Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Breaking Point: Inequality is damaging our mental health.

Mental illness is something many people will experience over the course of their life in one form or another. It is something we are more comfortable talking about now than we were in the past, even so a worrying level of stigma still surrounds the issue.

This is deeply problematic because, as one leading charity has noted recently, the decline in our national mental wellbeing is a potential public health crisis. One that has its most damaging impact on the most vulnerable members of society and can be linked to the ‘austerity’ policies of the past decade.

The shocking reality is that behind the glitz and gleaming glass towers, the regenerated mill towns and the new tech based industries, if you are poor, unemployed or in a low paid job; then your physical and mental health will be worse and you are at risk of dying sooner.

In their ‘Surviving or Thriving’ report published earlier this year the Mental Health Foundation painted a bleak picture of the mental health of the UK in 2017. Out of the people they spoke to as part of their research 65% said they had experienced some type of mental health problem, amongst the respondents who were unemployed or in low paid work that rose to 85%.

The most common problems reported were depression, anxiety and panic attacks, all of which can be linked to the stresses associated with life in the ‘precariat’, as the new class of insecure workers have come to be known.

The report concludes that the mental health of the UK is deteriorating, with the young and members of the lowest socio-economic group suffering most. This is reflected in the number of people accessing mental health services, NHS Digital record this as 1,227,312 for the year to March, with 7843 people requiring treatment on acute wards and 5637 on general wards, 21.2% of the people who accessed mental health services over this period were aged under 19.

Is there a case for attributing this decline in our national mental wellbeing to inequality as the Mental Health Foundation claims? Another charity, The Equality Trust has highlighted some indicators that the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK has grown alarmingly over the past decade.

These include concerns expressed by UNICEF about levels of child poverty, the Social Mobility Commission saying that twenty years of government policy initiatives have failed to ‘level the playing field’ for individuals and communities living in poverty; and research published by Oxford University suggesting the number of people using food banks is set to rise.

Over the past ten years the poorest tenth of the population has seen a huge fall in its collective income to just 1.3% of that for the nation, the richest tenth claims 31% (source: The Poverty Site). This has resulted in a situation where, as Christians Against Poverty put it the poorest and most vulnerable people are forced to walk a ‘financial tightrope’.

Faced with such a situation on a daily basis is it any wonder that it has a detrimental impact on people’s physical and mental health?

Health inequalities, both physical and mental, can be linked, among other factors, to the amount of control an individual’s socio-economic position gives them over their daily lives. Unemployment, poor housing, lack of security for those in low paid work can all aggravate health problems. The poor die younger and when people in that group have been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, they die even younger still.

Mental health problems amongst people who are out of work can be linked to loss of status and a sense of purpose, along with grinding money worries and the relentless struggle to qualify and retain even the limited support on offer from the DWP. Even when people find a job working, if the job in question is low paid, insecure and repetitive can cause stress levels that are unhealthy.

City life is more stressful than rural living, particularly in disadvantaged communities where there is more vandalism, higher crime rates and more opportunities to make unhealthy lifestyle choices. People living in disadvantaged communities also tend to have weaker social support networks and members often lack the social and cultural capital necessary to seek help effectively.

For people living in such circumstances and experiencing mental health problems along with all the above problems there is the added difficulty of stigma making them into a separate minority existing on the edge of an already marginalized community.
The government defines tackling inequality as:

‘Addressing the causes and consequences of stigma, discrimination, social inequality and exclusion on service users, carers and mental health services’
(cited in Pilgrim, 2008: pp105)

The evidence shown so far demonstrates that despite claims to the contrary the current government, and many of its predecessors, has failed to do so in any meaningful way. There is, sadly, little chance that any government will so long as we as a country remain wedded to the economic and social policies of the past forty years.

There is a need for fresh and radical thinking of a sort the three mainstream political parties simply cannot provide. In this respect, as in so many others, the Green Party has a real alternative to offer.

