PARK AND RIDE

The High Court is hearing an appeal by Southern Cross, the largest private provider of residential care for the elderly, against the decision of the Commission for Social Care Inspection [CSCI] to order the immediate closure of the Alton Centre, one of its care homes in Northamptonshire. Their decision was based on findings of neglect and inadequate care in respect of three residents who died in tragic circumstances.

This unhappy state of affairs brings into sharp focus the whole ethos of care homes, the breakdown of family life and responsibility for ageing parents, and the ever increasing tendency towards “park and ride.” Park the oldsters in a care home, and ride off into the sunset.

There is also the somewhat naïve belief that once “parked,” they will be afforded the best possible care and treatment that money can buy, depending of course on how much money is available. In care homes, just as in any other walk of life, you get what you pay for!

Old age is upon us as never before. With better medical provision, oldsters who would be expected to turn up their toes in their seventies barely a generation ago, are now hanging on, like grim death [if you’ll forgive the pun], and living longer and longer. Ninety plus is no longer the exception, and put bluntly, love for an elderly relative can reach breaking point very quickly once Anno Domini kicks in, the joints begin to seize up, and worse still, when they’re away with the fairies. The elderly must bear their share of the blame. They become incontinent, they need feeding, they dribble into their soup, they can’t or won’t help around the house, and they become insufferably curmudgeonly. If they give the matter any serious thought, and all too often they don’t, they should appreciate the strain they place on their loved ones in an increasingly nuclear family unit.

And with blind faith, we persuade ourselves that these care homes will provide our elderly loved ones with the care and support they wouldn’t otherwise get at home, although we delude ourselves into thinking this is a meaningful and dignified way to end their days.

Whilst the case against the Alton Centre, if proved, is deplorable by any standards, these providers are often onto a hiding to nothing. Staffing is a nightmare, with turnover reaching epidemic proportions. Health and safety regulations come before all else, so there is little time and effort left over for ‘caring.’ Southern Cross has 720 homes and a total of 37,000 beds, so sooner or later, something is bound to go wrong. And when it does, we blame them and not ourselves.

There is a lot of guff trotted out by the administrators of care homes, who, let’s face it, are in it for the money, about the quality of life, the chance to interact with other like minded people, make new friends, join in a variety of exciting and stimulating activities, and live their twilight years to the full. In reality, this means dumping them in front of the television for hours on end, and when they’re not glaring at the ‘idiot box,’ they’re glaring at each other, waiting for their next meal and then off to bed before the sun has set.

There is no easy answer, least of all euthanasia. It’s easy for me to say that I shall go when the time is right, when I have run the race of life in full measure, and well before I lose my physical and mental faculties. But I am the worst placed to make these decisions, because each day brings new hope and if there is the faintest chance of a recovery of sorts, then I should be allowed to enjoy it.

The future is grim indeed. If I live into my nineties, I won’t have enough money to support myself comfortably, as pension plans, both state and private, are not geared to longevity. I shall need the help and support of my children, but they have their own agenda, with spouses and children of their own who must come first. God forbid that I perish in pain, and without dignity, but there is no certainty in life, or in death. For the time being, all I can say is: “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” and hope it doesn’t happen to me.

There is no easy solution. Many communities, especially in the second and third world, actively embrace the concept of the extended family and cherish their nearest and dearest as they grow old. But that’s not our way. We pursue our selfish dreams of health, wealth and happiness on our own terms, and elderly relatives don’t fit the mould.

Time for a large scotch and a good cigar. When I go, I want to go with a smile on my face and a warm glow.

WHAT PRICE FREEDOM?

The thorny issue of compensation for those falsely convicted of crime has generated a heated debate and much beating of the chest in the tabloids. I refer to two recent high profile cases exercising their collective wisdom, namely Barrie George and Colin Stagg. The case of Barrie George is known to one and all, acquitted of the murder of Jill Dando after two trials and two appeals and eight years in prison, and Colin Stagg, arrested and charged with the murder of Rachel Nickell but never convicted. In Barrie’s case, he is claiming a seven figure sum by way of compensation, and Stagg has been awarded £706,000.

The general reaction in the Press has been one of outrage, based on the specious assumption that both men were actually guilty, and that the due process of law has been thwarted.

This perverse way of thinking springs from two obvious misconceptions:

  1. The police are hardly likely to arrest, charge and prosecute an innocent man, and besides, his eyes are too close together, his eyebrows meet in the middle and he looks guilty.

