allow him to cling on to reality and eventually return to a chance at happiness and fulfilment. Why do we spend hours teaching the fictional breakdown of Hamlet or the poems of Philip Larkin, when we could be teaching our children how to safeguard their real life mental health and how to look out for - and respond appropriately to - the deterioration of their friends and family.

My brothers chances of happiness and fulfilment are all but gone now. This motion is ok, but I humbly ask for your help in preparing the motion or motions necessary for future conferences, that will facilitate genuine early and effective intervention in mental health conditions.

There are a massive number of families like mine who are suffering in silence due to schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse or myriad other mental health problems. It is a great pity that we struggle to gather the emotional strength or courage to stamp our feet and shout from the rooftops. But we are out there and we are legion. But because we don't speak up, we are not spoken to. Politicians instead concentrate their messages on jobs and growth. But what is a job without a happy home life. I'd dearly love this party to plant it's flag firmly on this ground. We should be the party that aspires for a society in which it is easier to find happiness, and easier to avoid sadness and trauma.

Voting for this motion is a good start, but we can do so much more."

Having just read this again for the first time in a long while, I'm surprised at how short it is. It doesn't have to be long though. It's a simple request for changes that will be very easy to deliver politically. All it needs is for politicians to do some upper lip loosening exercises and to consider the enormous benefits that better mental health and a more emotionally resilient population could deliver for our society. 

*I'm happy to e-mail copies of the first draft of the speech to anyone who's interested. I'm not comfortable with it being distributed more widely though, so please don't pass it on.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The proposal of drug consumption rooms is a backward step.

I've just finished listening to a phone-in discussing the issue of drug consumption rooms on BBC Radio 5 live. It was all a bit depressing, and only partially for the fact that every second caller was hysterically describing the concept as an outrage. What is really depressing is that we've already moved beyond drug consumption rooms in the UK.

We already have three centres where heroin is being provided for addicts in secure, medically supervised environments. Discussing drug consumption rooms instead moves the debate back a step from the cutting edge of good practice.

My disappointment stems from the comparative ease of selling each concept politically. It is bizarre to allow addicts to first beg, steal or borrow to raise money to purchase poor quality street heroin, only to allow them to consume whatever it is they have purchased in a clean, clinical environment. The drug itself should be extremely cheap for the state to provide. The major costs of these clinics instead stem from staffing and building costs. Drug consumption rooms require all the costs of staffing and premises, but provide none of the savings of reducing acquisitive crime and undermining the criminal market. The benefits are clear for the addict, but less clear for the community.

Clinics providing clean heroin to addicts should be a much easier sell as they can be easily marketed to locals as assisting both the addicts and the community more effectively, and for only marginally higher cost.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Fisking Kathy Gyngell

It's always exciting when I find another link on twitter or facebook to a Kathy Gyngell blogpost on the drug policy debate. I read about drugs policy and come to certain conclusions. Kathy reads the same things and comes to completely different conclusions. I've been wanting to pick all the little non-fact nits out of one of her articles for a while now and I think it's about time I stepped up to the plate. After all, Kathy - having been the major agitator behind The Conservative's drug policy for the last few years – is basically my conservative equivalent. Step aside folks. This battle is mine (though of course if you do feel the need to step in to advise me then your facts and ideas are welcome).

For her latest article Kathy has also rather stumbled on to my territory by having a go at the Transform/Ipsos MORI drug policy poll reported in the media last week. I commissioned a drug policy poll myself in 2010 with the help of Liberal Democrat colleagues, so it's a subject I follow with some interest.

It's a long article, and she has form, so this might take a while to isolate all the little untruths and distortions, but I feel it has to be done.

[I did have a go at the first paragraph, but it has been criticised very ably already (and better than I achieved) by John Robertson at "The Poison Garden" He used 1,000 words on the first paragraph alone so I shall pick up the baton at...]

Paragraph 2:

Gyngell: “Previously commissioned YouGov drug polls (for the Observer) suggest attitudes towards drug use have hardened, not softened”

An interesting assertion, though no link provided so that we can check it our for ourselves.

Gyngell: “The recent Sun YouGov poll hardly found a ringing endorsement for Nick Clegg’s call for a drug policy review either - 50% of his own party members (known for their often off-the-wall views) disagreed and the vast majority of Conservative and Labour members gave it the thumbs down.”

This is where it really gets good/weird. There was a recent Sun YouGov poll  and here's a quote from the YouGov website: “There is majority support for a royal commission across party lines, with 59% of Conservative voters, 62% of Labour supporters and 75% of Lib Dems in favour.” The full results also show a majority in favour of trials of Portuguese-style decriminalisation (a result not replicated by the Ipsos MORI poll using different methodology). And on page 1 there is a trend since June of more people favouring legalisation or decriminalisation of “soft drugs such as cannabis”, such that more people favoured reform than the status quo. Is there another recent Sun YouGov poll that doesn't so utterly destroy Kathy's argument?