In their manifesto at this year’s general election they said they would bring mental healthcare in line with physical health, making parity of esteem a reality not just an empty promise. They also pledged to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness and to tackle the inequality that causes it by reforming the benefits system.

In their wider policy offer they called for the introduction of a four- day working week to help reduce workplace stress and make our economy more productive. They also said they would take steps to look into introducing a universal basic income to close forever the poverty trap and set people free to be more creative.

Theirs is a vison of a fairer Britain that really does work for all its people. A country where wealth and opportunity are shared for the good of all.

As a volunteer and trustee at two mental health charities I fully endorse the Green Party’s plans to tackle inequality and the health problems it creates.

Over the past century Britain has made huge strides in overcoming many of its public health problems, at the same time we have consigned once entrenched prejudices to the cultural dustbin. I believe that with the sort of fresh thinking provide by the Green Party we can do the same for mental illness and the stigma that still too often surrounds it.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Council to spend £335,000 on cleaning up Hanley.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to spend £335,000 on tackling anti-social behaviour in Hanley.

Under a proposed public spaces protection order begging and street drinking would be criminalized and the police would have new powers to move on rough sleepers.

Money from the pot will also be spent on funding three new PCSOs to patrol the town centre and £10,000 will be spent on using vinyl window stickers to smarten up empty shops.

The plan will see the creation of a new post for a city centre strategic coordinator with a salary of £50,000 to oversee the project.

Spending on pastoral support for street drinkers, rough sleepers and other people coping with chaotic lived will be set at £35,000.

Jonathan Bellamy chair of the City Centre Partnership welcomed the plan saying it would ‘see a return as people will feel safer and will therefore spend more time in the town centre.’

The council will also set up a City Centre Business Improvement District (BID) to raise money from local businesses ring fenced to be spent in the town centre.

Is this money well spent? Hanley certainly has its problems. Like all town centres it is a magnet for the troubled and the lost.

At a time when Stoke-on-Trent as a newly shortlisted runner to be the 2021 City of Culture needs to show its best face to the world. Look beyond the headline figure and something more problematic can be seen.

Make no mistake £335,000 is a serious chunk of cash, a large slice of which, £961,00 a week to be exact, will be paid to the new strategic coordinator.

Only £631,00 a week will be spent on pastoral care for people who, for the most part, have ended up on the streets through bad luck rather than personal failings. The money will be split between multiple charities and projects, reducing the figure even further.

This seems like a strange, but sadly not unfamiliar, set of priorities. Once again hiring a highly paid manager to oversee services has been put ahead of funding said services properly. Past experience has taught everyone outside the ivory tower inhabited by senior council officers that this doesn't work.

Setting up a BID may prove problematic too if the experience of people in nearby Newcastle is anything to go by. Some businesses there have complained of being strong armed into joining.

There is also the small matter of communities being made up of more than businesses, but under BID only business owners, many of whom might live out of the area, will have a say on how the money raised is spent. That is far from democratic and could cause a serious clash of interests.

There is also the perennial problem of how to spread the benefits out to the other five towns.

Hanley is on the up after years of decline, walk down Piccadilly and it almost seems cosmopolitan, slickly metropolitan certainly. That is a good thing, every city needs a centre, but you can't solve social problems just by moving them on to somewhere else.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Democracy dies in darkness.

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time, setting up an independent panel to scrutinize allowances paid to members of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Like many bold initiatives before it this one has hit the rocks of unforeseen problems. The announcement of who would sit on the panel was due to be made last Thursday and has now been delayed.

Elections monitoring officer Fiona Ledden told the Sentinel thus was due to ‘technical’ issues. Code, it would seem, for concerns having been expressed by Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez about the appointment of Alan Barrett to sit on the members remuneration panel.

Mr Barrett was a leading light in the March on Stoke campaign against the building of a new civic centre. In 2014, he launched a petition calling for a 30% cut in councillor’s allowances.