  1. Trial by jury is a lottery, and if the guilty man’s advocate has a silver tongue and a way with the jury, there is scope for pulling the wool over their eyes and a miscarriage of justice.

In Barrie’s case, he falls into both categories. In Stagg’s case, just the first, as he was never tried.

It really boils down to a simple question: if a prosecution, even one brought in good faith, results in an accused being falsely imprisoned or persecuted in some other unacceptable way, should he be entitled to reasonable compensation? And if so, how should that compensation be calculated? What price do we put on freedom? Eight years’ loss of liberty in the case of Barrie George is a high price to pay for a miscarriage of justice, so those of us who believe in a fair and civilised society, should be prepared to pay a high price in return.

On a different note, and for those of you burdened by the credit crunch and thinking of getting away from it all in one of our delightful seaside resorts, I bring good news of sorts. The Divisional Court has just ruled that escaping sewage from pipes maintained by a statutory undertaker is controlled waste within the meaning of section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, so when you’re surrounded by brown sludge and a strong and unpleasant odour stinging your nostrils, draw comfort from the fact that their lordships have not been idle on your behalf.

In reaching their decision, their lordships referred to the European Court’s decision in May of last year, which made clear that escaping waste water was in principle “waste” within Article 1 of Council Directive 75/442/EEC, as amended by Council Directive 91/156/EEC, and Council Directive 91/271/EEC concerning urban waste water treatment, but left open the issue whether it was covered by other domestic legislation so as to be excluded under Article 2 of Directive 75/442/EEC. Make of that what you will, but I thought you might be interested.

CHEERS

When asked what is the most addictive and destructive drug in circulation today, most people would put heroin or crack cocaine at the top of their list. In reality, it is alcohol, freely available, and the more so since the Licensing Act 2003 came into force.

You may remember the controversy surrounding the Act, which brought the prospect of 24 hour drinking to tippling millions. The thinking behind the Act, as outlined by the government, was twofold: firstly, or so it was argued, abolishing licensing hours would persuade drinkers to ‘pace’ themselves when drinking in public, and secondly, it would avoid the dangers associated with bladdered drinkers being ‘tipped out’ onto the street, all at the same time, and looking for alcohol fuelled trouble. On both counts, the Act has failed miserably. Alcohol is responsible for more violence, in the street and in the home, more diseases, more lost days at work, and a greater drain on the precious resources of the NHS and the emergency services, than all the so-called hard drugs put together. And sadly, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, as alcohol remains freely available, not just in pubs and clubs, but in every supermarket and corner shop in the country. Half hearted attempts are made to persuade retailers not to sell to under age kids, but profit is profit regardless of who’s paying.

And not content with drinking and driving, the Brits are now drinking and flying. Incidents of drunken behaviour on planes have increased by 30% over the past year alone.

As Boris Johnson will tell you, it all started with Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine, and Bacchus, his Roman counterpart. Both were credited with inspiring ritual madness and ecstasy through wine, freeing the drinker from his normal self by releasing his inhibitions. Not much has changed in the intervening two thousand years.

And now word reaches me from across the Channel that binge drinking, thought until recently to be the sole preserve of the British, is now afflicting our French adolescent cousins. Le Binge-Drinking est arrivé! As an aside, it has always struck me as strange that when raising a glass of alcohol, the French say bonne santé, as if drinking and good health are synonymous, and as Boris Johnson will tell you, ‘cheers’ comes from the French bonne chère, meaning good demeanour! Surely a better epithet would be à la mort lent. I knew you’d be interested.

So what’s to be done, here and abroad? It’s tempting to blame it all on Gary Glitter, but you can’t blame him for everything. The Licensing Act should be repealed, with rigorously enforced and much shorter opening hours for pubs and clubs. Licensees must take greater responsibility for their clientele and stop serving alcohol to inebriates, preferably before they become inebriated. If they don’t, they should be closed down and prosecuted. Happy hours and all you can drink for a fiver should also be abolished. The tax on alcohol should be doubled overnight. After all, the government are pleading poverty and empty coffers, so what better way to fill them? And those who have budgeted for twelve pints of mine host’s Old Peculiar will find they can only afford six.

The specific gravity of popular beverages should be reduced dramatically. Get rid of ‘extra strong’ lagers and beers. Old and New World wines are also increasing in SG, something to do with global warming, so add water. Stop serving wine in balloon glasses, which in some cases amount to a third of a bottle, and go back to pub measures. Supermarkets and corner shops should be prohibited from ‘in your face’ displays, and stop promoting BOGOFs. They should also be subjected to the same rigorous selling hours as pubs and clubs.