Clegg called for a Royal Commission before Christmas, so I assume that's what Kathy refers to when she says “review”. If anyone can point to a poll of party “members” I'd be intrigued to read it, but if 50% of Liberal Democrat members disagree with the call for a review, they must have been outside the walls of the conference hall when my 2011 drug policy motion calling for government to set up an immediate review was passed. It passed “with only one or two votes against” and there were many more than 4 people in the hall.

Paragraph 3:

Gyngell describes Transform's mission as “To persuade understandably wary politicians to throw caution to the winds on drugs”

This is of course entirely unfair to Transform, as their efforts recently have mainly been directed at achieving a wide-ranging, government-initiated independent review of all options for reform (including stricter prohibition). They do this presumably because they think their position in advocating a regulated legal market for drugs is in fact the most cautious means of dealing with drug use in respect to reducing the harms to individuals both from drugs and from criminal sanctions. If Gyngell is as confident in her solutions to the drug problem, then she should surely support their examination alongside the alternatives proposed by Transform. She doesn't.

Later on:

Gyngell: “Ipsos Mori, the pollster, it seems took Transform’s biased portrayal of UK drug policy as contrasted with ‘decriminalised regimes’ at face value.”

And here is that “biased portrayal”:

Is this not a fairly rigorous description of the reality in Portugal, the decriminalisation model which I certainly favour, and which would likely be the route that Britain would follow it politicians gathered the courage?

Gyngell: “And like the rest of the media, it swallowed Transform’s fallacious presentation of the impact of decriminalisation in Portugal.“

Ok, I'm not sure you could call Ipsos MORI part of the media for starters, but here's what was presented:


The results of Portuguese decriminalisation have been disputed, but the best way to resolve this dispute is to turn to someone who has addressed it and published peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject. If interested, please read Professor Alex Stevens (introduction here) The only potentially biased aspect of this description is therefore the reporting of a fall in use among school-age children, which from Hughes and Stevens' work appears to be a trend also seen in Italy and other EU countries (see British Journal of Criminology article).

What Gyngell fails to mention is that the polled group was split. Half of those polled saw the description of what decriminalisation meant. Half additionally saw the description of what happened in Portugal. So the presentation of the facts on Portugal was not an attempt to skew the poll, but an exploration of what presentation of those facts - or their absence – would mean for public opinion.

Gyngell: “This was what they gave their na├»ve subjects to consider before the second set of questions they were asked about their preference for a drug policy review.”

I shall repeat, half of the group saw just the decriminalisation description, and half additionally saw the largely accurate (though perhaps slightly biased) reporting of what occurred in Portugal. These separate groups were reported separately for the subsequent polling questions (though their answers were pooled for the press release).