In the headline to an article published on Friday the Sentinel called the holding back of an announcement about the panel a ‘mystery’. You probably don't need Sherlock on speed dial to work out what's going on.

If you do and you happen to think politics is more than just a distraction, then you will have ample cause for concern.

What has happened is that the political establishment, represented here by our own dear council, has dipped a toe into the water of transparency, only to pull back at the last moment.

There is something distinctly farcical about the claim made by the Labour leader that Alan Barratt was too ‘political’ a figure to sit on the panel.

Having met him on several occasions I would agree that he is a man of strong opinions, not all of them relating to politics. He is also someone with a strong sense of public service and a demonstrable commitment to working to improve his community.

Those are, you might reasonably think, the sort of qualities you'd look for in a councillor. They certainly more than qualify him to scrutinize how councillors are paid.

I find it hard to believe that someone who has been around the block as many times as Mr Pervez fails to realize how important effective scrutiny is to the political process. Particularly when the people doing it ask awkward questions; which is exactly what I'd expect Alan Barratt to do.

Why does all this matter? It's hardly something hipster types munching on artisan sandwiches in the Cultural Quarter are talking about between bites, never mind those who inhabit the corridors of power.

It matters because it reveals a wider malaise in the state of politics. We are rapidly reaching a state where two rival camps warily eye each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

On one side, we have an establishment cocooned within the Westminster bubble that increasingly fears and distrusts a public it feels are unpredictable. In the other corner stand we the public growing ever more sceptical and restive by the day.

Democracy is a fragile flower, it dies in darkness, particularly if its roots are doused in dishonesty. If we want it to thrive then we have to let in the light of transparency.

The bad old days when payments for special responsibilities were handed out like prizes at a school sports day with everyone sure of getting something, whether they deserved it or not, are long over. Today's councillors serving larger wards for the most part deliver value for money.

As the old saying goes if members of the council have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear.

By acting like they do and quibbling over an entirely suitable appointment, they are helping to fuel a distrust that will make their already difficult job even harder.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

We have to move beyond ‘them and us’ and recognize there is just ‘us’.

There was something tragically inevitable about waking up on Monday morning to hear there had been another ‘terrorist incident’ in London. This time the victims were worshippers leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park after evening prayers mown down by a van driven by Cardiff born Darren Osborne, different community; the misery and mayhem is the same.

The authorities were right to describe his actions as a terrorist attack instead of speculating about his mental state or falling back on describing him as a ‘loner’. Unfortunately that he was able to commit the crime at all shows how the already flawed PREVENT program ignores white extremism.

This is due to a number of factors coming together to make a combination of miscalculations with toxic consequences.

For years, experts have warned about the steady rise of right wing extremism, particularly in white working class communities that feel themselves to have been marginalized. The myopic focus of PREVENT on Islamic radicalization and its clumsy attempts to address the problem, most of which seem to have created more trouble than they solved, has pushed everything else to the sidelines.

Meanwhile in communities that feel they have been forgotten the insidious voice of extremism with its reassuring, though false, explanation that for every problem there’s a scapegoat has been quietly gaining ground.

Supporting Brexit does not automatically equate to endorsing right wing politics, let alone extremism, but how the leave campaign was run legitimized many of the tactics extremists use. It portrayed an image of plucky Britain being kept down by an expansionist EU, never mind the fact that we have gained more from Europe than it took form us, fear won the day.

The rhetoric that ‘they’ are out to get ‘us’, to turn our green and pleasant land into a client state of some larger empire can and is easily expropriated by extremists with an axe to grind and a desire for power without responsibility. There is a tragic irony that the concerns of the likes of Darren Osborne and the people they have been brainwashed into thinking are ‘other’ and therefore dangerous, lack of jobs and housing a gnawing feeling that they have no control over how and how fast the world around them is changing, are marked by their similarity.