All this may be a drop in the ocean, but we’ve got to start somewhere. Short of prohibition, it has to be worth a try!

COFFINS ON WHEELS

On one level, the new offence of causing death by driving whilst uninsured, unlicensed or disqualified, or all three, is a welcome addition to the criminal law and will address a real injustice which has existed for far too long.

But again, besides being too little too late, it approaches the problem from the wrong direction. You can’t bring back the dead, and the sadness and the grief over a needless death can hardly be assuaged by a term of imprisonment for the perpetrator, assuming, of course, that a place can be found in our chronically overcrowded prisons.

It is an all too depressing and familiar scenario. A car, often a rust bucket of dubious provenance, is sold at auction or through the local press, at a price even an unemployed youth can afford, and off he drives into the sunset. All the seller wants is his few quid and he’s happy.

The rules regarding the sale and purchase of cars is honoured more in the breach than the observance. Registration documents are often incomplete or out of date, if they exist at all. So I propose as follows:

  1. As a first step, it must be made unlawful to sell a car if it’s not registered to the seller.

  1. Both the seller and the purchaser must complete the changes required of them at the time of sale, notifying the DVLA of the change of ownership. The purchaser must produce verifiable details of his current address.

  1. It should be unlawful to sell a car that does not have at least 4 weeks extant on its MOT certificate.

  1. It should be unlawful to sell a car, and allow the purchaser to drive away, if the purchaser cannot produce a valid certificate of insurance, even if it’s a cover note for four weeks.

  1. It should be unlawful for the seller to allow the purchaser to drive off without producing a current driving licence.

  1. And finally, the police must be more proactive. If they stop a car being driven by an uninsured or disqualified or unlicensed driver, besides their existing powers to prosecute, they must be given the power to confiscate and crush it. This will achieve two purposes: to deprive the offender of the means of illegal transport, and to remove from the road dangerous and unroadworthy vehicles.

These measures, if rigorously implemented, will go some of the way to reducing death on the roads, and make them safer for all of us.

THE GADDFLY HAS LANDED

Breaking news! Paul Gadd, aka Gary Glitter, is back in the UK, albeit under protest, and as I write, will be welcomed with open arms by the fragrant Jacqui Smith, our ineffectual Home Secretary, clutching a Sex Offenders Protection Order [SOPO] in her hot little hand.

I have the deepest reservations about the efficacy of these protection orders, on two grounds. They don’t work when they should, and I question the right of any government to subject offenders to draconian restrictions which, on the face of it, breach their Convention rights under Articles 3 and 8, the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, and the right to private life.

I remind myself that Mr. Gadd spent three years in the Ho Chi Minh correctional facility in Ho Chi Minh City, having been convicted by the Ho Chi Minh Supreme Court of sexually abusing under age girls from the Ho Chi Minh School of Spiritual Enlightenment. Is this a personality cult, or what!?! Whatever happened to good old Hanoi? Anyway, Paul’s three years in choky amounts to a six year sentence here in the UK, and time and enough to repent of his transgressions.

All this nonsense started with the Sex Offenders Act 1997, amended by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, and further amended by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but after all the huff and puff, nobody stopped to think it through. The need for this scattergun legislative overload was apparently in response to “public concern” over predatory paedophiles roaming our streets, ready to jump out on unsuspecting children. Until then, most “right minded members of society” thought that a peedofile [sic] was something to do with horny feet.

On latest estimates, there are now 30,000 on the Register, and at least half of them shouldn’t be there. The consequences of registration, as Paul Gadd is about to find out, are out of all proportion to the perceived risk that registrants are supposed to pose. It involves regular and constant monitoring of every movement, with visits from the police and the supervising officer at all hours of the day and night. Restrictions on contact with minors is understandable, but extending the definition of minors to young persons up to the age of 18 jars uneasily with the lowering of the age of consent to 16. And finally, there are restrictions on overseas travel.

If a determined predatory paedophile chooses not to conform, there is little the authorities can do about it. All he has to do is up sticks and move, and then ‘decline’ to register his new address. He may be picked up if he’s unlucky, but the chances are slim. He can change his name, his appearance [note to Paul Gadd, dump that ridiculous Ho Chi Minh goatee beard] and he’s foot loose and fancy free to commit further crimes if he’s so inclined, or better still, get on with the rest of his life.

There may be an argument for registering our most dangerous offenders, but this “come one, come all” approach isn’t working, and worst of all, it’s simply unfair.