Gyngell: “The first page of the actual poll read quite something else than the press release. Despite the encouragingly negative portrayal of British policy that prefaced the first question, it found:
  • 60 per cent support for our drug laws as they are
  • 60 per cent support for possession of illegal drugs remaining a criminal offence.
  • 68% of Conservative supporters, 56% of Labour supporters and 61% of Liberal supporters – all clear majorities – backing this status quo
  • And finally 74% of Asian and 77% of Blacks backing all the above (a headline of its own surely?).
Far from heralding a dramatic liberalisation of attitude, the poll showed only 14% of the population favouring the decriminalisation of possession, only 21% prepared to back a limited decriminalisation trial in a specified area.”
I fail to see how “POSSESSION OF ILLEGAL DRUGS IS CURRENTLY A CRIMINAL OFFENCE IN THE UK.” is an encouragingly negative portrayal of British policy. Gyngell also fails to mention that the first page of the poll data was from the group not exposed to the information/propaganda on what had happened in Portugal. So after railing against the exposure of poll participants to this bias, she presents the numbers from those who were not exposed to this bias. Sneaky.
I'm not sure why she feels she has to use the 60% figure twice. She's reporting the same answer to the same question. And on what race-obsessed planet would the opinions of 37 Asian and 12 black people make a worthwhile headline? There was no significant difference between these groups and the rest. The numbers of black people in the survey were so small they didn't even test for significance. And why not report the fact that only 36% of mixed ethnicity participants backed the status quo? Is it because that didn't fit into her narrative, or because that was only 3 people out of 7? And by "all of the above", she is still referring to one answer to one polling question.
Gyngell: “Could my reading be correct? I checked with an academic colleague. His reply restored my faith in my sanity as well as my eyesight:
The results are as you have interpreted them not as have been presented by Transform, the majority remain in favour of legal barriers (to drugs possession)”, he said.”
It's fun to consider this exchange as that between a crazy person and an unfortunate passing colleague desperate not to feed the loony troll, but the chances are he was presented with incomplete information in much the same way as the readers of her blog. The poll question asked by Ipsos MORI on cannabis regulation, decriminalisation, or prohibition was accurately reported by Transform. They did include the results on decriminalisation of general drug possession in their press release under the heading "Additional survey findings include...", and they let people look at the full results of the poll for themselves on their website. I'd say this was good practice. Much better than writing an epic blog whinge with no links to evidence provided whatsoever.
Gyngell: “So how come then did two thirds of those polled, decide, against their prior answers, that a review of the drug law was in order, how did roughly half back the idea of either legalising or decriminalising cannabis?
They were doped - metaphorically speaking – duped by the great Portuguese drug fallacy”
Were they though Kathy? Half of them weren't exposed to the factual information on what has happened in Portugal, and what did that half have to say?
Support for a review (those without info on Portugal) 64%
Support for a review (those with info on Portugal) 70%
So even among those not doped up on propaganda, 64% support a full independent review of all drug policy options.
Support for cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation (not exposed) 51%
Support for cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation (exposed) 54%
So only a maximum of 6% of the sample were corrupted by what were facts presented in good faith.
Gyngell then launches into an effort to disprove the information provided about successes in Portugal. And in some of this writing she is occasionally correct. If Baroness Meacher is claiming in the media that less people are taking drugs in Portugal than before then she probably shouldn't be.
Then something remarkable happens. Gyngell introduces a source of information which is new to me and which might actually disprove the one shaky assertion in the Portugal information in the poll.
School age use data, however, which has been monitored recently shows a steady rise in Portugal since 1999 (by contrast with a 30% downward trend in school age use since 1999 here) rising rapidly in the last 5 years from 10 -16%. My source was the well reputed and reliable, comparative ESPAD monitoring studies. All this I explained.”
It's a shame she has to tarnish this good work by using the word steady in describing the rise in drug use among school-age children that happened in Portugal. In fact both use of cannabis and of other illicit drugs fell in the data from 2003 to 2007. Generate these graphs for Portugal using this website and you see clearly very wavy lines rather than the straight ones Gyngell implies with the word "steady". This pattern of lifetime use in teenagers is entirely consistent with investment in prevention and treatment alongside decriminalisation decreasing teenage experimentation, and subsequent removal of this investment due to economic circumstances leading to experimentation rising again. It's also a shame that she says that there has been a rise from 10-16% in the past five years. In 2011 cannabis use was at 16% (pats Kathy on head), but the only other data points since 1999 were 2003 (15%), and 2007 (13%). I'm going to be generous and suggest Kathy Gyngell can't read graphs.
Gyngell then gets nasty
Baroness Meacher is by no means the first to have been taken in by pro drugs advocates. Their campaign of disinformation has intensified since they lost the cannabis classification debate in the UK – the focus of their creeping effort to normalise cannabis use - from which neither of the main parties is likely to retract now the serious risks of cannabis use (especially by adolescents) for mental health are known.”
The pro-drugs line is a simple smear. I'm no more pro-drugs than Gyngell is. I want the harms that drugs cause to society to be lessened. I think that goal can be achieved by regulating them. I wouldn't suggest anyone take any drug if they want a better life, unless of course that drug has been recommended to them by a doctor. Organisations like Transform and Release are harm reduction organisations, not pro-drug organisations.
The serious risks to mental health are also paramount in my consideration of cannabis regulations. This is how I explain why in the upcoming issue of AdLib magazine: “Those who worry about the message sent about drugs should be able to recognise that the government message on drugs can be far better delivered by a government-approved vendor than a distant government's messy classification system. As a response to important concerns about psychosis and cannabis, the person selling legal cannabis can be trained and compelled to instruct users on the early warning signs of the illness. Far from endangering young minds, cannabis regulation should be seen as the missing piece of our otherwise excellent mental health policy.” The risks of psychosis are a reason to regulate, not the other way round.
Gyngell: “When the Home Affairs Select Committee, under Chairman Keith Vaz, decided it was time for another drugs policy inquiry, it tuned its terms of reference to theirs [the Global Commission on Drug Policy] and went on to give its prime platform to its main advocate, the self confessed dope smoking Virgin Boss, and Commission backer, Richard Branson.
This revelation hardly discredits the Committee's report any more than the fact that Kathy Gyngell herself later appeared before the committee to give evidence.
Gyngell: “ one, least of all those best informed, seriously maintains that either decriminalisation or the longer term goal of legalisation would reduce drug use. (Reuter & McCoun 1999). They all agree it would increase it (possibly from the minority habit it is today to a majority habit like drinking and smoking).
Perhaps Kathy might like to have a read at the Release document A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Policies in Practice Across the Globe” The authors, following a considerable amount of research, certainly wouldn't agree that decriminalisation would increase drug use. “The main aim of the report was to look at the existing research to establish whether the adoption of a decriminalised policy led to significant increases in drug use - the simple answer is that it did not.
I'm sure others will be able to find omissions, mistakes, and slurs in Gyngell's writing that I have not. It's important that they don't go unrecorded. Gyngell after all appears regularly in the media to provide "balance" in the drug policy debate. I'm not sure how active she remains in Conservative circles regarding drug policy, but if there are any Conservative members reading this, it might be best to ask yourself, and more senior party members, whether her opinions are worth any more of the party's attention.