The finger of blame must also point to what might be called the ‘metropolitan elite’, be they nominally on the left or right politically. They are profoundly uncomfortable with anyone from outside the, metaphorically, gated community they inhabit.

If they think about right wing extremists at all, they do so in terms of shaven headed stereotypes with tattooed knuckles and single figure reading ages. People like that might talk about fighting in the streets, but they lack the organizational ability to take action. It is a viewpoint similar in its complacency to that their great grandparents might have held regarding whether or not those funny little Japanese soldiers could capture Singapore; we all know how that ended.

The truth is that it is astonishingly easy to be an effective terrorist. All you really need is a van, some simplistic ideas about who is to blame for your misfortunes and a feeling that nothing you can do will ever put them right.

The one positive that can be drawn from the attacks in Manchester, London and elsewhere is that when the worst happened it brought out the best in ordinary Britons. Presented with a need to help others people filled whole warehouses with food and clothing donated for fire victims in a matter of hours, taxi drivers switched off their meters to take frightened teenagers home when a concert ended in bloodshed.

That sends a powerful message to the people, whatever cause they pretend to do so in the name of, who want to attain power by fostering division. As the late Jo Cox, herself a victim of extremism put it there is more that unites us than keeps us apart.

Whatever horrors we face, and there are likely to be more on the way however much money we spend on security, if we want to be safe we have to understand there is no ‘them and us’; there’s just us.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Security tops the agenda as voters meet the candidates in Stoke South.

“Stoke has always been Labour,” I’m sitting in the back row of Fenton’s Temple Street Methodist church as it starts to fill up ahead of the Stoke South election hustings. The man speaking to me is middle aged and makes his assertion with an innocence that is at once genuine and incongruous.

There are four candidates contesting the seat, Jack Brereton (Conservative), Rob Flello (Labour), Ian Wilkes (Liberal Democrat) and Jan Zablocki (Green Party). Rob Flello is the sitting MP and judging by the crowd he’s going to have home advantage tonight.

Almost everyone seems to know everyone else, most are middle aged or older, there are a few younger people, possibly Labour students from nearby Keele University and one man with a fussily trimmed beard wearing a t-shirt with Corbyn written on it in the style of an old fashioned Coca-Cola advert. I’m not sure he gets the irony implicit in the least spun politician in recent British political history having his name turned into a nifty piece of branding.

A broadly ‘old Labour’ crowd then, salt of the earth for sure, but inclined maybe to accepting the familiar because it does what they expect it to, a reasonable approach if experience has taught you that change is seldom kind, but it can and dose stifle originality.

In their opening statements the four candidates lay out their ‘vision’ for the next four years.

Jack Brereton trades on his record as a local councilor, particularly in bringing jobs to a city that has lost many of its traditional industries. He also takes a dig at Labour over the costly Smithfield development in the city centre, old news by now and rather a cheap shot. His vocal style is dull and he favours piling up the facts to turning on the passion tap, anyone playing b******t bingo would have been disappointed because the used the phrase ‘strong and stable’ in almost his first sentence.

Rob Flello, also plays on his track record, in parliament this time highlighting his work to defend Trentham High School from closure and in improving the city’s roads. He says that he is a campaigner who ‘never gives in’ and praises Jeremy Corbyn’s little red book as being ‘brilliant’. This gets him a round of applause from a home crowd who have, it seems, forgotten that his loyalty to the leadership hasn’t always been so clear, some might say there’s a touch of expediency about it now.

“How do you follow that”, says Lib Dem Ian Wilkes when the applause dies down. Not all that well it seems. Wilkes is the only candidate to admit he hasn’t got a chance of winning, but however slender his chances he makes a sensible point about the need to regenerate all six towns.

Jan Zablocki also recognizes the uphill task his party faces in shifting votes away from Labour, but says he represents ‘change’ and that that is something badly needed in local and national politics. He speaks of the Green’s opposition to the privatization by stealth of the NHS, cuts to school budgets and the need to talk openly about the direction our society is taking. This wins him some applause that is genuine rather than merely polite.

Given the events of the weekend just gone security issues are the main feature of questions from the floor. All four candidates give variations on the theme that terrorism can never be allowed to win, all well and good. It is when we get down to specifics that things get interesting.

Brereton promises more spooks for MI5 and MI6 to tackle terrorism, useful no doubt but what about the extra police on the streets needed to make the public feel safe. Labour and the Lib Dems back spending more on community policing, as do the Greens. Asked about how we tackle homegrown terrorism Jan Zablocki calls for the government’s flawed Prevent program to be replaced with something that builds community cohesion and that addresses the social divisions driving radicalization.

Asked about arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes Brereton talks about the need to preserve jobs in the arms industry, seemingly at any cost, losing the crows at a stroke. He then finds a way to jam the other foot into his mouth too by attacking Jeremy’s Corbyn’s, allegedly friendly approach to terrorists in general, letting Flello get the biggest round of applause of the night by countering with the claim that he’s ‘a man of peace.’ Quite so, but not always one who picks his friends wisely.

Asked about the benefits system both Flello and Zablocki spoke with real passion about the work they had done to help people unfairly hit by sanctions as, respectively, an MP and a lifelong trade’s unionist. Brereton mumbled something rehearsed about more people being in work and the need to improve skills, before being taken to task by a heckler for not answering the question.

Judging the evening as a whole Rob Flello played well to a friendly crowd, speaking at times with real passion about helping local people. Jan Zablocki also spoke with real passion and making a connection with the audience that may not win him the seat but certainly raised the profile of his party. Ian Wilkes came across as a nice enough chap, I wouldn’t necessarily want him as my MP, but if I sat next to him on the bus I wouldn’t move or get off at the next stop however far away from home I was, and there aren’t many politicians about whom you can say that. Jack Brereton had a shocker of an evening, his contributions producing either awkward silences of howls of derision. In the space of a couple of hours he went from party golden boy to disappointing also ran; politics can be cruel like that.

My friend from the start of the meeting was right, Stoke South has always been Labour, they might have to count rather than weigh the votes these days, but on tonight’s showing that is still true. With the Greens making a strong showing and Labour, for all the sham loyalty of the parliamentary party to a surprisingly popular Jeremy Corbyn, still riven by divisions that might not always the case.

Monday, 5 June 2017

The public must challenge prospective MPs over their view on the hunting ban.

Tonight, like many people across the country as the general election enters its final furlong, I will be attending a local hustings. Unlike most I am in the position of also having over the past few weeks taken part as a candidate in similar events.

Sadly on no occasion was I asked about one of the most important issues, the promise made by Prime Minister Theresa May to hold a free vote on the repeal of the ban on fox hunting.

Since the introduction of the Hunting Act (2004) it has saved the lives of 10000 animals, had the act been properly enforced the figure since would be closer to 2.8 million. Sadly since the act came into force in 2005 there have been only 378 convictions, out of these just 24 were of people associated with official hunts, most of the others were for offences such as poaching.

Even more worrying the police have shown a marked reluctance to investigate possible hunting related offences, something they have been criticized for by animal rights charities including the League Against Cruel Sports on a number of occasions.

The Tories have form when it comes to trying to overturn the hunting ban, it was included as a promise in their 2010 and 2015 manifestos, only having to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats and winning with a small majority respectively stayed their hands.

In 2015 then Prime Minister David Cameron was reported by the Daily Mail as saying he believed in people having the ‘freedom to hunt’ and that the ban had ‘done nothing for animal welfare.’ Hardly the sort of sentiments you’d associate with someone who hugs huskies and had a windmill on the roof of his London home.

The current incumbent of Downing Street hasn’t been backward in coming forward about her support for hunting either, in a speech given in Leeds and reported by the Daily Telegraph she said she had ‘always been in favour of fox hunting’.

Figures produced by the League Against Cruel Sports show that repealing the ban on fox hunting isn’t a populist vote winner, 84% of the people polled said they opposed fox hunting and would support candidates who felt the same way.

So why have the Tories decided that repealing the ban is a priority? Two reasons spring to mind.

The first is overwhelming arrogance, they believe that the concerns, founded on fact and compassion about the place of such a barbaric practice in a modern society to be irrelevant. Secondly they are making a naked play for the support of an establishment that still holds a disproportionate amount of power and wealth.

If asked the question I can state clearly that if elected I would vote against any attempt to repeal the ban on fox hunting and will support any lawful campaign to keep it in place.

The reason why was expressed in a quote from a spokesperson for the RSPCA, also used by the Daily Telegraph in the article where Mrs. May spoke of her support for hunting. He said ‘repealing the hunting act would not only mean a return to cruelty but it would fly in the face of the opinion of the majority of the general public.’

As a candidate I respect the opinions of the voting public on this important issue and expect others who seek election to do likewise.

Adam Colclough is the Green Party candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central

Monday, 29 May 2017

The environment matters more than ever at this election, something only one party fully recognizes.

The 2017 general election campaign is now in its final stages and yet one of the most important issues has yet to make it into the foreground; the environment.

If no action is taken to preserve exiting environmental legislation after Brexit, let alone improve it, we could face some dire consequences. These include 200,000 premature deaths linked to air pollution and the loss of 18,300 hectares of green space by the next time the country goes to the polls in 2022.

Environmental charity Friends of the Earth scored all four main parties for their manifesto commitments on the environment.

The results, as published on their website, show the Liberal Democrats in second place with Labour also scoring highly in some areas, although they are criticized for their lack of a coherent policy on tackling waste.

The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, came fourth with just eleven points, Labour and the Lib Dems scored twenty seven and twenty eight respectively. They attract particular criticism for their support for fracking and the ‘undemocratic’ way central government has used its powers to over-rule local communities opposed to fracking by ‘rigging’ the planning system.

The Green Party manifesto came first with thirty points and was praised for containing ‘impressive and comprehensive’ policies to protect environmental legislation and tackle air pollution. This confirms their position as the only mainstream party to speak consistently about the need to treat environmental policy as a priority issue.

Friends of the Earth have also published their own election manifesto and have asked candidates from all parties who support their aims to endorse the following positions:

• Ensuring the UK keeps and improves on existing environmental legislation post Brexit
• That urgent action be taken to meet targets on climate change and renewable energy
• Ending illegal air pollution and phasing out diesel vehicles by 2025
• Banning pesticides that harm bees

As a Green Party member and parliamentary candidate I endorse the four policies put forward by Friends of the Earth. They are a more than achievable starting point in the long term turning around of the supertanker of human damage to the planet.

This isn’t a manifesto for tree hugging, back to the land, knit your own muesli utopian daydreaming, it is a call for practical common sense to take precedence over short term greed. We cannot go on as we are, pumping poison into the air, using ever more damaging methods to extract fossil fuels and clinging to the notion that being trapped inside a car is a ‘freedom’ worth defending without it ending in disaster, probably sooner rather than later.

We need to see protecting the environment not as an irksome responsibility to be carried out with long faces and wearing, hand woven of course, hair shirts. Instead it should be seen as a once in our existence opportunity to take a new and fairer direction for which our children and grandchildren will thank us.

I am happy to endorse the position taken by my own party, Friends of the Earth and any other group that operates ethically on climate change, air pollution, renewable energy and keeping the ban on hunting foxes. Not just at this election, but afterwards and until significant change has been achieved.

If we act now we could do something remarkable, this could be the point at which we stop fighting nature and start working with it, making in the process a fairer society and a more sustainable economy.

Adam Colclough is the Green Party candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central